Choose Your Words Carefully

Yesterday morning I left the Abbey at about 10:00 a.m. A part of me was sad to end such  a significant chapter of my fully amazing life. A larger part of me was excited for what lies ahead. After a quick stop at the gift shop to gather a few mementos from the trip I set my next destination point on my GPS. My next stop was Lexington, Kentucky where I would have the distinct pleasure of sitting in conversation and repast with my friends Craig and Anella in their stunning, vintage Kentucky bungalow. The drive was predicted to take about 75 minutes as I traveled northeast across the heart of Kentucky.

I caught a little traffic coming through downtown Lexington so I arrived 90 minutes after I departed. Fortunately none of us were tethered to any particular schedule on this day so my arrival time made no matter at all. It’s the moments of life when we are not tethered to time that the magic truly happens. Magic was about to happen!

When I arrived at their downtown Lexington bungalow home,  Craig was finishing up a conversation on the phone with his father. Early on when I first met Craig I remembered he had asked for prayers in a post online because of a health scare his father was experiencing. I thought about how nice it was that that time must have passed and that the two men were sharing conversation in the middle of the day on a perfect Friday summer morning. Anella gave me a quick tour of their circa 1920s home. I had just left a perfect sanctuary at the Abbey of Gethsemani. How lucky was I to have found another just 75 miles east?

After the tour and Craig’s phone call, we sat at their kitchen island and enjoyed delicious treats from their favorite local restaurant. I savored each bite of quiche, focaccia bread and muffins and finished with the most perfect macaroon. All the while we conversed about life, the nature of reality, the awakenings we find in our challenges and many other subjects that did NOT include politics or weather or other trivial things. We told stories that inspired laughter and even a few tears. To me the mark of a divine friendship is when you can pick up and converse about intimate things without any need to make small talk to start the process. Humanity in general is craving this realness. Once again I thought about how grateful I am to have people like Craig and Anella and so many others who step fully in to that space right away.

After about two hours I realized that it was time for me to continue my journey. I could have sat in the peace and tranquility of their home for eternity every bit as much as I could have stayed at Gethsemani for lifetimes, but there was more road to travel and more work yet to be done. When I left they gave me a box of macaroons to take home to Christiana and a pair of deep, heart to heart hugs. I left them with a Merton book I had gathered at the monastery for them and a kiss on the cheek. Mementos of the moment in time that we shared that would carry on as ripples into our lives going forward.

As I walked away from their front porch towards my car Craig said, “Thank you so much Jim for taking the time to drive out of your way for the stop in our home…safe travels my brother!” I replied without turning back by saying, “I’d have driven ten hours to have shared this experience…”

I started up the car, looked back at the home I had just been received in for conversation and other forms of sustenance and I drove away with an extremely full heart. At the first stop light in town I programed my GPS for my new destination. I was headed to my home. It looked like I had about a six hour drive ahead of me give or take based on how many times I decided to stop along the way. I am not typically a long drive person. In fact I have had the limiting belief that I can’t stand more than five hours in the car per day and at the most 2 hour stretches without a break. On this day though I was at peace and even a bit excited for the time in the car. I had many thoughts to process and many words buzzing in my brain.

In the last couple of years as I have stepped more fully into my role as a writer and a speaker I tend to look at every moment in life as a potential story – which they always are. I am also a believer in the infinite power of the the human mind and the fact that the thoughts we form become the things that happen in our lives. As a result I try to choose my words and my thoughts with precision and a mind for detail. In short I usually choose my words carefully.

About an hour into my drive I ran into a slight delay. It was caused by an accident that I was grateful to not have been a part of. As I drove past the crash site, I touched the St. Christopher medal that belonged to my father which I have clipped to the sun visor of my car and gave thanks and prayed for good health of those that had been less fortunate on this day. A bit further up the road there was a road closure that required me to drive south east for about 10 minutes on an alternate route. If you know even a little bit about geography you will know that the trip from Kentucky to Chicago should not include any time driving southeast. I trusted the process and followed my GPS.

After some slow going through Louisville and a few more construction zones on the path I eventually found myself just a bit south of Indianapolis after four hours in the car. I had only covered about half of the distance I had to travel thus far, but I needed to stop and get gas and use the facilities. When I stopped near Indy I realized that this had likely been the longest amount of time I had spent behind the wheel without a break in the last twenty years at least. Perhaps it was time to erase some of my limiting beliefs. I was grateful for the awakening.

After grabbing a latte at Starbucks I was back on the road. It was about 5:00 p.m. and I could still make Chicago by nightfall. The route on I-65 north was a bit of a challenge for the rest of the way. Numerous construction sites and a number of accidents had me stopping and starting for the next couple of hours. When I finally approached the turn off to Chicago I had to decide if I wanted to take I-94 and approach Chicago on the Dan Ryan expressway or if I wanted to catch the Indiana Toll Road, which is a more direct route but includes tolls and a potential back up on Lake Shore Drive when I did finally get downtown. I chose the I-94 route since it was the first to appear.

Shortly after the turn off onto I-94 my GPS said “Accident ahead…You can save six minutes by choosing alternate route…” I figured six minutes was not worth the change in plans and I stuck to my route instead of turning off. For the next hour I sat between Cline Avenue outside of Gary, Indiana and the Illinois State Line. Under normal circumstances this trip would take about 10 minutes.

unnamed-12I continued to make progress and by 9:00 pm as the sun was setting over the western suburbs I passed through my  beloved Chicago. I watched the sun streams dance off the high-rises over my right shoulder and said goodnight to the sun over my left. It was the same sun that I said goodnight to the night before as it set over the Kentucky hills. The geography of where I was on this planet had shifted, but the sun was still fixed like it always is as one brilliant lights in our glorious Universe. I decided I best head straight to one of my favorite local eateries and grab some food before heading home. I pulled into the parking lot at L Woods Pine Tap and Lodge just minutes before they closed at 9:30 p.m. I had just driven another four and a half hour stretch without a break. I felt a sense of triumph in the completion of my journey.

As  walked into L Woods I realized that had spent 90 minutes driving from New Haven to Lexington. I had spent four fours driving from Lexington to Indianapolis. I had spent four and a half hours driving from Indianapolis to L Woods which is within a mile of my home. In total I had just spent 10 hours behind the wheel in one day! And then instantaneously I recalled what I said to Craig as I walked away from their stunning, vintage Kentucky bungalow, “I’d have drive ten hours to have shared this experience….”

And that is exactly what I just did!

When I got home I brought my things up to our second floor two flat. I sat on the porch and looked at the moon as it sat low in the sky and danced in and out of the clouds. I thought about the multitude of words that have come through me over the last four days. Some 20,000 of them in the form of journal entries, blogs and writing on my larger project which is back on the table in full force. Many more words are stored in my heart for unveiling in the days and weeks ahead. I will choose them all carefully. They leave an indelible mark  that will become a permanent account of the story of our lives.

And so it continues…

 

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Walking Out of Gethsemani

This morning I depart from this chapter of my journey which has led to many places without traveling far at all. I have had many flavors of silence in the last four days and I have also had many conversations. It’s amazing how silence allows us to converse in the purest form. I have had conversations with those who used to be part of my life as I allowed them to reach me in ways I have not yet known. I have had conversations with those who I randomly intersected with on my side trips away from the monastery. I have had conversations with they Divine as it exists in places like this Abbey at a level where we are more inclined to listen. Mostly importantly, I have had numerous conversations with myself and in the process I have learned something very important. I’ve learned to be a better listener.

This morning after I cleared out my quarters and loaded my things into the car, I took an hour to walk the grounds one last time. Ultimately I landed yet again at the chairs by Merton’s gravesite. The chairs were not in the exact position I left them in last night after I returned a part of Richard’s ashes to the soil. They had been turned to face the back of the headstone at more of an angle and they had been placed a little closer to each other than they were last night. The chairs were slightly angled towards each other in the perfect position for two people to have an intimate conversation with each other so that they could see each other while still surveying the beauty of their surroundings. I sat in one of the chairs.

Of the many conversations I have had on this journey, more than a few of them have been with Richard’s spirit. It seemed one more conversation was being called in. When I sat I took a moment to drink in all that Is. To drink in all that had happened in the last 72 hours, which in reality seems more like 72 days. After a minute or two of silence I began to speak. I spoke not only in my mind. I spoke with my real voice. The grounds of the monastery were completely empty. Retreatants are asked to vacate their rooms by 8:00 a.m. on Fridays so the rooms can be prepared for new arrivals. Most leave right away, but we are allowed to stay until 10:00 a.m for final reflections. Since nobody else in human for was with me in the graveyard I spoke out loud for the first time on the monastery grounds.

When I was done speaking, I closed my eyes and listened in silence one last time. In that silence I got the loudest message of all, “Walk out of this garden and walk fully into you life…James!”

There are many untold stories in my life both from the past, the present and the future. Some of them are mine to tell and some of them are intended for me to listen to. When I stood to walk away, I turned and took one more look at the chairs as they faced the back of Merton’s grave. I had just crossed another important finish line and in the process was reminded that the journey had just began. I walk out of the Gethsemani and I walk fully into my life. And so it begins…

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Solisbury Hill

For those of you who are out there wondering if I will write a blog post for each song in Peter Gabriel’s music library while I’m on this trip, I can assure you that I will not. In fact it will likely end with this post, but the title came to me quite serendipitously yesterday morning while I was riding my bike through the Kentucky hills.

It is an innate human instinct to climb. We climb so we can see what heights we can achieve. We climb to push ourselves to our physical and spiritual limits. We climb so we can enjoy the coast on the way down the other side of the slope. Look no further than infants who want to climb on things higher up as soon as they can stand and you will know that we are all climbers at heart and our lives are full of so many potential hills.

unnamed-9Upon my arrival at Gethsemani the first thing I did after I got my things into my quarters was to walk outside and climb to the top of the hill at the edge of the property. Perched at the top of the hill was a rock grotto and tall cross to spark my desire further, but the potential view alone was enough to entice. With the sun high in the afternoon sky and the temperature in the mid 90s, the climb left me dripping in sweat, but it was a purifying start to my monastic retreat.

Climbing goes way back in my family. I have often spoken or written about my great grandfather Henry William Herbert who was born in Ireland in 1871. Henry grew up in a small fishing village named Ringaskiddy. Ring, as it is called by locals is on the south coast of Ireland across the bay from the famous final port of the RMS Titanic, one Queenstown/Cobh, Ireland. Back in great grandpa’s day, Ring was a quaint seaside village with docks for swimming, fields to play in and hills to climb on.

At the top of one of those hills stood an old Martello tower that dated back to the days of Cromwell’s invasion in the mid 1600s. In his autobiography great grandpa Henry wrote about climbing to the top of the hill through the blackberry briars with his father Captain James and playing on and around the allegedly haunted tower. It’s the stuff that all good boys stories are made of.

On our trip to Ireland in September of 2013, Christiana and I re-traced my ancestor’s footsteps and climbed to that same Martello Tower, but not without a few challenges along the way. Isn’t that what our innate instinct to climb is designed for though? So we can face challenges and enjoy the awakenings that come forth? If you want to read more about our quest to climb to that tower you can check out that story here.

This current story though is finally getting to its main point, which is my bike ride on Wednesday morning through the Kentucky hills. I have ridden my Trek mountain bike through the paved city streets of Chicago for three years now. It’s not one of those hybrids with the small nobby tires and a light frame. It is a full on mountain bike! My friends often tell me that I’m crazy to have such a heavy-duty bike for city riding, but I like the stability and somehow I knew I would find a day to ride it off road. That day had finally come.

I left the monastery grounds at about 9:00 a.m. with a bottle of water, a Cliff bar and the desire to ride for one hour or ten miles if I could last in the heat. On the city streets at normal temperatures that distance or even double would be no issue, but I had no idea what to expect in my current set of circumstances. Across the main road I saw a narrow path and a sign that said:

No Unauthorized Vehicles

No Boats

No Swimming

I clearly was not a vehicle. I wasn’t pulling a boat. I had no swimsuit or goggles. I figured I’d be okay. Off I went! It was as if my Trek mountain bike started to sing to me. It had waited for this day for three years. We bounced over the rocks. We climbed the hills and coasted down. It was a small loop, but I figured that was a good thing because I could just keep repeating it until I was too tired and then I could dash back across the street in a jiffy and be home at the monastery.

As I rode I listened to Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live Disc #1. I continue to be addicted to his music only a week removed from the fabulous Gabriel/Sting concert on my birthday weekend. At about the 50-minute mark of the ride, I was getting rather fatigued. The sun and the heat were taking their toll and I was fairly certain that this would be my last loop. As I came back to the part of the loop that was both the beginning and the ending of my circle I had a decision to make. Would I turn off or push through one more loop?

At that exact moment, the guitar riff for the Peter Gabriel’s Solisbury Hill started. My heart leapt up and my legs got a burst of life. Like an infant trying to get to a new highest height, I turned and started one more loop! I pushed my way up the hill dripping in sweat, but I felt more energy than I had at any point in the ride. As the final chorus of Solisbury Hill played in my earbuds, I glided down the hill with a nice breeze in my face. I coasted back across the street to the monastery parking lot. When I shut off my Runkeeper GPS it said one hour and three seconds for a total of 10.06 miles. Honestly you can’t even make this stuff up if you try!

Gabriel wrote the song Solisbury Hill upon his departure from the group Genesis in 1975. He had been a founding member and the lead vocalist. The song was his first solo career single and he has been quoted as saying, “It’s a song  about being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get… It’s about letting go…” In his letter to the public in August of 1975 Gabriel also said:

“I believe the world has soon to go through a difficult period of changes. I’m excited by some of the areas coming through to the surface which seem to have been hidden away in people’s minds. I want to explore and be prepared to be open and flexible enough to respond…”

In this journey of infinite awakenings, I am reminded that it is only when we are willing to lose what we already have, that we can be open and flexible to the energetic space that will allow for what we are about to get. I continue my climb to get closer to Source and find my greatest self. Through the good grace of God and many angels and mentors, the deck is stacked in my favor. I am so grateful to have more than I need and my only want is to have enough time left on the path to help others find their own paths as well. What other things do I need in my life? To answer that question I give you the last few lines of Solisbury Hill:

“My heart’s going boom, boom, boom…Hey…I said…You can keep my things they’ve come to take me home…”

In letting go we find the path to the place we are always seeking. Many times in my life I’ve heard the phrase, “home is where the heart is…” What if it was the other way around and we all realized that “the heart is where the home is…” The simple act of opening up our hearts has the infinite power to create a home for all of mankind to find peace. Some might say that is an uphill battle. I say let’s join hands and continue the climb…

 

P.S. If you are not familiar with the song Solisbury Hill, I’ve included a link here to a Youtube video of a 1994 version from the Woodstock 1994 concert. It’s one of my favorite renditions of the song. Performed about 20 years after his departure from Genesis, it is crystal clear that Peter Gabriel found his path. It is an open and flexible path to his home of Joy!

 

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Seven Men Who Challenged Me

On Monday night I sat on the deck of my Louisville B&B with a glass of bourbon and looked into the heavens. The nearly full moon dominated the sky and I became increasingly aware of how many people were on my mind in the moment. much like the stars, each time I focused on one, another appeared in the same field of view. Now you might expect that a post with this title would quickly move in the direction of an anthology of relatives, teachers, yogis, senseis and other men who played enormous roles in shaping me into who I am becoming. Those are not the ones not I am speaking of in this moment. In that moment on Monday night one particular spirit came to mind. His name was Dustin Dix.

Dustin was a former co-worker of mine. Dustin was as proud of his Kentucky roots as anyone I have met in this lifetime and here I was for the first time ever in his home. I would say Dustin and I were friendly acquaintances more than friends. Since he was one of my managers a social relationship was not a part of our time on the path together. Since we almost always worked opposite shifts we had little time for interaction, but when we did, his southern charm and caring heart always made me feel like he was one of the truly good people I have had the pleasure of knowing in my life. Dustin passed on exactly four months ago Monday night. It would be a colossal understatement to say that his presence was felt. His spirit was everywhere.

I have the great good fortune of working at one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country – Joe’s Stone Crab Chicago. What we do there transcends the work of serving food to patrons. We create experiences that are memorable. We leave on mark on those that pass through our doors that they will remember for a lifetime. That happens not just because the food is excellent or that the setting is first rate. It happens because the people who work there put their souls into their everyday routines. We are a family of servants.

Like all families we share the accolades and joy as it comes to us. We also share the pain and grief when we experience loss. Thinking about Dustin last night made me retrace some steps on the path over the 15 years I have been employed at Joe’s. Our family has experienced more untimely loss than the average would bear out. In fact in the time I have worked at Joe’s we have had seven men leave us before their time should have expired. (I should note that a few very important women have left us also, but for the purposes of where my brain space is at while on retreat at a monastery in Kentucky, it was the men who were chiming in specifically.) There was a varying degree of closeness that I had with each of the seven men of Joe’s I will write about here, yet they all have one thing in common: they challenged me to be a better version of myself even if I didn’t always prefer the challenge in the moment.

On my week in meditation at the Abbey of Gethsemani, I travel with important mementos of my family members who have departed to the other side of the veil. I have a picture of my grandfather. I have the bear that my dad gave me when I was born. I have the autobiography that my great grandfather wrote. Their spirits and the spirits of other important teachers in my life are always present with me, but in this moment in time I thought I would share with you the ones who chimed in on Monday night as I sat on the porch with my bourbon. Each of them in their own way contributed to who I am becoming now, just like those who played what I referred earlier to as enormous roles in the story of my life. I make no attempt to re-tell their life stories, but rather give you a glimpse into a moment in time that I shared with them and the awakening it provided. Here they are in the order that they left, even though on Monday night I was reminded that they are still very much here.

Dustin – One day at work  about a year ago Dustin said something to me that infuriated me. As I sit here I can’t even remember what it was that he said, but I know that I gave him a good piece of my mind as a result. Later that day I noticed how much what I said to Dustin hurt him. He had no intention of raising my ire. That was so not his way. While I can’t remember the incident I can certainly remember the hurt that I caused. Before I left that night we made amends. There was no other possibility with a man like Dustin who carried his heart on his sleeve at all times. I think it was that heart that made it hard for Dustin to find his own inner peace. He just cared so much. As I think of Dustin in this moment, I am reminded to be more compassionate like Dustin always was. I am grateful for the awakening.

Oz – Oz was a larger than life hippie cool cat who was a Chicago restaurant icon. He came to work for us after closing one of his own establishments and quickly shot to the top of the pack as a Joe’s server. Oz provided service in a way I had never seen before in my life. He was flashy without being over-stated. He as many regulars that anyone on the staff. Running the door wasn’t always easy when Oz had a line of people trying to get into his station. On one such night he questioned why I sat one of his tables when he had a request coming in 30 minutes later. I told him it was my job to keep the room running on schedule and that he should focus his attention on his own station. Oz then shot me a look that penetrated me like a laser. By the end of the night we were back to our usual friendly conversation. It was Oz who was the first to come to my support when my very public divorce happened and I immediately began dating Christiana. He told me that I should stop worrying about what other people think and that I did my job with more integrity than anyone he had known in his 40+ years in the business. As I think of Oz in this moment, I am reminded not to sweat the small stuff because it always passes quickly. I am grateful for he awakening.

Richard – Where do I even begin with Richard? He is the catalyst of the journey that I am currently on at Gethsemani. He was the spiritual coach and teacher to all of us at Joe’s for the three and a half years he worked with us. I can’t even begin to calculate how many meals he shared with his co-workers. How many hand written notes of support he sent to all of us. I often say Richard’s time at Joe’s was his masterpiece. He was given a blank canvas and he painted a Rembrandt. One day at work Richard took exception to something I said about what he should do with one of his tables. He politely told me to mind my own business. I followed up with a barb. One of the games we played to pass the time was to exchange friendly barbs throughout the day. He liked my follow up even less and right after I delivered it he turned on his heels and glared at me without movement for what seemed like a full minute even though it was probably only a second. Later that night when I got out of yoga class I had a voicemail on my phone from Richard. He made no mention of our confrontation at work and instead said that he just wanted to call and remind me how much he loved me and how important our friendship was to him. Richard was never bashful about using the word love. In fact aside from my parents and Christiana, I would say nobody in my life has loved me without condition quite like Richard did. As I think of Richard in this moment, I am reminded to love without condition. I am grateful for the awakening.

Ciaran – Ciaran was one of the original hires at Joe’s when it opened in 2001. He was a five day a week staple on the dining room floor for over ten years and he was loved equally by his customers and his co-workers. Ciaran had a zest for life and his foot to the gas pedal quest for excitement was a thing of beauty to watch on a daily basis. He was one of the most confident men I have ever know and it was that confidence that caused to butt heads at times. I have been know to be a bit head strong myself at times. When I started running the door at night one day a week, Ciaran would at times take exception to how he was being sat. It was suggested by one of my managers that I address the matter myself and have a conversation with Ciaran man to man. I hated that idea! It took me over a week to work up the courage to approach him. I can still remember slowly walking up to table #10 in the corner as we were getting ready for the night. I sheepishly said, “Do you have a minute Ciaran?” He replied, “What’s on your mind Jim?” We talked a few things out and from that day forward there was a new sense of ease in working together; a new found mutual respect for each other’s positions. As I think of Ciaran in this moment, I am reminded that the fastest path to resolution is to meet that which you fear the most head on. Only through communication can we a achieve a better understanding of others and of ourselves. I am grateful for the awakening.

Bruce – Bruce was another original hire at Joe’s. He was a true service pro and left his guests in a state of awe as his eye for detail and his memory of people’s preferences was second to none. Very early on in my tenure at Joe’s I had a lunch table that stayed well into the evening. It was a large table and it happened to be in Bruce’s section so he lost two of his tables for the first few turns. I avoided talking to him as I waited for my table to leave, but I could feel his energy and when it reached 8:00 pm he finally came up to me and said, “Can’t you do anything to make them leave?” Inside I already felt terrible, but I became defensive and told him that I was just trying to do my job of letting the guest enjoy their experience and that I didn’t “need any of his negative energy.” I’m not proud of what I said, but what it led to is a thing of beauty. Before I left that night Bruce sought me out and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be so aggressive. I was just frustrated and I held it in too long. I wish I had just spoken to you sooner and let you know that I knew it was out of you control.” I’ll always remember that moment. It was particularly poignant when Bruce was failing in health from JV virus. One day Christiana and I went down to visit Bruce in his home. His mind was sharp as a tack but he couldn’t even speak because he had lost control of the muscles needed to use his voice. As I think of Bruce in this moment I am reminded to always use your voice with kindness and contrition. I am grateful for the awakening.

Marvin – Marvin was a dear friend of our owner Richard Melman. When Mr. Melman opened Joe’s he wanted to have a team of people on the door that knew the culture and the history of our company as well as that of the sister restaurant in Florida that had been open for 90 years. Marvin was one of the ambassadors of Joe’s in his years as a Maitre D’. Marvin’s wry smile and cunning wit could diffuse even the diciest situation. He was never too worried about whether or not he had the limelight as long as the job got done correctly.When I became a member of the door team in 2003 we had our first opportunities to work together. Since I was predominately days and Marvin was exclusively nights we didn’t have the chance to work together too often, but eventually I started working on Tuesday nights and I had the pleasure ofd sharing one night a week with Marvin for a couple of years. My style was to  keep as many balls in the air as possible and move quickly to keep the juggling act alive. Since Marvin was my senior by at least 25 years, his style was…shall we say…a bit different. One night when things were going in a million different directions at once I started to step on Marvin’s toes a bit. I was trying to do both my job and his job at the same time because I suspect I thought I could do it faster that way than I could if I asked for help. At one point Marvin turned to me and said, “I may not be able to move as fast as you can with my feet kid, but I promise you I can still move that fast in my mind…and that saves me some valuable steps.” I’m not sure that the lesson sunk in right away, but over time it certainly has. As I think of Marvin in this moment I am reminded that the fastest path to the finish line is not always the right path. I am grateful for the awakening.

Michael – Michael joined our team at Joe’s while I was still serving at lunch in my first year. He was brought on from another division within the company to take over as the General Manager after a few of our key managers had left for other opportunities. Michael was already a seasoned Lettuce manager and he came in with a sense of ease in his stride that most do no have when joining a team filled with so many career professionals. On his second day on the job Michael pulled me aside after watching me serve wine at a table during lunch. He picked up a bottle, put his thumb into the punt underneath and told me that “If I held the bottle from below and turned it slightly as I poured that it would prevent the wine from dripping when I took the bottle way from the glass.” Let’s just say that my ability to accept constructive criticism has improved with age. In that moment in time I believe my reply was, “I passed my level one sommelier exam almost twenty years ago, but thanks for the tip.” Michael cocked his head to the side, smiled at me and walked away shaking his head. Over the next few months we developed a working relationship and friendship that I will remember until the day I die. Michael was always more interested in you as a person than he was as an employee. He knew things about everyone’s personal lives, He knew the car you drove, the name of you pet and where you went on your last vacation. He led by inspiring you to be a better self instead of holding you in a place of fear. It was Michael that suggested I take over the door at lunch a few months after what I think I will refer to going forward as “Puntgate”. Michael saw something in me that I did not see in myself and the job he put me in has afforded me privileges beyond my wildest dreams. As I think of Michael in this moment I am reminded that we learn far more when we are willing to learn than when we are trying to demonstrate what we already know. I am grateful for the awakening.

We often seek to find the answers to the questions in our hearts by taking a look at the dramatic things that happen in our lives. We recall the awakenings that come from those who play an enormous role in the story of our lives. On this day, and on Monday night on the balcony with my bourbon, I was given a gift of remembering a few passing interactions that have shaped who I am becoming right now. In the simplicity of allowing space for seven divine souls from the other side of the veil to speak to me, I have unveiled a set of guidelines that could quite likely lead anyone to a life of peace and joy. As I reflect tonight and each day going forward, I will remember these seven men and the what they taught me. Seven absolute truths about how to live a good life.  I am immeasurably grateful for the awakening.

Be compassionate…

Small stuff passes quickly – Pay it no mind…

Love without condition…

Face that which you fear the most head on…

Speak with a voice of kindness and contrition…

The fastest path is not always the right path…

The less you try to know the more you will learn…

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Image from the International OCD foundation

 

 

 

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Across The River

Last night I began my travel to the place I have been called to for quite some time. I decided that it would be best if I worked my regular day at work and the drive to Kentucky after my shift. It was the right decision because it led me to where I am at right now. When we allow the the current to flow through is we accept the path without rowing upstream. The river of life will always flow where we are intended to go when we let it flow.

My day at work was full of anticipation and anxiousness. I kept checking my phone to see what time it was. Each time I checked, less time had passed than I expected or hoped for. It was all part of the design. Anticipation is a endangered energy in our world of immediate gratification. When the work day finally ended, I had indeed escaped sooner than I might have hoped. I was in my car and on the road by 4:00 p.m without any unnecessary delays or interruptions. I plugged my phone into the car cable power source and set my destination on the GPS. In reality I had no idea where I was going because I had yet to select a resting point for the night. I did know that I was heading south towards Kentucky so in the moment I figured that would do. What a difference it is for me to start a journey without a specific endpoint. I never could have done that even two years ago. I am grateful for the ability to trust.

The second thing I did after I set Kentucky as my destination was to start some music. I allowed the connection from the USB cable to my iPhone to select whatever music it decided to play. What it decided to play my entire music library in alphabetical order from A to Z. Since I had just gotten a replacement phone this past Saturday, my music library was limited to a dozen or so albums and playlists that I downloaded from the cloud for this trip. Once again I was reminded that perfection emerges when we relinquish control. Here is what I heard…

As I drove through the streets of the city of Chicago the first song that came on was Peter Gabriel’s Across the River. It was the version fro the plays live album. I noticed that I was driving south on State Street approaching Wacker Drive. I was quite literally crossing the river. I smiled even though nobody was in the passenger seat. Well nobody in flesh and bone that is.

Next up was a song named All that You Give. It’s a song that I suspect less than one percent of anybody in the reading audience would have any familiarity with I’m sure. It is a house music song by DJ Kasakade and it features angelic vocals by a  woman named Mindi. For the last year or so it has been the final song on my martial arts workout playlist. No matter where I am on the playlist or how long my workout is, I always fast forward to the song and listen to it as I wind down my time in my virtual dojo. As I listen I stand with my arms out stretched to the heavens and drink in the energy of all that IsQuite often when I open my eyes I am weeping. I’ll share the words with you a bit later in the post. As it played this time, once again my heart filled with joy and a tear or two came to my eye.

The third song that played was a song named Alone from the Cirque de Soleil show Delirium. I was now on the Dan Ryan expressway and I had beaten the majority of the rush hour traffic before it started. The song Alone once again reminded me of the magnitude of the journey I was embarking upon. I will spend the majority of the next three days in silence as I reflect and write and pray and meditate at a place that is the oldest working Monastery in the entire United States. I will be alone in some ways and in other ways, I will be in absolute contact with all Is

The song Alone is also special to me because the Delirium show was the first thing my wife Christiana and I did together. It was long before we were even dating. We had been co-workers for a bit less than a year and I had tickets to the show and neither of our partners wanted to go. I asked her if she would like to join me and she said yes. We bought a copy of the CD at the concession stand and shared it so we could both download it to our computers. It is has been and always will be one of my favorites.

I was beginning to see a pattern in this music that was randomly playing through my iPhone and I wasn’t interested in changing the pattern even a little bit!

Fourth in succession of my symphony for the road was David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes. Once again that magnitude thing slapped me across the face as a firm awakening with a gentle touch. On the seat next to me was a bottle with a small amount of the ashes that are Richard’s physical remains. I will leave a piece of him at Gethsamani just as we did in Chartres, France last April. More about that later. I currently only have one Bowie album on my iPhone, mostly because the majority of his work that I own is on vinyl. I purchased the Best of Bowie from iTunes when he died last year so I could have something to listen to that would make me feel connected to the man I have always thought of as a musical genius. More importantly though, I have also thought of him as a being who came to this incarnation to make humanity change that way they saw labels of each other. Christiana has more to say about that and I hope she’ll share in a blog with you someday because she will say it better than I ever could.

downtown Four the next six hours I allowed my iPhone to play songs in alphabetical order and while I will not write out the playlist for you from start to finish, I will say the every song that I listened to had powerful meaning. My journey of the day drew near to a close as I passed through downtown Louisville. I was within a mile or two from my lodgings for the night and in the darkness I noticed I was driving across a bridge. I has no previous knowledge of the geography of Louisville so I had no idea I would end my journey just as it had began, by crossing a river.

I drove across the Ohio River with a deep sense of knowing that the journey was only beginning. All that Is was with me already and although my eyes were weary, my soul was full of life. Like all things in life each end is a new beginning and each start is a finish line; a never ending circle of life.

This journey for me is a culmination of a little over two years of learning to slow down…to find the silence between the notes that make up the symphony of life. I’ve learned from many and I’ve trusted myself along the way. I am grateful to all that Is, both on this side of the veil and on the other side. I’m grateful to you all for All that you Gave, and about those lyrics I promised…

“Used to be
I couldn’t slow down
Freedom was running
And what I sung

So I’d run
To try to catch up
As fast as I could
I wouldn’t give up

Did anything
To get to that spring
And drink the sound
It’s voice would sing

Whoa, ho, ho, ho
Whoa, ho, ho, ho
Whoa, ho, ho, ho
Whoa, ho, ho, ho

Then one day
I turned around
To see what I gained…
Nothing found!

So I chose
To slow myself down
Losing a dream
They call the sound

And that’s when it came
Loud as a rain
Filling my life
It’s voice did sing

Whoa, ho, ho, ho
Whoa, ho, ho, ho
Whoa, ho, ho, ho
Whoa, ho, ho, ho

Whoa, ho, ho, ho
(All that you give)
Whoa, ho, ho, ho
(Along the way)

Whoa, ho, ho, ho
(Oh, then you went)
Whoa, ho, ho, ho
(Away)

All that you gave
Along the way…”

 

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Gethsemani

“James you should consider coming down to the Abbey of Gethsamani in Kentucky with me one of these summers. We can stay in the monastery and reflect and pray and read Thomas Merton. We can also hit one of the famous bourbon distilleries on the way there or the way back. I’ve been going for years and I think you’ll find the experience very enriching…”

I heard those words countless times in my three and a half year friendship/apprenticeship with Richard Harsch. I usually responded by saying something along the lines of, “Never in a million years would I choose to spend my summer vacation time staying in a place with no air conditioning during the hottest days of the year in the middle of Kentucky!”

I can hear him chuckling in the background as I write this next paragraph.

This morning I leave for a week long pilgrimage to the Abbey of Gethsamani in New Haven, Kentucky. I have been granted permission to stay with the monks in the old south wing of the monastery. In the days of Thomas Merton the south wing was used to house the monks, but since the numbers have dwindled now it is only used by those on retreats at select times of the year. I will spend my week reading and meditating and perhaps I will visit a bourbon distillery on the way there or the way back. I expect the whole experience to every enriching.

Another reminder that the power of intention is not bound by the veil that exists between the human and the spirit world. In our three and half years together on this planet Richard usually found a way to encourage me listen to his advice and counseling. Since he has left the encouragement has continued in ways that I am only beginning to be able to describe in human words. So how did this all happen? Let me see if I can find the words…

For those of you less familiar with the back story, Richard died suddenly on April 9th, 2014. He was with us at work in the morning and lying of a hospital gurney with a sheet over his head at 6:30 p.m. that same night. I can’t possibly cover the magnitude of that loss in one short blog post, but suffice it to say that Richard had become my coach/spritual teacher/cheerleader/co-conspirator/big brother figure/father figure/and champion in the three and half years we worked together and became intimate friends.

To have him ripped from my life at a point where I was already fragile was more than I was prepared to handle. I was fragile because I had just moved from a neighborhood where  I had put down deep roots and lived for over 25 years. I was fragile because I was uncertain what the new chapters in my recently re-married life would look like. I was fragile because I was about to turn 50 and was not feeling my most healthy. Richard’s death moved me from fragile to broken. I began a downward spiral like none I had known in my adult life. There is much more to this story. In fact there are tens of thousands of words that have already been written in that story, but now is not the time to tell it. That day will come… soon.

This story is about how once again I was reminded that the answers we seek come from within when  we can tune out the static and allow our souls to speak to us. The words are always there when we allow for stillness and listen.

A few months back, Christiana began making plans for a trip where she would be working on a project with our dear friend and Spiritual teacher Wendy Isaac. I knew that this plan would require us to spend a week or two of our summer apart from each other but I was excited and surprised to discover that I had no fear about that separation…..er, well let’s just say I might have had some fear, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with fear. That seems like a more realistic assessment.

At first I thought I would just spend the time at home and save myself from using vacation days. I figured I could spend the weekends Christiana was gone hanging with the boys in New Buffalo, Michigan. Play a little golf and drink some wine. A funny thing happened on the way to that plan. Our little cottage in Michigan booked for nearly everyday in July and I took a little sabbatical from drinking wine. On to plan B.

I figured I might return to Florida for a week. I have a good friend who lives in Palm Coast who has left me an open invitation to stay at his seaside home with him. It would be driving distance to Jupiter (the city not the planet) and Orlando where I have other people I would love to spend time with. Something about Florida in July just didn’t fully resonate with me though.

Then one day as I was doing my meditation in the park following my martial arts workout I got a message as clear as if it was spoken to me live and in person, which of course it was! That message said, “Go to the Abbey of Gethsemani, James. The time has come…”

The instant the thought formed I knew it was going to happen. If only I had trusted that knowing I would have saved myself a whole lot of frenetic energy and micro-management. The next day I sent an inquiry to the Abbey to find out if I could visit for the weekend of July 21st. On the application it said “please allow up to five days for a reply.” I had no idea how I was going to survive those next five days not knowing what was going to happen! Did they mean calendar days or business days? Did the weekend days count. I could hardly wait!

On Tuesday May 24th (four days later) I got my response:

“I’m sorry but we are completely booked that weekend. We have every other
weekend in July or August though. And our weekend starts on Friday and
ends on Monday morning or you can leave anytime on Sunday.”

I began to panic. It was the only full weekend that Christiana was going to be gone. I didn’t need another weekend in July or August. I needed THAT weekend! Or did I?

Thomas_Merton_(Abbey_of_Gethsemani_Gravesite)I started to wonder what it would look like if I took an entire week off and drove down and savored the experience. I imagined myself eating meals with the monks and sitting in prayer with them and taking long walks by myself on the grounds and sitting at Merton’s gravesite like Richard was doing in the photo on his memorial card.

On a whim I sent a follow up request. I asked if a weekday retreat might be possible. I wondered if I might be able to come down from Monday until Friday instead of from Friday until Monday. This time my reply came the very next day:

“Yes I have that week July 18-22 in the South wing of the Monastery, which
is for men only. This section was once used to house monks back in
Merton’s day but since there are not as many monks now, this wing is used
only for retreat stays. Only men are allowed to stay there because there
is a common bathroom in the hall that is shared with private showers and
private toilets. There are also stairs that have to be climbed in order to
reach it, and there is no air conditioning but fans are provided.”

So today I begin another important chapter in the the remarkable journey that is my life. With Richard at my side and in my heart I am open to any and all of the possibilities. I begin this pilgrimage on the same day my beloved soul partner and wife begins her own. I journey to a place where I expect to get as close to Source as I possibly can. The word that keeps coming to mind as I embark is “Magnitude”.

The Magnitude of the brightest star in the Universe is perhaps not as bright as the light that I feel in my heart as these days unfold. How unbelievably special it feels to be going to a place named Gethsemani to pray and reflect as the next chapter of the amazing journey of my life opens up. End the word with an “e” or an “i” it makes no matter to me. There are so many chapters left to write and I promise I will not look for rest in any distractions until I have found them all and in finding them I trust that I will also find the path to true joy:

“Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for Joy. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and joy you have not yet begun to live…”

Thomas Merton

 

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Love Can Heal

Last night when we arrived at our fifth row seats for the Peter Gabriel/Sting concert at the United Center in Chicago, I had a fleeting moment where I thought that I was at my first concert ever.

Now mind you I didn’t say that I felt like I was at my first concert ever. I said that my thought was that I was actually at my first concert ever…

I wonder why that thought formed?

There were so many things last night that were not like my first concert ever. I didn’t have to wait in line all night to get tickets from a record store. I didn’t have to sit so far from the stage that I needed binoculars. I didn’t have to sneak my camera into the show in my cowboy boots to get past security. I didn’t have to ask an older person to buy us our beers. I didn’t have to eat hot dogs from the concession stand with those beers. In fact we ate sirloin steak and drank cabernet at the Stadium’s dining club instead…..no this was very much not like my first concert ever, which by the way I have no recollection of so don’t bother asking.

I think the reason the thought formed that I was at my first concert ever was because of these two things…

#1 Everything in the Universe is shifting,  and #2 I’m not sleepwalking through my life anymore…

Over the past couple of years and in the last few months in particular I have seen so many shifts. One of the greatest shifts I’m seeing on our planet right now is the shift where people are pairing up and helping each other (and the planet itself) heal more and more often. One of my greatest Spiritual teachers talks about the concept of pairing up all the time. Last night’s show could not have been a better example of that shift playing out on a large stage.

Here were two musicians that have enjoyed fame on the highest level both individually and as members of their respective bands – Genesis and the Police. Here were two musicians who are still very much at the top of their crafts creatively and artistically. Here were two musicians that have worked tirelessly for human rights causes throughout their entire careers. Here were two musicians who could have easily sold out the United Center on their own but they instead decided to work together.

unnamed-12What I saw none of last night was any Ego…

What I saw a ton of last night was Joy in the collaborative effort on stage…

What I saw none of last night was any Anger at the state of humankind….

What I saw a ton of last night was Hope for the future even as there was room for reflection about those who have surrendered their lives for the cause of human rights….

Many came to the show last night expecting to hear a Gabriel song titled Biko in memory anti-aparthied activist Stephen Biko who was murdered in a South African prison in September of 1977. Gabriel has often closed his performances with Biko as the last encore. The song has powerful percussion and piercing vocals that tell the story of Biko’s murder and make a call for solidarity in the cause of human rights. My favorite line in the song is when Gabriel sings, “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire…once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it high…”

For the first time in the twenty or so times I’ve seen him perform live, Gabriel did not perform Biko last night.

unnamed-11Instead, around the mid-point of the show Gabriel quietly snuck in the only new song in the entire set for either performer. It was a song in remembrance of a woman named Jo Cox who was a British Labor Party politician who was murdered outside a library in West Yorkshire just a month ago in a targeted attack. Cox had worked for the humanitarian organization named Oxfam in her earlier years. Gabriel met Cox at a leadership meeting gathering just a few years back. Like he has many times in his brilliant career, Gabriel paid his tribute to her last night with his words. What struck me the most about Gabriel’s tribute to Jo Cox was the title of the new song. It was a lovely song with melodious keyboards, no strong percussion and angelic sounding backing vocals. Very different than the song he wrote for Stephen Biko.

The name of this new song for Jo Cox is “Love Can Heal”

To those on our planet who say our world is in a sad state and there is no hope because so many can only see the differences and are full of fear and hate….I offer this alternate interpretation of the Illusion we are moving through.

Love Can Heal…Everything!

Each day more and more Stephen Bikos and Jill Coxes and Peter Gabriels and Stings step into the light and more and more people say we need to work together not individually. Each day more and more humans surrender a little bit more of their ego and make room for love in their hearts instead of fear. In my mind, it can only be matter of time before the entire planet is on board with the concept that there is nothing to fear at all.

Some might say that my views are easier to hold from my very comfortable “fifth row seat” in the stadium of life. Yes indeed, neither I nor anyone in my immediate circle have ever been subject to any of the human rights atrocities that have occurred throughout time on this planet. That being said, if we are all one doesn’t it mean that we are all wounded by the fear, anger and hate of others? In my current and more awakened state, I am so grateful to be able to make my own choices. When I see things in the news like I saw last month in Orlando or last week in Dallas, instead of choosing to feel wounded, I choose to remember that the shift is in full force now. As with all shifts there may be the need to experience pain…and there will be those who are wounded….but the good news Love can heal…Love can in fact heal anything and everything.

So last night I went to this amazing concert for the first time in my amazing new life. It reminded me that everyday has the chance to be a re-birth. It reminded me that everyday we have a chance to work together. It reminded me that everyday we can be a little less centered on ourselves than on the greater good. It reminded that no matter how much we or anyone on our planet may feel wounded…that there is always hope. That hope comes in the deep sense of knowing that Love can heal…

You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire…

In my heart I also know that you can build a dam to restrain the flow of the river, but no man made structure can restrain the current of a tidal wave. How lucky are we to live in a Universe that is spawning a new tidal wave of Love.

Let’s all head to the shore and surf the in tidal wave of Love. It’s only a matter of time…

 

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