Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Fans of historical fiction in 2022 will love how easy it is to dig into this book about the plague in the Midlands of England in 1666. It’s a tight, beautifully written masterpiece and with Covid (mostly) behind us, we’ll relate to the feelings that people in England had when they didn’t know how to control or prevent the plague from spreading. We lost a lot of friends and neighbors during Covid, but it’s hard to imagine losing fifty percent of our town!

I believe this book can even be a part of your healing journey if you’ve lost loved ones during Covid.

There are a lot of things to love about this bestseller. The story has great pace and timing, the characters are as real as it gets, and there’s a lot of interesting historical stuff scattered in. Probably the hardest part of the book, the most emotionally difficult for me anyway, was reading about how the plague came to town on a bolt of cloth that a tailor was using to make clothes for people. As the tailor dies, he urges his landlady to burn everything but since his patrons have already paid for their clothes, and they’re relatively poor folk, they are loathe to burn so much valuable cloth. The townspeople come and pick up their new items after he expires. It reminded me of the ignorance we saw in our own times when it came to the spread of Covid. People ignoring the most basic warnings.

But there are also stories of immense courage and self-sacrifice, too.

It’s a beautiful book, perhaps the best one I’ve read in a year.

Indie Book Review April 2022

The End of Ending by Josh Noem

Josh Noem is the editor of The Grotto (grottonetwork.com) a publication of Notre Dame University, and a student of theology, a graduate of Notre Dame’s MDiv program. I met him about a month ago at the South Bend Public Library where we were both showing our books at a convention. He was kind enough to gift me an autographed paperback copy of his award-winning debut novel, The End of Ending.

This is a novel about baseball, beer, and a love that is stronger than death. Noem includes an interesting cast of characters in the fictitious city of Andover, Indiana, including a courageous Native American brewer from South Dakota, several Catholic priests, (some drunk and some not,) some confused coroners, and some migrant field laborers. The unique mix of characters represents Indiana (and South Dakota) well, and Noem holds his mystery lightly, like a sparrow or a tiny frog cupped in his hands, not wanting to open his hand to the world too quickly.

I’m not sure what to say about the overall plot except that there might be zombies… But not the kind you probably think of if you’re a Walking Dead fan. Noem’s vision of an afterlife on earth is beautiful, shimmering like a rain-soaked diamond under the lights; a baseball diamond, that is.

For Noem, baseball is a metaphor for eternity and beer signifies community, and I affirm both of these ideas. However, I was a little disappointed, since the cover image is a photo the author himself took of the South Bend Cubs in action at Four Winds Field, to find that there wasn’t a single professional baseball player among the cast. I guess the cover led me to believe I was getting something like Bull Durham or The Field of Dreams, but Noem fell short of making this a real baseball story.

That’s not so much a criticism as a warning to readers; if you hanker for baseball as I do in March, before the White Sox go on a 1-9 slide, this isn’t that book. But if you love baseball and beer, and you love literature more than the former two things, then you’re in the right place. If you’ve lost a loved one and are looking for a glimpse of hope that you’ll see them one day in the Great Outfield Beyond, The Park Without a Fence, then this might just be the book for you.

Next time Noem comes out with a new novel, I’ll buy it. I’m hoping it has more baseball in it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it does, because if there’s one thing I know about Josh Noem, he is a baseball fan. But whatever he decides to do, it is bound to clean up even more literary awards, because Noem is a slugger. Here’s a link to Noem’s website. And a link to The End of Ending on Amazon.

Book Review: The Drifters (1971) by James A. Michener

I’ve read a lot of books by James A. Michener, who became famous in the 1940s with the popular success of his book South Pacific, which was turned into a Broadway musical. He went on to write at least forty more novels, and I’m sure I’ve read at least half of them.

I thought I was done reading Michener because even though I enjoy historical fiction a lot, he has some weaknesses. For example, he’s not likely to kill off a character, when perhaps he ought to. Twice in this book, I thought the narrative would be stronger if he allowed one of his main characters to die. He works with strong archetypes, and he seems to think that he needs those archetypes to explore all the topics and themes from cover to cover. Perhaps he’s not wrong about that, but since the characters are archetypes, they are easily replaceable, as Michener has shown he can do when he writes a saga that spans millennia rather than a couple of years.

A few months back I was in my local bookshop and I purchased two books about the hippie era from 1958 to 69 or so. One was by Jack Kerouac, which I reviewed two months ago.

What I appreciated about Michener’s take has to do with his generational perspective: he was 60 years old in 1967, and he was trying to understand the new generation. He wrote the Drifters as the late 60s was happening. He was a journalistic novelist trying to figure out what made these kids tick. What did they like about their music? Why were they dodging the draft? Something his generation couldn’t comprehend. It’s one thing to examine the Boomer generation from the perspective of Gen X, or for Millenials to try to understand their Gen X grandparents, but it’s very interesting to get a take on that era from someone who came from the G.I. generation.

Although Michener was only born 8 years after Hemingway, it would be a mistake to think that Michener was of the same generation as Hemingway; Hemingway was part of the Lost generation. To give some context, the Lost generation had similar generational values to the Gen X generation. Michener was born only 8 years after Hemingway but outlived him by 36 years. What would Hemingway, who died in 1961, have thought about the late 1960s? What would he have written? Would he have understood the kids better from a visceral place, where Michener was only able to put it together intellectually, by listening closely to his subjects?

Why the comparison between Hemingway and Michener? Both writers GEEKED OUT about Pamplona. A central theme in The Drifters is courage. The draft dodgers weren’t evading Vietnam for lack of courage, and Michener illustrates this candidly in his take on the running of the bulls.

What about a comparison between Kerouac (1922-1969) and Michener? Both born technically in the G.I. generation, Kerouac was very much a tail-ender, and like someone born in 1979, who has elements of Gen X and Millenial in their makeup, Kerouac seems to relate better to a later generation… or, like someone born an entire generation too early, was out of place in his generation and related much better to the Boomers.

The Drifters is one of Michener’s best novels. He worked hard to understand the Baby Boomers’ generational values, and articulates them well through the voices of his archetypes, even as he marvels at how different they are from previous generations. As a storyteller, Michener sometimes fell into the trap of the rabbit trail and the geek-out, and I’d say this is a spoiler but I still have 80 pages to go and Michener could still surprise me at the end, but when the opportunity to kill off a character presents itself, he gets T-Rex arms and backs off with the hatchet.

If you want to understand the Boomer generation from the perspective of someone who came before them, this novel is an excellent 800-page adventure that, after setting the stage in the United States, drifts from Torremolinos, Spain, to the Algarve region of southern Portugal, north to Pamplona, and on to Africa, touching on the current vibes in Mozambique and Morrocco. For lovers of history and geography and intergenerational understanding, it is A+. A fast-paced plot with twists and surprises, it is not.

Book Reviews Jan 2022

The Unbroken Web by Richard Adams (Author of Watership Down). A fantastic collection of Stories and Fables from cultures around the world, retold by Adams. I love how he set each story in a scene so the storyteller has a specific person as an audience, and often a dialect as well. The book contains 20 stories. If you enjoy reading folktales and like mythology, this book is for you. FIVE stars.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. There are always classics I haven’t read, and I try to get to a couple of them every year. The satirical nature of this book crosses 150 years and a language translation pretty well, and while perhaps the wit is more elusive for me than Mark Twain’s work, Flaubert still resonates. I appreciated the footnotes and recommend people get a copy with additional contextual help. If you consider yourself a well-read reader but haven’t read Flaubert yet, this book is for you. Four and a half stars.

Scarlet, by Stephen R. Lawhead. This is the 2nd book in Lawhead’s trilogy retelling of the Robin Hood myth. I really like the direction he took with the myth, and the second book is all right, although he switches to first-person for much of this book and it doesn’t feel as strong as book 1. If you’re a Robin Hood fan this series is for you; several of the recent movies about Robin Hood haven’t been worth watching. Someone should make a Robin Hood movie from Lawhead’s version. I think I’ll keep my eyes out for book 3 and see how he wraps it up. Four stars.

Job: A Comedy of Justice, by Robert A Heinlein. Science fiction with a main character moving through life trying to get home to Kansas, but ends up shifting to alternate universes over and over, constantly finding himself with US Dollars that no longer work. Since the main character is from a version of the USA that is very religious, he tends to have conservative worldviews and the book digs into concepts of heaven and hell. I enjoyed the premise at the beginning and felt it went off the rails later on. If you like sci-fi and have a fascination with end times and the rapture, this book is for you. Three stars.

INDIE author. Blood Sapphire’s Revenge, by Dr. Bruce Farmer. I listened to this on Audiobook while walking, which isn’t my preferred method but I wanted to give this indie author a shot on my reading list, as I know his publisher. Here is a book for Tom Clancy fans. I felt the description of guns and so forth overbearing at times, the bad guy is holding a semiautomatic blah blah — he’s shooting at you, who cares what kind of gun. The author relies a bit too much on coincidence for characters to bump into one another. There’s a fair amount of graphic content, both violence and sex. If you’re a Tom Clancy fan and like to know exactly what kind of weaponry people are using and how they are training, and you like it gory, this book is for you. Go for a print version rather than audiobook, the sound quality is solid but the reading is stilted. Three stars.

Book Review: December 2021

The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac (1958)

I’ve never read Kerouac before, but his book On The Road is considered groundbreaking in American lit., and Kerouac coined the term “Beat Generation”. He fits somewhere between jazz and rock-n-roll. Decided to pick this one up for $2 at Fables Bookstore. It was shocking content for the time, because there’s a brief 0rgy scene. By today’s standards, not explicit. After reading this book I do recommend that serious writers read at least one Kerouac novel. His prose is beautiful, and even though the plot is nonexistent and character development is minimal, Kerouac is a master of the stream of consciousness style of writing. Not for you if you don’t like stuff without a plot.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon (2007)

I got this one from my brother-in-law Brandon, swapped him for another book. I have read Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay previously. This book has an interesting premise. What if many of the world’s Jews were sent to Sitka, Alaska, following WWII, in a sort of ghetto environment, waiting to be allowed into other nations after 50+ years? This is a noir-ish detective story with a mix of non-religious Jews, as well as Chasidic and Tlingit communities and a chess theme. I appreciated the unique cocktail that mixes up, particularly the sidekick character Berko Shemets, who is half Jewish, half Native American. I would really have liked to read more of Chabon’s notes on the back story which he alludes to frequently. If you liked Chabon’s other work you’ll like this too. Try Kavalier and Clay first.

The Dharma Bums (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

Work in Progress: Satchel Pong Chronicles #3 Sneak Preview

Things are moving rapidly. After sitting in my files for a couple years, I finally released Satchel Pong and the Great Migration on April 5. (Satchel Pong Chronicles, book 1)

Satchel Pong and the Search for Emil Ennis (book 2) is now uploaded to Amazon and available for pre-purchase, as of yesterday. It releases May 3.

I am in the process of drafting he third book in the trilogy, which doesn’t have a title yet. Here is an excerpt from the work I did on it this morning, (April 20, 2019) presented raw and unedited (though there will be few typos if any). I enjoyed what I got today so much I wanted to share it early! If this piques your interest, scroll back up and hit the links to purchase books #1 and 2! (Note: in the manuscript this is presented in italics, to show that something is happening on a sub- or super-conscious level.

Spoiler alert: it’s worth a brief note, but I don’t think this excerpt gives much away, really. I think it’s isolated enough from the plot that about the only thing you’ll know after reading it is that I did not kill off Emil Ennis, the title character of book 2. At least not yet.

From Satchel Pong Chronicles Book 3:

Emil saw things. Someone had installed a third eye, right in his forehead, tapping through his skull. He could see backwards along the alchemical connection, which ran into the longitudinal fissure with nodes connecting to both hemispheres, then dropping through the corpus callosum and, painfully, shoving other nerves aside, raw, drilled into his medulla. Nothing, none of the nodes touched his speech; he would be able to articulate nothing of what he saw or felt with this eye. At least not initially. He would have to forge new connections, synapses.
After this brief introspection, his eye swiveled about and looked out at the world, the skin on his forehead as thin as an eyelid, light came through to the eye beneath, painting upside-down pictures of everything from people and machines to the Great Furla itself upon a retina— these were upside-down images his brain had not yet learned to invert. Those tiny leaves pointed toward the ground, roots pointed skyward. He looked down at the sky, where his third eye could see the waves on which voices carried when a Wireless set was in use. There were other waves, too, carrying things he never imagined existed. There were colors he had never seen before. And all was upside down. He would have to forge new connections to turn these scenes right-side up, and other connections to be able to verbalize anything he saw. But he knew what he saw, and saw what he knew— and things he did not know. Even those things, he felt in his core, in his chest, in his toes, in his liver— in his marrow. He felt them.
It would be alchemy that gave him this ability, he thought. An Alchemist has been at work on me again, and has embedded another mod. May that Maria Rheon be damned by the Furla— !
— Or, it is a manifestation of the Way.
Taleb O’Bandery?
— Look again, Emil Ennis. Look inside.
Emil looked into himself again. Deep in the medulla, the lizard brain… there, he found it. The chameleon, that’s a sort of lizard, isn’t it, isn’t it? It lives in some far-flung land— doesn’t matter— There it was, as a totem, an unspoken power— a wisdom he possessed, lightly, lightly, wisdom held on fingertips— a knowledge around which a tail curled— It was the insight to turn one’s skin into the color of the surroundings, to reflect light from behind you to a viewer in front of you, to wink out like a light, to be shrouded, to shroud oneself as though under an eyelid, to wink slyly and to have others find oneself invisible. Can this be taught? Or must it be discovered for oneself?
— It is neither, and both. You must be exposed to the concept, but you must find your own way to a silence beyond visibility.
What is happening now?
— Now, you should rest. You will need meat from a large beast; a donkey, a yak, or caribou. You need blood to replenish your marrow, to replenish your own loss of blood, to revive the very air in your lungs.
Am I dying?
— Look inside and see if you are or not.
The chameleon-eye swivels, looks, winks. Life winking out? No. The wizard-lizard within winking wisely.
Taleb, bring meat. Goose is greasy, it’s not ideal, but it will work in a pinch. Tuna. That is a thick beast, and food from my home. Tuna— toro nigiri would be best, I feel it, I know it— I crave that dish, the fat from a good tuna belly. But Goose will work. Fat, meat, raw flesh, liver pate. Foie gras would work— goose or duck—
— Sleep, Emil Ennis, rest and sleep. Food is coming.
Yes. I will sleep. Then I will awaken, and eat and revive a little.
— If you must preserve yourself, simply disappear for a while.
I don’t think that is needful. I just need to sleep, sleep a while, to sleep—

How does your hero act when he or she is NOT in the game?

I couldn’t pick a better sports hero for my kids to follow than Femi Hollinger-Janzen. Like any soccer player worth a good nickname, he’s known as just plain Femi.

Femi

Femi is a backup striker for the New England Revolution in North American Major League Soccer. He has a grand total of 2 career goals in the MLS (stat page). He also happens to be a graduate of the small school where all three of my boys will attend this fall. Since going pro, Femi has made visits to the school; my kids have gotten to meet him.

I wouldn’t say I know Femi’s family well, but his father, Rod, is executive director at AIMM, an organization I partnered with a few years ago when I took a trip to Congo to lead some seminars on leadership coaching.

Last year, I took my son JJ, a budding junior high soccer player, to Chicago hoping to see Femi play against the Chicago Fire (the nearest MLS team to us geographically.) Normally I root for Chicago sports teams. I was born in central Illinois, after all. But on this day we were New England fans. Alas, Femi was injured, and he did not even make the road trip to Chicago with his team. This did not stop a whole section of people from our small town from chanting FEMI-FEMI-FEMI. (Ok, maybe we weren’t that boisterous, but we did hold up big pictures of his face on cardboard stock.) We had a great time with Femi’s parents and other people from our hometown and from Africa, at a Mediterranean restaurant after the match. Mmm. Kebabs. Kebabs made the whole trip worth it.

New England plays in Chicago again this August 5th (Saturday) and we’ll be in the stands. I’ve told my boys that you won’t often get to see a professional athlete from your own very small school play a major sport in person.

Of course we know that Femi might not get in the game at all. His stats show that he’s started only one of New England’s twelve games  so far this year. Will he get to sub? Might he score a goal or an assist?  Or will he get injured, God forbid, during warm-ups? The whole thing could be a bust. But we’ll have fun anyway.

As I think about what I hope my kids will learn from watching a professional athlete from their own school, I’m reminded that Joe DiMaggio once said, when asked why he hustled so hard to make a difficult play in the outfield, on a day when the New York Yankees were getting blown out, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.”

First, I don’t want my kids to think that they could do what Femi has done: star at Indiana University. Get drafted. Make the team. Make big bucks. (The internet tells me Femi makes just over $50k. This is a decent salary in our town, but not big bucks.) Femi is one in a hundred thousand, and the coaches at our school knew his potential when he was 12. My kids aren’t likely to be professional stars.

I do want my kids to think about how they owe their best to whomever is watching. Whatever job they’re doing. Whatever project they’re making or class they’re taking. Every move they make, every breath they take, Sting will be watching them…

I mean, uh, God, of course, though I don’t want to put that out there in any sort of heavy-handed way, for my kids, or for you, dear readers. But then, isn’t character all about what you do when nobody’s watching? I don’t know what kind of character Joe D. had off the field, but he sure knew what to do with a baseball bat and glove when people were in the stands.

Then a second question comes to mind: what if you aren’t in the game at all? How do you live life at your very best, when you’re sitting on the bench? This is harder than anything, for an injured athlete, for anyone who has a passion they’re not able to exercise. Your character gets tested more when you’re NOT in the game. A lot more. How does your hero act when they can’t get in the game? When they’re injured? And how do you act, when you can’t do what you’re great at, be in the spotlight, when things have all been taken away from you?

Somebody’s watching you, it may be your kids, or your neighbor. People know when you’re sidelined. Are you going to whine about it? Or are you going to do what it takes to stay sharp, to be ready at a moment’s notice, “Just like a minuteman” as the band Stavesacre said. (Click the link to Stavesacre video if you want to know what kind of positive rock I use to get fired up.) Here are the lyrics:

I have to be ready
Said the minuteman
One mind when I hear my name

Cause all of it matters
The war and the battles and
This life is a means to an end

To inspire a dream
That when realized you attack
What kind of loving is this?

(Chorus)
But I still believe, and baby I’ll fall or I’ll stand
But this time I finish, I finish
I want to be ready just like a minuteman
One mind when I hear my name

She offered her hand
She whispered “be a man”
But when I woke from sleep
There was only me
But I’ll be ready…
I’ll be ready…

All that I want to know
Is why would I want any more?

–“Minuteman” by Stavesacre, from the Speakeasy album

 

What is (and was) Plow Creek?

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Plow Creek was just water flowing downhill. Land to the south, land to the north. One old farmhouse, hillsides covered with deciduous forests. Oak, maple, hickory, walnut, birch. The creek was too small for significant fish, no bass, rainbow trout or catfish, but minnows and occasionally crayfish were there. Shy animals. Skunks, possum, deer, coons, over-hunted, over-roadkilled. Cats and cows and pigs. Mice, both the field and the house versions. Songbirds in the morning. Cicadas at night. A whippoorwill in her nest.

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Somebody owned it. I don’t know who. They had farmed it, at least some of it, I guess. They got old and died. That’s what happens. Before them, somebody else farmed it, back to around 1834. Before them, Indians. Along with finding crawdads in the creek, you might find a knapped piece of flint: an arrowhead.

Then came the Jesus Freaks. People wearing a lot of brown and rust colored bell-bottom slacks and huge fashionable collars… but not because they were fancy dressers. Lots of thrift store finds. Plaids so bad they’d make a Scotsman blush. Unlike the hipsters of today, they were looking for ways to be cool after it was cool. It was the 1970s, and not entirely unlike M.L.K. Jr., these young people had a dream.  A dream of being the church of Jesus Christ in a different way. A counter-culture. What would really be cool, is if people really cared about each other instead of their clothes. Instead of their bank accounts or cars.

What would impress other people was not being out to impress anyone. Sharing what you had to the point of (nearly) doing away with ownership itself. Laying down your life for a friend, like Jesus said, and did. Instead of concerning yourself with ownership, you joined this weird group called Plow Creek Fellowship. And you sang: “Will you let me be your servant? … Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.”

The land owned the Indians, not the other way around. That’s how they thought about it.

The Jesus Freaks called Plow Creek a “Fellowship”. The land didn’t own the people, but the people lived in Fellowship. It meant more than “going to” church. It meant more than stewarding a chunk of topsoil together. It meant more than a shared meal. It meant more than games on the broad meadow. It meant so much more than any and all of that, so much more that nobody’s really been able to describe it. Some very good writers came along, living, writing, “fellowshipping”. Now, at the end, we very good writers write our blogs, but … the better you are at fellowshipping, the easier it is to be at a loss for words.

It’s telling that Creekers verbed the word fellowship. According, at least, to the WordPress spell-check function, “fellowship” isn’t a verb. I just learned this today. That’s how much this word, as a verb, was ingrained in my vocabulary. But as any Creeker knows, it wasn’t somethign you just joined. It was something one did, one lived, one became woven into.

The land owned the Indians.

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The Fellowship owned the Creekers. Or at least, the Creekers themselves didn’t own much. (If you’re an outsider, please understand: nobody was forcibly part of this thing. It was voluntary to the nth degree. This is more about that willing servant thing.)

Years came and years went, and for a variety of reasons, each as unique as the individual, people also came and went. Did some of them leave joyfully, and others wounded? Of course. Nobody stopped being human. But, when they left, they didn’t stop fellowshipping with each other, either. They met up with each other, in Iowa, or New Mexico, or Chicago, or Indiana or just anywhere. You couldn’t really un-weave yourself from the pattern. The Fellowship wove its own way into your life, and not just you into it. That’s why I say it’s not only something you did, but something you became. If you didn’t fellowship with the same people on the same land, you still felt hungry for it, sought it elsewhere.

You returned to the land. Sometimes. It owned you, too, not the way it owned the Indians, but… It was, in some ways, the most concrete representation of the Fellowship itself. Nobody had to be there for you to love walking the woods. You could be an extreme extrovert and spend hours with yourself and your memories and you’d still be fellowshipping down there at Plow Creek. Fellowshipping includes remembering. (Do this in remembrance of me.)

More years came and went. Many of the people had left the land. They continued to find each other. Technology blossomed, and with it, Facebook reminded people of their fellowshipping of long ago.

Fellowshipping became an acquired taste. Like people from France who know the flavor of the cheese in their home village, or of those truffles underground, maybe. You could leave this land and still be hungry for the fruit that grew up on it in those days.

How did you get there? Maybe you were young. Maybe you were lonely or hurting. Maybe you were just unsatisfied with what the American Dream had offered you, but once you found Plow Creek, you realized that your personal American Dream meant fellowshipping. 

People didn’t stop fellowshipping. 

But they did leave that land, and went to other places. Looking as they went for some sort of significance in life. Connection. Meaningful relationships. Other bits of land to care for. Other bits of humanity to love.

And then there was a remnant, elderly super-fellowshippers. People steeped in fellowship like tea, the creek flowing with this essence, no longer water. And, there was a church, too. People still joined the church, and fellowshipped with each other. But, they joined in a new way, and not in the same way, and the old way of life couldn’t be carried on. And the remnant, those steeped in the meadow like mint in the sun, they went down the river. Their lives complete at something around four-score years, more or less, they went to be with the old farmer whose name was forgotten, who used to live here, and the Indians, and with Jesus in Heaven. Perhaps some of those field mice are there, too. Where they are fellowshipping at this very moment without obstacles, without traps set for the mice. The true utopian society, they have up there. Remember what I said about how they didn’t leave and stop fellowshipping? That goes for those who left in a coffin, too.

One of the other writers said that Plow Creek is dying. No doubt this is how she feels.

Yes, Plow Creek’s legal entity is dissolving. Somebody else will use the land. Those who chose fellowship over ownership will  now have to go somewhere else, and that hurts.

It has been a luxury to be free to go back to the land, to the Creek. I was about 23 when I found my first arrowhead, that would have been 1997, 20 years ago. Our family had moved on, 10 years earlier, but I was back, I don’t remember why exactly, but probably just to fellowship for a few hours. The Indians had probably been gone for 163 years or more.img_4142

 

What will happen next? Who knows for sure? In another 163 years, a mere eight generations, yes, let’s say it’s the year 2180: someone will drop by in their flying car or spaceship, and they will find something one of us left. Perhaps the head of a broken hoe in the strawberry fields. The empty shotgun shell of the last Creeker-approved venison kill. Or, someone will come along and buy some of that acreage, or all of it, or the whole flippin’ county around it, and they’ll invite some friends to live with them and try to be unified and harmonious and be each other’s servant and have the grace to let you be my servant, and fail at it all, and try again and pray together. We can hope, anyway. We can hope that, because, although Plow Creek as we knew it, as we know it is dying…

Fellowshipping is not.

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The picture above wasn’t taken at Plow Creek. This is me fellowshipping with my wife Megan, in Thailand last February. We’re keeping the dream alive. No matter where we go.

 

Positive Action on The Via Negativa

Or: How to prepare for the inevitable surprise.

For context, here are two thoughts on the “via negativa” or the Negative Way.

The via negativa is a concept from the Orthodox tradition of doing theology by talking about what God is not. It’s like Michelangelo carving away all the block of marble that is not David. It’s a subtractive-sculptural theological idea.

Extrapolating, Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes an heuristic or rule of thumb that if you need more than one reason to do something, that probably means you shouldn’t do it — you’re trying to convince yourself. You need a single, clear reason. Not a stack of them. Consider:

“We’ve each found a friend here; we’re in love,” versus “Well, she’s cute, and her parents like me, and they have money, and we grew up in the same town and we know the same people, and my parents think she’s from a respectable family, and besides all that, oops, now she’s pregnant and I’m 90% sure I’m the dad, and…”

Which of these people exploring marriage is headed for success?

I’ve been thinking about the ideas a close friend has been sharing with me. She notes a variety of indicators highlighted by various denizens of the Internet that point toward impending doom. Perhaps in the near future. For an example, what would happen if the oceans rise due to climate change. Now these denizens (such a cool word, denizens) suggest that a ninth planet or brown star that plays do-ce-do with our sun every 3600 years or so may be coming around for the first time since the Deluge of Noah.

If some of the denizens are correct this means that the ocean levels may rise rapidly, rather than gradually; in fact, causing the ice caps to melt so fast that before the end of the year the seas could rise 700 to 800 feet worldwide. Like, on September 23, 2017 or something. What percentage of the world’s population would be displaced? 90%? 95%?

I’m not here to mock these reports. I’ve taken a cursory look at some of the videos my informant has been watching, and it looks like there’s a possibility there’s this brown star (hard to see in telescopes, you need astrophysicists who can observe how the star’s gravitational pull is impacting visible bodies around them) is indeed approaching us with a heat wave unlike anything we can remember.

If that happens it would be what our friend Taleb calls a “black swan event”. I believe in this: Black Swan Events do happen. I take it at face value that they have happened and they will happen again. This is why I don’t mock the prophets. I’m open minded to the possibility that catastrophe could strike this year.

In any case, for those who believe, it raises the question: should we all move to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, (where supposedly even those in the know re: sea levels at the US Navy is directing their retirees to go, sorry I don’t have links to all the videos and blogs that claim these sorts of things) stash some fresh water in bottles, and brace for the worst?

The thing about belief is that true belief spurs you to action, so when you’ve read and seen enough, you do have to ask yourself, what are you going to do about it? This is the case for any number of religious writings you might read, and it’s the case with doomsday prophecies, too. True believers act. Interested parties sit and observe.

Now let’s back off a bit and get back to the theory that goes beyond sea level and climate change issues. I’m not ready to move to Arkansas; I want to speak in more general terms about our attitudes toward action.

First, the problem with recognizing and even believing that Black Swan Events do and will happen, is that by definition there is no way to know how to prepare for them. But I have one suggestion I hope will help.

While it may look like the arrow on your compass is headed in the same direction, I think there’s immense value in the paradigm shift that we ought to move towards things in our lives we hope will be positive as a result of our newfound beliefs, rather than away from things that will be negative. They may seem to be one and the same. The problem with fleeing danger rather than running towards hope is that we end up looking over our shoulder. Like Lot’s Wife in Genesis, we end up a Pillar of Salt. We end up as a stalagmite casualty of focusing on the wrong thing. Now you might argue that Lot’s wife looked back not because she was afraid of what was following her, but because she desired to return to what was known. I’m not sure the story is clear on that point.

In any case, you can’t move towards the most positive thing unless you’re willing to give up what is known. In some ways that means moving towards the positive in spite of our fear of the unknown.

Fleeing danger which we suppose will come tomorrow or in September or early next year, is perhaps not a good enough single reason for doing something. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get out of the road when a  car is coming. You can see the car coming, so move. I’m also not saying you should make your bed in the roadway just because a car isn’t coming at the moment. Pitching a tent in the street because it’s 3 AM and nobody’s coming isn’t wise, because you haven’t headed towards a positive spot.

Whatever you believe about the world ending or God or the latest diet, move towards what’s healthy, it’s a much better way to think about where you’re going: say “I want to be healthy,” rather than staying away from sugar just because you’re afraid of diabetes coming to get you.

Here’s the really helpful bit: Practicing this in your life will also be the best way to prepare for a Black Swan Event, because when the Event arrives (and it will), your mentality will already be this:

“Where’s the opportunity in this unexpected chaos which is forming a new normal? Where is the one place where chaos is not?

You won’t be wishing you could just return to the old normal, because you only need the one reason to move ahead: “Where’s the opportunity?” You won’t try to make something like America “great again” implying that it was best some time ago. (The President and his followers haven’t gotten the picture. They want to run from the negative, hoping they can recapture a positive which has receded like a hairline back into bald history. Instead of seeking opportunities in renewable energy, let’s get those coal miners working, etc.)

By taking the positive approach, using the via negativa and finding opportunity where chaos is not, you’ll be trying to make things greater than they ever were. Even if if the oceans rise 800 feet.

(And if they do, our house could be oceanfront property, because our city is at 801 feet elevation! Sounds like opportunity knocking at my door — or lapping at my sidewalk. Positive action: stock some suntan lotion and a cotton candy machine, and get ready for a lot of campers.)

 

It’s the Little Things

I was talking with a random stranger the other day. He found out I was a coach and asked me what I teach, which is not what coaches do. But I am working on putting together a class on how to make a positive cultural impact, so I told him about that — what I think are the core things people need to do to operate at their peak performance, and what they need to do to bring greater empathy and creativity to the world.

I didn’t have long to lay it out there, but before he moved on, he thought for a second. Then he said, “So, it’s the little things?”

Yes. It’s the little things.

What that means, as I think about it more, is that we’re all very close to it. We only need to do the little things to go from living a normal life to an extraordinary life. Why is that? It doesn’t take a lot to get beyond the ordinary. It will take being intentional and consistent. There is some effort required. But the things themselves are little.

I’ll keep talking about them, because I intend to be consistent with this message.