I used to be a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, back in my 20’s, and after working there for a the better part of a decade, I reached a threshold----the word in this case having a double meaning as both a point of transition and a measurement of my tolerance for pain.

At this threshold I began hearing a calling to quit my job and become a freelance writer, a decision that’s not exactly designed to reassure your parents, and one that I couldn’t bring myself to make for years anyway, though the gods were drumming their fingers, and though I was slowly overripening and rotting on the vine.

Like most people, however, I will not follow a calling until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so, though I am routinely appalled at how high a threshold I have for this quality of pain. But eventually the prospect of emotional and even financial turmoil, the disapproval of others, and the various conniptions of change seemed preferable to the psychological death I was experiencing by staying put----at which point I followed a bit of cowboy wisdom: when your horse dies, get off!

Still, like anyone who chooses passion over security, I was plagued by the fear that scares away sleep. And it wasn’t that I finally overcame the fear. It was that something else became more important than the fear. I still sweated through leaving behind a regular paycheck, medical benefits, a pension coming in two years, the prestige of being a big fish in a good-sized pond, and that wonderful organizational budget that can take up the slack created by almost any amount of individual goofing off: clock-watching, coming in to work late and leaving early, extra-long lunches, indiscriminate wastes of supplies, and those sick days I came back from with a tan. These are standard behaviors exhibited by people who feel about their jobs the way they felt about their senior year in high school: psychologically out-the-door, but punching in Monday through Friday just to collect the diploma.

The ancient Romans used to say that the Fates lead those who will, and those who won’t they drag. My own experience has also taught me that those who get dragged tend to put a drag on others, and if those others are the people they work with and for, you’ve got your basic lose-lose situation.

Passion and productivity

Creating passionate, productive and callings-inspired work and workplaces begins with the individual, with the corpus (body) that defines the corporation. It involves the sometimes pick-and-shovel work of aligning or re-aligning with your passion and sense of purpose, with your deepest values rather than just the advertised values, and with a fit between who you are and what you do, which I consider the best kind of success. The more passionate you are, the more productive----the more you desire to produce----and the less hot condensed breath managers will need to leave on the back of your neck.

In fact, any leap you want to make in your professional or personal life that will bring you this sense of alignment and aliveness is, by definition, a calling. That calling could be to leave your job altogether or come to it in a new way, to take on a new role or let go of an old one, to make a creative leap or launch a new venture or style of leadership, or to simply make the kind of course-correction in your life or work that will make your life literally "come true."

And what goes for the individual goes for "the company you keep." If it is challenging to walk your talk, to honor your mission and your values, to reconcile your visions with your resources, to juggle the higher calling and the bottom line, it is exponentially moreso for the corporate body-politic of which each employee is a single cell.

But the more we as individuals address these issues and conundrums in our lives, the more we encourage our corporations to do the same. There is a reason why some of the world’s great myths, like Sleeping Beauty and the Grail King, speak to the idea that when we sleep, those around us also sleep and the kingdom goes dormant, but when we awaken, those around us also awaken and the kingdom flowers.

Work is merely one of the arenas in which we play The Game----the one that the gods are watching from their press-box atop Mount Olympus, sipping mint juleps. It is only one of the arenas (along with relationship, community, sports and spirituality, among others) in which we express our humanity, search for meaning, play out our destinies and our dreams, contribute our energies and gifts to the world, and spend our precious nick of time. But it is also an arena in which we spend two-thirds of our waking lives, most of us, and it is legitimate to love our work! Life is a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves, Nietzsche said.

It is no coincidence that the American Medical Association discovered some years back that the majority of heart attacks occur around nine o’clock on Monday mornings. This undoubtedly has something to do with what most of us are doing around nine o’clock on Monday mornings, which is going back to work. Or more precisely, going back to work we don’t like, work that doesn’t match our spirits, work that can literally break your heart.

The cost of security

Unfortunately, most people simply tune out the callings and longings they feel rather than confront and act on them, trading authenticity for security and settling for less. In this sense, money costs too much. The price people are willing to pay to have it is way too steep. It’s terribly easy to build yourself a velvet cage: the money is great, the perks enviable (OK, so what if the only reason you’re using your medical benefits is that your job is making you sick), the surroundings are familiar, and the security comforting----but you end up becoming at best a recreational user of your passion and creativity. You lose; your company loses; the world loses.

We’re all conservatives when it comes to change. We want to conserve the status quo. We want to protect our investments, and the more investments we have, and the more success, the harder it is to let it go. So although the soul doesn’t seem to care what price we have to pay to follow our callings, we still react to change with a reflexive flinch, the way snails recoil at the touch. As an acquaintance of mine once put it, "You shall know the truth and it shall make you nap."

Those who refuse their passions and purposes in life, who are afraid of becoming what they perhaps already are----unhappy----will not of course experience the unrest (or the joy) that usually accompanies the embrace of a calling. Having attempted nothing, they haven’t failed, and they can console themselves that if none of their dreams come true, than at least neither will their nightmares.

The truth is that the human psyche is like the Earth----it is a closed system. There is no "out" as in "throwing the garbage out." There is no trash icon. Whatever energies we ignore or repress will come up somewhere else, at the very least in our dreams and fantasies. And the frustrations and regrets in our lives become like tombstones, reminding us of where someone is buried.

Remembering what we already know

The soul is a spiritual organ that we carry to work with us every day, and it informs and observes every move we make. There is no ignoring its demands with impunity. It is capable of meting out punishments as real as any that could be meted out by a boss. It is the ultimate BS-detector, the part of us that absolutely knows what it knows, that knows the feel of integrity and the feel of its absence. It is also the part of us that sees the big picture of our lives, the blueprint against which all our actions are compared, and which is hardwired into each of us.

As the cells in a fertilized human egg multiply, very early on they reach a point when subtle indentations appear in the cell-ball, which distinguish the head from the hindquarters (a distinction that seems to be lost entirely on some people). Nonetheless, if at this point you take a cell from the head and place it down at the hindquarters, it will migrate back up. In other words, it knows what it is. It knows what it’s supposed to become. And at some level, so do we! The work is to remember something we already know, at a cellular level.

I included a fellow in my book, Callings, who described an interaction he once had with his seven-year-old daughter. She came to him one day and asked him what he did at work. He told her that he worked at the college, and his job was to teach people how to draw. He said she looked back at him, incredulous, and said, "You mean they forget?"

A calling is an organism, a living entity, with an animus all its own. It exerts a centrifugal force on our lives, continually pushing out from within. It drives us toward authenticity and aliveness, against the tyranny of fear and inertia and occasionally reason, and it is metered by the knocking in our hearts that signals the hour. If we are at all faithful to our calls, to the driving force of soul in our lives, it will lead us to a point of decision. Here we must decide whether to say yes or no, now or later, ready or not. And it will keep coming back until we give it an answer.

Saying yes to a call tends to place us on a path that half of ourselves thinks doesn’t make a bit of sense, but the other half knows our lives won’t make sense without. We find ourselves following the blind spiritual instinct that tells us our lives have purpose and meaning, that this calling is part of it, and that we must act on it despite the temptations to back down and run for cover that will divide even the most grimly resolute against themselves.

The Mach 1 experience

Saying yes----sometimes merely thinking about saying yes----also tends to throw very opposing energies into our lives. The voices of "Yes" and "No." The voices of head and heart. And you can count on the head to say, "Have you taken a look at your savings account lately?" or "That’s not company policy." And you can count on the heart to ask, "Where would the world be if all of its heroes followed the bottom line?"

One part of you wants to awaken, one part wants to sleep. One part wants to follow the call, the other wants to run like hell. Courage is joined at the hip with anxiety.

I’ve heard it said, however, that heroism (or heroinism) can be redefined for the modern age as the ability to tolerate paradox. To hold two competing forces inside us at the same time and still retain the ability to function. To allow our souls to become boxing rings and still hang onto our marbles.

In the movie The Right Stuff, there is a scene in which the pilot Chuck Yeager is attempting to break the sound barrier for the first time, and just before he hits that illustrious Mach 1 (roughly 750 miles per hour), the plane starts shaking and shuddering and threatening to break apart. Then suddenly at Mach 1 he breaks through and experiences a glorious silence, and a perfectly smooth ride. There is something of a Mach 1 experience in any attempt at a breakthrough. There is resistance, shaking and shuddering, and it’s not opposed to the breakthrough; it’s part of it. But it takes a resilient "corpus" and a resilient "corporation" to encourage and harness this chain-reaction, which begins as soon as someone follows a calling, as soon as someone says yes to passion and soul.

Without the shuddering, though, there is no growth. A chemist named Ilya Prigogine demonstrated that in a theory that won him the Nobel Prize. He showed that "the capacity to be shaken up" is, ironically, the key to growth, and that any system----whether at the molecular level, or the chemical, physical, social, psychological or spiritual----that is protected from disturbance is also protected from change and becomes stagnant.

The courage required to stay the course during this shaking and shuddering is part of what is meant by "character."

"I’d rather be sailing"

I used to do a lot of stone sculpting, and when you want to find out whether a stone is "true," you bang on it with a hammer. If it gives off a dull tone, it means the stone has faults running through it that will crack it apart when you work on it. But if it gives off a clear ring, one that hangs in the air for a moment, it means the stone is true, has integrity, and most importantly will hold up under repeated blows.

That is the same information we want about our visions and ventures and callings. We want to know that they’re going to hold up under repeated blows, and among the best ways to determine this is simply to bang on them, and listen. To take them out, or rather down from the abstract into the physical, and let them get banged on by the mortal world. Let the fear and resistance come, let people have their say, let the chaos blow through, because disturbance = growth, because moving and shaking go together, and because chaos is part of the creative process.

In the central creation story in Western cosmology----the Bible----Chaos with a capital C is described as simply the condition of the Earth before it was formed. In other words, Chaos precedes Creation. We deny ourselves one, we deny ourselves the other.

Ultimately, none of us want bumper stickers on our cars that say, "I’d rather be sailing," or "The worst day fishing is better than the best day working." We want to do what we’d rather be doing. We want our lives----and the work to which we are devoting our lives----to catch fire and burn blue, not smolder. We want to feel called, not just driven. We want work to be a channel through which we express our passion and vitality, not a chin-up bar we have to pull ourselves up to every morning. And we want success to be a way we feel, not just a thing we achieve.

To do this, we must incorporate into our lives and our work the understand that hidden deep in the clockworks of the human heart is the beneficent fear of living life, as Henry Miller once put it, without ever leaving the birdcage, and that this fear can be the beginning of great things. Outside the cage, there is life in all its toothsome grandeur, all the spill and stomp and shout of it, all the come and go of it, all of it waiting for us to act on the one hand, and on the other hand rushing down the hourglass.


After two years of maddening indecision and the escalating entreaties of my partner, I finally agreed to move a few years ago, for the first time, from the city to the country. Or more precisely, from San Francisco to a desert in northern New Mexico surrounded by the silence of lunar places and nights so black that I remembered I have a childhood fear of the dark.

The night before we were to fly there to begin house-hunting, I had dreams of falling, and spent the night flopping around in bed like a fish on a dock.

Flying into Albuquerque, the plane hit a trough of air that pitched two glasses of water from the tray table into my lap and brought my lunch up to mid-esophagus. The airplane’s wings flapped like the arms of a man fighting for balance on a tightrope. In the airport, I saw a man wearing a button that said, “Welcome to New Mexico. Land of the flea, home of the plague.” We later learned that some of the state’s outlying areas---not far from where we were headed, in fact---have a problem with fleas that carry the Bubonic Plague, the same one that killed a fourth of the population of medieval Europe.

As I headed for baggage claim, I heard in the back of my mind the words of the poet Rilke reminding me that the purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things, and I had the uneasy sense that I had come to the right place.

I had a hundred reasons not to move---101 including the fleas---and a hundred reasons why I had to. Among those I was able to articulate to inquiring and skeptical friends and family were that I needed a place where nature lifts up her skirt and dances, where the cost of living is somewhat more hospitable to a freelance writer, and where there are no job opportunities for traffic reporters. What I was less inclined to try to explain was that I wanted a place where what is of value is not advertised, where there are no guardrails, where I might find an answer to the question, “Is this all there is?”---and because my partner wanted to move and I didn’t want to lose her.

Beneath all the reasons and rationalizations, though, was an undefined yearning for change, and I knew in some private core of myself that it had something to do with surrender, which nature, and midlife, excel at teaching.

For a long while, I found living in the wilderness overwhelming. During my first few months there, I slept 12 hours a day and barely left the house for more than a few hours at a time. The scale of the mountains, the sky, the horizon---everything---made a mockery of my sense of perspective. The 100-mile visibilities seemed to double the size of the world, making me feel very small. The passage of time, marked not in the human scale of weekdays and weekends but in epochs, argued that even the mountains are mortal.

The perverse silence of the place kept startling my reptilian brain into idle chatter. The Indian and Spanish cultures felt alien. Hail was the size of marbles; flashfloods were capable of carrying off children, livestock and large appliances; and thunder sounded like gunshots going off next to my ear. In this stretch of the wild west, the majority of Stop signs had bullet holes in them, whereas in the Bay area, they were more likely to be spray-painted with phrases like “the arms race” or “in the name of love” or “faking orgasm.” Moving here from the city felt like coming out of a movie theater in the middle of the day.

I wrote to a friend that I felt like a coward in the face of such grandeur, which accused me of my own impotence, and stripped me of the hubris that I had developed from being a city-dweller and surrounded by the man-made my whole life. It is easy to imagine yourself king of the hill when little save for the rumor of death instructs you otherwise.

Jacques Cousteau once remarked that when you enter the ocean you enter the food chain, and you do not necessarily enter at the top. In New Mexico, when it snowed and the land filled up with paw-prints, I, too, saw clearly what my relative position is in the colossi, and that I do not have tenure. I followed bear tracks for a mile along a mountain fire-road, and mountain-lion tracks on the mesa running like a dotted line between the junipers. I saw blood on the snow, and was left hyperventilating by the sound of rustling.

I suppose, then, that it was a sense of feeling out of control that made the incident with the magpie so unnerving.

I was sitting at my desk one afternoon several months after moving, staring out the window at columns of thunderheads, while the wind pounded on kettledrums outside. Suddenly a bird flew directly into the window with a bony thud and bounced off, leaving a clump of feathers stuck to the glass.

I stood up reflexively from my chair. A meadowlark lay stunned on the ground. Just at that instant a magpie, three times the meadowlark’s size, barrelled down from a nearby tree and pecked the small bird to death as it flapped around helplessly. When it was dead, the magpie took it in its beak up to a low branch of the apricot tree, set it there, and flew off.

I stumbled outside, horrified, wondering what act of carnage I had just witnessed---was it the end of a chase, some violent spasm of territorial imperative, or was it a mercy killing? I felt my sense of vulnerability in being there at all deepen in that moment.

Four days later that clump of feathers was still stuck to my office window like a suicide note, and I was still rattled. It was just the violence, though, or the suddenness of it, but that I didn’t understand what it meant, and this reminded me of what I gave up to move to New Mexico. It is something that all sacrifices require, whatever their particulars: the need to let go of what is familiar for what is not, to relinquish full jurisdiction over our lives and let fate have a greater hand in them.

A few days before I left California, for instance, I walked slowly through and around my house, a fixer-upper I had lived in longer than any since childhood. I realized how intimately I knew it, and how bad I felt in leaving it. I knew how many seconds it took the bathroom faucet to make hot water, where to step on the wooden floors to avoid creaking them when I was up at 2:30 a.m., and how stiff a wind it took to drive rain into the broken storm window upstairs.

I knew which tree the vultures most favored for roosting, which trails in the surrounding hills would be muddiest after a rain, and the names and temperaments of every dog in the neighborhood. I knew which week during September the robins would fly in to gorge themselves on the pyracantha berries near my front steps, and that during that week I’d sweep those steps of bird droppings twice a day. I knew that if I heard rustling in the vicinity of the pampas grass in the front yard, it would be Boozie, the neighbor’s big, dumb dog of indeterminate genus, and I knew exactly where to rub Boozie’s chest to paralyze him with pleasure and make his back left foot twitch.

And I knew that starting in a few days, by choice, I would be a stranger again, would have to start learning all new coordinates, the habits of all new birds and beasts, find my way around unfamiliar territory, and figure out what the signs all mean. I remember walking along a dirt road near my new home in New Mexico a few days after arriving, and being barked at furiously by the dogs at a farmhouse, and feeling hurt by it. “We’re going to be friends someday,” I yelled, jabbing my finger at them. “You just wait.”

I tried to distract myself from my insecurities with the one activity that has always conferred on me a sense of meaning and control over my life---my work---but this failed miserably. It was like being bitten by a rattlesnake: I panicked and ran, which only caused the poison to travel faster through my system. That panic-stricken way of working also felt painfully familiar, only now, with the deserts and the distant mountains standing as indictments of my restlessness and commotion, it also felt laughable and damnable, the emotional equivalent of a bad appendix---vestigial and possibly fatal.

In the city, such frenzy was reflected everywhere and seemed normal. Not so in the wilderness. There is more grace in a living acre of ground than in the lives of most people, including mine.

The fact is, the magpie incident pushed me deeper into a sense of loss and fragility, of not-knowing, which I didn’t like one bit. Perhaps it was growing up in a culture that doesn’t know the difference between uncertainty and anxiety, and to which mystery is something to be solved, not serenaded. Perhaps it was coming from a family of scientists and sleuths. My grandfather used to be a detective, and my father a scientist who frequently read to me from a book of “minute-mysteries,” and I had to figure out whodunit. I thought that almost anything could be figured out, and would yield to sheer determination.

But life and the natural world are not just more minute mysteries to solve, and not everything can be figured out. I am no closer to feeling secure in the world for having lots of answers. Making peace with the questions seems the better bet. After all, life doesn’t end with an answer, but a question---what next?---and it certainly ends with a sacrifice: the hero always dies.

In the months after I buried the meadowlark, I chose, quite uncharacteristically, to stay in suspense about what had happened to him, when one phone call to the ornithology department at the University of New Mexico could have settled the matter, as well as my sense of disquiet. But I didn’t call. I wondered.

One afternoon I even spent several hours speculating on the lives of birds---their compulsions and their conspiracies---as I watched a group of grey juncos outside my house repeatedly flock to the ground, peck for seeds, and suddenly, as if on some invisible cue, explode into flight in every direction like shrapnel from a grenade, and then re-gather slowly on the ground like fallen leaves.

A few days later, while shovelling snow, a flash of falling black like a chunk of obsidian caught my eye and my breath. A magpie, perhaps the same one, dropped toward the ground like a stone from some unseen place, and at the last possible second flared its wings.

Then one day, I stopped wondering. I called the ornithology department at the university and ended my little murder mystery. Magpies, the young woman told me, are thievish and opportunistic and will take advantage of an injured bird for the sake of an easy meal. That, she said with great certainty, is what I saw.

I hung up feeling oddly disappointed, not in the cruelty of nature, but in the cruelty of certitude. The knowing, that is, put an end to the wondering, which in many ways was far more entertaining and instructive. In it, there was room for imagination and discovery, for the quest implied in question. The truth, it seems, did not set me free.

In hanging on to the familiar, I have what is familiar. But in letting go, in moving into the unknown, I have no idea what comes next. Life becomes a cloud rolling overhead, changing shape moment by moment like a moving Rorschach. It’s a gargoyle, then a fish, then a serpent, and there’s no predicting. It’s a hawk, a dancer, an airplane, a buffalo, an archer, and the only thing I know for sure about it is that I am, like the magpie, resourceful, and like the meadowlark, vulnerable.


Last year I saw a movie called City of Angels. It opens in the emergency room of a hospital where a little girl has just died, and the camera slowly pans away from this scene until we're looking down a long corridor in the hospital, with a light at the far end. The little girl is walking down the corridor, toward the light, holding hands with an angel played by Nicholas Cage. Halfway down the hallway, the angel turns to her and asks, "So, what did you like best about it?" Meaning life. And the girl says "Pajamas!"

I've posed this exact same question to several thousand people in the last year in my "Callings" workshops; asked them to imagine that they're walking down The Corridor toward the proverbial light, holding hands with an angel-----or with Nicholas Cage if they prefer-----and the angel asks them what them liked best about it.

Not one person has ever said work.

They say food and friendship. They say walking along the ocean, skiing down a mountainside, music and gardens and laughing out loud and love in all its manifestations. They say the chance to create something and the chance to help someone. They say the sheer physical beauty of the Earth. Usually someone will say chocolate. But no-one says work. I have to assume, however, that in a roomful of 100 or 200 people, some of them do love their work, but no-one ever says so.

And yet, most of us----myself included-----spend the vast majority of our days on Earth working. If you live to be 90 years old, you'll spend 30 of those years just sleeping; of the remaining 60, you'll spend 30-40 of them working, and a lot more if you define working to include all the doing and achieving and pushing and juggling and trying to make those confounded ends finally meet, and generally keeping ourselves so busy that we often don't even take the time to wonder if we're doing our right work, or if those "ends" that we're struggling to meet shouldn't perhaps be reevaluated altogether. To say nothing of stopping to question the inherent lunacy of a system in which we work 50 weeks a year and are granted 2 weeks off for vacation.

Tom Peters, who wrote the book In Search of Excellence, said that excellence is a high-cost item and you must give up things to achieve it. He was referring primarily to professional and material excellence, and he said that what you must give up is "family vacations, Little League games, birthday dinners, weekends, lunch hours, gardening, reading, movies, and most other pastimes." In other words, most of the things we're going to be telling the angels about when they ask; most of the activities that make life enjoyable, keep us out of divorce court and away from the doctor, and lend life some modicum of balance and grace. He's also saying that all work and no play makes you a valued employee.

But what Peters calls excellence is, in my opinion, just another word for workaholism----which, broadly speaking, is simply the compulsion toward busyness. A job, in other words, is definitely not the sole focus of workaholism. You can work yourself silly (or sick) at just about anything: caretaking, housework, retirement, vacations, spirituality, child raising, and increasingly just being a child.

And then we wonder why our obituaries look like nothing more than posthumous resumes, lists of accomplishments: books authored, titles held, military ranks attained, degrees earned. They're summary statements of our lives, testaments to what we hold in esteem, and there are precious few hallelujahs for time spent with family, for attending your kid's Little League games, for afternoons given over to long, dreamy walks by the ocean, or for emotional and spiritual triumphs, which for some people are the greatest accomplishments of their lives, not the material and professional accomplishments.


I used to think of Sisyphus as the patron saint of workaholics, which I consider myself to be in some measure. Sisyphus is the fellow who was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain, but just as he reached the summit, it would roll all the way back down to the bottom and he had to start all over again----the archetype of endless and futile effort.

Recently, though, I began to feel that I've been overlooking the true instruction of Sisyphus' life, which is that each time his grindstone rolls to the bottom of the mountain, he is granted a rest while he walks back down to retrieve it. Though he must work for all time, according to the myth, he does not work all the time.

Nor, I decided, should I.

I had just completed a book that took me 15 months of 12-hour days, at the end of which I hit a wall I have never hit in my life as a working man----burnout. The thought of doing another day's work on anything even remotely related to the machinations of building a career, earning a living, getting ahead, or trying to find the "it" in "making it," was enough to buckle me at the knees. As it was, in the waning days of the book project, I pulled myself up to my desk each morning as if to a chin-up bar. After such an intemperance of work, no trip seemed too extravagant or protracted, no binge too vulgar, no amount of goofing off too unreasonable.

I refer to my work, my job, as my "occupation." But I often forget the double-entendre of that word. It also means to be taken over, as in an occupied country, and that's exactly how I felt. I was overwhelmed by my work, and that book was only one of the projects in my in-basket, one of what the Taoists refer to as "the ten-thousand things"-----the projects, the meetings, the deadlines, the errands and dinner dates and power lunches and housework and fitness........and the spiritual books are always reminding me that it isn't what I do but how I do it, that I need to bring mindfulness to whatever or however-many activities I engage in. This is, of course, very true and a noble idea, but sometimes it isn't about bringing mindfulness to my frenzy, but being a little less frenzied.

I was traveling in Mexico some years ago, and one afternoon I watched an eagle dive-bomb into the water of a bay in the Sea of Cortez and thrash around violently on the surface. He'd rise a little and then get yanked back down, almost underwater sometimes, by some unseen force. This went on for nearly a minute. Finally, he rose with a huge effort, clapping his wings loudly on the water, and lifted out a fish that was almost as big as himself, and carried it off to a nest in the cliffs.

I know for a fact, however, that the outcome of these contests isn't always predictable. Sometimes the fish dives and takes the eagle with it. I recently read an article about a fisherman who caught a halibut that had two eagle claws embedded in its back, the rest of the bird having long since rotted away.

My point is that we, too, can sometimes be tenacious to the point of self-destruction. We can sometimes take on too much and be pulled under by it.

In a short story by Leo Tolstoy called "How much land does a man need?" a man is given the opportunity to own as much land as he can run around in a day. So he runs and runs and runs and at the end of the day, having run himself to a complete frenzy, he collapses and dies of exhaustion. It turns out that all the land he really needed was about six feet by three feet.

The amount of land there is to run around, the amount of work there is to do in life, is inexhaustible. We, however, are not. And it's imperative to know when to stop, how much is too much, how much is enough, and when to say "Enough is enough!"

The Japanese have a word for what Tolstoy's character experienced: karoshi. It means "death by overwork," and you don't get a word like that in your language unless there are a few statistics to back it up. And whether we love our work or not, workaholism has all the earmarks of an addiction----anesthetizing ourselves, trying to control life. The experts just call it a process addiction instead of a substance addiction. It is also one of our very few socially-sanctioned addictions, so you can put it on your resume. You can't do that with most addictions.

But even if all our works are good works, even if all our busyness is in the service of worthy and noble causes, when the means to those ends is an addictive process, the end result is a loss of soul and a depletion of spirit.


In the case of my book project, the end result was also complete exhaustion, the kind of nausea smokers describe when they talk about trying to quit by binge-smoking three packs of cigarettes in a row. I was literally sick of working.

So I decided to take a break. In fact, I decided to extend the spirit of Sabbath to outlandish proportions by taking four months off, living off savings, and for a brief period there in the middle of my work life seeing what it would feel like to simply not work, to make time for the kind of creative idleness that an acquaintance of mine calls "power lounging."

What I needed was what people obliquely refer to as space, a distance from what was pressing in on me, a penetrating quiet inside, and I needed to hold that silence up to my ears, like an empty shell, and listen to the roar of my own life. I needed time to reacquaint myself with some nonwork modes of expression, with activities that had absolutely no socially redeeming value, activities that were explicitly non-utilitarian, that I couldn't put a price on or attach a goal to. Not even hobbies would do. I also needed to open myself to some of the things that gave me joy as a child, to savor, for instance, the benediction of play----the kind of play in which I take as much pleasure from knocking my blocks down as I do from building them up.

When I told a colleague what I planned to do now that the book was done, he asked, "What are you, rich?

"No," I replied. "Desperate."

And this is usually what it takes, it seems, to get us off the hamster-wheel; some kind of desperation, whether it comes through a crisis or an accident or an illness or burnout.

Back in the 1980's, just north of the Inside Passage along the coast of Alaska, a glacier pushed its way across the narrow entrance to a fiord, blocking it with an ice-dam that turned the fiord into a 34-mile-long lake. Millions of gallons of water poured into this new lake every week from the surrounding glaciers.

Four months later, the ice-dam burst from the pressure backed up behind it, and in little more than 12 hours, the entire lake, which had risen 82 feet above sea level, poured back into the ocean at a rate 14 times greater than the amount of water that pours over Niagara Falls every second. Witnesses said that it pushed icebergs the size of four-bedroom houses out to sea at 20 miles per hour.

Nature is one of the master gurus in matters of balance, and here the lesson is that sometimes a collapse is the only way that equilibrium can be restored. Sometimes the pressure builds to such colossal proportions that the soul, or simply the body, finds a way to release it, and you're probably going to be standing in its way when it does, although Nietzsche once said that whatever doesn't actually kill you will probably make you stronger.


The first phase of my sabbatical from work was marked by the postpartum depression that followed the delivery of the book. A big project, to say nothing of a lifetime of working, generates a tremendous momentum that doesn't end just because the work ends. It's a bit like a head-on collision. The car stops, but the passenger doesn't.

This seemed to set the tone for my entire sabbatical: a delicious and bewildering freedom marked by a maddening restlessness that routinely propelled me back into my office as if in a trance, despite my policy statements to the contrary. There I would sit for something hours, twisting slowly back and forth on my chair and pulling anxiously at my lower lip, listening to the blathering traffic of noises in my head, while my legs vibrated like tuning forks.

"This is what it must be like when men retire," my wife Robin declared after a morning of watching me pace around the house aimlessly, opening the refrigerator half a dozen times.

The pull of work, the rhythm of the 9-5 world, exerts a force that is nearly tidal in its irresistibility, and cut off from it I lost my bearings. But unconsciously and instinctively I began reestablishing the routine, and before I knew it I had managed to fill half my time with busyness that looked suspiciously like business. I felt as though I were cheating on a fast, or taking my briefcase with me on vacation.

What I began to realize with crackling clarity is that I come from a long line of doers, starting with a workaholic family that hardwired me to excel, to stay on top of things, to expect that hard work and material wealth would put me in line to receive the key to the cosmic washroom, or secure me a place in heaven. This, in fact, is the basis of the Protestant Work Ethic: the belief that hard work and material success will secure us a place among God's elect, which I consider at best an illusion. Spirit can certainly come through one's work, but we're not going to work our way to heaven.v

Heaven is not like Studio 54 where God stands up on a platform picking only the richest and the prettiest and the most successful people to get into the club, and I suspect that those who subscribe to this belief are in for a shock. Like the mythologist Joseph Campbell once remarked, what if you worked your whole life climbing the ladder only to discover at the end of your life that the ladder was up against the wrong wall? An old Far Side cartoon sums it up neatly: Colonel Sanders is standing in front of the Pearly Gates, but instead of St. Peter holding forth as the admitting angel, there's a very stern-looking chicken.

During my work-fast, I saw more clearly than ever that droning away in the boiler room of this culture is a juggernaut of a machine, and it pumps out a powerful and insistent message: work! Value adheres to what we produce, we are what we do, and if we're not doing something then we're not being of value. So we're constantly doing, and when we're busy doing, we don't have to be busy feeling; feeling that maybe we're burned out, or we need a change, or our hearts aren't in the work anymore, or that work itself, which normally confers upon us a sense of control over our lives, has instead made our lives feel like a parody of being in control, like we're frantically trying to shovel coal into a furnace that's burning it up faster and faster. Working in that condition is like being bitten by a rattlesnake: you panic and run, you work harder and harder, but it only causes the poison to travel faster through your system.

I've learned in my own work-life, though, that motion is not necessarily progress or productivity, any more than noise is necessarily music. And lying fallow is no more a waste of time than winter is a waste of time just because seeds aren't flying around. In fact, I know of a poet who used to hang a sign that said "The poet is working" on his door while he slept.

People use the term "vegging out" to describe not doing anything, just hanging out, taking it easy. But a few years ago I had an experience that taught me something about the absurdity of equating vegging-out with inaction.

Off the coast of French Guiana, on the Atlantic side of South America, is a place called Devil's Island, which used to be the world's most notorious penal colony, a place where the French sent men they wanted to disappear. Ten years ago I visited that island, about 40 years after the prison was closed down and abandoned, and in that time the jungle had almost completely reclaimed it, torn the buildings limb from limb with its vines and roots, and rotted the iron bars clean through with its humidity. In barely 40 years, it reduced the place to rubble.

So when I think of the term "vegging out" or "vegetative state," it is clearly not a description of not being productive. A vegetative state is a very productive state, and doing nothing can also be a very productive state, especially if we're talking about work addicts, or anyone who's trading off health for productivity. For them, not-working is definitely progress, because when you're standing on the edge of a cliff, progress can be defined as taking one step backward!

The truth is that it's hard to feel like you're taking a step backward, or to let go of the status quo even when it's threatening to send you over the brink. There's an old joke in psychoanalytic circles that illustrates beautifully this need to maintain and defend the status quo even when it's killing us. A man goes to a psychiatrist convinced that he's dead. The psychiatrist is unable to shake the man's delusion, so he finally says, "You've heard, haven't you, that dead men don't bleed?"

The man nods.

So the psychiatrist takes a pin and pokes the man in the arm, making him bleed, then steps back and says triumphantly, "Well, what do you say now?"

The man looks at his arm, then at the psychiatrist, then back at his arm, and says, "Well, what do you know. Dead men do bleed."


The poet Howard Nemerov once said, "Even if someone soothes us by setting our toothache in a perspective of light-years, galaxies and spiral nebula, the toothache continues to hurt as though it has not heard. Toothaches can sometimes be dealt with by dentists, but never by philosophers."

I mention this because I want to give an obedient bow to the fact that slowing down the pace, to say nothing of stopping it altogether, is much easier said than done, no matter what kind of perspective you put it in. But I don't think it's more work that's going to help us feel secure enough or in control enough to let go of the reins. I think it's a little more faith, a little more trust.

This may simply be trust in our own ability to survive working less, or it may be the kind of trust that Albert Einstein was referring to when someone once asked him, "Of all the questions you've posed about the mysteries of the universe, which question do you think is the most important?" Einstein's response: "Is the universe a friendly place or not?"

How you personally answer that question may determine your willingness to trust in life enough to occasionally unharness yourself from the plow and let yourself just wander in the pasture and graze.

When I look at a simple one-dollar bill, there on the back of it, above the eye on the pyramid, are the Latin words Annuit Coeptis, which mean "our undertakings are favored." Right there on the most basic medium of exchange in our culture is this small article of faith, this vote of confidence in our endeavors, a kind of financial backing. And I can't imagine who needs it more than those of us who are afraid to trust in our own undertakings, and in the essential friendliness of the universe, even when it's full of tragedy and food-chain activity.

But the act of stepping away from the plow is an act of trust, a way of communicating to our souls that we have faith in their intimacy with the creative force of life.

About a month into my leave of absence from working, I had a dream that was to prove pivotal. A Zen monk gave me a large block of wood to sand down to nothing. As I neared the end, and began looking forward to checking it off a list, the monk came back and took my sandpaper away, telling me to use only my fingernails. The point, he said, was the process, not the goal. Every life ends the same way, I understood him to be implying----the hero always dies----so why be in such a hurry to get to the finish line.

With that dream, something shifted inside me, and I became determined to not only take the full time off, but to use it well. Although it was a tremendous discipline to not be disciplined and goal-oriented, to stop looking for work, to stop feeling like I was wasting time (when really it is time that is wasting me), I slowly began immersing myself in the kind of activities I had originally intended for my sabbatical.

The day after the dream, I succumbed to the lazy lure of a spring afternoon spent in my own backyard, watching the shadows of clouds bend in the folds of the hills, the hawks and vultures sweep in to view on long, slow arcs, the tomcats stalk birds in the low branches of the fig, and for a brief spell I was released from being pinned to the ground by the gravity of my endeavors.

Over the next three months, as the days flicked by like white lines on the freeway, I took great long walks by the sea and in the forests, lost myself in epic novels, wrote poetry again, traveled, and stopped postponing jury duty. I went surfing, joined a men's group, got to know my friends better, and even did my exercises with greater observance, not so grimly and perfunctorily. I felt expansive and that life was full of possibilities.

I not only discovered that I can stop work for months at a time and my life doesn't crumble, but that having my nose to the grindstone, my ear to the ground, and my shoulder to the wheel is, for long periods of time, not the most comfortable position. Sometimes lying in the bathtub is.

As my time off drew to a close and I prepared to re-enter the world of work, to start writing in earnest again, I felt as I usually do at the end of vacations: not ready to come back, but renewed nonetheless. And though I saw that I'm not quite the master of my fate that I claim to be, I also realized that my life utterly belongs to me, and that it is meant to be savored and not just worked at.


The first time I met David Roche, my face froze involuntarily into a blank stare, a chink in decorum with which he undoubtedly has a weary familiarity.

David has a striking facial disfigurement, and as we stood at the front door of my house, where he and his wife Marlena had come to participate in a workshop on public speaking, officiated by an old friend of mine, it took me an egregiously long moment before I recovered from my fumble and was able to proceed with the usual social amenities of shaking hands, introducing myself, and ushering them in.

While a small, portable stage and video camera were being set up in the living room, lights and microphone arranged, and chairs pulled in from the kitchen, I marvelled that he was here at all. I couldn’t help noticing that his wife was beautiful; a dancer’s bearing and stratospheric cheekbones.

My friend, Lee, introduced the evening by saying that while it is common belief that the most prominent fear people have is that of dying, in fact it has been shown that the #1 fear is of public speaking; the #2 fear, he said, is that of dying while public speaking. So when David volunteered to go first, I was doubly astonished, and imagined a light sweat breaking out on a roomful of foreheads.

I adopted a suportive smile as he loped onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, took a deep breath, and without missing a beat, said, “I was born with a face that’s a gift from God. Not the kind of gift you rip open exclaiming, ‘How exquisite. How did you know?’ More like, “Oh, you shouldn’t have.”

There was a moment of lunar silence in the room, and then my fictive smile broke into an unexpected laugh made up of equal parts surprise and relief, and I flicked a sideways glance at the others to gauge my reaction. It was unanimous.

David’s gift is that his shadow is on the outside and he has no choice but to deal openly with it. He cannot pretend, as so many of us do, that it doesn’t exist. And if people are going to stare----which they do everywhere he goes----he figured he might as well make the most of it. His gift, his wound, has thus become his calling: “to remind people of what they already know,” he said. “That it’s OK to be flawed.”

His calling has also necessitated that, as Lee puts it, David “talk his walk,” that he be willing to devote himself to the risk-taking that must be undertaken if a calling is to be affirmed. Author Gail Sheehy calls this “the master quality of pathfinding,” of confronting the challenges of life creatively. David takes risks every time he steps up onto a stage, which he does for a living! A public speaker, entertainer and standup comic, he does one-man shows at theaters and clubs, and keynote speaking for national medical conventions attended by 500 people.

“The best works,” said French author and architect Fernand Pouillon, “are those at the limits of life. They stand out among a thousand others when they prompt the remark: ‘What courage that must have taken!’ “


Courage, of course, like risk, is absolutely relative. What is courageous to one person may be fainthearted to another. Risk is whatever scares you.

The courage it takes David to talk his walk, flaws and all, is the same courage it takes any of us who look straight into the dark gate of whatever is unknown to us and know that our fate lies in there, that our lives won’t be complete and won’t make sense until we go through. In doing so, we exercise the courage to leave behind what we have for what we don’t, what we are for what we could be, and to take on challenges compared to which even depression and torpor might seem preferable. It is the courage to step past the point of no return, to acknowledge that all our mightiest refusals are mere resistance, and that, as philosopher Ernest Becker once said, “beyond a given point we are not helped by more knowing, but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way.”

What David risks in climbing up on stage is what we all risk when we honor the demands of a calling: that it will call us beyond the limits we’ve set for ourselves; toward the primitive fears of rejection and failure that are attached, like barnacles on a rock, to the idea of risk; toward the shadow sides of ourselves that we try to hide even from ourselves----the timidity and indecisiveness, the fear of change, the fear of being a beginner. We love to quote Goethe who said that “whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” But we forget that he also said, “To put your ideas into action is the most difficult thing in the world.”

But if we do not, we risk building for ourselves velvet cages: the money’s good, the security comforting, the surroundings familiar----but we become only recreational users of our passion and creativity.

The very act of risk-taking, in fact, sets up an antagonism with the established order of things. In creating lives based on our callings, we may have to break the rules, disappoint people, part ways with colleagues and friends, re-fashion our marriage vows, head against the prevailing winds. Jesus promised those who would follow him only three things, says writer Marty Babcock: “That they would be absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble.”

Risk-taking should not become a theology, however. Sometimes, it is merely a disguised form of escape, or a kind of repetition-compulsion in itself, a blind urge to prove our wills superior, to refuse to be scared, to idolize the river gods who personify eternal change. Sometimes hanging in there, or exercising creativity within the status quo, is the better part of valor.

What must be established is whether a particular status quo in your life exists as a monument to the fear of change, or, conversely, whether risk-taking is a function of sheer restlessness and ennui. Nothing is inherently wrong with either, but if you’re taking chances and making changes just for the sake of not standing still, your actions may be more about running away from something than moving toward something. Motion is not necessarily progress any more than noise is necessarily music.


In myths and folktales, those places beyond the cozy confines of the village are typically populated with figures of dread and danger----ogres, dragons, half-men, shapeshifters. One of the most familiar of these is Pan, the cloven-hoofed, classical god of forests. We ought to approach risk with the deference and forethought with which we would approach Pan, who, appropriately, instills panic in anyone who blunders into his domain. To those, however, who dedicate their first fruits to him, who respect the role that the unknown and unseen have in any undertaking, he is far more benign, even beneficent.

Intelligent risk-taking means giving a tip of the hat to Pan before stepping foot in his forests. It means entering with no illusions; knowing that your endeavors will always be attended by the conflict between the voices of despair and faith, no and yes, security and passion.

When I was a child, I loved generating a stomach-dropping arc on the swing in my backyard, going high enough in both directions that the chain slackened momentarily, and then letting go of the swing at the forward end of this giddy parabola and becoming airborne, floating, flying out over the world, and landing in the sandbox. I felt this sensation in my throat, my solar-plexus and my groin simultaneously, and I still do whenever I must let go of what is familiar and fly out over the unknown. Letting go demands what the writer Margaret Atwood calls “an almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river.”

I have great faith in starting small with risks, though, starting in your own backyard. “Where you are, and one step,” as David Roche puts it. No rule says you have to tackle a call in one jump. Nor does a call have a single right answer. A call asks us to create a response, and even a diminutive one is still saying yes. The point is to move toward it, however humbly, to take small risks and record your impressions, keep field notes.

Small risks, unfortunately, are always in danger of staying small, and practice can easily devolve into procrastination. There is no end to the rehearsals we can make, the questions we can pose, the experts we can consult, and the classes we can take. At some point, we have to leap. “You cannot cross a chasm in two small jumps,” the British statesman David Lloyd George once said.

Fear, of course, is the great boogeyman of risk-taking, and has been since human life first winked on. In myth and literature, for instance, whenever dragons appear, no matter what names they go by, they are all fear, and we encounter them at every stage of the quest: every threshold, every turning point, every crossroad. And fear, like a dragon, is determined to hang on to life. Fear may be a signal that you’re close to something vital and that your call is worthy of you, but even so, taking risks will often make you feel like you’re building a house of cards while fate holds its breath.

Fortunately, you do not have to be fearless to take risks. You don’t have to have all your proverbial ducks lined up, or even to feel good. These are not prerequisites. Yet most of us will still approach risk with the usual baggage of emotional anxieties about failure, rejection and humiliation. Bilbo Baggins expressed the common approach toward fear and risk neatly at the start of The Hobbit, and at the beginning of his own epic journey: “We’re just plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner. I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”

Nonetheless, “If we wait until our hands stop shaking,” says actress Naomi Newman, “we will never open the door,” and we must. We may not cease being fearful, but we can cease to let fear control us. Furthermore, she says, since there’s fear and suffering in life whether or not we take risks, we might as well suffer in the service or our dreams. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over again to annihilation,” wrote philsopher and psychotherapist Karlfried Graf Durkheim, “can that which is indestructible arise within us. In this lies the dignity of daring. We must have the courage to face life, to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.”


In attempting to take our necessary risks, however, we come up against a number of institutions----family, education, government, law, even organized religion----that often school us in continuity rather than change. Even evolution has hardwired us to avoid risks, to seek security, to transform novelty quickly into habit, to jump at the slightest sound. In a manner of speaking, we all have our fight-or-flight buttons stuck in the “on” position. Yet evolution is also constantly creating. “Whatever there be of progress in life,” Henry Miller once wrote, “comes not through adaptation, but through daring. The whole logic of the universe is contained in daring, in creating from the flimsiest, slenderest support.”

Actually, we are creatures of both initiative and caution. Human life is, in some sense, the chronicle of a land animal caught between its desire to sprout wings and fly, and to retrace its steps back into the sea. Whichever impulse you respond to, your life follows suit.

If there are damages inherent in risk, though, there is also recompense. When you stand before a group and speak, though you may lose composure, you may also discover that you are, after all, someone who is capable of public speaking. If you’re panic-stricken in the face of conflict between you and others, and yet rise to an occasion and confront someone, you may lose a few nights’ sleep, but you may also lose your terror of it, and may even find that your very acuteness around conflict makes you the best sort of negotiator----that your wound is, like David’s, your gift. If you’re afraid to test your wares in the marketplace, to send your delicate shoots of optimism out into an indifferent world, and if you do it anyway, you risk losing your innocence, but if you sell, you gain confidence that cannot be had in any other way.

And if you discover that, indeed, you can partake of your callings, you can act in accordance with your deepest values and passions, you can have what you so desire, you are then faced with another task: having to revise your beliefs about yourself and the world; what is and is not possible. Not revising theories to fit the facts is not only bad science, but skewed perception.

An old joke in psychoanalytic circles illustrates this need to protect an established self-image against the blessings of growth:

A man goes to a psychiatrist convinced that he is dead. Unable to help his client shake this delusion, the psychiatrist says, “You’ve heard, haven’t you, that dead men don’t bleed?”

“Yes,” the man replies.

The psychiatrist then takes a pin and pokes him in the arm, making him bleed. “What do you say now?” he asks.

“Well, what do you know,” the client says, “dead men do bleed.”

The desire to protect ourselves from change probably does more harm to the flowering of human life and spirit than almost any other choice, but it is imperative to understand something about security: it isn’t secure! Everything about security is contrary to the central fact of life: that life changes. By avoiding risk, we may feel safe and secure----or at least experience a tolerable parody thereof----but we don’t avoid the harangues of our consciences. It’s almost axiomatic that the important risks we don’t take now become the regrets we have later. In fact, one of the scariest---and most useful----things anybody ever said to me was this: “If you’re not failing regularly, you’re living so far below your potential that you’re failing anyway.”


In the fall of 1982, toward the end of my tenure as a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, I was given a job offer I couldn’t refuse. The company that owned the paper, Gannett, was starting up America’s first national daily newspaper in Washington D.C.----USA Today-----which, in a fit of positive thinking, they were comparing it to France’s Le Monde and Russia’s Pravda. The Washington Post, however, didn’t exactly share their enthusiasm and would later refer to the new newspaper as "News McNuggets."

Gannett took roughly 100 reporters from about that many of its newspapers and offered them the following deal: if at the end of a four-month trial period the paper flew and you fit, you became a journalist in Washington D.C. If it didn’t fly or you didn’t fit, you were guaranteed your job back at whatever paper they took you from.

I leapt at the chance, and it never entered my mind that I might be going back to Cincinnati. I was determined to fit, in part because ever since my third year out of eight at the Enquirer, I had heard a call to move on, and I figured that USA Today was the answer to it.

Three months into the four-month trial period, however, they sent me back. The official reason was that there wasn’t a fit, which in hindsight I convinced myself was a compliment. The unofficial reason, the one I knew in my gut, was that going to USA Today at all was an elaborate form of avoidance that simply caught up with me. I was trying to avoid having to make a nerve-wracking decision: whether to quit my job at the Enquirer to become a freelance writer, which in some private core of myself I knew was what that call that began in my third year was really about.

I returned to Cincinnati shell-shocked, and embarrassed, and extremely glad that I didn’t share those few choice parting words I was tempted to share with a handful of coworkers and superiors before leaving triumphantly for what I thought would be greener pastures. I also went back knowing that I had to make a big change, but not knowing what or how.

A few days after quietly resuming my job at the Cincinnati Enquirer, I was driving home from work listening to a song on the radio called "Desperado," by the Eagles, and as I pulled up to the curb in front of my house, the last line I heard before turning off the ignition was, "Don’t you draw the queen of diamonds, she’ll beat you if she’s able, the queen of hearts is always your best bet." I turned off the car, opened the door, stepped my foot onto the curb, and there at my left foot was a playing card. It was the queen of hearts!

I sat asbolutely dumbfounded, wondering what Fate could possibly be trying to communicate to me with such a gesture. When I mentioned the incident to a friend that evening, she said, with an extravagant quality of assuredness, that when you’re on the right path, the universe winks and nods at you from time to time, to let you know. She also said that once you start noticing these little cosmic cairns, once you understand that you’re on a path at all, you’ll begin to see them everywhere.

Well, I didn’t know I was on a path, I told my friend, much less whether it was the right one. I simply found myself unable to make heads or tails of the episode and ended up filing it under Unexplained Phenomena, which for me include deja vu, extrasensory perception, spontaneous healing, water witching, and certain incomprehensible acts of forgiveness.

Even more remarkable than finding that queen card, though, was that over the next few years, as I searched for a sense of direction, I found five more queen cards, and in incredibly improbable locations such as a conference room inSanta Fe, a sand dune in Oregon, and a mountain wilderness in Colorado six miles from the nearest trailhead. It made the Twilight Zone seem like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Furthermore, every time I found another queen card, the sheer unbelievability of it took another giant step forward, and eventually it all went so far beyond the laws of probability that I only barely hesitate to say it’s impossible that there was nothing more going on here than a statistical aberration. Such an adroit arrangement of events and timing----such stagecraft----seemed orchestrated by something with wits.

Still, the phenomenon became more inscrutable with every find, though it also made more and more sense. A pattern----more, a passageway----began to emerge; the scraps of a treasure map slowly began fitting together. "To ascribe intention to chance is either the height of absurdity or the depth of profundity, according to the way in which we understand it," the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote in an essay entitled, "On the Apparent Design in the Fate of the Individual," which gives away how he understood it.

I myself eventually came to understand that this rather profound administering of chance was directing me toward something that both my writing and my life needed at that time: more heart, less head. Specifically, I felt that the decision about whether to quit my job to become a freelance writer needed to be made, ultimately, from my heart and not my head.

This was a terrifying prospect, given that most of my life’s major decisions have been adjudicated by the rule of reason, not emotion, and I was clearly someone who relied on reason the way children rely on fuzzy blankets. I also knew instinctively that relying on my heart to make such a momentus decision would have roughly the same effect in my logical life as standing up in a canoe.

The queens, however, were casting their vote for the heart’s hegemony, in the hope, it seemed, that I would be guided by what Carl Jung referred to as the anima, the force of the feminine in a man’s life. The queen is one of the preeminent archetypes of powerful feminine energy, and I felt myself being compelled toward this energy by the kind of meaningful coincidences that Jung called synchronicities.

What the queens initially bestowed upon me, though, was not clarity, but what I’ve come to believe is perhaps the greatest teaching of synchronicity: the gift of astonishment.

How often in the course of a day or a week or a month, that is, do I find myself thunderstruck, flabbergasted at life, amazed by its finesse? Sychronicities are like glimpses of a wild animal seldom seen, the discovery of an arrowhead or a geode, the return of my wallet by some Good Samaritan. Far removed from the mundaneness that seems to characterize such a vast portion of day-to-day living-on-Mulberry-Street life, synchronicities help reconnect me to awe, and given the tyranny of the commonplace, what a service!

They also remind me that life is full of incredible possibilities, and that in order to live out some of the incredible possibilities in my own life----that I could succeed as a freelance writer, for instance----I might have to let go of a few of my cherished beliefs about how the universe operates, what is and is not possible. Starting with the belief that life is presided over solely by mechanical cause-and-effect----a kneebone-connected-to-the-thighbone principle----rather than by what in classical times were known as sympathies, some wink-and-a-nod affinity between subjective reality and objective reality, some crosstalk between the conscious and unconscious, mind and matter, humanity and nature, all of which is governed by a certain species of gravity. "A really first-class universe," says mathematician Rudy Rucker, "must include a mixture of both sorts of patterning."

Cause-and-effect simply does not explain so many human experiences----all forms of divination and psychic phenomena, spontaneous remissions, miracles, luck, synchronicities----which are beyond not only the bounds of normal probability, but in many cases beyond belief. But even scientists, largely through quantum physics, are coming to the empirical understanding of something that mystics and medicine-men, poets and priestesses, and even a handful of mathematicians have known for millenia: the world is dynamic and its parts inseparable. Seemingly random events in nature can correspond to events in human lives and be related to psychological processes. A coincidence can have an analog in the psyche and thus take on great meaning.

I have only to look at my own body to appreciate that a rapport exists between the personal and the transpersonal. Seven-tenths of my body and the body of planet Earth are composed of water. The whorls of my fingerprints are remarkably similar to those found in wood, shell and bone. The bronchial tubes that fan out into my lungs look like river deltas seen from above, or like tree limbs as they divide into branches and twigs.

It is a small leap of faith, then, to imagine that events in the world can mirror deep internal processes in striking ways, perhaps even be drawn to us by those processes, and that synchronicities can carry messages the way dreams do and inform us, primarily through intuition, how near or far we are from what Carlos Castaneda called "the path with heart." In fact, among shamanic cultures, synchronicities are considered one of the signs of a certain fidelity to psycho-physical fitness, a kind of homing beacon that is analogous to a radio directional signal indicating that the right procedures are being employed.

Synchronicities can therefore help us follow the right paths and procedures, and following them can in turn bring on synchronicities. As the chemist Louis Pasteur once said, "Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors the prepared mind."

In the movie Grand Canyon, a woman finds a baby, which she believes is a reply to an unspoken yearning inside her. However, when she tells her husband that she wants to keep the baby, he is immediately overcome with a migraine. In frustration, she grabs him by the shirt, shakes him, and says, "A headache is an inappropriate response to a miracle."

This was easy for her to say, since it was her miracle, not his. But she had a point. Synchronicities are minor miracles, little mysteries that point to a bigger one, perhaps a central one, of which we are each a part. One of the prominent images in twentieth-century literature is that of the wasteland, which speaks of the absence of mystery. "The wind crosses the brown land unheard," wrote T.S. Eliot in his poem The Wasteland, "and the nymphs are departed."

In contemplating the stunning aggregate of synchronicities, for instance, that came my way during those years in which I was searching for a sense of direction, I was struck with the need to not merely marvel at the laws of probability or try to interpret their meaning, but to simply wonder at the mystery of life, and pay closer attention to my own. The primary reality of synchronicities, I think, is emotional, not intellectual, and some things can’t be grasped with the mind, but only held as one would cup a palmful of water.

Perhaps synchronicities appear for no other purpose than to jostle our skepticism and open our minds to the existence of the inexplicable and the numinous in our lives, whether we believe in these dimensions or not. Perhaps synchronicities help us reflect on the beauty and harmony in life, says the author Milan Kundera, and if we’re blind to them, we deprive our lives of a dimension of beauty, because synchronicities are composed like music.

They certainly reminded me that the world is shot through with mystery and beauty and extravagant gestures, and that I ought to be amazed that any of it happens. I need only look out into space to remember that life itself is utterly improbable. In the entire known universe, which covers considerable acreage by now, there isn’t a single scrap of life anywhere else but here.

Given, then, that improbability is so basic to the universe, synchronicities are really no more than reminders, emanations, sparks thrown up by a great fire. And at a critical juncture in my own life, they reminded me that with an eye for improbable clues, and the willingness to be astonished, I could more clearly see the path with heart, could more confidently submit myself to my own fate for resolution, and could even, once again, catch sight of the nymphs.


"When your ship, long moored in harbour, gives you the illusion of being a house....put out to sea! Save your boat’s journeying soul, and your own pilgrim soul, cost what it may."
----Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara

Lake Superior is an inland sea. In terms of sheer size it is the largest lake on the planet, more than 1200 miles around, and one of the most volatile, capable of whipping itself into a frenzy of 30-foot seas, and famous for its shipwrecks. It is also one of the coldest. For most of the year, the water temperature is in the mid 30’s, about as cold as water can be without turning into something else. During the "hand test," Ann Linnea found that she could hold her hand in the water for only nine seconds.

Kayaking around the lake would be the most dangerous thing she ever did.

The idea first came up five years earlier, when Ann and Paul Treuer, a longtime friend, bought a couple of used kayaks and after their first exhilarating runs on the lake, he said, "I bet we could kayak around this whole lake," to which she replied, "Yeah, right."

Nothing would have come of it, except that that little seed happened to drop into fertile soil: "the part of me," said Ann, a former Forest Service naturalist and marathoner, "that always wanted to do one long wilderness adventure." It was further nourished by the part of her that, as she said, "knew that I was approaching the end of some kind of life cycle, the life my parents lived, the life I thought I was raised to live: wife, mother, home, good citizen. I wondered, is this the fullness of what I can be doing? I wanted to reset the course of my life, to come to clarity about what the gift is I’m supposed to return to the world, and I thought the trip could teach me.

"My purpose was to find a purpose, to find the deepest courage in myself, to look for the extraordinary growth, not just the ordinary, day-to-day growth, which is certainly valid, but it was the kind of incremental journeying my whole life had been about. I wanted to step outside of that, to really open the door wide, which is why I liked the symbolism of Lake Superior. It was so wide I couldn’t see across it, couldn’t see what was on the other side, and that was just the magnitude of change I was inviting. To grow beyond the expectations we’re raised with is a radical act, but one I felt was necessary to claiming my full self."

"The question that I brought with me on the trip, and kept asking over and over, was ‘Am I doing the most I possibly can with my life?’


Questioning is at the heart of spiritual journeying, of literally leaving home for a time to go on a pilgrimage, retreat or vision quest, of removing ourselves from the duties and dramas, the relationships and roles that bombard us with messages that may be distracting or irrelevant or even destructive to an emerging or affirmative sense of self, and that interfere with our asking for responses to our burning questions----Who am I? What matters? What is my gift? What is my purpose? To whom do I belong? What can I believe in? What on Earth am I doing?

In taking a spiritual journey, we’re calling on God rather than the other way around. We’re "crying for a vision" as the Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk called it, the one that may reveal our true vocation, our real name, our purpose. But simply taking up a bedroll and hitting the road won’t generally suffice to alert the forces of enlightenment, which require more than just moving around. Whether we make a pilgrimage to the Ganges or Graceland, maintaining a spirit of observance and self-reflection is key. We must be intent on spending time searching for soul, moving toward something that represents to us an ideal----truth, beauty, love, perspective, strength, serenity, transcendence, sacredness.

Without this intention, our pilgrimages are only vacations, our vision quests are struck blind, our retreats are not also advances. We’re merely tourists and window-shoppers. Perhaps we’re even escapees, people in flight rather than in quest.

In taking a proverbial walkabout, in leaving home and the distracting fusillade of activities that often keeps us from ourselves, what is in the background becomes foreground, what is overlooked has the chance to get looked over, what is waiting in the wings is given an entrance cue. We ask for a vision or a calling, and the faith and intestinal fortitude to follow it. Spiritual journeying, whether we walk around a holy mountain, kayak around a lake, or sit in a single place on a five-day meditation retreat, is about interior or exterior movement toward the deep self. A geographical journey is symbolic of an inner journey for which we long.

Pilgrims, says theologian Richard Niebuhr, "are persons in motion, passing through territories not their own, seeking.....completion or clarity; a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way." Sometimes that motion is religious and sometimes secular. Sometimes we design our own journeys and sometimes we follow in the paths of those we revere: pacing the garden where Jesus paced, sitting beneath the tree where Buddha saw the light, praying in the chapel where Merton prayed, visiting the house where Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, walking the same streets of a village in Mexico or a shtetl in Russia that your own grandfather once walked.

Sometimes we journey with the body, on a bicycle trip through the Holy Lands or a kayak trip around a Great Lake, and sometimes with the mind, as the mythologist Joseph Campbell did early in his life by holing himself up in a cabin for five years and doing nothing but reading, which the Hindus called ynana yoga, the search for enlightenment through knowledge and the mind.

Our approach depends on our primary way of experiencing the Spirit. Sometimes we make the journey entirely in private, in solitary retreat or solo vision quest in the wilderness, and other times in crowds, like the great pilgrimages to Mecca, Benares, Rome, Jerusalem, and Compostela in Spain, which more than anything resemble enormous migrations.

The trip Ann and Paul eventually took in the summer of 1992 was, as Ann described it, "a self-designed midlife rite of passage, which I chose to make rather than it choosing me, and I chose an arena in which I was the most skilled, comfortable and inspired." She chose kayaking because "I learn best by using my body, by moving until I have insight." She chose a wilderness trip because "all my life I have sought wild places for good counsel." And she chose Lake Superior because "it was really important to me that the journey take place in my own backyard, rather than someplace exotic."


In Hindi and Sanskrit, the word for a pilgrim-site means a ford, a crossing-place, a point of transit, and people seem most inclined to take spiritual journeys---as Ann did----at just such points in their own lives, points during which those burning questions often arise. These journeys are indeed rites of passage, rituals we enact to help us cross over into maturity and ascendance of one kind or another----from ignorance to wisdom, sleep to awakening, woundedness to wholeness, from being lost to finding our way.

Spiritual journeys follow what Robert Atkinson in The Gift of Stories calls the "sacred pattern," the same three-fold progression of separation-initiation-return as rites of passage and heroic myths; the same process of surrender-struggle-recovery common to 12-step programs; the same architecture of beginning-middle-end as story-telling. We open a door, step across a threshold, and return through it from the other side. We leave an old life behind, experience a life transition up close and receive its thorny wisdom, and then head home and hope to follow through on whatever we learned.

Rites of passage, however, celebrate not so much the separation or the return but the passage, the initiation, the processional of a single spirit toward transcendence, the revelation of the sacred to the initiate. The psychologist Carl Jung felt that the process of individuation----the work of becoming yourself as distinct from the furry warmth of the herd----is the result of a series of such initiations, all of which begin with an act of separation from the status quo, and thus separation anxiety.

The experience of the holy, however, says author Sam Keen, always involves trembling. Quakers quake, Shakers shake, holy-rollers roll, dervishes whirl, prophets stand knock-kneed before God. Spiritual journeys are formidable because, like all rites of passage, they necessitate that we leave our old selves behind for a time, leave the trappings of identity and status, and move to a place where no-one knows who we are, or cares.

On the day they were planning to leave from Ann’s home in Duluth, Minnesota, they stood by the shores of Gitchee Gumee, as the Ojibway Indians once called the lake, and considered the judiciousness of starting out in 30-mile-per-hour winds, four-to-seven-foot waves, and a small craft advisory for crafts such as Ann’s 17-foot sea kayak, Grace. They’d managed worse storms, but they worried about the message such a departure might send to their already fretting families: that they would be taking unnecessary chances.

Her parents were slightly aghast that she could leave her children, a third-grader and a sixth-grader, for the whole summer. Her husband couldn’t understand why she had to be gone so long (over two months). One friend wanted to know if they had really considered the dangers, and another pointed out that if no woman had ever circumnavigated the lake, there must be a good reason.

"There weren’t many people who said, ‘Oh, that’s really a great idea.’ In fact, there were none. It was very tough being on the receiving end of not only my own doubts, but everyone else’s. It’s really hard to stand in your own truth when everybody around you is telling you "Why don’t you just keep things the way they are?’ "

They did postpone their trip a few days, hoping for better weather, and meanwhile suffered "the disappointment of remaining put when one is ready to leave." When the weather didn’t break after several days, they decided to head out anyway. The forecast, according to their weather-band radios: strong winds, low clouds and fog, four-to-seven-foot surf, and a small craft advisory, which, though they didn’t know it then, would become the weary refrain for much of the trip----the coldest and wettest summer in a century.


Although modest, the currents that move around Lake Superior do so in a counter-clockwise direction, and Ann and Paul were heading clockwise, against the currents, because they wanted to hit the wildest stretch of the lake, the north side, early in the trip, because "it just felt right," and because it was symbolic: it was following a very ancient pilgrimage tradition, that of circumambulating a holy site in a clockwise direction.

At a deep level, we all associate journeying with circularity. We buy round-trip tickets, whether our actual trajectory there and back is circular or not. It’s as if we recognize that every journey is essentially a journey toward ourselves, a circling around some mysterious core of life that we can only glimpse while moving, just as it’s easier to see through a screen while moving your head back and forth. Every trip, then, and especially one undertaken with sacred intention, is the enactment of a pilgrimage, a mirroring of the planets that wheel around the sun, the clock’s arms swinging around time’s center, dancers carrying their streamers around the maypole, oxen turning around a well, drawing up water.

Even the word pilgrimage, in some languages, refers to this circling. The expression for it in Tibetan, for example, is "to turn around the place," a place that is often referred to as a "center." The word hajj, the journey to Mecca that every Muslim must make at least once in his or her life, comes from an old Semitic word meaning "to go around, to go in a circle."

Whether it be around a person, a shrine, a temple, a lake, a mountain, a country, or even, as some have done, around the world, a simple mathematical principle defines the purpose of circumambulation: by drawing the circle, we define the center. By circling the lake, Ann was turning around the axis of her one desire: to locate her own center and to know it from all sides.

The circle, Carl Jung once said, is the classic symbol for wholeness, or God, and the circular path an analog for the way toward it. We are always being drawn toward it, says June Singer, and yet "to fly straight into it would be like a moth darting into a flame or the Earth hurtling itself into the center of the sun," or a kayaker taking a hard right and heading straight for the center of Lake Superior. So we maintain an orbital tension, close enough to feel the heat, but not so close we burn our wings. We can do no better, said the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

"I am circling around God, around the ancient tower
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song."

And yet, because we have the image of wholeness imprinted on our souls, a deep impression where the ancient tower once stood, we are, in a sense, always at the center, always in Benares, dipt in the Ganges, always in Jerusalem, wailing at the wall, slipping notes to God, touching our remembered glory.

At one point during Ann’s voyage, she glimpsed the center. One evening about a third of the way into the trip, she stumbled onto the ruins of an old stone altar, a miniature Stonehenge, whose rocks were stacked ten feet high on a narrow terrace above the shore. In the presence of the indigenous, she saw a vision of her own life that she described as "fleeting, like a deer startled at the edge of a clearing who quickly disappears into the safety of brush. But I know I saw it." It was an image of herself as "finally able to embrace spirituality in everything I did." Or rather, re-embrace.

There was a time in her life when she had an unabashed relationship to what she calls "spirit." In junior high school, she once wrote a vocational paper about being a missionary, and her parents told her "don’t get so carried away with the religious stuff," a comment she unfortunately took deeply to heart. She got the message that if the passion she had for spirit was to be accepted, it would have to be tempered. "It wasn’t until I went around the lake that I returned to that pure passion for a spirit-filled life, and felt encouraged to follow it."

What that meant was, among other things, taking a step away from the institutions where she had taught for many years, schools and environmental education centers. "I always had to be very careful about how I presented ideas about spirituality. But I was really ready to bring spiritual presence--meditation and prayer, open discussion of spirit and mystery--into my work in a way that was uninhibited. That was probably the biggest truth I discovered on the trip: that I wanted to have the courage to make spirit be at the foremost of everything I did."

Thomas Merton once said that here is a hope built into our psychology that we may somehow find our way back to "the source and center of religion, the place of revelation and renewal." Ann Linnea’s grueling pilgrimage in the wilderness, a journey of more than 1200 miles and 65 days, long stretches of which were spent entirely alone when she and Paul decided on different routes, and the daily practices of journalling, prayer, ritual and asking for dreams, enabled her to find the coordinates of her own center, to find her way back to her deepest courage, the courage to "live beyond a focus on safety and security," to reset the course of her life.


Ann’s pilgrimage also set her on course for a difficult period of transition once she returned home and had to try and translate the level of physical courage she learned on the trip into the emotional courage she’d need to make the changes. The toast she made with Paul on the last day of the trip, with a bottle of Kahlua passed between them, was most appropriate: "To a good trip and a fine friend, and for the courage to deal with all that lies ahead," part of which was the realization that, as she put it, "the most vulnerable time for new truth in our lives is immediately after its discovery."

The next day, in flat, calm seas, they returned to 26 people waiting on the beach in welcome, and quickly realized that they had made no provisions for the transition back. Paul, for instance, began teaching at the university within two days of returning, a culture-shock of no mean proportions. Ann, who had "no intention of simply slipping back into my old routines," wished she had talked more with her family and helped them understand "that I’m going to come back tremendously changed, and not to expect me to go back to business as usual. I also wish I’d called a circle of friends to meet with me every few weeks in those first months, to give me a chance to share what I’d learned, and help me re-enter."

Part of re-entering involved dealing with a few basic physical matters and brushing up on some lapsed social skills. Her sense of hearing had become so keen that all phone ringers had to be set to mute for weeks. Her sense of smell was so acute that she couldn’t walk down the street without being besieged by the smell of the neighbors’ garbage cans. And she had virtually no ability to engage in small talk. "The inevitable question, ‘Did you have a nice trip?’ left me dumbfounded, unable to speak. I was really out of sync with people."

Another part of re-entering involved what she hoped would be the reform of her marriage of 22 years, which she described as "unemotional, businesslike and efficient." Her intention on returning, she says, "was to work hard to strengthen my family and marriage, to try and include more emotion, more spirit and passion. But clearly there wasn’t room for that. What I needed was not what he needed, or wanted."

Nine months after the end of the trip, Ann took off her wedding ring, which didn’t come off easily, and said to her husband, "It feels to me that we’re moving into a different kind of relationship here, and it’s not about a traditional marriage." After another nine months of working hard to make the transition from marriage partners to friends who wanted to continue raising their children together, and of unravelling some of their entwined roots, Ann and the children moved to Whidbey Island in Washington state, and Ann co-founded, with a friend, a seminar and teaching business called PeerSpirit, whose motto, fittingly, is "in service to the circle," and whose three guiding principles are that leadership rotates, responsibility is shared, and ultimate reliance is on spirit.

Ann’s experience in making the transition back home is instructive of a critical phase of spiritual journeying---the return---in particular the fact that while you were out there circling around the ancient tower, those you left behind were doing the dishes, feeding the baby, and going to work as usual. In other words, they were not on retreat, so they can’t possibly know what you’ve seen or heard or felt, and they want to know, or maybe they don’t. Either way, it’s important to be sensitive to this on returning to the Ordinary World.

While away from it, you’ve been removed from many of the normal laws of human exchange and conduct, the imperatives of time and obligation, sometimes the comforts of home. You’ve been on the road, in the wilds, under a spell, deep in the tropics of meditation. You’ve climbed a mountain, slept out under the stars, breathed rarified air. You’ve been accountable to no one, worn the same clothes for four days on end, and had the bathroom all to yourself.

Re-entry is a sort of decompression, and like returning from a deep sea dive, it’s best handled slowly. If you move too fast, you endanger yourself, and your experience. In fact, it’s one of the simplest ways to sabotage a spiritual journey. A good rule of thumb is this: whatever promises you made to yourself during the journey, whatever insights you gained and intentions you set, you will need to defend them against the tendency of life to level all uprisings, to stomp enthusiasm and optimism and hope and certainly rebellion back into low relief. After big openings often come big closings. After highs, lows. After breakthroughs, breakdowns. As the Buddhists say: after enlightenment, the laundry.

So post a guardian at the gate, some part of you who’s job description is to gently but firmly remind you when you’re in danger of undermining the purpose of your journey.

Orpheus would be a suitable choice of sentry, and his story is instructive here. Orpheus, whose lyre, it is said, moved even the stones to follow him, lost his wife Eurydice to the bite of a snake. Bereaved, he went to the underworld and tried to persuade Hades to let her return to life.

His music and lyrics were so beautiful that all punishments were suspended for the day. Tantalus forgot his thirst. Prometheus’ liver was given a rest. Sisyphus just sat on his rock and listened. Hades finally relented and granted Orpheus’ wish, but on the condition that while leading her to the upper-world, he not look back at her until they had passed the portals of the under-world. But just as he reached the outlet, Orpheus, in a moment of forgetfulness or doubt that Eurydice was still following him, looked back, and she instantly disappeared.

If you forget that you have changed while on your journey, that you come back followed by another whose spirit you sought, that you made promises that must be kept, and that there are conditions to your transformation, you’ll jeopardize your mission. Know that your vision will follow you back and must be incorporated into your life, and the lives of those you know. The best way to communicate your experience to others, is not to talk about it, but to live it.


My stepfather used to have a Luger with which he would sometimes crouch in an upstairs window and try to pick off the fighting tomcats that would snatch the goldfish from our backyard pond.

This is one of the images that came to me not long ago as I tried to puzzle out how to handle a small dilemma.

I discovered a mouse one evening as I sat at my typewriter and watched impassively as he made his way along the wall in the kitchen, like a small toy car. Naturally, I decided to get rid of him.

There were, however, only two kinds of mousetraps in the hardware store around the corner from my house. One was your basic Last-Supper affair----cheddar cheese, spring-loaded. It was guaranteed, as my friendly neighborhood hardware store man told me, to "break their little bones." It cost a buck fifty.

The other was an aluminum box about the size of a toaster, with a small tunnel running through it at floor level and designed to be placed two inches from a wall. Mice, being agoraphobic and possessed of only modest eyesight, keep close to walls for security. I know the feeling; I slept most of my childhood that way.

When a mouse, feeling his way by his whiskers, finds an opening in a wall, he instinctively slips in. Hence the hole in the aluminum box. The mouse crawls in, trips a pressure-sensitive plate, and a paddle-wheel sweeps him into an empty chamber.

The cost of such beneficence, with its prospect of setting the mouse free in the field beside my house, was $17.50. I was not exactly beating a path to the checkout counter to pay $17.50 for a mousetrap, but I also didn’t want to kill him, and now I was haggling over the price of compassion.

As a boy----and as were most boys----I was a squoosher. I squooshed an appalling number of caterpillars, ants, worms, flies and spiders during my formative years, both in and outside my house. This impulse was, I think, an assertion of my meager dominion, or my competitive urge misplaced. A friend even suggested that it’s a primal instinct (a bored and aimless one, perhaps) that puts me on red-alert and prompts me to attack when another creature invades my territory.

Personally, I think it is overaddressing the issue to imply that some saber-toothed twitch of the brainstem is what prompts me to pulverize spiders in my living room, a territory bounded by carpeting, quadraphonic coaxial speakers, and a welcome mat.

Just as likely, this behavior was a reaction to growing up in a home where everything had its place, and any animal that stepped out of line or slipped into the house uninvited was fair game. The message was clear: there is no bargaining in the pecking order. Every portal into the house had a screen, we had a pest spray or a rolled-up magazine for every genus and species, the dogs belonged downstairs, and my stepfather, of course, had the Luger.

I remember when this king-of-the-hill disposition that I inherited began to change. It was the year my parents got divorced. I was 9, and they sent me to spend the summer at the farm of some friends in rural Pennsylvania. The two boys in the family took me hunting one day with their BB gun. I was the city kid who had never hunted before, and when I shot a sparrow in the high branches of an elm on my first try, I felt a surge of accomplishment and bravado.

But when I picked up my prize by its wing and saw the dark red blood dripping from its head----not insect green or yellow this time, but red like mine----I felt a sudden, sickening regret.

As I came in close to my own pain that summer, and for a long time thereafter, I slowly began to see pain everywhere. Gradually, I have been trying to cease administering it. I sense that there is a diminishing curve of insensitivity as a man gets older.

So I don’t strip the leaves off twigs anymore as I walk along the sidewalk, and I work around the ant colony when I’m clearing the backyard. Sometimes I feel so isolated from the proverbial web of things, living in the city, that a part of me is even glad to have something resembling an ecosystem around. The spider webs in the windows do wondrous things with the light that slips in at sunset.

Also, I cannot shake the feeling that somewhere there is a tally being kept of these things----my cruelties, my compassions----and that it will make a difference somewhere down the line when I go to cash in my chips. Besides, there is a slight question in my mind of relativity. Who is the pest here, me or the mouse? To a germ, I am sure, even health is a form of disease.

In the end there was no real dilemma. I had made up my mind: I intended to loosen the grip on my assumed sovereignty and make good on my preference for life. And if I paid an arm and a leg for a mousetrap, such was the price of the rodent not taken.

As I stood in the checkout line at the hardware store, an elderly man tapped me on the shoulder. "Good for you," he said, surveying my $17.50 mousetrap. "You’ll probably come back as a mouse.".


My mother once told me that as a child I would occasionally steal into my older brother’s room and vandalize some architectural project he had spent weeks working on in his uncommonly meticulous fashion.

I don’t know why I did that. In fact, I don’t remember doing it. But according to my mother, my brother would simply say, "It’s all right. I was done with it anyway." And she, astonished, would think to herself, "This cannot be my child."

I was reminded of this in the aftermath of a incident a few years ago which provided me with an object lesson in both the emotional physics of violence----the terrible ease with which a sense of being wronged can escalate into a never-ending ping-pong of vengeance----and in the power of a solitary act of forgiveness.

I had gone to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to see an exhibit called "Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet." A group of monks from the monastery of the Dalai Lama were creating a six-foot-wide circular mandala----a sort of spiritual rendering of the cosmos----made of colored sand ground from gemstones.

For nearly a month, they worked silently, bent over the low platform that cradled the growing sacrament. They laid out their intricate geometry of devotion by hand, surrounded constantly by onlookers who stood sometimes for hours, as I did, simply watching, our busy lives uncharacteristically forgotten.

Although the mandala didn’t fit my taste in art, I was nonetheless absorbed by the artistry and concentration that went into it. I was also astonished that anyone could stoop for so long without complaint. But the greatest measure of the project’s drama and poignancy lay in the fact that it was temporary. In the Buddhist tradition of nonattachment, the monks intended from the very start to dismantle their creation after a few months on exhibit, and scatter its remains in the sea.

All that work wasted, I thought to myself.

The day before the mandala’s completion, however, just as the monks were putting the finishing touches on it, a madwoman jumped over the velvet ropes, climbed onto the platform, and trampled it with her feet, screaming something about "Buddhist death squads."

It was as shocking as it was inconceivable, and an awful and profane misunderstanding of someone else’s intentions. When I read about it in the newspaper the morning after, my head filled with images of frontier justice. But when I reached the end of the article, my rage turned into disbelief. In stark contrast to my own malevolent response, the monks’ was one of exoneration. "We don’t feel any anger," said one. "We don’t know how to judge her motivations. We are praying for her for love and compassion."

Sitting in my kitchen, I felt as incredulous as my mother once had. Coming from a long line of avengers----people who have demanded eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth----I’ve always had a difficult time with forgiveness. I have hung on to certain betrays all my life, refusing to let go of things I long ago lost forever.

Still, when I heard that the museum officials were considering pressing charges against the marauder, it seemed that this would almost dishonor the monks’ gesture of absolution----an act that greatly defused the situation, drained much of the bitterness from it, and set a very hard example to follow.

Afterward, I took a critical look at my own reaction, at the awful instinctiveness of it, and at the alternative provided by the men who should have been the most outraged, but weren’t. I understood that I was moved by this incident precisely because I saw the mandala with my own eyes; perhaps I would find forgiveness more readily if I saw this woman for myself, bathed myself in her presence just as I did in the mandala’s, wondered how many grains of sand she is made of, and who it was who worked on her.

The real teaching of the mandala has turned out to be not in its destruction but in how its creators responded to the death of their creation. Once again, life has imitated art: we know it’s going to end, but it’s still shocking sometimes how it ends, and how little any of it turns out the way we intended. The grace is in how we respond to the challenges fate puts in our way to test our resolve.

The monks have reminded me that to forgive is indeed divine, but that ordinary people can do it. Although I will admit that revenge can be unmistakably sweet, I also believe that the succor of revenge is no competition for that of forgiveness----not in the long run. It’s all well and good to have laws that punish wrongdoing, but they can’t set your soul to rights after you’ve been wronged. This is the hard, human work, although the monks showed me that there is a kind of divine contagion to even a single act of amnesty.

What is, for me, permanent about this impermanent exhibit is that I will take with me a few grains of the wisdom and compassion that were demonstrated there. I will honor the monks’ message all the more adamantly for knowing how the mandala was destroyed. And the madwoman, under psychiatric supervision somewhere, turns out to have been a great teacher.


I have a $10,000 bill taped to the Rolodex in my office. It was given to me by the five-year-old son of some friends. In doing so, he taught me a critical lesson in the economics of self-worth.

I first met Christopher at the front door of his house, outside of which, piled in a corner of the portico, is a collection of rocks in the shape of hearts, several dozen of them, as large as hubcaps and as small as dimes. Standing behind his parents, he wore tiny bright-red cowboy boots, a red baseball cap, and thick, round glasses. One hand was on his hip, a pose his father would later describe as "ready for action."

During that first afternoon of our acquaintance, he showed me his secret hiding places, and we played baseball in the backyard. I let him win 15-7, even though I was hankering to slug a few balls over the roof, take him to task for making up rules in mid-game, and for running the bases in a half-hearted circle that barely extended beyond the pitcher’s mound.

Later, as I was saying goodbye to his parents in the kitchen, he ran in carrying an envelope stuffed with play money, sat down, and very exactingly filed through it with his fingers, as if walking them slowly across a table-top. He pulled out a $10,000 bill----the largest denomination he had---and handed it to me, saying, "Here. This is for you. For playing baseball with me, and being my friend."

In the blur of self-consciousness that followed, I gave it back to him, mumbling something about it being only a baseball game, not worth ten grand, but thanks anyway. He looked puzzled, and I felt clumsy and wished the moment would pass. He went back into the envelope and pulled out two $100 bills and again handed them to me. I was about to turn them down, too, when my partner Robin whispered in my ear that it was a gift and I should accept it. So I did.

That night, as I was undressing for bed, I emptied my pants pockets and found the two $100 bills, and the first thing that went through my mind was, "I don’t believe this! I could’ve had $10,000. How did I end up with only $200?"

I was keenly motivated to find out, because within a few weeks I would have to put a price on my head for a writing project that had the potential of being the most lucrative of my career----an advertising agency in California wanted me to write a book on marketing for lawyers. I had never taken on a project like it before, however, and didn’t know what I was worth, and the incident with Christopher didn’t seem like a very promising omen. It was a call to think big, which is exactly what I needed at that moment, and I turned it down, and if I was declining the advances of a five-year-old, I began to wonder what tactical blunders I might commit at the bigger bargaining table, the one at which the adults play?

The question, "What am I worth?" is far more than a financial question, and answering it demands far more than a cursory look at what the market will bear or what the competition is charging. The answer isn’t just a function of what your parents thought you should receive in your allowance, what the fast-food joint you worked for in high school paid a hamburger-flipper, or what the newspaper was willing to bid for a cub reporter. The answer also depends entirely on whom you ask. To a chemist I’m worth, boiled and centrifuged, a few bucks in trace minerals. To a five-year-old itching to play baseball in the backyard, and no-one to play with, I suddenly attain Most Valuable Player status.

Christopher’s bountiful gesture was a way of saying that what is most valuable, what he was willing to pay top dollar for, is intrinsic, friendship and time spent. He got me to thinking along the same lines. First, however, he tripped a wire inside me and slung out the shrapnel of old memories, of the times I unwittingly marked myself down.

Flashback: I’m home from college for Christmas break, winding up a visit with my father that could best be described as an attempt by two warring nations to maintain trade agreements. I’m standing alone in the front bathroom, staring down at five $20 bills I’d splayed out on the counter, debating whether to take them or leave them.

Moments earlier, my father had peeled them out of his wallet and, with gangster-like dexterity, folded them twice with one hand as he gave them to me and whispered, "Go buy yourself something." It was an act I always took to be one of remorse on his part, for not being around more, for the way things turned out. Money was often the currency that passed for love and hate and communication between us, and as I stood in the bathroom just before leaving, I felt bitter about being bought off, and yet greedy for the money.

At the last moment I snatched the money off the counter and pocketed it, flung a sour look into the mirror, and walked out of the bathroom, putting on my coat simultaneously.

Years later, as I prepared my pitch to the advertising agency, this and other recollections of times I’d sold myself short kept surfacing: my decision to attend the college that offered me financial aid rather than the one I really wanted to go to; not quitting my job at the newspaper sooner; falling into relationships I didn’t want because something seemed better than nothing; all the times I told myself "I can’t afford it" when I could; all the times I tried to win my parents approval, or heaped regrets on myself for decisions that were over and done with, or clamped my hands over my ears when life was playing my song.

These experiences orchestrated my conduct with Christopher, and prompted me to turn from his friendly overture, to black out to the possibilities it hinted at. It was also what lent a tremendous performance anxiety to my deliberations about what to charge for writing the law book.

The day before I faxed the ad agency my pitch, I was back at Christopher’s house. It was my birthday, and Christopher’s father, Dan, gave me the $10,000 bill which he knew had obsessed me ever since I let it slip out of my fingers. This time I accepted it.

I asked for five times the amount of money the ad agency had hinted it was prepared to pay, and twice the amount of time.

I had a contract within a week.

To this day, I still have that $10,000 bill taped to my Rolodex, with the picture on it of an Indian chief with a great hooked nose, and although it says "Not Negotiable" across the top, it reminds me of a tender negotiation with myself that helped me re-evaluate my life.

In retrospect, I’ve probably gotten more "value" from that play money than from most of the money I’ve earned in my life for services rendered----certainly compared to the $200 check from a magazine that was in my mailbox the afternoon I returned from meeting Christopher; money that went right out the door to pay for an overdue phone bill. I was able to spend that money, but not enjoy it, and so it didn’t seem any more real than Christopher’s. It was also money that did nothing to remind me that I have a friend somewhere who would gladly show me his secret hiding places, who knows the true value of friendship, and who has money to burn.


When I close my eyes in bright sun, I sometimes see a field so red it’s almost black, and filled with motion: waves washing across it, spirals of light like leaves rotoring toward Earth, flashpops and novas.

I don’t know what I’m actually seeing---electricity sparking through the muscles of my eyes, blood cells moving through capillaries, the vapor trails left by passing thoughts? But in reading these hieroglyphics, I see that I’m always in motion, always blooming inside with color, and filled with such goings-on: mad scientists at work, corps of engineers wielding lasers and paintbuckets, dreams being set-designed for the evening’s performance.

The dark is a lively place. Through it weaves the storyline of our days, right on through the nightshift. Whatever our wild perplexities and appetites, whatever urgings circle inside us, as the poet Rita Dove puts it, "nosing the surface, hungry and mute," they are worked into tales when we sleep and dream, when we slip the ink-dark isthmus into the Land of Nod. And we have to read those tales. Only then can we maintain continuity with the unfolding Story and partake of the clayworks of making consciousness, making form out of what is unformed in us.

Dreams bubble up from the unconscious, which seems to contain an image of the way we’re supposed to be, and works toward the expression of this potential the way a sculptor works toward releasing the statue held inside a rock. To ignore dreams is to hide the sculptor’s tools, to tear out pages from our own stories, to cut ourselves off from that place from which our own callings emanate. Most spiritual traditions clearly regard dreams as revelations from the gods, and they consider the act of separating the waking life from the dreaming, the conscious from the unconscious, the same as tearing a plant from its roots.

Dreams point us toward what we need for growth, integration, expression, and the health of our relationships to person, place and thing. They point us toward a kind of equilibrium. They’re the imagination at work while we sleep. They’re meaning machines. And they never lie. "Dreams don’t come true," says author Tom Robbins. "They are true." When we wish that our dreams would come true, we’re really referring to our ambitions.

Dreams tell us how we really feel about something, help us fine-tune our direction, show us our unfinished business, and remind us how much bigger our lives are than what we know consciously. In fact, dreams show us that consciousness itself is a scrabbling around at the hem of something so big it would short us out if we understood its true dimensions. I sometimes wonder: if I can possess such immense powers in my dreams, might I similarly possess powers beyond my imagination in my waking life?

Dreaming is about waking up. The unconscious often knows things about which we’re otherwise in the dark, things which in the broad daylight of consciousness remain invisible to us, just as the stars play to an empty house during the day when the sun is shining. Some things can only be seen when it’s dark. Trying to solve our problems or make our way or get a grip on our priorities without the information that dreams provide, says Ann Faraday in The Dream Game, is like "a detective with only half the facts of a case."

Those who contend that they seldom or never dream are, according to science, wrong. Everyone dreams, and we typically have half-a-dozen dreams a night. The problem is forgetting, or lacking interest in them. Carl Jung said that we’re probably in a dreaming process continually, drawing up material from the unconscious even during the day, but consciousness makes such a racket that we don’t hear it. And what we’re missing are masterpieces of metaphoric communication:

* You’re trying to decide between following passion or security, and dream of throwing a rock through the window of a bank, and then burying your briefcase in the backyard.

* You’re unwittingly losing yourself in a job or a relationship, and dream of losing your wallet with all your identification cards in it.

* Someone with whom you’re considering teaming up appears in a dream wearing costume jewelry and fake leather shoes.

* You need to be reminded that the spiritual ascent is not easy, so you dream of Jacob’s ladder with the rungs spaced really far apart.

* You’re postponing an important decision, and dream of "missing the boat."

* You’re unsure whether you have the ability to handle what seems like an impossible calling, but then dream about being able to breathe underwater.


In the weeks prior to losing a job early in my journalism career, one I was hanging onto primarily for the security and status, my dreams were splitting at the seams with portents of how I really felt about trading off integrity for comfort and a dollop of renown. Although I faithfully recorded them in my dream journal, I did absolutely nothing about interpreting them, and with good reason. It would have had the effect of standing up in a canoe.

In one dream, I was handed a stack of hundred-dollar bills and later discovered that I’d been cheated: only the top bill was a one-hundred; the rest were ones. In another, I found a golden calf, deformed and chained to the ground. In a third, I was invited to the boss’s estate for an extravagant pool party, but the pool was empty.

Now this is not, as they say, rocket science. The meaning of these dreams couldn’t have been more obvious if it had been tattooed across the bridge of my nose. I was being invited to take a good look at what I was doing at that job, and how I felt about being there. But because I didn’t want to look, when I suddenly lost the job---the official reason, appropriately, was that "there isn’t a fit"---I was completely shocked when I shouldn’t have been.

Dreams are a force to be reckoned with, so it’s understandable why people sleep through them. The kind of self-knowledge they present is a commandment to live always tentwise, ready to move at all times, constantly in process. Fidelity to dreams means leaving the wild card in the deck while playing. It means wobbling the gyroscope, coming into occasional conflict with others, admitting that we feel what we don’t want to admit we feel. It also means accepting that dreams are more interested in the design and quality of our lives than in making us rich or famous.

Listening to our dreams, though, is an act of humility, a kind of genuflecting, and is thus unappetizing to some folks. It’s conceding that there is at the very least another psychic reality---if not a deeper or greater one---than that by which we generally steer our courses. For people cemented to the rational and scientific, the linear and observable, the ego and the five senses, opening to dreams can be extremely disquieting. Contrary to the rationalist hooey that dreams aren’t real ("You’re just dreaming"), dreams are very real. They convey real information, real impact, real emotions, and have real consequences if ignored. If we don’t obey our dreams, we’ll at the least dream them until we do, or the unconscious will "dream up" other channels for their messages to come through, such as symptoms, neuroses and compulsions.

Dreams are only as dangerous as living, Faraday says, no more, no less. They’re just a lot less familiar. Dreams are dark lakes in which each night we swim and most mornings we don’t even remember having been swimming. We glide into the water on our bellies, our spines fishtailing, breathing once again through our gills. We go primitive. All our conscious resistance dissolves like sugar in water, and we remember everything we claim to have forgotten, because nothing is forgotten by the old gnome that sleeps in the soul.

In our dreams, we roam far south of rational and well to the west of Main Street. We wear the faces of fish, the beaks of birds, the tusks of animals who have answers buried in their fur and written onto the skin on their tongues. We hear them speak the unspeakable. By dawn we’ve climbed back over the stone wall outside the bedroom window and crawled into bed. When we awaken we find burrs clinging to our bedsheets.


A tribe in Malaysia called the Senoi puts great stock in their dreams, and gathers each morning to share them. When they dream of being chased, they assume that whatever is chasing them is ally rather than enemy, and so turn and face their pursuer to inquire what the chase is all about, what the message might be that the pursuer bears.

This is the heart of dreamwork, of revealing the nature of the calls whose fins break the surface in our dreams, of deciphering the messages they bring. The challenge lies in turning around and facing whatever is there, rather than running from it. It’s like being chased by a dog, or a bear or a big cat. The general rule is: don’t run! Whatever runs from them they tend to consider food, which could lead to a fatal case of mistaken identity. If you’re courageous enough to turn and face your pursuers, however, you’re probably also strong enough not to get devoured by them.

Still, it takes some nerve to study your dreams, the same nerve it takes to examine a firecracker that didn’t go off. This certainly helps explain why dream recall is such a slippery affair. A part of us doesn’t want to remember them, because of the messages they bear, the things they reveal, the directions they point us. The truth may set you free, but there’s an even chance that first it will scare the daylights out of you.

Dreamwork is a lot like dowsing, which a dowser of my acquaintance refers to as "the search for anything that can’t be apprehended with the normal five senses." In attempting to divine our dreams, we’re searching for a concentration of energy, a flow of meaning, somewhere to sink a well.

It isn’t even necessary, though, to understand dreams or mine them for meaning, writes Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul. Merely giving our attention to them, granting them their autonomy and mystery, goes a long way, he says, toward opening the portals, shifting the center of consciousness from intellection to responsiveness. In fact, much of what determines whether we recall dreams at all is simply the amount of interest we pay them. "Let me treat every moment with reverence," says writer Bharati Mukerjee, "because I don’t know what the mission of any of my moments in life is. That’s why I’m not embarrassed to admit that I believe wholeheartedly in dreams."

Not only do dreams respond to reverence, they respond to direct requests. You don’t have to wait around for them to appear. You can draw them to you by petition. You can bargain with them. If you get in the habit of asking for dream guidance as you’re dropping off to sleep, the minions of Morpheus will fairly beat a path to your door. Just be prepared to take dictation: keep a pad and pen by the bedside. Promise the spirits that if they send you a dream, you’ll write it down upon waking, even if that’s at three a.m. Prompt them with specific questions. Ask for directions. Ask for clues. Ask what your next step should be. Ask for clarification of last night’s dream.

Just get to your dreams before the world does. Write them down before you even get out of bed, because the moment your feet hit the floor, you ground yourself, and the lightning energy of dreams disappears into the earth. The moment of awakening is make-or-break time in dream recall, and some finesse is in order. A dream is made of spiderwebbing. It’s a journal whose pages are the pressed wings of luna moths. It tatters easily. So when you awaken, move as if you were paddling a canoe on a glassy lake, or walking across a room carrying brimming teacups.

As for the dream material itself, some of it is like junk-mail. Only a small percentage is truly useful and worth slogging through. Some of it also comes in such a crazy mambo of images, vignettes, metaphors, and other psychic ephemera, that trying to make any sense of it is like running down the street trying to grab the loose papers of a manuscript the wind has snatched out of your hands.

After you have something in writing that seems gainful, however, don’t necessarily run with the first interpretation that comes to you. Brainstorm all associations you can conjure about the dream images or events, especially the most potent one in the dream. What words, ideas, people, memories and feelings does it remind you of? Go with the one that elicits the most energy from you, that has the most oomph.

Avoid using a dream dictionary, an absolutist this-means-that approach to interpretation. Dreams are far too subjective for that. Water, for instance, will mean something very different to someone who almost drowned as a kid than to someone who feels more at home in water than the fishes. Sometimes we dream about drinking because we’re thirsty, and other times we dream of drinking when we’re not thirsty, which is an entirely different kind of thirst.

Since most dreams (though not all) seem to relate to something happening in present time, ask how the dream ties in to in your life right now. Where have you seen this particular scenario playing itself out lately? What is it trying to tell you? What is its central message?

If you dream of flying, falling, conquering foes, being unable to find something, having extraordinary powers, being chased---ask how these may be symbolic of aspects of your life. Before you settle on an interpretation, though, check the physical world first. If you dream your car loses its brakes, check your brakes. If nothing shows up, check where in your life you perhaps feel unable to stop, out of control. If you dream someone you know is dying, and they’re not, then ask what this person represents to you---integrity, innocence, humor, playfulness, etc---and thus what in your own life or personality may be "dying."

A powerful final step in dreamwork is engaging in a ritual related to the dream material. This is a way of bringing our dreams out of dreamstate and into waking life, into the here-and-now; from the abstract down into our muscles and bodyparts, our emotions and physical life. A ritual is an enactment of the dream message, of whatever change the dream is calling for. It’s a way of taking a small step in that direction, making an outward sign of an inward intention. It’s a little rite of passage.

There’s an old belief in certain Christian denominations that one is not praying unless one’s lips move. This is an expression of the psychological truth that something physical has to happen to establish (to your unconscious especially) that you mean business, that your devotion to growth is real and not merely a high opinion you have of yourself.

If you dream of the necessity of choosing passion over security, for instance, you might ritually burn a one-dollar bill, while entreating the gods of courage. If a dream points to the need to make a break with tradition, take a stick of wood and break it in two. If your dream shows you flying over obstacles, set up a series of rocks in the backyard, give them the names of your obstacles, and make broad jumps over them.

A ritual can be as simple, too, as putting a flower in a vase, making a circle of stones, burying something that represents an old habit, kneeling down in prayer, washing yourself in the river, anointing yourself with oil, visiting the zoo to spend some time with the animal in your dream, planting something, drumming or singing, feasting or fasting, making a mask, lighting a candle.

"I can light a candle because I need the light," says writer Christina Baldwin, "or because the candle represents the light I need."