life, poetry, publishing, teaching, writing

An Empathetic Farewell to Unpopular 2016

last-day-imageSo many of my friends have been cheering on the parting of 2016, thankful that it is about to fade into oblivion. As these last few hours tick by, I can’t believe I’m actually feeling sorry for a year in history. But 2016 has elicited that response from me, strangely enough. I feel that 2016 has been like that unpopular kid in class that everybody liked to pick on: easy prey because of difference. I, for one, kind of enjoyed 2016 — not necessarily for political or cultural reasons, but for its more personal milestones:

My fourth book (and by far my best to date), Hard Inheritance, received publication on December 5, and I have been honored by its critical reception. It was good to see a new book of poetry out there, and as 2017 waits just a few hours away, I fully anticipate that it will be a great year for my latest collection.

I received an incredible new full-time position teaching English and Literature at the university level, a long-time goal of mine. The job itself is both rewarding and intellectually stimulating, and I’m the happiest (professionally) I’ve been in a long time. My students make teaching a joy and privilege. That’s a sentiment I thought I’d lost, and now it’s back, thanks to the events of 2016.

Both of my sons have done well in different areas this year. My oldest son discovered a love for basketball, while my younger son has continued to develop himself academically and artistically in the new Montessori school both boys attend. My wife has continued to enjoy her work in the medical field, and my family life has been good, to say the least. My fortieth birthday meant a big trip to Lisbon for all of us, a time that none of us will soon forget for its meaningful experiences.

Maybe your candidate didn’t get elected. Maybe your favorite celebrity died. Maybe unnatural disasters befell your part of the world. But from my little corner of the planet, 2016 was more than okay. It was memorable, it was unique, and it was unpredictable. All three of these traits, while they can be negative, also give us things of beauty. And despite its occasional difficulty and ugliness, 2016 also had plenty of the positive. All we have to do is look for it.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writing

How 5 became my life’s official number

handfiveAllow me to begin by saying I’m no numerologist. I do believe, however, that one day, we will all understand why the numbers in our lives intermingle and coordinate the way they do. I also believe that this overlap of figures is more than just mathematical. There is a purpose to the numbers, and it’s not just coincidental.

Here’s a good example: I was born on July 5. As a kid, I lived on Fifth Street. My stepdad was born March 5. My oldest son was born January 5. My best friend growing up had a birthday 25 days later than mine. Many of my other family members have birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates that are influenced by the number five — maybe they’re multiples or maybe the dates add up to something five-related. Perhaps that last bit is stretching the significance a little, but you get the picture.

So I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me when, the other day, my publisher emailed to tell me that my latest book, Hard Inheritance, had been published on the date of my grandfather’s death 12 years prior — December 5th.

To really grasp the importance of this chronological lineup, you have to know the kind of influence my grandfather had in my life. As a young child, I grew up on his citrus farm in Hardee County, a very rural community in southern central Florida. My grandfather loved me more deeply than almost any other person in my life, save my mother. He invested his time, his resources, and his wisdom in preparing me to become a hard working, honest, and thinking man.

He had flown 51 missions in World War II, and his American devotion carried well beyond his military service. He served his church as a deacon (a model I would later follow myself). He faithfully worked for the Coca-Cola Foods Division as a groves manager for decades before retiring to volunteer with my scout troop. I became an Eagle Scout because he taught me the value of persistence and perseverance; seeing a thing through to its successful end.

It only made sense to me when Hard Inheritance came out on the fifth. Of course it would, I thought, following the five-laden trail of bread crumbs throughout my life. It’s both fitting and bittersweet that this book, my best and most earnest to date, would become available to the public on a day with such meaning.

My hope now is that this volume would please him, were he still here. It celebrates the beautiful and the natural, but it also shows the events in life that leave our scars and calluses, both of which he was intensely familiar with. It celebrates Our Florida — that place that he, six generations of our ancestors, and now my children call home.

I think he’d like the history, the honesty, and the geography of this book. He’d probably laugh at the pieces he’s featured in, having forgotten an episode that seemed relatively unimportant to him, but one in which I find deeper relevance. He, too, was a “five” man, after all — born in the month of May, living to the age of 83 (subtract the two digits), and being great-grandfather to five children (3 girls by my sister, 2 boys that are mine).

Being connected to one particular number in such a vital way can sometimes be a Hard Inheritance  of its own. Rarely a day goes by when some important connection to the number 5 doesn’t crop up in my day-to-day life. Were I one to play the lottery, I sometimes think I’d buy one of those “Pick 5” tickets and just play all fives to see what happens. My statistician friends would discourage this, of course, knowing the wild improbability of winning from such a choice.

But if it’s one thing that my life has taught me, it’s that all the cold, sterile math in the world can’t explain the way that numbers work. There is no algebra, no geometry, no trigonometry or physics formula to rationalize how the figures align. And in that same logically inexplicable space, poetry lives.

Tomorrow will mark five days since my book was published. I will celebrate by watching my oldest son, number 35 on his basketball team, play his final game of the season. I will think of how proud my grandfather would be — both of my writing and my boys’ achievements. I will hope for more fives in the future. And I know that I will surely receive them.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Gift vs. Calling: Which is it?

giftcallingAs I am completing the final semester of the Master of Fine Arts degree program and preparing for a new school year ahead, recently my thoughts have drifted toward the contrast between gifts and callings. Some people, especially in both religious and creative circles, use these words interchangeably. I see a difference, however.

Here’s my take: We are all gifted in some way. For some of us, music or art or science becomes the field where our most innate abilities shine through, and we experience an ease and flow in those fields that is nothing short of supernatural. Others are gifted with mechanical skills, and still others are gifted with people and relationships. I give these examples to clarify a bigger picture: Our gifts are those things that are naturally easy for us, and lie in those areas where we demonstrate talent. Is a gift a calling, however?

Your gift(s) can be part of a higher life calling, certainly. For instance, as a child, I quickly learned that I had an “ear” for music. I could sit down at a keyboard and peck out basic tunes, even adding left hand parts consisting of chords. That musical ability, however, was not my calling. In high school, other students rose to the top in chorus class and in other musical endeavors while my gift remained handy for family entertainment and recreation. I knew, even at that time, that music would not be the purpose or great mission of my life. I lacked persistence, devotion, and mathematical skills — all attributes that a professional musician needs. I still enjoyed playing piano and guitar, but they would be, at the most, hobbies.

As I progressed through school, though, I felt a great urge and need to express myself in writing. At first, short fiction pieces based on spy stories or detective cases were my outlet. With maturity came evolution, however, and my writing efforts turned toward poetry. There, in the writing of poems, I felt a certain inspiration that went beyond cognition, and held a deeper significance than mere proficiency. I knew that I had to be a writer. My teachers encouraged me, my family praised my humble first efforts, and I was on my way. My musical ear contributed to my poetic sensibility, tuning me into which words were “sour notes” and which ones flowed like a symphony. My earlier gift contributed to this larger calling.

Like Moses with his speech impediment, I also never thought of myself as a people leader. The front of the classroom seemed as alien to a younger me as becoming an astronaut. Strangely, my life was allowed to proceed in such a way that I was directed to teaching — I was spit up by a whale of circumstances onto the pedagogical shore that has since become my happiest home. Teaching is definitely a calling, and it is one not to be ignored or taken lightly. Many of my other gifts play into the classroom daily — whether it’s music, creativity, literature or nature, my loves and my abilities combine inside the walls of school to give students a memorable and meaningful experience. Teaching was not my initial “gift,” but as a calling, education has allowed me to use all of my talents in an exponential way: others are equipped and prepared through the use of those gifts that seemed like fun pastimes during another chapter of my life.

Teaching and writing are both gifts and callings for different people. There are phenomenal teachers who never darken the door of the schoolhouse, just as there are diligent journal-keepers who will never see their names on the NYT bestseller list. Their gift is not their calling. We are called, though, to use our gifts in the bigger picture — that profession or vocation that we are pointed toward, where our calling waits for us to answer.