Thursday, January 29, 2009

Letter to My 13-Year-Old Self

My Forgotten City, acrylic on canvas, 24" x 48"
private collection, Tulsa

Let's talk about algebra, 13-year-old San. I know. I know what you're thinking--will you be using algebra when you're a grown-up? The answer is yes. I am...sit down now...I am 55 years old. I am 55 years old and I am using algebra.

You too are using algebra. And I'm not talking about your homework. I'm talking about a lifelong equation that doesn't quite get solved. You and I holding down opposite sides of that puzzling equation, our life. We are solving for the variable x, and x is us. For starters, and here I'll quote from something called Wikipedia (something we have in 2009, like a World Book, only it doesn't take up good shelf space--you can actually look up stuff on a little screen that sits on your desk--kind of like interacting with a TV that has a trillion channels):

A variable is an attribute of a physical or an abstract system which may change its value while it is under observation. Examples include the height of a child, the temperature across a state, or the input to a function. This concept is relevant to and applied to almost all areas of mathematics, science and engineering.

You and I are a variable. You are slowly becoming me. (Truth be told, the process isn't that slow.) And every action I take, even writing you this letter, is somehow informed by you. I wouldn't be here had you not chosen to become me. Thank you, 13-year-old San, for granting me this bottomless moment called now.

More from Wikipedia:
mathematics and computer science, a variable is usually represented by one or more words or symbols, such as "time" or "'x'." These abstractions are often assigned definite values later in the equation or program, but unknowns are often integral to an interface even without such a value.

Damn. That was a mouthful, but is it ever the truth! Unknowns are often integral to this interface, the common boundary of this body that you and I share somehow. I believe there's just a smattering of cells in this 55-year-old body that you have in your 13-year-old body. I mean these cells, all 100 trillion of them (if you can imagine that--I know I can't), constantly break down and are replaced. I know you are learning such things in biology and are a bit freaked out by the knowledge. It still freaks me out a bit too. I look in the mirror and yes, I've changed in outward appearance, and yes, that makes me feel a little weird but not nearly as much as it would make you feel had you a picture of your 55-year-old self to view. I am not enclosing a photograph.

You must be curious about the future. I'll tell you a little about what I know:

  1. Remember that summer afternoon when you were 9 and Sharon Huckabee climbed on Mama's clothesline post and stood there for the better of three hours, intent on flying? You refused to come in when Mama called you in to supper. You were concentrating on Sharon Huckabee's heels. You just knew you were seeing them levitate ever-so-slightly off the clothesline post. You so wanted her to fly, but Mama made you come in and you just knew you missed out on seeing Sharon take off and fly over Tom Megan's blackberry bushes. You didn't miss out on a thing. Sharon never flew. Sharon will grow up and become a State Trooper. After twenty years of public service she will open a travel agency. She has always wanted to fly off to exotic places, so she decides she might as well help other people do it. Something called the internet kills her business just as it is taking off and she is arrested for check kiting. Now she's serving time in the State Pen.
  2. Sharon didn't fly, but you will. You won't be climbing on a clothesline post, but you will be soaring. You will travel to places you never imagined. Let me rephrase that. You will travel to places and they will never be quite as you imagined. What places? Strange, sometimes wonderful places. Marriage, for one. Motherhood. The death of friends. (I said sometimes wonderful.) Yes, friends will die. A couple won't even survive high school, and somehow you will. I don't say this to scare you. You are already serious as the preacher, always worrying about death. I say this to acknowledge it will happen, but it's something you do bear. Death is in the equation, kind of like a helium balloon. It lightens each side when things get too heavy for the Universe to bear.
  3. There are some people you won't mind seeing lifted off into the great beyond on their helium balloon. Remember Mrs. Gilchrist? Remember when she told you your portrait of Molly Mastin was "horrible"? Well, she lives a long time. Into her 90s. But when she lifts off, you won't feel in the least bit sad. A fifth grade teacher doesn't have any business raining on a little kid's art parade. Especially a kid who will grow up and sell her paintings to a bunch of sophisticated people from places like Seattle and Chicago and Los Angeles. Yes, I mean you!
  4. Speaking of bad adults, watch out for that junior high librarian. Next week you will be re-checking a book. She will casually ask you, "Did you see the movie?" "Yes," you will reply. "Oh, I get it. You're going to do your book report from the movie." What a clueless bitch. And I do mean clueless. In three of so years, her husband will be lifted off on his helium balloon. And we will learn she is pretty much helpless outside of a junior high library. I mean she doesn't even know how to write a check! I tell you this because this is a pattern I've begun to notice: Often the meanest, pettiest people are the most helpless. Remember that and try to ignore their meanness. Most of all, try to let go of what little meanness you're holding on to. Believe me. It will lighten our equation considerably.
  5. Never ever let a mean-spirited, petty person, especially yourself, stand in your way of flying. It's really pretty simple. You just start walking with a confident stride. You can start anywhere. Right now. Start walking down the hallway. Pretend you have little springs under your heels. Pretend I have little springs under my heels and that I am at the other end of the hall walking towards you. Yes, I see you now and I am walking towards you. The closer I get, you begin to feel your heels rising ever-so-slightly, both of them at the same time, off the floor...Now they are a quarter-of-an-inch in the air. You are starting to fly, San...get ready to soar...

Monday, January 5, 2009

The New Year's Baby and the Dalai Lama

Canyon Spirits, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40"
private collection, Shorewood, Wisconsin

I'm walking up a flight of stairs to the front door of a house. It looks a bit like a brownstone in Manhattan. It's my understanding that I am there to retrieve a baby. When I walk in the door, I see that a man is in the room. My first thought is, 'Why is a guy here?' Then I see that the man is the Dalai Lama and I think, 'Well, at least it's the Dalai Lama.' The Dalai Lama is busily engaged in making a bed. He lifts the edge of a sheet, snaps it into the air and lets it drift downwards, back to the bed; its own momentum makes it lie smooth, wrinkle-free. The edge of the Lama's red robe flies as he strides from one side of the bed to the other, tucking in edges, his full attention given to the perfection of his task.

I walk though an open door at the back of that room, turn left and see another staircase. I walk down one step and there's the newborn baby, looking comfortable, not crying, despite her precarious position on the second highest step of what appears to be a set of dark stairs leading to a basement. She's snug in a blanket wrapped tight around her tiny body. I think to myself how dangerous it was for someone to have left the baby there. I pick up the baby.

Then, maddeningly, I wake up.

The last week of 2008 blessed me with a series of dreams. This one was the most memorable and I have pondered it much. During that week I was setting my goals for the new year. In my head only. Busy-ness kept me from writing the goals down or praying about them or reflecting on them with any depth, or even thinking through a plan to bring them into reality. My goals, my hopes for 2009 were like a newborn baby--they were alive, their blood was flowing, they were still breathing, but like the baby in my dream, they were in a precarious position, almost forgotten, incapable of climbing up those dark stairs and walking to the kitchen for a glass of milk.

Intentions are the beginning of any accomplishment, but if they're abandoned on a dark stairway, some unsuspecting person, even the Dalai Lama himself, unknowingly, may trample on them. Hopes must be rescued and brought into the light. No matter how warmly we wrap them in the depths of our heart, protection isn't enough for them to survive. They need to be fed.

Here's where the hard part comes in. We have to do the work. Observe the Dalai Lama making a bed. Things have to be lifted up and set in motion with a little effort. Momentum will carry them for a time. Then they must be completed. Attention to detail is involved. And yes, grace. Grace is as nearby as the next room, but you may have to climb some stairs to get there. And don't be afraid to ask for help.