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.

Just Another Day (after)

I admit that I had pre-conceived opinions of the idea of a “Tribute Band”. I judged them as musicians who could not make a name for themselves on their own merit and thus rode the coattails of a well-known artist in order to gain some small amount of celebrity without having to find a “real job”. Herbert Spencer correctly labeled contempt prior to investigation as a principle that would keep a man in “everlasting ignorance”. I now see my old ideas on the subject were completely flawed.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a concert featuring an Oingo Boingo tribute band called Dead Man’s Party. I went with two guys I’ve known since high school, Lee and Larry, whom I had only seen once in the last 20 years. When I got to the theater and saw them, I was amazed at how quickly we fell into the old familiar rhythms of humor, wisecracks, and good-natured jabs at each others’ expense. I asked myself several times why I had not seen these men in so long, for I felt so glad to be with them, it was good for the soul.

We made many jokes about the opening act, featuring a lead singer who could not have been more than 12 years old and the courage to belt out a few AC/DC tunes. When his voice changes, he might have a future – an original song they performed that this young kid wrote showed promise.

The next act was a Misfits tribute band, and I was horrified to hear myself saying “all these songs sound the same” – but they did. We laughed heartily at the bass player’s intro count – “ONETWOTHREEFOUR!” – to every song, and were forced to watch the lead guitarist -sporting a black leather vest- shred on the guitar in a manner that caused his gut to vibrate like a coin-operated bed in a cheap motel. When they announced, “This is our last song”, we shared a collective cheer.

When the headlining act came out, Lee – who has seen Dead Man’s Party on multiple occasions and who organized the evening’s get together – shot out to the pit to express his inner rock fan. I was immediately impressed by the bands tight sound, and how incredibly alike they sounded to the actual band. The lead singer had all of Danny Elfman’s good-natured-yet-creepily-psychotic expressions and mannerisms – and also a hell of a voice. He absolutely sold me from the first song.

Sitting at our table on the outer ring of the theater, the band launched into “Private Life” and I couldn’t take it anymore — I had to get up and dance. So I told Larry I was going out there and I hit the pit. Seconds later, Larry was right behind me.

Getting to the center of the pit, I found Lee and tapped him on the shoulder as I joined in the singing and the fist pumping. Lee turned and saw me and the look of joy on his face was worth the traffic I sat in to get to the show – he embraced me in a big, joyful hug and we joined in the singing, with Larry taking up position on the other side. The three of us bounced, jumped, shook, slammed, singed, screamed and laughed through song after song.

This will sound trite and cliche, but I was transported back to the days (or nights) of my youth, attending Boingo shows at Irvine Meadows and doing all the bouncing, jumping, singing to the same songs. The effect was surreal — it wasn’t Boingo, but it was a Boingo show. The band nailed every nuance of every song, and played selections from the catalog that went further back than even I remembered. The band were clearly having a great time themselves, and the atmosphere of fun spilled over the edge of the stage and enveloped the audience of thirty- and forty-somethings who were all there for the same reasons we were: to hear music that we grew up with, that harkened back to a time when life was a party and the biggest concern we had was whether we would get seats on the terrace or end up on the lawn.

The band played over 2 1/2 hours and played nearly every song I could think of. The party atmosphere increased as the night went on and the strangers in the audience became friends as they stepped on each others feet and apologized, only to be met with an “It’s okay dude!” and a pat on the back. I was jumping like a coked-up gazelle during my favorite songs and more than once bumped into someone I didn’t know. Never was it met with anything other than a good-natured smile and a wave of dismissal to say “don’t worry about it.”

I don’t know where the energy came from. I am twice as old as I was when I would attend the Boingo Halloween shows, and recently the concerts I’ve attended have had the mellow, relaxed vibe of John Mayer or David Gray or Natalie Merchant – even the U2 show I went to at the Rose Bowl last year –where I stood the entire show and danced occasionally — couldn’t match the frenzy of wild abandon I reached as the band launched into “Grey Matter”. I was sweating buckets and knew that I’d be paying a price for all the leaping and bouncing and slamming I was doing, but I didn’t care: at that moment, I wasn’t a fortyish single dad getting a rare night out with adults; I was a free and vital young man who was living life like it was 1989, and I lost track of any care or concern I had.

After the show ended and we were in the Denny’s next door, I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt high, though I was stone cold sober. I was giddy, and couldn’t stop laughing. I felt like I had just been through a transformation of some kind, and in a way I had been: I’d been transported back to my youth, where I partied for a few hours, and then transported back to the present where the effects still lingered. The smile is still on my face as I write this nearly 24 hours later.

A tribute band wields magical powers. I imagine those powers are proportional to how much an audience member loves their music, or what kind of memories that person associates with the original band. For me, Dead Man’s Party hypnotized me into thinking I was 21 again and enjoying a kick-ass New Wave show, and they did it all while singing and playing instruments. That’s no easy task – I’d say that’s a “real job”.

By the way, I am so not 21 anymore. I am paying the price today with sore legs, no voice, and impromptu napping. Magic spells seldom last long.

The Sound of Something Shiny

I was exiting the freeway yesterday and saw a car that grabbed my attention instantly – not because it was stylish and sporty, not because it was flashy and cool, but because it existed.

It was a Chevrolet Nova, and the body was in fairly good condition – no dents, no unsightly scrapes – but it wasn’t pristine. Or “cherry” as they used to say back in the day. It was just a Nova like thousands of others still on the roads of America today.

What made this one remarkable? Its color. The owner of this car had paid someone good money to paint it avocado.

It was an Avocado Chevy Nova.

The car itself stood out among others because of its unusual color, but long after it had turned a corner and rolled out of my sight, the echo of its uniqueness kept playing in my ears.

Avocado Chevy Nova. Avocado Chevy Nova. Avocado Chevy Nova.

I couldn’t stop saying that phrase. It seems magical – move over, “abracadabra”. Wave the wand and say, “avocadochevynova”.

Need a meditation mantra? I invite you to use “avocadochevynova”

Need a game to occupy elementary school-aged kids? Have them find all the words that can be made from the letters in avocadochevynova.

Writing a book involving a hot Russian female spy? You could name her Avocado Chevynova.

I wish I’d had my camera so I could post a photo of it here. But really, it wasn’t the car that was memorable. It’s that addictive phrase.

Avocado Chevy Nova…