ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
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 ?
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 The Sun 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.)
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.
You can find it here:
Some Thoughts on The New Year
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.
Or What To Do When The Words Won't Come.
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.
* * * *
Painted Oxen is available wherever books are sold.
Here are two places you can find it:
* If you read it and love it, no matter where you buy it, please write a few sentences in review of the novel on Amazon.com. Thank you.
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.
Begin the journey.
Or if you are local, go by Sundance Books & Music (121 California Avenue) and pick up a signed copy!
* * * *
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable. His second novel, Painted Oxen, was released on April 02, 2019.
“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.
Begin the journey.
* * * *
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable.
His second novel, Painted Oxen, is released on April 02, 2019.
“At one time or another we are all called to leave the safety of our homes, the certainty of what we know, the illusions of who we are. Not everyone will heed this call, of course. And those who do will risk losing themselves completely. But if we choose to ignore the invitation, we risk never knowing who we might have become.”
Those are words from my new novel Painted Oxen, a story about two men who embark on personal journeys that are separated by mountain ranges and several centuries. And yet their pilgrimages are somehow connected through a dream world that reaches across time and dimension.
One of the travelers is an older monk in ancient Tibet seeking a hidden valley that is said to bring enlightenment upon entering. The other is a young man backpacking in modern-day India, seeking a guru, the love of his life, or just a transformative dose of psychedelics.
Both men encounter adventures, dangers, and delights in the physical world. But their journeys are equal parts internal and external. The truth is anytime you go on a physical adventure there is also an inward journey that occurs. And it is often the inward journey that is most substantial.
* * * *
You may not have trekked in the Himalayas. Or endured ocean-crossing flights and endless train rides to wander strange lands in search of yourself or something else. But I know you have embarked on other kinds of journeys, big or small. You have left the safety of what you know and stepped out into uncertainty of some kind.
Maybe it was kindergarten. Maybe it was your first job. Your first date. Your first kiss. Your first apartment. Getting married. Having a child. Whatever it is, you know something of the hero’s journey.
Though it is possible you haven’t taken the first step on the most essential one yet. The one in search of your own Sacred Mountain.
The heart of the novel Painted Oxen is that at some point in our lives, we all have to leave our home in order to find the Sacred Mountain. And one of the things we discover is that our home is that the Sacred Mountain is our home. So every journey is really a journey home, a journey to ourselves.
The hero’s journey is an ageless story. One that continues to remind us who we are. And one we each have an opportunity to write.
Painted Oxen is one of those stories. It is also a kind of compass to help us find our way back to ourselves. And back to each other.
If you haven’t set out on your own hero’s journey yet, let Painted Oxen be your invitation. Now is always the time.
Begin the journey.
* * * *
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable.
Join him for the launch of his new novel Painted Oxen, on Saturday, April 6, at 2pm. Sundance Books & Music, 121 California Avenue, Reno, NV 89509.
Our human history is filled with stories of all kinds. But those that stand out most are the tales of heroes. Fantastic journeys filled with courage and adventure. Stories that sometimes inspire our own acts of bravery or pilgrimages of self-actualization.
But the hero’s journey is not a rare as you might think. The truth is, we all tell stories with our lives. And we are the heroes in all of them.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a few thousand years.
The Greeks were fabled storytellers. According to Greek myth, on the island of Crete there was a fabled labyrinth that was the home of a great monster called the Minotaur.
The labyrinth was known to be unnavigable. And anyone who entered would inevitably be eaten by the Minotaur when they couldn’t find a way out. Theseus volunteered to do what had never been done, to successfully navigate the labyrinth and kill the Minotaur who lived at its center.
Princess Ariadne befriended Theseus on his way to his questionable fate, and she gave him a ball of red thread to help him find his way out of the labyrinth.
Theseus tied one end of the thread to the entrance of the labyrinth and then was able to follow it back out later, after he killed the Minotaur. (Which apparently was barely difficult enough to mention, compared to the deadly maze.)
Both Ariadne’s and Theseus’s stories are examples of the hero’s journey. Your story, too, is a hero’s journey. Whether you know it or not right now. Because that’s what everyone’s really is. We are all on the hero’s journey.
And everyone is looking for the Ariadne thread. But the truth is the thread is everywhere, and it connects everything and everyone. You just have to pick it up somewhere and start following where it leads.
This is one of the themes of my new novel, Painted Oxen. Everything is connected. We all carry the thread. And that thread is ancient. The hero’s story is ancient. Your DNA is ancient, and it holds countless stories that must be unraveled.
The thread is everywhere. Reach down and pick it up. From anywhere. And follow it. Just start walking.
Let the adventure show you where you need to be. Let the thread take you to who you are supposed to meet. And then start to tell a new story of your own.
If you want to pick up the thread that starts with Painted Oxen, you can follow one of the links below to order the novel. Go ahead. Begin the journey.
See you out there.
(lead photo by Julian Mora @ unsplash)
I don’t know how I have done it so far. Sewn together the pieces and kept them from falling apart. In the wash, on the line, tumbling down the street, being trampled underfoot.
There’s no quantifiable reason for it. I’m not all that suited for doing the things people are willing to pay for these days. I can’t write code. Or build a house. Or make erection pills.
Mostly I like to write. Which seems to be one of the things many people are less willing to pay for these days. My dream life looks like waking up in the morning, making coffee and writing. And somehow having all the money I need to pay the bills and do more than just live.
I have a couple of degrees that should mean something. The State of Nevada says it is ok for me to practice law. And so I have done that. And I’ve helped a few people along the way. But I don’t really like the idea of wearing a suit everyday or working someplace where I don’t get to choose my clients. And so the paychecks are not always so regular where I work. And I have to create a benefit if I want it.
In theory the life I’ve created affords me flexibility, creativity, autonomy, even the ability to make a lot of money. In reality, I get to show up in flip flops some days and take lunch when I want, but I don’t take very many vacations, and I am often wondering how I’m going to pay for that which must be paid.
Also, I might mention it is possible my brain doesn’t always work right. I don’t know how common this is. Maybe yours does. Maybe you are able to just do what needs to be done every day, to stay motivated and inspired, meet your deadlines, follow the rules, feed your 401K, exercise, pick up the dry cleaning and the groceries, get the kids when and where they need to be, not drink too much along the way, and get enough sleep.
More and more, I find myself half-heartedly reaching for a glass ball in mid-swan drive.
If I could stop what I’m doing long enough to come up with a different game plan than the one I’ve been running for season after season, I might do that. If I could just find the clarity to draft it. And the time to execute it. And the will to see it through.
In all this time, I have managed to do a few things. I mentioned those two degrees. And I passed the state bar. And I’ve gotten two people off death row. And helped a handful of others turn their lives around.
I’m sure there are other things I’ve done along the way.But there are days where I have no idea how I’ve done this. Because I feel utterly incapable of being an adult.
And then things like this happen: After I dropped my son off for school this morning, while driving down a crowded street in morning commute traffic, I cried in my car. I was triggered by something as small as a cover of Sweet Child O’ Mine.
Sure, I did acid at a Guns n’ Roses show once (several lifetimes ago). But that wasn’t why I cried. (I’m pretty sure, anyway.) And it wasn’t nostalgia or longing for those carefree days. Just something about the woman’s voice covering the song pierced whatever feeble armor I wear and got me right in the heart before I could catch myself.
What kind of a warrior is that? What kind of battle would I ever be suited for if a simple song on my morning commute turns me into a river in flood.
Also, there is a terrible person who lives inside me. That person does things like yell at my son sometimes. Ok, almost daily. Sure, he’s kind of a nightmare to parent. But he is also an amazing human being, with endless curiosity, creativity, generosity, and independence of spirit and thought. His brightness fills whatever room he is in. But it also has a tendency to blind you if you are trying to corral it in any way.
Maybe I’m just jealous of him. Because he’s the one who gets to be the child now. The one who does whatever he wants. The one who is not bound by the illusion of time. Who gets to live in a different realm altogether. While meanwhile it feels like I have become a slave to the clock, the calendar, the bank, and more fears than I once knew existed.
But I think what I want – what we all really want — is to finally wake up from this condition. We want to believe the books we read, the classes we take, the healers we seek out. We want to believe the life hacks we glean from all the podcasts we listen to while driving between points A and B.
We want to feel alive again.
But also, we know that in order to feel alive again, we are going to have to actually feel. And that really terrifies some of us. Because in this brave new world of bigger, faster, more, we are afraid that those things called feelings are likely to cause us to walk through each day hit by one Sweet Child O’ Mine after another and be utterly unable to function. And that seems like a pretty crappy trade-off, frankly.
Until you take a step or two back and (like the masters say) become the one who notices the feeling. The same way you would notice a spring flower if you were paying attention. Or a storm cloud, or a snow flurry, or a rainbow.
A feeling is just like a dream monster. The more you’re afraid of it, the more it will haunt you. The only thing to do is to turn around and look it in the eye. Shake its hand, invite it to sit down for tea (or whiskey). Then ask it why it has come, what it wants to tell you.
Because whether you are trying not to feel anything or trying to feel alive, both are pointless. The feelings will find you. The more you are trying not to feel, trying to ignore them, the bigger they will have to be to get your attention. And trying to feel alive is like trying not to think. Both are impossible.
The only thing you can be is open and patient. The only thing you can do is make space for them. Set an extra place for synchronicity at the table. Without fear. Without expectation.
Feelings are kind of like cats. They’ll come when they’re ready. They’ll rub against your leg for a minute, let you touch them. And pretty soon they’ll be ready to go back outside. But if you ignore them, look out. You have to sleep sometime.
Holy shit, it is 2018. And I haven’t written anything for my alchemy of words blog in a really, really long time. Forgive me, I’ve been working on a bunch of other things. Really. Namely, shopping around my second novel, Painted Oxen, and working on other avenues of platform-building and tribe-gathering.
Also, last year was a tough one for me, like I know it was for many of you. First there was the perpetual disappointment of the political news, with its daily heartbreak and outrage and no time to recover before the next day’s atrocity was splattered on the sidewalk in front of us.
There were also numerous creative disappointments in my life. In the last year or more, my second novel was either rejected or ignored by approximately 40 literary agents and at least a dozen small publishers. A video project I had nurtured for more than a year and was co-developing for television lost its momentum and fell apart. A substantial funding proposal for my son’s wonderful little school — that I worked on for nearly a year — has also gone unanswered. And I decided to take a break from my monthly essay column in Reno Tahoe Tonight Magazine – a bridge that kept me connected to you every month for the last 6 years.
And so, truthfully, I find myself at the beginning of 2018 a little bit lost. The blank page can be a bit terrifying. I know what I need to do, break out the colors and start painting my new year. Otherwise, instead of living into the year I’ve created, the year will just happen to me. And it may not look anything like I want.
A new year always gives us the opportunity to hit the giant reset button. We’re supposed to be excited about wiping the slate clean and starting fresh. But I can’t seem to get rid of the virtual hangover from the mess that was the last twelve months. So instead of eagerly reaching for the metaphoric paints and brushes, I’m doubting myself, my voice, and my creative vision.
I’m not saying that so you’ll break out the streamers for my pity party. I know it happens to most of us from time to time. I’m just saying that’s my jump-off point for 2018. So, what to do from here?
The one point of clarity I have is that I need to remix my world. And though I’m not sure of all the sounds and colors yet, it will look something like this: (1) Write more, whether I share it or not; (2) Find a vehicle to bring Painted Oxen to life for you, even if it looks like self-publishing; (3) Build my tribe; (4) Stop talking and reading about mindfulness and start living it; (5) Stop doing the same thing every day and expecting a different result; and (6) Make the choice to be happy. Every day.
And yes, I am not there right now. And I could have waited to write this until I was there. But that wouldn’t help those of you in the same place as me right now. Our words are bridges to each other. And I want to continue to build those bridges.
Those of you who wish to join me, let’s resolve to remember this: The world is a messy place. A sometimes dark and daunting place. And we will all sometimes feel like giving up is all there is left to do. But just don’t. Remember that the world is also beautiful, and kind, and sublime. Even if we can’t see or feel or believe any of those things. Just know that it is.
Have the courage to sit down at the blank page, the white canvas, the lump of clay. Be brave enough to spill some ink on the paper, to touch the brush to the canvas, to get your hands in that messy clay. And to just keep doing it, no matter what happens at first. If you show up often enough, your world will start to change. Because you will start to change.
I invite you to join me. And like the great man said, let’s be the change.