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.

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.

The Incredible Shrinking Pie (and Free Photo of the Day 9/4/16)

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Mansfield Hollow, September 2014. Free to use with attribution to Jace Paul and link to this site. 

Hello friends,

Have you ever noticed that working in America is subject to the law of diminishing returns?

Yes, once upon a time you got a lot more for your, well, time. Forget about pensions, which long went the way of the Dodo. Raises are smaller, benefits leaner. We all know the one percent have been squeezing the lower- and middle-classes for every drop of sweat they can get, and the money flowing to the top means less of the pie for the rest of us.

I listen to the nursing staff at work, and they talk of halcyon days when every employee got a mandatory wage increase every six months. They speak of holiday bonuses that became a holiday turkey, then a holiday gift-card, then nothing at all. They remember when working Christmas meant double pay. These days it’s time and half – if you use your personal time and work the holiday at the same time.

The scarcity should unite us against the oligarchy, but instead it inevitably puts us at odds with each other. Morale has been low at work, and I wondered to the charge nurse why the aides and nurses were practically screaming at each other. “We’re always working short,” she said. “People are working eight, even nine days straight to cover the shifts. Every year we’re asked to do more with less.”

We’re all increasingly desperate. Wages are stagnant while cost of living rises. In Connecticut, taxes are raised repeatedly as services are cut – the local court that handles family and DSS matters is closing, the Department of Motor Vehicles is slicing hours yet again, the DEEP was forced to close three state campgrounds. Our local vocational school may close. The hospital lost 1/4th of its staff, and statewide health services are facing a nearly half-billion dollar budget cut.

All this to say the obvious – the working person’s share of the pie is getting smaller. Even the crumbs are running out.

When will we demand change?

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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‘One Month Thin’: The Skinny On Surgical Weight Loss

A look at the month following surgical weight loss – and how losing weight improves your life in just about every way.

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Though I’ve shared little about the subject on this blog, I’ve suffered from obesity for the better part of my adult life. I was always fit and trim as a child, and through most of my twenties maintained a healthy weight. It was around the age of 26 that I began to gain weight as a result of a poor diet and infrequence exercise. Hiking – a subject that I have covered here in detail – has been a great help, but like most Americans I’ve never been able to lose weight and keep it off.

By winter of 2014, I reached 260lbs, the highest I’ve ever weighed. Crucially, I’d developed two conditions co-morbid with obesity (as part of a general health status called “metabolic syndrome“): hypertension and high blood sugar. (My triglycerides were also high.) I knew that the combination of hypertension caused by obesity and diabetes was a deadly one; my life expectancy was surely lower than the statistical average for men in America.

I would look at my daughter and wonder if I’d see her graduate from college, get married, or have children of her own. River is clever and sufficiently literate about health and nutrition to know that obesity is a form of sickness. She would say that she wanted me to live to ninety, and I would flinch knowing that my weight and the ailments caused by it made that improbable.

And so it was that I decided to investigate surgical weight loss. The process itself, from an initial orientation to over a year of medical tests, visits with a dietitian, preoperative physicals, even a psychological evaluation, is a fascinating one. It’s something about which I will probably write in the future.

But for now, I’d like to discuss the immediate aftermath of my surgery – a vertical sleeve gastrectomy – and both the expected and unexpected outcomes I’ve experienced.

My surgery was on January 19. For 12 days prior, I had been on a highly restrictive diet meant to shrink my stomach and liver. My grandmother dropped me off at Hartford Hospital, and after checking in with Admissions, I was brought to the OR waiting area. A parade of patient care techs and nursing staff came through to check vitals and keep me occupied with paperwork. The anesthesiologist walked me through the risks of general anesthesia, and had me sign off on a consent form. Finally, my doctor arrived to look over all the pre-op work and see how I was feeling. This would be my final opportunity to back out of the procedure if I so desired.

I knew there were risks. Any surgery comes with them, and if you’re overweight, have diabetes, or high blood pressure, the danger increases. A sleeve gastrectomy also comes with a 0.3% chance of death, usually caused by a rupture in the stomach suture causing sepsis. But I knew this surgery was the right choice. I thought of River and the life that would be mine after all the hard work was done, and with that image I had the courage to say, “Let’s do this.”

The procedure was done in about an hour. Weight loss surgery in all forms is now done laparoscopically, a tremendous improvement on the invasive techniques required a few decades ago. (A laparoscope is a device with a camera. It’s inserted into the stomach, and the surgeon makes small incisions in the abdomen in order to complete the procedure while being able to see with laparoscope.)

I had a two day hospital stay following surgery. The staff on the OR floor – Bliss 8 at Hartford Hospital – were simply amazing. Under their diligent care, I was tested for fluid tolerances (tea, chicken broth, sugar-free popsicles, and water were all I could ingest) and monitored for complications. The ability to stand, walk the floor, pass gas, and urinate were the additional benchmarks required for discharge. Before leaving, I was given a detailed seven-week diet plan and a pile of prescription meds.

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Here’s what I’ve noticed in the month since I left the hospital.

First, my blood pressure began dropping. In fact, it began to drop during the pre-op, low-carb diet. Within two days of discharge, I was getting normal blood pressure readings (<120 / <80). Often, my pressure was too low due to hypovolemia (lack of sufficient blood volume) caused by insufficient hydration. Dehydration is the primary health concern after surgery, and my post-op diet called for 64 ounces of water per day. By three weeks after surgery, my diagnosis of hypertension was rescinded and I was taken off my hypertension medication. A huge win for my health.

For two weeks after surgery, liquids were all I could consume. I mainly drank protein shakes, water, and broths. I tried a number of brands – Atkins, Muscle Milk, Isopure – but to be honest, they all taste like chalk eventually. It may sound like a brutal diet, but another immediate effect of the gastrectomy (and this might seem obvious) is that I don’t feel hungry. At all. There are times, of course, when low blood sugar triggers the notion that I need to eat in my brain, but I never feel the ravenous pangs I felt before. Two weeks on liquids was a cinch.

During the two week liquid diet, I began monitoring my glucose levels. A week before surgery, my fasting blood sugar was 136, and my A1C (a measure of average glucose levels) was 6.5. Following surgery, my blood sugar immediately began dropping – now, my fasting blood sugar is around 70-80, and post-meal it’s 95-105. Perfectly normal.

At week three, I was allowed to add mushy foods – non-fat yogurt, oatmeal, low-fat ricotta cheese, and anything that could be pureed – to my diet. I experimented with pureed concoctions like ground turkey, gravy, and spices (thumbs up), or pureed hard-boiled eggs with paprika and lite mayonnaise (thumbs very much down). In addition to 64 ounces of water, I was to consume 70-90 grams of protein each day. The protein would help with healing and help my body get used to a low- to no-carbohydrate diet. So, the mantra provided by my dietitian was “Always choose protein first.” For the short term, that meant putting vegetables and fruits aside, and eschewing carbs almost entirely.

I began to notice a few other changes in the third and fourth weeks. For example, I had a lot more energy than I ever had before. Whereas once I would only feel rested with 9-10 hours of sleep, now I feel great after 7 or 8. Of course, I was also exercising nearly every day – I’ve hiked more in the past month than in the entire autumn of 2015 – and my resting metabolism was improving – evidenced by a resting heart rate of 65-75 bpm.

I was saving a lot of money, too. I found that halving my estimate of how much food I could eat wasn’t enough; I had to reduce it to a quarter or eighth of the portion that “seemed” right in my mind. (After surgery, the size of my stomach was about equal to a banana, or to a 4oz total capacity.) So suddenly a pound of lean beef lasts a month. A can of broth lasts a week. A batch of chili using the standard recipe needs to be frozen because I can never eat all of it before it goes bad. There was, unfortunately, considerable waste as I adjusted to this new way of eating. I used to shop like a bargain hunter, you know the mindset, the most food for the least price. Now, I look for the smallest servings and the highest quality ingredients. I can afford to get better quality meats and superior organic staples. I’ve completely eliminated processed sugars from my shopping list. I’m also saving money in unexpected ways – toilet paper, for example. (I won’t be too candid here, but suffice it to say that when you eat less, you need the bathroom less, too.) I don’t need to buy antacids – heartburn is a thing of the past.

At week two, I also began taking supplements. Because of the limited capacity of my stomach, I will need to take a daily multiple, B12, calcium, iron, and vitamin D supplements every day for the rest of my life. Getting used to this routine was a challenge, so I began tracking my supplements, diet, exercise, and vitals in a daily log. It’s been tremendously useful for staying on top of my fluid and protein goals, too.

A few cognitive changes related to the weight loss took me by surprise. First of all, my tastes changed. Prior to surgery, I despised mushrooms, but now find myself liking them. Rotisserie chicken or roast chicken used to be a favorite indulgence of mine; now I get nauseous at the thought of it. Fast foods, once a bane to my health and a craving I couldn’t shake, hold no appeal. Mostly I find myself jonesing for salads, fish, and – occasionally – Cheez-Its. But without the hunger pangs, I breeze right by the chips and snacks aisle at the store and think nothing of it.

I found my anxiety decreased and my mood improved. Feeling healthier and more fit brought me an inner peace and joy like I have not felt in my life before.  Prior to surgery, I set up a meditation area in my living room, complete with an indoor greenhouse and small waterfall. These, of course, helped me develop mindfulness practices that aid in keeping my grateful and happy in my life, but the diet and exercise – both tied to surgery – have made it easier still.

So, the big question: has it been worth it so far? I have to give a completely unqualified “yes.” Though I’m 47 pounds lighter, the real victory is the remission of the hypertension and diabetes, two serious health issues that I have successfully treated with the surgery. Prior to making a final decision, I went to a handful of friends who’ve also had weight loss surgery (mostly gastric bypass) in order to ask them if they were happy they had it done. The answer, from all of them, was nearly always the same: “It was best decision I ever made.”

I can now add my voice to their number, echoing their joy for the new life surgical weight loss – and their own hard work – gave them.