Sunday, January 10, 2016

Saying Goodbye to a Purgatorial Year - Part III

[concluded from Parts I, II]

In many ways, the next chapter of my life began when I was accepted into the Living School of Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. Ironically, the school is a mixed mode presentation with intensive week-long on-site sessions in the fall and the spring and online readings, video lectures and discussions in between. In addition, our entering cohort of 160 students was broken into groups of 10. Our group, which has dubbed ourselves “My People,” meets by video conferencing about every six weeks to check in and discuss our process.

But the reading, lectures and discussions are only a part of this process. We are asked to engage in daily meditation, preferably using the Centering Prayer which arose out of the thought of Thomas Merton. The idea is that through contemplation we connect to our true selves, rooted in the G_d who created us, and from that beginning place then we move to action in the world around us to serve the good creation to which we are all connected.

Not unlike so many of my former students, while I have found the material very interesting, I have found it difficult to keep pace with the schedule without the human contact and rhythm of live classes. There is a whole dimension of engagement that is simply lost in online settings. Many of us simply need human companionship to learn.  

I also have found it difficult to consistently engage in contemplative prayer. On a good day I manage to settle myself, sit for the 20 minutes and be present with the divine. Other days, I have to seek non-dual consciousness in my garden as I pull weeds, clip bushes and plant avocado seeds, hands and bare feet blending into damp earth and vegetation. I also seek the divine in my daily walk around Lake Underhill where I take time to stop and watch the wading birds, the migrating flocks, the cypress trees with their aprons of knees rising from the muck and the homeless people who sometimes sleep along the banks of the lake. Amidst all the craziness we endure each day, it is still a beautiful world.

So, depending on how you define contemplation, I guess I’m doing OK. Overall, I give myself a C on this process. I’m taking the ideas seriously and thinking about them even as I am about three weeks behind in my reading and viewing. I am engaging the group process well. And if you look at the whole picture of my contemplative process, perhaps I’m doing OK there as well. But I do know I am growing.

Outside my commitments to the Living School, life in retirement has meant slowing down. I have spent hours sifting and sorting through the boxes of materials I brought home from work and others which have sat untouched since we moved them from storage back into our rebuilt home in 2008 four years after Hurricane Charley destroyed it. It has been an emotional process going through boxes of letters and photographs, cards from loved ones who have died, buttons and badges from conferences once thought to be earth-shattering only to find myself throwing their notes and materials into the recycle bin. I find myself smiling, laughing, feeling my stomach clench, weeping, sometimes in rapid order.

Life reviews are never easy. 

I am just beginning the process of weeding out and organizing the born-again garage that now serves as my library. Books are stacked by topic on the floor with boxes of books I no longer need in my car enroute to libraries which will actually take them, bookstores which might sell them or collection stations in shopping center parking lots which promise to “recycle” them. (I don't want to think too long about that...)

My plan is to organize my books and the materials I have retained into a working order so that I may actually begin writing the books I’ve long promised myself I would write. I long ago realized that I have led a rather unusual life and have some insights that many other people simply may not have. 

Perhaps there is some wisdom there that can be shared with those who are willing to consider it. I’ll never know unless I try.

I hope to write about the concerns that have absorbed my attention over my lifetime – education, spirituality, and what it means to be human in specific context of America at the 21st CE. I hope to write about the unusual life experiences I have had growing up in a small town, teaching school in yet another small town and my observations from many visits to Latin America. I suspect writing will be an important part of the next stage of my life.

I am grateful that my public scholarship endeavors are able to continue with gigs at the Orange County Library System and the Florida Humanities Council. These are important lifelines to a public life I once so happily led which allow me to periodically emerge from my voluntary isolation in this sabbatical year.

What will happen after this year is not clear to me. I sense that something new and challenging looms on the horizon but has not made itself clear yet. Though I grow anxious to know what lies ahead, increasingly I am taken back to my experience of August 1991, driving across the brilliant, sunny wheat fields of South Dakota enroute to seminary in California, with no guarantee of ordination and no idea of where all this might be going, earnestly praying to G-d to “Tell me what this is all about. I have to know.” The answer then, as now, was always couched in a chuckle: “If I told you, you might not do it.” And, trust me, knowing what I know now, that was probably true.

I followed him, bearing my brow like one whose thoughts have weighed him down, who bends as if he were the semiarch that forms a bridge, and then I heard: “Draw near; the pass is here,” said in a manner so benign and gentle, as in our mortal land, one cannot hear. And I: “What makes me move with such misgiving is a new vision: it has so beguiled me that I cannot relinquish thoughts of it.” Now go your way: I’d not have you stop longer… - Purgatorio Canto 19

Retirement has meant time to engage what I love – my home full of books and art from around the world, the beautiful jungle garden surrounding our home and shielding this temporarily anti-social and exhausted ex-teacher from the world. 

It has meant the wonderful company of Oscar, the dachshund who loves to meditate with his Daddy; Daisy, the beagle who lies at my feet as I write these missives; Romero, the black cat who thinks he’s actually a panther; Magdalena, my grey tabby, who is the house drama queen; and Frida, my little orange tabby, a once-feral cat who has become her Daddy’s little golden dew drop, one of the gifts I most cherish from my time at the university where she had been abandoned. 

It has meant time to spend with my Dad who turns 89 in March. He is holding his own despite his loneliness without my mother and the occasional health problems that make his walking increasingly difficult. I find myself cherishing the time I spend at our homestead which he, my brother and I carved out a thicket 45 years ago, woods which even in rural Sumter County, are now beginning to give way to shopping centers and tract housing. I am always amazed to see the stars in the night skies there, stars I knew on a first name basis during my childhood, the same stars that are largely invisible in the downtown core of an urban area of 2.5 million where we live.

It has also meant time to spend with my siblings and their families. My nephews and one niece are growing up, the youngest now 15. My brother, David, also finds himself at a turning point in life as his wife, Rose, struggles with chronic illness and he seeks new employment after his local computer services company closed their Orlando operations. My sister, Carole, and her fiancĂ©, Gene are doing well, and Carole continues to excel in her leadership of the Pace School in Ocala.

Though my circle of local friends has greatly dwindled over these last few years through deaths and people moving away, I am still able to spend time with people whose friendships are dear to me. Many of those friendships center around my parish life at St. Richards Episcopal which continues to amaze me with the many beautiful souls in its diverse congregation and the opportunities our lives together continually provide to grow individually and ultimately to change the world together.

Sam Coverston 88th Birthday, Ruby Tuesday, Orlando

Perhaps the greatest joy of retirement has proven to be the increased time I have to spend with this man with whom I take these yearly walks down the beach, my life partner of now 42 years and legal husband of five years. It’s amazing what a sudden loss of ongoing extraneous stress can do for a relationship. It was largely Andy’s encouragement that tipped the balance in favor of my retirement even as he continues to enjoy his work at Valencia College where he is valued and appreciated currently planning to remain employed until 2019.

We find ourselves eating at home a lot more these days. I enjoy cooking our dinners and eating together accompanied only by our 
menagerie, able to look out our windows to the lush vegetation of the garden outside. It is a joy to have time to take walks around our lake together, to talk about what is going on in our lives.


One of the results of time to reflect is the recognition of the many things for which I am grateful. Truth be told, I have never lived a particularly ordinary life. I have had opportunities to go and see things few people will ever have. I have had chances to learn and grow that have left me with insights that few people will ever have the chance to develop. And despite the difficulties that unusual souls like my own confront in the world they encounter, I have had the gift of loving people around me from my very beginnings. I have a loving, supportive family that is hardly a given for anyone, a husband without whose love and support I could not have become who I am and a wealth of beloved friends who love me despite my craziness and call me on my shit when I go off the rails.

As I often tell myself these days, I am a very fortunate man. And I take none of that for granted.

The same numerology site that confirmed the purgatorial year I was experiencing has predicted that, like the year I have personally just stumbled through, the coming year for our world in 2016 also adds up to a nine year: a year of completion, unraveling, and letting go of the old to make space for change. I sense that our world is on the threshold of enormous change.

I do not expect that change to occur gently or gradually. I believe our country and our world will look very different from its appearance today in a very few years. Standing at the brink of Purgatory, our path ahead can look very daunting. 

For those of you who have made it all the way through this rambling recounting of the past year, I thank you. If you have any thoughts about any of the ideas I have raised here, I’d love to hear from you. I strongly hope that our paths will cross this year. But, one of the bitter lessons I learned this past year is that we are not guaranteed anything in the coming year as the recent death of my dear friend, Ron Talley, readily demonstrates.

Ron was one of the sweetest human beings I have ever known. I always adored him from our days working together at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. His indefatigable passion for life was inspiring and contagious. I had not seen him in 25 years and had just located him on Facebook. He had come home from Boston to deal with some health concerns.

I had to beg off the invitation to his 58th birthday celebration as I recovered from my skin cancer surgery. When he failed to respond to my invitation to have coffee the following week I went to his site to check in with him. There I found the notice of his memorial service. As big and dear a heart as Ron had, it sadly proved unable to keep him alive for more than 58 years.

Life is not a given. Last year, the awareness of increasingly fewer days ahead of me than behind me drove me to leave a job that had taken the thing I loved most in the world and making it a source of my greatest misery. But, in the wake of that meltdown, it now inspires me to be open to what is yet to come, ready to answer whatever new calling my life may provide me. I await that calling with bated breath.

Loving relationships are not a given, either. 
One of the many ways I have realized that I enjoy what Buddhists call a fortunate birth is the love I have felt from my family and my many friends over the years. Even if our paths do not cross this coming year, please know that I cherish the life we have held in common. I am the person I have become because of people like you and for that, I thank you.

May the coming year be good to you and all the many lives you will touch this year. May you weather the coming year of completion, unraveling, and letting go with gratitude and aplomb. Blessings to you and those you love from all the folks at the New Coverleigh Zoological Gardens in the heart of Orlando, Florida.  

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)



Sally LeSchofs said...

Congratulations on your retirement, Harry. We have been retired for 2.5 years now, and are enjoying traveling and getting things done at home. I hope you find the peace and healing you need after what the university did to you. I look forward to reading the books you are going to write, and having them autographed by the author! We will be in Florida in September, and hope we can get together then. Love to both of you, (and your menagerie)and keep writing!
Sally & John

Stacy said...

I really look forward to reading what you write l, whether on this blog or on paper. Thank you for sharing.