Distance

Sometimes, there’s a place where the grass and the sage, pine and cottonwood, rocks and scrub and a cactus or two — maybe piñon and mesquite and yucca and so forth — they all get together and make up this kind of mildly intoxicating existence.

Little breezes ruffle and shift the scents around, or the wind really kicks up and does its best to rearrange your day. 

Mostly these areas aren’t burdened with an overabundance of trees or houses.
You can see the horizon. You can breathe in deep and feel your mind flatten out.
Memory and time stop fighting each other. Your worst enemy might be a fence or two. 

I don’t generally have anything against concentrations of trees or houses — or people, for that matter — but I need to be out in the wide angle, out in the open kind of wild. 

You can see the storms coming. Hear the wind searching. Feel the thunder roll.
See the lightning crack. You can see the sun breaking in yellow through the mist or dying red in the clouds, and you can look at it all coming and get ready.

You can give yourself to it. It’s like getting ready for church or mass. Like a wedding or a funeral. 

Things in the land and things in us consummate and die all the time.
Out there you can see it, know it for what it is.

You can see it all coming, and see it all going.

Cooking with the Stars

Hold your thumb up to the sun.

Count to 10.

Thousands upon thousands of subatomic particles known as “neutrinos” just passed through your body.

You may have heard of the lab, deep beneath the head of the Homestake Gold Mine in South Dakota, that’s dedicated to the study of these particles – and, in turn, to a small part of the fathomless, underlying mystery of the cosmos.

Like many observable quandaries in the realm of quantum mechanics, neutrinos are produced during an event of massive energy (notably, in this case, the sustained fusion reaction of our sun). Within our sun, the prime atomic building block of the universe – hydrogen – is constantly being fused with itself into helium.

This marriage gives birth to a chain reaction of cosmotic creation, such as the transfer of some of this matter into energy, and the building of new and heavier elements.

Now, as lovely as neutrinos are (for example, they exist in three separate states at the same time), it’s mainly the Sun’s massive release of energy we’re concerned with – especially when it comes to cooking.

I promise there’s a point to all this.

Think about the food chain. Consider it. Look at the hamburger, or the salad, or the chips on your plate right now. Imagine what had to transpire for this meal to even exist. Go beyond the supermarket. Beyond the farmer. Beyond the animal. Beyond the plant. Even beyond the soil, or the sea.

No matter what the species, no matter who or what you are – human, cow, bird, fish, tree, grass – it is a vastly complex, and yet ultimately simple picture.

Gravity and energy, and the state of the very fabric of spacetime after the birth of the universe itself, all conspire to, in turn, give birth to stars… which, one day, will die themselves. As all things must.

But in their lives, which span eons, the potential for the creation and sustenance of life itself is undeniably huge and powerful. 

And beyond the mere act of this creation, we as humans had to experiment for many generations in order to elevate the basic necessities of fat, protein, salt, sugar, minerals and trace elements… into something divine.

Meat over an open flame is survival. Salt from the ocean, ground beads of peppercorn, and dried rosemary make it something more.

Consider as well the miracle of a bowl of non-poisonous plants, drizzled with oil pressed from tiny, pungent fruits and the leftovers of fermented grapes (itself a product of energy conversion).

There is a hint of something here – something beyond the realm of the observable. 

A great mystery presents itself in cooking, in the willful and creative endeavor of harvesting various iterations of stored energy from our sun, in the heating and reducing and chemical experimentation and mastery that can generate a simple plate – one that can make almost anything alright. Better still, this is mastery anyone can attain.

On this “pale blue dot”, moving through the inconceivable vastness of space, how strange – and how wonderful – that something as simple as preparing a meal can hold within it the mysteries of the subatomic, the competition for the energy of a slowly dying star, the subliminal experience of taste, and the gifts & lessons of generosity… all at once.

The Scent of Forgotten Things

Note: a version of this article previously appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Mélange Magazine.

The storm-dampened scents of Dauphine Street gave way to something old and familiar as I opened the front door of the used bookstore.

Here in the heart of New Orleans, as in all places I visit, I’d inevitably found myself seeking out such places. Without a particular itinerary, and driven by multiple cups of chicory coffee, I found myself somewhat regrettably using Google Maps to suss out the oldest and most promising of these shops. 

The smell embraced me immediately as I entered. If you’ve ever been around old books for any length of time, you know what I speak of. It’s somewhere between the dust and age of old houses and a bottle of vanilla in a woodshed. In these places, worthy treasures are never guaranteed; the calming scent of nostalgia certainly is. 

Nostalgia, in this case, being the simple chemical reactions that physically occur in books as they age. As time passes, the wood pulp in a book’s pages breaks down into various organic compounds. Lignin, which makes up a generous portion of the pulp, produces acids, which in turn dismantle the pages’ cellulose. This process produces vanillin, benzenes, and hexanols, contributing vanilla-, almond-, and floral- and organic-like smells to the book itself.

This is partially what makes up what some lovingly refer to as biblichor, or “the smell of old books”. By comparison, the recently rained-on street mentioned earlier was imbued with petrichor, or “the smell after rain”. Ichor, the Greeks said, is the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods.

Given that it’s generally the hardcover books made between the 1830s and 1980s that used the pulping and adhesive processes necessary to produce what we consider biblichor, you’ll find less and less of it in volumes printed after the late 50s (when the paperback craze started to take off). Only in recent history have we begun to use materials and processes that deny the production of the scent of nostalgia.

Scent, as we know, is the most powerful accessor of memory- but also of imagined memory, of that nostalgia. You can feel it, in these old shops and old locales. Your mind, after skipping through your own memories, feels as though it’s touching the edges of others- of memories not your own.

There’s something nearly indefinable about old bookshops, something that draws many of us in, I imagine, without a specific purpose in mind. It goes beyond mere charm. This must be one of the reasons we seek them out, for what in the modern age affords us the rare luxury of true purposelessness? 

That lovely lack of purpose, I suppose, lands right alongside the lure of the historical- history that can, in these places, end up being far more personal than a tour or museum. When we’re led by a guide (or by ourselves) to tours or museums, it’s with the purpose of encountering something enshrined- something important

When we find ourselves wandering into a used bookstore, antique store, or the like, it’s not only the apposite lack of purpose that entices us, but the other side of the historical coin- things forgotten or discarded. Things left behind. The unimportant. While monuments widen our gaze within past ages, the trinkets and relics of the individuals from those ages do far more to transport us, and in turn, to ground us.

Among the wayward, proliferate stacks of the old books I navigated around in Dauphine Street, I uncovered a 1961 printing of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s Sand and Foam, nestled in with several of his other works. One of Gibran’s trademark small, unassuming tributes to the meaning of language, art, time, and love, I found inside the cover that this particular volume had been gifted from one college student to another:

December 1962
Merry Christmas Brenda,
Gibran says that the obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply.
I hope these two books will help you see the obvious more clearly, as they have me.
Best Wishes as Always,
Gaye

On the following page, Brenda has marked herself as the owner of the book, along with an identifier of her residence at the time: Dorman Hall.

A bit of research shows that “Dorman Hall” was a dormitory at FSU in Tallahassee, built in 1959 after the Florida State College for Women converted to a coed institution in 1947. Researching the modern layout of FSU reveals that the original Dorman Hall was demolished in 2015; but a newer version has been built in its place.

I wonder if Brenda’s still around- happy, retired, perhaps writing a book of her own in her mid-70s. I wonder if she and Gaye remained friends. I wonder if she remembers this book, and whatever meaning it held for her.

Old bookstores make you wonder a lot of things, the least of which involve yourself and your place in the world.

Of course, with time being the great equalizer, this means that you’re as likely to find hidden treasures in one old shop as in any other. This would be proven to me somewhat humorously two years later, when someone pointed me to an even larger stack of old Kahlil Gibran volumes at a library sale in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

The territory of nostalgia is a mostly level playing field, no matter where you might find yourself. Whether it’s milk and coffee, old stone and fresh rain, or old wood and older books… 

…all you have to do is follow your nose. 

And leave your sense of purpose at home.

The Problem is Not Your Demons

– It’s How You’re Handling Them

Rather than scroll past this for fear of it ruining your Friday mood, I urge you to take it as a moment of focus. So let’s talk about demons, and about how an absolute tragedy can give us a little bit of light. Are you ready to meet the real enemy? I guarantee it’s not who you think it is.

Three days after fashion icon Kate Spade’s suicide, and a mere day after the CDC’s report revealing a 30% increase in U.S. suicide rates over the last 17 years, beloved, brilliant, charming, curmudgeonly chef extraordinaire Anthony Bourdain takes his own life.

Not that you need reminding, but it’s been nearly 4 years since Robin Williams did the same.

Perhaps the most commonly-asked question when people such as these decide to end their lives, is “why?” We, from the outside, see genius. We see talent. We see creativity, heart, passion, wisdom, curiosity, success… we see a lot of things. What we don’t see is the internal process.

Too often we assume that people who create beautiful things are filled only with beautiful things. I assure you this is not always the case.

And to be clear, when I say “create”, I’m not referring to the stereotype of the tortured artist. In fact, I’m not referring to artists at all. Raising children, selling houses, teaching students, building a business- these are all creative acts in a sense, because to do them well requires concentrated effort, passion, and sacrifice. For all acts that require purpose of energy are a form of creation. This is one of the realities of nature that connects all people.

In fact, it’s often those parts of us- the poison, the darkness, the demons -that drive us to create in the first place. We create because too often it’s the only way to hold up a candle against the night. In doing so, many find a sense of peace- or at least of stability -in the sense that they’ve come to grips with existence, with the past, with the future. To be compassionate, not only towards others, but towards themselves. To be mindful of, and grateful for, the time we have right now.

But for many more, the struggle to find that balance becomes a focus of pressure itself. And so the brilliant singer extinguishes her own flame before her song is ever truly sung, simply because she views her failure to conquer her demons as an inexcusable flaw, one rendering her unworthy not only of success, but of salvation. And the mastermind chef and teacher cuts short his own life, believing that the joy he’s brought to millions isn’t justification enough for his existence.

This is why you cannot fight your demons. There’s no possible way I can over-stress this truth enough.

Listen. I know you’ve been told over and over again that you must “conquer” your fears, and “fight” your demons, and “win” over yourself. But there’s a sinister, hidden flaw nested in this advice that will lead- and has lead -many into the realm of self-defeat. To imply that you can conquer the darkness within, that you can single-handedly slay your own demons, is to imply that you are somehow broken or tainted, and that with enough force of will, you will stand victorious. That you will reach a state of “completion”.

This can be, as today’s news shows, a deadly fallacy to believe. For as with physical life, our consciousness, our memory, our internal processes are in constant states of change and evolution. Having anxiety, depression, fear, doubt, blame, and guilt trying to crush your success at every step is, like it or not, an intrinsic part of being human. Everything from modern society to modern food to modern technology is both a product of and problem for the human mind. Our minds arise from each of our unique collections of cells, our neurology, and without literally lobotomizing yourself or using some kind of magic to physically remove the problem areas, you’re more or less stuck with yourself. There is no “completed” version of You.

But hear me out- that’s not a bad thing. That’s not a bad thing in any way, no matter what you’ve done or been through. You are not a failure because you’ve failed to construct an idealized version of yourself, a Jesus or a Buddha who lives without flaw and without fear.

In fact, because of the way our brains map themselves as we progress through life, everything that makes you “You” is tied together. You are a complex and beautiful network of knowledge and memory and dreams and flaws. So without the problem areas, you wouldn’t be yourself. In other words, take away the demons, take away your soul.

So the real question, the real battle, then becomes “How do we deal with our demons?” How do we mitigate- and integrate -the things that strive to kill our spirit?

After observing many situations like Bourdain’s, including some tragedies of those I personally knew, and including some horrific things I’ve experienced, I’ve come to a radical understanding about the nature of our demons.

Have them over for dinner. Sit down, break bread, speak with them. Barter and trade with them. Strike deals with, and in doing so, subjugate them. But nicely. They have to decide to. You have to decide to. They are part of you, just as you are part of them. They are you. Yes, they may have arisen from incidents, or been given to you by others, but now they’re yours. You have to decide how best to befriend them and make them work for you.

Every piece of light and dark inside you has a purpose, but it’s up to you to define that purpose. When you accept that you have control over this process, and that it’s an act of compassion and of negotiation, you’re free to succeed as you see fit because you’ve thrown away the youthful notion that an intrinsic, and perhaps unwanted, part of you can be magically cut out and tossed aside.

And now, the real enemy: your ego. Disregard the assumption that “ego” means power, desire, or confidence. Your ego is a vestige of primal competition, of battle, of survival, of “choosing sides”. Your ego wants to fight your demons, because it’s the screaming part of your personality that stands up and shouts “I’M ME, AND I WILL FIGHT ANYTHING THAT THREATENS ME!” Sometimes, the ego is a necessary part of survival- especially after any form of trauma or failure. But these things beget fear, and fear feeds your ego. And when your ego becomes trained to feed on fear, your outer strength becomes the killer of your true, inner self. Your demons then run rampant, because the truth is that Ego has a loud voice but makes a poor warrior.

And still, your ego will fight you every step of the way on the journey to yourself, your success, and your freedom.

Along the way, it will throw every lie in the book at you- you’re a failure if you don’t “conquer yourself”, you’re “not worthy” because you’ve committed sins or have been defiled, you’re “not successful” because you haven’t attained someone else’s version of success, you “can’t do enough” or “can’t do anything right”; and perhaps the most vile, insidious, and downright sad lie you could ever let yourself believe: you don’t need anyone.

Whether for attainment of a goal or a desire to become a better person, not one single person on this planet has done so alone. You are not God, you are not a god; hell, you’re not even a demigod. You’re human, and we arose and succeeded through connection, support, negotiation, and community. We are, in fact, “wired for help”.

Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, once wrote:

“…for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

To accept the lie from someone else, or from yourself, that your journey in life is a solitary battle of defiance against the world… well, that’ll kill you. You may not die in the literal sense. You may not take your own life. But a part of you- the part of light that shines from within, blinding not only your demons but those of others around you -will surely die. And so you become weaker, and the pack becomes weaker.

All because you believed that you’re broken,
that being broken is a bad thing,
and that you’re a failure for not fixing yourself.

So here’s the point, my beautiful people. Sit at the table with your demons, and talk it out. But be wary of this dinner at first. Demons have notoriously bad table manners. Some adjustment may be required on both your parts.

Take heart, though, and take note: this will be an ongoing conversation for the rest of your life. There will never be a point of completion. I believe you have the courage, and the compassion for yourself and those you love, to do so. The strength and elegance of character you desire, and the peace and success you want, are right now within your grasp.

Needing help from time to time does not make you weak; in fact, asking for help requires a much more graceful form of strength than does a brutish rebuking of the world, or a solitary march to war.

Talk to your demons. Question them. Learn from them. Own them. Ignore anyone who says you can kill them.

Give love. Accept love. Do both with wild abandon, and keep your eyes on the horizon. But keep distance, as well, from anyone who tells you to fire on all incoming ships.

Above all, remember this: even the best and brightest of us have defeated ourselves. As the winds and storms of life fill your sails, and you carve the waves of your own destiny…

…don’t forget who the real enemy is. Make that enemy your friend, and gather your crew.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
– ancient proverb

The Time and Space of Humanity

Just over 4.5 billion years ago, our local solar system started forming. In the last 0.2% of that span of galactic time, against all odds, a species arose with the capacity for reason and the desire to dream beyond their little planet– to stare defiantly into the reaches of space, and wonder.

If the age of our solar system were 1 hour, we’ve been here less than 8 seconds. And despite the struggles that have consumed large parts of our history, and continue to do so, there’s no doubt that on this day, there is one thing that unites the members of humanity under its gaze– the total solar eclipse.

The Moon is almost 240,000 miles from Earth, and it will pass in front of the Sun, traveling at almost 2,000 mph in its tidally-locked orbit. In the prime region of its path, it will fully and perfectly eclipse the Sun, some 93,000,000 miles away. Light, the fastest thing in the known universe, travels at 186,000 miles/second from the Sun, reaching Earth in just over 8 minutes.

The Sun itself is middle-aged, and will live for another 5 billion years before dying a glorious and violent death, taking most of the immediate solar system with it.

How incredible, how strange, how humbling, to be a part of this young and wondrous species, to be able to look up knowing all this… and how much more humbling to realize that current estimates have calculated over 100,000,000,000 stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, and that there are roughly 10 trillion galaxies in the observable universe.

As you look up today, know that our Sun, the basis of all life on Earth, is one of a probable 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 x 10^24) stars.

Our time on this planet has brought us to this point. The future of our species, of our fellow species, and of the place we all call home stands upon the edge of a knife. When the eclipse passes, after we’re all done talking about it, after we’ve gone to sleep, humanity will waken tomorrow with a faint memory, a whisper of something greater than ourselves. And work will resume. Conflict and struggle, hatred and violence will resume; ideology, irresponsibility, and pride will resume.

Yet so will the hope for peace, the love for our Earth and everything on it, and the call for a future built on the foundations of our better nature– the same one that took us to the Moon, and will take us beyond. As we speed through the vastness of space on this little speck of dust, we can’t help but wonder what’s out there, both at home and abroad in the universe.

Only time will tell what we’ll leave for future generations, what path they will have to take… and whether they will ever see the eclipse of humanity itself.

Audacity Beyond 2017: A Love Letter to the Human Race

Hope. Change. Love. Transformation. Luck. Finally.

Did these words bounce around in your mind as the clock rolled over to the new year?

I don’t blame you. Not one bit.

Our new culture is saturated with keys, triggers, signs; easy nuggets of hope that in turn saturate our subconscious, leaving us salivating for beautiful fruits that may never bear.

It’s ok, folks. I’m telling you, right here, right now, it’s ok.

I have walked with the hopeful, with the dreamers, with the expectant mothers and purposed fathers, with the wish-makers and wayfinders. I have also walked with the hopeless, with the downtrodden, the abused, the reckless and disillusioned, the cast-off chaff of this new world who’ve all but given up their faith in humanity.

Still, I say: it’s ok.

Are you calling me out on my BS yet? Please do. 

Bring me your broken dreams. Bring me your deaths. Bring me your fear. Bring me your burdens of blackness, your wreckage that writhes and grins at you in the night.

Do you truly believe, in your deep-heart, that an arbitrary number has anything to do with the timing of the universe, with the random dance of molecules or economies?

I don’t think you do. But it’s nice to believe, isn’t it?

That’s my point. Right there. I don’t care what you believe in. Just believe. The fact the you WANT to believe tells me your heart isn’t dead.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the symbolism. “New year, new you.” Fair enough. But I need you to do me a favor.

Accept that a new year, in and of itself, won’t change a damn thing.

Trust me. Knock it off. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment.

Set goals, yes. Retain hope in the future, yes. But you’ve just been handed an empty box.

Much like a new relationship, a new year comes with an empty box. What you get out is what you put in. It doesn’t come with anything. And this empty space is what’s important. 

We place value on the structure, but the space is what we use.

So what will you fill yours with?

I can’t stress how vitally important it is to define this concept. “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”? When did we become so lost in our hearts? It’s not wrong to hope, nor to have a back-up plan, but I’ll challenge you right here and now to “hope for what you want, but prepare for what you need”.

You hate this already. I can tell. You don’t need death. You don’t need disease. You don’t need loss. You don’t need breakups, financial hardship, hatred, betrayal, anxiety.

What you need is the hope of the undying.

Allow me to set you up for the pain of the coming year right now.

Ready?

Some of you, this year, will lose something. Your car will get stolen. You’ll get divorced. Someone will die. You’ll experience betrayal. You’ll get diagnosed with something. You won’t get the job.

Can hardly wait, right?

Are any of you thinking of what could go RIGHT, though?

Hear me now.

In fact, how could we appreciate all that is Good without the absence of it? How could we grow in mind, in body, in heart, in spirit, without being broken on the altar of life? Without being hammered on its anvil? Would you wish for an easy life, or for the strength to endure a difficult one?

Better still, would you wish to walk through the flames and STILL COME OUT shining your light to the world, to hold out your scarred hand to a beaten soul and say, “come with me, for there is still Life up ahead”?

Would you wish, instead of being broken and clinging to your brokenness, of staring at your brokenness with resentment, to allow the light within yourself to shine through the cracks?

Only by being broken can we transform. In being broken, in being dealt a bad hand, we are given a choice; perhaps the most important choice in our lives.

You can choose to say “I didn’t deserve to be broken. I won’t trust life any more. I will exact revenge where I can, so I can reclaim some of what was stolen from me”…

…or you can choose to say, “I didn’t want to be broken, but I’m grateful that I did. Life has threshed my wheat from my chaff, has hammered my impurities from my metal, and if I alone can be broken again and again and AGAIN and walk away laughing, to love and hope and offer an outstretched hand, then I am glad.”

Peace is not found in what you get. It’s found in what you do with what you’re given.

Right here, right now, witness that I renounce all claims to what I think I deserve. I am not special. But nor am I a coward for losing faith, for wanting to give up. I am given a calling and a priceless gift. If I get what I desire, I will be grateful. If I do not, I will also be grateful. 

I will be lifted up on wings, and dashed on the rocks. My soul will dance at the coming dawn, and I will weep in my pain as I am broken again. I am being hammered on the anvil. I am losing myself, and I am becoming myself.

I will use my tears to wash the dirt from another’s face.

The universe will deal me the absolute worst hand, and I’ll say “Here, take my money. It’s time to play chess instead.”

I was so sure blackjack was the answer. But perhaps chess is the better path.

I renounce and refute my human inclination to be hurt by loss, to curl inwards, away from the world. To die from the inside out.

If my house is destroyed, I will wonder what my next house will look like.

Because if I don’t, if I hold on to my innate ability as a human for pattern recognition, and I apply THAT to what happens to me… can you guess what comes next?

Let me tell you. Listen.

I will be the victim of my own self-fulfilling prophecy. 

“See? It didn’t happen. I knew it wouldn’t.”

Bull. Shit.

I’m not advocating a relentless, creepy happiness. I’m not saying “be positive”. Nothing so trite and meaningless. In fact, I’d encourage you to stay as far as possible from sources that promote blind positivity. Or blind negativity, for that matter.

There is a middle path. And you need to walk it.

Good and Bad are cyclical. Sometimes, one wins out more than the other. And there is NOTHING, no matter what, that can take away your hope and the love hidden in your deep-heart unless you allow it to.

There’s always a choice.

We are such beautiful and horrendous creatures. Pitiful and incredible, we sacrifice out of love and wreak atrocities on each other in the same day.

Living for such a brief speck of cosmic time, staring out at the universe, we wonder. Why? If you find an answer that works for you, and you can be truly satisfied in your soul, then I commend you. If you don’t, then let me tell you again: it’s ok.

You need merely ask the question. That, in and of itself, is the mystery and the answer all in one.

The fact that you can ask is beautiful, even without a clear answer. The closure you seek may never come. But the closure you need comes from forging a new path, and to keep asking regardless.

Animals are blameless and pure. The angels some believe in are that also.

So here we stand. Brilliant and flawed, halfway between the ape and the angel, staring up at the night sky in hope. Ready to love and ready to fight in the same breath.

So as you watch the stars in this new year, and for the rest of your life, you might say “I wish for my shooting star, but it never comes. Maybe it never will.”

And you are right.

But this is not cause for despair.

Your strength lies in the ability to unceasingly watch the night sky, time after time after time, marveling at its beauty, drowning in the mystery and audacity of hope so that you might learn to breathe again.

And when someone else comes along, saddened and beaten, wishing for a star that may never come, you can say:

“Look! My God, just look at the stars! Can you believe we get to watch them one more night?”

This, then, is my only resolution I offer you: become a beacon of hope to yourself, and to others. 

Unfurl your banners of Light and watch the armies of death break themselves on your shields.

————————-

“Some day, you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

— C.S. Lewis