Charlie’s Little Book
For my son on his wedding day
Preface ………………………………………………………………………………………… 3
Kindness ………………………….…………………………………………………………….. 9
Grace ……………………………………………………………………………………….. 18
Wonder ………….…………………….……………………….……………………………… 27
Pride and Humility ……………………………………………………………………………………….. 37
Religion ………………………………………………………………………………………… 47
Afterlife: Life and Beyond …………………………………………………………………………………………. 62
Money ………………………………….………………………….…………………………. 69
Happiness …………………….…………………………………………………………….…… 82
Love ……………………………………………….………………………….…… 99
Courage …………………………………………………..…………………………………… 104
Friends ……………………………………………….……………………………………… 110
Day to Day …………………….……………………….………………………………………. 122
Charlie’s Little Book
Throw yourself like seed.
Miguel de Unamuno
If you looked me in the teeth, you wouldn’t buy me.
I’ve got lousy teeth, and I’m getting old. I’m pretty young to be this broken down. I’m only in my sixties, and my list of maladies could depress an osteopath. But –- it was worth it.
I was fifteen years old when I made what seemed to be a reasonable decision. I had been confronted for the first time with the reality of death. A friend committed suicide. I felt the loss and frustration. I wondered then if I might take my own life. But, at least for me, suicide at fifteen just seemed – premature. What if there is something wonderful to discover in this life, and my deceased friend just hadn’t found it yet? What if it isn’t even that wonderful, but there is something to be found here, something so deeply consoling and healing, so profoundly True beneath it all, that it can make all the pain and absurdity of this life worth while, or bearable, or meaningful? That is, maybe there really is some great reason to live. And if any of that is even possible, then the Main Thing in life is to find that purpose. Or find, at least, your purpose. To die before even looking for it is just sad, like washing out to the minors without getting a single at bat. Like Moonlight Graham.
So I inwardly resolved to try everything I could in this life before giving up on the quest. I set out to throw myself recklessly into every experience life could offer me. No net, no breastplate, no landing gear. Just try it and see. I didn’t know, not having discussed such a notion with anyone, that this was something of an unusual course to pursue. Aren’t we all here to do exactly that?
I didn’t want any shields. I didn’t want to be protected from life. Admittedly, I had only been living for fifteen years. But somehow I sensed that through my scant fifteen years I had actually been alive for about ten minutes.
Life would be my teacher. I would make lots of wrong turns, meet amazing and outrageous people, embrace catastrophe, and I would pay attention. I determined to dive into this unpredictable tidal ocean of life and wear no goggles. My eyes would stay open, and for the most part, I would learn from the consequences.
That decision, at that age, led to a few problems. I became a problem. (I already was.) My poor parents were trying to protect me; all I wanted was uncensored reality.
It led to weird cults in the Catskills, midnight trysts in St. Louis, jazz in Savannah, cocaine in Cambridge, small arms in Israel and knife fights in Paris. It led to heartache and emptiness like a country song. Jackson Brown sang, “Dr. My Eyes” and I wondered with him, “Have they been open for too long?” It led to spiritual quests and physical challenges. By seventeen I was a Merchant Marine deckhand working a freighter. I lived with sensational women and Satan worshipers. I worked factories and warehouses, I dug ditches in FL and drove trucks and even, for a little while, a taxi out of Kenmore Square in Boston. I was a guest of jailers in Polk County, FL and Norfolk County, MA. I got to know doughboys from WWI and the guitar player from Fleetwood Mac. I climbed mountains and High Tension Wire Towers. I tried every drug that came along.
And there is more to life. I started to read, wide and deep. Homer, Melville, C. S. Lewis, John Irving, Dickens and Dostoyevsky, Eric Hoffer and Montaigne. I studied Greek, Latin, French and Hebrew. I read poetry by T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. I read novels, non-fiction, and self-help books. And I read the classics. I planned my reading year by year. I was acquiring an education. I wanted to know what everyone thought. I read Sartre and Camus, Bonhoeffer and Emily Dickinson. I read most of Shakespeare and some Harvard Classics. I got into Jung and his disciples. I went back to school and earned a doctorate in Spirituality and Communication.
Outdoors, from Walden Pond to Big Sky, MT, I hiked trails, camped by the river, scaled rock walls, fished for trout and hammerheads, and skinny-dipped in cold mountain streams. I spent months in a cabin in New Hampshire.
I fell in love and broke my heart. I fell so hard for the mythic Girl with the Golden Hair, for a “guilded” moment I projected onto some lovely adolescent girl all the meaning, fulfillment and happiness I was looking for. I found it all! Then she wanted to try being just friends. It took me years to gain perspective on that episode. Years and Robert Bly’s
Hippies, Jesus Freaks, the Counter Culture, the Underground, SDS, the Men’s Movement, Dead Heads, Unitarians, Benedictines, Sufis, Buddhists… yup. I was there. I grew up in what was a colorful time, without doubt. My decision at fifteen dates to 1967. The “Summer of Love.” There were plenty of alternatives to be experienced.
I worked with people throughout my career. I tried to fit (don’t laugh) into the Presbyterian Church. (Hey.) I became a pastor. While the institution constantly fought to constrain my personality and opinions, the job offered me the opportunity to talk and listen with people going through every imaginable fate. A young driver killed a seven year old boy; a promising college sophomore fell asleep behind the wheel; they found him naked and dead in the hallway in a hotel where he was not a registered guest; she’s leaving him for the guy at work, he’s leaving her for the babysitter; the escort he hired for one night fell in love and began stalking him, he never asked to be gay; she has lupus, he has aids; her son took his life; her husband forces her to have sex with strangers, could I convince her mother not to send her back to her father in TX? I learned how easy it is to make life hard – and just how hard it can get.
I knew two professional killers, and one former Army Ranger who was considering an offer for the job. Schizophrenics, Border Line Personalities, Iditarod racers, Mykonos and Santorini, drunken women and bipolar girls, overdoses, car wrecks, violent sailors, moose on the trail, snakes basking on rock walls. I have several scars, which tell their stories. Then I have a few I just can’t identify at all. I have no idea how I got that clean cut over one kidney.
… I can get carried away.
My point is, nearly forty years ago I set out to “hurl myself like a spear into Life with all my might.” Now it is time to regroup and reflect. Did I learn anything? Did I find anything?
Jump into experience while you are alive!
This is what I learned.
Life is short and we have never too much time
for gladdening the hearts of those
who are travelling the dark journey with us.
Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.
Henri Frederic Amiel
Just a quick note following up on last weeks’ meeting.
Are you still OK for bringing all the necessary numbers to our meeting,
This Thursday at 7:00?
As I recall we talked about retro gradation and possible insurance.
There it is. That’s how I would frame a typical email. I have to edit it to appear kind and caring. I add enough faux concern to imitate what a naturally kind person might send:
How are you? And how are Leanne and the kids. Did Aaron have to go to the doctor?
Do you remember our last meeting of the Billiards and Bourbon gang? Do you need any help, or are you set to bring numbers to this week’s meeting at the Steele’s?
Let me know if you need anything, and,
There actually are some people in this world who really think that way. I’ve met a few. They tend to put the person over the task. They go a meeting of five persons, and end up talking with three of them, individually, privately and deeply. Ask how the meeting went, and they are likely to catch you up on Dawn’s kids.
I’ve been trying for forty years to train myself to be kind. If you knew me then, you’d agree, I am making great progress. Still, I have a long way to go. “Can I help you?” Just doesn’t occur to me enough. My first instinct is to make sure I survive, then I’ll get around to you. That is pretty much just human. But there are those marvelous exceptions, from Mother Theresa to Gandhi.
One of the kindest people I ever met in my life I had the chance to get to know a bit. She helped me out a few times. She helped a few others while I had an opportunity to watch. She was quiet, and she loved children. She planned to be a teacher, hoped for a kindergarten class. In our language kind and gentle are lumped together to create a clichéd description. Such flattery is mostly reserved for obituaries. But she actually was kind and gentle – by temperament. It seemed to me, watching her, that she didn’t have to first react to a situation out of any survival or selfish instincts, and then rethink and reenter with a more kind response. Her first instinct seemed to be towards kindness. So, I married her.
I have no idea where I came across the legend of the happy old woman. She was known far and wide as one of the happiest people alive. As she came near to her passing, more and more folks asked her how had achieved a life of such demonstrable happiness. She told them a little story, a fable perhaps:
When she was a little child, she was spoiled, and as a result, unhappy. She whined quite a bit, especially on the rare occasion when she didn’t get her way. Then one day while was outside, all alone, she came across a faerie. The magical being flew to her shoulder, and whispered in her ear the secret to her happiness:
“Wherever you go and whoever you meet – they have need of you.” Once she began each acquaintance with this premise, she found a life of joy. And that was all the secret was.
As for me, I got serious about kindness shortly after moving to rural Indiana. I once drove a cab out of Kenmore Square in Boston. When we moved to farm country, I had to learn to drive over again. Here there were no special rules for aggressive driving. If you jumped a green light, you got hit. They just didn’t expect any slick moves from the city. At the grocery, you wait patiently in line while the woman in front of you shows the cashier her recent pictures of her grandkids. You don’t bother to use your blinker, because everyone knows where you turn. Small town life.
I realized that I grown up in the high paced, competitive suburbs of Boston and Philadelphia. I was an East Coast Asshole. I had been raised to be an asshole. I put me first. I was task oriented. The problem was always: you need people to get the task done. And that’s always where it gets complicated. People ….
So, back in the days of Mom and Pop video stores, I rented all I could find of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. I needed to learn patience, grace under fire, tact and charm. So I tried. Later I began a men’s group with the name, “The Nice Guys.” We watched movies like The Doctor, Regarding Henry, A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life and others we called, Nice Guy Movies. Each story is very different, but each is about a middle aged man who hits a life crisis, realizes that he has lived most of his life as a machine, treating others as machines, and wakes up to a different way of living, becoming, through artifice or crisis, a Nice Guy. Could we learn the lesson without, say, getting shot in the head, or developing throat cancer?
I’m still working on it. I honestly consider it one of my life’s works. I inherited some, and I formed a lot of my temperament in my earliest years. But I married an excellent role model (she couldn’t stop being kind if she tried), and I am still chipping and molding and shaping the marble of me.
I hop out of the shuttle, carrying my toothbrush. The fellow next to me is trying to carry five pieces of luggage. This could be a chance to show a little kindness …
The baby keeps crying, whatever they do, and everyone else in the restaurant knows it, by now. The three other kids aren’t helping. This could be an opportunity …
She’s not really that qualified on paper, but she really wants the job, and she seems to be a quick learner …
Life is full of opportunities for kindness. Is that the same thing as saying, life is full of jerks and assholes. They will jump the light, they will cut you off, and they will lie about you, lie about money, and lie to you. They will earn your trust and then betray you. They will give you lots of opportunities to practice kindness. Count on it.
Kindness is not cowardice. Kindness does not ask us to avoid conflict, or to be cautious in our emoting, or to resist temptation in general. Maybe sainthood calls for some of that. Kindness is real. Kindness has something to do with the agape type of love, of seeking what’s best for others before you. Just remembering to put others first is being kind.
In the big train wreck of the imagination, Agent A kicks his way through a little rubble and safely makes it out. He stands by the side of the tracks, grateful to be alive, waiting for help. Agent B was also unharmed, but he is still inside the derailed passenger train, helping the injured make it to the exit.
Agent B is acting in kindness.
Once again, the proof of the pudding is in actions. Kindness has little to do with how we happen to be feeling. It is all in what we do.
The thing is, in sending Emails, you have a chance to go back and edit, add to or change what you drafted. In the real world of action, you get one chance.
In Other Words ….
[“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
―] _ Mark Twain_
[“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”
―] _ Dalai Lama XIV_
[“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
―] _ Henry James_
[“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
[“Knowing the truth is not always a kindness.”
―] _ Rosamund Hodge_
[“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.”
―] R J Palacio
[“Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.”
―] _ George Sand_
[“The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.”
―] _ Oscar Wilde_
[“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.”
―] _ Kahlil Gibran_
[“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”
―] _ Ralph Waldo Emerson_
[“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
[“I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.”
―] _ Mother Teresa_
[“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
―] Franklin D. Roosevelt
We are born broken,
We live by mending,
The grace of God is the glue.
How many times have I walked into a room, only to forget why I am there? You do it too. I used to get so angry with myself,
“Idiot! Total idiot! Now look at all this wasted energy, just because you can’t remember ANYTHING! It was probably important too! You idiot!”
You might recognize that tone of self address. Then a few years ago I got a diagnosis: I have actually developed a vascular, cognitive disease that diminishes my short term memory. So I actually have -- better than an excuse, I have a reason. So now I say to myself,
“Well, of course you can’t remember, you have a disease.”
The difference between these two responses is how I have come to think of grace. Acceptance or rejection. Disapproval or love.
Growing up under a barrage of criticism, I can easily project that stern, judgmental voice onto God, or my Id. Once I decide God is constantly waiting for me to screw up so He/She can hammer me again, I lose the experience of grace. I go passive aggressive: Poor me, the gods are angry at me. Then I do screw something up and PROOF!
“See! You dumbshit!”
Well, anyway. Grace just doesn’t do that. Grace exists all around us, in all kinds of realities and norms and situations. Anytime we feel accepted, welcomed, loved, appreciated, we are experiencing grace. About a year into my seven years as Fire Department Chaplain, I asked the chief whether I should stop at the scene if I happen to come across a team of first responders.
“Of course you should stop, Chuck. You’re not a problem. You are one of us. You’re on the force. We’re a team.”
I felt accepted. It’s a great feeling.
Lots of people have had inexplicable, apparently supernatural experiences of some kind. In fact, pollsters have found that one out of three Americans have undergone some sort of life changing supernatural phenomenon or encounter. We don’t talk about it very much, we don’t want to sound weird, and we think we’re the only one it ever happened to. But if you ask for malevolent encounters – they are very rare. Many of those described involve some kind of ghost. The point is, those perceived encounters with a god, or supernatural being, or death and eternity were overwhelmingly positive. A few patients who seem to “die” on operating tables then “come back” will report a negative, frightening memory. But nearly all of them tell of music and light, warmth, peace and grace.
For theologians grace is the “Unmerited favor of God.” The stress is usually more on the unmerited than on the favor, which is too bad. Feeling the favor of God can be quite fun. Remember “Chariots of Fire”:
“When God made me, He made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”^1^
And for the rest of us, just feeling favor is a pretty good feeling. Early on, as I struck out for “freedom” I made a mess of my life in a couple of ways. Following a big conversion experience, I shipped out to Bible School. The conversion was OK, but I found I had leapt into a distinct sub-culture of Pentecostalism, a sub-culture I would soon outgrow. So while I now embraced Christianity, grace was a far row away. It was pretty much all about the rules.
Then one day my past caught up to me, and I experienced – unmerited favor.
*** *** ***
The United States Marshals Service technically falls under the executive branch, but they work with the U. S. courts. They are charged to protect justices and officers of the court. They work with prisoner transport; and they apprehend fugitives. Fugitive apprehension is the high profile, the most dangerous and thrilling part of the job; when they show up in movies (The Fugitive) or T.V. shows (Justified) they are chasing bad guys. When you skip out on your probation officer, the Federal Marshals come after you.
It took them almost two months to find me. I think I was a low priority. Nevertheless, I remember when they showed up. A guy in a suit knocked on the door of my classroom, then walked in. Another guy stood outside, his hand on his hip covering a holstered gun. The guy in our room said he was here for Charles Denison, so I stood up. “I’m a Deputy Federal Marshall, you come with me.” I walked down the hall between the two guys; I had no idea what we were doing or why they were here. “Interstate Flight, kid.”
“Flight from what?”
“You broke parole in Florida. Remember that?”
“Do I look like I’m kidding?”
We walked past the secretary’s desk and into the Dean of Student’s office. I was introduced to a judge from somewhere nearby. We began a conversation about my crimes, my history, my conversion, life at Trinity Bible Institute, and the severe consequences I faced for jumping probation and fleeing across state lines. Two deputy marshals, the Dean of Students, a circuit judge, and me.
They were right. They had the law on their side. Not only did I screw up by stupidly trying to steal beef from Costa Rica, now I had also fled probation. I could go to federal prison. I could do time in the Polk County Jail. I could be extradited back to Florida and ordered to work the mines. I was twenty years old, and I began to realize that my future hung with this meeting. The Dean did his best to support my rehabilitation. I was in a tiny town in rural North Dakota, where I couldn’t get into much trouble if I went looking. The judge listened more than he talked. The Marshals wanted to get me on a plane back to Florida. That was their job. They had a pile of papers, my file -- extradition papers, an arrest warrant, and my record. They didn’t think we had much to talk about. The judge was supposed to sign the papers, and we would be on our way.
I was trying to explain my changed life. I would do anything they said, but –
“You’re damned right you will.” Chimed in a helpful deputy.
My palms were starting to sweat, when the unexpected Grace Note rang. The judge picked up the papers, put on his reading glasses, and made a show of going over them, silencing us all. Papers in hand he began his ruling.
“Well, seems to me the goal of this whole process, this apprehension, extradition, trial and sentencing … the goal is supposed to be rehabilitation. Your rehabilitation, Charles Denison. Now you say you’ve become a believer, and you’re here in the middle of the Dakotas to study the Bible, and to become a minister. I believe you’re sincere in all of this. Frankly I just can’t think of a better rehabilitation. “
He took my file in both hands now, and began to slowly tear it down the middle.
“So, why don’t we just forget this whole thing.”
It wasn’t a question, or a suggestion. It was a judgment.
“Charles, you can go back to class.”
“And thank you gentlemen….” He began to talk with the Marshals, but I didn’t stay to listen. I was jogging my way back to Intro to the Old Testament, amazed at everything I’d just been through, amazed that “Love is the fulfillment of the Law.” Amazed at Grace.
“I want first of all… to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact—to borrow from the language of the saints—to live “in grace” as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony. I am seeking perhaps what Socrates asked for in the prayer from the Phaedrus when he said, “May the outward and inward man be one.” I would like to achieve a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God.”
― Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea
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"My best friend, my favorite teacher, my mentor and bandmate, my dad has left a profound impact on me. He’s made me who I am and encouraged me to grow and strive and not be afraid to be myself. His words and his example have improved my life in numerous ways and on numerous occasions. It’s hard to even begin to put it all down. And I don’t have to, really. He did it for me. On the night before the wedding, before dropping me off at home before the big day, my dad presented me with the most sensational wedding gift: Charlie’s Little Book by Chuck Denison (for my son on his wedding day). That’s right. As a wedding gift, my dad presented me with a 129-page book all about what he’s learned in life and what he feels is essential to be a good man. The book covers kindness, grace, wonder, pride/humility, religion, love, money, happiness, courage and more. Considering my dad raised me, there is a lot I already knew, but there is still something to learn or something important to be reminded of every time I look through it. This is no ordinary wedding gift: it’s powerful and wise instructions on how to live and how to live right. 'Nearly 40 years ago I set out to ‘hurl myself like a spear into life with all my might.’ Now it is time to regroup and reflect. Did I learn anything? Did I find anything? This is what I learned...'"