A Man of Letters Part II

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~

“Is the mail here yet?”

This is a favorite question at our house.

Why? Because we communicate with people through this archaic, often forgotten, totally inefficient system of paper, pens, stamps and patience.

Do you get excited when you receive a card for your birthday? Not an email but an honest to goodness, physical card that you can prop on the mantle, stick on the fridge or tape to the wall. Do you look forward to the ever dwindling number of cards that arrive as a precursor to Christmas? Does the idea of a package coming across thousands of miles, bringing you something special make you excited and eager to hear the delivery person trudging up your walk?

Me too!

I love letters, cards, packages, postcards, all of it and all of the romance, expectation, exhilaration and yes, the patient waiting that comes along with it.

I come from a time before email.

I come from a people that wrote letters, all of the time to people all over the place.

I come from a point of view that says that a piece of paper, marked in pencil, or pen can carry with it the magic of the person who marked it, and that magic with a little care, can remain with you as a memento for as long as you live.

My mother kept her stationary, whatever type had recently caught her fancy, in a large wooden box that had originally been a silverware case that she had simply removed the molded forms from and lined with emerald green velvet. Within that box were stacks of blank pages, a bundle of pens and pencils wrapped in a piece of navy blue suede and a zip lock sandwich bag containing stamps. She kept it tucked under her desk on top of an old, brown accordion file that held hundreds of letters, cards, post cards and notes that she had received during her life. That file was a chore to lift but I would often find her with letters spread all over her bed as she re-read, researched or reminisced.

Dad’s stash was drawer in his desk that contained small stacks of notecards, always of a nature theme, a hodgepodge of different sizes, colors, shapes and textures of writing paper that he had gathered from gods’ knows where and a small cigar box that contained stamps, refills for his Cross ballpoint pen and a wax seal that he seldom used but that he treasured nonetheless. It was in the form of a capital letter C for his surname and it had been made for him using his own handwriting.

Mom, dad and I exchanged letters even when we lived in the same town. Mom and I exchanged seeds from our herbal pursuits and for a couple of years, dad and I would swap back and forth snake sheds, (which the challenge was to guess the species of) dried leaves and flower petals.

My grandparents were the same, we wrote because we loved to write and because we loved each other.

Out there in the ether, in the “cloud” on the web, we store all of these dots and dashes, all of this history turned into pixels and light. But to me it is worthless in a blizzard when the power goes out, but I can still light a candle, spread out the cards, letters and notes I have saved and have the spirits of my clan around me.

There is a feeling, so fulfilling and romantic about choosing stationary, appropriate for who you are writing to, choosing a pen whose ink stands out against the paper, yet melds with it instead of clashing. Then addressing an envelope and for a long moment, pondering what that place looks like if I have never been there, or remembering something amazing about it if I have.

I constantly look for greeting cards everywhere we go, I have found beautiful ones, opened but unused in goodwill, or at the thrift store. I can easily lose an hour in the bargain bins after the holidays looking for just the right cards. The Papyrus store in Ross Park Mall used to be an Eden for me and though they were often expensive, they had such beautiful things…

I hoard smooth writing pens in my favorite letter and card writing colors, black, burgundy, purple, dark green and copper. I favor uni-ball or gel pens but for years wrote with nothing but a fountain pen but my favorite one was stolen from a café several years ago and I have not replaced it, yet.

I have owned and will own again, dozens of seals. The type that you press into hot wax to close an envelope. How I lost them is another story but there are those who will read this that have gotten letters from me, pressed closed with emerald wax with a spreading oak tree sunken into it, or purple wax, embossed with a coiled serpent.

I believe that the power that lies in magic is so often in how you create it and so I make a ritual of letter writing, I gather my tools around me, I add music to the atmosphere and almost always candlelight and then for however long it takes me to write, I do nothing else. No distractions, no side projects, no multi-tasking, there is nothing but me, the paper, my tools and my intent.

Our post office employees know me by name and will instantly show me whatever beautiful new stamps came in since my last visit and I will often agonize over which ones to add to which envelopes. By the way, stamps can be SO beautiful that there are some that I hesitate to use, but I always do.

Why?

Because writing to people is an act of love.

The letters and the cards need not be romantic, they need not be love letters, but there is a sacrifice, a mindfulness required when writing a letter, there is an honesty that is called for, there is an intention in creating something that may well out live us and then sending it off through a series of human hands, machines and various way stations along the road.

And I defy any of you to say that you have never been moved by a card or letter you have received. Or barring that, that you cannot imagine being moved by one, that you could not find yourself humbled and touched by the act of someone creating something for you out of their thoughts, effort and intention and then trusting it to strangers to bring it into your hands.

Some of you young folks may never have received, nor sent a “snail mail” letter or card and my heart breaks for you. As a matter of fact, I will go a step further. If you have never received a card, or a letter, hand written by someone, get in touch with me and I will personally remedy that, because you deserve to know how it feels.

That extends to any of you. If you wish to write back and forth with me, I would be honored, and perhaps we can reinvigorate the art of the letter, now wouldn’t that be beautiful!

I promise you, that once you have tried it, once you have jotted some thoughts, a quote, a poem, or have even torn your very soul out and put it on the page for another person to read, that you have missed one of the greatest and most honest feelings that you will ever have.

We all love to receive evidence that someone is thinking of us, and we should do that for each other, for as long as we can…

Take care of each other…

A Man of Letters Part I

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Dear Friends,

 

That is how I often begin.

You see, I write to people. To people, to companies, to commercial entities, to heroes, to inspirations, and to people that I hope to be friends with, and I have done it for most of my life.

I am gregarious, an extrovert, one of “those” people, a force of nature, a person that will talk to absolute strangers about anything, at any time, for any reason and nearly always be better for having done so.

I live for interaction, I thrive on conversation and feel at my best when engaged with people in personal interactions, face to face on any subject that is genuine, honest and filled with life.

It is for this reason that I write to people.

My grandmother, who I have mentioned before was every bit as gregarious as I am, taught me a valuable lesson when I was just a kid, maybe six or seven years old. We were eating in a little Italian restaurant, the whole family was gathered together, and mom, dad, grand-da, grandmother and I and we witnessed a man angrily complaining to the manager at great volume because his dinner was not up to his expectations.

My grandmother explained to me that as a consumer, the man had the right to complain if the service or the product wasn’t what he felt he had paid for. “But…” she said, “He also has the obligation to pay compliments for services or products that exceed his expectations, but few people do that anymore.”

So when it was time to pay our tab, the waitress, who had been very nice to us through our entire visit, asked us if everything had been okay and I spoke up. “The meatballs with my spaghetti were the best I have ever had, thank you!”

The waitress, who had also served the complaining man lit up as if she had been given an award! She smiled, she told me that that was wonderful and it was so nice of me to say so, and then she said, “Hold on a minute.”

She disappeared into the kitchen and returned a minute later with a diminutive old man in an apron covered in tomato sauce stains. He has an enormous hawk nose and bright, almost angry eyes. He came up to the table and the young lady pointed me out. He looked me up and down and just at the point that I thought he was going to yell at me or something, he smiled, hugely, and stuck out his hand.

That is how I met Angelo Capriatti. The meatballs were his recipe, as were most of the things on the menu and he was very proud of them. He focused on me, talked to me, thanked me for the compliment and then do you know what he did? He took me into his kitchen and showed me around.

It was an incredible experience to see all of that stainless steel, the huge stockpots simmering away and all of the produce waiting to be transformed. I left the restaurant that day with a carry out container that held six of the amazing meatballs and a new addiction; complimenting people.

I never made things up. Never said nice things where they weren’t deserved, but if I had an amazing meal or even a component of a meal, I would say something. If I saw someone with a beautiful article of clothing on, an exquisite car or an amazing dog, I would speak up and watch their faces transform.

It made me happy, it made them happy and also gave me some amazing experiences and even a few lifelong friends.

It was a few years later, when I was in my teens that I read an amazing book called Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish by Morgan Llywelyn and was so moved by it that I decided to sit down and pen her a letter. I found an address for her publisher and sent my gushing, heavy handed fan letter off to her in care of that office.

My mom had encouraged me to write the letter but had also given me fair warning to not expect too much if anything in return.

It turned out that she was right. For a while.

It took nearly three months but then suddenly one afternoon there was an envelope in our mailbox, addressed to me by a careful and feminine hand. Inside was a beautiful, hand written three page letter, answering all of my questions, replying to each of my compliments and saying how my letter had been the nicest she had ever received. I was moved beyond words and kept that letter for many years until it was lost to a flood in a storage locker I once kept.

I maintained a correspondence with Ms. Llywelyn for many years after that and we still exchange the occasional email and I am eternally grateful to her for the kindness she showed in replying to that overzealous teenager’s massive letter.

From these experiences grew a habit, a way of life, a way of looking at things that has served me well to this day and I am going to share this poorly kept secret with you right now.

Write to people.

That’s it.

Have you ever sat down and pounded out a strongly worded email to a restaurant about finding a bone in your chicken cordon bleu? Ever sent a complaint to a chip company because they were selling you more air than chips? Have you ever complained to a company about how a piece of clothing fell apart or because their deodorant made your armpits feel like the Everglades?

Most likely you have dropped some kind of missive bomb like that at some point, but how about on the opposite end of the spectrum?

I send dozens of emails a year. To restaurants, clothing companies, car manufacturers, food companies, writers, teachers, journalists, naturalists, to pretty much anyone really. And you know the honest truth? I have about a 90% response rate. I consider a response as something that is actually written by a human being, directly addressing my message. Automatic form emails don’t count.

But I don’t do it for the responses, though they are wonderful and I do cherish them, I do it because I feel that people work hard to create things, people struggle to add things to the story of your life while simultaneously adding to their own and I think that they hear constantly from people, telling them what a crappy job that they are doing and I think that they deserve to hear the upside of what they are doing as well.

I try to never sound mechanical. I gush a bit, because truthfully, if something made me happy enough to write, then it deserves to be complimented. I always introduce myself, describe how I encountered their product, or my experience with their goods or service and I always leave them a couple of methods to reach me back and offer to answer any questions they have.

I receive emails, letters, coupons, free products, invitations behind the scenes at museums and zoos and occasionally I am asked to review products for them and all of those things are a wonderful bonus, but the truth is that my addiction is to saying something nice to someone who deserves it.

Do it. Sit down and write to the restaurant you had the great tacos at. Tell Hyundai how much you absolutely adore that one thing about your car and how it makes you happy every day. Write to your favorite author, drop a journalist that moved your spirit a line, send a letter to a hero and then, with your heart full from the act of doing it, move on with your life.

You never know what may turn up in your inbox a few days, weeks or months later…

But does that part really matter?

 

Tomorrow in Part 2 we will talk about the beautiful art of sending letters, cards and packages…

 

Take care of each other

Windchimes ~ In honor of International Women’s Day

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~

My mother cursed me with windchimes.

Our ancient apple tree hung with them by the dozens. They lined the awning over the front porch, dangled here and there from the dogwood, the crabapple, and the Japanese maple. Our gardens rang with any breath, with any breeze, and during storms, our Eden could be heard for a hundred yards in any direction.

I do not know what the neighbors thought about it, because like so many other things that were different about us, I think that they were afraid to say anything. I would hear the rumors second, third or fourth hand, “They do voodoo. They’re witches. They are with the devil.” Well, maybe but does that make us bad?

Just kidding of course, there was no devil in our belief systems.

But if you were sympathetic, you could almost see where they got it all. After all, we lived in a house filled with snakes and other cold blooded denizens. My father was a one eyed poet with a hair trigger temper and a glass eye that never blinked. I was a long haired kid that had to be forced, kicking and screaming into shoes from April through September, and could quote Horace, Poe and Buddha with equal aplomb. And then there was my mother.

Mother was a red-head, freckled and pale, willowy and lithe, with startling blue eyes that she often hid behind tinted lenses. She dressed like a combination of a Bedouin dancer and one of the aunts from Practical Magic, and was never without her little amulets, talismans and rings.

She ghosted about our gardens with her gigantic floppy hats, taking a cutting here, pulling seeds there, tasting a tomato and chasing it with a rolled up basil leaf before moving across the yard to talk to her nightshade plants and her still young morning glories.

She carried a mug with her everywhere she went in the garden. But what it contained was as variable as the season, the time of day and the mood she happened to be in. It could be sassafras tea, lemon balm and pineapple mint iced tisane, cold coffee or our homemade wine.

She also always carried blades, knives, scissors, or clippers, anything that she could use to harvest with. The most sacred or important plants were cut with a little sheath knife that her grandmother had used on the island when she kept the garden.

In the pockets of her garden dresses, and there were always pockets, were tiny envelopes, felt tipped pens in green and purple, lengths of yarn and chalk line and her ever present cigarettes and matches. Mother almost never used lighters, she said it negated some of the magic.

But you can imagine the image we presented, like rejects from a failed hippie, voodoo, witchy, lunatic asylum mash-up, and so no, nobody ever complained about the cacophony of windchimes, at least not to us.

Mother was a subversive, sneaky, ninja feminist. She was not an activist in the sign carrying, fists raised, and write to your congressman kind of way. No, mom struck at the roots, she talked to children about respecting their mothers, she talked to mothers about respecting themselves, she told women all the time how special they were and in many cases, helped them prove it to themselves.

I remember her saying things like, “How on earth can a man be superior to the creature he was birthed from? And which he needs to birth anymore? Doesn’t make sense to me.” Or “You never hear anyone call it “father earth” do you?” or the scarily correct, “The louder a man is about his hatred for women, the bigger of a momma’s boy he likely is.”

She would not tolerate disrespect leveled toward her or toward any woman that she respected. I saw her come to the defense of strangers in public which must have been terrifying for her because she was a serious introvert with major confrontation issues. I once saw her snap on four teenage boys because they were teasing a girl a year or so older than they were and by the time she was done, they looked like they had all been handed their asses by a titan. And in a way, they had been.

She spoke her mind to me, which was difficult because her mind was vast, complicated, conflicted, obsessive, melancholy, magical and sometimes completely off kilter. She gave wonderful advice that she herself would not, or could not follow. She was life giving and self-destructive, she was a healer that killed herself with slow precision, she was a people lover who was an absolute basket case in a crowd, she was elegant, graceful and almost ethereal when she danced but she preferred to teach others and watch them blossom than to hear the applause herself.

I have had many father figures that made me into many things, naturalist, poet, warrior, outdoorsman, survivalist, biker and chef, but it was the women who gave me temperance and the wisdom to make all of those disparate piece into me.

From my maternal grandmother I learned that strength without kindness is ugly and worthless.

From my aunt Evie I learned that guests were important and to show them comfort and remember the things that they love and they will always return to visit and brighten your life.

From Madeline Modic I learned that gardening is so much easier than everyone else makes it out to be but only if your heart is green and you genuinely care about the plants and their happiness. If all you think about is the harvest, or the flowers, the plants will not give you their all.

From Tonya Guesman, Regine Fougères, Bonnie Mikulla and Mary Duncan I learned that family is more than blood and that you can have as many brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers as your heart has room for.

From Mary Louise Johnson I learned that being different, being a huge personality, being the biggest voice in a room isn’t necessarily a bad thing and if you learn how to control it, it can open a million doors.

From Morgan Llywelyn I learned that a good story can inspire you, guide you, and make you fall in love and then break your heart and make you love it all the more. And for teaching me that you are never too big to write back to a fan.

My Lady Gypsy has taught me to forgive, to cherish the joy while letting the chaff fall away. She has taught me that my vision, my voice and my art are worthwhile and she has taught me to go ahead and follow my whimsy. But most of all, she has led me to a place where I have found myself, renewed, reborn and awake again and for that I am forever grateful.

All of them, plus dozens more (and if you are reading this, I mean you) have taught me that strength, femininity, grace, toughness, beauty and boldness are not mutually exclusive and that I for one am eternally thankful for the women who have made me who I am.

Take care of yourselves and each other…

The Snake Whisperer Part 1

It is tremendously easy to say something flippant like “I was born among snakes and that is why I like them.” But, it doesn’t always work that way, does it? I read stories all the time about family businesses shutting down because the next generation couldn’t care less about their parents’ passions.

I know musicians who wish their children would pick up an instrument and give it a try, but some of them never do. Immersion in something from childhood does not guarantee a love for that thing.

That being said, I was born among snakes and I still love them.

This past weekend Gypsy and I were lucky enough to spend a wonderful Sunday morning among friends and amazing creatures at the Pittsburgh Reptile Show in Cheswick Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh show is not huge by any means but what it does contain is a group of dedicated reptile breeders that genuinely love their animals and in my opinion strive for the safe, healthy propagation of the animals in their care.

We have only missed this monthly show a handful of times in the past three years. We go to see beautiful animals, visit with some of the most magical friends and to just basically enjoy a couple of hours immersed in one of our greatest passions.

My father loved, collected, kept and studied snakes for much of his 94 years on this planet and I find myself sometimes on this strange teeter-totter of emotion about that because at any given reptile show I may see half a dozen animals that my father with a lifetime of experience never got to experience.

This post is about a couple of those animals, though it may veer a bit into my views on animal keeping.

Our dear friends George and Desiree own a very cool pet store in Coraopolis Pa. called Off the Hook exotics and they were kind enough to bring this beautiful creature with them. I am not sure if he has a name but I nicknamed him Kreature after the house-elf in Harry Potter. Kreature is a Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus) that in and of itself is not unusual. Dad had probably a dozen of them in his lifetime and I have had at least that many in mine.

They are one of my favorite snakes in the world but the reason that I have not owned more of them is that they get huge. The retic is the longest snake in the world. Females can get upwards of twenty feet, pushing thirty and males can reach lengths of a dozen feet or more. In order to correctly house and care for such snakes in a way that maintains their quality of life is a very difficult task. And so, though we both loved them for the beautiful animals that they are, we have not sought them out and only kept ones that we took in as rescues.

But you see, here is where Kreature becomes a rarity. He is a naturally occurring dwarf python from an island locality known for producing smaller retics. He is several years old and between 6 and 7 feet long. Here he is.

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He sadly belongs to a friend of George & Desiree and so is not available but if he was, I would likely be trying to decide which kidney I could sell to buy him. He and I spent about 90 minutes together, just enjoying each other’s company as hundreds of people moved around us. I answered questions, helped dispel fears and allowed tiny children to touch Kreature’s miraculous skin and sent them on their way with the knowledge that they had touched the longest species of snake in the world.

I can only imagine the look of wonder on Dad’s face had he been around to see this snake. Beauty, intelligence, (yes, snakes can be very smart. Much smarter than they are given credit for.) and personality combined to make this one of the most awesome pythons I have ever been around and I want to thank George and Desiree for the opportunity.

Here are Kreature and I sharing a moment.

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There are two factions waging a secret, under the surface war in the reptile community. There are those to whom snakes and reptiles in general are nothing but a business. They breed thousands of snakes and their animals spend their entire lives in opaque plastic bins, in towering rack systems, seldom if ever handled and given no stimulation other than feeding and breeding and never knowing sunlight or fresh air.

The other group, the ones like me believe that these animals need to be cared for, stimulated, given a good, happy, pleasant life. There is an absolutely spot on moment in Jurassic world where Claire, the super a-type corporate suit says to CEO Masrani:

Claire: “We don’t have a way to measure the animals’ emotional experience.”

Masrani replies, “Sure you do. You can see in their eyes, right?”

That gets a rush out of me every time!

We handle our animals all the time, and I pick up every snake that I can. And not to brag on myself but I am pretty good at this. I am jokingly referred to several of our friends as the “Snake Whisperer.”

Just this past show, another of our friends, Eric who owns Midgard serpents had an absolutely beautiful young female Jungle Carpet python with him. I asked him if he minded if I took the lid off of her container so that Gypsy could photograph her. Eric warned me that she was bitey and that I was welcome to take the risk. Gypsy took a couple of pictures of her and then said, “Take her out so I can get better pictures.” You could see the smile creep onto Eric’s face, he knew that I was going to get nailed as this female bites him every time he handles her. So I pulled her from the container and she was flighty for a minute or so and then began to settle down.

Much to Eric’s disappointment, I held her for about twenty minutes before patiently working her back into her container and thanking him, all without getting bitten.

This is her.

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I don’t mind being bitten, but I am not afraid of it. I have known far worse pains than snake bites and I know their reasons for what they do and if they are going to bite me, then they are and there is nothing I can really do to stop them and so I just don’t concern myself with it. I am never nervous around them and it just seems to go in my favor and so perhaps I have a gift, perhaps it is just luck… That isn’t for me to say.

 

End of Part 1

On Love

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Here in the shadow of Valentine’s Day, I find myself drawn to talk about love.

I am tempted to make reference to Nietzsche’s words, “That which is done of love, takes place beyond good and evil.”

Or even to give voice to Lao Tzu, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”

But in the end, words given to you by someone that you cannot know personally can often seem to have a hollower ring, even if they touch you and speak to what you feel, and so, I will tell you what I know. And you can know me, talk to me, question me, and I will give you all the knowledge that I have.

Love is not hard. Love is not painful. Love is not troublesome, or blind, or stupid and love is never done for the wrong reasons.

We bind up a million other emotions, needs, distractions, expectations and illusions with love and mistake them for the actual emotion of love, but love does not have a painful component.

It is only when it is knotted together with loss, lust or longing or confused with greed that it becomes painful to us, but love is the sun in our emotional world and even at night it shines as evidenced by its reflection on the face of the moon.

The metaphorical heart, that symbol splashed across the face of American culture each February is actually a function of our tremendously complicated brains. We feel love in our breasts but it burns in our skulls, it makes butterflies in our stomachs but hatches their cocoons in our ever beautiful minds.

Do you love? Of course you do. Do you love someone who doesn’t love you? Probably. Do you understand that love is not exclusively meant for your significant other, parents, children and siblings? Maybe. Do you allow yourself to love as much as your mind wants to? Probably not.

Why not?

To explain what I feel, I will offer this quote by one of my greatest heroes, a fictional journalist named Spider Jerusalem, created by the mad genius Warren Ellis. “I can fall in love eighty times a day just by stepping out onto the street and opening my eyes.”

Now does this mean that I am out finding eighty committed relationships a day? Or that I am taking eighty lovers, or even lasting friendships each day? No. What it means is that I can allow my heart to take people in to it for even a moment, and I can do it with as many of them deserve it.

I have loved little old ladies at the farmers’ market that giggled when I told them that they were already sweet and didn’t need that clover honey.

I have loved tiny children whose eyes pop open as wide as planets when I vanish a coin for them on the bus between little towns.

I have loved grumpy, silver haired men that tear up when they talk about things that they saw in the war, or the girl that wasn’t there when they got home.

I have fallen unabashedly in love with musicians, dancers, artists and the occasional street performer.

I have loved animals that I have worked with, owned and even ones I have encountered briefly on my travels through life.

I love a few people that I have never met. Authors, teachers, amazing people who I have been inspired and changed by.

I have even fallen in love with a few people that don’t exist. Don’t judge me, I am not in any way unhappy or ashamed of this. Or if it makes you feel better, go ahead and judge me but be aware that it doesn’t affect me or how I love.

I love my friends, and will tell them, freely, all the time, because people need to know that they are loved and more than that, that they are worthy of love.

And you are.

If you think to yourself that only one in a million people could love you, then you’re in luck because that means there are more than seven thousand people out there who will find you just perfect.

I cannot tell you how to love. No one can do that. It is as hard wired into our matrixes as anything we do. But what I can do, is offer a little bit of advice from someone who is a lover, someone who loves and doesn’t regret loving.

Our heart is resilient, powerful, and self-repairing. It will break, and it will fix itself and it is capable of a vast amount of loving, even when it is shattered into melancholy scarlet shards.

Go out, physically and metaphorically, go out and fall in love! Do it every day. Open yourself to the experience of loving someone without expectation. Love is a gift you give yourself and so does not require payment. You can love someone without the requirement of them loving you back because loving them just means that you see them, truly see them and appreciate their existence in your life.

Love violently, completely, like a thunderstorm. Let it fill the sky and light up the darkness and if it passes, it leaves growth and beauty behind it. Love doesn’t have to be permanent, it doesn’t have a term limit or a shelf life, you are permitted to love for an hour, or for a lifetime.

Be passionate about yourself and your life. Love what you do, or find something else to do! Be passionate, even in your mistakes! Throw your heart into the ring with everything you do and it will echo in your life, your work and on your face and you will be stunned by the way it changes the way people react to you.

Hug, kiss, touch and compliment people as often as you can, and you give them permission to do the same. We are all seeking permission to have connection, we are all seeking to have some level of love with the lovely creatures around us.

And lastly, love without shame or regret. Never shackle your love with those two emotions or you will cut its wings from it. You love who you love, regardless of the prevailing winds of society, regardless of who lives in the white house, who lives down your street or who serves your meals. So much stigma has become attached to gay marriage, to gender in general, but the heart sees none of that. The heart sees love and love only and if you are ashamed of who you love, then you have betrayed the most pure thing that has been given you.

The same goes for your passions. From the type of music and movies you love to the types of food you adore and the way you barely play guitar but love the act of trying, let no one ever make you feel that your love for these things is unworthy.

I tell you these things because I love. I love every day and it has made my life beautiful and to know and I mean KNOW that you are loved back, even by someone who isn’t “yours” is the most wonderful feeling in the world.

Take care of each other…

Sacred

Today is Imbolc, pronounced i-MOLG, and it is one of my favorite holidays and crossroads of the year.

The celebration itself is ancient and its origins are shrouded in conjecture, mystery and the whimsy of antiquity.

What we do know is that Imbolc is celebrated today on the first of February as it is close to the halfway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox and so it considered a turning point, a beginning of the spring season and a celebration of the lengthening days.

When Christianity swept through the British Isles, this holiday, which was thought to originally honor the Goddess Brigid was appropriated, along with the Goddess herself, who then became Saint Brigid in order to more easily sway the pagans into conversion.

But that part of the story has little if any impact on me when stacked next to the feeling, spiritual weight and magic of this day.

I am fascinated by intersections, confluences, crossroads, bridges, anything that either physically or symbolically represents a transition from one place, or state of being to another, and this one is big for me because I am not, I am loathe to admit, a big fan of winter.

Imbolc for me is a festival, a rite of fire, where we light candles, lanterns, torches, bonfires, anything we can to remind the sun that it is in heat and light that we find growth. We light candles to drive back the darkness, not because we fear it, but because we are craving warmth. We ourselves shine our inner light on those that we love and those that need us in order to bring nature and the spirit of spring into ourselves and perhaps gently push the process along.

Imbolc is a time for filling our bellies with warm food, good tea and heating the air with stories, songs, kisses and laughter.

Imbolc is a reminder that because the world, the earth, nature is alive and vital, that we are to be as well.

Among my Pagan, Wiccan, non-christian friends, Imbolc has always been a time of creative rites and celebrations. We have filled snowy clearings with blue candles arranged in spirals. We have built hanging cage fires on frozen ponds. We have sculpted goddesses from snow and then burned candles in their bellies that gradually turned them to water, allowing the air to once again take the moisture up and make it into more precipitation to nourish the ground.

Today I will symbolically plant seeds, today I will cook warm, belly filling meals, today I will write poetry filled with fire and love and today I will try to help people, I will try and encourage them and I will try and remember that each day, the sun stays with us a minute or two longer.

I will burn candles in all of the rooms of the house, and some out in the wind and snow too. I will tend to my plants and talk to the snakes and lizards that share my home and tonight, we will gather around our table and offer up food and love to each other and to all those gone on before us and those following us through the shadows into the light.

But beyond all of this, there is a symbolism in that we, through all of our pain, difficulty, loss and sorrow have come to brighter times, brighter days and things will improve. Aye, indeed, there may again come dark days but there will be turning points and it is important to greet them with gratitude, enthusiasm and joy.

That is something that I think that a lot of us miss. Gratitude. We get caught in the quagmire of all of the things we don’t have and all of the struggles that we are facing and we forget about all of the things we have and we forget how blessed we our with our gifts, our loved ones and the world that we do have access to.

I am often accused of being lost in my whimsy. That all of my little rites, rituals and symbolic gestures don’t really mean anything, but I cannot disagree with that strongly enough. What are we here for if not for the creation of temporary moments of beauty, tranquility and love?

I think it is our greatest purpose to chain together multiple acts of magic, multiple islands of joy in the daily rigmarole, make, through our efforts, small, or huge, sanctuaries for the spirit where for a minute, a day or a year, a tired being can just breathe, can inhale clean air, find a moment of peace and remember to smile.

While looking through a book in Half-price books the other day I saw a photograph that stopped me in my tracks. It was a beautiful stone Buddha, slightly weathered, a small amount of moss beginning to color its shoulders. The Buddha was photographed in profile. It was seated on a stone in the middle of a black pool of water, and the pool itself was surrounded by beautiful, natural rounded stones. All of this was in a clearing in a pine forest and there was a fresh fall of snow on the ground. The image was everything about beauty, peace and tranquility. It was one of those islands I spoke of above.

I have been unable to find out who owns that Buddha or the place it is residing but I will, and I will because I want to personally thank them for the thing that they created, to tell them that I am grateful for the beauty that they have inserted into the world.

What are you grateful for? Who are you thankful for? Do they know it? Today, on this ancient holiday, take a moment, here at the crossroads to acknowledge to yourself and to those people that you appreciate them.

I am burning candles and sitting at my keyboard this morning, because I appreciate you and I want to offer you a couple of moments of beauty and distraction.

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I hope it helps…

Blessed Imbolc and take care of each other…

Take Note ~ Journaling

“For any writer who wants to keep a journal, be alive to everything, not just to what you’re feeling, but also to your pets, to flowers, to what you’re reading.”  ~ May Sarton

Last night our family conversation drifted into journal keeping.

My father kept journals for about the last thirty five years of his life. I have many of them and their value to me is immense, but I saw how vital they were to dad as well. He often referred back to them to find locations, dates, names of people or when a certain experience in nature happened so that he could see if it was a single occurrence or cyclic.

My father, beginning in elementary school, taught himself Spencerian script. He wrote in it through the length of his life and examples of his handwriting were sought out by teachers, historians and calligraphers all over the country. When you received a letter, handwritten from my father, you held within your hands a labor of love and you knew it.

So within my possession are thousands of pages, elegantly penned, that speak of a life lived for nature, for immersion in the wild world, and for his efforts to share and teach what he knew. But buried within those pages are frustrations, hopes, dreams and rage. They contain diaries of vacations and memorials of those who had died. Sadness over broken friendships, discoveries of his own gifts and his utter, childlike delight in the green and natural world.

They are my father, whispering to himself, all of the things that he thought were important, beautiful or rife with meaning.

An entry from one of Dad’s journals showing his exquisite penmanship.

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I journaled quite a bit. For years, dad and I would always have either our tiny notebooks or our full sized journals with us everywhere we went and you could find us sitting at picnic tables at the end of wonderful days recording what we had seen, heard, felt and learned. It was one of the things that connected us greatly during the middle years of our time together.

I had about two dozen journals of differing design, filled cover to cover with thoughts, poems, observances, confessions, drawings, pressed leaves, pieces of my broken heart and all of the other myriad things that fell into those pages. During one of my last hospitalizations, those books were destroyed by the negligence and carelessness (and perhaps callousness of others) but that isn’t what this is about.

Gypsy and I were impressing upon Erych that journaling would be good for him and in so doing, we found ourselves both bitten with the bug to begin journal keeping again.

What will a journal cost you? Depending on your needs, a good usable journal can set you back from $0.99 for a spiral bound notebook at your local drugstore, to hundreds of dollars for hand bound leather books with handmade satin paper pages, but plan to spend six to ten dollars for a nicely bound book that will stand up to being opened all the way and won’t begin to drop pages after a few weeks of use.

By the way, I discourage keeping digital journals. While there are certainly wonderful journaling apps and programs out there, I believe that it limits creativity, self-evaluation and the loss of the tactile sense of an actual book is pretty serious. I have tried electronic journaling and it left me with the same feeling that tofurkey does. It will keep you from starving, but it isn’t what you want…

What kind of journal you should buy will most likely be a journey of discovering your own needs. Do you prefer lined or unlined pages, perfect binding, spiral bound or top bound? Do you draw as much as you write, do you need bigger pages to fill with doodles, sketches or plans? Are you like me and do you only write on the fronts of pages? I do it because I have a heavy writing hand and if I write on both sides, I invariably poke holes in the pages which is a disheartening thing.

Dad wrote front and back and always in ballpoint pen. I prefer rollerball pens, but I also fall into times when I work in sharpies, felt tipped pens, mechanical pencils, crayons and colored pencils. I have also done finger paintings in my journals using my own blood. (Don’t ask, it was a complicated time.)

So for an investment of less than ten dollars, (and let’s face it, if you are reading this, you most likely already have at least the writing implements section of this covered) you have a medium and method for self-discovery and self-expression that is pretty much unrivaled in the modern world.

My current journal and one of Dad’s old ones, along with my current favorite pen.
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“Okay, okay, I get it, it isn’t expensive or complicated, but why should I add something ELSE to my already full plate?”

I hear you. I get it. But here’s the thing. Journaling, especially if done with regularity will help so many other aspects of your life.

Because I believe in having people do much of their own research, I will only give you the basics here, but trust me, I have vetted them out.

Stress reduction. Writing out your pain, your frustrations, your angers and your problems, helps ease the burden of them and often helps us find solutions that were lost in the clutter of our emotions.

Writing activates the left brain, which while engaged, encourages the creative right side of your brain to be free to make connections, seek solutions and express itself within the writing itself.

Journaling is also a journey of self-discovery. We often find clues or glaring declarations of our own passions written with open honesty within our journal pages. The key there is to not exaggerate. Do not try to make yourself grandiose. Remember that the journal is a confessor, not something that is truly meant for others and so you are free to be yourself within those pages, with no call to impress or to pretend passion for something that you truly have no love for.

There is an anonymous quote that says, “When you have to make a hard decision, flip a coin. When that coin is in the air, you suddenly know what you’re hoping for.” It is the same with journaling. If you allow yourself to be honest with the pages, all the time, your truth will find its way onto the paper.

Gypsy and I have decided that we are going to take Erych out later this week and let him pick out a journal. Then we are going to have at least one evening a week (hopefully more often) when we sit for an hour and do nothing else but write in our journals. I actually got the jump on this and filled three pages this morning and it feels amazing to be back at it.

I encourage you to join us. Pick up something to write with, something to write on and see what it does for you and see what emerges from it. I do not think that you will be disappointed.

Take care of each other and yourselves.

Frankenstein Heart

fog

~

It is difficult to be vulnerable.

To allow yourself to place your heart on the chopping block and take the risk that the person you are showing it to will not drive a knife through it and walk away, laughing.

It is also very easy to stab someone through the heart this way, especially once it has been done to you.

For much of my life was the well armored clown. The man who made you laugh, kept you at ease, kept you amused, anything to keep you from looking too closely at me, close enough to see the flaws, the broken pieces, the scars, the still seeping wounds and the fear…

I am a master magician. I am flawless in my misdirection, I can conjure dragons and peonies from the very air if it keeps you from noticing my pain.

I have also become a master surgeon, I have grown quite skillful at taking my butchered heart and binding it back together with staples, wire and butcher’s twine. In my romantic’s mind, I like to think of the Japanese custom of repairing broken pottery with gold, thus making the flaws beautiful and so I hope that my jigsaw heart has been made more beautiful because of its suffering, but I am not sure.

My journey over the last year or so has been profound. It has altered me more than any other path I have followed in my life. More than the years studying Zen, more than my life as a martial artist, a practicing pagan or a poet and author. In the last year I have come at last to the big reveal and though I am far from the end of this road, I can finally understand the beauty of my Frankenstein heart.

In this era of social media, much of the world has found a home for their hate, their anger, their frustrations, it is seemingly a world with no consequences. I do not like to believe that it is human nature to be hateful, to mock those different from you, to belittle others for their character, but there is so much of it to be seen that it must be true, right?

I don’t think so.

As it has always been, the most insecure, angry and hateful are the ones who are the most willing to be loud, to scream their opinions from the parapets and to force change through fear of reprisals. But beneath that blackened surface lies a whole world of beautiful people. Ones who love with all they have, support others with every fiber of themselves and care for even the most misunderstood.

We notice the monsters more because they are the ones that make our hearts hurt. We scroll through our timelines, we dial through our radio stations, we flip through our newspapers and we almost instinctively find the things that make us believe that the world that we know and love is coming to an end.

This is not just about this election and inauguration. This isn’t about any political stance, this is about the spirit of mankind.

I do not believe that everyone can be saved.

There, I have said it.

Humans are flawed, like any other organism, but unlike most of the others, we do not have a natural culling process that weeds out the ones that disrupt the balance of nature, the ones that keep it from being all that it can be.

Now, I know, some of you that have been reading me for years are beginning to think, “Ah, there is the old bloodthirsty bastard I remember, about to call for a killing.”

Sorry to disappoint you, but no.

Here is today’s metaphor. We are on a gigantic sinking ship, but some of us have found a raft, a huge one that looks like life and have climbed aboard.

It is now our job to look around.

Here is what you will see.

There will be the loudest ones, the ones screaming about how faulty the ship was, and how weak we are for climbing on board the raft instead of floating around waiting for god or the government to save us. They will blame the ocean for stealing their ship. They will claim that it sank because we are not Christian, or because we are sexually experimental, or because we don’t see skin color in our judgements. They will scream for attention and as they scream, the ocean will rush in and one by one, begin to take them down.

Then there will be those who are just floating, not even noticing that the boat has gone down, they will be glued to their devices, to their stock portfolios, they will only notice that the world has changed when they go to buy themselves something to make themselves feel more complete and discover that they died long ago.

Lastly, there will be the important ones. The ones with the desperate tears streaming from their eyes, the ones looking at us unsure if they can trust us, the ones that have been whipped, wounded or sure that they are about to be whipped or wounded. The scared, creative, solitary, introverted people with hearts so bright that you can see them even below the surface.

Save every last one of them.

Let the rest go.

It is for the best.

Now is a time for bravery.

Look around, you know that one friend or family member who cannot change or be reasoned with, that one person who lives for the celebration of their hate and bigotry.

Call out to them, once.

Tell them that there is room on your raft.

If they refuse, then turn away and look for someone else.

Let them go.

It may seem cruel but now is no time for tilting at windmills, now is a time for burning bridges so that we can use the light from that fire to see the road ahead.

We can burn them, because we built them and can do it again.

Come onto my raft, there is plenty of room within the sound of my Frankenstein heart…

Take care of each other.

Gardens in the Trenches

Last night, one of the most compassionate people I know had a moment. She posted about it on facebook and when it scrolled through my timeline, it made me pause. She spoke of being adrift, scared when facing the world that we have currently sculpted for ourselves and upset because she felt that she was not able to adequately help others who felt the same because she wasn’t sure there was any hope to be found.

I felt terrible when reading her words because I too feel many of those fears, worries, inadequacies, and feel woefully underprepared for the what if’s posted to me, especially by my step-son.

But as I thought about it, I realized that this is what we are best at. If you remove government, corporations and commerce from the equation, if you slap media out of the conversation and get right down to it, we can be pretty amazing to each other.

Sure, there are people out there who are quite horrible, to other people, to the environment, and just in general, but take a step back and think for a moment, ask yourself this question, “What can I do in the face of such wanton disregard and inhumanity?”

The answer is that you can be kind.

Yes, our country is on the verge of tearing itself asunder but our country, on the most basic of levels is not us. Sure, the country is made up of us, but we are made up of 75% water and it does not make us a birdbath.

Do you remember a proverb that circulated back in the mid to late 90’s that said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Hillary Clinton used it in a book title and it was attributed to be an African proverb, though there is some controversy as to its origins. Be that as it may, it is nevertheless true.

But it isn’t only children, we need community, tribe, family, a group of people around us that we can rely on to be kind to each other.

For all of human history, as things were happening in the upper echelons of society, things that could often lead us to very bad ends, things that could mean our very lives and deaths, you could find tiny pockets of people who strove to look after one another on the most basic human levels, with love, caring and kindness.

This is not me saying that we should not be politically involved, I am not saying “Let’s retreat from the grid and build a commune.” and I am not saying that what is happening does not matter. But I am saying that while we are aware of what is happening and we will deal with it and be involved, we will also protect, care for and be kind to our village, our tribe, and those people around us that right now, need a little extra reassurance.

My step-son is transgender, bi and eccentric as hell and this new administration scares the hell out of him. He worries for himself and for his rights in the future. He worries at the open mockery, hate and divisiveness that he is seeing thrown up on a constant basis by the media and around the dinner tables of his less than enlightened associations.

How do we contend with it? How do we make sure he knows that he is safe? How do we show our support and help him feel safe? By doing those exact things. We contend with it. We talk about it, when he wants to talk about it. We do not shrug off his concerns, we address them, right then and there and we make sure that we have truly answered his questions and reassured him before we move on.

We cannot be with him every minute of the day, but we make sure constantly that he knows that we have his back, or her back, depending on the day. He is still finding his way and I tell him all the time, “So am I Sparkle Boy, so am I.”

I read Jenna’s post and it made me tear up and wish for arms long enough to reach her, but her tribe has her back and so all I did was try to hold up the mirror and remind her of her worthiness, her magic and her kindness. Isn’t that what we should all be doing for each other, all the time?

It is, but we forget.

The barrage is endless. One side is calling us oversensitive, mocking the strides we have made in equal rights, and all the while rushing to stuff their pockets with as much as they can, all the while screaming, “You can’t have any, it’s all mine!”

Meanwhile, the other side can’t stop finger pointing long enough to do any lasting good and are so lost in their own agendas, causes and fears that they can’t stop long enough to say, “It is important to help everyone, but right here in front of me is someone suffering and they need me for a moment, an hour or a day.”

Is it missing the forest for the trees? Sometimes. But each tree has needs, and while it is vastly important to preserve the forest, the suffering of so many individual trees is just as big of a threat.

Do something for someone close to you that needs it. Pull your head out of the sand or climb down off of the soapbox for just long enough to help one or two real, flesh and blood people that need you. And if you are scared, overwhelmed, suffering, reach out.

Here in the trenches of the world, we are growing gardens and in those gardens we are doing something that makes us worthy of our time here. We are loving one another, we are saying thank you and meaning it. We are listening, I mean truly listening to the voices of the frightened and at the end, we are telling them that it will be all right. And it will be all right because it is what we do for each other that speaks loudest, even when the world is screaming…

We are stronger together, not as a movement, as a statement or even as a social network. We are stronger as a family, a tribe, a people.

Take care of each other and if you need me, I am here…

Half the Man

380 pounds.

I am beginning the year, this beautiful New Year filled with possibilities at a body weight of 380 pounds.

I am two, count them, two reasonably sized guys. Three small ones. I am a crowd, enough for a party, or at the very least an interesting game of monopoly.

This is not the heaviest I have ever been. No my good reader, I once topped out at nearly 500 pounds but that was long ago and for a very different reason. So at one point, I was a girls’ volleyball team.

But now, here, today, I am 47 years old, I will be 48 in July and I am 380 pounds, which by almost anybody’s statistics means that my time on this planet is extremely limited.

I can tell you all sorts of things that on their surface makes it not as bad as it seems. For instance, my usual blood pressure is 110 over 70. I am very active for a fat guy. I am capable of fending for myself, taking care of my family, I can escape the house in case of a fire and if the fight doesn’t go on too long, I can beat your ass in rather brutal fashion.

I can touch my toes, I just can’t see them if I am standing upright.

I am not subject to depression eating or stress eating, not even of boredom eating, but I eat bad things, things that are incomplete nutritionally and I do not move around nearly enough, which in combination has led me to being here, writing to you from a very large, slightly bowed computer chair, telling you how I feel.

I hurt. Emotionally and physically I hurt. Each day, I begin the day trying to get my body, which has seen its share (and possibly someone else’s) share of trauma to work correctly. I often tell Gypsy early in the morning that my body feels like it has been assembled by a group of drunk dyslexic kids with poorly written instructions.

My feet hurt. All the time. I do not currently have good walking shoes as money has been an issue recently, but standing for long periods of time hurts them because of the weight I am carrying.

I have a couple of pounds of steel in my left leg, the reminder of a car accident that nearly took me out for the long dark ride. My leg aches, I mean throbbing, toothache kind of aches at the end of a long day. I don’t complain, I have done this to myself.

My lower back hurts, it hurts when I sit, it hurts when I stand or walk, it was not built to carry this burden.

In general, I ache more than I thrive and that too is shortening my life.

I cannot climb a set of stairs without feeling exhausted at the top of them and I balk at some activities because I feel incapable and I cannot fit in the rides at most amusement parks.

I cannot find nice clothes on a budget. I do not even own a suit. A man should own a suit, especially when you are burying your friends, and in 2016, I buried a lot of friends.

You should not have to feel self-conscious at your friend’s funeral because you can’t wear a proper suit.

I do not feel attractive.

I have some nice features.

I am charming.

Well read.

Well-traveled.

I am an amazing storyteller.

I am funny.

I see magic in the everyday.

I can be very uplifting and supportive to others.

And, I am learning to be kind, tolerant and compassionate.

I am also a phenomenal cook, which in its own way is a big part of the problem.

But I feel wretched, I feel hideous and I feel like a slob most of the time and feel ashamed to be seen in beautiful places on the arm of my beautiful Lady because I feel like she deserves better.

The arguments will come, loudly from those who love me, they will say that I am fine, just the way I am, but they know and I know that I am not fine and if I do not do something about this in the immediate future that it is not going to matter for very much longer.

A year ago, even a few months ago, I would have NEVER allowed you to see this picture, none of you, that is how important that I think this is and how desperate I am to change my life!

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Fat guys, unless they’re Santa Claus don’t live very long.

Gypsy and I are both overweight and both sick to death of it and over Christmas, without planning to, she dropped a challenge in my lap. But it wasn’t just my lap, it went out to her brother, her son and I. She said, “What if we set a challenge to all lose 50 pounds next year.”

It was very quiet at the table for a second, maybe five, then one after another we all began to nod. Just that quickly it was settled and it has grown to include her sister and one of her cousins.

Now her sister isn’t looking to lose 50 pounds, but to tone up and feel more fit, but the rest of us have committed to this and we have established a text message group to support each other.

This may be the greatest physical challenge that I have ever faced. I once learned to walk again after spending two years in a wheelchair. I have earned four black belts. I have climbed mountains, swum rivers and camped rough in a variety of locations, but I was younger, I was more sure of myself, I was better off financially and I thought myself immortal.

I’m not.

That is why this is so damned important.

I am a great one for talking about living in the moment and being mindful, but I do not blame you for not completely taking my message to heart if I cannot even take care of my one true possession, my body.

But that will be changing.

“How?” you ask.

We as a family will be eating better. The teenager will balk, but he knows he needs this too and I will get him involved in creating the menu.

As of yesterday I gave up one of my most long standing traditions, sugar in my tea. I had already given up (for the most part) drinking soda, so this is the next logical step.

We will be eating a lot more veggies, no more processed or instant foods. Pasta will be an occasional thing and breads will be kept to a minimum, at least for Gypsy and I.

The exercise thing leads to some more serious challenge. Because of the pain in my leg and feet, large amounts of walking will be difficult for a while and the two things that my doctor recommends biking and swimming are both a financial outlay that aren’t feasible at the moment.

Normal bicycles are not built to handle my bulk and so a specialty bike is required and specialty is an old Latin word that means (expensive). But I will be keeping my eyes open for possibilities and hopefully sometime in the new year finances will turn around and we can overcome these hurdles sooner rather than later.

Are you in the same situation?

Are you dying from nothing? From doing nothing?

What will it take? What kind of a scare will it take? Dizzy spells, constant pain, hospitalization, a heart attack, or a stroke?

Are you complacent about how the world will thrive if you die early? How about your families, your friends and your lovers? If you think that it won’t make that much of a difference in their lives, then let me tell you from first-hand experience, I have attended the funerals, I have watched the faces of the survivors, I have heard them crying and many of them, still are.

Come with us. Make a change. I can’t live this way anymore, neither can Gypsy, and you know, neither can you…

Take care of yourself… Please!