On Emily Dickinson and Beginner’s Mind

"Exultation Is The Going" - Emily Dickinson
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses, past the headlands
Into deep Eternity

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

“Exultation Is The Going” is a short poem from Emily Dickinson that begins the book Poems of the Sea. As with so many of Dickinson’s poems, there is amazing insight in the fleeting verse. Poets are those who can express insights within the structure of poetry, distilling topics that require less talented writers to spend pages and pages on. There is a common theme throughout literature and aesthetics that holds the poets as the highest of thinkers. The Greeks held the poets in highest esteem, especially the epic poems. Nietzsche believed poetry to be the highest art form, a form of transcendence. James Baldwin did as well.

When I first read this poem yesterday, the meaning did not immediately jump out at me. The first stanza seems straightforward but the second required examination. Dickinson is basically saying that because the sailor is always on the sea, entrenched in its familiarity, focused on the tasks of keeping the boat moving in the right direction or safe from the perils of the ocean, he cannot understand the experience of a land bred person as a sea voyage begins.

As I considered this poem, it struck me that this is the exact description of Beginner’s Mind, a Buddhist concept related to being totally present in the moment. Beginner’s Mind is a state where we are totally focused on the experience of the present. The person first sailing out from the harbor, past the houses, past the headlands, feels the sea breeze in her face and hair, the toss of the boat and exults in the joy of this new experience. It is a brief glimpse into enlightenment.

This idea carries over to all things if we let it. It is easy to become the “sailor” in all that we do, to forget the wonder of an experience or even just of life as the pressures or fears of the past and the anxieties of the future force their way into our focus. Watching my child eat a sandwich, I feel a tiny spark of that wonder I first experienced when she learned to pick something up and feed herself. Replacing a light bulb or other common task can be filled with the experience of Beginner’s Mind if we purely focus on the present, the amazement at a new bulb casting light on a place that had been dark. Taking down Christmas decorations can be an opportunity to cherish the fact we had a wonderful celebration instead of a focus on the sadness of loss.

The sailor mindset is of course good. It allows expertise and safety and protection. But our default behavior, driven by the reptilian brain to keep us alive, can become dominant and stifling if we let it. It can squash the childlike joy of an experience and prevent creativity from blooming. Like the landlubber on the deck of the boat, grasping the railing as the ship moves with the ocean, salty sea breeze blowing around him, we should focus on the present moment with child’s eyes as often as we can. We should protect against the scales of the sailor’s eyes closing down on the wonder around us. Always stay in touch with the beginner, the child, and look for the moments of wonder around us.

As I go into 2021, I know that I haven’t been focusing on anything in a long time. Reading this poem yesterday, it took several moments and a day’s worth of contemplation to really feel like I began to understand what its short 8 lines are expressing. This is the distillation of powerful ideas that the poet provides us. It requires focus. Focus is about the present. You cannot focus on the past or the future. The former is merely nostalgia at best and depression at worst. The latter is dreaming at best and anxiety at worst. Focus is beginner’s mind and relates only to the present moment.

Our world today is built to destroy Beginner’s Mind, to hide it behind cynicism and fear. Each moment we are pushed to worry about an uncertain future or to glorify some past moment instead of being totally present with the experience of now. I’m planning to make 2021 a year of Beginner’s Mind as best as I can, to allow the joy or sadness or frustration or exultation of each experience, of each moment be what my life is about. As I look back on 2020, I realize that an inordinate amount of my time was spent in either the past or the future, ignoring the activity of now. That is a lousy way to spend a year and serves to only stifle the wonder of Beginner’s Mind. Here’s to a year focused less on fear and anxiety and more on the wonder of this moment.

DIY Printer Table

Last week, Wobbles and the wife headed for Arkansas and a week away from work. Left to my own devices and a printer that had been sitting on the floor for about 6 months, I found this post that had some basic pictures to build a simple three shelf printer table. It didn’t have any plans or materials list so I basically came up with some plans to create my own. The materials list below resulted in a 3 foot high table that was 22 X 20 inches and sufficient to hold a decent sized Brother printer

1×10 whitewood board, 6 feet long 2
1×3 whitewood board, 6 feet long3
Quart of Polyshield stain and poly1
1 5/8ths Black swivel casters, 2 pack2
# 8 3/4inch self driving screws24
wood conditioner1
Package of #000 steel wool1
Cheap Foam sponge brushes from paint section4
1 1/4 by 1/8 inch angle iron, 36 inches long4

To reproduce this, you’d also need a Kreg jig system. I have the set which contains a starter set of screws along with the system for creating pocket holes. I picked whitewood because it was the cheapest decent wood that Lowes had. Other options were pine and oak but given that this was my first real project where I didn’t have any solid plans to go on, I didn’t want to have to throw away a bunch of oak that I screwed up.

To start, I cut the 1x10s into six 22 inch sections. These make up the 3 shelves by drilling pocket holes, gluing and then screwing them together. I then cut the 1x3s into the sections for the sides. This resulted in six 20 inch sections for the sides. and three 22 inch sections for the backs. I then drilled pocket holes in the bottom of the shelves to connect both the two 1x10s and the sides. In retrospect, I think I think I’d use a finish nailer on the sides instead of the pocket screws because it was difficult to keep pocket screws from poking out the sides. FYI, that table came from Sams and is a real winner. It holds up to 1000 lbs, is super light, comes with two clamps and allows me to not mess with setting up sawhorses.

Once the shelves were constructed, I used a random orbital sander on the wood, first with a 100 grit and then a 150 grit to get them pretty smooth. Once the shelves were sanded and wiped down, I started staining. This was my first ever stain job. I had the reasonably good sense to start with the bottom of the bottom shelf. Painting stain onto unconditioned wood with a paint brush is a terrible idea. It looked like a murder scene. After a little research, I learned that when the stain instructions tell you to condition raw wood, you should listen. I also learned that stain should be applied with sponges and/or rags.

Back at Home Depot (no home improvement project I’ve ever done was the results of a single trip), I picked up wood conditioner, some rags and some cheap $1 foam brushes. Conditioning the shelves made a big difference as did wiping on the stain. It’s much easier to get a decent look this way and avoid stain brush strokes in the wood.

Stained shelf
Improving my technique

I left the stain to dry for 24 hours. In the mean time, I used unibit drill bits to put screw holes in the angle iron. I put them flush with the top and bottom and then marked the middle of each piece of angle iron and put holes about 3/4s of an inch on either side.

Wear your eye protection when dealing with metal!

Once the stain was dry, I took the #000 steel wool and hand sanded all three shelves. Stain doesn’t naturally go on smooth and because of the grain of the wood, actually seems to make the surface somewhat rough again after initial sanding. The steel wool really gives it a nice finish and brings out some of the gleam in the grain. Wear a mask for this as the steel wool gives off a really fine dust mixed with stain.

Once that’s done, it was just a matter of assembly using the self driving screws (though I put in small pilot holes) and putting on the wheels. The main struggle here was just having things level and doing it by myself. Clamps make everything easier. Do the top and bottom shelf first and then the middle one is a lot easier if you are by yourself. You can see the pocket holes in the picture below. A craftsman would have filled those with wood putty and sanded them over. I on the other hand just wanted to build something and knew they’d never get seen by anyone on the bottom of each shelf.

Overall, this took about 48 hours, much of which was learning how to stain along with the stain drying process. It cost about $120 all told not including tools. Angle iron makes shelving pretty easy to work with. The main issue here I think is that because the sides are 1×3, I could only use 3/4 inch screws which limits the structural ability to hold a lot of weight. I’m only using it for a printer plus decorative items on the top shelf so think it will be find over time. If it starts to sag, I’ll get to build another one.

On Reading Deprivation

For years now, approximately 4 at least, I have been trying half and quarter heartedly to work through The Artist’s Way. Just this year, I have tried three times to complete the course, never making it past the third week (which is about the time that all habits, good and bad, die on the vine). But finally after the beach trip and somewhat seriously into a Whole 30 experiment, I have managed, for the first time ever, to make it past week 3 and into week 4. Leaving aside the fact that I skipped week 1 entirely this time, it feels good to charter new territory.

However, that territory comes with the hardest task yet. It’s called Reading Deprivation and like its evil twin cousin Donut Deprivation, it leaves a mark on the soul and the tongue. Reading Deprivation is exactly that: other than the chapter in the book and the tasks for week 4, the initiate on the Artist’s Way is not allowed to read things. Like books or blog posts or Twitter or even watch TV. For a person that has of late been both very active in the book world and the Twitter world, the effect is quite jarring. One quote from the book goes like this:

The nasty bottom line is this: sooner or later, if you are not reading, you will run out of work and be forced to play. You’ll light some incense or put on an old jazz record or paint a shelf turquoise, and then you will feel not just better but actually a little excited. Don’t read. If you can’t think of anything else to do, cha-cha.

The idea obviously being that if you can’t distract yourself with reading (the book, written in 1992, predates the literary addictiveness of Twitter and Facebook but it alludes to our narcissistic self-absorbed world when it talks about the banality of TV), you’ll eventually produce something. I am on day three of this nefarious, likely Russian based, form of torture and it has been somewhat eye opening. Previously, if I gave up social media, I still read books or magazines or whatever. But with this, nothing is easy. Nothing comes to hand to distract. If I had a shelf to paint turquoise, I would have done so. If I was a bachelor, I would have built a table in the garage or would be playing my sax. Part of the problem of having a two year old is having to be somewhat quiet once they go to bed.

On the upside, unlike Donut Deprivation, it’s actually quite pleasurable to replace reading with something productive like coding or writing exercises or pushups. Today on the train, I listened to Dexter Gordon’s Take The A Train. And by listen, I mean really listen, to the tone of the sax, to the bass solos, to everything. I experienced the record as if I was sitting in the Jazzhus Montmarte on that night in 1967 when Gordon took the stage and welcomed the audience as an integral part of the proceedings.

At church on Sunday, Dr. Magruder talked about reading the Scripture from a sense of place, of context, an idea that stems from Wittgenstein and Derrida and the Structuralists in many ways. With Decartes, there was an idea of a single moment being useful and telling. Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. As if this single moment could be of use to us in our understanding of ourselves, our reality, our world. But in truth, only in the context of all the other events that lead up to this moment can we really understand the now and its meaning. It’s important to think about these things and examine them, not just as we read Scripture, but in everything else because without that context, we tend to be lost in ego, in selfishness and in pettiness. The context of our history brings, or should bring, humility to our understanding of ourselves and of our present moment. The context of this contingency, the fact that an infinite number of events had to happen in a particular order to allow us to arrive at our present moves our attention from inner to outer. Matthew Crawford’s excellent book The World Beyond Your Head examines this idea in wonderful detail. The answer to happiness comes not in better understanding our jumbled up inner lives, it comes from moving our attention to the intersection with our noumenal inner world and the phenomenal empirical world.

Reading deprivation does something similar in that it causes me to be focused clearly and without distraction on a single thing and with that focus comes the context of the event in my imagination. Reading deprivation allows (forces?) me to explore other avenues of time consumption and does so in a way that the time is spent actively and not passively. In those moments when I would have reached, metaphorically, for Twitter, I now have to either spend it pointlessly thinking about things in my head or doing something productive.

Which is not to say reading doesn’t have its place. I’m already looking forward to next Tuesday when I can continue to read Metaphysics as a Guide To Morals. As much as I enjoyed Gordon’s saxophone today, there is something about reading a difficult book that is pleasurable and challenging. But for now, and the next four days, I’ll have to continue to find other ways to stay entertained. If nothings else, I always have the cha-cha. I should probably pull the drapes closed first though.

On Free Lemon Bundt Cake

First, a little history. The house across the street has sat empty for approximately twelve months, perhaps fifteen. An old man and his second wife built it in the 1960s. Last year in the winter, the old man died after a long illness. Oddly, the woman and her adult daughter who had been living there abruptly moved out. We discovered from the daughter, named Princess, that as it turns out, the old man was something of a scoundrel and had taken out a second mortgage without telling his wife. Further, they had little equity left in it and suddenly the clan of the old man, quite uninterested in his well-being in life, showed back up in death to contest the house.

And so it sat, a small house, around 1700 square feet all summer and fall and winter again until spring. Still it sits there actually, in the name of the estate of Mr so and so. However, I now have a mobile near two year old who I once took across the street to race cars in the drive way and who then assumed we would go over there every day to do the same as well as climb on the higher steps and bang on the door that no one ever answers.

Today, we wandered across the street, me holding Wobbles hand according to our rules and our custom. She immediately ran up the steps and I noticed there amongst the flyers that fall off the door and accumulate on the porch, a red package. Odd, I thought, a package on the door step of an empty house left weatherized and sullen through a Dallas summer and a Dallas winter. Wobbles ran up and down the steps a few times before noticing the package which she then picked up. Curiosity got the best of me and I mounted the steps to find out what misguided company had placed a package on a porch that had seen no steps in over twelve months. I thought perhaps that it was wrongly delivered and being somewhat human, I assumed I could find its rightful owner.

The package was from The Swiss Colony which is not some pacifist terrorist organization as one might expect but instead a company in Wisconsin that sells a variety of baked goods, meats and cheeses, nuts and snacks, all through the convenience of mail order catalogs. It’s like Schwann’s but without the trucks driving around the neighborhoods. Three of my four readers have no idea what I’m talking about when I say Schwann’s. That’s ok.

Anyway, so here is this red package from The Swiss Colony which I hold in my hands. The addressee is the very woman that was mistreated by the dead scoundrel which is somewhat surprising given her non-existence at this residence of over twelve months. The package has a big sticker on it saying PERISHABLE – REFRIGERATE AT ONCE 23 OZ LEMON BUNDT CAKE. Enquiring minds want to know who sends a perishable item to a house no one has lived in for over twelve months. Then I notice that on the label, the gifter is listed: We love you Mom, Anne and Kirk. We don’t apparently love you enough to remember twelve months later that you no longer live at this address but still. I made that last part up.

So immediately the imagination begins to run amok. I try to think of simple reasons why something so crazy might happen. Perhaps they have an account with The Swiss Colony, this loving daughter and son-in-law or son and daughter-in-law and they just forgot to update the fact that their mother no longer lives at this particular address before they sent the yearly birthday gift from The Swiss Colony. But seriously, who in this day has an account with The Swiss Colony besides landlocked and bored Midwesterners? Perhaps these people are exactly that.

Or maybe it’s a son and daughter-in-law and it’s always the son who doesn’t remember these things because he’s busy doing man things and can’t be bothered to remember even call much less remember where his mom lives. Just last week, she probably called him to nag that “you never call me” and he felt momentarily guilty and sent her a cake unironically to the wrong address.

Perhaps they are estranged and just got news through the telegram service that their father-in-law is dead and they are trying to snuggle up to the estate. Pardon the telegram service thing, been reading a lot of mid twentieth century Southern Lit lately. Probably not the answer.

Then things get darker. Maybe they’ve got some reason for sending a cake twelve months after their mom moved out of the house she never really owned. Maybe they have a beef with the sister who has constant access to Mom and they are trying to poison her. Or worse, give her diabetes. Maybe no one told them she had moved because the daughter, Princess, wants to cut them out of the will, leaving aside the fact there can’t be much will since the house was reverse mortgaged and they left when they didn’t have any equity in it. The nefarious possibilities seem endless.

In the end, I have no idea. But my thoughts then turn to the fact that I have a lemon bundt cake in my hands that, based on Wobbles and my trips across the street, has sat outside for up to two days. Still, I’m a human being and go inside to ask the wife if she has the contact information of Princess. She does and texts her asking if she wants this waylaid cake or even knows that it exists. A reply text says that they realized their mistake and sent another. Convenient cover story but my interests are now with the cake

So what exactly is the statute of limitations on a lemon bundt cake, one of my favorites, that has possibly sat on a forlorn porch for up to two days in the late spring heat of Dallas Texas? I put in the fridge and upon putting Wobbles to bed and eating left over Buca di Beppo, decide that the statue of limitations for something with as many preservatives as this cake must have in it is probably a week at least. I open the package and cut a generous slice. It is moist and tasty, exactly what I would expect from a mail order bundt cake. My aunt Jan Cook makes a far superior cake but then it would be surprising if she did not. Still, free cake makes the trip across the street with Wobbles completely justified.

The cake has gone back into the freezer, questions largely unanswered about Anne and Kirk. I wonder if they sit in their quiet Midwestern home tonight, believing they have delivered a fitting Mother’s Day gift to their wonderful mom. Or perhaps, they are in their car at the bottom of some lake and the murderer has sent the gift as an alibi, not realizing that by delivering it to an address no longer in use, he has doomed himself to discovery by the intrepid hero of this story, the detective who recovers from alcoholism to solve the case.

I probably shouldn’t be reading much more Eudora Welty.

Screaming Bloody Murder

This morning when I dropped Wobbles off at daycare, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Wobbles has not been to daycare in over two weeks and in that time, she has received a great deal of very individual attention. So much so that she’s grown quite accustomed to this trove of attention that she alone commands. When it became apparent she was going to spend the day not at home with Grandma or mom or dad, all hell broke loose. When I left, I could hear the tears practically hitting the floor from the hallway.

Yet I know that within five minutes, she was happily playing with toys and her teacher, the momentary discomfort of being away from me completely forgotten. She is at a stage where she is uncomfortable with change or the unknown but within a short time, forgets this discomfort and goes on about doing fun things. As long as you don’t leave her sitting in a Pack-n-Play with nothing to do, she will even find away to entertain herself fairly quickly. The moment of fear is exactly that, momentary, and then life goes on.

Will Smith recently roared through social media with a description of what it is like to impulsively decide to go skydiving. and the resulting fear that consumes you. Constant worry and anxiety. Will I die? Should I back out? This was a ridiculous thing to have done. All words expressed by the internal critic. Then you step out of the plane and fear disappears. The actual event causes no fear, only the expectation of that event and the narrative story built in your head about all the terrible things that could happen along the way. That narrative and the internal critic that writes it, they are the genesis of fear.

It is the same with writing or coding or any number of other creative activities. It is the same with any activity we do that is outside our comfort zone. The fear exists before the event, created by an overactive critic with an unjustifiably loud voice. But the moment the activity starts, or worst case a few moments later, the fear is gone. If focus remains, if concentration can stay stable, there are no thoughts of “what if this doesn’t work out?” or “What if this is terrible?” The only thing that remains is text and the characters and where they lead us.

Often I am overwhelmed by the thought of the scope of a project. But in the moment of writing or coding or digging a flower bed, there is no thought of the scope. The current moment is all that matters. Through a continual parade of those current moments, the scope is harnessed and contained. Even creating for five minutes is worth more than worrying for those five minutes about how much work is left.

There is a picture on the wall of my kitchen of what looks like a Dust Bowl farm. There are buildings, a road, a barn, little else. It is the picture of my grandparents farm shortly after they moved in, an empty, barren landscape, shot from a helicopter, of their chunk of the Oklahoma Panhandle. It is a symbol of a beginning, of what a blank page looks like. It shows hope and possibility. It also shows fear and emptiness. Once upon a time, there was a corresponding photo, taken 17 years later of a lush, green vista with large trees, an overflowing garden. The work and effort of two human beings, not young and full of energy but old and retired, shows the effects of daily work over a long period of time. Growth does not happen without the combination of time and effort contrary to the desires of our overstimulated attention monster. But something great can be created with small amounts of work, applied regularly to a single problem over the course of time. The important part is not to think of the end goal. You don’t even know the end goal. My grandparents had no idea what that farm would look like in 1998 after 17 years of living and working there. They only knew that each day gave them the opportunity to create something. What it was became emergent through their efforts and dedication. Creativity is no different.

A way that my generation’s lives have changed from our that of our grandparents is in the amount of choice we have on a daily basis of how we spend our time. We are overwhelmed by opportunity of activity, most of which is meaningless and even disquieting. Our attention is divided among too many things, even on the best days and with the best intentions. My grandparents never went and picked up their phone to see if someone was on it. They were too busy doing actual work. A 2014 study added fuel to the fire that the mere presence of our cell phones during a complicated task led to decreased performance. Even if the cell phone is turned over or out of reach, our monkey brains wonder if something important has happened on it. This distracts us from our task at hand. Distraction is easier to come by in our ever connected world and distraction will always necessarily be easier than concentration. Yet it is concentration and focus that results in the creation of things that are important to us whether it’s a work of art, a coding project or a relationship. Often that ease of distraction prevents us from even beginning something.

The hardest part of creating is the actual part about starting. Worry and fear can keep you from ever beginning, not only IN the beginning, but at every moment along the path. Fear keeps you from producing by telling stories about “30 minutes isn’t enough time to bother” or “There’s always tomorrow.” These stories become self-fulfilling as you allow them to become the narrative of your creative life. If every time that Wobbles screamed bloody murder when I walked away, I turned around and comforted her, neither one of us would ever grow. So it is with creating. The critic screams bloody murder every time you try to drop him off at daycare. He doesn’t want to be left alone. He doesn’t want to play by himself. Yet, when you refuse to listen to him and begin to create, he will slowly become more silent over time. He my never become completely silent. But he will be a more mature, supportive being that encourages your creativity. You just have to ignore the screaming part for a little while. It’s too important not to.