Thoughts

Streaks of light

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Some moments swim around in the back of your memory for a long time, coming up for air every now and then to make you smile or laugh or cry. Sometimes all three.

One year ago today, I was standing in a rest stop parking lot in Arizona with my new wife at three o’clock in the morning, staring into the night sky. The car was filled to bursting with suitcases, pillows, empty water bottles, two cats and a dog. We had woken up early on the final day of our trip to get away from city lights so we could see the largest meteor shower in years. We were half asleep, exhausted from travel, excited to lay eyes on our new house. We were nowhere. We were free.

And there, in the dark desert sky, was a trailing line of brightness. And another. Streaks of light appearing sporadically across our field of vision before fading back into night. Pieces of an ancient comet, now become something new and beautiful and ephemeral.  We would catch one out of the corner of our eye and try to point to it quickly so the other person wouldn’t miss it. Every now and then one would appear right where we were looking and our faces would light up with it.

We held hands and gazed silently into the heavens, halfway between our old world and our new. It was one of the most magical moments of my life.

Named

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I could be writing. Right now. That’s the thought that has been bothering me from the back of my mind whenever I’m at home lately. It’s the thought I’ve been trying to name for months now as the nausea and restlessness have intensified. I figured maybe it was stress about the debt or anxiety about work. Or maybe it was more personal; Was I afraid I wasn’t living up to the ideal of a man or that my wife deserved more from me? But I know it’s not any of those, really.

I could be writing. Right now.

It pops up when I’m watching Netflix or reading a comic book. It’s even louder when I’m absorbed in some silly game on my phone or disappearing into the internet for a few hours. I could be writing, right now, and instead I’m doing something that is conspicuously not writing. So why don’t I do it? Why does that last question bring tears to my eyes every time I ask it? I say I want to write, I dream of being a writer, I have so many fantastic story ideas already sketched out. So why don’t I write?

There’s pain. I haven’t worked out yet where it comes from, or if I have I’m doing a great job of feigning ignorance. Did something happen in my childhood that has me spooked? Did my recent business failure scar me more deeply than I realize? Is there some ingrained belief that doesn’t allow me to express my creativity and show it to the world with my name on it?

Is this what a failed writer feels like?

Any day now

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My friend recently asked if it made me feel unaccomplished to see younger people succeed. It’s a question I’ve heard people ask in one way or another, mostly late at night after a day of doing nothing. The classic example is that Jesus changed the world by age 33 and here we are working at <insert terrible employer here>. And the answer is no.

It’s always tempting to compare yourself to famous people who accomplished things early in their lives. James Madison joined the continental congress at 29. Mary Shelley published Frankenstein at 20. I see LeBron James dominate the basketball world and wonder: why I wasn’t doing that in my twenties? Or thirties…

Let’s just remember that the game’s not timed. Starting early or late doesn’t matter, just starting.

And for that matter, can’t we adjust for our modern lifespans? It only seems fair. I’m only like 18 in Jesus years. So relax. He spent the last 9% of his life performing miracles and healing the world. I promise I’ll do the same. In about 12 Jesus years.

And I could have been a LeBron, if only I had talent, athleticism, dedication, and height.

Face to face

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I’m afraid that people won’t like me. It colors a multitude of my actions.

I don’t speak much in a group setting. I avoid eye contact. I stick to customary greetings and interactions, almost to the point of rudeness sometimes. Like I didn’t care enough to show up. People who do spend time getting to know me seem surprised to learn how thoughtful and sincere I can be. I just don’t show it to many because I’m scared.

Fear of rejection affects my aspirations as well. I was born to be a storyteller, always brimming with ideas. There are piles of notebooks scattered throughout my house with plot summaries and storyline diagrams. The act of creating is deeply personal and very beautiful. But. There is this sense of terror- or maybe it’s dread- that I might pour my entire soul into a project and have my efforts met with yawns. What would I do then? For what purpose would I live? To be rejected or misunderstood is an odious fate.

Better to stall. Find a reason to push off that project. Find a different project and get caught up in the “planning phase” of that one for a while. I seem to do this effectively, scattering my focus and never stopping to act. That book will never get written at this pace. Which some days is fine by me; there’s a monster at the end of the book. Better to keep it safely in the future than to meet it face to face.

I guess babies are the same way. It scares me to think of creating a human being and then looking it in the eyes. What would I see? Would she be proud of her father? Would he want to be like dad? Would they like my stories?

The Superman

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In 1933, two high school students in Cleveland started a story about an alien living in disguise on Earth. They named it The Superman. For a few years they worked to capture this story on paper, as they refined and illustrated and edited. The alien took on a personality and backstory: To hide its great abilities this creature does its best to appear human and live peacefully among us, only risking detection to help those in need. The boys sold the story rights in 1938 for $130 to a comic book publisher and saw the first issue in print later that year.

The books were a critical success with its target audience of young boys. In the first few published chapters, Superman saved some trapped coal miners and met his future wife. He investigated corruption in the Senate and stopped a war. He became the first superhero- a word which came to mean someone who has incredible talents and chooses to use them to help people.

As the story now belonged to a publishing company with deadlines, the writing and drawing duties were shared by several individuals. The young men who created the story did most of the work at first, and other talents were brought in over time. The Superman became a communal tale, told by many voices and imagined by many hands. Every month a new chapter was added to the story and shared with the world.

After a year of success, the company added a second comic book featuring Superman. The next year came a newspaper comic strip and then a serial radio show. The Superman’s abilities started to steadily grow more fantastical- he started out leaping tall buildings, then he could clear city blocks, then one day he could fly. Before long the bank robbers didn’t seem so intimidating- more demanding challenges were needed. The radio show contributed the concept of a meteoroid from the alien’s home planet that saps its strength, and the story marched on.

For decades this story raged unchecked, branching and multiplying and spreading through the world. It was entrusted to dozens of creators- hundreds! Each added a unique element to the narrative. The alien fought armies, moved moons, changed jobs; even died (he got better). Once he squared off against Muhammad Ali in a boxing match for some reason. There were television shows, movies, novels, cartoons. All equally valid parts of the story, all unfolding this same tale. The original young readers grew up and introduced the fable to their children, who began to contribute as well.

Eventually contradictions arose that demanded resolution. One writer indicated that the alien and his wife had met as children, another that they met for the first time as adults. Deeper problems than that came with time. If The Superman fought in World War II, wouldn’t his coworkers notice that he hasn’t aged? For that matter, why haven’t they? Clever writers set about to fix these irregularities using untraditional plot devices such as multiple universes, malleable timelines, magic spells. The story became self-healing and never missed a beat.

The legend of The Superman is still unfolding and I expect it always will. Sprawling, complex, evolutionary. Has there ever been anything like this?

Duck season

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I was born with a medical condition called incomplete syndactyly. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Just a fancy way of saying I have webbed toes.

Two of the toes on my right foot (the piggies that stayed home and had roast beef) are webbed together, about halfway up. It’s barely even noticeable. I didn’t notice it myself until someone pointed it out to me. It must have been a parent or some other relative; I remember them saying that it’s uncommon but not a problem, that it wouldn’t hurt me and it was just a part of who I am. Good enough for me.

You would think that having webbed toes would make me a great swimmer, but you would be wrong. Swimming came about as naturally to me as any sport- I underwhelmed audiences everywhere. The only notable talents that I had growing up were math and music- neither of which required the toes. It’s hard to say that the syndactyly has had any impact on my life one way or another.

In the ninth grade I would show my webbed toes to the girls in band class. I would build the suspense slowly, spreading apart pairs of toes one at a time, saying: Normal, Normal, Normal…WEBBED! They would see that the skin between those toes comes all the way up to the second knuckle and they’d just shriek in terror and glee. Then they’d run off to tell their friends to come see the show. Hey, there’s no such thing as bad press.

No one else in my family has webbed toes. I don’t think I can pass it on. We all have these random little characteristics that make us uniquely ourselves. What’s yours? Do you snore or grow hair in your ears? Maybe you know shorthand or you’re obsessed with Days of Our Lives. Whatever it is, it makes you who you are. I love that about you.

It’s time

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I used to struggle to get to work by 9am. In fact, I scheduled a daily 9am meeting with my team just to make sure I forced myself to get out the door in the morning. I could do that job with my eyes closed and often very nearly did.  The problem was that I just didn’t want to get out of bed. It was so comfortable and warm. The pillows were extra floppy and my cat loved to snuggle under the covers. No place I’d rather be.

The location didn’t help much either. My apartment was nestled right up against the forest in the back of the neighborhood and it was on the sub-basement floor. The only plant I could keep on my back patio outside was ivy because anything that required the smallest amount of light would die in no time.  So there I was, tucked in with the handsomest little kitten ever in the darkness of the recently departed night. And you’re telling me I have to go to work?

It became a game: How late could I set the alarm? If I didn’t have to shave that day, how many times could I hit snooze? I would rise later and later as I found new optimizations in my schedule. Before too long, I could be out the door less than 15 minutes after my feet hit the ground and fully awake by my second cup of coffee. My commute was next to nothing, so I rarely hit a lot of traffic. Even on those days where traffic seemed to find me, I wasn’t more than five minutes late. To my own meeting.

When we moved out to the desert, we upgraded to a modest two-story house. Our bedroom is on the top floor with a large double window facing east. The first few weeks we were sleeping on an inflatable-but-only-half-inflated mattress on the floor (don’t ask). Every morning we would wake up staring into the blazing wilderness sun, unapologetically reminding us that it was already 6am and didn’t we have things to be doing? Forget the alarm clock- this thing didn’t have a snooze button. Just a bright orange neon sign that said “WELCOME TO TUESDAY!”

I don’t need an alarm clock any more. I open my eyes at that moment where the sun first starts peeking over the horizon. That’s when you can see the most unbelievable colors streaking across the clouds right outside the window. That’s when the sky is painted orange or purple or whatever mood it’s in that morning.  Breathtaking. Like having a different masterpiece hanging on your wall every day. Did you know that sunrise in the autumn always happens one minute later than it did the day before? If the sun rises at 6:17 today, it will rise promptly at 6:18 tomorrow. As if the sun sleeps in more and more as winter approaches. For once, the time I arrive at work depends on the time I wake up- not the other way around.

I’ll admit I have started to use an alarm clock again. I set it for 5am. I’ve got things to do.

I’m not sorry

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I have an apology problem. Numerous relationships have been strained or abruptly ended by my refusal to say the words “I’m sorry”. It’s a phrase that loving people say to each other all the time, but it has never flowed easily from my lips. Most of all I don’t like doing anything just because I am supposed to or expected to, and apologies almost always fall into that category.

I don’t blame anyone who is a fan of apologies. We were all raised to admit error and express remorse for our mistakes. I just think it’s kid stuff. If you throw a rock and it breaks the neighbor’s window, you know your parents are going to march you over there to mumble the magic words of redress. No one asks you how you really feel about that neighbor or what your original intent was. All that seems to matter is that you broke a rule and that you say that thing you’re supposed to say. As adults I feel we can do better.

When someone on my team messes up at work, my policy is to immediately take the blame onto myself (regardless of the facts) and move the conversation quickly to remedies. It just makes sense. Who cares about pointing fingers when we all have a goal to achieve? I attempt to apply similar principles in relationships, with an admittedly lower rate of success.

When I hurt someone it is usually unintentional because I’m not a mean-spirited person. So there they are crying (or screaming) while I try to figure out what I did or how I could have avoided it. Talking through the situation helps us both to understand our different perspectives and where things went wrong. Sometimes I will note improvements that could be made (“I should listen to you more carefully”) or offer helpful advice for future situations (“When I say x, I really mean y”). There always comes a point where I believe the conversation is over until I realize that the other person is waiting expectantly for that elusive “I’m sorry” to wrap it up. I haven’t quite figured out how to explain that it is unnecessary without bad things happening.

If I weren’t staring down the barrel of an angry girlfriend, I might say something like this: The concept of right or wrong only makes sense if you assume that someone (who is not you) has the right to judge your actions and declare them to be “good” or “bad”. The Catholic guilt in me says that God has nothing better to do than to sit on a cloud and referee my life, but I’ve very nearly muted that voice in my head by now. Can I really wrong another person? Who judges that, and what if we disagree?

I humbly suggest that there is no right or wrong, no should or shouldn’t. We all make our choices however we see fit and no one’s judgement is any more or less authoritative than his neighbor’s. Forget about anyone who has wronged you. They haven’t. They have only done something that you find displeasing. Which, excuse my bluntness, is your problem.

In our marriage, we don’t apologize to each other. For anything. It is a conscious choice that we made and a promise we strive to keep. If you take away the easy out of saying I’m sorry, you are forced to find other words to describe how you feel or what you regret. Without the expectation of a child-like apology, you are merely trying to listen, to understand, and to communicate how you feel. It can only bring you closer together.

Love means never having to say you are sorry when you’re not.

Here or nowhere

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Here’s the thing.

We all have darkness. We all have secret shames and we’re all putting on a constant act so that friends and strangers won’t start to politely avoid us. There’s this unspoken agreement that we’ll all pretend to be fairly normal and have our shit together so nobody feels too uncomfortable. I’ve got to say- It’s not a great deal.

I knew a guy who used to say “This mess is the place.” If you wake up one day and decide that you’ve put off spring cleaning long enough, you go to the messiest, most clutter-filled room in your house and get to work. There’s no way around it.

This mess is the place. You try your hardest not to think about the problems that keep cropping up in your life. Over and over these patterns present themselves, begging you to take notice and learn the lesson they are so desperately trying to teach you. Only here can you gain wisdom and freedom.

This mess is the place. This ugly behavior that you just. can’t. fix. That makes you look at yourself in disgust and disbelief. All those years of struggle and broken resolve and shame and hiding. The answer isn’t distraction and it isn’t outside of us. It’s right here in the broken places.

It’s the mess. It’s the corners of ourselves that we’d rather not discuss. The stuff you’d never post on social media- that’s the real conversation we’ve been waiting to have. And it’s time now. We’ve believed the story that there are parts of ourselves that are ugly and bad but that’s nonsense. This is us.

Look inside. You don’t have any demons in there to fight. There aren’t good parts and bad parts. There is only you. Beautiful, messy, glorious you. Look inside- don’t look away. This mess is where the magic happens- the only place it could happen. This is where we start to love ourselves for who we are. This is where we find the gift of our authentic selves and nowhere else. This mess is the place.

Enjoy the show

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There is a darkness inside of me. A deep, relentless sadness. It has been there for countless years- I don’t even know for how long. Old friends who pay attention would tell you that it’s just who I am.

I can hide it well enough most days behind a wall of jokes and deflections. If you make people laugh they assume you are happy. Tell them that you meditate regularly and they start to ask for your secrets to peace and joy. Here’s my secret: I’m a complete mess. My head is full of despair and my heart screams in pain when it isn’t numb. But I keep it pretty numb. There are plenty of distractions in life if you’re looking for them.

It’s a sadness that can’t be shaken, no matter how many reasons for joy present themselves. Where did it come from? I either don’t know or don’t want to admit. But there it is in the mirror, staring back at me with those eyes that say “Liar”. Fraud. Thief. Unworthy.

Anti-depressants didn’t help. They just pushed it down a little further and took other pieces of me that I’d prefer to keep. They say that exercise and eating right make you feel better, but they are idiots. If I could get out of the bed in the morning and make good choices then I’d be normal, not this disaster. Some days are better than others, but it gets pretty bad.

I disappear when no one else is around. I sit on the couch and halfheartedly think of all the things I could or should do with my time but all I really do is wait. I turn off and conserve my energy for the next time I am required to spin back up and interact with someone else. I imagine that other people have hobbies and fulfilling personal lives. All I have is The Show. And the show must go on.

If I’m being really honest, it’s not sadness that I struggle with. It’s fear.

What if I fail? What if I let you down? What if everything falls apart and it’s all my fault? I can’t let you know what’s really going on. I can’t be honest or authentic– I’m a monster inside. Keep them away, keep them outside. Quick, tell a joke. Change the subject. Get sick and stay home. Find someone to blame. What if they find out? What if I fail?

I don’t say this to alarm or for attention. It’s just who I am.