ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
Monsters, of one kind or another, are common in dreams. And there’s all this stuff in history, mythology, and psychology about monsters and demons and the courageous heroes who fight them. But I don’t think fighting monsters is all that courageous. I think the ultimate act of courage is standing still in the face of a monster. Courage is looking closely enough into its jaws to see it for what it is: an illusion. The monster isn’t real. It’s your fear of the monster that is real. And just about anything in life can look like a monster if the light is just right.
-Thomas Lloyd Qualls
The above quote is hopefully more than just self-referential indulgence. Over the arc of my life, monsters have taken on any number of forms. As a child they sometimes came in the form of school, or bullies, or food I was irrationally afraid of, or maybe tornados (I grew up in Oklahoma), and sometimes, actual monsters -- or at least scary people -- in my dreams.
As I grew, monsters sometimes took the shape of tests, after-school jobs, the police (I was a reckless teen), or any obstacle to getting a girlfriend. In adulthood, my monsters have shape-shifted into things like debt, the IRS, deadlines, prosecutors, the surreal world of the courtroom, child-raising, and the occasional blank page where words ought to have made their way by now.
And through all this time, through all these monsters, those words I was able to channel to the electronic page in what became the novel Painted Oxen have always been true: The monster isn’t real. It’s your fear of the monster that is real. The way to deal with dream monsters is to turn and look them in the face. To ask with curiosity, Tell me why are you here? What is the message you are supposed to give me?
PHOTO BY (THE BRILLIANT) OLGA BARANTSEVA HTTPS://BIT.LY/36OZJUE
Now, that is not to say that I’m going to book a fishing boat and go jump into the water with some sharks. But neither am I going to jump out of a plane without a parachute. Or climb a mountain in a storm. Or even pick up a spider from my bathroom without a glass and a postcard. That is because sharks, planes, mountains, and spiders all deserve their due respect when dealing with them. But respect does not mean the same thing as fear. Respect also includes curiosity. Why are you here? What role do you have in this grand play?
We fear what we don’t understand. This includes nature, as well as other people. It seems these days that more people regard nature as something dangerous --to be tamed and harnessed at all cost -- than they do something that nourishes and sustains us. Likewise, modern society has turned more towards controlling the growing numbers of people in society than to building harmonious and sustainable communities.
I think the take home is that we would be well served to love everything (and everyone) in the world. At least that is what the masters teach us. Mother Earth has spent literally billions of years creating the mind-blowingly complex and interconnected ecosystem where we live. If something were not meant to be here, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t. That doesn’t mean we need to put an arm into the yellow jacket nest. But it does mean that pollinators of all kinds are likely essential to life on this whirling ball of rock and water.
PHOTO BY (THE BRILLIANT) OLGA BARANTSEVA HTTPS://BIT.LY/36OZJUE
Also, many of our fears are unfounded. The black widow spider only kills around 7 Americans a year. And bears, alligators, and mountain lions? Only one person a year. And sharks? There’s only about one fatality every two years. Studies also show that most predators, from badgers to mountain lions, are probably more afraid of us, and will change their daily activities, including their feeding habits, just to avoid humans, sometimes altering their whole ecosystem in the process.
This story of fear is just one of many we have invented, but continue to shape our lives around. We write these make-believe stories on the chalkboards of our minds -- and refer to them regularly -- without ever fact-checking their accuracy. In the meantime, we lock ourselves away from imaginary dangers and miss out on great swaths of life we could be enjoying. When we could be questioning (and erasing) those stories, and turning our attention towards finding beauty in life, instead. Which is far more important.
Let’s make a pact together that we will do this more and more each day, question our fears, and turn our eyes towards exploration, towards our own daily beauty safaris. And keep doing it until it becomes second nature. Until we have rewritten all the old stories that no longer serve us.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Is it possible to be both happy and sad at the same time? I think so. I’m pretty sure that’s where I am right now.
John Jesse was one of the first people I met when I moved to Reno. I stumbled upon the Pneumatic Diner for lunch maybe the third day I was in town. John, its owner, designer, builder, and curator was there that day, taking orders, serving, directing, entertaining. As our friendship grew, I would learn that John was not comfortable in many social situations. But the Diner -- as it was affectionately known -- was his domain. And he was fully animated within those walls.
Over time, John and I became friends. I bought my first road bike because of John. And when I wrecked it, he repaired it and turned it into a town bike for me. For several years I rode that town bike more than I drove my car. Because that is what John did. And he was an example of how I wanted to live. Small footprint. Quirky and creative. I thought his life was art. And I wanted mine to be, too. That town bike still hangs in my office. The office I rent in the building he bought and remodeled many years ago.
John built other things for me, too. Like the desk where I am writing this. The one where I wrote most of my second novel. The novel that is in boxes on a shelf in the work table he also built. And the truth is, he helped to build me into a better human. Our friendship transformed me.
I’ve been a tenant in this building he rebuilt twice now. The first time for a short while when I was living up at Lake Tahoe in 2001. The second time started in 2010, and I’m still here. John actually altered one of the spaces just for me, telling me he was doing it because, “I want you in this building.”
That started a new chapter in our lives. Being at the building gave me the chance to interact with John on a regular basis, sometimes daily. Eventually both our children started attending the same school, and so during morning drop-off and school events, there were more layers where our days and our lives were entangled.
At the building on Tahoe Street or in the parking lot at school, we would often find ourselves in unintentionally long conversations about life and how to live it. And our appreciation and respect for one another grew over time. John was human, like all of us, and so I don’t mean to paint him as a saint who never complained or had a bad day. But he was one of the most kind and thoughtful humans I’ve ever met. From bikes, to electric cars, to the evaporative cooling system in the building, to his tiny house, to recycling, to his minimized waste goals with the Diner, John surpassed everyone I knew with his life’s small footprint.
I’m not sure I can do this next story justice, but I really want to. Years ago my partner and I had a small, private unity ceremony in the woods. And then afterwards we had a larger celebration with our friends at Rancho San Rafael Park. John was there with his wife Kristin and their daughter Geneva, who was quite small at the time. The picture here is of John at the event, holding two stuffed animals. He appears to be talking to them. And they are hugging each other. I assumed at first glance he was performing for Geneva. And then I realized Geneva was actually on the other side of the table, off screen, where her mom is talking to her. That is John. Brilliant, thoughtful, kind, strong (enough to regularly climb Mount Rose Highway on his bike), creative, and able to hold what may have been an impromptu alternative dispute resolution with two stuffed animals in the middle of a crowd of people that culminated in the stuffies hugging each other.
In case you are wondering why I am telling you this, it is because John traveled peacefully over the rainbow bridge on July 8, 2020. About 10 days before that, John was in an accident while riding his bicycle in Washoe Valley. It seems he was knocked unconscious almost immediately, was taken to surgery and then to the ICU, and simply never woke up again.
It is perhaps impossible to write about the sudden finality of this kind of death without it coming out like a cliché. But the fact remains that for 25 years, since the week I moved to town, John Jesse has been a part of my life. It is difficult to imagine Reno without him. It is difficult to understand how it is that someone is here, a fixture in your life for so long, and then just not. And no matter how much you appreciated them when they were here, that appreciation does not really fill the gap left by their sudden absence.
John would never have wanted people to be sad at his passing. Any more than he would want people to stop riding their bikes because of his accident. He would want us all to be present with our lives as they are and to love all the things that are here.
You are missed, my friend. But more than that, I am grateful to have gotten to spend a good part of my time on earth with you.
Be well. Take care of yourselves. Reach out to each other often. Take the time for longer conversations, more books, things you want to learn. Take the time to find beauty. And to share it.
Encourage all your stuffies to put down their troubles and just hug one another.
The more we know,