Sunday, May 1, 2022

#SundayFishSketch Should Not Have Given Me Angst, Except It Did

“Government is simply the biggest corporation, with the sole monopoly on violence.”- Elon Musk

As an artist, I usually get pretty excited about the Twitter Sunday Fish Sketch, a creative and fun way to participate with a great community of artists, scientists, and general fish and fishing enthusiasts. However, this week it took off for me in an altogether strange direction. The artist creative prompt was the following: 

May 1st is #InternationalWorkersDay and I think we should sketch some hard working fishes for our #sundayfishsketch #fishytheme. What’s your idea of a hard working fish? A nest builder, a waterfall climber, a long-distance migrator? You be the judge! #sciart #fishyfriday 

So Saturday night found me going to bed pretty thoughtfully contemplative of what I could draw. Perhaps a salmon who migrates lots of miles to spawn? Or a fish that builds extensive or intricate nests? How about one that works elaborate mating rituals to work his love into a frenzy of passion? My dreams and a good night sleep would decide.

Instead, I woke at 2 am in the morning in existential sweat. It is now May 1st. May Day. A day that many think about as a day to celebrate springtime or as an international day honoring the workers of the world. But for me it only sparked existential angst, no actually I felt in my core a sickening terror, of the reality of death and destruction and the craziness that is man’s inherent desire to find any path to destroy itself. I even dared to wake the wife to tell her what was happening and to risk poking that sleep-loving bear believe me it was bad what I was experiencing.

Because I am old enough to remember (yes, I am in my 7th decade of existence) that in the former Soviet Union (The old U.S.S.R. or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), May Day was an occasion to honor Soviet workers' contributions with giant parades in Red Square. Televised on all the networks evening news on the TV.  Those giant parades prominently featured the U.S.S.R.’s intercontinental ballistic missiles that Khrushchev promised he would be dropping on our heads any moment now. We practiced surviving these nuclear blasts sheltered by our somehow indestructible school desks, or the bomb shelters found in places like the library.

I had begun to believe the world had put those days behind us and then along comes the conflict in the Ukraine and all that passion to talk tough and use the “N” word is everywhere. I guess that makes me pretty stupid to believe that people don’t really want to destroy the entire planet over some disputed land or resources, and even more so that we are ok to fund a war but not push to negotiate a peaceful end. Wouldn’t billions be better off putting to solve through peaceful approaches?

However I don’t like it, Mr. Musk is pretty spot on when he reminds us that the governments “have the sole monopoly on violence” and seem to be unwilling to let go of feeling the need to use on the people.

So writing this is helping me to process how broken this world remains but I went ahead and did a drawing to try to calm the anxiety of the day. I chose to draw a sturgeon. A survivor over time. An aged dweller of the water it resides in. It gave food to us humans with its flesh and as caviar. And I am told some of the best caviar came from areas of the old U.S.S.R., now threatened to be obliterated.

Here is my drawing, done on an old dictionary page, where sturgeon are described.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Inner Space of Beauty

“The easiest way to observe your past thinking is to look at what is present in your life today. Whatever it may be is a certain indicator of where you're thinking has been.” 
-- Joan Gattuso from her book “The Lotus Still Blooms"

As I read the above-quoted passage, I was moved to look around the inside of our house, specifically the living room. From where I was sitting reading, I visually examined the environment that the wife and I have presently surrounded ourselves with. I should note here that the wife and I generally choose together what we populate our home with, be they decorative items or the color palettes of the rooms. What struck me immediately was the earth-tone colors and organic elements that are represented literally everywhere. 

We have brought Mother Nature's artifacts into our habitat. Pictures on the walls depict leaves, trees, and landscapes. A favorite picture is of a woman dining, hair blowing in a sea breeze amongst the backdrop of gently rolling waves of the ocean in the Horizon. Earthen pottery resides on the shelves, among leather-bound books. Dried grasses and cattails harvested in fields and ditch sides, and collections of bird feathers randomly found in our travels are tucked here and there. We even have a wing feather from an osprey that I picked up off the surface of a lake. This came about as I witnessed this raptor snag a fish from the water's surface while fishing from my kayak. As this magnificent hunter rose into the sky, shaking and sloshing off the lake water, fish in its talons, a single wing feather separated from the bird. The memory of how that single feather fluttered and spiraled down to rest on the still surface of the lake feet from where I was paddling is vividly recalled when I see it now currently standing in the “jar of feathers.”

Plants, both artificial, dried, and living, are nurtured (or dusted) inside our home. A few small carvings and sculptures of birds, fish, and other wildlife are also set among the shelves, reminding us of the joy we both get from the natural world. We have a few decorative birdhouses in our rooms, serving no purpose for raising young feathered friends, but pleasing our souls in some mysterious yet significant way.

So what does all this mean? To me, it shows that my preset, my inner nature, is all about the interactions of life, moments in time, and experiential experiences that have left some mark on me, especially in what brings safety, security, and emotional comfort to my existence. My surroundings feel like a warm blanket of past memories, as well as possible themes of future adventures. When I sit with this thought and am present and mindful of what I am feeling, I am more hopeful about what has been given to me in the past moments I have walked, and the memories yet to make that are ahead of me, whatever those may be. 

I would challenge you, dear reader, to pause where you might be at, mindfully look at what presently surrounds you, and observe how what you see that speaks from the past dwells among you in positive and enriching ways, and might just predict beauty, joy, and astonishment in your life that lies ahead of you.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Paying Attention to What Matters

  “If you are paying attention to the world you see a lot of pain.” — Mary Pipher

I came across Mary Pipher’s words quoted above while reading her book, “Letters to a Young Therapist.” I felt compelled to share those words with the wife because they struck a chord with me with how I was feeling after a day of counseling people, as well as just the particular noise being generated by the world that was ringing and running around in my head.

She responded in an unexpected way, as I was predicting she would just agree with me and recognize possibly feeling the same. 

“But there’s a lot of good in the world too,” she said. 

Huh. That was surprisingly and staggeringly unexpected.

And she was right, there is a lot of good. 

However, I had been focused on the pain of the moment, looking at the distressed conditions of a very complex and confusing world, as well as the interpersonal relationships that had taken place during my day. I inwardly was feeling both damaged and vulnerable while both relating and gravitating to all my negative emotions. The wife’s simple, yet alternative viewpoint, was just what I needed to help me find a new and alternative understanding about what I was feeling, how what I was feeling would eventually make me stronger and more resilient, and guide me to feel encouraged to undertake to live a more meaningful life, despite seeing so much pain.

The wife’s viewpoint rightly destabilized me for a moment, but that was the thing I needed most at that very time. Destabilization offered me to recognize the normal anxiety of being a human being in a raucous and often crazy-seeming society, to be able to use the comparison of my thoughts and feelings (which are most often not true when challenged) to better understand the suffering that surrounded me and how I could move through it without being overwhelmed by it. 

It helps me to remind myself that life, which can be compared to suffering (In the Buddhist tradition where the First Noble Truth is that “Life is suffering”), is like waves of the ocean that come in and touch us as we move along in life, sometimes gently washing barely over our feet, other times breaking with hostile force against our whole being and knocking us flat to the sand. But, those waves of suffering and hardship always leave what they have touched to return to the vast ocean of the world leaving us the opportunity to grow.

Being touched by suffering is normal, but it is our choice as to how we suffer from its touch.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Labels, Labels, Everywhere

"Labels can only confine. Aspire to be undefinable." 

 --Colin Wright

Interestingly, I have found in my work as a counselor that labeling often is a distracting thing. For the client and for the therapist. A lot of time can be spent unpacking and processing internal and external labels that are carried around. Often times the labels people are shouldering seem like a necessary part of their lives but at the same time restrict and limit aspirations, dreams, and growth.

Though often a necessary part of our lives, and just by using language like we must, we are by definition, constantly, consistently, and comprehensively labeling things. 

Label: I am sitting at my desk writing this blog post.

Label: I am drinking coffee.

Several labels for me: I am a sixty-two-year-old heterosexual white male (at the time of this writing).

Many that I work with in counseling therapy are bothered and negatively impacted by labels, in the sense that the rub seems to be that there is often too much meaning given to how they get labeled. I see people not only as people of color or not, the first-born son, youngest child, mean girl, slow-learner, tall, angry, moody, helpful, or agoraphobic, but thousands of labels at once. How can I put too much importance on one, or a shortlist of them?

Labels can feel like material possessions, and for many people that struggle with mental health, are a very heavy, cumbersome burden that they are desiring to be rid of. Labels are often fables, lies, and myths that have been told to us or we have adopted as true beliefs about ourselves. They can become boundaries and obstacles that limit what we strive for or what can safely be crossed. People often understand and affirm that they are necessary, but may come to recognize and believe with some deep work and self-reflection that they don’t need to give them as much meaning as some people ask them to put on them. 

And there is a difference in the concept of labels for expressing "meaning" and for "identification" purposes. Imagine 10 cans of different soups lined up on a shelf with the labels all removed and you want chicken noodle. Identification would be difficult and you may have to settle for tomato or vegetable beef soup in this game of canned goods roulette.

Martina Navratilova said that "Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people." Labels are a good thing for soup cans.

As for labels in my life, I quietly use them in silence as the start of the process of better understanding someone or something. But I always fall back on how my whole life I looked at the world through Dr. King's message to treat people not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

I updated my internal message to "I engage with the common humanity of humankind not through labeling, but by deeply exploring the content of a person's heart, discovering who they are."

Monday, January 25, 2021


"Coyote, old man, wanderer, where you going, man?" 
from “A Good Journey” by Simon Ortiz

Coyote was the trickster of Native American lore in North America. He was always mixing it up with the Native Americans wherever their paths crossed. Sometimes Coyote got the best of the human beings and sometimes those human beings bested Coyote and benefited from his blundering, braggart ways.

I believe that Coyote exists inside me. In fact, Coyote dwells in all humans in my philosophical understanding. Coyote is a spirit animal that takes control of me and causes all kinds of mischief. He makes me playfully roughhouse with grandkids, kids, nieces, nephews and all assorted little human beings. He makes my hugs a little too rough. Coyote nature persuades me to tell tall tales that my wife has trouble believing, even if I am telling the truth (or often times not). My conversation holds exaggerations and colorful bits of extravagance.

This strange Coyote behavior seems to give my journey through life a younger feeling pace as if by inwardly deceiving myself, I will not grow old quite so fast. And that puzzling Coyote behavior won't allow the surrounding human beings to ever totally understand what is "me." Fellow human beings shouldn't mind me this slight, sly mystery. There is nothing bad or wrong about its nature, it just travels with and preserves me...silent, sacred, peacefully alone among my fellow human beings.

And as I wander here and there as did Coyote, and my journey passes within your space and time, be prepared for my tricks, touching you with a bit of wonder about what is me.

And please, share some tricks of your own. Make us other human beings wonder where you have been and what roads lie ahead for you to travel, what tricks are up your sleeves.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Ecclesiastes or the "Gatherer"

"For in much wisdom is much grief, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow." — Ecclesiastes, Chapter (1:18)

American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote, "I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound." I couldn't agree more. I recently explored once again this short chapter out of renewed curiosity when I read somewhere that it had been suspectedly written by the great biblical King Solomon. 

In one of my college sociology classes, I had been given a new awareness of the vast sociological differences in the way I viewed the wide range of wealth and privilege in the world. So I was recently thinking, “What better way than to look through the eyes of what was possibly one of the most wealthy and powerful rulers to ever breathe the air of the Earth.” Also, I could explore his perspective from the twilight of his lifetime.

What I found was a book filled with the despair that could only come to someone who seemingly had everything—wealth, power, privilege, love—yet realized that it was meaningless against the vastness of the outstretched eternity and the far-flung past. It was filled with words like "vain", "futile", "empty", "meaningless", "temporary", "transitory", "fleeting," or "mere breath."  For most of this book, Solomon—if indeed he wrote thisseems to be unable to comprehend and ascribe any type of eternal meaning to the wisdom of his life.

The older I get and the more I personally look for more wisdom and more meaning to my existence, yet it begins to feel that those "words" are all that apply. They overshadow all opportunities for the enjoyment of life. I find fault in the order of things, the purpose of being, the why of deeds. Where and when is the spirit to find its rest? With every rock I overturn or every bush I look behind I simply find more to trouble me. One interpretation of the word Ecclesiastes is the "Gatherer" and I have become a "Gatherer" of all sorts of confusion when I seek answers.

But perhaps that is the natural state of manto question, seek answers, constantly probe the unknown, improve this world in any way possible through individual power, and to define the commandments of our God and ourselves in a way to live by and be proud of.

It is fitting from my viewpoint, that the book of Ecclesiastes concludes with "Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone" (12:13). After all, both fools and kings, become just dust in the end.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Middle Has Never Felt So Dangerous

"The middle path is the way to wisdom." - Rumi
Some days, some times, seem darker and more menacing than other days. The hate filling the atmosphere of the present moments is a bit disturbing. I keep searching through the Left and Right rhetorical fog for the wisdom and the soundness of action and decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment. However, I only hear and see partisan soundbites and outright distortions of truth. Or omitted and edited versions of talking-point opinions by the talking heads of journalists, commentators, movement-leaders, or politicians. 

Alas, I suspect I expect too much.

I find it is now very difficult to impossible to walk the middle path, or as I have always believed, the political center. I define that political center as an outlook or specific position that involves accepting or supporting the balance of social equality with social hierarchy. Taking this position makes me oppose political changes which would result in a significant shift of society strongly to either Leftists or Right-wing zealots. Tyranny for citizens by the proposed extremes of the Left or the Right.

These are the times that John Adams wrote about where "In politics the middle way is none at all." Similarly, a German poet once wrote, “In times of extremes, the middle path is deadly.” So why do I want to walk the middle path so badly? Perhaps it helps me to be kind to everyone, to be empathetic, to look at the human condition with compassion in a nonjudgemental way.

However, that middle path has never been protected by the promotion of milquetoast policies everyone already agrees on, it’s protected by taking the time to understand and defend foundational principles such as free speech, open and transparent inquiry, and due process. Now, when forced to defend those foundational principles, we are asked (or shouted down) to shut-up and tow a radical left or right line.

When did having opposing opinions become unacceptable? I am beginning to understand now why people find caves in Idaho to live in. Or become Anarchists.

I used to believe what Rumi said but these days it seems like the German poet and John Adams understood it with what I find uncomfortable correctness.