Step Through Life


step thru life


Make No Sense

Untiltled Narrative by David Robinson

Untiltled Narrative by David Robinson

The cliché: life is a cycle. Order begets chaos and chaos begets order. Both are necessary. Just as spring is not possible without winter, order without chaos makes for only half a life. Safety without uncertainty makes for only half a life and a very boring life story.

Ann passed away last night. Her battle with cancer was long and nothing short of heroic. Kerri said, “She was such a bright light! Damn cancer. This makes no sense.” Too true.

Last night, John came back into our lives. We sat for hours talking of the events and changes of the lost years. He told us of the necessity to finally stop trying “to make things work” and how he stepped into the discomfort of uncertainty. Now, standing solidly in his uncertainty, he feels both lost and found. That is a great description of how change feels. We got the news of Ann’s death while John was visiting. We had a glass of wine and made a toast to her life. And then we made a toast to appreciating life in all of its textures. John said, “At the end of the day, all that really matters is a bottle of wine to share with friends.” Too true.

More clichés: rejuvenation necessarily begins in the province of disorder and the unknown. The journey back to self winds through miles and miles of uncharted territory.

Each journey is made beautiful by the monsters and masters we meet along the way. Both are teachers. Both bring gifts and force changes of direction. The Cyclops is as necessary as the sage and both serve new sight and the refocusing of the eye. Both are necessary to strip away our resistance to the cycles, to peel away the protective layers we pile on to life that obscures what truly matters.

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Recognize The Gift

Kerri with her mom, Beaky

Kerri with her mom, Beaky

Late night thoughts from the ER.

Earlier in the day Beaky told me that she had no special talents and I protested! She is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever known. She’s a natural. She can’t help herself. Sit with Beaky and you’ll hear some great stories. Beaky is like the rest of us: she doesn’t recognize her greatest gift because she thinks it is ordinary. She overlooks her gift because she thinks everyone can do what she does easily. That is the way with gifts: it is in the ordinary that we ultimately recognize our extraordinary-ness.

Beaky fell and we spent the night with her in the emergency room. As we sat by her bed, waiting for the pain medication to kick in, she said, “Did I ever tell you about the time…?” We heard stories about stags leaping over the car and the late-in-life marriage of her brother.

Another gift, related to her gift of story or, perhaps, an extension of her story-gift: people smile when they hang out with Beaky, even under extreme circumstances. For instance, writhing in pain, she looked into the eyes of a nurse and said, “I wish I had some of what you have! You have such a lovely smile.” And a new story begins; the nurse moved into the hall to tell the night staff about the kind woman in room 28.

After a sleepless night, Kerri and I sat in the hospital café and talked about the lessons of life, the lessons in generosity of spirit, the instruction in Grace and the rich stories we are receiving. From this seat, not much else seems important.

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Mix Better Color

A painting from another time - and also from as as-yet-unfinished exloration

A painting called ‘Sleepers’  from another time – and also from as as-yet-unfinished exploration

The lake was angry. Because it is the fifth largest lake in the world, it packs a punch when enraged. The local news reported that the waves were 14ft high. The force of the waves smacking the shore hurled huge stones from the wall constructed on the banks to protect the land. Although it is an easy walk from our house, the wind was so powerful and cold that we drove the few blocks to see it.

There are days that the lake is glassy smooth and quiet with barely a noticeable ripple. This day the lake was muddy brown and dangerous. Parts of the bank collapsed. A tree close to the shore was consumed. Many years ago I was in a small boat protected by the islands from the force of the ocean’s wrath; for a few moments we had to round a point, exposed to the fury, to get into a bay. The captain pointed the boat directly into waves that towered over us. I’ve rarely felt like such a bug on the arm of an angry world. Had it decided to, the ocean would have smashed us with little or no notice. The lake was like that this day. I was grateful to be on shore. Sometimes awe for the power of nature requires a respectful distance.

Sometimes appreciating the fullness of life also requires a respectful distance. I recently took Bill and Linda down stairs into my current studio. They are elders and I have enormous respect for them. They’d asked to see my paintings. We spent several moments looking at my current work and then began stepping backwards in time. My paintings ring like songs from the past; each represents a specific era of my life and is capable of sparking intense remembering. It was fun to pull pieces for them, answer questions (or not answer them), and to open the doors of time. Like the lake, the doors were varied and unpredictable: some of the doors flooded me with peace, other doors overwhelmed me with grief, and still others brought intense joy. I loved it all because with time, with distance, life ceases to be about good times and bad times, hard times or ease, it’s all one long rich varied walk, all necessary and useful like color on a palette. Some of it goes to mud and that is the only way to learn to mix better color. Just as every forest fire causes renewal and every storm heaves stones and creates a new shoreline, sometimes distance and respect for this powerful messy life reveals the face of continual renewal and necessitates vast, quiet awe.

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Enter The Castle

[continued from Tell A Good Story]

Shuttering the business, closing down my coaching practice, ending all corporate work, cleaning out the metaphoric closet – created quite a void. Standing solidly in a void of my own making I found myself once again enrapt with the Parcival tale. I’ve told this story dozens of times to audiences of all sizes, in performance and in facilitation. I wove it through The Seer as the main character’s stalking story (the story that follows you throughout your life and only opens when you are ready for it). It continues to open for me, a flower with many petal layers.


The Parcival story is woven throughout The Seer

It’s a grail quest story. Because every human being is in search of his or her personal grail (their true selves), once the metaphors are understood, it is a very useful story for navigating life. At one point in the story, after years of trying to prove himself worthy and save the world from becoming a wasteland – something that he is personally responsible for causing – believing himself to be invincible, he is defeated. A “nature warrior” knocks him off his warhorse and his magic sword shatters into a thousand pieces. Parcival strips off his armor (his role) and weeps. He lets go. He shutters his business. Despite his best efforts, despite fighting every dragon and ogre, despite defeating every dark knight, the wasteland still happened.

As is true in life, in the moment of greatest defeat, the second master appears and for Parcival it is a hermit. Parcival follows the hermit back to his cave and retreats from the world. He waits impatiently for the hermit to teach him, becomes frustrated, and finally resigned to the absence of any useful lesson, all the while, each day, chopping wood for the fire, carrying water to the cave. Over time he forgets that he was ever a knight. He forgets that he felt broken. He forgets his quest. He becomes present to the moment and is no longer invested in a role or purpose. He chops wood. He carries water. He feels the sun on his face. He appreciates his moment.

And, as is true in life, that is the moment that the grail castle appears for the second time. To re-enter the grail castle, to become the grail king (or queen), we must see ourselves as we are, beyond the role we use for armor, beyond the mission we use for meaning making, beyond the things we think we need to say, or do, or be. We have to recognize that we are enough, just as we are created, sacred and beautiful and complete. We are not broken. Nothing needs to be fixed or changed or achieved. Parcival, enters the grail castle (life) in this consciousness, speaks his truth, and the wasteland, in a single moment, disappears.

[to be continued]

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Tell A Good Story

The Storyteller emerges from the forest. Lucy & The Waterfox

The Storyteller emerges from the forest. Lucy & The Waterfox

Over the years I’ve tried countless marginally successful ways to define for others what I do. It would seem obvious: I am a painter. I am a writer. Oh, and a theatre artist. And a consultant. And I’ve maintained a coaching practice. I’ve worked in education, the corporate world, with non-profits, and with entrepreneurs. So, in conclusion, I do too many things.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I do one thing. I deal in story.

I speak the language of story and that is confusing in any arena. What does it mean? Such a simple word, story, and yet it can mean so many different things. For instance, a truism in effective, transformational coaching is that the story doesn’t matter. By story, coaches mean the circumstance; in transformation, in the fulfillment of potential, the details of what happened – the story – are not useful. The circumstance story usually equates to blaming or endless attempts at self-fixing. The circumstance story gets in the way of growth. It is an anchor in the sea of dysfunction.

I don’t work with circumstance stories.

By story, I mean inner monologue, the-story-you-tell-yourself-about-yourself. By story, I mean the language that we use within ourselves to articulate belief. I work with the orientation story, the personal and communal mythology. Rather than get in the way, the orientation story defines the way. It defines what we see. It defines our relationship with time, with nature, with god, with community: it is the lens through which we make meaning. I help people change their lenses. Try explaining that to a CEO!

Last year, when Skip and I shuttered our business, I also shuttered my coaching practice. I ended my corporate work. Much of it came to feel like wearing an ill-fitting shirt –or a host of ill-fitting shirts – so I decided to clean out the closet. I wanted to drop all the definitions, the old forms, to make space for the new.

Last week I decided it was time to peek into the empty closet. And, as serendipity would dictate, I happened to be reading Frank Delaney’s engaging book, The Last Storyteller. On page 99 of this fictional tale, this is what I read:

“…every legend and all mythologies exist to teach us how to run our days. In kind fashion. A loving way. But there’s no story, no matter how ancient, as important as one’s own. So if we’re to live good lives, we have to tell our own story. In a good way. A way that’s decent to ourselves.”

I threw my head back and laughed. There is no story as important as one’s own. To live a good life we have to tell our own story in a good way. And then, there was this:

“…I don’t give anybody advice. All I do is release the good thinking that’s already inside of you. You’re the one who acts on your own advice, and I have the pleasure of helping you reach those thoughts about yourself. So it’s not me helping you. It’s you helping you.”

Ask me today what I do and I will say, I write. I paint. Ask me for more detail and I’ll open the book to page 99.

[to be continued]

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Order Chaos

One panel of a triptych I did for a performance with The Portland Chamber Orchestra. This is, "Prometheus: Resurrection"

One panel of a triptych I did for a performance with The Portland Chamber Orchestra. This is, “Prometheus: Resurrection”

There is order. There is chaos. They are as intimately related as magnetic poles, the pull and push of action. Chaos is pulled into order and order is pulled into chaos, forms are thrown up and pulled down again. Life spins on this axis.

Today during my walk I made certain to step on the leaves. With the assistance of the wind, the trees are releasing leaves in great flurries of color. Orange and yellow and red swirl to the ground and then swirl on the ground, too. The movement is an invitation to step boldly on the carpet of color. I love the sound that it makes, the swirling and the crunching. What was out of reach a few short moments ago is now underfoot. Life is like that.

The wind off the lake was bitter so we turned down a side street and sought protection amidst the houses. It is rare that we don’t, as a Buddhist might say, “Eat the cold,” but today we desired presence to be warm. We scurried home, shuffling our feet through the leaves, and sipped hot apple cider, fingers wrapped around the mug to absorb the heat.

I read recently that the path to realizing our divinity is to accept our human-ness. Trying to be better than we are blinds us to how beautiful we really are. It’s a paradox. Apparently, divinity is not found in perfection but in the messiness of everyday. It is not a fixed state, but moves between the poles, sometimes wearing the mask of order, sometimes arriving in the face of chaos.

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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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Take Casey’s Advice

Clarence Ira Metcalf

Clarence Ira Metcalf

The other night we saw the first fireflies of the season. We were sitting by the fire pit. At first I thought the fireflies were sparks from the fire. My mind made a small u-turn when I realized the sparks were, in fact, fireflies. I laughed and clapped my hands. They are magic and I delight at their return.

They blink on. They blink off. I have always thought their light was like a life span or consciousness. We are here for a moment. We are a musical note made meaningful by the silence that surrounds us.

I thought of the first fireflies of the season when I received the news that yesterday afternoon Casey passed away. He was my grandfather. He was working on his 106th year.

Casey was born before people invented world wars. The airplane was in its infancy; it was more of a bicycle with wings than the jumbo jets we know today. He was a young man just getting started when the market crashed. He learned his trade (he fixed sewing machines) during the great depression. By the time people decided that one world war was not enough, he had a family so he fixed sewing machines for the military. He saw Pearl Harbor. Then there was the introduction of the atom bomb, a thing called television, a Korean war, a cold war, a moon landing, and a Vietnam war, and so on. Typewriters became personal computers, phones became cordless, mobile, and small enough to fit in your pocket. In fact, the phone in his pocket had more computing power than the ship that landed on the moon. I’m not sure if he had much use for the internet but he saw the revolution that it inspired.

Casey loved to fly fish. I remember sitting on the bank of a stream watching him whip his line, again and again, until he floated it to just the right spot. He carried a personal pool cue in a special case; he assembled it like an assassin in the movies assembling his rifle. He lost a leg (from the knee) in a hunting accident, and rather than treat the loss like an obstacle, he invented things like gas pedals for his car and for his bike that accommodated his hoof (his prosthetic leg was more hoof than foot. In fact, in my favorite photo of Casey, he is standing in front of a cannon using his hoof/leg as a cannon ball ram).

His garage was a goldmine of machine parts, tools and workbenches. He could fix any machine. I asked him how he learned to fix stuff and he told me that when he was young there was no such thing as a repair shop for your car. If it broke you had to figure it out for yourself.

You have to figure it out for yourself. That could have been the central mantra of Casey’s life and the best bit of knowledge that he passed on to me. He said, “You can figure out anything if you give yourself the time. It’s when people get in a hurry that they decide that they can’t do stuff.”

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Make It Rain

Pura Besakih, the highest temple on Gunung Agung

Pura Besakih, the highest temple on Gunung Agung

Terry was a crazy expat dive master living in Bali. He’d been a deep water welder, a surfer, a fugitive from what most people recognize as civilization. He was an old soul, one of the few people I’ve met who was completely comfortable anywhere in the world. He was always a local.

When I signed up to learn to dive I had no idea that 1) I’d be the only person in the class, and 2) that my dive lessons would, in fact, be some of the most profound life lessons I’d ever receive. By the time I left Bali, Terry and I did a dozen dives including a magical drift dive (the closest thing to flying I’ve ever known), a night dive, cliff dives, and a wreck dive. Once, driving to a dive site on the other side of the island, Terry pulled off the road so a tiny elderly Balinese woman could bless us. He called it “dive insurance.”

Although I never saw it, I heard about the Buddha statue that sat in the corner of his small upstairs apartment. Terry threw money at the statue. Every time he was paid he took a portion of the money and tossed it at the statue. When there was too much money accumulated around the statue, he’d open his window and throw it out to the people working in the shops below. He called it the “agung rain.”

Gunung Agung is the central mountain in Bali. It is an active volcano. All of the altars and houses (and lives) are oriented toward the mountain. To the Balinese, it represents the central axis of the universe. When Terry opened his window, which he often did, and made it rain money, he was orienting his life to abundance. He was saying to himself and to others, there is so much, more than enough, for everyone. He was demonstrating that the universe in which he lived was infinite with resource.

He told me of the agung rain one day as we bobbed in a boat between dives. Even though I did not yet know, I am certain that he knew I was on the island to learn a new way of living. The old way wasn’t working for me. “The thing that people miss,” he said, “is to not hold on to stuff. People think the measure of their lives is by the chunk of stuff that they hold.” He smiled and added, “Life has open hands. You can’t really know how to live until you can make it rain.”

Go here to get my latest book, The Seer: The Mind of the Entrepreneur, Artist, Visionary, title_pageSeeker, Learner, Leader, Creator…You.

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