Meet Your Obligation

a detail of my latest – and yet unnamed – painting

“I feel like I have an obligation to live,” she said, in response to the question from the audience.

Joyce Maynard was reading from her latest book, The Best Of Us, at The Book Stall, an independent bookstore in little downtown Winnetka. Kerri has been a huge fan for many years but had never been able to attend a reading so we jumped at the opportunity. The Best Of Us is a memoir. In 2011, in her late fifties, Joyce met her “first true partner.” A year into their marriage he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died 19 months later. Her book is the story of their all-to-brief time together.

“It’s not a book about death,” she said, “It’s a book about learning what love really is. What is truly important in life.” She added, “I don’t think people should have to pay 20 bucks for my catharsis.”

An obligation to live. I loved the phrase and all that it implied. Sometimes life collapses. This week, we remembered 9/11. We watched Irma wreak havoc on the heels of the devastation of Harvey. Fires burn homes and lives in the west. Listening to Joyce Maynard read from her book, I felt as if Viktor Frankl was sitting beside me whispering, “See! She is not looking for meaning where none can be found. She is making meaning. She is giving meaning to her path. That is the ultimate creative act!”

It is the fire that burns beneath an obligation to live. To not waste another moment of this amazing life seeking for that which cannot be found; but it can be given.

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Love What You Do

a detail from my painting, May You Be

a detail from my painting, May You Be

It is cold and the lake is very still. It’s one of the things I love about living next to the lake: one day it is glassy stillness, the next it is an angry torrent. It is alive and has many, many faces.

Quinn used to say, “There are 5 billion people on this planet and you’re the only one who gives a damn about what you are doing or how you are doing it.” That was some time ago. There are now 7 billion people on the planet but I’m certain the equation remains the same. If you stop your forward motion because of what others might think, you are indulging in a delusion. The other 7 billion people are primarily concerned with themselves, not you. The deep water lesson: do what you love because you love to do it. There aren’t nearly as many limits as you pretend.

I thought of Quinn the other night because I have a new hero. His name is Dan Navarro. He’s a troubadour, a singer songwriter, and was performing at Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson, about an hour and a half drive from home. Kerri has long been a fan and introduced me to the music of Lowen & Navarro. For many decades, Dan Navarro wrote and performed with his friend and creative partner, Eric Lowen. They were brilliant together. A rare fit, a true creative team, Eric Lowen died of ALS in 2012. He and Dan wrote and performed as long as humanly possible after Eric’s diagnosis. They loved to write. They loved to perform.

A few months ago Kerri and I were listening to a Lowen & Navarro album and wondered what had become of Dan Navarro so we googled him. To our great surprise we discovered the impending Fort Atkinson stop on his latest mini tour.

Cafe Carpe is a smallish place and Dan Navarro is an accessible guy so I wasn’t surprised when, before the concert, he came over for a chat. He and Kerri talked about the pain of disappearing royalties and the radical changes technology has brought to music making and music selling. I wondered how many times he’s been asked about the loss of Eric and how it must be the white elephant in every performance as well as every conversation; the people coming to see Dan Navarro are fans of Lowen & Navarro. When it came up in our conversation he was gracious and spoke openly of missing his friend everyday.

He is putting the final touches on a solo album due out in March. “Who knows how it will be received.” he said. “And who cares. You do what you love to do and put it out into the world. That’s the best you can do.”

He took the stage, a troubadour in his power and his prime with the ease that can only come from doing with his life what he was meant to do. “People ask me about retiring…,” he spoke into the mic, “…and I will never retire. I don’t know what that means. I love what I do and will always do it.” he said, sliding into a song that left us no alternative but to follow.

 

Be Kind To Each Other

Eating a celery stick loaded with peanut butter, Kerri paused and asked, “If there is going to be celery on this earth, why does it have to have strings?”

“That,” I said, “is an existential question and, so, an answer is above my pay grade.” She gave me THAT look and crunched another bite, saying, “Too many strings!”

When I stop and think about it, most of the questions I have are existential and, therefore, unanswerable.

On the drive to Florida I passed the time by reading billboards. Fast food, Strip clubs, lawyers encouraging me to get what’s owed to me, all interspersed between fiery messages warning that “Hell is real,” or that “The path to Heaven is straight and narrow.” I smiled when it occurred to me the billboard messages were a smorgasbord of easy answers. In this life we are peppered with advertisements, a litany of easy answers to the things we are supposed to lack.

This drive to Florida is different from all the others. In the past, we made the drive to visit Beaky. This time we are driving to say goodbye. So, I am seeing everything through a very different lens. Easy answers are attractive when pretending that life’s questions are not tough.

My billboard reminiscing reminds me to beware of the easy answer. Gaps are not easily filled. Meaning is never found on a prescribed path. Sustenance is not available at the drive-through. These things are glaringly obvious when someone you love dies. Life is made rich through the questions that have no answer.

It’s human to want an explanation. It is human to want to know why. On the roadside in Illinois, having just received the news, Kerri asked if I thought Beaky knew we were coming. Somewhere in Tennessee, Kerri asked if I thought Beaky in her final moment was scared. In Alabama, she asked what happened, why so fast, and why now?

photo-1After a visit with Beaky, when we were taking our leave, she always said two things. The first was “Be kind to each other.” That might at first sound like a billboard sentiment except that Beaky knew that kindness was not an easy answer to anything. Blame is easy. Judgment is easy. Kindness, extended to the self and to all others, is a constant practice, a way of life. Being kind in all situations, Beaky knew, was not easy and that was precisely the point.

The second was a family tradition of sorts. It was always the last phrase exchanged when taking leave of her: “Bye for now.” She was ever hopeful and that, too, was a practice – a life choice – and not an easy answer. It was a focus of the eye, an orientation to life.

So, from Beaky, I learned two practices : Be ever hopeful. Be ever kind. Beaky, bye for now.

Walk With Me

Tom and me a long time ago.

Tom and me a long time ago.

Sometimes it is the smallest thing that smacks you.

Recently I reread one of my favorite books, A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving. In the book, the narrator of the story suffers a loss. He tells us that we lose people in pieces, not all at once. During holidays, birth dates, passing a favorite place, and the loss happens all over again, again and again.

Today I was editing The Lost Boy script. Originally, the script was a transcript from interviews with Tom intended for Tom to perform. It was filled with quotation marks – he quoted lots of people. His story is populated with some fantastic characters. After his death I rewrote the play for two actors so that I might tell the story but I didn’t clean up the punctuation. I translated the transcription. I shaped scenes within the stories he told. As I worked on the edits today, I was suddenly struck dumb by the quotation marks. They were Tom’s. They were his exact quotes; they were no longer appropriate to the rewrites. As I erased the quotations I lost him all over again. Each erasure took a little bit more of him away.

And…it’s a paradox. The erasure also brought him closer to me. Tom used to say that the stories of his kin where more than just stories, they were alive. He could not walk the ranch land without his ancestors walking with him. He told me that he knew who he was because he knew who they were. As I removed the quotes from the script the stories were no longer Tom’s, they became mine to tell. His story and mine became one, single tale. I realized that I cannot tell this story without Tom telling it with me. Like him, I know who I am because I know who he was. I couldn’t ask for better company to walk this story with me.

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Take One Single Step

836. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I am thinking today about loss. Every path taken leaves a life path unexplored and therefore unknown. Sometimes that feels like loss. Sometimes it feels like extraordinary loss. Sometimes the grief of the loss is crushing and it reduces you to nothing. And, it is from nothing that the new has space to take shape and grow. It’s a cliché until you live it.

A simple dip into the thesaurus gives me four options: Damage. Defeat. Bereavement. Deficit. The dictionary tells me that loss is a fact: the fact of no longer having something. I think the dictionary is wrong because it assumes possession. It assumes that the loss is a “thing.” Loss, real loss, has nothing to do with possession.

A year ago I sat on a lakeside beach in New Hampshire. I was alone and had a troubled heart because I did not want to do the thing that I knew I needed to do. I did not want to start walking the path of loss. Donna emerged from the woods and sat beside me. She is wise and somehow knew what I was struggling with. She helped me see that my reticence was about the hurt that my choice would bring to others. She helped me see that the hurt was necessary and would begin a path of growth for all involved. When I left the beach that day I knew what I had to do and although it took a few more months to work up my courage, I did it. And the trail of loss began. The trail of growth began.

Little did I know that the trail would take me to a loss at the far end that would be greater – exponentially greater – than the loss that began on the shores of the lake in New Hampshire. Along the way, each successive loss has been like a layer falling off, like the rings of a tree dropping away until only the core remains. This last and greatest loss-layer has brought me to a core. My core. There is no more armor, no more deflection, no more pretense, no more masking, no more illusion. There is only this raw exposed core and an intense amount of gratitude for the first step, for Donna coming out of the woods and all the guides and friends that appeared along the way, and mostly for the clay that for a brief and special time formed a container for heat, healing, exploration, laughter, and a desire to learn to pray. It is in that desire that a new step beckons. It is a call that requires one single step out of this loss and into the space that the new has space to take shape and grow.