A Dusty Little Secret

I had a secret, and I gave it away to a stranger in the dark.

This year’s trek to Burning Man was markedly different from my first journey last year. Most notably – I was not burdened with a heavy heart, as I was my virgin year. This year, I was joyous and happy and I took a newbie with me — and seeing the burn through her eyes was like seeing it for the first time myself. They say every Burn is different, and so far that appears to be true. Read On

The Perfect Father’s Day Gift

I gave my dad an onion for Father’s Day.

As Father’s Day gifts go, it was unusual, to say the least. Generally speaking, produce is not commonly given as gifts to anyone, let alone men on Father’s Day. But it is true – my dad got an onion on Father’s Day some thirty-five years ago.

I was six or seven years old – about the age my daughter is today – and holidays were special occasions. Father’s Day did not seem to have the same importance to me that Mother’s Day had, and I attributed that to the fact that I saw my mom regularly every day. I had a relationship with her. I felt close to her. So it was natural when Mother’s Day came around, I would want to honor that. I may not have understood what “honor” meant at age seven, but even a kid knows how to express love. But Father’s Day was different for me, and at the time I didn’t know why. It just wasn’t as big a deal. I wanted to get my dad a gift for the day, but I had no idea what to get the man.

Because I did not know him.

I did not see my father regularly every day. I did not have a relationship with him. I did not feel close to him. And as a result of this, I did not have any idea of what kind of gift to give him for Father’s Day.

At seven, I understood that gifts should be made of things the recipient likes. In that sense, Mother’s Day was easy, because my mom loved flowers, and she loved the artwork we would bring home from school (at least she acted like she did!), so I remember making paper flowers for her one Mother’s Day – yellow daffodils –  and she demonstrated love and appreciation in return.

So I tried to think of what my father liked. And at seven years old, I could think of only two things: cigarettes and beer. Both of those were out, of course. Too young to buy either, even if I had the money to do so, which I didn’t. But what did he like? What did he enjoy?

The only thing that came to my mind was an onion. This is because I had seen my father eat onions all the time. The cutting board of our kitchen frequently smelled strongly of onions, for he would slice off the ends of the onion, then peel the papery outer layers of the onion and leave the remnants on the cutting board, much to my mother’s vexation.

My father would eat the raw onion like an apple — biting into it whole.

At the time, as a kid, the only thing I thought about this was, “yuck”. (Actually, as an adult, I still think “yuck” at the idea of eating an onion like an apple.) But he did a lot of things that I considered “yucky” when I was a little boy – he hunted and killed deer and elk; he fished for trout and salmon and all manner of water-dwelling creatures whose taste did not agree with me; the smoking and drinking were very unappealing. So it was just one more thing about him I didn’t understand.

But I figured, he liked onions – I’ll get him an onion. So a few days before Father’s Day, I got the biggest onion I could find in the onion bin at the grocery store, and in order to make it a surprise, I hid it behind the couch until Sunday morning, and gave it to him as a gift.

I remember the appreciative look on his face, a sort of tolerant detachment that he always seemed to favor me with whenever we did actually interact. He thanked me for the onion, saying it was “real nice”. Eventually, he ate it.

It was not until many, many years later that I learned the only reason he ate raw onions was to mask the odor of alcohol on his breath when he went to work.

My father drank, and my father experienced much loss through the years related to his problems with alcohol. Whether he recognizes the loss of a relationship with his youngest son, I don’t know. He doesn’t really talk about that.

Today, we speak at holidays and such, and when we do, we speak of surface things – the weather, his boat, any luck he may have had at the casino recently… He’ll ask about me, and I’ll give him the “bird bath” version of my life (not going very deep), and he may ask about his grandchildren, depending on how the conversation is going. Eventually, one of us will mention the time and how we ought to let the other one go, and we say goodbye and hang up. And that brief, awkward interaction will last me for another six months, or until another holiday comes around.

No, it’s not the kind of relationship I want with my dad, but it’s the relationship I have. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “fake it til I make it”, but no matter what I have done, I’ve never been able to cultivate any sort of bond with the man. I’ve tried, but I can’t conjure something from nothing. I’m not that good of a magician.

I spent many years in a lot of anger and sadness about my father. I felt like I got “ripped off” in the dad department, when I’d see my friends with dads who participated in their lives and I had a man who lived in the same house with me but was completely unavailable.

I felt like my father never gave me anything other than a legacy of wreckage and loss, of heartbreak and missed opportunity. Gifts no child would want. As an adult, I came to feel such resentment over this – and of course, that resentment was only poisoning me.

When I learned that “forgiveness” was something that I do for myself, and not something that I bestow upon another person once I deem them worthy, I took a big step forward in my emotional growth. A wise person once pointed out to me that to forgive simply means “to see it another way”. If I can see something from another viewpoint aside from my own, it allows space to breathe, to contemplate, to release.

How I could “see it another way” in my father’s case was, “He did the best he could, and his best wasn’t all that good — according to me.” And – he was a sick man, a man with his own wounds, and was unable to give his youngest son what he needed most. But he did the best he could. The truth is, if he could have done better, he would have.

Today I’ve gotten to the point where I am “okay” with this. It is not what I would want for myself, but it’s okay. But every now and then, I get into a little bit of self-pity, and I go down that path of “I didn’t have this, I didn’t have that, I missed out on this, I wish I could’ve done that…” Pointless wallowing in my own disappointment and sadness – it’s a slippery slope into a trap, and I best avoid it at all costs. For when I fall into that trap, I get stuck, and misery ensues. I’ve found the way out of self-pity is to be of service — to get out of self, and into others.

Today, I have two kids who know their Dad loves them completely. They have seen their father dress up in costume, play games, have impromptu Saturday Night Living Room Dance Parties, teach them about life, hug them when they cry, blow raspberries on their bellies while they giggle and squeal, race with them, help them make good choices, talk to them in funny voices, introduce them to art and music and nature and Spirit, dazzle them with my vast knowledge of the universe, and–if I’m lucky–get them to eat a vegetable once in a while.

Nobody taught me how to do this. Nobody told me this is what I should do for my kids. I didn’t read this anywhere. All of this came to me from a simple question: what did I want my dad to do when I was their age? From the time they were babies, that has been my guiding thought in how best to serve my kids – to be the kind of father I wanted to have for myself.

And I’m a fantastic Dad. In a way, I have my father to thank for this — for it was his parenting that engendered this vigilance I feel to be that fantastic Dad. Because of the example he provided in how not to be a father, I have become a better dad, and a better man.

I guess he did give me a worthwhile gift after all. Maybe I’ll thank him for it when I call to wish him a Happy Father’s Day.

A Gift of Words

I have been told by people all my life, “You have a gift for words.”

That sentence was awkward for me to write, because it feels like boastful conceit, but it is a true statement – throughout my life, countless numbers of people have said those words to me. I used to blush and stammer a reply of gratitude, unsure of what to do with such a compliment. When I was younger I didn’t think I was gifted – I believed anyone could write if they set their mind to it. Today, I’m older and wiser, and I still believe anyone can write if they want to bad enough. But I do recognize a gift when I see it, and a natural way with words happens to be mine.

Once, several years ago, a woman said to me, “You have a gift of words.” That was how she put it – “of words”, not “for words”. It was the first time I had ever heard it phrased that way. It seemed like a simple misstatement of a common phrase, like when people say “Daylight Savings Time” instead of “Daylight Saving Time”. The point gets across, regardless of the syntax. But the way she said it stuck with me. I liked it.

I receive gifts every day. We all receive gifts each day, whether they be material gifts or gifts of the spirit. There is an abundance of gifts to be thankful for at any moment, though I recognize that in our 21st century world of schedules and calendars and tasks and appointments and 24-hour connectedness, it is easy to get moving so fast that I don’t see them. I try, but I’m not always successful.

I received a particularly special gift a few months ago. It is unique for many reasons: It is a one-of-a-kind piece of art that was created from recycled material; it was made specifically with me in mind; and it is both a material gift and a gift of the spirit. The gift sits on my desk, and I touch it every day. Or, more accurately, it touches me every day.

The gift is a box. I have this thing for boxes, I can’t explain it and I’m sure there are many armchair psychiatrists out there who will assign some Freudian meaning to my proclivity for collecting boxes. I’m not bound for an episode of “Hoarders”, I just have this thing for boxes. My office is full of them – boxes of varying sizes, the contents of each as varied as the boxes themselves. Some hold photos, some have cards and artwork from my children. Some hold old watches that I intend to wear once I replace the batteries in them. One box holds incense; another holds candles. I have a box that contains a few precious artifacts that were my brother’s before he died. There’s a box with little bits of nature I’ve collected that snared my attention – shells of certain shapes, stones of unusual colors, twigs and leaves and blooms dried but still charged with the memory of the time and place they were found.

The box on my desk was a gift from my sister. She is a very creative spirit, and I admire how she has unleashed the artist within her to create pieces of work that speak directly to the intended recipient. What’s more, she works with found objects – bits and pieces of random materials are collected and assembled to become something new and beautiful. It is quite literally one man’s trash becoming another man’s treasure.

My particular treasure apparently began life as a jewelry box, but in my sister’s hands it became something more. She removed an inner tray, exposing the felt lining inside, and after painting it a pleasing, masculine shade of blue, she glued a few seashells to the bottom. She affixed an image from a magazine showing an Asian-inspired drawing of waves on a tumultuous ocean, and added a bronzed sun ringed with orange-red fire. On the front of the box, where once was presumably a lock or a latch to hold it closed, she attached a metal disk that could have been a button or a coin from an extinct civilization – I don’t know what it is or where it came from. And she covered the lid with a piece from an old map of the Hawaiian islands – a stroke of inspiration that addressed my love of vintage travel posters and maps.

The box alone would have been a special gift that I would have loved and valued deeply. But the box contained another gift. They are known as “Angel Cards” – small rectangles of laminated paper, each with a single word printed on them. They are spirit words – pieces of vocabulary that invoke a sense of awareness, of purpose, of consciousness. In fact, those three words are in there: “awareness”, “purpose”, and “consciousness” are among dozens of words that are collected in this box. Words like “adventure”, “spontaneity”, “truth”, “light” – each one having a meaning and a power of its own. Each one intended to bring something special to mind – and to heart.

The idea is to draw one word from the box each day, and let that word do whatever it does to me. I could meditate on it, I could make the word a goal for my day, I could demonstrate the word in my actions – I am at choice in how I experience each word. So in the morning, I open the lid of the box and without looking, randomly pick a word. Actually, I pick three words each day. My little family consists of three people – myself, my son and my daughter, and so I choose a word for me, and two words for my kids. Three words. If Schoolhouse Rock taught me anything, it’s that three is a magic number. And there is definitely magic at hand here.

Yes, they are just words. But while words can never harm me (as per the “sticks and stones” chant), they certainly have the power to heal. Something happens each morning when I look at what I’ve drawn from the box. I’m reminded of something that I tend to forget. If I draw “tenderness”, for example, I’m reminded of the importance of a gentle heart with my kids, who are still young enough to be wounded by a thoughtless temper. If I draw “brotherhood”, I’m reminded that the men I encounter every day are all just like me, in varying stages of awareness. If I draw “synthesis”, I’m reminded – well, I gotta be honest, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with “synthesis”, that angel might be from a business college or something. But “play” – that one’s easy.

It might sound silly to say that there is magic in these words. Yet I cannot deny that when I see a word like “gratitude”, I think of what I have to be grateful for, and a change occurs – as if by magic. I see “understanding”, and I am reminded of St. Francis of Assisi and his prayer to understand, rather than be understood – and a change occurs. I read a word, and a change occurs. Magically.

I may sound crazy to some – that’s okay. I know that there are many who, like me, see a word like “love” and feel a glow in their chest; who see “courage” and feel a hum in their belly; who see “freedom” and feel an urge to throw their arms wide and breathe deeply. Words have the power to make people feel. A word can change a person’s day – we encounter this regularly. See how a demeanor softens upon hearing the word “please”. Notice a smile on a person’s face upon hearing the word “thanks”. Look someone in the eye and see what they do upon hearing the word “beautiful”.

This box on my desk is one of my most treasured gifts – it is, quite literally, a gift of words. As we approach the holidays, we will be bombarded with ideas and messages about gifting. Businesses are all ready to use their calculated skills in getting people to spend money on their goods and services to give as presents to loved ones. Televisions will be full of “news stories” about the latest “must-have” toy or gadget for this year. Malls and department stores will be overrun with people in search of items to purchase for that special someone.

No, I’m not criticizing the commercialization of the holiday season or decrying the practice of shop-til-you-drop bargain hunting. I love the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season as much as the next person, maybe even more. I enjoy it all, even the crowds in the stores, for I feel a strange sense of unity and connectedness with them – we’re all there for the same basic reason, after all. But my invitation to readers is to consider the gifts that cost nothing. A smile, a gesture, and most easily, a word. As you navigate the chaotic paths of the upcoming holiday season, spread a little magic of your own.

It’s easy to do. Write a note, say a word. One word can speak volumes.

Nobody Asked, But…

What would I say about “art” if someone asked me what I wanted to say about it?   

The concept of artistic expression is something that has spoken to me for as long as I can remember, and yet I never recognized myself as an “artist” until I was well into my third decade on earth. Looking back, I can see how it has been my artistic nature that has brought me comfort and chaos all through my life. 

There is something about seeing / hearing / reading something that did not exist until some man or woman had an idea, and set about putting that idea in motion, to bring it into reality by sheer force of will. While any form of artistic expression speaks to me, I have a special respect for painters and sculptors. Being a visually-oriented person, I find myself marveling in awe over a work that was previously a blank canvas, a plain piece of rock, a simple lump of clay, before the artist took action and transformed it to his vision. 

Similarly, I have always been soothed by music – savage beast that I am. My earliest memories of spirituality were moments involving music, in any form. I noticed that God spoke to me through music, delivering messages I was meant to hear at a given time. Nature has a way of doing this too, but music was where I first noticed it. I feel musically inclined but without the training to develop a real talent for creating it. I would create a melody at a piano, beauty in simplicity without much structure or depth, and the joy would rise from the ivory through my fingertips and up through my heart to the top of my head. I teach myself to play acoustic guitar, and while I am even less fluid in my fingering on a guitar than I am on a piano, the result is the same: joy in my heart that approaches ecstasy at the sound of a note or a chord ringing out clear and true. 

I am puzzled by the critic – a person who has made it their purpose to judge the creative output of a man or a woman who took nothing and made something simply because they had a desire to do so. I understand that everyone is entitled to their opinion; I do not want that opinion thrown at me in the form of a judgment. To me, it feels like someone looking upon a garden of flowers and claiming they are not bright enough, or colorful enough, or fragrant enough to suit him. They are flowers! Their merit is in their existence! Why is that not enough? Why cut them down when they might bring joy to someone else? 

And are not flowers God’s art? Certainly I do not intend to infer that the average artist might match God’s perfection, but I do submit that God might look upon an amateur in the act of painting a picture—creating in earnest, and with love for the place of spirit in which the painting develops—and God would display God’s equivalent of a human smile. 

The Gift that has been bestowed on me is an eye and an ear for the written word. I failed to recognize writing as an art form in my youth. If I could do it, it was easy to take for granted, and if I could do it, it must not be of value, for my writing would never be valuable – this is what my young self was led to believe, through the casual comment of a man who told me about writing, “You’ll never make any money doing that.” And so I carried that lesson through to adulthood – abandoning my Divine purpose from a fear of perpetuating the poverty in which I was reared. The true artists were the sculptors, the painters, the musicians. How blind I was to the path that I might have led. 

And yet, who am I to say that the path I took was not meant to show me what I was meant to learn about art along the way? Perhaps I was not meant to become scholarly about art, its appreciation and form and technique and history and marketable value. Perhaps I was simply meant to enjoy what I enjoy, do what feels true in accordance with what God gave me, and leave the discussion, dissection, and discourse to others. 

What moves me, what speaks to me, what inspires me – these things are mine in any form, gifts from the Universe.

That is what I would say if someone asked me about my thoughts on art.