Starting over…

starting over - original art by Duane Toops

Some cycles are helpful. Some are important. Some are simply self-destructive. From the outside looking in it can be easy to assess which is which, but when you’re caught in the incessant restlessness of constantly “pushing”, the insidious can seem inconspicuous. Sometimes it’s easy to mistake the cycle of self-delusion for self-determination, and we think that maybe if we stick a spoon into a light socket instead of a fork, this time will be different.

Every morning I get up early. The dull ache in my head, hiding just behind my eyes, tells me it’s too early. But I get up anyway. I meditate, I caffeinate, and I write, or, at least, I try too.

Sometimes the words meet me at my desk. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference, but I am always here; working, waiting, hoping something will happen. I call it my morning ritual. It is my ritual of beginning; my spiritual practice of starting the day, because “starting” is, itself, a spiritual practice. Every morning is a rite of passage; every sound of the alarm is a trial by fire, a test of strength, and I need rituals. I need the firm constancy of their anchoring, especially at the start of the day when I am at my most unsteady. Rituals give me a stable solidity that I can grip; an unassailable hand to aid in the daily act of holding on.

Some mornings it feels like I’m just searching for a good opening line; a sure place to stand and start. Sometimes I just don’t know where to begin. Beginnings are almost always difficult. Endings are often easier than we imagine, because it’s not that difficult to tell when, where, and how a story stops. Conclusions can often come on their own. The middle isn’t always hard to manage either, that’s where the story happens. Often the task feels like little more than transcription; recounting the chronological details of unfolding events in a sensical and sequential order.

But, beginnings are hard. Beginnings are hard because because beginning is hard. Beginning is hard because starting is hard. Starting is hard because starting is always starting-over. No slate is ever really clean. No beginning is ever really new. We start over each day in the shadow of yesterday’s triumphs and travesties, and that’s really hard.

We hold on to our past failures. We allow them to continually lurch over us because we feel that if they are not at the forefront of our thoughts then we will forget. And, we fear our forgetfulness will condemn us to repeating them.

For a lot of us, life feels like a vast and ever-widening collection of moments that we cannot change; a collage of profound instances in which we should have known better; an amassed assortment of words and deeds that we have either said or done that can never be taken back, unsaid, or undone. But, the tired weight of the scars, themselves, is burden enough without having to shoulder all the fucked up shame and judgmental allegations as well. Maybe we really should just let that shit go, especially when we consider that the trophy case of our previous accomplishments and past glories aren’t helpful either.

There’s nothing wrong with relishing what we once achieved, but ultimately that, too, is excessive baggage weighing us down, taking up space, and leaving little to no room for anything new. When we cling too closely to our victories we crystallize our understanding of ourselves into an idealized reflection of something that never really existed. Here, not only can our greatest successes stand in the way of our starting-over, but they can also sour the sweetness of anything that fails to live up to the imagined glory of who and what we once were.

Ta-nehisi Coates says that “Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point.” Perhaps, neither are our shortcomings. Perhaps they never have been. “Perhaps,” as he goes on to say, “struggle is all we have have” and thus, “we must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all”. Such an understanding should not be confused for apathy, despondency, or despair. Instead, according to Coates, “These are the preferences of the universe, itself; verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.” Beginning, and beginning again. Starting, and then starting-over.

There are few things that we have overcome that will truly prepare us for that which is still to be overcome. There is almost nothing that can break us to the point of not being able carry on. We are always recovering; always actively healing. We are never through with the work of recovery; healing is never at an end. And, perhaps that’s why beginnings are so difficult because there is never one beginning but many. The number of our days is the precise number of times that we will have to begin again and again and again. Each and every moment, in fact, is a new beginning.

In my own particular way I believe in rebirth. Not because I’m convinced that some literal or metaphysical part of who we are stops just shy of deaths door only to turn around and re-enter some new cycle of existence. I believe in rebirth  because I believe that each passing moment mourns the loss of the person we were and each new arising moment welcomes the arrival of who we can now become.

Maybe the  battle is the victory. Maybe the fighting is the triumph. Maybe the striving is the success. Maybe the “win” is not at the finish line, but when we find the will to cross the starting line, and especially when we find the courage to continue crossing it again, and again, and again, and again…

Between success and fiasco…

between success and failure

I’ve got a fever. That’s probably the worst possible way to start a blog post in the midst of a global pandemic.  I suppose it’d be like announcing that your lymph-nodes were strangely swollen during the Bubonic Plague. For the record, I don’t have a literal fever. I’m speaking metaphorically. It’s a figurative fever, much like the one had by Christopher Walken in his obsessive and relentless desire for “more cowbell” However, regardless of my undying respect for Mr. Walken, the only prescription for my fever is not the increased intensity and predominance of a particular percussive instrument. Instead the only cure for my feverishness is more books.

If what they say is true, if reading is, indeed, fundamental, then I’m fairly certain that I manage to put the “mental” in fundamental. I experience a singular kind of twitchiness whenever I got too long without being near or around books. I keep 1-2 books in my bag; another 1-2 on my nightstand, a stack on my desk, and 1 or 2 more on my couch and living room coffee table. I listen to audiobooks in the car, and throughout the day at work, and I keep the Kindle app on my phone loaded up with a few eBooks at all times. At any given moment I’m keeping 6-8 books in regular rotation.

I don’t know if there’s a support group for that, but perhaps there should be? But, if there was, I would probably have to admit I have a problem before I could join, and that’s where things really fall apart. Besides that sounds way too peopley for me.

One of the books I keep at the ready for when I have a few minutes to spare for a quick reading fix is E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble With Being Born. It’s a wonderfully incisive and insightful book of snarky and cynical aphorisms, reflecting a kind of philosophical pessimism that, to me, is as warm and as comforting as a blanket right out of the dryer. Some days it feels like Cioran prophetically wrote this book in anticipation of my birth. Hey, we all have our vices. Clear your search history before you judge mine.

In one passage, that I’m sure Cioran specifically directed at me, he writes that “For the victim of anxiety, there is no difference between success and fiasco. His reaction to the one is the same as to the other: both trouble him equally.”

I live in near constant fear of failure, but in all honesty I approach success with equal trepidation. The lows are often lower than I’m prepared for, but the highs are almost never as triumphant as I expect. My losses live in the foreground of all I see, and my wins are pale and anemic by comparison. At best my wins go largely, if not completely, unacknowledged, and at worst are rarely recognized as wins at all, and instead are usually just seen as near losses. The deck is almost never stacked in my favor. In fact, it’s actively stacked against me, and I’m the one doing all the goddamn stacking.

I can actually feel psychiatrists salivating over the severity of my self-sabotaging tendencies, and it’s creepy…stop it.

My immense and intrinsic need for a goal is second only to my need to read. I don’t know how to live without a goal. I don’t know how to exist without an ambition. And, the only thing worse than failing to accomplish a goal is actually achieving it, because….well…then what.

The only thing that makes me twitch more than not having a book is not having something to work towards.
I’ve learned to push. I’ve learned to strive, to work hard, and to work harder still, but I’ve never learned to simply “be”. I don’t even know how to wrap my head around the concept without my palms getting sweaty, but I’m trying. In the mean time, at least there’s books.

What if we tried?

what if

What if we saw the mutual reciprocity that resides between the heavens and our hearts? And, what if we tried?

It’s subtle at first but so unavoidably apparent once we stop long enough to look closely.

What if we recognized that the energy igniting the truth that burns in the depths of who we are, is the same force and fire that lights the stars?

It isn’t hard to see if we just pay attention.

What if we pulled our heart-strings taunt across the sanctity of the safe place at our center and sang out long and hard?

It’s only hard at first, and it gets easier every time.

What if when we stop withholding, the universe stops withholding too?

It’s most often the things that we hold in that end up holding us back.

What if we, ourselves, are that part of the cosmos that expresses it’s deepest truths?

After all, Carl Sagan said that “we are made of star stuff”, and it is true.

What if every doubt, every question, every apprehension that wonders at the premise: “what if I can’t?”, simultaneously opens us up to the possibility of “What if I can?”

Luminous joy is just as likely as catastrophic dark, and the dark doesn’t last forever. The light always returns to carry us home.

What if we go all in on everything we do?

We will be more doggedly haunted by the things we failed to do, than by the things we failed at.

What if we open our hearts dangerously wide, so wide and so uncomfortably open that it scares the shit out of us?

What if it breaks us? But, more importantly, “what if” it doesn’t?…

What if we tried?

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“Here” is where the hurt lives…

here is where the hurt lives

If he walked, he discovered, he did not have to think…when he thought, his mind went to places he could not control, places that made him feel uncomfortable.

– Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Sometimes I have the luxury of ‘knowing’ exactly why a particular piece of writing grabs my attention, but sometimes, like this time, its just a feeling, a feeling that permeates below the surface of my conscious churning.

For example, there’s a line in John Green‘s book Turtles All the Way Down, that I’ve been wrestling with for months now. This is how it happens for me. Somewhere in the constancy of my reading, some unanticipated line or passage sticks out and sticks into me. Like a thorn in a lion’s paw, I gnaw at it. I try to get it to come loose, but it only digs in deeper until something either shifts, changes, or moves, and then all at once it gives way. Usually, that thing that shifts, that thing that moves, that thing that gives way and comes loose, that thing that changes – is me.

Green writes that “True terror isn’t being scared; it’s not having a choice in the matter.” I’m often confronted with the terrifying feeling of not having a choice, a feeling of not being in control, a claustrophobia of invisible, yet impermeable walls closing in ever closer. Somedays, I feel like I’m living an unhappy version of Pinocchio’s story; a puppet who never became a real boy, or perhaps crueler still, a puppet who became a boy, but never lost his strings. Someone else is calling all the shots, and my illusion of choice stretches only as far as the twine that tethers my limbs.

John O’ Donohue writes that “Sometimes, when life squeezes you into lonely crevices, you may have to decide between survival or breaking apart…At such a time, you can do nothing else; you have to survive.” Most of us find ourselves here at one time or another, trapped within circumstances and events that are beyond our control, and faced with a seemingly lose/lose choice of caving in or carrying on.
Maybe that’s why most of us strive so desperately to avoid the idle quiet that forcibly confronts us with the seeming choice-less-ness of our predicament. We keep ourselves tightly bound with a busyness that escalates into exhaustion, all in an effort to avoid the silence of our aloneness.

Fellow poet, James Lee Jobe defines loneliness as “That empty feeling multiplied by silence.” That sentiment strikes a deep chord with me. Loneliness has been heavy on my mind, and silence is a strange form of amplification. The quiet can increase focus and clarity, but it can also amplify the sound of our own insecurities.

I’m a person who relishes and thrives on time spent being quiet and being alone. As an artist and a writer, the silence of being unattended is what I need most in the process of listening to what my work has to say, and yet, the soundlessness of my solitude can also be my downfall. The silence can become subtly serrated. When it does, it cuts with jagged impartiality, and here, being alone is carved into the shape of something lonely. As it says in the Twenty-One Pilots song, “Car Radio“: “Sometimes quiet is violent”.

For almost year after my ex-wife and I separated I couldn’t meditate. I couldn’t bring myself to the cushion. I couldn’t bring myself to sit. I couldn’t handle the clamoring chaos of the quiet. I couldn’t handle being present. I knew that things could never be as they were. Everything had been irrevocably altered in ways I could sense, but couldn’t fully comprehend, both then and now. I understood that life would be unavoidably different, and that I would have no choice but to be different as well, but I didn’t  know how or in what way. I still don’t. I knew there was no going back but, I didn’t yet know how to go on. Most days, that statement still stands.

Sometimes being present, means being present within an ambiguous space of liminality and transition, and although this is “where,” according to John Brehm, “mystical experience most often occurs” it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it. When the present-moment becomes a kind of purgatory between the already and the not yet, the difficulty of being mindful becomes doubly compounded, because the present is the one place we most want to skip past.

Sometimes we just don’t have it in us to face the present moment directly. Sometimes we have to sneak into it through the backdoor of being here. Sometimes we’re brave enough to cannon ball into the depths of our now-ness, but sometimes we need to gradually wade in through the kiddie pool first, where we can more clearly grasp the safety and stability of our feet touching the bottom. Sometimes we need distractions. Sometimes we need to be distracted; distracted from the dark places of discomfort that can pervade our sense of the present. But, we need healthy distractions.

Healthy distractions do not seek to anesthetize our awareness of the uncomfortable “here”. instead, healthy distractions are the sleight of hand trick that allows us to witness the prestige of magic appearing  in unexpected ways and in unexpected places. Books, and poetry, and music, and art, are our Anam Cara, our soul friends offering us their guidance and aid. They greet us with gentle grace, and carry us until we feel at home in the mystery and ambiguity of who and where we are.  Through the caress of their care we enter our own immediacy more armored, more centered, and more ourselves then we were before.

Sometimes any place seems better than “here”. “Here” is often exactly where we don’t want to be. “Here” is where the hurt lives, but here is also the only place where healing can occur. And, even then healing is rarely what we expect.

John O’Donohue writes that “Every inner wound has its own particular voice.” Healing does not resolve the hurt but finds a kind of harmony with it.  It intonates itself to the pitch and timbre of the pain until it becomes a new composition, a new movement in the symphony of ourselves. When we rearrange the structures of our distress, the sounding voice of wounds refusing silence become a song. Sometimes healing continues to carry the hurt, and thus, sometimes healing simply means that we are learning to walk with a limp. But, when we walk we discover that we stronger because we’re here.

Of clarity and questions: mystery builds upon mystery…

clarity and questions: mystery builds upon mystery

Most days I work through lunch. Somedays I eat. Somedays, when I eat, I actually eat a meal. But, when I do it is usually always at my desk while still working. I’m not exactly a shining example of ‘self-care’, but I made it a point to stop for a bit and try to catch up on this book by John Thatamanil.

I started it almost a month ago and I posted a blog called with some of my initial thoughts and first impressions.

I’m glad I got to sit with the book for a bit today because I came across this passage that was just too good not to share:

the mystery discloses itself as mystery. Revelation neither removes nor eliminated mystery because then what is revealed is no mystery but a mere puzzle. One can affirm that revelation grants genuine knowledge but without asserting that it affords exhaustive knowledge.

The beauty and wonder of true mystery is that it’s mysteriousness is inexhaustible. It can never be fully revealed, never fully resolved. Mystery builds upon mystery upon mystery.

I think the job of the artist is to make the experience of mystery palpably vivid in a way that does not resolve the mystery but, instead reveals the mystery as more profoundly mysterious than we realize.
We enter the cloud of unknowing, not so that the unknown can become known, but so that we can bask in the blinding brilliance within the experience of not knowing.

But that is not to say that it reveals nothing. The revelation within mystery invites us into further unfolding; further expansion. The sacred clouds of ambiguity and uncertainty do periodically part. We bear witness to interstices of the infinite. We do find answers, but in finding them we also discover how small our questions are. Our most profound moments of awestruck clarity plunge us further into the majesty of deeper questions. This is what Rob Bell refers to as “the engine of life”…

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Blessed are the curious…

blessed are the curious - original art by duane toops

I have an almost irrational and obsessive belief in curiosity, that is to say, I believe in being irrationally curious and irrationally obsessed with what makes me curious. I don’t believe in avoiding rabbit holes. Instead, I believe that consistently falling down them is an experience and an activity that we should continuously seek out.

T.K. Coleman points out that “People tend not to move towards something unless they’re moved by something.”  The things that can find a way to call out to our curiosity from above the noise and chatter of our clamorous culture are things that are worth paying attention to, no matter how nonsensical they may seem. The fact that our interest in them makes no sense, makes them all the more interesting to explore. There is a mystery a foot; an outer ambiguity awakens an ineffability within us, and we are given the chance to give chase, to see how far down the rabbit hole goes, to find out where it leads.

Curiosity is, by nature and perhaps even by design, strange, unusual, and marked by a strong and outrageous desire to learn something. It is an invitation to learn something we didn’t know before; something about the world, and something about ourselves. One needn’t have a ‘reason’ or a ‘purpose’ beyond that; curiosity is, itself, the reason, though it is not always rational; it is it’s own purpose, though it is not always apparently practical.

More often than not, what is considered to be useful, practical, rational, reasonable, meaningful, valuable, and/or important are judgments imposed upon us by outside forces; forces that care more about making sure that we are aligned with the arbitrary metric of their values, rather than having any concern as to whether or not they align with the measure of our own values. Rob Walker writes that “Creativity starts with engaging with the world on your own terms, noticing what others miss, and attending to what matters most to you. That is: Deciding what’s valuable to you even if it seems, even if it is , useless.”

Rainer Maria Rilke says that you must “go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question… Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it.” He says that nothing will disturb your development “more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quest hour, can perhaps answer.”As Amanda Palmer makes clear “an artist you cannot turn off the voice in your head that’s coming up with the unnecessary because its the unnecessary that gives birth to stories and songs. ” As an artist, one must vehemently believe that the unnecessary is profoundly necessary.

We have to embrace the unexpectedness of being swept off. We have to “trust [our] obsessions”, as Neil Gaiman says, we have to go where they take us. We have to watch, observe, attend to and make the things we must. Adam Savage explains that “bringing anything into the world requires at least a small helping of obsession” because “Obsession is the gravity of making. It moves things, it binds them together, and gives them structure.” It has the capacity to “teach us about who we are, and who we want to be.” And, when we practice this kind of “noticing and appreciating we’re practicing” what John Brehm describes as “a form of loving awareness”. He says that “We are practicing being with” the things that we are directing our curious and obsessive attention towards, “rather than  demanding that it be what we think it should be or that it confess to us what it really means.”

Nothing is irrelevant when you realize that you are not searching for answers but, learning to ask better questions. Yes, it will lead you off the beaten path. And yes, it will take you to places of discomfort, places laced with the angst ambiguity and the anxiety of uncertainty but, it will also lead you to wonder.

Write the questions, live the answers…

write the questions live the answers

I find myself unconsciously slipping into the usage of a morbid mantra. Countless times throughout the day I catch the myself uttering a low and guttural chant underneath my breath:

“Is this it? Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?”

I look at my days and an unspoken agony wells up within me that begs to be told that this isn’t all there is.

“Is this it? Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?”

The unmetrical words turned over in iterative succession until the syllables sear into one another while losing none of their sting.

“Is this it? Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?”

I write because I hope there’s more. But, at the moment, the only thing that there’s more of are questions.

Rainer Maria Rilke says that you must “go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question… Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without tryin to interpret it.” He says that nothing will disturb your development “more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quest hour, can perhaps answer.” Rilke implores us to “Live the questions ” and “Perhaps…someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way to the answer“.

I write with the intensity of the questions in my heart, not because I have the answer but because I’m searching for it…when I write, I am writing the question. Again and again, over and over, I write the question. I write the question as a means of living the question, a means of living with the question, hoping that I will “live my way to the answer”.

“Is this it? Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?”

Art is the gift of giving ourselves…

art is a the gift of ourselves - original art by duane toops

We long for sanctuary. We long for community. We are each, in our own way, found deeply in the throes of the vast and furious longing for home. But sanctuaries are built. Communities are created. Home is something we make.  These are all things that are founded, rather than found. They do not arrive to us fully formed and ready at hand. They require time and patience, and they come with the understanding that we can not be patient alone.

We are each blindly searching the dark in the hopes of touching something unknown. Art, religion, poetry, and spirituality are means of inhabiting the longing for home that abides in our experience of mystery. They each demonstrate that, although we have managed to put our hands on some small part of the infinite, we are still inescapable of fully understanding our own experience on our own. We need community and fellowship, discourse and dialogue, deeply rich conversations and compassionately wide-open hearts.

Coming home is a continual process. Home is not the final product that we make, but rather home is what we make while we are in the process of making. Home is the place we make for welcoming.  It is the place we make for welcoming the arrival of the unexpected. It is where we welcome the release of our expectations, and where we welcome the mystery and wonder of belonging. It is where we are welcomed and where we are welcoming.

The word “welcome” is used to describe “one who is relieved to be relinquishing control or possession of something to another”. To welcome home and to be welcomed home is to relinquish the possession and control of ourselves and to give it as a gift to another; a welcoming gift that irrefutably changes both the giver and the recipient.

All art is about coming home. All art is about coming home because all “Art”, as Seth Godin says “is a personal gift that changes the recipient.” All art, God in goes to say “must contain an element that’s a gift. Something that brings the artist closer to the viewer, not something that insulates one from the other.”

All art is about being welcomed home because all art is about creating a space in which we are welcomed into the gift of giving ourselves away…

Consolation of the common place…

consolation of the common place

Last night I had the privilege of being interviewed by Michael Brightside for an episode of his podcast. On top of being a kid and and gracious host, he’s a smart and creative writer, which made for a fun, comfortable, and highly engaging conversation.

One of things we talked about is my use of a common place book. Keeping a common place book has become an integral part of my creative process and my spiritual practice. A common place book at it’s most basic is simply a notebook used to collect, store, and organize all the minutia of things we come across in our day to day lives that grab our attention, strike our curiosity, peak our interest, and that ultimately enliven some part of us in some unknown and inexplicable way: quotes, book passages, song lyrics, random thoughts, questions, and ideas, lines from movies, interesting points made on a podcast, anything and everything that seems resonant and meaningful that we’d like to remember and re-access.

Nearly everything I think about and write about emerges from that primordial common place. The more I use it the more it becomes a place where ideas mystically mix and mingle into an alchemical concoction that is both effervescent and wholly unexpected. Passages and phrases from a vast and divergent range sources begin to talk, touch, and commune in the sacredity of shared space; a wild and unruly conversation comes to life and I get to participate in it.

Keeping a common place book is also a kind of meditative practice. When something manages to cut through the mostly unconscious mindlessness of our daily default mode of operating, it’s like a bell sounding in a meditation hall announcing that it is time to be present to something happening in ourselves and in the world around us. That thing that caught our attention is inviting us to be attentive to the liveliness of our here and now. Stopping to write it down forces us to step out of our habitual obliviousness, and it allows us to be fully present with whatever has stirred our dormancy towards awakening.

A common place book can also be a tremendous source of consolation when we are nearly inconsolable. I’ve been open and honest about my ongoing struggles with depression, and the past few weeks have proven to be especially difficult. I have friends and family that are always ready, willing, and able to lend aid and support when I need it. But, there are times when I become so closed that the compassionate care and concern of those closest to me, can’t get though. That’s where I’ve been lately.

As I was writing something down into my common place book, I noticed several passages from two incredibly dissimilar sources, that had been unintentionally strung together. Reading them jointly, in a combinative sequence, they became the sage and salient wisdom from an unforeseen friend:

What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was also what for me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was? – Cheryl Strayed

If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiments, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown. – Rainer Maria Rilke