Recommended For You

It is no secret that I love books.

Mind you I prefer actual, physical books to electronic books. Call me weird, but I like my books to have weight and take up space on bookshelves. They don’t need to be recharged, they don’t have issues with sun-glare when I’m reading outside, and my reading is not interrupted by notifications from whoever it is that is trying to reach me by email or messenger. Most of all, I prefer to know that the book I am reading will still be mine to read when I wake up in the morning, and not have been removed from the library due to some sort of publishing rights squabble. (that has happened to me twice).

I also love that you can use books for so many other things besides reading. If you own enough books and shelves, your house pretty much decorates itself. You can use books propped under your computer if you need to raise it up, or wedge a book in the window to keep it open. Physical books provide an actual physical barrier between you and anyone around you and project an aura of “I’d love to talk but, as you can see, I’m busy at the moment.” However, I will read books online in a pinch and I have several apps that allow me to read books on my phone when the need arises.

One of the most annoying things about e-books are how the apps always want to get involved in what I should be reading next. “Books Recommended for You.” Reads one list. “Books like (insert the title of the last book I just read) reads another. “Books we think you’ll like” says a third.

Seriously? You think that you can assume you know what I like based on the last few books I’ve read? I mean, sure, I’ve just listened to the whole of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series again. Does that mean that all I want to read next are Stephen King novels? Or Horror fiction? Yeah, that is a big nope. Today it might be Stephen King, tomorrow it may be a travel book by Bill Bryson, a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, a book on quantum physics by Michio Kaku, something sweet and magical by Sarah Addison Allen, a graphic novel or a Dan Brown adventure.

I do not read because I enjoy a particular genre. I read to be awed by an awesomely told story, or to learn new information on a topic that intrigues me. I read for the pure joy of it.

I still remember the joy that filled me up like a hot air balloon as a little girl, when I realized that my newfound ability to read had opened up incredible vistas of possibilities; whole worlds of wonder. I was sitting on the floor of my grandfather’s office which was lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves. I was waiting for him to get off the phone so I could tell him that grandma said it was time for dinner. Out of boredom I pulled a book off the shelf and thumbed through it, looking for pictures I could look at while I waited. Except that this time the beginning of the text caught my eye.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

It was the first line from Charles Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Cities”, though I had no clue who Dickens was, nor did I care. What astounded me was that I could read! There were words in this book, a book I had never opened before. I had opened and it and found words I knew!  Words that I could read! Of course, there were words in the books my first-grade teacher had been using for us in reading class, but this was a big person book; a real book. I remember looking up at the walls of books that lined my grandfather’s office and realizing that each and every one of those books had words in them. Each book had words that could be read. The thought that there were so many books to be read was simultaneously astounding and overwhelming. When my grandfather got off the phone and asked me why I was crying, I was startled to find that my face was wet with tears. But they weren’t sad tears, they were happy tears. So many stories, so much information, just in this one room! I couldn’t wait to get started.

Even before I had learned to read on my own, I had always loved having my mother, grandparents and aunts read stories to me while cuddled on the couch, or when they were tucking me into bed. I adored the stories on records too (yes, there were books on records before there were books on tape, CD, or available to stream/download) where a man or woman with a lovely warm and rounded voice would read stories out loud to you if you put the arm of the record player down on the record just right. But being a child, I wasn’t in charge of the books and records that were chosen for me. Once I was able to read for myself, however, that all changed. I could read anything! I wanted to read everything. And so, I did.

Of course, I didn’t read everything. No one ever has. But that day in my grandfather’s office marked a turning point for me. I began reading everything I could get my hands on. At first it didn’t matter if it was a well written story or not, or if it was a story at all. I had no preference for one kind of book over another. I was like a dry sponge, soaking up all the information I could get my hands on.

I learned fairly quickly that while my grandfather did indeed have a large collection of books, at least 70% were medical texts of one kind or another (he was a doctor) and most of those were well beyond of my reading level at the age of six. But on his shelves, I did discover books on the Titanic, Great Fires of North America, Architecture of the 20th century, WWII, various stories by Dickens (he had a leather-bound set of Dickens’ complete works), a history of Great Britain, poems by Edgar Allen Poe a book of short biographies of US Presidents through Nixon, and a “complete history” of Native American tribes, all of which I puzzled through, looking up the harder words in the dictionary so I could understand what they meant.

In my Grandmother’s bookshelves I found all sorts of Christian “mission” stories and literature such as “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” a complete series of “Signature Lives” books that ranged from Edith Cavell and Clara Barton to George Washington, Nikola Tesla, Amelia Earhart and George Washington Carver, as well as an illustrated “Foxes Book of Martyrs” which, when read at the age of eight gave me nightmares for months.

Once I had exhausted all of the books in our house that were not medical texts, I moved on to the town library, where my mom would take me once a week and let me pick out a stack to take home. Initially, I read more non-fiction books than fiction. This was not because I preferred non-fiction, but because non fiction was the only genre that my conservative Christian family would allow me to check out of the library. Sometimes I could convince them to let me check out a fiction that was based on a true story, but only if I could prove that it was based in fact.  

It always seemed odd to me that the mom and grandparents who had read me Winnie-The-Pooh, Blueberries for Sal and the Ugly Duckling as a little girl were so opposed to me reading things like the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Wrinkle in Time, the Phantom Tollbooth or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase on my own.

It didn’t get any better as I got older. Though I was allowed to go to the library on my own after I turned 12, my library selections would be reviewed by my family when I got home to make sure that I was only reading approved items. If I was caught trying to sneak in a fictional story, I would lose my library card for a week.

When I became a teenager, and a little more subtle, I would try to take out a few fictional books here and there and stow them in my school bag, away from prying eyes. Of course, this technique was discovered and my family would go to the library and request a list of the items that I had checked out. If there was anything on the list that was not considered appropriate. I would lose my library privileges for a month.

All of this scrutiny did absolutely nothing to dampen my need to read – and to read more than non-fiction. Luckily, I befriended librarians both at school and at the town library who were sympathetic to my situation, and would “hold” a book I was reading behind the desk without me checking it out and let me read it in installments at the library. Needless to say, the library became one of my favorite places to hang out both at school during study halls or free periods, and at the community library on weekends and during the summer holidays. I would always check out a couple of non-fictions to justify my visit to the library in case someone had seen me go in and mentioned it to my parents.

Of course, I found ways around this. I managed, in addition to the non-fiction books I legally checked out, to work through at least a novel a week during the school year by reading them in the library, and 2-3 novels a week during the holidays.

My insatiable need to read more – to learn more, always more – worried my family, and they would routinely provide me with stacks of young adult religious stories, biographies on “appropriate” historical figures, encouraging me to read those if I was going to read and discouraging me from even asking questions about anything that didn’t fit their definition of “acceptable topics” and I grew to resent their suggestions.

Which explains why I find the “recommended for you” suggestions so annoying. Don’t try to manipulate my reading choices dude, I have had more than enough of that.

I Dreamt that the World Had Ended

Have you ever had a dream that seemed so real that when you woke up you couldn’t figure out which reality was real and which was the dream? This one shook me deeply, especially in light of the fear and animosity and division that seems to have taken over the United States recently.


 I dreamt that our world had ended.

Well, not the world exactly, but western society. Most of the people were gone. There were still a few of us wandering around. I was wandering just like the others. In my dream I had been walking all day in a cold, prickling rain. I had no goal in mind, no destination. I had just been walking for something to do; because I couldn’t stay in one place, I had to keep warm. I had to move, move, move. I had to keep moving because if I didn’t one of “them” would find me; find me and know me for what I was and finish me off.

I glanced up, taking in the devastation all around me, and feeling sick at heart. Whole cities gone. Whole neighborhoods flattened. Forests gone. Oceans teaming with trash and the skeletons of ships. Millions of bodies piled in mass graves, dumped into the oceans or just left in heaps and why? WHY? Because a handful of people had been afraid of what they didn’t understand; afraid that allowing everyone the freedom to be who and what they were would somehow prevent them from being themselves?

Was it because they wanted to maintain control? Control over what? There was nothing left. Well, I supposed there might be some communities left deep in the heartland, maybe even a few scattered cities that had not been touched because they had not rebelled against a government that wanted to institute total control over every individual’s body and mind. But honestly, what was the point?

What was the point of destroying everything, every ONE that you didn’t like or understand? What kind of world did that leave you with? Did they really think that the people that sought to control would just quietly allow it to happen? That they wouldn’t resist a handful of people telling them what they could or could not do, go or believe? And now that they had destroyed everything that didn’t hold with their views of how the world should be, where did that leave them?

I contemplated these things as I walked, becoming more and more depressed. Finally, exhausted and soaked to the skin, I stopped at this one house that seemed in relatively good repair to get some food and find a dry place to sleep for the night. What I found once I had found an unlocked door and let myself in, were 3 nearly starved cats and an almost dead dog. Wherever the people had gone, they hadn’t taken their animals with them.

With tears in my eyes, I fed and watered them the animals, leaving the doors open so they could leave if they wanted to. When I had eaten myself and slept a little, I went on to the next house. Here I found a dead fish and a canary that looked as if it was about to keel over. I let the canary out of its cage and went on to the next house where I found two golden retrievers, one dead and the other very weak. I fed that dog, propped the door open and went on down the street. Here three Siamese cats grown gaunt there a rabbit laying limply in it’s cage.

House to house I went, and every house had animals left in it. Wherever the people had gone, they hadn’t even left the doors or cages open so that the animals could at least attempt to fend for themselves.

After what seemed like days of going from house to house, I collapsed onto the front porch of a farm house, crying at the barn full of dead cows and unable to go on. I was overcome with sadness, exhaustion, despair. There was a whole world out there. What kind of a difference could I possibly make? 

Just then I noticed that I was being followed by all of the animals that I HAD saved. They gathered around me, looking at me; cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, guinea pigs, several goats, a horse, a small flock of chickens and even 2 llamas and an iguana. All of which had been kept as pets.

One of the cats, a pure black cat, thin but with thick, velvety fur, stepped forward and said out loud “it made a difference to us”. 

A dog, a German shepherd limped to the cats side and said “it’s our turn now, you need to rest.”

A mama cat came and curled up on my lap with her newborn kittens and she purred me to sleep. As I dozed off, I saw all of the animals moving in different directions.

In my dream I slept for a long time until the mama cat woke me up and said “look, look there, you’re a mama now too!” 

I got up and looked around.  Each of the animals I had released had gone off and released more of their own and all of them came to see me before heading off to release even more animals. It was a continual stream of animals now.

“See?” said the German shepherd, sitting down by my side. “See what you started?” 

The black cat climbed onto my shoulder and curled his tail gently around my neck. “All it took was one person. You, doing what you could.”

“But I can’t change what happened!” I cried. “I can not change the hatred in people’s hearts. All the people, all the animals!”

“No” whispered the cat. “No, you can’t change the past, but you can share the love that you have in yours with those around you. And while it may not change what has already happened, or even change that which has yet to happen, you can, by acting out of love, create a heaven for yourself and those around you, right here and now.”

And I woke up.

The Cry of the Crow

I wish that I could say I saved a life this morning.

How I was able to see a slightly less dark spot on the dark asphalt in the gloomy light that comes just before dawn, I have no idea. Perhaps it was the fact that it was twitching. Perhaps it was the fact that the crow that had been standing over it fluttered out of my way as I approached. But see it I did, and I couldn’t stop my heart from insisting on hitting the brake pedal and pulling over to the side of the road.

It wasn’t until I was standing over it that I could see it clearly; not a squirrel or other small creature like I had thought. It was a fledgling crow. It’s wing broken. It obviously had some internal injuries as well, and a broken leg. It was struggling bravely to make its way out of the road. The cars that kept roaring past clearly terrified it as it would give a feeble lurch every time one whooshed by.

A hard caw from not far away revealed an adult crow, probably the same one I had seen standing over it, which meant it was most likely a parent. They hadn’t been waiting to eat dying roadkill after all, but had been trying to help their baby.

I managed to scoop up the trembling youngster in both hands, and it regarded me with a pain bright eye, beak open, attempting to call out, though all that came out of its mouth was a sort of hissing sigh. I could feel the life draining out of it even as I held it and could feel the parent crow’s concern as clearly as if was that of another human mother regarding her injured child.

There was nothing I could do to save it. It was in pain and it was dying.

The only thing I could do was to move the fledgling to the tall grass on the far side of the busy road, telling the poor baby over and over again “I’m sorry sweetie, I’m so sorry” and then retreat, giving the parent a chance to say goodbye.

As I climbed back into my car and turned off the hazard lights, I saw the adult crow flutter over to the side of the road where I had put the young one, and I couldn’t help it, I burst into tears. At least the baby wouldn’t die alone.

No one wants to die alone. Not even a crow.

Perhaps if I had left it alone, left it where it was, the next car would have simply run it over altogether, putting it out of its misery in short order. But I couldn’t leave it, I just couldn’t.

You see, there is so much suffering in the world; too much fear and pain and suffering and injustice for one heart to handle. Far and away too much for one pair of hands to address. So often the pain and suffering of the world becomes so overwhelming that my heart can’t stand it and I have to turn off the news; stop doom scrolling and try not to let it tear my heart to shreds.

How do you stop the pain of a society so divided that it’s very heart and soul seem to be breaking?

How do you comfort a dying world?

How do you give hope to the hopeless?

When the enormity of the task becomes clear, so does the responsibility, and it is far, far too much for one individual to handle.

The only thing I can do, the only thing any of us can do, is to address the fear and pain, the suffering and injustice that is presented to us on a daily basis. Face it without flinching. Accept our role and do whatever we can, no matter if it is nothing more than putting a band aid on the skinned knee of a child, holding the hand of a loved one lost in the depths of dementia, offering a meal to a homeless person, listening to a friend who is attempting to work through a bad break up, or making a dying crow’s last minutes on earth as comfortable as possible.

For some of us, making a dying animal comfortable may be the worst thing that is ever put in our path. For others there are bigger decisions to be made, decisions that can impact whole families, communities, towns, states, countries, or even the world.

You and I may never be called on to make a world-changing decision, but the decisions that I do make can be made in love and with an eye to relieving whatever pain and suffering comes my way.

And perhaps, just perhaps, if each of us made the choice to relieve the fear and pain that are presented to us, no matter how small the matter seems, perhaps if we address whatever small sufferings and injustices are put in our path on a daily basis, perhaps then we could bring about the better world that our hearts long for. A world where everyone is cared for, no matter how insignificant they may appear to be in the grand scheme of things. A world where no one, not even a fledgling crow has to worry about dying alone.

What Rough Beast

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand.

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.  

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out  

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man, 

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,  

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it  

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.  

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,  

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

­-William Butler Yeats; The Second Coming

At least when the world ends it will be well-documented.

I mean seriously, the entire planet could be falling apart or the second coming will be in full swing and someone, somewhere is going to be tweeting their experience right up until the bitter end – or until they are whisked away to paradise, whichever may be their fate. The really weird part is that their words will probably be etched in the databanks of some communication satellite, unspoken and unread as the millennia pass until either civilization reaches a point where they can once again access the information stored there, or until an alien species that knows how to retrieve the data stumbles across it.

Yes, I know, the world is not ending. Yet. At least it has not ended for those of us who were fortunate enough to wake up this morning. For those of us who woke up with our loved ones safely at our sides, at least the world as we know it has not been turned upside down.

Not everyone has been so lucky.

Today, some people woke up as they usually do, only to be hit with the gut-wrenching realization that a loved one was no longer with them; with the knowledge that they will have to live the rest of their lives without ever seeing their faces or hearing their voices again.

Some never woke up at all.

For those who lost loved ones this last week in Texas, the world as they know it has ended; ended abruptly and violently. Their families, their lives will never be the same again.

No, it is not the end of the world. Yet. In truth, the entire human race could disappear and the world would more than likely eventually recover. Life would find a way.

No, it is not the world that is ending, but it is the end of society as we know it, at least society as we know it in the United States, and for some, that will be as devastating as the world itself coming to an end.

Why do I say that it is the end of American society as we know it? Because, the very definition of society (according to Merriam Webster) is “a community or group of people having common traditions, institutions, and interests.” This used to be true of the United States. Even with its myriad of races and religions and belief systems, and in spite of its obsession with capitalism and rugged individualism, there were common threads that bound us together. Namely, the belief in freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of action (as long as it does not impinge on someone else’s freedom) and freedom to worship, or not, as we see fit, (again, as long as it does not interfere with another’s choice to worship or not as they will). These beliefs were hard and fast threads that kept a society as diverse as ours from falling into total chaos and division.

While there have always been tensions between various factions and parties in our country, and while the various threads have sometimes been stretched to just shy of the breaking point, there have always been those willing to mend the breach, to bargain with the other side in order to reach a compromise that both sides can live with. Time and time again our shared beliefs, those binding threads, have pulled us back from the brink.

That was then. That was before the threads broke.

I’m not sure when exactly it happened. I’m sure a historian could pinpoint the exact moment, but the point is that we broke. At some point it became more important for one side to “own” the other, to refuse to consider legislation that would benefit both sides if it is introduced by their rivals because they can’t let the other side “win.” At some point it became the “goal” of each side to dominate everything from the senate to the courts to the school boards and to keep the “losing” side out of the decision-making process altogether (even though in any scenario, the ‘losing’ side usually represents nearly half of the population). At some point it became common practice to undo any changes made by a previous, competing administration. At some point it became okay to roll-back laws that have been in pace for decades because a vocal minority feel that the laws impinge on their religious beliefs.

It doesn’t matter who is “wrong” and who is “right.” The concepts of right and wrong are subjective. What is “right” for one person may be “wrong” for another based on their upbringing, education, religion etc. This is why our federal government is set up the way it is. Three separate branches; legislative, judicial and executive, each designed to provide checks and balances to the other and to make sure that all citizens, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation are treated fairly and given equal opportunity for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The whole purpose of our federal government is to ensure that the laws that govern the country as a whole are fair and equitable for everyone, not just for their voting base or for those who contribute the most to legislator’s campaign funds. That no matter what state you live in, you can be sure of your rights as a citizen of the United States. By unrolling federal regulations and federal laws and passing the decisions to be made regarding individual rights and liberties; rights that impact everyone in the country back to the individual states where local biases and prejudices can impinge on individual liberties and not be held accountable, then we can no longer claim to be a united anything.

The core of our constitution is that “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”And if we are not united in our belief that justice, domestic tranquility, defense, general welfare and liberty are the rights of all people – even those whose beliefs or lifestyle you disagree with – then you cannot claim to support the constitution. And if the core of our constitution is not upheld, then the center of American society as we know it cannot hold.

As the center crumbles away, anarchy will be loosed, innocence will be lost, there is a lack of conviction on the part of decent people, and passionate intensity in those who would have the rest of us conform, by force, if necessary, to their view of the world and our places in it.

I don’t know how this is going to end, whether with the bang of a civil war or the whimper of a society slowly dying from the inside out, but unless we can retie the broken threads, the one thing that is certain, is that the center will crumble and that the rough beast of anarchy and apathy will have its hour come ’round at last.

The Chest of a Thousand Drawers

The chest of a thousand drawers lived for years in a shadowy alcove between my grandparents’ kitchen and their downstairs hall. Actually, it didn’t have a thousand drawers, but since I never actually counted the number of drawers, and since the contents always seemed so mysterious to me, it may as well have been a thousand.

The chest was not very tall. It came up to my shoulders as an 11-year-old, was made of some kind of grayish metal with silver handles and little silver-edged boxes and on the front of each drawer that was clearly designed to hold some sort of label to describe the contents of the drawer. None of the squares had any labels. It was wedged under a shelf that had originally been designed to hold one of those old telephones with the mouthpiece on a stand and the earpiece you would hold up to your ear, but which now held a jumble of photo albums and old phone books.

I could and sometimes did spend hours rummaging through those many drawers and their intriguing, though sometimes unidentifiable contents, which seemed almost fluid in that I rarely found the same thing in the same drawer twice. And sometimes it seemed as if the entire contents of the chest had been replaced overnight.

In those drawers, over the years I found an ever-changing assortment of everyday items including (but not limited to); nails, screws, safety pins, bits of sandpaper, magnets, scraps of paper, some with writing on them, some blank and no two pieces the same, stubs of pencils, leaky batteries, hairpins, naked crayon pieces, knotted shoelaces, unopened packets of alcohol swabs, foam curlers, rusty screwdrivers of various sizes, paint brushes, yellowed index cards, the pieces of what must once have been a transistor radio, tassels from the living room draperies, an unopened packet of toothpicks still in its cellophane wrapping, random partially burned birthday candles, long expired coupons, a good number of buttons booth lose and still attached to papers, half used packets of garden seeds, stickers and petrified Christmas hard candies still wrapped in plastic.

Then there were the more unusual items that would seem to randomly turn up.

There was a tiny metal cylinder that moo’d like a cow when it was turned over. This had obviously belonged to some sort of toy and I felt a weird sort of guilt as I turned it over and over, wondering what toy was wandering around without its sound box, mute and unable to communicate with the world. This of all the items seemed always to be in the chest, though always in a different drawer.

Once I found a drawer full of random doll limbs and glass eyes that creeped me out so badly, I didn’t open the chest again for several weeks.

There was one day I discovered a stack of letters written on onion-thin paper and tied up with a faded green ribbon that was knotted so tight I never was able to get the knots open enough to free the letters, which I ended up putting back in the drawer unread.

Once I found a drawer full of leather scraps. The scraps were butter soft and hypnotic to the touch.  I kept finding them (though in different drawers) for almost two whole weeks, and then they were gone. I opened every drawer in the cabinet three times that day looking for those amazing leather scraps.  When I asked my grandfather about them, he claimed he’d never seen them. When I asked my grandmother, she just shrugged and said she wouldn’t be surprised at anything I found there.

When asked where the chest had come from, both of my grandparents gave the same sort of vague answers “oh we just picked it up somewhere” or “we’ve had that for years.” When I asked my mom about it, she shrugged and said that it had always been there when she was growing up. When I asked her if she remembered the contents changing, she said “well of course they change, people put things in and take things out. That’s what drawers are for.” When I tried to expound on what I meant, that the contents didn’t just change, like the normal contents of drawers, but sometimes seemed to change from day to day or from hour to hour, she got concerned and asked me if I was feeling okay. I never mentioned the drawers to her again.

My aunt found me rummaging one day and laughed when I told her about not being able to find the leather pieces. “That thing ate my paintbrushes once” she said, laughing. “I put them in the top drawer on the left-hand side, and when I went back the next day they were gone. Let me know if you find them, will you?”

“Did grandma take them maybe?”

“She claims she didn’t touch them. But someone did.”

“Maybe the chest did eat them!”

“Maybe it did at that.”

In spite of the possibility of its actually eating the things put into the drawers, I was never afraid of the chest. To my 11-year-old brain, the idea that it was somehow alive in some way seemed a better explanation than just the idea of regular people putting things in and taking things out, and though I was intrigued by it, I never put anything of my own in it, just in case.

I don’t know what happened to the chest of a thousand drawers. After my grandfather died and my grandmother, mom and I moved to a smaller house, I never saw it again. I have to assume that it had served its purpose in our family and had now ‘moved on’ to another home where some other 11-year-old is rummaging through its drawers, their curiosity sparking over items they have no name for and coming up with stories to tell themselves about the piles of old letters and odd bits of partially carved wood.

The Banner of Busyness

For once she allowed herself the luxury of doing absolutely nothing. And when she was done, she apologized to herself for the misunderstanding. It hadn’t been doing nothing after all, she had been resting her heart and feeding her soul”.

~JustSteph

Our society has a thing about being busy. We all complain about it, but simultaneously most of us take a weird, twisted sort of pride in it, as if, once we die, we will be able to wave the banner of busyness at the pearly gates and be guaranteed immediate entrance.

We all know the refrain; “I am so sorry, I’d really love to be able to help/go to/ see you with/at (fill in the blank) but I am really so busy, there is just no way to fit it in right now. Maybe next time?”

Most of us don’t take offense if someone uses the busy card. After all, we’ve all said it. We’ve all heard it. We all understand what it means. We know exactly what is going through someone’s head when they say it in a certain tone of voice. We might be a little hurt that they are too busy for us but really, we totally understand.

Yes, we all know what it feels like to be crazy busy; so busy that we hardly have time to brush our teeth, let alone floss. So busy that instead of sitting down for breakfast, we grab a muffin or bagel on our way out the door so as not to be late to work and then curse at the crumbs or coffee stains that get dribbled down our front. We spend out lunch break scarfing down something from a vending machine while making three different phone calls and checking our personal emails and bank deposits. We combine six errands on our way home from work, and, after eating a quick fix supper that we eat balanced on our knees while watching the evening news, we drop exhausted into bed at night with a whole list of things we wanted to do and never got to and feeling slightly guilty that we have to actually take time to sleep at all.

Weekends aren’t much better, especially for parents. Most times Saturday mornings are full of karate, dance or music lessons, afternoons are for soccer or football practices or games, Saturday nights are spent ferrying kids to parties, picking them up or dropping them off at movies or friends houses or hosting said parties and get togethers. Even those without kids end up most Saturdays running all the errands that couldn’t be done during the week and cursing out any business that doesn’t have Saturday hours because how on earth are we supposed to contact them when their business hours are the same as our working hours? (I’m looking at you doctor’s offices!)

And then there are Sundays. For those so inclined, Sundays may include Sunday School and/or church, which precludes any sleeping in and may go so far as to include pot lucks or afternoon services, and there goes your day.

For those not so inclined, it may be the one day of the week we get to actually sleep in, unless of course you have kids, or cats, in which case you will be getting up at the same time of day as the rest of the week unless you want to be jumped on or poked awake with carefully calculated claws. Maybe, just maybe you will have time to actually get some housecleaning done, or run the car through the car wash, do some yard work, or maybe get a start on cleaning out that closet. Or maybe not. Maybe you will just spend Sunday afternoon in your pajamas, binge watching some show that takes you away from all the stresses and ridiculousness of the week. But sooner or later on Sunday, usually just after 3 p.m., you will get that sinking feeling that tells you that you only have a few precious hours left until it is time to get ready for the new week and start the whole routine over again.

Why do we do it?

Why do we insist on keeping ourselves so busy that we never seem to have time for anything that truly rests or refreshes us? When did we forget what it is like to simply take time for ourselves to rest and recharge our batteries? Why is self-care so rarely on our list of priorities?

It is easy enough to say that we are too busy to take time for ourselves. We can even justify it by saying that our obligations to our work, our families, our church or whatever other groups we are involved in, preclude us from spending any time on frivolous self-indulgences.

The real problem is in our determination to insist to ourselves that any time spent on self-care is “self-indulgence.” Oh sure, we might find that we can justify a daily trip to the gym (have to be able to fit into those pants!) or a once-a-month trip to a hair salon (can’t be looking shaggy/have my roots showing at work!) But how long has it been since you truly did anything for yourself; anything that can in no way be justified as necessary, but which makes you feel absolutely amazing?

It is said that the Italians have a saying; “Il dolce far niente”, which can be translated as “the sweetness of doing nothing”. While there is some argument as to whether it is actually an Italian term or if it was devised by English speakers of the 1800’s in describing what they saw as Italians’ laid-back approach to life, the fact remains that the idea of “doing nothing” or, more accurately, taking time to unwind and recharge, has a distinct appeal, an appeal that is backed up by psychology.

“Taking care of yourself means compassionately accepting yourself for who you are instead of burning yourself out trying to be everything to everyone all the time. It’s living your life in a way that doesn’t leave you needing to check out or take a break just so you can have a bath, read a book, or sip tea.”

Psychology Today, April 23, 2021

The problem is, our society is so focused on busyness and accomplishment that if we purposefully slow down our pace (let alone taking time out altogether) we get hit with a wave of guilt over all of the things that we could have been doing; of all the time ‘wasted.’

But time spent on recharging your personal batteries is never time wasted. After all, you can’t get any mileage out of a car that has no fuel, and you feel no guilt over spending the time to pull into a gas station or hook up to a recharging station. Neither should you feel guilty over taking the time to refill your own inner battery. In fact, if it feels better, tell yourself that by taking time every day to recharge you are being proactive, because it is a known fact that if you refuse to take time to rest and regroup, eventually your body will break down and force you to rest. It will give you no choice.

So don’t wait to be forced into taking care of yourself. Find the time now to recharge. Do it today. Do whatever it takes to replenish your battery; Stop and smell the roses. Take a walk in the forest. Sit on the beach and watch the waves come in. Plant a garden. Go cloud watching. Splash in the mud puddles. Dance in the rain. Stare into the eyes of your cat. Whatever makes you happy; whatever makes your soul smile and fills you with awe and wonder, make time to do that. You will be happy that you did.

Will the Real Writer Please Stand Up?

Just like the concept of working from home, creative writing gets a bad rap. I can’t count the number of times I have told people what I do for a living and watch as they fight to keep from smiling.  Some don’t even try to fight it but just flat out laugh. It’s a joke to them; a poor excuse for someone who just can’t find or keep a ‘real’ job. 

I still remember one lovely person who, when I told her that I was a writer said “are you serious?” and then laughed as if she had never heard anything so funny. When I asked her what it was that she thought Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts did for a living and she wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes as she said “but sweetie, those are real writers.”

Well, she’s wrong. I may not yet be a popular writer (note the use of the qualifying word “yet” as the key part of that last phrase). I may not have my books on the best seller list. But they are published and they do sell. I may currently make the bulk of my writing income by writing blogs, giving creative writing seminars, creating newsletters and informational eBooks or by providing creative writing coaching to those who find the written word challenging, but that does not make me any less of a writer than those who are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars per book contract or who are getting assignments that pay thousands of dollars a pop. 

Unfortunately, this is a concept that many aspiring writers find distinctly difficult to grasp, and, when confronted with those who would belittle or criticize their claim to be a writer they become depressed over their seeming lack of recognition and sometimes even give up writing altogether.

Perhaps they give up because, in the back of their heads they have the expectation that their talent will immediately be recognized and that they will go from being a total unknown and unpublished writer to an overnight success at the top of the New York Times best seller list. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is quite a bit different.

Yes, there are a few rare individuals who have extraordinary talent and who are in just the right place at the right time and get recognized immediately, but most writers have to work at their craft. Like any other talent or skill, writing has to be honed, practiced and refined and this means writing on a daily basis. 

Most writers start out by honing their writing skills while maintaining a day job. Those who are truly addicted will make a point of trying to find a way to work on improving their writing skills in whatever way they possibly can, writing on lunch breaks, weekends or late into the night.

Personally, I got started in writing for a living by helping fellow college students refine their papers. At first I would sit down with them for free and go over their reports and papers, helping them to tighten up their prose or making suggestions as to new ways to approach the subject. Then someone made the suggestion that I could actually make money by offering my services for a small fee. As your standard starving student, that sounded good to me! And sure enough, there were enough fellow students who were desperate to make suggestions for improvements to their papers that they were more than willing to pay a small fee to have me go over their work, especially when most times it resulted in a jump in letter grade.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a writer since I learned out to write. As a kid I scribbled stories in my spare time. I was on the newspaper staff in both high school and college. As a young adult, I submitted bits and pieces to local newspapers and local writing contests, but I didn’t realize that I could actually do this as a regular job until I actually was.

For years writing was just a second job; a secondary source of income that helped to ‘fill in the gaps’ so to speak; gaps left by my “bread and butter” day job. Now writing and helping others improve their writing is my bread and butter, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Do I still have my eye on the New York Times best seller list? Of course, I do! I have great hopes for my current in-process novel. Doesn’t every writer? But in the meantime, I write. I write because I can’t not write. And that need to write, to tell a story, that is what defines a real writer. By that definition, no matter what that long ago lady once said, I am very much a real writer, and if you love to write, you so are you!

All The Pretty Horses

When I was little I used to go to the fair or a carnival and feel so bad for the merry-go-round horses.

It was so sad! They had a pole through their bodies and never got to go anywhere except around and around foever.

Some nights after visiting the fair I would dream that I was a merry-go-round girl; that there was a pole bolted into the carousel platform keeping me from being free and that I was doomed to forever travel in the same circle, doing the same thing over and over again for eternity.

But most of the time I dreamed that I could set the carousel horses loose.

I used to imagine that when the carnival would close for the night i would be able to say the magic words that would allow those brightly colored carousel horses to shake the paint flakes out of their manes, throw off the bolts and poles that kept them tethered and finally be able to run free into the night.

Some nights I even dreamed about it; whisperimg words into painted ears, then watching as their flat painted eyes would blink in the moonlight and become real eyes; eyes full of life and energy and then watching the transformation of garish painted wooden horse bodies into real, breathing creatures galloping through the night.

I used to love that dream.

As I got older the dream of the carousel horses faded away until it was just a memory. Until one night, not that long ago, it came to me again. Only this time it had a nightmarish quality.

At first it wasnt so bad. I was a child again, awed by the fantastic beauty of the painted carousel horses. As before I whispered the magic words, but this time the horses didn’t break free.

This time the painted wooden horses remained stationary and lifeless. I went from one to another, crying and begging “Wake up! Please wake up!” And I could feel that they had life inside them, but that there was something keeping them from becoming the gloriously free horses that I knew they were inside.

And then the horses began to change. They were turning real like before, but this time they remained pinned to the platform; bolts piercing their hooves. This time they were writhing as they revolved on the ever turning carousel platform, warm bodies skewered by the poles that held them stationary, and there was nothing I could do to free them.

In fact, my magic words had made things worse. They had woken the horses up, but I could not set them free.

They had to set themselves free.

The magic words could wake them up, make them realize that they were indeed living horses and not wooden carnival attractions, but they had to choose to free themselves from the tethers that kept them pinioned to this ever revolving fun house.

I woke up crying.

You see, we are not so very different than those carnival horses. We are born with the potential, with the ability to become those glorious creatures, our imaginations and creativity running free and creating a reality beyond our wildest dreams.

Instead we become tethered, pinnioned, bolted to the ever turning floor of societal religious and familial expectations. Stand still. Sit straight. Smile. Speak when you are spoken to. Time to go to school. Time to get a job, get married, get a house, have children and start the cycle all over again, nailing the baby carousel horses feet firmly to the platform for their own good.

How rare is it that we see a carousel horse break free of its restraints? How often have you seen those painted wooden horses shake the paint flakes out of their manes and run free into the night?

There are no magic words that can set them free. Perhaps there are words that can make them realize who they are deep inside, under the wooden saddles and the layers of paint and varnish. But those glorious carousel horses have to be the ones to shake off the paint flakes, shrug out of their restraints and head off into the moonlit night of freedom and possibility.

~JustSteph

Making Friends With the Fog

We woke up this morning deep in a fog bank. It was surreal. Tendrils of mist crept into the room when I opened the balcony door and quested into corners seeking out whatever it is that fog searches for. So we made cups of hot chocolate and coffee, donned sweatshirts and sat out on the balcony, making friends with the fog instead of shutting it out. Letting our eyes adapt to the swirling,, changing patterns and listening to the deafening dawn chorus of birds and the gentle, underlying shushing of the sea.

There are times when, as a nation, as a society, our vision is clouded. We see the billowing clouds of anger and the fogs of discontent rolling towards us and our first thought is to protect ourselves, to shut them out, to focus inward and ignore what is happening around us, to turn on the TV and binge watch something that takes your mind off things. We close the doors and flip on the electric lights and crank up the heat until it all goes away and we are comfortable once more.

But maybe, just maybe, the sooner we open the balcony door of our minds and allow ourselves to truly SEE what we have become, what is generating the storms, to invite the fog in so that we can come to understand what it searches for and what we can do to help it in it’s quest, the sooner the storms will pass and the fogs will dissipate and allow us all to bask in the healing rays of the sun.

-JustSteph, 6/6/20

The Great Pause

One day you will be able to look back on early 2020 and say “I survived The Great Pause”

The Great Pause: a brief moment in time whe the world stood still, peoples and nations united, however briefly, against a common enemy.

A moment when people were given the time to re-evaluate their priorities and decide what things are important enough to die for, and what lengths they are willing to go to to protect those they love, or even those they will never meet.

A moment when earth took the first full, deep breath she had been allowed in a hundred years and when wildlife of all sizes and shapes began wandering back into lands that they had been chased from decades earlier.

We got a glimpse of the kind of world we could have chosen. A simpler world. A quieter world. A world where people care unconditionally about their loved ones, their neighbors, total strangers and the living breathing world that they call home.

It is sad that it took thousands of lives lost to even give us that glimpse into this alternate reality.

It is even sadder that there are those for whom the quiet and the simplicity glimpsed are so repulsive that they will risk death itself to break free of it. That they would sacrifice those they love to get back to the hustle of “normality” where the world is so loud that they don’t have to think.

This is not an all or nothing game. We don’t have to choose whether we want quiet and simplicity or the pre-pandemic hustle. Each of us has the ability to choose which pieces of each reality we want to incorporate into our post-pandemic world.

The choice, as always, is yours.

Where the Wild Things Grow

I always feel so guilty when I thin out seedlings.  I even find myself apologizing; “I’m sorry sweetie, I know you were trying your best, if I had space each and every one of you would get the chance to grow to your full potential.”

In a way I find myself akin to the ones that don’t make the cut.  In almost every area of my life that has always been the case.   I may be well read and have a lot of knowledge in a wide variety of areas; a lot of skills in a wide variety of specialties, but someone else is always better.  Someone else always gets the lead role, the award, the solo, the contract, the promotion.  In the end I always get weeded out.

I don’t hold it against them, the ones who win. They worked hard for it.  In most cases, they have dedicated their lives to this one thing be it academics, music, drama, a career, or whatever else it is that they succeed at.  They deserve it, and I will be the first one to congratulate them on a job well done. 

It does sting though, to admit that I will never be quite good enough to be best; that somehow I always end up in the supporting role, in the chorus, as part of the team support, or as the wind beneath their wings, the one the successful ones mention when they thank all of those that got them there and made this possible.

It is the dabbling that it is my downfall you see.  So many successful people know what they want to do with their lives from the time that they are kids.  For most it has been their lifelong focus.  They start gymnastics or ballet at the age of three and go on to win tournaments and perhaps go on to the Olympics or make a career out of being a ballerina or teaching others to dance or tumble.

Perhaps they have been playing the violin since the age of six and their dream is to play in a professional orchestra or come up with the next immortal symphony.  Perhaps they have been drawing since they were born and so it should come as no surprise when they open their own art gallery or become a famous illustrator or find their niche in teaching or painting. 

Some people find mathematics or science or religion and throw themselves into their vocation with a diligence that always amazes me.  Seriously, to spend a career studying one type of molecule or a specific type of invertebrate?  I am astounded by their dedication to their chosen topic.  Even more astounded at their insights and the advances that they contribute to humanity’s body of knowledge. 

These successful individuals work harder than I do, I will admit that.  They dedicate their lives to one thing; throwing themselves into their chosen vocation with a focus that is simultaneously admirable and terrifying, so it is no wonder to me that they succeed.

Part of me wishes that I could have that sort of focus, but another part of me shudders in horror at the thought of being locked into any one thing for my entire life.

And so, I will settle for being a weeded-out seedling.  After all, it’s not like they get tossed out in the trash.  They get tossed into the woods; discarded in favor of the bigger, stronger and more beautiful. 

But discarded seedlings still have the opportunity to bloom and grow and become what they were meant to be, even if it is out of sight in the woods where the wild things are.

Uninhibited by containers or boundaries, this seedling’s roots will grow deep and wide.  Her blossoms and fruit will be found in the most unexpected places and at the least expected times.

And so, I will perform for the ground hogs and the rabbits.  I will write stories for the crows and for the hawks.  I will sing for the deer and paint my pictures for the Fisher Cats.  My performance reviews will be written by moonlight and documented in the leaves of the trees and my riches will be in the golden spill of morning sunlight, the silver sparkles on the river, and in the knowledge of a life not contained by anyone or anything, but where every moment has been lived to the fullest.

Taking Out the Trash

It is everywhere.

You don’t have to go looking for it.

Turn on the news; it doesn’t matter what channel. You’ll find it there.

Scroll through social media; any platform will do. You’ll find it there too; permeating the atmosphere like the stench of rotting garbage.

Anger. Hatred. Violence; the by-products of fear.

There is one very real thing about the stench of over-ripe garbage, and that is that no matter how much deodorizing spray you squirt, no matter how much lemon-scented soap you use, you can’t truly get rid of the smell unless you take out the trash.

Now before anyone gets their panties in a bunch, I’m not talking about voting one political party or another in, or out of office. It doesn’t matter WHO gets in. In truth, unless we deal with the underlying fear, it doesn’t matter who wins, WE LOSE. Why? Because we haven’t taken out the garbage. We haven’t dealt with the fear.

Until we deal with the fear, the stench will remain; a constant reminder of the rottenness at the core.

You have heard it said that people fear what they don’t understand.

This is true of EVERYONE who gets angry for a cause.

In the current political climate you have one side you have where individuals’ fears stem from the changes that they see as coming with a progressive platform (they want to take away our guns / kill our unborn babies/ turn everyone gay / give our hard-earned money away to freeloaders/open our boarders up to violent criminals etc.).

On another you have those who’s fears come from the contemplation of a world where conservative views impinge on the inroads progressive platforms have made in the last hundred years (they want to take away our social security/steal our medicare/deny us the right to marry who we want/keep us from affordable health care/deny us the right to love who we want/ attempt to control our bodies / punish us because we are a different skin color or religion etc.).

I’m not saying that the fears on either side are not justified. There are plenty of those on BOTH sides who can give convincing arguments as to why they are right and why everyone else is wrong. But at the end of the day those that act out of fear, even if it is for a “just” cause, have more in common with their opponents than they would like to think.

Why? Because the anger and the hatred and the need to justify one’s position or view point or ideology ALL STEM FROM FEAR.

I’m not saying that the issues being argued are not important. They ARE important, extremely so. This is a pivotal moment for our country and I am not saying that we should sit back and do nothing. I am merely pointing out that no matter what side you take, no matter what your personal views on a subject may be and no matter how justified you may think those views are, if you are acting from a place of fear, you lose.

What I am saying is that we ALL lose if we do not address the fear that lies behind all of the anger and hatred.

Confronting one’s fears is never an easy thing to do. Most people avoid it like the plague.

It is not done by forcing political, social or religious views on those who disagree with you whether by posting angry memes or passing legislature designed to suppress the opposing side.

It is not done by arguing and getting defensive every time someone disagrees with you.

And it is certainly not done by picking up a handy weapon and killing those that you fear.

Fear is not always loud and obnoxious and obvious. It can be insidious. It is pervasive. It hides in just causes and in thinking you have the high moral or intellectual ground in a situation.

In fact, there is only one thing in this world powerful enough to counter fear, and that is love

Yes, love.

Stop wincing, I’m not talking about new age cosmic love; all glitter and unicorns and “good thoughts”. I’m not talking about the kind of love that features in pop songs and teen magazines or indeed romantic love at all.

The kind of love I’m talking about does not look at one’s outward appearance or bank account or position or political ideology, or how many time’s one meditates a week or national identity or religious affiliation or sexual orientation to deem another worthy of being loved.

I’m talking about the kind of love that empowers another to be their best self by believing in their worth as a human being.

I’m talking about the kind of love that fills up your heart and heals you from the inside out.

A person with that kind of love in their heart simply loves. Everyone. Without reservation or judgement.

I’m talking about unconditional love.

To come from a place of unconditional love in every decision that we make as individuals, as communities, and as a country is the only way to counter the fear. And it is the only way to undo the damage that millennia of living from fear has caused.

By living from love we don’t just take out the garbage of our own fears and the innate fears that come from being human, we transform them. We turn those fears into compost; fertilizer that feeds the soul and strengthens the human spirit.

Unconditional love is real.

Living from a place of unconditional love is possible.

It is as simple as choosing in each moment to ask yourself “what would love do?”

And then go out and do it.

-Just Steph. October 30 2018

Consume This!

stuffWe live in a messed up world.  No, let me rephrase that, we live in a messed up society.  No, let me be even more specific.  We are messed up because we live in a consumer society which throws the natural balance so out of true that we actually think that this is the way things are supposed to be.

Do you know what a consumer society is?  It is a society that has been designed to (drumroll please) CONSUME.  Everything about the way that society works is tied to the purchasing of more stuff.

That’s right, our entire society is based on the concept of consumption.

Now don’t get me wrong, consumption is a necessary part of life.  I mean, everyone has to eat, so food needs to be grown or purchased.  Everyone needs shelter so houses are built and bought or apartments are rented out.  We have to keep warm.  We have to keep the lights on.  We have to keep the water running.  We have to keep ourselves clothed.  But these are necessities.

What I am talking about when I say a consumer society is a society where the purchase of unnecessary surplus stuff is the end game.  It is why buy a car we can’t afford to drive to a job we hate to be able to afford to buy stuff we don’t need in order to impress people who couldn’t care less about us.

We are bombarded daily with advertisements and marketing ploys that try to coerce us into buying yet more stuff.  We are encouraged to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous and are subtly (and not so subtly) exposed to the notion that the latest fashion, the newest upgrade, the coolest gadgets or the largest big screen TV will  somehow, magically, bring us happiness.

Thanks to our continual cultural immersion in the concept of “buying” happiness most people’s first instinct when they are feeling down is to go out and buy something.  For those who find themselves consistently unsatisfied in their work or in their relationships, this can translate into a serious problem with binge shopping taking the place of getting right down to the heart of the underlying issues.

I was once just as hooked into the idea of buying happiness as anyone else.  I was stuck in a loveless marriage and working a dead end job.  Shopping gave me a temporary boost that always drained away as soon as I got home and unpacked my bags.  And then, 18 months ago, I was given a gift; a chance to start over again; a chance to re-create my life from the ground up.

I found myself with a single car load of clothes books and personal items 600 miles from where I had lived for the previous 12 years, signing a lease for a totally unfurnished apartment.  My first night spent on an air mattress and eating standing up at the counter made me feel a bit like a college student in her first apartment.  But as I looked around at the gorgeously bare rooms I knew that, at the age of 46, I was being handed a once in a lifetime opportunity; the opportunity to create for myself exactly the kind of life that I had always wanted.

The first order of business, of course, was to furnish my apartment.  I needed everything, from  furniture and linens to kitchen items, lamps, rugs and everything in between.  And it was then that I made my first rule I wasn’t going to have anything in my apartment that I didn’t absolutely love.  In fact, I was in the middle of making a list of things I needed for my apartment when it dawned on me that I needed to be using this same rule of thumb for everything in my life whether it was things or people.

I began weighing everything – and everyone in my lift by one those two simple guidelines; did I absolutely love them?  And, did they make me smile?

You’d be surprised, or maybe not, to see just what a difference these guidelines made in my life. Instead  of just letting everyone in; instead of spreading myself too thin doing things for people who were only concerned with how much I could do for them, I had surrounded myself with those who truly cared, not just for what I could do for them, but for who I was, as a person.

When it came to things I also found that when you are dealing with things you absolutely love you find that there is a natural limit in the amount of things you can have in your life before you reach your saturation point.  And so, because I didn’t need more than I had, instead of just buying to make myself feel better, I had to find a new way of dealing with unhappiness in my life.  And you know what I found?  I found that experiences trump things every time.

Doing thing with, going on adventures with the people who mattered most made for a far more satisfying life than just accumulating more things because the “getting” of them felt so good.  Taking long walks, having long talks, playing games, making memories, that was what life was all about.

Who knows, maybe in some small way I am, by choosing not to engage in unfettered consumption, contributing to the downfall of our economy, perhaps even our society.  But I’ll take that risk.  The satisfaction I get from accumulating experiences and smiles and laughter and love far outweigh the temporary satisfaction to be had from stuffing myself and my home with non-necessities.

 

Isn’t it Just Ducky

duck“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

This, my friends, is called “the duck test” and it is one of the biggest pieces of crap advice in existence.

The duck test implies that anyone – you, me, that guy on the bench over there, that any of us can identify a heretofore unknown subject by observing that subject’s habitual characteristics; that by perceiving its form we can make an educated guess as to what it is; what it is for or (and this is the part that really ticks me off) its motives and thought process.

Now mind you, I won’t argue that a quacking, paddling, feather wrapped avian with a bill and webbed feet is probably a member of the Anatidae family, but I have just enough common sense to realize that it might be something else entirely, perhaps a species of bird I have never seen before, or even something totally non-duck, like a decoy, an animatronic creation or even a holographic image.  And I am certainly not going to assume that just because it registers with my brain as a “duck” that I know the first thing about WHY it is doing what it is doing, or what it plans on doing next.

It all comes down to the fact that when it comes to perception and understanding, most of us are lazy.  We would rather glance at the object, register it as a duck, then quickly tuck it into the pigeon hole in our brain labeled “ducks and duck-like behavior” and simply forget about it.  Not important.  We are now free to move along to more important things.  Like what we’re going to have for supper and the most recent celebrity drama.

While the duck test may be useful when it comes to sorting through not so important things, thus freeing up the brain for more important matters, it is far too often used by those of little understanding to explain why it is that an individual has chosen a particular course of action.

Instead of stopping to consider all of the possible reasons and giving the individual the benefit of the doubt, the duck test allows the one sitting in judgement of the person’s actions to make broad, sweeping assumptions based on that person’s past behavior or even assumptions of their past behaviors.  They use these assumptions to give their world definition; to make certain that everything inside of it is neat and tidy and precisely categorized.  The end result being that the person whose actions are being judged gets labeled a duck when really they are a wolf, or a dolphin, or even a lion.

Of course when the individual passing judgement is presented with the truth of the person or thing their preconceived ideas tend to get in the way and prevent them from seeing it (or them) as anything other than what they have convinced themselves it is.

Far far better to take the time initially to see a thing – an idea – a belief or even a person for exactly who and what they really are than to be rudely awakened latter on.  It will of course when you’ve convinced yourself that the lion penned up in your barnyard is really a duck it comes as a great shock when it suddenly shakes out its mane, lets out a roar and eats your ducks for lunch.

 

UPSIDE IN

There are days
And times.
There are words
And signs.
There are tears
And smiles
To make it worth
Your while.

There are hopes
And dreams
And nothing’s as
It seems.
What you lost
Is found
In perfect silence
Sound.

In the darkness
Light
In your blindness
Sight
In your joy
Is pain
In every loss
there’s gain.

In freedom you
Are bound
Subtracting you
Compound
What you don’t release
Won’t stay
And from the night
Comes day

So when you read this
Know
That what you reap
you sow
In chaos is
The plan
And in the child
Man
~ sshenry

The Curse of the Zombies

American-Gothic-zombies[1]Have you seen them?  Have you seen the soulless ones that go about their daily routines with focused footsteps and empty eyes?  For all that they walk and talk and eat and sleep and take their young to little league games, they are, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than functional zombies.  Reverse zombies actually, for instead of feasting on brains they crave the type of activities and entertainment that drain the brain from any sort of normal functionability.

Have you seen their single-minded determination to glorify war and the ease with which they dismiss violence, whether it is the killing people or animals, as just a natural part of life?  They are of course, egged on by the governments that maintain their economies by dreaming up more wars and then sending off young men and women to die in the name of capitalistic patriotism.

Have you listened to the mindless blithering of their news pundits?  Oh they make it sound important; they gloss their words with self-importance and urgency.  But when you sit down and take the time to decipher what it is they’re saying you discover that they really aren’t saying anything at all.

Have you felt the fear that they generate whenever they encounter anything that isn’t part of their normal world view?

Have you felt the anger that radiates off of them whenever someone or something doesn’t act the way that they have been taught that they should?

Now, have you ever wondered how it is that they got this way?

I can tell you what happened.

You see, once upon a time these were normal, everyday, ordinary people who loved and laughed and lived.  But one day they stopped listening to their hearts.  They got so wrapped up in building their villages and towns; in creating their societies where everyone had a place and a purpose, that they forgot what it was to truly be alive.

They got so focused on planning  how to make this world  that they had created run better and more efficiently, that they stopped enjoying the moment they were living in.  They became so obsessed with making sure that everyone and everything followed the regulations that they had enacted that they stopped thinking for themselves, becoming instead a mindless horde of zombies; zombies intent on creating the entire world into their image.

And so it is that the the soulless ones grew in numbers until it was simply an accepted part of life that you lived out your days according to the expectations of those who had raised you and the society in which you lived.  And it didn’t matter if you were dead inside, as long as you learned what you were expected to learn and worked at what you were told.

And every now and again you will find that one of the zombies stops shuffling to and fro as directed.  Instead they stop quite still and look around them with the kind of shock and awe you would expect if you found yourself waking up from a Matrix-like dream.

Of course most of those who find themselves being shocked by the true nature of their lives easily succumb to going back to the way things were.  A little fear; the mention that jobs are about to be cut; it doesn’t take much.  The fear of losing what they have is greater than the desire to break free.

And then there are those who, when the attempt is made to heard them back into the fold; back into compliance, simply throw back their heads and laugh.  They wouldn’t go back for the world.  The curse of the zombies is broken.  They have finally re-discovered their souls, and it is time to truly live free.

HALFWAY TO DEAD

“Most peoveilple die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.”  -Benjamin Franklin

It was the damndest thing.  I was at the mall, eeling my way through a school of teenagers when I heard a snatch of conversation between two boys that stopped me dead in the water:

“Dude, she’s like 40 years old!  That’s like halfway to dead!”

Mind you, they were talking about a pop singer, but for some reason his words resonated in my brain like John Donne’s proverbial bell.

To be perfectly honest, at first I couldn’t believe what I’d heard and my initial reaction was simply to brush aside the comment.  After all, what did it matter that a fifteen year old punk thought that a singer over forty wasn’t worth listening to because she was “halfway to dead?”

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that this one random piece of overheard conservation is indicative of everything that is wrong with our culture; of the prevailing attitude regarding anyone or anything that doesn’t provide instant satisfaction and gratification; of the tendency to view anyone over the age of forty (or anything that hasn’t been written, produced, published, aired, designed or conceptualized in the last 24 months) to be irrelevant; of the “me first!” mentality that has turned our society into a self-centered, ego-centric parody of itself.

We live in a take-out world of fast food, quick fixes, one minute makeovers; a world where if you either learn to adapt to the rapidly changing social structure or you get left in the dust; a world where old age is seen as a curse, education is seen as a joke and the answer to all of life’s problems lies in drinking from the fountain of youth and being able to fit into our skinny jeans even after we’ve had two children. And it is this youth-obsessed, egocentric culture that has generated the idea of the mid-life crises as joke; as a desperate bid by those past their prime to hold on to the glory of youth and try one last time to make their mark on the world.

Everyone has seen the characterization of the aging middle-aged man combing his hair over his bald spot, buying a sports car, and trading in his wife for a younger, perkier model.  For women this same time frame is portrayed as the 40-something year old woman or “cougar” getting plastic surgery and headed out on the prowl for a younger, virile man, because don’t you know, it’s all about the sex and, in a youth-obsessed culture – it is understandable (if laughable) that older men and women would be so scared of getting old that they would do whatever it takes to make themselves desirable once again.

The Mid-Life Re-Evaluation

You see, what it really comes down to is the mis-use of the term “crisis” for what happens to so many people at the mid-point of their lives is not so much about fearing death – about trying to regain their youth or proving their virility by taking on younger lovers as it is about the realization that they are at the half-point of their lives and have not yet begun to live.

Most people in western society settle down in their mid-twenties.  They acquire a full-time job, a spouse, and, over the years, children, a mortgage, credit card bills, social standing in the community and even positions of responsibility and respect in their churches.  But while for all intents and purposes they appear to have a “good life” too many are just going through the motions.  Far too many people are dying inside.

For their whole lives they have been living for the weekends, for vacations, intent on getting the next promotion, the bigger house, getting the kids out of school and into the right colleges, for retirement, convinced that eventually they will reach a plateau of happiness where they can finally draw a deep breath and where their lives will finally have meaning, where they can finally relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The only problem is, it never arrives.  There is always another bill, another event, another concern, another upcoming event; a web of responsibilities and obligations that keep them tethered to the soul-less job and the loveless marriage.  And so, many people “break out” of the mold in an act of almost teenage rebellion.  Having been immersed in a consumer society where the acquisition of things is equated with elevated happiness, most of those who hit this crises point do something stereotypical, like quitting their job, taking a younger lover, buying a flashy car thinking that these things will somehow give their lives meaning.

energy2And then there are those who instinctively understand that there is more going on than meets the eye; that this isn’t about things.  This isn’t even about reclaiming their youth.  This is about stripping away all of the layers of veneer and varnish that society insists that they wear in order to be considered acceptable.  This is learning how to reconnect with the authentic self.  This is about moving past what religions and governments and even friends or family expect from them.  This is about remembering who and what they really are while there is still enough time to experience life; while there is still enough time to appreciate the wonder and mystery that surround them.  This is nature’s wake up call.  This isn’t about being “halfway to dead.”  This is a clarion call to those who hear it and who have the wisdom to understand that it is time to stop going through the motions and truly start to live.

The Invisible Man

love1There was once an invisible man.

No one knew that he was invisible.  Not really, for the invisible man kept himself impeccably dressed,  and was always active and while the man himself may have been invisible, the clothes were not, and his actions had just as much of an impact on the world as those of a visible man would have had.  But no matter what he did, no matter what he did, no one ever realized that he was invisible.

And so it was that the man went about having a normal life.  He worked a normal job and had a normal wife and normal children and normal friends.  The years went by and the invisible man went grocery shopping and barbequed with the neighbors and went to church and attended school concerts and went out to eat, it never ceased to amaze the man that so many people could look right at him; that they could interact with him on a daily basis; listen to him talk, accept money from his hand and never actually see that there was nobody there at all.

Each person that interacted with saw who they wanted to see.  They saw the employee with the stellar reputation.  They saw the father who took such good care of his family.  They saw the active church member who always volunteered time with the elderly.  Even his wife saw only the good husband who always remembered her birthday and anniversary and paid the bills on time.  And the man would wonder as they talked to him, as they commended him for a job well done, as they praised his generosity and talent, whether they ever bothered to actually look for him, or if somehow they just projected the image of who they wanted to see on his invisible body.  But every time he looked in the mirror, he was forcibly reminded of the fact that where a man should have been there was only the shell of a man; a shell wrapped in nice clothes and defined by the expectations of those around him.

As the years went by the invisible man became restless.  When people praised him or criticized him he would laugh outright.  Who were they kidding?  Who were they talking about?  They didn’t know him – nobody did.

Finally, one day when he got home from work he stood in front of his mirror and slowly took of all of his clothes.  Piece by piece he let them fall to the floor and he stood there, staring at himself in the mirror, willing himself to become visible.  When nothing happened he took a deep breath, turned on his heel and walked out of his house, down the driveway, and never looked back.

The invisible man walked for days.  He spoke to no one.  Without his clothes and without the expectations of his friends and co-workers, it was as he wasn’t just invisible, but that he didn’t exist.  The further he walked the more depressed he became, until finally the invisible man collapsed onto stretch a deserted park bench in a small town during the middle of the night.  Wrapping his arms around his chest he sobbed uncontrollably.  Who was he?  What was he?  How come no one could see him?  How come he couldn’t see himself.

“You know” said a quiet voice quite near to him.  “It can’t be that bad.”

The invisible man startled out of his sobs and looked around him, ashamed that someone had caught him crying.

It took him a moment, but after a while his eyes picked out a young woman sitting on the grass under a tree not more than 20 feet away.  She wasn’t looking at him.  She was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest and seemed to be in a deep sort of despair herself.

“Are you ok?” asked the man quietly, drying his tears on the back of his hand.

The girl shrugged, a delicate gesture that spoke volumes.  “How about yourself?” she asked quietly, eyes still not meeting his.

“I’ve been better” he said, shrugging himself.

“Want to tell me about it?” she asked.

“Tell you what” said the man, “I’ll tell you about myself if you promise to tell me about yourself in return” he offered.

“You’ve got yourself a deal” said the girl, and she began to talk.

For the next four weeks the invisible man went back to the same park and the same bench every night, and every night the girl was there, and every night they took turns talking about themselves and after a while they moved on from the things that were bothering them to the things that they liked.  They began talking about art and books and movies that they had seen and places that they wished to travel to.  They talked about beliefs and dreams and shared hopes and discussed possibilities.  They began bringing their favorite books to read passages from them to each other and exchange little gifts when the night was through; a pomegranate, a book mark, a small bouquet of wild flowers picked from the fields outside of town.

Before the month was up the man found that he had fallen in love with the sad girl.  Except that she wasn’t so very sad any more.  She smiled far more than she had, and he found himself entranced with how her face lit up when she smiled, and he was more than a little startled the night when she looked up at him, right into his eyes, and smiled as if he was the most wonderful thing she had ever seen.  Except that she couldn’t possibly see him – no one could.  He couldn’t even see himself.

He tried to explain it to her that he was invisible, that she was only seeing what she expected to see, and she laughed at him.

“Don’t be silly” she told him, giving him a playful poke in the ribs.  “I can see you plain as day.  You are handsome and funny and full of life.  You have a big heart and are not afraid to be there for other people when they need you.  Your laugh is contagious, you are highly intelligent, but most of all – you care.  Do you realize what a rare person you are?”

She reached out a hand and traced the outline of his lips with her finger tip.  “I see you” she whispered.  “I SEE YOU”.  And softly she kissed him full on the lips.

In that moment his world collapsed into myriad shards around his feet then reassembled themselves with her at the center of his universe.  And a moment later she had taken his hand and held it up in front of his face.  “Can you see?” she whispered in his ear, and with amazement he realized that he could see his hand.  He jumped to his feet and stumbled to the fountain where the rising sun was casting a thin golden light on the surface of the water.

He looked down and, for the first time in his life, he saw himself looking back,

Collapsing to his knees the man let out a sob of wonder.  “What is this?”  He asked, holding out his hands in front of him and looking at them from every angle.  “How did you do this?

“All you needed” whispered the girl quietly, taking his hand in hers, “all you needed was to be seen.”  She kissed him softly on the forehead then added “consider it my gift to you, for saving my life.”

“I didn’t” began the man

“I was planning on drowning myself in the fountain that night” admitted the girl.  “And then you came and, well, that was that”.

“It’s like magic” murmured the man, turning his face to the rising sun.

“It’s love” smiled the girl taking his hands and pulling him with her to a standing position.  “But you’re right, to be loved unconditionally, to be seen, truly seen for who and what you are, that is true magic” said the girl, smiling, and she began to laugh delightedly, and he found that her laughter was so contagious that he couldn’t help but laugh as well.

And so it was that the visible man and the no longer sad girl stood hand in hand in the sunlight, and greeted their first morning together with love and laughter an they both knew that their worlds would never be the same again.

 

 

Toothpaste and Mud Puddles

puddles_380x220_1436058a[1]

Have you ever had a moment of such incredible happiness that you found yourself wondering “what did I do to deserve this?”  I have.  And that one question my friends, is a clear cut example of what a twisted culture we live in. You see, happiness is not something that you deserve.  It is not something that you can earn or that you acquire either by earning enough brownie points with a qualified deity or by collecting the appropriate number of box tops.  Happiness is something we are.  In fact, it is our default state.

Don’t believe me?  Spend some time around small children some time.  I’m not talking about school aged kids who are already knee deep in learning how to envy those around them for the things that they don’t have or for getting the ‘good’ seat on the bus.  I mean small children; babies and toddlers.

The average toddler has a better grasp on happiness than most adults on this planet.  Of course they haven’t yet developed reasoning or social skills and have more energy than the average power plant on a high production day and sometimes still have to wear diapers, but if you spend any length of time around them you will notice that when it comes to happiness, they’ve got it nailed down.  Their whole being radiates with happiness because they are entirely focused on whatever it is that they are doing; watching a caterpillar balance on a twig, jumping into mud puddles, watching a kitten play, squeezing all of the toothpaste out of the tube.

We have forgotten how to do this.  We have forgotten how to be happy.  We have forgotten how to radiate happiness with every particle of our being.  We have forgotten the joy of watching all that toothpaste curl out onto the counter.

We go along, day after day, year after year focused on our education, on our work, on providing for our families and on juggling bills.  And while that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, when we begin putting aside our own happiness in order to better focus on these “more important” things we lose the knowledge of what it means to be completely and blissfully happy.

Humans are social animals.  They want to fit in.  They want to belong.  For millennia like-minded individuals have created villages and towns and cities and religions. They have created clubs and teams and organizations so that they could come together and socialize; interact; share their experiences as humans.

In a world that is marked by suburban sprawl and almost wholly bereft of any sort of social or cultural opportunities that you used to find regularly wherever there were large groups of people. This is why the concept of social media is so very addictive; it allows individuals all over the world to “belong” and to interact with other individuals.

While the concepts of “belonging” and “fitting in” are natural and part of the nature of things, it comes at a price.  The price can be steep, for many times a group or religion or organization has strict rules and regulations, things that you have to or cannot do in order to belong.  And so, in order to be accepted we give up pieces of ourselves; our individuality; pieces of who and what we truly are in order to conform to the acceptable standards of the group or organization.  Many times we give up the things that made us happy in order to be accepted by others.  We then have to spend years – sometimes entire lifetimes attempting to understand why it is that we are so unhappy and attempting to find happiness again, albeit within the structures of our adopted social group, which of course means that many people have and will continue to die unhappy and unfulfilled.

So how can we be happy again?  How can we possibly regain that selfless joy, that innate wonder of the world around us; the supreme happiness of jumping in the mud puddles; the sheer bliss of watching that toothpaste curl out onto the bathroom counter?

The first order of business is to accept that happiness is not an “earned” condition.  You are happiness.1

The second order is to remember what it is that makes you happy and do it.  Have you always loved the color and texture of paintings?  Pick up some small canvases and paints at a craft shop and try your hand at putting images on paper.  Playing in the dirt?  Try digging up a small square of yard for a garden, or plant flowers or vegetables in a pot if you live in an apartment.  Playing in tidal pools?  Try setting up a small aquarium.  Rainbows?  Hang prisms in any window that gets direct sunlight.

Thirdly; don’t apologize for being yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up if others laugh at you for going out in the rain without an umbrella, for blowing bubbles on the bridge during rush hour, for dancing madly to your favorite song when it comes on the radio, or laying out on the hillside to see the shapes in the clouds.

And finally, if you find someone with whom you can be completely and totally yourself, who not only enjoys your myriad facets but is aware of their own and who is not afraid to be themselves, cherish them, they are a rare gift, and believe me, the happiness that you will take in seeing each other’s total authenticity will be so incandescent that whenever you are tempted to think “what did I do to deserve this” you will instead find yourself thinking “what on earth took me so long to realize the truth?”

Waiting for Home

images13N17I32Barefoot, she stands, waiting. A restless breeze tugs at her hair before moving on, leaving behind the faint scent of the ocean; a scent that fills her simultaneously with a soothing calm and an unquenchable restless.

Head thrown back, she stands, waiting. Her eyes search the evening sky, watching as the stars wink into existence, as the golds and plumbs of sunset fade into a black velvet background worthy of a sky full of glittering jewels.

As the light fades in the west a silence falls across the yard; a pregnant pause as if a cosmic conductor has raised his baton and all of his musicians have paused, instruments raised in anticipation of the downbeat. A moment later, with a single croak from a large frog of advanced years, the evening chorus begins; frogs from the riverbank, crickets from the meadow, a low throaty hoot from the owl that lives in the forest behind her house.

And still she waits.

As if on cue a crescent moon rises over the tree tops, casting faint shadows across the darkling yard and glimmering silver off of the tears that flow freely down her face, dribbling onto the ghostly white of her shirt dampening the grass at her toes.

She does not cry for the gloriousness of the vast array of glittering stars or the spectacular evening chorus or for the lingering scent of the restless sea. She cries for many reasons, few of which she can put into words and most of which she knows she will never understand. But mostly she cries because she waits.

She is not even sure what it is that she is waiting for. Perhaps it is love. Perhaps it is hope. Perhaps it is a sense of peace, of belonging. She does not know what she waits for, only that when it appears she will know that her waiting is over. She will know that finally, she is home.

She waits, barefoot, gazing at the stars, kissed by the moonlight, caressed by the whisper of an ocean breeze and serenaded by a chorus written expressly to touch her heart. And as she waits, slowly the tears dry and the competing peace and restlessness combine into an expansive duet whose rhythm counterpoints the beating of her heart. Slowly the stars expand until they fill not just her eyes, but her very soul. Slowly the sound of the nighttime creatures fill her head to bursting and it is then, only then, that she ceases to wait.

At last she has become.

Finally, inside of her own skin, she is home.