Karma: You can (and do) take it with you

Scholars debate the meanings of karma, but there seems to be consensus that karma involves a relationship between the cause and effect of 1) an action, work, or deed, and 2) the object, or intention, of the action, work or deed. A good deed produces a good effect; a bad deed produces a bad effect.

We sometimes joke about karma. I might eat too much ice cream and say, “Oh, that will be bad for my karma.” I toss it out there, off-handedly, without much thought. It’s funny. We laugh. Those unnecessary calories can be worked off tomorrow, and that will be good for my karma. Balance. But what happens if I don’t exercise tomorrow and instead opt for more ice cream? Imbalance.

Before I go on, let me say this: They way I see it, the Force, God, the Universe, or Higher Power are all euphemisms for the same thing, which is the creative Self that set everything into motion, the Prime Mover, as Aristotle said—the sine qua non (without which not) that makes the experience of perceived life possible.

For most of my life, I’ve tried to understand just what the heck we human beings are doing here, in this apparent universe. I’ve studied ancient and modern philosophers. In my twenties, I learned a bit about Indian philosophies; I was introduced to meditation techniques and metaphysics. I was drawn to those things, but I wasn’t fully ready to wrap my soul around those concepts. In those times, I was thinking of philosophy merely as a means to an end, plain answers to my complex questions. I thought my life would be satisfied if only I knew the answers. And so things went, until I was introduced to Siddha Yoga by a co-worker. Even then, I was still (subconsciously) looking for answers within the framework of my Western brain. Over time, I became transformed.

For me, the way to make sense of life in this world lies within the perspectives of karma and reincarnation. We live in a world of Karma. I’m not just talking about karma in the sense of my ice cream example or somebody cheating on an exam and then getting caught (that’s karma with a small k); that might have nothing at all to do with Karma with a capital K, which is the notion of past actions performed in previous lives that bear influence on a present life.

In my previous post, I mentioned that as I child I was taught the basics of Christianity. I truly loved the many stories about Jesus, as related in the first four books of the Bible. However, I questioned (at the time, I thought I was merely wondering) the interpretation about the here and now and the afterlife. After I learned something about reincarnation, I remembered that in John 3:3 Jesus said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Karma is at the core of our responsibilities to others and ourselves. Everything we do in this world can be qualified in terms of Karma. Every choice, each decision, no matter how great or small, has an effect moving forward. Literally, ‘decide’ means ‘to cut away,’ so we ought to carefully weigh the risk-benefit aspects of as many decisions as we can. Not that we should be obsessive about minutia, but looking at our lives as a series of choices ought to give us pause with every step we take, to minimize internal conflict.

War is an extreme exaggeration of an outward manifestation of internal conflict. There is always a war somewhere in the world, because there is always inequality, greed, lust for power, or general dissatisfaction with the status quo; all of these are fodder for conflict. The underprivileged struggle to raise themselves by their bootstraps—Jesus said the poor will always be with us (Mark 14:7); the rich grapple with how to best use their wealth; and those in power make governing decisions; such things individuals must learn to do in accordance to their sadhana (physical and mental work toward achieving “all-pervasive Consciousness”). Unresolved issues (samskaras) follow us like comet tails. The only way to escape them is to face them and deal with them until they are mastered.

There is a deeper aspect of karma that applies to more than the thousands of causes and effects experienced in day-to-day living. That aspect is Karma with regard to reincarnation. This is a planet of Karma, where souls come again and again until they reach spiritual perfection.

I believe we’re all here to fulfill a karmic map. Karma created in a past life is the cause for the requirement of rebirth, reincarnation. Karma isn’t simply the connection of one manifestation of life to a series of others. It’s the embodiment of accumulated actions carried forth from life to life.

In this life, we create new karma, but any karma we create is reconcilable, so long as we are conscious of action and deed. Some people are born into wealth, some into poverty, others in between—it’s all for the purpose of learning to use a given situation to become a better person. Situations on this physical plane are a reflection of actions performed in past lives, and not everyone will find bliss in his or her present life; that is the nature of Karma. Things that occurred in past lives are being worked out in the present one, and it might take many more lives before those matters are resolved.

Life is hard on this planet of karma; but facing and overcoming challenges is what will make us outgrow the need for reincarnation. The only way to cease this reoccurrence and completely live forever in the Self is to resolve our life issues.

A good example of this process can be seen in the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which protagonist Phil Connors wakes up on the same day, in the same place, at the same time, reliving those 24 hours until he overcomes his ego and learns that bearing true love in his heart is what it takes to become a good man. Only then is he liberated.

“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” When there is no longer a need for the soul to come and go in this life, we shall be liberated to live forever in, and as, the Self. Perhaps that is Heaven.

Regardless of whether you believe in reincarnation or any sort of afterlife, the Truth of what shapes our experiences within our apparent reality (maya) will ultimately be revealed. The important thing is to remain steadfast in our resolve to lovingly recognize our mistakes and not repeat them. When you believe in the Karma of reincarnation, each life is an opportunity to do just that. Eventually, all questions will be answered.

Posted in ego, Groundhog Day, Karma, Love, Reincarnation, Spiritual Path, Spirituality | Leave a comment

Following Your Heart

I haven’t written a blog post since April 2014. Around that time, my interest increased in a particular spiritual path I’d been loosely following since 2010. I’d heard about people who couldn’t write while devoting their life to spiritual practices but I never thought that I would be one of them. My desire to write diminished. I was writing—working on my memoir and some fiction—but it definitely took a hit. I guess I felt as though my fiction/memoir voice needed to be silenced while I processed things.

It’s now three years later, and I seem to have reached a point where the writing and the spiritual path are not only compatible, but writing about spirituality is something I need to do. Until recently, I wasn’t sure I’d ever write another post. I spent a lot of time thinking and meditating about what course my blog writing would take, if any. But I’ve decided it’s time. It’s time to follow my heart.

Put simply, my spiritual path is the process of experiencing who I truly am. The goal is to be supremely free and independent and to become firmly established in the process. I was led onto the path in order to find out who I am and to be at peace with that discovery; that has happened, and I’m still learning. In following posts, I plan to touch on some of the many aspects that continue to light the path I’m on.

Ego-Spirit QuoteAmong the many things the path focuses on is recognizing ego and beating it back when it puffs its head like a cobra. I’ve been apprehensive to write about anything spiritual for fear of sounding like a know-it-all, or worse, a know-nothing (that’s ego for you). After all, who am I to proffer “wisdom?”For me, it’s no simple task to write about spirituality without feeling either unqualified or seeming egotistical. My path focuses on eliminating ego; and as to qualifications, I have only personal experience. What compels me to write about this subject is, I have come to understand that as long as I write the truth, there is no ego. What I’ll share won’t come out of a need or desire to puff myself up but rather from an intention of good will.

It’s taken a while to get “here,” where I am with my life, at nearly 70 years of age. My spiritual path opened to me in 1968, as I lay near death from a ruptured appendix at a military hospital in northern California. Sometimes it takes such a kick-in-the-pants awakening to start you down the road. At the time, I didn’t understand I’d taken a giant step onto my path. I was acutely aware of a change in my consciousness, but I really didn’t know I was on a “spiritual” path. I was following my heart without knowing that’s what was happening. I became driven toward…something—an “indefinable X-factor,” I called it at the time.

Before 1968, any thought I might have had about spirituality was pretty typical of someone raised in a Christian household: God created the world, he’s all-powerful and all-knowing; obey the Ten Commandments and don’t tell lies or you’ll go to Hell; God answers your prayers; go to church on Sundays; when you die, you’ll be in Heaven with all your loved ones—if you haven’t been a lying, cheating, dishonest sinner. Guilt was to drive your motivation for staying on the straight and narrow. But even if you didn’t stay on the straight and narrow, it was ultimately okay, because God or one of his official representatives would forgive you. Later in life I would understand this last point as ‘Grace.’

I believe Grace is the most beautiful aspect of any spiritual path; it’s what assures us that we’re worthy of life in desperate times when we might think otherwise. What is grace? Grace is a divine gift (prasad) from God. Swami Muktananda, the founder of Siddha Yoga, said, “Grace is nothing but God’s compassion.”

Meditation is a core requisite of the path I follow. It’s difficult for some people to accept, but mediation is worth the effort.

People have told me they’ve tried meditating and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t make them feel any better. Maybe they thought meditation was going to solve their problems. Meditation in itself isn’t a problem-solver; it’s a tool we use to help us reach solutions. Sometimes people don’t have a deeper understanding of what to do when they’re distraught, at wits’ end. Meditation can have therapeutic value as a relaxation technique. A deeper function is to obtain experience of your true being by meditating with a commitment to experience the Self. The Self is what I know to be God.

I know some people who think meditating and spirituality is a lot of crap; but I also know those same people are hurting deep inside. Anti-depressants haven’t helped them; psychoanalysis hasn’t turned their lives around. Certainly, others can guide and inspire, if you let them, but the only one who can change your life is you. Nobody can do the work for you.

The work of following your heart begins by turning within and getting to know who you are—your true self. That’s maybe uncomfortable for folks who would rather not spend time with themselves, but that’s where it starts (unless you’re otherwise “awakened,” as I was). You brew a nice tea, settle into a comfy chair (you don’t have to sit in the lotus position—I can’t do that), and then simply relax for a few minutes, shutting out thoughts. Learning to calm yourself is the first step toward experiencing the Self.

It can be a long journey just getting to a trailhead, let alone starting on the path. You may have heard the expression, “The Way will open,” in reference to resolving a problem. In Christianity, we hear “Knock and the door shall open,” or “Ask and ye shall receive.” I believe that’s a functional truth of the universe, but for it to happen one must first be ready to acknowledge and accept what is on the other side of the door. The choice of deciding to accept can be life changing.

In his 2005 Stanford University commencement address, Steve Jobs said this:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.

“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Posted in ego, Meditation, Spiritual Path, Spirituality | 1 Comment

Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?

The TV program “To Tell the Truth” originally ran from 1956 to 1968. A four-person panel of celebrities tried to determine, by a series of questions, which of three guests (two were impostors) was the true person. At the end of questioning, the celebrities revealed their guesses and host Bud Collyer (also the voice of Superman in the 1940s radio drama and cartoons) would say, “Will the real ______ please stand up?”

In effect, two of the three guests were lying. But another way to think about it is that they wore masks.

Bud Collyer reads an affidavid about a true guest character.

Bud Collyer reads an affidavid about a true guest character.

Ilona Fried in a recent blog post  (Lessons from a Purim Mask),  wondered, “what would happen if I were to wear a mask around town. How much bolder would I be? Would I risk more vulnerability as well as unfiltered honesty?” Her remark set me to think about the memoir I’m writing, Security Bound, and of the countless masks I’ve put on since birth. Some of those masks no doubt protected me from negative family issues that churned up our house like tornadoes, and I don’t doubt I learned that a mask could provide protection. A mask of courage or surrender might get me through another day absent of my father’s drunken, invective rants.

In my ongoing quest to complete my memoir, I seek to uncover truth with each thrust of the shovel into the earth of my life. More often than not, I discover particles of truth that ultimately help heal wounds, but I’ve come to accept that some things will never be known–numerous leads wind up at deadends, or fragments are too vague for meaning, like dreams upon waking. How deep are the layers hiding the absolute truth about who I really am? Some masks have been worn for so long that I fear they will never come off. Because what lies beneath is too deep-rooted and attempts to extricate merely snap off root stems before I can get them out, I’m left to deduction.

William Congreve, in The Double Dealer, 1694, says, “To go naked is the best disguise.” I see his point, but a mask can allow me to hide in plain sight, as well. The questions are: since birth, how many masks have I donned but never removed? I search for my authentic self, but how much am I truly willing to share? Do I want people to see me for who I really am, or is my life made safer by keeping my true self under wraps? Will I tell all in my memoir? How much will be selective?

When the announcer says, “Will the real Ken Lutes please stand up?” will I stand or stay glued to my seat and let an imposter take my place?

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Ego and the Power of Choice

In this post, I had intended simply to relate a significant high school incident that served to give me an understanding of my real power as an individual, that being the power of choice. Now, I don’t want to embark on a deep philosophical or psychological discussion of conscience and ego, but those aspects were key to my understanding of what was going on with me at the time of that incident, and so I need to explain some about those aspects, where my discovery is concerned, and also furnish an excerpt from the memoir.

We sometimes hear advice such as “let your conscience be your guide.” This precept appeals to our moral sense of right and wrong, and we are wise to adhere to it.  Where does conscience come from? Perhaps it is instinctual, but parents and teachers also tell us what is right and wrong. We are rewarded when we are on the right path, and we are chided or punished when we do the wrong thing. I believe that ego plays a role in this choice-making, for if I decide to do a wrong thing but am not scolded for it, then my ego says, “See? You got what you wanted, so it’s okay to do it again.” This is what I call the “false-self ego.”

Ego-DonaldDuck-angel-devil cartoonOne of my first meaningful encounters with false-self ego occurred in high school, during a conflict over class scheduling with my counselor.  Then, I didn’t know I was dueling with my ego and ignoring my conscience, but that’s what was happening. My conversations with Mrs. James, my counselor, and high school principal Mr. Nicholson are too long to include in this post, but I’ll summarize them and then share two paragraphs that follow the incident.

Summary: I had missed the deadline for adding and dropping classes. I got angry with Mrs.  James for refusing to meet my drop-add demands (I thought I could out-shout her to get my way). She sent me to the principal, Mr. Nicholson, and I fully expected him to suspend me. He listened to my version of what had happened and then told me that some of my teachers thought I had a lot of potential.  He’d heard some about my upbringing and said he wanted to help.  He advised that I apologize to Mrs. James, in spite of my contrary feeling, and he asked me to promise that I would. I did apologize to her and darned if she didn’t wind up making the changes I’d requested.

That night, I thought about Mr. Nicholson, how, when I’d entered his office, I’d expected to be chewed out for my poor decision; instead, the first thing he’d done was to pay me a compliment.  I imagined how my father would’ve handled the situation, especially had he been drinking.  He would have been angry with me, which would have only raised my ire, and I’m sure we would have shouted at one another, and then I would’ve marched out and gotten as far from him as possible.  But here I had insulted one of Mr. Nicholson’s teachers, and the first thing he did was to compliment me.  I recalled how elevated I’d felt, not to mention surprised, and how that had made it easier to listen to his suggestions.  He respected me for who I was and for the person he believed I would become, as though he had a crystal ball and could read my future when I couldn’t.  No one had treated me with that type of respect before, and his action gave me a sense of how the world ought to work.  Then, with an internal flash of light and a chill that ran down my spine, it occurred to me that the winner of a shouting contest is the biggest loser.  In my mind’s eye, I saw the many masks worn by my father.  I heard him shouting at me in order to manipulate and wear me down, and I understood that his shouts were masks of lies.  And I thought the only thing won by out-shouting another person is a reprieve from the truth.

It was as though that flash of light had revealed my dad’s lies.  I saw the cover-ups, the manipulations, the many masks he had worn through the years to hide unmet responsibilities, masks that were never taken off but only added to, layer upon layer.  I felt the weight of discovering a lost archaeological site, and I knew it would take a long time to dig out from under that stratum of deceit.  I would have to do the digging, I realized, for although my dad had created the mess, I was buried under it.  I did not fully understand how this glimpse might lead me to a potentially different future, but I recognized that here was a chance to begin digging out from the debris.

–excerpt from “Fitting In,” Security Bound (first draft)

By appealing to my primitive instincts of manipulation and deception, false-self ego tricked me into believing that I could control another person, that feeling sorry for myself or yelling louder than Mrs. James would somehow make me more powerful. What I took away from that encounter was the knowledge of how truly powerful I became by choosing to make things right with my counselor. By the way, she and I became good friends.

Ego as false self is so very sly. It is not always easy to recognize when it takes over. It will seep through every vulnerable crack, no matter how slight, and so I must guard against its strange and manipulative power. I constantly have to remind myself that if I am slow to recognize this trickster or too quick to take its bait, I am caught in its trap. The trick to play back on false-self ego is to at once see it for what it is and then disregard it.

Conscience-Jiminy CricketOver time, it has become easier to know the difference between false-self ego and “confidence-builder ego.” As a writer and musician, I do need genuine pats on the back from fellow writers and mentors–they are reassuring gestures letting me know when I’m on the right track. That’s building my confidence.

Simply recognizing false-self ego for what it is sort of takes the wind out of its sails and makes it easier to distinguish between it and confidence-builder ego. Power of choice is best exemplified when selfishness is out-dueled by selflessness. Conscience helps me to know the difference.

Posted in Creative Non-fiction, Memoir, Philosophy of writing, Security Bound, Why we write | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments


Guardians are responsible adults who make sure that children have a good upbringing. To the best of their ability, they provide answers when mistakes are made. Punishment for wrong action is fair, but it ought to be accompanied by constructive explanation of why a thing is wrong and alternatives to consider when faced again with a similar decision.

While in the process of revising the first draft of my book-length memoir Security Bound, I have stuck to the themes that occur throughout the story of my childhood and youth (ages 4-19). By the time I completed the first draft, I had identified ten themes: self-doubt, abandonment, abuse, rescue, trust, shame, alcoholism, love, confidence, and self-realization.  (As I think about this, something like A Child’s Journey from self-doubt to self-realization might be a good subtitle.)

The book covers about sixteen years.  The turning point that I’d say is half-way through my upbringing happened in the summer of 1959, when my brother Richard became my legal guardian. He was in the final quarter of a four-year hitch in the Air Force, I was about to enter seventh grade. He was twenty, I was eleven and transitioning from childhood into “youthhood.”

My brother Richard, c. 1959

My brother Richard, c. 1959

Me in 7th Grade, September 1959

Me in 7th Grade, September 1959

As both child and youth, I made plenty of poor decisions. I thought everyone but me inherently knew the rules of life, and I was blind to lots of things concerning myself. In many ways, Richard became the mirror in which I began to see who I was.  For example, he noted that my left foot pointed inside when I walked and helped me to habituate a conscious effort of pointing it straight. When he asked if Dad had taught me about “the birds and the bees,” I knew I’d be too embarrassed to hear all that stuff from my big brother, so I lied and said ‘yes.’ In truth, such knowledge had been acquired through public school programs (vaguely, at that). The point is that Richard cared enough to ask.

But even Richard, with his keener sense of what I should know about certain things and situations, couldn’t provide the guardian-child structure I might have had, for he, too, was sometimes at a loss, although through no fault of his own; after all, we both had the same father. Perhaps Air Force training had given him a heightened awareness of propriety. Wherever he gained his wisdom from, he had somehow learned what it meant to be a guardian. He tried to do the right thing and acted more like a dad toward me than our father had. When I did something wrong, Richard never meted out punishment and then walked away. He understood that a guardian didn’t simply occupy legal space in one’s life; he did his best to impart the importance of making good decisions and the awareness of consequences.

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Stalling Out

stalling-airguard-0520Writing is like flying a plane.  Most of the time, it’s clear skies with just a few adjustments to stay on course. But then, without warning it can stall.

I’m flying, but I’m in a steady descent, going nowhere fast.  I pull up on the stick, to no avail. I’m getting closer to the ground. Then before it hits me, I see the red eject button and slam it with the palm of my hand. And just like that, I’m free of the situation. I’ve bailed. 

I was about a third of the way into the second draft of Security Bound (About Security Bound) and had gotten mired in an original chapter written several years ago.  At that time, the story of my stay with relatives after my mother died seemed like a logical thing to include in the story. I liked everything about it–the dialog, events, my relatives as characters.  The thing is, after I finished the first draft and had fully realized the story themes, I ought to have realized the chapter wasn’t entirely suited for the book.  My self-indulgence set me up for the stall. I had been blinded by the satisfying dialog and narrative, and had lost sight of my objective. In short, I’d forgotten to file my flight plan. I could have spared myself countless hours of struggle and the on-going, misguided belief that the flight would never be aborted. If only, if only, if only.

Much of the chapter has now been summarized, with only one scene saved from the first draft, the one that best ties in with the themes of my memoir. From here on, I’ll strive to give the chapters more thought in terms of the plot criteria I’ve set for myself.

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Writing with Ghosts of the Past

The other day, in the parking lot of northwest Denver’s Sprouts Farmers Market, a bag of groceries in one hand and car keys in the other, I was unexpectedly hit with a blast of nostalgia for the original Elitch Gardens Amusement Park that had once occupied the ground where I stood. Twenty years ago, a new Elitch Gardens opened near downtown Denver, and had taken or replaced everything except the ghosts of the original park.

View from Elitch's carousel pavilion to the theatre.

View from Elitch’s carousel pavilion to the theatre.

From my vantage point, the only two remaining structures–the Elitch Theater and carousel pavilion–weathered their past like spectacular roses in an otherwise common garden of townhomes, apartments, and office/retail space–no more thrilling rides and entertaining games or smells of caramel corn, hot dogs and cotton candy wafting above excited voices of kids and adults alike.

As though a tin can of springing snakes had been released from my chest, these Park ghosts surrrounded me, and right then and there, I could have crumbled in the parking lot.

Wildcat Roller Coster at Elitch Gardens Amusement Park, Denver, CO, c.1960

Wildcat Roller Coster at Elitch Gardens Amusement Park, Denver, CO, c.1960

This is how the Ghost of Childhood Past visits me, often unannounced, as though materialized in my mind by a flash of magic.

Sometimes I sense the ghosts as welcomed companions, pacing the room, standing over my shoulder, anticipating that the next words I write will capture the true flavor and meaning of the past.

Posted in Creative Non-fiction, Memoir, My memoir, Security Bound | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part Two

I walked home in the middle of the night, through a “less than desirable neighborhood” before arriving home.

I knocked and banged on the front door window, yelling to get in, but Dad would not stir from where he must have passed out in the living room, his body partially under the card table where, three months after Christmas, my paint-by-numbers picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane still lay unfinished. Bathroom light crept into the room. Dad’s chest heaved deeply. Snores penetrated the closed door. Great, I thought. He’s drunk on his butt, but he would remember to lock the door before passing out.

Who did stir was next-door neighbor Theresa, startling me with her abrupt appearance in a white robe. Backlit by the bare, glowing porch light, her long black hair shimmered past shoulders and down her chest.

“You scared me,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a loud whisper. “But what are you doing, Kenny? You’re going to wake up the whole neighborhood!”

“My dad. He locked the door, and I can’t get in,” I said, trying to keep her from seeing my welling tears.

“What? It’s way after midnight. You should be in bed.”

“Do you have a key?” I managed to ask.

“Come,” Theresa said.

She wrapped her arm around me and stole an over-the-shoulder look through our front door window as she led me into their side of the duplex. I sat on the couch and tried to hide my face.

“How’s your mother?” Theresa said, stroking her palm across my forehead.

“I don’t know,” I said, sobbing.

Six months ago, we moved from Denver to Tulsa so Mom could get better treatment for those spots on her body that were now making her insides hurt. I hadn’t seen her since she went into the hospital.

“I’m so sorry,” said Theresa. She held my head to her bosom and swayed from side to side. “Your dad says your mom will be home soon, and then everything will be okay. You’ll see. I’ll make up the couch for you and you sleep here tonight…”

…Theresa stood over me and hesitated a moment before leaning down to kiss my forehead, her cool hair brushing the sides of my face. My mother did not have long hair.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You go to sleep. Things will be better in the morning. They always are.”

Not always, I thought, picturing Dad passed out on the floor just a few feet away, inaccessible by more than the wall separating us. I wanted to be with him, be close to him. I wanted to love him, but I didn’t know how. I pulled the second blanket to my chin and settled into deep couch cushions and closed my eyes.

— Excerpt from Chapter 15, “Boys Town,” from Security Bound

Shame, with the power of a trump card, for many years held me back from realizing my true self.  And, although to a lesser extent than in my childhood, I think it still does. I’ve been blessed with numerous “guardian angels,” like Theresa, who did not see me as a boy filled with shame, but as a human being simply in need of a helping hand. Sometimes, I sense shame as the “sins of our fathers” and their fathers, an ever-smoldering volcanic ember in the crater of my soul, and I wonder what it will take to burn itself out completely, and whether it ever will.

Writing has stirred to the surface memories long forgotten, revelations that have helped me to understand why I am who I am and to affect change.

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Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part One

Two of the central themes of my personal story are abandonment and abuse, where a sense of shame arose from situations or conditions particularly caused by my dad’s inadequacy to provide a wholesome and affirming family structure. Vast lapses of responsibility were common for my dad.  He was an alcoholic, and it seemed whenever good things came to our family–a good job for my dad, a respectable place to live, a reliable car, personal possessions–they were often taken away without warning, as though by a strong, unannounced shift of wind.

Although my story is packed with unscrupulous situations, happy moments did exist, but they lived in a long, broad shadow cast by bad times and the shameful feelings they generated. After I turned sixteen, a stretch of two years occurred in which I lived with my sister. Dad was out of the picture, and I discovered what it was like to breathe fresher air, to get my creative footing and to figure out who I was meant to be without feeling embarrassed by, or ashamed of, my dad or my living situation.  For the first time, I had the chance to see what life was like outside of the shadow.  Getting to that point, however, was quite a journey.

The following excerpt, quoted from my book Security Bound, shows what I’m talking about (another excerpt will be posted in “Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part Two”).  For about six months in 1958, my dad, mother and I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  We had moved there from Denver so my mother could be better treated for the cancer that had invaded her body.  One evening, with my mother in the hospital, Dad took me to the movies, “to get our minds off things.” Unfortunately, a bar was near the theatre, and Dad decided to pop in for a beer, first. He wound up sending me to the theater alone.  When the movies (Boys Town and Way Out West) were over, I returned to the bar only to discover that Dad had left sometime earlier.

“Excuse me,” I said, trying to get the bartender’s attention. “Excuse me. Mister?”

“Hey, Kid! Didn’t expect to see you again.”

I was glad the bartender remembered me from before.

“Do you know if my dad is still here? Maybe in the bathroom?”

“Your daddy left a long time ago, kid. Sorry…You know, you shouldn’t be in here on your own,” he said, wiping hands on a stained apron. “Do you think your daddy‘s comin’ back for ya?”

“I didn’t know he was gone. I’ve been to the movies. He was supposed to meet me there.”

The bartender rang up a sale, and I caught his reflection looking at me from the long mirror behind the bar.

“I suppose I could give you a ride,” he said, counting change. “But you’d have to wait till after I close her up.”

When he glanced at the roman-numeral clock hovering on the mirror above his head, I checked the time on the wristwatch Grandma had mailed me for my tenth birthday, last December. I was surprised to find my watch was fifteen minutes slow and re-set it.

“That’s a couple hours from now, though,” the bartender said.

I looked around the smoky room, deciding what to do. Six customers were seated at the bar. A couple that I recognized from earlier in the evening still huddled in a dark corner booth.

“So what do you think?” he asked me.

“Thanks anyway, but I know how to get home.” I slipped off the barstool and headed into the night.

The door swung shut behind me, cutting off the bartender in the middle of saying that he’d be there if I changed my mind. A surge of blood flushed to my head, a bitter taste filled my throat. Standing outside the door, I realized Dad had left without me–just like those times when we lived in California…

     — Excerpt from Chapter 15, “Boys Town,” from Security Bound

“Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part two,” in a day or two…

Posted in Memoir, My memoir, Philosophy of writing, Security Bound, Why we write | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Message in a Bottle

What is my story about? What is the story’s essential message? How do I express story and meaning as briefly as possible?

Composing a compelling synopsis or jacket blurb can be a real challenge, and it isn’t easy. To provide an enticing, synoptic description of my story, I must condense it to several short sentences that also convey its meaning, its message.

Tension makes good stories compelling. Great stories also impart a strong, underlying message.  I’m reminded of the fairy tale “Red Riding Hood.” As a child, I listened (and later read) with rapt attention to Red’s ill-fated decisions. I wanted her to flee, but every misstep led her closer to her doom. Instinctively, I knew the fear-based message, or moral, of the tale, which is the trouble you can get into by talking to strangers (adults, read: being victimized by smooth talkers).


But what if I had written “Red Riding Hood” and was looking for a way to market it to new readers, in order to spark their interest? How might I condense the tale to a jacket blurb, in order to give potential readers both the story and the message? Perhaps:

A young girl is met in the forest by a wolf. After she unwittingly reveals her destination to visit her ailing grandmother, the wolf races to Granny’s house, swallows Granny whole, and disguises himself as her. Red arrives and notices that Granny’s features are different, no doubt a result from her sickness.  The ensuing conversation between Red and the wolf ultimately determines their fates.

Recently, I attended a workshop focused on writing a book proposal, in which an exercise was to write a jacket blurb, so when anyone asks what my story is about, I will have a short answer, a “preview” to make them want to read the book. For my memoir, Security Bound, I wrote: “A boy uses art and music to overcome an abusive home life and the death of his mother.  High school graduation finally comes at a cost, with the promise of a songwriting future.” It’s a start.

In my last post, To Share or Not to Share, I mentioned the importance of recognizing themes in order to create a unified focus of storytelling.  I found that those themes also provide the essence of the synopsis. Story meaning isn’t always as obvious as in “Red Riding Hood.”

I imagine funneling story ingredients into a bottle labeled “Security Bound.”  The message is the aroma released when the cap is removed.

Posted in Creative Non-fiction, Memoir, Security Bound | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments