Under a Green Oak Tree

It was spring and the green was neon.  The tree was an oak and under it the two brothers stopped to talk.  Birds were screaming all around them and it was pretty the way the sun  shown through the new leaves on the tree.

“You don’t need to do anything.  You certainly don’t need to get rid of pain.”

“What kind of pain?”

“All pain.  There is no difference.  Pain is pain.  If you have a fever and you think you can’t write you’ll never write.  Life is a fever.  Physical pain goes and is immediately replaced by human pain; suffering, we’ll call it.”

“So, learn to enjoy the pain?”

“Learn to create with the pain.”

“How did you learn?”

“I had a toothache for three years.  I can’t wait three years for life to begin.  I have to create with the pain.  We don’t, in this life, get to enjoy the fruits of our labor; not really.  Once you learn that you’ll start to create right now, even when you can’t be pain free to enjoy what you’ve made.”

“You read that.”

“I had to learn that; am still learning that.  It wasn’t until I fully accepted pain, in all forms, that creativity could begin.  That is the only difference between creators and all of the others.  The others spend a lifetime putting out fires, thinking once all the fires are out I’ll start.  Life is a bonfire fed by the sun.  You can’t, nor should you want to put it out.  Breath in the fire and start.”

A breeze shot in through the trees.  The one asking questions thought about how his practice would begin right there.  He never forgot the breeze that day.  He felt hidden in the shade and moved out under the sun, instead.

 

God Fearing

God Fearing

It is one thing to tell a story.  It is another thing for anyone to listen to your story.  Telling true stories is when you hold up a mirror to your audience.  How then do we discover truth?  How are discoveries made?; the same way Columbus made them; with experimentation, exploration, and innovation (in business).  All discoveries are life discoveries.

Everything we do, when done with intent and awareness, is an expression of what matters to everyone right now.  Life.

That Is It—Is All

How do I remain relevant in a world becoming more algorithmic and automated all the time?  Identify, record and share life with people.  Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, pay attention to the world and how it affects you and tell a story.  Alexa can buy your groceries but she/it cannot tell you a story that’s true.  Because she/it is not alive.  At least not yet.

But the people who would listen to a story are hard to impress.  It’s hard to impress people who live at the apex of their field—who are superior to their former selves.  These people are constantly searching with uncertain knowledge.  They have conscientiously given themselves the lofty intent of constantly living which steals them for the task of self-improvement every day.  They aim high.

An artist is someone who seeks to serve capsules of life to these people; helping them in their search for truth.

Sharing Fear

A writer recently wrote that he became terrified once he realized his art was no longer terrifying him; when he was no longer pushing boundaries; had become comfortable and skilled in what he was doing; so he pushed his own boundaries.

I can see how no longer being afraid would kill the passion for what you do.  But no one should have to fear losing that passion.  Because we only live so long and there are more boundaries to explore than we can find in a lifetime; 10 lifetimes.  Thank you, Tahisi Coates.

Why is it so important to have fear when you are creating?  Because fear represents your truth.  And fear changes with time, as you do.  Life, Tennessee Williams said, is one “long goodbye.”

Fear is the direction I must travel in.  When I start to feel lost, I must ask myself, what do I fear now; today?  This is a sign-post telling you where you need to go.  Not anger or bitterness; that is when your brain is overloaded.  Too much of anything kills the engine running it.  But subtle, targeted doses of concentrated fear is a guide.

What will people pay attention to in an algorithmic world?  Action and dialogue, or things of that nature, is the only way to convince people of the truth.  You cannot tell anyone how to feel.  You must show them.

No one lives the life they’ve imagined for themselves all of the time.  We have glimpses, moments, but they are always fleeting and our imagination can make us ache for, and be unhappy about, times past or things we’ve anticipated that never came.

As a consumer of stories, I want to be reminded of what a life can be even when I’m not adhering to that version of life for myself.

The Value of Attachments

To be attached to life is normal; and it has a cost.  Life ends.  But nonetheless it’s normal.

As a writer, or a creator, or a designer, or engineer, or anyone, you are giving people the ability to be present with their attachments to life.  An indulgence that helps them discover their fears, their truths.  Creators help people to be present with their human attachments; with physical attachments to life.

By being present, I mean they can see and observe it in the story and thereby be a witness to it; not being carried along by it in their own lives.  This is real value; which means not only do people want it, but it’s what I need as well; it’s good for me.

When I’m reading good stuff, my brain glows in the dark.  If I want to create this impact as a writer, I have to focus on something other than the words; on what is beneath the words; on the intent behind the words.

I am not offering words; just as the engineer is not offering blueprints but, rather, a path to the sky which will soon be built; or a mechanism for living life more efficiently.  I am not selling a chore either; reading can be hard work.  I’m offering a story.  I’m offering truth.

The only story ever listened to is the one that tells the reader his own truth; otherwise it will be invisible to her; which is to say it will not exist for her.  The proof is in the pudding.

If I can learn to keep this foremost in my mind—that stories allow us to be present with our truth—then I can actually help people.  I can provide real value.  Because life is so precious and serious to so many people all of the time.

To feel that for them is the passion behind your work.

Journey Down

This process of discovering how to do that, feels like a journey to the center of the earth.  It feels like I can’t see anything and I’m having to feel my way through this viscous liquid where movement and vision is compromised to the point of futility.

I’m actually a blind man, feeling my way to freedom or nothing.  I don’t know anything and I have to discover everything on my own.  I know there are devices, and books, that can guide us.  But sometimes, most of the time, we don’t even know what we don’t know; don’t even know what resources to search out.

I know, only, that we are moved by stories that carry truth.  You can feel truth in a story told well.  Do the events have to be factually correct for it to be true?  Of course not.  Truth simply is.

I will

Love

God is

Now

Truth is what is with you now.  If a story can help you be present with what is true in your life now, it will resonate with others.  When I read The Red Badge of Courage I was a 12-year-old boy and I was a coward.  I was made so aware of this that I shuddered and could not put the book down.

Now, a man, what am I afraid of?  What is my truth?  As a boy I was afraid of life and death because I didn’t think death was a reality.  Sure, on the level of my brain, I understood I would die someday or the people I loved would.  But I didn’t believe it.  My truth was a belief in immortality. So, a story about a boy in battle and his attachment to life in battle was like seeing God.

Now, a man, I know and feel and breath my mortality in and out all the time.  I feel it and fear it but I no longer believe in in its opposite.  Immortality is not my truth.  What, then, is my truth?

Irrelevance

Like the boy who believed in immortality, and who was thereby mesmerized by mortality, the man who believes in his own relevance is terrified by the truth of his irrelevance.

Passion is where the fear is.  Find your fear; find your passion; or vice versa.  Passion is just a word for the part of life you cling the most right now.  This will change.

You are not your mind.  You are deeper than that.  I am deeper than what I know or what I’m told, or what I “learn” or what I hear, read, watch or bump into on the street or YouTube.

The truth is inside of your cells and is who you are now.  That will change.  But I’d better be listening to catch it.  Or I’d better read a good story to see it.

Life In America

Life In America

The land is so flat and open it seems like you’re looking clear across north America and that maybe the tips of Chicago’s skyscrapers will, on a clear day, be visible 1000 miles to the north.

At the furthest reaches of your vision, in a complete circle, level with that vision, where the skyline touches the white sky melted and blended back into sunlight, a picture forms, perfectly brazen and trembling with a drama intense in the ringing silence of your ears; like one who would have looked a mile across an open field, and seen the men at Gettysburg in the climactic heat of impact on a wall bulging with violence directed at their impossibly open, naked forms breaking on iron ball and shot; but you are far enough from the moving forms that the silence is all the more shocking.  Where it would have been unbelievable that so much drama could lose so much of its impact at so relatively short a distance.  The only explanation being that in this world, where all is living, there is that much drama per every square inch and where nothing else travels very far from its source; being beaten back by everything which is in its own place.

This same action was present in the man, alone under the August sky.  In the heat and the way things at a distance shimmered, he thought of that American battle story passed down by his own father.  Strangely, in the midst of this nothing, there was a country store at the nexus of two untraveled gravel roads which stood like Stonehenge, alone and unafraid, where wares, and stores, and hard candy could be bought with priceless cash.

The land is flat and empty of trees, hill, or markers of any kind, aside from the farmer in the field with the broad brimmed hat, standing against nature, both leaning into and consistently marking the other.

In the loneliness, which he had learned to love, he places his shovel down and all stops; and when he picks it up again it all starts.  Below his gaze, breaking the loud silence of the empty scene shattered in sunlight, crystal clear water bubbled pass the dark green shoots of crop that will one day turn greener still if a million things did not go impossibly wrong.

After him, his boy would break with a thousand-year lineage and move into the city.  For the boy to live the man would die, at the crease of two ages.  The conditions were there, and no one knew it, or maybe the man did.

Some have said it was the fumes of the engine exhaust from the old American tractor that did it. Fate had placed the man where no one came behind you to ensure you were all buttoned up.  That morning he’d felt unusual and was soon never so sure of anything and he’d always had to be sure of everything.

A tenant farmer is a short seller; the most frightening prospect in all of finance; and he does it twice in the same transaction.  To sell short is to borrow an asset and turn around and sell it at a relatively high price with the expectation of buying it back at a lower price, pocketing the difference, and then returning the asset and a portion of that difference to the owner as payment for the borrowing.

He borrows raw land from the owner and loan “proceeds” from the bank.  Now he is in possession of two things that every night he remembers are very much not his.  With the loan proceeds of the bank and the land of the owner he daily breakfasts on hope.

Through an alchemical process of land, and labor, bounty is squeezed from the inert substances on the flat spot empty of tree and hill.  Then the loan and some of the bounty is returned and paid to the bank and the land and some of the bounty is returned and paid to the land owner.  What was left was given to the boy and all of that was gone by the time he’d reach ten when he hoped he’d been given enough.

There was no heating the home that winter and the winters were wet and brutal but now it was summer in the field and the man had been in the open air with the black birds with red tails and white birds with long necks which sing and what you are sometimes hearing is the tuning fork of pain.

Hope is what separated him from the birds that visited him there and to whom he was God as they looked at him quizzingly, twisting and bending their heads like an owl.  But the loan we can never hope to repay in kind was coming due.  So, he descended the tractor for the last time.  It was only when he was scared and it’s ok to be scared.  It was not English he spoke to his wife when he met her in the little house they’d built on the prairie where she herself would have been afraid to see him back so early.

She knew he would never stop working unless he had to.  Because she knew that he knew that to stop meant the work would go undone until he did it; that it would sit in the field waiting for its man; as the labor of the homestead did for her.

They were 6th generation American.  But they still spoke that ancient language that was rudely visited upon England in 1066.  So, it was that he walked into his house, leaving behind the fields he would plow no more forever; where at that very moment a wet breeze mixed, with the lonesome sounds of the wandering birds under a graying sky looking for their man, who had gone home twice now.

As she greeted him tenderly she realized she’d long since, willingly or otherwise, become tied to him, and she knew, that his news was her news when in an hour he died and less than a year later she would follow but they weren’t either of them yet 45.

The boy standing at her side when she did was ten.  The number ten, where all is after and some little bit was before; the ingredients for the man were just standing there mute, like the child, for a moment in time.  He wanted her to stay.  Oh, how he wanted her to stay.  But she went.  And he cried and when he finished crying, with the energy and vitality of a child, with tears like a stream of lava from an open source, and like an exorcism, she was still gone and he was numb.

It was silent then, in the little house seated under the big sky, and the birds in the field so close could be heard through the porous walls calling him out to join the fray; to pitch into the battle like the men at the wall at Gettysburg.

And God gives the toughest assignments to the people who can handle it because nature abhors a vacuum.  And if you’re given, or not given, something it’s because you are, or you are not, game.  But some people are born nearly ready and brimming with potential they did not ask for and are marked for pain because that is just nature’s answer to the question of growth.  So, the boy was ten when he was turned out of the little home where it was no longer she in her room and deposited upon the sands.

He would make his way into the city and work odd jobs that a child could get being careful not to take work from the men who had more to lose when their families were hungry in 1920; when you could see it in their eyes and wisely gave ground living to fight another day on more suitable terrain.

But the kid had the spark which people see, but that he had had to earn, when next to her he was only ten, with nothing, as she lay dying.  God knows what she told him in the ancient accent before she left him to fly with the black birds with the red tails and white ones with the long necks who would now share precious life with her boy and it had made her jealous of them for a second.

Now was the time for work.  Oh, how he worked, and he was kind and people liked him as he always managed a smile that started in his eyes and trickled down to his face and in that order.  He raised a young family and helped to assemble FDR’s dream.  He brought his family along, or they brought him, crisscrossing the fortress of a continent that feels like a world and where, with no one to fight, battle is done inwardly and upwardly.  He had a strong wife who packed lunch pails for him and had seen something in the orphan.

He’d later tell how he hammered rivets into place walking the beams above the flowering cities. Everyone he met he liked unless they didn’t want him to in which case he’d never caught that virus of wasted energy which gave him a quiet and relative speed.  But to nearly all you could tell he’d earned every morsel and carried something golden and it was what she had told him before she left.

Then work took him back to the city he’d rode to when all had seemed lost but was in fact very much right.  He was a family man now. One day he was working in a tree, perhaps hanging Christmas lights, and it was a Sunday in his yard.  Below him was a strong boy he remembered as his son and he was proud that the boy had just gotten back from the sandlot with his glove in America.

He fell out of the tree in his happiness.  He was a man who worked with his hands, but his back was broken now, and he would no longer smash rivets in the sky for freedom.  He lay in the hospital and thought of his dad climbing aboard the tractor on the day it all seemed to go wrong for him.  But as he lay there he was still unconvinced, as he’d always been, that anything had gone wrong at all.

Then his wife said “I’m a woman and you’re a man and it’s 1955.  You want everyone to love you and they do, but for myself I could care less.”  Instinct had told her they’d make a great team.  “So, you’ll start a realty company and I’ll help you run it.”  And they did, and it worked, and men still do not cry when touched by an angel if they can help it.

The people came because they saw that he was good and did what he said and said what he did because he knew what she had said and, somehow, he had known what it meant when she had.  In this way she had carried him along in the life she knew he shared with the birds that sang from fields now distant.

The language of the old world was still spoken in his office with people from those fields, themselves orphans in the new town to make a new way.  He began building federal housing developments on loans that moved in his blood and lessons which echoed in his ears with the gentle voice of his father.  He prospered because he had the philosophy she taught him in her suffering which only a child can learn if caught right, before anything else could catch him differently.

In a language no longer spoken she had said “It’s ok, be strong and I love you.  We’re both going home, my son.  But here the road forks, you see.  Your path goes that way and is marked by different forms all the same as mine.  But the roads, they’ll meet again.  And there, I’ll find you.”

On that path, and with that message, like a burning coal, he blazed a life in America.

Stealing Fear

Stealing Fear

Your work needs a theme.  So find your fear.  This is hard.  Find out what you’re afraid of then dramatize that.  That is your theme. If you can’t think of one steal one until it’s yours now.

Fear is one thing.  Identifying that fear is another.  Clarify and solidify a few fears and then dramatize the fear into stories.  It will come through.  The truth always does.  We pay millions for this.  Hollywood sells dramatized fear.  Guy gets girl is dramatized guy maybe not getting girl until he does when the story ends and now we’re just crunching popcorn seeds to go home.

But true fear written about, or thought about, or workshopped into your business about, or done truly in any way about, always hits.  Because fear is what connects; not anxiety or anger; but fear; the sweet spot.  Honesty about fear is what connects us.  And leaders are the ones who can say it.  That’s all.

If it’s not your fear, or your idea, use it until it is.  Once you forget where you found it it’s yours.  One day the thing has your smell and it’s yours; like the crush you steal from the world until it’s no longer Alice or Bill but “him” or “her.”  We all viscerally feel our fears, but experts lay them out for us the way sugar, milk, and fire become crème de la crème.

Summer In The City

Sometimes failure is just failure.  There is no label on the back of the box to tell you what you’re eating. This is the main difference between youth and adulthood and it can come at any time.

But we survive those moments and sometimes you wake up feeling like a mountain.  It’s usually when you go to bed well which is more important than sleeping well.  You don’t bring your phone to bed and you don’t watch any TV.  Or maybe that’s just me.  I shot up like a bolt.  Then one second later my alarm went off.  The Stoics focus on good days and claim, thereby, to have good years.

Try New Things

Getting up at 4:00 is harder than I thought.  It’s because it means I have to be tired at 8:00.  That’s what no one tells you–that to do the thing you want you have to be good at things no one can even think of which is why personal experiments are the only way to find anything ever.

Break Throughs

Breakthroughs happen all the time.  But I ignore them because I forget that my life is a movie.  I’m trying to get better at noticing this.  When a breakthrough happens, you have to remember you’re in a movie.  When someone says ‘this isn’t a game’ they forgot a person wrote every movie they’ve ever seen from life lived.  Even Alien is about someone’s own demon.  How do I know this? Because no one has ever seen an alien.

But you’re the hero in the movie and the camera is on you and you’re being filmed and its focusing on your face and it’s the turning point.  I need to remember that a writer wrote his movie to show how they got their movie made in Hollywood.  They are reverse engineering the film to show you how they got produced.  Its like shooting an arrow as far as you can then drawing a bullseye around it on the ground.  That’s your life.  If you aim, you’ll miss.

All movies and films and songs are about writers telling you, without telling you, how they got their movie made.  The truth is what you’re looking at right now.  It’s the same way you arrive—with a breakthrough that got seen.  By you.  Period.

The Rule

Study what interest you and have a damned good time doing it.  That was Ol’ Hem’s rule.  If you’re reading this, and I hope you are, you write, you take ideas and act on them; or see movies or tell stories or hear them told or watch characters in your own life and cinema because you know that’s everything.

The rule is important because the flat part comes after satisfaction.  The false belief that satisfaction is where we want to be is what most ails America and every other country that is living on the victories of its ancestors by yelling at other people.

My country is the arrow in the ground with the bulls-eye drawn around it.  I need to remember that.  It’s unsatisfied longing, desire, that gets me closer.  Not getting what I want.  Maybe I’ll stop aiming so much.

“Make It Don’t Say It”

“Make It Don’t Say It”

The action creates the feeling.  You cannot tell someone how to feel by describing your own.  You can only show them.  The implicit demand behind “do you love me?” has worked zero times in the history of abstract thought.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence that you know.”  [It must be above all a] “true, simple, declarative sentence.” – E. Hemingway

Hemingway wrote fiction.  Hemingway had emotion he wanted to share.  He used action to do it.

The colors, the jobs, the cars, the sex, the men and women, the towns, the food, the bulls, the country, the wars, the guns, the ammo, the fish, and the boats were mere commodities; interchangeable.

Why?  Because facts do not equal truth.  Experience does.  And if you feel what’s written then it’s true; was your experience also—which is not to say either good or bad.  That is another thing altogether.

It’s the action plus the feeling that equals experience.  Has there been feeling in your life?  Those feelings are the truth of the physical world experienced. All humans have truth in them; have experience.  A story teller’s gift is to draw from our well of feeling with the instrument of her own truth shared.

People, and God in them, feel only by being shown truth in their lives.  Do with the facts as you will, but replay before their mind’s eye the same experiences they have already had, and they might even cry.

Shelby Foote said some writer’s keep remembrances of death on their desk.  Skulls.  Simple reminders.  Life and death are all around us.  A writer can take nothing for granted.  This is learned knowledge.  If it stays in your head the reader will not experience it and then will not feel it.  But it need not be said directly, which is the art of truth.

My ego makes me think death is far and that I can fend it off forever, with the freshly cut, green, bending little bent sticks of the world.

What is it about 35? I think of the ones who passed before me.  I think of the wisdom they’ve already found.  They are my heroes.  They walked the sandy road, grassy between their toes; came upon the big, slow, warm, silty river and swam across to that lonesome shore.

Relentless Nature

 

 

Relentless Nature

Dan was the new kid at school.  In the car ride home his mom read between the lines of his silence.

She thought for a moment.  “Dan, sweetie, it’s the weirdos, the standouts, that get all the juice out of life.  It’s because of the snowball-effect.

“The snowball-effect is a variation of the greasy-wheel effect. When something stands out from the herd it gets that extra, usually unwanted, attention.  Usually the negative attention snowballs from there.  Mother Nature does this.

“But we’re all human, and sometimes we break the things we touch.  The thing just crumbles in our hands, melts like snow under the light of our gaze.  But every once in a while, something in the thing responds, is awoken, like a bud of green coaxed above a crust of sand.  One of these two things will happen, son.  Zero times is ‘normalcy’ (his mom used air quotes here) restored.

“Something new is always made.  The thing never stays the same.  It either rises past the challenge or melts like  an April frost. But the potential payout is so great it makes the risk of disaster all worth while. They are actually rooting for you, Dan.  They are your allies.  So be grateful to them, son.

“Dan, if you feel like you don’t fit in it’s because you’re right.

“Don’t be a commodity. Resist the urge to be an interchangeable cog.  No one is paying for that anyway.  You were made new, for this moment, to change the world.  That is what evolution does.  Embrace it.”

“Ok, ma.” Dan said, not fully convinced.

 

 

Moby Dick And Shelby Foote

Moby Dick And Shelby Foote

 

I finally read Moby Dick start to finish.  I started it a decade ago but, obviously, was not ready for it.  At 35, I picked it up again and could not have done this any sooner than now, regrettably true as that is.  But age is just a number; a point of departure; an index.

I’m one day old in Moby Dick years.

In reading this I learned there are whole islands submerged within the human experience, just beneath the visible surface, which may as well be a mile, for I cannot see them without assistance. Not yet anyhow.

Books like Moby Dick uncover, reveal, and shed light on something beneath the tide of information I always confuse with intelligence.  It’s a sea rescue without shipping out—the rescuer asking no fee, only my participation.

But completing a great story, greatly told, is the beginning of a mystery, not the end of one.  The creations of Melville’s mind which he first conceived and then wrote about, are fathomless.  Somewhere in the book, just before you lose it again, you realize what he’s on to, then it’s gone; always fleeting, never found.  I think I’ll start all over again.

A great writer, and admirer of Melville, said that once you know where a writer is going you can study how he got there by rereading the work.

That was Shelby Foote.

He Did It His Way

Foote did it his way—like the way he did his military time.  First, he joined the Army, was then asked to leave, and then joined the Marines where he found a better fit.  But the war ended before he could get into it and so he went to college.

He skipped class in his own way too.  He wasn’t sleeping in.  He was in the library reading and studying literature of his choice; Proust, Shakespeare, Faulkner.  He knew what he liked, saw that it wasn’t hurting anyone and, so, did more of those things.

As a professional writer, he rarely got dressed for the day, aside from wearing pajamas all day long—you can go to medical school for the better part of a decade to exercise this privilege.  But, like those people, he was hard at work.

He wrote books the way he wanted to.  The facts, he said, aren’t truths until you love them.  We can love a story, but never a fact.

When Google became a thing, he avoided it as best he could.  Instead, he’d find books as close to the topic as possible and begin reading.  He believed the discoveries sought were the ones he didn’t know he was seeking.  They were hidden within the journey rather than the destination.

That’s how he wrote his million-word, three volume series on the American Civil War.  He read 300 books on his chosen subject.  He also visited the battlefields on the anniversaries of the battles fought on them.

He’d have to tell you why he did that.

It’s What He Loved

He didn’t just write, he made writing the study of his life.

I was eight years old in 1990, the year I first saw Shelby Foote on Ken Burn’s documentary the Civil War, where he made over 80 cameo appearances.  The made for TV series “Lonesome Dove” also aired for America around that time.

Those are deep, cultural events imprinted on me—like the novel I just finished.  Why? Because, the truth sticks with you.

Truth is art and vice versa.  Art has value and is therefore elusive; scarce in forms fit for human consumption—though surrounding us always.

The internet, we are finding, is a fact machine rather than a truth machine.  Google is a great tool but a terrible master.

The Writer’s Search For Truth

As a pep talk to himself Hemingway would say “all you have to do is write one true sentence…write the truest sentence that you know…a true simple declarative sentence.”  But he’s writing fiction, I think to myself.  What does he mean?

I’m not sure.  Maybe I’ll find out.  But you feel it when you see it.  It means the same thing as Robert Duval’s performance as Gus McCrae.  When the feeling is there it rings true.  And truth, when encountered, sticks.

Writing is dangerous work, if you will.  Dangerous to the psyche of the creator. Foote has his critics, some of them harsh, and they have understandable grievances.  His chosen topic was America’s very own crucible.  The Civil War, he said, made an adult of America where before she’d been an adolescent.

When a work reaches an epic status, as his did, the parts left out feel unheard, as if the defining version of truth, omitted their story.  But no version is definitive.

If he failed to capture truth perfectly, he is human.  If he captured it at all he is an artist. The facts he searched for, the books he wrote, were mere azimuths set by the wandering traveler vaguely aware of his reason for traveling, aside from the air in his lungs.  He wrote because it was his joy to write.

The Price Of Wisdom

The longest he ever followed one of those azimuths was 20 years—the time it took him to write his epic three volume series.  When someone noted how it took him five times as long to write The Civil War as it took the participants to fight it he pointed out “that were a good many more of them than there was of me.”

His bliss was in the journey.  He was in no hurry.

What lovely weather and beautiful surroundings they had on days devoted to the wild slaughter of their brothers.  This is what he would have seen and felt in his battlefield visits.  This is what he tried, and succeeded, in recording.

He said that the writer’s final summit was plot.  I imagine all professions have a summit and if you’ve been in it long enough you know what it is.

To him this was the ability to “[weave] the diplomatic, political, and military situations all into a narrative,”—what he called plot.  He was vividly aware of the power of story alongside fact; the human element.

Moby Dick

I didn’t have to give away anything, there was no data exchange.  I received something from thin air; nature’s bounty.  But I had to participate, and almost wrestle with myself, at times, in reading that novel.  A snippet, perhaps, of what it must have been to write it.

It seems impossible when you view the work in its entirety.  But then you remember he was just a man, who wrote it.  Somewhere in between those two lie faith.

I remember Joseph Campbell saying that’s what poets do.  Create doors rather than explanations or walls.  That’s what Melville did for me; one small step.

-Paul

“Follow Your Bliss”

 

“Follow Your Bliss”

Winter has returned to our Southern lives.  I remember the 90’s and the camo jump-suits that served as our “second skin.”  We were rarely outdoors without one.  The idea was to read the temperature and then get dressed for that level of cold.  Then, for good measure, put a jumpsuit on over that as you head out the door.

They had the old, camo pattern that was globular and unnatural, fooling no bird.  But that is the look we had.  Maybe I’ll see some of the old pattern today as I drive through this icy storm.

But regardless of the weather, I want to “follow my bliss.”

It’s a quote by Joseph Campbell.  Campbell wrote down and codified the story of the typical hero which we now read about and watch in cinema, and TV, as the hero’s journey.

It’s a theme that, personally, I’ve always taken for granted, not realizing it follows a set pattern.  George Lucas famously based “Stars Wars” on the basic concepts Campbell wrote about.

Before ever stumbling on Campbell’s “follow your bliss” philosophy in his interviews with Bill Moyers, I came across Shelby Foote in Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary.

Broadcast by PBS, it had my family glued to the TV for 11 hours over the course of a couple of weeks in 1990.  Foote was a great interview; with the ability to tell the human story in history.  Also, his southern drawl—he pronounced war “waw-ah”—was compelling and great for TV. Foote became something of a celebrity.  He was a Civil War writer and historian, but he said that with the documentary Ken had “made him a millionaire.”

I remember hearing him say in an interview with Brian Lamb on CSPAN—yes, I sometimes watched CSPAN in college and if I’d had the courage of my convictions I would have majored in history rather than environmental science—that, to him, a university was a library with a bunch of buildings surrounding it. He loved reading his own selection of books in the library rather than going to class.

In the same interview he said that true happiness is going to bed at night knowing exactly what you’ll be doing as soon as you wake up and being hardly able to wait for it.  He was referring to his writing desk.

His struggles with hierarchy and order in college followed him into the military.  Once out, he took a job working at a media outlet until he earned his first $800 dollars writing.  As soon as he did, he quit the job and began writing for himself full time.

Once you find out what it is you love to do it’s hard to do all the other stuff too.  But, of course, we must.  Maybe all the stuff we don’t like doing makes us better at doing the things we like.  It’s where we gain experience and empathy.

Foote pointed out that he was raised in a small southern town that sent all of it’s children to the same high school.  He said this was the greatest education which, like the military, gave him contact with everyone rather than divisions that seem based on class or race.

When You Follow Your Bliss

Speaking of following your bliss, there is a movie out about Winston Churchill I want to see.  I haven’t read any reviews, but I’ll usually see a movie if the subject matter interest me or a director I like has made another movie; like Paul Thomas Anderson who has “Phantom Thread” coming soon.

Churchill spent his life following his own bliss.  This made him a pain to his military superiors and in the editorial room at the paper he worked at; not to mention politics.

But when the time came to save the world, the world turned to someone who had the energy and enthusiasm, from a lifetime of bliss seeking, to respond to the challenge.

His entire life had been preparation for that moment.

Poland

Following your bliss does not provide security or comfort to the enemy, i.e. your ego.  Doing what we love is, it turns out, hard.  It butts heads with what Steven Pressfield calls “the resistance”—the ego’s idea that sticking your neck out will just result in your head getting chopped off.

It may even leave you homeless or destitute.  That is the lesson of James Mitchener’s book Poland.  In Mitchener’s telling of the story, Poland is the historical buffer between massive hierarchical establishments known for order and control—Germany, Russian, and Austria.  It’s the no-man’s land in between.

The Polish people, for better or worse, through the centuries, could not be controlled.  Not truly.  Maybe they would be conquered for a time, but to be in chains does not conquer people.  The soul decides that.  Their bliss was freedom.

They refused, over and over, to conform to the great powers around them.  This independence is, like most aptitudes, a double-edged sword.  At times Poland was too undisciplined to compete with her highly organized and autocratic neighbors and would be overrun, destroyed, and pillaged.

At other times, however, once the rigid autocracies became unimaginative, outdated and weak as a result, Poland’s genius for freedom and inventiveness would be called upon to rescue all of Europe from invasion.  But between these changes spanned whole centuries.

It was an inherent philosophy of freedom that nourished them.  Bliss, or doing what you love, is not necessarily a means to physical or material security.

We are here looking, not for meaning, but experiences–the most profound experiences possible from our time on the planet (Joseph Campbell).

When we follow our true bliss everyone benefits.  Joseph Campbell, Shelby Foote, Winston Churchill, and the entire story of Poland are mentors for this.

-Paul

 

Believe In The Experiment

 

Believe In The Experiment

A baby was born out of wedlock in the Caribbean.  To the child everything was interesting.  The child became a restless young adult.  The young man, in his early teens, was the type of employee business people dream of; always figuring out ways to make things operate more smoothly; never reaching roadblocks, always coming up with solutions; hungry to be of use.

The young man was an eternal optimist, seeing the potential in people.  He thought the way to get things done was to set the right example; working tirelessly until those around you are likewise infected with a desire to succeed.

The Gift Of Obstacles

He was a force of nature.  The island could not hold him.  He had the vague idea and belief that great things were possible.  But, his mother had him out of wedlock.  This, in his time, was a terrible disadvantage; one which would eventually bar him from high political office.  It was a significant hurdle to overcome.  It gave him a chip on his shoulder.

It was the best thing to ever happen to him.

He’d heard of America.  He had the sense that great forces were adrift, and he could make his mark in that chaotic place where everything was pure potential.

He managed to obtain a letter of introduction to someone in the states.  Then, alone as a teenager, he boarded a ship to America.  Shortly thereafter, war broke out between the 13 colonies and their English masters.

Through pure, relentless effort and natural ability, in a very short time, he’d become George Washington’s most trusted adviser.  He would become the nation’s first treasury secretary, and do more to establish our system of money than anyone.

He would write the Federalist Papers, which interpreted the Constitution into a working system of government, and he founded one of the first two major political parties.

The man was Alexander Hamilton.

How Did He Do It?

Let’s say you have a vague idea that you want to do something great—you get to decide what is great.  But, you have that sense.  You just can’t put your finger on exactly what it is you want to accomplish.  But, you can feel it.  You know it’s there.  What to do?

The physical act of experiencing something great, or seeing something great, is as important to doing great things as anything else.  For Hamilton, it was the experience of cutting the chord with his birthplace.  He went to America and his life was drastically changed.  He saw that great decisions create great outcomes.  He made the leap.  He fell short again and again, but he landed in strange new places along the way.

I wonder if the physical act of traveling on a ship, blown across the ocean by wind powered sails, and landing in New England, wasn’t as important as anything he learned towards achieving what he did.

We know, through science, and awareness, that we “know” things on a gut level long before we are conscious of them.  Belief precedes the action.

A Strange New Land

Could that explain the outsized success of first and second-generation immigrants in American history? The parents had the life-shaking experience of resettling in a new land.  They passed it on directly to the child.  Then, that wonder is lost in the next iteration of the generations.

Instinctively, we want to be amazed so that we can believe in amazing things.  The deep belief that those things are possible is as important as knowing how to do them.  Nature–and we are a part of nature–will find a way.  But, we must believe that it’s possible.

Experiment

Before Einstein it was not believed that light could be bent.  Gravity’s properties were assumed, and no one knew the other secrets of the universe.

No one knew to look for them because no one knew there was anything to discover.  Einstein, through what at the time appeared to be an accident of absent-minded daydreaming, discovered principles of physics that changed the world.  Everyone could suddenly see what he’d seen.

When Roger Bannister ran the 4-minute mile, the next year dozens did the same.  But those same people had been trying their entire lives to do it.  Now, when they knew in their gut it was possible, they were able to do it themselves.  The belief was the most important element of their success.

I need to go see incredible things that on a mental level I don’t really believe I can do.  I need to see other people do them, so I know its possible.

The Three “E”s

When we feel creative we believe it will last forever.  It won’t.  We have to act on our ideas.  We have to explore and experience and experiment.  The three “E”s.

Knowing that there are experiences out there, right now, that if we had them they would change our lives in ways we cannot imagine is the most important component to discovery.  The belief system comes first.

Einstein discovered that gravity isn’t a force pulling us to the Earth.  He discovered that it was a force pushing us into earth.  He discovered that every object in space, even my laptop, creates its own force field by displacing space which presses back towards the void.

Gravitational pull is, actually, universal push.  Objects are pushed into one another.  The greater object displaces more space and so creates more push from the universe on objects within the displacement.

It creates a vacuum that wants, naturally, to close.  Einstein was not “looking” for this discovery.  He was conducting a “thought experiment.”  What we call daydreaming.  And he discovered his theory of relatively while on the train grabbing lunch.  But he was always exploring boundaries.

The Destroyer Of Pessimism

Anxiety is the result of inaction.  But it’s more than that.  It’s a signal that we’re avoiding something.  Anxiety is fear of fear.  But the fear, itself, points to something that really matters.

We can’t avoid the things we know we need to do without paying a price.  Fear happens when I engage life.  Anxiety happens when I avoid it.  Fear is where the good stuff is.  It’s where I am exposed and risking something.

Anger happens when we allow fear to take over.  Its when fear has brought us away from what is right in front of us.  Avoiding fear gets us “carried away” with anger.  Picture a cornered dog.

Hamilton had no idea what that ship passage would bring.  Somehow, though, he believed. He and Einstein had similar experiences.  They both left home to find new worlds.  We can do this every day and we don’t have to get a passport.

We can reconnect with the spirit of experimentation.  It holds everything in it.

-Paul

 

 

Your Authentic Self

Your Authentic Self

Stories create and lose unimaginable wealth.  Stories start, fight, win, and lose wars.  Stories build and destroy whole cultures.  Stories inspire, and stories heal.  How can I learn the art of story?

Copy The Pros

In James Mitchener’s book “Poland” he recounts that nation’s birth.  Births are necessarily painful, in all forms.

In a few simple sentence strokes he paints such a scene of pity and despair that little else can enter the mind.  It’s panic on terror; nothing sensational; just “this happened then that.”  But redemption lurks in the darkness, just before dawn.

When it comes to story telling, Hemingway had a saying:  “Don’t say it, make it.”  But what could be harder?

In the novel, Poland is the product of Eastern hammer swings against the anvil of the West.  The result is unrecognizable through any average western cultural lens.

Its where medieval castles and Knights collided with Mongol warriors and unspeakable cruelty.

These are not fairy tales.  Maybe western culture fashioned such notions as post-traumatic stress therapy to deal with the horror.

I’ll never know.  But, as with every story worth telling, there are pockets of redemption where light batters back at the dark.

The best stories are found where salvation of any kind, whether of morals or of life itself, seems least likely.

In this story, a nation in it’s infancy, lurches towards it’s authentic self, though throttled by repeated and savage attack from afar.

The Price Of Authenticity

What’s unique is the victims are not portrayed as happy and content prior to the terror they face.  They are shown through a realistic lens, as tired, hungry, poor peasants with little chance of long life.

And the Knights who protect them are, in their own way, as desperate as the peasants.  They pine for stature and relevance.  But, things can always get worse.

Suddenly, one morning from the east, like a Tsunami, waves of miniature horsemen explode from the dense, black forests separating the hard monotony of western agricultural survival from the even harder frozen steppes of Asia.

Terror of terrors befalls the poor peasants.  “Inherited” fear sends many scrambling from their beds careening into the forest without even alerting their families.  It’s not easy to convey the quandary of certain extinction but Mitchener is game for page upon page.

Zero quarter is given.  It’s a picture of widespread, systemic rape and horror on earth.

Of course, any modern reader of this narrative can’t really comprehend the cruelty.  You have to accept a different reality.  Reading these stories is a form of acceptance of narrative.  How could they be so cruel?

These warriors must have believed that dying from disease, or hunger, or exposure, or lighting, or old age, or bears, or the swords in their hands were all one and the same.  They must not have seen the morality of it.

They were hard on themselves as well.  They slept in the frozen air for months with little more than a blanket.  A piece of dried meat the size of your thumb would last three days on campaign.

Do we suppose we are superior?  Or are we simply the recipients of a different story?  Of a different history and morals?  These are difficult questions that a novel like Mitchener’s hurls you upon.

What comes out of these stories of survival is the authenticity of those that lived through those trials. In this sense, an entire nation.

The Meaning Of Authenticity?

I believe we are all seeking our authentic selves.  The irony is that when we find them we aren’t around to celebrate.  We are changed.  I remember, as a child, desperately wanting to be authentically someone or something else.  Cowboys or Indians.  Civil war heroes.  Pioneers.

Then it was time to go to school, and daydreaming only gets you bad conduct.  But if you survive school you get to start dreaming again.

Then enough things happen that you wake up mid-life and realize you’re not pretending anymore.  You’re living the life you always wanted.  But you learn that doesn’t remotely look like anything you always dreamed of.

And it has nothing to do with status, or possessions, or relationships.  It has to do with what is inside your chest.  What do you carry around with you all the time?  That is your authenticity.

You’re just vaguely aware that all that trial and error and all the experimentation resulted in the man or woman the world needs right now.  Then you have a choice.  Be that person or pretend you never learned those lessons.

Decision points come when you learn there is no backup and there is no second lap around the track.  Fashion says tattoos are forever.  But, a friend taught me he gets tattoos to remind him that nothing is forever, not even tattoos.

The Buck Stops Here

It starts gradually throughout life.

It’s the marine commander who tells his troops there is no one coming behind them, and turns around to look at the empty desert to emphasize the point.  His young troops eyes dazzle at the prospect and the chilly reality, somehow exhilarating.

Then you start to remember the aphorisms.  “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And when you are very much not that change you catch yourself.  Its self-awareness rather than self-consciousness now.

You learn that people are not thinking about you.  They are thinking about themselves.  But you can be aware of your own thoughts.

The Faustian Dream

When we finally become our authentic selves, we don’t get to enjoy the fruit directly.  Because being authentic is not to enjoy the thrill of being authentic.  It’s liberating but something is lost at the same time.  To learn to be comfortable with that loss is the redemption.

Every story of redemption has a villain.  Usually that villain is our past selves that live dormant in every tendency we currently have or resist.

And all this from the opening chapters of the book.  Maybe that’s why he sold 75 million books and didn’t publish his first until he was 40 years old.

The next chapter after authenticity starts now.  Just when we feel beaten, we have achieved that coveted state.  That’s the story of Poland.

We can’t take any of this with us.  Least of all money or possessions.  But what can we leave behind?  Money yes.  But money is green.  That means its replaceable and comes from many quarters.

What can’t be replicated from my life?  What is unique about the random set of experiences only you, in the history of the world, experienced.  Once you embrace that fully, and are least aware of it, you have become your authentic self.

Like no other.

-Paul