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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
We all know what they are: healthy food, rest, exercise, sobriety, nature, connection, work, love, fun, self-expression.
We have the map. If we just charge after these things and do them often, we have a greater chance of being Happy. It’s ours for the taking.
So why don’t we do it?
Why aren’t we happy?
We’re too sophisticated.
We rationalize away Happiness every day. Every minute.
I’m just not in the mood. It’s too far away. I’m not making progress anyway. I should wait until I’m inspired. I’ll get to it later.
Our minds are why stop, why we fail to start. We talk ourselves out of the right path all the time. We choose to keep Comfort and Familiarity intact, like a warm fuzzy blanket wrapped around our bodies, getting cozy above all else.
We humans, we’re jsut too good at this: prioritizing our current mood over the one we want to have, prioritizing comfort over action, choosing the warm shower over the cold one.
We hold on to the moment we have and stretch it over our bodies, stretch it tight across time.
This is sooooo good. I ain’t getting up for nothin!
And it is good.
And you deserve it.
But be careful.
Comfort and Familiarity lose their charm quick and they won’t let go of you. You have to be the one to let go, to welcome in Discomfort and Unfamiliarity, to be okay with the cold.
There are so many alternative NOWs trapped in that blanket.
The elements of Happiness are out there. healthy food, rest, exercise, sobriety, nature, connection, work, love, fun, self-expression.
When I was in high school I got my heart broken and I listened to Every Rose Has Its Thorn ad nausum for 3 days straight.
It was a dark time. Literally. I covered my walls in black satin and traded in soft white light bulbs for red floodlights. Total fire hazard, but who really cares when your roses are covered in thorns.
Just after college, I had my heart broken again, and I went out and bought a book of poetry by Jewel (yeah, that one). She writes a bit like a female Bukowski. I bought it because I wanted to be bitter but I didn’t want to hate women. Progress, I guess.
Today, at 46, I woke up to the smell and sight of dog shit covering my living room. The carpeted living room. The entire carpeted living room. Matted down paw prints, piles, smeared, dabs here and there. You could say my heart was broken.
But this time, I opted to put on Spearhead, grabbed the Folex, some rubber gloves, paper towels, and went to work. (He actually has an anthem for cleaning up shit, if you ever need it. It’s called “Bad shit happens, but good shit happens too.” I had to smile when it came on.)
So there I was, middle-aged, cleaning shit for 2 hours.
But smiling. And, truth be told, dancing on my tippy toes on the scattered sheets of paper towels by the end.
I suppose that’s part of growing up: taking care of your heart. Deciding not to wallow in shit, and, instead, dancing your way out of it.
There is a tree with thick, knuckly roots driving into the soft green earth. Its branches do all sorts of interesting things: hold nests and tire swings, block the hot sun, reach into other trees, click against one another, give wood, provide hollows, cast shadows.
One branch, in particular, has taken a risk and grown longer than the others, shot out perpendicular from the trunk. Dangling from its skinniest part, the part before the branch becomes too weak to hold anything, is a hornet’s nest.
The hornets buzz. They’ve always buzzed. They never stop buzzing.
It’s the hornets of which I’m most proud. And for that alone, I’m embarrassed. Too much care about the hornets, what they’re doing in there and when they’ll come out.
I realize this is the source of everything – the good and the bad: my worry that the hornets will stop coming out. That they will stop moving altogether. It makes my branches grow, my trunk thick, builds homes for other things to live.
My biggest fear, as I’ve discovered, the thing that makes me lose sleep, that keeps me from being present with all of this life living in and around me, is that the nest will seal, will snap from the branch, will fall to the ground, and the hornets, plump with purpose, finally ready to run their arcs around the world, will never find their way out.