Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

My cousin Neal.

In Death, Family, Memoir, Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 23, 2018 at 8:00 am

I am an only child. Growing up, my cousins, Neal and Diane, were the closest I had to siblings. Like a lot of families who are spread out, our lives intersected only occasionally after we grew up and had families of our own. Then a few years ago, as Carole and I were traversing the country, we had the opportunity to see more of them and their spouses. For instance, this past October Carole and I stopped and visited while heading east from Colorado. It was a wonderful visit, with much laughter and love. A couple of weeks after we left, Neal was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died last week. I spoke with him shortly after the diagnosis. He was in good spirits and told me that he was accepting the hand he’d been dealt. I wrote him a note shortly after. In his memory, I share it with you below.

__________________________________________

Dear Neal ~ I want to tell you a story. I might have told you this before, so please excuse me if I’m repeating myself.

The story goes back many many years to my 8th birthday. As you know I was born in early October and I remember the day being crisp with a clear-blue sky. You probably remember my best friends, Rick and Jeff Erickson. It was my birthday and I was walking across my backyard to their house when out of nowhere the following question presented itself: If I die tomorrow, would my life have been well spent? Over the years I’ve shared this incident with many people. They often look at me askance and say something like, My what an odd little boy you must have been! Of course you may laugh and nod your head in agreement. Regardless, that moment changed the course of my life. Consequently, I have spent much of my life thinking about what a well-lived life should look like. I want you to know the part you’ve played in helping me answer that question.

When I reflect upon the proper well-lived life I think of a life of principal, a life of patience, and kindness, and steadfastness. It is a modest life, devoted to enduring values. A life built on virtue. When I reflect upon the proper well-lived life, I think of you. You stand tall, in my opinion, as a model of the proper life. You are devoted to family, and have a wide circle of friends. You seem to have herculean patience and tolerance. I’ve never known you to utter a cross or mean-spirited word. You laugh easily. You pursue excellence and have demonstrated the courage of going your own way, following your own vision and scheme of things. Most of us aspire to be a better person. It is a project for us, a work in process. You on the other hand simply are a better person. It seems to come naturally for you. Like all masters, you make something difficult appear easy. You have a grace in that way and I greatly admire it.

One of my hero philosophers said that the length or brevity of a life is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. What is important, however, is how the life is lived. Is it a life devoted to the good, to, “a life of virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness?” You have walked the walk, as they say. That is, you’ve shown me, and those around you, what these attributes look like in real-life practice, and I am forever indebted to you for that.

Thank you and with love,

Your cousin.

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A closing comment. Neal responded to my note as I expected, with quiet modesty, writing, “I’ve always tried to do what mom and dad instilled in us and I guess over time it just became my nature.” I encourage you to write to someone you love and tell them what they mean to you.

 

Consumption Rejected

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on November 23, 2018 at 8:00 am

It is Black Friday, our new national holiday.  Today we are encouraged to attend the Church of Eternal Retail and asked to take communion at the altar of consumption. I was once a dues paying member of this church. I sat in the pew up front, where the big consumers sit, the ones with fancy black cars and multiple properties. We were the ones who just came back from Europe, or some such place, leaving our trail of particulates behind us at 30,000 feet.

Then, slowly, things began to shift. Here’s how that happened.

One day I was walking my property, a large rectangle of many acres. Our house sat at the back, tucked against a state set-aside of several thousand acres. A nature preserve boarded the other side of our estate. We had a pool. And a pool house. You get the picture. As I walked through the woods deer sprinted in front of me. There was a fox den over by the creek. It was idyllic by any measure. But all that was lost on me on this particular morning. Instead my focus was on a tree that had come down in the last storm. And over there, I noticed a patch of poison ivy spreading unabated. And back by the house, I was obsessed by the weeds that returned week after week, despite the garden crew that plucked them every Friday afternoon. Then it hit me: The stuff I owned had somehow come to own me.

It was a simple, yet powerful, awakening. I was not the owner, but the owned, not master but slave. How did this happen? Simply put, success happened, as is measured conventionally. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself. But success can be a seduction. Odysseus had his crew put wax in their ears and ordered them to tie him to the mast. They were sailing past the Sirens and he wanted to hear their song, but not at the cost of casting himself into the ocean, or wreck his ship on the rocks. He was wise. Success was my siren song and I was whistling the tune. I didn’t have the wisdom to tie myself to the mast . Yet walking through the woods that day, I heard the crashing waves and took heed. A little wisdom came to me that morning and things began to change.

That was about ten years ago. It took time to turn the ship, but turn it we did. We got rid of everything–everything!–and purchased a 28’ Airstream trailer. We lived on the road for a year and a half. It was a study in minimalism. Consumption stopped. There was no place to put that new fleece. No reason to look at those new flat screen HD TVs. Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If you seek tranquility, do less…do less, better.” For me, it became, if you seek true freedom, own less, purchase less, have less–and be better for it. Be free.

So, on this day of national consumption, I exercise my new wisdom. I note with gratitude the path I ended and the new path I embarked on. I turn with appreciation to the few things I own and better cherish them for the scarcity. I reject the consumption that marks this day and embrace the eternal and lasting, as I understand it, wisdom, simplicity, and gratitude.

How to Think

In Life, Memoir, Nature, The Examined Life, Wisdom on May 9, 2018 at 8:00 am

Moleskine notes

Three weeks ago I left southern Virginia, west-bound. Today I entered Mountain Time. And I saw a Western Kingbird. I must be heading in the right direction.

* * *

I’ve spent a lot of time, years even, contemplating how to best live. But the real question is not How to Live, but How to Think. Everything follows our thinking, including our happiness.

“A man is as miserable as he things he is.” ~ Seneca.

Conversely, is a person as happy as he or she thinks they are?

* * *

“At the break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: ‘I am getting up for a human being’s work…I am going out to do what I was born for…plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world…do you not want to do the work of a human being…to follow the demands of your own nature?” ~ Marcus Aureluis

* * *

Man in restaurant behind me just returned his water because it had a lemon in it. “Oh my god,” said the waitress. “I’m so sorry. And I totally brag about our water too,” she said.

I must be in California.

* * *

It is late in the afternoon and the sun is low. Lucy is asleep beside the river. I am thinking about something Seneca said: plunging oneself into the totality of the world. What does that mean, I wonder? I don’t know precisely, but it must have something to do with the flight of the terns over the lake this evening. It must have something to do with the way the bark of the willow over there is gnarled. And yes, it must have something to do with that fish who just pierced the surface and the rings that are radiating toward me. Yes, that must be it. The totality of the world.

 

Did you hear the one about Jesus Christ, Moses, and the Zen Master?

In Life, Memoir, Wisdom on November 24, 2017 at 7:56 am

Red Feather Lakes, CO., el 8800

Did you hear the one about Jesus Christ, Moses, and the Zen Master?

Jesus Christ, Moses, and a Zen Master were out on pilgrimage. They were trekking through a remote valley when they came to a river. The bridge they hoped to cross had been washed away in a storm. They stood looking. Jesus shrugged his shoulders and stepped onto the river and walked across. On the other side, he turned and waited. Moses then moved to the river’s edge. He raised and spread his arms wide. The water parted. He walked across and stood next to Jesus, the two of them looking across the river at the Zen Master. The Zen Master shrugged his shoulders, hiked up his robe, took a firm grasp on his staff and waded into the current. He struggled across and eventually joined his friends, Jesus and Moses. They continued on their way.

You have to do the work.

I was recently reminded of this little parable while noticing the warmth of a rising sun on my face. The meditation hall had expansive windows and as the sun crested the mountain ridge to the east, the morning rays poured in. My mind was not particularly stable on this morning, despite seven straight days of meditation. I guess I was too excited to return home. But I took a moment to be satisfied. Like the Zen Master I have no special powers. I simply have to do the work. On this occasion I did what I set out to do. I did the work, for now. There can be great joy in work well done. At least there should be. No work, no eat, they say.

I’d not been to an extended meditation retreat before. As you might expect, at times my joints hurt and many times my mind wandered. But just as often I was disappointed when the bell rang and we had to rise from our cushions. Doing work with great concentration can be extremely satisfying. We too often exist in a state of digression and discursive thinking. We are encouraged to do many things at the same time, applauded for our ability to multitask. But the mind can only do one thing at a time truly. Sure, it can flit about, go here and there, touch this and that, but such a rapid-fire process is many breaths short of concentration, of pure focus. Such a thing takes work. It takes practice. Watch a concert musician, a world-class athlete. It is writ large on their face. They’ve gone to that place. They’ve done the work.

I began meditating in 2004. I’ve gone through periods of consistency, day after day, week after week. I’ve also had many spans of not practicing.  I’m now enjoying in a long run of daily sittings, months strung together, such that the work is becoming the life and vice versa. At some point the musician stops being a student and becomes a pianist. It is then, in that turning, that you become the work you were previously practicing. That itself seems an awakening.

 

 

“I’m having a good day.”

In Family, Memoir, Wisdom on September 6, 2017 at 12:40 pm

Two days ago my two-year old granddaughter said something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. We were walking to the park. Her little hand was wrapped around my extended finger. She was looking straight ahead and it was a sunny afternoon. “I’m having a good day,” she said, apropos of nothing. Imagine that. I’m having a good day, said the little two-year old.

Today it has been raining and I’m out in the woods, up on the Appalachian plateau, the only participant in a two-week self-designed retreat. I’m in my Airstream so it’s not too much of a hardship. Still, it has been pouring from dawn to dusk. But never is a day bad. It might be a day of bad weather, but the day, well, the day itself is always just that, the day. I try not to categorize by labeling it good or bad. It’s part of a practice, to experience a thing without either latching on to it or being put off by it. Just recognize it for what it is directly, without stamping a value on it.

My granddaughter did not say it was a good day. She said she was having a good day. There is a difference. Picasso said it took him a lifetime to draw like a child. I wish to have a day like a child, to have a day that is simply good and call it out as such, like it is the most natural thing in the world. That is a fashion of drawing like a child, to breathe the air and feel the sun and hold someone’s hand and know it is good.

So here I am out in the woods. It is night and I’m listening to a little music, sipping some bourbon, Lucy asleep on my bed while the rain dances on the roof of my little aluminum abode. I took some long walks today, between storms. This afternoon the wind picked up and I noticed a few amber and orange leaves skittering across the field. Fall is on the way, my favorite season. I spent a good amount of the day in meditation and a good amount of the day with my guitar. I’ve been working on Carcassi’s Allegro No. 1 and am getting better at the transition from the third to eighth position. I made myself two simple meals and didn’t watch any TV. I only have 1X data coverage, so I didn’t stream any videos, hell, I couldn’t even load a web page, which is perfect, given my designs for this retreat.

I like going to sleep to the sound rain falling. I have had a good day.

 

The action of no action.

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Travel, Uncategorized, Wisdom on February 11, 2017 at 1:20 pm

We’d been camping in the Laguna Mountains for a few days and had the place to ourselves. We had no internet and no cell coverage. Our days were lazy and we filled them with books, walks, and the occasional nap. Breaking the habit of connectivity is difficult and a thing probably best experienced only when forced on you. Like many habits, it takes time to break the back of it but is worth it if you can manage. I spent a good bit of time photographing the Acorn Woodpecker. Sibley says to “Note clownish face pattern, red crown…” and so on. Clownish indeed, with a bold yellow cheek, a bright eye ring, and a white forehead patch. They were in abundance in the field in front of us, a field of less than a dozen trees, half of which were dead.

I took a biology class in college, the final project of which was to write a report of long-term observation on a patch of ground we’d chosen, a spit of earth three feet square. We had to log so many hours–I don’t recall exactly how many–and share what we observed. The project taught me many things, all of them unexpected, the greatest of which was the power of simply being still. Being still is not a thing we often experience, nor does it warrant much currency in modern society. Yet the simple action of no action can be quite something, boarding on profound even.

There was perhaps an hour before the sun would set behind the ridge. (A fist held to the horizon represents about an hour, two fists between horizon and the sun and you’re looking at about two hours before sunset.) Once the sun disappeared the temperatures dropped and darkness spread across the valley faster than you could out walk it–at lease it seemed that way. I had been standing for perhaps an hour, not moving. I focused on the birds and attempted to better hear the sounds surrounding me. I concentrated on simply being still and observing. Once years ago while meditating in a woods, seated on a stump, a white-tail deer approached, sniffing the air curiously, nostrils flaring. Closer and closer she drew, then, with a shift of wind, she leaped as if suddenly released by gravity and bolted off across a meadow. When you sit in a forest things happen. On this afternoon, camera resting on my tripod in front of me, my hearing turned ever so effortlessly into listening. It is a subtle difference, hearing and listening, and I cannot say when it directly turned. You can’t really pinpoint such a thing. There was a chirping in the tree in front of me. It had been there but I’d not listened to it. I lifted my eyes and from a bore-hole the head of a fledgling appeared. It looked around, up and down, then hopped from the hole to a branch. Suddenly mom and dad woodpecker dropped from the sky screaming. They reprimanded the youngster and ushered him back into the nest. I could only imagine the discussion over dinner that night.

Despite my well documented appreciation of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists, I have never been able to truly nurture an appreciation for things metaphysical, spiritual, or transcendental. Yet, as I grow older and as my stubbornness yields to experience, I find peace in considering such things. There is no conclusion to draw from that, other than the lesson of stillness and the woodpecker.