A Different Kind of Success

As I write, my eleven and a half hour double is drawing to a close. I sit here thankful for such freedom. One of the privileges of coffee shop life is time. At least it is here. It’s not difficult to weave creative play into the dance of cleaning and customers. And on occasion, as happened today, I am reminded just how precious and rare this gift of time is.

This year marks year two of what I hope will be a longstanding tradition at Qahwa. We, and a few of our customers, decorate the shop with milk jug jack o’ lanterns, jug o’ lanterns for short. What begins earlier in the month always ends in a mad dash to finish before Halloween. So between each and every customer, I took up sharpie and brush pen and went to work. Somewhere in the play we fell into quoting Monty Python. With that first slip, several amused eyes looked our way. I can’t help but think they wanted nothing more than to drop what they were doing, leave their work, and join us.

That small moment reminded me just how lucky I am to work in a field, and in a place, that gives me such freedom. Time to create. Time to draw. Time to play guitar. Time to study. Time to write. Time to grow in the fields that bring me the most joy, and people to share it with. I hope the money will follow in time, but, as I think on my past, as I think on cubicle world, I am reminded that having more never gave me this much satisfaction.

I think it a worthwhile endeavor to seek success. I just hope that I never forget what I experienced today is also a mark of success.

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Today’s Monty Python Holy Grail inspired jug ‘o lanterns.

The Hunt

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“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London

I love this quote. Having committed myself to a schedule, my writing life is on a deadline. So, every day I am on the hunt for my elusive prey – inspiration. Some days, some weeks even, she is everywhere. At other times, she is scarce. She remains unseen in the brush and shadows of a busy life.

So, as you can guess, there are times I am facing hunger. The stores are gone and she is nowhere to be found. I sit at my keyboard and stare at a blank page with little but jumbled thoughts and emotions. What then? What do I do? The answer is simple.

I take a deep breath. I grab my club, and I go hunting.

In the flow

Wednesday night I received an unexpected gift. It began with what I believe to be an act that flowed from who I am. Nothing I would consider profound or special, just thoughts from a lingering conversation given voice. For once, normal doubts had no weight and I spoke these words of encouragement. I never guessed I would get an immediate response, let alone what would follow. What had been set in motion, even before I said a word, left me in awe.

I tried to engage more deeply, to put into words my excitement for what another person would set in motion. And I couldn’t. Try as I might, I had no words. Nothing seemed big enough to encompass what had happened. I had but one thing to share. My heart was full! Even now, I am filled with gratitude and a sense of awe. Thankful to have stepped into God’s stream and excited to see where it flows.

In the end, though I may not ever understand fully, I found these words in my last journal entry that helped me see the power of identity and being to lead us into the dance.

“The truest me seems to erupt most readily from thoughtlessness, from a point of emptiness beyond the doubts of conscious thought. I often only recognize him in hindsight, as an observer who sees the past. A statement, a text, a conversation, a moment recognizable as true self as seen from afar. I long to live in this state of being, this state of ‘me’. Something to think more on and strive for. It is fearless. Courageous. It is bigger than doubts. Because it just is. … This may just be me waxing philosophical for the sake of ego, but I do believe living in my identity brings assurance and strength of character. Enough so to overcome the doubt inherent in my broken humanity and give me hope. Hope for a future, for opportunity, and, probably more importantly, honesty and authenticity when opportunity arises.”

I wonder if these true self moments are the times I am closest to God. They are certainly the times I am closest to who He created me to be. And for just a moment, he let me see the results of His handiwork.

And you know the best part of it all?

Knowing that it has very little to do with me. The most amazing things He set in motion are His glory in another and I can’t wait to see what comes of it!

Word games, Pride and a little help along the way

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I have one game on my phone, Find Words. I am a word junkie. I imagine, whether in error or not, that all writers are word junkies. So I hope some who are reading this will understand my fascination with games like this one. In it, I’m given a mashup of  letters to rearrange into various words. Simple, right?

Right. It is. But simple does not mean easy. I have often been left flustered, unable to ferret out the final few combinations of letters and thereby finish the puzzle. Strangely, this challenge has left me with a few life lessons I am grateful for.

  1. Failure is part of the process. I admit that perfection is extremely satisfying. Every word seen in an instant and entered correctly with absolute accuracy. It’s also very rare, at least for me. Sometimes I don’t see the words I’m looking for until I’m busy making absurd combinations in hopes of jogging something loose. Funny thing, it works. Go ahead and make a mess.
  2. Stepping away from the problem is sometimes the fastest way to the solution. When frustration with my ineptitude peaked, I closed the app. Later I returned to it and, as if by magic, new words manifested to fill the gaps. Often simple words I can’t believe I didn’t see before. Words that had been buried somewhere in the mental clutter sprang to life. So, put it down. Take a break and come back later. It might surprise you what’s happened while you were gone.
  3. It’s okay to get a little help. I abhor hints. At first, I refused to use them which earned me an achievement for the vast quantity of in game currency I’d accrued. Figuring it out on my own was a matter of pride. But the higher level the puzzles, the more breaks I started taking. So one day I clicked the button to find that last word. A single letter jumped to life and a word soon followed. Like a road sign at a busy crossroad, help can show you which path to take. Even if you didn’t need it in the end, it speeds the process.

 

To Live Brilliantly

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A customer brought these brilliant flowers to us this morning. Their beauty shone but, as she pointed out, was destined “to wilt in four hours”. A sudden darkness descended as I considered their brief existence, and soon after, my own.

Such is the nature of life. All things wilt and die.

Yet I marveled at their beauty. They brought me joy, and I soon gave in to my desire and gave them a home behind my ear. A perch from which to declare themselves to the world and by doing so to give something to all those who looked upon them.

As of now, their beauty has faded. Their leaves have fallen away. Their sharp-edged colors have blurred. Yet the pleasure of beholding them remains.

I hope that we might live our lives as brilliantly as these small flowers. Though we are destined to wilt and one day die, may the beauty of our lives linger on in the memories and regard of all we’ve touched.

Free to be me

I could choose what felt right for me without needing to be like everyone, or needing everyone to be like me.

Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whitness

I’m not coming from the same place as Austin Channing Brown, but I still feel the weight of these words. It is a freedom we all hope to discover. To know, even if I’m not like you, I’m alright. In fact I am more than alright. I am incredible.

I think we all start with a desire to belong. We want to fit in. I’ve never really felt like I fit in. Looking back, it is probably because I tried to fit in everywhere. The best I could do was skim the surface as a Christian, as a nerd, as a musician, as a jock… as whatever mask I wore at the moment. Some of it was authentic. There were lines I would not cross. But outside of those, I did my best to be who I thought they wanted me to be. Trust me, it’s no way to live.

I am reminded that often directly pursuing happiness and satisfaction, in this case belonging, prevents us from attaining them. I tried to be everyone but the person I was made to be – me. I won’t lie and say it’s not still a struggle. I’m not done yet. But I’m amazed by the friends I have found since beginning to walk in my own identity. We’re each unique, and it’s made for a diverse mess of a community. One I’m proud to be a part of.

I don’t know who or what opened or will open the door for you, but as I write these words I both pray and hope that each of you will be able to find a place where you choose what feels right without needing to be like everyone, or needing everyone to be like you. And I pray and hope that in doing so, you come a little closer to the unique gift to the world you were created to be.

 

Seeing Through the Veil of Expectation

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But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.‘”

2 Kings 5:11, English Standard Version

It’s been many years since I encountered the story of Naaman. As a celebrated commander of the Syrian army, he enjoyed riches, fame and the favor of his king. However these things could not protect him from leprosy. A diagnosis that would be akin to being told you have a terminal disease.

I don’t know how many options he had, or how many he’d exhausted before an Israelite servant girl offered a ray of hope. There is a prophet in Samaria. “He would cure him of  his leprosy.” So Naaman approached his king, and with the king’s blessing made his way to Israel. To shorten the story a bit, he ended up standing outside the prophet Elisha’s home where he received a message telling him to dip himself seven times in the River Jordan.

It’s here that we pick up. Until yesterday, I’ve always noted Naaman’s pride in this passage. He is a man offended by the blatant disregard for his greatness. The prophet sends a messenger to him instead of meeting him directly. He then directs him to wash in a dirty river. All things Naaman thinks himself too good for. However, I now see something more.

Elisha had violated Naaman’s expectations.

Expectations can be dangerous. Unmet expectations are downright destructive. We fail to live up to our expectations, and it wounds our soul. We fail to meet other’s expectations, and we hurt relationships. We sit under the weight of expectation and anxiety threatens to overwhelm us. And when reality doesn’t match our expectations we get angry and walk away, just as Naaman did.

Naaman walked away from healing because it did not match his expectations.

Let that sink in.

Has it hit you in the gut yet? Does this ring with familiarity? I know it does for me. I wonder how many times I’ve missed out because I could not let go of my expectations to embrace good counsel, training or what might seem a little crazy in the moment. Sadly, even knowing this truth, I am often blinded. Knowing doesn’t make me immune.

It takes humility. We have to accept our limitations. It takes courage. We have to dive into new waters, and they might be different than the ones we’re used to. It takes a community of care. We need people with us who will, like Naaman’s servants, challenge us and help us take the blinders off.

And when humility, courage and community uncover our eyes, I wonder what healing awaits us beyond the veil of our expectations.

Writing in dark places

Today my mind took me on a road trip to some dark places. A daydream took an unexpected turn and set my wheels to turning. That in itself didn’t bother me. The idea fascinated me. It stroked my speculative “what if?”. And the storyteller in me lifted up that idea and examined it, played with it, and expanded it.

Who would do this? Why? How?

And suddenly I had the makings of a serial killer. I began to see the shadow of the person behind the art that set my mind in motion, and I began to understand what might make them tick.

And that, though I chose not to take it too deep, didn’t bother me.

A nagging doubt only set in as I considered writing the story. God forbid someone take those ideas and act on them. And as I wondered if anyone else had conjured up this particular horror I’d just engineered in my head, I questioned myself. Why didn’t it bother me more?

Of all the words to come to mind, I remembered Seinfeld talking about comedy. In particular, how to a comedian what mattered most is that it’s funny. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. Is it funny? It’s a particular view of the world.

I suppose storytellers are the same way. I look at things and wonder if their interesting. I want to tell a great story, and a great story is both dark and light. My mind needs to be able to make it’s way around in the shadows as readily as the light. Darkness is a truth of our present existence. That is honest. And I believe the best stories are honest ones.

That said, I think I plan to keep this monster to myself. At least right now, I don’t tell the kind of stories they’d be most comfortable in.

 

Nostalgia

Yesterday nostalgia led me to lament a haven long gone. For a moment I could feel the place – its warmth, its colour, its calm. Clad in varied hues, in stained wood and shadows. Bookshelves littered with paperbacks, knick knacks and bric-a-brac. I suppose to me it seemed more a personal study than store. Any evening I could escape for a beer and pulling up a stool at the bar, sit and sip in quiet repose.

The bookstore no longer exists as it once did. Closed and reopened, it has become more modern. The personal warmth is gone, giving way to the cool, disinterest of plain shelves and stark white walls, one of which lights up with an alternating projection of up and coming events. The restaurant too has changed. To my mind, it has an aire of self importance. A pretentious posturing that rejects those like me. Those who would sit for a gourmet burger (and I do mean gourmet) and a beer. Not only have I lost my one and only place to enjoy a Honker’s Ale, but they will not stoop so low as to carry beer at all. It saddens me. I mourn the loss of a home away from home.

And time marches ever onward.

I cannot return to the past, but I hope that one day in the future I might find something akin to it once again. I know it will not be the same. It cannot be. This place is forever lost to me. I only hope to find a place that evokes the same feelings. A place of safety, of comfort, of peace, and of home.

“All you have is all you need.”

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A couple weeks ago, an artist friend told me of her plans for October. As she changes the pieces she has on display, she wants to use that space for “an encouraging word to the people who feel stuck or stagnant in life”.

The idea got me excited. I asked if she had works already picked out, or if she was feeling inspired herself. In point of fact, it was both. And one point of inspiration was a saying.

All you have is all you need.”

I’ll say again now what I said then. Those words state a truth I wish I lived more readily. For the rest of the day, and off and on over the past two weeks they have returned to me. At first, my thoughts fixated on the idea of contentment. There is something to be said for trusting that what is in my hands right now really is all I need for right now. I believe that. At least I believe it some of the time. And sometimes I don’t believe it. There are plenty of times I wished I had more money, or more talent, or more time. Times when all of it seems insufficient. I’ve come to recognize this stems from trying to live ahead of myself. I’m living physically in the present, but mentally in the future. As I should expect by now, it goes back to learning how to be present in the right now. And for those who, like me, sometimes feel stuck or stagnant that sense of presence is life giving freedom. Dare to dream. Dare to do what you can with what you have, right now.

All you have is all you need.”

But there has been another facet to these words I’ve held close since the first day. In fact, as I wrestled with how true these words were in the sense of contentment, I found a sudden refuge in two words. “But God”. Suddenly, face to face with God’s promise to call us, keep us and sanctify us, I felt assurance that “All you have is all you need.” How many of us are feeling stuck or stagnant in our relationship with God? There is a life giving freedom available in a different presence, God’s presence. I may be hurt and broken. I may feel lost or overwhelmed by insurmountable odds. I may be caught in a struggle I don’t know how to win. In my faith, I might feel stuck or stagnant.

But God.

God is big enough.

God’s love and power is limitless.

To borrow the words echoing in my ears right now.

There is no chain this love can’t break.”*

To borrow more words from the conversation that started all of this.

Every chain is broken.”

There is freedom to be found right now. There is hope. There is joy. There is life. Remember, “All you have is all you need.”

*Housefires, lyrics from This Love