Dealing With Stuff

I haven’t quite been myself lately. I laugh, but not from the gut. I cry, but not so much that I get lost in it and can’t stop. Eating, now that’s been out of control. I recently lost thirty pounds in six months. Well, seventeen of them came back over the past ninety days. I tend to eat when sad or under stress. A few nights I was binge eating. Everything in sight. Slim Jims, cookies, fudge, Pop Tarts, cheese, Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups. Washed it all down with a soda. Just junk eating.

I am dealing with a lot of stuff. You know, the kind of stuff that makes you ruminate. In fact, ruminating is what made me think of starting this blog. I tend to think a lot. I mean, a lot. I talk about what I’m going to do, make TO DO lists, get my planner out, consult my friends to see where I can rustle up some help. Two heads are always better than one. But some of the stuff I’m dealing with is just between me and God. I can’t even mention it here, because it’s too sensitive. It’s tough stuff, though. Trust me on that. Some of the stuff I’m dealing with brings up other stuff. Sort of like collateral stuff. Just more stuff to worry about. My pastor tells me to turn my stuff over to God. Lighten my burden. Let Him help me. I usually do that. For a moment. Then I find myself taking back my stuff. Like only I can give it the attention it deserves. Silly, though. Because whenever I am jammed up about my stuff, I don’t have time for little things like remembering to pay my car insurance. Or gassing up the car.

Stuff can be very demanding. It wants you to pay strict attention to it. Like it’s saying to me, “So what are you going to do about this?” My typical smart-mouthed answer is, “Nothing right now, so leave me alone.” But man is this stuff ever persistent. And some stuff is just right there in your face. Like this new stuff where I can’t seem to type. I used to be good at it. Fifty-five words a minute with minimal mistakes. Now I am constantly backing up and fixing things. This post is taking me twice as long as it should because of idiotic typos. Missing letters. Wrong letters, Fingers in the wrong position on the keyboard. Slashes instead of periods. Semi-colons instead of the letter l. It’s starting to annoy me.

So stuff can really tend to get in the way. It can become all-consuming. It has the potential to totally throw us off our game. And of course, I worry constantly about looking like an idiot, so I am even more careful when dealing with stuff. I thought at first that being more diligent would help, but it doesn’t. I think the only thing I can to is to slow down and think carefully about every decision, every keystroke, every chess move, every word that comes out of my mouth. Eventually, this stuff will stop happening, and I can get back to being perfect again. Right?

What Stops You?

Fear. Now there’s a terrible four-letter word. Some will tell you that fear is necessary for survival. How else will you know if something is harmful or fatal to you? I propose the correct word here is caution. Not fear. You see, fear will stop you dead in your tracks. Fear will lie to you. Fear is an emotion. It will make you question your next move, and every move after that. It will create doubt in your plan of attack. It will convince you that you are going to experience nothing but rejection and ridicule. Fear will make you give up. Quit going in to avoid failure.

This applies to many things in life. Some typical events that are interrupted by fear include proposing to a woman. Yes, asking her to marry you. What if she says no? Then what? I’ve already asked her dad for her hand in marriage. I’ve told my mom, who cried, then dabbed her tears and said with a gleam in her eyes, “When’s the wedding?” I’ve told my best friends. I told my brother and my pastor. Good gracious, I’ve told everyone. What am I going to do? See how our protagonist is ready to quit just so he doesn’t hear the word “no?”

Now what about writing? How many times have you bragged to teachers that you’re going to be a published author one day? How often have you told your mother or your father. I think it was well past five years since I first told my dad I was going to be a writer. I mentioned it once again, at a family picnic. Maybe one time too many. He said in response, “A wise man once said if you have nothing good to say, maybe you shouldn’t say anything at all.” You could hear a pin drop. No one knew what to say. My face turned beet red. I fought back a tear, and I decided comments like that don’t create fact. Action does.

Why do writers write? What makes them see beyond all the negative prognostications and decrees? How are they able to see something on the other side of the blinking cursor on the laptop? When it’s all going so well, and I am cranking out word after word that somehow seem interrelated, I am convinced I’m well on my way. This is it. I’m writing. Where did all this talent come from? Dad was a woodworker and a painter on canvass, so I must have his creative genes.

Then I hit a wall. A dead end. And I do mean dead. Like my fingers won’t even move. No thoughts come to mind. The characters are trapped, never to go anywhere again. This can go on for days, weeks, months. I hate to say it, but it can even go on for years. I had a wonderful idea for a screenplay. It had everything. Teenagers, music, a snowstorm, a party gone horribly wrong. Great opening act. Act One was a joy to write. I even had a good idea how the story would end. But I am stuck at page 57. Dead in the water. I’ve tried altering the ending. I even changed the moral of the story, and looked at various character arcs. Nothing.

So what stops you from moving forward? Julia Cameron, in her great book The Artist’s Way, takes her reader through a series of exercises and workshops and lists in order to get at the bad guy inside you that’s telling you what you’re doing is no good. The internal editor. This evil force is ultimately based upon someone in your life that told you there was no way you’d ever make it. You’re too old. You’re not clever enough. You’re not creative. Your idea is not original enough. I highly recommend if you are seriously stuck as an artist — songwriter, sculptor, painter, writer, poet — that you get this book. Follow her instructions. She will help you get unstuck and find out what’s stopping you from moving forward in your work.

To the writers everywhere, just stay plugged in to the spirit that moves you. Julia Cameron talks about God being the Great Creator. She said God has instilled creativity in all of us. Our job is to get in touch with our Inner Artist. Why do we write? Because creativity is living deep down inside of us. What stops us? Oh, hell, it’s a whole number of things, most of which are not even rooted in reality. No one knows where your writing will take you. For me, it’s given me back my spirit and my drive to create. It has put me back on my intended path, and that’s worth every word I struggle to put down on paper.

So write, my friend. Start with free association. Try writing the minute you wake up. Write anything that comes to mind. Your internal editor is still sleeping. He won’t see what you’re writing. Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling or word usage. That can all be fixed in your rewrite. Just write. You will be so amazed at what comes out of end of your fingertips at six in the morning.

How Much Is Too Much?

I have often been bothered by the question, “How much is too much.” I believe in reaching out to help the next suffering human being. I have always been convinced that we are saddled with the responsibility to help our least fortunate fellow man. Of course, the help we provide can certainly vary. It can include providing money, food, clothing, rides to doctor’s appointments, helping someone get dressed, counting out their medications, mowing their lawns, shoveling their sidewalks, and the list goes on.

Some people, especially those in recovery from addiction or other debilitating conditions, require a lot of encouragement. They can become convinced that they cannot do anything for themselves. Of course,this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The less they do for themselves, the less capable they are of taking care of themselves. So just how much do you do for such a person?

Recovery tells us to keep going no matter what. To love the other person until they can love themselves. But sponsors for those people in recovery tell them to work with an addict or alcoholic for only so long, and to move on if the guidance and help is not being taken to heart. It is very easy to burn yourself out. And yet, I coincidentally just took a call from a sponsee of mine that tends to go off his meds, or take too many, and to go out drinking. I was drawn right back in to his drama. I could see myself in his struggle. It was heartbreaking. I listened, and I gave feedback and advice based upon my experience, strength and hope. I told him at least he still says he wants to be sober. He made it back in one piece, with no criminal charges. He did say he lost his Klonopin and most of his Percocet are gone, and he can’t find his wallet.

The Bible tells us to rebuke a brother in the spirit of the Lord. If he doesn’t receive us, we are to bring him before the elders of the church. If that doesn’t work, we are to bring the brother before the entire church for edification and correction. The Lord also tells us that we are to forgive our brother not ONCE, not SEVEN times, but seventy times seven. So it seems forgiveness and reaching out to help others should have no end. I would suggest that you pray before your intervention, and that, whenever possible, you bring along an extra person. Always remember what it felt like when you were down in the gutter, hopeless, helpless and all alone.

Goody Two-Shoes

I behaved myself in school for the most part. I wanted all of my teachers to like me. I learned how to write a sentence, a paragraph, a short story. I practiced diagramming sentences. My compositions were smart, clear and concise. My mind was filled with hundreds of original thoughts. Sometimes it was like a committee meeting in my head! I was eager to share all these great thoughts and ideas with the world.

In college, I was in love with philosophy and psychology. I had a rough patch from the summer of 1977 to the winter of 1979, ultimately ending up in prison at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview for three years. Too much booze, too many drugs, too much antisocial behavior. This seemed odd to me after I sobered up and got over the initial denial that I was in prison. I could not seem to explain my behavior. I was one of those students who loved to be busy. I worked on the yearbook, a local history project, did some sports photography and other photography, joined the debate team, and even participated at a state-level forensics competition in State College, PA.

I was able to enroll in college-level courses while a “guest” at Rockview. I applied every waking moment to reading course materials, assigned books, collateral reading, and to journal entries about what I was learning. My favorite courses were English, public speaking, creative writing, rhetorical writing, and psychology. I did very well. After all, I had nothing else to do but read and study. I ultimately graduated with an associates degree holding a 3.95 GPA. I was granted early release to a half-way house run by the corrections department in Scranton, PA. I was accepted as a transfer student at the University of Scranton. My studies there were mostly focused on philosophy, psychology and helping others.

I was going broke. After three semesters of classes at the University of Scranton, I quit to accept a full-time job as assistant manager of a local Pizza Hut. Nevertheless, I kept reading and writing journal entries. I got engaged twice inside of eighteen months. Needless to say, only the latter one stuck! Romance was very important to me. In fact, it defined me. I had to be with someone in order to be someone. Many years later, I have found this to not be true. In fact, I have to be somebody before I can be with somebody. I don’t need to be defined by someone else.

I have never taken an official writing workshop. This is mostly true because I don’t live in areas where they are given. I have not been motivated enough to drive a great distance to some workshop or seminar in a big city. But I did begin to read how-to books about writing. The Weekend Novelist, by Ray and Norris. The Art of Dramatic Writing, by Lajos Egri. The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. On Writing, by Stephen King. The Forest For The Trees, by Betsy Lerner. I highly recommend them all. Each has given me insight into the creative mind, the writer’s life, and the discipline needed to become an author. I heard it said on one occasion that writing is your “practice.” It’s a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane. This is especially true for me. I get pretty squirrely without putting my thoughts down on paper or in a computer document. (A note here: Writing by hand will actually feel different to you than typing words into your word processor. Try using both methods.)

I was born with the tendency to write. A predisposition, if you will. But I was not born with all the necessary skills and habits of a writer. In that regard, we need to learn to write. We need to take hold of that so-called innate ability and “gentle” it like we would a wild horse. There is no one definite way to become a good writer. There are many truths and disciplines that apply to the process. Natalie Goldberg said in her great book, Writing Down The Bones, “To do writing practice means to deal ultimately with your whole life.” I think to do less than that, in other words to leave parts of your life out of your writing, is to tell a lie.

Whether you were a goody two-shoes (a perfect student), or a hellion you can latch on to the creativity that is in you. You can begin to talk to the world about stuff you never realized you felt. You can communicate, instruct, advise, suggest. You can create something out of nothing. You can tell your story. Or, you can tell the story of others. Whatever you write about, however, you must write what is true. The A.A. anniversary coins have it right: To Thine Own Self Be True. This is the only way to, as Natalie Goldberg puts it, “Write down the bones.” Write clearly and with great honesty. Technique is one thing. Voice is another. I’m talking about telling the truth. Only in this manner can you truly become a good writer.

Get started. Have fun. Dig down deep. Come back to visit me from time to time, and share what you’re working on. We’re a community, we creative types. You’ll find that no one else understands you. Not really. They will be baffled by the fact that you spend hours, nay, weeks or months, alone, writing in that crazy journal or on your laptop. They wonder who is ever going to read all that stuff. Just remember: Initially, you are writing because you have to or you’ll go crazy. If you keep at it, and if you remain honest, you’ll discover your own voice. You will see that you too have things to say. And eventually people will read what you write.

As You Can

I have not always been interested in my fellow man. I was extremely self-centered for a great number of years. Much of this had to do with being constantly drunk or high. My perspective did not begin to change until I stopped drinking and using drugs. As a result of quitting, a whole new world opened up. One in which I could put others first for a change. I was able to care for my neighbor. I was finally capable of seeing things from the vantage point of another human being. I started to see how my situation had little if nothing to do with other people. I could stop blaming others. I could start to take responsibility for my own actions. I could see how it was that I was supposed to do whatever I could to move things in the right direction. How I was supposed to at least try.

The following poem came to me earlier this year as I sat contemplating where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.

As you can,
You must do what you will;
To the extent you cannot,
You must then instill the idea to
Either lead or follow;
Impart or borrow.
But never can you,
Nor should you,
Simply stand around and wallow
In the sin of indecision,
Wishing for someone, anyone,
To take that hill.
You must always at least do
What you can.

© 2014 Steven Barto

Christmastime

I am so sorry to be reblogging this older post so late. I wanted to get it up on the site by Christmas Eve, but I forgot. I hope you enjoy this tale about Christmas through the eyes of a young boy.

Wow, only four days til Christmas Day. The last year went so fast I almost forgot there were twelve months. Sometimes the days seem to run together. Partly because of the limited daylight. It’s typical for office workers this time of year to go to work in the dark in the morning and come home after work in the dark. Add to that all the rushing around as Christmastime draws near. Time slips by without seeming to move the hands on the clock.

When I was young, time seemed to stand still on Christmas Eve. About six o’clock on WNEP 16 out of Scranton, PA, up-to-the-minute tracking of Santa Claus on radar would begin. It always felt like bedtime would never get here. And when it did, I would never be able to get to sleep. It’s Christmastime, I would think. Santa’s coming. If I go to bed. If I close my eyes and give in to slumber. Impossible, is what I used to think as I looked at the clock again and again, hoping it was time. Everything moves like a snail. Funny, but none of the adults seemed to notice this time problem. They would eat and drink and sing and dance around the living room, smiling and toasting one another. They were oblivious. But how is this possible, I would wonder? How can they be so calm?

Santa’s coming. Quick, everyone. Finish your merriment and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Clean up. Get a plate of cookies and a glass of milk ready for Santa. He’s coming! Straighten up the living room. Move those extra chairs out of the way. Santa needs to put my new bike there. Oh wow, this is taking so long. I can’t stand this. I really can’t. The excitement is causing me to nearly tremble. I have to pee, but I’m afraid to tell anyone. Maybe I can wait til I go upstairs to brush my teeth. It’s as though I think time will slow down even more than it has already. Oh, I have to go now! No waiting til bedtime. Well, what can I do? Nothing. I look at the clock. I don’t believe the hour hand has moved more than a half inch. You’ve got to be kidding me!

After what feels like half a week, it’s finally time to go to bed. I run up the staircase, nearly slipping and planting my face in the carpet at the top of the steps. I dash into the bathroom and head straight to the toilet bowl. I barely get my snaps open before the water works begin. Without having to be told, I grab my toothbrush and get brushing. I know Santa’s watching. I’ve known that for a long time. Have to listen. Have to be good. He is always checking. Sometimes twice. I’ve been nice. I’ve not been naughty. I finish up and sprint to my room to climb in my bed. I am thinking that maybe I should skip my prayers tonight and go straight to sleep. But wait, Santa will know if I don’t say my prayers. So I fold my hands and I get started. Short, but sweet. Done in ten seconds. I reach up and kiss my mom goodnight. She tucks me in and I squeeze my eyes shut real tight, hoping that will cause me to go right to sleep. It doesn’t. My heart is pounding. I can feel it in my ears and in the ends of my fingers. I can’t help but thinking, This is going to be a long night.

Believe it or not, before I know it I am opening my eyes. I look at my clock. It’s six o’clock. At first, I’m thinking the clock never even moved. That it’s still the same time it was when I looked at the living room clock. Then it comes to me. It’s morning. I can’t imagine what might be waiting for me downstairs. I scream out loud. I can’t help myself. I just can’t. Mom shows up at my door grinning from ear to ear. Dad is standing behind her. Good. It’s time. No more waiting.

I nearly tumble down the steps as dad calls out, Take it easy Sport. I am not even all the way down the steps when I see the handle bars. Yep! Handle bars atop a brand new shiny bike. The bike is surrounded by dozens of presents. I am speechless. I took at mom and dad, and then I go sit on my new bike. Mom already has her Instamatic up to her eye, taking my picture. Dad says, Well, what do you think? I just grin and lean in to the handle bars, pretending I’m flying down Race Street hill, leaving a trail of flames behind me. Then I remember, there are presents to open. Man, this is just fantastic. I dive in, ripping at the wrapping paper. Present after present, I am blown away. I stop for a brief moment and think, This was well worth the wait.

Merry Christmas to everyone. Stay safe. Be healthy. Be thankful. And above all else, be patient. Because sometimes the clock just doesn’t seem to move at all.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

© Steven Barto 2014

No One Thought!

Someone shared a nice poem with me today about recovery. I don’t know who wrote it, but it wasn’t me. I find it to be rather clever. Enjoy.
I was shocked , confused, bewildered
as I entered Heaven’s door,
not by the beauty of it all,
nor the lights or its decor.
It was the folks in Heaven
who made me sputter and gasp–
the thieves, the liars, the sinners,
the alcoholics and the trash.
There stood the kid from seventh grade
who swiped my lunch money twice.
Next to him was my old neighbor
who never said anything nice.
Bob, who I always thought
was rotting away in hell,
was sitting pretty on cloud nine,
looking incredibly well.
I nudged Jesus, ‘What’s the deal?
I would love to hear Your take.
How’d all these sinners get up here?
God must’ve made a mistake!.’
‘And why is everyone so quiet,
so somber – give me a clue.’
‘Hush, child,’ He said,
‘they’re all in shock.
No one thought they’d be seeing you.’

Disappear

I recently took an online training course on recognizing and reporting child abuse. I could not help but think of all the horror stories I’ve heard during my career as a psychiatric technician and residential counselor. One of my jobs involved working with women who were abused over a large part of their childhood and their early teen years. The abuse was so severe that they developed multiple personality disorder. This is a type of dissociative disorder that allows the victim to create multiple levels within his or her psyche in order to “hide” from the abuse, or somehow slip away while it is happening.

I was so blown away at the time that I was able to work at the job for only about a year. It was exhausting. I felt a certain degree of rage toward the abuser. I had been writing poetry for a short period, and was able to relieve some of the tension by creating the following poem.

Mother calls.
Shadows fall on bedroom walls.
The neighbors yell.
Time stalls.
Your father bellows
Hey, who’s in my yard?
He screams and shouts.
He wails and yelps.
Thank God
No one knows your special place.
Keep your silence.
Let time race.
Pay the price with lonely patience.
And just remember to disappear.
No one knows if you’re here.

© 1990 Steven Barto

That’s Crazy

A cat that can find a bell under three metal cups and poke at it with his paw. He hears the bell and knows exactly where it is. A bear that can twirl a tree branch, throw it in the air and catch it. A large line of trees that are bent permanently by sea breeze. A ten-year-old child that can bake a cake from scratch without a recipe. A one-hundred-year-old man that rides a bicycle to his girlfriend’s house. A moon so low on the horizon that it appears ten times larger and ten times closer than normal. A teenager that can jump in the air and flip as a car drives under him.

Referee, The Poem

I haven’t written a lot of poems in the last year. My most prolific time was in the late 1990s. I had just gone through an unexpected break up with a girl I was nuts about. She was an art director and a writer. I was working in rights, clearances and intellectual property at the same company where I met her. We traveled together, went to a lot of movies, and would often lay on her bed writing.

At some point, I became star-struck regarding New York City and wanted to move there to work at a television network. We broke up by default. We were in love, but our relationship could not weather the distance.

I wrote a lot of journal entries back then, and was often moved to jot down a poem. The following was written in 1997, while I was sitting in a one-room apartment in Cliffside Park, NJ, just a short bus ride from downtown Manhattan.

The pain of loneliness and the excitement of adventure argue,
Each convinced of its position mutually exclusive of the other.
To what do I owe this honor?
A front row seat to the fight of the century.
As blows are struck, drops of sweat fly in my face.
Poignant reminders,
Rude, salty, definitive.
Whom do I root for?
Is that even a sensible question?
Shouldn’t I be hoping for a draw?
I cringe with each punch;
On the edge of my seat,
Stomach in knots,
I look for the referee.
My eyes roam the room for the time clock.
I listen for the bell.
What round is it?
Who’s calling this fight anyway?
The room is spinning;
I can feel the pain.
I can sense the desperation of each fighter.
In a dizzying moment of clarity
I realize the referee is me.

© 1997 Steven Barto