Making Time for Our Passion

Flower in Sunlight on Island

Flower in Sunlight on Island

“Absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones,
as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires.” – Francois de La Rouchefoucauld

I think this is one of the reasons so many people get to the middle of life and feel unsatisfied, disillusioned, restless . . . as if something is missing. Because something is missing.

We tend to learn to put our passions aside. We learn to quiet them, to ignore them.

And for those “mediocre” interests, the ones that may have caught our interest, but haven’t come from the soul, this absence does seem to diminish them.

Fence Textures

Fence Textures

For those passions that are part of who we are, however, the going without, the denial, actually fans the fire consuming us sometimes from within.
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Humor Saved My Life

"smile" by kennymatic

“smile” by kennymatic

“You’re only given one little spark of madness.
You mustn’t lose it.” – Robin Williams

I think it’s safe to say that laughter saved my life.

Not in a keep-the-body-working escape-death sort of way, but in a keep-the-spirit-soaring sort of way, a feed-the-soul make-it-all-worthwhile sort of way.

Most of my early health issues took place between the ages of just arrived and six-years-old, and the biggest near-death moment of my youth happened at thirteen. I mentioned in an earlier post that I spent my teen years utterly terrified of death. Well, I’ve been thinking about that a bit lately – death itself, but also that paralyzing fear I had back then.

For some reason, I’ve also been thinking a lot about humor.

How rejuvenating it can be, either in the moment, or cumulatively. How life-changing, life-preserving laughter has been for me.

Lafayette Wattles as a Boy

Lafayette Wattles as a Boy

I honestly don’t remember having much of a sense of humor before we moved. Before everything changed. I was nine then.

When you move, it’s often like hitting reset on a game. Sure, you’re the same person you were before you got in the car that took you from one spot to another. It’s not like we transform in a matter of minutes or hours.

Yet, in a way, we do.
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Bedtime Stories and Snatched Books

"Bedtime Story" by Chris Nitz Photography

“Bedtime Story” by Chris Nitz Photography

When I was a boy, you would have needed one of those super-powered commercial staple guns to keep me in place for longer than a few moments.

And those rare times when I did pause (like in the photo below of my sister on the stairs) you’d probably think I was up to something. That I was mischievous. I wasn’t (glowing halo appears over head). I prefer the terms curious (you know, about what might happen if say my sister sledded down those bumpy steps) and persuasive (an occasional ability to talk that same sister into trying crazy ideas that popped into my head).

I prefer the term imaginative. Yeah, imaginative!

And I blame it all on my super-hyper-can’t-sit-stillness.

Crazy thing is, I would spend hours every day in my room, alone, playing with some toys, sure, but mostly playing with my hands and imagining that they were monsters and heroes and all sorts of things. I remember my parents whispering about my habit of playing without toys more than a few times.

But, see, my hands could become anything. My “action figures” were much more specific – G.I. Joe, and Cornelius from Planet of the Apes, and so on. I spent those hours making sound effects for the adventures and the battles.

I spent hours creating my own stories.

That may seem odd since I didn’t read books. And since I don’t ever remember having bedtime stories read to me (not by my parents or by any of my grandparents). It took me at least two more decades before I could slow down long enough to read stories on my own and I know how much they have impacted my life since then.

I can picture myself as a six-year-old who couldn’t wait each night to climb into bed and to have stories read to me. I have a feeling that would have been very important to me: the special time shared with mom or with dad or with one of my grandmothers, and also the stories themselves, the characters and the absolute wonder of being transported to other worlds.

I imagine if someone snuck into our house and the only thing they snatched was my favorite bedtime story, it would have been worse than if they had stolen my bed or my food.

Lafayette Slows Down Only Long Enough To Think Of New Ways To Terrorize His Little Sister

Lafayette Slows Down Only Long Enough To Think Of New Ways To Terrorize His Little Sister

The idea of such an undertaking doesn’t stir up a sense of danger, really, nor feelings of lost safety that come from someone sneaking into your home and taking things. The idea of story books being stolen, of someone only targeting those secret passageways to other worlds and other lives seems so much more intimate. So much more personal.

But the reason behind the act is even more powerful. Why would anyone do such a thing?

Helen and Thomas Docherty explore that question in their wonderful picture book The Snatchabook which I’ll get to shortly.

I mostly write poetry, as well as middle grade and young adult fiction, but over the summer I started envisioning story concepts for a dozen different picture books (characters, obstacles, etc).

Some people might think, well then you’ve got your book, only writing a picture book isn’t as easy as that. As a matter of fact, I recall the time in grad school when everyone in the program was given the assignment of writing a picture book, and the novelists and poets and playwrights, most people I encountered during residency, found it to be the most difficult task. Much more so than they had ever imagined.

So, this summer, I spent some time reading as many picture books as possible. Actually, I have three out from the library right now.

I’ve looked at a few classic stories, but mostly contemporary books, popular books, award-winning books. Books with a fair amount of prose (since I tend to be long-winded) and wonderful wordless books like Journey and Flora and the Flamingo (which I wrote about here). I highly recommend those, by the way.

I haven’t found too many rhyming picture books. In part because publishers have been shying away from them the last several years, or so I’ve been told, since getting the right rhyme and rhythm is quite challenging. Then I came across a book that had an endearing protagonist and, I suppose you’d call the little book thief an antagonist of sorts, but a sweet antagonist. The book – The Snatchabook – had wonderful illustrations and a beautiful story

The Snatchabook by Helen and Thomas Docherty

The Snatchabook by Helen and Thomas Docherty

The story takes place in the woodland world of Burrow Down where all the forest creatures and families enjoy their bedtime stories.

But one by one, the books start disappearing.

Turns out there’s one creature in the forest who has no family. No one to read to it. At least not at first.

Since the story is, in some ways, about fitting in and about being part of something (whether it’s a family or a community), I was immediately drawn to the characters. The Snatchabook is not only an adorable little creature that is, it would seem, alone, but it’s also a misfit. It’s unlike every other character in the book, except for one thing at least. It loves stories.

If you have kids or grandchildren or you just love picture books, I’d recommend checking out The Stachabook. I found the concept behind the story very clever and the verse and pictures a lot of fun. For a little information on the team from the UK who created the book, writer Helen Docherty and artist Thomas Docherty, check out some of the interviews I did with them below.
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Under The Bus

Jules Verne by mac.rj

Jules Verne by mac.rj

“Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed
when what you’re reading was written for children.” – Ruth Graham

That was the subtitle to the piece published in Slate back in June titled “Against YA.” In the piece, Ms. Graham doesn’t just throw YA fiction under the bus. She stops and backs the bus up and throws any adult who reads YA under it as well.

According to her, if you’re an adult who reads YA, you should feel ashamed.

I guess you might want to find some secret, special, hideaway place to do your reading where no one will find you (like the image above).

What a bunch of hooey!
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The Best Things I Learned From My Dad

Lafayette & His Dad Listen,” my dad said. “Be a good listener.”

I grew up as a fan of superheroes, sure, and of mountain men, and of good-guy gunslingers who disappeared after the town was saved, and of self-less soldiers, and of super-sleuth detectives (and we can’t forget NINJAS), and of all sorts of heroic types my dad and I watched together in movies . . . and of amateur and professional athletes, of course, but for me there was really only one true hero. Only one adult of whom I was the biggest fan.

MY DAD!

I’m not just talking that common boyhood idolization of someone who could do just about anything. It wasn’t just about his physical strength or his vigor, nor his confidence, nor his ability to figure things out, nor his super-fine motor skills which he demonstrated on the field and the court and the course.

All those things certainly influenced the level of awe and admiration I had for him (and still have).

But it was more than that, really, much more, that made me look up to my dad so much.

He never went to college. Back then, most people didn’t. He did, however, have specialized training in several areas – first while in the Army years before I was born, then after he got back home as an apprentice in a trade that required the use of mathematics and intricate measurements on a daily basis, not to mention a lot of physical labor.

My dad worked hard for most of my life. Actually, from the get go, that’s all I knew him as – this hard-working man, this talented athlete and this great coach (for me and for several teams over the years), this very loving father.

My dad has also been (and still is) one of my greatest teachers.

Not about books or academics, but about life, about living. Things that have shaped me. That have even shaped my writing (not to mention my chasing my dream in the first place).
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Being Different

“Being Different” by Niccolo Caranti

“Being Different” by Niccolo Caranti

“It is better to be hated for what you are

than to be loved for something you are not.” ~ Andre Gide

True as Gide’s statement is, being hated for any reason can be pretty ugly sometimes. Especially if it seems to be a collective thing.

One person hating you is, perhaps, to be expected, but a group of people (whether it be classmates or affiliations or countries or entire races) can be beyond overwhelming. If you feel isolated, on your own, with no support, it might even lead to your undoing. Which, of course, suits no one but the people hating you.

I know this. Too well.

Here are eight of my favorite books with a major theme of being different:

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Black Boy by Richard Wright
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt
Fat Kid Rules the World by KL Going
The Crystal Shard by RA Salvatore
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Nearly all of my own work (fiction and poetry) centers around the theme of being different. Otherness!

I suppose that is because it’s at the essence of who I am. And I’ll admit part of that is the result of being treated as if I was different. You can fight such treatment. You can acquiesce.

You can change who you are (by trying to become more like everyone else, yes, but also by resisting through the act of embracing the opposite, not because that is who you truly are, but ironically to be contrary to those trying to change you). You might, however, also realize that your difference is an essential part of who you are. Not all. Yet important!
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Worry, Anxiety, Fear: Obstacles to Creativity

“Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Evil Erin

“Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Evil Erin

“The way to happiness: Keep your heart free from hate,
your mind from worry.
Live simply, expect little, give much.
Scatter sunshine,
forget yourself, and think of others.”
~ Norman Vincent Peale

I’m torn between two thoughts this week. Well, okay, I have a gazillion thoughts popping around up there among the noodles, but I mean two blog post thoughts. One is on worry and how it sometimes gets in the way (of writing, of everything). The other is on being different and prejudice.

The former is one of the primary obstacles for writers and artists and it also often mucks up happiness for people in general. The latter is one of my biggest pet-peeves. Only the term pet-peeve seems like much too small a concept when it comes to being different.

Prejudice of any kind is one of the very few things in life I truly abhor!

It rattles me to the very core. That’s why almost all of my writing focuses on misfits, on people who are different races, mental and physical capacities, shapes and sizes. The recent circumstances surrounding a certain basketball team owner’s comments sparked a few new thoughts about that.

So, this week I’ll dedicate Write Side Up to “Worry -> Anxiety -> Fear -> Panic,” to quote a friend. Next week’s post I’ll dedicate to prejudice and to being different.

For all its potential evils, the Internet, and Facebook in this instance, also allows us to interact with people all over the planet. To share ideas, to glean insights, to raise questions. Yesterday morning on Facebook, a talented writer friend posted the following (and rather than just lift a few of the phrases, I thought it warranted a full-on theft, so the following quote appears in its entirety):

Worry -> Anxiety -> Fear -> Panic.

“Apparently Worry is a thought process in response to ‘an ill-defined threat often anticipatory in nature and created by the imagination.’

‘Worry can be useful to helping to find solutions to problems; however, worrying often centers on problems that cannot currently be solved. Thinking soon becomes very negative and doom laden, and this is misusing the imagination.’ (By the way, feelings of doom and hopelessness can spiral a person into a depressed state. Unnecessarily.)

Fear is in response to a well-defined threat or present danger. It engages our Fight or Flight response. Survival is the focus, whether physical or mental or emotional or spiritual. If this state goes on for a long while, it can be very tiring. Fear motivates good change. A move away from a real threat to our well-being. But, while Fear can help save us as we respond to a concrete threat, Worry is a misuse of our Imagination. I sometimes wonder if we give Worry power over our Imagination, if that constant state of thinking can help materialize a true Threat…like a self-fulfilling prophecy. (And it makes you feel really really yucky and unbalanced.) It pushes the Good Moments aside for imagined bad moments.

So unless you’ve got a well-defined Threat breathing down your neck today, use your imagination for Good. That’s the Super Hero I want to be: Super Imagination Girl! I kick Worry Monkeys to the curb (and anything or anyone attached to them) with the flick of my pen! Just thinkin’.”

First of all, any allusion to Super Heroes or Ninjas or Jedi has my attention.

Second of all, self-doubt (i.e. worry that they might not have something worthwhile to say, or that they might not be able to say it in a worthwhile way) is a huge obstacle for many writers and artists working in other media. The worthiness component indicates self-judgement, but the often crippling result is that the worry part often gets in the way of the trying part. And that’s a shame.

"Worried Eggs II” by Domiriel

“Worried Eggs II” by Domiriel

I love the question, Karen raises.

There’s irony in that the thing being worried about (for example, am I capable of writing a worthy novel) may become a real, perceived threat to the act of writing in the present and cause me to be unable to write a worthy novel (the self-fulfilling prophecy). But there’s also irony in that THE WORRY itself, the anxiety caused by being overcome by worry, being overwhelmed by it, that is what becomes the actual threat in the present.

Worry keeps us focused on what might be, it propels us, often without our cognizance, into the future. And that’s where we spend the present. When that worry turns into fear, the fight or flight response kicks in, but usually there is little we can do to remove the threat, since it is a product of the imagination, aside from finding ways to get out of our own way (out of our conscious thinking).

Writers sometimes worry about the outcome and, as a result, have a difficult time getting started. It is almost impossible to settle into a creative act and to fully immerse yourself if you are worried. Focus is directed to the imagined possible outcome, emotional energy is redirected to the fight or flight response rather than being used for diving down deep where memory and the imagination meet. That’s where the creating happens – in that very out of the way place and it requires a slowing down – it takes solitude of a sort, it takes stillness – to get there.

But when worry becomes anxiety becomes fear, the imagination is so preoccupied there’s not much room for anything else.

Look, we are creatures of emotion and imagination. We have the capacity to feel and to think and to imagine. Our brains are always on. One of those things (a thought, an emotion, etc) can spark the others without our consciously setting out to do so.

That’s part of being human.

But it’s also part of what gets in the way of our realizing our dreams, or even chasing them sometimes. And it sometimes gets in the way of our being happy (regardless of whether we chase our dreams or not).

“Understand not everything is meant to be understood . . .” by deeplifequotes

“Understand not everything is meant to be understood . . .” by deeplifequotes

The key is finding ways to become cognizant of the differences Karen pointed out between fear and worry. Fear being a real, in that moment, threat. Worry being an imagined future possibility (and that doesn’t mean you have to think about the future, you can worry that a thing has already happened that you hope hasn’t happened, but since you don’t know in the present moment, it’s still a possible future consequence that is being given time and space in the present).

So, what can we do, if we in fact identify the culprit, WORRY invading our lives?

The answer will be varied, as we’re all different, the reasons behind our worry are also different.

Here are a few things that might help you get out of the chattering-in-the-head mode so you can be present:

Breathing ExercisesWe humans live in our heads. All of the time. Hence the universal appeal of external methods to help get us out of our heads for a bit.

But one thing we often forget is that we also live in our bodies. All the time. The mind, the body, the emotions . . . they’re all connected. And sometimes, rather than dulling the mind, which often leads to worse feelings afterwards and a lack of productivity in the moment, we might get out of our heads through our bodies. By breathing. By moving. By training our brains to focus in on specific things.

Yoga – most people think yoga requires you to be a contortionist, that you have to be super-bendy for it to work, but just sitting still, just slowing down and being aware of the moment, of your body, of your breath, that is yoga. You can do it in a chair, on the floor. You don’t have to go to a studio or be on the mat.

Two poses I like for just slowing down and calming the mind are Savasana (Corpse Pose) and Viparita Karani (Fountain of Youth or Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose).

Get Outside (to Walk and to Observe) – walking by itself is great, but you can still spend the whole time going over and over and over what might come to pass, which is why honing in on the moment is important).

Focus on the air. What’s it doing? How does it feel?

Is the sun out? How does that feel?

What sort of shadows does it create?

What can you smell? Or hear?

What do you truly see?

Allow your senses to be fully engaged.

Most of us tool around on our walks in these beautiful settings (myself included) totally oblivious to the setting itself. We feel good, often much better just by being there. Often without even paying much attention once we’re there. So why do we feel better? You can get an idea of the answer if you allow yourself to engage your senses. If you see something and you slow down or stop and really take it in, you suddenly become aware of the moment and of the place. You are truly present in time and space.

And here are a few things that might help get out of the fight or flight response that happens if worry leads to fear (which Karen also indicated can lead to panic):

Find a Pose – I love Yoga Journal. You can find an assortment of poses with photos on how to do the pose and they also break down the therapeutic and the physiological benefits (i.e. how the poses can benefit the body, as well as the mind and the emotions). Look at all these poses that can help with ANXIETY. That’s right, you don’t have to do an entire sequence to reap the benefits.

Just Stop – Jon Kabat-Zinn defines MINDFULNESS as “moment to moment, non-judgmental awareness.” He claims, the ONLY MOMENT we are EVER ALIVE IN is NOW.” He also says we need to pay attention in the moment.

Meditation– no, that is NOT medication. Nice try! Here’s a simple video with a few suggestions on how to meditate. And this article alludes to “Meditation And Your 40,000-Year-Old Brain.”

Free-Write – (if you’re a painter, then just have at it with no purpose aside from adding color to the blank canvas and see what you get). This is not about quality. It’s merely about letting go! You can still pick something you might want to work on, a new poem, a specific scene for the novel, but don’t worry about using it. Allow yourself fifteen minutes or half-an-hour to just spew words on the page or the computer screen. And if you can use a notepad and a pen or pencil, let your body be part of the process.

This can be quite freeing (no pun intended). And here’s an article on a few of the benefits of free-writing in a journal.

Play – give yourself time to be playful (which free-writing is also aimed at).

“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” – Brian Sutton-Smith

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” – Carl Jung

“Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.” – Henri Matisse

“Drag your thoughts away from your troubles . . . by the ears,
by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.” – Mark Twain

Let’s be honest. If it were as easy as saying, drag your thoughts away, none of us would worry for very long. But Twain’s comment is still on point. Do what you can to free your thoughts from your troubles. It’s already a huge undertaking to turn inward, to hold your breath and dive to your very depths in order to tap that wellspring, and to create.

But if your thoughts are entwined with your worries, breath-holding becomes involuntary, you flounder in the shallow end, and often never truly submerge. You never fully immerse yourself in your unconscious and let it take over. You never get into any sort of flow.

“How much pain they have cost us,
the evils which have never happened.” – Thomas Jefferson

I bet if we went back over the past year, decade, longer, and sorted out all the worries we’ve had from all the real problems that actually happened, one side of that scale would far surpass the other.

Think of all that time and energy spent worrying being used to do the thing you love.

Don’t get me wrong. I worry. Worrying is, as I said before, part of the human condition. The trick comes, I believe, in recognizing worry for what it is and squelching the anxiety before it takes over.

Here’s one suggestion I came across recently for calming the mind, emotions, body:

“Begin with the Lotus position, sitting crossed legged with hands resting on the knees, palms up. The most important thing is to remember to breathe. To calm the rapid breathing often accompanying panic attacks, focus on your breathing at first, a five count in and a five count out, but let the breathing become natural. Let the breathing set the rhythm of the practice. Eyes should be closed, listening to the rhythm of the breathing. After five or ten minutes here, the body should feel calmer.” (This tip comes from an article on “10 Yoga Poses to Fight Depression and Anxiety” which can be found here).

“Don’t worry. Be happy.” Nice song. Wise words. Difficult task. But you can do it. Hopefully a few of the above tips will help. After all, I’m hoping you get to the page, too. Speaking of which, it’s time for me to work on some new poems.

Keep after it, y’all!


““Understand not everything is meant to be understood . . .” by deeplifequotes, “Worried Eggs II” by Domiriel, and  “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Evil Erin are all used as per Creative Commons License on Flickr.

Utopia, Dystopia, and A Love of Life

“Life is a precious gift . . .” by Doug88888

“Life is a precious gift . . .” by Doug88888

“Every utopia – let’s just stick with the literary ones – faces the same problem:
What do you do with the people who don’t fit in?” Margaret Atwood

It’s true that the people who don’t fit in – the misfits – are often perceived as “different” by others. But sometimes they’re also the ones who feel that way about themselves.

When it comes to adolescents, quite a few don’t fit in (either when compared to the norm by others or as a result of self-perception and how they feel).

Dystopian novels and television shows and movies are especially popular these days.

Last weekend I saw Divergent with my niece and I will be reading the books soon. I catch Revolution each week with my dad. And I’ve enjoyed reading the Hunger Games and Maze Runner books. Back when I first discovered my love of reading, as a twenty-six-year old, I also discovered Brave New World and Anthem and Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Clockwork Orange and The Giver.

One of the concepts often found in these stories is that even in those future worlds that are supposed to be  “perfect,” life is anything but perfect.
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What is Ron Koertge Writing For?

Batman and Robin by MrSchuReads

Batman and Robin by MrSchuReads

I didn’t grow up with some prized comic book collection, like one of the characters on Big Bang Theory might have, but I’ve always been a fan of superheroes. Still am.

After spending a few years without television, I recently caught up on the final season of Smallville. That’s right. I admit it.

And, yes, as a boy, I did imagine myself saving the world each time I leapt off the picnic table in the backyard, trying to fly.

As a boy, my favorite superheroes were Superman and Batman, sure, but I also used to imagine The Thing and The Hulk engaging in epic throw downs.

Maybe it’s the way each superhero has flaws, vulnerabilities, perceived weaknesses which they don’t just manage to overcome, but which, in the end, often turn out to be strengths as well.

Maybe that’s why Ron Koertge’s poem “Sidekicks” speaks to me so strongly, in part because it’s not a poem about superheroes, but about their sidekicks, characters who tend to exist in the background. They don’t usually represent the best of us, not in a sense of possessing superhuman abilities, but they do represent the best of us in the way they selflessly put the needs of others ahead of themselves, the way they exist outside the spotlight and still do what we need them to do. Not for fame, but because it’s the right thing. In some ways, they are misfits, yet misfits who often save the day.
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Laughter, My Favorite Exercise

Laughter by Symphony of Love

Laughter by Symphony of Love

“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” – Victor Borge

So many times, laughter has saved me.

And some of my best friendships have been forged over laughter, some of the best moments in my life. Including times I’ve ended up laughing at myself.

I hadn’t thought about that until the other night during one of the NCAA basketball games. A commercial came on and my mom laughed. And I saw her dad in her then, the way he would break open in a soft smile and the way that smile would quietly sparkle with laughter.

And I thought, at that moment, laughter might just be one of the best things ever.

I recall being a boy (no, it’s true, despite the common theory that I just showed up with a receding hairline and a silvering chin) and watching this amazing pianist on one of the shows my parents liked to watch and his fingers were like Olympic hurdlers racing across the keys. And, yes, that was impressive.

Only I was like six and as appealing as it would have been to have fingers that were fast as gazelles (I could imagine their usefulness for hiding peas at dinner or tangling my sister’s hair), but what I wanted most at that time were legs that were cheetahs, so I could run all over the neighborhood (which I did anyway) faster than anyone (which I so didn’t do).

But then the piano guy stops playing and makes a sound or a face or he does some crazy thing or he makes some tangential comment and I laughed. We all laughed. It was unexpected and a bit absurd, given the seriousness of the music, and absolutely wonderful. And it was also something my family and I shared.

Those moments laughing.
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