Trying on Other People’s Lives

I’VE LEARNED a great deal about myself from trying on other people’s lives for a living. There is something about—in a very real sense—putting your feet into someone else’s shoes and actively moving around as that person in their world for period of time. 

That’s my favorite thing about the work of being an actor—becoming someone else. I always feel so honored to be able to literally bring someone to life for whatever length of time it takes to tell whatever story is being told.  

I always feel such an honor when I get to work on a brand new piece; one where nobody has ever said these words in this order before. I especially love when the playwright is in on the process, so they can see their creation come to life in you. 

Maybe it’s because I’m also a writer that I love collaborating with the playwright in the room, that I don’t get nervous that I’ll *mess up* somehow. I want to do the best I can to tell the playwright’s story, as it is in their head. The writer has an intention to release out into the world, and I want to do my best in doing my part to make that intention into meaning for those who experience the piece. 

I’ve come to think that way about my own life, lately—A story about who I am and who I am becoming. The Creator and I co-create my life’s story, and we’re always together in the room. 

I like when I get the opportunity to play real people from history. In a way, it’s like creating your very own Frankenstein monster. The person you’re *resurrecting* is not actually alive in this reality, but you re-animate him or her with your body and mind, and they get to do things again. 

For three hours a night (give or take), you get to lend every bit of you to the service of giving life to this creature, this creature who desperately has something to say.

Most of the time, though, I get to play fictional people. People who were made up in someone else’s mind. 

Having the privilege of imagining what it might be like to be someone else is not the same as actually being someone else. Of course, it isn’t. But, how can we have empathy for someone we don’t know if we don’t at least try to imagine what they must be going through.

I’ve played a lot of bad people in my career, people you never see get redeemed. That’s because the story is mainly about someone else, and that’s cool with me. 

What I love about playing bad guys is that you need the bad guy in order for the good guy to be the good guy.

“Ragtime,” for example, is just an interesting short-story about somebody finding a baby in their garden until I come in as Willie Conklin and drop the n-word in front of God and everybody.

“And there it is,” I would often hear the audience whisper. “Here we go!”

You can’t affect change in the theater unless there is truth in a moment. That particular moment in “Ragtime” was so important to the show and had to feel so real. Otherwise, it becomes cheap and trite. The stakes have to be there every single time. I tried my best to throw darkness out so that the light could do its shining business. Most of the time, I think it worked. 

And it exhausted me. 

Summoning up that kind of hate—even the appearance of it—takes a toll, like watching the video of George Floyd being murdered. The more you watch it, the closer you can come to despair. The story may not be finished, but that moment will never go away. 

In the summer of 1998, I was cast as Uncle Ernie in “The Who’s Tommy” at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. The things this man is depicted as doing to a young Tommy were beyond anything I could get my mind around. 

My daughter was three years old, at the time. Who does that to a child? 

“I just can’t relate to that in any way,” I kept saying to myself, to the director. “Those acts make this person unredeemable, unloveable. I can’t get past it.” 

I struggled with that barrier in my performance all through the rehearsal period. I went through the motions as best I could. I really *tried* everything, and nothing worked, nothing convinced.

Then came our first preview. 

At the end of the musical, Tommy (the now hearing, seeing, Pinball Wizard back from far away, played so beautifully by Matthew Magill) sings with the entire cast in the finale. 

In our production, Tommy, during this final musical number, was to “have a personal moment” with a family member. Something not necessarily noticed by the audience. Kind of a “find something to do here” type of thing. 

On this night, Tommy approached Uncle Ernie and stood right in front of me. He looked me in the eyes and then put his arms around me, holding me. He was forgiving his abusive Uncle with a tender hug. 

I burst into tears and could not stop crying. 

You might be tempted to say, “Well, that wasn’t real. That’s not real life.”

I assure you: It might not have been my *real life* but it was absolutely real. If there were a way that Tommy could forgive Ernie (even in the confines of *make believe*) then there would always be hope for me, for all of us.

There is a force at work in the world right now, and She is begging us to seek first to listen and understand. The time for that is right now, and there has never been a more perfect time in history to do it the world over. We’re ready! 

We are beginning to write our story in the type of collaborative way that was never before possible. 

From now on, EVERYONE is included!

What kind of character do you want to be?

Peace to you.

The Hidden Tag

YOU KNOW MY FEELINGS about Daniel Day-Lewis. One of the two greatest living film actors, the other being Meryl Streep. Obviously.

I might have seen Day-Lewis’s very last ever movie (please, God, say it ain’t so!) the day it came out. It could have been the next day, but let’s say it was the day it came out, for the sake of this particular argument.

The film, by one of my favorite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson, is called “Phantom Thread.” In it, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a renowned dress maker in 1950’s London named Reynolds Woodcock.

One of my favorite scenes happens relatively early on, when Reynolds is telling his companion about how he always sews a piece of fabric with his name into the garment somewhere. It’s hidden away, and no one knows about it except Reynolds and the fabric.

There’s something about that secret knowing that really interests me.

Reynolds would create a dress and then send it out into the world. When he sewed his name in with the fabric, it felt to me as if he were making a promise to the dress to always be with it, to literally co-exist with it, giving the dress its very worth by branding it with his name. It was such a personal, intimate gesture.

I imagine Reynolds making a dress for an occasion. And then what? What happens to the dress after that amazing debut?

I imagine that dress getting sold for charity and closeted and never worn and going out of fashion and finally being given away, probably.

Maybe, years later, a woman sees something about this dress she’s purchased for twenty-five dollars from a thrift store. She can’t quite put her finger on what that is, exactly, but she knows all it needs is a little TLC and a good pair of shoes, and it will be just perfect for her daughter’s theater company, for which she is the costume designer.

“What’s this in the fabric? Oh, my God,” she says.

“What is it?”asks her daughter.

“This dress was made by Reynolds Woodcock in 1954 in London.”

“Who is that?”

“Only the greatest dress maker of his time! This tag with his name was sewn in. It was hidden all this time. I heard he used to do this with every one of his creations, but that’s just become legend, a myth. But it’s actually true! Do you know how much this dress is worth? I’ll never look at a vintage dress the same way again!”

It’s not that the dress wasn’t worth an exorbitant amount of money the entire time. It absolutely was (It was a Reynolds Woodcock original, after all).

It’s just that nobody looked for the tag, and the further it got away from Reynolds, the fewer people knew to look for the tag with Reynolds’ name. It was the discovering of the tag which identified the maker, and that made the worth visible to the mother and her daughter.

That was just something I imagined.

Then it made me think.

Each of us was created by the one who sews his name right into our very being. We were created with the name Love stitched into the very hidden fibers of our souls. We were literally created with and by Love itself, and Love is inextricably intertwined with us as we live our everyday.

(But, it’s hidden.)

Here’s the thing:

We go on for years feeling we have no worth because we have forgotten about the sewing. We’ve forgotten that God spoke with each and every one of us, individually, at the very first moment of our creation:

“You are the only one of you, an original, one of a kind. There never has been, nor will there ever be another you. And I have sewn my name on the very center of your heart so you will know how much I value you. You will live with my name—Love—always on your heart.”

Maybe we’ve forgotten that promise of our worth because we’ve gotten shut away and undervalued for so long. If we don’t feel valued, we forget our worth.

Others don’t give us our value or our worth. That was given to us at the time of our creation. What others do is provide us with the opportunity to rediscover our own worth by seeking out the worth of another.

Imagine looking at another person and seeing them as a one-of-a-kind, original work of art by the finest craftsman of all time.

Because that is what each one of us is.

Each and every individual is like the finest, original, one-of-a-kind dress made by the greatest dressmaker there ever could be.

We know our worth and value because of the tag of Love sewn in before we were even born. We have been given our worth by Love, itself.

The authenticity of your life was stitched into you at your making. If you’ve forgotten that, I am here to tell you that I can see your hidden tag.

I know who made you.

Peace to you.

Seeing the Light on the Stairs

THERE’S A BIT OF A STORY behind how I came to make these four photos I made a couple weeks ago, and if you have seven-and-a-half minutes, I’d like to share it with you. 

On the 24th of May, Sarah, Watson and I finished an episode of Family Feud and were about to head upstairs to bed. It was probably 10:00pm. 

Watson went out back for the final time, and I sat on the back steps, feeling the breeze. It was gentle, the breeze. My cheek touched it as it passed. That might sound strange (it was strange to type, just now), but I felt as though, somehow, this small bit of moving air was meant for only me, at that moment.

“Just notice me, for a second,” the breeze seemed to say. 

Watson and I made our way back inside, having successfully evaded Max (the deeply troubled dachshund next door) and, for some reason or no reason at all, I sat back down in the middle of the sofa and began flipping channels on the TV, instead of following Sarah up to bed. Watson decided on the love seat as his bed for the moment, curling up into a furry, black and white ball against one armrest. 

Sarah had gone upstairs at some point when Watson and I were outside, and I guess I didn’t realize she had turned off all the lights downstairs, leaving the living room to be lit by the television alone, which is plenty of light with which to navigate our downstairs quarters.

Our television remote has about .05% battery power, and I sat there for a good twenty minutes before I reached the threshold of frustration required to hit the power button and finally retire for the night.

With a push from my thumb, the TV instantly went black. The darkness hit my eyes immediately, and I was unprepared for it. It took me a moment to adjust. Nothing irregular. I stood and walked over to Watson to say goodnight. 

ME: Goodnight, buddy. Love you.

WATSON: Goodnight, Rosie.

ME: What?

WATSON: Just kidding, dude. Goodnight. Love you.

I realized my eyes had adjusted to the light, and that the light my eyes had found was coming from a familiar source, but one I hadn’t ever really paid much attention to. 

The light was coming in from our porch bulb and was streaming through a small window, illuminating the staircase and the wall beside it in a way that commanded my attention. It was as if the light was calling to me to notice it. 

My camera happened to be sitting on the table next to the couch. I reached down, picked it up, and turned it on without ever taking my eyes off the light. I was spellbound. I put the viewfinder to my eye, instantly saw the frame I wanted, and pressed the shutter. 

I looked at the picture, like the impatient child I have always been, wanting instant gratification. With only a quick glance, I thought I had something decent and should probably head up to bed. But, I suddenly felt compelled to take a few minutes longer with this experience. 

“Slow down, a minute. Where do you have to be right now? Nowhere. Relax. Remember the breeze from earlier? Take a few minutes with this. Be curious. Look how beautiful it is!” I thought to myself. 

I moved around that staircase from every angle I could think of, looking through my lens and capturing whatever I could see. During the entire experience, I was completely at one with my intention, my work, my purpose. I was in a *zone.*

Now, none of this story is about how good or bad my work is. It’s about how I got to notice something for the first time that I had probably seen hundreds of times before and never recognized. It’s about how I spent time in the midst of the beauty that is always there but rarely seen and came away with a way to share that experience with others. 

*Seeing the light on the stairs* is certainly a metaphor (maybe even a decent book title), and I’ve been looking closely at the lessons that metaphor brings me.

It’s also different than a metaphor, though, because in the experience of making those photos, I spent about twenty minutes creating. And during that creative process, I was in communion with that which is more than me. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I was being called to see that light on those stairs. 

Maybe I have been called to see it before. Maybe often. But this time, I *heard* this call, this persuasion, and spent time being guided by it. 

I think the photos are pretty decent, but it wouldn’t have mattered if they were terrible. The experiential reality of a realm *beyond me* was made present to me through that twenty minute photo session. 

I believe art is one of the conduits through which we can share with each other what being a human is like, and, through the gift of creativity, also come into communion with the “Mysterious More”— a name I once heard Marcus Borg, an intellectual hero of mine, give to what many might call, God.  

When you hear a song that moves you, watch a television show that enraptures you, really examine a painting or a photograph that transports you, let a poem wash over you in a way which takes your breath away, or even notice the way a bit of light hits a staircase in just the right way, your life is different than it was before that event. It’s undeniable.

I have begun giving myself permission to trust those moments again. I respect them in a way I haven’t for a very long time, if I ever really did. Those moments, those events, give me such hope. When I experience them, I feel as though what I do matters. 

With art, there is a creator with an intention, an audience with some kind of expectation, and the work. When I was shooting our stairs, though (and in many other personal examples I have thought about since), I felt I was *sharing* the process of creation with something beyond me, with the Mysterious More. 

Why can’t I call it *God*? 

Because, I just can’t right now. 

Maybe I will again, but for now, I affirm a *Great Mystery.*

I’m doing my best. That’s my story.

I wish you peace. 


Hello, Friends!!

Join me tonight from 6:00 – 6:30pm via Facebook Live!

I’ll be reading my short story, “Into the Background” for you from my living room to wherever you might be.

(Bring the kids! Middle School and up, maybe?)

Here’s the special surprise:

From now until 12:01 am tomorrow, if you pledge at the $25 Level or higher to The Grand Re-Opening!, you can choose an 8×10 print of one of the three photos below.

Pledge $25 or more HERE, and I’ll personally ship out an 8×10 print of the photo you choose from the three below on Monday, May 11, 2020.

You’ll be helping me fund my new project “The Grand Re-Opening” and, in addition to the perks you’ll already be receiving as a donor, I’ll send you an 8×10 print!

All you have to do is pledge anytime before 12:01 am Saturday, May 9, 2020.

Choose from these three photos below and make sure you mention which numbered photo you would like me to send your way when you pledge to “The Grand Re-Opening!”



I’m a Fan Friday!

this is a photo i took of someone else’s work (i don’t know who). they painted a wooden chair

Hello friends!

Today’s edition of “I’m a Fan Friday!” looks back 15 years to when I was teaching elementary school music in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

I present to you—for your listening pleasure—my adaptation of “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. I hope you enjoy!

May you be happy; May you be peaceful.

The Wednesday Re-Blog

LONDON STILL – a blog by Alexandra Silber

Hello, dear friends!

Today on The Wednesday Re-Blog (Maybe I’m calling it this now? I don’t know. beta testing and whatnot), I want to share with you some words from my friend Alexandra Silber and introduce you to the beautiful soul who writes them.

I met Al in the fall of 2012, when we appeared together in the American premiere of Love Story: The Musical in Philadelphia. She played The Ali MacGraw role, and I played the doctor who broke the news (spoilers? I can’t help you).

It’s the only show we’ve ever done together, and I haven’t seen her since we closed just before Halloween of that year. But her life has continued to make an impact on mine.

I started to write her a letter a few years ago to tell her what her life and work have meant to me over the last almost eight years, but I can’t finish it. I don’t know why.

I will.

Meantime, “London Still” is her blog. This is where you should start. (and follow her on Twitter @alsilbs and Instagram @alsilbs of course!)


Things I’m Trying Hard to Avoid, (Pandemic Edition) A List

– Trying to [falsely] control anything.
    [Because literally LITERALLY, we cannot control a single actual thing other than our own responses to life right now. And let’s face it: sometimes not even that.]

– Caring what others think.
    [I’m not gonna wear pants and you know what? I don’t care. I don’t care if YOU care. And I suspect you’re probably not wearing pants either so don’t come for me, Karen]

– Judgment (of self and of others).
    A big one.
    What do I care what people are posting on the internet? What business is it of mine if someone feels good and productive and contributory singing sad songs at their piano on Instagram Live, or making videos about frothy coffee? Who cares if others are doing a Zoom play reading, or organizing a gigantic Google Hang reunion, or interviewing their friends on YouTube for charity or even just for fun?
    If it isn’t your vibe, that’s okay. Decline to tune in.
    If it makes them feel better right now, good for them.
    Let them do their thing.
    I (and you) have the agency to decline to participate. You don’t have to tune in! You don’t even have to know it’s happening! USE that wonderful mute button and revisit that follow when the Pandemic is over.


I’ll see you in a couple of days for a new I’m a Fan Friday!

Remembering Neverland

Photo: ME

(7-minute read or Listen to it HERE)

THE OLDER I GET, the more I realize there are things I remember and things I don’t. What I also have begun to realize is that the list of each of those things is in somewhat of a constant state of flux. It all depends on where I am in my life at a particular moment. 

Is there a string of thoughts that leads me to a particular memory? Or does a smell, sight, or sound trigger something in my embarrassingly hollow skull that takes me for a “walk down Amnesia Lane,” as Mr. Keating once put it? 

Sights and sounds and smells and all the rest of it should not be underestimated. They may lie dormant for twenty-five years, but each one of them can (collectively or individually), find a way to hit you right between the eyes with a memory you thought was put to bed long ago. 

Then, there are the more obvious memories that may have finally learned how to sleep for three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, making an appearance on the one day that seems determined to never accept its place as ordinary ever again. 

That’s a day that asks you to look around where you are. It’s a day that asks you what you want to do now, in whatever time we have. 

I remember being old enough to learn about President Kennedy’s assassination and asking my parents where they were when it all went down. I wanted to know what they were doing. Their stories of that one day fascinated me. As I’ve aged, I’ve begun to see how I’ve been accumulating those kinds of moments in my own life. 

I was in detention with Mr. C for fighting the day Ronald Reagan got shot. 

I was taking a Geometry exam when the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

I was lying in my bed with Malisa and our daughter Mikaela when our third-floor apartment shook pictures off its walls and slid our furniture around. 

“What was that, Scott?”

“I don’t know. I’ll check outside. Stay right here. Don’t move.”

Someone had just blown a hole in Oklahoma City’s heart. 

Can it be twenty-five years? Of course it can. It has been. Funny. And not.

Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. April 19, 1995 AP file photo

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma had James Rocco at the helm at the time. He felt there was something the theater community could do, and he was right. We needed a fundraising concert. So, we had one. 

The stars came in from all over, and it was a whirlwind. One rehearsal with Joel Levine and the OKC Philharmonic and then the show. It was a long day. 

I was a local artist, invited to participate by Jamie, and I was just thrilled to be able to do something. With a newborn only twenty days old on the day it happened and a wife recovering, I had been unsure about how I could be of any use. 

During the rehearsal for the concert, many of us sat in the theater’s balcony to watch the “show” as each singer ran through their number with the orchestra. They were all so wonderful, one after the next. 

Then, Sandy Duncan took center stage. 

“Testing. Is it working? Oh, I can hear it now, thanks! Hi, everybody!!”

We were chatting about nothing in the balcony. I was probably sitting back with my feet up on the seats in front of me. 

“Okay, you want to try it once or twice?” she asked. “Okay, perfect! Here we go!”

She bowed her head slightly to prepare, then raised her head to signal she was ready. My eyes locked onto her. It suddenly became perfectly crystal-clear to me that Sandy Duncan had left the building, and Peter Pan had just landed on center stage. 

We were all about to take flight.

I have a place where dreams are born, And time is never planned. It’s not on any chart, You must find it with your heart. Never Never Land.

“Where is this place where dreams are born?” my heart asked, as Peter began.

It might be miles beyond the moon, Or right there where you stand. Just keep an open mind, And then suddenly you’ll find, Never Never Land.

You’ll have a treasure if you stay there, More precious far than gold. For once you have found your way there, You can never, never grow old.”

I suddenly realized everyone had gotten quiet and was beginning to lean forward a little. I was sitting in the fourth row of the balcony, dead center, hypnotized by this amazing creature before me, before us all. I can remember the feeling now.

And that’s my home where dreams are born, And time is never planned. Just think of lovely things. And your heart will fly on wings, Forever in Never Never Land.

“Take me to this place, Peter,” my heart pleaded. “I want to stay there. I want to live there!”

You’ll have a treasure if you stay there, More precious far than gold. For once you have found your way there, You can never, never grow old.

And that’s my home where dreams are born, And time is never planned. Just think of lovely things. And your heart will fly on wings, Forever in Never Never Land.

There was a moment of time, just after the song finished, when there was silence. It was probably less than a second long, but I lived a lifetime in that moment. Tears were streaming down my face as they are right now as I write this in remembrance. I am in that moment again right now, and I can go there whenever I like, whenever I want to, whenever I need to. 

Then, the entire theater erupted in applause. Every duty being performed in the rush to prepare the theater for this special concert stopped, and those performing the duties clapped and cheered, grateful for the opportunity to leave the sadness for just a moment and fly to a place where dreams are born and time is never planned.  

Sandy Duncan’s performance of “Neverland” at a rehearsal for what was (up until that time, God help us) the saddest collective occasion I’d ever been a part of as an artist changed my world forever.

Sometimes, we need individual healing moments and sometimes we need collective healing moments. Once in a while, both of those moments can happen at the same time. 

This moment was/is a big one for me. It’s what I’m choosing to remember today. 

25 years. 

I wish you peace. 

I’m a Fan Friday! (has returned!)

Hello, my friends!

Welcome to Friday and the latest edition of “I’m a Fan Friday!”

“I’m a Fan Friday!” is where (usually on a Friday because…well, you know…why not?) I share with you an artist I’m a big fan of.

I’ll usually share a YouTube video or some kind of audio track or something that helps me share with you what others are doing that has had, and is continuing to have, a profound effect on my life in some way.

Today, Vincent Van Gogh. My favorite painter.

His life and his work have shaped me in many substantial ways. I explain in the video below.

Then I sing (and play).

I hope you enjoy!

Peace to you!

You are important and you matter more than you’ll ever know!

Re-Blogging on a Wednesday!

I’m going to start re-blogging writers I’m digging.

A few years back (and for a while there, actually), I had a regular series I would do called “I’m a Fan Friday!”

Every Friday (mostly it was Friday, sometimes Saturday or a special “Sunday Edition”), I posted a YouTube video of an artist I’m a fan of. I would showcase a different artist every week, sharing particular performances that bring joy and challenge and meaning to my life.

I don’t know why I stopped doing it. I guess I got too busy making my own stuff to pay much attention to what other artists were making. I needed my “creative time!”

(What a pompous ass, right? Love, forgive me.)

When I get stalled as an artist, what gets me fired up and ready to create something (anything) that points to truth and the greatness of Humanity is taking in someone else’s art.

I couldn’t care less about what type of art someone has made. I have my favorite things, for sure, but if something about a person’s or group’s effort to communicate something lands on my heart right in the center bits and dances for a while, I welcome that art with my entire existence.

Whenever I am reminded of this, I realize I can be an instrument of spreading the joy and life-altering encounters I have had with other artists’ work to anyone who might know or come to know me, whether online or in life or in both.

So, today, two good news things, I think!

First of all, “I’m a Fan Friday!” will be back on 24 April!

So…stay tuned! I’m super pumped about this!

Second of all, I’m going to be devoting Wednesday posts to re-blogging other writers I’m digging right now.

I’m decidedly NOT doing this so that I will have “free content” for a Wednesday post. I am doing it in the exact same vein as “I’m a Fan Friday!”– to share with you, my friends, something that has moved me and made me reflect on what it means to be human.

WATSON: Stay strong, Homies! I love ya!

So…reblogging. What is it and how are you going to do it?

Well, I’m going to start by going a bit meta, as I am often wont to do. Today, I’m going to begin this practice with a re-blog of a re-blog.

I hadn’t thought about this practice much because I never thought to think it even existed. I’m sure I’ve seen examples of it. I just never thought much about it either way.

Then, earlier this morning, a blogger I have come to enjoy did what is called a #writerslift in the online writing community. The writing community is where writing types (I first found the hashtag on Twitter) follow one another, share information, and most especially, find and share each other’s work.

Christina Schmidt writes a blog called Armed With Coffee and it’s definitely worth checking out! Her post from today is such a great example of this type of sharing and honoring. So, I’m going to re-blog her post so that you can go over to her site, read it, and then look around awhile. You won’t be disappointed!

So, the way I will do it (based on a bit of online etiquette research that seemed to lead to a consensus) will be to share one to two paragraphs of the blog post I’m re-blogging followed by a link to that blogger’s site, where you can read more and look around that blogger’s site til your heart’s content.

Or not…whatever you want to do.

So, here is Armed with Coffee‘s writer’s lift for today, Wednesday April 15, 2020. Enjoy and stay safe!!


Writer’s Lift Wednesday #9 Christina Schmidt, MA

This is a writersliftwednesday blog, sharing the works of fellow writers, poets and persons random. All re-blogs will be linked appropriately to their authors.

Writing is no easy calling and nothing easy was ever worth doing.

Support each other. Share and reshare.

Christina Schmidt, MA

1. 10 Signs You’re Really Meant to Be a Writer by Meg Dowell via Novelty Revisions

1. You tend to use stories to solve real-world problems and make sense of things happening around you, even if it involves making up random “backstories” for strangers in your own head.

2. Whenever you read other people’s stories, your mind always branches off and considers where the characters might have ended up if a story had gone in a different direction.

3. Sometimes, writing things is easier than saying them out loud. (This doesn’t apply to everyone, but it might to you!)

(Click here for more!)

Altered States in America

(7-minute read OR listen to the audio version HERE)

IN THE EARLY SUMMER OF 1980 I was eleven years old. Two years prior, my parents had moved my brothers and me into the forest.


From South Philadelphia to South Jersey, out of a row home and into an attractive, split-level house on an acre of land in a brand new development called McKendimen Woods. They were building a house for us.

I was not excited to move. There was a myriad of reasons, but it was something about having a brand new home that felt weird to me. It’s only now that I’m able to articulate what I felt about that.

We would be the first people to ever live there. Nothing would have happened in the confines of those walls that hadn’t happen to us.

No too-young, just-married bride would have ever sat up late and cried about her new husband being called away to fight the Japanese halfway around the world.

No one had ever chased his sister from one bedroom to the other and back again in pursuit of a Richie Ashburn baseball card because he wouldn’t give her the bubble gum, so she snatched the card right out of his hand and made a run for it.

There were no lingering spirits from families past in our house. We were each other’s ghosts.

At the time we moved in, the development was all new construction; they were literally cutting down forest, plowing roads, marking off plots and putting up one solidly middle-class dream home after another, as long as the money held out.

I don’t know if the money stalled or what happened, but our street was as far back in that little forest as you could go for a little while there.

We were a sort of suburban pioneer family, literally steps away from the natural world—a place not yet settled by humankind. My parents carved out a beautiful home for my brothers and me, among the oak and pine trees of the Pine Barrens when the world first started to fall apart.        

There’s a way they world looks to us; I mean, literally how we see the world.

For example, you know you’re home because you see your house and you remember that’s what your house looked like when you last saw it.

On an early summer evening in 1980, my brothers and I—along with some neighborhood children probably—were playing on our street and around our house. We often played a game called “Manhunt,” a kind of “Hide and Go Seek” meets “Capture the Flag.” That’s probably what we were doing.

I remember at one point, for whatever reason I happened to be there, standing at the end of Oak Drive, looking down the block at my home, my whole world at the time. What I saw looked different than it had ever looked before.

It’s hard to describe—and I’ve only tried to explain it two or three times in my life—but I recognized everything I was looking at (the Hayes’ house over here, the Gardner’s over there). 

I knew what I was looking at, but I was seeing it differently.  The colors of the leaves and the grass were a richer, fuller green, than I had seen before. The dirt was a warmer brown, the way soil looks after a light, afternoon rain. Maybe that’s what had happened earlier in the day; I don’t remember. 

What I remember most is that I was aware of the difference and took it in as something beautiful. My remembrance is that the particular way of seeing the world I had been given lasted for the rest of the evening and until I went to sleep that night. It was likely gone by morning. 

I also remember not being afraid this way of seeing would go away, that I would never *get it back* again. I just lived in it and felt the joy of it as it was happening. 

No need for explanation (How is this possible? Is it the light? It’s probably the light, right?). It didn’t even come up then. 

No need to wonder if I was deserving or not (Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…A lot. Probably just pre-teen boy stuff but still…). I never thought about that at the time. 

I never felt I was *taking advantage* of anyone. The world physically looked different and it was beautiful and I was grateful and that’s that.  

I never—and still have not to this day—attached a meaning to it. I don’t think there was an explicit lesson to be taken from the experience one way or the other, but I do believe it to be the first mystical experience of my life. I didn’t read anything into it. I didn’t question why? or ask, what now? I just saw that my world was beautiful at that very moment to me. 

Perhaps I could have learned a lesson about living in the moment from that experience some forty years ago (there is no way I just typed “forty years ago!!”). I constantly find myself wanting to *lean ahead* into the moment to come, believing when that moment arrives, all will be well, all will make sense, all will be as I wish it to be.

When I look through the lens of my camera, I see the world as it is at that exact moment. It will never look exactly that way again. 

That’s why I share my photos—so others can see what I saw. That’s the point, I think. We share how we see the world with others and others share how they see the world with us. I think that’s how it should be…

I’m interested in how you see the world and what you’re looking at. 

That’s reason enough for sticking around awhile.