On the Out Breath: Peace

The Unitarian Universalists of Casper talked me into giving presentation during a Sunday Service, based on the theme “Web of All Creation.”
The Unitarian Universalists of Casper (Wyoming) are a lay-led group. The Reverend speaks one Sunday each month and the other services are presented by members, friends and guests.
I don’t actually mind sharing (once I get over my initial stage fright)… but if I’m going to present something to a spiritual group, I want it to have some spiritual value – and I’m not convinced I have the authority to do so.
But – I stumbled across a story on the Tin House website – I stole some of the content (giving credit to the author, of course) – and tried to build from there.
I finally managed to construct something… and here it is:



On the Out Breath: Peace
April 10, 2016

As many of you know, I work for an agricultural newspaper, which means I often talk about plants, crops, food, animals, weather, and many other facets of the web of all creation.

I have written about the soil cycle, the water cycle, market cycles, weather cycles and sometimes, my content even re-cycles.

I write about proper plant nutrition and proper cattle nutrition and proper nutrition for humans. I write about balance. I write about different entities working together and I write about ignorance.

Ignorance, in my work, usually refers to the average American, who is 3 generations removed from agriculture. The message I often relay is, “Tell Your Story.”

Tell Your Story.

In agriculture, this means that farmers and ranchers need to share their stories about why they do the things they do, about how they care for their animals and about their land stewardship. Farmers and ranchers care for their ground and their crops and their livestock and their families – and all of those average Americans who are three generations removed from agriculture that depend on the farmers and ranchers, and their ground and crops and livestock and families.

But here, today, in this setting, our story is about a different kind of stewardship. Although many of us here likely care for the same things that farmers and ranchers do, and some of may even be farmers and ranchers, as Unitarian Universalists, we are stewards of the relationships we have with each other.

We are stewards of our relationships with others. We are stewards of the greater community, spreading peace and compassion.

Philosophically, we may each represent different webs of creation. From the Big Bang to a seventh day of rest, the important thing to remember is our shared existence.

I am here. You are here. We are here. And we share this time and worldly space with many others.


Every now and then, I get lucky and instead of just writing about agriculture, I get to play cowboy. I’ve witnessed some amazing connections within the web, between people and their horses. Between people and their livestock, people and nature, nature and domestic animals… and agriculture is only one small window into some of these connections.

It might be a sign that I grew up in town, but even though I like horses, I love cattle. I love cows. And heifers and steers and bulls and calves. I am madly in love with calves.

One year, I got to be intimately involved with a calving season on a beef ranch. This meant checking on new mamma cows every two hours, carrying babies into the barn to warm up at two in the morning, and assisting with difficult births.

There is one calf I will never forget, who didn’t make it through to morning. I stayed up with him on one particularly memorable night, but despite my best efforts, I couldn’t convince him to fight.

On the other hand, there was also a girl calf I will never forget who overcame all odds. We found her without her mother, cold and weak. We brought her into the barn, wrapped her in blankets, ran the space heaters and tried our best to convince her to eat.

The lead cowboy, his five-year old daughter and I took turns sitting with the calf, trying to bring her around. But she had shallow breath and she wouldn’t move.

After three days of this, the lead cowboy had a practical meeting with reality – after all, we had a whole herd of cows to attend to. On his shift early in the morning, he went into the barn and clasped his hand tightly over the calve’s nose. That did the trick.

That little girl kicked herself into life and became one of the most vigorous beings in that season’s batch of babies.

As it is in agriculture, and in all the web of creation, we all must fight different challenges. Although I am greatly saddened when I think of that little bull calf and our long night together, I am filled with hope when I think about the other one and her refusal to give up.

How do we weave these kinds of events into our own stories?

How do the heartbreaks strengthen us? How do the joys connect us to one another?

How do we reconcile with the the web and all of its creation within our own selves?

While I was trying to figure out how to translate my every day business into a conversation suitable for this Sunday, I ran across this story, posted online at Tin House.

In this narrative, Ann Hutton grapples with the reality of heartbreak within the web – and although I’m only going to read the beginning, I can share the information with anyone who wants to read the rest.

Excerpt from Ann Hutton’s story, “Tonglen”:

Let me suggest that whoever says “Where did I go wrong?” does not really want an answer. It’s one of those rhetorical questions asking for empathy, not a detailed reply. In fact, it asks for agreement that you are not the one to blame. You did your best, all things considered. And if you are a mother, you especially don’t want a bullet-point list of your parenting history to show you when and where you might have behaved differently so as to get a better result with your offspring.

No, the question directs attention to your plight, not your child’s. I’m suffering here because my son is caught in addiction. I’m sad/appalled/ashamed/confused/devastated/disgusted. I’m numb, flattened, and I don’t know what to do. It’s a question that is never more futile than when you’re trying to get it through your head that your child—now an adult in chronological age only, perhaps—has hit the meth wall. The one at which he no longer knows the difference between truth and lie, between right and wrong or organization and chaos, between self-preservation and certain demise.

Privately, these are the first things I consider when my son hits that wall: Is this my fault? What might I have done differently to usher him into wholeness? Why is he so hopelessly derelict? Where did I fail him? I ask these questions as if any of us has a direct line of admonition we can use to guide children into making the right choices and behaving in the most positive ways on their own behalf. We don’t, and they don’t. And none of it makes any sense in hindsight.

Who am I in his life now? Once I was his primary source of nourishment and love, his matrix, his guardian. He turned away and obliterated it all with methamphetamine. He removed himself from me and everyone else. I want to hate him for this trespass. I want to scream at his selfishness, contacting me only when he needs something, and then turning away again. I want to rage against his blatant disrespect—for himself and everything I hoped he would be.

But I don’t, not completely.

There is a Tibetan practice called tonglen. Buddhists do it in order to remind themselves that in life there is suffering. Everybody suffers, everyone experiences pain. Maybe we even come into this life with our own karmic dilemmas and proceed to act them out, sometimes compounding our own grief. Even we long-sacrificing mothers do. Compassion is called for, but we are not typically compassionate with each other right out of the primordial chute.

As one who appreciates the Buddha’s teachings, I recognize this basic state of suffering for what it is: attachment to wanting life to turn out a certain way. And I suspect that as long as anybody suffers, we all do. How can I think that my specific sad/appalled/ashamed/confused/devastated/ disgusted feelings are any more intense than anyone else’s? How can I possibly wish for the safety and well-being of my sons and daughters without also being concerned for all sons and daughters? We are in this together, whether we realize it or not. And as singularly devastating as it is to face my son’s wrecked life, I’m not unique, I tell myself. Everyone suffers.

Tonglen practice challenges perspective in this way; it trains us to get out of our small selves and be concerned with others. It works like this: You breathe in pain and suffering and breathe out relief and compassion. You start with yourself by naming your own personal desperation on the inhalation; then you name some compassionate form of relief on the exhalation. You go on to another individual—the president, for instance, or your addicted son—and continue to take in their suffering and extend to them the end of suffering with each breath, in and out. And if you are feeling magnanimous, you practice this technique on a grand scale, inhaling the suffering of all humankind and exhaling wishes for the end of suffering to all.

Why stop there? The earth is thrashing in bio-systems failure, it seems. Breathe it all in—the smog, the poisoned water, the dying trees. Send out a cleansing, restorative breath to the very planet under your feet, the one we seem to be hell-bent to destroy with our ignorance and our greed. Suck the life out of all the evil ever committed everywhere, and return absolute love and redemption on the release.

I try this. I start with myself.

  • On the in breath: sadness and remorse

  • On the out breath: relief

  • On the in breath: shame, powerlessness

  • On the out breath: peace

It feels mildly okay and vaguely positive, although it doesn’t take my mind off my son’s plight. We are separated by this drug. My heart goes out to him, but he may not even have the presence of mind to know it. So I focus on him, detoxing in a county jail three thousand miles away from me and a million light years distant in terms of his spirit.

  • On the in breath: his alienation

  • On the out breath: unconditional love

  • On the in breath: his physical addiction

  • On the out breath: restored health

  • On the in breath: his psychological paralysis

  • On the out breath: connection, acceptance

Does he feel any of this? Like I said, he’s in the throes of a forced detoxification and is doing it in an uncomfortable place. My imagination goes wild thinking how horrible it might be for him to realize that his life has come to such a severe loss of control. He’s incarcerated at the hands of a system acting to protect the rest of us from him. One the phone, he called his possession charge a “victimless crime,” but I am feeling the effects of his sin. I am his victim.

So, back to me.

  • On the in breath: anger and insult at being lied to, being used by him

  • On the out breath: forgiveness, understanding, more love

  • On the in breath: deep disappointment

  • On the out breath: release of expectations

  • On the in breath: embarrassment

  • On the out breath: tolerance

  • On the in breath: more anger

  • On the out breath: more forgiveness

And so on, for as long as I can focus on breathing, for as long as I can concentrate my thoughts. There is other work to do, other people to be with. Part of me stays stuck on him, and this impedes my full attention to any of it. I don’t sleep well. I stop communicating with friends. I try to imagine growing old without my son, the one I thought I knew. I drink too much wine every night in hopes that I’ll sleep. I usually don’t.

At some point I begin to understand that I’m not alone in my suffering; I get it at a deeper place in my gut. Mothers and sons everywhere are struggling at the effect of alienation and addiction. I am not the only one, and neither is he. Our existential quandary is shared by countless others.

She also notes:

The Buddha never promised redemption. His teachings don’t lead to heaven. This practice of watching the breath aims us at becoming fully conscious, and in so doing, becoming fully connected. “At one” with all. Therein lurks the hope: to realize—to make real—that my son and I are not separated, not really. In the greater scheme of things, we are just fine. We suffer, and so does everyone else. We still have each other. And everyone else.

The rest of this story can be found at: http://tinhouse.com/blog/42611/tonglen.html

On the In Breath, my boy calf – and all creatures, including humans, who cannot find the will to persevere.

On the Out Breath, courage, drive, and determination. The bright eyes an almost-dead calf, running, kicking and experiencing life, despite her half-frozen off ears.

On the In Breath, our secrets and dark places.

On the Out Breath, our stories.

The stories that we share with one another,

To help us connect,

To help us share,

To help us heal.

Storytelling is, after all, a way for us to come together in a shared experience of the web. Ann Hutton’s story describes emotion of motherhood, which I can only guess to relate to.

But she also describes a helplessness in her desire to help someone else, and that IS something I can relate to. She recognizes her own limitations of control, and that also, is something I can connect to and, in my own perspective, understand.

As a writer, I often view storytelling in a traditional way, with words. We have mythology and history and our favorite trashy novels – all of which serve a purpose in their own way.

But, we can also tell our stories, and connect to the greater web, in other ways. Some of us are musicians or painters. Some of us tell stories thorough our handiwork as home builders or mechanics. Isn’t someone who can replace a drivetrain and recognize bad struts sharing part of themselves? For example, an expression of time spent as a kid, in the garage, to be closer to Dad, or sitting on the front porch and naming different truck models as they drive by?

It’s part of the story, even when we drop a wrench and bang up our fingers.

On the Out Breath, cuss words.

On the In Breath, peace.

Being more familiar with words than engine parts, I tend to think of my story’s expression with writing. I have a number of personal journals, in which I write to no one. Or maybe I write to an unknown person who accidentally discovers my journals someday. Or maybe, I’m writing to my future self.

Often, I am writing to my own present self. As of yet, I haven’t written about the Out Breath in my personal journals, but I have many times reminded myself that my situation is temporary. As they say,

This too, shall pass.

In my work at the office, my favorite stories are about people. Stories about ranchers, western cartoonists, or scientists for example – those pieces are my favorite because they connect the strands of the web.

Sage grouse has been a great unifier of ranchers, environmentalists, mineral extraction companies and even politicians.

A University of Wyoming researcher is looking at weevil resistance in alfalfa, which he admits, will lead to a pile of other questions. How will livestock be affected when they eat that alfalfa? How far will pollen blow in the wind and how will beneficial insects be impacted by this new crop variety?

Reclamation specialists at oil well sites have to be diligent about weeds that happily grow in disturbed, bare soil.

Cattle producers have to consider the impacts of elk and other wildlife when they determine stocking rates, or how many cows they can put in one pasture.

The new vertical greenhouse in downtown Jackson is designed to grow tomatoes and herbs for local restaurants, while also serving as a place for disabled persons to find employment.

Despite our differences or disagreements, we are all connected. We are all integral to the web.

Our stories are part of our identities.

Our stories are the way we share ourselves and how we connect with others.

In the same way that Ann Hutton reflects on herself in relation to her son’s suffering, we too can look within our own selves to better understand the world, without.

Tomorrow, I will go back to writing about the weather, or crop research, or maybe even weeds. I’ve written at least a few articles that involve weeds.

But today, my story is about your story.

My story is about our story.

Here we are, here we all are, in this shared existence.

Today, my story is about breathing in the suffering, but breathing out relief.

From the buddhist tradition to a writer named Ann Hutton, from the Tin House Magazine to this room and the UUs of Casper…

On the In Breath, our struggles and concerns.

On the Out Breath, all of us. All of the web. All of the creation that has brought us here.

On the In Breath, powerlessness.

On the Out Breath, Peace.




Blood Orange


My sweet, spoiled fur child hates being left out of adventures and he doesn’t like feeling trapped… so waiting in the car alone is basically torture. One look at his sad eyes and floppy ears… you’ll be tempted to take him with you into the store. But, I had some shopping to do in a store that he would likely be kicked out of right away, so I couldn’t take him in. Other than a serious pout-fest… it doesn’t actually do him any harm to sit in the car (on a cool day, with blankets on the back seat).


When I finally got myself out of the store and back to the car, I could see the black and white fur of my dog streaked with an orange-red color, from his eye down to his chin. I couldn’t yet see below his neck, but there was enough blood streaked over his face to give me a minor heart attack. What kind of trouble had my puppy gotten himself into within the confines of my car?!


Trying not to panic, I opened the back to store my bags before going up front to survey the damage.


There, on the passenger seat, were two munched-on flower petals. I might have given the silly fur kid a good scolding… except I was too relieved to discover his face was not, after all, covered in blood. His face was decorated with flower pollen, from a lily that had apparently tasted awful, seeing as how it was now staining the upholstery on the seat.


The treat I had given him before going into the store (did I mention he’s a sweet but spoiled fur child?) was untouched. He ate that as soon as I stuck the key in the ignition and started the engine, a sign that I was not leaving him alone any longer.


At home, I let my dog out into the yard and carried the flowers inside. The next morning, I noticed a that one of the blooms had been knocked loose. There it was, placed like a painting, frozen, on top of the snow.






If you’ve ever been annoyed with the “hey” text…
     The first time I got a blank-face emoji from Lionel (name changed), I sent a blank face back.
     How was I supposed to respond to a little yellow circle with only two eyes and no expressive eyebrows or mouth lines?
     He replied with another blank face.
     Lionel has more than 30 years of life to his person. What’s up with the damn blank face?
     There are 100 million ways to engage me… grow up and think of something a little bit more creative, please!
     100 million ways? One Hundred MILLION?
     Well, probably.      I mean, at least theoretically.
     Let’s start simple. Let’s start with the mundane, and slightly annoying with repetition, but at least minimally engaging text.
     1. What are you up to?
     2. How was your day?
     3. What did you do last night?
     With one of these texts, at least now I can answer. I can say, I’m drinking coffee and my day is going pretty well, at least considering the loss of my football team, and I stayed home last night because playing solitaire in my PJs was exactly the kind of low-key night I needed.
     Ready to step it up?
     We’ve known each other for awhile, let’s try to act like it.
     1. Remember the last time we ate at the Chinese buffet? I am totally craving their won-ton soup today!
     2. Good thing you put your snow tires on yesterday, since the sun is out and the ice is melted. LOL.
     *Note: I do not condone the use of “LOL,” but that’s a different post. It is common Lionel text-lingo.
     3. I’m hangin’ at my bro’s house and we’re fixing the jeep. Who knew this project would be so complicated?
     Let me point out that these messages actually reference real life, acknowledge my existence, and attempt to engage a response – maybe not directly – but this is only stage two. Baby steps.
     Or, you know. Send me a damn blank face.
     Next, I’m going to make a major leap! If the stage two exercise was too much to handle, quit reading, right now!
     Clearly, the blank face emoji is a giant leap of confidence, so don’t blow a gasket or anything here… attempt these steps with caution, because they may prove to be very scary!
     1. That movie we saw the other day was pretty awesome. I noticed the first half to the sequel is at the cheap theater. Since you never saw it, maybe we should get tickets this week?
     (I realize this is a super-long text. Since Lionel doesn’t need to bring blog readers into context, he might just consider something like, ‘Cheap seats tix for movie part one this week?’)
     2. Wanna grab a drink tonight?
     3. It’s been awhile since we’ve been to that Chinese buffet. Let’s do dinner?
     You might be confused by these stage three text messages. Why not just use the BLANK FACE??
     Clearly, if you’re sending me a blank-faced emoji, you’re trying to engage my attention. Quit acting like a 12-year old… wait. Scratch that. That’s not fair to the 12-year old. The teenager probably has the the text-savvy to form a complete sentence – maybe something like, ‘R U going 2 the FB game sat?’
     (Using whatever text lingo this too-old-to-be-cool chick isn’t familiar with, of course).
Back to Lionel.
     Do you want to hang out? Ask me.
     This isn’t 1995. You don’t have to call my dad’s landline to reach me.
     If you just want to chit-chat, that’s cool too. But you’re going to have to throw down some damn chitter if you want me to reply with chatter.
     There is simply no available response for me to give when you send a




I didn’t mean to wake you
from the darkness of early hours.
I thought of you out on the road,
watching the bloom of bright sky flowers.
I hope your dreams were warm,
pleasant, safe and wise.
I missed you as I headed east,
chasing the sunrise.



Dearest Pen and Paper


The scratch of my pen as it scribbles the page
Ink stains on my fingers, my desk and my jeans
Cramps in my fingers that make me feel aged
And letters that combine, building up scenes

You can probably guess what this all means
As the stories build up and grow into shape
I start on real paper instead of machines
Losing myself to a world, which I cannot escape

Dear college-ruled paper and letters I make,
Thank you for the pleasure, in me, you awake.



This poem is part of the WordPress “Writing 201” Blogging U.
(Day 10) Today’s topic, form and device are: Pleasure, Sonnet and Apostrophe


Pumpkin Spice Vice


As it turns out, I admit, I am part of the cult
My true colors show an irresponsible adult

I open up my wallet and pull out dollars, five
Hand it through the window and start to feel alive


My fingers feel the warmth through the paper cup
And I remove the lid to eat the whipped cream up

I try not to burn my tongue on the steaming milk
But as it cools I sip, and it sloshes through my mouth like silk


Before I even know it, the cup is empty and quite dry
The pumpkin spice is gone and I have to say goodbye

To the dollars that I spent and the coffee that is out
I tip the cup upside down to ensure the lost amount


I think about the cinnamon, ginger and other spices
And how this silly coffee is one of my seasonal vices

I mourn the bygone java as the flavor leaves my nose
A short-lived euphoria, that’s how expensive lattes go



This poem is part of the WordPress “Writing 201” Blogging U.
(Day 8) Today’s topic, form and device are: Flavor, Elegy and Enumeratio


Lil’ angels

My dog thinks he is speedy fast as he runs the length of the yard
The neighborhood kids like to race him and they run just as hard
I have had to scold my puppy when he jumps up baring his jaw
He thinks he is just playing but I see accidents and the law
I watch the kids from my window as they tease my handsome pet
And secretly laugh at how the silly dog teases the kids back yet
The kids have also been warned about racing the fenced in beast
But everyone has such a good time, it’s hard to tell them to cease
If things get a little too wild, I take myself outside
And tell my dog he has to quit and come stand by my side
Lo and behold, there I was, out on the grass one day
The neighborhood kids came down the block, clearly looking to play
I expected excitement, running and creatures on the move
But the kids ignored my dog and he pretended to act aloof
Clearly the kids and dog had all seen me and that was surely a sign
For everyone to pretend they were well behaved all the time



This poem is part of the WordPress “Writing 201” Blogging U.
(Day 7) Today’s topic, form and device are: Neighborhood, Ballad and Assonance