Black Lives Matter

I’m not here to be a teacher. I’m here to show how I’m learning to be a student.

For one reason or another, this particular BLM moment has woken me up to the realities of the systematic dehumanizing of black people of color and systemic injustice. Of course, this is not the first time these things are surfacing. My eyes are just opening now to the realities that I’ve been blind to and what I’ve been privileged to never consider.

I grew up in as good a situation as can be imagined. Middle class family living in the suburbs or in the country. I’m white. I’m male. I’m cisgender hetero. I was born an American citizen. I can check every box down the page to put me in the fully privileged camp. And honestly, up until a few weeks ago, I was deaf to any call to help me realize it.

I thought life could be this easy for everyone.
I thought life should be this easy for everyone.
I thought life would be this easy for everyone.

I like to subscribe to a full metaphysic of libertarianism, of individualism, of a truly free market of things and ideas. I believe that free will is our reality and that we have a responsibility to do work we love while providing value in excess of what we charge for our time and effort. The romance of “the American dream” is deep down in my bones. And until recently, I would have written off this whole movement in the culture. Even now, it’s hard for me to pay attention to systemic issues, when the Individual is so attractive to me.

What’s been teaching me slowly to see things in terms of systems and societal forces is Rob Bell’s spectacular talk on YouTube, Everything is Spiritual. In the talk, Bell shows how the evolution and unfolding of our universe gives rise to new phenomena when components are combined at previous levels. Quarks combine to atoms. Atoms combine to molecules. Molecules combine to cells. Cells combine to bodies. And when bodies, human beings with thoughts and personalities combine, what emerges? Civilization. Society. Systems. This is what Christians through the ages have called “the Body of Christ”. This unification of individuals gives rise to a new thing, a collective consciousness with it’s own pain, joy, orders of operation and modality. Like I said, if this is all obvious to you thus far, I’m the student here. And I’m working through my lessons. So this is the birth of social systems. Then…

There is a concept being talked about now called White Fragility. Many have taught the concept. Many have fumbled with a rebranding of it. I will not attempt to work with it besides acknowledging that it is very real. As a white man, I’ve been insulated from race-based stress my entire life, so when it comes to the forefront of the culture and I’m told by black people of color that this has been a reality for them their entire lives and that I have work to do to deconstruct implicit and unconscious racist forces and beliefs within myself, I can easily start feeling attacked. I can sense in my body a visceral, lizard-brain response that starts screaming “FIGHT or FLY”! That, my friends, is what I now know to be white fragility. That impulse to instantly defend. That impulse to fire back with #AllLivesMatter! That impulse to claim that there’s not a racist bone in my body or that I have POC friends. That is what I’m learning to pay attention to. Because precisely where my hackles stand up while my heart drops into a steady race, my hands start to sweat, and I begin tripping over my tongue, that’s where I need to learn to sit with the uncomfortable truth of my privileged position. No one said this was easy or fun. We must learn to be uncomfortable if we are ever to arrive in a world of equitable justice, fair and safe police training and practice, and true unity in our diversity.

To my white brothers and sisters and siblings: If we are indeed ready to see that a group of individuals combine to create society and systems, then we must be ready to collectively work on that thing that arises in our midst. If we can see our collective-ness in this hyper-connected world as a Body, maybe even the Body of the Christ, then we must be ready to heal that limb, that organ, that operation that has been wounded.

We’re being called to listen to the part of our Body that is hurt. When the leg is sending blinding pain signals to the brain, alerting the Body to a broken femur, the healthy arm does not refuse to help, claiming that #ArmLivesMatter. Instead the arm joins the rest of the body in stabilizing the fracture, picking up the extra weight of the Body that the leg is no longer prepared to bear, and works to join in the healing work. A doctor tending to the broken leg bone would not prescribed a shoulder sling. The injured leg must be allowed it’s due attention.

So when we hear Black Lives Matter, it is simply not helpful, even harmful, to respond with All Lives Matter. The real, living experience of our black POC friends is that they matter less than their white neighbors. So until they matter as much as the rest of us, without a second thought or question, then we say Black Lives Matter. It is our work to educate ourselves on our national history, identify biases and implicit beliefs within ourselves, and offer an open hand of allyship. History does not get rewritten unless the history writers pick up the pen. And like it or not, acknowledge it or not, white men are the history writers in this country. So learn how to write. Learn how to speak up, speak out, and speak against that which would degrade the dignity of our black brothers and sisters. Learn the difference between simply not being racist and being anti-racist. I’m right there with you. Let’s be students together. I do not know the systemic fixes and won’t claim to be an expert in policy. So I will begin with me, the individual. I’m here for an education. As Brene Brown says, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.”

“The work of anti-racism is the work of becoming a better human to other humans.” – Austin Channing Brown


Here is a list of podcasts, books, videos, Instagrams, music, and prayers that I’ve been paying attention to in my education process. This is in no way comprehensive. Let these take you in your own direction. (Please feel free to contact me with feedback, comments, and questions)

Podcasts

Books (full disclosure: these are books on my wish list, I have not read them yet)

Videos

Miscellaneous

  • My friend Ashley @papergram put together this great series of graphics that served as a major introduction to me. Check it out here.
  • The music of William Matthews’ record, KOSMOS

Prayers

 

A Walk Through the Complex

I took a walk around my apartment complex tonight.

I left my phone behind on the book stand. My headphones resting on the desk. No input, besides what was offered to me outside.

Though we’ve had a couple false starts to spring this year in Montana, with a fair few inches of snow in April, a smell in the air convinced me spring is here in full bloom. The warm envelope of direct sunlight brought me directly into a deep present awareness of my body. I felt keenly aware of every cooling breeze over my arms and neck. I tuned into the loud silence of the empty streets, accompanied only by the soft buzzing of my new bee friends and the song of a bird perched on the neon bar sign across the street. I could smell the burning off irrigation ditches as local farmers prepared into the new planting season.

Something about my presence to the moment and the quiet intimacy of what was happening around me made me feel like an intruding guest. Like I was boisterously walking into the room where Nature herself was napping on the couch. This walk demanded as silent a contemplation as I could offer. It was politely asking to be a sacred moment of silence. Of reverence, of grief, of ineffable joy. Maybe all three?

There’s something in the air, as if the earth itself is sighing with sadness, aching upon her own hospital bed, in recovery. In a podcast I recorded entitled, It’s All Part of It, I did my best to walk through the history of the Jewish people in ancient Israel and when they were exiled to Babylon when they didn’t respect the Sabbath for the necessary, yet inconvenient time to allow the earth “to lie fallow”. I get the sense that the coronavirus is serving the earth today, in that humanity is forced to slow down, socially distance, and take stock and thought in their locality. I can’t help but see photos of the Chinese or Los Angeles air qualities and think there will be other unintended goods coming from what seems to be only bad for us, our economy, and our livelihoods. It’s like the earth is finally getting it’s time to rest up, heal up, grow up while we are deep in our own exile. She’s feeling the joy of a deep, uninterrupted nap, yet the grief of her human children suffering. Where joy and grief meet, holy reverence must dance the space between, and that was what I was invited into on this plain, holy, spring evening. Here, simplicity and complexity get to coexist.

Again, I was taking a walk through my apartment complex. This physical location has been my sanctuary at my best and my fallout bunker at my worst, during this pandemic experience. Besides the seldom errand to the grocery store, I haven’t strayed from my few hundred square feet of rented space. This space can feel like a penitentiary at times or a monetary. And walking about these neatly manicured streets, past open windows and the doors of my neighbors, I found that some were like prisoners, others like parishioners. Like me, some find their cell to be a place of stifling house arrest. Others, like me, find their cell to be a place of serene contemplation.

I made room on the sidewalk for a small child riding his bike with his father, showing off his jumps off the curb. I smiled and waved to a mother walking her German Shepherd with one hand and pushing a stroller with the other. I passed open doors and windows of families audibly enjoying board games together, making music together, grilling divinely inspired red meats together. I listened to a young couple train their labradoodle puppy on a blanket laid out on the soft grass. These were the light, airy spaces of a monkish cell.

But I also heard a child’s cry after he crashed his bike on a loose patch of gravel. I heard parents struggling to soothe a sobbing baby. I saw a father on a balcony, video chatting with his son, beginning to cry when the boy said “I wish I could give you a hug, daddy.” I overheard an uncomfortable fight about who’s turn it was to take the dog out for a bathroom break. These were the tight, stifled spaces of a jail cell.

As the grief and joy of our present moment arrive, there’s that tension between simplicity and complexity. This is the same apartment it was yesterday, last week, last month, last year. But yesterday it was a prison, today it’s a monetary, tomorrow a prison again. The complex nature of what we’re going through is not a problem to be solved, but a beautiful tension to be managed. I’d even say we could learn to transform it from tugging ropes in two different directions to dancing in all directions.

Maybe you’re enjoying your quarantine in certain ways?

Maybe you’re gripped with terror, anxiety, and worry in other ways?

And maybe, it’s possible to be both?

Finally, I know deep in my bones the meaning of Dicken’s legendary opening to his masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities,

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

While I took a walk around my apartment complex tonight, I took a walk through the complex.

Social

While we all physically distance into our homes for a few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what tools and systems are available to us to maintain our connected common life together.  Now, more than ever, is the time to increase our connectivity and positivity, given what we know about the effects of isolation.

Maybe this is when we figure out how to transcend the digital marketing media and political sideshow that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have become and actually learn to use these meeting places for enriching social purposes?  What would it look like for social media to actually be social?  Now is the time to get creative.

I for one will be using Discord to play DnD with my friends.  FaceTime to call loved ones in Washington state.  Facebook to launch conversations and start a podcast group.  Instagram Live for some experimental bonus K(no)w Normal People episodes.  Twitter will be a place for positivity and laughs.  Pinterest to find recipes that I want to try with Dixie.

 These apps and sites don’t have to be just another placating balm to distract us from the “real life” out there in the scare world of viruses and hospitals. We don’t need to fall asleep to the world with pacifiers like Netflix and Hulu; we need to foster connection with in the most creative ways we have available and invent even new methods to use this technology available to us.

I wonder, too, what effect this COVID-19, social distancing experience will have our on shared life together after there are developed ways of handling the virus? Remember when we used to sit at the same table at the restaurant, and all be swiping the moment by with our thumbs on the screen and our minds in other worlds? Now, we swap phones or stack them in the middle of the table, relishing our plate of nachos and enjoying a rich conversation with the people we invited out to dinner. Remember when we used to glance around on the bus or the train and notice that we’re one of the only people who don’t have their necks bent and headphones crammed in their ears? Now we smile and greet each other as we hop on the bus, maybe chat with your new neighbor, or just stare out the window and remember what it was like to self-quarantine for weeks on end.

It is perfectly normal to feel the anxiety. It is perfectly normal to be afraid. So when you’re ready, I invite you to consider how this could teach you about the meaningful connections you have. I invite you to consider what you were taking advantage of until the moment it was taken away from you. We have the tools to stay truly connected, so use them. We have the connections to keep us grounded, so foster them. How can you be more social, even in social distancing?

Anakephalaiossathai. Grace and peace, my friends.

Computing

The act of observation in quantum physics and computing complicates matters significantly. The wave-particle duality of light is a property also known to physicists as superposition. Until an object like an electron or Schrodinger’s cat is observed to be in a particular state, then it is actually in all possible states. The electron exists at all points along a wave until it is observed to be in one discrete position. Our unfortunate feline friend is both alive and dead inside the box the instant before it is observed to be either alive or dead. Observation simplifies matters for our simple, dualistic minds; however, observation complicates what seems to be the more natural state of the universe by forcing things at even subatomic scales to pick a position and stick to it. The same issue arises in computing.

I received an email yesterday from my brother, and with his permission, I am sharing it here. David holds a degree in Computer Programming and is a voracious enthusiast of coding in his free time. While he attended school, he lived with Dixie and me and would bring conversation topics like this, often over an evening cigar or a beer.

Please do not let the coding itself daunt you. I would encourage you to take your time to understand the basic arguments he spells out, because the parallel that will be drawn between computing and the brain is a powerful one. Enjoy!


I’ve been contemplating the nature of computing; and how our brains relate to computers. I found a parallel I’d like to share.

Let’s take the following code (C#):

david1

This code will initialize a place in memory to 0, and increment it to 10000. Essentially counting from 0 to 10000 and doing nothing with the value.

This code takes 418 ticks (0.0000418 seconds) to run on my computer.

Now, let’s observe the value of i every time it increments:

david2

This code will print the value of i to the console every time it increments. So it will display 1 2 3 4 5 6 …  to a console window, until it reaches 10000.

This code takes 76,107,513 ticks (7.611 seconds) to run on my computer.

Developers know that observing memory in a human readable format is the most costly operation to take. According to the above, it takes 182,075 times more time to observe what is going on inside my computer.

A computer is optimized to think internally, in language that it understands. When I ask to see output, it has to do considerable work. It is in my best interest to only inquire on these values when it is absolutely necessary.

If I count from 1 to 10,000 in my head. It will take considerably longer than 7 and a half seconds. But certainly my mind can count much faster. There is a space in my brain that is holding my current value as I count. I would like to believe that my brain can increment that memory to 10000 in 418 ticks. But if I try to observe that happening, I am inherently slowing the operation down. I can’t even think the word “one” in 418 ticks.

However, I don’t have a way to consciously instruct my brain to execute the first set of code. I don’t know how to tell it to do something if I am not observing it. This leads to the conclusion that our brains are only reporting a minuscule amount of their internal processing.

Let’s look at the side of a die:

david3

Let’s pretend that your brain hasn’t memorized that image and knows it to be six (called memoization in computing).

If I ask my brain to tell me how many dots are in this image, the only logical method it can take is to scan the image, and increment a counter every time it encounters a dot. And finally, tell me the final value of the counter.

To pretend I can write brain code, I imagine it would look like this:

david4

Now consider how a toddler would determine the amount of dots. The would likely say out loud “one, two…”. They are observing their brains. They are interrupting what is extremely fast, and asking for a process that is extremely slow.

To conclude, this all leads me to wonder; what is my brain up to when I’m not watching? Has my brain made decisions that I have yet to observe? Is meditation beneficial because we stop observing our brains, and in doing so allow it to work at maximum speed? Can I learn to stop observing my brain so much and only retrieve output when it is necessary?

Fin

– David Henning

Shattered

This week began like any other. My alarm got me out of bed at 0445 am. I was dressed for the gym and finished my journal entry for the morning by 0515 am. I got a great workout in on the spin bike. I finished my workout and my shower and left the gym to get to work. As I approached my car beneath the street light, my first thought was “oh that’s weird, why did my passenger window frost over like that? And my other windows have no frost at all?” Then my brain finally put together the fact that I was looking directly inside my vehicle through a broken window. I stood there blinking at it for a moment, dumbly dazed, before it occurred to me that my messenger bag was missing from the seat where I had left it. My brain was moving so slowly through each logical step; it had no categories in which to sort what it was taking in. My window was broken, bag stolen, property and domain violated.

It all felt like a moment of divine comedy. As I quietly snapped pictures of the scene for the police and searched the surrounding area to see if that bag had been ditched, the irony was not lost on me that I had written about unfortunate circumstances like this recently in B27. “This just is. Do you want to stay mad about these circumstances largely out of your control?” I arranged to come in late to work, checked insurance information, vacuumed out the shattered safety glass from my seats, and made a quick appointment to get the window fixed at the shop.

Throughout the process, I was honestly surprised by the relaxed equanimity in my response to the unfolding morning. (If that sounds like bragging, it’s because it probably is.) I never felt a flash of rage or anger. I never lost my temper and threw a tantrum about “the injustice!” Being an Enneagram 1, my relationship with anger tends to manifest more as quiet bitterness and resentment with sudden, yet seldom, bursts. But not here, not this time. Not even resentment came out to play.

Don’t get me wrong, I was and am certainly confused, perplexed, disappointed. Mostly just releasing a long sigh with “why?” somewhere there in the wind. What a petty and childish way to get what you want and don’t have. These kinds of thoughts have visited too, but I’ve mostly been debriefing on a few items I’ve learned and realized as a result.

First, I am so glad that Dixie and I found the wisdom and the willpower to begin our minimalist journey a few years ago. My relationship to things has changed and grown so much that it was easy, even in the moment, to recognize and tell myself that all things like this are replaceable. Yes, the bag had some sentimental value, being a gift from my dad one Christmas in high school. And yes, the notebook I had tucked in there had ideas and items that I hadn’t transferred yet to my Evernote. But they are ultimately just things. The bag was a daily reminder of the fantastic relationship my father and I have built following some rough years in high school. I lost the bag, but certainly not the relationship. The notebook had good ideas in it, but if the idea really was worth keeping track of, it’ll return in it’s time. We love people and use things, because the opposite never works.

Second, I am so grateful for the lessons in Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. It was because of this program that the financial cost to replace the window was a non-concern. Even if we were working on getting out of debt still, Baby Step 1 is to save $1,000. It is precisely for out-of-the-blue moments like these that this starter emergency fund exists. Thankfully, we paid our debt off completely back in October of 2019, so our emergency fund is much larger in Baby Step 3 as we work to fully fund that account. It was such a weight off our shoulders to know we’d be financially covered and that we would easily recover from the setback.

Finally, I’ve learned in the aftermath that I can be proud of the inner work I’ve done with myself to grow in equanimity, serenity, and forgiveness. I found myself praying throughout the day that they at least enjoyed my lunch. I even posted what I thought to be a pretty funny Instagram story that read, “To the person who stole my bag this morning, I hope you are as perplexed by my collection of Rubix cubes as I was perplexed by my broken window.” Cheeky, I thought. I really am happy with how my instincts have shifted in response to sudden difficulties like this. I have been stolen from twice before, and I can promise I did not respond this well in the past. Funny how the story of my young adulthood is told in stories like these, and not just all the good times.

Anakephalaiossathai. Grace and peace, my friends.

Replaceable

Our guest this week on Know Normal People, Maria, offered up a short and hauntingly powerful question: How replaceable are you?

Does that question needle at your ego, like it does mine? If you’re anything like me, I apologize for this, but I just committed you to a few weeks of pondering your replaceability.

My gut screams, “I hope I’m not at all replaceable!” But I struggle to identify this as anything more than my own ego afraid of becoming small and insignificant. Maybe I should let it get small.

Would it be worth it to struggle through life, attempting to secure my irreplaceability, only to forget to live a meaningful life? Will I struggle too hard against the border of temporality that I forget I’m not chained inside a cell, but rather fenced in and secure inside a garden? No! Rather, I ought to open-handedly live in a meaningful way, letting the question of replaceability dissolve entirely, and thereby, possibly, accidentally, become irreplaceable to the people who matter most to me in the process.

“Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

Know Normal People

I launched a podcast this month, called K(no)w Normal People. My wife, Dixie, and I host the show together, while we interview the interesting people found in our circles of family, friends, and acquaintances.

The podcast was born out of a desire to have fun conversations with the interesting people in our lives. We didn’t need another show on the internet that interviews the same authors, artists, and thought leaders. If you’re a regular podcast listener, you may have had a similar experience. An author comes out with a new book and begins the media circuit. A podcast you follow interviews the author with some insightful questions and some pretty standard media questions. And then another show interviews them, and another, and another. On the whole, you hear most of the same questions with most of the same answers. Little variety. Once you’ve heard one, you’ve likely heard them all. So why not try a podcast with a fresh format?

We wanted an excuse to interview and learn from the people already in our lives. We knew that we are surrounded by interesting “normal” people and created a brand new show from the idea. We know deep thinking baristas, energetic pastors, passionate leaders, humble business owners, inspiring parents, photographers, musicians; friends. These are the shows we release every week. A fun conversation getting to know the normal people in our lives.

We’re willing to bet that not only are you interesting too, but that you are surrounded by fascinating people! In line for your favorite coffee, sitting in the desk next to you at work, a few rows in front of you at church: all these people have passions, interests, and quirks that make them unique. Why not ask them some questions and dig for something more than small talk? We’ve discovered that it’s a lot easier than we thought and our lives are exponentially more interesting since adopting a curiosity mindset.

Visit www.knownormalpeople.com to listen and subscribe. And remember…

“The only normal people you know are the ones you don’t know very well.” – Alfred Adler

Cat

I recently allowed a cat under my roof. And I’ve made an agreement with this little ball of feline fur, that as long as she knows I’m the pride male and get to set boundaries based on where the photons emitted by our star’s nuclear fusion reaction make impact with our apartment’s interior*, then she and I can be friends in a mutually beneficial relationship. In other words, she’s an indoor cat. And being an indoor cat, we’ve been learning to share living space together.

As with any new addition to a household or family, once the initial “aw cute!” phase wears off, there is a trove full of lessons to be learned as we begin to adjust to each other. I believe that life is so much more interesting if I assume that everyone and everything can be my teacher, so I ought to be open to wisdom in whatever form it is packaged as a humble student. So in no particular order, I’ve been collecting some observations that Dinah, the cat, has helped me recognize and put into words.

  • Renaming something isn’t always helpful or necessary. When my wife and I first began the process of adopting Dinah, we thought we would like to rename her Pudding. There was no particular reason why, beyond we liked how cute the name Pudding is. But on her first day in our apartment while she was doing her initial exploration, we learned that she actually recognized the name Dinah and responded by looking up at us and coming toward our outstretched hand. So she was never Pudding to us, she will always be Dinah. — I identify as some sort of Christian outside of American evangelicalism, call is more progressive or liberal Christianity maybe. And I’ve noticed within this particular movement, there is an interesting aversion to holding onto the traditionally used and accepted metaphors for God, such as God the Father. I’ve read and heard many critiques of “father” being overly patriarchal and misogynist, thereby we must wholesale reject that metaphor for God the Mother, All-Spirit, or Creator. All are metaphors that add and enrich my own conception of God, but I’m not so sure we need to throw out the Father because it makes some uncomfortable. Especially when literal millennia of the Church has operated under the baptism of our Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Renaming something isn’t always helpful or necessary.
  • Negativity disguised as jest is just as much a habit as positivity in affection and love. If you have a pet, you know that your pet is named something, and then there are the bastardizations of that name ad infinitum. Unfortunately, many of them for me quickly devolved into blatant insults toward the cat. So even disguised as a joke, calling my cat ugly names became my habit whenever I was feeling annoyed with her or chastising her for breaking our terms of agreement. This habit painfully revealed itself to me when I was attending to my two year old niece recently at dinner, my human niece (to be 100% clear, not my cat), who was trying to stand up in her high chair, and I accidentally slipped one of the many ugly names I’ve called my cat as I was trying to get my niece to cooperate with fun Uncle Stephen. At that moment, I knew I had to change that habit immediately. Even as a joke, I never want my niece or my own future children to be torn down by an ugly habit like name calling, especially from their uncle or father. And neither will my cat hear such things again, because habits do not discriminate, positive or negative. Negativity disguised as jest is just as much a habit as positivity in affection and love.
  • Healthy boundaries are okay to expect to be respected and enforce when they are breached. My one primary rule for Dinah is that she does not get to walk where human food is stored, prepared, and served. Cabinets, countertops, sink and table are strictly off limits. We quickly established this upon her arrival, by her being abruptly launched in an upward, airborne trajectory when she first explored the space. I did not intend to harm in the slightest, but we established that boundary early and forcefully. And we agree on it now. Healthy boundaries are okay to expect to be respected and enforce.
  • Do I sharpen my metaphorical claws with enough regularity? Along with dealing with spacial boundaries, we’re finding that it’s a training and adaptation to get her to sharpen her claws on the designated spots instead of the back corner of my favorite chair. I understand that cats engage this ritual to simultaneously trim and sharpen their ever growing claws, and that perhaps, this offers me a chance to check in with my own sharpening practices? Do I exercise enough? Do I read and write enough to challenge my own preconceived notions? Do I have stimulating conversations on those ideas that I read and write? Do I allow pushback and critique from trusted mentors, partners and friends? Do I sharpen my metaphorical claws with enough regularity?
  • A little mess is all part of it. A house that’s ready at a moment’s notice for that perfect Instagram shot is just not a realistic expectation. Perfect order is a neurotic utopia, which is hard for someone like me to hear and know. A little foreign smell, a little free floating cat hair is just part of my life now, teaching me to know that a little mess is all part of it.
  • With the proper degree of openness, I can learn from anyone and anything. Life is most interesting to me when my default stance is that everyone is my teacher. And I’ve quickly realized that this cat will spend her entire life running me through doctorate level studies in patience. My cat enjoys two things, food and attention. Both of which she is not shy about asking for, loudly… at 0430 in the morning. Pet owners can relate to that moment when your pet makes it crystal clear that you haven’t fed them in, let’s say, the last 20 minutes. They either lightly paw at the food box and meow to win your pity and affection, or they glare at you from behind a dark corner with that look in their eye that can only come from behind the yellow eyes of an ancient, instinctual, only slightly domesticated predator. And this can really get on my nerves, which is slowly revealing to me that my patience wears thinnest where any unplanned inconvenience threatens my own agenda. I can learn from anyone and anything with the proper degree of openness.
  • Curiosity is natural to the cat, while I am actively retraining myself in it. Curiosity could certainly eventually kill the cat, I totally get the cliche now. She is often looking into closets when we have them open, crawling under the couch, exploring window sills and desks, she is even learning how to pry open the bottom kitchen cabinets to get a peak. At first, this frustrated me. “There is nothing interesting here for you.” – Said the human, uninterested in the contents of a cabinet, to the creature that can find endless enjoyment inside a cardboard box. For her, every corner, door, and surface is potentially her new favorite place to hide, nap, or groom. That natural curiosity is expected and should never be discouraged, in fact, I am actively retraining myself in curiosity because of her.
  • Adapting to a cat in the house is teaching me to use a slower pace and practice greater body awareness. When she’s looking for attention, she likes to nuzzle against our calves and ankles, which is usually never an issue if we are sitting down to read or watch a movie, but if we’re strolling into the kitchen at night for a drink of water, this fun habit of hers becomes dangerous to us both. Me, at risk of tripping, her at risk of flattening. She’s inadvertently teaching me to practice mindfulness in all my limbs, simply noticing the feel of the floor and the light brush of fur on my ankles. In addition, I’ve realized that I just need to be slowing down more often to give her a kind petting, scratch between the ears, or a playful belly rub.
  • Cats are worth petting just by the fact that they are cute, soft, and enjoy it, probably more than you enjoy petting them. I’ll just leave this quick quote from Jordan Peterson’s rule 12 of his monstrously popular 12 Rules for Life book: “Cats are their own creatures. They aren’t social or hierarchical (except in passing). They are only semi-domesticated. They don’t do tricks. They are friendly on their own terms. Dogs have been tamed, but cats have made a decision. They appear willing to interact with people, for some strange reasons of their own. To me, cats are a manifestation of nature, of Being, in an almost pure form. Furthermore, they are a form of Being that looks at human beings and approves… Maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it. [So] pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”

*(“Everything the light touches, is our kingdom”… Lion King quote for those playing along at home)

Minimal

Have you ever had a realization, a lesson learned, a question answered? Those sticky ones that seem to follow you once they’re here with you? Like once you see, you can’t unsee; once you’ve heard, you can’t unhear. I’ve had two of these moments, as such. One of them, I want to illuminate: minimalism.

When we first got married, Dixie and I found ourselves packed tight into our first small apartment. The bedroom was lined with two dressers and three book cases crammed with things, making navigating the queen sized bed a chore in and of itself. Closets were stuffed with clothes dating back to when I was seven years old, as if I hoped to one day fit in them one day again. Hanging bars were completely full of jackets, pants, old choir tuxedos, and dresses. Kitchen cabinets and drawers overflowed with multiple sets of dishes and utensils. The dining table was often stacked with mail, keys, bags, paper “to file away”. The living room housed a large six person sectional, allowing for an ottoman and a TV stand, which itself was covered in consoles, remotes, and DVD cases. We also kept a book case out for more books that didn’t fit in the bedroom and a rack showing off an eclectic CD collection I had acquired over my many high school tastes and phases of music. Stacked in the corner, my multiple cases full of drum equipment towered next to an upright piano Dixie and picked up for free one day. This was the life we found when we combined our belongings under the same roof. And I didn’t even mention the boxes upon boxes of miscellaneous tools, childhood toys, and hobby materials that were packed away in our garage. We had a single car garage to our advantage and we had packed it with enough things, all accounted for, made a stack and pile bigger than a large suburban. We had stuff. Or maybe the stuff had us?

Then, I got a job that allows me some freedom to listen to podcasts and music at my desk. I put a short Facebook status up asking any and all friends for podcast recommendations for me to check out, and some saint linked me to theminimalists.com. These two guys, who started their podcast and blog out of Missoula, Montana, started to help us change our lives. The idea appealed to me immediately and I took my enthusiasm home and pitched the idea to Dixie with about as much grace and tact as a charging rhinoceros. I might have even been foaming at the mouth, telling Dixie about how I want to go through our stuff and potentially purge 75% of our collective possessions. Unsurprisingly, this idea was not received well. (Understatement of the year). So I took another angle.

As I have mentioned, at the time, we had stacks of plates, bowls, tupperware, forks, spoons, pans, mugs, cups, water bottles, travel mugs, utensils, and any other kitchen tool you can probably think of. As you may know as well, this many dishes tend to stack in the sink pretty quickly. I noticed at one point that of my available free time in the evenings, I could spend anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours every night just doing that day’s dishes, and I was sick of it. I proposed that we whittle down these piles down to a simple set of two of everything. We wouldn’t need to get rid of the rest yet, but as a trial, just pack the excess away and see how we fared for a week or two. And according to plan, at the end of a week, I was spending maybe only 10 minutes putting away food after a meal and doing all the dishes. This was the first taste of freedom from minimalism that we both truly enjoyed.

After that the decisions came easier. We systematically went through each room, treating it almost as a game, sorting our piles of dust collecting, unused items into donate, sell, recycle, and trash piles. Many trips to Goodwill, some sales on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, a few garage sales, and a trip to the dump later, we had pared our lives down by about 60%, and everything that remained truly meant something to us.

The story could of course be longer, more embellished, with plenty of details, but that wouldn’t be very minimal of me would it? As long as the story is allowed to rest here, I do have some thoughts on minimalism that may help you “see and not unsee” the value it could add to your life as well.


  • Minimalism is not about austerity, it’s about intentionality. I still have a book case full of books that I love to read, lend, and reread. We have a collection of records to spin on our record player in our living room. At this point, we do have more than 2 plates. We never wanted to be the kind of people who live out of a backpack in a 100 sq ft apartment. The intent for our home is for the things we own to serve a purpose, bring utility, add value, and tell a story. It’s about meaningful materials, purposeful possession.
  • Your stuff pays rent. If you only ever collect more items that you can’t part with, then you may fill your house to the brim, before you cave and buy a bigger house to put all your stuff in. In a way, the stuff you own forces you to pay more rent or get a bigger mortgage to keep it all.
  • Less stuff, less cleaning. As the dishes were for me, it may be the laundry for you. If you’re sick of spending so much of your waking life cleaning the stuff you own, it may be time for you to permanently wipe it out of your home.
  • A place for everything. Does that junk drawer in the kitchen actually seem to haunt you sometimes? Like the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter, things wanting to get lost find their way to that drawer? Or maybe it’s a whole room dedicated to miscellany and misfits? Hobbits call this the “Mathom room.” When you sort through the unnecessary clutter, these things tend to find a home. And if they don’t, then they really don’t belong anywhere do they?
  • New starts. The hardest area for us to work through were our overflowing clothes closets. Many articles carried a certain degree of sentimentality that were difficult to part with. Maybe they represented a happier era in my childhood, or me before the weight gain. I discovered though, after getting my wardrobe down to a measly 33 pieces, that I am actually more satisfied knowing that every single article that I could wear gives me confidence.
  • Passion. Maybe a corny word in the era of self help “gurus”, but honestly, minimalism frees much time and energy to do things you’re passionate about. Like me, finally starting a blog.
  • Relationships. More than just gained time, minimalism sheds the excess things that often take up mental and emotional energy for the relationships that matter most. My marriage is maximally more rich for living as a material minimalist. This is what really matters.

There’s plenty more to be said, more for me to say in one essay, so as the minimalists say at the close of each of their podcasts:

“love people and use things, because the opposite never works.”

Boots

I admittedly do some odd things. Ask my wife, Dixie, and she could give you a list as long as her arm of things she’ll observe me do throughout the day that get her to tilt her head and squint a little bit. There are plain things, ordinary things that I’ve learned to infuse with my own silent meaning, affirmations, and inspiration. I’ve learned to enjoy many daily tasks by giving them meaning beyond their outcome, even doing the dishes. It gives life a more interesting flavor. That’s where the interesting stuff happens. One such oddity is how and why I tie my shoes.

Have you ever wondered if anyone ties their shoes in a specific order for a reason? Of course, the power of habit would cement any brain into tying one before the other, just to clear up some mental RAM, but why? I wondered this once. Is there a purpose to why Stephen always ties his left boot first when he laces up for work? I even went so far to ask people like Dixie, my closest confidant, and she looked at me as if I was off my nonexistent, yet metaphorical meds. I just wonder about these things! And if there’s not a specific reason now, could I give it one?

So I set out to write a script, of course. A short creed, if you will. Packed inside the 20 or so seconds it takes to tie my shoes, I’m able to remind myself what I believe to be true about myself and about the space I inhabit. This is what I recite to myself every single time I must tie my shoes, boots, or even don my favorite pair of Chacos. A single act, that as an adult, I must do every day to enter society, I’ve given space to remember my values, to prepare my mind for the present day, and to peer into the future with hope.

“I lace my left boot first to recognize my own immense capacity for evil, my learned insufficiency, my selfish agenda, bodily weakness, poisonous tongue, and moodiness. I address my inner bent toward chaotic tyranny and artful anarchy lurking within my own pit of hell.”

“I lace my right boot last to affirm the goodness I bear within the Image of God, my meaning and aim to commune with today’s Kosmic Christ, my value added to the world through an integrated body, mind, and heart. I balance and manage the potential for perfect order with the spontaneity of human life. I aspire to gratitude, contentment, peace; Shalom. I invite healthy habits, grounding peace, holy breath, the Kingdom of Heaven into this earth, through me today.”

“Here I enter the Risen Presence, the Logos, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And I take my first step.”

What spaces in your daily life could you claim to affirm, remind, and teach your soul? How can tying your shoes, scrubbing a sink full of dishes, or folding a basket of laundry become a holy moment? What’s important enough to your soul that you need to hear it every day? Meditate on that for a moment or a week, then do something crazy like write yourself a script for when you tie your shoes. There’s no reason that mundane tasks can’t be made holy.