Life You Dreamt You'd Lead

song in my head—”Am I Ready?” by Spitalfield

There's omnipresent in our culture a feeling of discontentment. We all seem to be searching for something—something more or something better. We're told to seek our "best lives now" and to live into our "full potential." So we invest in self-improvement books, dieting plans, gym memberships, skin cream, protein shakes, bigger and faster cars, bigger and better homes. Even our desire towards a better understanding of our own souls—of exploring religion and philosophy—often turn into salves and bandages applied in the hopes of making us feel better about ourselves. But spiritual, existential matters are far more than pacifiers, and questions of the soul aren't really built to make us feel better; they're designed to make sense of creation. So even those attempts can feel shallow and empty on a personal level. For many of us, it seems like nothing can satisfying.

So why in this life is contentment so elusive?

Take a step back and look at our world. Our consumer-driven culture with its instant gratification and next-best-thing mentality, our winner-take-all society that values success above ethics and equality—this place has rules. And these rules were put in place not for our benefit, but for our detriment because our detriment benefits the ones who make the rules! The game is always rigged to keep us hungry. Eternally unfulfilled.

So seeing that, what can we do about it? How can we actually live the lives we've dreamt we'd lead?

For me, it comes down to reframing the game and looking at it from a different angle or lens. It's obviously difficult to write your own message while being bombarded by so many others. But in a very practical sense, these are the words I have written in my office that remind me what it takes to drown out the noise.

  • Commitment: Commit to the life you envision. My dreams are more than goals, they're promises to myself and others.

  • Courage: Harness courage in whatever way suits you so that you can face the messages of this world and push them aside if need be. For me, this courage comes from my faith.

  • Capability: Do the work necessary to build your knowledge, your strength, your fortitude. Increase your ability to live the life you've envisioned.

  • Confidence: With all this, go confidently in the direction of your dreams.

Now that sounds a lot like some of that petty self-help garbage I was deriding earlier, doesn't it? But here's the kicker and the thing you must remember, the reality almost everyone leaves out of our modern-day self-help prescriptions.

You will fail.

Some days you will be super confident. Other seasons are all about becoming capable. Sometimes just committing to the vision is the hardest step of all.

All of this is entirely okay.

What the gurus and the experts fail to mention is that we're all human, unique in every way—especially in our failures. My hangups, neuroses, weakness, and sins aren't yours; they are mine, made up of the thoughts, experiences, interpretations, strengths, talents, and realizations that only I have. I was built in nine months, yes, just like you. But I was shaped by over 1.1 billion seconds on this planet to which you were not privy. Your moments, your seconds, will be different, even if we share substantial similarities.

So no, the latest mass-market paperback won't save you. The newest workout routine advertised on Facebook won't satisfy you. The life you want to lead? You're already living it. And the good news is that it's a long game. If you're going to improve, it's up to you to figure out how and then to take things one day at a time. But remember that there is no finish line (unless you count the grave); there's no moment when you get to raise your hands and say "I've won!" We are all works in progress; we grow and change a little every day.

So spend less time worrying about what you don't have or who you haven't become. Spend that time wisely, in the here and now, learning to love not the completion of your life, but the process of creating it.

Stop Searching For Yourself

song in my head—”Good Things” by The Menzingers

“… The amateur's self-inflation prevents him from acting. He takes himself and the consequences of his actions so seriously that he paralyzes himself. The amateur fears, above all else, becoming (and being seen and judge as) himself. Becoming himself means being different from others and thus, possibly, violating the expectations of the tribe, without whose acceptance and approval, he believes, he cannot survive. By these means, the amateur remains inauthentic. He remains someone other than who he really is." —Steven Pressfield, "Turning Pro"

We've all heard of the idea of "finding" yourself. It's a self-reflection axiom used since what would seem like the beginning of time. But is this really how things work? Do we really “find” ourselves?

The idea that the path to self-understanding is some quest or hunt is an alluring one. It gives us a task we must go and do, and we have a fantastic propensity to "do" things without actually "accomplishing" things. But also, and more importantly, this image implies that our self is lost somehow, which means that if we fail in finding it, it's not our fault. Not all things that are lost can be found, right?

But Pressfield pokes at the true hindrance to our self-actualization. It is not that we can't be found. It's that we're already found. We're just afraid to live into what we've discovered.

The opinions and judgments of others are great cudgels levied upon us daily. But how many of those opinions and judgments are merely imagined fears we hold on to as an excuse not to try?

You see, the self doesn't need to be found. I mean, sure, we all experience maturation and growing up. But at a certain point, a picture begins to form, and we can see who we are—what makes us tick, what interests us, what our values are, what our mental makeup is. Some of us dive deeper into fully forming this portrait than others, but I think we all understand the basics of it on some level.

So stop thinking about trying to "find yourself;" trust that you already have! You'll continue to learn and grow, but the foundations are there. Now it's just of matter of embracing it, of showing the world just who you are—a treasure not found or discovered through a path to some X on a map, but one that was there all along.


Bumps In The Road

song in my head—”Playing Favorites” by The Starting Line

On January 10, 2019, I posted my first essay here at The Campfire, declaring in my head as well as publically that I would post every day (except on Sundays) from then on out. And I've done pretty well with that goal thus far.

Until this week.

I realized today I haven't posted since February 8.

There are many reasons for this (one being the 12-hour shifts I've been working at my day job), many excuses that could be made. But in the end, none of that matters. A few missed days doesn't equal failure. I said I'd write every day. Today is a day. Tomorrow is, too. But yesterday is gone. So why get hung up on it?

Some people are afraid of goals just because not hitting them makes us feel bad. So rather than changing their mindset about goals and outcomes, they never set them at all, never accomplish anything.

So yes, I haven't posted in 5 days. And it's easy, especially for us sensitive and self-doubting artist types, to focus on that. But today I choose to look at the positive—twenty-four essays posted since that day in January. Twenty-four pieces of myself put out into the world. For someone who hasn't blogged or shared his writing in nearly three years, I'd say that's a pretty good improvement.

There will always be bumps in the road. Resistance rears its ugly head to derail us. Sometimes it wins. But that's okay. The life of an artist—and life in general, really—is a marathon, not a sprint. Some days we run. Other days we can't. Either way, we're still in the race. And if we focus too much on the bad days, I've found they have the habit of metastasizing. Of multiplying. Of devouring us whole.

Let the struggles be what they are—a means to grow stronger—and focus on what lies ahead, one foot in front of the other.



song in my head - “Plain Sailing Weather” by Frank Turner

I’ve grown up a lot these last couple of years. A lot of things have happened to me that have smoothed my rough edges.

Life entering this world.

Life leaving this world.

Meetings and partings, as they say.

I’ve gotten more serious, more thoughtful, more introspective, more professional.

But I’ll never be completely safe.

There’s a recklessness in me, a rebellion, an artist in tune with the Muse. Most days I keep things in check, play the role of an adult, and do my work as a careful and dedicated professional.

And then there are times when I stay up until all hours of the early morning, drinking whiskey, with a guitar in my hand or a notepad in my lap, and I sing songs and pen stories that well up within me an almost spiritual flood of emotion, a deluge of senses and seances seen and unforeseen. And it’s in those “irresponsible” moments that I remember myself.

Thoreau once said “our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”

To dream is an act of recklessness; to act on that dream borders on the insane.

But to deny that dream means death, not just for what is but for what could be. Chaos and disorder are where chance is supreme, where creation begins.

We all need a little chaos. We all need dreams awake.

Go and dream. Be reckless. Be you.

And never let anyone tell you otherwise.


Life, wait for me
These seas are stormy
Breathe in, slowly
Life, wait for me

Love, wait for me
This heart is heavy
Breathe in, slowly
Love, wait for me

Life, wait for me
These seas are stormy
Breathe in, slowly
Life wait for me

Toxic Engagement

song in my head — “Still Into You” by Paramore

Generally, if you show up to a comic con or some other sort of fan convention, you won't see many haters in the building. You won't find supposed "fans" that seem upset even to be there. Sure, a person might not get down with everything lining every aisle or hall, but they're at least there looking to have a nice time. That's because the price of admission—and I'm not just talking ticket prices—created value in their minds. There’s a buy-in. You had to drive there, sometimes from great distances. You had to plan ahead or maybe take time off of work. You had to RSVP or purchase tickets. There's an actual investment involved.

In some online spaces, no such investment exists.

I follow many publications, pages, and outlets online that cater to a particular audience, such as horror-related media or comic books/superheroes. And sometimes, a quick perusal of the comment sections on Facebook or otherwise leaves me wondering, "why are these people here?" They've chosen to follow and engage with something for which they seem to have nothing but disdain (if their words are any indication.) I saw it today, in fact, in comments over this poster (which, for my money, is super dope.) Someone else in the comments was as baffled as I was, observing that "85% of the people that 'like' this page never have anything nice to say."

And as a left-turn example, the vitriol is basically just as bad over at my beloved Detroit Lions fan page. It's like... no one is forcing you to follow this page or this team...

So why does this happen?

There are many factors, I'm sure, but I think a lot of it comes back to that comic con example, that presence of "barriers to entry." If you make a thing for everyone (a publication with a social media page), even a thing you think is specific, it means anyone can join in if they feel like they identify with the group. And "Horror" is a broad spectrum, with many subgenres and points of interest; it means many different things to many different people. Jump over to the Shockwaves Horror Movie Club, however, a moderated group run by fans of a specific podcast, and you generally won't find such hate. That's because there are barriers to entry. You have to ask to join, and you probably would have a knowledge of the podcast to hear about the group in the first place. This creates a shared history of experiences, a frame of reference. And it narrows the interest.

When we are more intentional about the type of fan or customer we want to engage with—when we search out that minimum viable audience—we can hope to limit toxic engagement. Some spaces go too far, in my opinion, immediately blocking out any dissenting view (even well-reasoned and well-articulated ones) like a child sticking their fingers in their ears. So I'm not arguing for a removal of disagreement. But there's a big difference between "I'm not feeling this thing because..." and "this thing sucks and anyone who likes it also sucks."

In my opinion, someone coming into the comments with that attitude isn't a "fan" of anything, and is not someone I want around me, the things I love, or the things I make.


A Stoic Symphony

From The Daily Stoic, one of my favorite websites (and books), here are some notes about making progress as a Stoic.

You are making progress if you find yourself...

  • criticizing no one

  • praising no one (I don't entirely agree—a kind word can go a long way; but I understand the idea)

  • blaming no one

  • accusing no one

  • saying nothing about yourself to indicate being someone or knowing something

  • when frustrated or impeded, you blame yourself (*warning: lots of language on link!*)

  • if complimented, you laugh

  • if criticized, you ignore

  • relaxed in motivation

  • banishing harmful desire

  • watching yourself as though you were an enemy plotting an attack

I find that last one very important. As with most artists, I have an amazing capacity to self-sabotage. My harmful desires, my nihilism, my darker fascinations—such things are always at the ready to undo me. Positivity and a growth mindset (traits that don't come naturally to me) are keys to success, while balancing such aspirations must be in harmony with wisdom, a lack of naivety, measured discernment, and love. It's not enough to pretend to be optimistic and positive all the time. I have to embrace my natural Stoicism, my faith, and my five-ness. There's simply no way around the makeup of my brain and my soul. So why fight it?

“I go to sleep content, but my final thought is of Resistance. I will wake up with it tomorrow. Already I am steeling myself.” — Steven Pressfield

Harmony. Harmony is key. Polyphony. Multiple melodies acting in accord. The macro is the whole symphony. The micro is every line, every note. People will only understand the symphony (the thing I’m trying to build and communicate) if each note is properly in place.

So what are the notes of your life? The melodies? How do they weave together? Ask yourself that today.


More Scary Stories

song in my head — “Pyramids of Salt” by The Wonder Years

For better or worse, I've always loved scary stories. Creepy things colored my childhood. Whether it was Goosebumps, Edgar Allen Poe, or Stephen King, I was fascinated by tales of the strange and macabre.

But few things impacted me as much as Alvin Schwartz's folkloric series, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark; greater still were the nightmare echoes that came with it in the form of Stephen Gammell's illustrations. These penciled depictions of worlds and scenes on the edges of our sanity instantly captured my imagination. The first things I ever remember writing fought to ape the feelings Gammell's illustrations gave me. And everything since has held shadows of those formative midnight mirages.

When I say I'm a horror fan, it often gets a somewhat confused reaction (especially if the reacting party knows that I'm a Christian.) The idea of enjoying scary and often "dark" things doesn't tend to vibe with the picture of a relatively positive, "normal" person like myself. I'm not wearing black makeup and listen to metal, after all. (Well, at least not today.)

But these are the assumptions of an outsider, the pictures painted by people who aren't in the know. Most typical horror fans will attest to being part of a tribe made up of mostly uber-sensitive creative-types, people who feel a little harder than the average lot or maybe see the world a little differently, maybe feel a little like outcasts. Most of us aren't odd or morbid people; we just find great fascination—comfort, even—among strange and sometimes morbid things.

Not every horror story out there is my bag. I'm not big on the slasher subgenre, and I tend to steer clear of needless gore and nudity. I prefer supernatural things (ghost stories, possessions, etc.); really bizarre or imaginative tales (anything by Guillermo del Toro); emotionally resonate stories with high tension and strong characters (something like Karyn Kusama's The Invitation.) "Slow burn" fare, as the kids call it, is my catnip. But everyone who likes being scared likes it for their own reasons, and those reasons kind of unite us in despite—or maybe because—of their divergency.

You see, I think there are two kinds of people in the world: those that avoid fear and darkness at all costs, and those who search it out. We're thrill-seekers of a type, people looking for that shiver down the spine. But consider that some of us might be looking for something more than cheap thrills. Perhaps we're searching for answers to questions, understandings on grief and terror and the traumas experienced in the actual, real world. Maybe we're looking to be surprised and transported. Or perhaps we just want to find something unique, something we haven't seen before. In that way, we're not that different from anyone else who likes books and movies and television. We're all looking for a story that sparks our senses and makes us feel.

When I'm in the basement, and it's dark, and the wind is howling outside, and a shadow moves across the corner of my vision, I turn to look at it, secretly hoping something might stir. Because at the end of the day, I want to be stirred. I want to feel bewilderment, breathlessness, to feel like a kid again.

Show me something magical, even if it's scary.