Red Fox & Blue Butterfly

LxXVb5wI ran at a steady pace up Fort Totten Hill. Its summit was raised a level higher by the Civil War era Earth-works of the fort upon that hill. Trees occlude its remains but paths of worn stones persist. My irregular running routine had not greatly affected my ability to climb the weather cracked easement from the street level to where the sun-bathed hillside fades to a shaded gravel road.

A red fox dashed into the undergrowth but not fast enough. My steady speed, I noted, allowed me to have a generous look at this vermilion phantom — this was just my third fox sighting in as many years. Because of this fleet-footed spirit-animal, my first Monday after quitting that job assumed a glow of ordination, an aura somewhere between rusted and rosy. I continued for a quarter mile beyond that point.

As I looped back, I bashed my foot against a tree-trunk. The stroke of clumsiness was unexpected, crest-breaking, and it hurt-like-hell. I limped the thorn-lined path out of the woods. As I crossed the sunny expanse of lawn on the hillside nearest the street, I saw a tiny blue butterfly. I grasped the irony, then: I would not have stopped if I were not already struggling, unable to run. Kneeling, I soaked-in its finest details: the slight purplishness of its blues, the creamy undersides of each wing bearing ‘eye-spots’, bold but minuscule, as if drafted by expert calligraphers.

More than two days later, I could barely walk around the grocery store. The parable is seemingly orthogonal to how I thought the tensions of the universe played. Going quickly, I was able to see the fox, orange-red, and going slowly I was blessed with the butterfly, so so purple-blue. Who am I to say that one beauty is greater? To hustle and to hobble were both divine. The lesson about pace was not that any pace was better but that something different was to be learned at each pace.

Many of us would trade the butterfly, would trade the blues, to keep sprinting. We aspire to follow the torch of the fox’s tail indefinitely. Yet it was not the long-gone fox’s fault I busted my foot on a tree — I could have been more leisurely, more careful. On the other hand, even at a jog, would I stop to see a tiny, blue butterfly? Without its fluttering blues as a lure, would I kneel to see the fine marks on each wing’s underside: the tiny eyes that watch our fox-hunts?

Echinargus isola:

Echinargus isola, Sycamore Canyon, Arizona, USA © Frank Model


Wrestling the Anchor: Dredging for Treasure

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson


This is so weird to see: Omitted-ex & I

In 2010, I bought a journal at a store in Grand Rapids Michigan with that quotation on the cover. Yesterday I read and annotated those hand-written reflections from five years ago. My brief but sweet romance dissolved, a week ago; it was an amicable split that left me both deeply ‘blue’ and hopeful for new opportunities. That is all I need to say of my “Fli” (my so-fly “former love interest”; “ex-girlfriend” sounds negative); the break with “Fli-girl” left me on a higher level than when we met in February, much unlike the scuttled commitment with “Omitted-ex” that burned and sank in 2010. This seems like the perfect chance to understand my ‘story-arc’ better through intentional reflection.

For my sake, take a few steps back to an earlier point in the causal chain, readers; allow me to look more closely at this period to understand the subsequent stages. The journal begins with an unironic “Dear Jesus,” –an earnest salutation that heads all of its entries, starting on April 25th 2010. “I want desperately to shed my skin right now.” it reads, “I think I am still learning it is okay to be inconsistent that way, so long as I draw closer to our Father. […] My own feelings have been hard to reign in. I feel that I have been put back up against familiar struggles in an unfamiliar stage. [Omitted-ex]’s initiation of this stage has put me on a continual defensive. But the point of this journal is to buck-off the past a little and get focused on the building…”

My first sticky-note annotation notes that, “[f]rom the beginning, reigning-in his emotions and defensive” referring to my younger self in the third person.  Near the end of April, the comments begin to get tart. “My prose, here, relies on a Western Christian idiom even though I am talking to myself…” Here is the 29 year old man, the man whose lived between Jerusalem and Washington’s orbit for an accumulation of four years, dissecting a former-self that had not left Michigan. “Where is all the fucking profanity? He was hurting but he won’t say shit.” Rather than following the annotations’ course I decided to focus on unpacking my reading of this old journal.

My five-years-aged emotions were impossible to connect with because the prose was a continual swirl of self-deprecations, as well as generic frustration, coated in this alien phraseology. Especially between mid-May and mid-June of that year, I wrote permutations of the same, impotent ideas — I said little about friends, my job, or events happening in the world. Everything revolves around the grinding de-escalation of this one romance and my corresponding attempt to rewire my spirituality (my ways of thinking and feeling at the intersection of ontology and epistemology). Omitted-ex and I became entangled pursuing a narrow vision of mutuality. There was an idea of “we” whose parameters came from conservative ‘Christian’ authors that she read rather than from improvising together — in absence of an “us-groove”, there was this misfit-chart for securing love. “The haptics do seem to be indicative,” I annotate, referencing how she stopped touching me, “I can see [Omitted-ex] hanging-on when she shoulda’ known it was over.”

May 15th, 2010 marked a critical down-turn. The entry begins with some sharp relational analysis: I speculate that she is chasing an abstract sold to her by publishers, that there could be months of “toil” punctuated by an ultimate rejection or, worse, a miserable courtship leading to “an emotionally abusive relationship of withholding”. This slice of sophisticated pessimism appears like an anachronism but it is the rest of the journal that is out of place. Things I knew before and have known since about Life, The Divine, and relationships were inaccessible to my mind that spring. I start building a wall over my common-sense in the next paragraph, brick-by-brick using the ideas of ‘Faith’ gleaned from those toxic books she wanted me to read. That Faith was made from inertia and introspection, which explains my over-correction a year later: I built a Faith on perpetual activism.


Sticky-note annotations.

Sticky-note annotations.

I could already sense The Dragon trying to cannibalize The Boy; I often refer to my hardened, social-justice-obsessed persona as The Dragon. His breath reeks of burning tires, his claws are like exposed re-bar, and he compares all previous suffering to the burn of tear-gas against the eyes. He emerged from the hot ashes of ‘her’ books when I burned them and fed on hookah smoke in the West Bank while Gaza burned in 2012. “Be compassionate to yourself,” I annotate. When I see things like “I am a very loved stupid person” it is tempting to separate myself from that by starting to mock. That affirms the label rather than recognizing the circumstances that tied my cognitions in a knot: deaths, unemployment, family tensions.  My sense of determination was like a dangling tentacle, eager to wrap itself around that romance because my parents had recently divorced. Perspective was missing, not intelligence– as is the case with many people.

Some paleogeologists postulate there was a period of total glaciation in Earth’s history — Snowball Earth — which delayed the onset of the ‘Cambrian Explosion’. The diversity of life’s forms accelerated rapidly in the Cambrian period and the phyla of animals we know today appeared. June 15th, 2010, three days after Omitted-ex and I split, the first signs of life appeared. “My thoughts stretch on. This growth cannot be about her now. It is quickly going to become about *page-break* vocation.” The word “vocation” slapped me awake as I wiped my brow, sitting on a patio in DC summer humidity. By July 1st, I start to write in ways that I recognize as my own voice. On the 7th, momentum is building: “Wow. My history is discouraging in this department. Yay? Yay for an excuse? No. Not yay or guilt. Move on.” That final imperative struck a bass-string in me, five years later: move-on.

Cross and maskJuly 30th shows me more about who I was, then, than any entry before. “Then I looked in the mirror and saw how odd I looked. I didn’t see a handsome guy with flaws. I saw an odd son-of-a-bitch but… I felt like I could like him. Maybe I want a friendship with myself. To put it through a Faith lens, I knew that your love was unconditional [to Jesus]. Your grace doesn’t un-kink my image or even my insides. You love each ugly bastard.” In that paragraph I see a fragment of myself. This idea of Grace has no Salvation in it. I was unable to see my beauty and felt as if I had to accept feeling ugly, as if there was nothing I could do. Quickly, I ran from the patio into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. I looked so good: a runner’s body, manicured soul-patch, grandma Gore’s eyes, grandpa Rice’s crooked smile, and an anchor tattoo. Where he saw a weed I saw a fragrant herb.

Dredged + Salvaged

To my mild surprise, the first mention of “mission” appears in the entry for September 8th, 2010. It is still partially lodged in the same, dislocated ‘Christianese’ scaffolds but it’s there: “My stumbling blocks seems easier to see and process. It is so strange to see the skeletal structure of hidden assumptions I have, even if it is such a mere glimpse. I have the basics of a spiritual plan and one for career (ish) ~ yet I find myself toying with the idea of a mission. What is your will? Am I ready to be sure?”

Reading later entries, I discovered an incarnation of myself with whom I wanted to connect. I remembered him reaching for a sense of balance, often handling things in his life with a basic sense of graciousness that shames my snarky ‘Dragon’ self. At times when I might be angry, he responds with a disciplined humility. At the same time, I see his damaged self-respect and his desire for something exterior to define him. The stage was set. Still, I find it comforting to know that I am returning to myself, again, with some perspective that he lacked. Endless hell will not claim me.

The anchor represents a sense of perspective. Now, I can start talking about my journey abroad. “Do you realize,” I whispered to my past self, “that you are two years away from swimming in a waterfall in Southeast Asia?” Then I realized that it had been three years since I swam in that waterfall — since losing my first anchor necklace. To think that I will probably never see that waterfall again makes me much sadder than the loss of Omitted-ex. The difference between depression and the life-giving blues is clear now: Fli-girl is like the waterfall and I wanted her to stay that way. I said goodbye. I said “move-on”.

To be continued…

Reverse Exiled: Avocational Crises

blacknessLast week I opened a two-months-fermented word-document [rexiled_definitive] titled “Reverse Exiled”, like the name of this WordPress outlet. The Reverse Exiled blog materialized from the great visa-excursion of 2012, as I tried to return to my position at Wi’am. The blog shared a common purpose with the journey across Asia and back, which I understood to be navigating life from a new, multicultural perspective. Like this flagship entry, though, Reverse Exiled and all its predecessors are about the search for significance. The past ten years have been characterized by vocational crises whose genesis, ironically, is in the fear of failure and the outgrowth of warped, rushed plans wrought from wanting only excellence amid struggle. Sand-blast with personal struggle and compulsive coping mechanisms: it’s a search for significance that goes from Detroit to Davao. No negative stage has passed without some attempt to redeem the experience in my imagination — rationalizations, perhaps.

The outline I composed on the airplane between Chicago and DC this June is concerned with vocation:

-reversing exile; on my way home

-Quarter-life Crisis at Starbucks

-All of my recent challenges – interruptions to the story

-Retracing back to Mindanao/Bethlehem/sense-making. Things stopped making sense in Uncle Tom’s laboratory (should have been an ecologist) – society is made of systems of its own.

-One Love: MUSIC – then the blown audition. Never any hope… the drift away from myself

-Then came the Writing Center position?

-Then came the crash in the later years of college and just out of college

-Real-world woes… relearning life when I never learned the life I had been in…

-Coming to the yellow park-bench: having let go of music, found the deepest solace in playing

-Playing in caves

-Moving to DC; therapists;

-“What’s stopping you from writing?”

-“What’s stopping me from playing?”

-Musicianship as the underlying identity…

-…and yet: The Writer

-“Seriously… what is stopping me from writing?”

-(overkill: acknowledging the addictions)

The crisis in Starbucks is not hard to unravel: when I saw the price-tag on a graduate education I started to reconsider studying conflict resolution; the ‘man in the mirror’ is not a mediator. My work supporting Wi’am Center was indicative of my values and interests… but not necessarily my talents…

I am no stranger to vocational crises; my career as a biochemist trickled to a hault in the back laboratories of Notre Dame. My uncle showed me his neurological work zebra-fish eyes and, though animals fascinated me, the process failed to resonate in me — that kind of scientific research is something I love to read, not do. I enjoy unraveling systemic relationships; I realized this January that I could have been a wetland ecologist working in the muddy waters around this world. I might expose the subtle stitches in the changing tapestry of our world from tiny strands: the gills of mayflies or the mating habits of frogs. I could have flourished, with the right guidance…

Trumpet resonated. My dreams of playing and composing jazz hovered high above my musical foundations — I lacked sufficient training. My entire, teenage sense of significance coiled itself around a few music program auditions. Too much was at stake —my very self— and I was so far behind the musical curve that could not even acknowledge the coming turn of fortune. I lost the will to practice in the Autumn of my senior year of high school, hoping for a precipitous moment of genius that never appeared in my adult life. What even many in my family do not know is that I would have dropped out of Michigan State University and tried to audition at a smaller school had it not been for John T. Madden, director of MSU’s athletic bands. Based on the essays in my application to the marching band he encouraged me to stay in the English program, at least until I was ready to audition again. Five years later, I left with two BAs — neither of them in Music. Also, neither of them necessarily more lucrative.

When my grandfather had told me that music was an avocation, which confused and angered me. He and Grams bought most of my hardware (horns), paid for lessons, and came to concerts. Young men hate to fall passionate in love with something or someone and then be told they are “too serious”; I was the same way with ladies. Shabaab (an Arabic word — the only fitting term for that season in life) struggle to manage that kind of relationship and not lose themselves in the horror of loving without mastering, of practicing without possessing. I interred my horn in the space behind a couch and pretended to be an intentional English major. Yet my music rebounds, no matter what mode or stage of decay I reach. The avocation illuminates The Way to Vocation, no matter how long the dream remains deferred.

I developed the uncanny urge to sneak under the Bogue Street Bridge on campus and play trumpet (badly) — eventually, my tone was better than ever. Sometimes I would entertain ambitions but I mostly used my practice time as personal therapy. I learned to use a practice room when I moved across campus but I made weekend migrations there. That space was held together with graffiti and spiderwebs, held aloft over the limitless, contradictory depths of mud-steeped water running through the brewing night. Someday I want and even need to write more about the uncanny ways that alcove by the Red Ceder River worked, not just acoustically but as an expression of psyche — a motif.

The first lesson is that a true vocation — even an avocation — will keep finding ways to manifest itself; my musical experience is one of recurring ‘reverse exile’. Music creates a an irregular hollow in the quest for significance because my practice exists mostly for myself, to stave off despair and keep my prowess at a satisfactory point. Music demonstrates both that the unexercised talent becomes dull and unfulfilling but also that enough exercise revives the vocation to previous levels ~ or adds new dimensions. The unsteady love affair with the trumpet traveled to dormitory lounges, park benches, church sanctuaries, and cavernous basements (literally, caves beneath houses). My last week in my old apartment building, in DC, I haunted the vacant room downstairs and disinterred the same sweet sound that keeps saving my sanity, the sound of dreams bridled into a regulated longing, the distillation of “what-if” — a consolation. I did have the raw gifts… but to what end?

The previous ‘all time low’ in my quest for significance came in the wake of my final relationship. I started going to Riverside Park (Grand Rapids, MI) every day to riff for a while and soak in a sunset. The process of making music offered too much and the prospect of suicide too little. The hurt of the (true) blues is transcendent beyond despair because it takes us beyond shame to expression, again. Quality became irrelevant for a while. Instead of leaving the world with my give-a-damn still in it I decided to just live and not give-a-damn. I became truly process-oriented about music.

I speculated that my music would lead the way for my writing but my career interrupted my development. Last week, I kept getting to this point in the essay and freezing. My writer’s block developed into an impossible bind. Always at this point because I never succeeded — I never moved beyond that point. I walked away from my creative self to become an activist for a multitude of reasons and tonight I need to confess that I second-guess that regularly and have since I discovered, in France, that no one wants to listen to prophets. Now, I am becoming tired of listening too. Rather than believing I have a mission, I have begun to believe that the mission grew from that desire for significance — if there is a God, that God made good use of that urge but it seems all but expended as I start avoiding the constant stream of progressive news reports, longing for more beautiful things again… wishing I could braid them together because the most gorgeous facets of life — love, expression, resilience — are in real danger.

—and I’m learning this just as I write, trying to be honest instead of crafty. I want to say that the activist interceded to rescue the artist before he starved or finally had that date with the toilet-bowl cleaner (or the watermelon knife, or a half-frozen lake, or…). The activist grew not only out of that selfish longing for significance but also of preservation, a defense mechanism. I failed to launch in many ways for a complicated suite of reasons (that is putting it simply, since there is a memoir lurking in these words). More than merely saving my life, the activist in me wanted to save my existence by making my soul part of a movement toward a better society. Tonight, my optimism was challenged by a close friend, who seems content to keep doing good despite her belief that things are inevitably getting worse. One a decade-long scale, she is right. On a century-long scale, I believe she is wrong but, through the millennia, neither of us can know the prevailing arc or our species. What I do know is that I did it again: I fell in love with a vocation that I will never master. It is another element in my true vocation, another part that became a mask when it should have been an appendage.


I am a writer. I am a writer among many writers. I am not especially notable, thus not significant. I wish I could be something else. On the other hand, perhaps only the artist in me can rescue what is left of a very harrowed activist.