creativity, figuring it out

A year of living (creatively).

“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.” – Anne Sexton

I can’t do a Top 10 list as a blog post. Or even a Top Five.

They are so ubiquitous and from people with more refined tastes than I that another one from me would contribute nothing to the conversation. Not only are we inundated with so many “how to’s” at the start of the new year, but we also are given platefulls of what to read, listen to, see, do. How do I keep up?

Instead, I like where essayists offer snapshots of what they’re into in the moment. I almost always read, “What I’m reading now” or “What I’m listening to.” One doesn’t have to wait until December or January to proclaim a series of bests—music, books, places, etc. Another example of well-crafted

creativity, emotions, figuring it out, health and wellness, inspiration, psychology, relationships, working

a three-legged workhorse

There are 38 pairs of shoes on the floor of my closet.

Thirty-eight. For two feet. 

I’ve known for a long time that I had a lot of shoes. But it wasn’t really a problem until I came across Joshua Fields Millburn. With his best friend, Ryan Nicodemus, he wrote Everything That Remains, part memoir, part manifesto of a journey from excess to minimalism. 



They didn’t start the minimalism movement. But the pair have joined the movement which they journal at their website, They currently are on a book tour promoting Everything That Remains.

Through Millburn I learned minimalism is not simply living as a hobo out of a backpack, having one pair of jeans, one white shirt and a toothbrush, washing dishes in one restaurant after another on a cross-country quest to find oneself.

Millburn writes: “There’s nothing wrong with shopping at IKEA, just as there’s nothing wrong with owning a couch or a television or any of this stuff. The real problem is me. The real problem is that for the last decade–the last three decades–I haven’t questioned my unchecked consumption.”

He continues: “But our pacifiers can pacify us for only so long. Desire always begets more desire. And thus the American Dream is a misnomer, a broken shiny thing, like a new car without an engine. There is blood on the flag, our blood, and in today’s world of achieving and earning and endlessly striving for more, the American Dream really just seems to imply that we are fat and in debt, discontented and empty, every man an island, leaving a void we attempt to fill with more stuff.”

I have 60 pairs of running socks.

Millburn’s explanation of how he relieved himself of most of his possessions in order to find consciousness–and peace–has worked its way deep into my psyche. Thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn I realize I, too, have too much stuff.

Millburn’s explanation of how he relieved himself of most of his possessions in order to find consciousness–and peace–has worked its way deep into my psyche. Thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn, I realize I, too, have too much stuff.

 Now, I run.  A lot. More than half of my shoes are for running, which, last I checked, wears shoes out. And, for those who aren’t familiar with the shoe-collecting habits of runners, I’m certain my little cache is nothing compared to some of my runner friends. I would even say paltry in comparison.

I bet Fields had more than 38 pairs of shoes once.

The numbers themselves are not so much the problem as the way we acquire what we acquire–the shoes and clothing and furniture and electronics and cars and houses. We look at what is missing in our lives most often in terms of things. Then we compare what we have to what others have and, inevitably, feel like shit because that woman or man has more. This is what Millburn and Nicodemus are saying.

I have 1,507 songs in my iTunes library.

Millburn lost both his mom (to cancer) and his wife (to divorce) in the same month. He  looked around at his losses and at his six-figure job and his expensive too-big house and IKEA purchased adornments and realized that instead of being fulfilled, he was bankrupt emotionally.

Everything That Remains has become a manifesto for me in my quest for authenticity and originality, which are really labels for my mission to find meaning in life. I’m not in the same place as Millburn was and I’m lucky for that. Yet his struggle to measure the loss of his mother and his wife as well as come to terms with what was truly important in his life also led me to look around at all the things I have and, more important, how they came to be mine.

I have 24 dress shirts.

Through my troubles the past several years with my divorce and raising my kids and on-again, off-again descent toward depression, I started measuring my life by the experiences and relationships instead of possessions.

My reaction since reading Everything has been a dramatic shift further in that direction bound to make some people uncomfortable and make me look a little silly. For example, it’s not like she stands at the door, like they do at Costco, monitoring everything that goes out to the parking lot, but I wonder if Elin, my wife, is getting concerned about the garbage bags full of things I have been donating to the Salvation Army lately.

Here is a recent conversation:

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Counting all my stuff,” I said.


“I have too much.”

I have seven running jackets and six pairs of running tights.

The real benefit of this examination is, eventually, you wind up with the stuff you really want and when you buy new stuff it also is stuff you really want or need. No more mindlessly spending $100 at Target because, well, that’s just what everyone does.

Pursuing minimalism takes courage for this very reason. Adopting a minimalist mindset is tantamount to becoming deliberate about who we actually are and what we want our lives to be about.

In reading Everything, I have learned to ask, as Millburn suggests, “how will buying this make my life better?” before buying anything. It’s made it easier to stop buying things just because I have a $20,000 credit limit and I can.

I have 13 coats in the downstairs closet.

Minimalism is a way to appreciate the process of earning and acquiring things to make our lives better by complementing them. Rather than being owned by our possessions and building our debts to acquire more, it is a way of consciously approaching our lives.

On this, Millburn writes: “And so we tend to hang onto things–jobs, relationships, material possessions–in an effort to feel secure. But many of the things we cling to in search of security actually drain the satisfaction from our lives, leaving us discontented and overwhelmed.”

Just counted: Eight sweaters and eight sweatshirts.

Take, for example, how we pursue finding work. Often, he says, “We hold onto jobs we dislike because we believe there’s security in a paycheck.”

Pursuing minimalism takes courage for this very reason. Adopting a minimalist mindset is tantamount to becoming deliberate about who we actually are and what we want our lives to be about. And that’s scary, for if we are not these jobs we do and these relationships we have and these possessions, then what are we?  Consciousness requires self-awareness about some of our deepest questions. It demands commitment to staying with who we are and who we want to be, even when that is inconvenient or uncomfortable. Most of us don’t do very well with uncertainty.

Security, or the lack thereof, was a real problem for my ex-wife. It made taking leaps of faith on potential work a real problem for her, and ultimately, for the two of us as a couple.

“We hold onto stuff we don’t need,” Millburn says, “just in case we might need it down the road in some nonexistent, more secure future. If such accoutrements are flooding our lives with discontent, they are not secure.”

Twenty-nine t-shirts are in my dresser drawer.

“In fact the opposite is true. Discontent is uncertainty. And uncertainty is insecurity,” he says. “Hence, if you are not happy with your situation, no matter how comfortable it is, you won’t ever feel secure.”

A normal reaction to the unease of uncertainty might be a quick trip to or the mall to buy back security.  Thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn, my sense that contentment is not found in what we own so much as how we experience our lives has been reinforced: whom we surround ourselves with, in what relationships we choose to invest and, along the way, the things we invite into our lives to complement rather than drain them.

I have at least 87 books.

This approach is not going to be always easy. But searching for originality and authenticity, having awareness that there is a different way, is exciting. Part of my mission in honoring these two ideals is deliberately deciding what I want in my life. I will choose whether something I want adds value. And if I not, I’ll let the next guy buy it.


Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 1.59.43 PM

If you are interested, here is the Youtube trailer for the Everything That Remains book tour

creativity, figuring it out, inspiration, psychology

How To Be Alone (borrowed from brain pickings/Maria Popova

This is a wonderful short film from Maria Popova’s blog, brain pickings, one of my favorite blogs. She consistently has intelligent essays on the literary life and great thinkers. I always  make time to read whatever Maria posts. Click on the link to the video. This could be a nice part of your coffee break today. 

How To Be Alone


Dancing with yourself, how to talk to statues, and what squirrels have to do with love.

UPDATE: Now available as an illustrated book.

Modernity offers a curious paradox of connectedness and loneliness. Our perpetually networked selves cling to constant communication in an effort to avoid the deep-seated sense of loneliness we so dread. Somewhere along the way, we forget — or maybe never even learn — how to be alone, how to stay contented in our own company.

Poet and singer-songwriter Tanya Davis and filmmaker Andrea Dorfman address this forgotten art in How To Be Alone — a beautifully hand-illustrated, simply yet eloquently narrated visual poem full of all these things we so often need to tell ourselves and believe, yet so rarely do.

How To Be Alone (link)

You could be in an instant surrounded if you needed it. If your heart is bleeding, make the best of it. There is heat in freezing, be a testament.


With respect and appreciation for Maria Popova’s blog, here is another link to brain pickings. This piece talks about Susan Sontag’s famous interview with Rolling Stone; Sontag talks about the misconnection of love and sex:



creativity, design, emotions, family, figuring it out, inspiration, relationships

glass realms

“I have often wondered what it is an old building can do to you when you happen to know a little about things that went on long ago in that building.” – Carl Sandburg.

We have a book we keep on our coffee table. It’s a  book on Midcentury home design I gave my wife as a Christmas present a few years ago. She had been coveting this book for a decade before we got together but never got it.

It is beautifully done as coffee table books go. It has the kind of size and heft to make it feel serious enough to be front-and-center. Not exported to a bookshelf in some obscure corner of the house, noticeable only by its spine. It is fresh with hundreds of photographs of sophisticated, thoughtful living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and backyards. The photos are so well done they give you a sense of being in the very rooms depicted.

This book has come to represent much more than its magazine-quality photos and smart text. It’s become one of the few material things I can unabashedly claim to covet.  Sometimes we covet and hold onto over time when other things we let go.  As my wife and I stroll across the pages for the umpteenth time on a Sunday morning,  drinking coffee together in a cliched picture of suburban living ourselves, we see way more than cute houses belonging to someone else. Inside this book, we see the lives of others co-mingled with our own. Some sort of weird design connection with the owners.  It is as if we are there, at their dining tables, in the process, discussing the renovations with them. We see couples wrangling with crucial design decisions with their architects and building partners. We see them agonizing over niggling details, driven to get things just as they want. We imagine they carry images of their completed renovations–the pictures that may have wound up in this book.

In these amazing homes, my wife and I see possibility.

This  coffee table book is really about all the “what ifs” in our lives. All the things that could be. We refill our coffees again and the rooms dance in our imaginations. We measure our spaces with new, ever more discerning eyes, evaluate our furniture and envision our own design and build process. We talk about our ideas and how different elements might fit together.

What I also realize is this book represents hope. Hope that one day soon we can be engaged in the sublime process of taking the existing and making it better, more livable, more entertaining and interesting. Buried among the dozen or so houses depicted here, we imagine blueprinting our own design, then shoveling the dirt,  hammering walls,  painting and then, moving in. It is enormously satisfying for my wife and I taking projects from concept to completion, from pictures in our minds to setting our heads down on  pillows in our newly completed bedroom. A bedroom fit for an expensive Midcentury coffee table design book.


The title of this essay was borrowed from a song of the same name by one of my favorite bands, This Will Destroy You. You can learn more about the band on their Facebook page: This Will Destroy You

creativity, emotions, family, figuring it out, inspiration, psychology

it all needs to go away swiftly

Something just out of my reach has been bothering me. A couple of years ago during a 31-mile run as I was training for my first 50K, I got this little niggling pain in the back of my thigh. It wasn’t enough to stop but it was annoying and took a lot of the enjoyment out of it. At first I stopped and stretched, thinking I was cramping. It didn’t help. It felt like someone was poking an awl into the back of my leg, just enough to distract me.

What should have been for me a pleasant easy run was literally a pain in the ass. This notion is like that  poking an awl into my psyche. 

The brilliance of our minds is our ability to clarify vague thoughts by pulling from the river of words running through our brains. It is as if by plucking the right words out of this thought-river and assembling them in the right order we are given the gift of clarity. Take vague notions we can’t quite pinpoint and, with a little further thinking, aha! the clarity of our feeling is there. 

This is how I think. The river of disconnected words/thoughts flows fleetly through my mind. Occasionally, some get stuck in an eddy along the bank and draw my focus. Then they’re gone. A little niggling in my psyche. 

But I think now, finally, I’ve captured it. I am able to pluck enough words and put them together to build this thought and it has led me to my first quit as I move into the new year:

Why can’t we mourn our pasts like we mourn a good friend who passes? Why not say good-bye to troublesome ideas of our past just like a person who has gone to dust? 

I’ve spent close to a decade in angst over how I didn’t do things “right” in the past. I’ve lamented all the lame choices I made and all the things that went awry for me and all it has done has led my life to feel close to failure in the present. It’s time to treat the past like the passing of a friend with whom I was once close but no longer. 

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous treatise on mourning delineates five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.(übler-Ross)

Could we apply this concept of the stages of grief to our own pasts so that we might live better today?

I am way past denial but clearly not to acceptance. I have been angry at myself for poor, uneducated choices and I’ve negotiated with myself unsuccessfully to see my past in a different, less painful light.  The bargaining is an attempt to be gentler over not achieving a significant career, two failed marriages, and the challenges of being the right kind of father to my daughters. Sometimes I have been so weighed down by my notions that I’ve slid into depression. It got so bad at one point my my ex-wife recommended I go back onto medication.

But does this make sense for living moving forward?

My mom died of pancreatic cancer in 1982 and I spent 10 years moving through the various stages of grief, alternating between going forward and regressing. Eventually, I landed somewhere near acceptance and have lived that way ever since.

So why can’t I do the same with my grief over my past? Why can’t I see the past as simply a period in my life that ended? Why can’t I view it with some detachment as a part of me without defining who I am? Gordon Livingston said in his book Too Soon Old, Too Late SmartYou are what you do.

So isn’t what we do today more important than what we did in the past when we made the choices we did with the information at hand then?

Maybe a letter would work:

Dear past,

I’m writing to you to finally say good-bye. You meant a lot to me when you were my present. You are causing too much pain now and I think it’s time I moved on. You were once very important to me and will always be a part of me.

P.S. Please make room for Guilt. He’s coming to rest forever along with you.


Me in the present

Or I could eulogize in tribute:

I’m here to speak about my past. To clearly see the past you have to understand its goodness and understand that it was also flawed, like each of us. It had shining moments of promise for the future and impacted people, as you all are here to celebrate the good of my past. But it was not perfect and its blemishes are as much a part of it. We can value the past for all that it represents for each of us while not forgetting its wrong choices, weakness and anger.

To say good-bye to the past is to honor its memory.

Or something like that.

I’ve learned enough about growth to know that focusing on the past makes it nearly impossible to live in the present, a much healthier endeavor. I won’t deny how important my past has been in creating who I am. No longer, however, will I dwell on all I feel I have done wrong.

It is time to stop criticizing myself for how I lived, thought and breathed in my past and allowing that to dictate how I live now. It is time I wrapped the past in a nice bow and buried it.  The past is passed. I quit that.