Monday, September 13, 2010

Create Something

I've been casually working on a few art projects over the past few weeks, but I've really not made any real progress or gained any substantive traction.  As I was pondering my apparent lack of progress yesterday, I realized that I could probably benefit from some peer feedback and, frankly, peer pressure. 

So, I'm going to start a monthly arts and crafts group.  Essentially, anyone who wants to express themselves creatively, whether through painting, sculpture, sewing, or whatever else floats your boat, can attend.  The group will mostly act as a motivator for people who need a little social pressure to implement the ideas they have, but it can also serve as a sounding board for those who are looking for feedback.

For myself, I am looking for a structured time each month when I know there is an expectation of physical progress on a project.  I need that kind of organization to help keep me sane... it will force me to STOP thinking about something and actually START working on it.  I can easily postpone most creative endeavors by thinking them to death, and I'm just tired of that.  Creative projects don't have to be "perfect" the first time my hands start to shape them in this earthly plane.  Never even trying is the true tragedy, not my deformed sculpture or washed out painting.

Since I like elephants, I think I'll tentatively call this gathering the Herd Arts Group. Hopefully, we can work together to bring forth some fun projects and help each other along our creative journeys.

If you are interested in attending, let me know and I'll add you to the distribution list and send you the details.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Change the Question

When we were all kids, what was one of the most popular questions asked of us? 

Most likely, you answered "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

I'm sure I was asked about my future vocation thousands of times, and I probably gave just as many answers. I had no idea what I really wanted or was skilled to do, but the answer to this question seemed so very important to me that I tried on all kinds of occupations. 

I think I did this mostly for the reaction... was the questioner surprised, excited, or disappointed by my answer?  Did it get his or her attention?  Did my answer make me more sophisticated, edgy, or smarter?

Just recently, I decided that if Jon and I ever have children, I really don't want us to ask this question of their young minds.  Not that the question is a bad one, necessarily... I just think it misses the point.  Too much emphasis is placed on The Occupation, like there is one thing we should do with our lives and that the path to that ONE THING begins in early childhood. It's a lot of pressure, and, I believe, it's a lie.  We can take our lives in so many different directions, exploring all aspects of ourselves and our passions along the way.  Plus, it's never too late to try something new.

I wish that I had been asked a different question somewhere along the way... something less occupationally centric and more focused on my dreams and aspirations.  For me, I think a better question would have been, "What do you want to create with your life?"

This variation is active and evolving, not passive and sedentary.  The emphasis is placed on the child's whole life, not just the occupational aspect.  It empowers the individual to own the power he has to create his own life, which is powerful tool for any person to possess.

For me, though, the best part of this question is its ability to focus on immediacy and the future.  What do you want to do with your life right now? Next month? Next year? In five years?  An answer to this question is based on immediate passions and inclinations, helping us identify the things that actually energize and stimulate our spirits.  In children specifically, this question could help foster the continual growth of creativity, rather than stunting it for the grasping-at-straws future occupation.

Even though I've long since "grown up", I had never really stopped asking myself what I want to be when I grow up.  Over the last year, though, it has become quite clear to me that this is just the wrong question if I'm seeking greater purpose and passion.  The question ignores and distracts from the power I have right now to immediately create something wonderful and completely outside of my profession.

I'm no longer asking myself what I want to do when I grown up. Instead, I am asking myself what I want to create with my life right now.  The question is liberating, light, and energizing.  My answers spring forth naturally and excitingly and are sometimes quite surprising.  Most importantly, it reminds me that my life is what I create of it, and the creative process never really stops.

I am so much more than my vocation. I work to live.  I do not live to work.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Choose Happiness

This week I happened upon a blog entry of a friend of mine.  In it, she described and then decried the culture of positive thinking that has become so pervasive in modern society.  One point that she passionately fights for is that people have been trained to hide or lie about their natural responses to tragic or unfortunate circumstances by putting on a happy and joyful face. 

I won't go into all of the details on the post (I will send you a link for it, though, if you ask), but I did respond to her in disagreement.  I think the positive thinking movement has empowered people to take control over the reactions to external stimuli, allowing them to choose happiness even in the direst of circumstances. We commented back and forth for a while, when I wrote:

I have to personally reject the idea that my life is simply a pawn of external forces.  I believe that people do have control over their lives, and to think otherwise really is a reason for despair.  If we are not in control, what hope is there for real change, personal achievement, or inspiration?

My friend's response was stated simply, "Ah, but I disagree.  We don't have control over our lives.  We really don't.  We have control over our perceptions, true, but that's it."

Those were the last words we shared over her post.  I couldn't respond.  I don't know how to respond.  We are at fundamentally opposite places in our worldview and personal philosophy. The two of us could have gone back and forth all day on this topic and never reached an agreement.

And, while I find our disparate viewpoints fascinating and would be intellectually curious to see how they each play out in the real world, I must admit that the most profound element in our discourse was one of grief.  I grieve her answer... the idea that someone or something else controls my life would indeed create despair and I cannot imagine otherwise.

I do believe that we have control over our lives.  I believe that I can choose a different direction at any time. Moreover, I believe that I always have the choice of happiness. 

Yes, bad things are going to happen.  People are going to get sick and hurt, and we all will eventually die.  Watching our 24-hour news will give you a first-hand glimpse into tragedy. 

At any point in my daily life, I can find something to be unhappy about.

At any point in my daily life, though, I can also find something to be happy about.

I fervently believe that anyone, at any time, can find at least one thing in their lives to help them create happiness.  You don't have to be rich or privileged in any other way... you just have to recognize the power to choose. 

You also don't have to deny yourself anger or grief, which I believe are qualitatively different than unhappiness. These emotions can be empowering in their own way and naturally lend themselves to some sort of process.  I get angry at a perceived injustice , which leads me to find a resolution, either internally or externally.  I grieve the loss of a person, requiring I adjust to a life without the physical and emotional presence of that person. 

These emotions are active ones, and, yes, there could be the possibility for unhappiness paired with them.  However, I don't believe that remaining in the unhappy state helps anger or grief find its resolution.  A person has to choose to move the process forward, and, by foregoing the unhappiness for something more positive and productive, a person can.  It doesn't have to be happiness right away, but it should be a step in that direction, perhaps by simply finding small things for which to be grateful or appreciative.

I have actively spent the last year trying to identify the things in my life that conjure happiness, and, honestly, I can say the list is now innumerable.  Despite this list of options, I usually just find myself gravitating towards the simplest, communing with my garden.  Spending time with plants and watching them develop and fruit brings me great perspective and has not yet failed to make me happy.

I believe that most people (if not all) can list a few things that make them happier.  The challenge is to make the choice to indeed be happy when events are not going your way or bad things happen.

Not easy, no, but definitely doable.

I still find myself becoming unhappy like everyone else.  I have discovered that when I choose and work at it, I can let go of the unhappiness and bring myself around to fostering happiness.  After all, since I have the choice, why in the world would I choose unhappiness?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Be a Neighbor

Last night we had dinner with the neighbors.  It's been a tradition with us for about three years now, even though we've managed to cycle through two sets of neighbors since we began. Sometimes we plan a progressive dinner between our three houses, but last night was much simpler: a BBQ with potluck sides.

I made mashed potatoes and gluten-free ice cream sandwiches (homemade gf cookies, Blue Bell Vanilla Ice Cream) and brought over two bison steaks.  Unfortunately, Jon wasn't feeling too well, so I was solo for the evening.

When I arrived, the hosts, Matt and Katie, already had the grill fired up and were cooking venison sausage, a particular guilty pleasure of my own.  Katie had also made her delicious macaroni and cheese (a favorite prior to the gf diagnosis) and a vibrant salad made of black beans, corn, peppers, tomatoes, and avocado.

While we waited for our new neighbors to join us for their inaugural neighbor dinner, we sipped on wine and caught up on each others' lives.  Matt and Katie have lived next door for over two years now.  They replaced Chris and Lori, a nice couple, but one whose discomfort with our progressive politics and lifestyle created a gentle unease whenever we were together.  Contrary to Chris and Lori, Matt and Katie are easy to get along with and fun-loving.

The venison sausage Matt is grilling is made from a deer he shot and killed earlier this year.  It was his first kill, even though he was raised in a conservative small town in Texas, where I would assume every thirteen year old boy is taken on a rite-of-passage hunting trip.  As I've never been hunting and the largest things I have killed in my culinary adventures were lobsters, I asked him to tell me a little it.

We didn't get to chat very long long, but during that brief conversation, there was definitely a deep concern and compassion present in the experience for him, and I could see that the hunt was not something he saw just as sport.  I assume the experience is a bit jarring for anyone, and Matt has definitely set some guidelines for himself when it comes to hunting:  shoot to kill and not wound, hunt animals that are over-populated, and use what you kill for food.

I like the idea of being intimately connected with our source of food, and... I hesitate to say this... I do think I would be comfortable with Matt's personal guidelines if I had to apply them to myself.  Lately, I've been seriously mulling the thought that if I'm willing to eat meat, I should also be willing to kill it.  Not that I need to go out and slaughter every chicken or buffalo that I eat, but I should at least acknowledge that an animal had to die for me to live and that I would indeed be willing to take its life in order to enjoy my meal.

But this subject is for another post... back to the neighbor dinner.

In time, Kimberly and Kasey, our new neighbors, joined us bearing gifts from their recent trip to the Hill Country: fresh peaches, Texas wine, and wine-infused chocolates.  They've lived across the street for a month or two, having replaced our good friend Andrea who moved to Seattle.  While it was sad to see Andrea leave us, Kimberly and Kasey have easily assimilated themselves into our little neighborhood. Very friendly and out-going, Kimberly and Kasey readily engage in conversation and have already added to the vibe of our existing neighborliness.

Our evening was quite wonderful.  We enjoyed the delicious food and sparkling fellowship, getting to know each person's personal story while sharing the gifts we each brought to the table.  All in all, a great way to spend an evening.

Scheduling our neighbor dinners is usually a Herculean effort, requiring each couple to struggle and negotiate with their calendars to find an open evening.  But, once we are together and sharing the neighborly goings on over wine and dinner, the value in the hassle and work is self-evident.  For the two hours we spend chatting and sharing, the friendliness and diversity of this city is focused into a tiny dining room in the Heights.  And, for me, this feels like home.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Grow Something

Last week, I found myself chatting about my garden with my grandmother.  I was telling her about the lessons I’ve learned this summer about growing tomatoes in the Houston heat, taking care of the obnoxiously prolific and destructive stink bugs, and my goal of having something growing in the garden year-round.  I guess I was sort of going on and on (which is a bit unusual, because grandma really, really, really likes to talk), and when I finally stopped to take a breath, she quietly said, almost to herself, “You’re just like my mother and grandfather, always needing to grow something.”

I have very few memories of my great-grandmother.  Most of them are sensory, like the musty smell of her house in Tennessee or a slight tightening of my chest as I recall all the asthma attacks I had while staying there.  Strangely enough, though, I do remember her puttering around the backyard, tending to her tomato plants.  I can see her withered, fragile frame bent over the plants, gingerly inspecting the fruit and picking the ones that had ripened.

Perhaps I remember this because it was different from my normal experiences.  My own grandparents weren’t gardeners, and my immediate family moved way too much to believe we could actually tend and care for a garden.

My grandmother is right, though, I do need to grow something.  Something pulls me to the garden, coaxing and tempting me to give the soil a chance to produce its bounty.  I anxiously and excitedly await the miracle of life, watching the tiny seed become a plant that goes on to produce flowers, fruits, or vegetables.  The process from seed to fruit is beautiful, awe-inspiring, and gives me a rich and primal appreciation for the life around me.

You could say that I mother the plants in our backyard, watching their progress carefully and tending their needs tenderly.  I guess I do.  I care for them so gently and want nothing but the best for them.  It frustrates me when my own ignorance or negligence negatively affects them, which happens far too often, but I’m learning.

I don’t garden to produce all the food we eat.  Truth be told, my mistakes have been too numerous to even sustain one person from our garden. That’s not the point, though.  Sure, my eventual goal is to produce some food for our table year-round, but sustenance isn’t why I labor over the garden beds.

Earlier I wrote “primal appreciation”.  That phrase came naturally and easily to my fingertips, even though I’ve never thought of it in those terms, and it kind of surprised me.  Now that I sit here and actually think about it, though, this primal appreciation is why I garden.  Growing something, anything, connects me to the source of life, reminding me that I am part of a much larger energy and design.  It connects me to a process that has evolved over millions of years, allowing me to be an intimate observer and participant.  And, sometimes, I actually get to partake of this wonder, tasting the joy of fresh food from the garden.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Welcome to elephant boldly, personal reflections on my journey towards purpose.

I've wanted to document my thoughts and feelings for quite some time, but, for whatever reason, I usually stop before catching any actual rhythm or steam.  I believe the failure lies in the expectation to have a brilliant and life-changing theme emerge within one or two posts.  However, as with most things in life, creating something valuable, whether personally or for public consumption, takes time and patience. 

So, I'm starting this process with little to no expectations... or, I should say, I'm at least trying to actively keep my expectations in check.

I want this space to be a playground for my thoughts and feelings.  Some posts will be short and energetic forays into my flights of fancy.  I'll indulge these trysts because, with a little time and care, they may indeed lead to something deeper and personally satisfying.  Other posts will be longer and (hopefully) well thought out.  They will deal with more intimate subjects that hold personal value for me. 

Why "elephant boldly"?  Well, for quite some time, I've been intrigued by this great animal.  Its ponderous and intentional journey over great distances to water and nourishment, simply by instinct, is personally inspiring.  To some degree, I guess I want my own life to mirror this same quality. By writing here, I hope to uncover and refine my passions.  In time, I hope these will then provide a path by which I can move purposefully and instinctively towards a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Thanks for joining me on this journey of personal nourishment and purpose.  Until the next post...