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.

 

Celebrating Poetry In April: 30. The World Is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth

Hello, everyone.

Well, we are at our end. 30 days of sonnets celebrating National Poetry Month brings us to my favorite sonnet that I’ve been using in my classrooms and citing in my writing for decades. I’m happy to end this journey by sharing William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us.”

As I say in the preface of the reading, I’ve been so honored to share these sonnets with you. And if I have learned anything (but I have learned so much in these 30 days), it is that the emotions, thoughts, and reflections that we have today are not unique to the generations and centuries of individuals who have faced their own tragedies, hopes, and triumphs. Universally, we have love to get us through, even when it can break our heart. Universally, we have each other to lean on, when the world just gets too much. And universally, we have hope in getting through our greatest challenges together, both in the words and strength of our friends and loved ones in the present, and in the whispered words shouted to us through poetry from those long past.

Thank you for enduring these daily posts. 🙂 Here’s to poetry, and here’s to you. ❤

as always………………………vw

The World Is Too Much With Us, by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Celebrating Poetry in April: 29. Sonnet 23 by William Shakespeare

Hello, everyone.

Today, for our second-to-last sonnet in honor of National Poetry Month, I have chosen Sonnet 23 by William Shakespeare. It’s one of my favorites for so many reasons. Primarily, though, I appreciate Shakespeare’s play on words, using them to describe his inability to put into words the love he has for another. As we have seen with other sonnets, poets have expressed a “transcending love” that goes beyond the boundaries of our earthly existence. In this case, Shakespeare is talking about a love so transcending that he has no words to describe it. In the end, Shakespeare suggests that hear with our eyes love’s fine wit. 

Beautiful. 

For those of you who have had me as your teacher (past and present) or who have already read Fossil Five, I bet you can guess what sonnet I’ve saved for the last day of this 30-day celebration…. We shall see!

Without further ado, here is Sonnet 23, by William Shakespeare.

Sonnet 23, by William Shakespeare

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Celebrating Poetry In April: 28. How Do I Love Thee? By Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Welcome, all.

For the third-to-last sonnet that I will be sharing with you during National Poetry Month, I chose to read to you Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s classic Sonnet 43, “How Do I Love Thee?”

It’s such a simple poem that’s been parodied as much as it has been praised. As we have seen in so many of the sonnets that I have shared with you this month, the topic of love transcending an earthly experience is expressed in the final lines. This transcendence, I believe, is the true understanding of a greater love that reaches far beyond the limits of an earthly existence.

Enjoy… It’s one of my favorites. 🙂

Sonnet 43: “How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Celebrating Poetry In April: 27. O Solitude! by John Keats

Good afternoon, all.

Today is April 27, and we are now in our final four of sonnets for National Poetry Month.

Today’s selection is a return to Keats, one of my favorite romantic poets. Like all the good romantics, it finds the beauty in nature and, in this poem, solitude.

“O Solitude! If I Must With Thee Dwell,” by John Keats

O SOLITUDE! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Celebrating Poetry in April: 25. Life and Death, by Cosmo Monkhouse

Welcome to day 25 of National Poetry Month. Tonight I am featuring a British poet of the Victorian era, William Cosmo Monkhouse, who was also an art critic in his prime. This sonnet, in the Petrarchan form, personifies Life and Death.

Enjoy! 🙂

Life and Death, by William Cosmo Monkhouse

From morn to eve they struggled–Life and Death.
At first it seemed to me that they in mirth
Contended, and as foes of equal worth,
So firm their feet, so undisturbed their breath.
But when the sharp red sun cut through its sheath
Of western clouds, I saw the brown arms’ girth
Tighten and bear that radiant form to earth,
And suddenly both fell upon the heath.
And then the wonder came–for when I fled
To where these great antagonists down fell
I could not find the body that I sought,
And when and where it went I could not tell,
One only form was left of those who fought,
The long dark form of Death–and it was dead.

Celebrating Poetry in April: 24. A Timid Grace, by Charles Lamb

Good evening, all 🙂

Today’s sonnet is by Charles Lamb, another romantic British poet who traveled in the same circle with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others. His biographer, E.V. Lucas, even dubbed him the “most lovable figure in English literature.”

Today I share with you Lamb’s sonnet, “A Timid Grace Sits Trembling In Her Eye.”

A Timid Grace Sits Trembling In Her Eye by Charles Lamb

A timid grace sits trembling in her eye,
As loth to meet the rudeness of men’s sight,
Yet shedding a delicious lunar light
That steeps in kind oblivious ecstasy
The care-crazed mind, like some still melody:
Speaking most plain the thoughts which do possess
Her gentle sprite: peace, and meek quietness,
And innocent loves, and maiden purity:
A look whereof might heal the cruel smart
Of changed friends, or fortune’s wrongs unkind:
Might to sweet deeds of mercy move the heart
Of him who hates his brethren of mankind.
Turned are those lights from me, who fondly yet
Past joys, vain loves, and buried hopes regret.

Celebrating Poetry in April: 23: Sonnet 145 by William Shakespeare

Today we celebrate the life of William Shakespeare, who was rumored to be born on this day in 1564; it is also the date in which he died in 1616. This is sonnet 145, and as you can tell, we won’t be able to get to all of them in this short month of a mere 30 days as we celebrate the sonnet during National Poetry Month.

I hope you enjoy today’s reading. 🙂

Sonnet 145, by William Shakespeare

Those lips that love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said “I hate,”
To me that languished for her sake.
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet.
“I hate” she altered with an end
That followed it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who, like a fiend,
From heaven to hell is flown away.
“I hate” from hate away she threw.
And saved my life, saying “not you.”

Celebrating Poetry in April: 22. “Grasshopper and Cricket” by Mary Russell Mitford

Happy Earth Day, to all. I remember turning the earth 50 years ago with my 5-year-old classmates as we planted little saplings at our elementary school. Now, 50 years later, I look back and savor the many hours I have spent on trails and shores, appreciating the earth. So much of my writing is inspired by the Earth.

I selected today’s sonnet with our earth in mind. It’s a variation of our familiar Petrarchan form, and written by English and romantic author Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855). The poem it titled, simply, “Grasshopper and Cricket.”

Grasshopper and Cricket, by Mary Russell Mitford

How oft, amid the heaped and bedded hay,
Under the oak’s broad shadow deep and strong,
Have we sat listening to the noon-day song
(If song it were), monotonously gay,
Which crept along the field, the summer lay
Of the grasshopper. Summer is come in pride
Of fruit and flower, garlanded as a bride,
And crowned with corn, and graced with length of day:

But cold is come with her.
We sit not now
Listening that merry music of the earth,
Like Arid beneath the blossomed bough;
But all for chillness round the social hearth
We cluster.–Hark! a sound of kindred mirth
Echoes! O wintry cricket, welcome thou!