To Exhale Experience: An Offering To The World

To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.
~Walt Whitman

How often we forget that we are gifted the perfection of finite hours within our lifetime, neatly packaged moments filled with experience. They arrive to us as much as we go to them, a mingling of synthesizing interactions that define our lives.

What we decide to do with them is inevitably our choice.

I spend excessive amounts of time in my car, which is limping along these days while the busier world passes me by. But in the slower commute to here and there, I am gifted the chance to observe not only the behaviors of others, but my own reactions to them.

When I am too much with this world, my reactions are swift, emotional, and often filled with raw anger and frustration. I allow myself to be a participant to the bustling ways of my fellow commuters. In remaining “there,” though, I expend an extraordinary wasteful amount of energy. And if, by chance, they receive my reactions, it only escalates into an exhaustive battle about, well, nothing.

I avoid these clashes with listening to a new soundtrack I created called “VW Core.” It comprises the top 137 songs that define my life, a gentle balance that includes everything from solo piano pieces to a few jams from the Grateful Dead.

To put it simply, it brings me back to the experiences that have defined my life, that rise above petty rants with passers-by.

So, as summer approaches, I am reminded of the unspeakably perfect miracles held within each hour of our days. I will be on Chesapeake Bay, or taking walks in the woods with my children, or exploring the trails that cling to the shores of our nearby watershed. And, in absorbing these moments from these miraculous hours, I will then share them here and with others, exhaling the experiences that define my life.

I invite you to do the same in the coming months. See the beauty in the hours gifted to us, and share what you find with others. It is the very least we can do to offer the world such wondrous miracles experienced.

It’s Time To Rename This Thing Called Blogging

I’m not much into branding, or rebranding, as this case may be, but I think it’s time that I abandon the generic term of “blogging” and get a little more specific about what I am actually doing here on the internet.

It doesn’t take a lot of research to realize that everybody has some kind of web presence now, and most people are on multiple social media platforms. In addition to a blog, they have Facebook profiles (yes, plural) and Instagram accounts (including the fake ones, or “finstas”); they also have accounts with Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tumblr, and other places that allow various forms of self-expression.

It’s all a little too much, if you ask me.

I’ve deleted most of the apps from my phone and have abandoned the majority of my sites in the last few months. So much of my time was being consumed by emotional responses to original posts or comments that had been left. Each “session” of checking my feeds left me exhausted.

So when I visited my blog this morning to see how much my writing has changed in the last few years, I felt ashamed, and even a little disgusted, that I had somehow strayed from being so open, so raw in my writing, with no particular audience in mind. I got swept up in branding, gaining some kind of following, and culling the best and finest words for posts that I had hoped would go “viral.”

What a horrible term to use for something we yearn for.

That’s why I want to change the name of what I am doing here, and I think it’s important for me to shout that out to the world, explain what I’m doing, and why.

I thought about naming this as my online journal, but it carries a weight with it that is just a notch or two above the horrible connotations associated with the term, “diary.” I’m 54 years old. I don’t need to put that wonder in the minds of readers that I’m chronicling what I had for lunch on any given day (don’t think for a moment that the irony is lost on me here; some food diarists are making six figures or more for writing about food).

I decided to do a quick search on Thesaurus.com for synonyms for journal. Here’s what they listed:

I was immediately happy to see that “blog” is not even listed. When I did a search for “Blog,” a much shorter list popped up:

I’m not trying to be difficult about this, but none of these synonyms really work for what I will be doing here. I’m seeing this space more as my “Leaves of Grass” that Walt Whitman first published in 1855 and then refined up to nine times in the last 37 years of his life. What I want to do here seems fairly aligned with Whitman’s attempt to capture his authentic philosophy of life and humanity as it evolved in his later years.

I want this space to be my “song of myself” from this point onward until I can write no more.

I don’t want to worry about offending or pleasing; what I will spill here is my song. What you do with it is really up to you.

So that’s what I think I will call it, at least for now. This is not a blog, or a journal. This is My Song, celebrating life and humanity as I see it.

The goal is to publish more frequently, more authentically, with content that is important to me, but accessible by you. Over the next few months, I’ll begin to re-design this site to reflect it as more of a songbook. I’m excited to see where this might go.

Focus on One Thing

I made some pretty bold moves this weekend, and I’m a lot better off this Sunday night than I was just 48 hours ago. It’s because of some advice that I received last week, on something totally unrelated to what I just discovered.

A little backstory here is necessary. Since the 2016 presidential election, I, like millions of others, have been pretty gripped with the polarizing politics here in the United States. It doesn’t matter what side you are on; it’s been emotionally draining for everyone. Relationships of all kinds have been strained, and I’ve acknowledged several times here and on social media how I have been overwhelmed by it all. It has affected my writing, my art, my love for music, my everything. I’ve been passionate about fighting for what I believe is right, and as a result, so much around me has suffered.

Fast forward to last week, when I turned in my article to my Catholic Review editor. After he had a chance to read it, we had a phone conference about the story. His bottom line: Focus on one thing, and then write about that one thing.

Let me repeat that:

Focus on one thing.

In the context of writing, it is a fairly rigid rule to keep it simple and be direct. It’s good advice that I’ve heard, and shared, over the years. My editor was spot on.

So fast forward five days, and here I am, still struggling with fluctuating polls, vitriolic tweets, hypocritical rants from all sides, and paralyzing gridlock in my newsfeed. I texted a friend of mine that I had lost my love for reading, for listening to music, for going on photo shoots. It was as if I had picked up a handful of crayons and had scribbled relentlessly through my thoughts, scrambling any coherent idea or passion that was possible.

No passion. No focus.

Then, for whatever reason, my editor’s words popped into my head: Focus on one thing.

It would be easy for me to apply this advice by ridding my life of the distractions that are keeping me from my art. Delete the politics, and the focus returns. That would certainly work, at least in the short term.

But when I meditated on my editor’s advice, I realized something a little deeper.

If I focus my energy on my own gifts, and how I can make a change in this world through deliberate acts, then I will no longer be paralyzed by the things I cannot control.

I immediately thought of my mentors, including my patron saint Francis de Sales, and Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and Thich Nhat Hanh. While each of them might have been political, all of them were driven by their gifts of benevolence, peace, and charity. They looked for the common ground and not the things that divide us.

In other words, it’s not enough to delete the politics from our lives. I’m actually suggesting just the opposite. We need to, first and foremost, focus on the one thing that we are best at when it comes to making our communities healthy. Once we do that, everything else will take care of itself.

For me, these acts are done for – and through – God. And if I can offer contributions to my community that improve its overall health and wellness, then we are shielded from the things that are tearing others apart. In fact, it diminishes that contentious hold on us and begins to return us to a higher ground of respect toward all.

So as we navigate our energies through these turbulent times, focus on that one thing that you do well for others, and don’t worry so much about the things you can’t control. I believe that if more of us contribute kindness to others in our own communities, we will begin to feel a shift in our country’s larger energy for the values we believe are essential, not only for today but for our children’s future.

Our actions today are developing their focus for tomorrow; let’s make sure they focus on one thing: benevolence toward all.

 

Our Authentic Show Must Go On

This weekend, I was enthralled by a blog post shared by Mark Willen (“Sexual Assault: When Real Life and Fiction Collide”), who was pondering how his published works hold up in the #MeToo era. As a result of Mark’s post, which was weighing heavily on my mind today, I decided to ask a few writers/teachers about what they thought influences authors to share certain works with their intended audiences.

Now, that’s a lot packed into that last sentence, so let me unpack it.

What influences authors.

As English teachers, we often analyze an author’s writing by what the topic of the essay/story is about, and what was happening during that time in history or, more specifically, what was happening in that author’s personal life, either directly or indirectly. Our focus is finding that cause-and-effect relationship, that One Big Thing that led her to craft that piece. We love doing that. It’s what we live for.

To share certain works.

As well, we know that writers often choose which pieces they take to publication. This is what they offer the masses; this is what they have selected as their representative piece.

With their intended audiences.

Not only does the author select the intended piece, he selects the intended audience. Sometimes, that’s a decision based on money and quantity. What can I write that will reach the most number of people, and fill my pockets with the most amount of money? Or, conversely, he might choose a very selective audience to share a more cultivated piece, aimed at entertaining or conversing with a smaller group.

So what?

What all these things have in common is that we are making gross assumptions that the cause-and-effect relationship even exists. As we know in this era of all things, it is nearly the opposite. Some of us are in great distress, and our creativity is stifled in ways we could never fathom. We put our pens to paper and the parchment remains unblemished.

Where do we begin? How do we tell the truth? How do we write about something that is so polarizing?

So we choose to write about other things, and in other genres. Published or not, none of it is representative of where many of us are. There is no authenticity in a large body of what is being published. Truth lies in that unwritten, Barbaric YAWP that plagues us, weighs us down, suppresses our voice in ways that historians might overlook entirely.

In other words, the literature written centuries ago, which we have been analyzing so comfortably based on the stories crafted in history books, may be as much of a lie in absencia of the truth that could never be written.

Maybe a little like what we’re going through now.

I just got rejected from yet another publication (Let the great streak from 2017 continue!). It was a horror short story that I thought was pretty good. It wasn’t, according to the judges (again this year), and I’ve allowed myself a 12-hour pity party that ended, oh, a few minutes ago.

But I find this okay. I’m not a horror writer anymore. I thought that I should be able to spin a good tale no matter the genre, but that’s probably not true. I’ve got so much bunched up in me of what I am not writing about, that it makes full sense to me that anything I try to pass off as authentic is anything but.

So I’m turning this figurative page somehow, and I will return to authenticity. I will spill words here that are raw, genuine, politically incorrect, and my truth. I will lose followers and, perhaps, close friends and family members. It sounds so harsh to say this, but I can no longer let that stop me.

I don’t want to be cautious, gentle, patient, worldly, or even compromising. The time has come to share that authenticity with all of you.

I have no idea where this will take me, but at least I’ve opened the door for it to happen and to find out. We have to demonstrate courage in our writing and our art in the present; we must let our work be an authentic reflection of who we are, where we are, how we are reacting to it, and why all of this matters.

Thanks for listening (er– reading). I’ll be back soon, sharing words that need to be said, and by me.

More Than A Cup Of Coffee

About 15 years ago, in the pre-dawn darkness, I stood outside the brand new Starbucks in Dulaney Plaza and waited patiently for them to open their doors for the first time. I enjoyed being a part of the coffee store’s grand opening, and for years I frequented it often, learning the names of the new baristas and managers, getting to know our neighbors a little better over a cup of coffee, and being a part of the ambiance that defined the origins of that cafe.

Years later, we moved to Loch Raven Village, and I didn’t spend nearly as much time at the Dulaney Plaza location. I became lazy and used the drive-thrus in the Towson University and Timonium Fairgrounds locations. I lost touch with that community feeling that I had established at Dulaney Plaza. I forgot how important that was to share words with friends over freshly brewed coffee.

IMG_4038Well, today, our neighborhood Bel-Loc Starbucks opened just down the street from where we live. The outside of the building is unlike any other Starbucks that I have seen. It is retro, and it has retained some of the flavor of the old Bel-Loc Diner that it replaced, an iconic restaurant that had defined the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road for decades.

The decision to place an internationally franchised coffee house on the same corner as a local landmark was met with some resistance. And even today, after its doors have opened, there is still push back from some residents who are completely against a chain cafe that serves “overpriced” coffee.

But Starbucks has to be acknowledged for creating a low-key cafe that really adds an aesthetic enhancement to our little “village.”

IMG_4039Once I entered the small store, I felt as if I were in Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire at the Quidditch World Cup, when Harry steps inside the Weasley’s tent. It’s as if the store had magically expanded inside, offering a variety of tables and bars to work, commune, or just relax.

Immediately, I felt at home in our new, local cafe.

Even before I ordered my Grande Pike Place coffee, I noticed a friend in the southwest corner of the store, seated with his work spread out as if he had been here for weeks. As we placed our order and waited for our drinks to be made, we spent a few minutes chatting with Pat, and I felt the old habits returning ofIMG_4043 making and meeting good friends at the Dulaney Plaza location many years ago.

The interior is spacious, clean, and filled with natural light from two walls of windows facing south and west. Some of the chairs, in fact, were originals from the Bel-Loc Diner.

Both inside and out, there is a mingling of the old and the new, a respect for tradition with a touch of the 21st century coffeehouse encouraging a community to come together.

Maybe their coffee is a couple quarters more than its pre-fab competitor in orange a few blocks west, but I will gladly make the sacrifice for the opportunity to forge new friendships and share words with my neighbors, especially in a coffee house that has gone to great lengths to respect the legacy of Bel-Loc Diner, where our parents spent similar mornings communing with neighbors over a cup of coffee.

I look forward to spending my mornings at our neighborhood Starbucks, writing, reading, and conversing with my new and old friends. After all, it’s what we make of it. For generations, family members and neighbors did the very same at the Diner; let’s do our part to savor the spirit of the old as it merges with the new. IMG_4042

Being Resolute in 2018: Begin Within

If we make happiness our primary goal instead of our secondary goal, then we easily accomplish everything else we desire. ~Deepak Chopra

Across the country and throughout the world, people are asking themselves the same question: What will my resolutions be for 2018?

The “Greatest Hits” of resolutions include weight loss, saying goodbye to cigarettes and liquor, and establishing a fitness regimen.

No doubt, these are all admirable goals to live a better life. But one hardly needs a new year to begin — or resume — being so resolute; in fact, I would argue that many of us are overweight, smoky, and out of shape because we set ourselves up for failure in some other previous new year. Resolutions have a way of making us feel horrible about ourselves before January is even over. Once we fail at keeping our resolutions, we find solace in remembering that another new year will soon be upon us — in 11 months.

I found another set of New Year’s “Greatest Hits” on my friend’s Facebook page. Chris shared the top ten “Words of Wisdom” by the late Wayne Dyer, and it paired nicely with my daily readings of Deepak Chopra.

The resolution we really need to be making is simple, requires no exercise equipment, and prepares us to accomplish any secondary goal we might have to live a more healthy, fulfilling life. It’s so simple, in fact, that we do everything we can to make it harder on ourselves, when we don’t need to.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Embrace happiness and joy in this moment, within you.

And we don’t even have to wait until January 1. It’s accessible, and doable, right now. All you need to do is shift your priorities, see the beauty within you first, and then go after any other goal or resolution you wish to pursue.

You might be asking: What’s the difference, then, if I go for my goals first? Won’t that lead me to the same goal of happiness anyway?

It seems logical that it should work that way, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it almost never does. Here’s why. When we seek things — materialistic or otherwise — to bring us happiness, we allow our well being to become dependent on achieving those things. And, as we are hardly creatures of contentment, we then seek out the next thing that will make us happy.

Thoreau, over 150 years ago, nailed it when he penned those timeless words:

“The mass of men lead their lives in quiet desperation.”

We can’t keep chasing resolutions, thinking they are going to be making us happier. They simply won’t. But, if we begin with happiness, and then pursue our resolutions, that wellness within will keep us motivated throughout the year — and beyond — to make those better choices in our lives.

So here are Dyer’s words of wisdom below, coupled with ten of my own photos from previous years. At the end of this post is a lovely 39-minute sunrise that I have been playing while writing in the early hours. Enjoy.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2018 for each of us. May you discover the beauty and joy that awaits within.

Love, Rus

10. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

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9. How people treat you is their Karma; how you react is yours.

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8. When you judge another, you do not define them. You define yourself.

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7. You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.

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6. Conflict cannot survive without your participation.

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5. Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.

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4. Abundance is not something we acquire; it is something we tune into.

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3. Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.

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2. You’ll see it when you believe it.

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1. Go for it now. The future is promised to no one.

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Understanding Our Frustrations And Realizing New Pathways To Resolutions

America is facing its greatest crisis in my lifetime, and I am realizing that each of us is called to react and act in ways that define our communities, large and small.

In the simplest of terms, here’s how I see it.

In our lifetimes, we are presented with scenarios that are not always directly related to our actions. In other words, we didn’t ask for the things that are bringing us stress. In such moments, we are presented with options of how we can react. Some of us turn inward; others seek spiritual guidance; many seek out advice from others. On some level, we combine these approaches to understand our frustrations.

Keeping this in its simplest terms, we have ourselves, we have spirituality, we have books, and we have others to guide us.

Most of the things that frustrate us are fleeting events where our reactions are governed by basic morals. Somebody has 30 items in the “fast lane” checkout at the grocery store, and we make a choice to wait or seek out a faster lane. We can control an immediate action and solve the problem to our satisfaction.

But with the things that frustrate us longer, such as socioeconomics, health benefits, or the conditions of our communities, we don’t have quick answers, and we seek comfort and camaraderie in the time we are frustrated. This, too, is natural.

We create websites, social media groups, attend meetings, and seek out leaders who understand us and who can help us with our frustrations.

This is where each of us matters in how we handle our frustrations and how we choose the leaders we listen to.

Over time, an energy is created out of our frustrations. if we spend more of that energy seeking out acknowledgment and justification, rather than working individually and collaboratively on solving those frustrations, the energy focuses on the problem and not on the solution. It becomes easy to accept the acknowledgment and the rhetoric used to make you believe you are heard and understood.

This is what political campaigns usually do. They rally an understanding of frustration and say, “Believe in me. I am the only person who can fix your problems and relieve your frustrations.” There is a promise made built on the energy manifested in that emotion and that frustration.

This is common in all sides of politics: something isn’t working; I can fix it. It isn’t Democrat, Republican, or any one individual; it’s the nature of politics when we have elections.

The problem we face today is that the pre-election frustration that was manifested into energy still exists, and it continues to manifest into something dangerous. It has momentum; it was given promises, it was given compassion and recognition, and now it is taking on a life of its own with the very people who justified it and are doing nothing to stop it.

Here’s the point. When protesters showed up in Charlottesville armed with weapons and shields, they personified the manifestation of that energy’s breaking point. When an individual made the decision to drive his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, he, too, was a manifestation of that energy.

But that is all that it is: energy. The very simple thing I know is that the only way to stop energy such as this is to cease feeding into it. Release the energy that fuels the frustration and make the choice – today – to return to the origins of your frustration and start again.

We can turn inward, we can counsel spiritual guidance, we can read books, we can seek solace and understanding in a community.

But this time, we must let our morals, our ethics, our spiritual compass, guide us in a direction of peace. Let there be a manifestation of energy that does not require physical weapons and shields, that the only daggers we use are words to slay the hatred and give peace a chance to manifest in a new way for all.

Dare to strike a new path, a new approach toward resolving the things that frustrate us. What we are doing is not working.

It’s not too late. May we come together to recognize our frustrations. May we work together to resolve them. May we all stay together as we forge a new era of peace here in these United States of America, and across the globe.

Rus VanWestervelt (@rusvw13, rus.vanwestervelt@gmail.com)