To Carol in the Summerland

My beloved friend Carol has passed away.

We met at Andover-Newton in 2005. From the very start, Carol demonstrated exceptional kindness and grace. It was while in seminary that I was relieved of my innocence about people of faith; by and large, they are people of many words and scant action. It’s become reflexive in America to assume that someone who professes a deep faith is hypocritical and vain. While my time at ANTS was lovely in many ways, it was my experience that, indeed, many passionate believers are also thoroughly flawed individuals – and I should know, I was one of them. But Carol was one of the few people I have met in all my travels who lived her faith and convictions without the slightest self-importance or condescension. Her belief in the goodness of people and the necessity of compassion were absolute – and amply proven by the unfailing generosity and love she showed to everyone who met her.

Carol and her husband Len were among the very first attendees at a “Film and Television Club” I began at Andover-Newton in my role as the Student Activities director. When I moved on campus, Carol and Len – both avid sci-fi and fantasy fans – invited me over to their dormitory to watch “Babylon 5.” The three of us became fast friends with a common love for philosophical inquiry and popular culture – preferably taken together. We discussed the theological underpinnings of our favorite shows and books. Later, we’d have Professor Kirk Jones’ course “The Jazz of Preaching” together and share many meaningful moments built around music. Our times together alternated harmoniously between sacred and secular: a small gathering for prayer and healing in the campus chapel one night, a pizza party in Sturtevant Hall watching “The Muppets’ Christmas Carol” the next. I adored Carol’s sense of humor and wit, both of which were used effectively in her capacity as a raconteur: I loved her stories of younger days, how she and Len met (such a delightful and endearing tale), and the travels she’d made – her trip to Italy made for a trove of great stories. Such was her warmth and amicability that she insisted on an embrace each time we met up dinner in the cafeteria or went out for breakfast at the diner down the hill.

Carol made seminary a richer experience. We had tremendous fun at the Boston Science Museum’s Star Wars special exhibition and playing board games like “Settlers of Canaan” or “Risk: Godstorm.” She introduced me to local blues artist Ronnie Earl and took a group of us to see him perform at Berklee.  Her good-natured and always up-beat presence was the catalyst for more late-nights in seminary playing games or eating ice cream than I can remember. We grew so close in friendship that Len and Carol were present at my wedding in 2007 – Carol had such kind and sagely words for me at the occasion, and I’ll ever cherish them. Less than a year later in 2008, Len and Carol would travel to India with my mother and I, as part of a border-crossing experience to learn about faith in the 3/4ths world context. Together, we had such fun visiting ashrams and temples, shopping for clothing, and taking a very hairy bus ride up the mountain to Kodaikanal.

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Carol (center) with my mother (left) and Len (right) in the environs of Chennai, India, January 6 2008.

 

 

After finishing at Andover-Newton in 2012, Len and Carol moved out to California, and regrettably the last time I saw her was in 2013. We continued to chat via social media or phone. I learned of Carol’s cancer in 2015, and at the time she told me not to pray, but “tug on the fabric of potentiality.” I had hoped, of course, that she would beat the cancer and continue to bless the world with her presence. Though she did not, I know that in her final days she was surrounded by loved ones and ready for her transition. Len and I spoke at length a few days ago, and during that call I had the chance to tell Carol how grateful I was for her friendship.

Carol’s singular sense of compassion weathered me through the darkest years of my life. When I had utterly failed as a human being, Carol continued to believe in me. My worst misdeeds did not erode her faith in me; she wanted always to see me overcome my demons and become the person that she knew I could become. Because of her faith in me, I did become that person, and perhaps the most difficult part of losing Carol is feeling that the debt of gratitude is unpaid. I would not be who I am today – a person quite literally transformed in every way – without her friendship and support. She modeled for me and for all whom she met the best of what faith should be: self-aware, open to exploration and question, pursued with humility and a desire to evolve and grow in wisdom.  How suitable that she spoke of traveling to The Summerland – a place of reflection and rest for the soul – after death. I regret that River never got to meet her. They would have loved each other.

Carol, I will miss you. May you sing joyfully in the Summerland. May you cast spells in that soft and golden place that reach us still here. All my love, always.

An Orange Chicken, a Quirky Quercus, and a Scenic View of Scotland (AND a Free Photo)

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The Chapin trail snakes through a magnificent understory of ferns and saplings.

Hello friends,

It often pays to take a detour on to unmarked or previously unexplored trails (but not into the forest itself, please). Yesterday, I discovered an entire new wilderness preserve purely by chance. I was heading north on the Nipmuck trail, planning to go just past Gurleyville road and turn around. Right around the site of the old Chaffeeville Silk Mill, I noticed a white-blazed trail exiting on the road, and through trees I spied a Town of Mansfield sign announcing the “Coney Rock Preserve.” The sign warned of a “steep” ascent leading to a grand view of the Fenton River. I calculated the total distance of the trails (I wanted at least six miles of hiking that day) and headed up the hill.

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The very old white oak (quercus alba) found in the Coney Rock preserve.

The choice to deviate from my planned hike was well rewarded, as I found myself at first in an extensive hemlock grove and then breezy, silent deciduous forest appointed with a gorgeous understory. Along the hike, I laid eyes on two barred owls in the canopy and discovered one of the oldest white oak trees I’ve ever seen (see photo at left). From about 1830-1850, deforestation for agriculture was at its peak in New England, with some 60-80% of all native forests obliterated by human activity. Connecticut forest, thus, are fairly young, and it’s a wonderful thing to find a tree as old as this grand old lady, who clearly predates the most frenetic period of deforestation. (A sad note: after a dramatic falling off in the early to mid twentieth century, deforestation in New England has been steadily rising in recent decades.)

 

I took the most circuitous route possible and made my way along the Olsen, Woodland Road, and Mullane trails to eventually return to the Chapin trail, where the park’s eponymous rock is located. The parks and rec information kiosk hadn’t exaggerated the view; it really is quite a magnificent west/southwest view of Scotland Connecticut. Unfortunately, the remnants of tropical storm Hermine have been cluttering our skies with low, grey clouds these last few days; I’m sure the view would be even better on a sunnier day.

As I left Coney Rock I took a photo of this gaudy mushroom – the Laetiporus sulphureus, also known as the “sulfur shelf” and “chicken of the woods.” August and September are great months for mycologists as many of our native species appear during this period; the Laetiporus is one such example. They grow in large fan-like clusters called rosettes at the base of oak and beech trees (but typically not conifers) and have a pleasant aroma. As you can see from the photo (below), they also have a shocking salmon hue, very bright and hard to miss if you see one. I don’t generally eat mushrooms, but those who do report that the edible Laetiporus has a lemony flavor and tastes a lot like, well, chicken. (N.b., while that links to a recipe for cooking the chicken of the woods, always consult an EXPERT mycologist on the proper identification of mushrooms you find in the wild. Many species are toxic and possibly fatal if ingested!)

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The shocking, orange/salmon colored “chicken of the woods” growing at the base of an oak tree.

 The free photo of the day is found as the featured photo for this article. That’s Chaffeeville road passing over the Fenton River, just at the ruins of the silk mill site.

Have a great day, friends!

 

Shoreside, Crystal Pond

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(c) 2015 Jace Paul

It’s dawn and the water is white and clean.

I pick up a pen and put my feet into the waves.

There are no boats to interrupt the trees in morning prayer;

Houses hunker down and hold the snoring bores within;

Still the lake takes my toes like

It has a fetish, its kindness knocks

Me over,

Supine, I, can wallow in the sky.
And it’s twilight and the water is right and clean.

I think too, you, see the cormorant, the snapping turtle,

And marvel at their potential.

We feel and see the grain of a good wood,

And with pinched fingers

Make a minor church.

I rest my pen and put my feet into the waves,

And minders mind their waterfront property,

Berth the boats, ignore the trees in prayer,

Hunker down in boring houses scored by sin,
And it’s dead of night, the stars give up their long dead light,

And the water is bright and clean.

This poem and many others is available in Where You Will Find Me by Jace Paul.

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How Heartbreak Is Like Getting the Flu

(A work in regress.)

How Heartbreak Is Like Getting the Flu

The cold, it rips you unobserved.
The flu, oh, it may pass after a few days
But you want a vaccine for it; care of

someone brighter, an expert in chemistry.
Bodies have a memory, you see
and you keep the little injuries for life;
going out gets that much harder.

The coffee is inert on your sick room table;
it cannot mend, today. It shivers a bit,
(the world is chilly which makes the flu and heartbreak)
under the shadow of that rising wall,
atop a pathway crumbling, un-counseled, far off.

Damask in the silt
Little mice tense in skin
Making nothing from something
A little flu, a little sadness
It will pass in a few days – I aver.

I know nothing of chemistry.

Getting It All By Giving It Away (Free Photo!)

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Free photo of day! (Attribution: “Photo by Jace Paul, 2016.”)

Hello friends,

Whenever we lose a patient on my unit, I try to take a second to whisper, “Thank you.” No, not “thank you that it wasn’t me,” but rather for that person’s life, witness, gifts, and all they gave to the ones they loved.

Maybe it was the sun shower that hit just as I left work, maybe it was the date I went on last night with a girl that made my heart sing, but today, as I came to a field bursting with black-eyed-susies on my hike, I decided to shout my gratitude out loud. I spread my hands wide, let the wind and butterflies twist around me, and just let my voice speak for the mass of my soul: “Thank you!”

Working in healthcare, I see death often enough that it’s honed my sense of urgency about the whole “carpe diem” thing. Perhaps it’s a shuffling of priorities. So much of my life has been spent in the pursuit of Truth that I have often forgot that other aims are more important. Life presents opportunities for us to be right and kind – but sometimes it gives us a choice to only one or the other. Insecure, unhappy, and overly-educated, I have all too often chosen to be Right and not kind. I’m glad that, in recent years, I have learned to be kind more often.

At an in-service for work today, we took the new hires on a tour of the building. Our wonderful Infection Control/Safety Compliance Officer, Jane, stopped to talk about responding to a combative patient. The question was when it’s right to argue with an angry patient, and when it’s better to avoid an argument. When safety or health is at risk, she said, it’s important to be right. But if these concerns aren’t present, it’s better to be kind. If a dementia patient thinks it’s 1945, let them think it. What good will come of trying to convince otherwise?

“As often as possible, choose to be kind over right,” Jane said to cap the conversation.

A patient in a wheelchair, on leave from long-term care (the unit for people who won’t, most likely, ever be going home) suddenly spoke up.

“That’s very good advice,” she said. “I’ve seen people who spent their lives trying to be right and not kind, and let me tell you…they don’t get many visitors.”

We touch down on this earth and barely find our feet before the ground disappears below us. The sliver of time we occupy in the greater lifetime of our cosmos is such a small space within which to move, to learn, to create. How do we want to use that time?

It’s a question that is never fully answered; or one that dips below the horizon of our awareness as we become focused on the immediate, the logistical, and the mundane. I try to bring it forward each day and use it to stay focused on the things that really matter – those virtues and choices that will mean more meaning, more love, and – yes – more friends and loved ones at our side when time runs out. 

My friends, don’t listen to the pragmatists or cynics. Give away the “stuff” you think you need and become rich with freedom and peace. Love wildly and impulsively. Believe in gods or good people or fields stuffed with flowers.

Say it with me: “Thank you.” 

When Yes Meets The Flower Kings, Positivity Rules

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Anderson/Stolt: Invention of Knowledge, Inside Out Records. Available now on iTunes, Spotify, on CD, and vinyl on June 24 (EU) and July 8 US)

“It’s like adding maple syrup to caramel.” So said a friend upon learning that former Yes front man and solo artist Jon Anderson had teamed up with “the magic genie,” Roine Stolt of the Flower Kings, for a brand new recording entitled Invention of Knowledge. Both men have established themselves as the gurus of spiritually-minded, positivity-promoting prog, and a collaboration was sure to bring the mystical meditations right up to eleven.

I have always considered The Flower Kings to be the logical heirs to Yes’ legacy in the twenty-first century. Though straying often toward jazz-fusion and sonic dissonance, thematically and lyrically the band is a near facsimile of their 1970’s forebear, and when they’ve done symphonic prog (The World of Adventures, Stardust We Are), The Flower Kings compel the same soaring sense of wonder and grandeur as Yes did with outings like Tales from Topographic Oceans. Stolt’s lyrics consistently remind the listener to love, to embrace peace, and seek deeper understanding in spiritual practice. Consider the final segment of Adam & Eve‘s grand opener, “Love Supreme”:

See life reinventing itself, starting over, time and time again
A new time of understanding begins, see yourself as a link in the chain reaction
This world couldn’t do without you, this world couldn’t be without you
It’s perfect because you are, it’s perfect because you are.

So it’s a natural and – for me – much welcome pairing to have the masterminds of these two bands produce a work together.

Before I delve into Invention properly, let me make the obvious caveat: if you find Yes a bit twee, bloated, and pompous you might as well get your hat now. If, on the other hand, you like long-form symphonic rock with an uplifting angle, read on.

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The disc kicks off with “Knowing,” an 18-minute suite that begins as slowly rising chants and distant guitar harmonics, then launches into a near-martial beat set to Anderson’s unmistakable sky-high tenor. “Some may say the positive in life is always, always growing,” he sings, accented by a chorus of counterpoints and harmonies (ably provided by a beautiful backing vocal section that includes Daniel Gildenlöw of Pain of Salvation). The song really takes flight, however, in its second movement, “We Are Truth,” a ballad with strong similarity to Yes’ “And You And I.” Stolt carries the initial verses with playful acoustic guitar as Anderson avers: “We will not break down and let/the darkness call our names.” The song closes with “Knowledge,” and here the potential and payoff of the collaboration comes into clear focus: Stolt has always displayed a genius for powerful finales that send his listeners soaring into the heavens, and with appropriate gravity added by a mighty pipe organ and angelic choir, “Knowing” comes to a trademark glorious Flower Kings conclusion.

European reviews of the CD have remarked on the Yes-like character of the music, with some saying this is the music Yes should have been making for the past few decades. (Let’s be honest: Heaven and Earth was, ahem, Hell.) I think that to a Yes fan unfamiliar with The Flower Kings, that’s true: this music is far more like Yes than most of what the band itself has released since possibly Keys to Ascension in ’96. To my ears, however, the music is distinctly in Roine Stolt’s style. So steeped in The Flower King’s music am I that I knew, in most cases, what chord was next in the progression and when the guitar solo would begin. (Flower Kings bassist Jonas Reingold and former bassist Michael Stolt also play on the CD, adding their fretless bass and funk-inspired rhythm lines to the music, which adds to the Flower Kings sound.) On the other hand, The Flower Kings are very much the progeny of seventies-era Yes, and so perhaps it’s equally fair to say that this is “YesMusic.” The bands are so similar, it may be hard to say where one ends and the other begins.

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The Flower Kings.

Track two, “Knowing,” is lighter fare, largely comprised of impressionistic lyrics that work like poetry rather than realism. The second movement, however, features some tastefully restrained Roland piano from Tom Brislin, who provided keys on the Yes Symphonic tour. The song’s final minutes are reminiscent of “The Truth Shall Set You Free,” the marvelous opening track to The Flower King’s 2003 double CD Unfold the Future.

 

In the third track,”Everybody Heals,” Yes fans will hear echoes of both “The Remembering: High the Memory” and “Ritual: Nous Sommes du Soleil.” The piece makes several key and tempo changes, and on first listen it can appear indistinct, almost uniform in composition. Careful attention brings out the changes between light and shadow, as once again majesty is exchanged with contemplative passages which allow the headier content to settle a bit.

The last track, “Know…,” begins with a gentle shuffle and some Rhodes, vocal scat, and vibes – all in lovely major seventh/ninth chords that, as always, evoke wistfulness and longing. As the bass and percussion take a bit of a backseat, the feeling here is more acoustic and intimate; appropriately doting on Anderson’s voice and soft-spoken words of love. About halfway through the track, we return to some of the earlier themes and melodies from the album,  and once again leap from earth to sky. The repetition of themes is nice, but seems tacked on and unnecessary. A shuffle of the tracks to end on a more majestic note would have been nice – perhaps this would have made a nice third movement, with “Invention of Knowledge” being a stronger and more memorable close to the disc.

But that’s picayune when the music itself is so rich and textured, and brilliantly executed by all of the artists involved. Sure, there are no long instrumental passages or curry-worthy keyboard solos, and the rhythm section is virtuoso but not flamboyant about it (a real shock if you’ve seen Reingold play live). But Invention of Knowledge radiates enthusiasm and joy, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. By Anderson’s own admission, this is the music he’s been longing to play for many years. Here is a fortuitous union of two exceptional talents, and fans of both Yes and The Flower King will find this a glut of ear candy – though I’m certain that listeners who know and enjoy both groups well will be doubly rewarded. It’s not daring, but it’s sublime, and for fans of symphonic progressive rock like me, that’s all we need to know.

An Ethics of Hiking (and a Free Photo of the Day)

Hello readers!

I’ve been working on a chapter in Eastern Connecticut from the Trails that considers some prolegomena (“first words”; the Greeks used it to mean “prologue” or “introduction”) for a new philosophy of hiking. In its formal presentation, it considers the big questions of philosophy but specifically geared toward hiking. For example, what is a hike? Is it the distance? The location? What makes a hike distinguishable from, say, a particularly long walk to the store? And, what do we learn from hiking (epistemology)?

One of the more, shall we say contentious, subjects with which I’m grappling is the question of why we hike. Unfortunately, my reflections have drawn me to the conclusion that almost all hikers are motivated by internal stimuli: the desire to be fit, the hope of finding solitude, inner peace, a great view. Some hike as amateur scientists: for bird watching, identifying rare or beautiful plants, collecting rocks. But the relationship with nature, too often, is one-sided. We benefit from hiking, but the natural world receives nothing from our presence. Indeed, as the seemingly endless parade of trash on the trails indicates, the forests and wildlife are worse for our interference.

There’s nothing wrong with going out for exercise, spiritual nourishment, or a glimpse of nature’s secret majesty. Every hike I’ve ever done has been compelled by some degree and combination of those aims. If there’s a philosophy of hiking, however, there’s also an ethics that entails from the truths that philosophy proffers. What ethical duty do we have as hikers to ourselves, do others, and to nature?

A full treatment of the ethical dimension of hiking is a bit much for a blog post. But here are some thoughts to get the ball rolling.

For a start, don’t litter the trails. I don’t wish to sound like priggish, so let me underscore that I make it a point to be very generous in my estimation of other people. We’re all human, we all make mistakes. To harp on the folly and ignorance of other people too often is a prescription for a miserable life. But I would gently suggest that, in the ethics of hiking, there’s an obligation to anyone who sets out on the trails to “do no harm,” as the Buddhists say. And I would encourage anyone thinking of hiking to conduct a little self-analysis and honestly assess if they can meet that minimal goal or not.

Let’s imagine a person who simply can’t get behind the wheel of a car and obey the laws that keep the roads safe. They run red lights. They drive at twice the posted speed limit – in a school zone. They frequently drive drunk. Would it be controversial to eventually say this person, who is unwilling to alter their errant ways for the good of the whole, “Perhaps you should just stay off the roads?” And, would it not be responsible and laudable if that person said, “Yes, indeed, I should stay off the roads until I can adhere to the standards that keep our roads safe?”

I think the same situational ethics apply to the trails. If a person cannot hike without casting beer bottles and soiled diapers into the dirt, if the woods are merely a convenient place to have sex and leave used condoms for the rest of us, if they simply must destroy a tree to declare their love “4 ever” for their partner, if they find leash laws and prohibitions against fires, motorized vehicles, and leaving pet excrement on beaches and foot paths too encumbering, then I think it’s quite fair to say: stay home. The trails are not for you quite yet, but we’d love to see you when you can engage in a symbiotic relationship with the outdoors.

This, I believe, points to the one axiom (a statement that is necessarily true, accepted as fact) I’ve discovered in hiking: nature itself has value beyond what it can do for us. The forests, the flora and fauna in their diversity, the ecosystems – all have an intrinsic worth that’s separate and immutable – unlike the value of meat, timber, ore, and other “products” we harvest from nature.

So beyond doing no harm, perhaps we can also aim to help. A small example – I carry a garbage bag, a mere 5 gallon one, in my pack when I hike. When I see a bit of rubbish on the trail, I pick it up and pack it out with me. It’s what I consider a basic courtesy to the natural world and to other hikers and our park systems, too. We can volunteer our time maintaining the trails. We can donate to our cash-strapped Forestry, Parks and Recreation, and Environmental Protection agencies (all of whom rely increasingly on volunteers and outside organizations with each round of budget cuts and layoffs).

But perhaps most importantly, seek out greater knowledge and peace in yourself and in your dealings with nature. Learn the names of the trees, rocks, and animals around you. I am convinced that intimate contact with the forest abolishes all delusions of a self apart from nature; that as our understanding of the intricacy and diversity of the Earth’s geology and biology increases, our feelings of emptiness and disunity decrease. Meditate on these bare but astonishing realities. Hike, but stop and sit in the sunlit field, close your eyes, and listen to the music that was once your home.


What is hiking to you? What does your ‘philosophy’ of hiking include? Comment below!

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