A Good Worshipper

A spiralling stained glass window inside a chapel at Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas.

I thought I didn’t have a religion, but then I realized I’m wrong about that.

I realized it when I was having a bad morning and pulled a chair out into the sun and picked up a book of short stories by a guy who’s long gone and then I started reading one of the stories and by page 2 I was feeling much better.

And then in the woods, walking with my daughter, I talked about divorce with a slow deliberate pace, which brought me to talk about marriage and into love, in which she will inevitably become entangled. She hung on my words as tight as her grip on my hand, realizing, as had I at that moment, that there was something different about the way I was speaking.

After a TV show, just like the book, I replay the scenes, I respeak the best parts, dangling them like a mobile, the pieces spinning on their own, catching the light as they come around.

It’s the same reason, I sit back in a conversation of more than 2 people. I’m doing something over there on the side of the table. I’m at communion, taking it all in, tasting it.

And, oh yes, and what deeper prayer could there be than getting up before the sun, sitting in the ritual chair and clicking out verses in the dark! Transcribing the notes playing on the inside to allow the Great Manifestation to take place, something from nothing, as miraculous as the cosmos.

Head bowed, hands working without the mind, I am in awe, like a child creating fire from sticks, a flame out of the air.

My awakening must have been in my late teens, no wait, maybe earlier, tracing curved dotted lines on a Xeroxed page of a book. According to my mother, it happened even earlier than that, on day 1 of life, when I opened a single eye to look up at her, and only her.

Yes, I have religion.

So when you catch me off to the side smiling, or sitting in the sun with a book clamped on my index finger, chin up to the sky, eyes closed, ears open, you don’t have to wonder.

You’ll know what I’m doing.


The Death Advantage

Photo of person kissing a dog on grass field

Us older folks have the advantage in life:

We’re closer to death.

Nothing creates a desire to live fully like Fear of Death. You can ponder this idea in your younger years but until you circle the sun enough to feel it in your body, Fear of Death can’t go to work for you.

It’s a panic, a very real body-tremoring terror that you’re running out of time.

Because, to say it straight, you ARE running out of time. That’s just how it is. For all of us.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are, how many great ideas you’ve stacked up, how in love you are. There’s no logic, no fairness. Eventually, you will go.

But it doesn’t have to be sad. If you can walk through that panic, or better yet, stare it down and live alongside it, you will find the best years of your life, bright and slow, minute by minute, like a halo of light around you, your favorite music always playing.

And, when it comes to winning this wicked game of breathing and hurting and loving, there is no greater advantage I can think of.


The Quiet Coach

Man sitting on rock during golden hour

I’ve always felt that someone is watching me, particularly in times of great decisions, not necessarily life decisions, just those little moments of personal risk when the ego is worried about its edges.

Jumping off a cliff
Dancing at a wedding
Playing on a playground
Speaking at a funeral

He just shows up. I can only see him from the back.

His hair’s a little thinner. His shoulders a little more relaxed. He’s always sitting, as if he’s been there before and knows the right answer. He’s too cool to be from here. That I know.

There’s never any pressure. He’s not judgy. That’s not his style. It’s simply about being there, showing up when I’m exposed.

It’s usually rather obvious what he’s thinking.

The answer’s in my body. Maybe he puts it there: a plump care package from a knowing soul, silky ribbon untying itself, flimsy paper unfolding.

It’s a familiar feeling. If I were to close my eyes and concentrate really hard, I would recognize the deliberate folds in the paper, the curl of the ribbon made by the scissors. The signature is there.

But there’s no need to concentrate, no need to know. Our relationship is perfect.

I’m sure he’d agree.


Best & Worst Moments

The headline in my news feed today read: “Best & Worst Moments of the 2020 Music Awards.”

I admit, I was tempted to click on it, but then I had a realization that this headline is what is destroying us.

Sadly, this is all we get now: the best and the worst of everything, from YouTube, from social media, from marketers, from news stations.

The people with the stories, they know what we’ll click: Epic Fails, The President’s Biggest Mistake, Heroic Effort of Neighbor, Largest Crab in the World, Most Devastating Earthquake, 5 Things You Must Do to be Happy…”

It’s either all bad or all good. That’s what’s killing us: the piled up weight all on one side. That’s what’s tearing us apart from our friends and family, what’s opening up the ground and putting us on separate sides.

Everything’s all good or all bad. Mountains on each side. And in the middle a giant abyss, nowhere to stand.

The stories we feed on are never in the middle.

And yet that’s where we live, walking our dogs, eating dinner, playing on the floor with our kids.

All is boring and balanced, a beautiful life, and then we pick up our phone and we’re yanked to the side by provocative storylines we can’t resist.

What might happen if we stop clicking?

What would the storytellers do without our hunger and thirst for the extraordinary?

What’s so bad about being ordinary, when that’s what most of us already are?

We are what we eat.


Still Dark Outside

clear sky with stars

I wake up with my throat on fire, my body and eyelids heavy.

My phone beeps with bad news, it’s still dark outside, exhaustion balled up in my chest like compacted cement, layers formed across months.

I get up only because I know it will be harder if I don’t.

So heavy, so tired.

Things get worse when I count my blessings because I know that on the other side of my gratitude is someone else’ pain, screams in the dark.

I ain’t got no knee on my neck
My house is still here, not taken by fire, wind, or water
My family is still here, not taken by disease or despair
My body is still here, my rights, my humanity
My blood still flows
I have a job, I’m putting food on the table

It’s hard though.

Knowing all of this is going on — all that pain — and not being able to truly, I mean physically, connect with anybody.

Lost touch, lost happenstance.

Instead of coming together, we’re coming apart, clawing at each other with our comments, making the gaps bigger, the trenches deeper.

The dark cloud of November looms.

Damned either way, not united at all.

Even as I write this I wonder what will come next.

On this line.

Sorry, I don’t have a moral to this story. Not this time.


How about this?

I’ll look out for you, if you’ll look out for me.

That’s all I got.


Swimming with Rocks

school of fish, fish, nature

You’ve been diving in the same place for a while now.

With time, you’ve collected the prettiest of all the rocks. You keep them underwater because you don’t like how they look above the surface.

Your rock pile.

Each day, when you submerge, you notice (and have come to expect) some of the rocks are scattered, perhaps stolen. You spend the day looking for them. And usually find them. Sometimes you have enough time and energy left over to look for more.

But the pile has to stop growing because you can only swim so far before you lose sight of it and risk having it disrupted. All that work, all those days.

As boredom takes ahold, you yearn to see more, to find more rocks, so you come up with an idea:

You’ll swim with the rocks.

You gather up your pile in your arms and hands, under your chin. And off you go, kicking your legs. You go a little farther than the perimeter you’re used to.

You see new things. It’s exciting and scary.

But your arms and hands are full. You can’t pick up a new rock without dropping an old one. And you don’t know this place so putting the rocks down is risky. That thing that takes them away each day, maybe it lives here. Maybe there are more of them.

You turn to go back.

It is difficult to swim with your arms full of rocks. You cannot extend your hands. You cannot go very far.

It is painful, not so much the weight your rocks, but knowing now what’s out there, recognizing your limited breaths, your full arms, and having to move past all of those vibrant, silky fishes without running your fingers across their scales.


The Comment They’ll Remember

Spread the Love - 2/2 (IG: @clay.banks)

My friend, Paul, complimented me the other day. It was hot. I had my shirt off.

“Cliff, your body is looking GOOD!”

He said it just like that, too: big emphasis on the “good” part.

And it definitely sunk in because, after that, I started eating salads again and kept my push-up routine going.

One off-hand compliment from Paul and I treated myself better.

A few years back, my friend, Kim, interrupted my rant about how corporate advertisers soullessly promoted social causes in order to sell shit. Think Nike and Kap.

But Kim had a different idea: “No! I think it’s a good thing!”

It was a confrontation, something friends aren’t supposed to do, and it had a significant impact on me. I still think about that comment when a Nike ad comes on. I’m not so quick to get up on my soapbox.

We all have at least one compliment or confrontation in us for every person we talk to: a single line they weren’t expecting that can either underscore or strike-through.

So… use your line.

Reinforce something good.

Challenge something bad.

Evolution happens every day.


Sincerely, Your Liberal Neighbor

two hands

You may not realize this:

When I fight, I’m fighting for you.

When I shout Black Lives Matter, it’s not because I think Black Lives are more important than White ones. It’s because I believe most of the problems in this country, problems that negatively impact your life and mine every day and in every way, are caused by a dark scar we’ve never mended.

When I preach Healthcare for All, it’s not because I hate America; it’s because I love Americans and I wish for us to be freed from decisions of basic well-being so we can focus on how we can offer our gifts to one another.

When I fight for Public Education, it’s not because I’m a socialist who wants to make decisions for you. It’s because I’ve come to realize that togetherness as adults begins with proximity in childhood.

When I say defund the Police, it’s not because I hate cops. It’s because I believe cops are overburdened with a pile of responsibilities that are outside of their job description, and that batons and guns are good for some situations but not others.

When I tear down monuments, break windows, and light fires, it’s not because I lack respect for your property. It’s because I believe we’re both hurting deeply from loving property more than anything else, and because the loss of property seems to get peoples’ attention more than the loss of lives.

So it’s fine that you block me, insult me, pity me, ignore me, talk over me, laugh at me, pray for me.

It’s fine that you are disgusted by me.

For now.

If I have to push against you in order to create space for the both of us, I will. If I have to be without your friendship to fight for our survival, I will.

As painful as it is, If I must stop holding your hands to hold up the love between us and around us, then that’s what I’ll do.

And, though I’m warmed by what I’m walking towards, I will miss you.


A Poet’s Secret: How to Succeed in Life

Person rock climbing

Bukowski, one of the most widely read poets in the world, a craftsman of language, left behind only two words on his tombstone: “Don’t try.”

I got this same advice from my creative writing teacher (who has also passed): “Stop trying so hard, Cliff!”

I think of his words often.

It’s great advice.

When I’m struggling to write something, I’ll invoke the spirit of Morse Hamilton, throw up my hands and say “Stop trying so hard, Cliff!”

This is real frustration folks. When I reach this point, I’m out of ideas. I got nothin,’ which is why I have to leave. And really leave. Ain’t no fakin’. I’m out. I’m done.

And often, right at this moment, something strange begins to happen.

As I’m walking away, I’ll lean over my desk chair to type out some notes so I can pick up where I left off, and then my arms will hurt from the angle so I’ll sit down to finish my thoughts, and then, before I know it, I’ve been writing for twenty minutes and cranking out some beautiful shit.

That poet guy and my writing teacher, they were onto something.

When you force something out, instead of just allowing it to come, it’s not going to come out completely intact. It will show up assembled rather than birthed.

And you, the creator, the wisher, will be resentful, will have wrinkles.

Better to give up, to walk away, to let go of the wishes, and reward yourself with being surprised.


I Conquered My Dreams

selective focus photography of boy wearing black Batman cape

I’m the hero of my dreams.

I’m talking about anxiety dreams, the ones we all have and talk about in the waking world. You know the ones…

The naked-in-public dream: I beat that one by giving up the search for clothes and just being naked. Fuck it. I even started to whistle.

The skunk dream: Instead of standing there in fear, I just walked away. Let them spray me. (They didn’t.)

The giant snake dream: You won’t believe this one. I bent down, picked up the snake – a boa constrictor – and hugged it. He was warm and he disappeared. (More on this later.)

The bullies-from-my-childhood dream: Ah, the muscle shirt, mustachioed teens who waited for me after detention. I stood up to them. I walked up to them. I let my anger out. I didn’t back down. They did. (I really was ready to beat their asses. And I knew I could. It was my dream.)

The lost-snowboard-dream (you folks have this one?): I get to the mountain and realize I forget my snowboard. It’s sort of like the late-for-class dream or the “forgot-I-had-a-class dream… which I had last night.

You know the one, where you can’t find your books or don’t know your schedule or you keep dropping things out of your backpack or you can’t remember if you took that class…

Well, last night, I beat that one too.

It started off terribly. I was wearing 2 backpacks and I had all this crap to put in them and the stuff was scattered across a football field and things were wet and they didn’t fit and no one knew where I was supposed to be and there were so many doors and the app for my class schedule didn’t work.

I have this mantra in real life: “Just chill and go to it.” It helps me get started on big projects that scare me.

I brought my mantra into the dream world. I said it out loud out there on the football field and things immediately changed. the sun came out, my stuff was dry, the crowd noise disappeared, my belongings fit, I found things I’d been missing for years.

It all became possible after I accepted the reality that the price of gathering my things was being late for class. Whatever. I decided I would take the punishment to have my things.

The bell rang, I walked into the crowded hallway, and then into the crowded classroom, big smile on my face, relaxed shoulders.

And I woke up.

Big smile on my face, relaxed shoulders.

It’s amazing how good you feel when you conquer a dream, proof that visualizing, in all it’s ridiculousness, actually works.

Here’s the best part:

After beating your anxiety dreams, they never come back.

I’ve never been naked or attacked again, and now, after last night’s great victory, I’m free from being late and lost.

Why am I sharing all of this?

If you’re struggling with something (as we all are), go deeper into it – picture it in your mind, the painful, unwanted details – awake or asleep, walk right into it, and do what your best self would do.

Be the hero of your dreams and you’ll solve your problems in the real world.