Not making light of the shadows

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Over the past few days I’ve been busy binge watching Songland. From where I stand, it feels like a master class on songwriting. Not only do I get to hear constructive criticism from some of the top writer/producers in the music industry, I also get to see how they transform good songs into great songs.

One particular concept hits close to home. One Republic’s Ryan Tedder summed it up in a word – duality. I think of it in terms of Yin Yang philosophy where Yang is present in Yin and Yin is present in Yang. Each has an element of the other within it. In life the brightest light often casts the deepest shadow, and without the contrast we might never recognize it for what it is. This has always been a struggle for me. Not only with music, but in any form of creation. As an Enneagram seven, I prefer to live in bright places and, pun intended, make light of the shadows.

I’m learning. In order to make the beautiful ideas more than pure idealism, I have to expose the pain and hurt that makes it real. It requires honesty and vulnerability. Not only with my readers or listeners, but first with myself. It isn’t easy, but I believe it is necessary. That kind of honesty is where shared experience sets the stage so that great ideals have a chance to become real in the lives of others. It brings the divine into the realm of mortals so that maybe, just maybe, we allow it change our lives.

The Journey of the Free

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“I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.”

Red, The Shawshank Redemption

If you’ve ever tuned a guitar, you’ll know that when the string is in pitch you can hear the other strings resonate with it. When I heard this quote yesterday, I felt a deep resonance.

To put it in context, you have to understand the importance of hope in The Shawshank Redemption. At first, Andy is warned off by Red. “Hope is dangerous,” he says. “Hope can drive a man insane.” For those who aren’t familiar, these are the words of a man who has long been a prisoner. You may be able to identify. I know there have been times in my life where it seemed wiser to abandon hope and simply accept my present existence, painful as it may be. I am thankful. To date, I’ve never manged to abandon hope.

Neither did Andy. His words, written in a letter left for Red, give voice to the life he lived prior to his escape. He writes, “Hope is a good thing, may be the best of things, and no good thing every dies.” I think that these words were a lifeline to Red who chooses to act on them by breaking his parole and going to meet Andy in Mexico. He exercises the right of a free man. The right to choose. It reminds me of words I heard many years ago. There is but one thing no man can take from us, our right to choose.

It is on this journey to Mexico that he utters the words that prefaced this post. Those words continue filled with hope for his future. “I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

I am reminded that freedom, real freedom, does not guarantee us an outcome, only a journey. Not every hope will be fulfilled. Pain and suffering will also await us on the road, but the journey is ours. And while the conclusion of the journey may be uncertain, it is an adventure filled with excitement and hope. Excitement at the thought of what lay ahead, and hope for the fulfillment of our dreams.

Such is the journey of the free. I hope that you are living yours as I am striving to live mine. May we all find courage to set our feet to the path, hope to keep us on it, and the “excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.”

So, where will you go?

Sharing unfinished stories

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A couple days ago as I sat playing guitar in the shop, a young man asked me where he could see me play. The answer was nowhere. He pressed. So I shared my story. All of it. From the naive young man traipsing off to college with dreams of being a singer/songwriter to the bitter young man who was sure he had no place in that world. And then on to the present, where I’m doing it anyway.

It was in the midst of this conversation that he challenged me. He shared his own belief in the power of stories, and he encouraged me to share mine. Video the journey, he said. Anytime you play here at the shop, record it. Then post it. Now, I won’t say I’m going to follow his recommendations. I don’t know. But I’m considering it, and those are words I never believed I would utter.

It’s not for the audience and it’s not for the platform. It is the power of a story to inspire, challenge, and transform. I remember growing up surrounded by the finished product. I read published books. I listened to albums from my favorite artists. I stood in awe before works of art in every field. I saw the end product. I saw the destination, but I never made the connection that each of these pieces had a journey. I never knew the journey took their creator through pain, hardship, struggle and disappointment. I never knew the journey shaped their creator into someone capable of creating a masterpiece. I never knew of rough drafts, endless edits and sheets of lyrics with scribbled lines and cramped script crowding the margins. While not knowing made their work magical, it also made me look on my own work with disdain.

Obviously, I learned the truth in time. I simply wish I would have seen and understood it sooner. Even more so, that someone would have shown it to me. So I have something to think about. This is an opportunity to show someone else the journey, and maybe give them the courage to start their own.

 

The Hunt Pt. 2

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I recently “grabbed my club and went hunting“. To follow up, I thought it might be nice to offer some of my favorite hunting spots. So here are a few places inspiration might be found.

  • Not quite ripe ideas – they weren’t good enough a few days or weeks ago, but maybe they’ve ripened in the meantime. Taste and see.
  • My journal – Writing in a journal makes me go deeper and helps me process. New ideas come all the time. Rereading past entries also reminds me of great ideas I never got around to using.
  • Go Somewhere! – Regular haunts provide the stimulation of people I know and conversation. New places show me new things. This one is about engaging the world. Be open. It reminds me of a scene in Music & Lyrics. Stuck, Sopie says, “Let’s go for a walk.” When asked why she answers. “Out on the streets you see things and, you know, hear things and eat things. It all sort of unlocks your mind.”
  • Solitude – Sometimes instead of going out, I need to go in. My journal is one way I do this, but letting the quiet wash over me and sitting with an idea can lead me in unexpected places.
  • Rest – Sometimes you hunt something by NOT looking for it. Don’t worry, the brain is aware and working under the surface. I usually go back to my work refreshed and surprised to find what my subconscious has been up to while I was out.
  • Cross pollinate – Creativity is an additive process. I’m consistently amazed how interconnected it all becomes. Drawing, painting, writing, music, crafts – one informs our experience of the other. You never know what will come out of a random mashup of art. I find that even in chaos there is order.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s what I have at the moment. I hope these ideas can help you hunt the elusive beast Inspiration where she hides. Best of luck and happy creating!

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.

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.

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.