Faithfulness

Maria Popva’s fantastic website Brain Pickings culls her myriad obsessions (literary, artistic, aural, spiritual, etc.) into a constant flow of enlightening posts.

Her piece on Parker Palmer’s recent Naropa University address showcases what makes Popova’s blog a must-read: she channels a nearly obscure current of would-be internet ephemera and siphons it in order to pique our own obsessiveness.

I had been ignorant of Palmer’s work, although I realize I heard him on an On Being podcast without having connected name to message. But given that the theme of this blog--Begin Again--is the overlap between the persistent and repetitive cycles of both artistic and spiritual work (the same but different and both as mundane as they are mysterious), the themes of his teachings are necessary to echo here.

Specifically, what struck a chord is Parker’s talking-point about parsing the difference between the ‘effectiveness’ of taking on the necessary and nagging tasks of our lives (those nefarious but essential to-do lists) and the overarching passion projects that inspire and drive what we often consider our ‘true’ work. While acknowledging that managing tasks effectively gets us short-term results, we also must return to and attend to those grander notions of what Parker refers to as faithfulness:

‘…(being) faithful to your calling, and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care.’

Surveying where I am right now, I have been emphasizing my day-job, which at present is a wild ride of travel-intensive IT project work and the constructing—along with my colleagues—of a business. It’s obvious why my focus is here now: the job pays, and it provides, and frankly, it’s fun, exciting, risky, scary. Creativity comes into play quite a lot in my day-to-day – much more than I would have guessed.

Still.

Lately I’ve been more effective than I have been faithful; or more accurately, I’m more aware of being effective and less aware of being faithful. And when I am aware of being faithful, I’m faithful in unexpected ways. Where I once relied on being myopically faithful to my artistic pursuits, I’m now spreading that faithfulness to my relationships, to my health, to my spiritual work, and, as noted above, even to my day job.

As Popova’s recap of Palmer’s address underscores, it’s heartening to know that I’m not alone in living a paradox: we know less and are less certain the longer we live. 

If Any Church Would Have Me as a Member….

“You can’t eat the bread if you haven’t accepted Jesus as your savior.”

This was from my grandmother, who had turned around from the pew in front of me in order to make sure I hadn’t gulped down the saltine wafer and grape juice—the flesh and blood of Christ—as they were passed before my pre-adolescent appetite.

I loved and love my departed grandmother; my relationship with her is one of those foundational emotional bonds that girds my being. And yet, this woman who was so important to me had no trouble reminding me that I was an unredeemed sinner who was pedaling his way to the smoldering gates of Hell.

My brain was quick to make the obvious connection: My grandmother, an otherwise endless source of love and support, had transformed into my Condemner because we were in church.

I am one of those born with that chromosomal kink who, despite all efforts to the contrary over many years, can’t seem to shake loose from an inclination toward the religious. Not the spiritual, which I define as the essential gut-feel that the Universe operates by erratic divine providence, I mean religious – holy scriptures, rituals, preachers, and yes, church.

I am also one of those born with that _other_ chromosomal kink who can’t get comfortable with two important components of the religious life: settling into a single religious discipline and attending church.

Sigh.

So…by default, my tribe is the pastiche of spiritual, religiously-inclined humanist artists who wander and ache and rebel and mourn and joke and indulge and imbibe and who otherwise feel like we’re missing out on something grand but who also feel like we’ve dodged a boulder-sized bullet. My tribe is the ‘Cafeteria Plan Believer’ – the group who uses whatever spiritual teachings pass the transom of our pre-occupied brains and cobble themselves together into a belief system.

Imagine a Frankenstein monster sutured together with religious iconography.

This serves me well as an artist (or at least it keeps my creative engines rumbling), but I can’t know what it’s doing to my spiritual development, which is, to my mind, integrally entwined with that self-same creative development.

I do know that during these past few and difficult years, probably some of the hardest years of my life (he wrote vaguely), I have turned to spiritual texts and teachings more than ever before. I have brought a daily practice into my hours. I have been remarkably serious about it. And as much as I long to tell my grandmother that I am now able to chew the wafer and drink the juice, I still just…can’t.

But, if there were a church out there I could belong to, the one that comes closest to my ideal is Nadia Bolz-Weber’s. The combination of disciplined adherence and open-armed admittance, the emphasis on tradition and resurrection and redemption, speak to me and my sense of what the religious should be.

I can’t know what my grandmother would have thought Bolz-Weber’s congregation, but I like to think that, in another reality, we could have broken bread there together. 

When the Drummer Wants to Be the Singer

No one wants to be Ringo.

It’s nothing against Ringo, per se (although Ringo gets a lot of crap for not being as good a musician as the rest of the Fab Four—and while I admit I once thought this, too—I now recognize that his unique, melodic drumming was the perfect compliment to the Beatles’ music). And it’s not really even about the Beatles and their media-fabricated ‘personalities’ – smart, sarcastic John; romantic, dreamy Paul; quiet, spiritual George.

It’s about the role of the drummer.

So let’s pretend that our complex, individual and multi-faceted lives can be distilled into the configuration of the classic four-piece rock band. In that archetypal arrangement, the drummer is the worker, the drone, the time-keeper (the job is different if you’re drumming for Jimi Hendrix or if you play jazz, and there are hundreds of exceptions, but we’re talking about the rule here – in rock music, drummers keep time). On stage, the drummer is pushed back behind the band, and although s/he has the capacity to be the loudest and most distracting member, s/he is the one whose presence you’re made aware of by her or his absence.

In other words you should only notice a good drummer when the music demands that you do. More than anyone else on that stage, the drummer’s job is to maintain the song’s structure, its volume and its speed, while the other members are free to emote, to solo, and to stand in the blare and brightness at the center of attention. As the drummer you are in the ultimate support role.

This is why drummers want to be singers. Why be a support player when you could be the star?

Ego, though, is a quirky, fickle and demanding little beast. Using myself as an example, I often have two conflicting narratives running inside my head at the same time:

I’m better than this; I’m not good enough for this.

I’ve centered my spiritual work of late on my ego. I’m one of those people who denies the insistence and existence of his own ego because I sense that being ego-driven is spiritually stifling, but then I unconsciously operate out of my own self-interest despite myself. One of the most valuable recent lessons has been realizing how much I pin on outcomes. How much of my life I put on hold until X or Y is accomplished. Right now, I’m having to wrestle with my career goals (goals I didn’t even know I had) while at the same time nurturing my creative and familial needs.

What role does ego play in this? What role should ego play in this? I don’t know anything more than I can’t change and grow without some ego-investment. I can’t write books or contribute to my family without some sense of ego-investment. I’m beginning to equate being egoless with being fearless -- being fearless doesn’t mean we live without fear; it means we acknowledge the fear and do what we must. Is it the same with ego? That rather than negate ego, we should acknowledge our ego-involvement, recognize ego’s role in what we’re doing, and then act?

Going back to the rock band, and to the Beatles, and to the roles we all ultimately play in the stage production of our lives. We’re all here to serve the music. Yeah, we also back up the other members in our band, and yes we also perform to the crowd, but ultimately, it’s the music that we serve. Ego becomes a problem when we fixate on the attention that the singer is getting, or when we obsess about the crowd’s reaction. But when we focus on the music, on the music-making, ego finds its rightful size and role and context.

 

Ambition Gnaws the Paws of Success*: Does Creativity Only Generate from Discontent?

(*With apologies to U2)

Thanks to a coworker’s recommendation, I’ve been catching up on a new podcast called The One You Feed

An engaging topic that hosts Eric Zimmer and Chris Forbes highlight in their latest podcast with ABC News Correspondent Dan Harris is the intersection of mindfulness and ambition.

If you are practicing (and struggling at) being in the NOW, accepting what is here with you as it is, where does orchestrating a long-term artistic/professional/spiritual goal fit?

This got me reflecting on an even deeper question: What drives an artist to create?

Many of the seekers and wanderers I’ve encountered over the years were catapulted onto their trajectories by negative experiences and/or hostile relationships. Many of us have sought within our passions the resolution to old conflicts, wholeness to remake the broken pieces we carry with us, answers to the tragedies we have witnessed or endured.

It’s a familiar trope, right?

But how long can we sustain this reaction to a perceived negative event or toxic relationship as the engine for our creativity? When does relying on pain to fuel our artistic or spiritual endeavors cause us harm or undermine our practices?

I’ve known that I wanted to write—to be an author of stories and books—since I was eight or nine. I was always a dreamer of a kid, stuck inside my imagination, and the divorce of my parents and the departure of my father from my life found me out of synch with many of my classmates and friends. Part of what I was looking for even then was a tacit acceptance. Call it love or appreciation or even adulation, there was an ego-driven need to be identified as a writer so that I could feel better about myself. This neediness only deepened through my adolescence, especially after I discovered music and rock and roll posturing (what Brian Eno calls ‘Negative ambition…the thing you’re pushing against.”) And it stayed strong throughout my twenties.

Something shifted in my thirties and continues to evolve in my forties, though. I got bored of the same negatively-framed narrative I kept repeating to myself. My non-artistic life had—despite my most self-destructive efforts—become a life I enjoyed thanks to my second marriage, my children, my job, my friendships. And as I’ve mentioned before several times in this blog, I gave up writing for a while, and giving up felt wonderful. (In retrospect, giving up the artist-as-damaged-goods paradigm was probably what felt so blissful.)

Eventually, I found I missed writing. I missed the act of creating. As I began again, the impulse to make art came from a different, simpler place – I write because it’s what I do.

None of this happened by design. It was all a result of my usual bumping and flopping about. But somehow the fulfillment I’ve found in my craft has nothing to do with accolades or acknowledgement outside my own skull; it has to do with my relationship to the works themselves. Novels and stories present themselves to me, and I am obligated to do my best to bring them into the world (however slow and excruciating that process may be).

That’s not the end of it, though. I do want to publish my novels and stories, and I do want as many people as possible to read what I’ve written. I don’t deny this ambition. Stories are meant to be shared, and if I can add my own to the many others already out there while maybe making a little money doing so, well, that would be gravy. 

So I come back around to the question raised in the podcast: where does ambition fit?

The advice that Harris repeats—by way of what he’s read and studied—is to not invest in the outcome. 

I don’t know what I think about this. How the hell do we not invest in the outcomes of an endeavor that we’ve spent hundreds of hours partaking in? I don’t care how egoless any of us pretend to be, we all invest in the outcomes. That’s just what we do.

But there you go: Work hard, do your best, and don’t invest in the outcomes. Chop wood. Carry water.

There's more, though. I have found all these accidental friends and compatriots and family while partaking in the most challenging endeavors of my life: adolescence, writing, parenting, coping with anxiety. The lesson I learn and re-learn (and re-learn) is that if you keep the frustrations and the struggles to yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere. If you share, others will come forward. As ever, if you open yourself to the life around you, and you allow yourself to be vulnerable and say, “This is who I am” others will respond, most of them positively.

Paths are not meant to be wandered alone. Loneliness is a fabrication of ego, too, this thinking that we are somehow unique in our successes or our failures (especially our failures). Be here now, yes, and more importantly, be here now together. 

Passing Familiar: The Death of a Classmate

A classmate from high school died last week.

We were barely acquaintances. He was one of those people I grew up around rather than with; companionable enough but not someone I was otherwise connected to. We were on swim team together. Within the social hierarchy of beach-influenced San Diego, he had gone from being a geek like me and my friends to a popular kid because he had taken up surfing. (Yes, these leaps in the social order were possible, and surfing, for whatever reason, was one of the ways kids at my high school could elevate themselves.)

When my classmate joined the swim team, he had no swimming technique, but because of the hours spent surfing, he pulled himself through the chlorinated water with such strong-willed ferocity, he ended the season doing at least as well as I did, if not better. That’s what I remember most about him.

We knew each other, and we shared experiences around each other, and now he’s gone. And yet I’ve been thinking about him ever since I heard the news.

As I’ve reached middle age—an ‘achievement’ in and of itself that still baffles me—my reaction to deaths like this one are ever more visceral. I immediately think of the wife and child he left behind, the realities of being a widow or widower, the financial struggle and the emotional turmoil of having to confront the loss with a child, or children, in tow.

This will be me, and it will be my family. There’s no avoiding it, there’s no false safety of years. When I was young, I could think this same thought with a comforting delusional belief that such passings were far off in some distant maybe-never-going-to-happen future. That’s a lie I can’t pretend any longer.

But that’s not what is haunting me. No, it’s the lingering sensation that someone has been stolen from me. A person who up until this was week was frozen safely in my memories. Someone protected by his existence in my past. Rationally I of course know that he’s no longer strutting through the high school halls, no longer cruising the So Cal beaches as a carefree, sun-blessed teen. But before my rational thoughts can engage, there is a sense of vertigo, of displacement.

Someone is missing. Someone was taken. Plucked from my memories, removed from my past. Wiped away.

Perhaps what I’m sensing is time’s circularity, its constant turns and circumlocutions. There is no line from then to now. There are only ripples, and tides, and currents. There are only long ago surfers carving up still cresting waves.