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.


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Read the book’s version of lemons and lemonade.

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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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, Colin 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 my eighty-seven year old father and his wife what they meant.

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


Read the companion piece: ‘A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories

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