Inspire and Be Inspired

Head on over to the new davecenker.com, sign up to be a member of my author community, receive a free award-winning short story and continue the conversation! See you there!

DaveJen-BannerOne thousand days ago (hey, it just sounds better than 2 years, 8 months, and 26 days) I remember sitting down with a guitar resting on my knee.

Those malformed chords I was strumming were messy sounding, but the chord it struck inside me was perfectly in tune. I remember thinking … I should start a blog. It came out of the blue, and I wasn’t sure why I vocalized that thought. I had written less than a total of 500 creative words up to that point in my life.

If someone would have told me way back then that I would be composing this post today, I would have surely let out an involuntary chuckle beneath my breath. It’s not that I wouldn’t have wanted to be here, but I have this way of starting different things (lots of them) only to have them collect metaphorical dust as the initial excitement fizzles out along with my passion for it.

And yet, a thousand days and just a few more than five hundred words later, I compose this post with an anxious yet excited heartbeat. This will be my last post at this blog site. That’s the sad part, for me at least. This little corner of the blogosphere has been a sort of virtual private sanctuary for me to discover and share insights, thoughts, and stories with each and every one of you.

The exciting news – again, for me at least, and hopefully for you too – is that my writing will continue forward with as much, if not more passion than I have had up until this point. Today, I am launching my new author-centric website at www.davecenker.com.

For those of you that have been following along with me on this journey over the past three years, you will know my tagline by heart – inspire and be inspired.

Second ChanceI’ve written personal essays, flash fiction, short stories, and even a novella up until this point. During NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this past November, I set an ambitious goal to write my first novel, uncertain where that lofty ambition would land me. 50,000+ words and several personal revisions later, I have a draft of my first novel, Second Chance, that I am now ready to pass over to my editor. My plan is to have it published sometime later this year.

In an effort to build an author platform, I have migrated my online presence to www.davecenker.com. Along with promotion and news on the release of my first novel, I will be offering flash fiction, short stories, book reviews, and the occasional dip into non-fiction.

I have a feeling that pressing the publish button on this post is going to be more difficult than any I have pressed up until this point in my writing life. But, if you’re reading this, I suppose that I’ve been successful in overcoming that small hurdle.

I want to sincerely thank each and every one of you for all the reads, the likes, and most importantly, the comments that have helped me to embrace this role as an author. I know it sounds so cliché, but truer words could not be spoken – I simply couldn’t have done it without you.

HomecomingI invite each one of you to visit my new site and continue onward with me on this journey we have started together. As a small token of my appreciation, when you sign up to be a member of my author community, I will send you a copy of a previously unreleased short story titled Homecoming. I would be honored to share this story with you that has received an honorable mention in the 2015 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest.

You can join my author community by visiting my new site at www.davecenker.com and clicking the Free Story! link in the top right corner of the home page. I’ll still be checking this site for the next couple of weeks, so if you have any problems or questions, feel free to leave a comment here.

And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings. ~Meister Eckhart

Let the magic of new beginnings be with each and every one of you. Inspire and be inspired.

 

Shifting gears

mustang-50I sit at the traffic signal, eyes locked on the red light. My left foot is depressing the clutch while my right foot is hovering over the top of the accelerator pedal. With my left hand at the eleven o’clock position on the leather wrapped steering wheel, my right hand caresses the gear shift knob presently in first gear. The tunes are streaming wirelessly from the cell phone in my left pocket and I am perched at the starting line awaiting clearance to launch with the anticipation of a green light.

I have been in this situation many times before. The versatility provided by my car allows me so many choices. I can ease away from a standstill and revel in the low rumble of the engine as the RPM gauge cycles from 1,000 to 3,000 – back and forth through the sequence of gears.

I can punch the accelerator with my right foot while simultaneously releasing pressure on the clutch pedal and accelerate – to a legal speed, of course – faster than most vehicles on the highway. And it’s perhaps what I enjoy doing most, getting where I want to be posthaste, both in my car and in the things I set out to do in life.

I was prepared to do just that on this day when something happened. It’s another reason why I am so protective of the commuting time in my car. It’s like a personal sanctuary for me. Some of my most persuasive and compelling thoughts have come to me while nestled in the cockpit of the driver’s seat.

As the final chords of The Goo Goo Dolls Rebel Beat finished, there was a momentary pause while the software in my phone decided what would be queued up next. Once upon another time.

sara-once-upon-another-timeNo, this is not the beginning of a story. This was the song now streaming through my car speakers. The title track off Sara Bareilles’ EP album released in 2012 had been played so many times before. But, on this particular day, it provided me with something different than it had in the past – perspective. There is no logical reason why I heard the lyrics differently on this given day, why I paid them more attention, especially since I was focused on coordination of movements between feet, hands, and brain to accelerate quickly off the starting line. But, that is exactly why I have allowed logic to ride in the backseat more often these days. Situations arrive on our doorstep when we are ready to invite them inside for a visit. Today was that day.

Once upon another time
Before I knew which life was mine
Before I left the child behind me
I saw myself in summer nights
And stars lit up like candle light
I make my wish but mostly I believed

Something about the words resonated with me on this go-around. And I felt compelled to look up the meaning of these lyrics when I arrived into work. In an interview, Sara explained that this title track is really about loss of your childhood and letting go of your past, a part of her journey through life at the time she wrote the song. I sat and thought for a few moments. I was grasping for some connection. I was meant to hear these words in a different light for some reason. I just couldn’t figure out what it was. I had a good childhood. There was nothing I needed to let go from that past. And then, it hit me like a proverbial ton of bricks. There is more than one past. There are an infinite number of pasts that we are creating each and every moment of each and every day. And I did need to let go of one of those to move on towards my next big ambition.

rafiki-it-is-timeFor the past year, I have been publishing short stories to this blog. And it has been extremely gratifying – to tell stories, to share emotions, to welcome everyone who chooses to read them into my small corner of the world. It has become comfortable – like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. But, it is time for me to toss the comfy blanket aside and embrace the chilly air of doubt and uncertainty. You see, I have been encouraged, nudged – and eventually now – persuaded towards publishing some of my stories. I have a sense that it is going to require a fair amount of time, work, and growing pains to reach this ambition. But, as Rafiki proclaims in The Lion King, “It is time.”

Here I was, all ready to accelerate to 60 mph as quickly as I could, and instead I ease from one gear to the next as the captivating sounds of the harmonium echo in my ears. I am not going anywhere from a writing sense. In fact, I will probably be writing as many stories, if not more, than what I was writing before. But, they will now be in anticipation of publication in a book as well as on my blog.

Many of the stories that I have previously published on this blog will be made accessible, in the near future, via Amazon in e-book format. Check if one of your favorites is slated for release through the new Short Stories menu on the home page of my blog. If your favorite isn’t there, let me know and I will add it to my next wave of short stories to be published in e-book format. Each of the stories will be provided in their entirety with a short passage provided by me detailing the inspiration behind the story.

artist-easelIn addition, I will be releasing a new short story series titled Impression exclusively on Amazon. As a humble way of showing my appreciation for everyone who has read and commented on my stories to date, this new short story will be available to download for free during the initial days after release.

I will still be a regular contributor in the blogosphere – perhaps just in a different capacity now. I am not exiting the highway, I am simply changing lanes. I am shifting gears so that I can accelerate towards the next step on my own journey as an author. It’s a difficult decision for me, more than you could probably imagine. I have had this draft sitting on my computer and in the back of my mind for several weeks. Although things never seem to be black and white – except for my car, of course – the perspective provided by each situation helps us to discern the various shades of gray in between the two extremes. And even though it may not be easy or comfortable, it’s the process of choosing one of those shades of gray that adds depth to our perspective, and growth to our lives.

Young heart

produce-stand-tomatoAuthor’s Note: This is the final chapter of a three part short story. If you would like to read the previous two chapters, please visit Hot dog and Chance encounter.

As he watched the bus pull away from the curb, Lloyd sat back down on the bench. He didn’t have another delivery until later that afternoon. He couldn’t help but intervene, or at least attempt to, in Derek’s situation. He wished someone would have done the same for him in his younger days – not that it would have been likely to make any difference.

Lloyd remembered the expensive suits, the fine dining opportunities that he relished so much, and the aspirations for a corner office on the top floor. He had lived in that world in some past life. He pushed everything that was ultimately important to him into the background – relegated to sometime later when he had accumulated the prestige and money to do what he really desired – open his own restaurant. He exchanged his time for money, unprepared for the realization that he would never get that time back.

It was the strangest day in Lloyd’s life. Dressed to the nines, walking down the street after a chaotic day in the office, he paused in front of a local produce cart on the street, looking for the perfect ingredients that comprised his infamous spaghetti sauce. He picked up a tomato and held it in his hands. He couldn’t explain it – and it never would do any good to even try – but it was as if the delicate texture of that fruit softened his own thick skin and allowed him to see what was really important to him, for the very first time in his life.

That chance encounter with a tomato – yes, a tomato – caused Lloyd to do the unthinkable. He left the security of his high paying career. What he also left behind was the chaos that accompanied it. He opened his own produce delivery service using only the decrepit bike sitting next to him and his own two feet. He always had a gift for choosing the perfect piece of produce. His discerning sense of sight, touch, and smell was appreciated by some of the finest restaurants in New York City. And they paid him quite well, relatively speaking, for his expertise. Did Lloyd have his own restaurant? No. What he did have though was a sense that he was helping to create the most magnificent meals, for tourists and locals alike, that he appreciated so much.

The knowledge that he was making a difference in the world, however small it was, in a way that he felt passionate about, caused Lloyd to smile inside and out. It took him longer to come this realization than he may have hoped. But, as they say, better late than never. Not only was Lloyd perceptive with produce. He had the same insight into human behavior. As confident and ambitious as Derek appeared to Lloyd, there was something in his body language that spoke differently.

And although Lloyd’s attempt to uncover the root cause of Derek’s situation was not welcomed, he felt that he needed to at least try. He hoped that time would not escape Derek’s grasp like it had for him. He had done all he could do at this point.

Seated in the city bus rolling out of downtown, Derek pulled the wallet back out of his pocket. Guilt washed over him for even feeling the need to check that everything was still there. Driver’s license, credit cards, social security card, not even a single dollar of the fifty-seven in his billfold appeared to be missing. As he thumbed through the bills, one by one, he finally came to the conclusion that there was nothing missing. In fact, there was actually something in the wallet now that wasn’t there before. It was a small piece of paper folded into four, about the size of one of those small pocket notebooks he used to record homework assignments as a child in grade school.

Unfolding the paper, written on one side was a message in a language he understood perfectly – In economics, opportunity cost is the next best alternative you give up when you make a choice. When we choose one thing, we refuse something else at the same time.

On the opposite side of that paper was a message that would make sense to him at some time in the future, after he had accumulated a bit more experience. Lloyd had hoped this particular message, although confounding right now, might help Derek short circuit the path to understanding.

It takes a long time to grow young. ~Pablo Picasso

luna-lovegoodDerek wasn’t sure why, but he felt an uncanny desire at that moment to purchase a blank canvas for the wall of his new apartment in the city – and to create upon it his own vision, to splash upon it colors in a random, yet redeeming way. The childhood artist inside him poked his head from behind the curtain of adult responsibility to reveal itself – momentarily. His ego would most likely intervene this time around, pushing such a frivolous and silly yearning to the back burner in preference for his lifelong ambition of wealth and prestige. One’s deepest desires, however, are very subtle – and persistent. His inner voice would continue to court Derek until he accepted the invitation. His physical body may have been growing older by the day, but Derek’s heart was growing younger – and wiser – with each passing minute.

Author’s Note: Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read and comment – may your heart continue to grow young in pursuit of your deepest desires.

Hot dog

wall-street-nycSitting across from the executive on the fiftieth floor of the high rise in New York City, Derek’s hands were sweaty with anticipation. This was the final stop on his whirlwind day of interviews with one of the most prestigious investment firms in the Wall Street district. Everything had gone as well as he could have hoped. But, he knew that the ultimate decision concerning his prospective employment lay in the hands of the person sitting across from him.

Peering over his half-moon spectacles while carefully considering his notes, pondering the myriad of responses provided by Derek over the course of the day, the CEO reached across the mahogany desk separating the two and extended his right hand. “Derek, I think you are exactly the type of ambitious individual that this company needs. Welcome to our team.” Involuntarily, a genuine smile of satisfaction spread across Derek’s face, “Thank you sir. I really appreciate this opportunity,” replied Derek with a firm handshake to accompany his confident words.

Derek had been working towards this very moment for the past six years – perhaps much longer. Living in a small suburban town just outside of Chicago, Derek completed his MBA just three weeks prior – the last step in preparation for a life on Wall Street and all the perks associated with it. From his earliest childhood memories, Derek was consumed with numbers, trends, data, and the detailed analysis of it all. Most kids opened the newspaper and flipped straight to the comics. Derek, however, stopped at the business section, perusing the trends on his favorite stocks, always on the lookout for the next ticker symbol equipped to surpass street expectations.

As the floor number displayed inside the elevator approached the lobby level, Derek’s thoughts were already shifting towards his next ambition. He always dreamed of owning a penthouse overlooking Central Park with the finest art hanging on its walls. Numbers and fine art, they were the two things in Derek’s life that stimulated him more than anything else. As diametrically opposed as they were – art and math – his natural ability in one allowed him to enjoy the other.

To anyone who witnessed Derek strolling through the lobby, they would have thought him to be a seasoned veteran at the firm. The fine Italian suit, the wavy yet slicked back hair, the black wing-tipped shoes, and most importantly the confident gait was proof positive that Derek belonged in this atmosphere – on the surface, at least. Looks can be so deceiving.

Walking out of the quiet lobby and on to the sidewalk, the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple burst into action. The constant motion, honking horns, and murmur of shuffling footsteps was intoxicating to Derek. He felt at home around the busyness of big city life. The knowledge that this was now his new home brought upon a wave of euphoria. The scent of fresh hot dogs from the sidewalk vendor added to his feeling of exhilaration. In a seemingly underwhelming celebration, Derek had promised himself a genuine New York hot dog to christen his official acceptance into the city that never sleeps.

hot-dogStepping up to the gentleman situated under the faded umbrella, Derek barked out his order as if already a weathered New Yorker, “One dog – onions, relish, mustard, and ketchup.” Exchanging a few dollar bills for his celebratory meal, Derek ambled towards the bench beside the bus stop. Seated at the end of the bench was an older gentleman with unkempt facial hair and a hoodie pulled over his thinning gray hair. The old bike leaning precariously next to him had a basket on the front – in it were a bushel of apples and a few ears of corn still in their husks. He held in his one hand a tattered notepad, in the other a partially sharpened pencil.

Setting the hot dog beside him on the bench, Derek pulled out the ringing cell phone from his pocket. The incoming call was from his girlfriend, Missy, back in Illinois. The first words he heard were characteristic of his longtime partner, “So, are there Broadway shows in our future?” She was both witty and confident. Their relationship was proof that sometimes it was likes, not opposites that attract each other. The next several minutes involved congratulatory remarks, shared dreams and aspirations for a new lifestyle supported by a six figure income north of a half million dollars per year. By the sound of the conversation occurring between the two, it appeared that their first years’ worth of income – and then some – had already been spent.

“Miss you lots, love you more, see you soon.” It was their signature communication that was unique to them. As he pressed the button to end the call, he slipped the phone back into his pocket. Sinking his teeth into the hot dog, he couldn’t help but let out a sigh of contentedness through his nose while he closed his eyes and absorbed everything he had been dreaming of for so long. It was now becoming reality. He was the new dog on the block, and he was poised to establish himself as the next alpha male in the financial district.

journey-secret-destinationWhat Derek failed to notice was the furious scribbling that the elderly gentlemen had been penning on his notepad throughout his conversation with Missy. What also eluded his attention was the wallet that had come out of the pocket with his cell phone, resting beneath the bench he was seated on. The hustle and bustle of New York City seems to accelerate everything. There was no exception in this situation. The wallet sitting beneath him was there no more. Derek was completely unaware of its disappearance. As it turned out, Derek was unaware of so much more.

Author’s Note: This is the first part of a three part short story. Please stay tuned for the next chapter to be published next week. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day!

Home again

Author’s Note: This is the final installment of a six part story. If you would like to read the previous chapters before the finale, please visit: Chapter 1 – The keyChapter 2 – Plus oneChapter 3 – The seedChapter 4 – Step by step, and Chapter 5 – Hope.

lighthouse-portland-maineDamon had a suspicion the numbers he found scribbled in the margin of that book by T.S. Eliot would be the last ones he’d encounter on this memorable journey – because he recognized them. There were no other clues to be deciphered, just the coordinates that would lead him back to his home in a seaside town just outside of Portland, Maine.

As he exited the public library, the two facial expressions staring back at Damon from the base of the marble steps held a look teetering back and forth between enthusiasm and anxiety. One was human, the other canine. Jo, the co-owner of a restaurant in rural Virginia had her eyes locked on the exit door in anticipation. Gryffin, Damon’s loyal golden retriever, began to tug on the leash when he caught a glimpse of his owner. Jo allowed Gryffin to lead the way, although not entirely by choice. She began to stumble as Gryffin pulled her along towards Damon, the distance closing quickly.

As they reached audible range, Jo not wanting to wait any longer, called out to Damon, “Did you find it? What did it say?” Gryffin followed suit with an imploring bark. The semi-confused look on Damon’s face left her with a feeling of apprehension. Damon was still attempting to process what he was supposed to do next, other than return home. “Was there nothing there?” asked Jo hesitantly.

“No, no. There was definitely something there. I’m just not sure what to do next,” responded Damon.

“Well, lay it on me. We’ll all figure it out together,” urged Jo.

“There was another quote – in the book, that is. It was highlighted and in the margin were a set of coordinates that lead back to my new house,” offered Damon.

“What was the quote?” asked Jo.

“It was by T.S. Eliot – We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Damon recited the quote from memory. It had already been catalogued in his mental library.

“Well, am I missing something?” asked Jo. “It seems pretty obvious that you’re supposed to return home.”

“Yeah, I get that part,” responded Damon, “I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do when I get there.”

faith-take-the-first-step“Hey, remember that parchment that came with the acorn?” asked Jo. Damon reached into his pocket to grab hold of the acorn, making sure that it was still there. Jo continued, “There was an important word in that quote. Remember it? Faith. Let’s just have faith that we’ll figure it out once we get there.”

“So, you still want to continue on with us?” inquired Damon. “I wasn’t sure if you would just want to return to the restaurant. It’s only a couple hours away.” Damon couldn’t believe that he was even proposing something so far against what he actually desired, to have Jo accompany him on the final leg of this journey back to his hometown. He chided himself internally for allowing something so foolish to escape his lips.

“No way, compadre, you’re stuck with me now,” smiled Jo. “I was serious about new beginnings back on that mountaintop. My sister can take care of the restaurant. It was always her special project anyway. This is my new beginning. I’m not sure where it’s going to end up, but I do know the next stop on the journey.”

With the sun beginning to set on another day filled with fortuitous discoveries, the driving duties were transferred back to Jo. With a desire to close the gap slightly between their present position and final destination, the truck and its three occupants began to head north on the interstate. The conversation was quiet as the speakers streamed uninterrupted tunes from the satellite radio. After about three hours, somewhere near the New York border, Damon shook his head slightly as if to keep his eyelids from involuntarily shutting. Looking over at Jo, he could tell that she was beginning to show signs of exhaustion too. It had been a long day.

Damon reached over, turned down the volume, and proposed one final layover on their journey. “How about we find a place to get some rest? We can get on the road first thing in the morning and be back in Maine before noon.”

“Sure, that sounds good,” said Jo as she allowed a yawn to escape mid-sentence. As if the offer of rest had provided her second wind, Jo felt compelled to share something. “You know, these last couple days, they have been a lot of fun.”

“Yeah, same goes for me,” replied Damon. “I’m just not quite used to so much spontaneity in my life.”

“Funny,” chuckled Jo, “I think that’s one of the things that made it so enjoyable for me.”

“Maybe you’re right,” smirked Damon, “I never thought about it that way.” Finding a pet friendly hotel just off the interstate, the last thoughts Damon entertained before succumbing to sleep left him with a smile in his heart.

The following morning brought with it an intense feeling of anticipation – the three travelers just weren’t sure what they were anticipating yet. The remaining few hours of their journey passed quickly. Damon had beaten his estimate by a good hour as he rolled into his hometown a little before eleven o’clock.

As he coasted into the driveway and turned off the engine, Damon stared ahead at the front door in front of him, “Okay, now what?”

“Well, you could give me a tour, you know,” said Jo smiling.

“Sure, right, where are my manners?” replied Damon. Gryffin was at the front door waiting to enter with his tail wagging excitedly. Damon guided Jo through a brief tour of the old house, boxes still strewn around each of the rooms they walked through. “It’s not much yet, but it has a lot of potential,” offered Damon somewhat defensively.

As they entered the bathroom attached to his bedroom, a thought occurred to Damon. The coordinates led him to his house. That was obvious. There was another clue in that library, one that he didn’t consider too closely until now. He recalled the quote once again, whispering it to himself – We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

Where we started – that phrase stuck with him. This was the exact location beneath the sink where everything began. This is where the brass key still hanging around his neck was found wrapped in twine.

wooden-floorboardHe stood there, motionless, for a few moments before he recalled the dull thud that sounded when the ball of wet twine made contact with the wooden floorboard beneath the pipe. Damon returned to that floorboard, got down on his hands and knees, and looked at it a bit more closely.

Jo, sensing that Damon was on to something but not wanting to disrupt the flow, bent over to look but remained silent. The nails securing this particular floorboard were missing. Reaching his fingers into the tiny gap between the wall and floorboard, he noticed that he was able to pry back the piece of wood quite easily. There was a sealed container built into the space beneath the floor. Placed inside it was another piece of parchment rolled up and tied with a red ribbon.

Rising back to his feet, Damon untied the ribbon and unrolled the sheet with Jo standing next to him. Together, they silently read the quote etched in the same perfect penmanship that they had come to know so well.

I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive. ~ Joseph Campbell

Damon just smiled. Of course. Had he known that the final piece of his journey was right under his nose when he discovered the brass key, he would have most likely jumped to the conclusion straightaway. And look what he would have missed out on – adventure, friendship, lessons in giving, receiving, and perhaps most importantly – love. Love of others and love of self.

“Wow,” offered Damon to Jo, “this certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.” And then he smiled and continued on, “But, you know what, I think that’s what makes it all that more special.”

“I guess I’m rubbing off on you,” smiled Jo as she bumped shoulders with Damon. “Hey, you know what,” said Jo with an intriguing twist in her voice, “I just thought of something. How do you spell your name?”

Damon wasn’t catching on quite yet, but he played along, “D-A-M-O-N,” replied Damon. “Why, what does that have to do with anything?” he continued.

“I was just thinking. Reverse the letters of your name, and what do they spell?” offered Jo.

“N-O-M-A-D. You’re a nomad, a wanderer. And what you have chosen to do over the past week has been exactly that – you have wandered from place to place for the sake of wandering, to explore, to be alive.”

Damon was beginning to appreciate this woman more and more with every passing minute. Maybe he was living life up until this point as his name – backwards. But he had more than a fleeting clue now. He had a revelation, and he certainly felt alive, more alive and vibrant than he had in his entire life.

flowers-of-tomorrowReaching into his pocket, he retrieved the acorn and placed it on his bathroom sink – a constant reminder to embrace new beginnings. “How about some lunch? I know this great seafood place just down the road. It sits right on the water.” Winking at Jo, Damon continued on, “I did promise, and I always do my best to keep promises.” An endearing grin spread across Jo’s face as she replied, “I’ll have to remember that.” As Damon took Jo’s hand in his own, another seed was planted in this wanderer’s life – one that he knew would flourish given time – and faith.

Author’s Note: This has been a wonderful adventure filled with discovery not only for Damon, Jo, and Gryffin – but also for the author. I hope that it has been as much fun and rewarding for you to read it as it has been for me to write it. I sincerely thank everyone who took the time to follow along on this journey over the past month and share their thoughts – it means more than you can possibly know. May the coming days, weeks, and years bring each of you wandering journeys filled with unbounded love and inspiration – a little faith goes a long way. ~Dave Cenker

Open book

open-bookMaybe it was the scent of freshly roasted espresso beans. Or perchance it was the names of influential authors decorating the walls – Faulkner, Hemingway, Kipling, Yeats, and Steinbeck. Whatever the reason, the quiet bookstore situated off the bustling city street was a personal sanctuary for Evan.

Others found solace in the smoky confines of a pub, the noisy background and alcoholic influences drowning out the stressors of any given day. Evan never subscribed to this form of social medication. It wasn’t because of some moral dilemma that he shied away from this modus operandi for so many others. He had tried it himself on my different occasions – beer, wine, vodka, and scotch – they all placated his animosity temporarily, but it returned tenfold when the short-lived effects released their grip on him.

Evan was a thinker. He wasn’t one to push any occurrence, good or bad, to the mental filing cabinet before investigating it from every perspective, certain that there was some hidden nugget of wisdom to be mined from every experience. There was no amount of alcohol, smoke, or codependent bearing of the soul hunched over on a barstool that would ever allow him to reach his objective – a quiet and reflective journey within that allowed him to arrive at the same place he had previously been and see it as if for the first time.

That is why Evan found himself seated in his favorite bookstore café, looking left then right as if to absorb the information and knowledge in the books surrounding him through the power of osmosis. Four paces to the right in cooking and he has, at is fingertips, the steps required to create the most perfect flan in his kitchen. Eleven steps ahead in the music section and he too could learn how to play the melodic syncopation of the ukulele sounds streaming from the speakers above him. Seven strides to the right into the shelves of fiction and he is presented with a plethora of adventure stories, hidden caverns filled with elusive treasure, protected by the most ingenious measures, concealed to everyone save for those few who chose to look closer with a discerning eye. Evan wanted to be one of those few.

coffee-whipped-creamWith both hands wrapped around the glass hot to the touch, Evan was unable to see the steam venting from the hot liquid confined to its container. The small dollop of whipped cream on the surface was preventing that heat, that metaphorical tension, from escaping. Slowly, however, that whipped cream succumbed to the influence from the espresso below, dissolving into the mocha flavored java, allowing the inevitable release of heat. The physical realities of the natural world had a way of opening Evan’s mind to the more esoteric complexities of the world that were unable to be seen by the human eye.

The rustic wooden chair that he sat upon creaked with every subtle movement. Leaning onto the table built from splintering wood, its four legs rocked back and forth from its imperfect construction. We all have our own problems, imperfections, and stumbling blocks, thought Evan. It’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s how we respond to it. He had read that in at least one of the volumes surrounding him right now, perhaps in several of them.

Sometimes Evan found himself in this sanctuary out of habit. Today, however, a specific catalyst accounted for his presence at the café table. As he loosened his tie in an attempt to quell the hostility beginning to resurface, he recalled the events of the staff meeting earlier that day. It was one thing to disagree with a colleague’s opinion. That was natural and necessary. It was quite another to backhandedly undermine another colleague’s suggestion in the name of personal gain. As deeply as he contemplated the scenario, Evan could not find an angle that made any logical sense other than pure, unadulterated greed. His patience for this bureaucratic and political landscape of big business was waning with every supporting circumstance.

Looking back up from his coffee, eyes perusing the other patrons in the café, Evan noticed a couple three tables over, just out of earshot. A middle aged man and a slightly younger woman sat across from each other. The man was slouched over the table, head in his hands, right leg bouncing up and down with anxiety. The woman held a much more composed demeanor, sitting more upright, reaching across the table with her left hand. The diamond ring on her left finger sent Evan’s thoughts running rampant.

Was this woman a mistress, now just breaking the news that she was, in fact, married? Was the man hiding something from the woman across from him, attempting to work up the courage to share it with her? Or maybe the two individuals were brother and sister, figuring out how to deal with the failing health of their parents, one handling it better than the other? Evan surmised that he had perhaps read too many far-fetched novels filled with unexpected plot twists, but the possibilities were endless. His curious nature was too strong.

Feigning indifference to the developing situation, Evan rose from his customary table, laptop in tow, and meandered towards the periodicals, picking up the closest magazine within his grasp. Wandering slowly back into the café area, he chose a different seat, slightly closer to the couple. Flipping through the pages of his recently acquired magazine, he could hear the exchange of voices between the two.

“What are we going to do,” the man pleaded with desperation.

“It’s OK, we will get through this,” reassured the woman.

“But, the mortgage, the college fund for the kids – heck, the electric bill – how are we going to get through this,” he questioned with a bit more urgency.

“Honey, just because I lost my job doesn’t mean there isn’t another one out there for me. It might take a little time and patience, but we will get through this.” She reached across the table and tenderly took hold of his hand.

As the man’s hands uncovered his face, Evan could see the tears running down his cheek. He thought once again of the whipped cream in his coffee cup. Just like the steam trapped within, emotions always find a way to seep through the barriers suppressing them. Sometimes, it takes more time, more persuasion, and more reflection to bring those emotions out into the world. Sometimes we need to be able to accept those feelings ourselves before we can even contemplate sharing them with others. There is always another angle, thought Evan.

george-bernard-shawAs if controlled by his subconscious mind, he leaned over and retrieved the laptop from its case. His eyes drawn to the author’s names on the wall, his gaze fell upon one in particular – George Bernard Shaw. Evan recalled a quote from this great playwright – Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

Looking back down at his open laptop, a blank document and a blinking cursor greeted Evan’s eyes. It was both a challenge and an opportunity, a blank canvas awaiting the unique brushstrokes that only he could compose. And with that thought, his fingers began to dance across the keyboard – Maybe it was the scent of freshly roasted espresso beans …

Sunrise

legal-tableSince his recent promotion, Patrick had been burning more than his share of midnight oil at the firm. Case upon case was piling up on the docket. If he was ever going to make partner status in this lifetime, he needed to buck up and deal with the luxury of getting four hours of sleep each night. The first several weeks of his new work regime carried on without incident. Adrenaline and carefully coordinate shots of caffeine provided by the firm’s espresso machine served him well. Like the sludgy oil in your car, however, you can only ignore it for so long before it revolts, the engine seizing up in protest. Patrick’s body did just that while seated at a conference table in an otherwise ordinary status meeting with his associates.

He was focusing on the details of a domestic violence case slated for prosecution the following week while simultaneously disseminating his planned strategy. In the next moment, Patrick opened his eyelids to the unexpected view of a much different environment: a white sanitized hospital room with his wife, Samantha, gazing out the window, an apprehensive look on her face.

“Hey beautiful,” he said to Samantha in a hoarse voice. The oxygen tube in his nose and the drugs dripping through the intravenous feed in his right hand were slowly bringing him back to this earthly world. Samantha quickly approached the bedside taking Patrick’s hand, “Pat, you had me so worried.” An impulsive tear ran down her cheek.

“What happened?” Patrick’s question arose from a confused mental state as he continued to absorb the details of his new surroundings.

“You had a heart attack,” stammered Samantha, the tears beginning to flow a bit more freely as she began to understand the gravity of the situation. “Honey, something has to change,” she pleaded. “This can’t go on. We can’t afford to have something happen to you.” By we, Samantha was referring to herself as well as the two young girls at home with grandma right now, ages four and seven.

Patrick had many redeeming and admirable qualities. The stubbornness that served him so well in his professional life did not do so in his personal and family life. It was this obstinance that left him lying horizontal in a hospital bed instead of sitting crisscross applesauce on the living room floor with his two daughters and their dolls. His body had provided a final warning, waving a white flag in surrender to the overwhelming stimuli of his self-induced professional responsibilities. The urgent message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Tossed into the trash like junk mail in the past, it was finally being read and received by Patrick.

“I know, I know,” said Patrick. “I need to change things. I promise I’ll go see the doctor when I get out of here.” And so it came to be that Patrick visited his doctor the following week for the first time in at least five years. Sitting in the exam room awaiting his family physician, Dr. Kreb, to enter, he couldn’t even remember if he was a she or vice versa. It had been so long, he knew that there would be no recognition between the two of them.

As the doctor knocked and entered the room, he (so it was a male after all) flipped through the pages of Patrick’s medical records while greeting his latest patient. “How’s it going today, what can I do for you?” Patrick was thinking that he should already know the answer to this question. He was admitted to the hospital but three days ago. Patrick’s emergency visit should have shown up in his file. Doesn’t everything end up in these files, he thought as he grasped for some release of internal tension and anxiety, recalling a Seinfeld episode from many years ago?

“Well, I guess the better phrasing is what I can do for myself,” retorted Patrick. As the doctor returned to the front page, he finally understood the reason for his visit. “Yes,” said the doctor. “I see we’ve been pushing our limits a bit too far, eh?” Although Patrick had a wry sense of humor, he didn’t appreciate any levity in this particular situation, at least not the kind doled out by his doctor.

wake-up-alarm-clock“I suppose you could say this is my wake-up call. I’ve hit the snooze button a few too many times and I know now that it’s time to finally get out of bed.” Patrick spoke in a self-deprecating tone as he began to sense how his cumulative actions over the previous year had led him to this present moment. He wished that he could simply take a pill and make this ill-fated situation disappear. Deep down, however, he knew this was impossible and was dreading the recommendations that would be forthcoming from the medical professional. It would be more invasive than the surgery that he didn’t need.

The doctor spoke in a very matter-of-fact tone, reading from the notes he had made, as if he was rattling off a list of items to pick up at the grocery store on the way home. “First, you need to cut back on the amount of stress you are creating in your life. That means no more eighty hour work weeks. You need to cut it back to forty hours like the rest of the human population.” Looking over the rims of his bifocals to be sure his patient was paying attention; he continued “Second, you need to find a way to manage the excessive amounts of stress that you have already invited into your life. Find an activity or a hobby that gives you some time for renewal and rejuvenation: set aside some time to listen to music you enjoy, meditate, or take a daily walk on the beach. Your choice, just be sure to find something.”

The first piece of his treatment was going to be difficult to embrace. His work had become an addiction for Patrick. Cutting back to half the hours would be akin to going cold turkey. It was not going to be pretty. In fact, he surmised that it would introduce even more stress in the short term. Despite his apprehension, however, he knew it was necessary. Besides, if he didn’t follow through with the doctor’s advice, he was either headed for another heart attack or a divorce, maybe both.

As difficult as the work schedule aspect of his treatment would be, the doctor had stumbled upon a perfect activity for Patrick to help alleviate some of his existing stress. This part would be much easier. He had moved from the Midwest after law school to be closer to the beach. And yet, here he was less than ten minutes from the Atlantic Ocean and he could count on his one hand the number of times he had been there in the past ten years.

atlantic-ocean-beachOne of those times, perhaps the most memorable of his life, occurred on his first date with Samantha. With the pale moonlight casting a glow over the endless sea, the two of them stood with their foreheads touching, gazing into each other’s eyes as the lapping waves tickled their toes, sinking their feet into the sand as if setting strong roots for their future together. Maybe that’s why he didn’t return as often. Maybe he never wanted to risk tainting the perfection of that fond memory. Patrick would be strolling on that same beach more often now because he relished the reminiscence of that first date. He planned to relieve stress by taking a daily walk on the beach each morning before commuting into the office.

He had walked on this beach and sat on these dunes dozens of times in the past several months. The most spectacular part of this new practice was watching the sun begin to peek above the horizon as night transitioned to dawn. Each sunrise was different. Every one portrayed a different mood and told a different story. Some narratives were filled with gray clouds and a dull light that cast a somber ambiance. Other renditions were characterized by brilliant hues of vibrant pink, blue, and orange that was manifested by the smile of encouragement and hope on Patrick’s face.

turtle trekThis Friday morning’s sunrise was neither melancholy nor effervescent. And yet, it was like none he had ever seen. As Patrick sat on the dunes, forearms resting on his knees, he eagerly awaited the story line beginning to unfold as the diluting darkness of night gave way to the refreshing light of day. From the corner of his eye, in his peripheral vision, Patrick noticed what looked like a shadow, a vague form of something meandering down the sand towards the water’s edge. As the rising sun began to cast more light on the scene, he spotted the trail of sea turtles trekking vigorously towards the safety of the deep ocean waters. This was only the first of many obstacles that they would need to surmount in their young lives, but it was the most pressing at the moment. They were devoting every ounce of energy and focus into the here and now, and Patrick was overfilled with gratitude, being able to witness this magical transformation, this beginning of a new life.

It led Patrick naturally to contemplate the direction of his own focus. Each and every morning, he would sit here on this beach and focus on what was out over the horizon, awaiting a grand spectacle to make its presence known from a distance. He wondered how many other things, like these fledgling turtles, that he missed right before his eyes.

His daily routine should have carried Patrick south towards his office and the final eight hours of his new forty hour work week. It was those eight hours, after all, that would help propel Patrick closer to becoming a partner, that vision looming just out over the horizon. Instead, he turned north, headed home to his own fledgling turtles, all the while planning a perfectly splendid party involving imaginary tea, pretend scones, and the three most important people in his life.

Uncharted

sara-bareillesThere are points in our life that we find ourselves on a precipice, teetering back and forth. A battle ensues between the rational mind and the impassioned heart. Step back toward solid ground, implores the sensible intellect. Take the leap, begs the courageous soul. Back and forth the maelstrom intensifies, leaving our physical presence stagnant. Disarray, chaos, and confusion suffocate what seems like the last breath of fresh air waiting to be exhaled from our lungs. Until the tiniest of nudges sends us over the edge, tumbling into uncharted territory. And suddenly it feels beautiful.

I pen these words in a moment of faith and hope. It has been less than forty-eight hours since I was coaxed into the dark abyss of the unknown. I want to give these emotions time to evolve, to come of age in my soul. I feel them intensifying. I don’t want to bring them into this world before their time. And yet, neither do I want to lose the rawness of those same emotions. I have decided that now is the time, the perfect time.

Traveling north on the interstate, my destination is St. Augustine Amphitheater for the second time in as many months. I have a peculiar habit of listening to the music I am going to hear live while driving, a concert before the concert, if you will. Streaming from the speakers in shuffle mode is a combination of perfectly produced studio recordings alongside the imperfections and subtle nuances that can only be captured in a live recording. The anticipation of a concert experience I had been looking forward to for months had me wanting to press down on the accelerator of my Mustang with a little more enthusiasm. This was one of those times where I am pleased that my rational mind prevailed.

As the ambient lights faded, an energy surged through the crowd as evidenced by the deafening pleas for the featured artist, Sara Bareilles, to appear. The electric blue lights illuminating the stage lit a fire inside that began what turned out to be a magical and breathtaking evening. The two hours from my seat in section 202 passed in the blink of an eye, the infusion of inspiration closely guarded and carried with me as I take a leap of my own.

There are singers. There are performers. And there are artists. Sara Bareilles is an artist. She takes the words, lyrics, and melodies of a song, one that you have heard a hundred times before, and transforms them into something new, like a song that you are hearing for the very first time. It’s a brush with genius that words cannot convey. It must be experienced to fully appreciate the significance of its impression. I heard many of my favorite offerings by Sara: Gravity, Chasing The Sun, Brave, King Of Anything. There were two songs, however, that moved me into an unexpected state of enchantment.

she-used-to-be-mineFor the past eighteen months, Sara has been working on the musical score for a Broadway show set to premiere next year, Waitress. As the opening notes of her song She Used To Be Mine carried towards the ears of her audience, they bypassed the physical senses and headed straight for the soul. A heart-wrenching, introspective, and incredibly powerful love ballad brought tears to my eyes. I don’t even know why it is that those tears materialized. I don’t know that I was either happy or sad. To be honest, I didn’t care. I was just moved. We don’t always need to understand why it is that we feel a particular way. We just need to decide to feel. That is enough. A true artist has the power to kindle that emotional reverberation. With the final note of this spellbinding performance, I came to the realization that I was not alone in my sentiments. In unison, three thousand other fans, connected by a riveting rendition of emotional portrayal, found themselves standing in awe and appreciation. It was a moment, maybe the moment.

Compare where you are to where you want to be, and you’ll get nowhere. ~Sara Bareilles, Uncharted

I have listened to this song time after time: on the radio, on my copy of Kaleidoscope Heart, on my Sara Bareilles Pandora station. It wasn’t until I experienced it live, however, that it finally hit home. Maybe it was the surge of emotion washing over me at this point in the concert. Maybe it was a connection to the fear, doubt, and uncertainty conveyed through the vocal chords of this gifted musician. Whatever it was, I found myself ready to enter uncharted territory of my own.

I won’t go as a passenger, waiting for the road to be laid. Though I may be going down, I’m taking flame over burning out. I’m already out of foolproof ideas, so don’t ask me how to get started. It’s all uncharted. ~Sara Bareilles, Uncharted

little-black-dressInspire and be inspired. It is my mental anthem, my guiding principle. I have been inspired in a very unique and compelling fashion. I may never grasp the breadth of influence that was provided to me on this special evening. That doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t aspire to inspire the world, one person at a time. It’s all uncharted after all. And that’s what it makes it so incredibly beautiful and wonderful.

 

True blue

be-yourself-emersonFrom the surface of the ocean to the boundless limits of the sky, the color blue prevails. Representing intuition, imagination, inspiration, and sensitivity, this color has remained a constant fixture in my life. Psychological studies have unveiled that the varied hues of blue help to nurture balance and self-expression. Considering the alignment of these influential characteristics with my personality, it is no wonder I am innately drawn to its energy.

Rounding the corner on my morning walk, my gaze falls upon the pavement in front of me to find the most unusual of objects. Resting in the middle of the sidewalk, staring up at me with imploring eyes, is a tattered and well-loved baby doll. Caught in a moment of indecision, I carried forward, leaving those pleading eyes on the ground for the next passerby, hopeful that it would be reconnected with its rightful owner through a warm and tight embrace held within the innocent and loving heart of a child.

Along my familiar walking route sits a bench alongside the local bus stop. Seated on that bench, situated beneath the shade of a large oak tree, was a young mom. With a stroller next to her and a toddler delicately balanced on her knee, she was simultaneously searching for something in her handbag. As my short term memory connects the sight of that ragged doll with the young child before me, I momentarily interrupt my walk to catch the attention of the young mom intently searching her belongings. “Excuse me. Did you happen to drop a doll back a little way?” She looked up at me, quizzical expression on her face, and offers in a rather annoyed tone, “He’s a boy.”

After offering up a bashful apology, I continued onward posthaste. Initially caught up in the personal embarrassment of differentiating a boy from a girl, my thoughts quickly shifted towards her comment. He’s a boy. My very first reflection on her words: Yeah, he’s a boy. So what? The stereotype that boys only play with trucks and girls only play with dolls begrudgingly passes through my consciousness. Why do we do this as human beings? Why do we limit the breadth of our experiences with such hollow guidance? Why can’t we all carry the confidence to express ourselves without the limits imposed by society? Walking along that stretch of pavement beyond the bench, the distance between that young mom and me increased, along with my pulse, frustration and annoyance brewing inside.

I would never do that. This is what my voice silently speaks to me as I continue forward, one step being placed in front of the other. And it’s true, sort of. I have never and will never limit my son, my wife, anyone really, from pursuing that thing that intrigues them. I encourage everyone to chase their aspirations with fervor and passion for all to witness, regardless of what others view as stereotypically acceptable. And I mean it, sincerely.

Suddenly, my stride becomes shorter, my pace decreases. I come to a stop, right there on that sidewalk. The brakes are put on, both physically and mentally. I would never do that to anyone else. But, I seem to have a habit of doing just that thing to one person in particular. Myself.

My taste in music, movies, and books is decidedly skewed towards one end of the spectrum. Given the choice between a high intensity action flick and a tender love story, I choose the latter. I enjoy a heart thumping drum solo and guitar riff within a rock song as much as anyone. But more often than not, I will find myself listening to an acoustic piano performance, the powerful lyrics moving me more than a pulsating beat.

Regrettably, I don’t allow those feelings to surface. Car windows remain closed as I sing the lyrics of a love song to myself. The deeply emotional storyline eloquently shared between the covers of my book is carried on my hip, front cover facing inwards, hidden from the view of anyone who may sneak a peek at it. Even as I compose these words, I realize just how ridiculously foolish my actions sound given what is burning inside.

It’s so much easier to share these thoughts through the safety of the written word. Hiding behind the page, I am not exposed to the questioning glances, the hidden smirks that society throws in my direction. It’s in having the courage to face those possibilities, however, that I also have the opportunity to connect with those that share in my passions. It’s a connection with those closest to us that ultimately make life so much more fulfilling.

stay-true-to-yourselfToday you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You. Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. ~Dr. Seuss

The advice of doctors is not always easy to accept, or simple to follow. This is no exception. When I know what it feels like on the other side of my ailment, however, I see that this is just the medicine I needed. Truer than true.

A new lenz on life

see-through-new-lensesBuried deep inside the pages of an old college physics textbook, yellow highlighting fading over the years, a description of Lenz’s Law was important twenty years ago for a different reason than it is today. Originally encountered as a scientific law required for the comprehension of electricity and magnetism principles, my second encounter with this idea carried with it a more magnetic force, an electricity on the inside filled with emotion.

Ask my eleven year old son the one place on this planet that is on his must see list. I can guarantee you that I know the answer. Switzerland. Not to trek through the Alps, not to taste the sweetness of Swiss chocolate, not even to journey on the rails through the splendid landscape. No, the object of his desire is contained within a four letter acronym, CERN. Located in Geneva, Switzerland, the European Organization for Nuclear Research is his dream destination.

Buried underground, beneath the rolling pastures filled with cows, hidden from the soaring peaks of the majestic Alps, is a scientific lab like no other, experiments being conducted to better understand and comprehend the most fundamental particles that comprise everything in the universe. As an international organization, CERN unifies the experience and knowledge of scientists from all around the globe. One of these organizations may be found in the heartland of the United States. Located just outside Chicago, Illinois, Fermilab is in attendance at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in our nation’s capital. And so are we. As we walk down aisle 3700, my son’s gait accelerates as he gets nearer to the Fermilab display booth.

I have never seen a group of people welcome an eleven year old boy into their realm with such open arms. In a world where age restrictions limit participation in activities that are most interesting, these individuals transcended the bounds of societal expectations. Just like their forays into pure science research, these people understand that only through challenging the norm do we advance in science. And as a human race.

Inviting my son to help participate in the education of attendees at the festival, he was provided an official t-shirt and lanyard. He was a member of the team, helping to demonstrate Lenz’s Law to kids and adults alike. Whenever I see that signature grin on his face, I know that something has touched him at his core. Yep, it was all over his face.

Playing a virtual game of hide and seek, my wife and I are just out of view. Peeking around the corner, cinnamon dolce latte in hand, we alternate glances toward the presentation being conducted by our son. I never could have imagined that physics would provide such an emotional charge within me. As I watch him carry out the experiment, using his hands and voice to help explain the scientific principles behind the demonstration, I cannot hear his voice. But, I can see the invisible field of energy around him. And so can his audience. He is in his element, living a dream.

My wife and I recently spent an evening watching The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. We have both regarded this as one of our favorite and most influential movies to date. The film is eccentric, sometimes unconventional in its portrayal of the alternate realities in our mind. The other, more important characteristic of this movie, however, is that it is real. And deeply inspiring.

We each have these seemingly far-fetched and ludicrous ideas running through our heads. We keep them to ourselves because exposing them to the public would be too risky. Our emotional well-being may be challenged when we fail to adhere to those well-defined societal norms. It is in accepting ourselves and our ideas as worthy that we find true growth and opportunity. An opportunity to see the world. A chance to see behind walls, both literal and figurative. The possibility of drawing closer to each other. To feel with deep and authentic emotions.

The things that flourish are those we choose to nourish. Whether it’s the notion of writing a book from a cafe in the tree lined streets of Paris, the vision of owning a charming bookstore on a sleepy cobblestone street, or the dream of helping to explain the role of fundamental particles in our everyday life, we are called upon to push those ideas out of our head and into the world.

walter-mitty-quoteThe cliche states that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We’ll never know, however, unless we decide to jump over that fence and see what’s on the other side of the wall. To explore, to draw closer, to feel.

Walking down the hallway on the final day of the festival, my son’s face carries that signature grin once again. “I’ll never forget this”, he says. As a telltale grin of my own appears, my smile silently speaks the words from inside. Yeah buddy, me too.