Many of you know that I wrote a book called “Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance” in 2013. You might not know how much I struggled coming up with a title. For a long time, I planned on calling it “The Spiritual Practice of Dog Walking, which, to me, fully embodied the heart of the story. Those four years walking Barney were a transformational experience on a soul level.
Dogs are still my anchor to the earth. On my walks now with a still-young (and super-active) pup, I don’t always get a chance to slow down and immerse myself in the natural world like I did with Barney, but it’s always there just the same. When I do take notice of this amazing world, it still surprises me how much I am rewarded for paying attention.
Let me tell you what happened to me back in early March when all of this change began changing everything. At the time, I was preparing a workshop “Writing Your Spiritual Memoir” which was going to take place at the Unity Spiritual Center of the Florida Keys in mid-March. The class filled up quickly and I was excited about teaching it. When it became apparent we were facing a pandemic, the church made a decision to cancel. We talked about doing it online, but I didn’t feel Zoom-savvy enough to consider it.
Not soon after that decision, I woke up one morning at 7 am, which is quite early for me. I thought about getting up and riding my trike to see the sunrise over the ocean, something I’ve wanted to do for some time now. Instead, I lay in bed and thought about this predicament we’re in. All of us. I ruminated about this for a good hour before getting up. Then I checked in on all the latest updates on incompetency and suffering.
For an hour, maybe two, I dawdled for too long in a kind of trance of aimlessness. By the time I got out to walk my dog it was not only too late to see the sunrise but too late to meditate and center myself. I felt out of sorts and unsure and at the same time, paralyzed. Not sure what to do.
It was not a new thing, but at the dawn of the Pandemic, I felt this way a lot.
Ozzy and I kept walking farther and farther east, lured by the promise of an expansive horizon (me) and an expanse of dog park (Ozzy). I stopped to fill his water bowl in the shade of a church at the corner of Johnson Street. While he drank, my eyes drifted across the street and to a bare tree on which shocking pink flowers, spiky as sea urchins, bloomed against a clear blue sky. It was so beautiful it shook me out of my trance of unease, filling me with a needed sense of awe and gratitude.
When I got home, I sat down and wrote about that shock of pink against blue, and how it turned everything around and connected me again with the world. At the time I saw the blossoms, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that. I just knew I had experienced something out of the ordinary. Something sacred.
“The job of the writer,” author Francine Prose tells us, “Is to say, Oh, that’s how it feels.” Language helps us embody experience. And more fully understand it. As I wrote, it became clear that those blooms were the world touching my soul.
Writing can do that for us, give us an understanding of how even the hard times can hold and shape beauty. How we are connected to each other and everything around us. We have all felt those moments of connection. And disconnection. It’s been the story of our sacred journey of being alive.
Since March, it feels like I’ve been taking a master class in staying connected – with friends, with students, with my spiritual community. I’m sure you’ve had this experience too. Now that I’m over the bump of connecting online, I’d like to revive the workshop “Writing Your Spiritual Memoir” as a Zoom class. Writing is a great way to embody what we are experiencing and to discover and honor the truth of our experience.
There is no charge to attend. I’m doing this as a fundraiser for the Unity Spiritual Center. Donations are welcome, but not necessary.
To register, simply email me and I will send the Zoom link.
Here are the details:
“Writing Your Spiritual Memoir”
Thursday, June 25th, 2020
2-3:30 pm EST, On Zoom
By Zoom invitation only
To register, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
There will be writing examples, quick prompts to get you getting started on documenting the key moments of spiritual movement in your life and exercises to generate further writing.
The writer Maxine Hong Kingston says, “In a time of destruction, create something.” I encourage you to create intentionally - whether writing, painting, cooking, arranging flowers or whatever calls to you. Give back to the world your voice and vision.
Still letting go of the leash,
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In late February I saw Once There Were Brothers, a documentary about The Band, a group who charted new territory by melding traditional folk musical genres with rock ‘n roll to create a uniquely American sound. But before they were The Band they were a band, Bob Dylan’s back-up group for his famed European tour where he debuted his electrified sound. The change was not something the audience expected or wanted.. Everywhere Dylan and the band that became “The Band” played, they were booed.
After the tour was over, the group retreated to the mountains of upstate New York played for months in the basement, gelling their unique sound. When the time came to play for the first time in front of an audience, guitarist Robbie Robertson became violently ill and told the band he would not be able to go on. Instead of a doctor, the band’s manager called a hypnotist, who put Robbie under hypnosis and relaxed him enough that his physical symptoms abated. But the trauma of playing to Dylan’s hostile audiences still haunted him and he was terrified to go on stage. The hypnotist ushered him to the stage wings and told him that whenever he felt the fear, he should say to himself: Grow.
And so there he was, onstage and scared to death. But then he’d look over at the hypnotist in the stage wings who mouthed “Grow. Grow.”
As Robertson turned to the audience, he repeated to himself, Grow. Grow. And a strange thing happened; he lost the fear and began to grow. He even wrote a song about it, which became the hit “Stage Fright.”
This story affected me strongly, probably because I used to sing on a stage like Robbie, trying to win over audiences. The musicians I worked with played so loud that I could never hear myself as I performed. Then one night we opened to a major band and got to use their sound system and for the first time, I heard my voice, loud and powerful over the speakers and it scared me. It spooked me so much I began singing off-key and fought to remember the words of the song I knew so well.
I wish I could have said to myself, Grow. But I couldn’t. I was scared of my own voice. And so the singer I could have been stayed small and unheard.
In the times since, I have learned to accept change and the challenges it brings. I have had to come back again and again to the strength in me and grow it to let my voice sing this time, on the page, more naked and honest and freer than I ever thought I could be. To do that, I had to be willing to accept and embrace change and let it change me into someone who can find the strength to face the darkness and grow, not only in spite of it, but because of it.
Maybe you’ve felt it during these last few months. Perhaps the uncertainty and frightening rapidity of changing circumstances have forced you to the edge of the darkest places in yourself. This is where the opportunity to change yourself and your life lives.
Buddhist scholar Andrew Holecek, in his course entitled “From Obstacle to Opportunity” says, “We do not grow when we are content and full and sure in our certainty of tomorrow….We grow when we are taxed and tested and stretched and pushed.”
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Bardo is known as a place between death and rebirth. Metaphorically, this means not only literal death, but loss of what we thought to be certain and reliable. It’s the space of transition, the gap between what was and what will be. In times when we are stretched and taxed, like I was back on that stage so long ago, we either contract or we expand.
These are times that call for us to reach beyond our old conceptions of who we are – and the world we live in.
The changes are coming fast and furious now. First, the Covid pandemic followed by a wave of protests and unrest in the US after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee at the throat of George Floyd until he died. To bear witness to this is not easy and we have every reason to want to run and hide (or drink ourselves silly, which is another form of retreat). But just now, as I’m writing I hear about a standoff between protesters in Fayetteville, NC which ended when police kneeled in the crowd. Instead of confrontation, both sides were moved to tears and the standoff dissolved.
This is what turning obstacles into opportunities is all about. By not giving in to the smallest part of ourselves, but instead tapping into our inner strength, our inner knowing, our ability to take care of ourselves and this fragile world with tenderness and love.
We can be more. More accepting, more brave, more alive. We can face our fears and make a choice. We can speak to that stretched and taxed and frightened part of our self and help it transform and transcend.
We can tell ourselves: Grow.
See the trailer for Once There Were Brothers.
Listen to Andrew Holecek talk about moving From Obstacles to Opportunity. (Presented by Tricycle Magazine for free or by donation)
Pandemic Journal , Day 67
The US 1 roadblock in Florida City, which has been keeping out non-Keys residents since March, is coming down June 1st. Most of us in Key West are holding our breath, waiting to see what happens when the cooped-up hoards, ready to shed their inhibitions and viruses, take over Duval Street. It’s Memorial Day weekend, quiet here, but the news has been showing mask-less people swarming Boardwalks and beaches from Missouri to New Jersey. The scenes are of lots of flesh in all shapes and sizes, cavorting in close contact with almost giddy abandon. It’s troubling to say the least.
I decide to grill out, but that means going shopping. Shopping has become an act of foraging now, scrambling to finding toilet paper and hand soap (whatever you can find) and eggs and dairy with long sell-by dates. And you can’t just “pop in” to pick something up. Going to a store entails lists and gloves, masks and a game plan.
Being that it’s a holiday, I don’t want to risk the big markets up on Roosevelt Boulevard. So I decide to get on the trike and head into old town, which has been uncharacteristically quiet since the roadblock and hotel ban.
Foraging Report: 5/24/2020
Fausto’s Fine Food Palace, Fleming Street, Key West;
The first thing I noticed was the blissfully unbusy vibe. The sole register open had only one person at it which inspired enough confidence in me to grab a large cart instead of a basket.
The produce section was fairly well stocked and completely empty of customers, allowing me to spend a relaxing time browsing through the overly priced fruits and vegetables. Deli had a good selection, although items on the grocery shelves were limited and marked up. Staff was politely distanced except the guy behind the meat counter who asked if he could help me find anything. That turned into a bit of a conversation, which, even though we were both masked, I would have rather not had. Still, he directed me to some pretty great fresh salsa.
I ran into only two other customers and both were exceedingly considerate. One flattened himself against the ice cream display case as I approached, and the other backed out of the aisle when she saw me turn in. The aisles here are those of a 1950’s A&P, which made the effort all the more appreciated.
My cashier allowed me to pack my own bags, so it was almost like self-checkout (my personal preference). The total was a good $10 over what I’d spend uptown, but what do you expect from a place that charges $4.99 for a small box of Raisin Bran? The peace of mind was worth it.
I’m going to remember this lovely grocery shopping experience for a long time. Because after June 1st, foraging will be more fraught throughout the island. With this Covid thing, you never know what can happen.
On Friday, I drove my trike over to Walgreens on Roosevelt Boulevard, the busy four shopping artery that connects Old Town with US 1. I said I’d never take my bike there, but it was a pretty evening and I had been inside all day. Earlier, I had a telehealth appointment with my ENT doctor, who gave me a shopping list of items to try for my clogged left ear. Unless I had something like ear cancer, he explained, he wasn't seeing people. Actually, I was kind of relieved to not have to go to his office.
The evening air was pleasant and hardly humid. I took to the sidewalk for my eastbound route, following the Gulf side of the road. At 7 pm, the water was silver and flat, mirroring the lowering sun, which still shone brightly as it dipped toward the horizon. Although I had traveled this road by car many, many times, I saw things I never did before: mangrove swamps, tiny houseboats with names like At Ease, a large community of pastel townhouses that I never realized was Section 8 housing.
There were occasional walkers, joggers, and small clusters of chatting groups, which were to be avoided at all cost. At one point, three girls on mountain bikes raced around me chatting up a cloud of human breath. I was wearing a mask, but hardly anyone else was.
I was glad to see a sign taped to the automatic door at the entrance to Walgreens stating all customers had to wear face coverings. Back by the pharmacy, I asked a salesperson, who had a mask but no gloves, for help finding the mineral oil that the doctor wanted me to try. She walked me to the spot, grabbed the item off the shelf and handed it over. I was horrified.
I did not want her to touch it, just show me it. How could she and all those other salespeople - including those in grocery stores, keep acting like everything was the same, as if six feet away meant nothing?
I took the bottle from her with my latex gloved hand but put it back as soon as she left. Then I selected the “clean” one behind it, knowing it probably had been handled, too.
The checkout line wasn’t long, but a woman was holding things up by chatting with the cashier and buying cigarettes and lottery tickets. As I waited, I grabbed a bottle of wine from a display near the checkout lane, whichhad been taped off in six feet increments. The cashier and customer kept talking in Spanish. Finally, the woman who had her paws on my mineral oil opened a cashier lane and called me over.
She got her hands on every item in my cart, including the bottle of mineral oil I exchanged for the one she handled. The she started to ring up the wine, asking for my ID. I laughed. “You want me take my mask off?” I asked her. “You won’t need an ID.” She stared at me.
I admit being checked for my ID was somewhat flattering (it’s been decades), but not worth the inconvenience of having to break into my wallet to pull out one of my “uncontaminated” cards. Whenever I shop now, I put the credit card I’ll be using in its own separate plastic bag until it can be cleaned at home. I had one card bagged and it was not my Driver’s license.
The license wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I began nervously digging through my bag, knowing my gloved hand was full of germs. I was glad to get out of the place and rip my gloves off. I used to love to shop. Not so much now.
On the way back, I ran into an aged Key West hipster (or homeless guy, couldn’t be sure) walking down the sidewalk carrying a huge American flag. He was naked except for red swimming shorts, a cowboy hat and flip flops. I say naked, because he reminded me of the naked cowboy on Times Square. Except with a flag. I saluted him as I passed. His face lit up with a huge smile. “Thank you,” he said. And he meant it.
I don’t know why, but that flag and that man made me feel better. Such a small, strange, man. Such bravery, making that flag his own. He was probably either drunk or crazy, but he knew what he loved. That flag.
And in the moment I saluted it, I did too.
I'm relaxing on my little patio enjoying the nice weather, when two guys walk by on the sidewalk. Although they're hidden by the fence and a screen of buttonwoods, I can hear them talking and I don't think they're three feet away much less six. My distancing alarm goes off. But this is it - I have to accept I live in a city now (no longerthe 1/4 acre of suburban separation I had before). So yes, I live in a city. And I can already hear it humming back to life, (scooters buzzing, trucks rumbling, cars booming bass out open windows). There's talk of Florida "reopening" for business. The natives are getting restless.
Masks are going away. I find the cheery normality with which it is happening frankly creepy. I don't drink near enough alcohol to numb the feeling.
Just found out the onset of our COVID infections follow the track of 2 cruise ships that were carrying COVID -19 passengers aboard when they docked on Key West in early March.
Their port of call dates, March 5th and 6th, lines up with the 2 week track of the first positive tested case in Key West on March 19th.
The Celebrity Infinity also had a crew member die on the exact same day as the first community death here.
The ships went on from Key West to travel around the Caribbean. My heart breaks knowing this. These poor islands don't need this.
And Hurricane season is coming.
“The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth…the named is the mother of ten thousand things.” ~Tao Te Ching
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