Saturday, April 28, 2012

CONCENTRIC RINGS – A Lifetime Shared With #4

While out walking this morning, I came to a favorite spot along my usual route. It's a small, unkempt grove of dense woods on an odd parcel of land hemmed in between the Mississippi River Parkway, the Shriner's Hospital and a steep railroad berm. I've always enjoyed the fifty or sixty steps it takes to amble past this little forest remnant, half expecting to look in and see a deer or a wild turkey.

But today, just like that, my little slice of urban Eden is gone, cleared right down to barren ground. And all for who knows what—most likely yet another condo project. Something, perhaps, like not seeing the forest for the fees.


How casually we humans trample Nature, squashing life as thoughtlessly as we might step 
on a bug with the audacity to get in our way.

I couldn't help thinking about that community of living things, that extended family, spending—what, certainly many decades—competing for air, sunlight and scarce nutrients, and ultimately finding their symbiotic balance. How casually we humans trample Nature, squashing life as thoughtlessly as we might step on a bug with the audacity to get in our way.

As I surveyed the carnage, I kept being drawn to the stumps, those still-living feet of noble oaks, elms and ash. Just days ago, each had stood proud, each with its own personality, unique for its size, shape and perhaps the number and severity of its battle scars. Today, they're reduced to numbers, branded in gaudy green spray paint.


This one—the only one I'd felt compelled to 
stand on—and I had shared almost exactly the 
same lifetime.

I stepped up on number 4 and stood there, imagining myself its missing trunk and branches. I wondered how long this sweet, patient being had stood here…and how long it might have remained, but for the ambitions of a few strangers.

Curious, I knelt down, brushed away the sawdust and elm seeds, and started counting the rings. And that's when my feelings about this one tree suddenly turned from mere empathy to something more.

You see, I'd counted exactly 67 rings, which means this oak was born in 1945—the same year I was. Of all the departed souls from this forest, this one—the only one I'd felt compelled to stand on—and I had shared almost exactly the same lifetime.

PHOTO: Paul Lupo

Tears welled up in my eyes as the mystical power of that thought swirled around me. I tried to imagine the acorn splitting, that single, tender root probing down into warm soil, that gangly shoot reaching straight up to catch sun's gaze…just as I may have been taking my first breath, catching my first glimpse of the light of day.

Could either of us possibly have known, at some metaphysical level, that the other had just arrived too? Had we ever laid eyes on each other? Had my parents ever just happened to drive me past this spot where, just a few feet away, my contemporary was also growing up?

I hoped the "rings" of my life...might be noticed 
by someone, someday.

Now, I know this tree and I never shared the slightest intentional connection, but what I couldn't—and can't—dismiss is the certainty of how much we did share: the same cool, rainy April mornings; the same sweltering July afternoons; the same crisp October breezes; the same hunkering down through all those long Minnesota winters.

Sadly, ironically, I'd just realized all this common ground with a new friend whose life was over. I headed home wistfully, hoping the "rings" of my life—those varying layers of experience and growth I, too, have accumulated—might be noticed by someone, someday, and be considered as right and worthy as I consider those of oak number 4.

I suspect I'll be contemplating those 67 cryptic rings of life for some time.  How many more will grow for me before they must yield to the ambitions of others? How long before, like ripples spreading from a splash, they're absorbed by the vastness of time?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

LOST IN THE HERE & NOW – Embracing My Affliction

“...the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise 
of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”  ECKHART TOLLE

For the longest time, I asked myself why I felt so uncomfortable when people would ask me something about my past. Perhaps, I rationalized, I have a few regrets, maybe a little sadness knowing I couldn’t change things that had already happened.

Come to think of it, talking about the future wasn’t so great either. That, too, troubled me, weighing me down with a vague sense of responsibility. Hell, how could I know what was going to happen tomorrow, not to mention twenty years from now?


Planning, while I realized it was a necessary part of life, often left me feeling powerless, especially if it had anything to do with money. I tried budgeting many times, accounting for every dime I was spending and every dime I needed. Eventually, though, the solution to the equation kept coming up the same: You don’t earn enough money! I got sick of the reminder.

        With everyone but me having a pretty
        good handle on yesterday and tomorrow,
        I concluded these must surely be the
        most important parts of life.

My family put a lot of stock in the past and future. My parents, siblings and several other relatives not only dutifully tended the family tree, they loved to talk about genealogy, and some kept boxes and boxes full of family records and relics.

On the other end of the time scale, most of my role models were also excellent planners. I got the feeling some of them might just have figured out, before they were 30, exactly how they wanted to spend the rest of their lives. Poor me, I never had a clue.


Naturally, with everyone else having a pretty good handle on yesterday and tomorrow, I concluded these must surely be the most important parts of life. So my always managing to get wrapped up in things of no consequence beyond today always felt wrong.

I typecast myself as, among other roles, the irresponsible little brat, the dreamer, the dabbler, the lazy, na├»ve…you name it. Whatever you called it, it meant not measuring up to the people in my life I most admired.

       My problem wasn’t an inability to deal
       with where I’d been or where I was going;
       I simply didn’t care.

My epiphany, if you can call it that, happened gradually, rather unspectacularly, over a period of many years. Let’s say I grew into the realization that my problem wasn’t an inability to deal with where I’d been or where I was going; I simply didn’t care.

I realized I’d been consistently choosing—somewhat guiltily—to spend most of my time, my thoughts and my creative energy on wherever I happened to be, whatever I was doing, at any given moment.

The reason? I think it was simply that that's where I found the greatest happiness. It had taken years, but I was finally understanding that this wasn’t a flaw at all, but one of my greatest strengths.


As my self-criticism morphed into something between pride and gratitude, I started celebrating the fact that being in the moment is one of the essential tools of life. It is nothing less than the medium from which spring creativity, discovery, gratitude, wonder, and, yes, happiness.

That’s not to say you must—or even can—maintain a constant state of spontaneity in your life. But whether you’re in the woods, listening to a friend, or catching glimpses of ultimate truths, it’s pretty hard to do it very well when part of you’s not there.

I understand that very little in life—things, people, conditions, even consciousness—is ever all one way or all the other. The trick is finding the balance that works for you. But when it comes to awareness that balance can be hard to strike.

I guess the people I admire most are those who can move their focus to the past and future when necessary, but remain essentially centered in the here and now. Most of us would say, I think, that we're pretty good at this…but, based on my observation, I'm not so sure.

With the pace life seems to throw at us these days—the pressures of a highly competitive workplace and sometimes shaky economy; technology that's raised our expectations of what can be accomplished in a minute's time; communications that have persuaded us we should be accessible any place, any time; media that's constantly eroding our attention spans—it's awfully easy to lose touch with what's happening right now, right in front of our noses.

             Will the next generations care
             enough about Nature to care for
             her, to fight for her?

I worry especially about the next generations. With all those pressures, as well as new ones we can't yet imagine, will they ever be able to really know the power and joy of quaint ideas like reflection, dreaming, patience or wonder?

Will they ever have the time and interest to know Nature in the marvelous ways many of us in my generation have been so fortunate to experience—ways that only being fully present can reveal? Will they care enough about Nature to care for her, to fight for her?


I guess it's up to us. I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to find every way I can to help people—especially children—notice and celebrate small wonders. I'm going to encourage institutions—families, schools, churches, architects, medical entities, governments—to integrate Nature into who they are and what they do.

And, whenever I meet a young person who seems lost in the moment—perhaps one who, like I was, isn't quite comfortable with that affliction—I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that kid recognizes it for the wonderful gift it is.