The Month of the Philosopher

January.  Here in North Dakota many people I know treat the first month of the year just as they treat Mondays; they can’t wait to just move on.  They say January in one of two ways: either the word rolls off their tongue like a gladiator saying his last words after being stabbed in the heart; or a snarl forms with wrinkled nose as the word breaks the stillness followed by thoughts of back-straining plastic shovels and mechanized equipment breaking-down because they really were not designed for these elements.  Realizing it’s the middle of winter is hard on people, myself included.  Everyday actions take longer, cutting into our precious schedules—our litany of daily accomplishments.  You betcha that resolution of exercising is mandatory for mental survival.

I understand why the frigid months of January and February are the only four-syllable months of the calendar year.  When the Romans decided to add these months to the calendar, with numb faces and frozen breathes these words slurred like sap from their mouths.  Makes sense to me.

If you’re going to exhaust your everything, squeeze the final drop into your attitude.  With foresight and experience, you understand long winters pull people down.  Cheery does not come naturally in January, so get ahead of the game, with wide-eyes make a smile; move the body and the mind will follow!  Don’t be the guy that hates Fridays because it means it’s only three days until Monday.  Embrace that white blanket on the landscape for what it is: an opportunity for winter activities only dreamed about in southern climates.  Ancient tribes crossed the Bering land bridge to eventually settle here because this land was bountiful with game.  They could have traveled further south, as many did, but many chose to stay on this frigid landscape dressed in animal skins, not because more southern areas were overpopulated, but because this region provided them with all the necessities for survival.  I’m certain that when the sun rose and set with the sky ablaze, they often took the time to enjoy these moments.  Even then, attitude shaped the moment.

Attitude can change like the weather.  Where do your thoughts fall on the attitude continuum?  Shoot for better.  Strive for excellence.  Make yesterdays optimism become the new pessimism by raising the attitude bar.  Don’t be a thermometer, be thermostat that is in charge of your attitude.  You will influence those around you in an amazing way.

It’s all relative, attitude is not absolute.  Snowy owls descend on North Dakota from the Arctic every winter.  They’re seen flitting like enormous white butterflies across the tranquil prairie, never really flying higher than a stack of hay bales or a utility pole.  They’re snowbirds in essence, vacationing in our southern, milder climate.  Our winter weather is like a Bahamas cruise relative to what they are typically subject to in the Arctic.

I love Charles Darwin’s story of when he sailed on the Beagle to Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America.  They sat around a campfire huddled close, yet chilled and trying to gain just a bit more heat from the flame.  The natives were dressed half-naked compared to the European researchers and were sitting across the fire at a considerable greater distance away and still they were dripping with sweat; their bodies revealing the excessive heat they were subject to.  It’s all relative to what your accustomed to.

I love the cold.  I get to work in the great outdoors everyday and have found that the colder the weather, the more I have the outdoors to myself.  There’s that selfish side of me, wanting views unobstructed by my fellow man.  Over the years I’ve had countless people—family, friends, and coworkers—ask me how come I don’t get cold.  You hear it enough and a pattern forms.  Like I’m some strange hermaphrodite that can withstand all elements thrown my way.  I like to believe that.  Insensitivity to the cold is my superpower.  If I believe it too much, I could get into serious trouble real fast.  On a continuum, I’m at the far end.  But there is a limit and don’t go off the edge…

I’ve come to realize my favorite month is January, appropriately named from the Roman God Janus who is depicted with two faces, one looking to the past, the other to the future.  It is this symbolic start of the New Year, where I can sit content, surrounded by Christmas decorations that still remain, with a smile daydreaming about past struggles and accomplishments, or future endeavors, that reminds me life is worth living.  Life revolves around memorable experiences with one another.  Also, my birthday may have something to do with this favorite month.  We typically spend my birthday surrounded by family and friends involved in some outdoor adventure.  Ice fishing, mule-drawn sleigh rides, and cross-country skiing have made birthdays very memorable for me.

Work is slower in January; I can actually maintain and accomplish with clarity, not just putting out fires and feeling stretched as thin as a balloon.  The rhythm of reloading, building, cleaning, organizing, and preparing can go smoothly.  Excessive demands are not whispered just within earshot.  Commitments need to have self-limitations.  Moderation is key; the wisest know how and when to say no.  I sense I still have a long ways to go here.

January is the philosopher’s month.  Harsh winter storms coupled with longer days of darkness tend to keep me indoors more, even if it’s only a few minutes more.  Those minutes make all the difference in taking time to reflect on appreciation and gratitude.  But the days are already growing since Winter Solstice.  I feel a hint of anxiety for the days to come; the Mach 4 lifestyle of summer is around the corner.  Extra commitments and societal expectations will work to degrade quality of life.

I’ve often wondered, do people slow down and reflect more this time of year in southern climates too?  I feel if it was moderate weather all of the time, I would never drop below Mach 4.  Even just a couple “January thaw” days urge me to do it all.  Sloooowww down, even if it is only a fraction of the year; this repairs and prepares the soul from what you came through and what’s yet to come.  Olympic athletes incorporate a rest and recovery period into their training regime, not only daily, but seasonally as well.  It’s necessary to avoid burnout.

We stay closer to home in January.  The result is a more quality life with our kids.  Getting to every place the fish are biting or every event beckoning our attendance is frugal.  Keeping up with the masses is fatal.  Children thrive off of simple routines and eventually begin to cringe at overloaded schedules.  This is contrary to Mark Twain’s lines, “Travel is fatal to…narrow-mindedness…Broad wholesome views…cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”  Balance is necessary.  We must savor a life of experiences but take plenty of time to reflect on those experiences.  Mind-numbing travel from experience to experience is pointless.  Sometimes I’d like to lift Mr. Twain off the ground by the shirt collar and say, “If you are always running, you’ll never really understand the beauty that lies beneath.  You’re living the life of the water-strider.  You’ve seen them; the insect that skates across the surface tension of water on lakes and rivers.  Sure they can move fast and look cool doing it, but they never really get to dive-in and absorb a location.  Stick around for awhile, break the surface tension, and immerse yourself.  Then go deeper yet.  Here is where you want to hang-out for awhile and savor the fruits of life.”  I remember reading about a guy that was briefly passing through a national park and asked a park ranger, “If I can only be here for 15 minutes, what should I do?”  The park ranger replied, “See that rock over there, I’d go sit on it and cry.”  Don’t be that solemn, wistful existence.  Quality not quantity.  That goes for daily travels too, it’s just that January asks us to slow down and we don’t argue or put up a fight as well.

As the tail-end of January approaches prematurely, I can’t help but already wonder, not what this crazy year has in store for me, but what will my next January bring?  I’m reminded of the sound of a page flipping in a good book at 4 am umbrellaed with the soft glow from a lampshade while the rest of the family sleeps.  Snow swirls and settles in the corners of the window panes.  A pair of coyotes announce their ownership of the surrounding hills; a territory established for rearing a new batch of pups.  My old dog, Butter, sprawled on the floor at my feet, no longer can hear her ancient relatives.  To her, January has always been the month she gets to vacate her kennel and sleep indoors with the family.  Unfortunately, I sense this will be her last January.  Make it a good one girl.

Modern Valor

Go!

Door whips shut

No big deal, I got this

Adrenaline junky all the way

Round the first corner

Ice shards, high knees, high knees

Stabilize yourself, hand on car

Short breaths, air burns lungs

Why am I doing this again?

You’ll catch a cold

Round the second corner

Hurdle the hitching post

Keep going, laughing hysterically

Longest straightaway stretch

Crusty snow stabs

Don’t slow down, clock is ticking

Stop laughing, it slows you down

Round the third corner

Pump those arms, if they’re moving

Feet are moving

You’re crazy, insane, you lost

Your mind

Descent, think heels, think heels

Don’t slip, focus, concentrate

Hope the neighbors aren’t watching

Round the fourth corner

Final stretch; take it home

Can’t feel feet

Legs are stubs in circular motion

I’m going to make it

Ascent, get up those steps

Frozen rocks

Almost there, to the door

Open, close in a flash

But feels like eons

Time!

Sit before you fall

Colorless

They’re numb

Quick wrap them in a warm towel

You conquered your record

By one second

You’re a beast

One more time

A Feline Shift

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Ol’Fluffy has his perch picked-out in the tractor cab.

Yup, times are a changin’, I clearly see,

History is unfolding right before me.

Time is a’glowing, it’s surely alive,

All actions must adapt; all must survive.

The other day, while at a rancher’s place,

I met a fellow with a big smile on his face.

Contrary to the thermometer, his spirits were high,

Attitude is everything; it’s do-or-die.

The way that the weather’s been, as of lately,

I immaturely expected a somber “oh pity me.”

Instead his heart beamed golden and mighty fine,

He was embracing well, the post-storm shine.

I couldn’t help but notice that in his tractor sat,

No border collie but a calico cat.

Every morning when he climbs up to his seat,

Out of the barn springs the cat; it’s a daily repeat.

Now this puts the kibosh on the status quo,

Must be a product of this mind-numbing snow.

Nothing else explains my perplexity,

This ranching takes on a new complexity.

A Zeitgeist change is cresting over the drift,

A new way of thinking; a paradigm shift.

I think I know where the future is going,

The time of the canine is quickly plateauing.

Blue and red heelers work cattle through gates,

Via nipping at heels; that’s one of their traits.

But think about the feline and all of his claws,

And agility that defies all of gravity’s laws.

Trained to sprint and to leap right onto cow backs,

Will get them going for sure; near cow heart attacks.

And where barks were once used to move the sluggish herd,

Now a blood-curdling scream will get those hooves stirred.

“Sick’em ol’ Cupcake” or “Sick’em Marshmallow,”

“Get that maverick out the draw, burn off his tallow.”

Or “Ma’s trying to get me, while I’m tagging a calf,

Guard me ol’ Garfield, turn back her riff raff.”

I see the cat’s duty, I see its potential,

I see how one on every ranch is essential.

I can’t wait to hear one yowl on command,

If one can be good, a pack would be grand!

I’ll Remember You

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Bullion Butte was one of Levi’s “stomping grounds” near Golva, ND.

It is the season when you did go

They lowered your body down below.

Your time while here touched so many hearts

Where you went I’m certain I know.

 

Your life walk was clear, no gray from you

You loved your family more than the dew.

You had so much to teach and to share

So much of ranching and farming too.

 

I will never forget the crowd there

Proud firefighters stood everywhere.

Your son walked to all and shook their hands

I’m sure you could feel their every prayer.

 

This volunteer time revealed your art

You did your service; you did your part.

Set examples, left a legacy

Live for others; give it from the heart.

 

You left while you were living your dream

But caught me off-guard as if midstream.

Big questions in life have no answers

I wish I knew God’s beautiful scheme.

 

I’ll remember you a family man,

I’ll remember you a great horseman,

Just like a brother you were to me,

I’ll remember you such a real man.

Let That Book Be Read

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So that’s how books end-up on the floor.

 

How ugly is the shiny book that sets upon the shelf,

Without an ounce of wear to show, it should scuff itself.

Hide the embarrassing signs of neglect and jump out on the floor,

Maybe trampled by passing feet or creased by swinging door.

 

Or better yet some melting snow, pressed in by winter boot,

Or corner chewed by playful pup, about anything will suit.

Now come-on dear folks and give that book adventuresome abuse,

Stuff it in your saddlebags upon trustee cayuse.

 

Or poke it in your purse, but keep it near the top,

Let it remind you it is there at every single stop.

Read some pages while you brush your teeth or one while you pump gas,

Feed those hungry eyes some words, don’t let a wasted second pass.

 

Before the game, slide that precious book into your back pocket,

Or when you paddle the Heart River, be sure that you Ziploc it.

Any place that you must wait, let the time go past,

So when called up to the desk you say, “Now that was really fast.”

 

Let that book get weathered, scarred from use beneath the sun,

Let its pride grow with age, let it know its battle’s won.

Next time you pass by that shelf, let that book be read,

Give it reason for its life, before it’s tossed as dead.

Your Choice

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Bridger, age 3, has a genuine smile and is enjoying life.

How alive am I willing to be? How far am I willing to extend beyond my comfort zone? For me, the first indicator that something is alive is how it reacts to outside stimuli. Very sensitive or barely sensitive? A blink. Eyes or ears draw towards auditory stimuli. A mutter is attempted, an unrecognizable subtle vibration within the larynx. A chest rises and falls in breath but quivers and struggles with difficulty. A spring crocus wilted, spread prostrate, or not springing back with a nudge. All signs exhibited when life is barely hanging-on.

So what would the opposite be? What is extremely alive? A roar. A chest-beating Tarzan call. Flips, cartwheels, and dancing with a flowing rhythm. Eyes—large and bright—it’s all in the eyes.

Vitality.

As alive as the Irish fiddler that circles her bow, fingers a blur, and dances with high knees all like a whirlwind. Glorious singing exudes life. As alive as the black-capped chickadee singing on a subzero February morning. Where does this come from? No one else is singing. It’s wickedly cold outside and food is scarce. Chickadee, you’re not surrounded by like-minded individuals of your species; it’s only you that I see, alone.

Our attitude portraits how we see life. We are not just consumers, but transformers, from nothing, to beauty. As designers of joy, we must voluntarily extend our hands to the world and together spread beautiful living. Does not the twisted oak reach over you while engrossed in the noon hour, creating the ideal break?

Find the “aha” moments. I remember a time when I saw the light. A whole new perspective was shown before me. My attitude was in a slump and I was looking for answers. Later, I was refreshed on how everything around us is a miracle. Yes indeed! Alleluia! I’m certain that my realization of the miracles around us will again slap me in the face someday soon.

Life is meant to be filled with luminous experiences. We are not only given a “one per person” pass for “aha” moments. This labyrinth we walk, stumble, crawl, and skip through—called life—has holes in the ceiling everywhere to be found, skylights to guide us in a new direction. We must keep moving down the twisted corridor to find the next glowing moment. We can’t just sit down on the floor and expect experiences to move to us. It may require our family to go searching together, or a team, or to extend a hand to a stranger. We need to find those “aha” moments. They will regenerate. Satiate. Create. Variegate. The result: an immensely fulfilling life that sings at the top of my lungs, “I am alive!”

Snowflow

You punch me in the face, then on your way,

You and your band of thugs are out to play.

Cartwheels, giggling, you sabotage the day,

For the time being you are here to stay.

 

Your army spreads as far as the eye can see,

A flood of ocean waves engulfing me.

Here at home on my Dakota prairie,

Once to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Ree.

 

Like quartz crystals of sand sharp on the go,

Minute throwing stars hurled from a wind’s blow.

But when the air sleeps your movement is slow,

Once horizontal now vertical flow.

 

Engulfing prairie rose and all smooth brome,

Total conversion the Great Plains Biome,

A tunneling vole nudges to its home,

Shouldering its way through chilled Styrofoam.

 

My movement glides with speed across your backs,

If with elbow grease I apply ski wax.

You’re imprinted with grouse and coyote tracks,

In a shelter of you we drop our packs.

 

Ah, the way you blanket and insulate,

Stick around my friend, for now spring can wait.

Bring Love to Fruition

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I woke-up from a dream and painted this scene.

Last night I had a dream.  It lasted a nanosecond, I’m sure.  Nevertheless, it weighed heavy on my chest in the early morning darkness.  I woke with my gut wrenched and overturned. The pain made the details unforgettable.  Two brothers, now grown men, reunite after a long separation.  One reluctantly states they must go see their father after an even longer separation.

I remember them warily walking towards their father from a distance, in a Pacific Northwest forest.  Towering Douglas Firs draped in lichens—old man’s beard lichens—surrounded them.  Their mint green tone gave the forest a serene atmosphere.  The dark forest opened to a remote cabin.  Standing in front of the barn was their father, his back to them as he toiled over a project.  When both sons approach, the father turns and his face instantly fills with glee but, it is short-lived as he slowly turns back to his busy project—his unending projects—that consume his life.  The brothers scan around to see tools on benches scattered everywhere covered in snow.  Some tools have rust on them from being excessively exposed to the elements.  Unfinished projects.  Ideas.  Great ideas from their youth that dad never completed.  Toy guns half carved-out of pine, toy knives and swords not so near completion.  Piled-up projects.  Dad wanted these boys to have fun but life just got in the way.  He meant so well.  Appointments, major repairs needed on stuff, work demands.  My throat swells writing this as a lump lodges itself.  Not because of childhood memories instead, because these are the things that haunt me today.  I’m bothered by the machines we can easily become that fail to emit love because we are so busy creating good ideas that never come to fruition.

For every project that is completed and praised, a dozen whither and die either getting broken for being in the way or just set aside or lost.  Beaver fur mukluks for my wife have been around here for the past 5 years, one boot finished, the other now lost, everyone tired of moving it from one table to another.  Let me know when you find it, it has my good sewing needle, awl, and a roll of sinew inside.  We ended-up buying new boots for her this week.  Did I have priority issues?  Will this become a theme?  If so, what kind of memories will our kids have to look back on?  I’m definitely a project guru that loves to get new ideas rolling…That lump backflips in my gut then starts crawling up my back…

As I write this, I think I know the answer.  I think these projects don’t really matter as long as we are taking time to be together as a family.  The rest is just stuff.  Yeah, it would be fun to see kids battling with fancy wooden swords that look like they were handcrafted for King Arthur and his knights.  But, my kids sword-fighting with two chunks of lumber from the woodpile is ok too.  If dad can make time to grab a third stick and jump-in on the battle, now that’s even better.  Keep activities simple enough that they actually occur without significant strife.  Or, just be there.  Be present.  I mean really be present.  Nothing else on your plate or hanging over your shoulders. Forget about it. It has to wait. It’s guaranteed anything you hold onto will show.  Kids will read this on you.  It will not bring nightmares later like the kind where family-time was neglected.

And the two brothers, their long separation from each other and from their father.  For me it signifies the family turmoil in America and no one understanding why.  Not acting to “nip it in the bud” before it magnifies into a uncontrollable beast.  Forgiveness never carried out.

Rise-up and father with joy.  Purposeful parenting.  Accomplish life’s necessary feats and be productive with your family painting.  I mean paint it right.  This is our one chance right now to create the sweetest scene.  “Productivity has nothing to do with time and everything to do with choices.”—G. Pereira.  Choose loved ones.  My subconscious mind put me in my place once again.  Then my conscious thoughts deciphered and laid it all out.  I get another chance.  It was only a dream yet there is a hint of truth that is easily fixed.