art·ist /ˈärdəst/ noun • a person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as a sculptor, novelist, poet, or filmmaker. • a person skilled at a particular task or occupation.

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Artists engage in a daily battle between the belief their work is worthy—that it can stand the scrutiny of those who know better and it will be well received by critics and customers alike and is ready for publication or presentation; and the conviction that it is a complete waste of time—that it is predictable or trite or tiresome, will sit on shelves or in bins without so much as a glance, and a dozen better ways to approach the topic will become apparent while the brutal reality that no other creative work will ever emerge remains crystal clear.

Artists, writers, work for free, hoping, praying, someone, anyone, will order the book just out of support, just out of curiosity. There is no health care, there is no retirement plan, there is no guarantee the time invested wasn’t simply folly. There is no yard stick to measure how well it is going, how much longer it will take, which parts need attention, and which deserve to be deleted. Often, artists stare at the medium for hours, fiddling around, snacking, cleaning, engaging in any form of distraction and avoidance. On a good day, a writer may have a good page, sometimes three or four, and every once in a while, lightning strikes, but an artist lives with the strong possibility of waking up the next morning and chucking the whole project. Artists have panic attacks, breakdowns, and bad habits. They drink. They swear. It is the creative version of coping, of loosening the tie, but the work is never finished, unless one buys into Rembrandt’s insistence that a work is finished when an artist realizes the intentions.

Few occupations demand the tenets of faith like that of an artist. If they agree with Kahlo and paint their own reality, then artists demonstrate daily the belief in things unseen, constantly starting from scratch, always inventing, and always—by definition—always searching for originality in a world flooded with ideas and blogs and podcasts and books, and still the artist works in one of the original exercises of pure faith, well knowing that Gauguin was right, that art is either revolution or plagiarism.

An artist wants to scream “buy my book,” “purchase this painting,” “please listen to my music.” An artist wants to balance the need to promote her work with not wanting to come across as egocentric when in fact the very act of creating something from nothing under the conviction others will want to make it part of their lives is a level of egoism few professions demand. An artist deals with these tugs of war between humility and pride. The tug of war, as Merton writes, of finding oneself and losing oneself at the same time.

An artist keeps working because it is a race against time to not “die with the music in you” as Wayne Dwyer noted, with stories on the cusp of creation, with unfinished work, with incomplete manuscripts, because two things are absolute: one lifetime cannot accommodate the ideas and works and starts and restarts of an artist, and they will die sooner rather than later and it is coming on fast, no matter how long they will actually live, because perception is different for an artist, hence the need as James Baldwin insists, to vomit up the anguish.

An artist cries because so much time is wasted. An artist cries because it is impossible, it is just impossible to capture the turmoil in humanity, but the artist tries to abide by Pollock and paint “what he is” by sketching another river, writing another digression, composing another score where an oboe comes in high and slow in some minor-key attempt to capture the sadness which, anyway, a true artist well knows she will never aptly express, because all artists know that Rodin was right—the main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.

If one does not have a bestseller, a gallery, an audience, people consider the art a fleeting phase, never completely understanding the difference between art and commodity. An artist wants sales, of course, but only for the purpose of having the time to produce more art. An artist is disturbed by negative reviews and criticism, of course, but works anyway.  If a benefactor bestows funds for an artist to keep working without the stress of financial burdens so common in the creative world, that artist will produce. But for certain if no such benefactor exists, the artist works anyway, finds the freedom necessary anyway, producing the same work anyway, because the artist knows what Monet knew, that the richness comes from nature—the true source of inspiration. The world is graced with art because some people must create as certain as they must exhale, as certain as Chagall’s belief that the artist simply picks up where nature left off.

Artists are not amateurs, they are not hobbyists. An artist will spend hours figuring out the necessity of one word, an artist will step back after two months work and scrape off the paint of an oak to move it one inch for a better composition, an artist cannot eliminate a note or a phrase. An artist wants to leave a mark, believes, as did Trotsky, that art is not a mirror to hold up to society but a hammer with which to shape it.

Artists are shooting for something else, and in the end the art is merely a symptom of their desire to express the inexplicable. Because in the soul of an artist is the deep understanding and resignation that, as van Gogh insisted, the true artist works not with brushes and canvas but with flesh and blood, believing first in humanity.

An artist is never quite certain of her mental stability but has complete faith that how she behaves is perfectly normal. Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neil, Beethoven, Keats, Tennessee Williams, Vincent van Gogh, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Michelangelo, Charles Dickens all lived with mental illnesses and any artist worth his salt will insist if any element of these great souls had been more regulated, more controlled, we would never have heard of them.

Georgia O’Keefe was right: Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing.  Making your unknown known is the important thing, that is success. Something is that was not but for an acute thought, some simmering neurosis only settled by the act of creation. Hence poetry, literature, paintings, symphonies, and all.

An artist can quench the stress and anxiety of bill collectors and illnesses, of hunger and sleeplessness, by producing two or three decent pages, by catching the color of what will forever be last night’s sunset. An artist makes beauty permanent, makes our deepest emotional reactions permissible.

We walk that tight rope spanning obscurity, balanced only by a pole of phrases and transitions, of oil and acrylics, minor keys and crescendos. Walt Whitman had his Leaves of Grass, but an artist has a blank sheet of paper. This leaves the advantage with the artist. Everyone knows the work Whitman wrote and how it still grows in the literary field, but an artist has the uncriticable blank sheet of paper, and with the right choice of words, he may harvest his own Grass. To be an artist, Henry Moore said, is to believe in life, and life is mystery, and mystery is the flint which ignites creativity, without which, as Rene Magritte points out, the world would not exist.

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Now and Next

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“We talked of the tiny difference between ending and starting to begin”

                                                                   –Harry Chapin

Richard Simmons sat in my office with me and Betty, a woman who needed to lose more than a hundred pounds and was eating up to ten Snickers Bars a day. I’ve told this story before, but one detail I left out. At some point no matter what Richard said, Betty kept returning to all she had done wrong; the candy, the diet soda, the fatty foods for dinner, the stagnancy, salt, the same response so many members of the club relied upon to make them feel like they’re appropriately self-analyzing their situation.

When she was quiet a moment, Richard shook his head and said as only he can say, “Betty Betty Betty. You’re thinking is backwards. It isn’t difficult to know how you got in this position; I know, I’ve been there myself. But the more you focus on what you’re doing wrong or what you did wrong to bring you to this point, thinking you will find an answer there, the longer you will spiral into depression.”

I remember Betty looking at the Snickers Bar on my desk. I remember seeing the absolute compassion in Richard’s eyes. I had just taught an hour-long advanced class and was exhausted. I remember listening with as much intensity as Betty listened. I’d been analyzing what members ate to figure out what they should do differently in the future, and I sensed Richard was about to bring this in a new direction.

“Focus only on solutions. Focus on now and next; that’s all: Now and Next.” He talked about which good foods to have that day, where to park her car, what to do that night when she normally would have a bowl of something ugly, what to do when she normally would watch television, snacking without thinking.

Stop analyzing and thinking about the old Betty, he told her. That was then. That was yesterday. Stop listening to what anybody else says that isn’t healthy for you.

Then this: Don’t wake up a month from now knowing what you could have done differently but didn’t bother doing because it was hard or unfamiliar. Don’t wake up tomorrow regretting what you did today when you know better. I sat up when Richard looked at me for some interjection. He was excellent at knowing when to back off. So I said, “Betty, focus on the next positive solution instead of the last negative cause.”

Richard’s eyes opened a bit and he repeated to Betty, “Focus on the next positive solution instead of the last negative cause.”

I miss Richard. When I think of him, I think of Don McLean’s line about Van Gogh: “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” People made fun of him, they ridiculed his outrageous demeanor and attitude. Even his friends like David Letterman would make fun of him for the benefit of their own routines. And how Richard handled it was an example so often overlooked. He laughed along with everyone, no matter how it might have hurt inside, and he kept true to what he believed in. I loved that. I loved the very notion that no matter what anybody else says, they are not on your path, they are not seeing things the way you do, they do not have your anticipation or depression or hope or hopelessness.

It isn’t difficult to understand how some of us end up where we are. For some it is depression which can lead to a downward spiral of bad choices. But for some it is an unexpected fall which others might wrongly judge. And we get caught up in their judgments, trying to show them what really happened to bring us here instead of ignoring their thoughts and focusing on now and next. And what we all have in common is the next step will be individual and unique.

We wish too often for angels, for miracles, for some unexpected assistance to help us through the unfortunate circumstances in which we find ourselves. But how we lose the weight is by what step we take next, usually alone but with as much confidence and faith as we can summon.

It is warm today, sunny, warm like July and I’m wearing shorts and flip flops, though by the end of the week it is supposed to be winter again. The geese are confused, I saw some insects on the lawn, and I’m praying the laurel doesn’t start to bud. It’s happened before. Tomorrow I start teaching again two writing courses at Old Dominion and two art courses at Saint Leo’s. Again. So much follows me, even here in nature where I’m looking out across a still and beautiful river, but my mind is preoccupied. I’m still learning to focus on the next step, even when I have no idea what that next step should be. I’m still learning to stop waiting for miracles and stop analyzing the last negative cause.

The past is in its grave.

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A Guide to Teaching Art History to Active-Duty Military During a Time of War

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For starters, if someone’s phone vibrates and he reads the message, pay no mind. When someone is late and quietly tries to slide to the back and pick up on the discussion, it’s not a big deal. If she asks for something to be repeated that you went over before her arrival, nod and ask another student to answer the question; the repetition is good for everyone anyway. Don’t ask where they were or why they’re late. Just let it go. If several evenings pass and someone hasn’t shown up, send an email or call; they might have needed a day or two, just a little time away. If they don’t answer, if they don’t return the call, let it go. If they don’t return at all, give them an incomplete and wait. It’s not going to be a problem to wait. When they do return, don’t ask where they were or why they didn’t call. They are well-trained US Military; they are Navy personnel, Chief Petty Officers, Seal Team Six. They’re not negligent. Honest to God, they’re not indifferent. 

When calling roll ask where they’re from. They’re from all over the country, and more than a few friendships can ignite in a small class of people who discover they come from just a few towns away from each other half a world away from here. Let them talk about it; laugh as they laugh about common experiences. It will pay off later both here and abroad.

Let them know this is the most important class they will take. After they’re done laughing, tell them that while it may seem benign, that nothing they’ve trained for will help them here and nothing you’re going to do will ever be used on their job, art preceded us all, preceded war, preceded the invention of gunpowder and even politics. Show them the cave art from France. Play them the ancient South African chant still used today to warn villagers of nearby dangers. Show them the painting Rembrandt made of the crucifixion several dozen wars ago. Tell them that the most beautiful artifacts on the planet can be found between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers in ancient Mesopotamia. They’ll already know you’re talking about present day Baghdad. They’ve been there. Show them some of the Iraqi artwork; they can talk about it with you. You won’t have to remind them that literature, visual arts, architecture, music, is what we live for. Instead, play them Pachelbel’s Canon in D, or Bach’s Cello Suite Number One in G Major played by Yo Yo Ma. They’ll get it. 

Do not play protest songs. Do not show anti-war slogans. They already agree with those sentiments, of course. They’re not political. Not one of them is interested in war. None of them desires to shoot anyone, hurt anyone, confront anyone. And when you talk about propaganda art, let them comment and stay silent. You have no need to say much here. They’ll carry pretty much every conversation anyway. Remind yourself you are teaching some of the most disciplined, respectful, hard-working, dedicated, and motivated individuals any professor can possibly hope for. Point them toward the art; they’ll tell you why it is beautiful and significant and can be the salvation of humanity, and always has been. They’ll see the cherubs’ fingers touch and they’ll cry. They’ll hear Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony and sit quietly long after class ends, thinking. Remembering. Let them be.

If you are teaching at sunset and somewhere on base a trumpet starts playing “Colors” as the flag descends, stop teaching. Let it play out. They’ll explain if you ask. When someone needs to keep stepping out, don’t skip a beat. If someone stands up in the back of the room and wanders around or stares out the window for a long time after the trumpet stops, let it go.

When someone says they’ve been notified they’re being deployed, do not apologize; do not say “stay safe.” Do not pretend they’ll be fine. Even if they make it back there’s a high chance they won’t be fine and a significantly higher chance they’ll return with a strong desire to kill themselves. Simply thank them for their service and tell them you look forward to seeing them when they return. When they do they will come to see you; they always do. For God’s sake, remember their name. Give them your cell phone number and tell them it would be great to get coffee together and catch up. Let them know they really can call. They won’t but give them your number anyway.

If someone’s spouse emails to tell you your student will not be coming back to class anymore, thank them politely and apologize for their loss–you will have already received a letter from the administration. Do not reply with what a fine student your student was—that’s predictable and uninteresting. Instead, repeat the student’s name and say you will inform everyone else.

And have that discussion about beauty—ask them if they think beauty is in the eye of the beholder or if it can be an objective essence. They’ll all insist that it is in the eye of the beholder. Then put the cheapest, ugliest statue of Madonna or Christ or whatever deity you choose on the desk. Ask them what is beautiful about it. When you’ve separated the ones who find the gaudy plastic ugly from the ones who find the symbol of Mary or Christ beautiful for what it represents, show them that defining “beautiful” is not so easy; show them that what one person finds beautiful may have absolutely nothing to do with the medium. They’ll be no need to extend the metaphor or talk about other cultures, other religions, other perspectives—these people have been around the block; they’ll get it.

Then show them pictures of some of the world’s greatest buildings and ask them their favorite architecture. They’ve been to Dubai, Baghdad, Karachi, and Istanbul. They’ve been to Syria, the mountains of Afghanistan, the border of Pakistan. They’ll talk about structures you’ve never heard of; they’ll be enthusiastic and want to share it with you and recall it with colleagues. Then you’ll see how very much they already appreciate beauty and human accomplishment; you’ll quickly come to see that they very much understand what humans are capable of.

Better than anyone, they are acutely aware of what humans are capable of.

 

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Iraqi Artist Abbas Muhi al Deen

Rain on the Skylight

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It’s the first week of January at something like 3 am. I was thinking about a friend of mine I last heard from thirty-eight years ago today. We lost touch because of bad travel plans. I shouldn’t have given up so soon. I should have been more combative, more pessimistic. What an optimistic ass I was back then. That’s not always a good thing.

But it got me thinking here in the witching hours of night, of those times and what I did and what I failed to do. Such as, I should have kept playing tennis.

I should have kept playing guitar.

I should have stayed in Massachusetts.

I should have headed to USC for that Film School thing after college.

I should have taken that job tending bar in the Austrian castle.

I hate three am.

Anyone ever do this? Not seriously, not in a regretful way really, but those witching-hour moments of, what is it? Not self-doubt, really. More of a review; an analysis of “me so far.” The moments don’t linger; I don’t stop on the Massachusetts one and get frustrated at all that might have happened if I stayed or what could have been avoided, no. It’s just a “wow, of all the places I’ve lived I wish I had stayed there.” Really, no big deal. This isn’t a “My Regrets” blog by any means. It is an exercise in nature where the view is hindsight and the wilderness is disparity. As for Massachusetts, I quickly recall trying to drive Route 140 up the mountain in winter, and the moment passes, and I realize I should have moved to Florida.

Instead of Penn State I should have gone to NYU. I was accepted at both, but I didn’t think I could afford New York. As it turns out I couldn’t afford Pennsylvania either so I should have not afforded New York instead. While there, I should have joined my old friend Sean who is an actor in NY and gone to some casting calls. I always wanted to play the dead body at the beginning of “Law and Order.” Or I could have taken advantage of the NY City nightclub scene and done stand up. But I’m seriously certain I wasn’t funny enough. Not yet. Age provides humor.

See, this reflection isn’t serious. Not really. But it’s late, and I’m tired, so I think sometimes about the downside, the shadowy side of it all, like how I should have answered the phone that morning in ’92 when I sat staring at the desk in my office thinking how I should have stayed in bed, that I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Not yet. And how a few days later I should have apologized to his father at the funeral when all I told him was that I should have called more often.

Time passes and I should have gone to Monterey anyway. I should have tried harder or given up completely. They’re so closely related, quitting and devotion. I should have learned the difference. Maybe I already knew I shouldn’t go and that thirty years later it would all make sense. Or maybe I simply couldn’t afford it, financially or emotionally. I should have learned to invest in both. I did some math: If I had saved one dollar a day from the time I was born I’d have roughly $22 thousand dollars right now. That’s a new Civic. I could have had a new Civic. I should have done that.

I am going to be sixty and I’ve been really tired, just really tired. It’s not depression, really, and my doctor says it is not chemical, it’s situational. I should have found a different doctor. Or maybe I should have found a therapist. Like that one who always finishes my sentences, who I can be around and be quiet a long time without being asked, “So what’s wrong you’ve been quiet?” But I don’t think she’s licensed. I should have majored in philosophy. Or psychology. Or journalism. Well, okay, but I should have actually pursued a career in my major instead of, you know, not.

I didn’t know I was wrong, or right, or on the wrong or right path. I didn’t have that kind of sense of things back then. Or now I suppose. I didn’t know a good coach would have made all the difference. No one ever said, “You really need some better coaches; you can make this happen.” I grew up in a time when as long as you weren’t in trouble nothing needed to be talked about. This was not the age of trophies for everyone and helicopter parents. Life was fine so long as I wasn’t in trouble. But that’s the thing; I was always hanging out at the beach, walking instead of being on the court, being on the ball, being in the books, being aware of what was next, aware of what to do. And when you’re just not sure what to do, you do nothing. It’s that simple.

I shouldn’t have done nothing.

I should never have quit piano lessons. Four days was simply not long enough.

I should have stayed in Spain.

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Less than two years ago I left a job I held for three decades.

Truth be told, I now know what I should have done differently: I should have left sooner. I should have abandoned a job I had no business doing to begin with and pursed something creative years earlier. I got hooked by the security and respectability and money, but I was never really qualified to teach what I taught. On paper, sure, but life is not paper, life is not degrees, life is not always expectations and responsibilities and duty. Those things are important, yes, of course, and before my note section here fills up with how wrong I am I should point out I do have three college degrees, I was responsible enough to hold down an incredibly respectable job for thirty years, and I always showed up. Always.

But that is not life. That is not passion. That is not what sets the soul on fire and ignites that internal motivation. I spent a few days with a pretty popular recording artist once when I was a senior at college. We sat one afternoon playing guitars and he asked what my major was, and he asked why the hell I wasn’t involved more in music. “You should finish school and then forget it and get into this. You really should,” he said.

I shouldn’t have spent any time with him. That just fucked with my head.

Explain this: I had that one job since the end of the Reagan administration to the second year of the current chaos in DC—I taught English, college comp, etc., but I had NO English training AT ALL—honest, none. My degrees at the time were in journalism, and then humanities and art, not English. On top of that, I had never taught a class in my life except for Richard Simmons, and that wasn’t college, it was loud music and fifty people sweating their asses off, literally. On paper, fine, they said. But I walked into the classroom that first time and for quite some years after and basically taught senior-level journalism.  Sure, eventually I received a terminal degree, this time in English, creative writing, etc, so I did work until I knew what I was doing. But it was such a relief when I left; I felt like no matter how hard things can get without that security, I just stepped out of something vague and unhealthy and into the reality of life where you can feel your pulse, you can feel your desire like something stirring in your stomach. On top of that I spent thirty years there and I haven’t heard from one person since I left. I was never so isolated as when I was there. Yes, by God, I should have left sooner.

But then, Spain. So listen: after you fall to sleep and have gone through your “I shouldn’t have’s” and your “I should have’s,” do you recall the one moment that you know you can land on if you’re falling? That one time or person or place in your life that retains such clarity and focus, that you can go there—physically or mentally—and you know you will step back into purpose and direction again?

For me, Spain.

No, this isn’t about going back to Spain, though I will, or walking the Camino again, though I will. It is about remembering that this pilgrimage we’re on is laced with “I should have stopped earlier, I should have kept going, I should have turned there and left sooner and on and on and on.” Oh to complete that pilgrimage taught me about this grander journey, and I wish I had done it when I was my son’s age when he did it; they don’t teach pilgrimage in school. They don’t teach so many things about life, like how to recognize you’re still too young to recognize what is permanent and what is fleeting. They don’t teach you when to forget about who’s missing and when to head out and see for yourself; they don’t teach you when to answer the phone, when to change courses, not to read Frost, to read more Rumi. They don’t teach you so much. I shouldn’t have expected to simply know everything I needed to know. They don’t teach you just how ignorant you are; they tell you how smart you are, and then they send you out to discover on your own your shortcomings. That’s fair, I suppose, but they could have at least warned us, right? They could have an exam in some civics course entitled, “Someday at three am you’re going to wake up and wonder about all the things you shouldn’t have done. Have a blue book and a number two pencil ready.”

I don’t think people think about this. Or maybe they do and I’m just catching on, late as usual. Well, we all should believe in ourselves earlier.

Anyway, what I was about to write before Truth interrupted with all her matter of factness about Robert Frost and wrong paths and three am, there are so many things not that I wish I had done but that I wish I hadn’t. But really, at the end of the end, I will be more regretful of what I wanted to do and didn’t try than what I did do and failed.

I really wish I could talk to my dad right now. Have a Scotch. He was an example of such unparalleled strength. He didn’t offer advice, not really. Maybe my siblings remember him doing so, but I don’t. But, man, he was an amazing example of what a person should be in the best of circumstances. I miss his strong, quiet presence. I should have been more like him.

 

Something has got to change. And apparently it isn’t going to be anyone else, or the world, or the menu at Panera, so it is going to have to be me. Maybe intelligence isn’t simply knowing when to show up but knowing when to leave. Sometimes we learn late, but, well, we do learn.

I shouldn’t have had so many Cheez-Its before bed. I should have stopped at one coconut rum and orange juice.

I should get back in bed and try and sleep. And when someone says, “Well, you’re doing the best you can,” I should stop them and say, “How do you know?” Honest to God, stop telling people that. How do you know??

No. I’m not. And it is usually only at this hour of the night that I am blatantly aware of that fact; that I absolutely am not doing the best that I can. Are you? Does anyone? How do we know? Think about it, how do we measure what we are capable of? To each other? No, of course not. To past performance? I hope not. Then how? Instinct? Faith?

Damn. Now I’m awake again.

I should have gone to bed two paragraphs ago. I should go downstairs and get some Oreos. I shouldn’t have…

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January 1, 2020

 

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After more than twenty-thousand years of having to live with each other you’d think we’d be better at it. It is 2020, and there are armed conflicts in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Yemen, Libya, Kenya, Somalia, Turkey, Kurdistan, Ukraine, India, Pakistan, Columbia, Venezuela, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Burkina Faso, Indonesia, Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, and more. In our own country in 2019 alone 23,958 committed suicide with a gun, another 15,068 killed someone else. There were 415 mass shootings with over 200 children being shot to death. Personal attacks on others’ looks, habits, beliefs, gestures, shortcomings, disabilities, race, ethnicity, faith, has become common, practiced by people in power, proudly perpetuated by too many others. The time when we didn’t ridicule, didn’t make fun of others, is over. Gone. Disagreement has always been common, but now it is accompanied by threats, including from leaders. More people are starving to death than ever in human history, more people are homeless, more people are desperate for help, and the gap between those who can help and those who need help is so vast, neither probably knows the other even exists anymore. Nuclear proliferation appears to be an ambition instead of a deterrent, and the lack of faith, of morality, of basic human decency makes the possibility of attack more likely: “I’m bringing them down with us,” has overruled the cautious yet calculated “We will get through this.”

Sigh. Happy New Year.

The woods are deep and foggy this morning, deer remain bedded down on a path across the property; I see their tails. I hear geese in the distance, in the field toward the bay, and closer to me in the woods cardinals quick from holly to pine while other small birds head to the porch rail for some seed. It is warmer than it should be. I love warm weather, but this is not right; the ground should be even just slightly frozen; I should at the least see my breath. But things change. Weather, news, even me, we change. And then today I wandered out to discover that this path into the wilderness has made me so much more keenly aware of the contrast to the madness in the city. It is beautiful out here; here is where I belong. The river is still, like glass, like memory, like a soft kiss, and the sky is grey but breaking blue like subtle hope, like a promise from someone you trust. It is a prime escape, ever-present. But a growing imbalance, a withdrawal of sorts, occurs whenever I return to town. It makes me uncomfortable, and perhaps that is what has been missing in my isolated life; a sense of discomfort. 

It is 2020, and I’ve decided this will be my self-imposed “Year of Discomfort.” A year to get involved, to help those I can, to get out of my comfort zone and see where I can be of some assistance. This is the first entry in year five of A View from this Wilderness. FYI—these little word exercises and journal entries are an attempt to keep any aphasia at bay, remind me later of what I’ve already forgotten—the deer for instance, and the eagle which just glided by. I won’t forget, though, how much warmer it is every year. I just glanced back at the early January entries since 2016, and this is certainly the warmest New Years Day yet. Happy New Year Global Warming.

Oh, nature will be fine. No one disputes that; this isn’t her first rodeo with radical weather patterns. No, in the observations of George Carlin, it is humanity that is going to be screwed, not nature. A major concern among anyone who can think is not necessarily what we are doing to nature as much as what nature is doing to us in retaliation. It’s brutal. Still, while changing weather patterns just might eventually kill the human race, humanity’s own inhumanity is going to get there first. I look at those stats; I read the news riddled with overcrowding and floods and droughts and civil war and civil strife in a world where civility is eroding.

But here, now, on the edge of this brand new decade, my concern is more than the warmer weather. Sure, it makes part of me want to take up the cause and join Greta and fight global warming. But another part of me is rooting for it. Maybe a new race can do better than us. Newsflash to world leaders and hyper-idealistic boomers like myself: the world we were going to change, clean up, finally introduce to peace, not only remained the same, it ebbed into something sardonic and antagonistic.

So how, someone please suggest, how, on the dawn of this decade, does one person make a contribution and hope to turn it around? Greta was great at shaming world leaders; companies have remained true to the Paris agreement despite the US withdrawal, and individuals making others aware of the crack in the moral backbone of our world are nothing short of saviors. But growing individualism and isolation–like me, for example–makes it difficult to gather forces and get on with things. 

Being out here in the wilderness has helped me more than I ever anticipated. It is my blood pressure medicine, my anti-depressant, my caffeine. And maybe I’ve reminded some people of the necessity of discovering ourselves by stepping out of the current of current events for a short bit to regroup and head back in. But complete withdrawal is dangerous, even more so when the distance is not between civilization and nature but between each other, and deeper still, that internal distance between what we are doing and what we can do. Maybe what I’ve taken from this wilderness is this: First person singular doesn’t translate well; it doesn’t leave enough room for others to be part of the narrative. And, ironically, the view from the wilderness we call society can be even more isolating. This year would do well with some more cooperation, more helping each other, listening to each other. I wonder how many people wouldn’t have killed themselves if someone, really anyone, had been listening? Maybe we should no longer accept the news that “someone got shot last night,” but instead, “one of us got shot last night.” We’re in this together is an old, tired, Hollywoodesque truism, but, well, we’re in this together for God’s sake. We threw the cigarette butt out the window. We didn’t recycle. We didn’t think our vote counted. We slept last night on a bench in a park. We looked the other way. We were cold. Hungry. Scared. Indifferent. Helpless. We were terrified. Alone. What if we were all guilty? What if we were all held responsible?

How do we know we won’t be? 

It seems we never saw the forest for the trees. So we couldn’t see it was us floundering out here all along. Us. US. We need to do more this year.

I know I do. Maybe the only way to face reality is to take a breath, watch the river drift by on an early Wednesday morning, and then gather my forces, head back to town, and engage. 

It is a new day. It has to be a new day. It just has to be.

 

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(Re)Solutions

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When I worked for Richard Simmons, we talked often about how the most promising members of the club–that is, the ones most likely to stick with it and go the distance–were the ones who came with what we called “a quiet resolve.” We didn’t know what drove them, and they didn’t post signs or make announcements; they didn’t have mini-celebrations along the way; they didn’t make it something separate from their life that needed to be tackled or climbed or conquered. They came in, did their thing–sometimes a little more each time–wiped off the sweat and went about their business. That is not a resolution. That is resolve. There is a difference. One is a statement, the other is way of being. 

Now it is almost New Year’s, and like a first-time marathoner, I am beginning to feel like I’m once again just going to drag my tired ass across the finish line. I don’t like feeling this way. I used to know better. For God’s sake, I used to get paid really good money to teach others about positive attitudes and tackling goals and sticking with it and determination. But I was twenty-four-years old. I use a larger font now. I listen to oldie’s stations. I read the obituaries. Yes, I’m looking forward to the New Year, of course; but first I have to look back at a few things, most obviously what didn’t work and why, and then what did work and why.

I used to wish we could design our own year with some magical date book that comes with a special pen, and we sit near the fire, pour some wine, a bowl of Cheese-it’s and start with January marking away at how the year will go. And, whoosh, it just happens. It used to feel that way, didn’t it? When we were young maybe. But now some adjustments must be applied to the idealistic neverland mentality of “New Year’s.”

It’s always taken me longer to figure things out in my life than just about anyone I’ve known. And I know perhaps way too often I have acted enthusiastically and somewhat foolishly when it might have been better to have kept things a bit quieter. But this year some of my hopes are based less upon what I want to happen and more focused on what I don’t want to happen anymore. Honestly, some ambitions can’t be verbalized or measured. It isn’t a matter of distance or self-control, or even ability. It is a question of nuance. It is also a matter of faith. Not faith in a Supreme Being, though that certainly doesn’t hurt, but faith in ourselves to be able to bare our souls, or in some cases, not expose them at all. Sometimes we stand outside in the middle of the night surrounded only by the ghosts that keep us awake to begin with, and we’re terrified at our own truths, our own brief reach across the approaching distance, and something more subtle than a resolution finally follows, something difficult to define. That’s when we understand the truth of our resolves. We begin to know, that is we come to understand, that we aren’t declaring some resolution, we are not deciding to do or not do something anymore; no, we are altering the state of how we think, how we react. It’s more about the moment than the year; more about the soul than the situation.

So thanks to lessons learned from my old boss Richard, I’m acutely aware that we don’t lose fifty pounds by losing fifty pounds. We lose fifty pounds by losing one pound, then another, then we gain a few back and then lose a few more than that, and eventually we realize we’ve made progress. So a list of resolves must be patient; it must not contain bravado or climatic moments at every turn. A good list must be tempered by experience. One of my favorite character traits revealed in The Great Gatsby is when his father, after Jay’s death, is reading the list of resolves his son wrote in the back of the book Hopalong Cassidy when just a boy. In one of them the young Jay had written, “Save $5.00 (crossed out) $3.00 per week.” We learn Jay has ambition but understands his limitations. A list must show hope without setting oneself up for discouragement. ie:  if you’re going after that green light across the bay, you need to learn to swim.

Next, a good list must not bring us down the old paths we’ve walked before aimlessly hoping to bump into something good. Nothing falls in our lap; we will not win the lottery, talent without effort is as common as corn, and the famous truism is as true as ever—the definition of insanity is doing the same thing hoping to reach different results. No, the list must be specific, take advantage of this clean slate, appreciate the challenges we still carry, blend our talents with a determined work ethic, and most of all be unabashedly honest. Too many of our resolutions are often lofty and quickly abandoned, so we must appreciate those aspects of the past which worked, which rely upon our ability to know who we are, which a good resolution will refuse to abandon. It is decidedly acceptable for a list to include, “I will continue to…” several times. Many things in life, after all, worked out fine and we should not resolve them away. So any successful list must include not only new approaches to the old failures but reliance upon tried and proven traits which keep us sane.

In the end, the attention we pay to our resolves will be the difference between making the same mistakes or making it all worthwhile. I spent thirty years teaching college, which requires not only motivational techniques, but endless resolutions on our part as professors. But now I don’t teach; not as much anyway. Luckily, I was paying attention to what I told them, and it has come time for me to apply what I preached, both as a professor and as a motivational trainer at a health club, which are dangerously similar.

But listen, Buddha said we are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. That is not on any list. No, it is an approach which makes resolutions redundant. And the real key comes of course from Confucius: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

 

GENERAL RESOLVES

No wasting time
No more smoking or chewing
Bath every other day
Read one improving book or magazine per week
Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week
Be better to parents

Yeah, Jay’s list is as good as any I’ve ever seen.

It just shows you.

No wasting time. Chew on that a moment.

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Joyeux Noel

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Well before dawn this morning, I could see some stars and what must have been a planet in the west. Something about a clear sky on Christmas has always mystified me, captivated my attention and imagination, from the simple, fun thoughts of reindeer and sleighs to the philosophical digressive pondering of First Cause, the Immaculate, and the imaginative world of proof. I love Christmas morning with its tidings and anticipatory pay-off. But even more I love earlier, alone, when the sky is a narrative, and the Author was sharp enough to leave enough room to us to fit in our own passages as we need to.  

In the east a sliver of light.

I stand and remember.

On Christmas morning before our parents were awake (or so we supposed), my siblings and I would gather, usually in my sister’s room, to exchange gifts we had bought for each other, before we headed down for the beginning of Christmas Day. It would inevitably still be dark out, and I know we’d lay awake waiting to hear each other also awake in the other room. A tap on the door. A “come in.” And we’d sit on the floor and open our presents.

At some point (like clockwork, as much an annual tradition as the Turkey or the pies), our mother would wake our father and he would exclaim, “I thought I said no one up before nine am!” and he couldn’t hide his smile to our laughter at the ludicrous suggestion we’d be up any later than five. It was always cold out during those Long Island years, and often snowy, but we weren’t going outside so it just added to the magic. Dad would be in his robe and slippers and he’d head to the living room as we gathered on the stairs and waited for him to plug in the multi-colored lights on the tree, and those on the rail, bringing to life the otherwise dark room. Mom had, of course, already organized whatever presents we would get into separate piles, and Dad would stand back and she directed us to the right area under the branches, though sometimes it was obvious if an unwrapped toy appeared, clearly already wished for by one of us. Dad would sit on the couch and watch in joy, even through the stream of “Wow, thank you Mom!” wishes continued.

It wouldn’t be long before the aromas of breakfast mixed with the onions and bell seasoning already underway for the stuffing, and eventually we’d need to get dressed, if not for church since we might have attended midnight mass, certainly for the droves of family who would soon fill the rooms. It was a beautiful way to grow up. I do not know the possible stresses, fears, and sacrifices that went on behind the scenes—that’s how good they were at it. Then, much later in the day, after everyone else had left and we had all settled into the routine of looking at our gifts again, Dad would emerge from some closet with his gifts for each of us—books he had personally picked out, bought, and wrapped. It remains one of my favorite memories of all of my memories of my dear father.

It’s in the fifties here today along the Chesapeake, and sunny. This is one of those days each year where I’ve been up so long and have done so much that it feels like it should be six hours later than it is. My sister and brother and nieces and nephew are all off in various parts of the country with their families celebrating their Christmases, all of us with some common traditions, all of us with our individual touches to the holiday. Certainly all of us fortunate enough to be celebrating Christmas, laughing and telling stories, enjoying the food, the drinks, the sounds of football or Christmas music, and even the welcome sounds of a newborn trying to stretch out his new skin. We are, to be sure, at peace today. Anyone with family today is engulfed in traditions which help balance our lives; they bring peace to our soul while providing some shared space not only with each other but with the idea of our ancestry, the hope of our posterity.

My father used to sit to the side for most of the holiday and enjoy being surrounded by his family. He’d carve the turkey, and of course disappear toward evening to get the books to give to us, but I picture him most in his chair, watching a game, laughing with us, waiting for Mom to call him to duty in the kitchen. He has moved on, and whatever there might be to know after this life of ours, well, he now knows, and that too brings me great peace.

Two deer stand nearby in the woods, cautious but not fleeing. It’s so quiet out. Absolute peace stretched out like canvas in all directions. On the water some ducks ease by.

I miss the days before society took “nearby” and “not far away” and tossed them to the strong breezes of technology and One World. In that small house around that small table when I was a child were so many relatives it is crazy to conceive how we pulled it off. But no one cared—we were together. Everyone was close enough to “drive over,” and by the time the turkey came out of the oven, a small crowd was sitting and standing and outside and in, laughing and sharing serious moments, because it was Christmas.

The sun is getting low and its getting chilly. I’m going inside again. I bought Michael a book at a local nautical shop and I need to wrap it and “surprise” him with it all these hours later in the day after the lift of Christmas has settled down. And he will be gracious enough to act surprised, just as we did with our father when he would predictably surprise us with books forty and fifty years ago.

Well, except for one time. We had all settled down and we were sitting quietly, even the television off, the games had ended, dinner was done. And my sister looked at our father and said, with a smile, “Okay, so where are our books?”

Thank God for memory. I love we are graced with memory.

 

Merry Christmas