From the Imagination

Balloon Animals Will Save the World

They will. I believe it. Just creatures of breath covered in skin, they are all shapes and colors and sizes, turned and molded by their makers. They wander the world giving joy, but are, at the same time, so fragile and scared, so tempted to hide. Their skin is thin, and the world is full of sharp edges and surprises.

It could be so terrifying for them, the idea that one day, one false move will end in POP and they will be no more. Only rumpled husks, breath loosed out into the ether. And even in long life, their inescapable fate is to grow wrinkled and deflated, slowly losing their shape until the last puff of life leaks out.

Yet there is such joy to be had! Continually shaped from inside and out into new forms, squeaking and laughing and wrapping in and around each other, they smile and bring smiles, looking around in the world from all angles. Inside out. Upside down. Outside and around and through. Such joy to bring, to be found, to be shared. What a world!

Yes, they could hide, but they have learned there are worse things than POP! There is the slow, sad deflating of a careful life safely hidden in the shadows, afraid of every corner, of any surprise. So instead, in joyful defiance, they travel and explore and feel every tug and hug and laugh, embracing the uncertainty in every turn.

So brave they are, these great, small creatures—so fragile, made only of skin and air—willing to spend every moment they have spreading love and delight in the world, to be filled up with life and travel joyfully into hands of all colors.

We, too, are these fragile breath creatures.

We are the balloon animals.

We will save the world.

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Categories: From the Imagination | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Persistence is Futile: When to Give Up

I have a weird relationship with goals. Making a goal feels like locking myself in a cage while being lowered into deep water and saying, “Okay, I have X amount of time to get out of this cage, or I will die.” And I’m not particularly Houdini-like. Goals are things to be conquered. Measured. Pass or fail. Live or die. “Did you achieve your goal in the specified time?” is a question for a True/False test. I think I might be allergic to True/False.

We get so determined about accomplishing things. And we’re very linear and quantifiable about it… “I will set out to do a thing. Then I will do the thing. And then I will have done the thing. And then I will be happy.” It’s funny we think it actually works that way. I have a very wise friend who says, “Progress is not linear.” And if we’re honest, we know that’s the true answer.

But we keep setting goals for ourselves anyway and slogging away at them—money, relationships, appearances, power, thinking that if we just keep being determined, keep pushing, keep striving, we will eventually get somewhere, get something and be happy. And an awful lot of the time, we just get more frustrated regardless of what happens—beating ourselves up when we don’t meet those goals, or actually meeting their goals and still being miserable. There’s that brief breath of “I did it!” and then, “Why don’t I feel any better?” After all, that’s usually why we make goals—because we think that if we accomplish them, then we will be happy. But happiness is a whole other thing…

As an experiment awhile ago, I decided to stop making goals, to stop planning for things to turn out a specific way. Stopped trying to make quantifiable, “If I do/have _____, then I will be happy” goals. I gave up.

Instead? I just started asking myself, “I wonder what will happen if I _________?“

And you might think that, in the absence of quantifiable goals, life would turn into a filthy, moldy basement where you just eat popcorn and watch tv all day. Except, as it turns out, wonder is actually a lot more dangerous than setting “normal” goals. Imagination is so much worse. And so much better

Because, at least for me, deciding to stop setting normal goals has turned into the antithesis of stagnant. For instance, I wondered what would happen if I stopped my normal, methodical gym regimen and walked into a CrossFit box. What happened? I learned to feel strong and more alive. (Quantify that.). And then I wondered, feeling strong and alive, what would happen if I stopped looking at the scale. What happened? I feel strong and alive and made friends with my body. What’s a scale for? (Weighing protein in the kitchen, that’s what.)

None of those were quantifiable goals.

It is worth pointing out that I still can’t do a strict pull-up even if someone were to hold a gun to my head. However, that is also not currently one of my goals. Ask me about my deadlift. Or my cleans. Or my double-unders…

And somehow I seem to be a whole month into doing 30 push-ups a day. Because evidently one day I just thought, “I wonder if I could get better at doing push-ups,” and started marking the days off on my calendar. There’s no quantifiable end goal. When 30 get easy and tight and bouncy, I’ll increase the number. For awhile. Then we’ll see what happens. There are numbers involved in this adventure, but there’s no pass/fail, other than the sense of wonder and the commitment to showing up every day.

Showing up is key. It’s loving what you’re doing even if it’s hard. Especially if it’s hard. Deep down, you know if it’s worth it or not. When it’s not time to give up. Figuring out how to make things you didn’t know how to make—out of wonder, not a deadline, not for money—is a lot of fun. Reading books you haven’t read, just because you wonder what they’re about. Writing about things you don’t know about, just because you like to ask questions. This blog? So not a goal. Neil Gaiman wrote, “I write to find out what I think.” As much as it’s anything, I think that’s what this is. There’s no schedule, no need to have anyone know who I am. I never know who will ever read it. It’s just about the doing… and it all just makes me so much happier, holding all these things lightly, with no end goal. No pass/fail. It’s just curiosity and wonder and play.

One is the Loveliest Number: A Side Note on Happiness

Whatever you want to call them, these personal goals, wonderings, etc., they always start with you. Only you. They don’t need to end with only you, but they have to start there. They can’t include requiring anyone else to do something. That way lies madness. Because, hypothetically, if your grand idea is to sit on a beach eating Blue Moon ice cream with Bob, you’re involving Bob, and Bob may not even like Blue Moon ice cream. Or sand. Of course it’s possible Bob loves all of those things—and you—too. So it’s worth a shot to ask Bob, “I wonder what would happen if… ?“ and if Bob thinks it’s a great idea, then Bob can make it his idea, too. Then you have two people with the same idea. Not one person with a goal for two people—this is important. Because if you keep insisting to Bob that he needs to be out on that beach in order to be happy, Bob may ask you to stop contacting him, and if you continue to call him and drive over to his house and leave packages of travel brochures on his doorstep, this is not going to be helpful. Trust me. If Bob isn’t so keen on the sand, grab your own ice cream and go. You’ll be fine. And happy. You can only choose your own adventures and do your own thing. And who knows who else you’ll meet out there…

So anyway, for what it’s worth, maybe it could be interesting to take a look at where you’re heading and wonder if you’re going somewhere you really want to go. Not just what sounds good or normal. Maybe play around with giving up on normal for once. Maybe experiment in wonder.

Wonder about making something or climbing something or singing something or reading or writing or lifting or painting or sewing or gluing or dancing or… something. Even just for a few minutes a day.

It’s so much more fun than making goals.

Categories: From the Imagination | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Radio Meditation: Music Lessons in Impermanence

So here in the Twin Cities we have this brilliant radio station, 89.3 The Current. (You can stream it here if you’re not a local.) It’s a Minnesota Public Radio station, which means yes, pledge drives every once in a while, but all the hosts/DJs are great, and consequently there’s loads less advertising than other stations. But the best thing about it is (as it should be) the music. And the best thing about the music (for me) is that it’s unpredictable.

Because what’s great is that I don’t even like all of the music, which you’d think would be completely counterintuitive, but this is what makes it so fantastic—the element of surprise. Most of the time, if we’re choosing to do anything, our first preference is to pick something we expect to like so that we won’t get surprises, won’t get stuff we might not like. Love Oldies stuff? Find an Oldies station and settle in. Like Country? Just scan the dial. With most stations, you pretty much know what to expect. We tend to pick based on familiarity. It’s comfortable.

But the only thing I’ve learned to expect from The Current is the surprise—and they pride themselves on it. In addition to some of the more “normal” fare you’d expect from a pretty much all-ages-friendly station, the hosts have this deep and diabolical love of throwing new/random/weird stuff your way from pretty much every genre imaginable, though they do tend to skip the realms of Classical (there’s another MPR station for that) and stuff like German death metal (which is admittedly fantastic, but not really a public radio sort of thing). But they will often say, “If you don’t like the song that’s on right now, wait five minutes.” And they’re right. It’ll be something completely different. Don’t like Johnny Cash? The next track might be Johnny Rotten. Still not your favorite? Wait five minutes.

This is just the radio, sure. But this is also life. Constant change. Every moment is new. If I don’t like this particular part of my life right now? Wait a bit, play my part while whatever it is plays through—it will change. And if I like what’s playing right now? Yes, in a while, that will change, too. We’re more than seven billion people here trying to make music out of our lives, and the harmony and dissonance of that changes every single moment. And when it comes down to it, I know I’m not completely in control of my playlist anyway—only how I respond to the songs I’m hearing. The practice of being really alive is just to pay attention to each song as it plays, engage with it, see what it’s about, what it contains, what you can learn. And then decide what to do with it.

In another setting, this sort of observation could actually be called Zen Buddhist meditation practice, noticing the impermanence, the constant change, of life, the universe, and everything. That would be done in silence, and you would be sitting and noticing the thoughts showing up in your mind—what you like, what you don’t like, where you get stuck. Your job there is just to notice your response to life.

But the practice of noticing life doesn’t have to look exactly like that. So sometimes I use The Current for a somewhat unorthodox meditation practice. What’s this song? Do I like it? Am I itching to change the station? Why? Why does Justin Vernon’s voice bug me so much? And why does my whole body relax when my ears hear even just the very first notes of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand?” And when are they going to play that Courtney Barnett song again? (The one I really like, not that other one…) And I get it, I get it, he was magnificently talented, but really… 24 hours of Prince?

And so I listen to the radio sometimes to find out what I’m like. I notice feeling like I really hate a song, but then I realize the guitarist has really great technique, and also notice someone made that guitar with great care, and those strings, and the piano, and somebody really loves that lead singer who’s really just trying to put his soul out into the world through his music. By the time I’ve considered all of that, I realize I hate that song a lot less than I did five minutes ago. There are people in there now. And it’s really unpredictable, because one day, after hearing a song I didn’t like from someone I consider more celebrity than musician, I read that she’s locked inside this soulless performance contract, and I actually found myself feeling sorry for her. So now every time I hear that song, I just feel sad.

This is a weird practice.

But my most favorite things are the songs I never saw coming, that I never knew existed, that come on the air and I realize halfway through the track that I’m grinning madly (Ursula 1000’s “Mambo”) or notice that my jaw is dropped open because wow, who even thought this could be a thing? (Like seriously: Sturgill Simpson covering Nirvana’s “In Bloom?”) Or the slow recognition of the sideways genius in Father John Misty’s “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the War.” If I actually controlled my own playlist, I would never have chosen these songs, and my life would be massively less fun than it is now. There’s just so much great music out there I don’t even know about, and I can’t wait to hear more of it. (Of note: listen for the “No Apologies” track around 4pm every day and wait for the crazy to roll in.) I still smile remembering one dreary afternoon when I was driving home and they played Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized.” I was laughing so hard by the time the song ended. There were no words for this—well, okay, there were words: “All I wanted was a Pepsi… ”

This is life for real, the big picture: it’s a surprise, and it can be way more fun than what you had planned. You’re not in control anyway. So enjoy yourself, make good music, notice the people making all the music around you. Welcome the surprises. And practice paying attention—even if it’s just listening to the radio.

Categories: From the Imagination, In the Ears, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Apples & Oranges

First, here is an apple.
It is smooth and red.
It is heart-shaped.
You can bite right into it.
Its skin crunches, yielding quickly to your teeth.
It is firm. It is crisp.
Good job, apple.

Now, here is an orange.
It is not smooth. It is not red.
It is not heart-shaped.
You cannot bite right into it.
It makes you work to get what you want.
It is not firm. It is not crisp.
Bad job, orange.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Teddy Roosevelt

Poor orange. I’ve been thinking about him for days and I still feel sorry for him, hoping he will never, ever read this. And I’ve had this constant urge to go out and buy some oranges and just reassure them, tell them, “No, really, you’re all beautiful.” (And then eat them, savoring them joyfully, as is the natural order of things.)

Comparison is useful—but it’s not enough. It’s discernment that brings some wisdom to the picture, showing what’s most true, most important. It’s good to be able to tell things apart. But you need to know what a thing truly is, not just how it’s different from what’s around it. (Like when you’re standing in the bathroom and you want to brush your teeth, it’s important to know which long-handled white plastic stick with the bristles on the end you actually need, because there’s a big difference between a toothbrush and a toilet scrubber.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this for awhile and it was just a good reminder, if only to myself, to look at everything for what it is—not what it isn’t.

Categories: From the Imagination, In the Lexicon | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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