Friday, October 29, 2021


 As I took my evening walk and passed a familiar spot last night, I thought of Toby. It was altogether appropriate I would think of him while walking, since he taught me how to walk. And the spot was familiar, because it was special to him.

It all started with our daughter. She brought Toby home with her one day. Perhaps her mother knew Toby was coming, but I had no clue till he appeared.  He was good looking (one might even say cute) and seemed quite friendly. So I didn’t object to his presence. Most important, he wasn’t in the habit of barking. I still have a picture in my mind of my daughter and a friend playing with him outside on the lawn that first day.

When I was growing up we never had pets, unless you counted my baby chicks, but that’s another story. I probably didn’t know this dog was coming as I likely wouldn’t have been that supportive. But once Toby was with us, I became accustomed to his presence, even enjoyed it. That was before my daughter left for college and left Toby behind. What happened to the, “I’ll take care of him” pledge, as colleges don’t seem too happy about dogs in the dormitory.  

Care-taking Toby needed to be passed on to someone else. My major responsibility became an early evening walk. This was a struggle! Toby didn’t know how to walk, at least as I understood it. If I were to describe what we did in his terms, we didn’t go on a walk, we went on a smell. Every few steps we had to stop for a smell. Or once in a great while, he got a sniff of something far off and would run like crazy to get to the next stop. In all of this, I am on the end of a leash, not one of those expanding leashes, but one that keeps you connected to the creature pulling you.

I set out on a mission to train this dog and teach him how to walk, human style. Each time he would stop for a smell I would say, “no Toby, we are walking,” and pull on the leash. He would resist, as if to say, “no Carl, we are smelling.” And so it went, for weeks on end.

Then one evening, as we passed what I now call the “familiar” spot, Toby decided to do his business there. It was at a fire hydrant. Only this time, for some reason, Toby backed up to the hydrant, climbed up it a few inches with his back legs, and dropped his dog poop at the base of the hydrant. I’d never seen such an outrageous and hilarious dog stunt in my life. It endeared me to Toby in a new way and that familiar spot saw similar activity as the weeks and months went by; always climbing with his back legs.

Our walking habits changed. I waited for a smell. Toby responded to a gentle tug. We walked more in harmony. I quit worrying about how long it would take to get where we were going. I quit trying to “train” Toby to walk like a hurried and harried human. He acknowledged my attention and gentleness with new found responsiveness.

Another thing changed. Toby started to look at me. I mean really look at me, eye to eye. When he wanted to walk, when he wanted my attention for something, anything, he would simply come over to me and look at me. I could be reading the paper. He would just stand there, no barking, till I realized he was looking at me and gave him my attention. He modeled patience and persistence; always good traits for humans as well as dogs.

What is it about our relationship to other than human creatures, that speaks of connection, of intimacy, of common origin? How is it we can eye each other and see deeply? How is it that watching them, we humans can learn to fly, to swim, to walk?

I’ve learned how to walk from Toby. You might say I amble. There’s no great hurry! It’s OK to smell and gaze and be in awareness of the world around you. But perhaps I learned something even more significant. Animal or human, we do best when we befriend another when they operate on a different wavelength than us; rather than trying to change them to ours. It’s as simple as saying, we can learn too, and even a dog can teach us. 

Carl Kline

Friday, October 22, 2021


There’s a storage area under the eaves that has been receiving my outdated letters and papers for somewhere around forty years. Since it’s obvious at this point in my life historians will not be pondering over all of my old personal records, the sluggish process of disposing of boxes of files has begun. In some instances, I find myself thinking, “why in heavens name did I save that?”

Not so the most recent box. It has taken me several days, working sporadically, to empty it. The box contained old correspondence. Most of the letters, post cards, Christmas missives, thank you’s and miscellaneous announcements and invitations were disposable, after they were carefully reviewed. It has been an adventure into the past.   

One thing was quickly obvious. People communicated in letters. Some of the eight and ten page letters I had to save, simply to prove to others that people used to put the pen to paper to share what they were doing and thinking.

It’s not like today, where we’re lucky to get an email with more than a paragraph or two. Since I’ve had a computer, I can only think of two lengthy emails I’ve received, like personal letters. These days, if you really want to find out what’s going on in the life of another, you need to plan a time for Zoom or Skype or some manner of virtual engagement. That’s even true for those friends and acquaintances a world away.

Mail between the U.S. and India used to take weeks. I’d be home before my wife would receive the post card I sent from Delhi three weeks earlier. Now, I don’t get any of those old blue airmail letters from friends in India. I don’t even know if those materials exist in 2021. You wrote on one side of the thin paper and folded it so the address could be placed on the other side, and the sticky stuff was right there waiting for your saliva to seal it. It was surprising how small a person could write and how much could be said on one thin page; that sometimes slipped over onto the back where all could see it. I’ve had to save a few of those letters, just so the great grandkids will believe me.

There were so many letters in my box that began, “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write.” Then they would say how they started a letter several times before, but weren’t quite sure they were ready. They didn’t know if their thoughts were all together or if they had the words yet to say it well. It made you realize that this was an important missive. There was something of importance they wanted to communicate and you were a trusted receiver. In most cases the assumption of import was accurate, as they wrote about critical life happenings or decisions. Sometimes it’s easier to put personal things down on paper that are harder to communicate in person.  

Some correspondents made their own envelopes out of all manner of creative material: a colorful magazine picture; a recent event poster; a paper sack; an old photograph. Another would always send a home made card out of thick paper, with a picture of a flower she had taken on the cover.

Even though years have passed, reading those twenty and thirty year old letters made me wonder, “where are they now? I know he’s not in Zimbabwe; is she still in Germany?” It even led me to do a couple of internet searches, without success. I guess you need more recent personal knowledge than something thirty years old.               

There were several surprises in the box. One was a letter from my older brother about the distribution of my father’s ashes. That was long forgotten. Another was an envelope with two drawings of owls, a special bird for me and known only by close friends; but I don’t know who drew them. Many of the longest and most revealing letters came from participants in intercultural education programs I led in India or Native American communities here in South Dakota. It made me realize how three weeks of living and learning together in new and different cultural settings can have a profound affect on a person and deepen relationships with others.
In the end, that was my primary reminder from the correspondence box. As we live in a culture that is always asking more of us, keeping us busy with the work of accumulation, it’s helpful to get away with others into a different space, where we can observe and be still. Good learning environments enable us to offer, not take! And good relationships require time and space, and sometimes the written word.

Carl Kline

Friday, October 15, 2021

Sheh'hecheyanu Moments


I’ve been enjoying sheh’hecheyanu moments more consciously over the last couple of weeks - those “first time since COVID” moments that simply invite gratitude and blessing.

The first time  since the beginning of the pandemic that our small family gathered for dinner indoors around our dining room table; the first time in a year and a half, walking into our beloved neighbor’s home vaccinated and unmasked, for a few shared moments over tea; the joyful reunion of our Torah study group, resuming our weekly pot-luck supper and sacred conversation.

Until we “lost it”  I had always taken for granted the central role that “table fellowship” has always played in the well-being of our lives - - the simple act of eating together  with others and conversing around a common table.  ZOOM has filled the gaps in many ways, keeping us connected with family and friends while it seemed so unsafe to gather together in person. I thought we coped pretty well with life on the small screen.  But the joy I felt as I welcomed real live human beings in real time into our kitchen made the  ZOOM connections feel pale by comparison.

ZOOM kept us well connected with our various faith communities - Shabbat services on Friday evening and Saturday morning, Sunday morning worship, Buddhist meditation on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings.  We did not lack for sustaining, nourishing spiritual connection.

But then there was the first Friday evening beach service - - in person!  And then the first Shabbat morning service in the synagogue - in person!  The first time we entered the church sanctuary on a Sunday morning -masked, vaccinated, socially distanced - - in person!

With each encounter there were the slight hesitancies.  Mask?  No mask?  Hugs?  No hugs?  Fist bumps? Elbow bumps?  Hip bumps? Handshakes?  Each encounter a “first time” event to be joyfully (and carefully) celebrated with gratitude.

So a pronounced sense of joy and gratitude blossoms with each renewed connection as we learn to navigate on the big open screen of life again.

“Coming out” of the most intense time of the pandemic is a slow and tender process.  We are still all at very different comfort levels regarding masking, social distancing, vaccinating, touching…
Each encounter brings an opportunity for gracious loving respect of one another as we find our way through  these tenuous “re-openings” in our lives.

Until I lost it, I did not know or recognize the depth of soul connection that happens around shared food and fellowship.  I began to understand in an ever more real way the meaning and centrality of table fellowship in the portrayals of Jesus in the gospels.  I feel a different connection with the meaning of the sharing of food with the multitudes, with the “dinner at home” scenario in the home of Mary and Martha, with Jesus at dinner with a despised tax collector, with the 12 gathered together for a final meal with their Beloved Teacher.

Then of course there is the soul connection that happens during Kiddush following Shabbat services as we harmonize in blessing the Holy One who brings forth bread and the fruit of the vine.  The ritual gets translated into Christian terms on the first Sunday of each month in our congregation - and the richness of communion, table fellowship, in person, draws us together in new ways, deeper in meaning than was even possible pre-COVID.

So many “first time” moments as we measure time from the beginning of the pandemic.

So it is appropriate to bless these moments, even moment to moment, as we celebrate each familiar experience new, for the first time, with joy and gratitude.

Sheh’hecheyanu - - a brakha or blessing for celebrating the first time in the cycle of a year or in one’s life that a special event occurs.  This blessing helps us to feel deep gratitude and to  celebrate new experiences.  Indeed, each moment of “coming out” of the worst of the pandemic is an invitation to bless the Source of Life: Baruch atah adonai, eloheynu melech ha’olam, sheh’hecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu la’zman ha’zeh.   Blessed are you, Sovereign of all the Worlds, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this time.  

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, October 8, 2021

"Pooh and Piglet"

 I sat with him earlier this week. Grief permeated the room. He had experienced the death by drowning of a long time friend and house guest the week before.  The story spun out.  “We were out kayaking.  The sun was warm.   We decided to beach the kayaks and go for a swim.  The ocean looked calm enough - inviting.  Not in the water 5 minutes and a strong rip current started to pull us out.  I had been in rip currents before and knew not to panic. Even after so many years of friendship, I didn’t know my friend was not a strong swimmer. I shouted to him not to panic…to roll over on his back and let the water carry him…we could swim parallel to the shore and make our way out of the current. Fear took over. I got to him…tried to keep him afloat…the waves kept washing over us…his face turned gray…he rolled over - face into the water…I knew he was gone…I held on to him as long as I could…had to let go and head for shore for help…all too late.  I was his host. I was responsible for his safety.  I am in such a dark place now…I  should have known…I am responsible.”

Loving friends bring food.  Texts of condolence keep “pinging.”  Well-meaning folks say “You are not to blame…it was an accident…you did everything you could.”  

Not helpful.  When I ask what message I might convey to people who want to visit or call my friend says “Just tell them not to say ‘You are not to blame.’ It makes things worse.”

For two hours, we sat and talked, or, rather my friend talked and I listened, as he poured out his anguish at the loss of his dear friend. He had held his friend in his arms and watched him die. In the very center of his personal truth, he felt responsible for his friend’s life and for his death. And, indeed, to say “You are not to blame” only inflamed the terrible wounding - - not permitting him to feel the darkest depths of his pain within the safe surround of another human being.  How courageous of him to be able to say how much the denial of his truth further wounded him.

I wondered about how often I might have said something similar, perhaps attempting to make myself more comfortable in the face of unspeakable suffering.  Knowing my friend’s truth made it all the more possible to sit with him in his ash heap without feeling like I needed to make him or myself feel better.  To be able to sit in silence in the darkest truth is a gracious gift.  I came away blessing him for the time we shared.

As I was leaving his home, he said “You are Pooh and Piglet.”   I must have looked a bit startled.  He explained about the story of Winnie The Pooh and Piglet visiting their gloom and doom donkey friend Eeyore.  Eeyore was not having a good day and was not good company.  Pooh and Piglet just sat with him.  And little by little, Eeyore began to feel a little better.

A new honorific to be sure - - “Pooh and Piglet.”

On waking this morning, I began to make my own meaning of the event as my friend had described it.   He had done three most holy acts of Being in the rough waters of the rip current.  He was Presence for his friend at the risk of his own life - Presence for his friend to the end.  He was generous Unconditional Love - not withdrawing Presence until it was clear that it was no longer needed. He was Witness to his friend’s passing.  His friend did not die alone.  He died in loving arms. His friend’s story would be told back on land to those who waited.

States of Being: Presence…Witness…Unconditional Love.  

As I carried these early morning insights into the day, it was with a clearer sense of how to simply Be in the world: Present - - Witnessing - - Loving without Condition - - maybe just one moment at a time would be quite manageable.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, October 1, 2021

Letter to Grief

 Air-sucker. Heart-breaker. Life-wrecker.

Don’t take it personally, Grief, but under our breath, or deep down inside, we sometimes call you such names. We have as many names for you as for the fallen of 9/11. As for the pandemic dead. As for the people vanished in floods and wildfires. As for our cherished life partners, gone too soon. As for our precious children, ending their lives by suicide ….

We have as many names for you as our less obvious losses, mourned in shadows. Dear ones who have moved on, or away, from us. Old friends we no longer understand. Animals whose companionship we miss. Lost jobs. Lost homes and homelands. Lost rights. Lost health. Lost youth. Lost trust. 

Lost hope … 

 It is said, dear Grief, that you’re a mountain; that each of us who is suffering after a significant loss is up at your peak, so injured that we can’t carry anyone else down. We must each descend to the plain in our own way, in our own time. The hard path we take on our downward climb will be like no one else’s. We’ll pass through terrain where nobody else has ever been.

The sad fact is, some of us will never make it back. The trauma we’ve experienced is too grave, or the going down, too rough.

It’s out of concern for those who can’t escape your mountain that I’m writing you. I know you’ll listen, and fathom what I’m saying. Because, despite all the name-calling, I know it isn’t you, really, that robs our lungs of air, or shatters our hearts, or smashes the hell out of our lives when we meet with sorrow. You’re just an easy scapegoat.

The real culprit is love. Love that, deprived of its object, has nowhere to go. Love that has been disappointed, distressed, broken, rejected, frightened, or horrified. Love so confused and without direction, it swirls up like a whirlwind and spins off in a daze. Love that, once exhausted, falls flat on the ground and refuses to rise again, believing that getting up and going on would mean abandoning forever what has been lost, as if it never mattered.

It’s love, isn’t it, that traps some souls on your peak? It’s love that corners them in a tight spot on your sheer face, and pins them there. 

It’s love, too, that tempts us to stay with them, even while, for the sake of our lives, it urges us to hobble away. On this mountain, we can only save ourselves.

So, we must trust your mercies.

I beg you, Grief: Take tender care of those still on your mountaintop. Send sun in the morning to kiss them awake. Send birds with twigs to build them a nest, and berries to feed them. Send breeze to remind them to breathe. Send bugling elks and trickling streams to sing songs of comfort and strength to their despair. Send cups of rock to catch their tears.

Send sweet mist to soothe them in the heat of day. In the cold, send bighorn sheep with thick blankets of fur. When long night falls, send moon and a company of stars to offer them light and help them feel less alone. In the darkest hours, send them radiant dreams and visions.

Finally, O Grief, send our voices echoing up the silence of the slopes. Let the sound surround those whose sadness holds them close to the heavens. In that circle, keep them  safe.

Air-stirrer. Heart-holder. Life-bringer.

These, O Grief, are the truest of your names.

Phyllis Cole-Dai

 This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!