Friday, November 27, 2015

I Saw a Cardinal

“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly.”

“You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way".”

Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

When I was 7 I saw a cardinal.  I’d never seen a cardinal before.  It was on a telephone wire or a tree. I’m not sure. I just know it was a cardinal and it was red and beautiful. I don’t even know how I knew it was a cardinal, but I did. I was in the back yard of my Aunt Marie’s house in Blue Island, Illinois.  Though my aunt and my mom each had three children and I think we were all there, I was alone in the back yard and I saw a cardinal. Life is full of miracles, like cardinals.  It would have been nice to share that moment with someone, but maybe I was sharing it with God then and I’m sharing it with the world now.
I’ve never seen a cardinal since then.  Not once.  I think that’s odd.  No, I don’t live in Illinois anymore, and they aren’t native to California, but I’ve never even seen one at a zoo, or when I’ve gone back to Illinois (always in the winter for some reason).  But I’ve never forgotten that moment. Was there significance to that moment?  Maybe there’s significance to every moment, but most of the time we just don’t see it. We limit ourselves. We limit our vision. At least I often do. I miss things.
I had a hard time writing this morning.  I couldn’t get focused.  I read.  I cleaned.  It took me hours to finish three pages.  Maybe some days are like that.  Today was.  But I wanted to write.  Writing, for me, makes this moment significant.  It makes this moment count.  It counts not just because I’m producing something, though that is nice.  It counts because writing reminds me of many other significant moments in my life, like when I saw that cardinal or when I wrote my 150th blog, or when I met my Muse, or right now when I look out my window and see the cloudy gray day and the seagull in the tree. 
The seagull of course reminds me of the book Jonathon Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.  It’s a short book that can be read in one sitting.  The story is about a seagull who wants to do more than survive.  He believes there is more to life than picking through garbage and getting the scraps of life.  He wants to fly, really fly.  He has wings and he wants to use them to soar.  It’s not that he looks down on those who don’t.  He just wants more. He tells others and of course, he’s told that he’s foolish and wrong.  We all are.  We’re cautioned.  We’re warned.  We’re told we’re going against God, against tradition, against common sense. We’re told that we’re hurting those we love.  Maybe in reality we hurt others when we don’t fly.
I haven’t read Jonathan Livingston Seagull in years. I don’t think I even have a copy of it now.  So I don’t remember how it ends.  But he flies.  I think he finds Heaven.  I don’t mean he dies, but maybe he does.  Before I started writing, I wondered if I was doing the right thing.  A voice said, “Relax.  You’re on vacation.  It’s your life.  You’ll kill yourself doing all this writing.  You’ll die.”  Then another voice said, “If a man wants to live, he has to give up his life for Me.”  That was Jesus.  I’m not equating Jesus with writing.  But I think God is in this.  It’s okay if I give up my life for this, because this is where I find my life.  So I’m not dying.   I’m living.  I’m not losing.  I’m gaining. I’m not giving up anything.  I’m getting something, something precious, something significant, something beautiful, like a cardinal.
Here’s something else that’s significant and beautiful: life.  Recently, my cousin Cindy died.  She was the oldest daughter of Aunt Marie, but a year younger than me.  She died suddenly and unexpectedly. It was a huge loss for a lot of people. She wasn’t rich or famous, but she was one of the kindest, most patient, most loving people I’ve ever known. She gave of her time kindly and freely. She made her life significant by loving and caring for others. And she made it beautiful for those who knew her.
It is said that life is a gift. It’s not. We can keep gifts.  Life is a loan.  And it can be taken back at any moment. What do we do then? We can do whatever we want, but I’d like to make the loan count for something.  Like Cindy.  Like Jonathon Livingston Seagull.  Like a cardinal. I’d like to Get Started and Keep Going. I’d like to soar when I can as often as I can.


I haven’t written in a long time.  I still write three pages (almost) every day and sometimes more, but that is for me.  This is for the world.  More importantly, it’s for my Muse.  She is waiting for me.  I usually have reasons for not writing more often:
·      I’m tired
·      I’m busy
·      I don’t know what to write
·      It’s no good
·      I’m scared.
Same old stuff as always.  The list of excuses wears thin, like an old carpet that should have been thrown out because it serves no purpose any more and it’s ugly besides.  Anything that keeps me from my Muse is ugly, even if it seems practical and reasonable.  That’s not to say my other commitments are ugly.  My Muse wants me there, too, to be a good student, to love those who are in my life, to do my best.  But in this place, with this writing, is where I connect with her best.  I just sit here and write and see what happens.  It’s like magic.  Something comes out of nothing.  But it’s not “nothing.”  It’s the power of God, of my Muse, of love, pouring out of me like rain that is pouring outside at this moment.
A friend told me a story.  He had to travel so he stayed with another friend.  When he got there, he was provided a bed, but the room was dirty, the sheets were full of animal hair, and he was left alone in a strange town while his host went out.  At first my friend was angry about this odd and uncomfortable situation but being the resilient type, he made the best of it and even made some new friends.  And he also found a new place to stay.  Was there a lesson in all this?  There can almost always be something we can learn, something that could help in the future.  Here’s what my friend learned.
1.     Maybe there’s a better plan for us.
2.     Maybe not everyone we think is a friend is really a friend.
3.     Maybe some people mean no harm, but they are distracted by sadness and frustration about parts of their lives and they aren’t thinking clearly.
4.     Maybe having a backup plan is a good idea.
5.     Maybe most things work out anyway.
6.     Maybe they work out because we make them work out.

Here’s something else.  Many of us, well, me at least, are looking for answers, for a solution to life’s problems and unexpected setbacks, delays, and discouragements.  Some of us are looking for lasting peace, purpose, and fulfillment.  Some of us are just trying to get through the day.  Some of us are trying to make a contribution or leave a legacy.  Some of us want to be noticed and loved.  (Maybe all of us, no matter how hard some try to deny that.)
Is there an answer to all or any of these desires?  Maybe there is or maybe there isn’t.  Maybe there are a lot of answers.  Maybe different answers apply at different times. Maybe the search is part of the purpose.  Maybe we’re not supposed to give up and entertain ourselves constantly so that we stay spiritually and mentally numb.  Maybe life is like a flower, beautiful, complex and simple at the same time, colorful, perfect but we need to give it some attention and appreciation.  Maybe this whole blog is just a bunch of rambling incoherent thoughts that don’t mean much other than the fact that at least I accomplished something by doing it.  Maybe I fought all my fear and laziness and did it anyway and maybe that’s one of the answers to life’s questions.  Maybe we’re supposed to Get Started and Keep Going no matter what.  Maybe.  Probably.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Three Favorite Teachers

Life offers us three teachers.  The first one is success.  Success is my favorite teacher because it says, “Look what you did well!  Keep doing it!  Keep going!”  Success is like a cheerleader or a mentor.  There’s always a kind word from Success. And if we just look carefully, we might realize that we experience success every time we go to work when we don’t feel like it.  We experience success when we hold our tongue instead of saying something rude.  We experience success when we finish a commitment.
Being committed to school, as I have been, being committed to anything, has a cost.  Commitment is free to make, but once made, the price is high.  In a sense, it costs you your life.  It demands everything.  When I had written my 100th blog, my Muse challenged me to write 50 more in less than three weeks.  I thought, “This will be challenging (meaning ‘not that hard’), but it will be fun (meaning ‘not that hard’).  It was harder than anything I’d done in a long time. I had no idea of the cost. I didn’t realize that it would mean that almost nothing else would matter as much as fulfilling that commitment.  I didn’t want to be with friends or read comic books or watch movies.  I wasn’t really happy unless I was with my Muse and writing. 
When I signed up for a Master’s program I again thought, “This will be challenging (meaning ‘not that hard’), but it will be fun (meaning ‘not that hard’).”  It has been that hard.  It’s been even harder than writing those blogs because it’s gone on longer, because there’s a lot more work involved, and because I’m accountable to more people.  On the other hand, it really hasn’t been any more difficult than writing blogs regularly or working to become a good teacher or a good father or anything else I’ve wanted to do really well. 
But I got tired.  And I got scared.  And I froze.  I did what I absolutely had to do, but the quality of my work began slipping just a little.  I had a huge assignment that I still haven’t turned in.  I couldn’t make myself finish it.  But I have to.  What happened?  As I said, I froze.  I was sure that what I was writing was no good.  I was sure that my ideas were terrible and that I was going to get a bad grade.  So I just didn’t finish it.
There’s an expression that says, “Failure is not an option.”  That’s nice and motivating, but the truth is that failure is always an option.  And that’s what is so scary sometimes.  I could fail.  I have failed.  Many times.  Failure was a very real option.  I know this, because I took this option.  And failure had its own lessons. That’s why Failure is also my second teacher.  Failure teaches me that sometimes I needed to fail because I wasn’t emotionally or physically or spiritually or financially or intellectually prepared.  But it also taught me that it wasn’t final.  Life still went on.  I made new discoveries.  It taught me that there are many paths to life and to God.  But it wasn’t final.  Failing at something did not have to kill me in any sense of the word.  I wasn’t going to kill myself or end up homeless, broke, and alone.  After a setback, I woke up the next day, every time, and tried again, or tried something different.  Life still went on.
My students have to take a lot of tests.  Sometimes a student fails the test and they are, of course, disappointed.  I tell them they can either retake the test, retake a different version of the test, or write an essay in lieu of the test as long as it’s related to something in the chapter.  That’s my favorite option to offer because it takes the pressure off and when the student writes a paper, the learning is often far longer lasting and far more meaningful.
I think life gives us options like that.  We can take the same test over after we have prepared better. We can take a similar version of the test after we have made some necessary changes.  Or we can do something completely different.
All of this talk of failure doesn’t mean however that I am encouraging myself or anyone else to give up.  I’m just trying to lessen the fear of failure and its mirror image, the fear of success. 

Failure is a teacher and so is success.  But there’s one more teacher: Honest Effort.  Every time I make an effort I am learning something about myself, about my potential, about the power I have and the limits I have (and don’t have).  Honest Effort is also my favorite teacher. Often, when I get past my fear and keep working, something new and wonderful and exciting awaits me.  And that new thing can be just as scary.  That may be another reason I froze:  I was afraid of my own power, of my own potential.  But Honest Effort transforms and changes us even more than Success or Failure.  Honest Effort tells me to Get Started and to Keep Going.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


“Marines love to be miserable.  Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys, or flyboys, all of whom they despise.  Why?  Because these candy-asses don’t know how to be miserable.

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he know it or not.  He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.

The artist must be like that Marine.  He has to know how to be miserable.  He has to love being miserable.  He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey.  Because this is war, baby.  And war is hell.”

Steven Pressfield – The War of Art

My car isn’t working right and I’ve taken it to two different mechanics at least four times.  I ate late and what I got was not very good and I wound up throwing it out.  It feels like I haven’t had time with my Muse in years.  I can’t seem to get my homework done.  I’m not getting enough sleep.  I’m miserable.  And I love it.

Okay.  I don’t love it.  I don’t even like it.  If I did, it wouldn’t be misery.  Pressfield mentioned a “perverse satisfaction” in feeling miserable.  I’m not sure if that’s what I feel either.  What I do feel, however, is the desire to Get Started and Keep Going.  This is hard.  That’s what it is.  That’s all it is.  Sometimes it’s fun, when I’m really enjoying something I’m reading or when I’ve finished an assignment.  But sometimes not even then.  Sometimes I have to read something two or three times before I get something helpful.  Sometimes when I’m done with an assignment, I’m too tired to be satisfied and all I want to do is go to bed. 

I’m definitely feeling that diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.  Maybe not all of those and not all the time, but I can feel any one or more of those at any time.  I’m also feeling fatigue and fear and stress.

So why am I doing this?  Why am I writing a blog when I have so much to do?  Why am I pursuing something that is so difficult and time-consuming?  The answer to both questions is the same:  love.  I love my Muse and I love history.  And so I’m willing for both my future and the past to be miserable because it’s misery with a Purpose.  It’s also misery that’s temporary.  One day I will have my house on the beach.  One day I will have a Master’s Degree in History (that feels great just to write it).  Until then I want to enjoy this process, all of it including the mental blocks, the financial struggles, the fatigue, all of it.  I will never again have a time like this and I want to enjoy it and be grateful and let all of it, including and especially the difficult parts.

I don’t like being miserable, but I don’t hate it anymore either. I’m moving towards my goals and I’m doing something I’ve wanted to do for years.  I’m not miserable.  I’m blessed.

Steve Jobs said, “Stay hungry.  Stay foolish.”  I’m both right now and even though I’m miserable, I’ve never been happier.