Category: Words

Selected thoughts, essays, and poems.

Vexations (2017)

Eight minutes and 43 seconds of pianist Michael Kirkendoll’s 11-hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” inside of Rashid Johnson’s sculptural installation “Antoine’s Organ” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Mo., observed on May 5, 2017. The infinite nature of a moment.

Invocation of Pure Expression

While I wholeheartedly support the act of creating without explanation or meaning, I know my art and music means more to me if it’s motivated by one or more of the following criteria. This is my Manifesto of Pure Expression:

I make art and music …

to remind myself that every moment, no matter how insignificant it may seem, can be meaningful if we choose for it to be so.

to extol the virtues of spontaneity, celebrate the majesty of the mundane, and embrace the beauty of imperfection.

that functions as a mirror to my insecurities, a vent for my frustrations, and an acceptance of my perceived shortcomings.

that emphasizes curation over creation.

for people who find it more interesting to answer the question “Do you like it?” rather than “Is it good?”

to do my part in promoting free culture.

BUT ABOVE ALL

to demonstrate that you, too, can make art and music.

 

What a Difference a Smile Makes

This summer has been a rough one for a lot of people. From terrorism at home and abroad, to violence by and against police officers, to a never-ending presidential campaign that will undoubtedly leave millions of Americans feeling alienated by the result, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the suffering, frustration, and hopelessness. So what can any of us do about it? Here’s one idea:

My friend Teri and I were talking recently about how being bombarded with bad news on a near daily basis was wearing us down. We noted that the easiest thing to do would be to stop paying attention to the news and remain blissfully ignorant, but we both understand that’s not the solution. Instead, Teri has decided to do something brilliantly simple to bring some balance into her life—she’s smiling more.

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The idea came to her after a friend described a profound experience she recently had with a stranger. The friend said she was driving when she passed an African American man who was walking on the sidewalk. It was a really hot day and he was sweating profusely so she felt compelled to pull over and ask him if he needed a ride. He was confused by the offer but happily accepted. They got to talking and he said he was surprised because in his experience, young white women driving around by themselves don’t normally stop to ask if a black man needs help. She soon found out that the man was walking to the hospital to meet his recently born godson. When she arrived at the hospital, he relayed how
appreciative he was of her kind act because it just meant a lot to him to be acknowledged. She responded by giving the man a hug.

The story moved Teri to tears and got her thinking about what she could do to simply acknowledge the many strangers she crosses paths with on a daily basis. So she decided that the next time she passed someone while walking down the street, she’d push herself out of her comfort zone by making eye contact and smiling. The first time she tried it, an older woman stopped in her tracks, thanked her and complimented Teri on how nice she looked. The brief interaction made Teri’s day and she decided to pay it forward later on when she walked past a well-dressed man, smiled and complimented him on how nice he looked. He was as appreciative of the comment as Teri had been earlier. And just like that, Teri had interacted on a lasting and profound level with two complete strangers simply by smiling and acknowledging that they exist.

My conversation with Teri made me realize that hopelessness is a chosen perspective. When we allow the troubles of the world to weigh us down, we become blind to the real, everyday opportunities we have to actually make a difference in someone’s life. Wouldn’t it be something if the key to solving the world’s problems was as simple as a smile? I think Teri might be on to something.

Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Utne Reader

Photo courtesy Juozas Salna, licensed under Creative Commons.

No Photos Necessary

It’s amazing how certain memories from childhood can stick with you and continue to shape your adult life. I’m still learning from a memory I have of a particular moment during a high school history class trip to Washington, D.C. and other sites related to the Civil War.

On a cloudy and chilly morning, we were walking around Gettysburg National Battlefield near the intersection of two stone walls called The Angle that was the site of the Confederacy’s last gasp in the fierce and bloody three-day battle. Aware of the historical significance of the site, I thought a photograph was in order, so I took a seat on the wall. As I sat there waiting for a friend to snap the photo, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and the emotional weight of the place bear down on me. It’s the closest experience I’ve had to paranormal, but it wasn’t scary. Rather, I found it fascinating that a physical place was capable of conveying so much emotional energy, and the experience sparked a love for history and mystery that I still enjoy today.

This past September, I had the opportunity to revisit Gettysburg for the first time since that pivotal moment in my life nearly 20 years ago. The weather was similarly chilly and dismal as I walked through the battlefield toward The Angle. My plan was to walk back to the old stone wall and see if I would feel what I felt that first time.

As I walked along the wall and looked up at a particularly poignant old tree that sits at the heart of The Angle, I contemplated that previous moment and began to feel in tune with the vibrations of that place once again. But this time, as I pulled out my phone to take a photo of the tree, I felt the goosebumps disappear. I soon realized that my effort to preserve a profound moment was precisely what caused me to lose one.

The experience made me wonder how many profound moments I’ve missed whenever I’ve stopped to record them with a photo, video, or social media post. I do these things because I think they’ll help me remember the moment, but I’ve discovered that what makes those moments special to me can’t be preserved through physical or digital artifacts.

I know that many people like documenting special moments with photos and videos and I appreciate why that’s valuable to them. But, speaking for myself, I’ve realized that I glean the most from a special moment when I focus on contemplation rather than collection. I see now that contemplation slows me down and helps the important aspects of an experience reach and nourish me—something that can only happen when I put my phone away and let my heart and mind occupy the moment so fully that I’m able to receive whatever the moment is trying to teach me.

Truth be told, I still enjoy looking at that photo of a gangly 17-year-old me huddled on the old stone wall, but not because it helps me recall a formative moment from my youth. I keep it because it’s a reminder that I never needed it in the first place.

Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Utne Reader

A Time for Being Sick

Part of my morning routine includes reading a chapter or two of the Tao Te Ching—the ancient book of Taoist wisdom attributed to the mythical Chinese sage Lao-tzu. I particularly like Stephen Mitchell’s modern translation from 1998 and find something in it to meditate on nearly every day.

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Recently, the following lines from Chapter 29 came in handy when I caught a particularly nasty virus:

There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted;

A stupid source of pride for me has always been defiance in the face of illness; to keep working and pushing myself as if I’m healthy. If I feel like I’m getting sick, I’ll prepare for it by taking extra work home just in case I’m not able to make it into the office the next day, and then work just as hard from home when I should be resting. This time was different, though.

In the past, the “wasted” time of a day spent in bed would have gnawed at me as I’d think about all of the work left undone. But this time, the lines from Chapter 29 came to mind, specifically: “a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted.” One of the many benefits I’ve gained from studying the Tao Te Ching is a profound respect for the polarity of this existence. In order to truly appreciate being healthy, I recognize that I must also know what it means to be sick. And allowing myself to be sick involves accepting that it will take time for the illness to run its course and for my body to return to health. Even though I didn’t turn on my laptop, I don’t remember ever having a more productive sick day. My job that day was simply to be sick and I did it well.

Along with giving my body and mind an overdue day of rest, I caught a glimpse of something else that day: contentment. While ambition and desire can be great motivators for success, I’ve found they are also the sources of disappointment and dissatisfaction when we fail to balance them. They train us to view every moment as an opportunity for advancement, but chide us when we hesitate or fall short. They keep our eyes on the future at the expense of appreciating the here and now. When you’re always thinking about what’s next, contentment becomes an illusion that’s just around the corner instead of a reality that’s right in front of your face.

It seems strange to find contentment in being sick, but that’s what happened when I switched off my ambition and desire for a bit. For me, it’s just another example of what’s possible when I slow down and allow myself to experience the present moment. Being sick obviously isn’t as fun as being healthy, but it’s still a reminder that I’m alive.

Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Utne Reader.