Jessica Bell’s Icasia Bloom Touches Readers With Happiness

Review: How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness (Vine Leaves Press), by Jessica Bell

Scheduled for release 21 September 2021

By Rus VanWestervelt

***NO SPOILERS***

I don’t know about you, but I have a full shelf of books that I return to often. Sure, I love the plots, and they are entertaining in a way that makes me want to keep reading to the very end, even though I know every plot twist and turn as if I had written them myself. I come back to them time and time again because I need to remember a certain message about life: believe in yourself, don’t get too caught up in the world’s drama, the power of love. You get the picture.

Jessica Bell’s newest novel, How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness, now has a permanent place on that shelf.

Here’s why.

The storyline is simple enough. Four characters find themselves in various stages of paradoxical oppression, as they face the challenges of a dystopian-ish leader who requires the acquisition of perpetual happiness to be guaranteed eternal harmony in what Bell terms a “Second Life Phase.” When “The Globe” is getting a little crowded, leadership thinks it’d be a bright idea to chop a few decades off the life span of those still pining for that happiness.

Bell delivers in two key areas: complex character development and story structure.

First, Bell builds characters that are immediately accessible to us as readers. Icasia and Selma are young moms who have fought against the system and don’t believe they are destined for Globe salvation. Jerome, Selma’s husband, is just months away from his Death Inducement, and he struggles to find happiness in every aspect of his life – in his job, with his wife Selma, and especially with Selma’s daughter, Leila.

Each of these four characters is on a unique but relatable deadline – none more terrifying than Jerome’s – to discover truths about themselves and about life itself, despite the governmental gaslighting that seems to have the world convinced that their way is the only way to eternal happiness.

Through an intricately woven tale told from multiple perspectives, Bell grabs us by the wrist in the first chapter and doesn’t let go until after we’ve turned over the last page, desperate for more.

The structure of the story is as intriguing as the plot line, including a volley between chapters titled, “Listen” and “Watch.” Even more compelling are Icasia’s first-person entries in the “Listen” chapters, addressed to a character named Eve who is not even part of the story as it is being revealed. Yet, Icasia writes to her as if she is talking directly to her – in the same space – as she is sharing the story with us.

Like the situation the characters find themselves in, Bell’s approach is equally paradoxical, a crossing of boundaries between characters and readers that is hard to pull off. Bell does the job, though, delivering a meta-experience for the reader that keeps you thinking through the entire read.

Just one example: We do not know how much time separates the telling of the story to the actual events unfolding. Every time we read a new “Listen” chapter, we are reminded that there is a deeper sense to this plot. Bell delivers on this promise in the end in one of the many twists. It’s this simple: the structure mirrors the storyline at every turn.

I have to say it: Icasia Bloom is a meta-novel crafted to make you think beyond the story. It will work your mind without you even realizing it.

Without giving away any spoilers, this is what I was thinking as I was reading the novel (and this is why it is a top-shelf book in my library): Don’t believe everything you are told, or even that you see. The path of truth leading to authentic happiness lies deeper within, for each of us. No rules, no mandates, not even any life secrets heralded in the best of self-help or spiritual books can determine that truth for any one of us.

By the time we get to the ending, we realize that we are strapped in to a roller coaster of twists and turns, all highly unexpected.

There is urgency at the end, no doubt driven by the countdown to Jerome’s scheduled Death Inducement, and at times I wanted the converging plot lines to slow down. Bell does such a great job developing suspense through the evolution of her characters that I could have easily enjoyed another 50-75 pages of the climax and resolutions at the end.

Regardless, the reader is left with a good reason why Bell’s story is – and must be – told often. And why we must never tire of tales of hope, redemption, self-love, and of course, the essential pursuit of perpetual happiness.

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. 

Life’s Labyrinth in Embracing Our Creativity

Last night, I was gifted with the opportunity to read for Howard County Poetry and Literary Society (HoCoPoLitSo)’s Wilde Readings series. I read an excerpt from the third chapter of my novel, Fossil Five, where Cassandra reads a letter she wrote to herself five years ago.

Personally, it’s an incredibly ironic moment, as my own seniors are now writing their letters to themselves, to be opened in 2025. I had some of my seniors watching the event last night, and some even offered questions to me. How paradoxically wonderful it was to be in both the present and in the future with my reading and my own students – most certainly a highlight of my career that I will hold on to for many years.

Anyway, I shared reading time with Diane Wilbon Parks, a poet and artist who lives in Prince George’s County. I was so honored to read with her; her poetry and presentation are both deep, abstract, and powerful.

Here are the first few lines of her poem, “Music to My Ear” from her 2016 published collection of poems, The Wisdom of Blue Apples:

You play inside musical notes

that slip away to have coffee,

then linger at the base of crescendos

like drums leaving tunnels inside me.

The chord of my vein is

traced with legends of you

slanted in prepositional phrases – of love,

crooked like elbows, misplaced on purpose,

hanging out of shelves, and sentences, and me.

I can just hear Diane reading these words, silk slipping from her lips as she brings this poem to life. Yet, as much as her poetry was transforming, it was her artwork behind her that mesmerized me.

Before the event even began, I complimented Diane on her artwork, a collection of colorful and black-white creations framed and on display behind her. I expressed my failed attempts at art, and how I, for some inexplicable reason, freeze up when it comes to letting go with creating on a blank canvas.

Then, during her question-and-answer session, one of the participants (and readers during open mic) asked her if there was a creative relationship between her artwork and her poetry. Diane was quick to answer, saying that her abstract paintings were an extension of her metaphorical poetry. It makes sense, right? She writes in the abstract, so why wouldn’t she paint in the abstract?

To me, this was epiphanic in every way imaginable. My own blocks, my own origins of fear, have been based on a great deal of self-induced pressure to paint and draw in the literal sense, recreating baskets of fruits, partially opened windows, and small children picking flowers in an untended garden.

I’m not a literal person, though, and to be a re-creator of such images, to replicate life as closely as possible with the stroke of a brush or pen, is just not who I am.

It took a walk through Life’s Labyrinth, along with a lot of patience and remaining wide open, to receive such a gift as I did last night.

So, today I pick up a pen and put it to a blank canvas, and I let go of the fears of creating works that are nowhere near who I am as a writer and as a person.

And, if I am so bold, I will share my abstract and metaphorical creations with you here.

Thank you, Diane. And thank you, HoCoPoLitSo, for gifting me this freedom to grow as an artist.

 

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)