ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
photo credit: Thomas Lloyd Qualls
If ever a year needed to be broken up with it is 2020. The Go Home You’re Drunk meme has never been more appropriate. Unquestionably it has been the most challenging year in memory. Probably in the last 100 years. That’s a long time, if you think about it. Or really, even if you don’t.
During the last 100 years, whether you think about it or not, there have been wars and natural disasters and diseases that have been devastating to certain populations. Events that caused suffering, mass death, and destruction of infrastructure. But nothing on the global scale that covid-19 unleashed. And then there is all the other stuff.
Because the pandemic would have been more than enough. But of course, in this year that went on for at least a decade, there were all manner of other things. Not the least of which was the five years of wildfires this summer, literally all over the American West. Already losing our minds from the isolation of the pandemic, our only respite being the ability to get outside and enjoy nature, 2020 decided to trap us inside our homes, or risk hazardous air quality outside. Fortunately, many of us already had hazmat suits. But being outside in a hazmat suit really isn’t the same.
Woven into this year’s tapestry was the mostly peaceful and long overdue protests of Black Lives Matter. Somehow, groups of people gathered together to protest the shootings of unarmed civilians was threatening to a segment of society. Pointing out the empirical atrocity of a police officer unnecessarily pinning a fellow human to the ground with his knee for over 8 minutes until that person dies was seen as an afront to our values.
Like most every other thing I can think of, the activities and the messages of the Black Lives Matter movement were occasionally hijacked for one reason or another. Some were opportunists who showed up with the sole purpose of acting out, possibly to satisfy their own unspecified sense of disenfranchisement. Possibly for more nefarious reasons, including a desire to paint the BLM movement as violent, when by and large it is not. This is a conversation that will and should go on for years to come. And hopefully it is much more than just a conversation.
Of course, it was also an election year. And not just any election year. But one upon which the fate of the country seemed to rest. Perhaps rest is not the correct word. Not one of us rested during this process.
photo credit: Thomas Lloyd Qualls
In 2020, the country was like a highjacked race car that had been dismantled piece by piece by an unskilled 16 year-old who thought he could make it run even better, despite his lack of mechanical education. Now the nation lies in pieces in the driveway. The bolts rusting, the gaskets drying out, oil everywhere. Meanwhile, the teenager, who has neither the knowledge nor the inclination to put the parts back together, posts frenetically on social media about how he is the best mechanic ever. And, in a true sign of the times, a surprising number of people believe him.
The lead up to the vote count felt like either those tense and drawn-out moments before a tornado hits, or maybe the world’s longest birthing labor, in which the whole planet was in the birth canal. That experience was followed not by a great exhale and well-deserved rest, but by weeks of recounting and of wondering if any planted judges would undermine our democratic process, despite one candidate having won by over 7 million votes, or even if the electoral college representatives would vote according to their mandates.
All of that is mostly behind us. But there is still plenty of tension. The teenager continues to dig in his heels and refuses to share his tools. He continues to tell anyone who will listen that the car in the driveway is his. He continues to break as many of its parts as he can. And it is unclear how, when, or if he will get up and go home when the time comes. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: his mess will be left for others to clean up.
Other devastation visited us, including hurricanes, which in other years would have captured more attention. The teenager though, mostly consumed by twitter wars and rounds of golf, did almost nothing to help with the pandemic, or anything else. And lately he has not made any pretense of leading, pretty much telling us all we were on our own.
There are, for sure, good things that came out of this historically bad year. The winners of the election not only promise to start rebuilding the car, but to do so in ways and with technologies that are long overdue. Also, one of the winners of the election made history twice by being the first woman and the first woman of color to sit in the Vice President’s chair. Again, in any other year, this would be grabbing more headlines.
It was a year that challenged our resilience, our creativity, our adaptability, our courage, our empathy, our senses of self, our willingness to serve and to sacrifice, and to hold steadfast vision of the future we want for ourselves. In large and small ways, we met these challenges and found reserves and resources we had either forgotten or had no idea existed.
Also, the murder hornets did not sweep the country, as once feared. But other things most certainly did. Including the awareness that over 70 million of us apparently live in an alternate reality. This is no small thing. And it is only the beginning of another long and uncomfortable conversation that we must have.
But after what we’ve all been through and achieved in 2020, I believe we are up to this challenge. Oneness is not just a new age buzzword. It is the reality of our existence. It is up to us to acknowledge that fact and to begin to work towards it in earnest. It is time to rebuild all that is broken with its blueprint.
For all we have lost and gained this year, I am grateful we are on this path together. Happy New Year, my friends.
There are two primary worldviews, two lenses through which we see the world. In one, the world is wired together, connected. In the other, the world is made up of separate things.
In the first view, things and people are interconnected. We are interdependent upon one another and upon the earth. What each of us does matters to the whole. We have impact on the world around us. This view is held by a broad range of people, from biodynamic farmers and Buddhist teachers to meteorologists and quantum physicists.
This view embraces the idea of oneness, which has many faces. One aspect is that what we do to the world, and anyone or anything in it, we actually do to ourselves. I don’t often quote him, but for those so inclined to his teachings, Jesus speaks to this when he explained that whatever was done to the least of his brothers and sisters, was done to him.
In other words, Love your neighbor as yourself.
Chief Seattle famously spoke to this: All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself… What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
The second view believes that we are born into the world alone, and we die alone. And in between, whatever success we have is up to us alone. That humans are islands, separate and apart from one another. That humankind were given dominion over Mother Earth and everything that is in and on her. And that nothing we can do while here has any significant impact upon the planet or its inhabitants.
This view requires some tricky footwork. But if you can disconnect yourself from the world around you in this way – if nature is just something over there, something to serve as a backdrop to your life, a movie set – then you can easily put poison onto the soil and still eat the food that grows from it. You can dump toxic waste into the oceans and still eat the fish that swim there, without concern. You can do this even though you probably wouldn’t pee into a bucket of water and then drink from it.
This belief also allows you to distance yourself from other humans. How other people are treated -- for example those with different colors of skin -- has no bearing on your life. Restrictions on others as to who they can love or marry has nothing to do with you. They are not you, after all. People who make less money or are otherwise less fortunate are not really relevant to your life. There is no reason you should you concern yourself with them. Also, criminals. Just separate them out of view from the rest of society so we don’t have to think about them.
Another trick of the brain required for this view is that one has to accept the benefits of firemen, policemen, public education, public roads, Social Security, Medicare, and other community benefits, while still decrying socialism in all its forms. Anyone who wants to take part what you’ve worked hard for is a freeloader. They just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do what you did, without help from anyone. (Of course this is not true, but that is just another trick of the brain to be mastered.)
In short, large blinders are required for this second view. We learned as kids that the leg bone is connected to the ankle bone. Just as everything in the body is connected to every other thing. Just as we are microcosms of our world and our universe. Separation is indeed an illusion. There is simply no proof of it.
In the first worldview, there are people who see things as they are and go about aligning their lives and activities accordingly. And then there are those who would rather keep their backs to the light of day and believe in the stories told by shadows on the back of a cave.
Put another way, there are those who approach the world with openness and those who keep themselves and their world closed tight. A worldview of love and one of fear.
Yoda reminded us, Fear of loss is a path to the dark side. But we cannot lose a world that belongs to all of us. That is the mystical irony of an open and interconnected world. It is abundant and sustainable and it cannot be lost.
But we can be.
This oneness exists whether you believe in it or not. And the natural order of all things is to fall into alignment with oneness. Indeed, in order for any species to survive, it must find its place within this oneness. If humanity survives its separation thinking, it will be because we recognized the truth of oneness and moved into alignment with everything else in the universe.
Remember to love your neighbor today. And then notice how good that makes you feel. Repeat.
Monsters, of one kind or another, are common in dreams. And there’s all this stuff in history, mythology, and psychology about monsters and demons and the courageous heroes who fight them. But I don’t think fighting monsters is all that courageous. I think the ultimate act of courage is standing still in the face of a monster. Courage is looking closely enough into its jaws to see it for what it is: an illusion. The monster isn’t real. It’s your fear of the monster that is real. And just about anything in life can look like a monster if the light is just right.
-Thomas Lloyd Qualls
The above quote is hopefully more than just self-referential indulgence. Over the arc of my life, monsters have taken on any number of forms. As a child they sometimes came in the form of school, or bullies, or food I was irrationally afraid of, or maybe tornados (I grew up in Oklahoma), and sometimes, actual monsters -- or at least scary people -- in my dreams.
As I grew, monsters sometimes took the shape of tests, after-school jobs, the police (I was a reckless teen), or any obstacle to getting a girlfriend. In adulthood, my monsters have shape-shifted into things like debt, the IRS, deadlines, prosecutors, the surreal world of the courtroom, child-raising, and the occasional blank page where words ought to have made their way by now.
And through all this time, through all these monsters, those words I was able to channel to the electronic page in what became the novel Painted Oxen have always been true: The monster isn’t real. It’s your fear of the monster that is real. The way to deal with dream monsters is to turn and look them in the face. To ask with curiosity, Tell me why are you here? What is the message you are supposed to give me?
PHOTO BY (THE BRILLIANT) OLGA BARANTSEVA HTTPS://BIT.LY/36OZJUE
Now, that is not to say that I’m going to book a fishing boat and go jump into the water with some sharks. But neither am I going to jump out of a plane without a parachute. Or climb a mountain in a storm. Or even pick up a spider from my bathroom without a glass and a postcard. That is because sharks, planes, mountains, and spiders all deserve their due respect when dealing with them. But respect does not mean the same thing as fear. Respect also includes curiosity. Why are you here? What role do you have in this grand play?
We fear what we don’t understand. This includes nature, as well as other people. It seems these days that more people regard nature as something dangerous --to be tamed and harnessed at all cost -- than they do something that nourishes and sustains us. Likewise, modern society has turned more towards controlling the growing numbers of people in society than to building harmonious and sustainable communities.
I think the take home is that we would be well served to love everything (and everyone) in the world. At least that is what the masters teach us. Mother Earth has spent literally billions of years creating the mind-blowingly complex and interconnected ecosystem where we live. If something were not meant to be here, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t. That doesn’t mean we need to put an arm into the yellow jacket nest. But it does mean that pollinators of all kinds are likely essential to life on this whirling ball of rock and water.
PHOTO BY (THE BRILLIANT) OLGA BARANTSEVA HTTPS://BIT.LY/36OZJUE
Also, many of our fears are unfounded. The black widow spider only kills around 7 Americans a year. And bears, alligators, and mountain lions? Only one person a year. And sharks? There’s only about one fatality every two years. Studies also show that most predators, from badgers to mountain lions, are probably more afraid of us, and will change their daily activities, including their feeding habits, just to avoid humans, sometimes altering their whole ecosystem in the process.
This story of fear is just one of many we have invented, but continue to shape our lives around. We write these make-believe stories on the chalkboards of our minds -- and refer to them regularly -- without ever fact-checking their accuracy. In the meantime, we lock ourselves away from imaginary dangers and miss out on great swaths of life we could be enjoying. When we could be questioning (and erasing) those stories, and turning our attention towards finding beauty in life, instead. Which is far more important.
Let’s make a pact together that we will do this more and more each day, question our fears, and turn our eyes towards exploration, towards our own daily beauty safaris. And keep doing it until it becomes second nature. Until we have rewritten all the old stories that no longer serve us.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Is it possible to be both happy and sad at the same time? I think so. I’m pretty sure that’s where I am right now.
John Jesse was one of the first people I met when I moved to Reno. I stumbled upon the Pneumatic Diner for lunch maybe the third day I was in town. John, its owner, designer, builder, and curator was there that day, taking orders, serving, directing, entertaining. As our friendship grew, I would learn that John was not comfortable in many social situations. But the Diner -- as it was affectionately known -- was his domain. And he was fully animated within those walls.
Over time, John and I became friends. I bought my first road bike because of John. And when I wrecked it, he repaired it and turned it into a town bike for me. For several years I rode that town bike more than I drove my car. Because that is what John did. And he was an example of how I wanted to live. Small footprint. Quirky and creative. I thought his life was art. And I wanted mine to be, too. That town bike still hangs in my office. The office I rent in the building he bought and remodeled many years ago.
John built other things for me, too. Like the desk where I am writing this. The one where I wrote most of my second novel. The novel that is in boxes on a shelf in the work table he also built. And the truth is, he helped to build me into a better human. Our friendship transformed me.
I’ve been a tenant in this building he rebuilt twice now. The first time for a short while when I was living up at Lake Tahoe in 2001. The second time started in 2010, and I’m still here. John actually altered one of the spaces just for me, telling me he was doing it because, “I want you in this building.”
That started a new chapter in our lives. Being at the building gave me the chance to interact with John on a regular basis, sometimes daily. Eventually both our children started attending the same school, and so during morning drop-off and school events, there were more layers where our days and our lives were entangled.
At the building on Tahoe Street or in the parking lot at school, we would often find ourselves in unintentionally long conversations about life and how to live it. And our appreciation and respect for one another grew over time. John was human, like all of us, and so I don’t mean to paint him as a saint who never complained or had a bad day. But he was one of the most kind and thoughtful humans I’ve ever met. From bikes, to electric cars, to the evaporative cooling system in the building, to his tiny house, to recycling, to his minimized waste goals with the Diner, John surpassed everyone I knew with his life’s small footprint.
I’m not sure I can do this next story justice, but I really want to. Years ago my partner and I had a small, private unity ceremony in the woods. And then afterwards we had a larger celebration with our friends at Rancho San Rafael Park. John was there with his wife Kristin and their daughter Geneva, who was quite small at the time. The picture here is of John at the event, holding two stuffed animals. He appears to be talking to them. And they are hugging each other. I assumed at first glance he was performing for Geneva. And then I realized Geneva was actually on the other side of the table, off screen, where her mom is talking to her. That is John. Brilliant, thoughtful, kind, strong (enough to regularly climb Mount Rose Highway on his bike), creative, and able to hold what may have been an impromptu alternative dispute resolution with two stuffed animals in the middle of a crowd of people that culminated in the stuffies hugging each other.
In case you are wondering why I am telling you this, it is because John traveled peacefully over the rainbow bridge on July 8, 2020. About 10 days before that, John was in an accident while riding his bicycle in Washoe Valley. It seems he was knocked unconscious almost immediately, was taken to surgery and then to the ICU, and simply never woke up again.
It is perhaps impossible to write about the sudden finality of this kind of death without it coming out like a cliché. But the fact remains that for 25 years, since the week I moved to town, John Jesse has been a part of my life. It is difficult to imagine Reno without him. It is difficult to understand how it is that someone is here, a fixture in your life for so long, and then just not. And no matter how much you appreciated them when they were here, that appreciation does not really fill the gap left by their sudden absence.
John would never have wanted people to be sad at his passing. Any more than he would want people to stop riding their bikes because of his accident. He would want us all to be present with our lives as they are and to love all the things that are here.
You are missed, my friend. But more than that, I am grateful to have gotten to spend a good part of my time on earth with you.
Be well. Take care of yourselves. Reach out to each other often. Take the time for longer conversations, more books, things you want to learn. Take the time to find beauty. And to share it.
Encourage all your stuffies to put down their troubles and just hug one another.
The more we know,