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. 

Celebrating Poetry in April: 3. Sonnet II by John Barlas

Welcome to day 3 of National Poetry Month. Today, I have chosen to read John Barlas’s Sonnet II, “Since I Have Known You I Have Little Heed,” written in the late 19th century. It is a Petrarchan Sonnet with a CDECDE sextet. I must give a shout out to my old friend Eric Blomquist who started a website titled Sonnet Central many years ago. It was there that I first read a Wordsworth sonnet for him, and I have visited the site often in the decades that have followed. Thank you, Eric, for your passion for sonnets; it burns still within me, and I am grateful to share that passion for sonnets with my students.

Without further ado: John Barlas, Sonnet II.

The Hope MixTape: Side A, Track 1. “Here Comes The Sun”

Earlier this year, I asked a few friends on Facebook what songs bring them hope. The response was overwhelming, and the suggestions they provided allowed me to make a 90-minute audio cassette mixtape, complete with a side A and a side B. Just as I have my characters in Fossil Five explore the process involved in making a mixtape, I enjoyed the process of breaking out the calculator to make build both sides with as little empty tape as possible.

After I completed the mixtape, I decided that it would be a good frame for me to write an essay for each song, and focus on the hope that these tunes provide. This is the first in a series of essays inspired by the songs that all of you helped me create.

Here’s to you, and to all of us, in the hope we provide, and receive, along our journeys.

 

The Hope MixTape: Side A, Track 1. “Here Comes The Sun” by The Beatles. Essay #1

All photos were taken by me. Please provide credit to me and this page if you use them elsewhere.

I’ve always been fascinated by sunrises, and most of my better photo shoots have come at the expense of a rising sun – usually on a mountain top or on the water’s edge. This goes way back to my early childhood where, in late days in July, my dad and I would leave the house at 3 a.m. and head to Wye Mills on the Eastern Shore, where we would rent a rowboat from Shnaitman’s Boat House to spend the early hours crabbing on the Wye River. We’d have the boat on the water by 5 a.m., a good hour before the sun actually broke the horizon. I remember clearly the reverent pause in our crabbing when sunrise was imminent. The taut hand lines that had blue crabs tugging at the fresh bait could wait a minute or two as we watched in silence the first line of light find its way over the water. When it crested, we returned to our work without a word, checking the lines and manning the nets as we culled our first dozen from the brackish waters of the Wye.

Years later, when I was in college, my friend Trina and I would take midnight road trips to the beach, watching the sun rise as we walked the foam line of the incoming or outgoing tide. With film camera in hand, I did my best to capture the moment when the sun broke the horizon line. Some of the pictures silhouetted Trina against the wet, fluid brushstrokes of crimson, violet, and gold. We were tired in those pre-dawn moments, but with the rising sun, we felt renewed, energized by the light filling the sky, and us.

As we got older and established our own families, our overnight trips turned to pre-sunrise walks on New Year’s Day. Our last jaunt, 2014, was to the Concord Point Lighthouse in Havre De Grace to see the sun rise over the upper tip of Chesapeake Bay in northeast Maryland. This time, the camera I held was a nifty digital Nikon, but the result was the same: magnificent hues with Trina silhouetted against the pre-dawn light.

Throughout my life, I have hiked mountains just to get a glimpse of the sun before anyone else. The elevation gave me the edge over the rest of the world, and I would be afforded a few extra minutes to cherish and receive the energy of the day’s new light, virgin rays of life and Chi that few others would receive. For days – maybe years – I would carry that energy deep within me. Even now, I can tap into these very precious moments and feel a new life coursing through my veins as if the rising sun were my blood, my oxygen to live fully another day.

My most recent trip was in 2015, when I hiked the Appalachian Trail in western North Carolina to watch the sun rise atop Big Bald Mountain. The pictures I got were breathtaking, but the personal experience of being there, as witness to the rising, was in itself unforgettable, caught between the full moon setting in the west and the great sun rising in the east. I was in the center of the universe. I ended up writing a longer essay (“14 Hours In Light“) that I published here on my site in a series of smaller reflections. The experience renewed my hope at a time when I was struggling mightily.

It was there that I realized the energy I had in front of me was afforded to all of us each and every day, regardless of where where we stand when that great sun makes its first appearance of the day. The light in our lives promises us just that – and it is indiscriminate, abundant, fulfilling. The sun’s energy and hope, its comfort and warmth, are boundless, unending, and open for all.

And so it is: A new day begins. For indeed, here comes the sun.

Seek hope in light – it is always there waiting to be received… by you, for you. in all ways. There is no greater way to drive out darkness. In patience, we shall always be recipients of the energy that provides hope.

 

TBW Writing Prompt #1: Where Do You Find Energy?

 

photo: rus vanwestervelt

photo: rus vanwestervelt

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the story of a barn in Finksburg, MD, and the charge of energy I received when slowing down to really absorb its beauty and purpose.

Today’s TBW Writing Prompt is all about energy.

We all have at least one place that charges us, don’t we? For some, that place might be in our past; for others, it is a mainstay in our present lives.

Georgia Heard, in her book Writing Toward Home, calls this place Querencia, our wanting-place where we feel strongest, perhaps even invincible.

Where is your Querencia? Where do you find energy?

Write without inhibition for 15 minutes about that special place, and bring it to life on the page. You are writing for no one but yourself, so there’s no need to worry about what others might think.

If, however, you decide to share with others on your blog or in your social media space, leave a link for us in the comments so we can check it out and give you a virtual high-five. If you want, you can even paste your writing in a comment and share that way.

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TBW (The Baltimore Writer) Writing Prompts usually run the day after I post an essay or lengthy observation. You can see all of the previous writing prompts under the category “TBW Writing Prompts.” I look forward to reading what you are writing! Be sure to drop me a note in the comments section to share your thoughts on what we’re writing. ~rvw