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10 important things you can learn about life and business by walking a dog

10 important things you can learn about life and business by walking a dog

Lucy and Me
Our dog Lucy nudging me to go out for a walk.

The lessons we can learn from the simplest acts in life are often the most valuable of all. I’ve been walking our family dogs since 2007 and along the way have learned quite a few lessons applicable to life and business that can be learned from walking a dog.

  1. Shit almost always happens. Like all great lessons in life, we often set our minds on the processes that we most enjoy (like the beauty of a nice day outside.. or that pending great business deal) while conveniently forgetting that expected and unexpected shit always happens along the way. Being present and ready for these eventualities is far better than getting out there with no poop bag and being forced to flick a stick or hide that shit under a leaf or snow. There’s a lesson there for business and life, for sure. Be ready for that shit. 
  2. Motivation comes from affirmation. Dogs pay a ton of attention to their surroundings, but typically like to lead by their nose. That means it is important to maintain their attention and confirm who is in charge all during a dog walk. It’s great to affirm the character of the dog and understand them, but a good owner learns to lead by communication and connection. The dogs like it better because they’re actually wired that way. There’s an element of truth to that with people too, because everyone works better when they are affirmed in their efforts.  
  3. Set expectations and give directions. Typically this involves instruction given to a dog (or dogs) before one ever goes outside. A simple “sit” or “stay” inside the door is the same thing as stating “Alright let’s bring this meeting to order.” Walking a dog is a meeting of minds. Teaching a dog how to walk with you takes practice and consistency. That doesn’t mean you need to control their every action, at first focuse on those that contribute to the greater goal of having “a good walk.” A dog tugging and pulling and wandering off-trail every twenty feet is not necessarily a happy animal. Nor is a dog left to fend for themselves in the presence of strange or unfamiliar dogs. Some will work it out, but they can also wind up being dominated or intimidate, setting the stage for future fears. Set expectations in all these situations and life will be better for everyone. “Is your dog good with other dogs?” is a polite and simple question to ask. And be smart about time: keep human meetings and dog walks under an hour. Honor expectations and be rewarded with loyalty. 
  4. Vary the routine. Dogs do love a bit of routine. But they also get bored if there is nothing new along the way to see or sniff. So whether you’re walking your dog, making dinner for a spouse or managing a department of eager employees, it always helps to vary the routine. Change it up. Make it fun. That includes the bedroom. Woof woof. 
  5. It costs money to feed a dog right. The shelves at your local pet store are filled with row upon row of dog food bags and cans. All claim to be best for your dog’s health. But one must remember that much of what is available in both human food and dog chow is often manufactured from the lowest possible quality of available ingredients (such as sugar or carbs) while runing light on real food including genuine protein or vegetables. Ironically, it can be cheaper and better for you to shop the “perimeter” of a grocery store where food is loose and real rather than purchased prefabricated and sold in boxes, cans or other marketing tools that only raise the cost. A dog’s life can be better on a raw diet just like us. And when it comes to the rest of life, these principles hold true when buying products or creating services to sell to your customers. Authenticity is the name of the game, these days. And healthier for everyone. That’s as true for the information we consume as the food that we eat. Best to check it’s real before gobbling it up.Lucy on the couch.jpg
  6. Have a plan and communicate it. When you buy a puppy (especially a stray or rescue dog, which you should) you can never quite tell what their prior experiences in life have been. Some arrive with fears and baggage from mistreatment, But just like people, these tendencies can often be healed through communication, kindness and loving direction to build trust. Knowing how to do this can require the help of a dog trainer. That dynamic is just ike a human resources department brining in objective, outside help in the form of specialists to talk about sexual harassment or other critical management policies. In every case it matters that we use consistent, clear language and develop a plan that everyone understands so that both the dogs in our life and our fellow associates know the importance of respecting the plan.
  7. Know your limits. Sometimes it is tough to handle all the things that raising dogs or managing associates can throw at us in a day. Thus it is important to know when to “back off” and calibrate our own emotional stability before proceeding to the next steps. With a dog, it can be enormously helpful to crate train them because animals need time to regain a sense of control in their own space. On the human front, many companies now realize that granting associates the right to govern their time or engage in recreation actually brings them back with fresh attitudes. The byproduct of this approach is that it gives managers and executives a reasonable respite from constant demands, and they need time to recreate as well. That’s a wise way to go about the whole program. Productivity can actually increase by giving people license to expand their minds and relieve stress. it’s all about knowing your limits and respecting those of the people (and the dogs) with whom you work. 
  8. Embrace the cause. Walking your dog is an important tool for their health and wellness. It balances their body and minds because many breeds retain instincts to move and hunt and play. Embracing this as the “cause” for the walk really can put you in tune with the dog you love. It can open your eyes to their world. And while sniffing out dead frogs in the grass seems gross from a human perspective, to a dog that activity is like finding a cold, unclaimed Snickers bar in the back of the company fridge after moving the ice that’s been sitting there four months. We all love surprises. Embrace the cause of joy no matter how simple it can be. And nothing beats a truly cold Snickers. 
  9. Get out more. Taking your dog new places is an exercise in collaboration. Helping your dog meet new people or other dogs is a great way to socialize them and improve their ability to handle diverse circumstances. Bringing your dog to a local coffee shop will often produce many interesting encounters as people ask if they can pet your animal. If that’s in your dog’s nature, it can open up all-new human connections as well. Recently I encountered two obviously homeless men sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop. Both lit up with joy at the sight of our dog’s wagging tail and happy expression. She did not judge the men by their appearance, nor did they object to her over-exuberant and somewhat nippy greeting. So get out more. It’s a compassionate thing to do for you, your dog and for other people in this world. It’s also good for your soul at work or in life to go out for lunch with friends or even all alone and keep an open mind to talking with others.
  10. Forgive your dog and forgive yourself. No animals acts perfectly all the time. While we try to raise “perfect pets” that mind our every command. But occasionally they’ll still pee on the neighbor’s lawn when you’re not looking or threaten to run after a rabbit of squirrel. Our pets can be a bit ADHD at times, drawn to distractions or possessed by their instincts. First and foremost, you need to learn to forgive them. And in the process, you’ll learn to forgive yourself for not raising a perfect pet. There’s especially no reason to be cruel to animals as a means to assuage any inner guilt or disturbance in your emotional matrix. It is clear from all the abandoned or abused pets in this world that too many people take out their aggressions on innocent animals because they have not found healthy ways to deal with their own inner torments. If you have these instincts and can’t find ways to be patient with you dog, then human relationships are not going to be any easier to manage. The same goes for projecting prejudice or fears on certain breeds of dog, or for that matter. That brand of prejudice parallels resistance to human cultures or races of people different from our own. Until people learn how to overcome these fears or prejudices, the world becomes a battle for control that never ends. Thus it is important to learn to forgive yourself, how to manage internal conflicts and how to change your ways and attitudes. Your pet and the people around you in this world will no doubt return the favor with kind appreciation.

A recycled life is worth considering

IMG_1287The choice to move from my home of twenty years was not an easy decision to make. It was the childhood home of my children, and a healthy degree of sentiment was attached to the place as a result. It was also the home where my late wife and I spent so many years, and she passed away within its walls.

For three years following her death, I tended the gardens and built new water features in the backyard she loved. My daughter and I ranched monarchs from the milkweed plants, just as my late wife had done. These were important remembrances and real-life transitions, symbolic and otherwise.

Home

So the significance of that home was not lost on me. Yet there grew in me a need to change and start anew, to recycle some things in my mind.

In fact, I had many dreams in which I was moving, or had just moved and was trying to make sense of what my values were about in those dreams. In some of those sleepy time imaginings, my late wife was actually present as an observer to my behavior. I took that presence to mean there was a responsibility to my children in my decision. Her memory was obviously precious, and her dreamtime presence still presided over the place.

Away

And yet, she had told me in many ways that she understood my priorities in life as well. There was one early morning, perhaps a month before she died, when she woke me with a sheet of paper bearing detailed descriptions of how she wanted me to work for myself, and try new things. That was not some hidden message. That was direct consultation. It was also a sign that a month out from her passing, she knew more than she was telling anyone else.

That courage in the face of death was also not lost on me. It emboldened me to be brave and forthright about her passing. I had to take care of myself in order to care for our children. Sometimes that strength was a disservice, and I missed important cues of need and hope. Yet it was also best for me not to sit home and brood. So I went out on dates not because I wanted to forget her, but in acknowledgment that I love companionship. It is how I am wired. It is why we were married for 28 years and why we dated four years before that. It is also why I eventually met a woman and fell in love again.

History

It should be known that all that history added into my decision on whether to keep the house or not. In the end, I felt like that chapter in life had completed itself. There was a period of grieving and processing that lasted three years after her death. Yet I did not think that staying in the home would add anything more to that line of thinking.

The tougher question was whether it was a disservice to my children to sell the home. I will admit that I made that decision based on my own mental health. The thought of “losing” the home caused some suffering to my kids. We gathered in our basement and went through their prodigious collections of things stored there, and determined that not all of it needed to be kept. So we chose some important keepsakes and those have moved with me into a new home.

Stuff 

When I dug deeper into the multitude of boxes and collectibles stuffed into closets and basements and under staircases, I realized that my wife had kept just about everything about their youth. Entire books of homework and certificates of achievement. Old music scores and massive books of drawings, notes and cards. These I sorted through over a period of weeks. In fact, the process had begun years ago, and there have been many waves of examination and trips to Goodwill, calls from Amvets and Vietnam Vets for clothes pickups. When my wife told me a few weeks out from her passing, “Chris, I’m sorry about all the stuff,” I had no idea what she was saying. I learned the hard way.

And I had to deal with the real deadline of selling the house when it came into being.

That had taken place in stages. First, my now-fiancee and I examined the option of building onto my old place. But that was expensive, and impossible in some ways without a difficult two years in construction plan. Instead, we decided to work together and build the financial credit and equity to look into another home, one we could buy together. Start fresh.

And that happened fast.  Then after her lease was up October 1, we moved her stuff into my home for 10 days and stored her furniture. Then we moved her stuff again down to the new house and most of my furniture with it too. All that was left were two outside lawn chairs and a whole lot of closets full of disjointed memories.

Digging out

I worked like a bugger to clear out all the remaining stuff. But in the end, I missed the closing deadline. That caused the buyer’s realtor to panic and get a little angry with me. I called my realtor and apologized to all parties involved. I’d done my best but needed more time because I’d had no idea how much stuff there really was to move out. So the lawyers talked and it was agreed to hold back $5K and charge me $125 per day until the house was completely cleared out and cleaned.

That cleanout turned into 12 yards of eclectic dumpster material hauled away at an early hour by the Waste Management Bagster truck. I begged them to come that Friday morning to take it away. They told me they could not provide any guarantees. So when they pulled past my headlights at 6:00 a.m. the day I’d targeted for actual closing I heaved a giant sigh and cried with my head on the steering wheel. But there was still a lot of work to do.

Decision-making

Because the decision-making that had gone into those big bags of stuff was not easy. It’s a difficult thing to throw away the drawings your kids did in childhood. Yet we can’t keep all this stuff. None of us can. Last spring I cleared out the home where my late father had lived for 38 years. We filled up two 15-yard dumpsters. It was a massive job. It also slammed the door on any sentiment we might have felt toward all but a tiny segment of belongings from his home.

I realized that if I had not performed the act of clearing out that home and cleaning it, someday my own kids would have had to do it. I can tell you, that’s not easy, and it’s not fun. It also can have a demeaning effect on the memory of your loved one.

Owning too much junk is not a virtue. Dispensing of someone else’s junk is not a joy.

Even my own collection of CDs went spilling into the maw of those green bags. When I called the Junk Genie to come help with the final stages of the cleanout, even more formerly precious possessions were tossed into the garage. Then my fiancee and her son swept through the backyard collecting garden stuff and all kinds of other detritus.

Pickers

Along the away, a phalanx of metal pickers made my house a regular stop on their daily routes to find marketable metal objects. I was a fertile source of those objects. Even the metal poles that rested in the rafters of my basement as well as an ancient Kenmore stove that had lurked beside the ironing board all twenty years of owning the home were collected by the pickers. So while I created a load of junk, some of it went to good use as well. I was grateful for these newfound and somewhat transient friendships. But I have kept their numbers as well.

In the end, it felt like I was recycled as well. New beginnings are not a bad thing to consider in life. While somehow I wish loss never had to occur in life, the fact of the matter is that it does.

Controlling your instincts to keep everything

Which means sometimes it pays to take control of the losses you need to create, and empower your own existence by moving things along. That example can help others clean up the debris in their own lives. Because while junk in an old home is a physical thing, those of us that have moved a few times also recognize that there is emotional junk we need to move along as well. A recycled life is worth considering. Sometimes real love of self and others waits on the other side.

 

 

Ana Zanic watercolors elevate and expand the mind

Zanic swoopOccasionally I see the work of another artist and feel compelled to tell the world about it. And while Ana Zanic of Geneva is doing quite well for herself with paintings now featured in shows that include galleries in Chicago, New York, Denver and Baton Rouge, that does not mean one cannot add to the discussion.
I first met Ana Zanic back in 2013 when she was working as a Resident Artist at Water Street Studios in Batavia. Our family purchased one of her paintings and it hangs in my home to this day. Her recent show Fluidity being show at the Fermi National Accelerator gallery is an expansion on all that she is doing with her watercolors. The work is on display in the second-floor gallery of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory through September 16.
Fluidity demonstrates why Zanic’s work is drawing so much national attention.Her paintings range from the intimate in size to the ultimate in spatial expression with watercolors. Grouped under categories such as Origins, Nebula and Arcadia, each passage suggests a thought process. Yet there are no confining qualities to her work that limit the viewer’s ability to explore and use their own imagination.

Her largest works in the show are stunning in size. Encountering watercolor paintings that stand taller than a human being is uncommon in this world. But that is the point. Her six-foot tall watercolors force one to stand back for a wider look yet draw the viewer close to see what else is going on within these organic forms.

Zanic must either possess a very broad brush or is able to sweep the flow of a watercolor glaze using other means. Her large paintings consist of washes fully one foot across that are drawn in washes similar in form to a Mobius strip. Infinity thus exists on paper. She uses this format to create space and then enhance it with wet-in-wet methods that suggest landscape or plant forms, woods or valleys.

Zanic watercolor.jpgSuggestively, these same shapes could well be the processes that invented and expanded the universe, and from within these massive forms come Zanic’s textural commentaries. Tiny drawn figures seem to vacillate between material forms and energy. Sometimes they appear to be forests emerging from the earth. At other times, they seem to convey a population of thoughts or recollections. This is what makes her work so pleasing, accessible and yet mysterious at the same time. To complete this journey from thought to form, she has also created a series of pottery pieces that bear the same conversational inscriptions.

Work like this enables viewers to get lost in very personal worlds of visual appeal and contemplation of the process that led to its creation. The title of the show Fluidity could be taken as a literal comment about a watercolor show. Yet there’s more to it than that, because every watercolorist knows that creating paintings is a process of both anticipation and happy mistakes. Every inch of surface becomes its own palette when watercolor flows across the surface. This becomes a conversation and some points even an intellectual argument in which delicacy and force of will are in constant engagement. The drips, runs and expansions all play a role in this universe created by a watercolor goddess.

Her special command of materials is best demonstrated in her ability to create tension and excitement through use of edges, which Zanic employs in work to define positive and negative shapes. In between she celebrates gauzy wonderment in the wet and marvelous world of water, pigment and paper.

Her works in the Origin series bear suggestions of geology or topography. Yet they could just as easily be considered in the context of space and time. One wonders if the physicists at Fermi have been wandering through this show considering the subatomic worlds they explore, which could very well be similar to the world of watercolor and the paintings of Ana Zanic.

Zanic watercolor too.jpgIt is high time that all of us come to grips with the fact that the world is not a “paint by number” place. Physics and evolution demand that knowledge. We also now know there is space between all matter, and dark matter beyond that. We even have the ability to shoot neutrinos through the earth.  As it turns out, the pigment of our vision exists as much by force of imagination as it does in reality.

And Ana Zanic paints that space between. That is how (and why) the watercolors of Ana Zanic call us to consideration of all that we see. It may well be more realistic to depict the world in abstract terms than it is to attempt a direct copy of it. In this regard, the setting for the show Fluidity at Fermilab is perfect. It stands to expand your concept of the world and what you see around you.

The Fermilab Art Gallery is on the second floor of Wilson Hall. It is free and open to the public Monday to Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sign in a the Wilson Hall atrium reception desk. The show will be displayed through September 16.

She still calls me coach

IMG_6262On the way back from the studio today by bike, I pedaled past a familiar home. It was the house of a former soccer player, a kid that I coached through middle school who went on to play a few years of high school soccer. He was a talented player. Grew up kicking the soccer ball with his Latino family. In fact, his mother made me promise that I’d never hold him back from playing with members of his family even if it conflicted with one of our scheduled games.

That only happened once, but it was a bargain that deserved respect. His mother is a person of strong family values. Not the faux Christian kind that are so popular in today’s political climate, trumped up with grandstanding and ulterior motives. This was a good Catholic woman who demanded respect for every member of her family.

Like any middle school kid, her son still struggled with self-image and played hot and cold in practice and on the field. As he matured, he grew handsome, and his confidence grew too. I still recall the afternoon a band of girls from the U-13 team we scrimmaged called out his name across the field after a game. “Enrique!” they called teasingly. “Becky loves you!”

He’s married now if I recall and works building high-quality cabinetry. So he wasn’t “home” the day I rode by on my bike. He has his own home now.

Yet the memories of coaching him and other boys on a traveling team built from a successful recreational league squad are still strong in my mind. There is no doubt I could have known the game better. Could have done a better job with coaching skills and teaching how the offense and defense should work. But my assistant coaches were a great help. I relied on them, and that’s as it should be. You can’t know everything or see everything in a game of soccer. Or any game for that matter.

Years after my son was done playing I began relating a play in which he crossed the ball during a match and a teammate performed a flying header of the ball into the goal. “That’s my favorite moment in coaching,” I told him.

“Dad, I don’t remember a single game we played,” my son said softly. “But the practices were fun. I loved hanging out with the guys and riding home in that Oldsmobile we owned with the seat that fell back and the bell kept going off for the door. I remember TJ laughing and telling jokes in the back seat.”

The practices were fun. We were assisted as well by a series of professional coaches from the organizations to which we belonged. Some were liked by the kids. Others were loathed for reasons I never fully understood. My team was not super-serious, for one thing. Despite a wealth of physical talent and some pretty good on-field thinking, for the most part, we played a Division or two down from the Classic or Platinum teams. Yet when we played them, it was usually only a 3-1 loss.

There was a tournament in which we advanced to the championship final. Unfortunately, we ran into a juggernaut squad from St. Louis that had us down 5-0 at halftime. With ten minutes to go in the game, it was 8-0. I was distraught and felt bad for the kids, for I felt I’d failed them in this opportunity for glory.

The kids saw it differently. They knew they’d been thrashed, and suddenly my tall defender got the ball and started doing some fancy footwork in the backfield. He stood 6’1″ as a 13-year-old kid and was still pretty fast and agile. But the sight of him doing moves worthy of today’s stars like Messi and Ronaldo was comical beyond belief. Our entire squad burst into laughter and even the other side got a yuck out of it. The match lightened up from there, and we all went home happy with second place.

Perhaps I could have skipped all that. Focused on my own career like some of the fathers I met along the way, who never coached or just dropped their kids off at this practice or that. Sometimes I felt inferior to those days, whose important titles and hard-ass jobs were definitely the mark of success. But I don’t regret a single day.

All this came back to mind when that mother of one of my players waved back as I pedaled by on my bike. “Hi Coach,” she called out. She still calls me coach.

There are far worse things in life, for sure.

 

Getting the full picture is tough to do

Sometimes events and images convene in a way that is meant to tell you something about life. It works that way if you are willing to listen. To hear. And hopefully, to understand.

Sunday while flying back from Tampa to Chicago, I sat in the middle seat of an airplane next to a man who slept most of the way, but fitfully. When we approached our destination and some turbulence began, he was visibly anxious and uncomfortable.

I waited through the landing, then turned to him and said, “You don’t like that stuff, huh?”

He smiled a quick smile and replied, “Well, I used to jump out of airplanes so it shouldn’t scare me. But it still does.”

It turns out the young man served in the Airborne in Iraq. “I was a camera guy,” he informed me. “It was my job to take pictures of what we were doing. Our unit.”

He told me that it was a difficult job. “I saw things people don’t want to see,” he said. “Like, I was taking a picture of a kid riding his bike and he just got blown up. Right there. But the military didn’t want to share that photo. There was an election going on and they wanted the news to be good.”

I asked him how he got involved as a photographer. “I spent three months training in photography and three months learning journalism,” he said. “Then they sent me over to Iraq.”

Did he expect to use his photography in civilian life? “I don’t think civilian life will take me,” he responded. “I got too many issues.”

On our way together through the airport I handed him my business card and offered to talk with him some. In turn, he pulled out an identification card that he called the Silver Ticket. “It takes twenty years of service to get this,” he told me. “I started when I was 18. Now I’m 41,” he said, and smiled that quick smile of his. The smile that says a lot, and yet seems to say nothing at the same time.

He still looks a young man. Yet he is now a man for the ages, and told me that he’d collect a certain amount of money for his time and service to his nation. Beyond that, his plans were flexible.

My encounter with that soldier came back into mind when I clicked on a link to an NPR story about the work of military photographer David Gilkey, whose compelling photos give us a small window to the world in which so many of our active duty soldiers live and work and sometimes, die.

“I consider myself lucky,” the soldier from the plane told me as we stepped off the moving belt in the terminal. Lucky indeed.

(Photograph from NPR feature on photographer David Gilkey)

Peach tree possibilities

Today is the day my father’s house is sold. It took several months to transition sort through the furniture and make decisions about belongings. There were no great surprises. No First Edition copies of To Kill a Mockingbird or anything dramatic like that.

In fact, the books I cleared out yesterday were Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes used to hold down insulation in the crawlspace. I remember those books from trying to make sense of them as kids. They were the Internet of an earlier age. Ostensibly they held a little bit of everything you might want to know from A to Z.

It was always a test to figure out how you could say what you found in those books without copying the exact same language. Never mind the fact that any translation would be less scholarly and likely less factual than the work of those who wrote and proofed the book. “You shall not plagiarize” is the rule of all students, writers and journalists.

IMG_4559.jpgNow we live in a world where virtually everything we consume in terms of information is shared and likely plagiarized in some form from some other content. Real journalists puke at this notion. Real photographers too. But that’s how the world has evolved.

Which is also proof that the world does not always evolve in the direction of what we like to call progress. It also happily regresses at times.

I think about these things because before my father lost his ability to speak due to a stroke 15 years ago, he was an iconoclastic thinker. Even after his stroke, he would work hard drawing diagrams and symbols to communicate abstract concepts. These were often designed to challenge our perceptions about some past or current event. This could be frustrating as hell to discern. Yet he would not give up. He was an iconoclast to his dying day.

There is a certain pragmatism to being an iconoclast. This fact frustrates  people who thrive on a conservative mode of practical thinking. There are many people who prefer to speak in plain language, and act the same. None other than William F. Buckley once stated, “The more complicated and powerful the job, the more rudimentary the preparation for it.”

Well, William F. Buckley was right about some things, and wrong about others.

For example, the person we know as Jesus Christ taught using parables. That’s an indirect way of speaking truth. Yet it was his goal engage people in thinking about spiritual concepts by giving them familiar examples to which they could relate. This might seem like an unnecessary step for the Son of God to speak the truth. Yet it was true that metaphor helped make the Kingdom of God much simpler to understand.

But Jesus met resistance to his methods even among his closest advisors. His own disciples complained about the complications of his parables, and he rebuked them. The following excerpt from the Book of Matthew shows Jesus explaining that it was literalism by the priests that was actually causing so much confusion among the faithful. Jesus rebuked these teachers, then added an explanation:

13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides.[d] If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Let’s be clear. My father was not a religious man toward the end of his life. He would not likely have quoted Jesus to make the same point. In fact, at one point late in life, my father was asked why he’d attended church all those years. He just shook his head and said “Pooooh,” which was his post-stroke word for anything that was no longer useful. But he did like singing in the choir. He was an iconoclast.

There was a garden in my father’s back yard with a set of apple trees and one peach tree. The apple trees were hardy, but the peach tree grew dry and frail. During a storm one of the main trunks broke off and leaned to the ground. I was headed from my house with a saw to cut the limb off and arrived to find that my father had already tied ropes around the bent over branch. He did this even though he had use of only one arm. When I arrived, the peach tree looked like a traction patient. He’d grown up on a farm and knew the peaches might still grow if the tree were given a chance.

Indeed, the branch continued to bear fruit. My father then harvested peaches when they were ripe. Then when fall came, he instructed me to saw off the bent branch.

That peach tree stands in his backyard to this day, more than 10 years after the branch broke off. His seemingly impractical solution is a metaphor for how the man also dealt with the effects of his stroke all those years. He did grow angry now and then (the storm) but he also developed practical ways to get along in life. Our arguments were often like broken branches. yet when the harvest season came, he still offered me peaches of wisdom.

That is proof to me that peach tree possibilities are never to be underestimated. My father was neither liberal or conservative. But for better or worse at times, he was always determined to make us think about solutions. That’s what iconoclasts do.

 

Wild too

Prairie HillI just finished reading the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Many times I’ve watched the ending of the movie made from the book. I liked Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of the author. The thrills and the sex and drugs. The pain at losing her mother, portrayed by Laura Dern. The lost feeling that followed. Her divorce that was more like two boats drifting apart.

And then the hike up the trail from California to Oregon. Recovering, what? She did not know going in how difficult it would be. The pain of hiking. The busted up feet. The callouses on her lower back that felt like leather.

I’ve read other “journey” books and really liked them. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson chronicled his hike up the Appalachian Trail. His journey was more about the doing than the catharsis. But it wound up being a catharsis just the same.

In every journey book there is a similar dynamic. Isolated from everyday life, the lead characters wonder, sometimes with guilt, sometimes not, what might be going on back where life is normal.

For Cheryl Strayed, it was getting away that mattered. It was everyday life that had trapped her with its sorrow and its temptations. She’d done heroin and slept with a bunch of men. Ached for her mother, but it did not bring her back.

The point here is that life itself is a trail. That’s what Strayed discovered in the end. That the trail is wild, and that life is wild too. We can’t see around the next bend. Sometimes can’t see the next step we take.

I recall a moment in church when our pastor spoke plainly about the fact that not every service or moment will seem sacred or religious. It’s like there are mountains or peak experiences in our lives, and sometimes we get to feel them. Be there. Raise our consciousness. Yet there are a lot of days putting one foot in front of the other.

The year gets marked that way at church. There are days when the Youth Group sets out geraniums to purchase in spring. Then here are long strands of pine boughs to buy and hang on my white fence out front of the house in November.

Holidays come along like that too. They add up too quickly. My late father used to joke every January that the year was almost done. “You’ve got Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day. Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day. Then Thanksgiving and Christmas. Yup, the year’s almost over.”

And of course, he was always right. But some of us add in a few more days than that. Mother’s Day just passed. That’s the day when all the mothers I know take quiet stock of their children and their own moms. They stand between these two worlds in hope that someone notices. Fortunately, many do. There are not many holidays as poignant as Mother’s Day. So what if it is a Hallmark occasion. Whether you spell Hallmark with a capital H or a small h does not matter. We need our hallmarks. Otherwise, the years go by and we do not know where we are.

There were several moments in the book Wild when Cheryl Strayed wandered off the Pacific Coast Trail. At other times, the path was covered with snow, or littered with the debris of forest clearcuts. She had to make decisions in those moments. Where to turn. How far to go even when you know you are lost.

Years ago I went out for what was supposed to be a short run during a stay in the north woods. I took off in just shorts and shoes and a thin tee shirt, like I always do. I ran a familiar trail and it turned into another familiar trail and then suddenly it was no longer familiar. I’d missed a turn somewhere. The sky was flat and gray. No sun to mark the direction south. And as I continued running I’m sure there were trails I missed that would have brought me back home. But I ran for nearly two hours that day, stopping to get some bearings and realizing it was somewhat hopeless.

Finally, I noticed my own footprints back the familiar path, and things shifted. The world was coming into focus as if seen through a projector. Then I ran the two miles back to the lakeside resort where we were staying.

I had been lost, and was found on my own. Not through any grand effort or intellect. Nor was there any discernibly divine intervention. I was not in desperate straits. Just a little tired.

Sitting by the lake that afternoon with my children playing in the water below my feet, I looked out at the water and up at the trees. An osprey flapped past carrying a big fat fish. It all seemed wild, yet tame at the same time. That’s sometimes all we want from life. That life be somewhat predictable. But a little wild, too.