Remembering

For me, music always has been a trigger for memories. I was listening to one of my favorite songwriters, Mac McAnnaly, the other day.  It took me back to a time in my life when I lived with five other guys, all who were divorced, except me. We called the place Menagerie Farms, for apparent reasons. We would sit around, drink beer, get depressed, and listen to Gordo Lightfoot, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, or Mac. Mac told the most truth I knew at the time, all about my love and hate of things Southern. The boy could turn a phrase to the point of my envy. I remember one line in particular about love and marriage: Don’t be swearing on the Bible, cause anything’s liable, to change your opinion on love. Man, I wish I had written that line. I sure knew some folks who lived it.

This weekend, I was with some fraternity brothers for our annual December gathering. I try to get as many folks as I can to come back to Atlanta, to remember our days in the Sigma Chi fraternity at Emory in the 70’s. Each year, a different collection of my menagerie convene, each year a variety of stories get remembered, a new set of embellishments take center stage. We meet at Manuel’s, the quintessential neighborhood bar, on Friday night. Margie Maloof is always kind to set aside the renovated Eagles Nest for as private a place as any group can get in Manuel’s. On Saturday night, we gather for a great meal with spouses/partners to celebrate our friendship through time. It is a highlight of my year.

This year, Jeff from New Orleans, reminded me of a favorite story that occurred during one rush meeting I chaired. It spoke to both the pain and comedy of our embeddedness of being in the South.  Speaking of the South, Peeler, from Mississippi, reminded me of a particular brawl we started and then escaped at Denny McClain’s old bar in the basement of the Georgian Terrace. Peeler’s medical license and my priesthood ordination might not stand up to the details. Luckily for us, phone cameras had not been invented, social media not even imagined.

There are a few memories that I wish were on film, fresh for remembering. But the colors would have certainly faded by now, lacking the embroidery that our memories have stitched to the mere facts. As I learned in Texas, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. It’s so much more fun to listen to the tales retold, in a Mississippi drawl or a New York clip. How rich to hear those old stories regaled by old friends, some bald, some bent, some battered…..but friends spanning decades.

We always bring up the cooking and mothering of Ethyl and Pearl, the painting the E lion, a football championship with a pass from Rob to Deuce, to Phillips over the middle for a last minute touchdown. Streaking at Agnes Scott. And there were the host of girls/women who claimed and claim a place in our common mind.  Sweethearts past, sweethearts present. Good times we shared, hearts broken, dreams followed, deferred, or altered…..or in my case, altared. It was Jim, from Florida, who pointed to a truth that was evident to all but needed to be said, “There is something about this group that transcends the years.”

That “thing” is our shared experience, of learning how to be a person with an identity all our own, of mastering a bank of knowledge under pressure, of struggling to be a friend and learning about loyalty that transcends genetics, to looking for love in all the right and wrong places, to testing our world view to see if it stands up to the exposure to the new, the different. How consequential it was to go to this particular school, in this peculiar culture, at this consequential time. And deciding, in whim or wisdom, to be with this group of folks who will share this defining time. What a long strange trip. I feel blessed.

I had a great weekend. Saw some folks I had not seen since graduation. Talked to my Baton Rouge friend about guitars and thrilled that he found the perfect Martin at Maple Street. Encouraged by a classmate who had gone through the same physical therapy I am enduring. Connected with one of my favorite human beings who shares my love of Big Sky and Montana. Gave thanks for a brother who passed away this year, bringing a smile of gratitude for his being and presence. He had planned to be with us last year, but the rare snow event kept him away. It’s a reminder that life plays for keeps, particularly as we clock more trips around the Sun.

Remembering.

In this season, my hunch, memories will emerge for you. Through music that transports you back to a special time. Memories, through gatherings, planned or unplanned. Smells. Visuals. Prose or poetry. All can spark your memories. Enjoy them.

Let me suggest you take the time to remember. Pause. Allow a silence in your day to flush out hidden memories. Write. Journal.

Reach out to someone who is far away, in space, in time, or both. Give thanks for the gift of relationship that is in close proximity. Take the time to give thanks for the very gift of life, and all it brings. As St. Ferris of Buehler reminds us: Stop.  Take a look around. Things are moving pretty fast. You just might miss it.

Why Mindfulness?

So when I began this blog, South of God, it was the beginning of the Advent season, a time to prepare for Christmas. Not by finding and buying just the right present for that special person, be it a grandchild or lover. Not by decking the halls with greenery. Not by planning a feast by consulting fave cookbooks and family recipes. Not by retrieving boxes from the attic or basement filled with treasured decorations from the  past. All that may be part of your Advent past, and it generally brings good emotions of connection, perhaps even joy, as you “get ready for Christmas Day.”

However, I was thinking more about the spirit of Advent being a season of preparing one’s soul for an inbreaking of light into darkness, of looking to the horizon of our lives for growth, development. And for me, I have trained myself to use this season as tuning my heart for surprise. What might happen that is new, fresh, enlivening? I want to suggest that these days before Christmas might be a time for quiet in the middle of all the busyness of the season. My friend, Betty Barstow, wrestled me into thinking of it as counter-cultural, which, of course, appealed to my native spirit. Imagine that, silence in the face of busyness.

It occurred to me that in that sense, Advent is sort of a microcosm of my life throughout the year, trying to find an oasis of centeredness in the pressing fray of activity that impinges on my life. Is it possible to be centered in the midst of the whirlwind, not only in this particular time of year, but throughout my year.

For me, I was given the gift of centering one year by a Trappist monk who lives at a monastery about an hour east of Atlanta. Tom taught me a method of prayer that had been around for centuries but had been repackaged by some modern monks as they rebranded it as Centering Prayer. It used a simple two syllable word for a mantra by which one focuses one’s breathing: breathe in, breathe out, in a natural rhythm, in and out. Centering…. as natural as breathing.

Now, there’s a bit more to it than that, but in its essence, it is merely ceasing one’s busyness in order to center. In the Centering Prayer method, it is suggested that one does that for twenty minutes twice a day, naturally in the morning and evening. It’s been my discipline since college, or should I say, my practice, as I have had to work hard to find that center in certain seasons of my life, while at other times, it comes as easy as breathing.

For some time, I have been teaching this method to others who have desired to find such a center in the midst of their whirlwind. I have taught seminary students who were looking for a center in the vortex of relativity introduced by serious critical study. I have taught centering to people transitioning into their first parish job, inundated by endless demands on their time and insatiable needs of the people who they are trying to pastor. And in the parishes I served, I taught all sorts of folks who found themselves longing for a center, a calmness, a peace that orders the craziness of trying to make sense of the world, their world in particular. In my recent years, I have been training folks in healthcare, executives, physicians, nurses, and other members of that special team of folks who know the unrelenting push and pull of urgency. I have found that all people need and desire a centeredness that gives peace and connection, even in the blurring rapidity of change in their particular and peculiar whirlwind..

This whole centering thing has become rather  popular. It has completely secular form that goes by the name of mindfulness, which sounds less exotic than meditation. It is a simple thing, this slowing down to be present to the moment. Some wags have called this popular wave McMindfulness, or drive-through meditation. That gives me a good belly laugh, and I like the fact that it takes some of the esoteric shimmer away from what I sense is a natural thing available all human beings. No magic here,  no “woo woo” panache that draws the curious. Rather, mindfulness speaks to the deep need we all have for that Center than is beyond the passing activity of our life.

So where to begin, say you were interested in using this season for something new, something fresh, something promising. Let’s begin with motivation, and those promises those whispers of improved lives.  There’s a bunch of research from science that you can source if you need convincing. I’ve been a part of a group that studies this phenomena using f-MRIs to see the actual biological changes in brain chemistry as a result of meditation. I am convinced of the pragmatic, good results for those who meditate through time. But I am more convinced by the actual cases of people I have worked with to change their lives to a healthier outcome. The benefits are focus, deeper sleep, less anxiety, better oxygen intake, and a happier mood, just to name a few.

I suggest you start slow to see if centering might be of use to you. I recommend a series of five minute pauses in the day, whenever you can make it happen or take advantage of a break. I normally encourage folks to schedule a time that can become a regular practice. Those in healthcare have chosen to “grab five” at the start of the day. Some “take five”, Brubeck style, at lunch. Others find the end of the day works, while others make a simple five pause whenever they can. Whatever works for you. Just do it, to coin a phrase.

Here’s the simple routine: 1. Sit comfortably. Rest your hands on your lap, or desk. Close your eyes to avoid distraction(no woo woo magic here) or keep a light gaze to the space immediately to your front. 2. Begin by taking a minute or so of deep breaths, as they occur naturally, unforced. 3. Do a check of your sense of relaxation, beginning with your face, then, on down your body, with an inventory of how  you are feeling. 4. Maintain your focus by sensing and being aware of your breath for the next three to five minutes. 5. End your centering with an offering of thanks, for something specific, or for the gift of the time of being centered. That’s it. You are on the road to an improved centeredness.

Be assured that when you begin, unless you are a meditation Mozart, you will find thoughts entering into the silence, intrusions as to what you should be doing, pricks of reminders of things that would claim your attention. Simply let them go and return to the breath. This is what Buddhists call “the monkey mind”, with the monkeys jumping from tree to tree, with one intent: distraction. Simply return to the breath. I promise, over time and practice, the monkeys calm down and the center will hold.

So, there it is. Something perhaps new for you to try on for size during the next month. If you have questions, feel free to send a question my way. Five minute of peace, not distracted, centered. Blessings.+

 

Advent: Getting Ready

It should not have surprised me, but it did. I remember putting the CD disc into my Tahoe’s Bose stereo because I simply couldn’t wait to get home. Driving down Peachtree Street, Paul Simon began this album with the driving beat of an acoustic guitar on the first cut on his new offering, one I had anticipated from my patron genius on a album entitled with the curious phrase, So Beautiful or So What.

That first song shocked me with its theme, not at all what I was expecting, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”. A contemporary Gospelish  song, set in the context of the busyness of the Christmas season, exhorting one to “bear it in mind”, to get ready for power and the glory and the story of Christmas Day. As he sings the lyrics, talking about how crazy life gets in this tinsel-tangled time before that magic day in December, he interjects a black preacher man exhorting those unaware that one needs to get ready. And in a traditional “call and response”, the preacher calls so there is no mistaking: Get ready, ready for Christmas Day!

Now, I know. Christmas is a cultural holiday that pulls all into its powerful wake. It is all about the commercial reality of a boom time for merchants, selling goods to make a profit at the very end of the fiscal year. I’ll never forget my visit to an sporting goods/outfitter in Tyler, Texas, to visit my friend, the owner, Alan Haynes, Alan was hosting me for a festive holiday lunch. I asked him, as innocently as I could muster, how was business. Alan, with a twinkle in his eye, responded with the Texas humor I came to love, “Business is great!  I only wish Jesus had a brother born in June!” He was getting ready for Christmas Day…… but with a green tint.

Getting ready. Within the Christian community, the four Sundays before Christmas intentionally are designed to help us prepare our souls for the new time of birth, symbolically incarnated in the birth of the Baby Jesus. The season of Advent. That’s the drill for those of us in the Christian tradition, but it was chosen by the early Church to coincide with the seasonal Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year in terms of the Sun’s distance. It is about the coming of Light into the Darkness, symbolized by adding a candle to an Advent wreath, culminating in four lights ablaze, with the punctuation of the lighting of the Christ Candle on Christmas Day. Getting ready.

Approaching the season of Advent, merchants like Alan aren’t the only ones who are busy. Clergy tend to get a  “deer in headlights” look. They are busy planning for the press of time due on the onrushing Christmas festivities that come with the influx of visitors to ogle the cute Baby Jesus. There are “end of the year” concerns with money, both closing out the financial giving that may define the shape of the parish, plus preparing a budget for the coming year. In certain denominations, end of the year reports and performance evaluations loom. Add to that, there are a never-ending procession of social events, some fun, most not, where the pastor is expected to attend if not perform a functional role. A group of clergy that I meet with regularly have named this time of Advent as a “whirlwind”, intimating the blinding, circling chaos of activity. Finding a way to be centered in the midst of the whirlwind seem to be the trick. Get ready.

Certainly this is true for all folks in the busy seasons of life, especially this time around Christmas. How do you stay grounded in the craziness of life? And when life serves up some unexpected twists and turns without regard for your particular and peculiar situation, how does one keep one’s centeredness? How do you stay balanced?  This is something that faces us all. I am going to be writing of some of the ways I have found to be useful in my peculiar whirlwind with the hope it can be helpful to you, particularly in this season of Advent, getting ready for Christmas Day.

One of my basic and central disciplines for staying centered has been that of journaling, that is, writing down what is going on in one’s life, one’s mind. Journaling may be my most basic method of advancing my personal quest for increasing self-awareness, even in the distractions of business and busyness. It really is as simple as writing down what is happening, how you are reacting to those events, and noticing the hopes and fears that may emerge. Come to think of it, that is what I listen to when I am listening as a therapist, coach, or spiritual director. It captures what my old professor, Dr. Chuck Gerkin, wisely told me to look for in my life and in the lives of the people I was trying to help: what’s going on?

Journaling has been a constant in my attempt at being self-aware in my life. I was introduced to the general concept by a high school teacher who encouraged me to read Walden, the journalings of Henry David Thoreau as he lived alone in the woods, seeking to discover himself, to clarify his identity. For me, it meant keeping a composition book, writing down stray thoughts, verse, quotes, and wonderings.  I actually have a few of those early journals and am amazed at my descriptive entries, even though I was a little short on perspective.

Later, I came across Ira Progoff’s method of depth journaling as we hosted him at the Center for Faith Development at Emory University in Atlanta. Progoff developed a method of journaling that would cross-reference each day’s journaling with specific additional journaling on dreams, expansions on themes, hopefully  leading one into a depth that is not possible by mere daily posting. I found it incredibly helpful during times of critical decisions as I was making my way through life. Dreams emerged, which I could correlate with happenings within my life, and in fact, recurrent themes predominated. The Progoff method, called the Intensive Journal method, can become ponderous, particularly if one has obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I can’t help but have images of Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, journaling as to his various bodily functions. Unlike him, I tend to keep my journaling simple but see value in the variety of methods that have emerged.

The plan I am offering to you as you enter this season of Advent is a simple one. First, set aside a dedicated journal in which to write your thoughts. It can be a simple notebook you pick up at the local. pharmacy or a moleskin type journal available at specialty shops. I have noticed a plethora of new offerings of a variety of formats, such as the Daily Focus Planner, the simple Panda Planner, the Monk’s Journal, just to name a few. These are helpful, suggesting areas of reflection, but one does not need a fancy format. Just get a notebook and begin. Set it aside in a place that is secure and not liable to be opened by others so you can write your thoughts in the rare air of freedom, with an assurance of confidentiality.

Set aside a time, a regular time where you will commit to intentionally record your thoughts and feelings during this season. It can be early in the morning before the day goes into full-tilt boogie, or it could be at the end of the day as you becoming settled for a review of your day. It can vary, perhaps out of when it is convenient, but I have found the regularity of a specific time to be helpful. For me, I tend to use the morning, jotting down notes from any dreams of the past night, agenda for the coming day, feelings about the day ahead. You make the call. This is for you. But I encourage you to give it a shot over the next thirty or forty days and see how it goes. Get ready.

For starters, let me give you a few simple prompts:

  1. Begin the journal entry by recording the date, the time, the weather, the feel of the space you are in. This is useful for future tracking.
  2. Jot down your general feelings, thoughts that are emerging/
  3. Record any dream that may remain in your memory. Don’t fret if there are none.
  4. List three things for which you are grateful on this particular morning.
  5. What are the growing edges of your life? Where do you feel that you are being called to grow?
  6. Be still, quiet, silent for a time. What thoughts, feeling emerge. Write them down.
  7. Are there areas calling you to explore? Are there lights of hope on the horizon of the future breaking in?

It’s that simple. You don’t need to complete the above list every day. If one topic seems to call for more attention, give it. Go with the flow. Don’t over-complicate it at this point. Just commit, and then do it.

After you’ve done it for a week, you might reread your journaling on Sunday or Monday to see if there are themes. Make a separate journal entry for that.

With dates attached, you can revisit  your thoughts and musings months or years down track. I have looked back at my journaling from significant times in my past and found it helpful, even transformative. But that’s down track. Let’s get started NOW. Get ready.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grateful

The event of a family Thanksgiving has prompted my resolve to begin a long-awaited blog. I was on a beautiful island known as St. Simons, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia. The Galloway family had gathered to once again celebrate the national holiday of Fall with people journeying from New York, Washington, D.C., but mostly Atlanta. Thanksgiving brings a warm feeling to me from past gatherings of my family, including many streams of lineage: McBrayer, Pollard, Grimes, Richards, Mitchell, just to name a few of the mongrel collection we include.

But this one felt different. I am the pater familias, the oldest of the immediate family. That’s been my role for a few years now after my parents died within the same year. I had never thought of it in those terms like I did this year. Perhaps it’s been my immobilization due to the rupture of my quad tendon in my left leg. That injury occurred at Easter eight months ago as a peculiar twist of my knee rendered me crippled. I have gone through two surgeries and now months of physical therapy. My leg now moves but I am in the process of strengthening my atrophied leg muscles so that I can ambulate, Currently, I am relying on a walker to help me get around, moving slowly but not falling. This time of limitation has quickened my sense of mortality, fragility, and vulnerability…..new sensations for one who had felt bullet-proof.

Maybe it’s the isolation, the sense of confinement that has prompted my thinking, my reflection, my brooding. I have had more time to think and read than in my recent past, having been so busy with my many commitments. Maybe my injury has slowed me down enough to pause, to take a moment, to be aware of the “now” that I always urged others to appreciate….some of my own medicine.

Or maybe it’s my sobriety. Not drinking as I have in my past to celebrate such gatherings may have allowed me to be more present to my family, and to my self. Normally, as I would have chopped vegetables, cooked Southern cornbread, and alchemically rendered a grand imitation and variation of Grandmother McBrayer’s dressing for the feast, I would enjoy drinking wine as I worked with the recipe embroidered on my soul. A fine Bourbon would be poured from a decanter into a crystal old fashioned glass to be sipped just prior to dinner as the family gathered. And then I would enjoy the white wine varietal that my fabulous sister-in-law would have selected for our common consumption. But no more. Speaking of Thanksgiving, I had gone “cold turkey” after years of periods of self-medication, abuse, or enjoyment, however you choose to frame it. I did miss the enjoyment of the “spirits” as those around me participated in the Feast but not enough to break my personal vow to stay sober, to remain clear.

“Sober” gave me a sense of presence and attention that was new. I have been told that I was a lot of fun at such gatherings in the past, the life of the party, but the persona that held court was only part of me, a part that avoided inconvenient truths. This year, I found myself listening more to others, attending to the nuance, the subtleties of how we interact. My laughter was there, but deeper, more real. And my tears came like they did in the past but felt more connected with my real self. It was a fine feast that was a celebration of life, the way it should be.

As I went through that day, beginning by sitting on the porch in meditation, listening and smelling the salt marshes of Glynn County, I began to remember the many blessings of my life. I thought of my ancestors who braved that very Atlantic Ocean to come from Scotland for the New World. My grandfather who worked as an Atlanta cop, walking a beat downtown, but who also led the singing at his Baptist church. My grandmother who was known as the best Bible teacher at that same church. As I spent the day, wandering about the house, taking the time to listen to what was on the hearts and minds of my children and my brother’s children, all now grown, I thought of my mother who was the beloved biology teacher and her willingness to teach the senior girls at our church, listening to secrets they dare not tell their own mothers. The spirit of generosity that filled that house reminded me of my father whose willingness to give of his treasure earned as an airline executive to his church and to people in need within the community, making sure his boys knew what “thankful” looked like in flesh and blood. All this combined to give me an elevated level of gratitude, this time not chemically or herbally enhanced.

I paused at one point and remembered a saying an old Texas songwriter once told me. He borrowed it from a fellow pilgrim to pass it on to me, so I don’t imagine he would mind me sharing it. When my level of gratitude exceeds my expectations, I have some pretty good days. Thanksgiving was a pretty good day.

David Galloway+