Life is the creativity of the storyteller, not the blueprint of the architect

I was swimming today and my kids joined me. They rarely swim with me now that they’re teens. But when they were elementary school age, they loved being in the pool.

Today, one floated in the pool with me. The other sat on the edge testing the water, talking about the science of pH. Recreational time with my teens is so important. Our conversations wander. Sometimes it’s quantum physics, sometimes it’s the newest Star Trek Online release, and sometimes it’s water.

Today, we talked about water, how it’s soft flowing around our legs. My youngest pointed out if you tried to push through it fast, however, it becomes hard.

He thinks about life and philosophy a lot (he’s the one to bring up quantum physics), and after I connected that observation to Dao, his analytical mind immediately identified the problem with my belief.

I say “problem” because that’s what critics, like my son, say. The “problem” with Laozi is he’s a fatalist, even a nihilist. After all, isn’t he telling us willpower may be a problem, that competition is a failure of imagination, and that life’s foundation is chaos born of creativity?


Like water, Dao flows and when we move with it, we find peace. When we fight the current or push through the softness with demanding strokes, we struggle. It’s the difference between trying to make options appear versus choosing among the options that do appear. It’s the difference between deciding who we’re going to be versus discovering who we are.

For my son at 14, Dao is limiting. Daoism tells him that life is mysterious and unpredictable, so contrary to his perception, his days are not really about making his life happen as much as responding to what happens. He sculpts his life from the clay he’s given and finds that depressing.

To me at 53, Dao is unlimited. Daoism tells me that life is mysterious and unpredictable, so as I’ve discovered, my days are not about structuring everything around me, but adapting and responding. I sculpt my life from the clay I’m given and find that exciting.

Life is the creativity of the storyteller, not the blueprint of the architect. I love approaching life this way because I’m liberated from the responsibility of making things happen, making things work, from achieving and competing. I leave all those “shoulds” behind and simply live my story.

My dad once told me he had had a happy life because he never really had any goals. He told me that when I was young, and I found it funny. Of COURSE you’ll be happy if you never care to achieve something, I thought, because you never struggle and compete, risking failure. In time, I saw his words differently, because my dad absolutely had failures and successes, sad times and hard times, joy and blessed events. He only meant he didn’t live with a plan. He had no expectations from life but took what came his way.

I’m so much my father’s daughter.

I find the uncertainty, the surprises, the serendipity to be the joy in life. I prefer not to know what’s coming next, not because I fear it, but the joy of life is the process of adaptation. I so much don’t want to predict and plan that I don’t even want to know what’s going to happen next in my fiction writing: I’ve never written an outline but the story unwinds on my keyboard. This adaptation to the unknown is another feature I love about CrossFit: different work outs every day and I never try to look ahead at what they are before I show up.

I’ve made so many strange turns in my life, lived vastly different lifestyles in nearly every decade, and I could not have planned or predicted most of what happened.

I embrace change. In fact, I’ve had people tell me I am “change incarnate,” but I’m sure that’s because it is a hard experience for them.

Seeing my children grow up has been a hard change for me. Every age is a joy to see, but there’s grief at the loss of the former, and I could never have predicted those feelings. I miss my cuddly babies, my curious toddlers, my preteen adventurers. This loss, more even than deaths I’ve experienced, has softened me to the difficulty many people have with change.

So I appreciate the lesson…and keep coaxing my kids to swim with me.

Daoism has nothing to say about what you should do

If you’re new to Daoism, I encourage you to read the original works. Don’t rely on people you follow on social media. The beauty of the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi is the emphasis on living our stories spontaneously without an attempt to control, define, or evaluate them.

Implicit, and to some extent, explicit is the understanding that the Dao cannot be institutionalized or defined by principles. And yet, in so many places I see those proclaiming Dao with lessons about what you should do.

Many people tell you that Daoism defines the world as an “illusion” and the “real” world is “out there” if we can stop our minds from distracting us. And they provide ways for YOU to DO what you SHOULD. Each of those capitalized words is the very antithesis of Daoism.

This. Is. It.

There is no before and after. There is no surface and something-more. There is no doing and not doing. There is no knowing and not knowing. There is no flesh and spirit. There is no beginning and end. There is no being and not being. There is becoming. 

And still, Daoism is your story, told in your words, a path created by your steps. What is your Dao?


My 15-year-old knows everything

This week has been filled with conversations with my oldest child. The conversations are about his future, as well as opinions on everything I have to say about life.

In other words, my 15-year-old knows everything.

As I listened to him telling me I was wrong to think this or label that, I held myself back from arguing. I had my say and let him have his say. At the risk of sounding condescending, I realize I have 4 decades more of life experience than he does. And while his perspective is and will be different, experience in itself changes us all in similar ways.

I’m not sure there is any benefit to a young person having the perspective that I have. I can’t imagine the difficulty a young person would have striking out into the world with the circumspection, compromise, and humility that my 53 years of life have given me. Building a life, relationships, education, and career are helped with the belief that the world is black & white, that people and events follow principles one can know, that maintaining one’s principles through hardship is a virtue, and that an ultimate meaning exists and will make itself obvious at some point in the future.

So, young people, don’t sweat it now. Stay busy connecting, gathering, and building as you create your life.

It was a similar situation with my girlfriend, who was 25 years younger than me. After three years together, we broke up this winter. It was a wonderful relationship in many ways, even when we disagreed. We often talked about life in general ways. She had different priorities, and I had twice the life experience as she, so there was quite a bit of disconnect. Still, I wasn’t there to change her, to convince her of anything. I just wanted to share my thoughts, but she wanted a right and wrong. I was sharing ideas about which we were both “right” from our own perspectives, while she felt one of us had to be wrong and argued as such.

In time, she will likely see the other side of the dichotomies she now ardently enforces through her language and choice. In time, she may come to believe, like me, that the differences are less about right/wrong than about both/neither and not really oppositions at all. And much of what we discussed was context-dependent, something you can truly understand only when you see yourself change. But gaining that perspective at her age rather than at my age, as a product of debate rather than from living, is not helpful. The perspective she has now is how she navigates her twenties. She needs to live her twenties without a 53-year-old perspective getting in the way.

I was thinking about this because I ran across a few writings by Daoists that mention age as an aspect of Daoist belief.

One mentioned that children should not be raised Daoist by their parents, because they should make their own choice when they are mature. The other mentioned that Daoism is a way of living that appeals more to those over, say, 50 years old. I’m sorry to say I don’t have the links. I try to keep track of such things so those reading here can read further elsewhere, but I’ve processed quite a lot this week.

The ultimate pursuit of the Dao is about cultivating oneself — self-transformation. Noncoercive action (wuwei), unprincipled knowing (wuzhi), and objectless desire (wuyu) allow the process of living to unfold spontaneously on its own terms. This is a place age brings us to as we begin to lose our social and economic powers in the world. But it’s also a way of living that many of us embrace because we come to realize that we never really had control, despite what youth had us believing.

As a young person, I knew if I could clearly label the world, make “good” choices, and maintain my principles through hardship, I would be successful.

I smile — affectionately — at my 20-year-old self.

Challenging attachment

This summer I’m working one-on-one with a student. Most of my work for the schools is with large groups of children; I supervise K-6th grade recess during the regular school year.

The school district assigned me to a student who has Doose Syndrome. She’s 10 years old and reading at a 1st grade level. She has difficulty speaking, remembering, and controlling her body. But she loves to dance!

Sometimes, I wonder how her parents deal with the knowledge that their child will never be independent. Who will care for their child when they’re gone? I’m a parent and wonder how I would handle it, but I don’t have to. Am I “lucky” or should I remember the “poor farmer’s horse story”? (read the story at this post)

My student does a great impression of Goofy, which makes us both laugh. She shares stories of her favorite things, like her purple bedroom. Today, we shot hoops during recess, and she made five baskets. She also recognized the word “little,” a word that was giving her so much trouble last week.

I’m going to miss her when summer school ends. Attachments hit with every new year. The cycle of beginnings and endings challenges me when it comes to kids.

During my first month this past school year, a sixth-grader was hit with a rock during recess. He had a head wound that was bleeding profusely. I held his head and tried to calm him; he was frightened he was going to die. I’ve never seen blood spurt out of a body; I was pretty shaken, too.

He was fine after they got him to the hospital. His friend had thrown the rock with no malice intended, but the police had to investigate, and both boys went through a few weeks of trauma. I got to know them pretty well during that time and throughout the remainder of the year, as we talked often at recess.

They’ll be gone when school starts this year, both at the junior high. I wonder how they’ll do. I’ll never know.

I spend two hours with 400-500 kids every day, and I always seem to have a few I get attached to. When school ends, it’s painful. I really can’t imagine how teachers, who have much more time getting to know particular ones, manage the cycle as these kids come and go.

These losses remind me I occupy a humble place in the world. I believe challenges to attachment are good for all of us, because they remind us.

Some days I appreciate the adventure. Other days, I’m just sad.

Let’s get philosophical

Non-doing (wuwei), non-knowing (wuzhi), non-desiring (wuyu). These are the keys to walking with Dao.

What a bunch of bullshit.

When I first read about Dao, I dismissed it as nonsense. Isn’t this “un-ness” what we think of as “chaos,” after all? Musn’t this worldview necessarily end in nihilism? At that time, I was firmly western in my view of life: ontological presence — the belief that there is an unchanging reality behind things — is the only thing that allows us to bring order from chaos. We do this through:

  • principles of action that create order in events (cosmologically as god, nationally as government, and in your everyday life as you yourself or maybe as your boss).
  • principles of reason that create order with regard to knowledge, meaning, and morality.

In Greek, the word for principle is arche. Having no controlling principles or rules for order is anarche. And as any rational adult will tell you, anarchy is destructive, lazy, and selfish. The clearest difference in my mind between western philosophy and western religion is that philosophy will acknowledge that reason creates these principles but religion tells us we merely discover them. In either case, reason and principles are what reveal reality. The West has relegated the aesthetic (emotion, sensation, intuition) to a subordinate role.

Daoism does quite the contrary.

I’m reflecting on Laozi and Zhuangzi in new ways thanks to an American philosopher who truly “speaks my language” (David L Hall). My academic background focused on Greek thought. My scholarly pursuits included reading and editing western philosophy. My personal reading focuses on post structuralism and feminist philosophy. So, when Laozi told me to quit using my reason, I was at a loss.

This is why, I suppose, many people seek out a “master.” I’m not interested in a temple or sage of the modern variety. Daoism, as it’s evolved over the centuries, has become a typical religious experience of humans trying to control everything. Through rituals, self-sacrifice, and occultism, modern Daoists:

  • game the universe by creating contracts with and paying off the gods
  • seek to mitigate death through secret, exotic formulas
  • seek to soften the blow of existential impotence with an internal war, of which they are both ally and enemy. (Asceticism is the favored choice, as a war of attrition.)

All of these approaches are ways to control what we can’t truly control. But we feel better trying and distracting ourselves, and many of us believe in an immortal parent who will care for us regardless.

The earliest Daoist authors (and like Jesus didn’t call himself Christian, these authors didn’t call themselves Daoists), are explicit about not doing any of these things. Non-being came from being, after all. We lose the Way when we act, when we know, when we desire.

Here’s the thing:

An aesthetic perspective, as opposed to a rational or logical one, involves experiencing the world in a relatively unmediated fashion. Mediated experience requires one to grasp or comprehend the essence of a thing, while the unmediated aesthetic experience is simply had as lived experience. (Ames, Roger and David L. Hall. Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The key to what Laozi means is to understand that reason defines and discriminates and makes permanent. The West assumes being is the true reality and life as we live it is the becoming part that obscures it; think of the forms of Plato, the god of Christianity.

No, says Daoism. Reality is becoming. Nonbeing arises from being and being from nonbeing. This yin-yang dynamic so often mentioned with regard to Dao is not about two principles, two competing poles, not about “there’s black because there’s white to balance,” but black is always becoming white and white is always becoming black. Yin-yang is process not presence.

Dichotomies may be created by language and reason, but reality is a dynamic equilibrium, transience. Being and nonbeing exist together in motion and as such, reality is a becoming. Becoming can only be intuited through lived experience; using reason and creating principles drives us further from Dao.

This is the “non-knowing.”

As a creative process, intuition allows for transience and change necessary to participating in a becoming universe. This aesthetic cosmology is comprised of self-creativity/self-actualization — the virtue or excellence specific to a thing, the de of Daode Jing (and perhaps the arete of Greek?). There is no one correct order. Each thing has its own. The universe is the sum of all orders, a homogeneous chaos.

I’ll write more on the mediation of experience. Or rather…not mediating…by knowing without universalizing, doing without coercing, and desiring without objectifying.

What’s a hedonist after all

My oldest sister experienced a midlife transformation. She had been a rather “wild” adolescent and politically liberal until she was about fifty. At that time she joined the Catholic Church, became highly involved in her parish’s activities, and then judgments rolled from her tongue with the sweet blindness of a person blessed with 2000 years of a patriarchal thumbs up.

She became estranged from my mother and me after a Facebook argument that turned personal, as they tend to do. I was blamed for escalating the argument. Perhaps I am to blame. I defended my mother who felt humiliated by my sister. That was about 10 years ago.

Today, I am the evil in the family. My sister warns her grown kids to avoid me because I am a “hedonist.” The word popped into my mind today due to a falling out between my niece and her mother. If my niece attended church and just stayed away from me, she wouldn’t be falling into ways that are “not of god.”

When I first heard the label applied to me, I was hurt. Summing up all I am in this one-dimensional word was disheartening. But today I laughed because, for a hedonist, I sure don’t have that much fun.

I assume my sister uses that label because she heard from someone at some time that I live a polyamorous bisexual lifestyle. I wonder what her imagination conjures up.

It can’t be the reality of self-discipline I apply to: what I eat, when I eat, how I push myself to exercise consistently, reading and reflection, meditative work, the committed relationships I develop, the limits I place on what I buy, the internal work I do to minimize my judgments, the time I set aside from personal pursuits for my kids, and the jobs I purposely choose to challenge me to grow as a moral entity and friend. Hell, I’m even looking at returning to pursue an MA. Where’s the “pleasure” in any of that?

I mean, it’s not like I’m a smoker who doesn’t quit, obese because I don’t control my desire for sugar, parroting arguments I find online because I haven’t made the effort to reflect on these moral ideas for myself, having lied and cheated on a partner, and in a marriage lacking in serious ways because I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to compromise. In other words, I’m not someone who treats god’s creation as shit because I can’t control my appetites for food, stimulants, physical comfort, and pride. Now that would be a hedonist.

The argument I have received from Christians when I point out their hypocrisy is that yes, we are all sinners, but that doesn’t mean you get a pass on your sin just because I sin, too. I see where they are coming from with that. Except that judging others’ sins is exactly what Jesus said we should not do. It’s the Church who would have you swimming in self-righteousness as you decide to speak for god. As if she needs the help.

Humans do a good job of corrupting a good message in pursuit of power and authority.

I will try to do more not-doing. I would like to spend less time reflecting on judgmental Christians. If the intersection with my niece didn’t present itself like it does, I would rarely think about my sister. So today, I’ll leave the nominal Christians to commit their Pelagian heresies in ignorance.

I care less about sin than stories. And my story today is, I sure wish I was a little more hedonistic.

Whose expectations?

This summer I have been working for the local school district one-on-one with a variety of special needs kids from 4-11 years old.

It’s not my “comfort zone.” I find working with groups of mainstreamed kids, managing recess or sports to be effortless. Sitting with a mostly nonverbal 4-year old who seldom acknowledges my presence, taps his hands, and hums for hours at a time is challenging. As I sat with him this morning, I reflected on my “comfort zone.”

I was told that my goal with Gage was first, to keep him from crying. He’s frightened of change, of people, of noise. His pattern for the past week has been: when his mother drops him off, he begins to cry. When kids around him shout or cry or make too much noise, he cries. When he’s pulled away from what he wants to do, he cries.

So today I sat with him on a rocking bench. We just sat and rocked.

After 20 minutes I got a book and read the words and made comments about what I saw in it. Then I put it back. Then he got up and returned with a toy that plays music with each winding. We listened to “row, row, row your boat” for another 20 minutes.

Then I got up and found a bag with ten plastic balls. I took them out one at a time and threw them into a box in front of us. I had fun aiming for the box. Most made it, some didn’t. I got up and collected them, counting each as I picked it up and put it in a bag. Then I repeated the throwing, gathering, and counting. Gage started counting ahead of me, finishing the numbers to ten. I had been told he only repeated words back.

I sat down and offered him a ball, and he threw it. Not into the box but across the floor. He’s a good thrower. I took turns giving him one colored ball and throwing one myself. I preferred to aim for the box. He preferred to toss it at the wall. We threw balls and counted them.

Later, we went outside for a fire drill. I talked about the trees and touched different things talking about how they felt. He touched some of them, too. We watched ants rushing across the sidewalk. We saw birds above us. We played on the playground for so long a teacher came out to be sure we were ok.

We were ok.

When I got home, I realized I was sweaty and had to change. I had been more tense than I realized. But it wasn’t Gage who made me tense.

This was my first day with Gage and he was used to another teacher. I wasn’t sure whether the day Gage and I spent together was “good” or “bad.” I mean, was I expected to “teach” him something, to get him to engage with other kids, to make sure he got to expected places on time? Because we sure didn’t come inside, join group time, or have a snack when we were scheduled to.

I still don’t know if I failed expectations. But I think Gage and I had a good day. We shared time together, played some, got fresh air and sunshine, and he even looked me in the eyes when he left.

In fact, it was a very good day for me because Gage taught me something that has me feeling liberated this afternoon. He taught me that the challenge I’ve been feeling — the sense that I’m not in my “comfort zone” when working with special needs students — is more about the staff, not the student.

When managing groups of mainstreamed kids, I can get them to follow expectations, so it feels easy. When working with special needs kids, I can’t get them to meet the same kind of expectations, so I feel like I’m failing in my job. That makes me self-conscious and even worried about performance. Once I recognized that, I laughed at myself.

Today, I decided I wanted to get to know Gage and have a good day. In approaching it that way, I did get to know this boy who loves music, has good rhythm, a bit of wit, and a lot of self determination. We even got a little counting and lots of physical activity in.

And he never cried.