August 28, 1998

The Experiment

My life feels like an experiment, sometimes grand, sometimes foolish. Here is the experiment: give a man sufficient income so that he does not need to work and can do whatever he wants with his time. What will he do with it?

I have been working on this experiment for about ten years. One problem is that I wonder what part I am playing in it. Surely I am the rat. But am I also the person running the experiment? Am I the one deciding what experiences to give the rat? Or is the world or some other force conspiring to affect the choices and actions of the rat?

I feel a little like Thoreau sometimes. He went to the woods “to live deliberately.” He wanted “to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” He hoped he could then report if life was “mean” or “sublime.”

I too wish to live deliberately. I wish to live in a way that I can step back and look at my actions and look at how I am living in the world. I wish to determine if the way I am living is consistent with what I value and hold as important.

But for my experiment I have not left to go to the woods, and that is a big difference. I have chosen to live in the middle of a typical environment in America today. I have a wife, children, a dog, friends, a home, a mortgage, two cars, a lawn, credit cards, high speed internet access, cable TV, malls nearby, stadium seating movie theaters, vacations, restaurants to frequent, a doctor, a dentist, a therapist, clients, the Red Sox, and the Sopranos. I have chosen not to escape life like Thoreau did. I have chosen to live life deliberately in the midst of the best and the worst that Western culture has to offer. And I am not just sitting in the midst watching. I partake of it.

Can I live in the midst of this culture, be a part of it, and live a life consistent with my values? Or must I reject and condemn a large part of the way of life of this culture in order to do so? Must I reject TV as a wasteland or can I enjoy “American Idol?” Must I eschew James Bond type thriller movies and frequent only art house movies with subtitles? Can I follow my Red Sox passionately or must I do something “constructive” with my time like read “important” books? Can I be “productive” if I do not have a job?

I could have chosen the woods. There is a lot to be learned out there too. But I have chosen to stay in the midst of the messiness. I have chosen a different laboratory for the experiment of my life. Or I have been chosen. It is not as neat as the cabin and pond of Thoreau. Distractions, illusions, and obstacles abound.

In the laboratory of life, there is no maze to memorize. The lab rat can work hard and eventually learn his maze. When he reaches his bite of the cheese, he is set for life because the maze will not change. Life in our culture is much more fluid. Just when I think that I have found “The Way,” the maze morphs into something new and unknown. It is easy to get lost while trying to find my way home.

Through Zigzags I plan to report the findings of my experiment. They will not be conclusion statements, such as “the world is mean” or “the world is sublime.” The reports will be the day to day adventures, catastrophes, learnings, unlearnings, and relearnings on my journey. My hope is that there will be pieces with which you can identify and which will help you on your journey home.

Energy Sources

“Look for the energy, Jim, look for the energy,” my teacher would say. I was in the midst of coaching training and this was an important matter. I began to see shifts in energy during my sessions with clients. A client would come in confused, stuck and unable to articulate his interests in life. All of a sudden he would sit up in his chair, voice amplified, arms waving and speak with passion. There was the energy, both physical and psychic. There was the focus point.

I began to look for the times and places of energy in my own life. I am a person who has traditionally run at low energy levels. But could I do something to change that? Were there sources of energy into which I could tap? I began a list.

The mountains. Something happens when I go to the mountains. I breathe deeply the force of life. I can be backpacking in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains of New Hampshire or I can be on a tennis court in Waterville Valley. The feeling of fullness is the same.

The sound of water. When hiking, all of a sudden the sound of an approaching stream will filter through the trees. It could be one of my favorites, the Mad River or the Wild River, or it could be a babbling brook. The sounds of fountains energize me. A dam, with clear sheaths of rushing water, will do the trick. Visit the John F. Kennedy memorial fountain near Harvard Square and just feel the energy flow.

The feeling of water. Showers, baths, dips in the lake or the ocean, hot tubs, jacuzzis, pools. The feeling of the water united with my body fills me up.

Music. Folk music is my most certain route into energy. Usually a familiar favorite cut or two from a CD will do it. Other types of soulful music, like Joe Cocker, will also do it. I do not have a lot of experience with classical music, but lately I have been entranced by “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. It raises me up and twists and turns me, floating away, yet grounded. It builds layer upon layer until there can be no more and then more, reaching higher, and then surprise, more! It then slowly lays me down.

Dance. I had forgotten about dance until my recent retreat. Our group sessions would begin with three or four dance tunes and we would all get up and get moving. I would be dead tired at about my usual bedtime and yet a few minutes of dancing would completely revive me. I was stunned at my ability to manipulate my energy level. The combination of music and body movement is powerful.

Sex. A powerful energy source, a life force. It combines body movement, tactile touch and loving intimacy in a primal way. It calls me from deep within to be fully alive.

Exercise. I have recently begun running again after a layoff of many years. It seems strange that the exertion of physical energy would produce both physical energy and psychic energy, but it does.

Fierce beauty. I vividly recall walking on a small hill in the high desert of Coyote Springs, Arizona, and coming upon the brilliant red flower, Indian Paintbrush. It took my breath away. Fierce beauty. Alice Koller writes that fierce beauty “wrenches me out of the ongoing hour, immersing me in itself.” She had a particular painting she would go to see in the Gardner Museum in Cambridge when she needed the energy of fierce beauty in her life. For my friend, Bonnie, it lies in classical music. Each of us has his/her own source.

My list is a beginner’s list and I hope to expand it. I believe that I am just starting to scratch the surface on this issue of energy. But more importantly, I hope to use these sources proactively for energy management in my life. Robert Gass writes, “The key to the ‘art of doing’ is human energy. Everything we do in our lives is the result of using or withholding, focusing, relaxing, amplifying or reducing our energy.” I would add that energy is also the key to the “art of being.” With energy our doing and being can flourish.

My challenge is to have the energy to show up fully for life and to use that energy with intention and focus. I recognize that part of the energy flows as a result of “doing” and “being” which is done well. But before we get to that step, we need the basic energy. We need to have sources that we can call on when needed.

August 21, 1998

Bowled Over

I am full. My cup runneth over. I just cannot fit any more in. I am newly returned from a wondrous week at Shalom Mountain Retreat Center and the experience has filled me with so many ideas, thoughts and feelings. I can barely remember how I got home.

I feel like I am in a birdbath which is being filled with water and someone left the hose on and forgot about it. The water gurgles, rushes and splashes with great motion, but it is out of control. It just keep splashing and the water stings my eyes. My nose fills like a kid rolling backward in a lake. I breathe too early and my mouth fills with water before I break the surface for a breath.

There are so many things that I want to do and tell. I need a week to create a to-do list. No, I do not have the time or focus. My mind will not stay on one subject long enough. It bursts forth making connections and disconnections. My wiring is on overload.

I am reminded of the story of the three bowls that Sue Bender tells in her book, Everyday Sacred. “The first bowl is inverted, upside down, so that nothing can go into it. Anything poured into this bowl spills off. The second bowl is right side up, but stained and cracked and filled with debris. Anything put into this bowl gets polluted by the residue or leaks out through the cracks. The third bowl is clean. Without cracks or holes, this bowl represents a state of mind ready to receive and hold whatever is poured into it.”

I spend much time preparing to be the third bowl. In that state I am living expectantly in the present waiting for life to show itself to me. And it always does. When I am able to be empty and receive, life in its goodness and glory reappears so that I may witness. It was always there, but when I am busy being the first or the second bowl, I cannot see.

I went to Shalom ready to receive and today I am the third bowl filled beyond the rim with the whoosh of life. I cannot control the flow. I opened to life and it came in. Today I can only glory in the excess and say thank you.

This state will be temporary. At some point in the near future I will be the first bowl or the second bowl again. My euphoria will abate. But for now I will be enveloped by the luscious of life. I will sing and dance, and hug and hold, and cry out from my depth. After all, as the great philosopher Mary Englebreit said, “Life is just a chair of bowlies.”

Let me savor this time. Cut me some slack. I may cross over the line into obnoxious from time to time. The whirl of my energy can spill out and knock people down like an uninvited mosher at a line dance. But the good news is that it can be contagious.

August 7, 1998

Rules for Shopping

You probably think that wicker is wicker. When you want to buy a wicker couch, you go to the store and buy the white wicker couch. You are so wrong. I know. I am now an expert.

Do you want white, brown, a different shade of brown, gray, green, or ugly green-maybe-blue? Do you want to use it indoors or outdoors? What firmness do you want in the cushions? Do you want a deep seat or a narrow seat? And I have not begun to talk about the shape and style of the wicker itself and the various fabrics available. Too many decisions for me!

We have had some work completed on our sunporch and my wife and I are buying some new things for it. The wicked wicker caper arose out of one of our shopping trips. We do not yet have a new sofa because we broke several of The Rules - The Rules for Shopping with Jim. With my wife’s able assistance, I have assembled the rules so that they might add to your personal shopping pleasure.

Rule 1: Pick a store near a good restaurant. A good meal makes me much more manageable.

Rule 2: Do not enter a store after 11:00 AM and before lunch. I cannot shop on an empty stomach. I will agree on nothing. My antics will draw out memories of trying to do grocery shopping with a two year old.

Rule 3: Do not shop at a store which does not have a bathroom. Call ahead if you must. The anxiety of shopping is overwhelming to whatever has been consumed in preparation for this journey of desire.

Rule 4: Do not shop at a department store. Having too many choices scrambles my brain. All potential items should be within easy view from one spot in the store.

Rule 5: Make a maximum of two stops. If you count them up, that means a total of eight times that I either enter or exit the car, and that seems to be my limit. It is like when the game show contestant bets all that he has won on the final question and gets it wrong. Stopping at a third store wipes out all potential gains from the first two stops.

Rule 7: No surprises. Tell me where we are going and what we are looking for. And do not change the plan. Flexibility is not my long suit. A violation of this rule is the reason that we do not have a wicker couch. We were shopping for something else when I became Mr. Wicker.

Rule 8: Use devious tactics. I never want to go shopping, but buy something without me and I will pout and complain until you wish that you never bought it. So just say that you are going to go look at something and do not invite me to go along. Anytime that I know that I am not wanted, I will want to go.

Rule 9: Watch for the vacant stare. When my eyes glaze over, I have reached maximum input for the day. Either feed me or take me home.

Rule 10: Avoid shopping with Jim. Enjoy what you already have. Remember the price you paid the last time you took him shopping. When rules are broken, someone is going to have to pay. And you know who it will be.