How to catch a demon with his pants down.

Catching a demon with his Pants Down

I was walking to my truck today and as I passed another man on the sidewalk, we said hello to one another and continued on our way. He looked me in the eyes and in a subtle flash of a moment I noticed that something inside me averted my eyes, and didn’t want to be seen. His gaze, like headlights—my lies and deceits, like a deer—stood frozen for a quick moment, exposed and afraid under his momentary gaze, until this something inside me convinced me to look away.

Who was that, what was that within me? There was no specific shame, no specific thought or image that ran for shelter inside me, but a general fright caused this little panic, and caught my interest. As I continued walking, I decided not to let this little shifty creep off the hook, I decided to pursue this poltergeist within me to see of what it is made, from where it came, and to where it fled.

And here’s how to catch a demon with its pants down. They first and foremost don’t want to be seen, as they do their dirty work. So if you catch them, don’t let them hide. Keep them under the bright light of scrutiny until they melt away. To do this I considered, ‘what was it that caused me to look away just now’ and coupled with that consideration, I used imagination to consider, ‘what would have to be different inside me in order to not feel the impulse to look away’, and by this method I triangulated the tiny monster and exposed him briefly in my mind’s eye—he was Judgement I have against other people, not against this man I met on the sidewalk in particular, but general judgement I hold towards life, as if to say, “I could do the world better”.

And this realization then exposed Judgement’s comrade, Pride, which then showed me Complaint and Selfishness as well. They were all there, like a haze covering my vision, or like scales over my eyes. They hated to be seen; and I saw how they pulled the strings behind the scenes, distorted my vision of life, and caused me intuitively to feel ashamed due to the knowledge that my vision is distorted because of them, and I’m not as I should be so long as they act with impunity in the shadows within me.

Then I envisioned what I would be if I was without them, and extrapolated that out to imagine what would the world be without them? And this led to a prayer, a request and desire, written as a poem, for just this type of me, and this type of world:

An Economy of Purity

 

I don’t want to be a purveyor of judgement;

a vendor of complaints.

 

Nor do I wish to do business in arguments;

making transactions in rights and wrongs—

 

Or assessing the value of others,

based on their utility for me.

 

Instead.

 

I wish to see into your eyes,

and have you look into mine;

trading in trust and purity,

exchanging understandings—

 

Making our livings

by love.

 

And by this method, and similar ones, we can catch the demons with their pants down, and make the world a better place within us.

 

~FS

 

 

 

 

Our First Ride

Twenty-five years ago, perhaps a little longer, I did my last long bicycle ride. Today, I still ride a bit, and commute by bike, but I pretty much figured my significant riding was behind me.  However, recently my wife got a new bike and encouraged me to join her on longer rides. I resisted at first, remembering the saddle-sore associated with rides of several hours or more, and rather preferring long-sitting on the couch reading, to long rides on a hard seat.

But I could see how much she wanted a biking partner, and it did seem like a good way to spend time together, so I rode a few times with her, just for a half-hour or so on some shorter local rides around town. Eventually I bought a new bike of my own, in hopes of giving myself a fighting chance of keeping up with her, and the bicycling bug bit me again—the wind in the hair, the smell of the grass and trees, the closeness to the rhythms and harmonies of the earth. I was hooked.

A few days ago we did our first longer bike ride together. We rode the Centennial Trail north of Seattle, which is 60 miles roundtrip: beginning at the southern trailhead in downtown Snohomish, WA, traveling north through Arlington and on to the northern trailhead at the Nakashima Heritage Barn near the Skagit County line, and then back again.

It was a beautiful, clear and crisp fall day. And it was exciting. Our first real bicycling adventure together and what a perfect trail to initiate ourselves. The trail is generally flat and meanders through small towns, across pastures, over old trestle-bridges spanning several rivers and creeks, and alongside forested areas; it overlooks wide agricultural valleys, and shoulders up against small lakes as it winds its way northward.

Under canopies of big-leaf maples the trail is strewn with fallen leaves the color of gold and pumpkin, which crackle and crunch under our tires. We pass small farms, smell the sweet scent of freshly cut grass, hear the sounds of life as we ride by, and encounter new surprises again and again as we make our way along the trail.

Everyone knows that smells can unlock old memories. Taking up old activities again can also awaken long-forgotten feelings. This bicycle ride was reviving in me an exhilarating freedom, a return to youth. As we coasted under the trees, I felt a strong and vivid remembrance of a younger me—one with a future of endless possibilities, living in a world of simple pleasures, and enjoying the moment, without concern for tomorrow. With very little effort I imagined myself back there again, in that time, in my youth, riding as I had over 25 years before.

We felt so alive, my wife and I, as we pedaled our way along the trail. Which is so great, because as the ride wore on, most of my extremities began to give out, and felt as though they were slowly dying. We were pounding the pedals fairly hard, at least from my perspective, because, glancing over at my wife it didn’t appear that she was working nearly as hard as me; and for most of the ride my left foot had gone numb. I don’t have great circulation so I’m guessing this was the problem.

At some point along the way my right foot also started to tingle, and eventually it also stopped sending signals back to my brain. But I wanted to keep up with her, so as long as I could still pedal I was all for it; besides it was just such a beautiful day, I didn’t want to complain. Although I did. I complained and whined quite a bit and shook my right foot, and then my left foot every so often to prove that I was telling the truth.

In the meantime my right hand also went numb. It seemed every extremity of mine was slowly shutting down, in protest to all the activity. I still had feeling in my left hand and unfortunately in my behind. That seemed to be the one area where all my feeling was concentrated. As we continued to ride, it felt hotter and hotter back there. It was as if a ring of fire had encircled, and was now devouring my rear end.

But what a beautiful day. And the trail is one of the most beautiful you could hope for, with such varied and picturesque scenery. Traveling this way, by bicycle, one gets to experience the sights, the sounds, the smells, all of the senses in a full and complete way, uninsulated from one’s surroundings, with nothing to come between you and your environment. And the pace of travel by bicycle is delightful and relaxing, offering opportunities for enriching experiences with other bicyclists, walkers on the trail, dogs and other creatures, children and townsfolk.

There is something about bicycling that breaks down walls, piques interest, and makes people happy. Some cyclists take things very seriously and look extremely determined but I suspect even those, if you could catch them and talk with them for a moment, you’d find a fun-loving kid underneath all that riding gear and equipment.

Getting outside and experiencing life in this way is a genuine breath of fresh air and is as easy as riding a bike.

~FS

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2—New Beginnings

Chapter 2—New Beginnings

Spring is a time of new beginnings. We have all felt the excitement and joy of anticipation for warmer weather and longer days coming soon. For Fritz and Rocco it was also a time of growth and discovery.

Rocco had found his voice much earlier than Fritz. In fact, for months, perhaps longer, Fritz never made a sound. He watched his brother with interest when Rocco would bark at some unexpected noise, or growl at the neighbor’s dog, Lucy, who came uninvited into their yard to smell the shrubs, and ‘water’ the lawn. Rocco’s growl was like a little lion’s—a very little, little lion.

And his bark came in tiny bursts, short staccato outbursts, in groups of threes or fours. This was his song: it began with a low murmuring, barely audible, and grew into a full throated growl, and the growl terminated in a crescendo of stabbing barks. He was a maestro, with themes and variations on this pattern, but all of his utterings were signature Rocco. None lasted very long, mere movements, a phrase or a line, but never a symphony. If he were a poet he would utter limericks or haiku, never epics.

Fritz was the silent partner. But one afternoon he found his unexpected voice in a most surprising way. Fritz is a spinner. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen a dog that can spin such tight circles, so swiftly as Fritz can, and if you have seen this, you’ve probably become very dizzy as you watched them. But when Fritz plays, he has to spin, he can’t help himself. He hears some kind of music in his head, and when the music plays, he just has to dance. But it isn’t just a dance, it is also a sport, like Judo, or Karate, or most especially like Capoeira, that rare and beautiful blending of martial arts, acrobatics and dance.

Fritz spins, stops, dodges left and quickly right, then spins in the opposite direction, and bounds across the room, leaps onto a chair, spins, turns and leaps off the chair, briefly touches the floor and propels himself up onto the couch, stops, looks left, looks right, and somersaults onto the floor, landing face to face with Rocco. Rocco looks bewildered. What just happened?! Before Rocco can collect his wits enough to begin to growl, Fritz spins again, round and round and round again, in quick succession, and then he stops and…he coos.

Yes, he makes that same fluttery cooing sound mostly associated with pigeons or with doves. Fritz looks around to see where the noise came from, Rocco looks also, then they look at each other for a moment, and Fritz coos again. Rocco steps back, unsure what to do next. Fritz understands now that he is responsible for this new and unfamiliar sound so he does it yet again. And then he spins and stops and coos one last time.

Over time Fritz learned to turn his cooing into more of a hollow howl, and then ultimately into a true dog bark. Even so, when he gets excited and begins his special dancing, he often includes his unique cooing as accompaniment, saving his barks for other things, such as neighborhood dogs, the cat next door, and errant squirrels.

~FS

Chapter 1: Introductions

Not long ago, into a world of warmth and love, two puppies were born. Theirs was a world of discovery and of peace. A place of wild, simple exuberance, and of long, cozy naps. Nestled into the blankets, with their brothers and their sisters all around, they slept, and they dreamt of things unknown to us.

 

Half-brothers, born four days apart, they shared all the hallmarks of their breed: little button noses, soft wavy hair, large wide-set eyes so dark and deep and sparkling, fluffy tails that curved upwards and over their backs when they walked, and proud little chests containing gentle, loving hearts within.

 

Fritz was the younger, with russet brown hair, hazel eyes, and had a love for comfortable pillows. Rocco, though older by just a little, was smaller than his brother. He was black and white, with dark brown eyes, and had a love of writing pens.

 

They began their lives, and happily passed the days, sleeping amongst the pile of warm hair and fluff that was their family and their tribe. Their siblings provided heat and security, while their parents were always nearby, ready to calm a fight, with a kick or a swipe of the paw, or ready with a warm, wet lick to soothe the hurt of a fall.

 

My wife and I first met them on a cold winter day in February. The leaves had long since fallen from the trees and the sky was a cloudy grayish-white. As we entered their home, the rooms were filled with the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking, and of coffee brewing. Of course the dogs weren’t responsible for either of these, they were still only puppies after all, and their minds were filled with other things.

 

Rocco had found a new black pen that someone had dropped on the floor, under the desk in the kitchen the night before, and this was occupying his attention. Not that any of his siblings were interested in his treasure, but nevertheless he protected it with determination and enthusiasm.

 

Barely larger than the pen himself, at a mere eight ounces, he could easily fit entirely into the palm of your hand. But what he lacked in size he made up for with ambition; and he fancied himself to be a ferocious tiger.

 

Fritz was dreaming, and by all appearances he seemed to be in a hurry to get someplace or to find someone. For as he slept, his little body twitched, and his little paws danced as they tapped the pillow, or stretched into the air as he rolled over onto his back. A big huge yawn revealed a little mouth beginning to fill with baby teeth, and a tiny pink tongue which curled up and out and touched his nose.

 

 

 

We came to bring them to a new home, a place of equal warmth and affection to the one they had grown accustomed to, a place that also smelled of chocolate chip cookies (which they would soon learn to desire, but couldn’t have) and of coffee (which they had no use for at all).

 

They left their parents and siblings behind, but this is the nature of things in the world of dogs, and they didn’t miss them, well, perhaps a little, but they had many new things to distract and occupy their attention and they usually forgot from where they had come. Neither did they know where they were going but this also was of no concern. They were comfortably consumed with the moment they were living, the treats they were eating, the squirrels they were chasing, or the adventures they were creating.

~FS

 

 

 

 

Come Back, Please

Healing…Elusive…what will become of me? I’m no better now than I was on March 28 when she died. In fact, I may be worse off now. I’ve been told it is depression, by several people. How could that be? Nothing happened to me. Death happened to somebody else.

 

But something did happen to me and I can’t reverse it. It seems like it should just be hyperbole, or the stuff of a good poem, or something that tugs at the heart and then we move on.

 

But I don’t move on, and it doesn’t go away either. She died and somehow that is making all the difference in the world. The world is different now. My world has changed so substantially, emotionally and in my thoughts, that it isn’t recognizable to me. I’ve written about this before so I’m not sure why I find it so surprising. In fact as I write this I find it tedious and rather boring. Same old, same old…

 

However, the part of me that takes an interest in observing myself, is shocked and more than a little scared by all of this. It isn’t an experiment, or a clinical trial, as I’m so in the habit of treating my life’s events. This is bigger than me and seems to have swept me away, or is sweeping me, or will sweep, or could sweep…I’m not sure which.

 

I have a wonderful wife. I have fantastic friends. A very good job, with kind and loving co-workers. My dogs bring me great joy and I get lots of exercise. In many ways things are better now than ever. My life has a depth and beauty that I’ve long sought and I’m very grateful for this. It’s a wonderful life…

 

and yet, without her, I feel such emptiness within. I reiterate, I have a wonderful wife, and a wonderful life, and at the same time I am empty…

 

God.

 

Of course, this is the answer that comes to mind and heart. For me, I know this is the answer but I’m not feeling it, or experiencing it, or however you’d like to say it, and right now, this isn’t the answer. It should be the answer? It could be the answer? But it isn’t.

 

My prayers actually are quite good and I have a regular habit of prayer each morning and evening and at certain intervals throughout the day, along with my attempts at praying without ceasing throughout the day which is admittedly spotty but also somewhat consistent. Generally I feel God’s presence and I know His love, except at times of fatigue and weariness in life’s battles.

 

Even with all of this, I still feel empty and alone within my being. And I want to return to how it was before she died. It is a vast emptiness and an acute longing. The only solution that is any good is the only one that can never happen. I’d like her to come back please.

~FS

The Wretched

The Wretched

St Paul says that we are the most to be pitied among all men if our hope in Christ is only for this life, and if there is no victory over death, and no resurrection.

We don’t need Christ in order to enjoy the beauty of this world, nor do we need him in order to explain creation. We don’t even need Christ to enjoy this life, or find purpose and meaning in our lives.

In fact, morality, virtue and ethics are not exclusive to followers of Christ, and this fact is evident to everyone. Good living is not dependent on Christ.

The only thing that can come to us in no other way is a good eternal life; with Jesus alone we are promised victory over death, and an eternal life to anticipate with joy and thankfulness.

But where is our salvation? How can I know this promise is true, that I’m not being duped. We’ve heard the story, the eyewitness accounts to His resurrection, the hundreds of people who staked their reputations and their lives upon this account, even on what they witnessed first-hand with their own eyes.

But that was two thousand years ago. It starts to sound a little like a fairy tale. Is Jesus my imaginary friend? Even if the accounts are true, and it happened just like that, somehow the waiting is demoralizing and frustrating.

We wait upon God’s perfect timing and we trust in Him. We live by faith, and are justified by this. Perfect endurance will have its perfect reward and those who endure to the end will wear the crown—the crown of eternal life.

Meanwhile here I am, waiting in this valley of tears, under the shadow of death. I sit in my room trying to communicate with God, but without the apparatus to do so. I’m a radioman without a radio, an internet surfer without a computer (or smartphone). My prayers, like sonar, bounce off the walls and echo back inside my head.

Why is it so hard?

Well, I’m not ready to see him anyway, most likely. I’m filthy and shameful and need more time. But what do I really do with all this time? I watch television. I earn money and spend it. I eat far more than I need. And I struggle.

Oh wretched man that I am. One moment talking to an empty room inside my soul, the next running in circles trying to get somewhere; anywhere, just not here. What a way to spend the day.

I know I’m not alone

The Stranger

I feel that I must explain something to you, although you may not pay any attention; nevertheless, this is something that I feel must be told—for my own sake, and maybe for the sake of another.

 

Most days, not long after I wake up each morning, I no longer recognize myself. I used to see myself in the smile of another, after I’ve said something mildly humorous to them; and I recognized myself in the lighthearted replies of those I met throughout the day.  But I no longer see that, nor do I fully trust it when I do–

 

because my smile used to be genuine, born out of a joy of life and a trust in the wholesomeness and godliness of everything I encountered. I didn’t question this even though there was obviously plenty of empirical information to the contrary (just watch the news for a few minutes).

 

I feel I must apologize to the optimists, and those who still enjoy this beautiful world. I feel as if I’ve left your team, although I can’t say that I’ve left by choice; somehow I feel I was taken, or traded off the team through some cosmic deal.

 

Now my smile is generated by a visitor within me, at the direction of my heart, to save others from seeing the sorrow that exists behind my eyes. And I wonder now, if the smiles of those I meet, are also made by these same visitors, for the same purpose of saving others the pain of seeing the sorrow we each hold inside.

 

God sometimes puts us in a coma, when the pain is too painful to bear, to allow us to heal unconsciously over time. Perhaps I’m in an emotional coma, walking anaesthetized, so as not to explode, or implode along the way.

 

I’ve become a stranger to my life. It is the same world, I’m certain — it hasn’t changed — but I’ve changed, and somehow I don’t fit in my own life anymore. Isn’t that strange?

 

I said earlier that it takes some time after I wake up each day, to lose track of myself — so for a while I am still intact. And this is true, thank God; sleep resets my personhood each night, and I rise in the morning restored. Beautiful sleep, that time and place without anxiety, or the fear of loss. I know this is a blessing, as not everyone can say this; for some the anxiety and fear follows them into their dreams.

 

There is one other place and time where the strangeness of my life falls away, and I recognize myself again—in prayer. Isn’t that beautiful? That time when I seek God and call upon Him — is the same time when I find myself again.

 

I think we should all pray a lot more than we do: for the peace of mind, the joy of heart, and for the love of God.  When we do, we are no longer strangers to ourselves.

~FS

Exquisite Intimacy

None of us knew what we had, until it was gone; or if we did know in part, we didn’t fully understand, until it all became just a memory.

In his prime, my step-father had a regal bearing; he was tall, and stood even taller in my thoughts and feelings towards him. He wore turtlenecks which to me as a child, added to his stature and somehow gave his face and frame a look of royalty.

I also admired my father; more for his mind and helpful advice than for his appearance or actions. Also, he was kind, and aside from a certain disquiet in his soul, which led to a recurring dalliance in his life choices, he was otherwise trustworthy and a man of integrity.

My mother was all things to me and though we had our disagreements, we also had each other’s backs and we faced the world’s assaults together.

My brother was eleven years older than me and so we didn’t know each other very well. We were amicable but generally distant; this in part due to the difference in age, but more due to his reclusive nature. Over the years I came to accept this distance and that he preferred to live as a bit of a hermit, at least towards his family, and that we probably would never really be very close.

So I was surprised when he invited me one day to have lunch with him and spend the afternoon in the redwoods. He even went to the trouble of making cheese sandwiches for us and packing them, along with sodas, into brown lunch bags for our outing. After thirty-eight years we finally had lunch together. And we became friends.  This led to semi-regular phone calls to each other and discussions about sports cars, foreign and domestic, and other important life matters.

We enjoyed one more lunch together, about two years later. This time he treated my wife and I to a meal at his favorite Japanese restaurant; the kind where they cook the meal there at your table. There was an exquisite intimacy in that meal: the gift of his time, the quietness and the laughter shared between the three of us, the warmth and the affection, the glasses of red wine.

I will always remember the red wine, so pretty in the glass. My brother loved red wine. Sometimes he loved it too much. A month after this meal, on his way home from a dinner with a friend, he was pulled over and arrested for driving while intoxicated. Because of this he lost his license, and then his job as a bus driver, and a few weeks later he shot himself.

Our last phone conversation, a few days earlier had focused on God, death and the afterlife. I suppose he was mulling his options, though I only understood that, too late.

Several months later my step-father fell and broke his hip. He went to a rehab center but his health slowly began to decline. We hoped for a recovery however, week by week he lost strength. One day while my mom and I were visiting him he asked me to give his face a shave. He had an electric razor on the nightstand beside his bed.

Here it was again, that exquisite intimacy: the gift of his time, the quietness, the warmth and affection, just as it had been during that last meal with my brother. Here I was shaving the face of that man I always admired, that royal face. I did the best with my moment and the honor I was given in caring for him in this way; I’m sure it wasn’t the best shave he’d ever had but that wasn’t for lack of trying on my part.

There is something else to say about my step-father because it is so beautiful and so endearing. He loved life with a childlike enthusiasm. There are many numerous examples from his life of this fact but what remains with me now is from our final minutes together, the last ones I would spend with him alive. On this last visit, just before I left, he asked me to push him in his wheelchair around the corridors of the rehab center.

The main hallway outside his room made one large circuit, and lining the walls were paintings and large photographs. As I pushed him around this circuit he asked me to stop at most of these, and we admired them together. They were of trees, or landscapes mostly, while some were of sunsets or sunrises. Of each he had multiple comments as to their beauty and how much they meant to him, or how they reminded him of his childhood or some other time in his life. Each painting or photo was greeted with appreciation; and he approached each one, in the same way he lived each day, it seems, with gratefulness and benevolence. Just as one would expect of a royal and noble man such as he.

As my mom explained it to me over the phone, she was with him several weeks later, holding his hand as he was sleeping. While he peacefully slept, he graciously stepped into the next world, breathing one moment, and not the next.

Years later my mom would explain that he was the true love of her life. In the manner and tone with which she explained this however she also conveyed the truth that she never really understood this fact at the time, or expressed it to him fully while they were together, and she wished she had.

I hadn’t seen or spoken with my dad for several years. I had joined a spiritual community in my early twenties and had been living a nomadic life; traveling, living and working in various states, which precluded much contact with friends and family. To earn money I did landscaping work and sold this service door to door. One day I was out walking the streets, knocking on doors as I typically would do in the afternoon, when I felt certain I was about to see my dad.

It was one of those rare times in which I sensed that what was about to happen would be an important and seminal moment in my life.  A car came into view, approaching up the street and I knew it would be him so I stepped off the curb and flagged him down. In my childhood, he and I had been affectionate, he was not afraid to give me a hug, but I can’t remember a time that we ever held each other’s hands. I got into his car and we began to talk and to catch up on each other’s lives. And as we spoke we took each other’s hands. It was such an unnatural thing for us to do and yet it felt extremely natural. Our time was short as he was late for an appointment and had to get going. I felt the urgency to tell him how much I loved him and how much he meant to me, and my gratitude for his role in my life. He expressed similar feelings of love and affection, and all the while we kept holding hands. I will always remember how unusual, how strange, and also how wonderful that was.

Later that year I called my mom and she had the difficult task of telling me that my father had died several months earlier. They had tried to find me, to tell me, so I could go to the funeral but they had no way to contact me, and didn’t know where I was, or how to reach me. She was so sorry that I didn’t know about his death but I explained to her that I did know. I knew back then in his car, as we were holding hands, that I would never see him again, and that this would be the last time to hold him, and to express my true feelings for him.

Not long ago my mother also stepped into the next world, having taken her last breath for the journey, and leaving my sisters and I with a house full of memories. Our final months together were filled with tenderness and intimacy. She could hardly say a word and she spent most of her days and nights with her eyes shut and seemingly asleep, but she knew when we were near.

As she lay in her bed, we held wordless conversations, communicating love through the simplicity of touch. She had beautiful silver hair, and while it had thinned considerably, she still enjoyed occasionally having it combed, and it was a joy to have the opportunity to do that for her.

My heart is filled by the memory of her thinning hair, her sunken cheeks and deep eye sockets, her bruised papery skin and bony hands; all things which sound ugly and disturbing, and yet to me, as I see them on her, are symbols and representations of perfect beauty; because she could be nothing less than supremely beautiful in whatever appearance she presented.

Of course I have surrounded myself with photos of her in earlier times: smiling photos, full of life, joy and health. These also are beautiful, but the memories that now fill me most with love and gratitude are from these final months together, while death began to pull us apart, dwelling within that exquisite intimacy.