Thoughts: Meanderings of a Born Again Poet

This morning I wrote two poems.

The first one was so so. A little platitude filled. Good thoughts, mediocrely written. The second one was, I think, pretty good.  I posted them both.

I tend to post poems as I write them. I write. Rewrite. Prune. Rework and post. Others perhaps, would let them settle and come back to them. There’s some wisdom in that. But I don’t.

I discovered something today. On days I write two or more poems, the first one is always the weakest. I thought that when I wrote today’s poems, and when I looked back a few weeks, it proved to be mostly true.

“Why is that?” I wondered.

As I thought about it, I thought about my process a little. I am a disciplined writer, in that I sit down nearly every day, at a certain time, and write. I write first in my journal, and secondly, I write poetry or essays for my various blogs.

Most days, it comes pretty easily. Like any skill, when you work at it regularly (and I write for much of my work as well.), you get pretty good at it. My journal writing sort of breaks the logjam loose, and away I go.

Except of course, when I don’t.

Some days I am just flat. I don’t have a lot of emotion going on. I am not struggling with anything. Or I am struggling too much with things. The words have to be chipped out of me like carving marble. Slow and painstakingly.

But I write anyway. And often, it’s not my best work. It feels (to me) like the struggle it took to write it. Technically good. But lacking in passion. Like the difference between an English landscape painting by Robert Gallon…

Robert Gallon

… And something by Salvadore Dali:

Painting

The difference, of course, is that by the time I have plowed through writing the first poem, I am loosened up. I am more tapped in. I have plowed through my own barriers and more open to being open.

“Write what you know.” the old adage goes. The first poem is almost inevitably what I think. The second one is what I feel. What I know. And it’s better.

The trouble is, I never know if a second one will come. Some days, all I get is the thinking poem, all technically correct with good, skilled writing and utterly devoid of life. Maybe I am the only one who sees it, but I suspect you guys notice the difference, despite your kind words on both types of poems.

So I post the first one.

You see, when I was in therapy after my divorce, my therapist told me I needed to write again. I had been a writer for much of my adult life and that had fallen to the wayside in the bustle we call life, and I had paid the price. NOT writing had been one of many factors in my coming undone. (not to mention the divorce itself.).

So she had me write. And she suggested I begin a blog. “Having readers, even half a dozen, will tap into your sense of responsibility and make sure you keep writing.”

She was right.

I began my blog, with no expectations of readers, and just wrote and posted. I still do that. Whether or not you care that I write every day, I like to pretend you do. It does feed that responsible gene (Dang therapists, they keep being right.) and keeps me at it. Good days. Bad days. I write.

And I post.

I don’t bank things towards a flat day or a day when might not want to write. I keep no backlog. This makes me trust the muse, God, inspiration, my own skill, to provide something every day. Manna, I call it, like the biblical bread God provided Moses and the Israelites in the desert.

Trusting that something will come, and then acting on that trust, day after day, generally means it comes. That’s true in poetry, and in life in general. So I trust and I write and somehow it works out.

That’s what I have learned. One of the lessons I have taken from the first half or so of my life. Trust and act, day after day, and things work out. I have given up trying to understand why. I am content with the fact that it does. When I write. And as I live.

Good poems and bad.

Just the act of writing helps me. I am glad when someone says something I have written has touched them or was just what they needed. I love hearing that, in fact. It gives additional purpose to my writing. But I write, ultimately, for myself. For my sanity. You guys get to come along for the ride.

Good poems and bad.

So now you know my process. There’s no grand plan. Heck, there’s no plan at all. I just do it. In the moment, whatever happens that moment. I’ve come to believe that writing, in general, is more powerful when it is less processed, and more real, more in the moment, with the emotions overflowing, our skill barely able to contain it. Raw.

That’s the hard stuff, of course. Most of us don’t like being revealing. I know I don’t. But, it seems to do me good. It seems to do some of you good. So even if it does not always feel good, it seems to be a good thing. And I do it every day. My sanity preserver.  One of the things that brought me back from the brink, many years ago.

So there you go. Meanderings of a born again poet.

Have a good weekend. Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

Thoughts: Seven Years Journey

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This May, I will have been in Vermont seven years. Although the locals might feel differently, I am no longer a Virginian in Vermont, but I have become a Vermonter.

I came to Vermont to be close to someone, to see if that relationship was the one. It was a gamble. I knew that when I moved here. But it seemed a risk worth taking, leaving behind the place you have lived for fifty some odd years. Not a risk everyone would take, not an adventure everyone would take. I am sure at least a few of my friends questioned the choice, thinking perhaps it was too soon after my separation and divorce to do such a thing. That is was more of a reaction than a real choice.

I see it differently. I was a few years out by the time I moved here. It wasn’t done on a whim, but was a choice I came to over time, nearly a year. That’s kind of how I do big changes. I think and pray over them for ages. I look into things. I look into myself.

But all of that is internal work. Hardly anyone sees it. And the few who see it rarely understand that I am not talking idly, so they often are as surprised as anyone once I make my choice. It was that way with this. I thought about it for many months, but when I made the choice, I made it and never looked back.

That too would be a surprise. Typically, on day to day things, I have a “plan B” and often “Plans C, D and E” in place. My kids and I joke that I am a paranoid old broadcast guy, because broadcasters (the industry I worked in for over 30 years) always have a backup plan, and me? I have two of anything important. Two cars. Two hot water heaters. Two computers.

But when I make a big choice – a job, a relationship, a place to live…. I am all in. I didn’t rent a place when I moved to Vermont. I bought a house. I committed.

Commitment used to come easy to me. Love used to come easy to me. Trust used to be second nature. But when my marriage fell apart, those things became hard. Working my way back to my natural state was just that, work. Again, people who had known me a long time might not have seen that. They saw the guy they had always known, who had committed, loved and lived all in. But that guy was pretty much rubble, just like the rest of me.

Buying the house in a strange state, was the first step back, though I didn’t realize it at the time. It was a commitment, not a toe in the water. I had to take a deep breath, even after all the thinking and praying before I did it.

And from that point, I’ve slowly reclaimed some of my ability to commit, trust, love and try new things. But none of it is second nature any longer. It’s work. It’s a choice and at times it scares the hell out of me. I miss the days when it came naturally. I miss them a lot. But perhaps it’s for the best. I didn’t always make the best choices. Most of them worked out because when we are committed to something they often do. But some of them caused me, and likely the people around me, some pain. And I hate that. Maybe this more thoughtful way is healthier for everyone concerned.

The relationship that drew me here did not work out as I had hoped. But I found something else.

I found a peace I did not know I needed. I found confidence in myself again. I found a place of safety. I rediscovered my spirituality (Not my religion, but my connection to God.). I lost a job I loved, but in losing that job, I discovered work that was less a job, and more a calling. I discovered that I enjoy a bit of adventure in my life, just as much as I enjoy the peace and quiet. This became my safe haven, and later, it became my kid’s safe haven as well as one by one, they moved up here while they were in high school.

Not everyone has to leave where they are and move to a whole new place to do those things. I admire those who can work themselves to that better place where ever they are. And perhaps, now, I could do that.

But I couldn’t then. I didn’t know I couldn’t, but looking back, I have come to realize I needed to begin again, hard as it was. I was far more broken than I realized at the time. (And I knew I was pretty broken.) Had I understood the journey I still needed to take, I am not sure I would have had the courage to do in a place without the friends and family I had leaned on for most of my life.

But as it turned out, that’s exactly what I needed. To be free of the crutches of the past, and to go where I had no choice but to spend lots of time looking inside, of struggling, just me and God and a few new people who had no pre-conceived notion of who and what I was or wasn’t. No expectations.

Seven years in, I have reclaimed much of who I was. Mostly the good parts, I hope. And I have found new parts of me that I may have never discovered or had the courage to do or try had I stayed put. I am not the same. I am the same. Some of both

I would like to think I was wise, moving to Vermont. What I was is lucky. What I was is blessed.

And so I am a Vermonter. I love the winter, so much colder and whiter than what I was used to. I love the quarries and tiny towns and sense of communities struggling to be relevant. I love the crazy patchwork of people who live here. I love the new history and geography I have to traverse. I love no longer being certain about anything, because so much of it is still so new. I love my tiny church. I love the abundance of old houses. And I love that this is one of the most tolerant states anywhere. Eccentrics are not just tolerated, but embraced. They hardly notice me here. Natives may never consider me one of them, but they have embraced me anyway. They don’t expect perfection, and they don’t pretend to it. They just are. And they allow me to just be.

The adventure is nowhere near done. At least, I hope not. That perhaps was the best thing to learn. That, even though I am middle aged, there is growth to be had, changes to make, adventures to live. I have always lived in a fear of becoming old at heart. I kinda thought, a decade or so ago, that I had become one of those who were comfortably numb (to quote Pink Floyd). And worse, I was OK with it.

No more. You can’t see my determination in that, but it’s as hard as the slabs of slate in the quarry across from my house.

No more.

Be well. Travel Wisely.

Tom

Thoughts: Road Trip

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Tomorrow morning I’ll be on the road again. I spend a lot of my time traveling this way, behind the wheel of either my convertible, or this time of year, my ancient Isuzu Trooper. I have done this road trip to Virginia and back more times than I can count in the past six or seven years.

I drive for work, to Virginia, to DC, to NYC and everywhere in between. That’s where my clients are, so that’s where I go. That’s where my family is, so that’s where I go.

I’ve always done this, lived in one place and worked in others. I suspect that to some there is a certain insanity to it, but to me, it makes perfect sense. My clients, who pay me to do sophisticated, complex and often very technical work, all live in major cities. But I like living in quiet, simple, rural areas. It’s worth the travel to have a place of true peace to spend my non-client facing time with.

I could fly more than I do. But I don’t mind the driving. In fact, I like it. It relaxes me. I can drive twelve hours, get out of the car, and I am energized, not worn out. There’s something about the simpleness of driving. It only uses a small part of my mind, leaving the rest to ponder, to think, to write things in my head, and to pray.

Yes, pray. I pray a lot anyway. In the morning. At night, Often at still moments between work. But in the car, I pray long, long prayers. No one important to me gets left out. No situation I am aware of gets forgotten. I pray for big things and small things and I pray for people who have no idea that I pray for them. I come out of a long drive feeling very connected to my God. Even when I drive in New Jersey.

I think. I deal with problems and hard emotions that often I have trouble dealing with when other things are going on, because I process them so slowly. It’s uninterrupted time, so I can let my emotions drift without worrying about phone calls and the like. I can just be.

Truly, it becomes almost a meditative state.

In my dream world, someone would pay me large sums of money to drive and carry people or small (legal) packages all over the country. Terribly inefficient financially I am sure, but I’d love doing it. Hours and hours to think. Good music on the radio. Yeah, sign me up!

I listen to music. I have satellite radio so you never know what I might be listening to. Jazz. Classical. French Cafe music. The latest hits. Or very old, old hits. I’m developing a taste for African music just recently. Again, hours of it put me in a meditative place. A peaceful place.

So the driving is not a chore. It’s the best part of my work (and I love all the kinds of work I do.). And if it seems a little insane from the outside…. it’s cheaper than a therapist, and probably nearly as good.

And in this particular case, I get to bring my daughter home from college for Christmas. That would be my wonderful “she bakes and I don’t” daughter. What could be better?

I’m loosening my belt in anticipation.

Be well. Travel Wisely,

Tom

Thoughts: Finishing the Medicine

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It is sunny outside. The November sun is vivid and bright, but not very warm. With luck, it will reach the upper forties today and when I go outside in the afternoon, I will be able to stand and let the warmth soak into my blue corduroy shirt I am wearing.

I have been sick for a little more than a week. Bronchitis, the doctor told me. Actually, what he said was “That’s a pretty damned bad case of bronchitis you have there,”. And it was. I had a death rattle in my breathing, particularly at night when I laid down. In fact, laying down was the worst, because it all settled and I would go into crazy, lung splitting, coughs that left me sore, as well as sleepless.

I don’t rush to the doctor with every sneeze and sniffle. In fact, most of the people who love me have told me I wait a little too long. I give my body a few days to beat back whatever ails me. As long as I am holding my own, I don’t bother. I just plow through. But at a certain point it’s clear my body is losing the battle, and so it’s off to the doc’s I go.

And after four nights of decreasing sleep each night, it was time.

My regular doctor wasn’t in place that day. No matter. My body is not a temple of exotic illness. No, this was a run of the mill something that I just couldn’t beat back. Any old doc would do.

The Doctor I got was a delight. He looked like the re-incarnation of Vincent Price. Cavernous cheekbones. Angular face. A shock of dark gray hair, all unruly on his head. Deep set eyes. And the voice! Ah the voice, deep and precise, that odd mix of perfection and humor that was the realm of Vincent Price, The fact that he cussed a little when he told me what I had made it even better. If illnesses have a highlight, this was it, the turning point.

He proscribed an antibiotic careful to choose one that likes working in the lungs and plays well with the other medications I take. Large blue capsues, bright blue, as if the color could kill the germs inside, or bright blue, as if I might misplace them on the way from the bottle to my mouth. Twice a day.

Until they were gone.

That’s the key, evidently. Until they are gone. I started feeling better two or three days into the medication. Now, a week into it, I am feeling much better. Perhaps not quite well, but much better. At this point, the medication itself is more painful than the desease.

That is because antibiotics and I have a love hate relationship. They work remarkably well on me. Perhaps that is because I don’t take them that often and my germs are a sucker for their effect. Or perhaps it’s just chemistry. I don’t care. They work beautifully. A few days in and my symptoms are generally gone.

And in those last few days, I generally feel like crap. You see, antibiotics and my stomach don’t get along. Mix antibiotics and the chemistry set of my tummy and you get aliens, gorwling, roaring beasties that leave me feeling like I am on a sea cruise in the middle of a hurricane. They mess with my head too. I feel sluggish. Dull. Thick headed. Not at all myself. In it’s own way, it’s as bad as being sick.

But, I take them until they are gone.

I don’t want to. I feel better after a few days. I want to toss them aside and move on. But, no the doctors tell us. Do that, and you are leaving enough of the nasties inside alive that they may rally and make a comeback.

I recall a story in the bible, where God told Joshua to kill everyone in a particular town. And when Joshua didn’t, God was pretty mad at him. It wasn’t JUST that Joshua disobeyed. It was that God knew that to leave any alive in that particular place was to assure that Joshua would get to fight that particular battle again and again and again.

So I am on the last days of medicine. I feel bad. But I’ll feel better in the long run, and for the long run.

It’s the same with a lot of things. I remember, after my divorce, being in counseling. I was a year into it. I felt better. I was over the hump. I wanted to stop. But a long talk with my counselor convinced me to stay. Why? Because evidently only 10% of the people who go to counseling see it through. They get better, but not well. And better is good enough.

But better leaves things unresolved, not really dealt with. And so they rise again.

I see it in business too. Clients hire me to fix something. We make it better, and it’s “good enough”, but not complete, and they let me go, and never finish what needs to be done. And so many of them slowly fall back to the habits that caused the problem in the first place.

Finishing is hard. Our natural inclination is, when we’ve largely conquered something, is to look beyond, to the next challenge, rather than do that last 10% that makes all the difference in the long run. We think we’re making progress.

But in the long haul? Not finishing the medicine leaves us open for relapse. No matter where in life we are.

So I will finish the medicine. I don’t like going backwards.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

The Fine Art of Wasted Time

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I have been in the road for the past couple of days, so I haven’t kept up with my writing, my e-mails or my work. Yes, it was the weekend, but I am in general, a disciplined soul and when you work freelance, as I do,  work has no hours, only results.
When I say on the road, I mean literally on the road. This was not a leisurely two hour drive with two days spent lying by the pool or visiting the antique shops that are part of my passion. No, Saturday I drove fifteen hours to pick up my son in Virginia and then another three to visit my parents. And Sunday, after a pleasant breakfast with my folks and my sister and her husband, we drove 12 hours up the east coast, getting in last night about 10:30.
I’ve done a lot of that over the years. I haven’t lived in the same state as my offices, or the staffs I have managed, since 1981. My free lance work has often resulted in travels all over the country. I do fly sometimes, but more often than not, If the travel is within ten hours, give or take a little, I’ll drive.
A lot of people would look at that as wasted time, but I haven’t found it to be so. The past two days, for instance……
Saturday, on the way down, I spent the first few hours just decompressing from a frantic two weeks of deadlines and dealing with an unexpected demon or two from my past.. How often do we get a serious chunk of down time in our lives? No, most of the time we careen from thing to thing like we live in some metaphysical pin ball machine. But, trapped in the confines of my ancient and beloved Isuzu Trooper, on a weekend when my clients are all recovering from the fourth of July, I was able to simply let the week slough off of me. I listened to music and let the notes sink into my soul in a way I rarely get to do, for hours on end.
And somewhere down the road, in the middle of Pennsylvania, I found myself refreshed. My mind started writing poetry in my head. I found the solution for a particularly thorny technical problem I have been wrestling with for a client. And a personal issue or two that have been elusive  fell into perspective. The rest of the 12 hour drive to Virginia was productive and energizing.  Then I picked up my son and made the three hour drive to my parent’s home.
My son lives with his mother in Roanoke Virginia. And I live in the small villages of Vermont. We talk several times a week, by phone or by skype , but there is something about face to face that unlocks the floodgates. Whenever I first get my kids in the car, whether it is my son for a trip to Vermont, or my daughter taking her back and forth to college, the first few hours are a talk fest and we both just unload all the things that didn’t manage to make the daily conversations. It’s like a torrent of talk, for hours. And it’s amazingly connective, spending that much time just talking and listening to each other. It’s not just the words, it’s the pouring out and the soaking in of the energy of each other.
The talk fest continued for much of Sunday’s drive from my parents back to West Pawlet. From time to time he would take a nap for a hour or two, and my mind would enter a state not unlike meditation. Then he would wake and we’d talk, and laugh and enjoy ourselves. By the time we were here, we were integrated again. He’s not a guest here any more. It’s just the family, he and I and my daughter, together.
Traveling is only one form of “wasted time” in my life that isn’t. My experience is that the down time make me more productive. People who have worked with or for me in the past have always commented at how much work I got done. Yet I often get that work done in less time than most. I am very efficient and effective. I just am. No tricks. No techniques. I just am
And the reason, I think, is that I take the down time. But I don’t just watch TV and turn into a vegetable. I use the down time. I let it renew me, energize me, I let ideas float around in my head and slowly come together. I let the time, meditation-like, make me better, more in the moment the rest of my time. It makes me more relaxed. More able to focus intensely on people and ideas. Less able to give our family and lovers the attention they deserve.
And I think a lot of that is because we’ve become a world of constant doing. We’ve lost the fine art of wasting time.
And that, my friends, is a damned shame.
Be well. Travel wisely,
Tom
PS – My son took the picture yesterday, as we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge and entered southern New Jersey. About half way home.

Thoughts: A Sense of Safety

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Years ago when I was visiting in Philadelphia, I bought a book by Julia Cameron, “The Artist’s Way.”

The book was new then, but went on to become a phenomenon and it is easy to understand why. It’s purpose was to help “recovering creatives”, that is to help creative people who had lost the spark and habit of living creatively, find their way back to a more creative life. It was aimed at artists, writers and musicians, but as the years have gone by, I have come to see that it’s principles extend far beyond artists, and into business, technology and life itself.

If you read much about business and technology, you already know that we are living in what many call “the creativity age”, a time where business and technology are driven by innovation. Coming up with “the next big thing”, or disruptive technology, or simplifying the complex is the path successful companies are taking day in and day out. This extends to business processes, ministries, and almost any organization that wants to grow consistently and dramatically.

But developing a creative culture where people feel free to share ideas, and where there is a process to sift through the ideas and find ones that are both effective and implementable  is a challenge. And often the challenge starts with the very first issue that Julia Cameron brings out in “The Artist’s Way.”

Creativity, she tells us, is something that we are all born with. You don’t have to look far to see that is true. Watch small children play and their imaginations will astound you. But somewhere along the way we lose that spontaneity, that willingness, even anxiousness, to throw out ideas as they tumble through our head.

The reason is that as children, we want approval and we assume adults know best. And at an early age we are told to “be practical” or told “That’s a silly idea.”. And so we do what people do when they want approval, we adapt. We become practical, And we stuff our ideas in a closet somewhere, like old toys.

We may think we outgrow that need for approval, but trust me, we don’t. We carry it with us throughout life. And so we keep a lot of our good ideas shut up in those closets and in time, often, lose the knack of generating ideas all together.

What creative people (and I would say all people who want to be innovative) need, according to Cameron, is a sense of safety, And what we need to do in life, work or ministry, is create a place of safety for ideas to flourish.

When I am working with organizations that want to develop a more creative culture, most organizations or people THINK they do nothing to quell creativity, but when I start to visit, sit in on meetings and talk to people, I inevitably find the same things:

In meetings, when new ideas are asked for, they are critiqued as soon as the ideas emerge. Reasons they won’t work spring out of everyone’s mouth as soon as the idea is voice, effectively shooting it down immediately.

People in the organization all feel that it’s “useless” to bring up new ideas because “nothing’s going to change.” Most of the time they can point to a particular manager who they see as the great wall, blocking new thoughts before they have a chance to even be thought about.

Even when ideas are taken and used by management, there is rarely any acknowledgement of where the ideas came from.

The thing is, we’re all still kids at some level. We don’t like being shot down. We love praise and encouragement. If we don’t feel it’s safe – safe for our image, safe for our careers, safe for our tender feelings (and they are tender, even in the hardest nosed businessman.), then we will cease to risk tossing out ideas.

If we are in a corporate or organizational setting, the ONLY way a corporate culture changes is if those at the top create that place of safety, then the culture can change. If the people at the top don’t create that place. then we’re all stuck, and other companies and organizations will grow at our expense.

What can we do? Here are a few ideas.

In meetings, hold back the “that’s crazy: critique. Urge people to build on each other’s ideas. In brainstorming sessions, institute a “if you can’t say anything good about an idea, keep quiet” rule. (Yes, Mom was right on this one, even in business).
At the end of a brainstorming session, have the group pick a few of their favorite ideas and ask people to do some research and thinking on how it could actually work. You will only use a few of the ideas, but it will create an atmosphere of possibility that will grow and nourish ideas – and it only takes one or two great ideas to make a profound difference in your bottom line.

When Ideas are implemented, or even a variation of an idea, recognize those that came up with it. We’re all kids inside and we all love praise by the teacher. Even at our age.
When I was a partner at The Kingma Agency, I used to keep a big white board in a public place and when we were working on a new project, I urged everyone who had ideas to write them on the board. It became a game, and we all had fun with all the ideas, smart and silly, that showed up. Having them in public like that made it easy to write something down, and ideas spawned ideas. We’d talk about ideas that showed up on the boards. And in the end,l we almost always found great ideas for our clients. Everyone had a part. Everyone.

The point is, if you want innovation and creativity, you have to create a place for it to flourish. A place that addresses our basic human need for safety and encouragement. It has to be done consciously because it is rarely natural. We’re all too tuned in on what’s practical. There’s a time and place to make ideas practical and profitable. But that’s later. First, you have to HAVE the ideas.

What if you are an individual who wants’ to build a more creative life for yourself? How do you apply this same principle of creating a sense of safety?

Go back to what Mom said. You remember don’t you? Mom was all about making sure we had the right friends around us.

That principle is still the same. If we want a more creative life, we need to surround ourselves with people that have a sense of possibility and encouragement. So it’s time to do a reality check. Look at the people you spend time with. Do they encourage playful, creative thinking? Or do they squelch it? We don’t need to ditch people if they aren’t raising us up, but we DO need to have people who encourage us and make us feel safe talking and imagining if we want to live more creatively.

Here’s the good news. We lost our creative spark, as people and as organizations, because of a slow, systematic whacking at imagination by friends, family, managers, ministers, and other leaders in our life and work. We slowly bought into the myth that creativity wasn’t practical. But amazingly, the rest of the world, even business and industry, have caught up with our childhood, and has come to see the very practical value of creativity. In the same way we lost it, slowly, we can regain that creative energy for ourselves and our organizations by mindfully and purposefully making changes that create a sense of safety.

And it is so worth it. A creative life is more fun, more fulfilling, and just plain interesting to live, whatever form our creativity takes. Isn’t that something we all want for ourselves?

Take care. Travel wisely.

Tom