Two Sons and Two Fathers [on Merely A Thought Monday]

The original contractor arrived with heavy machinery and an army of men. It was November. Our waterline broke and water was bubbling up in our front lawn. He was the only contractor available and willing to do the job so late in the year. By the time he was finished, he’d busted out portions of the city sidewalk, trenched a 5-foot-deep moat from the street to our foundation, broke out a piece of our front walk, and drilled a sizable hole in our foundation. It was the equivalent of performing open heart surgery for a toothache. Look up “overkill” in the dictionary and you’ll find a picture of this man.

The wreckage that he left behind was prodigious, though he was obligated to return in the spring to fix or replace what he’d broken.

To say we had to fight is an understatement. The city forced him to replace the sidewalk. The burial mound that was our front yard, after weeks of wrangling, was finally leveled and the grass reseeded. He promised to return to complete the final bit of repair work, the last of the pieces: a single square of our front walkway. We knew we’d never see him again.

This story has an extraordinary ending. A series of companies were contacted. None wanted to do the job. It was too small. It was too complicated: the original walkway was scribed with lines and no one knew how to match it.

And then, one day, I looked out the window and saw Frank, hands on his hips, standing on our driveway, staring at our sidewalk. “I remember this job,” he said when I came out to greet him. “I was a kid. I was with my dad when he poured this.” He scrutinized the house. “I’m certain of it.” He smiled, adding, “I think I still have the tool he used to make those lines.”

We talked for several minutes. My dad worked in concrete so we swapped dad stories. He was excited to restore the walk that his father installed. Scribing the lines would not only be easy, but a way to connect his work with his father’s. His connection to his father provided a mainline connection to my father. I was suddenly extremely grateful for the disappearance of the original contractor. Into the void he created walked a heart-legacy, a special opportunity.

Now, the final steps you take approaching our house, will be the place two sons met with their lost fathers, a stone of remembrance and pride. What could possibly be a better welcome to our home.

read Kerri’s blogpost about CEMENT

Stay On The Root [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I wrote a note to myself and put it on the stairs. Later, I’ll carry the note up to my studio/office. It reads: standing still in the sacrament of uncertainty.

I know well this sacrament of uncertainty, this thing of mysterious and sacred significance. I’ve been here before, many times. Standing still is becoming easier.

This morning these words caught me so I underlined them in pencil: They are fully aware that their common ancestors, the Tairona, waged fierce but futile war against the invaders. In their mountain redoubt, lost to history for at least three centuries, they chose deliberately to transform their civilization into a devotional culture of peace.” ~ Wade Davis, The Wayfinders.

Deliberate transformation into a devotional culture of peace. Imagine it if you can.

She was so wise! Karola’s advice to the 30 year old version of me: let the glass go empty. That was terrifying advice to my younger self. At that age, I feared losing myself in the emptiness. At 60, having been empty (and emptied) more than a few times, her advice is sage. As she knew, empty is the only place that you have a chance of finding yourself.

I know now that I used to go into my studio to escape the noise. It was the only place where I could make sense – or find sense – of this crazy world. Studio as fortress. As armor. I will, at some point, re-enter my studio. I wonder what I will paint now that sense-making is no longer a priority. I wonder what I will imagine now that the armor is off.

I tell myself to “stay on the root.” Advice from Saul. That means to stay in the moment. Even in the intense discomfort of uncertainty I do not want to rush through a day of my life. Uncertainty and loss are life experiences, too. Colors on the palette. No less valuable than joy or conviction. When I listen to myself, when I sit solidly on the root, the circumstance remains but the discomfort disappears.

I’m doing what I’ve so often advised others to do: when you cannot see, ask those you trust to tell you what they see. Perspective requires some distance and I am sitting squarely atop my event horizon. I cannot see. These days I’m happily borrowing perspective. My friends have wise-eyes. They tell me – each in their own way – to stand still. Honor the sacrament. Listen. Empty and make space for imagination.

read Kerri’s blogpost about BEGINNING

See Your Choices [on Merely A Thought Monday]

He began with silence. He looked them all over, one fox at a time, and his eyes looked deep into theirs. Lucy wanted to hide when his eyes came to her but instead she fell into his gaze. He seemed to be listening. Then, he made up his mind, and in a voice that was both powerful and quiet, he said, “Words are strong magic, misused they are tragic, but handled with care they bring insight and good cheer. So listen, dear friends, listen with care.” ~ Lucy & The Waterfox

“Choice” is a very powerful word. Perhaps one of the most powerful.

Lucy was a story I told many years ago at a conference of healthcare workers. Actually, it wasn’t the primary story; it was an addition. The organizers asked if I had a second story in my bag o’ tricks and I’d just written Lucy.

After the conference I illustrated and self-published it. It was the early days of self-publishing so the layout is wonky. I’ve never really liked how the book looks. I’d turn Kerri loose on it if we were bored and didn’t have other things to do. We’re not bored.

Lucy makes two choices in the story. The first is to hide her special talent. To conform. The second is to own her special talent. To take flight.

She achieves both choices through the intervention of others. The first choice was made with the help of social pressure; who doesn’t want to belong, to fit in! To conform. This choice nearly kills her. The second is made with the help of a storyteller, a role model. Who doesn’t want to fulfill their passion! Follow their bliss? This choice fills her with life.

I’d write a sequel but it’s already imbedded in the first book. What happens to Lucy when she chooses the left hand path? She becomes, as all artists do, the carrier of the story, the mythologist and mythology of the pack.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a choice. To hide your fire. Bend to pressure. To burn brightly. Follow an inner imperative. Yet they are choices, both.

“Lucy was a red fox who lived as other red foxes do, playing in the fields and forests. But Lucy had a secret. She could fly. Not a run-and-jump-to-this-rock kind of fly. No! She could fly like a bird…”

read Kerri’s blogpost about CHOICE

Lucy & The Waterfox © 2004 david robinson

Listen To The Sound Of The Wind [on Merely A Thought Monday]

“A man is worked upon by what he works on. He may carve out his circumstances, but his circumstances will carve him out as well.” ~Frederick Douglas

I began cleaning out old files, something to fill the time. I knew the job had come to an end but the formal announcement had yet to come. The file of voice recordings I made with Tom surprised me. I wondered why I’d stashed it in folder that had nothing to do with The Lost Boy project. I opened one of the recordings and spent a few minutes with Tom. His deep bass voice telling a story of hardship and perseverance. “His daughter’s carried his body out onto the flood plain,” he said, “where they could find softer soil to dig a grave.”

It threw me into a memory with Columbus. Sitting at the table out back, the evening was coming on and he was having a lucid moment in his path through dementia. I asked him what happened in his life that he shifted jobs and started working in construction. A tale of hardship and perseverance. Impossible circumstances. Stable ground was fleeting. A neighbor offered him a job that seemed ridiculous at the time. He took it. A strange unknown land. He loved it. He thrived through adversity. Just before disappearing back into the muddy waters of dementia he whispered, “That man taught me how to be a man among men.”

Today we sit in uncertainty. Life review. “Why does our path have to be so hard?’ she asked in the aftermath of the announcement. “Why can’t we have just a little bit of stable ground?” We are carved in hardwood. We are a study of perseverance. “We’ll find a way,” my only reply.

I stood with Tom in the cemetery. He wanted to show me a grave that he’d shown me several times before. In his dementia, he couldn’t remember so we returned again and again. Frankie, another lost boy in a story of lost boys. This time was different. I knew it would be our last trip. I took him to the grave. I told him the story of his ancestor Frankie.

As I finished the telling, a farmer, a big man, came into the yard, ham-sized-hands clutching a tiny bundle of store bought flowers. He didn’t know we were there or didn’t care. He kneeled at a fresh grave. He wailed his grief. Tom heard the sound of the man’s sobs and stood still, listening. Finally, glancing at me, his voice quiet with awe, he said, “Listen to the sound of the wind.”

read Kerri’s blogpost about YOU’LL MAKE IT

Not So Difficult [on Merely A Thought Monday]

Good human beings.

Since I was a child I’ve been told that Santa keeps a list. Naughty or nice? Naughty means taking from others; being mean. Nice means giving to others; being kind.

It’s not so difficult.

Tomorrow is election day in these un-united-united-states. Election officials fear for their lives. A sad statement for the sacred epicenter of a republic: the right to vote. Safely. Securely. Without intimidation.

It’s really not so difficult. Good human beings look out for each other.

The Big Lie continues to swirl around the folks on the right. Evidence is not required when filling bellies with hot air. All that bloviated gas-bagging makes people angry. Seeing nothing but red, people become easy marks. Red is the color of gullible.

Good human beings are not bullies. They play fair. They do not gerrymander or twist the rules so they win the game before playing. Good human beings bring their best ideas to the center. They offer their ideas. They consider the ideas of others. They need not always get their way. They require a safe place to freely speak and guard that space for everyone.

It really isn’t that difficult.

Naughty means consumed with self-interest. Nice means enlivened by service to something larger than self.

Naughty means hoarding all the pie. Nice means sharing slices with others.

Tomorrow we vote. To bully or be kind? It’s really not so difficult.

read Kerri’s blog post about GOOD HUMAN BEINGS

Embrace The Flaw [on Merely A Thought Monday]

Every week in our website inbox, I find an ominous message: “There are some serious flaws in your code.” No kidding. If they only knew half the stuff that runs through my mind!

The message also warns that the serious-flaws-in-my-code are making it hard for Google to find me. Suddenly, I’m not so sure having flaws in my code is a bad thing. Maybe I don’t want Google to find me. In this brave-new-world, I like the idea that my every move isn’t easily tracked and translated into data miraculously transformed into personalized advertisements.

I realize that the flaws in my data will probably mean that I am less successful than I otherwise might be. I will accumulate less “likes” and my pool of “followers” and “friends” will not reach as wide or deep as it otherwise might. I’m regularly chastised about my flawed code. My shallow success is possibly attributed to my inept working of the social net.

The goal is to gather the audience, with no regard whether or not there is anything worthwhile to say. I’d say that’s a fair summation. It’s a popularity contest sans rules or decorum. It’s the same thin philosophy that confuses a test score with learning or a banana-taped-to-the-wall as meaningful art. We are the story Jane Goodall tells: the monkey banging the garbage can is leader for a day until the pack recognizes that his noise is just that: noise. Not leadership.

I’m more than grateful that I have serious flaws in my code. I may or may not have anything worthwhile to say. That is not for me to decide. As Sam once advised me so many years ago, the quality of my friends matter. Not the number.

Google’s divining rod might have trouble finding my well but I’m comfortable knowing my well is plentiful either way.

[Happy Halloween, by-the-way]

read Kerri’s blogpost about Explore Beyond

Make Sense [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I told Kerri she was going to be fired two years before the ax fell. I needed no crystal ball and was not reading tea leaves. In my consulting life I’d seen it happen a few dozen times. When a not-for-profit organization promotes to leadership those who believe everything needs to run like a business, the people holding fast to the actual purpose and mission of the organization have to go.

It makes sense if you think about it. Profit is the purpose of a business. When profit is the purpose, the organizational structures and levers-of-power evolve according to the purpose: profit. People are expendable.

There’s a reason arts organizations, churches, educational institutions,…are called not-for-profit. They serve a different purpose. The organizational structures and levers of power evolve according to the central purpose: service. The creation of art. Learning. Health. Feeding the hungry. Helping the victims of disaster. Worship. The people, usually not well-paid, are dedicated to the deeper organizational mission. Not profit. The people are not expendable. In fact, they are the keepers of the flame. They are very hard to come by.

The quickest way to kill a service organization is to apply the power-levers of business. The purpose dies. The good people – the keepers of the organizational heart – have to be fired, whipped into compliance, silenced, or forced to leave. It’s not rocket science. That process takes a few years.

It’s sometimes hard for us to make sense of what’s happening in our nation and world yet the same principles that apply to organizations also apply to countries. The purpose of healthcare is not profit. The purpose of education was never supposed to be profit. We currently have in our vernacular phrases like “predatory lending” – people making millions from students who believe the dream is only accessible through higher education. It’s the message embedded in our mythology. The levers of business have twisted our vision. Just as prisons should never be money makers, healthcare-as-a-business obliterates the purpose. It profits a few. It crushes the many.

Apples cannot be oranges. Make sense?

What’s happening in our nation makes perfect sense. Big business, regularly bailed out or given tax breaks to the tune of billions of dollars, is protected. No questions asked. Yet, try to correct a corrupt lending scheme, a successful (highly profitable) application of business levers to education, built on the backs of working people trying to go to school, and the “it-has-to-run-like-a-business” crowd will move heaven and earth to keep profit at the center of the mission. Our education system, once the best in the world, is spiraling. Ridiculous. It’s inevitable when protecting the interests of business supersedes serving the purpose.

We may find our way through, we might return to our senses, when we stop pretending that business is somehow sacred, that the making-of-money is moral and a proper north star for all things. It is not. It is great for some things. It is devastating, senseless, for the most important things.

read Kerri’s blogpost about SENSE

Reconnect [on Merely A Thought Monday]

“We are healing our souls by reconnecting to our ancestors.” Nainoa Thompson (quote from The Wayfinders by Wade Davis)

There is a house I sometimes visit in dreams. It is a mountain house and, in the dream, it belongs to my Grandma Sue. I’m always comforted when I go there.

I have some of Casey’s tools and some of Bob’s. I think of them every time I use the wrench or the screwdriver. Both were good mechanics, handy, so I imagine their tools imbue me with some of their wisdom when I attempt to fix what’s broken around the house.

I gingerly page through the handmade book where DeMarcus made his notes about color. The pencil marks are fading but his enthusiasm reaches from the page and rejuvenates me. Inspires me.

A few days ago I happened upon my Lost Boy session recordings with Tom. His bass voice reached through my computer, telling me a story I now know so well. It warmed me.

In my studio, on top of DeMarcus’ wooden paint box, is a nutcracker that Grandpa Chan kept by his pool table. It’s the only thing I wanted when he passed. Something he touched. I hold it sometimes when I stare at works-in-progress. I feel him there.

I wear a chain around my left wrist. Kerri wears one, too. It is pull chain. The current version is a replacement of the original that we took from Pa’s workbench. I never met him but I feel connected to him. Kerri tells me stories of her dad. “How do you like them apples?” One of his phrases.

I imagine he and my dad are on the other side of the veil drinking scotch together. That drink warms me, too.

read Kerri’s blogpost about THEM APPLES

Savor The Impossible [on Merely A Thought Monday]

Kerri and I have an ongoing conversation about design. Not graphic design or interior design. Life design. Is there a design, a predetermined path? A destiny? Our verdict lives on a pendulum. Sometimes it seems apparent: there is. Somedays it seems obvious: there isn’t. Both/And.

When we look back at our lives it seems impossible that we met. So many factors – millions, in fact – had to align at just the right moment for the arc of our paths to cross. Change a single aspect, one decision, just one, and our trajectory through space and time would have been wildly different. We would have tumbled through life never having known each other.

It’s hard to recognize in our most ordinary days that the same principle applies. Always. Each moment of every day we are making choices, tiny micro-choices, that bend the course of our lives. I once looked at the “publish” button and thought, “What’s the point?” I almost deleted the newsletter but, in a move that felt utterly impulsive and completely ridiculous, I clicked the publish-button. My life had exploded. Pieces rained down from the sky. I had nothing to lose. Why not. Publish.

Stories are told after the fact. “How” always comes second.

I clicked a button. A woman named Kerri responded. A conversation started.

Our coming together was nothing shy of mystic. Heaven and earth had to move for this possibility to become a reality – and it did. It moved. It felt as if unseen hands gave us a push. What are the odds? Astronomical. What about those hands?

Heaven and earth move everyday. Astronomical odds. Micro-choices. Ordinary life. Miraculous. Looking backward it seems destined. Looking forward it seems random. Design? Arbitrary? Yes. I suppose, either way, the real question is, “Do you appreciate it?” Do you know how impossible this moment is? Where else would you be?

Today is our seventh anniversary. Today, I savor the impossible and appreciate the design. Both/And.

read Kerri’s blogpost about SUPPOSED TO BE

Connect [on Merely A Thought Monday]

When I think of Sam I am flooded with fond memories of a man dedicated to bringing people together around heaps of fine food. Thanksgiving with friends. Apple crush. A “bad art” party that was a thin veneer for assembling those he loved around a table of abundance. Sam envisioned himself as a connector of people, both to others and to deeper connections within. Two paths to the same destination.

Yesterday on the trail we talked about what was and what is. The pandemic years have proven to be a hot crucible for change. Life passages. There is a hard line: before and after. When I first moved to Wisconsin, Kerri and I hosted large gatherings almost every week. Ukulele band. Slow dance party. Cantata Frittata Regatta. Bringing people together. We held five progressively larger dinner parties on the week before our wedding. There was always boisterous conversation, plenty of food and wine. Now, we are delighted each week when 20 comes over to share a meal. We laugh. We spin tales. We enjoy quiet and simplicity. Intimate conversations.

As Sam knew, food and stories are both connection creators. Together, they are an unbeatable team, the pulsing heart of breaking bread. And, he knew as we do, that connection is not an achievement or arrival platform. It is like a good fire and must be tended, fed. Both between others and within the self.

When the sun sets on these cool fall evenings, we bring dinner outside and eat beside a fire. Dogga finds a comfortable place to rest. The pond gurgles. Each night I am overwhelmed with waves and waves of gratitude. We coo over the meal we’ve made. Our conversation is made quiet by the fire. Reflective. We savor the passing moment, no thought of stopping time. All in. Connected.

read Kerri’s blogpost about EAT