Last Sunday night, I made a last minute decision to go to jazz. I had worked all weekend and had a vehicle at my disposal, I thought it was a good finish line to cross.
New cars have so much going on in their complicated digital dashboard display. I’m a simple man and somehow managed to get by for years with just an analog speedometer and a gas gauge. Now I don’t always know what to look at or pay attention to. I didn’t realize in the 21st century that I needed to know the temperature of my transmission fluid, and the optimum fuel usage while I’m going uphill backward.
About mile marker 420, a warning popped up on the center of the display indicating that the left rear tire was low. Assuming I could ignore it, the air pressure meter kept ticking downward, going from 30 PSI to zero in a matter of seconds. There was no way I could keep going. I now had a problem to deal with.
Providentially, there was a rest stop I pulled into and started digging into the rear compartment to find the spare. It was a complicated assembly, because the subwoofer was bolted onto the interim rubber donut, but at least it came out in a straightforward fashion. The jack was in a logical place and not under the hood or front seat. It was about a 15 minute delay and I was back on the road to sit with LeRoy and the crew for the second set.
The flat was an unwanted, unwelcome disruption. Pulling over on the side of the interstate in the freezing cold is never a choice I would make. This much is obvious.
Like it or not, I had to deal with it or I wasn’t going anywhere.
I’ve had my share of flat tires along the way. Some occurred in my driveway where they were easy to change. I’ve only had one blowout in my life, which was scary and unsettling. There was a time the lug nuts were frozen onto the wheel and I had to call AAA. But in every case, the process was the same:
The disruption required attention. The flat wasn’t going away by ignoring it.
The attention required action. Being aware of the problem wasn’t enough. I had to get out and do something about it.
The action allowed continuation. Taking time to address the disruption put me back on the road and this is where I ultimately want to go.
I write regularly about my work in grief therapy and recovery. My process began three years ago with a major disruption, the death of my wife of nearly 30 years. Little did I know how that disruption would lead me to discover more unsettling truths that would require further action on my part. I had to start paying attention.
I know some people process difficult life circumstances differently than I do, but I know I am one who needs the guidance of an experienced soul to help me pay attention to matters I’d rather ignore. And since I’m not paying the therapist fee just so I can keep going back to the office and talking, I’m looking for ways I can take action.
I shouldn’t be surprised, but sometimes the action needed is simple.
And simple doesn’t equate to easy. Like changing the flat, the steps are straightforward and haven’t changed that much since I was a kid with my dad teaching me how to use a bumper jack to raise the old farm truck. The lug wrench and lug nuts still function the same. The opposite tires still need to be chocked. But the tire isn’t going to change itself.
I had to take action.
So why change the tire? Why bother? Why not wait for someone else to come and take care of it?
I did it because I wanted to get to a better place. I didn’t want to stay stuck.
I have been diagnosed with three distinct and separate sleep disorders. The first sleep study registered 39 episodes an hour. This meant I woke up every two minutes during the overnight observation. Normal people don’t experience this, which is why you can wake up refreshed and have a full day of energy. This is not my reality, but it is something that I have begun to address through CPAP treatment, but more importantly, a mindfulness towards my body and what is happening within it.
Through this practice, I’ve self-diagnosed a new condition. I call it Attention Span Apnea.
In a similar way, my attention is disrupted several times an hour by my iPhone. And I feel it’s having an analogous effect on my mental well-being.
As with all my writing, I write to address something in me. I almost always speak in the first person. And I don’t try to direct advice without including myself in the exhortation.
Just like Sleep Apnea, I’m taking steps to address my Attention Span Apnea. And my first treatment is to renew my practice of journaling.
I’m not one who thinks everyone should journal. But I would recommend everyone to become more mindful of their body. Journaling is a way I process information. And for purposes of this blogpost, I offer an example of a recent entry. It’s akin to baking or cooking. I can tell you how, but I’d rather show you. This is how I journal.
I hope this resonates with you. Thank you for reading my work.
I feel the need to recover my attention span and creativity. I used to journal constantly, oftentimes daily. I have numerous binders full of notes and thoughts. I was diligent with the practice, but somewhere along the way, it has slipped from my hands.
I would guess the smartphone has a lot to do with it. It's easy to grab and fritter away a few minutes here and there. But what do I have to show for it? Fewer journals filled.
But a full journal is an inadequate goal. Instead, a full heart seems a better outcome.
And so here I sit, afraid I’ve let a main thing slip.
Every person in this coffeeshop is on a device of some kind. (I estimate there are 25 people.) Heads down, scrunched over, thumbing through microsecond images and unknown information. And to what end? But I can’t speak for them. It's not my place to judge. It's my place to turn the question inward.
I can feel my attention span shrink. I feel like I have become dependent on my phone for far too much. I can’t bring myself to look at the data on how often I check it. I’m sure I would be embarrassed.
So I start today, trying to look at my current habits, listen to my body and at the same time, watch for manifestations in me. The recent chest pain at night. Is that cardiac in nature or is it stress related. After my doctor visit, I tend to think it's the latter. Is it a by-product of a reduced attention span and loss of patience in my body?
Even right now, I’m getting restless, wanting to get up and move around, look at books or my phone. I can’t sit still as long as I used to and its time to ask why and pay attention.
Fear might be the first emotion experienced outside of the womb. To be born is to encounter a disruption of state. For a baby to move from a warm, fluid environment into the sudden shock of breathing air and seeing light, it’s easy to imagine how this transition would provoke a feeling of danger.
And danger is the reason any fear exists.
I would describe myself as a fearful person. Ever since I can remember, I was afraid of the dark, afraid of tornados, afraid of my house burning down. I was afraid of adults, especially teachers. I was afraid of bullies and coaches, who sometimes were the same person.
And now as an adult, it has been helpful, whenever I encounter fear, to go back and remember how I was taught to deal with it as a little boy. I still hear clearly:
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. Go back to bed.”
This is what I was told when I was scared at night. But this is language and message for one with adult reasoning, not a child.
Children don’t know there is nothing to be afraid of. If Santa Claus is real in their minds, so is the monster that hides in the closet. Simply telling a child to not be afraid is like expecting a baby not to cry if it is hungry.
Children need to be taught, not told, what to do with fear.
As one constantly dogged by fear, I’ve had to return through guided work to young places in my memory and remember what that fear felt like. I’ve discovered it feels alot like it does as a grown man today.
The fearful-adult-in-me grew from the fearful-child-in-me.
And I can’t redo my childhood, but I can be aware of how it has shaped and influenced my fearful emotions today. To heal and become a courageous adult is to remember that I am still living as a fearful child.
Even to print those four words as the opening statement seems a little audacious, maybe even haughty. They have been difficult to own. But it’s apparent I need to press toward this awkwardness and pursue the meaning behind the discovery.
To say one has a gift is to imply being in possession of something special. And the thought of being special can get beaten out at an early age. Anyone who verbalizes this outloud is subject to ridicule. So my reticence makes sense to me out of experience.
I consider myself a very average person from a very average heritage and a very average upbringing. I was not a very good student, ever. Throughout grade school, high school and college, I made mostly C’s. This performance was considered on the report card as average.
I don’t aspire to fame or fortune. I don’t seek to be popular. The accumulation of money never seduced me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I stay in my average house the remainder of my days. I like its quiet beauty that I have crafted within its four walls in the thirty years of living there.
It’s in this average setting that I hope to nurture my distinct gift, and this will become the focus of my writing this winter.
The word clarity has stuck in my mind for the last five years, ever since I began to move through the most difficult season of my life. It was so hard, I contemplated calling it quits. The pain of failure, loss and disappointment was becoming too much to bear. The thought process of suicidal ideation made sense to my depressed mind.
I know this last paragraph is hard for some to consider me being in such a dark place. I look back on it with deep sadness, but I also made a commitment to myself to never hide or gloss over it, knowing someone who is feeling like I did might find a way out of that dark fog and into a more clear place of light.
Into a place of clarity.
Clearness. Transparent. Coherent. Intelligible. These are all synonyms of clarity.
When there is no clarity, misunderstanding will run rampant. In situations or circumstances where there is no understanding, everything can seem fuzzy or cloudy. This opacity limits movement and can eventually bring any hope for progress to a standstill.
I’ve had poor eyesight my whole life. I started wearing corrective lenses in third grade, and they were fitted with standard black, General-issue, birth-control frames, which is even more devastating to a nine year old than having bad eyesight. As I got older and my vision continued to decline, the lenses got thicker and thicker, which is when the reference to “coke bottle glasses” were applied.
Even though I hated wearing them, they worked as designed. I could go from 20/200 through my naked eye to at best 20/30 with correction. The ability to see took precedence over how I felt about how they looked on my face.
This morning, as with every morning, the first thing I did upon waking up was to reach for my glasses. I can wander to the bathroom without them, but sliding them on my nose and ears makes mobility much easier and safer. I’m less likely to stub my toe or trip over Hank’s ball because I can see something in the way.
This imagery helps me understand my gift and what I need to do to nurture and develop it.
There are gifts I wish for, but don’t have. I wish I was a gifted musician but my fingers don’t know where to go on the fretboard. I wish I could draw or paint, but my pen and brush strokes end up being clunky on the page and canvas. I dabble in woodworking, but I’m not a gifted craftsman like the ones whose work I admire.
In all this, I can’t focus on what I’m not. I have to pay attention to who I am.
I have a gift of encountering and befriending emotion. I can sit with and hold feelings that can seem daunting and frightening to others. I feel emotion deeply and have done so since I was very young. So how do I see this as a gift?
To be frank, at first I didn’t. This was due in large part to not having an elder or caregiver that saw this as a good thing. My sensitivity and depth was misunderstood. For that matter, I was taught that emotions were suspect, never to be trusted, because they would always lead to the wrong conclusion. I was taught that the mind was in charge and feelings were to always take a back seat, or be hooked up to the rear of the train like a caboose.
In 2020, as I began my intentional work of recovery from grief and loss, I was given a book by a friend titled The Road Back to You. She thought I might find it helpful and so I gave it a shot. I came to the chapter that seemed to make the most sense. Here’s how a person with deep emotion was described
“…[they] have a considerable emotional range, and they manage it by not speaking or acting on every feeling they have.”
The very first sentence of the chapter in a much trusted book on self-discovery of those who have a deep emotional life was negative. This was congruent with how I had been led to believe about my giftedness my entire life. This didn’t feel right. And I knew I needed a better path.
I jettisoned the book and began to write my own thoughts about the subject. Anyone who has followed me for a while has probably noticed a shift in how I write. I tried to be more courageous with my emotion and offer my experience to be witnessed. It led to a new focus in my writing called Use Fewer Words. I began to write as honestly as I could, as briefly as I could, and as clearly as I could. If I didn’t feel it, I didn’t post it. I wasn’t going to waste my time presenting theoretical concepts that I had never worked through. Nor was I going to waste your time with matters that didn’t come from a deep well inside me.
It’s my desire to help others discover new, emotional clarity. I might even title this series, Learning to Feel More Clearly.
As I have done the inner work of discovery and recovery, I see my life differently. I see my emotions differently. And much like my eyeglasses aid my vision, I hope my writing will add a lens of clarity to the beautiful range of emotion we have stored up inside our hearts.
Holding emotion is my gift. And gifts are meant to be given away. I don’t expect everyone to feel like I do, or express their feelings and experiences like I do. If I did, it would cease to be a gift.
It’s coming up on one year without owning an operational car. These are some of my initial reflections on the experiment.
As I am settling into my new identity as a single man living alone for the first time in his entire life, there are certain opportunities that I can take that I have never been able to.
I rarely run the AC in my house. I can trade the temporary stickiness of the heat for the pleasure of the morning breeze and the sound of songbirds coming in through the wide open bedroom windows.
I can drink out of the milk jug with the fridge door open and put it back in the door without fear of repercussion.
I can close all the cabinet doors, knowing that when I come back in the kitchen, they will still be closed.
These are small things, but I don’t take them for granted. But there are some very big things that I get to explore, like not owning a car for a year. And I get to learn the lessons that come from taking the risks.
Up to July 2021, I drove a 2010 Kia Soul. I knew the little hamster car was suffering a mechanical ailment that was eventually going to come to fruition and I would be forced to reckon with it. And sure enough, my intuition was right. On a drive to Omaha one afternoon, the engine light came on, the engine stuttered, and I began looking for a place to pull over.
I reflexively shut off the AC and rolled down the windows, and that provided enough relief to the electrical system that I was able to make a U-turn and drive back home without getting stranded on the interstate.
The next day, I limped the car to the mechanic and she gave me the sobering news that it was going to cost more to fix the car than it was worth. I now had a decision to make. Fix it? Scrap it and get a new vehicle? But there was a third option I had been pondering.
It’s a faith option, one that I am now free to explore.
It seems I typically turn to prayer in times of crisis and need. But this wasn’t the case here. I had the means in the bank to fix it or replace it. So what’s the big deal? Why didn’t I do either?
It’s because I want to learn to interact with and trust my Maker when I don’t have to.
So I decided that day, July 23, 2021, to go about this differently, because I’m in a place to do so.
I made it about faith, not about my need.
I live by the working definition that faith has two requirements. The first is to believe my Creator actually exists, and two, that my Creator will reward my seeking. So in my mind, I don’t have anything to lose in the equation. I have everything to gain.
And here’s what I’ve netted.
At first it felt like a hassle and a major disruption and I wasn’t sure how it was going to play out. But every morning, I would confer with the Ancient of Days over coffee and discuss my situation. And slowly and surely, I got a different perspective.
If the Ancient of Days knows my name, I can’t say the same of the universe. I began to grow in assurance that I was doing the right thing.
The lights went on in my mind one morning as I was selecting songs for my Current Mood playlist that I assemble and dismantle depending on my disposition.
I don’t own any of these songs, but I have access to them. All of them (except Neil Young.)
I have access instead of ownership. An epiphany for me.
Where else does this apply?
When I needed a car for work, I had access to Enterprise Car Rental, whose office is about an 8 block walk from my house. All the other times, I could ride my bike to the doctor, to the dentist, downtown for lunch. If it happened to be at night or across town, I could take an Uber.
All that bike riding subtracted a few pounds from my frame and I get more Vitamin D by being out in the sun.
On certain occasions when friends went out of town, I would take them to the airport and they would leave me their vehicle in agreement to come back to pick them up when they returned. I think I only had to ask once to borrow a car when I was in a pinch.
I’m fortunate to live within walking distance from the grocery store and to the bank. I have stamps.com so I never need to go to the Post Office. There’s a coffee shop at the end of my street where I go to write and think. They know me and greet me with, “Here comes Small Dark Roast.”
I had access to all the places I needed to go, without the weight of ownership of a vehicle.
I know I will eventually need to own transportation at some point in the future, but it has been a rich and rewarding interaction with my Maker concerning the matter. I can now evaluate decisions based on asking myself, “Do I need to own this, or do I access to what I need already?”
Included in the reward is catching myself when I start to worry or fret.
Access to Gratitude has increased, as well as new Faith.
Who knows, in a year from now I might be writing another blog post titled, “Two Years Without a Car.
I listened to a fascinating interview with Anna Lembke on the Art of Manliness podcast. She is Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University. She was speaking about her book, Dopamine Nation. I was surprised at what I learned.
It’s an oversimplification of her premise, but she explains how and why the relentless pursuit of pleasure leads to even more pain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and It plays a role in how we feel pleasure. The brain produces it as a result of actions that are meant for us to feel good. The result is the body wanting more of what is creating the new state of mind.
It’s this cycle that leads to addiction. And she is very graceful in describing addiction as a means of easing pain. It makes sense in the mind of the addict. They don’t want to hurt any longer. Thus the continual return to the substance or behavior that relieves the pain.
In November I wrote about my process of learning how to allow myself to feel lonely. Loneliness is my most neglected of emotions. I became very skilled at ignoring it from a very young age. I would bury it in activity or busyness, and that was a very effective strategery.
Until I started living alone.
I went for a while believing it was no big deal. I’m a disciplined person. I know how to get things done. I know how to structure my day and be productive. But my body wanted to send me a message, and Anna Lembke was its prophet.
My iPhone is my connection to the outside world. It is both a blessing and a curse. My body started showing me what it meant by the latter.
The phone has become a priority in my day. I would check it first thing in the morning to see if I missed a text or notification, and I would check it right before bed. I carried it with me everywhere, even in the house, yearning for feedback in some fashion sent from a person on the other end. I would pick it up anytime I sat down to eat, or sitting in the doctor’s office or waiting on a friend.
In the words of Anna Lembke, my body asked if we could take a dopamine fast.
I reflected on this sensation. I found that I had begun to lose my ability to be fully alone and fully present in that state. I was filling every possible inch of personal space with data from my phone. I decided that can’t be healthy, So what would this fast look like?
It’s been quite simple to fashion a plan. As with all plans, it’s only as good as its implementation.
Every plan needs a goal, and mine is to become more mindful of my body in its state of aloneness. I’m looking to be alert and pay attention. Dr Lembke says it’s a counterintuitive proposition. We all want to feel better, so why would I want to move into the direction of not feeling better? Why would I want to make friends with the very condition I’m trying to avoid?
Her assessment is that it gives the body relief from its imbalance. The body is always seeking harmony, and harmony comes from knowing how to live amid both pleasure and pain, both of which are processed in the same part of the brain.
Pain can’t be avoided, but it can’t be ignored, either. Pain can be relieved, but that relief comes at a price. And the body knows when it’s being asked to pay too much.
I’ll revisit this topic in the future. I don’t have much to say on the matter because I’m on the first tee on the front nine in this round. But it’s an intriguing pursuit, so much so that I felt compelled to write about it this rainy, lonely afternoon.
f you follow my work at all, you probably already know the influence my dad has had on my life. I quote him constantly. He was a quiet man of few spoken words, but he contained a wealth of wisdom and insight in his short, sturdy frame. So it only made sense to dedicate a section to him in Use Fewer Words.
It’s titled, “I Can Still Hear Him Say.” Because I can clearly imagine him saying those very words in a certain situation.
My all time favorite saying of his was they way he described how things are not always as they first appear. Don’t be fooled by appearances, he would say. Everything is not as it seems. He would say
All that glitters
Is not gold
All that titters
Is not tit.
I can also hear her (my mom) say to dad, “Oh Jack, don’t use that kind of language with him.!” But her scolding never worked, and his phrase became firmly entrenched in the family vernacular. When I got to the age where I started noticing girls, he would remind me of this wisdom, but made sure mom never heard him.
As I type a thought and post it, I never have a sense of what will connect or resonate with my reader. This next saying of his was just that. But on the day that I published it on Instagram, it was one that garnered the most unexpected comments.
The context is about committing to a task. I was not required to play sports in school, but I was given permission to go out for a team if I wanted to. I never felt compelled. I wanted to quit Little League Baseball in 5th grade. I was not a very good athlete and was always afraid of getting hit with a pitch. He advised me in this way:
I can still hear him say
If you stop
Because you’re tired
That's one thing
But if you stop
Because you're scared
That requires a conversation
It was his way of saying the choice is mine. I think he could tell I didn’t like playing baseball, but he didn’t want to allow me an easy out if it was fear that needed to be addressed.
This is the importance of parenting. I am learning to improve in this area and my kids are adults now.
The word attunement. Dr. Dan Siegel says attunement is when we allow our own internal state to shift and come to resonate with the inner world of another. Much like turning the dial on the radio. When the receiver comes in alignment with the transmitting signal, the message can be heard clearly.
Children are like that. They emit a signal that a wise parent needs to attune with and pick up. A parent who does this can get close enough to see what needs to be addressed. I’m so glad I wasn’t forced to keep playing baseball, but I’m equally glad to have a dad who could see me and challenge me when fear wanted to make me run away.
Another quality I admire about my dad’s wisdom was his thoughtful patience. He was very slow to speak, which was frustrating at times. He hated talking on the phone and our conversations were a minute or two tops, then he would hand the receiver to mom and she would take over.
He had a story from the days when he and mom were first married in the 1950’s. He liked his father-in-law and described him as “the best christian man I ever met.” One day, dad found out that someone was stealing chickens at night, so he said AR, why don’t I stay up and watch to see who’s stealing your chickens. His father in law replied, “Times are hard, Jack, that man probably needs that chicken to feed his family, but is too proud to ask. I’ll let it slide. It will come back to me eventually.”
It was this kind of influence that prompted this idea:
I can still hear him say
Allow the people
To make you more curious
I didn’t know my maternal grandfather. He died when I was less than six month old. I only know him through stories like this from my dad. It’s an honor to see how he influenced my dad, who in turn, influenced me, and hopefully me to the next generation.
This is a big reason why I am taking time to chronicle my stories in written and audio form. My dad is gone, but I still have his oral tradition and I don’t want that to disappear when I pass on.
When my sister and I started going through mom’s house and possessions, I gave myself a general rule to follow in knowing what to keep and what to throw away. If I could not invite someone into the story and make it a shared memory, I would toss it. There were lots of trinkets and items that had no connection to anyone other than me. I kept a few of those things, like the quilts and hand crocheted afghan. But the salt and pepper shakers needed to go to a new home as did the old Sears catalogs and her collection of old newspapers about the first man on the moon.
Thanks for listening to these stories. I hope you are figuring out a way to preserve your memories by passing them on to those around you.
When a person experiences loss, regardless of what it is, it’s an emotional ordeal. It doesn’t matter if you lose your keys, your phone, your dog or your health, there is an internal price attached to it. It feels off, maybe even unfair. And all loss takes a toll on the body.
I began to feel the consequence of my losses most acutely in 2016. I was in the midst of losing my businesses and in the slow burn of losing my wife to cancer. I was losing control of my body to anxiety resulting in a feeling of being unmoored and adrift.
These losses, as difficult as they were, provided me an opportunity for clarity.
To risk saying the obvious, The more I lost, the less I had to lose. I could evaluate things differently. When my restaurants closed, I was no longer a businessman. When my wife died, I was no longer married. When I went bankrupt, I didn’t have any money to manage. These three titles of business owner, husband and fiscal steward no longer applied.
Then who am I without these things? Am I more than this? If so, how do I go about discovering who I am again?
Navigating loss can feel a little like trying to get out of bed in the middle of the night to get a drink of water out of the fridge without turning on the lights so as not to bother anyone. The walk down the hallway feels familiar, but I didn’t see the dog’s ball underfoot that nearly sent me to the floor. After tripping, I’m now extra cautious and put my hands out to feel the walls, then for the dining room chair. I touch it, but still afraid I’m going to stub my toe. I’m looking for reassurance that I can’t see, but hopefully can feel. I’ve seen that chair in the light before, but because of the darkness at the moment, I can’t fully detect it.
This was the word picture I gave myself as I began the process of sorting through all this loss with a therapist. I was going to have to feel my way back to my true identity. And I would most certainly trip over an unexpected obstacle or crush my toe on an unanticipated setback. I would need permission to walk without the luxury of clear eyesight.
I would have to feel my way back.
I’ve always been a man sensitive to my emotions. Even back to childhood, I was a very tender-hearted kid, but I didn’t grow up in an environment that recognized this trait in me. I was raised to treat emotions as something to be avoided or dismissed, because they tend to get in the way of work and survival. It never mattered what I felt as a child. My emotions and the opinions that went with them were not considered. As a result, I was never able to navigate them until much later in my life.
As I entered into marriage, this upbringing was reinforced. Emotions were not seen as safe and therefore not to be trusted. Anger was the predominant feeling that was allowed expression in my marriage. And that got old really fast.
As I found myself living alone in my new identity, I noticed that I could now pay attention to my emotions without fear of repercussion. I began to write in this direction, and this poem served as a reference point to what I was experiencing.
Don’t listen to your feelings
But wisdom insisted
Don’t pay attention to that
Its bad advice
Never abandon your feeling
Just as you would never
Abandon your child
Listen intently to them
Start by holding them
As you would nurture an infant
If you aren't sure what to do
I’ll help you
Do you think I am devoid of feelings
I helped lay
Of the earth
You think I didn’t feel something
During that performance?
A world without feelings
And the hearts that birth them
Would be dull and gray
And that’s not what I had in mind
Show me your feelings
And I’ll show you
How to paint
The most beautiful picture
In the world
I write to give myself permission, but if, as a consequence, my writing gives you permission to explore uncharted inner territory, I feel like my story matters.
I wish the world were different, and wish that emotions were not a source of relational contention, but that isn’t going away anytime soon. I’ll put my new found energy toward giving sanction to those of us who process the world through our feelings and intuition, not via our logic and reason.
Today I am beginning a tab called Tell Me About That One.
My desire with this is to invite you further into my thinking behind some of my short poems that I post on my Instagram account. I often entertain a muse or subject that prompts the idea. Many of these are real people and circumstances I am writing about. Sometimes the muse becomes an ideal for me to imagine.
I am a self-proclaimed idealist. This is where much of my hope is rooted. I believe in a better future. I imagine that through my writing. As a result of this idealism, I am allergic to cynicism and sarcasm. I don’t have room for these in my vocabulary. One, It’s like swearing. They are too easy to rely on when I am frustrated or disappointed. And two, they are easily misunderstood. Ever have a sarcastic friend who you are never quite sure if they are serious, then when you ask them about it, they fire back with, “What? Can’t you take a joke?” Sarcasm has its place, just not in my work.
I became a widower in November 2019, and my first impulse in this new identity was to travel. Traveling was not something I was free to do as a married man, and I thought, now that I am single, I decided to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and that is to get out and explore the world on my own. And so I did that. I took the first three months to visit friends and places without the pressure of a deadline or strict agenda. This culminated with a trip to Ireland. The last time I visited the Emerald Isle was in 2010. But that trip got cut short when we got news that my father in law had passed. We were four days into the trip and decided to return home.
This was my chance to get those days back and finish what I had started ten years prior. I was even to be in Dublin on March 17. It seems like the stars were aligning, until they weren’t. Yes, COVID exploded globally at the onset of that trip. But as I sat in Finn MacCool’s pub in Bushmills, Northern Ireland, President Trump announced on the BBC that Ireland was added to the US travel ban. My heart sank. My Irish host urged me to move quickly and fly back home, and I did. We packed up and made the three hour drive back down to Dublin, got a little sleep and he dropped me off at the airport at 6am the next morning.
Even though it was disrupted, the trip was not without importance. In preparing for the trip, a friend recommended a book of poetry by Irish poet John O’Donohue. I bought To Bless The Space Between Us and waited to open it until I was in country. Day four of my itinerary was a 4 hour train ride across the entire country out to the western coast. This seemed like the right time to begin reading. As the train pulled from the Dublin Heuston station I pulled the book from my backpack and settled in.
I could not get past the first five poems. And it’s hard to explain why.
There were several factors. Among them, my new life as a widower. Add to this my newfound freedom to travel to a place that feels like my ancestral home. Add in my sense of grief and longing I was experiencing. Include all this to the visual beauty of the author’s country that I am watching roll by out the window of a train. It was a beautiful breakdown.
When I returned home to the US four days early, the words of John O’Donohue were still ringing in my head, those first five poems. (By the way, I still haven’t finished the book nearly two years later. And I’m ok with that. If a book can have that kind of impact within the first 30 minutes of exposure, I think I got my money’s worth.)
Somewhere during the trip, I heard about a guy who likes to use his typewriter to write thank you notes and send them through the postal mail. He said it’s a simple way to get a message across through a lost form. And people pay attention.
I knew I had an old typewriter somewhere and discovered it in a basement closet. I pulled it out, dusted it off, rolled a sheet of paper in the carriage and tapped out a few characters. It still worked, but would eventually need a new ribbon. I grabbed the poetry book and typed a few lines of a poem. I took a picture of it and posted it on Instagram. Within a few minutes, I started feeling guilty. I didn’t plagiarize. I gave O’Donohue credit. The feeling came for a different reason. Within my heart, I knew what it was. This was too easy, nor was I using my words. I knew what I needed to do.
I had to start writing my own poetry.
And so I did. I started writing whatever was on my mind, taking a picture and posting it on Instagram. I recall the feeling of foolishness and inadequacy. But I’ve lived long enough to recognize that negative voice and move past it.
As with all my writing, I am my first audience. And so I viewed it as a writing exercise. I never envisioned it becoming a book. And that’s where you come in.
After about a year of writing these little short poems, I started getting the question, “Are you saving all those? Are you going to make a book out of them?” It was this feedback that got me thinking that maybe I was on to something.
Cindy, who was my editor for my first book, asked the same question. She wanted to see the hard copies and so I handed over all 575 pages. She held them for two weeks until we got back together to review what she had found.
She handed the work back to me in 13 bundles, each one with a title on a sticky note. On the top of the stack was a group titled Grief. It was there that she explained what I had been doing. I was grieving loss and this was the natural, intuitive way I was going about it.
And this is why I write.
Writing allows me to take my thoughts and organize them into a coherent message for me to process. There is much I have written to myself that will never be read by another human. I’ve burned most of those journals to ensure that. They were too raw and brutally honest. While I am a firm believer in openness in relationships, I still have a code that I won’t violate. I know my heart well enough to know when I have crossed that line.
But I don’t want to gloss over certain things that I have experienced in my life, especially the difficult ones. My desire as a communicator is to use my voice in such a way that you can hear yours. That’s what John O’Donohue did for me. It was his voice that enabled me to hear my own poetic expression. And that’s why I felt guilty using his words instead of mine.
As I use the death of my marriage as a muse, and if my voice sounds like yours, or my experience feels familiar to you, then we have a connection. And through that connection might flow a little hope back and forth.
Somewhere along the way, a friend commented that my writing had taken a different turn. I asked what she meant by that. She said, “You’re becoming more honest about your grief. And your voice sounds more powerful as a result.”
I took these words to heart. And as often happens in the morning, the next day this new thought formed in my mind.
These five lines have shaped my work dramatically. I’m much better now at self-editing and narrowing down my words to become more precise. And hopefully more understandable.
One hurdle I had to overcome in this process was my insecurity as a writer. I never thought of myself as a good writer. I was a poor student in English class. I don’t think I ever got higher than a C on any term paper. I’m not well read among the classic authors. I rely on the thesaurus extensively because my vocabulary isn’t broad. This was especially true as I compared my work to John O’Donohue’s writing. His poetry was majestic, romantic, colorful, playful, deep, and dark. I could go on with the adjectives, but I think you get the point of my insecurity. Who was I to think I could be as good as him?
But my fears were confronted simply by doing the work, and in the words of Seth Godin, packing it up and shipping it out. I could never wait until it was perfect or until I felt great about it. Long before the feedback started showing up, I often wondered where this was supposed to lead. And slowly I got my answer as I continued to use my words, not John O’Donohue’s, to express myself.
When I started posting a blog about 15 years ago, I’ve always sought to be clear and understandable. My first discipline was to take only 30 minutes and convey a thought. Once that time was up, I had to proofread it and hit send. I never came back to those original posts for editing or polishing up. And I think this helped me to become a consistent writer, even though I wasn’t very confident as one. My thought was, always produce, and allow that consistency to make me a better writer.
So this is the backstory on the poem that became the title of my second book, Use Fewer Words. If you are interested in a copy, you can purchase one from your favorite bookseller or through my website if you want a signed, personalized copy.
If any of my poems has prompted a question that you would like to know more about, contact me on my website, 55degrees.US. In the subject line, use Tell Me About That One and I’ll try to record another explanation.