This I Believe

"Pursuit of Happiness" 18 x 18

“Pursuit of Happiness” 18 x 18

I believe everyone should run, play games, sing, dance, tell stories, and make poems and create all kinds of amazing objects out of clay and paint and whatever they can find. I believe that we should honor and celebrate those who are especially good at these kinds of things. But we should never discourage those who are more enthusiastic than expert, more passionate than talented, more eager than educated. We reach our full potential not through criticism, but through the sheer pleasure of doing a thing increasingly well.

We have become a nation of spectators and that breaks my heart. Creativity, imagination, and physical exuberance are essential human characteristics and we deprive ourselves of our very humanity whenever we shut these qualities away, experiencing them only second-hand as we watch players on a field, actors on a screen, dancers on a stage, or listen to musicians and singers or read books or gaze at works of art.

So who cares if your paintings are not museum quality? Who cares if you’re not the best player on the court or the best singer in the choir? Who cares if your stories make the bestseller lists or not? Just go out there and enjoy the fullness of your humanity. Critics be damned.

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Sisters

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When she smiles,
You forget all about the lazy blue eye
That seems to search for something the rest of us
Never notice.
When she laughs,
You don’t see the postmenopausal whiskers
On her chin.
Her awkward gait is fine
As she strides to the front walk
Where she spreads food
For homeless cats.
She likes books with pictures –
Shirley Temple, Johnny Cash, Princess Di.
Words are difficult.

Her older sister orders for her at the pancake house.
Later, they stand together
In the edge of the surf
Remembering the same beach, years ago,
When Mom and Dad took them there to play,
Long before worries of work or elusive pin numbers
Or rent or keeping an old car running
Overtook their lives.

The older sister’s square shoulders carry them.
The sister with the lazy eye has sloping shoulders.
She pays her way with smiles
And laughter.

The Blues

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There’s a place at the intersection
Of sadness and consummate joy
Called “the blues.”
I’ve built a house there,
a house I don’t live in.
I spend most of my time
Up one street or
Down the other.

I’ve tried painting other rooms
In other houses
With the brush
Used on my corner house,
But I never seem to get it right –
Always a little too bright or
A little too somber.

My house at the corner
Is always full of musicians
(or their music, after they’ve moved on)
And poets.
The occasional novelist passes through.
A few artists have left paintings there.

I feel more alive in this house
Than anywhere else.
Even when I’m alone.
Even when there’s a crowd of friends
And strangers.
Everybody’s welcome here.

(This poem needs another line or two for resolution,
But there is no resolution
For the blues.)

On Waller Creek

SOLD Formed by the Light. 11 x 14, acrylic on lokta paper

From the broken place in the retaining wall
I can see where the rains
Formed a rivulet
Leading down to where the water
Always flows
Even when the rains never come.
The flow moves on through still, deep places,
Through playful shallows,
Down to the lake where my friend
Walks his dog at sunrise.
Over the dam, it’s a river again
(as it always was, underneath)
Flowing on its meandering course,
Crossed by repeating bridges,
Onward to the sea where another friend
Walks her dog along the beach at sunset.
And out on the far shore of the same sea
(it’s always the same sea)
Another friend repairs a wall
Broken by a recent flood.

Madness, I Tell You!

The Mad Hatter's New Hat

“Are you mad?” she demanded. “Have you completely lost it? Helloooo!”

I listened carefully. I’d always wondered exactly what this thing we call madness might really be. Maybe she would explain it to me. I was increasingly convinced that either I or everyone else was hopelessly mad, although I couldn’t tell which it was. Maybe if I had a better understanding of madness, I’d be able to decide.

I’d done some research.

The word “mad” occurs in my dictionary between the words “macule” and “Madagascar”. A “macule” (or “mackle”) is a printer’s term referring to “a spot, especially a blurred or double impression caused by a slipping of the type or a wrinkle in the paper.” I thought this might be a clue.

Madagascar, of course (formerly Malagasy Republic), is a large island off the southeastern coast of the African continent that I knew from my anthropological studies to be home to a collection of rather prehistoric primates long since extinct on the continent where monkeys and apes evolved and prevailed. Madagascar has no monkeys or apes – except for Homo sapiens, an invasive species. It does have dozens of species of lemurs as well as the exceptional sifaka, which moves by means of sidewise leaping. I thought this could be a clue as well.

To be mad, I thought, is like being caught somewhere between a blurred line on wrinkled paper and a sidewise leaping primate.

Etymologically, the word itself – “mad” – derives from the Old English gemaedde, meaning “out of one’s mind”. This evolved in Middle English into a meaning of being “beside oneself.”

As a student of Buddhist meditation, I find this intriguing. One of the goals of meditation is to be able to observe dispassionately and objectively one’s own thoughts and feelings. In other words, I suppose, we could say, to take up a position outside of one’s mind, as it were, or beside oneself as opposed to remaining hopelessly embedded and ensnared in one’s thoughts and emotions.

Interesting.

Is that madness?

Apparently so.

To be “mad” can also imply anger, although I don’t think that’s what my friend meant. I knew her usual term for that was “pissed off”. It’s true that anger can drive one mad. Also other people…

Then there is the question of rabies and rabid, “mad” dogs. Which brings up the altogether puzzling question of mad dogs, Englishmen, and midday sun, which, to be perfectly frank, the English have very little experience of.

There is something I recall about being far from the madding crowd, which often sounds enticing. And some seductive notion of a kind of “madness” that is liberating and wild and impetuous.

“Hello!” she said again. “You’ve really lost it this time! Gone off the deep end. Gone ‘round the bend. Mad as a hatter!”

“Do you know why hatters are mad?” I asked. “It’s because of the mercury they used in the production of the felt for the hats. Mercury poisoning,” I said.

She shook her head in despair. “You’re mad,” she said again. “You’re absolutely stark raving mad.”

“Did you know that the term ‘stark raving mad’ first appeared in Henry Fielding’s The Intriguing Chambermaid in 1734? But yes,” I said at last. I sighed deeply. “Yes, I believe I am mad. Would you care to join me?”

(This piece was originally presented at Austin Writers Roulette “Spark of Madness” on Sunday, September 13, 2015.)