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Life Sketch

"Out in Nebraska . . . you cannot ignore the land!"


In­­ Nebraska . . . you cannot ignore the land, with the vistas stretching like a solidified ocean to the horizon and beyond. As a child I was awed again and again by the towering might of thunderstorms, gliding like majestic ships across a grassy sea of open prairie, pounding the air and shaking the ground beneath your feet in a tingling vibration; jostled repeatedly by the wandering wind, fierce winters, scorching summer's sun, welcome breezes, starry heavens, rustling leaves of the cottonwoods nestled along the creeks and rivers, and spread out in every direction that deep dark soil alive with fertile smells of grass and grain; by darting swallows, soaring hawks, stunning sunsets . . . and sky that runs on forever. Traces of the broad grasslands, the sweep of the plains and prairies, stir my senses still – and will until I die. And the mark it left upon me? To this day I feel strangely at home when I find myself amidst a vastness that disappears into distance.

We all are marked by where we come from . . .

. . . and in life things just happen . . .

    Here is the string of things that came from mine: When I was twelve, a stick was thrown in my right eye, scarring the retina so badly doctors are still amazed I can see out of it; in high school, while working at the hometown airport for lessons instead of money, I learned to fly ... BUT, on my first solo cross-country flight, the carburetor iced, stopping the engine and forcing me down in a dead-stick landing (no power) onto a rain-soaked field, where I hit a mud hole and nearly nosed over (see photo of the plane on the right side panel); while in the Marines, in a freak accident at the rifle range, I lost most hearing in my left ear (which has never stopped ringing); after my brother's tragic death at a Colorado railroad crossing in a snowstorm, his therapist – a man humane and courageous enough to break professional confidence in order to tell me how my brother had spent the last few years of his life, and whose telling me this turned the tragedy of his death into a triumph, (which was confirmed a good many years later by two men who, on separate occasions, sought me out to let me know my brother had "saved their life"); in a house fire, 85% of what we owned went up in flames, (caused by fumes from a can of varnish being ignited by the pilot light on the water heater some ten feet away); in the summer of 1988, I went to Europe to "take in the sights," – unaware that I was the one who would be taken in – and changed in lasting ways by people I met and things that happened in what turned out to be "the second sunrise of my soul" (see side panel for photos of Geneva, Switzerland and Arco, Italy from that summer); I've met some famous people, in deeper ways than just in passing: two were in films of the "great star" era (see the side panel for one from my hometown, and the book's dedication pages for the other – Hint: Gone With The Wind was one of her many films), the third was a world-renowned scientist (see references to Jonas Salk on the HOME SITE page and to launch, inc. on the side panel to the right), and the last was a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

      Such unexpected intrusions as these occur in the life of everyone, a fact which a former professor of mine, a theologian, liked to acknowledge by saying, "Life is shot through and through with accidentiality!" And isn't it though.

. . . but it's where we go and what we do . . .

. . . that leave on us the most lasting marks of all.

      Where I chose to go was away. Why not off to college with all my friends? Because doing that seemed as if it would only be going on to Grade 13; while what I craved was something unlike anything I'd known or done before. And, I got it. For on July 1, 1953, at seventeen – fresh out of high school and green as a tree frog – I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Never having been farther west than Colorado (the next state to the west), nor farther in the other direction than eastern Kansas (the next state to the south), I suddenly found myself on a train from Omaha, along with thirty-one other enlistees – twenty-eight for the Marine Corps and four for the Navy – all in the same passenger car bound for southern California into something that would change our lives forever.

      Did I know what I was getting into? Of course not! My picture of the military had come from straight out of the movies: a bunch of guys sitting around the barracks, cleaning their rifles and shining their shoes, playing cards, writing letters and reading mail, while also opening boxes of cookies from home . . . and playing the harmonica. It wasn't like that, and unlike anything else I'd ever seen. So how can one prepare for what one knows nothing of? You can't. And it didn't matter that I wasn't ready for it – because something deep inside (maybe the total effect of all those previous movie plots) told me they'd make me ready . . . and I was ready for that, for them to make me ready ... and they did! Besides, isn't that how life is anyway? Just one great big, Here I come, ready or not! And . . . that's where it happened, right then and there: in July of 1953, in San Diego and Marine boot camp – where any shred of distinguishing identity is stripped or shaved off you (clothes and hair), every piece of personal property taken from you (wallet and belongings), put into a large envelope and then sealed before your eyes, and you don't see or even think about your stuff again until four months later, by which time you're walking out the gate and leaving the post as a graduate – and that is where my life became my own.

      Life had begun teaching me those things that have to be lived if they are ever be known, things I hadn't the slightest inkling of until then; and one of the very first of many valuable lessons to come my way was: It's only those who leave home that ever really find it.

      After military service, it was on to college, where my four looming interests, each of which had deeply stirred my soul – Philosophy, Theater, Psychology, and Religion – surfaced in their varied splendors and commenced to fight each other. At times these mighty conflagrations broke out into a full-fledged war, as each sought to lord it over the others, which made my vocational decisions difficult and my whole life tumultuous.

      And by the way, what are "interests" anyway? We take them as one of life's many givens, but how is it that they come to shape and mold our lives so definitively? That is something we haven't yet bothered to look into. But this much I do know (for life has pounded it into me again and again): the world wants you to be one thing only. "If you want to ever amount to anything," it says, "then you must pick one and stick with it." Which means, let one be the boss, and let the others stay no more than hobbies. That is mainly what the world says about how to live your life; and, tragically, that is what most everyone tries to do.

      Again and again I strove to accomplish this; trying with all my might to make what one great thinker, featured in the book, so aptly termed "a limited self-affirmation" . . . until my natural instincts finally got the better of me and uncommon sense won out. Instead of picking up one basket to put the other three into, I decided to gather up all four and carry them along. And you know what? If I had it to do over, I'd do the same thing again – only sooner!

      Got a minute? Minutes a-plenty, I bet – and then some. But do you also have a moment? Well, if we're speaking about right now, then, maybe it's yes or maybe it's no. You've certainly had them though; many . . . – and, no doubt, you will have countless more in the years to come.

      A 'minute' is our conventional but arbitrary way of dividing up time in order to mark or measure it. You can add up all the minutes to someone's life, for instance, and find out precisely how many are there. But that won't tell you anything whatsoever about the meaning of that life, nor about the particular person it belongs to. When we like what we're doing, don't the minutes swish by though? Time flies, as we say; and we want it to keep on and not stop; that's when we want more minutes than we have. And when we don't like what's happening, we just want it to be over, the sooner the better – but the minutes don't care; they keep dragging on and dragging by, and there are far too many of them to have to put up with.

      A moment, on the other hand, can be less than a minute or longer than several, and last for hours, days, months, or maybe even a year or two. It can be any length at all and might be "good" or "bad." A moment has nothing whatsoever to do with duration. What makes a moment is that its meaning is all of one kind, a simple whole. True, the minutes of life all add up, but it's the moments that really count.

      Moments are when we humans really learn – when we experience life firsthand and it becomes our own. Individuals point to moments and say, this is when I learned about love, or about deception, or truth, or ruthlessness, or envy; and that is when I understood humiliation, or cunning, or compassion, or excess, or guile, cowardice, treachery, and on and on. It is the discoveries that come in moments that change how one lives from then on – or at least until these are displaced by later learnings that lead further still. And, sometimes, we don't even need to speak about the important things we've learned because others already know it from their own experience. For instance, no human being ever needs to tell another what it's like to be alone.

      While we're on the subject, let's note that human experience, by its very nature, can never validly be made the exclusive province of any academic discipline, profession, or field of study. For it embraces art, science, religion, history, philosophy, politics and economics, and so on. In short, human experience includes every aspect of human existence, embracing all thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling, knowing, imagining, dreaming, and doing done by humankind. Thus it clearly belongs to everyone. So when it comes to human experience, either everyone is an expert, or no one is.

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A turning point is when . . .

. . . everything in a life is wrought anew.

      Shown here nearing age 33 in 1968 (with my big brotherly friend Janos Shoemyen, a native Hungarian who wrote under the name of Lawrence Dorr), I had just decided -- as my mentor, teacher, and personal friend for a decade had bluntly but consicely phrased it -- "to quit your marriage, to quit your job, and to quit this town." (Gainesville, Florida.) The movie Zorba The Greek had come out only a few years before and blitzed my life like a lightning bolt. A day or two after seeing it, while ambling the aisles of my favorite bookstore, I listlessly lifted a paperback (Report To Greco . . . the very one seen in the side panel to the right, above my brother's photo) from its shelf in the literature section, and being jolted by its dedication, quickly turned it over to discover it was by the same man from whose book the arresting film had come. I bought it immediately, took it straight home, and sat down to begin reading it in the large reclining chair in my living room. Over the next few hours, I read well beyond the first half of it . . . and the constraining confines of my life was punctured to its core. The worn-thin spot on the membrane of that fluid-filled sack I'd been living in – rubbing against and scraping with increasing intensity since getting out of seminary), burst finally, and through the hole it tore open, the pent-up waters of the more flooded in. Within a day, or two at most, the ship of my soul had completely come about, and I found myself under full sails, heading out to where the big waves are. The weather of my life had built into a complete front, now making its way with increasing speed across the full expanse of my existence; I could see the winds of it had picked up speed and were blowing strongly in a different direction. The ending had begun – and where it would take me I had no inkling of; but I knew there was no stopping it, and that all I could do was hold on until its force was fully spent.

Because it's an internal as well as an external event, a turning point in anyone's life can never be reduced to nor explained by "psychological factors" alone -- and it is a great mistake to even attempt to do so. The more one conceptualizes in psychologizing ways, the farther one moves away from understanding what it in fact is. The essential elements of it escape. Even the way it begins runs against the grain of what one expects, for it doesn't start with a beginning at all -- but with a pronounced ending instead. Mine looked, felt, and in every way imaginable appeared in my world like this: . . . . . and everything it led to later came out of and lay on the other side of it. There was no way out or around the reality of what was there. The only way out was through.

One does not, indeed can not, "explain" turning points outside of all the elements and aspects of the physical experiencing they involved. Instead, one recounts the actual physical and mental embodiments that changed one's picture of everything that is, as well as one's way of living and being in and among all of these from then on. Or at least as far as to the next turning point.

The Journal


"The Years Which Led To All That Followed"

The Journal


I began to keep a journal right out of seminary (seen here at twenty-seven, starting my ministry at two churches in Florida). Pouring my soul onto its pages at night, usually about once a week and always in the privacy of my study, I was at the same time – and completely without knowing it – also compiling a very telling personal chronicle of an unforeseen cataclysmic event about to break out of the cage of all cultural confinement and start to prowl about. It had no name back then, though it was soon to acquire a great many – each of which it instantly outgrew – until, quite unceremoniously (so fitting for it, because it would always refuse to stand on ceremony), it came to be known best by just the times that brought it into being, marked as they were by the unprecedented two-pronged "take-it-to-the-streets" and "take-it-to-the-hills" energetic eventfulness it was about to release upon the entire civilized world, affecting the history of it from that point on. And so today it is called by what people the world over know it as and undoubtedly always will: "The Sixties"

No facet of my being, nor feature of mind, body, or soul, was unaffected by this tedious, tiring, and often torturous act of putting things into words – even when but the merest fragments of them – what I thought, felt, sensed, longed for, worried about, dreamed of . . . or did and didn't do. Ensuing events – and they were legion – continued to mushroom, mounting and unfolding right on up to 1968, the year now objectively documented in numerous sources, and widely recognized by knowledgeable observers as unquestionably the most pivotal year of them all. Then, suddenly, and with just as little rhyme or reason as when they began, it all stopped. No flourish or "finishing," no organic extension into a phase of completion, no resolution nor even the tiniest hint of closure; it all ceased and was over. My life kept right on flowing though, without a ripple of interruption, but in altogether unanticipated, yet seemingly understandable or "natural" directions – and . . . I never kept a journal again (nor do I ever wish to). Those green and growing reaches of my life, both large and small, then moved on and into very different things, forming themselves into this or that, or simply expired and passed away into the places of "seeming" where shadows live and echoes go, and which, though they can always be looked back upon, can never ever again be rightly retrieved or fully re-constructed.

Yet something remained; nothing so definite or "teachy" as learnings or lessons, but subtle inchoate things like inclinations, tacit tendings, tugs or nudges light as a nod, or whisper inclining one to lean or go in one direction more than another, and which, though at time I intentionally dismissed or refused to acknowledge, would eventually turn out to be the direction in which I, for no apparent good reason, would decide was the most full and fitting way for my life to move.

And in these old and sometimes very faded pages, I come across signs pointing me to something with a clarity not noticed or seen as clearly as they are now.

While assembling these Journal pages – having retrieved them from the storage boxes in which they have long sat, emanating as they do a robust smell, one so pronounced, more definitive and distinct than stuffy or stale – I will post a few of the entries to "air them out," so to speak.

No interpretation. No changing or editing. For what value, if any, they may have to a soul reading them just as they are. ]

* * *

(A sample of my journal entries)

May 3, 1963

"Jeremiah warned, in his day, of the prophets who cried "peace, peace," when there was no peace. The warning needs to be re-sounded today with the same urgency it was sounded with then. So many people (especially those whose lives and faith have become all wrapped up in movements like Unity, Christian Science, and Divine Healing) are doing all they can to secure some kind of final, absolute "peace," "tranquility," "contentment," or "serenity," now. Invariably, those who strive the hardest for these goals are, I find, those who have known some great suffering in their life. Florence, Maggie, Esther, Mary, and Mamie all seem to be seeking quietly and desperately for, or clinging tenaciously to, some such solace as this. Mary D. and Esther G. appear to have reached the point where they realize that the "ostrich head-in-sand" won't work really (although they have certainly given it a good try for all it was worth). In spite of all the shortcomings and one-sidedness I see in things like Unity and Christian Science, I seriously wonder, at times, whether I have any right to point out to these people the real evil in the world that brings about so much tragedy in the lives of so many in the world. I have long since passed the point where there is any sense of accomplishment in trying to introduce such people as this to life as it truly is for so many. In college I used to delight in this, I am ashamed to say, but now I see things differently.

It is with no little amount of apprehension that I try, as gently as I possibly can, to help these people realize that it is because God has conquered all evil in Christ that we, as Christians, can open our eyes to the world as it really is instead of running from the parts that are unpleasant to look at. I asked them to look at our Lord's life and ask themselves if they would call his life a "peaceful" one, or a "happy," "tranquil," or "serene" one. We Christians have joy, it is true, and as Dr. Stanley liked to say in seminary, "If your religion is not at least 51% joy, something is wrong."

But joy, true Christian joy, as I see it, is something altogether different from this "peace," "tranquility," "peace of mind," "serenity," or "Happiness" being spoken of here. For true joy has a triumphant aspect to it and quality in it, springing from that which has conquered the greatest of all possible evils that can ever befall man. This is what we have as Christians through faith. Joy has this ring of confidence to it, of courageous affirmation "in spite of" all that would strive to do it in or overcome it. Only something as big as this can enable us to truly live in this world and see it as it is — and this is precisely what we have through faith.

At the center of our faith stands the cross, and this is never a pleasant, serene, tranquil, happy, or peaceful fact — though when seen through the resurrection it is a triumphant one, which affords us the place from which we can look at the most ominous evils and "powers of darkness" and joyfully proclaim in the face of them, "I know that my Redeemer liveth."

~ * ~ * ~

September 29, 1963
Crescent City, Florida

( After a five month gap — caused by my having lost the second spiral notebook that was the continuation of my Journal — there came this terse entry )

"After returning home from the school for Alcohol Studies in Avon Park, I discovered that I had lost the notebook which had served as my Journal since I had filled my initial notebook. It is just as well, I feel, for I was becoming way too wordy. Like so many whose professions demand perpetual "talking," I am afraid that I too have far more to talk about than I have to say."

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Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved. Gene Ruyle