Relentless Optimist. Relentlessly Hopeful.

I used to describe myself as a “relentless optimist”. A person who always manages to see the good and the possible inside every situation. “Relentless optimist” was my tagline, my cocktail napkin self-introduction and my Twitter bio. I’m done with that now.

Relentless optimism is a pathology, a psychological disorder, a dangerous delusion. The willful insistence that hiding inside every awful thing is something good just waiting to be noticed. Relentless optimism let me off the hook. It was a belief that good is the innate nature of all things and the work of life is just to walk around noticing the good, to somehow call it forth.

Magical thinking of a privileged life. I’m done with that now.

Let me now become known as relentlessly hopeful, a person who pays attention to things as they actually are, sees the brokenness of all things and finds places where, with sustained care and effort, good things can be helped to happen.

What to do while the world is breaking

This feeling you have that you went to bed last night and, when you woke up this morning, someone had broken the whole world and everything in it you thought you had understood.

Do not ignore this feeling. Do not shrug it off.

More likely the world has been breaking all along and you just have not been paying good attention. Look around.

The world, like the heart, is constantly breaking, spilling out its despairs, its loneliness and its fear. And yet there is, inside that soft container, so much joy and purpose and resolve.

You have to work with all of it. You must make yourself see all the pieces scattered around you, each of them out of its habitual place. You must consider each piece carefully and begin to move them around. You must begin to rebuild this world or someone else will rebuild it for you.

Your world is always breaking. That is its nature. This does not mean this is the end. We are constantly rebuilding, reshaping, and remaking. That is our nature.

Find someone you trust. Take stock of all the pieces. Get yourself to work.

Grateful for Difficulty

This past year and the year before have been the most challenging years of my life. We continued to adjust to the loss of my mother-in-law. We did our best to help an angry, tired grandmother die comfortably and with as much dignity as possible. My considerate, sweet 8 year old daughter became an obstinate punk. My marriage wobbled under new stresses. I lost my way, for a time, both personally and professionally.

But here’s the thing. These past two years have also been the richest years of my life. Our losses are constant reminders of impermanence, a source of new urgency and clarity about things that actually matter.

My newly punkified 8 year old explores my patience daily and reminds me that respect in any relationship is earned through habits of sincerity and discipline. This isn’t only true between parents and children.

The challenges inside our marriage threw us both off our feet. We found a better way to stand together. At 41 years old, I fell in love again with the woman I have loved since I was 15 years old. I am learning there is no edge, no ceiling, no floor on how two people can commit and grow together. She is the best part of my life.

I am finding my way out of darkness and I am traveling lighter and with greater clarity of purpose. Instead of constantly taking things on, I am pairing things down. I am learning to set down the burdens that do not properly belong to me.

I used to believe a good life was crowded, exciting and easy. I am coming to know that the good life is simple, steady and full of difficulty.

And this is my new year wish for you: that your life be filled with difficulty, frustrations and obstacles. And that, in difficulty, you may find your better self. That your relationships grow sweeter and your days more urgent. Our time together here is very short. Every moment matters.

January 1, 2014: This is Not the Post You Are Looking For

Today is New Year’s Day. You are probably expecting someone to post the secret recipe for life. This is not the post you are looking for.

I don’t have any answers. If anything, 2013 brought me more questions. Last year was a difficult year, and this year will be more difficult still. People I love are sick. I’m going to lose some of them this year.

I continue working with groundlessness and gratitude. Groundlessness has become my code-book for life. It is my faith, if you want to call it that. Some Buddhists call groundlessness “impermanence”. That is a good word for it, though the term tends to emphasize the impermanence of our lives. Most spiritual practice, it seems to me, overemphasizes the fact of our eventual deaths. In this focus, impermanence narrows to the unpleasant surprise of our own mortality. Most spiritual practice, it seems to me, makes too big a deal of death. By focusing too much on the ultimate unpleasantness, we miss a more important truth. Our daily lives are impermanent. Our minutes and hours are in constant change. Our understandings are always confounded. Our expectations dashed.

This is not a cause for sorrow or anxiety. Despair is the wrong response. When working with groundlessness, I remind myself, I must also work with gratitude. When you have given up expectation that things should be a certain way and you are working with gratitude, you are teaching yourself to pay attention. You are letting go of an invented narrative about The Way Things Should Be and are able to notice things as they really are. Gratitude is the habit of noticing the specifics. Gratitude is about paying attention.

I am not prepared to make any New Year’s resolutions. I intend to continue working with groundlessness and gratitude. I intend for my life to develop around this one theme: pay attention.

I’m not good at paying attention. It is, for me, very much a practice. Things always go wrong. They don’t go the way I intend for them to go. I am working to remind myself that the problem isn’t with Things, the problem is with my Plan for Things. Things don’t happen the way we expect or the way we believe we need them to happen. And still, we can be grateful.

And so, as I face another year of uncertainty and almost certain losses, my wish for myself is my wish for you as well. May you be faced with every obstacle and surprised by unexpected challenges and yet remain grounded in your acceptance of groundlessness and may you grow large with gratitude for things the way they really are rather than confused and frustrated with desire for things the way they ought to be.

39 Years: The State of Things

Tomorrow I will be 39. I’m not sure how this happened. I still feel like a kid, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In medieval times, I would be a village elder. 39 was ancient.  39 deserved reverence. 39 bespoke hard-won wisdom. Back then, it was probably worth listening to the words of a guy who hadn’t gotten eaten by a bear, fallen from a tree or been bashed in the head during battle. At least, that is my scholarly opinion of the matter after reading 4 books into the Game of Thrones.

Age is a funny thing. Age perception is funnier. In my head, I think of myself as being 23. That was 16 years ago. I remember being 16. It felt like it took me a long time to become 16. The 16 years from 23 to 39 happened quickly.

I like my life. I have a strong, happy marriage to the girl I first met when I was 15 years old. We’ve been through a lot together. We still laugh.

I’m a dad. This suites me very well. My daughter is kind, creative, funny and smart. At five years old, she already challenges me. She will help me a keep a keen, crisp edge.

I have a job I enjoy very much, doing work that matters to people. I feel passionate about what I do and am grateful to work in a place where people take me seriously and let me have ideas and let me try those ideas. Sometimes those ideas work  out. Sometimes they don’t.

I still walk around with the feeling that something really amazing is about to happen. I’ve had this feeling since I was 15. It still carries me forward today.

I don’t carry many specific memories around with me. I have memories but when pushed to recall a specific thing that happened, I usually get fuzzy on details. This actually bothers me quite a bit at times. I can’t picture a specific childhood home or recall details of a favorite family vacation or call to mind details of a really great conversation I had with my best friends. These things are all in my head. I glimpse them from time to time, but I generally cannot call them to mind. Memories come to me. I cannot go to them.

I’m not sure what this weakness of memory means, and I don’t really intend to dwell on it here. I just want to say that some people’s lives are enriched by their past. Others have found the habit of mindful presence in the present moment. I am future-oriented, for good and for bad.

I am 39 years old and, still, I believe that something incredible is about to happen. I believe it because it is true. Everyday there is some astounding, astonishing new thing. Sometimes it is a small thing. Sometimes it is a big thing. If I am ready, it is there for me everyday.

This is how I have lived for 39 years, swinging from vine to vine. I am grateful for the days, months and years behind me. I am grateful for today and this moment. I am grateful for tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next.

Unscripted time

A friend at work recently congratulated me on becoming the “man with the most hats in the world”. I’m still trying to figure out if this was a compliment or something else. Either way, she is right. I am currently wearing a lot of hats. Trouble is, I still only have one head.

There is no end to the urgent, imperative, interesting work that begs to be done. I can count at least 7 major projects/initiatives with significant claims on my time and energy. Each deserves my fullest focus and effort. Each will get the absolute best that I can deliver.

I took a few days off this week to rest a bit and refocus myself before things get really crazy.  Much of this time I was busy at my mom-in-law’s house, getting it ready to put on the market. The work was tiring but rewarding and productive. Sometimes it is invigorating to work hard at something other than what you normally do.

This afternoon I found myself with a few hours unscripted time, no commitments or plans. I wasn’t  passing out exhausted. My daughter was at her grandmother’s house. I read a book. I listened to music. I let my mind wander. I felt good.

This is just to remind myself that we don’t always accomplish the most by dumping tons of hours in toil. Sometimes, we have to make space for ourselves by allowing room for unscripted time. Time that belongs to us without expectation of what we will produce with that time.

I feel refreshed. I feel focused. I feel ready. I do have many hats to wear. I once again believe I have enough heads to wear them all.



Future orientation

I have had some recent life experiences that have allowed me to reflect a bit more deeply that usual on who I am and how I view the world. I am strongly future-oriented. This serves me very well in my role as a library administrator. I am often able to imagine what services and resources are likely to be needed tomorrow so I can start building them today. This is nice gift to have. It keeps me enthusiastic and creative. It keeps me moving forward.

The problem with future-orientation is that I often feel like I can see the future more clearly than the present. More to the point, if I am not careful, I can easily spend more time and energy looking at the future than I do the present. This can lead me to see the big picture quite clearly but miss the thousand essential details that make up today. So I need people around me who can help me be mindful of what needs my attention today. And I need people around me who can be patient with my tendency to leap forward before I walk back. And I need people around me who appreciate the beauty of ideas and know that not every thing I say aloud has to become instantly true. Not every project has to get born. We can negotiate. We can prioritize together. But we have to move forward. Sometimes we move quickly. Sometimes we move slowly. We have to be always moving forward.

I am grateful for the people in my life who recognize this aspect of my nature. I am grateful when they appreciate this way of seeing. I am grateful when they can help me to be mindful and pay attention to things as they are today. I am grateful when I am able to make this way of seeing useful. I am grateful for the people who connect my ideas to reality and use them to move things forward.

My New Year’s Resolution: Make New Mistakes. Lots of them.

Once again, Kind Readers, you are spared my own musings because something way more inspiring landed on my screen. Here’s fantasy/horror/YA author Neil Gaiman’s New Year’s wish for us all:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Love this! My thanks to my dear friend, Daryl Nash (chaos_sleeps) for putting this on my screen. He must have known I needed to hear this.

We have an obligation to spend our time doing great things

I was planning to write something about the importance of writing a personal mission statement to help clarify your personal terms of success. Then I read this blog post by Seth Godin (“The Chance of Lifetime“) and I would much prefer that people read that instead.

Just a taste:

The thing is, we still live in a world that’s filled with opportunity. In fact, we have more than an opportunity — we have an obligation. An obligation to spend our time doing great things. To find ideas that matter and to share them. To push ourselves and the people around us to demonstrate gratitude, insight, and inspiration. To take risks and to make the world better by being amazing.

Read it. Right now. Go.