Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Kind of an ode to cigarettes

I’ve thought for years that if I get cancer and it’s clear that it will kill me, one of my first stops will be to pick up a pack of cigarettes. I’m thinking Marlboro lights since it’s been ~40 years since I had a cigarette – kind of ease into it, you know. What follows is taken from some writing on my time in the Vietnam War... 

At Con Thien (the Hill of Angels), near DMZ
Photo by D. Duncan
We had 4-pack C-Rat cigs – Lucky Strikes (“Toasted”), Salems, Winstons; and whenever someone went up to Hill 55 they’d bring back some cartons of Winstons or Marlboros or best of all, Viceroys. Cigarettes and war go together really well. Smoking cigarettes was about the best thing we did. That and being not dead.

Much of the countryside where we were was deserted. There were people living to the northeast of us and in the west where Dodge City was. Otherwise, deserted, ghostly. Once on patrol in the north we came across a partially intact temple - even part of the roof was still there. Sitting inside, dry, having a smoke, happy, comfortable. That’s a stellar memory. 

(On a three day patrol)
Waking one morning to sit smoking
Watching the day begin through misty green
Slow, soft, green and mist
I could sit here for a thousand years.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A spiritual and religious journey, a knight and a girl, some messages

A spiritual and religious journey

I remember when I was 8 or 9, sometimes on Sunday mornings before church there would be more of the endless conflict and anger in the house and I would be so incredibly miserable. I would feel like the misery of the world was in me and on me. I would feel like, I am that misery, that’s me (I didn't know that much at the time).

In high school I went to a church a few times late at night (amazing that they would be open like that) and prayed for a vision or healing or something. Nothing ever happened.
She's one of the physicians at the REACH Clinic at CMC, where all pediatric
sexual abuse cases in Dallas go for forensic exams and treatment.

In Vietnam, about 6-8 months into the thing I started thinking a lot about a girl with only one leg who lived a few klicks from our position. I was thinking all the time about just walking out of the perimeter, like a normal person, walk to where that girl lived and take her an adjustable crutch so she wouldn’t have to get around in the bent and twisted way she walked with her too short stick of a crutch. Later I wrote, “I’ve spent much of the past 40 years taking a crutch to that girl.”

New Years morning at Big Bend
After VN I was drinking pretty heavy and had some violence issues. But I fell in with some hippies and soon I quit drinking. Along the way I had some visions (like, we’re all One, and Love, and Beauty) that fundamentally changed my self, including world view, self-perception, spiritual capacities – everything. I became a gardener, a baker, a nurse, a better person. I spent the next 35+ years serving the poorest of the poor, the most forgotten of the lost, the sickest of the sick (just like my wife, who showed me The Way).

My first spiritual teacher was Stephen Gaskin, one of the spiritual leaders of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. He taught that the visions were real and that trusting and following them could be a worthy path. I learned the Boddhisatva vow from him and I took it: To liberate all sentient beings (still working on myself, of course). There was a direct connection between the vision of Oneness and the vow and entering service to humanity.

Island Lake in the Wind Rivers
Stephen Levine was another of my teachers. He had been a part of the San Francisco Oracle and later was part of the conscious living-conscious dying project along with Ram Dass and others. Stephen taught me mindfulness meditation – he was a manifestation of the Eternal Now and service.

Reading the Bible, Tao Te Ching, Carl Jung, Be Here Now, Thomas Merton …

Going deeper into the dharma, working on loving kindness, first in hospice, then for many years with refugees and immigrants, and in other situations.

Living fairly simply, not wasting too many resources.

My third teacher was Dan Foster, a fellow traveler, a distinguished physician, teaching Christian living and theology, saying things like, “everyone/everyone’s life is a parable … high adventure … the storm always comes … blessed are the poor” and so much more (those are just things I carry with me all the time). Dan and his teaching lifted me up during some difficult times.
Likkie from the Incredible String Band (part of the tribe)

I’ve been in the same Bible study group for more than 20 years. We meet at 7am every Wednesday, rotating the leadership every week. Centering in the center of the week. Solid.

For me, the heart of Christianity is living according to what Jesus taught rather than doctrine or questions of what faith somebody else (like a denominational committee or the Apostle Paul) thinks people ought to have. I’m completely comfortable following my own visions and my own moral and ethical compass, supported and informed by Jesus’ teaching and Buddhist philosophy.

I love the old-timey Baptist hymns like In the Garden, A Closer Walk with Thee, Amazing Grace, and so on – and older music, like Missa Solemnis and Mass in B minor.

The Agape Clinic waiting room - Hope!
The Dalai Lama was in Dallas and agreed to come meet some of the refugees here. He gave a homily at Grace Methodist and afterward there were 30-40 people around him to receive a blessing. I was at the back of those people, just checking it out, when he reached between some of the people and took my hands in his and looked me in the eye and said, “Keep doing this work.” He had never seen me before that moment, that blessing.

I’ve trekked deep into the high mountains, into the rock and wind and ice. I’ve slept in deserts where the stars fill the sky and silence fills me. I’ve crossed the Pacific Ocean, endless and blue. I’ve been in many a forest, mysterious and beautiful. I’ve walked in ancient temples. I’ve practiced Christianity and Buddhism. I’ve listened to preachers and teachers. I’ve studied and read and meditated. I’ve spent a lot of time with people who were sick, people who were suffering. I’ve been with people as they died – “watch with me.” I’ve prayed and I’ve sung sacred songs. I’ve danced beneath the starry sky. I’ve known many sinners and a few saints. I’ve meditated on my death. A lot has happened.  

In the past few years I’ve reconnected with my tribe from years gone by. I’m in touch with only one of my original brothers, Jeff, and now he’s slipping away. But the thing about a tribe is that it’s a tribe, so here we are, together, dancing as the sun comes up.

One of our hospice patients - so much pain
I started going to a new church about a month ago. Here are the core beliefs:

Love is the doctrine of our church;
The quest for truth is its sacrament,
And service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
To seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve humanity in fellowship,
To the end that all souls shall grow in harmony with the divine –
Thus do we covenant with each other.

I think that says it well for me.

A book about a knight and a girl

When I got to the end of the book, Between Two Fires, by Christopher Buehlman, I actually cried – not a common response from me. The book is about a knight and a girl during the plague years. Though there are many differences between us, I identified more strongly with the knight than any (literary or living) character I’ve encountered in many years. He had been stripped of his knighthood, excommunicated, and had lost his home and family. He joined a band of brigands and was wandering the countryside, stealing and killing. The bandits came upon a girl at a farm where everyone else was dead. Some of the bandits were getting ready to rape her, but the fallen knight killed them. He and the girl then set out on a quest, for what they didn’t know.
Refugee child (Burmese Karen)

They journeyed through the plague-decimated countryside and towns guided by the girl’s visions. Along the way people helped them and hindered them and gradually, they encountered greater and greater evil. There were temptations and fear and pain and love and joy. In the end, there was a terrible battle, then peace; there was redemption.

It blew my mind the extent to which I identified with the knight, though I haven’t lost anything close to what he lost, nor done what he did. But I have been on noble quests; I have faced death squarely in battle and elsewhere; I’ve defended the defenseless, been face to face with evil, tried hard to do the right thing, had visions/followed visions. I have been redeemed.

Some messages

In the past few days I’ve received these messages…

Leslie doing what she does
… so glad that you and David were willing and able to come share in that experience with me. It meant so much to have my family there … you both are a vital part of that family. Thank you again for being there, writing this great piece, and reminding me of it so that I could enjoy it again. Chris

I want to thank you for being such a great mentor and inspiration to all of your students … for the life lessons and experiences I received while at the agape clinic and in community health. Aydrien

Thank you for sharing this gratitude with me! I'm so happy to share the special moments when we connected … I was so happy to introduce to you the most important beings in my life. Rachael