Monday, December 29, 2008

The One Thing

I’m still haunted by what author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) declares on her Web site—that she determined as a very young woman that writing was her “holy calling” and pursued it with all her heart, soul and mind.

Gilbert’s resolute approach to writing stirs both envy and inspiration in me; envy because of the frailty that wishes I had been so disciplined and single-minded as a young man who grew up dreaming of a literary career, and inspiration because writers like Gilbert lead me to heal such frailty with practice of the craft and permission to share the stories I must tell.

I am in the thick of the second chapter of my first full-borne attempt at a novel since the many I wrote as a teen, and I sense some of that youthful joy of getting lost in the art of creation bubbling up and stilling the hands of time. The book The Soul Tells a Story (Vinita Hampton Wright) continues to be an amazing companion as I create, putting into words the impressions and groans I have felt deep inside about my writing vocation, spurring me on to claim the mantle of my creative identity.

When I was 23, about the same time I wrote two of my three finished screenplays, I saw the movie City Slickers. Jack Palance’s character Curly advised protagonist Billy Crystal that the secret to life was “one thing,” his aging index finger extended upward in the open countryside. I was too immature or afraid or arrogant or whatever at the time to believe it, and still have trouble embracing such counter-intuitive declarations today. For I have paved the path of vocation with many things, all of them earnest and worthwhile, all of them producing income and serving important human needs, all in some capacity engaging words and relying on my ability to piece them together.

But perhaps in my spiritual life I have embraced the One Thing. And books like The Soul remind me that the one thing of God and the one thing of the writing life do not have to be separate things. Embracing each is an act of faith, and for me to unfasten them at this point in my journey is to endanger my embrace of both.

And so I do and will write, for clients in a variety of industries, Christian brands and the non-spiritualized marketplace, non-profits and educational institutions. Especially about spiritual formation and leadership development. And especially for the client who pays nothing in advance—myself.

More than ever, I’ve fully embraced the reality that writing is the one thing, that the worthy endeavors of coaching , speaking and training in which I have found worthwhile success in recent years will always flow from the cornerstone of the written word. This is both freeing in its simplicity of approach, and a bit scary—it seems to be quicker and more common to make money in these other endeavors which, of course, strongly rely on the power of words. But nothing I’ve done in any of my professional pursuits has matched the satisfaction of creating something from nothing on a page or blank screen, first through the numerous typewriters when I was growing up and then clunky desktop units and now the sleek laptop at my fingertips, shifting from two fingers at lightning speed to the more graceful, learned approach to typing.

I don’t know what the writing road has in store for me. A full-time living at some point? Perhaps. Critical acclaim? Maybe. Scores of rejections and general obscurity? A definite risk.

An unleashing of my true self, where the two “one things” truly interact as one and create something more wondrous than possible through separate incubation? Almost certain, providing I do not lose heart.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Observations of the Senses From Colorado

I'm staring out the window at the side of a mountain peppered with tall, green pine, blanketed by a steady blessing of snowfall. A fire is crackling nearby, a small effort to offset the sensation of temperatures that will dip below zero this evening here in Breckenridge, Colo.

After a nap, I'm now sitting in a cozy coffee shop in the heart of this bustling ski resort's downtown, sipping dark hot chocolate. The new mountain view I passed as I huffed my way across an icy road with my laptop bag was so gorgeous I did a double-take to make sure it was real and not painted upon some gargantuan canvas. The sun is out for the first time today, and light is bathing thick clusters of clean snow and Christmas lights and decorations are everywhere .

Yesterday's plane flight from Nashville to Denver was full of sensory observations as well. I watched the dear souls out on Christmas Day like myself saunter by, making their way through security with all those items that have to get shuffled into the plastic bins. We gathered, strangers on Christmas, a day marking an event that bridged the estrangement between God and humanity, with a different flavored but perhaps ultimately related type of powerful faith--the faith that the all-too-human persons flying this wonder of a mechanized bird would somehow, through talent beyond the realm of most of us, safely transport us to our destination. We gathered above a white quilt of clouds, terrible and yet pure in their beauty and their declaration that we had surrendered most if not all of the control we assume on a day to day basis.

I heard the constant undercurrent of the engines, the uncoordinated ripping and tearing of packages of peanuts and pretzels, and the variety of genres I had invested within my iPod. I heard cell phones motor down and, in almost perfect synch with the landing, cell phones power back to life. I heard the music of my 3-year-old giggling as she charmed most of the flight crew and no small amount of the passengers.

I tasted those same peanuts and pretzels, along with a rare soft drink and on a few occasions that same 3-year-old's tender cheek and strands of soft hair as she leaned close to me. I smelled the food and the perfect aroma of the God-given child entrusted to my care, at times feeling her hand on top of mine and feeling me holding her tiny leg during both the take-off and landing.

The senses are the nuts and bolts of concretized life. Such life in the mundane is imperfect. Life is frustrating. Life is uncertain. Life is unfair. Life is maddening. Life is irrational. Life is painful. Life is tears.

And yet, life is wondrous. Life is screaming at us from every angle, every disposition, every shade, every sensory outlet, every person.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Original Yuletide Poem

Twas the night before Christmas
And all through my dwelling
Are symbols of marketing, consumerism and selling
I'm being facetious, with a point still you see
While keeping it simple, I'm not fully free
Of the things that eclipse the young babe in the manger
Whom for so many still remains but a stranger
I want to treasure so deep in my heart
The Christ who resides there and will out-last Wal Mart!

- A John Michael De Marco original, feel free to pass on!

Monday, December 22, 2008


My hands bear the blisters of bagging 14 trash bags of soggy leaves the other day in my yard. It was a three-hour adventure in temperatures that might have reached 30 degrees. The sky was deceptively blue, and my ears were filled with tunes from the iPOD. It was a great time to get lost in my thoughts, in my prayers, in my plans.

The leaves were endless, like scooping tear drops out of the ocean. They seemed to be multiplying. I raked, I scooped, they spread. They mocked. I scooped. They spread. After 14 bags, even after that, remnants remained sprawled on the ground, like scattered soldiers from a unit determined to reunite at another time, another place.

I glanced up at the dead, cracked branches that were once so full of color. In the spring they would give new life again, and for a season all would be vibrant and full of growth and the enduring hope that pours into summer. Then in the fall they will descend back to the earth, and I will gather them again only to once again await the emergence of their offspring.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

In Honor of a Son

Last night we drove a little north of Franklin to a lovely cul de sac, where a very distinguished older gentleman puts on a massive display of Christmas lights each year in honor of his late son. Stepping onto his estate was like journeying into one of the fair scenes from The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Depictions of Yuletide themes, movable playground images, words of peace and love--the senses were almost overwhelmed by the depth and variety and overall communication of hope in the midst of one man's enduring loss.

I approached the gentleman, calmly smoking his pipe and smiling as young children received candy canes from the Santa Claus he had on site, and briefly introduced myself. He was pleasant but quiet. There was more I wanted to say but didn't have the words. All I could do was marvel at his mega-watt tribute to his fallen son and wonder at the brightness that was penetrating the December night.

Today I am going to be spending some quality time writing at a coffee shop and hanging out in a bookstore, both located in the nerve center of my city's busiest retail district during what is probably the craziest shopping weekend of the year. In the dizzying context of the traffic and the stressed-out people milling around, I hope to hold in my heart and mind the image of the lights contrasting the darkness in honor of a son.

Such a visual keeps Christmas simple for me. Simple yet profound.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Soul Tells a Story

I've started reading the book The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity With Spirituality in the Writing Life, by Chicago-based author Vinita Hampton Wright. After one just chapter, I'm convinced this is a boon I've been seeking in my own journey of merging my faith with my art.

Wright encourages readers to not only recognize, develop and unleash their creativity, but to recognize how "creative work is spiritual at its heart." Many of us, she writes, "sense that our soul has become fragmented by the cultural (and personal) separation of creativity from spirituality, and we want to experience them to greater integration."

I've certainly observed and tasted such fragmentation first-hand, especially within the Protestant church where there is a tendency to drill things down to formulas and rigid categories of acceptance. Mystery is often divorced from worship, teaching and proclamation.

Too much creative expression by people of faith in the arenas of writing, music, theater, etc., has been hindered or watered-down out of fear that it might push too much of the envelope. And yet, as Wright reminds us, "Artists are put on earth to explore, to push the boundaries, to ask yet more questions and sometimes to do away with--or at least challenge--traditional assumptions." Such a willingness to grapple with these questions, the author warns, will inevitably "unnerve people who banned serious questions from their life years ago."

The key for artists who also happen to be particularly spiritual or religious is to keep things honest. Characters must be allowed to agonize over the questions, struggles, joys and temptations that the real people around us face every day. Lyrics must speak to ubiquitous longings of the heart. Otherwise, we offer both tepid art and naive theology.

We are far more likely to glorify God when giving ourselves permission to creatively explore uncertainty, because we trust that God is big enough to handle it--and, in the end, our faith only grows richer. Creativity is God's gift, and he wants all of his gifts used to their fullest on this side of eternity.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reclaiming the Dream We Dreamed

My favorite musical is Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo's novel of the same title. A story of love, war and redemption set in 18th Century France, I saw the full show on Broadway in the mid-1990s but truly fell in love with the music and message while in grad school several years later.

What troubled soul cannot resonate with the down-trodden character Fantine as she mourns the disappointing outcome of her life in "I Dreamed a Dream"; or feel the adrenaline rush flowing between Cosettee and Marius as they proclaim "A Heart Full of Love" to each other...or long, with Jean Valjean, as he prays for Marius to return from the battle--for God to "Bring Him Home." And who hasn't now and then reflected on loss or days gone by, staring at the spaces and places that were once teeming with life and laughter but are now filled with "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables?"

This morning, my well-used soundtrack CD began to skip right in the heart of "Bring Him Home." Its offers a stanza that always grips me:

"He's like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son.
The summers die
One by one
How soon they fly
On and on
And I am old
And will be gone."

But instead of hearing each precious word I heard skip, stutter, stammer...argh! I finally had to advance to the next song, the experience somewhat less than complete. Imperfection had broken into perfect art and made the sacred mundane.

I wonder how each of us can more intentionally turn the tide here. How do we make space to let art break into imperfection, and disrupt the default focus on what things are wrong all around us? There is a "survival mode" instinct right now as the economy melts down and wars continue to rage. Beautiful music and its other cousins in the arts are not pragmatic to what must be fixed at this hour.

However, they are essential to what must be fixed inside of us. What is sacred must be reignited in the midst of what is mundane. Otherwise, as with Fantine, life will "kill the dream we dreamed."


Monday, December 15, 2008

Love and the Loosened Grip

You know when you're in love. You can barely eat, so nourished you already are by the filling thoughts of your beloved. It is hard to concentrate at work, because your spirit is that again of a child and a child is by nature playful at heart. Music, art, movies, dance--they speak with amplified poetry, your senses fully engaged. If the love is mutual, you soar with the wind and feel capable of vanquishing all earthly kingdoms. If it is not, the parameters of the void inside are beyond calculation and nothing feels relevant or useful or enjoyable.

I have been falling steadily in love again, and the object of my affections is one with whom I have loved before but whose voice and presence were less desirable than many human pursuits. The recipient of my conquered heart is the risen Christ, the hope of glory, his power perfected in my weakness, his righteousness a dazzling cloth that obscures my filthy rags. It is an emerging love more precious than the inaugural courtship, made richer by experience, intellectual pursuits, failures, age and time. It is a surrender to the Spirit who has chased me even while I was temporarily chasing after the wind.

I can thank my frequent spiritual teachers from across the past decade or so for helping to reignite my passion for the one whose passion led to the ready embrace of a crown of thorns, so that I might wear a crown of glory. Friends such as Wesley, Kelly, Foster, Augustine, Willard, Lawrence and a Kempis. The last teacher especially, in his classic work The Imitation of Christ, has been stretching me to consider the devotion I have toward the things God can do for me or give me--compared to my simple but profound devotion for Christ himself. It's humbling to scan the delta. And yet, ever-surprising grace compels me on, encouraging me to forget what lies behind and strive toward white lies ahead.

This applies especially to positive emotions. When I'm in the "God zone" all seems well. I can handle anything. But as a Kempis notes, the feelings come and go. The caliber of faith is proven in the dark moments, against the onslaught of temptation, inside the crucible of rejection. This is where I am praying the Spirit will strengthen and train me, for an ongoing journey of surrender to the Christ within in spite of whatever temporary circumstances are at play.

This morning as I drove home from the gym in a dreary rain, I contemplated what things I would be willing to place before Christ, to more fully trust in his hands. My house, my stuff, my paid-off Honda? Ok, I wouldn't like it but I could do it--they are such temporary items. The weakness of my flesh? Well, as much as I think I enjoy it, I would be far more productive and at peace without it. My career and talents and creativity? Hmm. That gets a bit trickier, cuts to the core of my identity. My health? Slow down, Lord. My spouse? Whoa, it's getting really personal now. My children? Unthinkable.

Yet Christ calls me to lay it all down, to be as Abraham when he was prepared to lay down Isaac before his hand was stilled. Christ continues to query of me, do I love him more than these...even these.

You know when you're in love, because you're willing to loosen the grip on things and people in ways you couldn't have imagined before.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I HEART the Vanderbilt Starbucks

My favorite coffee house in the world thus far (having not yet seen them all)
is the Starbucks right across the street from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, also a block away from The United Methodist Church's Upper Room Chapel. Twice as big as most locations, it sports a variety of types of seating centered around a lovely fireplace well-suited for the cozy atmosphere. The inside is teeming with the conversation, reading or lap-topping of students, business persons and those who do not fit any real category.

I thrive in coffee shops, finding a palpable creative ambiance in the synthesis of surrounding mental energy, soft music and the scents of tasty items brewing and steaming. I've written an entire book in a coffee shop, and brainstormed endless ideas with people or gotten to know them much more deeply. The setting is both my most productive and my most relaxing context. It's great and rare when you can combine those two endeavors--productivity and relaxation.

So my goal in life is to figure out how to spend more time in this particular Starbucks. Ok, it's not the only goal, but it will pave the way for greater success in other more worthy endeavors, I am sure.

For how can a productive AND relaxed person be anything but a boon for humankind? :-)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Moral Leadership and the Marketplace

I am beginning to lend some efforts toward a couple of non-profit organizations that are seeking to have a positive impact in the marketplace, the arena in which I earn most of my living.

One, the newly-formed Marketplace Champions of Nashville, Tenn., is geared toward teaching Christian principles to business leaders and helping to spur economic development in Middle Tennessee, the U.S. and impoverished nations. I will blog more about this in the weeks to come. The second is the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership in the Professions, based at Nashville's prestigious Vanderbilt University.

Cal Turner is a very successful businessman (founder of Nashville-based Dollar General Stores), a United Methodist and a Vanderbilt donor. His program seeks to facilitate more dialogue across professions such as business, medicine, law, theology, etc., regarding common moral or ethical challenges. I am helping out in various writing and speaking capacities for the time being, and my involvement with the leadership of the program has me brainstorming about some of the key moral issues--above and beyond the application of a particular faith such as Christianity--which which the professions must grapple: What are the opportunities and barriers to leading with integrity in the marketplace?

One key challenge that is often on my mind is the culture of busyness that plagues most companies and organizations. I think this has moral leadership implications. Leaders learn poor work-life balance habits while they are cutting their teeth as individual contributors. These habits are ingrained upon arriving in management, and they unwittingly begin to reproduce them in the team members they serve. Once they achieve leadership positions such as director, vice president or higher, they further replicate them in entire management teams.

The cycle is hard to break, the grip of reactivity so persistent. As a result of everyone along the organizational chart being so rushed to get things done, there is little reflective upon how effective the decisions are that are being made. And if the effectiveness of our business choices is too casually brushed aside, imagine the back burner status of the moral or ethical questions of examination: How are we impacting real people, real communities? How are we living our corporate values? In what manner are we making the world a better place? These questions remain submerged in the heart of busyness, or when voiced can seem impractical or naive.

From what I have observed of the marketplace, business decisions that are birthed through a moral and ethical womb of examination, which are allowed to incubate a little longer in order to be dissected from all angles, tend to be the more successful bottom line choices.

Morality and ethics are good for business. In today's painful economy of shattered trust in numerous institutions, investing the time in moral leadership outcomes might be the only way the marketplace can not only compete with the world but stay out of the infirmary on a regular basis.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Tribute to Fred De Marco

Today I learned that my Uncle Fred, the last surviving brother of my late father and his four siblings, closed his eyes in this world and opened them in the world to come.

Uncle Fred had suffered from various health ailments for a number of years, but in recent months these problems intensified and finally this morning created the perfect storm of systematic breakdown that stopped his heart. He fought long and hard and ran the race well, but, as for each of us, his journey here came to an end.

I'm grateful that I was able to visit him last Tuesday evening on our way to Savannah for Thanksgiving. It was very sad to see him without his usual dry sense of humor, absent his self-deprecating touch. He was doing all he could to hang on. I prayed with him, hugged him, went back and hugged him again and more tightly before leaving because I had a strong sense it would be goodbye. For now.

A Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, my uncle was the youngest of the five De Marco boys who grew up first in the boroughs of New York City and later in New Jersey. He was 10 years younger than my dad Frank, who helped raise him--especially after their dad, my grandfather Frank, died at the young age of 50. They had the closest relationship of all the brothers, and Uncle Fred was devastated when my dad died in July 2005.

I have many memories of my uncle being there at key moments in my life. During my childhood, we visited his family in Indiana and got to swing on a rope stretched over a big lake. When I was 14, he spent quality time with my mother, my siblings and I as my dad underwent a double bypass surgery. I remember wandering the hospital hallways and the cafeteria with him, laughing at his jokes and admiring the easy manner in which he seemed to connect with everyone--and charm a few nurses in the process. Big chunks of time would go by when I didn't see him, but when we were together it was like having a second father--and this became even more so when my own father passed away.

It's a surreal thing, knowing that all of the De Marco brothers are gone. I can imagine the reunion that took place today in the eternities when Fred and Frank were reunited. I'm not sure if Heaven can handle both of them. Although it is hard for me to visualize the exact dynamics of the afterlife, I have a strong sense that Grandpa Frank De Marco, Grandma Frances De Marco (yep, Frank and Frances, go figure) are-in some sense, probably beyond categories I can conceptualize with my finite mind-- enjoying a nice time with their five glorified sons.

To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, the Apostle Paul states. Whatever heaven is or isn't, I am firmly grounded in that truth of the enduring presence of Christ who wipes every tear away.

The resurrection of Christ foreshadows our own resurrection, our own glory in perfection. The image of God that was incomplete in my uncle's mortality has been fully restored in his eternity. Praise God from whom all blessings flow, including the blessing of the chance to know my Uncle Fred.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Thoughts From "The Reflective Executive"

For quite some time I've been planning an off-site retreat with some leaders, a time to focus on strategy, performance and team-building. They keep postponing the event, the latest reason because they are too busy. I remind them that they will always be too busy. Busy is not so much what you are doing, but a state of mind. Everybody I know is busy, but not everyone is necessarily being effective, because their perspective and approach is a bit off. Sometimes you have to briefly pause the game in order to practice how to play it better, with less anxiety and more confidence.

I'm reading a great little book right now called The Reflective Executive (yes, a play off of Peter Drucker's business classic The Effective Executive) that touches upon this need for leaders and managers to be willing to step back from time to time and deeply assess their leadership. It is written by Emilie Griffin, a longtime advertising executive who is a prolific writer in the spiritual formation arena. Griffin offers:

"Pity the poor executive who isn't willing to lose herself--or himself. To lose oneself walking down a country lane is to take the chance of being whole again, regaining the split off part of oneself that needs to be unified and reconciled."

I think Griffin is on to something here. I've observed so many leaders, including myself, get caught up in doing things and lose their sense of being. The embryonic, deeper motivations for their chosen profession become submerged under the clutter of reactivity. The activities or disciplines that nurture their spirit and help them to feel "whole" have fallen by the wayside, because they are too busy.

Since the author's larger premise and context here is God's ubiquitous presence in the marketplace and the importance of reflecting on that presence, Griffin discusses how a busy leader's fear of allocating time to pause the game is ultimately a spiritual struggle. "Dealing at last with the demons that will not let us plan our time is finally to wrestle with insecurities and fears that enslave us: unreasonable supervisors, unfair schedules, unrelenting clients, unrealistic demands. At last we can come out of the undergrowth and into the clearing, where one can see new options for the use of time."

It is a spiritual struggle because how we manage time is a raw reflection of our sense of worth and esteem. When we are constantly anxious about pleasing others, we are not at peace with ourselves. We are not at peace because we are feeling scattered, unsure of what is best as we try to make so many things "good enough." When feeling scattered it is nearly impossible to find the center of our being, to let our spirit become renewed or energized. The voice of God becomes more faint, and without hearing or responding to that voice all we hear instead is the tyranny of the urgent and the urgencies of well-meaning (hopefully) tyrants. The voice we have neglected is the path to the relationship that can fully restore that spiritual sense of worth, if we are willing to "stop, look and listen."

Reflection is not only good for the soul but good for business; it is not a naive, unproductive exercise. Anxiety, according to Griffin, is actually a major barrier to making decisions. She writes, "Reflection is not a denial of time but a way to heighten one's grasp of time. Developing the ability to come to conclusions readily and make decisions with confidence is not a matter either of time-squeezing or of time-collapsing. Intuitive knowledge is rare and visionary. Data-base knowledge is of an entirely different order from the wisdom gained when we make friends with time."

There are many people with whom I would like to be friends, including Griffin. But I think it would be really cool to be "friends with time" as well!