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People Helping People

Ten years ago this month, I went to the mountains of western North Carolina to report for CNN.com on the search for suspected bomber Eric Rudolph. After two and a half years futile years in the gloomy Nantahala National Forest, the mammoth federal task force had dwindled to a few FBI agents in a small office in a national guard armory.

While the Rudolph story was interesting— the search ended a few months later, and Rudolph wasn’t caught for another two and a half years —  it was the town of Andrews that captured my imagination.

Andrews was a struggling community of 700 families with a median income of about $20,000 a year. Half the storefronts were empty, and only a handful of businesses employed more than two or three people. There was competition 10 miles down the four-lane in Murphy, the bustling county seat, where a new Walmart had just opened, and you couldn’t help but think that Andrews was on life-support.

And yet there was something about the place that struck a chord in my heart. The town is tucked into a valley framed by massive, tree-covered ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains that humble human pretensions with their steadfast strength. The rolling farmland is picturesque and so peaceful that late one afternoon I parked next to a pasture and sat in stillness so immense I swear I could feel the earth breathe.

One evening after dinner I drove slowly past a skinny, bearded man peddling a bike lazily down a side street while cradling a baby in his left arm.

“He’s asleep,” I said.

He grinned, a gap showing where his front teeth should be, and said, “Works ever’ time.”

Cutting Horses

There was a coffee shop in the hotel where I stayed, and a handful of locals gathered there every morning for coffee and conversation. They invited me to join them, and I discovered that they were proud of their town and resentful that the international media had portrayed them as toothless rubes with tobacco juice on their chins.

One of the mainstays of the group was Scott Freel, a lanky, laconic redhead with a goatee whose hobby was riding and training cutting horses.  Freel ran the biggest business in town, a builders’ supply store, and was a member of the town’s “first family.”

A sign on a bridge west of town read, “Margaret Freel Bridge.” The Margaret in this case was Freel’s mother, but he was also married to a woman named Margaret. The latter was from Alabama, and their family room was festooned with Crimson Tide memorabilia.  

‘Everyone knows your business’

Freel and I were sitting in his office one afternoon discussing small town life, and he admitted it was a mixed blessing.

“The thing about a town like this,” he said in a long, slow drawl, “is that everyone here knows your business, or thinks they do. But if you have a problem, you wouldn’t believe how many friends you’ve got.”

That conversation came to mind this morning when I got an email from my friend Barbara. Barbara was responding to an email I forwarded to those who are praying for my daughter, Kiersten. Kiersten had cancer surgery recently and must undergo chemotherapy. She had commented in the email I had forwarded about the prospect of losing her hair and having to find a wig.

Barbara wrote to say that Raquel Welch has a nice line of wigs, and that occasionally she wears one herself.

Human Nature Finds a Way

A few hours later, my friend Fran, who recently had a double mastectomy herself, emailed that her plastic surgeon recommends the herb arnica montana for swelling.

These are the kind of things one woman would tell another if they ran into each other at the post office in Andrews, because people in Andrews always have time to stop and visit. But Barbara and Fran live in suburban Atlanta, Kiersten lives in suburban Boston, and in the city we’re all too busy to stop and visit.

Through the internet, however, we have created a network of people who pray for Kiersten and send her suggestions. That network stretches from Massachusetts to California, and from Michigan to Georgia.

It’s not the same as Andrews, of course, where the way of life — at least to an outsider — has a simplicity and continuity that city life cannot duplicate. But no matter where we are and no matter how difficult the circumstances, human nature prevails and people find a way to help people. 

The Mask

“Take off your mask. You say you’re not wearing one? But you are. The muscles of your face are so accustomed to displaying your familiar emotions they’ve gotten stuck. Raw new emotions are aching to show themselves, but can’t dislodge the incumbents.”

The quote is from Rob Brezsny’s “Pronoia Is the Antidote to Paranoia,” a book I’ve been reading for the past couple of weeks. It’s a big, loopy trade paperback with quirky graphics and lots of space for doodling and rumination. It’s a manifesto inviting readers to throw off the chains of what Brezsny calls “the culture of the living dead,” a/k/a the world as we know it.

There’s a library branch at the end of my street, so I don’t buy many books. I bought Brezsny’s because he’s a man after my own heart. Which is to say, he doesn’t buy into conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom pisses him off in a rowdy, good-natured way, and he’s made it his life’s work to undermine it and expose it for the fraud that it is.

Brezsny is also the author of “Free Will Astrology,” which is syndicated in publications around the country, and I’ll confess I don’t get much out of it. But what he’s trying to do with “Pronoia” is get people to turn off the auto-pilot and wake up to the truth. If you’re really paying attention, he says, you’ll see that, “All of creation is conspiring to shower us with blessings.”

Stranger in the Mirror

Take that paragraph about the mask. It sounds like a theoretical statement, an abstract way of characterizing human behavior. But it is literally and factually true.

Several years ago, I went to a Mexican restaurant in midtown Atlanta with a woman I didn’t know well who was — in my mind, at least — auditioning as a possible romantic partner.

After ordering drinks, I went to the men’s room, and as I entered I caught a glimpse of my face in a mirror that was hanging not over the sink, but on a column inside the door. It was an odd place for a mirror, and the face reflected back to me was even more surprising. In fact, it was  startling.

Rather than the mild, somewhat quizzical look I was accustomed to seeing in the mirror, I saw a set jaw, watchful eyes and a look that might best be called guarded. It was the face of someone who didn’t trust the world and who was poised to jump when the other shoe was in mid-air.

Wary and Distrustful

I had never seen that face before, and I was furious. Fifty plus years on the planet had not prepared me for a surprise of that magnitude. Who the hell was that jerk?

Obviously I hadn’t long to ponder it, and by the time I got back to the table the mask was back in place. For that’s what it was, muscle memory composed in the form of a mask that I wore in public. It got me through the day, but it wasn’t the real me, and neither was the one I was accustomed to seeing in the mirror at home.

I’d had been through some hard patches in life that made me wary and distrustful, and the mask reflected that. And it was several more years before I found a way to begin the process of removing it. It involved a searching self-examination, which wasn’t always pleasant. But I hated what I’d seen in that restaurant mirror, and self-loathing is no place to live.

A Magical World

Life is about choices. I can’t change the past, but I can make new choices and create a different present, and that’s Brezsney’s point. You can buy into the “life’s a bitch and then you die,” or you can opt for a quote that Brezsney lifts from Bertrand Russell: “The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

Ridding myself of the mask and letting go of resentment and the self-justifying rubbish I’ve been dragging around is opening me up to the truth about myself and the world around me. It also means challenging lies I’ve been telling myself for years and welcoming a life-affirming reality that doesn’t get much notice from mainstream media.

This re-tooling is a process. It takes time and patience. There are no overnight changes, no “road to Damascus” transformations. Even insights — and there are many — must be re-visited often untiul lthey become part of a new reality. Because when it comes to kicking the ass of that guy in the mask, the only person who can do it is me.

Gryffen and His Mom

I got an email last week from my younger daughter saying that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and is scheduled to have a double mastectomy in mid-June.

 “I’m not afraid as much for myself as my children,” she wrote. She has a five-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. But then she added, “OK, yes I am — hearing the description of some of the procedures was terrifying and not at all what I thought I knew.”

I don’t know much about the procedures, either, and what I do know horrifies me, too. A dear friend of mine had a double mastectomy just a few months ago, and she told me, “It’s hard. It’s so hard, and my heart breaks for anyone who has to go through it.”

I keep thinking that if men were the target of breast cancer, the treatment would be more advanced and more humane than it is. Mastectomies are barbaric, and I have no doubt that in the future people will look back at what we call modern medicine and be appalled in the same way contemporary doctors have to be appalled at what happened to George Washington. Washington contracted pneumonia, but it was the primitive treatment he got that killed him. Doctors took five pints of his blood, causing shock, dehydration and asphyxiation.

Finding Hope

The back story in my daughter’s case is that her mother — my ex-wife (with whom I am still friendly) — had a mastectomy about two years ago.  Her grandmother — my mother — had a partial mastectomy and died of breast cancer in 1986.

So if I sound pissed off, I am. But that does no one any good, and I did find something in her email that gives me hope. It has to do with prayer.

Two years ago, my daughter gave birth to a boy named Gryffen. Gryffen was born gasping for breath, and was initially treated for fluid in his lungs — which was the wrong diagnosis. X-rays showed that there was a hole in his diaphragm, and that his spleen, colon and small intestines had pushed up through the hole and collapsed his left lung.

Luckily, this was in Boston and across the street from the hospital where he was born was Boston Children’s Hospital. Boston Children’s had an expert in Gryffen’s condition (Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia) and four days later he was operated on.

In the days before the operation, I caught myself giving in to random fears about operating rooms, cold surgical instruments, indifferent medical personnel and a tiny infant newly arrived in a terrifying world. I vowed then and there that I would not allow that kind of thinking to enter my mind again. It was one thing to inflict it on myself, and quite another to direct it at a helpless newborn.

A Long Talk

I also sent out an email asking people to pray for Gryffen. The response was astonishing. Not only did they not consider it an imposition, many thanked actually thanked me.

Gryffen’s progress was slow and worrisome. He had breathing tubes and a feeding tube in his nose, three sensors taped to his torso, another taped to his foot and an intravenous Darvon drip stuck in the back of his miniature left hand. He had so many wires and tubes attached to him that for the first ten days of his life, no one could even hold him.

During one conversation, my tearful daughter admitted that she didn’t believe in God. I told her that I had had experiences that proved His existence to my satisfaction. And when I finally saw Gryffen myself — no one else was in the room — I held him in my arms, cupped his head in my hands, and had a long talk with him about how God loved him and it was going to be OK.

He understood none of the words, of course. But his enormous blue eyes — blessedly clear of the Darvon haze since the drip had been removed — were opened wide and locked on mine, and I know as surely as I’ve ever known anything that at a deep, energetic level he got it.

Amazing Success

In her email, my daughter wrote, “[Gryffen] is now doing fantastically. He is healthy and great and described by our doctors as ‘the same as any other two-year-old.’ Amazing and wonderful.” And in asking for prayer for herself, she acknowledged that she, too, has begun to believe.

“More than ever I believe these things help,” she wrote, “and Gryffen’s amazing success proves it.”

A few days later, I sent out another email to all those people who had prayed for Gryffen. I included her update, so they would know what their prayers had accomplished, and I asked them to pray again. But this time it was for Gryffen’s mom.

 



Why Is This Man Laughing?

My friend Walter had an interview with a recruiter the other day about a very good job with a big company that’s looking to expand overseas. Walter has been in senior management with a couple of U.S. corporations, and he’s got a nice house in the suburbs and a lot of toys to show for it.

But he lost his job a year ago, and when the headhunter asked Walter what he’d been doing lately, he said “Working at Starbucks.”

The recruiter blanched. When they tell you in the HR business that it’s easier to find a job if you already have one, they don’t mean making push-button lattes and wiping down sticky tables.

But that’s the economic reality for a lot of people in the wake of what TIME magazine called “the decade from hell.” There are a lot of people like Walter whose chances of landing a job commensurate with the one they had is compromised not only by economic conditions, but also by their age. Walter is 57, an age at which there seems to be hidden code written into the application process that causes your resume to wind up in the circular file.

In other words, this is the kind of situation that causes folks to wake up in the middle of the night trembling with fear, and I’d be surprised if Walter wasn’t one of them.

The party’s over

But the cool thing about Walter, is that after he told the recruiter he was working at Starbucks, he laughed. Not because it wasn’t true, but because…well, what the hell. When you’ve been through what Walter’s been through, why not? Consider:

• He had to borrow money from his father to pay the mortgage and other bills.

• The financial stress has contributed to tension and complications at home.

• He installed hardwood floors and re-tiled two bathrooms, not for the heck of it, but so his house would show better. The house is for sale, and the irony is that the improvements have deepened his attachment to the place.

• The pool table, outboard motor, cartop carrier and other toys are gone, sold on Craigslist. The new floor in the game room is especially noticable because the room is empty.

A new man

So the party at Walter’s place is over, and yet after having a beer with him the other night I thought about how much he has changed, and how much I admire him. Coming to terms with his reality — being more honest with himself and more open with others — have done wonders. That pale, haggard look of the past has been replaced by a ruddy glow.

“Working at Starbucks” is code to the professional class for the ultimate comedown; it’s the materialist version of hitting bottom. And yet when Walter talks about life as a barista, he grins like a kid.

He is the oldest employee by 25 years or more, but he likes his co-workers and they like him. They kid with him, confide in him and respect him for taking on the jobs, like cleaning and sweeping up, that they dislike.

And when a drop-dead gorgeous woman stepped to the counter the other day and Walter’s jaw fell open, they teased him about it unmercifully.

“Hey,” he told them, “I may be old, but I’m not dead!”

A rich vein

What I love about Walter’s story is that in humility he found grace. That in doing something menial and seemingly beneath him, he has opened himself up to authenticity and the dignity of truth.

There is a rich vein in spiritual traditions concerning humility and service. Jesus of Nazareth washed the feet of his disciples. Socrates, the wise man in Dan Millman’s “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” was a gas station attendant. Siddhartha in Herman Hesse’s novel, “Siddhartha,” forsakes his wealthy upbringing to become a wandering monk and eventually a ferryman.

Walter isn’t ready for canonization, but he is a wonderful example for anyone whose life has been turned upside down. We can feel sorry for ourselves and play the victim, or we can dust ourselves off and get on with it. From the look on Walter’s face, it might even be fun.

Tiger on Training Wheels

Sometime last year, when summer had laid siege to Georgia and golf became an indoor activity, I spent a lazy Saturday afternoon watching a PGA tournament. Tiger Woods was in the field and, as always happens when he is playing, the cameras doted on him almost to the exclusion of everyone else.

There is a reason for this. Woods’ astonishing success and multiracial background has brought millions of new fans to the sport. His presence on the tour has been the financial tide that lifts all boats.

But as he strode up the fairway, I found myself wondering why it was that I couldn’t bring myself to like him. I’m no Will Rogers (“I never yet met a man I didn’t like”), but I tend to like people until given a reason not to. So what was it about Tiger that put me off?

When he reached the green, the camera zoomed in for a long, lingering closeup of a face that showed no signs of warmth or kindness. Granted, he was playing a golf tournament, not handing out chocolate eggs to children, but what I saw was arrogance and a sense of entitlement that verged on contempt.

A boy in man’s clothing

It hit me then that this was a guy who had never had to overcome a setback of his own making. Yes, his father had died, but that’s a fact of life over which he had no control. In every regard, his life had followed a carefully plotted trajectory. He had never dealt with self-generated challenges and poor decisions, the missteps that present the opportunity for growth and maturity.

And without that kind of experience, without the humbling and the self-awareness they bring, there is no depth and texture and you are left with a boy in man’s clothing. Believe me, I know; I’ve been there.

How curious then that a few months later Tiger’s image exploded with reports about his extramarital sexual escapades. And how interesting that in his staged and bizarre 13-minute confession a few months ago, he admitted that he’d been acting as if he were above the rules.

By the time he arrived in Augusta for the Masters, Woods was the butt of innumerable jokes and the object of intense speculation. How, people wondered, would the long layoff affect his golf game? And, second, how would he respond to being publicly humiliated?

Arrested development

The answer to the first question was not too badly. He tied for fourth, an exceptional result for anyone else, but about what you would expect of Tiger Woods.

The answer to the second question was not as encouraging. Despite early attempts at acknowledging the galleries and even signing a few autographs, Tiger’s new attitude faded under pressure. It was epitomized on the third day of the tournament when, after sending a wild drive into the trees, he shouted, “Tiger Woods, you suck, God dammit!”

And in a rather surly exit interview Sunday evening, Woods seemed less interested in redemption than in how his game had let him down.

If the Masters represented a kind of armistice for Woods — the media was restrained, even deferential — the truce ended a day later when Jim Nantz, CBS’s mild-mannered lead announcer, criticized Woods for cursing on-camera. And Sports Illustrated published a column by Selena Roberts that labeled Woods a case of “arrested development.”

An imperfect arc

It took Woods nearly two weeks to post an apology on his website for cursing at the Masters, and as with his previous apologies it was hard to believe. If it takes a guy that long to say he’s sorry, maybe he’s not all that sorry. And if true, then perhaps this Tiger is not going to change his stripes.

But what makes this fascinating is that no one can be sure. The human growth curve seldom carves a perfect arc, and behavior with years of reinforcement behind it is not going to change in a few months. Or even a few years. My own experience after coming to my senses is that there will be relapses and further failures.

It takes effort and determination to overcome the habits of a lifetime. It took Tiger a long time to become what many believe is the greatest golfer ever. But as a human being, he’s still on training wheels. It’s going to be interesting to see if he has the determination become a good person, too.

Finally, I make these comments not as a putdown, but rather as observations from my own experience. Only in the past few years have I come to terms with my own immaturity, and  sometimes is seems like eliminating it altogther will never happen. The good news is that while perfection seems unattainable, progress is not and the payoff is life-changing.

 

No Time for Rocking Chairs

A conversation yesterday with my friend Maryanne reminded what a pleasure it is to talk with a friend, and how important it is to sane, healthy thinking.

I’ve known Maryanne for more than 20 years, but we seldom see each other. When I first moved to Atlanta we attended the same church and saw each other often. In time I drifted into a different orbit, but we are still fond of each other and I think of her as an older sister.

Some of this flashed through my mind when I saw that she had called. It also occurred to me that years ago Joel and Maryanne had a construction business, and Joel was shocked to discover that at one point it was worth about $2.5 million.

He tells the story on himself, so I’m not giving anything away to say that in pretty quick order he managed to squander that fortune out of feelings of unworthiness. The good news is that although they had some very hard times, times that tested their marriage severely, they toughed it out and their relationship is better than ever.

Time for Adventure

How? At 57, Joel realized he wanted to be a minister. I’ll never forget being in the men’s group where he announced his decision, and he was grinning like a happy kid. He still has that happy grin, and a few years later, Maryanne, too, became a minister.

Before they retired a couple of years ago, they had been ministers at a couple of churches in the Atlanta area. What’s more, they consistently showed up as the happiest couple I know, and now they’re having the kind of adventures I hope I might have at any age.

Their travels have taken them to China, Egypt, Israel and Australia, and they have just returned from a 12-week trip out west. Driving a pickup and pulling a camper trailer, they visited Memphis, Arkansas, Oklahoma City, Taos, California, Banff and the Dakotas.

They hiked, kayaked, bicycled and visited with friends and family along the way. And, most remarkable of all, they’re still talking to each other. In fact, in two weeks they’re off again, this time to Virginia.

Thumbing Their Noses

I take their story to be hugely affirming. As a multiple offender when it comes to failed relationships, I especially admire their determination to save their relationship. In fact, in recent years they became relationship counselors.

The other thing is that they are in their 70s. Maryanne has lost a tremendous amount of weight in the past few years, and the hiking, kayaking and biking are new activities for them. In effect, they are thumbing their noses at conventional wisdom about aging and the notion that folks their age should confine their exercise to the rocking chairs at Cracker Barrel. 

Their lives are a gift to those of us who get mired in habitual thinking. They remind me that life can be — indeed, should be — an adventure, and that it’s never too late to get started. And as an expert at isolating I particularly need to hear the corollary, which is that it’s a blessing to pick up the phone and connect with a friend. 

It’s All About the Change

The next installment in “Magic in the Mundane” will be posted shortly. Meanwhile, I couldn’t let this opportunity pass.

Ali Hale wrote a piece on The Change Blog recently about the difference between growth and change. Which makes for an interesting discussion of semantic differences, but what it triggered for me was how far things have come in the past several decades.

The coolest thing about change is that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift that makes it possible for significant numbers of people to change. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating.

In the past, change was a matter of “one-offs” – strong individuals who defied conventional wisdom and changed. St. Francis of Assisi and Henry David Thoreau come to mind, the former because I just read something about him. The latter because, like every other school kid, I had to read “Walden” and was surprised to find that once I got into it I liked it.

While folks like St. Francis and Thoreau have made contributions to the world, they didn’t generate a groundswell of change. There wasn’t sufficient critical mass to change mainstream thinking, which was — and still is — grounded in fear and negativity.

But now there are numerous modalities for change and highly visible leaders who have taken the mystery out of change and made it desirable, even when it doesn’t always seem safe.

Something’s Happening Here

It’s been going on since the 1960s, and the civil rights and peace movements are only the most obvious examples. Even the widespread use of drugs, though misguided and ultimately a dead-end (believe me, I’ve been there), was an attempt at what Carlos Castaneda called in his book of the same name, “A Separate Reality.”

Any list of change leaders would be incomplete, but examples range from Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. Pope John Paul II and my fellow Tweeter, Thich Nhat Hanh, at the global level to the Chicago Seven, Rick Warren, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer and Eckhart Tolle at the parochial level.

In short, as the Buffalo Springfield put it in “For What It’s Worth,” “Something’s happening here….” And to contradict the next line of the song — “What it is ain’t exactly clear” – I would argue that it’s quite clear, indeed.

Embracing Uncertainty

People are changing, some of them willingly, some of them tossed out on the street by circumstances not entirely of their own doing. (I’ve been there, too.) The disruption of the global economy has nudged change front and center and generated demand for ways to respond and react. In that light, Ali Hale’s blog is just one example of the trickle-down effect of this inexorable shift.

Change is taking place and the challenge – the opportunity, really – is to welcome it and make the most of it. And that means embracing the uncertainty in which it is wrapped, something I’ll admit I struggle with often. The routine and predictable seem ever so much more comfortable, at least on the face of it. But closer examination reveals that self-imposed order is itself an illusion.

In truth, the sands beneath our feet are always shifting, and we are given countless opportunities to adjust. In the two preceding blogs — “Magic in the Mundane” – I write about how something that happened in a few seconds and changed my life. The key element in that scenario was not just recognizing the opportunity, but also acting on it.

Change It All

At the beginning of “Feelin’ Alright,” on his live “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” LP, Joe Cocker mutters “Change it all…change it all.” Maybe Joe was overstating the case, and maybe he wasn’t. Being brought to my knees in the past few years by finances and romances has been scarifying at the material level, but spiritually it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

As Rumi puts it in “Ayaz and the King’s Pearl,” “Whoever bows down like they are bowing down/will not rise up in his old self again.”

A more contemporary take comes from MercyMe‘s kick-ass song “No More, No Less,” which includes the line “It’s all about the change.” I liked it so much I appropriated it for the subtitle of this website.

The bottom line is this: change is not to be feared. It is an antidote to the “Life’s a bitch and then you die” mentality that dominated previous generations. Welcoming change means we are not victims to whom things happen, but adaptable and intelligent beings intent on finding the best and doing our best with the materials at hand. And being grateful in the process for the opportunity to grow into our authentic selves.

 

Magic in the Mundane, part 2

This is the second part of a blog that begins with the preceding post, titled ‘Magic in the Mundane.’

The vision of Thich Nhat Hanh came to me on a Monday morning, and it may have been a day or two later when I was talking with a friend that reality began to shift.

I told Claire Watson Garcia, an artist and high school classmate, about the vision. She had a friend who had a friend who was an attorney at Time Warner Cable.

Two phone calls later, I was in the office of a semi-retired attorney named Gabe Pearlman. The thrust of his advice was that I needed “a rabbi,” someone who could shepherd the project through the minefields of network television.

A few things are worth noting at this point, not the least of which is that less than week after having the vision I was already in touch with someone who knew the TV business well. Considering that I started at ground zero, that was a small miracle in and of itself.

Eager To Help

Mr. Pearlman refused to charge me for the hour we spent together — I took him some wine the next day – but his willingness to help, without pay and without self-interest, was just one in a series of instances that took place each time I put my energy into the idea.

All I had to do was mention the project, and people went out of their way to help.

Further, there seemed no end to the trail of sources and information. As long as I kept talking about what I was up to, I kept getting led to new people, new ideas, new possibilities.

‘Stick To Your Vision’

 A couple of examples:

• Claire Garcia found more help, this time at her health club where she met a woman named Diane Dowling who said she was one of the people who started HBO. Diane and her counsel was enormously helpful.

 “If you knew what it took to do what you want to do, you wouldn’t even try,” she told me at lunch. “But you don’t, and that’s where miracles happen.”

Later, on the phone, she offered some advice that had almost immediate application. “Stick to your vision,” she said. “Every time I’ve let someone change my vision, it never worked.”

Foot on My Throat

• A month later, I went to Seattle to collect an award from the Education Writers Association for a magazine piece I’d written. While out there, I met the emcee of the awards ceremony who was also the host of an educational show on cable TV in New York.

“You ought to do a talk show,” said. “What you want to do would cost $250,000 an episode. You can do 30 talks shows for that.”

But a talk show wasn’t what I saw in the vision, and as he continued speaking I had this weird feeling that someone’s foot was on my throat.

I knew he meant well, but thank God Diane had warned me, because here was someone unwittingly trying to compromise my vision.

Pilot in an Ashram

• I moved out of my house in early June. The plan was that I would housesit for a friend in my home town in southern Connecticut and move to Atlanta in the fall. 

In the meanwhile, I was going to spend the next two weeks at Kripalu, a yoga ashram in Lenox, Massachusetts.

While at Kripalu, I told one of the leaders about the TV project and he suggested I do a pilot about Kripalu. We met with the guru, who was known as Guru Dev, and he, too, liked the idea. There was even a cameraman from Boston sojourning at the ashram and he agreed to shoot the pilot for free.

Again, it seemed that the universe was lining up behind this project.

Unraveling

But ten days before the shoot date, the cameraman and I had an argument. I thought we needed a second camera, and the more we talked it seemed his objections were less about an extra camera than about being unnerved about shooting the pilot itself.

It reminded me of something Richard Bach wrote in “Illusions”: “Argue for your limitations, and they are yours.”

The issue was unresolved when we got off the phone, and for the first time since I had the vision it felt like things were unraveling.

A day later, the PR guy from the ashram called. Guru Dev was going to California to spend visit Deepak Chopra and wanted to postpone the shoot.

There was nothing I could do about that, and in mid-September I moved to Atlanta. Six weeks later, I got a call from my daughter in Connecticut telling me that she’d been to Kripalu herself and that Guru Dev had been cashiered.

In other words, even when things didn’t work out as I thought they should, they worked out for the best.

But now what?

To be continued.

Magic in the Mundane

I got a message the other day that Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk, author and peace activist, was following me on Twitter. A day later, two of his followers signed up to follow me, and a day after that a third.

This was just a week after I’d joined Twitter, and I was still skeptical of its value. Mainstream media limit access to keep fools and amateurs from cheapening the product, and I wasn’t persuaded that social media had much value beyond connecting with old classmates.

Eventually I signed up to follow Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports columnist Jeff Schultz with whom I’d exchanged a few emails. But when Jeff started following me, I realized I could no longer get away with being a paperweight.

Whole Lotta Tweeting

A search to see what others write in their posts led to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Twitter page, and I decided to follow him. When he (or, more likely, someone in his organization) reciprocated, I figured that whoever responded was just being polite. I mean, TNH had 4188 followers and was following 3901 people. Even at 140 characters a person, that’s a lot of tweeting.

But our interaction reminded me of something that happened 15 years ago, something that occurred in a matter of seconds and yet has shaped the trajectory of my life ever since. Something that speaks volumes about the magical possibilities in our everyday world.

Nowhere to Go

In March of 1994, I was living in northwestern Connecticut and had just gotten a message from my landlord that he wanted to put the house on the market. I was recently divorced, freelancing, and not doing well financially.

I was awaiting word from Florida where I’d been promised a job as a senior writer and writing coach. But when I called the editor, he’d been reassigned and the job wouldn’t be filled for another six months.

Suddenly I had no prospects, no place to go and no idea what I wanted to do. I called a friend, and she commented, “You need a niche!”

Vision in a Garden

Immediately a vision appeared in my mind’s eye: I was walking with a small Asian man in a garden littered with white blossoms. A lavaliere microphone was clipped to my shirt, and the interview was being fiilmed by a video crew.

There was no antecedent for this, nothing in my experience to suggest any such activity in real life. And yet I knew instantly what it was: a TV series that I would create and produce as well as appear in.

But how did I know that? And where did the vision come from?

I am host to thousands of visions and fantasies, but usually they are self-generated and address fears or desires. This was beyond anything I’d ever thought of or dreamed about. In fact, the very idea was absurd. Not only had I no experience on either side of the camera, I didn’t even LIKE television.

Deepak It’s Not

As for the other man, his face was blurred, and I thought at first it might be Deepak Chopra. Which, as things turned out, would have been a good guess. Five years later, I would speak with Chopra on three different occasions, and two of those conversations included discussion of that vision.

But it wasn’t Chopra, it was Thich Nhat Hanh. I’d heard of the man, but didn’t know much about him. Research took care of that, and revealed, among other things, that the blossoms that I thought were apple were plum blossoms. He has a retreatin southern France called Plum Village, reason enough to pay the man a visit.

Now all of this could add up to nothing more than a mildly interesting anecdote, and ordinarily I would have dismissed the vision out of hand or ruminated on it for days and weeks.

Instead, I did something so uncharacteristic that even now it surprises me. I took action.

More in my next post.

10 Reasons to Revive This Site

1.    Six months off is plenty: Writing is what I do — for a living and as a means of self-expression. One balances the other, and for the past six months, I’ve been out of balance.

2.    The project I’m working on is in good shape: I’m writing a book for a foundation in Washington. Not having done this before, I allowed myself an innocent but consuming obsession in the early going. Now that I’ve got the rhythm, I can relax a bit.

3.    It’s spring, a time of renewal: I mowed the lawn last weekend and put woodchips on the back path and in the garden. It’s either revive the website or clean out the attic. No contest.

4.    To redefine the experiment: The original idea was to write about my transformation from lifelong employee to independent contractor. But I’ve discovered this is about more than just a career change, it calls for a total makeover. More about that in future posts.  

5.    Quitting isn’t an option: A sabbatical is one thing; giving up is another. My father died with his music in him; I don’t intend to let the same thing happen to me.

6.    I’ve got something to say: I’ve met famous people and had some amazing experiences. I’ve also made more than my share of mistakes, survived drugs, divorces and financial hardships, and learned enough lessons for several lifetimes.

7.    It’s time to give back: I’ve been a taker most of my life. Now it’s time to give away what I know in the hope that it will help others. Might even help myself, too.


8.    Darren Rowse made me do it:
Rowse is running a series “31 Days to Better Blogging” on his website, “ProBlogger.com.” I signed up, which in itself is an indication of newfound humility. That right there is a cause for celebration.


9.    My inbox is full:
I’ve got several pages of things I want to write about. It’s in the writing that I discover things I didn’t know I knew.  

10.     It’s paid for: Web hosting for this site is paid into early August, so I might as well take advantage of the investment. I wouldn’t mind renovating the site, too, but that falls into the category of cleaning out the attic.

        To comment, click below on  ‘Post a Comment.’  To contact me directly, email jc@johnchristensenonline.com.