Mark’s Notes

The Alternative Way

In this strange and hard time, my biggest daily solace is a walk with my dog, Simon. Today, Independence Day 2020, was no different-at least not different since March. There was a soft breeze down in the Barranca where we walk and as we came out of the tunnel that passes under the road, I was overwhelmed by memory.

It’s broad summer, first in the Midwest and I’m transported back to Whitcomb Avenue in Palatine, IL. I’m 5 or 6 years old and yet memories of that time flood through my mind with what I think are precise details, though I think some of it is rather like Michael Crighton’s “frog DNA” in Jurassic Park–perceived gaps have been, perhaps, filled in. The sun is bright and warm and in carefree, long bicycle days, my brothers, friends and I are wandering the paths and sidewalks in between our homes, our school (which had a summer-day program) and the local K-Mart, which sold Icees, a cherished treat.

Then, in Pennsylvania, across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, near Middletown and Hershey, was Hummelstown. We lived there less than two years, but the memories and strong pull of that place, of that time-1973 to 1975, are cement memories, as heavy as they are vivid and beautiful. Strangely, I learned many years ago that my father did not like living there, but it makes sense. He grew up in Pittsburgh and wasn’t terribly keen on living in Pennsylvania again. We visited Pittsburgh to see my grandmother often, and going there too was like time-travel. For dad, it was a step backward in his life. We had lived in Illinois and he worked in the hustle, thrum and vibrancy of Chicago. In Pennsylvania, his office was in the basement of our home. In Illinois, his office was in a Chicago high-rise.

For me, Pennsylvania was the birth of everything. It is where I learned to love baseball, it’s where I became interested in reading about the American Civil War and American history. We were close to family, my Aunt Virginia, Uncle Karl and cousins–and school, friends and adventures were plentiful. 4th of July in both places was a true amalgam of Americana– good, homemade and inexpensive food, fireworks displays-and fireworks at home on our street (something I’ve grown weary of, actually. I don’t care for the loud noises of them anymore).

Why those memories came back to me so hard down along the dirt and scrub-brushy path near my current home is probably owed to my recent reminiscences of photos of those places. Like a dream, I was engulfed in my childhood and my life now evaporated before me. I was a child, but could see through adult eyes the joy that filled those bug-juice, bicycle path days. But I’ve also sought escape from this hard and dark time by thinking back to the freedom of my childhood. Summers were filled with choices my brothers and friends and I all got to make, it seemed. Nothing felt hemmed in. The indoors were not where we wanted to be and the weather hardly mattered. We wanted to be outside, roaming the woods, the sidewalks, the paths of familiar home territory and our parents were content that we were safe enough to manage that navigation on our own. It was a glory I’ve not seen since.

We’ve all been forced to think very differently about our lives and perhaps some of it is needed, correct and honest. I don’t wish to debate that at all with anyone. But in this time, a year before I retire from 30-years of teaching, I feel the want of freedom very keenly just now. I feel the need to escape universal fear, create a life worth pursuing again and one that I hope is worthy of ideals that the 4th of July is meant to celebrate.

Earlier today, in Santa Monica, CA, some 45 miles from where I live, a man leapt to his death from a pedestrian bridge overlooking the 10 Freeway near the Coast Highway. He’s the third one I’ve read about in a week, though one of the three was saved by alert police officers who talked that man down. Desperation is prowling like a wolf and our politicians, feckless and craven, hungry for power and control, make no sense in pronouncements that differ from what they said a week ago. My heart grieves at people’s desperation and fear, illness and death. My mind cannot accept that it is happening. We are better than this–we can be much, much better.

As I walked out of the Barranca and onto the road, my dog turned to the right and we headed for a neighborhood called The Pinnacles, with a steep-hill climb that makes the exercise worth doing. I looked ahead to the hill and started thinking about 11 months from now, June 2021. I’ll be newly retired and perhaps with some hope, grace and faith, the pandemic will subside whether from vaccine, or plain old miracle. Maybe I’ll be free again and if I am, I may just go find another path to walk on. And see where it leads.

Onward.

The Words Were the Beginning

The words were the beginning. And in them was solace. And sacrifice. In them were love. We’ve been stripped from them, like husks from ripe fresh corn. They are vapid now.  We look for banners, signposts--and empty things filled with fresh, false hope as we navigate Still waters, lurking monsters, pronouncements of doom and climb aboard dream airplanes, pilotless, pathless, mindless, lifeless, hopeless. 
Where are the green shutes? Where is the hand-holding, smiling walk of lovers, friends, graced by God for touching, laughing and sharing. We’ve been distanced. Social loss, social dysfunction and misfiring engines. Social destruction, distortion, disgrace, disaster.
The clouds whisper in cool breezes-waiting for the touch of God to move them along.
The people are clamoring, seeking, wandering, waiting--longing.
And it will come. It is coming. Slow, graceful steps among weeds, rust and loss.
Spirits rise, call to us-what will those who have passed on---left behind?
Will they have passed in vain? Will that flag tatter and limp into fetid breath?
No. Rise. Rise...rise. We will not be afraid and we will not ignore the need, the sick, the want.
We have work to do! It is not the work of politicians, bureaucrats, lawmakers and editors-but
The work of the lost, lonely and hopeless--toward bright sun, toward health, toward love, toward God. We will not be afraid and ignore. We will bless and be blessed-and we will return again to
The flowing, weeping, joyful words. Words that speak comfort, grace and life-the Words of God.

A Place called Time

I’ve lived in California for almost 45 years, coming here when I was 10 years old. For whatever reason, though I’ll forget things I discussed last year with someone, I have a very rich storehouse of memories, nearly a kind of constantly running film in my head, of my life and childhood before California. And though my childhood in California was a fine one as well, I separate the two. Life before CA. Life in CA. It is a curiosity to me that people from some places are identified with place. A New Yorker, for example. A Midwesterner. And, of course, Californians, which I suppose, I am.

The friendships I have here, the life I have here are wonderful-even dreamlike, my wife is a native Californian, my daughter is a native Californian. I’m not. I don’t feel like one, though justly and truly, I am. Place has always meant more to me than ever I could embrace. In my mind, being of a place is a great gift, a kind of identifier that allows us to ground ourselves, even if only for a moment, into something real, practical, right now. In my religious and faith tradition, “we are not of this earth,” and maybe that is as it should be. Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we…” and I think God spoke to that in a number of religious texts as well. But there is a difference between “not being of this earth,” and not engaging on this earth while we’re here.

Just before the pandemic started, I had this uncomfortable feeling that I wanted time to speed up because doing so would mean I’d retire from teaching after 30 years and move north out of California to Washington, a place that my whole family has fallen in love with. I say uncomfortable because I don’t want to wish my days away. I want to live every moment. And then the pandemic came and since March, I’ve simply been feeling time stand still. Life won’t start again until we can get back up and out into the world. In many ways, the tension I feel is the tension in the debate at hand: We cannot afford to stay locked down forever. We will ruin ourselves. It would be nice if we could all just stay home and avoid the world until this went away–but that’s just not going to happen. We will lose everything. We are caught with a very tough decision–either we start turning the wheels of industry again and getting people back to work–or we simply shrivel away into nothing and the suffering that is happening with those who are ill multiplies geometrically into hunger, homelessness, despair and grief–for all.

But returning to a semblance of normalcy is not without risk, certainly. And we’re going to need to be much smarter than we’ve been about it. Time can’t stand still. Time is going on and people are suffering, some from illness, some from loss, some from despair and purposelessness that suddenly appeared revealing how little control we all have. We are left with ourselves as the world turns upside down and begins to feel strange, odd–and frightening. No one can see a year from now. No one can see six months from now. Maybe we’re looking to next month. Spots of hope from approval of good medicine that seems to be working to millions who have had the virus and are healing, getting better. Those stories don’t get told as often as the struggles, the death and the grief. As real as the latter are, there is also the reality that many more have healed and still more never got that sick. How do we reconcile this?

I’m still wishing for time to move ahead, but it’s sheer will on which I’m working. The ever-present low level of anxiety that permeates is balanced by its counterpart that maybe now is a time to stand still, to offer love and hope where we can, to use humor (even dark humor that we all succumb to on occasion) when we feel like crying and to reach out with love when we feel close to despair. Maybe that’s the best way to see each day through-so that as time passes, we do feel it instead of ignoring it. And then perhaps we get a chance to see our own futures rise again, like sunrise-with a healthy dose of lessons learned, love lost and love moving ever and always…

Onward.

10

Episode 10 is now posted and so Considering Some Things will become a weekly podcast and will post each Wednesday. Jason Abrahamson (hereafter known as Producer Jason) and I have worked out the scheduling to fit both of our schedules and allow time for recording and editing (we do occasionally have to edit due to technical issues and, more rarely of course, errors by yours truly).

I’m uncomfortably writing in the meta-fashion, but I suppose it is a by-product of doing the podcast in the first place. We moved very quickly, thanks to Producer Jason, from a sort of experimental recording of a conversation with my friend, entrepreneur and musician Keith Cox, to a website, to a well-functioning and useful website to a podcast–to being available on iTunes and Tunein. This was not by design, not at first anyway. I’ve been interested in podcasting for a long while, as I mention on the about page here–but it is this terrible situation, a global pandemic, that gave me pause to think of it in terms of the time I had and, perhaps, the urgency of being creative after realizing that nothing in life is guaranteed. So, like so many of the people I’ve been interviewing, who have been trying something new or “pivoting” to a new way of earning a living, it is a desire to connect with people because the number one thing I miss in all of this–is connecting, hugging, talking to and sharing with people I know and love.

Upcoming episodes are being recorded and we’re still focusing on speaking to the idea of maintaining hope, optimism and creativity as well as the challenges facing small business and entrepreneurship and life during this pandemic.

Meanwhile, hope abounds and everyday there are changes. While the suffering is immense, we begin to see moments of a brighter future in everything from successfully flattening the curve, as it was known-to some states making slow returns toward reopening.

I hope you find our conversations worthwhile and interesting. I know we still do-and while that’s so, we’ll push…onward.

Rain and Sun

As the argument goes on about when and how to open states and their economies back up, the usual forces are pitting politically divisive side against politically divisive side. Unhelpful, but probably simply part of the landscape of discourse these days. Still-something will come out of it…

The sunlight through the clouds is slow in coming for so many and the debates rage on as some say we should simply hide ourselves away until there is a cure or a vaccine. Of course, we cannot do that. In the midst of all that is happening, I started doing the podcast located here and I have been so moved by the response to it–and by those I’m interviewing and their insight, bravery, thoughtfulness and compassion. The struggle to remain one’s creative self, whatever form that creativity takes, is the one I’m interested in. I learn so much from talking to people who are making things work as best they can.

For my own part, which is all I’ve really written on this blog for years, I know that I love having my wife and daughter home with me. For a while, we had my sister-in-law here as well, but she went back to her home in Washington. We are a happy family and through the darkness, we have each other. I know many feel this way and I know some do not. As we move further through this dark tunnel, there is light at the other side and we may even begin seeing it very soon.

We’re all–and by all I mean our govt. too–going to have to accept that viruses don’t go away. We can vaccinate against them, yes–and perhaps treat them (as is looking more likely) but vanquish them? Probably not. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to develop a process to get ourselves back on our feet again, while supporting and protecting the most vulnerable to this disease and giving them the security of knowing that we can keep the economy moving, the medical and science professionals looking for answers and prevent them from contracting the disease the virus brings. These are not insurmountable goals. They are musts from a society that has had to reinvent itself any number of times. These clouds will part–and hopefully, we’ll learn to live with them when they do.

“Recalled to Life…”

The argument springing up just now is important and truly American. The politicians, faced with an enormous exercise on the limits of their Constitutional powers, are now discussing how to “open society back up.” Of course, there was no real discussion like this when they chose to close it down.

It’s as important a debate as was the original Constitutional Convention more than 200 years ago. As the virus pandemic continues, though now somewhat abated, our economy and our people are suffering–more in number than those who got sick with the virus. Businesses have folded, bank accounts dwindle, housing values plummet, and many people having trouble putting food on the table.

The early and, in my view, ill-informed panic that closed the country down became a general rule of thumb to avoid over-loading our healthcare system and that was in all fairness the right thing to do. But we seem to have “bent the curve” as we were told, in most places and now we see the strange posturing of politicians on all sides saying, “it’s time to try to get back on our feet,” while others call for up to 18-months of quarantine, supposedly completely ignorant of the economic impact (think meteor crater).

As I just see no purpose in the political scrum that ensues, the cut-to-the-chase moment is obviously upon us. We have to protect the most vulnerable, find a way to maintain hygiene and distancing measures, while slowly being “recalled to life,” as Charles Dickens wrote.

While I remain apolitical, I do fall on the side of Mr. Dickens. I realize it cannot be business as usual. That day will come, perhaps sooner rather than later–but we need to allow people to get back to work, commerce to continue and exercise our liberties again.

But I also fall on the side of the people with whom I’m talking here. This week, four new interviews with small business owners, artists, and a nationally renowned speaker, Dr. Terry Paulson, who will discuss optimism in challenging and fearful times. I think you’ll enjoy them all, please join me.

Happy Easter

It might not be as Happy as we’d like. But it is a sign of hope. There is much to be hopeful for. As we strive to end this plague and scientists and medical professionals around the world work to bring it under control, today is a day for Universal Hope, not universal fear. Jewish people celebrated Passover, a plague visited on the world from which they were saved, by again sheltering in place and remembering their ancestors. For those of us who celebrate Easter, we now look for the new dawn after a time of grief, pain and sadness. And that time will come again–and soon.

It’s certainly a painful time and all of us are afraid. But this is not without precedent–and we will overcome it and it was important to me to note that this morning. Easter brings with it the hope of renewal-and now more than ever, that’s what we need and what will come again.

Peace. For those of us in the Easter tradition, He is Risen. But whatever your tradition, life will spring again–and with it the promise of being able to know who we are, and how to do it better than ever.

A Lenten Fast

Giving up things for Lent is a time-honored tradition among Christians and takes the form of simple choices like alcohol, foods, social media and other distractions or luxuries. But in recent years, I began to discover the deeper substance of Lent and knew that sacrifice was much more than eschewing chocolate. The ritualistic ways in which we live our lives has become burdened with our selfish sadness and narcissism. In my 29th year as a teacher, I’ve watched the changes occur not just in me, or the education system or families–but in the students themselves. Yes, they have changed. And it isn’t for the better.

Our younger generations, now saddled with even more technology, more immediate gratification and a hyper-intensive focus on the always prevalent “look at me” ethos has proved ruinous. I’m tapping this idea out on my blog, a platform for writers who want to share their thoughts. When I was a teenager and writing short stories and articles, I had no immediate access to an audience. I was fortunate in that I had an opportunity to write for a local weekly newspaper where I lived and even got to appear on the radio once a week based on what I was writing. I worked for those opportunities and they became the threads that would define my future careers. But now, there is no need to work that hard. I tap it out here and link it on social media and on occasion, a few people read. It’s wonderful. But I’m not 16.

And we know that this instant gratification, whether we are adults or children, is not necessarily a good thing. But in those adolescent years, already filled with a brew of narcissism, self-doubt, lack of clarity and purpose and hormones that can’t control themselves, instant gratification can prove dangerous, even deadly.

On these front lines in public education, there is, as usual, precious little being done–or really, precious little that we can do. Schools are microcosms of the culture in which they exist. They have never been the generators of the culture, though admittedly, they are a part of it and at times, offer up created behaviors that seep back into the culture (i.e. grading performances, lecture halls, etc). But in the main, if a child is given a smart-phone and allowed to simply access the digital world, we know that left unfettered, that child is far more prone to depression and anxiety than peers who do not have such access. The speed-of-light rumor and information dissemination in young minds not prepared to process any of it provide the perfect breeding ground for the “look at me” generations to spin violently out of control as they seek to manage what is by definition unmanageable.

In the journalism classes I’ve taught, we discuss this on occasion in the form of getting facts and corroborating them. I’m not always sure it bleeds over into understanding that just because it is on the Internet, doesn’t mean it is true. But the students who have been in the class for more than a year do seem to have a bit more clarity about the idea that not every printed line is the word of God.

Which brings me back to Lent. Giving up social media accounts for the meditative darkness before Easter would be a brilliant choice for many teens and adults and I’m sure somewhere, many are doing just that. But by itself, that won’t change the world. The great terror of the modern world, a virus gone awry and spreading, wars and rumors of wars, the dark age of financial ruin, and our constant connection to it all are all merely signs that we still don’t get it. Lent should be a time when we accept that God moves through us and allows our hearts to decide. We must choose, though. He does not choose for us. That freedom, unshackled and unburdened, is tempted by so many things and the temptations in our modern age are stronger than ever. So perhaps our sacrifices should be in the form of that deep contemplation–not giving up just the material goods that have brought so much misfortune, but giving up the attitudes, feelings and actions that led our hearts astray in the first place.

​Onward.

Myths to Live by

Our plane drifted slowly down through the clouds after a somewhat turbulent flight and settled gently onto the runway at Seatac International airport in Seattle. It was Saturday and the flight was fairly full, but the ride was made smoother by a nice chap who Sue and I got to know, a Seattle restaurateur with a penchant for discussing politics–not my favorite subject, but he was reasonable and kind.

The stark contrast between the sunshine and high 60’s as we left California with the gray skies and high 40-degree temperatures in Washington was welcome. Most people would prefer the reverse, I’m guessing–especially after Puget Sound had just gotten through some 50 days of rain. For us, it was a nice change of pace and a way for us to consider what it was like here. Few people get to glimpse into their future like this and it wasn’t lost on us that we were looking at just that.

The Pacific Northwest is something of a compromise in our family. I’ve spent most of my life in Southern California, moving here from Pennsylvania with my family at 10-years old and only leaving for a brief time at 18. But in my quiet moments, though the people I love are here, my wife is native here and my daughter, too–I have to admit I’ve never truly felt at home here. Oh, I’ve come to love the west altogether, but Southern California is merely artifice for me. I’m at once kind of inside and outside of it.

But the Pacific Northwest always drew me. In 1992, when my dear friend Keith was living in Portland, I went to visit him with a teaching and college friend of mine. We spent a week in Oregon and I fell so in love with it, that I applied for-and was offered a teaching job in the Beaverton School District. I was ready to make the move. But at that time, I was also falling in love with Sue. And she was smart enough not to commit to anything until it became clear what I was going to do. I nearly gambled and took the job in Oregon, hoping Sue would come join me. But I felt more strongly about her than I did the job and so I returned to California with no regrets.

The rest is family history, of course, but it was endlessly fascinating to me that Shannon decided to attend college in the PNW at Pacific Lutheran University. And while a native Californian, she has fallen under Washington’s spell. For us, it really is an enchanted place.

So it occurs to me that the poetry of the moment is a kind of apex of much that I have pursued for these years. It’s a time for choices. I’ve been reminded twice in the past week of a quote by Joseph Campbell from his book, Myths to Live By. “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” In so many ways, that’s what all of us are doing. Shannon did it when she chose to go away from home for school. Laurie did the same when she uprooted herself from the comfort of her life with us here in California and moved to Washington not knowing anyone other than her niece. And now we too are headed that way, though another year stands between us and the move. It’s no use wishing a year of one’s life away, but I confess that I do sometimes wish it were 2021.

The past few days we spent in Washington with Laurie at her new home took on new urgency for us. We reveled in her new home and town and we no longer felt like travelers or tourists. We cooked in Laurie’s kitchen and we tried a new local distillery, while visiting downtown Tacoma and the state’s history museum. Our family, reunited in the north along with Shannon’s college friends, were no longer Californians. Instead, we were related to this place and we fell into easy comfort, enjoying the sites, surroundings, and preparing ourselves for the time we’re all here, in the north.

The comfortable thing to do, the easy thing, would be to teach for at least another three or four years and stay put. But life is lived forward, the broad windshield before us. A life that is, perhaps, waiting for me, is calling. It’s time to leave behind the life that was planned and start embracing new challenges, answering that call.

​Onward. Indeed.

This is Just to Say pt. II


Like Mike Rowe, I’ve always been leery about “following my passion.” Passion by its very definition carries little to no practicality. It’s too easy to dismiss that and as a free spirit say, “practicality is over-rated” or something equally banal. But I live by my passion, my feelings. I’ve always lead with my heart and often to my own detriment. That’s not simple self-deprecation, it is an admission to being weak in areas where weakness leads often to failure, or at least to being trailed by wolves.

So, when I made the decision to retire from teaching, it wasn’t without a pretty serious focus on the practicality of the decision, a sense of turning to face those trailing wolves and see if I could, at very least, fight them off. My original intent was to get out earlier than June, 2021. I sought out a kind of career change after 29 (or nearly 29) years. Somewhat to my own surprise, I was successful in finding work in another chosen field, working in a communications or student services capacity for a college. I got as far as the first step of applying for a job as an assistant director for communications for a university in the Pacific Northwest. In the moment, it felt good to consider it. I liked the idea of walking away from teaching and stepping into something new. But it didn’t make sense. I wasn’t fully prepared to take on a new career that might last another 10 or 15 years. Doing so felt like a rejection of the teaching career that I have committed to and even loved at times. I realized that I accept the choices I’ve made and I stepped back from that career-change for practical, and not passionate, reasons.

Shortly after I made that decision, another opportunity presented itself. This coincides with something I believe passionately, by the way–that placing one’s self into the stream means opportunities will come, at their own pace, yes–but come they will.

Our school district had an opportunity for teaching in the Independent Studies program, a truly alternative education process working in either small groups or one on one with kids who just don’t fit the high school process mode. A friend of mine worked in that department and I asked him about it. His answers convinced me it was the right fit and I got an interview. But it was during that process that something didn’t feel quite right. Here again, I am fairly certain that the feeling was a practical one: If I do this right, I have another year to teach–why change that up at the last minute? Why not finish with what I know and perhaps support a student-teacher on the beginning of their career in the process?

These feelings were not passionate ones. I didn’t have an overwhelming love of the choices I made. I knew that like some sort of lamp lighting a simple path, I needed to stay put in order to give myself more options when the time comes next year to pull that plug. I have a strong desire for change now, but a capricious application of that desire isn’t going to make life better for anyone in my family, including me.

So these days find me fixing my mind on the future. I’ve been reminded again of late of life’s uncertainties and the near impossible task of striking a balance between leaps of faith and plunges into the abyss. Discernment is such a monumental task and faith must play a role in it for there to be any hope of success. But in this instance I found that answering a call of passion wasn’t an answer at all. The heat of a moment can be a beautiful and powerful thing. But it can also burn and scar forever and choosing wisely is no simple matter.
Onward.