A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn, but what can I give you in return?
But I would rather you let me give my heart “
“Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.” Buddha
The message is unavoidable and simple. The reality is that it feels like more effort than I can muster to get things done today. So now I actively harness mindfulness into my life. More on that later.
If you read this blog today, you should at least care about one of two things, preferably both. Me and you. Not together, just as participants in this exchange.
I have been thinking about my pal Gary Coursey. He died almost 2 years ago. He was many things to me. Important things. But here is what he brought me today. I knew Gary about 49 years when he passed. I have 2 friends that go back further, Kerry and Marv. They are my oldest friends. Gary and I were friends about 36 years when he became my best friend for about 13 years.
We started living close together in Arizona about 15 years ago. Gary began a habit of calling me everyday or so and checking in. I did not think about it a lot the first several years but then I began to notice he had become my best friend. I knew that within a day or two, we would call each other and I would share with Gary whatever was going on. And usually vice versa although he always had more secrets than me. I moved away and back to Texas about 7 years ago. But we still talked almost daily.
After he died I still had my two oldest friends. The oldest friendship is with Kerry of some 52 or 53 years. Last year his wife and life companion of 45 years died. While she was dying and since then we have been in closer contact. I wanted to check in and see how he was doing after such a blow. We have always tried to be there for each other. We have always trusted each other, mostly. He too has more secrets than me.
So, I decided to call Kerry as often as I want. I have always been measured in how often I call friends, including Kerry. Not too often, not too little. Whatever that means. But as I reflected on my friendship with Gary, I realized that Kerry could handle all the love and friendship I have for him. Gary had shown me that I have a deeper capacity for friendship that I did never thought about.
I called Kerry and said I plan to call him as often as I like and if that was a problem, let me know. Of course it is not a problem (yet). We are best buds. We have weathered high school, drugs, marriages, disease, surgeries and death together.
Gary Coursey, you gave me, Ken, permission to be as much friend as I wish, without measure or hesitation. I never had that before and I surely have not realized what a gift it is.
So dear reader, if aging is inevitable as well as death, better start on that bucket list today. And knockout everything else that was on that list because tomorrow may not go as well as today.
Do not put off showing love to family/friends. Maybe call some friends monthly if possible and try all friends annually or more. Do not put off making a will and trusts or power of attorney for healthcare. Get the annual physical, travel and most important, ride a bicycle.
Mindful meditation brings things into focus. It settles the chatter in my mind and allows for attention to the moment. I simply notice whatever arises. Today this insight into friendship arose.
A favorite Buddhist author of mine Maritine Batchelor, wrote this paragraph in an article 15 years ago…. “You must also be careful not to equate meditation solely with concentration. It is essential to cultivate inquiry as well. This is the quality of the mind that sees clearly into the impermanent and conditioned nature of reality. Whether you are focusing on a specific object or not, the cultivation of inquiry requires you to look deeply into and investigate the nature of each phenomenon in your field of awareness. Whether it is the breath or a sound or a thought, each and every thing can be seen as conditioned and constantly changing. It is essential that you cultivate together and in harmony these twin elements of concentration and inquiry. Concentration will bring stability, stillness, and spaciousness; inquiry will bring alertness, vividness, brightness, and clarity. Combined, they will help you to develop creative awareness, an ability to bring a meditative mind to all aspects of your daily life. In this way, meditation becomes both a refuge and a training: a refuge into being, and a training into doing.” Maritine is a practitioner of Zen Buddhism but Theravada Buddhism, which I teach, recognizes this as Vipassana (Insight) meditation. Insight meditation is believed to be the oldest of the Buddhist meditation practices.
I suggest we live the new year with an awareness of the need to attend to the “now”, this moment. I think it would be wise to look at any inclination to delay and balance that against the possibility that there will not be a “later”.
Like going to the gym to exercise the body parts, meditation is exercise for the spiritual and mental parts. A well-rounded visit to the gym should include aerobics in addition to weights. Likewise, loving/kindness is the balance for insight meditation. The Buddha insisted that a strong mind should be balanced with a loving and compassionate heart.
“May all beings far and near, all beings young and old, beings in every direction, be held in great loving-kindness. May they be safe and protected. May they be healthy and strong. May they be truly happy.” May all who read this have a good, safe and peaceful year.
My mom and I had many chats this summer when I visited her. For your information, she is 101 years old and that is relevant.
As happens less frequently, I ask her about some friend of hers. As the years passed, the answer was generally, the friend had died. This year she finally said, “they are all dead”. She means the friends from her youth, the friends of my parents I knew so well as I grew up, the friends she made in California where she lived part-time for 30 years, the friends she made at the retirement community she has lived in for 13 years. She means, they all died.
I asked her how she feels about that. She said, “why me?”.
I asked her if she meant that she felt guilty. She replied, “no, I just wonder, why me.”
Is death the end of suffering? I do not know anyone alive who does not suffer some. Buddha said desire and ignorance lie at the root of suffering. By desire, Buddhists refer to craving pleasure, material goods, and immortality, all of which are wants that can never be satisfied and desiring them can only bring suffering. Ignorance relates to not seeing the world as it actually is, especially the truth of impermanence.
Can we overcome our seeming human nature? Can we act in ways which are only wholesome and healthy, compassionate and kind? Or will our inclination/draw to unhealthy desire undermine our psychological and spiritual health.
The short comment from my mom sticks with me. Why me? Am I here to fulfill some purpose? Will I have regrets when I die? Should I practice meditation harder/longer? Should I be working pro bono for vets and immigrants? My friends are dying. Dear close friends are dead. Buddha taught that all things are impermanent. Nothing drives that home more than losing a loved one.
My mom is ready to die. Of that I am convinced. She did not live an active life. She was a housewife, mom, occasional golfer, card player, mahjong player and reader of many books and doer of crosswords. But that is no less remarkable than most folks I know.
Is hers a life well-lived? Will mine be more remarkable, more memorable or more fulfilling? Already I can ask, why me. Why are Susan, Gary, Jerry, Chuck and at least a dozen others dead and I am still here? Am I chosen? Lucky? Unlucky? Blessed?
I cannot afford to live to 101. I need to stay in the Now. If I do not know how I will die or when, I figure I better get busy answering, why me. I need to be in the moment, alive to the possibilities in this moment. That is a tall order but if I do not try, I will certainly not succeed. “Why me” is a question survivors ask. A question I think that can only be answered now. Insight meditation (Vipassana) is the only path I know to the big answers which arise in my emotional and spiritual quest.
I can say that I believe with certainty and despite my own inclinations, that the practice of compassion and kindness is a definite key to happiness and freedom from suffering. Beyond that I know not…….yet.
Despite all that I hear about black on black or black on white crime, I stand in solidarity with BLM. I do so because the causes and foundation of racism in the US have never, ever been fully and openly addressed. The deterioration and disintegration I have observed over the past 40 years have convinced me that the war on black people has resulted in the unraveling in the inner-city of their culture, communities and values. I do not believe that the people residing in ghettos are inherently more violent or prone to criminality. I believe that by marginalizing, demonizing and disenfranchising poor blacks this country has created the environment and circumstances which has resulted in the devastation we see today.
My personal experience in the inner-city lead me to the conclusion that we over-incarcerated, under-educated and created the conditions upon which gangs can freely infest and prey upon the communities. But the gangs are in fact the product of the conditions I have cited. Gang kids are not born, they are created.
Chicago police historically and relentlessly preyed upon lower-income blacks. They committed crimes including torture against young black male suspects. They framed them for crimes they did not commit. They took payoffs to let gangs operate. They robbed drug dealers and resold the product they stole and spent the cash. One elite special operations group of the CPD has been implicated in significant series of serious crimes including attempted murder for hire on a police officer.
Chicago is just one of many departments that committed crimes against the community they swore to protect. While victims were many and diverse, the bulk of the crimes were committed against black men.
There are more good cops than bad cops if we use a yardstick based on intent. But if we use a different measure which requires a good cop to be intolerant of bad cops, we have a serious shortage of good cops. We need to challenge police officers to rise up intellectually and spiritually to actively do the Right Thing. When what is intolerant is police misconduct and when peer pressure weighs against misconduct, then we may see a seismic shift in policing practices and an end to the need for BLM.
We can not change people’s racist attitudes but we can diminish their impact. We cannot fix the stubborn racist black or white who tenaciously clings to his hate. But we can deprive him of permission so that he acts alone if he acts at all. Racist should be as afraid to come out of the closet just like a pedophile. It should be a source of shame in the presence of our society to proclaim your racial animus. Lest we forget what community norms result in, remember Emmett Till, a 14 yo black boy beaten to death.
We are the frontline of defense against racism and its harm to our entire way of life. No more uncomfortable laughter at cocktail hour racist jokes. No silent acquiescence to locker room chatter about “those people”. Our young white athletes and students need to be given our permission and encouragement to stand up to this insidiousness. Power to the people ought to mean all people. You may just be the best example of a human being that some people ever see.
So if you know me it is no surprise that I am writing about transitions the day my pal Jerry died. But the subject is not really about Jerry but about me. I have been transitioning before your very eyes. Social media, specifically Facebook has been the playground you can see me play, fight, grow.
When this all started, I had issues and my issues had issues. I had skills but I had at least one specific deficit, dealing with pain. Jerry’s dying has given me an opportunity to see my own transformation. Sometimes I am directly connected to my shifts, at other times I find myself merely a keen observer.
Like everyone I know, I have suffered losses in my life. Family and friends die Colleagues die. Physical, psychological and emotional pain are often my constant companions. I have mad coping skills sometimes. I am seriously good in a crisis. Like everyone I know, I also must suffer through loss. It is inevitable.
What is weird to watch is a pronounced absence of a type of suffering which I experienced which I think was caused by two things. A lack of tools and spiritual ignorance. That type of suffering has evaporated. In its place, for now, is an acceptance of thoughts and feelings that previously went undetected, ignored or silenced.
While I find nothing positive about Jerry’s death other than a release from physical suffering, I do find that the journey has been with purpose. Jerry’s death in my life has brought about a willingness to be present with my feelings. I am willing to cry (while still thinking “if you make fun of me crying, I will kill you). I am willing to just be. I have demonstrated to myself and others that I can subjugate my anger and fears in order to be of maximum service to others. Subjugation, crying, acceptance, and being present were not concepts I was interested in exploring before.
Facebook creates this public arena for pain and suffering, joy and happiness and kids photos. In the past, if someone close to me had died, I knew instinctively to share. But I didn’t always know with whom. Or if I knew, either I couldn’t find said person to share with, or I waved off the idea. When my boarding school roommate died years after school was out, I felt quite alone because no one in my world knew him and I couldn’t find anyone that did. Eventually over the years, I heard from two people who went to that boarding school with us, and have reconnected. They helped me bring closure to losing my roommate some time back and now, today, they help me embrace my new loss.
Some of Jerry’s friends are my friends. Facebook has become an outlet for the community to grieve. I do not feel alone in the least. ( I will overeat today. Powerless to resist food when hurt.) Unlike the past where I felt a loss of this type was my loss, today I see it is a community’s loss. It is a loss to Jerry’s community and family as well as to my community and family. My friends who never knew Jerry are still sharing their intimate acquaintance with experiencing losing a loved one. They are empathetic and sympathetic. If I made this about me it would also be about how shallow I could be.
I am uncertain of the value, especially in the long run of exposing ourselves on social media. But in this moment it is quite apparent to me that it is serving me constructively. This blog is a way to harness the thoughts and feelings that come in waves. And then the blog will post to Facebook. Then I think I shall revisit my pain in a healthy way in days ahead versus the neurotic coping I see in people who can only see their pain in a very small context.
Pain and suffering are not the only feelings that are arising. My friends and I share joy, passion and anger also. And in some slightly more mature way than before, I am here for all of it. Sometimes I gloss over Facebook posts about new boyfriends/girlfriends. I skim over hundreds of photos my daughter posts from Korea. And most recipes and book reports go unread. But many life events are noted. Many of those I reply to. Sometimes I even get the right feeling to match the event when I post. (Sometimes not)
So I post photos of my family, friends and I, having fun, surgery, passages and disasters. I sell and buy stuff from Facebook. This is not intended as a promo or an advocacy of the utility of Facebook. It is merely to observe that I am transitioning before your very social media eyes. But big shout out to 12 step recovery, meditation and Buddhism for facilitating the change for others to observe. By the way, if you scratch your head and think, “I don’t get it”, that’s cool too. If you think, “Bull, Facebook and social media are for sissies” or some such, I hear ya. I do not think I care that much what you think.
Today is my little brother Ricky’s birthday. I woulda forgot without the FB reminder. I texted him a greeting as a result. Sometimes I give a birthday shout to mere acquaintances. It just seems reasonable since I was already at the computer and seems a nice thing to do. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers have been lost. Pets have died and I sent condolences to the owners. I am not half-bad at it and sometimes I say something which strikes a chord with someone in the midst of their own difficulties.
Meditation has shown me that feelings and thoughts arise, and they depart. I have no investment in managing or controlling when and how. I need not crumble in the face of great emotional pain. My feelings are simply appropriate and to be expected. My anger is especially interesting as I struggle to put it in perspective without nurturing resentments or feeling guilty. It is just anger I feel. I am not the anger. But it is only by observing these thoughts and feelings that I resist the time old tradition of acting as badly as I feel. Interesting to watch people I resent and know in my heart that most of what I feel is all about my choosing to feel that way. Just as I can choose to feel pain without embarrassment and joy without clinging, I can also let anger arise and leave without the need to exacerbate it.
I hope my growing up in public serves more than a voyeuristic moment for the observer. I hope it stimulates interest and action to spiritual pursuit. Maybe it will encourage the practice of metta. Metta, loving-kindness meditation, is the simple practice of directing well-wishes towards other people, and all living beings. It would be reasonable to think, if Ken can do it, anyone can.
Jerry Cichon passed away today. He was like a brother. We traveled what was frequently and arduous and tortured spiritual journey together in AA and elsewhere. After the 3rd or 4th hour of talking our way up a mountain, you tend to go deeper, to connect deeper. The small talk is long out of the way and straight talk kicks in. I may have known Jerry better than even my oldest friends because Jerry was so raw when we met. I was his lawyer, friend and brother. He was my first new friend in my new sober lifestyle who died in such a way (cancer) that sometimes it felt like we faced it together. It was not sudden for Jerry. It was not without great suffering. But as with most things in his new sober life, Jerry saw it was an opportunity to practice his spiritual and religious beliefs. Circumstances preclude me from sharing with his family the many things he shared. Such a day may come. Jerry said to me in recent days that I was spiritual perfection. Imagine that. Even if it isn’t true, can one man say anything kinder to a pal?
We were in an apartment on the south side of Chicago, in Hyde Park. “I don’t know man. I never done nothing like that. What do you want from me? I don’t know man. I don’t do that kind of stuff.” So began my conversation with Tiny. Tiny had gotten it in his mind to rob a meat packing plant at 58th and Elizabeth Street. Someone on the inside had told him about a safe they had and how easy it would be to walk in with guns and take the cash. I am not sure why Tiny was asking me to partner up with him. Maybe it was because I had a car, or guns or because I was a full time (non-violent) criminal. But this was an area I never intended to venture into. I tended to stay away from crimes against persons. Burglary was my main criminal enterprise, and we burglars avoid people when working, because they are a source of detection and apprehension.
Whatever the reason, I was listening to this proposition. Tiny had been a mentor of mine in the underworld. He was a car thief and knew how to run a “chop shop” where they cut stolen cars up and sell the parts for more than the car would sell for whole. It was easier to avoid arrest if you were selling only the parts. I was about 18 and he had 10 years on me and seemed philosophically wise in the ways of the streets. He also was an imposing figure. He was 6’3, 350 pounds of black man. He was a product of the Chicago’s west side ghetto. So to my wayward mind he had experience and credibility and so I listened. He laughed profusely and joked and danced frequently. But when it came to crime he was all business.
The plan was to go to the area of the plant where we would park my car about a half block away. We were going to knock on the packing house door and ask to buy some meat. There was going to be 3-5 employees and we were gonna draw down on them and take the cash from the safe. We discussed it at length. I tried to persuade him away from the idea. But I never said everything I was really thinking. Cause then I would have told him the idea scared the hell out of me. He allayed all my spoken concerns and so the deal was sealed.
When the agreed day arrived I drove us to the plant. We parked near by in a vacant lot, car facing towards the street so we would just have to jump in and drive right out. I had two handguns. One didn’t function at all. But we brought it for its persuasion value. Tiny had another handgun.
I convinced Tiny to stop at a corner tavern so we could get a drink. I wasn’t 21 yet but we never had trouble getting me liquor in ghetto bars. We had a drink. My hands were shaking and I was nauseous with fear. I suggested another drink but Tiny said no, we had to get going. He had gotten a call that day from someone on the inside that there was a lot of cash today and he was eager to get there. I glumly followed him down the street.
When we arrived at the plant, I got a worse feeling. The door had a peephole and when they answered the door they did in in such a way that I knew they clearly had been robbed before. The guy at the door didn’t want to open the door more than a crack. He ask “what do you want.” Tiny was in front of me telling him “we needed a large order of meat for a church we work for”. The guy was not opening the door enough for us to enter. He was being cautious. But Tiny just kept talking as he pushed on the door and the door began to give way. Tiny’s size was not to be denied. As he pushed on the door, I saw his jacket rise up above his hips and his gun was clearly visible to me. I tried to pull down his jacket from where I stood behind him. He signaled me to follow him in. As the door opened wider I could see that there were far more people inside than we had anticipated. Combine that with the fact that these people were obviously being cautious and it was probably because they had been robbed before.
I mean we were in a tough area. It was mixed zoning, inner city housing and commercial. When you had businesses in such close proximity to this many poor people, the stores usually got used to folks trying to rob them.
This wasn’t going the way I had envisioned it. I got even more scared if that were possible. So I went from trying to pull Tiny’s jacket over his gun to just pulling on his jacket in an attempt to prevent him from going in.
I said to Tiny, “screw them, they don’t want to sell us any meat. Let’s go somewhere else.” He looked back at me with daggers in his eyes.
I was being no more effective than the guy on the inside at deterring Tiny. I pulled harder and said loudly that we should just leave. I could see even more people walking around inside, everybody wearing white coats and white hard hats. More people meant more probability of something going amiss. And this is heavy prison time stuff.
Tiny realized I wasn’t going in and so he retreated. But was he mad. He called me a punk for days. Weeks. He got some of our friends together another day and they did the job. They sat around spending money on drugs and alcohol, wouldn’t share with me because I was a punk. I remember visiting the apartment in Hyde Park that they were hold up in and partying. That had a big BBQ spread from the local bbq house. They were watching a new television. I came in and made small talk like any other time. “hey, let me have some ribs.” Tiny replied “Fuck you punk. We got this sticking up the plant. You didn’t do shit, you don’t get shit.” The hair on the back of my neck stood up. He was fronting me off in front of everyone. This would get ugly if I made a wrong move. I acted like it was no big deal, not hungry, don’t need your food. “Screw it, I’ll get my own ribs. I’m out. Later to this” With that I slinked away.
My rep definitely went down a notch or two. But it wasn’t too much longer when Tiny invited me to take a road across Illinois with my illegal M1 semi-auto rifle that I had bought on the streets. It was an ominous piece of work with a big 30 round banana magazine, a folding stock, flash suppressor, and telescopic sight. Tiny wanted to drive south and pull a series of armed robberies. His explanation was that with my rifle looking so intimidating, no one would challenge us and we could clean up. I was surprised he was asking me and I considered the good effect this would have in restoring my reputation. But I didn’t see any reason I wouldn’t be just as scared as I had been before. So I took a pass.
A postscript to this relationship is years later, Tiny got arrested and went to federal prison for a bank robbery. I had not become a lawyer yet so I couldn’t help him. Before he left I asked him if he was scared. Tiny asked “what would I be scared of?” He looked at me quizzically. I said if I had to go to prison I would be scared. Tiny started to laugh….”if I was as small as you I probably would be scared. Big as I am, ain’t nothing gonna happen to me in prison son, so don’t worry about me.” He passed up on giving up his co-conspirators. Even though they got away with the money and never sent him any, he stuck by the code, No snitching! He told me he thought he knew who ratted him out, a friend of ours from the hood. But he said there wasn’t anything he could do about it now, and he had no proof.
He did come out of prison an older and more subdued man. Got a job as a janitor at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. He died in his 50s of diabetes related causes. All that weight wore his body out. I was his lawyer in the end. We were suing the Chicago Transit Authority bus company for not securing him properly in his wheelchair during a visit to the doctor. When the bus stopped abruptly he fell and was injured when the stitches split on his recently amputated leg.
Some day I’ll write about Tiny’s first LSD trip. Or how he knocked Gene Rogers out at the University Church. Or how we tried to……..oh hell……. I feel like crying, I am out of here.
If you didn’t know Chuck and you have come across this writing, excuse me. Chuck died suddenly. Just shy of 60 years of age, he had struggled with addiction for several years. He died while actively participating in 12 step recovery. Likely he died of causes related to his health. I am to speak at the memorial for him today. In anticipation I wrote of him and for him….
I assume that Chuck skated into heaven, Valhalla etc. without a glitch. But there is a possibility that there were obstacles to Chuck’s passage. Like most people Chuck had a flawed character. The most prominent flaw was his proclivity for substance abuse. In his addiction he harbored thoughts and feelings that were negative and destructive. These thoughts ate at his core and caused many a day to be spent in darkness, abiding only his demons. When these demons of darkness descended upon him, he surrendered to his defects of character. However, we would not be here if addiction summed up Chuck’s life.
What really characterized Chuck was his propensity to care for, provide for and stand by people in need. Even people who were in better straits than Chuck were treated to his grace and his generosity. No one was beneath him and no one undeserving of his affection and charity. People who I would never have lifted a hand to help because I saw no value in them, he would reach out to. In the depths of his addiction he would take time out to offer solace and sustenance. It was a remarkable thing to see and hear.
We spoke for hours about justice and kindness. We spoke about spiritual bankruptcy and the consequences. We spoke about life’s trials and tribulations. Life’s joys and life’s disappointments. He wanted to be pure. He deeply desired to be free of his resentments all the while nurturing them and strengthening them. He manifested powerlessness in every breath. Honesty eluded him and then slammed him against the wall.
We are gathered and in doing so present the argument, the defense that demands that Chuck is entitled to admission to the finest club the afterlife has to offer. The evidence of his actions in the balance persuades us to stand by, advocate for and remember our friend.
I traveled with Chuck, ate meals and meditated with him. He was no less a student of spiritual health than the Buddhist monks I lived with. What he lacked was discipline. What he lacked was focus. What was missing was the mental toughness that once came so readily to him when he was young. Of late he fought to reclaim memory, physical acuity and compassion. He battled to forgive and to be forgiven. Thus did his condition rob him of the ability to shine spiritually.
I sit in AA meetings and I hear various dead persons quoted ad infinitum for their wise homilies and aphorisms. Chuck will not be remembered thusly. His good words resonated in the moment but he wasn’t around long enough to be touted as an AA guru. But to the lives he touched, he will be remembered as a man with a strong moral compass and backbone who but for his addiction would have loomed far taller than his height restricted.
Chuck was born into a large family of 5 siblings. He often talked about how he didn’t need or have lots of friends in his early years because his family was full of kids. His mom is often described by Chuck and siblings as a rageaholic. His father as a solid hard-working man of the middle class. Chuck would excel in sports in high school and always lamented that he had to leave his high school in Amarillo, where he had friends and respect, to attend school elsewhere. He returned to Amarillo his last year but never seems to have recouped the status he felt he occupied in his earlier years. His college life was memorable for him. He loved to tell me what a great school Richland Community college was. He loved its diversity and campus life. Then it was onto U T where he created some bonds that would waver but endure the rest of his life. Sometimes described as a genius oftentimes described as a rascal, Chuck entertained and befuddled everyone in his world.
Nancy and he met early on but didn’t marry until later in life. While they didn’t have kids, they had dogs. The home would never be considered full unless there were their dogs yipping and leaping about.
When Chuck finally got sober his one certain daily task was to care for the dogs. And this he did with diligence. He knew that his wife Nanci would not abide his neglecting the dogs the same way he neglected himself. And he loved Nanci. He feared she would realize she was better off without him and leave. He fretted that his life would be empty without her. But like most people who drink and/or drug he couldn’t stop the train once it left the station. He could not help disappointing loved ones as his addiction gave no quarter. A masterful liar in the beginning, Nanci says he finally gave up the lies and just resigned himself to being an addict. Henceforth, when I met him, he would confess, upon interrogation, to his slips. I was amazed that he could relapse at night and be at a meeting the next morning. I was stunned that he could have nothing left in his addiction, no friends, money or health and yet return there after fellowshipping each morning with us. Why were we not enough to keep him sober? Who is this man to frustrate my every attempt to carry the message? Equally important is why did I bother after repeatedly babysitting him through his detoxification?
Chuck lured his loved ones back with a hug and a puppy dog face. And his sincere remorse after each slip and the guilt he expressed made me stay the course. It kept Nanci by his side. It drew everyone here to his side despite the frustration and anger we felt with each failure.
Unlike many addicts though Chuck had a distinguishing feature about him. In the depths of his addiction, despite self-will run riot, he never forgot the less fortunate and he was always willing to help a friend. When I was an addict I never had time for anyone outside my immediate family. I stayed cloistered. But Chuck would always make the offer. I would say to him, you worthless asshole, what can you do to help me. You cannot help yourself. And he would hang his head and say half apologetically, I know, but I’ll do what I can”.
And in this way did we find ourselves driving to Tucson to see my family and detox Chuck. He was by my side 18 hours a day. Trying to help and getting berated at every turn because his idea of helping was most people’s idea of hindering. He wanted to help perfectly and in so doing was a nuisance. Paralyzed by his wannabe perfection, we would throw our hands up and take the task back from Chuck. His addicted mind could not perform what his heart so wanted to do. I offered him every resource, tool, and support that I could think of and muster. He was a drowning man who could not be certain enough he wanted to live to grab the life raft. He flailed about in the water. I would get mouthfuls of splashed water trying to reach him. I would swear off trying and then swim again towards him for one more attempt.
We were both tired of his struggle. He begged me not to give up on him. I threatened to kill him for his own good. If not for Nanci and his love for her I think he and I could have reached an agreement to finish him off.
So we drove back to Dallas from Tucson. Another 17 hour ride, 1000 miles with only ourselves for companionship. He lamented how everyone near and dear to him had fucked him over. How many times I heard this lament I cannot say. But this time I spoke with conviction and heart. I told him to stop! I told him to listen to me with every fiber of his body. And I related to him that I had been put in his life by God to help him. That I was his messenger and that God could not be any louder or any clearer. That God wanted him to let go of his resentments because they were killing him.
I believe in Karma. I believe as Buddhists do, that everyone and everything comes into our life as a result of cause and effect. I met Chuck because our lives dictated it. We needed each other. I needed to be taught patience and tolerance. I needed to be reminded of the power of unconditional love. He needed someone who would amplify the message that he had been told many times but couldn’t hear. My voice broke through the background noise of Chuck’s addiction. But for Nanci though, Chuck would have slipped and died in the abyss before I ever met him. But for her steadfastness and relentless love for Chuck he could not have mustered enough concern or esteem for himself to stay alive much less thrive. All of us here who offered a hand to Chuck would never have had the opportunity if not for Nanci. He just didn’t care enough about himself to have made the effort. The care and concern he showed all of us would never have shown through his craziness if he didn’t have Nanci at home waiting with love and compassion for his sick soul.
I do not expect to ever meet another person like Chuck in my life. I know everyone feels unique and I am sure you are. But Chuck will resonate with me always. I will revere him as my teacher. I will curse his untimely demise. I will lament the briefness of his sobriety. I will always celebrate his humor and presence. I will miss him at meetings, breakfast, on the road, at the dozen movies and the myriad of other places we ventured like Hamm’s Peach orchard. His seat will always be empty at the twice weekly meditation. His car will always be missing in his parking spot. But he will never be missing in my heart.
Thus do I say to the powers that be, God or Gods, to the gatekeepers of the heavens, my friend shall proceed unimpeded into your care! He has earned his place in a way few ever will. The content of his character even in the midst of great illness qualifies him for the status reserved for the deserving. His presence with his family and friends has come to an end. Let him now reside in the sunshine of God’s everlasting love.
I imagined Chuck sharing this Irish prayer with us
Don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free!
I follow the plan God laid for me.
I saw His face, I heard His call,
I took His hand and left it all…
I could not stay another day,
To love, to laugh, to work or play;
Tasks left undone must stay that way.
And if my parting has left a void,
Then fill it with remembered joy.
A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss…
Ah yes, these things I, too, shall miss.
My life’s been full, I’ve savoured much:
Good times, good friends, a loved-one’s touch.
Perhaps my time seemed all too brief—
Don’t shorten yours with undue grief.
Be not burdened with tears of sorrow,
Enjoy the sunshine of the morrow.
And may we pray for Chuck Horn
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
And for those he left behind
May God give you…
For every storm, a rainbow,
For every tear, a smile,
For every care, a promise,
And a blessing in each trial.
For every problem life sends,
A faithful friend like Chuck to share,
For every sigh, a sweet song,
And an answer for each prayer.
Death is so special. It is final, inevitable and for most of us frightening. My friend Chuck died, suddenly. I get it, I know it. But this morning, I looked for his car at our regular meeting place. And when I realized he wouldn’t ever be there again, I felt weird and sad. I can hold him near and dear. I can tell his story. But he will fade into the rearview mirror. One day I will try to talk about Chuck and no one will know who I am talking about. Just so, this will be my fate also.
Not only do I want the story of Chuck to be told, I want it to be my version. I am uncomfortable if I find out there is a different Chuck story out there. I want my story of my life to be the one that is told. I am afraid of the alternative version.
I want to sit with Chuck before he goes. I want us to get our story straight before it is too late. Even now I struggle with how to memorialize him and honor him. I intended to ordain in my Buddhist tradition for a short time to give my pal the best chance at a good rebirth. I want to share with Chuck how the Buddhist system works and how beneficial it may serve him. I want to comfort him that I will be there for him in death as much as I was in life. I want to talk about how he will be remembered, solidify the story such that the memorial will create itself.
I want to be a spiritual companion in death as I was in life. But reality is intruding in my wants and wishes. The opportunity to create the memorial I wish is severely limited by my lack of credentials, training and experience. It is limited by existing social structures, religious institutions and spiritual communities.
Death is just so challenging to the living. I have no clue what happens…heaven and hell, rebirth, reincarnation, mere energy, or what. I do not hold a concrete idea about after. I can freak myself out meditating on death. I meditate on how I will have a dignified exit and my loved ones will be comforted by my dignity. I want to take the fear of death out of my family’s life so they won’t have to concern themselves with scary existential issues. Let them enjoy life without fear of death. As if!
I just quit a year of hellacious entrepeneurial activity. I am stressed, tired and soul weary. Today was the first day of liberation. I am free to spend some time as I wish. I want to go back to Chicago and spend more time with my mom. At 97, she should have the gift of family. Her friends are long gone. Amazingly, all her kids are still here. And I am a bright light for her. I can sense her appreciation for my existence, which appreciation often eluded both of us.
I want to take my spouse and vacation. I want us to both feel the yolk of financial desperation lifted. Ditch the kids. Let her enjoy some time doing stuff now while she is young enough to be mentally and physically capable and present.
It is time to regroup. It was a regrouping which Chuck was undertaking also. He was making the effort to improve spiritually. He was working to be there for his spouse. Had he known a year ago of his untimely demise, he would have put the pedal to the metal. As the Buddhist say, death is certain, only the when is unknown. To be continued……
When I drive or bike why do I stare at objects in the road which appear to be animals that may have been run over. I am drawn to the sight to verify what I often think. Frequently it is just a pile of leaves or debris. Sometimes it is a dead squirrel or rabbit, cat etc. And my reaction is always the same. I am pained by the sight and then I say a silent prayer that it died quickly and painlessly. But I cannot explain why I even look closely to see what it is that seems to be laying in the street.
So while I was biking Sunday, I pondered this ritual of mine. It stimulated me to think how I desire to have all living being be free from suffering. I pray that all living beings be free from all forms of suffering. I pray that no living thing live or die in fear. I pray that there is a power in the universe which will protect sufferers such that their physical or mental anguish will be mitigated by the higher power.
I cannot imagine the suffering someone like the 3 women in captivity by Ariel Castro. How much suffering is associated with being held captive, no one knowing where you are and never knowing if you will ever be freed. Or what is it like to be Jaycee Dugard, the abducted girl who was held captive for 18 years.
I especially hurt for kids lost, kidnapped, ill or injured who have not developed the coping skills of someone much older. Defenseless! Is God there to provide some relief from untold fear and suffering?
And then how about the men and women who just struggle every day to make a living and support themselves and family. Never having enough to be comfortable. Always fearful of losing a job, having an auto repair or a medical expense which creates anxiety about being able to pay the rent or utilities. I pray for them too.
I pray for people who have emotional, psychological, mental or physical handicaps that result in their isolation and seclusion from others. Living alone with their illness, alone without family or friends to comfort them or assist them.
I wonder how to support my country against its “enemies”. Often those that wish us harm are those we harmed. I didn’t start it. I didn’t wish it. I do not want young Americans placed in harms way and I do not want them to suffer further upon their return because of my aversion to inject our country into these armed-conflicts. So I pray for our troops and I pray for our enemies.
I pray for those in prisons and I pray for those who imprison. I pray for the wage slave and the corporate plantation owners. I pray for the prey and I pray for the predator. Once I start on a course of compassion and loving kindness for any as described by the Buddha, I find little freedom to not pray for all. My willingness to be selective in my compassion has dissipated and now I am compelled to include all. Evil is no less deserving of my prayers than goodness. Sinners no less than saints.
I can’t explain how I got here. It started with a spark of love which was always in me. It was enough to make me an advocate for those I felt needed an advocate. It was enough to make me believe in and act on behalf of street kids, gang-bangers and drug addicts. But not enough love was left for the persecutors, bullies and predators. What I had left over was a lot of judgement.
My policy statement was found in Ezekiel 25:17 “And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”
Now age and maturation fueled by the practice of Buddhism and Metta (loving/kindness) has broadened the group which I classified as deserving and diminished the group who were undeserving.
I am difficult. Easy to anger, quick to fight. I do not tolerate any threats, physical or other of any sort against me. I will resort to verbal or physical violence if prodded. I prefer to be kind but I am not hesitant to show anger. I wish it were not so, but until future progress, I think we can safely say this is where I reside. But despite all the violence and difficulties, love grows through practice. Compassion is slowly demanding more of a seat at the table. Equal time is now given to the practice of metta and I always include the reflection on loving/kindness before I end a meditation.
I don’t know why I stare at the crash. But at least I pray for the well-being of the victims. And I know that this practice of mine is good and wholesome. And I know that if everyone were practicing metta, that the world would be a better place. I don’t need someone to tell me that. I don’t need to see it. I just know its truth.
I rode my bicycle today, October 13, 2013. Seemed there were more dead rabbits and squirrels than usual on the streets I rode. Run over by cars. I always feel vulnerable when I ride my bike. The animals are a reminder of the consequence of being hit by a much larger, heavier object.
I have always wondered what is to live a good life. Is it doing good works? Am I wasting my life every night as I watch TV? Should I be reading great literature? I haven’t read much since law school where I had to read thousands of pages of legal documents for 2.5 years. That beat the desire out of me for reading.
Are my many hours spent in movie theaters and reading fitness magazines the same as missed opportunities to live meaningfully? Is it enough to go to work, be a good friend/relative, and attend church?
I have continually tried to live right. But I don’t know what that is. Is it being of constant service to my fellow earthlings and environment? Is it to pray often and keep the commandments? Is it ok to just work hard and play well. Would I have lived a right life if I worked hard, been fair to others in my dealings and raised children to be good stewards of the earth?
I am a practicing Buddhist in the Theravada tradition. As such I took 5 vows.
1. To abstain from taking the lives of living beings.
2. To abstain from stealing or taking that which is not given.
3. To abstain from sexual misconduct.
4. To abstain from telling falsehoods or gossip.
5. To abstain from partaking of intoxicants.
I have lived by those vows and quite proud that my wife and kids have made an effort to live by them also. On the other hand I know numerous folks who consider themselves Buddhist who are not as committed to the vows but are very determined to practice meditation, study scripture, the 4 Noble Truths and the concept of impermanence. A difference of approach I guess.
Does my dedication to my vows make my life a “right” life? Would it be a right life if I worked in corporate America, went to the gym every day and gave money to the poor? Or not give money to the poor. My heart is heavy when I see the dead animals. I feel bad for people who struggle to make ends meet and who must struggle to have time and resources to enjoy their lives. I worry about people I have never seen but am fully aware that the act of finding enough food may consume the entire day.
A Buddhist monk named Lama Marut spoke to a group I was part of and said that to be born into western civilized society in these times was a karmic gift. He said 2/3rds of the world struggled just to subsist and that we Westerners have the time, leisure and comfort to work on our spiritual life. He admonished us not to squander this very special opportunity.
Instead of biking every Sunday morning for hours maybe I should be in a temple or church somewhere. What will I feel at the end of my life if there is time to feel? Proud I raised two fine daughters? Proud of my donations and contributions to many fine causes and all the pro bono work I did for legal clients. Pleased that I spent years contributing to society as a social worker on the mean streets.
I used to want to be extraordinary and make significant, memorable contributions in the legal and social arenas. But despite my wish to stand above the crowd, I just sank into the same normal routine most people live. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of my greatest inspirations as a young man. I aspired to walk the talk and sacrifice anything and everything if called upon. I felt disappointment when I abandoned social work because I felt I had come up short in the sacrifice category. It happened again when I abandoned my law practice where I had daily opportunities to help desperate people who were my clients.
Today I run a mundane auto repair business. When I arrive home I turn on the television and watch another episode of the old TV show, Gunsmoke, then some Daily Show and Colbert. I spend lots of time with my family. Three days a week I lead mediation for groups and I give talks to school groups on the subject of Buddhism. But I am agitated frequently when I ruminate on death and wonder if I will let go when my life is over, satisfied that I lived a right life. I know I don’t want to die, I am just not sure I know how to live.
When I lived as a novice I was trained to treat all monks as my seniors and to treat monks as family. Ajahn Poomin, abbot of Wat Treethepdhammaram, El Paso, Texas was a car traveling monk and he traveled extensively by car to many locations. So, he dropped into our Tucson temple (Wat Buddhametta) often on his way hither and thither. As a temple leader he was given the respect accorded to monks of his rank. Like many monks from Thailand he rarely showed his English skills unless necessary. Once he came to me to discuss a legal matter and I discovered he was fluent but reserved. After that he was always friendly and gracious. (Novice Anglo monks are treated, how shall I say,….. like a kid.)
Doesn’t matter if you have a law degree, head of household or are older than the monks, you are just a rookie. What simple lessons are derived from that experience, Humility, Obedience, Discipline.
So here it is, sometime after I disrobed and have returned to the life of a lay person and I find I am very touched by his loss. It is as though a relative has passed away. I marvel sometimes at the force of the change that took place living in the temple. I rarely reside in anger and resentment like I used to. I would often harbor ill-feelings with little reason, for long periods of time. Now I find those negative thoughts to be fleeting in contrast to the past. I find that negative thoughts embarrass me after my practice of Buddhist meditation/chanting loving/kindness over the years.
Where I once thought casually about the death of those I didn’t know or didn’t care about, now I find the presence of pain in suffering in living beings evokes the wish that all beings be free from all suffering. And I hope that Ajahn Poomin has an excellent rebirth and that his footprints do not fade soon.