A Life of Gratitude

When I got clean, the people who had been in recovery longer than me—in other words, everyone—told me to do several things: make meetings, take things a day at a time, stay away from old friends, call others in recovery. They didn’t tell my why, other than to stay clean. They told me to do them. The why would come later.

One suggestion/order was to make a gratitude list. Write down the things I was grateful for, no matter how rotten I thought life was. If I had writer’s block, start with: 1) I’m clean, then 2) I’m alive.

The practice serves me well to this day.

Gratitude lists have made me a much happier person. Making them focuses me on the positive. I am a firm believer that we have the choice as to where we set our minds. Gratitude shows me what is right and true in my world, which is now so precious.

I give thanks for the big things: recovery, good health, shelter, family, friends, conscious contact with a higher power. But I also give thanks for the smallest of things: a pleasant encounter with a stranger, a baby’s attention, the reflection of a cloud in a window.

Small things matter. Like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, minutia hint at hidden significance. The great architect Mies van der Rohe said God is in the details. Yes.

The “attitude of gratitude” changes your world, incites a small revolution in your worldview. It does not make the world a happier place. It makes you a happier place.

I am not pollyanna-ish about gratitude. Sometimes in my screw-you moods, I make my list through clenched teeth. I tell God that I want this suckiness to end as I want nothing else, and I don’t want anyone to bother me, but I am grateful for… And then I fill in the blank. If I do this long enough in enough detail, my thanks become sincere again and my black cloud dissipates.

It works for me. It will work for you.

Here goes: [insert name] am grateful for… Fill in the blanks. Maybe you won’t have many items on your first list, but with practice, they add up.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared my thoughts with you. Peace.

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Solitude’s Delight

Silence tells me secretly, everything.*

I love solitude. I love being by myself, with my thoughts and memories, listening for the presence of the Great Reality.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being with people, too. I have many fine friends and a wonderful small family. Retirement has allowed me time to pursue many interests, and I cherish that. My peeps make me happy.

Someday soon I hope my path leads to love of my life—abbreviated LOML, in case you need another acronym—and I will cherish her company. But from time to time, wonderful as she will be, I will take time out from her and the rest of my people to rest alone.

So many avoid solitude at all costs, as if it were a disease. So many stifle the inner voice.

Two centuries ago, William Wordsworth said the world is too much with us, and our cultural insistence on togetherness, while essential to a functioning community, is a good thing taken too far. Similarly, our proclivity to nonstop entertainment and continuous communication works against our need for quiet.

Solitude allows me to think and feel without distraction. It gives me room to reflect, on my joys, my mistakes, my sorrows, the good times I have had and am having, and the challenges ahead. I don’t have to put on my face for the world, don’t have to prove myself clever, witty, a man with his act together. Solitude helps me when my act is in the four winds, scattered north-north-northwest. (Shakespeare, Hamlet.)

In Song of Myself, Whitman said, Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes). In my spacious alone-silence, my contradictions come out and dance together. Somehow they get along.

I feel sorry for people who lack a rich inner life. They are missing something essential to human experience.

To you, gentle reader, an admonition. Carve out alone-time in a quiet place. Put your responsibilities and worries on the shelf. You can always pick them back up again. This may go against your grain… but sometimes we need to do just that.

Silence tells me secretly, everything. It told me to write this. May solitude tell you all you need to know. Selah.

* The Flesh Failures/Let The Sun Shine In, from Hair, by Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermot.

The Book Essay

I have a confession to make. I was once a voracious reader, but over the past decade my reading has dropped off dramatically.

I am too enticed by the Internet, which is to my lazy-boy habits is more convenient than a bookshelf. Written matter on the web is generally short and punchy, and my tired cerebellum appreciates that.

My reading list dropped down to gift books. Another embarrassing admission: some of them have remained unread. (If you know my family, do not let them read today’s essay.) I have read enough books in my lifetime to carry on a conversation, and resorted to referring to the most recent book I read, without divulging when I finished it or, for that matter, the shelf of half-read books.

So I am in mea culpa mode (to borrow some 21st-century vernacular).

Lately, though, my reading has picked up. Maybe it’s related to my abandonment of Facebook—the subject for another essay.

I finished a gift book today (August 25): The First Phone Call From Heaven by Mitch Albom. An entertaining read, carried me through to the end. It’s not a work of great depth, but it asks interesting questions. The boy needs to write better denouements, though.

I just started Holy Fools by Joanna Harris. Much more my style. Harris’s descriptions are vivid, and her sentences are well-constructed and beautiful to read, without impeding the story. Highly recommended.

Its pleasures remind me of why I dove into reading at an early age. Reading was, and is, a supremely exhilarating experience.

I love the accelerating momentum of a good plot, which no other medium can match. Love the slow dance of learning the characters, love the fineness of the sentences, the ability of a book to immerse you in other worlds, other cultures, other belief systems. Love the feel of a book, small in size yet containing multitudes. Love what I called the “monumental” feeling—the sensation upon completion of a good or even mediocre book of having debarked from a long and eventful voyage.

Love the quiet satisfaction/anticipation of turning another page. Love to see the opening-fold creep from left to right.

Love to read the spine, look at the inlaid designs under the jacket, the decoration of the title page, the intricacy of the colophon, the subtleties of typography, the rough-cut edges of pulpy paper. Love especially the smell of fresh ink and pages. Love the feeling of archived depths of time present in an old book.

I love giving books, knowing the recipient will enjoy some of my experiences, feel a little of what I felt, love a little of what I loved. Take a little sample of my life, I am saying, and learn from it what you will. I love the anticipation of hearing about it from another perspective.

One of my best memories was with my last girlfriend, with whom I read books out loud together on long car trips. It brought us closer together, even when I made smartass comments about bad writing. (Dan Brown is good for that.)

I love the infinite possibilities of the first sentence, wondering where it will go. Love the temptation of skipping ahead to the last page, reading the last sentence to see if it is implied by the first (usually not). Love great last lines. So we beat on…

Love that moment when you see the end in a flash. The feeling of, I’m having a great ride. Love to be inside someone’s head for a while… and yet feel a little frightened by it. Some books stay with you in a not-so-good-way that you are nonetheless grateful for having experienced. (The Stand comes to mind.)

Love them books. I have read many that were, well, average… but none I have truly regretted.

I will not end with an admonition to pick up a good book after you read this. If you have an ounce of literacy, you are already eyeing your bookshelf.

23 Rules for Life*

1. Never pick a fight with women. They can focus on you better than you can focus on them.

2. Clear your lane for tailgaters on the Interstate. Better for them to pass you and be jerks than to live on your bumper.

3. Always say thank you, no matter how small the favor.

4. If possible, speak in a low, pleasant tone of voice.

5. Obey your cat, so your days may be long.

6. Talk your walk. Someone may need your experience.

7. Leave movie endings and key plot points unspoiled.

8. Never be the first to tread on fresh snow.

9. Take off your glasses before sex. Crushing them would be hard to explain.

10. Make routine small gestures of appreciation.

11. Give less advice, share more experience. If you lack experience, make some mistakes and get some.

12. Always agree with little kids.

13. Be humble or be humiliated. Your choice.

14. Never forget where you come from.

15. Give money without expecting return, and so avoid resentments.

16. Avoid arrogance and false modesty.

17. Keep some cheese close at hand.

18. Really, I’m not kidding.

19. Look up at the sky once in a while.

20. Don’t say it. Just don’t.

21. Let the elevator empty out before you waltz in. You’d think people would figure this out.

22. If your car dies, pray for a redneck to arrive.

23. Be skeptical of people who write lists of rules.

 

* Research shows that headlines beginning with numerals attract more readers. As we know, research is always right.

Being From Down Heah

I don’t fit the stereotype of southern white maleness.

I am not a NASCAR fan. (I do, though, enjoy the view from the in-car camera, except during crashes. Okay, during crashes too.) I think Budweiser tastes like crap in a can. I am a gentleman to the core, but don’t regard women as fashion accessories. I do not own a single CAT hat, motorcycles annoy me, I don’t think my momma was a saint, and I vote Democratic. I don’t own a dog, hound or otherwise, and my car repair chops are minimal at best. Golf bores me, and I think Rambo and Buford Pusser were idiots.

(However, I love the old twangy country music, console myself regularly with a Dr. Pepper, and will match you chomp for chomp over hush puppies. I think Willis Carrier deserves a Nobel Prize, regard college basketball as a civic religion, and know Opie had a fine daddy.

And I do want to know who your people are.)

Somewhere along the line, I lost most of my southern accent. Doesn’t matter. Ah still got mah groove on.

Mapplethorpe’s Flowers

The late American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe became notorious for controversial images of nude men that acknowledged sexual acts considered by some to be objectionable.

My view is kinder. Before he died of HIV/AIDS in 1989, he switched from model work to photographing flowers. He was practicalhe knew he had little time left and wanted subjects that could be quickly “posed”.

The link below takes you to a flower portfolio in the website of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. The eighth photograph, Tulips 1987, took my breath away. I think you will be glad you found it.

There is a link, “Back to List”, that sends you to thumbnails of his better-known work. The narrow-mindedness of this age compels me to warn you that you may find some of his non-floral images offensive and/or disturbing. If you have tender sensibilities, stick with the flowers. Either way, you will be impressed.

 The flowers.

Revisits and Visits

If I had oodles of money (an oodle is close to a bazillion) I would first travel west, to the Painted Desert of Utah and Arizona. I went there in ’99 and was transformed by the beauty of the landscape and that big sky. The distances amazed me. I am used to North Carolina, where there’s always another locality just around the bend. I would pack a new Nikon and have at it.

Then I would head east to Scotland, rent a car, and drive around on the wrong side of the road. I have been there before, and still remember the quiet-but-astonishing gorgeousness of the glens. I would drink in the thinner, purer air (at least purer outside the cities) and admire the rosy cheeks of the women and their lilting accents.

Then with more oodles I would rent a seat on one of Richard Branson’s suborbital spaceships (should they ever fly). I have a feeling there is a long reservation list. I would be torn between swimming around and staying put long enough to take pictures.

And then, home. To rest, and edit my pictures. And give away a few oodles to friends.

My Last Nerve

What gets on my…

Bad sermons. Oh my sweet Jesus. A sermon should uplift, sing, provoke, comfort, tickle, and persuade. Recently I endured one that relied heavily on mildly funny anecdote and numerous admonitions about alcohol. Longest 25 minutes of my life. It did, however, have the salutary effect of bringing our congregation together in suffering.

Slovenly grammar and spelling. English is a powerful and versatile language. I adore its variety and pliancy. So for God’s sake, knock it off with the fifty-word chunks of type that ooze out of the human mind with absolutely no punctuation. Enough of would of and alright and pacifically and wont. Sign off of Instagram and get your ass to remedial English.

Medication advertising. The news is bad enough. We don’t need anyone scaring us with a list of horrible side effects.

No problem”. When I have taken the time to find my money for the cashier, I don’t need reassurance that I am not presenting a problem. Where I was raised, the proper response to “thank you” was “you’re welcome”.

Would you like extra _________ with that? I may look disheveled, but I know my own mind and I can read a menu. If your work requires you to pester me, you should launch a career search.

Vibrato. Human song is exquisite when it is sung in a steady tone. You do not need to embellish it by warbling up and down the scale.

Amazing Grace. Yes, Amazing Grace. It is a noble and lovely hymn… but it has been done to death. I understand the need for unchurched people to have their own song. But I also like variety, and there are plenty of uplifting songs that don’t mention that G word.

From a Distance. All props to Bette Midler, but I find no comfort in a deity who stands far away, doing nothing. I want a God who gives a flip.

Facebook. When I came home from a computer-less trip and caught up with the cyberverse, I found I hadn’t missed Facebook at all. Degrading political imagery, sanctimonious puffery from Mark Zuckerberg, people without hobbies who post twenty or more shares in an endless column, and vacation snaps from places I have no desire to visit. The only thing saving it from being a total waste is cat pictures.

And on a serious note: Unconscious racism. In 2018, people actually say they all look alike and walking down the street as bold as can be. Who have yet to understand that everybody, read everybody is a child of God and made in his image.

Pure Wind/MUCH Better

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
― George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)

Most people only know George Orwell through 1984 and Animal Farm. This is a shame. Orwell was a prodigious thinker and a careful, trenchant writer, and so much more: a man who immersed himself in poverty to understand the underclass, wrote a delightful comic novel (Keep the Aspidistra Flying), and wrote a charming appreciation of risque postcards.

He also wrote Politics and the English Language, a companion essay to 1984 that simmers with unveiled outrage. If you think, if you love words, if you despise cant*, read it.

Pure wind runs rampant. I am not thinking only of our president. I am thinking of the self-righteousness of the right, which condemns the powerless, and the left, which pretends to have cornered the market on morality. I am thinking of the alleged journalists who have taken an honorable vocation and reduced it to shock value and feigned indignation. I am thinking of advertisers, who—google this—use the study of the brain (a wondrous device) to sell more cars.

I am thinking of God-professing folk who have surrendered the Biblical mandate for justice to rampant nationalism and naked bigotry. (It will not go well for them in the afterlife.) I am thinking of uniformed thugs the world over who have buried their humanity under their cold ideologies.

I am thinking of ordinary, good-hearted people who can not or will not be educated out of their prejudice.

I am thinking of me, when I fail to love my neighbor, as I am commanded. About the distance I place between my privileged self and the men and women who beg for money, the time I stiff-armed a beggar.

But at least… I am thinking.

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy, the appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved”
― George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)

The Fake News Media wants so badly to see a major confrontation with Russia, even a confrontation that could lead to war. They are pushing so recklessly hard and hate the fact that I’ll probably have a good relationship with Putin. We are doing MUCH better than any other country!

― Known source

More about Politics and the English Language

 

* Not a misspelling of the contraction, but a word of its own, meaning “hypocritical and sanctimonious talk, typically of a moral, religious, or political nature.”

I Am in There Somewhere

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Look carefully. Can you see me? I am there, wearing a favorite hat.

Like all my best work, this picture found me. In 2001 I worked at a company in the warehouse district of Durham. The parking lot was next to a disused railroad embankment.

The tracks were littered with broken bottles and cigarette butts. Adjacent to them was an undercut, covered by a thickly-barred grate.

The ringed object in the picture’s lower left is the round bottom of a brown beer bottle. Attracted by it, the cork, and the broken and dirty ridge of concrete, I squatted over the grating. My eye spotted a triangular form, silhouetted by the noonday sun. It was me, wearing a hat and dangling my camera strap from my shoulder.

There was my picture. Snap.

I view this as a psychological selfie of a man in the middle of chaos. Although the picture is grim, I work gladly to make an interesting image.

Is there something out there that draws your attention? If this picture is a metaphor for life, are you in the middle of it? You don’t need a camera to find out.