The more we know, the more we realize how little we know.
The Earth is a sentient being. Not only is this not hyperbole, it is an understatement. The Earth is not only sentient, she is far more intelligent, conscious, and powerful than we are. We forget this to our peril. And in our boundless ignorance, we often simply deny it.
Here's a few reminders of her power over us. A $300,000 sports car becomes a paperweight in an ice storm. A 3 million dollar home turns to toothpicks in a tornado. A 30 billion dollar aircraft carrier becomes scrap metal at the hands of a tsunami. The rainforest can swallow a six lane highway project, along with trucks two stories tall, in a matter of months. And leave no trace that any of it existed. (For real, just ask Brazil.) Indeed, the current climate crisis threatens to erase our species from Earth's history forever.
The more remarkable thing about the Earth, though, is her attention to the smallest details: The petals of an orchid, the antennae of an ant, the spiky fins of a lionfish. And her mastery of alchemy: Turning sunlight into food, minerals into colors, death into life.
Humans lose their perspective all the time, foolishly believing the universe not only revolves around them, but is organized for them. The known universe was born somewhere around 13.8 billion years ago. Or maybe it just woke up from its slumber then. Nobody really knows, none of us having lived that long. For all we know, the known universe is but a thin strand of hair on a magnificent beast. One that lives in an even greater world of its own.
Somewhere around 4.54 billion years ago, planet Earth was born. Plus or minus 50 million years. (How's that for perspective, the Earth is old enough that 50 million years on either side of its possible origin is relatively unimportant.) And then about 300,000 years ago homo sapiens arrived (again, give or take), thanks to a few millions of years of evolution from our more primitive ancestors. A nanosecond, really, on the universal timeline.
The point is this. Life predates us by a considerable amount of time. We are neither the beginning nor the end of life's journey. It is possible we are but a blink of life's eyelash. It is also possible we are simply garden critters that showed up one summer on Earth and then never returned after the winter.
photo credit: NASA
Our human advances in science and technology have rendered only the faintest of understandings of Earth. What the moss and mushrooms know alone would take us generations to distill. And how they, the pine needles, and the butterflies are interconnected, along with everything else, may never be fully within our grasp. It is time we act accordingly. It is way is past time.
And not just with regards to our home planet, but the other neighbor critters who live here. Be they human or winged or four-legged, or, you know, snakes. The arrogance (and the delusion) that any of us have any kind of superiority -- over the Earth or each other -- is based purely in a certain lazy ignorance. Our prejudices and hatreds of one another are just smaller microcosms of this larger universal ignorance.
Also, wherever it began, life has a propensity to create. Always has, as far as we can tell. In this way, modern humans are a bit of an anomaly in our tendency to destroy more than we create. We are part of life, after all, and so it is our nature to create.
One way we can figure out how to stay part of Mother Earth's ancient and vastly intelligent ecosystem for a bit longer is to do more creating. Not necessarily creating more humans, as it appears we are not at risk of a shortage right away. Instead, let's create more sustainable ways of life, more sanctuaries for those at risk, more bridges to one another, more awareness of our unique, but marginal place in the world.
The more we know, the more we realize how little we know. It is time we wake up from this dream of our own advanced intelligence. It is time we start listening to the Earth and to each other. It is way is past time.
* * * *
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable.
His second novel, Painted Oxen, is available wherever books are sold.
His brain didn't feel up to the task of thinking. Or even staying awake, really.
A blanket of low-lying clouds drifted over the horizon of his mind and now lay still and peaceful on the landscape there, as if they were napping, with no hint of a breeze to carrying them along their journey. The clouds made him tired. Even though he'd slept for maybe 7 hours the night before. He still wanted a nap. Or maybe two days of sleep. He couldn't tell. If he could walk out of the clouds, he would.
But wherever he went, the clouds came with him. Like they were on a string attached to his waist.
Sometimes when there is an inversion, you just have to wait it out. Do the best you can until the wind comes along and frees you from the doldrums.
It would be nice if he could just lay down. But he can't. It is only 9:30 am. He has work to do. And words to write. And other adulting stuff waiting for him to grow up enough to see to it. And then later there will be more parenting to do. Even though he is totally not qualified for that. But nobody ever asked to see his resume before he took the job.
And at least every other parent he talks to seems to have the same kind of imposter syndrome. So he just does the best he can. And tries to remember not to yell too much. And to not to place his own worries and ambivalence and disappointment about the world on the child. He will have his own things to carry, after all. And maybe the best anyone can do is to show that is it possible to put those things down and just walk away from them. And maybe the child can learn to do it much sooner than he did.
Even now, there are still bags balanced upon there on his shoulders, despite all this talk. Because -- and you've probably figured this out by now -- a lot of the time life is nothing like you thought it would be. Until those sometimes when it is far better than you ever imagined. It is important to remember that. Even when there are low-lying clouds in your way.
He knows if he can possibly slow down, it helps. Just try to take everything as it comes. Even when nothing is coming. To do his best to take that, too.
It helps to remember that you are part of everything and everything is part of you. And so there is really no place to get to. And nothing to get. It is just reaching inside and pulling out whatever is needed. Even if there are low-lying clouds covering almost everything.
There is still the quiet gurgle of the stream, the feel of grass under feet, the cool of air as he fills his lungs, over and over and over, thousands of times a day. And the way, even if the clouds are there, if he can slow down, he can still put thoughts together, pin words on the page.
Sometimes it seems like maybe it was the words that made the fog to begin with. Or that the fog is made of words. Like he had been forgetting about them, and so they started to stack up, causing a word jam that, as it grew, started to look just like a small cloud. And the more he neglected the words, the more the clouds grew, until they covered the valley floor.
And all he needed to do to clear the path was to start pulling the words down and pasting them to the pages. Over and over and over, thousands of times a day.
Be well. Take care of yourselves. Check in on each other.
There is always a lot of talk around these so-called super moons to "harness" their power. Line up your chakras, call in your spirit guides, and make sure you are manifesting your highest and best future.
I don't know about you, but that always seems like another thing I've got to make sure I not only make time for, but that I get just right. I nearly always end up feeling like I have fallen short somehow, missed a golden opportunity to finally fix all those broken knobs and blown out circuits in my life.
And in the middle of this global pandemic, that's the last thing we need. I mean, we already have to don mini hazmat suits and stand in line in the rain in the grocery store parking lot for a slim chance we'll be able to get some toilet paper for the week, with the threat of actual death looming all around us. And that's just one tiny bit of the daily upheaval. And on top of everything we are prohibited from turning to our tribe for the physical comfort of their company.
Liz Gilbert said something once that I have always found to be true. It is that when you are at your lowest, that is when you will also have to be your strongest. Because likely there will be no one there to pull you out of whatever existential vortex you find yourself. You will have to reach down and find some unknown, untapped vault of strength, pull it up and be your own hero.
So by the power vested in me, I hereby grant every one of you permission to let yourselves unravel. Or as I've said before, go ahead, fall the fuck apart. But when you're done with that, you are going to have to reach down and pull out some of the hidden joy you have unwittingly locked away in your hearts.
And after that, get out a piece of paper and a pen and make yourself a new list. (I know, by now you've got a mess of them scattered around the counters of your house.) But this one will be just for Things To Do While on Pandemic House Arrest.
Here are some ideas:
1. Get the fuck out of your house. (Safely.) I know what Samuel L. Jackson said. But for the moment, fuck that. I'm not saying go hang out with a bunch of people. I'm saying go to the woods, the river, the lake, the mountain, the park, or just around the block.
2. Make art. Any kind, really. It definitely does not have to be good. (Although, good art cannot be undervalued.) But really, you've got some time. You can get better at whatever you do. Still, good is not the point. Work on it. See what else is inside you.
3. Move your body. Somehow, someway, pretty much everyday. Do something. Walk, ride, run, swim, bike, yoga, dance. You can definitely do this.
4. Reach out. I'm going to say to at least 3 people a day who don't live with you. It'll make you feel better. It'll make them feel better. Old friends. New friends. Former lovers. Single people trapped at home alone. People trapped with their families. You know. Everyone.
5. Goof off. Really. I mean productivity is one thing, but I spent most of the last weekend cleaning and painting the baseboards and some kitchen cabinets. Start to finish. And when all was said and done, and everything was painted and sparkling fresh, I was way less fulfilled than you'd think.
6. Read. Gloriously, indulgently satisfying. I promise you won't want to stop once you dig in (especially if you hunker down with a blanket, something to drink, and a fire if you have the ability).
7. Take a bath. Pretty self-explanatory. And you're probably overdue.
8. Color your nails. (No matter your gender.)
9. Make a fire. I may have referenced this earlier. Book or not, this is a good use of time.
10. Try new recipes. Brush up on those kitchen skills. Get creative. Feed your cravings. (It doesn't have to be great the first time. Few things are.)
11. Write a poem. Go ahead. No one needs to know. Unless its good. Then share it. Otherwise, keep trying.
12. Make popcorn. On the stove.
13. Watch the sunrise. (You can do this everyday!)
14. Listen to birds sing. They're pretty happy right now.
15. Stare awhile outside at things you never stop to watch.
16. Go to bed early. (This makes number 13 easier to do.)
17. Watch feel-good movies, like The Restoration with Robert Downey Jr. (You have the popcorn.) Just do it. You'll thank me.
18. Apply for new jobs.
19. Learn guitar.
20. Goof off. (Again.)
21. Practice Meditation.
22. Read more.
23. Eat cereal. For dinner if you want.
24. Wear pajamas all day. (You're probably already doing this.)
25. Get dressed up.
26. Hand write letters to people.
27. Tear up all the lists you made 3 weeks ago.
28. Go for a neighborhood walk. Wave to your neighbors. Say Hi.
30. Learn something new.
31. Re-watch your favorite movies. (You have more popcorn.)
32. Look at the sky.
33. Plant flowers.
Be well. Take care of yourselves. Check in on each other.
* * * *
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable.
There is a natural order to life. An in breath and an out breath, expansion and contraction. Everything in nature follows this rhythm. Including us.
The sun rises and sets. We wake and we sleep. The seasons open and close. The Moon fades and swells. The tides ebb and flow. The flowers rest in their swaddled layers and then unfold in their beauty.
The Earth is a sentient being. And she is far more intelligent and powerful than we are. We forget this too often.
There are a few things that attempt to live outside of this natural order. Our global economic system is one of them. Cancer is another.
Cancer grows until it is removed and killed or until it kills its host. Either way, its unnatural growth is short-lived.
You probably see where I’m going with this. Like cancer, global capitalism requires constant growth and feeding. And while it is not in danger of killing its larger host, planet Earth, it is in danger of killing its creator, us.
Music delights us because of the spaces between the notes.
Mother Earth knows more about music than we can imagine. After all, she created it. We only mimic and aspire to her talents.
It could be then, that the chaos and the shutdown caused by covid-19 are just the Earth asking us to take a breath. Reminding us who is actually running things.
I understand there are real casualties to this crisis. Businesses and lives included. It is also important to remember that there are real casualties to how we’ve been living, to our addictions to oil and consumer goods of all kinds. Casualties that include the health and wellness of ourselves and the planet. Casualties that could very well include the extinction of the human race. In that light, this could be just the kind of space between the notes we need. 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.
You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in. -poet David Whyte
David Whyte is one of my favorite poets. And this is one of my favorite lines written. It feels good to read. And when I read it, or think it, or say it to myself, it helps me to breathe easier.
But what does it mean, really? What is it to be free?
Harder than you might think to answer.
Is it to be physically free to move about the world? Is it to be mentally free to think whatever you want to think? Is it to be free from oppression of some kind? Or is it financial freedom to chase caprice where it leads you.
For me, one of the things it means is creative freedom. Meaning, freedom to be a full-time creative. Whether that is freedom because my art is self-sustaining or simply that I have the financial independence to be a full-time creative. Whatever the reason, the result is I am able to wake up and make coffee and create all day.
But how do any of us know what we would do with the kind of actual freedom we crave, if it suddenly dropped itself into our life’s lap? What if we accidentally squander it ?
Lake Tahoe. Photo Credit: Thomas Lloyd Qualls
Let me give you an example.
A few months back I was flying back to Reno from San Francisco, where I was working with a team at Stanford Law School on a U.S. Supreme Court case. (It’s a long story, maybe I’ll write about it later.)
I arrived at the airport early. Ludicrously early, to be honest. This happened because I don't like being late to catch a plane. I finished up with the team at Stanford earlier than planned and so I had a few hours to spare. I could have used that time to wander around the campus or any number of things really. But with the unpredictability of Bay Area traffic and the TSA, I thought it was better to just get to the airport. If I'm early, I reasoned, I'll be able to park somewhere and write. Maybe have a glass of wine.
Turns out, there was no traffic. And I have TSA Pre clearance. The result was I arrived at the terminal crazy early, with hours to spare. So this is the story of what I did with all the freedom I created by my early arrival:
(1) I made sure I knew where my gate was. As in I didn’t just trust the signs, but walked all the way to the terminal offshoot where it was, bypassing more than one perfectly good restaurant along the way, where I could have camped out until time to board my flight;
(2) Once I had a visual of my gate, I started looking around for just the perfect place to hang out for a couple of hours. As if that place exists in an airport. Everything is crowded and chaotic and there are typically marginal food and beverage choices. Undaunted by these generally known facts, I still wasted a fair amount of time looking at menus and weighing these imperfect options. Also, I did this even though I ate a late lunch on the Stanford campus and was not remotely hungry. Still, I wanted to have the option of a good snack, you know, just in case one glass turns into two;
(3) The wine bar where I want to sit is packed. So I opt for the pub across the corridor. I scan the menu and am pointed to a small two-top table. Which is good, because at a table there is a better chance I’ll actually write than if I’m at the bar.
I am approached by a waiter in a short amount of time and order a glass of Syrah. Feeling accomplished for no real reason, I pull out my laptop and open a piece on freedom I’ve been starting and stopping for a few weeks, fully prepared to make the most of my free time. Soon, though, the waiter appears again and tells me they are out of the Syrah. The right thing to do probably would be to get up and politely leave the pub. But instead, I calmly order a white wine instead;
(4) And now, of course, I’m distracted. I can't help but look longingly across the corridor and think I really should be sitting in the wine bar, drinking the red wine I really want. (In other words, the wine is always redder in the neighbor's bar.) Not that the wine should have much to do with what I'm doing – or not doing -- with my time. The point was to find a good place to write;
(5) Begrudgingly I sit and drink my (white) wine while I get very little actual writing done because I’m not really present at all but imagining some better situation I should be in, and meanwhile my waiter is nowhere to be seen should I actually make the decision to leave;
(6) And I sulk;
(7) And I try over and over to focus on the page and the words that are there or could be there if I just put forth a little more effort;
(8) But really, I can't stop thinking I should be somewhere else. Like maybe that place I passed on the other side of the terminal with calamari on the menu. Yes, calamari and a draft beer would’ve been a better choice;
(9) But somehow I don’t just get up and walk down there. I resolve to enjoy my glass, write where I am planted, and then pay the bill and then I’ll figure out where else to sit;
(10) Did I mention there's a guy at the next table talking way louder than necessary to the three people sitting right next to him? The one who seems not to understand that he is not in a gymnasium talking to a large crowd without a microphone (I seem to be at a table next to that guy far too often);
(11) Sitting next to the human megaphone makes focusing on writing way harder than it already was. Also, it turns out I really want that calamari;
(12) The silver lining is that he does provide the catalyst I need to actually relocate so I can finally focus (and have that calamari), and so I quickly finish my wine. And then I have to wait another painfully long time before I can catch my waiter's attention and hand him my credit card, with the universal sign of writing something in midair that means, please bring me my bill;
(13) Can we still use the word waiter? ;
(14) Once I pay and I am free to move about the airport cabin once more, I do something interesting. I don't go to the calamari place on the other end of the terminal after all. Instead I check out a deli nearby. I order a chocolate croissant and an Americano to chase it (and the wine). And I sit down to make the most of the rest of my airport freedom;
(15) And then I make another surprising decision. I don't pull out my laptop and work on the piece that is still open on the screen. Instead, I retrieve TheSun magazine from my backpack and start reading. And for a few moments, while I am intending to savor the chocolate croissant but mostly am just inhaling it in spite of myself, I am content. But of course, that doesn’t last long;
(16) I slow down and enjoy my coffee more than I did the croissant. But now bad music is following me all over the airport. Like there’s a channel called Every Song You’re Sure to Hate from the 80's. (No Howard Jones, no early U2 or REM, no iconic Madonna, not even Toto.);
(17) Eventually the music drives me out of the deli and into the purgatory of the open airport once more. It is here I realize I need to find a bathroom (I have downed a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, and a liter of water in pretty short order);
(18) After I take a nature break and find a station to refill my water bottle, I go read the board to check on my boarding status again (even though I can easily do this on my phone). And I finally resign myself to just sit in the waiting area and return to the piece I was trying to write;
(19) A few tortured sentences later it occurs to me that this somewhat absurd series of first-world-problem airport events fits nicely into the piece on freedom I am writing. And also why I ask myself: Is this what I would do with more freedom? Get stuck in these silly eddies of indecision?
I hope not. But part of me is afraid of the answer. There's a voice inside that likes to taunt me by implying that if I had the creative freedom I like to talk about, I would squander too much of it in this kind of neurotic paralysis. (The voice likes to bring up these kinds of things that are impossible to counter, because I’m not yet living in this imagined future to know what I would do.)
Snowy Woods. Photo credit: Thomas Lloyd Qualls
I remind the voice how much I have actually accomplished in my normal adult life with the very real world time constraints I do have, in spite of all of my flaws. And then I order a whiskey and get back to writing. Not really. But that was funny to say.
I guess my point is this: Authentic freedom is a little intoxicating. And a little bewildering if you are not used to having it.
It doesn’t really have much to do with what you would do with a couple extra hours in the airport. In fact, eddying out in two airport hours probably means you don’t have enough actual freedom in your life. And that’s why, if you find yourself with a small window of it, the pressure to spend it wisely could easily backfire. But the question still lingers out there: What does freedom actually look and feel like?
Here’s at least one good answer: Be who you truly are. (It is insane, after all, to think you could be anything else.)
If you have no idea who you truly are (or think you don’t), here’s another way to think about it: There are thoughts I know you think you have no right to think. You could not be more wrong about that. Those are the exact thoughts that will lead you where you want to be.
There are desires you have that you think are unreasonable, irresponsible, even impossible. They are not. These desires are the thread that will lead you out of the labyrinth of confusion and despair.
And, there are feelings you have that you think are only tiny pieces of life. They are not. With practice you can spend more and more time in the space of those feelings.
As far as I can tell, these things are what freedom look and feel like. Not how you spend two extra hours in an airport. Not what you may or may not do with a little more spare time.
Because maybe who you truly are actually needs to just fuck off in an airport for two hours in order to recalibrate your creative self and live your truest life. Actually I think that’s more like probably, not maybe.
I am going to continue to follow this thread. You are invited to come along with me if you want.
Until next time…take care of yourself and your world.
* * * *
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable.
His second novel, Painted Oxen, is available wherever books are sold.
The New Year is an imaginary line in the sand. Of course, all lines are imaginary lines in the sand. From national borders to your property boundaries, we made them all up. And yet, countless wars and endless litigation have been waged over those imaginary lines.
My point being, when thinking about the new year, why not go ahead and consider it a real line, but instead of cause for war or legal action, use that line for something good. And by good, I mean real change. And by change, I mean the way we think about life and our place in it.
Let me explain a little. Lately I’ve been reading little fragments of The Untethered Soul again. And that’s got me considering the idea of unconditional happiness once more. The question the author poses is essentially, Are you willing to be happy no matter what happens?
It is a harder question to answer than you might think at first glance. I mean, pretty much everyone wants to be happy, right? The crux is, most of us don’t really know what that means. What most people mean when they say they want to be happy is that they want everything in their lives to go the way they want. Pretty much everything. Pretty much all the time.
The problem with that is I don’t know a single person whose life is like that. Now I think it is a fair observation to note that life is objectively easier for some people than it is for others. I’m thinking along the lines of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here. If you have no food and no place to get out of the weather, self-actualization is not your primary concern. But before we let the mind take us on that tangent, let’s stick to the central tenet at issue.
We have equated getting what we want with happiness.
But happiness and how the events of our lives play out are not at all the same thing. There are two problems with this definition of happiness: (1) people who get everything they want are often the most miserable (think spoiled children or trust funders); and (2) there is generally no end to the things we want, and so the invisible line we must cross always stays several yards in front of us (think billionaires who continue chasing more and more money).
Nevertheless, under the common definition, people are willing to be happy so long as life meets their expectations for what they want. In other words, they want to be happy so long as everyone else in their lives acts exactly as they want them to at all times. Traffic is free-flowing, co-workers are congenial, boss is accommodating, paycheck is the right size, children are well-behaved, romantic partner is loving, kind, and supportive, their house, car and all electronic devices function properly, and everyone is healthy. All the time. Does this sound reasonable? Of course not. And yet these are the conditions almost all of us have placed upon happiness. When we say we want to be happy, what we really mean is that we want everything in our lives to be easy. But that is not the same thing as happiness.And it is virtually impossible to attain.
Happiness then must be something different from what we have imagined it to be.
And coming to terms with that is the place where we must begin if we really want to be happy. We must break a lifetime of conditioning and begin to separate our life events from our quest for happiness. Otherwise, happiness is likely not possible. It is like having a wrapped present that you refuse to unwrap because it is so pretty. Our idea of happiness is so pretty, we refuse to take off the wrapping of our expectations, and so we will never to get to what is on the other side.
One of the most interesting things I noticed about myself when I was reading about unconditional happiness was the amount of resistance I immediately had to it. I can’t possibly be happy no mater what! That’s too much to ask. But I couldn’t figure out what I was afraid of. Did I think agreeing to unconditional happiness somehow meant bad things would happen to me? Or maybe I thought it would invite bad things just to test me. Or maybe my left-brain just couldn’t find a box for this concept, because it goes against a lifetime of coding.
These thoughts are either the mind short-circuiting because it is not wired for this kind of thinking or the ego raging against its diminishment in your life. Either way, committing to unconditional happiness feels way scarier than it should.
If one day you wake up and just decide to be happy, in spite of what your day has in store, how could there be a downside to that? You are going to experience bumps, obstacles, and roadblocks on your life path, no matter what. The only difference your decision to be happy makes is that these life experiences need not be frustrating, anger-inducing, or devastating. Your decision means only that you get to have peace of mind along the way. And yet, most of us will still resist the decision to be happy. Doesn’t that seem crazy?
Yes, it seems crazy. But that doesn’t change the reality of it, does it? So how do we mere mortals overcome our resistance to this idea? Here’s where I get back to the beginning of this thread and the concept of imaginary lines.
When I read The Untethered Soul -- or Eckhart Tolle or one of any number of such purveyors of this kind of life wisdom -- I feel like I am looking at a picture of a beautiful mountain that I’ll never be able to climb. Why is that? Why does my mind tell me that this may work for other people, but I will never be able to choose to be happy?
I think it is because unhappiness is like an addiction. And we are really reluctant to give up that next hit. (Likely only seconds away.) And maybe that is at least partly because we are also addicted to our ideas of ourselves, our identities. And our ideas about ourselves are tied up in the story we tell ourselves daily, virtually nonstop. That story involves unhappiness. And without unhappiness, who are we?
Here’s how choosing happiness and starting a new year are the same. They are both imaginary lines in the sand. And they are both opportunities to experience life in a new way. But we have to be willing to hang up our old coats, so to speak, and to put on something new. Or as Joseph Campbell taught us:
We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. Now, maybe that new way of life looks like jumping with both feet into a commitment to unconditional happiness. Or maybe it isn’t that drastic. Maybe you give yourself some room to grow into that kind of thing. But the point is you treat whatever decision you make as an invisible line in the sand. And you move forward. You buy yourself a fresh journal and begin to write a new story for yourself. Is it an imaginary line? Sure. But only in the beginning.
Once you begin to live this new story, something magic happens. It becomes real. And that feels like something even mere mortals like you and me can manage to do.
I should start by saying that I’m not someone prone to writer’s block. In general, I have more ideas than I know what to do with. And more words wanting to get out of my head and onto the paper (or you know, screen) than I generally have time to lead them there. Even as I scribble out this confession, I have no shortage of creative projects on my metaphoric plate. Still, if I’m honest with you (and myself), I’ve been having a little trouble lately, well, writing. That’s not exactly true. The real truth is I’m having a truckload of trouble writing. I simply can’t seem to usher the words anywhere near to where they need to go. And even when I do, I find myself looking around the room for whoever wrote the banal scratch I’m staring at. And then, more often than not, I close my notebook and go on with my day as if the very world itself were not collapsing around me.
Now, for most people, that would be enough. But actually the terror does not end there. At the same time that I’m engaged in this mortal struggle with words, I’m also slightly out of my depth on several other projects: (1) researching a highly technical subject I know almost nothing about for my next novel; (2) working on material for a non-fiction book and companion workshop; and (3) developing a multi-faceted podcast series. Also, I’m still working on publicity for Painted Oxen (my second novel that was released in April of this year). And when I’m not doing one of these stretching exercises, I’m probably watching a master class to evolve my craft, researching the hundreds of things I still don’t know about marketing and audience-building, or falling down the rabbit hole of social media. Oh yeah, I’ve also got a law practice to run and a bright ten year old boy who stays up nights thinking of ways to keep me on my toes. As you might guess, on any given day I can find myself feeling less than competent about any or all of these components. And really, all the advice out there on life hacking doesn’t help. Those seemingly innocuous self-help bites just reinforce the feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing. The sheer volume of this stuff out there can make any of us feel like we’re the only ones who don’t have things figured out.
Admittedly, writing is not like most other jobs. It is prone to a unique kind of frustration. Not the least of which is that there have never been any guarantees that the ideas or the words or your focus will all show up when they are supposed to, in any kind of meaningful order. But that is also what makes writing kind of magical. The thing I’m starting to believe is that the harder I try to make any of these things happen, the more I chase the fickle cats of progress or achievement or impact, the more I think I really need to do or be some thing, the more these things become water between my fingers. There seems to be an inverse magnetic effect. But I find that when I loosen my grip a little, things start to shift. When I practice walking, instead of just getting somewhere, then the view expands. And what appears on the horizon as I wander these tangled narrow paths of living a creative life is one that looks more like a hidden meadow, a place where the trees that surround it offer quiet shade and the grass wants nothing more than for me to just come lie down. And so I am slowly learning to walk without expectation of where I am going to arrive. And to realize how many unnecessary things I’ve been carrying on this long journey. And to set them down.
A candle burns in the darkness of the small room, melting wax abandoning its safe purchase and falling down the bending sides of what once was a knowable and dependable form.
You stand at a rough workbench, your labors exposed only through the faint glow of its flickering revelations. Your fingers are stained and scorched, your sleeves pushed up beyond your elbows. Stones and flints, shavings and sparkling fragments lay scattered before you. There are containers of clear and dark liquids, a measuring device, and a notebook open to a page of scribbles and drawings.
Your quest is an ancient one. To change the nature of matter, to harness the power of the elements in the dance of creation, to create perfection from imperfection, to steal fire from the gods.
Gold is valued not only for its luminous appearance but also because of its transitional nature, which we do not fully understand. It is both trivalent and univalent. In other words, it walks in many worlds, effortlessly crossing barriers. It represents transformation, eternity, perfection. One who knows the secrets of gold holds the keys to the human heart. One who masters the alchemy of gold, unlocks the mysteries of the universe.
You bend over the table, the mandala of colors before you, your hands holding the elements, your mind focused on harmonics, your ears trained to the language of the stars, your spirit tuned to the oneness of all things. Time sputters and slows, bending to match your rhythm.
The above is an excerpt from the new novel Painted Oxen. The dream vignettes that serve as connective tissue for the stories of the two travelers are titled Praeda, which means stolen goods. This is because we must smuggle our dreams into the waking world.
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Painted Oxen is available wherever books are sold.
I stare up into the heavens in utter amazement. At the dramatic beauty of the blue-black sky that acts as a backdrop for the swollen moon, and—despite the brilliant moonlight—more stars than I've ever seen in my life. Okay, except for that time I did acid in the desert. I am miles from the nearest city and that city is many miles from anything else. This distance gives me space, not just to see the world with more clarity, but to imagine a place for me in it.
-from the novel Painted Oxen
Recently I was given the opportunity to launch my new novel in an iconic place filled with people I love. Sundance Books & Music hosted the event on Saturday, April 6, 2019, in the historic Levy House on California Avenue.
I sat at the author’s table and watched as people spilled over from the main room into several surrounding spaces, including the stairs. And I knew for that moment this was some place I belonged.
But I know for most of us, most of life is not like that. I have written a bit about belonging. About our universal need for it. And the fallout of feeling like we don’t.
It’s this feeling, I believe, that is the genesis of most of the hero’s journeys in the world. So if you are feeling like there is no place for you, I have an idea. The amazing Anthony Moore preserved the event in video for me and I am posting it here to share with you. Take a break, grab some popcorn, and enjoy this prelude to the journey you will take when you read the novel Painted Oxen: https://youtu.be/5wf6NwivIXs
It is a journey back home and back to yourself. It is a journey to a place for you. Enjoy.
“This is a different kind of book. One that not only invites you to come along for its journey, but to participate in its story. There are places in these pages you have forgotten exist. It is time to remember."
This is the introduction to the new novel Painted Oxen. The novel is being released by Homebound Publications on April 02, 2019.
The official book launch happens April 06, 2019, at 2pm at Sundance Books & Music in Reno, NV.
Painted Oxen is the story of two men, one young and one old, on pilgrimages that are separated by distance and centuries, yet mysteriously connected through a dream world that reaches across time and dimension.
The stories are equal parts internal and external.
There are four winds, four elements, and four seasons. In this spirit, the novel is arranged in sets of four. Two of the four parts are the stories of the travelers, titled Scylla and Charybdis, after the dual perils faced by Homer’s Odysseus.
The third part is a series of dreams. Presented as fragments of interrelated stories, these visually lush vignettes act as connective tissue for the two main stories. Because we must smuggle our dreams into the waking world, these chapters are titled Praeda, which means stolen goods.
The tales of the two pilgrims, together with the dream stories, make up a trinity of vignettes. Each of these trinities carries a theme, introduced to the reader by a character from the 22 major arcana of the Tarot -- a deck of cards that dates back to at least the 15th Century -- thus creating the fourth dimension and squaring the set.
One of these 22 cards is the Fool. Like our two protagonists, the Fool must leave the safety of his home in order to embark upon the journey of Life. Likewise, each Tarot card represents a stage in life that we must pass through on our journey to the Sacred Mountain.
The novel is about the two travelers. But reading it you will discover it is also about you.
As I mentioned, this is a different kind of book. If you accept its invitation, you must understand that -- like the characters in these pages -- you will find yourself transformed by its end.