A Lucky Learner

It’s always a special pleasure to attend a “workshop” of some sort – a chance to dust off some skills or discover new ones – but no structured workshop is any better than the unrehearsed seminars presented to me day by day. It’s as if all the hours and minutes are my teachers, and each separate experience creates the classroom. A quiet moment as I make my breakfast could bring new knowledge to brighten my life, and a short walk with my wife around her prospering gardens could give us both a better understanding of ourselves. Even setting out my clothes for the coming day, or shifting my chair as I choose what words to type next, or driving my car in the daylight of a new morning, or simply standing in a store beside bins of apples and pears, can provide opportunities for fresh insights. Teachers are teaching everywhere. The tree that towers over our house holds knowledge I probably need in some way, and people I pass today could tell me stories more instructive and inspiring than textbooks. I’m a lucky learner in a classroom with no walls.        

On Not Redesigning the Grand Canyon

       If a wizard gave me a chance to go back in time and alter or remove some event in my life, I think I would politely decline. As strange as that might sound, it makes sense to me. Somehow, I have a hunch that every single thing that has happened to me was actually picture-perfect and profitable for me at that particular time of my life. Like all of us, I have experienced successes and failures, joys and sorrows, happiness and heartbreak, but over the years, the suspicion has grown in me that it was all, in strange and veiled ways, somehow helpful to me. 

       And sometimes this question pops up: Do I actually think I am smart enough to select the events that should happen in my life? Do I have the kind of wisdom it would take to remove and replace episodes of my life? Can I step back far enough to get the widest possible picture in order to analyze the countless what-if’s and maybe’s? Truly, trusting myself to wisely rearrange events in my past is similar to trusting myself if I decided that, well, maybe the stars in the sky should be shifted around a little, or maybe it would be best if Mystic’s temperatures were in the mid-70’s all year long. 

       Life – including my life and every life  – is too infinitely vast to even be slightly comprehended. Thinking we can understand our past and then redesign it is like thinking we can understand the endless universe itself and redesign it with expertise. 

       No. Instead of changing anything in my past, I would rather look back on it with awe and amazement. To me, the wins and losses, the loves and angers, the sufferings and triumphs of my life – and all of life – are as stunning and breathtaking and bewildering as the Grand Canyon, and who would try to change the Grand Canyon?      


Walt Whitman liked to speak of walking out in nature as ‘sauntering’, and perhaps Delycia and I can call ourselves saunterers, since we love to stride along through the woods or on country roads. Of course, at 78 and 79, we saunter at a relatively slow pace, but in our hearts, we do see ourselves as serious ramblers in love with the countryside. Here’s a short video of Delycia sauntering up the trail at the Oswegatchie Hills Preserve in Niantic, CT:

And here are some scenes from recent walks – in Oswegatchie, and along the Mystic River:


For thousands of years, human beings believed the earth was in charge of the universe and the sun merely one of its satellites, and for thousands of years we have believed that the adult is the only teacher in the classroom and the children the only students—but what if the second belief is as flawed as the first?

I actually pondered this occasionally during my 45 years as a middle school teacher. What if, someday in the future, it becomes indisputably clear that we were wrong in our assessment of how education works? What if it turns out that my young students were actually my co-teachers all along, and I, the certified adult educator, was actually as much a pupil as a teacher? Strange is it sounds, is it any stranger than thinking, back in the Middle Ages, that the sun might actually be the center of the universe and the earth merely a minor satellite? Surely that would have been considered a crazy notion, but perhaps not much crazier than the idea that the students might be among the finest teachers in any classroom. I saw hints of this countless times. My students regularly taught me (and each other) new truths about the literature we read. I recall, for instance, being in class discussions about poems which I thought I thoroughly understood – poems I had loved for decades – and listening quietly as the 8th grade scholars turned the light of their young thoughts on the lines and showed me new doors into the poem. I recall listening with a strange kind of respect and astonishment as 13-year-olds explained a sentence in To Kill a Mockingbird that had always perplexed me, listening to teenagers unveil for me the meaning of a metaphor in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, listening to young scholars explain to their senior-citizen teacher young Pip’s sadness in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Of course, I was the professional educator in my classroom, so I hope I did a considerable amount of teaching, but I wonder who was really the center of the teaching. Was it me with all my years of pedagogic experience and degrees and weighty how-to-teach books and cumbersome theories, or was it the spirited and almost-brand-new people sitting before me in class? Was I really the central source of light in my classes, or did an equally bright light perhaps come from the youngest people in the room, my teenage students, who often seemed to have nothing but new ideas arising inside them.

I recall a famous person saying something about the kingdom of God being found where children are, and it sometimes seemed to me that this kingdom was in Room 2 at my school. 


I was recalling today the old fairy tale about the guy who leaves home for many years to search for treasure, only to return home to find it buried in his own yard. We’ve all done our share of searching for the “treasure” called contentment, and, in the end, don’t we occasionally realize that the contentment we were seeking was somehow beside us all the while? I have a feeling that the present moment – any present moment – is a treasure box of contentment, but sadly, I rarely recognize it. Most moments in a day, I’m off on the great search for ease and satisfaction, perhaps in several more lemon cookies, perhaps in purchases of things I don’t need, perhaps in daydreams about maybe’s and what if’s. Occasionally, though, I do return, sometimes exhausted, to the present moment, which is always right here for me, always loyal, always waiting with its treasures. Every moment is a chest of riches, and it’s not even buried, except to folks like me who have good eyes but sometimes can’t see. 

Yesterday, on our two-hour walk on the Canonchet Preserve trails, we passed countless treasures – simple but spectacular scenes of stones and trees and leaves and assorted forest specialities. It was an old paradise for two old and grateful walkers. Check out the slide-show below.


One day,
a woman awoke to see
that she actually lived in a land
overflowing with a different kind
of affluence, for hovering
around her, she now saw,
were limitless riches,
but in the form of friendliness
and generosity and gentleness.
As far as she could see,
treasures like kindness and
unselfishness were fanned out
and free for the taking.
She asked her husband to help her
gather them, but then they saw
these gifts were flowing freely
into their lives, so they
relaxed and just laughed
and let them arrive.

Our Limitless Powers

Several years ago, when a friend who was suffering with a serious illness told me he didn’t think he had enough patience or calmness to cope with it, a reassuring thought about his situation came to me, one which I shared with him.

It occurred to me that my friend was thinking of patience and calmness as private and personal qualities. He seemed to be thinking of them as material substances which people ‘own’ in different amounts, depending on their personalities. It was as if my friend thought of himself as a physical ‘container’ which contained a very small amount of the substances called ‘patience’ and ‘calmness’. It was obvious that he felt that his allotted amount of these qualities was so limited that he would not be able to deal with the stress and turbulence of his serious illness.

As I thought about it, what I slowly realized, and what I shared with my friend, is that qualities like patience and calmness are not personal and privately owned. It sounds crazy, but it strikes me as an undeniable fact: patience and calmness are totally impersonal, simply because they are not ‘made’ by any one person, don’t ‘belong’ to any one person, and can’t be ‘owned’ by any one person. They are not material ‘things’ that can be accumulated or constructed, held onto, and then used up.

An analogy that came to me is the sky, which is everywhere above us and is freely available for everyone to appreciate and enjoy, just like patience and calmness. No one would think of saying to someone, “I don’t own enough of the sky.” The sky can’t be privately owned, and thus can’t be ‘used up’, and nether can qualities like patience and calmness. The boundless sky, and patience and calmness, are just there, always and for everyone. While my friend was feeling impatient and anxious, all around him qualities like patience and calmness were being appreciated, enjoyed, and expressed – by his friends, by his family members, by millions of strangers, and, of course, by him. My friend, like all of us, was absolutely surrounded by infinite patience and calmness, ready to help. Unfortunately, he, like many of us, couldn’t see it and feel it.

But the truth is – and this is what I shared with him – that no situation can take away any of the patience and calmness and courage and acceptance, etc that always surround us and are part of us. Qualities like these are wider and bigger and more boundless than any one person. They are with us always, like the endless sky. When we’re despondent and desperate, the sky is still there, waiting for us to appreciate and enjoy it, and so are patience and calmness and friendliness and optimism. Truly, my friend couldn’t possibly escape from these qualities, just as he can’t escape from being under the never-ending sky.

The years have passed, but I hope my friend, come what may, can always appreciate and enjoy the power of limitless, free-of-charge qualities like patience and calmness and courage and friendliness and optimism and unselfishness.

And I hope I can too.


Years ago, I read somewhere that writers in medieval times sometimes did not sign their writings because they believed God had actually written them – and I’ve always found a grain of good sense in that approach to authorship. I’m not a religious person in the traditional sense (I don’t believe in the conventional God who rewards some and punishes others), but I do have great respect for the immeasurable force (whatever name it might be given) that surrounds and saturates this universe of which we writers are a part. When I write, words somehow come to rest on my computer screen, but how this happens is a far-reaching mystery to me. To take the easy path and say my brain creates the words is like saying clouds create rain. The actual origins of every raindrop go infinitely far back to the origins of the entire universe, and the origins of the words in my poems and paragraphs are every bit as shrouded in vastness and timelessness. It’s convenient for me to attach my name to my writings, just as it is convenient to say the bulb creates the light in my desk lamp, even though forces far more immense and complex than a single brain or light bulb actually do the creating.  

Here’s an old, happy guy doing – or allowing, or welcoming – his daily writing …

Forever Changing

This morning, as I was watching these clouds carrying themselves across the sky and slowly shifting their shapes,

it occurred to me that I myself am a sort of cloud. I, too, am constantly changing, despite my deceptively fixed appearance. If people had seen me this morning on a trail with my wife in a local nature preserve, they wouldn’t have seen the river of fresh thoughts flowing through me, each one new and special, each one making me someone slightly new. Nor would they have seen the cells in my body being purified or replaced, or the fresh oxygen bringing newness to my lungs, or the blood ferrying freshness to every part of my body. They would have seen a 78-year-old silvery guy staring at a sky full of fine, feathery clouds that first looked like lions, then small ships, then sailing hearts. They wouldn’t have noticed that his life was slightly new each moment. They wouldn’t have seen what was constantly being born inside him. 

Even these stones of long ago, which we passed on our walk this morning,

are steadily – if slowly – shifting and reshaping and adjusting, and, as the years and centuries pass, they will gradually pass away into stony particles and dust and sand. They seemed solid as we passed them today, just as I seem solid as I look at myself in the bathroom mirror. However, stones and I and everything are always participating in the forever dance of change. As I sit at my desk and type these words, what I actually am is shifting and reshaping as fast as the clouds we saw this morning.

(Philip M., 89, Blessings, CT)
He always tries to be a loose cannon
so he can freely shoot cannonballs of kindness 
and make mighty explosions of sympathy. 
He also hopes all hell constantly breaks loose, 
because he wants all sorrows 
to be loosed from the fires 
and find freedom 
so they can blissfully and silently disappear.  
He loves to be always at loose ends,
because if the ends are loose, they are swinging 
and swaying and able to lead him 
to superbly loose beginnings.
He says if you watch him carefully, 
you’ll see he breaks loose almost every second, 
mostly from the past and future, 
always busting out 
and standing gloriously in the present. 
He tells me he loves to hang loose 
from a tree limb in his yard,
hanging and swinging and throwing 
nickels and dimes around on the ground 
because he says change 
always likes to be loose. 
His mom always said he had a screw loose  
and he’s been proud of that for 80+ years, 
and hopes all of his screws are now loose
because then his life can easily shake and sway 
with this loosely flourishing universe.