Oh, Christmas Tree

Zen. Part of the name of this ongoing blog. It’s a school of Mahayana Buddhism that encourages enlightenment through intuition received from meditation. Meditation is achieved by being present in the moment while letting the mind wander in a way. I am no stranger to this concept.

Someone asked me not long ago how I come up with my ideas for writing. Trying to explain it was difficult. I threw out words such as “reflection” and “slivers,” but I’m sure it sounded like a kindergartener attempting to explain the premise of a movie he had recently seen.

The fact is, most of my writing comes to me while in a bastardized version of meditation. Late after work on weekend nights, after I’ve had a couple cocktails and step outside for a cigarette (therein lies the Vice)—or while driving without my daughter in the car, I’ll turn off the radio and just be present. Random thoughts flicker and float like snowflakes from flurries or embers from a fire. Many of them are nonsense, but a few slivers wedge themselves into my consciousness. They’re often unformed thoughts that I jot down in my notebook and they may stay there indefinitely. Others plant themselves and almost immediately bloom into something that touches my heart or makes me say, “huh.”

As I sit here writing this, I’m looking at the Christmas tree Madison and I put up last night. I’m home alone. The cats don’t count, and they’re utterly disinterested in the tree in a strange un-cat-like manner. I blame video games and social media for their behavior. They think they know it all. Typical teenagers.

But, I digress. The Christmas tree always relaxes me, much as it does so many other people. It is a symbol of the holiday season. A miniature version of the old adage that hard work pays off. No, I didn’t go all Clark Griswold and cut down my own. I leave that to my sister and brother-in-law. However, if you think taking a fake tree out of the box in which it has been crammed for most of a year and bending it back into something resembling a tree is easy, you are sorely mistaken. And the 3000-foot string of lights I got for it because I apparently write better than I read is not the easiest to wrap around when two cats are attacking the bulbs as they trail across the floor. I would say that my daughter helped, but Madison mostly just laughed at the cats. Until the ornaments.

Our tradition with the ornaments is no joke. Every year, we go together to pick out a new one. The chosen ornament will be inscribed with our signatures and the year we got it. The decision for the ornament requires careful thought. This is not kid’s stuff.

When the time for the ornament-placing comes, all the ornaments are laid out on the floor, with our personalized ones set aside in their own group. These go on first, so they can hold the most prominent places on the tree. Then go the bulbs. Then the others. We don’t talk much while we put them up. Zen and all that. Over the years, my daughter has taken more of a role in where to put them. If you are obsessive-compulsive, I do not suggest examining our tree. There’s a solid chance you’ll suffer a panic attack. But, to me, it is perfect.

Last night, after Madison had been asleep for a while, I was winding down for bed myself. I was finishing my drink and had turned off the television. The only light in the living room was from the tree. I sat back in my recliner and enjoyed its company. I was present in that moment. If I didn’t have a hint of a smile on my face, it was certainly in my soul.

Looking over the tree is akin to observing a quilt that was created over generations. A tapestry of ornaments that tell stories.

There are those we chose together, each with varying degrees of penmanship as the years rolled on. A big bulb from ’09 that shows a snowman Madison insisted was Frosty. The signatures were both written by me, because she hadn’t quite mastered writing her name at the age of three. A bulb with the Grinch from ’11—her name scribbled in her own hand with a lot of jagged swirls brought on by her newer talent and her lack of sizeable hand to hold the ornament still. Pinkie Pie from ’15 with her signature prettier than mine. The latest ornament that she picked yesterday is more adult. Blue with a white glitter winter wonderland encompassing it. Together, they all tell the story of a young child who has grown into a young lady. It’s intriguing how your heart can break and swell at the same time.

There are the other ornaments, of course. A stork carrying a baby in a pink blanket. Madison was given that by my oldest sister for her first Christmas. A painted E.T. that was given to me by my own aunt when I was four. A collection of beautifully-crafted ornaments from India given to us by my cousin when she lived there. A random piece of paper containing small shapes and designs drawn by the budding artist who shares my home, secured to a branch by a paperclip punched through it. And my favorite: A pink bulb with a tiny white handprint stuck to it, the fingers drawn on to look like snowmen—a present from when my daughter was in Kindergarten. The attached note says, “These aren’t just five snowmen, as anyone can see. I made them with my hand, which is part of me. Now each year when you trim the tree, you’ll look back and recall, Christmas of 2011, when my hand was just this small.”

And more. Quite a few more. We’ll need a bigger tree soon. But, for now, one side of my living room is lit up with light and magic and memories. This tree is my Christmas.

The holidays can be stressful. They are full of running around and expenses. Coming up with new places to hide that damn elf (and remembering to move him every night so your cover isn’t blown). Family we haven’t seen in nearly a year. Some we like. Some we may not. Extra cooking and colder nights.

But, if you haven’t put up your tree yet, I suggest you do it. Take your time. If you have children, have them help. The gift comes later when you’re alone. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, plug in your tree. Put down your phone. Turn of the TV. Turn off the lights. Ease into that Christmas quilt and wrap yourself in the tapestry of memories. You’ll be happy you did.

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And So It Begins

Advice is a funny thing. Many of us, myself included, can dole it out in abundance.

I have given advice to friends about relationships and life choices. Obviously, being 38 years of age, single, and living in an apartment qualify my advice. Over my years bartending, I have given it to complete strangers who have bellied up to my bar to “drink away” their worries, only to spend the next couple hours talking about those worries with the guy supplying said drinks that were designed to create temporary amnesia. I have even given myself a lot of it internally, looking into my own eyes while shaving or brushing my teeth. I have decided that I am not a great listener. Most importantly, I have given a lot of advice over the last few years to my daughter.

“Follow your dreams.”

That’s the big one. That has been a recurring theme in my parental advice. Certainly, I’ve given out the basics: If you clean your room regularly, you won’t have to spend so much time on it all at once. If you don’t toss your clothes randomly into your closet, you’ll be able to find your favorite set of pajamas. Brushing your hair well after your shower will prevent this rat’s nest on top of your head in the morning. Doing your homework as soon as we get home frees you up for the rest of the evening. Ranch dressing doesn’t necessarily have to accompany every meal. To be fair, the last example might be incorrect. Everything is better with ranch dressing. Yes, I am from the Midwest.

Follow your dreams. Do what you love. In a small way, I no longer feel like a hypocrite in this respect. In just a couple months, I will be celebrating one year of publishing a new piece every week. Every Monday, I sit down and finalize a new work of writing and feel a wave of satisfaction when I click “publish.” I feel good about myself. I feel accomplished. That is, apart from last week. Last week’s piece was never written. It wasn’t written because something else has been circling my mind. I thoroughly enjoy my weekly pieces. However, a weekly blog is not my dream, as much as I love it. Doing what you love shouldn’t come in tiny pieces on a weekly schedule. I want to write. So, I have begun working on a book. The ideas for that book consumed me and made it difficult to focus on anything else.

I briefly considered putting the blog on hold altogether. Luckily, a very good friend of mine gave me some solid advice when I asked for her input. Following that advice, I’m going to publish here bi-weekly. This will free up my time a bit to work in a world of fiction, but still allow me to keep up with my readers and give me an outlet for my daily reflections. I get the best of both worlds.

If you follow me regularly, I appreciate it more than you can know. If you have randomly stumbled across this and do not follow me, I am giving you the advice to make better life choices.

So, why the decision to write fiction? As with most choices I make, it came from reflection. And at the heart of it is my daughter, Madison.

A new teacher started at her school this year. In the world of private Catholic school, he is something of an anomaly. Although her school is incredible and provides her a top-notch education, the encouragement of free-thought and imagination isn’t the highest priority. But this teacher fosters creativity. He holds early morning sessions to teach students to draw. He asks them to bring in writing they’ve done in their free time to share with the class. He even supported a rap battle between two students.

After learning about this during a school open house, I asked Madison if she had taken in any of her writing. Her response: “No. It isn’t done yet. It’s not ready.”

I know that feeling. When I decided to announce to my friends and family that I was starting a blog at the first of the year, it was a little terrifying. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have any pieces even completed yet, other than a few that I’d written a couple years before. But I did it. I leapt. And it felt right.

In thinking about my daughter’s blossoming interest in reading, writing, and drawing, I started to think about how it had all begun for me. Fiction. Stephen King. J.R.R. Tolkien. Dean Koontz. Kurt Vonnegut. Reading these and so many other works of fiction inspired me. I wanted to write. I wanted to create worlds in my mind. I wanted others to be immersed in the worlds I had imagined into being.

My daughter is my life barometer. As such, giving her advice begins the pressure of living that advice.

Follow your dreams. Do what you love.

Okay.

Rhyme And Reason

What do you want to do?

That simple question has so many connotations.

It’s asked when making plans with a significant other: “We don’t have the kids tonight. What do you want to do?

While sitting with your high school guidance counselor asking about your future when discussing future colleges: “What do you want to do?

Naked and open with a lover: “What do you want to do?

Depending upon the situation in which the question is asked, it can invite thoughtfulness, stress, happiness, ambivalence, or arousal.

I was recently asked a version of this question at a party. A successful businessman and I were chatting. He told me that he had been hearing good things about my blog from mutual friends. Fellow bloggers know what an incredible feeling that is. I was absolutely thrilled. He asked a few questions about the blog such as, “What is it about?” It’s difficult to describe to casual inquirers. I usually just respond with something akin to “observational pieces.” They nod knowingly as though I answered the question. And I’ve allowed them to walk away if they choose unless they’re genuinely interested in reading it and follow up with more questions. The businessman asked me if I enjoyed it. I told him that, although it was hard work sometimes, I loved every minute of it. So then came the question. “What do you want to do?” I explained that writing was my passion and I want to do something with it. His response: “Okay. What do you want to do that will actually make you money?

The question, asked in this context, with a slight smirk on the gentleman’s face, did not invite happiness. Stress was in there somewhere, mostly brought on by defensive anger. This guy hasn’t even read my blog. He has no idea what kind of writer I am. Because I’m an adult, I kept my mouth shut. I answered with something extremely clever like, “Ha. Yeah…well.” I walked away. That interaction bothered me for the next couple days. Then I remembered a conversation I’d had with a coworker the night before the party. And I felt pity for the businessman and his lack of insight.

A coworker and I were finishing up our shifts. He told me that he was tired of working construction on the side. He was tired of building things so others could make money. He wanted to be the one making the money, having others work for him. My father is a contractor. He used to own his own business building custom decks. He didn’t bring in a lot of money doing it because he wanted to be hands-on in the imagination, design, and construction of his vision, working mostly alone. He was far from rich, but he took immense pride in what he did. My father is a creator.

And there it was for me. Remembering that conversation made me feel proud. There are those who desire money and power, and then there are those who create. The two sides rarely come together in the same person. Those who prefer money and power do not understand the motivations of those who create, and vice versa. The businessman is a partner in businesses. He has money and is amazing at seeing which businesses will be profitable for him. He is a partner in restaurants. But those restaurants would not exist if it weren’t for the brilliant chef who created the recipes in his own home. The same man who envisioned the food and atmosphere…and brought them to life through creation. Does that chef rely on the money from the businessman as well? Of course. Both sides are necessary to thrive when considering a business built on something unique.

I like my place in the cosmos. This laptop on which I type this minute. The fan blowing on me. The light bulb burning in my room. The clothes on my back. The clock ticking away on the wall. Every one of these was imagined, written down, and brought to creation. Without we creators, money men and women would have nothing from which to profit. And here’s the real beauty. Without profit, those money men and women consider themselves failures. Yet a homeless artist can still design exquisite artwork on a sidewalk or wall for the public to appreciate. We creators can work our trades anywhere because the only requirement necessary is passion.

I live in a two-bedroom apartment. I work in a high-stress environment for unpredictable amounts of money. I still wear shirts that I’ve owned for ten years. I haven’t been on a vacation for over eleven years. I will likely never have a summer house. I stress over utility bills and rent. I avoid buying name brand products. Would it be nice to upgrade from all of this? Would it be nice to have disposable income? You’re damn right.

The answer is simple. Find a career that gives me a lot of money in exchange for working hours that take me away from my writing and my daughter. Set passion and inspiration aside to earn a living instead of living a life. For me, that’s how a soul dies.

Will my writing ever earn me enough money to live without financial worry? The odds say it’s impractical to assume that. Is my writing the type of creation that brings electricity into a dark, cold room? No. Does my writing allow someone to fly across country in a matter of hours? No. Can my writing shock a physically dead heart back to life? No. But just maybe my writing can guide one person out of his or her own dark, cold place. Maybe my writing will bring together two people on opposite sides of the nation. Maybe it can spark the smallest amount of hope in someone’s broken heart. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t focus on absolutes. I prefer to envelop myself in what-ifs. I create.

(It) Feels So Good

When was the last time you felt angry? Sad? Hurt? Embarrassed? These images and emotions are easy to conjure. With very little effort, we can bring them back in our minds. Like cacti, they require minimal nourishment and still thrive. Also like cacti, they can be dangerous when handled. These feelings pierce us and cause us pain.

Now ask yourself another question: When was the last time you felt true joy?

On my way to work the other day, I pulled up to a stop light. The woman in the car next to me didn’t immediately register my presence. She was switching through the radio stations and, for just a moment as I pulled up and glanced over, I saw her face light up and her mouth drop open in unbridled happiness. I have no idea what she had stumbled upon. A favorite song maybe. A stand-up comic on a comedy station perhaps. Hearing her name being said in a news story possibly. Regardless of the cause, it was a second of pure joy. It emitted out of her like a lighthouse beacon. That light shone right into my own car. It actually made me feel better. And then it was gone just as quickly. Her eyes snapped slightly to her right and “reality” set in. She was not alone. Her face deadened and she started bobbing her head with only a hint of a smirk set on her lips. Nope. Flag on the play. Ten yards for exhibiting joy. No public displays of true happiness allowed.

I felt as though I had walked into a bathroom as a strange woman climbed out of the shower, unaware of someone else there. Her instantaneous withdrawal back into herself was like the yanking of a towel to cover her naked soul. It was surreal. And heartbreaking.

I’m left wondering at what point we stop allowing happiness to be all-consuming. Have you ever taken a two-year-old outside to blow bubbles or play in a sprinkler? Elation. Ever made a raspberry-fart on a baby’s belly? Jubilation. Look at the face of a seven-year-old on a bike, flying down the road at break-neck speeds with the wind tossing his hair. Revelry.

We are born with the capacity to experience joy in the simplest things. To be human is to be joyful. It’s only through our own shortcomings that we allow the world around us to take that away. Do bad things happen? Certainly. Is the world a stressful place? Absolutely. Does any of that matter? Only if we let it.

I’m working on opening myself to more unbridled joy. Last night, I made a taco salad that I’d anticipated for two days. I experienced what could only be described as ecstasy while eating it (the fact that I’d had a few cocktails prior should have no bearing). Saturday at work, I laughed with coworkers until I had tears in my eyes. I can’t even remember what we were laughing about, but I’m holding that feeling with me still today. While I drive to my daughter’s softball game tonight, I’m going to put the windows down and sing at the top of my lungs to whatever catches my fancy. Maybe I’ll inspire other car singers to put on their own concerts. Maybe they’ll do the same to even more. And that’s how it should be. When it comes to rapture, may it always be expansive.

Paperback Writer

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a simple enough question. We’re asked that by teachers, parents, and grandparents all throughout our childhood. I still ask myself that sometimes at 37. In grade school, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Dinosaurs were just cool. And what boy doesn’t like the thought of digging in the dirt to find hidden treasures and the bones of ancient creatures? For a brief period, I considered being a stand-up comedian. This was mostly because I was the obnoxious class clown. My music teacher gave me part of a class to stand up and do whatever I wanted if I would just shut the hell up for the rest of the week. I won’t lie. My impressions of Goofy being beaten up by Batman were pretty on point. You know, if Batman existed before Bruce Wayne ever hit puberty.

Junior high and high school brought about the writer. College then changed the writer. In my early twenties, the writer took a back seat to Jagerbombs and Miller Lite. At 26, my daughter was born. Everything took a back seat to being a father. I wrote a little here and there, but never with any decent amount of vigor. I chose to see the world through the eyes of a writer, but one who pens children’s books and whose main character unfolds daily in front of his eyes. My story was one of wonder every time my daughter hit a new milestone or discovered magic.

It wasn’t until a short while ago that I made the decision to focus on putting pen to paper again. I have a notebook in which I jot ideas when they arise. My daughter has caught on to this. She asks me what I thought about whenever she sees me put my hands on the black leather binding. When I drive her to school every Monday, she inquires as to what this week’s piece is about. I adore these times. I get to share a little of what’s going on in my mind as well as any facts I learned in my research. I’m grateful to her for at least putting up the front of being interested in the physiological aspects of tears and laughter. Like a pro, she interjects with random “hmms” and “ohs.” Right before turning up whatever Shawn Mendes song just came on the radio. That guy has her in chains.

Last week, I picked Madison up from school and she informed me that she had started writing a story. Chapter one was finished and I was regaled with the beginning of the tale of Shadow and Glamor, two sisters who had been separated as babies when their parents split up. Mom kept Shadow. Glamor was taken away by Dad. Neither sister knew the other existed. Later in life, Shadow and her mother moved to a different town and Shadow started at a new school full of bullies. A girl stepped in to help Shadow with the female bullies and the two girls became best friends. Spoiler alert: The friendly girl was Glamor. The story is written in the form of a screenplay, complete with cues for the characters to sit or fall. Because Glamor was a mystery character, her name was listed as “????” until the climactic finale.

Mystery. Drama. Intrigue. One hell of a hook.

I’ve been proud of my daughter a multitude of times throughout her life. Parenting in the early years is filled with moments of joyful pride in our children. Learning to crawl. Learning to walk. Learning to speak. Learning the alphabet. When they say “please” or “thank you” for the first time without being prompted. Graduating from a baby in diapers to a child in cotton glory. A perfect score on that test at school.

None of those moments hit me quite as hard as listening to the story of Shadow and Glamor. There was an urgency and thrill in her reading of it. She was expanding on things during the course of narrating the tale. This wasn’t a milestone that I read about in the What to Expect books. This was the forging of a world through pure imagination.

Like a lot of children in today’s world, Madison got hooked on YouTube videos. Videos of other children playing with their toys and unfolding adventures of their own creation. It was slightly disappointing to see her so absorbed in the imaginations of others while (as I incorrectly assumed) not using her own. However, I realize I have a movie collection that rivals that of Family Video. And I too watch of lot of videos online. My videos are slightly different and would never be found on YouTube, but sometimes there are toys involved there also.

Now I see that my daughter is not only using her imagination. She incorporates real life into her drama. And not only the fun parts. Her story is speckled with harsh realities. Broken homes. Loss of family. Relentless bullying. And underlying all of these realities is hope. She is a laugher. A crier. A dreamer. A writer.

As parents, we want more than anything to leave behind a legacy for our children. For some, that means leaving behind money or a business. For others, that means instilling them with religious or cultural beliefs. If we’re lucky enough, we get to see tiny flashes of those legacies shine through before we leave this world. My legacy? I want my daughter to look at this world as the wonderful, beautiful disaster that it is. I want her to realize that hope is not an abstract concept. Shadow and Glamor understand.