December 31, 2015
To be honest, twelve months ago I wasn’t 100% certain I’d be here today. At least not sitting in the baby’s nursery in our house, writing while she napped. I was fending off what was described by one of my colleagues as “academic McCarthyism.” One more witch hunt and I was done. I’d worked to become a sociology professor since my freshman year at Oxford College. I made it to the highest rank of full professor in a career that I think made a difference in the world. Then a small band of very powerful bureaucrats made it so bad that I just walked away. But I didn’t really walk away from anything. I walked toward my family and my art.
I really thought 2015 was going to suck. How could I live without my students and my university support? It actually turned out to be maybe the best year of my life. Thanks to my iron-willed wife, Andrea, and the magic of our baby, Cozette, everything seemed to just fall into place. Our Kickstarter project was more than successful, giving me the financial support to work on the new novel. We spent seven amazing weeks living in Mexico, most of it on a beautiful tropical island where I spent my days either teaching or scuba diving with sea turtles. I still had my classes at the University of Oregon and much of the time I just enjoyed watching Andrea paint and Cozy become a toddler with her very own personality. Three truly is a magic number.
But I didn’t want this post to be about me and how awesome I am because I turned a turd into a golden nugget. It’s about three words I once heard Joseph Campbell say in The Power of Myth documentary; three words that became a bumpersticker but also an easy answer to that pesky “meaning of life” question. Follow you bliss. Follow your bliss. Follow your bliss.
Life has so many obstacles. Some are small. How do you handle a kitchen floor that is eternally sticky from a baby throwing food on it? Some are big. How do you help family members who don’t seem to be able to help themselves? Some are massive. What do we do about the endless amount of toxins in our food? There are almost 8 billion people on the planet and they’ve all got a busload of problems. If you’re one of the few mega-wealthy folks, like Donald Trump, your main problem is what to do to cure your boredom. (“How about I run for president? It will be fantastic!”) Meanwhile, the rest of us are just figuring out how much money needs to fall out of the sky so we can get the gutters fixed, or at least afford the organic avocados.
You can see how people get beat down. Some just give up. It makes me wonder how many of the over 300,000 suicides each year in the United States are just some form of protest against modern living. Against the mass of bill collectors and traffic jams and broken appliances and kids who aren’t happy because they don’t have the latest phone and and and so much noise. No wonder drugs and alcohol are so appealing to Americans. A whole Latin American drug trade exists for the benefit of over-stressed Americans who want a mental vacation on Saturday nights (or a bit of the hair of the dog on Monday mornings).
I really understand why people turn to their gods and goddess to provide a bit a sanctuary from the din. There is something awe inspiring walking into a Cathedral that men have built as a tribute to their faith in the great unknown. But then the facts are often that that House of God was often built on a real house of horrors. The first time I visited the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague (where my great grandfather was in the seminary), I was stopped in my tracks by the majesty of its grandeur. It was truly sublime. But then I learned that all that gold and opulence came from the raping and pillaging that was the Crusades. Oh, well. Anyway, lots of religious people kill themselves every day, so maybe it’s not the only direction out of the clamor.
This year for me has been about bringing things down to the micro. I’ve spent so much of my life focused on global matters that I’ve neglected my own evolution at times. In college, I was more concerned with affairs in Central America than how my own family members were doing. In grad school we built shantytowns to protest South African apartheid, but I didn’t do much to tear down the walls in my own life. And my work at the university was dedicated to helping my students engage in the world in a meaningful way. Now I had a chance to engage in my world in a personal way.
There’s so many cliches around parenthood, but it really does change you. Your ego just gets turned upside down. Part of that is seeing that you can’t really make big changes in the world until you’ve made big changes in yourself. To have this year of self-reflection and quiet from the rush rush of higher ed work has been a great gift. To have a partner like Andrea to guide me through it has been a privilege that I didn’t want to waste.
So 2015, the year I wrote The Dream Police and short screenplays and blog posts. The year I listen to jazz and “The Wheels on the Bus.” The year I worked for the National Institute of Justice and did a hundred TV interviews. The year this blog went crazy viral because of a few timely posts about the threat of Trump. And the year I watched my daughter learn to walk and talk. The happiest moments were when I just followed my bliss, just writing a page or helping Cozy to put her rain boots on. Those small moments when I chose to do the things that made me happy and not worry about the things that threatened that happiness. Letting go, like some magical Van Morrison song, into the viaducts of your dreams, to be born again.
Life is interstitial. It’s between the structures we spend our time building. It’s the magic moments between the cracks, where something unexpected grows. Life can be hard. It could always be worse, right? But it could always be a little bit better as well. No matter how much money and privilege we have, we can’t fight the hands of time. Even Donald Trump will be dead at some point. (I can hear him say now, “Death is over-rated. Really, death is not very good. Believe me. I can do much better than death.) Every single person has a right to get discouraged. You may even have a right to quit.
The lesson is that if you can do what you love, even a little bit, you are winning. Even if your house gets destroyed by a winter tornado. Even if you get laid off. And yes, even if someone you love very much does not make it, you can find little moments of joy between the cracks that make the whole nightmare worth it. In the future, when I think about 2015, I won’t remember filing lawsuits or the colleagues who faded from view. I won’t remember the dread of pulling out WIC vouchers at the check-out line of grocery store. I won’t remember contemplations of giving up. I’ll remember evenings when Andrea was painting, I was writing, we had a bottle of wine open, John Coltrane on the stereo and our baby was asleep, dreaming of sea turtles.
Happy new year! 2016 will have some of the best moments of your life. I promise.