Expectations

They shape us, sometimes sculpting with care, but often chipping away at who we could be. For expectations are born both from within and from without. Left unfettered, expectations will crush a soul, reduce an artist to rubble, and smash the joy we should feel every day.

Our parents start the process… “You go to a good school, get a good job, marry well, have children, and work hard. Go to church on Sundays. We absorb these ideas until they seem to be our own.

Then our peer group kicks in, and they can either help or hinder the process of personal growth. In my case, my friends from school and early adulthood tended to be unconventional. I tried to have it all, marrying a lawyer and writing songs in Nashville and never quite fitting in. Like many writers and artists, I strived for conformity, yearning for acceptance. But as an unknown writer, I was always just on the other side of an invisible door.  I could see the people, smell the food, and hear the music, but I was more spectator than participant. So close,  yet infinitely far.

Artists and creatives who surrender early on my find happiness if they can kill that part of themselves which longs for artistic success. It’s tough to achieve a balance.

We believe, deep in the secret places of our heart, that we are living a certain kind of lie, that there is something else out there in the universe whispering, then shouting, exhorting us to yearn for more. We chaffe against the bonds of the past and the expectations which threaten to confine us. Some of us are lucky enough to shed those shackles, and that is a glorious thing, an awakening of the spirit.

Yet, when we look beyond the borders we have been confined to and set our eyes upon the distant mountaintop, we begin another journey in which our own great expectations do us harm. It’s inevitable.

We dream great dreams and imagine a future of rainbows and unicorns where our art is heard, seen, read, and important. We visualize how things could be and convince ourselves that they not only should be, but that they will be thus because it is our destiny. Ahh, the arrogance of an artist. We must possess some of it, for we dare to believe that someday, somewhere, we will make a difference and that our work will matter. This drive can propel us to great heights, but it can just as easily destroy us.

I write because I must.  My pen touches the page and I and mix color and emotion because I need to pull the swirling tempest of light and darkness out of me and share it with the world.

When I remember this truth, I enjoy the journey toward that lofty peak, savouring the scents and vistas along the way. I am free of expectations and can live, love and laugh in the moment, and the moment is what matters.

I strive to remember, because the moments will only keep slipping away.

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Of Music and Memories

I’ve heard that smell is the sense most tied to memory. I don’t doubt that, but for me, a certain melody can bring the past flooding back in a way that nothing else can. Music has been an integral part of my life since Junior High, so at my age, that’s a prettty long soundtrack.

The perfect song at the right moment leaves an indellible imprint on me. If I’m in a pensive mood and hear that song again, there is a kind of echo in my soul and I can feel the sun on my face, taste the wine, or catch a whisper of perfume.

When I hear Jimmy Buffet, sometimes I’m back in college on a leaky boat with my old friends, that lazy warmth of sunshine, salt water, and laughter shining strong. Back when I knew I could do anything and the world was my oyster and real problems were things other people had. My biggest concern then was whether we would catch fish or get caught by the Marine Patrol. (We were always in violation of something.)

Rock You Like A Hurricane takes me back to high school, getting pumped up before a big basketball game, and I can smell the gym floor and feel the adrenaline and sweat and anticipation. Basketball was a huge part of my life, and like so many things, it’s faded from my consciousness, something I once did that I no longer do. I miss it sometimes, especially when I hear that song.

The Song Remembers When brings me  out west to Jackson Hole  and Yellowstone  when the air was crisp and the light was golden and tasted like hope. We heard that song on the radio as we drove over the Great Divide, the sun slipping below snow-tipped peaks around us and the sky painted a glory of pink and orange, and I recall that moment, knowing how rare and precisous it was, holding on to it for as long as I could. She and the moment slipped away like old loves always do.

My wife recently turned me on to Van Morrison, songs like Into the Mystic, and I can feel those songs wraping around my soul as we make new memories that one day we will look back on with deep fondness. I am in a season of gratitude and love, keenly aware of the often fleeting nature of peace and passion. It’s priceless, a sensation to be savoured, an emotion to be relished in the moment.

Because the memory is only an echo.

Marriage, Love, Loss and Redemption

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“Happily ever after “is the perfect ending for a fairy tale. Anyone who has been married longer than the honeymoon knows this is utter nonsense. The work is just beginning. Many of us put on wedding rings,hearing the vows which include “sickness and health, for better or worse,” but glossing over those truths with false expectations which can undermine, even destroy unions meant to last. Lord knows I’m no expert on marriage, but I know quite a bit about screwing them up.

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The chivalric love of the middle ages, that era of glorious unrequited love and a glimpse of a pale ankle which would send a knight into fits of passion has made its way to the twenty-first century; it’s not quite the same now, but the underpinnings are still there. The romantic notions of “love at first sight,” a “damsel in distress,” and “prince charming” won’t die easily. Despite the shift in gender roles and the feminist revolution, these archaic ideas continue to affect both men and women in different ways.

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Many young girls are raised to find a man, get married, and have children, subverting her own needs and dreams to his. There is nothing inherently wrong with getting married and having children, obviously, but the subverting part gets dicey. Before women could vote, work, and be successful in their own right, this paradigm worked on its surface, because women had little choice and therefore small expectations; being trapped in a loveless marriage in a subservient role chaffed and burned, yet divorce was generally not an option. It is now, though, and as women have entered the workforce and become CEOs and Senators, we’ve seen divorce rates climb. It’s partly because of absurd expectations, and mixed messages in our culture.

Women are objectified one moment, placed on a pedestal the next, either the whore, the princess, or the mother. In childhood, young girls are barraged by Disney movies where Cinderella is saved by her prince, where Barbi dolls have enormous breasts and wear glitzy clothes to find Ken. In young adulthood and the teen years, music comes into the mix, with songs of maudlin co-dependence, or upbeat songs of empowerment which are generally about promiscuity rather than brains or will. Then there are the “chick flicks,” the same movie made a hundred times with the “meet-cute,” the initial awkwardness, the falling in love, the break-up and then the reunion, often with people clapping around them. Ugh.

chick flick

Boys are raised playing army and football, where aggression is rewarded and competition is fierce and the key to any sort of success. They hear the same songs, watch the same movies, and the message of strength, even dominance finds its way into their souls. No man or boy wants to be the “Beta.” Everyone wants to be the Alpha male, because that’s what the girls and women like, too. Be stronger, don’t cry, hit harder, run faster. And later, make more money. For in adulthood, this is how males measure their prowess.

It’s a wonder anybody stays married at all.

Women are taught by society to want a man who is strong and fierce, but who is also sensitive and compliant, who will shed a tear during Sense and Sensibility  and listen patiently to her problems, but who will also throat-punch the jerk who disrespects her. Men are taught to suppress their feelings, to be stoic and strong, and internalize their stress and problems. Couples enter into marriages with these presets programmed into us, and when things go south, wonder what the hell happened.

Marriage is hard work. The hardest work there is. People change and grow, and hopefully they can do this together; this is usually a choice, whether conscious or not, and when a couple doesn’t grow together, they will inevitably grow apart. When things get close and mean, when the walls are pressing in, it’s easy to look around and decide that there is an easier way, that you’d be better off where the grass is a deeper shade of green. This is the message our culture continually bombards us with, through music, movies, and social media, this facade of pretty lies. People break and lives are destroyed as a result.

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The fairy tale was never real. But marriage can be glorious and fulfilling. I’ve been through the crud and the blood and the muck, and I’ve had seasons where I woke up in the morning with an elephant on my chest.For some people, there is no other way, and my heart breaks for them.  I’m glad that my wife and I didn’t break, though. That we’ve decided that we’re going to grow together rather than apart. And in making it through the terrible, we’ve learned some important things about ourselves and each other. We look at one another now and say “till the wheels come off.”

We’ve made a conscious effort to make each other better. With God’s help we’re going to make it. Partners, for better or worse, and that’s better than the fairy tale.

http://www.amazon.com/Wrath-Redemption-Sean-T-Smith-ebook/dp/B00SXOLOEQ

A Christian Writer’s Journey

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I’ve always been a dreamer, something that my father instilled in me from a very young age because he would say things like, “son if you work hard, you can be anything you want to be. Follow your dreams.”  I saw my old man write books, toil as a carpenter, and then go to law school. He practiced what he preached, rising from abject poverty to success through discipline and years of burning the candle at both ends. When I left the University of Florida to pursue a songwriting career, my dreams were vast and my ability limited. I had no idea how hard my road would be.

It occurs to me that I’ve had a lifelong problem managing my expectations, and this character trait has tarnished my relationships, my career, and my soul. When you shoot for the stars, mostly you don’t wind up where you thought you were going. The heart of the matter is pride. Leaning much upon my own understanding rather than upon God. So here’s my story, and perhaps some other folks can avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made, and perhaps with the telling of it, maybe I’ll finally wrap my head around the truth.

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I moved to Nashville way back in 1992 with a heart full of dreams and a cheap guitar. Those first years were heady, back when I knew I would  “make it,” and I figured that within a few years, I’d be living the dream. I played the Bluebird, penned hundreds of songs with fellow songwriters,  and wrote every single day. I saw, quickly, that I had much to learn. I’d been in town for about a month when I saw a writers round with Bob DePiro and Mike Reid… they slayed me with their talent. Every song was perfection, their vocals were mind-blowing, and their musical ability was so far beyond me that I saw there was an entire mountain yet to climb. I embraced it, and I learned, worked on my craft, mentored by some great writers. I had songs on hold for major artists, went to number one parties, and rubbed elbows with the movers and shakers of Music Row. Then I started doing a dangerous thing.

I began spending too much time gazing at where I wanted to be rather than what I needed to do to get there, and worse, whether that was where I should go. Enter the bitterness, the, sense of betrayal and the resentment. The great Harlan Howard, whom I had the great pleasure of spending time with, once said to a disgruntled songwriter, “well, nobody called and asked you to move to Nashville.” Right.He didn’t say that to me, but it would have bee spot on. Nobody told me to decide to become a writer..that was my choice. But the desire to succeed was eating my soul, clouding my vision and ultimately hurting my music. Some of my fellow writers nicknamed me “Doctor Doom.”

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I moved back to Florida following a divorce and the feeling of being let down in my songwriting career (or lack thereof,) thinking that I could leave writing in my rear-view mirror. I was wrong, and I started writing fiction, which didn’t require the same sort of schmoozing and glad-handing that songwriting seems to. When I got my first publishing deal, I was ecstatic. I’d signed a contract for a trilogy, and I hadn’t even written two of the books yet. I decided I would be a wildly successful author within perhaps a year or two. I’m hard headed, obviously, though my wife uses more colorful words to describe my frequent and woeful lack of understanding.

It takes years of hard work, multiple books, and networking, and talent to make it as an author. Like any other artistic endeavor, it’s a subjective thing, and people will buy what people buy. I find the writing in Fifty Shades of Grey to be awful, but tens of millions of people strongly disagree; E.L. James reached the stars by connecting with her readers, and more power to her. I could undoubtedly learn a thing or two from her. So, I’m writing, working, knowing it takes time, and trying not to chafe against that knowledge. Trying to enjoy the journey, and not focus on the destination.

During these decades of writing, I burned down one marriage and almost destroyed another. One of the central reasons this happened is because I expect things to go my way, and when they don’t, I get rankled. My essential impatience, my propensity to reach beyond my means to grasp. Marriage is hard work, and when things go south, which they will in any marriage at some point, I’ve had the feeling that things should be right again quickly. Wounds should heal, others should change, I should change…if not overnight, then within a time frame that I deem acceptable. Utter nonsense. It’s destructive. Because, once again, that resentment sets in and things only get worse. You end up feeling like you’re wasting your time, and when a sense of futility becomes pervasive, it’s already almost too late. It takes discipline and hard work to make it back from that.

Against this backdrop, I’ve experienced the same sort of impatience with God. It sounds as dumb as it is, yet when I’m in the midst of it, I can’t see it, missing the forest for the trees. I cry out to God, asking for help with more selfishness than humility: Help me make it as a writer, help my marriage, please send a briefcase full of money from the sky!  When I don’t get the quick results I desire, I feel betrayed. Like no one is really listening. Like the songs on the radio are full of false promises, and that the Word itself has misled me. But I have misled myself by choosing to focus on the wrong things, by hearing what I want to hear instead of the truth.

The truth is, life can be terrible, hard, and mean. And there is no assurance of a good outcome for any of us on this earth simply because we choose to follow God. The whole idea of abundance theory preached in many mega-churches is dangerous drivel.  It’s connected to Calvinism and the idea that success is predestined, a concept which helped to form the Protestant Work Ethic and build a nation, but which in many ways undermines the deeper message of the gospel. This Calvinistic attitude spawns the belief that poor are poor because God has decided it, and conversely that the wealthy are wealthy because they have earned favor in the eyes of the Lord. This belief system is insidious. Ask the Paul, Peter and Timothy about that.

Because the assurance and peace Jesus and the Apostles talk about is the eternal kind, not the earthly kind, and the our peace on this rock is found in knowing this and feeling fulfilled and joyous despite our circumstances. Salvation, peace, and joy are not things we have earned, but which come, ultimately, through the grace of God. Apart from God, I can do nothing. I am worth nothing. And this, perhaps, is the central truth I’ve missed over and over again.

The story isn’t mine. It never was. Paul extolls us in Hebrews 12:2 “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our fate…”  I’m an author, yet I’m not THE author. I focus on the things which I want, the tangible trappings of success, and I fix my gaze upon that which I cannot obtain alone. I cling to my pride like a talisman and wonder why I become disillusioned. I truly want to reach people, to touch lives and be a force of light, but I’ve been going about it all wrong, putting my own story ahead of the most important story.

It will take hard work and discipline, and faith, but when I look back twenty years from now, I pray I will be able to say that I was living and writing for the right reasons, not the wrong ones, and that I released my foolish pride, my selfish expectations, and human arrogance. By emptying myself, I pray that God will fill me with His spirit and that the kind of peace which matters is the peace I will have found.

I still have a mountain to climb, and my way is unclear. I have much to learn, and am certain I will falter. I am not alone, and in this knowledge I will rest assured, striving to fix my eyes on Jesus, my sole destination.

http://www.amazon.com/Wrath-Redemption-Sean-T-Smith-ebook/dp/B00SXOLOEQ/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Remembering Silver Hill…My Magnolia

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The woods are lonely and empty there now, but in my mind there is a place which will always remain as it once was. A house on a hill surrounded by forest and filled with laughter and generations and love. My grandparents called it Silver Hill.

In the spring and summer the air of Upstate New York has a sweetness to it. As if the maple trees and rocks, the flowers and the sun breathe new hope into the land itself. Little things take me back. The smell of fresh-cut hay, the clink of ice in a glass of tea on a hot day, the aroma of pipe smoke, the sight of an old orange tractor.

For me, Silver Hill was magic. It was a place of safety and refuge, a constant in a childhood rife with upheaval. My folks moved many times, and I attended about twenty schools, but Silver Hill remained a beacon of hope and stability when things got dark and mean. I remember riding the lawn mower with my Grandfather when I was about four or five, and later being allowed to mow the whole yard myself, a thing I enjoyed. It’s where I learned to shoot, love the woods. I recall reading an entire series of Piers Anthony books over about a week, perched in a comfortable nook of a towering tree, surrounded by twittering birds, the wind whispering through the leaves, and the branches rocking me gently.

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There were family reunions and birthday parties during the warm months, and I’d roam the woods and the yard with my cousins, all of us with skinned knees and dungarees. Catching frogs and tadpoles down at the pond, always on the lookout for a snake or Bigfoot, who was rumored to inhabit the area, and whom I was fairly certain I’d seen at least once. Building forts of increasing complexity. The adults would join in games of softball, and football, and there was this wonderful togetherness. That’s how I remember it, and that’s the truth which remains.

We ate blackberry pies, hot-dogs from the charcoal grill, and stacks of steaming pancakes from the griddle, my Grandmother making them as big as we wanted. Eating was a kind of celebration.

In the fall there was a bittersweet, fleeting explosion of color, as the woods came alive in red and yellow and every breath held the promise of the coming snow, a sharp, tingling sensation, a singing feeling in my soul.

Winter meant vast snowbanks, crackling fires, and Christmas. The aunts and uncles and cousins would migrate to Silver Hill, and we’d eat turkey and stuffing and tear into presents, savoring each one. We opened them one at a time, and it was a joyful thing, anticipation and wonder all wrapped together. We built igloos and had snowball fights, epic battles when the wind was cold and the snow was deep, knowing a warm fire, hot chocolate, and a slice of pie waited inside.

Silver Hill became a part of me, and looking back I realize that it’s because of the people, my family, my blood, and the memories which live there for all of us. We’re spread out all over the country now, but Silver Hill, and those black and white and faded picture still recall.What I remember most is love, unconditional and true.

Before every meal, my Grandfather would lead us in a short prayer, the same one every time,and it is etched indelibly into my heart.

“Lord we thank you for this food, and for thy many blessings.

We pray you will bless this food to our use and us to thy purpose.

Amen.”

http://www.amazon.com/Objects-Wrath-Book-1-ebook/dp/B00IK7MH9M/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

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