One of my favorite past times has always been reading. My dad has a book in his hand when I picture him in my mind’s eye, it is always the same….laying down on the couch in a pocket tee and his work pants, with a Mickey Spillane, Doc Savage, or Nick Carter novel in his hands, and the Grand Ole Opry blaring from the stereo. My parents were more than happy to indulge my own interests, believing it (rightly so) to be a method of bettering myself through education. I shared his interest in Doc Savage to the point that I own one of the very few complete collections of the original pulp magazines that sported those stories that exist in the world. That interest started as a nine year old when I began to read the Bantam paperback reprints of those stories (with some incredible cover paintings by James Bama that only helped fuel a young boy’s hero worship!). But I branched out swiftly. As a family, we typically spent every weekend from mid-April to mid-October on the road camping somewhere, and the entire month of July when the factory my parents worked for shut down during maintenance and updates. While we enjoyed fishing, swimming, and other activities, we were also told to bring along other things to do to keep ourselves entertained when it rained. For me, that meant books. I read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and so many other classics on these outings during rainstorms pounding on the canvas of our tent, by the light of a Coleman lantern – all by the age of 9! By the time I was through high school, my repertoire had expanded to include authors like Tolstoy, Somerset Maugham, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and started to include poetry by Frost, Keats, Yeats, Whitman, and others. Over the years since my wife sometimes snorted in derision when she noticed me reading for pleasure academic works on philosophy, history, hermeneutics, and spirituality. Life got in the way a couple of years ago and my reading all but stopped as I shifted primarily to caretaker for her, and then our dog Jasper shortly after her death.
After Jasper’s passing on Thanksgiving weekend of 2018, I once again started reading. While she had light heartedly poked fun at my pleasure reading list, I did the same for hers. She mostly read what I termed historical and sci fi “smut” novels! One of her favorite series that I particularly took exception with – out of ignorance, and what I now realize is a bit of toxic masculinity – was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. I began with that series in an effort to understand a part of my beautiful wife that I had ignored. And thru it, I began to connect with a side of her that I wish we had explored and enjoyed together. Over the last year I have also reconnected with my expanded interests in historical nonfiction – Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, for example – and, especially, poetry such as the works of John Donne (see my Abler Soul post of a several weeks ago). This week, however, one of my recently discovered favorite poets has been front and center in my transitioning life. Hermann Hesse was one of the most influential poets of the 20th century and authored this poem, which has become the center of my life this week:
As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.
The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slave of permanence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.
Two years ago tomorrow (February 1st) at 4:12 pm she died in my arms and my life as I knew it began to unravel. Yesterday, a precision and surgical strike took place to drive home the real meaning of Hesse’s words. My beautiful bride’s dog Ginger succumbed to cancer and left me to join her. Last night I spent the first night totally alone in a home I lived in for the first time since 1981. The silence was deafening. The lyrics of One Hand, One Heart from “West Side Story” came immediately to mind. Not the romantic promise of the modern Romeo and Juliet, but rather the important reminder that Hesse mentions above of transition moments throughout life’s stages. I will be alone for the remainder of my physical journey in life. Totally alone. “Well, why not get another dog?” you ask. For the same reason I will never date another woman…it wouldn’t be fair. I cannot date because I would be constantly comparing whomever I would be spending time with to her. I would feel like I was cheating on my wife with this other woman. Thanks to her, I have realized over the last two years that she made me a better man than to treat another woman that way. It’s not that she would want me to be alone – she explicitly feared she hadn’t prepared me for life after her and wanted me to find someone. I just have come to know that I don’t need or want anyone else and that by attempting to give in to such curiosity would be to treat another woman in a manner that I now abhor. A partner should be the principal focus of your attention. That is something I cannot give. Similarly, another dog would deserve my presence and care. My lifestyle over the past two years took me away from the dogs for hours at a time…sometimes weeks at a time as I went on bike tours. This summer I am planning on a 4200 mile, 60 day bike trek across country. Not fair to a dog when I would have to find someone else to care for them for such an extended period. “Why not take the dog with you?” Because the only way that is feasible is with one of those little yappy dogs. I can’t stand yappy dogs! No way am I lugging a Labrador through Glacier National park on my bike. Not sure the bike would remain upright at the speed I would be forced to take towing my gear AND an 80 pound dog on those climbs!
So, today, now it begins. Now the rest of my life starts. Now I have to find another watering place on life’s journey. My meditation over the past several months has involved extensive time with Cynthia Bourgeault’s Love is Stronger Than Death. In this fantastic work and study of spirituality, Bourgeault speaks of her love with a man that mentions we enjoy several “watering places” in life’s journey. Focusing on positive moments and memories, we tend to enjoy these oasis places and metaphorically milk them for energy along our path. He cautioned, however, that we may spend too much time in these watering places out of fear for moving forward, without certainty of where and when we will find our next watering place, never realizing that all of our watering places are interconnected by one massive, underlying source of water. As a cyclist, this goes against the grain. I have been on rides where I either forgot to bring a water bottle, could not find a watering place, or simply went too far without a drink or food. My first ODRAM (One Day Ride Across Michigan) was nearly abandoned when, at the 120 mile mark I had been out of water for some time, there was no water stop remaining on the route, and my wife and daughter were at lunch. I was shaking…sucking wind…and had at that point ridden 15 miles farther than I had ever ridden in a single day’s ride in my life – with another 40 miles to go.
Bourgeault’s love was correct however. The water spot sprang up to catch me in my time of need. My wife and daughter showed up soon after, and I climbed off the bike for a few minutes to collect myself while they cared for me. Literally filling up my physical and spiritual water bottles. My daughter pulled her mountain bike off the back of the car and joined me for the final 40 miles. To that point, I had been averaging almost 21mph. What she did by pacing me on her mountain bike at a much slower 13-14mph, was EXACTLY what my body and spirit needed. We had a much more enjoyable experience and weekend after that. Similarly, five years ago, I rode in El Tour de Tucson – a 110 mile time chipped race – for the benefit of a charity organization that supported a cause near and dear to my family as well as the son of a former student. I knew I would never have a chance at a podium finish, but they had podium, gold, silver, bronze, and “participation” award levels for the thousands of cyclists taking part. I wanted to finish in the silver level as an inspiration to those I rode for, so I did the entire race on a single water bottle in almost 80 degree heat – a dry heat, as people like to point out, but the operative word there for a cyclist using only a single water bottle is DRY! I arrived at the finish line with about 15 minutes to spare for a silver finish, in the top 25 percent of all racers (including the pros), in the top 10 percent of all racers in my age division, and, of course, shaking like a palm frond in hurricane season. Again, however, I was refreshed when my wife called and expressed pride and love for me as well as in the feat…and connected me with the former student and her son who was literally aglow. He now has the medal I was given. I now have that watering place to return to when needed.
This past two years I have been trying to learn that lesson my wife lived and was so sad that I hadn’t….what Bourgeault calls “last year’s language.” This is when we tend to cling to our needs and life patterns to the detriment of inner growth. When we literally embalm those people and things in our lives that we cherish by our clinging and not allowing them to grow. This, of course, is the opposite of love. As a couple, we had started to overcome this about four years prior to her diagnosis, but, like all couples, continued to struggle through this until just a few days before she passed – when all I wanted was for her to be free. As a person, however, I continuously struggled through the last year’s language problem…getting frustrated when I felt things were defining me negatively, such as my inability to meet mileage goals on my bike(s), or financial problems, or family issues….This year, Bourgeault (and TS Eliot and Hesse) has truly helped me focus on the futility of last year’s language while concentrating on the present.
I haven’t ridden outside for over two weeks, and my mileage in October and this month were woefully short of what I had hoped to accomplish. But it’s okay. I had more important tasks to rise to. Caring for those you love…spending time…QUALITY time…with them, is never a mistake and will most assuredly refill your water bottle and leave the oasis point indelibly stamped on your life’s roadmap. This is something I want my children, and grandsons, to know and live. Never spend too long at one watering spot, as there will be others along the journey. Always continue to move forward and don’t become complacent. Sometimes you need that inner growth that comes from reading and expanding your horizons – just like a camel needs his humps!
As a coach, and as a competitive music teacher, I always taught my athletes and students the importance of understanding that last lesson. One of my favorite sayings that most of my teams and classes took to heart was that whoever told you practice makes perfect LIED TO YOU! Practice makes permanent. The only thing that makes perfect is PERFECT PRACTICE. Slow down. Focus on fundamentals. Get it right first and foremost. Then speed it up until you can do it better than the other people you are likely to come up against. Even then, there is ALWAYS going to be somebody out there who is better than you. More committed than you. This is the nature of human existence. Achilles had Hector. Saul had David. Grant had Lee. Custer had Sitting Bull. McEnroe had Connors. Palmer had Nicklaus. Evart had Navratilova….
I refuse to mourn the time I supposedly lost on my bike the last month because I, and Ginger, needed that time to transition. I woke up to a memory this morning on my social media account. Six years ago, I had posted the meme below to capture the relationship between my wife and her dog. What a reunion that must have been for them yesterday!
Again…I have rediscovered my love for poetry this past year…Donne, Eliot, Hesse, the Carmina Gadelica, and especially Rumi. Today and tomorrow I mourn and celebrate simultaneously. Yes, Scotch Ales will be flowing freely at my house for the next 48-72 hours. I mourn leaving one watering hole, filled with trepidation and fear for the unknown path that lies ahead. I know I will die alone…probably on a road side somewhere. But this poem by Rumi
There is no salvation for the soul
but to fall in Love.
Only lovers can escape
out of these two worlds.
This was ordained in creation.
Only from the heart
can you reach the sky
And the following setting by Carrie Grossman have helped me realize that I need to focus on next year’s language. That my watering holes are all interconnected by a constant stream underground of her – of OUR – love. That just as Vera Lynn expressed in 1943 “We’ll meet again.” Fly my beloveds! Fly!