The Gift of Dread 

(Existential Alley)

It’s now been a quarter century since Gavin de Becker first published The Gift of Fear. I admit I never have gotten around to reading the book, but my wife did many years ago and found it valuable. Other psychologists have spent a good deal of ink addressing irrational fear. From what I’ve gathered, de Becker was not writing at all in defense of irrational fear, but his subject might’ve been something more like pre-rational fear, which he encouraged us to pay attention to and use it to help keep ourselves “reasonably” safe when encountering strangers and navigating unfamiliar territory. That feeling of fear we might be experiencing at such times is not exactly rational, yet de Becker was encouraging us to treat that fear rationally.

What I am wondering about here is a somewhat related sensation I encounter from time to time which I have begun to name as “dread”. Others might be tempted to translate “existential angst”, but I have my doubts whether it is necessarily the same. In my own case, this dread manifests as a kind of burning feeling directly behind my lower sternum. It may be triggered when something suddenly goes “wrong”, often something as simple as losing something that is actually easily replaced, but more often it is prompted by a sudden break in an important relationship. However I have also had the experience of that feeling descending, it seems, from nowhere discernable.

To my mind, the main difference between fear and dread is that fear tends to be about something that might happen, whereas dread is more often about something that has happened or is happening. For this reason I would assert that most fear is irrational in the sense that some of us humans have a penchant for imagining worst case scenarios that never come about. Dread, in the sense that I am trying to communicate here, would seldom be inherently irrational, except that I suspect the feeling is out of proportion to any given situation which might be prompting it.

This brings up a gift that fear offers that I don’t believe de Becker touched on. It is true that this pre-rational fear may well serve to keep us out of serious trouble, as we learn in the book, but there is also the fact that without fear, whether rational or not, that most noble of human virtues, courage, would be quite impossible. This gift of fear may have somewhat of a corollary with our feelings of dread. If you can identify at all with the “dread center” I described, somewhere behind the sternum, perhaps you have also experienced a “joy” or even “ecstasy” center. I find that center, usually, in the same general area as my dread center. If no joy center comes immediately to mind for you, try to remember all the way back to lying in bed on Christmas Eve, or whichever annual celebratory event in your young experience that prompted intense anticipation, like a trip to Disneyland or the return of an absent parent. The dread I speak of evokes similar intense anticipation, except that it apparently anticipates some worst case scenario that I have not the imagination to consciously conjure. It is this very shortfall of imagination that hints to me of hidden gold beneath my momentary dread.

Courage does not live beyond the bounds of imagination, for our very fears have already fired our imagination with one or more worst case scenario, yet courage gives us the will to forge ahead anyway. What, then, I ask myself, is the corollary to dread which lives beyond my imagination? 

I had the experience at the age of four of being severely scalded down my back. The experience was horrific enough, yet it was tempered by the common human experience of “going into shock”. When we reach the limits of human sensory experience our sensibilities protect themselves from permanent damage by automatically shutting down. I suspect the same phenomenon occurs beyond the limits of human ecstasy. Could it be something like this experience which induces some to create an artificial drug-induced experience at the opposite end of whatever they might be experiencing or fearing at the dread end of the continuum? Why do so many of us literally risk our very lives as we willingly pursue such an escape?

How many mystics through the ages have hinted at wonders experienced for which they could find no words? And even then, the experience hinted at is suspected of being itself, little more than a hint beyond the mystic’s own ability to imagine, just as the patriarch closed his eyes as God’s Spirit passed, lest he look on the divine face and fall dead. 

Could it be that my sensations of dread actually expand my capacity to anticipate an unimaginable joy, perhaps even, someday, to experience unimaginable happiness face to face?

Housetop Musings – a Christmas guest blog

Up on the Housetop, a song repurposed, remastered, and upgraded by Lacey Brown

Musings by Jeanette Olson

Ho, ho, ho, who wouldn’t go…up on the housetop with Good Saint Nick? When I was a kid, this was a kiddy jingle that would be played incessantly on the radio along with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, All I Want for Christmas was My Two Front Teeth, and Jingle Bells. Silly 1950’s! My favorite was Jingle Bells. The other songs I was philosophically opposed to as they were nonsense songs. The other reindeer were mean to Rudolph. Two front teeth are not a present to wish for when there were so many wonderful toys one could ask Santa to bring! As for Up on the Housetop, what does it mean? Why is the song a question? No one would go up on the housetop with Saint Nick because he would never come to your house if you were sitting there bold as Shirley Temple up on the housetop! No question! And ho, ho, ho, who wouldn’t know? Everyone would know if you went up on the housetop! There are no secrets in my neighborhood! It is possible that I may have misheard the song lyrics and the question of who wouldn’t go was the only question in the song. And there is the fact that I thought Silent Night included round, virgin olives tender and bright which was a special favorite of mine. (I would put those glistening black olives on each of my five fingers and gently pull them off with my teeth and eat 10 at a go.)

Lacey Brown’s version of this song makes it clear that the question is who wouldn’t go. And that got me thinking. Would I go up on the housetop? Would children go up? Who was inviting us to go up? Santa Claus, or some other omniscient being? Could I be way up high on a rooftop with a magical person who delivers toys to children? What would hold me back? Fear? Disdain and lack of belief? I think about the people I know. I think they are the type that would go up on the housetop with St. Nick. The people I know are curious, hopeful, and ready to test theories on whether or not Santa Claus is real. Even their cynic wants to be proved wrong. I would be up on the housetop.

People who wouldn’t go up on the housetop lack imagination and are not grounded in reality. Like Trumpers and Q-Anons. St. Francis for sure would go up on the housetop. Jesus would go up on the housetop. My son Isaac might not because he is afraid of heights. But he is not afraid of magic so I think he too, would be up on the housetop. My mother, what would she do? For sure she would strongly suggest that I come down from up top. But, I think she could be persuaded to throw aside her fear and come on up. My dad would definitely be up on the housetop. 

My family is not a family of risk takers. Yet every one of them would go up on the rooftop for the magic of St. Nick. Except for Ned, or so he says. I know differently.

Once a Future…

Where do you suppose this youngster was headed fifty years ago? I’d say it was a mercy he had no idea where his little car would carry him just a year later…

It was the summer of ’72. That was a very intense summer. It was a summer of exciting and fleeting relationships. It was a summer of deep thoughts and tall mountains and hard work, strenuous physical labor. It was a summer long anticipated that took me completely by surprise. It ambushed me out of nowhere, yet not entirely without warning. The artist Roger Feldman warned me in no uncertain terms as he pointed out what a sheltered suburban life I’d been leading. Of course he was never specific and he needn’t be a prophet to see that life would soon be offering me new challenges. Most likely he’d used much the same language with any number of young men that summer as he led long strings of young people up and down the Canadian Rockies above the fjords of British Columbia. At the time I took the warning as seriously as any teenage kid would, but as it turned out, this warning was just specific enough to be at least a little spooky. Neither of us could’ve known what I would soon be facing.

It was a long hike down that mountain followed by an eight hour voyage back to Vancouver and then followed by an all night drive on to Seattle with my buddy the late Dave Jones at the wheel of Randy Couter’s old beater (that needed another quart of oil every few hundred miles). In the morning I sat at the kitchen table with Mom, Dad, sisters and brothers, all coming and going just as they had my whole life. I was fresh from a hot shower and sat going through my mail, feeling my tired, yet young, strong, hardened body radiating irrational confidence. The black rotary dial phone on the kitchen wall went off. Whoever it was that had been filling in for me while I was off on my mountain adventure had left a van full of newspaper bundles sitting out behind the office of the Eastside Journal. Those newspapers still needed to find all the eyeballs around town who waited impatiently to consume them. The next day was more of the same. Each day as full as the last with some physically demanding something or another, seemingly from dawn to dusk. And the next day and the next and the next more of the same. As each new challenge arose, for a whole long month, Roger’s warning would pop back into my sprawling adolescent mind promising bigger challenges yet to come as some force of the universe continued to toughen me up, mind and body.

Then one bright sunny August day I awoke to find the entire day sprawling out before me containing absolutely no obligations whatsoever. For that one whole day I could be the carefree kid once again. I hopped into my little red car and bounced off up the hill to the high school to engage that tough young mind and body in some of the vigorous touch football that had been going on up there all summer without me. An hour or so later I was crossing the field with the warm afternoon sun on my back and the sweet scent of cut grass in my nostrils. I tossed the ball in the air, snagging it again lightly as it fell. It was that easy motion of the kid at heart that had engaged males of any age or tongue, probably since we had learned that most anything might be flung into the air to some impressive, if not particularly useful, effect.

As the ball dropped lazily, once again, into my grip I spotted my sister Leanne walking hurriedly toward me from the parking lot. Even yet, after all these years, I’m always glad to see my sister, but that afternoon my smile quickly melted into something, I’m still not quite sure what, when I saw that she was crying. Once we came close enough she simply blurted out to me, as best she could, that Dad was dead.

My young soul was suddenly draped in an adult face as I dropped the ball and wrapped an arm around Leanne as we made our way back to the parking lot. All I could think was, “This is it!” But of course I could hardly know what I was talking about. That carefree kid is still in there somewhere, though perhaps, in a decades old body, pretending at life somewhat more carefully since those days. I still had so much growing up yet to do, but those are stories for another day. Maybe these decades later I can at least begin to shed a tear, for myself, for my dad, maybe for a thousand of our tough Norwegian forbears.

I do have a strange little postscript, however. Reaching out to Roger this week I found out that he too had lost his father when Roger was about the age I was when we had that short conversation there on the mountainside in the summer of ’72. Maybe I’ll get to hear that story.

fingers on the sunrise


On a virtual conference this morning my friend Jeff asked where exactly it was that I was off to on this retreat. I shot this image from yesterday morning back to him forgetting that I had “messed it up” by, forgetting the implications, snapping it through the window and capturing my own fingers reflected on the glass. He asked if he could paint it. When I see him again I’ll have to ask if he intends to paint my fingers as well the sunrise, the sound and the ferry dock.

But my original intent here this morning was “Reckless Respect” rather than “fingers on the sunrise”. Somehow, though, respect seems strangely consistent with the way my wayward fingers “innocently” bombed God’s otherwise perfect sunrise…

How can Creator seem to offer such reckless respect for creation? Is not the creation less than, or at least some subset, of the full reality and being of Creator assuming this original creator exists at all? I snapped this image through the window in vain hopes of capturing some moment in time as it slipped through my fleeting experience. Even though in my haste I didn’t even take the time to open the window, the moment slipped on by before I could even snap the shutter. Jeff wants to paint it anyway. Is Jeff, perhaps with the eye of an artist, seeing more in the image than I can see? Is it his desire to somehow capture more than just a moment in time? Or perhaps he would capture as well my ghost behind the image? Is his desire every bit as vain as mine? Could any such desire be not so much vanity as some faint reflection of the heart of Creator?

And yet there lies the question, the mystery. Has some Creator relinquished power to that creation, even at the risk, perhaps even the imperative, that the creation will be corrupted, even grossly corrupted in the hands of the created? Or perhaps such mysteries just may be evidence of a much greater power hidden beyond the limits of my own imagination. Is there some kind of unimaginable genius capable of remaining utterly and incomprehensibly good and compassionate behind, above, even beyond such a creation and beyond my ignorant questioning?

Truth, Knowledge, Love

…unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.

~~~~~~~~~~~ Blaise Pascal, Pensees

I picked Pascal, kind of at random, as a starting point for the website, yet a bit more of the significance of those words sunk in for me this morning. Of course for Blaise himself, as well as for many, many others, including myself for the majority of my life, we would equate truth with God, even capitalizing it: Truth, a name for the Divine Presence. What sunk in a bit for me this morning were my own limitations, the imperfection of my perceptions, knowledge, even my logic. I passed logic in college, but only with a C. My logic is only average, so why should I ever expect any better than an average knowledge of Truth, at least based only on my own level of intelligence?

So here Pascal throws the gauntlet down before me and challenges me to love something or Someone which or of whom I can have only an imperfect knowledge. I do, after all, have just a sufficient grasp of logic to extrapolate that I am no more likely to grasp Ultimate Truth by any other of my imperfect faculties.

As I take careful inventory of several decades of life I have to admit that my default response to anything or anyone with which I don’t feel I have a great deal of knowledge and control over, is fear – certainly not love. How the heck have I made it through to the point of a willingness to even blog on such a subject? The short answer would be that I’ve convinced myself, against evidence to the contrary, that I’m pretty good at faking it. So much, perhaps, for my pursuit of Truth and Knowledge, but I still wonder if faking it isn’t as reliable a pathway as any in my pursuit of Love?

Work, Rest, Refresh, Connect… in Rhythm with Life

The Vashon Island ferry dock: Vehicles wait to board for Southworth and West Seattle. Mount Baker graces the horizon.

Summer beckons and we are being teased with a return to Life. Few of us seem so foolish as to expect some fabled return to Life as We Know It. Life known is no life at all and what life we thought we knew before two winters ago is now a fantasy long gone, if ever it existed.

This morning I am witness to the rhythms of Puget Sound. Even on this calm inland estuary life takes its own course. Those who are always rushing to make the next ferry have never left the City. Watch the Ferryman. (Please grant me license from adherence to the correctness of the times. “Ferryman” just feels more poetic than any more correct term which comes to mind this early in the morning.) But watch them. They are not just “on the clock,” they are rather on the Clock. They are not just minding a strenuously negotiated union contract or some arduously calculated OSHA guidelines, they are pacing themselves according to larger rhythms, rhythms which may accommodate, for a moment, the rushing commuter or anxious vacationer, but most often gracefully and with the smile that follows a different reality.

Work, Rest, Refresh, Connect. These words presented themselves to me yesterday as I contemplated what this little retreat might mean to me over the coming weeks and months and years. In my typical ignorance I first greeted these with some misgiving as I dressed each up in the compulsive costumes of ideals and goals. But the Ferryman teaches me that the Rhythms of Life are not inherently distinct, rigid, demanding. These are not words so much as connotations, the rather more greedy stuff which once drove us from the Garden. These are Attitudes, not Life, much less Love.

The pace of the Ferryman embraces a sabbath rest between each step of work. The hand rests on the rail before the push. The foot rests on the gangway before the kick. The mooring rope rests lightly in the hand before it is pulled across the cleat. The salt air refreshes as the Ferryman works to connect, and in turn is connected with, shore and shore and person and person, Love and Life. Each all happen in rhythm and all in turn happens all at once together.

All are gift. All are Grace. Nothing of Life, nothing of this existence, demands. All is freely offered and may be gently plucked by us at any moment from the Tree of Life and savored for the eternity of that moment, but never violently charged at or greedily hoarded for some fabled future moment. soft web launch

Long time no type. To say I’ve been busy would be to state the obvious lame excuse. But at least I have a bit of something to show for my lame business. At last we have something here at beyond my little more or less monthly blogs. You may at last get a peek at a small sampling of the Compendium of Brief Wisdom which the Proctor Charlie Collective has been compiling for way too long now without a whole lot we have seemed able to do with any of it.

Unfortunately thus far there are barely a hundred pages you may browse through, but hopefully this is more than just one more browsing exercise. The pages are intentionally laid out and linked together to form conversational strings ranging from urbane, witty, down-to-earth, controversial, to even a bit ridiculous, but hopefully mostly wise in some way.

So sorry that most strings dead end pretty quickly at this point, but you are personally invited to help out, even if only a little, to nudge the process along. You should find a “Click here to suggest a bit of favorite brief wisdom which you have run across…” link near the bottom of any given page which you may select to make your own contribution or explore other ways to engage with the Collective.

In the meantime we will continue to crank out more brief wisdom.


Old Man House

This was my late autumn pilgrimage. My first in several years and likely my only during the Coronavirus pandemic. It was a “last minute” pilgrimage in that it had only been a few days previous that I discovered that the site would be only a mile and a half from the place where we would be staying for two days. It felt in the moment like a successful pilgrimage in that what little spiritual preparation I had managed to squeeze in did set me up for expectations that panned out in unexpected ways. I took great pride in the impressions and sensations which emerged as we walked along through land continuously occupied by an ancient people for at least a millennium or so, only later to find out that most of those impressions and sensations were based on false assumptions – or at least false according to Wikipedia. As a result I finally decided to donate to Wikipedia in gratitude for their efforts over the years at bursting a few of my bubbles and losing me more than a few trivia battles.

The original intention was, as many an overly romantic pilgrim has framed such a journey, to take a short stroll as deeply as I dared, at least for only an hour or so, into the midst of unfamiliar territory. In this case into an age old culture set deeply into the slightly more familiar landscape that I have called home for only several decades. 

The first few steps of our little pilgrimage fell across the carpet of the well appointed lobby of a seven story waterfront hotel richly adorned in Northwest coastal indigenous art which was, as I have grown to expect these days, adjacent to a large casino. Our route then crossed Highway 305, the main artery connecting Bainbridge Island with the rest of Kitsap County. It then seemed a fitting early leg to our pilgrimage, to be hiking along Suquamish Way for a half mile to the musical accompaniment of rumbling truck traffic only a few feet from us. We were, after all, on a journey out of one civilization, one culture, one way of being in the world, and into what we expected to be quite another. Such were my romanticized pilgrim sensibilities.

As we turned off Suquamish Way we were confronted with a no trespassing sign. It had not occurred to us that outsiders might not welcome onto the Suquamish reservation without an invitation. The goody-two-shoes and cluelessly culturally sensitive part of my pilgrim soul was in immediate conflict with my well-laid pilgrimage plans. We paused for some moments in our existential angst before pressing ahead. The convenient theory of the moment held that we had somehow been invited onto the land by virtue of our being current paying guests at the tribe-owned hotel. Besides, in the event that we might be challenged, I could simply explain that we were on pilgrimage to Old Man House. I could even show that I had in my pocket a highly spiritual gift that I intended to leave behind as a token of respect.

Nonetheless, I immediately felt out of place as I passed into the Suquamish community. With each step my rationalizations weakened and my discomfort grew. Mind you, I was not so much the clueless outsider that feared any physical harm. Not here. The kind of fear I experienced as I walked down the asphalt street between the ramblers and split-levels felt much worse. Any real or imagined threat of physical harm, rational or irrational, at least implies some opportunity at bravery. Were I ever to risk any physical harm on some adventure or some random extremity of circumstance I might later be thought well of whether of not I had actually braved the hazard successfully. In this case I feared only extreme embarrassment at being called out for being somewhere I was not supposed to be. After all, who has survived adolescence without an embarrassment, at least once, that feels worse than death?

We were passing through a typical enough community according to my own perceived standards for these parts, but intense barking of dogs soon heightened my dread of discovery. The dogs were still barking at our ears as we came to a dead end. I pulled out my device to check the map only to find we were still exactly on course. It was then we determined that the “road” on the map was actually a well worn footpath that skirted the dead end barricade and beckoned us downhill through dense woods. We picked our way ahead between thick tangles of underbrush for a short way before the path opened out upon a very different sort of neighborhood – one much more typical of the large posh homes all along the shore of virtually any body of water within a few miles of Seattle. We could see across Agate Passage to Bainbridge Island which is only a short ferry commute for the software millionaires and trudging tech workers just across the sound. In my cluelessness I concluded that these beautiful view homes on the reservation must be evidence of the newfound casino wealth of the Suquamish people. Then as we walked on along toward the site of Old Man House I cringed once more as we encountered folks out working in their yard or taking a sunny morning stroll, but as we were consistently greeted with a friendly “good morning” or a smiling nod we finally began to relax. We assumed we had been officially welcomed by the natives.

We found the site of Old Man House to be about as we expected, a freshly mowed park along the beach with nice recently built restrooms and a shady bench where we could rest and meditate upon this holy site. We found no historical marker to explain the significance of what we knew to be a most unique point on the map of the world, in our own minds perhaps even one of those “thin places” of Celtic lore. Yet it was a sunny cold morning in December and we were glad enough to rest here, meditate, and finally perform our little pilgrimage rituals. The shade of the trees invited us into this space with the soft loam bending beneath our footfalls in a most welcoming way. On the other hand, the smooth and hard pebbles of the beach felt a few steps too far into the sacred for us to dare our step, at least not now, not on this brief morning pilgrimage. 

We gently placed our gifts in the knot of a tree and started back. We did have gifts to take away with us, but these had been prepared ahead. We had determined to take only the spiritual, not anything physical, out of the sacred space. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time that a member of the Suquamish might not see much of a distinction between the spiritual and the physical here. Yet we walked on back through the million dollar view homes, up the trail, ran again the gauntlet of the barking dogs, back down the busy highway and finally back into our nicely appointed hotel room adjacent to the casino.

Of course once I sat down later in the day to look through my notes and record my musings I remembered one of my many assumptions which my wife had questioned that morning and finally got around to reading up on a bit of background material. Once I did so I was immediately entirely disenchanted as I found assumption after assumption totally discredited at the trusty hands of Wikipedia. I may yet entertain the temptation to write a fanciful tale of the “Old Man” of Old Man House as I never assumed in the first place that any substantial information, historical or mythical, existed regarding such a person. Nonetheless it was disappointing to find that the best theories available explaining the name involved nothing more unique than tricks of the language in translation between Lushootseed, Chinook Jargon, and American English. Much worse, however, I found out that what I had assumed to be wealthier native dwellings beyond the wooded trail, were not part of the reservation at all, or at least not any longer. The property had been bought by the US government in 1904 to build defenses at this approach to the Bremerton shipyard. The defenses were never built and the land was sold decades later to developers. In my clueless musings I was comparing what I thought to be Suquamish homes near Old Man House to the similarly posh homes across Agate Passage only to find out these homes were merely another extension of the suburban sprawl of the typical modern metropolis. The greetings we had encountered along the way were merely greetings from our own kind. We had encroached after all and I am left now to wonder whether or not I am any the better for the experience.

One More CoVid Meme, sorry about that!

My long-suffering spouse was reminiscing recently over her birthday last March, how unique it felt to be getting literally all of her well-wishes over video feeds back in those long lost days months back when such stuff was a whole new daily experience for most of us. Well, dial it back up to the present and it looks like pretty much everybody will have at least one “special and unique” pandemic birthday before this is all over.

Those of us who have any perspective on history at all may have thought of World War I as a pivotal turning point in history where old world views suddenly died in the face of new realities. I wonder if the Spanish flu pandemic might’ve been viewed in a similar light were it not somewhat overshadowed, as any number of historical artifacts have been over the centuries, by war.

Yes, this pandemic will eventually pass into history along with any number of “unprecedented” occurrences in this admittedly strange year of 2020. I suspect, however, that by the time it does so, most of us will have long gotten over the idea of everything getting “back to normal”.

Perhaps this year more than most, perhaps the most starkly at least since 9/11, we will realize just how quickly “normal” can morph into “new normal” while one is hunkered down and alone.