There is a man beginning his second night of prison tonight. When the inmates ask what he is in for, he will tell them parole violation and try to change the subject as quickly as possible. It is only a matter of time until they find out, and then he will begin the catechism of life without mercy. I am supposed to wish liberation for him, freedom from his suffering. I wish instead that he has a very long night.
Prompt: If you met yourself 10 years ago, what would you tell yourself?
A Letter to Myself of 10 Years Ago, Written Today
Relax. That thing you are writing which is stressing you out and causing obsessive worry? That thing is not good. You won’t like that thing. Write it anyway. Finish it. Bury it. Move on.
Stop worrying about how and when your writing is going to make you famous and wildly important. People don’t become famous and wildly important from their writing anymore. Maybe they never did. Write anyway. Finish it. Share it. Move on.
You do have a gift. Maybe several. Use that gift but don’t believe your gift makes you special. Everybody has their gift. There is no preordained purpose or expectation of your gift. The world is not waiting for you to rise up and share your unique voice. Write anyway. Finish it. Share it. Move on.
You will change the world far less than the world will change you. That’s okay. The world will make you better, more of the person you want to be, but it will happen through adversity, upset and disappointment. You will have ideas. You will frustrated because people do not see things the way you see them. Frustration will be your constant companion. Be grateful. Frustration is not the obstacle. Frustration is the path.
Keep writing. Finish things. Share them. Move on.
Don’t make your work too important. You are going to be a father. Try to be patient. Explain things.Take your time. Be the kind of person you want your daughter to be. Model the importance of persistence in the face of uncertainty and self-doubt. Finish things. Share them. Move on.
Take pride in what you create. The work is delicious. Enjoy it.
Now, pay attention. I need to tell you something unpleasant. I need to tell you something upsetting.
Ten years from now, you will help someone you love die well and, in the space after that person has gone, you will help others you love create new lives for themselves. This will become your most important work.
Understand this. The times are precarious. There is danger everywhere. The world feels like it is winding down. We are still fighting wars stacked within wars, constantly lurching over the edge of a harsh precipice. Even the weather feels wrong. We have become, I think, the most dangerous generation, far more dangerous than that of our grandparents who gave us the atomic bomb. We are a generation that is killing ourselves with indifference as we continually subjugate ourselves to leaders with no vision.
Don’t be afraid. There is still so much beauty. There is still so much joy. There is so much possible.
You do have a gift, but it isn’t the words. The words are just tools.
Keep writing. Finish things. Upset people. Move on.
My wife and I bought a new house in July. We had a perfectly nice, though somewhat shrinking, home where we had lived for 14 years. We were doing some long overdue updates and repairs on our house while looking around at other houses with one eye. We had a list of “perfect home” requirements and figured it would take several years to find the right place. It took three weeks.
And so, in the time that this blog has been quiet, we have been updating, repairing, packing, moving, unpacking, arranging, rearranging, hanging and generally settling in. We have found a very comfortable, happy space for two adults, a 7 year old, five dogs and all their accompanying stuff.
We moved from our somewhat shrinking house to this house because it met the criteria of our ideal home list: large deck high off the ground with no ground access; big, flat backyard; large fenced area for dogs; lots of sunlight; big open kitchen with island; guest bedroom plus playroom plus office; living room with no television; more than one bathroom; walk-in shower; Chronicles of Narnia-sized closets; and garage all situated on a dead end lane. We found it quick, made a deal and moved. It happened fast.
And that now that we are more or less situated, I have a confession. This may or may not surprise my wife. I think it will not.
All of the things on this list are terrific. I like them all very much. I bought this house because it is a reader’s house. I bought it because there are so many nooks and places a person can settle down with a book and get lost for a few minutes or a few hours. I had one favorite reading space in our old house. There was a big, oak chair in my overcrowded office where I could sit and read. It was a tranquil place but not near any windows so all the light was artificial and night was the best time to enjoy.
Our new home has windows and glass doors through which sunlight pours. We’ve put couches and chairs near all of these, creating little sunlight wells. Most days I feel very much like a cat, slinking from sunny spot to sunny spot finding places to stretch my bones. In the two months we’ve been here, I think I have read as many books as I read all of last year.
Place, I think, is very important to readers. And it doesn’t have to be fancy or spacious. It just needs to be yours. There is palpable magic inside a reader’s house. You can walk through and feel those sanctified spaces, consecrated by time, attention and hours of holy focus, where the mind and heart are blended and unseen doors stand ajar in the places where mundane reality has been made thin through the constant press of imagination. This same phenomenon happens in good libraries and bookstores. That chill that arrives when you stand in a place and can feel, whether it is silent or not, a kind of vibrating hush, defining the space. This happens sometimes in church, often in the woods, but always in the sacred spaces where imagination has been loosened and allowed to prowl free. Amidst the noise and confusion, the complexity and turmoil, there are still sacred places in our tired and busy world. You will find them when you look. You can start by looking in a reader’s home.
At 40 years old, I have become the thing I use to fear and loathe the most. I have become the kind of person who uses the word “awesome”. After years of meticulous aversion, I have become a person who says “awesome” as part of an otherwise complete sentence. Worse, I have become a person who uses the word “awesome” as a complete sentence entirely unto itself. Lately, I find myself casually tossing the word around as in “Thanks. That would be awesome.” Or, “Wow! You are so awesome.” Or, “Nice work. Awesome job!”
The trouble with awesome is it often travels with an exclamation point which is the lowest, most debased form of punctuation. As a child of the ’80’s, awesome began as a mongrel, flabby adjective. I didn’t grow up in the Valley where everything was sweet, fresh and occasionally bitchin’. Awesomeness was everywhere. It was a way of showing vague appreciation or enthusiasm at arms length, without any commitment or ownership.
And then, sometime in the mid ’90’s church people adopted the awesomeness and spoke of God and God’s love and fellowship in the same tone they used to describe grandma’s mashed potatoes. All of it was awesome.
And this, I think, is the problem I have developed with awesomeness. We throw it around casually. We use the word sometimes ironically, sometimes with great sincerity and it is impossible to tell which is which. The word has become nondescript. It says and means exactly nothing. Everything we like or enjoy or approve of gets swallowed up by awesomeness and we no longer draw meaningful lines of comparison between an awesome book, an awesome piece of cake and an awesome haircut.
And here’s the problem. Awesome actually means “See for yourself.) True awesomeness involves sublimation of the self into a greater experience of being that negates one’s own distinction between self and other. I have never eaten mashed potatoes that were that kind of awesome. Have you?awe”. (
For 40 years, I protected myself with a rigorous, grammatical hygiene. I sneered at the Awesomers. I mocked them behind their backs. I allowed myself to believe myself superior, impervious to their awesome banter, their overwhelming enthusiasm, reverence, admiration and fear. And then I became a father and then my daughter became a 7 year old in second grade and she brought the word into my house. She carried it under the firewall and propagated it in our conversation. For her and her friends, everything was awesome. I tried to explain to them that My Little Pony’s Princess Celestia was truly an inspiring and admirable character. That the story was well-told and the animation quite accomplished, but that none of them, having watched an episode of My Little Pony, had found themselves sublimated with terrible reverence and personality crippling appreciation. It was no matter to them.
It was, I can see now, only a matter of time. A simple feat of repetition. It would only take a hundred, maybe a thousand, perhaps ten thousand awesomes before I began to adopt this world view. And now, I find awesomeness salting my daily conversations. It is a thing I say when I agree with someone. It is a thing I say when a conversation comes to a close. It is a thing I say when there is nothing left to say.
I tell myself I am using the word ironically but I’m not that kind of hipster. I adopt the words I use with my entire heart. And if, the word awesome is too grandiose to apply to a bag of kettle-baked jalapeno potato chips, I no longer fault the word or the people like me who use it. I merely adjust my estimation of how well-baked and salted those chips are. How terrifyingly delicious and personality-smashing those potato chips can be.
It is, I find, at 40, much easier to adjust my perceptions and experiences of the world than to bother reaching for the right word that says precisely what is needed. Much better not to persist in the fight against bloviation and rhetorical sclerosis.
And I am so much happier now that everything and everyone is awesome all the time. I no longer trouble myself remembering all those other pesky adjectives that once intimated lesser shades of goodness.
Everything is awesome now, and I am grateful it only took me 40 years to figure it out and embrace the language of absolute perfection.
My post this morning missed a more elementary, obvious fact about why The Storied Life of AJ Fikry works so well. It is commonly believed that reading is a solitary act and that readers are, for the most part, selfish with the time they devote to their inner selves. There is, I think, a belief that too much reading carries a person far away from the company of others and makes that person a stranger, alienated from the fellowship of friends, neighbors and fellow citizens of the world. There is an expectation that too much reading makes a person strange, unfit for healthy relationships and the regular responsibilities all decent people must bear. In this belief, reading is a kind of madness, a flaw in one’s nature that separates us from other, more productive pursuits.
And yet, the story of AJ Fikry is exactly the opposite. Reading carries him into closer communion with others. His reading makes him brave. His reading widens his heart. His reading is not selfish. For Fikry, reading is an act of generosity as he constantly shares what he has read and relates his own reading to the lives of others. He reads to bring others in, not to push them out. His reading is a kind of communion, an act of radical belief in the importance of ideas and virtues and commitment. Fikry creates a family through books. He finds the people who best understand what he is about. He broadens the lives of others who felt their lives too narrow.
And it is exuberant love of sharing that makes his reading worthwhile. It isn’t an act of self focus that consumes the reader. The life of the generous reader is made larger through the time spent with books. Though sometimes, it is true, we may read to escape, we never read to make ourselves feel alone. We read to help keep ourselves together.
I just finished reading an extraordinary book, Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. This post isn’t going to be a clever literary analysis or full of especially keen observations on the mechanics of a well-made story. I won’t gush on and on about the exquisite pacing, the truly-drawn characters and the subtle, satisfying twists that make this book so enjoyable. We can talk about all that some other time.
This is a thank you. I am grateful to the writer who made this story and to the friend who suggested I read it. This book found me at exactly the right time.
I am 40 years old. I am a reader. Since the age of 7, there has never been a time when I did not have at least one book in progress. There have been months and years when I have read less and more slowly than I had wanted. There have been entire years recently when I have felt my attention too scattered and dissipated to really enjoy my reading, but I have read anyway because it is a thing that I do. Reading is who I am.
This book reminds me of why I read.
I meet A.J. Fikry and recognize two things. 1: Individually, our lives are unsatisfying because they are too short and too limited. 2: We make our lives satisfying by connecting with other people. It is only by connecting our lives to other lives that we get to experience the richness and power of our purpose.
This is why we read.
We read to connect. We read to connect to the characters inside the stories. We read to connect to those people who have lived before us in other times at other places. We read to connect to the strange folk who spend their lives making up stories. We read to share ourselves with the world and to let the world share itself with us.
Life is full of plot twists. I hope it does not spoil things too much to tell you that Fikry becomes a father even though he is entirely unprepared for the experience. His life has been narrowed by loss and disappointment. He learns to make his life larger again by sharing it with his foundling daughter, Maya and through her with more and more people. As soon as he begins to open, his life grows and grows.
The novel is organized, in part, around journal entries Fikry writes for his daughter, in which he shares thoughts about the books and stories he has read. Each becomes a kind of sign post for life. The books he has read interpret the many frustrations, challenges and triumphs that make up a life. Fikry gives his daughter a love for books. In that love, she is given all the tools she needs to live a purposeful, joyful life.
As a father, I am inspired by the extraordinary gift Fikry has given his daughter. My own daughter is seven. I want her to be brave and curious and kind. I want her to feel at home in the world and help others feel at home as well. I want her life to be an adventure, full of purpose and work that demands her best attention and effort. I want her to connect deeply, as I have, with the people with whom she will share this world and with the people with whom she will share her shelves.
I am raising a reader because the world needs readers. The world needs thoughtful, reflective, curious minds tempered by generous, tender, expansive hearts.
I am grateful to this particular story at this particular moment for helping me remember.
This why I read. The world requires it.
A few weeks ago a colleague at work stopped me during my lunch break to thank me for the contributions I make to our workplace. It was a nice moment. It is always nice to receive simple, honest validation from someone who understands and appreciates what you do. Still, I am a little bit haunted by the way he phrased the compliment. “Man, you are the busiest guy I know. You are everywhere doing everything.” Those words, simple and specific, sat on top of my own observation that, more often than not, my own team had started to apologize before talking to me. I started hearing things like “I’m sorry to bother you” and “I know you probably don’t have time for this right now” and “Its important but it can wait if you need.” This is code for, you’ve got yourself buried behind a barricade of work. We know you’re in there and just want to acknowledge that we can still see you.”
I used to admire super-busy people as exemplars of drive, ambition and stamina. Now that I have become one of those people, I feel a bit sorry for us. I can’t help thinking that extreme busyness is a symptom of some larger disorder. That busy people aren’t necessarily more productive, and that many of us are just incapable of proper prioritization or effective delegation.
I like to be busy. I like to work hard. I like to push my limits and practice with stamina and determination. These are virtues. Still, I can’t help feeling as if I have fallen into the busyness trap, substituting energy and effort for clear, specific results. I am reading Jim Collin’s Good to Great and working again with the idea of a Stop Doing List, an exercise in clarity by cutting away at things that don’t really need or deserve my attention.
I am also working with the idea that 21st century leaders, above all else, will be rewarded for their ability to bring clarity of focus to the people on their team. Helping others find and sustain clarity of focus requires strong relationships. Clarity of focus gets developed and shaped over time. This kind of leadership only happens when the leader slows down, models relentless discipline of focus and helps the team connect to their own purpose, their own intention and their own drive. This is the kind of leader I aspire to become. I don’t want to keep being the guy who is everywhere doing everything. I want to be the guy who connects everyone to what needs doing. This kind of leader is still a busy person, but the pace is controlled, the focus is clear and everyone travels together. That’s a better way to be.
When you move into a new neighborhood, it takes time to meet the new neighbors. There is so much to be done in such a short span of time — a tornadic frenzy of boxes and furniture and such to be moved and unpacked and put into places. You meet the neighbors a little bit at a time and practice remembering their names. Someday soon these people can be your friends. But it takes times to meet them all and get to know them.
And then, one night, as soon as possible, you set up your modem, plug in your router and try to establish an internet beachhead in your new home. Things don’t go as planned. There are issues and complications to be worked through.
But as soon as your router comes to life, it casts its net across the neighborhood, scans the entire block for signals in range. Before you meet Tom and Joy and Steve and Nancy and Jeff and Melissa, you meet their wireless networks. You meet beersnob and thisisnotyourwifi and Peggyswireless2. You play a kind of matching game with yourself putting the wifi name with the house. And you wonder to yourself what these new neighbors are thinking when they see jedifunknet show up on their network list. For them, there is no guesswork. Jedifunknet arrived with the big yellow moving truck.
After two weeks, we are beginning to meet our new neighbors, collect phone numbers, host children. No doubt we will settle in quickly. Soon enough, jedifunknet will be a regular member of network community.
I drove home yesterday through the worst weather I have ever experienced. I left my office in Harriman, TN just a few minutes after 5pm, hoping to get ahead of the gathering gloom of storm clouds. Five minutes later, the sky split open and chaos spilled out.
The traffic on I-40 East slowed to 40 then 30 then 20 miles per hour as walls of rain fell with punishing force. 5pm in June is supposed to be daylight but the sky was a formless, abysmal gray. Driving along the corridor of the interstate, visibility narrowed into a long, gray flannel sleeve. The wind pressed in from both sides. Leaves flew from the trees in a spew of black, jagged bird-like shadows, circling my car from all directions. And then I noticed the wind was pressing the trees in from both sides of the interstate, reaching in with gnarled, nasty arms grasping blindly for whatever hapless traveler they could snarl.
Slowing to 25 miles per hour, I tried to comprehend the physics of the moment, to have wind pressing in toward you from all directions. And then, I realized I was traveling inside a swirl of leaves, branches and water.
The drive was careful and tedious. My hands clutched the steering wheel, fingers gripped to keep my car level on the road. The wind pushed me to the left then to the right. Puddles leapt up like fountains. Lighting ripped the air.
And yet, everything was quiet. I expected a torrent of sound, the brash locomotive wheeze of a train engine, the gale force banshee screech that is sometimes the last sound on earth. I heard none of it. I can’t swear it wasn’t happening. I may have been so totally focused on the road that my brain didn’t process the sound of it all.
I drove on in this slow, careful way for about 10 miles and then, exiting the interstate, found myself quite suddenly outside from the belly of the beast.
I made my way home carefully, still hindered by heavy rain and standing water. Even at slow speed, my tires left the road several times.
When I got into town, my city was littered with broken, twisted tree trunks, fallen branches, dangling power lines. Power was out in areas all across town.
It was quite simply the most intense, fascinating weather experience I have ever had.
My mom called earlier this evening to let me know that the weather service had officially registered a class F-0 tornado in the area I was driving yesterday.
Turns out, I drove straight through a mild tornado without realizing. This writing doesn’t capture how utterly strange and fascinating the entire experience was. I’m glad I didn’t realize I was driving through a tornado because on the stretch of road I was driving there is no good place to hide.
Now that it is over and, to an extent while it was happening, my reaction was split between a vague disquiet and complete fascination. I drove through the belly of the beast. I am grateful the beast was small and relatively tame. No one got hurt and I got to experience something I never thought I would get to see.