New Bells


True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest of creating things new.                     – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

It couldn’t have been earlier than 2007. I remember standing on the deck – probably in the middle of some mindless, mundane chore – but I don’t remember what prompted the thought. After a quick mental calculation, I would have arrived at the number five: five more years until my son turned 21. I had to live five more years, and after that, I didn’t care.

It wasn’t a suicidal thought, but one borne of weariness. I was tired of never daring to look more than two steps ahead, tired of my wife’s seemingly endless crises, and tired of pretending it was all going to work out somehow, knowing full well it could only end in catastrophe. I was tired of my English cultural heritage: muddling through somehow, keeping the stiff upper lip. I was tired of being who my wife needed me to be rather than who I was. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that the burdens of decisions, consequences, and responsibility were all on my shoulders.

I was tired of living. Though I didn’t realize it, I had become terribly fatalistic, thinking and acting as though I were merely following the script in some American tragedy, trudging along toward a foregone conclusion. There were fleeting moments of happiness, all the more noticeable for their rarity, but on the whole, I was sleepwalking. I worked hard at my job, because that’s my nature, played nursemaid when my wife was ill, which was often, and whenever possible, I escaped into computer games, writing, and music. The world of my imagination was more real than the one I could touch.

Fast forward to today, and you see a different person. For the first time in my existence, I know the experience of feeling happy to be alive. I am learning to appreciate the passage of time. I’m beginning to realize the scope of my free will, and am a little awed by it. I’ve gained confidence; I’m about to write my own script by relocating halfway across the continent and starting a new chapter in my life.

And this dramatic change, this renewal and expansion of life, this resurrection, can all be attributed to one person: my Muse.

As related elsewhere, I met her two years ago today. A few weeks into our friendship, in a fit of frustration, she called herself an “anti-muse” because all of her writer friends were spending more time talking to her than creating.  To prove to her how wrong she was, I started calling her my Muse.  This wasn’t just to irritate her; she really does make me a better artist.  But what I didn’t realize at the time was that she is not only an inspiration for art, she is an inspiration for living. As time has passed, she has moved from being my artistic Muse to being my life Muse.

I’m not the only one who benefits from her ability to engender a joy of living. Her husband and children are blessed with her presence every day, and her friends are continuously recharged and strengthened by her seemingly inexhaustible energy. She loves to laugh, and her chief joy in life is making others do the same, as evidenced by her blog. She’s one of those people who light up a room. She’s a bracing combination of charm, wit, and blunt honesty. She’s the best friend you’ll ever have – if you can handle it.

The other day, a curious thought struck me: my Muse is an artist of humanity. She gently – and sometimes not so gently, if you’re close to her – influences those around her. Her medium is the emotions, and she creates joy, laughter, and love in the world. In truth, she is a light in the darkness, and I thank God that I met her. She raised me from the dead.





The perception of beauty is a moral test.     – Henry David Thoreau

Mine is not a lazy Muse. She is ever challenging me to re-evaluate my beliefs – some of them long held as fact – on such things as the purpose of art, human nature, and especially beauty. It would be easier if I were a lazy artist: she wouldn’t give me the time of day, and I could continue to suck my thumb in my little cocoon of self-indulgence. But no, she wants me to be the best I can be, even if that means turning my back on the supposed sagacity of 50 years experience.

Nothing is safe. Not my music, not my writing, not my poetry, not even my perceptions. It’s not as though she tells me what to think; it’s just that she has this damnable knack for pointing out inconsistencies and baseless assumptions. And she’s very compelling. This re-examination can be painful, but it’s always very necessary. It will never end, because like my art, I’m a work in progress. It’s the price I pay for having the best muse in the world.

The concept of beauty is, understandably, central to artistic endeavors. And I thought I had a solid grasp of that concept, an intuitive feel. I thought of myself as a cosmic interpreter. The shiver I felt when listening to certain strains of music, the fixation on a particular painting, the soothing sense of rightness on a cool, clear day; I thought all of these were clear indications that I was in the presence of beauty, and not just beauty specific to me, but a generalization that should apply to the entire planet, if not the universe.

I saw beauty, yes, but beauty glimpsed through a pinhole in the heavy, black curtain of unwarranted pride. As if I had some special vision. As if my reactions to music, art, style, or fashion were somehow superior to those of my fellows. I hate elitism, and judgmental attitudes, and when I find those in myself, I feel a particularly acute sense of failure.

Which brings us to the tattoo. Until recently, I have viewed tattoos with something akin to repulsion. A harsh word, but unfortunately true, especially given the fact that at least one of my close friends and several acquaintances have them. Inside, I scoffed at the notion that they could be art, and questioned the motives that would compel someone to mark their body thus. Motive is a very big deal to me, and I was certain that theirs had to be less than pure. Pride, presumption, judgment; I had it all.

Then my Muse cracked the shell of my certainty, and a friend got her kale tattoo.

My friend is more than a little obsessed with kale. Had she been born a few thousand years earlier, I have no doubt she would be the high priestess of a kale cult, the gardens of her temple laid out with geometric precision. So when she told me she was going to get a tattoo of her favorite plant, I tried not to visibly wince, and thought, “That figures.”

But even in my pre-Muse days, I think I would have had to admit that, as tattoos go, hers is classy. It’s patterned after a botanical illustration, and the ink is dark, and for some reason, those qualities appeal to me. I find it aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful. But the most beautiful thing about it is how happy it makes her, and therein lies the motive I have no authority or right to judge.

Do I still believe there is a generalized concept of beauty, perhaps beauty as defined by God? I do, and unapologetically so. What has changed is that I no longer believe I have exclusive insight into that vision. If I truly desire to find and appreciate beauty, I have to step outside my own limited viewpoint. By endeavoring to see through the eyes of others, to understand their perspective, I not only draw closer to my fellows, but I also expand my capacity for and enjoyment of beauty.

Into the Unknown

Into the Unknown


Life is lived on the edge.     – Will Smith

Evidently, I’m having my mid-life crisis; that’s the phrase my ex-wife used anyway, and although we obviously disagree on many things, she may have a point.  No, I’m not buying a red sports car and/or running off with a woman half my age; I don’t have the liquidity for either of those dalliances.

But I am starting over.  At 51.

I moved to Portland, Oregon from southwest Missouri in the summer of 1985, looking for new experiences and new perspectives.  I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t have a clue what the future held for me.  That was part of the allure.

Now, I’m doing it again.  In June, I’ll be moving to Austin, Texas.  To those who’ve wondered at my reasons, I’ve said that I need a change and I need a new adventure, and that’s largely the truth of it.  But I suspect there’s something more.

I suspect I’m keeping my edge, or at least seeking to maintain it for as long as possible.  I have to move because to stay still is tantamount to surrender – surrender to age, to expectations, and to the norm – and I’m not ready for that yet.  Complacency poisons creativity.  It stunts one’s growth.  A certain amount of uncertainty and instability is necessary to truly live.

I have to push myself into the unknown.  I’ve always loved the experience of discovery, of finding out what’s over both the literal and figurative horizon.  When I was a kid, I would go on expeditions, exploring the countryside for miles around our farm.  I made crude maps to show where I’d been, always wondering what lay beyond the boundary of my drawing, what was on the other side of that hill where I had turned around.  I’m about to find out.

It’s scary setting off into the blank spaces at the limits of my map, but the only way to discover what’s out there is to make that first step.  I’m not without a compass. I have my reference points, my stars in the sky: my Muse, my son, my mom, my friends past, present, and future.  There may be monsters out there, and there may be saints; I may have to wrestle with my own demons.  But only through the experience of exploration can I learn and grow.  Life is, after all, an adventure.

You Think YOU’VE Got it Bad



Shut it; this isn’t about you.     – Becca (

My Muse is very ill right now.  Even though she looks great, she sounds like one of those actors on a flu-remedy commercial: hoarse, stuffy, and sneezing, with a hacking cough.  Unlike those actors, she has the decency to blow her nose off-screen.

She’s one of the toughest people I know, and at the same time one of the sweetest, which is a hard balance to maintain.  She’s the type who eschews sympathy, and thinks that anything less than pneumonia is no big deal.  So when she posts a Facebook status admitting that she’s sick, those of us who know her take notice: her husband plans the quickest way to get to the ER, her nearby friends make sure someone will be available to drive her there, and her faraway friends, like me, calculate how much it will cost to fly out and visit her in the ICU.

Those other people – the ones who apparently don’t know her very well – feel inspired to list their own ailments in Facebook comments, a sort of crud-upmanship.  Following a perfunctory “Aww”, they proceed to tell us how bad they’ve got it.  After reading a couple of these, I was tempted to trump them all by posting something like: “Sorry you’re not feeling well.  I’ve been terribly ill for the last 4 months, and my phlegm looks like pistachio pudding.  I coughed so much that my wife left me and my bladder gave out and I peed myself and shorted out the electric blanket and burned down the house.  Hope I get better soon.”  Fearing I might lose both my readers, I resisted the urge.

But really, what is it that compels people to do this?  Are they looking for sympathy?  Are they threatened by the idea that someone may be suffering more than they are?  Maybe they think they’re trying to connect or empathize, but there’s no getting around the fact that they’re talking more about themselves than the person they’re supposedly empathizing with.  What they need to do is simply wish my Muse a speedy recovery, and then go write their own status.

The Louisburg Picnic



Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left.     – Victor Hugo

From the time I was 5 until I was 18, I lived about one and a half miles outside the small Missouri town of Louisburg.  During most of the time I lived there, it had a lumber yard, a gas station, and a general store.  All of those are closed now.  During my youth, the population dropped from 200 to 175 to 150.  Now it’s 122.

But once a year, the Louisburg Picnic – technically called the Old Settler’s Reunion – still occurs.  When I was a kid, I would get very excited about the Picnic.  There were carnival rides, booths and games, fair food, and everyone in the surrounding area was there.  It was quite the big deal, even magical.

It started in 1890, when the original settlers of that region would gather to catch up on each other, remember old times, and eat.  My dad told me that he had once met an elderly woman who talked about going to the Reunion in a covered wagon, camping overnight with her family and the other settlers.

I went to the Picnic with my friend and her daughter last Friday, and we had a good time.  We ate fish sandwiches and ice cream, we played Bingo, we rode one of the rides – which made both my friend and myself so dizzy we staggered around a bit.  We listened to a little bit of live country music, what my dad would call Honky Tonk.

And while I couldn’t quite recapture the magic of my youth, there was a clarity to the air that was, at least, enchanting.  It had rained during the day, taking down the humidity.  My friend and I were amazed that we could see the water towers all the way over in Buffalo: a thing unheard of.

It could be argued that the old-timers in their wagons had a better appreciation of reunion than we of the present, that the spirit in which they started the Picnic has been lost.  Here in this place where they cooked over campfires, we’re taking pictures with our smartphones.  I can see the rationale of that argument, but I disagree.  Louisburg may be dying, but the spirit is still there, largely dormant until those few days in July.  The trappings may have changed, but still we gather year after year, seeking to reconnect and remember, just as I have with my dear friend.




Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.     – C. S. Lewis

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending time with a friend I haven’t seen for about 26 years.  We knew each other from our mid-teens into our early twenties, and then our paths diverged.  When I think of her, I think of someone I grew up with; someone with whom I shared the discoveries and the challenges that go along with coming of age.  We are connected that way.

I’m glad our paths have converged again.  She’s one of those friends you can see after years of separation and feel no awkwardness at all about taking in a full body hug.  A lot of water has flowed under Lindley Creek Bridge, but you couldn’t tell it by our conversation.  We spent a whole day catching up on life histories, discussing philosophy, music, relationships, religion, movies, and anything else that flowed into the stream of our shared minds.  And the whole time, there was that basic sense of respect and comfort that can only be felt in the company of a true friend.

It was also my pleasure to spend time with her 20 year old daughter, with whom I seemed to have an instant rapport.  The three of us went to the Louisburg Picnic (more on that in my next post), and on our way back, my friend was kind enough to drive by the old farm where I grew up.  We were riding in her aunt’s beat-up old pickup, with “3 on the tree” and an antique, dust-encrusted Pioneer stereo cassette that probably hadn’t functioned since the last century.  As we rumbled down the road to get gas, I felt compelled to text my Muse and tell her how much fun I was having.  Part of the text said, “Her daughter is a delight.”  I showed it to my friend’s daughter and said, “See, I’m saying good things about you.”

The daughter’s face lit up, and her grin was huge.  “I’m a delight!  No one’s ever said that before.”

Her mom shook her head and said something like, “We’re never going to hear the end of this.”

After gassing up the truck, we bounced down back roads, over a rise that I was assured was great for stargazing, past a spot where drunken sunflower rustling has occurred, and on to the daughter’s house, where she retrieved a deer-hunting version of Monopoly.

The next couple of hours were spent drinking wine, eating junk food, and slowly being driven out of the deer-hunting business by the daughter, who made both her mother and I paupers.  Cheerfully ruthless, she took everything, including my favorite deer rifle and my camouflage cell phone cover.  Well, she wanted to anyway.

During the course of this massacre, my friend’s aunt stopped by to bring us chocolate and junk food.  In our younger years, my friend and I had spent many evenings at this woman’s house, so I knew her well.  The day before, the three of us had drank a bottle of mead while catching up, sitting outside in the afternoon heat at a table under an umbrella.  Leaning over to the daughter, I said, “Aren’t you going to tell your aunt what you found out about yourself today?”

“Oh yeah!  I’m a delight!”

My friend’s aunt shook her head in disbelief, and without batting an eye, said, “What dumbass told you that?

I burst out laughing, and jostling the aunt on the shoulder said, “I’ve really missed you.”

Separation isn’t all bad, because without it, there could be no reunion.




Home is any four walls that enclose the right person.     – Helen Rowland

Every day I pass them on my bike – the people without a fixed home.  They sleep under overpasses, or trees, or in unseen clearings at the end of trails beaten through the tall grass.  Some are alone and suspicious, almost feral.  Others are gregarious, laughing with their fellows over a shared cigarette.  Some are dirty.  A few have cell phones.

Or I see their debris: junk food wrappers and containers, an amazing amount of discarded clothing, grungy blankets and sleeping bags.

I can only imagine, and that not too well, what their lives must be like.  It’s like trying to put myself in the shoes of my students who come from poverty-ridden neighborhoods; it’s such a foreign experience that I can’t appreciate their perspective.  I may imagine little bits and pieces of that experience, but that’s nothing like living it day in and day out.

And what is a home?  A structure?  A family?  A place and group to which one belongs?  Do any of us have a fixed abode, or are we all transients?  The people I pass on my bike change homes on a daily basis.  Some of my students change residence several times a year, bouncing between evictions, foster families, and parents with poor coping skills.  Many of us stay in the same place for years, and a few remain in the same house for a lifetime.  But even they must eventually move on.

The house in which I currently reside is not my home.  The foreclosure process has started, and it’s only a matter of time before I must move out.  Even if it were otherwise, it’s not my home.  But that doesn’t put me on a par with the people living off the Springwater Trail.

I’m writing these words – longhand – at 30,000 feet, above the clouds somewhere over Kansas or Oklahoma.  I’m listening to music stored on my new smartphone, through sound-cancelling headphones, miffed because American Airlines charges for access to their wi-fi, and I need a synonym for “debilitated” that isn’t so harsh.  I’m sipping my complimentary cran-apple cocktail, and have discovered that the plastic cup has a tiny hole in it, which is why I keep dribbling on myself.  These are the problems of the moment for me.  Even though I rode a bus to the airport and am flying economy, I’m living like royalty compared to much of the world.

I’m bound for Dallas, TX, where I’ll have a one hour layover before flying on to Springfield, MO, where I was born.  I’ll stay with my mom.  I’ll stay with my dad and his wife.  I’ll reconnect with friends, one of whom I haven’t seen or heard from for about a quarter century.  I’ll visit aunts and uncles, stooped with age and infirmities, a grim reminder of what awaits us all.  I’ve arranged to revisit the creek where I used to find so many fossils as a boy.

I’m going back to Missouri, but I’m not going home.  I learned years ago that the old saying is true: You can never go back.  Everything changes, including me.

There’s another old saying: Home is where the heart is.  That one is true as well.