“Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”—August Wilson
Too many have become complacent these days. Understanding that there is conflict within your soul, is the beginning of enlightenment.
“Landscape is the refuge of the wounded spirit…” —Daniel Mueenuddin
Since my boyhood I have sought refuge on this lake. And if I stay long enough, it heals me.
“Staying put is the radical act. …pay attention to the thinking of the place.” —Dean Kuipers
This from Kuipers’ fine novel The Deer Camp. Few people stay quiet in one place long enough anymore to hear its thinking. Does that sound strange to you? See?
“There’s nothing more boring than perfection.” —Susan Coyne
Ms. Coyne has a character in her brilliant Canadian min-series Slings and Arrows say this. And I believe this simple wisdom is what so many artists miss, struggling for perfection. To them I would say, write down or sing out what is in your mind, your heart, your soul, your spirit, in your fingertips. Once you see and hear what you’ve said, fiddle with it only a little, then let it live. Too much seeking of the perfect word, the perfect note, the perfect color will kill any pure creative impulse’s essence forever. What’s more, such a pursuit of the impossible may well kill you in the process.
When you look at the past through the lens of the present, and then make moral judgements, you should remember that, inevitably, something we’re doing now will be seen as an abomination in the future.
So, I’m alone at camp and getting ready to take the dogs out for a walk and I can’t find my sunglasses, which the doctor now says I need to prologue the inevitable onset of cataracts. I’m looking all over and I know I just had them. I even ask my pup, Sam and my elder statesman, Tom, where they are. I notice a kind of bemused expression on Tom’s face, but I may be imagining it. After a ten minute search, I find them on a string around my neck. C’ie la vie.
I’ve been kidding myself. I am and always will be a teacher. I can see it when I find a moment of objectivity looking at my own writing. Barry Wallenstein, a wonderful poet, and a former of teacher of mine said he found my writing pedantic. I guess, for better and worse, he was right.
I ran across this sentence studying French:
Vous ne choisissez pas votre chef.
Literally translated into English: You don’t choose your boss.
I find it revealing in at least two ways. First in that the French word for “boss” is “chef”. This explains a lot about French restaurant work environments, and about the concept of the chef. And, in turn, about work environments everywhere. But more importantly, what a French philosophy! You can’t choose who is in control of your working
life if you are a worker. There lies the conundrum, the birth of unions, and the yearning to be one’s own boss. But to be more metaphorical and perhaps spiritual, I’ll quote Bob Dylan, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” C’est interessant, non?
W.B. Yeats is a favorite of mine for a couple of reasons. First, he was so very human, and even kind of ridiculous in parts of his actual life, I can relate, but second, despite, maybe even because of all his flaws and failings, he was capable of lines like these:
“A curlew answered and suddenly thereupon I thought
That on the lonely height where all are in God’s eye,
There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.”
Lately I’m talking a lot in my dreams with friends who have passed. I know why too, but you might not believe me. I have faith that you can draw your own conclusions.
Once in the middle of reading aloud for a class from a wonderful book by Daniel Keyes called Flowers for Algernon, I had a very strange experience. I arrived at a certain passage in the book, which I could probably still find, page and paragraph, and realized that when I was in seventh grade, I had been reading that passage, in the back of my seventh grade science class, when something clicked in my brain and I began to think and understand like an adult. I stood still years later, in my English classroom, in front of my students, that day and wondered at that crossroads of the continuum. It was as though there were at least two of me. One looking ahead from the past, one looking back from the present, and each could sense the other. Then I wondered, and still do, if this happens to everyone.
Studying French is humbling. After a couple of months I was starting to think I knew a few things. Then I looked at a list of verb conjugations in a French text and realized the lessons I’m studying haven’t even covered all of the forms of the few verbs I know. Yeah, I’m probably never going to be bi-lingual, but, to quote Hemingway, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Have better lyrics about being young and stupidly free been written, than those in Gentle on My Mind? And Johnny Hartford? Quite a guy!
Once time is opened, anything becomes possible.
When I was little I wondered about a lot of things. Then, for a while, when I was busy working and raising kids, I rarely wondered about things at all. I was busy. Now I’m wondering about things again. It’s great.
Have I ever got a lot to learn! I’m at the beginning again. How often can I go there before they send me away? I can go there always. That’s the thing. That’s what I’m starting to learn.
Sometimes you ask a friend to do something for you, and it’s something that you figure is right in their wheelhouse and won’t take them any time at all. And then it does, and in fact it’s a real pain, and you feel terrible, but there’s no way to stop them from finishing, because they are all in now, and you wonder if, when they’re finally done you’ll even still be friends. And then you are. That’s a hell of a relief, isn’t it?
When was the last time that something you did or said surprised you? If it’s been a while since that happened. Do you wonder why?
If you want to stay on a daily schedule in your retirement, get a Labrador retriever. They know your patterns and will never let you break them without a heartfelt stare-down or a whine at the camp door. I love that about them…most days.
Don’t go out looking for something. Go out looking. Then, maybe you’ll find something.
Father, if it be your will, take this cup from me.” I don’t care what your religion is. I don’t care if you have one. I don’t care whether you believe in God. If you’re human, you have in some way shape or form, wished that some tough circumstance that confronted you would be taken away, by whatever means. That’s why these words resonate. That’s why they are Holy.
One of my last duties as a classroom teacher, when I came to the end of that career, this Spring, was to illustrate for a bright young student why, though the study of the works of Shakespeare may be daunting, it is not a waste of time and that the Bard is not just some moldy old dead white guy who has been given too much credit. It made me sigh that this should be one of my last duties. But it was fitting, I suppose, I fought the same battle with children and adults throughout my teaching career, my work as a theatrical director, and an actor. But it still makes me look around at some of my fellow human beings and exclaim and ask, “Shakespeare is here with us every day! You quote him without even knowing it! He understood human beings and the very nature of the universe as well or better than any other author or artist of any kind in the history of civilization! His writing is at turns both dryly and broadly funny, profound, heart-wrenching, poignant, spell-binding, haunting, cathartic, deeply spiritual, transcendent, life-changing! Why in the world can’t you see it?”
There is risk in doing everything worth while. Almost unbearable risk. It’s so easy to be afraid, to back away. To play things safe. Don’t do that. Take the risk. Even if you fail, you’ll learn something.What if everything were certain? No doubts, no mystery, no fun.
For every man is his own Jacob. He wakes up at the foot of his own ladder and sees the angels going up and down, with God at the top of the ladder.”—Thomas Merton
Merton is right. The only thing he doesn’t mention here is that Jacob also once wrestled an angel. So do I. How about you?
In Stuart Kells’ wonderful book, Shakespeare’s Library, the author posits that Shakespeare the writer was certainly the gifted fellow from rural England, but adds that like most actors, directors, and anyone else connected with the creative process of drama, he listened. He heard what people in the street said, he heard what his fellow actors said, he heard what fellow playwrights said, and read what they wrote. Then, better than anyone else ever has or will again, he created, and re-created, he borrowed, he adapted, he synthesized, he was inspired and inspired others, all with the hard-minded intention of filling the seats and with is gift for art of every strain. Then, when he died, the actors who survived him edited, at times even re-wrote his works. Then subsequent generations of actors, writers, directors picked up the torch and added and adapted. Then the critics took a hand by analyzing and relaying their understandings. Then audiences, right up to you and me sitting in the seats and reading the plays added our own personal interpretations of every play, every scene, every character. So who wrote the plays of Shakespeare? Shakespeare did, and everyone who was or is associated with him, was or is a fan, reader, director, actor or involved with one of the works from the 1500’s until 2021 in any way, is in some way, Shakespeare! What’s more, you could apply this same concept to almost any famous writer. Writing is, in the end, a collaborative process between writer and reader, and everyone involved is partially the author of every great book. This is also true of all art. Of all science. And of every endeavor of the human mind, heart, soul, and spirit.
There are certain of my friends who constantly take on guest starring roles in my dreams. Some I only see once or twice every two years. So, are they sending me subconscious messages? Am I sending them subconscious messages? Am I trying to tell myself something? Is somebody else entirely, perhaps not even of our physical world trying to send us both a message? Or, as some scientists would argue are some synapses just firing randomly. If random, why the same people all the time?
If, as in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, you could relive one moment in your life in its totality with full knowledge of all that will come after that moment, would you cry? Laugh? Or be simply overwhelmed as Emily is?
In dreams I seem always to be in pursuit of something not quite realized. What is it?
I just finished watching Ken Burns’ Hemingway. It reaffirms what I’ve long thought. Whatever you think of the SOB, and he was one, there are certain things he wrote that will last forever. The Nick Adams Stories especially Indian Camp, The Old Man and the Sea, large parts of A Farewell to Arms, some sections of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Sun Also Rises, and certain wonderful sections of A Moveable Feast. Hemingway’s style started me down this writing road when I was in my teens and I am a long ways from alone on that score. His behavior deserves to be condemned on many scores, but the best of his writing, to discerning minds, will stand the test of time, whatever you think of the man.
“When am I ever going to need this?” Kids used to say this to me in my classroom all the time. So much so that I got very tired of hearing it. One day, and for the umpteenth time, a young, fairly earnest boy said this to me. I sighed for a moment, then was suddenly hit by a welcome and unexpected inspiration. I smiled for a moment, then looked at the boy. I told him to go back to his desk and turn to the table of contents of the literature anthology. He did so. I followed him there. Then I said, “Pick out only the stories and poems you’re going to need, and I’ll only teach you those.” “Okay,” he said smiling. I walked back to my desk where a sizable stack of papers awaited me. About three minutes later, the boy returned to me with his brow furrowed. “How,” he asked me, “am I supposed to know which ones I’ll need?” My smile was wide as I asked him theatrically glancing up over my glasses from my stack of papers, “How am I supposed to know which ones you’ll need?”
“I hate poetry! It’s stupid!” Students used to say this to me, and no small number of my friends as well. Actually adults tend to more humbly say, “I don’t get poetry.” To this I always respond, “I can prove that’s not true in five seconds, if you’ll bear with me. Recite or sing one line of your favorite song.” Then, after a little more coaxing usually, they do so. “Oh, that’s a good one,” I’ll say with a little smile, when they’ve finished. “It’s also a poem, and you like it and understand it.”
Pace is the thing that’s tricky in retirement. How much do you want to do today? How little?
How fast should you go about it? Should you set your own deadlines, or should you just allow the rest of your life to be one long day, slowly moving if you move at all, listening to the wild, the ways of this new day?
I’ve been writing for a long, long time now, nearly every day since I was in my teens, and I still don’t really understand how it works. An idea will come to me, or a phrase, and I’ll quickly write it down. Ideas will sometimes lie dormant for years, before I find them again and try something out, but the phrases usually become something within a day or so. Where do these phrases come from, my memory? My genes? My soul? My spirit? The collective unconscious? God? Nature? Somewhere so mysterious that I will never know? Yes.
I happened upon this quote from Voltaire while contemplating the previous quote:
“ceux qui peuvent vous faire croire des absurdities peuvent vous faire commettre des atrocities.”
That is, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
As the hard core faithful of the previous President stormed the capitol on January 6, Voltaire must have been somewhere nodding sardonically. He was so right! True wisdom lives on long after the source has passed from this earth.
“Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”—Voltaire
That is, “The best is the enemy of the good.”
Lately in our political left milieu in America it seems to me that our fine idealists, especially the younger ones, are making enemies of those closer to the center, thus losing sight of what I think should be our goal: getting something done. Our progressives need to realize that President Biden is pushing as hard as he can to make changes for good in America. I want to applaud left wing idealists for being some of the hardest driving forces in that direction, but I also want to caution that it’s unlikely that in the next year or so, all the progressive goals will be attained, and that, when the changes towards the good do come, however incremental, let’s not batter those in the middle who have had to make the compromises for the greater good in order to bring about incremental change, as though they were and are the enemy.
I’m betting you’ve had this experience recently either via the internet or perhaps even in person. You’re talking, texting, emailing or what have-you with someone and suddenly something they are communicating to you, seems a little…well…strange. “Should I believe this person?” You think to yourself. Or is this person a bit off, a purveyor of conspiracy theories? Well, here’s my simple test: Ask this person if he or she believes the moon landings were faked. Then ask them if pro wrestling is real. If they say “Yes,” to either. You should have your answer.
When is the last time you sat down with everyone in your immediate family and had a meal?
Try it. It’s amazing what can happen.
Sometimes it’s so tempting to just start screaming! “Why doesn’t anybody understand that what I’m trying to do? Why doesn’t anybody get me? Why are we locked into this repetition of inanities and insanities? Why is nearly everyone either cynical or ignorant? Why can’t everyone just accept each other as human beings and try to move along in decency and altruism? Why does everything have to be so damned complicated?” It’s tempting, and sometimes a person can’t help but to give in to these kinds of thoughts, even say them out loud. But closely and calmly examined none of the above is anything but a half truth, and the world has plenty of light, though, admittedly, it can sometimes be hard to discern.
I was taking down an old blue bowl from the camp cupboard when it hit me. This bowl, and the even older dishes in that cupboard, had outlived my mother who bought them, or inherited them. What’s more, they will likely outlive me. Who then, 30, 50 years from now, will be filling them with cereal, soup, ice cream? Well, whoever you are or will be, I bet I know your relatives. Bon appetite!
When I was little, riding around in the family car with Dad, we used to make stops. There was always a candy bar in it, so it was good to be along. One of the stops was Foster’s Hardware, where Dad would inevitably get into a conversation with Sid. Those two could talk! When I was little I thought the joshing and anecdotes I only half understood would never end. Right now, I wish I could stand in that old store on Newberry Avenue and hear just one of those crazy, adroit, hilarious conversations again.
I’m slowly learning French. The last time I tried this it was 1974. My father had just died and all that year I was a terrible student: mean spirited, angry, obstinate. I like learning this new language now, or having it learn me. I’d just like to add, I’m sorry, Jenny B., my teacher back then, you were trying so hard, and I was terrible to you. If it makes you feel any better, after 30 plus years in education, I know exactly how you felt. C’est la vie.
My wife and I have a running gag: whenever one of us can’t remember some actor, actress, writer, politician or other public figure’s name, either Deb or I, whichever has done the forgetting, will smile at the other and say, “You know that guy that did that thing we like? Well, that’s him.”
Why did I come into this room?” If you don’t remember eventually, and nothing seems amiss, how important could it have been?
Watch out for nostalgia; it’s a trap. When you see the past in that golden glow, you should probably remember that things then were probably not quite so shiny as you remember them being. The world was the world then just as it is now. And even then, there were people talking about the good old days. What’s more, zeroing in on what was, takes your focus away from what is. It’s always now for better and worse. Don’t idealize. Don’t wish for what can’t be again, and may never have really been in the first place.
“…the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes…” In the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Shakespeare describes an evolved person being in the company of people whose unjust, and poisonous actions and attitudes towards him or her are accepted by said person with good humor, patience, and even empathy. No doubt these are the actions of an evolved person, but patience with such spurns brings on, at the very least, a lot of very real tension headaches and heartburn for anyone with such patience and endurance. Ask any good teacher. Ask any good parent. Ask any good liberal. Ask any good scientist. Ask any good person of faith.
In the English translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, the author describes two characters as being, “…linked by a kind of compliticy based on real facts that no one believed in…” When I find myself in certain company in America in 2021, with perhaps a friend or two nearby who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, this is how I often feel. But, it’s getting better.
I wake up from a fitful dream and wonder, “Why did I dream that?” Then sometimes, perhaps six months later I come to a moment of realization and say out loud, “Oh.” Sometimes someone else is standing right there and I get a funny look, so I say, “Oh, I just realized something.” Only those who truly love me can discern whether they should say, “What?” or whether they should just let it go.
Of course we remember words, lots of them, most of the time. But what if words remember us? How would they feel about how they’ve been used?
This existence we inhabit is not without severe trials for each and every one of us. Keep that in mind as you go. And keep your eyes on the light even when you’re in darkness. Light is coming your way. Light is always coming your way. Honest! I wouldn’t lie to you, ever.
Who wants to be a god? Days and nights with no misery, no depression, no despair, endless perfect life, forever, no laments, no back and forth, no contrast between contentment and sadness, robbed of all poignancy, all sweet sadness of life forever? No hard lessons learned. No parents passing. No children leaving home. Every Fall leaf losing its meaning? Deathless days and nights stretching out to infinity? No thanks.
Nobody learns anything by always winning.
I’m sitting by a frozen lake as I write this. But I’m not waiting for the ice to melt. There are plenty of things to do and see along the edges of any water.
The heart has gone out of our daily language. Where the metaphors used to be about flesh, bones, angels, farm animals, now they’re about components bits and bytes.
In every second is the answer. In every atom as well. In every smile. In every storm. In every sunrise. In every stone on every pile of stones. In the scent of every petal of every flower in every field of flowers or tiny window box. In every curse word and blessing you’ve ever heard. In every meal, good or bad, you’ve ever had. In every insignificant thought. In every tick of the clock, wag of a dog’s tail, grain of salt in a salt mine, sliver in your foot, letter in your name, and in all the letters of all the names that have ever been or ever will be. In every croak of every frog in a swamp containing half a million frogs, in every turn of your head, scratch of an itch, moment of wonder, boredom, anger, ecstasy, resignation. The answer is right in front of you all the time and for all time. Are you ready for it? Then, open your senses, all of them, and see what you find out.
Who is looking out through your eyes? Coming to understand that is the first step, and one of the last.
The surprising thing about wisdom, is that when you pass it on to others, you find out from them, a day, or a year, or ten years later, that it’s really true. That’s a genuine surprise.
By the time you’re ten, you’ve done over a thousand amazing things. By the time you’re twenty, you’ve forgotten most of them. By the time you’re forty you’ve forgotten the rest. By the time you turn sixty, you are well on the way to remembering them all again.
Time isn’t real. I’m not kidding or being flip. There is only one moment, and we’ve always been in it. So, be in this one moment. Look around and see all the connections. You have forever.
Keep on doing the right thing. Keep understanding that you’re not doing it for you. If somebody pats you on the back, count it as Grace. Then go back to doing the right thing. A better day is coming.
Grow up. Forgive yourself. Move on.
Free yourself. Say, “It’s my fault.” Then, make amends if you can. After that, grow up, forgive yourself, and move on.
Deliberate, hurtful lies are the hardest sins to forgive.
Learn as much as you can about everything. Then, drive everyone crazy with what you know. It’s our only hope.
What are you cooking up? It smells good.
The public world has become a freak show. Continue to stand by your convictions, and take action when necessary, but don’t go inside the tent, no matter what enticing things any barker says.
It isn’t worth it.
Politics is theatre. Really bad theatre.
The most honest and liberating thing any person can say to any other is, “I don’t know.”
For most of my life I have believed that whatever I was attempting at any given moment was impossible. And yet, I’ve been successful much of the time. I could have saved myself a lot of heartache.
If you wake up and suddenly think all your treasured beliefs are completely wrong, go find a sunrise.
You’ll discover differently.
Order is everywhere. You don’t believe me? Empty your mind and sit silently for one hour. You will.
My dog, Tom, is constantly in touch with simple truths: the train is coming; it’s time to eat; walks are fun; sleeping is good. Like most dogs, he’s an empath, and gets uneasy only when I introduce my nebulous feelings into his life.
Today, March 31, 2021, as I sit looking out the front window of my camp, the ice is still in and winter is coming and going. I skied yesterday, today I could rake leaves if I was of a mind to. And now snow is falling again with temperatures dipping into the 20’s. Spring in the U.P.
In the Spring Waterfowl return to northern lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams, as soon as there is the slightest stretch of open water. How do they know it’s there? I have no idea. That makes me happy.
As I write this it is Easter Week. Since my boyhood, Easter Week has been spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, even physically difficult and revelatory for me. The fact that I have had an on again off again relationship with the Catholic Church, never seems to affect this one way or the other. Sometimes reality simply is. In every sense of that word, on every level.
Moments of simple clarity are so rare that we call them by a miraculous name: revelations, as though to clearly understand even simple things were somehow supernatural.
Our souls are full of wrestling angels and demons, but not all are black or white; most are gray and as confused as we are.