Infected with questions…

infected with questions - photography by Duane Toops

One of the ways I cope with my five-day-a-week cubicle incarceration is by listening to a lot interviews with author’s whose work I greatly appreciate and admire. Day in and day out this proves to be an effective strategy for a variety of reasons. It insures that the loudest voice in my head is not only kinder than my own but, that it also has something instructive, valuable, and insightful to say, rather than the garbled dance party of disappointment and self-loathing that usually plays on repeat in my head throughout the day. Even though its a catchy tune with an infectious beat, and a good groove one should try to take a break from the lovable low self-esteem playlist from time to time, at least as a palette cleanser. However, my earbud escapades not only shelter me from the shit-storm of inner-world, they also provide me with protection from the outer-world. David Sedaris says that “when you’re wearing [headphones]…The outside world suddenly becomes as private as you want it to be.” To say he has a point is an understatement.

The introvert in me welcomes every opportunity to be isolated, but the bill-payer in me recognizes the need to be amongst the masses in order to keep the rent paid. Almost miraculously, my earbuds seem to offer the best of both worlds. I can remain an island while still being in the crowd. I can have all the benefits of being a recluse, without the burden of being shut-in with 37 cats.

During one of my recent self-protective forays into author fueled escapism, I was listening to an interview with Neil Gaiman, and found myself unsurprisingly struck by something he said. He said that “You don’t write with answers. You write with questions…You don’t write necessarily to find out answers. You just write to try and infect other people with your questions.”

I live in the light of infinite questions. I write because I am filled with questions, questions about everything; questions about myself, questions about the world, questions about my place and purpose in it. I am possessed by paradoxes of the past, the uncertainties of the future, and the ambiguities of the present. I write to exorcise the questions. I write to get them out, not so that I can get rid of the questions, or so that the questions can be resolved, but to release more questions into the world and to make room for more questions to born within me.

I have no interest in providing you with answers. I have almost no interest in your answers. I am more interested in your questions. I am more interested in giving you the sacred gift of more questions. When I write,  I write with the intensity of the questions in my heart. When I write, I am writing the questions; again and again, over and over, I am writing the questions. I write the question as a means of living the question, a means of living with the question, hoping that you too will be possessed and infected with and by the questions.

Our questions will lead us off the beaten path. They will take us to places of discomfort, places laced with the angst of ambiguity and the anxiety of uncertainty but, they will also lead us to wonder.
We have to embrace the unexpectedness of being swept off. We have to go where our questions take us. We have to watch, observe, attend to and make the things we must. Nothing is irrelevant when you realize that you are not searching for answers but, learning to ask better questions.

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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.

Belonging is an event, Faith is the search…

faith is the search

Last night, I went to see Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. I’ve been an avid admirer of Anthony Bourdain since the very first time I watched his show No Reservations. At the time, I wasn’t sure what struck me so deeply about him or his work. In some regards, it’s still a confusing connection. I’m not particularly interested in either food or travel. I enjoy a good meal as much as anyone else I suppose, but food simply isn’t a passion of mine; its not a profound point of sacredity to me. Most days my meals consist of coffee and a vending machine pack of peanut butter crackers. On many occasions I will happily forgo a meal all together if it means I’m granted more time to work on something creative.

As far as travel is concerned, I was much better traveled in my youth. My family moved around a lot when I was growing up, and we traveled with frequent regularity. I’ve been to a lot of places, and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t still some places that I wanted to see, but I’m not a person bolstered by the aspiration to see the world. It’s not that I’ve laid down roots to my current locale and all wanderlust has been abated; that simply isn’t true. I’ve lived in Brevard County Florida for something like 20 years and most days I still struggle to find my way around. I’m not sure I’ve ever really attempted to scratch the surface of what the area has to offer. And yet, every year living here, the realization that I don’t belong escalates rather than subsides. I think in all of my previous travels, and in all my current efforts, there is a secret search to find a place that feels like home, and the older I get the more I begin to realize that may be no place ever will.

I’ve never felt at home in the world, I still don’t. And, somehow, even through broadcasted pixels, I could recognize the same kind of lonely restlessness in Anthony Bourdain that I saw in myself. That was enough to make me believe; enough to make me believe that maybe, I wasn’t alone, and that just maybe, there was somewhere I belonged. I still haven’t found that place. I’m still searching for it. Maybe I’ll never find it. Maybe Tony never did either, but he taught me how to search and how to have faith. He taught me that they are one and the same thing; faith is both the thing we search for and the thing that makes us search.

In one of the letters of St. Paul he says that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. David Brooks says that “Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.” Paul and Brooks may have written those words, but Tony Bourdain taught me the meaning of them.

Faith is the faint yet profoundly tangible sense of something unnameable beckoning us to parts unknown; the whispers of our deepest longing calling us with no reservations toward a secret shimmering in the distance. Waiting is hard. It’s even harder when you’re hurting. It’s agony atop an already existing agony, piled upon an older agony still. It’s difficult to rest. It’s easy to be restless. It’s hard to find peace, but maybe there is a way to be at peace when we are restless. Perhaps rest comes when we are able to make peace with our restlessness. Perhaps patience is easier when we are able to see that we are not alone.

Tony Bourdain taught me that belonging is not tied to a geographic location, it is not an intrinsic quality of a place, but an implicit characteristic of a moment in time; it is an event. Belonging is the invitation of a knowing glance that cuts across a crowd and meets the gaze of the one other person who is as radiantly damaged as you. It’s the wink of realizing that you’re in on a joke with a stranger that becomes your best friend in an instant.  Belonging is the simple grace and communion of being given a seat at a table when you are far from home, beside the warmth and familiar strangeness of someone welcoming. It’s the voice of someone asking you how you take your coffee when you’re tired, anxious, and afraid. It’s the moment when you notice that the arm stretching out to hand you the cup is scarred, and their scars look just like yours. It’s the quiet nod of acknowledgment that they know you’ve seen, and you know they understand. It’s hard to put a name on what that feeling is, or what exactly it means, it’s just something you know. And, if you know…well, then you know, and that’s a faith worth sharing.

I think I can understand why Tony couldn’t stay, I think maybe I always did. Maybe that was always the connection that bound me to him. And, maybe, that’s why I know I can’t leave; if ever I can give someone the gift that he gave me, the gift of “less-lonely”, then I don’t think I could ever bear the thought of taking it away.

Faith is not something we can ever really hold or find, it’s simply the search…

“Being” is hard, “being-alone” is harder…

I was listening to this interview with Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman a few weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Palmer talks about how she found “salvation in art…when other things were unsafe and dangerous”. She says that “books and music” helped her so much that she “wanted to be able to do that, so that [she] could give back what [she] had been given.” She says that because someone was able to do that for her then, if she could, she should try to do that for someone else.

My own creative motivations closely parallel Palmer’s. I have been and continue to be the recipient of comfort and consolation from a long lineage of writers, artists, poets, musicians, makers, and creators. I’ve spent most of my life alone, and books have become my best friends, my closest companions, my community of sacred fellowship. They’ve continued to provide me with something that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. Each of these writers, artists, and thinkers have come to me when I needed them the most; the ministering angels of our broken nature; the attendant spirits of my obliterated place.

They have made me feel safe and seen, heard and less alone, they extend grace to me in the refined movements of their gentle goodwill and the simple elegance of their steadfast presence. They were a part of a wider, broader, conversation, and they were inviting me to participate in it. They were speaking, I was listening, and I started writing because they welcomed my reply.

They created, for me, what Anne Lamott might call “ a debt of honor“; a debt I intend to honor , a debt I am honored to honor.

I write to pay my debts. I write to pay it forward. I say the things that I am desperately hungry hear.  I tell the truths that I direly need to be told, all in the hopes that maybe someone else needs them as distressingly as I do.

We are learning to “be”, because “being” is hard, and “being-alone” is that much harder. When we are scared, small, and lonely, when we are lying desperate in the dark, this is not only when we most need the work of writers, poets, and artists, but this is also when we most need to do the work of artists, writers, and poets, and provide a salve that soothes the burn of being alive…

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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Dharma, Poetry, & Practice: An Interview with John Brehm

Dharma, Poetry, & practice - Thumbnail Art by Duane Toops

A couple months ago the lovely folks over at The Tattooed Buddha sent me a book to review called The Dharma of Poetry by John Brehm. To say that I simply enjoyed the book is such a dramatic understatement that it simultaneously demonstrates the limitations of our language to express the multitudes of meaning that we each contain, while also proving just how much we need poetry in order to do it.

In the book Brehm sets out to examine poetry not only as a vehicle for delivering spiritual teachings, or a vessel for containing spiritual teachings, but also as a source of spiritual teaching, in and of itself. Brehm highlights that reading and writing poetry are always-already spiritual practices that invite us to deeper moments of hallowed attention and sacred awareness. And, if you’ve followed any of my own work for any period of time, I’m sure you can tell how much this topic resonates for me. For me, the creative process and the spiritual path are one and the same thing. It was exhilarating and affirming to read of another thinker coming to and sharing the experience of the same conclusion.

Shortly after my review was published on the Tattooed Buddha website and I released an audio version of the review, I was invited to co-host an interview with the Author, John Brehm, for an episode of the Tattooed Buddha podcast. It was both an incredible opportunity and incredible conversation. We delved deeply into the subject matter of the book, examined and probed our personal experiences and reflections regarding literature, poetry, and spiritual practice, and so much more.

If any of these themes, topics, and subjects are in your wheelhouse of interests, I highly recommend John Brehm’s book, The Dharma of Poetry, and I definitely recommend that you give this episode a listen.

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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…

16 drops of rain…

16 drops of rain painting and poetry by duane toops

To the 16 drops of rain laying prostrate on my shoulder
Mingling with the sweat like a mixture of cassia and myrrh
Anointing my resistance with the oil that pulls from the pavement when the heaven’s crack and cry
Your brethren come down like confetti singing in a chorus,
a psalm sung from the hymnal of the damned welcomed home
How long
The heartbreak shouting from the Sheol in my lungs soothed and silenced
Well done
A servant to the rage and silence
Tonight you ran with violence
The yoke of the road is easy
my burden in the street light