In the second week of Advent, my aunt died. Her memorial service was yesterday. She was married to my father’s brother for more than 50 years and was every bit a full aunt to me. My cousin, her son, recently described her as "beautiful, funny, and elegant, as well as gracious and unfailingly kind.” I would add courageous and determined. I had the privilege of going with her to oncology appointments the last year and a half to be her second set of ears, to be her note taker. I watched her closely not only because she is someone I love, but because she is someone I admire and learn from. This is what I saw her do, continuously and without fail: Take the next step; do the next thing. I don’t mean in a getting-things-done sense or in a style of perpetual motion, but rather once her feet were on a path, there was no stalling, no wasting time. There was no lack of action or participation in life due to self-pity or hopelessness. With a full intention toward wellness, her orientation was always: This is my path and here is where I step next. Again and again. I learned from her until the end and am so grateful for how she lived her life.
Last week’s Parenthood episode (“Too Big to Fail”) was spot on in highlighting the tension between choosing passion or responsibility, bliss or the ability to pay for life, within the context of work. This tension is an important thread in my forthcoming book, Finding Livelihood. Drew, a sophomore at Berkeley and the oldest boy in the youngest generation of the Braverman family clan, is feeling pressure to pick a college major. More specifically, he is feeling pressure to pick a major that will lead to a future job that will enable him to pay off his student loans, support himself, and help his family, particularly his sister.
Drew decides that “economics” would be the best choice. His girlfriend objects, saying that’s not who he is, that he’s a poet not an economist. He goes to his uncles for advice. The two uncles are having their own crisis. The company they started and from which they support their families is going under.
Adam, the uncle who is a businessman and has lots of options should the company fail, tells Drew to pick a major by following his dreams and to not worry about making money. Crosby, the uncle who is artsy, lacking in options and a financial safety net should the company fail, and already on the verge of losing his house, tells Drew to learn how to make money and to make as much as he can, because money can indeed buy happiness.
But, counters the business-man uncle, money doesn’t buy happiness, only peace of mind. “The last time I checked, peace of mind is the definition of happiness,” concludes the artsy nearly-broke uncle. The scene ends with a close-up shot of a very confused Drew. Well played, Parenthood.
[Photo: Screen grab from Parenthood episode.]
“I will not measure you out any more distress than you need to write your books. Do you want any less than that?”
It’s Friday again. Another long week perhaps? I seem to be on a music run and that's probably because the workweeks have indeed been long here lately. Try this song to close out the week, "The Once and Future Carpenter" by the Avett Brothers, from their album The Carpenter.
My son introduced me to the Avett Brothers about five years ago when he and his buddy played their album I and Love and You, including the title song with it’s line "Brooklyn Brooklyn Take Me Home," on repeat while painting rooms in our house to earn the money for their one-way plane tickets to NYC after college graduation. While the music played, I sat at my computer in the adjacent room, trying to work, trying to swallow down the lump in my throat. I like the Avett Brothers’ sound, and the thoughts and emotions in their songs, but they are always linked in my mind to those boys singing along on the threshold of adventure, that moment of leaving something behind and pursuing what’s next, of continuing to become who you’re going to become. This song speaks to that, to living the life you’re given.
The song’s refrain:
Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me
And when I lose my direction I'll look up to the sky
And when the black cloak drags upon the ground
I'll be ready to surrender, and remember
Well we're all in this together
If I live the life I'm given, I won’t be scared to die
Click here to read an interview with the Avett Brothers from Entertainment Weekly about their album The Carpenter.
This past weekend my husband and I went to a retreat studded with silence. A communal silence. Yes, there was laughter and conversation, music and chit-chat, but the periods of silence were the most resonant. Silence after prayer, after reading of the Psalms, before lunch, around a bonfire (of course, after and not while smores were being made). Sometimes the silence was suggested by those leading the retreat and sometimes - such as around the fire, when the logs had burned down to embers - the silence arose organically, a mutually-given gift of peace. A shared comfort and understanding. A new friend said with a catch in her voice that the silence was so present she could touch it.
Towards the end of this weekend cycling of words and refraining from words, I led a short hands-on writing workshop. No words in the air but words spilling out on paper. Sometimes you have to stop the flow of the first in order to open the flow of the second. I loved the smiles breaking out as discoveries were made, personal messages that emerge when you fill pages and then sit with them for awhile. Even through this, though, we sat together at tables and the writing silence was communal. I’m quite sure the silence feeds the writing, and community feeds personal discovery. Paradox abounds.
[Photo: Taken on walk on said retreat; walk was in silence but I do admit to checking my email while walking.]
I’ve been reading and thinking about hope a lot lately. One of the books I’ve recently read on this topic is The Power of Hope: The One Essential of Life and Love by Maurice Lamm, which came out nearly 10 years ago. Lamm is a rabbi, the founder and president of The National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and author of numerous books, particularly on death and grief. Although Lamm writes about death, this book is about hope in any situation. While on the one hand I found it a bit simplistic and bordering on positive thinking, on the other hand I found it likable, comforting, and motivating. Lamm uses cases studies from his counseling and also stories from his own life to show how to take positive hopeful steps in hopeless situations. It’s a humble book that gives people who feel hopeless a place to start, a foothold. Lamm is saying to his readers: just imagine what can happen if you only say “I hope.”
It reminded me of a talk I once heard in which the speaker told of a woman who had called her, in tears, needing her to talk through how to clean out a junk drawer. The calling woman was overwhelmed and paralyzed about the drawer, but the clear message from the woman was, please help me get my life in order by helping me order this drawer. So the speaker talked her through it – start here, do this. Begin to reclaim your life by throwing out those old pencils, the torn scratch paper, the keys that no longer fit any door.
This is that kind of book. Here is why you need hope and here is how to start to be hopeful instead of hopeless. It acknowledges that simple acts – like even putting on lipstick – have power. (Personally, I think the boost in spirit from a little lipstick in the morning may approach statistical significance if there ever was a clinical trial measuring such a thing, and have given that advice myself. Add a swipe of eyeliner for an extra potent combination regimen.) You may or may not get what you hope for, but you will always get something, even if a better outlook.
[Photo taken of “Molecule” by Mark di Suvero at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden]
By day I'm a freelance medical writer. After hours I do another kind of work. Creative writing, spiritual writing, essaying. This blog arises from those after hours. I write about work/vocation, meaning, hope, imagination, faith, science, creativity/writing, books, and anything else I feel the impulse to write about. I hope these short posts provide camaraderie for your own creative and spiritual life.
In the Celtic Prayer Book, Aidan Clarke wrote that the soul is like a bridge, "bear[ing] the weight and accept[ing] the contradictions of the two-way flow between God and the world." I like this metaphor of the soul as a bridge and have been thinking about it in relation to one's work. I’ve always thought that God wanted his people to saturate the world, all industries, all domains. Here in the pool business. Here in the advertising industry. Here at an arts center, at a hospital. God's bridges everywhere—God to world, world to God. But there's a catch to the...
For readers who are tempted to think that finding and traveling one’s path is as simple as identifying your passion on a vocational questionnaire and then never losing sight of that passion, this story may cause you to think again.
On New Year’s Day I started rereading Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I first read it the summer before last after a short writing retreat, and it seemed appropriate to start the year with a review of this book’s gems. If you do any kind of creative work, or think about doing any kind of creative work, whether or not it’s your day job, I commend this book to you.