The Day Death Chose Not to Stop

I remember hearing the sound of a violent crash. The next thing I knew, I awoke, only to see a spidered windshield and deformed car door pressing against me. Concussion-induced amnesia stole from me (perhaps protected me from) other memories adjacent to the collision.

I do recall emergency personnel being on site, but don’t recall being extricated from the car or loaded into the ambulance. Vera, I remember calling your grandmother from the ambulance because I was concerned she’d go to the airport to meet me as planned. But I don’t recall sending an email and photo to her and your dad and uncle, although later I was presented with proof that I had. It was an odd thing to have done.

I recall arriving at the trauma center, the hall lined on both sides with medical personnel anticipating my arrival. Once on the table, I recall someone struggling to remove my wedding ring, to no avail. I recall suggesting lubricant. It worked.

I recall someone cutting off all my clothes. And I remember a doctor examining my spine for injury. I especially recall the intense pain as I was rolled on my side as they checked for internal hemorrhaging.

I’m sure there had to be more, but that’s all I remember, until being moved for a CAT scan. A short time later, I recall the excruciating pain as technicians endeavored to move me into position for x-rays.

Twelve hours later, after IV drips, pain meds, more tests, sutures, a failed attempt to set a bone, and a splint being plastered on me, I was discharged, barely able to walk but one lucky guy.

Reflecting on this day later, the thing that stood out for me, through it all — the trauma, pain and vast unknowns — is that I hadn’t experienced a single moment of fear.

It wasn’t a matter of courage. It was more like an act of grace. And peace.

Beginning with the moment I regained consciousness to the present, I have been experiencing an overwhelming sense of gratitude, and the feeling that death had passed by on that road, but for reasons I’ll never know, decided not to stop.

The paramedic remarked that I probably would not have survived if I hadn’t been wearing my seatbelt. When looking at the crushed metal from my captive, scrunched position inside the car, and later when viewing a photo of the exterior of the car, I knew that it took more than the seatbelt to save me that morning and, at the very least, the injuries could have been much, much worse.

I’m healing now, as are the occupants of the other vehicle, who remain in my constant thoughts and prayers.

Yesterday afternoon, we picked you up from your school, Vera. I couldn’t lift you up to put you in the car seat, and I think you’re wondering why I have so many boos-boos and a strange thing on my arm. But it doesn’t seem to matter to you. And it doesn’t matter to me, either.

Today, I will be wheeled into an operating room for back-to-back surgeries. Bone stuff — nothing life threatening. And then I will get to know my oral surgeon and dentist even better. There are worse ways to spend time.

Along this short, intense journey, I’ve encountered people of compassion, ranging from health care professionals, taxi and shuttle drivers, airlines personnel, strangers who offered assistance at the airport, friends from Colorado extending their arms 1,000 miles, family and others.

I also encountered some people who weren’t helpful or, worse yet, were actively unhelpful. But I’m just going to pretend I didn’t.

Some people say they’re sorry. I don’t say it (because I appreciate their concern), but what I’m thinking is, “For what?” 

There have been times in my life that I’ve felt sorry for myself. But this hasn’t been one of them.

I used to close letters and emails (and sometimes still do) to certain people with the words, “Peace and grace to you.”

This past week, the words returned home to me.

 

Perhaps the Amish Can Teach Us a Thing or Two

I grew up in Pennsylvania, not far from Amish territory. We always regarded Amish territory as Lancaster County, although since my childhood the Amish turf has expanded. There are now quite a few Amish living in close proximity to my childhood home.

The Amish were always a novelty of sorts: buggies and horses; no cars, electricity, or phones; plain dress; bad haircuts; detachment from the broader society. It was never a life that appealed to me, yet I was aware that most kids who grew up Amish remained with the community throughout their lives, even after being given an opportunity to leave.

This morning, when reading a blog post about digital minimalism by Cal Newport (Study Hacks blog), I came across this statement about the Amish and their decision to reject much of the technology I take for granted:

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.

Such incredible intentionality, I thought.

It’s hard to imagine a community that consciously evaluates technology in such a way. The English (the Amish’s term for me and you) rarely if ever undertake such a self-examination. Instead, we automatically embrace new technology if we can afford it and if it brings us pleasure. Or at least if we assume it’s going to bring us pleasure (whether or not it actually does is a different question).

But are we better off for it? That’s another matter. And it’s a question we don’t wrestle with much if at all.

I do know that the Amish don’t seem to be worse off for not having embraced many of the technologies that are part of our lives — at least if the measure is happiness. And if the measure isn’t happiness, then what is it? What should it be?

I suppose the Amish would argue we (the English) tend to undervalue community and relationships. Has it occurred to us they may be right?

And if they’re right, how would we live our lives differently if we better aligned our decisions with what we truly value?

Personally, I think we tend to undervalue relationships and time. Consequently, we have a plethora of fractured families and communities, and we tend to lives our lives like there is an inexhaustible supply of time when, in reality, time is a very limited, precious resource that could be gone in a heartbeat (literally).

There are some things I think we overvalue, too. Money and stuff head the list. I never cease to be amazed by the amount of storage space Americans rent in which to keep their excess stuff. And by the amount of debt Americans carry so they can buy more stuff.

But my goal, Vera, isn’t to convince you that my list of under and over-valued things is better than anyone else’s. Rather, it’s merely to raise the questions, might the Amish be on to something? And might we be well served by extending their question (does it do more harm than good) beyond decisions about technology?

I think they are and it does.

Life constantly tempts us to compromise our values for something else.

Often, the something else is something someone wants us to embrace (and value) because they can make money off of our decision to buy it. Or pursue it. Or acquiesce to it.

Often, the something else is merely ego gratification and short-termism — the failure to learn from history and to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It may be the right thing to do. But it also might be something that undermines our values and detracts us from the things — and people — that truly matter. The things that bring happiness into our lives. Or a deep sense of purpose or contentment. Or simply peace and grace.

Does it do more harm that good?

It’s not a bad question to ask ourselves each and every day of our lives.

Too Afraid To Be Away From the Office

Americans don’t take roughly half of their allotted vacation time because of fear. Vera, if you ever find yourself in the position of being afraid to take your allowed vacation time, know that it’s time to take stock of your life.

Sixty plus years of life has convinced me that fear is the most persistent and powerful force in the universe. And that one key to a happy life is to overcome it.

It’s no easy task. In fact, some people may say it’s an impossible task. But they’re only partially right. It is impossible to conquer fear entirely, but it is quite possible not to allow it to dominant your life.

But it may take some planning. And willingness to take some risks (or what will be perceived by many people as risks).

If you’re going to be beholden to anything eternal to you, such as an employer, a particular client, an image or certain position in life, then it’s likely you’ll fear losing that thing. And it’s possible that that fear will lead you to do things you’d otherwise not do, and to feel things you’d rather not feel. It’s because the thing owns you.

The antidote to fear, in my experience, is freedom: the freedom to walk away, the freedom to live your life in harmony with your values and heartfelt desires.

Yet freedom can be illusive. Things seek to steal it, to deprive you of its glory. Fear tells us freedom is risky. Unreliable.

To the contrary, the risk lies in allowing fear to convince us that the other is the source of freedom and happiness. And that it doesn’t reside within.

We think we need more than we do. Fear convinces us of that.

Many people are afraid to spend time away from the office. They fear losing their job. Or their privileged position.

I hope you know freedom, Vera. My hope for you on this Labor Day is that you’ll never be afraid to leave the office and, if you find yourself in that position, that there will be a path out to freedom.

Mission Complete (Almost)

A chief reason we bought the house we did was walkability. My goal was to be able to walk everywhere. I’ve previously written about my late-in-life commitment to walking and hiking. One of my regrets in life is my dependency on the automobile and all the time I’ve spent in one (including long commutes and being stuck in traffic). At your grandmother’s insistence (smart woman!), this time we were going to live someplace that was highly walkable.

Mission accomplished!

We walked to the movie theatre last evening (our first experience at a cinema brewery, where you can have dinner at your seat). Other places walked this past week or so include the grocery store, optometrist, farmer’s market, drug store, restaurants, coffee shop, dentist, library, city park, bakery, insurance agent, ice cream shop, bank, wine store, post office, brew-pub and Monon Trail. I haven’t yet walked, but could walk, to Whole Foods, the doctor’s office and the hospital. In short, I can walk everywhere — well, just about everywhere.

Walking to your house would be a stretch, Vera, although I could get there by bike. And we have walked farther than that before (at high elevations in the Rocky Mountains no less). The only other two places that require pedals or engine are Home Depot (Lowe’s is closer but Home Depot is so much better) and Costco (the only store, other than Wilbur’s in Fort Collins and Hazel’s in Boulder, that I actually like love).

So what’s the big deal?, you might ask. For me (us, really), it’s a big deal for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s a matter of health. It’s not the only exercise I get (Peloton cycle and free weights in my home exercise room being my main indoor exercise activities), but it’s an important one, especially as we get older.

According to the Mayo Clinic (and common sense), walking helps you:

  • Maintain a healthy weight (note above references to ice cream shop, bakery, brew pup and wine store);
  • Prevent or manage various conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes;
  • Strengthen your bones and muscles;
  • Improve your mood; and
  • Improve your balance and coordination.

I’ve also found that it’s good for one’s mental health, creating some space away from work and other things (sometimes, stressful things) that vie for my attention. To that end, I’ve started leaving my iPhone at home during our walks, something I should have done sooner.

Second, it’s a matter of environmental stewardship. It may be a drop in the bucket, but drops add up. Actually, the miles add up. A car sitting in the garage doesn’t contribute to pollution and global warming.

The downside of walking — at least, outside of a dense urban setting — is that it takes longer. But I now have the time — not always, but usually.

So what’s the point of all this, Vera?

Where I live and how much I walk aren’t really of concern to you or anyone else, I would assume.

The point is this: I’ve learned (albeit slowly) that place matters and where we choose to live matters.

There is no one best place for everyone, of course. And the best place may change, depending on the stage of our lives. The best place for you in your 20s may be very different from the best place when you’re in your 70s.

The best place for some people may be an inner city. For others, it may be a remote mountain town. Or alone in the Plains.

I realize not everyone gets to choose. I get that. Being able to choose is a luxury. I am grateful that I have a choice.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose (and naturally I hope you will be), try not to focus so much on the house or apartment. Rather, focus on the place.

The house is part of it, of course. But it’s not all of it. The surroundings are a big part as well.

And consider what the impact will be on your lifestyle and well-being. And whether it will foster or inhibit the activities that are important to you — whether it complements or detracts from the things you value.

It’s no secret that I’d be living in Colorado if it weren’t for family. But I’m incredibly blessed with family, including you, Vera. So, at this time in my life, the place that’s best for me is here.

I can’t hike or bike the Rockies every day.

But I can walk Carmel.

Endlessly. And with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Gallery

The Trivial

One thing I’ve learned from living six decades, Vera, is that humans spend a lot of time on trivial matters. It’s not that we think they’re trivial when we’re spending time on them or, worse yet, worrying about them. But they are. So much of what we do and think really doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.

Oftentimes, it doesn’t matter. So what if it’s not truly significant? If it’s what we want to do or think, then so be it.

Oftentimes, however, it does matter. I see it play out in two arenas all the time: 1) work and 2) relationships.

In the work environment, spending time on the trivial means you’re not spending time or putting effort on that which truly matters. In the corporate and nonprofits worlds, this manifests itself as busy work and subpar performance and results.

It’s so easy for us to think we’re accomplishing something important (and that we’re really important people for doing so) because we’re busy. But activity often merely disguises waste and inefficiency. Or is a symptom of self-aggrandizement. The failure to prioritize well and, therefore, to accomplish much is, from what I’ve observed, an epidemic in quite a few organizations.

As for relationships, the tendency is to make too big a deal out of things and, in so doing, failing to foster caring relationships. Also, when we lose sight of triviality, we tend to infringe on people’s space and fail to respect boundaries, which inevitably leads to hard feelings, conflict or worse.

I think this is one of the reasons it’s so enjoyable being a grandparent, Vera. With age, I’ve come to realize many of the things I thought were important when I was younger really aren’t all that important and, in some cases, our focus on them did more harm than good.

Indeed, my basket of trivialities has grown exponentially with age while my basket of things that truly matter has shrunk dramatically.

I wonder what it would be like to relive life with this time-tested perspective.

I think it would be nice.

Expecting Life To Be Fair Leads to Persistent Unhappiness

Shane Parrish recently wrote, “Expecting life to be fair leads to persistent unhappiness.” I think he’s right. The unfairness of life is difficult for some of us to deal with.

I don’t know why I think life should be fair. My theory is it’s because of my upbringing in Christian churches. Hearing about the Gospel of Jesus. Always thinking about how people should live, how the world should be. Could be.

Churches do their kids a disservice by talking so much about the shoulds. They should talk more about the way things really are and how one is to navigate a cruel and dangerous world.

Better yet, they should talk less and put more effort into showing by doing. Seeing someone live a happy, loving live while embracing noble and honorable values goes further than listening, especially when deductions of hypocrisy are inevitable when observing the gaps between words and actions.

There is a lot of unfairness and cruelty in the world. You even encounter it a lot among churchgoers. Perhaps it’s an essential element of being human.

Martyrdom is one answer of course. And the church talks a lot about its martyrs. But most people aren’t martyrs. Most of us don’t have what it takes. Church should talk more about the ways the rest of us are to navigate an angry and selfish world without allowing it to get us down.

Some religious folk deal with this by hanging out primarily with their own. Take the Amish. Or Bruderhof. Or Mormons.

That works for some, but others either don’t have that option or haven’t realized the risks associated with living in the midst of rampantly individualistic capitalists who have no pretense of fairness or common good.

The problem isn’t them. The problem is us, that is, if we think they should behave as we’d like them to behave: fairly and with respect and concern for the community and others.

If I had life to live over, I’d try to have no expectation or illusion of fairness. I’d try harder to accept the world for the way it is and not the way I (or anyone else) think it should be or how we want it to be.

That doesn’t mean I’d forfeit fairness as a value. Rather, it means I’d forfeit expectations of fairness.

Why? It’s simple and selfish: greater happiness.

I think Shane is right.

Place Matters: Today I Became A Hoosier

At the risk of laying claim to a derogatory term, today I embrace Hoosierism. Well, maybe.

What’s inarguable, however, is that, today, I became a Hoosier. We closed on the purchase of a house in Carmel, Indiana this morning.

But part of me knows that I’ve always been and always will be a Pennsylvanian. It’s the land of my and my family’s roots. Every time I think I’ve shaken it, I return home to the Commonwealth to visit friends and relatives and realize it’s not something one can shake. It’s in my bones.

But on the surface, I am now a Hoosier.

I came here after living the past five years in a blue state: Colorado. Indiana is a red state. I take a tiny bit of solace in knowing it’s just a bit less red today than it was yesterday.

Hoosiers are friendly people I’m told. However, I’ve learned over the years that friendly comes in different packages, some more authentic than others. I hope Hoosiers are authentic people. I find authenticity to be far more valuable than friendliness.

Regardless, I am so lucky to be here. We came here to be near you, Vera. That’s the power you possess. Try not to let it go to your head. Or to take advantage of your grandparents.

There are collateral benefits of course. We’re near your parents, too. And nearer to the rest of our family (sans your uncle on the west coast).

And we finally live at a place that’s within walking distance of just about everything we need in life. And we’re a stone’s throw away from a trail that will take us, by bike or foot, to downtown Indy or north into the countryside.

My goal is to burn as little gas as possible. And to walk, hike and bike as much as possible.

So now we go about the business of nurturing place.

Place is something that resides in our subconsciousness more than our consciousness, which is odd considering how important it is.

When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate the importance of place. I lived not in a place but in a cutthroat world — a world of competition, domination, discontent and violence — primarily violence against oneself and one’s soul.

I now think place is paramount.

The place we envision will be an enclave of love, peace and grace. Our home will be your home, Vera. And your parents and uncle’s home. And a home for friends and family to commune. A place to laugh. A place to cry. A place where precious memories are created.

Outside, your grandmother will take the lead in creating a tribute to nature and humanity’s connectedness to the earth. She will play in the dirt, as angels are inclined to do. It will be a place of peace and tranquility. And of beauty. I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold. It will be glorious.

Beyond the borders of what we naively think of as “our property” will be the larger place. My place in that place is yet to be defined. I’m counting on the rhythms of life to show me the way. Some people call it “the hand of God.” I’m no longer sure I believe that. But I don’t disbelieve it either.

I try not to delude myself however. I know that, for many, place is hell. Daily, some are forced to walk into or through the valley of death. It’s hard to create place when confronted by harsh realities.

Perhaps my place will nudge me forward, to hold their hands, to carry their loads, to help create place in the midst of pain and suffering. Perhaps my place will go with me wherever I may go.

Place can do that. Place has incredible power. But only if we allow it. Only if we allow place to thrive and become a living force within us.

On my journey, I have been blessed to live within the beauty and grandeur of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and, now, Indiana. I have absolutely no idea where my journey may take me in the years yet to be lived. But, for now, I am attending to important work. Holy work. I am allowing place to do its work.

Walk

Looking back, I realize I didn’t walk enough. I should have walked more.

We chose our new house primarily because we can walk. To many things. Stores. Coffee shops and restaurants. The post office. Doctors and dentists’ offices. Barber. Parks. Farmers market. Entertainment venues. A trail that runs from downtown Indy far into the northern suburbs.

My goal is to use the car as little as possible. And to walk or ride my bike just about everywhere I go (locally).

For most of my life, I spent too much time in a car, especially commuting to work. What a waste of time. If I had to do it over, I’d live within walking distance of my work. Or biking distance. Or at least live where my commute was as short as practicable.

Walking is a healthy endeavor. Sitting in a car isn’t. Plus, it’s the time. I can’t imagine many worse ways of spending my time than sitting in traffic. Or spending an hour or two a day commuting. Or more (as many people do).

Do the math. It adds up. I wish I could have those hours back. I wish I’d spent them differently.

I walk more today than I have at any time in my life. Rarely a week goes by that we don’t take quite a few long walks or hikes. Or long bike rides. Usually, a day doesn’t go by without a walk or ride.

It’s possible because I have more control over my time at this point in my life. But it’s also because it’s something I want to do. And because I value my time more than I used to. And because it’s important if one is to age gracefully and try to forestall physical decline. And because outside is simply a more wonderful place to be.

I realize my body eventually will fail. And that it may shrivel up before succumbing. I’ll get shorter. And weaker. But I have no intention of cooperating. In fact, I plan on resisting. Walking is resistance.

There is a reason there are fewer obese people in Colorado than most places we’ve lived. People walk and hike more. And ride bikes. I suspect they have healthier diets, too. I plan on taking a bit of Colorado with me to Indiana.

One thing that concerned me about moving to Indiana is the way people back East hibernate in the winter. I don’t want to revert to that lifestyle. I can’t import Colorado’s sun to Indiana, but I can ensure I don’t hibernate.

If it requires spending some winter months in Florida or Arizona, so be it. Or some summer months in the Rockies.

Yesterday, we took three walks, Vera. You initiated one or two of them. That’s an encouraging sign. Keep it up. Don’t stop walking.

Cars aren’t inherently bad. They’re only bad when they’re overused. Try not to overuse yours, Vera.

Keep on truckin’.

The House That Fails to Excite

I think our builder thinks there’s something wrong with me. We’re buying a brand new house in a wonderful town. It’s a nice house. He thinks we should be excited. I’m not.

Don’t get me wrong: it matters. If I had to live in poverty, or in an apartment with noisy neighbors, or beside barking dogs, or next door to a dump or chemical plant, I’d be even less pleased.

So what’s wrong with me? Why am I not excited by the privilege of moving into a new house? Continue reading