Right Now

I started at the end and gave The Power of Now a cynical skim, last page to first, searching for something to reach out and grab me. It looked generic, commercial, like spiritual enlightenment marketed for mass consumption.  But I was the one who went Amazon and clicked on it, and here it was, waiting on my doorstep.  It had to have at least a few good points.  How could Oprah and 5 million people be wrong?

Somewhere around Chapter 6 or 7, I found this:

The whole world seems like waves and ripples on the surface of a vast and deep ocean.  You are that ocean, and of course you are also a ripple, but a ripple that has realized its true identity as the ocean, and compared to that vastness and depth, the world of waves and ripples are not that important.

Huh?

Waves and ripples? Vast deep ocean?

I put on my glasses and held this one up to the light.  Eckhart Toole, the author, borrows liberally from modern psychology and various world religions (which I admire because it shows he draws his facts from many sources). However, his teachings lean a little further into Eastern thought than I am comfortable, and at times, left me scratching my head and writing question marks in the margin.  The following is what I was able to walk away with and hopefully carry with me:

 

 

  1. Be the watcher not the Experience without analyzing. Joy, inner peace, love, creativity – all of the things that mean the most – exist without thought.  We experience these things naturally.  We should connect with the part of ourselves that experiences not the part that thinks. The part of us that thinks is our ego.  Tolle instructs us to watch the ego, don’t judge, but detach and observe. Separate yourself and know that the greater value is the experience itself, not your perception.    
  2. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you have chosen it. Blaming others and feeling sorry for ourselves is a common response, but blame and self-pity are only sources of drama that actually prolong a bad situation.  Acceptance is not contentment; it is agreeing to the reality of the current situation.  When we accept our situation, we free ourselves of from the past.  There is no blame.  There is no self-pity, not regret, no bitterness.  There is only this moment, and we are fully invested in it.
  3. All you have to deal with, to cope with, in real life – as opposed to imaginary mind projections—is this moment. We can relieve anxiety by scaling down our full agendas to one thing. This moment. And what is the one requirement of this moment? To exist. There is silence here.  There is peace. Because one moment follows the next, we can take a moment to compose ourselves.  A moment to access the situation.  A moment to plan.  A moment to act.
  4. Attention is the key to transformation. Our attention is our mental investment in the moment (the now). By being present, we experience what the day has to offer. We are listening.  We are watching and feeling.  No analysis.  No judgement.   If I were to line these up:

PAST — PRESENT — FUTURE

Notice that the past is not linked to the future.  It is part of the same continuum, but it does not make contact.  Only the present (the now) touches the future. When we speculate about tomorrow, all of our information is based on the past.  It omits the present which is where all of our power is.  We transform by giving the now our attention.

  1. All negativity is resistance. Its only purpose is to strengthen the ego.  To release it threatens one’s identity as a depressed, angry or hard done person. We often claim that we “thrive on adversity” and that we have “bad luck.”  Although these things can be funny in an ironic sort of way, they are excuses that we make to label ourselves instead of improving ourselves.  When someone claims to be an angry person, they feed their ego. They take pride in their ability to become upset.  They are thinking about their past experiences, and labeling themselves based on them.  This is limiting. Because they are angry, are they excluding themselves from happiness, from inner peace?
  2. Instead of having “a wall of resistance”allow it (negativity) to pass through. Don’t consider “what should be happening,” let is pass through.  This is forgiveness. This is mental excercise that builds on the “observe the thinker” concept.  When someone else upsets us, our first response is to get the person back.  If other people are rude, our first response is to be rude back.  This makes the situation worse.  If they are rude, observe your reaction. Separate yourself from the emotion.  Remove yourself from the situation (if you can) then allow it to be in the past.  Don’t think about the negativity.  It’s over.  They are forgiven.  You are free to experience something positive.
  3. You can improve your life situation, but you cannot improve your life. Life is your deepest inner being.  It is perfect already.  Remember the ripples and the ocean?  Your life situations are what he was talking about.  Some are pleasant, but some are storms, big and small, waves and ripples.  Life situations form and pass like waves and ripples and waves, but they only occur on the surface.  The ocean goes much deeper than even its worse storm.  The storms pass, but the ocean is always there.  Be the ocean.

 

The Power of Now has its enlightening moments. Although Tolle can stray towards the dramatic, I don’t fault him for delivering his message with gusto.  He leaves the reader free to disagree, and in places, I do.  There is positive and tranquil tone to this book that compliments its teachings.  This is a welcome contrast to the way our lives appear at this moment, or most of the other moments.

But I only notice that when I think about them instead of living in the present.

 

 

 

 

As A Person Thinks

person-walking-on-street-between-buildings-3617457Just like you I had that moment on January 1st when I looked at myself and found plenty of room for improvement.  Then I saw my bank account and realized that I couldn’t afford to hire a professional to do it for me.  Around that time, I noticed these posts about “books that every man should read.”  I read every day, but what I should read and what I actually read are two different things.  I dug through these lists and realized that I had never heard of  any of these essential texts  that were so crucial to my masculinity.  So with a twinge of guilt, I picked five and decided to go on a “journey for a better self,” my inner cynic smirking all the while.

The second book on my list was As a Man Thinketh by James Allen.  Although this one is over a hundred years old (and its title is politically incorrect), it has glowing reviews, so I decided to kick the tires and drive it around the block.  The title comes from a quote in Proverbs, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”   After multiple highlights, I still find a meme-worthy quote on nearly every page.  My lasting  impressions were:

  1. The human mind may be likened into a garden which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild.  This concept runs throughout the entire book.  By viewing the mind as a garden, we see how our thoughts feed our attitudes and actions, and from there, they directly affect the situations that we find ourselves in.
  2. We do not attract what we want, we attract what we are Instead of searching for our wants, we should change ourselves to become the thing that we are seeking.  Our ideals of success are tied directly to the habits that create them.  Example: Healthy people exercise.   Educated people learn.  Wealthy people earn and save money.  Loved people… Respected people…We know these already.
  3. Thoughts of courage, self-reliance, and decision crystallize into strong habits, which solidify into circumstances of success, plenty, and freedom.   From thoughts, we develop habits, and habits yield results.  They are not a quick fix.  They are a routine. When we consistently show decisiveness in our actions, we take charge of our lives. This directly affects both the others around us and the situations we find ourselves in.
  4. We should conceive a legitimate purpose in our hearts and set out to accomplish it. Without falling into psycho-babble, we should ask ourselves, Why are we here? Then we answer it in specifically. Do we merely exist? Or are we living?  Everyone has a purpose. Is your purpose to be a father or a mother? Is it to lead? To serve? To create?  It is okay to have multiple purposes, but they should be specifically defined and pursued.
  5. When we conquer doubt and fear, we have conquered failure.  Doubt and fear are nothing more than negative thoughts. This entire book presents the idea that we control our lives by controlling our thoughts. Doubt and fear are internal forces, not external. Failure is a label that we give ourselves. It isn’t forced on us by others.  But really what is failure?  When do we fail?  Failure is giving up, relinquishing control over purpose.  We only fail when we are afraid to try again.
  6. We can only conquer and achieve by lifting up our thoughts.   To succeed, we need to prepare our minds for success. We do this by changing our self-defeating and self-condemning thoughts with positive ones. For example, if you’re looking for a job, be optimistic.  Think of your unique talents, your work ethic, your enthusiasm… Let these things motivate you to send out your resume and go on interviews.  If you don’t put yourself out there, it definitely won’t come to you. You have to envision success before you can achieve it.
  7. Calmness of the mind is one of the most beautiful jewels of wisdom. It is the result of long and patient effort in self-control.  Calmness is learned.  Those “cool heads” that we  look up to in a crisis were not born that way.  Because they valued self-control, they developed it by mastering frustration.  This took years.  Calmness must be valued then learned, developed and maintained…a garden, remember?
  8. Self-Control is strength. Right thought is mastery. Calmness is power.   These are the results of fostering positive thoughts.  With self-control, we control our actions in the face of adversity.  It allows us to respond in an optimistic yet reasonable manner.  Right thought is the ability to correctly understand the situations that we find ourselves in.  It frees us from joining in on the hysteria during a crisis.  We take the situation at face value and deal with it appropriately. With calmness, we are able to walk through the storm.  Not just by ourselves, but we are able to lead others.  Calmness is the ability to stand at the “helm of the ship” so to speak.  You don’t control the sea or the storm, but you control your course.  Because you have a vision of calm waters, you are able to control the situation, and change it.

On days like these, positivity is hard to come by. This year’s disaster seems exponentially worse than all of those who came before it.  But isn’t that every year? The headlines get darker, the editorials are less informative always condemning.  But are they always true? During years like this one, “hope” becomes a running joke, but no one laughs out of fear of what’s to follow.  Speaking for myself, my inner cynic is alive and well.  I naturally see the glass as half empty, and panic is my general response. In the news, the days are dark with the sun nowhere in sight.  Catastrophic events happen daily.  I struggle just to  understand them,  much less improve them.  But what can I control?  I control my thoughts.  They are the first part of a continuum that branches out. Through thoughts, I choose reason over panic, control over impulse, sufficiency over want, and light over dark.

 

 

 

Digging Deeper

“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”– Mark Twain

janko-ferlic-specialdaddy-sfL_QOnmy00-unsplash(1)

Maybe I shouldn’t, but I take pride in my ability to avoid current trends. Even when there’s no repose, cash, or street cred, my compass always points upstream. I never find safety in numbers. Just going with the crowd rubs me the wrong way.  It makes my skin crawl. It makes me feel like someone else is making my decisions for me. It gives me an uneasy feeling if not a deep-rooted sense of anxiety. If everyone else is doing it, I look around and feel a knot in my stomach that doesn’t go away until I change course. The right path is not the easy path, and correct answers are never simple. That’s why in an age of YouTube and Netflix, I’m actually choosing to read more. I’ve spent the first few weeks of this year going through various lists to decide what I want to read next.This year, I’m gravitating more towards nonfiction. Although I’m sucker for the page-turner, it’s time for personal growth and refinement. I’m a fan of “self-improvement,” but I tend to avoid the whole “self-help” movement. “Self-help” sounds like the reader is broken and putting themselves together. To me, it comes across as sounding “new-agey” like something a wimpy little hipster would read.  In contrast, “self-improvement” is a refining process.  It’s for someone who has it together, but wants to improve.  It’s honing the blade, updating the software.

Here’s the list:

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield – After years of passive writing, I’m trying to get some work accomplished this year.  I’m half through with this one.  It seems like a push in the right direction.  Pressfield writes about overcoming “resistance” in its various forms.

As A Man Thinketh – James Allen – This is a “self-help classic.” Yep, I’m cringing.  As I was researching, this book showed up over and over.  It must have something good.

Meditations – Marcus Arelius – A book of wisdom written by a Roman Emperor.  A bedrock of Stoic philosophy…I think I can…I think I can.

The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle – Another one that kept turning up. Something about overcoming the past as well as the future to live in the moment. Carpe diem, baby!

***

 

john-mark-smith-V0zxMzW_-e0-unsplashAlthough I’m reading these “self-improvement” books, I haven’t abandoned the literary altogether.  In the waning months of 2019, I began editing some poetry that I had stashed away.  I would like to compile these into a manuscript in the near future.  While I edit, I read the following books to give me a sense of direction while raising the bar.  I plan on writing a formal review for each:

 

Survival Tips for the Pending Apocalypse – Shawn Pavey – This is a very solid yet diverse collection of poetry.  This book is strong because it appears to be years in the making.  Besides, anyone who quotes Tom Waits is pretty much cool with me.

Ordinary Trauma – Brian Rihlman – Compulsively readable, this is a thick book which is good because it’s also fast paced.  I mean really fast. The writing here is unsentimental and sharp, gritty and contemporary.

Bravery – Nicholas Trandahl – This is the third collection by Nicholas Trandahl that I have bought.  Trandahl’s appreciation of both nature and language are and inspiring.  I’ve already written a review for this one.  Go to Reviews

***

Here’s one of the better poems that I’ve dug up in the editing process.

Red Scarves

Torrents of horns wash through Calle Santo Domingo.

Sun-tempered and raging, bulls flood the boulevard.  They

crash through the stockades, dilated nostrils and fevered eyes.

 

Today is San Fermin after the martyred saint who was drug though

Pamplona by the herd, the encierro in his honor, his statue

above a white wall covered in red scarves.  The young men are reverently

 

drunk, never sleeping, carrying wineskins, burning votive candles,

hiding behind absurd masks of bravery.  As they sweat alcohol,

their thoughts elucidate to splintered bones and twisted knees.

 

Muscles sprained into infinity knots.  The ground resonates deeply.

The sun stands alone at twelve o’clock.  No rain in sight.

 

Once blinded by youth, I pressed my muscles against the summer and

caught bullets with my teeth.   I put myself there to be trampled.

 

Hemingway spelled it out for me with clean lines.  Searching for

epiphanies and hangover cures, I read Death in the Afternoon,

discovered that the kerchief conceals a dagger, learned the lure is

 

the movement not the color, saw tragedy traveling in rivers, fluid and graceful,

natural with certain brutality. I began to stand on bruised heels,

dancing even as they thundered past.

 

Young men anticipate the run, and I relate, summoning my bravado,

accepting the risk, and running as the hooves and disasters close in behind.

 

 

***

 

 

So almost a month in, and the days are flying past.  I reserve the right to alter or abandon this list at my discretion, but I will have a list. As always, I choose questioning over just believing.  I choose writing and editing over Instagram and Twitter. Quality is more important than likes or followers.  Personal growth over blind conformity, always.

 

Photo Credit:
Photo by Janko Ferlič – @specialdaddy on Unsplash;
Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash
Photo by Joacim Bohlander on Unsplash

 

 

 

On Confidence

photo-of-person-s-hand-across-flying-hot-air-balloons-during-2893685If I could teach anything, it would be confidence.  Although abstract, I know it when I see it. Confidence is upright shoulders, eye contact, a sway of the hands, open palms.  It’s a solid voice, a calmness in adversity. Real confidence is unpretentious.  It doesn’t need to be validated by a jacket and a tie.  In a room full of suits, it is comfortable in jeans.  And if it must wear long sleeves, they are rolled at the wrists.  It takes long pauses, uses simple words, speaks slowly. Confidence says, “Breathe deep. Believe me. I am worth the wait.”

Even when it’s unjustified, confidence works. Take Muhammad Ali verbally flaying his opponents, repeating, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest!”  He left no room for self-doubt.  Ali’s boasts were for himself not his fans.  The ring is no place for insecurity.  Neither is the daily grind. When you face adversity, confidence is your only chance.  Summon it over a cup of coffee (or three).   Dig deep. Claim it. Never analyze.  If you believe it, you become it. 

Male or female, confidence makes you more attractive.  Old Hollywood knew this.  Think Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Newman moves easily, speaks calmly.  He is starved, beaten, locked in the hole, but he doesn’t step down.   He keeps his head up, smiling like he’s in on some private joke.  Think Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.  Confidence takes Mildred from housewife to entrepreneur.  Her work ethic fends off her broken heart. With a cold beauty, she builds her empire and watches it crumble, her dignity unaffected by neither wealth nor poverty.  Think about movies with Al Pacino and Sandra Bullock.  What draws you to them?

Confidence is difficult because it fluctuates with your emotions. Everyone is born with a different level.  Some are more advanced.  But for most, it is developed.  It has to rise slowly, progressively along a positive incline.  You find it outside your comfort zone.  Take small risks: start a conversation, stand up to someone you disagree with, question, debate… When these pay off, climb the ranks. When they don’t, try again.  Only this time, think bigger.  Take that night class, apply for that job, go to that audition.  Confidence is not about being perfect.  It’s not even about being successful.  It’s about making the effort, doing the work.  It’s not about winning some trophy. It’s about training, competing.  It’s not about making money. It’s about going to work.  It’s not about who dances or who applauds. It’s whether or not you get up there and sing your song.

 

 

Around Vidalia

IMG_0099“Where are you from?” is a question that I am not comfortable answering.  I don’t feel a sense of loyalty to any one spot. I respond with trepidation, but still, everybody needs a place a place to call home – a place where they can find a key under the mat and a couch to crash on. Usually I say “around Vidalia” meaning Ferriday, Vidalia, and Natchez. My Vidalia is in Louisiana, it’s not the Sweet Onion Capital in Georgia. I have more relatives here than anywhere else, and if I’m more than a hundred miles away, people don’t know where I’m talking about. I moved away more than twenty years ago. Now the area in my memory is very different than the one that actually exists. In July, a fire reduced a nearby plantation, to a couple of chimneys next to a barren field. The people are different too. During the same month, an armed robbery suspect shot a deputy and ended his own life in the process. He was twenty-one. Most of my memories are composites of the general area more than one specific location. They’re half distorted by sentiment, but the other part is real. Some of the people I knew are still there, and somewhat recognizable, but they’re never the same. I know. I’m not either.

When I head home, the best point of reference is Natchez. It’s a southern town kept alive by selling its past, at least the pleasant parts. Located along Hwy 61, Natchez is the oldest settlement along the Mississippi River. Prior to the Civil War, it was also home to the most millionaires per capita.  Howlin’ Wolf sang “Natchez Burning” about it.   I was born here, but it’s not home.

I have to cross the bridge. Along Hwy 84, the ground flattens, and the air is full of catfishy funk. It comes from a river just past that levee on the right side of the highway. Instead of antebellum manors, Vidalia has trailer parks and subdivisions.  There’s a Walmart the size of a postage stamp, a Dollar General, and a gas station that sells barbeque. There’s church for every three households and seven preachers in every church. Then there’s Hammer’s, the drive-through liquor store that proudly serves all denominations. Most of the populace is staunchly conservative, living in fear of both hellfire and democrats in the White House. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be from this community, to breathe this air and walk this soil barefoot. This is a love letter not a social critique.

***

September was always sultry. Old folks sat on the white-washed porches beneath fans that stirred the dead air. They drank scalding coffee, listened to radio preachers while cursing about politics. They were only silent when a train crossed Main Street, red light flashing, traffic backed up to Rexall’s drug store. They smoked unfiltered Camels, using the saucers as ashtrays, remembering the thirties when Roosevelt made opossum’s good eating,  when the cotton failed and the river flooded and the night was so heavy the moon glowed orange like the tip of a cigarette. They blamed it all on the carpetbaggers who took over the courthouse, believing, the real world was coming, more-than-likely at night.  It would drive a hot rod Continental with pinstripes and flames, a fiberglass muffler, and a chrome skull on the gear shift. It would be dressed like an undertaker as it ran the red light, tapping the steering wheel to the beat of the rock-and-roll. It would bring real evil like in Jackson and Shreveport.

“People here may steal, but they don’t murder,” they said.

But really, it had been there all along, in their generation and the one before that. They had it good had it good but knew it wouldn’t last. Now the porches are vacant, languid fans no longer stirring, white-wash molded.  No one remembers the last train to come through.

***

Surviving the war only to crumble with time, they lined the boulevard, Greek Revivals and Victorian’s, the old houses, southern belles past their prime, ostentatiously displaying stained-glass and spires. Once confident in their youth, they bragged, their yards damp green, weeded meticulously, facades of tiger lily and primrose. Now abandoned by beauty and fortune, they don pastel paint jobs like gaudy makeup, their reptilian shingles scaling off, and roofs curving like a bad back. They were built by old names with old money, entitled and out-of-touch, a running joke among us common folk. Think Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Their stagnant funds consumed by interest and depreciation. What was maintained by trust funds is now put on credit cards, and the bank always collects. Old names carry less weight. Aristocrats dethroned by the nouveau riche. Now inhabited by strangers, the first houses whither, ragweed claims the yard, briars overtake the flowerbeds.

* * *

Even back then, we locked the doors. We latched the deadbolts and propped the windows shut, chained our bikes and closed the blinds. We lived in the remnants of a burning house, heard our father’s stories of wars across the ocean, Korea and Vietnam. We were promised no new taxes and no new wars, but no promises for our children. We shared classrooms and movie theaters as a unified humanity, undivided by laws or labels, free from generations of separation from our brothers and sisters of common heartbeat and soul. We shared water fountains and proms despite a past protected by cowards, the recent decades, shameful and bloody, and left behind if only for a while. We had it good but knew it wouldn’t last.

In summer, we roamed without boundaries, beyond the ball park and through the cornfield, across the highway and underneath the bridge. We stared at oil-slick nebulas, swirls the color of absinthe and iodine. We smashed bottles against the concrete, dismantling atoms like billiards on green felt. We gathered fragments of glass with uncertain hands. We found marbles and peacock feathers, a hazy Polaroid and a splinter of bone, spent bullet casings and a test tube fashioned into a pipe.  We divided these like strange currency and returned to the sunlight, eyes blinking in awe of a tiny world, vast only in comparison to our experience. We stood with an arrogance known only by the young, unaware of the distance that we were carried and how far we had to fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Where are you from?” is a question that I am not comfortable answering.  I don’t feel a sense of loyalty to any one spot. I respond with trepidation, but still, everybody needs a place a place to call home – a place where they can find a key under the mat and a couch to crash on. Usually I say “around Vidalia” meaning Ferriday, Vidalia, and Natchez. My Vidalia is in Louisiana, it’s not the Sweet Onion Capital in Georgia. I have more relatives here than anywhere else, and if I’m more than a hundred miles away, people don’t know where I’m talking about. I moved away more than twenty years ago. Now the area in my memory is very different than the one that actually exists. In July, a fire reduced a nearby plantation, to a couple of chimneys next to a barren field. The people are different too. During the same month, an armed robbery suspect shot a deputy and ended his own life in the process. He was twenty-one. Most of my memories are composites of the general area more than one specific location. They’re half distorted by sentiment, but the other part is real. Some of the people I knew are still there, and somewhat recognizable, but they’re never the same. I know. I’m not either.

When I head home, the best point of reference is Natchez. It’s a southern town kept alive by selling its past, at least the pleasant parts. Located along Hwy 61, Natchez is the oldest settlement along the Mississippi River. Prior to the Civil War, it was also home to the most millionaires per capita.  Howlin’ Wolf sang “Natchez Burning” about it.   I was born here, but it’s not home.

I have to cross the bridge. Along Hwy 84, the ground flattens, and the air is full of catfishy funk. It comes from a river just past that levee on the right side of the highway. Instead of antebellum manors, Vidalia has trailer parks and subdivisions.  There’s a Walmart the size of a postage stamp, a Dollar General, and a gas station that sells barbeque. There’s church for every three households and seven preachers in every church. Then there’s Hammer’s, the drive-through liquor store that proudly serves all denominations. Most of the populace is staunchly conservative, living in fear of both hellfire and democrats in the white house. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be from this community, to breathe this air and walk this soil barefoot. This is a love letter not a social critique.

***

September was always sultry. Old folks sat on the white-washed porches beneath fans that stirred the dead air. They drank scalding coffee, listened to radio preachers while cursing about politics. They were only silent when a train crossed Main Street, red light flashing, traffic backed up to Rexall’s drug store. They smoked unfiltered Camels, using the saucers as ashtrays, remembering the thirties when Roosevelt made opossum’s good eating,  when the cotton failed and the river flooded and the night was so heavy the moon glowed orange like the tip of a cigarette. They blamed it all on the carpetbaggers who took over the courthouse, believing, the real world was coming, more-than-likely at night.  It would drive a hot rod Continental with pinstripes and flames, a fiberglass muffler, and a chrome skull on the gear shift. It would be dressed like an undertaker as it ran the red light, tapping the steering wheel to the beat of the rock-and-roll. It would bring real evil like in Jackson and Shreveport.

“People here may steal, but they don’t murder,” they said.

But really, it had been there all along, in their generation and the one before that. They had it good had it good but knew it wouldn’t last. Now the porches are vacant, languid fans no longer stirring, white-wash molded.  No one remembers the last train to come through.

 

***

Surviving the war only to crumble with time, they lined the boulevard, Greek Revivals and Victorian’s, the old houses, southern belles past their prime, ostentatiously displaying stained-glass and spires. Once confident in their youth, they bragged, their yards damp green, weeded meticulously, facades of tiger lily and primrose. Now abandoned by beauty and fortune, they don pastel paint jobs like gaudy makeup, their reptilian shingles scaling off, and roofs curving like a bad back. They were built by old names with old money, entitled and out-of-touch, a running joke among us common folk. Think Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Their stagnant funds consumed by interest and depreciation. What was maintained by trust funds is now put on credit cards, and the bank always collects. Old names carry less weight. Aristocrats dethroned by the nouveau riche. Now inhabited by strangers, the first houses whither, ragweed claims the yard, briars overtake the flowerbeds.

 

* * *

 

Even back then, we locked the doors. We latched the deadbolts and propped the windows shut, chained our bikes and closed the blinds. We lived in the remnants of a burning house, heard our father’s stories of wars across the ocean, Korea and Vietnam. We were promised no new taxes and no new wars, but no promises for our children. We shared classrooms and movie theaters as a unified humanity, undivided by laws or labels, free from generations of separation from our brothers and sisters of common heartbeat and soul. We shared water fountains and proms despite a past protected by cowards, the recent decades, shameful and bloody, and left behind if only for a while. We had it good but knew it wouldn’t last.

In summer, we roamed without boundaries, beyond the ball park and through the cornfield, across the highway and underneath the bridge. We stared at oil-slick nebulas, swirls the color of absinthe and iodine. We smashed bottles against the concrete, dismantling atoms like billiards on green felt. We gathered fragments of glass with uncertain hands. We found marbles and peacock feathers, a hazy Polaroid and a splinter of bone, spent bullet casings and a test tube fashioned into a pipe.  We divided these like strange currency and returned to the sunlight, eyes blinking in awe of a tiny world, vast only in comparison to our experience. We stood with an arrogance known only by the young, unaware of the distance that we were carried and how far we had to fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

McCarthy at the Beach

IMG_0180June has vanished like teaspoon of  sugar in a cup of Community.  I have been to the beach and done some work-related travel, and now, I’m sitting at home on the last day of the month with the remains of my suntan fading, wondering, “What have I got to show for it?”  A lot less money in the bank?    A few pictures on my phone and a dozen incomprehensible pages?

So I’m sharing a few snippets that I wrote in Florida about the beach.  I took creative liberties:

 

I swim out where the waves hit hard, drag me under then lift me up, taking my chances because they are mine.  Drawn to solitary depths, I need for seawater to burn my throat. Most comfortable on the fringes, I am only moved by the things that can consume me.  This is both my tragic flaw and saving grace.

***

The air is salt-scoured with a touch of rot, a warm breeze that makes me shiver.  Life originates here, but it closes too.  Ghost crabs vanish into the sand.  Gray snapper and tripletail wash ashore.  Just after sunrise, the waves brought in a stingray, an offering from the ocean to the sand.  It looked unearthly like it had fallen from heaven, angel white wings flapping in the tide, its tail the length of a Corvette convertible.  I was scared to get too close.

 

By noon, a lifeguard shoveled it into a trash bag and put up a volleyball net.

***

Clouds the color of guava and mango, the day trails off into tarnished copper waves.  Sunsets break the ocean into seasons, black blind and blinding white.  It is late June.  Half the year has set sail.  The other half is reaching shore.  At this age, I like to think my past and future are equal measures.  The expanse of water extends further than the eye.  The horizon splits the universe in two, a duality of sea and sky, both of them deepening shades of blue.  It is hazy, not a straight line, blurring the closer I look.  It is not a line at all.

 

 

I read Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses this month, mostly at the beach. McCarthy and the beach are a unique pairing that somehow works.  The sunlight tempers the depth of his writing. McCarthy is a master of modern literature, but his view of the universe is brutal.  That is not to say that it’s not somewhat realistic, but I like to think that he’s exaggerating.  If you like novels about the American spirit written in language that is both familiar and strange, All the Pretty Horses does not disappoint.  His prose is geared toward literary nerds (such as myself), but it doesn’t take too many pages for the plot to gain momentum.  In this one, boy meets girl then boy gets put in prison in Mexico for no reason.  There is no romantic ending, but the story is optimistic when compared to some of his other novels. This book is not a tragedy, but it is full of tragic events. However, none of them are unrealistic, and they are all balanced with a unique beauty. All the Pretty Horses is a masterful work of fiction, but it is not for everyone.  However, if you think it’s for you, get plenty of sunlight.

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First Hour, Senior Year

We are more confined by our expectations than by our abilities.

 

I came in with the wrong attitude.  I was a lost cause and dressed the part.  I had long hair and ripped jeans.  I wore a black T-shirt and gold hoop in my ear. I didn’t play sports.  I didn’t join clubs.  I never smiled.  My shoulders sagged under the burden of my indifference.  My shirt tail was not tucked it.  I listened to bands like Alice in Chains and Nine Inch Nails.  I had looped Nirvana’s Nevermind on my Walkman so many times Kurt Cobains’s lyrics made perfect sense. “I found it hard/ It’s hard to find/ Oh, well/ Whatever/ Nevermind.”  What did that mean?  To me, it meant that I didn’t care.  It meant I didn’t want to share my feelings of apathy with anyone.  My G.P.A. hadn’t crossed my mind since it plummeted in the tenth grade.  I’d just swapped schools one month into senior year. I needed four classes.  With eight months left, I tallied the days like an inmate.  Concerning education, I missed the bus.

I sized up Mr. Hathaway as a soft touch: hawkish face, intellectual beard, Oxford shirt with the top button unfastened, wide tie loosely knotted.  He spoke kindly.  His clothes sagged on his frame as if he’d recently been heavier.  My first day was around the middle of September which meant I was just in time for Beowulf.  Lights out.

“You can’t sleep here.” I felt a firm hand on my shoulder.  “Just listen.  This is really interesting.”

With dramatic fatigue, I gave him five minutes then resumed position.

The hand was back.  Jerking away from it, I rubbed my eyes and heard something about Beowulf diving into a lake.  Hathaway got about eight minutes for the second try, but he wasn’t going to win so easily.

Walking towards the front of the class, he said, “Okay, take out a blank sheet of paper.”

“But I just got here.”

“Great, show me what you’ve learned.” His eyebrows formed a straight line that ran parallel to his mouth.

 

After class, he wrote a zero on my paper then continued with Beowulf.  As he rambled, he dug two packs of Lance’s Peanut Butter Crackers out of his desk.  He dropped one in front of me and ate the other, washing it down with cold coffee.  I took notes this time, hoping he’d salvage my grade.  He didn’t.

“How are you adjusting to the move?” he asked.

“Great, changing schools is always a wonderful experience,” I said.

“And what do you think about Vidalia High?”

“I think everyone here is really narrow-minded.”

“People in general are narrow- minded.” His voice had grit in it. “Well, I’ve been here a long time, and I like it.”

I zipped my book bag and kept my answers vague.  He made a few more attempts at small talk.

“Well, you seem like an intelligent person,” he said.  “I’m sure you’ll do well.”

At first I thought he was returning my sarcasm, but when I looked him in the eye, he seemed sincere.  There was no anger there.  I had a rebuttal for every nature of insult, but nothing for that.  It scared me because I wanted to prove him right, for both of us.  I slid the peanut butter crackers back on his desk and left.

I never slept in English IV again.

I would like to say a magical transformation took place, but it didn’t.  It was more of a slow migration.  My shoulders didn’t slouch so much, and I’m sure I cracked a smile the day before Christmas break.  In class, he dangled education in front of me like a holy relic.  Although it was not my cup of tea, I admired his knowledge of British literature and the ease with which he explained it.  Mr. Hathaway was sharp.  He had every reason to be conceited about his intelligence, but he wasn’t.  His teaching was never about what he knew.  It was about passing wisdom to his students.  I didn’t want him to change his mind about me.  I outlined those lectures.  Learning changed.  It was what I wanted to do because I could.

So eventually Beowulf moved on that great mead hall in the sky, and our class began a new unit.  Mr. Hathaway wrote the prologue to The Canterbury Tales on the board in Middle English. “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote…” Above it, he wrote the pronunciations and stresses.  He modeled the phrasing for us.  Images of green branches and shrines and travelers flashed through my brain.  The sounds flowed together in an easy cadence.  They had a simple rhythm like a bass and a snare.  Language became more than dead words in a book.  It was a series of breathes that I could relate to.  I was able to string the words together, store them in my mind, and release them at will.  Although I rolled my eyes when he asked me to recite them, I felt different, empowered.  I can still quote the first four lines today.

After demonstrating a working knowledge of psychotic clowns, I was banned from the horror section.  Although Mr. Hathaway liked some of Stephen King’s writing, he didn’t want me writing a book report on them.  I was appalled and offended.  He explained that my leisure reading was not all poor taste, but he wanted me to challenge myself. At first, he handed me a copy of John Grisham’s The Firm, assuring me of its quality by showing me that he owned a signed copy.  For the most part, the prose was punchy and the chapters brief, ideal reading for my lunch break.  I liked it when Mitch McDeere’s American dream turned sour.  I liked it even more when he challenged the mob and brought down the entire regime.  Any story where an individual takes down a social establishment was fine with me.  Still is.  After that, he put a copy of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides in my hands.  I hefted it for weight and winced.  It stayed on my nightstand for two months, right on top of the Webster’s Dictionary that I used to plow through it.  Conroy’s prose was beautifully convoluted.  I still remember his descriptions of Melrose Island and that dark secret that they buried in the sand.  These books were new worlds to me.  In them, I understood characters well beyond my years.  In them, I began collecting words both strange and beautiful.  Through them, I moved into terra incognita, and discovered new complexities and colors. I haven’t returned.

In Mr. Hathaway’s class, D-worthy writing was never accepted.  No matter how long I put it off or how late I stayed up, he would return my work full of bloody red ink, demanding me to write and rewrite again.  If I wanted to be taken seriously, my ideas had to be developed.  A parallel between effort and pride formed.  After three drafts, an essay became a sense of accomplishment that was similar to the one I felt when I earned money.  Several of his criticisms contained personal advice.  “You can do this,” he’d write. “You are smart enough…go to college.”  I carried these in my wallet until they were undecipherable, tearing along the folds, the ink softening into a nebulous smear.

Once he commented on my lack of sentence structure.  I asked him, and he pulled up a chair and showed me how to divide my chaotic scrawl into subjects and predicates.  Then he joined them together into simple ideas, stopping at one or combining two.  It was how to write sentences, a basic skill that I’d missed.  Something that had eluded me for years came together naturally. With a few swift lines and short explanations, I was able to stack them together like the blocks in Tetris. Line by line, I was able to express complex ideas by stringing together simple ones. I took the chaos in my head and laid it down in straight lines.  Confusion transformed into understanding.

Although he passed away in 2006, Mr. Hathaway crosses my mind most mornings as I boot up the computer and wait for my students. Even though I look different physically (except for the occasional Oxford shirt), I hope to be like him in my own way. He was a nurturer of young minds, a shaper of lives. He was a brilliant man who was probably as underrated for his intelligence, as he was underpaid for his immense calling. He was an educator who cared about kids, even snarky ones. When I needed structure, he was there. But with it, he offered understanding, and beyond that, inspiration and hope, perhaps even a template for my future self. So what did I learn about teaching from him? First, I learned that concern motivates.  Positive comments have a significant impact.  They are not limited to one person, but they ripple throughout all humanity. I learned to leave my comfort zone because human potential does not have boundaries.  We are more confined by our expectations than our abilities.  I learned to smile and pick up those shoulders. I learned that there are no lost causes.

 

 

 

 

Aspirin and Black Coffee

One deadens the nerves; the other pushes me out the door.

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photo by Izzy Rivi @ unsplash

The dentist says not to, but I don’t care. Grind three aspirin with my back teeth then sip the dark elixir, no sugar, no cream. Flinch in a good way. Aspirin and coffee are a classic pair, black and white, pure and simple, one chases the other. They remind me of novels by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, hardboiled and thick-skinned. They are bitter. This is not a bad thing. Bitterness has no pretenses. It is pure motivation, a bow drawn, a straight line. Be bitter for a season. Remember, aspirin and black coffee, one deadens the nerves; the other pushes me out the door.

Worry sleeps with one eye open. It wakes before daybreak and squeezes the brain. I have a nasty cough and sleep apnea, dry mouth and night sweats, shortness of breath, and a deviated septum. My knees creak like a rusty hinges, dry socket eyes. I smirk as storm clouds suffocate the daybreak. I offer a dry laugh to the morning news.  A flat tire sends me into hysterics.  My sense of humor takes a turn for the worse.

Grind three with my back teeth.  I can be this way for a while. Just because it’s bitter, does not make it poison. Wormwood when used correctly cures malaria, drives away parasites. Be bitter for a season, about a situation, not a person, and never yourself.  Take it in. Address it, and move ahead.  When controlled, bitterness is endurance. Bitterness is character, an exquisite scar.  It is green plums and dark chocolate, strong tea and red wine. Bitterness prepares the palette to taste the sweetest fruit.

Full Moons and Birthdays

StockSnap_F8HFKX3RIWAge is mysterious like the moon. It’s different than time.  It’s not linear, and it’s not a number. It doesn’t break into even proportions like days. Age revolves and rotates, waxes and wanes, goes through phases.  Some years, it causes me to branch out, my edges blur, my borders all-inclusive. I speak my mind with ease, commit myself and give freely, laugh without regret. I hold contentment in my palm and touch joy with my fingertips. But other years, it causes me to withdraw, keep myself narrow, my edges become sharp crescents in the dark sky. I don’t sleep much.  I eat less.  I am more likely to rant for no reason, more susceptible to lunar madness. My teeth grind, and I remind myself that this is only for a season. With age, I change into someone else.  And over the years, this becomes a procession of different people, most of them evolve slowly, but others just appear suddenly after a horrible mistake or an epiphany. Age is mysterious like a mirror because I don’t seem to change at all. Or is it a photograph that I stare at and wonder, What have I become?

* * *

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Every year, I read Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Aging” on my birthday.  More than elegance, Neruda brings inspiration and possibly truth because he helps free me from the expectations of getting older. When Neruda writes, “All old people carry in their eyes a child, and children, at times, observe us with the eyes of wise ancients,” he elevates life above the mere measure of years. There is truth in this poem because I remember being “old” at seventeen. I mostly spoke of myself in the past tense. My days were meaningless cycles. “What’s the point?” I wondered. Riddled with apathy, I became gaunt and pale, consumed with fatigue, and I hadn’t even finished high school. In contrast, I remember my thirtieth birthday was actually a joyous event.  At thirty, I spoke of myself in the future tense. Exalted that my “roaring twenties” were over, I was solid in both health and mind. I severed all of my toxic friendships because I knew that there would be new ones. I was excited to pursue my career as a teacher. “What can I achieve?” and “Where can I go?” I said aloud. I agree with Pablo. The passage of time is an arbitrary measure. True age is point relative to the position of the soul.

***

After forty-five years, I have an unapologetic sense of who I am. I am not declining into the grave; I am becoming a streamlined version of myself. Age turns experience into wisdom. It brings confidence and solidarity. Most of all, age is acknowledging my mistakes and freeing myself from repeating them.  These include:

Running from my call.

Doubting my talents.

Risking life and limb over a pointless challenge.

Pursuing affection from people who don’t give it freely.
Ignoring people who wait quietly for my attention.

Arguing with people who just want to argue.

Taking criticism personally,

Taking praise personally,
Holding back when I can be charitable.

Denying myself anger.

Denying myself laughter.

Denying myself grief.

Because I’m not losing time doing these things, I am more efficient.  I make no pretense of being perfect. I don’t even claim to have a clue. From every wrong, I find a fragment of truth.  With time, I piece them together.

 

Resolutions and Renovations

I think back
and wonder
if I’ve made progress.

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Resolutions are for the end.

When I consider the word “resolution,” I see the prefix “re” and the root word “solve.”  This makes me think that I’m solving the problems of the past year again.  It’s like I’m taking an inventory of all of the events and trying to figure out what they meant.  Once a year passes and I internalize it, that’s my time for resolutions.  That’s when I come to terms to how I reacted, what I said, and even, who I was twelve months earlier.  Every January, I think back to where I was the year before and see if I’ve made any progress.

I don’t remember exactly what I was doing a year ago today, but I’m sure it involved a ladder, rollers, Robitussin, and few gallons of semi-gloss.  The details are sketchy.  I remember getting sick, really sick.  I caught a chill and kept it, shivering for days at a time.  I would describe it as “corpse cold,” and while I felt it, I thought about how the body gets cold after death and wondered if what I was feeling was literally the life leaving my body.  Fortunately, I went to the doctor, and I was wrong.  I had only caught last year’s edition of the flu, a virulent strand that terrorized the entire country for six months, but still, it was only the flu.  So in the middle of all of the sickness and snow, I decided that a change of scenery would help keep me from feeling so down.  Color affects mood. Psychology 101.  Remember? So I decided to paint my house in bright summery colors.  Maybe a teal, or a minty green to lighten the winter blahs?  Maybe I could liven it up enough to get a fair price if I decided to put it on the market?

After more than ten years, I was tired of where I was living.  My wife and I were driving forty minutes one way to get to work.  When I shared my plans with her, she was all for it.  But her plans were much more elaborate.  She explained them to me in detail: new flooring, painting the living room and kitchen, base boards, molding, painting cabinets, pressure washing the back porch, building a front porch… The list goes on.   I was not sure that I could do these things even if I was in tiptop shape. And I wasn’t.  I hadn’t taken on any projects like this since I was a teenager.  And even then, my experience was limited to working as an assistant carpet layer and helping my family hang wallpaper.   But either way, my mind was made up.  The change would either cure me or do me in.

move-3973175_1920 Still hacking and shivering when I climbed the ladder, I started by painting the living room.  We chose a light blue, and figured that would be a good starting point to build the rest of the renovation around.  I opened the blinds and drank in the Vitamin D.  Outside the air was below freezing, but the sunlight was yellow and warm like melted butter.  It was beacon to a brighter shore and about the only thing I had going for me at the time.  So I leaned in and let the work shape me.  After the painting, came the baseboards and the molding.  I measured and cut, and re-measured and cut again.  I kept cutting right corners when I needed a left and vice versa.  The miter saw is a mystery that I will never understand.  I’m just grateful to be sitting here now typing with all ten fingers.  Then, the cabinets, this involved taking the doors down, sanding, and painting in places only a contortionist could reach.  After that, I pulled up the old floors…

As I worked through the winter and into the spring, I realized that renovation is the process of making new again. In contrast, restoration is just the process of putting back what was lost. To renovate is to join creativity with dedication.  A true renovation has no nostalgia or regret.  When I renovate, I don’t consider any past glories.  I simply take what I have and make it new. A leaner version of myself emerged after a month of climbing ladders and lifting furniture.  As I did the flooring, muscle that I had not seen since my twenties reappeared, aching at first then solidifying my arms and shoulders.  In the late spring, the sun gave my complexion a touch of bronze.  And I slept the deep sleep of being physically exhausted.  The work kept me so busy that I spent less money and built up my savings.  I didn’t think about it.  It just accumulated.  Also, I watched less TV.  Although the work was monotonous, I was able to think without being constantly disturbed.  As I improved my home, the work was also renovating me.

Call it “deathbed religion” if you want, but I began reading the Bible when I was sick. As the flu ravaged my body and the snow fell, I found the Book of Job very relatable. I was not having it taught to me but actually thinking about what they meant for myself. The words, “He wounds, yet He binds up. He shatters, but His hands heal,” still carry a lot of weight with me.  I planned on reading the Bible through last year, but I had to reread many parts.  As of this writing, I’ve covered all of the New Testament and most the Old Testament except for Leviticus and several of the Minor Prophets.  I’m sure I’ll write more about this in future entries.  Reading the Bible has renovated me in ways that I can’t explain.  I’m not a priest or a preacher.  In all honesty, I believe the term “enlightened rogue” is my most apt description.  Suffice to say, I have faith that I act on.  I make mistakes, owning up to them and making amends as I go.  I “live and die daily.” In this way, I am being renovated.

Looking back, I resolve that the past year was a year of renovation. After overcoming sickness, it was time to set goals and ride them out. I have optimism when I am put in uncertain situations.  Last fall, we sold our home for a profit and upgraded to a nicer one that is closer to our jobs.  But there are still rooms to paint, plumbing to tweak, flowerbeds to weed, and that’s about it.  A year later, I am here again: a few gallons of antique white, brushes, rollers, and a ladder, minus the chills and Robitussin.   I’m still making renovations, but I am making less of them in a different place, a better place…progress.