Reflections…

As is my wont, I’ve decided to sit down and write about some of the events of the previous year and to take a sort of inventory of where I have been at—perhaps to even write some ideas of where I want to go. It’s a common practice for me to do this. This year it seems a little more poignant though. I could point to several reasons why but I’m not sure that would really be of any benefit. Let’s just say there is a lot. Much of it was good. But there were some pretty big bumps that surprised me and they didn’t necessarily get me off-track…it was more a punch in the gut which gave me pause.

The thing about traumatic events is that they tend to reduce you to fundamentals (thinking Maslow here…) where survival and basic needs seem to bubble up. Perhaps because of neglect or whatever. I’m not sure, exactly. But you begin to think about things more simplistically, I suppose. Things like food, a place to sleep…. You know, common things that most of us take for granted. For instance, speaking personally, I’m sitting here pecking away on my laptop in a home that isn’t mine. I’m in a borrowed space. I want that to change. I want a home again. I want a place that is “mine” and I especially want that place to have warmth and to be with a person that I am crazy-mad in love with. I’m remembering what that feels like again. And I want it. Not because I feel this deep black hole inside of me. It’s just what I want. It isn’t wrong to admit that there are parts of my life that feel incomplete and missing something. Humility is not a sin. Asking for help isn’t a sign of brokenness or dysfunction. Recognizing need isn’t bad. In fact, I think it’s really a positive sign that you are healthy and realize you can’t do stuff on your own. And I’m thinking about real partnership here. Not this false narrative of happily ever after. A marriage of almost twenty years and divorce kinda changes that.

Perhaps there were other things—both intrinsically and externally—that needed to be in place first. And I guess that is what I am thinking a lot about here at the end of the year. I mean, I don’t know, but I am entertaining the very real possibility that “me” isn’t ready yet. And if there is one thing I can work on it’s “me.” There is always more room or improvement there.

There are some days that I wish that I could write poetry, to let the words flow. To be a Shelley. I’m not. Writing for me is hard. Sometimes I get inspired. Sometimes—no mostly, my words are rather mundane and lack any real cohesion. But that’s only because I haven’t put in the work required. I don’t sit day-in and day-out behind a screen (I can remember when that phrase actually was sitting behind a typewriter…) and pound on my keyboard writing. I have moments. It isn’t polished. It’s mostly raw and inconsistent. That means it isn’t good. My other creative pursuit is not though….

2014 was kind of this watershed for me. I can remember sitting on my ass feeling sorry myself all depressed and such when a little voice said to me, “Go make art.” The resistance to that was real. It felt like granite because it was pregnant with fear. I’ve always had a pencil in my hand. I’ve drawn most if not all of my life. But like my writing it was sporadic and unpolished. I had not committed to it because my goal was, “I need to make money doing this.” And that, my friends, is the first ingredient in the recipe for failure in any endeavor you do. I didn’t love doing it because I had set the bar so high that it’s failure was sealed before even begun. I didn’t realize this until later, of course. In the moment of creating I always ran into this block of Perfection and it frankly scared Creativity away. It’s the problem of the writer editing before anything has even been written down. It’s the Law Of The First Draft. In other words, if you don’t do it it ain’t gonna happen anyway, so embrace its messiness and stare Perfection right in the face and flip it off. And when I started to do that—flipping perfection off—something changed in me: I began to play and draw and embrace its immaturity. That’s when magic began to enter the equation. And that magic then precipitated the two most “productive” years of creativity that I have ever experienced. In the previous 40+ years that I have drawn/sketched/painted I maybe produced ten works. Those two years previous? Probably around 300 sketches in addition to 5 finished oils, 20 original watercolors (one of them a commission) and countless happy moments when what I really thought I wanted to draw came out. I kicked the hyper-self-critic in the ass and worked. And it worked! I felt liberated and knew I was an artist. And in that self-identification something else happened: confidence. What an ally, confidence! David, the Hebrew king, wrote it down this way, and it is from the 18th Song.

For You [speaking of Yahweh] will light my lamp…. For by You I can run against a troop / By my God I can leap over a wall…. / He makes my feet like the feet of deer [meaning, surefooted] / And sets me on my high places…”

Now I have some friends who will cry “Foul” because in one sentence it sounds like I am de-personalizing God and renaming it Confidence but I am not. David attributed this new-found strength to Him. I do as well. But it feels like confidence in a flesh and blood world. It’s just that many of my religious friends perhaps think too much along these weird mystical lines and make this unnatural separation between a spiritual and fleshly world (blame that dichotomy on Plato—Hebrews had a much, much different holistic metaphysical view—ah, now look. There I go on my rant. Sorry. Where was I? Oh yes, creativity…) The point is if you don’t do the work, no resources will be marshaled on your behalf. How can you expect anything if you aren’t committed to it yourself? That is what I have learned. If I’m not willing to be a professional and do this with commitment it ain’t happening. After all, Fortune favors the Brave. Have you not read, speaking to my Christian/Religious friends again, how many times God spoke to people, whether it was Joshua, or Job, or Noah, and said, “would you just be courageous already?” Verbatim. I promise. That’s what God said. Notice how many times he said it to men? Lesson there. Women? Not so much. Think we came up short in that department for some reason…. Anyway, it’s God saying, “Man up. Do the work.”

Elizabeth Gilbert said it this way, “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.”

So then, Reflection #1: If I am not committed to it it will not happen in this lifetime or the next. Be committed and work.

It also just takes a lot of hard hard work to do that though. And I am speaking from experience there. One of the most critical things that happened to me in the time leading up to my divorce—there was a lot of good with a lot of bad—was that I began to fundamentally question some deeply held beliefs about the world itself and particularly Christianity because it just wasn’t working the way I thought it should. I’ll save that for another time though because a) I’m not looking for a fight right now, and b) I think it’d be too much to wade through in one post. I have a whole series of things I am thinking about in a conversational format where I want to have a dialogue with my friends about Christianity. And it won’t be an easy conversation at all. It’s probably going to mean more and more alienation but I am okay with that at the moment. There is so much power in really loving and believing in who you are. Having the courage to be that is liberating. Having the courage to share that with others is scary but it is a great way to know who you want in and who you don’t. But it really seems to boil down to healthy self-love.

When the divorce happened I cleaned out my Facebook page of friends and just waited. I mean I cleaned everyone out. And I thought a lot about friendships and if I really wanted people in who weren’t willing to invest in me. Perhaps that sounds like selfishness to an extreme. But give me a moment to give a little back story and perhaps a little explanation. Not that I need to defend it but perhaps it will help some with doubt. And I definitely know that others will hear me and say, “That street goes both ways.” Granted. Want friends? Be friendly. Totally understand that. But what if you don’t like who you are? Now you can begin to understand a little more. What if you second-guessed yourself at every turn so much that you felt incompetent to make any decision? That was the path I had to go through and walk on. I can’t be confident if I don’t know who I am or like who I am. I am not referring here to decisions I have made or choices I have made. Nope. Fundamentals again. Do I fundamentally like who I am? That is a huge question. Do I like who I see when I look in the mirror in the mornings. Not body image here, either. You all know what I am talking about. The secret moment when we get out of bed. No voices other than our own. It’s us. Naked. Conscience. One on one. Is that a good thing? It’s not a bad question to ask.

There are so many things, I think, that can inform that glass through which we look. Experts have debated for so long on the effects of nature and nurture. Our genetics v. environment. Which is it? Both. Honestly, it’s just both. The other caveat is that your past is what it is. And the place where you are at right now is the sum total of your past experiences. And the only place you really live at any given moment is right now. You don’t live in the future because you aren’t there. Not in the past, although you passed through it. It isn’t the abiding definition of your reality. Now is in flux. It isn’t static. It’s fluid. There’s movement. It’s active. The past: fixed. The future: enigmatic but it is a combination of the choices you have made and are making now. And there is this awakening that what happens right now in this moment effects the future profoundly. The journey of a thousand steps? First step stuff. Nothing more. And you now have permission to ask, What next? And it is a valid as that apple sitting in that fruit bowl. Self-love at its core should be about healthy self-nourishment and that means having healthy thoughts and moving toward a healthy, functioning you. You want to be healthy? Move toward that with a choice. You are competent to do that. You are quite capable. If anyone tells you otherwise they are wanting to control you. And that is bullshit at its deepest level. God made you free. Don’t give it away to anyone. Read Paul’s letter to a Galatian church (ancient Roman province if you need to know). It’s all about real liberty and not coming under the constraints of people who want to cast an evil eye on you. (And if you think that my use of “bullshit” is offensive you should probably realize that Paul used the same expletive in his epistles. Check out the ancient Koine Greek word skubalon. It’s an expletive. It means shit. And it ain’t the only place, dear readers. The bible actually has several. Read this and this and maybe this one. It’s okay. I don’t smell any smoke…yet. And believe me I fully expect for people to cut me out of their life on this one too.)

What are healthy thoughts? You like who you are, where you are at. It also means that, yes, you made shitty decisions and you aren’t happy about them. In other words it also describes a real level of forgiveness and releasing bitterness. That’s hard. Pain can become familiar. It can be like a blanket sometimes but only because it is familiar. Pain can sometimes try to define you but it isn’t the reality. It’s a killer. Kicking pain in the ass means you face it, finally, after all the hiding. And that takes courage. It means being a professional and being committed to yourself and to your well-being. It probably means eliminating unhealthy things—thought patterns, relationships, jobs, eating habits (how many of us self-nurture with food?) and such. It involves some real honestly to cut things out that are not good for you.

Reflection #2: I want to be healthy. That means I make healthy choices and commit to them like a pro.

Now then for a turn. Making this step means it also has to have an opposite flow. You can’t just love yourself, because that is selfish.

I have four children. Three still talk to me. I saw them in the week between Christmas and the New Year. My plan was to go and just be with them and celebrate our Christmas together. I live almost 700 miles away. Some days it might as well be a million. But this time desire drove me and need. I wanted them. And they needed to know that. I brought gifts and money. The gifts were from my heart and how I saw them and how I valued who they are as little people. The money was to leverage what they were thinking that they wanted at the time. It wasn’t a bribe, although I have been accused by others of just being Santa Claus. But that’s okay (see the above). I know who I am. I know my heart for them. Others can judge all they want.

My daughters are precious to me. I ache for them every day. My second, Elizabeth, is an artist. She’s just like me. Loves to be alone and create. Gets lost in it. I bought for her sketchbooks and gave her one of my favorite books on capturing light in Realism. I was so excited to give them to her.

My plan included a surprise. The kids couldn’t know I was coming but I also had to tell my ex-wife that I was making the trip so we could coordinate. So there was an element of risk but I hoped she wouldn’t spill the beans. We, my ex and I, don’t talk about much else other than our children–and I am completely happy about that!

So anyway, 10+ hours later I let her know I was there and wanted to come get them and take them to a movie–Rogue One. Geeking out ever since its release.

***

Me: I just got in. I’ll be there between 530 and 6. You should have them eat something

Her: Ok will do.

Me: Do you mind if Ian watches Rogue One? Or the movie Sing? I want to invite Liz and Hannah too if they’d like to come.

Her: They have seen it and like it. Liz and Han are not available. Should I pack clothes?

Me: Oh really? Not tonight. I’ll come for them tomorrow and grab them for breakfast. Where are the girls? I have a couple of gifts for Liz.

Her: She spent the night with friends

Me: (In shock and a little angry now…) You didn’t tell her I was coming did you? (after I specifically asked that it remain a secret…)

Her: Dave, the boys will be ecstatic. The girls feel differently. The boys do not know, but yes, I did talk to Lizzie so she could choose. I’m sorry this hurts you.

Me: Well crap. I’m trying to to build a bridge. Unfair.

Her: I understand. She’ll be home tomorrow. You can try then. You can have the boys tonight. You need to know this was what she asked me for.

***

And yes I felt angry for some time. Felt some disrespect too. But I also realized I needed to see it from my fifteen-year-old daughter’s perspective. And when I did that, my anger melted. And I prayed and left it in God’s hands. I knocked at the door. I saw her a day later when I came for the boys. She smiled big and my heart melted and gave thanks. She took my breath away and I was wrapped around her finger again.

She had several things to do that morning but promised to just hang out with us guys that evening. We got coffee and I bought her a book from a series she was rabid about. And I explained to her I wasn’t bribing her but wanted to build a bridge. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted her and she needed to know that.

And that brings me here, finally, Reflection #3: Love doesn’t exist in a vaccum. Give it away.

These three, these reflections, are just a start. There’s many more but these are foremost for me. In my next post they’re going to be way more practical about me materially. And it’s more than just wanting to win the Lottery. 

Until then…

Winter

Those Canadians and their arctic express. Christmas is approaching and I’m actually just siting in front of a fireplace. There are days I wish that words would just flow gently from my lips like the pour of a good cup of coffee in the morning. You know, the best part of waking up?

It’s a difficult season for me. I have four children. They live with their mother in Wisconsin. Currently, I live here in this beautiful state. There is about 700 miles that separate us. And that’s a lot of space to let sadness creep in. My oldest, Hannah, is eighteen and she’s beautiful.

Golden, thick locks cascade from her beaming face in my memories. I see her standing in front of an old oak tree holding a relic of an accordion, a gift from my mom. Her cheeks are rosy, blue eyes piercing and disarming all at the same time. And such depth behind that knockout smile. A philosopher/artist if ever Van Gogh could paint a painting. She’s had life thrust some hard choices on her. Many of them precipitated by her father and crystallized when the divorce occurred. She hasn’t really spoken to me since.

Then there is Elizabeth–Lizzie–who is the spitting image of her mother with my personality and artistic to the 10 millionth degree. She’s getting taller now. As tall, if not taller than her mother. She’s quiet and thinks but in the right crowd she quickly becomes the center of attention, her scorpio personality often taking a back seat to her charisma. She paints and writes and volunteers to rescue forgotten kitties in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She’s beautiful inside and out too.

Both Elizabeth and Hannah write poetry.

Then there are my boys, William and Ian James.

Wil is eleven and Ian 7 now. There are days that I seem to miss them the most–I feel some sheepishness saying that but it’s true. But that is because their’s are the faces that I remember most vividly the day our lives changed forever, their tears fueling my sadness for the 12 hour trek to my nascent rebirth here in Missouri.

We, my ex and I, learned that Wil had some tendencies for nervous tics. We wondered about his speech when he had trouble forming guttural sounds in pronouncing “r’s.” It was dyslexia. But I learned something magical about the boy: he is brilliant! He has the mind of an engineer and can manufacture things from scratch seeing the finished concept in his imagination.

While working in my garage on my latest project he would beg to take apart old appliances which had fallen into disuse. I reluctantly succumbed to his pleadings because all I could see was the ensuing scrap pile left to be cleaned up. Later it moved onto Legos. The boy can build but it’s messy. And his focus is off the charts. Never have I witnessed such an ability to concentrate. He’s now working on VR and augmented reality headsets. I have trouble making toast. He’s also beautiful and charismatic and sensitive. His big brown thick head of hair and deeply set brown eyes melt my heart each time. I don’t stand a chance with him.

And Ian…ah Ian. What can I say about my baby boy with curls made of pure gold? He is pure boy and thick and dangerous and happy and nothing can quench that. His interests are whatever is engaging his brother at the moment. He’s also becoming a Tae Kwon Do expert! (Wil and Hannah too, by the way) He laughs, is impish (leaving a silent-but-deadly-imprint sometimes to the chagrin of his siblings), often resets his brother’s smartphone (“What? I didn’t do anything.”) and can wrestle non-stop. He’s tough and sensitive and curious and beautiful too.

So Christmas is hard. I want it to be a season of joy. I am a Christian. I know and follow the Nazarene from Galilee–albeit horribly imperfectly, and there is this echo that rings through me about this story of a humble birth. And I also remember reading Athanasius and hearing his explanation of why God incarnated himself from the limitless to the limited. And I look at my hands. I look at the work I have done. I look at my children and see something of a legacy. One of the hardest things that God does is get into the human heart and begin to soften it again. I think sometimes it’s that proverbial conundrum of God making a rock so big he couldn’t lift it sort of thing. But he seems to, at least for me. I can remember over the last several years when my heart was so heavy-not just from the divorce–from depression that getting out of bed was a victory. And at the same time I can remember feeling that warm glow from some fire deep within me and a voice which echoed, even if it were ever so slight and the noise of my own life too loud, that said, one more step, just one more step. And I did.

It has been awhile since my marriage ended and our lives–the lives of my ex-wife, my children, my friends and family–changed. We’ve had to work through a lot. But really I can only speak for myself. Divorce is tragic. No one ultimately wins anything. Even a settlement can be hollow. But here I am. I limp some. You can see some scar tissue sure, but I’m here. And I’m healthy and I know it. What is healthy you ask? Well the way I frame it is like this. I embrace me, with the weakness and strength of my life. I embrace where I am at, looking forward to the next step in the journey. I embrace love and I live in the moment. I let my emotions have a good place inside me–the anger, the joy, the sadness–the whole damn spectrum. It’s there and it’s me and it isn’t sinful but human, and God is there right in the thick of it loving and caressing it all.

The fire is dying some. I should probably stoke it a little.