Look Down [on DR Thursday]

To all the rugged individualists out there living under the grand illusion that you are blazing a new trail, I have only one thing to say: look down. Someone has been there before you. It’s why there’s a path. And, more to the point, someone – a crew of someones – worked very hard to make and maintain the trail you now tread. It’s true in the forest. It’s true in the big-bad city. Every time we flick a switch and the lights come on it might not be a bad idea to recognize how many people were – and are – involved in the maintenance of our comfort and our self-reliance-fantasies.

On the Pink Bed trail there’s a boardwalk that elevates hikers over the swampy sections. I stopped in utter admiration at the section that took a hard left. Someone – a crew of someones – spent a long time making my corner not only easy to walk but beautiful. Certainly there are more efficient ways to build a turn in a boardwalk and they could have chosen any number of simpler solutions but they didn’t. They took the time to make their work functional, sturdy, AND aesthetic.

Daniel was building a house on the lake. He only builds one a year these days, mostly for fun. He invited us in. Far from being finished, the craftsmanship was exposed. The joints were meticulous. The lumber he chose was solid. The materials mattered. There was beauty in the structure and he was proud to point out the love taken in every step, even the roughest stage of the build. The eventual buyers would never see or know the care alive behind the drywall. They might never fathom the depth of effort and design involved in making their comfort – their triumphant lake home – a possibility.

Horatio and I talk often of the deep philosophical divide in these un-united-united-states. The every-man/woman-for-him/herself camp is at odds with the I-am-my-brother/sisters-keeper folks. I understand the appeal of the self-made-man/woman story but I also recognize it to be mostly a fantasy. Sir Edmund Hillary understood that standing atop Everest, celebrated as the first, was only made possible by the efforts of hundreds of Sherpa, months of expedition planning by John Hunt and team, financing, travel arrangements, government officials, 8 previous unsuccessful expeditions, and the good graces and guidance of Tensing Norgay.

We’d be better off if periodically we stopped and simply looked down.

read Kerri’s blog post about the BOARDWALK

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Hear The Whisper [on Two Artists Tuesday]

a house copy

A house remembers.

We took my dad back to his home town. It was a pilgrimage. He wanted to see it one last time. We walked through the cemetery. He pointed to headstones and told stories. He looked for people and grew frustrated when he couldn’t find them. He’d breathe a sigh of relief when, after walking row after row, we finally found them.

The pilgrimage was not to the cemetery. It was to a tiny little house that his grandfather built that he needed to return. To touch. Nowadays it is being used as a shed. His dad grew up in that tiny house. It was the center of his universe when he was a child, his cathedral.

Standing before the tiny house, he told the story of how his grandfather split open and pried apart the rafters, making a second story. He built on a small kitchen. He added a small bedroom on one side. There was a porch.

To our eyes, it was now barely standing. To my dad’s eyes, it was the most beautiful home on earth.

As we walked the perimeter I couldn’t help but feel that the house needed to see him as much as he needed to see the house. It remembered, “You came back!” It seemed to sit up straight, remembering the days that it housed a family, that meals were cooked within its walls, that children slept there. As my dad told the stories, I was overwhelmed with the notion that he wasn’t just telling us, he was talking to the house. And the house was nodding, smiling, “Yes, I remember…” The children ran free. Everyone worked hard.

As we walked away he knew he would never see it again. But he’d shared the story. He’d introduced us to this house, his-and-now-my sacred place. “This is where you come from,” the house and my dad whispered together, “Remember.”



read Kerri’s blog post about A HOUSE REMEMBERS



footprints in sunlit snow website box copy

Mix Beautiful Color

photo-6This magnet-sentiment was on Jim’s refrigerator:

It’s never too late to become what you might have been.

It is particularly poignant because both Jim and I are surprised, dare I admit, disoriented, after finally producing The Lost Boy. It was over a decade in coming. I’d stopped believing that it would ever find a path to the stage and, instead, would remain a good story for dinner conversation. Now that it’s out of the box and rolling around in the world of possible-next-productions, I hear Tom’s voice ringing in my ears, “Readiness is all.” It couldn’t happen until it was ready, until I was ready.

For the past decade, coincident with the development of The Lost Boy, I have been telling stories at conferences, with symphonies, during organizational trainings, and other random stage performances. I have inadvertently learned to tell a good story (or better stated while slaughtering all grammar: to tell a story good). 5 years ago I couldn’t have performed the play as I did last week. I didn’t have the chops for it. I do now.

Years ago, after being wowed by Jim Edmondson’s performance of King Lear, I asked him what he’d learned from doing the role. He replied, “I don’t have enough colors in my paint box to do it justice. Not yet.” This giant of American theatre blew my socks off with his performance, but felt that he fell short. He couldn’t yet fulfill the demands of the role. He knew there was more to grasp and his artistic arms were not long enough. He knew he was not yet ready. No amount of accolade or sock-less fans would change what he knew: there was more to the role than he could reach. More age, more life, more skill was needed. He taught me in that moment what it meant to be an artist. The compass is internal. The capacity is ever expanding if you work at it.

I now believe that, to produce The Lost Boy, I also needed to find the right reason before readiness was available. For years I thought I had an obligation to Tom. I thought I had to finish it for him and tell his story. That was only partially true. The real obligation was to myself. I had to finish it for me – and it took a good deal of readiness for me to see that. It had to become my play. And, in becoming my play, I can now see that I have a world of color in my paint box – and a world of color that I still need to develop. That is the name of this game of mastery. There is never an end. There are just more and more beautiful colors to find and mix and share.


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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Have A Chat With Erling

Kerri with her dad.

Kerri with her dad.

It seems as if the theme for the week is lost conversations. It occurred to me that, after writing yesterday’s post, there is, in my life, another conversation that I wish I could have but never will. And, because I never will have the actual conversation, I am reaching into the void and having another form of dialogue.

I wear on my right wrist, wrapped three times to form a bracelet, a pull chain for a light fixture that I found on a workbench. Kerri wears on her left wrist, wrapped three times, the rest of the chain. I found the chain during our first trip to Florida. We were visiting Kerri’s mom in an assisted living facility and, in the evenings, cleaning out her parent’s home. Kerri’s dad, Erling Arnson, died a year before we met, and she’s often said to me, “I wish you could have known my dad.”

I found the chain on Erling’s workbench. He was a watchmaker and a jeweler. He worked with his hands, rebuilt cars, machined new parts for things, and was the master of a quick fix. He liked to build things. He liked to tinker. You can tell much about a person by the way they keep their space and I spent a long time standing at Erling’s workbench. It had been mostly picked apart, scavenged, but the organizing principle was still in tact. He liked to re-purpose things. He liked to make things out of things; every bolt and scrap was filled with potential. I could feel (and understand) the simple joy of creation apparent at his bench.

When I saw the chain (discarded by the scavengers) I knew it would be a way for Kerri and I to bring her dad forward with us. We secured the chains on our wrists and because it is there, I think about Erling everyday. I wonder what I might have learned from him. I like to tinker, too. I like to make things.

Me at Erling's resting place.

Me at Erling’s resting place.

On the second anniversary of his death, Kerri said, “Daddy will show up, today. I don’t know how, but he will.” A few minutes later the faucet in the kitchen broke. Evidently Erling had a wicked sense of humor. As I replaced the faucet (the first faucet replacement of my life), a lengthy affair requiring a call to the neighbor for tools, I felt a deep sense of patience. I remember my grandfather telling me that a person can figure anything out if they just take the time to do it. “You don’t need to know how, you just need to give yourself the time to figure it out.”

Kerri was on the phone with her mom when I finished the job. I was feigning machismo, peacocking my plumbing prowess. Kerri’s mom said, “I think he passed Erling’s test.” She smiled and I thought, “Thanks for the help, Erling. Now, how do I fix the plaster on the ceiling?” His response: I don’t know. But, let’s figure it out.

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Join The Story

Johnny is sitting on a mule named Old Abe. This was taken a few months before he died.

Johnny is sitting on a mule named Old Abe. This was taken a few months before he died.

Yesterday I finished the final edit/redraft of The Lost Boy. It is a play I began years ago based on interviews with Tom. Late one night while I was visiting him at the ranch, he asked me to help him. “Do what?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know. He felt that he had an obligation to an ancestor, his great grandmother, Isabelle, and he felt as if he’d not yet met his obligation. In 1885, Isabelle had a son that died. His name was Johnny and he was only ten years old. Isabelle carefully packed a trunk with all of Johnny’s worldly possessions, she wrote notes, and when no one was looking, she hid the trunk in the walls of the ranch house. She told no one. Tom found the trunk 100 years later.

We decided that his obligation was to tell Johnny’s story. We decided that Isabelle wanted to somehow keep the memory of her son alive but her method was a mystery since she told no one about the trunk. Tom shared the trunk with school children and historical societies but somehow felt as if he had yet to fulfill his obligation to Isabelle. Our idea was to create a play. I would interview Tom and write the piece. He would perform it. Along the way a terrific band, Mom’s Chili Boys, composed and compiled music from era.

We had a play with music. We’d solved the mystery of why Isabelle plastered the trunk into the walls. We made a few attempts at doing workshop performances but the piece always stalled or something unforeseen blocked our path. During a living room read/play through, it became apparent that we missed our window. Tom was slipping into dementia and got lost during the read through. He was no longer capable of performing the play. We stopped. We let the play sit dormant.

During Tom’s decline I rewrote the play so I might tell his story. The Chili Boys were my allies and my rock of encouragement and support. They played the music at performances and told the story in a condensed version and gathered some good feedback. Once, we tried to organize another run at doing the play and it hit a wall of resistance. So, it sat for a few years in the projects-that-could-have-been pile.

When Tom passed this fall it was as if the universe that was so dedicated to blocking our path finally said, “Now.” The Chili’s have new music and it is gorgeous. In doing the rewrite I was gob smacked to realize that Tom had to pass before the play would be complete. He wondered how he might honor his obligation to Isabelle and the answer was something he never knew: he had to ask for help, not to share the story but to enter it. As it turns out, The Lost Boy is not about Johnny or Isabelle. It is about how Tom found his way home.

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