In Your Presence

When I was growing up, my family always spent time together after dinner was over and dishes were done playing cards. No matter what was going on, after the meal when everyone was home we gathered together to relax and do something simple at least four times a week, and not always for very long—one of the advantages of traditional playing cards is that they come out and clean up very quickly and easily. Even if the card games were proxies for healthy interaction via heated competition, we were affirmed that we were with the others there at the table.

This month I invite you to make a little extra time to pay attention to the people you are with, at home or at work or at some hobby or at church or wherever you might be. Sometimes we are with someone and yet absent, we appear in their presence and think about being elsewhere.

Choose to be present. Choose to be with them. Choose to interact and to observe, look keenly for how they are feeling and what they are going through and what you can do to help them if anything. Engage deeper. People are the most valuable resource in your life. Even the mail carrier who you may never speak to does a lot of good for you and saves you time, even the fast food server is providing you with an opportunity just by being present.

This may expose issues you do not want to face, hard things, things there are no words. My family had plenty we never discussed, so we focused on the games. Still, at least let them rise to the surface where you can make the decision with the Civilized side of you whether to tuck them away or to bring them up, instead of letting the animal make decisions based on discomfort or pain.

This is more a matter of style than action; this invitation is more about changing your inner landscape than your outer one. Choose to see, choose to listen, choose to dig in, choose to invest. All of these things cost you and it is very easy to walk by the opportunities even in those closest to you, the familiar windows of family life with its routine interactions and relative positions; it’s easy to keep your mental wallet shut instead of even window shopping if you go by the windows every day or if you’re out and about on a mission or errand. The animal side of us glazes over routine interactions as a matter of course, and at its most bestial it completely ignores or even moves to dominate those who aren’t immediately making themselves useful to us instead of treating everyone with respect, which pays off long-term.

Our families and communities can be stronger, and there is no realistic upper limit. In an age when neighbors are often unknown and there is much to fear in powers and persons both foreign and domestic, simply being present and open to those around us is often enough to set you apart and even establish trust—that oft-elusive shield of faith that protects mind and spirit from all manner of harm and greases the wheels of societies and social life alike. Strengthen your influence and awareness of your world, be willing to put in a little more work and grow a little, be willing to change and grow a little further outward of your safe cocoon of normalcy for a few days.

Be present with those who are in your presence in the present. Present yourself as a present to your world. See what happens, what you notice, what changes in you and your relationships in the next week. Come back and let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear about your re-experience of your world.

Old Scribbles and Throwaways

I have a box of old papers from my childhood: Church bulletins, napkins, ragged journal pages and curled and faded sticky-notes. At any given time I might call any one of them junk, but when I sit to write and do not feel a particular creative spark I have found a simple glance at the box sometimes jars me into remembering.

I became enthralled with other worlds, with the godlike power to mould and shape and reason out whole countries and cities, empires that spanned the void and people who walked the ether as though the worlds were neighborhood houses, magicians and dragons and monsters that defied definition to my child-mind. That spark has been tended, and though it may get blown out from the candle I carry I always remember to keep close at hand something to light my fire again, and a place to record valuable tinder.

There are three indispensable tools, for those who desire to write for a living:
– Memories of the past: This is knowledge of the world, evergreen and ever-growing, as well as remembering what it’s like not to know fully. Without that you will grow conceited and stop advancing into productive drive and high-quality works.
– Concrete for the future: Without clear goals, nothing will be achieved just as without hurdles to jump or lines in the track and a timer running a sprinter is merely a lad at play. You need metrics to produce your best; some people love time crunches or competitions, making money or love sharing their stories… the motivation and where exactly the chalk-lines stand in the field is up to the individual, but without them you will drift. These are actually the bricks that build a city.
– A slate for the present: Many great ideas are lost each day for want of a pen and a napkin, and many stories have been told of how a wonderful bit of writing was once begun very humbly. Keep a notebook and pen always at hand, even if you usually use a smartphone or electronic record like I do. You can’t regret it, and you don’t have to blind yourself to record a dream or some terrific vision either. Get comfortable writing in a journal too. A daily devotion to remembering will harden your mind and sharpen its teeth to catch ideas for you to use as you solve problems letter and word by sentence and paragraph by page and chapter.

In taking a break between publishing my first book and compiling the other three in the series, I came to realize just how important the habit of daily writing and journaling is to my creative process, and just how vital it is to have the ability to jot down a quick idea to resolve later and keep it from distracting me yet also not losing it. They only appeared in reflection, and I wondered what all had been recorded. Almost forty pages, line by line, of new ideas, characters, cities and speeches and plots and stories and stubs of differing grades. If I ever find a place for them in my continued work, I have only the close proximity of my tools and the mindfulness that I developed to thank.

These four books—my first—are all compilations from my past and present that reach forward into my future from a daily habit of writing. I chose to publish them because they might help others. Perhaps even you. It is no small drive that makes an artist, but a great one that flows from the heart with strong enough hands to keep it from running away with the head; it is all too easy to forget that wrangling it takes time, devoted time that you must choose to limit your focus, shut off sections of your imagination or turn them inward to focus on one area.

But you cannot waste things, or you may be found wanting them later. Start building your shoe box and that pile of ratty old journals you’re certain nobody will ever want to read. They can’t be your muse when you’re older if you don’t make them now to remind you, you cannot leave a legacy to inspire fans and enrich your children’s lives if you leave only your public persona behind, you cannot afford to forget where you have come from if you wish to live a compassionate and graceful life. Set up your marker-stones and remember for tomorrow instead of simply passing through like a migrating animal. The moments of life and health we are given are even more precious than our simple ideas, and we can use them well.

Book Review: Death Comes for the Deconstructionist

Periodically I will be posting reviews of books that are interesting or useful in educating and expanding the mind, and this first one is a contribution by the honorable and generous Matthew. Feel free to send one in if you find a title that is particularly worthwhile or uplifting; include your first name, the book title, and a link to where it can be purchased or legally downloaded. Please enjoy:

“Something is wrong.”

With this opening line Daniel Taylor begins an intriguing tale woven through the streets of Minneapolis, the halls of the University, and the deep roots of Memphis. The main character Jon Mote has been hired by a Mrs. Pratt to investigate the murder of her husband. Dr. Richard Pratt, professor of literature at the U., champion of post-modernism out to slay the dragons of “repressive structures and meta-narratives”, spokesperson of “justice for the voiceless”, underminer of “the tyranny of the center…” Who could have possibly wanted to kill such a tower of free thought?

Mote is by no means a detective and is hardly in a position to offer help, but Dr. Pratt’s widow wishes to have it. Unable to hold down a job or sustain his marriage, Mote needs the income to support him while he lives with—and cares for—his sister. The late doctor was once Mote’s Ph.D. advisor, but Mote dropped out of the program after failing to produce a thesis in keeping with the philosophy of the department–a misguided fondness of literature came through in the argument.

As a reader, Taylor’s book was an introduction and clarification of the post-modern academy and philosophy. Dr. Pratt was a deconstructionist; the philosophy has served him well and he lived by it wholeheartedly. It assisted him in his rise to prominence as a lecturer, professor, and literary critic. You could go so far as to say he owed who he was or wasn’t (non-being is an option) to his strict and reverent adherence to the freedom of the vacuous faith.

Author and speaker Daniel Taylor has written numerous books and essays. He was born in Southern California, his pursuits in higher education were kicked off with a Bachelors (1970), and Masters and Doctorate in English (both 1974). Through the years he has traveled widely–the Czech Republic and Guatemala and Australia to name just a few. “Death Comes for the Deconstructionist” won the Fiction category for 2016 in the annual Christianity Today Book Awards. The novel also won the Illumination Award for best fiction (Independent Publisher).” The book was published in 2014 by Slant (an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers) and is a moderate 199 pages in length.

Deconstruction was the first of many words with which I was pleased to make renewed acquaintance as I read. I started keeping a dictionary handy after the first four words I tried to ignore. It started with monism and solipsism (both helpfully summarized). I finally gave in after nimbus and Duchamp on page 2. Though there are numerous words to acquaint ones self with Taylor does not alienate or intimidate his reader with new vocabulary. The extra time and effort taken really is worth the enrichment of the text. Here’s one to get you started.

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist is a well-thought-out, well-written story that allows the reader to consider a life lived in homage to thought that is wholly other than Christian. It is also well worth the read for the example of first-person style. I would recommend the book for 16+ as long as an avenue for mature discussion is available with a mentor.

“You have to be careful when you link up with a man who says he doesn’t believe in truth – capitalized or otherwise. Pretty soon he won’t believe in you either.” (p. 163)

Parental guide:
Through the story the protagonist is plagued by the memory of his sister’s rape (by his uncle); he also experiences flashbacks near the scene of the murder. In the story there is a non-graphic description of a lynching. There are references to adultery, stabbing, suicide, alcohol use, and demonic oppression. Other aspects to consider are a reference to the shocking behavior of Elvis Presley and a distinct absence of profanity.

Lifestyle Defined: Beyond Choosing

Lifestyle is simple and easily defined: The style in which a life is lived.

The dictionary definition helps us understand the heart of it by including: “…that reflects the attitudes and values of a person or group.” The way you live reflects your attitudes, or more often the attitudes of the group to which you belong.

Five years ago, my lifestyle involved playing video games or otherwise “plugging in,” working out at the gym, and chasing after female attention—everything my collegiate friends said was the high life. I was on autopilot, and I did not have a thought as to what was driving my lifestyle or whether it might be good until one day a friend mentioned I could build something, a game of my own. So began the start of a tremendous change: Becoming conscious.

The way we live is not always conscious but becoming aware is only the first step. Being conscious and aware, considering each motion and statement and plan is good—certainly better than the unthinking and self-focused navel-gazing so common to our experience. It is also exhausting, and invites self-hatred, depression, timidity, and depression when you drop things, forget appointments, and eventually fail to progress. Unless you are the exception, controlling every aspect of your life and existence is unworkable and a foolish waste of energy.

So thinking is better than not, and awareness is better than not but unworkable and overtaxing. It takes only a moment more to come to the conclusion that it’s best to wobble about, trying to be conscious of a certain amount of things, or only at certain times. The Daoists sum this up as wu wei, which I quite like: “without action” or alternately “without effort.” So you change your thinking from thinking about actions by themselves to thinking about habit formation and reinforcement: Not “Don’t eat the candy in the jar” but “Walk a different way so I don’t go by the jar” or even “Put the jar away.” Wu wei is spoken of in many ways also by Stoics like Marcus Aurelius. Our lifestyle defines us, because our conscious choices matter less than our routines and regular habits; breathing and heartbeat matter more than fish or chicken. Don’t think about actions, think about motivations and principles and suddenly the actions become automatic.

Being a Civilized Animal means being willing to break the flow of our simple animal natures—creatures are habitual whether man or beast. As Civilized souls though, we can take up our shovels and divert the watercourse of even the mightiest river with disciplined work. This means belonging in the group we want to be associated with, even if we stand alone or must make our own niche in the social world and being willing to do things a different way than our neighbors or even our families if need be. Our lifestyle is a collection of things that define us.

Make sure your hands are on the reins!

Creative Collaboration

Storytelling has been an essential part of family and community life for as long as communities have been around. While being able to tell a good story is recognizable as a positive feature, most people would say it is not essential. But is it?

From its contribution to social engagements or its importance in helping you pin down a shady speaker, from its impact in presentations before business clients or in entertaining children, storytelling has impact across the board in massive though often unobserved ways. The creative engine Tales of the Common Folk is made to provide an educator help in teaching one aspect of storytelling: collaboration.

Creative collaboration, making things with others’ input, is actually opposed by many education systems which isolate creative energy in an attempt to concentrate it. When, say, musicians are gathered in a group or band in schools the atmosphere created is more of a top-down hierarchy that limits the discovery of the process by focusing on root disciplines—in other words, instead of the class focusing on their specialization such as band or drama, the class is carried out so as to treat the students like hard drives by downloading them their authority’s vision.

There are many reasons for this, but ultimately it leaves the next generation sorely lacking in this critical real-world skill. Every professional band and musician is influenced by collaboration with others, from producers and recording studios and marketing agents to fellow musicians and band members; every successful writer makes concessions to market forces and the people producing and buying the books, even Charles Dickens and Procopius. In business, marketing professionals and business partners dance to the beat of collaboration with their creative energies too, yet children are taught to obey and follow rather than being given feedback or criticism of their free exercise. They grow fragile, looking around for a prophet to show them a vision when we need each and every one of them free.

Tales of the Common Folk is a small card-based engine designed to let kids of almost any age mix with peers or adults to tell stories together. It incentivizes cooperation and is modeled after fair-play practices in many familiar games, so it is quick to pick up. The initial hesitation I have observed in playtesting indicates a lack of clear framework, which is the whole point: Give them some creative space. Few limits, maximum interaction, social engagement with a purpose. I am thrilled with how it has come together and how it is used by the groups I’ve shown it to. Right now, it’s having some art redone and I’m tinkering away on the rules insert back in the workshop. I’m very excited.

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