Where do we come from?

When our individual stories are rightly embedded within a vaster narrative and deep mystery, we might comprehend that our role and purpose is to ensure we don’t spoil it with our arrogance, rapacity, dogmas, and petty fears, aims, and lamentations.

Genealogy2 (www.libguides.uccs.edu)
Image source: libguides.uccs.edu

I mean besides genealogy, ethnicity, culture, or nation. Farther back I mean…way back…all the way back to the beginning of space and time.

If we don’t know where we come from, warned author Terry Pratchett, then we don’t know where we are, and if we don’t know where we are, we don’t know where we’re going.

A quick glance at the current state of the world tells me we haven’t a clue.

The phrase ‘hark back’ was used in hunting to describe the act of returning along a path to recover a lost scent. I like to imagine what the world would be like if our “once-upon-a-time” stories harkened back 13 Billion years to the moment of the Big Bang.

Might we recover our lost scent?

Would a visceral understanding that we’re all stardust feeding off starlight help us develop a universal sense of kinship with all forms of life?

Might knowing we only arrived on stage but a few seconds ago in cosmic time deflate our human hubris?

Would we properly humble and then be rapt by awe and wonder if we allowed the fact to sink-in that there are more stars than grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth?

Would our anxious, plundering rapacity cease if everyone knew that our planet is a living organism that creates and sustains life and that our species was doing just fine as nomadic hunter-gatherers for 99% of the time we’ve been on stage?

If we worked on harmonizing with the fundamental laws written 13 Billion years ago instead of trying to force the Universe to conform to our designs, might we not usher-in a golden age?

If we understood, for instance, that the heat and light of stars is only possible by the implacable resistance imposed on their desire for exuberant expression by the force of Gravity, would we continue cursing when encountering resistance to ours?

Death would not seem like an unfounded rumor if we knew it was woven in the cosmic fabric with the thread of entropy from day-one. No longer, then, would outrage or dismay be our default reactions to decay and disorder, but calm acceptance and mature resignation.

“All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even part of science testify to the unwearing effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.” – John Gray

Our cherished preeminence would crumble with just a cursory understanding of the ‘Many-Worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics. ‘The Web of Life’ would finally acquire meaning when learning about the enchanting entanglement that occurs between subatomic particles separated by billions of light-years of space.

We’d surrender our insistence on immutability once we appreciate the fluid nature of the stellar story in which we find ourselves. You want nothing to change? Show me stasis in nature and you will have shown me a frozen or dead system. If you suffer from insomnia, try reading a novel where nothing changes.

Realizing how improbable our presence is on Earth; the many accidents and near-misses, the coincidences and lucky breaks that preceded our arrival, would we ever curse our fate or bemoan our existence? Would we dare utter the phrase ‘Sunday night blues’?

Allowing ourselves to be stunned by the fact that every star, snowflake, seashell, tree, flower…each and every one of us is one-of-a-kind; an inimitable entity in the unfolding story of the Universe, would we continue struggling to become someone else?

Knowing that the ethics of moderation, prudence, bravery, and reciprocal altruism are encoded in our behavior as in all animals, would we continue searching for moral guidance in dusty libraries, yoga retreats, therapy couches, pews, stone tablets, or up in the heavens?

We might develop a healthy skepticism of our vaunted rationality knowing that the frontal lobe of our brain is of recent occurrence in the evolution of our species and that we had no trouble feeding ourselves and navigating the world before then. This realization would encourage us to reconnect with our bodies, our senses and instincts, and repair the rift we’ve caused between ourselves and the natural world.

A little too abstract, a little too wise,

It is time to kiss the earth again,

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

(…)

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 mayflies darkening the sky. – Robinson Jeffers

When our individual stories are rightly embedded within this vaster narrative and deep mystery, we might comprehend that our role and purpose is to ensure we don’t spoil it with our arrogance, rapacity, dogmas, and petty fears, aims, and lamentations.

Knowing that there is no one like us among 7.53 Billion humans should be enough to divert us from debilitating and fruitless emulation, rouse us from apathy and conformism, from spiritless cowardice and escapism, from selfishness and greed, and make us stake our unique claim and contribute to the magnificent symphony which began before space and before time.

“Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.” – Carl Sagan

As it is, we are but sorry violins discarded in the moldy attic of our past. With strings slack, broken tuning pegs and cracked bouts, we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize, so can’t play our once rightful part within the concert hall of the Cosmos. When we insist, it is shamefully obvious we’ve forgotten the musical score, so we play off beat and out of tune. With humanistic conceit, we willfully ignore that should we vanish tomorrow, the concert hall would remain open and the show would go on.

It’s time to relearn the score.

Let’s retrace our steps along the path and recover our scent before it’s too late. The Universe will be glad to be rid of us if we don’t.


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Time out!

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

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

Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would just stop.

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

Just for a while.

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

Time out!

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

After all, we do it to our kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sssh the sea says

Sssh the small waves at the

Shore say sssh

Not so violent, not

So haughty, not

So remarkable

Sssh. — Rolf Jacobsen

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

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

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

Sssh

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

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

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

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

I knew I had to step out.

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

It took me a while to detox and become centered.

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

Immortality, Immutability, Eternal Happiness, Absolute Power and Control

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

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

Perhaps it is…

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

What stops me are the children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, it seems the Locusts are winning, but

shhh

listen carefully,

and you’ll hear the growing buzz of bees.

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

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

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

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

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

The Universe doesn’t give second chances.


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

When life gives you lemons…

Astounding tales of resilience.

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

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

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

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

Take adversity for example…that bitter lemon of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life’s bitter lemons…

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

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

Alexandra Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy who harnessed the wind

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

Talk about bitter lemons turned into lifesaving lemonade!

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

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

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

He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.

Hideyoshi

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

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

Boy feeding homeless

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

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

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

0007_uc.nobelprof.xxxx.ia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I can stop one Heart from breaking

I shall not live in vain

If I can ease one Life the Aching

Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin

Unto his Nest again

I shall not live in Vain. — Emily Dickinson

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

Sweet are the fruits of adversity. — William Shakespeare

Dead tree with fruit

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

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


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

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Read the book’s version of lemons and lemonade.

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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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.

Hunger Artists

The Curse and Blessing of Dissatisfaction

Reaching for Stars.png

“And the world will be better for this. That one man scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star.” – Miguel de Cervantes

In Chapter 11 of Theo’s ongoing journey, while visiting his brother in Florida, he wonders:

“As I consider my brother’s two houses, two boats, his devoted wife, three wonderful children, and his comfortable life enveloped in tropical balm, I wonder, with a slight degree of frustration, why it has fallen on me to be so restless and dissatisfied…always asking myself: Is this it?

The poet Stephen Dunn has a term for people like me: ‘Hunger Artists’ he calls us, “all going forward because the food they ate tasted wrong and the world was sad.” But I’m beginning to sense that moving forward is not enough. Finding better-tasting food to bring joy back to the world should be the purpose of any quest.”

The poem to which he refers reads:

“In spite of their lack of humor

I love Thoreau and Jesus, Marx

Malcom X. I love their obstinate courage,

Hunger Artists all, going forward

Because the food they ate

Tasted wrong, and the world was sad.”

“All the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms. No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.” – Walter Lippmann

Theo appears consumed by that “divine dissatisfaction” dancer and choreographer Martha Graham spoke about – “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”

Is it madness?

Or is it the only path available when you sense that the world is mad?

“Much Madness is divinest Sense –

To a discerning Eye –

Much Sense – the starkest Madness –

’Tis the Majority

In this, as all, prevail –

Assent – and you are sane –

Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –

And handled with a Chain.” – Emily Dickinson

Or nailed to a cross…or forced to kill yourself by drinking hemlock.

Like author E.B. White, who once said he held one share in the corporate earth and was uneasy about its management, Theo considers the scorecard:

From the year 1500 to 2000:

– Human population has increased 14-fold.

– Production 240-fold.

– Energy consumption 115-fold.

Impressive! But…

as author Yuval Harari asked after presenting those figures in his book ‘Homo Sapiens’: are we happier as a result?

“Did the wealth humankind accumulate over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave?”

 

 

If the answer is not a resounding and categorical “YES!”, what’s the point?

Theo is in the process of turning over his share – his membership card to the world – and is walking away.

But away where? What for?

He considers the legacy of other Hunger Artists:

“After Jesus, the Catholic Church, the Crusades, the Inquisition, pedophiles.

After Buddha, unbridled capitalism, sweatshops, call-centers, pollution, anomie – a consuming greed in both India (its cradle) and in China.

What about Socrates’ Greece: near financial collapse, unemployment, despair.

Thoreau’s Walden?: despoiled planet, life diminished.”

The world does not seem to want to listen, as I wrote in ‘Off with Her Head!’

We don’t want to hear:

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – Jesus

Or

“I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we will live simply and wisely.” – Thoreau

Or

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” – Socrates

Or Buddha’s second truth: Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.

We have capitulated, in order to fit in.” Theo recalls his brother’s earlier words as they sit under a clear, starry sky.

Theo wants to “fit out”, and midway in his journey, he is still struggling to rid himself from the suffocating clutch of all the beliefs he’s unwittingly assumed.

“Mine,” he wrote in his First Letter to his crew, “is a spiritual journey, in which I intend to question all the conventions of our modern world – all the ideologies, myths, and illusions that shape our understanding of the world – and think everything anew, as if for the first time: What is Happiness? What is Love? Why Death? What’s the meaning of our short presence on this Earth? How can we live with greater joy, purpose, and presence? I am headed towards a new orientation to life, if you will.”

Some have branded his journey as “escapism”.

To which his response is to quote Henry Miller:

“The real escapist is the man who adapts himself to a world he does not subscribe to.”

Godspeed Theo! Stay hungry, and bring us better tasting food.


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