Clarity of Fear

#usefewerwords by Kevin Shinn


There are plenty of synonyms.

Afraid. Scared. Frightened. Upset. Unsettled. Terror. Panic.

And so on.

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.

Learning to Feel Clearly

Use Fewer Word by Kevin Shinn

I have a gift.

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.

Thanks for reading. 

My Year Without a Car

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.

My Last Operational CD player

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 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.

A Slow Drip of Dopamine

©2022 Kevin Shinn, 55 Degrees US

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.

©2022 Kevin Shinn, 55 Degrees US

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.

Make Room. Don’t Hold Back


Tell Me About That One: I Can Still Hear Him Say.

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
You dislike
To make you more curious
Than angry

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.

I’ll see you next time.

Tell Me About That One – Feelings

I have a section in Use Fewer Words titled Feelings.  It opens with this:

You feel your way

Back to your heart

You don’t think your way there.

From Use Fewer Words, ©Kevin Shinn, 2021

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 
Said everyone 
But wisdom insisted 
Don’t pay attention to that 
Its bad advice
Wisdom continued 
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
Wisdom asked 
Do you think I am devoid of feelings
I helped lay 
The foundations 
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 
Wisdom concluded 
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.

Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next time.

Tell Me About That One – Series Introduction

From the book, Use Fewer Words, by Kevin Shinn ©2021

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.

From the book, To Bless The Space Between Us by John O”Donohue

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.

©Kevin Shinn, 55 Degrees, 2020

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.

To be a better writer

Be more honest


Than you were today

And use fewer words.

©Kevin Shinn, 2021

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?

©Kevin Shinn, 55 Degrees, 2020

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.

Thanks for listening

©Kevin Shinn, 55 Degrees, 2020

What I Do With Unwanted News

At the risk of contradicting myself by describing a very complicated and nuanced subject in a short and simple post, I felt the need today, so bear with me.

I’ve sought to live a life of faith for a little over 40 years now. I have lived long enough to encounter some disappointments along the way and these hardships have shaken my faith to my core.  

Faith informs everything I do. It underpins my whole thought process. You could say it’s all I know. Therefore I can only speak from this perspective.

I write these words to those who have chosen a similar path as me.  If faith is irrelevant to you, then this post will also be irrelevant.

You may have questioned why there is no reference in the four Gospels as to what to do when my prayers go unanswered.  I got stuck there for a season, but now I think the inference is pretty obvious.

I learned the simplest definition of prayer as a little boy in the most childlike way. The point is to ask.

Ask and keep on asking.

If there was a caveat inserted into that statement, I would have gotten stuck on it.  If the invitation by the Son of Man was presented as, “Ask, but….”, I would have tripped over the but.

About two years ago, the leaders at Bethel Church in Redding, CA called the members of the congregation to join together in praying for a two-year old girl to be revived after the child suddenly stopped breathing. The vigil went on for about five days without receiving the desired outcome.  They relented and turned their intercession energy into a memorial service.

This caused a firestorm of nationwide response, the loudest of which were the detractors calling these leaders false prophets. It was an extremely controversial moment.

But I could not help but ask myself what I would have done in that situation?  Would I have had the courage to join in, and ask and keep on asking?

I concluded that my faith may have not drawn me toward such a response, but I could not find a reason to judge them for their zeal. The Son of Man said to ask and keep on asking. And they did.

This is why the Son of Man did not leave us a list of things we could and could not ask for.

I found myself in a similar situation when my wife was diagnosed for a third time of a recurrence of ovarian cancer.  I believed she would be healed. I wrote it down and gave the story to some of my family and friends.   I still have a picture of the lab test that showed a 900% decrease in her CA 125 blood test in less than 30 days.  I thought that was my affirmation.

She died a year to the day later.  I didn’t get what I wanted, nor what I asked for.

Now what?

This led me to a second important discovery about faith. This time written in the Pentateuch.

“The secret things belong to our Maker, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever”

My faith was built as a child, and it will always stand on that foundation. Faith might appear to be childish to some, but there is a big difference in being childish and being childlike.

A child at its innocent core, is full of trust and acceptance of things he doesn’t understand.  Especially about mom and dad.

I recall asking my dad questions for which there was no way to explain to a child, like, “Dad, what’s the Vietnam War?” His famous answer/non-answer is still in use today:

“Sorry son, you just have to pay attention.”

It was a complexity that a seven-year old could not grasp. All I could understand was what I didn’t understand. And I had to be OK with that.

I don’t know why my late wife wasn’t healed. And I’ll probably never know. I have to file that under The Secret Things. But I do know that I can’t allow that incident to prevent me from asking so boldly in the future.

A third lesson of faith has helped me navigate the uncertainty and incongruence of my experience. It is what I call Embracing The Paradox.  A paradox is a contrast between two propositions where both seem true and yet self-contradictory.

The ancient wisdom of The Preacher states it this way:

It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears his Maker will avoid all extremes.

Faith is too complicated and complex to be solved by reliance on black/white, either/or solutions.

The recent Joe Rogan/Neil Young argument is an example of this simplistic thinking.

I’m not defending either party. I like Joe Rogan as an interviewer and I loved seeing Neil Young in concert in 2015 as a man in his 70’s that could still rock with the best of them. What didn’t set well was the My Way or the Highway ultimatum.

Let me defend NY’s freedom to make his choice.  It’s his music and he can choose to distribute it as he pleases.  I don’t question that right.  I do question the ultimatum motive.

I can only speak for myself, and as a tiny voice in the social change machine, I don’t have the luxury to make demands out of an ultimatum. Do this or else.

Instead, I have to hold one and not let go of the other if I believe in an awakening of hope for a better future. I’m called to love my neighbor and my enemy. I don’t get to choose between one or the other. Nor can I see a better future where I silence, destroy or annihilate my opposition.

As with my unwanted circumstance and unanswered prayers, my faith requires me to hold all three of these

I need to ask and keep on asking

I need to accept there are secret things I will never know

I need to grasp the one and not let go of the other.

To be continued….

10 Songs That Saved My Life

The title may seem hyperbolic. Did these songs literally stop me from going off the deep end? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is how these songs intersected my story in a timely fashion and deposited a word of truth into my heart that could not have otherwise found its way in without the Keyholder of Music unlocking that dark place.

These ten saved my life by adding and contributing, not preventing or suppressing. They addressed the negative script I was following by singing to me a lyric of recompense.

Recompense means to ​​make amends to someone for loss or harm suffered.

And here I am, these many years later, still telling the story

I will always be indebted to the beauty of music and the role she plays in my story.

There are numerous other songs that I could write about for days. But these reveal my starting point for telling the story.

Little Room by White Stripes – 2001

Well, you're in your little room 
And you're working on something good

In 2001, I met a guy on an airplane. He was lost in himself and the huge tuna can headphones that emitted muffled sounds of music that felt of a punk persuasion. I’m not much for talking while flying but he took his headphones off before we taxied toward the runway. I asked him what he was listening to. He said the new White Stripes album. He looked at me incredulously when I said I wasn’t familiar with their music. In what felt like disgust, he said, “Well you should be.”

Thankfully that was the extent of our conversation. He disappeared back into his aural cave.

Upon returning home, I went to Barnes and Noble, (which is what you did back then) to look up the White Stripes. They had it on their listening station (remember those?) and I decided to buy the CD (I don’t even own a CD player anymore.)

On the disc was this little 0:50-second song titled, Little Room. It became an immediate anthem.

I was in a place of transition in my career. I was contemplating making a change, and I was working on ideas about what that change should look like. I was literally in my own little room, my basement kitchen and recording studio, working on something good. It was the start of what would eventually become bread&cup, Jack&June and Piedmont Bistro.

But eventually everything crumbled. I wondered why I was in the bigger room? 

Today, twenty one years later, I’m back in that same little room, working on something good. It’s called The Portico Experience and 55Degrees.US

City of Hope by Journey – 2011

There's a city of hope beyond our fears 
Where miracles happen, where truth can be heard

In early 2017, the proverbial shit was hitting the fan in every way possible; business collapse, personal life crisis, marriage crumbling, spiritual doubt, financial uncertainty. It was the worst pressure I had ever experienced.

I credit the two guys at Spotify for this one. They pushed it to me in their Discover Weekly suggestion. I was at the gym, trying to do something that resembled exercise, hoping it would distract me for a brief moment.  Then this song came up in the queue.

I cut my teeth on Journey’s music, even before Journey was Journey. I loved their progressive rock fusion sound of the 1977 release titled Next. This was pre-Steve Perry’ evocative vocals, when all the ladies would fall for their sound.

I hit replay over and over again that morning.

The message of the song is made even more prescient by knowing the story of Arnel Pineda. He went from being homeless on the streets of Manila, to fronting one of the most influential rock bands of the world in 2007. This song is his biography.

It helped me redirect my course to The City of Hope that day.

Spies by Coldplay – 2000

I awake to find no peace of mind 
I said how do you live 
As a fugitive? 
Down here, where I cannot see so clear

This song began with one meaning for me, but over time, that meaning changed. All because of noticing one word in the final lyric.

The word Just.

Sometimes I glum onto a song because it allows me to feel the emotions more deeply.  And  I realize that last sentence makes no sense to many of you, but this is the plight of an introverted, introspective, Type 4 feeler. Sometimes it appears we breathe different air.

The song is moody. In fact, the whole Parachutes album is moody, which is why I return to it over again.  I would listen to it in the dark, some nights by the light of the summer moon. But one night, an apocalypse occurred. My eyes were unveiled, and this song took on a new life of its own. I heard Chris Martin singing, They’re ALL spies throughout the entire song, then he concluded it with,

They’re JUST spies

LIke a flash of lighting can turn the night sky to immediate, momentary daylight, that’s what happened to this song. I have nothing to worry about, nothing to fear, because everything out there that consumes my concern is just an impotent spy.

Up To The Roof by BlueManGroup – 2004

Tried to go the way you told me
But each time I got lost 
The stairs didn't lead me anywhere

I credit BlueManGroup for one of existential reasons I took the leap toward opening bread&cup.  I saw their live performance in Las Vegas Luxor Theater in 2001 and it moved me in such a way, I had to sit in my chair until the auditorium was empty and I was asked to leave. I kept asking myself, “what did I just witness?” This is the role of art. It doesn’t answer questions. It provokes them. 

And I was duly provoked.

Three years later, they released an album with lyrics. Since The BlueManGroup schtick is mime, guest artists were engaged to sing.  Tracy Bonham lent her talent to this song.

The years of 2000-2005 were very critical for my transition away from The Church As We Know It and into an expression of faith that made more sense to me. I was paid to have faith. I knew I needed to depart from that mooring and set sail into open waters.  I describe this time as a moment of leaving the church to find my faith again.

Anytime I tell this story, I always feel compelled to explain my motive because it can sound like I am blaming my church heritage as the reason for my midlife angst. And that is not the case. I blame no one. I’m looking ahead. I’m conserving the better future, not my previously explored past.  The dreams and visions that I was holding needed new territory to be unleashed. And when I came to the realization that I had permission to do that, my faith took on new meaning. So I left the confines of The Church As I Knew It and went out surveying for more.

Portrait by Kansas – 1977 / 2019

He had a thousand ideas, 
You might have heard his name 
He lived alone with his vision 
Not looking for fortune or fame

I’m a few days into my reality as a widower. And true to fashion, I’m searching for music that can help me map this territory.  And it took a 1977 song from my high school days to germinate into full bloom in November 2019.

The song is about a mythical man, searching for something otherworldly. He was nonplussed by the cares of others around him. He was consumed by the many ideas in his heart. And…

He lived alone.

This was the first time in my life to ever occupy a living space completely by myself.  I grew up in a rural area and didn’t have any friends around, but there was always someone at home at night and the next morning.  In college and grad school, I always had a roommate, and my last roommate lasted 30 years. Now I’m all alone.

I am entering a season where I get to pay attention to those ideas, dreams and vision. They would not be dependent on anyone other than me for now.

This song became a daily hymn. And since I lived alone, I could crank it to 11 day or night. Good thing Hank loves to rock.

I AM by Joseph Arthur – 2004

To find out what you really are 
You must wake up from this long night

This is a song I wish I could have written, because it expresses so accurately what I feel about living a life of faith. I just didn’t have the words like JA did.

Faith is being sure of what I hope for, and certain of what I don’t see.  It’s my belief that the physical realm that I see is a temporary one. That which exists beyond the one I can currently see and feel, is the permanent reality I was created for.

Your world is in danger 
Because your world isn’t real. 
You see what is imagined, 
Dreaming of what you feel.

Holy Visitation by Charlie Hall – 2000

Sound the alarm 
Awaken the watchmen 
Open their ears 
Let their voices be loud

I have never heard the audible voice of God, but I have heard words in my spirit so clearly that their source is unmistakable.

One damp May night in 2000, I was listening to this song while lying in bed. The word in the song, awaken the watchman, was followed by a voice saying, You are the Watchman. Startled, I got out of bed, put some clothes on, and went for a walk in the night.

I walked through my neighborhood for about an hour around midnight that evening. I pondered this encounter. What does, “You are the Watchman” mean?

The short of it was this. “You are a man that watches out for others. But it’s not enough to watch. You must be capable of waking others up when it’s time to step into action.”

I’ve been holding this name for 22 years.

Heaven’s Gonna Burn Your Eyes by Thievery Corporation – 2002

Do you applaud fear 
Do you hold it near 
Are you afraid to live your life 
The way I perceive

Back in the good old days, before streaming, music had to be consumed via hard copy media, ie an LP, tape or CD. In 1979, I fondly remember driving to Tulsa to the Starship, a head shop on the north end of town, to buy a copy of Pink Floyd’s new double album, The Wall. There would be no sample clips or previews, nor could we listen to it when we got back in the car. I recall holding the album on the forty minute drive back to Robert’s house, where we got our first listen.

I’m no grumpy old man yearning for those days back, but I do miss the anticipation of new music. It required patience, something that is lost in this generation.

Before a road trip with friends, I implemented a practice called The Risk CD. The rules were simple. Everyone would go to a local music dealer and pick something out solely on appearance and gut feeling. Bring it in the car unopened, then we unwrap them one by one, and listen to each in its entirety until all selections are heard.

There were many losers and a few winners, but occasionally a gem like this one gets unearthed. The opening track is timeless for me. It always calls me back to square one of my faith.

Fake Plastic Trees by Radiohead – 1995

But I can't help the feeling 
I could blow through the ceiling 
If I just turn and run 
And it wears me out

I have The Warrior to thank for this one. He put together a mixtape for me of songs that reflected my current mood. And this spoke to the fatigue I was experiencing in propping up my status quo.

I yearn for authenticity in everything, and I wasn’t seeing a lot of it in my world of faith.  This track mourned the loss of what I was experiencing in my culture that settles for appearance over substance.

It resonated.

Snow Angels by Over The Rhine – 2006

Goodbye to this cruel wicked world 
And all the tears I've cried 
Snow angel, snow angel 
I'll meet you in the sky

This is a Christmas song, from my favorite Christmas record.  I love it because it’s a mix of hope and lament. It allows me to acknowledge pain during a season usually only relegated for celebration. 

It was there for me when my dad died and when some of my students passed through the years.  It accompanied me during the holidays of cancer, and now the last three Christmases of living alone.

Behavior I Don’t Understand

I had an interesting opportunity to observe amusing human behavior yesterday. My last remaining and fully operational CD player, aka The Kia, decided to shut down in the left turn lane of a major intersection here in town. It went dead suddenly, nothing, kaput. Even the emergency flashers didn’t work. As they say where I’m from, “I was up shit creek without a paddle.” But at least I had a cell phone, but it might be hard to paddle a canoe with it.

I was always taught when in a situation like this to raise the hood and trunk as a signal of distress, but evidently that is no longer a universal indicator of malfunction, judging from the varied responses of drivers who got stuck behind my immobilized car blocking the street.

The first guy pulls right up behind me and everything seems normal since the light is red. But the disconnect appeared when the light turned green and he started honking at me. I don’t read lips but I know what the f-word looks like. Once he clued in that I was not going anywhere, he abruptly backed up, swerved his car around me that gave me the business finger on the way past. 

I’m notably fascinated by behavior I don’t understand, and that was a perfect moment for me to absorb and ponder while waiting on a tow truck.

The next player up to the plate was Camaro Guy. Same song, second verse. Pulls in, does not put two and two together that the open back hatch and lifted hood would add up to something equalling four. But everyone isn’t’ good at math, so he didn’t solve this particular equation. As he started laying on the horn, I got out and walked back toward him to deliver the message personally that the car ain’t gonna budge.

Judging by the look on his face, he must have thought I had a gun. Even though I was yelling, “Sorry dude. I’m broken down,” he hit reverse and went around, making sure he didn’t look me in the eye. Thankfully no one was behind him or the situation could have gotten worse. No middle digit salute from this guy, though. Slight improvement in the human response mechanism.

The most puzzling episode was a carload of high school girls who pulled up behind and started waving, giggling as they went. I couldn’t tell if they knew what was going on and felt sorry for me or if they just thought they were on Candid Camera. I waved, laughed in return and their bevy went around after the green arrow appeared.

All this time I’m waiting on AAA emergency roadside service. I felt the urge to be upset, because there was plenty of gravity inviting me in that downward direction. Broken down car, blocking traffic, pissed off drivers etc. But I remembered what I wrote on Monday. How do I get back to a Place of Peace, a domain where it’s always calm despite the atmosphere down below?

I just took a mental step up. I got a better view as a result.

This cognitive shift didn’t make my car start or change my circumstances. My morning was disrupted. I still had to wait 40 minutes for a tow truck, but it did provide an opportunity to change the way I chose to view the moment.

The other thing it reminded me is the importance of paying attention. Everything may not be as it seems. The car that isn’t moving when the light is green may not be due to an inattentive driver distracted by that unnecessary text.

In another context, the shopping cart up against my car door in the Target parking lot may not be a result of a lazy deadbeat. It could have been the single mom who just got chewed out at work before picking up her three cranky kids and it was all she could do to get them in the car after picking up the prescription and the thought of returning the cart to the corral was lost in her mental triage.

There’s always a better story to start with.