My Call Home

I celebrated my 19thbirthday in London. It was May 1966, the end of my freshman year at the University of Michigan. The end of the first year I had lived on my own, away from my family, friends and the lifestyle I had grown up with.

 

But I needed to go even further away. I bought a ticket on a flight chartered by the university, which left on May 15th, the day before my birthday. I didn’t have much money and had almost nothing planned, just a general idea of a route to follow, from London to Amsterdam, north to Denmark and Sweden. Then a flight south to Italy, hitchhike through southern France to Spain, and then back to France for a return flight from Paris. Almost four months of traveling with no travel partner, not even a room reserved to stay in while in London.

 

The world was different back then. Despite the assassination of President Kennedy almost three years earlier, the war in Vietnam and the burgeoning opposition to it, the civil rights and other movements, the culture and U. S. government seemed a little more stable then than it does now. The sense that something was off, or wrong, that big changes were needed both nationally and personally, was growing in so many of us, but we hadn’t yet realized what the growing pains meant.

 

All I knew was that my life felt set, predetermined by family and culture. It was a clear and linear progression from public school, to university, career and family, then old age and death. Death and vulnerability were walled away in time. Maybe today, in 2018, many students would be happy to feel their lives secure in such a progression, but all I wanted to do was break it. I wanted to feel free and to see the world outside the little space I already knew….

 

To read the whole story, please click on this link to Heart and Humanity magazine.

**The photo is of me with my brother and mother, in Ann Arbor, at the end of August, 1966, after returning from this trip. I didn’t hitch-hike with the duffel bag.

 

Where Will Our Words Lead Us?

It is raining. It is raining on the foot of snow that fell last week. It has been raining, it seems, since the beginning of August and it is now almost December.

 

I can hear the rain striking the roof, the snow melting on the drainpipes, and the wind in the naked trees. A woodpecker pecks on the wood siding of our house, then stops to look in the bedroom window at one of our cats, Tara, who looks back at him, excited.

 

Chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, tufted titmice, nuthatches, downy and red bellied woodpeckers, and squirrels surround a bird feeder hung from an apple tree branch and the food spread below it on the ground. The branches of the tree are tipped with light. Dripping ice or rain acts almost as a prism, not to refract but concentrate the light.

 

Max, another of our cats, sleeps between Linda, my wife, and me. Linda is reading a novel. I am writing this.

 

At first, it was not just the sky that was gray. My mood, even the trees, looked gray. I could barely see the blue of the blue jay or the red of the cardinal. But the more I listened to the rain and the snowmelt, listened for the moment words began to form in my mind, it all changed. The sky lightened as I focused on the light on the tips of the apple tree branches.

 

And when I allowed myself to feel the fact that this person and this cat were here next to me, one reading by my side, one sleeping by my hip, my mood lightened. All sorts of words came to me, but none were as deep or eloquent as the reality itself, or the feelings.

 

Our words can be the way we speak a self into existence. They can split the world in two by separating in our thinking what we perceive from who is doing the perceiving. We then think what we perceive is “out there” distinct from us “in here.” We think the gray mood we feel is entirely caused by the gray sky. We mistake the world of our words for the world itself. And then we imagine we live in that world of words.

 

Or words can be signposts leading us back to the point before words were born, to where we tie feelings to thoughts, sensations to memories, and create emotions and understandings. It is where we shape how we perceive the world with what we have learned about it. It is also where we all, where every single being, meets all others more directly. It is where practices such as mindfulness or meditation can lead us, so we learn how to pay attention, each moment, to whatever arises.

 

Emotion is not just feeling. It begins with feeling but includes thoughts, sensations, and proposed actions. Just consider the thoughts that go through your mind when you’re jealous, or the sensations you experience when angry. One purpose of emotion is to tag the stimuli we sense with value so we know how to think and act.

 

Daniel Siegel, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, describes phases in the process of constructing emotion. The first phase is jolting our bodies to pay attention. Siegel calls this the “initial orienting response.” The second is “elaborative appraisal,” which includes using feelings to label stimuli as good or bad, dangerous or pleasing. We begin to construct meaning and then prepare for action. We feel good or threatened and then want to either approach or avoid someone or something. These first two phases can be unconscious. In the third phase our experience differentiates further into categorical emotions like sadness, happiness, and fear. And we have conscious responses.

 

Emotions thus integrate diverse realms of experience. They link physiological changes in our bodies, feelings and sensations, with words, with explanations of how things work, and with perceiving and communicating social signals. Without this orienting attention and assignment of value, we could not learn and we could not act. In other words, body, mind, and relationships arise together in an emotion.

 

In order to think clearly and act appropriately, we need to mindfully step back from any particular way of thinking about a situation or person. We need to reflect on how we are hearing words. Do we hear them as self-contained objects, whose meaning and very being is created entirely by the speaker? If we do this, the other can become a label, a threat distinct from us, and a not-me that we can have no empathy for or any relationship with. If we don’t hear what we say to ourselves, we miss a good part of any conversation.

 

Or when we hear the words of another person, do we hear them as arising from another thinking, feeling being not much different from us? Do we take time to pause and feel how his or her words radiate in our mind and heart? Do we respond not just to the meaning we think the other person intended but also to the whole situation—to our own humanity as well as theirs? Do we respond with care and awareness that what we say creates not only an identity for this other person but for our selves?

 

When we speak, we often think we are simply expressing what is in ourselves. We then don’t realize we can’t speak ourselves into existence without speaking an audience into existence. We speak to who we think the other person is, or who we would like them to be. So, before speaking or acting, it’s important to check how accurate or comprehensive our words are, and what they imply about ourselves, about whom we are with, and the nature of the world we live in.

 

And doing this can make all the difference. It can free us from a gray mood, allow us to realize the beauty in the rain, and really see who we are and who is sitting beside us.

 

This post was also syndicated by The Good Men Project

My Cat Taught Me To Hear the World Speak

Humans have had pets or animal companions for thousands of years. They have protected us, helped feed us and, in times of stress, they have been a source of great comfort. Their non-human minds have confused and fascinated us. They have also taught us a great deal.

 

I was returning home earlier this summer, after a long walk up my hill in a very rural area of New York, when I saw a small animal a hundred yards or more downhill from me. It was black and, at first, I couldn’t tell if it was a large bird, maybe a raven, or one of my three cats. As I got a little closer, and the animal just sat there, I realized it must be my cat Max.

 

I called out to him, and he started up the hill to meet me as I walked down towards him. As he got close, I stopped. He stood up on his back legs and rubbed his head against my hand, as if urging me to pet him, and I couldn’t help but comply. His giving such attention to me led to my opening up to him.

 

I then tried to continue to walk home, but Max made it difficult. He walked a figure eight between my feet, rubbing against me as frequently as he could. Why do cats do this? When he walks with me, it’s as if he is trying to weave a spell that would halt me in my tracks. I stopped to pet him. He sat down and stared off at part of the scene around him. And I did the same. Maybe that’s all he wanted. Maybe he was telling me to slow down, look and listen. Smell the roses.

 

I noticed a dead branch of a maple tree supported by an evergreen. I noticed blackberry bushes, and little wild strawberries. Thirty years ago stately trees lined the road. Then the road crew came with their big machines and devastated the trees, cutting them down so the road could be made wider and the plow could clear away the snow. This, at first, outraged most of us who lived here. Two neighbors chained themselves to their favorite trees. Now, we’re glad the road is plowed and the trees are returning.

 

I listened to the gentle wind, birdcalls, insect cries and it sounded like the world was purring to me. If we give the world a chance, it speaks to us.

 

Not that Max or any cat is “perfect.” There are things he does that make me angry or cringe. But because of him I listen more to what the world around me has to say. Sometimes it purrs. Other times, it cries or rages. I listen because without this land, what was I? For Max, the land, the road, the trees, the other animals were not just part of his home—they were part of who he was.

 

This, this scene all around me—without it, I didn’t exist. Not just that it was part of my identity. My lungs breathe in sky, so when I speak, I speak sky talk. To walk forward, I press back against the earth, so each step I take is the earth walking. One movement of many feet. We humans have such powerful words in our heads we easily lose sight of what nourishes those words. My cat taught me this today. In this day and age of false talk, we need to be reminded of such truths or we might lose it all.

 

In these days of hurricanes and other disasters, I feel fortunate to live in a place where the earth is now gentle⏤and I am distressed seeing what so many have lost, homes and possessions, friends or family, and pets. I know everything can change at any moment. This is even more of a reason to listen, carefully. Even more reason to appreciate what I have and to work to preserve the environment that sustains us all.