Somewhere, beyond time and place

Reviewers are using words like “remarkable,” “history making,” and “moving” to describe Partners, the latest album of legendary singer Barbra Streisand. In its first week, her 34th album topped the Billboard 200 making Streisand the only recording artist to have a number one album in each of the last six decades.iStock_000048081726Medium

As you might guess from the album’s title, Partners pairs Streisand with well-known artists like Billy Joel, Michael Bublé, Stevie Wonder and even Elvis Presley (who is said to have been resting comfortably well before the recordings were made). Don’t ask.

But it was the duet with Josh Groban that caught my ear. “Somewhere” is the love theme in the musical and movie West Side Story, produced on Broadway in 1957 and later on the screen in 1963. It’s the story of rival New York City gangs.

I first heard “Somewhere” when I was in high school. Like others of school age, I suppose, I was taken with the idea that there’s a place for each of us. In West Side Story, the “place” is a life of peace, quiet and open air for the musical’s young couple. They dream of being far away from New York City’s then gang-infested Upper West Side where they lived. But for any of us, wherever we are today, our “place” may be a life of hope, love and purpose. For others it could be a place of health, family and food.

As my senior year drew to a close, it was time for my classmates to choose our class song. There were three on the list, one of them, “Somewhere.” For me, the choice was a no-brainer. But there were 300-plus other brains voting, so it was no shoe-in.Remarkably, “Somewhere” won by a landslide.

I was pretty tight with some talented fellow musicians, and we approached the graduation committee about singing it on the big night. They agreed. I wrote a six-part arrangement. It was almost surreal to stand in front of 2000 people and sing about a place and time for each of us.

Last night, as I listened to the Streisand-Groban duo, I found myself back at my high school graduation singing with my friends. The scene was vivid, as if it were taking place at that moment. I looked across the gymnasium at my parents who were about 100 feet away sitting in the bleachers. I saw my mom wiping her eyes and my dad beaming.

I wondered what they must have been thinking. And it came to me: pride and love—probably a similar pride and love that others were sharing. Suddenly, I felt a rush of pure love wash over me, breaking through the current moment. In much the same way that my parents felt pride and love, I felt it, too. “How could I have been given such wonderful, loving parents?” I wondered.

Today, my understanding of “place” is different than it was then. Now, it’s less about a physical location, bounded by time and (seemingly) unconnected happenings, and more about how I see things. Maybe “somewhere” isn’t “out there” after all. Maybe it is “inside”—in the ways we think, imagine, hope, dream, care and love.

Perhaps that’s the way “place” is built, one thought at a time. In much the same way there we’re building our place, others are building theirs every day and every moment. We catch glimpses of this phenomenon at unusual times, like when listening to a Streisand-Groban duet. It was if my parents reached across time and space to reaffirm my place and give new meaning to the words in “Somewhere”—

“Hold my hand and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there.”

You may be able to listen to “Somewhere” (unless it’s been taken down) by clicking  here.

West Side Story Story by: Arthur Laurent – Music by: Leonard Bernstein – Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim

The homecoming

I’m not sure you can ever really leave home. I never did. And though the physical place where I live is different than it was when I was a boy, the idea of home is both a memory and a surprisingly tangible part of my life.

Some of my home returned today. And though at first I questioned its appearance, I realize now how much I really missed it. Here’s the story.

While my mom was somewhat tonally “challenged,” my dad had an amazing singing voice that developed with little training. Well before I was born, mom and dad bought a piano although neither played. It was, as I see it now, more than a gesture of faith. It was a gamble—no, an unspoken conviction—that their only child would know how to use it. And so, at the age of four, they decided to test the theory that there might be some talent behind my banging on the piano.

Petra Odeman was my first piano teacher. She was a wonderful person and, I think, knew that real music isn’t in the notes on a page. Music is something in the heart that awakens our spirit, our love, our lives. At just four years old, I could read the notes on the page, but not the words beneath them. Elementary school would fix that.

Petra married the love of her life and moved away but not before planting that seed of music in my head.

My next teacher (his name was Gene) was an unusual man, sort of hung up in the composers of the day who, to be quite honest, didn’t quite measure up to the notoriety they mustered. They were quirky. Dissonant. Jarring. He played their music precisely and without emotion. Despite their complexity, I could sight-read most of them and fake a piano lesson with aplomb. Instead, I preferred to play my made-up piano pieces for Gene who, honestly, preferred his music books to my compositions.

I learned an important lesson from that: Sometimes creativity is scoffed at. That didn’t shake up my life, but it shaped it.

Fast forward through grade and high schools, two years of college and an international traveling music group.

Here I was, this musician who played the piano, the large, cumbersome instrument that takes at least two people to move. Not the best choice if you want to play for others in the park or on a date. I needed a guitar. All self-respecting musicians should master the instrument of strings and frets and convoluted finger positions that John Maher so adeptly conquered. At least, that’s what I thought.

I reasoned that the only way to learn the guitar was to have one. And the best way to practice is on a good one. My music group friends preferred the Ovation guitar with its fiberglass-like, curved back. I learned, that if placed on the stage in the upright position, they called it a “standing ovation.” (Sorry for the bad joke.)

There were no dealers close by, so I drove an hour or so to seek out a standing ovation guitar that would woo and charm friends and others.

The music store was large—packed with instruments of all sorts—and overwhelming. To get to the guitar section, you had to walk through  keyboard instruments of all types and natures. It was a Steinway grand piano that caught me eye. She was a charmer with a rich walnut finish and white keys that seemed to dance in the light.

I don’t know that you fall in love with pianos unless you are a musician. I do know that you fall in love with what brings you happiness—even though, in the case of a piano, you can’t really “return” that love except by playing it and fulfilling its purpose of inspiring and lifting others. My love affair with the grand piano was born.

Without talking to my mom and dad, I traded the piano and organ (yes, the collection of musical instruments in the house had grown) for a grand piano. And, at a mere 20 years old, I owned a hunking grand piano financed by a job in a hardware store. So much for the portable standing O.

Fast forward another few years… The piano became an important part of my life and who I was. Music defined but didn’t bound me, I finished college and took on respectable jobs to pay the bills and venture into the world.

Then my work took me to a small place on the East coast that simply couldn’t accommodate the piano. It was comfortable space. I got out of debt. But the piano remained in storage. It simply wouldn’t fit in the condo.

Today, after moving three months ago to a big town in the lower states, the piano, in storage for 12 years, was delivered to my new house. At first, I was bothered by its size and how it imposed on the room. Furniture had to be rearranged and space had to be rethought.

But when I sat down at the keyboard after a dozen years of being away, I know it was meant to be here. It reminds me of years long passed—of mom and dad and the telling of the Steinway story. It is meant to be, as are most things that make us happy.

And now it’s home. I has always been there in my heart; it’s been out of sight. No more.

Fingers remember, almost effortlessly, the melodies, the chords, the passages that are filled with joy and, sometimes, sorrow. Beauty and tears wash away the hurt of separation and of being away from those “at home.”

Music does that, whether we sing or not. Sometimes we need to sing. At other times we need to listen. Sometimes we play. All gifts are important.

Share yours.

A bit of a 2014 update: In a few days, almost two years to date from its last move, the special piano will return to its hometown in Washington state to become part of a dear church’s loving ministry of hope, love and healing. Music comforts. Music includes. Music heals.

And that, for me, has been the piano’s purpose and contribution all along.

How will you and I be a contribution?


Stoplights, for the most part, are dutiful little creatures.

Yesterday, I spent about 20 seconds at one waiting for the much-coveted green glow. It was one of those days when the world seemed very clear and sharp—you know, a time when light and shadow create crisp lines on the ground and a few carefully quaffed clouds float overhead?

We’re part of a much larger, infinite library of stories—some connected, others seemingly not.

Being a little disconnected from beauty of late, I’m not sure I would have noticed the splendor of the moment had it not been for the stoplight creature.

Life in one small town

It was sort of a “put your life on hold” instant in which I mentally returned to my days as a young boy. I grew up in a small Washington town in the middle of a desert so flat you could almost see forever. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know (firsthand, at least) that not all towns were that small and vertically challenged. It also didn’t seem to have much of a past–certainly not like the reach back of a Plymouth Rock, or Paris, or a Mayan ruin. It was recent history that, for this small town, seemed to date back only a few dozen years when the area was transformed from farmland to a nuclear weapons complex in World War II.

Those were good times, though. I vividly remember my dad, a kind and soulful man with a big heart, entertaining me with stories of his childhood. No matter how often I begged him to repeat them, I never grew tired of the tales about his brothers, his dad, his aunts and uncles. And although they changed ever so slightly in the telling, their essence remained constant. Now, as I reflect on them, they were less about the characters in his family and more about how he was shaped by the experiences that, to a young boy, were absolutely awesome to hear.

Another small town

My mind returned to the moment. I was the only car at the stoplight, this time in a small southern town that’s been my home for 12 years. The sun tried to bake through my black hoodie, but the cold temperature outside got in the way. And then, in a spike of clarity, I realized that everything around me was part of a larger story going on almost unnoticed. There was the story of the huge gnarled tree to the right of the car. And there was the packed yellow building across the way where you could buy takeout. There was the elderly man walking with the aid of his cane. And the paper cup tossed in the gutter.

And then there was the story of the road itself, named “Whiskey” because in the 1800s it was used to run whiskey and rum to the north. Today, it’s the major north-south thoroughfare through the town. I watched as drivers sped along while talking on their cell phones, numb to the stories of the trees, the takeout joint and the man with a cane.

In those brief moments, I was reminded that everyone and everything has a story. If you were that tree, what would your tale be? If you were your dad, what stories would you tell you?

Listening and telling stories is one way to connect to the larger narrative of which we’re part. We’re richer for having had the experiences. It’s a wealth without tangible measure. Yet, we’re beyond just our story. We’re part of a much larger, infinite library of stories—some connected, others seemingly not. All of us are authors.

The traffic light turned green. It had been only a 20-second moment in the middle of eternity, yet it was so rich. A few minutes later, in a crowded grocery store, I pushed the cart past the barrister at Starbucks and by a senior Asian woman making sushi. She spoke in broken English. How did she get to the United States, I wondered. What was her story?

So many people whose lives, if lived out loud, would fill volumes.

Writer’s note

I’ve long been a believer that we’re all connected in some way. And, as I was writing this post, I received an email from a longtime friend—perhaps I should call her a soul mate. The timing and topic of her message were quite extraordinary. She wrote:

One reason I thought of you is because I read an interesting article in Guideposts.  (Yes … I’ve reconnected with that interesting little magazine of short inspirational stories!)  In the January edition, there’s an article by psychologist Edward Hoffman entitled “This Way to Memory Lane.”  The crux of it is that “science has discovered that nostalgia itself is good for us.”

I’ve always been so nostalgic about our past … growing up in Westinghouse Hanford with people like John and Charlie.  I don’t think that I’ve been stuck there, although as a “Cancer” I may have a longing for some of what has passed.  Now I find out that reflecting on the past is good for us… “waxing nostalgic from time to time doesn’t trap us in the past—it is healthy for our body, mind and spirit in the present.”

You can find Hoffman’s article here.

The truth about do-overs

There’s something unique about senior years in high school. Largely, they include things you’ll do for the first time and things you’ll do for the last time. I edited a school newspaper for the first time in my life and, just before graduation, for the last time. I acted (well sort of) and sang in Oklahoma! for the first and, so far, for the last time. I produced a talent show and haven’t done that since I graduated with my fellow 350 classmates, most of whom I’ve not seen since.

I’ve thought about reprising my senior year and playing certain things out differently—no doubt carefully applying the benefits that being older and wiser afford. I’d probably be friendlier and more outgoing. I’d be less concerned about being popular and more about helping others without regard for their place in the school. I’d befriend more people, ask more questions, help more folks, appreciate my parents more, find fewer faults, praise others more often, and find the courage to stand up to bullies…

The unfortunate thing about life is that we rarely get true “do-overs.”

We might have a chance to offer an apology for something we’ve done. Or, as they say (somewhere), “mend our ways.” But we can’t take back what’s been done. We can only choose what we’ll do in the present moment to make a difference, offer hope, change a life, encourage the dispirited, say “thanks,” open a door, smile, help others laugh…

The point is not what has happened—unchangeable and cast already—but what we choose to make happen in the here and now. Although decent intentions are always good to have, the future is only created by action.

The beginnings and ends of years, days and minutes are somewhat irrelevant—and mostly artificial—markers. It’s what happens within those markers that can change a life.

What if we lived life knowing (really knowing) that there are no do-overs? What would a life lived that way really be?

Breaking rocks

I called a friend the other day to ask a simple question about some software I was using for a project. It seemed that I caught him in a lack-of-job-related funk that has persisted for many, many months. “I’ve done everything I can think of,” he told me, including changing his resume, changing his approach when applying for work, applying for very different kinds of jobs outside his field. All of it, unfortunately, to no avail.

“And what really pisses me off is that people don’t call you back,” he said in a tone that was a mix of frustration, anger and depression.

My heart went out to him. It’s a situation that many people in our country, and the world, know all too well.  I wondered if I would show the same courage he’s shown during these difficult times.

What struck me very clearly is that the situation will change despite what we may believe to the contrary. It will change. But in the meantime…

I was looking for a lesson in this. Perhaps it is this: We cannot let a letter of rejection—or not getting a job after applying for one or dozens—determine who we are. Human nature tries to connect a “no” answer to “I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough. I’ll never get out of this hole I’m in.” Truth is, the “no” is just a “no.” It doesn’t change our character, who we strive to be, what we love or who loves us. It is simply a statement that “somehow, the job and I don’t fit.”

It could be argued that we’re not qualified, we’re the wrong age, we’re not pretty enough. But all that matters little. And it’s pointless to try to connect dots that just aren’t to be connected.

I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t honestly (but gently) look for ways to better ourselves. There’s certain value in self-assessment and improvement. It takes persistence, that’s for sure.

I’m reminded of a question someone asked about breaking rocks with a sledge hammer: Which blow cracked the rock? The answer is “the last one” according to those who engage in such thinking. But not so quick.

Doesn’t each swing of the hammer, each blow to the rock, lead to the end result? Doesn’t each blow matter in some, sometimes imperceptible, way? We don’t need to know exactly how, we just need to keep swinging.

Several years ago, I was visiting some friends and in their bathroom, strategically posted near the mirror, was this reminder: “You are strong. You are smart. You are beautiful. I believe in you.” Yet, how easy it is to focus on what we perceive ourselves not to be. “I’m just not ____ enough,” the thinking goes as we fill in the blank with our shortcomings.

The truth is, we’re stronger than we think we are. Sometimes it takes a gentle reminder.

Redefining perfect

It’s been a nearly perfect day. But it didn’t start out that way.

I woke up angry at things too numerous to mention. My dad used to refer to it as “getting up on the wrong side of the bed” which always confused me because I could never imagine mattress makers purposely building right and wrong sides into their wares. Regardless, one’s bed-exiting strategy should be chosen with care.

As I lay there contemplating the day ahead, I decided to confront the belief that I needed to be unhappy, mad or upset. If I wanted a better outlook, I needed a better “inlook” (I suppose that could be a word). I realized there was no good reason to begin a day with thoughts of darkness and doubt. The here and now (see the previous post) was the only place I needed to be.

So, I exited the bed from the same side I got into it the night before: the right side.

I was to have lunch with a friend at 1:00 pm but, due to a schedule change, my friend wasn’t able to leave work until 2:00 pm which left me about an hour to “kill”—as they say. I’m not sure why anyone would want to kill an hour because, as they go, hours are relatively innocent and not deserving of such sentences. So, I went to a favorite store to shop. After returning to my friend’s place we sat outside eating, talking, laughing and enjoying the beautiful fall temperatures and bright sun.

Soon, the winter cold will seal all of us inside our long pants and jackets and we’ll look back on the beauty of autumn with longing. If we’re true to form, our complaints about summer’s heat and humidity will change to complaints about winter’s cold and rain, but none of those complaints will change a thing. We’ll invest our time and effort into something that we don’t control and miss that which we do—the way we think about those things supposedly outside ourselves.

Perhaps even the idea of a “perfect day” misses the point. Perfect is largely in the eye of the beholder. Maybe there’s really no set standard for bad, not-so-bad, nearly perfect and perfect. Maybe it’s more how we mine the moments to find the jewels they offer.

An author of a newly published book described her writing technique and how, with computers, it is easy to delete large passages of text by hitting a single key. She said that, when writing on a typewriter or with pen and paper, eliminating words was much more difficult. This made me wonder what I might remove from my life (so far) if I had the power of the delete key.

But then I had a different thought: What if we had the power of the insert key to add something to our lives? What would it be?

For me, the answer would be “more time to love.”

Well, that’s not as difficult as it might seem.

As I reflect on it, today was more perfect than I could have imagined.

be here now

Several weeks ago, I came across a phrase that seemed sort of ordinary at first. Lately it’s been growing on me—and in a good way.

The three-word phrase is pretty simple: be here now.

As used in the context of the meeting I was attending, it meant that to truly listen to someone else, you have to turn off the mental chatter that often fills our heads and focus exclusively on the person you’re listening to. Listening for words and inflections, observing their posture and gestures, but always doing just one thing: intently listening. (Not that anyone reading this ever lets the chatter drown out another’s voice, but just in case…)

As most of us know, shutting out the chatter isn’t as easy as it seems. At any given time, there can be lots of stuff going on in our lives that begs for our attention. Whether it’s concern about work, finances, partners, the children, health, a busy schedule, (the list goes on), all these things can keep us from being “fully present in the moment,” a phrase I’ve never really liked enough to make it work for me.

But be here now has a different ring to it.

No matter how much my mind wanders, or which thoughts are clamoring for attention, “be here now” brings it right back to, well, the here and now and the place I’m being asked to be.

But the idea has uses beyond listening to others. I had an example of be here now a few days ago when a big deadline loomed. Although I was making progress, I found myself going through a series of distracting “what-ifs” on a variety of subjects, some of which were relevant but most of which were rabbit trails to nowhere.

At some point I just stopped and reminded myself to be here now. The mental clamor stopped, the computer screen became clear and my mind stopped wandering. Be here now.

The phrase is also a reminder to appreciate a moment of beauty, to laugh, to thank someone for their help, or to offer a compliment. As fall approaches, I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy the changing colors and crisp morning air, provided that we be here now.

Give it a try.

Big things, small steps

When it was built in 1962, Seattle's Space Needle was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

It was in the sixth grade when I realized that I liked big things. Growing up in a relatively small town where grade school was a 10 minute walk from home and the public swimming pool a five minute car ride away, my sense of space and scale was somewhat limited. After all, the tallest building, a department store, was just two stories high.

But that changed when dad and I crossed the state to visit Seattle, city of tall buildings, crowded sidewalks and six lane freeways. I remember standing near the base of the Space Needle and looking up at its top some 600 feet above us.

And so my passion for big was ignited. Monuments like the Pyramids and the Sphinx. And Michelangelo’s statue of David and the Sistine Chapel. Titanic. Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. Symphony No. 7 by Gustav Mahler. The Sunday New York Times.

It’s hard to fully comprehend the complexity and scale of these “big things.” Whether it’s monument, a painting, an airplane or a symphony, they share one common factor: each began with a single idea and a single action that began the building process.

Don’t get me wrong, I like “simple”, too. Simple is good because it’s a good place to start. Take last week, for example.

A friend asked if I’d help with a writing project but, frankly, I didn’t know where to begin. I worried about the “tone” it needed to take, and how many pertinent facts needed to be told. Perhaps it was my zeal for “big” that was making too much of this assignment.

So, I did what every writer (or most anyone facing the situation) does, I put a few words down on paper. They weren’t the right words, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were a start from which the right words emerged after only a few minutes. Five paragraphs later, followed by some fact checking and polishing, and it was done! A brief email sent the project on its way.

Brings to mind the nearly cliché quote about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with one step. It is true. If you want to make a change of any size, you have to take a step of any size.

Recently, I’ve been using this idea to gain a greater sense of personal peace. Admittedly, they’re small steps like listening more and talking less. Or showing more patience and trying to make more people “right” than “wrong.” Or encouraging others in what they’re doing.

Will this usher in world peace? No. Will it help? At some level, yes.

For me, peace is a “one gal, one guy at a time” effort. And each day is the day to wage it.

Following intense rehab, snowboarder Kevin Pearce returns home

After four months of intense rehab following a near-fatal snowboarding accident, Kevin Pearce returned to his family’s Norwich, VT home last week. Although hopes for an Olympic metal were dashed, for him, being home with his family was a golden moment that gave him a new perspective on his young life.

You can read a New York Times account here and watch NBC Nightly News coverage here. An ItsJakesWorld post from February 27, 2010 is here.

Love as a verb

I spent much of this morning finding and listening to music about home, love, peace, and compassion. And on the way, I ran across a video called “Beautiful Earth” celebrating Earth Hour in the United Kingdom. Blake, the British musical group whose music you hear in the video, is loosely called a “boy band” although that hardly represents the vocal talents of this gifted vocal quartet who named themselves after William Blake, the poet and writer.

All this was sort of a mellow prelude for an after-lunch trip to the fish market and a local retailer that features close-out merchandise. A Saturday afternoon distraction of sorts.

I was unprepared for what would happen, an important lesson about living love, not just thinking about it.

After a quick visit to a nearby pet store to look at cats and dogs up for adoption, I headed to the real destination. Inside, in the bedding section, was a mother and her 22-year-old son who appeared to be a significantly challenged special needs child. He was hunched over and stared vacantly at the collection of colored sheets somewhat neatly stacked on the table.

As I walked over, I found myself uncomfortable being there, even wondering if it was safe. I walked down a different aisle to avoid him. A few minutes later, when I returned to an area just a few feet from him, I felt a certain eerie-ness. I turned. It was the young man, his head pointed away, but his right eye fixed intently on me.

I felt strange, “weirded out,” as some would say.

And then, in what had to be just a split second, I wondered how many others—like me—judged him with their eyes while avoiding our hearts. The feeling of eerie left.

I turned, looked directly at him, smiled and said, “Hi, how are you.” In a clear, strong voice he replied, “I’m fine. Are you okay?”

We had a 30-second conversation about what he was buying with his mother. “Sheets,” he told me saying that he really didn’t understand this “thread count” thing. We laughed.

And then the conversation ended but not before he looked at me and said, “Thank you for talking to me.”

As I watched him disappear down the aisle to join his mom, my eyes filled with tears.

I was embarrassed by my selfishness and all-too-quick judgment. But at the same time, I found myself being grateful for a moment in which love became an action and not just a thought.

High above this overcrowded place
A distant blackbird flies through space
And all he does is search for love.
Love is all that matters in the end…

Love is the oldest secret of the universe
Warm as the touch of two innocent lovers
When they discover that
Love is what we ever really know.

A past and future come and go
Because they do, Love stays with you…

Celebration” by Paul McCartney

Six lessons from Dylan and Trevor

Life lessons come in many shapes, sizes and situations and mostly when we’re open to learning them.

One recent Saturday dished up some pretty good ones, each served by a couple of unlikely messengers—my coworker’s sons, Dylan and Trevor, ages eight and five. She and the guys showed up to help with some serious office cleaning and straightening.

Now I don’t hang with kids much, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Because I follow their comings and goings pretty much on a daily basis, I knew that her sons are (1) all boy, (2) very polite and (3) extremely smart.  I figured I was in for either a real treat or a pretty long day.

The workday began with lunch and a detailed movie review of the new Dreamworks film “How to Train Your Dragon” that they’d seen a few days before. I was struck that these guys were using complete sentences that logically developed from one thought to the next. I was still learning to tie my shoes at the age of seven. At five, I was sticking my head in chimneys and who knows what else…

Then it was on to the work of the day: packing, shredding, and boxing stuff—all of which was punctuated with lots of questions, laughter and, well, did I mention questions? Bunches of them.

It was a quick 2-1/2 hours. While driving home, I found myself laughing out loud at the time we spent together. There were lessons here. I counted six. Call them Lessons from Dylan and Trevor:

  1. Expect good from everyone you meet.
  2. Think of work as a joy because it can be if you let it.
  3. Tell stories about what you like to do as it makes living more fun.
  4. Say “Yes” when asked if you want to do something—even if you don’t really understand what it is.
  5. Thank people, even if the gift they give you is small.
  6. And, finally, love each other, because it makes everything better.

Thanks guys!

Doing nice

Mom and dad’s advice about being nice to friends, strangers and animals didn’t fall on completely deaf ears although some of my friends would argue that on occasion.

Being nice has lots of parts to it. Being polite. Being kind. Being patient… understanding, thoughtful, respectful, courteous, forgiving… The list isn’t quite infinite, but it gets close.

The word “being” implies a state of existing. For me, it’s a passive word in that it doesn’t require action. Being just is.

And when it comes to life there are lots of opportunities to respond with niceness or not.

I was reminded of this during the week while flying cross-country with plane loads of others who just wanted to get from here to there with as little hassle as possible. Generally people were patient and courteous—nice, if you will. And, with the exception of the woman who couldn’t pry the cell phone from her face while speaking loudly, I found myself thinking “nice,” too.

But then I started watching the flight attendants as they helped mothers with small children to their seats, served drinks, read safety messages, passed out headphones and the myriad other things that airline people do in the course of their jobs. I offered the usual “thank you’s” for the coffee and the pillow. Mom and dad would have been pleased.

And, then it struck me.

Maybe there is something more than just being nice. Maybe we should elevate it to “doing nice” to others. Sure, the flight attendants were just doing their jobs and getting paid for it. So, “thanks,” should be enough, right?

I realized that the answer to that question might, in a small way, make a difference in the lives of others.

So, while sitting in 8B I decided to think about what they were doing for me: making the trip more safe and pleasant, calming passengers during some turbulence and bringing countless glasses of water to the person in 6C.

While leaving the plane and under the moniker of “doing nice,” I spoke to one of attendants and thanked her for making the flight pleasant and enjoyable. She paused, looked at me and said, “You just made my day.”

That made me wonder why it took so little to do that. And, if it took so little effort on my part, why wouldn’t I practice “doing nice” more often: think store clerk, the guy on the help line, the boss, the neighbor.

Being nice is good. But why not trump it with “doing nice.”

The virtue of bad news

Newspaper and television reports, filled with stories of hardship and misfortune, affect us on some level. Yet, each report takes on a different meaning when the casualty of war is a friend’s son or daughter, or when unemployment becomes a family member’s story.

Although the news seems to be about “the other guy,” it may be more about us than we think.

I was reminded of this the other day when a co-worker’s dear mother passed on unexpectedly. At a spry 80-plus years, she was filled with spunk and lived a strong and inspiring life. Although I never knew her personally, her death reminded me of my parents’ lives and how much their values permeate my work and friendships today. As I wrote a note to my friend the other night, I found myself thinking that her mom’s enthusiasm and drive didn’t die with her, rather, it was being passed on through the stories she shared with me and others. Her passing, a huge loss for her family, contained a small note of inspiration for me: How could I dial up my own enthusiasm for life? It was a small measure of good to be found in the bad news.

Something similar could be said for news accounts of the Haiti earthquake. Most of us have trouble relating to devastation on such a large scale, but it becomes real when a neighbor’s home is damaged by fire or flood. Suddenly “over there” moves closer to home. What does that mean to me and can I reach out to lighten the burden? Perhaps the news calls us to be a contribution.

Millions of people today are looking for work after losing their jobs to economic conditions. The big numbers and statistics shield us from individuals with faces, names, families and their own stories. For them, the bad news contains little good. Yet that judgment may be hasty, especially if causes us to miss how the closing of one door points to others we didn’t see.

And, that may be the point. Sometimes the current situation—good, bad or otherwise—can lead us, if not lull us, into complacency about how much we really have to offer others. We may accept the status quo because the not status-quo is scary or not even apparent. So, we settle for what we have because it’s convenient, if not easy and safe.

What if the “We have to let you go” message that many have heard is really “We’re setting you free.” I don’t credit employers with all that much smarts, insight or unselfishness. We have to assume that for ourselves. We must read the lines and understand the real story. We choose how we hear the message.

Being set free isn’t such a bad thing. Neither is taking a longed-for chance or a risk, something that can be scary and heartening at the same time.

Set free. Seeing new doors and opening them to a better life and greater contribution.

That’s the virtue in bad news.

Listening for everything

The more you listen, the more you hear, according to Gordon Hempton*, an acoustic ecologist.

But Hempton says that if you listen for something, you stay inside a narrow expectation of your previous experience and tune out what you’re not listening for. In other words, when you listen just for the sound of the cricket, or the bird, or the wind, you will often miss other sounds going on at the same time.

He contends that real listening occurs when we truly pause and let everything in, opening our ears, our heart and our mind to be filled with all there is to hear.

It’s in this listening that we hear the Universe speak.


*Hempton is the author of  One  Square Inch of Silence and is waging his own war to save silence from extinction.

Olympic mettle

I’ve not always been a fan of the Olympics. Not being particularly athletic or overly interested in sports, they always seemed to be a non-event. That was until, a few years ago, a friend and colleague told me how much the athletes’ dedication, incredibly hard work, and personal sacrifice inspired him and his wife.

And so, I started watching. At first, with disinterest and skepticism. Then, with curiosity. Later with attachment. And now, with awe.

Yes, there are carefully choreographed opening spectacles with parades of athletes bursting with national pride. And there is the generally good-natured rivalry between teammates who cheer each other in nearly selfless joy.

But it’s the stories inside the events that speak to the mettle of which these young athletes are made.

Snowboarder Kevin Pearce and brother David. Click on the picture to watch an NBC story about Kevin and his family.

There’s the story of Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater who lost her mother just two days before her walk onto the ice. Understandably shaken, but undeterred, she won a bronze medal.

And there’s Kwame-Nkrumah Acheampong, the 33-year-old, one-man ski team from Ghana. Nicknamed “snow leopard” because the animal is as uncommon as a skier from Ghana, his skiing career started only five years ago.

And Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, a man who faced down addiction and pain to become the first skier to land “the hurricane,” a wrap of five twists into three somersaults that takes place 50 feet in the air. For Speedy, it was a silver medal.

Most Olympic stories are not just about an athlete. They are the stories of people who, through their own sacrifice and support, make another’s achievements possible. Take Kevin Pearce, whose half-pipe moves are compared to those of fellow snowboarder Shaun White–this Olympic’s gold medal winner. Kevin, who couldn’t compete due to a serious injury he suffered on December 31, 2009, now fiercely struggles to talk again and to regain the use of his limbs. It’s a slow, slow process. But it’s his brother, David, born with Down Syndrome, who has provided an unexpected perspective on Kevin’s recovery. “We learned patience from David,” his mother said, remembering that it took him three years to learn to put on his seatbelt.

For many Olympians, there will be medals. For all, there will be memories deeply etched in Vancouver’s snow.

But for Kevin, brothers David, Andrew and Adam, and parents Pia and Simon, there are no medals, no snow, only love.

And, perhaps that is the best metal of all.

May 3, 2010 UPDATE: Kevin is making a remarkable recovery, has been released from Craig Hospital in Englewood, CO, and awaits the real victory of returning to his home in Norwich, VT. His doctor says he’ll be able to make another return: to snowboarding!

Of greener grass and the proverbial fence

Winter’s weeks-long grip on the South has relaxed a bit of late. Temperatures, which have barely peaked above the 40s in what seems like forever, have climbed into the 60s much to the delight of children and adults playing in the parks and strolling along walking trails. It won’t be long before tulips push through the soggy ground and the local soccer fields turn green.

For some reason, this change of scenery reminded me of an expression I first heard from my dad when I was probably five years old. We were engaged in one of those “I wish” conversations where you want what you don’t have. After wishing things into the ground for several minutes, he looked at me and said, “Son, you know they always say that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” To me, this confirmed that fences were meant to deprive animals of the good fortune of better grass “over there.” In this case is was in the neighbor’s pasture.

My five-year-old logic said that if you took the fences down, horses and cows wouldn’t have to be jealous of another’s better fortune and could move wherever they perceived the greener grass to be. Admittedly, it wasn’t the most practical of solutions.

Despite my childish logic, his point didn’t escape me. Nor does it today.

But we do seem to live in a world that, just beyond our grasp, is slightly better than the one in our hands. We long for warmer weather in the throes of winter and more moderate temperatures during the summer. Or, we’re on the prowl for better jobs, friends, houses or lovers. And, because greener/better is always “over there,” we never quite find it.

Another take on the greener over there proverb came to me awhile ago as I was waiting for a friend to arrive at her office. As I waited patiently, one of her office mates began describing the strong odor of solvent coming from another office in the building. She complained about the thoughtlessness of the landlord and the lack of ventilation, how she’d had to cancel classes during the week and how miserable the situation made her. Despite my suggestion about not letting this take her joy away, nothing would shake her angry words about the problem in which she seemed firmly anchored.

Largely, her story is the same drama in which, at times, we act. Becoming so enwrapped in a situation, we cannot choose a different scene or better context. We see and experience only the moment in all its horrifitude. (That’s a new word.)

In my own experience, I find it’s difficult to see how stuck we really are. But others often see what we don’t, that we have options, choices and potential. Potential that goes unrealized as we look and relook at the same problem, seeing the same evidence over and over again.

Is there a way out? Almost always. Here are three questions that help:

  • Is there another way to look at this problem/situation/event? Think of it this way: How would someone completely unconnected describe it?
  • Am I letting this define who I am and how I think about myself? It’s a case of choosing a new script or a new role to take on.
  • If I can’t change the whole picture, is there a part I can change?

My dad’s admonition about the grass being greener on the other side is a good reminder that where we are often looks more bleak than where we aren’t. The idea of moving “over there” is, of course, tempting but not always practical.

Yet the grass remains under our feet. How we look at it is largely up to us.

What’s your gift?

Time for a trivia challenge.

Think “1970s.” Down select to “music groups.”

Who comes to mind?

Chicago, the Jackson Five, Earth Wind and Fire?

Excellent choices.

For many, the brother/sister duo of Karen and Richard Carpenter will be on the list. The Carpenters hold the distinction of being one of the best-selling music acts in history with a distinctively soft music style that was a sharp contrast to the loud and wild rock of the decade.

Karen died in 1983 of an eating disorder. She was just 33.

Even the most ardent music critics characterize her voice and the Carpenter style as among the country’s finest. And so would her fans. But, despite wide-spread acclaim for her obvious gift and natural talent, it may be something that, on various levels, she never accepted.

In a recent interview*, brother Richard was asked if Karen understood what a good voice she had. His answer was that both he and Karen realized they could do just about anything musically and that, at some level, she knew about her gift. Yet he said, “I don’t really know.”

And then he added, “You know, being human, we do tend to take things for granted. So, I honestly can’t answer that one. I’ve tried.”

It’s always interesting to me how others see talents in us that we overlook or diminish. Wow, what a wonderful gift they’re giving us.

It’s safe to say that taking our talents for granted and not using them isn’t the best place to be. Neither is being haughtily arrogant. But, if you placed these two approaches on a continuum, being in the middle isn’t necessarily the place to be either.

Perhaps this is another call to be a contribution in the world, being less concerned what that is or how credit is bestowed. Not waiting for all the circumstances to be right and for all the stars to align, but just to be a contribution.

To become carpenters ourselves, building others up and encouraging them.

To sing our song and to help others sing theirs.

*     *     *

[Another post about being a contribution can be found here.]

*Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 25, 2009

Ideas that just “drop in”

Like many people, I’m fascinated by how creative types find their ideas. (Or maybe that should be how creative ideas find people to express them, but that takes us down a totally a different rabbit trail.)

A recent broadcast of Diane Rehm’s popular radio show on NPR shed a little light on the topic. Her guest was Carole King, probably best known as a singer from the 1960s whose distinctive sound and style created the 1971 chart-topping Tapestry album, a record (and now a CD) that remains popular even today.

Despite her acclaim as a performer, in her heart, King is a songwriter, pure and simple. It’s a fact borne out in dozens of her tunes that have been sung by such divergent artists as Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, the Monkeys, and Celine Dion.

King’s lyrics tell stories, and her music—a pop and folk infused mix—brings them to life. One of her best known songs, “You’ve Got A Friend,” is particularly soulful and was popularized by James Taylor in 1971. Listening to the words makes one wonder how the song came about—a question that didn’t escape Rehm who posed it to King during the interview.

“It just ‘dropped in,’ ” King said.

“When I sat down at the piano,” King recalled, “that song just ‘came,’ and I’ve always considered it a gift. And I’m glad it came through me… It has touched a lot of people.”

Others have explained their creative sources using images. Merle Shain, Canadian author and journalist, wrote about it this way in her book, When Lovers Are Friends:


Poets talk of “having lines land on them” and claim that what they write is hanging in the air for anyone to reach. When someone asked William Blake where he got his ideas, he said that he stuck his finger through the floor of heaven and pulled them down.

King went on to use the “dropped in” phrase at least twice more. When asked to explain, she likened it to writing a letter, but not knowing exactly what to say. Then, suddenly, you find the words effortlessly coming out of the pen and onto the paper. For her, it happens at the piano—suddenly music just comes out.

Franz Kafka, noted German fiction writer, explained his own down-to-earth approach to writing:

There is no need to leave the house. Stay at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be perfectly still and alone. The world will unmask itself to you, it can’t do otherwise.

Creativity can be thought of as an intuitive process, nurtured through prayer, contemplation, walks in nature, etc. Sometimes the ideas come as hunches or inklings of something to do. At other times, in the case of Carole King, they come as complete songs or ideas. We do know that the more we act on our intuitive hunches, the stronger and more readily available they become.

For me, it’s a sort of “let go of Jake and just let things be, without judgment or conditions.”

Perhaps it is the rabbit trail we didn’t go down: maybe there are all these ideas just swirling around in the universe—just waiting for someone who is ready to hear them.

Don’t know for sure, but it just might be!

How do you measure a year?

Jonathan Larson’s catchy song “Seasons of Love” poses an interesting question. It’s from the overwhelmingly popular Broadway musical (and movie) Rent in which impoverished friends—young artists and musicians—struggle to survive and create in New York City. In the song, the cast considers how a year is best “measured.” Should it be by days or cups of coffee, they wonder. Or perhaps it should be in inches, miles, laughter or strife. They conclude the best way is in 525,600 minutes. But not just any kind of minutes, but moments of love.

(You can watch a video of the song here.)

Not to get heavy here, but it’s pretty clear that our world needs help. As you think about this year, it’s been one of difficult choices and anger that borders on hatred. But when you think about the new year, it is a collage of choices yet to be made, one after another.

And so, as we close out this year with its own 525,600 moments—98 percent of them already spent—and begin another decade, we do so, one moment at a time.

That presents a powerful opportunity to choose how we’ll live 2010. Will it be by bringing more compassion, care and loving concern to our neighbors and planet? That would be good.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about. It’s a sort of do less of, do more of, and give to others approach…

  • What if you could eliminate one habit from your life that no longer serves you well. How would that help you grow next year? (For me, being too skeptical or hesitant comes to mind.)
  • What if you could add one thing to your life. How could it improve your well-being and outlook? (More time to grow spiritually probably tops the list in my world.)
  • What could you give to others to make the world a better place? (Being more tolerant and patient fits for me.)

Think about the do less, do more, help others question. Then, begin each day thinking about how you can put each into practice. How about a scorecard to track your progress?

Think of it this way: Any time you do what’s on your list is one less moment of doing the opposite.

Want to join me? It’ll only take a minute.

I mean, it’s not like you don’t have 525,600 of them next year!

You’re more creative than you think!

NOTE: This post also appears on

When a friend threw out the idea of writing about creativity for When Creativity Knocks–the website of a mother and daughter team who share crafting skills–my mind went conveniently blank. That is until I remembered my all-time favorite story about Michelangelo (you know, the painter sculptor, architect, poet, engineer and original Renaissance man). It is said that someone congratulated him on turning a block of stone into a man. Skirting the compliment, he merely said the man was in there all the time and just needed a little help in getting out.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been much good at seeing objects in chunks of marble. Evidently, it’s not one of my “gifts.” Truth is each of us has our own special gifts. One of mine is writing music. People sometimes want to know where the music comes from. Usually, I say that I just sit down at the piano, stop thinking about things, and just listen.

Creative folks listen and observe, often looking for ways to connect seemingly unrelated dots. That’s part of the creative process itself.

Think of it this way: How many ways can you use a paperclip? Once you get past the “holding paper together” answer, the list begins to grow. It can become a device to repair a hem, serve as a hair barrette or unclog an Elmer’s glue bottle. Or, if you’re in the eight grade and combine it with a rubber band, it can help you earn a three-day “vacation” from school. But I digress.

Think of the crafting ideas on the When Creativity Knocks website. Each is the result of using common (and not-so-common) materials in different ways—in many cases, very unintended ways.

Take “All Decks on Hand” for example. It’s a great example of connecting a skateboard with artwork to aid a worthy cause—helping people with autism. Those are certainly unrelated dots, don’t you think? You can watch the video HERE.

Want to be more creative? Start by acknowledging that it’s possible. Then, do your own paperclip exercise by asking yourself: What are ten different things I could do with [fill in your own blank.]

Remember, all ideas in brainstorming are good.

Then, get ready for creativity to knock on your door!