Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Grape #18: Pilgrimage to Maui: Part 8

Tuesday, May 29, 2012. 10:55 AM Maui, 4:55 PM New York.
Paradise—lost!  We’re sitting here at our gate in the airport in Maui with our vacation now behind us.  What can I say except even this good thing must end.  We’ve glimpsed paradise, gotten a sneak peak at heaven, and it was beautiful.  Some may think I’m overdoing it with the comparisons, but besides just the gorgeousness of this land, the way you feel is heavenly too.  The people, the sights, the sounds, the atmosphere all just calm you, lull you even, into a sense of complete relaxation.  You are pulled along as you walk along the beach by a power outside of yourself, a complete yearning to keep moving forward, keep absorbing and blending into the holy earth around you. 

Yet like a person surviving a near-death experience, I am yanked back to reality, repositioned on a path leading back to normalcy.  People who have near-death experiences are changed forever, and I believe a vacation to Hawaii like this one can change you too, if you allow it to.  If you get here and just keep on being miserable, annoyed at everything, bitching and complaining about this or that problem with your life here or back at home, then you are still home, not in Hawaii.  But if you transport your mind and soul along with your physical form, if you replant yourself here on the Hawaiian Islands in every way possible for a couple of weeks, you’ll see what I mean.

This vacation has ended, the journey home now begins.  But just as you can easily bring your stress with you to Hawaii, you can also bring your aloha spirit home with you.  In the same way that trouble can follow us anywhere, so too can joy, and peace, and relaxation.  It’s what your soul craves all the time, and if you want it to, your soul can be enjoying all of the peace and joy and aloha of Hawaii back home.  You just have to connect to the way you felt on vacation, in Hawaii or wherever you go for holidays away from home.  If you can do that, really do that purposefully, then paradise can never be lost, only re-found again and again all the time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012. 10:21 PM San Francisco, 1:21 AM New York.
In between flights now and back on the U.S. mainland.  As we arrived in San Francisco, the sun set behind us.  We won’t arrive in New York until the sun has risen again.  Amazing to think that as we travel east from Maui to New York, the Earth spins enough to lose sight of the sun and then regain sight of her again.  The journey we take each day of our lives is this way of course too, what we accomplish or don’t fits neatly between a sunrise and a sunset.  And each day’s journey has its rising and its setting moments.  We just have to accept this reality and go with it.

Since I won’t be sleeping on the plane (by inability, not choice), my “day” today will have lasted two sunrises and one sunset long.  When I woke today, I walked to the beach on Maui with my cup of coffee.  I watched the sun set hours later over the Pacific Ocean as I approached San Francisco.  And before going to sleep, I will watch the sun rise ahead of me as I approach the east coast of the United States.  A revolution. 

I’ll arrive in New York 6 or 7 hours from now and spend a good part of the next couple of weeks reflecting back on all of the revolutions I experienced in Hawaii the past 2 weeks.  And as my mind and the earth spin, I’ll look forward to and appreciate all of the sunrises and sunsets ahead of me on the journey of the everyday.  Mahalo, God.  You never cease to amaze me.

Wednesday, May 30th. 38,278 feet altitude, 3:13 AM NY time…somewhere over America
On our last full day in Maui yesterday, Andy and I walked up and down Ka’anapali Beach, the long multi-mile stretch of gorgeous beach our resort was on.  I had only used my amateur snorkel equipment once the whole trip, so I wanted to get back in and explore some more.  It’s incredible to notice when you look carefully, even just walking along the beach, how many tiny fish you can see back and forth in the breaking waves on shore.  I donned my mask and snorkel—left the fins on the beach after realizing they were too clunky for me in the shallow water—and went into the ocean just 4-5 feet to see what I could see.  So many gorgeous fish right there just 10-20 feet out from shore!  I knew the best fish sightings were found near what’s called Black Rock, the large divider between Ka’anapali Beach and North Ka’anapali Beach, so I explored the north side first and saw a lot of great fish.  But knowing the famous green sea turtles of Maui were often seen on the other side of Black Rock, across we went. 

My hopes weren’t high, as apparently they’re common but usually in deeper waters where I didn’t feel comfortable swimming.  I prefer to keep my feet on the ground.  But I did see a lot more cool fish, including a sand-hugging flounder that blends in so much I didn’t know it was a fish at first!  I kept watching it thinking something’s not right about that sand over there.  Then I noticed an eye as it moved a couple of inches.  Wicked cool! 

And then it happened.  On one of my trips above the surface of the waves, I heard a girl yelling, “Turtle!!!”  Suddenly, she and a bunch of other snorkelers were all heading in my direction.  Cool!!!  I might get a glimpse at one of these beauties of the ocean.  I went under and watched as they all swam near me but over to my left about 30 feet, so I followed them over.  I peered past them and started making out something—something HUGE!  It couldn’t be!  I came up for air quick then went back down for a better look.  Just 15 feet in front of me was a MAMMOTH green sea turtle as big as a human being or bigger.  I watched as long as I could as it petered around the coral in front of me, then as it swam out deeper again.  I came up for air and saw swimmers around me all with huge smiles plastered on their faces that matched mine.  I couldn’t help myself.  “HOLY SHIT!!!!!” I exclaimed to the people near me.  We all compared notes on how huge it was, how many pounds.  Our estimates were that it was at least 5 feet long as 600 pounds but I have no idea how the length/weight ratio is for turtles like that.  Either way, it was an incredible sight to see, an absolutely amazing experience to have, especially to close out my trip in Hawaii!!!

That evening, Andy and I watched the sunset and wrote our names in the sand for a picture.  Then Andy dug a small hole in the sand near the top of the beach and we dropped the flowers from our leis into the spot.  Returning them to the earth, we read, was one of the best things to do with your leis.  It was a beautiful conclusion to our trip, and just capped well the emotional and spiritual pilgrimage overall.

Wednesday, May 30th, 6:02 AM NY time.  An hour outside NYC.
The trip is just about over, so I’ll wrap this blog up now.  The Grapes On Divine blog continues, of course, but the Maui Pilgrimage blog within is now over.  For anyone wondering, I’ve written about 16 full pages of a Word document throughout this trip.  Could have been more, could have been less.  Almost 10,000 words later, I hope those of you who chose to follow along enjoyed some of what I shared in these reflections. 

As this journey comes to a close, the next one begins.  The journey from where you are now to where you will be tomorrow is as long as you make it, as enriching and fulfilling as you make it.  The workday for those who work full-time is about 8 hours long.  That’s only 1/3 of a day!  And for every 5 days you work, you get 2 off!  Most importantly, as I like to say, if you live life for the weekend, you’re only living 2/7ths of your life.  Enjoy ALL of the moments you are blessed with, make the most of ALL of your free time, find yourself anew each day, and find a piece of paradise around every corner.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Grape #17: Pilgrimage to Maui: Part 7

Monday, May 28, 10:40 AM Maui, 4:40 PM New York

Today is our last full day on Maui; we leave tomorrow around noon—I think.  Need to look up our flight info and check in with the airline to make sure.  I’ll be doing some writing on the planes, but just a brief couple of notes here first.  The rainbows become standard.  You are always happy to see them, but you get so used to them, they just become part of the view.  The crystal clear blue waters, the palm trees, the Hawaiian music on the radio, it’s all just expected at this point two weeks in.  And that’s a good thing and a bad thing at the same time.

It’s good to expect beauty, a lovely-weather day, a smile, a rainbow, relaxation.  It’s bad to take it for granted, as I imagine so many native Hawaiians must do.  You cannot expect perfection, but you cannot expect problems either.  Both expectations pull us from our natural state which is meant to be ever changing.  As an old monk once told me, “If you don’t take the bitter with the sweet, you can’t tell the difference.”

I’ll miss the rare birds and flowers I’ve seen here, the mongooses and the geckos, the volcanoes, and the perfect weather.  But on Long Island in New York where I live, there are squirrels, raccoons, birds not seen in Hawaii, trees that don’t grow here on Maui.  Most of all there is my home, my car, my job, my family, and my friends.  None of these are here in Hawaii.  Difference and change keep us alive, they remind us to appreciate, to welcome our surroundings wherever in this universe we find ourselves. 

Tomorrow we leave this land, for now.  I plan and hope to come back again soon.  Our photos, videos, and memories will come back to Long Island with us, because no Hawaiian ecology team can prevent us from bringing them through customs/security!  This place has been a paradise in so many ways, and I really hope my friends and family will be able to come and visit.  It awakens a dormant part of you, and makes you even more alive than you already are.  My soul I take with me wherever I go, but I’ve just found another part of the divine plan and another element of my own soul here, 5,000 miles from home. 

Saint Augustine was a great writer, philosopher, and soul.  And he has been a very special part of my ever-growing faith journey.  So I’m going to end my blog today with two very special quotes from Augustine I have kept close to mind for many years now, and I hope you will reflect on them and enjoy them too.  I think they speak well to some of the reflections I have made in this trip blog.

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
-St. Augustine

“Men go forth to marvel at the mountain heights, at huge waves in the sea, at the broad expanse of flowing rivers, at the wide reaches of the ocean, and at the circuits of the stars, but themselves they pass by.”
-St. Augustine

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Grape #16: Pilgrimage to Maui: Part 6

Friday, May 25
Three rainbows, three sunsets, one sunrise, the top of Haleakala, and over 130 feet underwater in a submarine later…

As we’ve reached the last leg of our expedition to paradise, our pilgrimage to Maui, the blogs become fewer.  I can see how many views I’ve gotten, and they’re only a handful.  No one’s reading.  It’s normal, shows the attention span we all have when reading online, but is still very much discouraging.  I’ve learned as a writer to write well, write purposefully and with passion no matter how few people are reading along.  The product I create is beautiful in its own way and will always be there, even if it doesn’t have many visitors at the moment.  Most importantly, this pilgrimage to paradise is a special one between God, nature, and me.  I cannot hope to be one with my source if I’m bitching about my readership and response levels!  God doesn’t walk on roads like that, so it’s a waste of my spirit.

The submarine ride was incredible!  I cannot tell you how amazing it is to plunge beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean and "swim" among so many varieties of fish, coral, even a passing stingray.  Our sub went about a mile out from shore, and there in about 130 feet of water, we watched out big windows as so many sea creatures allowed us to visit them in their natural habitat.  Our host joked that outside the sub's windows, the fish are reminded to not knock on the windows.  We on the sub, he said, were now the creatures inside the aquarium walls, and the fish were watching us!  It was so, so, so cool!

The beautiful nature I’ve seen here cannot be seen anywhere else on the planet.  Sure there are volcanoes and mountains and seas and flowers and even rainbows all over the world, but the type of landscape here, the variety of flowers unique to this land, the particular spirit of the Hawaiian people and all of its flora and fauna cannot be reproduced or rediscovered elsewhere.  So when you visit a place like this, it’s like unlocking a part of your soul you didn’t even know you had, a new part of yourself and your connection to the divine which is a revelation even to the person who holds it.  My spirit is reawakened here with the realization that no matter where I travel, what I see and who I encounter, there are always going to be new lands to see and discover.  My spirit, like yours, is only as open as we let it be, only in bloom as much as we allow it to be, only truly alive when we cast it to the wind and conquer this world’s unknown adventures with every last drop of our heart and soul.

Saturday, May 26
Today Andy and I hiked through Iao Valley, a lush rainforest on Maui’s west side, filled with soaring green pinnacles that wave like the ocean.  Waterfalls and streams are heard and seen all around you, and you feel the inescapable privilege of being in this holy place.  We then headed up the coast to return to one of our favorite spots, Ho’okipa Beach, the windsurfing capital of the world.  It’s a gorgeous spot to watch surfers and windsurfers alike conquer the vicious waves with aplomb.  Just to the north side of this beach are rocks which invite you forward past the fences, so we finally decided to climb down them to the sea.  Their Siren calls were just too much for me, and as I stood among them, blown away by the views around me, I felt the water gently pelting my face like a mother blowing in a child’s ear.  Perfection. 

A day or two earlier we were in an outdoor café in upcountry Makawao, where the owner reminded us as a similarly whispy drizzle gently stroked our cheek that it wasn’t drizzling—it was mystifying.  Love that! 

So there we were on the rocks near the surfers of Ho’okipa Beach as it began mystifying gently.  But for the first time on our trip, this mystical, mystifying Maui mist became closer to a not-so-spiritual spritz, and annoyingly so too!  I ran up the rocks and slipped a bit in the dirt, and my sneakers and legs bore the grunt of my escape.  No pain or problem, just inconvenience as I reached the car and knew I needed a shower and sneaker clean once we got back to the condo.  I breathed an exhausted sigh of relief to just be back in the dry car.  But as if Mother Nature knew in that moment that I needed a de-stressing reminder I was in paradise, we received not one but TWO gorgeous rainbows that wrapped from land to land across the horizon as we drove home, the second of which was still visible from the private wrap-around lanai outside our condo. 

It’s 7:48 PM now on Saturday evening, and Andy and I closed the day as we do almost every day, watching the sun set over the Pacific.  Now I’ve gotta tell you. There are very few things that can beat the experience I had a few minutes ago.  I’m standing a foot-deep in the Pacific Ocean of a Maui beach, gazing out at the setting sun as a sailboat slowly goes by.  A cocktail in my hand, I take a generous drink and soak in the beauty in front of me.  Then I look behind me at the beach and see the love of my life looking my way with ANOTHER gorgeous rainbow behind him—the third of the day!  Can you even imagine what that’s like?  Standing in the Pacific, the setting sun behind you, and a rainbow over Maui in front of you??!!  This place is really that magical, that beautiful, that spiritualI am SO blessed to be here, and soaking up every minute I have left!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Grape #15: Pilgrimage to Maui: Part 5

Wednesday, May 23, 2012, 8:30 AM MAUI, 2:30 PM NY
Yesterday was Andy’s birthday.  A mostly relaxing day was on the schedule, some beach time and exploring, and a luau in the evening.  We headed north to the Kapalua Beach area, where my favorite PGA Tour golfers start their season each year in January.  It’s the home of the Ritz Carlton Maui and some of the most beautiful vistas on the island.  Just past Kapalua was a beach we’d wanted to visit.  Set between a couple of lava rock peninsulas, D.T. Fleming Beach is one of many crescent-shaped beaches on the island of Maui that boasts great swimming conditions.  Sounded good to us!  We set up “camp” on the beach in a nice shady spot for me to read in, and Andy got ready to go in the ocean.  His phone rang—his brother Chris calling to wish him a happy birthday.  After a few minutes of chatting, Andy went in for a dip.  I kept an eye on him because I know he can’t swim, but thankfully there are many beaches where the shallow water extends out further than it would off Long Island in New York where we’re used to going.  He came up to the towel after maybe 10-15 minutes of splashing around and enjoying the warm ocean water up and down the beach, and the first thing he said to me was, “Do you have the car keys?”  Uh-oh.

Andy’s been the driver, so I wouldn’t have had the keys.  So the fact that he was asking me this was not what I wanted to hear.  We searched the bags and ground around where we set up, and the car key was no where to be found.  Andy knew he had not taken it out of his bathing suit.  Disaster.  Panic kicked in and fast.  I told him he should go and look in the ocean.  “It could be anywhere though!”  Instead, he called 411 (information) and got in touch with the car rental place on the other side of the island.  Conversations went back and forth about spare keys being found and sent, and even a locksmith was contacted and put on alert in case we needed him to come.  While Andy made phone calls, I walked down to the ocean, determined to find this damn key.  I knew what I was looking for, a single silver key with a black lock/unlock button operation, and a plastic tag attached with the information about the car.  I had told Andy that our biggest problem was not the lost key, but that the lost key was found by someone else and the car stolen.  It’s one thing to have to shell out a few hundred dollars to solve this drama, it’s another to be liable for replacing a car.  So I told Andy to keep an eye on our car up in the parking lot while he made his calls.

Andy made his frantic calls, and I waded through ocean water, searching for a needle in a haystack.  The waters off Maui are thankfully clear blue, so you can see the sand even in a couple of feet of water, but with the sun going in and out from behind passing clouds, and waves constantly stirring the water, this was hardly the same as finding a coin in a bathtub.  I had my work cut out for me and I knew it, especially since Andy wasn’t just enjoying our part of the beach but had gone down quite a ways to our left as well.  “God, Saint Anthony, please help me right now.  I really, really need to find this key.”  Faith, I kept telling myself, you have to have faith.  I must have looked like a squirrel desperately searching for hidden acorns, so I told several people wading nearby what I was doing and looking for, and trusted them to keep their eyes open and let me know if they found it.  One of the people told me right away, “Was it a silver key?  It’s up at the lifeguard stand.  It was in the parking lot.”  Joy rose within me!  “Yes, a car key attached to a plastic car rental identifier.”  No, she told me, this was something different.  Dashed.  I kept searching, and I kept believing.  After checking half a football field’s worth of water for about 15 heart-racing minutes, I spotted it!  That was it, I just knew it.  I reached down in 2-3 feet of water to the sand and grabbed what I was pretty sure was the key.  Yes!!!  This was it!!!  I KNEW I’d find it!!! 

The smile on my face stretched from one ear to the other and felt like it wrapped all the way around my head 360 degrees.  I ran up to the towels and fetched my cell phone to call Andy in the parking lot, figuring he might see he was getting a call from me and put either Avis or the locksmith on hold to take my call.  He beat me to it, though.  From the parking lot a couple hundred feet away, he saw I was back at the towels and thought I was holding something, so he called me first.  He couldn’t believe I had found it.  I reassured him that I knew I would and that you can never, ever, EVER give up.  Andy, not one for PDA (Public Displays of Affection) didn’t mind accepting the big hug I gave him there on the beach.  We celebrated by swimming together (after ensuring our valuables were safe on the beach and not on our person) and then heading out to do more exploring and find lunch.

We hadn’t booked a luau before coming, mostly because I was concerned it was just going to be a silly shtick of a thing designed for tourists.  The woman at the activities desk at our resort assured us the Old Lahaina Luau was the most authentic Hawaiian Luau on all of the Hawaiian Islands.  Sounded good to me, and everyone was telling us we’d really enjoy it, so book it we did.  You pay about a hundred bucks for this 3-hour experience, so here’s what it happily entailed.  You walk in, and coconut-bra’d women and shirtless men greet you with trays of cocktails—you pick your poison from among 10 varieties of liquor plus a few wine and beer choices too.  Andy and I each had a mai tai (served in real glass tumblers with little flowers floating inside—nothing plastic here!) and then a cute young guy greeted just the two of us, brought us to our table and put beautiful flower leis on us.  Yes, we got--  Okay, you can imagine the rest, so I’ll leave it unsaid.

At the table, we met the other guests sitting with us for the luau.  Now for anyone who doesn’t know, this can be a stressful experience for two gay guys in a straight world.  You just never know what luck you’ll have or what idiots you might be seated with.  The couple across from us were in their early 30s, and—we found out later—were newlyweds.  They were from Oklahoma City and were just really great people.  And the three-generation family occupying the rest of the table were from Alaska.  All of them were outgoing and friendly, completely sweet and wonderful.  This was going to be great.  The price of your luau includes unlimited cocktails all night long.  The whole first hour was cocktails and photo-snapping.  Hawaiian music played and sung live as you mingled and enjoyed a beautiful outdoor festive luau area as the sun slowly set out behind you on the Pacific.  Throughout the second hour, you go buffet style (self-serve) to try as many of the huge variety of dishes as you’d like.  All traditional Hawaiian meals, they included imu-roasted pork (cooked underground in a large pit they uncover before the meal begins), guava-seasoned chicken, beef, rice, pineapple, banana bread, sweet potatoes, and several varieties of fish.  And the whole third hour includes desserts and coffee while you watch a variety of beautiful hula dances performed as a narrator describes different parts of Hawaiian history, and explains the meaning behind the dance. 

It was a wonderful way to spend three hours of Andy’s birthday, and with the beautiful sunset and later stars above us as we watched the performances in this gorgeous beachfront outdoor area, it was an incredibly enriching, stomach- and soul-feeding evening to remember forever!

As we closed our day in paradise, we saw three geckos in the area outside of our condo, one on the way into the resort, and two more on our private wrap-around lanai.  Called a sign of good luck, seeing these creatures for the first time on Andy’s birthday was an extra blessing on a very blessings-filled day in paradise. 

The original plan was to rise extra early the next morning to watch the sunrise from the top of Haleakala, but the mai tais and delicious food changed our course, and we decided to sleep in instead.  Haleakala will probably be tomorrow instead.

Mahalo for reading along as always.  Much love to you all.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Grape #14: Pilgrimage to Maui: Part 4

Sunday, May 20th, 2012.
On Sunday we drove south, to the resorts and roads along Maui’s ritzy south coast.  We quickly realized how "So Cal" it all was, how unlike the Hawaii we came here for.  We checked out a couple of beaches before realizing we’d be much happier if we just followed our hearts to the main attraction: Little Beach.

Now, I’m not sure how to explain what this place is like.  First of all, it’s not just the kind of beach you drive up to, park and walk onto the sand and in the ocean.  Little Beach can only be accessed by going to Big Beach, walking all the way to the western end, climbing up a steep, rocky cliff, and then climbing down onto the other side.  Once you get there though, it’s a land like no other.  If Maui is paradise, then Little Beach is The Garden of Eden—some parts before and some parts after Original Sin entered the picture!  First, there are a lot of nude people.  Like, a lot.  Next there are drummers, some nude, some not, pounding away in a tribal circle.  Maybe like 5 or 6 drummers when we got there, closer to 12 by the time we left.  Naked men and women of all ages are walking around, chatting happily with one another, their breasts and penises hanging out, wine glasses in hand for some, as the tribal drumming grows.  On the rocks behind this beach, the distinct smell of marijuana abides and seems to remain just off the sandy area itself. 

Sharing the ganja territory are mountain goats.  No auto correct mayhem here, you heard me correct: mountain goats.  Now I don’t know why exactly he does this, but a short, deeply tanned man with white hair and a white beard shepherds these goats…on leashes.  They seem to love the guy too.  He pets them, talks to them like he does people, and they really seem to understand him.  I spoke with him briefly while taking a break from the sun to sit up by him and the goats in the shade.  He was trying to take their picture, and they were camera shy.

Have the picture in your heads of what this place is like?  A beautiful beach in Maui populated with nude people everywhere, tribal drumming, wine, pot, and goats.  Got it?  Okay, good.

The festive, wildly weird atmosphere was actually really enjoyable.  I’m sure some would feel ridiculously uncomfortable in this atmosphere, but Andy and I loved it.  Laying on a beautiful beach, watching people—clothed and unclothed—frolic in the waves as the drums grow louder and louder, quicker and quicker, you feel as if you are in the heartbeat of the planet, the place where energy and freedom meet and explode in joy.

As the sun began to set, the privilege of being in that place was a cathartic recreation of mind and soul, a boost of spirit and happiness knowing we were in a place of absolute acceptance of all kinds of people, simply being happy and one with the earth.

Monday, May 21st 2012.

On Monday morning, we woke up at 6 AM to take a journey to The Road To Hana.  The road itself is the journey, although some of the sites along the way bring you once again to sensory overload.  Plants and trees you’ve never seen before, banyan roots of a single tree covering a huge area, rainbow-colored eucalyptus trees, bamboo of different colors and sizes, and a vast color palate of plants and flowers you’d usually only see in an arboretum.  Waterfalls show up here and there throughout the trip, and I couldn’t help but realize how many waterfalls we see in our lifetime—artificial ones.  Yet here was the real deal.  A rainforest beneath a volcano, with actual waterfalls pouring down the steep cliffs.  A mongoose runs across the road, stands up on two feet so it’s a foot high, looks around quickly then scurries off.  And in between the rainforest views are spectacular ocean vistas, sometimes from very high above (3,000 feet), and other times right at water level. 

We took a private van tour instead of driving the over 52 miles, 617 curves, and 56 one-lane bridges ourselves.  I’m very glad we did!  Things got really, really, REALLY tight!  Plus our driver, Debra, is a native Hawaiian whose family lives in Hana, so she speaks the language, in many more ways than one.  Throughout the 12-hour long day, she spoke all the time, teaching us, making us laugh, and helping us see all of the best sights in all of the best places.  She knew what we’d see at every single turn, and really helped make the day extra enjoyable and educational.  Some of the fun things she told us was that cattle raised on Maui has to be brought to Arizona soon until the winter due to the extra dry weather right now.  She was one of the first female softball players growing up, and wore a coconut bra to games.  When we passed avocado trees, Debra told us she feeds the avocados to her pigs, so that when it comes time to slaughter them, they taste extra succulent.  Lots of fun and funny little stories like that. 

Among the many incredible sights today, we also walked on a black sand beach (the sand is black because it’s actually finely ground volcano ash), hiked, and hung out at The Seven Sacred Pools of O’Heo Gulch, where waterfalls fill natural pools, all leading straight down into the ocean.  It’s an awe-inspiring sight as waterfalls meet The Pacific Ocean, with only rocks and you in between.  In one place we were even able to crawl into a sea cave and come out on a separate rocky opening to the ocean only a few feet wide.  After the town of Hana, we stopped a few minutes to visit the grave of Charles Lindbergh, who died on Maui in the 1970s, and is buried in a beautiful churchyard overlooking The Pacific.

So much more was seen and experienced, but my heart and head are overwhelmed by it all still!  What an incredibly full and rewarding day!  We ended it with a soak in the jacuzzi and a brief swim in the lovely pool.  Mahalo for reading along, and aloha til next time!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Grape #13: Pilgrimage to Maui: Part 3

Saturday, May 19, 2012
12:23 PM Hawaii time, 6:23 PM New York time

Aloha!  There are some places on this planet that are simply the closest thing to paradise as we can imagine.  Maui here in the Hawaiian Islands is one of those places.  I’m quickly realizing what differentiates a real paradise from just a fancy resort-like artificiality.  Yes, there are resorts here, but Hawaii’s incredible landscape, flora and fauna differentiate themselves, pop out at you like a 3D version of reality, surprise you and overwhelm you at every turn.  In short, you are in sensory overload.  I’d referenced before that there are just so many photo opportunities, but what this means is that there are so many awesome things, creatures, plants, people to look at.  And this is why you quickly discover that a slowdown is not only necessary, but uncontrollable too.  It just happens, like needing to shield your eyes from the sun’s bright light, or wearing headphones to block out an extra loud noise.

So what is the solution you come upon when faced with this best of problems, this challenge of sensory overload all around you?  You learn to slow down.  You walk more slowly, you look in a single direction more carefully and with greater appreciation, you just make each moment last longer, each minute stretch out.  Life here requires a slower pace, and my stupid crazy New Yorker gait becomes a crawl in comparison to what I’m used to back home.  I’ll sometimes keep moving quickly when I’m out in the sun to avoid getting burned, but most of the time now I feel myself just at one with nature and this beautiful planet. 

I’ve always been one to respect Mother Earth by not littering, often picking up garbage that careless others leave behind, but here if you see a piece of garbage or debris laying around, you feel you must retrieve it and clean it up.  In the supermarkets, you either bring a canvas bag or receive your groceries in paper bags.  Plastic bags are as forbidden as a priest in a mini skirt.  This is paradise, and it’s so close to perfection that you want to keep it that way.  Respect for nature is almost universally agreed upon here, as if it wasn’t, I’d be seeing a lot more garbage around.  Leaving an area cleaner than you found it is a life principle on this island, and one I appreciate so much more already. 

Appreciation for each little sight, the need and desire to slow down, and respect for preserving nature’s beauty: On Maui these are principles people live by and a way of living every perfect day.  But no matter what non-Eden we walk through during an average day elsewhere on the planet, these principles are no less important.  Just because a place is a dump doesn’t mean it can’t be cleaned up and made more beautiful.  Just because things rush by at a hectic pace doesn’t mean we cannot help them slow down, and just because we don’t usually stop to appreciate that hedge, that dandelion, that rock, doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of being appreciated.  Maui is a paradise I’m so blessed to be living in for two weeks, but it’s a reminder that beauty and nature, appreciation and respect can be found or established anywhere at all.

8:03 PM Maui time, 2:03 AM New York time
A school of fish, a rainbow, some visits from the birds of Maui, and another day in paradise.  Today was just one of those beautiful days you are blessed with throughout your life, filled with opportunity after opportunity to experience God’s beauty all around you.  Andy and I did a lot of walking and exploring today, both above and below water.  Above water we walked most of the entire Ka’anapali Beach area on both sides of Black Rock, the resort area on Maui’s western shores.  And below water, I donned mask, snorkel, and courage, and went under water to see what I could see.  Unbelievable!  The water is so clear, you can see your feet in the sand with crystal clear clarity below you.  And as I looked into deeper waters, I saw a few lone fish swimming among the coral and then a whole school of fish a few feet beyond them.  Amazing! 

After a dip in the pool and even Jacuzzi afterward, we retired back to the condo where I did some reading out on the lanai with a cocktail by my side.  Also by my side were two different unexpected visitors.  First a beautiful red and white bird the name of which I don’t know (yet), and another small bird which followed soon after.  Each spent some time with me on the lanai, the first looking at me curiously from just 2 feet away, the second more of the same as I serenaded it with various whistled tunes for its enjoyment. 

Next stop was the free trolley to Whaler’s Village where we window shopped and people watched, then walked back to our resort along the beach walk that connects all of the Ka’anapali Beach resorts.  With the ocean on our left, a golf course on our right, we looked up past the golf course at one of Maui’s two volcanic peaks where a rainbow pushed itself through the clouds flanking the cliffs.  Our first Maui rainbow! 

Back to the condo after that, where I mixed myself a yummy cocktail mix of Bacardi rum, passion, orange, and guava juice (POG juice) which I took with me down to the beach to watch the sun set.  As the sun sank slowly, slowly, slowwwwwwwly, I was reminded what I wrote earlier today, how nature itself and the beauty all around us forces us to slow down and enjoy every moment.

And now, with darkness covering the area and only the soft glow of resort lights and tiki torches lighting up the grounds, Andy and I are off to star gaze.  Mahalo again, God!  This one was surely one of your best, and I’m very, very grateful to have been a part of it!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Grape #12: Pilgrimage to Maui: Part 2

DAY 2 – Friday, May 18, 2012

Aloha!  After eating at "Da Kitchen" last night, we went back to the hotel and were asleep around 8 PM after what was a very, very long day.  It had started some 21 hours earlier, traversing a handful of time zones and 5,000 miles.  I woke up around 3 AM local time and after deciding this just couldn’t happen, I “slept in” for another hour and a half, getting up at 4:30. 

Day 2 was destined to be a million times better than Day 1.  Around 6:45 AM, we went for a breakfast buffet on the indoor/outdoor second level pool deck.  Along with our bacon and eggs, we had rice, pineapple, POG juice (Passion fruit, Orange, and Guava juice) and delicious Hawaiian coffee.  The sun was out and we watched the palm trees blow with two volcanoes flanking the island on either side.  Maui, if you didn’t know, is basically in the shape of a splitting atom, two islands fused as one with a thin middle.  Our first night was spent at the top of this middle area where the airport is, and the remainder of our time will be on Maui’s western, leeward shore, where all of the nicest resorts and golf courses are. 

Andy used the word micro-climates to describe how different things are from one part of the island to another, and it really is a very apt description.  The cloudy blahtitude of Kahului made us a little reticent about the island in our first few hours here.  Yet once Day 2 commenced and we were able to start exploring some amazing beaches and drives, we were absolutely blown away.  Tavares Beach is a tiny hole in the wall, a “beach access” point that you could easily miss if the guide book didn’t wink and point us toward it.  Basically just a small parking lot and a rail with openings wide enough for a couple of people to walk through, you don’t realize how beautiful and cool it is until you are on it.  We hear Maui has TONS of gems like this one.  After Tavares Beach, we drove up to Ho'okipa Beach, an incredible mecca of windsurfers and wave surfers alike.  Called one of and often the best windsurfing beach in the whole world, Ho'okipa was a real trip to experience from every angle, and our camera was going almost nonstop at times.  YES, we appreciated every moment too, but when you have a camera in hand and you have the kind of amazing in front of us as we did, it feels a sin not to show your appreciation to the artists all around you.

After some shopping and lunch, we drove south and west to our resort.  It was really funny hearing our female GPS voice recite the extra long Hawaiian road names as we approached each new turn.  And we saw our very first shaka sign, given from the motorcyclist ahead of us at a red light to a friendly face in the parking lot to the right.  The shaka is that familiar three fingers down, pinky and thumb out with a wave that you see in Hawaiian videos and photos. 

We arrived at our condo around 3:30 PM, got squared away, unpacked, then explored the grounds of our resort, the beach, and the beautiful pool.  A great swim and jacuzzi soak later, we then got showered and grabbed dinner at The Castaway Café, the restaurant located right here on the grounds of our resort.  Andy had a delicious grilled chicken with pineapple sandwich dressed with a cilantro lime mayonnaise.  I had a "Hawaiian chicken cordon bleu".  Imagine the most delicious chicken cordon bleu you’ve ever tasted or could imagine tasting, add sweet pineapple bits in between the cheese and ham, with a bread crusting mixed with little macadamia nut specs, and that’s what this was.  One of the best meals I’ve ever had!  I washed it down with a delicious mai tai.  Our table was right there between indoor and outdoor, with the setting sun right between us.  Torches were lit around the resort and euphoria reigned supreme.

Only some of these descriptions touch on anything spiritual, which was the main reason I wanted to write down thoughts on my trip, not just give a play by play.  I promise (myself) to do more reflecting and less play-by-playing going forward.

On that note, it’s 3:52 AM now New York time, 9:52 PM Maui time, so I’m gonna head to bed now.  Mahalo for reading along, and I hope you’ll keep doing so in the days to come!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Grape #11: Pilgrimage to Maui: Part 1

Day 1
Thursday, May 17, 2012,
10:12 AM EDT

Our plane was third in line, then second, and then our turn for takeoff.  We got in line with the runway as the engines started to roar.  Liftoff was imminent.  Or so I thought.  Instead of accelerating forward and lifting off, our plane took the first left and got right back in line.  Hmm.  Must be a good reason.  We didn't go back to the gate.  A smaller plane went ahead of us.  Ahh, that must be it.  Sometimes the smaller planes need calm airspace, because if they lifted off right behind a big 747 or similar, they wouldn't have the stable airflow to carry them up.  Or...something like that.  The small plane took off, and the others in the line went on ahead of us.  No problem, I figured.  We lost our spot and would have to get back in cue.  Plane after plane went in front of us and took off, travelers now en route to their destination, while we just sat there.

Finally a voice sounded throughout the plane telling us there was an issue with one of the devices in the cockpit, that maintenance was going to check it out for them.  More time waiting, more and more planes taking off and going where they were supposed to go.  After a while longer, the captain explained that unfortunately the issue could not be resolved, and we would have to return to the gate.  Groans galore.  Worries about missed connections could be seen and heard around us, and we looked at one another with a half-smirk, half-concerned face. 

I closed my eyes and prayed: "God, I know that with you, all things are possible, and that despite the troubling words from the pilot and from those around me, you can make this happen.  I pray that this issue be resolved quickly, so we can get to San Francisco and then Maui on time today.  Amen.  I believe."

We arrived back at the gate and were told that a customer service agent would board to help people determine what issues and choices they had for their connecting flights.  Wasn't sounding good.  After another 10 or 15 minutes just sitting at the gate again, still in our seats on the plane, the captain said the maintenance crew was working to resolve the issue and as soon as they did, we'd be on our way.  Good news at last! 

Finally, a flight attendant announced to all on board that we should be prepared for takeoff.  The pilot anachronistically followed, explaining the issue was resolved and we'd soon be on our way.  Though we were now almost 2 hours late, the pilot explained that with our expected flight time, we'd only be about an hour late arriving into San Francisco.  Since we had a three-hour layover anyway, we will still be on schedule for Maui! 

Mahalo, God!  Thank you for the blessing in response to an otherwise frustrating and stressful start to our vacation!

11:30 AM EDT

Parcels of land everywhere below me.  Though I’m not sure where over these United States the airplane I’m flying in is traveling, it isn’t obnoxious to use the easy phrase, “somewhere in the middle.”  But up here, though you can see where parcels of land are separated from one another, you can’t see county dividers or state lines.  If we were near the Canadian border, you wouldn’t be able to see where one country began and the other ended…or vice versa.  Up here in the sky, from God’s point of view, everything below is just earth, its land and water, and occasionally its people.  “One nation under God” is really this entire planet, this universe.  Because as much as we like to put up our walls and claim space, divvy up land and separate ourselves into governments and villages, we’re all just one nation, one people, inhabiting this one rock in the universe. 

Call these thoughts too-deep for a casual flight across the country and every time I’ll wonder why human beings don’t go deep more often!  The separations of church and state become comic up here, where you can’t even tell the separations from town to town.  Those on ground level without their heads literally in the clouds like me don’t even notice the plane in the air with the guy in the seat looking down and writing about their lives.  We ignore the deep questions the same way we ignore the everyday miracles of technology.  The farmer below me in the tractor I can’t even make out from up here probably doesn’t look up and wonder if I’ve used the bathroom yet, or been served my lunch, or what movie might be playing.  And that’s okay.  But the realization of the complexity of our lives on the ground doesn’t often come until we’re away on vacation, or flying through the air in a jet plane. 

My point is, life is a lot more beautiful, a lot more wonder-filled and simply full of grace when you let yourself appreciate it from a distance.  You don’t have to buy an airplane ticket or plan a vacation to get there either.  Just walk outside your house and go across the street and look back.  Watch your family, friends, or coworkers from a distance.  Just watch them.  Watch and appreciate all around you.  Don’t just stop and smell the roses, but look at them, appreciate them, value their place in your life. 

Up above, my fellow passengers and I are flying through the air high above life-livers down on earth.  The journey through life doesn’t always give us the sight lines I have now, the appreciation of the vast planet we inhabit, but even when we’re not flying through the clouds, we can still appreciate the journey we’re on.  Walls will come tumbling down—they always do.  Field demarcations and crop separations will eventually shift and move.  Counties may even be reconfigured and state lines changed one day.  The separations are in-transit too, even if they don’t seem so right now. 

As I write this, the only thing between me and the earth are clouds and air.  Whether your head is in the clouds literally or just figuratively, it’s not a bad place to be.  And sometimes, even a cloudy perception can be a clearer one.

1:13 PM EDT

It’s a pretty good day when you can wake up in New York, take a flight over New York City, gaze down at Central Park, a little bit later find yourself over the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, and after a brief respite in San Francisco, end your day on a white-sand beach on Maui.  I’m still in flight, en route as I write this of course, but the changing weather and landscape below and around me are incredibly inspiring.  Change is a constant, even if you need to take an airplane or two to traverse such climate and geographic shifts. 

The picture below changes all the time.  One moment you see Central Park, the next corn fields, and an hour or so later crop circles everywhere.  A little while more and you find yourself above white, puffy clouds, no ground in sight.  Some turbulence and more minutes, then the white is no longer cloud but cliff, the high peaks of the mountains caked in a vanilla creamy topping of fresh winter snow—in May.  The brown jagged landscape below me now at 11:20 AM or so mountain time (what an easy way to tell what time zone I’m in!) has all the character of a creased mud pile.  And yet, with the shadows of the clouds blotching their crinkle cut edges, these mountains are still just as beautiful as any park or green field or ocean. 

The shifting landscape below me keeps reminding me of the variety found in this country I’m blessed to live in.  3,000 miles across the continent from New York to San Francisco and then southwest across the Pacific another 2,000 miles to Hawaii, and I’ll have never left the United States of America!  Change everywhere and yet all still familiar, all still home.

It’s now been 7 hours since I boarded this flight west, and though the day started rockier than any turbulence we’ve yet felt, this journey continues to be amazing.  So much to appreciate out the window here in the present, and still so, so much to look forward to in the near future!

2:45 PM EDT

Coming out of the clouds and getting back on the ground.  This can be a good thing too!  As the first leg of my voyage comes to a close, the plane is slowly descending closer to the ground and soon I’ll be told to put my netbook away for now.  Bringing me back to Earth is a good thing.  I could use a break from the altitude and the view, even if it’s just for a couple of hours inside the airport in San Francisco.  Life back on the ground is where I belong.  Having my head in the clouds has been fun though so far!

7:00 PM EDT

The boarding gate area for this flight to Maui was filled with excitement.  Though Andy and I were tired and a little out of it, we felt the excitement too, but others were really talking it up.  You got the impression that many had been to Maui before, but were overjoyed at going back.  Still, even now a half hour or more into our flight, we don’t have the level of excitement we feel will overwhelm us once we’re there.  Perhaps like the planning of the vacation itself, the reality doesn’t really hit you until you’re there.  Will check in to this blog again in a little bit once my thoughts are a bit more centered on the destination just ahead of me.

7:57 PM EDT

Andy and I are officially lost in time.  In theory, it’s only 1:57 PM Hawaii Time, but we are supposed to land around 6 PM.  Can’t imagine we still have 4 more hours on this flight though, so yeah, we’re totally confused now.  We got approximately 4 hours’ sleep last night, awake at 4:30 AM, were on our first plane for about 8 hours, in the San Francisco airport 2-3 hours, and now we’re somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, nothing but deep blue water below us. 

It’s not a bad thing to be lost in time.  This is vacation, after all.  But having some bearing on what hour this is—let alone what day it is or isn’t—wouldn’t hurt.  I just had my first mai tai of my Maui trip.  Good ol’ Trader Vic’s and made in Minnesota, but it sure tasted yummy.  I can assure you though: I was lost in time before having a drink! 

United has a game for its passengers heading to Hawaii.  You have to guess the exact minute and second that we are halfway between the North American continent and Maui.  I’m sure some on board are much better at this game than we are, so we’re not expecting to win the beautiful color guidebook to Hawaii that the winner will receive.  Still, it was fun to play.

And now, ocean behind us, ocean ahead of us, Maui will not only be welcome land again, but also a welcome paradise out in the middle of the biggest ocean on this planet.  Aloha in advance, Maui!  We can’t wait to meet you at last!

10:16 PM EDT, 4:16 PM Hawaii Time

We’re now just minutes or an hour or so away (we think/we estimate) from arriving in the Hawaiian Islands.  This second plane ride really reminds you how far away Hawaii is from New York.  It’s just so, so, so far away, that your mind doesn’t even grasp this fact until you’ve crossed the continent and then taken a second plane out west across the ocean.  I’m sure my friends from Australia and New Zealand laugh at this fact, but it certainly makes me feel for them and the sacrifice of time it takes to come to New York when they do!

Anticipation is officially high.  The sluggishness, sleepiness, and apathy our zombie-like brains have been experiencing the last couple of hours is suddenly replaced with a renewed excitement of what is about to happen.  The flight attendant just announced we have about 35 minutes remaining!  Soon the islands will come into view.  Paradise will soon welcome us and reward our long day of travel with an aloha of awesome.

6:30 PM Hawaii Time, 12:30 AM NY Time

The car rental lot view: volcano + palm trees + a pack of roosters.  We've now come to the airport hotel where we are for the first night.  Sean: "We’re in Hawaii!  We’re on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!"  Andy: "And we’re hungry."

With that thought, we’re heading out to a local restaurant that comes highly recommended: Da Kitchen.  Hoping da food is tasty!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Grape #10: The Perfect Dream

In advance of my first trip to Hawaii, I find myself daydreaming hourly about where I'll soon be, the sights I'll soon see, the tastes and smells and sounds that will wash over me like a warm, gentle wave.  I woke up early this morning to do some more research for my trip, and as my mind got lost in a forest of imaginary palm trees, I realized that not even Maui will be perfect.  Not a somber note at all, just a realistic reminder of the truth: perfection is too much to expect of a place or a person.

Can you imagine having to live up to that expectation?  People arriving daily on your little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean expecting everyone to be constantly smiling, constantly joyful, constantly excited to be alive?  I imagine it just might be a challenge that soon wears thin.  Yes, Hawaii is a beyond beautiful location on this planet, and yes, living there must bring with it a special grace and calm, but perfection?  That's a tall, very unrealistic order!
The word perfect comes from the Latin words per (through) + fect (do), so when you perfect something, you do it through to completion, you finish the task.  And that's why no human being, no life can be perfect.  We're still present participles, doing our life.  We're not done until we're done.  In the same way, no place can be perfect, because every place, like every person, is going through change constantly.

So what does it say about us that we constantly pursue perfection anyway?  It says that we believe in the possibility of perfection.  We believe that there is a better place out there, whether in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or elsewhere on or off this planet.
Maui's not perfect, but I get the impression it is more perfect than a whole lot of other locales.  The ocean water is warm, the plant life is more exotic and rare, and the location is far from all of the troubles of the world we usually inhabit.  Our jobs and bills are thousands of miles behind us when we arrive in Maui, and that automatically makes it a paradise of sorts.  But the laws of the universe and the facts of life do still apply in Hawaii.  People still get sick, they suffer with diseases, and they die.  Most of those who live there have their jobs and their bills and their money woes.  Paradise on Earth it just isn't.

Yet the Aloha spirit you feel in Hawaii is much more than just a way of hyping the tourist industry.  Aloha is about relaxing more and kicking back, not letting stress get the better of you.  And even when perfection seems like a far away place for native Hawaiians, thousands of people arrive every day with the dream of perfection, the dream of pure bliss.  And that, if nothing else, is reason enough to keep believing in perfection on Earth. 
A child's joy and anticipation of Christmas, a bride's elation that her wedding day has arrived, the exhilaration graduates face when they finish high school or college, and a vacationer's expectation of bliss as they arrive in the Hawaiian Islands.  Perfection isn't reachable, but the hope and dream of perfection is, and that striving is more than enough to feed and grow our endless dreams come true.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Grape #9: Artificial Sweetness

Sometimes before I write something, I really don't know what to write about, so I pray to God for inspiration, and then ask myself what problems or trends I have spotted lately, what matters are really worth discussing.  What do people need to hear from me this week?  And that's when this one came to me: People need to stop being so fake!  If you're not happy and joyful, don't act happy and joyful.  If you're not really friends with someone, stop acting like you're really friends with someone.  God is allergic to artificial sweetness, and it makes no sense at all to be someone you aren't.

Ernest Hemingway once said, "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.  This is the writer's radar, and all great writers have had it."  I don't pretend to call myself a great writer, but I am grateful to have this particular gift for detecting bullshit.  It's served me well many, many times, and often keeps me from serving up my own dish of artificial sweetness to others.

So why do we do this as human beings?  Why do we pretend we're delighted to be with someone if we're not?  If a person just rubs us the wrong way, makes us feel uncomfortable, justifiably so or not, we shouldn't just act like the person is still our best buddy, or worse that we're still their best buddy.  It doesn't serve either party well to add fakeness to the equation.  That's the devil's game, and it's a twisted, backwards artificiality I want no part of.

The problem seems to be that people who choose to dish out this brand of artificial sweetener in their bowl of daily discourse feel they have to, that this is just how you're supposed to live your life and keep things friendly.  I'm sorry, but that is just pure bullshit.  You cannot bullshit me with your bullshitty bullshit about your preference for a bullshit-filled life.  I won't listen to it.  Most importantly, 99% of bullshitters, the compulsive liars out there, have no idea how transparent their lies are, how easily we can all see right through them.  It's as if they have built up an artificial wall, a Saran Wrap-like edifice that they stand behind as they make faces at passersby.  I'm sorry, do you think I can't see the real you?  Your choice to be fake does not serve you or help you, and everyone can see right through it.

Artificial sweetness is everywhere, and if I didn't see it from a lot of people, I wouldn't even be talking about it.  People who live with this syndrome literally believe they are right, that it is funny or wise of them, and it's just not.  I don't care if a person is your archenemy or just someone you're not friendly with.  Don't reduce your soul to this kind of meaningless artificiality. 

Now I'm not saying you should be rough and angry with them.  Civility, kindness, respect, and cordiality all have their place.  But don't act like someone is your best friend if they're not.  You deserve better, and hell, they deserve better!  Be friendly, be kind, but don't be fake.  Bullshit is a see-through, paper-thin device that breaks as soon as it's built up.  Stop using it, stop being a bullshitter, and just be you.  That's who you were made to be.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Grape #8: A Monk's Life

Someone recently asked me what my schedule was like when I lived as a vowed religious.  It feels like common knowledge to me, but I'm sure this will be news to most of you.  So here's a brief look into what things were like on a day to day basis inside the monastic life.  This reflection may stand out in style from my other grapes, but as always, every little bit of who we are is part of our relationship to divine/the vine.

Every monastery/order is different, so what I did while I was there will invariably be different from many other places.  My community was a teaching community, so we lived in a building attached to the high school that the Brothers owned and ran.  As I was just 18 when I joined in June of 1993, I still had college ahead of me.  The Brothers paid for our college completely, and I even went to the school I wanted to go to anyway (Manhattan College).  Manhattan College is in Riverdale, NY (The Bronx) and their community is on Long Island, so we commuted each day to school.

So on a normal weekday:

We'd wake up at 5:30 AM, have morning prayer and mass from 6:00 to 7:00, breakfast after until 7:30, and dishes briefly after that as a community (all of this was all 34 of us).

The older teaching brothers would head off to classes and offices in the school, while the young brothers (4-5 of us) would get on the road around 8 AM.  First class was 9:05 AM.

We'd drive back home after school, usually get in around 5 PM, do some school work (or occasionally nap!), have meditation in the chapel from 6:20 to 6:40, and evening prayer from 6:40 to 7:00.

Dinner would follow until about 7:45 (cooked by 3 of the Brothers and we'd all rotate in these jobs).  Dishes and cleanup afterward as a community.

Four nights a week from 8:30 to 9:20 PM or so, the young brothers would have a "house class" (with one of our superiors) about different courses relevant to life as a religious.

At 9:30 PM we'd join the rest of the community until 9:50 for night prayer (Compline). 10 PM was the beginning of "The Great Silence" when you couldn't speak too loudly in the halls and a lot of people went to bed. 

As a college student, I somehow had to squeeze in my studies too, and as I got my Bachelor of Arts in both English Literature and Theology through lots of classes to satisfy the double major, I must have gone to bed closer to midnight most nights.  Not nearly enough schoolwork time, but I found a way to make it work and fill in some studying throughout the school day too. 

As you can imagine, it was a full day every day!  Getting to bed by midnight and then up at 5:30 AM to shave and shower?  For an 18-22yo?  Not easy! 

Weekends were a little different:

Full bar on Friday and Saturday nights with dinner in a relaxed living room setting.

Mass Saturday was at 8 AM, and Sunday it was 9:30 AM (enough time for an hour and a half of tennis with another brother on warm days).

Saturdays were laundry day for the 4-5 young brothers, as the laundry of 34 men takes all day once a week!  Sometimes the older brothers would do this and we'd be assigned to other tasks around the house or the school.  In my 4 years there, I learned to paint, cook, and was an electrician's apprentice.  The brothers all had various talents, and we took care of 99% of everything needed to keep the community as self-sufficient as possible.

Once every 6 weeks or so, I was allowed to visit my family for about 6-7 hours on a Sunday.  I wouldn't go home for Christmas or my birthday or any holidays, as the brothers "were my family now".

And that's the short version!  

Life itself, its ups and downs, the interpersonal relationships for good and bad, the retreats and time off from school all changed the schedule slightly here and there, but for the most part, the above is a "brief" insight into what I faced for my four years as Brother Sean.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Grape #7: Holy Week Reflections

This Sunday is Easter, which means that this coming Saturday is Holy Saturday, this Friday is Good Friday, and this Thursday is Holy Thursday. Together, they make up the holiest days of the Christian calendar, and when we include this past Sunday (Palm Sunday), they are called "Holy Week".

Okay, so what does that mean to you? Well if you're not Christian, you're probably not even reading this. Assuming you are though, or at least curious enough to some level about why I'm writing this, Holy Week is really worth some heavy duty focus.

I've spent a lot of time reflecting on my faith and spirituality in the last few years, and I'm still not sure I believe that Jesus was God. I know, not exactly a kosher belief for a professed Christian. Here's how I look at it though: Jesus and God want me to be a good soul, a caring man, and a love-filled child of God more than they care what I believe. If getting into Heaven was like being hired at a new job, believing that Jesus is God incarnate is akin to putting your name above the first line instead of below it. It's an inconsequential edit, and whether we're right or wrong about what we believe, it's meaningless if we're the right person for the job.

So regardless of what you believe on that topic, I hope you and I can agree that Jesus was a pretty awesome dude. He preached love of God and neighbor as the supreme commandment, wined and dined with the so-called dredges of society, stood up to an angry mob and encouraged the one with the least amount of sins to throw that first stone, all while having people hate him and call him a bad person. Now that's awesome in my book. He didn't just show faith in the principles he taught. He lived them too.

On Thursday that week, Jesus celebrated the Passover dinner with his disciples one last time. He washed his disciples' feet to show them how important it was to always stay humble. Note there was no ring kissing or expensive palaces involved. He basically told everyone there that Judas was about to betray him. And he was right, of course. Judas went out, and for a few gold coins, turned Jesus in to the authorities. Peter tried to stop them, even brandishing a sword and chopping off a soldier's ear. Jesus healed the ear and chastised Peter not to live by the sword. Funny when you think of how simple Jesus made his teachings and how we just don't learn. Don't live by the sword, give to Caesar what is Caesar's, don't judge others if you aren't pure yourself. Simple stuff really.

In the garden that night, Jesus is said to have prayed that he be spared of this fate (his pending death the next day). He was human after all. And yet not even Jesus' prayers were answered. C. S. Lewis put it best: "In Gethsemane, the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed."

The trial was pretty short. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he really was the king of the Jews, as people called him. "You said it, not me," was his response. He wasn't trying to be a smart-ass; he was literally just telling the guy that he never said that, other people were just saying it about him. Pilate washed his hands of the situation, in a signal that he didn't want to be blamed for killing an innocent man. He had the power to stop it, but he let it happen. History and scripture tell us Jesus spent about three hours on the cross before he died.

And why do we call this day "Good"? Because Jesus gave up his life on purpose, to show us all he had that much confidence in the Heaven that awaited him. Like a parent jumping in the pool to prove to their child that the water is safe, or eating a vegetable to show them it tasted good, Jesus gave up his life on purpose to show his disciples that he knew Paradise awaited him. John the Baptist had exclaimed upon seeing Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" The Gospel authors and other New Testament writers speak of Jesus as dying for our sins, sacrificing himself, God sacrificing his only son for our sins. I'm not sure why it should matter how such an expulsion of sin would take place. What matters is that Jesus preached that we "go and sin no more", but he also said to the thief on the cross next to him that he would be with him that day in paradise. How this particular theology works or how you believe it is less important than how you live it. Know what Jesus did: that sin can be erased if we believe it can be, and paradise is a real place we can really go to when we die.

It makes sense that we have this in-between day. In Jesus' time as in ours, Saturday was the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week when God rested after creating all. As Jesus was meant to die on Friday and rise from the dead on Sunday, what was he doing on Saturday? Catching his breath? Catching up with dear old dad in Heaven before spending 40 last days on Earth? Maybe just "resting" in peace to honor the Sabbath? It's a mystery. More importantly, it doesn't matter. What matters is it gives us a day to reflect on the mysterious before and after, to be surrounded by the power of the divine. We "keep holy" this Sabbath before Easter when we use it to reflect on the unknowable, the amazing secrets we're not meant to know in this human life.


And finally the sun rises, as does the son. Christians wake up on Easter Sunday and celebrate the greatest miracle imaginable to any human being ever in the history of our planet: the conquering of death itself. Lent is over and Lenten resolutions for things given up can go back to normal. "Alleluia" can be sung once more at church. Pastel Easter colors are everywhere. And all because Jesus showed us that death is not really the end, just a new beginning.

It's the culmination of Holy Week, but of course more than that it's the culmination of Jesus' ministry on Earth, which lasted maybe three years in all. What better of an ending can this story have than to have Jesus kick back that boulder and exclaim, "I'm baaack!" Of course that's not what he did at all. Instead of showing up at Pilate's door and amazing everyone with his return, Jesus just appeared to his disciples. It would be up to them to tell others what happened in and after his life on Earth. Some will believe and some will not. People will just have to have a little faith.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Grape #6: The Sweet Joy Of Anticipation

As I've written about here recently, I'm in the midst of planning my first trip to Hawaii. Very exciting stuff! My partner and I don't leave until late May, but we've been planning it since before Christmas. And even though I'm still in New York, I'm totally loving my vacation already!

There's an anticipation that builds before a big vacation that increases your serotonin, that makes you happy just knowing it's coming. Research has proved that people live longer, happier lives when they keep planning activities, even well into their twilight years***.

So it's a clinically proven reality that anticipation itself can bring all the joy of the event that is anticipated. Who knew?! My 2 weeks on Maui is in some ways a six-month trip! Sweet! Enjoying a Mai Tai at my desk at work or sunbathing in the parking lot may not be a good idea, but boy am I enjoying looking at photos of where my physical form will soon be. And I'm truly jealous of my future self!

Anticipating a happy event or time in our life is a wonderful way to make us feel better no matter what our current surroundings may be. So if the work or laundry is piling up around you, or you're just feeling sluggish about someone or something in your day, keep a big old calendar or photo of the place or event you have to look forward to next. Just seeing an image in front of you is guaranteed to improve your mood.

And if you don't have anything to look forward to, start making plans today! It doesn't have to be Hawaii or anywhere else spectacular. It could just be a date with yourself for ice cream later in the week. And don't forget the hot fudge syrup with that serotonin! Mmm!

***Note to those under 30: The phrase "twilight years" represents that time in your life as the sun begins to set and old age is a reality. You will probably not turn into a vampire if you live past 80 years old. Results may vary.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Grape #5: Patience Is A Grr Chew

I'm a man of many virtues, but plenty of vices too, and one of my biggest vices is impatience. It's probably why my parents taught me the short verse below.
Patience is a virtue,
possess it if you can,
seldom found in women,
never found in man.
No matter how much of a peace-loving, tree-hugging, happy optimist I am, my short temper has gotten the best of me more often than not. Sometimes mistaken for genuine anger, my temper is almost always just a result of a loss of patience. A coworker or friend taking FOREVER to tell a story, a driver going only 45 miles per hour on the parkway, a Web page taking too long to load, or even just a loved one who isn't the perfect person I want him to be: These are just some of the things that can make me go absolutely CRAZY!!! Grr.
It's so silly really; I mean how will those extra seconds or even minutes hurt me? Not at all! And why should I expect anyone else to be perfect if I couldn't come anywhere near to perfection even if I sought it? Silly.

And so in the pursuit of "virtue", I remind myself to take those "grr" thoughts and "chew" on them a bit more. When they arrive--which they always will--I need to take a deep breath and realize that this is absolutely not worth getting upset over. There are too many real grrs in life for me to overreact so easily to the little ones.
Perpetual patience is not the type of thing we just get. We have to work on it, chew on it, and we'll probably never achieve it anyway. Pursuing virtues like patience is wonderful, but sometimes the pursuing, the reaching itself is the real virtue, the proof that we are at least trying to be better. So when the grr moments inevitably keep showing up, we have to just chew, chew, chew on them, instead of behaving badly in the face of them. 'Cause honey, we're just not pretty when we do that!

Patience is a virtue? Yes. But if you can't totally keep your cool during an extreme, impatiently grr-inducing moment, try chewing on it just a little. Don't grit your teeth too bad now, but keep your big ol' mouth shut and do your best to stay patient! It'll still be hard at times for impatient folks like us, but give it a grr chew, and keep on trying your best! Happy chewing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Grape #4: Loving The Road You're On

I'm in the midst of planning my first vacation to Maui. People keep asking me if I'm excited, and then they realize how silly a question that is. Even though Maui is filled with many beautiful resorts, the more you look at it, the more you realize just how much of a resort the entire island is. Plush rain forests, incredible waterfalls, gorgeous beaches with crystal clear ocean water: Maui's beauty is just astonishing. And I haven't even gone yet!

Apparently one of the coolest things to do on Maui is called "The Road To Hana", a long, winding road along the cliffs of eastern Maui that takes you into the town of Hana. But the town itself isn't the destination. "The Road" is. It's the drive itself that brings tourists from the comfort of their resorts on the west side of the island all the way to the other end.

Sometimes the destination we seek is already right where we are, if we take the time to appreciate the road itself. If we spend all our time expecting and hoping, we'll miss the real goal: accepting and coping. John Powell once said, "A person can grow only as much as his horizon allows." And I believe and love that kind of thinking! But if your soul is only focused on the end result, you'll miss a whole lot of the view along the way.

Maybe the road from your house to your job is no "Road To Hana", and maybe the way you go to do your food shopping is hardly filled with waterfalls and sandy beaches. But if your soul isn't "on" during the workday, or on the drive to the market, or even when you're doing the laundry, you're missing an awful lot of life. Some people seem absolutely glued to the notion that life is about putting up with a lot of crap in between weekends. If we live life only for the weekends though, we're just living 2/7 of our life!

I like to believe that Heaven is just the beginning of many new adventures, and not just an end-game destination where we sit around and "rest in peace". So it makes sense for me that I'd make my life about going from adventure to adventure too. You can't get me on a zip line or a roller coaster, but I do like to find lots of little adventures in my life and in each new day.

There will always be days when you have to remind yourself to appreciate your blessings, when people around you and circumstances you're dealing with just weigh you down. But that's part of what "The Road" is by its very nature.

Interestingly, the word "Hana" in Hawaiian literally means work, job, duty, or activity. It makes sense, too, because even though a drive along The Road To Hana is incredibly beautiful, it's also very dangerous. Single-lane bridges and speeding drivers can make the trip really scary at times. While appreciating the beauty in every direction, you also have real work to do as you focus on the road itself.

So as you go through this day, and the next, and the one after that too, focus on "The Road". Honor its importance, and keep yourself safe. The destination will arrive when it's time, and we'll have more destinations after that. But for right now, appreciate the trip itself too. The journey to the "end point" is the end point on this circle of life, because there is no real end point! Do your Hana, your work, but always remember to love the road you're on.