On Authenticity and Taking Things Personally

On Authenticity and Taking Things Personally

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.

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I’ve been having some rather candid conversations with fellow writers and non-writers in Towson and around town about the importance of authentic writing, both in polished pieces that we submit for publication and in less-polished posts that we share via social media. Repeatedly, the same troubling concern rises to the primary focus of these discussions: we do not wish to offend, yet we know that, invariably, we will.

Offend whom, you ask?

There’s a book that I refer to often. It’s called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The message is simple and can be found in most “good book” manuals, from the bible to the cub scout handbook. But the simplicity with which this book is written makes the agreements themselves accessible.

One of the four agreements is this:  never take anything personally.

Good advice for both readers and writers, I think, when the latter is doing his job authentically.

On the reader’s end, authentic writing from a son, a father, a spouse, a friend, a colleague can be terribly enlightening, but often it brings contradictions to that “role” that the writer has played with that reader over, perhaps, many years. It took me a very long time to see my parents as individuals; they shared only a fraction of their true personalities to us when we were children. By no means did they not live authentically; I believe that, on many levels, they did, especially Mom. But I didn’t care about any of that; I didn’t know any of that even existed, to be honest with you.

It did exist, though. Despite my every attempt to keep them in their roles as Mom and Dad, much to my astonishment, they were Eileen and Charles, individuals, to the rest of the world.

I imagine it is the same for you, in some manner.

For those of us who do not write for publication beyond social media, it’s not as big a deal, I think. There are fewer chances for us to bare our true souls, put them on the stage for all to see in black and white. But for writers and non-writers alike, we find convenient ways to practice a “don’t ask, don’t tell” lifestyle where we keep our authentic selves from emerging.

We’re good. We play the game and, for the most part, choose our translucent masks from the jar by the door, where they mingle a little shyly with the others of varying thickness. We even find ourselves believing that we are the mask. It shows up in our actions, our words, our beliefs. We buy into these pop-fad crises of global warming and rush to buy our hybrid cars suddenly to save the earth. We are made to feel so good, our egos soothed by our acts, doing our part, living the good, right life.

I don’t mean to mock or offend. I don’t. If anything, I am writing these words in my own reflection. This is my belief about myself and my attempts to be real, authentic, genuine; it’s not about any one of you. It’s what I feel, what I think, what I believe. When we look for hybrid choices when purchasing a new car, we applaud each other for our efforts. Then, in the next breath, we want to know if you are free for an early-spring barbecue next Thursday. These are our choices that we make. This is our place in this world, right here, right now.

I do not mean to offend. I mean to tell you what I think. Please, do not take it personally.

Writers do this as well. We anticipate criticism that we will most assuredly take personally, and then censor our writing to make our audience members nod their head in agreement. That’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Approval? We sacrifice authenticity for approval. We sacrifice genuine honesty to protect the ones we love and to preserve the images they hold of us, near and dear to their hearts.

God bless us all for our efforts. I mean that.

That’s not authentic, though. As writers, we’re faced with this dilemma on a daily basis. My blog is public. But my blog entries are personal. Do I wish to be conservative? Refrain from posting opinions that might offend? Censor my thoughts and censor who I am to save the ones I love from potential hurt because they choose to take my words personally?

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We can’t help it, I know. It’s what we do all day long. We are trained away from seeing and sharing all things with love; we grow suspicious, concerned, filtering all that comes in, and all that goes out.

We are becoming the first generation of artificial intelligence (AI) life forms, higher-level thinking zombies, if you will, who walk through their days and surf in their nights playing the lifelong game of PC-Perfect individuals, never wishing to offend, never wishing to misunderstand.

So many of us wish to do neither. And yet, we do, and in so doing we feel terribly sad that our efforts to live and write with genuine authenticity have somehow missed their mark.

Never take anything personally.

I know. I see myself doing it even now. It’s hard. So hard, when you know that your audience sees you in so many different roles: teacher, husband, father, friend, colleague. They bring those filters to my words and gasp, shake their heads, and maybe even do a little re-read to make sure they got it all right the first time.

Never before, though, have we lived such transparent lives for all our communities to see us so vividly. We’re all making choices, however conscious (or not) those choices may be. Some are retreating, staying low, under the public radar and wrapping themselves around popular causes to insulate them from the dangers of authentic living. It’s a genuine and noble drive, for sure. Still, there’s not much awareness happening at this level; rather, there is much awareness happening for everything but who they truly are as individuals.

I say this with love, and with personal experience. I think we all immerse ourselves into projects that protect us from baring our souls and living authentically. It’s the ultimate shield that gives us personal assurance that we need not walk unclothed into that good night; there is much to be done, indeed, and to think of ourselves and our own authenticity is, well, selfish.

There’s no way I can hide my tears in recognizing this reality.

We’ve had our arts programs stripped out of our schools, we have our students practicing the art of hoop writing with perfecting the tricky craft of composing standardized statements that fit ever neatly in digitized pop-up boxes. We are regurgitating numbers and facts and formulas and processes at lightning speeds so that school systems can boast when the annual reports are published in the morning papers: We are in the XXth Percentile; we have many reasons to celebrate. So many other schools did horribly worse. Hoorah for us.

We are not celebrating the successes of our individual students in their desperate attempts to hold on to their individuality; instead, we celebrate that — collectively — we play a better game of jump rope than half the other schools on our block.

But when they graduate, those expert jump-ropers, what do they know of authenticity? Of individuality?

Perhaps that is why so many of them flock wildly to Facebook and other forms of social media for a little breathing room, a little sanity where they can be a little dangerous with their words, say what’s really on their minds, and feel like they’re living authentically in a bead of water that rests precariously on a dewy leaf, overlooking the rushing waters of domestication and conformity.

The problem, of course, is that when we do that, we assume that such posts are attacks against us or against our beliefs, and we find ourselves taking things personally to an entirely new and dangerous level.

The current presidential campaigns from the remaining six contenders — four republicans and two democrats — are stirring more divisive rhetoric in social media, in print, and on television. When one speaks out against a particular candidate, others are easily offended and trigger an emotional exchange that leads to hurt feelings, anger, unfollowings, and even unfriendings.  Even in our authenticity, we offend. We let it get personal. We think it’s about us.

But it’s not. None of it.

We’re all doing our best to navigate through these days of stress, tension, and transition. None of it’s easy, and all we are doing is making it worse.

Look, I know it’s hard. We both need to work on it, Reader and Writer. But maybe, just maybe, if each of us comes to the page with a little sensibility, doing our best to take none of this personally, then maybe, perchance, we will not have offended the other.

And then, just maybe, if we are fortunate enough, our authenticity will lead to clarity; our clarity will lead to collaboration; our collaboration will lead to solutions.

Just maybe.

But first, we need to take nothing personally. Even if our presidential candidates are struggling to do this themselves, we can set the example for others –and most importantly, for our younger generations who need a better model.

The Child At My Door

The Child At My Door

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It was a late November night,
And I was just about done.
The stacks of papers that I needed to grade
Had, in some small way, dwindled down to none.

I lifted the stained red cup from my desk
And finished the cold coffee poured hours before;
I reached for the lamp signed by students years ago,
But was stopped by a soft knock on my classroom door.

“Enter!” I said, but there was no reply,
And so I left the light on and walked to see who was there.
I peered out the small window and saw a head bowed so low;
It was a mere child, standing small, his clothes threadbare.

I opened the door – just a crack – to see who he was
And what he wanted, and why he was here.
At first he didn’t speak, not a single sound;
I wondered if he was dumb, or simply frozen with fear.

“What is it, my son?” I asked. “You can tell me what is wrong.”
He looked up, his eyes stained with mud and tears,
And immediately I could see that he had traveled far;
This boy, still in his teens, had aged far beyond these early years.

“My Lord, what has come of you?” I asked, still holding the door.
“My school has closed,” he replied, “And I have nowhere else to go.
“They have burned our buildings and our books.
“Now we are left with no place to grow.”

I felt the weight of the door press against my chest
As I looked into his eyes, filled with desperation, with defeat.
My classes were already packed, I thought,
And I was warned to be wary of lies, or even deceit.

Was I wrong to be fearful of this boy,
Who had traveled far to seek shelter in my room?
After all, he was different, and his land was filled with dread;
He came from a place that was dark, a harbinger of Persephone’s tomb.

I pulled the door shut, affirming my fears, and sighed.
As I had been warned of the dangers of such travelers in the night,
True, though I knew they had nowhere left to turn,
It would be easy for me to send him away, out of my sight.

But then I turned around and looked across my room
At the scattered desks left awry by the lives I had taught;
Hundreds – no thousands – over the years who had come through this door
Despite their struggles, their challenges, that had once left them distraught.

Of their backgrounds I knew little at the beginning of school,
Then- as they wrote, and shared, their stories with their peers,
I understood the adversity that they had faced
And realized that I had met them at the end of their hardship years.

Was this child any different than those who had come?
Different than the thousands who brought color and life?
They filled these four walls in this once-barren room
With the expressions of love and learning, far distant from that long-ago strife.

I thrust open the door and welcomed him in-
A shuffle, if you will, of warmth and care like I had shown no other.
“You are welcome in this room, my friend,” I said,
“And here you are safe, for I will help you as I would my own brother.”

I poured him the last of my coffee and gave him my seat,
The soft glow of the old lamp casting a warm light on his tired face.
We are all one in this world, once weary, once in need, I thought,
As he absorbed the feel of his new home, a nurturing, kind place.

I stuffed the stack of papers in my old teacher’s bag
And opened our books to chapter one.
He looked at me and smiled when he read the first three words
And I smiled too— For us both, as our new journeys had, indeed, just begun.

Rus VanWestervelt, 11/18/15

Dream On

Dream On

When I was 7 or 8, my brother, 19 years my elder, moved back into our house after he separated with his wife, and we shared the narrow attic bedroom space. That must have been weird for him, as he had spent his entire childhood up there with our other two brothers, who were much closer in age with him.

There we were, oldest and youngest, first and last, alpha and omega. We were the bookends of our parents’ efforts in building a big family.

Every morning, about 30 minutes or so before I would need to get up for school, Warren’s radio clock alarm would go off. He had it set to WLPL, 92.3 FM, a station I had come to love for the next decade for its cutting-edge rock that we now listen to on classic rock stations like 100.7 The Bay. My days and nights were filled with Zeppelin, Hendrix, Eagles, Elton John, Heart, and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few.

But on those mornings when his rock-and-roll clock would tick-tock click to that moment when we would both be awakened, Aerosmith played, “Dream On.”

Every. Single. Morning.

Warren would stir, grumble a bit to himself, then roll out of bed and trudge downstairs to our one and only bathroom. A few minutes later, I would hear the front door open and close, his motorcycle come to life, and then the roar that followed, then faded, as he headed off to wherever big brothers work when they have just separated from their wives.

In my head, among the grumbles and the roars of everything that made my big brother larger than life, I continued to hum the Aerosmith tune as I lay in bed, Dreaming On to a time when I would get big. And grumble. And roar.

Every time when I look in the mirror
All these lines on my face getting clearer
The past is gone
It went by, like dusk to dawn
Isn’t that the way
Everybody’s got the dues in life to pay

So here we are: four decades later. As I write on, “Dream On” plays over and over through my earbuds, into my head, along my veins, and within my heart and brain, a reverberation of love and nostalgia that seem to cancel out each other.

My brother is now dead. He no longer grumbles, roars, or dreams on. I am left with a residual, fading echo of a man I yearned to be.

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And I would think that I would be desperate to hold on to each note of this song, each lub-dub-dub of his cycle, each synchronous wink-and-smile that he would give me, you, a stranger to let you know: “I hear you. You aren’t alone. It’s going to be okay.”

Yes. I would think just that. But it isn’t happening.

Half my life
Is books, written pages
Live and learn from fools and
From sages
You know it’s true, oh
All these feelings come back to you

So instead I try to name that narrow space that exists between love and nostalgia; I try to box it into a nice little corner where I can name it. Identify it. Label it and reduce its hold over me so I can move on and dream on (and dream on and dream on) so that my dreams might come true.

All I can find, though, is something I barely recognize as an emotion caught in the ugly balance between depression and acceptance. The clouds are heavy, you see, but I just can’t tell if they are filled with the humid rains or the sun-drenched rays.

Sing with me, sing for the years
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears
Sing with me, just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away

Here’s what I do know tonight. My brother’s synchronous wink-and-smile is getting me through. It reminds me that I am not alone, that so many of us are struggling with this new and uncomfortable feeling of loss, and that we’re going to be okay.

Throw that all together, and maybe that’s why the rains aren’t falling, but the sun’s rays aren’t getting through the clouds either. It’s this gray existence of understanding, of perspective, even of peace in knowing that, maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will indeed take us away.

But for now, we are here. And with this dream that carries on, we persevere, we find the strength between winks and smiles, and we carry each other as best we can.

We carry each other through the laughter, through the tears, through the early-morning songs that play on and on in our later years.

Yeah. Through the grumbles of thunder and the roars of silent rains and rays, I hear you. We’re not alone. And we’re going to be okay.

In fact, I think we already are.

sunset rvw

14 Hours In Light: Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear

14 Hours In Light: Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear
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photos by rus vanwestervelt and madelyn vanwestervelt. taken 30 july 2015

Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear

Braeden decides to join us at the last minute, and he and Madelyn lead the way to the top of the hill. Their energy is boundless, and Rob and I take our time making the steep climb. The sun still seems high in the sky, but the crash into the mountains is inevitable. We maintain a good pace.

Already, though, through the clearings in the trees, we are treated to a beautiful show as the sun makes its descent.

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During these breaks, Rob and I pause, unsure if our breaths are being taken away by the view or the climb. We look to the west and dare not blink, as the clouds and the light continue to shift like watercolors absorbed by the most natural vellum. We are not the artists, though; it is our pleasure and our honor to observe, to be the witnesses of such beautiful art.

We resume our climb, and when we reach the top, Braeden and Madelyn are walking around the mechanisms of the old ski lift.

“Can we get in one of the baskets?” Braeden asks. I shake my head, and he doesn’t argue. Instead, he runs to the little office shack and peeks inside. Two office chairs are pushed against the wall, and old magazines and food wrappers litter both the desk top and the floor.

“Creepy,” he says. “It’s like they all just vanished in the middle of whatever they were doing.”

I tell him places like these are breeding grounds for ghost stories and mysteries, and I can see the creative wheels churning in his head, moving ideas and images around to form a possible new story.

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Madelyn leaves us and finds her place in the field to watch the sun set. She is as much a part of this landscape as the mountains themselves, and seeing her in the field, focused intently on the show that is playing out before us, allows me to remember how we separate ourselves from our natural land. We build walls, cities, and structures that “protect” us from the elements; we see land and nature as something to be tamed, domesticated to fit our needs, to reduce to names and distinctions, boundaries and property lines, as if we ever had the right to claim any of it as our own.

This morning, I reflected on the beauty of the land itself, the push-pull, yin-yang nature of life outside of the human experience. But here, seeing Madelyn so assimilated with these natural surroundings and her so comfortably immersed in them, I realize that we grow away from our natural environment. We spend our years “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth writes.

We need to return to such innocence, where we were once this close to the earth. We need to find our place in our field and bond once more to this great Earth.

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As Braeden continues to explore, Rob and I remain speechless as the sun begins to fall at a faster pace. We know this is impossible, but as it approaches the tips of the mountain ridges, it seems to be pulled from the sky against its will. We mutter something about appreciating life, taking nothing for granted, wishing Cindy and the others were with us. All of this is a feeble attempt, though, to capture the ineffable moments that we are all sharing. We do our best to put in to words what we are feeling, but when you are a witness to such beauty, words fail.

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We stand in silence and watch the sun disappear.

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The speed with which it sinks now makes me panic. I feel the fear swelling inside. I want to run across the field and somehow pull it back up, slow the process down, but I am helpless to its falling. I don’t want the sun to go down. I know I cannot be some “catcher in the rye” who saves it from sinking, but the fear is so real, so strong for the symbolic fall of all of us.

I look at my daughter and son, who are now silhouettes against the red sky. I see how tall they are getting, how, as they enter this middle phase of what it means to be a kid, stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, I want them to treasure these moments more, cherish their place in the earth, see the worth of the natural world around them, and grow up immersed in infinite energy, love, faith, and service.

I want them to know these things and keep them close, wherever they go, whatever they do. But how can I stop them from growing up and growing away from such beauty?

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Madelyn turns around and she gives me the answer, the assurance without saying a single word. She is the one who pushed to be on this hill. She is the one who wanted to witness this sunset. She is the one who led the way to this sacred space, 5,000 feet in the air.

My fear disappears like the sun itself, as I realize that the energy, love, faith, and service I wish my children to feel and to own is here, and it has just touched them both. The spiritual relationship we have with the earth is so deeply personal, as my own experience 14 hours earlier proved to be. No friend, no parent, no mentor could have led me to such a moment.

And so it remains. Our ventures into the wilderness will continue with plenty of opportunities and space to connect, both as a family and individually, with our natural environment. We hold closely to these sunrises, these white-blazed walks, these sunsets as we journey onward in our day-to-day lives, knowing that the deepest connections made with the Earth are all we ever need to sustain us when the light might dim in our lives.

Like the falling moon or the rising sun, we keep our faith. We will get through, and light is always but a few hours away, for each and every one of us.

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During the last week of July, we were fortunate enough to join my sister and her family at their mountain cabin in western North Carolina. It was the first time that our family had been together in six years, and the first time I had seen my sister since she lost her left leg in her battle with osteosarcoma.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, I wrestled with the decision to hike to the summit of Big Bald Mountain along the Appalachian Trail and see the sun rise over the Great Smoky Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. I have selected 16 photos from that day, spanning a 14-hour period of light, where I remained focused on the energy of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. Mingling among these 16 pictures are six short passages that chronicle my thoughts during that day. This is the final installment of those six passages in my series titled, “14 Hours In Light.”

If you missed the previous five posts, please visit my home page at www.baltimorewriter.wordpress.com and scroll down to read the complete series.

14 Hours In Light: Part 5. The Descent and The Energy Within

14 Hours In Light: Part 5. The Descent and The Energy Within
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photos by madelyn vanwestervelt, kevin harris, and rus vanwestervelt

14 Hours In Light: Part 5. The Descent and The Energy Within

Once the sun had cleared the mountain, I take one more walk around the perimeter of the summit before heading back to the cabin. The walk down the mountain is, at worst, in shadow. Gone are the fears about bears, injuries, or communication with the outside world.

I had communed with the earth and the heavens; what was there to fear?

When I reach the cabin, everyone is still asleep. I make a pot of coffee and head out to the deck, looking over the mountains I had just climbed.

Distance provides perspective. For days, I have viewed these peaks from the safety of this deck. I have pondered the trails, the dangers, the views. Now that I have climbed them myself, those ponderings are replaced with strength, energy, confidence.

What I am happy about is that the beauty of these mountains is just as rich, even intensified by my morning hike. I know them now, and they know me.

DSC_8117The day carries on, and as we take other walks and consider various trips to Asheville or the oft-mentioned Exit 11 (“See, what you want to do is take Exit 11 to cover just about any need you might have that the mountains can’t give you…“), I carry with me a humble perspective. It’s as if my perceptions, my understandings of every routine, every experience are now filtered through the epiphanic events on the summit of Big Bald. I find that I spend the day doing a lot of listening, a lot of smiling, regardless of who, or what, or where.

I am learning that this is the gift of the Earth and of the Universe. This is The Way, The Path.

Late in the afternoon, my daughter Madelyn joins Cindy and me on the deck. She is 13 and has gone with us on every excursion. She has also spent a few days at the stables on the other side of the mountain, bonding with the healthy trail horses that have been giving rides to visitors for nearly 10 years.

IMG_3612She places her hands on her hips and looks to the far western ridges to our left. Within our sight, if you look closely through the oaks and eastern pines, is the top of the four-person ski lifts from the lodge that is at the base of the mountain. We have already ventured there mid-day earlier in the week, and the vantage point provides an entirely different perspective of the western range.

“We’re running out of sunsets,” she says. “We need to head up to the top of that hill tonight.”

My sister smiles. “Just like you. She’s got her list, too. Once in a lifetime.”

DSC_8129There’s no argument from me. We all have our white blazes that we pursue, where we find our confidence, our strength, our energy. Madelyn, Rob, Cindy — you, me, the stranger passing us on the street — we seek our white-blazed trail, infinitely available to us. It is in our awareness, our mindful way of living, that we see it, follow it, become it.

I open the walk to others who wish to join us, and Rob, my brother-in-law, says he’s in.

I want Cindy to go, too. Rob and I talk briefly about the possibility of taking her with us up the big hill, but we know what the terrain is like from our walk earlier in the week: an unforgiving steep pitch that is rocky in some places with knee-high grasses in others.

Madelyn agrees to help me take pictures to capture the sunset and share it with her. We pack a small bag and say our goodbyes as we head to make the day’s final ascent.

But I know that this trip is different than the one I took just 13 hours ago. I don’t carry with me fear; I carry with me the desire to capture the experience in such a way that Cindy is with us. Maybe we can’t take her to the summit, but we can bring the summit to her in all its glory. She is, after all, the one who encouraged me earlier to walk without fear.

And from this I learn: We can make the choice to live without fear. Every day.

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Next…. The last segment in this series: Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear.

Read Part 1. The Decision and The Approach
Read Part 2. The Ascent and The Fear of Wildlife
Read Part 3. The Summit and The Elements
Read Part 4. The Rising Sun, The Falling Moon, and The Epiphany


During the last week of July, we were fortunate enough to join my sister and her family at their mountain cabin in western North Carolina. It was the first time that our family had been together in six years, and the first time I had seen my sister since she lost her left leg in her battle with osteosarcoma.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, I wrestled with the decision to hike to the summit of Big Bald Mountain along the Appalachian Trail and see the sun rise over the Great Smoky Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. I have selected 16 photos from that day, spanning a 14-hour period of light, where I remained focused on the energy of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. Mingling among these 16 pictures are six short passages that chronicle my thoughts during that day. This is the fifth of those six passages in my series titled, “14 Hours In Light.”