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.

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.

The Pedestal

A good friend and I were talking recently about how easily we fall from serenity into the murky waters below. Although the mechanics of our descent are different, we both feel the same fundamental pain of having lost our golden spot.

So what to do? We agreed that once we slip off, a whole day can go by with us floundering in the backwaters. Often I try to cheat my way back to the pedestal — fill in quick fix here — swimming down channels that usually end up taking me farther from my goal. Don’t lifeguards say that when you get taken by a riptide not to try and swim your way out of it? But I’m not comfortable with my own drowning.

So I dream of a spiritual ammonia, something pure and simple, a quick dose under the nose and bam I’d be all right again.

There do exist some natural remedies I haven’t tried, or that I don’t use often enough. I liked yoga but am so naturally inflexible that it was like trying to bend steel. Thank God I decided that instead of trying to meditate I would instead sit in silence for a few minutes; a semantic distinction perhaps, but one that turned a failure into a regular practice. Sometimes I’ll simply rub my own heart in small circles and say, “Everything is OK, Tim” over and over.

I wish I used these simple strategies more frequently, but the truth is once I’ve fallen off the pedestal I usually thumb my nose at the sky and hope for a better day next sunrise.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to de-pedestalize the pedestal itself. If I perceive it as a precarious high spot then I struggle to return once I’ve fallen from its throne; if on the other hand I see it as a small rock that I’m always just a step away from standing on, then I need not panic when my feet lose their grip. Rather than spend twelve hours drowning, then, I may instead see a day as a constant two-step on and off the rock.

From the front yard of our house in the country I can see a radio tower in the distance. When I first spotted its blinking red light, I cursed it as evidence of the inevitable encroachment of civilization. But I’ve learned to see the tower’s flashing beacon not as an annoyance but as a reminder that the chances to get back on the pedestal tick by incessantly. Off. On. Off. On. Occasionally when I’m lost I walk outside and look at the red pulse and think of my own heartbeat and say out loud, “Just try again. Now.” Sometimes, it sticks.

Animal Soul

I recently had some torrid one-night stands with my lower self — that petulant punk who thinks he is the center of the universe and deserves all he wants. It’s not that I wish to behead desire’s fiery skull; I’d prefer to transmute base urges into soulful ones. (Good luck with that!)

The truth is that what my inner brat says I want is not necessarily what I really want. It is often misinterpreted desire. When my brat says “stimulate” I usually need rest. When he says “alter consciousness” I really crave a simple adventure. When he says “obliterate” I in truth aspire to feel more deeply. It reminds me a little of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza does the exact opposite of what his mind first tells him to do, and he marvels at the good fortune that unfolds in front of him.

The Sufis calls these desires “the nafs”: animal energies that naturally course through us. They don’t necessarily label these as bad, something the Western mind (and I) do quite readily. In fact, the poet Coleman Barks says, “Each stage of growth has its nafs which make one satisfied with his present state and inhibit further growth. Recognition of, and conflict with, those nafs leads to an opening, a new breathing, the next step.” In grappling with the nafs, then, we grow, which means they can be blessings, or at least catalysts.

But how to engage with the lower self in a present way? I can so easily lose myself in the rabbit hole that it’s hard to keep my feet on solid ground. Tangles with my animal soul tend to leave me spent, hungover, hanging by a fragile thread. The lows I experience afterward come not necessarily from the acts themselves, nor even guilt over them, but more from the morbid disappointment that I remain unfulfilled despite my gorging.

In contrast, when I meet my true desires, I find them quite easily fulfilled, a pleasure really: a kiss from Rio; an interesting conversation with a stranger; writing for a few minutes even if what I produce feels like the crudest sketchings.

Perhaps the best I can do is to increase the frequency of these serene moments and to embrace also the days I stray. I believe this is called being authentic. The only alternative is to split myself into two halves: the good me and the bad me. I’ve tried this and have been left holding only jagged shards.

No, I’d rather look for chunks of gold in the pits.

The Hearth

The wood stove

With the onset of winter, I’m focused on tending the fire. We have a big wood stove that heats up most of the house, and so I’ve been procuring loads of timber, keeping it neatly stacked, using a maul and hatchet to chop the logs into an array of sizes, and, most importantly, starting a fire and keeping it warm through the night.

There’s something about the heat from a wood stove that makes a forced-air system almost like plastic next to silk; the warmth from the fire crawls up from under you and licks your very skin.

I’m so obsessed with my self-appointed duty of heating the house manually that I sometimes forget to actually look at the fire — I tend to keep the stove’s doors closed to maximize efficiency. Thankfully Annie regularly opens them so she can gaze at the yellow and orange flames dancing across the oak. Something about watching a fire narrows my world, drawing attention inward and away from whatever wilderness my mind was racing through.

Rio is already prone to this effect; last night, I found the kid we secretly call “Flash” (as in blur) sitting perfectly still by himself in front of the fire, gaze intent.

This got me thinking about a backpacking trip to Yosemite that my high-school sophomore class went on for a week one winter. On the last night, after we’d traversed mountains and survived the snow and ice, the counselors lit a bonfire and asked each of us to grab a stick. They then told us to take turns throwing the piece into the fire and saying something about the trip. Most of us probably rolled our eyes, and the session began with fairly standard “I learned a lot” platitudes. But about a third of the way in, one of my classmates began talking about the hard time she’d been going through at home, and she began to cry. The next girl related a painful story from her life, and she too started to weep. Before long, we were all in tears, sharing our truest truths.

I’m not sure the teachers and counselors had ever witnessed anything like this. There was so much pain among us, and, amazingly, we were letting it burn.

Our class was always a little different after that. While the juniors above us and freshmen below us were plagued by persistent cliques and schisms, our class exhibited an unusual harmony that every teacher I knew commented on. We weren’t all friends or anything saccharine, but we had seen each other at our most exposed, and we never forgot the dirty beauty of that. We “let our scars fall in love,” as the poet Galway Kinnell puts it.

I am certain, after all these years, that each one of us remembers that night: the time we shared the secret of our frailty; the time we unveiled everything and felt free.

That Night

The man had sins to confess. We in the room told him we would listen. He had written what he wanted to say. He talked about what happened when he was young. How his glass got shattered.

He then said what he had done. All the lies, secrets, sins he’d thought he’d be buried with. That he was already buried under.

The paper was shaking in his hands. He had a hard time looking up. He wasn’t a criminal but felt like one. He had deceived many, hurt some. He had cut a hole into himself down which he had disappeared. Now he was crawling back out.

He finished. He looked up, trembling.

What he’d said sat in the middle of the room. We stared at it, marveled at the twisted trunk of truth.

“You just unloaded something awful heavy,” someone said. “When you leave tonight, you don’t need to take it with you.”

The man winced as though struck suddenly with a stick. Then his eyes softened and he wept. Not all the pain was gone but some, somehow shouldered by others who noticed less its weight. We each took a piece and put it on the shelf beside our own fractured bits and left the room.

Holy Moments

I know it when they arrive. My heart is suddenly a meadow I am walking through. I don’t need anything except exactly what I’m doing. I don’t know when these moments will strike — they usually come by surprise, and I think my face probably registers slight shock, almost like an orgasm but different.

The other day I saw someone in the middle of such a moment. He was waiting for the bus on a late morning that had turned warm after several days of cold. As I drove by, he closed his eyes and looked up toward the sky, like a cat narrow-gazed in a slant of sunlight coming in through the window.

What still frustrates me is how many moments unlike these dominate my days: minutes that total hours that total years when I ride shotgun in anxiety’s car or roll around in bed with fear. Other times I just run away from reality and sneak into that spot I’ve found beneath the stairs.

But there’s a strange algebra at work. If I can catch my own tendency to compulsively reject “off” moments as unholy, I’m suddenly sitting on a hefty mound of holy. If I hold too high a standard on being “connected” then I risk being blind to the slivers of the good shiver.

And so today, almost feeling trapped in a house full of toddlers, I ran outside and they chased me and knocked me down and climbed all over me, their playful clawing so insistent and total that I let my guard down for a moment and snuck into the palace the sentry usually protects. So grand and spacious that chamber!

I remember when my ninety-eight-year-old grandfather died a few years ago, I was so busy worrying about my eulogy and my toddler son’s aversion to formality that I almost went through the whole service without really connecting to what was happening around me. But then it hit me in the bathroom, Rio on my hip, notes in my pocket; grief grabbed my neck and suddenly the tears came. My son asked, “Papa, why are you crying?” and I just said, “Because I loved him.” The way I felt it then — marrow deep — is life’s elusive, ephemeral gift.


Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Rain always gets the cellos in me going. Something about the darkness, the limited potential of what one can do outside. And the sound of patterned drops falling on the roof – especially a tin one – is a song I slip into.

The other day, coming home through the downpour, marveling at how short the interval between the flash of lightning and the crack of thunder, I felt a desire to let it all go — to let my resolve trickle away like the water gushing down the gutters and spouts. I wanted to say forget it, why don’t we just eat junk food and watch bad movies and allow Rio to stay way up past his bedtime. Let me stop trying so hard to be constructive with the clay of life.

In this yen for an unraveling was a desire to surrender all facades and should-do’s and just be me. And the truth is that the unvarnished me is pretty messy: I love Annie deeply but am sometimes frustrated by the emotional whirlpools we fall into. I love my pistol of a son but am at times overwhelmed by the constancy of his needs. I am grateful that I am passionate but troubled by the days my fire leads to self-inflicted burns.

Still, I count this strange stew as a blessing – not quite happiness, but a lot better than emptiness. Numbness brings me the most despair. In that state, sadness, joy, and surprise are like distant artifacts I might view in a museum, my body safe behind the handrail.

To feel sadness, then, is an integral part of feeling alive, albeit with its sharp blades. Percy Shelley once wrote, “The pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself.” My translation: There is no pleasure like the slice of pleasure found in pain.

And this is why I love the rain. I remember when I was a teenager and it rained, I would put on morose music, shut the door on the world, and look out the window. The tears always came. Somewhere along the way I decided to flee from sadness, but I’ve learned to court her again. And there she is, after all this time, with flowers.