56 Things I Have Learned

I turn 56 on March 3, so I offer you 56 things I have learned in these 56 spins around the sun. Which of these resonate with you?

1. We are the gatekeepers of the origins, the overtures, of our lives. No one knows us better than we know ourselves. The wisdom that resides within us from a lifetime of experiences deserves a longer listen, a deeper patience, to understand and embrace the beauty in each step we take. 

2. You never get “over” anything. Rather, you absorb it and consider what to do with what is now in you, a part of you.

3. The ebb and flow of tides, of life, of matters of joy and despair, are born out of chaos and the ancient battles between Gaia and others; such clashes are necessary to sustain a balance – tense and fragile as that may be – in our respective journeys.

4. All-Natural, no-stir peanut butter is the constant; chocolate, jelly, marshmallow fluff, among other tasty swirls merely build on what is already perfection.

5. Fall in love early and often; savor the sweet taste of innocence as if every day were spring’s first.

6. Read everything: poetry, short fiction, novels, essays, plays and make every line about you. Find the personal in every page.

7. Tell your story today and every day, wherever and however you can. As you evolve, so do your stories.

8. Creativity was never the end game; it is, and will always be, the spark that ignites unique imaginative and innovative thinking and action that only you can achieve.

9. Take nothing – absolutely nothing – personally.

10. The people you think you hate have origin stories no different than our own. You don’t really hate anyone; you hate the metaphorical coat they wear that hides the hurt, covers the scars, and keeps them safe from feeling compassion and self-love.

11. Music soothes; stillness calms; transcendence fulfills.

12. Integrity, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship of the earth, and peace – all Quaker values – are the pillars of our individual experiences and contributions to a good greater than the span of our own lifetimes.

13. Technology does not define you; circumstances do not define you; you define you.

14. Smile and laugh every day to bring levity and light along your path, to you and to others.

15. It’s okay to be selfish; embrace the WIIFM Principle (what’s in it for me) and make every dewdrop of the universe relevant and meaningful to your existence.

16. The sun always rises, no matter the clouds or darkness that might dim its light. 

17. “Dear Prudence,” as performed by the Jerry Garcia Band at Calderone Concert Hall in Hempstead, NY on February 29, 1980, is the best cover of a Beatles song ever played.

18. You are capable of doing so many things with dreadful mediocrity. The wisdom lies in choosing the few which you will do in greatness. 

19. Thoreau’s words: “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” and Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us” were penned generations before the world of digital immediacy consumed us. There are lessons in a pre-technology world that mean as much to us today as they did centuries ago to the authors who penned them.

20. Always remember to see the elephant swallowed whole by the snake, and not some silly Bowler hat lying on the ground. 

21. Jack Delaney and Mike DeVita were the two best teachers I had while in school because they pushed me to the brink while never losing faith in me. Since the first day they met me (and I met them), they believed in me the writer, the actor, the individual. If it weren’t for them, I would not be doing the things I love. Teachers, man. They do that to you. Believe in you. So you can believe in yourself. 

22. Third grade teachers have the worst job ever, where they have to break out that red pen and break the hearts of writers who thought their words were special, perfect, moving. Third grade teachers who become your friends 45 years after those come-to-Jesus classroom moments are mentors, gifts of the wizarding world, and all-around God-sends as you are still trying to figure everything out. Jane Gordon is my Dumbledore, my Gandalf, my Glynda.

23. Many of my closest friends today are from high school, but surprisingly not the ones who were closest to me then. That saddens me. My every moment was spent with these lovely few people in years 11 and 12, and they have “grown out” of me, they say. The ones with whom I am closest today are genuine, sincere, authentic, life-embracing individuals that I should have spent more time with 40 years ago. I am sorry about that.

24. When there are no expectations or desires, all things are at peace.

25. I spent a lot of time in junior and high school sticking up for the bullied, but I crossed that line a few times myself. Stones, glass houses, all that stuff. I’ve made amends with most of them, but those scars run deep. I will never be able to undo those hurtful things no matter how many times I apologize. I’m human; we’re all human. The pain still lingers, though, and I will carry that to the end. 

26. Cheap mint-chocolate ice cream by the pint soothes any illness, any heartbreak, at least temporarily. Add some Hershey’s syrup and Cool Whip, and soon you’ll be wondering if you ever had a trouble in your whole life. 

27. I embrace the various parts of me that want to do different things at different times: teach, write, paint, sketch, color, take photos, solve math problems, be alone, be with a big crowd, play music, listen to music, act, direct, spectate. To deny myself of any one of these things, at any one time, is to deny who I am as a human being: complicated, simple, outrageous, quiet, loving, happy. 

28. I have learned more from spending a day in the woods than I have spending a week in the library. 

29. The first book I remember reading, all by myself, was “Just Only John,” about a boy who wants to be somebody else, and finds himself turning into a pig and an old man, among other things, until he finally is, “just only John.” From the very start, because of my mother and our shared love for books, I have learned that we cannot be anybody but ourselves. It is what we are best at doing, and nobody can do it any better than we can. 

30. Sometimes I mourn the loss of friendships like I mourn the passing of loved ones. How can they ‘outgrow” me? What did I do in my older, wiser years, that turned them away? I am grateful for who is in my life today; together, we are growing older, and if not wiser, than simpler, together. 

31. Chocolate really does make everything a little better. Trust Professor Lupin; I think he knows more than any of us, being a werewolf and everything. 

32. I have never believed more in our future than I do today. I have seen the infancy of what is to come, through my treasured students, and I drift into these golden years knowing we’re all going to be okay; they are going to be okay; the world is going to be okay.

33. The first time I put a music CD in my car, I could not believe the difference in the quality of the sound. It was so crisp, so digitally perfect, and so wrong. I will never forget the era of the cassette mixtape, traveling with me like a lover to New England, Ocean City, and everywhere else I went. The sound quality was perfect for blaring as we became singing duets on the rise and fall of the mountains in Western Maryland, the smooth flats of the ocean dunes, and the rural roads of sleepy New England towns. Elton John, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and so many more. We spent summers in concerts together along these American roads, and I long for their scratchy serenades, all jammed on 31-minute sides of magnetic-coated, polyester plastic film that rolled in rhythm to the rolling roads we journeyed. 

34. Maybe I value “space” as much as I do because it is what I grew up with. Not indoors, but behind our house, where a thin trickling stream separated our large back yard from the spacious, magical woods. There, we built tiger traps and bike ramps of dirt and discarded tree branches, spied on Ol’ Man Emil’s broken-down house looking for ghosts and other apparitions just beyond the dirty, cracked windows, and crouched among thorny bushes waiting for somebody to pass us, and nobody to notice us. We had space to create, fight, play, imagine, grow, become independent. We were granted space, and we made much of it in our childhoods. 

35. Carpe Diem once meant to me: do whatever you please; now, it means seizing the beauty in the day as only you can. It took me decades to learn this, but I wouldn’t change a thing. There is great growth in our failings, our misinterpretations, our blunders. May we all seize the ifs, whens, and possibilities around us as we do our best to manage our faults and misgivings. 

36. The 1980 Snickers campaign for that 2:30pm pick-me-up with a fist-full of peanuts in every bar was brilliant. Even today, mid-day, I will buy a Snickers over any other product because I am convinced it is what i need to get me through to dinner. But more seriously, it made me a better writer, for the more I make my stories immediately relevant to my audience, my readers, the better they are received (and, I hope, remembered).

37. I am forever amazed by this: The more artificial light you extinguish from Earth, the more natural light you see in the sky filled with ten-million stars. Sometimes, the darkest moments reveal the most bountiful pin-pricks of light, sewn wonderfully in a sky of black.

38. There really is no place like home.

39. “Home” is synonymous with “Querencia,” or your wanting-place where you feel invincible and safe. I first realized this when reading a book called “Writing Toward Home” by Georgia Heard. It’s a good accompaniment to Lisa Knopp’s collection of essays titled, “The Nature of Home.” I’ve always gravitated to such reflections, as I have felt “invincibly home” in the strangest of places, including the auditorium in my high school. There’s even a song in the broadway musical, A Chorus Line, “At The Ballet,” that alludes to the feeling of invincibility in creative spaces like a theater, or a dance studio, or even an old garage converted to an art workspace. Home is any place where you feel loved, invincible, creative, yourself, and there really is no place like it. 

40. Find what calms the mind, and do it often. For me, it is the coloring of Mandalas and Tessellations. More stories have been born, more problems resolved, in the simple process of coloring in methodical, sometimes tedious patterns where the mind takes a deep breath and exhales all the worry, the stress, the fear.  

41. James Taylor sings, “The secret o’ life is enjoying the passage of time,” and it has been a personal mantra of mine since I first heard this song while camping at one of the local campgrounds within an hour of our home. The only electronic I had with me was a battery-operated cassette deck, and I played that other White Album, JT’s Greatest Hits, with lyrics in one hand and a pencil in the other to respool the tape when it got caught in the machine. Odd that I was more attracted to listening to the song instead of abandoning the tape player for the boundless woods and running streams around me.  

42. It was in the connection with music: the lyrics, the soft plucks of guitar strings, the long-held single notes on the piano that captured me. And when I would eventually break away to go exploring in the woods, these songs stayed with me. Why do I feel such a bond with the solitudinal sounds of soft chords, raw vocals, and a love song founded in loss?

43. I am not a musician, nor a singer, despite decades of trying to be one, the other, or both. I’m not okay with that, yet I keep finding reasons why I shouldn’t just plow through and practice hard enough to get beyond this riptide of fear.

44. I say “I Love You” with sincerity and ease to a level that is sometimes uncomfortable to others. But it is born out of childhood goodbyes to my father when he left to fight fire in Baltimore City. Some of his best friends never came back home the next day, as they were Killed In The Line of Duty. His death came three years following the call that eventually killed him. And on that night when he died, I wasn’t afraid to tell him I loved him just one more time. 

45. Love can never be diminished in how many times we say it, share it, embrace it. Like a cherished but tattered doll, the love that makes it so cannot be undone or taken back. In the words of Margery Williams, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit, “Love matters, and that’s for always.”

46. Self-love is just as important as the love we offer others. How can we be devoted to others if we cannot be devoted to ourselves? 

47. “Ish” and “Less” are synonymous in their give and take, when you really think about it. If I am self-less and give somebody all the love I have, but never be self-ish in refilling the well with love and care for myself, how can I expect to love others as strongly ever again? “Boundless Love” means you get some, too. If it really is boundless, there’s plenty to go around for all of us, even you and me.

48. It’s sometimes hard being an introvert in a world where I have placed myself, demanding strong performances for the masses, either on stage or in the classroom. And yet, I know extroverts who don’t do well in either of those settings. 

49. Why must we put labels on anything, really? I’m kind of an extrovert, or I’m sometimes this, or I’m predominantly that. Boxes don’t look good on anyone. We are too much like our brains, trying to figure things out so we can move on to the next thing to be boxed and put away. Sometimes it’s a pretty powerful thing to let the unknown be just that, a label-less, mysterious, beautiful, unidentified whatever that we don’t need to contain or solve. 

50. We can be connected not by labels but by appreciation; respect; acceptance. Yes! I stand with an identity you declare, but I also give equal praise to the unidentified, the unlabeled, the unboxed. 

51. If I had a superpower it would be to enter the hearts of the lonely and let them know it’s okay. That people can be lonely together. That the ideas and the feelings that isolate us can also bring us together. 

52. I live every day thinking of the friends and students and loved ones we have lost to suicide. I still believe in them, and I hope they feel that, somehow, for the multitudes who think and feel and mourn and love for them every single day. 

53. There is as much illumination in a single flame as there is in the roaring bonfires that we sometimes build. It isn’t in the ferocity of the fire; it is in the oxygen we share around it, the bonds of friendship that weave tightly in the wisps of wind-blown smoke, the sudden glowing of embers in our collective sighs, the moments where we cannot distinguish gravity-defying sparks from newborn stars. 

54. We lit individual candles for the children and teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012; I carry with me their names held in the soft flickers that blurred through our tears. The power of light, the offerings of love, the communion of souls in such ceremonies of connection will always remind me that what we hold in the deepest origins of who we are cannot be questioned. We are the very embodiment of love, and that love has always been meant to be shared. 

55. It’s hard to remember sometimes that those who reject love so adamantly are the ones who need it most, not just from us, but from themselves. We might be able to offer it, but in the end, they need to accept it, see it in themselves, and embrace it.

56. “The End” is the last song recorded by The Beatles where all four of them played together. It was Paul’s brainchild, and his line, “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make” is probably one of the most powerful and simple mantras that we can carry with us. I have learned that this reciprocal, circuitous, boundless, unconditional thing called love is the universal energy for all living things. It not only connects us, it is us. 

3 comments on “56 Things I Have Learned

  1. Jane Gordon says:

    My Dearest Rus,
    These years of compiled wisdom made me applaud your brilliance, your grit and tenacity and your incredible ability to match words with emotion. I read slowly and thoughtfully all the way to the end, only stopping for reflection and a few tears. To think of you is to understand how magnificently peanut butter, grief, bonds of friendship, insight, creativity, air and light, music, poetry and prose combine into an integrous package with the RVW brand. As Mary Todd was to Abe, you are our beloved. At age 6, you understood. Happy Birthday, my dear friend.
    Jane Gordon

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much, Jane. I appreciate your words more than you know (well, maybe you do know!).

    Like

  3. Dear Rus, So many of your 56 lessons are ones I have only recently learned in my 67 years! But I’ve also learned that it matters not how long it takes, it matters only that I learned. I am eternally grateful for our friendship, which began on the job but ultimately led to my finding my own path as a writer. The blog you helped me start is now in its 7th year and has led to opportunities I never imagined. Happy Birthday, my friend!

    Like

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