jimowenswrites

Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: March, 2016

More Whispers of the Heart

Cooper walked into the office that morning wondering what the day held.

 

“Morning, Coop,” said Michael.  “Gotta sec?” It wasn’t really a request.  The urgency in Michael’s voice was clear.

 

The man’s face was a kind of powdery white like the bad work of a poor sighted mortician.  Michael and Cooper had worked together for years and enjoyed the kind of relationship that painful truths build. Sometimes they grew frustrated with one another, different as they were.  Michael was a plodder, a glass-half-empty kind of man.  Cooper had a bent for looking on the brighter side of things, but remained a realist, nonetheless.  Still, when they faced a problem or an opportunity, the two had learned the delicate balance of trusting one another’s perspective.

 

After he explained the problem, Michael asked, “What are we going to do?  This is horrible.  We’re going to lose a seven-figure account.”

 

“There’s nothing left to be done, Mike.”

 

Cooper heard himself say the words and prepared for the torrent he knew would follow. Michael didn’t disappoint; exasperation seeped, then washed, from his every pore; a flash flood coursing over rocks and fallen trees.  Let it out, thought Cooper. Losing a major client was not a great way to begin the day for either of them. Listening to Michael bitch and moan wasn’t much fun either.  For a moment, Cooper let himself wish he were back at home in his chair.

 

“Look, Mike, we’ve done everything we can.  I know it’s a major relationship.  It’s a huge loss—”

 

Michael wouldn’t let him finish.

 

“He’s going to tell everyone, Cooper.  If we can’t handle a client like this just think what it says to the entire market. And don’t you dare quote Kipling to me.  Not now.  I can’t take it.  Not right now.”

 

What Michael meant as a warning came as a welcome reminder to Cooper.  Michael was a well-known carrier of frustration and angst and that sort of thing was communicable; an emotional flu.  In times like this, Cooper often resorted to Kipling.  If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…you’ll be a man my Son. There were so many Ifs in life.

 

If I get sick.

 

If I get fired. 

 

If I’m alone. 

 

If—it was one of Cooper’s favorite poems.  Its words had been penned by a man living in a different time and place.  A world so different, yet so much the same as Cooper’s.  Men and women, it seemed, had faced the same things for generations.  He was grateful he had come across Kipling’s work.  The man’s words were both a comfort and encouragement.

 

Exasperated, Michael finished his diatribe and excused himself.  He had another appointment.  As Michael was leaving, Cooper spun in his chair grabbing the phone.  He replaced the handset on the cradle realizing his breathing had grown a bit shallow.  He took several deep breaths, releasing them slowly.  There was plenty to worry about, all the ifs in life, most of them never materialized.  On the rare occasions they did, well, Cooper couldn’t remember a time when the worrying had accomplished anything.

 

It wouldn’t now.

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Whispers of the Heart

He greeted the throbbing pain like an old friend, a reminder of things past.  This morning would be no different than the others.  He would wake and say hello to his back, sit on the side of the bed, test the knee before rising, then hobble to the kitchen and plop a pod in the coffee maker.  He would wait there, silent at the alter, until it poured out its offering, then begin to take tentative sips before it cooled. He liked his coffee hot and had paid the price for his impatience so many times.  Some habits never die, he thought.

 

The man wasn’t old, but he had punished his body over the years and now it was returning the favor.  It didn’t matter.  He didn’t regret the decisions he had made. Life was too short and he had things to do.  Places to go.  When he was a younger man he would bolt from the bed, driven by the ghosts of inadequacy and approval, and go hunting for something to feed his hunger.  And though no longer woke with the same urgency, he still went hunting.  Now he just knew where to look.  It was right there, every morning, just like the pain in his back and knees, deep inside him.

 

Cooper had let go of a lot of things.  He no longer strained at the bit for the next promotion, the next raise, or to meet the endless cycle of quarterly performance expectations.  He did his job well, yet his past dissatisfaction had become a good teacher.  It had taken him a while to realize it contentment couldn’t be found in the things he once chased, or more accurately, that chased him.  Looking back, he realized he had often felt like a hunted animal.  Wide-eyed. Pounding heart. Heaving chest.

 

The ghosts still came back to chase him from time to time.  But now, because he listened, he could hear them coming, chase them away with a knowing smile.  There had been a time when he thought he knew contentment.  But he had long since realized he only knew about it. It hadn’t been the kind of deep-down-in-your belly kind of knowing that he now possessed.  Cooper had also known men who often spoke of peace and satisfaction.  Maybe they had it—had found it as much younger men.  Still, he suspected their lives were as full of restlessness and hunger as his had once been.  Or maybe not.  Not knowing was okay.

 

Popping the Aleve into his mouth, he washed them down with the cold remnants of his first cup of coffee.  He knew what time it was and realized he would need to get ready for work soon.  But not before he sat down to listen.  Protecting this time, letting go of the left side of his brain where the ghosts resided, he had learned was a discipline.  The barking dogs of doing always wanted more.  They wanted better.  They wanted different.  But from the silence of his chair, he would shoosh them.  He would sit and listen to the birds.  He would listen the roar of the passing cars.  But most of all, he would listen to the whispers of his heart.

 

 

Whack-A-Mole and Other Things

She was a petite redhead with a Ph.D. and I was gangly eighteen-year-old when we met.  She was the Yoda to my Luke, trying to teach me how to master the Force.  She told me that writers write. She told me that writers read.  She told me I was late for class.

 

It’s been almost forty years since Dr. Susan Hagen read my first piece of fiction, yet I can still see her standing there, staring up at me.  In truth, the woman frightened me a little.  If the best things come in small packages, then so do the most intimidating.  I stood there, more than a foot taller than her, in the heat of her gaze. I waited, preparing myself for the disappointment of her verdict.  Game face, I thought.

 

“It’s a good first draft, Jimmy,” she said. “It’s an interesting retelling of the tale.  It took some courage to submit this.”

 

Uh oh. 

 

Looking down at the first page, I couldn’t tell if the red letter was marked with a B or a D.

 

Out with it, woman!

 

“It needs some work.  But I thought it was a good first effort.  Not your best.  But passable nonetheless,” she intoned.

 

Damn.

 

Passable?

 

It was a D.

 

I wanted to dig a hole and cram all of my 180-pound six-foot-six frame into to a deep hole.  In my mind, I managed to bury myself to the neck, leaving only my head exposed.  I was the rodent.   She had the club. The game of Whack-a-Mole was about to begin.

 

She handed me the paper, firmly urging a rewrite.  “Pay attention to your syntax and punctuation,” she said.

 

“Yes, mam,” I offered humbly.  I took the paper, suppressing a cocktail of despair and panic, then pivoted and measured my pace out the door.  My palms were sweating.  My head hurt.

 

When I hit the cool fall air outside of Munger Hall, I managed glance at the rolled up tube of papers in my hand.  My eyes fell to the grade.  There in the upper right hand of the page sat a handwritten B.  I got a B?  The heavens opened.  The angels sang.  I think I dropped a poetic F-Bomb of relief.  People stared.  I didn’t care.

 

Somewhere in the boxes of college memorabilia I keep, the original version of that work remains.  In truth, I think Dr. Hagen was being generous.  It was terrible.  I’ve rewritten the tale several times.  It’s probably still only passable.  When I think about Dr. Hagen I have a profound sense of gratitude.    After putting away the craft for so many years, I’ve returned to an old friend.  I write to make sense of the world.  I write because it helps me pay attention to the things that matter.  I write because it’s cheaper than therapy.  I write because Dr. Hagen told me that’s what writers do—even when it’s just passable.

Tell Me Your Story

Please.

 

Tell me your story, not just the shiny parts that sparkle in the sunlight;

 

Tell me about the parts that are in the shadows, the dark parts, the things that made you afraid, when your breath grew shallow, when you were hurt and lost and felt forgotten;

 

Let me see the messy things that make you want to stay under the covers when you know you have to get up and go to work or to school or to face the day and act like everything is fine when your mind is a boiling pot and your palms are sweatting and you have that deep ache in your belly;

 

Don’t just tell me the things you put in your Christmas Letter, about how great the kids are doing and how the dog had a good year and about the promotion or the great trip to the beach, don’t just show me the smiling picture of posing perfection when all the children have their hair combed and their clothes are clean and you have on just the right outfit and Photoshop will take care of the rest;

 

Please.

 

Tell me your story.

 

The hardest parts.

 

Tell me how it felt when your mother died or when saw that freckle on your leg start to change and how your mouth went dry and your heart was pounding so hard you thought it would rupture and that you would bleed to death;

 

Tell me about how it felt when she cut you so deep you would never heal or how he betrayed you even after you had forgiven him so many times before;

 

I want to know how you felt when your kid got sick and the doctors said they weren’t sure what was wrong and how you tried so hard to be brave and keep it together and how you fought against the terrible thoughts you had and how you went into the bathroom and cried into the towel hoping no one could hear your sobbing;

 

Tell me the hardest parts.

 

Please.

 

We are friends, you and me, so please, tell me your story, the hardest parts.

Russian Brides and Junk Mail: A Little Humor, Maybe?

Given the state of world affairs, I think a little humor is in order.

 

No.  This won’t be about choosing the next President of the United States, though that’s tempting. I won’t write about “overcombing” our problems or email servers.  I won’t write about the size of someone’s hands.  I won’t even write about…well, you get the picture.  Instead, I will invite you to laugh with me a little. Or at me. (Wait—you’re too eager.  That was just was just rude laughing that hard that soon.) So with hopes of making you smile, I’d like to share a little with you about the contents of my email junk folder.

 

Thanks to my email service most of the garbage never makes it into my inbox.  But every so often a credit card solicitation or notice that your check is ready makes it past the filters and I’m reminded to dump my junk folder.  Now, you should know I’m fifty-five.  That fact seems to have had a dramatic impact on what now lands in my digital junk mail. At least that’s what I’m counting on. It could, however, be a vast right wing conspiracy.

 

Apparently, the further past fifty you make it, the more important it is for some marketing genius to remind you you’re smack dab in the middle of mid-life.  While I appreciate the sentiment, I’ve got this.  I mean, sometimes, when I wake up I feel like I’ve been beaten with a bag of hammers during the night. That’s a pretty clear indication of my age.   If I’m planning to be out past 10 p.m., I know I’m gonna need a nap that afternoon and probably the next day too!  So yeah, another reminder.  Really, guys.  Thanks.  But I’m good.  I can see the gray hair and crow’s feet.  I know I’m chasing sixty.

 

Unfortunately, if you consider my junk mail, the guys selling Burial Insurance seem to think I’m a great prospect.  So do the guys at Senior People Meet and Our Time.  Seriously? If I want to meet senior people, I’ll put on a pair of high top New Balance shoes and take a walk at the mall.  I can’t decide if I’m more offended by the solicitations to Stop Toenail Fungus Now or the Blood Pressure Cure (both of which raise my blood pressure).  Today’s random check of my junk folder included offers to Eat The Foods You Want Without Worry (dentures) and how to Remove Unsightly Varicose (and painful) Veins For Good. (Although removing them would probably be good, I think they mean forever.)  But the one that really bugs me is the one for the treatment of OAB. Don’t Let An Overactive Bladder Ruin Your Life! I didn’t realize that was a thing! So now, I’m worried. I thought it was just the coffee.    For the love of all that is good, do people look into their junk mail folder and think, “Finally, I’m gonna get the help I need?”

 

I’ve been reading a book about our brains.  Apparently, those little things called neurons, the things that enable your brain to, well, be a brain, pretty much last you your whole life.  That’s why I can look in the mirror and see all the gray hair and crow’s feet and wonder, who’s the old dude?  My brain is still the ten-year old-skinny kid.  It refuses to grow up beyond a certain point.  Which way be why I still laugh at jokes about bodily functions and snicker over double-entendres.  I like my brain.  It let’s me laugh at the stuff in my digital junk mail and tempts me to tell you I also got an offer to Meet Russian Brides.  Nyet, spaseeba!

 

The truth is, I kind of like being a middle-aged dude, junk mail notwithstanding.   Yeah, it’s harder to suck in my gut when I have my picture made.  I’m never too far from a bottle of ibuprofen. I remember when Fonzy jumped the shark.  And I remember when you had to get up and twist the dial on a television to get one of the three network channels.  But I am not—I repeat—not a prospect for the offers in my junk mail. (Well, most of them.  I do need new tires.) As the guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail said, “I’m not dead yet!”  In fact, I’m just getting started.

 

Now, where did I leave my teeth?

The Mindful Watchman Taught Me

No more

to indulge

the busy

voice inside,

won’t listen to

it’s chatters;

 

I’ll set

a kindly

watchman,

to rebuke

all the

foolish matters;

 

He’ll greet

each fleeting

thought,

in humble

kindness

pure;

 

No

greed,

nor fear,

nor anger,

no longer to

endure;

 

With gladness

will he

meet,

guide through

an open

door;

 

The wise

and true

and good,

Their presence

he’ll

implore;

 

 

But bid

farewell

will he,

to all

my cares

and grief;

 

Making only

room

for

thoughts

that bring

relief;

 

But should

some errant

notion,

slip

unnoticed

by;

 

I’ll

beckon

that he come,

urge them

all to

fly;

 

An

ever present

guardian,

shall

he always

be;

 

Protecting

all

my thoughts,

and keeping

truest

me;

 

Until comes

the

sacred day

when there’s

simply no

more need;

 

For the

watchman

taught me,

my every

thought

to heed.

The Letters I Kept

I can’t recall the last hand-written letter I ever received.  I suppose it was sometime in the middle 1980s when my college and high school friends had scattered to pursue their dreams and face the vagaries of life. But back in “the day,” when hair was big and I wore, dare I admit, Calvin Klein jeans, I remember my excitement over receiving a letter from my Mom, Dad, or perhaps, a young lady who for some strange reason might have thought I was worth the time and energy it took to put pen to paper. I’m all in on email, texting and the variety of technological ways we connect today, but there is something about “snail mail” that I miss.

 

Because I’m a hopeless collector of memories, you know, ticket stubs, worthless trinkets that crowd my drawers, and yellowed scraps of newsprint, I probably have every letter ever written to me.  Letters from my grandmothers, my friends, and, yes, old flames.  I don’t keep them because I live in the past.  I keep them because they remind me of who I am.  I keep them because they connect me to the people I love, the challenges we faced and the victories we enjoyed.  On the rare occasion I pull them out to read a few. They make laugh.  Sometimes they bring a tear to my eye.  Especially the ones from my grandmothers for whom I held so much affection and admiration.

 

Those letters are more than yellowed paper and fading ink.  They are a part of the person who took the time to write me.  When they might have been doing something else, they chose sit down and scribe their thoughts.  They chose to invest some of their life in mine, sharing their hopes with and for me, inviting me into their world, peeking into mine, and, sometimes, sharing a bit of their own soul.  None of them are typed.  They were all written in their own hand with a stamp (licked, not peeled) affixed and then dropped into a big blue box or perhaps placed in a black one with an upturned flag.  I’m grateful for their effort.

 

Every so often, I get a hand-written thank you note, or a card that has a personalized message.  I still get excited when I see a hand addressed envelope.  Call me strange.  Call me old.  Call me a cab.  Maybe, I’m all of those things. Probably, I am.  Okay, we all know it.  I’m a little of both.  I know it’s odd that I can still recall the combination to P.O. Box 41 at Birmingham-Southern College.  I know it’s odd that and on past visits, before they tore down the Snavely Center, I would wander to the second floor and turn the dial of the box just to see if it still opened.  But maybe not.  I think I was just looking into that tiny box to peer into the lives of so many people who sent letters to that address, wondering if they were still there, if they still thought of me, as I do of them.

 

Most of you who read this will know how to text, or email me, or send me a message on FaceBook.  And I would love that.  But if you want my “snail mail” address, just ask.  And if you send me a letter, just know it will end up in a safe place and one day, when I’m really old, I’ll look back at it with gratitude.  To Vince, Tommy, Melinda, Anne, and you, Mom and Dad, and to so many others, don’t worry.  Our secrets are still safe with one another.  I have to go now.  My Calvin Klein’s are in the dryer and I’m afraid they’re gonna shrink if I don’t get them out now.

 

Peace.

We Had A Bad Fight

We had a bad fight,

You and me,

All my sins,

You clearly see;

 

I know you’re hurt,

In such great pain,

But will you let,

My love remain?

 

You said those things,

In cold dismay,

And what I said,

I had to say;

 

Though I’m still lost,

In  this cold grief,

Some day soon,

I’ll find relief;

 

Won’t hold you hostage,

Or in angry chains,

Someday you’ll see,

My love remains;

 

When all my penance,

Someday I’ve done,

My hope is always,

Just to love you, son;

 

My life of late,

So full of sorrow,

With hopes that you,

Return tomorrow;

 

So I’ll just watch,

Accept my fate,

Until one day,

Your pain abates;

 

I held you often,

And wiped your tears,

Stood beside you,

Through all your fears;

 

Nothing I gave,

Shall I regret,

Nor will your pain,

I ‘ere forget;

 

The storm we ride,

In battered craft,

Was made so well,

‘twas built to last;

 

Oh yes, my son,

One thing is true,

Nothing will end,

My love for you.

Lessons From The Trail: An Essay

There is something redemptive about being deep in the woods. With each hill I climb, creek I cross, or fellow traveler I encounter, I find my senses growing more acute.  There’s something intriguing about being on an unfamiliar path that requires my focus on each step, yet somehow remain alert to the path well ahead of me.  On rare occasions, I’ll admit, I’ve found myself a little disoriented, trying to figure out how get to the end of the trail. (Don’t worry, Mom.)  Mind you, I’m not lost.  I’m a dude.  We don’t acknowledge such nonsense.  But sometimes, even though I know exactly where I am, well, I don’t know where the trailhead is.

 

Most of the time, I hike or backpack alone. (Except for the voices in my head #onlychild).  Often, travel along on a loop trail, which means, if I just stay on the path, absent a head trauma (which some suggest I’ve already suffered) or being assaulted by a wild animal, I will make it home.  (Have you ever been stared down by a large grey squirrel?) Things on a loop are familiar.  Safe.  Unless you reverse the direction of your typical journey. Things look completely different when you travel opposite your normal direction. If you pay attention, you see new things, gain a different perspective.  But you have to be willing to accept some uncertainty.  You have to learn to be comfortable, as Pema Chodron says, with uncertainty.

 

It seems to me that life outside the woods can be a lot like travelling a loop trail.  Most of us take the same safe course.  We travel paths others have cut.  There’s beauty all around us, but we don’t see it.  We are too familiar with the comfort and the routine of pounding our way along the same path every day.  Our senses have grown dull.  We are weary.  We are lost in the familiarity.  We don’t even know it.  Even if we have some deep nagging uneasiness, we’ve learned to press it down.  Like a chronic illness or injury, we’ve learned to live with it. But what if we reverse course?

 

I’m not suggesting you change trails.  I’m not suggesting you quit your job to write the next great American novel, join the Peace Corps, or seek your fortune in the World Series of Poker.  Maybe all you need is a different drive home from work. Maybe you need to go somewhere different for vacation.  Maybe you need to listen to a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Democrat or a Republican.  (I said listen.  Not argue.)  Maybe you just need to turn off the television, the radio, or put down the damn phone. (Physician, heal thyself!)  Look for a different perspective.  Be a little uncomfortable.

 

Now, here’s the big finish.  Wait for it.  I’m gonna quote someone important.

 

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  For me, well, I guess I go to the woods for the same reason Thoreau did. You may not like dirt, or critters, or crawly things.  There are plenty of reasons to avoid the woods.  You don’t have to go there to “front only the essential facts.”  You can do it just about anywhere. But you will have to “front” yourself. It’s worth the uncertainty. Lesson from the Trail

Prison

Bared teeth,

That glisten and

Gums flashing pink;

 

Guttural rage.

It’s not

What you think;

 

Amidst tempest

Of terror,

Poor tragic beast;

 

She leaps

And she longs,

Finding no peace;

 

Gentle now,

Caged one,

Let not this great fear;

 

Consume thine

Own heart

Oh, listen and hear;

 

Freedom is surely

But yours,

For the taking;

 

This prison

Of fear, but

Yours in the making;

 

Rest now

A moment to

Just contemplate;

 

This bitterness

That binds you,

To some terrible fate;

 

Be not

The captive of

This heartache thine;

 

Smile at

Thy fortune

Whatever you find.