Andy's Story: How to Shake Trees

This story has nothing to do with shaking actual trees, but more on that later.

My son and I were driving up the winding, steep hill that leads to Assisi Heights, Motherhouse of the Sisters of Saint Francis, whose campus has been partially converted into usable space for various nonprofits as well as Mayo Clinic. The later having paid for much of the upgrade and upkeep of the Motherhouse - a reasonable thing given the long and meaningful history between the Brothers Mayo and the Sisters of Saint Francis. 

There was a hint of Autumn in the landscape as we arrived for my son’s rehearsal as a part of Honors Choirs of Southeast Minnesota, one of the handful of nonprofits housed at Assisi Heights.

I’d already decided to be spontaneous and interview one of the other parents since we were to be there for an extended period of time given this was the first rehearsal of the year.  

After parking and delivering my son to his rehearsal space, I ran into Andy whom I’ve casually known for a number of years as we’ve floated around the same choral circle.  

I’d worn my “The Worthy People Project” t-shirt and explained to him what it was all about. He agreed to an interview so we walked over to a table in the outdoor courtyard to begin. 

Saintly statues dotted the well manicured courtyard. Sunshine filled the space and blue sky was our canopy. A willow tree perfectly contributed to the setting; not too overpowering, as willows can often be, but was positioned to give adequate shade of which we took advantage. It appeared to have recently had a haircut as each tassel came to the same conclusion. 

The Interview

“My name is Andy and, along with my wife, I have three kids ages 16, 12, and 10 all of whom sing in Honors Choirs.” Andy launched into the interview full steam ahead. “They moan and complain about it but they do it ‘cause we want them to do it.”

So, my kid isn’t the only one to moan about Honors Choirs? Alrighty, then.

Andy continued, “I'm on the board of Honors Choirs so I'm here today volunteering as we kick off the new season.”

“Why do you volunteer?” I asked.

“Because I need to do things that are not me; something other than myself and because this organization is important to me. Singing and making music, especially choral music, is something that the world always benefits from. It’s the power of our voice and it’s just, so…so…human.”

Well, that’s something I can get behind.

“How did you end up in Rochester"?” I continued with my questioning.

“So, I graduated college with a valuable degree in East Asian History.” He paused to wait for the reaction he knew was coming. So I gave it to him.

“Are you serious?” I asked with sarcastic disbelief.

“I am.” Andy said proudly.

“Okay. I need to know why and where you studied East Asian History.”

Andy explained that he began at Concordia College in Moorehead, but ended up at St. Olaf College.

“So, you must be Lutheran?” I asked.

“Yep. I was raised Lutheran, but I now refer to myself as Buddharen.” 

I didn’t see that one coming. In fact, prior to beginning the interview, I had explained to Andy that in just about every interview I’d done I had discovered something surprising about the person I’m interviewing. Well, this surprised me.

“I'm more Buddhist than I am Lutheran.” He said.

“I'm gonna have to figure out how to spell that,” I said.

How’d I do?

Andy had gone to Concordia on a vocal music scholarship. “I was a choir nerd and that's one of the choir nerd places to go in the world.” And, it is, but, it wasn’t a good fit. He’d visited friends at St. Olaf and found that to be a place that did fit, so he pulled up stakes and moved.

“It was a really hard thing to do because it was like an admission of a mistake that I had made. Talk about, you know, those scripts of unworthiness that we tell ourselves...”

Yes, Andy. I know those scripts well.

It was at St. Olaf where Andy was invited by his Latin tutor to do a term in Asia. After spending a weekend at an informational retreat he was hooked, so he went and studied in Japan, Hong Kong, mainland China, and Thailand.

“We were in Thailand for the longest. When we were there we studied Thai language and culture at the University of Thailand and stayed with host families.” Part of those cultural studies was exposure to Theravada Buddhism, southeast Asian Buddhism, and Southeast Asian History.

Why Do Things Always Get Spiritual With Me

“Before the trip I read through the required reading list and was introduced to Buddhism and the whole idea of thinking about life as suffering and this sort of pessimism was so different from what I knew, but there was something there and low and behold 25 years later here I am with a daily meditation practice and a real connection to the experiential nature of Buddhist teaching.”

“So has that melded with Christianity?” I asked because there are Christians who use Buddhist meditative practices since Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion, per se.

“No,” he said reflectively, “I don't consider myself a Christian. The Buddharen part for me is the cultural piece. I still go to church sometimes and that’s because the one part of my spiritual life that is most unsettled is the community aspect.” That made sense. There aren’t many Buddhist communities around here. “I'm connected to a couple online Buddhist communities and go on retreat. Just last Memorial Day I went down to Joshua Tree National Park and did a silent meditation retreat.

“What does a silent retreat entail?” I asked with genuine interest.

“It's pretty straightforward: no talking, no books, no journals, no journaling…nothing.”

Honestly, that sounds sort of awful and, apparently, it can be at first.

“One of the first silent retreats I did was when I was in Thailand and I hated it. Absolutely, hated this idea that I was going to sit there and be quiet and some magic was going to happen.”

“So, did magic happen?” I was curious.

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“No. No. And, magic doesn't happen today. And, I think that's the gift of mindfulness: being able to be here. Life is like this.” Andy gestured to our present space. “We have brains that tell us these stories of unworthiness. We question everything. ‘Why doesn't this person call me back?’ or ‘why did this happen to me?’ Well, that's what we do. That's what our brains do.  Mindfulness allows me to become more aware and open and openness is a gift not because it gives me some arrival point but because it brings me to right here.”

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What Andy was saying made a lot of sense to me. “On my own journey,” I said, “as a Christian, I would parallel that same desire to be in the present. I am often frustrated with this sort of Christian-ese that offers platitudes instead of truly entering in to the depth of whatever circumstance one faces. Like saying, ‘oh don't worry, Jesus has got this,’ to someone who needs to hear, ‘I'm right here with you in this time - let me weep with you or suffer with you or be angry alongside you or whatever.’ To me, we diminish Jesus when we offer him to others as a platitude; when we brush off the work of our spirits because that's the stuff of life.”

Andy nodded in agreement and began talking about his tattoos which all remind him of his spiritual journey. Those are Buddha’s feet on his calves, by the way.

Run Andy Run

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“You run, right?” I switched gears completely as I often do to keep the story moving. “Tell me about running. Is it like really fast meditation?”

Well, I have run consecutively, at least one mile a day, for the last 293 days and some people may say that's my meditation, but it really isn't.

“Meditation is your meditation.” I said.

“Yeah,” Andy continued, “I used to listen to music when I was running, but now I listen to podcasts if I listen to anything.”

“Do you think that's a consequence of aging - switching from music to podcasts - because I find myself listening to ‘This American Life’ when I'm walking and I wonder ‘how have I gotten to the point where I prefer this to the latest new music?’” I asked.

“Yeah, like ‘I used to have this urban edge to me,’ says the white guy with the long hair.”

At this point we’re both laughing at ourselves. Lame.

“What about work? Tell me about that.” I inquisited.

“Well, I was a high school teacher, and circling back, this leads into how I landed in Rochester.”

So, after our spiritual side-track, Andy took me back to his college days.

“After college, I went into the Peace Corps and served on a tiny little island in the Pacific called Pulau. Then, when I got back to the States my student loan payment was due, like literally, the day I got back. And, with my valuable East Asian degree I promptly went and got a bunch of temp jobs and was living in Bloomington with my aunt because there was no way I was gonna live with my parents.”

Sort of like a degree in piano performance like me, I thought.

He went on to say that while he was living with his aunt, his cousin tried setting him up with her best friend’s sister. He didn’t think it was a good idea, but after persistent nagging on his cousin’s part, he gave in and now he’s been with his wife almost as long as he’s been without her.

“Was it love at first sight?” I asked.

“For her, of course.” He smiled.

“Would she give me the same answer?”

“I don't know, but she's not here, so let's just keep rolling, because this is my favorite topic - me,” He replied. We both laughed. Then, he continued with his story.

A New Venture

Andy went back to school at U of M to become a teacher and took a job in Rochester. That was 20 years ago. Now, he’s taken a leave of absence from teaching and is pursuing a new venture based on his passion for kids and families called “Warriors of the Open Heart.”

“The name, itself, is a nod to my meditative practice, my mindful practice of keeping my heart open to what’s present,” Andy explained. “This fall was one of the first and only times I haven't gone back to school since I was six years old. Not going back has been really strange.”

I asked him to tell me more about this business.

“Well, I've been training in earnest for the last 12-14 years around a philosophy called Love and Logic which is a parenting and educational mindset that I believe helps adults, families, teachers, early childhood staff to see that kids are just a mirror of us.”

But why leave the classroom? Couldn’t you do both?

“My motivation for leaving the classroom,” Andy explained, “is that I don't think we're doing right by kids by selling them more and more academics. I came of age as a teacher in No Child Left Behind where we diagnosed and then fixed kids. I don't think kids need a fix. There are really simple, foundational things we can be doing through Love and Logic, because it isn't about solutions as in ‘do this and you'll fix this kid.’”

“How do you plan on doing that?” I asked.

By offering ongoing parent training. Andy shared some of his recent offerings both in Rochester and around the state and I was impressed with his client list so far. Check out his website. Perhaps he’s offering exactly what you need as a parent or educator.

And One More Surprise

“Tell me what it has been like within your family system to move from a traditional Lutheran belief to Buddhism. What has been the reaction?” Somehow I keep circling back to faith and spirituality. I guess its just where I’m at these days.

“Well, its an ongoing thing.” Andy paused, “Alright. I'll crack this one open.” He took a breath before continuing. “So, I got sober just about 3 years ago. I'm an alcoholic.”

Again, Andy surprised me. I had no idea.

“My spiritual existence has become much more intentional in the process of becoming sober,” he continued. “I actually started meditating when I was still drinking and mainly because of the anxiety. Just the overwhelming daily, you know, guerrilla of anxiety sitting on my chest. 

“Has that diminished since you quite drinking?”

“Oh, yeah. So, getting back to your question, I don't think my parents are 100% uncomfortable or comfortable with it I think its different but I think they've known for some time that I'm not Christian.”

“There was never a moment when you came out of the religious closet so to speak?” I asked.

“No. No. Um, one of the gifts of sobriety, and there have been a lot, is a measure of self-acceptance to admit to myself that I'm not this and I'm more of this. There wasn't a moment that I said, ‘I'm not a Christian, I'm a Buddhist.’ It just sort of happened.”

Just then Andy’s wife Jessica joined us at the table.

“This is my wife, Jessica,” Andy said as his wife sat down.

Turning to Jessica, I explained what we are doing and asked if she’d be willing to answer a few question. I was curious as to how she handled Andy’s alcoholism and transition into sobriety.

She answered freely, “There were many years where I hated him and I would swear under my breath and would call my mom in tears and say I didn't think I could do this. I would think about divorce and the logistics of it and then it would all seem too complicated - figuring out finances and the kids - so I'd decide to wait it out a little longer. And, I dealt with it by having a drink, too. I'd get mad at him and have a beer and I felt like I could deal with it.”

“You were both self-medicating?” I clarified.

“Me more than her,” Andy said.

“I hated doing anything social with him,” Jessica continued, “because I'd end up with a drunk Andy. But now, I'm so glad that we’re together because I feel like I love him more and enjoy him more than I ever did before. But yeah, I never thought we'd be where we are right now. I felt like we were so far down the hole emotionally and financially. I didn't know that it would get this good. 

“What do you attribute that to?” I asked.

“Um...I mean we were both stuck. Part of what kickstarted it was selling our house and paying off all ours debts.” They were upside down in their house and it was killing them.

“And this is before sobriety,” Andy added.

“Between having debt and living paycheck to paycheck and dealing with, you know, drinking we weren’t connecting with the kids.” They were disconnected and overwhelmed. “To pay off all our debts,” Jessica continued, “and to have money in savings and be able to do stuff: It was a glimmer of hope.”

“It was like we shook the tree and things fell out that we couldn't have made happen before,” Andy added. “We didn't know what we didn't know. We were stuck. And, and, selling the house was such a gift. 

How to Shake Trees

I knew our time was drawing to a close.

“Anything else you want to add before we wrap up?” I asked.

“I guess I would say that stepping out of a stable career and taking a risk on something else is a gift I never would have found if I was still drunk.” Andy said with a mix of confidence, determination, and gratitude. “And, having the chance to serve people - families, children, parent, early childhood people - that's worth every bit of suffering I went through and put my family through and if I can use that then, gosh, that's a pretty darn good life.”

With that we concluded. Andy and Jessica resumed their volunteer duties as rehearsal was coming to a close and I needed to go pick up my kid. 

Andy is taking a risk by shaking the figurative tree; activating his dream because he knows he has something to offer that could be of real value to kids, parents, and educators. That takes courage and an open heart, for sure.

As I mentioned, this post had nothing to do with shaking literal trees. I’ve never been good with idioms, but I like this one. I like the idea of shaking trees and seeing what happens.

As my son and I drove back down the hill from the “city on a hill” I couldn’t help but feel inspired by this risk-taking, people loving, spiritually-minded tree shaker.

What tree are you gonna shake?