the fire pit

They sat in the sagging bellies of nylon folding lawn chairs. The sky behind them was blue-meets-black and before them the fire crackled orange and gold. Slumped, exhausted, hoodies from the garage over ruffles and thin tops, they gazed into those shifting flames.

Two sisters, now in the years where fifty meets sixty, and two silent husbands. Between them, where gazes met flame, were four decades of memories. Babies. Setting up first kitchens. Phone calls about Mom. Learning what marriage meant and how they would each cope with that.

Each carving out a role in the family – how she or he would each concede to the parental will, and when.

My grandpa is dead. He left a week ago. His body collapsed upon him and he slipped as gently as our modern medical system will let someone go, into that good night.

His wife was in the emergency room two days later and now snaps in response to questions – the dreary aftermath of loss. One sister is welcome and two are held this far away. The stresses of helping their mother build over their heads.

My mom and my aunt, my dad and my uncle, will sit around the fire, slowly drinking and smoking. Contemplatively. They will ponder the future of their mother and they will mark the passing of their father. It will not be a sentimental conversation. It will be oddly clear in spite of the smoke.

As a member of this clan, I believe that in the light of the fire pit, only truth is spoken. The truth may not be beautiful, and it may not be what Grandma would want to hear. But what happens here, in this quiet time, is a setting aside of the roles and the drama and the grandeur and the bullshit.

What happens here is simply four adults taking a moment, and a good long drag, to touch ground. They may not know it, but they are in the huddle.

So that, let it never be said, love tore them asunder.

neon chaser

Is happiness more selfish, or is sadness? His visit was like a WWE smackdown of happiness, but her wiring was calibrated to interpret warnings, dark omens, wooden signs jammed crookedly in the forest floor that read “Turn back now.” She was not calibrated to simply enjoy. She had to force herself as he touched her. Be here. Be now.

Part of this was watchfulness. Being sad meant you were aware, that you were the wooden sign jammed crookedly in the forest floor. You could tell people, “Turn back now.” If you became too good at this role, you stopped smiling, but it didn’t matter. You were the lookout.

Much later, long after he had left, she sat listening to a young man recount how many shots of tequila he had had that day. He told her he was going to move soon, for a job. She congratulated him, eyeing the neon drink that was his untouched chaser. He shrugged, explaining what this job meant in the context of his struggling love with a woman.

Elwood P. Dowd was right: no one ever brings anything small into a bar. And her reaction to his angst was no smaller than the angst itself. It was as though in that moment, the souls of two strangers connected to download a single truth: Do not say no to this opportunity.

Ironically, she wanted to wave her arms tell him, Love is never worth it.

She wanted to say that, not because that was how she felt that day, but because that was what had been true for her in very similar circumstances at his age. When it comes to truth, one size never fits all. What is accurate for you today may become totally irrelevant in ten year’s time. In one moment, your epiphany may be to discover your own independence. In the next, it may be to experience vulnerability.

Growth is not mastering one set of circumstances. It’s becoming open to all circumstances.

That can be tough to explain at eleven o’clock at night when someone is working on his fourteenth shot of tequila, so she just gave him a hug, pressing his drooping head into her chest. Because if there is ever a time when it’s okay to comfort with boobs, this was it.

She wanted to tell him that it would not matter in ten years, that he would become a totally different person, that he would learn to use the word “toxic,” that he would break 2.3 hearts in the process of shedding this skin. That one day he would not order those neon chasers, because one shot would be enough.

She wanted to tell him that when she smiled, she set people on fire. It was not a boast. It was, in fact, terrifying. To a storm cloud, to have the power to summon the sun is an overwhelming majesty. She wanted to say, This could be you someday.

She wanted to say, It’s oddly easy. To be happy.

The secret (who knew?) was to run out of shits to give.

The equation seems counter-intuitive but goes like this: We’re unhappy not because things suck, but because we label things as sucky. We decide, “this is good,” and “this is bad.” We decide “this is what I want,” and “this is not what I want.” And by doing so, by smacking stickers on every single experience, we guarantee our own misery.

Life doesn’t actually care what you think you want. Selfish, selfless, happy, sad, straight or with a chaser: life just is.

Do not say no to this opportunity.

A logical argument for spiritual practice

Educated people are raised to believe that life on Earth evolved through purely biological means and that there is no logical justification for a belief in God, the human soul, heaven and hell, or any other “spiritual” concept.

At the same time, we’re told that believing in something is better for our state of mind and our emotional wellbeing than atheism or agnostism. Presumably this is an argument for a symbolic faith. You go to a yoga class involving poses and mantras derived from centuries-old Hindu religious belief, but you’re not actually supposed to believe in reincarnation. You may consider Jesus a historical figure or an inspirational one, but not actually a god requiring worship. Maybe you toy with crystals, read a bit about chakras, or decorate with dreamcatchers. You might try a session or two of acupuncture, or read a weekly horoscope.

A lot of people in the Western world dabble in religion and spirituality without even noticing.

Our political and legal structures encourage this half-faith as well, from the ritual of swearing on a Bible before giving testimony in court, to our pledge of allegiance “one nation under God,” to the ongoing debate about when life begins, to the practice of sentencing people with substance abuse issues to religiously-based AA programs.

Citizenship seems to require a certain amount of symbolic belief.

It doesn’t really work to believe in Santa on a symbolic level. Without getting into an argument over what faith technically is, or whether it’s reasonable or intelligent or morally necessary, it’s either something someone feels, or they don’t. The cultural expectation that people develop their intellect based on scientific understanding, while also maintaining some kind of spirituality, has left nearly a quarter of the nation adrift.

It’s time to reframe the conversation. First, spirituality as a sense of awareness of things not yet proven may not have anything to do with gods, chakras, angels, spirits, or souls. Spirituality can simply be the practice of acknowledging things that feel true but are not yet explained. As long as this practice does not encourage prejudice, fear or irrational behavior – as long as examining the inexplicable doesn’t include speaking in tongues or performing ritual sacrifices – what can it hurt?

Meditation is the perfect case study for this theory. The practice of sitting and doing nothing, developing a quiet mind, focusing on a candle’s glow, a simple mantra or just one’s breath, is one that millions of people around the world find helpful. Sometimes it calms down an obsessive or stressed mind, sometimes it leads to deeper insights or creative breakthroughs.

Marijuana and other drugs with hallucinogenic properties are also capable of putting one in a more reflective state or leading to genuine inspiration. Not always, but sometimes.

Even intense physical activity, or being lost in great sex, can take you “to another place.”

Do we need to write this off as a fluke? Do we need to downplay our experiences of a more expansive, intuitive mental state? Do we need to rationalize away the dream that offers a perfect solution, the urge to drive this way to work instead of that, the hesitation you feel when meeting someone seemingly friendly?

Why should we?

Becoming a reasonable adult means being vigilant about bias. We all have work to do in this area, all the time. You may favor women who remind you of your mom, or hesitate to talk to strangers of a certain race, or explain things in more detail to someone of a certain age. The only way to avoid acting on unfair bias is to become aware of it. Morality in day-to-day life is dependent on self-awareness.

Assuming that you cultivate self-awareness, and are practicing kindness, patience and so on, you should feel safe to trust ideas that arise from seemingly unknown sources. You should test them. You should engage in activities that encourage those breakthrough thoughts, whether it’s mountain climbing, meditation or just getting more sleep.

This is not blind faith in an angel whispering in your ear. This is a humble recognition that our conscious mind, fed by education and experience, is not all there is to consciousness.

Your gut processes information, your subconscious processes information at a different pace and in a different way than your conscious mind, and the people around you will influence what information is available to you about what you’re experiencing. (Anyone who’s ever been distracted by a child suddenly “acting up” around a stranger, or experienced dramatic weather influencing the mood of an entire group, understands that some circumstances provide more or less actionable information.)

Basically you know more than you know. It’s not New Age mumbo-jumbo to practice activities that help you think at a higher level. It just happens that a lot of traditional religious activities such as prayer, group song or dance, meditation and yoga were developed over centuries to encourage a trance-like, aka transportive, mental state. In a cathedral in medieval England, that prayer was designed to fill a peasant with awe of Christ. But prayer can help you, now, dig past everyday preoccupations to reflect on deeper goals. Meditation can help you create a clear mental space for new ideas to emerge. Yoga can help you kinesthetically let go of anxiety and fear.

You deserve to give your brain (and your heart) every aid you can. You are surrounded by shallow distractions that can make life feel mundane and meaningless: another notification from Instagram, another sitcom on TV, another argument with the kids about the same damn thing. It feels boring because it is.

You don’t have to go to church to find meaning in your life. It can start in your own mind. A new idea sparks new work. Processing inconvenient emotions lets you connect with others more authentically. Discovering unfulfilled desires changes your plan. This is not grandiose exaggeration. The meaning of your life is within you, but you have to be ready to hear it.

To listen, create silence within yourself. This is often called a spiritual practice but could also be called a mental one.

Step one: Create a quiet time and place.

Step two: Within that space, engage in an activity that is absorbing but “pointless,” ie it does not have a goal. This sets your conscious mind free to wander. Examples include exercise that is playful or exploratory, like a casual hike or trying out new dance steps. You may prefer a traditional activity like meditation or yoga. Hobbies like cooking, gardening and painting work great too. Even a nap can be valuable.

Step three: Repeat. Train yourself to let go of daily preoccupations during this time. You do not get to think about your debt, or the project at work, or your waistline, or whatever it is you usually obsess about.

The challenge is to develop a habit of thinking about nothing for 20-30 minutes.

If along the way you find God, awesome! Maybe you can introduce Them to the rest of us.

Namaste.

the meaning of life, what happens when you die, and other dumb questions

Here’s the scoop. Life on Earth is indeed hard AF, and there’s a reason for that: because we need it to be, and we make sure it continues to be. But let’s back up one sec.

Energy comes in degrees of physicality. Everything is made up of energy, but some energy is more dense, more measurable by human tools, more visible. The heaviest, densest energy is a rock, which is super interesting, and then a little further along the spectrum you get your average mammal. This is energy that requires physicality, and also requires complexity and conflict.

Physicality provides unique opportunities. To combat, to overcome, to enjoy desire and sex and deliciousness, to feel the sun on your face.

Physicality is the result of strong emotion. It is strong emotion. You feel, you want, you need. All these things weigh you down and keep you alive. We call these dreary challenges “the reality of life,” and yet it is only the reality of human life. It is unlikely that the average tiger, parrot, or fern spends a lot of time wishing it were really a basketball player.

Only the human has optional desires, like being taller, or richer, or more lovable.

All life forms desire to eat, procreate, and maintain the other basic requirements to remain alive. Only humans want add-ons.

We are here to explore the mess. We want mess. It’s why we became human. Pretending to “rise above,” feign intellectual superiority, or stifle emotions are just ways to buy time. Distractions like drugs, shopping and booze are also just buying time. You have serious things you need to experience. Until you do, you’ll continue to suffer.

Some of these experiences are pleasant. Some aren’t. Sometimes growth comes from letting yourself be loved; sometimes it comes from experiencing rejection. This ebb and flow is so hard to live through, and yet live it you must.

The only way out of this mess is to be in the mess.

Some may accomplish enough in one lifetime, some may need lifetime after lifetime. Maybe we take breaks, playing harps in the cosmos. Maybe we come back occasionally as dolphins. Who knows, and frankly, who cares. It doesn’t matter to those of us who are here, what happens when we are not here. What matters is that we have shit to do, and do it we must.

Over time, you will do it more awesomely. You do it with more love, more patience. You make fewer mistakes. You do more. You gain the add-ons you desired, or you realize you no longer needed them. You grow your hair out, spiritually seeking, and you learn to breathe from the tips of your toes.

You learn to look a stranger in the eye and truly see her.

You learn to hear the higher voices.

You learn when to wait, and when to act.

Over time, the weariness becomes curiosity, frustration becomes acceptance.

You grow.

And as you grow, you become less. Less real, less physical. Less needy, less desirous. You carry fewer emotions, toss aside preconception. Your appetites forget themselves.

For as you grow, you discover the hunger is sated by what comes without hunting. What has no taste tastes most flavorful. What has no value seems richest.

So,
watching the sunset one evening,
you fade
into the other side.

a commodified soul

Asking myself big fluffy questions about art and my art and art as story versus art as craft… yadda yadda… it finally occurs to me how deeply inauthentic my work has been in recent years. Like a forgotten early 80s James Taylor song, my paintings and videos and photographs are so impersonal they disappear.

In my desire to tell moving stories, to inspire and even at times educate (many of those efforts can’t be found on this site because, hey, they kinda sucked), I kept trying to create a product. A brand name, a handle, a message.

Intuitives said: Think about who you are rather than what you do. But I couldn’t stop.

I wanted to create soul balm, vanishing cream for shame, a spray-on remedy for hopelessness. Not a terrible endeavor, but the harder I tried to document my beliefs in order to share them, the less clear they became. So I tried harder, pushing myself to codify my homegrown spirituality in some digestible form.

I didn’t want to package my ideas because it would make them more accessible, I wanted to because that’s what you do.

We live in the age of the personal brand. The lifestyle blogger, the influencer, curator, the hashtagged name. The way to excellence, today, is to pick a subject and a look and stick to it with every meme you’ve got.

And I wanted to do that about god.

Here’s the terrible truth: I have no idea why we’re here. I don’t know if there is a bliss to follow. I’m not convinced that it matters how you eat or whether you save for retirement. I’m not sure that personal growth is even possible for a lot of people.

I don’t know if anything happens after you die except the biological process of decomposition.

I do know that kindness tends to make life more pleasant, and I know that the line between kindness and weakness is perpetually shifting.

I was watching Manifesto tonight, a wonderful, very artful, movie, and remembered, Oh yeah. Artists and philosophers have only been asking these questions for thousands of years.

Questions like, Why am I here? Does any of this matter? Do I matter?

These kinds of questions are often waved off as depressing or “existential.” They are big, amorphous, dusty as the inside of a cave and dark as a starless sky. They serve no purpose, lead to no known target.

These kinds of questions will not be summarized in a hashtag.

After spending two years questing for a fresh-when-frozen, microwaveable meaning of life to sell the hungry masses one pithy tweet at a time, I am abandoning the pilgrimage. I have no answers. The existential question is all I’m left with.

And ironically, from that giant question mark in my heart, I find my voice. Simply to ask… What do you say? Why are we here?

why you live

why you live

You owe it to yourself to follow your dragons as often as your bliss. You owe it to your family to follow your inner critic, taking notes.

You owe it to your soul to call Time out on your own journey.

The marker of a healthy soul is the joy it brings you to help others. The marker of an unhappy soul is how little there is to give. And the marker of the end is when the match can no longer be lit.

You are allowed to go, but only if you must.
Know one thing only:
It is hard,
very, very hard,
almost impossible,
to come back.

If and when you do, you can never
feel
at home.

You don’t have to pretend life is fun,
rewarding,
or meaningful,
to you.

You don’t have to pretend you care
about the ordinary everyday,
or,
even,
the extraordinary.

You don’t have to count your blessings.

You can go.

But when you do,
and you realize you miss –
anything –
your grandma, or Twinkies,
or sniffing glue,
strawberries,
dandelions,
or Care Bear cartoons,

you might discover life
was not just the unhappiness,
and gray cloud cover,
and shit bands.

You might find
your life
is also things
that you loved,
without noticing.

See that,
that thing you love,
however “dumb” it is,
that is your
extraordinary.
Fuck the rest.

the tiger and the bureaucrat

At the end of all the smart thoughts and bold decisions and colorful gestures you ask yourself, How do I show him my heart?

We just aren’t raised to do this. Or maybe I wasn’t. Be reasonable, rational, and smart, is what I heard growing up. But the passion, and deep deep knowing, of your emotional center – it’s not reasonable.

We walk around with a purple striped velveteen tiger prowling our chests and are supposed to “tame” her with objectivity, and calm. The matters of the mind. These are right, and profitable, and secure.

Smart is secure.

It’s as though this velveteen tiger purrs so deeply, I am often deafened by it to hear reason. Over-compensating, the inner bureaucrat says, Let’s put her in a banker’s box marked Messy.

Strangely one box is never enough… there is always another unreasonable (untamed) part of you to silence. Duct tape around the box, now, and here are more, and stash them up in the attic, under the eaves. Unlabeled. Don’t let’s speak of that again.

Insert World War 36. Armistice announced through clouds of cannon smoke. Soldiers stagger home on crutches. It occurs to everyone that if, in death, we are united, so we could be in life.

Now the tiger and the bureaucrat are old friends. Together they escape in the night with all the untamed. Anastasia’s family, and goblins who speak in pentameter, and a chef with a plastic knife made by Mattel, pile in a gypsy wagon driven by the Glitter Goddess from a 1980s cartoon. Because you stifle stifle stifle stifle all the urges of your dark and stormy heart, until what is left is true. The passion is true, and the reason is true, and the party between them truest of all.

As the wagon rides into the darkness, the tiger purrs, Anastasia wishes on stars, and the bureaucrat tallies miles. At the whip, the Goddess’s hair is a golden banner against the night sky.

In this chaos, your heart, delightfully, is finally betrayed.