while sitting in a bar or was it a restaurant? yes, and it was Italian because he was eating the linguini con vongole Billy Collins my favorite poet you know, the poet laureate said that death is the magnetic north of poetry he said this to me while he was sipping his Campari and soda at his table and i was eating my sandwich at my table half a world away and i took the opportunity to disagree with him rather vehemently if you had asked me a number of years ago, I would have told you that fear is the magnetic north of poetry or fast-forward a few years after that and it would have been desperation and a few years after that loneliness or isolation or a year later, that winter is the magnetic north of poetry and i may find myself in agreement with Mr. Collins a few years hence maybe five or ten or twenty who's to say? i may tip my glass to him and agree that death is the magnetic north of poetry but i can't help but believe that right here, right now in this time and place in this car on this couch in this bed that the truth is that love love love is the magnetic north of poetry
For New Year’s Eve, my partner surprised me with a delicious dinner at our favorite restaurant, followed by a romantic stay in a boutique hotel near downtown Tulsa. It is a wonderful old place – the rooms are small but charming, there’s a well-appointed staircase leading from the first floor to the second, and if you’re a drinker, there’s a cozy little bar just off the lobby area.
As we were getting ready to call it a night (at 9:30PM, because neither of us are party animals that felt the need to stay up until midnight to ring in the new year), I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and get ready for bed. It was then that I noticed that the toilet paper was hung incorrectly, so that it would feed underneath the roll, rather than over the top as God intended. I quickly flipped the roll over so that it was now installed properly, feeding over the top of the roll. Feeling I had done my civic duty for the day, I retired back to the bedroom area and we both quickly fell asleep.
The following morning, after checking out, we went to a local café to have breakfast. Over coffee, while waiting for our food to arrive, my partner took my hands from across the table, looked deep into my eyes, and said, “You passed the IQ test.”
Puzzled, I asked her what she meant.
“After we checked into our room, I went to use the bathroom, and noticed that the toilet paper was hung the wrong way. You know – so that it came out from behind the roll, rather than from over the top. For a moment, I considered fixing it, but then I became curious how you’d react, if at all, so I left it be. When I got up in the morning to use the bathroom, I was pleasantly surprised to see that you’d not only noticed it, but fixed it. So, you passed the test.”
We both had a good laugh over that, but it really struck me. You can take all the compatibility tests in the world, you can say all the right words and make all the romantic gestures, but it really is little things that confirm for you, time and again, that you’ve found “the one.”
up and up and up.
There are days when the words flow freely There are days when the well is dry There are times when I am full of fire There are times when I am cold There are instances of love and grace Beautiful sunrises and sunsets There are instances of disappointment Tiny pinpricks of bitter loss But there has never been a day In the past three hundred sixty-five When I haven’t known Precisely where we stand Always going Always growing Always exploring Always moving forward Up and up and up Able to see the past for what it was Able to dream of the future for what it could be Able to see the now for precisely what it is Alive to the restorative power of caring of being of allowing of space of time of lust of love.
As we approach the New Year, I become more mindful of what I want to accomplish in the coming year. In past years, that has taken the form of specific, physical goals. Publish a book. Write and record an album of original music. Learn to code. I’ve accomplished all of these, and more, with varying degrees of success.
This coming year, 2023, I have decided to take a different tack. I will have one overarching goal, and while it has the potential to manifest into a series of physical goals, it is primarily psychological/emotional in nature.
I have spent most, if not all, of my 58 years operating in one of two modes.
The first mode is to pursue happiness and pleasure. Unfortunately, it has taken me 58 years to realize how self-defeating this is. As Mark Manson points out so eloquently, “The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience; and paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.” In a nutshell, what Manson is saying here is that the pursuit of happiness does two things: First, it denies the fundamental truth of reality, which is that life is a series of painful experiences; and second, it creates a feedback loop of never being satisfied, as we constantly strive for the next big thing, be it a faster car, a newer phone, a better paying job, or a more fulfilling relationship. Newer and bigger and shinier is not always better.
The second mode is to just allow things to happen to me, and make the best out of each situation. The problem with this way of living is that I become an inactive participant, a disinterested viewer, in my own life. By accepting what happens to me at face value, by going with the flow and never questioning the motivations or eventual outcomes, I am actively choosing to be an NPC in my own game. Having the mindset that I have no control over what the universe does, and the best I can do is to try to make the best of each situation, abdicates my own free will in favor of a universe that does not really give a shit about me or anyone else. It is defeatist in the extreme.
There is a third alternative, one that not only takes into account the reality of living in this world, but also accounts for the fact that the universe does not really care one way or the other if I am happy or not.
The reality is that true happiness, true contentment, true joy comes not from having or obtaining the thing itself, but from overcoming the struggles to get the thing. The secret to true, lasting happiness lies not in the accomplishment, but rather in the obstacles that were overcome along the way.
Our social media-driven, über-capitalist society bombards us with not only visions of how we should define success, but also with visions of others whom appear to have cracked the code and are now “living their best life.” I speak from experience here – I currently have a horribly debilitating TikTok addiction, and scattered liberally amongst the videos of stand-up comedians and guitar primers and dad jokes, I am bombarded on a daily basis with videos that subtly (and sometimes, not so subtly) seek to make me jealous of someone else’s good fortune. Never mind that 99% of these videos are fake or staged; the seed has been planted, and my own desires are the fertile ground in which those seeds sprout to full bloom at an alarming rate.
And so, in response to all of this, the question I will be asking myself going forward, the question that will guide me through 2023, and hopefully beyond, is this: What am I willing to struggle and fight for? What is it that is so meaningful to me that I am willing to face the discomfort of confrontation and the fear of failure? Rather than ask, “What if?” I will ask, “Why not?”
After 58 years, it is well past time that I refuse to be a side character in my own story, that I stop being a bit player in my own life, and that I take a stand for that which I believe will make me truly happy. I will no longer be an inactive participant; I will, in fact, face the discomfort and struggles and pain, have the difficult conversations, and make the hard decisions.
To be true to myself, I owe myself that much, at least.
The Genre of Life
I have been obsessed with two thoughts over the last few days, and I suspect they’re related somehow.
The first is the Buddhist (and philosophical) idea that the “self” – that part of our mental existence that identifies as “me” – is a construct that is flexible, malleable, and holds no real meaning in the physical world beyond that which we assign it.
To be more specific, the Buddhist idea of Anattā states that there is no permanent “self,” and is largely used as a strategy to practice non-attachment by recognizing that nothing is permanent, everything is in flux and largely beyond our individual control.
Believing that the “self” doesn’t exist can simultaneously be freeing and crippling – I have the freedom to be whomever I wish to be in any given moment, but I am denied the comfort of truly being someone or something concrete. While it helps in the quest to not become attached to the physical things of this world, it can be debilitating sometimes to not truly know who you are.
The second is a discussion I happened upon concerning movie and TV tropes, and how characters in certain types of movies and TV shows tended to act in a certain way despite all common sense, just to further the plot or storyline. The quote was something like, “a character cannot be reasonably expected to know what genre they are in.”
This idea struck me and has stuck with me, because I am one who actively and willingly engages in the suspension of disbelief while watching a show or movie, right up until the point that a character acts in a non-sensical way. I had never stopped to consider that the character doesn’t know what I know, specifically the genre of the story I am watching. So no, I would never go down into the basement to check on an odd noise if I knew I was in a horror movie, but I have gone down to the basement to check on odd noises in my real, non-horror-movie life. Had I suspected I was actually in a horror movie, I would never have acted so rashly.
The differences between these two scenarios is very obvious. In the fictionalized world of entertainment – even shows that purport to be based on true stories – the genre is very evident. Some genres even have “true” in their titles – “true crime podcasts” springs immediately to mind. In “real” life, however, we are left with a hodge-podge of different genres, all occurring simultaneously. They overlap to the point where you cannot tell where the “action/adventure” stops and the “romantic comedy” begins.
More importantly, it often leads to frustration. We want our lives to be like a romantic comedy, or an action/adventure flick, or any of a thousand other options. And when it doesn’t happen, we feel that we’re missing something, that there is something wrong with our lives.
This is where non-attachment comes in. The freedom to choose, and the realization that things happen and we will be much better off mentally and emotionally if we just accept that some things happen and we have no control over the outcomes, is a welcome relief. We are free to act in such a way that causes no harm, and we let the chips fall where they may. We accept responsibility for our actions and their effect on the outcome, and learn from our mistakes.
The truth is that our lives are not twenty-two minute sitcoms, or two hour action movies. Our lives defy categorization, genre-ification.
We are who we are. Nothing more and nothing less.
I’ve spent a lot of time – a LOT of time – over the past couple of years “working on myself” in order to mitigate feelings of resentment and anger, resolve feelings of loneliness and depression, and come to terms with who I really am as a person. This involved both in-person therapy and extensive reading. I’ve consumed everything from the early Greek philosophers to Sartre; from early stories about Guatama Buddha to the most recent writings of Thich Nhat Hahn; and from the most basic, condescending self-help books to the wonderful books and videos of Dan Harris, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg.
I’ve adopted a daily meditation practice. I’ve attempted to eating healthier, with mixed results. I exercise regularly – some weeks more regularly than others. I’ve tried to cultivate healthier, more loving relationships. I’ve tried to see the big picture more, and to not let minor setbacks affect my general outlook on life – again, with mixed results.
But none of that has had as deeply focused, deeply profound an effect on me as three little words sent to me by my health & wellness coach (and best friend) this past week. She sent me these three words as a matter of course during one of our frequent email exchanges, and the simplicity of the phrase instantly struck me to my core. It spoke to me on the most basic, primal level possible. It peeled back all of the layers of self-help, self-modulation, and self-flagellation and revealed to me a basic truth to effective relationship building, both with myself and with everyone around me.
You are you.
There it was, in three little words – the perfect summation of everything I’ve read, everything I’ve listened to, everything I’ve tried to incorporate into my relationships over the past two-plus years.
On a personal level, we all strive to accept who we are – we try to change the things we don’t like about ourselves while simultaneously accentuating those aspects of our lives and personalities that bring the best, most positive response from the people with which we are interacting. It’s an often delicate, often frustrating dance with ourselves as we continue to attempt to define throughout our lives just who we are as a person. We adopt and adapt to so many different roles throughout our lives – daughter or son, student, friend, lover, wife or husband or significant other, mother or father, aunt or uncle, loyal employee, boss, believer or non-believer, follower, leader. The list is seemingly endless, and we try to shoehorn all of these roles (and more) into one self-identity, often succeeding but just as often failing.
On a more social level, it is convenient and time-effective for us to label our friends and family with one generic label so that we know how to interact with them, and we often use the exact same labels for them as we do for ourselves. This lets us know how to interact with someone, based largely on how we’d want to be treated in the same role. How we interact with our mother or father differs from how we interact with our co-workers, or partners, or acquaintances. And once we assign someone a label, it gets increasingly more difficult to reassign them to a different role the longer we know them.
But it is never that cut-and-dried, never that simplistic, and we do ourselves and our friends and loved ones a great disservice by not being able to cut through all of this surface level bullshit and accept that fact that each of us is a multi-faceted individual, with multiple (and often conflicting) wants, needs, and desires. We are not one-size-fits-all, and the internal role we adopt often changes from day to day, from week to week, from year to year.
I am not just a son, a father, a partner, an employee, a writer, a musician – I am all of these things simultaneously, and so much more. And you are no different than I am – you are not one aspect of your personality, you are all aspects at the same time. You are everything, everywhere, all at once.
I challenge you to adopt this way of looking at yourself and the world around you – for an hour, or for a day, or for a week, or for as long as it takes you to realize that life is a rich tapestry of colors and conflicts and experiences, a messy tableau of incongruence.
The next time you are ready to beat yourself up for some mistake you’ve made, the next time you are ready to fly off the handle at someone for some wrong committed against you (real or imagined), the next time you feel that sadness or anger or confusion welling up in your breast, try to pause and remember that we’re all in this together, and that we are all individuals just trying to do the best we can.
Take a deep breath or two, and think or say to yourself, “Yay! You are you!” And be thankful for the experience of being with yourself and/or with others, of being able to live in this moment in this time and place, and of being able to see the situation for what it truly is – an opportunity for growth, for acceptance, for understanding. An opportunity for enlightenment – not the pie-in-the-sky enlightenment of so many different religions, but true enlightenment, in the sense of being able to see something a little more clearly than you did before.
And know that the next time we interact, I will be thankful for the fact that you are who you are – that you are you.
I don't recall if I ever told you how the sunrise reminds me of you as it breaks through the clouds signaling a new start signaling a new day just as you are the start of something wonderful the dawning of a new day as it warms the brisk morning air waking the songbirds who sing to their lovers just as I am awakened by beauty and seduction, and grace as it shines into the darkness illuminating hidden corners returning color to the world just as we illuminate each other one coloring the other but in this very moment as I write these words I realize that all along I have had it wrong for it is not that the sunrise reminds me of you but rather that you are my sunrise
Growing up in a relatively strict, but by no means dogmatic, religious household, I was raised to follow and respect various rituals. We attended church on Sunday morning and Sunday evening, as well as Wednesday night. There were youth groups and youth retreats and summer jobs at youth camps.
In addition, there was the ritual of school – lessons and tests and homework and after-school activities, five or six days a week.
When I joined the Air Force, almost a year out of high school, the rituals shifted but became more prevalent. Inspections and marching and even more classroom time, followed by active duty assignments that required pre- and post-activites, as well as active participation during.
As I entered my 30’s, I begun to shun anything that smacked of ‘ritual.’ I became, almost overnight, a student of the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants school of living life. I was still punctual for appointments, still a dutiful employee that would show up early and leave late, still a doting husband and father (to varying degrees, depending on which ex-wife or child you ask). But making plans was something I had no taste for, no interest in.
I became very much a go-with-the-flow partner and friend, always happy to be along for the ride, but rarely engaged in making plans myself.
Don’t get me wrong; nobody would consider me a “free spirit” or anything like that. I like to have a plan in place, and follow it as closely as possible. I just dreaded the work of having to come up with a plan myself. I much preferred having others do that dirty work for me.
However, now that I am well into my 50’s, I am learning to appreciate, and even love, more structure. Over the last couple of years, the importance of (secular) rituals has begun to resonate with me again.
It’s been said that in order for a ritual to truly take hold, you have to repeat it for anywhere from three weeks to two months, depending on which scientific study you’re reading. The best illustration I’ve seen of this is from the author Sarah Bakewell, who compares the process of learning a new habit to digging ditches in your brain that allows the thoughts and habits to flow freely and without effort, as rain water drains from a field into a river.
Some have been easier than others. At the insistence of both my son and my girlfriend, I have quit drinking coffee and switched to black tea in the mornings. I’ve noticed no ill effects from the switch, and my stomach seems to appreciate the loss of the acidic quality of the dark French roast that I so loved.
More complicated is my relationship with the meditation practice I began nearly a year ago. That continues to grow in fits and spurts; I’ll go a week or two with my daily practice, then slack off for a few days until I realize that I’ve become tense again and need to realign my perspective.
As the weather has begun to warm, my current favorite (begun at the end of last week, and by no means a ritual yet) is to spend an hour on the back porch first thing in the morning, listening to the birds, completing my daily Duolingo lessons, and reading. I find it to be very calming for me personally, and both the language learning and book reading feed my intellectual needs quite nicely.
Rituals, it turns out, are not such a bad thing after all. They are just another tool to help me navigate the daily grind.
I breathe in and know that I am breathing in I think and know that I am thinking I hear and know that I am hearing I breathe out and know that I am breathing out I taste and know that I am tasting I listen and know that I am listening I feel and know that I am feeling I breathe in and know that I am breathing in I eat and know that I am eating I touch and know that I am touching I drink and know that I am drinking I breathe out and know that I am breathing out I breathe in and know that I am breathing in I am distracted and know that I am distracted I breathe out and know that I am breathing out I begin again and know that I am beginning again
Parles-tu quelque chose?
I’ve been thinking a lot about languages lately.
Looking back over the last few years, I can divide my interests and efforts into generalized, annualized categories:
2017 – my Finding My Roots phase
2018 – my Making Music phase
2019 – my Writing A Book phase
2020 – my Writing A Book Of Poetry phase
2021 – my Math And Philosophy phase
This year – actually, it started at the end of 2021 – I began delving into languages. My obsession with French philosophy in the second half of 2021 lead me to want to be able to read certainly philosophy books by Camus and Sartre and de Beauvoir in the original French. I dusted off my Duolingo account from early 2018 (where I’d been learning Spanish as a result of my ancestral search) and started the French language track.
Then, when a close friend of mine told me she might have a chance to visit Italy at the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023, I convinced her to start learning Italian on Duolingo, and promised I’d support her in her efforts. So, now the two of us are imparando a parlare italiano even as I continue to aprendere à lire le français in my spare time.
As I’ve worked a bit ahead of her in Italian, and this isn’t my first language-learning rodeo, I have been trying to give her tips to help her internalize some of the lessons we’re learning in Duo. And as I’ve been engaged in this process, a thought struck me.
For French, it’s important (to me) to really grasp the written language fully, in order to be able to read the literary works I’ve set my sights on. So while vocabulary is very important, being able to accurately conjugate verbs, use the correct pronouns, and agree the possessive pronouns with the object of the sentence are all necessary in order to fully grasp the language.
To be certain, I won’t be there by the end of this year, or even the end of next year. This is a language project that will extend well beyond Duolingo and the YouTube videos I watch every day. I can see a point in my near future where I’ll require the assistance of a tutor of some sort in order to reach the level of French fluency I believe I’ll need.
For Italian, though, it seems to me that our goal should be more about being able to communicate – the technicalities of the written language aren’t as important as being able to express thoughts, needs, desires, etc. So, agreement is not so important, especially when native speakers (of both languages) tend to slur words together – and not just due to the French liason!
As long as we know the basics – Voglio… (I want…), vorrei… (I would like…, much more polite and respectful), hai… (do you have…?), dov’è… (where is…?), and a wide assortment of vocabulary words for different foods, beverages, and places, she should be more than prepared to spend a few days in the beautiful north of Italy.
So, I’ve modified my approach for each language. En français, I am primarily focused on getting the grammar down and mastering sentence structure and various literary devices. In italiano, my focus is on vocabulary and being able to form structurally sound sentences that would make some sort of sense when spoken to a native speaker.
So, here’s to 2022 – my Foreign Languages phase.
c’est comme ça.
tu as beaucoup souffert, comme nous tous, et je prends ce que tu as à donner, gracieusement et avec gratitude. pleinement conscient que je ne suis pas le seul, mais plutôt celui en ce moment. j'ai été à ta place, où tu en es dans la vie, alors, j'accepte pleinement mon rôle dans votre vie comme votre rebond. c'est comme ça.
sentir les roses.
je suis à nouveau sur quelque chose de nouveau et je me dépêche de le faire fonctionner quand je devrais prendre mon temps Rome n'a pas été construite en un jour mais me voilà avec mon marteau et une poignée de clous j'essaie de construire le Colisée quand je devrais m'arrêter pour sentir les roses mais je m'arrête pour penser à ce que tu viens de dire et prends-le à cœur je pas confondre vitesse et précipitation la construction continue à son rythme en son temps et je m'arrêterai pour sentir les roses
En aglais (In English):
I'm onto something new again and I hurry to make it work when I should take my time Rome wasn't built in a day but here I am with my hammer and a handful of nails I try to build the Colosseum when I should stop to smell the roses but I stop to think about what you just said and take it to heart I do not confuse speed and haste construction continues at its own pace and I'll stop to smell the roses