The Bold and the Beautiful

Portrait of Alberto Morales by Anna Blackshaw

Seven years ago when Annie was pregnant with Rio, she and I spent three weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. One of the most memorable adventures was visiting the ruins of Monte Alban, once the site of an ancient city that was a hub for the indigenous Zapotec people.

Atop the mountain we met a man named Alberto Morales who was selling handmade clay replicas of indigenous holy figures. Annie, in her indomitable style, became fast friends with this gentleman, and within minutes we had an invitation to visit him the next day in his tiny town at the foot of the mountain.

Alberto lived in Arrazola, a place well-known for its original art: small, intricately carved and painted wooden animals called alibrejes. We had seen these figures throughout Oaxaca and recognized them as well from the living rooms of people we knew back home. We took a taxi to Arrazola and exited on a dusty road at the town center with no one in sight. “Just ask people for me,” Alberto had said, and so we began walking around looking for someone to ask. We were soon approached by curious children, who beckoned us to follow them to their homes to see the art they had for sale. Once there we were greeted by their mother, who gave us a quick tour of the family’s alibreje operation: father and sons fetched wood and carved; mother and daughters painted; the young children solicited customers. Leaving that house, we were immediately approached by another team of children, and we continued our impromptu art tour until we finally met a woman who pointed us to Alberto’s adobe.

There we got a tour of the Morales’ home production line (a little bit of traditional iconography; a little bit of modern art). He then told us his version of the history of the alibrejes: for years the entire town had created handmade replicas of what the indigenous folks had used in their religious rituals back in the day. They all looked about the same (dark clay hand-pressed into figurines), and the men would hike up to Monte Alban and sell their wares to tourists. One morning a local man named Manuel Ramirez was home sick and had a dream of a different kind of art. He began creating elaborate and intricate wooden figures of the area’s animals: iguanas, armadillos, frogs, coyotes, snakes. He painted these bright, vibrant colors and hauled them up the mountain. At the top, he showed his goods to his fellow salesmen from the village and they had a good laugh over his ugly art.

Surprisingly, however, Ramirez began selling his new creations at an unprecedented pace, and before the day was half over he’d sold his backpack’s contents and was heading back down the mountain for lunch. Next day, same fortune.

Seeing the profits Ramirez was making, his neighbors asked him to teach them how to make alibrejes. He did so, encouraging each family to bring their own style and flavor to their creations. Before long, every man was hauling a pack of alibrejes up the mountain, and the town turned from backwater hamlet to a self-sustaining art village.

Flash forward three years. While I am at a final job interview in Chapel Hill, Annie, in her indomitable style, becomes fast friends with Sarah, the bartender at our hotel, and within minutes we have an invitation to visit her the next day in her tiny town on the banks of the Haw River. There we notice huge, colorful wooden animals gracing every front lawn. I think to myself, Those look like huge alibrejes. Sarah explains that the artist’s name is Clyde Jones and that he lives right there in Bynum. Would we like to meet him? We do, and Clyde explains how many years ago he was home sick when he had a vision of chain-sawing a cedar trunk into sections and creating colorful animals. Since then he has made thousands of critters and donated them to charities throughout North Carolina. Clyde says his work is all over the world, “from Russia to Zimbabwe.” People from around the globe regularly come visit Clyde’s zany art palace, and it is not unusual to see smiling child sitting atop saddled blue horses and pink giraffes in his front yard.

I like to believe I receive the messages the universe sends me, but sometimes I need to hear it twice. As I sit here these years later in our living room in Bynum, staring at Clyde’s red-reindeer critter under our oak tree, I think about the boldly colored iguana we bought in Arrazola that sits just a few rooms away on Rio’s bookshelf. Believe in the vision you have inside you, these animals seem to be saying. Bring forth your own mad art and share it as a gift to those around you. Otherwise, the world is a little less bright.

Great Conversations

The other day I noticed I was feeling really good. What had I done?

Not that I live in perpetual darkness, but let’s just say I’m continually acculturating to joy — when she does a two-step in my heart I like to backtrack just to see what I have done to beckon her arrival.

In this case, it was a great conversation — not with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years but with someone I interact with almost every day. A spontaneous chat turned into a talk that turned into a joy-generating exchange.

What distinguished this particular conversation from the dozens of others I had had that day? I think it was that both of us ended up at a destination neither of us had planned for. Instead of trading quick, static snapshots from our minds, we broadened each other’s views. My experience rolled around with his experience and a universal lesson was born. Heads started to nod, gesticulations became more animated, phrases like “yes! yes!” and “you’re exactly right!” peppered the air. Conversations like these generate the excitement of travel, really, because both people have moved from their point of origin to a new locale where the view is stunning.

I love it when there is a constellation of good conversations. There’s nothing like a dinner party where deep talk clinks across the room. Such moments are in fact what I seek at social gatherings; when small talk reigns, it feels like a shell hardened around the nuggets I want to get to. Why am I even here? I wonder to myself as I bump my head into perfunctory pleasantries. When I have a series of real conversations, on the other hand, I am enlivened by the gathering and the feeling inside lingers long after I’ve returned home. My answer to “Did you have fun at the party?” depends entirely on the conversations I did or didn’t have.

The key ingredient seems to be vulnerability and candor. Sometimes when I’m stuck on the surface with someone, I think, C’mon. Just throw me a few scraps. Dig in and bring up a chunk of your truth. I’m not talking about gushing with all of one’s messy particulars, but good conversation inherently involves risk-taking. What’s worse than being the provocateur while your potential conspirator moves her lips without opening her heart? I feel exposed in these moments — the guy who says too much. But I push forward with the hope that my vulnerability will invite that in the other, and that we will relish the intimacy this brings.

At a party you won’t often find me at the center of the room; I’m more likely standing in some dimly lit corner, trying to engage in what the Sufis call sohbet: a mystical conversation on a mystical subject. The Nigerian writer Ben Okri once wrote that “you can travel the world and still not move an inch.” I’ll stay there all night long if the road to somewhere keeps opening up.

At the Funeral in the Woods

This Saturday Rio went to his fifth funeral in four years. It was a very sad but beautiful day: our good friends’ third child had been born still, and they had gathered us to honor their baby girl and bury her remains. The service’s most heartbreaking moment came when their three-year-old daughter broke into sobs as the death of her sister became indisputably final.

There is no part of me that wishes to shield Rio from death. Even before his first funeral, he’d encountered the death of countless living beings, from the flowers outside our window to the dead deer we once found in the shallows of the river. He naturally inquired about what happened, and Annie and I answered as best we could: that death was sad but also a part of life, and that its arrival does not necessarily mean the end of life but rather the evolution of it into something else. When Annie’s father Bill passed away, we comforted Rio with the notion that Bill lives on in the sky, in the flowers, inside of us. Rio thinks the same about his great-grandfather Joe, his beloved aunt Mary, and Cubie, our neighbor from across the street.

For Rio to understand the cycle of life, he needs to see death, not by peeking out from behind our backs as we tried to protect him from tragedy but by taking it in with a good, clear view. When we paid respects to Annie’s sister Mary, Rio and all the children sat on blankets in the very front row. Two of the funerals he has attended featured open caskets, and I felt no hesitation as I paid my respects to my grandfather and Annie’s dad with Rio at my side. He’s young, but he loved those men and deserved a final look just like the rest of us.

We have taught Rio to embrace the unknown; that he can’t know who will win a card game, or what a walk around the neighborhood will bring, or if a character in a book will save the kingdom or falter along the way. So why should we treat the Great Mystery any differently? If we sit around fearing death, aren’t we teaching Rio to fear the unknown, which of course is life too? After all, nothing is certain.

About two years ago, Rio and I were walking in Bynum and he said, “Papa, I don’t want to die.”

“I know, my love, but everybody dies,” I said.

“Even you?” he asked.

“Even me.”

“Well I won’t die!” he declared.

“Rio, you know lots of people who have died: Baba, Grandpa Joe, Cubie…”

“But they’re not gone!” he insisted. “They’re still here. Cubie’s still here!”

“Where?” I asked.

“Up there in the trees,” he said, pointing to a giant oak. “She’s up there! HELLO CUBIE!”

Today I asked Rio what he was thinking on Saturday when he watched our friend stand at the podium and give, through tears, a beautiful eulogy to her daughter. “I felt sad, but I kind of felt happy too,” he told me. “You’re always sad when you’ve lost something, but you’re also happy you had it.” To think how less nuanced his view of loving and losing would be had we shielded him from the dark side of life.

The Seventh Ball

I recently heard about a potter in Connecticut who was known for making beautiful bowls of a certain size and form. Demand was high, so she spent most of her day at the wheel creating what everyone expected her to make.

She had a tradition, however, with every seventh ball of clay: she’d experiment with color, size, shape, edges, depth to create something completely new. After the seventh ball, she’d return to her assembly line. Not surprisingly, some of her most amazing inventions originated with the seventh ball.

This got me thinking about how many doses of free-form experimentation I allow into my life. I thrive in structure, but are there rules-free zones within its boundaries?

It’s tough to find this balance. I’ve known people who are audacious with every ball; they are fun to be around but can also be unsettling to me — I’m not sure who they really are as they trot out a new version of themselves or embrace their latest passion. On the other hand, I can be overly rigid; I like to find what works for me and keep my dial there.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons mild-altering substances have appealed to me over the years; they offer, at least initially, a glimmering exit door from the expected. When a friend of mine in college got caught with marijuana, her Dad asked, “Tell me, why’d you do it?” She replied simply, “Because it makes me feel different.” Ah, the wish to break free from our own norms.

That said, any departure from routine can become a routine itself if employed often enough. Folks don’t call marijuana “the chronic” for nothing. I’ve known many stoners who punch the clock as dutifully as the straightest of arrows.

I’m in search of letters outside rote’s alphabet, even though I am also averse to the risk that implies. But how else can I evolve? I’ve known folks who get so set in their ways that they probably couldn’t throw a fresh bowl with the seventh ball even if it promised gold. On the other hand, there are people who remain flexible and keenly interested in what they don’t know; as Rilke put it, they “resolve to be always beginning.”

A few months back, I was visiting a friend, and she recommended that we go dancing on a Sunday morning at a nearby art center that hosted ecstatic dance sessions. The idea of dancing in front of complete strangers without the aid of dim lights and alcohol was frightening to me. I reluctantly agreed, but in the parking lot outside the center I felt panic rise in me like I hadn’t in years: I wanted to sprint to the nearest coffee shop and crawl back into safety. But instead I walked in. I found a quiet empty spot in the corner and closed my eyes. Beautiful Indian music filled the room, and I began to slowly move, to unhinge my hips, to unfurl my arms and release the fears I’d been carrying like a chronic cramp. Before long, I’d forgotten the panel of judges I’d turned my dancing neighbors into and was feeling sensual, opened up, renewed. I looked around and saw that the strangers were vulnerable and tentative too. There was an exquisite beauty to that.

Dancing in front of people is not in my traditional body of work: but there I sat at life’s pottery wheel, expanding my own notion of what was possible.

Little Bit of This, Little Bit of That

I was recently talking with my niece, a college sophomore, and she said, “Ever since I started doing a lot of tasks at once, I don’t think I do them as well.”

I responded, “Yeah, sometimes I think, I can do a lot of things at once, but do I want to?”

I say this generally as someone who is not good at multitasking. I tend to focus all of my energy on what is in front of me; I don’t like dissipating this force by spreading it along different fronts. I remember even as a kid not being able to do my homework and listen to music at the same time. I even eat this way, savoring each dish on my plate independently, not wanting the taste of one to mix with the other. I want each part of the meal to be its own little feature film.

This works fine in eating, because no one is affected by how I go about consuming my dinner. But in more collaborative situations, it can be a liability to mono-task. Sometimes duty demands that I juggle multiple duties, and shrugging my shoulders and saying that I prefer just one ball at a time won’t do. As Annie has correctly pointed out, part of this inherent preference on my part derives from the privilege of being male. I don’t like to do many things at once partially because I often don’t have to. Yet witness Annie in the kitchen cooking up pasta putannesca, fending off Rio snack requests, and simultaneously talking with her sister about our holiday plans. If she said “one at a time” half our household would slowly slide into the river.

This changed a bit with Rio’s birth. With his incessant needs, I had to learn to complete an array of tasks while also caring for him: navigating traffic while singing to his crying self in the car seat; cooking while I rocked him in his chair; talking to my boss as I bounced, baby in arms, on the yoga ball we’d inflated after realizing it was the only way to fight Rio’s colic. I composed a series of odes to Rio that I wrote while standing at our living-room window with him in a baby sling.

Funny how doing just two tasks at once earns me fatherhood points: just a trip to the store with a child in the cart earns smiles from the women we pass, young and old; “it’s just so good to see you out there being a father,” one of them told me, as though doing what women have done for millennia should earn me some special prize.

But still. There is a necessary, positive aspect to multitasking, but then there is the technology-induced mania that has everyone toggling between tasks as though life were a multimedia video game. For many months I opted to stay off the computer at home, certain that I’d gotten my fill of screen time at work. I found that I was more present with Rio, and with Annie, and that I was more focused on whatever I was doing without the temptation of checking e-mail or googling some concept at the press of a button. I slid out of that experiment and welcomed again the ability to “connect,” but at times I miss the freedom I felt from closing down the multiple-attention-span option.

Sadly, but naturally I guess, I see this split-screen mentality arising strongly in Rio already, even though we limit his television viewing and he’s hardly handy at clicking a mouse yet. Just last night, he and I were putting together a Lego spaceship he got for Christmas (27-page manual; can you say “patience”?), and I noticed that he was rushing through Step 210, expecting me to pick up the slack, as he started pointing to the parts he needed for step 211. “Be thorough with each thing you do,” I told him, and I heard the echo myself.

I remember once when I was hiking in Zimbabwe, and my friend Vince and I came across an African man walking along the trail. We learned that his name was James Chimuku, and that he was returning home after going to collect milk for his family. “How long does that take you?” we inquired. “One hour each way,” James told us. “Two hours just to get milk?” we asked. “Yes, but when I am alone and I have that time with myself I think about everything I need to think about. And when I do it with my uncle we tell each other about our lives. I welcome the time the task gives me.”

And so I fight for the old-fashioned way, trying to dig my haunches into each moment while also remembering to hold up my share of the balls in the grand juggling act.

Sailing the High Seas

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

One of the gifts of being around children is the reminder to find adventure in the mundane moments of a day. Rio has always been a little man of action, and there is a lot of time to fill when we are together: thousands of walks to the bridge and hundreds of trips to the store result. I realized early on that I could either grit my teeth through these duties or believe that each turn of a corner could bring surprise even if the same path were taken yesterday.

Part of this is infusing regular objects with magical properties. Rio and I often travel to the Pirate Ship under the bridge that is actually just an outcrop of boulders. Other times we’ll have breakfast at Fox’s Place, which is in truth just a restaurant called the General Store that once was selling fox puppets among other knick-knacks. Because he’s still young, Rio doesn’t see much difference between imagination and reality, so it doesn’t strike him as odd that a stuffed animal might be running a restaurant. With him, magical realism is easy.

In my youth and into my twenties, bold travels were the norm. I remember one trip when I was living and teaching high school in South Africa. I had hitchhiked from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, across the border into Namibia, where I planned to meet a friend in the capital Windhoek. To get there, I had to travel the Caprivi Strip, a long, dusty road that separated Namibia and Angola and had been a battleground during the war between those two states. I remember waiting at a gas station with only my backpack, a bottle of water, and two pieces of sugarcane I’d cut from the roadside that morning. Who knew what might happen?

The first guy who picked me up was an Afrikaner who at one point pulled over to vomit: “too much Klipdrift” [rum] he managed to say as he lunged out the door. Next I caught a ride with a truck driver who was returning from a delivery with an open-air trailer that he had filled with travelers along the way, most of whom were African. I sat atop my backpack for 100 miles, bouncing with the road’s potholes and making friends with two black city slickers from Johannesburg. When we finally got into a town, we tried to get a hotel room together, but the sole proprietor was a portly white man who took one look at my friends and sneered, “Sorry, sir, no rooms here for you.” Somehow the South Africans knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who was building a home in that tiny Namibian village, and through a series of phone calls, we managed to procure a spot on the empty house’s floor for a night’s rest. One of the South Africans snored all night long.

All this to say that I often used to travel without a map: walk out the door and trust the wind. As I got older, I became less spontaneous. Part of this was intentional; at times unstructured adventures turned into irresponsible binges, so I started building structure and routine to keep me grounded.

A mentor of mine noticed this and suggested that the patterns I claimed as anchors were now leading me to stagnancy. He was right; somewhere along the way I’d lost my sense of adventure and had then desperately tried to rediscover it with mad impulsive jaunts; in response, I had swung too far the other way and now had become a drum stretched too tight.

“You’re in a rut because you’re not taking to the Seven Seas every day in your pirate ship,” my mentor told me. “You need to get out there, do something unexpected every day! Talk to a stranger! Walk a street you’ve never walked!”

And so Rio arrived just in time to bring me my very own pirate ship. Interestingly, now that he is almost six, he has become choosier with his adventures. The other day, I recommended a walk to the bridge, usually a sure winner — he looked outside, saw the freezing rain, and said, “Nah, I just want to stay inside.”

So I’ve started importing adventure. An eight-year-old with a funny voice named Billy Bob has been showing up at our house, in the form of my body. His dad’s name is Rock and his mom’s name is Willow. He lives on another planet and has to slide down a rainbow to get to Bynum. He only gets grumpy if Rio tries to kiss him.

And there I sit, off the map of Tim, getting smothered with smooches.

Using Your Bridges

A few days ago I found myself at the foot of San Jacinto Mountain watching my family ascend 6,000 feet in a tramcar traveling along a thick steel cable. Due to a lifelong fear of heights, I’d decided to forego the trip, opting to stay at the base lodge that was more like a sweat lodge crowded with impatient people and incessant announcements over the intercom. Right before the extended Blackshaw clan of 20 boarded, my brother-in-law Evan handed me his iPod and said, “There’s some poetry on here if you need some peace while we’re gone.”

Did I. I had gotten thrown off my horse by the huge crowds and my own mixed feelings about giving into my acrophobia and therefore missing beautiful views and the chance to watch Rio delight in the ride. So I hiked up to a solitary spot among the rocks, put on the headphones, and watched the words I heard etch themselves across the blue sky.

The British psychologist Robert Holden read a Hafiz poem and then talked about his tendency to be “dysfunctionally independent.” He spoke about how long it took him to seek help in the face of a challenge instead of clinging to the idea that all progress must be self-generated.

I can relate to this. I tend to isolate and insulate right when I need help the most. Part of this is familial: I think my whole family needed a lot more help than any one of us was willing to admit — we labored silently in our own salt mines. Another part is cultural: I definitely internalized the American notion of self-reliance and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

Fortunately, over time, I developed an extensive support network that I learned to trust when I needed help. Sometimes it was a friend; other times it was music, or poetry; even a walk has at times eased me out of tight corners. And yet when I feel stuck I often forget the very resources that bring me back to feeling connected and whole again. When I reach pain’s island it’s as if I snub my nose at my potential helpers in a masochistic prolonging of my own despair.

And so I must remind myself again and again to “use my bridges”: to draw on the remedies at my disposal instead of drowning silently and cursing those who can’t read my mind and intuit my internal thrashings.

On Christmas this year I found myself in a dark place. I couldn’t say exactly why: we’d enjoyed a nice morning opening presents, and Annie and Rio were downstairs making French Toast. I suddenly felt daunted by my own home: the voices of my loved ones seemed intrusive not soothing; the material goods around me felt like stones hung around my neck; the house was more like a trap than a shelter.

The fact that my pain was minor compared to the world’s mattered not to me in the crease of this shadow. I knew rationally that there were many people in that very moment who felt deep pangs of loneliness because they were experiencing Christmas Day alone; who was I to feel shitty ensconced in my relative bounty? But loneliness and despair are merciless predators; when they strike, their bite is acute and absolute.

But then I remembered something Annie had told me several years prior. I’d spent almost an entire day worried about money. Annie must have noticed my furrowed brow, so she asked me if something was bothering me. I finally shared what was on my mind. She said, “Wow, it must have been painful to hold that alone.”

And so on this Christmas day I reached for my phone and called a few friends. None of them picked up, but I left messages telling them that I felt sad. And simply saying these words seemed to lift me, as if the act of asking for help were as much of an antidote as the actual words someone might say back to me. When I break out of my own busted circuit of self-reliance, the world opens up.

Back at the foot of the mountain, I marveled as the words of the poets took me out of my own personal chaos and onto calmer, more expansive ground. No longer was I strung out over the holiday crowd’s bedlam and my internal civil war. Evan had been a bridge. Hafiz had been a bridge. The sky had been a bridge. Even the damn iPod had been a bridge. I’d been open to them all. And there I was, whole and ready to embrace my family as they came down the mountain.