Job 2.0

Saturday morning misty grey, foggy cold dewdrops hang from branches of trees recently colored and now deep brown and black and sad. I cannot say that I am unaffected by the scene outside my window. Somehow, the picture outside mirrors me inside, working through another chapter in the diary of my journey home, too reflective of the fog and damp, too conscious of the new life lessons dis ease continues to thrust upon me–this educational guest I did not invite to visit with me or anyone else–inside. If I can just part the curtain of noise and haze, clear the fog of the path, down to the quiet center, a small ember, a tiny light burning, telling me to be still and know, this is nothing.

God asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?”[1]

What could be so obfuscated, so misty? I must learn to sing this new song with its unfamiliar tempo, these strange rhythms, this atonal identity where engagement and work and institution no longer exist in tonal harmony. It is a place where demons tread, mocking questions in the night, purposeless rolling around the condo by day – what good are you now if you do not work? No response can adequately answer, and it never could. Consider it honest documentation of the path, for the question arises no matter what—I was inculcated, powerfully reinforced to tie work and self together in an intimacy reserved for lovers. And while I saw it coming–the day when I left, when I gave up the responsibilities, the day when I achieved the ultimate enlightenment of loss–the post apocalypse still remains. And I rattle around the tempting Bob Dylan question, “what good am I?”

God asks, “Who is this darkening counsel with words lacking knowledge?”

It isn’t that I won’t get through this. It isn’t that I don’t see the necessity and the rightness of what I have done. It isn’t that my worth suddenly plunged off a cliff once I stopped working. But my heart’s love is still catching up with my head’s logic. Feelings and emotions are the hare in the race—fast out of the gate yet falling behind the tortoise of well-worked thinking. And both of these sides of me, the feeling and sensing, the thinking and analyzing, intertwine back and forth, a roadway of rollers where speed and momentum only get you through the first climb of quasi-despair. Logic and sadness dictate the realization that even had I not left, I would be questioning the same as I am questioning now. These are my gray fog mists, my dewdrops waiting to fall from melancholy trees to be sucked up into the dry air, evaporated before they reach bottom.

God demands, “Prepare yourself like a man; I will interrogate you, and you will respond to me. Would you question my justice, deem me guilty so you can be innocent?”

This week, I spoke with my dear sister five time zones away, and we shared the intimacy of losses both experienced and expected. She anticipates, a parent in her ninth decade, ancient and susceptible and vulnerable and old. There is nothing to say except to love the fact that such hurt is present, even though the fear is in the future moment. I have experienced such anticipation, and even for the most centered and mindful soul, such reality overwhelms the stillness. It is like biting one’s tongue, only to return to the point of swelling as susceptible to another and another bite. And as we center on the anticipation and the memory and the rebirth that is still taking place, the clarifying realization emerges that it is not an easy center, and your own consciousness does not spare you from grieving and loss and hurt.

God asks, “Have death’s gates been revealed to you; can you see the gates of deep darkness? Have you surveyed earth’s expanses? Tell me if you know everything about it.”

This week, I bribed my kids to take me to the Led Zeppelin “Celebration Day” movie event. It was a full house, and it was fun and most of all, it was time away from the sorrow. We bathed in waterwalls of sound, washing over us, piquing us not through the profound and new, but through the shared experience of rock and roll and rhythm and blues and love of my kids. I did not anticipate the lightness, for I expected to be tired and a little out of sorts given the hour’s lateness. But now, in the mist and grayness of a Saturday cadence to a rhythmically struggling search for the new path, this brief time together is a memory of strength and light and smiles and joy. Oh, and Jimmy Page can still put out in a way that leaves you breathless.

God asks, “Where’s the road to the place where light dwells; darkness, where’s it located?”

And then, there was Friday’s visit by my colleague and friend and secret school principal ally who came to see me, ostensibly to talk through a couple of program opportunities back in the trenches. He showed me some of the testimonial that he has collected to interpret the meaning of the work we used to do together, that he still carries on. By the end of his visit, my heart was lighter as the wellspring of 25 years of accrued experience was tapped and opened, relieving the pressure that self-worth’s questions can build. Did he really come for a consultation, or did he just sense that for a friend, such a conversation would offer the briefest of needed respite from the journey? I don’t know, and I doubt if he would say, but I know that the discussion was good for my soul, and it allowed me to plunge back into the necessary darkness of working this out.

Job answers, “Look, I’m of little worth. What can I answer you? I’ll put my hand over my mouth. I have spoken once, I won’t answer; twice, I won’t do it again.”

I’d like to pretend that there was some large message, some portent of a greater awareness, a higher consciousness, a communion with God that I could point to over the past week. But I have experienced nothing so large or significant. It has been mist and gray and damp and cold and dewdrops waiting to fall. It has been the “Dangling Conversation… voices out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme…” It has been enforced presence, well beyond the center that I hang onto for now. And yes, for the first time in a long time, it was tears beyond the catch in the throat and the leak out the side. It was sobbing, hiccuping, snotty nosed cannot catch your breath sorrow.

Job continues, “You said,‘Who is this darkening counsel without knowledge?’ I have indeed spoken about things I didn’t understand, wonders beyond my comprehension.”

The day after yesterday gives the best reason that we live in Minnesota. Cool and crisp and blue and sun, it lifts the spirits beyond the sorrow. I don’t know how much longer I will live. I know that I am dying. But this is not new knowledge, and it is not ALS. It has always been so. Dis ease only changes the circumstance and the speed, but the knowledge remains as it was. The autumn sky removes the blinders, so that even despair has a hidden joy.

Job ends, You said,‘Listen and I will speak; I will question you and you will inform me.’ My ears had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I relent and find comfort on dust and ashes.”

And a still voice within continues to sing a new song.


[1] All quotes, unless otherwise noted, from the Book of Job, Chapters 38 & 40, Common English Bible

What Do You Do?

This is my first week of freedom from the work activities so at odds with my waning physical capacity, and I find myself answering more often than I would have guessed the question, “So, what do you do with yourself all day?”

This new normal of not working requires a settling period where the rhythms and tempi of dis ease can play out in quest of finding wholeness with what I can do, what is within my physical scope. I planned for this time as one plans the books to carry on a six month ocean cruise–sweet reads and thrillers and intellect and poetry and at least one book I should have finished years ago, War and Peace comes to mind. These reading lists are never complete, never adequate, often well intentioned, and in the throes of the vacation (technically I am on vacation until the end of the month), they are realizations of the accuracy of predictions for the time you have on your hands. Such is the new way of dis ease and its minion ALS, and frankly, I do not feel their gratefulness for embracing this new routine.

So, what do I do with myself all day?

I have planned for this time with a sense of purpose, much like I would plan one of our many travel forays in the near and far history of Bruce and Ev and fam. My experience is that travel is best when it is both deliberate and open to the reality of the destination. Beyond the breathless descriptions of the travel books and websites, travel is a dish best served with plenty of acknowledgment of just how little control we actually exercise when we leave familiar confines, especially in a place never experienced before. In my former life of working, I could plan because the work had such a familiar smell, taste, feel to me, and when control of that existence got away, I always knew where and how to restore the stasis needed to remain on an even keel. What I did not realize about this new normal in which I now find myself was that stasis would be the norm, and creative disruptions must almost be planned.

Before you decide I need to be surprised by something wholly spontaneous like randomly appearing clowns or the sudden sighting of balloon people, let me explain this planned disruption a little further. The creative force in my worklife was almost always the result of tension between what I knew and the unknown that existed outside the collective experiences of me and my team. As one who sought to pay attention to the complex balance of standard operating procedures and novel challenges I found the moral imagination required just to maintain stasis to be breathtaking, and I learned early on that it was important to be open to the reality that the standard operations in place were probably inadequate to the challenges at hand. In short, I learned that no matter how well you plan for the upcoming moment, there must be some space reserved for the fact that there will be significant differences between the moment as planned and the moment as experienced, and thus the need for systemic creativity and focus, whether it was a musical group or a college, was paramount.

One of the sweet, quasi planned-fors of this new post-work existence is lunch with friends. This week, I have had lunch four out of five days with loved ones, each with their own interests and joys and yes, the sustenance that I cannot furnish for myself. I cannot begin to tell you what this has meant to me. Each brings food and conversation, focus and the outside to a day that could easily degenerate into questions of worth–self, life, death. I have enjoyed this mid-day time immensely, more than I thought I would, given the dual meaning of my needs. My friends are so pleasant, and there is nothing so healing to the soul as food prepared or brought by another. And of course the meal radiates both the warmth of nourishment shared and the continued progress of a body winding its way to nothingness. We have forewarned all with a portent of things to come–“Please note that his hands are weaker so foods such as soups may require more assistance for him to eat.” Translation–this isn’t just about fixing him food. You might have to feed him soon–nudge, nudge, wink, wink. And so the days take on a rhythm that orbits around the golden mean of such dichotomous meaning.

So now, I experience my old normal leadership phenomena, only inverted and inside out. The purpose perceived from the planning side of the road looks a lot simpler than the purpose perceived after making the crossing. Like the difference between the map representation and the actual winding dirt ribbon that disappears into the distant hills, the journey only partially resembles the once predicted pathway. There are the inevitable bumps and gravel and potholes and detours, but it is the roar of threatening monotony, days too predictable, the sound of routine’s footsteps that haunt me. While I really hope this goes according to plan, it cannot be the lockstep, inflexible agenda one gets with booking a bus tour to “see” all the major sites of a city from the gawking safety of a comfortable seat, window in between, in three hours or less. Such a tour is maddeningly predictable and mindfully dulling.

And I admit, my new normal has some of that bus-tour flavor. It is easy to get up and let the time between my PCA’s departure and my friends’ lunchtime arrival whiz by in the windowed confines of my lovely space. Without moving, the outdoors is a blur of activity beyond my investigative ability. It is chilling, soporific and it blunts the intellect. And when all else fails, I nap profusely, accomplishing the work of winding down little by little, sleep to sleep to sleep.

In this new space, the disruptions for imagination and creativity, for meaning, for the very real work of living with keen awareness of my mortality, must out of eternal necessity, come from within. There is nothing out there that holds the same power or significance as the inside work I hope to do. I now fully understand why my grandmother said to me three weeks before her death, “I don’t want you to send me anything anymore.” And while I do not plan to die in three weeks, the material items of this plain of existence have been remarkably diminished in worth, and the only thing that has value for me that I feel has any relationship to wherever it is that the next destination takes me, is the love of friends and family, my one true love, as it has always been. If my arms could rise to the embrace, if my mouth could kiss this all away, if my tears could cleanse the doubt and physical memory where humiliation and regret live, if you could know how much, oh how much I love and feel and laugh and weep this new life; then, then what? It is almost on cue, the orchestrated life with chords dripping irony and quiet realization.

What do you do with yourself all day? I eat lunch with friends who don’t seem to mind my strengthening weakness. What do you do?

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In Minnesota, the weather can turn and change and spin on a dime. At the beginning of this past week–sunny days with temperatures in the high 70s, trees full of color glittering in bright sunshine, and blue skies clear as a bell, glorious to behold–held sway. In less than 12 hours, summer’s last gasp was blown away by blustery winds, and trees once clad in autumnal beauty stood naked rattling against gray, snow swept skies. It is the earliest I have ever seen snow in my life. And the weather of the week symbolized the journey from a day before dis ease was my constant companion to a day where I was lucky enough to grieve the greatest loss thus far. This week, on a day when the sun could not break through, and clouds hung heavy and oppressive in their steely color, I said farewell to my beloved colleagues and friends and began the life that I have sought to avoid for 22 months. On Thursday, I stepped down from the responsibilities of working for the first time in 45 years.

I don’t want to wallow in the causes. Suffice it to say that dis ease has asked me to turn my face to a future that is just a little closer than I wish it to be. To stop working is a statement of physical health that I have twisted and turned and denied and avoided, balancing on a razor’s edge atop an increasingly widening precipice, hiding out until the reality that stalked me had passed by, embracing any and all solutions that would allow me to continue something that felt like life well lived. Stopping work means overwhelming emptiness, blind grief pressing down on my eyes and my heart, light pulled from meaningful engagement and passion and complexity and joy and yes, occasional irritation that allowed me to be in communion with so many people of faith toward some common good. We stood together on behalf of our children, the poor, the vulnerable, those who would require wise leadership, or effective education, or healing counsel. I won’t wallow in the causes.

I want to tell you three privileges granted to me, just three.

On my last day of work, I was allowed the privilege of speaking with my colleagues one more time, a privilege of tears and love and hugs and kisses and the knowledge of just how blessed I have been. On the day that I left, I was granted the privilege of a professional coda–one last restatement of a theme of gathering in which the participants, knowing this was my last day suggested, “We don’t have to do this you know;” respecting my answer, “Please let’s do this according to plan;” fostering one last spirited communion with good people who have the well-being of my beloved college in their bones, allowing a professional punctuation to my too short career. And on the day that I left, one of my colleagues reminded me of a dear friend who had made it his practice to never let a valued educator leave the building for the last time alone. I was given the privilege of facing the end with my remarkable second floor staff, in its entirety, walking with me as I rolled one last time as dean of the college, down the hall to the elevator that would take me to my waiting van below. These are three privileges I wanted to tell you, three.

And as I reread the above, I want to tell you three losses, three losses suddenly clear.

In the past month, knowing Thursday must eventually arrive, I turned my energy and attention with precise, pinpoint focus on the tasks required so that I could believe all would carry on. I turned my energy and attention to the tasks of succession, the last day, moving out, moving past. And I missed beauty and companionship and love right in front of me.

In the past month, I missed the death of a dear brother in ALS. Rob was one who changed the conversation about the dis ease. His postings in the forums were in the thousands, and he exhorted us to take anything we could share, anything we could give, anything that could further the understanding of this insidious sickness and offer it freely in new ways, ways that might not be understood by the research powers that be, but might, with creativity and new methodology result in effective treatments. But even more important was his generosity and his bravery. He took on, in a kind but firm way, the hard stuff of dying. And he chose no extraordinary measures, and I missed his death and the chance to thank him.

And in the past month, I missed the beauty of life lived in the moment, because I existed in the future. I missed subtle hints of physical loss that left me surprised, angry and humiliated as they were suddenly realized. I missed knowing the last time even when the last time was screaming in my face. And when the last times came, I was so focused on the final ending, I missed their beginnings.

Three plus three.

Cathy Wurzer of MPR asked me how I would think of myself, once I stopped working. Perhaps it is my music background, for musicians learn to think of themselves as musicians first, and then what they do, where they do it and for whom as punctuation to the fact. I cannot help but think of Yo Yo Ma. He is first and foremost a ‘cellist, remarkably accomplished in the West’s great 17th through 20th century works, then adding new ears, new skills in Eastern, African, Brazilian and even traditional American genres. And he uses these skills and his most accomplished core identity to venture into new venues beyond the traditional concert hall, so that space and time and music and Yo Yo Ma are one and the same.

Though my musician identity does not deserve mention in the same breath as Yo Yo Ma, music taught me early on to balance the strange conditional tensions between who I am, what I do and where I do it. This is the bizarre walk so many of us are required to walk these days. Each of us brings an identity, a core human to the task at hand. Each of us refines our skills, our capabilities, our techné into some level of more or less competence. And more often than not, we are asked to hold these things separate and isolated from each other. Loyalty to place and colleagues is supplanted by “doing the job,” and the self-protection of a “work isn’t life” attitude encourages us to operate in an unholy arena of siloed selves, where never the person we are, the capabilities we have developed, and the places where we bring these human gifts, should meet. It is no wonder that we feel so disjointed and at odds with ourselves. In the name of something else–profit, power, efficiency, effectiveness–balance is diminished.

My answer for Cathy was based in balance and music and education. I have been blessed to work in a place where identity and capability and space intertwine and become one. I was granted the opportunity to bring who I was, to develop new capacities along the way in a space that changed to reflect the needs at hand, and I became the teacher that I was destined to become. Balance compels me to teach a little when the need arises.

Minnesota weather speaks a past month of knowing the balance between summer and autumn, privilege and loss. Grief’s hint of winter’s death remains raw in my heart.  My future is more real than ever before, for such grief is just rehearsal for the great performance, in spaces where identity and capacity and place are synergistic, where loss and privilege are the blessings of a life well lived. And I will turn my teacher’s face toward the next dis eased space and the next, and hope to God I grow enough to remain balanced in the moments life’s winter will bring.

And if nothing else, I know the path to the final place need not be walked alone.