A Bit of Darkness

No one wants to be in this place but we all sort of end up here – in the hole. All of the books, all of the rituals, all of the practice, they can’t protect us absolutely.

This rule of gravity, this inevitability of falling back down no matter how high you’ve been, this is the part that makes me question God.

What’s the point?

Maybe it’s because I forgot to meditate today, slept in instead. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t write, or that my jeans are hot on my legs, or maybe it’s the kids, one of them bored and scrolling, the other crying so often and so deep that it opened me up and let the black stuff get all the way in, looking back at me, a snarled smile.

I’m old enough now to know the reasons don’t really matter.

I’m here now. Again. In this familiar place.

So many of us in our deep, tunneled wells, adjacent to one another but not knowing it. Inches close but completely alone, our individual voices wastefully echoing up and out, always up and out, intermingling up there with the things out of earshot.

So strangely comforting to know this, that, through the coarse walls of dirt, are others like me, trapped and growing tired of their own echo, curled up and hugging knees, struggling to even recall the sound, the feeling, the presence of the wind.

But the wind is mighty and it never gives up, or at least keeps playing its game. It gathers its strength from the openness of the flats, it can lift rock and rubble and stone hearts, and it carries our words on its back.

As long as you keep the words coming out, even just a little bit, as long as you let the black spiral continue to curl its way to the top — to speak in futility, to reach without hope — in time the wind will do the rest.

You won’t hear the rescue coming, you won’t witness the change. You may even still be cursing the hole and the things that got you there, but as your echo fades and your eyes adjust, you’ll look again at the walls of earth that surround you and you’ll notice, almost with regret, but more with wonder, that the wind has come and gone. And it’s left its mark.

Or, did you just not see it before?

In the walls themselves, one on top of the other, hard to make out but definitely there: footholds in the dirt.

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A Moth At My Window

A moth at my window tries desperately to get inside. He’s attracted to the glowing, white screen of my monitor, a sharp contrast to the blackness of 5am.

In haste, it scrambles into the stringy membranes of a spider web in the corner of the window. The spider wastes no time, comes out from its hiding place, traverses its highway of lines, and attacks the moth.

The moth flutters, it’s white underbelly shimmering, the web shaking.

And then it breaks free.

A small celebration inside the office.

But there’s another chapter.

The moth immediately flies back to the corner of the window near the web. It’s still trying to get in my office, to the lights. It’s not going to give up its quest.

The spider waits for the inevitable.

My hands still in the air from celebrating, I realize I am part of the murder and the feast.

The light, that’s my light. Without the light, the moth will fly away and live.

But I have a book to write and 5am is the only time I have to do it. I NEED the light to write the book.

So the moth will die.

This, I believe, is at the center of all tragedies: one’s commitment to their own success draws a line between two points which will likely obstruct another’s journey. And the choice has to be made, to interrupt your own line for the prosperity of another, for a life. Or to keep charging toward destiny while tragedy occurs in the darkness behind glass.

Today, I chose life and so sat in my EZ chair in the absence of light, hands folded, words not making it onto the screen where they belong, feeling a bit like a fool, perched and wondering how long it will take for a new idea to replace an old one.

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Props from Chester Copperpot

In the movie Goonies, a group of subterranean adolescent adventurers revel in the fact that they made it farther than the legendary treasure hunter and riddle solver, Chester Copperpot.

They had less experience and less training than the Great Mr. Copperpot; afterall, they’re just kids. But, in the end, their footprints outpaced the expert.

I have a Chester Copperpot; it’s The Hardware Store Guy, hunched over, mustached, and soft-spoken. He’s the expert. He has the solution to everything:

Try hardware cloth. Vinegar will take care of that. The trick is to go under the floorboard and come back up the other side. It’s the 3/4 inch gasket; that’s what’s giving you trouble.

Me and The Hardware Store Guy. I bring the riddles. He solves them.

As it turns out, we happen to have the same sink – an ancient model where the parts don’t have serial numbers and the fixtures don’t have logos. So, this time, when I came to him frustrated and wet, he had a pretty specific idea as to what the problem was:

The ceramic cartridge is fused into the cover nut and the piece under the basin has an outcropping so you can’t pull it through. That’s where I got stuck. Had to cut it out with a hacksaw.

Uh oh. If Chester Copperpot can’t do it…

I went to bed with the problem knotted around my brain, picking at the threads.

Upon waking up, I realized I’d solved the riddle, though, like most dreams, I couldn’t remember how I did it. Still, I had the feeling of victory in my body.

After work, I got back under the sink and banged my head and elbows around by the light of my iPhone.

I had no idea what I was doing but, having experienced the solution at least once and without the formidable shadow of Chester Copperpot looming over me anymore, I clinked around with vigor. I tried my ridiculous ideas until one of them wasn’t so ridiculous and I beat the corroded, decades-old pipes and hoses and tension brackets and cover nuts.

There is this small, lovely space at the intersection of inexperience and perseverance, where something unexpected can bloom, where you can shortcut your way to ingenuity and come out ahead of the masters.

Victory came with a quarter-turn of the crescent wrench; the damn angular metal thing dropped through the sink basin and nearly cracked my iPhone.

Like a prepubescent Goonie, I ran to the hardware store with my heavy, ugly treasure in hand: an ancient artifact, unrecognizable to all but 2 people in Oakland.

He knew what it was immediately. He was neither sad nor happy, though I saw an uncharacteristic smile curl up under his mustache.

You got farther than I did.

And then back to choosing between an 11/16 inch and 17mm socket.

Whoa. Props from the great Chester Copperpot.

There’s a certain PG-13 revelry that only a Goonie knows, a satisfaction that comes with stepping into the woods and walking your amateur feet past the experts when the only thing getting you there is your sheer desire to do it. Not your training, not your tools, just the silly, uncorroborated notion that you can.

In not understanding the best way or the proven way or the logical way, ironically, you have an advantage: you don’t know enough to know how to fail.

And that’s the solution to the riddle.

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Love the Hard Way

I think we like having enemies.

It’s an unfortunate trait that’s carried over from the primitive days of survival, a tribal necessity: we band together to win.

Bonding is a biproduct of two people pushing against a third. It’s the cheap way to reach love, the paved shortcut through the woods. It doesn’t last.

Just because there are people who do bad things to us, it doesn’t mean they have to become our enemies. We don’t have to hold on to that instinct, particularly since the clenching wears us out. Not them.

And this isn’t about being a doormat. Stand up for what you believe. Talk back, interrupt, step in, put your hand up, yell. Do what you have to do so that your voice is heard and your spirit is released.

But, if you really want to have an impact on the situation and walk away having done all you could, to become better than you were, then don’t look for allies in your hatred.

Be more courageous than that.

Look at the ugliness that’s rising in you, wooed out of its hiding place like a charmed serpent, forked tongue, ready to strike. Stare it down and will it to leave, scare it back until it slithers completely out of you, out of the room.

It will leave a space behind for something else.

When we challenge others from a place of love, we push hardest of all. Our weight is felt more deeply. We face our fears, rediscover our mission, and open up new opportunities we didn’t know were there.

Most important, our hearts stay intact. And grow bigger.

When standing in Anger and Hatred, we should see them for what they are: beacons of sharp, hot light, a call to action.

They are serpents we should thank, not kingdoms to live within.

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The Hug

I had some time so I decided to go to one of my favorite restaurants and get dinner and a drink while reading my book.

Approaching the restaurant, I could tell something was off. The door was open but the place was empty and the owner was yelling.

Walking through the door, I saw her on the phone, yelling and crying. She put the phone down, apologized. I held up my book. “I’ll sit outside. Take your time. No rush.”

She emerged 5 minutes later, sniffing, red-eyed.

“Sorry,” she said. “Sometimes you just get so overwhelmed, ya know,” and she reached for the order tickets in her apron pouch.

My next move was awkward; I almost knocked over the little plastic table. There was no good segue. I don’t remember what I said.

I had to walk around the table; it took some time. I opened my arms. She accepted.

We had one of those good hugs, the ones that last beyond the expected first 3 seconds. No back-patting, no words, just stillness, as we stood on a square of sidewalk in our city, people walking by on their way to somewhere else, wondering what could prompt a customer in flip flops to hug a crying business owner.

The afterwards was easier. Looking at each other was easier. We talked about the East Coast, siblings, being business owners, and, of course, food.

Neither of us felt weird standing out of bounds. It was calm and gentle.

We’d stepped over an invisible barrier, as if stepping off a playing field, unsatisfied with the positions we’re supposed to be playing, being so bold as to walk toward the evening sun while whistles blew and the sounds of the game continued behind us.

Closer now, seeing the restaurant and the sidewalk and the city for the first time.

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Try Not Knowing

The greatest thing you can do upon meeting someone new is to recognize that you do not know them.

What you see, how you feel… these things will mislead you. We are manipulated by patterns and repetition. Once we see 5 trees grow to the same height with the same fruit, we start to fail at believing the next one could be different.

No one likes to be categorized, but our brains are wired to categorize everything. It’s a sick game that leaves us embracing the snap-judgments of others.

To make things even trickier, the more you learn – that is, the more knowledge you stuff into your head – the harder it is to give up the categories. As scholars, as consumers of data, we instinctively look for patterns. And we always find them. The patterns we rely on after we read the book may be different than the ones we had prior, but they still hold the same dangerous promise.

When scientists do experiments — the ones who actually want to further our species — they will hold loosely to their beliefs, regardless of how long they’ve been following them. This leaves an opening for the outlier, the anomaly that says so much more than the sameness it is surrounded by.

The good scientist, the good human will not allow the 5 trees to become a rule.

And because of this, they will catch the slight curve of the bark in the 6th tree, a beautiful divergence that was missed by so many others who have long since put down their clipboards, kicked up their feet, and published their ideas.

It’s so much better to not know, for you, the tree, the forest, and the fruit.

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The River & The Bridge

There I am, as new as the sun coming up over the edge of the earth, reflecting on the magnificence of the river.

Ignoring time, I instinctively jump into the river and let the current take me, it doesn’t matter where I go and I don’t care that I left my shoes behind. I explore all the parts of the river – the fast parts, the slow parts, the warm parts, the cool parts.

By afternoon, I’ve mastered the river. I know the best places to float, to dive, and to drift. As people come by, I tell them what I know. They’re impressed. I feel good about it: being a master.

But as the sun starts dropping – Wait! The sun goes down too? – as the sun starts dropping, I realize I’ll have to get out of the river. Not for a few hours, but it’s inevitable, just as it’s understood that the trees will lose their leaves and the cicadas will cease to sing.

And then I notice the people on the other side of the river. At least I think they’re people. They look different than what I’m used to.

And I can tell by the way they stand that they’re afraid of the water, which runs faster and angrier along their shore.

So I get to work.

I cut down trees. I move stones. And though my back aches and my legs shiver standing there in the rushing current of the river, I know that my whole day has led to this effort. I know the river. I’m not afraid of the river. This is why I can build.

There is a deep joy in my work, even as the pain enters my body because I know that what I’ll leave behind, after the night makes us all disappear — that great idea turned into love — will be here tomorrow. My pace picks up. I’m working double-time, and singing a song to the sky.

But even with the drive of a celestial calling, I experience a lonely, almost chilling feeling that I’m not going to finish.

That’s when I look to the people I came with. Some are still frolicking in the river, but most are busy like me, working at great speed to do the thing they’re called to do – building castles, hollowing logs, digging holes, dancing for Gods…

We all have our way.

With more time behind us than in front, we each see a different path forward, and our conviction becomes stronger and our singing becomes louder as the day fades. That’s the effect the night has on us. That’s why we should thank the sun for falling.

But it’s hard to build a legacy on our own short timeline when so much of that time is spent figuring out what we’re supposed to be doing in the first place.

So, there we are in the twilight, wading in the river, on the edge of the river, submerged in the river, pregnant with legacy, turning our breath into song, and doing what we believe to be our most important work.

We work side by side, whistling our tunes, but not necessarily in unison – that’s the cost of chasing our dreams.

Each of us feels our own conviction and its intoxicating. We request that others follow our beat and join our effort so we can finish, but none of us are able to let go of our own, individual progress. We refuse to stop humming our hard-earned hymns.

It’s only as the sun makes its way back over the far side of the earth, and the figures on the other side of the river turn away, and we all become shadows against shadows, that we put down our tools and begin to hear the beauty in the chorus of the river, the cicadas, and us.

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A Word Can Save You

It is difficult to make decisions when you’re holding up the world with both hands, and that’s often how we feel – with our jobs and our families – like we, alone, are holding everything together.

That’s why we let it go on for too long. Because it’s a noble effort and we fear the important things in our hands will break when they hit the ground.

I get it. I have my arms raised too. But all this weight, it’s crushing us. It’s crushing you. You’re getting smaller and soon you won’t have the same strength you do now. Soon, the things will fall.

Or worse: you’ll not quite reach that eventual breaking point and you’ll continue standing there, in the same position, letting your muscles ache in secret, while the shadows change around you.

Do you feel the ache?

Do you know what it is?

Do you want it to end?

Look at the things in your hands, the things overhead. There’s something you should put down. You already know what it is because you’ve thought about putting it down before.

Remember: it’s not all of the things that are preventing you from resting. It’s just one thing. The weight of one thing is all you need to focus on.

Make a decision. Make a decision to let go of that thing and see what it does to your body.

Decisions have incredible power. They’re like massive mechanical cranes that ferry our burdens to and from our shoulders. You are always one decision away from feeling lighter.

Say the word.

Stop, no, now, do, try, live, grow, move

Say the word

Say the word and those great jaws under your command will swoop down and clamp onto on the heaviest of things upon you.

Wait… It’s already happening. Hear that? You’re doing it.

Underneath the gasps in your throat and the growling of your stomach, you can hear the creaking joints of the machine in the distance, its treads rolling over the crinkled metal of unwanted items. It’s coming for you. It’s closer than you think.

Say the word.

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The Gift of Work

We all can pay homage to work.

Work is most often where we find the flow. Doesn’t matter if you’re stuffing envelopes or running a department. When it hits, you don’t want to be anywhere else. And hopefully, there are some people around to share that good feeling.

The beginning of an idea, sculpted by excited voices. The new challenges scaring you and thrilling you at the same time. The pinhole of light running through the center of a problem, calling you to the other side. The first of anything. The second success that validates the first. The end of it all, a flower opening up fully, its fruit exposed and getting noticed… The next idea, hidden in plain sight, waiting to be born…

Even the bad parts feed into the victory. That’s enough to get you through sometimes.

I don’t know the secret to finding the flow.

She comes about when she wants to, but I’ve learned that the one thing you have to be… is there — at work, doing what you’re doing, and nothing else.

It’s that single line of vision, total focus, acceptance, immersion. That’s the way to open the portal. Strangely, it’s less about what you’re doing than how you’re doing it. It helps to be doing something you love — its easier that way — but in the end, that’s irrelevant.

You can enter through any piece of work. As long as you’re all the way in.

I think we wish it weren’t this way. It seems to defy some cosmic rule of purpose. It seems to even the playing field when what we want is mountains to climb and valleys to skoff at. We want to earn our view. We want our choices strategically placed in front of us like a staircase.

But it’s even simpler than that.

You’re already holding a stone, and the texture, the smell, and the weight of the stone, if you’re really going to be honest with yourself, is more exhilarating than the view.

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The Little Blue Sticky Tab On My Desk

I put a dark blue sticky tab on the edge of my desk – not a full-on Post It, the kind of transparent tab you use to bookmark a textbook. I put it there because I was measuring the length of my carryon bag to make sure it fits the very specific parameters of the airline. It did.

I must have got distracted after that because I never did remove it. The trip is in a week.

That little half-inch sticky tab greets me every morning I go to sit down at my desk and my first thoughts are of the measurement and the bag and the trip and the people at the other end of the trip. Even the origin of the tab plays a part: a gift in the mail from a friend to encourage me to keep writing.

(Such a better association than the area rug that’s too small under my reading chair, the chipped paint on the baseboard, the second-place trophy…)

Having something on the horizon makes the daily walk worth it; it turns a routine into a pilgrimage. But if you leave it on the horizon only, it can’t do its job. You have to be reminded to look up.

That’s where the little blue sticky comes in. It reminds me to look up, to see the future as it will unfold: deboarding the plane, the hug, the apartment, the conference, the boat drinks – wonderful things at the end of a long line of decisions dating back decades.

And when I return to the desk and the chair, so much fuller than when I left, I’ll peel off that little blue tab that served me so well. I’ll fold it over on itself and hold it in my palm like a dead fly, wishing it to ignore all the rules I’ve learned, to tickle my skin with its edges as it comes to life and takes off.

It sounds silly, I know, and it might not go down like that, but that’s the least I could do.

That’s the least I could do, after all it’s done for me.

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