Are You a Cliff Dweller?

I pace back and forth on the edge of a great cliff. It’s high, it’s windy, it’s arid, I’m sweaty, and I can’t do it. I can’t leap.

When a decision needs to be made, this is the image in my mind. Cut to a wide shot, and to the left of the screen my silhouette, pacing on the precipice of a sharp cliff. The rest of the shot is nothingness; it’s open, negative space taunting and beckoning me forth into the unknown.

It’s the unknown, isn’t it? It’s what inspiration unapologetically promises. The ride. That space between taking off and landing. Therein reveals another dilemma. We don’t take off because we have no certainty of where to land. And we desire certainty. In fact, I should just call this post “The Problem of Certainty”.

Well, either there is certainty or there isn’t. Empirically, yes, there is. Gravity and the laws of thermodynamics helps to make most things certain; we know this. It’s science. When we speak of certainty in a more figurative matter, such as deciding to show up to the coffee shop on Tuesday morning between 7:00 and 8:00 because that brunette you’ve been eyeing might be there provides an open-ended possibility. Open-ended means there’s probability, probability means likelihood, and likelihood means that you don’t freaking know what’s going to happen. You may have an idea, but it’s not definitive; it can’t be until it’s tested.

It’s the simple definition of a hypothesis: an idea that can be tested.

We may need to become little scientists. When these ideas, dreams, or desires are held up to the light they radiate inspiration. And they remain out of reach for a reason. You’re going to have to leap (take action) towards them in order to find out what they’re made of; ironically enough, once you reach them, you end up finding out more about what YOU’RE made of.

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “Just Show Up”. This implies that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the outcome. At all. We should just show up to that blind date, that hard talk we need to have, that song that needs to be written, that hot-air balloon ride, that fear we keep make excuses for, or lastly, that idea we need to make manifest.

I’m learning that I don’t need to have all the answers. We need to leap. Just freaking jump. After the leap you may get hurt; things may not go as planned. Whatever. You can stay safely and uncomfortably on the cliff or you leap out into the unknown.

Never Stop Reaching

The most intense joy lies not in the having, but in the desiring. The delight that never fades, the bliss that is eternal, is only yours when what you most desire is just out of your reach.

-C.S. “Jack” Lewis, Shadowlands

Killing Catfish & The Art of Being Intentional

I had an Uncle John. He was a heavier set man, jovial, a smoker, and a hell of an outdoorsman. He both entertained and frightened me. He was quick to laugh off the greater  problems of the world, but also quick to inject a sharp-edged opinion about said problems.

I was occasionally sent to him as a child, perhaps as a way to keep me busy while we visited other family in Arizona. This was fine. Again, he was entertaining and it was always a thing of amazement to watch him fish. Whatever he wanted to catch, he caught it. It was also the way he fished as well. He was a master of fundamentals — knowing what tackle to use. The right rod, reel, line, knots, bait, lures, and jigs. JIGS. I recall one night before an early morning, he tasked me to literally hook about a seventy small custom rubber jigs. Needless to say, I was tired the next morning and had a few bandaids wrapped around my fingers.

On one of our outings we went night fishing on his boat. The aim was catfish. And he kept everything he caught, so we were taking no prisoners. I was a somewhat experienced fisherman. I knew enough to setup my rod, reel, and hook and this evening we were using chicken liver as bait (yummy). He tethered a small styrofoam spotlight, about six inches in diameter, from the boat; it would float facedown on the surface of the water. This attracted small minnow-like fish which would, in turn, attract the bigger fish. And it did.

I don’t think there was a limit on the amount of catfish you could catch. Although I think there should have been. We caught a lot. And if you didn’t know, catfish stay alive a long time out of water. A long time. John’s livewell (a kind of temporary aquarium for caught fish to keep them fresh) was actually an ice chest with three or four liters of repurposed plastic frozen coke bottles. So the fish weren’t preserved in water. They lied on frozen plastic for the ride home. As to why he had his livewell this way, I don’t know. Regardless, from the hour trip home, unloading the supplies, to laying out the catch on the driveway, the catfish were still taking small breaths.

This amazed me, but was no news to Uncle John who casually walked over and handed me a hammer.

“Hit them right on the head. The bone is thinnest there.” He then walked way, taking another drag off his cigarette.

I don’t know which was worse: Killing catfish with a hammer or telling my rough, blue-collard uncle, that I couldn’t go through with it. These poor fish. They deserved a better executioner.

There was about twelve of them. It took trying to kill the first four or so before I could calibrate my aim and force to deliver a single, painless blow. It’s a stark image that revisits from time to time — the “look” of the fish I couldn’t kill with the first strike.

The lesson? I’m glad you asked. In order for their death to be certain, my intention needed to be certain. You see, after the first four messy attempts to take their lives, I was frustrated. My uncle probably noticed this. Which is why he walked over, removed the hammer from my shaky hand, and without blinking, forcefully struck one of the fish dead.

“Swinging the hammer is easy. Deciding to swing the hammer is another.” Now I’m paraphrasing for him as memory serves, but what he said was brief and to the point. I hadn’t decided that I was okay with doing this yet. Once you decide, don’t go back. It started with intention. Even as an eleven-year-old, I loosely grasped the idea; enough so that the remaining catfish were thankful I had.

The Simple Self

I’m convinced we like simplicity as a concept. ‘Simple’ is straight-forward, decisive, raw, definite, sobering, distilled, honest, and unpretentious.

Daily we are inundated with different entities that need or want something from us. These things tend to complicate matters. And when things get complicated, depending on who you are, the stress of these requests or demands slowly start to break us down. We start to move away from the simple and drift unavoidably toward the realm of complexity. But’s it’s not complexity, is it? No. It’s difficulty. There’s some kind of resistance with you that ultimately comes from your needing to DECIDE.

Decision making is tough. But it doesn’t have to be.

I’ve noticed that the older I get, the more binary I’ve become. Which is to say the more ‘Black & White’ I’ve become about issues — ‘What I like or Don’t like’, ‘Who I am or Who I’m not’, or ‘What I eat vs. What I don’t eat’. And this is a big deal for me. For years I sat comfortably in that middle area, that “gray area” we’re familiar with. Mind you it’s okay to be in that place whilst you decide where you stand, but I’m convinced that one shouldn’t live there; it’s a waiting room, not a home.

In the film “Lost in Translation”, Bill Murray’s older married character, “Bob”, delivers a great line to Scarlett Johansson’s younger married character “Charlotte”.

Charlotte: I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be.

Bob: You’ll figure that out. The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.

I want to hone in on Bob’s second preposition: “What you want.” This is what decision is about anyways, right? To me it comes down to the kind of person you want to be. Once you have a strong idea of that, then making a decision naturally becomes easier and “things upset you less”. Because you know what you stand for; but more importantly (I feel), you know what you won’t fall for.

And don’t concern yourself with the result of your decision. We feel the suffocation of anxiety and worry when we toil most about effect our decision will or will not have; that’s out of our control. Again, knowing which decision to make falls back on the kind of person you’ve decided to be. As to what person that is will have to be for another post.

You want simple. There, you just did it. There’s something you know you want. Now allow that to inform who you are, what you do, and that will start to form you. Let your yes be yes and no be no.

Cartwheels, Fear, & Trembling

You can’t tell me who I am. And I can’t tell you who you are.

The burden to understand ourselves is our responsibility alone, but it does not mean you must be alone when trying to understand yourself. Seeking help is a natural part of the process; which is why resisting help (due to pride or fear or vulnerability), in this matter, often looks and feels unnatural.

My daughter just started third grade. She’s going on nine and her personality is coming into full bloom. She’s bright, giggly, and it’s simply a beautiful time to watch her watch the world come alive around her. However, it’s also a time to watch her deal with fear.

She just started gymnastics. She’s only three weeks in and so far she’s been having  a blast; that is until this last week where for the first thirty minutes of the hour-long class, everything appeared to be going well. This would change. She was smiling, laughing, and following instructions with the rest of the ten or so in her group of beginners. But there was something both Z (we’ll call her “Z” for now) and I didn’t know: today was evaluation day. A day where the coaches hold a card and a marker and ask each kid to individually perform the requested technique. These ranged from somersaults to cartwheels to bridges to you name it. It appeared Z wasn’t aware that the evaluations had actually started because when asked to do a somersault (which she did mechanically), it was fine. She performed it well, stood up, then ran round to the back of the line none the wiser. But as she stood in the back she finally took notice of what was actually happening. Next up: Cartwheels. It was now her turn.

I watched from a distance. The group was far enough away for me not to hear what was actually being said. But I didn’t need to hear what was being said. I knew exactly why Z paused, closed her arms across her stomach, and started to cry.

After some verbal coddling from the coach to calm her down, they made their way to me. I received her, got her some tissues and water, and sat her down. I knelt and got down to her level. Tears streaming, snot running, she was a mess. She continued to hold her stomach.

Me: “Did you hurt something?”

Z: “I hurt my stomach doing somersaults.”

This wasn’t true. But we do this, don’t we? When we fine it difficult to admit what really happened we default to solicit sympathy; we become the victim, even if it means lying.

Me: “On a scale of one to ten, how bad does it hurt?”

Z: “Nine.”

Again, we do this. Children especially, and we have to admire how they shoot for the extremes. To say the least, their “truths” are unpretentious. So I had a choice here. I knew that if I suggested we leave, get ice cream, and then go home that that would be an easy fix. I had that thought because that’s how I remember being treated when I defaulted to ‘victim mode’ as a child. I decided to go the more challenging route.

Me: “I think your stomach is fine. I think you’re upset because you don’t know how to do a cartwheel yet…”

Z: (silence).

Me: (I smile) “…And that’s the fun part. You see, there was a time when you didn’t know how to do somersault, right?”

Z: (eye brows lift).

Me: “And you’re the master of somersaults now. You see?”

In truth, my pep-talk only kind of worked. She did calm down and agreed to finish the class on the condition that she’s not asked to perform for the remainder of the class. And as much as I wanted her to have that Disney moment where she walks out there and just tries (whether or not she succeeds), part of her own will needed to be experienced and realized. She went back out, sat next to the evaluation coach, and her whole countenance changed. She was back to her giggly, happy self. Giggly and happy because she was asked to help the coach. I then remembered that this is a big part of who Z is: She loves to help.

The coaches spoke to me briefly after the class and didn’t know that it was only Z’s third week, and wouldn’t of asked her to perform said techniques. I told them it was fine and thanked them for how well they handled the whole situation.

As a parent there’s a lot one must accept. I can certainly know Z’s fear , but she’s the one who has to feel it and experience it — and I have to allow that. The worst thing I could do is get in the way of her feeling inadequate, humiliated, or even scared. These are ingredients she needs to become herself. No doubt she observes how I respond to these things and that will hopefully serve as a positive model that’s bound to naturally rub off (I’m hoping). But ultimately, her salvation, that is, becoming who she is, must be worked out with fear and trembling. I can exhaustively model who or what she could be like, but I can’t tell her who she is. I can tell her “You have what it takes” or “Have courage” or “Don’t give up!”, and I do, because I also have to tell myself these things. Regularly.

Z, for better or worse, is a born perfectionist. The sour side to that is that RIGHT NOW she’s not willing to fail or look stupid at the cost of learning something. On the nurture side of this perspective she’s been an only child. She’s seen mom and dad competently perform tasks for years. But she wasn’t around to watch us learn them. That might be one of the benefits of having siblings; you get to watch each other clumsily learn a new skill and inadvertently agree that that’s okay.

This being said, what’s your Cartwheel? What’s the thing that’s limiting you from growth, and therefore limiting you from understanding who you are a little better?


Emotional Allergies

Locally, we stand well aware of our base needs; our body alerts us with thirst for drink and ache for food. Our eyes become weighty with desire for sleep. This is easy. Our biology, although infinitely complex, does well to inform us of how it needs to go on existing. And if these needs are kept to par, then at face value our physical state persists as “normal”.

And what about the emotional state? Glad you asked.

At times, some of these physical ‘pars’ aren’t met, and can affect our emotional space. There’s no empirical means to measure one’s true emotional state (however we do get close with value assessments and superficial data ranges, but that’s about it). It appears we’re bound to use practical adjectives like “sad”, “happy”, “angry”, etc. as a means to describe our states. But these only serve as small windows into much larger spaces.

Ever been in a funk? You know, that emotionally empty (or heavy) state where all you feel is a kind of pressure; maybe all you feel is alone, and so consumed by it that you can hardly see past your nose? The funk occurs when we’re starved. It’s the writer’s equivalent of feeling creatively blocked. So?

Can we remedy emotional needs the same way we remedy our biological needs? Kind of, not really.

Our feelings are incorporeal, non-physical, so tangible remedies only exist as temporary solutions, i.e. medications that produce or redistribute our neurochemicals (serotonin, dopamine) and thus affect a limited (hourly even) state of change. I’m for the medication if needed. But it will not fix the real problem of consistently finding yourself in the lows.

If what informs you forms you, then what keeps dragging you back to the funk? Back to starvation? What agreements are feeding your emotional state?

A close friend of mine just found out that he has an allergy to alcohol. Although unfortunate, he’s happy to have pinpointed the real problem thinking all along it was other things. I wonder if we have agreements we’re actually allergic to and simply aren’t aware of. I wonder if we believe certain things about ourselves and simply aren’t aware of the debilitating affects (however subtle) it’s had on our lives. Maybe it’s time to really look under the hood and take inventory of the parts that make up you. Pull out each part, hold it up to the light, as ask if you still need/want it.

We wouldn’t knowingly feed our children a food they were allergic to — the affect could be devastating. Why would we do the same to ourselves?


Yesterday’s Pain is Today’s Happiness

Or at least it should be. If it’s not, then it keeps the present person in the past. When you usher that pain into the present, you set it free. What does it mean to usher? To own it. To face it, accept it, then let it become the happiness it’s meant to become.

Have you ever heard the pain in someone’s laughter? It’s ‘knowing-laughter’; most who produce this kind of response have dealt with the issue head-on and can look on it with a smile. They can smile because they persevered and survived through the pain. They grew and are the richer character for it.

When I decided to get back into martial arts some three years ago, I recall talking to my dad (he was one of the reasons I pursued martial arts in my adolescence as he was/is a martial artist himself). I recall him being excited for my decision and such, but what stuck must from the conversation was what he said about the experience: “The experience is unique; no one else can really relate unless they do it themselves. I miss it. What I miss most is the relationships. The bond was the strongest with the other martial artists because of how challenging the process was.” And he’s absolutely right. Nothing beats a shared experience, let alone an experience that tests your body, mind, and will on a regular basis. At this point I can exchange looks with other advanced students or teachers and there’s an unquestioned understanding of what we go through; this especially comes to life when we’re tasked to teach a technique to a frustrated student. We went through similar frustrations, but pushed through it, understood it, and have now mastered it.

It’s not so different with dealing with emotional pain. There’s frustration, but often no guidance or experienced council to help with the pain – unless we seek help. This begins with taking an honest inventory of one’s pain. If this is difficult, and it might be, just ask what kind of person you want to be. A person who allows fear to inform who they become? Or a person who takes practical, tangible steps to weed out the fear that attacks their character?

*I recommend watching the film Shadowlands. It best illustrates how one moves to accept yesterday’s pain and make it today’s happiness.