Phototropism

I took a bus today.

A secret bus.

It takes you from one Vietnamese sandwich shop to another, in a different state, for fifty bucks.

Your fare includes a bottle of water, spotty wifi and a delicious banh mi sandwich. The bus is filled with smiling passengers and smells like Saigon. Light but fragrant wafts of gasoline, incense and fresh herbs.

For fifty dollars you get a ride into the desert and a space to reflect, rest and write. The splendor of God’s creation dances outside the window as we cut through the Sonora. Cacti wave their long twisted arms and mystical mountains stand watch over my heart as I pass by.

It has been many years since I have taken this trip but the driver smiled and greeted me like a long lost friend. I had arrived sleepy eyed and unsure if leaving the comfort of the Pacific was a wise decision.

“I remember you! I am so happy to see you, friend.” He exclaimed before taking a drag of his cigarette and continuing his conversation with another passenger in blistering Vietnamese. I smiled and boarded the bus, comforted by his warm salutation

The west is home, it will always be. From the ranges of the Rockies to the shores of the Pacific. My nose smiles when greeted with the delightful smell of petrichor before a desert monsoon.

I will continue to grow roots in the hills of Tennessee. But my branches will always bend and stretch to the west, toward the setting sun. I guess there is a word for this tendency of plants to grow toward sources of light. I looked it up.

Phototropism.

I like that word.

The Road of Happy Destiny

John F. Kennedy once wrote,

“The highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist, is to remain true to himself, and let the chips fall where they may.“ 

Jack, as JKF was called by many, proceeded—

“He has, as Frost said, ‘a lovers quarrel with the world.’ In pursing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time.” 

He went on, detailing the heightened emotions and sensitivities of those called to create, and the unique role they serve within our society.

Further describing Robert Frost, he explained how—

“His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. ‘I have been’ he wrote, ‘one acquainted with the night.And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair.”

These words impacted me with indescribable magnitude. 

It was not until I read them that I began to feel comfortable identifying as an artist. Doing so previously felt utterly pretentious. 

When the modern person hears the term ‘artist,’ the they think of the visual masters, Picasso, da Vinci, Monet, Warhol. Images of classical pieces like the Mona Lisa and Starry Night race to the forefront of their minds. 

And the pinnacle of my visual artistic achievements comprise a series of derivative Dragon Ball Z canvases and graffiti bubble letters I painted for my ex-girlfriend during her gigs as a muralist. 

So ya, being with her and calling myself an artist made me feel like a fucking imposter. Don’t get me wrong, I have a steady hand and a decent eye. But anime and bubble letters? Come on, papi. You ain’t no artist.

Despite this critical inner monologue, the words of my favorite American president resonated with me deeply. Like Frost, I too, feel differently. I always have. My perception of the human condition has always had a deeper spectrum, depriving me of ‘self-deception and easy consolation.’ I am well acquainted with midnight. But I have also basked in the brilliant sunlight of high noon at temperatures that many have not, many cannot. 

And the urge to release the often overwhelming surge of emotions and energy bursting through my soul has always called. 

Your boy made his first art show when he was in the third grade, my Nana was so proud. It was a still-life portrait of the pencil cup that sat on my desk at school, but that thing was cleeeeaaan.

I still remember the high I got when I finished that piece. I was able to take something in my physical world and repeat it, by my own hand, from my own perspective. And people actually liked it and recognized the beauty of my rendition. 

For many, this urge to create does not exist. For others, it is a necessity. The life blood of our existence. 

The soul of the artist feels incomplete if this ability to create and purge the emotional energy that courses through their veins is not firmly incorporated into their daily lives. A true artist must build a lifestyle and surround himself with a host of friends that encourage and enhance this necessity. 

I also remember when I first used words to satisfy this burning desire. When I was finally able to corral the emotions and fragments of my soul and transcribe them into something permanent. Something perfect. It was an out of body experience, a moment of divine clarity. The incredible satisfaction encouraged a leap of faith to share my musings with you, with the world. And the response I received was intoxicating. Comments from friends and strangers alike rushed in, describing how I moved them. They thanked me for making them laugh or cry or even better, inspiring them to make positive changes in their lives. 

And when my eyes opened to this new existence, the vastness of the Lord’s splendors crashed over me like a powerful wave. I sprinted to take it all in. I flew with mouth open, straining to suck in as much of the fragrant air as possible. I scrubbed my old skin and surfed through life raw and exposed, desperate to absorb every sensation, every encounter, and write it for you. Like a child catching fireflies with jar in hand, I chased the moon and wrote the world as I saw it. 

I had found my purpose, I had found true meaning.

But somewhere along the way I lost connection with the principles and foundation that led to my new life and the ability to create.

You see I suffer from more than the angst of an artist. I have a spiritual malady that thrives on insecurity and fear. A selfish nature and complex wiring that if left unchecked, leads me to incredibly low valleys and destructive behaviors. 

But there is a solution to my condition. 

I joined a fellowship of likeminded feelers that gave me the structure needed to leave behind my previous struggles and connect to the only source that could pull me from the undertow. 

We all call this source something different, but I know Him as God. 

And once I put my reliance upon Him, my paths were made straight. I changed course in a way that only few have. Everything shifted dynamically in such a short amount of time. I was no longer the same man. My mother saw this transformation in my eyes hours before her passing. No words were needed, no explanations. She looked into the eyes of her son and knew that he was finally on the path she had worked so hard to carve for him. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she nodded and smiled. The most precious gift of my life.

And I beat the hell out of that path. For seven years my frequency vibrated like never before. In simple and vulgar terms, I was a fucking walking miracle. And not one day passes that I do not feel gratitude for this radical grace. Surely, there are days when the gratitude is just a flicker, but the knowledge that I am undeservedly blessed has always permeated my heart and mind. 

But like I mentioned, I drifted from this fellowship. And more importantly, I drifted from their principles. The principles that enabled me to live a balanced and virtuous life and finally strive towards my full potential. The solution is not a cure. It’s not a ‘one-pop and you’re all better’ kind of deal. If practiced properly, the actor receives a daily reprieve, contingent on the maintenance of their spiritual condition. To feel consistently grateful and maintain the desire to put others before yourself are the keys. But I lost them. I’m always losing my keys. And without those pillars, I am blocked. I choke. Without my connection to the Source, I am selfish, insecure and fearful. 

Without connection to God I cannot create. And when I cannot create, the flow of my energy is disrupted. I cannot help and serve others, I only think of myself and my desires. At that point I’m playing Minecraft in Survival mode, just trying to evade the Creepers. And I really suck at Minecraft. 

When I first moved to Nashville I went on a couple of dates with a professor from the Vanderbilt School of Philosophy. Our initial connection was substantial. We visited museums and cafes and spoke of life and art and love with immense profundity. But she soon stopped replying to my messages. When we finally connected, she explained that I had a beautiful mind and a rich heart, but that my energy seemed “disjointed.” Her words stung immensely. They affected me deeply. And they cut so deep because she was right. 

Have you ever seen a parched field flooded with water? The cracked earth, in dire need of moisture, is unable to absorb the sudden rush of hydration it so desperately needs. Water rushes over the surface in search of hospitable soil and eventually moves on. The earth stays dry, in desperate need of tilling. It needs time and work. Patient hands, sweat, investment. Consistency and routine. 

Without these things the field soon becomes flooded. Seeds planted with the intention to grow roots and sprout life are quickly washed away. Pools of shallow water gather where the grade drops, and I drowned in those shallows. 

For over four years I drowned. My character defects returned with a vengeance. My insecurities, my judgement, my selfishness. And even worse, the choking of my artistic expression and connection to God suffocated the inspiration and vibrancy of those around me, one person in particular.

I had sensed this regression within myself early on, and tried desperately to reintegrate several of the components of my previous success into my life again. I went to therapy, joined a boxing gym, deleted social media, and volunteered at my church. The list goes on, ad infinitum. But like the friends from my fellowship always said, “half measures avail us nothing.”

I tried to write too. Flashes of inspiration came and spurred me to produce short pieces or poems or moving love letters to my girlfriend. The bare minimum. Just enough to survive and give her a glimpse of the real me. It didn’t work.

I was diagnosed with ‘general anxiety disorder’ and prescribed a cabinet full of medication that I hated. I took the doc’s pills for a grand total of four days and then flushed them into the Cumberland River.

In an effort to help others and inspire creativity, I started a mental health non-profit. I designed hats that asked a simple question intended to normalize conversations about mental health. You Good? No man, I was NOT good. I eventually let the enterprise fizzle away because— you guessed it— the constant upkeep increased my anxiety. If that’s not funny, I don’t know what is. But I still wear the hats, they actually work!

My core was dying, and these sparks of creativity were desperate cries from my soul to return to my previous way of life.

My anxiety progressed, and I was soon unable able to participate in the things that defined me as an individual. The cortisol levels in my bloodstream were consistently high, making anything that required focus extremely difficult. I could no longer read books and I certainly lost the ability to write consistently.

Social situations became dreadful experiences.

I am a natural born extrovert who is invigorated by a room of strangers. I love to learn and connect with others, to ask a new acquaintance what they burn for and see their eyes catch a flame as they begin to describe their passions. I loved meeting my girl’s friends and family and watching her beam with pride as I made them laugh or smile. No one knew that each conversation was a struggle, a charade, a performance. I was not putting on, the lie was my confidence and comfort. I couldn’t even hold a conversation, eat a Chipotle burrito or sip my morning coffee without experiencing dizziness and heart palpitations. And if a man can’t drink coffee or eat Chipotle than what the hell is the point? 

No, but seriously, my anxiety crippled my life and ruined the most meaningful relationship I ever forged. And no amount of roses, Shakespearean sonnets or flowery poems can fix it. 

Do you believe in soulmates?

I do, sort of. I believe there are several individuals roaming this strange and wonderful sphere that the Lord crafted of the same elements, the same clay. Special someones who God designed for your hands and your heart, in the same batch.

It is a strange experience to meet a soulmate while your true self is drowning. Running on fumes and self-will. Swimming upstream, against the current. Completely incapable of the patience, trust and selfless love that is required to blend two lives and create a family.

I feel like I am waking from a four year slumber, a misty dream. The memories feel as though another actor was playing my part. They feel so distant, but they also feel like yesterday. The regret is often difficult to shoulder. The biology behind the human tendency to romanticize our past is fascinating, but it offers little consolation. Especially when we know we could have done so much better, done so much more.

But it’s over. Kiss it goodbye, Smalls.

I am just thankful that God quickly set us on two individual and parallel paths of health, love and inspired creativity. Two unique trails that lead to self actualization and true meaning. The only type of road that can bring an artist joy and contentment. 

And we cannot see beyond the horizon. Only God can. Solo Dios. Only the Lord knows if our paths reunite in the distance. 

Most likely they drift apart slowly and lead to similar destinations. And it brings me great strength and joy to know that our paths are separate yet kindred. I will do nothing but smile and thank the good Samaritans she meets on her journey.

All we have in this world are choices. 

And poor choices have consequences which bring regret. But regret can bring great clarity and inspire transformational action. 

When we abandon the desire to be the star and director of our lives and move in the direction of God’s will, we hear His voice clearly. When we begin to put others first and live in prayerful gratitude, He speaks to us through a megaphone. He speaks through friends and strangers and even through priests that generally have mediocre and confusing homilies. 

Last week I was praying the rosary in a quiet chapel that has recently brought me peace and serenity. After finishing my prayers I glanced to my right and saw a small book with a sticky pad that read “free” on the cover. Anyone who calls me friend knows that I never say no to free. I’m working on it, but I took the book. Always take the book.

The book was called “Holy Moments” and it has provided much comfort, these words especially:

“Choices have consequences. We know that. But we throw this indisputable truth aside in order to deny the consequences of our unholy moments. But by denying that our choices have consequences, we abandon our power to create holy moments, and render ourselves spiritually impotent.”

And I don’t about y’all, but I want to have a life filled with good choices and holy moments. I want to be of service to others and shine the Lord’s light like the dawn, as I trudge the road of happy destiny. And I sure as hell don’t want to be associated with the word impotent, in any way. 

I will continue on this path and reinfuse my life with art, compassion, humility and gratitude. I will continue the Aristotelian pursuit of self actualization and strive to be the best version of myself. To do anything less would be a great dishonor to those who were forced to endure the lesser. 

So stick around if you want to read my words. They will be available here and will hopefully bring joy, levity and perhaps, if I stay the course, inspiration. 

With love, humility, and refreshed purpose,

Aaron