My Lesson from Nature

I don’t pay much attention to news outlets online, but last night I made the mistake of scrolling  through the suggested news clips that YouTube recommended on the COVID crisis and I quickly clicked the X to close the app.  I immediately felt my stress level rise.  Among the suggestions, there was enough confusion just from the headlines of each link alone to make my head hurt.  The opinions (which seems to be what news has become) were polarized and extreme.  It felt like it didn’t matter what the real facts were.  It felt like I was being given a choice to land on whichever topic fit my outrage.  I didn’t bite and swam off in the other direction.

Freedom Apple, weeks after pruning.
Freedom Apple, a few weeks after pruning.

Instead of fueling anger, I allow my attention to be drawn more toward people who have been adversely affected by this pandemic, specifically small business owners.  Because I was one for a time and I know the pressure these folks feel.  If I was still operating in March 2020, I would be facing the exact same dilemma as they are.  I feel their pain.  Mine just happened to start 3 years earlier, under different circumstances. But the end result is still the tie that binds.

In crisis, it is very easy to lose sight of what is true in lieu of all the other noises and voices that surround. This is why I was especially grateful for The Admiral to come alongside and remind me of the things to which I need to pay attention.

Through the major losses of the last 3 years, I knew I needed to find a way to drown out the external cacophony of negativity that sought to deafen my ears from Truth. I read some books and listened to podcasts, but none of that information was enough on its own.  I had to come to a point where I had to resolve what I believed about my circumstances, not what someone else was telling me.  Inspiration doesn’t expand me by just letting someone else do the breathing for me. My heart had to eventually take over and start beating again on its own, or else I was not going to sustain life within.

I began to gain clarity when I found a word picture that made sense to me. I’ve tended a garden for nearly 30 years. Every year I have engaged in a singular act at the beginning of each season.  At times the result looks drastic and extreme, but I’ve never gone wrong with this practice.

The word is pruning.

New growth on forsythia 3 weeks after hard pruning.
New growth on forsythia 3 weeks after hard pruning.

Pruning is the act of removing, cutting and discarding certain branches, limbs and vines that stand in the way of productive and fruitful growth.  It’s always done at the beginning of the season, right before new growth is ready to bourgeon.

When pruning is over, it can appear quite drastic, like I was angry one day and decided impulsively to take that anger out on the plant. But pruning is always intentional by the gardener, well thought out ahead of time because pruning has purpose.  It has to be done, and done at a certain time so that the plant can flourish in the entire upcoming season.

I do this every year to my apple trees, but did something even more drastic to two of them.  After the snowstorm of 1997, the one that split all three of my beautiful Hawthorn trees down to the bottom of the trunk, I replaced them with apple trees, hoping to have my own fruit to enjoy from my own backyard.  

But they never bore.  Between the squirrels, the apple maggots and cedar apple rust, I never ate one apple off those two trees.  So after 20 years of trying, I did what any good nursery person would do. I cut them down.  They were not productive.  They required my energy that gave me nothing in return.

What's left of the Braeburn apple tree.
What’s left of the Braeburn apple tree.

In some years, pruning means more than a trim.  It requires full removal in order to make way for something new.

This was the picture that made sense to me through all the loss I had experienced.  I had to see it as an act of pruning.  If I was to ever regain Hope, I knew deep inside I would need to see my circumstances in the light of something good, something that will make my future hopeful again.  

I’m starting to grow again, just like the honeysuckle along my south fence. It’s a hedge that was planted in 1962 when the house was built. Even though I lop off ⅔ of its limbs every other year, the hedge is still growing and providing color to my urban sanctuary.  The pain of cutting back is only for a short moment.  Growth is coming, Fruit will bear. A new harvest awaits me.

Why You Like Baking Sourdough Bread

What’s the deal with sourdough bread? Why are so many people baking it?  It makes some mad because they can’t find flour.  But from my vantage point, folks are having a lot of fun with it. And I’m doing my part to fuel the fire.  I should have kept count, but I’ve given away at least 50 quart containers of my sourdough starter in the last 6 weeks. Along the way I’ve received pictures of the finished products from recipients. It is fun to see all the bread boules, English muffins and pizza that are being crafted.

So what’s up with this surge of interest in sourdough bread?

Behind the obvious answer of being stuck at home with nothing to do and it seemed like a good idea, I think there is a more important discovery people are making.

You’re creating again, not just consuming.

And that feels right, especially to your kids.

Cooking is one of our most fundamental acts of creation.  Animals don’t cook. Humans do.  I believe it reflects more than a function of survival.  I believe it shows our capacity to create. And as is the same with any form of creating, there is joy in the end result.

That joy involves consuming the creation.  The artist doesn’t paint only to leave the canvas in a closet.  The musician doesn’t compose only to never allow the piece to be heard. And the cook doesn’t make food only to dump it in the trash.  All three want their creation to be enjoyed, consumed, taken in and nourished by another.

By learning to bake a loaf of bread, you’re engaging that role of creator.  You’re not just consuming and letting someone else do the creating.  You feel the joy of discovery and learning.  You sense the delight in watching the raw ingredients that your hands mixed into a shaggy ball and watching it transform into a loaf of bread that looks beautiful and fills the house with a lofty aroma that rivals any Yankee candle.

You see the delight in the eyes of your kids because they know this instinctively. Kids love to create and haven’t been fully immersed into a life of consumption.. Getting them involved in cooking at a young age will engage their inner creator.  This will be a gift they will remember and hopefully carry with them for the rest of their lives.

During this shelter-at-home spell, I spend most of my day in acts of creation,. I bake, make music and write. Most recently, the chief act of my creating is my yard. I love fashioning beauty through plants and landscape. But at the end of the day there is an incomplete feeling. I can’t invite people over to consume it.  I do it for the pleasure it brings me, but that’s not enough.  All creation needs to be enjoyed.

Intellect and Intuition

While faith is a central theme of how I live and make decisions, I realize it’s not for everyone.  I’ve known many friends over the years who have decided faith is no longer something relevant to them. There are lots of reasons against a life of faith that make sense to me. especially intellectual ones.  Mainly because I don’t consider myself as an intellectual.

I did not do well in apologetics class in theological school because all the arguments were designed to speak intellectually about faith.  I don’t process faith that way. I’m much more intuitive. If you tell me that faith doesn’t make intellectual or scientific sense, my reply is the same, “You got me on that one.” I appreciate intellectual drive. It’s just not the only thing that motivates my thinking. I’m not wired that way. I possess more than intellect to pay attention to.

As a student in my 20’s, there was no seminary course on this, but I have dreams and visions.  I have done so my entire adult life. Many of these have outlined some of my future life events and have been very accurate. Yet these didn’t fit into the box in which I was studying.

I am intuitive. Some describe it as a feeling in the gut.  That’s not the way to do science. But it is the way I choose to do faith. Leaning into the bent of my heart has made faith so much more relevant to me now in mid-life.  

I spent the first part of my life trying to fit my faith into an intellectual system that it wasn’t designed for. Now that I have given myself permission to explore intuition, an entire world has opened up to me. It doesn’t make sense to an intellectual, but it does make sense to an intuitive like me.

Even this decision was an act of faith.

Giving Away An Unusual Gift

I cry a lot. I bet I cry every day. Sometimes several times a day. But probably not for the reasons you are thinking.

There are more than just tears of grief.

I felt my eyes well up as I caught a glimpse of the waxing gibbous moon in the eastern horizon through the tongues of flame reaching up out of my backyard firepit last night.  My song of the day moved me this morning. I could easily go on and on.

I would not have openly admitted this until recently.  What changed my mind was a conversation that revealed this admission.  “I wish I could cry like that.  I haven’t cried in years.”

And it wasn’t a guy admitting this.

I’ve never bought the idea that men don’t cry.  However, I was convinced to purchase the image that never showed them. But I returned it to get my money back.  I didn’t need that depiction any longer.

Through conversations with my grief counselor, she is convincing me that the ease in which I can cry and hold emotion is actually a gift, not a curse or a quirk. And all gifts are meant to be given away.

I believe the response of tears is one of the most amazing features in the physical body.  It’s a release function.  It allows something to be expelled from the body that should not stay pent up. To shut down this function is to inhibit the body from working properly. The absence of tears should signal concern.

There is a big difference in propensity and ability.  Some people aren’t “cryers” like me.  Strike that up to personality type, conditioning, permission, etc. But to lose the ability to shed tears is another story.

Tears can make people feel awkward, but  even this reaction might be the appropriate response.  If my eyes might leak as I listen to you tell your story, and it makes you uncomfortable, what does that say about us?

This subject is so relevant, Dr Brene Brown makes her living teaching about it.  She has one of the most viewed TED talks in history. She describes the inability to be vulnerable is one of our culture’s most devastating losses.  Her work is incredibly important in helping me restore my truest heart.  Tears are an indication of vulnerability.  They send a signal to others that it’s OK to feel this way and that you aren’t alone.

Flotsam and Jetsam

On the first day of class, the Dean of Students at the theological school I attended in Northern California gave a very important introduction.  I still remember it very clearly 33 years later.  He made a statement that made some students very upset.  I know better now what he meant and why he said it.

He said, “Some of you aren’t going to survive this class, and I need you to know that’s OK.”

He proceeded to describe the toll that theological studies can have on a person’s faith.  It’s intended to do that.  It is designed to challenge belief.  And some aren’t meant to go down that road.

And he was right. After that class, some took offense to what he said. Those were the same students that went back home mid semester.  Their faith was not in a condition to explore this new territory. And there is no shame in that realization.

Dean Cate was gracious in describing a very harsh world we were all about to enter. He was a wise man and one of my favorite instructors in my two and a half years there.  It was a profound experience for me. I’m still connected to most of the life-long friends I met there. I’m grateful for the testing of my faith that began at that time.

I’ve found that faith is a very personal possession.  When I was a young man, I took my cues from older folks to help me sort out what I felt I should believe.  Over time, as my discernment deepend. I started to toss overboard the flotsam and jetsam that slowed me down and would prove useless the further I explored my life of faith.

I like where I am today. Sometimes I go back in my mind to that young man sitting in Dean Cate’s classroom and remember his earnestness.  I tell him thank you for enduring those days.  I’m convinced that the work he did then prepared me for the difficulties of my recent past. He made me a better man today.

I made this song to remind me of those days and to look forward to what will unfold ahead

Listen to All Things, ©Kevin Shinn, 55 Degrees 2020

Who I am Influences What I Do

Warrior recently reminded me that part of the pain of my grief is like physical therapy.  I’m not just dealing with loss. I’m also pulling on the scar tissue of past wounds that may have healed improperly having been joined as one flesh for so long.

Loss isn’t just caused by death.  A partner can go missing in other ways.  The pain of life can prevent one from showing up, leaving the other to ponder, “where did they go?” Death finalizes that question and renders it moot. 

All loss isn’t equal. But all loss must be grieved.

As I mentioned yesterday, this stage in my process has me contemplating who I am now that I no longer am intertwined with another person. I am coming to some significant conclusions.

Since I am stuck at home, being out of work for almost a year, I don’t have a job telling me who I am. A profession is a safe way to describe to others my place in this world.  I still tell folks I’m a chef when asked in conversation what my line of work is.  Mainly because it’s easier and I was one for a long time and I may still return to that work once the country opens back up.

But what I do does not define who I am.

I am known by many names; chef, baker, author, gardener, musician, poet, caregiver, etc.  All are descriptors of things I do that would make that name line up.  I built a restaurant and worked in its kitchen for 10 years, therefore I am a chef.  I love baking bread. Calling me a baker isn’t a stretch.  A distinction I am learning to make with my grief counselor is this; I define these titles.  They don’t define me.

I don’t know how long I’ve got til the Number of My Days is complete.  My dad passed when he was 75. Using that as a benchmark, I’ve got 19 left to go.  I don’t want to waste a single one.

There is a central reason I am known as chef, baker, author and so on.  These are correct  because they are planted, rooted in and grown out of my truest identity.  I am a Creator.  I have an obsessive drive to build and make things that did not exist previously.  Food gave me an ideal workshop for this identity to flourish. It was extremely rewarding to take a wagon full of raw vegetables, and with the help of a few others, create a menu and dining experience unique to that one Saturday in time.  That was more than the act as a chef.  I was a Creator.

Another way this identity is manifested now is through my writing.  I have been given some type of gift to create new thoughts with words that grow out of feelings and experiences.  Based on your comments and feedback, what is very natural and second nature to me is received by you as deeply kind and profoundly reassuring.  This is more than being an author. I’m continuing to create something that would not exist without me.

I’ve got some gas left in the tank, and I plan to ride hard til The Number of My Days says I’m done.

This is the force that is shaping me today.  It is why I am compelled to get up and write something daily.  It’s not my job.  I don’t get paid to do this. I’m at this keyboard this morning because of who I am.  I’m creating Hope.

It’s not enough for a Creator to merely create.  That’s the easy part.  The risk comes in the act of sharing that creation.  Any artist knows this trepidation. I’ll admit every time, without fail,  I hit “publish” on the WordPress tab, self-doubt is lurking nearby. I wish I could eradicate it. I just don’t let it keep me from posting.

I’ve started creating music again, and I am in this same dilemma.  Why am I exterting this effort if it’s just to stay on the hard drive?  Creators don’t build to hide.  We do it to bless.  So here’s a new creation I will offer.  As a person of faith, this coronavirus circumstance is testing that faith.  What do I believe? Will I allow these circumstances to hinder me, or is there Substance on which I can actually rely?

In this time of scarcity, I choose to live and create abundantly.

Click to hear, Abundance by Kevin Shinn

Make today count.

The Pain of Hearing Again

A few years ago I went to see my doctor about my right ear.  It appeared to be blocked and I could tell it had influenced my hearing.  She took a look and right away saw the problem. There was a big blob of earwax impacted.  “It’s an easy fix” she said. Then proceeded to irrigate the ear canal and remove the obstruction.

When she did, the pop of air and sound startled me. I could hear vividly out of that ear. As I left the office and drove away in my car, I noticed how much more clear everything was out of that side of my head.  Sound was no longer muted, but sharp and bright.  So much so that I had to turn the music down because that ear began to hurt.

She explained that the nerves had gotten accustomed to the obstruction and they compensated for it.  Now that there was a clear path for sound to reach  my inner ear, it would take a few days for them to readjust.

I thought about that story yesterday as I was outside painting my house.  Painting is a great project for my mind to explore because much of the work is repetitive and rhythmic.  The figure-8 movement of the brush strokes back and forth provide a calming sense of accomplishment.  However, there was a feeling attached to it that I couldn’t identify. As is my regular practice, I love to ask why.

I’m doing my entire house by myself, by hand, with a brush. No roller or sprayer.  The paint I am using has the viscosity of cake batter, so it actually goes on better with a brush and it’s easier to get up under the laps of the original wood siding this way.

Intermixed in my internal conversation was how different this project is now that I live alone.  I chose the colors. I set the schedule and go at my own pace. If she was still here, the whole house would have been done by now. I’m on day 7 and a third of the way complete.

This is a huge project now that I’m on my own.  I don’t have another to consider, or one whose opinion I need to accommodate.  Relational partnership is a continual process of learning and deferring, of give and take.  I can do this paint project how I would like to do it, at a slow and methodical speed.  I am careful to get it done without drip marks or thin places. I get to take my time and do it how I want it.

But I’m alone.

And therein lies a dilemma of my grief. It’s the pain of hearing again.  My soul is asking what is this new sound? And why does it hurt?

This new sound I detect  is music that was overpowered by other vibrations.  I can hear me again. I can hear my desires and preferences.  The craftsman in me that gave way to the goal-oriented partner can now return to work and paint the house accordingly.

This was an epiphany for me.  This is my new normal.  I am free to learn to hear my heart again in ways I never could before. But it is both agonizing and liberating.  The sting of loss mixed with the discovery of new possibilities is a bittersweet song.

Listen for the Prophets

It’s impossible to escape the myriad of opinions about this Coronavirus situation and what should or should not have been done.  Much of it is only rooted in anger, which is understandable. But these are not the voices to pay attention to.  

Listen for the prophets.  

A prophet is one who has a timely message for a specific moment in time.  They are recognized by the witness that is borne inside. You hear their words and something in you resonates with what is being said.  It’s a call to action, not an invitation to complain. They might be angry, but they also have something to say.

A very good recent example of a prophetic voice is from Julio Vincent Gambuto in an article titled, Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting. It’s a call to consider how this health crisis has damaged our social world and the choices that we each have in the process of rebuilding it.  

“From one citizen to another, I beg of you: take a deep breath, ignore the deafening noise, and think deeply about what you want to put back into your life.”

Julio Vincent Gambuto, Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting.

The problem with prophets today has been true throughout time.  Their message isn’t for everyone. It never has, and never will be. Because it’s usually disruptive.

But for those who have the ears to hear the meaning, those are the ones who stand to benefit from their words.

Our world as we once knew has severely changed.  The prophets are here to say it can keep changing.

For the better.

We’ll Get Through This?

We’ll get through this.

I’ve said that many times recently, cautiously I must add. I feel the need to explain what these words mean to me.

In the midst of lawsuits and bankruptcy, The Admiral gave me these words and I recall them very clearly.  He said, “We’re gonna get through this. Trust me. I’ve done over 1500 of these in my career. They all made it. And we’re gonna have a beer together sometime down the road and be able to laugh about it.”

He was right.  We had that beer. And we laughed.

But it wasn’t without grief, because I was entering into a territory for which I had no map, no coordinates, no GPS.  It was terra incognita. Uncharted territory. 

Such are the days we are living in.  Unprecedented in my lifetime. Life as I’ve known it is gone and the signs of it returning to any sense of normalcy are vague at best. Are The Admiral’s words still true?

Will we get through this?

Here’s my perspective from the place on the wall where I stand and watch.

What The Admiral didn’t mean was life will go back to looking like it did as before.  I lost my business. I lost everything I had worked for. I lost my dream. And since then, I lost my wife. I’ve lost friends. None of these are coming back in the same way I experienced them in the past. Life will not return to this kind of normal that I once knew.

My heart is tender toward my colleagues who are in the restaurant business. I would be in the same boat if I hadn’t lost mine.  I would be dealing with the same pain of letting employees go, and watching an entire industry collapse with no recourse. Some have been able to pivot and retool their operation.  But it’s not the same as before.

Here’s what The Admiral’s words meant to me:

Yes, we’ll get through this. Repeat. We.  You’re not alone. I’m with you.

No, Life won’t look the same as before. But that’s OK. Life changes regardless.

Yes, you can survive, because Hope is here to ensure that.

No, you can’t get her back.

Yes, you can grieve, and you must.

No, you couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.

Yes, you will get through this.

No, you don’t want to live backward.

Yes, keep moving forward. That’s where Hope lives. 

No, She doesn’t call you to stay in your past.

Yes, I believe in you.

I hope you have an Admiral in your life. I am forever grateful and indebted to his friendship.

Make Hay While the Sun Shines

Broken Down Shack, written and read by Kevin Shinn

My life-long love of gardening has taught me much about perspective in life.  I learned early on that there is something personally instructive about planning, planting, tending and harvesting an annual garden.  The earliest lesson on the farm it taught me was the importance of having something that required care and attention from me only. It wasn’t going to happen unless I planted it.  It would not succeed unless I watered and weeded it. No one else was going to do it for me. It was a simple lesson that started a course that I would enjoy studying many years later.

Because of gardening, I know what it takes to put food on the table.  Because of my small backyard economy, I don’t take the national supply chain for granted.  If the grackles decimate the onion tops, I won’t have any come summertime. They’re done, over. I have to wait again til next year.

The work of gardening is seasonal, and there is specific work to do in all four seasons. I like the old proverb that reinforces this

He who gathers crops in summer is one that acts wisely, but he who sleeps during harvest is disgraceful.

There is work to do in every season.  Even today, stuck at home under Shelter in Place, Social Distancing, there are things I wish I could be doing. And the key word is Wish.  I have no control of so much that I wish for, and it will do me no good to spend energy complaining and fretting about those things beyond my reach.  I can wish for my sweet tomatoes in April, but if I don’t do the work in the meantime, I won’t have a harvest in July.

I approach my days in quarantine like I would a job. I build in a routine. I have a schedule. I shower and get dressed like I would in going work every day.  I don’t lounge around in shorts. I need some semblance of order that I am in charge of. 

And a big part of the day is to create. I write. I work out. I cook. I plan my garden. And most recently, I’ve started recording again. I took advantage of the time to upgrade my home audio studio and return to a long lost love that has been absent for 17 years; making music.

Here is a recording of a poem titled, Broken Down Shack, that I posted back in November.  I recorded it this morning as a part of my decision to make each day count.

Broken Down Shack, written and read by Kevin Shinn