Tangents and Timing

I waited until I was 45 to meet William Stafford. Sure, I’d heard of him. Maybe run into him at a couple parties (figuratively). But there is no reckoning, or quickening if you are a “Highlander” fan, until it is time.

Tangents seem to be the most direct route to my soul. Stafford is a writer who I have known I wanted to, and needed to read for probably 20 years. I have read bits and pieces and read articles about him, but haven’t made a point to dig in. And then he appears in a birthday compilation of thoughts, memories, and musings, writing about Great Blue Herons.

So I take the hint and find a greatest hits book that has that same poem in it. And reading Stafford it is instantly clear that he has his own unique place in my tribe of soul writers.

Timing is everything. I’ve seen it and felt it countless times: I read something or hear a song that seems cool, but doesn’t resonate. Until I have had the experience that makes the lid blow off it, and it drives directly to the heart and makes a home there. Until it is time, it doesn’t make sense.

Stafford is like that. I needed a birthday reminder to get in touch with him. Scripture is like that. For more than 40-some years, I have read spiritual tomes and everything I could get my hands on. But it wasn’t until last year that I knew it was time to immerse myself in the Bible. And now, finding the connections between the Old Testament, Gospels, epistles, and seeing how God’s Word becomes living words in our lives; I know I wasn’t ready for that search, that journey, those connections, until I was.

At Christ Church Easton, we’ve finished up our Lent Bible studies, which came on the heels of an Ephesians group. We’ve still got an Old Testament study underway, and Alpha groups, but I look forward to what’s next, what direction groups will take this fall.

But first it’s Holy Week and Easter. And spring and summer. And spring break for the girls. It’s finding the soul tangents and being led to follow them. Those tangents can be adventures, people, paddling, reading, traveling, sunrises, birds. They are the threads God puts in our lives, puts in front of us for us to follow.

Resolve: The Everyday and the Epic

What I need for 2017 is resolve, not resolutions. The resolve to continue some of the good things that got underway in 2016, and resolve to be better about getting to some of the things I left out. Resolve to continue to be grateful, to give back, to love, to follow God’s lead, and to smile.

I started 2017 with a five mile sunrise run and then church. The girls and I finished 2016, the stretch between Christmas and New Year’s with a Star Wars marathon–episodes one through seven, Anna’s request after seeing Rogue One–and will have to see if 2017 brings us some snow to get us outside.

As 2017 gets rolling, it’s worth looking back at some of the good from the past year, and some things to resolve to get after for the coming year. We’ll make the list go to 10, since top ten lists are the rage this time of year:

2016 (the year that was)

1. 2016 was a meat-free year for me, except for fish and seafood. Fancy people call that being a pescatarian. I call it trying to be less of a hypocrite. I’ve always been bothered by truckloads of chickens or pigs crammed into cages, driving by on the highway, and the whole notion of animals being raised for the sole purpose of being food. I don’t hunt, but I happily fish, and will clean and grill/cook, so trying to make my own diet more in line with how I operate in the world. It was a resolution I made at the beginning of the year to see how long I could stick to it. Year one is under the belt.

2. We welcomed Harper to our family. You can read more about that here.  At the beginning of June, we rescued a six-ish month “Australian shepherd mix” with the help of Operation Paws for Homes, and our family and our hearts grew exponentially. One of the year’s best decisions.

3. I started writing. I have been writing/blogging for a number of years, but wasn’t making a point of really doing something with and about writing. That changed in 2016, both in starting this site, in writing a monthly article for Tidewater Times and in making a commitment to write and keep writing.

4. I let God into my life. I’ve always been a spiritually-minded person, have always been a searcher, and have always tried to live life the best I can. But 2016 was a calling and answering of a different kind. It has led to looking deeply into my heart, at life, at love, at God, and listening. It has been uncovering and recognizing something in my soul, which is in each of us, allowing the Holy Spirit and Christ to move freely and try to follow. It is not easy, I still mess up wholly, frequently, and am fully human. But I am trying to take my life, what talents I can offer, and time, to ignite and follow the passion and path that God has put in me. If you’ve been reading here, you may have noticed that. During 2016 I also found Christ Church Easton, a home church community, and have just begun my work as Assistant for Small Groups and Christian Education. I have a long way to go, but am learning and trying to make the most of every step.

2017 (the year that is beginning)

5. More silliness – it’s easy to get pulled in to high seriousness: work, deadlines, bills, money, schedules. But so many of my favorite moments are so easy to look past if I don’t make time and have the mindset. Anna running around the yard laughing with Harper chasing her; Ava dancing in the new year; leaf pile shenanigans; beach exploring and sea glass hunting; snowman building; taking and making the time to find simple reasons to laugh and smile.

6. More road trips – I wasn’t very good at this in 2016. A great Harper’s Ferry trip in April, but that isn’t enough when there are so many cool places in easy driving distance. My schedule is busier for 2017, so putting things on the calendar and making time for bits of wanderlust, from day hikes, to car camping, to skateboarding, to visiting national and state parks and historic sites. I didn’t do a good job with this in 2016, so it’s on me this year.

7. Less stuff – Watching a documentary on Netflix the other night called “Minimalism,” was a reminder that I need to own my stuff, not let my stuff own me. There wasn’t anything particularly earth-shattering, I try to keep “stuff” in check as it is, but “The Minimalists,” do a solid job of making some points that I might already know, but don’t always keep at the forefront of my thinking: “It’s not so much about financial gain as it is about financial freedom, which is the ability to wake up in the morning and spend your day as you see fit.” And “Love people and use things, because the opposite never works.” I want to remember in 2017, to focus less on the care and feeding of “stuff,” and more on the care and feeding of the soul.

8. More trails – Over the past 10 years of my life, trail running has given me incredible scenery, accomplishments, camaraderie, solitude, friendships, and put me in nature. I spent less time on trails in 2016 than I have in a long time. Some of that is because Sunday morning was my trail running time and that has become church time. I am glad to have church as a time for worship, reflection, and community. I also need to make other time for trail running and hiking. We pushed our Appalachian Trail across Maryland challenge into 2017. That’s one part of more trails.

9. More prayer – I try to pray every day, make a quiet time to talk to God, to show gratitude, to listen, to be still. I have a lot to learn and I know this needs to be a focus.

10. Dig deep – I made some steps in the right direction in 2016. I want 2017 to be a year for follow through, for resolve, for next steps. It is time to dig deep and keep at it. Whether in writing, in study, in leading small groups, in playing, at work, I have reached a place in life where I have a pretty good idea of what I need to be doing, what my calling might be, what I need to do for the girls, the things that make me deeply happy. Now it’s a matter of staying after it, while being mindful that things have a way of going in directions we don’t expect.

In the documentary “180 South,” Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard says, “The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts.” There is likely something to that.

A life well-lived is one that appreciates, finds, and embraces both the epic and the everyday. And sees that each lives in the other. There is a bit of both throughout the above list. So that’s my resolve for 2017: make room for, appreciate, and embrace the everyday and the epic. That’s an outlook for a lifetime.

On Vocation: Five Golden Things

“It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure,” was an ad slogan the U.S. Navy used in the late 1970s and early 80s. It must be pretty good since it still sticks in my head. What if we could go through life like that? What if we felt that way about our jobs? Our lives?

Not all jobs feel that way. But for the life adventure attitude, we’ve got to dig deeper than just a job and look at vocation.

A man knows he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live, and begins to live. – Thomas Merton

I don’t claim to be in that space Merton describes, but I am getting closer, and I am getting a pretty good lay of the land for what that looks like. For our purposes here, let’s think of vocation as a hand; as the work we do in the world with our lives. Our hand, like most hands, has five fingers. The fingers are all part of the hand, and the hand is made up of the interconnecting fingers. You can’t separate them from each other, they are all part of the same thing/work/life/vocation.

Disclaimer: I am a work in progress and things change and evolve over time. In describing these things, I am putting words towards things I have found in life to this point to be the things that seem to make up aspects of vocation/calling. Check back frequently.

1. Fatherhood. This is the one role in life I am least prepared for, it takes improvisation, winging it, frustration, questions, blood, sweat, and tears. And it’s the role that means the most, rewards the most, defines the most. Nothing else I do, or could ever do, compares to it.

2. Writing/Reading/Learning. This has been a part of me, a defining part for 30 years or more and counting. From the notebook in my back pocket, to grabbing a book with coffee in the morning, it is a part of me that never turns off. For the past six months, Tidewater Times has been a great outlet for me to write about everything from nature to history to incredible people and cool goings-on in our community. I hope to make this more and more a part of my life over time.

3. Being outside. I feel most alive outside, in nature. I can be running (preferably trails), walking the dog, hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking, bird watching, skateboarding, but being outside is where my soul feels both most alive and most at peace. Recognizing that and making sure to recharge that way and make the time for it is a daily practice.

4. Building/connecting community. It’s not a coincidence that when I was at a major crossroads in life and career, it was the Oxford Community Center that needed a director. When I think about my family being in the area since the 1600s; the evolution and changes in the town and the community; the players and personalities that have helped shape this place in the past and during my lifetime, it seems like a place I am supposed to be, involved in work that I am supposed to be a part of. I can look around and see and feel a connection to the town and the Eastern Shore in ways I have never seen or felt anywhere else. I’ll just leave it at that for now.

5. Spirituality. I saved this for last for a reason. This is where the change has been taking place and the reason for my reflection on vocation and for this post. I have been a lifelong spiritual seeker. My path has taken me in wonderful, rich, and unexpected directions at just about every step of the way. Over the past year and a half especially, that direction has revealed itself more through a deepening relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the love that flows through the Trinity, through our hearts (my heart), and into the world. I’ve never felt anything like it, and how could I have?

It’s when I have let go and allowed God to work that I have felt most free, most driven, and the most connected. On an October Friday, I put a gameplan out into the Universe, which I have no other way to describe then that I just knew those things were what I was supposed to be doing. The three parts of the plan are: 1) writing/sharing, 2) learning and studying, and 3) helping to create a community of Christian small group study. That Sunday, Father Bill Ortt stood in front of the Christ Church Easton congregation and said that they were looking for someone to lead small groups. He said you don’t need any experience, he had more than 30 years worth and that he would look to help train/mentor the right person.

That began a conversation that has helped reveal a calling (of sorts) and that has turned into a part-time job as Assistant for Small Groups and Christian Education with Christ Church Easton.

Vocation is the big picture. It is doing the work that you feel called, charged, fulfilled to do. It isn’t necessarily connected to a job, but it can be, and when it is, then you know you are doing the work you should be doing.

As God has revealed life and vocation to me, and helped me see what those things are that charge me and that I can give back, I have Frederick Buechner’s words in my head a good bit, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I don’t know about the world, so I’ll start with myself, my family, our community. And we’ll see where it goes.

Jeremy Joseph: The Shared Experience

Within a month of knowing Jeremy Joseph, we were almost struck by lightning in the storm that felled the Wye Oak. He and I sat next to each other at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum the spring and summer before he became an art teacher. In a brief span, we talked fishing, art, Tom Robbins novels, music, literature, you name it. And then he rolled on to do what he should have been doing.

Jeremy taught both my daughters art in school, and over the years we circled back into each other. He has been a ceaseless inspiration for me to be creative. At one point when I caught up with him, he and a friend had put out a music album, he was painting every day and had his work in a local art gallery, along with a full-time job, his wife, also a teacher, was equally busy, and their two daughters in school, sports, etc. His motivation to make time to be creative pushed me to do the same.  We have had similar takes on art, life, family, fatherhood, books, writing, and sports. Jeremy and his wife Tiffany are among the best people and kinds of friends you can encounter.

I’ve been a fan of Jeremy’s saltwater-based still life paintings for some time. And then this fall, a funny thing happened: he opened a solo exhibit of 30 paintings that were nothing like the work he had been doing. The new paintings were imaginative, primitive, celebratory, seemingly whimsical, communal. I wanted to see what was going on.

Jeremy has been serious about, and dedicated to painting for 22 years. He decided against going for a master’s degree in fine art, so instead set to making his own studio time and creating his own art history studies. From 1994 to 2003, he painted in a narrative style, telling stories with his art. And then he started looking more closely, observing more deeply, and in his meditative observations, the mundane became elevated. Still life painting became the medium.

jj-still-life-nov-2016

“I had a lot to learn. If you are going to spend the time study and paint a striped bass or a mullet, it better look like one.”

Salt-water still life became Jeremy’s hallmark. His paintings sell reasonably well in the local galleries, he gets requests and commissions. He developed a nice niche. And then a new direction emerged.

Painting still lifes made Jeremy learn color in depth and develop his mark making. Teaching elementary school students, and seeing their unbridled imagination on a daily basis kept inspiring him. Add to that the fact that realist and impressionistic landscapes are all you will find within a few hours’ drive.

“I’d always wanted to do this imaginative work,” he said. “Maybe it’s punk rock vs Joe Satriani; maybe it gets back to Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ just working very simple.”

the-raccoon-the-pineapple-the-hummingbird

At first his idea was to convey the “first people,” or earliest people. Fishermen were going to be his transition. Then he started studying Meso-American figurines, Buddhist sculptures, and African masks. He saw stick figures and moved toward complete simplification. He started to notice some commonalities.

“People (artists and cultures) have been making the same eye shapes to represent contentment forever.”

Contentment, happiness became a current. Both conveying happiness, but also experiencing it in the moment.

In March of this year, Jeremy put up a studio in their back yard. It opens from the end and the side, and in the warm weather, hummingbirds flew into the studio while he was working. Birds and animals became a current.

jj-sil-nov-2016

“I get so much from the birds, the wings of birds, the flight of birds, that’s where my blood pressure goes down and where I go,” he said. “And I wanted to get across this universal happiness, we break bread, we share a moment, the thing I am after is just this little bit of happiness. And thinking about having a conversation with a merganser or a fox made me happy.”

Four months of painting every day, Jeremy created each of the 30 works in his studio. And had the full support of his gallery, the Grafton Galleries in Easton, to show the new works, even with them being a departure from what his work had been for the past 13 years.

“There were times when I thought that doing this type of work was a kind of career suicide for the still like work that I do. I wondered if I could make paintings that through the use of form and simplification, could dare someone not to smile, not to like it? I really wanted it to be about a mood, a shared moment or experience. Matisse said he painted for the tired businessman, the guy (or girl) who is tired at the end of the day.”

Part of that shared experience is captured in the painting, and part of it is shared with the person looking at the painting.

fox-jay-playlist

Breaking new ground after more than 20 years developing a style: I dig the creative courage that is behind a move like that. But what I get in talking to Jeremy, in spending time in his studio, is that it’s not about the painter, or the painting specifically; it’s more about the process.

What is it that gets you out to the studio, after teaching all day, after coaching sports, or family time, what is it that gets you to pick up the brush?

“You know it’s there, you know there could be a reward, you just have to get yourself out there. It’s the happy accident, the resolution of something, experiencing the unexpected. Honestly, it’s the smell, the sound, the feel of coming outside, you put yourself in the place where something can happen.”

sunlit-friends

Jeremy’s solo exhibit, “The Shared Experience” is on display at the Grafton Galleries, 32 E. Dover Rd., in Easton through the end of November. Some of his new works will remain on display after that.

A Writer Writes: The Gameplan

At any given point you can look back at your life. Hopefully you see things that make you proud: the kind of person you are, how you treat people, maybe you have kids and see who they are becoming, personal accomplishments, relationships, etc. But, if when you look back, you continue to not see something you thought you would see; meaning you haven’t done something you wanted to try; it might be worth taking a closer look at it.

For the past 18 years or so, I have had jobs that required me to write. And that’s great, I enjoy it. But only sometimes did those jobs send me after the kind of writing that I would choose to do on my own. I’ve been able to find chances here and there to pursue writing on the fringes, but never a sustained attempt. I’m trying to change that.

pressfield-and-book

Steven Pressfield sees what gets in the way of me, or people in general, going after those things that make up our dreams. He wrote “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” which became a movie, and you’ll recognize a number of his other books. But it’s “The War of Art,” that has my attention at the moment. Pressfield calls it “Resistance,” that thing that stands in the way of people trying to achieve their dreams:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

He points out Resistance as that force that stops us from doing something–from starting to workout or diet, to trying something new, to going to church, starting a business, painting, writing, from the simple to the profound. It takes the form of procrastination, excuses, it can be inviting or intimidating or rational. But it stops us, by whatever means. Until it doesn’t. And hopefully it doesn’t take a near death experience, or a mid-life crisis, or something of the sort to make us want to get past it.

When I looked around at myself, at how I spend my time away from work, my mornings, my evenings, I saw some things I liked. Spending time with the girls, running, trying to make the most of the mornings. And I saw some things I didn’t: like week day happy hours in the evenings after work sapping momentum, creativity, motivation. And not much writing. It seemed time to make some changes.

2016 Aug TT cover

The August issue of Tidewater Times is out now. You can pick up a pocket-sized copy of the coolest, carry-with-you magazine on the Eastern Shore from a number of different places. Or you can read it online here. On page 177 in the online version, is the first of an ongoing series of articles and book reviews I’ll be writing there. It helps to have friends like Jim Brighton, who are doing remarkable things like the Maryland Biodiversity Project. If you are the Facebook type, they have more than 5,700 folks following awesome photographs and natural history posts. Regular articles in Tidewater Times is one part.

Getting this site rolling is another. I’ve got others in mind. Stay tuned. It’s also about surrounding myself with other like-minded folks, a creative community of people exploring life and their passions, and making the most out of each day. Some of it will be interviewing and writing about those folks, with Jim being one of them. People have different passions and talents. It could be giving up an office job and opening up a restaurant; it could be starting your own landscaping company and happily spending your days surrounded by nature. When someone’s passion becomes their story, that’s a pretty cool thing to see happen and to share with others.

2016 writing books

There are writers out there whose lives and books inspire me daily. Peter Matthiessen and his environmentalism and spirituality. Tony Horwitz and his ways of tying history to the present in ways no one seems to have looked at. Thomas Merton and Frederick Buechner and their callings by God to follow Him and write about it. Gary Snyder and his seamless synthesis of words, nature, the Cosmos.

It’s a big world out there, full of remarkable people doing stuff that no one else can do in just the way that they are. My sense is that each of us has something of that in us.

The writer Will Durant summarized Aristotle by saying, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” That’s a habit I’d like to make. It will make for much better happy hour conversations on the weekends.