inspiration

with blinders off, leaving the enchantment forest

Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely the were to crack.” – Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

My wounded friend sat across from me at the Fleetwood Diner one morning. He fidgeted. Every few seconds he grabbed the bill of his baseball cap and shifted it backwards across his head with both hands. Then he scratched his scalp before quickly replacing the cap.

We had been talking about his life. About how things had fallen apart for him. He had been forced out of his job because of his friendship with a guy who was arrested for doing some bad things.  I won’t reveal any more because I want to protect his identity. It doesn’t matter anyway.

MaineTrip7The point is that my dear friend, in his 40’s, divorced and in a less-than-fulfilling relationship with a woman for the past six years, was looking at rock bottom. Normally his sense of humor is as big as the Oscar Meyer hot dog van, but he didn’t laugh. He barely smiled. He was scared for his future.

“I just hate people thinking so badly about me,” he said.

His sorrow over how things had gone was as bitter as highway coffee.

He toiled for years in his field creating systems and award-winning programs to help others that now would likely be abandoned because none of his former colleagues would care as he did. He did a lot of good work that will be forgotten in all the recrimination for a massive lapse in judgement over how to pick friends. He is an involved, caring dad and has a strong community of friends.

His sorrow over how things had gone was as bitter as highway coffee. I steered the conversation toward the future.

“What is next?,” I said. “What are you going to do?”

Everyone has bad days. Sometimes we have bottomlessly bad days. Stretches of time where we feel completely lost. Where getting up and getting dressed and stepping into our busy lives is as hopeless as a crowded elevator that stops on every floor with mind-numbing muzak to boot. Where we can’t decide the next step for fear we will always make mistakes. And where we feel completely powerless to do a damn thing about it.

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, we think. Life isn’t supposed to be so hard.

I listened to a podcast recently of an interview with Casey Neistat. Neistat is a YouTube dynamo. He puts out a v-log, or video blog, doing at least one video a day. He has a coveted studio in Manhattan. And his videos cover everything from quick hacks to make existing products better to an epic adventure skiing through Manhattan during “Snow-geddon.” If anything Casey Neistat is as self-made as they come. He didn’t go to college. Today he speaks to executives at Google and Microsoft and others about creativity.

It’s when life is hard that you grow.

imagesWhat struck me during the conversation was that Neistat wasn’t boastful despite the accolades his interviewer piled on. Instead he said what made him appreciate his life were the hard times. You remember the down times in life so much more vividly than the good, easy ones. It’s when life is hard that you grow. It’s the place character is built.

This is what the conversation with my friend at Fleetwood reminded me of.

Where do we get the notion that life is not ever supposed to feel shitty? Why do we hold onto expectations and enchantments so much even when they are falling apart? Why do we judge ourselves and others so viciously when we struggle? “I’m glad I’m not that guy,” we say.

I can look at my own difficulties in life and see it is true that when I was the most distraught was when something propelled me to change.

Being estranged from my oldest daughter…taught me some things about being a parent. 

Being estranged from my oldest daughter for three years taught me some things about being a parent. It took me a while to understand, but I learned about being a better dad not just to her but to each of my kids and step-kids.  Being fired or laid off three times in six years taught me something about being employed and how I want to work. I still think one of the guys who fired me is an asshole and I’m not alone in that but what matters is not that this organization didn’t want me to be a part of it any longer. What matters is what I did next and what direction I chose from there.

It was in my miserable divorce and aftermath that I learned about boundaries and personal responsibility and who I wanted to be in a relationship. Cancer and a pulmonary embolism taught me how precious and fragile life is and how to advocate for myself in a medical situation. A sawed off finger taught me about attention and focus and a little about what metal does to flesh.

My friend said I inspired him. He called me resilient. I sloughed off the compliment because I don’t see any other way to live. Things happen. Life happens. We are the ones who choose if something is bad or good. We get caught doing something unacceptable at work and our job gets taken away. It’s just a job. Get another or do something different. Do something about a relationship that doesn’t even come close to feeling good and never will.

My struggles have helped me grow, in effect become a better, more authentic person. Yes, they have helped define me. My life experience is richer because of the difficult times in my life. I am more sensitive, compassionate and dare I say wiser because I have had to let go of enchantments that life had to be a certain way. But it’s not the bad things as much as what I did next. More things will happen to me. I will likely label some “bad” and some “good.”

You are what you do. There is no other way. I love my friend and have enormous sympathy for his predicament. I’m also excited as hell to see what he’ll do with the lemons he’s been handed.

“I’m thankful for my struggle becaue without it I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.”  — Alex Elle, author. 

emotions, figuring it out, inspiration, relationships, writing

memorial

“The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”  ~Kahlil Gibran

 

My sixth-grade teacher was a man named Smith Clifton. He was tall and thin and had a thick brown beard he stroked when he sat at his desk grading papers while the rest of the class and I took tests. He had a tall beat-up thermos he kept to one side. It was the kind with the plastic top that doubled as a cup he would screw off and fill with black coffee all day long.

Mr. Clifton was one of the most influential characters in my life. He was the first person to get me to write. Every week, Mr. Clifton had us record our thoughts in a journal. He gave us no direction on topics so we wrote what we wanted. Once a week or so he would collect the journals from the class, read each entry and then write comments to each of us. I was always excited to see what insights Mr. Clifton would offer and I was never disappointed.

Mr. Clifton was among the most affable people I have ever known. He was peaceful as a forest. He reminded me of a hippie, he was so laid back, but more grown up. He dressed in jeans and denim shirts and beat up boots so he looked more blue collar

Mr. Clifton was among the most affable people I have ever known. He was peaceful as a forest.

than he was. He displayed a kind of refined deliberateness that one might expect from a gentlemen farmer. In fact he owned a small farm in Mt. Airy, about an hour’s drive northwest from our school, but he also seemed a renaissance philosopher or poet.

I loved this man.

My 11th grade English teacher was a man named Hans Gaussman. Mr. Gaussman was German. He was short, perhaps 5 foot eight. He kept his hair close-cropped and he had a mustache and goatee, which he kept sharp as a razor. In fact, Mr. Gaussman’s personality was as sharp as his goatee. Mr. Gaussman was almost military in demeanor. He intimidated a lot of my classmates and pissed off others.

He was by far the hardest teacher I ever encountered, even in college. Mr. Clifton was the first to get me to connect thoughts to paper, but Mr. Gaussman was the one who taught me how to write.

He was by far the hardest teacher I ever encountered…Mr Gaussman was the one who taught me how to write.

Mr. Gaussman’s favorite implement was his red pen. He wielded the pen like a dagger on our papers, ripping our grammar and our thinking. Mr. Gaussman would not simply pass us on to 12th grade English. His brutality in grading was also his gift. He made us think better.

I came to love this man too.

Shortly after the start of the school year, Mr. Gaussman held conferences with us. This was a private conversation, out of the hearing of our peers, where we had the chance individually to learn the failings of our work. We all dreaded these sessions as much as we did the school lunches. With a Cheshire smile, Mr. Gaussman systematically dismantled any notion we might possess of being smart or good writers.

“So, Mr. Gaussman,” I ventured once, “what do you think of my writing?”

He only paused for a second before he stabbed me in the chest: “I wouldn’t make it a career.” That was all he had to say.

I didn’t cry. I didn’t wander the halls in a daze after such an overt criticism. It was one of the few times in life that I didn’t pack up my toys and move to a different playground.

He said, “I wouldn’t make it a career.”…I was going to show him just how wrong he was. I was going to show him that, in fact, I was a writer.

I took Mr. Gaussman’s words as a challenge. I was going to show him just how wrong he was. I was going to show him that, in fact, I was a writer. This is the part in the movie where the main character–me–drops the f-bomb in his face. When Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian Johnson tells Mr. Vernon in his essay that he can’t diminish his classmates with his bullying. Or when, in the last scene, Jud Nelson’s John Bender defiantly holds up his fist, flipping off every self-absorbed and bullying adult in addition Mr. Vernon.

I put everything I had at age 16 into changing Mr. Gaussman’s mind. And I did. In a couple months, I was getting A’s and I noticed Mr. Gaussman treated me differently. He engaged me with a respect he reserved for very few of his students. I felt elevated, more important. But not like a teacher’s pet. It was one of the first times in my life I felt respected for my brain and especially for my work ethic.

Mr. Gaussman instilled in me a sense that good writing and thinking requires hard work. He helped create in me an identity as a writer. It doesn’t matter that I have never since written a novel or even a got a short story published.

If we are lucky we have one or two significant teachers in our lives. People who care about us.

It was his gift, his hard-assed, judgmental criticism of my work set me on a path I could not change. A few years later I would remember both teachers when I sat at my typewriter, trying to finish a story for deadline for  the newspaper on which I wrote. While my red-haired and red-faced editor yelled for my copy, I paused and silently thanked them for their efforts on my behalf.

If we are lucky we have one or two significant teachers in our lives. People who care about us. Who take time to challenge us to push toward our potential and who expand our abilities. People who are like bridges to better, more enlightened versions of ourselves. People like Smith Clifton whose peaceful demeanor taught me about kindness and how to get stuff out of my head and onto paper. People like Hans Gaussman whose disciplined approach forced me out of the comfort of slushy, unrefined thoughts to greater competence upon which I could build a career, even if that career is still blossoming.

 

emotions, family, figuring it out, health and wellness, inspiration, psychology, relationships

raining world champion

“I’m a good man, with a good heart, had a tough time, got a rough start. But I finally learned to let it go…I’m hoping, knowing somehow, my shadow days are over.” – John Mayer, Shadow Days

John Mayer played this morning on iTunes. Though there are plenty of lyrics in Shadow Days, I found myself focusing on just a few, particularly the line, “I’m hoping, knowing somehow, my shadow days are over now.” 

On the car ride to school the other day, my 11-year-old daughter said how my divorce from her mom would make her a more aware person. If she were to go through similar hard times with some future husband, she would know better how to move through them. She said experiences like the divorce help teach her how unexpected turns are part of life and knowing how to deal with them is important.

This exchange is exactly what a parent in a divorce hopes for. The growth from my youngest daughter shows that our children can weather the shit parents do in their quests to find happiness and maintain identities, especially when a marriage ends.

I told her I was enormously proud of her. That is precisely why I have come to value difficulties. We can’t stop them from occurring. All experiences are life. It is we who label them “bad” or “good.” My daughter’s observations reminded me of this.

I told her I was enormously proud of her. This is precisely why I have come to value difficulties. IMG_0991We can’t stop them from occurring. All experiences are life. It is we who label them “bad” or “good.” My daughter’s observations reminded me of this.

She said she had noticed that both her mom and I seemed happier now than when we were married to each other. In fact, she went on that both of us seemed better now than at any time in the five-year transition from married and unhappy to these new lives we lead today. It’s been a messy road and my daughter’s sense that things have turned out okay was a revelation.

She said, “You seem better now because before you were chunkier and had long hair and were sad. Now you are thin and fit and you seem much better with (my wife). And Mom seems happier with (her boyfriend) too.”

Her comments felt like an affirmation of something I have noticed over the past year or so: I am emerging from my own dark time–my own shadow days–of difficulty, anger, immense hurt and guilt.

It hasn’t been that I haven’t felt sadness occasionally, even the kind that sometimes stopped me in my tracks (and I’ve written about it here). Who doesn’t ever experience emotional pain, disappointment and epic failure in their lives?  I have tried to be philosophical about it most of the time but sometimes life has felt endlessly and relentlessly difficult. A big bag of doodoo.

But imagine for a moment that it is possible to actually lollygag through life, bouncing like a butterfly from one great experience after another, never shedding a tear, in a fairy tale world where nothing bad ever happens. Doesn’t it make sense that butterfly person’s happiness would be muted eventually because only good experiences would be the norm? This butterfly person wouldn’t know the difference between one experience or another because everything would be felt as equally happy.

Without failure, how can someone know success? Without disappointment, how could someone know joy? Without tears, how could there be sunshine?  The sameness of every experience would have to lead to despair. 

My youngest daughter’s sense that bad things are as normal a part of life as good made me do some reframing of my own. I’m certain good things happened in my childhood and throughout my adult life. But if you were to ask me, I would not characterize my life until now as happy. Most of my memories as a child are of sad times, hurt, disappointment. And as an adult, I tend to see my past as failure, missteps, things not turning out. In fact, I was like a butterfly of despair–I only knew bad experiences.

The work of reframing I have done over the past couple of years has led me to view life with more balance. 

Experiences are just experiences. How we choose to frame them determines our happiness…It’s as if all the work I’ve done to become more present, to understand more clearly and to move forward..has essentially done what I’ve hoped for.

Today, it feels like I am becoming whole. This awareness–that experiences are just experiences and how we choose to frame them determines our happiness–has been hard-won. It’s as if all the work I’ve done to become more present, to understand more clearly and to move forward–all the books I’ve read and the therapy sessions and the late night conversations with my wife, Elin–has essentially done what I’ve hoped for. Almost without notice, all this effort to improve has incrementally made me better, more able to choose happiness over sadness.

My long period of shadow days, years in the making and years ending, appears to have passed. My awareness allows me to see, like my daughter, that bad events are temporary and not always caused by me. I can take a healthy amount of responsibility and let go. My bad experiences have even helped me grow. They have allowed me to be better equipped to see happiness or peace as a choice.

I can choose love.

I can choose to feel happy. Alive. Special. Talented.

I can choose to feel badly about something I did and then move on. I can acknowledge my responsibility and feel guilty and then forgive myself for being flawed.

This might be automatic for some; it has been anything but for me.

“It sucks to be honest and it hurts to be real. But it’s nice to make some love I can finally feel.  Hard times let me be.”

My shadow days are over.

 ###

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. 

ETR_20001-500x800

 

They didn’t start the minimalism movement. But the pair have joined the movement which they journal at their website, theminimalists.com. 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.

“Why?”

“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 Amazon.com 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.

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

emotions, figuring it out, inspiration, relationships

there is a kind of light (an open love letter to my wife)

“I love you with all my heart and soul.” – Jean Paul Sarte to Simone de Beauvoir.

my darling,

There is danger in loving someone else so completely that you become wholly enveloped by them. To love someone in this way–as I love you–is to let go of one’s ego and fears, like an insect casting off their old skin. There is a moment of complete vulnerability, where your heart is open, asking for your touch, gentle, subtle and warm, dear lover, pushing away all thoughts that love might not be returned. For I cannot love you any other way than to fully expose me to you in anticipation of full acceptance. Weather does not change you, even in times of cascades of rain or blustery force of blizzard. That much I have seen.

I did not trust in love for most of my life; my willingness to become a lover was unsophisticated as was my understanding of what constituted love. I simply did not know. I had never before  you experienced the delicious spirit of love, a kind of “home fire” in the pit of my stomach that aches when I do not pay attention. We tread a fine line in real love, this space between joy and pain. Now that I have you, I see there is nothing else. That line is love, and while angst is sometimes a part, such when I feel you do not see me, without that pain there is none of the sublime joy that feeds me from breathing the same air and being let into your heart. I feel your unbounded heart, like a huge playroom with soft rounded walls so that when I bounce around, doing cartwheels and other gymnastics, there is nothing hard that jolts me. I am safe with you.

I loved you the moment we opened up to each other in that restaurant so long ago–and perhaps a few moments sooner–but I was an idiot in love because I didn’t know how far you would reach into my soul.

This love is a collective journey for you and I; we are in parallel, side-by-side, looking at the same world but also seeing things through different colored lenses. This I have begun to appreciate–that the world you see and experience through your orange-tinted lenses–can also be the world I see through my green or gray or turquoise. This is how love moves, when I let go of “my way” of expectation, because you make me feel good and are not threatening, and because your touch is like baby’s breath, I can love you more.

This was all a surprise to me. I loved you the moment we opened up to each other in that restaurant so long ago–and perhaps a few moments sooner–but I was an idiot in love because I didn’t know how far you would reach into my soul.

You show me the way time and time again; when the outside world interferes and I struggle to make sense of my ex and my kids and blending two families; everyone wanted to resist the combination of our lives into one house, especially our exes. You and I persevered with a kind of commitment to the feeling we felt, fed by this thing we thought to be love.

There was a time of cancer, when I feared my story was ending. You were unwavering, like some proverbial lighthouse on a wave-battered shore; You shone your light on me when in my heart I could not expect you to stay and “put up” with the kind of shadow cast by cancer over the future.

I woke up from the sedative-induced unconsciousness of surgery, when the doctor pulled my cancer and my kidney from my body, wanting only you. As I tried to rise to awareness, like wiping away thick layers of mud from a windshield, I called your name and wanted only you. I could be dead, I thought, and where are you for you are the only light that can bring me back to life.

This is how I have come to understand love. You are my definition and embodiment of all that love is. You are the candle in the dark times of my soul, the beacon that pulls me from the depths of my sometime depression falls.

My road, when I have to leave your warm circle, is paved with the feeling of you in my head. I can go about my business, earning my pay through this work I do, but your voice, the brightness of it, the tenor of your laugh, the heartwarming image of your bright smile, makes the miles bearable. I know I will return.

In my day, it is as if I am seeing things through your eyes; everything I experience when you are not with me is automatically “less than” because it is not shared with you. I cannot “telepath” this to you. My heart leaps to share these things I see.

And when I come home, it is all forgotten and I need only to breathe you in again. Our shared experience, you and I living our co-independent lives, is what matters most to me.

I will always protect your heart, for to disrespect your heart would be to rip out my own.

You have earned my love, indeed there is no one I respect more. I will always protect your heart, for to disrespect your heart would be to rip out my own. I do not exist without you any longer; this does not mean my breathing would cease if I were to  lose you. I would exist…the way a stone experiences the sun and cold and everything else, unmoved, unchanging, just there. It does mean there would be no art, no music, no sun in life. You are the color in my world, the orange and gray of the outside of our home, the greens and browns and blues of our rooms; your love is the artwork on our walls and the music that comes from the speakers on our floor. As Amos Lee plays, I hear you sing to his vocals as I watch you wipe the counter after preparing a meal or baking something for my step-kids.

Everything is light. Everything is warm inside this place that is your love. My life is better because you are in this world. I don’t know if you know this: I love you more than air.

until soon and with gratitude,

your devoted husband.