ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
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.
Come on. You know you want to.
So what’s keeping you from it? Is it insecurity, self-loathing, shyness? Let it go. Do you actually still believe that there are people out there who deserve wealth, happiness, and good health more than you? Of course not.
Or wait. Maybe you do. Maybe this is like other universal rules we ignore, like aging. We all have a tendency to think they don’t apply to us. We see people around us getting older, getting stuck in ruts, making the same life mistakes. But we are genuinely shocked when we spot those grey hairs on our own heads, and surprised every time we have to turn another page on the calendar. Really, already?
Guess what, the rules of abundance are no different. They apply to all of us. Of course, you know I hesitate to use the word abundance, heavy as it is these days with the weight of pseudo-spiritual babble. But if you bother to look it up, one of the words used to define abundance is “fullness.” And that, after all, is what life is. Full.
I’m talking to you. Yes, you.
I saw you skimming through the beginning of this article, trying to convince yourself I was talking to someone else. Well, I’m not. I’m talking to you. So stop whatever else you’re doing, take a break, sit down and pay attention. Get a coffee if you need, or a glass of water, I’ll wait.
Here’s my point, if you are reading this, then that one-word topic at the top of the page has to do with you. Because that is how the world works. We come to things when it is our time. And if the thing is right in front of you, it’s your time.
Speaking of time, I want you to take some of it right now to think about what real thriving could look like in your life. I don’t mean the kind of thinking where your mind wanders aimlessly, like when you try to meditate. Or when you’re waiting in line at the DMV. Or when you’re supposed to be listening to someone, but you aren’t, you’re thinking about three other things. I mean for you to really set your brain on this question. And then ask why your life doesn’t exactly look like that.
Don’t ignore the answer.
You must find the courage to look that answer in the face, just like you would a dream monster, in your most lucid act of dreamworld courage. Because — and get ready, this is the aha moment — that answer is the key to the door you’ve been seeking for at least half your life.
I know, that sounds dramatic. But it’s also true.
Alright, so we’re only 500 words into this piece, and already that’s a lot to chew. Stay with me, though. If you want, feel free to grab a quick snack, something to dip in your coffee, maybe. But, come right back. Actually, just carry this with you.
So you’ve got the answer to both what it would look like to be fully thriving and why you’re not. Now, you know what? You’ve actually got to do something about it.
And I don’t mean do something like remember to put it on one of your countless lists of things that silently threaten to plague you for eternity. I mean do something. Anything. One small thing.
And keep doing it. Every day until you are actually finally living on that planet called thrive. And then keep doing it.
Now, tell someone else.
Sure, lots of people may read this. The secret to planet thrive, though, is that more is better. (And as my friend Kay says, better is good.). So, don’t keep it to yourself. Spread the word. Invite more people to the party.
Because the more people thrive, the more the world thrives. And the more permission is spread around for others just like you to figure out their own secret to living a ridiculously full and happy life.
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable. (He’s also an occasional painter, videographer, bike rider, foot massager, and sometimes salvager of troubled lives.) The condition manifests itself in different ways: novelist, essayist, poet, compulsive note-taker. He manages his condition, in part, by regular contributions to Reno Tahoe Tonight Magazine and to the borderless virtual tribe known as the Rebelle Society.
He knows that people are shy when it comes to talking to artists and telling them what they think of their work. But please, get over that. He really wants to hear from you. Really, you. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Friend him, follow him, or just invite him out for a beer.
Waking Up at Rembrandt’s, his debut novel, has received local and national critical acclaim. The second edition of the novel is now available in print (think of vinyl, only for books) and on multiple e-version platforms. (If you want to stop what you’re doing and buy it right now, go ahead. We’ll wait for you.) But please come right back, there’s plenty of other good stuff in this magazine.
If you are interested in reading more from the author, there’s a new book of poetry entitled love jaywalks, available all over the internets in ebook format. Still to come: a collection of essays, some new paintings and a second novel, painted oxen, due out just as soon as all the words finish lining up. (He promises to keep herding, however long it takes.) In the meantime, feel free to stop by his website whenever you like. You can subscribe to his online journal, alchemy of words, while you’re there. www.tlqonline.com
* a version of this essay appear in Reno Tahoe Tonight Magazine
Go on. Wrestle that angel.
Lean into her with your whole self. Wrap your arms around and press your torso to hers. Dig in with your heels and feel her weight pressing back. Hold on tight to her arms, her ribs, the curve of her hips, anywhere you can find purchase. Feel her electric pulse course through you. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Don’t let go too soon.
Our struggles are not curses. They are not mythical demons or punishments for our sins. They are not troubles to be wished away, not obstacles to avoid. There is not another, safer path we should have taken. They are gifts. The trouble is we are conditioned to believe that gifts are only things that come in boxes with wrapping paper and bows. (Or these days, in the last-minute three-dollar bag with colored tissue paper stuffed in the top.)
We’re not used to gifts looking like a dark room with furniture we can’t see. Let alone a gift looking like our own darkness. Hell, we’re not even used to acknowledging our own darkness. Other people’s, sure. We’re like forest rangers with binoculars on lookout towers when it comes to spotting (and calling out) anyone else’s shadow. With any hint of our own shadows tucked up neat and tidy underneath us as we lounge in the brightness of our perpetual high noon. Only rainbows, unicorns, and smiley faces here.
Here’s the thing. We’re humans. We’re not angels, seraphim, or saints. We’re not even ascended beings. (If you are actually an ascended being, my apologies.) Which means we don’t generally spend our days floating around on clouds, wrapped in unearthly light, singing with voices like gelato (real Italian gelato, I mean), possessing all divine knowledge, and carrying tiny messages of truth to the besotted masses.
As humans, we’re possessed of just enough wit to want to know what the angels are talking about, but not quite enough to actually understand them. (You can see why we’d want to wrestle them. They piss us off.) If it feels like this is an unfair situation, that’s because it is. And if you think about it, no one promised us anything about life being fair. (Seriously, look on the back of your ticket if you don’t believe me.) Life is an enter-at-your-own-risk event.
So, how again are these things supposed to be gifts? Let me explain. There is a single mobile game app from Japan, Puzzle & Dragons, that grosses up to $75 million a month. The worldwide video game industry grossed over $93 billion last year. What this means is that, while we complain constantly about the riddles of our real lives, we are perfectly willing to spend hard earned cash, and lots of it, to solve make-believe problems. Or at least to blow them up.
Let me say it another way.
You know how, whenever you are part of any given organization — be it your job, your math club, or your cult — someone will eventually decide the thing that will make this group more cohesive is a ropes course? Before it became kind of a cliché, a ropes course was actually a good idea. It allows people to face their fears and to transcend them, generally with the support and encouragement of other humans who are there to face their own demons. The challenges are physical and emotional. And overcoming them provides self-assurance and an opportunity to bond with others.
Life’s kind of like that. We don’t think of it that way, because life is something we do every day all day, not just once, or once every few years. Whenever I have traveled in my life, I wake up every morning excited to face the unknown adventures that await me. When I am back to my daily routines, I strive to remember that I can greet every day just like this. I don’t have to be in another city or country to find adventure or to be excited about my day.
Whether we admit it or not, we like puzzles. We like to be challenged. And not just on the screen. If you think about it, life would probably not be worth living if all the streets were flat, the weather was always perfect, our kids were always well behaved, our thoughts were never troubled, and we had all the money we could ever spend. Wait a second, that actually sounds pretty damn good. Forget all that other stuff I said.
While it’s tempting to think that a life of nothing but ease would be nothing but grand, this is flawed thinking. The only reason we know anything about ourselves is because we’ve had to figure it out. Stop me if I’ve said this before, but how many of us have known trustafarians who are pretty screwed up. Probably everyone. Though it may sound like a good idea, saving your children from certain hardships, setting them up so they’ll never have to work to make a place for themselves in the world is not really doing them any favors.
So give yourself permission to grapple. It’s okay that we don’t have everything figured out. It’s okay that we walk around daily bearing the weight of these small worlds. That our minds are constantly working on these puzzles in the background. That these angels we wrestle make guest appearances in our dreams, our work lives, our arguments with friends and lovers, our endless conversations with ourselves.
We were born to wrestle. It’s part of our DNA. And history tells us the angels know how to lose. So go on. Lean in.
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable. He manages his condition, in part, by regular contributions to Reno Tahoe Tonight Magazine and to the borderless virtual tribe known as Rebelle Society. He’s also a novelist, essayist, videographer, painter, bike rider, and sometimes salvager of troubled lives.
Feel free to friend him, follow him, or just invite him out for a beer. Or, you could also go buy one of his books. Remember a book is a really great piece of art that invites you to participate in its creation.
Waking Up at Rembrandt’s, his debut novel, has received local and national critical acclaim. The second edition of the novel is available in print (think of vinyl, only for books) and on multiple e-version platforms. There’s also a book of poetry, love jaywalks, available everywhere ebooks are sold. Still on the horizon: a collection of essays, some new paintings, and a second novel, painted oxen, due out just as soon as all the words finish lining up. In the meantime, you can visit his website whenever you like.
Remember your dreams and fight for them.
Most of us walk around in a quasi-coma state of being. We’re numbed up and dumbed down. We’ve been programmed by society, school, law enforcement, advertising, and social opinion to act a certain way. And that way looks a lot like milktoast.
Somehow our dreams and aspirations for personal greatness got blended in with the rules of do and don’t for the common good. And then the batter was thrown into the oven to make a cake for the masses to eat. The result is a life that looks nothing like you thought it would.
Thoreau called it quiet desperation.
Fight back? But I’m a pacifist, you say. Great. A pacifist is one who believes war and violence are unjustifiable. And since that’s not at all what I’m talking about, you should be fine. Nothing I’m saying should land you in handcuffs. (Unless they’re velvet-lined and you’re into that.)
I’m talking about taking down those questions you long ago put on a shelf. About reminding yourself why you are and what you’re about. About remembering your childhood curiosities and tracking their scent to your better self.
I’m talking about finding your way out.
Now that you know how to dig deeper, you must also discover how to dig your way out. And I’m here to tell you that you can. Yes, it looks like a long way to the top. Yes, you’ve been down here so long your eyes have adjusted to the (lack of) light. Yes, your muscles have atrophied a bit. Yes, it will be worth the effort.
The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses…long before I dance under those lights.
We are constantly being asked to take up someone else’s fight. Our employers, our country’s, and those of our friends and loved ones. In this interconnected world, more and more we’re asked to fight the fights of people we don’t even know. And I am not here to tell you whether any or all of those are worthwhile. But the most important fight you can choose is the one that ends with you living the life you came here to live.
In big and small ways, along the path of so-called adulthood, we’ve each let go of so much. We’ve cut loose parts of our lives that are as essential to us as air and water. The saddest part is that we’ve traded it all for the cereal prize of an official Grown-Up merit badge.
And we’re constantly being told what a smart trade that was.
To fight your own fight, the first step is to take a good look around you. Take stock of where you are, what you have, and how you spend your days. As the poet John O’Donohue reminded us, your life becomes the shape of your days. Next you have to figure out where you want to be. And if you’re one of the lucky ones who already knows, well, then you need to say it out loud. Somewhere that you can hear it.
You’ve got to invoke its presence.
After you’ve dared to speak its name, guess what, you’ve actually got to put on the gloves and get in the ring. And fighting your way back to you might take some time. There are no shortcuts. It’s taken you a while to hide you from yourself as well as you have. Becoming you again involves creating a day to day habit of being the best you that you can be. And we’re definitely not used to that.
I know, that sounds like a lot of pressure. It’s okay to admit. With rare exception, we’re not really supposed to be the best we can be. Unless that best that we’re being looks like a law-abiding, tax-paying, perfect-children raising, level-emotions having, gap-fill-volunteer doing, almost constantly-consuming, take-what-you’re-given-and-don’t-complain type barely-human.
Don’t fight forces, use them.
Now that I’ve gone on and on about how much you need to fight the forces, inside and out, that conspire to keep your heart at bay, I’m going to throw a literary wrench into the grinding machinery of your brain. That’s right. To really master this thing I’m talking about, this being the you that you dream to be thing, you’ve got to get in touch with your inner tai chi master.
And to do that, all you really need to do is to get out of your own way. To set down all the have-to, supposed-to, ought-to, need-to mentalities you’ve been packing around and simply be who you are.
Everyday all the time.
That’s not much, I know, just everything. The trick that no one tells you, though, is that it’s much easier than it sounds. All you’ve got to do is sidestep the forces of sabotage and let their own momentum drop them to the ground. Don’t worry that you’ve never practiced tai chi. Once you set down all that other stuff you’re supposed to be instead of you, you’re going to be a hell of a lot lighter on your feet. It’s as easy as: Dream. Do. Be.
Go. Fight. Win.
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable. He manages his condition, in part, by regular contributions to Reno Tahoe Tonight Magazine and to the borderless virtual tribe known as Rebelle Society. He also finds it helpful to talk with other humans. Feel free to friend him, follow him, or just invite him out for a beer.
His debut novel, Waking Up at Rembrandt’s, has received local and national critical acclaim. The second edition of the novel is available in print (think of vinyl, only for books) and on multiple e-version platforms. There’s also a book of poetry, love jaywalks, available everywhere ebooks are sold. On the horizon: a collection of essays, some new paintings, and a second novel, painted oxen, due out just as soon as all the words finish lining up. In the meantime, feel free to visit his website whenever you like. There’s more stuff there. www.tlqonline.com.
I’m not sure what you’re waiting for. But let me give you permission. It’s been said, you know. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. It’s happening right now. And now. And now. And it’ll keep on happening until, well, it doesn’t. (I’m not actually sure that’ll ever happen. And if it does, we won’t be here to know.)
As Steve Jobs famously reminded us, we’re all dying and we’re all going to die. So why not do what you want to with your life. I mean, imagine how silly we’re all going to feel years later and wiser when we look back and say, I stayed there for how long?
You know that perfect time you are anticipating. (When you graduate, when the kids are grown, when the bank holds more of your money, when you make that promotion, when you pay off the credit cards, when you lose 10 pounds, when you have more time.) The truth is that time is never going to get any closer than it is. Why. Because it’s already here. And here.
Go on, kiss the girl, write the book, form the band, go out on your own, test drive the car, study the language, save the money, use the passport, take the pictures, paint the canvas, buy the poetry, lace up the running shoes, pump up the tires, paint the walls, plant the flowers, grow the vegetables, try downward dog, sign up for dance class, have a child, say Hi, show up.
Whatever it is that you think you can do, Goethe told us, begin.
Your big bank. Your heart-break. Your prejudices. Your anger. Your toxic attitude. Your toxic job. Your toxic relationship. Your stress. Your old ways of doing things. Your self sabotage. Your bad habits. Your clothes you haven’t worn for years. Your fear of the unknown.
Because less is more. And almost everything is inessential. Let me say that again, because it is so entirely counter-everything we are sold in modern life: Almost everything is inessential. Most of all your reluctance to do x, y, or z. Yes, that, most of all. Let it go. Flush it down. Take it out. Recycle it. Compost it. Post it on craigslist. Stack it on the curb. Hang a sign on it. Burn it. Break up with it and change your number.
What is essential is invisible to the eye.
-Antoine de Saint Exupéry
We carry around entirely too much in our days. Like the term baggage, our phones are now great metaphors. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007. In less than eight years, most of the planet cannot function without it or some imitation. Being anywhere without our phones, including the restroom, is cause for panic. A casual glance inside any café or coffee house proves that it is our phones that control our lives and not the other way around. Real life does not care about almost any of what occupies most of our modern time and attention.
With everything that makes you uncomfortable. For all the unnecessary stuff we carry around, there’s an equal amount of important stuff we’re ignoring. Stop running. Stop avoiding. Stop denying. Stop going the long way around. Stop turning around. Stop making yourself busy. Just stop.
Take Pema Chödrön’s advice and lean into it. In fact, take this on as your new daily mantra. No matter what you are feeling. Whether it is reluctance, hesitation, fear, or excitement, anticipation, overwhelm. Stop. Breathe. Sit with it a moment. Lean into it. Become its intimate. Its confidant. Its co-conspirator.
Only then will you know the taste of marrow. Only then can you really understand what it means to seize the day, the moment, this electric now called life. Only then can you truly harvest the sweetness of life. And that, afterall, is the point. To harvest all the beauty you can find. It is your birthright. In this brave new world, we are asked to sow and sow and sow and yet most of us only manage to take home table scraps in return.
That wave of enthusiasm. Optimism. Gratitude high. Belief in the invisible forces that are really in charge. The ones that playfully shape our lives. Wrap the reins around your gloved hands. Tuck down. Kiss your unicorn on the neck. And give her a meaningful nudge with the heel of your boot. Like you mean it.
Then hang on.
And enjoy. Sure you’re scared shitless when she jumps over walls and leaps over crevasses a thousand feet deep. Yes, she’s going pretty fast. Yes, it would hurt if you fell. Yes, you’d probably break something. And it would be so totally worth it.
Feel the wind in your face. Watch the trees rush by. Feel the power in her stride. And marvel at the lengths that life will go to just to make you sit up and take notice. Trust your steed. Trust your hands. Trust the reins. Trust life.
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable. (He’s also a novelist, essayist, videographer, painter, bike rider, and sometimes salvager of troubled lives.) He manages his condition, in part, by regular contributions to Reno Tahoe Tonight Magazine and to the borderless virtual tribe known as Rebelle Society. He also finds it helpful to talk with other humans. Feel free to friend him, follow him, or just invite him out for a beer.
Waking Up at Rembrandt’s, his debut novel, has received local and national critical acclaim. The second edition of the novel is available in print (think of vinyl, only for books) and on multiple e-version platforms. There’s also a book of poetry, love jaywalks, available everywhere ebooks are sold. Still on the horizon: a collection of essays, some new paintings, and a second novel, painted oxen, due out just as soon as all the words finish lining up. In the meantime, feel free to visit his website whenever you like. There’s more stuff there. www.tlqonline.com.
I’m just going to come right out and say this: You are okay.
I know that is completely counter-everything that you think and say to yourself all day, every day. It’s also the opposite message you’ve been fed your whole life. The church says you need to be saved. The ad folks say you need more stuff. The army will help you be all you can be. And you probably had a girlfriend who had a tip or two for you.
And then there’s the self-help book, guru, workshop.
There is a nauseating amount of self-help programs out there. From healing family karma to past life regressions to soul retrievals to dealing with money issues. From protecting yourself from energy vampires to how to attract a soul mate to ensuring you never have a bad hair day again. Ever.
And really, who can resist the chance to finally learn the secret handshake.
There are so many of these kinds of things out there for you to trip over that if you weren’t fucked up already, just reading through the list could convince you that you’re broken in ways you never even imagined. But who has the time or the money to be able to fix all these maladies in one lifetime.
And thinking about more than one lifetime is no less troubling.
I recently read about a process that helps you clear karma from your ancestors. Really? This is a thing now? Trust me, I’m issue-rich enough just dealing with my own behaviors and self-sabotaging thought patterns. Don’t tell me I’ve got to bear the weight of the mistakes from generations ago.
What thinks will they think up next?
That may be all you need. Really. Science shows that if we are grateful, we either become happier or we attract more things to be grateful for. Either way, it’s a boon. I’m ok with being happy because I have more to be happy about, or with being happy because I learned to change my thinking. Either way, I’m happy.
Truthfully, I’d be okay with the ignorance-is-bliss variety of happiness. I’d still be happy. Which is the point.
Being grateful is not as hard as it sounds. It’s really just being aware of how ridiculously fortunate we are to be alive. Hey look, this wrapping on my body (called skin) is still keeping all my blood from leaking out all over the room. And check it out, the sun came up again, allowing us to continue to see, eat, not freeze to death.
Also, the color blue is really beautiful.
As I’ve mentioned, there’s so much out there about being “present” that I hesitate even to utter that phrase. But the simple truth is, when we are focused on the present moment, then we are not able to worry about the past or the future. (It’s liberating just to think about, isn’t it?) This one thing has the power to free up all kinds of space in your psyche.
And if you’re not worried about the past, then whatever your ancestors did or didn’t do doesn’t matter one damn bit.
I think the important thing to remember about being present is that you really can’t be anywhere else. We lie to ourselves all the time about this. And we imagine that it takes years and years of discipline to be present. But really, it takes no energy at all. We’re already there. We just have to remember.
Oh, yeah, I’m present. Look there, I’m still present. Even now. Still present.
Finally, being kind just makes us feel better in general. It costs us nothing. I am far from the first person to suggest this. The Dalai Lama, for instance, has often reduced his whole philosophy of life, the universe, and everything to one simple tenet:
My religion is kindness.
And who doesn’t want to be kind. Think about it. Being shitty doesn’t actually make you feel better. If you’re honest with yourself, you’re never mean to someone (even someone you think deserves it) and then walk away feeling better about yourself.
Being kind is the ultimate win-win.
Well, there you go. And it didn’t cost you hundreds or thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars. And you didn’t have to commit to a weekend workshop, or buy a new yoga mat, or even change your diet. (Though, come to think of it, you do look like you could lose a few.)
I’m just kidding. Really.
Some people will say I stole that title from beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Though if I did, it wasn’t intentional. It’s just how it came out. And so I let it. And you should, too. If you want to live, that is.
In any case, nobody owns that word. Or any word. Put another way, we each own every word that comes from our authentic voices. Because those words are what matter. And little else.
I’m not saying words are the only thing that matter. I’m saying your words, from your voice, no matter their shape, are what matter. I’m saying using someone else’s words, hiding behind them for safety, illusion, respectability, while understandable, won’t move your piece down the board at all. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
More importantly, they won’t lead to an understanding of yourself or the world, which is essential to really living. Without your true voice, you’ll just be one of the walking dead, another Dr. Malcolm Crowe walking around believing you’re alive. (There’s a reason why zombie movies are so popular.)
Find what it is that haunts you, moves you, sparks your desire, makes you bleed, won’t let you sleep, completely envelops you, tucks you in and kisses you goodnight. That is what will save you. And most of us need some kind of saving, big or small, from time to time. Maybe forever and always.
I often find myself lost. Somewhere between the world I want to live in and the reality of things like mass poverty, political crimes, profit-based environmental destruction, and sex trade. These worlds are so close to our own, right next door, really. But we all have our own obstacles, which often live much closer, things like equal rights, health insurance, overdue taxes, relationship struggles, and inadequate internet service.
Like you, daily, I have to map my own way out. Towards the ideal creative life of my dreams. Because there is no worn path. No posted signs, no permission slips. There is only my voice. And a long time ago I listened to Sam Phillips when she told me told hold on to it. You should, too.
Find your voice.
If you’ve made it this far into this piece and you’re still wondering what the fuck I’m talking about, it’s likely because you haven’t found it yet. Your thing, your passion, your medicine, your calling, your dream. You know, your voice. (Because we live in the age of YouTube, if you want more of a video example of what I’m talking about, checkout the Power of Words Video Project. www.pow.tlqonline.com)
I’m far from an expert on this sort of thing, but what if there are things more important than enlightenment? Being a whole human being, for instance. I’m not saying that’s true. But I know this one thing, you can’t be whole without your voice. Simply impossible. So I think it’s safe to say that enlightenment requires wholeness. And wholeness requires a voice.
The bottom line is, if you want to be whole, if you truly want to be alive, then you’ve got to do whatever it is you’ve got to do to find it. And simply finding it, you’ll see, is the most important thing. Because once you have, well, there’s no turning back. After that, one way or another, your voice will make sure it gets used.
Catch your breath.
The key, once you have it, is to release that energy. Sure you can ignore it, for a while. But ultimately, it will not be suppressed. Your voice will find a way to make itself heard. Like the songbird, your voice will not be caged by your feeble and useless efforts to contain it.
Your efforts are put to far better use by making space for it to thrive. Clear away as much of the chaos and clutter as you can. Breathe in and open up space within yourself where it may dwell.
Here’s the thing, and I probably wouldn’t say this to just anyone, but we are the light-bearers, the ones who hold the world together. Complacency does not become us. Your voice already knows this. And it is waiting for you to take up the torch.
Let it out.
I’m no different from you. This column is just one of the ways my voice makes itself known. This page is my teacher and these words are my lovers. Each time I sit down to write, my voice acts as flowers, pushing their way through the clay. Awakening from slumber, and breaking through the earth to unleash the beauty of its colors once again.
I know you are afraid. Who isn’t? But you need to know that your voice is a butterfly trapped in the cage of your heart. And it simply must be released. There is no other way.
Go ahead. Fall the fuck apart.
The idea that we are supposed to keep it all together every minute of every day forever and ever is what’s insane. By contrast, falling apart occasionally is normal. But then, modern society is kind of bat-shit crazy if you think about it.
There is an expectation for us to perpetually multi-task our minds out every moment, to work smart for 50, 60, or 70-hours a week, and to raise our children to be whole human beings, all while we keep our relationships healthy, maintain sustainable friendships, stay fit enough to compete with our magazine-cover ideas of ourselves, grow our own food, give back to our communities through volunteer work, and still have enough of a life for me time. Does that sound sane?
Of course not. So go ahead, unravel.
What’s in a word?
Sometimes, too much.
In the world in which we find ourselves, the word unravel sounds an awful lot like unstable, untrustworthy, unsound, undependable. But it doesn’t have to. If we can just unthink for a minute. And rewrite a little.
What about the word unwind, instead. Go ahead, try it. Unwind. Untangle. Undo. See, it isn’t as bad as it sounds. We all find ourselves too bound occasionally by the things, places, people, attachments, and other insanities of modern life. What else is there to do, then but untie the knot? Go on, let go and let yourself untwist.
And maybe unshout.
Just because you’ve gotten yourself all worked up into knots is no reason to stay that way. I’m not saying cut the rope. Although sometimes, if the knots are too tangled, that’s not a bad option.
What people will say.
Probably some will say what you think they’ll say: Oh my, look at that. He’s come undone. She’s lost her mind. They’re nuts.Because that’s how it goes. That’s how we’re programmed. Can you believe it, he fell off the hamster wheel? What a shame.
But that doesn’t mean you have to listen to those things. Much less believe them. We need to set about collectively unlearning the meaning of some words. Unusing them. And then, rewriting how we talk to each other.
Who knows? I’m willing to bet there are more than a few folks out there who will wish they’d thought of it. They’ll wish they had the courage to untie themselves. To spin out of control a little. To fall into a little yard sale of their own.
Once the untwisting is finished, and things are still, and a bit unorderly, to be sure, what’s next? Maybe just let things lay there for a while. It isn’t like falling on the ice. You don’t have to jump right back up and pretend/hope nobody saw. Stretch out. Relax. Soak up some sunshine.
It isn’t a race. And there’s no trophy waiting for you at some imaginary finish line for your supreme skill at being inhuman. What’s waiting is likely a massive coronary, a blinding stroke, panic attacks, or a room with extra padding.
Sure, eventually you’ll probably need to get back up, dust yourself off, and start again. But hopefully you won’t start right back where you left off. Hopefully you’ll try a little something different. Like more books, less screens. Less money, more time. More sandals, less suits.
Can’t I just stay?
For a while, maybe longer. I’m guessing that eventually you’ll probably want to start creating your next design. L’est you forget how to weave altogether. This time, though, try not to use so much material. Try not to make it so tight. Take a few strands, leave a few.
You can always unwind again. You can always change out colors and textures. And it’ll be easier to do, the less complicated you make it.
I know this sounds easy. I know it feels hard. I know you think these are pretty words, but it’ll never work. Well, maybe it’ll work for someone else. But not you. Not now. But why not try? If enough of us say enough, the world starts to change. If enough of us unravel, it starts to be okay. And unraveling becomes a thing that you just do.
Not that you’ve untied and untwisted. Now that you’ve shaken loose all the threads you didn’t need. It’s time for show and tell. Go on, strut your new stuff. Walk the walk, turn the turn.
Go on, tempt us. Let us all see your new colors.