Look At All The Stories

My Stuff

My stuff.

It is ironic to me that I spent the previous two years divesting myself of stuff. When I moved to Kenosha last October, the truck was filled mostly with paintings, art supplies, and books. If I excluded those things, I could carry my worldly possessions on my back. And, I did for months. I now know without doubt what is essential and what is luxury. Mostly, my story is no longer entangled with my stuff. Well, in truth, there are still a few things that are sacred: the box that held DeMarcus’ brushes, a treasure or two from Bali, grandpa’s nutcracker, Bob’s tools. I gave away many useful things because of the story they held!

Since moving I’ve been helping Kerri clean out her house. Each week we take stuff to the Goodwill or place bags on the curb. She has been twenty-five years in her house and raised two children. The things we sort through have layers and layers of story. Children’s toys and books, sporting equipment, old electronics, and clothes; everything comes with a memory. More than once Kerri has held tightly to a box or shirt, saying, “I can’t get rid of this! Craig used this when….” We’ve saved many things, not for usefulness, but for story.

Several times we’ve made the trip to Florida to sort, box and store the contents of her mother’s house. Kerri spends hours each week on the phone with her mom, Beaky, as she pours over an enormous list of her possessions. Beaky is now in assisted living and will never return to her home. She wants to make sure that each item goes to the right person and that the story held in the item goes with it. In fact, the designation of recipient often has more to do with the story than the item. She is reaching into the future attempting to build a story link with the past.

A few weeks ago we walked by an open house. It was an estate sale. People were lined up out the door to go in and buy stuff cheap. The people in line were anxious and jockeying for position; they wanted to get in before all the good stuff was gone. The stories associated with the stuff died with the homeowner. The new story begins with a bargain found at an estate sale.

Last week while in Denver for my grandfather’s funeral, I crawled under Ruby’s house to pull out the boxes that Bob had stored there, mostly things they hadn’t used in years. Ruby said, “I didn’t even know that was down there!” Forgotten stories resurface.

My parents’ house is filled with the accumulated possessions of a lifetime. Their sedimentary layer of stories includes children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. They’ve added no small amount of my grandfather’s possessions now that he has passed. The layers of story sediment compounded. “What are we going to do with all this stuff?” my dad asked. “Someone must have use for it!” He might just as well have asked, “What are we going to do with all of these stories. Someone must have use for them?”

It’s the question Tom asked when he found a trunk plastered into the walls of the family’s ranch house. The trunk contained the worldly possessions of an ancestor, a young boy named Johnny who died a century earlier. Little slips of paper written by his mother accompanied the layers of clothes and toys. “She wanted to keep his story alive,” Tom said. “What am I going to do with it?” he asked when he knew his life was on the glide path to the finish.

Someone once said to me, “You are not your stuff.” No. But we are people of commerce. We are people who identify ourselves through our stuff. We place great value in what we accumulate and what we accumulate becomes the vessel for passing on our value and our story. Look around you. Look at all the stories that surround you! Stand in your home, close your eyes, and spin around. Open your eyes and look at any object, any thing. What’s the story? What is essential? What is luxury?

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Canopy by David Robinson

Canopy by David Robinson

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Chase Your Lion

This is from the long ago archives. A sketch I call Persephone

This is from the long ago archives. A sketch I call Persephone

We were talking about fear. I’d suggested that some fears were actual and some imagined. For instance, if a lion were chasing me, fear would be my ally. It would be actual and useful. My fear would possibly save my life. It would make me run faster. On the other hand, if I feared pursuing my dream, of doing what I wanted to do in the world because of what others might think, my fear would be imagined. It would not be useful.

He said, “You don’t understand how afraid I am.”

“How afraid are you?” I asked.

He wrinkled his brow, “How can I answer that? No one can answer that.”

“Well, tell me how big is your fear?” I said. “Give it a size.”

“I can’t do that!”

“Sure you can,” I said.

“How do you quantify fear? How does anyone quantify fear?”

“Oh, quantifying fear is easy.” I said. “You simply count all the things you don’t do because of your fear. Those things are quantifiable. Count all the life experiences that you are willing to lose by holding onto your fear.”

He was silent for a moment. Then asked, “Like what?”

“Most people lose access to their lives. They let go of their dreams. They tell themselves that they don’t know how or that they were not meant to do what they want to do. How much life are you willing to miss by telling yourself the story that you are afraid? Count the days, the moments, that you stop yourself. Those moments are actual. Those days are quantifiable.”

He was angry, so I added, “Dreams are not lions.”

 

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Or, go here for fine art prints of my paintingsThe Poet

Hold It In Your Hands

photoBob could fix anything from airplanes to autos to plumbing. He had the accumulated tools of a man whose life was about keeping things well tuned. So, when his wife Ruby asked me to go into the garage and choose some tools to take home with me, I had to work hard not to weep. “Bob would have wanted you to have them,” she said.

Many years ago when my grandpa Robinson passed, after his funeral, we gathered at his home for what amounted to a love-fest. “Grandpa would have wanted you to have this,” his sons and grandchildren said as they gifted each other with grandpa’s worldly possessions. The decisions were made according to history and need. “He knew you loved this and would want it to go to you.” My dad looked at me and asked me to choose something. The only thing I wanted was an old nutcracker. It was falling apart because he used it so often. He’d held it in his hand. It was ordinary and useful and in one of the few precious times I sat with him, we cracked nuts, laughed, and talked about nothing important. I wanted something he touched. Sometimes when I need some simple wisdom or some laughter in a dark time, I hold the nutcracker and wonder what he would tell me. It never fails. I always hear a whisper of advice or something that makes me smile.

Going through the garage I chose tools that Bob used often. I wanted the tools that were worn and fit his hand.

I am, for the first time in my life, responsible for the upkeep of a home, my home. I’m new to repairing faucets and fixing gutters. It is my hope that when I have no idea how to fix something, I can choose a tool that Bob held, hold it in my hand, and ask Bob what I should do. It’s my bet that without fail, I’ll hear his saucy whisper of guidance. More than likely I’ll hear a joke (off-color, as my mother might say) and the laugh that made his shoulders rise. He’ll take the toothpick out of his mouth before saying something like, “Ah hell, just start. You got the right tool what else do you need?”

 

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Flow With Your Constraints

a rough draft from my soon to be released children's book, Play to Play

a rough draft from my soon to be released children’s book, Play to Play

Margie said, “You two need to learn how to be cool and calm.” We repeated her words as if in a trance, “Cool and calm,” I muttered. “Cool and calm,” Kerri said and then looked at me and asked, “Can we do that?” I shook my head. We smiled. The previous day we jumped out of bed at 1:30am and drove 4 hours to Indianapolis to help Craig move out of his apartment. We made it back home by 10pm.Tomorrow we drive to Colorado and then on to Columbia, Missouri. Next week we drive to Minneapolis and on to Colorado again. “You have to learn to sit still!” Margie chirped.

Many years ago Makaela told me that I was like a feral cat. “There’s a part of you that flees from any form of containment,” she said. I was at first surprised by her comment. From the inside, my life seems ordinary. I go to the grocery store. I pay bills. Makaela has a Cheshire Cat grin and it flashed across her face. In truth, I can’t wear lace-up shoes. Neckties are deadly to me. I am brilliant at starting things: programs, theatres, companies,.., just don’t ask me to maintain them once started. Neckties, cubicles, and commutes suffocate me. “See? Feral,” she said.

Cool and calm? Feral?

Neckties and lace up shoes restrict movement. To me, they are improper constraints. Improper constraints are akin to knots in a muscle: they impede flow. Toxins collect around the knots. Disease in a body is the result of an improper constraint. An improper constraint can be literal, a knot in a muscle, or a thought pattern, like the expectation of being perfect. “Perfect” is a mental knot. It stops flow. It stresses unnecessarily. It blocks the movement of free self-expression and engenders judgment. It becomes toxic to the system. Gossip is an improper constraint.

The flip side an improper constraint is a proper constraint. Proper constraints facilitate movement in a direction. They focus energy. Proper constraints define clear and open channels of movement. In a healthy body, air and blood and lymph move unimpeded through channels of proper constraint. Proper constraint is necessary to feed the body. Proper constraint is necessary for vital artistic expression. Healthy communication works just like a healthy body. A choice is a proper constraint. Proper constraint frees the movement of self-expression and engenders connectivity. It clears toxins from a system.

“Wait a minute,” Kerri said as Margie retreated down the stairs, “I think we’re always cool and calm.” I agreed. Our proper constraints look a bit different than most peoples. More than once Craig has looked as us and said, “You two are not normal.” Too true. What is normal, after all? A proper constraint for me is improper for others and vice versa. Kerri and I know for ourselves what engenders flow and what interrupts it. Jay Griffiths wrote that a society has to be tame to need the concept of wild. If there is no break in the natural world, if there isn’t a need for dams and fences, there is no need to distinguish between wild and tame. I am not feral after all. Kerri and I work at having no internal dams or unnatural fences. Our business is to create our own version of flow. Isn’t that what everyone wants?

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Carry Your Story

I call this painting, "Canopy"

I call this painting, “Canopy”

Since writing my post yesterday I’ve been rolling around in my mind the image from this quote from Deepak Chopra’s book, Life After Death: “Every former self you have left behind is a ghost. Your body is no longer the body of a child. Your thoughts, desires, fears, and hopes have changed. It would be terrible to walk around with all your dead selves holding on.”

All day I’ve been looking at people as if they are walking around with all of their dead selves hanging on. And, technically, we are. We define our present moment through the eyes of the past. I suppose the number of ghosts we carry depends upon the definition we carry about ourselves.

Definitions are stories. Thoughts, desires, fears and hopes are contained in the form of a story. Any thought you have is actually a form of storytelling. When we worry if this will happen or that, we are telling a story. When we tell our friends about being stuck in a traffic jam, we are telling a story. When we say, “This is who I am,” we are telling a story. When we say, “That is who they are,” we are telling a story. In a week, my family will gather to memorialize my grandfather; we will tell his story.

I’ve found in many parables and myths that an inner monologue (the story you tell yourself) acts like a fog. It obscures the present. For instance, in the Sisyphus tale, Sisyphus goes to the underworld and watches the souls of the newly departed cross the river Styx. Each soul thinks it is alone even though they are with many others; they cannot see the others through the curtain of their ego story. To enter the great “I am” they must first stop telling a story of separation.

Stories obscure.

We carry our stories forward. That is a legacy. Carrying a story forward is how we connect to our ancestry. Jean Houston once used an image that I like: we are the burning point of the ancestral line. We carry the story-torch forward. Like the Olympic flame our fire was ignited by a spark that stretches back eons. And through us, this flame will reach far into the future. We burn now. This story-torch, the family story, is the root story. It illuminates us.

Stories enlighten.

In both cases, obscuring and illuminating, stories can be heavy to carry. Or, they can be light. It may not be so terrible to walk around with your dead selves holding on if your dead selves tell a story love and connection, a story of hope and aspiration, a story of yearning and possibility. If illumination is the act of transcending your story, a step toward illumination certainly includes a story of love, and usefulness, and a deep appreciation of the ordinary moments that we story to fill our extraordinary days.

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Leave Your Ghost

from the archives. I call this painting "Demeter."

from the archives. I call this painting “Demeter.”

As Alan said, this year for me is a year of departures. First Tom, then Kathy, Bob, and Doug passed; mentors all. Earlier this month Casey, who lived a long season and once told me that heaven didn’t want him and hell wouldn’t have him, finally found his way out of this life and into his proper place in the mystery.

When I was a boy my favorite book was an old college text of my father’s on comparative religions. It was moldering on a shelf in the basement with other long forgotten books. Finding it was like uncovering buried treasure. I fell into it, reading and rereading it. Among other things, it helped me understand that religion was not fact but a cultural expression of universal experiences. Human beings have to deal with the enormity of existence (who am I?), birth (where do I come from), death (where am I going?), and everything in between (what’s my purpose?). Human beings deal with the enormity of existence like they deal with everything in life: they story it.

Since there has been so many significant departures this year I’ve been doing some reading about death and dying. Lately, I’m reading Deepak Chopra’s book, Life After Death. He weaves the book around a parable of a young woman who must confront Death. The woman seeks the help of rishi, a wise contemplative who lives in the forest. In one of my favorite sections of the parable, the rishi introduces the young woman to ghosts. The first is a toddler; the second is young girl. The woman soon recognizes that the ghosts are her past; they are the phantoms of various stages of her own life. The rishi tells her, “Every former self you have left behind is a ghost. Your body is no longer the body of a child. Your thoughts, desires, fears, and hopes have changed. It would be terrible to walk around with all your dead selves holding on.”

He teaches her that death has been with her every moment of her life. “You have survived thousands of deaths every day as your old thoughts, your old cells, your old emotions, and even your old identity passed away. Everyone is living in the afterlife right now. What is there to fear and doubt?”

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Invite Them In

When Kerri read this poem I almost laughed. She was leading the Taize service and had chosen this poem specifically for me to hear. I had, all day, decided to have a very very hard day. In retrospect, nothing happened that was necessarily overwhelming. A tornado did not blow my house down. My paintings did not burn in a hill fire. All of the people I love survived the day, in fact, most thrived! My challenges were imaginary. They were walls of my own creation!

I chose frustration. I danced with disappointment. And then I got angry at myself for being frustrated. It was a feedback loop of self-incrimination. I told myself that I’d lost a perfectly beautiful day in my dedication to my mania. In the middle of my dark storm, Kerri introduced this poem. Enjoy it. Remember it the next time you choose to have a very very hard day.

The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house                                                                                               Every morning a new arrival.                                                                                                                 A joy, a depression, a meanness                                                                                                   Some momentary awareness comes                                                                                                 As an unexpected visitor.

Treat each guest honorably.                                                                                                                 He may be clearing you out                                                                                                                 For some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,                                                                                       Meet them at the door laughing                                                                                                           And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes                                                                                                     Because each has been sent                                                                                                                    As a guide from beyond.

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