All the words!

All the words I’ve stored on shelves all around! There must be millions. Surely the books in this house alone number in the thousands: There are 37 just on my Ray Bradbury shelf (36 Bradbury books and A Christmas Carol), one of eight bookshelves on the walls of this room and not counting the bookcases behind me and next to and above my computer.

All those words, all those stories, and words of advice and encouragement, and words arranged for no other purpose than to spark an image or emotion such are poems.

All those words and just in this house, and words miniaturized and packed in electronic storage with music and photos and other images. We carry libraries in the palms of our hands — the accumulated wisdom of humanity and our hopes and dreams and goals and accomplishments. We stack them along walls and store them in boxes because those lives mattered, and the lives they described and encountered along the way.

I could despair because evil still exists anyway: After trillions and quadrillions of words accumulating wisdom have been preserved and shared, people still choose evil and hatred and murder and all the other ugliness that humanity can muster. I could despair if I thought too long about it, if I let my mind linger on the evil.

But for all the ugliness and evil, there are millions and trillions of words defying the worst of us. My eyes rest on Cyrano de Bergerac, and I remember how my heart lifted and my eyes leaked as he stood in the garden with his lady love, defiant to the end, proud of his white plume of honor.

I see Dandelion Wine in stereo — paperback and hardcover — and I run with Douglas Spaulding all over his small town in the magical summer of 1928 discovering time machines and risking The Ravine and being a kid in the most marvelous time of his life.

I see the sturdy volumes of collected comic books from the second decade of my life, and some from before I was born, and I am rediscovering Peter Parker and mean old J. Jonah Jameson and finding the Fantastic Four again, 15 months after we moved away from the town where the pharmacy where comic books were sold by the dozen was a mere bike ride away, and the team had lost their powers and blind Daredevil was their only friend and defense against Doctor Doom himself.

There are Laurence Sterne and E.E. Cummings, who defied convention and put the words any which way but always in ways that had meaning to decipher and to delight.

There are the Baseball Encyclopedia and the Leonard Maltin Movie and Video Guides of 1999 and 2001, fat volumes of statistics and history that connect me to Christy Mathewson and Orson Welles and Babe Ruth and Ed Wood and Dom DiMaggio and Roger Corman.

I see The Fountainhead, and I see a biography of Gandhi, and I see all the memories, all the delights and discoveries and horrors and lessons, all the words.

I cannot despair when so many men and women have put so many words in places to be discovered and cherished and spread to the universe, such words as could only be interpreted to say this creature we call human is capable of such grandeur and such peace and such magnificence, that it’s impossible for evil and ugliness to conquer the world — they may gain a foothold here and there, but love and beauty endure.

Fight the Fear

Fear has become the motivating factor in this contemporary world of ours. Life is portrayed as a maelstrom of forces beyond the power of the individual to tame.

It’s a lie. You can tame the maelstrom, if you can tame your fear.

I came to that conclusion more than a decade ago and put out a little book called Refuse to be Afraid. I have added a few essays to it over time, and when I released a “10th anniversary edition” a year ago, it had about half-again as many chapters as the original book. It’s still a quick read, but a tad less quick than it began.

The last couple of years, the fear peddlers have doubled down. A concerted effort is underway to make us afraid of stepping out the door into the sunlight, to make us afraid of traveling around the town or the state or the country freely, and most of all to make us afraid of each other.

And I’ve kind of had enough.

So I stripped my book back down to its original length and rush-released it back into the wild, for people who have barely an hour to get recharged and motivated to live their lives as fearlessly as they can.

Call them the “original theatrical release” and the “expanded special edition.” Call them the “vintage album version” and the one with “bonus tracks.” Call them whatever you like, but get one or the other or both.

This has always been the message at the heart of my work: Fight the fear. Refuse to let fear control your life. Free yourself. Follow your dream.

Our mission is love

I wish you love.

I don’t care who you love, as long as it’s love. Love is more important than skin color, creed, gender or any other divisions.

Focus on giving love, and the rest just drops away.

They say God is love and we are made in God’s image, and then they spread anything but love.

If God is love and we are made in God’s image, then our best instinct is to love.

Our mission is love. Our purpose is love. So let’s all get out there and love!

To have that conversation

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.”

— B.F. Skinner

… because reading is a peek into someone else’s mind, a spark for the imagination caused by a glimpse into someone else’s imagination, a tap into the wine of someone else’s insight, uninterrupted except by the pauses during which you choose to revel or reflect.

I looked over at the turntable after writing that little paragraph and thought about musicians polishing their recordings to perfection, as well as the beauty of live recordings. There is no substitute, perhaps, for an actual conversation, messy as it is, but a book or a record is a next best. And in the case of the dearly departed, it is the only way to have that conversation.

So yes, we should first teach a love of reading rather than great books, because a love of reading will lead you to the books you consider great, and if you start with somebody else’s idea of a great book, you may never kindle a love of reading in the first place.

This most amazing dawn

Part 5 of 5.

Thank you, Lord, for this most amazing week. Sunday morning brings a new start, another round of seven days. Thank you, Lord, for this most amazing year. Jan. 1 brings another cycle of days and weeks and months. We are a rare set of generations, who are able to have said Thank you, Lord, for this most amazing century, a new cycle of years, and Thank you, Lord, for this most amazing millennium, a new cycle of centuries.

In truth, they are all reflections of the daily celebration — new sets of dawns, new sets of awakenings, new sets of stretching rested limbs and reaching for purpose and meaning.

A week ago I was agnostic on the concept of affirmation. Then I happened to decide I wanted to write about a most innocuous phrase — “Thank you, Lord, for this most amazing day” — and for a night I strove to remember that phrase, trying to hold onto it so I wouldn’t forget it in the morning, another victim of my seeming refusal to sleep with writing implements next to the bed.

In the morning I was a prime example of the old saw, “You become what you think about,” “As a man thinks, so he is.” I was grateful for having held the thought all night, but more important, I was optimistically thanking God for this most amazing day. I was seeing the miracle in a new day bursting with potential. I didn’t drag myself out of bed thinking, Oh, Lord, I’m stiff and sore and what am I going to write about and do I even care to write anything today. I sprang to my writing room, grabbed my journal and wrote, “Thank you, Lord, for this most amazing day.”

And so I am a convert of sorts. I always bought into the concept, but now I have inadvertently discovered how to do it “right”: Hold that thought. Keep in the back of your mind that there’s something important you want to remember, and it will surface and sustain.

Actually, that’s not quite true, is it? I have had plenty of times, mostly after vivid dreams, when I woke in the night determined to remember, only to be left with merely a vague memory of the feeling but no details when morning arrived. Why did it work this time? I can’t honestly say, unless there was something divine or supernatural at play, or unless the words drilled the feeling into me, or unless the words expressed simply and efficiently a truth I’d been struggling to express for a very long time, or unless — why am I overthinking this? I’m simply glad, grateful and happy the phrase survived the night, because now I’m locked into committing that attitude to paper and to practice.

Thank you, Lord, for this most amazing day, for a new dawn, another rebirth like the thousands you gave me before and the unknown many ahead, but most of all for this one, today, when I have direct control over my actions. It’s up to me to negotiate the twists and turns, and it’s likely to be quite the journey, because every day is a small version of the longer and bigger journey we all travel, each in our own way. May I hold this spirit of gratitude in my heart the rest of the way.

This most amazing memory

Part 4 of 5.

Thank you, Lord, for this most amazing day.

This most amazing day does not begin with a trumpet fanfare proclaiming itself to the universe, unless you count a slow, steady emerging light defeating darkness as a fanfare — although you have to admit, wiping darkness off the landscape is a pretty good trick. An hour ago you couldn’t see a darn thing without a flashlight of some kind, and even then shadows were everywhere, and now this most amazing day is here.

Still, by all signs this day is identical to any other day and every other day, except for the ingredients we pour into it.

Those magical supernatural ingredients — the choices we make, the people we encounter, the unexpected delights, the unexpected disappointments, the expected quotidian, the bullets dodged, the hits taken — all of them are stirred into a stew that is at once sweet and bitter, spicy and bland, epic and ordinary, and the finished chowder is assigned a date and filed into a big bin labeled “another day” or “one in a million I’ll always remember.”

What does it take to tip the scales for memorable? I dare say it involves starting the day with the intention to tip those scales. I am not so naive as to believe that saying, “Thank you, Lord, for this most amazing day” will make all the difference, but I am optimistic enough to believe it will make a difference.

How much difference depends on all sorts of factors. Now, all sorts of cliches are shouting for my attention as I try to make this point. Probably the predominant one is, “You can’t always control what happens, but you can control your reaction.”

I used to say “goddamit” a lot, and from time to time (heavens to Murgatroyd) I still do. Once upon a time, I vowed to say the less explosive “God bless America” instead. (Now, don’t get all political on me, just roll with the thought that “God bless America” is a gentler oath than “goddamit.”) I had to train myself out of the more vulgar habit, and I still often pause after shouting “God —” allowing a split-second to remind myself to call for a blessing rather than a damnation.

In the same way it takes some self=training to pause and remember what a most amazing day this is — one of a kind, never to be repeated exactly the same way. And isn’t it a blessing that the most awful thing won’t happen again? And isn’t it a blessing to remember to savor the most wonderful thing that won’t happen again quite like it did today?

Remember, and remember. That’s what a memory is, after all.

P.S. Who is Murgatroyd anyway?

This most amazing existence

Part 3 of 5.

It is a most amazing day, thank you, Lord. I slept in longer than yesterday, but the dog did, too, and the cat did not caterwaul for her morning meal as much as usual. The winds are calm, and the sky looks like it will allow the sunshine through — not blue but not foreboding.

Yes — “Thank you, Lord.”

I don’t know how it became commonplace not to believe in a higher power, as if humanity, this fragile, short-tempered species, was the smartest thing that nature could come up with. The beauty of it all, from the soft machine that is a honeybee to the crushing power of a hurricane, it all has a pattern to it that makes no sense in the absence of a designer and a meaning.

It’s fashionable to suggest there is no meaning — but why build beings that each look different, like (forgive me) snowflakes, with a desire for purpose hard-wired in, if indeed it is all meaningless? “In 100 years none of this will matter” are words that comfort a soul battered by events, but it all does matter, doesn’t it?

Put billions of unique individuals on a planet, each born with the power to make his or her own decisions, and see what happens. You can’t predict any single one’s destiny — now do the permutations to predict the planet’s destiny by figuring the number of possible interactions among 7 billion souls. The math is easy: 7,000,000,000 times 6,999,999,999 times 6,999,999,998 times 6,999,999,997 and all the way down to times 2. That is the number of possible ways we can all interact at any given moment. We can say what we do doesn’t matter, but like the Butterfly Effect, we can say it all matters.

Did the Lord decide this will be a calm, sunny morning over the shores of Green Bay, Wisconsin? I can’t say — to me it makes more sense that he created the universe and set it in motion — but I don’t have the ability to see that big a picture except in my imagination.

I do know some who want to harness some of that power would keep us all sedated if they could, our minds too muddled to see their machinations. Now I sound paranoid, but humans do study each other to figure ways to manipulate people’s emotions and thoughts. Their most basic mistake is in the presumption that we are all assembly-line products who will react more or less the same to the stimuli, when those infinite permutations conspire to make us all different and fairly unpredictable.

I am not a number. I am a free man. And so are you. Unless, of course, you are a free woman.

You always have a choice. Each moment is a choice — continue on this path or choose another? sugar in your coffee? some other substance? or none? or tea? Feed the dog or let her sleep longer? Read a book or watch a screen or mow the lawn? Thousand of choices every day.

Do you wonder why I say, “Thank you, Lord, for this most amazing day?”