Make A Good Team

newbaby3

an illustration for Shayne And The New Baby

The lake is very still today. Usually the lake, Lake Michigan, behaves more like an ocean than a lake. The breakers roll onto the beach. It is famously fickle and can change moods in a heartbeat. It regularly swallows tankers. This winter it swallowed more than a little bit of the shore. The Coast Guard routinely practices search and rescue missions off the coast; we’ve stood on the rocks many evenings and watched the helicopter go through its paces. Today there is calm. Today there is peace.

This afternoon I completed the 65th and final illustration in the Shayne Trilogy. Like the lake, when I cleaned my brush and put it aside, I was quiet inside. In the middle of March, after a call with Beaky, we decided there was nothing more important than illustrating and publishing the manuscripts that she’d written. And, there was no time to waste. We illustrated, designed, and published the first book of the series in record time. Beaky had her very first-ever book reading and author signing on April 11th. It was a triumph. That day I knew I that I would never do anything more meaningful or important in my life.

When Beaky passed away at the end of April, the second book was midway through the design phase. The illustrations were complete and Kerri was working furiously to publish it by May 1st. Beaky’s passing, of course, derailed all progress and I wondered if we would be capable of bringing all of her books to the finish. We were still for many weeks. We were breathless.

And then, last week, out of nowhere, a strong wind caught our sail and we were back at it with the same fervor as before. It was as if someone threw a switch; we did not get out of bed that day intending to resume the work, but by noon I was drawing the next batch of illustrations and Kerri was layering words over images. The second book, Shayne And The Yellow Dragon is, at this moment, a single click away from publication. Yesterday Kerri began laying out the final book in the trilogy, Shayne And The New Baby. At this pace, we are a few short weeks away from finishing what we started a lifetime ago in March.

the creative team

the creative team

The illustrations are simple. They came easily – as do all labors of love. They are just what Beaky wanted. “You two did all the work!” Beaky protested as we wheeled her toward the over 70 people that gathered for her reading. I teased her that she must have forgotten that she wrote the books. “We make a good team, Beaky,” I said, and she smiled.

 

Be Mortal

a detail from my painting, John's Secret

It was after 2am and, at first, I thought the screams were human. I was writing at the kitchen table and the screams brought me to the front door. My neighbor’s light came on. Faces peeked out of the window. They thought the screams were human, too. Kerri was suddenly standing behind me. “It’s a rabbit,” she whispered. “They scream like that when they are being killed.” She was quiet for a moment and added, “It’s awful. It’s the sound they make when they are trying to hold onto life.” The screams stopped. The neighbor’s light flicked off. They recognized the sound, too, and went back to sleep.

Kerri returned to her call. She was on the phone with a friend in distress. I remained at the door and stared into the dark night. It was silent. It was as if all of nature had stopped to listen to the screaming. Even the wind was still.

The fox pranced from the darkness into the center of the street. It was vibrant, sated. It stopped and was immediately still when it realized it was being watched. It stared at me and I stared at it. I’ve rarely looked for so long into the eyes of something so wild. Neither of us moved for several seconds. And then, as quickly as it had emerged from the darkness, it bolted and vanished.

My only thought came like a mantra: it knows that it is mortal and I do not.

Earlier in the day I’d read a passage from Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda. I’m completing my once-a-decade rereading of his first three books. I’m reading them very slowly this time, bit-by-bit, and sitting with what I read. The passage that rang my bell this day was this [I’m made some cuts for brevity]:

“Your reason is telling you again that you are immortal,” he said.

“What do you mean by that, Don Juan?”

“An immortal being has all the time in the world for doubts and bewilderments and fears. A warrior…knows for a fact that the totality of himself has but a little time on this earth.”

…”But, Don Juan, my point is that I’m always under the impression that I’m doing my best, and obviously I’m not.”

“It’s not as complicated as you make it appear. The key to all these matters of impeccability is the sense of having or not having time. As a rule of thumb, when you feel and act like an immortal being that has all the time in the world you are not impeccable; at those times you should turn, look around, and then you will realize that your feeling of having time is an idiocy. There are no survivors on this earth!”

Staring into the eyes of the fox I was shocked out of my immortality. Acting like an immortal being, having all the time in the world to indulge my doubts and fears or dream of greener pastures knocks me out of presence. Staring into the eyes of the fox I, for a brief moment, understood that being fully present in my life had nothing to do with achievement. Presence is not something to strive for and attain like a new car. It is not a study and the path to it cannot be found in a book. Presence is what we are. It is something we forget when we think we have all the time in the world.

The fox does not know time. The fox does not know judgment or indulge in doubt or entitlement. It literally has no time for that. It does not need to story its actions. It lives with what is, not with what it imagines.

Stay Open

Illustration from Play-to-Play

Illustration from Play-to-Play

It’s very late. I was deep asleep and am suddenly wide awake. That is happening often these days. My inner light switch is tripped and there is no going back to sleep.

I woke up thinking about something Judy told me yesterday during our phone call. Judy is wise. She told me that she believes the real work in a life is never achieving a goal or arriving at a destination. It is not something with a direction. The real work is to learn to stay open. Stay open to possibility. Stay open to choices. Stay open to feeling. Stay open to changes. Stay open to experiences. Stay open to surprises.

It is not the kind of advice that children generally get in school but it is exactly the kind of advice an elder might impart if asked – and only if asked. Learn to stay open. Life has a way of making us want to close, to armor up, to dull our selves, to turn our backs and whisper, “There’s nothing I can do.”

It sounds too simple, “Stay open to life.” It’s not. What is simple is sinking into the easy chair and falling asleep in front of the television. Simple seems like a good idea until you realize you’ve been doing it for years. That is, of course, the point of the easy chair. The easy chair is a destination. It is a direction.

Staying open is a practice. Turning toward life and facing it with all of its force, heat, and pressure is not simple. Opening to the grief as well as the joy, feeling the pain as well as the pleasure, requires intention. Opening to the full spectrum of living engenders liveliness. Life begets life.

In a recent post I included a quote from Carlos Castaneda that just popped to mind:

“Oppressors and oppressed meet at the end, and the only thing that prevails is that life was altogether too short for both.” Carlos Castaneda, A Separate Reality

 

Study Your Study

the next iteration. it's coming along now.

the next iteration. it’s coming along now.

Ontology = the study of existence.

When I was in graduate school the word “ontology” was bandied about regularly. I tossed it around a few times myself, checking it for style and elegance, prancing about to see if it suited me in my degree pursuit. It always felt a bit clumsy and left me with two questions:

1) What isn’t ontology? When I lived in Los Angeles I learned that people chose their houses relative to the direction of their commute. The rule was to find a place that afforded them the capacity to go against the commute otherwise they’d be stuck in traffic all day, everyday. It was essentially a quality-of-life consideration. Aren’t the reasons we locate ourselves, how and why we place our selves in space and time, an ontological question? Aren’t we surrounded by eternity whether we sit in traffic or by the swimming pool? When rolling ontology around my vocabulary I always wondered what was the difference between being fully aware of your existence and studying your existence. Now, that’s an ontological question! I have recently made it my ontological study to sit in the backyard drinking in the sun watching the Dog-Dog race around in delight barking at birds – and not wanting to be anywhere else, not wanting to do anything else. And, that brings me to question number 2:

the previous iteration

the previous iteration

2) Isn’t it improper for the subject of the study to be the studier? Ontology is a metaphysical study of human existence, not all of existence, and humans are conducting the study. I I were teaching this course I’d have to flunk myself for proposing such an ill constructed proposal! I’m fairly certain the birds are not interested in the greater question of their existence. Frogs and bees, disappearing from the earth at an alarming rate, might be interested in the question: What’s the real point of the study of existence if the studiers are so cavalier about existence? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? It seems our study is the existential equivalent of a blind date that says, “Let’s talk about me!”

Are you being or are you becoming and – truly – is there ever a moment when you are not both (are you a particle or a wave)? Religion. Science. History. Art. Stars. Insects. Shadows. Waking to the sound of the morning dove. Knowing that the water of the lake is so cold that your feet will go numb in seconds – and stepping in anyway. A walk in the rain. Planting an herb garden. A warm bed on a cold night. Reaching out to a friend when you need to talk. The smell of good coffee. A song that makes you remember. Just because. Ontology?

Hear The Calling Voice

photo

next steps to my latest painting. it’s coming along!

“Maybe that means that the voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness….I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.” ~ Frederick Buechner, Secrets In The Dark

This week I received an email from a long lost friend, a man I haven’t seen in over 25 years. Although we have yet to talk, his email contact has already sparked within me a life review. What have I done in all of these years? Who have I become in the quarter century since last I saw my friend? He wrote a brief three sentence overview of career advancement and family highlights (graduations and retirements). In attempting a reply, I found it impossible to encapsulate my path as there has been nothing linear, logical, or similar in my steps. I’ve walked a much different road. My inner imperative roars rather than whispers.

My life has been a source of great concern for my parents. Security has never been high on my list of occupational criteria. The day that I graduated from college my mother asked in all seriousness, with the love and concern that can only come from of a worried mother, “Now that you’ve gotten the theatre thing out of your blood, what are you going to do with your life?” She could see (before I did) my attraction to edges and my need to run at them and jump. She understood my need to question the rules, challenge assumptions, and live on the margins so I might better see and understand the happenings in the main stream. She saw and for a while feared the call of the art within me.

a close-up

a close-up

Judy once told me that she never wanted to be too comfortable because she intended to live life, not protect herself from it; she didn’t want to become complacent in this gorgeous life. Security is low on her list, too. She’s my go-to person when I lose the voice of gladness in the static and clamor of ‘should-do.’ She cuts through the noise, “Can you hear the birds, feel the sun on your face?”

When we were students in college, Roger asked me to read Herman Hesse’s book, Narcissus and Goldmund. He told me that he would most likely live the life of Narcissus and I would follow Goldmund’s route. Narcissus is a priest and teacher seeking God in the rituals of the institution. Goldmund finds illumination through the mess and random experiences of his life. One seeks God through order. The other finds God in chaos. Both are following their call, their voice of gladness. My path has, as Roger predicted, mirrored Goldmund’s. The voice, the call of gladness is clear to me on the inside while the path is nearly unrecognizable from the outside perspective.

another close-up

another close-up

So, what to tell my friend when we speak? Like all artists, I have answered the calling voice with my life.

Feel The Thunder

An untitled  watercolor I did years ago

an untitled watercolor from the archives

I am sitting alone in the back room of a coffeehouse. The room is dark because the day is dark with rain. It is hot and very humid. The building shakes with thunder and the voices in the front room drop to a whisper. I imagine the voice of the thunder inspires awe or at least a library-esque respect. After the rumble subsides, the volume is restored. People laugh again and talk in a tumble over each other until the next rumble quiets them.

I came to work. Good coffeehouses have always been productive places for me though today I’m distracted by the thunder. Like the other patrons, the angry sky has me on alert. It is nearly impossible to focus on my thoughts when the sky has so much to say. The truth is, I want to listen to it. I want it to stop all motion, to interrupt all the little things I deem important. I want to pay attention to what it has to say.

I remember listening to a recorded lecture of Joseph Campbell. He said that the voice of the thunder was probably humanity’s first experience of the godhead. In other words, when the sky talked, people listened. Long before the weather channel replaced the oracle, connectivity between human action and the elements was assumed. Our actions mattered. The gods communicated their pleasure or displeasure with us via sunshine or tsunami. Calm seas and good sailing were signs of approval. It is a marvel in the age of humanity blowing a hole in the ozone, pouring tons of carbon into the atmosphere, having created a Texas size floating trash site in the ocean, exhausting aquifers, etc., that we can in all seriousness debate whether or not we are having an impact. I wonder if in the age of the weather channel as oracle we have so disconnected from “our nature” (our connectivity) that the debate is less about impact and really about whether or not we matter at all. If we do not recognize that our actions have impact, that the smallest action ripples through the lives of others, how can we possibly expect our existence to matter? Mattering requires the understanding and experience of connectivity.

When was the last time that you felt connected to the bigger whole? In the end of the day, mattering (spirituality by another name) is a very practical thing. It is to feel connected. When was the last time you stopped and listened to the thunder? When was the last time you felt its rumble in your chest, or noticed how quiet you became when it spoke?

Meet The Fire

a work in progress. this one is slow going!

a work in progress. this one is slow going!

In order for the phoenix to rise it must first burst into flames and be reduced to ash. Every rebirth requires a death. I imagine the phoenix does not relish the flame but after a few cycles it recognizes the necessity of the fire.

The same image (metaphor) is everywhere: the caterpillar must first cocoon and then be reduced to mush before the impossible happens. The leaves must fall from the tree before the root can replenish, revitalize, and do the impossible: bring forth new life.

The healers in Bali assured me that a wound is necessary to open the door to the gift – and each had suffered a devastating wound or loss en route to fulfilling their healing power. The journey through the wound was necessary to turn on the power. The heroes cycle, the belly of the whale, the quest through the wasteland, finding joyful participation in the sorrows of the world; growth is a fiery, difficult business.

In my life I’ve worked with many, many people in all manner of change and transformation processes. It is surprisingly common for people to want their phoenix without experiencing the flame. It took me a while to realize that people (organizations and otherwise) were hiring me under the guise of helping them transform but in truth they really wanted me to help them circumvent the fire.

People go to great lengths to avoid the flame. No one willingly seeks the wound and no one transforms without it. No one in their right mind jumps out of bed in the morning ready to jump into the abyss and yet the adventure is impossible without it. If a full rich experience of living is the aim of our limited time on this earth, then the fire is necessary. The fire is part of the ride.

Fire avoidance is what dulls an otherwise vital life. Comfort is certainly a worthy aspiration but as the only aspiration it deadens, it limits the life-color-palette to taupe. The trick, as all the stories teach us, is never to avoid the fire, to protect yourself from it, but to be alive in it, to know what it is to be reduced to ashes and know somewhere deep inside that the phoenix will always rise just as spring will always come.