Poem: A Subtle Wind

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A Subtle Wind

A breath.
A swing of the pendulum.
Time, at last
to rest, to stare into the sky
and let your place
find its place.
Find peace.

You can almost feel its passing.
A subtle wind,
fragrant with promise.

About this poem. 

It’s been a good day. Changes fall all around me, and I am at peace.

Tom

Thoughts: He’s Off!

jamie and Tom.JPG

My son took off for college earlier this morning. He’ll make a stop and visit friends in Virginia for a couple of days, then we’ll meet up and drive the rest of the way to Florida to get him settled just outside of Orlando.

His school has no dorms, so he is living off campus. That means more stuff than the average kid, and so we’re taking two cars, both stuffed to the place where deep breaths are not allowed or even possible.

People have been asking me, right and left, if I was OK. He is, after all, the second and last of my kids to move out.

I am fine.

I am more than fine really. I am ready. Not that I was pushing him out the door. The last week before I went to college, my own Dad had me sleeping on the sofa while he transformed my bedroom into an office. We weren’t getting along too well by that point (something we fixed a few years later) and he was soooo ready for me to go.

But that’s not where I am. It was, I will admit, nice to find all the dishes that had disappeared in the two years he has been here, even if a couple of them needed chisels to get the stuff off of them. And it’s been nice finding the tools that likewise had gotten buried in the rubble that was his side of the upstairs.

Rubble? Oh yes, rubble. Let’s just say if that side of the upstairs had been an apartment, I would NOT be giving back the deposit. It will take me two or three days to make it livable again.

But that’s just stuff. And stuff does not matter as much as people. And he spent most of his last few days connecting and saying his goodbyes to the people that have embraced him since he came here two years ago.

Both of my kids left their mom and came to live with me at the end of their respective junior years in high school. Both came pretty broken. Both left to go off to college in good places after a year or two here. It’s been a testament to one of my core beliefs, that when people are valued for who they are, loved for who they are, they are free to become amazing.  And both of them have.

The boy that came here two years ago was a mess. He lived in a place of fear. He was afraid to just be who he was. I can remember, a week after he got here, asking him to take his dishes from the living room to the kitchen. He ducked his head, lowered his eyes and his whole body posture was one of fear of reprisal.  Every time we had a difference of opinion, his was delivered haltingly, as if waiting for the blow.

He thought slowly. He had trouble remembering things. Math, beyond the simplest things, was a struggle. His health was not good. In a way, he reminded me of the stray dogs you see on those heart-wrenching ASPA commercials that break our hearts so bad most of us go in the kitchen when they come on. His anxiety level was crippling. He was hesitant

People who see him now would not believe that of him. He’s got enough sass for half a dozen ordinary mortals. He’s smart, crazy smart. Complex math is second nature. His love of technology has turned into a wealth of knowledge that he can’t get enough of and is driving his choice of college and career. He is creative, and states his opinion, no matter how well founded or strange, with the passion only an eighteen-year-old can have.  He makes me laugh constantly.

Are some of the insecurities and fears he came with still there? Yes, they are. Those things don’t disappear. At best, you become equipped to deal with them, and he’s wisely accepted the help and done the work to become equipped.

He’s ready.

One of the things that he’s learned moving up here, is that moving to a new place can be invigorating. It can bring a new energy to us, even when are forced to move for painful reasons. He (and my daughter before him) did not move to Vermont to be with dear old dad. They came to get away from situations they were in. They only discovered that dear old dad had some redeeming qualities after they moved here.

And they both grew. Thrived. Got to grab hold of new possibilities. They grew into themselves, not into something someone expected them to be.,

One of the things my parents did really well, was let us kids grow up. They didn’t force the speed of it. They didn’t put artificial breaks on it. They let us grow at our own pace, and they let us go, grow up and make our own mistakes and claim our own victories.

Even if they didn’t get it. Heaven knows, my dad did not get me or my choices. English? Who goes to college in English? I should have gone into engineering or business. Those were a man’s subject. Get an MA in Poetry? Poetry? At a girls college? What kind of kid was this?

But you know what, he let me do it. And when I struggled, he was there, even if he wasn’t happy with my choices.

When my kids were small, they did what kids do. Grow. It’s crazy how fast small kids grow. I felt like I was buying shoes and clothes every week to replace the ones we bought the week before. My ex-wife used to tell them (and told them well into teenagerhood) “Stop growing!”.

To which I always said “Keep growing. It’s your job.”  We both said it so often, my kids would repeat both of them with us as we said them. A family joke.  that really is how I feel. Growth at their young ages (He’s 18. My daughter is 23) is now in their minds and emotions and what they learn and what they do for a livelihood. And it’s just as fast and ongoing as the growing out of shoes and clothes thing.  That’s the way it is supposed to be.

Only that really is how I feel. Growth at their almost grown up ages (He’s 18. My daughter is 23) is now in their minds and emotions and what they learn and what they do for a livelihood. And it’s just as fast and ongoing as the growing out of shoes and clothes thing.  That’s the way it is supposed to be.

And part of that growing is leaving. How else do you complete the work of becoming yourself? You pull away (most of) the safety net and dance on the high wire.

And part of my growth is the letting go.  I loved and love being a parent. I discovered in my divorce that I may have loved being a day-to-day parent more than I loved being a husband. Certainly, I mourned it more. And I rejoiced in it more when I got a second chance to finish raising my kids as they came back.

But for me too, just like with him, it’s a time to move to what’s next. And there’s plenty ahead to look forward to, to grow into, to expand and discover.

He’s ready.

I’m ready too.

He’ll make mistakes. So will I. That is part of growing. Growing is not some effortless path to somewhere, it’s a crazy roller coaster that somehow goes off the rails and goes back on again, while we scream and laugh and cry our way through it all.

He is off on his next step, two car loads of stuff and all. And I will be doing the opposite, cleaning out and getting rid of things. Beginning something new.

I wonder if he is as excited as I am?

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

PS: The picture above was taken on an early childhood trip with my kids to Disney, at an old British Pub in Saint Augustine where we used to stop for lunch on the way down. I am hoping we can stop there for lunch again, and grab a shot of us together now.

Poem: Bright

bright

Bright

it has been too long grey
deep in your soul, too long
dark and unsafe, a place
where monsters lie waiting

for you to begin, just begin
to feel safe, before them climb
from under their rocks
to gnaw on your raw bones

and sip happily on the blood
of your grief, to leave you
weak and wounded, to
laugh at your insistence,

you determination
to fight back,
to kindle the fires of your soul,
barely remembered,

faint flickers that you refuse to surrender,
sure somehow you can fan them
into a roaring flame that will push back the dark
forever.

About this poem

“Life is tough. Then you die.” That’s the phrase you hear bandied about a lot. But I refuse to die. My motto. “Life is tough. Somehow, I will be tougher.”

The Somehow of course, it the catch. I rarely know how. I just know I don’t surrender well.

The painting is one I did last week.

Tom

Thoughts: When the shirt is too tight

My uncle died this past weekend. My mother’s brother.

I was in Virginia visiting my son when I got the word. My parents also live in Virginia, so after finishing my visit with my son, I cut across from Roanoke to Richmond to spend a few days with my mom, hopefully helping her out, and going to the funeral, which was Wednesday.

I had not packed for a funeral. I had packed to do things with a 14 year old boy, so I had jeans, T shirts and tennis shoes. I had a sport coat only because I habitually use a sport coat as a casual jacket. So the day before the funeral, I was off to WalMart to get some cheap dress clothes – a shirt, tie, dress slacks, dress socks and a pair of black shoes. An unexpected expense, but far cheaper than doing the 11 hour drive to Vermont, then driving back to Virginia to get something out of my closet.

I brought everything home, took the clothes out of their wrapper and ironed them. I laid them out on the chair in my bedroom and the morning of the funeral, I slipped on the shirt and it was too tight.

Not just a little tight. No, this was not a matter of having gained a few pounds and my old size no longer quite fitting right. This was inches too tight around the neck. I could button the lower four or five buttons (although they were crying for mercy, they were straining so bad.), And the upper few buttons were never going to happen.

I looked at the wrapper again. 16 ½” neck. 33”-34” arms. Same size I’ve worn for a couple of decades. Then I looked at the tag on the back of the shirt. Size 16. As in boy’s size 16.

Somehow the wrong shirt had gotten in the wrapper.

Thank goodness in the big city WalMarts are open 24 hours a day. I made an early morning run to WalMart and got the right sized shirt an hour before we were slated to leave for Franklin, Virginia, 2 hours away, for the funeral. This time I didn’t trust the package, I read the tag in the neck. The second shirt fit. I was able to be respectfully dressed for my uncle’s funeral.

Driving back to Vermont last night, I thought about that little adventure. And about how often, after we’ve lived in it a while, our lives no longer fit us.

At times, our lives no longer fit us because we have changed. It was entirely possible that I had put on so much weight that shirt didn’t fit. I don’t exactly pay a lot of attention to what I eat, after all.

And a lot of times we don’t pay much attention to our lives. We just skate through them and suddenly realize they don’t fit any more. We are uncomfortable in our own life, wondering…. “how did I get here.?”

At other times we buy into a life advertised as one thing, that turns out to be another, just like my first shirt. We gladly invest ourselves in our lives, thinking they will lead us to a certain place, but the packaging lied to us, and we find ourselves as uncomfortably crammed into a life that doesn’t fit as I felt in that boy’s size 16 shirt.

But trading in a life is not as easy as trading in a shirt. We can’t run down to WalMart at the 11th hour and pick out a new life.

We can, however do something about a life that doesn’t fit. In fact, we should.

Some people let their lives slowly get so out of whack that they end up feeling like hey are in an ever compressing straight jacket (much the way I felt in that first shirt!). Honestly, that’s how it happens to most of us.

Others realize quickly that they have bought into something terribly wrong, but don’t know what to do.

Because for many, the only way they see out of their ill fitting life is to either rip it up and start over, or resign themselves to it. Ripping it up generally means they rip the buttons and seams of their life, often terribly hurting and damaging the people around them. Resigning themselves is ever more painful and sad. We all know people in both situations. Many of us have lived one or the other ourselves.

I’ve learned that there is a third way, something in between the nuclear option and the do nothing option. That we can craft a new life in tiny steps. We can’t do that with a shirt. But we can with life.

Tiny steps may be frustrating, because most of us want to just do it, like I went and got a new shirt.  but if we have the discipline to keep at the tiny steps, they can be liberating.

And they have a lot of benefits. Tiny steps means, when we do go off track, it’s only a little off track and getting back on a good path is easier. Tiny steps take less effort. They give us lots of small things to celebrate and encourage us.

There is a magic in tiny steps too. We whittle away at things, and for a while it seems like we are making very little progress, but at some point, we stop and look back and we’ve resewn our life into something that does fit. It’s like somehow we miraculously restitched that boy’s 16 into the men’s size 16 ½” neck shirt we really wanted.

People don’t notice the tiny steps, but they do wake up one day and go “Oh!”. And so can we.

One last thing…. When I went back to WalMart for the second shirt, I was a little more careful. I read the package first, but then I looked at the label in the collar to make sure it matched the packaging.

That’s a wise thing to do in life too. Take time to pay more attention the second time around. We’ll make mistakes, but make them new ones, and leave the old ones behind. What you will find, like I found with the shirt, is that when you recraft a life that fits, you will revel in it’s comfort, and it will be something special to savor.

Tom

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PS – the picture was taken in the Netherlands. That’s the north sea. Vast and Mysterious, like life, and like death.

Poem: A Night in Amsterdam

A Night in Amsterdam

You are far from home, and while
they speak in a language far more foreign
than misaligned lovers,

you do not feel lost,
aware that you have lived in strange and
lonely places much of your life, and

oddly, at this late age, traveling
no longer seems as exotic
as much as it seems to merely be

a continuation
of the journey.

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The picture is just outside my hotel window on the outskirts of Amsterdam.

I am working and have not seen much more than my hotel, the convention floor, and the subway, but even in that well worn path, there is discovery and joy in seeing things differently. There are almost always joys in traveling.

You might think that having a pair of subway tracks just outside my window would be a bad things, but it is not. First, I have lived in more than one place that was near train tracks, and the sound is a familiar one. Secondly, the trains here are not loud, and the Dutch are very civilized – the trains do not run all night, and they do not begin until about six in the morning, making the trains a perfect alarm clock.

And yes, just like with all my pictures, you can click on it for a larger version.

Tom

Thoughts: Confession Time

I walked into my studio this morning and something happened. I finally admitted to myself that I am an artist.

Understand, this should be nothing new to me.  I began drawing over thirty years ago and my drawings hang in a lot of people’s houses, sometimes as gifts (people saw drawings in my wall and wanted one), and at times, selling an odd drawing here and there. Last year, I began to take painting lessons so now I add watercolor to the mix.

Recently, I had the chance to hang a few paintings and photographs as a “fill in” at a local art gallery. They had a wonderful display of sculpture books that they were featuring, but after the show was curated and hung there were a couple of walls to fill, and I got the chance to display some work. Much to my surprise, a couple of them have sold.

What makes us an artist? Just doing art? Selling art? The place creating art takes in our lives?

After I began to learn to paint, I converted a room in my house to a studio space. In a day of madness, I had to re-arrange 4 rooms to move things around and make the room work as a studio. Now I have a place to work, which is slowly becoming cluttered and over run with new paintings and drawings.

I didn’t have to buy anything new to create the studio. I had everything, the drawing table, the brushes, paper, tools, all of it. It was just scattered around my house here and there. I had to move things out of the room to make room for the drawing table, and move things in the room to give me storage for the art supplies. I rewired a light to bring more light into the room at night. (in the day, I have two wonderful windows.). Creating a space brought focus to it, but it was all there before.

But that was months ago. And even then after giving art a larger part in my life, I didn’t immediately start admitting I was an artist. I don’t know what changed. Why this morning I looked around and said. “I am an artist.”.

I’ve been through this with other things in my life. I have a masters degree in creative writing from Hollins and have been writing poetry, prose, articles, and all kinds of things for over thirty years. When I was in school I would call myself a writer, but years of being a grownup went by and I stopped. I didn’t stop writing. I just stopped indentifying myself as a writer.

The same thing with photography. People pay me to do it. People have bought my photographs to hang on their walls. Yet I didn’t really call myself a photographer.

Over the past year though, I began to do more and more of both writing and photography. I began to realize that even when we called it “marketing” or “documentation”, it was still writing and photography. That it was these two expressions that really defined what I do, what I LOVE to do. And I finally began to call myself what I always was, a writer and photographer.

The same with art. I LOVE doing it. I love the creation. The experimenting. The ability to fail and try again and it’s OK. I love it when what I envision actually happens, or when an experiment creates something beautiful. It energizes me in the same way writing and photography energize me.

And that is what has been slowly sinking in, I think. That in reality we aren’t what we do. We may think we are. How often have you, in the midst of introductions, defined yourself by your job, even if your job is just something that fills time and pays you money, not something you are passionate about? I’ve done it lots of times.

But you are more than that. I am more than that.

So what, you ask? Well, here is what I, at 57 years old, am finally learning.

We can become a self fulfilling prophecy. If we define ourselves as we are, as our hearts really are, our chances of having those things we love in our life increase.

Can I explain why? No. But you read about it all the time. There’s a whole genre of books that go back generations that have theories galore about why it works. Call it “The Secret” or the “Law of Attraction” or “Synchronicity” – all terms from popular books on the subject. I don’t care what you call it.

I just know it works.

When I define myself as a writer, artist and photographer, opportunities in those things, which are the things I love, HAPPEN.

I still don’t know why the switch turned this morning. Maybe it was just an accumulation of things that finally took on a critical mass in my mind. Maybe it was some sort of revelation. Maybe it was something else. I really don’t care. Just the fact that the switch clicked is enough.

I am an artist.

Who knew?

Tom

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PS – The picture is of my drawing table, taken just this morning. You can click on it for a larger version.

Thoughts: A little broken

The Mad Hatter – “Have I gone mad?”
Alice: “I’m afraid so…. but I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are. ”  

                                                                      – Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

It’s one of the harder lessons I had to learn, how broken most people are. No matter how together they seem, no matter how many positive traits they have, no matter how much they do or give or produce, there is almost always a brokenness somewhere in their lives.

That’s not a put down. In fact quite the opposite. We’re human and imperfection is our lot. Perfection belongs to God alone. We can’t expect to be perfect. And yet, somehow, we do.

Years ago, when I was struggling through a divorce, I was obviously broken. You could look at me and tell how broken I was. People still tell me how haggard and broken (the word they use) I looked.

Yet, a surprising number of people came to me in that period for advice, sharing their own broken lives. At times, these were people who had lived with their brokenness in secret for years, and suddenly they were sharing their own hurt and pains with the most unlikely candidate – me.

This really confused me. “Why?” I asked one friend who particularly poured himself out to me one night. “Why were you silent so long about this? And why share it now?”

“Because I always thought you were perfect.” He said. “And now, I know you are human.”.

What an indictment! And what a lesson. People may make myths out of us and endow us with perfection. Or we may create that image of ourselves in the public arena. But in reality, people respond better to us, and we can often be more credible, helpful and healing in our imperfections!

Here’s something else I have learned about being honest about our broken places – When we admit them, people are incredibly kind and gracious and helpful. When we hide our broken places, they will not be as kind, gracious and helpful.

Not because they are mean, but because they don’t think we NEED their kindness, their grace, or their help. They don’t know. And because they don’t know, we rob ourselves of their loving help, and they are robbed of an opportunity to help. We’re all poorer.

When I began therapy, years and years ago, I went through three years of peeling the onion of my life and emotions. And three years of reading book after book on the various issues that came out. One of the big surprises in the reading was how common my own kinds of brokenness were. I had thought I was far more alone than I was. Knowing how normal brokenness is, made me feel somehow, like I was going to be OK.  I was struggling, but I was struggling on a path others had trod, and where others had found their way out.

And if they, in their brokenness, could find their way out to a better place, so could I. It made the mountains smaller, the depression more manageable, the struggles easier.

Today, I think I listen better knowing how broken I am. I manage better knowing my weaknesses and working with them instead of hiding them. I am a better friend. A better father. I think my love is better in it’s imperfection than it ever was when I thought life was less broken. I forgive easier. And that includes forgiving myself.

I am blind in one eye. That means I have no depth perception. Which makes things like hitting nails more than a challenge. For years, I thought I was just bad at it. Then one day, I was working at home and bent the shaft of the hammer I was using.

And suddenly, I could hit nails. That hammer would be useless to most people. But to me, that slightly bent, very battered hammer corrected the problem with my depth perception and I could work.

The broken tool was perfect.

Often, I have learned, a broken person is often perfect for someone else who needs something only another’s particular brokenness can offer. That might be you, or me, or someone yet to enter your life,

So… if you have been hiding from your brokenness, embrace it. Yes, you can work on improving, but understand you are not alone. You have so much to offer. It need not be a roadblock, but a launching point. A connection place. The start of a beautiful, broken, greatness.

Tom