ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
the hidden world
Music is known for its mysterious ability to unlock memories that have been secreted away for years. Somehow it has access to a portal that leads to a hidden world. But that’s not where the mystery ends. With just a few lines, a songwriter can tell us many stories. And it’s uncanny how often they seem to be about our own lives.
Let me show you an example. Because I don’t want to alter your own stories of one of your favorite songs, I chose something a little obscure: the Elton John song Come Down in Time (lyrics in bold):
In the quiet silent seconds
[I believe in jazz. I believe that the space between the notes is more important than the notes themselves. I believe in the in-breath. I believe in the power of silence. I believe in the importance of friends who do not have to talk to understand each other. I believe that less is more. And that the most powerful writing lets the reader fill in some blanks.]
I turned off the light switch
[One of my favorite poets, John O’Donohue, reminds us that the soul likes candlelight. And that it’s best not to use bright lights when seeking to know ourselves. For me, darkness is also comforting, seductive even.]
And I came down to meet you
[I believe in bridges. I believe that the meeting of two beings, even though it happens every day, all day, and we mistake it for something commonplace, contains all the mystical metaphor of life. Everything in the universe is constantly in motion. And everything (ourselves included) is constantly crossing a magic threshold, towards recognition, towards awakenings, towards oneness.]
In the half light the moon left
[There is no such thing as the half moon. And yet this metaphor is everything. We are all whole. And yet we mostly do not see this. And while the moon, like everything in the universe, has its own light, the light we mistake for its own is actually a reflection of something else. And the moon not only casts light, but shadows. Just like us.]
While a cluster of night jars
[I had to look this up, long ago. Nightjars are nocturnal birds. They have very small feet and so spend most of their time flying. I just love the way the words sound. There is something enchanting about them I can’t explain. Which is another reason to love it. Our desire to explain so many things, instead of simply feeling them, is part of our folly.]
Sang some songs out of tune
[We put too much emphasis on voices being pretty. What a shame if Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, or Neil Young had decided not to sing. Heart is far more important than technique.]
A mantle of bright lights
Shone down from a room
[Light can come from anywhere. And everywhere. Like the importance of silence, this phrase let’s us fill in the blanks. It could be a literal upstairs room. Or the room could be the sky. And the mantle of lights the stars.]
Come down in time I still hear her say
So clear in my ear like it was today
[Memory is a mystical thing. Songs, smells, words, sounds, and places all have the ability to transport us back in time. And time is an endless enigma. So much time elapses, and yet, no time at all has gone by, like it was today. And longing can bend time -- both backwards and forwards -- as deftly as any force in the universe.]
Come down in time was the message she gave
Come down in time and I'll meet you half way…
[Even though we are constantly interacting with one another, it is rare that we really meet. We must be present, in the flow, and so grounded that our own gravity lines up the stars. We must meet each other, opportunity, love, and beauty at least halfway. We must build these bridges together. We must remind each other of the oneness inside every split-apart in the universe.]
Be well everyone.
Stay in your magic.
It's these expressions I never give
That keep me searching for a heart of gold.
I’ve listened to Neil sing that song maybe a thousand times. (Raise your lighters if you know what I’m talking about.) And so, naturally, I thought I understood what it was about. It's a theme song for every soulmate-searcher on the planet, right? It's a lyrical manifesto for every sensitive romantic looking for The One. You know, the search for the glass slipper’s perfect fit, the twin flame, the split-apart, the heart of gold.
Sure, that's part of it. But if you read the quote at the top of the page again, you’ll discover it’s not just a story of the search for true love. We've all done our share of mining. And we've all come up short of our expectations. Is that because we were looking in the wrong places? Or were we looking for the wrong things?
I won’t pretend to have a backstage pass to Neil’s psyche. But I think he was trying to explain that he didn't have to go to Hollywood or to Redwood (or across the ocean) to complete his search. He confessed that he’d been spending too much time in his mind. (It’s such a fine line.) And as everyone knows, no good has ever come from that.
So what’s a determined glass slipper-bearer to do? I'm not going to tell you that you need to make yourself into the kind of person who would be lovable by the kind of person you want to find. Because other people have probably told you that. I'm happy to remind you it's true. But that's not the end of the story.
The crux of the tale, I think, was best told by Sam Phillips: We don't want lives of steel / We don't want hearts that feel / We want to live above it all. At first glance, these two lyrical stories don't appear to cohabitate very well. But if you listen a little closer, they’re both saying the same thing. The hard truth is that you won't find a heart of gold without doing a little work.
If you only want a soulmate so your life will be cushier, well, I've got some bad news. Life's not really like that. If you want a heart that doesn't feel any pain, then you're not going to have a heart of gold. And if you don't have a heart of gold, well, you're not likely to find a heart of gold.
The key is in the first line of Neil's quote, "It's these expressions I never give" that keep him searching. In other words, he needs to get out of his mind and out of his own way. He says he wants to live and he wants to give, but he's not doing the latter, so he can't do the former.
Hearts of gold don't find themselves lined up at the doorstep of those unwilling to give anything of themselves. And I'm not taking about the desperate kind of neediness that disguises itself as having just so much love to "give." I'm talking about being willing to live your own life. About being authentic. And about still being strong enough to share that life, its gifts, and the space it inhabits, with another human being, heart, soul, and sometimes messy fallout.
Real life is not neat and clean. Life is about digging in and getting yourself dirty. Look around at the people who are happiest. You’ll see they aren't worried about mud. Because without a little mud, life is not possible.
Wanting to live above it all means we never even scratch the surface. And while staying on the surface might keep us clean, it isn't all that interesting, is it? One thing’s for sure, we are never going to find any gold just laying around on the surface. That's not where gold likes to hang out.
Gold is a little more secretive than that. Gold is a cat, hiding god knows where until it is ready to be found, snuggling down into its makeshift forts of cardboard and cupboards, bushes and boxes, blankets and pillows. The more layers the better. And there it rests, waiting for our wits to grow sharp enough to find it.
Gold is a playful lover. One who wants you to work a little for it, knowing the payoff will be worth the effort. Yes, gold is kind of like foreplay. And if you think of it more as play than work, you're likely to have a lot more fun.
Hearts, as it turns out, are much the same. Though, from time to time, we've been known to wear them on our sleeves, this is not their preferred location. Hearts prefer to stay deep within our chests, where only those willing to look deep enough will be able to see them.
Hearts of gold are the rarest of metals. And the only way to find a heart of gold is to first transform your own heart. Like attracts like, no matter what you've been told. If you want to live, you've got to give, of yourself, and your heart.
You've got to give to yourself and to others. You've got to use your voice and to make space for other voices. You can't stand above it all, like some heartsick Gatsby peering over the balcony. You've got to walk into the crowd, the river, the mud, this thing called life. Yes, you.
Keep turning over stones. And I'll see you in the river.
-from "Dig Deeper" - one of 66 essays in the Gold Nautilus Award winning collection, Happiness Is an Imaginary Line in the Sand.
Available here: https://www.tlqonline.com/happiness-is-an-imaginary-line...
Your minds to what I am about to say.
I am not here to hand you another overwrought cliché for you to toss into your growing stack of inspirational quotes you'll forget by dinnertime. I'm talking about changing the way you see the world around you. About rethinking your interactions with that world.
It's not just about your heart.
Sure, being open requires an open heart. And I promise I'll get to that. But first we need to talk about the mind. We all live such a ridiculous amount of time there that the mind is the first door we need to get through.
It would be easy to blame our modern habits. How, increasingly, every spare second of waking life is spent in a frenzy of multi-task-driven dysphoria. And so I will, a little. But it isn’t technology’s fault. It’s what we do with it. It’s how we do what we do with it.
While our technological abilities are growing like a virus on, well, virus steroids, our minds are being numbed into submission. Our minds are constantly opening to new ways to use technology, and steadily closing to almost everything else.
The mind and technology have one primary thing in common. They both are meant to work for us. Instead, we end up working for them. To be open means that sometimes we have to stop. We have to put down our electronic addictions and rethink every thing in our lives we have put on autopilot.
Though your heart is essential.
What can be said about the heart that hasn’t already been said? Plenty, I’m sure. Because the heart knows everything the mind has ever learned and forgotten. And so much more. The heart has a stash of secrets so large it has taken thousands of years of poets just to reveal a tiny few.
Yes, it is counter-intuitive.
Because everywhere, all day long, there are reasons to close down. To protect yourself. From the naysayers and the nit-pickers, the needy and the ne’er-do-wells. What you cannot see with your heart slammed shut is that everywhere, all day long, there are millions of reasons to stay open.
And I’m not just talking about the birds and the butterflies, the sexy storms and the saturation of colors under Sierra clouds. But when you open a door for yourself, you open a door for others.
Find your door to freedom.
Because that is the only way. Because until we are open, we are not free. While we are vigilantly patrolling the borders of our egos, our comfort zone, our I-don’t-want-others-to-know-I’m-human, we are missing out on real life.
The battle between open and closed is not new. Its roots are ancient and are still deeply embedded in the modern world. From the oppression of religious theocracies to the free love and new age movements, this tension between open and close remains a central theme of life.
I get it. The world can be a scary place. But the secret to freedom is the same as the secret to conquering dream monsters. You must turn and look them in the face. Though you’re afraid of whatever may be on the other side of the door, you must open it anyway.
This is the only way to freedom. You must open doors. Everywhere, every day, all the time. Open the door to smiling at strangers. Open the door to asking him out. Open the door to admitting mistakes. Open the door to saying you’re sorry. Open the door to letting more go.
And then open a little more.
I'm talking about standing on desks. About challenging your thoughts, your feelings, your fears, your ideas, your knowings, your ways.
You may think you’re already there. You’re already open and out there. But I'll bet you a beer you’re not. I'll bet that you could add a million tiny freedoms to your life that take no time or money.
Open to the idea of rain, to the possibilities of flowers. Open to the rush of your real life lived, not simply imagined. Open your skin to the touch of a lover. Open your arms to your friends. Open your wallet to a stranger. Open your chakras, your mantras, and your ideas of yourself.
There will always be naysayers. Open the door and let them go. Let go of all your collected thoughts of you. And make room for the joy that will flood itself in as soon as you unclutter your you.
Because really, is there anything better? Then do it in everything you do. Strip off the layers of closed-door clothes and dive in. Feel the silky caress down the length of your life. And live all the secrets of you.
Let yourself unfold like all the flowers of spring. Give yourself and your beauty to the world. And then let the world shine it right back on you.
-from the Gold Nautilus Award winning collection, Happiness Is an Imaginary Line in the Sand. Available here: https://www.tlqonline.com/happiness-is-an-imaginary-line
the unknowable world
Last night I dreamt of the ocean. In all its endless mystery. Of setting out into its wilderness on the journey of a lifetime. Of being on a large ship, in charge of the mast, full of hope and courage. Buoyed by the adrenaline of adventure. And also feeling utterly ill-suited for the task.
What is it about the sea? Its vastness either provokes awe or makes us feel insignificant. Or some combination. Its perfect rhythms offer comfort, but they also drive home how little of this world is within our grasp. The ocean can wash us clean of our earthly cares or – with too little effort to measure -- simply wash us away.
The ocean is also a mirror of our human hearts: wild, restless, unyielding, untamable, unknowable. In that reflection there is both inspiration and terror. To admit that our own hearts are so uncharted, so unknowable, despite a lifetime of effort, is more than a little daunting. And also, we know we must continue to try.
There is so much that is beyond us. We cannot know all there is to be known, as we cannot count the waves on the sea. We cannot read all the books in the store, as we cannot love all the lovers to be loved. We cannot solve the riddles of our own hearts, as we cannot count all the grains of sand.
He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea.
- George Herbert
We are in perpetual need of getting out of our own ways, of getting out of our own heads, of surrendering to that which we cannot know, of letting go of the rocks and the shore and letting the water take us where it will. This, too, is why the ocean calls to us. To share with us its wider view. And to grant us reverence for the one wild and precious life we have been given.
Just as we have drawn imaginary lines to define nations and states, so we have created imaginary boundaries in our own lives, our own hearts and minds. And while some of these made-up borders allow us to get up, make the coffee, put on our shoes and go about our days, they also keep us from the natural human wandering that is required in order to rediscover the magic of just being alive.
Just as I was enthusiastic for a dream journey that I was also completely unprepared to take, so we walk out into everyday of our lives. We ignore the fact that we live in a world that is overwhelmingly designed for things with gills. Not to mention that even that vast world floats on an almost imperceptible wave of the universe’s unknowable sea. Maybe it is because our brains can’t grasp the size of these mysteries that we ignore the greatness of this wonder as we stumble through each day. Or maybe we spend too much time asleep when we think we are awake.
All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage
of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean.
So continues the taunting paradox of the universe. Perhaps it’s the ocean’s great size which makes it all the more poignant that we are both profoundly lost and found in its presence. Even in its memory.
There is not a thing in the world that does not feel the tug of the sea. Though it seems there are some of us more built for adventure than others. Some who have no choice but to seek out the sea. And still more who cannot be content to simply walk its shores and gaze on its beauty, but must be out in it, as close to part of it as humanly possible. And they cannot imagine any other life. They would not feel whole without it. So it is with our lives on land. Some of us are more willing to take the risk on our dreams.
The ocean is the great metaphor of unknowing, the great mystery, the divine feminine, the collective unconscious, the land of dreams. So a dream about the ocean is then a dream within a dream. A dreamer lost in himself. Out in a universe of fluid borders. Where we are free to dream new worlds into being.
finding beauty in darkness
How do we see our way out?
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky not-so-famously said, "Perhaps it is beauty that will save us in the end." I couldn't agree more. And I wrote a piece for Rebelle Society in 2013 on why our most important job is to find beauty. It was true then and it is true now.
I've written before how the world is broken, in many, many ways. And how it is also beautiful. And that we should focus more on the beauty. And I have been criticized for saying that kind of thing, because people mistook it for some kind of spiritual bypass, or they said it was born of white privilege. But despite this criticism, I have never been one to shy away from the full picture. So let's talk about the broken parts for a minute. Let's not shy away or paint glossy pictures of unicorns with rainbows coming out of their nether regions. Let's talk about the state of our modern world.
When this piece was originally written, people were still reeling from a mass shooting in Vegas. The one where one shooter with an arsenal of 23 guns, including semi-automatics and hundreds and hundreds of rounds of ammo, caused unimaginable pain, injury, death, and chaos. By the time you read this, the talk of reasonable gun control may have quieted, and the great majority of the nation may have gone back to sleep. But I hope not. I hope that we are all still talking about how we can fix the many things that are broken in our country. Because the way I see it, they are all connected.
I'll start with a list of what I see is broken, those things I believe have contributed to the state of our world. The poverty, the crime, the mass anxiety and hopelessness, and the every-other day mass shootings, as well as other catastrophes, including the 2008 financial crisis from which we are still recovering:
1. Unfathomable disparity in income distribution. We do not live in a free market. The US grants something like $125 billion or more a year in corporate welfare. And that does not include tax loopholes and offshore accounts. Meanwhile more than 43 million Americans live in poverty. There are 6 heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune who have amassed more wealth than over 100 million Americans. This is not because they are smarter or work harder or are just luckier. It is a rigged system. Add to this the fact that because those 6 people do not pay their full time employees a living wage, our tax dollars must pay for those employees' food stamps. To the tune of $6.2 billion. In another not-so-far-off time, where we weren't all distracted by our smart phones and social media approval, we'd be marching with torches to tear down their walls. And there would be guillotines waiting.
2. A Congress filled with people who do not give a shit about you. Sure, there have been outliers: Franken, Sanders, Warren. But mostly Congress cares about getting re-elected and amassing secret wealth on the side that they do not need to disclose while they refuse to pass legislation preventing them from capitalizing on insider knowledge. The NRA, big banks, big insurance, big oil, and their ilk have each of them by the balls. If you don't believe me, just look at the numerous recent efforts to give billionaires tax cuts while throwing millions of Americans off health care.
It is hard for my mind to wrap around how absurd this is. Mostly because of the fundamental truth that billionaires do not need tax cuts. They wouldn't even notice them. Which leads me to the real problem, which is not greed and corruption, but figuring out why we haven't risen up against this nonsense. Why is it that vast numbers of Americans, who will not benefit from these policies, will likely still re-elect most of these politicians next term. We must correct this problem before any other progress can be made.
3. #45. Look, I sort of get his selling point for some people. We are sick of business as usual in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in politics. (See numbers 1 and 2, above.) We want big change. We want to break the system into tiny pieces and rebuild it. But this guy was never going be the solution. This guy is the problem. He is the poster boy for The Sociopathic Capitalists Society (except for the ironic fact that he has apparently been propped up by a communist mafia since the 90s). But more troubling than that, he seems to be a bona fide moron on just about every topic there is. Even more troubling than the fact that he doesn't know things, as George Will noted, is the fact that he does not seem to know what it is to know something. That so many millions of people voted for him, and that so many numbers continue to support him, despite his daily incompetence, is disheartening to say the least, and frankly beyond comprehension;
4. The archaic, dysfunctional, and misguided judicial system. We have a Supreme Court who has perpetuated many of our current problems. Including decisions that: (1) grossly misinterpret the second amendment as to allow the NRA to continue its bullying and to allow Americans to stockpile lots of guns that are designed only to kill many, many people very, very quickly. Say from the 32nd floor of a hotel; or (2) the one that equates money with speech and has allowed big money to take over our elections; or (3) the one that gave away the Presidency to a guy who lost the election. And then there is the obvious problem of privately-owned prison systems. And if you can't see the problem with that, just consider how these people would make money if the prisons weren't full. And what a conflict of interest that is for the so-called departments of justice. And consider that the majority of people in federal prison are there for non-violent drug offenses. Many of which are for drugs that are now legal in several states;
5. Our belief in otherness. Despite the infuriating reality of the first four enumerated paragraphs, this is probably the most troubling. From religions, to skin colors, to languages, it seems it is human nature to fear what we do not understand, what is different from us, and how we do things. And maybe there is some anthropological good cause for this. But we have greatly exaggerated its usefulness in the modern era. It is time to build bridges to each other, not walls. Our prejudices far outweigh our curiosity, and we need to flip that.
Maybe you knew someone affected by the Mandalay Bay shooting in Vegas. Or any of the countless mass shootings that happen every year. Maybe just the pure senselessness of any of them have shaken you. Whatever the case, how many wake up calls do we need? How many times, after the immediate shock of another mass shooting, another financial collapse, another election of a dangerous and willfully ignorant sociopath, another avoidable environmental disaster, another murder of an unarmed black man, another attempted racially-motivated travel ban, will we roll over and hit the snooze button? We must demand more from ourselves and our leaders.
And though it may seem counter-intuitive, one of the things we must demand of ourselves is that we spend more time finding beauty in the world. And also more time creating it. Because finding and creating beauty will, without a doubt, change you and the world.
As I have written before:
We have stacked so much rubbish on top of ourselves, that our true beauty, and the beauty of everyone and everything are buried under our prejudices, our beliefs, our pages and pages of worn out stories. Dig yourself out. Brush yourself off. Throw away the never-ending manuscript of why you can’t.
The world is neither this thing nor that thing. It is not our ideas of how it is or of how it should be. The world is the world. Like love, the world contains all possibilities. All darks and lights, all ups and downs, all rainbows of doubt and joy, hardship and pleasure. But I want you to forget all that.
Your job is to find beauty.
benefit of the doubt
Doubt everything. Find your own light.
Socrates made his students answer their own questions. Galileo dared to doubt the church. And Darwin later took up his legacy. The Buddha described his own path, but wanted people to find their own way. Even Jesus was a man of doubt. If not for the doubters, we’d all still be in Plato’s cave.
From Rumi to Rimbaud, the great poets have always been doubters. From Da Vinci to Descartes, our great thinkers have looked through the lens of doubt and reimagined the world.
Bad things happen whenever we excuse doubt from the table at decision time. Without courage to doubt the President, we get a ten-year, two trillion-dollar war. Without courage to doubt our bankers, we see the collapse of a world economy.
If you would be a real seeker after truth,
it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt,
as far as possible, all things.
If faith is the vehicle to carry one's vision to fruition, then doubt is the bridge upon which it travels. Blind faith is as destructive a force as self-doubt. Both are out of balance and misplaced.
A certain measure of faith is necessary and constructive. We must believe in ourselves, our purposes, our relationships with each other and with the universe, in order to be whole. This faith cannot exist in a vacuum, though, or it becomes a senseless and destructive force that is counter to its essence.
Faith in the unknown, the invisible, the passion which moves us is as essential as oxygen to the human experience. Indeed a full human life is not possible without it. Still faith must know its split-apart doubt, in order to serve us.
Faith keeps many doubts in her pay.
If I could not doubt, I should not believe.
-Henry David Thoreau
Yes, doubt has its place. We are supposed to question, it makes our faith authentic. Those who are afraid to question their beliefs tacitly admit the weakness of them. Those unwilling to acknowledge the possible validity of truths beyond their own, become rigid to the natural flows of life.
If we were to peek behind the flimsy curtain, instead of strength, we'd see fragility. If we were to read between the lines of these manifestos, the ink would reveal dogmas, not truths. A building that is too inflexible will crumble when the Earth shifts her weight. A tree that cannot bend will break into pieces in the wind.
So is the mind like these things. When we travel the same thought paths too often, it creates ruts of thought, action, belief. Soon we are limited by where we can go, because the wheels of our brain cannot escape these ruts. Just as we do yoga to keep our bodies flexible, so we need to bend our brains to keep them useful.
Perfect confidence is granted
to the less talented as a consolation prize.
- Robert Hughes
I doubt any of us were put on this earth to accept someone else's story without a question. We were not given such wonderful brains only to follow instructions. We were not built with an innate sense of our own path, to follow a broken compass someone else gave us. We were not handed a blank piece of paper to color in someone else's lines.
If life is a daring adventure, as Ms. Keller told us, then we must not squander the chance to explore. I would rather doubt and be wrong than blindly accept and be right. At least the misjudgment would be my own.
The aphorisms of the ages are filled with encouragement to step to the beat of your own drummer. There has never been anything memorable written about following convention. No soul was ever inspired by lines teaching that life is about following orders.
You are never dedicated to something
you have complete confidence in.
No one is fanatically shouting
that the sun is going to rise tomorrow.
- Robert M. Pirsig
Part of the magic of life exists in the balance of many forces that appear, falsely, to be opposites: beauty and decay, love and hate, fear and courage, light and dark, life and death. This is part of the great illusion.
We must believe and doubt in balance or else neither has value. If we are to build the new world, then like an old married couple who've lost their rhythm, faith and doubt must learn to dance again. Let’s commit ourselves in the coming days and weeks to learn some new steps.
And to never lose our faith in the power of doubt.
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 a different way. Recently there was a single mobile game app from Japan that grossed up to $75 million a month. The worldwide video game industry grossed over $93 billion the same 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 that 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.
there are days
Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists.
- A Course in Miracles
There are days when the world will break your heart. I don’t mean you will be sad or disappointed or even angry. I don’t mean your feelings will be hurt or you will sob into a pillow. I don’t mean you will be so depressed you won’t want to get out of bed or talk to anyone.
I mean there are days when your heart will break. It will bleed out right on the desk, the floor, the kitchen table. And the pain in your chest will be so great you’ll think you cannot bear it. And everywhere you look, everything you read, every conversation you have will feel like peroxide being poured onto an open wound. I mean that you will not be able to see any future that is habitable, because everything will seem irreparably broken. The meanness of the human race will appear beyond comprehension.
There are days when what you believed to be innocent things will suddenly appear as the opposite of what you thought. When the destructive nature of children and their inhumane treatment of one another, suddenly will explain all the world’s woes. And you will realize that everyone you know is just a child in grown up clothes, with more responsibilities than they are capable of handling, throwing the occasional toddler’s tantrum that is disguised as either righteous indignation or hormonal vicissitudes. And you will understand that their poor treatment of other humans is exactly the same thing as the oversized playground bully ruthlessly making the younger kids cry with his taunting and name-calling.
There are days when the rich will keep getting richer, the greedy greedier, the hard-working even more marginalized, the sick, more in debt. When the insurance companies will continue to steal our money, month after month. When the banks will take our houses and then take some more. And when Congress and our President will seem impotent to do anything about it. Meanwhile they will handover our lunch money to the oil companies, the garden to Monsanto, and whatever is left to the NRA, you know, for protection.
There are days when the world is just mean. That is all there is. Meanness. And the occasional bout of insomnia which shakes us from our chronic slumber of unawareness to acknowledge our inability to do anything about it just before we fall asleep again, exhausted.
There are days where the world will not only break your heart, but tear it out of your chest, stomp on it, and set it on fire, right before your dumbstruck eyes. And you won’t know what to do.
And I won’t know what to tell you to make it any better.
And yet somehow, somehow, you will find a different set of days. In those days, the sun will be warm on your skin. But there will be just enough cloud cover to allow the colors all around you to show themselves. And your world will be filled with beauty. You’ll get buzzed by a hummingbird on your morning walk. And the green and yellow foothills will spread their beauty across the horizon as if just for you.
These are the days that are true. This is what is real. All else is nonsense dreamt up by small minds and feeble imaginations. All else is illusion. All else is the emptiness of delusion.
Come with me. Let's find our own way out. Let’s live all our days saturated in beauty.
Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.
- Richard Feynman
In other words, be like a child again. Not childish, as almost all adults can be -- which is far more annoying than it is endearing -- but childlike. A child is endlessly curious. Though a child does not really need to know the answers. A child just needs to question, to investigate, to dig, and to root, and to turn over stones. Then to keep on digging, building, adding, and tearing down. And starting over with new questions and ideas.
The finding of things is fun, too. But it is not the most essential thing. The discovery of anything will do. Children are masters of serendipity. Their innate impulse is to question, and to go about looking for new things, whether they are water bugs or woozles. The important thing is the adventure, which really never ends. And which is only occasionally interrupted by the silliness of adults making them stop to eat, or to brush their teeth and put on jammies.
For children, the world is stuffed full of magic things. This is because, well, the world is actually stuffed full of magic things. Our prejudices are learned. We are not born with our narrow approaches to life and its inhabitants. Our natural inclination is to seek out and to celebrate the magic. Every day, all day long. I think this is why children annoy some adults and delight others. The annoyed ones don’t want to be reminded of all that they’ve left behind. The delighted ones either still carry a healthy dose of magic with them, or they at least know where to find it.
Certainty is an illusion.
If there is evil in the world, which is at least debatable, the root of it most certainty lies in the desire for certainty. The older we get the more we realize how few absolutes there are in the world. But one of the absolutes we’re all pretty sure about is change. Everything is on its way to somewhere else all the time. There is no standing still. There are no forever answers.
And so how could there really be certainty about anything. When we are young, we think that the answer to the question of who we are is answerable. If we are really precocious, we may even think we know who we are. Or maybe we think, it’ll just take a little more examination, a little more life experience. The older we get, the more we understand that there could never be an answer to this question. And even if there were, it would be outdated as soon as we uttered it. In fact, we can’t even answer the question of what we mean by the word “me.”
As I’ve said before, it’s okay to be uncertain. In fact, it is preferred. Imagine a world without uncertainty. We’d be bored out of our heads. In fact, there wouldn’t be much point to it at all. The corporate, governmental, and religious institutions of modern society and their radical counterparts rely upon our deep-seated fear of uncertainty and our absolute unwillingness to admit this fear. Without our fear, they are nothing. They know that we desperately want someone else to tell us what the fuck is going on.
Don’t give in.
We’re so addicted to certainty that we create and obsess over our daily routines. Even though they create the very boredom we complain about. Even though it is these routines, along with our fear of uncertainty, that are the hands that secure the blinders in place on our heads. And those things make it really hard to fully experience life. Don’t buy in. Don’t sell yourself out. The big lie is that you need to give up your curiosity, your creativity, your desire to cut your own path through life, in the name of becoming an adult. Your curiosity is not the enemy. Any more than terrorism is the enemy. To paraphrase Edward Snowden, bathtubs and police officers kill more people than terrorism, yet we’ve been told to give up our fundamental rights to protect ourselves. It’s a lie, just like the lie that it’s time to grow up and kill your dreams.
We do not need to cast away our curiosity in order to be fully evolved adults. In fact, it’s just the opposite. All of the greatest spirits who have walked the planet have been possessed of fiercely curious minds and hearts. If you are paying attention, there is never a reason to be bored. Wake up. That’s it, really. If we are awake, we cannot help but be curious. Because what is curiosity, really, except the tendency to be awake. And to be looking for more stones to turn over.
To be like a child again.
This is an excerpt from the Nautilus Award winning collection, Happiness Is an Imaginary Line in the Sand. The book is available here.
Turning Words into Gold
Alchemists were able to turn base metals into gold. Or so the legend goes. The alchemist must undergo their own transformation. As inside, so outside.
So it is with writing. And the alchemy of words.
You have all probably read writers who have the ability to turn words into gold. But to do so, they must allow themselves to be changed in the process.
Here’s an example of words being turned into gold.
I am honored to share with you that my recent collection of words -- Happiness is an Imaginary Line in the Sand -- has received a Gold Nautilus Award.
Which is certainly enough, all by itself. (I mean, I thought only people like Barbara Kingsolver and Gary Zukav won Gold Nautilus Awards.)
But Nautilus also named the book the Best of Small Press.
These two honors certainly go beyond my expectations. And I find myself a tiny bit at odds as to what to do with this information.
Of course, I want to celebrate the news with you. And I also know that social media has made us all a little weary of all the self-promotion.
Maybe it is just that the world is filled with bad news right now. And I thought I’d share a little glimmer of good news with you.
It is like the book’s titular essay explains. A big part of being happy is deciding to be happy. Creating a little alchemy of your own out of the circumstances of your life. And bringing forth a little gold from inside to light your way.
I hope you are well. And that you are finding reasons, big and small, to celebrate your own lives.
Take care of yourselves.
P.S. If you haven't pick up a copy yet, Happiness Is an Imaginary Line in the Sand is available here.
And my friend and fellow Landmark Prize winner Kip Greenthal also won a Nautilus Award this year. You can find her award-winning novel Shoal Water here.