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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Happy Birthday J!

A Winter Solstice Meditation

I write this on the Winter Solstice when the sun reaches its lowest point and darkness prevails over light.

For the past five years, on this day, I perform a simple ritual: I sit in quietude, light a candle, and read the words of Jesus.

Does that make me Christian or Catholic ? No more than reading Buddha’s teachings makes me a Buddhist. Does it matter?

It seems to me that walking away from a banquet because you do not like the way the table is set or disagree with the prescribed table manners makes you lose out on a wonderful meal; you throw out the baby with the bathwater and go hungry. That baby is Jesus’ message, now lost in the bustle of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays on the one hand, and on the other, co-opted and distorted by religious dogma into petrified historicity, or rarefied into divine balderdash, making his words as insubstantial and malnourishing as communion wafers. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that his message goes mostly unheeded.

My ritual is my way of finding a space to my own at the table, in a quiet corner, away from both the commercial din and the sorcery. Once there, I eat with my hands, sink my teeth into Jesus’ flesh, and suck the marrow of his wisdom. I require no intermediaries to partake in the banquet; no miracles or High-Priest authority; no translation necessary. His words, like a loaf of bread, are simple, yet all-nourishing.

A ritual is the enactment of a myth: a symbolic image or narrative of the possibilities of human experience. By participating in the myth, I am put in accord with that wisdom.

The Winter Solstice marks the day when to sun ends its southernmost decline. Tomorrow, it will turn back north and begin its ascending cycle making light prevail over darkness once again. That is why, on December 25, ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti: The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.

It never ceases to amaze me that, right around this time, the tiresome debate about the exact date of Jesus’ birth is renewed, further drowning his message under pointless calendrical calculations or by those who try to debunk the Nativity narrative by pointing at the presence of sheep at the manger claiming they would have been corralled and not left out on such a cold night in Bethlehem.

Again, does it matter?

By focusing on the factual, the symbolic meaning is lost and we deny ourselves its gifts.

I like to think of December 25 as the birth of what is possible in human experience; of the greater light we can kindle in ourselves to shine upon the world.

Among Jesus’ teachings, I am always drawn more strongly by this one:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This is the good news! That the highest peaks of human transformation are within our reach, and not in some remote place at some distant point in the future.

When some Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom would come, he answered: “God’s kingdom isn’t something you can see. There is no use saying, ‘Look! Here it is.’ or ‘Look! There it is.’ God’s kingdom is here with you.”

In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas be elaborates: “If those who lead you say: See, the kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: It is in the sea, then the fish will go before you. But the kingdom is within you.”

It is the same notion contained in the Sanskrit phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ occurring in the sacred Hindu Chandogya Upanishad (c. 600 BCE): ‘Thou Art That,’ meaning that the Self, in its original, pure, primordial state, is wholly or partially identifiable or identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the ground and origin of all phenomena. You’re it! basically. Or as Carl Sagan famously said: “We’re all stardust.”

The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi once said that an ordinary Christian won’t be satisfied unless he is told that God is somewhere far off in the heavens, not to be reached by us unaided. If he is told the simple truth, that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he is not satisfied, and will read complex and far-fetched meanings into it. Only mature minds can grasp the simple truth in all its nakedness.

After Jesus delivers that simple truth, he offers the keys to this inner realm: “change and become like little children.”

Spanish poet Antonio Machado put it this way: All your words, Jesus, were one word: “Wakeup!”

I take it as an invitation to return to my primordial state; back to the way I was before the blank slate of my essence was carved with the “thou shall’s” and “thou shalt not’s” of the world; back to the time I could take a boy by the hand and not find it unseemly; when neither race nor station dictated who I would play with; when I was quick to anger but quicker to forgive; full of passion and compassion; when I could cry without shame or compunction; when my days were eternal because my gaze apprehended only the present; when everything appeared new and I lived in a constant state of awareness and delight; when I did not understand money so simple things gave me joy; when I was trustful, accepting, open, unselfconscious, and had not lost my capacity for wonder.

The world and distorted reality we’ve built around ourselves often impede our way back into that realm by cloaking it under what I imagine as the dark veil of an unchanging Winter’s Solstice – the darkness of our prejudices, intolerance, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, and vanities. The sun will never ascend if we do not clear its path from all that junk.

A sensitive and honest-minded man, said writer Fernando Pessoa, if he’s concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life.

That’s the reason I light a candle during my ritual: to illume my way back. And that is why, on December 25, I will celebrate Jesus’s birthday.

And you, wherever you are, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and invite you to sit at the table and feast.


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Prison Break

I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!

At 54, I realized I was going to Hell.

The hell writer Paulo Coelho said is found twenty seconds before you die; when you look back and discover you did not dignify the miracle of existence with a life of purpose. Heaven, he added, is the realization that, while you erred, you gave it your all.

I had erred, yes, many times, and been wounded. But the wounds were sustained on a battlefield where I did not belong, wearing ill-fitting armor, and blazoning a coat of arms I had unwittingly assumed was mine. That’s why all my failures had a weird, unsatisfying aftertaste.

I had had enough. I was burned out without having been on fire. Did not want to voice the regrets common to those on their deathbed:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

“I wish I would’ve left myself be happier.”

“I wish I would’ve had the courage to express my true self.”

“I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.”

So I quit.

Not surprisingly, most of what I love about my life started then.

My decision was not entirely conscious. Had I given it much thought, I would have never done it. At my age, with little money, no safety net, and few possessions, it seemed reckless. But if I ever was to find my path, I had to set fire to my life and burn the bridges.

“Too late,” some said. “You’re too old.”

How illustrative, this attitude, of the woeful resignation men and women succumb to, wrote Henry Miller. What stays them, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved. Even to relinquish their chains seems like a sacrifice.

I was willing to pay the price for a taste of bliss…for a life more abundant. Did not want to be like those middle aged men John Steinbeck wrote about, who:

“…begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. I see so many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. Its bad theater as well as bad living.”

When my time’s up, I thought, I want to leave the stage as Greek writer Kazantzakis says we should, “not like scourged, tearful slaves, but like kings who rise from the table with no further wants, after having eaten and drunk to the full.”

I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free! is the epitaph etched on his tomb.

In ‘Report to Greco,’ the account of his life, his art, and spiritual quest, Kazantzakis said that a 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.

The only thing I was certain of when jumping into the void was that I longed to be a writer. I had wanted it since I was eight-years old and felt I had a knack for it. I learned from philosopher William James that I should trust my wants; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of my life and would lead me to issues entirely beyond my present powers of reckoning. He was right.

I also suspected the world would only get something of value from me at that crossing point Aristotle said is the place of our vocation – where our talents intersect with the needs of the world.

A few months into my new life, however, I was paralyzed, which gave way to fear, making me second-guess my decision. Something was holding me back.

On a long, solitary walk, I discovered what it was. I had walked away, yes, but was still shackled by my old chains: my old prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and identity myths to which I unwittingly subscribed.

I had to smash them first. Not an easy thing because I ended up naked and vulnerable as when first born. Not easy, but the only way I found to bring about a rebirth, without which, as Goethe warned, I would remain nothing more than another troubled guest on earth.

I am not yet totally free, like Kazantzakis. I still fear and hope; still a grub, not yet butterfly. But I now blissfully twist and curl inside my true chrysalis and can feel the budding of wings.

The world is a better place to live in, wrote Walter Lippmann, because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. The things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves. In such persons, mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways.

Lippman’s sentiment was echoed by a young writer, Owen Wilson, whose book, ‘The Outsider,’ was partly responsible for my ‘reckless’ decision. Man, he said, is potentially hero and genius; only inertia keeps him mediocre. The “self-surmounter” is never satisfied. He is cursed by a divine dissatisfaction choreographer Martha Graham described as “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”

I am no longer marching towards Hell, and now, for the first time in my life, I feel on fire, doing exactly what I believe I was meant to do.


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“Oh, the Good Old Days”

Aching for slow beauty to save us from our quick-quick life!

Tired of hearing old people pine for the good old days, frustrated, really, from sensing that I have somehow missed the boat, I decided to ask what they meant.

Aside from the predictable nostalgia for their carefree days of childhood, one answer topped their list:

SIMPLICITY: The good old days of civility, tight-knit communities, only 3-TV channels and 2-cylinder cars, the 30-minute newscast, rotary phones, human operators, physical maps, doctor house calls, limited choices of mates and breakfast cereal, little regulation and much self-reliance and self-responsibility.

Attempting to make our lives more convenient, free-up time, and expand our choices, it seemed from their leading answer and clarifying definitions that us “young ones” have made matters worse by transforming our world into a kind of giant, impersonal Rube Goldberg contraption, performing simple tasks (calling a friend, getting from point A-to-B, remedying a cold, choosing a partner or cereal) in convoluted, impersonal, and dizzying ways, often riddled with frustrating redundancies, and, in many cases (dating, entertainment), with so much to choose from, we end up tied up in a knot, unable to choose.

Rube Goldberg

I had to admit they had a point.

But what about all the free time we’ve gained thanks to our technological advances?

If that is so, why are most of you, “young ones,” so overwhelmed, harried, stressed and burnt out? Why, for instance, has the number of vacation days taken by the average American worker declined from twenty to sixteen in the last forty years? And if, in fact, you’ve gained free time through all your techno wizardry, it appears it’s been claimed by new and meaningless distractions…a tossing welter of irrelevance.

Ok…but! I pressed on, in valiant defense of our times…technology helps bring families, friends, and communities closer together.

(Phlegmy scoffs followed by huge eye rolls behind thick, smudged eyeglasses held together with duct tape).

Ok, not that then. But what about regulation? You can’t deny it helps curb abuse and blatant irresponsibility from others.

Aha…but the excess to which regulation has been taken has come at the steep price of self-reliance and self-responsibility…the loss of agency.

I can have a meal or book delivered in less time than it takes you to rinse your octogenarian dentures!

And you’ll eat your meal and read your book – if at all – in less time, and soon forget what you ate and most of what you read while suffering from heartburn.

I never get lost thanks to Google Maps!

Some of the most memorable adventures in our lives have occurred precisely because we got lost.

We have so much to choose from now.

And you never settle for anything.

We have gut-cleansing Kombucha, Mushroom Coffee, and Colored Toast! I bet you never had that in the “good-old-days,” huh? (mocking voice…finger doing air quotes).

What’s Kombucha?

By then, I felt like Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times,’ struggling to repair the Giant Machine.

Charlie Chaplin

It does feel that our world is evolving, not from simplicity to complexity, but to chaos, or entropy.

As explained by James Clear, entropy is the natural tendency of things to lose order. Sand castles get washed away. Weeds overtake gardens. Ancient ruins crumble. Cars begin to rust. People gradually age. The inevitable trend is for things to become less organized and more so over time. This is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the fundamental laws of our universe.

I decided to pose the same question to someone a bit ‘younger,’ my sixty-year-old brother:

“When you hear the phrase ‘Good Old Days,’ what comes immediately to mind?”

Before I reveal his answer, let me say that my brother’s nickname is ‘Turtle,’ not only because of his weathered countenance, but, especially, for his calm and plodding approach to life.

Here’s what he said after ruminating for a long time while sipping his signature Crown Royal whisky and puffing a fat cigar:

“Hmm…the good old days…

I’d say right now, this moment!

Ask me tomorrow and I’ll say the same thing.”

When in doubt, always ask a turtle.

wise turtle

My brother’s simple wisdom immediately brought to mind one of my favorite poems:

“MY HERO” by Billy Collins

Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,

the tortoise has stopped once again

by the roadside,

this time to stick out his neck

and nibble a bit of sweet grass,

unlike the previous time

when he was distracted

by a bee humming in the heart of a wildflower.

Faced with the invincible force of entropy, I am starting to sense that a growing number of us are aching for slow beauty to save us from our quickquick life! as poet Kapka Kassabova said – for that simple, soft fascination I’ve told you about before.

I guess it all boils down to how we spend our days and choose to live our lives.

While we cannot stop our sandcastles from being washed away, we can certainly dial down the chaos in our own private universe.

We have the agency to come between our madly distracted minds and our distractions, to get lost, and nibble on a bit of sweet grass.


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A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories

Harvesting positive experiences.

Of the many insights gained through writing my life’s story, the excess of unpleasant over pleasant memories has stood out like Al Sharpton would at a KKK rally or Trump as the guest of honor at a Cinco de Mayo fiesta in Tijuana. It has been such a striking, baffling, and irritating sore thumb, that I needed to find out why.

It’s not as if I grew up in Dickensian squalor or drought-stricken Ethiopia with a distended stomach and a permanent ribbon of flies on my lips. On its surface, anyone would call my life privileged.

So why does the number of unpleasant memories far outnumber the pleasant ones?

Survival Tactic

In their paper, ‘Bad is Stronger than Good,’ research psychologists at Case Western Reserve University and the Free University of Amsterdam suggest that survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good.

Put another way: it won’t matter how lovely the tall green grass swayed on the Savannah the day your best friend was mauled by a Saber-Toothed Tiger when you were out hunting together, but forget where it happened, and you might become its next meal.

‘Bad’ has a longer Shelf Life

A widely accepted account of the impact of life events was put forward by American psychologist Harry Helson and called adaptation level theory. In this view, the impact of substantial changes in life circumstances is temporary. Change produces strong reactions, but the circumstances that result from the change gradually cease to provoke a reaction and eventually are taken for granted.

Applying this theory to human happiness, psychologists P. Brickman and D.T. Campbell postulated a “hedonic treadmill” by which your long-term happiness will remain roughly constant regardless of what happens to you because the impact of both good and bad events will wear off over time.

In testing the hedonic treadmill, however, it emerged that bad events wear off more slowly than good events. Brickman and Campbell interviewed three groups of respondents: people who had won a lottery, people who had been paralyzed in an accident, and people who had not recently experienced any such major life event (the lottery wins and accidents had occurred about one year before the interview).

Confirming the hypothesis for positive events, the lottery winners did not report greater happiness than the two other groups. The research proposed that this result was due to habituation: The euphoria over the lottery win did not last, and the winners’ happiness levels quickly returned to what they had been before the lottery win. Ironically, the only lasting effect of winning the lottery appeared to be the bad ones, such as a reduction in enjoyment of ordinary pleasures.

No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favors. – Seneca

In contrast to the transitory euphoria of good fortune, the accident victims were much slower to adapt to their fate. They rated themselves as significantly less happy than participants in the control condition. The victims continued to compare their current situation with how their lives had been before the accident (unlike lottery winners, who did not seem to spend much time thinking how their lives had improved from the bygone days of relative poverty). Brickman et al. called this phenomenon the “nostalgia effect.”

The seeming implication of these findings is that adaptation-level effects are asymmetrical, consistent with the view that bad is stronger than good. After a short peak in happiness, we become accustomed to the new situation and are no more happy than we were before the improvement. After a serious misfortune, however, we adjust less quickly.

Put another way, you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.

The Stories We Remember and the Words We Choose

Returning at dusk from the hunt and settling around the campfire with your clan, the pleasant memory of the swaying Savannah grass, if recalled at all, will be perfunctorily described. But you will go to great length and in exquisite, emotion-wrenching detail when recounting the death of your best buddy. How helpless and pained you felt at seeing him try to fend-off the slashing cuts of the Saber-Tiger’s razor-sharp teeth; the harrowing screams which will forever haunt your sleep; the terror of watching the grass darken with all his blood.

In 1975, James R. Averill, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, constructed a Semantic Atlas of Emotional Concepts by an exhaustive compilation of 558 emotion words. When he had participants rate them, he found that there were one and one-half times as many negative terms as positive ones (i.e., 62% negative vs. 38% positive).

Spend five minutes writing down as many emotion words you can think of and you’ll probably arrive at a similar result.

Human recall for positive versus negative emotions was studied in 1990 by psychologists D.L. Thomas and E. Diener. They found that people tended to underestimate the frequency of positive experiences, but not negative ones, which is consistent with the view that the relative weakness of positive emotional experiences makes them more forgettable. Across two other studies people reported bad events over good events by about a four-to-one margin.

It may also be, however, that positive experiences are so much more frequent than negative ones and that the greater frequency accounts for the relative underestimation. How often do you recall being first in line at the cash register in your local supermarket versus all those times you waited behind the lady with the fat wad of discount coupons, or behind the old man wanting to rid himself of all the pennies he’s collected since World War II? The relevance of underestimating positive experiences will be made clear further on.

The inordinate amount of effort we expend on describing unpleasant memories is similar to the one we expend to change our moods. Research shows that people use many more techniques for escaping bad moods than for inducing good ones which is consistent with the hypothesis of the greater power of negative emotions.

Counterbalance

Dragging-out the pleasant memories of my childhood from the dark pit of memory often feels like looking for gold in a coal mine. Mostly, what I find are minute, scattered flecks, such as a smell, a flashing image, an emotion viscerally recalled. These I must then carry in my mind for a while until they begin to coalesce into a clearer, more complete memory. The task is arduous and time-consuming, and I know – and saddened to know – that many of what I am sure were wonderful experiences are now irremediably lost.

But what I can do – and have been doing and perfecting for the past five years – is prevent the gold of my present to suffer the same fate.

It began by writing down – almost daily – any positive moment or experience I had had in the recent past, along with three things for which I was grateful.

As I recorded these moments, I realized that the more detailed and vivid my descriptions were, the more lasting the memory. This exercise has made me realize how much we impoverish our lives by underestimating or taking for granted our positive experiences by considering them mundane and commonplace, “the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language” according to author John Cowper Powys.

In her book ‘On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation,’ Alexandra Horowitz says that to the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant, little is unseen.

By striving to recover my childhood capacity to see everything again for the first time, refusing to label a single one as “commonplace,” and adopting the habit of recording my positive moments in vivid language, I have not only begun to counterbalance all the oppressive weight of “bad” memories, but have been rewarded with two other precious insights:

  1. Any day I fail to recall a recent positive moment makes me realize, with great alarm, that I have lived without awareness, dishonoring the gift of life with callous inadvertence. This has made me more attentive to simple joys and pleasures enriching my life as a result.
  2. Being of an analytical bent, I categorized the 118 positive moments I have recorded to determine the type of experiences which had provoked an emotion strong and memorable enough to make me want to write them down. The result was stunning, inspiring, but not altogether surprising.

A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), making someone happy, or involving meraki, a word that modern Greeks often use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love — when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Many were moments when I cooked and shared a meal and stories with loved ones.

A second third have been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future – with all its wants and wishes – was totally annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ataraxia, a lucid state of robust equanimity characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. These usually occur out in Nature.

One tenth were moments when I celebrated the successes of others.

Close behind were times when I experienced “flow,” the mental state in which I performed an activity (writing usually), fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.

Moments when I displayed grit and discipline in tackling challenges comprised six percent of my positive experiences.

A similar proportion when I rewarded myself.

I was up to 97%, and money, fame, and meaningless thrills and distractions were conspicuously absent.

I discovered what truly brought me joy.

Remembering such a moment, author Henry Miller wrote:

“Christ, I was happy! But for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss, and if you have any sense you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it.”

Rather than kill myself, I now purposely seek out the experiences that I know bring me joy and hoard those positive memories in vivid language to ensure they never fade into oblivion.

Soft Fascination

More effective than Prozac or Xanax

There are days when you feel stretched to your breaking point. When nothing makes sense and nothing works out. It feels like being trapped in a snow globe full of sharp rocks being shaken by a brat. Yesterday was one of those days.

I knew it was bound to be bad the minute I woke up and stabbed my toe against the edge of the closet door. The pain was amplified by an email with the seventh rejection to my Memoir and the pre-dawn realization that my credit card debt is reaching its limit which means that, soon, I won’t be able to write full-time and be forced to find a ‘real’ job.

I tried adding my daily thousand-words to my second book, but nothing seemed good, nor worth anyone’s time, so I wasted the morning reading other people’s stuff which only helped heighten my sense of inadequacy.

Surfing for hours across the roiling pages of the Internet – my senses jarred by all the chatter, outrage, and flashing images inside this bleak, abstract landscape we call cyberspace – only added to my distress.

Dizzy and with a pounding headache, I reached for my antidote: the hundred pages of quotes and poetry fragments I’ve collected for ten years.

The poet, Robinson Jeffers saved the day:

“A little too abstract, a little too wise,

It is time for us to kiss the earth again,

It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,

Let the rich life run to the roots again.

(…)

I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers

In the ocean wind over the river boulders.

I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,

That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky.”

All this time, not once had I unglued my face from my laptop to contemplate the verdant scenery expanding in front of the screened porch in which I usually write in spring and summer. Beckoned by its peaceful countenance, I knew what I had to do.

Fortunate to be living temporarily in a house surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness, I closed my laptop and turned off my cell phone. Within twenty minutes, walking across the forest, I reached my favorite spot on the river, where it bends, almost at a ninety degree angle, bordered by a tall, sheer rock wall.

The river’s rush over a natural fall managed to deafen the overhead roar of jets, and the shrill and harrowing sounds of jackhammers, weed-whackers, and leaf-blowers with which humans blazon their dominion and relentless encroachment into the wild.

I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, waded across the other shore, and sat down, staring at the shaded deep pool carved by the river in front of me. Too cold for a swim, I thought. My clothes will get wet.

This time, writer GK Chesterton came to my rescue:

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood.”   

I slid into the chill water and felt an instant current of primordial excitement. Childlike, I floated with the flow staring up at the overhead canopy which gleamed in a variegated kaleidoscope of shades of green I had never seen before. Or perhaps seen, but never apprehended. The air was honeyed by the scent of wildflowers. After swimming a few short laps, I waded across a flatter section scanning the sandy and pebbled river bottom, my eyes attracted by shimmering golden glints of rock flakes. I lay down on a sunny patch of sand with my bare feet inside the water. I closed my eyes and, soon, felt soft, pecking nibbles. Tiny, silver fish were feeding off my skin. I laid back down and turned my head away from the overhead sun. Inches away was a damselfly with a drowsy, hinge-like motion of its gossamer wings.

I did not want to return to the madhouse. All my earlier, petty tribulations had been rinsed by a simple ablution and keen awareness in this small pocket of enchantment. Did not wish to read or write one more thing about the human condition; about flourishing, purpose, happiness, or despair. The answers were crystal out here: balance, harmony, quietude, zero-waste, moderation. Every living thing content with just being.

Not one who takes Prozac or Xanax, this has always been my therapy for my first-world laments, and current science endorses my remedy.

Stanford researchers recently scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they walked for ninety minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street in downtown Palo Alto. The nature walkers, but not the city walkers, showed decreased activity in the part of our brains tied to depressive rumination. The lead researcher believes that being outside in a pleasant environment takes us outside of ourselves. Nature, he says, may influence how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.

Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan argue that it’s the visual elements in natural environments—sunsets, streams, butterflies—that reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the nervous irritation of city life. “Soft fascination permits a more reflective mode,” wrote the Kaplans—and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors.

I headed back, wet, serene, and lighthearted. My predicament hadn’t changed, surely. The eighth rejection to my Memoir was waiting for me in my inbox. The debt had not vanished. But my outlook underwent a dramatic transformation. The perspective of my tribulations was altered by my soft fascination with river, rock-glimmer, wildflower, fish, and damselfly.

My thoughts no longer swarming like “mouthless mayflies darkening the sky,” I ended my day with a thousand words, which, while perhaps inadequate or mediocre, speak with the authentic voice of my sense of wonder.