Arriving at Naipaul's Enigma

I lay on the floor beneath the glow of the cast iron stove. Burlap bag as blanket. Brown zafu as pillow. Angled above me, V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. The fire in the metal box dances above the wood (rather than within it), making light shimmer against the yellowed pages. 

It is Sunday. Sunday nights have a separateness about them. It is a threshold night, a tipping point night. It is capstone and eve of beginnings.

I am reading Enigma because I heard Karl Ove Knausgaard read the first section on The New Yorker podcast. The stove near me, a Jøtul, is as Norwegian as Knausgård. Was this the reason I tipped Naipaul’s book from the shelf? The mind’s hazy remembrance of a reading by a Norwegian? 

The rain on the metal roof pelts the corrugated tin, a light but metallic ring. 

I read: “Jack lived among ruins, among superseded things.” 

I ask V. S. Naipaul, Why superseded? Why not supplanted

No reply. 

He continues: 

But that way of looking came to me later, has come to me with greater force now, with the writing. It wasn’t the idea that came to me when I first went out walking. 

It almost always comes later and most always with the writing. Distance fosters illumination. The mind’s bits of string strung together to make sense of randomness, of ruin.  
 
I am taken by Naipaul’s fragments, I try to string the random collection together:

  • … when the land had more meaning, when it absorbed more of my life …
  • …. If I say it was winter when I arrive at that house in the river valley, it is because I remember the mist, the four days of rain and mist that hid my surroundings from me and answered my anxiety at the time, anxiety about my work and this move to a new place … 
  • Snow dusted the lawn in front of my cottage; dusted the bare branches of the trees; outlined discarded things … 
  • After all my time in England I still had that nervousness in a new place, that rawness of response, still felt myself to be in another man’s country, felt my strangeness, my solitude.
  • ... the sense of space was overwhelming. 
  • It was possible on this stretch to hold onto the idea of emptiness. 
  • ... another carefully made thing abandoned; another piece of the past that no longer had a use but had not been thrown away. 
  • As though, in that little spot around the farm buildings and Jack’s cottage, time had stood still, and things were as they had been, for a little while. But the sheep-shearing was from the past. Like the old farm buildings. Like the caravan that wasn’t going to move again. Like the barn where grain was no longer stored. 

I hear coyotes all around. Two or three packs yelping a heinous chorus. Last week, the lake lay frozen. They stalked the ducks toward the center, remnants of feathers the remaining remark.

Last night, a fox attempted to make off with one of the chickens. A chunk of the chicken’s back was gone. Coyotes disembowel their prey on site; foxes retreat with their meal back to their den. I must have startled the fox when I walked outside, robbing him of his fresh dinner.

The rain has slowed to a resonant tapping. The fire glows embers. I read one more section before heading to the house and to bed:

That idea of ruin and dereliction, of out-of-placeness, was something I felt about myself, attached to myself: a man from another hemisphere, another background, coming to rest in middle life in the cottage of a half-neglected estate, an estate full of reminders of its Edwardian past, with few connections with the present. An oddity among the estates and big houses of the valley, and I a further oddity in its grounds. I felt unanchored and stranged. Everything I saw in those early days, as I took my surroundings in, everything I saw on my daily walk, beside the windbreak or along the wide grassy way, made that feeling more acute. I felt that my presence in that old valley was part of something like an upheaval, a change in the course of the history of the country. 

 

 

Chrysalis

What no one tells you when you are young is that your life’s work will take its shape through a slow simmer of self-realization. One’s purpose is rarely revealed in a flash of insight or a single cathartic event; rather, it’s a successive shaping by tiny moments, like waves that form the contour of a shoreline. 

Since my early twenties, I have taken countless career assessments and read troves of books and articles on vocational advice. No matter what new resource I discovered, whether a test, a book, or a seminar, they all directed me toward creative pursuits. 

So, throughout my career, I would, quite naturally, seek opportunities to flex this creative muscle. If an opportunity for speaking or writing presented itself, I would take it. At first, I did so with a mixture of motives, but as I matured, I discovered real pleasure in doing the work. It was the creative work itself that fascinated me (not the recognition nor public posturing). For some, work such as gardening or cooking affords this pleasure, for me, it is creativity in most any form (but primarily, writing). 


Following Fascination


Joseph Campbell’s truncated statement 'follow your bliss' has mutated into a job-seeking truism. As a maxim for one’s career choice, I find it suspect. The realistic side of me (the one who has a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed), repulses at career advice that encourages me to 'follow my bliss.' It is the word bliss that confounds me; I can't equate vocation with Nirvana.

Just a few months ago, I listened to Joseph Campbell’s lectures again. He stated the same sentiment (follow your bliss) but used different words; this time, the words became a lens, a statement through which I could see: 

'The way to build your mission is to follow your fascinations.'     

There. That was it. The missing link between career-as-nirvana and career-as-adventure. Follow my bliss? Ludicrous. Follow my fascinations? That’s a path I can tread … 

  • I'm fascinated by the intersection of creativity and commerce, the synthesis of work and art, what Wallace Stevens called the ‘interdependence of imagination and reality as equals.’
  • I'm fascinated by the ‘armory of language and what you can do with it.’ (Luc Sante)
  • I'm fascinated by shared learning which is ‘not a form of polemics ... or magisterial dogmatism, but of shared investigation.’ (Jorge Luis Borges)
  • I'm fascinated by technology that enlarges (rather than reduces) the human experience. (This past week, I facilitated a live, virtual storytelling workshop with my friends at MarketingProfs: it was fascinating work). 
  • I'm fascinated by artistic work that makes me vulnerable (for it is at the edge of vulnerability that I experience transformation; the poet David Whyte calls this type of work 'robust vulnerability.')

Through the years, as a professional, I gravitated toward whatever was necessary to run the business. If we needed a customer service department, we built it. If we needed support, we created it. As one of the first employees, I grew up with the business: warehouse, admin, sales support, customer service, sales, management, and finally CEO. It was an enlarging experience and provided opportunities to experiment and explore. (We forget that the large work of discovering what we will do with our lives is an evolution, one that is discerned primarily through doing. 'Figure it out for yourself,' says the ancient minstrel, ‘There are no shortcuts.’)

I failed at many things and succeeded at some, but I learned more about myself, discovering along the way that my fascinations tended toward the creative rather than the logistical. I found passion and purpose in my creative pursuits (writing, speaking, photography) but they were always relegated to 'side gigs.' I always felt I could give a lot more to my work if I had even greater opportunity to flex that creative muscle.


Genius Loci

 

A few months ago, my friends Mark and Catherine Graham at commonsku extended an offer I couldn’t resist, an opportunity that perfectly encapsulated my passion for creative communication and a chance to follow my fascinations. Starting January 1, I will embark on a new journey as commonsku’s Chief Content Officer. 

I have spent considerable time around Mark and Catherine. Mark and I go back a few years. We’re close (we insult and inspire each other often). I’ve introduced him to mechanical bulls in Dallas, Texas (a ride he excelled at); he introduced me to Parkdale in Toronto (an equally wild ride). We’ve hung out at art museums, taken road trips, and traded enough email barbs to write a short novel. We share a curiosity about the intersection of work-life and art-life, how we can enrich our lives and the lives of others by building something beautiful and inspiring into our ordinary experiences. ('Epic cool shit' is how I think he would phrase it). And Catherine is the engine, a super-sharp mind of systems and efficiencies; both are passionate about empowering entrepreneurs. More details are forthcoming about our new adventure, but, even now, as we work through the upcoming year’s plan, the possibilities are tremendous. I see, on the horizon ahead, a lot of 'epic cool shit.'

I have also spent time with many of the professionals in the commonsku community. commonsku is a network of maverick entrepreneurs who, dissatisfied with the status quo, thrive at building distinct brands with unique voices (yet find unity in their diversity). 

There is this ancient idea, a Roman idea, of genius loci, which means the protective spirit of place. Genius loci has become modern parlance for a protective location or environment that allows one to flourish. By this definition, even a work culture can be a genius loci. It’s not a perfect place, in fact, it’s fraught with risk, but it demands your greatest work. It’s aspirational, to be sure, but it’s something for those of us who build businesses to be cognizant of, to develop a distinctive enclave that fosters exceptional craftsmanship.

I see the company commonsku, and the community commonsku as a genius loci, a place where one can do great (and fascinating) work. I'm honored that I have the opportunity, to not only distil 25 years of experience to help encourage entrepreneurs, but also to grow alongside some of the most ingenious and independent spirits in the business. (Even if it means working with Mark).


A Lovely Ride

 

I have been incredibly fortunate. I have spent the past 25 years working for and with wonderful people. As any worthwhile work can be, it was often difficult, sometimes stressful, but, on the whole, it was rewarding. As I reflect upon years of work with one company and the various roles performed through the years, I think of the anecdote told by Herman Hesse, it's from a conversation between a river ferryman and his nobleman-passenger:

‘You have chosen a lovely life,’ said the passenger. 'It must be lovely to live by this water every day and to travel upon it.' 
Smiling, the rower rocked, ‘It is lovely, sit. It is as you say. But is not every life, is not every work lovely?’

'Lovely' might be too strong a word. I am sure if you were to ask the twenty-year-younger-me (the one busily hurling boxes or entering orders) if he was pursuing ‘lovely’ work, he would snark a retort unpublishable. 

But the author Paul Theroux, famous for a lifetime of travel writing, once quipped, ‘Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.’ We rarely appreciate the journey we are on at the moment; it is mainly in hindsight that we value its significance in our lives. 

Space nor time permit me to thank the many who have contributed to my growth while at Robyn, from clients, suppliers-partners, the community, and most certainly my colleagues, half of whom I have worked alongside for more than ten years. Most of all, to Merv Hackney who, much more than boss and mentor, has been a cherished friend and fearless leader, without whose influence I would have never had the courage nor the wisdom to follow my fascination. 

To my new colleagues, industry peers, and the commonsku community in which I now serve: thank you for the opportunity.

Let's build something fascinating.