Friday, November 13, 2015

The Wayfaring Life

It may have been the author Ernest Hemingway who coined the phrase “a moveable feast” for the title of his memoir but it can also apply to what I am calling “the wayfaring life,” or the journey on which Linda and I have been since selling our house and furnishings almost five years ago. To quote the German architect, Rohde-Liebenau, “Just as we ourselves have become mobile, we must have movable possessions.”

Since that fateful day a neighbor’s tree landed on the roof of our beloved cottage, home has become more a state of being than a fixed address for us. And our journey has been as much a spiritual and philosophical one as a physical and structural one. As writer Tom Robbins is quoted as saying, “Any half-awake materialist well knows that which you hold holds you.”

To bring readers up to date on our continually evolving journey, an opportunity too-good-to-pass-up has befallen us in the form of an invitation from a relative to lease a charming cottage [including furniture and utilities] for the winter on the coast of Maine. While we had entertained notions of settling here in Middle Tennessee for the foreseeable future, the prospect of needing to procure more furnishings as a result weighed on us, and so the journey continues!

During our monastic retreat this summer I came upon some insightful thoughts in a library book titled Wayfaring: A Gospel Journey in Everyday Life by Margaret Silf. As she writes, “Ways are made very simply. We don’t have to accomplish some feat of heavy engineering. All we have to do is put one foot in front of the other, and walk them...It is an invitation to become a wayfarer, who, simply by walking the way alongside the One who is the Way, and in loving relationship with fellow wayfarers, will also become a waymaker for others.”

And lest the author’s intentions be misinterpreted, she reminds readers, “This is a pilgrimage journey, not a tourist outing. It is a journey that changes the traveler, a process that shapes the soul in ways we cannot predict. In my diary I have a slip of paper with the following text: ‘The future is not some place we are going to but one we are creating. The paths to it are not found but made, and the making of those pathways changes both the maker and the destination.’” For those wondering how we merry wayfarers are faring, all I can say is that we are enjoying the moveable feast.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Learning From the Shakers

Linda and I recently returned from a wonderful two-week vacation in New England and one of the highlights of our journey was a visit to the last community of Shakers, a grand total of two women and one man, located on a bucolic village farm called Chosen Land in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. I even had the opportunity to chat briefly with the lone male, Brother Arnold Hadd, whom I had corresponded with earlier.

Shakers are often confused with Quakers, from whom they are descended but who may marry, and the Amish, who eschew modern technology to live separate from the world. Yet even as Shakers embrace technological tools, their future existence is limited by their celibate lifestyle to converts from the outside world. Suffice it to say that they have their work cut out for them.

In her book God Among the Shakers: A Search for Stillness and Faith at Sabbathday Lake, author Suzanne Skees also visits the Maine Shaker Village and writes: “Current society loves what we perceive as the simple, pure life of Shakers because it stands in stark contrast to everything we have become.” In other words, people settle for admiring the Shaker lifestyle rather than adopting it.

And she continues, “Shakers seemed beyond the reach of attachment, while we other Americans lived immersed in material goods that lost their value almost as soon as they were acquired, scrambling in a flurry of activity that amounted to less than nothing at death.” As the Shakers love to sing, “Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free.” That is simply the truth.

Finally she concludes: “Our entire culture has been built upon the material. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ usually means money, property, food, and romance—the whole lot of which the Shakers have tossed out their two-hundred-year-old farmhouse window.” While converts to the Shaker lifestyle may be lacking, the rest of us could stand to learn from their simple ways of being and operating in the world.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Life Is But a Dream

We may be landlocked here in Middle Tennessee, but I am in a nautical frame of mind, as Linda and I are planning our upcoming vacation to the New England coast, our very favorite place to visit. And while I was preparing this post I was reminded of the nursery school rhyme we all learned as children: “Row, row, row your boat, Gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but a dream.”

Not all of life is dreamy, of course, but what I’d like to think this rhyme is about is adopting a merrier attitude as we row our boat called life. And one way to travel “gently down the stream,” as the song says, is to pack lightly. Paula Wallace, co-founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design, puts it this way: “The allure of travel lies in the freedom of a suitcase—taking only what one needs and leaving room for serendipity.”

And in her book Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter author Elaine St. James shares this fun quote attributed to the cleverly named Jerome Klapka Jerome: “Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need—a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink, for thirst is a dangerous thing.”

Personally, I could do without the cat and dog, or even the pipes, but I agree with the rest of Jerome’s pithy perspective. The lighter we travel through life, the less baggage we need to lug with us. By keeping it simple, we save ourselves the trouble of toting more than we need on our journey, which any veteran traveller will tell you is the key to enjoying the trip from here to there. Remember, hearses are the great equalizer between the haves and the have-nots. Living lightly on earth helps prepare us for the hereafter.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Lease of Life

As I mentioned in the interview with the New American Dream Center linked to a couple postings ago, Linda and I love how the leasing lifestyle allows us to fix our overhead costs, especially when it comes to big-ticket items such as housing and transportation. So in the meantime we returned our Nissan Altima a couple months ahead of the lease expiration to lease a Nissan Rogue [pictured here]. Suffice it to say that we enjoy driving a fully warrantied vehicle that costs us less than owning one.

And vehicles are not the only parts of our lives that are leased. If you think about it, our very lives are leased, or on loan in other words. Once my wife and I realized that truth we got a new lease on our lives in the form of freedom from conventional thinking. Until we are challenged to change our minds about things, none of us are likely to live the type of life we dream about. Leasing is one result of rethinking our lives.

As another example, during our retreat last month at the nearby monastery we learned that the monks work part-time in the mornings and are free to explore personal hobbies, such as printing and photography, for the rest of the day. One thing that stood out to me about the monks’ lifestyle is how apparently content they are living so simply, with all their physical needs met and ample time to grow as people.

To the contrary, Margaret Silf writes of herself and a busy friend in Wayfaring: A Gospel Journey in Everyday Life: “We discovered something inside us that suggested we were only worthwhile, as human beings, if we were constantly pleasing people. We found that we felt guilty if, at the end of the day, we had nothing to show for our twenty-four hours’ lease of life. We realized that we felt that we were only entitled to occupy our little plot of earth on the condition that we earned our rental” [emphases mine].

There is much that is sad about the above quotation but I think it describes many of us at times, even to the point that we feel we need to justify our very existence. Let’s face it: there is something about a rainy day that sort of gives us permission to putter around the house, even when none is really needed. What will help us to overcome such faulty thinking is that while our lives are indeed on loan, we are designed to delight in them.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Retreat Reflections

My wife and I recently returned from a silent retreat to the oldest monastery in America, the Abbey of Gethsemani, located on Monks Road in Trappist, Kentucky. We heard of it last year after visiting the nearby, and also very quiet, Shaker Village, the largest restored such site in America and the place where the late monk and bestselling author Thomas Merton used to retreat to when the monastery got to be too much.

One detail worth sharing is that our retreat was over Independence Day weekend, which also happens to be just after our wedding anniversary, but before whisking my bride off to the monastery, we did spend a couple of nights at a nearby bed and breakfast to celebrate. For the record, we were allowed to communicate with each other, simply not publicly. While we understand the reasoning and we enjoyed the retreat overall, the enforced silence kept us from engaging with our fellow guests, which we found limiting.

Another quirk of our retreat experience was round the clock ritualization of all activities by, you guessed it, the omnipresent clock. Ironically, it was medieval monks who concocted clocks to regulate the routine of daily devotions at monasteries. And the unintended consequence of the innovation was that the very contraption designed to draw people toward the divine instead became the means used to manipulate life as we know it.

To that point, here is an excerpt from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: “In [Lewis] Mumford’s great book Technics and Civilization, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded.”

Postman adds, “With the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events. And thus, though few would have imagined the connection, the inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment; that is to say, the clock introduced a new form of conversation between man and God, in which God appears to have been the loser. Perhaps Moses should have included another Commandment: Thou shalt not make mechanical representations of time.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Redefining the Dream

More than five years ago a neighbor’s tree catapulted my wife and I toward a different lifestyle. As longtime readers may recall from my post titled “Celebrating Life,” the aforementioned tree [a massive water-logged oak] landed on the roof of our dream house and consequently launched us on our journey toward a minimalist mode of living. With this defining moment came the realization that we wanted to live less tethered to one place by trading our picket fence version of the American Dream for a more mobile one.

So we methodically pared down our possessions, including our carefully curated library of more than 1,000 books. And in less than a year we were blessed to sell our renovated home for cash at the asking price even in the depressed market of Central Florida. Since that time Linda and I have lived in some very special places, not the least of which is the antebellum mansion we call home here in historic Franklin, Tennessee. Without exception, everyone we have shared our story with has said how much it resonates with them, whether or not they are willing to try it themselves.

And thanks to the good people at the Center for a New American Dream, we are able to share our story with many others. As of yesterday, we are being featured in the latest installment of the center’s Living the Dream series under the heading of “Living Large With Less.” We are very proud to be a part of the center’s Redefining the Dream program, “inspiring, engaging, and challenging Americans to re-examine their cultural values on consumption and consumerism and initiating a new national conversation around what ‘the good life’ and the ‘American dream’ mean.”

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Path of Least Persistence

It has been said that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. And I know from personal experience as well as observing the lives of others that the same can be said of the creative process. Whether or not we are willing to admit it, “the best laid plans of mice and men” often come to naught if we are not willing to press past the resistance to creativity. So I have identified at least three characteristics that pave the path of least persistence: perfectionism, procrastination and people pleasing.

Of the three, I think the most insidious one is people pleasing, because it masquerades as a positive attribute but corrodes our relationships and contributes to the other two issues. Chances are that if we strive to please people it also will lead to procrastination and perfectionism, which feed off each other as well. All three are part of a negative feedback loop that threaten to mire all of us—but especially creative types—in the paralysis of analysis, and result in a state of inertia.

In an effort to create art, whether through writing, photography, music or another medium, it can be tempting to procrastinate in the form of “waiting for the muse,” but that is a recipe for regrets. And insisting on perfection before releasing our art into the wild is likewise not helpful. We may fancy ourselves geniuses but unless we reach our audiences we are simply legends in our own minds. As the saying goes, if no one is following our leading, then we are simply out for a stroll.

So what are the antidotes to people pleasing, procrastination and perfectionism? I have found that affirmation, action and acceptance help to counter each of these enemies to the creative process. Affirmation from loved ones inoculates us from the need to please other people. Our action by very definition neutralizes the power of procrastination. And the acceptance of progress rather than perfection saves us from striving after an impossible ideal. Only by defining success on our terms can we truly succeed.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Pocket Supercomputer

I don’t have many regrets in life but a professional one is that I opted not to cover the unveiling of the original iPhone [pictured from my archives] for my journalism clientele despite being in the area. My wife and I were new Apple devotees and wanted to visit San Francisco, so to celebrate my birthday that year we flew from Florida to California to attend the annual MacWorld convention, where then Apple chief Steve Jobs was doing the honors.

There were actually a couple of good reasons I didn't attend the festivities that historic morning. For starters, I wasn’t keen on waiting outside for hours in the pre-dawn chilly weather [a record cold snap hit the area] and I didn’t want to leave Linda back at the hotel to navigate the several blocks to the convention center by herself. But had I realized how historic an event it was I might have been more motivated. The iPhone is the biggest selling electronic device in history, with better than 700 MILLION sold to date, or more than twice the population of America, and it has revolutionized life as we know it.

Venture into public almost anywhere across America, or the world for that matter, and you are likely to find a multitude, if not a majority, of people using the almost ubiquitous smartphone. The iPhone has become so popular that people forget the sophisticated technological breakthroughs it introduced, including touchscreen navigation among others that we now take for granted. It is no exaggeration to consider it the original pocket supercomputer.

No less than renowned venture capitalist Marc Andreessen is quoted as saying so in the recently released book Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. “That iPhone sitting in your pocket is the exact equivalent of a Cray XMP supercomputer from twenty years ago that used to cost ten million dollars. It’s got the same operating system software, the same processing speed, the same data storage, compressed down to a six-hundred-dollar device. That is the breakthrough Steve achieved. That’s what these phones really are!”

According to an article by Joshua Brustein in a recent issue of Bloomburg Business titled “Inside RadioShack’s Slow-Motion Collapse,” “The cell phone also helped kill the rest of the retailer’s business by destroying the market for so many of the gadgets RadioShack used to sell, such as voice recorders, GPS devices, answering machines, and camcorders. Early last year, Steve Cichon, a writer for the website Trending Buffalo, sifted through a RadioShack ad from 1991 and found that his iPhone had negated any need for 13 of the 15 products being sold. The listed price on those items: $3,054.82.” Supercomputer indeed.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Our Sense of Belonging(s)

My wife and I just returned from visiting our families in Florida during our annual migration to thaw out from the winter weather here in Tennessee. It was a good trip overall but not one without its own need for relational thawing. Suffice it to say that while we may be part of our respective families, we do not always feel extremely close to them. Linda was the late arriving baby in her family and I was adopted into mine so each of us occasionally feel like outsiders at a party to which we were belatedly invited.

Adding to our sense of detachment in life is the radical downsizing we embarked upon a few years ago, whereby we not only sold our beloved home but the bulk of our possessions also. We may not regret the move but it has been a monumental one nonetheless, a fact often downplayed or dismissed by loved ones. Despite giving many of our very favorite items to family and friends, some fail to appreciate the act of sacrifice it represents, no matter the love behind it.

Belonging can refer to a possession or a feeling and I think the two are interrelated. As Lucinda Fleeson writes, “That’s why we call them belongings, because they give us a sense of belonging to something when we’ve left behind one life and have no compass to guide us through the next.” Belonging is in the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and as such serves as the link between being and becoming. Here physiological and safety needs may be met but self-esteem and self-actualization hinge on one’s sense of belonging.

While our stuff is not meant to define us it may yield clues to what we find meaningful. Oprah Winfrey popularized the term “favorite things” and thinking about ours can be a helpful exercise in identifying what we value. For example, what would you try to rescue in the event of a fire? Or want to pack on a dream vacation? Or be marooned with on a deserted island? All of these are ways of selecting some of our favorite things.

I created a digital file of pictures representing several of my favorite things in addition to a thorough inventory of all our belongings. The process was not only a fun exercise, but also helpful preparation for an emergency. Many people do not even realize all they own and therefore often buy unnecessary duplicates of things, only adding to their accumulated clutter. But once you identify what belongs in your life and what does not, whether people or possessions, you are better positioned to move forward in your life, both physically and emotionally.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Phones, Drones and Automobiles

A summary of trends from the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that I read in USA Today identified the very issues I planned to blog about so I thought I’d share some of them here. Trend Five is “Don’t Ever Lose Your Smartphone” because so much other tech is tethered to it. Trend Three is “Drones Are Kind of a Big Deal” because like it or not flying robots are here to stay. And Trend One is “Cars Drive You” because self-driving cars are moving ever closer to reality.

In a play off the popular holiday movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” I am titling this post “Phones, Drones and Automobiles.” Each of these technologies offers not only a promising upside but also a pernicious downside that we need to reckon with before we all plunge headlong into using them without exercising due diligence. Some personal exposure to the downside of each of these technologies has caused me to pause and reflect about their respective uses.

I must admit that I love my smartphone but thoughtless use by people so addicted to the device’s charms that they can’t keep themselves from abusing it is downright scary. From distracted driving to sexting selfies, many people apparently think they are the center of the cosmos and act accordingly. For example, selfish people have so spoiled the theatre experience for my wife and I that we have all but quit going to movies and other public gatherings. Even church has become a chore.

As for drones, Linda and I encountered one at, of all places, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin, the site of some of the Civil War’s bloodiest fighting. The event featured a grand illumination of 10,000 lights to remember the fallen and yet hovering overhead during much of the evening was, you guessed it, an annoyingly buzzing drone. It was ostensibly there to document the event but it had the effect of dampening the experience for us.

And when it comes to self-driving cars, I can’t help thinking of the law of unintended consequences and the resulting chaos that such vehicles are likely to cause on our roadways. Personally, I am hoping that they receive as unwelcome a reception as Google glasses and Segway transporters, both of which may have been promising in theory but unpopular in reality. Technology is only as intelligent as its users and unless we can harness our humanity to serve the greater good it is an exercise in futility.