Finding Inner Peace Through Windows Updates

There’s more of a connection than you think.

I always really resent the harassment that comes along with impending Windows updates. Obviously I’m not alone on this, but I can’t entirely understand it, either. I may not like it when my iPhone harasses me to update, but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much, doesn’t feel nearly as intrusive – and through much of my life, I’ve never been a Steve Jobs cheerleader.

Maybe it’s because mobile operating systems are so different than those found on laptops. We have different expectations of them. When I have to stop using my phone for 10-20 minutes to update iOS, I don’t have to worry about saving a bunch of stuff or fret about remembering to reopen all the right programs and browser tabs. On my laptops, of course, these are very real concerns. How can you expect me to shut down the computer when I have 42 Chrome tabs open, three excel sheets (which have been open so long I don’t remember what they really are) a few half-finished Word documents and, on my work computer, like four dozen emails and chats open between Outlook and Skype for Business?! How can I just shut down all of those operations – what if we come back and nothing’s the same? I literally never shut down the computer. I never shut off my iPhone either, but I’m not ever expected to.

How can you expect me to shut down the computer when I have 42 Chrome tabs open, three excel sheets (which have been open so long I don’t remember what they really are) a few half-finished Word documents and, on my work computer, like four dozen emails and chats open between Outlook and Skype for Business?!

From a user sanity perspective, it’s pretty obvious why mobile operating systems are more pleasant to use (and, on the darker flip side, why they’re so much more addictive).

Nonetheless, I’ll tell you what I was reminded of, for the millionth time, the other day: you can close all that shit on your laptop, walk away, and come back, and it’s all gonna be fine. If you haven’t touched those spreadsheets in three weeks, you’re probably in the clear to save and close them. The search function in your file folders will save you if you realize you need to open them back up again. Chrome tabs can be saved in various ways and there’s no reason to have 44 emails and chats OPEN at the same time. That’s positively neurotic. Seriously, it’s okay. Shut the fucking thing off and walk away with a smile.

You can close all that shit on your laptop, walk away, and come back, and it’s all gonna be fine.

That’s what I did the other day. It was time to bite the bullet. So much so that I decided to update Windows not merely on my work computer, but on my home computer at the same time. Risky, I know. But I just knew it was time and figured I would better just embrace it. Let’s do it all now. Let’s do it live.

And you know what? It made me feel so fresh and so clean. I can’t see a god damn thing that’s changed (never mind improved!) with this new version – just like last time – but I did it. Deep breath. Let’s take a moment. Let’s begin again.

Making My Peace With January

Now that it’s just about over

If you remember my fall dispatches, we are confronted with a curiosity in the sense that I described at modest length the experience of driving in a winter wonderland of snow. In, I believe, October. Since then, there was like a month and a half of zero snow – not necessarily because of high temperatures, either.

There have, of course, have been enough brief upticks in warmth that have caused a lot of oddities with the ice on the lakes and the ponds. Just a week or so ago was the first time I drove around Dublin Lake and saw the whole thing frozen. Maybe 60% of the lake has been frozen for months, but a whole hunk on the eastern side has remained this kind of steely blue choppy water, which, with The Mountain behind it, made for a pretty dramatic scene. All frozen now.

Of course, in the last few days, we had a significant snowstorm surrounded by some pretty severe zero-degree weather. It was bound to happen – you could really feel it lingering just on the edge of things for the last several weeks. No way this was ever gonna be a totally dry winter. Maybe, as our local Old Farmer’s Almanac (not to be confused with that apostate one) has predicted, it will be more mild than usual, it won’t be one of those totally brown-earth winters. It’s been palpable in the air. Was never in the cards, however we may feel about it.

‘Tis the season for diets and other new restrictive behavioral regimes – but is it our societal habits that makes me see the landscape a certain way, or is it the qualities of the landscape that give us that drive to tighten shit up?

As far as the air goes – or, perhaps more accurately and elegantly, the atmosphere – I’ve been meaning to note how much gloriousness there really is in January. I complain about it, I hate the cold, I have to drive a lot in the snow, but I’d be a bastard and a liar if I didn’t admit that when I really pay attention, this is a magnificent time of year in its own severe and austere sorts of ways. It’s purgative. I mean, that’s obvious, I guess – ‘tis the season for diets and other new restrictive behavioral regimes – but is it our societal habits that makes me see the landscape a certain way, or is it the qualities of the landscape that give us that drive to tighten shit up? Chicken or the egg, right?

But much as I whine about the cold and refuse steadfastly to spend much time out in it (or, really, any more time than is absolutely necessary going to and from my car and down the street to church a couple times a week), I’ve looked out there over the past couple of weeks and it’s really hit me how the cold and the barrenness is just as purgative as fire is – and I need that. I do not like it. I don’t like it at all. But face it, we need to strip everything down periodically, and killing pathogens often requires conditions that we ourselves find to be uncomfortable. Such is the cost.

As I’ve already declared, this is one of the years in which I try to accept or at least ignore the discomfort of the season (some years I decide ahead of time to just be vocally bitter about it from start to finish), and with some limited exceptions, that’s working out just fine. I’m glad to be here in January, even if I kinda hate it.

In a few days, I’ll also be glad to see it go.

The Fourth Candle: Messiah and the Power of Music

For whatever reason, it’s not often these days that anybody tries to convert me to Christianity. I try not to take it personally. For any evangelists out there interested in taking advice from this heathen UU wizard, I’ll share a secret: there’s a guy out there who successfully converts me a few times every year. His name is George and he died in 1759.

Such is the power of music.

There’s a legend about composer George Frideric Handel, that upon completing the “Hallelujah” chorus from his Messiah he was found alone with tears streaming down his face. “I’ve seen all of heaven before me,” he explained, according to the story. Most people insist that this never happened, which may be so, but does it matter? I mean, have you listened to it? Really listened? Of course he saw all of heaven, and he didn’t just see it, he found a way to share it in a way we too can understand. Such a thing enters this world one of two ways: either our friend George saw a heaven that exists objectively, or he created it himself. Either way, it exists now. I’m definitely not just talking about that chorus, either, but the whole of the epic work. I’m serious – so serious that every time I listen to it, really listen to it, I become convinced. Converted. I go completely Christian. Every time.

Obviously, it doesn’t exactly stick…or does it?

After our magnificent mystical Advent Eve experience the night before, during which we were blessed to hear excerpts from that very work performed by community members in our own church, followed in turn by that explosion of collective ritual meaning that was Peterborough’s first Lantern Parade, Kellie and I marked the first Sunday of Advent at Symphony Hall. It was the Handel and Haydn Society’s 200th annual Messiah performance. We sat in the nosebleeds, with an obstructed view to boot – way up on the second balcony so far forward that we couldn’t see the third of the stage that was closest to us. That really doesn’t matter when you’re at Symphony Hall. We had a perfect view of conductor Bernard Labadie and Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and there were no deficiencies whatsoever when it came to sound – which was, after all, our reason for being there.

The first notes of the instrumental prelude sound, seemingly primordial in their power even before the action begins, and the tears come to my eyes. Like a reflex. I was a Believer again, easy as a doctor bopping a knee with a mallet, and this too seems to me a fitting way to kick off Advent.

This is neither magic nor direct divine intervention – though I certainly believe in both – but the nature of music itself. Sound, when arranged in certain ways, moves the spirit. It transports us, it elevates us, it purges us, it heals us. Sometimes it teaches us. The reason I am so moved by Handel’s oratorio is not fundamentally different from the reason I am moved by the ritual of a properly structured Grateful Dead concert. The sounds – in both cases, a complex combination of words and wordless notes – have been constructed in such a way as to allow for the experience of transcendence, if only while the sounds themselves endure. This can be said, on the one hand, to be a material phenomenon, but I also think it’s overly reductive to wave it all away as “merely neurological” – especially in that nihilistic, just-an-evolutionary-accident sort of way some people are prone to.

The Messiah, to state the obvious, tells the story of Jesus. It does so in three parts. The first covers the broader Nativity story, the second gets heavy with the passion, death, and resurrection. The final part, to paraphrase something I heard WCRB host Chris Voss say the other night, describes the world made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

I was very familiar with this story and indeed all of its attendant theology long before I was familiar with this music, but Handel succeeds where your average pamphleteer will fail. His sounds bypass my mind, with its filters, with its guard always up, and they speak directly to the heart and the soul, where it can really be heard and felt. Even the words, many of which are from fairly obscure works of biblical prophecy and don’t necessarily make sense in a way that tells a narrative story, come to make their sense in a completely different way, a way related to but at times distinct from their literal meanings.

Again, this is what we get from the Grateful Dead. It’s what I got a bit later in the season, on the night of the solstice itself, when my wife sang in a magnificent solstice ritual – a modern pagan cantata if not quite an oratorio – also hosted at our church down the road. Led by the brilliant Marybeth Hallinan – shoutout to Marybeth – we were transported into and through a matriarchal circle within which all the laws of the universe can be found in near perfection. Once again, transported by the arrangement of sounds, moved by the ability of the music to take both the nonverbal and the words and deliver it directly to the heart.

Each of these examples participates in this alchemy in their own specific way. In turn, the Messiah has its own specific way, its own specific purpose for its alchemy, and that’s where things get even more interesting. After all, in theory, by my own logic, the power of music might well be able to convince anyone of anything – and indeed it does! All the time. It may move us en masse in unison or, other times, such a collection of sound might be felt by all and yet convince each of those who feel it of something different, something unique to their individual psyches. It’s 100% true. Messiah, however, is not trying to convince listeners of any old random thing, nor is it particularly suited to individually-tailored reception. This is the tale of the Christ, of the humble savior who came at a time at which the condition of hope was listed as terminal, who took the side of the poor and the vulnerable, who challenged the corrupt religious and political officials, who voluntarily came as Divine Light in human form, through himself bringing the light at the moment of darkness, whose sacrifice and resurrection did that which we mere mortals cannot or would not, who taught us that the light never dies and always returns.

If I’ve argued it once, I’ve argued it a thousand times – this whole tale is near-universally archetypal but also particularly relevant to the dark days of this present age, even if you are not a Christian, even if you are a Dawkins-fawning atheist. You may think of me as a woo-head willing to believe any damn supernatural garbage that comes my way, but having been raised in an evangelical church and rejecting much of what I experienced as the core of that tradition, I had and sometimes still have pretty major barriers to “the Jesus Trip,” as our old friend Kesey called it. You’ll at least note that I discuss this season in astronomical/pagan terms at least twice as much as I rely on the Christian framework, even to this day. I find it much less challenging. One of the arguments put forward by the Messiah is that I’m missing a great deal if I decline to explore that framework, in all its riches, outright.

Resistance to this idea from an anti-religious perspective is to be expected. Beyond this, however, what I’ve found in my experience is that much of the resistance is also driven by an aversion to the idea of salvation – either that we don’t need to be saved or that we should not be looking to the Divine to save us but to ourselves. In many ways, I don’t even disagree. I don’t believe we need salvation due to “sin” – whether Original or just the imitation variety – or that our nature as beings is inherently foul or “fallen”. I’m pretty firmly in the “we’re all born just fine” camp. I don’t really like the idea of reliance on the Divine for solutions to problems that are pretty clearly human-driven and human-oriented. That can be a big abdication of responsibility. This is our mess and we should be the ones to clean it, not men in the sky and their illegitimate children. And seemingly against all evidence, I remain a believer in our capabilities as humans, in our potential to maybe get it together and rise us all up where we belong.

Isn’t that just it, though? “Against all evidence”? What evidence is there that we are capable of handling our own problems, or that we would choose to do so even if we were capable? Nothing happening currently or really in any of recorded history would even vaguely suggest such a thing. And while we’re on the subject of evidence, when the entire scientific community agrees we – all of us – are no joke on the brink of actual extinction, how much sense does it make to say, to begin with, that we don’t need saving. Clearly, we do! And clearly we’re not looking super likely to handle this, and many other things, on our own. We need no saving from sin, if sin refers to eating from the bad tree and thousands of more minor individual episodes of misbehavior. We are not fallen in the sense that we are born as bad and wretched creatures. But we are also the villains in our own story, the perpetrators of our own coming demise, and it is from our own selves and our own doing that we do, factually, need to be saved.

The position that dismisses the concept of salvation and rejects the notion that just maybe it has to come from outside of ourselves – that’s actually the faith-based position.

Whether it makes any sense to look in the direction of the Divine for a solution is another matter, of course. It’s entirely possible that we do so and receive no reply, but difficult to argue we’ve lost much in trying. Every year – at least that’s what it seems like, anyway – I refer to the Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” to illustrate this point. I lot of people don’t realize it’s about nuclear annihilation. Really. The two dudes responsible were writing the song in October of 1962, right smack in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Oh, and they wrote it in New York City, undoubtedly one of the first places that’d be obliterated if the Crisis went sour – and there was every reason to believe that it would. These guys really thought they could die at any moment. Talk about the moment of darkness!

The four simple verses of this song form a progression. The first two, once you have this context, are describing in artistic terms, well, a nuclear missile. The star with the tail as big as a kite, the song as big as an ocean. That’s DARK. The second two talk about the child known to have been born, the light emerging to fight back against this darkness. When you look at that last verse, when the king told the people everywhere that the child will bring us goodness and light, with the implication that ONLY the child can do so, you get it. It can be seen as both a prayer to the On High or a plea to humans like Kennedy.

The Cuban Missile Crisis did not end in global annihilation perpetrated by two maniacal superpowers with weapons nobody should have, which is great because otherwise it’s quite likely I would never have been born. But why? Was it the strength of the leaders of these two maniacal superpowers, who managed to successfully resist and thwart and outmaneuver the insane and suicidal brutality of their respective generals and other officials, who somehow each found a way to back down while saving face – acts of defiance, I would strongly suggest, which came at great cost to both men? Or was it actual Divine intervention? Is there a difference? Is one really THAT much more likely than the other?

We needed saving then and we need it now.

If I have my facts right, Handel’s Jesus oratorio was actually written and initially performed for Easter and/or Lent, which actually makes a lot of sense. In fact, as mentioned previously, this is a narrative that extends far beyond the Christmas story and even beyond Easter. Having said so, I get why we are drawn to listen during Advent, and it’s all about Part One, which lays out for us, in a stunning array, with its magic-beyond-words-and-mind, the perfect presentation of the Christmas story, down to every little sentiment, sometimes even down to the smells and the sounds of that time.

After the instrumental warm-up that opens the show, we are immediately brought to that age of darkness, where we are struck not as much by the darkness and gloom itself but by the all-pervading sense of anticipation hanging in the air like so many electrically charged particles. It’s a sense that the coming of the child of light isn’t and shouldn’t be considered a surprise, that in that moment of terminal darkness, we ought to expect the coming, because that’s how it always happens. This is very much an article of faith, but therein can be found Messiah’s argument for faith itself.

We know, in our anticipation that the coming transformation and salvation will not be an easy process, that the roof will seem to be collapsing in on us at times. “But who may abide the day of his coming,” asks the first solo typically, and with heart-rending beauty, performed by the counter-tenor, “and who shall stand when he appeareth?” And I mean, if such a thing were actually to transpire before our eyes, who could? This is followed immediately by the haunting chorus, “He Shall Purify” that is just mind-blowing in its sheer musical composition, the complex harmonies and wildly vehement repetition of the simple yet powerful words: “And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” Here, we really see George’s ninja skills, because he takes a passage that in reality has absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, its words even given his careful placement of them hardly making any sort of rational sense to the story – and yet when you hear it, you know exactly what it means.

We continue on through the story, reiterating that the people were in darkness and anticipated the coming of this light, anticipated the inevitability of all people coming around to it eventually. That’s some real faith right there. We come to the birth and we celebrate it, and then we come to the part with the shepherds – you know, the part that Linus, to whom I keep making references, actually quotes. And here, you’re actually brought right out to the fields and you straight-up experience the angelic host appearing in the sky to sing. In a bold act of transfiguration, in fact, the choir is at that moment transformed straight-up into that angelic host, and you can see it. Do you not know what it looks like to be a shepherd out in the middle of the night and have a giant choir of holy non-human beings show up and sing at you from the sky? Because I do. I see it every time, clear as day. Again, if angelic choirs didn’t exist before, they do now that Handel has brought them into the world.

The light has returned and we all must rejoice!

Things get a hell of a lot heavier in the second part. Returning from intermission, we are returned to our prior liminal state with a choral reiteration about the Lamb of God taking away the world’s sin – and then we dive right into the opposite end of this tale, to the backlash against Jesus and his light. When hearing the pleas of “He Was Despised” – that damn countertenor again! – we all mourn the fact that such a thing can ever be said to have happened at all. Christ, our saving light, is beaten and abused and profaned, and we ourselves are just kind of wandering around as aimlessly as lost sheep. We feel, if not with Jesus than very close to him, the pain, the rejection, the willing sacrifice despite it all as he is at last executed – a plot point which, it is worth noting, is not entirely obvious to the listener. The Death, Handel indicates to us, was never much of an event at all, because as soon as it was complete the resurrection began.

Now we all have a message of hope to preach. Now we may rejoice again, because we know the light can never die, that the potential for salvation is always with us. Jesus, the Christ, he who brought light from heaven back down to earth, can now – mission complete – ascend to heaven.

For those of you who don’t know, that’s what is going on in the concluding piece of Part Two – none other than the Hallelujah Chorus, which you’ve heard a million times and everyone says is good but possibly you may never have found interesting. Do yourself a favor – find a good recording (my favorite is the John Elliot Gardiner version) and put on some headphones and stop what you’re doing and let this thing wash over you.

As I said at the beginning, I know beyond all doubt that Handel did see all of heaven, because otherwise he could not so fully have shown it to me – and to all of us – in turn. You can see it, too.

People often mistakenly believe Hallelujah is the conclusion to the entire piece, which is understandable both for its sublimity and also the fact that, well, the Ascension to Heaven kind of is the end of what we usually think of as the Christ story. In the final part, shortest (though hardly the least!) of the three, Handel shows us otherwise. How can the story possibly be said to be complete without including the part where we the saved can now actually do something with the light that has come down to us in our moment of deepest despair.

This is the time for the soprano soloist to shine, starting with the opener, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” – which is indeed the starting point for the next phase, is it not? We know the light cannot be defeated, that it will never be snuffed out, that it will always return – with a vengeance. We know we are not doomed, that there is hope, that there is beatificaton – even if we choose to see it in a secular form – in store for all of us.

I’m a sucker for a good conclusion, especially when it’s a nice, tight, full-circle completion, and the end of this is the best conclusion I’ve ever encountered. It’s flawless. Masterful. (Dare I say divinely inspired?)

The bass soloist (in our case this year actually a bass-baritone) begins the close-out, telling us, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not sleep, but we shall all be chang’d, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet,” and typing those words out doesn’t even come close to conveying the weight of it. As it is sung, what is emphasized again and again is the phrase right smack in the middle. We shall be changed. And usually, as we know, we don’t want to be. But can we really argue that we don’t need it? “The trumpet shall sound!” he declares, moving on, backed with actual trumpets (in our case, real baroque trumpets with no keys or even finger-holes, which absolutely blew my mind), an instrument that is featured surprisingly little throughout the entire work, on but a handful of “tracks”. The corrupt must be made pure, what is mortal must be made eternal. That’s the next step. Death can be, and has been, and will be again, defeated.

A lively, impassioned duet between the countertenor and tenor tells us this very thing. “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?” for if the light cannot be quenched then death cannot sting and mortality cannot win. And though we’re at or past Pentecost on the calendar by this point in the story, we circle back around to the Christmas story because this is at the heart of the Advent.

When the chorus returns to sing the simple phrase, “But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it’s the fantastic, overlapping, multi-layered repetition of “BUT THANKS” that we hear loudest and clearest, the whole thing like a staggeringly beautiful act – the choir, beginning to wrap this thing up, is taking a moment to express its literal thanks, both to God and to the audience, not for listening courteously or for buying tickets and supporting the performing organization, but for sharing together this sacred, power-charged ritual, for collectively engaging in this three-hour journey through a tale that lives at the center of our souls.

The final solo, “If God Be For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?”, features the soprano accompanied initially by a consistent volume of organ and strings, which then diminish down to the minimum, with what sounds like barely a single violin playing along with her soaring notes. The words in the title itself of course represent a tremendously moving idea, but they’re probably the least significant ones in the positively HAUNTING piece, in which – as with “And He Shall Purify” and so many others before it – the sung words transcend themselves and their specific literal meanings. When she sings, absolutely soaring, “It is God that justifieth,” you just know exactly what it’s all about, her music now not just penetrating directly to the heart but doing so like a speeding arrow. It happens again with the repeated line, “Who makes intercession for us” somehow sung with a pathos that’s both confident in its triumph and solemn with repentance, with acknowledgment of our need – in all times – for the aid of the Divine. It takes my breath away and in that moment I have no doubt whatsoever that we have nothing without someone or some force or some light to intercede on our behalf. If we can do it on our own, we aren’t. We need the Intercessor. Indeed, as we sat there in that performance on that first Advent Sunday, soprano Lucy Crowe absolutely killed me with an impossible high note on “intercession” to end the solo. The air was just yanked right out from within me, my eyes agape and wet, my jaw just hanging open.

The full choir returns, absolutely pulling out all the stops, absolutely putting everything out there, reaching the potential seen earlier with Hallelujah and just blowing past it with the ultimate conclusion. The final part to feature full lyrics is a summary, a conclusion, a closing statement to the mystical, holy-as-shit argument that’s been made for the last nearly-three hours. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.” All this with as much fervor as humans can muster, and then kicking it up once more with, “Blessing and honor, glory, and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.” The message here is, of course, eternal.

Messiah ends with “Amen,” the full choir continuing after a brief pause to repeat the word “Amen” for three and a half minutes. We conclude as with a prayer, with Amen, and I promise you, you’ve never heard the word before if you haven’t heard this music. It starts (particularly in the Gardiner recording) following that brief silence, with understated Amens that rise and are joined by other voices that in turn begin understated and then rise, intertwining with one another, in this single ancient word now found all the cosmos and all that ever is or was or shall be – you can see and hear all of that. The strings interrupt our singers twice, as though to give the orchestra and the choir a chance to say goodbye via music, after which the voices soar to such heights that we barely notice the blaring trumpets and booming timpani; the singers have transfigured again to be the angels we all know for sure to exist – they’re right in front of us! – the baroque counterpoint seeming to swirl around and around in a great and terrible spiral, cascading upwards and outwards before coming back together for the soprano section’s final towering high note, cascading back down to a silence that’s held just long enough to really feel it hit you good, until they come back one last time with two last Amens, and it’s like they’re screaming it straight into your soul: AMEN, AMEN!

And thus it is finished, in a manner no less complete and comprehensive and real than the conclusion to this dancing universe itself, a finish that punches me full on in the chest, I can feel it knocking me backwards practically in a physical way. I am, in that moment, the guy who sits right now at over 4,300 words, completely speechless – like, unable to speak, unable to say anything. Unable to respond with words, because even though I’ve tried valiantly here, you can’t explain any of this or respond to it with words. From the depths of my soul, however, I am wholly and involuntarily compelled to respond another way: with a leap to my feet and a shout of joy. All is good, all is perfect, all is light, no matter what. I have pretty much the same reaction to the final image – like our Amens, displayed after a brief silent pause in darkness – in Malick’s Tree of Life, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Malick’s film is about the same exact damn thing shown in a different configuration. It’s the image of God and it makes me leap from my seat in what might damn well be described as true and most sincere worship.

Clearly I wasn’t the only one. That Sunday, those with the best seats in the house could not restrain themselves and began to not just clap but CHEER before the final notes even concluded! Not at all typical decorum for a classical performance, but when the spirit moves you, the spirit moves you. Most likely, I was not the only convert in the room.

Let your spirit be moved. Feel the character of our age, not just its darkness and hopelessness but its latent anticipation, the anticipation inherent to knowing, somewhere deep down, that the turning point is coming; IT ALWAYS COMES! Take heart and have faith, whatever such things mean for you. Feel the light as it remains palpable even when invisible in the midst of the time of greatest darkness. Know that it imminently returns and be ready. Advent is not, despite what our calendar tells us, over. Advent is just now upon us. And as with this choral work that I can hardly even believe is a thing that exists, the story will not end with the salvation or the resurrection, with spring or with summer. The story will include the perfection of its third act, where all of us go forth into a world of new potential and power and love made possible by the gift of Divine light come down to meet us where we are.

Know that the potential and power and love are real and are coming and that they will be given to us. For each remaining year spent in the thrall of that latent anticipation, let the Advent season, the dark days about the winter solstice, be a reminder that redemption is yet on the way.

In such a spirit, may the blessings of the angels I can see so clearly, thanks to our long-dead friend George, carry you on as we take on the challenge, the opportunity, and the miracle that is 2019. Happy New Year.

Together we Carry the Light

Last year, in a podcast episode, I read an email nearly in its entirety. Its author was to be my (then) three-year-old son’s new preschool teacher. Kellie knew her from childhood, the Waldorf community being the modest size that ti is, but this was my first impression. She was writing to introduce herself and also to introduce us to the concept of the Lantern Walk ritual, which is kind of the next thing after Michaelmas. When it was to be held, a couple days hence, she would be leading it. At the time, Kellie and I were in the car on the highway blazing our way to Boston to see Dead and Company at the Garden. She read it out loud to me as I drove and it moved me to tears.

I have to quote at least some of this verbatim again:

“As we enter the cold, darker days of our calender year we may find solace and strength in contemplating the light that we all carry within ourselves. This is a time of letting go and giving over to the season’s passing. The crops have all been harvested. With an abundance of food and wood, we store away the land’s gifts for the long, dark winter ahead. Now the land is going to sleep. All in nature is beginning to die and wither on the vine only to be reborn in spring. It is also a season of trust; one that speaks to us to slow down and to meditate on the mystery and drama about to unfold. At this time of receiving, trusting and letting go we can find within ourselves an inner strength and light that we can in turn share with the world. This gift, given with deep reverence and love is truly the message of this festival.”

She went on to explain the joy with which they would make the lanterns together, the importance of holding the ceremony at dusk, the “magical time when the sun’s light has gently faded, but the veil between light and dark is still visible, barely illuminating their way”, and that the mood of the lantern walk itself would be quiet, joyful, peaceful reverence with the intent of leaving the children “with a feeling that all is well with the world; that love and kindness can heal and that with their own light they can find their way.” Wow, I mean, yeah. I didn’t know this person yet, but I knew I wasn’t sure I was capable on my own of giving a child (or anyone) that feeling. Kellie might be, but I’m not sure about me. It was suddenly clear that it is really important to make that happen, and I was instantly grateful that someone, a professional even, was there to help. Or even just to clue me in.

In all the time since, I haven’t shaken that, which hopefully represents a start.

This year, the lantern walk was scheduled for a Friday, but it was cold and pouring rain, so it got pushed to Saturday. Then it was too windy, so it was pushed again to Sunday. When Sunday came, my son was throwing up. I try to be cool and rational about these things most of the time. Kids get sick and they get sick a lot and they have to sometimes miss things because of it. Sometimes we all miss things because of it. It happens a few times a year in a good year. But while my youngest – and his older brothers, who were slated to attend with us – took it pretty hard when we told them we weren’t going to be able to go, I think I may have taken it the hardest. I know how beautiful and meaningful this ritual is, not just from last year’s email but from the experience itself. It absolutely lived up to the hype, in its own very quiet and austere way. It wasn’t just that these concepts are crucial to young children – and they are – but also I knew how he had helped make his pretty lantern and how much he wanted to carry it with his close friends (they have a little gang) and beloved teachers all together. This was a pretty big bummer.

Worse, though I tried not to dwell on it, next year is Real Kindergarten, and we almost definitely can’t swing the tuition to keep him among the Waldorfs (Waldorfi? Waldorfos?). That is enough by itself some days to break my heart a little, but here what kinda crushed me is that this would have been his final lantern walk at Pine Hill and that he had missed it and wouldn’t get to experience it that one last time. It wasn’t gonna leave a scar on him or anything like that, and so as to not make it worse I made sure not to let on how disappointing I thought this really was. But I mean, you know…you want your kids to have as much happiness and joy and magic as possible. Even when you know it can’t last, when you know eventually they’re going to have to confront some of the more grim aspects and angles of our world – perhaps especially when you know this – you want them to have as much goodness in their life as they can have. You want them to have more than you have, or even ever got – and I had it great! But I still want him to have every last drop of it that he has available.

Like I said, these things happen – the many big and little disappointments in life and all that. This time, I’m happy to say, that’s not actually the end of the story.

Like an Advent miracle.

Within a couple of days, I saw on Facebook that the sainted people who do the Children and the Arts Festival each May (I prefer to call it Children of the Arts, but that’s another story) were organizing a Peterborough lantern walk parade. They weren’t just like throwing the idea out there – they were bringing in a professional from Vermont to advise the townspeople, mainly the children, in the construction of lanterns en masse.

Efforts at lantern-building were launched and coordinated across the public school and in several sessions scheduled at the library. Better still, the parade would conclude in Putnam Park with the annual lighting of the town’s Christmas tree. Soon afterward I learned the parade was timed to start following the community sing of Handel’s Messiah at the UU church and I knew we’d all been granted a reprieve. It would surely be different, but we would get our magical lantern walk after all.

My youngest would get the chance to use the lantern he had prepared and come to love and all of us would participate in that beautiful pageant, to recognize, hold up, announce, and celebrate the light we all carry within and the eternal fact that it doesn’t go out even when the darkness is strongest. And so would I.

The day came, the night before the official first Sunday of Advent – Advent Eve, as it were. We spent the late morning and indeed a good chunk of the early afternoon in Wilton at the Pine Hill Holiday Fair, an event that always proves a magical affair.

(In fact, that day, as we walked up the hill after parking the car, a couple we know from church was driving down the hill, making their exit. “Is it as magical as usual?” I asked. “It’s more magical than usual,” the driver replied with light cheer. He was right.)

Within the walls of that enchanted schoolhouse, we found new friends and old, chatted about syrup and fish, and picked up a few little things from the delightful array of vendors. In other years, the kids often wanted to leave before I did but not this time. We made many different crafts at the appropriate stations; I myself even made a gnome.

By the time we got home, there was scarcely time for a snack before walking down the road to get a seat at the always-crowded community Messiah sing. I sat for just over an hour, in the white numbered box pew, just being blown away as I always am by this work, especially so when performed locally, by community members in the church to which I belong. My son tolerated this part – barely – while I and my wife simultaneously contained him while being moved right up through Worthy is the Lamb and Amen.

Feeling spiritually on fire, we walked from the church right next door, walking around to the back parking lot of People’s Bank – carrying the lantern, of course – and we were floored. It seemed like the whole town was back here, and the organizers were running quite the operation handing out spare lanterns and long rods to hold them in an efficient fashion. There were hundreds of people here! Everyone was carrying a lantern unique to them! The already well lit parking lot was positively ablaze with little earthbound starlight and the mood was sparkling. We soon heard sounds of drums, then more pieces of a marching band. There was even a long Chinese New Year type dragon! Why the hell was there a dragon? Nobody knows! But it was great and filled us all with joy.

I couldn’t tell you how cold it was that night because I felt perfectly warm the whole time. Together, seemingly as an entire town, we slowly made the procession across Main Street and down Grove the few hundred yards to Putnam Park, passing the Town House and crossing the Nubinusit by the waterfall. It is hard to put it into words – a friend of mine said she had been moved to tears by this, and I nearly was as well when we could see, over the brook, what awaited us in the park. It wasn’t just the hundreds of lights carried by those who’d been ahead of us in the parade, but the beautiful people responsible for this episode had also dotted the entire forested hill above the park with lights. It was like a school of stars streaming into a dark, snow-covered starfield. Everyone marched the long way around the back of the park, beneath the forest lights above, before taking a spot somewhere around the Christmas tree.

As I had known it would be, this was indeed a very different kind of lantern walk than the one conducted at my son’s school, which emphasizes the quiet part of quiet joy and encourages parents after the conclusion to bring their children home in near-silence and spend the rest of the evening in a comforting, warm glow. This, in contrast, was loud and boisterous, and would certainly not be followed by a silent evening. I respect the concept behind the reverent version, but I also think there are other, absolutely legitimate, routes toward arriving at the same place – and perhaps this was a bit more. This was OUR TOWN, like, our entire town, joining together in this one place for an official, community-encompassing beginning to the Christmas season. Everybody was there, we shared in the moment and the feeling; I don’t know how many consciously realized what a powerful ritual we were all creating at that moment, but we created it all the same, and we all carry away the blessings and higher consciousness from it.

Here, in this first-ever event, this Instant Tradition (I think there may be riots if they don’t do it again next year), it wasn’t even just the most fitting beginning to the season or the most appropriate ritual observance of its meaning, but here was an eruption of evidence of the spirit that exists in this town and its people, and what it is capable of. For my own part, I felt not merely attuned to the turning wheel of the year and connected to the universe, but looking at my fellow townsfolk and their parents and children and lanterns, smiling faces and warm hearts, I felt hope. Real hope.

Here in the heart of the Monadnock Region, this community has heart and spirit and POWER, to an extent I never before imagined. There is hope for us yet, as we lay this year to rest and prepare for another.

We may not have concluded in silence, but we capped the day off with some takeout Chinese food at home. I asked my son if today had been a magical day and he looked me dead in the eye and nodded so hard it shook his entire body.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Ambushed in a Kindergarten Classroom

We all know by now that little things have a funny way of getting under my skin, but even after a lifetime of this, I still am pretty terrible at anticipating which things they will be and when. I spent all fall in the grips of one of them, and this one really sneaked up and clubbed me good from behind.

It was parents’ night in mid-September at Pine Hill, the magical Waldorf school where my son has been going for day care and preschool practically since he was born. We got to hang out in his classroom with his teachers and the other parents. Sitting on the floor, the teachers took us through the Circle Time ritual the kids do every morning as part of the start to their day. Gentle, seasonally curated songs and chants – and describing it like that honestly doesn’t come close to conveying how truly great this is. As is usually the case when I spend any time at the Waldorf school, I find myself longing very deeply to incorporate these things into my own life. How much better off would I – perhaps all of us – be if we began our day with our families and/or colleagues sitting in a circle and welcoming the hours ahead with song and affirmation? Ridiculous hippie thoughts, I know, but if you think it’s crazy I’m willing to bet you haven’t experienced Circle Time.

The teachers also spent a fair amount of time focused on the upcoming holiday of Michaelmas and how the children would be observing it – and why. They gave us photocopied handouts that explained these concepts in further detail, and there’s a passage in one of them that hasn’t left my mind in the three months since. From the book Waldorf Education – A Family Guide, in a chapter titled “Michaelmas” authored by Karen Rivers:

“The equinox is for us a turning point, a change in the relation of light and darkness in the world around us. On September 29th the autumn festival traditionally known as Michaelmas is celebrated. This festival is named after the Archangel Michael, conquerer of the powers of darkness, the harvesters of the deeds of human souls. It is at this time that the image of Michael with the dragon appears before us as a mighty imagination, challenging us to develop strong, brave, free wills, to overcome love of ease, anxiety and fear. This demands inner activity, a renewal of the soul which is brought to consciousness in the Michaelmas festival, the festival of the will….

“These images truly symbolize the challenge we face in the autumn season. They speak to our deep need to carry an inner light of wisdom and courage at this time when the light is diminishing. Through strength of will, inner activity of selfless consciousness, we bring light to the darkening time. These are very challenging ties; the anti-social forces are emerging everywhere. May we gain insight, courage and truth at this Michaelmas time, to bring light to our inner life, our community and the world in these times of darkness.”

Hoo boy. There’s a lot to unpack there. That’s heavy.

My first thought was how wonderful it is to introduce young children to these concepts. Perhaps a four-year-old can’t grasp the total weight of all that – undoubtedly for the best! – but just imagine how much conscious courage and healthy will a 17-year-old might possess if you start talking to them about it when they’re four!

From there, in quick succession, it was, how much better off would I have been had I received this kind of foundation from the very beginning? No blame or shade towards my parents or anyone else, but how much did I miss out on by never hearing any of this?

Then finally, oh shit, I need to learn this just as much as my four-year-old does. Circle Time is one thing, but it seems what I need much more, much more urgently, is to participate myself in something like Michaelmas, to take the appropriate time in appreciation of these things as we head into the season of darkness. But am I capable? I consider myself already to possess a pretty strong, brave, and free will, but is it enough to “overcome love of ease, anxiety, and fear”? I mean, sometimes, probably, but always?

Anxiety and fear, I’ve been doing all right with those in recent years, but love of ease? Man, if we’re judging people by the level of their love of ease, I am in big trouble. Those words really kinda boxed me in the ears. I can still feel it. No lie, I’ve been trying not just to grapple with this but to write about it for three months now and I’ve been all bottled up and tangled up about it. And I’ll be damned if that second paragraph quoted above doesn’t just perfectly nail what I believe my responsibility as a person and a citizen and even a wizard really is during this life – to use strength of will and selfless consciousness to bring light to a dark-ass age. And though I may be comfortable with the robustness of my will, am I really equipped and prepared and sufficiently resolved to actually execute on that responsibility?

After three months of inner wrestling, all I can say I’ve come up with in answer to that is “Probably, I think so, I hope so.” I don’t mean that in a negative way, even if I myself find it funny that that’s as far as I got in three months. Let’s be real here – I’m not sure it ever gets much more definitive than that. Not for anyone who didn’t start learning this at four, anyway.

Did I manage to act on the prescription, to set about this fall intentionally with inner activity toward renewal of the soul? Sure I did, even if I don’t think the work is as complete as it should be, especially as we cruise into the conclusion of the year. But so it goes, and I still have the whole winter ahead of me to use as a time to cultivate that inner light, to learn what it means to renew my soul and orient toward a courage and responsibility that stands against the prevailing currents. And I have the rest of my life ahead of me to figure out what it means to stand tall in the night against the dragon we are called to destroy.

One More Thing About the Lights

On hometowns and non-nostalgia

All my life, I’ve considered myself a highly nostalgic person, and certainly many others along the way have considered me so. Usually, they are being derisive about it. But I realized just recently that it isn’t actually true. I don’t actually do proper nostalgia at all.

Nostalgia is the painful longing felt in gazing back toward a prior “better time” that may or may not (but probably not) have existed. What I realized the other night is that I’m not doing that. I’m not really longing and I’m not feeling the pain, not even the bittersweet kind. See, what I look back on is not only pretty real but it’s not even really gone.

I still get my hair cut down in Townsend, my hometown. This despite the presence, undoubtedly, of many talented hair stylists closer to Peterborough or to Bedford, where I work. There’s no good reason for this other than what you may already know about my irrational tendencies regarding childhood – the very tendencies often easily mistaken for nostalgia. That and it gives me the chance to stop by after or before to visit one or both of my parents without aggressive (but beloved) children making deep adult conversation between parents and grown child somewhat impeded.

So I was doing just that the other night, driving across town from the hair place – across from my old demolished-and-replaced high school (which is something else I should really talk irrationally about on another day) to my childhood home on the other side of town. And it seemed like everybody on Main Street just did a hell of a job with their lights, and it was damn pretty. I started thinking about how deep in the Christmas season we are already, that I should really make sure to slow down and feel this – something that can get away from me even as I ever intentionally seek to do exactly that. I even stopped at the town common because it looked so damn good.

Anyway, though, I know this is not a universal truth, but my specific observation of this specific place was, “This is a damn good place. It really was a good place in childhood, that is not imaginary or mythologized. And it’s still a damn good place now.” I’m lucky in this way, I know, but this is no trick or bias of my mind – lord knows I would denounce the place if it deserved it – but I can’t long for what it was in my childhood because that place hasn’t gone anywhere. And I haven’t really, either.

I don’t care, guys – I think it’s okay, just in this season, for me to get all cheesy and It’s a Wonderful Life on you all.

Enjoy the lights. Raise your glass.

Get in the Glow

Even in my most cynical and misanthropic years, I could never bring myself to hate them Christmas lights. Just look at them!I acknowledge well that there are reasons, even if I don’t agree with them, to take shots at many of the other aspects of our varied traditions, but in all seriousness, why would decorating our cities and towns, homes and trees with pretty lights – at the darkest time of the year – be bad? How? I really wanna hear this.

I do not personally like – at all – either the darkness or the cold. I rail with defiance and mild despair against the light’s dramatic slipping away each fall. All winter, though it grows again, I curse it bitterly for failing to return faster. It’s a little different with respect to temperature, because once August draws to a close, I’m ready for things to get a little more mild, to be comfortable in jeans and a sweater again, to look cool in a new jacket. That lasts for a little while. Eventually, though, the climate grows uncomfortable enough that I am forced to make a choice: this year, will I resist and complain about the awful weather or will I ignore it and accept it and at least try not to let it bother me? (This year, it’s the latter. Last year it was the former.) Whichever I choose, it’s a fairly unpleasant and altogether too long exercise in endurance for me.

All of this gets suspended for Advent. For this one brief window of time right at the darkest moment, my objections are paused as I experience, with delight, the weight, magic, and majesty of this time.

The lights are pretty, of course, and decking out our world in this way is a positive activity in and of itself, but it’s always been much more than an aesthetic exercise. There’s a few different angles to choose from in laying out the meaning, but I think they all gesture at the same thing. We can consider the lights an act of defiance against the present triumph of darkness, or we can say the small but spectacular little lights dotting our earth like stars represent the light we continue to carry within each of us even in a time of darkness, or we can consider the lights a reflective, reverent tribute recognizing that the victory of the darkness is followed immediately by the beginning of the light’s return. We can choose all of the above, all at once or at different times, or add other options I haven’t thought to list; regardless, the little pretty lights exist in stark contrast, intentionally, against the long night.

The lights are a signal, whether we are aware of it or not, that the darkness is never total and is never permanent.

This contrast can be profoundly useful. I appreciate, at least for a few short and busy weeks, that the darkness makes it easier to notice and appreciate that inner light, that fire inside me that can’t be killed by winter and always lasts until spring. Devoting this kind of attention to what lies within allows us to more actively participate in the ending of one whole year and the beginning of the next. It’s the kind of light that makes it especially easy to see – so long as we take a minute to look – where we’ve been for the last twelve months, what we’ve done and left undone, what we’ve gained and lost, and then where we’re headed next. We can more easily take stock of ourselves, of the strength we inherently possess, of our great fortune in our continued presence in this living existence, and of what it’s truly all about.

Cue Linus.

That’s not all, though. There’s a very real risk of turning this whole thing a bit too soggy and austere. I’m reminded of an article I saw recently (honestly, I probably only read the headline and preview and maybe a couple paragraphs, but I can be a quick judge) and that I probably won’t be able to find again, but the thrust was that we surround ourselves with too much of the light, too much excitement, too much food and booze, too many gadgets and Christmas movies – that we are generally indulging in far too much stimulation for a time that should be dedicated solely to the kind of reverent reflection and recognition I describe above.

As someone who is a huge believer in the absolute necessity of celebration – and preferably, at least for me personally, celebration that involves at least some component of appropriate excess – this is a big WHY NOT BOTH? situation. Should we not congratulate and indeed reward ourselves for having survived another year, an accomplishment all its own, and even more so if we consider ourselves to have accomplished a thing or two above and beyond baseline survival? I say we deserve that much! Should we not surround ourselves with those who are most important and beloved to us and also then enjoy all the pleasures and fruits available to us – especially in such a magical and extraordinary time, when rules are suspended and extra privileges granted?

It’s not mandatory, but as your wizard, I strongly recommend not neglecting this side of this time. Take these opportunities! They do not exist year round. Make space and time for quiet reflection and reverence…but do your best to feast and party, too. That’s at least half of what holidays are for, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.

Being Anti-Anti-Christmas

I keep catching myself turning into an old man. To be more specific, I keep catching myself doing and (most often) thinking things that a short time ago I would have attributed only to the mindset of a geezer. It’s worse than just being conscious of it, too. Each time I catch myself, I discover I don’t really seem to mind.

Despite spending an excessively rebellious period in my late teens and early twenties hating – or at least feigning hate for – the holidays, and despite the fact that I at least could relate to the feeling for quite some time after that, I am no longer able to understand anyone who hates the entire holiday season. Like, at all.

I get it that some people hate their families or don’t have them. I’m not unsympathetic to that. I just don’t think it’s a sufficient reason to decline all of it. There’s more to it than that.

I understand those who are not Christian feeling left out of a holiday with obvious Christian roots, but most other religions either observe a similar holiday in parallel or at least don’t prohibit participation in it. As for the secular out there – a much larger group – come on, don’t be a curmudgeon. The holiday itself, as we all know, is very secularized. If that’s not enough for you, there’s always the Solstice. It’s not just for pagans, you know. It’s an astrological event, and one with real significance in terms of how we measure time, in years.

I know, too, that “commercialization” sucks and empty consumerism is a bummer and all that, but you know what? That’s just not a real palpable part of my experience, including what I see from friends and peers. We do buy gifts, we give and receive them and stuff, but to suggest this is some kind of empty exercise for people to exchanging junk they don’t need out of obligation and occasionally nefarious competition is almost insulting. If that’s how it is for you, I’m…sorry? It doesn’t have to be. I like giving people that we like things that they will like and find useful, not because I have to but out of an expression of thoughtfulness and celebration and reciprocal gratitude. The exchange is always modest and very nice, and everyone can choose to participate in this or not to whatever extent they are inclined or able; having a bad experience with it doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically bad, much less somehow indicative of societal doom.

We’ve all heard this year, surely, that some study found Christmas music to be harmful to your mental health. Okay, I mean, let’s talk about this. To be sure, I give my mother a very hard time about her Christmas music, which she begins listening to each September. Like, on September the First, it’s opening day for the carols. My father at one time approached this custom as a very tolerant husband but has now evolved to become a very willing participant. It’s bizarre and I give them shit, but it’s cute and fine despite being very extreme. As someone who’s spent many years in retail, I do want to say that being trapped in a store for eight hours playing the same 80 minutes of Christmas songs on loop is definitely a form of mild torture. Short of that? Christmas songs are great. If you think we collectively overdo it with the songs, try to avoid intentionally listening to them until right before Christmas Eve – it’s possible you may even like them in that kind of dose.

What I’m getting at here beyond a point-by-point takedown of the haters is that we find ourselves presently in the midst of a season so deep and so broad and with so many facets and interpretations and foci and so much stylistic breathing room that I simply find no reason why anyone can’t take what they find meaningful and beautiful and fun and leave the rest alone. If you don’t think that’s an option, this is me giving you permission to take a whack at it. We all have that freedom.

Happy Advent.

the tree that held up the sky is dead

How I lost a tree and gained a hole where a tree used to be

When Papa Gino’s suddenly closed like a hundred locations a month or two ago – with no notice to employees, I should mention – I kept it together, but only barely. The company was planning to restructure and about half the locations would remain open, but they were closing all of the ones that were significant in my formative years, along with all of the ones near my office or along my commute home. Barring a resurgence at some future date, this effectively would mark the end of my lifelong relationship with the iconic New England pizza chain.

My wife knew what it meant right away – she’s got me pegged. “Oh boy…you’re gonna be upset about this for…months, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “The period of mourning starts now.”

The next dramatic change I would face during the fall of 2018, however, was much, much worse. A few weeks ago, I had texted my lifelong best friend as soon as I had heard the news. (I had also texted him not long before, as soon as I’d heard about Papa Gino’s. There’s an established procedure for this sort of thing at this point.)

“Dude remember the tallest tree in my parents’ yard – the birch in the front?”

“Ya man. Is it down?”

“They cut it down.”

“Ahhh! I remember when my parents did that to me!”

I’m still not over it. It could be a while.

Obviously I get upset about funny – dare I say irrational? – things. I can know that in my head and still be upset about them in my soul, just as I can know damn well that everything is change and nothing lasts and nothing is lost and still want everything to stay the same all the time.

I miss that god damn tree. To anyone cruising by the house, absolutely nothing would appear amiss. (See the image provided – that’s the missing tree.) To me, all I see is a gaping hole where a legend used to be, where it lived its life – and where I lived a huge chunk of mine.

All I see is a gaping hole where a legend used to be, where it lived its life – and where I lived a huge chunk of mine.

Actually, to be completely honest, the whole truth is that I still actually see the tree when I look in that spot – or at least its phantom presence. I can’t easily seem to unsee the tree.

Its not my parents’ fault; there was nothing gratuitous or vindictive about their decision to destroy the majestic creature. It had nothing to do with appearances – the tree, objectively, may have been unremarkable but was far from an eyesore. But the fact is, the majestic creature had arrived at a point at which it was mostly dead. I was skeptical about this – there were still plentiful leaves high at the top! – but the mercenary tree assassin they’d hired agreed with their suspicions and, once the tree was down, confirmed it by demonstrating how much of the thing had become basically hollow.

It did yet live, but its size and its position in the yard made it an acute threat to the house itself. As my mom said to me, “I know you hate change, but just think if it falls on the roof and demolishes your [childhood] bedroom. Think about the change you’d be dealing with then!” She’s right, and I don’t hold it against them, even if I’m not over it and don’t plan to stop harassing them about it for several months. As I understand it, homeowners’ insurance policies often get canceled after paying out a substantial claim, no matter how legitimate. My parents have had an empty nest for years now, but they’ve kept the house to this point in large part because of the militant (not an exaggeration) insistence on the part of myself and my brother and sister, and I want them to hang onto it, and I understand that the last thing they need as they near retirement is for their home of 30 years to be held together by wire hangers and uninsurable.

But my ability to understand their plight with the maturity demanded of my nearly-middle-age does not preclude the requisite and lengthy period of mourning. With maturity, after all, one also learns the importance of respect and doing honor to that which is departed. We all know that we all will die, and yet we still mourn every death, do we not?

Yeah, I know – it’s a tree and not an aunt. But this tree deserves it.


The insatiable drive of every forest to reclaim its stolen territory being what it is, the yard has more trees in it now than it did a couple decades ago, but it still doesn’t have many and had even fewer back then. On its borders, however, it is surrounded on three sides – save for the front facing the little dead-end street – by quite formidable trees, nearly all of them big white pines. In the back, facing south, is a hill beyond which rests an expanse of state forest. The pines stand ever as sentinels atop the hill – when I was little I used to think they looked a bit like the goblins in the animated Hobbit film – continuing on down the hill in a gentle, curved boundary eventually completing the western edge.

They’re there on the east side, too, closest to the house in a small block-shaped grove separating the yard from the one next door. This grove, when I was small, seemed a wide and wild little land for espionage, battle, and wondrous play, the boughs, then much lower, seemed to form an enclosed canopy that made the little land a thing unto itself. The canopy now seems to never have been there and the “grove” now seems a thin strip marking a property line. Hard to say how much of that can be chalked up to actual change, including the fact that the neighbor has undoubtedly done some cutting of his own, and how much of what I remember was merely the product of a child’s brain to begin with.

Just outside this grove, right in the front yard, was a strange sunken patch of ground in which a couple baby trees and a stump could be found – at the foot of the birch tree in question. The stump itself now seems a tasty bit of foreshadowing; I can’t remember if the tree that once belonged to it was cut down shortly before we moved in or if similar fears of destruction led my parents to part with it soon after we moved in. The stump itself, which fortunately still exists, if in a somewhat battered state, was significant all on its own, quickly becoming my platform, my pulpit, my perch from which to command the yard. Now it has a new stump to keep it company, if stumps care about such things.

It was not I, in truth, who oversaw and commanded the yard, however. It was the birch tree. In girth, even to the eyes of a child, even for a birch, it was always modest, but it rose high above the house, towering over all the white pines in the grove. The tallest tree around. The only reason the pines to the south rose higher was due to the advantage of the hill. The birch was dominant – not to mention unique for being a birch to begin with, and perhaps the only full-sized deciduous tree in the yard.

It had been legitimately majestic, too. Part of the reason I was skeptical about the fact that it was dead was that it had never had branches and leaves save for at its very top. The white papery bark, peppered with scribbles and zig-zags of black and gray, rose up the long trunk, erupting into boughs and little shimmering fluttering green leaves that formed a spectacular crown at the very top. As you might imagine, the treetop positively preened each fall with spectacular explosions of yellow and fire-orange and deep, bottomless red.

Looking up at it – and I can’t possibly tell you how many times I gazed up at it, how many cumulative hours my gaze lingered over all those decades – it seemed as if it were designated a pavilion pole holding up the dome of the sky. It seemed a fitting home for someone like The Lord of the Eagles or some sort of local angel, even if I don’t remember anything but maybe robins nesting in it.

Come to think of it, I think it served, solid and unmoving, as a sort of guardian angel to me, even if I didn’t realize it. Maybe that’s part of why this is so hard – maybe also why I can still feel its presence there even though my eyes can’t see it.

I don’t know its history and I don’t know its age. Truth be told, I haven’t attempted to seek out the stump that almost certainly lies beneath the early season snow in order to count its rings. I presume at least some of the wood was decent since the tree hit man apparently took it all with him, while leaving the remains of a couple white pines that also had to die.

If, at the end of its life, it remained the floral ruler of that one sacred acre of land (and I suspect it did), it would only have been out of deferential assent from its potential rivals, for it no longer dominated on the basis of size or even uniqueness. While it has, as far as I can tell, remained more or less the same height as it was a quarter century ago, the white pines next to it in the grove – including, fatefully, the one or two with whom it shared the gallows a few weeks ago – had continued to grow taller, eclipsing it. As far as I know, it remained until the end the sole birch in the yard, but the reclaiming efforts of the forest that I alluded to earlier have led to a burgeoning movement of young upstart deciduous trees, mainly on the west side of the driveway but also including the once baby, now young adult trees that rested at its foot along with the old stump.

I never wanted to accept that it was half-dead and dying, but if I’m being honest, you could tell in its final years that it was giving way to much the same sort of frailty you see in many aging humans. Surely the trunk hadn’t actually grown thinner – I’m not sure that’s possible – but it just had a certain sense of gauntness, like it was tired, as though it lacked the full measure of bold fire it once held at its core and exuded as part of its rule.

I raise a glass to you, my friend the tree. Thank you for blessing my yard and my life with your presence and power and protection. I’m sorry you had to go. 

Though we all hope to avoid meeting our own ends from an actual chainsaw, some version of this fate awaits any of us who dare to grow old. Along the way, we will encounter many mini-deaths, like the disappearance of important pillars of our younger days – be they ordinary extraordinary trees or regional pizza chains. As we might one day hope to do, the tree remained proud and dignified, even as it lost its strength (although, whatever its ultimate fate, I’m not sure we can say the same about Papa Gino’s).

I raise a glass to you, my friend the tree. Thank you for blessing my yard and my life with your presence and power and protection. I’m sorry you had to go. If I’d had my way, I probably would have allowed you to stick around and take out my old bedroom. I would have cursed you then…but I would not have been able to stop loving you. I will continue to mourn you and harass my parents about you for the next several months, and until my dying day (or until, heaven forbid, new owners prevent me from standing vigil in their yard) I will never fail to see you there, in that eternal form that belongs to all things, even us, especially after they have gone.

Support the wiz:

The Panthers Have Not Been Real: Dispatches from Autumn

With only a few remaining days before Advent begins and a whole lot to talk about, I’ve scribbled some off-the-cuff dispatches from the autumn below.


I’ve seen a lot of deer and also several black panthers. The deer have been real, the panthers have not.


I remember this one moment one morning in October when we were leaving for school and work and my son just stops dead in the doorway and points up at the sky. It was a flock of geese flying south in formation (or wherever they go), an ordinary sight around at this time of year – ordinary enough that even the lad of four-and-a-half had surely witnessed it several times. And yet there he was, just stopped in wonder, absolutely marveling at this event we were witnessing together.

It reminds me of a conversation I had at the secret cave in late October, during the last Sacred Mountain Climb of the season. We were talking about how it feels to be a child, experiencing everything as new (or at least somewhat new) and possible ways in which adults might recreate some or all of that state of mind, if only for a few moments or hours at a time.

I was asked if being a parent allows you to share in that sense, to return in some way to the best aspects of the child’s perspective – like that sort of unconditional, no holds barred wonder. I found myself answering yes without any hesitation.

It’s true. When my son stopped to appreciate these geese, I felt the wonder, too.
It is pretty wonderful, isn’t it? Geese? If you stop to think about it. Like only a child would.


On Thanksgiving Eve in 2007, I won $2,000 on a scratch ticket while intoxicated in a Fitchburg dive bar, a moment that’s exactly as amazing as you might imagine. It represents, by far, my biggest winnings ever.

Unfortunately, I don’t really gamble anymore. It’s not that I’ve changed my mind about it or grew some new morals or any such garbage like that. It just doesn’t seem to come up much – like, it’s just not really a part of my experience. It doesn’t cross my path, the opportunities don’t pop up. I rarely have cash – required for lotto purchases – and the folks I run with these days don’t play much poker.

(I did have the opportunity and delight of playing Keno a few times in the last six months, which was great, but I didn’t win.)

Anyway, that’s not the point. It’s not just gambling that isn’t a palpable presence in my life these days – in fact, I don’t have Thanksgiving Eves like that anymore. Haven’t for a while. That’s not a moral statement, nor would I assign to it the kind of lame, common, cop-out excuse like “it’s because I have kids.” I mean, maybe it is because I have kids, but that can’t be the only reason. I am certainly open to the idea of engaging in such things, at least theoretically, and I am sure I could probably make it happen if I wanted to. Maybe I don’t want to — but that’s getting us into dangerous territory here, because I’ll really hate myself if I become one of those people that’s like “I’ve grown out of that.” Heaven forbid. But, shit, maybe I have. I will just try not to talk about it in mixed company.

Anyway (for real this time) I had a very different kind of Thanksgiving Eve in 2018, but one that was equally as sweet in a totally different way (and minus the cash windfall). The second snow of the year had fallen and I was out for a drive, running an errand in the far and mysterious reaches of the wooded hills surrounding comparatively developed (hell, comparatively metropolitan) Peterborough. Through the winding streets – and slowly! – I drove on my wife’s freshly swapped-in snow tires through Dublin and Harrisville and Nelson and Hancock. The trees all leaned forward, every little branch highlighted with that white brush-stroke of heavy, wet early-season snow. I don’t even really like the snow, but god damn was it pretty, and I was blasting Dvorak’s Symphony from a New World and Respighi’s ancient dances from this great lossless-quality classical app Idagio I got.

It was one of those moments – and maybe I did reap a windfall, just not a cash one.

Although, I’ll just say one last thing on this – if the universe or the god/goddess of Fortune is listening, if you want to throw me another two grand out of the blue, I promise I’ll be way smarter about the money at 34 than 23. You can bet on that.

Actually, I just want to emphasize one more time – I can still hang with the best of them. I swear.


Thanksgiving was extremely warm and…I don’t know, it was almost a picturebook holiday. Shoutout to my in-laws, it was pretty perfect celebrating the holiday with youse.


I’ve got mixed feelings about this batshit early snow we have, but ultimately I seem to be much less pissed off about it than I would have expected to be. I don’t know if I should be concerned or what, but I seem to be just kind of accepting it and settling in for the long haul. Maybe I should be concerned; that really doesn’t sound like me. What have I become?


As far as dreams coming true, we all know 2018 can’t stack up against 2017 – nobody can. That said, for a year that was largely forecast to be a bit on the grim, dramatic, and difficult side, I’ve really got some bigass blessings to my name. The fall has really coalesced much of what went down in the breakneck-speed first three-quarters of the year (I don’t know why I sound surprised, this is literally the real-world manifestation of the harvest metaphor I prattle on about every year) and produced some truly wonderful opportunities.

The biggest? You may already know about this, but since I haven’t been present enough to promote it like I should have, you may have missed it: The Wizard of Halloween. That’s what we called it. Halloween weekend, some real salt of the earth motherfuckers – proud to say, friends of mine – in this Dead cover band Winterland were doing a full-on party at this part-time venue that is an old abandoned church. I was invited to do a 25-minute spoken word opening act, backed by many of the band members, who played a little jazz intro, followed by Pink Floyd’s epic “Echoes” – which, incidentally, is the song I have tattooed on my arm, my only tattoo. And none of this was my idea, and it was amazing, and one of the biggest treats of the entire year for me. I loved the shit out of it and the band did too and perhaps even the audience. We hope to do it again – a different bit, of course, this one having been written just for the occasion.

Best part? After my opening act, Winterland just crushed it. Crushed it. Look, there’s a lot of Dead cover bands crawling around southern NH in 2018, pretty much all of them older and better known than this crew, but none of them can touch Winterland. I don’t even see this as an argument. That’s not all, though, it’s not merely that they played these songs with simultaneous respect and freshness with just the right hint of originality, they did a whole ritual. Like a real ritual, the kind I always talk about in my adventure episodes, the very reason I go to see Dead and Co at least once per tour. Winterland didn’t perform something like the ritual or almost the ritual or in a spirit of tribute to the ritual. No, no. They did the ritual. I’m still positively shocked by this an entire month later. I know damn well how talented they are, but fucking nobody does the ritual, not besides D&C anyway. Maybe Dark Star Orchestra, but they’re halfway reenactors. JRAD doesn’t do it. Phil and Friends doesn’t do it, so far as I can tell. Shit, people often don’t understand this, but it’s the ritual and the ritual alone for which I forgive Dead and Co’s often too-slow tempo.

But there, that night, in Marlborough, New Hampshire, an unknown band in costume in an abandoned church put on the ritual. I’m gonna have to talk more about this. Much more.

If you want to see the entire night of magic, go here. My portion is at the very beginning, as you might expect. I’ve also released the audio of my performance as Episode 18 of the Wizard of Monadnock Radio Hour. Check your podcast app.


My beard is not long by long beard standards, but it’s longer than it’s ever been. I can’t comment further on this yet.


As I shared with you yesterday, I also had the opportunity to work with another congregant and the church’s musical director to design a Service of Gratitude that was held this past Sunday. I got to write – and, obviously, deliver – a ten minute mini-sermon. This is the first time I have ever done this, although I have been interested in doing so for years. In fact, I think when I first became interested in it, it was an idea I couldn’t actually visualize as ever happening. And yet here we are. Reviews were positive – and you can check it out for yourself.

As part of the church’s worship committee, in fact, I have had the opportunity to take a much more active role in several services so far this year, and I don’t want to be shy about how clear it has seemed to me in the course of this involvement that this is truly what I belong doing. This is another topic worth exploring further at another time.

One other thing I’m getting a chuckle out of, because I hadn’t actually planned on this part – I sang into the microphone in front of everybody. Nothing crazy or anything, just backup vocals on a few lines of “Ripple”, but I actually didn’t really think I would ever sing publicly. And Kellie said I actually sang on key! (In this case, especially as she is herself an experienced singer, I do think she would tell me the truth if I’d bombed it.)

In reporting this, I’m realizing I have breezed by another major milestone, which is significant even if it’s buried a little bit by the other two: I’ve dreamed for years of getting people to sing Grateful Dead in church, because to me, it’s holy music. Now it happened, and it was definitely holy, and I was right to want this so long ago.


The more dispatches I lay out here, the more I realize how many of them deserve pieces all their own. There’s so much to talk about! I am really kicking myself for my recent productivity stall because this is really turning into quite the backlog to catch up on. A couple dispatches ago, I mentioned a conversation held during the final sacred climb of the year. All I can say as far as that goes: that day specifically is screaming to be written about; more broadly, not nearly enough has been said about these four official climbs (and 2-3 unofficial ones) this year. They are gargantuan.


I have a basement lair now. The original seed of an idea for this started by accident a year ago. I put it into motion in June, doing about half the work. Then I stopped and did nothing on it until circumstances really forced my hand over the last 6 weeks or so. And now it’s done. I am writing this from my lair. I can’t even believe the words on the screen – this wizard actually has a lair now. I’m really going places, guys.

I’ll probably share most or all of it publicly eventually, but I will be introducing my Builder’s Guild Patrons to the lair in a new video I’ll be posting this week.


I really could keep going. Life is very full. But this is about twice as long as I’d originally intended, and if I ever hope to start on the full essays I’ve now seemingly backed myself into working as a backlog, I’ll have to stop here. But expect more.