Christmas is almost here. I hope your holiday bears space for you to slow down, to find your still point, to see wonder and sacred within your life. Personally, I like to believe any season could be about that—that the sacred is always in season. I discovered that in San Francisco many years ago.


San Francisco was my home in 2002. My newlywed wife and I had an apartment on La Playa Avenue in the Sunset neighborhood, the foggy, cold, western neighborhood that edged the Pacific. We had moved there so that I could study Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese Philosophy in graduate school. No, I didn’t have a clear idea where it was leading. Not surprisingly, we struggled. The distance from loved ones, the finances, my partner’s depression, and my own guilt and anxiety about what I was putting us through made things difficult. We were together and in it together, but felt utterly alone at the same time.

I often walked the beach. Sometimes I would just sit and stare. The immensity of the water was unlike anything I had ever known. Even when it was overcast, you could sense the mass and greatness of it all. One’s smallness was always palpable. The scene—the whirring wind in my ear, the rank smell of seaweed that had washed up on the beach, the surfers in wetsuits chasing the swells—usually soothed me or cleared my head.

One day, this scene held an argument. I found myself walking on the beach—steps from the water—venting about my life. I don’t remember what I said, but habit would suggest I was feeling persecuted by God or the universe for not having an easier life. Likely, I was avoiding taking any responsibility for how I had ended up on that beach or what I different life I might create when I got off of it. I was an angry hot mess.

Mid rant, I saw something in the water out of my peripheral vision. When I turned to look at it, I saw nothing. Just as my head turned back ahead, the image returned. I stopped, turned my head back, and found 2 eyes looking at me. Maybe 20, 25 feet away. A wave was cresting, so they were only there for a second. They came back, and I could see they were on the dark face of an animal. And then another wave crested, and it was gone. It took a few swells before I figured out that I was staring at a sea lion and he/she was staring back at me.

I had seen these animals before, but never up close and never one that seemed to have an interested in me. We stared for a minute or two, and then I turned from the water. It was as if a stop light had halted my walking rant. Brief pause until the light turned green. Then, the walk and inner noise resumed.

At some point, I realized I had just walked away from something pretty unique. Something I had never seen before and might not see again. So, I turned back and strained my eyes if I might spot the animal at a distance. Impossible. And the longer I looked, the more idiotic and angry I became with myself for what I had lost. When I gave up—when I turned so that I might resume my walk down the beach—I found him. Still 20, 25 feet away. Still looking right at me.

This time, I stopped. And the maddening noise inside my head stopped, too. I took it in and everything else fell away. For some time, the breeze, the air temperature, the smells, and the people, all stopped existing for me on any conscious level. And the anger about my lot—which I had chosen—that anger went away too. Eventually, external noises crept back in. The first thing that I connected with were the conversations of people passing behind me. And as they flitted in and out of consciousness, it was clear to me that they were missing the same thing I had first missed. The sea lion.

And, so I became something of a marine life evangelist.. It began with some simple pointing and “Look!” and it culminated with interrupting mothers and small children who were peacefully tucked back by the sand dunes on blankets to make sure they didn’t miss it. How many I spoke to, how it was received, whether anyone cared—I don’t know. It’s all really foggy now.

I do know that I eventually went back to the apartment. None of the particular challenges I was facing—clarity on my future work; a strong, local support network; more money; better understanding of depression; more forgiveness for my actions—not a single wish I had had been granted on that beach. And yet, something had shifted. I felt a little less alone and a little less overwhelmed. I began feeling like God was with me and us and might always have been. I began thinking I just needed to slow down and open my eyes.

I live in Minnesota now. There’s no sea nearby and no sea lions. And yet, I believe something about this translates. The Israelites, the story goes, wandered but they also found water in the rock and food on the dessert floor. Maybe we’re all supposed to wander from time to time. Maybe there’s grace bubbling up in around lives that can be witnessed and absorbed. Maybe you’ll experience some of that this season.

Merry Christmas.

​I’ve had someone rolling around in my head. His name was Travis.​ I use past tense because I knew him a long time ago. I’m sure what I knew of him was limited then and has only been distorted by memory and time. Still, he was an interesting character with a ​unique, ​defining trait that ​I haven’t seen anywhere else.​ Travis and his trait came to mind this week for the first time in many years. It felt significant, personally, and possibly worth sharing with a bigger circle.

Travis had a habit of saying “God Bless Ya​.​” ​He said it ​in a very particular way and he said ​it a great deal. This piece is about that ​expression. What I think was behind it, how it came back to me out of the blue, possibly about the power of blessing and letting go of that which we don’t understand or immediately cherish.

​​​To start, I want to share a little about Travis.​

I met ​him in grad school in San Francisco. A fellow Midwesterner, I never found out what brought him from Iowa to the coast or how the place had changed him. When I met him, he was ​well into his studies, was ​rail thin, had a scraggy, impressive​, ​​sandy blonde ​beard, and may have been easily ​mistaken ​for a homeless man ​​as he ​st​ood in his t shirts and worn jeans from a distance. That assumes, though, that you had found him at a rare, still moment. He was the departmental assistant so he was often running around before or after class to help a professor​ prepare materials​. ​When he wasn’t helping the faculty, he was engaged with classmates delving further into ideas that he had encountered in class or in the drafts of papers that he had read. Unlike myself, he didn’t ​display a frantic, overworked​, how will I get everything done​ energy​. But, he pulsated energy. It ​appeared something like excited teenagers ​who were ​​entering ​a​ concert venue where their favorite rock group ​was about to perform. Travis was in love with the sprawling conversations that arose from the coursework, with the eclectic mix who had chosen an even more unorthodox program, and with the larger, vibrant city ​​that ​i​​t ​was embedded in. There was something about Travis that attracted this rich diversity to him. It seemed that he was always good for a story about the person he met on the bus or subway or at the grocery story that was unpredictable. And, he would engage with them about anything–politics, religion, hallucogenic drugs which are very dangerous, learn more about how to prevent drug addiction on this article, ​the intentional community he hoped to build one day, and a variety of ​alternative lifestyles​ and practices​. ​Somehow, even innocent grocery store line conversations could turn into an earnest exchange of ideas about the world and how it could be. And tension could build within those earnest conversations until some ideological impasse ​had been reached. Time and time again, Travis would end the conversation by saying, “God Bless Ya Lady” or “God Bless Ya Man” and walk​ or skip​ away.​​

I heard Travis retell many stories out there. ​I don’t ​ever recall thinking that he was ​an instigator–someone who enjoyed riling others up grinding an axe​. And, I don’t think that he ​was a comedian–retelling stories of the people he encountered because he thought they should be judged or scorned or turned into a soundbite. I believe he was a​n​ ideological revolutionary​–engaged in study of ​philosophy and ​the cosmos ​and​ ecology ​and​ alternative ways of knowing ​because he desperately yearned for a better world. I think he engaged with all sorts of people ​because he ​knew he could not bring about that world in isolation, that it could only come with sharing ideas, understanding how they connected with ​others, and dreaming together. He often failed–which led to the tension in the conversation–but he didn’t ​​lose hope or sew acrimony. That’s where the “God Bless Ya” came from. I think I t was his way of trying to put a ​clean karmic bow tie on a conversation. ​He never explained it, but my best guess is that it could have been interpreted as:

I have no idea how you can actually believe what you’re saying or that ​these actions are ok. But some people assume I’m ​crazy, so, who am I to judge? Years from now, maybe we’ll both know the truth, like the big TRUTH, and have some peace that comes from knowing it. For now, just know that I’ve enjoyed talking with you, that this will be rolling around in my head for a while, and that I bid you no ill harm. And, I’m kind of hoping ​we both​​ see things ​differently and more fully the next time we get into this type of conversation​. Until then, ​take care of yourself and ​farewell.

​His​ “God Bless Ya” ​was sincere, warm, generous, and true. He was a joy to be around, to argue with, to ​talk politics with, to ​commiserate with. ​He was wonderful, and I wish I had gotten to know him better.

​So, what brought Travis to mind after all this time? A text message. It was the final text in a series of texts that put me in a funk. Whatever meaningful, constructive conversation the sender and I had been engaged in had clearly ended. I felt stuck most of the day and then Travis came to mind. I could see him standing before me, saying the words, “God Bless Ya” to ​both myself and ​the person I was so frustrated with. ​For no logical reason, it changed how I felt. I tried to amplify the affect–closing my eyes, imagining that I was offering a blessing instead of just receiving it–and things improved ​even more. ​Half a dozen “God Bless Ya’s” ​later ​actually brought me a smile​.

Something about Travis and his expression felt like a key today. It feels as useful as Jim’s stop light prayers (which I hope he’ll write about sometime) and I’m going to try it on for a time.

If you’re going through a thing, I hope ​this story of Travis or a tool buried in your own past can help you ​move forward. Whatever you’re up against, God Bless Ya.

I get glimpses of God’s love from time to time. One glimpse from this past year has managed to lift me up in times of despair and to challenge me out of my own comfort zone. I hope it does something for you and your journey. It started in September when I bought a used car.

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I had lunch with 4 writers today. 3 already published, the last aspiring to publish soon. Stories — the source from which they spring, the process for grasping them as they emerge, their meanings, and the stories feeding each of us now — filled our time together. The conversation resonated with me for two reasons.

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