Finding Joy

12-23-2021

Merriam-Webster defines the word joy as – A feeling of great happiness.

Although that is a nice definition, I also find it lacking. To me, joy transcends happiness, just as it is more than pleasure, fun, enjoyment, delight, and so many other similar words. Joy does not come so easily and so often, and yet, or because of this, it is a singular and wonderful experience. As I write that last word experience, that word too seems inadequate. Joy seems to come from somewhere deeper than a fleeting emotion. It is perhaps a gift that is left to us when we are very lucky, when we are very aware, when we are open to receiving it. Maybe those words are mumbo-jumbo and mean nothing, or maybe they are the essence of what we seek in life. I choose to think they are vital.

In a age when we are bombarded with information, I sometimes feel I am overwhelmed with keeping up with not what brings me joy, but what often brings me confusion, anxiety, weariness, and mental overload. Those feelings lead to frustration, anger, and sleeplessness.

But when I’m able to slow down, to take stock of what I want in my life, I find it is often there for the taking. This past Sunday, three of those times occurred. I believe it was on the TV program Sunday Morning that the first one came. A short, simple story about a program in a Maine prison. It showed the work of inmates who create beautiful art. Men who had committed heinous crimes, and would never see a day of freedom outside of prison walls, were creating beautiful works of art. These same men have worked and graduated from college programs while incarcerated, knowing they will never be free men. The beauty was they were not trying to excuse their crimes; they were trying to keep or regain their dignity. And I believe they were succeeding.

In a previous episode of 60 Minutes, I watched a program about efforts to save and increase the numbers of gorillas in Rwanda. After many years of decline, the numbers have now grown because of a program of gorilla tourism and using the money to benefit the nearby villages and to protect those beautiful giant animals.

We also watched the CNN Heroes program. Stories of everyday people making extraordinary differences in the lives of fellow humans across this planet.

Here is the commonality. In each of the programs, there was great joy in those being presented. Inmates doing life terms, game wardens (some who were previously gorilla poachers) and people doing wonderful things for others were in every sense of the word – JOYFUL. And as an observer of that, I too felt joy. It wasn’t news of division, great wealth by a few, the newest Porsche, or some magnificent chateau in France. It was the joy of beauty and goodness. In each of those moments, I found tears coming to my eyes. Feelings I want to maintain in my life.

I also follow Facebook and see an endless stream of everything. Some beautiful, some mundane, and some hateful. Political ranting, yummy bowls of someone’s breakfast oatmeal, and ads for a beauty cream that will make my 73 year old face look like Brad Pitt. But when I’m lucky, there is something else. A photo of a painted bunting that is more beautiful than any bird could be. A short video of the unbridled happiness of dogs when their owners walk through the front joy. This morning I saw a photograph of a mother orangutan holding her baby. The look on the tiny animal was pure adoration. A look no different from that of a proud human mother seeing her child for the first time.

And I am near tears of JOY when I see that.

The question then becomes, what do I, what do others do if the quest is joy. I can only speak for myself. I’m retired and have enough (more than enough) of what I need. I no longer have to go to work each day. I have few time demands. I can choose how I spend much of my time. But having those gifts does not guarantee that I will somehow magically find joy.

When I was in my career and counseled others, I often attempted to explain that one view of getting “better” was to look at ways to find more balance in their lives. One way of looking at this was to take steps in getting more of what they wanted and, looking at ways to having less of what they did not want in their lives. As an example, one might work to reduce stress (an unwanted issue) by taking walks, eating a meal more slowly at the diner table rather than in front of the TV, reducing the number of commitments that were not mandatory, or a plan to lower debt. On the other side of the coin might be wanting more family time, being active with a hobby, or listening to music. I’d suggested thinking about turning off the TV for thirty minutes nightly and discussing the day with family members. Telling the wife you wanted an hour on the weekend to learn to build a birdhouse. Even something as simple as taking five minutes to listen to a favorite jazz tune before going to bed. Nothing magical in those thoughts. The magic (or difficulty) was in getting people to do them, to change their behavior in order to change their lives.

It has taken me some time to know, to really know what brings me joy. Now that I know it, it becomes for me the same issues as those in which I counseled others. Nature brings me great joy. Animals bring me joy. Friends bring me joy. Writing brings me joy. Suzanne brings me great joy.

And.

Hearing news on TV that is little more than hate-filled tribal politics brings me great sadness. Fixating on man’s inhumanity to man brings sadness. Feeling I can do nothing about the wanton destruction of our planet, hunger, poverty, racism, bigotry, and endless war brings me sadness.

So what can I do? I can be out in nature often and observe, deeply observe, what it is and my place in it. I can turn off the news and stay informed without staying angry. I can write honest words, and I can counter inhumanity by being kind. I can give my small share to this planet, those who are hungry and poor. I can try to always avoid being racist, or a bigot. I can live my life in peace. I can be a loyal friend to humans and to animals. I can tread lightly on this earth. To paraphrase Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I can weave my one stitch in the magnificent tapestry of life. That I can do, and I can know it is enough.

In the most simple terms, I can seek joy. And if that is your desire, so can you.

I wish all a peaceful, safe and happy holiday.

Denni’s Wise Words

Read the poetry of Mary Oliver. She loved nature, she loved life, and she wrote beautifully. Mary Oliver was one of the necessary voices of this world.

From Mary Oliver –

“Let me keep company always with those who say ‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment and bow their heads.”

Stopping to Learn

12-10-2021

This past week has afforded me two opportunities to learn something new. I wasn’t initially aware that it had occurred, but upon reflection, I was certain it had.

My first experience came about at a book signing event for the Society of Southwestern Authors. Two good friends and I, along with about twenty other authors, took part in this annual event. I shared a table with one of my colleagues and we waited with anticipation for crowds of people to come fawn over our writing efforts. Actually, having done this before, we hoped someone might buy a book.

My partner in crime that day has a gift of the gab, as some might have said long ago. I would have to agree. I have no doubt given the opportunity; he could convince a door to talk back to him. I was daunted in thinking I had to compete with him in vying for the attention of perspective buyers.

To his credit, having published three well-written non-fiction books on three different subjects, he is well positioned to talk about his work. On another occasion when he and I were having coffee, he told me he often asks a person where they were from and odds were he has either been there, or in close proximity. He can usually start talking about a place they have in common. Watching him in action with strangers proves that tactic works for him. At the event last Saturday, it didn’t take long to see him perform. Very quickly, he had folks attracted to what he was saying, like a bear is attracted to honey. Within a brief time, he was selling books while I twiddled my thumbs and talked to other writers about the weather.

By the end of the event, he had sold several books and traded two with two other authors. I had traded two copies of my books to other writers, given away a poetry chapbook I’d created, and nibbled on the chocolate candy kisses sitting on my section of the table.

On Monday following the event, I received an e-mail from Writer’s Digest. Several months ago, I submitted a copy of my book, The Unusual Man in the WD Best Self-Published Book of the Year contest. Unfortunately, the judges did not have the insight and good literary taste to judge me as the winner of the contest. What the e-mail did contain was a very thorough and enlightening critique of my book. Primarily, what it did that all good critiques do is give me specific feedback on what was good in my book and also what improvements were needed. As anyone knows, one has to have thick skin to be told, this was good, and this was ok, but OMG, what were you thinking when you did…. The review which had been carefully written, provided well thought out comments and left me hopeful rather than angry or crying. In short, it said you didn’t win, but you did pretty damn well.

Now to the point of what did I learn from these two events. I’ve often said my best success in selling books was when I could have face-to-face contact with perspective buyers. I still believe as a self-published author, that is true. But! And it is a big but (Please, there was no pun intended) in talking to buyers, in addition to being friendly and interested in them, an author also has to make them interested in his or her books. OK, maybe I am Captain Obvious. The other friend who was also at the event said to me that she didn’t have a clear and concise pitch for her book. I agreed that neither do I. What our more successful friend has is a very convincing and interesting sales pitch for each of his books. He has a story about each book, and he tells it in a way that makes people intrigued by what they hear. As a result, he sells books.

Learning lesson one. Become a better salesperson by having a clear message about what I’m selling and make the sales pitch in a manner that makes people want to buy. Yes, I know, salesmanship 101. What I think many authors secretly think is something like the Field of Dreams Build it and they will come. Translation – I’ve written it, now they will swarm to buy it. The truth is simple, if you want to sell a book you’ve written, you have to learn to be a good salesperson. The bottom line is, if you don’t believe in your work, why would anyone else?

Learning lesson two. Honest reviews and critiques do not sugarcoat with simple, I don’t won’t hurt your feelings comments like, “I like it.” The review I received from WD taught me some critical issues. I will pay more attention to pacing in my stories, to making sure there are no tense issues and sometimes the correct word is hanged and not hung. It also taught me to pay closer attention to the consistency of voice (that was a positive for my book) also to continue to write interesting characters (another positive in the review). The short of it all is, I must pay attention, clean up the simple issues and continue to try to improve, even on the things I already do pretty well.

I am grateful for the lesson my friend taught me and for the honest review I received from Writer’s Digest.

Aside from the lessons I learned at the book signing, another good thing happened. I was invited to participate in the Society of Southwestern Authors 14th. Annual Local Authors Showcase. It is a fancy luncheon where I along with a few other writers, will read a section from one of our books to the assembled audience. For that opportunity, I am grateful and honored. And you can bet I will use that chance to practice what my friend taught me about presenting my book.

I have a note I made that is taped on the wall where I write. It reminds me of a task I have as a writer. It says this If I haven’t made you smile, or cry, or think, or laugh, then I haven’t done my job as a write. I believe this is true.

I wish nothing but the best success to all in their writing, or in all other endeavors.

Go well, David.

Dylan Thomas

11-27-2021

          At 73, I have at last found Dylan Thomas. He was not lost to the world, only hidden from me. This discovery by happenstance, fate, of serendipity, has been a fine gift. I came upon this man’s writing while reading the book of another author. That book, to go unnamed, turned out to be boring and little more than an attempt of the author for his self-aggrandizement. But I thank him for pointing me toward Thomas. The reason Dylan Thomas was mentioned was to show an almost perfectly crafted one-hundred fifty-word sentence written by Thomas. This is that sentence.

“I was born in a large Welsh town at the beginning of the Great War – an ugly, lovely town (or so it was and is to me), crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and old men from nowhere, beachcombed, idled, and paddled, watched the dock-bound ships or the ships streaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions; threw stones into the sea for the barking outcast dogs; made castles and forts and harbours and race tracks in the sand; and on Sunday afternoons listened to the brass band, watched the Punch and Judy, or hung about on the fringes of the crowd to hear the fierce religious speakers who shouted at the sea, as though it were wicked and wrong to roll in and out like that, white-horsed and full of fishes.”

This passage comes from the Dylan Thomas book Quite Early One Morning. First published in 1945. Upon reading the sentence, I immediately ordered a copy of this book. I have had it in my possession for more than a week, and after reading it daily, I am now on page fourteen. Although I am not a fast reader, this is not the reason I have only read so few pages. This feast of words cannot be consumed as though it were a pint of ice cream. As a child, I was told to chew my food thirty-two times before swallowing. I’m pretty sure I never put that advice into practice. Yet, there is no way one can gulp down the delicious words of this book in large doses. It requires a patient slow chewing.

One more sampling – Parchedig Thomas Evans making morning tea,

                                           very weak tea, too, you mustn’t waste a leaf.

                                   Every morning making tea in my house by the sea,

                                          I am troubled by one thing only, and that’s – Belief.

By what manner were we given this man? Devine Providence? Karma? A Simple Twist of Fate? I don’t know. When younger, I thought we were handed down certain people by some entity greater than I could understand. Einstein, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, and others. I’m not sure I believe that any longer, but I know there are special people, and sometimes they come into our lives. And I am grateful Dylan Thomas has come into mine.

I am not sure from where his genius came, but it was clearly present, and it cannot be ignored in reading his writing.

He earned no MFA from Yale or Cornell. At age sixteen, he dropped out of school and became a reporter for a local paper. Dylan pronounced (Dull-an) in Welsh caused his mother to worry that his name might be teased as “Dull-one” Dylan preferred the Anglicized pronunciation of Dillan. I can’t imagine that anyone would tease his name today.

Had I come upon him twenty years ago, I’m pretty sure I would never have attempted to write anything other than some cryptic handwritten note to a friend. I hold fast to the belief that through study, effort, and persistence, we can all become better writers. But just like my tennis game and that of Roger Federer, there is a vast ocean that separates my game and his. The only thing that is similar between the writing of Dylan Thomas and mine is that we use the same alphabet. The similarity ends with the letter Z.

Reading the prose of Thomas is like reading beautiful verse. By today’s standards of writing, I think many might fault him for being flowery or verbose. Clearly, he used far more adjectives than might have been required. But somehow, rather than over-writing sentences, he created beauty and imagery that is spellbinding. Because he was from Wales and wrote nearly 75 years ago, his word choices might seem vague or ‘foreign’ to the average American reader. And so they are to me, yet in sorting out his word choice is part of the wonder of reading Dylan Thomas.

One more example:

Outside the booth stood a bitten-eared and barn-door-chested pug with a nose like a twisted swede and hair that startled from his eyebrows and three teeth yellow as a camel’s, inviting any sportsman to a sudden and sickening basting in the sandy ring or a quid if he lasted a round; and wiry, cocky, bowlegged, coal scarred, boozed sportsmen by the dozen strutted in and reeled out; and still those three teeth remained, chipped and camel-yellow in the bored, teak face.

This sentence a mere 81 words.

Can you read that and not be standing there, watching those poor drunk men getting walloped by that barn-door-chested mountain of a man? Can you not hear the cheering of those watching, a small bet wagered and lost? Can you not see and feel the sweat spraying across the room as the brief fight takes place?

Dylan Thomas only lived 39 years. In his short life, he left gifts to us that take us deep into another time and another place. For me, I want to stay, to have a pint of ale, and to stroll by the beach and hear the sounds of boys running and laughing. Thank you, Mr. Thomas, for the trips you allow me to take.

Go well, David

Attitude of Gratitude

11-18-2021

A dear and gentle friend of mine recently sent me a TED Talk video. It was given by Louie Schwartzberg and addressed the issues of gratitude and nature. Waking up early as I often do, I watched it in the pre-dawn morning. It was the best time to watch it as I was rested, boosted by my first cup of coffee, and open to hearing and feeling what Mr. Schwartzberg had to say. It also was a time when Louie, our older dog, was peacefully napping, and Denni, our Deva terrier, was content with the snuggling she’d received before I was out of bed.

Through the use of beautiful music and visual images, Schwartzberg conveyed what he described as the “beauty and seduction” of nature and of being grateful. He spoke eloquently of “A universe that celebrates life,” and how we as a species protect what we fall in love with. I took some exception to the last words. Our behavior towards the Earth raises large questions about our love for this planet. That aside, I consider what the message of gratitude means to my life and that of others.

As I write this piece in the confines of my favorite coffee shop, I look forward to later this morning going to the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. It is a place I often go to walk about the desert, seeing the native plants and especially the animals of this region. I’m always glad to say hi to the Mexican Wolves, and to laugh at the silly little guys (and girls) that are the prairie dogs. Today will bring a special gift. It has been more than a year since I’ve been able to see the raptors fly. Harris hawks, a barn owl, and if I’m lucky, the now mature Caracara will take to the sky and show what amazing and wondrous birds they are. Because of COVID, they have not been on exhibit, and I have missed them dearly.

I wonder if by some magical entity we were made to create a list of those things we are grateful for and those things for which we feel an absence of gratitude. Which list would be longer? And in those lists, what gifts we are we given, with no material cost, and those things we have no control over, and yet feel anger towards. I remember upon returning from Vietnam, I thought I would forever be grateful for a clean glass of ice water. Now I complain about the water pressure not being exactly what I want or there not being enough hot water to take a ten or fifteen-minute shower. My various complaints take on an ugly personality of their own – my coffee is not warm enough, the driver behind me driving to close, why do I have to eat left-overs from the meal I thought delicious yesterday. Petty s…, that means nothing.

OK David, start a list of the gifts you’ve been given. I’m healthy, I have a nice place to live, I woke up alive this morning, I have good food, good water, I have enough money, I have a reliable car, people I love and who love me, stores stocked with anything I might want…, …., … The list could go on far longer than I have the patience to write. And when I’m in this mood, I ask myself, how often do I stop, take notice, and say “Thanks.”

Yes, this is a sermon, and maybe my actual intent is to take the time to consider what I’m writing, but to consider what I have. And I have much. And I’d guess anyone who might read this also has much. It is by chance that in a few days we will celebrate Thanksgiving. Will we stop for the 30 seconds when we openly acknowledge our blessings and then down far more food than a grown elephant needs, only to complain that we ate too much, that our NFL team lost a game, and that gas is way too expensive?

It’s time I end this tirade and say once again, I’m going to attempt to be more of who I want to be and less of who I’m inclined to be. I think I want to be more like Louie and Denni, or maybe the Harris hawk I will see this morning. My dogs are always dogs. They are content with being fed, a tummy rub, a chance to catch a lizard and then take a nap. They don’t whine when something goes wrong, they seem to accept it as one more aspect of life, and then move on to the next moment. I can’t help but believe that incredible hawk feels elation in soaring above the desert, feeling the freedom to not worry about what it has or does not have. It goes about just being what it is, a hawk. And in its hawkness, it lives and is a part of the seduction of the beauty that is there for us to know.

Go well. David 

Louie’s Book Bark

Debra VanDeventer, is the author of Out of the Crayon Box. A memoir of the life of a teacher for more than thirty-seven years. With humor and insight she tells the reader of the joy of her career and of the uncertainties of leaving the life she’s know for more then three decades. A question of “what next,” is something many of us ask upon an important change in life. Debra takes us in the classroom and shows us the beauty of children, the difficulties faced daily by teacher’s as well as the challenge of finding our way when that part of life ends and a new adventure begins. This writer does not hold back on expressing the difficulties of answering the question of “who am I now.” This book is a delight for all, not only teachers, but for all who face change. Do yourself a favor, read this book.

The medical condition of Authoritis

WWW.WebMD.bunk

Condition: Authoritis

Overview: This condition strikes one in every four writers. Though it is not considered highly contagious, it is possible to become contaminated by frequent contact with other would-be novelists. Though rarely fatal, it has caused pimple breakouts in 34% of forty-year-old men, and in some cases angry muttering while standing in the unemployment line.

Currently, there is no vaccine for this condition.

Types of Authoritis: There are three primary forms of Authoritis.

  1. Most common – Highly sensitive Authoritis. The contaminated individual feels great pain with any criticism of his or her writing.
  2. Thank you, but Authoritis. Marked by a great fear that someone will force them to change their writing style. A common refrain, “I want to keep my voice as it is, I don’t want a publisher telling me how to write.”
  3. Forty-five revision Authoritis. Marked by frequent bouts of, “I find something new to fix no matter how many times I edit.”

Symptoms: 1. A tendency to repeat, “I’ll never be any good.”

                  2. The patient can often be overheard rehearsing statements like – “To be honest, Oprah, I never thought it would do so well.” Or “It is such an honor to accept the Pulitzer Prize, thank you.”

                  3. Constantly confusing there and their.

                   4. A nagging itch, followed by, “Damn, I’m telling rather than showing.”

                  5. Frequent justification of – “It isn’t plagiarism if I write. It was kinda the best of days and kinda the worst of days.

Causes: 1. Obsession with semi-colons, ellipses, nine syllable words, and a passion for re-reading Fifty Shades of Gray eighteen times.

              2. Fall back career after being fired from McDonalds.

             3. Thinking great poetry begins with roses are red, violets are blue.

              4. An ego only slightly larger than that of Donald Trump.

Complications: 1. A desire to begin wearing a beret, or growing a Hemingway like beard.

                        2. Naming your blog site some outrageous name such as Desert-Writer.blog

                        3. Compulsive buying of pens to sign copies of your yet to be published book.

Treatment: Although there is no known cure, symptoms can be reduced by:

  1. Large doses of single-malt Scotch. (Warning: Do not exceed 30 oz. in any 24-hour period.)
  2. Receiving 900 rejection letters from your favorite publication, Most Boring Short Stories in 2020. (If you use this method, be sure and first remove all razor blades in your home.)
  3. Replacing writing with a hobby, such as skydiving without a parachute.
  4. In extreme cases of Authoritis, you might consider having your ego surgically removed and stuffed by a taxidermist.

Disclaimer: The author of this piece is neither a medical doctor nor a trained professional in any field. The above information is provided only as a casual observation and should be taken as such. In no way is there (or is it their) any attempt to provide medical advice.

The best of luck and success. Go well. David

Choosing Courage

10-28-2021

          It was in October 1970, north of Hue, Vietnam, and his name was Byrd. I don’t recall his first name, as we always just called him Byrd. He was a 91B, a combat medic, and a conscientious objector. His skin and eyes dark as coal and his smile bright. Bright and constant. He was brave in every sense of the word. One does not have to be brave to serve in war, but it requires bravery and a certain understanding and diligence to one’s beliefs to hump the jungles with no weapon; knowing there are those seeking to kill you. Byrd, or “Doc,” as his fellow soldiers called him, was such a man.

          Now fifty years later, I often think of Specialist Byrd. I served with many brave men, and I hope their lives have been filled with peace. Many of us were still boys when we were sent to war. It’s the nature of that horror. Sending boys to do what many of those senders were not willing to do themselves.

          It is now nearing the end of 2021, and we still face daily choices of being brave or turning our backs to our responsibilities. Courage is not and should not be a political issue. I once read an interview with a well-known professor of ethics. He said something that has stayed with me for many years. It went something like this – “We shouldn’t have to teach what ethics is, we should teach living with ethics.” I think he was right. Mostly, we know what is right and what is wrong. Those terms are obviously loaded words, still I believe we know it is not “right” to lie, to judge a person by their color, to justify any means to justify our goals, to disregard truth.

          To this last point, I offer this example. Last weekend I visited the Heard Museum in Phoenix. A beautiful building dedicated to preserving artifacts of Southwestern Native peoples. One section of the museum struck me as particularly poignant and sad. The section of the museum devoted to the history of American Indian children being sent to boarding schools. The directors of the museum do not shy away from telling of this horrendous practice. Robert H. Pratt was an American General. These are his words about forcing American Indian children to attend boarding school. “A great general * has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.” The following words are those of Juanita Cruz Blue Spruce, an Indian student in 1915. “I remember it was in October they came to get me. My mother started to cry, ‘Her? She’s just a little girl! You can’t take her.’ My mother put her best shawl on me.” At the museum these three words are often repeated from the past, The Indian problem.” I leave it to you to decide what was the problem. * The general Pratt was referring to was Philip H. Sheridan. To call him “great,” is a gross mischaracterization of the word.

          I need not talk about the current state of our country. Anyone who pays any attention knows where we are as a nation. It does not matter my or your political leaning. I go back to the words of the ethicist; we don’t need to be taught what is right and wrong in many areas of life. We just have to do the right thing. It matters what we do. In speaking with a friend the other day, we briefly shared our greatest fears. It only takes a second for mine to come to the surface. I have a sixteen- and eighteen-year-old granddaughter and grandson. My greatest fear is the world my generation, and those who proceeded mine are leaving for our kids and grandkids. I do have faith in our future generations. I see goodness and acceptance in them. I only hope they continue to be braver than many of those in power today.

          I don’t apologize for the words I’ve written. They are not intended to offend anyone. I intend them to hopefully make us stop and consider our own courage. To consider if we are willing to speak out for those things which are truthful, kind, and compassionate. Or shall we hide behind the tired old question of, “What difference can I make?”

          I saw a bumper sticker a couple of days ago that made me smile. – Make America Kind Again. We can do that, but we have to want to.

Now Louie’s Book Bark:

          I recently picked up a copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Everyone should read this book. I know that is a judgement statement, but I believe it is accurate. I am awestruck by the beauty, honesty, and yes, the courage Ms. Walker had in writing this masterpiece. If you watch Alice Walker read a poem on YouTube, you will hear an incredibly articulate person speak. When you read The Color Purple, you will dive into the deepest end of the pool for southern black dialect. The book could not have been written otherwise. In that dialect, you become part of every scene, of every conversation, of every emotion. In the most simple manner of writing, Walker expresses the most profound joy, sadness, anger, despair, and love. As I was reading it, I thought not one in ten million people could have written this book. I was wrong. Only one in three hundred twenty-five million could have. That single person, Alice Walker.

Go well, David

Finding the Path

10-13-2021

          After winning the Australian Open Tennis final in 20112, Novak Djokovic said he allowed himself to eat one square of chocolate. He was talking about discipline. He believed that was the level of discipline he needed in order to be the number one tennis player in the world. It must have worked, at least for Djokovic. He is now and has been for a long time, the number one male tennis player in the world.

          In contrast, I read a short essay in Writer’s Digest that suggested – In writing, progress is the goal, not perfection. Those two attitudes seem to be in stark contrast. Somewhere in the middle between Charles Dickens and Novak Djokovic lives us mortals. Having played tennis for over thirty years, my game came closer to that of a skilled ball boy than it did a professional tennis player. In writing, I’m a few steps past the coffee boy that jumps when Stephen King says his coffee needs more cream.

          Fortunately, my livelihood depends on neither activity. I no longer play tennis, but for the years I did, it brought pleasure, good friends, and a few trophies. Writing still provides joy, challenges, great friends, and no small degree of frustration. I relish the first three and dread the fourth. A challenge is always an unknown, still when I overcome one, it feels good. At this stage of my life, family and friends are my greatest pleasures and I can count on them bringing joy. I’m coming closer to finally understanding frustration is a part of life. I still don’t like it, but I’m better at accepting it.

          So what’s all this gobbledygook mean? Maybe nothing, maybe something significant. I want to be a good writer. As nebulous as that sounds, it’s what I aspire to be. What that means is something I’ve determined for myself, only something I can decide as it pertains to me. Just as your definition of good is singular to you. As a sidebar, I’m not willing to give up chocolate for that purpose. I like chocolate far too much and I have no interest in being the number one writer in the world. Whatever that title would mean.

          I want to write well enough so that others who might read my efforts can honestly say we’d made a fair trade. They’d paid the price of their time to read it, and I’d offered my efforts of writing in exchange. I’d like to also think that out there somewhere in the universe of readers someone might say, “That was fun” (interesting, clever, entertaining,) – fill in your preferred word. I’d even like on occasion to say to myself after I’d finished a piece, “That wasn’t so bad.”

          Succinct answer, please. – “I want to write well enough that I approve of it and others also approve.”

          Talking with a friend about this issue at coffee, he asked an important question. Something like this. “Do you have a path that will take you where you want to go?” That’s not an easy question to answer. When I was younger and starting to play tennis, I played with this older man. He was on the courts almost every day, but he never improved his skills. He never improved because he played the same way every time he stepped on court. He never perfected a proper backhand, he never tried to improve his paddy cake serve or to learn to anticipate where the ball was going to go when his opponent hit it. In Rick’s case, those things didn’t matter. He loved to play tennis and to be with his friends. That was good enough for him. I wanted to be a better player, so I took lessons, played in a league, and practiced those skills needed to improve. I got better.

          I think the question my friend asked this day is similar to that story. I can type words on a screen. Spellcheck adds twenty IQ points to my writing, and I can blissfully say I’m a writer.  But skilled writing takes effort, time, will, and determination to get better. It takes walking a path that will actually get me to my destination. I’m slowly finding it. I am an active reader, that does not necessarily mean I read a lot of material, it means I try to pay attention to the writing I’m reading. I push myself to take chances when I write. There’s a statement that says – insanity is doing the same thing over and over again in the same way and expecting different results. I think that’s also true in writing. Writing the same thing over and over and in the same way and expecting it to win the Pulitzer Prize, is also a good definition of insanity. I attempt to check my ego at the door, and then consult my writing friends, I listen to them, when it feels right, I incorporate their suggestions.

          Bottom line for me – discipline means finding something meaningful enough to stay with, even when it’s hard. Finding the right path means not heading west to try to get to Chicago if I’m now in Tucson. The path needs to actually take me where I wish to go. Taking appropriate risks. Maybe a bigger task and challenge for all of us is to believe that we can accomplish our goals, that they are  worthy of something, and then making the effort necessary to make it come about.

          I’m not sure who said this, but I’m betting someone did. “If you don’t try, you’re guaranteed to never fail, but also know you are guaranteed to never succeed.”

          I wish everyone the best success, discipline, and joy in trying to make progress. Let perfection be the task of Novak Djokovic. But I ask, “what’s the joy in being worth $220,000,000. If you can’t allow yourself to eat a snickers bar sometimes?”

Go well, David

Kindness “ROCKS!”

9-29-2021

          My father-in-law once said as he grew old, “The days drag, but the years fly.” I was probably in my forties when I first heard him say that. Now, decades later, I believe I have a better understanding of his words. The past eighteen months, during the evolution of our time with COVID, have showed just what those words mean. It seems like only yesterday we heard that term for the first time, while now each day takes an eternity to get through. We’ve all lost those friends and family we have known and loved.

          During this time, I came upon something that brings a brighter light into my life. I have no idea what it is actually called, but briefly, what’s occurring is finding painted rocks that people have left to be found. To those who’ve not come upon this, it might sound strange, yet it is a simple gesture of giving away smiles to strangers and never knowing who received your gift.

          A person paints a small rock, often with some humorous picture or artistic motif, and then leaves it somewhere to be found. A park, on a trail, or anyplace a person might wander by and see it. Some people find the little hidden treasures, look at them, smile and move on, while others pick them up and take them home. Either act is ok with most rock painters. The goal is to make someone smile. The artistic skill of rock painting varies, with some basic and others very much works of art.

          In the last six months, I’ve taken up the activity. Without question, I’m no Matisse, but the more rocks I paint, the better I get. Like writing, it is an endeavor learned by doing it often and  gaining skills. I’ve painted and left two or three dozen rocks in the past half year. It’s always fun to find my way back to the spot where a rock was left and note that someone has found and taken it. I always think, I hope they enjoyed the find and that it brought a smile.

          There are Facebook groups for rock painting. People post pictures of rocks they’ve painted or found. Some are amazing works of art. I follow two groups–Arizona Rocks and another called Kindness Rocks. For me, the most important aspect of the group is the support and friendliness that everyone shows. Check out the groups, you might like them.

          The examples of rock painters are something far greater in importance than the actual rocks that are created. Many of my writing friends and I have shared how difficult personally the past eighteen months have been. To put it in a vernacular understood by all—COVID sucks! And the opposite of that is Kindness “ROCKS!” Living in Tucson, we see huge murals, signs and bumper stickers with a common message, Kindness Matters. It does matter and it always has.

          Anger, frustration, and inappropriate behavior sit close to the edge of many of us. I’ve witnessed outbursts and mean-spirited remarks often in the last months. I believe in part it is related to all the negative events, in so many spheres of our lives, that have put us on edge. I know I often have to bite my tongue in order not to say something I will later regret. So one thing I do is paint rocks and leave them to be found by others. I smile when I find one, and I hope someone else smiles when they find one of mine.

          I believe not only now do we need to be kind, but we’ve always needed to. Call it paying it forward, a random act of kindness, or call it nothing, but I’ll bet you will feel better when you behave in a kind manner.

          The theme of kindness extends itself into another arena in my life. That is in writing and having many wonderful friends that also write. I’ve seen some folks who seem to feel if they support the success of others, it somehow reduces what success is left that might come to them. It almost sounds like, “If you are a successful writer, if you sell lots of books, then it will take away my success in writing and my selling books.” That maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but to a degree it is true. An example. Writers need and depend on reviews for their published work and often ask those who’ve read their work to leave a review on Amazon or Good Reads. Some will, of course, yet others will take twenty minutes to tell you they are too busy to write a review that takes ten minutes to complete. It takes little time and costs nothing to share a positive word about another. That includes writing reviews for books you’ve enjoyed. Kindness, like love is in endless supply.

          Speaking of books, I just finished a very good writing book entitled Get Published in Literary Magazines by Allison K. Williams. The book was loaded with very practical information about how to get your work published. She wrote about picking the right magazines, how to submit your work and offered many other useful tips. In addition, she repeated many times that a person needs to be generous regarding other writers. Seems there is a theme here. Post on twitter that you like their work, encourage others, support them every chance you get.

          Be kind–Be Generous – Kindness ROCKS!

Louie’s Book Bark

          If you enjoy poetry, accessible poetry, the kind you can understand, read Scribbled In The Dark by Charles Simic. It is a wonderful small book of beautiful writing. One critic said this of his work, “His poetry… is comic and elegiac in measure. It has an Old-World sensibility… that he pins to a New-World lightness of heart.”

Be Kind, Go well.   David

The Butterfly Girl

9-24-2021

          Sometimes, if we are lucky, we get what we ask for. Not always. We can’t count on it happening every time, but if we are persistent, it just might happen. Today it happened to me. There is a place I often go so that I might walk and sit in quiet peace. It lies next to a river that is perpetually dry. On rare occasion one might see a coyote walking the dry riverbed in search of a mouse or rabbit to feed upon, or the glorious visual feast of sacred datura in full bloom.  I saw the white blossoms of the datura, the flash of the coyote avoided me this day.

          The park is a monument to a child who was killed in a mass shooting here in Tucson on January 8, 2011. Christina-Taylor Green was nine years old on that day. She, along with five others were killed and twelve others were wounded. The park is a beautiful tribute to this brown-eyed child. It is said she brought sunshine with her wherever she went, and Christina loved butterflies.

          I took my cup of tea, my notebook, and I walked along the edge of the riverbed. As I strolled, I kept thinking I wanted to write something about the amazing child that was and that is Christina. I turned over ideas, but nothing seemed to work. After I completed my walk, I sat on a bench in the park, and tried to come to a decision about what to write. It was early, maybe six a.m., unusually cool with the western sky slightly dimmed by gray clouds. I glanced up and the picture below was what I saw. I am not a religious man, yet I believe there must be something guiding this vast everything. I cannot put it into words that do any justice to what it is. I must leave that to those much wiser than me.

          Perhaps it was mere coincidence, perhaps it meant nothing more than an ordinary moment that occurs in nature. Yet, I was given a gift, a chance to see it, and I am grateful for that.

          I came home, and I wrote this poem. It is not finished to my satisfaction, but the words are what I have now, and I wanted to share them.

                  I dream of a child

I know little about life

    Being so young, I know only of

        Butterflies

I wish I was a butterfly

    Maybe I shall be someday

         Do you like butterflies?

Oh yes, very much

    My answer seemed small

    She knew my hesitation

    Smiling, she took my hand

Let me show you my magical place

    We must be quiet and happy

        If we are lucky, we will see them       

   We walked peacefully, silently

   Her child’s face grew serious

Do you know if there is a heaven?

    Not wanting to disappoint, I answered, 

I hope there is

She laughed, brown eyes ablaze

I know there is. You want to know how?

    Yes, tell me

Because that’s where butterflies go

    They rise into the sky

        Blue, red, green, and yellow 

And they are happy forever

    I want to be where the butterflies are

        When I go to heaven

But I know little about life

    Being so young

        I know only of butterflies

          In my seventy-three years, only one other time has something so overwhelming and so unexplainable happened to me. Perhaps that story will be told another day. This morning I sat and cried as I’ve often done in that park. Today there was my sadness, but there was also joy. I felt joy for the life of a child I never met. A child that in nine short years knew far more than I’ve learned in over seven decades. Christina-Taylor Green, a girl who loved butterflies.

Go well, David.

Take Risks

9-9-2021

          Writing can be bliss and it can be lugging a bag of cement across the Sonoran Desert in August. For me, most of the time it fits somewhere between the two. Maybe it tends to lean a bit more towards bliss. There is often that moment when I sit down with all the good intentions in the world of putting tons of brilliantly written sentences on the computer screen. I walk away, and my inner Faulkner feels more like my inner Pee Wee Herman. My little demon critic whispers into my ears, “Well, that was fun. Any particular reason you picked today to use every adverb and adjective you’ve been told a thousand times not to use?” But sometimes it feels RIGHT! I keep writing.

          I have some great writing friends. Maybe they are not great writers, but they are damn good. They pour their hearts and souls into their work, and they turn out some excellent work. One of them sent out an e-mail today saying she’s sent her manuscript to the book formatter and cover designer. My friends and I have watched her struggle, write and perfect her to-be book for the past year and a half. It is going to be very good, and I can hardly wait to hold and read it.

I had coffee with another writing friend recently, and I heard and saw the angst and effort he puts into his work every time he sits down to write. And it’s going to be good too. The story in his head is magical.

          Writing is a solitary endeavor, but how great it is when you have good honest friends to share it with, friends to pull and push you along, and then freely cheer when you have even a small success. That is to me the real joy of close friendships.

          The following words are those of Paulo Coelho, one of my favorite authors. These words were spoken in his acceptance speech delivered to the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

“The glory of the world is transitory, and we should not measure our lives by it, but by the choice we make to follow our Personal Legend, to believe in our utopias and to fight for our dreams. We are the protagonists of our own lives, and it is often the anonymous heroes who leave the deepest mark.”

          These words have resonance with me. No matter why you write, why you run, work, or why you dream of and work for your utopia, it is transitory and yet – It Has Meaning. Even if only to you. No matter how small or how large our dreams, they will never come to fruition if we are unwilling to fight for them. And who knows, you, or me, or anyone may end up leaving the deepest mark.

          The critique group in which I belong recently, as a diversion from what we generally do, decided to write a critique of Ernest Hemingway’s – Hills Like White Elephants. The short story was written in 1927. To make a short story even shorter, none of us was very impressed. One of the group members later wrote a satirical version of the story that was far better and more fun to read. Hemingway was perhaps a bit like Scotch, an acquired taste. Yes, I know, hard to dismiss his success, and hard to forget how his life ended.

The best writing leaves some lasting impact on the reader. You may like it, hate it, want to forget it, or forever remember it, but it needs to leave some effect on you. Here is a short poem that demonstrates that sentiment. It shows it like few others.

It was written by the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, born in 1903 and died in 1946. The poem is called Incident.

Once Riding in old Baltimore,

Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,

I saw a Baltimorean

Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,

And he was no whit bigger,

And so I smiled, but he poked out

His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December.

Of all the things that happened there

That’s all that I remember.

If that poem does not evoke something deep inside you, perhaps you need to see a doctor. It is not my place to tell anyone what they should feel, but I risk saying that we, as a species, must feel something about writing that precise, that powerful, and that beautiful.

For those of you who are writers, trust yourself and write. For those of you who do other things, do them with enthusiasm. Another quote I saw recently, No Guts, No Story. That same sentiment applies to many things. Take risks, it’s scary and yet far more fun than playing Tic-tac-toe or being satisfied with “good enough.”

I wish you the best success. Go well. David.