Inspiration, Perspiration

“And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?” – The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

photo (102)

I was invited to speak at panel for young writers last week, the topic, encouraging creativity. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I wanted to talk about inspiration, about that little voice that suddenly and without warning sends an electric tingle up your spine from out of the blue, and how those moments need attention paid, need written down and remembered, right there on the spot. They are Divine, these creative shocks, where, for just an instant, everything makes sense, and all the obstacles in front of you have solutions, and you are left with a clear vision, a glimpse of your real path forward, a glimpse of your creation, a glimpse of the Creator in You. Funny, without coordinating our remarks, every one of the four panelists talked about the same spark.

Everyone one of us also talked about what was next, too, what is most necessary after the inspiration – lots and lots of perspiration. Lots of hard work is necessary, to dispel the doubts and mend the meandering, to get through the writes and rewrites, edits and re-editing.

We talked about techniques to encourage this, which I won’t go into detail about here, but briefly, inspiration has to patiently encouraged and cultivated, and harvested only when conditions are ripe. For while the inspiration part is divined, once captured, it is easy. Especially compared to the work of seeing that inspiration through to fruition.

I offered the example of Yann Martel, author of the best-selling book “Life of Pi”, an incredible book, one of my all-time favorites. Yann’s inspiration for the book hit him, in it’s entirety, in a twenty-minute outburst of clarity and purpose. Luckily, he captured it, and most importantly, he kept that vision close and stayed true to it through thick and thin, through doubts and distractions. It took Yann four long, hard years of tedious research and work to bring that glimpse of his ideal to birth in this world, though.

Four years is a long time. I wonder what kept him going, who believed in him and helped him through the self-doubt, who encouraged him and propped him up on days he sagged? Perspiration, lots of it, but yet he persevered, and created something special and beautiful, and saw his inspiration made real.

But it is such a big disparity, between inspiration and perspiration! Twenty minutes versus four years! So much more work, so much more daily drudgery in comparison to the brief glimpses of clarity!

It occurred to me, as I was giving my speech and looked out into the audience at my two boys, that writing is a lot like fatherhood. So much effort most of the time, the necessary everyday homework and mundane daily chores that threaten to wear me down and take me further away from my ideals, my fatherhood goals. The genuine rewards of fatherhood, like writing, are few and far between.

Especially solo parenting, where the weariness at the end of some days threatens to erode whatever splendor inspiration has planted, and where the lack of everyday support makes it so hard to keep to a vision some times. Some days I just want to get away from my boys, to a little peace and quiet, to escape the incessant “Dad Dad Dad” that constantly follows me. Sometimes I just want them to bring me lunch for once, even if it is just a piece of toast – just as long as I don’t have to cook it or clean up from it. And I miss having free time to myself, I miss watching sports, and I miss adult interaction in a workplace.

But I have been dealt a hand that I did not ask for, and I have finally started to accept it, to embrace it even. No, this is not what I bargained for, it is certainly not what I would have asked for – but maybe it is what I need. Maybe it is what my boys need, too. This is a big shift for me.

I like to think we are growing, all of us, moving ever so slightly towards the ideals of being a good father and being the best family we can be, given our resources.

And I have noticed a funny thing happening over the last four months – I am coming to genuinely appreciate being Jake and Trevor’s father. I am getting used to the hard, constant work that goes along with it, and have had genuine glimpses of this actually working out. And more importantly, I have shared some genuine pleasures and joys in just being the best father I can be, solo parent and all.

It started a few months ago, preparing for the holidays. Trevor was just so excited, helping me tremendously, so thrilled that I was finally able to actually put some effort into the holidays this year (a first for me, the first two being too raw to really care.) His hugs, gratitude, appreciation, and pure love moved me. He reminds me so much of his mom.

These boys, they have adjusted to a life without an unconditional loving mom, they have accepted that life is different (and their expectations have been so much lowered) with me in charge. But it has also made them so much more appreciative of what we do have and share. I was also absolutely thrilled when Jake pulled me aside and told me I did a fantastic, perfect job on Christmas this year, a true, tear-jerking compliment, especially after my horrible failures the first year.

I am starting to be able to see through the perspiration that will always be the biggest part parenting, especially solo parenting, and hold onto the glimpses of inspiration, caught in the twinkle of Trevor’s Christmas eyes, and in the genuineness of a thank you from a fourteen year old. I have started thanking both my boys at night for the privilege of being their dad.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still many more days when the frustration level makes this very hard to remember. But tonight here at the workshop is special. Here are my two boys, listening in rapt attention, finally, to the things I am saying to the audience, to them. Here they are, finally, recognizing that maybe I do have some good ideas, I’m not just some opinionated s.o.b. who yells too much about the value of hard work, and waxes too much about believing in dreams. Tonight, maybe they recognize a bit all the sacrifices I am making, what I am trying to do, and most importantly – maybe they respect me a bit for it.

When we stop at DQ for ice cream on the way home, they ask me why I don’t share that stuff with them all the time. Ha, I laugh, because most of the time they don’t hear a word I say! And to be honest, most of the time I don’t genuinely hear what they have to say either – it’s a simple matter of a solo parent trying to balance what all needs done with the limited resources necessary to do so. But I’ll take this rare opportunity any way I can get it.

And sometimes, it all just clicks, like the five minutes of Happyness that Christopher Gardener has after years of toil in the movie. Tonight, the clouds part, and for a brief spell the sun shines brightly on my inspiration. We won’t remember all the hard work that goes into raising children, when it is done, and neither will they. But perhaps they’ll remember what dad tried to do, the sacrifices that went into it, and maybe they’ll be able to use those lessons when they need it.

And hopefully, I will continue to remember that, even though being a parent is the hardest job in the world (doubly so for the solo parent), it is truly a privilege, shone in the brief, brilliant glimpses of inspiration that make all the hard work worth it…

“What is more important, inspiration or perspiration? They are both vital, but inspiration must come before perspiration; else you toil in vain. What good is a ship full speed ahead if it has no rudder?”

Sports Sunday Rant

What most dads did today – sat on the couch and watched the Pirates and Steeler games, clicking between channels, probably had a few beers brought to them.

What I wanted to do today – what most dads did.

What the solo parent dad does on sports Sundays, while Pirate and Steeler games were on in the backgound – 2 loads of wash, dishes, made breakfast and lunch for the boys, more dishes, did a 1 foot high stack of bills, cleaned kitchen, vacuumed at halftime, yelled at kids to do home work (still not done!), get backpacks ready for school tomorrow, yell at kids to do their chores, take all the garbage to curb, get a decent ab workout in, write a ranting blog post.  Sat maybe a total of ten minnutes, no one brought me a beer, and pirates and steelers both lost, sigh…

Mama’s Love

Wings

I was going to title this piece “Mama’s Burden.” Because Mom has endured more than her share of burdens. She’s buried two spouses, one after a horrific disease that cut down the love of her life in their prime, and left Mom with another horrific burden, raising four kids on her own. Mom had to start over, from scratch, the comfort and love and security and income that a spouse provides gone way too soon. And worst, Mom has had to bear the horrendous weight of watching one of her children struggle with the ravages and repercussions of a serious mental illness. Mom still has to face an uncertain financial future every day, and now the worries of who will take care of her or if she will be a burden in her old age (and no you never will!) I am only just now beginning to understand the weight of Mom’s burdens, and I am sure I am only scratching the surface of the challenges she has faced over the years that we were never even aware of.

But that is exactly why it would have been so wrong to title this piece “Mama’s Burden” – because Mom handled these burdens with a beauty and grace that made it seem, to us kids and even now as an adult, like everything would be okay.

I have no idea of how Mom handled the fears and doubts and uncertainties that surely must have chased her into the night. I don’t remember her ever really complaining, but I do remember we always had what we needed, and things always seemed sunny and positive, life’s challenges even made into a game, like when we all sang a song about all the bones in the body to help mom study when she went back to school after dad died. Jeez, it amazes me now to think how Mom did it all and still kept most of her sanity!

No, it is certainly not Mom’s burdens that define her – it is her love and courage while bearing these burdens that does, to this day that do. It is Mom’s choice to face these burdens with a positive attitude, and to put her children above her own needs and wants, and to carry on in the trust and faith that everything will work out exactly the way it should, even when everything logical says the world is falling apart. Wow…

I am nearing almost a half century myself now, yet I still fall back on mom’s example and courage in the face of challenges. Yes, I still call up in a panic when the tasks and to-do lists seem overwhelming, and Mom still patiently listens, before reminding me of her lessons and examples and to always carry on, whether it is through a rough patch or in doing the hard grunt work of dream-pursuing. I may not always want to hear it, but knowing that she has lived these challenges makes me pause and listen, and mostly, carry on, and carry forward.

Hopefully Mom recognizes now that she gave us all the greatest gifts a parent can give – Love, unconditional, continuing to this day, through thick and thin, through trials and tribulations, and of course shared in life’s precious joys. Courage, stemming from her own; Mom showed us the way, showed us it can be done, showed us by example to never stop, to just keep going as best you can, especially as we are following through our own dark places. And Wings, not just to follow our dreams, which of course we were always encouraged to pursue, but also the Wings to carry us above the fray and fatigue of life’s burdens that want to suck us down and define us, but which only Love can overcome.

“Mama’s Love.” It’s your legacy and greatest gift to us, Mom…

Happy Birthday Mom, love you so much, for your Love and Courage, and for the Wings you are still providing all of us…

Tryin’ To Do It All

juggling

“We try to possess too much, we have too many options that are too complex, and most of all we try to do too much. In the process there is too little time to think, too little energy left to enjoy.”

– Richard Eyre

It takes me three days to mow my yard now. Not that I have an overly large yard; it’s a basic suburban yard that shouldn’t take more than a couple hours, maybe three with trimming and weeding. But I started Saturday, and just finished Monday night as the sun went down. Why? Because I am a single parent, and there is simply too much to do most of the time.

I have mostly grown used to this, and not working the ridiculous hours corporate America demands has helped tremendously, except for that pesky lack of a paycheck (which hurts, but I am also getting used to that, too.) I am working just as hard, to build an entirely new career out of nothing; there is just no paycheck yet. This a task I would never have accepted if I had another choice, but fate has forced my courage, and some days I actually think I might pull this off. My days are still long; I still don’t have time to watch TV, or get enough sleep.

I’ve learned, though, that the overburden of solo parenthood also means that I no longer have the luxury of starting a task and seeing it through to completion. And of all my new challenges I’ve been forced to face in the last two years, that is something I truly struggle with daily.

Maybe its a man thing – we’re doers. Tell us a problem, and we don’t want to talk about it, we want to solve it. And we want to get it done, right now. We’ll start at dawn, and work until dark without stopping if need be, to get ‘er done; then we’ll sit on the porch and drink a beer and celebrate the good feeling of accomplishment.

But that model doesn’t work as a solo parent. Sure, I can plan to work all day on a task, but that is interrupted by the kids wanting breakfast, then needing driven to baseball practice and football, followed by lunch, even dinner some days, and picked up from practice, and dammit, nobody can run to the store for me to pick up some more nails or plywood, and by the time it is dark, not only is the project only a quarter completed, but I haven’t eaten myself all day, and no one is bringing me a beer, and besides, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it now anyway, because the project is not finished and I have to get up as early as possible tomorrow to get as much done before the boys wake up and it starts all over…

So my yard now takes three days to mow. I mow what I can, when I can, and the task stays on my to-do list much longer than it should.

I also hate the fact that nothing ever gets crossed off my list, and I am left with an ever growing list of tasks and projects in various stages of completion. Sigh, this has been a huge adjustment for me, juggling things for days or weeks that I used to be able to complete at one time, when I had a partner handling all the other duties and actually bringing me lunch and helping when she could, and sharing that beer with me at the end of the day. Now it seems there are always 100 balls in the air.

But I keep trying, as best I can. Most of the time I can keep my applecart from tipping, balancing these half-finished tasks, but sometimes, the wheels come off…

Last Friday, I thought I could do it all, spending the entire day working, with breaks only for the basics (cooking, laundry, dishes, practice, nothing crossed off the to-do list, and no mowing), and I thought I’d have enough energy left at the end of the long day to take advantage of an opportunity to attend a concert.

I miss going to shows. Before kids, I used to attend 60-80 a year, most in small clubs, like tonight’s show at Mr. Smalls. After kids that number dwindled considerably, but I still managed to get to a couple dozen a year, many when my wife watched the boy(s). But that number has dropped to the low single digits now that I am a solo parent. I miss live music, I really do, but it’s hard to get out with no one to watch the boys most of the time.

I miss Fridays, too. Friday, the most anticipated day of the week, the reward for a long week of work and obligations. A night to unwind a bit, forget the duty and deadlines and unpaid bills. But my nights all kinda run together now, and usually my Friday night is spent chauffeuring the boys. And besides, without a job it’s best I don’t go out, anyway, I need to stretch my dollars.

And the truth is, most Friday’s I am too tired to go out at night anyway, a product of being old now, and the adrenalin and caffeine that made getting through the week possible wearing off by then. Most Friday’s I limp to the finish line, like a runner slowing near the end of a race she was not out for time and only wants to finish. I am usually in bed on weekends earlier than during the week; that is just the lot of the solo parent, and I am learning to just accept that, most of the time.

But sometimes, dammit, I start feeling sorry for myself, I start to think that it’s not fair, seeing all my ex-coworkers on facebook enjoying happy hour cocktails, their spouses taking care of the kids and the house. Don’t I deserve a little time for fun and relaxation, too? Don’t I deserve a little time for fun, like going to a concert? Don’t I deserve it more, since I’m pulling double duty? It’s not my fault I am a single parent!

So I try to mask my tiredness and muster the energy for a fun Friday concert, even though I know it is probably a mistake going; I am just too tired, and am leaving too many things undone at home. But I am stubborn, too, and the chip on my shoulder tonight is big – we are going to have fun, dammit! So Kim and I trek to Millvale, even though Kim is probably even more tired than me after her very long and rough workweek with tons of overtime and a nasty commute everyday downtown. But I am in a deservedness mood.

The night crashes fast, though. The concert is sold out right before we get there; we probably would have made it if we didn’t have to drive kids to practices and make them dinner this evening. I am pissed, upset at myself for not buying tickets ahead of time, but also recognizing I didn’t buy tickets because I wanted t o avoid the $8 service charge, because I am unemployed. I took a chance, and I lost, just like all the chances we take doing things at the last minutes because our hectic lives do not allow for planning anymore.

So we stop for a beer at a local pizza pub, and with a few drinks in me, I am wallowing in self pity. This sours what I could have at least turned into nice night out with my beautiful girlfriend. But I am too pissed to see this at the time, too sorry for myself and the supposed things I am owed, too tired and stressed because I have a few hardships in my life. My sour mood results in a disagreement with Kim, and I go home pissed at the world, my outlook black, the gratitude and graciousness of what could have been a nice night out, regardless of missing the concert, gone with the sold out tickets…

And this is where the slippery slope of deservedness gets steep. What are we owed in life? What are we guaranteed? The answer is nothing. We are owed nothing, and most of the time I recognize I have a much better life than 90% of the 7 billion people in the world, even with my single parent duties and obligations. We are lucky enough in this country to be given the right to pursue happiness, but happiness is still ours work towards; it is not given just because I’ve had some hard times. Life really isn’t like it’s portrayed on facebook, where only the “nice” things are allowed to be displayed.

Our bad evening keeps me up at night. It always does when Kim and I are not right. We are very connected at the heart and soul levels, I feel what she is feeling, which when we are both upset amplifies the unrest. Shame on me, thinking that I deserve a night out on Friday, when clearly, I should recognize the normal Friday night exhaustion, and just be content with a low-key evening with the kids and a movie and holding hands with someone special. I need to learn to face it – I just can’t do it all…

It is so easy to get caught up in the doing it all culture of our modern society. Look around, all the marketers and advertisers are telling you you deserve the best, you are worth it, you work hard, this is something you need, something that will bring you happiness and fun. It’s easy to get sucked in, and I fall for it sometimes, too (though to be honest, the lack of TV watching since my wife died has greatly lessened this, in my kids, too.)

Most of the time I recognize the good things in my life, especially now with the wake-up call of my wife’s passing. And the truth is, very little of the good things in life are “things.” I have two healthy, handsome, loving boys, and a loving and supportive family. I have a girlfriend who genuinely cares about me and my boys, who genuinely loves me, and with whom I don’t need anything – I just need to be with her. I have a roof over my head, food in the cupboards, and though we may not have the money to eat out anymore or go to a lot of concerts, we have more than enough, at the end of the day, when I get rid of my deservedness and reflect about what is important.

It takes me a day to get out of my funk (did I mention I am stubborn?), and then remorse fills me. I am most sorry now that I didn’t recognize at the time last Friday that to be doing anything with someone who loves me is a gift I never thought I would share again. It was a lost opportunity, which I will never get back. Of course Kim and I reconcile and reconnect quickly, but I have some making up to do.

In reflection, I recognize that a part of this clouded judgment is the simple exhaustion of Friday nights, of being a solo parent, of trying to do it all. It is not worth it; I can’t do it all. I need to remember my limits, recognize what truly matters, stop trying to do it all, and learn to be happy with the wonderful gifts that I do have. I need to keep my priorities in order and in focus, and choose what’s really important. There will be days when a concert still fits in, especially as the boys get more independent. And there will be days when it doesn’t. I hope I have the wisdom to recognize what day it is.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to just sitting on the back porch with Kim soon, hand in hand, the lawn unmowed and the list put away, watching the sunset and listening to the gentle gurgle of the pond and the drone of the late summer cicadas singing their slow evening song, the specialness of this ordinary moment punctuated only by the occasional laughter of our children…

You can do anything–but not everything. The universe is full of creative projects that are waiting to be done. So, if you really care about quality of life, if you want to relax, then … control your aspirations. That will simplify things. Learning to set boundaries is incredibly difficult for most people.”

– David Allen

Creek Magic – A Week in the Woods, Part II

photo 1 (8)

 “Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.”― Robert Frost

The pull is irresistible.

First is the sound, the constant low gurgling, the tumbling of water cascading over rocks, a low murmur from a distance, usually discreet, and only a white noise. Kim and I are walking into the woods, up on the Ridge again, this time trekking along Fish Run. Sure we notice the sound, on some level, not conscious, but it is persistent and patient, waiting for us to notice.

I often overlook so much now, as an adult, including the sound of babbling brooks. Too much duty and obligation and adult distractions, like raising two boys on my own, which leads by necessity to the inability to slow down and take time for such “non-productive” activities. At the beginning of our hike, the sound of the stream is drowned out by conversation and the wind rustling through the treetops, by worries over whether we forgot anything, or if the four kids will be okay at home, on their own. It is their first overnight, without us. Parental concerns, to be sure, especially with teenagers, but also a quiet confidence that things will be fine. We have good kids.

But oh how that sound held so much promise when we were children! We called them creeks growing up, “cricks” if you were a native to these parts. As a kid, the sound was irresistible, calling me and my friends closer, until we were knee deep in the cold water. The cascade is a din when in it, punctuated with the splashes and plops of shoes and rocks in the water, joyful shouts of shock and laughter when someone falls in, or of discovery when finding a crayfish or minnow or water spider, and of unbridled creativity as muddy hands make dams and divert channels to make waterfalls. The sparkle of childhood summers was reflected in the golden rays dancing on the crystal clear waters, and in the inspired, excited eyes of these young creek dwellers.

I remember, too, quiet times spent by a creek as a boy. I would stop and be still, just listening, intently, to the babbling, with my eyes closed, sitting on the bank. I swear occasionally the murmur would be interupted by musical singing, the creek even calling my name. Often times this seemed so real I would open my eyes and look around; of course no one was there. But in these special times of solitude, I felt the pull of something deeper, a connection, something common that runs through all of us, this creek, these trees, our hearts…

And so it is with love, too, the pull just as irresistible, just as magical, just as mysterious as a creek. The bright, sparkly river of love offers the thrill of adventure and exploration, and the refreshingness and renewal of cold water on a hot summer day. But love also needs quiet time, alone time, without distraction, to really feel the connection, the depth, and unlimited wellspring of its potential, to hear your name being called in the sweet gurgling of real emotion.

It takes us a while to reconnect sometimes, Kim and I. It is not our choice to be apart for long stretches of time, but we are bound by the duties of single parenthood and making a living. Our choice would be to never leave each others’ side, to abandon everything and sit by a creek for the entire summer, maybe forever. That is what our twin souls want, but that is not our choice to make, not yet; too many other souls to worry about, for now.

So we have to dance back together, slowly, after being apart for almost a week, courting all over again, testing to make sure the other still feels the way I do, still a bit afraid of how deeply we really feel, when we really admit it to ourselves. And the preparation for this backpacking trip, only Kim’s second ever, the distraction of her new boots and new equipment to fit, the planning of meals and kid care, the prep of making sure everyone is taken care of in our brief absence, they are the activities of our foreplay.  As unromantic as it seems, that is the build up of two solo parents working towards opening our hearts fully to each other, once again.  But we are not complaining; we recognize the holy gift, and will do whatever is necessary to swim in it again.

photo 2 (8)

Finally at night, we are tucked into our campsite, nestled in a warm hemlock grove on a bench above a gurgling stream, “our” creek. The low, warm fire casts an orange glow on her angel face, smoke fills our nostrils, wine and chocolate on our breath, followed by the taste of her soft, sweet lips. The clouds part like our worries and fears, the sky as clear and starry as the welcome realization that we are still connected at the heart and soul level, not hoping this time, but feeling it, deep inside. We melt into our shared camp chair, into each others’ arms, into each other, into a glorious night intertwined, heart and body and soul. And all through the night, keeping constant vigil, seeping slowly into our unconscious, is the call of the creek…

We make love again in the morning, in our tent lit up with the rising sun, followed by camp coffee, and breakfast of cheese and crackers and chocolate.  We sit on a rock above the gurgling creek, our backs against a massive hemlock trunk, the same tree that stood guard over our tent last night. Canada warblers flit through the forest at eye level, and the pine scent and smell of fresh coffee lingering through camp tempt us to stay here all day. But the creek sounds are edging into consciousness now, too, finally.  It is irrestitable, like our love, no matter how long apart – we must explore.

I have been to this spot many times, I have taken my boys here, and we have made a dam across a narrow channel on Fish Run, and we have made waterfalls, too. The dam is breached now, the waterfall just a trickle. That is unacceptable; this needs some work.

Kim and I are in the creek now, our hands muddy up to our elbows, our feet in the water (we need to test Kim’s waterproof boots anyway), the plops and splashes of rocks in the water punctuated only by our laughter and joy and shouts of “We need some more rocks and muck over here”, and “If we can only dredge this part of the channel a little more, we’ll really get that waterfall flowing.” I hear myself saying these things now, but it is the nine year me, answered by the childhood ear-to-ear smile Kim flashes back at me when she discovers a crayfish.

“Maybe we’ll find a hellbender!” I excitedly call out, explaining they are the biggest, meanest, mot ferocious of our amphibians, a giant salamander up to two feet long that lives deep in the mud, where we are digging. We are biologists now, studying the rare creatures, before morphing into civil engineers and fixing those breeches, even raising the water level a good two inches. Boots squish in the mud, dirt lodges under our scraped nails, manicures for Kim a million miles from this creek. And where oh where in a million universes would I ever find someone to join me in dam building and crayfish catching and splashing in a crick?  But she is here…

This creek is so familiar, so magical; is it a time machine? Is this the same creek of my childhood, so long ago but so right now? Was there someone else in the creek at the same time I was, on those quiet, solo banks? Was that Kim I felt, all those years before, when everything felt just right with the universe, she in her own creek on Chestnut Ridge, me in Sugarloaf Run? Were we marching inevitably to this day, to this point, this creek, just like when our paths crossed oh so close so many times in the past, but just never at the right time? Is this what I felt, the perfect future, here now? For this is perfect, right here, right now. There is no individual consciousness right now, my mind’s voice has completely disappeared, and the sunshine and the cold creek and the deepest love possible shared between two human beings flows, as open and pure and natural as those perfect days of youth.

Is the flow of the creek, of love, timeless? I wish I could bottle it up and say yes. But the sun arcs across the sky, our old bodies are getting tired, and we have a long walk back, followed by a long drive back to duty, and away from each other again. We don’t think about that, still enjoying just merely being in each others’ flow, as we always are when together. We blend, seamlessly, when together. We need to be together, all the time. We are working towards that. But for now, Kim carries a rock from this creek back with her, to go into the backyard creek of her own design and labor.  It’s the reminder we need when apart, of our timeless march and inevitable flow into each other…

Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. – Lao Tzu

Magic Mushrooms – A Week in the Woods, Part I

photo 3 (4)

 “The sudden appearance of mushrooms after a summer rain is one of the more impressive spectacles of the plant world.” – John Tyler Bonner

The dark clouds roll in yet again, mid-afternoon instantly replaced by dusk. The hermit thrushes even start singing their sweet, flute-like songs as if it were time for evening vespers, fooled by the sudden loss of daylight. In the thick conifer forest of mostly white pines and hemlocks, interspersed with ancient oaks, all massive and hundreds of years old, the canopy is 200 hundred feet above us, and when the rain and thunderstorms move in quickly, it is like someone has flipped the off the light switch. It now seems almost as dark as night when the raindrops start falling heavily, hitting the tarps and tent with loud, unnatural plops, like a crowd of people flicking bugs off a screen door with their fingers. The songs of the thrushes are swallowed up instantly in the din.

Everyone knows about the forest part of Cook’s Forest State Park, in Clarion County, nestled along the Clarion River. It’s why we have come, to partake in a sharing with the elder trees, to feel their energy, perhaps even absorb some of their ancient wisdom. Old growth forests are a rarity here now, in the East, our appetite for new hardwood floors and a dozen napkins with our paper wrapped fast food and 6-ply toilet paper insatiable, demand only satisfied by the constant cutting of our forests, the evidence a steady stream of trucks laden with trees just like these. These small groves, allowed to reach maturity only by the protection of their State Park designation, are the last refuge we have of the glory of a forest that once spanned our entire state, indeed the entire eastern part of the country, before the arrival of manifest destiny and industrial logging.

I planned on teaching my boys of the forests’ magic, thinking mostly of these trees, as we spent four days camping under the ancient boughs. I would point out how different this forest is from the ones back home, which are never allowed to reach this size, the cull of the dollar too pressing to pass up. We would hike and bike and maybe even canoe through the trees and time on a different, older planet.

Of course, I pictured us romping under sunny skies, enjoying the warm temperatures of summer. And the trip started like that, a spring in everyone’s step as we spilled from the car after a two-hour drive, excitement tingling up and down our spines, the perfect father-son’s camping trip. But I had no sooner released the bikes and set up camp and the tent and the tarps, when the clouds rolled in, the sky opened up, and the temperatures dropped.

Initially, I was disappointed, visions of our trip turning into misery as we traipse through mud and muck and shiver in the cold. And there was a bit of that, at first; but this place is too magic. And rain is what feeds the magic.

Trevor is the first to point it out, commenting on the “magic tree” in a clearing near our tent.  It is a small white pine only 80 feet tall, but lit up by the sunlight created after the fall of an ancient elder cleared an opening in the dense, dark canopy, allowing light to the ground, a rarity here. The young pine does seem like the Anointed One, aglow in the bask of sunshine and white light when the clouds do part, while all the other trees are in shadow. Even at night it is special, as the moonlight lights up the tree, too, now in silver.

Trevor’s magic tree gives me pause, causes me to re-think my disappointment in the rain. Soon I am noticing the magic, too, as the forest reveals a side that I didn’t expect. The life giving rains are gobbled up by the massive root systems and intricate layers of branches that allow only the heaviest waves of rain to actually reach the ground. Indeed, the trees hold the rain up high, for hours after the rain has ended, releasing it only reluctantly and only when the wind forces the droplets to pool, creating heavier drops that fall to the ground when finally unable to resist gravity. We cannot tell after a while if it is raining or the water is falling from the trees.

So we venture forth between the raindrops, the boys on their bikes, exploring the campground, me exploring the trails around camp. Nobody is here in “our” section of camp, we have it to ourselves, everyone scared away by the forecast; this is a gift. And the other gift that is presented to us, which takes me a while to notice, just like the magic tree, are the mushrooms.

Mushrooms, a much lower life form, a fungus, beneath even the plant kingdom. Mushrooms, the forest janitors, cleaning up the decaying messes of the forest, the rot and death that inevitably comes with life, the job that no one wants to do. But they go about their jobs simply, patiently, beautifully even, sending out their spores when the time is right, those spores just waiting for the right conditions to bloom and grow. The conditions are right now; the sopping wet forest has exploded in fungus’ of every color, shape and texture.

I am fascinated, stopping to admire the spectrum of colors and patterns that seemingly weren’t there yesterday, though maybe I just didn’t see them in my disappointment. There is the huge, globular orange barf that covers an entire rotting log with spectacular color, contrasting markedly with the bright green water laden moss. The perfect orange-yellow globe of a tiny mushroom amongst the leaf litter, the bigger orange-yellow nipple-shaped mushroom near it, the huge cluster of orange hats the boys find in the campground and excitedly bring me to see. The cascading brown shrooms fringed in creamy white, looking like a slow-moving, exfoliating glacier, wearing down their host log with every rain. The ribbed, fluted undersides of the delicate flesh-colored caps, propped up like an umbrella on a thick toadstool stem, visible only by lying on the ground and peering upwards. The flower-like sqauwroot, shooting up its translucent white stalk and petals, pollinated by bumblebees. The cacophony of shapes and sizes and colors is dazzling, and mushroom finding becomes my main activity.

photo 1 (1) photo 1 (2) photo 1 (3) photo 1 (4)  photo 1 photo 2 (2) photo 2 (3) photo 3 (1)photo 1 (5) photo 3 (2) photo 3 (3)  photo 3 (5)

The next day the boys join me for a five hour hike, down through the valleys of pine and hemlock and oak, and mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. We talk, about life and god and the universe and mom, about school and football and fantasies, as their imaginations are sparked by the undeniable life force flowing through us here, of which we are palpably a part. We talk about our favorite mushrooms, having a contest to decide the “best” one. Everyone has their own favorite, their own opinion, and we leave it at that, the sense of equilibrium and respect for each other growing as quickly as the mushrooms, as quickly as my boys are, as quickly as they are becoming young men. We need this walk, this trip, these mushrooms, hemmed in by duty and video games and responsibility too often, not always enough time for the simple magic that life brings, if only we take time to notice. I notice now, especially, the magic in my boys, in Jake’s big brother nurturing that is always behind the teasing of his younger brother, in his very impressive growing up, and in Trevor’s determination to keep up with his older brother, in his heartfelt laugh, and in his bright blue eyes that reflect his mother’s love of life and kind heart. The wisdom of life does seep in, to all of us, in these heartfelt conversations we share on this magical hike through an ancient forest.

photo 2 (4)photo 2photo 2 (1)photo 2 (6)photo 3 (6)photo 1 (7)photo 1 (6)photo 3 (5)

We return to camp no more than fifteen minutes before the sky opens up again. But we share lunch under the tarps, protected from the rains, and are soon curled up in our camp chairs as I read out loud to them. We are reading a book about a woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, solo, after the death of her mother, too young, from cancer. We are mesmerized by the words, perhaps even more so by the pounding rain falling only inches from us, a reminder of natures’ power and our own fragility. I pause at the profound sections, using a large stick to raise the sagging  tarps and drain the water that pools on them, that weighs them down, allowing the words to sink in like the water that flows onto the ground. Always there is a request to read more. We read for three hours, and don’t even notice the rain.

And then the rain suddenly stops, and the clouds part. Our camp is drenched in godlight, the beams from the magic tree clearing landing directly on our tent. Trevor bounds into it, splashing in the puddles, arms held high trying to catch the sunbeams through the fog. The scene is lit up like a holy painting.

photo 2 (5)

I light the campfire in this reprieve, in anticipation of evening, our wood and kindling piled under the tarps, mostly dry. Thick, white smoke billows from the fire struggling to maintain life; everything is wet, even the air needed for the fire. The smoke filters off through the trees, drifting through other campsites and up into the canopy in waves, like the fast moving fog that rolls in quickly off the ocean on the West Coasts’ ancient redwood forests. It is just as magic here in our rain forest camp tonight.

The fire roars to life, and we enjoy a wonderful family meal around it, the conversation continuing. Soon the boys are full and antsy, and they disappear down the gravel road on their bikes, shouting with glee and joy, doing “their” 3-mile loop to the fire tower one more time before dark. The music of their voices fades, and I am left alone, with just the sounds of the water droplets plopping, and the vespers of the thrushes, this time at the appropriate evening hour.

photo 4

I am content, happy even, in the rain. Life isn’t always sunny days, I know. Some days you just have to let go of expectations and go with what life gives you, like mushrooms and magic trees and a good book under a tarp in the pouring rain with your boys. Water droplets hang on the delicate hemlock needles, lit up like Christmas tree bulbs in the low evening light and against the dark wet moss-covered oak trunk behind them. Occasionally a bulb drops, as fast and spectacular as the shooting star I saw during a brief clearing two nights ago. Catch it while you can, life moves fast. It is up to us whether we choose to see only the rain, or the unexpected beauty and gifts it brings.

photo 2 (7)

Later that night, around the campfire, eating snacks with the boys, a raccoon brushes against Jake’s leg as it brazenly marches right up to us and steals our entire bag of cheese curls! Jake screams like a girl, before we regain our composure enough to chase down the marauder and rescue our curls. We howl with belly laughs for fifteen minutes, as the drops roll off the trees and splat on the cheese curl bag and the mushroom caps that keep us company in camp.

photo (60)

Cairns

cairn-stones

“How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.”

I was at a temp agency this week, applying for an elusive part-time job. There are not many opportunities to work only during the hours that the boys are in school. Talk about humbling, applying for jobs that pay a mere fraction of my former salary glory! In fact it’s closer to minimum wage. Thinking maybe I should mow lawns and do some landscaping in the month of August to raise some cash for back to school, too. You do what you have to.

I walked away from full-time employment a year ago, voluntarily. I left my overly-demanding job working for a company that treats their machines better than their employees so that I could focus on raising my boys properly, not as a stressed out, mean, high blood-pressured, never home, half-assed dad. It was the right thing to do, I know that even more today, even as the money gets tight. Man, that was tough to walk away from the big paycheck and the security of working for a large company with a pension and a 401(k), even if they do exploit their “human resources.”

But I walked away with a bit of faith, a vague calling, a knowing even, that this was the right thing to do, that it was time to follow my path – the one I had always been afraid to follow.

A year ago, I was stripped down, spiritually, to the bare bones, hollowed out by the incredible events of the previous year, forced to look honestly at myself, my life, and what I wanted out of life, for me, and the boys. Death has a way of forcing that.

When faced by any loss, there’s no point in trying to recover what has been; it’s best to take advantage of the large space that opens up before us and fill it with something new.

– Paulo Coelho

Now when a vessel is hollowed out, it creates room to be filled with something else, if you have the courage to allow it. I had always had a concrete plan, I always consciously chose something to fill my vessel, just to keep it filled; but I truly had no idea what to do a year ago. I had some vague ideas, dreams really, but no experience or education or opportunities foreseeable to actually get there, certainly no right to embark on an unknown journey. I would have never taken this risk before; never, especially with two other lives hanging in the balance.

But a year ago, everything in my hollowed out life said to follow my heart. The books I was reading, the events surrounding meeting Kim, the pain of forcibly trying to stay on my professional path, and mostly, that voice that doesn’t use words – “Follow your heart”, they all said. Okay, I give in, doing it my way wasn’t working, anyway.

cairn

So how do you follow your heart?

Well that’s the tricky part. The heart doesn’t have a plan; it trusts intuitively in the Universe, it knows that the Soul will guide you where you need to go, when the time is right.

Well, shit, that scares the crap out of me!

I’ve always just set a target, any target, and then bulled through in pursuit. You’re telling me now there is no concrete plan, no directions from A to B, no clear path to go…where? Where am I even going? The signs will appear, says the heart. Really? Never would I have trusted this before, but when you’ve got nothing to lose…why not?

And signs did appear. Starting with a blog, finding a voice I didn’t know I had (or just never took the time to listen), watching in amazement as the money needed for major house repairs and anything else that came up magically appeared, healing from my losses, with the help of Kim and family and friends. The pieces all just came together, right when needed. My life is so much better this year versus last. Amazing. There will be a full book on these events!

These signs, I call them cairns. Cairn. Pronounced karen. Karens if plural. From the Gaelic word “carn” for monument or marker. A stack of stones, orderly, clearly intentional, usually simple and subtle.

IMG_4327

I’ve traveled solo through uninhabited desert wilderness, with only the most basic supplies and a map and compass (adventurejmw.wordpress.com ). I’ve prepared well, but there are no trails etched into the barren desert. To make my map come alive in the rock and sand, I seek out these stacks of rocks that mark the “trail.” Mostly they are simple signs, and they are mostly missed, unless you are looking for them.

But when you’ve thrown your map away, when your traveling by heart – well, then they are true companions. When you are getting antsy, when you haven’t seen one for a while, when your water is running low, when you are feeling nervous about whether you are going the right way, maybe even wanting to turn back – well, finding that next cairn is a relief, it restores faith and re-builds confidence to carry on, even further into the wilderness.

But they don’t always appear fast enough for me. I still get nervous, easily. Luckily I have faith helpers, too.

Maybe it is just a little sign, a song out of nowhere that inspires a memory or helps me make a choice, or a book given to me that renews my enthusiasm.

Some days, though, the doubts are deep, and I need picked up. I have to give some kudos here to those who prop me up when my faith is sagging the most, when the doubts creep in, as they always will when you can’t see down your path. My mom, and sisters Annie and Sarah, always sending cards and encouraging notes, Sarah being downright blunt, saying in no uncertain terms that I should not go back to full time corporate serfdom, that it would be a mistake I will regret the rest of my life. Sarah knows what she speaks, too – she has been living from the heart her entire life, and it is amazing to see her life bloom now, successful by all her own measures. A true role model – thanks, Sarah. (www.sarahwalko.com/blog/ )

And my beautiful Kim. She only wants me to be happy, she knows intimately about deadlines and final realities and living life, not just making a living. Mostly, though – she believes in me, she believes in the Higher Me, the Me we share in our most intimate moments, the dreamer, the romantic, the lover of life. She has seen the real me, too, at my worst, and she doesn’t run from it, she doesn’t try to change me. She only embraces me. She embraces my crazy dreams, even encourages them, and picks me up when I stumble.

And most important, when the doubts of my dark nights threaten my faith, she helps me do the one next thing, still with full faith in me. And doing that one (or two, or three) next thing, that is so important, for usually the next cairn is revealed just by moving forward, no matter how small the step. Thank you, Kimberly Rose, this is where our twin soul connection shines the brightest and does its’ best work.

My heart tells me to do something with this newfound gift of writing. I don’t know what, I don’t know how. But I write when and what I’m told to write, and I learn new skills and I join writer’s groups and I read journals and how-to manuals and books and I write just about everyday, even if it is only a love letter to Kim or a detailed facebook post. I am “working” just as hard as I did with full time employment, but it is on my terms, on my timetable, doing what I love – and that makes all the difference. Keep working, keep moving forward, keep chipping away, keep looking for your cairns – they will appear.

So where am I? Dipping into my savings every month now, not good for the long haul. My book still isn’t ready, yet either, sigh – one more day? I’ve heard that a lot, but I am keeping the faith that it will happen soon. Writing a book has been another long and humbling learning experience. But at least it is a big step in the right direction, pursuing my dream to make a living writing, to create a job that fits with my priorities and mostly, fits right with my heart.

Hmm, I’m not sure I will ever get back to making my six-figure plus salary, and I can’t wait to stop shopping at Aldi and the Thrift store, and wow, taking the whole big, blended family out to dinner one day will truly be appreciated, once I am able again.

I am not sure when that will happen, or even if, there are no guarantees, no career path here. I only find my cairns when needed, but they have always appeared. There are some nice ones on the horizon, it seems, and I can see a little bit further now, maybe the fog is parting a bit. But this will work out, I feel it, things are happening that are supposed to happen. I have Kim and our beautiful families, we are all in a good place right now after crawling out of some deep depths over the past year. We all are enjoying good health. We are all happy, enjoying the struggle, the ride, and this wonderful life, today.

Breathing deep, I let go, offer gratitude everyday, and keep my heart open to love and eyes open for my cairns…

There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.” – Rumi, Persian poet and Sufi mystic

IMG_4204

                                                       cairn                                                                                                              cairn-stones