Friday, March 30, 2007

Easter season

Easter is not a day but a season, in the Christian liturgical calendar. Easter Sunday, April 8 this year, is only the first day of a 50-day Easter season that ends with Pentecost, meaning, literally, the 50th day. So with the 40 days of Lent, Easter Sunday comes somewhat in the middle of the 90-day period between Ash Wednesday and Pentecost.

But Easter is not the middle of the experience in the sense of moving toward a divine illumination and then returning, like Campbell's hero's journey. THe point of Easter really is a sudden transformation. Things are different, immediately and permanenetly. Easter Sunday was traditionally the day of accepting new converts to the faith. The baptism was an instantaneous achievement, a re-birth, forever alterning one's nature. The 50-days following are an extension of that singular experience, as though Easter were simply too big for a single day to contain.

The reason that this seems counter to my notion of spirituality, is that Christianity places the power for spiritual transformation in the hands of God. The Christian is the passive receiver of God's grace. Once God has done the work of salvation the journey is finished. And God being God, the moment of salvation is decisive.

I follow a different spiritual path that puts emphasis on each person to take responsibility for their own salvation. The psiritual journey is much more like the labyrinth for me, a twisting path that only by time and after negotiating several wrong turns encounters the divine. And from there the point is not to stop but to come back again, to rejoin the world in your transformed state, and to help transform the world in line with the divine truths you've discovered.

exit the labyrinth

I walked the labyrinth at All Saints Episcopal church in Pasadena yesterday morning. For Lent the church had unrolled a canvas labyrinth in the north transept of their sanctuary. The experience is basically a walking meditation. I appreciate the physicality of the experience, the constant action of putting your feet down and picking them up serves to keep me awake and focused on the moment, and to center the experience in my body, rather than flights of mentality, which is where I tend to go.

And the labyrinth lays out an actual journey inviting metaphors of spiritual movement, from outside, or surface, in toward the center, or the heart, or deepening, and then out again. The meanders of the path map nicely on to metaphors of the twists and turns and seeming set backs of the spiritual journey. I especially enjoy the way the path initially seems to dive right to the heart of the labyrinth, like the initial ease of progress that often accompanies the beginning stages of a difficult task. But the first campaign slightly misses the mark and then turns away and only after many steps of seemingly mis-directed work leads back to the goal.

The church had laid out the labyrinth for Lent, which made me wonder whether the experience was really appropriate. Lent is a journey toward Easter. But at Easter the journey is suddenly, and spectacularly concluded. So if Lent is the labyrinth path and Easter is the center, then there seems to be no analog for the return path out of the labyrinth. And if Easter is instead placed at the exit to the labyrinth, then what experience in the middle of Lent matches the space at the center of the labyrinth? What actually is the goal of the labyrinth: to reach the middle, or to walk in and out? What is the goal of spirituality: to experience ecstasy, and stay there, or to go deeply in and then return, transformed?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

green for green

Yesterday I paid my very first carbon offset. It feels like I'm a member of a hot new club - well let's say cool new club, because that's the point. I paid $6 to compensate for the carbon I'll be releasing into the air by attending the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Portland Oregon this June. Here's the language from the registration form:

"Donations will help offset the carbon footprint of the GA by supporting climate-friendly projects through the Foundation."

I especially like their tree-planting projects. Who wouldn't like more trees?

$6 was the suggested donation, so don't think I'm a cheapskate. The biggest release of carbon in this trip will be from the plane engines during my roundtrip flight from Los Angeles, not while I'm actually attending the event in eco-friendly Protland and riding public transportation, so it's a token gesture. And why was the offset voluntary? Why not just add $6 to the registration fee and include a note that "$6 of the registration fee will be used to help offset the carbon footbprint of the GA...?"

I suspect we will start to see a lot more of these carbon offset fees. I was happy to pay it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

problem: he's just too happy

If I pray for some heartbreaking tragedy to befall my half-brother leading to a spiritual cirsis, will God answer my prayer?

I googled "unitarian minister" (yes, I was ego-googling) and found this interchange between a parishoner of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA and their pastor, John MacArthur, Jr.

Question: My half-brother is a Unitarian minister, and he’s been a Unitarian minister for many years. How do I witness to him? He knows more about the Bible than I do.

Answer: No, he knows less about the Bible than you do. Much less, because, if he is not a Christian, then he has no way to comprehend the Bible. He can use the Bible to articulate his false system, but he does not know the Bible. But, the key thing, you see, people never become Christians until they have a deep felt need, and you can’t create that need. That need has to be created in his heart through circumstances that are brought into his life by God himself. Therefore, the best thing you can do for him is pray for him. Pray that God will somehow create an utter dissatisfaction in his life with everything he’s involved in. You see, we say that these people know the Bible, but, the fact is, they do not know the Bible. They simply know how to use the Bible, by misinterpreting it, misapplying it, and arranging it in a way that teaches error. So don’t be intimidated by it. You cannot argue a person into becoming a Christian. There’s no way. A man convinced against his will is unconvinced still. What has to happen is a desperation in his life, a dissatisfaction that drives him to look for something other than what he has. And, you see, in order to do that, he’s going to have to deny things he’s been teaching all his life. He’s going to have to step down from his position, which is a big blow to his ego and all of those kinds of things. That’s why it’s so difficult when someone is in [an apostate] system to get them out.

Here's the scene I imagine later that night as the parishoner kneels to pray.

"Dear God, you know my happy half-brother? Please make him miserable. As my pastor says, please send him "utter dissatisfaction." Please make my brother's life desperate. You who want the best for all your children, create the worst for my brother. Please destroy the faith that has supported him all his life. Please make him doubt everything he's ever taught his congregation or preached from the pulpit. Because I care for him, make him suffer. In your compassion cause him to leave the job his livelihood depends on. In your infinite kindness, shatter this guy, so that once you've thoroughly abused and defeated him he will want to follow you in the right way."

I might go to Hell for ego-googling (well not really) but I'm not worried that God might damn me for not choosing the right religion. And I'll spend my prayer time praying that suffering persons find happiness, not praying that the happy start suffering.

Lake Silver

How big does a lake have to be before the word "lake" moves from the second to the first position? It's Lake Michigan, and Lake Mead. But little lakes are Pyramid Lake and Crater Lake, and my own neighborhood Silver Lake.

There's some disagreement whether the name of my community is Silver Lake or Silverlake. The city uses two words. A lot of the local shops make it one. Officially the two word version is correct. The lake is actually a resevoir named after a former member of the water board, Herman Silver. But there's an elegance to the elided version that attracts me. I've stopped correcting people who write it as a single word. Besides, the community is known for its counter-culturalism so it's even kind of Silver Lake to write Silverlake.

There's an element of beauty that trumps truth.

Monday, March 26, 2007


I had chorus rehearsal tonight. We're a month away from the performance. Suddenly I had this picture of myself standing on the stage, the theater packed, including a bunch of friends of mine looking right at me. And I realized I really have to know this stuff. Not only do I have to have every piece of music memorized, but more visibly, I have to have every movement of what they call the "choralography" down, because they can see me! If I move when I'm not supposed to, or don't move, or point the wrong way, everyone will know.

With that realization singing in the chorus turned from, "Isn't this a fun way to spend a Monday evening," to "I've got to get serious." I've got to sit at the pinao and find the notes, and practice the releases, and really learn the words, and print out the list of movements that go with the songs and work on them at home.

Being accountable sharpens our focus, and motivates our work. Being accountable means that someone other than me will have a better or worse experience based on what I do. In this case both my fellow chorus members, and the audience coming to the performance.

There's a reason that most spiritual paths emphasize the importance of the community. On our own our spirituality can become too relaxed, lazy. We can become too willing to accept the half measures we're willing to put in. No one is holding us to our best selves. No one else suffers if we don't move forward. No one calls us on our not completely thought out beliefs. The Sangha, the community, is one of the three "refuges" in Buddhism. But it's a refuge where we go both for support when that's what we need, and for a compassionate kick, when we're too much enjoying the rehearsal and the performace is only a month away.

the truth

Beliefs are simply our description of reality. I include in my definition of beliefs both those kinds of things that we usually think of as the realm of religion, beliefs like whether God exists, or whether there's an afterlife, and also those things we think of as the realm of science, like the age of the earth. Religion actually has a lot to say about physical sciences, and history and anthropology, so beliefs are not limited to metaphysical questions. Some beliefs seem obvious, like "I believe that the earth is round." Other beliefs are less certain, "I believe that human beings have souls."

Beliefs are our description of reality, but we would like to claim that our beliefs are really objectively true and not just our opinion. But there's a philosophical problem inherent in making truth claims. All knowledge is interior knowledge, that is, knowledge for me, from my perspective. There is no objective vantage point where I can look at reality outside my own perception of it, and then compare that objective perspective to see whether my subjective perspective is an accurate copy. All knowledge is subjective. So definitive truth claims are hard to make. But that doesn't mean all beliefs are equally valid.

One way to shore up a truth claim is to examine your entire collection of beliefs for internal coherence. Does your belief about one thing, say the afterlife, fit with your beliefs about something else, say your belief about souls? An internally coherent set of beliefs could still be wrong, but an internally incoherent set of beliefs is certainly wrong because it would in fact be impossible.

Related to the test of internal coherence, is the need to give credence to our experience. If you have a belief that contradicts your normal, everyday, experience, then you should be prepared to give extraordinary evidence to back up that claim. Religious beliefs that deny free will, for instance, or that deny the reality of the physical world, should be taken with grave suspicion because they so obviously contradict our lived experience. These beleifs are incoherent, at least on the surface, because none of us actually lives as though our decisions we pre-determined, or as though the world didn't really exist.

good theology

There's a lot of bad theology out there, both from traditional religions, and from new age belief. In my class, "What I Believe" I end the course by giving the participants several guidelines to evaluate their personal belief statements. The criteria have to do with whether the beliefs are internally consistent, and whether they support the particpant's core values. But in general there are two criteria that make a set of beliefs good or bad.

The first factor is truth. Our beliefs, which are our description of reality, should, ideally, describe reality the way it actually is. If there actually is a God a theistic theology is better than an atheistic theology, because it's closer to the truth. Internal consistency helps with this factor by at least weeding out beliefs that can't be true.

The truth factor, however, is not actually the most important factor in describing good and bad theology. To start with, there's the problem with actually knowing the turth. Knowing anything is philosophically difficult, but especially when dealing with knowledge of something as fuzzy as metaphysics. And besides, it's easy enough to observe that people with very diverse beliefs or even contradictory beliefs, like theists and atheists can have equally healthy spiritual lives.

So that's the second and much more importat criteria for judging whether a belief system is good or bad, is it spiritually healthy.? It's a practical question. Do your beliefs actually work? Do they support your values? Do you beliefs give you a sense of purpose and meaning? Is there a reason implied in your beliefs for you to be alive? Can you face the inevitable sadness of life with resiliance and peace?

I want my beliefs to be an accurate description of reality. But right belief is much less important than healthy spirituality.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

healthy spirituality

Spirituality ought to make us feel good. that's the whole point. We ought to feel supported, encouraged, hopeful, and joyful; bouyed up by spirituality that strengthens and sustains us. That's healthy spirituality. Too many spiritual systems have just the opposite effect.

I was speaking with a woman recently who tried to convince me that Buddhist spirituality taught that we shouldn't judge, that the universe didn't care about dualities like right and wrong, and besides all of this was an illusion created by our own thoughts. Well yes, and no. Buddhism does teach us to avoid forming emotional attachments to impermanent objects. Buddhism does teach that we should practice equanimity as we move through our lives. But the first Noble Truth of Buddhism is itself a judgment: "There is suffering." Suffering is judged as a bad thing. The Buddhist system is designed to overcome suffering. Buddhism surely doesn't say that there is no difference between an act of compassion and an act of violence. Buddhism doesn't teach that it makes no difference how one behaves.

The problem I had with this woman was not that she misunderstood Buddhism. If her non-Buddhist beliefs were leading her to joy I would be happy for her and leave it at that. But I didn't see joy in this woman. Instead I saw her struggle to hold on to beleifs she thought she was supposed to embrace, but actually didn't feel. Her idea that everything was ultimately an illusion wasn't leading her to liberation, it was leading her to a sense of nihilism, a self-proclaimed spirituality that said nothing matters, it's all going to vanish to nothing soon enough, and the universe would be better if we did vanish.

How sad that we do this to ourselves. How expecially sad that we do it in the name of spirituality.

Friday, March 23, 2007

past lives

Is the Easter promise of new life really possible? Well consider this. How many lives have you already had? I counted 5 last night as I was falling asleep.

There was the child me. Living with my family, dependent, curious, happy. Then there was an adolescent me, that started when I was about 13 and lasted through my second year of college. A very different person than I had been as a child. More interior focused, more independent. During this second life dawning sexual awareness provoked me to start seeking intimate relationships outside the family. A third me was born when I finally claimed the adult identity I had been anxious about as an adolescent. I would be openly gay, and I would be an artist. I left UCLA where I had been unhappy and failing for two years and finished my college at Cal Arts. Then I worked for several years as a musician. My life changed a fourth time in response to the AIDS epidemic. I started volunteering at AIDS Project Los Angeles and that led to an administrative job on staff there. I ended my life as a musician. I found a new apartment. And I met a boyfriend. That life, that relationship, and that job, all ended when I left for seminary and started my fifth life, the life as a minister I'm still living now, with my husband who I met while I was in seminary.

These lives do seem very distinct as I look back at them. I see how one led to the next, but the separations are also clear. I was pruning one of the trees in my backyard yesterday afternoon. Up in the tree with the clippers, feeling safe on the branches and enclosed by the cool leaves, I remembered climbing trees as a child. THe memory of one paricular tree in the backyard of my childhood home returned strongly. And though the experience yesterday reminded me of the similar experience years ago, I also felt this yawning chasm betwwen that child and me today. A gulf as wide as death, but also, perhaps, as easily crossed over.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


The lenten observation from all this recent blogging about the incredibly rich, but invisible nature, of (6 .5 billion) other people's interior lives, is not to take ourselves so seriously. Any one of us is really not that important in the scheme of things. And that's what Lent asks us to contemplate for 40 days (today is day 25). It's depressing I suppose from one point of view, but it's not meant to be depressing, just a reality check, a balance to the oerwhelming egoic urge to make too much of ourselves.

Geroge Harrison's song Within You Without You from the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album put the Lenten spiritual task nicely, "And to see you're really only very small, and life flows on within you and without you."

It's not that any one of us is un-necessary to the spiritual journey - I mean the journey of the divine nature back to self-realization. Everyone of us is quite necessary. The divine is within us. Each one of us lives out on behalf of the divine a particular set of experiences only we can have and our experiences contribute thier unique benefit to the divine enjoyment. That's a reason for being and for feeling good about our lives.

But it's also part of mature spirituality to remember what a vital (yes), but small, small, small, piece we add. And most importantly that the piece everyone else adds is no more or less important than ours. The divine is within them, too.

who am i this time?

If you're an extra in someone else's movie, what character do you want to play?

In both the Christian and Jewish traditions, and probably other relgions as well, there's this reminder to treat every person as though they might be an incarnation of the divine. Judaism reminds us that we might even be the Messiah ourselves, so treat yourself with respect. Jesus tells his followers that whatever they do to the least significant people they meet is counted at the time of judgment as though they had done it to him.

If that person in front of you is actually the star of the show, not just the star of their movie but the star of the whole movie, here is your one big chance, your lucky break, your one big scene. You're going out there a nobody, you're coming back a star. How do you want to come across in what may be your biggest moment ever? Will you be remembered as compassioinate, kind, friendly, funny? Will you even be remembered?

be an extra

contemplating the incredible comlexity of the world when you realize that everyone else has an interior life just as rich as yours is pretty humbling. And that's probably a good thing.

Our spiritually immature, ego-drvien self, tends to view the world as a movie staring us. Of course even spiritually helathy folks will always personally be the center of their own experience, how could we not be? But it's a fun exercise and could perhaps be a fruitful spiritual practice to flip the camera around. Deliberately remove yourself from the center of the universe and mentally stand a little to one side. What if the real star is the person across from you, and you're the extra in their movie? (Which is doubtless how they see you anyway).

To the driver of that car in front of you on the freeway you're not the star of the show, you're just a piece of background perhaps appearing for just a few seconds in their rearview mirror. You may barely have impinged on their life, and then forever vanished.

I'm writing this blog at starbucks and a schizophrenic woman has taken the seat next to me. All right so this is her show. I'm this silent extra typing away on my laptop next to her. She's singing along to the song on the starbucks radio, a nice soundtrack. I like this movie.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

the end

Saturday morning Peleg and I met with a financial advisor. We had sent the guy all our information several weeks earlier and this was our first meeting, mostly to confrim that he had the right picture of our situation and to give us some initial advice.

The most fruitful part of the process was for Peleg and I to try to be as explicit as possible in describing our goals. Where do we want to be financially, and when? What exactly do words like "comfortable" and "independent" mean? What does "travel" mean, for instance, how much travel and where? The process encouraged us to say aloud to each other what we had thought about, and for both of us that conversation required even the prior step of being clear for ourselves what we wanted.

If you don't know where you're going any path will get you there. That's a spiritual truth if ever I heard one. It's the opposite point that's crucial though, if you do know where you want to go a lot of paths won't work. Another piece of spiritual advice, one of Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" is "Begin with the End in Mind." We do that easily when the task is simple enough that the end is already clearly in sight as we get started but the further out the end lies the more likely we are to just do whatever's conenient at the time. But what's convenient now may not actually move us closer to our far off goals.

We can't choose a path, until we've named the goal. Even when the end is very far off (retirement, 26.2 miles, enlightenment) it's good to know that today's step was a step in the right direction.

you, there

After the chorus rehearsal last night I stopped off at a bar on the way home. Peleg gets up early for cooking school so I knew he would already be in bed.

I got my beer and sat in a corner in the dark looking at the crowd. I was suddenly fascinated by the observation that every man in the room (and the two women but this was a gay bar) was having his own private, personal, unknowable - to others - experience. I was the only man in the room sitting where I was, having my drink, looking out of my eyes, thinking my thoughts. And the same could be said of every other person as well. I couldn't know what it was like to be that person, there, to have come from wherever they had come from, to be going wherever they were going. I couldn't know what it felt like to be them talking to that person, or playing that game of pool, or having whatever personal response they were having to the music being played. The room was filled with feelings, thoughts, histories and plans of every imaginable kind, but only imaginable, not knowable beyond my own. Except for the tiny, obstructed window, cracked open by a conversation where one interior soul shared a personal experience with another, all of that activity swirled around the room unobserved and unappreciated.

A guy playing pool struck the cue with his stick and the cue sent the rest of the balls flying off into an irrepeatable configuration, losing the previous irrepeatable configuration, and soon to be lost and newly created again. The whole room was like that, over and over again, every moment, infinite.

As busy as my own mind is, as full as my life is, imagine multiplying that by every mind and life in the world. What riches. What scary depth there is to this universe.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

free to be

The spiritual task is to work our way into a life where we are most able to be ourselves.

We have this one great us, yearning to express itself, yearning to give up to the universe the thing that only we can give. We need, for maximum spiritual health, to be who we are, to do what we do, to let the deep true voice of the divine that dwells within us, and that was incarnated as us in order to have the experience of living, live through us.

And then we find ourselves in a world, created before we got here so very little of it would be to our own choosing. Even the stuff we're happy about wasn't created with us in mind, or arranged for our satisfaction. And a lot of the world makes it very difficult for us to be ourselves. Other people make decisions for their own purposes that effect us negatively, both accidentally and sometimes deliberately. Some of us are more fortunate then others, I count myself as one of the most fortunate. But many, many people face an incredible number of obstacles blocking the path of their journey toward expressing their divine nature.

The goal, then, in forming a life, is to create for ourselves as much as we can a situation in which we are free. That means overcoming the forces that hold us back, fighting them off, or fleeing them if necessary. And fighting also the internal forces that hold us back, our own fears and sense of "I'm not worth it." And also banding with others to work against societal forms of oppression, both for our own sake, and for those who are trapped by oppressions we don't face ourselves but no one should have to suffer under.

The more we create a world where people are free to let their best selves emerge, the more the best world will emerge.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

inside and out

life is a balance between two inputs. There's an outside source, and an inside source. Our lives are constantly pulled between the two. Something happens in the outside environment, and we react. Or something internal happens, and we react.

There's a running conversation inside my own body and mind, endless talk about what I want, and what I shoud do, and what would be the best, and wouldn't it be fun, and I need, and I feel. And then there's the constant show of look over there, see what he's doing, watch out, here they come. The sun comes up. The car goes by. I hear a voice. I read the newspaper (Gonzalez, Pace, Global Warming, a study about laughter, a new TV show from Andy Richter). And then I think my own thoughts (coffee, car, gym, errands, job, husband). And all this gets jumbled together and then I go ahead and do the next thing in my life. Then my situation is slightly different, and I'm ready for a whole new set of data to come at me from outside and well up from inside.

It's a mad rush. All I can do is hang on. Sometimes very little feels directed from my own self. How much do we control our own world and how much are we just swept along, perhaps snatching at attractive moments as the current flings them past us close enough to grab, but mostly, just following the stream?

I don't choose the rest of the world. But so much of life is a response to the rest of the world. How different I would be if everyone else had made different choices.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

dog walk

I took my dogs for a walk this afternoon after it had cooled down a little. The dogs are getting older so they're still pretty enthusiastic about the idea of going for a walk, but once we've gone a little ways, the older one in particular starts to drag on the leash. He becomes a lot more interested in stopping every few steps and checking out the smells (and adding a few of his own).

Meanwhile the younger one is pulling forward vigorously and I'm stretched in the middle. I try to assert my best Cesar Milan dominance but it's a struggle. The dogs want to go one way, or two ways, and I and the leash hold them back. Sometimes the effect of the leash is just to bend them to my will, for my own purposes (I want to get the walk finished) but sometimes the leash pull them to what is better for them, away from danger, like traffic, or out of trouble, like fights with other dogs, or situations they might not see as trouble but really are, like if they bite a passing runner.

I have a leash, too: my consicence, my sense of that better self I could be if I could just live that way more consistently. Am I straining this analogy? Like my dog there's a path I ought to be walking, and then there's me pulling this way and that, checking this out, distracted, getting into trouble, making a mess sometimes. And then there's a leash, trying to get me to walk where I should, to stay in line, focused on the task.

The theological question is who holds the leash? Some religions emphasize our inability to improve our own lives beyond a certain extent - Augustine's "That which I would not do, I do; that which I would do, I do not." and thus we rely on God's help. I tend to believe we have the ability to choose the best for ourselves, but certainly the evidence is that it's difficult to take ourselves for a walk.

not always the best

I've been noticing how seldom we actually live up to being the best selves we can imagine. I've been noticing this in myself mostly but I have to assume it's true for others as well.

I don't mean the tendency in some egoists to think of themselves more highly than they really are, where the reality doesn't match the internal mental perception. I'm talking about the difference between the person we strive to be, and the oftentimes lesser person we can so plainly observe in ourselves.

And I'm also not talking about the lesser person in the sense of failed dreams. I don't mean, "I could have been a contender! I could have been somebody!" I mean the fully realistic, normal, sense of, "I didn't like the way I behaved in that situation. I wasn't being the person I want to be. I wasn't as kind, I talked too much when I should have listened. I was a grouch." We know what we ought to do, and who we want to be, and then find ourselves not doing it, not being it. It's depressing.

It's a good analysis for Lent (today is day 18) which is all about self-examination, particularly of the less attractive areas of our human condition. It's good to have an honest assesment, even if the picture isn't entirely pretty. But it's also good to notice that by seeing the difference between who we are and who we strive to be, that we are calling ourselves to improvement. To the extent that our lives are the product of our free choices, we know what choices we ought to make. May we have the strength to choose the better life.

Friday, March 9, 2007

still dead

All day I've been thinking about Luna, my mother-in-law's dalmation that I helped to put down yesterday (see blog below).

It just strikes me how permanent death is. How permanent is that decision to say now is the time. Now is when we're actually going to put the animal in the car and drive to the vet. The moment when the vet slid the needle into her vein a part of me cried out "Not yet!" even as I knew that it was the right thing to do, and another time would only be later, not better, and actually as concerns the animal's comfort, worse.

So much of our life experiences we get to undo, or redo. We get to try and fail, and try again, make mistakes, be forgiven, suceed eventually perhaps, or try a different way. And then death puts a stop to all that. The bracket of birth is closed by the bracket of death and forever after our life is only what happened in between. None of what happened in life is eliminated by death, but there are no more new experiences added to the collection. For all its highs and lows, triumphs and failures, it is what it is, forever now, just that. Whether it ends with a bang or a whimper, it ends.

My personal sense, confirmed by the vet, is that Luna's bracket of life probably would have closed within another month or two anyway, and whatever experiences were left possible for her would not have been joyful. That's precisely the circumstances that justify euthanasia.

Lent invites contemplations of this sort. Today is day 15. And it also invites contemplation of whether that bracket at the end is really as impenetrable as it looks. Is it only because living creatures can't imagine not being alive that we believe in continued life? Or could our experience of endless undoing include even undoing death?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

sad duty

I accompanied my husband, Peleg, and his mother as we helped her take one of her dogs, Luna, a dalmation, to the vet this afternoon to be put down. I didn't know the dog well, but she is special to me because Luna is the granddaughter of a dog that Peleg and I own.

Luna suffered from severe rheumatism in her hind legs compounded by degenerative nerve damage. She could no longer stand or walk. And the vet confirmed that there was no treatment available that would reverse or even stop the progressive nerve disease. The dog was so sweet. She was completely quiet, and not in any obvious pain, but clearly uncomfortable and confused by the physical limitations which had come on quickly over the last month or so.

I carried her to the car, laid her down in the back and sat with her as we drove over. Then I carried her into the office and arranged her on my lap as we waited for the doctor. She's a little too large for a lap and with her hind legs stiff and straight it was a bit of a struggle to hold her but I felt I wanted to.

And then we took her into the back. The doctor was very kind and reassuring. We helped Luna to lie down and said our goodbyes and then we let her go. She went very quickly and entirely peacefully.

How hard it is to lose something we love. How strange to see life go. Luna's hind legs returned to their natural supleness again. We spoke soft words to Luna, and touched her gently. We said prayers and comforting things to each other. And we cried. We stayed in the office a long time just stroking Luna's fur and remarking how beautiful she was, and noticing how quickly her body started to cool.

And then it was time to go. What more could we do standing there with her body? We paid the bill, got back in the car, and drove home. Cherish the ones you love.

Finish Line

My running group had a little post-marathon celebratory party last night. Most of us are wearing the medals we received for finishing. It was nice to see them again as I had gone straight home after the run.

Of course we said we would see each other again. And maybe we will. We even talked about continuing to get together for Saturday runs in Griffith Park now and then, as we did while we were training. We'll see. And several of them already have plans for future runs.

But it's also the nature of all things to come to an end. That's the lesson of Lent (day 14 today). Whether last night was the last time I'll see these people or if we see each other again some time, there will be a last time. Whether my first marathon was also my last marathon, or if I run another one, eventually I will run my last.

It's not meant to be a sad message but a sobering one. And the spiritually healthy response is not to cling to what inevitably slips away, but to enjoy it fully while you have it.

Death Penalty

John Couey was convicted in Florida yesterday of a horrible crime of child rape and murder. The next phase is the sentencing.

Jeffrey Toobin, the CNN legal analyst, observed that the prosecution has an easy argument in asking the jury to impose death by simply saying "If the death penalty is ever justified, it is surely justified in this case." I don't believe the death penalty is ever justified, and my problem with the death penalty is hidden within Toobin's question.

Because Couey's crimes are so disgusting, so beyond the boundaries of moral society, surely if any criminal deserves execution, and we have executed criminals who have commited less, then Couey deserves execution. But whether a criminal deserves to be executed for their crime is not the relevant question in the death penalty. We can discuss in specific cases whether one crime is more or less severe, or severe enough to deserve death. But the answer to that question doesn't matter. What matters is the answer to the question, "Who do we want to be as a people, as a moral society?"

Couey's crimes certainly deserve the harshest penalty our society can impose. The factor that makes the death penalty never appropriate is not that criminals haven't commited sufficiently horrifying crimes, they do, Couey did. The death penalty is never appropriate because the people who would do the executing, you and me, cannot carry out a death sentence without unacceptably compromising our own morality. It is the nature of our actions, not the nature of Couey's actions that must be examined here and in all death penalty cases.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Mile 19

At Mile 19 I'm still feeling pretty good. I did OK for the next mile or two as well. But everybody talks about the 20 mile wall and boy are they right. I mostly walked the last 6 miles.

My final place was 10,126 out of about 26,000. So to be in the top half feels pretty good to me. The guy who won the race, by the way, Fred Mogaka, finished in 2 hours 17 minutes and 14 seconds, 4 seconds ahead of the number two guy, Moses Kororia, which means they both, and a lot of other runners as well ran more than twice as fast as I did. I have such respect for that. It's really an impressive feat.

After the run my legs were finished. From the finish line we had to walk another three blocks though a huge crowd of tired runners grabbing free food and resting on plastic sheets in the street. When I finally met up with Peleg and our friend Katie we then had to walk another 5 blocks to a subway station. What a mix of excitement, fatigue, pain, and glory. We took the subway a few stops to where Peleg parked our car then he drove home with me on my back in the back seat with my legs curled up in the air like a bug.

WHen I got home I went right into a hot bath full of epsom salts. Peleg went shopping for a celebratory dinner. After the bath I already started to feel better. I called my folks and a few friends. I broke my alcohol fast with two dark beers, strictly for medicinal purposes, finished a bag of barbeque potato chips, and ate a banana. Peleg returned to make a fabulous dinner of pork chops, braised kale, and mashed potatos and sun chokes. My God it's nice being married to a chef. I went to bed about 9, completely exhausted.

Today I'm feeling fine. Just a little sore. But full of pride. Back to my mile 19 self.

Monday, March 5, 2007


I finished the Los Angeles Marathon. Not at any great speed. But I got through the whole thing. The accomplishment feels great. It was quite an experience, and one I'm happy to check off.

I had hoped to finish in less than 5 hours. That would have meant running at a slightly faster pace than I had done a month ago when I ran 23 miles in 5 hours. The excitement of the day and the course were definetely a boost, as I had thought they would be, but the combination of the hot weather and the crowd slowed me down.

The day started at 4:30 AM. Got up, took a shower, got dressed in the clothes I had laid out the night before, ate a Clif bar and a banana. Then I woke up Peleg and he drove me to a subway stop which I then rode up to the starting point at Universal City.

I met up with my pace group at the home of one of the group who lives a few blocks from the start. We then walked down together and found our place in the massive line up behind the starting line. 26,000 of us were running that day. When they finally opened the course it took 10 minutes just for us to cross the starting line.

I had imagined the crowd would ease up as we spread out over the miles, but we never really did. That turned out to be one of the biggest problems for my run. I was never really able to get into a mental groove because I had to constantly watch out for people in front of me, stopping short, or moving sideways to get around people. It was a major distraction, and major hassle all day.

And the water stops were insane. Every mile there would be another nightmare of people crowding in from both sides of the road holding out paper cups of water. Bless them. But runners would spill water and then drop the cups creating this slick obstacle course to negotiate. I appreciated the water, and on the hot day drank my share, but grew to dread the approaching water stops as the day progressed.

My running group had planned to run together and we did a fairly good job. I had never bought a watch so I was really depending on staying with the group to keep on pace and to manage our run/walk interval. A couple of us tried to run a little faster than the rest of the group, and realized that we were off our pace for completing in 5 hours. By about mile 11, Raj and I were ahead of the rest of the pack and decided to just go on by ourselves. And then poor Raj started to suffer some cramping in his legs. We stayed together to mile 19 where he got some spray-on pain reliever which seemed to help, but shortly thereafter the pain returned and he told me to go on by myself.

So I ran the last 6 miles by myself. At that point I wasn't worrying about staying on pace anyway. It was all I could do to keep going. It was a great route by the way. gorgeous views of the city, and really fun to run through a series of diverse neighborhoods, which is what makes LA so great.

Without a doubt this was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. It's crazy hard. The distance is just too long. I'm very glad to have had the experience. Very glad I can check it off. But I don't feel any need to do it again. I'm sure I'll continue running. I'll probably do a half marathon now and then. But I told my friends at the finish line that they were never to let me sign up for a marathon again. And they got it on videotape.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Kindness of Strangers

Last night I had a carbo load dinner with my pace group. We went to an Italian place, very noisy, the waiters sang, not at the table but in the middle of the room with a mike and a piano and drums. It was a lot of fun. It's sort of a myth that you can carbo load, by the way. You can't tell the body "Please store up extra energy so I can use it in a couple of days." The body simply uses what it can use and gets rid of the rest.

After dinner I walked up to where I had parked my car and discovered that the front right tire had gone flat. Earlier in the day as I'd been driving the route the check engine light had come on so I figure the universe, or my car, is telling me something. Perhaps it's a vote of confidence in my running abilities, because I'm feeling fine while the car is falling apart.
I called triple A on my cell phone and waited for the tow truck.

When the tow truck driver came he turned out to be a nice guy, efficient. He did his job. Wasted no time. Asked me a minimum of questions. Then he gave me the standard advice about spare tires: don't drive too fast, stay off the freeway, and that was that.

I was so grateful to the guy. I realize he was just doing his job. Triple A paid him to be there. And doing the job well and being nice to the customer is something I'm sure triple A checks up on.

But it just struck me how good people can be together when we try. I had a common problem in our car-based culture, and our culture came up with an efficient solution to getting stranded drivers back on the road. I'm a nice person who needed a little help. He's a nice guy able to offer some help. How well our world works when we each do our part and face problems as part of a team.

Maybe that's what the universe was trying to tell me.

Mental Edge

Yesterday I drove the marathon route, start to finish. I wanted to have a full picture of the run in my head before I started so I would know what to expect and how to prepare. I drove slowly noticing things like a slight rise, or a stretch without shade. And I tried to imagine how I might feel at each mile: here I'll be inspired and feeling good, this is going to be a tough patch.

I've learned during the training period that like much in life, success or failure is largely mental. There's the aspect of positive thoughts, telling yourself "I can do this" "I feel healthy and strong" rather than "this is hard" "My knee is killing me" "I don't think I can make it." And there's also the mental aspect that comes from preparedness and discipline.

Having surveyed the course and developed a mental picture, I've now moved the run out of the place of "It's all new to me" and part of the way toward, "This is familiar." That sense of "I've done this before" lets me borrow a little of that confidence we develop when we come back to something a second time.

Physically yesterday's drive will make no difference at all during the run. But I'll have created a brain advantage that will help pull my body to the finish line.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

one more photo of my pace group

Here's another photo of my pace group. I'm third from the left. This is the group I've been running with every Saturday since September. We're wearing the AIDS Marathon tee shirts they gave us to run with on Sunday. We all look pretty happy here because the run this day, last Saturday, was our last official training run and it was only 8 miles. (I know, only 8 miles - I wouldn't have believed it myself six months ago).

The Run Before the Run

I did my last training run this morning before the big one on Sunday. Thinking about Sunday's marathon as I was running 5 miles this morning I started to feel a little scared. "What have I gotten myself into?" I asked myself.

I remember the feeling from a few years ago the night before I began a 500 mile, week-long, bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles also as a fundriaser for HIV/AIDS services. It's exhilerating to face a big challenge like that, but not exactly fun.

That sense of embarking on something new, something difficult that will force you to face your limits and that carries a risk of failure and humiliation (personal humiliation even if all my friends still love me) is enough to keep a lot of us from attempting new things, or from attempting more new things than we otherwise would.

It's a shame, though, because the sense of accomplishment, if you do suceed in something you never had done before, is well worth the pre-experience fear of failure. And how could I really fail, anyway? Who would say that I had failed even if I turned my ankle on mile three and road the subway to the finish line? How is training for six months, raising over $2,000 for a good cause, and showing up at the starting line a failure?

And the world needs us to do more and be more. The old habits aren't enough. God's enjoyment of the world depends on our having the kinds of deep, rich experiences we can only have if we say yes to the full extent of our potential.