Where the Walkabout Ends

**Last night, I participated in a gathering in which the subject of human mortality was raised. In response, I’m re-posting something I wrote for another of my blogs in May of 2014. If, as was ventured last night, our thoughts on death illustrate our attitude toward living, then here you have both, as I see them…

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

– Shel Silverstein

We’re all winding down the clock, working our way into Thomas’ “good night,” whether or not we rage in the process. And when the time comes that my plug needs pulling, I feel I should have the right to decide when and how it’s pulled.

This is a tough subject, a very loaded topic on which people tend to cultivate strong (and often stubborn) opinions, so I’ll try and tread carefully. It is also an issue which may fit awkwardly for some into the walkabout mentality, in which every day is an adventure, and every experience a treasure. So allow me to explain.

For me, the walkabout is about knowing my self, who I am both in the absence and the presence of others. It is about continual becoming. It is about, simply, being Me.

Every adventure along the way points toward one goal: the evolution of identity. As long as I am able to self-identify, that evolution goes on: each new day in the walkabout unveils a new piece, a new aspect, of who I am, who I can be. But there may come a time when all that is gone; sooner or later, the Vance-ness will begin to slip, I will begin to forget, either through age or infirmity, or both. The prospect of losing myself, of un-becoming, terrifies me–I cannot lie–unlike anything else. It is the ultimate threat, and it hangs over us all, sword to our Damocles.

The early Zen masters were renowned for their willingness to accede to the exigencies of mortality. Countless hagiographies end with the master “deciding to die,” meditating one last time, and then just going. This theme is meant to convey the true nature of Self-hood; as Seung Sahn taught, the original face has no life and no death, and the Dharma body does not disappear with the disappearance of the physical body. The Zen masters understood that their final breath was not the final movement in their symphony.

Interestingly, this is a key tenet, in one form or another, of most world religions: death is not the end. And yet…we fight, so hard. We confuse persistence with existence and the heartbeat with the mind (and the soul). My heart is not Me; remove it, hook it up to a battery, run a current through it, and it’ll go right on pumping. Put it in someone else, and it will serve them just as well. I am more than that, more than a machine with interchangeable parts. I am Mind; I am soul (whatever that construct may represent). I am my relationships, my emotions, my thoughts, my actions. I am my memories. Take those things away, and I am not me. Not anymore.

I have watched one grandmother descend into extreme senescence, another into perceived obsolescence, and my paternal grandfather into such a desperate state of cancer-related physical degradation as to be almost unrecognizable. From my very core, my being screamed out at the injustice of it, and at the notion of one day being myself in their shoes. No one should have to suffer the half-life of outliving himself.

One day, I will reach the pavement’s end. One day, my walkabout will be all walked out, and it will be time to face the weeds beyond. I do not fear that day, because in my Mind I know that meaning and mortality are not as inextricably intertwined as we sometimes assume them to be. Whether we believe in heaven, reincarnation, or none of the above, our essence resides as much in others as it does in ourselves, and we will go on in their hearts, minds, and memories. Like the argon in the breath of Alexander the Great, lodged still in unsuspecting lungs around the globe, I will linger. No, I do not fear death.

What I fear is the misapprehension of life, the desperate confusion of husk with heart. I fear no longer being myself. I fear the day the walkabout ends, and I (or others) insist that it has not. I fear the prospect of clinging to something that no longer exists: my Self. For Vance is more than a pulse; more than artificially pumped oxygen. Vance is me, and when he goes, so do I.

To those I leave behind on that day, whoever they may be, I say:

Look into my eyes, and see what you can see.
See if it’s really me
in there. And if it’s not,
hard as it may be, say goodbye,
heave a sigh, have your cry,
then let me fly, for I am
Free.

A New Day

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that to-morrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

– Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables

Do what you love.

That’s what everyone says, anyway. Do what you love. Which leads me to ask:

What do I love?

If you’ve read my last few posts, you may have noticed a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain level of uncertainty, or ennui, or angst, or whatever the YA crowd’s reading about these days. A lot of that, I think, stems from the fact that I don’t really know what I love anymore. I’ve gotten so caught up in the daily grind that I haven’t really put much thought into it lately.

And I should. So here goes:

I love writing. That’s a gimme. More specifically, I love words. I love the power contained in such tiny vessels: one syllable can change the world, one letter can spark off unending controversy. You say homoousios, I say homoiousios. (What’s life without the occasional obscure church history joke?)

I love to travel. Balls to the wall. No preplanned tours for me. I want to mark out the beaten path, and then avoid it at all costs. I want the old diner by the side of a wooded, two-lane highway, where no stranger has gone before, and from which no one departs a stranger. I crave hairpin curves, iron lattice-work bridging, and populations under one thousand. That’s where the stories are. And I covet them.

I love food, but I’m not a foodie. I’m an anti-foodie. Someone once asked me whether I preferred quantity or quality. My reply? Why not both? I want a recipe as old as the woman preparing it, and her mother, and her mother’s mother. I want six-person capacity, classic fare: keep your truffles; I’ll take a slab of good, honest bacon any day of the year. And I want to eat that bacon elbow-to-elbow with Farmer Bob, while his John Deere waits patiently outside.

I love conversation. Which is why I prefer Farmer Bob to the faceless masses in overpass fast food wastelands. I love to talk, and I love to listen. I want to know what makes you tick; I want to know what you love. I want to share, and to be shared with. I love conversation because I love history, and I believe the history that matters is all the stuff of life unfolding around us all the time, each moment of every day. And I believe the only way we can save history from itself is by learning from each other, together.

Words. Travel. Food. Conversation. Put them all together, and what do you get?

Well…Me. The Toad. The longer I’m deprived of any of these things, the less myself I am. I am the words I write. I am the back roads I travel. I am the greasy bacon burgers I eat (which can’t be healthy, right?). And I am the dialogue I inhabit. My loves make me who I am.

So here I am. Being the Toad. Having great adventures, remembering who I am, and seeking out amazing people with whom to share it all.

And that’s you.

And thanks to you, the Toad goes ever, ever on…

Cabbages. And Kings. And Stuff.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

– Lewis Carroll

Allow me to introduce you to the Big Three.

The Big Three are the three moments, crystallized in my memory, that define my life as a minister. They are not good moments; they are not happy memories. They are a reproach, constant and unflagging, a chip I cannot dislodge from my shoulder, however hard I try. In many ways, they have brought me to this place, made me who I am today–a better man, I hope–but whatever good they have produced, I wear them, my albatross, with shame and regret.

I share them with you, and in sharing them, I share myself. They are my monsters, this is my closet. My cabbages, my kings.

1) Christmas, 2002 — Halfway through rehearsals for our annual “cantata,” we received news that the Methodist minister’s daughter had come out as a lesbian. And all hell broke loose. (Keep in mind that this wasn’t even our church.) We hatched a plan: what a perfect opportunity to share that Good News! By the next weekend, we had taken it upon ourselves to blanket the three surrounding counties–two in Missouri and one in Kansas–with a completely unsolicited mass mailing detailing the evils of homosexuality. We redefined “going on the offensive.” Now, I was just a lowly part-time youth and music minister at the time; I didn’t have a whole lot of say. Which works out well, because I didn’t say it. I didn’t say anything. And what’s worse–I wrote part of the horrible thing. Only the love part, mind you, only the plan of salvation. Only the part that explains how the only hope for all the evil gays and lesbians out there is to reject themselves as people and put on my name tag of choice. No harm, no foul, right? Come to Jesus, who loves you for who you are. But be sure to bathe first…

2) Winter, 2004 — I am now a full-fledged pastor in Robinson, Texas. I have been on the job for a total of four months. And I’m faced with a “fractious member.” I would like to tell you that I reached out to this person, helped him through a hard time, opened up a dialogue between him and the church at large. You know, all the stuff I go on about now. I would love to tell you that, but I can’t, because I didn’t. Instead, I dragged him out to the woodshed and “churched” him. Why? Because he believed a Christian could lose his or her salvation. And that’s not what I wanted my church to believe. For this piddly, sad little reason, I cast him into the proverbial outer darkness. A man who had emotional (and possibly mental) problems, a man who needed help. I had to protect my flock. From nothing at all. So I refused to protect him. From anything. And the cherry on top? When informed of what I had done, a local associational missionary summed up my actions in these words: “What a brave thing for a minister to do. That boy’s going places.”

3) Fall, 2006 — I’ve just performed my first funeral. A member of my congregation, not too much older than myself, had lost his wife to cancer. It was, as it always is, a traumatic experience for all involved. I thought of the man as a friend; we often talked, had heart to heart conversations; I felt that, of all the people in the church, he understood me best. When I, the poor part-timer, had a need, he stood up and filled it–a replacement for a busted thermostat in our rental house, a new laptop, whatever. He was a friend, a brother. And then…three months after his wife died, he came to me and told me he had met someone new, and asked me to marry them. Now, I had reservations about the timing–there were teenage daughters involved, the wound was still fresh, etc. But my real reservation was nothing so reasonable. This woman was a Mormon, see. And that, as I was taught, was a deal breaker. It was a clear-cut case of “unequal yoking.” So I said no. After everything he had done for me, I said no. But wait–that’s not all. Naturally, his whole family promptly left the church, leaving me to lick my principled wounds and spout pompous. I recently, in cleaning out my e-mail folders, came across a message I wrote to them, and the measure of my arrogance is hard to express. I was a giant prick. They were hurting the church; they turned their backs on me. I played the role of sacrificial lamb to the cotton-picking hilt. Oh my children–why hast thou forsaken me? Without batting an eyelid.

These memories are all bloody bullet holes in my heart, and they’ve never quite healed over. I am hopeful that at some point during my ministry “career” I did something good, but in the crunch of it all I folded like a cheap suit. And here’s the damnedest thing of all: as the minister’s handbook has it, I wasn’t folding at all. I was Taking A Stand. I was a flippin’ hero of the faith.

If I had to put into a nutshell the reason I left the church behind, well, there you have it. I hurt people; I turned them away from the one place supposedly defined by unconditional love; and in doing so, I Stood for What I Believed. The Lord is my shepherd. Now get the hell out!

It took me years to figure this out, but now I know. I see myself for who I was and what I was doing. I had this “treasure,” see, in a jar of clay. And it was nothing but cabbage. In the words of “Hawkeye” Pierce, “Don’t you understand, man? You’ve struck coleslaw!”

And no matter what I do, I can’t seem to get the taste out of my mouth…

 

 

To Whom It May Concern

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men

Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

– T.S. Eliot

Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain. Because he’s not really there.

I’m tired. Tired of being the encourager; tired of all the level-headedness. Tired of listening to the blather and smiling gaily in its face. I’m just tired.

The skeletons in my closet are piled high and deep tonight. I can’t seem to shake the monsters, the ghosts, the shades of myself not quite up to specifications. I want desperately to embrace the world and kiss its tear-stained face, but I can’t even lift my arms to complete the gesture, let alone hold in the mouthful of spit I fight to swallow with every passing moment of every single day.

I am the sad clown. I paint my face with smiles to mask the inner frown; I shout with manic laughter to mute the howl of rage. I eat my words, for fear they’ll eat me first.

And you don’t know. You can’t see. I won’t let you.

You turn to me for answers, but I’m buried beneath the questions. Every day, up the hill; every morning, back at the bottom. Over and over and over. And over.

This is not a cry for help. This is not a fishing expedition. Keep your worms to yourselves. I only mean to take a moment, in the midst of drowning, to flail a bit, you see. And flail I must; otherwise, I cannot help but sink.

And now, now that you’re all scratching your heads and wondering which of my many rusty gears has slipped, full stop. Move to track. Lay down that hollow beat–drums, drums, drums in the deep.

Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain. He isn’t really there…

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Your Assistance, Please!

Untitled

I need your help!

In August, I am participating in the 2015 JIS (Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies) Symposium. I will be sharing a paper on the effects of long-distance online interaction (blogging, social networks, comment feeds on news outlets, etc.) on public discourse: Does it raise or lower the bar on how we communicate with one another?

So, I’m conducting a quick, informal poll to see what you long-distance online communicators have to say about the issue.

Here’re my questions:

1) Overall, does online interaction improve or weaken our ability to communicate with others?

2) What is the most positive aspect of online communication, and what is the most negative?

3) How many different online social outlets (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) do you use? **No specifics necessary; just a number.**

4) What percentage (rough estimate) of your social interaction takes place online, as compared to the percentage that takes place in person?

If you wouldn’t mind taking a few moments to jot down some brief answers to these questions, I would greatly appreciate it. No names or personal information will be included in the finished product, but this will be helpful in establishing some baseline statistics as I proceed with this project.

Also, please pass this along. I can use all the “sample” I can get!

You are all Awesome!

– The Toad

The Internet Stranger

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut this is a song
for strangers in a car…
Baby, maybe that’s all
we really are.

– Marc Cohn

We don’t meet strangers. We make them.

I recently met some folks, previously known to me only via the Blogs, for the first time, and like an Austen character, I was announced upon entry as “The Internet Stranger.” (I am the Scarlet Pimpernel!!) I felt, on the instant, as if I should be caped and hooded, I should be Batman. Or at least the slightest bit mysterious. Stalking imperiously around the house, channeling Christopher Lee, laughing like the Count from Sesame Street, with constantly cocked eyebrow and penetrating stare.

But that would have been weird…

…And I digress. On reflection (which at the very least means I’m not a vampire), I ask myself: what is a stranger?

Are all the people we’ve never met “strangers”? Conversely, are all the people we already have, not? What makes someone a stranger to me? When we were children, it was simple: a stranger was some guy with a van, or anyone who offered us candy on the street. But as adults, the term is hardly so clear-cut.

Just yesterday, a fellow blogger noted that one of my older posts seemed like a letter I had written to her well before I even  knew who she was. That got me to thinking again. What if it was? Not to her, specifically, but to all the “Internet strangers” out there, written in the hopes that some of them might not be so strange after all.

This same blogger, in a recent post, asked an interesting question: faced with the ominous silence that often accompanies a blog post, why do we blog instead of just writing in a journal? Why do we keep putting it all out there, even when no one seems to be listening? Maybe this is the secret: diaries are great if you’re Anne Frank or Jan Brady, but at the end of the day, they are simply mute. You can pour your heart into them, but they will never offer anything in return. With blogging, there is hope. Hope that one day, you may get a “Polo!” in response to your “Marco!”

In blogging, we embrace an idea: the idea that strangers are only friends we haven’t met yet. Anne Shirley said it best: “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

Some people–family, so-called friends, co-workers–have known me for years, and don’t know me from Adam. Then there are others, whom I’ve never met, who’ve known me since the day I was born, and I them. We just don’t know it yet.

So, the next time that metaphorical car pulls up alongside, the door swings open, and a “stranger” beckons from inside, in the words of Marc Cohn, “are you gonna get in, or are you gonna stay out?”

Because that stranger may turn out to be a life-long friend you never knew you had.