Who are we? Why are we here?
WHO ARE WE? WHY ARE WE HERE?
Edition 53. June 2023
Life is short! Old age is something that is simply not guaranteed. In the blink of an eye...in the beat of a heart, our existence here on this earth can be cut even shorter! Our friends, our loved ones, our heroes can be taken away from us in an instant in the most terrible of ways...
A horrific illness
An act of senseless violence
An unexpected accident
A natural disaster
...just to name a few.
Don’t ever forget this!
This life we’ve been given is the single most precious gift imaginable. There is magic and divinity in every breath we take...
in every beat of our heart
Life is not something that should ever be taken for granted nor should it be lived without purpose. If you would just stop to think about the incredible improbability of life and the miracle that is your own existence, you might begin to realize why every moment needs to be savored, and why it should be treated as if it were your last.
Too many people allow the sands of time to slip through their fingers...
And once it is gone...it is gone!
Too many people know not the reason or benefit of living in the moment...
or the power to be found in seizing the day!
Some say it is impossible. Others say it is unnecessary. Many find themselves longing for something else, never really savoring what they have right now in this very moment! More often than not it takes some calamity for us to realize the fragility of this life and just how precious we all are in the eyes of someone near and dear to our hearts...
someone who loves us
It should not take something catastrophic to open our eyes to the beauty of what we have. We tend to allow the miracles that are happening all around us at any moment of every day to fall by the wayside as we wallow in sadness or grief...immersed in fear, replete with stress and anxiety.
No! It should not work like that. But it does. And we all know it. We all take this precious gift for granted at one point or another in our lives.
There is a reason why I am writing these words today. Just as there is a reason why you are reading them. I believe, will all my heart, that everything in life happens for a reason...though not pre-ordained or orchestrated outside our control. I believe with all my might that no matter what that reason is, there’s a purpose...
a divine purpose for what we are experiencing
We might not always realize it, especially when we’re dealing with pain, sadness or failure, but we just know in our hearts there is a reason and if we are but patient, it will be revealed to us.
The simple fact will always remain that no matter what happens...no matter what trials or tribulations we may go through, life will always be precious. All we need to do is find the good in every moment, no matter how inconsequential it might seem.
Today...right now, at this very moment, there are people enduring more pain, more sadness, unbearable strife and crippling grief. More so than you can ever possibly imagine. And this is not happening just in those faraway places that we hear about on the nightly news or read about on the internet...
It is happening right in our backyards
The fact of the matter remains, we can be here one moment and gone the next. If we spend our time steeped in worry or negative emotions, we will never realize the miraculous gift of life that we’ve been given.
Of late, I have had a great deal of time to be able to think back and reflect upon the arc of my own life. I am told old men do this when they know the end is approaching. For one reason or another, one of the short stories I wrote a few years back has been on my mind. It was in Vignettes, my first short story collection.
It’s the one about sandcastles and the two Portuguese children who built them. I met them by chance one day, a half-lifetime ago, on a secluded stretch of beach on the Outer Banks of the North Carolina coast.
It is important for you to know that this story was much, much more than just something I wrote to fill the book. It was in fact true. Embellished, yes...here and there. But all good writing needs be. But at its core, the story is quite true.
Witnessing the reaction those two children had to watching their work and their passion being swept away in an instant by a wave that came out of nowhere...well, it was a game changer for me. A real eye opener. If I may have a few moments of your time, I would like to share a bit of the story with you...
“For the longest time I have lived my life believing this maxim...
When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
And when the student is truly ready, the teacher disappears.
My teachers appeared to me in the form of two four-year-old children. We didn’t even speak the same language, but our communication required no words.
This was God’s doing. Of this, I am sure. God’s fingerprints were all over my lesson. Those children stayed with me for a short while. But when I was finally ready to begin facing life again, with renewed hope and optimism, my teachers disappeared...
just as quickly as they’d arrived
There is a verse from the Bible that I recall from my childhood Sunday school lessons. I think it comes from the Book of Luke, though I am not completely sure. And though I know I should, I don’t know it by heart. For the most part this is what it says...
“The Truth becomes hidden from our eyes as we get older.
The world changes us.
God reveals that Truth to the little children.”
And those little children revealed it to me in the form of sandcastles!”
All the myriad things in our lives...all the complicated plans we spend so much time and energy contemplating, are truly built on sand. In this life, it is only our relationships with the people we love that will endure. Death has a way of humbling us, like the wave that knocked down the children’s sandcastle. And when it strikes, only the person who has someone’s hand to hold will be able to laugh and start anew...
We rebuild and we focus our efforts with hope and faith
For each of us, one thing is guaranteed. Sooner or later that wave is going to come along and take away everything that we’ve worked so hard to build. And in the end, only knowing we have the capacity to love will save us. It is what will give us the strength to start over.
The wind that made the dune grasses wave so gently yesterday will be the gales that blow down the trees tomorrow. The gentle sea that guides the sailors and brings them safely home is the same violent, raging tempest that crashes them onto the rocks.
I don’t know how it has come to be this way, but after many exhausting detours, inexplicable twists of fate and contentious turns in my life, I have ended up as a writer...
one of those people who endeavors to build sandcastles with words
I try my best each and every day, through my books and my blogs, to create places and circumstances where my readers’ imaginations might wander...where their soul can find shelter. I build these places and create these circumstances with the grains of sand that are my personal memories and most treasured experiences. I write them down and make them known before the last grain will slip through my fingers and be forever gone. My purpose is simple. My goal is to make you...
question your own memories and your own experiences
I mean not to boast, but in the past seven decades I have had the blessing of living a most glorious and fruitful life. A part of me believes that when my own proverbial tide comes in, knocking down and washing away all my sandcastles, I will have lost nothing. My castles are but symbols of the memories and the people that I hold dear...
of the legacy I hope to leave behind.
You see, I believe with all my being, that if I can become good enough at my art, I will somehow, miraculously, find a way to divert the force of the tide and avert my eventual mortality. It is my most fervent hope and prayer that my castles will stand forever.
And so, in these days, I have been going into the dark...into that place where hope resides. I am tough. I have already survived much pain and much loss. I am putting in order the things I can control. I am repairing what is broken and making what is already good, better. I still believe deep down that I can accomplish anything.
For years I lived with a quiet, private, silent and almost desperate fear. I believed I was destined to end up alone...a solitary man. I’d tried my hand at love and marriage more than a few times and each time it all came crashing down. When the dust settled and the scars on my heart healed, I would frustratedly assess my situation and just shake my head!
It didn’t take a genius to see that I was losing more and more parts of myself with each failure. And so, I chose to isolate...to insulate myself from life and love and relationships and the risks that I felt I was powerless to control.
I turned to writing...
I began to create worlds and characters and scenes that pleased me.
Writing eased my sense of isolation. It was the best way I'd ever found to deepen, widen and expand my sense of life. It fed my soul. And the more I fed my soul, the stronger I became. The more my eyes were opened to the way this universe and God really work...
I saw that I’d been doing things wrong all my life.
And then one day, the most miraculous thing that I could ever imagine happening to me actually happened to me! One day in May, a decade and more ago, I found myself walking along on a dirt road, in a strange and beautiful, yet foreign land. I was alone with my thoughts and my prayers...far, far from my home. I came to a bend on a narrow path and came face to face with my destiny! All the lessons I’d ever learned, and all the metaphors told to me throughout my life, flashed before me...
My eyes were finally opened
My heart was born anew
Life changed forever for me that day and I was swept away in the change. My dreams of loving someone...really loving them, of being happy...truly happy, of becoming a writer...a damn good writer, began to come true that day. I want to proclaim to anyone and everyone who will listen, just how incredibly happy and grateful I am to still be alive!
Once was a time I was sinking and sinking fast. But now I am buoyant...afloat with joy and intention. The stories that have been within me since I was a little boy are flowing out of me now.
If I can make you shake your head with the intricacy of my prose or nod in approval at the truth within my fiction…if I can make you laugh about yourself or question the decisions of your life, then my buoyancy is restored bit by bit.
Writing has given me the chance to dance with, or at least clap along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being smashed onto the rocks by it...
over and over and over again.
It's like singing on a boat at sea during a raging storm. I know there is nothing I can do to stop the ravaging winds and rain, but my singing can change the hearts and the spirits of the people who are with me on the boat. And so I sing!
If something inside of me is real and different and unique, there is a chance you will find it interesting. I have come to learn that to be good at what I do I must place real emotion at the center of my work. I must write straight into the emotional eye of the storm. And so that’s what I do...
I write toward the vulnerability
I risk being disliked
I tell the truth, as I understand it to be, no matter what
I feel I have a moral obligation to do this
Writing, for me, is much like driving down an unfamiliar road at night. I can see only as far as my headlights will shine. But I have come to learn I can make the whole trip that way.
I don't have to see where it is that I will end up
I don't have to know my destination
I have no need to control everything I pass along the way
I just need to be able to see far enough down the road to move my story a little further along with each page. And do you know what else? I have adopted this method of writing as my philosophy of life as well.
I used to be a perfectionist…obsessively so. But now I find great pleasure in uncertainty. Even the chaos thrills me at times. I have come to embrace messes now…
they are my truest friends.
The clutter and mess around me tell me my life is being lived. I am living and thriving free for the first time in my life…no longer holding my breath. No longer living in a state of suspended animation.
What I had forgotten, by taking this life so seriously, was the single most important lesson learned from my childhood.
When I was a child, I needed to make messes of things in order to learn. In order to grow...
to find out who I am and why I am here
I talk a lot about life and God, purpose and the universe, and our place in it. To be honest with you, it has fascinated me since I was a little boy.
Just this morning at breakfast, Diana and I were talking about, of all things, New England...back in America. She’d watched a documentary a few nights before as I was traveling back home from Ferrara. She was agush with questions and amazement at its beauty. I answered what questions I could.
I know I have taken a rather wide turn getting here, but the impetus for today’s blog comes from her question to me...
“Have you ever been to Maine?” she asked.
Now you are probably saying to yourself right now...
“OK! I give up! Where is he going with this? What does New England have to do with what he has been jabbering about? What does Maine have to do with life and God and purpose and the universe and our place in it?”
Well, the answer is actaually twofold...
Please, let me explain.
When I was a little boy, my father had a friend by the name of Mo Abair. They’d worked together for quite a few years, until Mo’s wife died. It wasn’t long after that when Mo decided he wanted to retire.
He and his wife had always planned to buy a few bungalows in Bar Harbor in Maine when he retired and they were planning to rent them out seasonally. He did not want their dream to die with her passing, so he went ahead as planned.
As I remember, there were six wooden bungalows, clad in cedar shake shingles and arranged in a semi-circle around a small in-ground pool. I vividly can recall their musty smell inside and the lumpy mattresses we slept on. But what I remember most was they were within view of the fishing docks.
You see, it was a ritual for my family to travel up the coast from Pennsylvania to Bar Harbor each year during the week before school started again. My father would load our luggage into the family station wagon, along with my mother, my sister, the dog and me and off we’d go. I could write a dozen stories just on the memories I hold dear from those long rides. But that’s not what I’ve come here to tell you today.
In answering Diana’s question about my experiences in Maine, I chose to tell her about the moment I fell in love with the water and wood plank docks and wooden boats.
"Every morning after breakfast" I began, "I would make my way down to the docks to wait for the fishing boats to come back...the ones that had left hours before sunrise.
There was a wooden bench out at the end of one of the docks and that is where I’d sit and wait. There was a small wooden building just behind me that looked a lot like our little bungalow. Inside were men who sat around a table drinking coffee and smoking pipes...talking about things of which I had no idea.
When the old wooden boats came back to the docks, I was there to greet them. I watched as thick ropes were thrown from the bow and stern, by young men who wore rubber boots that extended well past their knees.
There were young boys, not much older than myself, who were standing several feet away from me, whose job it was to catch those ropes and tie them to huge metal cleats that were bolted to the dock.
In a few more minutes, the throaty engines of the old boats became quiet. The next thing I watched was the unloading of the lobster traps. One after another after another, they all came off the boats.
There were other young boys, wearing thick leather gloves, who reached into those traps to remove the lobsters and place them in big wooden bins, each with the name of the boat painted on it. The empty lobster traps were then stacked back onto the stern of the boats...five and six high.
The whole scene more than fascinated me. I was hypnotized by the smells of fish and the salt water and diesel exhaust. Those memories linger with me to this very day. The odd banter of conversation of those New England lobstermen still rings in my ears. These things have imprinted themselves on my heart and in my memory."
There are a million more details I could share with you about that story, but I want to tell you another story of my Maine recollections...one that I didn’t share with Diana. It is the story of the very first glimpse I got of my place in the universe.
I was thirteen years old, and I’d awakened very early that morning...well before sunrise. I remember getting dressed in a pair of white clam digger pants and a striped T-shirt.
My mother woke and noticed I was dressed already...
“Well, aren’t you the early bird today!” she said. “What’s on your agenda this morning?”
“I am going to walk down to the beach,” I answered. “Is that OK?”
“Stay back from the water,” was her only concern. “And come back before breakfast, OK?”
I gave her a kiss, grabbed my jacket and cap and off I went.
Now the beaches in Bar Harbor aren’t like the beaches in the Carolinas or Florida. There is really very little sand on them. Instead, they are covered with stones and pebbles and rocks and bigger rocks! But that’s where the difference ends.
The shore birds cry out in the same way and the water rushes ashore with the same white foam. The sun rises no differently there than anywhere else along the eastern coast. It bubbles up out of the horizon and begins its daily trek across the sky.
I was standing on those pebbles and rocks that morning when the first rays of sun began breaking over that thin line where the sky meets the water. Slowly I began to feel its warmth touching my face, bathing me in its light. I had a sort of awakening.
For the very first time ever, I could see the actual rising of the sun...in real time. I’d never paid much attention to such things before. I was, after all, a thirteen-year-old boy and thirteen-year-old boys rarely if ever think about such things!
Watching it rise gave me the strangest sensation. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of movement...my own, not that of the sun. I realized that I was moving...along with the stones upon which I stood that were on this planet upon which I lived. Me and the stones and the earth were not standing still, as I’d always thought. Nope! We were moving...
it was the sun that remained fixed in the sky
Now of course I have romanticized and embellished my experience of that day, to wow you with my writing talent, I guess! As I said, thirteen-year-old boys don’t have such thoughts. But I did have this experience and a lot changed for me that day. Looking back, it was the starting point of what would become my life’s journey.
After sleeping through a hundred million centuries of time, we human beings were finally given the gift of life. We open our eyes on a most beautiful planet...one that sparkles with color and teems with bountiful life.
But sadly, our stay here is much too short. Within decades we will close our eyes again and return to the netherworld of atoms and elements.
For myself, I believe we return to experience it all anew, though we bring with us none of the memories created the last time around.
I have come also to believe that the most noble and enlightened way of spending our brief time here standing in the sun, witnessing our movement, is to work at understanding the universe and how and why it is we have come to wake up in it.
I can say this with the greatest confidence...
The moment you start down the path of self-discovery, you will never turn back. When you catch glimpses of who you are and why you are here...of your true potential and singular purpose, all you will want is MORE.