Thursday, October 28, 2010

Off the Road

Panic regularly attacks my senses driving along the back-country open roads of my new territory. Only two essays in weeks is a significant drop in the number of words scribbled over the last three years. My guitar has not come out of the case since my show in Connecticut last weekend when my three cousins were the only ones in the audience.

The computer, the road and the massive piles of papers spread over bed, couch and floor devour my time instead. The shift from creative soul to insurance salesman seems to suck the vital blood out of me so that in just a few short weeks my skin feels paler from lack of sunshine (could be the rain) and my belly swollen from lack of exercise (could be the donuts).

Coffee dehydrates me from the inside out, but is the natural thirst quencher over the miles. Plastic sandwich containers and ripped candy wrappers are tossed to the floor of the car and the seat is covered with crumbs. Pizza tastes best late at night when there is finally time to set still.

If I think I have accomplished little beyond used-up time over these past weeks, I have to remind myself of the completely new vocabulary that has been learned. The license that sits on the first page of my new presentation book barely suggests the amount of studying. My conversation at the kitchen table does not reflect the endless sales videos endured. The re-adjustment of technique I have learned over thirty years takes focus and concentration, especially since this requires a script instead of the marvelous improvisation of sketches and brainstorms of design which I have practiced before.

Against the conventional wisdom of the corporate office that commands leaving the prospect behind if the sale fails to close by the end of the presentation, I am comfortable to consider myself successful if these skeptical Vermonters agree to a follow-up phone call after a week or three of cogitation. Things happen slowly up here and they are proud of that. I am even thinking I am too much a salesman, over-dressed in casual slacks and an open-collar button-down shirt.

In fact, counter to my predictions at the initial interview, the one hour sessions in the heart of these homes are actually the best part about this job. The glimpse into lives is constant fodder for the imagination and feeds our most human need for connection. It would be so easy to swallow the numbers game put forth in the literature and quickly size up the prospect and secure the check, but I am so far fascinated by the good conversations and embrace the side-tracks into the hardship of the independent logger in competition with big machines or the young man with two kids just home long after dark and rising again before dawn to weld steel-frames one hundred miles away.

In between, along those many miles I have begun to drive myself, there are trees so staggeringly beautiful at this time of year, I am compelled to turn around for a picture. The silence of the radio in my broken Redster allows thoughts to swim luxuriously. My schedule is largely my own and productivity is in my control. Over time, I will learn to pull over to scribble the phrases that can lead to an essay. In the meantime, back to the work of earning my own keep not only thrills my father, but ignites a satisfaction within my own spirit that has long been dormant, frustrated by the failed business topped by an injury that required so much healing.

The time can also be spent counting the relationship between appointments and an increasing bank account. The motivational videos professing “activity” as the most important ingredient for success are supported by evidence that one more refusal is just an inevitable and necessary step towards a sale.

More importantly, I have come to see the value in the product so that I can honestly sit at that table and underline the need, the urgency and the satisfaction of filling the void of protections with what I have to offer. Like chasing a fire-truck to sell my skills for rebuilding a home, understanding the repairs that can be made to lives just devastated by fire, the skeleton of this package is taking care of our own funeral costs so that our relatives will not be left to find the money. The service has value and the need is uncomfortable but real.

As I get used to this new way of life and the onslaught of adjustments settles into a rhythm, I know I will play more music and have time for friends. Having collapsed into sleep at a more reasonable hour last night, I can listen to the creative beat of my heart in this dark hour before dawn and scribble these few words, relaxed that I can sleep again into the morning before it all starts again and I hit the road at noon.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Spotlight on the Table

Panic pulled me awake last night. Dreams are elusive, but I think they included bits and pieces of the script I had to memorize for my new work selling insurance.

The real issue for me was that earlier in the evening, after a time studying to pass the exam and a week focused on the rote memorization, I had witnessed my mentor make his own presentation. Watching him adhere to the script with which I could nearly mouth along, the magnitude of my change was driven like a spike into my heart.

Back home, there was no urge to play music, no compulsion to take up this pen, little desire to visit my friend. My son and I have recently been escaping into episodes of a TV show on Netflix and this provided enough distraction to lull my weary self into a dull sleep.

The dreams, however, do not allow escape. Daylight reminds me of the different schedule and dressier clothes I must wear. Appreciating so gratefully this luxury of time I have been granted to recover and pursue my creative interests, the need to support myself now supersedes my “indulgence” in the expressions of passion.

My fear is that counter to all that I have written in these past three years, this job will dull my heart and deplete my energy. For thirty years, I wanted to sing and write, but rightfully placed the obligations of support that comes with family and let construction work occupy my attention. The business of food on the table mattered more than the integrity of fulfilling dreams.

Unwilling to condemn myself as just a poor businessman when things have not turned out well, so many of my essays extol the purpose of passion and excuse my failures as a function of not living true to myself. Discounting many fine homes rebuilt, my process was faulty, I argue, because my heart was not truly focused on the joy of my occupation, but impeded by the desire to be doing something else, no matter how deeply I tried to convince myself those dreams had been put to rest.

Now I see myself on a darkened night spotlighted at a kitchen table before a skeptical couple, trying to convince them to spend even more hard won dollars on an elusive, intangible and unromantic need. The argument that I wish I had been so covered at the time of my accident is tainted by my lack of sincere belief that this particular insurance is really worth the cost. More importantly is my life-long prejudice that this unglamorous work is even further away from my dreams than transforming homes physically.

That it pleases my father so immensely, who has written countless checks both in support and disappointment, is some consolation. He may soon go to his grave satisfied that his son has finally begun to live up to his responsibilities and earning potential. Some pride is being restored even as I understand how much I am succumbing to his pressure and judgment.

The integrity of my actions is a key component to living well. I know to be successful at this venture, I need to find the perspective that embraces the change, not sabotages it. Lack of excitement to greet the new day is a serious concern and will affect the tone of my voice at the kitchen table, facing that couple.

That dullness of soul will also dampen the attraction I exude for the lover I crave. It could finally discourage the support of so many who have held faith in me as someone so much deeper than the bumbling, inept dreamy man as I have too often appeared.

This morning, shoving the panic aside, I pulled out a handful of the envelopes thrown unopened to the side of my desk, ripping them open and taking account. I wrote out checks with the very confidence so long conjured in my mind. That important bit of life a little better organized, I make the time to write this essay before heading off this afternoon to sell reassurance.

Fear is in the mind. Integrity is in the action.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Long Live the Queen

Nearly a month has passed since my mother’s ashes have been laid to rest. Almost a year ago, my scaffold collapsed. This crisp day, so clear, bright and full of color seems loaded with more portents of things past than vital with future dreams.

Uncharacteristically, my pen has lain still, silent as the breath no longer flowing. Even as I stand poised over an insurance career, play music and cherish times with a friend, my heart lags as if a few steps behind.

Alzheimer’s insidious hold had been strong on my mother such that not only were we not surprised by her death, but in the past year had been wishing for its arrival. My last sight of her was of a wasted spirit in a fragile body, too weary to raise a hand and eyes long unfocused. Recognition was brief, erratic and rare. Resignation was evident, the fight long over.

Reaching for a morsel or some glitter that had caught her eye and no one else could see, she reached forward and fell out of her chair, breaking a leg. My sister Lane imagines she jumped. However it happened, the event triggered the inevitable. My four sisters were at her side to keep vigil with my father, singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in a four part harmony at the moment of her actual passing.

Strangely content not to rush to her bedside with the others, I stayed in Vermont to fulfill a show commitment, singing softly to her throughout the days the songs I remembered as her favorites. The only son, we had a bond of our own which was honored by a vigil of my own from a distance.

Once there, I absorbed the reality of her death by witnessing her cremation. Lane and I drove across the county, catching up after more than a year of separation by a country. My mother’s body lay in a simple box, little better than cardboard. I had no need to see her, but stood with my hand on it, staring into the flame, controlled and intense, waiting to consume her. I pushed her in with little effort and Lane pressed the button that closed the door and released the fury.

Outside, we sat on the curb, sometimes talking, sometimes silent. The late summer morning, crisp and clear, was a Mom kind of day. We could hear the roar muffled by the walls and meditated on what was happening inside, profound and simple, an ageless process of life.

The task of the urn somehow fell to me, by action, probably the least artistic of the bunch. I liked the idea of copper and held a vague concept in my mind of a cylinder, but once back home, did nothing about it until it was nearly time to head south again.

On my piece of the marble table that had been the center of her home for fifty years, where pumpkins had been carved, egg nog served and millions of words exchanged, often with laughter, I cut and shaped the pieces of her urn. Soldering them proved difficult and frustrating until I utilized a pair of horseshoes that had been lying around since I had grabbed them with the marble after selling our home.

It looked dented and burnished to me, unworthy, until I remembered her loving energy and could almost hear her voice reassuring and encouraging. That patina of scars from the soldering flame that had tarnished the purity of the copper, she would have said, was the most beautiful part and I was the little boy again, glowing, so pleased she loved it. I twisted and soldered one last piece of scrap as a flourish on the lid and rested comfortably with the idea that my first real effort of art would be hers forever.

On another Mom kind of day, we took her to St Peter’s, an exquisite oasis in the middle of the suburbs, timeless with pre-Revolutionary graves and sheep keeping the grass low. Most memories of my grandfather include visits to tend the family plot and his reminder that my mom would one day be there too. This day had come and her little boy shoveled the dirt carefully around her.

Each of us in some form has acknowledged that in the past ten years, the frail, demented and failing woman grown more helplessly childlike every week had distracted us from our memories of the strong Mother who had gifted us so much. Now with the death of the physical, her vital spirit embraces each of us, my father especially.

Her energy has been revitalized. The woman who saw beauty in everything, found joy everywhere and inspired the best in everyone around her has returned.

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