The long, patient journey of the chess master “bum.”

Some folks saw him riding his bike through town. They saw he was most likely homeless and they thought no more of him.

Until one day, Randy told me his story. It’s as tragic as any Shakespeare play and twice as real.

I wrote it up for my local newspaper and I hope it sees its day there. But I also want to share it here because Randy and his hero’s journey need to be seen anywhere they can be. It is a story of incredible suffering, patience and eventual peace:

Sitting in the shade of a tree at Lithia Park, any day of the week and most times of the day, Randy Dollinger has his chess board out. A small sign reads “Chess?”

The peaceful scene gives no clue as to the long road Randy has traveled. “I always wanted to make money with chess, somehow,” the 63 year old Ashland resident tells me while waiting for his next student. That yearning was born of a short, tragedy infused career in the cut throat competitive world of tournament chess. It is as unforgiving as it is unyielding.

He began playing chess in his native North Carolina at the age of 12. Within two years he rose through the fierce world of tournament chess to eventually become the state champion at 17, ranked tenth in the nation.

Randy was among the few young, elite champions of his day, even spending time with international chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. “He showed me an opening which helped me win a tournament. He came to watch me play.” He smiles, “Sometimes people can’t believe that story. But it’s true.”

At the pinnacle of his playing Randy had one of his games published. “Two pages in Chess Life. It went all over the world.”

“ I played in all the great cities, I played in 30 tournaments.” He eventually became the only chess player with the ranking of “expert” bestowed by the US Chess Federation in his home state. “People came from all over the East Coast to watch me play.”

He was unstoppable until five years after he began it ended- in the seat of his friend’s car. “I was 17. The passenger in a car, “ he says slowly and thoughtfully. “We got into a wreck. My friend lost control and ran into a tree.”

Randy was injured in a life altering way. “I was in a coma for a week. Then the doctor said it’d be a couple years before my brain would be back in order before I could do the things I had been doing.”

But he couldn’t wait. He lost patience. He had to get back in the game. He went against his doctors orders and went back to playing. “I came to tournaments with my head bandaged, walking on crutches.”

He could not accept it. Randy feared if he took too much time out he would be forgotten.

“I started playing too fast. I lost tournaments, I lost rating points.” Randy leans in and tells the story which changed his life. He is not dramatic but matter of fact and precise. He describes being in a tournament with a crowd looking on and suddenly going blank, not knowing what to do. He had never experienced that before. “I just understood the game right away. I always knew it and then I suddenly just couldn’t get it to work. I would have these moments where I would freeze.”

His ranking fell. His sponsors withered. At 17, he felt finished.

“I stopped playing. It was too disappointing.”

Randy began traveling, trying to find himself outside of chess. He became a meditation student, a wonderer and often homeless. He came to Ashland 25 years ago, much of that time he camped outside and sought refuge in coffee shops.

But he never fully gave up on chess. “Ive been studying the game.”

Most people never knew his story. Briefly he was re-discovered but once again the game left him wounded.

He was offered a sponsorship to play a tournament in Grants Pass more than a decade ago. “I did great. I won second place. People gave me offers to play and teach.” But he couldn’t do it. “All the fear and apprehension came back. I literally had a horrible headache for three days. I couldn’t sleep.”

He figured it was too much. He gave up his dream again.

“I studied but hardly ever played. I wouldn’t play. I couldn’t do it.”

Randy says despite all the disappointment and pain he still had the hope that somehow, one day the game would come back to him.

“Then there was this brainstorm. Just set up my chess board and tell people I’ll teach for compensation.”

He sits on a bench most every day, all day, just within the sound of the park’s cellist with his board, hoping for a game.

“I’m enjoying it again. I love it, plus I’m actually making a little money.” He works by donation. He offers a game for a suggested five dollars and ten gets you a lesson from the master.

His years of patience shows. “Everything revolves around the four main squares in the middle,” he tells a student who stopped her stroll to play. “Every square means something. That’s the power of the game.”

Oakland resident Emily Santiago says in twenty minutes he improved her game. “He’s completely changed my strategy for playing. Chess is like life, I have to keep my most powerful pieces and leverage them, “ she says while staring intently at the board. “I learned to delay gratification.”

Randy’s life story could be told as one of delayed gratification. He’s waited decades for chess to pay him back for his devotion. “I wanted to support myself with chess. 45 years later and I’m finally doing it.”

Marcus Brown is nine. He’s visiting with his family from Arizona. The chess board is clearly calling to him as he circles Randy, looking at the pieces. Randy says he loves teaching children because he knows the power of the game. “I think it’s important to build skills, to plan and strategize,” says his mother Bobbie. Marcus is not talking, he is only sitting with the pieces and Randy. “Every game is now,” says Randy as he interrupts our discussion. “I have to concentrate.”

Twenty minutes later Marcus leaves the table. “That was great! Good job,” Randy encourages his student. Takes a sip of water and a breath. “I never knew how to give this gift to society. The only way to do it is to set up my board and wait. It requires me to be patient. You have to be patient in life and chess.”

He smiles. His green eyes shine under his gold wire rimmed glasses looking the part of the master. His fingers graze the pieces. He looks up and says to a couple passing by, “You want to play chess?”



























The Case for Walking

Nowhere can you see the realness and the history of where you live better than by foot. You may drive a place every day but until your feet touch its soil, until your eyes stop looking straight ahead but off to the side where a wide set of steps rise like an upside down waterfall leading to a young man with an old school ‘fro texting his girl on the night before his college graduation- will you begin to know a place.

Until you notice just how many people plant rows and rows of lavender along the strip of land after their yard but before the street on the other side of the sidewalk- you won’t understand the generosity of your neighbors and the glory of bees on a summer day.

I passed the cemetery and for the first time realized that a leafy tree stands as a sentinel at the end of even rows of each line of headstones. The grass is exactly even but not mechanized like a modern place, it is still different shades of green from dark to light with some dried grass, yellow and stiff. The rows are more like paths inviting me to follow them and get to know the people who came before.

I found families, a husband who died twenty years before his wife. I kneeled before three headstones of three brothers who all died in different wars. Those people once also walked these streets.

Rounding through town I was stopped by a gaggle of young and lively guys with long dreadlocks and short little songs they busted out in bursts for me. “We’re the rainbow, join us!” I stayed awhile, talked about the Rainbow Gathering coming to Oregon, we talked about their dog and one guy told me I was beautiful. It was generous given that he was a lovely young guy with eyes as blue as any I’d seen.

Walking can boost your morale substantially.

I walked past bus stops and old homes. I saw some trash left by the steps of a stately old place which bragged of its 1888 lineage and I picked it up thinking, it  must be hard to see everything change around you.

I visited with a guy roughly my age carrying a backpack and sleeping bag. He looked clean and was sorting some food as he tucked it away. “It was a good day,” he said smiling. “I see that and I’m glad,” I tipped my head and smiled back. He was about to offer me some of his food but I walked on waving as I passed.

Strangers can be kind for no reason.

I also fell in love with an assorted group of dogs who ran to greet me like their long lost friend. Tails wagging, some singing sorrowful songs urging me to come back and I walked on and I remembered the joy of a good dog. I saw a woman cradling her little black and white dog coming from the vet and kissing the top of her furry head.

Love is so present in the world if you look.

I exchanged dozens of smiles with strangers, witnessed countless acts of awe among children seeing birds and flowers and I never once wished I was in a car despite the sweat which pooled at the back of my neck.

The best moment was in passing a girl, maybe seven or eight, wearing a crisp blue and white dress, a ribbon in her dark wavy hair and the smile on her innocent illuminated face that made years roll backwards to my second grade year. She stood at the top of the stairs outside her home while her grandmother sat smiling that same way on her porch. The girl began waving at strangers and smiling, for no particular reason. She ate an orange popsicle. As I approached the popsicle slipped off its stick into the grass. She observed but didn’t react choosing to continue her waving campaign.

Everything about her gave me hope. I asked if I could capture her picture and I did. I did not ask her a million questions like I might normally do. Frankly I didn’t want to know more than what I could see–the perfect mixture of light and love, innocence and care, playfulness and childish boredom.

If you walk enough you will get bored. Boredom is such a relief. Boredom doesn’t have technology attached or success or failure. It is expansive and allows you to fill it or feel it just as it is. I love boredom.

The case for walking is great. It is good for every part of you except your oh so busy schedule. So here’s the best case for it beyond all others–walk because you do not have time to do it. Break free of your calendar and make the room for walking and seeing and loving and speaking to strangers, and flirting and being bored.



Traveling Like Crazy; a short story

Slab City, California, USA.

This is the place where people go who have nowhere else, who’s future and past collide into a present tense of impossibility. It looks like it sounds. The sun cooks up the ground into untidy cracks but it doesn’t cook it enough to erase the smell or evaporate the trash from hundreds, sometimes thousands of people living entirely off grid.

The Slabs is roughly a 90 minute drive from Palm Springs in the Imperial Desert, 65 miles north of Calexico and a few minutes from East Jesus-literally.


E.J. is an impromptu art installation on the road to Slab City. Artists use the trash from the Slab to make eccentric, politically challenging and quirky art amidst the nothingness of dirt and garbage and loneliness. East Jesus looks at you daring you to be anxious. If you don’t do it–if you stay calm and let yourself smile at the giant tray of spoons–you will be changed. It’s hard to say exactly how, but you feel it in the way that a certain song makes you cry. A nerve is touched and now it has sensation and memory of sensation and it’s own life outside you.

That is the East Jesus affect.

The entire drive through sand past the glimmering yet deeply foul Salton Sea, past abandoned shacks and mis-placed businesses slammed between date groves is sensation on salted wound. A road from nothing to nowhere.

The Slabs are left over from a military installation which pulled up stakes more than 40 years ago and today is occupied by people who show up in RV’s and cars, who sleep in tents, hammocks and home-made homes. It’s a self governing, free to squat  place with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for the art of living oddly.


It’s the end of the world as we know it post apocalyptic wild west side show of people who run out of money, will, ability or patience with “normal” society.

There are 200 in August when the temperatures hit 124 and 2,000 in January when Canadians in mansions on wheels show up to soak up the weirdness and freeness of the desert. While the demographics and bank accounts shift with the seasons, old timers like George who runs a mis-matched trailer encampment which he rents out year round says it’s all the same kind of folks. Those who want to save money and don’t want to be bothered by the politeness of others. Essentially the draw at The Slabs is being left the hell alone. At least some of the time.


There’s no electricity, running water-hot or cold-and no flush toilets. There’s dirt and some concrete slabs. That covers all the amenities.

There’s open mic night at The Range which looks like a scene from a twenty-somethings coming of age film with crooked and leaning stage, old couches with foam flying in all directions and a bar made of scrap wood hammered together by a blind or drunken man. They come there to sing to each other and recite poetry once per week, normally on Fridays. When asked if the performances are good most say, “Not really.”


Somewhere in the miles of nothing is also a library and down the “road” an internet cafe which feels like a university student union. People hunker down and rifle their phones  within range of wi-fi. Politics is spoken but rarely argued. Drop outs and loan dodgers, disabled people, senior citizens and anarchist travelers tour each other’s states of mind about nearly any subject where most all conversations begin and end with a funny line and a snicker. Leaving is done one way, a wave of a peace sign over the shoulder and sometimes, “one love, one love.”

Just outside the internet cafe resides a man who calls himself Spyder and he’s the apparent rock star, mayor, Zen Master and builder of Slab City. He has half a manufactured home, a trailer, a truck and an RV. His RV has a rare thing, a hot running shower and radio. He has scrounged parts and created a solar panel and pump system to make it work.

His half of a home is in repair mode. The walls and floor are filled in, the kitchen is nearly functional with another solar rig and pump, his two kids have their own bedrooms. The bathroom in the half house doesn’t work but the RV is next door so the “Kids can shower before school. That’s important.”


Soon Spyder’s place will have another comfort. He’s hand digging and lining a septic system so the family can use a flush toilet. He trucks in huge drums of water weekly.

“I couldn’t really make it out there. I was abandoned as a baby by my mother and put in the foster system where I was given to a family who didn’t just beat me-they tortured me. My back is wrecked, I never really learned to read or write and I’ve got a bunch of other scars.  I tried working out there doing handy jobs and anything I could get but I still kept winding up homeless–then I heard about this place. You can be what you want to be out here and if you work hard you get to keep the result of your labor. I can’t see ever going back.”

He stands in the sun looking around, sweat is dripping down his shirtless chest and he wipes his face and says it’s time he get back to work.

There’s an agricultural canal which runs behind The Slabs about half a mile or so from Spyder’s place. People speak of swimming and bathing in it especially in the fall when it’s hot and the water is still high due to water releases for late crops. They say it’s a beach, an inland paradise when it gets really hot.  But it’s actually a long, shallow edged and deep centered waterway which smells of farm waste and chemicals. It’s an odd shade of green but it’s moving water in the desert. That’s as good as it gets.

This is not a place for the germaphobe or picky person.

Slab City has its joiners and loners, cool folk and angry outliers, all of them cheap skates and free loaders who have an aversion to loans and taxes and working all week to pay for a house that owns them and demands more upgrades. For the most part the dwellers of The Slab aren’t keen on government or cities or much to do with the world outside. However, it would not be accurate to say they’re lazy and don’t want to work.

Showing up with a tent in the white hot center of a huge desert with zero water or power does not allow anyone here to be lazy. Surviving is an entry level position and living with handmade upgrades like a roof and floor is the corner office. Nothing along the chain here is achieved without sun up to sun down work and innovation.


Learning how to innovate is a daily occupation. Inventions will be born at Slab City.

Within two days of chumming around The Slabs, I find I’m eyeballing spots near roads but away from others. I’m evaluating sun angles and looking for smooth slabs and proximity to a decent path in and out. I’m creating a gear list: rope, tarps, big jugs for water, car batteries, propane tanks, camp stoves and lights. Shovels-one for digging large holes and one for a bathroom. I get hung up on the bathroom part but keep mumbling, ‘I really think I could do this and enjoy it.’

It’s not realistic. Yet……

When traveling like crazy, be prepared to be crazy. Meeting people in their odd smells, off grid pre-occupations, eccentricities and realities does not allow ambivalence. The mammalian response is to respond–to blend and join. The Slab City joiner/non joiner is a flag flying proudly for a country not yet invented. It’s the pirate ship or tropical island where mis-fits fit.

Nothing could be more pleasing.

Driving back in the pink sunset of the desert toward alleged civilization an isolation draped itself around my car.  I powered on through worlds, picked up a hitch hiker who refused to give her name and stopped for dinner where I was the only woman in a crowded restaurant and eventually found myself at the bizarre and magical Miracle Baths Hotel where a suite near the massage closet was available.

Floating under a dark sky in a pool filled with bath water listening to the conversation in Russian nearby and recalling an earlier one about why they don’t want us to know about aliens, the thought came in clearly that traveling like crazy is among the best ways to stay sane.









The Day I Worked out a golf Swing Among the “Forgotten People”

“Awful! You sliced it low and left. What did you get— 65 yards?”

img_1417That’s how I met JR. Those were the first words between us. JR is a homeless man living among the 400 or so tents off highway 57 in Santa Ana, California. He had his golf balls, mostly cheap Wilsons, lined up on tees made of sand and rock whacking away and landing in the ironically named Santa Ana River which had not a drop of water in it on this November day.

“You know so much about golf—come show me something!” JR yelled back at me.

I was there looking for a story. I’d been embedding in homeless camps on and off for the past year to learn about the bottom one percent virtually no one is talking about except in statistical terms. Homelessness is declared a crisis in every major West Coast city and Los Angeles is seriously considering a 100 million dollar outlay to “solve” it.

For the working poor who spend half their income on shelter, some 11 million according to the latest Housing and Urban Development numbers, it doesn’t take much to fall into homelessness.

If there are “Forgotten People” as president-elect Donald Trump claims, then these are those people. The unhoused who’s numbers are rising by 15 and 20% along the West Coast since 2014. They come from the South, Mid-west and rural Northern towns hoping to make a break for themselves. Instead they often find themselves priced out and locked out.

img_1350This camp, one of Southern California’s largest, is post apocalyptic. It’s locked behind a slapdash fence between a long and steady crawl of traffic and the riverbed. Nothing but dirt, gravel and tents, no electricity or bathrooms, but tents for more than a mile.

“First is your stance. Your shoulders aren’t squared over the ball, your hips are turned and you’ve got a happy foot sliding on the right. It’ll never work. Plus, why are you trying to drive with a five iron?” I say to him smiling and pretending to scold.

He lowers his camouflage hat over his eyes surrounded by smile lines and chuckles. “You see a spot for me to set a full bag around here? He points to his camp site set up tucked against the cyclone fencing. “This is my sleeping tent and my food tent. You may not have noticed this isn’t a country club.”

He is smiling. His teeth are hit and miss, his breath smells like a white jug wine and he is charming the flip flops off me. At 61, he stands shirtless in the ruthlessness of a Southern California sun.

“I’m JR from Michigan. Not a bad body for an old guy, don’t you think?” He gives a model like pose and stares out toward the river bed like a general surveying his battle field. He giggles, fondles his beard and asks, “You’re a sight. What are you doing here?”

“Looking for a photo op. and a story. But I can see my real purpose is a golf lesson. Okay, show me your best stance. JR, what the hell is up with your grip?” His hands are tight and he’s choked up on the club.

“Okay. What’s wrong with my grip?”

I pry his hands away and tell him, “Hold it like a bird. Don’t let it fly away but don’t crush it.”

img_1366He works on it. Shifts his feet. I position his shoulders and knees above the ball. “Okay, you’re set up. Keep your eye on where you want the ball to go. Let the club hit the ball. It’s not force but feel. Go!”

JR whiffs it. The ball barely dribbles twenty yards. “You’re wrecking what little game I have!”

I assure him it takes a bucket of balls to get comfortable. But his stance and grip are improved if he stays with it. We both know there are limits to how far he can go with one club and a handful of banged up Wilson seconds.


We both know why it’s unique to see a guy working on his game out here. Surviving day to day, finding food, water and a job are the normal pre-occupations.

He shows me around. We meet artists who sing, make rock sculptures and write poetry. We meet edgy, young guys who have dogs on ropes and a few tweakers toward the back of the camp who mostly day sleep.

“We got all kinds in here. I just talk to everyone and feed them if they’re hungry. It’s us making the best of it. It’s not that bad.”

JR is constant motion running me through the homeless village like a tourist, waving and smiling like I’m the new kid in summer camp. He moves through the groups introducing me to his people. “Julie is a journalist reporting on homelessness . She’s writing about us.” Some people want to talk to me, will let me take a picture, most aren’t too impressed. They’ve seen the reporters come and go. They are still here either way.

JR hit the road five years ago. He only wants to tell me he prays with people and uses what money he has to feed the hungry. He says he’s on foot but that’s the only detail he’ll fill in.

He stops and leans in to tell me something.

“These are the people this country doesn’t work for and more and more are coming every day. When I got here a few months ago there were twenty of us—now it’s four hundred and still growing.”

I ask him why he thinks it’s happening. “ Nine dollar hour jobs land you here. There’s not enough left over for rent and rents are too high anyway. How you going to pay rent when it’s 15 hundred a month and you don’t even make that?”

He says if one thing goes wrong, you get sick or have a car break down then you can’t recover, although people try.

“Why work and still live here? Although lots of people do. I see them getting up early and heading to work. I couldn’t do it.”

JR had been in the military and construction at one point. “This is hard but it’s nothing to compared to what I’ve seen. I’m okay. I do feel sad for the young ones out here. I don’t know how they ever get out of here. There’s really no way.

We make our way back to his tent and driving range. We go back to our golf lesson.
“Okay JR, settle in. Let’s see you breathe into the shot. Hands, shoulders, feet. All good. Okay, give it a whack.”

He winds up, swings easy. The ball pops up straight and lands about 150 yards away. He smiles. I clap.

The sun is going down. “Better get you out of here missy. I’ll walk you to the gate.”

As I leave there is a young family setting up a small outdoor grill. The dog is tied to a stake in the ground and the kids look hungry.

The Secret-Life is Meaningless and that’s Great!

I have good news: Life is meaningless and then you die.

There will be moments where you feel you have discovered your purpose and feel important-even special. There will be moments when life feels so long you just want to lay down and let go. Both are part of this long schlog to no particular finish line.

We are not special. We were not “put here” to do a particular thing.

And here is the very good news: You have permission to do want you want. Here’s the even better news: for most people that means being healthy, happy and helpful.

Almost no one when given the chance to do what they actually want prefers to be a selfish jerk. That’s reserved for trapped people who are not happy.

Do as you wish, make yourself happy, create your own meaning. You have no God given authority or specialness and no debt to repay. You are alive–so do that–live and be happy. Not all the time because that would be boring and shallow–but be happy as much as you can.

Then we get to the hours of study, the volumes of self help books and psychology 101 classes, the years spent in devotion on a church pew or meditation hall to answer the question of how one becomes happy.

I have the answer. You ready?

Be brave, be bold and do what you actually want to do. Don’t make up excuses about duty or obligation or some set of rules which you claim confine you when you are just afraid. Just like me. I sat at a desk for three extra years hunkered down loathing myself out of terror.

Don’t get me wrong-you will make sacrifices for this freedom and happiness. You won’t have the piles of stuff, you may not buy new things, replace your technology every year, live in a giant house or have the kind of job that makes someone else think your cool. In exchange you’ll have just what you need, you won’t throw things away to sit in a garbage dump in someone’s country which doesn’t belong to you and instead of having a job someone thinks sounds cool, you’ll do work you think is cool.

With your extra time of not hanging around pretending to be busy for 9 hours per day doing nonsense that not even your boss cares about, you’ll be able to actually be of service to another person. You will find yourself feeding hungry people, holding babies and cleaning up the environment. You will have less stress because you will be running and hiking and swimming. You will be fit, so caring your older neighbors groceries in the house and staying for tea will be easy and enjoyable. You will stop and actually look and listen to people and discover that unvarnished reality is so much better than you imagined.

You will teach whenever you can, you will nurture relationships, you will stop and smell the flowers and notice the bees on them. You will discover you’re funny and the best part of your day will be doing someone else a favor. You will have time and energy and gratitude.

If you are inspired by a person who broke free and is living the kind of life you want–then go have that life. Be willing to spend the sleepless nights and work a little harder, be willing to hustle up the extra work when all you have is one nice suit and some confidence. Challenge yourself.

Whatever that thing is that you’ve been wanting to do–do it. Be kind, respectful, responsible and humble. Challenge your assumptions and treat your ideas like strangers–question them early and often. If you are supporting a family and think you need a lot of money to support them–make sure that’s what they also want. Children do not need a back yard pool, they need a happy, engaged parent.

So get out there and jump into this beautiful, unwieldy and uncontrollable life and love it up until it’s gone. Love everyone around you and love yourself.

If you’re scared. It’s okay. We all are. We’re all hanging by a thread and hoping. Sometimes it just feels better to let go of that thread and fall into reality.



Swallowed in the belly of a toothless whale and other #realities from the #heavenly #abyss

It’s 5 in the morning and I’m up for the third or fourth time.

Maybe I should just get up and meditate. Yea, right, because that’s working.

Eventually I fall back to sleep and don’t get up until 9.

Now I’m late for nothing in particular but aware that normal people don’t get up at 9, take two hours to get dressed and make their way to an office. On days I don’t make it to the office I also don’t make it to the gym or to anywhere much. I spend time looking at Facebook wishing it was something more like news or work or creativity but instead there is so much nothingness contained in its “feed” that it is vast enough to swallow me like a toothless whale. I am kept in the belly of the dark. I am curious and restless about that big nothing in the way I might ponder the literal ton of plastic widgets in Wal-Mart if I ever went in there. I don’t go because it overwhelms me. I never remember what I thought I needed the minute I enter. All I can see are huge aisles packed institutional floor to warehouse ceiling full of things that make me wonder who does really need them. Does anyone need all this nothing? Am I this sort of nothing too? It’s not as if people are in short supply. Maybe I’m a human widget?

There are days when my entire list of accomplishments are meeting a friend for lunch and remembering to buy toilet paper. I’m not proud of this fact. But I’m also aware that most of what we do, we are making up as we go along. Factories making things we don’t need, advertised by companies who pretend we do need them and bought by people who have decided to be convinced. If all that made up stuff stopped tomorrow, if we all shared what we had and didn’t want what was not necessary, what would happen? Vast amounts of nothing until we figured out how to spend time more wisely than pretending to do real things…at least that’s what I suspect now that I’m closer to shiftless than a “hard working, God fearing American.”

I want to say, maybe scream loudly, I was not always this person! I used to work in a highly competitive field, I rose through the ranks, I raised great kids, was married and even tended a garden and wrote some good articles on the side. I want to say I used to play the game, to pretend it was all so urgent as well or better than most. Then one day the bottom dropped out. I couldn’t look at my closet full of stuff I would never wear and feel attached to it. I couldn’t go to work nine hours per day doing things that could be done without me so I could buy more stuff I didn’t need. It’s dangerous to let yourself start thinking this way. It means your shift in priorities will never quite let you swim up that stream to spawn in the way you used to. It means you may hang out in the shaded, shallow waters watching the clouds go by and feeling really good about it.

I had a meditation teacher tell me people would rather do anything but sit down and shut up, that they would rather die than change. I understand why. Facing our own boredom, our own ambivalence and then trying to find a truly meaningful way of life is beyond difficult. It’s downright anarchy.

Jung taught us to pay attention to our dreams and Freud said we need only two things–love and meaningful work. That sounds simple until you try it. What is meaningful? How do you get work that is actually, truly meaningful? How does one control if they love and are loved in return? If the truth is in our dreams how do we enact that in our waking?

That is when the discovery runs deep that there is so little we control. Our thoughts and our feelings are about all we can harness and they toss us around like an angry bull at a fast gallop. What we pay attention to is also in our control and again  it is dangerous because if we see the futility of the commodifying of pretty much everything from dirt to us and all that’s in between we are likely to be fatigued by it. We may realize that humanity is running on its own and largely by a collective delusion. It, the collective us, seems to act as if all that dashing about making widgets, selling and buying widgets and gathering up as many as we can before we die leads to meaning. What do we do when we discover that collective delusion is not true–at least that it’s no longer true for us?

Once you’ve stepped away from that group thought you step into Terrence McKenna’s abyss. While he may tell you that you land on a feather bed once diving into the abyss I will testify that first you will hit every rock and branch on your way down. Once you land on the feather bed you will fumble in the dark for quite some time before finding others who have also landed there.

But here’s the funniest part to me, in my experience, the ones you find are not who you expect. They look like the pleasant man who works produce, the bus driver, the homeless kid, the friend you’ve had for years, your own child and sometimes they are the minister, teacher and writer you love to read. Sometimes they are the precise people you never liked before.They come from all over, every walk and encompass everyone who is trying to do what you are doing—something meaningful and which brings joy.

At first I thought that meant everyone, period. I assumed I was the last to jump and everyone was in this process and wanted to talk about it. Nope! That is why discernment matters. Then I thought everyone who talked about it had the same understanding. Nope again. Finding meaningful work and love are solitary pursuits only you can do and only you can know about for yourself. And these things are not likely to make you lots of friends, money or prestige. In fact the true pursuit is more likely to make you poor and friendless at least at first, that’s how it worked for me. Let’s hope your different but I cannot promise that.

And I will say something most of you won’t like—you can’t figure it out without doing the dreaded sitting down and shutting up. Only a quiet mind can hear the truth of its inner guidance. If we are outrunning boredom by say, blogging, we cannot literally hear ourselves. We cannot know what we want or need.

Here’s some more semi bad news while I’m at it–when I try to crawl my way out of the abyss and go back to the rat race where I once fit so well and did not question that’s when I wake up multiple times per night so riddled with existential angst that I am more full of holes than whole within myself.

There is no going back.

There is no, “just taking a job and making some cash like I used to,” or “checking out the singles site because maybe there is someone waiting for me,” reality. My reality is sitting, shutting up, doing what my inner guidance suggests and a whole, big, heaping helping of faith that I’m on track. My track seems to cast just enough light for the next step and no delusion that I can know the future or control it. Of course I am also called to be responsible for this day and this minute. It’s frankly rigorous as hell and if I knew what I was getting into I might not have started asking questions. I might have looked in the closet and thought instead, I have too many black things. I’ll spice it up with more pink. But I didn’t do that. I chose instead to meditate, face my delusions, understand that every moment calls for my best and highest effort and sometimes that effort means doing nothing and saying nothing no matter how hard it is. For me–that is very, very hard and I fail at it more often than I succeed.

I want to run my show and your show and the guy who I just met–yea–his show also.

Instead this verse of the Tao Te Ching rings in my ear, “The master does nothing but leaves nothing undone.”  It also says, “The master does her work and forgets it. That is why it lasts forever.” It calls us to set ourselves aside and our need to do, be and feel as if we are at the center of things. We are not.

So I am a widget in the widget aisle making peace with that. I am on a feather bed in the abyss breathing and volunteering to be of service minute to minute and hoping I can love well enough and vast enough to feel it bouncing back. That’s my call. Yours may not look like that and I’m not saying it should so, please, don’t interpret my words as suggestions to quit your jobs or relationships or anything. My only suggestion is spending time in silence every day for twenty minutes and see what happens, if you want to. If you’d rather dash into the store and grab a few widgets, race home in traffic and blast the television while talking and texting–that’s up to you.

Most people would rather die than change. Believe me I understand why. But, sometimes at an unexpected time and place you may find yourself sitting on a rock watching the clouds go sailing by in a sky ocean with geese flying south in perfect formation, you may be able to hear the subtle sound of breeze blowing through wild grass and a grasshopper with perfectly striped legs may land on you and look you in the face and you’ll swear he’s smiling and in that minute which actually lasts for an hour or more you will no longer be you but something less and something more and that deep and troubling dive off the edge of society and culture will really feel, exactly and precisely like a feather bed in a dream which is actually the only reality there is: one love, one reality, one true thing.

If it’s a good day, I’ll be meeting you there.

The Grand Canyon

I have never been to The Grand Canyon. I know some basic facts, its average depth is about 1 mile and it is roughly 277 miles as it meanders along its path. It’s said to be beautiful and have a mysterious power over its visitors. Those who love the canyon are willing to die for it. And The Sierra Club was founded to protect its water.

Even though I have never seen it I feel like The Grand Canyon and love have a lot in common. Sometimes you can be awe struck, have depth of at least a mile and meander through it for hundreds of miles, you can fill its red rock caverns with good intentions and sweet words and still the river runs uninterrupted, its ancient rock structures are unblinking and it changes only in geometric time and only in its own way. You can be willing to die for it and you may form any number of associations in its interest.

Still, both this type of love and the Grand Canyon can only belong to themselves. I am now aware that some love is for observing and some for holding and being returned but either way it is still love.

I have visited the Grand Canyon of love and seen it. I am in reverence of it but like all such grandeur it is a wonder to behold but it is not the same as the essence of abiding, daily love. It is also not what will truly awaken a sleeping soul. Love which turns back to you and brings its water to your thirsty mouth and heart rests in the humility of the truly sacred. It is the small stream which sustains you. Standing in the presence of greatness such as the Grand Canyon may take away your breath but the smile of a friend, the overheard wisdom on a city bus, the quiet observation of a humming bird is what gives you breath–and life.

If you cannot find a way to awaken on the bus you will not wake in Tibet or the Grand Canyon or any holy place because the holy lies within. If you cannot be loved as you are, where you are then you may be looking in the wrong places. Enjoy your big romances and loves but live for the ones which live for you in return.

Each night before sleep when I found myself under a Santa Fe night as a resident, temporary monk at the beautiful Upaya Zen Center so close to the stars I felt their pull, the kind priests would say to us as novitiates, “Time passes swiftly. Do not squander your life.” I am becoming more convinced that tossing all my love in the vastness of a Grand Canyon style life of hungry adventure may be squandering this one precious and wild life I have been given. Seeking seminal experience to confirm the wonder that is our complex and rich world may take my feet too far from my soul. I am a wanderer and poet but it may be time to put away my suitcase and note the poetry which already cries out within me rather than seeking it somewhere else.

So my Grand Canyon love I am giving notice. I have loved you deep and wide but nothing but the desert winds and the wild waters move through you. My restless mind and wondering feet, I am also giving you notice. We will be sitting still now. We, heart, soul, mind, body and magic, will be noticing the love which has been so quietly and sweetly returned in the softness of the earth’s turning. My bare feet can feel the dirt and grass right beneath me and it is all the adventure I can ever absorb in a single lifetime. There are micro movements, planets of reality all waiting to be seen and understood in every wild flower. It’s time I spent more time seeing them.

It is time for small ambition. It’s time for the hugging of children, for the warm meal on a cold night served to one hungry person, for the encouraging praise of one student, for the noticing of the worm as she struggles to cross the saturated sidewalk. Anyone can be in awe of The Grand Canyon but can I see the entire universe in the wildflower outside my door? Anyone can observe the Eagle in flight and praise her but how about the crow on the phone wire?

I have never been to The Grand Canyon and one day I may go but not until I have explored the canyons so much nearer, even those within me. I have loved deep and wide and heard the lonely winds in reply. I think now I will choose to love the most difficult person to cherish–me.