A Day I’d Like to Forget

December 28, 1979. A day I’d like to forget. The state trooper asked me if I’d like to call anyone. He asked me this at the conclusion of a three-hour interrogation. I’d been accused of a serious crime. A felony. Something I denied repeatedly during the first two hours of questioning. Somewhere around the beginning of the third hour, I felt my defenses shifting. The “wall” started to crumble. No doubt the trooper could see it happening. I was sweating. I could not stop trembling. And I was about to start crying. I ultimately confessed to burglary and arson that day. I was sentenced to three years in state prison as part of a plea agreement.

I could not believe I was in this situation a mere eighteen months after graduating from high school. I was a good student. Loved high school. I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, including drama, AV, photography, yearbook, radio broadcasting and the debate team. I played on the high school tennis team. One of my more favorite projects involved local history. I loved to write, had a flare for photography, and was fairly comfortable with public speaking. I came from a Christian family, and had accepted Christ as my Savior when I was thirteen.

How in the world did I end up abusing alcohol and drugs? Where did this obsession come from? I drank alcoholically from the very first drink, finishing my first-ever case of beer by myself in two days. Marijuana became my best friend. I smoked so much weed that I had trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. Somehow, I convinced my family doctor that I needed Valium to combat severe anxiety. I came to find that mixing alcohol, pot, and Valium leads to impulsive behavior and a complete lack of care for God, parents and the law.

I have not had a drink or a “hit” of marijuana since 2008. Unfortunately, I struggled with an addiction to narcotic pain medication for several years after that. It took being entirely honest with myself that I was an addict as well as an alcoholic in order to get clean. I started attending NA meetings in addition to AA meetings. Through improving my relationship with Jesus, I was able to stop obsessing over getting high on oxycodone to escape severe back pain. Truly, I was using the medication to escape everything. Not just physical pain, but spiritual unrest, anxiety, depression, feelings of personal failure, and a past history I’d just as soon forget. I had a lot of shame and guilt. I felt truly lost.

Today, I see my past history not as a liability, but as an asset. It is only through experiencing what I did that I’m able to reach out and help others who are wrestling with the demons of addiction and mental illness. After much prayer, and speaking with my pastor and several Christian friends, I was able to hear God’s call on my life. I have returned to college to complete my undergraduate degree in psychology in order to prepare for a career in addictions counseling. I will be working primarily with teenagers and young adults. As much as I’d like to forget December 28, 1979, it is a part of my past that has led to me finding my purpose. What a joy it is to get out of bed each day and be grateful for life. To love being clean and sober. To understand why I’m here.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.” (Mark Twain)

 

Salt

Salt. That’s what I remember most. It seemed to cling to my lips the entire summer. It rode the wind. It crystallized on my car, dulling the shine, and it caused a haze on my sunglasses. Salt was so inescapable at the beach that by mid-July I stopped putting it on my boardwalk fries.

In the fall of that year, I bought a bag of salt and vinegar chips. I tore the bag open and immediately started to salivate. The aroma brought me back to the shore, summer wind gently dancing across my face. Can’t wait til next summer.

“I Can’t Tell if Procrastination Kills Creativity or is Essential to it.”

Grant Snider’s Twitter comment @grantdraws raises an interesting question. Does procrastination kill creativity, or is it essential to it? I’m certain Grant is thinking about that part of creativity where the artist or writer “mulls it over.” Chews on it a bit, allowing it to resonate with them. Puts it to a vote before the committee in their head. (Note: The chairman of this committee is your Internal Editor. The one member of the panel who tells you to re-write, re-write, re-write, then says it’s still no good.) A story, for example, often takes a long time to develop. It might begin with a single word, or a particular character. It might be totally subject-based. It could be inspired by a recent tragedy.

It is important to note, however, that procrastination has many highly descriptive synonyms. Could it be said that loafing inspires creativity? One of my best poems did come to me while loafing. What about delaying? How can delaying a project provide any positive outcome? Delaying is, well, simply not doing. Reminds me of the comment, “I’m going to try to write a poem.” According to the intergalactic wisdom of Yoda, there is no such thing as try. There is only do and not do. Some writers dabble in storytelling. Dabbling is akin to playing around, poking at a few words, trying to put them into sentences. Of course, puttering is another name for procrastinating. Doesn’t sound very productive. My favorite synonym for procrastinating is dilly-dallying. Takes me right back to my father’s admonishment: Stop dilly-dallying and get something done out there! You’re not going to the pool until the hedges are cut and the yard is mowed!

We cannot leave the definition of the word creativity out of this discourse. Creativity is the use of imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work. When we create something, we turn new and imaginative ideas into reality. It involves the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, or providing entertainment. I’m sure you’ve heard that creativity involves “thinking outside the box.” Consider the comment, “a great artist is but a conduit for an expression that resonates with something that is greater than him.” There is participation here. Willingness. Openness. Procrastination is the antithesis of creativity. It basically shuts down that which is possible. And because all creative ideas are fleeting at best, putting off even the simple act of writing an idea down in your journal or notebook is almost a guarantee that the idea will be lost to you forever the minute you think of something else. Groceries, for instance.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

There is nothing in Vonnegut’s statement that even hints at procrastination being good for creativity. Vonnegut is talking about leaping forward, immediately, leaning in to it, obeying your muse, grabbing a pen and paper, or sitting down at your laptop, and working. Creativity is work. Creativity is spontaneous. It is not achieved by sitting around, delaying, dilly-dallying, or puttering. Sentences, paragraphs, chapters, indeed entire books, get written by being written. Ruminating or mulling something over does, indeed, occur in the embryonic stage of creativity. This is the germination phase. Then there’s sprouting. After that comes pruning and watering and feeding, and then the harvesting.

I don’t see how procrastination can do anything but kill creativity.

The Space to Write

I’ve been asked the question Where do you write? many times. Lately, I find space to write wherever I am. When I first noticed I had an ability to write, I gave it too much celebration. What I mean is I tended to make the whole process into ritual more than practice. I needed just the right chair, with exactly the right degree of lighting. I considered feng shui to be vital. Obviously, I had to stop writing and research the meaning of feng shui before I could get any work done! I was all about the atmosphere, man! I used the word conducive a lot. As in, The temperature of the room and the muffled noise of neighbors having sex were hardly conducive to an atmosphere of concentration.

Writing is process more than atmosphere. In her wonderful book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg brings together Zen meditation and writing, claiming the practice of writing is no different from other forms of Zen practice. Writing is a form of meditation. When we write, we create. We become one with The Great Creator. We’re made in His image. The best honor we can give to Him is to create as we were created.

Writers don’t simply read about writing and hope to wake up tomorrow able to write. Writers write. Certainly, eliminating distractions will foster longer periods of writing. It’s advisable to avoid Internet “research” while writing an initial draft. Background music might be helpful if you aren’t listening to songs you are likely to sing along to, or that take you back to that magical night when you went ice skating at the municipal rink with the homecoming queen, spinning round and round to “Kung Fu Fighting.” Television is a huge distraction. Oh, and consider making your writing space a phone free zone.

I spent some time in New York City in the mid 1990s. I was having lunch on the mezzanine level of the Paramount Hotel. My order was apparently making itself. So while waiting and waiting and waiting, I started people watching. I saw a rather wide swatch of society, from busboy to television executive. (I was working in the legal department at MTV Networks at the time.) I grabbed my journal and started writing. In this instance, the physical location I was in greatly contributed to what I wrote, complete with a comment about trickle-down economics running past my feet in a river of dirty dishwater from the kitchen. It seemed I blinked twice and my food was being served.

Typically, I can write wherever I am. I have been so overwhelmed with a story idea or a thought about how to handle a particularly troublesome spot in a rewrite while driving that I had to pull off to the side and grab my notebook. (I refuse to text and drive, and so should you!) I try to keep a pad and pen with me everywhere I go. I recently spent an hour sitting on a swing along the Susquehanna River in my home town working on a personal reflection piece about hatred in America. The space was very conducive, as I was able to recall having only one African American in my high school graduating class of 347 students in 1977. All I could think of was how out of place he must have felt in my small, 99.99% white town. Fast-forward to 2016, and I don’t see much progress vis-a-vis this evil thing called racism.

I have also written in a prison cell. In the dark. Lying on the floor, facing the bars, so I could grab some of the lighting from the tier. In fact, I did a lot of writing during that horrible experience. It is because of writing that I turned three years of incarceration into an oasis of discovery, spirituality and creativity. I was able to enroll in a two-year college program and start earning credits toward an undergraduate degree. Writing introduced me to inmates who were also writers. I had the privilege of reading a publication put together by inmates called “Notes From The Greystone Hotel,” which contained flash fiction, personal reflection, poetry and prose. It was then that I learned, at least for me, to write is to grow. (The State Correctional Institution at Rockview was nicknamed The Greystone Hotel.)

I write because I have to write. Space to write? If I’m serious about my craft and driven to get what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling out of my head, down my arms, and onto the journal page or laptop keyboard, then I will consider everywhere to be “The Space to Write.” Stephen King wrote Carrie on a card table in the laundry room of his house. I truly never know when an idea will grab me and refuse to let me go. I recently wrote a poem called “I wrote a Poem Once While Sleeping.” You can read it by clicking on the link: https://theaccidentalpoet.net/2015/09/18/i-wrote-a-poem-once-while-sleeping. I would love to hear what you think about it. Anyway, I look forward to reading other posts on The Space to Write.

 

 

“Be the Change That You Wish to See in the World.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

There are a great number of professions whose novices hold the same sentiment: I want to make a difference. I want to change the world. This is true of junior senators, rookie police officers, young law school graduates, teachers, mental health counselors, pastors, nurses, and many others. Reporters are motivated to make a positive impact on society. They live to be first with the basic facts of a newsworthy development. I read a comment from a reporter who said, “When you can look at all the dots everyone can look at, and be the first to connect them in a meaningful and convincing way, that’s something.” That’s exactly what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did when they cracked the Watergate case wide open in June of 1972.

Writers and poets also hope to make a lasting impression on the world. Dylan Thomas said, “Some people react physically to the magic of poetry, to  the moments, that is, of authentic revelation, of the communication, the sharing, at its highest level. A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” The questions raised by Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mocking Bird were part of a conversation that echoed around the country. It’s a conversation that is still going on in America in 2016. The book endures because people can relate to it in so many different ways. It’s about race. It’s about prejudice. It’s about childhood. It’s about parenting. It’s about love. It’s about loneliness. Atticus Finch understood the importance of being the change that you wish to see in others.

Although Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me is a worthy sentiment, what I am speaking about has more to do with what God is producing in me than what I am producing on my own. When we get outside of our production mindset, we’re able to look at what it means to “bear fruit” with fresh eyes. This phrase does not refer to our own good deeds, but rather speaks about the fruit of the Spirit that God cultivates within us. To “bear fruit” means for a thing to reproduce that which resembles its very essence. More importantly, the thing can only produce more of the thing itself. To put it another way, we cannot effect positive change in the world from a position of darkness or weakness or selfishness. Our desire to change society must be rooted in a wish to improve life for everyone, not to change the rules or circumstances to serve our own interests.

Our good works are not the purpose of our calling. Our calling is not defined by the earthly outcomes of our efforts. No, our calling is to bear fruit from above: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) It is primarily in this way that we are made useful in the work of justice. The Bible never speaks of our role in the pursuit of justice and restoration outside of our relationship to and with God, because there is no such thing as justice outside of God. This is why it can be so exhausting and infuriating for us, and potentially destructive for those we think we’re helping, to pursue justice separate from God.

It is right to want to make a difference. To improve things. Those of us who have found a solution to self-centeredness then find it possible to grow more Christ-like. Of course, this needs to happen before we can find our calling or purpose. It truly does feel good to stop living a life of thievery, manipulation, deception and bullying. It is freeing to stop judging others and using others, and start looking toward Christ for our identity. Some will tell you that turning your will and your life over to God will make you a non-entity. Some kind of automaton. Let me assure you that is a lie from the devil. It is liberating to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.

Calling is not a code to crack. God is not holding out on us. We won’t find fulfillment in achievement. We’ll find peace when we understand our purpose is not to seek justice, but to become the type of people who want to seek justice. You don’t need to graduate, start that non-profit, get that job offer, or wait for the kids to leave the house in order to start making a difference. You can be the change you wish to see in others. So yeah, let it begin with you.

 

Abundance

Abundance. It is a wonderful concept. Having more than enough of what we need. It seems to be a good thing to be rich in supply. We often hear that the only people who worry about money are those who don’t have enough of it. Having “more than an adequate quantity” of anything would be downright unbelievable for someone who typically runs out of everything at the most inopportune moment. Much of society sees things from a “scarcity mentality,” expecting to never have enough, to never get ahead in life. Not in any way. Not in the least. Having a scarcity mentality can be quite painful for the individual, and tends to create a lot of unnecessary fear, anxiety and desperation.

Focus on abundance, not on lack. What you focus on will materialize in your world. Maintaining a scarcity mentality will have you tripping over examples of lack. You will find them everywhere. You will see evidence all around you that reek of negativity, failure, insolvency, famine, drought. You will become increasingly negative. You will suddenly realize that you are nowhere near living an abundant life. Not surprisingly, this realization often causes many Americans to decide it’s not worth worrying about. It will be whatever it will be. They believe it’s too late to prepare, and so they plop down on the couch and turn on Play Station 3 or click On Demand and watch a movie. Some will grab their keys, get in the car, and drive to their favorite bar. Forget about what’s coming. Let’s drown our fears and misgivings with shots of Jim Beam.

We all hold onto beliefs about who we are and what is possible (or not possible). Have you ever asked yourself how true are these beliefs? I have often been plagued by statements such as, “I’ll never be rich,” “There’s never enough,” “I’m not good enough,” I’ll never be happy,” or “I don’t have a head for handling finances.” Self-limiting beliefs such as these keep you stuck in a scarcity mentality. When you believe money is not within your grasp, you get discouraged and give up. You won’t even try. When the running script in your head is I’ll never have enough to save for the future, you don’t put money away, and, therefore, you never compile a nest egg. You create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe something is not in the realm of possibility, we don’t bother wasting our energy trying to attain it. For us, it’s not in the realm of reality.

It may be surprising to learn that the first thing you can do to break free from scarcity mentality and start moving toward abundance is to be thankful for your paychecks. Gratitude is a critical element of learning to be thankful for what you have. It will help you to move toward abundance. If you think you’ll never have enough, then not surprisingly you will spend everything you earn. Saving money will not seem like a worthwhile habit. Compound that belief with the “biblical” statement that money is the root of all evil, and you have literally millions of American Christians thinking that accumulating wealth is not sanctioned by the Bible. But note this: The statement Money is the root of all evil is not exactly the wording found in Bible. The Scripture tells us that it’s the LOVE of money that is at the root of all evil. (See 1 Timothy 6:10.)

God cares if our needs are met. Matthew 6:25-26 says, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air: They do not sow or reap or gather into barns – and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are they not much more valuable than [the birds]?” It is interesting that the birds don’t have to think about whether their needs will be met. They are not preoccupied with the thought that there is no way they can survive the year. Not on this small amount of food. Of course, birds don’t worry or rationalize or play the victim. Birds do what birds to. They rely on the Creation of God to supply their food. They plan ahead. They simply go and get what they need. They eat, and they provide for their young.

Steven Barto © 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things I’ve Learned About Human Nature

  1. When our communities were tribal-based, the good of the clan came before the good of the individual.
  2. Man is a social animal, and he is not designed for isolation.
  3. There is a God-shaped hole within all of us that cannot be filled by sex, booze, drugs, gambling, career, cars or big houses. I’ve heard this concept described as the “hole in the soul.”
  4. It’s better to leave a legacy than a personal history.
  5. When we choose to counsel and help others whose life has gone off tracks, our past becomes an asset rather than a liability.
  6. Unconditional love is known as affection without any limitations. It is sometimes associated with other terms such as true altruism, or complete love.
  7. Unfortunately, acts of evil aren’t terrifyingly inhumane, but rather all too human.
  8. Man is hard-wired to take credit for everything good in his life, and to blame God for everything wrong in his life.
  9. We are a snapshot or facsimile of God. Our godlikeness is the path to our greatest fulfillment.
  10. We’ve all heard that the unexamined life is not worth living, but consider too that the unlived life is not worth examining.