A Start on Gratitude

Sansaku:  A Start on Gratitude


Although she wouldn’t call it a sermon, Chyako is going to give one on gratitude next month.   As usual, we talk about it and I get over-involved.   I’m an enthusiastic thinker.

I was taking notes, also as usual, and she asked if I would give them to her.   She’s probably asking for more than she wants.   That, by the way, is one of the definitions of symbolic: getting more than what you bargained for.

Gratitude is something I grew up with.   It was fundamental to the grace I was taught to say before dinner. I doubt I felt or understood what it meant, but it was growing like a seed and thankfully it took.

For food and health and happy days, accept our gratitude and praise.   In serving others, Lord may we, repay our debt of love to thee.   Amen

I’ve said it thousands of times, and while my education in gratitude and praise (I often pair the two words) might have started with that grace, I’m grateful that’s not where it stopped.

When I asked about prayer, which I thought was linked, mom said that gratitude was prayer. She was also one who could praise. Gratitude and praise, two of the most potent agents of peace and good-will.

I wish the language of psychotherapy, both the art and science, recognized the role both gratitude and praise play in what we do and how we choose to relate. It’s not something that is educated as consciously as it needs to be, and I’ve often wondered why.

Maybe because I hadn’t gone to graduate school in counseling before I started, I wasn’t as confused.   I worked as the counselor at an alternative boarding school for wild adolescents.   I had to self-educate.

I soon learned that counselors did two things that are very rare in ordinary life.   First of all, rather than thinking so much about what they wanted to say, they did their best to listen in an active way.   And this one, most of all, they valued problems and didn’t try to talk them away.

Of the many definitions I know for counseling, one of my favorites is learning to find problems interesting, and choosing to explore them.   In group, if you’re skilled at disclosing your vulnerabilities, everyone will listen with gratitude and respect. In fact, they’ll praise you.

The hero in the story is the one who turns adversity to advantage.

Yesterday, when Chyako was wondering if gratitude was a good topic, I said, “Absolutely. On top of that, you’ve had a formal gratitude practice for at least seven if not eight years.” “Yeah,” she said, “But do you see me as a grateful person?”   It’s quite a question.

We talked about temperament and disposition, and then she remembered. “It’s not happiness that makes you grateful, it’s gratitude that makes you happy.”   She’ll have twenty minutes to explain that.

We both decided that gratitude was not differentiated or articulated to the degree it needed.   It’s like having one word for love.

She thought that gratitude could easily slip into should and guilt, but that wasn’t what it meant.   Too often the early graces I heard at meals tipped in that direction, “We should be grateful for this food we eat.” That’s a yes, but; it misses the mark.

I started thinking about gratitude east and west.   I don’t even know the word for gratitude in Japanese, although I have often heard them praise.   They have taken praise of beauty, for instance, to an art.   And I know this comes from gratitude.

But this is just a start.









Born With a Twisted Foot

Sansaku: Born With a Twisted Foot


I didn’t know that a party from the National Geographic was following me down a canyon in Utah. I’d been walking barefoot and alone for almost fifty miles when they finally caught up to me.   I was under an overhang, and not wearing my glasses.

I hoped they wouldn’t see me, but they weren’t blind.

I heard them approach up the slickrock and one of them said, “I think that’s him.”   Now, even I could see them, and one of them asked, “Can I look at your feet?”   I hadn’t expected that, but showed him.

He said, “We’ve been talking about your tracks since the day we first noticed them.   We had any number of theories, but I can see we were wrong.   Would you mind if I took some photos?”

My feet are actually a little shy and can sweat on the spot.   I could feel the drops forming, and told them.

They stayed for lunch and we talked about the canyon and they asked me, as everyone did, where I was going.   I wanted to say, “Here.” That was the truth but not the one they wanted.   “I’ll probably wander down the canyon and then back up.”   They understood that.

Seeing my feet, they wanted to know why I hiked barefoot.   It’s a story that’s hard to tell and takes some time.   It’s easier just to say, “I’m weird.”   Which is true.

I was born with a twisted foot. It’s an essential piece to my personality puzzle.   And while the club foot was mostly corrected by surgery, it was both shorter and wider than the other more perfect foot.   But I was proud of my scars, and didn’t hide them as a child.   They marked me as different and I had an early sense of being an individual.

I didn’t like the fact I had to wear orthopedic shoes, and took them off as soon as I could.   I ran much faster barefoot.   As I got older, I had to wear shoes, but they usually hurt.   And while I have a high threshold for pain, I’d rather feel the soft sweet earth.

The only varsity sport I played in high school was golf, and having always been a football player, I didn’t take it all that seriously.   I’d had a knee operation, because of football, and the doctor told me, “Take up golf. Your body will thank you.”   I didn’t expect to make the team.

Our coach was the speech teacher, and for two years I rode next to him in the Cadillac sedan he drove.   The top three golfers rode in the back, while I was forced as number four to ride up front with Wally.   We argued.   The team called me the Professor because of it.

I wasn’t like them and we all knew it.   I didn’t grow up at the country club, and I was unconventional in a conventional sport.   I played barefoot and didn’t mind losing.   I think this marked me.

I had golf shoes, the ones with tassels, and Wally insisted I wear them on the first hole and the last.   Proper clothing is a must in golf. But the shoes hurt my feet.   I had also quit cutting my hair.   That was more than Wally could stand.   You’d have thought I defected to Russia.   That’s what the coach declared.   “Colin’s a communist.”

So I went to the library at CU, where my mother worked, and checked out a book on radical economics.   He was right.   I’m far to the left, and was fixing to go even further.


A Creative Conflict

Sansaku:  A Creative Conflict


If I can’t help from standing out, it’s my nature; I don’t like the spotlight either and hate notoriety.   I would just as soon go unnoticed as not.   I’m well aware of the Japanese proverb that warns against being a nail that sticks out.   I’ve been hammered on since childhood.

And while I like to please and accommodate, there’s a side that needs to be free.   I’m cursed and blessed with a two-sided temperament.

I’m highly extraverted, which gets me in all sorts of trouble, and since I’m also deeply introverted, it bothers me tremendously.   It’s a good recipe for keeping a journal and, professionally, has been extremely useful.  I suffer from both sides.

My father was addicted to alcohol and I asked him why he didn’t use pot.   He said that pot made him go inward, and he needed no help in that direction. But alcohol allowed him to get outside himself, to greet others, and share with them.

I’m not sure this explained the addiction, but I knew after that I was not like him.   I love going inside, and can’t wait to go out.   My trouble, which isn’t addiction, is the conflict this causes.

I’d rather say yes than no, but as soon as I do, the other side wants to be heard. It keeps me close to the fence line. The coyote in me doesn’t like to be caught. And when I am, I need a way out.

My journal is full of these dramas. I’m sensitive to conflict and try to avoid, but I need to be true and my inner self demands it.  My dreams have made this clear.   It’s a path of development.

The first Alan Watts book I read was Psychotherapy East and West, and I suppose it represented a tipping point in my development as a person. “When a man no longer confuses himself with the definition of himself that others have given him, he is at once universal and unique.”

He had written earlier about social conventions and how we confuse them with reality.   It was something I had to think about, and I copied the quote down a number of times.

I ran across it the other day and was interested in what I wrote. It’s that old dilemma, “Are you going to be loved or true to yourself?”   And if you can feel what the other person wants and it’s not what you’d choose, prepare for disappointment.   It’s a psychology I’ve studied.

Personality type plays into this, and feelers need to be careful they don’t exhaust themselves by saying yes.   If they do, the inferior sensation, which wants to play, will give them endless grief.

I told a group of friends last night, that while I loved to counsel, the afternoons were hard on me.   I had to suppress yawns and wanted to nap. I need to be engaged in my work.

The problem dissolved once I learned to leave the office when I felt that way. There’s a rim trail around the campus and above the town.   I now looked forward to afternoons and went walking with my clients.

I was probably having too much fun and one of the presidents back then, kept running into me.   I would try to avoid but he was uncanny in his ability to spot me.   He always said the same thing.

“So we haven’t gotten rid of you, yet.”   It’s an odd greeting, but I could count on him to say it. “Nice to see you, too.”   But I knew he liked me, even if it caused him some discomfort.   I was always out of uniform.

Before he left and the last time I saw him, he said, “I’ll miss you.”









A Thin Disguise

Sansaku:  A Thin Disguise


I’ve been thinking about a good friend’s daughter, who’s headed off to college tomorrow.   We relate to others through our own experience, and I’m remembering mine.   I was choosing to be me.

I’d gone through a couple of earlier transformations in my identity and personality.   I’d been sports obsessed in grade school and admired those who were strong and physically gifted.   I wanted to be like them.

My brother, who was kind and smart, was a better role model, but I hadn’t learned to want that, yet.

I changed in junior high, and became more social.   Even the sports I played were focused on how I fit in. I needed to belong, and I picked what I thought were the popular kids.

But something else was growing.   I liked to read and had learned the art of solitude from my step-dad, who took me with him into the mountains each summer.   I wasn’t like him in the least, but I’ll be forever grateful for the guidance.

There was group of students at Boulder High, who hung out behind the art building.   I watched them smoking by the bridge, and discovered I was leaning in that direction.   They weren’t afraid to stand out, and I found the girls far more interesting.   Over the course of my senior year I began to look like them.   I wore wire-rimmed glasses and grew my hair long.   I developed my own style of clothes.

I took advantage of the move to CSU and Fort Collins, which was a decade behind in terms of the counter culture.   It was very easy to find my people, and they found me.   It’s one of those open secrets, how we advertise ourselves.

The art gang understood the art of expression, and since they had separated from the main herd, would talk about themselves in ways the others wouldn’t.   Artists hang their inner lives out, so to speak, and are more comfortable with vulnerability.   I liked that they would talk about their failures and mistakes.   It was the kind of intimacy I liked.

They didn’t talk about what they were supposed to say, they didn’t wear what they were supposed to wear.   And the more time I spent with them, the more I realized I had always been like that.

If you wanted me to cross the street, tell me not to.   It wasn’t that I disobeyed, I wanted to find out for myself.   If I had learned how to practice in sports, I learned how to experiment from the artists.   They didn’t just do the same thing in the same way a hundred times, they did the same thing a hundred different ways.

When I moved into the dorm, my side of the room was distinctly different.   I wasn’t surprised he didn’t like me.   In fact, after looking at my shelf full of books and hearing the classical guitar that was playing on my stereo, he said, “I’ve got a fucking Beethoven for a roommate.”

He told the whole floor about it, and somehow they thought my name was actually Beethoven.   I’ve probably written about this.   He helped advertise who I was and my people found me fast.   I did my best to live up to the name.   No one knew it was Smith.

When I went to work at the college, a similar thing happened.   I wore a thin disguise.

It’s not that I like standing out, I’m just not afraid.   I catch a lot shit because of the way I look and how I choose to behave.   It’s a theme I’m going to develop and has helped to develop me.


Critical Points

Sansaku: Critical Points


I was at a luncheon and sitting next to a good friend and one of the fussiest men on campus.   The guy was a complete stickler and reminded me of my step-dad.   Despite my long hair and his red-necked philosophy, we got along just fine.

Nobody understood and I didn’t tell. His grand-daughter had been suicidal and he called me one night.   I spent the next few weeks helping her, and he never forgot.   It was a debt of the very best kind.

Something else had happened that swayed him in my direction.   We used to have a college picnic at the beginning of the year and played softball. One of my friends mentioned, jokingly, to him, that I had been a professional ball player earlier in my career and didn’t want anyone to know.  Somehow, he believed this.

Anyway, when we were being served, one of the waiters dropped an entire bowl of salsa on him and my friend.   I knew she could handle it without any problems, but looking at him and his dark blue suit, now dripping red, was a different kettle of fish.   He looked like he was frying them.

I was actually scared for the server, a student, who didn’t know what to do and couldn’t even talk.   It was dripping with tension and suspense.   Anything could happen, but I expected his usual outburst.

He counted silently to ten, still frying mad, then looked at me.   Something woke up in him and he turned to the mortified kid and said, “Do you have any chips?”

I was stunned. It was brilliant and I must have told the story in front of him two dozen times.   We were friends long after he retired.   I saw him just before he died, and once again he thanked me for what I’d done. “You’re the only god-damn hippie who’s any good.”

Something like that happened to me when I was still at Timberline.   The friend of a friend brought her two-year old over to my cabin for a visit.   I had that feeling something was going to break and did a quick review.   It didn’t look good.

When she asked for a cup of water, she didn’t wait for me. There were two blue cups on the shelf, and she grabbed one.   She didn’t know they were sacred.   My dad had given them to me.   We’d used them to drink some Christian Brothers brandy.   It had been the last time I saw him alive.   He’d made fun of the brand.

I told her, “Be careful, I’d rather he used a different cup.”   But she wasn’t worried and handed him the cup, which he almost immediately dropped and broke.   She was horrified.

My father never did what you’d expect, and I thought about him at this moment.   It was almost like I watched him and he smiled.

I told her, “Come with me.”   And I picked up the other blue cup off of the shelf.   I’d given her little boy another glass of water.   And I gathered up the broken pieces.

Outside, I put the other one on the ground, took a rock, and broke it. I was very ceremonial in doing this and then buried the two of them together.

I said, “I’m grateful.   Now I’ll never forget.”




Outside the Lines

Sansaku: Outside the Lines


Wendell had been given the title, El Senor Perezoso, on a sojourn in Costa Rica.   He was fond of being called Mr. Sloth and promptly named his wife the mosquito.   It was characteristic of his humor.   He didn’t really mean he was irritated by the way she buzzed around, he was proud of her artistic industry, but bums like to tease workers.

When I lived in Mexico, the word we used was flojo. It wasn’t really a compliment, but I didn’t feel that way and quickly appropriated the term.   Wendell and I are both flojo, Mary Ellen is not.

She’d done a slide show of Wendell’s life and it was going around in circles.   It was a collage of carefully sculpted images.   I saw it twice.

When my nephew was to be married at the posh Bel Air Hotel, I had to brag. I knew they knew it. Wendell talked about a date with Mary Ellen. He had taken her there when he could not afford to go.   “She meant that much to me.”   The last time he’d been there, Mitchell was playing.   He didn’t have to say.   I watched his eyes go moist.

Mary Ellen, in her understated way, said she thought she might have some art in the hotel.   I had no idea what to expect.

When we arrived, both Hillary Clinton and Michael Eisner, the Disney CEO, were staying there. The place is surprisingly intimate. It felt like a tropical paradise with quaint cottages, not an LA hotel.   Above the front desk in the lobby was a large collage.   It was obviously hers.

It wasn’t one of those works of art you could easily describe or understand.   The two women at the desk had theories about its history and they weren’t even close.

Sometimes a bird or mammal looks like the place it comes from.   When I say I grew up in Boulder during the sixties, people often say, “That explains it.”   Mary Ellen and Wendell are southern California at its best.   They even look the part.

Their old friend, Julie, spoke after Tom at the ceremony.

“It was 1971, and the two of them were the cutting edge of that era.   I still had a foot in the fifties.   And then they took me to hear Gloria Steinem speak, and my marriage began to crumble.”

“I don’t know how, but they were able to usher me into their way of experiencing the world.   Wendell had asked me to help with his chaotic creative writing class.   The stories those kids wrote were phenomenal, and because of his tenderness with them, it led straight to education.”

“I had learned to use a red pencil, but he taught me there were no mistakes in high school creative writing classes.   And where I stayed in the lines, he didn’t even see them.   No wonder the kids adored him.”

“I learned the same thing from Mary Ellen, and they made me feel smart. I didn’t know I was smart back then, but because of them, I guess I am.”

“He talked about his wife and kids so much it could be extremely annoying.   But he was a blessed man who loved his wife with great respect and raised two boys in a most thoughtful way.”

Julie confessed she had to distance herself after he became so vulnerable.   “I couldn’t listen to him cry as he faced this stage of life and the many medical challenges. But I liked how he said good-bye.”

“I’ve been waiting for a dream, but it just came on Tuesday.   He was wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.   Mary Ellen said he wasn’t dressed appropriately, but he didn’t care and gave me a spectacular hug.”







Sansaku:  Timeless


Tom was the lead-off speaker at Wendell’s wake, and probably only a handful of us knew what an all-star he was.   He looks like Clark Kent, and it’s a perfect disguise.

One time, after we learned Tom had won two Emmy awards for his journalism, Wendell asked him, “Why didn’t you tell us?”   Tom actually said, “They give them to everyone.”

Wendell turned to me and said in his inimitable way, “I don’t have an Emmy. Do you have one, Colin?”

Tom told the story of Wendell’s life as only a highly skilled reporter knows how.   “He was a child of the depression and was born into a struggling family on the wrong side of the tracks.”

“He was always a good athlete, and since Wendell never exaggerated, you had to know everything he said was true.”

“And then he crossed the tracks and met Mary Ellen on a blind date.   When she opened the door, all she could think was, ‘What a big nose, don’t stare.’ All he could think was, ‘Wow,’ he wanted to stare.”

He took his time with the story, as a good story deserves.   He knew how to add that touch of color. “When the kids hated school he took a leave from teaching and they spent two years in Europe. Wendell said he could rewrite the book, Europe on Ten Dollars a Day, and do it on five. “He could throw nickels around like man-hole covers.”

“If you played golf with Wendell, you had to play happy to play well.   He didn’t suffer golf fools lightly.”   I liked how Tom didn’t avoid the character flaws that made the man real and even better because of them.

“When the cascade of ailments began, we would try to cheer him up.”   Tom stops after saying this, his voice cracks. “He always let you know how he felt about you. I never left after a visit where he didn’t thank me and tell me how much I meant to him.   And then he was free.”

Tom had been at the French Open when it happened.   Clark Kent knows how to fly and gets around.

Michael was the last speaker to tee off, and used a golf metaphor. “I’m reminded of another of Wendell’s one-liners. If everyone was in with his putt or had made a good drive, he said, ‘Only you can screw it up now.’   That’s how I’m feeling.”

Michael made the putt and hit a perfect drive.   But Mitchell surprised me by singing three last and timeless songs. Not only Wendell but all the ancestors gathered around.

When Mitchell started to play the song, he said, “The intro isn’t this long. I’m emotional.   It’s the song I played when my parents walked into a club I was playing. It’s always been a favorite.”

The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay. But our love is here to stay.

The other two songs were every bit as meaningful, and I can see I’ll be writing about this tomorrow.   You know the saying, “When you’re in a hurry, go slow, take the long way.” There’s still Julie and Mary Ellen.

The last song was one Wendell had talked about, right before he died.   “It was a final musical moment,” Mitchell said. “And since I just learned it, I might find myself in the wrong melody.” No way. It was timeless.

He wanted his father to know, no matter what, Things I should have said and done, I didn’t take the time. But you were always on my mind. You were always on my mind.