Three Self-Portraits (Tiny Hills)

On August 31, I ambled my way to the highest point in Rhode Island: Jerimoth Hill, accessible via a 1/10 mile trail that ascends a whopping ten total vertical feet. (Friends of mine joked – “Surely Federal Hill is the highest point in the state.” Natch.) Having both Mount Mansfield in Vermont and 31 miles of the AT in the previous two weeks, it was a trifle – I was there to tick a box in the list of New England’s highest points.

But it turned out to be a bit more emotional than I anticipated. I sat on the little rock, festooned with a helpful cairn, and snapped the first of what would end up being three self-portraits over the next month. There was a trail book in a steel strongbox on the rock as well, and in it I wrote: “We are not crushed by mountains, but suffocated by tiny hills.”

Today I’m thinking of Carol and another recently deceased seminary friend, the redoubtable Bill Bradford. Bill was known by many as “the badass chaplain,” and he did indeed completely own his chosen vocation. Bill had depths of compassion that most of us will never begin to reach. He often quoted Paul Tillich: “The first duty of love is to listen,” and he was above all else a man who knew how be present to the sick, the poor, the oppressed.  He will be missed.

My portraits: grieving, waiting, pushing back – against the tiny hills.

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.” 

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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UnReturned

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This is a photo of a three-story house where I spent many days of my youth.

Or rather, it’s a photo of the space that house once occupied.

I took a drive to snap a few photographs of spring arriving in Connecticut and on a whim turned down Depot Road, where the little white building had spent many decades reclining on the shore of Millbrook Pond. I knew that it had been abandoned some eight years ago: I was there to pack the boxes, haul the refuse, sweep the brick patio beneath the mulberry tree one last time.

We had held a tag sale. Together with my old friends, I removed the steel bathtub, the fine crystal, the antique Frigidaire; I helped remove its vital organs and put them on card tables. We sealed the septic system that emptied into the pond, and with a final twist of the key in the door we made a mummy of our home.

I knew the house had died a long time ago. I expected shattered glass, rain gutters enlaced with ivy; I expected a derelict. I did not anticipate negative space.

One hot July weekend in 1993, four of us gathered to perform our artist’s rituals. Barbara, matron of the house she’d acquired through divorce, spread her acrylics across the living room floor. I swiped a broad brush across stretched canvas and streaks of daisy yellow appeared. Bob plied his field with refined dabs, as painfully chosen and achingly sparing as his words. Justin released his psychedelic fever and sprinkled the easel with misty pastels.

I finished my painting with four parallel lines – blue, crimson, emerald, and orange, tucked away to the bottom left of the painting. I titled it “Oasis.”

I don’t recall the full agenda of the day. But I’m sure we withdrew to the pond to swim in the afternoon sun, as almost every weekend we did. We hiked the railroad tracks past the shit pits where Kelly’s Septic dumped their harvest. We asked each other earnest questions about love, the soul, and god – the kind of painfully optimistic inquiries that only the young can entertain.

I have no doubt that, as evening came, we dined on something Barbara had whipped up with chicken, garlic, garden herbs, and an ingenuity born of poverty. I bet we watched Jesus Christ Superstar or The Emerald Forest. Around midnight, as Barbara smoked cigarettes and read books in a warm glow by the grand picture window that overlooked the water, we three friends departed for the cemetery nearby. Upon a sarcophagus we declared that, no, we weren’t afraid of zombies or ghosts or getting old.

In the middle of a hellish adolescence, the little abode astride a pine forest and beside an industrial watershed welcomed my wild ideas and erratic brush. I was free to cry and rage, to gaze at nebulae, where stars are born, from a graveyard. To adumbrate a better me.

The house is gone, and I cannot go back to it. The friends have long drifted away.

That house worked magic in us. The earth and the water and the austerity of our accommodations (would we have ever done so much dreaming with video games or cell phones?) kept us grounded in the vital things of life. And that little space, that jiffy of time, seemed only to ask that we go out and announce our insights on living fully loved and loving fully to anyone willing to listen.

I wish that I could give back to this lonely little spot, where a grand mansion once stood, a little of the sorcery of those days. I hope, as more buildings fall, to send some of that magic to the world.

Feel Euphoria

A handful of things fueling my happiness and ambition this morning. Hope you have a great day, too.

Two Quotes from Bertrand Russell.

“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”

“Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.”

One song from Spock’s Beard, “Day For Night.”

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A Photograph I took.
(The road to Goodwin Forest Conservation Center, early morning May 23,2011).

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Info: Nikon D40, Shutter 1/50 ; Aperture  f/6.3;   ISO 200.