A Busy Three Months

It has been almost three months since my last blog post—a bit of a break after the process of writing my seven-part series leading up to my cancer diagnosis, surgery, and the recurrence of my cancer after surgery. Many readers of my words and Carole’s posts have sent positive thoughts and comments our way. We appreciate them all. Some of you have gotten further periodic updates through in-person contacts or correspondence. For those who have not known the status since then, I wanted to bring you up to the present.

When I posted on September 10, the expectation was that I would begin radiation treatments as soon as possible. Additional scans and time needed by the radiation oncologist and the medical physicist to calculate and plan the dosage and targeting for my treatment meant radiation did not start until September 30. The schedule called for treatment sessions at the local cancer center five days a week for eight weeks. It was going to be quite a change from the relatively unscheduled life we’ve lived since we both retired.

To jump forward eight weeks, I completed the course of my radiation treatments on November 22, a few days before Thanksgiving Day—good timing because we were certainly thankful to reach that milestone. Throughout this period I have had no noticeable physical symptoms from my cancer and have experienced no additional problems or negative side effects either from the cancer or the treatment. Apparently when someone has radiation treatment for recurrent prostate cancer such as mine, there is no clear-cut evidence that the radiation has destroyed all the cancer cells. However, my hormone therapy, which is supposed to stop the growth of prostate cancer cells, has continued while I have been receiving the radiation therapy. My PSA level, which indicates prostate cancer cell activity, quickly dropped to undetectable after the hormone injections began—the anticipated and desirable result. So, even though the uncertainties of living with cancer are still part of our lives, our actions to deal with these uncertainties continue.

The entire cancer center experience has been wonderful to put it into a single word. Beginning with my first appointment back in August, the entire staff made each day pleasant and enjoyable. The receptionist who initially greeted me, the oncology nurse, the social worker, the radiation technicians, the radiation oncologist, and even other staff with whom I had only brief contacts were all exactly the type of people I would have wanted to be with me during this time. Most of my contact time was with the radiation technicians each day; they talked casually and joked around with me, were understanding when my body was sometimes not cooperative with their scheduling needs, and made me feel totally comfortable every step along the way. The oncology nurse was always eager to be sure I was not having any problems or difficulties with my treatments and to offer any assistance needed. The radiation oncologist, who had a background in social work before becoming a physician, spent lots of time talking with me before treatments began and throughout their duration. He was never rushed to get on to his other responsibilities, but made himself available for answering any and all questions, telling me what to expect at each stage, sharing information about latest medical studies and various treatment options, getting my thoughts and inputs about any concerns or developments as treatment progressed, and always asking how I wanted to proceed. When people have to deal with difficult medical situations, their support teams should always be as great as mine has been.

The actual time I was on the table for the radiation treatment each day was only about five or six minutes. Whether that brief period at the cancer center came in the early morning or later in the middle of the day, it resulted in a necessary but significant interruption of other activities. Everything had to be planned around the timing of my treatment each day. To have my body in the most cooperative condition for the radiation to be targeted effectively, I even had to figure out the best timing for eating and drinking—a meal or decent snack about eight hours before my appointment and twenty or more ounces of water about an hour before—though neither of these plans could be counted on to be exactly right. Travel time also had to be considered. Even in Boone, traffic can be an unpredictable problem—we have fewer alternative routes to get to a given location. We usually planned to allow forty-five minutes to get to my appointments, but changing school hours, lunchtime congestion, and snowy roads sometimes caused challenges. Our time at the cancer center ranged from thirty minutes to an hour, sometimes longer when there were delays or when we had a meeting with the oncologist to discuss progress and to plan details of treatment. While we were in town we fitted meals, other appointments, errands, and activities into the remaining time each day before heading home again.

Going back and forth to town each day this fall has given us many more opportunities than usual to see the colors as they spread across the mountainsides, not the most spectacular leaf season, but certainly it has been beautiful with leaves in shades of yellow and gold and bronze and occasional touches of red. We’ve also been treated to seeing a number of deer, including young ones, as well as wild turkeys, chipmunks, and woolly worms (also known as woolly bear caterpillars). At home the robins feasted for weeks on the abundant crop of mountain ash berries while numerous other birds (some of which were new varieties to us) have been very, very active close around the house. And we’ve been delighted as a couple of young mother raccoons at various times have brought their very tiny babies onto our deck, continuing a tradition that has extended over many generations. We can lie on the floor beside our glass doors watching them eating, just a couple of feet away from us. One day we stayed there for an hour or more. We do love being here.

As some readers may have seen on Facebook posts, Carole and I have also spent a great deal of any free time we’ve had during the past several months completing a book about her mother’s life which Carole has been researching and writing for the past two or three years. The writing had been finished a while back, but the final editing and formatting to prepare it for publication still had to be done—a demanding process to put it mildly. We still needed to go through it all again and again, page by page and often line by line, to adjust things to get the appearance of each page to be what we wanted.

Since I was chiefly responsible for formatting the text I had to remember how to get the writing program to handle things like pagination and photo placement without messing up other aspects of the design. And I had to figure out the pictures and text for the cover design and get that all to mesh with the requirements for printing. I had done those tasks for Carole’s 2016 book about her dad’s life, but I seem to quickly forget details about how to do such things when they are not my regular activities. It would be so helpful if the people who develop various computer programs would also write clear and easily understandable directions regarding how to accomplish various tasks using their programs. It has been a real challenge. Many times I would attempt to follow the few directions I could find, only to have the steps I took undo some of the editing I had previously done—very, very frustrating.

Many days we would each sit at our computers for twelve hours or more, comparing text and making adjustments until we got it right. But we did finally get it finished, submitted, approved, and printed. We didn’t quite have it completed for Carole’s mother’s ninety-sixth birthday in October, but we were very excited to take her a finished copy in mid-November. Anyone interested in seeing the results of our work can find the books on Amazon.

With my cancer treatments and the book editing behind us for the present, we were able to schedule some other activities which we have had to postpone for several months. So yesterday I was finally able to have the cataract surgery on my left eye which had been anticipated since August. The surgery was done in Hickory, about a ninety-minute drive from our homeplace. The travel was not a big deal except that the mountains were blanketed with dense fog when we awoke. Of course, we’ve had lots of experience driving in fog. It’s common here in the mountains for visibility to be limited to a hundred feet or less as the clouds cover the higher elevations and sometimes the valleys as well. But it always causes anxiety, especially when trying to get to a scheduled appointment. The trip was uneventful and we got below the fog about halfway to our destination. The surgery was also uneventful. I was amazed at the change in my vision when I awoke this morning. I could see more clearly with my left eye than during the previous several years. Everything in my world was suddenly brighter and more colorful. For the next four weeks I’ll be putting two or three types of drops in my eye each day. Then I’ll be going through the same process again starting on New Year’s Eve when I have surgery on the other eye. But, with all the beauty that surrounds me here at our homeplace, I definitely look forward to having an even better view of this world.

I’ll share a few photos which I’ve taken during these recent months. I hope you enjoy seeing these sights as much as I have.

A brilliantly colored tree near the cancer center this fall.

Our mountain ash trees were loaded with berries this year.

One of the robins who helped clear all the mountain ash berries.

A young hawk just outside our window one morning.

Momma raccoon and three babies having an early supper.

One of the raccoon babies who hasn’t discovered the marshmallow treat yet.

We feed more than just our raccoon visitors.

Hoar frost occurs when fog freezes onto everything.

Mountain ash branches with hoar frost instead of berries.

Our sixty-foot-tall Norway spruce trees covered in hoar frost.

Beautiful combination of hoar frost and snow.

Carole’s mom having her first look at Carole’s book about her own life.

 

Uncertainties of Life: Part Four

This is the final post in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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Part Four: Living in the Reality of the Present

As I indicated in my previous post, I had surgery for prostate cancer in October of 2017. Three months passed and I had the first of the every-three-months blood tests to check the status of my cancer following surgery. The test showed undetectable levels of PSA (prostate specific antigen). We were pleased to get the test results, but the status of my cancer was no different than the day before. We just had the additional bit of information indicating surgery had apparently removed the cancer from my body. Six months, then nine months, then twelve months brought similar test results: undetectable, the word one wants to hear in this situation. Another milestone had been reached. Now I could move on to the every-six-months testing schedule.

I know I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating because it expresses my feelings at each stage since first learning I had cancer: I’m still the same person, wanting to continue doing the same things which are important to me with the same people I love and care about. Nothing feels different on a testing day. The test will either show cancer is present in my body or it won’t; the result of the test will not change who I am. However, the first of the six-month tests in May of 2019 did show different results, as did a follow-up test several weeks later. No longer undetectable, my PSA level had increased, indicating a likely recurrence of my cancer. Even a small increase after surgery is a big deal. Most of the cancer had been surgically removed, but some cancer cells had remained. They were growing again.

Studies indicate treatments at the time of early PSA increases yield more positive results than waiting for the disease to progress. So it was time to have more tests, to consider options, to make decisions, and to take what we determined to be the best actions available. No certainties, no guarantees, no sure idea of what might lie ahead. But then that’s true of every aspect of our lives. We think about what we want to do in our lives, determine the things we would like to have happen, and plan the actions we believe most likely to produce those outcomes. And then we step out into the unknown and do it all again with whatever we find there.

In mid-July I was scheduled to have a special PET scan, a relatively new imaging procedure using radioactive tracers intended to show the location of the cancer cells. My cancer was quite possibly at the site where my prostate had been prior to my surgery—if it had not spread to other areas. That scan and a rescheduled one the following week were both canceled after Carole and I had begun our hour-long drive to Hickory, the closest location where the test is available. The nuclear pharmacy supplying the radioactive tracer for the scan wasn’t able to deliver the required material from its locations in Columbia or Winston-Salem in time for my appointment. We were frustrated by the delays, but the PET scan was finally done on July 30 of 2019.

A week later I was due to have another PSA test and to receive the results from my PET scan. I expected my PSA test would show another increase; the rate of change would indicate the aggressiveness of my recurrent cancer. I anticipated the PET scan results would show whether the cancer cells had moved into other parts of my body. I was eager for the clarification the tests would provide to the uncertainties of the past few months. Not that anything about my cancer would be any different than it was before the tests, but I was anxious to know its current status. I wanted to learn about the next steps to be taken and the timeline ahead so we could get on with other activities in our lives.

My appointment was apparently the last one of the day. My blood was drawn for another PSA test, but because of some miscommunication in the office, the lab machines had already been shut down for the day; my test could not be run until the next day. To add to my frustration, the out-of-town imaging center where my PET scan was done had sent my doctor someone else’s scan report. Again, more waiting. Neither delay would really make any difference. The PET scan results had already been evaluated and the PSA level was already in the tube containing my blood. But the information contained therein had not yet reached my doctor or me. Another period of uncertainty.

So Carole and I went to the car, talked briefly about what had just taken place in the doctor’s office, and took what seemed the best next step—we headed off to a favorite Asian restaurant for dinner. At the end of the meal we got the customary fortune cookies. Given the uncertainties of the day, we were curious to see what our fortunes would say. Carole read her fortune which was one of those suitable for anyone in any life situation. I looked at mine and said, “Mine says: Your fortune today has been delayed or canceled. Please try again some other day.”

No, of course the fortune cookie didn’t contain those words, but it would have been appropriate. Laughing to each other, we drove to Blowing Rock for two hours of the twice-monthly music jam performance (bluegrass, folk, country, gospel, whatever someone wants to sing) we’ve been attending fairly regularly for the past several years. The jam features amazingly talented musicians, both regulars and anyone else who wants to perform, including a young neighbor who started playing instruments at age three and is now incredible on any instrument with strings. The night’s performance was especially lively and entertaining. Our day had certainly not been what we expected, but what a great ending.

The frustrations of the delays, cancellations, and miscommunications seem to all be behind us for the moment. My blood test did show the expected increase in PSA. The PET scan showed my cancer had not spread beyond the original site in my pelvis. We have met with the radiation oncologist and have begun procedures leading to an eight-week-long course of radiation treatment to start shortly. I have already begun hormone therapy intended to stop the growth of my cancer cells. I finally have a sense of the treatment timeline before me.

We know there are still uncertainties ahead in our new adventure. No doubt we will encounter the unexpected many times. It has seemed strange all along the way that something having such a profound effect on my life has had no obvious physical symptoms or effects so far; we know that is subject to change. But I expect to continue living my life pretty much as I have been doing. Ignoring or failing to acknowledge the reality of my cancer will not lessen the undeniability of its presence. But worry won’t help, wishing it away won’t help, calling on the universe to change the realities of the way things work won’t help.

As I wrote more than two years ago when the biopsy first confirmed the presence of my cancer, I don’t really feel much different since cancer has become a part of my life. Many things are part of my life, no one of which defines who I am. All the experiences and actions of my life, the people I have known and loved, the things I have learned and thought and believed, and everything else which has affected my life and influenced the person I have become, those are the things which define me. I have cancer, I have been treated for cancer, and I am living, even though I am still living with cancer. However, I definitely do not think of myself as a ‘cancer survivor,’ the term so frequently attached to people in my situation. Cancer and all the things which go along with it—physical effects minor and major, multiple medical appointments and treatments, concerns of family and friends, uncertainties of all sorts—have now taken a place in my life and sometimes in my daily activities, but they are by no means the predominant part of my life or the most important to me. Very soon cancer will demand even more attention, more time, and more energy. I hope all the most important parts of my life can continue pretty much as they did before I knew I had cancer. I’ll do the best I can to make it so.

Life is good—every moment of it, with cancer or without. Each precious moment is ours to appreciate and enjoy and savor with the greatest mindfulness possible. The cool mountain air flows in through our open windows. The colorful blooms of the flowers are everywhere within my field of vision. The birds are calling and singing in the trees and bringing food to their young ones. The young mother raccoon comes to our deck each afternoon for a bit of food and to peek in our door; now she brings her adorable kits to continue a tradition going back many raccoon generations here at our homeplace. The love of my life sits nearby, sharing the wonder of this place with me every day. Yes, life is indeed very, very good. I couldn’t ask for anything better than what I have.

Uncertainties of Life: Part Three

This post is sixth in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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Part Three: Uncertainty Becomes Certainty

My biopsy was performed several weeks after the previous tests had suggested its advisability. The results came back and the diagnosis was made. The pathologist’s report showed I did have prostate cancer. I had it for some unknown period of time, even as my test results had been slowly rising for several years. I had cancer six months before my biopsy, when the screening test first showed a significant doubling in the PSA reading. And I still had cancer after the biopsy. But finally I knew for certain cancer was in my body, a reality to be acknowledged and dealt with.

Obviously writing about my cancer in this blog will make more people aware of my situation. However, at the time of my diagnosis the results were only known to my close family members and the medical professionals I had been seeing. I knew more people would become aware of my new circumstances and I did not look forward to some potentially difficult conversations. People often don’t know how to react when someone says, “I have cancer.” They aren’t sure what to say or do in responding to such an unexpected announcement. I know people have different beliefs and ways of dealing with events in their own lives and the lives of others. I don’t disparage anyone’s means of coping with the difficulties of life. If it works for them, I’ve got no cause to argue, but the same approach does not necessarily work for me. I’ve observed various responses when people learn a friend or acquaintance has cancer. It’s quite common for people to quickly offer prayers, encouragement for fighting the coming battle, or assurances that all will be well.

Anyone reading my earlier posts knows I don’t believe in praying to an all-powerful god who makes decisions regarding the details of life and death, determining what happens in our lives. Even if I did believe in such a god, I wouldn’t expect the natural functioning of the universe to change because of the number of prayers (or lack thereof) offered on behalf of a particular outcome. If someone has such beliefs and it makes them feel better to offer prayers on my behalf, of course they are free to do so. I appreciate their apparent concern for my well-being. But they need not tell me, “I’m praying for you,” or indicate they will ask others to pray for me. Those words have no real meaning for me. I’d rather hear a simple expression of caring and support such as, “I’ll be thinking of you as you deal with this. Let me know if I can help.”

I also don’t need or want to hear the all-too-common expressions such as, “You’re tough; you can beat it,” or “Just fight it; I’m sure you can win,” or “Everything will be all right.” Dealing with cancer is not a matter of fighting a battle or a war. Cancer is a disease to be acknowledged, engaged, and treated as one might deal with any other problem in life. It doesn’t really matter if I’m tough or if I think of this experience as fighting with all my might. What matters is that I face the reality of the disease, seek out appropriate resources and potential treatments, and then do the best I can making decisions, taking actions, and doing the same with whatever results follow. Being tough or fighting offers me no more assurance of ‘beating it’ than someone’s well-intentioned offer of prayers would give. And surely the uncertainties of cancer rule out proclaiming, “Everything will be all right,” if by those words one means cancer will have no negative impact on my life.

Did knowing I had cancer really change anything? There were still many unknowns about my cancer and the effects it would have on my life. Various treatments might remove cancer from my body, but there was no assurance of a positive outcome. The treatments themselves might have complications and side effects; they would also need to be dealt with if they occurred. The realities of life with cancer could change my outlook on life and my manner of living, but I hoped any changes would be for the better. Cancer could shorten my life, but so could any number of other diseases or accidents or events, any of which might or might not occur.

I was still the same person I had been two weeks before the diagnosis, but now I had an additional bit of knowledge about myself. How did I feel about the fact cancer was a part of my body, a part of my life? Quite honestly, at the time I didn’t feel significantly different than I had before. I wanted to go on doing the things I would normally have done, engaging in activities as I usually would have, caring about the things which had been and continued to be important to me, loving and being loved by those dearest to me. In other words, I wanted to get on living my life as I had been here on our quiet homeplace on this mountainside at the end of our road. From the beginning of life, each of us is moving into a world full of uncertainties, going toward death which each of us will face, but also advancing into life filled with possibilities and wonders and joys to be embraced. Cancer was one of many things which had become part of my life and my world. I trusted I could and would make the best of the new challenges and opportunities my cancer brought.

More than two years have now passed since I had the biopsy described above. Much has happened during the intervening time. The biopsy showed my cancer was more aggressive than desirable, as if any degree of cancer is desirable. The Gleason score, which evaluates the likelihood of the cancer growing and spreading, was 7 out of a possible 10. That result meant there was an intermediate risk of aggressive cancer. After consultation with my local urologist we determined the appropriate next step was surgery. I was referred to a specialist in robotic-assisted surgery in Winston-Salem who agreed with the diagnosis and plan. I had the surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in early October of 2017, about two months after the biopsy.

Recovery from the surgery went well and I was able to return to my usual activities fairly soon. But another period of waiting in uncertainty followed the surgery. The post-surgical pathology report showed my cancer was actually even more aggressive than the biopsy had indicated. The Gleason score was 9 out of a possible 10, meaning my cancer was even more likely to spread rapidly. Follow-up PSA testing to determine the cancer status is done every three months after surgery for a year and then every six months if the tests show undetectable levels of remaining cancer cells. My surgery had either removed the cancer from my body or the disease was still there. The PSA tests would provide the answer regarding that big unknown, but I had to wait another three months before I could know the result. Nothing I could do while waiting would change the reality the test would reveal. I simply wanted to continue living my life as I had before. On October 21 of 2017 I wrote the following:

“Two and a half weeks ago I had major surgery for prostate cancer. Thanks to modern surgical techniques and treatments I’ve been able to be up and around, mostly free of pain and side effects, and able to start getting back to my usual activities. I’m not supposed to do overly strenuous work or heavy lifting but otherwise I can mostly do whatever I feel able to do. Today I felt like going out into the garden. We had gotten some Jerusalem artichoke tubers recently and they needed to be planted; I could do that task.

“What a joy to be out in the garden again, digging into the soil and preparing the spot for planting. Covering the tubers with the loose soil I could imagine the excitement of the next spring; this would be a new crop, one we had not grown before. The current growing season has mostly ended now, but I could see with satisfaction the remnants of what had been there throughout the previous months: a few beans, strawberries, blackberries, and ears of Indian corn still lingering for their final picking. Weeds had grown up in the midst of the crops and obviously needed pulling, so I was able to spend an hour or so weeding, rewarded with the sight of clean bare soil, loose and ready for another year. There were also some pawpaw seeds we had saved from a recent treat; I planted them in a large container, hoping for sprouts next spring that I could plant around our homeplace, another new crop, for us and probably for the raccoons and possums as well. And those European mountain ash seedlings which had sprouted from the abundance of berries not consumed by the birds also got put into beds where they might grow stronger with better care and attention. What a great way to spend an afternoon here on the mountainside!”

Uncertainties of Life: Part Two

This post is fifth in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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Part Two: Uncertainty Gets Very Personal

One of the greatest uncertainties in life is death. From the moment of birth each of us is moving inevitably toward the moment of death. I read recently an article in which a doctor wrote of his experience giving his patients the diagnosis of a serious illness such as cancer. He said the first question most of his patients ask is, “Will I die?” His answer, of course, is, “Yes you will die. Each of us will. But the cause of your death, when and how you will die depends in part on the decisions you make and the actions you take between now and then.” In my previous post I wrote that our lives are filled with almost nothing but the unexpected between the boundaries of birth and death, even though we would like to believe it is otherwise. The boundaries of life as we know it are birth and death—the beginning of life and the end of life. The specifics of birth and death—the what and how and when—are as uncertain and frequently unexpected as the details of all that happens between these boundaries of our lives.

Death is probably not a favorite subject of discussion for most people even though it is as much a part of life as anything else. As we get older, death seems to naturally become more a part of our consciousness, perhaps because we see more people dying who are in or near our own age group. Of course, people of all ages die from accidents, violence, suicide, illness, disease, and multiple other causes. At a recent fifty-fifth reunion of my high school class the list of our former classmates who had died over the years was long and was growing almost at the same time as we were gathering. A few of those classmates had died when we were still in school; the deaths of the others were scattered along the timeline since then. The deaths of all those people shouldn’t have been surprising since we all are now in our seventies, but it was somewhat startling to be confronted suddenly by the number of deaths of people we had lived with daily when we were younger.

My own extended family group also has gotten smaller and smaller with the passage of time. My grandparents all died before I finished high school. My parents, all my aunts and uncles, and my first cousins are also dead. More recently, my younger sister also died, leaving just my older brother and myself from our generation and those before us. I’m sure this is not unusual, but it does underscore the uncertainty and unexpectedness of our existence.

I began writing some of this post more than two years ago. I was then at the end of a four- month-long period of uncertainty in my own life. A routine annual blood test for PSA (prostate specific antigen, an indicator of the possibility of prostate cancer) had come back significantly elevated from the levels found in my yearly tests during the previous decade. Several weeks later a follow-up screening test also showed an elevated reading. The next step (a few more weeks later) was a more detailed test ordered by a specialist. That test showed a 35% possibility I had prostate cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men in the United States. A biopsy was recommended to get a definitive answer to the big question: cancer or no cancer.

My first memory of cancer was in 1952 when I was six years old. I don’t recall how I learned of my paternal grandfather’s cancer; I might have overheard my parents or aunts and uncles talking about his condition. Those were the days when people didn’t talk much about cancer, mainly because they didn’t know very much about the disease. People usually discussed cancer in quiet tones, probably just within the family. What people did know was that cancer was dreaded, was usually deadly, and was something people felt ashamed to acknowledge in themselves or their family. As I recall, Granddaddy was confined to a very dark rear bedroom in his home and we could only go into his room briefly to visit. I don’t remember details of the events following his death, only a vague memory of sad neighbors and family members gathered to say goodbye as my grandfather’s body lay in state in the front room of the old farmhouse prior to the funeral. I do still have a vivid memory of a spot in a field some distance from the house where a pile of glass bottles was discarded, remnants from fluids and medications used as part of his treatment during his final months. In reality there were few things which could benefit most cancer patients at the time.

It’s amazing to see developments which have occurred in the treatment of cancer during the years since my grandfather’s death. The discovery of DNA, research regarding causes of cancer, development of new anti-cancer drugs, better imaging procedures, new screening tests, improved and less radical surgical techniques, and advances in chemotherapy and radiation therapy have all led to better outcomes for people with a cancer diagnosis. Public awareness and knowledge about cancer are much greater now. Attitudes have changed regarding cancer and those people personally affected by it. But cancer is still the second leading cause of death in the United States. The very word ‘cancer’ can still bring up frightening images of pain and suffering and death. No one wants to hear cancer linked to friends or family or themselves.

Over the years since my grandfather’s illness I have known a number of family members and friends who have experienced cancer in their own lives. Many, many more have been touched by the reality of cancer in the circle of people around them; Carole was recently able to name more than eighty people she has known personally who have had cancer. At times cancer seems to be everywhere, not only in the obituaries and news stories of those people who have had the disease, but also in stories of promising research into cancer causes and treatments and in appeals for support to fund the efforts aimed at advancing medical knowledge. But whenever cancer becomes a part of someone’s life, it’s probably unexpected and certainly brings with it a multitude of uncertainties. The unexpected news of a cancer diagnosis jolts someone into a new reality, seeing everyday events in an entirely new light.

My tests had suddenly thrust the question of cancer or no cancer into the forefront of my own life. Faced with that big question and the even bigger unknown answer, I was confronted with the more immediate concern of how I would respond if I did have cancer. So many questions and uncertainties came to mind. If I did have cancer, how aggressive was it and how far advanced? What treatments were available and what might be the consequences and costs, not just financial costs, but personal costs to myself and those dear to me? Of the possible treatments available, which would I choose or would I choose no treatment? If the cancer were life threatening, would I want to seek to preserve my life at any cost or would the quality of my life and the lives of my family be the primary consideration? Questions which once might have been more abstract had now been brought into much more concrete personal reality. The uncertainties surrounding cancer had now become a part of my life, things to consider while waiting for my biopsy.

Uncertainties of Life: Part One

This post is fourth in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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Part One: Sitting Without Knowing

Not very long ago we happened to discover Carrie Newcomer, a singer-songwriter, author, poet, and seeker of truth among many other things. One of her beautiful and meaningful songs begins with the lines, “Learning to sit with not knowing, When I don’t know where it’s going.” Those words aptly describe what I believe is needed when trying to deal with the uncertainties of life.

My previous posts about my changing physical appearance over the years, my wide variety of jobs throughout my working life, and the development of my religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs led me to think about all the unexpected twists and turns we face in our lives. In my post about God and prayer I quoted from a message I delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here in Boone many years ago, one of several during a period of about four years. In looking back at the words I wrote in one of those messages, I realized that the ideas centered around the theme of the unexpected. I wrote the following:

“The unexpected. The words don’t fit too well into our lives. They feel threatening and uncomfortable, something lurking in the dark to catch us when we aren’t looking. We feel the need to plan everything, to be sure that everything which happens is expected well in advance, scheduled and recorded in our Day Planner. But the unplanned and unexpected may be the most important of all the things which comes into our lives. Between the boundaries of birth and death, our lives are filled with almost nothing but the unexpected, even though we would like to believe it is otherwise. The one thing we can expect with absolute certainty is the unexpected. We don’t know what it will be or when it will happen or how we will handle it. It may be standing there in front of any one of us at any given moment. We simply have to be willing to see it and respond.”

Many unplanned and unexpected events have occurred in my life, and I’m sure in the lives of everyone else. Some of those I’ve already written about in my blog posts. A major one came when my evolving religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs culminated in my leaving the seminary and institutional religion to pursue a different path.

At that time we anticipated moving to the familiar territory of North Charleston. Some informal discussions had indicated a teaching position in the school system would be available to me. But the job possibility collapsed very unexpectedly. The 1968 photo in my recent blog post shows why. The Sixties had just ended and the school officials decided I must have been adversely affected by the culture around me. My hair was long and, even worse, I had a beard. Obviously I was a radical and a hippie and, therefore, was unsuitable, a likely bad influence on impressionable young students. I was informed I would not be considered until I cut my hair and shaved my beard; even then, there would be no assurance of a job. Since I recognized those conditions were likely to be followed by additional restrictions, I ruled out North Charleston. We accepted the uncertain future and looked for other employment options in Louisville.

Much has happened during the years since we were in Louisville. I’ve written about some of those events in this blog and anticipate I will write much more. In 1994 when I delivered the message quoted above, I was about to make some changes in my life. I was thinking a lot about the uncertain path ahead and how to deal with it. I have generally not approached uncertainties as many people have—setting goals, determining strategies, making detailed plans. I’ve sought to decide what would be the most meaningful action I could take and then I’ve stepped out into the unknown, trusting in my ability to cope with whatever I found there. Things have not always happened as I anticipated they would, but they have happened in a good way. I am not at the place I thought I would be, but I absolutely am glad I am here.

One of the things carried over from my Baptist background is the idea of ‘God’s will’ for me, redefined because of my changed understanding of God. Since I don’t accept the idea of an all-powerful God intimately involved in every aspect of our existence, I also don’t believe there is a plan for our lives made by God. Meaning and purpose for my life must come from within me and must ultimately be brought about by my own actions. Finding meaning and purpose in one’s life is not a simple task. Life frequently confronts us with uncertainty, the unexpected, the seemingly meaningless. But those unplanned and unexpected events and encounters often turn out to be the best parts of all, the most important, the most meaningful. The things which have come to matter most to me are the commonplace, the unexpected everyday entities and experiences transformed by seeing them for the wonders they really are. In every moment of our daily existence, even when we seem beset by uncertainty, there is wonder and meaning to be found.

We shouldn’t be surprised when uncertainties are a part of our lives. We probably should expect them every day. In learning to expect the unexpected we can relax into life, respond to situations as they arise, and then move on. Too often we try to live our lives in front of us, calculating and planning and dreaming, imagining we are in control. The only certainty, however, lies behind us when the decisions have been made and the events have actually occurred. Only in hindsight can we see the pattern which has been developing throughout our lives.

It occurs to me that navigating through the events of life is like tubing down a mountain river. Looking at the river from the bank, you can get a general feel for what it’s like and see how others are navigating the currents. Once in the moving stream the perspective is quite different. You can only see the part closest around you. You’re in it and it moves you along. Some sections are slow and gentle and allow some maneuvering. But most sections move swiftly, taking you where they run, whether you want to go there or not. You can paddle and attempt to steer, but mostly it’s a matter of watching out for the rocks you’re rushing toward and signs of others hidden just below the surface, the unexpected ones. Sometimes you see other people getting a good ride in a current you missed. Sometimes you see someone caught in a spot where they can’t move forward. Sometimes you experience those moments yourself. Now it’s fun and laughter, now it’s slow and almost boring, now it’s exciting, now it’s shocking as you crash against the rocks and are thrown into the deep water, now it’s wonderful. Then suddenly it’s over.

As in tubing down a river, the joy of life is in the ride, whatever it brings. If I’m busy thinking about the part that has already passed or anticipating what lies ahead, I don’t fully experience what is happening right now.

This moment—right now—is the only one I really have.

Thoughts About God and Prayer

This post is the third in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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I do not have very traditional beliefs about the existence, characteristics, and actions of God. They certainly do not coincide with the image of the God about whom I was taught in my early years. The things I’ve written in my previous posts about the development of my religious and spiritual life probably make that obvious. The ideas that make sense for me have come from many sources: philosophy, science, religion, valued and trusted teachers and other individuals, and ultimately my own personal experience of the world. Beliefs about God that are incompatible with those guides do not fit within my world view. I have no argument with beliefs held by other people; if those beliefs work for them in understanding and navigating through this world we share, that’s fine with me. But it’s not acceptable when others attempt to convince me of the correctness of their deeply-held beliefs.

People can believe what they choose. But it is important to recognize that there is a difference between a belief and a fact. It’s also important to recognize that there are differing views about the basis for knowing that something is a fact, but I won’t go into that discussion now. Some of the many definitions of ‘fact’ are: something known to have happened or to exist; a truth known by experience or observation; a thing known or proved to be true; a repeatable careful observation or measurement. I also found many definitions of ‘belief’ including: confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof; an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists; a feeling of certainty that something exists, is true, or is good; an idea one accepts as being true or real. To complicate things further, even within these definitions, there is the idea of Truth. The definition of ‘truth’ that I found most appropriate was this: a fact or belief that is accepted as true. The act of declaring something to be Truth also involves the act of accepting it to be true. I can accept something as true for me and you can accept something as true for you. Neither of us by our acceptance can make something true for someone else. So any beliefs I express are my beliefs, my truths.

Over twenty six years ago I delivered a message to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here in Boone, my first such presentation since I had left the seminary more than two decade earlier. My words touched on a wide variety of ideas and experiences, but, in looking back the main theme of the message was the importance of communication. By communication I didn’t mean just talking or writing. Instead I meant direct contact with someone or something on a much deeper level. I wrote about experiencing and knowing the incredible wonder of the existence of everything in this amazing world. And then I said the following about knowing and communicating with the people and other things that make up the reality of our world:

“To know something as it is right now you must be willing to be with it fully at this moment, and then again in the next and the next. Passing attention won’t do.

“This ‘knowing’, this ‘communication’ is at the heart of life’s meaning for me. Martin Buber wrote about what he called the I-Thou experience and used the term ‘meeting’ to refer to this deep level of knowing or communicating. This experience goes beyond the expression ‘a meeting of the minds’; it is a meeting of the total being of the ones involved. These times of ‘meeting’ are the times I feel most connected with the world around me. In these times I am able to look at all that is around me and experience the wonder and the interrelatedness of myself and the universe and feel that I am indeed a part of it, one with it.

“I want that feeling all the time, not just in scattered moments. It can come in the presence of other people, in moments of intense sharing with someone in an ongoing relationship, or it might even come in a brief encounter with a stranger passing in the store or a client at work. …We meet and we speak to each other, perhaps with words, perhaps with looks, perhaps with silence.”

My message included the idea of knowing and communicating with God. However, my understanding of God was not the traditional one of an all-powerful being who created and ruled over the universe from a heaven somewhere apart from this world. So I began with the following brief statement summarizing my view of God:

“I do not frequently use the word “God”; it is so subject to misuse and to different understandings. If I use the word “God”, I use it to refer to that which underlies all of reality as I perceive it, that which is. The source of existence. Existence itself. If I see God as being the source of all that exists, then I also see God as being part of all that exists and all that exists as being part of God. God is me, God is you, I am God, you are God, all things and all people are God.”

This image of God is not that of a being controlling the day-to-day operation of the universe and intervening to make adjustments and alterations moment by moment as deemed appropriate. My understanding is not that there is a supernatural being who is intimately involved in our lives and in the existence of everything within our world. My idea is that God is the totality of existence. In other words, God is the universe, since the universe is the entirety of existence insofar as humankind has been able to determine. And the universe certainly appears to operate according to a multitude of natural forces.

Science has been able to discover many of these forces and to understand the principles of their operation. Many things are still not fully understood and possibly never will be. Much within the universe often appears random, chaotic, unpredictable, and even mysterious. Over eons of time people have sought to understand and explain the world around them. As we look back at some of those explanations, we may see them as simplistic, unbelievable, amusing. And in the distant future, if humans or other beings are still around, they may well consider our own understandings in the same way.

People always appear to be trying to make sense of the world, attempting to determine the meaning or purpose of our existence. Perhaps there is no sense to it. Perhaps it is a random world which does not have meaning or purpose within itself. Perhaps the only sense to it all is that which we impose upon it, the meaning and purpose we attach to our lives and the events within them. The process of seeking meaning and purpose in life is no doubt different for each of us depending on the experiences we bring to the task. My approach is to see the apparent randomness in the world and live with it—not good, not bad, just what is. I recognize joy and beauty where I see them, but also realize the harsh and painful and ugly are part of the whole and are to be acknowledged as a part of the reality in which we exist. I do not seek to impose an explanation for events primarily for the purpose of making myself feel better about what is happening in the world. The horrible things that happen don’t have to be explained as the result of innate evil in the world and the good things don’t have to be caused by a beneficent God. Perhaps they just are, even as we just are.

My message also included thoughts about communication with God as I understand that concept. Since my view of God is non-traditional, so is my view of prayer. The word ‘prayer’ seems to be the usual term used in our culture to indicate the act of communicating with God. Having been raised in a church-going family, I was in church several times each week from the time I was an infant. Prayers were plentiful, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of all services and classes. Family meals were usually preceded by a prayer as were many community and school events. Most prayers included a mixture of thanks for various positive things and requests for assistance from God in achieving some desired outcome in life. That approach to prayer fit with the traditional understanding of God as the hands-on power over life.

The practice of prayer which I am now exposed to most often (primarily on Facebook) is somewhat different. Many people speaking of their own prayers or requesting the prayers of others are asking for something quite specific. Much of the time they want an intervention by God to change something undesirable that has happened in their lives or to bring about something good for themselves or for people they know. It seems odd to me that the same people who are inclined to say, “not my will but thine, Lord,” often appear to believe repeating their own prayer requests over and over and asking others to join them in praying for some particular result will somehow sway their God to grant the prayers because of the sheer numbers of requests. It’s like a contest in which the person with the most friends and the most votes is expected to win. And this doesn’t appear to even recognize or care that the granting of one person’s prayer request might necessarily negate the outcome sought by the prayer of someone else.

When I was looking at some definitions of prayer, one (saying it was the “biblical” definition of prayer) referred to conversation with God and not just meditation or contemplation of God. The writer of that definition in effect excluded contemplation and meditation from the idea of prayer, but I would not. Recalling my understanding of God as being part of all that exists and all that exists as being part of God, then God is everywhere and everything. The communication I have described above and in other things I have written, the connectedness, the meeting, are all acts of prayer. Essentially all of life can be thought of as prayer, a conversation with all of reality, an openness to that which is, a meeting with all that is other than myself. Here in my place at the end of the road I frequently find myself engaged in prayer of this sort. Walking in the woods, looking at clouds or stars in the sky, gazing out over ranges of mountains, listening to the sound of water spilling over rocks in the creek, talking with the plants and animals around me, sitting and sharing with family or friends, all these things are moments of engagement with God as I understand God. There is no need to ask for more when in prayer of this sort. There is appreciation for all that is and gratitude for each moment of being part of it all.

In the act of prayer I see an effort to communicate through all of one’s life with all of existence. If I were to verbalize my communication into the more common form of ‘a prayer’, then it would be an expression of thankfulness for all that is, belief in the oneness of all that is, and my feelings of hopefulness for all that is. With this understanding I share a verbal prayer with you. I closed my message long ago by quoting the following combination of four prayers from the book The Prayer Tree by Michael Leunig. I continue to find it very meaningful.

“Dear God,

“We rejoice and give thanks for earthworms, bees, ladybirds, and broody hens; for humans tending their gardens, talking to animals, cleaning their homes and singing to themselves; for the rising of the sap, the fragrance of growth, the invention of the wheelbarrow and the existence of the teapot, we give thanks. We celebrate and give thanks.

“We give thanks for our friends.
Our dear friends.
We anger each other.
We fail each other.
We share this sad earth, this tender life, this precious time.
Such richness. Such wildness.
Together we are blown about.
Together we are dragged along.
All this delight.
All this suffering.
All this forgiving life. We hold it together.

“God help us
If our world should grow dark,
And there is no way of seeing or knowing.
Grant us courage and trust
To touch and be touched
To find our way onwards
By feeling.

“We pray for another way of being: another way of knowing. Across the difficult terrain of our existence we have attempted to build a highway and in so doing have lost our footpath. God lead us to our footpath. Lead us there where in simplicity we may move at the speed of natural creatures and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet. Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel the movement of creation in our hearts. And lead us there where side-by-side we may feel the embrace of the common soul. Nothing can be loved at speed. God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being.”

Amen

My Spiritual Journey

This post is the second in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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In my previous post I wrote mostly about my work history during the past fifty years. In the early part of that time I made a major change to what I had seen as my career path. Well into the process of securing my educational credentials in the field of religious education, I withdrew from seminary, ended my involvement with all religious institutions, and set off on a path of my own. This post provides some details regarding how that change came about and the path I have followed since then. Like the work history, it may not be what those who knew me all those years ago expected.

For the greater part of my life, I have been a very private person, not prone to readily express my opinions and beliefs, especially when I knew doing so would likely result in conflict. I held back from sharing many of my developing ideas because I knew they did not fit with the attitudes and beliefs of many of my friends, acquaintances, and family members. So, some people who are very important to me don’t really know me. That doesn’t feel right. One of my main reasons for writing blog posts is that I want others know who I am, the things which matter to me, and what I believe. I simply want to share these parts of myself, not attempt to persuade anyone to adopt my beliefs for themselves.

As I’ve said before, the world of ideas has always fascinated me. When I was young, Mother would drop me at the public library while she went shopping. I could happily comb the shelves for hours, finding books on every topic imaginable, paging through one which then led me to another and another. History, literature, art, religion—anything and everything was interesting to me. At home I browsed through our old set of encyclopedias, picking a random volume and flipping through until some subject caught my eye, following references to other volumes with even more information.

History, social studies, and English classes in school and Sunday evening Training Union classes at church provided more material for study and discussion and thought. I learned about cultures and religions of other times and places, but I wanted to know much more. I wanted to understand those other ideas and beliefs, compare them to my own, and use them to enable me to better understand the world and find meaning for myself within it. Universities, with the courses and libraries they offered, appeared the key to finding what I wanted. As soon as I could leave high school, I headed off to college, not to train for a job or career, but to prepare myself for the person I wanted to be.

During my years in college and later in seminary I encountered many other people, both students and professors, who were searching for answers and for meaningfulness in their lives. Religion and philosophy classes opened up a new universe of ideas for me. I came to understand that the Bible was not just a book to be read and taken at face value, but was a product of particular people at a given time and place in history and was a reflection of their culture, their world, and their understanding of it. In addition the Bible had been shaped and changed and translated by many other people over the centuries and influenced by their knowledge, beliefs, and understanding. The challenge was to interpret and understand those ideas from centuries ago and to determine how they fit within the framework of contemporary knowledge and culture. When seen in that light, new meanings and new interpretations became available if one was willing to see them.

The seminary offered even more knowledge to help understand the religious texts at the heart of Christianity. It also provided much more information about religion in general, the history of religions of the world, and historical information about the church’s development and the history and culture of the Baptist church in particular. Many leaders, scholars, and members of the wider Christian community, especially the more progressive parts of it, had long ago adopted a broader understanding of the religion they professed.

Many of my fellow students were unwilling to accept new ideas and insights. When confronted by new possibilities, they preferred to continue to espouse the same teachings that had been taught to them and generations before them. I remember one student at seminary saying something along the lines of, “It’s well and good for us to have this information and know these ideas, but I sure can’t preach this to my church at home. I’d be looking for a new job.” He would rather keep his job than attempt to help his congregation grow in their understanding. It wasn’t that the teachers in college and the seminary sought to dissuade me from sticking with the religious teachings I had grown up with. Instead they exposed me to new and different information and ideas that allowed me to examine my understanding and decide for myself what made sense for me.

In the process of my explorations I came to see that I did not agree with or accept as valid many of the teachings and practices of the religious institutions of the day and particularly those of the denomination and most of the churches I was familiar with. As that realization became ever clearer to me, I decided I was not interested in continuing my involvement with those institutions or the belief system they were promoting. That’s when I withdrew as a student at the seminary. If I was to continue in a church or some other religious institution, it would have to be much more compatible with my own ideas and spiritual interests as they had been developing. Among other characteristics it would have to be much more liberal and progressive in its teachings, more open to accepting individuals with widely differing beliefs or non-beliefs, more encouraging of searching for meaning in one’s own way, and more active in seeking greater social justice for all people.

Some options I found around me at the time showed initial promise, but they were all still part of institutional, organized religion. When I investigated the possibility of pursuing my career interests within those communities, I found they had their own institutional strictures and requirements that would make it difficult or impossible for me to pursue the religious and spiritual goals I envisioned for myself. I decided I would have to follow my own path and forget about the career possibilities I had anticipated. Fortunately Carole and I have developed and grown together along similar lines over the years, so the departure from our ‘raising’ was comfortable for both of us. We were off on our own. We left the church, left organized religion, and have never returned.

I don’t intend to deny the important influence churches have had in my life and in my spiritual development. I’m forever grateful for my experiences in various churches and for the many wonderful people with whom I shared my time in them. It was in the church that I first learned many of the values that I continue to hold dear. And the sense of community and the feeling of support I found there were significant, as I’m sure they are for many others. Even after involvement in churches ceased being a regular part of life for Carole and me, there was one period about fourteen years after coming to Boone when we participated in the services and activities of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. I even presented ten or so programs there, some which I will reference in my blog posts. I’m not opposed to churches. They just no longer are a significant part of our lives.

Did I totally abandon all my religious beliefs when I rejected the religious structure and teachings of my first twenty three years? I know some people who knew me thought that was the case. In reality, for years I had been moving away from the teachings and beliefs of my youth which most people assumed I shared with them. I didn’t abandon my religious beliefs; they simply changed and grew and matured as I did. If someone thought they knew what I believed because they thought it would, of course, be the same as what they believed, they might very well have been completely wrong.

If my experience in recent years is an accurate indicator, many people tend to think everyone around them thinks and believes exactly the same things they do. This seems especially true in churches and other groups which appear on the surface to be homogeneous and which expect all members to share an institutional doctrine. Many church members think they believe whatever their church is supposed to believe, but may not even know exactly what that is. Individuals within the group or community may think they all believe the same things, but, if those beliefs were ever openly discussed, they might learn there was no real agreement at all. And anyone not in agreement with the group might certainly feel pressure to conform.

Perhaps some people don’t even consider the possibility of developing their own belief system. They may not be interested in thinking about their own personal philosophy or religion and coming to decisions for themselves about their own truths. They may believe it is their spiritual duty to rely on the recognized experts, the chosen leaders, the institutions, or the sacred texts to tell them what they should believe. I always thought my relationship to the world and my understanding of it through philosophy, science, religion, and ultimately my personal experience was much too important for me to leave it to others to define Truth for me.

Although I rejected organized, institutional religion and churches as a means for finding the understanding I sought, I have never doubted the importance of seeking a more meaningful connection with all aspects of life. I was always very interested in the religious and spiritual aspects of my life and was always desirous of finding deeper meaning within all of reality. I have explored ideas and thoughts from an eclectic mix of individuals from throughout the world, but not in any organized fashion. Just as I said I loved browsing through encyclopedias, I browse through life, discovering a thought here, an image there, an astonishing revelation somewhere else, frequently when those insights are least expected. I find inspiration in the words and lives of religious and secular thinkers, philosophers, poets, mystics, monks, hermits, songwriters, and many others who share their observations regarding our world. I never thought ‘Truth’ was to be found only within the teachings officially considered ‘sacred’ or in the pronouncements of recognized authorities. Indeed I have felt that truth for me had to be discovered by me, either in the world around me or in the world within me. Ultimately I think it has to be that way for everyone.

I don’t question the beliefs of others which may be different from my own or declare that they are wrong. Everyone’s personal beliefs are their own. I do often wonder whether the beliefs of another are based on accurate information, knowledge, or facts. I choose not to accept beliefs which do not fit my experience and understanding of reality. My beliefs are right for me and I hope the beliefs of others are right for them. Problems arise when people disagree over whose beliefs are “correct.” The ideas I express are mine. I’m not trying to convert anyone to my way of thinking or convince anyone that I am right and they are not. I don’t write to start a debate or disagreement. I’m simply sharing my thoughts about my life to this point in time in case they might be meaningful to someone else who reads them.

These words do not really capture the essence of the matter for me. The greatest part of my spiritual life is experiential, bound closely to the events and experiences of my daily life. Over twenty six years ago I wrote the following words as part of a message I was delivering to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Boone:

“There are moments of intensity in life which focus one’s attention fully on the present—birth, love, danger, and death to name a few. Perhaps you have had the experience of:

“Walking through the meadow in the fog as I did yesterday, with no sound around you except your own steps in the wet grass, with all the world sealed off by the fog so that you walked in a tiny, timeless world of your own;

“Touching the one you love tenderly for the first time, feeling the joyous excitement of the love you share, talking quietly together in a world for just the two of you;

“Holding your new-born child for the first time, feeling that fragile life entrusted to you, looking deeply into those trusting dark eyes and sensing the union of your lives;

“Holding in your arms one who is dying, seeing in those anxious eyes the love which cannot be spoken, feeling in the quivering flesh the pain that you both know too well, and rejoicing in the final breath with its peaceful release.

“If you’ve been there, you know that these are moments in life which last forever, both in the sense that the passage of time seems suspended and in the sense that the impact of that moment endures throughout life.

“These are moments of meaning. These are moments of meeting which call out to us with the message, ‘This is something that matters. Pay attention—Now!’”

Potential moments of meaning and meeting happen frequently if we are aware of them. Some, such as those mentioned above are obviously profound; others might be such everyday occurrences that they could easily be overlooked. As I was writing this post, a deer came into my sight in front of our house and walked around to several spots where I had spread some corn several days ago. Then it came closer, about ten feet outside the window, maybe fifteen feet away from me. For the next several minutes my attention was riveted on that beautiful creature, one of the many which share our homeplace.

My spiritual life for many years now has consisted of moment after moment of connections like this. Our homeplace here on the mountain has become a sacred place for us. I have experienced more profound spiritual moments and a greater sense of the meaningfulness of life here than I ever have in a church. I am seeking to be more fully present in the here and now, aware of all the world of which I am a part, involved in a deeper two-way communion with this world and all that is within it. I have a quote on my wall upstairs that reads, “Give me a woods to walk in and I will give to the world a person at peace with God and man.” I have the woods and I do walk there.

 

Great Expectations

Recently I wrote about transformations in my physical appearance over the years. But there have been many developments and changes other than those of a physical nature, and those are the ones that are of the greatest significance. This seems a good time to write about some of those other changes that have occurred.

One of my primary intentions in writing on this blog has been to be a bit more open about who I am and how my life has unfolded. In part I’ve wanted to do this for myself, to put many of the events, experiences, and actions of my life into a written framework so that I might look at the whole. I also have wanted to put some of my personal history and my thoughts and reflections about that history into a form that would be available to my family and anyone else who might be interested. No doubt much of what I include here will be of interest only to those people closest to me, so I won’t be distressed by anyone who chooses not to read what I write.

Some of the things I write may sound like the process of my development has been a real struggle for me, but that was not actually the case. It was more of an evolution, a process of gradual and perhaps inevitable growth, moving from one idea or action that made sense to me and seemed appropriate for the moment to the next and then the next. I’m happy with the paths I have followed and with the place to which they have led me. One of the joys and wonders of it all is that Carole (my wife and partner of more than fifty two years) and I have managed to follow along similar paths and grow together over the years; it would have been so easy for it not to have worked out that way for us.

We all change over the course of our lives. But I imagine that some people from my past, as they learn more about me from my writing, will find error in the decisions I have made and the paths I have chosen to follow. They might wonder what happened to me along the way that I changed so much from the younger me they knew or thought they knew. Why didn’t I become the person they expected me to be? Why don’t I still share the beliefs we all seemed to have back then? What a waste, a few might think; we thought he would really do great things and amount to something. But it’s OK for them to wonder. What happened is that I became the me I am now; that’s all I ever wanted.

Many of the people reading this probably knew me during our school years back in North Charleston. Some high school friends have told me they thought I would pursue a career as a scientist or college professor. Since I did well in athletics, there were also expectations that I would be active in sports in college. But I had other interests. While I had enjoyed my participation in sports since my early days in playground programs, sports were not the passion for me that they were for so many others and I had no intention to devoting my time and energy in college to athletics. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study in college, but my eagerness to get on with my higher education was overwhelming. When I discovered that some universities would accept students prior to their completion of high school, I applied and was accepted at the end of my junior year. I knew that many family members, friends, and others in the community were dubious about my decision, but I felt sure it was the best path for me.

The world of ideas had always fascinated me. High school English classes had exposed me to writers and thinkers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Channing, and others whose thoughts interested me. Likewise, other classes in school and at church showed me the beliefs of other religions and cultures. I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand those other ideas and beliefs, compare them to my own, and use them to enable me to better understand the world and find meaning for myself within it. I majored in philosophy in college and after graduation I enrolled in the Master of Religious Education program at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. My intention was to become a campus minister or perhaps director of a retreat center. But more changes were taking place.

As my studies over the years exposed me to new and different information and ideas, I continued to develop my understanding of the world and to clarify the meaningfulness I sought for myself within it. My experiences in the seminary and in various churches led me to realize that I would not be compatible with the strictures that would be imposed on me in a ministerial setting. I eventually decided I was no longer interested in continuing my involvement with the churches and belief system of my youth or with any other religious institutions. I withdrew from seminary after two and a half years, shortly before completing my degree requirements.

Carole and I had married during the summer after our college graduation. After I withdrew from the seminary, we thought we might move to the familiar territory of North Charleston, since I had an informal offer of a position there. When that possibility collapsed (more about that in a later post), we needed to find a new place to live, secure an additional source of income, and prepare for the birth of our first child in about six months. So we decided to do what we have done throughout our lives together: we pulled together to find the solutions that would offer the greatest satisfaction and meaningfulness for our new family.

I soon found a position nearby as a Social Science Analyst at a very large US Census Bureau facility working on the 1969 Census of Agriculture, evaluating returns, writing thousands of letters, and making phone calls to get more complete data. It was interesting and I learned a lot about agriculture in the process, but it wasn’t something I wanted to continue long term, so instead of accepting a permanent career-path job that was offered, I left after about two and a half years. Carole was teaching by that time, so I took care of our daughter during the school day, worked at craft projects (weaving), worked with another teacher on his part-time painting and construction jobs, and also did other odd jobs on my own.

My next change came a couple of years later—a state position as a social worker in the tuberculosis clinic at the local health department in Louisville. There were five of us with caseloads of patients with active tuberculosis and others newly infected or at risk of infection. The work during that time was both satisfying and challenging, since many of the people we were working with had multiple problems impacting their treatment. Most were very poor with all the difficulties that brings and a large percentage were serious alcoholics to compound the situation. That job led me into many places and situations that most people can’t begin to imagine. I liked my work and my co-workers during the four years I was there and probably would have continued for a long time if we had stayed in Louisville, but that was not to be.

Carole and I were eager to make some major changes in our lives and the time seemed right. Our second child was at the age for starting school in the next school year. I had been longing to build our own house and had been gathering ideas and sketching possible plans for years. We wanted to be somewhat closer to our families who all lived in South Carolina. And most importantly we wanted to live in a place in the country and in the mountains. So we came on an exploratory trip to Boone (I had attended a six-week summer science program at Appalachian State University after ninth grade), found and bought our land here, and moved in July of 1979. Full-time work on building our house occupied us for the next eight months; then we had to get jobs.

We looked for work in Boone, but quickly discovered there were no jobs available in our small town that fit with our education and previous work experience. Our limited funds were beginning to run out, so we found whatever jobs we could. For the next two years I worked as an upholsterer in a small furniture factory in Boone. I had no previous experience of factory work, so that job gave me the opportunity to learn about a different worklife than the one I knew. My co-workers were great and the work was interesting and enjoyable. I did whatever task was needed on any given day—cutting fabric, stuffing cushions, upholstering sofas and chairs, and boxing products for shipping. Most tasks were production work which paid based on how much I got done in a day. At the end of each day I could see the finished products that resulted from my labor, always a source of satisfaction for me. All workers got laid off when sales were slow, but each summer we did get two weeks vacation—unpaid of course. Food stamps and unemployment benefits were helpful, but finances were still tough for all of us.

New opportunities came with a job at a local community action agency doing weatherization work on houses of low-income residents. That was the beginning of my construction-related employment period. I worked for eight years with that agency in various capacities. Initially I was doing weatherization work myself. Later I oversaw an agency-related business contracting for rehabilitation work on low-income housing throughout a four county region. During that time I also worked sometimes at projects aimed at increasing resources for the agency or computerizing some aspects of the agency’s operations. When those agency jobs ended, I had a business for a couple of years (mostly a one-person operation) doing various building-related jobs, including building a spec house one year with my son joining me during his summer vacation.

My work experience dealing with low-income housing prepared me for similar work in my next position, but this time with the regional council of governments as a community development specialist for our seven-county region. Again I was overseeing programs which contracted for rehabilitation of low-income housing. That lasted for four years, but by the end of that time my dissatisfaction with the agency was growing and I decided to look for something else. Seeking a complete change, I took a position working with a couple I knew in a retail map and travel store they had started. When they decided to retire in 1998, we bought the store from them. I operated that business quite happily until the poor economy finally led us to cease operation and the business officially closed in 2009. I was 63 years old and retired.

During the years of my jobs which I’ve described, Carole was busy with the various jobs that made up her career, but that’s a story she will tell in her own way. She did retire soon after I had. For the first time in many years we were on our own—together. While our regular jobs ended with our retirement, work (generally much more physically intensive work) has been plentiful up to the present. Immediately after completing the process of closing out the store operation we (just Carole and I) began completely remodeling and rebuilding our house which we had originally built when we first moved to our mountain homeplace—a task that took us a major part of the next four years. We also renovated our large fruit and vegetable garden (ninety feet by sixty feet) and have tended it to provide a large part of our year-round food supply. And when those projects weren’t keeping us occupied, there has always been plenty to do maintaining the house and the almost ten acres of field and woodland. The nice thing about these undertakings has been that they were all work of our own choosing and were able to be done on our own schedule.

So that summarizes my job history over the years. It hasn’t been what I might have anticipated when I was younger, and has not met the great expectations others might have had in mind for me. But overall my working life has been interesting and has given me lots of satisfaction along the way. I’ve found or created meaningfulness in all the things I’ve done. Each of those jobs has been what I wanted to do at a particular time of change in my life. I’ve been in lots of interesting places, met many wonderful people (and a few not so wonderful), and hopefully made life a bit better for many of the folks along the way. In terms of status and finances, I was not looking for those things because they were not what mattered most to me. I’ve had all I ever needed. It’s certainly been a good way to spend that part of my life.

Who Is That Man in the Mirror? When Did He Become a Gnome?

Can that really be my own reflection that I see each morning in the mirror? Surely that’s not the way I look now. When did I turn into a gnome? The person I see before me doesn’t match the mental image I have of myself.When we see something daily like a landscape or a town, we are less likely to be conscious of the little changes that result with the passage of time. If a few weeks or even months have passed, we might only notice fairly obvious differences. A year passes and lots of things have been transformed—the trees and plants around a house have grown dramatically, new buildings and roads have appeared in the town. But when thirty or forty or fifty years intervene, landscapes and towns can become strange and unfamiliar places. It’s the same with people. Daily contact means only big changes are apparent: a different hair style or a new outfit. Meeting an old friend after a year, we might be aware of more wrinkles and less hair. However, the passage of fifty or sixty years can make a once well-known face virtually unrecognizable, even when the person happens to be oneself.

I’m not sure what age I actually perceive myself to be. It seems to depend in part on my particular activity at the moment. I know that I am now seventy three years old, so I’m in my seventy-fourth year of life. Yet when my muscles and joints are cooperating and I’m fully engaged in an enjoyable pursuit, I may feel like I’m thirty or forty years younger. On the other hand, at the end of a particularly difficult day of hard physical labor, I probably feel more like I’m several years older than my actual age. But my picture of myself, the image of how I think I look to myself and to others, does not seem to be altered as much by my activity level. I believe that image is stuck somewhere between my thirties and my fifties.

A photo of myself from years past compared to a more current picture or my daily looks into the mirror give undeniable evidence of my present appearance. Obviously I have changed physically over time, as well as in so many other ways. It’s a real challenge for me to recognize the younger me in the present me I see in the mirror. Did I ever really look like the much younger person in those early photos? How is it possible for one’s physical features to be altered that much over the course of a lifetime? But it does seem to happen to most of us. A recent reunion of my high school class was attended by some fifty people, many of whom I had been with daily during our years of elementary and high school. A few of my former classmates were easily identifiable even though I had not seen them for fifty five years. But outside of the context of the class reunion (and without the great assistance of name tags) I would not have recognized most of those present and they would not have known me. Over the course of the evening there were various signs that stirred memories of our years together: the look of someone’s eyes, the sound of their voice, the way they acted. Some of the physical characteristics from long ago were still familiar even after all those years.

Yes, I am the man facing me in the mirror. I’m well aware of all the physical transformations that have taken place in my body. It is easy to see and feel the changes that the years have brought. But the person within has also changed throughout my life. Those inner changes are impossible to see, but I know they are there and I know they have been even more dramatic than the physical ones I view in the mirror. I’ve been shaped by the forces and environment surrounding me throughout my life. But more importantly, I’ve made choices and taken actions which have determined who I am today. Every experience has influenced my development: the events I have lived through, the things I have seen, the people I have known, the lessons I have learned, the values I have found. There have been so many differences and departures from what I expected to be the course of my life so long ago as a teenager. Many of the things I once thought were most important in my life have been replaced by different values. The goals I wanted to pursue were altered long ago. The decisions I made have led in directions I never imagined at the time. But the paths I chose to follow led me to become the person I am today. I would not change them even if I could. I am who I want to be and I’m in the place where I want to be.

Attending the high school reunion mentioned above was the impetus that started me thinking about my changing appearance over the years. I thought the title “My Transformation into a Gnome” would be appropriate, with a collection of photos showing my looks from then to now. I am including some of those pictures below so you can see the changes for yourself; most people reading this could probably assemble a similar gallery of their own transformation. But why describe myself as a gnome? I first used the term when I looked at some photos of myself taken at the time of Carole’s retirement. “I look like a gnome,” was the description I voiced at the time. Even then, now eight years ago, when we first used the term, I saw many photos of myself looking rather gnomish, an impression I think has only become stronger over time. The story is summarized in a blog post by my wife Carole entitled “The Origins of the Gnome and Crone” in which she writes about herself as the Crone (a wise and experienced older woman—an excellent description of her) and me as the Gnome.

The Gnome and Crone when we first named ourselves

Most people are likely familiar with the images of gnomes that appear frequently in garden shops, greeting cards, and many other places. Some gnomes have more appealing appearances than others. I don’t really claim to look much like the cute little garden gnome in the picture below, but when we were given this small garden sculpture a few years ago, we loved it. We’ve adopted it as representing Carole and me as the Gnome and Crone.

I made a brief search to learn more about this being whose name is now associated with me. Various dictionaries identify a gnome as “a diminutive spirit”, an “ageless dwarf” who usually guards treasure, or a “small creature with an affinity for the earth.” One source says “they are known to be cheery, if not slightly mischievous.” Many of those words seem to fit me pretty well. I’m small, love the earth and all the natural world around me, am generally cheerful, and am frequently mischievous. Each of us can decide whether the one definition of a gnome as “a small ugly person” applies to me as well.

While I have some of the characteristics of a gnome, at least one image of a troll also bore some resemblance to me. When we first came to our place here on the mountain, we chanced upon the picture postcard below which shows a painting by Rolf Lidgren. It depicted a troll family on a mountainside with the adults preparing a meal while the two children were busily picking and eating wild berries. We thought that image showed our idyllic life here pretty accurately, except we don’t have pointed ears and long tails. Maybe I’ve developed into part person, part troll, and part gnome.

Trolls by Rolf Lidgren

An article about the history of gnomes provided some additional tidbits about the origin of garden gnomes. It seems the idea may go back almost two thousand years to the Roman emperor Hadrian who had quiet hermits living and helping in his garden. And wealthy English landowners in the eighteenth century decorated their gardens with bearded “ornamental hermits” who were hired to live in rustic, unheated buildings on their land, thereby providing a certain unique character to the place. Again there are similarities with me, especially during the time since we came to this mountainside. I’m bearded, generally quiet, and something of a hermit by nature. I also love working in our garden and we certainly lived in a rustic, unheated building during our early years here at our homeplace. Whether I can be considered an “ornamental hermit” is debatable.

So who is that man in the mirror and when did he become a gnome? Well, he’s definitely me, just me with whatever qualities and characteristics and physical features have been developing over the years. Maybe I’ve always been evolving into a gnome. So if I do look like a gnome and possess some of a gnome’s other characteristics, it’s just fine with me to continue being known as The Gnome.

* * * * * * * * * *

I’m not sure about the dates of some of these photos, but my captions should be pretty close. The quality of the pictures also varies because the originals came from different sources and were gathered over many years, but they still give a good idea of the changes that have taken place.

1947?

1951?

1965?

1967

1968

1970

1971

1979

1984

1990?

2005

2008?

2010

2013

2014?

2015

2017

2019

 

An Exciting Day

We had an exciting day yesterday here in the mountains. A week or so ago I wrote about all the bird nesting activity we’ve been having around our home. While the phoebes and juncos had finished with their nests, the wrens nesting on our deck were still very active. The adults had been busy with their non-stop food delivery to the young ones we could hear cheeping in the nest. A little head or two had begun peeking over the top of the board in the roof structure which hid the nest from our view. Then during this past week one or two of the young wrens sometimes climbed up from the nest to sit briefly on the board, surveying their surroundings before diving back into the nest when their parents approached with food.

Yesterday Carole and I had to go out of town for an appointment with our departure planned for 11:00 am. We ate breakfast in our usual spot where we could enjoy watching the coming and going of the wrens. Two young wrens we had seen before seemed even more active than on most days, coming up from the nest after every visit by the parents. Sometimes one would even stay sitting on the board when the adult returned with food and fed the eager young one. Once or twice the boldest young wren hopped along the board until it was about a foot away from the nest, sat for a few seconds, and then hurried back into the nest again. On some of its ventures out this wren would grip the edge of the board with its feet and lean over to look down to the floor eight feet below, occasionally flapping its wings for a few seconds but still holding tightly to the solid wood under its feet.

We wondered whether all this activity meant the young were getting closer to the time when they had grown enough to be ready to leave the nest. Surely it must be getting crowded in their tiny home since they now appeared to be about the same size as the adults, if not slightly larger. As we continued to watch, the two little heads we had seen peeking from the nest area became three little heads for the first time. After a few more minutes all three babies decided to climb up and perch on the board. Three little wrens, all sitting side by side and looking at their larger world. What adventurers they were.

By that time we needed to be getting ready to leave, so we reluctantly took turns away from our viewing location, calling activity reports to each other. I was still upstairs when Carole excitedly yelled, “Ron, there are four of them out of the nest. Now there are five! Now there are six!!” Needless to say, I hurried downstairs in amazement and delight to see this wonder. Before I could get there the first bold little wren had flown away from their perch and a second had flown a couple of feet to a nearby beam. I did see that second wren fly down to the lower deck rail and then later fly off into a nearby tree. And I did get to see the four remaining wrens sitting together and then one by one fly away from the nest site in different directions. We could hear the adults chattering their messages to their babies and we were excitedly doing the same as we urged, “Come on. You can do it. You can fly down and get your own food now. It’s not so far. Yes! That’s the way. You did it.”

The last of the six was the smallest and the most hesitant. Its big leap was more a flutter than a flight as its tiny wings slowed its descent to the floor of the deck. But then after a brief rest it actually flew fifteen feet and disappeared into the leaves of the trumpet vine at the corner of the deck, its short little tail clearly visible as it moved away from us. Now they are all off with their parents or on their own. We haven’t seen them since yesterday, but hopefully we will see them around from time to time. Maybe they will even grace our home with a nest of their own next year.

Carole had seen all six of the baby wrens make their first flights and I had seen five of them. We both had beamed with excitement and joy, ecstatic at our good fortune. An hour later and we would have been driving down the mountain and would have missed this big moment. The rest of the day was good as well. A few minutes after leaving home we passed a few feet from a mother turkey and at least three young turkeys a foot or so tall. As we came home in late afternoon, an older fawn, still spotted but much larger than a newborn, crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the woods. And once we were home, the two mama raccoons came to our yard and our deck to get some needed nourishment; both are no longer as skinny as when they first started visiting. It was a very good day, an exciting day, made especially great by the flight of the baby wrens.

There wasn’t much time for pictures, but here are a few.

And then there were three.

And then there were two.

Come on. You can do it too.

And then there was one. But not for long.