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e.s.t.

"Well they blew up the chicken man in philly last night, and they they blew up his house, too..."     BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN    Atlantic City

Over the Christmas/New Year holiday I was introduced to some new music. Music taste is like food taste. And cartoons. Just because two people like everything they ever shared together before, it does not translate that the next thing will be relished equally. So when a friend with which I have no real musical history said "You have to listen to this..." I was skeptical. Until I was hooked. Everything- the trio format, the melancholy meter, the purposefully off-tempo nature of the call and response- in essence the precision unruliness of the whole, made me, in an instant, a life-long fan of Esbjörn Svensson.

Then the punch line-

"yeah; too bad he's dead..."

So, anyway, in one breath I'm given this great music and in the next the weight of the knowledge that they'll never be any more. It makes me sad to love it so much. Really, go out on the googles and search for "Elevation of Love", the live performance from Berghausen, Germany. You'll understand...

Damn kids...

--- --- ---

Death has been the theme of late, this year's black. I've had to experience too much of it, viscerally and peripherally. I'll let you in on a little secret. Both suck. When death comes close you grieve. And grief lingers long after you think it should have known it was time to go. Grief is like a bad house guest who missed the cue that its time to strip the bed, pack the bags, and take your coffee in a travel mug. For cryin' out loud I just want to read the paper...

And when death comes to a friend its just as hard because there is nothing to be done. Be available, be open, be a good listener. But don't try to 'help' because there is no help you can offer that a true friend wouldn't have already extended.

--- --- ---

Everything dies, baby, that's a fact...

 

Its true for people, pets, plants, jazz musicians, even well-intended-but-poorly-conceived-blogs. Everything has a lifespan. My dad's death was sudden but not unexpected. When a body nears ninety years old all bets are off. You say 'he had a good life' and thank the lord the end was quick and relatively painless. But when death comes sooner you begin to question the point of it all. So young, so much left to do, so much- so much...

 

When my brother Skip died I was mad. Mad that he didn't try harder, mad that I try at all. To this day I don't think I've really cried for him. I cried on and off for days after our cat Gabriel died. P and I talked about what a good soul he was, and how he enriched our lives. And we buried him in the garden and placed an angel on his grave. But for my brother there was only anger. No, that wasn't it. There was mad. Concocted from a pound of frustration and seasoned with a healthy pinch of guilt. Mad. That it made no sense.

--- --- ---

But maybe everything that dies some day comes back...

That days are getting longer. Dinner comes at twilight now, and not early evening. Looking out the kitchen window, the sky is streaked pink and purple. A pillow of dusk. It is a time of looking torward, not whence. Gabriel's angel holds a handful of seed for the finches. They do not linger and wonder at the nature of tender cherub cupping her hands for them to feed from. Lingering is careless and fraught with danger. Smart animals...

 

I'm listening to e.s.t. Live from Hamburg. It is such beautiful music. It makes my brain smile whilst I write. And I realize as I listen, it never ends. As long as I listen the music is real. Every time a song ends, the audience applauds. Every time. And then another song begins. Over and over. And so it goes.

 

It occurred to me tonight that when I left Florida, after I said goodbye to my dad, I took only one souvenir- honest to God- a travel mug, full of coffee. How'd I miss that one?

 

Its time-to move forward, or if not forward, at least toward. Toward the coming spring, coming opportunity, toward the future,  And bring a travel mug full of memories, and stories, and good music...

 

--- --- ---

 

"Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. But maybe everything that dies some day comes back. Put your makeup on and fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City..."

 

mark...

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All Saints Day

Tony, Tony,
look around.
Something's lost
and must be found!

PRAYER TO ST. ANTHONY

Today is a special day in the Catholic church. This first day of November is All Saints Day. For the uninitiated, All Saints Day is not a typical feast day in the tradition of the individual Saints and their fetes. It is more a day of observance and solemn recognition of all who have passed before. Deeply rooted in the western european tradition, All Saints Day was instituted sometime after 700 A.D. as a sort of papal Veteran's Day to "honour all the saints, both known and unknown." Such a profound and simple principle- "honor all, known and unknown." Its very existence makes manifest the true binding force of any religion or fellowship or tribe; the heartfelt communion of a congregation of souls, past, present, and future. And it underscores the very principle of connectedness with a thick line, indelible to time or whimsey. It says, "We all are one."

I remember as far back as far back goes watching my father's mother sitting after Sunday dinner, occasionally on our living room sofa, but more often on the stiff wooden chair near the big front window, sorting through her holy cards. Every Sunday she recited prayers so long-ago ingrained that the cards, worn thin by the years and crudely laminated with scotch tape, acted merely as orisonal placeholders. Half whispering, half meditating, her charm bracelet making it's grandmotherly clink, clink, clink, she offered recitations of petition and gratitude. She would shuffle through her deck of saints, meticulously assembled like the batting rotation in some fantasy invocation team, with positions secured through years of tough negotiation. "Now on deck, Francis of Assisi. Assisi..."

My grandmother's saints were real to her. They were friends. Each had a special conversation to be spoken, and a special time and place to be spoken to. Each had a job, full with the expectations that jobs bring. The saints were concrete, they were flesh and blood. And really, that's what saints are. Real. Because before the saints were saints they were people. With lives. And stories. And each had earned through due diligence their place in my grandmother's starting lineup. She never played favorites, nor would she brook some trendy upstart with an aggressive PR agenda. They earned their spot in the rotation through hard work and by providing consistent results. And they told great stories.

Always batting first was the perennial fan favorite, Saint Anthony. Before Anthony became the patron saint of lost car keys, he was a simple country doctor and preacher. Born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon Portugal, he became Brother Anthony of the Franciscan order after finding himself tasked by a visiting monk with tending to the bodies of five Franciscan friars who had been martyred for their evangelism in Morocco. "They were willing to die for their belief" he wrote, "and I prayed that my own death should have such weight." Anthony, at the time a foundering novice longed for connectedness to something greater, for the calling. He became an evangelical, traveling extensively, preaching to everyone, and when there were none, to no one. Preaching to spread his word. Preaching to find his way. Through it he found solace, and a voice. There are many stories as to why Anthony is connected to lost things, but the most compelling stories are those that have to do with his utter humility in aiding those in need, and restoring their faith in God and fellow man. Which makes him, along with the finder of lost trinkets, also the finder of lost souls.

Francis, our friend from Assisi, the founder of Anthony's Franciscan order, himself tells a story of casting off riches and the excesses of youth and position, and adopting a life of humble service. It is said that he slept outdoors, on the ground, and that all who knew him considered him a friend. His official team photo depicts him with a bird on his shoulder, cupping his hands to hold food, or water. Service to the smallest among us. Service to the weakest. Service that matters. Indeed it is what ties the saints together, the subjugation of personal desire for a life of service and advocacy.  Its the tie that binds them together, and them to us.

Agnes, the virgin saint, the patron of both couples in love and victims of abuse, was killed for refusing to be forcibly married to the son of a wealthy nobleman. Jeanne D'Arc, a simple farmer's daughter, led a criminally small French army battalion to victory against invading English forces. Later captured and tried by a British tribunal, she endured fourteen months of incarceration and interrogation before being burned at the stake. And all before her twentieth birthday. For God? Perhaps yes, or perhaps instead through God. But certainly for their sisters and brothers, and by extension, for us. Because nothing is anything if its not done for someone, or for something.

And now to address the subtext, the second stringers, the unknowns. While the knowns will always find their herald, there remain so many more unknown's out there, forever unheralded. And now, like then, they are still feeding the birds, fighting an overwhelming force, tending to the battered bodies of the abused. They don't seek recognition, they don't act for redemption or indulgence, they seek only to heal, to help, to soften the blow or even take a blow. For justice, or righteousness, or just for a friend. They'll never make the starting rotation, or make it out of the minors. Hell, they'll never even have a rookie card. But its not because they don't make saints like they used to. It's because true saints don't think of themselves that way. It's because sainthood, like politics, is local.

 In the Buffalo region we have our favorites- like Father Baker, Tim Russert, Constance B. Eve, or Anne and Milton Rogovin... By light of day they looked and sounded like ordinary people, but now, through the filter of time and a light sanding by history, they shine like the beacons we knew they would be. To a person they would say they were just doing their job, just doing what was right, or needed, or wanted. And it's not just that we miss them now that they're gone, though we do, it's that we find in their absence all the things that still need doing. And for the most part it's still pretty grimy work.

 So today I make a special request- leave the name of a known or unknown in the comments box, with a word or two of why, or send it along in an email if you prefer. Share this post with a friend or colleague, and celebrate what the day is about - service...

And save those rookie cards!

peace,

mark...

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Fish Out Of Water...

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”   ALBERT EINSTEIN

When I was in fifth grade I learned how to draw. It wasn't in an art class, because the school I attended didn't really have them. I learned to draw after school, taught by one of my teachers who stayed late to teach me. I attended Blessed Sacrament school. You probably know it. The one in Kenmore. My teacher was Sister Martin. She ran a tough classroom, but then again she was Irish, like many of us claimed to be back then. The "Irish" had nothing to do with how she ran her classroom, but when the flag of Ireland is the biggest flag in the room, and you learn to sing Irish songs during free time, and you're ten years old, and you have a limited number of conclusions you can logically reach before it starts to hurt, you think, "Irish." But anyway, when she wasn't making us kneel on pencils, or teaching us about Irish politics, she loved us. And we loved her.

I remember that day. Not the date, nor the season even, but that moment. I remember it was late in the afternoon, after everyone else had gone home. There was only she, and me. We were in the big room that served as the cafeteria and the auditorium and the gymnasium and the playground and the chapel when the heat wasn't working in the temporary church that housed our parish for twenty years. The big room with the chocolate floors polished to a heavenly lustre. That afternoon Sister Martin showed me what I didn't know I knew. That I could draw.

I drew a robin, copied from an Audubon book, and shaded with color pencil. It was a thing of extraordinary marvelosity. It shone. Really. Shone. In my rapturous state I imagined I was channeling Michelangelo himself, and his spirit had surrounded me in a veil of holy robin-drawing light, but apparently I had merely pressed so hard with the color pencil I burnished the pigment into a thin veneer on the paper. But hey, shone is shone. When I had finished it, I showed it to Sister Martin. She smiled and patted me on the head. It was bliss. When I returned home I showed my drawing to every living member of the household, including Archie the cat whom, as a sidebar discussion, was never referred to as just Archie, but always as Archie the cat. "Rawr." he said. "Cool." From that point in my life, from that point forward, I would always be an artist.

I never forgot that kindness, that act of recognition.  I have no doubt that I left ample evidence of my love for drawing on the desk in the classroom, and perhaps she was just trying to find me a better canvas to work with.   But it changed me, that simple act, it forever altered my perception of self. From then on I was a 'something'. 

A few years ago I got to thank Sister Martin. It was at the memorial for my brother Skip, in Cincinnati Ohio. Skip died right before Christmas that year, and the family gathered just after for his service. Cincinnati is an eight hour drive from Jamestown, with way too much time to think. The service was what it was, which was a memorial. At the reception afterwards my mom pointed out an older woman talking to my brother Kevin. "Mark," she said, "That's Sister Martin." She was no longer a nun, and hadn't been for a long time, and lived now in Florida near where my parents live. I told her the story, and finished with "thank you." "You're welcome" was all she said.

So almost forty-five years after that drawing lesson, I find myself imbedded deep within a similar universe, with my role reversed. In high school everyone is a fish out of water, a fish up a tree. My job is to point that out. "Maybe you're not a fish at all," I tell them, "or maybe you are, and the tree isn't where you belong."  And together we look for home, for kin. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we find others just like them. Lots of them. And sometimes I have to point them down a different path and explain that I can't go along.

"Because I'm not a fish," I say." I'm a bird."

A Robin.

mark

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An Un-whole Whole

I ain't happy but, I'm feeling glad I got sunshine, in a bag I'm useless, but not for long The future is coming on...

GORILLAZ  Clint Eastwood

 

I read an interesting blog post recently that focused on the idea of some people having near completeness but missing a critical element either socially or professionally, so as to remain somehow un-whole. And although I agree with the point of the article I think the picture is fundamentally flawed. I've come to believe that if we develop empty areas in our whole, they become filled with other elements of character with similar shapes. Nature abhors a vacuum. We become driven professionals, or passionate lovers of some thing, to the create a sense of wholeness. Outwardly we look and act whole, but we remain essentially un-whole.  Reestablishing a balance, then is not just a matter of filling a void, but requires a more base level reorganization of self, which is much harder work.

Last summer I became familiar with the twelve-step program of recovery used by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Its used by numerous others as well because it has such a simple philosophy. Healing begins with a simple admission; I am powerless over my transgression, and I cannot fix this alone. It is a beautiful and elegant solution. It's also what makes healing so hard. Most of us are not good at self-reflection. We project our psychological duck face to the mirror, take a quick look, and move on. We don't want to admit to powerlessness. Yet it remains the key to change. But an admission of powerlessness is not a admission of weakness. Rather it is an admission of connectedness, and acknowledgement that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It is an acknowledgement that we have responsibilities to others beside ourself.

But it also means much more...

We live in a world of unprecedented technological connectedness. Email, texts, Twitter, Facebook. We have this amazing conduit for connectivity. But for it to have a full measure of usefulness we have a responsibility to use it to create a lasting dialogue. Otherwise we are just electronic soapbox preachers, shouting to a crowd of disinterested bystanders.

What constitutes connectedness?

Connectedness is awareness. An awareness that we all are, that we all exist. That as we pass among one another we exchange between us small bits of understanding, bits of cosmos itself, bits of ourself. The bits fill the voids within us, within our whole. Thomas Merton once spoke of standing on a street corner in Louisville Kentucky and watching the people walk by. In a moment of personal epiphany he saw in the chaos a delicate dance of connectedness as bodies slipped past one another in a silent recognition of each other. He saw also his own connectedness, which had been the very thing he fought against as a contemplative monk. For years Merton had wanted only solitude, from the world, from fellow monks. He wished only to write, to examine his own singular relationship with God. Now here he was, on a busy downtown street corner, observing this magical dance, and seeing the the people "shining like the sun". In a moment he understood the deeper meaning of connectedness, and that it was within this congress with others that God resides.

Connectedness is courage. Mohandas K Gandhi spoke of the non-violent movement as being founded in the principle of connectedness.  To Gandhi connectedness demanded stewardship, of the poor, the sick, the needy. From this stewardship came the courage to protect, and from this the courage to act. The action, or non-action as it were, was borne from the courage of connectedness.

And so it goes...

So, as for the point I seem to be not making in all of this, is that from connectedness comes wholeness. The little slices that enter our whole, the ones we fill with misguided actions and activities, are really symptoms of a disconnect. Fortunately its easy to heal. Admit that you are not alone, that you need your family, you need your friends. Tell your loved ones that you love them. Then show them.

And be whole.

namaste'

Mark

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Chameleon

"Leonard Zelig's problem is that he has absolutely no identity he can call his own. He is a cipher, as close to the theoretical concept of zero as Bertrand Russell could define. He is so pathologically nil that, over the years, he has developed the unconscious ability to transform himself, physically and mentally, into the image of whatever strong personality he's with."  VINCENT CANBY  New York Times

I remember when I first saw Woody Allen's Zelig. It was 1984, on HBO. I fell in love with it from the first viewing. It's such an odd piece of cinema. Zelig is a mock documentary which focuses on Arthur Zelig, also know as "the human chameleon". Zelig, it was discovered, could seemingly change his physical appearance at will.  As the film explains, Zelig would appear spontaneously around the globe, altered in height, gender, or color, having become a likeness of the people around him. Grainy news footage shows Zelig standing at the Vatican with Pope Pius XII, as a flapper in a Harlem nightclub, as a New York Yankee, a Chicago gangster, a black jazz musician. When he becomes the focus of a medical study, he adopts the appearance of his physicians.

And so it goes...

It is a funny and entertaining film, but it spins a dark and unsettling psychological tale. Zelig was a shape-shifter fully and wholly, but a shape-shifter without purpose. He possessed no true identity of his own.

I thought it was a film about me, a story about my own chameleon days;

  • My Punk period
  • My Cowboy period
  • My Weightlifter period
  • My Blue collar guy period
  • My Flamboyant artist period

Its a strange feeling not knowing who you are. Its strange because you know that who you are is not who you are, but at the same time you can't define who you're supposed to be either. So you become who your friends are or who you think your boss wants you to be. And none of those people you become are never you. It took me until my early thirties to find a self that fit comfortably, and most of my forties to iron all the wrinkles out. And now, well into my fifties, i'm more my self, for good or ill, than I've ever been. I've even allowed some of my edges to fray a bit, you know, just for looks. After more than half a lifetime, when I look in the mirror, I finally see Me.

Freud says that during the first few years of our life we are a universe all unto ourself. Its the period of Id. We understand only need. Then comes the introduction of the world view with the development of the Ego, the conscience. By the time we're nine or ten years old we have begun to choose interests and plan futures. We join communities, and act accordingly within them. We grow further still, developing a Super-ego awareness of our world. We say please and thank you. We operate for the greater good when it is in our best interest to do so.  And for the rest of our life we mostly exist in this paradigm. We define who we are through our interactions with each other, or interactions with the world. But none of this addresses the Self. It doesn't explain how I recognize when I am really, truly Me, or why it sometimes it all goes so badly off the boil. What I mean is- why do some of us get so lost? What happens that makes us see a stranger in the mirror? How can life not make sense, and leave us feeling that we possess no identity of our own? What makes us become chameleons, and what happens that snaps us back to center? Does this happen to everyone? Or was it just Leonard and me?

How it was...

I spent my twenties searching. I thought I was searching for love, for companionship, for a group who loved me for me. But I was really just trying to find out who the hell I was. My high school career preference test indicated I was Gumby-like; moldable into any form, but without form of my own. My SAT scores only confirmed this. No particular aptitude for math, english, or science, but no real deficiencies either. Right in the meaty part of the bell curve. So I went were I was told, and where I thought I might discover an answer to that question I hadn't yet learned to ask; "Who am I?"  I tried junior college and engineering. Ha. It took me two days of study to figure out one my science teacher's jokes. Shortly after I was invited to not come back for a second semester. I moved on to work and punk. Work was easy. Punk on the other hand, was hard.

I was the stupidest looking punk you'd ever seen. I would have been a cool, nerdy kind of punk if I was really punk, but in actuality I was more like Richie Cunningham in Fonzie's jacket. (the pre-shark Fonzie) I looked like a poser, because I was a poser. An alter boy in a black Schott Perfecto. That lasted two years. In truth I was ready to quit earlier, but I stuck it out until the Roots Reggae Cafe closed and reopened as a coffee bar. It was time. Next was cowboy. Cowboy was for love. Like all things done for love, it was a mistake. Weightlifting was great, and twenty years later I still carry the lingering benefits of good muscle tone and physical fitness. But weightlifter guy was show a showoff- all bicepey and mal-proportioned.

And so it went...

Eventually I did 'find' myself when I became a teacher. It is who I am. Its how I define myself. The word makes me feel whole. Teacher...

But the fundamental question remains. Why does it take a decade to discover who you are? Why isn't it all more immediately self-evident? Is it because it takes life experience to know? If that's true, then why are some of us "called" and others not? Or are we all called and some of just don't hear? Teaching is my calling. I can't imagine my life without it. But I fell ass-backwards into teaching. Swear to God, it was an accident.

I wonder too if maybe, like Leonard Zelig, I'm confusing personality and persona? Im wondering now if the problem is that we all do? That we overlook our conscience will and desire, we pummel into submission the voice inside telling us what it knows to be true, and instead listen for a call we like the sound of, a tribe to we wish belong to. Rather we should be embracing our own call and letting the tribe find us.  Because surely their call, and our call are the same.

In the end that was Leonard Zelig's salvation. He found within himself a voice that was his alone. A skin that fit. A Me. I found my Me as well, and when I look back on it now I think it happened when I finally stopped looking.

Could it possibly be that easy?

 'till then...

mark

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Fear of Falling

When we fear  things I think that we wish for them ... every fear hides a wish.
DAVID MAMET, Edmond

 

Back when I was clever I had a favorite joke. No, not the penguin joke. I used to say that I didn't have a fear of falling, I had a fear of landing. It was supposed to show my grasp of semantics, and my wry, subtle, ironic side. Except that the joke wasn't ironic, or particularly subtle. Or funny. Truth is though that I have a genuine fear of heights. And I've spent a good portion of my life trying to prove myself wrong.

The house I grew up in had a second floor bedroom with a door to a porch with no railings. It was at best an eight foot drop to the lawn below, and more than once I had watched my younger brother take a flyer off the back of the house with nary a thought. I used to stand on the edge looking down, and I could feel my hands cramping- it was the strangest feeling- my hands would tingle and curl into a cramped fist until I went back inside. I can recreate the feeling to this day just by thinking about it, it was that powerful. Looking back I like to think that I was standing hard in the face of my fear with fists clenched so tight as to cause me pain. But it wasn't like that at all. It was some lower level recognition of all the possible consequences of purposefully standing at the edge. It was more like, "I'm going to puke now."

Now, there are some things that scare other people that I'm not so afraid of. Speaking in public. Being first in line. Day-old bagels. And yet so many of things that I am afraid of- making small talk at parties, being noticed, making phone calls, seem comparatively silly. Over time I've come to understand that often what I perceive as fear is really simple anxiety, including my fear of heights. My fear of making phone calls is honestly an anxiety over having to pay attention to what the other party is saying. I'm am a visual learner. Show me a picture of food and I can easily surmise how it was made and what it will taste like. But describe a recipe to me and I'm lost by the time I hear, "First you..." I'm the same on the phone.  My mind wanders like a monkey. I try to take notes. I try making mental pictures. Nothing works. Its frustrating. So I tend to avoid the phone. I use email and messaging copiously. At parties, where I am equally likely to be expected to converse, I park near the food. Or a door. Problem solved.

Last spring I stood at the rim of the Letchworth gorge. My entire body vibrated and tingled, my hands curled and cramped. And in an instant I understood my anxiety. It is an anxiety over trust. Do I trust the two inch thick tempered glass viewing platform on the Kinzua bridge to not let go beneath my feet? Do I trust the one hundred thirty year old iron railing at the edge of the Thirty Mile Point lighthouse to not snap when I lean on it? Do I trust the rocky ledge at Letchworth to not give way and plunge me three hundred feet down the side of the precipice? And do I trust myself to want turn and walk away from the edge? But bottom line it is still just an anxiety, and it is based entirely on an uncertainty of outcome. And to a degree, so is fear.

But even though they share kindred traits, fear and anxiety are not siblings but rather cousins, with entirely different family dynamics. Anxiety can range from annoying to crippling in its intensity. The same anxiety might slow one person but stop another in their tracks. Anxiety is situational and transient. It waxes and wanes. I understand, or at least acknowledge, my most of my anxieties and try when I can to stretch their limits. But Fear is different. Fear is bigger and more profound. Fear is, well, fear. Because fear, for all its ferocity, hides within its roar a siren's call.  Fear is a challenge, a call to action. Fear is the ego whispering, "You don't dare." Fears are the wishes we dare not make. Fears are risks we dare not take.

For instance, I believe that I have a genuine fear of success. It would explain a lot. It would explain why I haven't had a solo show of my photographs in over fifteen years. Or why I don't book more, and more profitable, photo gigs. It would explain why the photographic triptych that won Best in Show at a prestigious regional art competition last fall is packed away in my attic right now. It would explain why I've sabotaged almost every one of my opportunities toward professional advancement. (Ego) "You don't dare."

(NOTE: I AM NOT ABOUT TO BLAME THE CATHOLIC CHURCH FOR MY FEARS AND ANXIETIES.)

Fear as a wish deferred explains the what, but not the why. Why don't I dare? Okay, I was born and raised in the Catholic church.  And although i'm no longer a practicing member, I'm still imbued with its doctrine and principles. And If there is any one thing the Catholics teach better than anything else it's humility, wrapped in a cloak of eternal guilt. My entire adult life is an example of that creed. Catholicism doesn't by any means discourage success, but as for personal recognition the party line is quite different. Do well, and do good, just don't make a fuss. So it could be the legacy of growing up Catholic that keeps my ego in check. But it is also quite possible that it is simply the way my parents (who are also Catholic) raised their clan; "That's nice dear and I'm proud of you, but no one likes a braggart." Regardless of its source, it's an issue with which I have always struggled, and one with which I will never be comfortable in attempting to change.

But back to my main point. If every fear hides a wish, then suddenly fear isn't so big. Or bad. Fear becomes manageable. I get that now. So finally, I'm learning to dare. Baby steps. The first thing I did was to start a blog so I can think out loud, and then I invited people I know, and people I don't know, to read it. I even contacted a couple galleries about show possibilities. Solo shows. Of my work. And honestly it hasn't been (very) scary, even though it did involve having to make phone calls. In fact, its been a somewhat liberating experience. I've challenged some admittedly basic fears, and found hidden inside them, a wish. And nothing bad happened. Huh. Weird.

I'd love to know what fears you've conquered, and how you managed to conquer them. Just in case. Because I'm thinking, maybe I'll finally try a spin on a ferris wheel. Or wearing orange...

until then,

mark

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You Can't Always Want What You Get

"The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness."
ANNIE SAVOY Bull Durham
 

My parents are both well into their eighties. But its only been in the last four years that they've begun to lose the  momentum of living. In 2009 they made their last cross country road trip. Two years ago my dad began planning his day so he only had to make right hand turns when they ventured out around town. A year ago he stopped driving all together. In this last year their aging has started to accelerate along a geriatric Moore's Law. My dad is falling. My mom is fading. Literally. She's tough as a bear but you can almost see through her when the light is strong. My mom's big concern is that they can't leave the house whenever they want, but have to wait for the days when their health care aide is there. But they make do. Its not the life they had, but its the life they have now.

My wife's parents are going through similar changes. We live close to them, within a mile actually, and in the last two years we've become their de facto caretakers. We wouldn't have asked for this, but its what we've been given. I'm not saying its bad, because honestly its not so bad. Its hard for Paula to be reminded on an almost daily basis of the changes in her parents, and between shopping trips and doctor and hospital visits it has spoken for a lot of our free time of late. But in other ways its been a gratifying and enriching experience for both of us. But, again, it wasn't a choice. It just is what it is. The underlying elements I want to pull from the stories are that we have no real control over what happens to us in our lives, and that we live in an active push/pull relationship with life. Life acts, we react. Finally, I understand the central truth of Buddhist belief.

  • Rule #1: Shit Happens

Buddhist's have a kinder phraseology for this first Noble Truth, that 'suffering exists,' but the sentiment is the same. At face value the idea that living means suffering is a bit of a downer, and it is really antithetical to Buddhism itself. I'd like to offer an alternate definition of that truth to use. It follows as; "challenges exist." And it is our acceptance of, and response to these challenges, both short-term and long, that determines whether or not suffering exists in our lives.

  • Rule #2: You Can't Always Get What You Want

Its a simple matter of living. There is always more to want if wanting is what you do. I remember just a couple years ago seeing a pair of boots in my latest GQ magazine. Up to that point my life was pretty perfect, but in an instant everything changed. Suddenly my life was incomplete, and not only that, I had the realization that it had always been incomplete, and would continue to be so until I owned those boots. I was devastated. It took until the next month's issue and the ad for the orange watch for me to get over it. But when I was over it, it was over for good. Its the second Noble Truth; "attachment creates suffering."

  • Rule #3: Learn to Let Go

The third Noble Truth states that "Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." It reinforces this idea that between stimulus and response lies choice. Choice is our one true power. It is our single wieldable weapon in the struggle between living a life of suffering or a life liberated from suffering.

Our modern first-world view conflicts with this concept, as it allows that we alone determine the circumstances of our life. But its a narrow and ego-centric view, and at odds with the basic principles of nature. For as much as we believe that we can control what occurs around us, the simple truth is that we can only control what lies within us. Cause and effect aside though, the result is the same, as we still maintain ultimate responsibility for any measure of our satisfaction with our life.

I suppose at some time then we need to measurably define the meaning of suffering. My parents, for all the limits their circumstance has put on them, do not suffer, nor do my wife and I from ours. Perhaps it is because societally we put so much emphasis on getting what we want that have such a difficult time with simply accepting what we have. As a society we've set the bar pretty low as to what constitutes suffering. We focus on the accumulation of of things as the purpose of living. We define any want/need as equal in importance and urgency. But true suffering is more than the mere endurance of an unpleasantness or the desire for things we do not own. Suffering is the experience of a genuine life quality change. When we begin to feel physically or spiritually diminished by our condition, or feel helpless to change our circumstance, at this point we can say that suffering is taking place. And acceptance or acknowledgement of the cause of suffering is the key to ending suffering. Acceptance is not the same as giving up, its giving over. And only then can you harness the power that lies within you.

  • Rule #4: Walk the Line

So how do we end suffering? In short, we don't. (see rule #1) Our mission therefore, should we choose to accept it, is to endeavor to minimize suffering; for ourselves, and when possible, for others. Yeah, but how? Currently we leave most of the heavy lifting for the pharmaceutical industry and our friends at Grey Goose, but there is another option. Buddhists call it the eightfold path or the middle way. Redefined, it simply means first accepting the existence of a circumstance, and then crafting a balanced response to it. Its not a "when life gives you lemons..." approach, because sometimes life can hand you a bucket of nails instead. It comes from exercising our one true power; choice, and empowering ourselves to make change. Once you acknowledge the existence of a circumstance, you have the power to control your interaction with it. Denying it merely prolongs our suffering, and enables us to disguise it as something else.

And when it comes to healing, a balanced approach is always the best. Extreme measures rarely work.  The Buddhist parable is the story of the music teacher. He tells his student that when stringing a sitar, "If you stretch the string too tight it will break, and if there is too much slack it won't play". "You must find the middle to make the music." Its a delightful and magical solution to life. Measure your response, look for the good, let go, and make music.

peace and love,

mark

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