Time out!

Let the phone and email go unanswered, the post and tweet ignored, the news unchecked, stocks untraded, the appointment missed, the meeting skipped. Let the mailman take the day off.

Abandoned Carrousel (lucas-sparks.com)
Image source: lucas-sparks.com

Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would just stop.

Wishing someone would make all stoplights turn red; throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of the madly-spinning carousel with its panting, sweat-lathered horses; someone to yell “Freeze!” inside the circus tent suspending twirling trapeze artists in mid-air, cut the steam off the calliope, lift the needle off the blaring phonograph, flip-off the world’s main breaker switch plunging humanity into quietude.

Just for a while.

Let the phone and email go unanswered, the post and tweet ignored, the news unchecked, stocks untraded, the appointment missed, the meeting skipped. Let the mailman take the day off.

Time out!

Just long enough for us to come together and figure out what the hell we’re doing.

After all, we do it to our kids.

“Go to your room and think about what you’ve done and don’t come out until you’ve found your ways and manners!”

Time out (Comstock - Getty Images)
Source: Comstock – Getty Images

It’s shameful, yet delightfully ironic, that kids are the ones now sending ‘adults’ to the corner.

Kids like fifteen year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, Jamie Margolin (17), founder of Zero Hour, thirteen year-old activist Alexandria Villasenor, co-founder of US Youth Climate Strike, Emma Gonzalez (19) and David Hogg (19), founders of the anti-gun violence group March for our Lives, etc.

What have you done?” “What are you doing?” seem the questions they are posing to the generation in charge.

Shut up! You’re too young to know any better. We must keep spinning the carousel. If it stops, we’ll be catapulted and smashed to bits!

Sssh the sea says

Sssh the small waves at the

Shore say sssh

Not so violent, not

So haughty, not

So remarkable

Sssh. — Rolf Jacobsen

Would we, tough? Would we really be smashed into bits once we’ve recovered from our addictions? The world wouldn’t stop spinning, would it? Just the grindstone grating us to anxious dust.

Three years ago, I stepped off the carousel and turned-in my badge certifying me as an inmate of the insane carnival and took a time out. I’m happy to report I have never been more whole.

I had felt trapped inside a bullet train racing at breakneck speed to a destination fuzzily defined by its conductors as “progress” while the friction of wheels against rails shot heated sparks scorching the landscape outside. I looked out the window and realized I was missing sunsets, cloudscapes, starlight, moonrises, dragonflies, the sea’s soundprint inside seashells…and my time was running out.

Sssh

Inside the train I kept hearing outrage, gunshots, screams, groans of despair, and hollow laughter. I saw burnt out grownups in endless shifts shoveling coal into the train’s insatiable furnace and children with terror in their eyes.

When I asked the train conductors to explain what exactly they meant by “progress,” they scoffed.

“Why, a better life, of course. You fool!”

When pressed for clarity, they said things like “growth, immortality, abundance, eternal happiness, immutability, and absolute power and control.”

I knew I had to step out.

Long had I bought-in to these stories. Actually contributed to their dizzying incantations, convinced that if we stopped spinning the tales, the skein would unravel.

It took me a while to detox and become centered.

When you spin in place a hundred times and suddenly stop, unless you’re a whirling dervish, it takes a while to regain your footing. You’re off-balance and disoriented, mostly guilt-ridden for not contributing coal to the furnace.

Immortality, Immutability, Eternal Happiness, Absolute Power and Control

Like a silkworm, I’ve been munching on the mulberry leaves of these insane notions trying to come up with better silk, such as “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” or “an organism at war with itself is doomed,” or “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” or, “what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” Truths spoken by Gandhi, Carl Sagan, Krishnamurti, and Jesus — the bees of our world, in epic battle against the locusts.

I’m writing my way into their hive, offering my talents to stop the bullet train before it’s too late.

Perhaps it is…

I confess there are days when I lose heart. Days when I just want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, lulled by the waves’ whispers, wait for Armageddon while enjoying what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet while the locusts finish it off.

What stops me are the children.

I do not wish to come out empty handed from my time out and face their opprobrium.

“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” asked poet Antonio Machado.

I want to answer Machado with something other than dead flowers, withered petals, yellow leaves, despair, death, and devastation.

My time out has allowed me to discover it is not so much a matter of writing alternative stories but simply harmonizing with the magnificent score written in the cosmos at the moment of the Big Bang fifteen billion years ago. We’re just playing off beat and out of tune.

We demand immutability from a Universe in a state of constant fluidity and change.

We deride and reject balance and pursue growth for the sake of growth which is the ideology of the cancer cell.

We consume way beyond our needs to distract ourselves from facing the gaping holes in our hearts.

We rail against decay and death, forgetting the Universe’s Second Law of Thermodynamics necessary for new life to emerge.

We forget we all came from stardust; that we all share the same constituent parts and then dare see diversity as ‘the Other.’

Inside the bullet-train, in self-imposed exile from Earth, we consider her not as a living organism that sustains us, but as a giant glittering mall, inexhaustible supermarket, and massive dump-ground for our waste.

In such disharmony, many still wonder why they remain so afraid, depressed, distressed, burned-out, insecure, and soul-starved.

But they keep shoveling coal into the furnace; spinning the carousel while seeking endless distractions and swallowing magic pills to prevent them from looking inside and out the window and realize what they’ve done and keep doing. Meanwhile, children gaze with terror in their eyes sensing the solid wall awaiting the train in the not-too-distant future and they can’t get out.

For now, it seems the Locusts are winning, but

shhh

listen carefully,

and you’ll hear the growing buzz of bees.

An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted, said playwright Arthur Miller.

The Age of the Locusts is almost over. But they won’t give up without an epic fight.

This is not a cosmic battle of Good vs Evil. Simply a clash of bad imagination vs one that speaks the language of sustainability, balance, harmony, serenity, tolerance, awe, wonder, and delight.

It is the language of bees, and I have now joined their legion.

My book, The Hero in You, is the nectar I intend to pass on to younger ones for them to turn into wax and honey to gum up the wheels of the bullet train until it comes to rest giving the world an urgent time out.

The Universe doesn’t give second chances.


Follow the Bees and receive a free treasure trove of letters containing the insight of some of the world’s greatest writers and thinkers with my recipes for applying their wisdom to your own life.

When life gives you lemons…

Astounding tales of resilience.

Things are not working out. This shit’s too hard. I’m giving up. The odds are stacked against me. Life’s not fair…

Writing ‘The Hero in You is beginning to feel like a conversation with myself. I now understand what Ursula Le Gwinn meant when saying that storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.

More than a conversation unspooling in story, it’s like an extended, revelatory life-coaching session; like having a one-on-one with Obi Wan Kenobi, the legendary Jedi Master in ‘Star Wars’ training young Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force.

It doesn’t feel like a book for just boys anymore but one with the potential to transform the lives of men and women; young and old alike. It’s certainly changing the life of an aspiring writer fast approaching sixty.

Take adversity for example…that bitter lemon of life.

I began the book four months ago. With still no income in sight, a small pension claimed by old debts, and credit cards maxing-out, it felt like one more reckless decision. Irresponsible! Especially in light of the slew of rejections to my Memoir assailing my inbox like a storm of jagged hailstones. After two years with little to show, starting another project seemed as futile as plowing the sea.

How about a ‘real’ job, Dad?” my daughters counseled.

I was smack inside the Inmost Cave; the edge between life and death found on every hero’s journey; the darkest hour where the hero must face his greatest fears. Think of Dorothy walking into Oz’ throne-room and facing the giant head of an angry old man surrounded by flames, smoke, and thunder; where the mighty Wizard says he’s prepared to grant Dorothy her wish but imposes seemingly impossible tests in hopes that she will desist.

I keep reminding myself I’ve been in worse financial situations before, and still here, now doing what I believe I was meant to all my life.

If this is not a real job, why does it feel so right?

J.K. Rowling was unemployed, divorced and raising a daughter on social security while writing the first Harry Potter novel. After Sidney Poitier’s first audition, the casting director instructed him to just stop wasting everyone’s time and “go be a dishwasher or something.” Poitier went on to win an Academy Award.

Sometimes in life, situations develop that only the half-crazy can get out of. — French philosopher La Rochefoucauld.

In a way, I am still inside the cave, quivering with my greatest fears: losing face with those I love — my two daughters and my partner — and the fear of a final deathblow to my lifelong dream of becoming an author stirring uncertainty of what I’d do if I fail. Add to the mix the fear of reaching the end of my life without meaningful impact…I do not want to be someone who ends up simply having visited the world.

Life’s bitter lemons…

More like first-world laments I’ve realized as I sift through hundreds of stories of real-life heroes for my book and finding astounding examples of ordinary people who turned much bitter ones into lemonade.

Some, literally, like Alexandra Scott who two days before her first birthday was diagnosed with cancer. When she was four, having just finished receiving experimental treatment at Connecticut’s Medical Center, she told her parents she wanted to set up a lemonade stand and give the money she raised to her doctors. That first stand raised $2,000.

Alexandra Scott

In the next four years, inspiring hundreds of supporters who set up lemonade stands throughout the country, ‘Alex’ raised a total of $1 million for childhood cancer research. She died at the age of eight, yet her cause lives on through the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.

I then discovered William Kamkwamba, the African boy who harnessed the wind to save his family and village from starvation.

William was born in Malawi, Africa. He was the only boy among six girls in his family living in a mud and brick shack with no electricity. He was a simple farmer in a country of poor farmers.

When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought. Within five months, all Malawians were starving to death. William’s family ate one meal per day. His father could not continue paying for his education so William dropped out of school.

“It was a future I could not accept,” William said.

Hungry all the time, with little education, poor English, and no computer or access to the internet, William spent months inside a rickety library pouring through outdated magazines and books learning all he could about physics and electricity. He dreamed of building a windmill to power a pump which would draw water from a well to irrigate their fields.

Boy who harnessed the wind

Armed with that knowledge, William scavenged through a nearby junkyard and finally convinced his father to surrender his only bicycle whose frame was needed to build the contraption. William eventually erected his windmill and saved the day.

Talk about bitter lemons turned into lifesaving lemonade!

What about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a frail and poor farming boy in 14th Century Japan?

Hideyoshi was short (about five feet tall), weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was butt ugly and unathletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him an ape-like appearance resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.

This “monkey” squeezed all the daunting lemons of his physical ‘limitations’ and ‘disadvantaged’ beginnings into practical wisdom which ultimately put an end to Japan’s Age of the Warring States and made him supreme leader!

He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.

Hideyoshi

Alexandra Scott, William Kamkwamba, and Hideyoshi are among the real-life heroes featured in my book as examples to young boys who might feel overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable odds to do something meaningful with their lives. I reassure them they do not need superpowers to break through the prison of their limitations. I then guide them — like Obi Wan — to tap the Life Forces they already possess to write their own hero story. It doesn’t have to be something extraordinary, I tell them…

“Helping a blind man cross the street because you have the power of vision is a heroic act. Helping a friend with his math homework because you’re good with numbers is the act of a hero. Cooking dinner for the homeless in your neighborhood because you love to cook is heroic. If you make just one positive difference, you’re a hero.”

Boy feeding homeless

My extensive research has also led me to author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, someone much closer to my — and every writer’s experience.

In his late thirties, armed police dragged Ngugi from his home and jailed him in Kenya’s Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison for having written a play critical of the government. While in prison, he wrote ‘Devil on the Cross’ on toilet paper.

“The paper we were given was not the soft kind we find on television,” he says. “It was a bit hard, a bit rough, so to speak, but very good writing material. It held the pen very well.”

0007_uc.nobelprof.xxxx.ia

A recipient of the Nonino International Prize for his work, Ngugi has also been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in literature. As for that elusive prize, Ngugi says he is more interested in what he calls “the Nobel of the Heart.”

If Ngugi was capable of squeezing such nasty lemons onto toilet paper and inspire the world with his noble work, what’s my excuse?

In Spanish (my mother tongue) we have a word for such work:

‘Ofrenda’ is work offered in gratitude, love, and service to others; work dedicated to a noble cause. That’s how I consider my work on The Hero in You.

Rightly shamed by all these ordinary heroes, I am done with my first-world laments!

While still in the cave, like Dorothy, I will defy my fears and will not desist. I will see this to the end.

Failure is an option, fear is not. — James Cameron

When overwhelmed by the stacks of books and publications I must research, I attack them with a Warrior’s sword and a Lover’s heart. I remind myself that, while strapped for cash, I have found purposeful work; that sweet spot Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world. Further, I am loved and am loved in return by three extraordinary women. I possess the wealth of kings. I ask for no more.

Finally, I’m committed to help as many young boys enter the path of authentic, generative manhood and won’t let them down. I consider this cause to be of supreme importance to the world.

Will my book be a hit? Will it make me money? Will I be famous? Wrong questions.

If I can stop one Heart from breaking

I shall not live in vain

If I can ease one Life the Aching

Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin

Unto his Nest again

I shall not live in Vain. — Emily Dickinson

“No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive,” wrote Ella Wheeler Wilcox. “Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity.”

Sweet are the fruits of adversity. — William Shakespeare

Dead tree with fruit

From now on, I promise to spare you my first-world laments and let my book inspire you.

Whether you support its cause or don’t, I am rewarded by believing its footprint will guide you on your own hero’s journey.


Inspired already? Then be a hero. Champion the book! CLICK HERE.

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Read the book’s version of lemons and lemonade.

How to become an Alpha Male using two cans

Great underdog stories

The following is part of a series of pieces included in ‘The Hero in You’: my book for boys (8–12) meant to guide them toward authentic, generative manhood.


(…continued from previous chapter)

Jane Goodall did not let her lack of knowledge of chimpanzees stop her from going to Africa to follow her dream. Once there, she used her imagination to study their behavior in a new way.

She started by doing something no one had ever done before. Instead of identifying the chimps with numbers, she gave them names based on their appearance or personality. For example, Jane gave the name of ‘David Greybeard’ to the chimpanzee who first approached her because he had a grey chin. Other names included Gigi, Mr. McGregor, Flo, Frodo, Goliath, and Mike.

It is the story of Goliath and Mike which reminds me of my early days at school.

jane Goodall

Chimpanzees live in groups of several adult males and females plus young of all ages. In every group there is always one adult male who is dominant. Scientists call him the ‘Alpha male’ — the biggest and strongest. You might call him a ‘tough guy’ or ‘Jock.’

When Jane studied the group, the alpha male was Goliath who intimidated all the other males with his size and strength, especially poor Mike, a much smaller chimpanzee, and one of the lowest ranking males. Mike would often sit all by himself (as I used to at my school’s playground) and get attacked by other males. He was usually the last one to get food and would only eat after all the other males had done so.

But then, something extraordinary happened.

One day, Mike walked over to Jane’s camp and took two large empty cans by their handles. Carrying those two cans, he walked over to the place he’d been before, close to the other chimps. He started rocking back and forth, at first only slightly, but then more and more vigorously. The other chimps noticed this and started to watch him carefully. Mike began to make hooting sounds, and, suddenly, charged towards the place where the other males were sitting, running fast and hitting the two cans in front of him. When he approached, the other males ran away from him.

Mike ran into the jungle and disappeared from sight, but in a few minutes, he came back, making a lot of noise and hitting the cans. Once again, he charged the other males and, once again, they ran away from him.

Then he made a big decision. Mike decided to confront Goliath who was sitting by himself. He ran towards him, hitting the cans and hooting so loud even Goliath got out of his way.

Male chimpanzees show their submission to their more powerful buddies by grunting and reaching out their hands. Mike’s magic trick with the cans convinced the others, except Goliath, of his superiority. At that moment, all the other male chimps came up to Mike, grunting and reaching out their hands, and then grooming him. Grooming involves removing dirt, sticks, leaves, dried skin, and bugs from the hair of another chimpanzee. The last male chimp to do so was David Greybeard, who, until then, was Goliath’s closest buddy. Only Goliath remained apart.

The match was now set for a final round: Mike vs. Goliath. Whoever won this epic showdown would become the alpha male. The final faceoff came one day after Goliath returned from patrol in the southern parts of the group’s territory.

When Goliath and Mike faced off, both tried to outdo each other with their displays. Mike kept the cans in motion by rolling them across the ground making lots of noise. Goliath used his strength, going after and beating up some of the younger chimps to show who was boss.

After Mike and Goliath were done with their wild shenanigans, they stopped, sat on the ground, and nervously eyed each other. Suddenly, Goliath walked slowly over to Mike and began to grunt and groom him. Mike enjoyed this for a while, then turned around and started grooming Goliath. Mike was now the undisputed alpha male of the group!

You should know that during the entire showdown, Mike and Goliath never touched or hit each other. Each tried to overcome the other just through intimidation, which basically means frightening someone until they surrender. A staring contest is a good example.

Mike overcame his limitations, not by going to the gym to get stronger, not by learning karate or kickboxing, but by using the strength he already had: the assertive powers of his brain and imagination.

I am not suggesting the next time you go to school, you carry two large empty cans and start hooting and hollering while banging and pushing the cans across the playground to get noticed. That’d be weird, and probably make you spend recess inside the Principal’s office. All I’m saying is that you need to discover your unique strengths and talents and use them to occupy your place in the world.

Mike could have done many other things: he could’ve tried to fight Goliath, but you and I know how that would’ve ended. Mike could’ve also tried to beat-up his buddies, but being the weakest in the group, that would’ve ended badly as well. Instead, Mike discovered something unique in himself and used it to his advantage.

And that, my dear boy, is the difference between being aggressive and being assertive; between being strong and being smart; between exercising your body or using your brain.

When you are assertive, like Mike, people will respect you. Maybe they’ll even remove dirt and bugs from your hair. When you are aggressive, like Goliath, people will fear you, but will not respect you. What would you rather be: respected or feared?

Assertiveness, or gentle fierceness, is speaking-up for what you need and want but always with respect…always in control of your emotions. We’ll talk more about this later.

In the meantime, let me tell you another “monkey story.”

This is from another one of my heroes. His name was Hideyoshi, and he was born in Japan in 1536 to a poor farming family. His story will teach you many priceless lessons, especially how to turn personal disadvantages into advantages…how to turn lemons into lemonade.

Hideyoshi

Hideyoshi was short, about five feet tall. He weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was really ugly and wasn’t athletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him the appearance of an ape resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.

He was the ‘Mike’ of the previous story.

Most people today would think there was no way someone like Hideyoshi could have succeeded in life.

They’d be wrong.

Hideyoshi grew up at a time when the only choices for a poor peasant to move ahead were to become a priest, or a warrior or samurai. It was the Age of the Warring States in Japan, a period of social upheaval and near-constant military conflict. It was a mess. If you live in the United States, imagine your state in constant war against your neighboring state. This period of unrest in Japan lasted more than a century.

The samurai were the warriors of premodern Japan. Samurai employed a range of weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and guns, but their main weapon and symbol was the sword. Samurai led their lives according to a set of rules, or ethic code, called bushido: the way of the warrior.

Hideyoshi was not only puny but clumsy at martial arts but he still dreamt of becoming a samurai. Eventually, he rose to the top, unified his country, and became its supreme ruler. He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.

How did he do it, and what can you learn from him?

(to be continued…)


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Follow the Hero in You

Danger!

Essential for survival

Sad boy behind wire mesh

“A young animal kept too long in a cage will not be able to survive in the wild. When you open the door, it will be afraid to go out; if it does go out, it won’t know what to do because the world has become unfamiliar, an alien place.” – From On the Wildness of Children, by Carol Black 


From sanitized playgrounds, to eerily quiet streets after school, to trigger warnings on college campuses designed to ‘protect’ our youth from words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense, we are raising a generation of children who won’t know what to do once released from their ‘safe’ cages into the real world.

No surprise 18-to 34 year olds are less likely to be living independently than they were in the depths of the Great Recession, or that many are choosing to isolate themselves in virtual worlds where they have greater control over outcomes.

“Child-rearing has gone from harm prevention to risk elimination,” says millennial author Malcolm Harris. “In the shadow of [the current] high-stakes rat-race, it’s no longer enough to graduate a kid from high school in one piece; if an American parent wants to give their child a chance at success, they can’t take any chances. In a reversal of the traditional ideas of childhood, it’s no longer a time to make mistakes; now it’s when bad choices have the biggest impact.”

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

What many scared, but otherwise well-intentioned parents don’t realize is that the world today is changing at a dizzying speed which will require adaptability and survival skills only those exposed to danger and uncertainty can develop.

Disruptive technologies, the likes of Airbnb, Uber, cryptocurrencies, 3-D printers, etc., are upending traditional industries at a breakneck pace. Today’s knowledge will most probably be obsolete in a decade. Survival will not be of the fittest but the ‘unfittest’: those who do not fit in or fill traditional boxes. The prize will be to those who imagine and create new boxes.

Such creativity is only nurtured by experimentation…by courageous trial and error. What is to give light must endure burning, said concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl.

Sheltered and coddled children grow up with little resilience, they give up before they try, are incapable of finding solutions to their own problems, and are not inventive or self-reliant.

Carol Black points out that an ‘uneducated’ person in the highlands of Papua New Guinea can recognize seventy species of birds by their songs. An ‘illiterate’ shaman in the Amazon can identify hundreds of medicinal plants. An Aboriginal person from Australia carries in his memory a map of the land, encoded in song, that extends for a thousand miles. But to know the world, you have to live in the world. 

Most children today can’t find their way back home from school without a GPS. They are no longer allowed to live in the world; not the real one at least. No wonder they’re scared of it, or unstimulated by it when compared to the variety and intensity of the virtual worlds they now inhabit.

But the real world cannot be controlled by a joystick or mousepad – it is ‘red in tooth and claw.’ You can’t pause life like a video game and there are no do-overs.

A few, like Caroline (5) and Leia Carrico (8), are fortunate their parents understand the value of exposing them to managed risk and danger. Having received wilderness survival training, they recently survived forty-four hours on their own after getting lost in a heavily-forested area in Humboldt County, CA.

“A free child outdoors will learn the flat stones the crayfish hide under, the still shady pools where the big trout rest, the rocky slopes where the wild berries grow. They will learn the patterns in the waves, which tree branches will bear their weight, which twigs will catch fire, which plants have thorns.” – Carol Black

“In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development,” says Joe Frost, an influential playground safety consultant. At the core of our safety obsession, adds Tim Gill, author of No Fear, is the idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation.

I give children more credit, and in my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I include this poem by the inimitable rascal and mystic Rumi:

Your old grandmother says,

“Maybe you shouldn’t go to school.

You look a little pale.”

Run when you hear that. A father’s stern slaps are better.

Your bodily soul wants comforting.

The severe father wants spiritual clarity.

He scolds, but eventually leads you into the open.

Pray for a tough instructor.

Rakiki hitting Simba

Encouraging and guiding them toward their own heroic journey, I present boys with the value of courage – halfway between timidity and recklessness. I tell them to take risks but with prudence, and to embrace discomfort to achieve mastery and to challenge their convictions.

I do not comfort but challenge them.

Parents who wish to continue sheltering their sons from the real world will do well to keep my ‘dangerous’ book away from them.

Read the companion piece ‘Awakening your Wild Man’: a message to Men, and for women who yearn for the return of the Fierce Gentleman (paywall).

Follow The Hero in You.

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Wisdom of the Stars – Episode III

What they teach us about death

“Although everything we love, can, and likely will be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and the only permanence we’ll ever know.” – Maria Popova

Maria’s words ring in my mind as I sit by my father’s bedside at the hospital after returning from California where I spent Christmas and New Year’s with my daughters. It was on the eve of the new year that I jotted down the first lessons from the stars.

Dad broke his neck before I left, and now lies helpless, fed through a tube, and breathing through an oozing hole in his trachea. Not the way he wanted his story to end; his life- force sputtering in a sterile room flooded with ghostly light, the stench of urine, and the bedeviling sound of monitors displaying the flattening line-graphs of his vitals.

I am glad the Universe foiled my early plan to move to Mexico, and, instead, cast me to his side where I have been for two years. Glad, because such twist of fate allowed me to know my father deeply and prompted me to capture a vivid snapshot of his unconventional life inside the amber of my Memoir.

In ancient Egypt, to be forgotten was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.

Like a town-crier, Dad has been predicting his death for longer than a decade. From the marks of agony and despair furrowing his countenance right now, I am certain there will be no escape this time.

A few years ago, in response to yet another email predicting his near demise and raging at the prospect, I told him to: “Rage, rage for sure, but not about your dying light. Rage against it not blazing as does a star during the final spasms of its annihilation, its self-devouring. Rouse that inner energy to exit the stage in one radiant burst…a luminous climax. Like a Supernova, there are surely some elements you can scatter as you implode.”

In Part One of this Series, I talk about the gifts bestowed by giant stars when they die in a Supernova explosion. The elements in your body, the billions of neurons in your brain firing your thoughts and imagination, all the life-beats of your heart – all the stuff which makes you, you – shaped by the atoms scattered during a giant star’s final act.

Your aims in life, the intensity of your desires, the might of your struggles, and the impact you have on those you encounter on your path will determine whether you blaze like a Supernova, shine like the Sun, or end up like a brown dwarf – halfway between a planet and a star – whose mass, or life-force, is insufficient to spark thermonuclear fusion.

Brown Dwarf

“Death should not concern us,” said Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. “Death is concerned only with our self and not with this world. The world never loses an atom; it is our self which suffers. Men wish for permanence and not perfection. They forget that the true meaning of living is outliving; it is ever growing out of itself.”

Play it safe, snug in your cocoon, and your life will follow the path of a brown dwarf. Dare to risk everything to fulfill your unique destiny and you’ll shine like a star, a giant one perhaps, even if you fail.

Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage. God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts, must become butterflies. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere that is filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks! – Nikos Kazantzakis


With a nauseating gurgle, a nurse draws brown gunk from my father’s trachea as I keep replaying his life which blazed like a candle lit at both ends until the age I am now, but with a dimmer spirit thereafter. What caused such diminishment, such ebbing of the flame? I wonder. Rather than defying the First Cause, it’s as if he had made a pact with it to stop overdrawing his bow for fear it would break. Perhaps the frenzy of his early years swirling in the chaos of manic-depression had exhausted him and made him seek solace, ensconced for three decades in the quietude surrounding his property tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, there to live the remainder of his life undisturbed, released from the messy and often distressing entanglements to which a human life is subject.

While I willingly accept the inevitable price paid with the currency of anxiety, stress, heartache, and ultimate loss for remaining entwined with the world and the people I love, I have no problem with anyone wanting to live a quiet, simple life. In fact, I am on this path myself, seeking that sweet spot between being in this world, but sufficiently removed from it to avoid being drowned by the currents of its meaningless agitation. In other words, in this world, but not of it.

Ancient Chinese culture revered the yinshi, the recluse, who chose to leave the world behind to live more simply. “The tradition,” says philosopher Alain de Botton, “began in the 4th century AD, when a high-ranking government official named Tao Yuanming surrendered his position at court and moved to the countryside to farm the land, make wine, and write.”

Yuanming explains why:

It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains.
Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap.
Waking up, thirty years had gone.
The caged bird wants the old trees and air.
Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.
I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor.
Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden…
Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage,
Now I can get back again to Nature.

Tao Yuanming

Like a flying fish, Tao Yuanming leapt out of safe waters and entered a more ethereal atmosphere. Yet, despite living the life of a recluse, he left behind his poems, gifting us with a renewed sense of wonder and enchantment with the natural world.

Most of us will never be Superstars like Yuanming, or Christ or Buddha; giants whose bursts of creative and purifying light still shine on us today. But I see no reason why we can’t emulate our neighboring star, the Sun, choosing a smaller arena on which to pour the gifts of our unique talents; bending our bow to the breaking point for a cause in which we believe, and shedding joy, warmth, light and love to the living beings in our immediate orbit. It does not have to be something spectacular to be meaningful; a poem, a mended heart, or restored patch of Earth will do.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain. – Emily Dickinson

As I see Dad’s haunted and fearful glance fixed on the white wall of his hospital room, Dickinson’s poem reminds me of the time I visited him in New England as he and his wife scouted the area for their permanent move. He had booked two rooms at a shabby roadside motel, and on one of those early, cold winter mornings, I heard a knock on my door. At its threshold, Dad balanced a pink cardboard box on one hand and held a steaming cup on the other. “I brought you donuts and coffee,” he said, as he walked in.

Years later, I came upon a poem by Robert Hayden whose last stanza echoes in my mind every time I recall the tender memory:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

To most, my father’s donut-and-coffee gesture might not sound extraordinary, but given his austere nature and meager displays of affection, the light and warmth he brought into my room that morning touched me to the core and still brings tears to my eyes when recalled. He became the Sun, and his offering will remain like those radiant vestiges Maria speaks about; permanently mine, never forgotten.

Equally touched were the lives of his grandchildren, leaving behind these indelible soulprints evoked by memory and rendered in their voices:

“You’re the only grandpa I ever had in my life but the only one I ever needed. You taught me how to fish and possess the coolest man cave I have ever come across.”

jewfish1

“Catching my first fish together which we later skinned and cooked, spending countless hours mesmerized by all the trinkets in your dungeon, the walks with you, whether on a late winter afternoon or summer day…such memories only ever remain so perfectly clear when they have meant something truly special to your life.”

Api intellectual curiosity

You fostered my intellectual curiosity and love of a good yarn. I can’t tell you where I’d be without these two qualities, but I know my life would be much smaller.”

“I like to think I get my sense of adventure from you.”

“I think back to the stories you told me about being in the army and how you used to eat light bulbs and put soap under your feet to make yourself pass out. To me, you are and always will be Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry, John Wayne, Han Solo, and every other action hero, adventurer, and explorer.”

Api Sense of Adventure Jungle

“It is difficult to place into words the impact you have had on me. Through good and bad there has always been an adventure! Adventure of pretending to trek through the jungle or explore the deserts of New Mexico. For any kid, it would have been just another day, but it was you and your imagination that helped transport me to some of the most cherished memories I have.”

Api stardust

“You taught me to spot birds, about forests and streams, knives, and kindling fire with nothing but flint. Your stories made my imagination whirl, from carving ‘Pinocchio’ with broken glass shards, to catching monkeys with coconut shells down in Panama. In my boyish mind, you were the embodiment of a dream boyhood. Part pirate, part cowboy, part rock-star, part soldier, part grandfather. You were tough as nails, dressed the part, and encouraged an unquenchable curiosity (if not a bit of rebellion) which made my heart and imagination soar.”

Api and girls

Alex Haley was right in saying grandparents sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.

I place a cold, wet cloth on Dad’s forehead, slide the thin covers of his hospital bed up to his shoulders, hold his hand, and watch him fall asleep.

Once his light is out, I will be next in line.

“Just as a book is bounded by its covers, by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death,” wrote philosopher Stephen Cave. “You can only know the moments in between; the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.

We are on this Earth but briefly, I mumble, as I turn off the overhead light and walk out. There really is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion.


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Why write?

I had to travel forty thousand years back in time to find out

Boy's Imagination from Katie Coppack PicsArt
Art by Sona @sona75 on PicsArt

As my manuscripts harvest more and more rejections, my posts go unread, my Patreon supporter-count remains stuck, my credit cards max-out, and Rose, manager of TJ Maxx, telling me she can’t hire me because I am overqualified and don’t have reliable transportation, I couldn’t be asking myself this question at a better time.

What impulse wakes me at five each morning to rush to the page with the excitement of a young boy on Christmas Day? There are no presents under the tree. At least not in the material sense.

Why go on then?

I guess for the same reason one of our earliest ancestors felt compelled to crawl into a cave in Monte Castillo, Spain, and, in a veil of darkness, stenciled his handprint on one of its walls as if simply wanting to say: I am! I exist!

Chauvet cave handprint

Thirty-thousand years later, writer Jack London echoed this long-distance greeting:

About me are great natural forces— colossal menaces, Titans of destruction, unsentimental monsters that have less concern for me than I have for the grain of sand I crush under my foot. In the maze and chaos of these vast and draughty Titans, it is for me to thread my precarious way. Here is the sea, the wind, and the wave. Here are the seas, the winds and the waves of all the world. Here is the ferocious environment. And here is difficult adjustment, the achievement of which is delight to the small quivering vanity that is I.

I am so made.

The ultimate word is ‘I Like.’ It lies beneath philosophy and is twined about the heart of life. When philosophy has maundered ponderously for a month, telling the individual what he must do, the individual says, in an instant: ‘I Like!’ and does something else. It is ‘I Like’ that makes the drunkard drink and the martyr wear a hair shirt; that makes one man a reveler and another man an anchorite; that makes one man pursue fame, another gold, another love, and another God.

Philosophy is very often a man’s way of explaining his own I LIKE.

“A man’s wants are to be trusted.” said American philosopher and psychologist William James. “Even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.”

This extravagant feeling of delight in art, this innate human need to imagine, create and understand, is the reason another artist, forty thousand years ago, spent months carving The Lion Man, the oldest representation of an imaginary being ever discovered.

Lion Man2
Image credit: MUEHLEIS YAM/LAD Esslingen

Set free by his community to imagine and create instead of joining his brothers on the hunt, the artist’s “I LIKE” impulse began weaving the human story, trying to make sense of our existence — our birth, origins, loves, joys, sufferings, spiritual longings and death — and bound us, through beauty, into a common culture and destiny.

Art, like prayer, is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts. — Kafka

The gifts of the artist are like the gifts of the bread maker. One nourishes the soul, our body the other. Both essential, as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.

The poet is not a little god. He is not picked out by a mystical destiny in preference to those who follow other crafts and professions. I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colors and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And, if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of a community, the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind’s products: bread, truth, wine, dreams.

Through the yeast of my writing, I seek to heal wounds, dry tears, replenish the fount of love, delight, and joy, and report on the goodness and beauty that surrounds us. If I manage to do this, even for just one person, I will have fulfilled my humble labor.

When everything else fails; when neither stenciled handprints, Lion Men, or bread metaphors fail to inspire me to write, I imagine myself commuting to work and wasting my talent inside a stuffy cubicle doing something I don’t like.

Death by cubicle

Instead, I get to spend all day as a child on a beach, combing seaweed and sand for seashells and seaglass, building word sandcastles, not once checking the clock hoping time had wings, and ending my long, extravagant day with more energy and enthusiasm than when I started.

Sounds to me like a worthwhile occupation.


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Shudder!

Then turn anger into action

It struck me with the blunt force of a battering ram at the dawn of a new year.

I had spent the previous evening observing the stars and rose early, newly energized by the lessons I’d distilled from the universe.

After an agonizing month’s lull, I was ready to write again. But what? The first two volumes of my Memoir lay dead amid the stacks of unread or rejected manuscripts towering on the desks of over one hundred literary agents. Writing the third and fourth one seemed pointless, for now.

Yet dark, I tiptoed to the kitchen to brew coffee. Not a stir inside my daughter’s farmhouse nestled in California’s wine country. Even Hank and Norman, her two cats, and her dogs, Benji and Clover, lay asleep.

Can’t give up! I told myself. Not after all you’ve sacrificed. Remember the wisdom of the stars: The more urgent the call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Ram through it!

Back in November, I wrote a series of articles about my writing process. In the third installment, I said I used what I know, to write toward what I want to know, believing it shed light on all the darkness blighting our world.

But is it enough?

At critical moments in history, aren’t artists supposed to cease picking lint from their navels or entertaining crowds, and throw themselves into the world’s bloody arena, there to wage war with their pens and help remedy some of the things that make them shudder?

Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder. — Leon Kass

I sat at the kitchen table and opened my laptop.

When I’m stumped, I pore over my treasure trove of quotes and poems I’ve collected over a decade. Stuff which makes my soul stir…clarion calls to my inner-warrior.

As the sun crested over the hills, I stumbled upon this, written by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler: “A man of genius is primarily a man of supreme usefulness.”

It struck me with shattering force.

For the past two years, temporarily encamped at my father’s house tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, I’ve been researching the issue of masculinity. I’ve traced some of the world’s most brutal atrocities back to men who suffered major trauma when young. I’ve raised my voice against mass shootings, calling attention to the fact that most have been perpetrated by young men who were also wounded as children. I’ve connected the scourge of climate change to men enthralled with the myth of progress and driven by the imperative to transcend nature.

These things make me shudder.

But is it enough? I repeated the question on that brightening New Year’s morning.

What if instead of casting my unconventional ideas out in cyberspace hoping to catch the attention of those adults with the power to effect change, I spoke directly to young boys? Boys who are growing up in a time when traditional roles for men are shrinking; with a purpose void, as said Warren Farrell and John Gray in ‘The Boy Crisis.’ Boys who instead of useful guidance, are presented with confusing, and often toxic images of masculinity and with false promises and false heroes.

The battle cry that awoke my inner-warrior was sounded by abolitionist Frederick Douglass who said it is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.

If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. — African Proverb

Many villages are burning now.

I imagined myself an elder of a primal tribe tasked with initiating young boys into true, nurturing, and fruitful men. Pictured myself at a campfire huddled with a group of these future men — eyes hopeful, ears eager —  listening attentively as I spoke.

The world needs you,” I’d first tell them.

patreonavatar
Art by Johnathan Reiner

As the rising sun warmed the dew-clad vines and stirred Hank, Norman, Benji, and Clover awake, I began to write The Hero in You, thrilled with the idea that my message, directly addressed to our disoriented boys, might just be enough to prevent one mass shooting, one great calamity, or begin to heal our planet.

As a writer, I cannot think of a better use for my time and talent.

To my surprise, just two days after launching the book’s Facebook page, more than a hundred people rallied in support.

I’m done shuddering. It’s time for action!


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