Joe Black and The Dog Days of Summer

It was a few weeks ago that I noticed him.  Standing in the shadows.  I recognized him immediately, of course.  Joe Black.

In the movie, Joe Black [Death] is Brad Pitt handsome, suave, and sophisticated.   Coming all too soon for the media mogul played by Anthony Hopkins, Joe agrees to a reprieve in exchange for a tour of life on earth.

In real life, Joe Black isn’t handsome.  And he doesn’t negotiate.

Her weight loss was what I first noticed. And her energy was off.  I chalked it up to the summer heat. But as the days passed, I knew something was amiss.

“Lymphoma,” the vet said. (Joe nodded sagely in the corner behind him.) There was time, said the doctor.  Options. Treatments.  (“It’s a lie,” Joe said.) The words became a blur as my legs buckled beneath me.

We took Sammy home.  We lived those next weeks with such tender care, such focus, such determination. And Sammy lived like royalty.

On a rare and glorious summer day, with my precious son, her master, we walked together the paths of seasons past, visiting the haunts of carefree boyhood, knowing all the while in the recesses of our hearts that today we had the cares of men.

I watched as Sammy nuzzled and played with my boy.  The sky clear, the summer sun warm. The moments filled with unbounded joy.  And tinged with that contingent sadness that came with the knowing that these days of summer would be all too brief.

I could feel the gentle breeze from  the fetch of the lake. Across the sweeping field of fresh cut grass, I saw Joe watching.  I pretended not to see him.

With such intensity we held her close and whispered in her ear.  A noble dog.  The treasured one who had brought unbridled joy to a young boy’s heart.  The one who played with him and walked with him, in the rain and in the snow.  A creature who knew only love, no matter the seasons of the year. Or of life.

The day grew short. In the parting, there was such grief.

I held her as she slipped away. My hands still ache from the digging in the hard, dry earth.  I laid her to rest beneath the apple tree in the yard in which the boy became a man, the place they both loved so much.  I worry that she will be wet and cold and lonely.  I miss her terribly; and I grieve the empty place in the heart of my sweet boy that I can never heal.

I know why the great masters have always sent their students to the charnel grounds.  It is only there that we begin to burn with the recognition of all that is so transient.  And learn to find the truth in what remains.

It is perhaps Joe’s one and only gift, that lesson seared by our mortality: live.

I want to live these last days of summer with urgency and fervor.  To know the crisp morning air, to feel the intensity of the sun, to hear the sounds of the crickets and the bats, to watch the flickers of the fire flies in the dying light.

Summer wanes.  Sammy’s gone.  I scan the perimeter for Joe Black.  I don’t see him. But I know he’s there.

Beyond the Green Door

As a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.

— Proverbs 23:7

I was pretty sure that I was going to pass out.  Or throw up. Or both.

This was no Marilyn Chambers moment.  It was more Linda Blair.

We were below Denali Pass at about 18,000′.  The day was clear and nearly windless.  I had been feeling strong. But as the terrain steepened along the Autobahn, my energy began to wane. And there was still a long way to go.

I knelt down to clip through our running belay. When I stood up, my head spun. My eyes wouldn’t focus. The steep slope began to undulate like the surface in a second-rate carnival house.

I willed myself to move forward.  My heart raced and my chest heaved.  I couldn’t catch my breath.  I wanted to sit down.  I wanted it all to stop. I wanted out.

I had hit The Wall.

I argued with myself.  My intellectual self said the smart thing would be to go down. The mountain will always be here. My emotions screamed, “how can you walk away again? It’s not likely you’ll come back.” And the voice of my father in the back of my head: “There are old mountaineers and bold mountaineers but few old, bold mountaineers.”  Did I really want to spend it all in this cold, barren place?

Just get to Denali Pass, I told myself.  It’s flat.  I can rest. I can decide to go down from there.

An hour later, I collapsed onto my pack, certain that the trip was done for me.

I sucked down two packages of Gu and gulped some water. I got hold of my breath and closed my eyes.

The Wall evaporated.

Suddenly, it was all possible again.

All of us know The Wall.  All of us have smashed up against it more than a few times: in our financial lives, emotional lives, relational lives. And countless other places.

Race car drivers know that when you focus on the wall, you’ll hit it.  “The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet the wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle,” writes Garth Stein in his passionate and loving story The Art Of Racing In The Rain.

But what happens when we do hit The Wall?

It’s easy to lay crumpled at the base of it.  I know.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time there.  It’s easy to turn around.  To decide that The Wall is too hard, too thick, too high.

But here’s the thing:  The Wall isn’t Real.  I’m not saying it doesn’t feel real.  It does. It hurts when you hit it.

But when you touch it, and know it, it dissolves.

Remember when the four-minute mile was thought to limit of human capacity? Now high school students can run four minute miles.  Records are constantly broken, new discoveries made. There is no limit to what we can accomplish and achieve.

Teachers of success principals know that the difference between failure and success is often one of simply showing up and persevering.  Darren Hardy uses the analogy of the hand pump on a well.  When you first start pumping, nothing comes out.  If you keep pumping, there may be a trickle even though you’re exerting a lot of effort. It’s tempting to give up.  But if you just pump a little more, just stay at it, just move beyond the frustration, beyond the discouragement, a steady stream flows out. In abundance.

Dozens of publishers rejected Jack Canfield’s Chick Soup for the Soul before it went on to become a meteoric success.  Lincoln lost election after election before becoming President.

Gandhi reminds us that “divine guidance often comes when the horizon is the blackest.”

Tony Robbins teaches that when you are facing into life’s challenges and feel like you’re in the worst possible place, you really maybe only 2mm away from achieving your objective; that victory is near.

The difference between first and second place is often measured in fractions of a meter, hundredths of a second.

“Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by failing to attempt,” Shakespeare wrote.

Banish doubt.  Know abundance.

It is easy to get discouraged by The Wall, to give up, to turn back.  But in our true state, we are bathed in the knowing that we are the flow, that there is no green door – no wall – but only infinite possibility.  And Joy.

Life Is Not The List

My former running partner had a wife who would compile a “Honey Do” list for him.  I had never heard this term before and it struck me as odd.  Why would anyone make a list of things to do for someone else (unless of course it was a teenager)?

On a Wednesday run, I’d ask him, “Wanna climb on Saturday?”  Quite often, he’d respond, “No, can’t.  Have a ‘Honey Do’ list.”

This annoyed me.  Who says shit like that? Especially when climbing’s at stake? It seemed parental, pejorative, punitive and perverse not to mention degrading and belittling.  (I’m trying hard not to sugar coat my feelings here.)

Years later, I realized that I say shit like that.  To myself.

I am one of the world’s biggest list makers.  There’s the ‘to do’ list, the goal list, the bucket list, the grocery list, the house repair list, the gear list, the packing list, the travel list, the fitness list, the case load list, the project list and the photo list. Sometimes I make master lists so that I can properly order and track my lists.

I usually make my lists for the week ahead on Sundays.  And I usually make my list for the following day the night before.

One of my favorite things to do is to make lists and write things on them that I have already done just so I can check those things off right away.  How whacked is that?

My days are organized around my lists.  And I live from list to list.

When I get to the end of the day and have checked off most of the things, I judge the day to be a success.  When I haven’t gotten to my list – especially the most important parts – I judge that I have failed.

Now lists are important. They help to organize and prioritize and remind.  I’m pretty efficient in the way I work.  And I accomplish a lot in a day. Mainly because I have great lists.

But they’re hardly the measure of existential worth.  Or a life well lived.

I realize that one of the gifts I give to myself when I journey into the mountains is a pass, a furlough; a temporary reprieve from list making. And list execution.

The goals while climbing are pretty straightforward:  stay safe, stay warm, stay fed, stay hydrated.

And of course walk, think, play, and rejoice in the grandeur of the mountains.

And then sleep.

Day after day.

When I’m in the mountains, I make a commitment to myself to become less rigid in my list making when I return to daily life.  But before long, my life tumbles and cascades again from list to list.  And I long for a return to the freedom of the mountains.

Perhaps it would be best to get rid of goals and lists altogether.

Leo Babauta advocates this.  Babauta is the author of the wonderful contemporary Zen book entitled The Power of Less.  In his thoughtful and highly popular blog, he argues that our system for goal achievement is a set up for failure; that having goals fosters rigidity and stifles creativity.  Better, says Baubauta, to wake up each day and follow your passions. Goallessly.

There is precedent for this.  At the heart of all Buddhist teaching is this: Nothing to be, nothing to do, nothing to have.

Lao Tzu said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

Emerson wrote, “With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future.  I live now.”

No more lists. Just (passionate) goalless wandering.

But this too seems a recipe for failure. Aimlessness won’t get us far.

Perhaps, as in most things Buddhist (indeed as in most things), there is a “middle way.”

The “goal,” it seems, is to live “deliberately.” As Thoreau says, “To live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Lists help get us places.  Lists help focus us and make us more deliberate. They provide a springboard for new directions.

But it is in this place now that life unfolds. List or not.

At the end of the list, I do not want to discover that I have not lived.

I need to learn to be more forgiving with myself about the list. To soak in what is. And live listlessly more often.

At the top of my list today was to finish this week’s blog. So that’s it for now.

A Rather Large Pasture

I couldn’t remember whether I had put fresh sheets in the guest room.  I imagined that it must be hot somewhere. I wondered whether the litter box would get changed.

I thought about how badly I smelled; and about how badly Ann smelled.  I reflected on Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I remembered my sleeping bag – that really smelled.  

The rope snaked through the snow in front of me.

The tent was wet when I stuffed it.  I wondered if it was frozen. A raven circled overhead.  I worried that it would dig up our food.

My hip flexors hurt.  I had a hot spot on my foot.  Every now and then, it looked like it might clear.

Thoughts of kids and friends and the office drifted through the ping-pong ball that was the white-out world that I had walked in for hours. My shoulders ached. Again. Still.

Man’s Search for Meaning.  My search for meaning. Some sense of meaning.

My chest heaved. The load heavy. One step in front of the other.  Up the Kahiltna.

One can’t exactly be aimless on a glacier.  But you can get pretty damn close.

I have always enjoyed the big carries up a mountain.  My mind is able to wander unrestrained. And in the wandering, it is replenished.

There’s a Zen teaching that compares the mind to a strong bull. The bull will go crazy if you lock it into a small paddock. But if you turn it out into a big pasture, it naturally quiets down.

“The big pasture is an attitude of mindful curiosity,” writes psychologist Joan Borysenko. It doesn’t matter what happens next. One thing is as good as another. Tension or peace, joy or sorrow, boredom or excitement. All are the same. Not inherently good or bad. Just what’s happening in the moment. Wait a minute, or even a few seconds, and something else will happen. Thoughts are as impermanent as clouds.

In a big pasture, the mind begins to rest.  The petty doesn’t disappear.  But the debris begins to settle.  Like one of those Christmas globes with the plastic snow particles: Things clear when you stop shaking.

My mind became more peaceful on the Kahiltna.  I was able to swim in its essential nature: curiosity, introspection, creativity, inquisitiveness.  And I was able to see more clearly.

Deepak Chopra says, “To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul. To do this, you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of, because in the silence, you hear the truth and know the solutions.”

“Without space to grow, our best ideas may never materialize,” writes Scott Dinsmore for Goodlife Zen. “We have to clear out some room.”

Darren Hardy uses the analogy of attempting to grow an oak tree in a flower pot. Eventually, if you don’t give it some space, it becomes root bound.

Days drifted into nights and into weeks of wandering in my mind. What a luxury, what a gift to spend my time with Frankl and one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

And  then to imagine my own book ideas and photography projects and speaking topics.  To look at the clouds. And the towering ridges.  And to think about Meaning. Or about Nothing.

Our society tells us to stay inside the lines, but the real world gives us a blank sheet of paper and infinite creativity,” writes Dan Miller.

But we need to create space for that.

I miss the pasture of the Kahiltna.

A really good shepherd gives his sheep as big a pasture as possible.  The challenge is to do that for ourselves.