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.

 

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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.

Meditating on a More Meaningful Life

How daily breathing awareness is changing my life

The ability to multitask is considered an asset in the workplace. I’ve often found myself drafting an email, reading incoming messages, editing an article, and browsing art for a layout, all seemingly at once. I thought this meant I was pretty close to being as efficient and productive as possible; imagine my surprise when meditation showed me otherwise.

I’ve been meditating every morning since December. My guide is a new book by Buddhist writer Lodro Rinzler titled Sit Like a Buddha, and it’s the most accessible beginner’s guide to meditation I’ve read. Rinzler focuses on the calm-abiding meditation called shamatha; which, as he describes it, “wakes you up to what is going on in this very moment, through training in paying attention to something that embodies this moment: the breath.”

After about three weeks of 10-minute meditation every morning, I started to feel calmer and less anxious over the course of the day, which motivated me to keep doing it. I’ve since upped those 10 minutes to 15 minutes per session, and have noticed that I’ve become a better listener in conversations, more focused when reading, and far less prone to general distraction. In fact, I’m getting more done now at work than I ever did with my old approach of multitasking. If an email needs to be written I set my focus on that alone and if something distracts me, I’m quicker to recognize the distraction, which brings me back to the moment. Sooner than I know it, a concise and coherent email has been sent and I’m on to the next task. I still have as much to do every day, but I’m no longer frantically bouncing back and forth between a growing list of half-finished tasks that eventually overwhelm me. Instead, I’m fully engaged in the moment, rather than multitasking it away—an awareness that is starting to shape my life outside of the office, too.

Before beginning the shamatha practice, Rinzler asks the reader to establish a specific intent for why they want to start meditating. Mine was “to become more connected to myself, others, and the universe.” I considered less ambitious intents such as relaxation or stress-relief, but something about the notion of connection resonated with me. I realize now that the source of that particular intent was my intuition—a voice that I could barely hear anymore over the cacophony of distraction that comes with living in the 21st century. With meditation, I’ve been able to quiet the peripheral noise and listen to the voice in my head again; the voice I know I can trust to distinguish the decisions that shape a truly meaningful life from the ones that inevitably leave me feeling empty and aimless.

If you don’t believe that 10 minutes of daily breathing awareness can lead to those kinds of realizations, all I can say is give it a shot; they just may become the most important 10 minutes you spend every day.

Originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Utne Reader

Photo courtesy Sebastian Wiertz, licensed under Creative Commons.

Is Ayahuasca Right for You?

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Reviewing The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook, Chris Kilham’s backpack guide to the healing powers of the sacred Amazonian plant brew.

My first encounter with ayahuasca was through William S. Burroughs. That is to say, several years ago I read The Yage Letters, which was Burroughs’ collected correspondence with poet Allen Ginsberg as he traveled to the Amazon in search of the elusive “final fix.”

Since then, I’ve learned a great deal more about the powerful and mysterious plant-derived brew that goes by many different names. And while all accounts verify that you will, indeed, find the high that Burroughs was looking for through ayahuasca, others suggest there’s much more to glean from the experience; that the plant offers one enhanced self-awareness and even spiritual enlightenment.

Chris Kilham is a medical plant expert, author, and educator who has participated in more than 80 ayahuasca ceremonies over the past eight years. Over that span, he has become one of the foremost advocates for the healing benefits of the ayahuasca space, and has recently compiled a comprehensive introduction to the experience in The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook. Kilham approaches ayahuasca from a perspective of ultimate respect, and often refers to the plant brew by its most reverential and descriptive name, La Medicina. For Kilham and many others, ayahuasca has been so positively life-changing, that he felt compelled to write the backpack guide so that others may also safely and effectively wade into the healing waters of the ayahuasca experience.

Read the rest of this review and listen to a related podcast at Utne Reader.

Four Months Later

Four months later,
they sit surrounded by
legalistic redundancies
that line the walls
and wear starched shirts
stained with dinginess.

Mirrors to the guilty,
hot mics amplify
“yes’s,” “no’s” and “that’s correct;”
Each one another
scoop of soil
tossed onto love long dead.

Like big-city coroners,
two women toil desensitized;
Typing and filing away past lives
organized by case numbers
while one wonders how they smile
after tasks of such undertaking.

Presiding on high,
the commissioner:
“Your Honor” reduced
to non-judgmental echo
of time-wasting
paperwork mazes.

With a final query
and consequential affirmation,
“I do” digresses to “I did”
as the stenographer
drops a rose
with one last keystroke.

And outside,
two balloons
catch diverging updrafts
and float freely
having been released
from a debilitating tangle.

February, 2004

From a Leafless Perch

From a leafless perch
set back
on the bank
of a concrete stream,

it watches
with a graceful gaze
as rainbow blurs of steel
swim past
at 80 miles a second.

Lifting one
and then the other,
its talons clasp tight
atop the birch
as a cold clip blows:
Nor’easter off the lake.

Generations long since past
spent their days
stalking
from tree to tree
in a gray sky
sprinkled with snowflakes.

But today, it waits
with a priest’s patience
and casts its graceful gaze
to the wrong side of the stream
where another victim of the sprawl
laps at the dust of the bone-dry bed, then
crosses.

And as two worlds collide,
it tightens its grip
before
letting go and lifting off

from a leafless perch
set back
on the bank
of a concrete stream.

January, 2004