Non-Violence, Choosing Joy, and, Messy Mornings

I interrupted a video call with my dear friend Marcos in order to greet my family.  The boys had just come home from school.  Levi, my six-year old son, had done a great job restraining himself from opening the door to the guest room where I sat in my favorite yellow arm chair.

“I’ll be out in a minute, buddy,” I called to him.

I could see his silhouette through the opaque glass panel in the door.


“Truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

-Jesus


I slept through my 5am alarm this morning, or, maybe I never set it. I don’t really remember.

Our five-year old son Jakob came into our room just after 6am.  I used it as my cue to get out of bed as he assumed my spot, clutching the pillow as he laid down.

Walking out of the bedroom I stepped over our dog ‘Flor’ who was still snoozing.

Bathroom.  Heater.  Coffee. Shoes.  Jacket. Bags.  Treats. 

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

-Henri Nouwen

Flor typically walks me in the morning much more than I walk her.  This was a good day in that regard though, because she took care of her business quickly, allowing us to turn back towards the apartment after just a few minutes of being outside.

It was a cold morning.  And I was happy to be back indoors.  Rising to the fifth floor of our building, I exited the elevator and opened the door to blindness.  Feeling and hearing the sound of dark silence sitting in the apartment, my eyes quickly adjusted.

Hang up keys.  Hang up leash.  Empty pockets. 

After pouring myself a cup of coffee I proceeded down the hallway to the guest room.  Flor curled up at my feet as I eased down into the yellow armchair next to the window.

I would spend the next hour and a half there, simmering in silent meditation.  Reviewing the previous day and considering what this one held in store.

The anomaly of everyone sleeping in was an extra treat today.  And emotionally I felt like I needed the time.  But as the clock rolled past 8am, it became time to begin waking folks up.

Lucas, our three-year old son, had also entered our bed at some point during the night.  I spotted his thin, playful, wispy hair, partially matted to his scalp, above the potato sack sized bulge of his curled-up body, snuggled up behind my wife Taryn.

She laid in the middle of our bed, sandwiched between the two boys.

Reaching my left arm carefully across my other son Jakob’s body, I placed my hand on top of the duvet resting on her back.

Sunlight peered through the bottom of the partially raised ‘persiana’ into the bedroom.

“Hey,” I muttered quietly, without whispering, shaking her shoulder slightly, “it’s after 8 o’clock.”

Beautifully open-eyed she sat up.  Her face expressed shock at the news of the time as she inhaled the kind of breath one does when coming up for air after being under water.

I handed her the mug of coffee I had been holding in my right-hand, offering it as a kind of consolation that all was well.

Feeling satisfied, I strolled down the hallway back to the kitchen and began to make sandwiches for the boy’s school snack.

Slowly, the once dark and still space of the apartment began to rouse with the morning noise of pattering feet, opening doors, flushing commodes and high-pitched, groggy requests.  Meanwhile, the doggy greeting service proceeded forth, as Flor scurried out of the kitchen in search of her signature hind legged balancing hugs.

Likely receiving a stiff arm from Lucas on his way to the living room, she persisted in pursuit of the onesie, pajama wearing three-year old.

Oh God…the comedy of it all, I thought to myself, spreading mayonnaise on the second of three ‘jamon’ sandwiches.  I checked my phone.  The time was 8:15, which meant we had around 30 minutes until departure for school.  This was doable.

Glimpsing Taryn in my peripheral vision near the doorway to the kitchen, I continued with the morning’s duties, focusing in my mind, on what still needed to be done for an on-time take off.

Breakfast, clothes, …

 The thoughts were interrupted by a scream.

“Yuuuuuckkk!!!!”

Again…

“Yuuuuuuckkkyyy!!!”

Taryn quickly turned out of the kitchen, moving towards the shrieks coming from the living room.

A few seconds passed.  I held the aluminum foil.  My hand suspended in the hair awaiting the report.

“What happened?” Private-eye Jakob had now approached the scene.

“Oh, Flor just threw up,” Taryn answered nonchalantly, already on the way back to the kitchen for a rag and cleaner.

Frickin’ dog. 

 Opening the cabinet below the sink, she collected the necessary cleaning items and returned to the mess.

Before she finished, another shrill bounced through the apartment.

“Flor went poo-poo!!!”

Are you fucking kidding me…?

I could feel a headache coming on.  Feeling my jaw clenching-up I searched in vain for access to more hospitable interior resources.

I tried to focus and sink into the sensation of constriction I felt pinching my brain as a first step in attempting to practice the Welcoming Prayer.

To no avail.

I had been knocked off Center and felt the disappointment rising at what seemed like sure defeat.  My thoughts were off and running around the corners of my shame basement where little Jonathan dwelled in the self-pity corner.

I don’t actually remember cleaning up the poop in the hallway.  I had been cut-off from connection to the moment and my attention was fragmented in the tumbling-dryer like upheaval of my racing negativity.

Walking down the hallway I became conscious of my frozenness when confronted with a simple request by my six-year old son Levi with a look of sheer, “how dare you ask me for something at this moment?”

And although my anger was then already being projected outward, the ugly messages of meaning that were arising out of the basement of despair had public enemy number one, yours truly, in their cross-hairs.

 “When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

-Henri Nouwen

Violence always starts with an act of rejection against the self.

Yet, in passing Levi, something stronger than self-hate began to surround and clarify my shroud of doom, and I glimpsed an opening to choose.

And then a question showed up.

Who do I want to be in this situation? I thought, remembering the innocence of Levi’s face in my mind’s eye.

Welcome imperfection.  Welcome control. Welcome need.  Welcome Levi.  Welcome Jakob.  Welcome Lucas.  Welcome Taryn.  Welcome Flor.  Welcome Life. Welcome Home. 

 “Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently than the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it.”

-Henri Nouwen

Indeed, Henri.

Joy is a choice.


We made it to school on time that morning.  Just barely.  And the romp down our neighborhood’s sidewalks was joyously blissful.  A choice of acceptance-celebrating the privilege of living life on life’s terms.

That afternoon, emerging from the guest room, after ending my call, Levi sat in the middle of the hallway playing.

“Hey buddy!”

He looked up at me.

Striding over the doggy gate I spotted a small shiner below his left eye.

“Hi daddy,” he said, returning to the scene of his play.

Sitting down slowly if front of him I placed my chin just above my bended knee.

“What happened to your eye, buddy?”

“‘So n’ so’ kicked me,” he said, matter-of-factly, holding a tinge of woe-is-me in his voice.

“What happened?” I asked, genuinely offering curiosity and concern.

I was surprised by the ability I had to be present to the situation.

“The first principal of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.”

-Gandhi

No blame.  Withholding judgement.  A better kind of listening.

We eventually got to the bottom of the situation, finding out Levi wasn’t just a victim in the story.

Together, along with Jakob and Taryn, we sat in the hallway in support of our son and brother. We created space to talk about a difficult situation for Levi and his schoolmate.  We modeled non-violence in our communication and became a living sign of hope, discovering a new way of being in the world-opening up space for a six-year old boy to access his own connection with a more spacious interior.  I’m reminded that it’s only in the presence of this kind of compassionate, collective, curiosity, where real choice even becomes possible.

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

-Henri Nouwen

School is in Session

I am a recovering perfectionist, living cross-culturally in Spain.  I have three children-Levi (6), Jakob (5), and Lucas (3).  Tomorrow we are getting a puppy named ‘Flor’-meaning “flower.”  

Each of these elements provide the necessary messiness, and context, for my life’s healing and ongoing transformation.  

Let’s just say…my life is set up in a manner where I never get to get away with looking too good, for too long. And, thank God for that!!!        

I meditate most mornings, and try and follow a twice a day practice of centering prayer.  I also enjoy reading in the mornings, especially on Saturday mornings, and especially with a cup of coffee.  Although typically, it takes me all morning to finish my first cup.  

Sometimes I replace reading with other things, like listening to recorded talks.  Today I listened to a teaching on humility by James Finley.  He talks about a particular transition in our spiritual journey when it seems as though we, in the role of seeker, move from being the questioner of life and God, to the one being questioned.  

From his book Merton’s Palace of Nowwhere, Finley writes:

“The experience is something like going, you think, to teach a class at a    university.  You come in on the first day of class and you’re so pleased to see how many students have signed up for your class.  You come up to the front of the room and you open your attache and you put your notes on the podium.  The students are continuing to file into the room.  And at a certain point an administrator comes up to you and whispers as gently as possible, “There has been a terrible misunderstanding.  You are not invited to teach the course, you are invited to take it.”  And the professor who was invited to teach it is standing there with her attache waiting for you to get out of the way so that she can start the class.  And in front of the whole room you are fumbling, dropping notes on the floor, trying to get yourself together, and there is only one seat left empty in the room which is in the back row.  And the professor begins to speak in a language that you do not know, and the first exam is on Friday.  We do not like moments like this…we thought we were teaching the course and here all the while we were being asked to take it.  And we don’t even understand the language the course is being taught in.  Nor do we understand the scales in which our progress in the course is being weighed.”      

I also work with a tool called a Life Plan-a visual narrative that helps a person co-create their life with the Divine through a lived remembrance of their essence.  A Life Plan therefore includes all of a person’s most essential relationships-with a Higher Power, oneself, partner, other family, friends, community and purpose.    

After completing my morning routine, including the reading of my Life Plan, I got up to join the rest of my family on the other side of our apartment.   

My wife, Taryn, and our oldest son Levi were preparing to leave to the pet store.

Standing in the entry way, having put on his jacket and shoes, Levi broke out into a song with synchronized movements as Taryn and I stood rapt in awe, trying to listen closely to the Spanish lyrics, taking in our son’s glow and sincere desire to share with us this gift.  Standing side by side, we glanced at each other in mutual recognition at the beauty of the moment’s unfolding. 

Really feeling it, I began to dance along, unaware of the coffee I was spilling in the process.  

As Taryn pointed out that fact, I glanced down to see it on the floor; along with some darkened spots sitting atop the grey wool of my house slippers.  

At that moment I could uncharacteristically care less as I beamed in the perfection of the design of my life plan, recalling its words surrounding my relationship with Levi.

Levi, in his MORE, leadership, unfettered goodness, and contagious zeal for life, is my forgetting myself, and I give him space, a room and a tether to BLAST OFF in WILD CELEBRATION!

Taryn eventually handed me toilet paper.  I held it, waiting for Levi to complete his perfect rendition-which it was by the way.  

Closing the door behind them, I knelt down reverently to clean the mess.  Disposing of the paper, I walked down the hallway into the living room where meanwhile, Jakob and Lucas were watching the animated film Kung-Fu Panda.  I sat down, placing my arms on the back of the couch, Jakob sliding under the fold of my wing with Lucas laying peacefully on the floor at my feet.        

It felt good. Like the way a Saturday morning should be.  I sat wearing a satisfied smile.   

A moment passed before, looking up at me, with big, innocent, knowing eyes, Jakob declared, “I’m Oogway.”  

Oogway of course being a character from the film; a wise, elderly tortoise and kung-fu master, and one whom my ego usually identifies itself with; while my kids typically claim ‘Po,’ the fun loving, curious, albeit clumsy, slow learning, and undisciplined, panda.     

Knowing Jakob knew this, I pulled him in closer to my body, partly in adoration and partly as a placating gesture.  Though clearly he felt my affection for him, under the heir of my sense of superiority and rank, as he then settled his head down into my lap.  

In the gap between that moment and the next, I relaxed deeper into the felt sense that indeed all is well in the universe. 

That is, until, a sudden jerk sent Jakob’s body across my lap, his head bumping into my half-full coffee mug.  

I jumped to my feet, feeling the room temperature liquid splash on my hand as I swept my arm up trying to keep the coffee contained.  Simultaneously I heard the words “sorry,” and “what the fuck,” spring into the air, the latter ones coming out of my mouth as I completed the motion of standing up.  My eyes had moved from the mug down to the couch surveying for where and how much coffee had been spilled.  First spotting the darker color of grey on the couch, my eyes then focused in on the liquid I saw that had been spilled on the back of my phone, which had been sitting next to me on the couch.  Quickly stepping towards the dining room table in front of me I set the mug down with my left hand and reached back across my body with my right hand to grab my phone, picking it up and chucking it against the back of the other couch that sits at the adjacent wall, spewing the words “God damn it!” as the phone left my hand.  

Having already turned my back to walk out of the room towards the kitchen, I heard a thud accompanied by a three year old “aaooowww,” as I crossed the threshold through the doorway into the kitchen.  The phone must have bounced off the couch, hitting Lucas’ small, sprawled out body, where he lay on the floor.

Only now can I appreciate the words of my Life Plan regarding my relationship to Jakob and him to me. 

Jakob, in his sensitivity, stubbornness, charm, and affectionate nature, is my caring for myself, and I give him access to safety and challenge that shows up AT THE END OF ME. 

After rinsing and wringing out a rag in the sink, I calmly walked back into the living room as though nothing but the accident that it was had happened, having now gotten to the “end of me.” 

I dropped the rag on the wet spot of coffee, next to where Jakob sat on the couch in a conceding-like acknowledgment, that yes Jakob, indeed, your head butting wisdom had come as a gift, reminding me again, that I am, and always will be, much more like ‘Po’ than ‘Oogway,’ much more student than teacher on the spiritual journey, the one being sought and questioned, much more than the one doing the seeking. 

“There is no shortage of spiritual directors in our lives. For our spiritual directors are the people we live with.  They place upon us unbearable burdens.  They give us unexplainable gifts.  They grind us like wheat.”

-James Finley

 

Humility celebrates life’s messiness as an experience of grace, trusting the entirety of human experience as an expression of God’s infinite generosity; giving itself to us and through us as the very shape of our lives.  Its purpose being, in part, to learn the ongoing lesson that our ego is not Running The Show, and our sense of what’s good or bad, right or wrong, positive or negative, is not only, typically misguided, but ultimately, irrelevant.  

Because in the end, God is Everything and All is Grace.  

 

(Originally written on November 12, 2017)