Understand That Little Is More Than Enough [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I think that maybe\ I will be surer\ of being a little nearer.\ That’s all. Eternity\ is in the understanding\ that that little is more than enough.” ~ R.S. Thomas [via Anam Cara by John O’Donohue]

And so our dear H is gone. I have written about him before, about how I learned from him how to age well. To “have a wonderful urgency to live life to the full” [John O’Donohue]. H was a study in wonderful urgency. He did not grow cranky as he grew old. He did not darken his sight with what he could no longer do. He gently pushed the edges of what he could do. He was a master of focus-placement.

I have known many people who proclaim a spiritual life. They are quick to advertise their illumination. They live to stand on the mountain top and call attention to their heights. H was not one of those. He simply lived his faith as he lived his life – without need for acknowledgment or recognition. No trumpet necessary. I suspect that his why I was drawn to him. He was simon-pure. Genuine.

“We’re afraid you’re going to take her from us,” H said to me, more warning than salutation, when I sat next to him in choir. It was my first rehearsal in my first choir and, as an avowed non-singer, I was intimidated. Kerri was the director. She’d recently asked H, at 87 years old, to rap Via Dolorosa. He’d jumped at the challenge and, as I heard the story, performed brilliantly, complete with costume and bling. He and Kerri were thick as thieves.

He guided me through that first rehearsal, laughed when I honked a bad note – which was often, and, by sweet example over time, steered me through my confusion until I found more joy than fear in singing. At the end, as he was moving into his 94th year, just before the pandemic made rehearsals impossible, it was my joy to help him find his place in the music. A perfect circle.

This morning, just before we received the news of his passing, I spent some time in the final pages of Anam Cara. The last words are a Blessing for Death and this phrase struck me: May you live compassionately and creatively and transfigure\ everything that is negative within you and about you. When the news came of his passing, I was certain it was H who’d tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Pay attention to this phrase.” It describes him perfectly. It encapsulates what I believe, H, without words, was trying to teach me. Through compassion and creativity, transfigure everything that is negative within you and about you. That is how to live well and age with wonderful urgency. No trumpet necessary.

read Kerri’s blog post about H

Make Noise [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I am conflicted. I wrote a version of this post and then tossed it away. I’m trying to be less argumentative in my daily writing. And then, Toni Morrison collided with Albert Einstein:

“In times of dread, artists must never choose to remain silent… This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” ~ Toni Morrison, No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear

I am an artist. Is it argumentative, is it confrontational, to write what I see? Yes. Sometimes. Once, I saw a park service truck, on a trail, quickly backing up. The driver did not see the man in the wheelchair right behind his truck. I screamed and ran and banged on the side of truck until the driver stopped, a few inches from hitting the man in the wheelchair. Sometimes it is necessary to shout and make noise.

All of my life I’ve understood the first rule of being educated, namely, to check your sources, as simple sage advice. It’s a good idea, if you are going to anchor your identity in a narrative, to make sure that your narrative-of-choice is solidly anchored in verifiable substance. Doubt and questioning, used properly, are necessary tools of an engaged mind.

Years ago, Robert Cialdini wrote, “The world abounds with cults populated by dependent people who are led by a charismatic figure.” In other words, people are easily led and – as we have recently witnessed – with disastrous results. All that people ever need do to avoid a nasty drink of purple Kool-Aid is to check their sources. In our day and age it is almost easier to check the veracity of the story-we-are-being-fed than it is to be misled. Almost. One must first desire to be fed the truth, even if the truth challenges rabidly-held belief.

Checking takes less than a minute.

Just ask the now-jailed-and-soon-to-be-tried capitol insurrectionists claiming that they were led astray by a flimflam-president-man. The Big Lie was easy to check. It remains easy to check. Yet, none cared to check it or perhaps refused to believe what they found. Checking the lie, listening to the data, would undermine the tightly held power-narrative of an entire political party. A pathological lies requires more and more effort, more and more outrageous lies, to sustain itself. It should have been easier to check the story than it was to storm the capitol.

Now I see the first rule of being educated, the necessity of checking sources to verify fact, as a dire necessity. It is the flashing red warning signal to these de-united-united-states that there is a cliff ahead. It is no longer a sweet bit of sage advice; it is a survival imperative. Respect for the line – truth or fiction – will determine whether we as a nation unite and grow or divide and collapse.

Many years ago, Robert Cialdini also wrote,“Audiences have been successfully manipulated by those who use social evidence, even when that evidence has been openly falsified.” Openly falsified. He wrote those words decades before tweets, Fox News, and the mega-amplification of all the openly falsified big lies. His words might now serve as the sad single credo of the Republican party.

It is not shocking that a political party lies. It is most shocking how little the followers of the party care to check the sources of the enraged hype it daily swallows like so much anger-candy. Dependent people. Easily led. Believe wholeheartedly. Ever expanding lie. No facts necessary. It is far beyond Einstein’s observation of people doing nothing in the face of evil; our nation is in peril because the evil we face is an openly falsified narrative. So many of our people, so many of our leaders, know it is a lie, feed the division, and actively look the other way.

read Kerri’s blog post about DOING NOTHING

See The Action. See The Motivation. [on Merely A Thought Monday]

“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” ~ Noel Coward

Lately, I’ve been rereading books on playwriting. Put them on the stove, boil them down and you will have a fine reduction of action and motivation. The actions a character takes. The reason a character takes them. A playwright’s tool box is filled with words but a playwright’s creation is a sequence of motivated actions.

Tom McK told me that plays are about one moment. A moment of choice. A moment of revelation. A moment of truth. A moment of reckoning. All of the actions of the play lead to the moment. And the world will never be the same.

I began rereading my dusty old playwriting books because of the impeachment trial. I feel as if I am witness to an ancient Greek drama. Power falls. Courage fails. Morals collapse. Act One: the temple is sacked. The actions and motivations for the assault could not be more clear. Naked sedition. Act Two: the trial. The ideals of the temple are gutted. Blind justice is made a mockery as nearly half of the jurists fail in their courage, choosing personal gain over public good. They defend sedition. They kneel to it. Their actions and motivations could not be more clear.

Like every Hallmark movie, the end of this play was known before the actors took the stage. We watched the play to confirm what we already knew.

Doug had a saying: health was a measure of the distance between who-you-say-you-are and who-you-know-yourself-to-be. The shorter the distance, the healthier the person. By Doug’s account, the actions and motivations of the 43 jurors who protected sedition could not be more clear. Despite what they say. Despite what they proclaim. The distance between who-they-say-they-are and who-they-know-themselves-to-be is vast. They are unhealthy. Shiny suits that are rotten to their core.

The climax of the play. The one moment. The realization. Just as in a horror movie, the recognition that the person in the passenger seat is the murderer. All of the actions of the play lead to this one moment, this single recognition: their defense of sedition is not aberrant to this jury’s character. It is their norm. Their fall from grace, their collapse of principle, happened long before their vote to acquit.

Action. Motivation. Expressed through character.

“Character,” Tom McK taught, “is how you do what you do.” This is who they are. It is a matter of character. Their actions and motivations could not be more clear. And the world will never be the same.

read Kerri’s blog post about WORDS & DEEDS

Pay Attention [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I read this morning in my brainpickings, “We have to try and cure our faults by attention and not by will.” Simone Weil.

Kerri and I walk almost everyday. We head for our known, usual trails, and only occasionally go in search of something new. Even though we walk a well-known path, it never fails to seem entirely new. Kerri attends to the details, taking photographs of unusual pine cones, a downy feather on a limb, the sun streaming through the trees. She pays attention. My awareness is more global, the movement of forest, the orchestra and dance of trees and wind. I pay attention.

Our walks bring us perspective when all else seems dark and disorderly. Our walks refill our well of hope when our circumstance seems bleak. Mostly, our walks “cure our faults,” they bring us into a present moment where all of life’s judgments and fears fall away as the illusions that they are. Our walks, if only for a few hours, wipe clean our canvas and return us to a childlike curiosity.

Sometimes, after a snowfall, we arrive at our trail and it is untouched. It never fails that we stand at the trailhead and marvel at the unblemished snow. Sometimes we hold hands and jump in with both feet and laugh. Sometimes we step carefully, quietly. Reverently. Either way, it seems a special gift. First steps are to be noted. Last steps are to be noted.

This morning I read an article about How Aging Shapes Narrative Identity. How the story-we-tell-ourselves-about-ourselves changes as we age. Our investments change. We become less interested in pursuits and achievements, in willful purpose. We become more interested in appreciation of our precious, limited moments. And, so, we begin to tell a different story. New snow on an old path.

The article was timely. Kerri and I lay awake most of the night. Among other things we pondered my dad’s dementia, the stories that he weaves and realities he inhabits. He is obsessed with going home.

Deep in the night, we talked about the stories that we currently weave together as we grow older. It seems that this time in our lives is a blank canvas, a path of new and untouched snow. Standing at the trailhead of our next chapter, no steps to follow or map, neither of us has any desire to reinvent or become different than what we are. Certainly, the circumstances of our lives are changing, but more and more we merely want to pay attention. To hold hands and jump into the unbroken snow. To laugh. To note the downy feather in the tree. The wind song, the deer that surprise us, leaping through tall grasses. “Did you see them?” I whisper. Kerri nods and smiles. Reverence. Nothing in the world, at that moment, is more important.

read Kerri’s blog post about UNBROKEN SNOW

Say “Look” [on Merely A Thought Monday]

“Look” is the new “um.” It now lives among the tribe of words used as placeholders, thought-launching-pads, or mental-composition-vocables.

I had a professor that cleared his throat when composing his thoughts. That semester nearly killed me. I lost all contact with the content of his lectures in the cacophony of throat-clearing. I spent entire lectures either writhing in my seat or wondering what happened in his life to develop such an odd vocal tick. I’m certain Sarah Jessica Parker based her throat-clearing-character in The Family Stone on my professor. Each week I sat in the lecture hall and wondered if he was terrified when speaking in public or perhaps he was fearful of not expressing thoughts clearly. That odd-socks-thought-train sent me down a rabbit hole of pondering weird karma. It’s a wonder I passed his class (or any class, for that matter).

“Look” is significantly different than “um” or throat clearing. There’s a very important nuance to note: it assumes authority. It’s a directive. “Take note!” “Consider this!” It’s a placeholder with a purpose. It’s as if everyone on the public stage secretly doubts their credibility or must demonstrate their sway.

Perhaps it’s the cabin fever that comes with believing in the pandemic, perhaps it is the state of politics and pundits in these media-cleaved-united-states, but we’ve become fascinated by the ubiquitous “Look.” It regularly launches politician replies and reporters’ reports. At first we merely glanced at each other, “Did you hear it, too?” Then we counted. We passed through the cheering phase. We even considered making it a drinking game – take a sip every time we hear “Look” – but decided against it for obvious reasons.

Instead of a drinking game we’ve lapsed into mimicry. “What do you want for dinner?” Kerri might ask. My reply, “Look, I’ve surveyed my belly and 85% of tummy-grumbling prefers pasta over all other candidates.”

Without missing a beat, she counters, “Look, your data is clearly partisan since the people are voting for chicken soup.”

“Look,” I say, gathering my thought for a response, “I’m willing to work with you here. My caucus will support your chicken soup if you’ll guarantee chocolate sometime before bedtime.”

She stares her best stare of thoughtful consideration. “Well, look,” she replies, extending her pause, “I think we can make that happen.”

read Kerri’s blog post about LOOK

Follow The Conversation [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I met Horatio on an airplane. With his wife, Teru, we were seatmates on a flight from Washington D.C. to Seattle. I’d just finished facilitating a workshop at the Smithsonian about story, he was stepping toward directing films, and Teru is passionate about writing life histories. We talked about storytelling clear across the country and our conversation continues to this day.

David and I sat next to each other at a conference. I’d only just moved to Seattle, I knew no one. I saw a sign for the conference and wandered in. It was my good fortune to pick a seat next to a brilliant visual and theatre artist. We started talking about life and art. Years later, every gallery I enter, every play I attend, I have conversations with David in my mind – and hurry home to write him or call him and share what we talked about.

To this day, MM is my greatest collaborator. We used to sit in my office and dream big dreams – and then go out and make them happen. He is the ultimate player-of-infinite-games, playing-to-play. When I need my mind opened, my pot stirred, or my obstacles surmounted, I turn to MM.

I was visiting Tom McK at his ranch. When he asked me to help him tell a story I had no idea that his simple question, the story that he needed to tell, would take more than a decade and would only be possible after his death. His story became my story to tell.

It was Tom’s story that I told to Horatio that day on the flight from D.C. to Seattle. It was multiple good conversations over many years with David about writing plays that finally brought me to clarity. MM was my constant companion. With his band, Mom’s Chili Boys, he composed the music that supported the telling of Tom’s story. He built the world of the play and then, together, we stepped into the world and fulfilled Tom’s request.

Fortuitous seat assignments on a flight. Following an impulse into a conference and taking any old seat. Playing an infinite game. One good conversation, again and again, and nothing will ever be the same.

read Kerri’s blog post about ONE GOOD CONVERSATION

Line Up Behind “They” [on Merely A Thought Monday]

When the world is just too much to ponder, one of our favorite bits of escapism is to catch an episode of Highway Thru Hell. Heavy rescue tow trucks working miracles clearing the highways of impossible wrecks. Flipping large semi-tractor-trailers, pulling them off of icy bridges and out of ditches. The physics of their work is mind-bending. Angles of lift, leverage, and thrust. Marvels of nuance in heavy metal. It is a symphony of paradox: crude meets delicate, tender masculinity.

On the surface, it seems an odd choice of wellsprings to refill our faith in humanity. But, every time we indulge in our flight from the news-of-the-day, I find myself whispering, “Unbelievable.” Not only do they willingly wade into impossible messes, they do it with a singular and clear understanding: they are serving a greater good. They are trying to open or keep open a highway. Connectivity. Commerce. Community. Like any doctor removing a blockage, they are servants to communal flow. I think that is why we visit them on the highway.

At the shop, they work out their pecking order. There is no lack of flexing muscles and man-drama. But, once they are called to a crash, all the “I” flees the scene. There are police, and flag people. There is traffic backed up for miles; each and every car and truck a person with a place to be. And the tow truck operators know it. They talk about it. Their service outruns their egos. They do not hesitate to call for help. They make choices based on the needs of others. The fantasy-world of “I” dissolves into the hard reality of “Us.”

In that hard reality of “Us,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a more thankless job. They work long hours in extreme weather. The conditions are dangerous and dirty. They clear the wreck, get back into their trucks, and move onto the next, with little or no thanks from the community they serve. Yet, they show up everyday. They take extreme pride in doing their work. There is a mastery that they acknowledge in the older drivers and strive to achieve it themselves. They learn from each other. They mentor each other. They celebrate each other.

They.

When Kevin, one of the tow truck operators, driving away from an exhausting job that took many people and many hours to complete, said with tired satisfaction, “There’s no ‘I’ in team,” I thought, that’s exactly why I escape from my highway thru hell to this Highway Thru Hell.

These Highway Thru Hell guys are plugged into the simple reality of existence. They know unequivocally that no one walks this earth alone. They know that their work on this earth, amidst the mess and chaos and dirt, is about keeping the flow going, and that requires an “I” that lines up behind service to “They.”

read Kerri’s blog post about NO I IN TEAM

Do It For Yourself [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I have been writing long enough to know that there are sedimentary layers to my themes. The top layer, the most superficial, is the political layer, current events. I am not above shouting into the storm. When I run to the keyboard and ring the alarm or presume that my point of view is relevant enough to roundly criticize others, I know that, above all, I’m breaking the first rule of happiness: I can never determine what another person thinks or does or feels. On my superficial days, in my ranting, I write for myself.

When I was at my saddest, I set about looking for goodness. I walked the streets of Seattle with the single intention of counting acts of kindness. As you might suspect there were more than I could count. In this world where we story ourselves as aggressive, unthinking and unkind, we are remarkably compassionate. Good will is simply more difficult to see. It is not the focus. The deeper layers of my writing-archaeology emerge when I direct my attention, when I exercise the artist in me and attempt to see beyond what I think. Since these are the layers where I desire to live and work, I suppose it is also true that on those days I also write for myself.

It is a looping life-lesson for me: I have the capacity to choose where I place my focus. I will see in the dark ocean where I decide to shine my light. I will author myself according to what/where I decide to give my focus. It is, among other things, why the film ABOUT TIME is among my favorite movies.

Lately, as one of our get-through-the-pandemic-winter-strategies, we’ve taken to assembling jigsaw puzzles. Entire evenings disappear into our intense pursuit of pieces. Our puzzle sessions require absolute focus – all of the other nonsense and monsters that vie to plague our brains are banished. Our focus is so thorough that we rarely speak. We do, however, listen to the soundtrack of ABOUT TIME. Again and again. When it finishes, one of us walks to the CD player (yes…we play CDs) and play it again. Sometimes we don’t make it past the first track, Ben Fold’s THE LUCKIEST. “Do you mind?” one of us asks. It’s a rhetorical question. It warms us so a repeat is always welcome.

Sitting at the dining room table, hunting for bits of colored cardboard, with the soundtrack playing, all things come into focus. While the surface-layer is on fire with a circus of instability, a pandemic, a climate that is changing, all jobs gone, a broken wrist that is not mending,…the deeper layer beckons: DogDog sits under the table, BabyCat is asleep on the chair, 20 just called and made us laugh, a postcard from Jen made us cry, my phone dinged with a text from a dear friend. I look across the table at my wife, pursing her lips as she plucks a piece of the puzzle from the table and attempts to make it fit, and I know to my bones that I am the luckiest.

To see it or not to see it; it’s my choice.

read Kerri’s blog post about REPEAT

Witness The Generosity [on Merely A Thought Monday]

You know the ritual is over when the sacrifice is made. Sometimes the sacrifice is literal, an offering of thanks to the greater powers. A life given for life received. It’s the elemental story cycle with gratitude as the final act.

Sometimes the sacrifice is unconscious and, therefore…unconscious. Unseen. Not felt.

In the weeks before the holiday, the delivery trucks were ubiquitous, zipping this way and that. The deliverers-of-packages worked overtime to ensure all good things arrived on time. We tracked the good people hauling our packages to remote destinations, a luxury of the modern world. As I stroll down my street this week I see, post-holiday, the garbage collectors are working overtime, mechanical arms groaning and methodical, clearing the mountain of debris, boxes, empty bottles (I contributed my share), wrapping paper and remnants of our ritual. Our offering of thanks to the greater powers leaves a mighty litter trail.

The day after Christmas, at the mouth of the lot where we park to hike our trail, the discarded trees were already stacking up. Kerri speculated that the people who enjoyed the trees must certainly be going on travels. Why else would they discard their trees so fast? “Or,” she speculated, “maybe they’ve had them up since the first of November. Maybe they are ready to move on.”

The sacrifice is too easy. It’s piled on the curb. It’s hauled away.

Despite how this reads, it is more meditation than criticism. This holiday season was one of my favorite precisely because we could take nothing for granted. 2020 was brutal for us as it was for many. With our patterns blown to bits, with our security nowhere to be found, our community fragmenting, with no easy choices, we were – and are – conscious of every single step. We are grateful for every moment of heat in the house, for every kindness that has come our way, for every small kindness we’ve been able to offer. We imbue our meals with a deep thankfulness that we did not a scant one year ago.

Why is it that gratitude is so easy when everything else is hard – and why is gratitude merely lip-service when everything is easy? It is, I suspect, why our congress can’t move to help a struggling populace; they have it too easy to identify with the people they represent. We are too easily taken to the curb, to readily swept away.

It has been my role in this lifetime to walk the margins and look inward at the mechanics of my community. To see. It’s the role of the artist to see the patterns, the shapes and colors of their culture and reflect them back, to make conscious what is too easily ignored. To bring the heart, the eye and the mind to the ugly as well as the beautiful.

By the backdoor of our house are bags we’re filling with crackers and peanut butter, socks and sweatshirts. The bags are for the army of people appearing on our streets with signs that read “Homeless” or “Hungry.” It’s not that I am a fan of hard times, I am not, but I’m grateful for what these times are evoking in me – in us. It’s waking us up, helping us reach to others rather than push them away. It’s moving us to see and wildly appreciate our simple abundance.

In the early days of this new year, with the glitter all but swept up, the champagne bottles hauled away, I am moved to tears at the acts of generosity I’m experiencing and also seeing pop up all around me. The holiday is over, the sacrifices made, but the generosity-of-spirit continues. It’s rising in hard times. It’s there. It’s everywhere, if you care to see it.

read Kerri’s blog post about DISCARDS

Adapt Or Not [on Merely A Thought Monday]

One of Kerri’s 2020 photo series is of discarded masks. I thought it odd the very first time we saw a mask tangled in the weeds on the side of the trail. I also thought it odd that Kerri jumped to take a picture of it. “Things you never thought you’d see!” she proclaimed after capturing her image.

Over these past several months her collection of images has grown exponentially. She adds to it almost daily. Masks in gutters. Masks on sidewalks. Masks in parking lots. Trail side masks left dangling from branches. Masks in aisle 9 near the peanut butter. What was peculiar a few months ago has become normalized. “Another mask!” she says and kneels to take a snap. I barely notice.

A new normal.

I’ve read that homo sapiens are a successful species because of our ability to adapt to changing environments. I’ve also read that entire cultures have vanished off the face of the planet because of their (our) ability to habituate the extreme – that is, adapt – to behaviors that collapse their (our) environment. Frogs in a pot. Just watch what happens to a cohesive community when the well runs dry or the fuel source is exhausted. Just watch what happens as the planet warms and weather-weirding becomes more dire. Fire season never ends. Hurricane season stretches on and on – we adapt our system for counting them because there are too many for the old system to contain.

We are not the first homo sapiens to deny what is right in front of our eyes. Denial, after all, is a cousin to adaptation.

Pandemics rage. People travel en masse for the holidays with no regard to the appeals of healthcare workers or the pleas of the CDC. Individual rights exercised at the expense of neighbors lives. Homo sapiens are capable of denying that they are a social animal. It’s romantic, this illusion of cowboys going it alone. An intentional snub of greater responsibility. Peeing in the pool.

It-is what-it-is. A new normal.

Each day we pass people on the trail. There are two distinct groups. Those with masks who pull them up when they encounter others. And, those without. “People who don’t give a sh*t,” Kerri whispers. The dividing line couldn’t be more apparent.

“Things I never thought I’d see,” I say. After a moment, I add, “You should take out your camera and start a new series. People incapable of adaptation!”

“We’d have to get releases, we’d have to get their permission” she says, always the practical one. Then, cutting to the heart of the matter, she said, “Besides, they’re not that interesting. People who don’t care are sooooo much less interesting than people who do care.”

Adapting to new circumstances – wearing a mask – is an act of caring. “Yes,” I sigh, suddenly understanding her mask photo series. Lost or discarded caring. It’s ubiquitous. It’s normalized.

Somehow, I manage to find her mask series hopeful. Some truths, like kindness – like caring, are universal. The lost masks are evidence. The litter of caring is everywhere.

The ancient norms eventually float to the top. The heat of the fire always – eventually – wakes us up or brings us together. Or we boil. We collapse. We persevere. We divide. We unite. We take a new form. We evolve.

Everything is different now. Nothing new.

read Kerri’s blog post about BECAUSE