Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Serendipity of Success

 The stories of success that most enchant us are those that we, or those involved, cannot explain. That doesn't stop us from trying to figure them out, speculating on the possible causes or dismissing them as blind luck, but they continue to haunt us as they suggest a possibility we can’t quite grasp.

Maurice Sendak was an American illustrator and author of children’s books. He based his stories on childhood influences: his immigrant origins, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the concentration camp deaths of his extended family, which he found out on the day of his bar mitzvah, and parents consumed with anger and depression. He felt many children had experienced what he had at some level, not the same events but the confusion, fear and disempowerment they represented. Sendak wanted to share with his young audience what he considered the reality of most childhoods. He vowed he’d never lie to them. Needless to say, rainbows and sunshine were not part of his illustrations.

In 1963, Sendak had an idea for a book which he entitled Where the Wild Horses Are. His editor, Ursula Nordstrom, loved the idea and was purported to say the title was poetic and evocative. She offered him a contract, and Sendak set about working on the book. Several months into it, Sendak realized he had a problem. He couldn't draw horses. He wasn't a school-trained artist. Upon informing her that this project wasn't going to work, he met the business face of Ursula Nordstrom. In an “acid-tone[d] response” she asked what could he draw.

“Things,” he said.

So his editor suggested another title, Where the Wild Things Are, perhaps with more sarcasm than was mentioned in my source.  Likely no one continued to grouse about it, however, because 19 million copies have been sold since its publication in 1963. Who’d have ever imagined? These ugly little character things, a boy who disobeyed his mother, a mother who sent her son to bed without supper (this was the 1950s, and they were no-no’s) and a “violent” story.

In a quote of Sendak’s, I found what I would call a clue to his “serendipitous” success. One I've seen before in similar tales. Here’s what he said:

"I'm totally crazy, I know that. I don't say that to be a smartass, but I know that that's the very essence of what makes my work good. And I know my work is good. Not everybody likes it, that's fine. I don't do it for everybody. Or anybody. I do it because I can't not do it."

The italics are mine. The two points are critical. The most pertinent question a creative being must be able to answer for himself is what is my art about. This doesn't mean defining a genre. It refers to what in you has to get out. Understanding that puts us in touch with the force governing point two, the “I can’t not do it,” part of an artist. That drive is not to be confused with obsession. It represents a depth of engagement that generates satisfying results and often notable art. Accepting these two realities often places a person in the path of serendipitous success.

Maurice Sendak knew what he was and who he was and didn't appear to be tempted to be anyone else. He knew also what was his to do, and he did it. This quote describes that awareness beautifully:

“Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain — I don’t need to. I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart. Or if I walk in the woods and I see an animal, the purpose of my life was to see that animal. I can recollect it, I can notice it. I’m here to take note of. And that is beyond my ego, beyond anything that belongs to me, an observer, an observer.”

To be successful, we must be infatuated with what we do, not infatuated with success. That cuts the job down to a size that we can engage with in the present moment.  And it also means that no matter what the outside world does, we experience ourselves as satisfied and successful. If along that way, life gives us notoriety and/or money, so be it. If it doesn't, we still have lived a life worthy of our time on this earth.

Sendak was sometimes censored and sometimes praised, but that
flux of human emotion didn't tempt him to change. It wasn't  money that made him successful, it was who he was that brought his art to a level that touched people and made the world pay attention. 

Money often rewards that accomplishment, but it is not its progenitor nor is it a true measure of success. If you’re stuck on that point, meaning money is your motivation and your measure, you may miss out on serendipity and success.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Meet a Dear Friend of Mine

Imogene Ware and  Shunryu Suzuki lived during similar times. Shunryu Suzuki was the Zen monk who brought Buddhism to North America. He once said, "The point is to attain complete composure," and his was a life that modeled, in spades, that lack of entanglement with himself and the world. My friend, Imogene Ware, on the other hand, was an illiterate, Black housekeeper during that same time span, earthy, funny, talking with God with the same familiarity as with her car horse, Polly, but I suspect Shunryu Suzuki, had he known her, would have regarded her as very Zen. The only difference is that Imogene Ware walked through the pages of a novel while Suzuki Rossi walked this earth. But once you get into the novel ACCIDENTS OF BIRTH, I sense you might forget that one small difference.

Suzuki Rossi was once asked to summarize Buddhism in one sentence. Everyone  waited to hear the response to what seemed an impossible question. His reply was: Everything changes. 

Miss Imogene, when talking about life said something very similar: So it be with life, each piece, each bit whether a flower, a bird, a sin or a song pass on, fo’ life be motion, an motion be change.

Unfortunately, Shunryu Suzuki has left this life, but Miss Imogene lives on. I know Suzuki would have delighted in her company. I bet when you get to know her, you will too.

Accidents of Birth 
A Story in Two Parts

 Summary: The greatest influence in setting the course of anyone’s destiny is where and to whom they’re born. What we’re taught to believe, what is asked of us, the burdens we’re given, the lies we share all start there. Through the eyes of an illiterate Black housekeeper, Imogene Ware, born in 1928 in the post-Civil War enclave of Small Town in rural Mississippi, the reader gets to view the last half of the racially charged, politically divisive 20th century through her eyes.

Available in Kindle Format and Paperback (very soon)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Psst, Listen Up…

In the modern-day writing idiom, authors are told they require, among other things, story arc and tension. So imagine your surprise if you were to pick up a book where the arc is low and wide and your shoulders never hunch with nervous energy. 

There was an author in the mid-20th century whose novels epitomized this style of writing. Nevil Shute went a different direction in attracting people to his stories, for there is an equally fascinating approach in novels where the protagonist is not the object of emotional trauma. Instead, he or she enthralls us in a different manner – by being someone who, at all turns, does the right thing. Deep within us all is an intrigue with rightness. Not to be confused with righteousness, rightness brings out the best in us. The most honorable and integral parts of us surface, and we feel deeply satisfied with who we are and how we are living our lives. We are drawn to that feeling and love being in the company of those who live from rightness, for it engenders humility, integrity and honor.

When Nevil Shute wrote The Pied Piper, he crafted a story whose flattened story arc ran along the war torn roads and byways of France. We read about an elderly man attempting to get back to England before the war makes it impossible. He is accompanied by one child he reticently agrees to take with him in Switzerland, where he starts his journey. He is a man who’s never fathered a child nor raised one, and he is wrapped in the confusion of what to do with the boy, slightly annoyed at being put in this situation, yet concerned for the child who likely won't see his family for years if he can't get home now. The elderly gentleman then picks up several more children along the way, overriding his fear of how he will feed them or find their parents, because it is the right thing to do. That’s the story basically, a small mob of children clinging to an old man, walking. But the rightness of his actions draws a reader to it magnetically, for there is no place a human being would rather be then in the presence of rightness.

We have a contemporary Nevil Shute among us. Bert Carson writes books where his protagonists aren't in gut-wrenching situations, or terrorized or despairing. His protagonists, and
everyone else in his novels for that matter, are men and women- and in his latest novel, a young boy- who do the right thing. His stories wrap the reader in an experience of what it feels like when we are the best we can be. I believe in my heart there is no more deeply held need in us humans than feeling right within ourselves and no greater joy than being among a group of people, real or the characters of a novel, who live from that dictum.

The book I am referring to is The High Road by Bert Carson. It isn't published yet, but you can listen to it as a serial, narrated by the author in a voice perfect for the story. He writes short chapters, so you could listen on the bus, train or in your car going to work and start your day on a high note. You could listen to it with your children and mate in the evening before bed as a lovely family story telling session. After all, this book started when Bert and his twelve-year-old friend, Noah Charif began working together to write it.

Yes, Bert Carson is my husband, but if you know me, you know I can be disturbingly forthright. I wrote this not out of loyalty, but because someone needed to take the time to place this book high in the priority of readers, or presently listeners, to show that great books don’t necessarily have to follow the rules people say they should. What any memorable book must be first is a product of the integrity rightness spawns. The High Road is a touching story with the capacity to make doing what is right appear desirable, possible, in fact, necessary if we are ever to know the depths of our own goodness.

And while you have his site open, listening, you might notice a piece of software in the right column that ticks off visitations to his blog indicating where the visitor is from and what they are looking at. In the case of The High Road, you get see who is listening along with you, people from Romania, China, Ohio, Italy and places you might never have heard of. 

Humanity needs to walk a higher road these days, to know something other than our fears and defeats. Obviously many people are realizing this and have found a man who knows a great deal about doing the right thing, Bert Carson, and he shares what he knows through characters and their stories. Very quickly, you too will wish you had more friends like he introduces you to, people capable and willing to make the family of man a reality. But don’t take my word for it. After all, I’m just his wife. Listen for yourself, listen with your family and then tell others you love to listen too.

Now, click here, lean back and listen…

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Month of Doing Anew – Next Thoughts

If you recall, what we’re about is ending up this month different than how we started, engaged with life in a way new to us which leaves its imprint sufficient to have us notice ourselves responding to  life anew. And remember, you don’t have to have a life shattering experience to create change. In fact, it is possible to have a life shattering experience which does nothing more than embeds your fears more deeply. So don’t pooh-pooh a quiet, daily pressure that births a new sense of life.

I have been a lover of Zen for many years. I’m not a follower of any particular spiritual philosophy. I pick fruit off many different trees, but the arrow-like nature of Zen observation of the world makes it a most penetrating experience. Zen focuses on a mind that is quiet, meaning not filled with the continual chatter that occurs in most everyone’s mind, night and day. That sort of quiet mind is a present mind and thus the person whose head that mind occupies is said to be present, or living in the present moment.

Now, I’m sure if you are reading this blog, you have heard that terminology often or others like it–mindfulness, presence, being present. But do we really understand what is being implied by this concept, for if the human mind banters anything around for a period of time is has the ability to suck all the sap out of it without even tasting it. So here is what the ancient Zen folk say, Master Dahui, in this case:

Buddha said that when the mind does not gasp things of the past, does not long for the future, and does not dwell on things of the present, then one realizes that past, present and future are empty (without substance, meaning or indeed existence).

Don’t think about past wants, whether good or bad, for if you think about them, this impedes the Way. Don’t calculate future matters, for if you calculate, you go mad. Don’t fixate your attention on present affairs, whether pleasant or unpleasant, for if you fixate your attention on them, they will disturb your mind.

(Now here’s the kicker) Just deal with situations as they happen, and you will spontaneously accord with these principles.

So here’s my question. How many times in a day do you deal with something that has actually happened? Don’t answer too quickly. Take a look. Maybe you just had an argument with one of your children and would take that as an example of being present and dealing with a situation as it happens. But if you are willing to look closely, you might find that what you were really dealing with were old fears, the past, concerns about your success or ability as a parent. Or maybe instead, you were dealing with future fears of what might happen to this child if you can’t get him/her to do as you wish. Or maybe you continue to play the scenario over and over and torture your present. But what likely didn't happen was dealing with the situation just as it was happening in that moment. Trust me, if you were, there would be little or no emotion, just a rational and quiet discussion of that current point.

So here’s the challenge, something truly new. Watch yourself. Catch yourself living in your mind, emoting from things you are thinking about, be they past events, future fears or dreams or present scenarios that are not actually taking place at that time.

Any success at all in this endeavor is a truly new experience for most every human being. Take it seriously, and for sure you will not end up this month the same person who started it. There will be more peace in your heart than you've felt since a child and so much less fear in any of it forms.

There it is: Just deal with the things that are actually happening and see how life changes.