I might not be writing anything currently, but my good friend Kriste sure is. Her most recent post, “The Parable of the El Camino” is near and dear to my heart (I’m even featured in one of the pictures). Check out her post, and then check out the rest of her blog–you won’t be disappointed.
The answer is 42.
What’s the question, you ask? I have no idea.
According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” It took a supercomputer 7.5 million years of figuring and calculating to arrive at that answer. The problem? No one knows what the question is.
Despite not really connecting with that book, I have always appreciated this concept. It’s the height of absurdity to struggle for 7.5 million years to come up with an answer, only to realize that you need the question to make any sense of it. This could be the jumping off point for a philosophical discussion of the meaning of life and our search for answers within this great mystery of our existence, but honestly, I’m a bit tired for that today.
The actual reason that I’ve been thinking about 42, is that I’ve been struck recently by my seeming need for answers. I need answers all the time. I’m not comfortable with uncertainty, mystery, or loose ends. I’m terrible at puzzles and word problems because I don’t enjoy the journey of arriving at an answer. I want the answer immediately, and I’m nervous and stressed until I get it. I’m the kid who peeled off the stickers on the Rubix Cube because I never believed I would figure it out.
In addition to my impatience and discomfort with uncertainty, I am also terrible at asking questions. I’ve realized that there is an art to asking good questions—questions that will get to the heart of the matter, questions that will lead you to a new understanding, questions that will help you connect with someone, questions that will start to unveil tiny pieces of the mystery of life. This is where I need to spend my time. Not looking for 42 or picking at the stickers on a cube-like puzzle. I need to learn to ask better questions—of myself, of my friends, of the universe.
Asking good questions requires you to know yourself and stay open to all possibilities, even if you don’t like the answers you get (even if you never get an answer). I’m talking about the hard questions. Questions like, what is it that makes me truly happy, who are the people that have a positive impact on my life, what can I do today that will take me out of my comfort zone, which of these paths is the harder one, what behaviors and choices in my life are hurting me and those around me, what can I do to be a better person.
Now, those are questions worth spending 7.5 million years pondering. I’m hoping I can get those figured out in less time than it takes me to solve the Rubix Cube. I guess I know what I’ll be doing this weekend.
I’ve taken up boxing. Not the Rocky Balboa Million Dollar Baby type boxing with its knock outs and in-ring drama. And not the LA Boxing type boxing with its glistening ladies in work out capris and glitter, tearing up the heavy bag with their pink gloves and tenacious zeal for fitness. Nope. My boxing class is real. Part fitness. Part technique. All heart and sweat. Led by Harold (Coach), an ex-boxer with a fighter’s heart, a teacher’s soul, and a quiet voice. Held in a gym that’s basically a garage in the worst part of town–not a place I typically frequent as I cruise between the suburbs and the Whole Foods in my hybrid.
Back 2 Basics Boxing. That’s what it’s called. I understood the truth of that name the first time I pulled up to the squat brick building. The metal door was rolled up part way, green paint peeling as if sandblasted. The place screams bomb shelter, not gym. Three solid walls of cinder block form the perimeter. Painted aqua blue, the walls provide a stark contrast to the gray of the cement floor. Exposed light bulbs dot the ceiling, and a line of ants across the floor reminds everyone that this place could be reclaimed by the shadows of the city at any moment. Several heavy bags hang from the rafters, providing the only real hint that this place is a boxing gym. The bags and the god forsaken boxing timer, forever bleating its buzzes and lights–start now, keep going, thirty more seconds, start again.
I wasn’t sure what this place would hold for me. I’ve been searching for answers recently. Casting about, screaming at the moon, pushing for quick fixes. Struggling all around, really. I didn’t expect boxing to solve anything. It was something to pass the time and maybe help me get in shape along the way. Turns out it’s much more than that. Turns out my boxing class is an awesome training ground for all the things I’m working on in my life–patience, mental toughness, faith, intensity. When I hit the heavy bag in that dungeon-like gym, it’s emotional work made physical, manifested in my fists. The work and pain is tangible, down to the broken blood vessels on my knuckles and the sweat that drips on that line of ants on the concrete floor.
Just last week, I was struggling with combination punches. I’ve trained in Karate, so my punches are deliberate and strong, sending the heavy bag into a sweeping elliptical arc. It felt good to connect with the bag, but my rhythm was off, the bag was never in the right place, my feet where wrong, my balance was crap. Over and over, I sent the bag swinging, only to have it swing back awkwardly. Jab. Cross. Hook. Jab. Cross. Hook. The more I tried and failed, the harder I tried, and the more spectacularly I failed. A vicious cycle. I swore under my breath, set my jaw, and kept punching. Harold approached. “You do karate or something?” I nodded, pissed off, breathing hard. He gave me a patient look, and said, “Think of the three punches as one.” He demonstrated. It clicked. A breakthrough. The frustration drained from my body, and I attacked the bag with a new quickness and fervor.
Only after class did I realize what a gift Harold had given me. Just one sentence gave me a new perspective, one that lead to a new understanding and allowed me to operate at a new, higher level. I guess that’s the essence of what great teachers do for their students. It also helped me remember that sometimes you just need to do the work without any hope or expectation that a miraculous and quick solution will appear. Because it’s when you’re buried in that work, head hunched over your fists, that the new understandings come. Maybe it’s the work itself that allows for their appearance. Whatever it is, I’m grateful to Harold and Back 2 Basics Boxing for giving me the space I need to do the hard work of getting back to basics, in boxing and in life.
I’ve been writing a lot recently. Though, nothing worth posting here. I’ve also been reading a lot, and I’m continually in awe of amazing writing. So, I thought I would share some here. I’m reading a book called The Passages of H.M. by Jay Parini. It’s about Herman Melville. Mr. Parini also wrote The Last Station about Tolstoy. His writing is nothing short of magnificent. If I could channel one tenth of his genius, I would be an exceptional writer.
The following paragraph describes how a young Herman feels once he realizes that his love for another man will never be requited:
“His dizziness did not disappear as he walked toward the bunkhouse. The stars suddenly began to wheel overhead, pulsing in great legendary patterns that he could not interpret. He heard a loud hissing, as if some rising surf of feeling threatened to overwhelm him. Unable to proceed, he fell to his knees, dipping his forehead to the grass. He could feel the long rivers of night churning through him, the tears of the world gathering and pushing against a dike that might well burst, at which point he would break apart and scatter, float in a million pieces, sucked into the blackest void ever imagined. He might never again assemble in the hirsute, ungainly sack of skin known as Herman Melville. And that might be a good thing, he thought, a very good thing indeed.”
Keep reading. Keep writing. Let yourself be inspired.
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably sprinting through your week, hopping from task to task and commitment to commitment, crossing your fingers that you’ll get them done in the nick of time, relying on your techno-gadgets to buy you a few extra minutes (replying to emails in the airport or sending texts from the car), searching for meaning in those few extra minutes you’ve found but putting it off because you’re too busy and have a block of time next week for soul searching, reading blogs, connecting with other humans and animals when you can, trying to be a better person, untangling the mystery of life, going to the grocery store, getting food on the table, walking the dog, desperately looking forward to those few precious moments when you might be able to breathe deeply in the midst of it all, and then getting ready to take it all on again next week.
Most of us speed through our days in a dull haze of stress. I feel stressed that there’s no way I can get everything done. I feel stressed that the pile of unread books by the bed is getting taller and taller. I feel stressed that I want to learn so much and have so little time. I feel stressed that my bank account balance isn’t as high as it should be. I feel stressed that I missed my yoga class. I feel stressed that I feel stressed. It’s a terrible cycle.
So, how can we extricate ourselves from the great tide of our own expectations and to-do’s? For me, it’s a matter of shifting my perception of time. From our earliest years, we’re taught that everything important is scarce. If time is limited, it follows that we must cram as much into each moment as possible to ensure that we get the most out of life and that we’re as productive as possible. This view ensures that I approach my life and time with a feeling of stress and limitation.
But what if I assume that time is not scarce? What if I shift my perspective and assume that I have as much time as I need? In fact, what if I assume that nothing that I truly need is scarce, and that everything I need will appear at the appointed time? What if I assume that if I listen, I’ll be guided to what is truly significant and important for me? What if instead of spending time guarding my pile of amassed “stuff,” I focus on openness and trust in the abundance of life? What if I live within the mystery of the universe instead of constantly trying to solve it?
This approach is the opposite of anything our culture teaches us. More speed. More productivity. More money. More stuff. These are the things our society values. But we don’t have to get stuck within the “Mentality of More.” Instead, we can step outside of that and smell the flowers. Literally. When was the last time you smelled the wildflowers on the side of the road? If you’re not worried about getting from point A to point B as fast as possible, then you might just stop when you notice the delicate beauty of a field of wildflowers. And you might be guided to write a poem about those brightly colored blooms waving in the summer breeze. And who knows, maybe that poem will catch the eye of a publisher, you’ll rocket to fame, and then you’ll be asked to become the Poet Laureate. Of course, in your infinite and enlightened wisdom, you’ll turn down the job because you have too many wildflowers to smell and poems to write.
So, just take this as a reminder to step outside of your normal way of thinking once in a while, especially when it relates to time. It’ll expand your reality, and it’s kind of fun. Even if you practice it just a few times a week, I bet you’ll notice a difference in the way you approach your days. I’ve been trying this lately, and it’s feels like a much more peaceful way to exist. Yes, there are still to-do lists and growing piles of books to read and people to see, but my thoughts about them aren’t stressful. When I’m in this place, I don’t feel the need to jump from one thing to the next in a frenzied attempt to “do it all.” I pick one thing and do it well. And this frees my mind to be in a place of peace, which inevitably leads to more productive, positive, and peaceful thoughts. This is a cycle I don’t mind repeating.
I’d love to hear your take on time. Does this approach work for you?
Clock Photo from Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Wild Flower Photo from Keattikorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The brick connects with glass somewhere between Jesus’ hand and a kneeling Mary Magdalene. Colored shards spray inward and away, tinkling as the destruction moves from the air to the ground. Margaret never had thrown like a girl.
She uses her pant leg to brush the dust from her throwing hand. Jane steps toward her partner in crime and throws her arm around her shoulder. The night bugs resume their summer songs, and the honeysuckle quietly comes out of hiding.
“That’ll show those bastards,” Jane says.
“I guess,” Margaret responds absently. She’s suddenly intent on locating Orion, which happens to be in the opposite direction of the hole she just created.
Margaret closes her eyes and searches for a calm place in her mind, her hand still tingling from the grit of the brick. The thrill of destruction still flutters in her throat. She thinks of the Church service that morning.
Two girls – young women, really – sit between their mothers, ankles crossed beneath linen skirts, backs straight as they support the weight of their Baptist faith. They listen as their necks sweat delicately under their Sunday curls. Pastor Stanley’s voice bounces off the wood of the exposed rafters.
“Today we pray for the sinners. Those that use drugs or alcohol, those that sell their bodies for money, those that are practicing the sin of homosexuality. Pray that they may be freed of their sins by the mighty power of Jesus Christ…”
Like a reflex, Margaret’s eyes find Jesus in the window. The colors of his glass sparkle with possibility in the late morning sun. But his eyes are sad and offer no comfort. Mary Magdalene does not look up, her strength of grief reserved for only one. Though Margaret wonders how Mary’s story might change if freed from the yellowing pages and stained glass of History. The discreet brush of a finger across her knee reminds her that Jane is there. Jane with her plans. Jane with her anger. Jane with her crooked smile and dangerous charm. Jane who could set it right — all of this that is wrong.
That same finger brushes Margaret’s cheek now, bringing her back to the darkness.
“That was some toss,” Jane muses with a smile.
Jane’s fingers tighten around Margaret’s collar when her enthusiasm is met with silence. Her free hand reaches around and pulls Margaret’s gaze to hers. Margaret makes a weak attempt to resist, to stay in her solitary world and feel her own feelings. Jane inches closer, a tease in her eyes. The church stands like a blind and deaf sentry in the shadows. Jane’s lips find Margaret’s. Hard at first. Then more tender as the tension subsides into their usual desire. Jane’s tongue tastes like freedom, sweet and dangerous in the aftermath of destruction. A shiver runs like quicksilver down Margaret’s spine.
“You OK?” Jane asks.
Margaret looks to the sky and nods. Jane flashes that crooked smile as she grabs Margaret’s hand and pulls her toward the car. Over her shoulder, Margaret steals one last glance at the broken window that had always been her favorite. She whispers good bye, but her words are lost on the breeze.
To read Flash Fiction by other talented writers, check out the #FridayFlash hashtag on Twitter or visit J.M. Strother’s Friday Flash Collector.
A definition of Flash Fiction for the uninitiated.
Censorship sucks. At its core, censorship is about fear — fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of ourselves. We all practice some form of it each day. Not an official and systemic version like that of the Spanish Inquisition, the current Chinese government, or the former USSR, but something more subtle, yet equally as damaging. Whether we’re burning books, jailing dissidents, stopping ourselves from speaking our deepest truths, or spending energy hating ideas we don’t agree with, we are acting out of fear and practicing censorship.
George Bernard Shaw said, “The first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.” I’m sure he was talking about governments and societies, but this can also be applied to individuals. If I am to progress, I need to remove censorship in all forms from my life. This is one of my many goals for 2011.
We have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk and hazard. ~Voltaire, Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1764
Before I write, my first question tends to be, “What would [insert name of people or organizations here] think?” I always consider the reaction and the potential fallout before I write or speak. In some cases this is prudent. It’s better not to tell Aunt Mildred that her turkey was drier than the Sahara desert or to alert Mr. Williams to the obviousness of his toupee. In most cases, though, it’s just plain cowardly. The questions I should be asking are:
1) What do I think?
2) How does this make me feel?
3) How can this idea/essay/statement change the world for the better?
Sometimes I’ll muster the courage to ask and answer these questions honestly, and then I’ll decide that my answers aren’t worth sharing, usually because I deem them too pedestrian or too controversial. As an example, I’m passionate about gay rights, but after reading my blog you’d probably never know that. Out of 26 posts last year, I posted only one that was related to gay issues (Out and Proud), and it’s not because I didn’t have anything to say. It’s because I censored myself.
And guess which of my 26 posts was the most read post of the year. Yep. “Out and Proud.” That’ll teach me.
Censorship of the “Other”
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. — Voltaire (apparently, he has a lot to say on this topic).
I read a story in the newspaper this weekend about “Captain Salvation,” a new faith-based comic book hero from Salvation Comics. Their motto: “Harvesting souls through God’s Super-Heroes!” My first reaction was fear. Specifically, I was afraid that this comic book would lead more children to become evangelical Christians. In my estimation, we don’t need any more of those. I’ve allowed evangelical Christians to become a faceless group that stands for one thing — a literal reading of the Bible that is as uncompromising as it is exclusionary. I’ve allowed it to become black and white in my mind. I’ve made them the “Other.” It’s easier to dislike something that is not part of yourself.
Irrationally, I wanted Captain Salvation not to exist because it would be easier that way. Burning thousands of those comic books even came to mind. What?! I consider myself a staunch liberal and someone who supports all opinions and all expressions of art. What was I doing fantasizing about destroying comic books? And there it was. Censorship.
My fear of Captain Salvation is the very fear that I fight against. It’s the same fear that allows people to believe that a book about two male penguins raising a baby together should be banned (And Tango Makes Three). It’s the same fear that makes people think that gay marriage will threaten the sacred institution of traditional marriage. And it’s the same fear that allows us to hate, despise, and condemn those that we don’t understand.
How can I expect others to open their hearts and minds to my words, if I refuse to listen to opinions that don’t resonate with my own? I’ve realized that the best way to fight against bad ideas is not through fear and censorship but through the creation and sharing of better ideas. Alfred Whitney Griswold says it best, “In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.”
A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people. –John F. Kennedy
If I am to be successful, I need to trust. I need to trust myself to say what needs to be said, and I need to trust that the world will ultimately recognize the truth of the better ideas (whatever they may be). Fear and censorship are swift in eliminating offending ideas, but ultimately, they are the weapons of cowards. Whether you agree with my liberal leanings or not, I hope we can agree that creating and nurturing an open forum for all voices, ideas, opinions, and works of art is what will lead to a world that is greater than any of us could have ever imagined.
“Censored” photo courtesy of Idea Go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Windmill photo courtesy of Sujin Jetkasettakorn /FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I’d like to thank Honor Knight and the rest of the Film Warriors for giving me the opportunity to write a review of one of my favorite holiday films for their “12 Days of Cinema” series.
You can read my review of Elf on The Film Warriors website. Check out their film reviews while you’re there — they’re good at what they do! You can also follow Honor and the rest of the Film Warrior team on Twitter at @HonorKnightASA and @TheFilmWarriors.
Emily Dickinson had red hair. I had no idea, and I bet you didn’t either. This is just one of the many details about Emily Dickinson that I had wrong. I let a combination of myth and popular opinion dictate my understanding of her. I stored her safely in a box labeled, “Eccentric poet who never left her bedroom and couldn’t function in society.” I read her poems like a dutiful student, dissecting each line and hunting for the genius hidden within.
There was plenty of genius for me to find. The brilliant tide of her intellect flowed over me. I was impressed, but I never really connected with her work. Her poems were just cleverly arranged words that I understood about as much as a stranger passing me on the street. It wasn’t until I knew more about her story, her actual story, that I was moved.
We’re so good at categorizing and judging that we often forget that people aren’t just static archetypes. He’s more than a brave soldier. She’s more than a quiet librarian. They’re more than a mob of conservative Christians. Emily Dickinson is more than a brilliant madwoman. We, none of us, can be categorized that way. And that’s what makes us so interesting. We have stories, and so should the characters in the stories that we create.
In truth, Emily Dickinson was nothing at all like the dreary girl shown in the only surviving picture of her.
In her own words, she was:
“Small like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut burr; and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves.”
Emily was a vibrant character, full of contradictions, passions, and complications. She was devoted to her family. She loved nature and kept a lush garden. She had a dog named Carlo who walked with her every day. She was intensely spiritual but sometimes politely, and often vehemently, refused to attend church. She developed deep and passionate attachments to a few people in her life – both women and men. She read the newspaper every day. She talked about politics. She argued with her brother. She wanted to be a published writer. She wrote letters. She played the piano. She was, in short, a real person.
After I learned more about Emily Dickinson, I realized that I felt more connected to her because I understood some truths about her. I could never understand the totality of her, but I knew enough to feel something. I was awed by her genius, overwhelmed by her intensity, saddened by her unrequited passions, and uplifted by her love for even the smallest creatures. This is how I want to feel about the characters in the stories I read and write. I want to feel this level of connection to a full and vibrant person who is full of surprises and contradictions, both delightful and dreadful.
As a writer, this means that I need to find and tell the truth about my characters. That’s an overwhelming prospect, but very worth the effort. In order to do this well, I have to stop myself from categorizing and judging to quickly. I need to listen and pay attention. I need to look for the surprises, expect them even, and then decide how to weave them into the story, and ultimately reveal them. In this way, I can let the character become who she is at her very core.
And why not apply this to my non-writing life as well? Shouldn’t we all allow the people around us to be who they truly are, and then love and respect them for it? In the end, we’ll be better writers and better people for it.