An Overcast Sky Sings My Revelation

Note: All photographs in this post appear courtesy of Giuseppe Colarusso. Mr. Colarusso, I’m in your debt. Thank you.

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Have you ever had a morning when the environment collaborated with your spirit to yield a revelation?

A gentle rain persists out Starbucks’ window—looks like all-day. The Neil Young songs playing are mostly unfamiliar, but his voice, mournful and easy, soothes me. Milan, the manager of a tuxedo store in the Millcreek Mall, just showed me some absurd photographs by Giuseppe Colarusso, and laughs poured out of my tears reservoir. Damn, it felt good! (I’m convinced, by the way, that sorrow and joy swim in the same waters.)

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Inside my fifty-two-year-old soul, rain also falls, a voice that sounds a bit like crying sings, and here and there, cleansing laughter comes out, inappropriately loud, and turns heads toward me. I’m having a revelation, at once comforting, sad, and playful.

There’s a popular saying these days: It is what it is. Like all maxims it will fall out of favor soon enough, but I plan to appreciate It is what it is (IIWII: pronounced eye-why) while it’s around. IIWII says, “Okay, everybody, the time for acceptance has arrived. We can talk lots more about the situation at hand, complain, dissect, laugh, kvetch, wrestle, curse, and so on. But we should understand that, despite our best efforts, some things aren’t going to change. So let’s just deal. Let’s move on.”

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In this same spirit, a voice like Neil Young’s sings loving words into the ear of my heart. They sound like this overcast sky looks—pale gray pillows: “John, you are who you are.”

Has your life run like mine? Do you struggle to change characteristics that seem, as the years unfold, like matters of wiring? Do you promise yourself that the next time such and so happens, you’ll do better? You’ll be stronger, calmer, smarter, more centered, less sensitive, or whatever more or less you need to be? If your life hasn’t gone this way, you may want to escape and read something more in line with your reality. But if my questions resonate with you, I have one more for the list: At what point in the progression of decades is it best to say, “I am who I am. It’s time to make decisions based on the person I am, not on the person I would like to be”?

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In March of 2006, I wrote in my book Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs to my future children’s—Elena’s and Micah’s—children about identity:

Be warned: the blood in your veins will predispose you to Coleman attributes, some of which you’ll like, and some you won’t. I would like to pick which of my qualities you’ll inherit and which ones will pass you by, but we both know fate doesn’t work that way.

Elena and Micah got your grandmother’s strong, crooked teeth rather than my straight, weak ones, which is to their advantage. Braces can align smiles, but the only cure for rotten teeth is pliers. Micah, who at fourteen brushes his teeth only when I remind him, had zero cavities at his checkup a couple weeks ago. Elena, who at seventeen brushes like a grown up, had two puny cavities. By the time I was their age, I had a couple dozen fillings. If your teeth fall apart, blame me.

Elena inherited my hips, which were wide even when I was running forty miles a week, but Micah got a skinny frame. If you carry extra pounds from the waist down and end up with pants tight at the hips but baggy at the waist, blame me.

When you glance at your reflection in a storefront window and wonder how you got to be who you are, you’ll have plenty to blame me for.

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Mark Twain was supposed to have said, “I’ve had lots of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” If you squander days fretting about problems that never materialize, blame me. If you have bottomless patience, too much patience, occasionally stupid patience, blame me. If you’re smart enough to spot brilliance in others, but aren’t brilliant yourself, blame me. If you endure inexplicable anxiety and depression, blame me. If arguments leave you weary and shaken, blame me. If anything gorgeous makes your spirit ache, blame me. Blame me and forgive me.

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In the eight years that have passed, little has changed. If anything, I may have lost ground where inner-strength and tranquility are concerned, and I’m just as vulnerable in relationships as ever. I am what I am. So, in this moment, Neil Young sings me a question: “Is it time shape your circumstances around the person you are rather than force the person you are to strain and stretch around your circumstances?”

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Does that make any sense? Does there come a point in the maturation process at which you decide to stop trying to muscle your way again and again through situations you weren’t designed to endure? Can there come a revelation when you see clearly that loving and embracing the person you know yourself to be requires that you say goodbye to the person you would prefer to be?

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Such a moment descended on me with this morning’s precipitation. For most of my adult life, I’ve been trying to transcend troubles like a levitating bodhisattva or Jesus asleep in the stern during the storm. Turns out I’m as loving and compassionate as they come, but I’m in equal measure fragile and nervous. I’m not enlightened. And a mustard seed is a boulder next to my faith—if, indeed, faith means an abiding sense of peaceful trust.

I’m a guy sitting in a coffee shop full of pilgrims on a gray day—a guy with more years behind than ahead who has finally, mercifully, gently realized that I am who I am needs to prune IIWII, plant fresh manure around its roots, and dance prayers for rain and sunlight.

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This damp Monday is nurse-wife Kathy’s day off from trying to kick cancer’s butt. Obituaries of her patients say day-by-day, “IIWII.” She loves me in spite of my snoring, recognizes that IIWII is spanking me good, and agrees that it’s time to dance and pray. We’ve made an offer on a fixer-upper, 854 square feet, on the other side of town. Maybe we’ll hear something this week. Boy oh boy, will we have to trim away at what our present 2,100-square-foot house holds—if our bid tops the flipper we’re up against.

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No matter. Who cares if the clouds sprinkle me on the way to the truck? I’ll head for church work, knowing that IIWII often has the last word, but not today. (Does IIWII have you by the throat? I’m thinking strength your way!) Lovely Kathy and I may move into a puny house–or not. Either way, I will toast the bodhisattva Jesus I would prefer to be, give him a kiss, and tell him it’s time to move along.

P.S. The flipper won this round.

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Giuseppe Colarusso

So Long to an Expired Dream

Some dreams sting to give up. Some principles need a whipping to change.

I’ve been writing nearly every day for over twenty-five years. Before that I was an English major, publishing my first short story in a decent literary magazine in 1984, my senior year of college. A master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins followed. I’ve said many times that I learned more in three half-hour individual sessions with John Barth and a couple of manuscript reviews from Doris Grumbach than I did all the rest of that expensive year.

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The afternoon editor James Olney called to accept my sequence of poems about Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, felt like a breakthrough–years ago!

With essentially a graduate degree in fiction writing in hand, I moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania, with wife Kathy and promptly started writing poems and teaching college composition. 1985-1989 was a productive stretch. In my study at home I’ve got a box full of journals, rags, and newspapers containing one of my essays here, a poem or two there. I was on track for getting a poetry collection out within five years.

Toward the end of that period, Kathy and I bought a house, she gave birth to our daughter Elena, and I had a nervous breakdown. I muscled through panic attacks and depression, popped Xanax only when desperate, taught my classes, and kept on writing, this time nonfiction. I wanted nothing more than peace, so that’s what I wrote about.

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Groovy cover, customers eh.

Questions from Your Cosmic Dance came out in 1997 (Hazelden), The Unexpected Teachings of Jesus in 2002 (Jossey-Bass). An agent sold the first book, for which I received a $6000 advance. In the course of finding an agent for the second, I connected with an acquisitions editor who thought my proposal sounded promising. The publisher advanced me $4000. I consider both books the work of a young writer—hardworking, persistent, competent. Sales were modest, which is a euphemism for disappointing.

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In “Publishers Weekly,” I received a scorching unsigned review from a schmutz who didn’t take the trouble to understand the intended audience. The book got buried–not that I’m bitter.

I kept at it, though, squeezing in an hour every morning smithing a couple hundred words about something. When sixty minutes weren’t there, I’d do thirty—whatever. I have a couple of manuscripts at various levels of blah; with a ton of effort and a sturdy attention span, I might be able to get them into publishable shape. Another manuscript, which I’ve entitled Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is a proofread away from something I’d ask a reader to pay for.

I won’t whine about the process of trying to find a publisher for this book, which I genuinely believe would be appreciated by the audience for whom it’s intended. I’ll only mention that an agent gave it a go and waved the white flag; meanwhile, I occasionally felt like I was selling the book’s soul and my own in the process.

So the book sat. I wrote some more. Years passed. M. Somerset Maugham said, “Writing is the supreme solace,” but maybe that’s if you’ve got readers. I’m fifty-one now and gravitate toward Sylvia Plath’s thinking: “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” Thousands of my words sit cobbled together in files and on hard drives and now in clouds, having moved from the solace of composition to the stink of storage. Though I say this myself, I’m not a crap writer. I’m not great either. But I’m decent enough for my work to land in somebody’s hands. A few weeks ago I wondered if I would labor morning after morning, year after year, making chairs and stacking them in a barn for nobody to ever sit on. How dumb is that?

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Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry. Go ahead, call her lazy for self-publishing! (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why have I let my word-furniture pile up for so long? Because of a dream and a stubborn standard. The literary milieu I was brought up in dismissed writers who self-published. Serious writers never paid reading fees and never sent material to what was referred to as a vanity press. Even though Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Walt Whitman had their own work printed and sold, I’ve always considered not getting into print through traditional gatekeepers (i.e. agents or editors) an admission that I’m really not talented or, worse, ignorant of my own mediocrity.

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The indie-published Charles Dickens with a fierce wind at his back. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Sue Grafton articulates what is still a prevailing attitude, particularly among writers who have reached the Promised Land: “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops . . . you already did.” After indie-authors threw a few well-deserved haymakers at Grafton, she apologized: “It’s clear to me now that indie writers have taken more than their fair share of hard knocks and that you are actually changing the face of publishing. Who knew?! This is a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”

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Sue Grafton (Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the detective novelist’s mea culpa is sincere, but it tastes bitter to this clock-is-ticking writer who doesn’t believe in short cuts either. It’s hip and intelligent to be an indie-filmmaker, but lazy and bumbling to be an indie-writer? My tipping point came a month ago when a small press rejected a manuscript eighteen months after I’d submitted it. Here was the deal: send the manuscript, a check for $25.00 (the no-reading-fee rule is slipping), and a CD with the manuscript on it. A month later my dollars were in the press’s bank account, and the waiting began. Two follow up e-mails and a letter, tic toc. At last a recently hired submissions editor returned everything I’d sent along with a complimentary book, ironically a collection published by the family of a poet whose life ended prematurely. The rejection letter—like most writers of my generation, I’ve got a fat file of them—didn’t acknowledge his boss’s using what I’d submitted as a doorstop, but he did let me in on a secret: “We receive far more submissions than we can possibly comment on or publish.” No lit, Sherlock. I’ve also had an essay with a sharp online journal since March, this after a general e-mail to authors stating the editors’ hope to have news on submissions in a month or so. It’s been “5 months, 21 days,” the handy submissions manager just now told me. At least this journal is saying something. Many agents, publishers, and editors state with an occasional apology that writers can feel free to submit, but they should simply accept silence as rejection. I trust that folks in the publishing world are overburdened and underpaid, but no response is rude. No, thanks might irk a few writers, but at least the door gets closed.

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“$9.99 for as many books as you can fit into a hand basket”–the destination of many printed books. Is print on demand really slummy?

Basta! A Napper’s Companion started in April of 2013 in part because of frustration at shabby professional treatment and a desire to connect with readers who might enjoy my work. Through this blog I’ve found gladness in sharing, which is the right word, since I’m happily tapping away at this keyboard gratis.

With luck, in a month or so, I hope to have Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren available on Kindle. After that I’ll indie-publish a paperback edition—I’m whipped but still can’t bring myself to say self-publish. Let me indulge my denial a little longer. We’ll see what happens down the road.

My blog is “in celebration of napping . . . and all sane practices.” I’m saying so long to an expired dream for sanity’s sake. It’s time get my word-chairs out of the barn and put them around tables and on front porches, where people can relax on them and disappear into a book.