Credidero: An Epilogue

On January 17, 2019, I framed a year-long writing project for myself, called Credidero. On December 26, 2019, I completed the final planned installment, contemplating the concept of Possibility, following on eleven other pre-selected monthly topics of interest. According to the “Document Readibility” counter at Online Utility Dot Org, the full project looked like this, statistically:

Not surprising to me that (a) I write long sentences and (b) I write at a fairly high educational level. I think that’s the poet and scholar in me. In my personal projects, I like sentences to flow, metrically, which often makes them more florid than they might be for strict journalistic writing. And then I like to be precise and use the right word in the right place at the right time, even if that word is an arcane one that could be replaced with something less precise, but more accessible. Words matter. As do structure and flow. Text should feel beautiful, even when it’s dense.

I used another tool at Utility Online Dot Org to assess the words most commonly used in the full Credidero text. I eliminated the most common English words that are essential to sentence construction, but don’t much add informational value (e.g. the, be, to, of, and, etc.), and then merged some similar terms, leaving the following list of words that appeared most frequently in the text:

  1. human/humans/humanity/man
  2. time
  3. write/writing/written/wrote
  4. year/years
  5. thing/things
  6. way/ways
  7. word/words
  8. people/person
  9. think/thought
  10. life/living
  11. community/communities
  12. know
  13. made/make
  14. creative/creativity
  15. now
  16. first
  17. good
  18. long
  19. authority
  20. complex/complexity
  21. actually
  22. better
  23. work
  24. because
  25. right
  26. security
  27. something
  28. use/used
  29. believe
  30. within
  31. experience
  32. hostility
  33. little
  34. real
  35. find
  36. personal
  37. death
  38. others
  39. new
  40. possible
  41. certainly
  42. form
  43. create
  44. credidero
  45. online
  46. seems
  47. sense
  48. well
  49. absurd
  50. fact

If you’re more visually inclined, here’s a Wordle created from the same data set. (Wordle and I make different choices on which words to combine, and which to eliminate, so it’s not quite an apples-to-apples match, but the gist is there).

Here are some things that jump out to me as I look at these text sets. Do you see something different?

  • The focus on “big” topics puts the “big” concept of human beings in aggregate (human/humans/humanity/man, community/communities, and people/person) at or near the top of the pile, more so than words related to individuality, even though this was a project related to my personal thoughts and reflections. I suppose that means I worked to apply my own perceptions in universal ways whenever I could.
  • Time-related words (time, year/years, now, long) feature heavily, consistent with both a long-view of the concepts being explored, and also (I think) a sense that I was using this project to place where I am in my life now within a broader frame, looking at what I’ve experienced, and what may be ahead of me, and how I might consider and live within it. Right here, right now is a point on a time line. You can only accurately define it by looking both backward and forward along its span.
  • There are a lot of words related to our perception of the world around us (think/thought, know, believe, experience, find, seems, sense). This seems apt in a series that cited an exploration of belief as one of its core tenets. But it also seems to indicate some fuzziness of outcomes and outputs, as there are few absolute statements to be made on many of the subject topics. Belief is as much a function of feel as it is a function of know.
  • This was a writing project that recognized that it was a writing project, so there’s probably no surprise that scribbling-related words (write/writing/written/wrote and word/words) score so highly. More on this below, as I think that one of the underlying things that I gleaned through this project was why this type of writing is different from most other things I write, and perhaps some reflection on how to blend those pieces better.
  • The tone of the project felt and feels positive to me, even when covering topics with negative connotations, and that seems to be affirmed by the high placement of positive words like “good,” “better,” “right” and “well.”
  • I probably use the word “actually” too often. Might need to work on avoiding it (and its “mansplaining” association) in my writing. Although, actually . . . oh, never mind.

Getting beyond that simple text analysis, how do I think this project lived up to my own expectations for it? Here’s what I originally wrote about what I might want to achieve with Credidero:

I found myself focusing on a series where I grappled with one of those abstract and uncountable “-ity” nouns every month or so, letting it carry me where it would, with the thematic restrictions on the pieces being that they should reflect some real personal belief (“My Creed”), that they should eschew political dogma (neither “left” nor “right”), and that the acts of creating them should spark emotional response in some way, ideally something at the joyful end of the spectrum as an escape from the unrelenting sourness of modern media discourse.

I then noted:

I originally planned to title the series “Credo,” from the first person indicative present conjugation of the Latin verb “credere,” which means (approximately) “to believe.” That conjugated form has long since entered the English language to refer to a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions and premises, that guide an individual’s actions. But as I started to think about it more, I realized that I don’t actually have a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions, related to those 12 tenets and words right now — though I should in the future, once I really consider them. Hence a new title: “Credidero.” That’s the first person future perfect conjugation of “credere.” This verb form is used to describe an event that is expected to happen before a specific time of reference in the future. So if “Credo” translates to “I believe [now],” then “Credidero” translates to “I will have believed [by the end of the year].”

I think I did reasonably well in being honest and candid and personal in these pieces, and they did give me a sense of joy, most of the time, that hopefully translated into the reading experience as well. I might have been a little more politically strident in some cases than I would have desired, but there were concepts to be considered that, unfortunately, were and are tied up to our current political situation, dire and unavoidable as it is.

In terms of how my beliefs might have evolved or been codified in writing, I went back through each of the twelve pieces to find a sentence or paragraph that best synopsized what I carried out of the writing and research process. Reading them as a piece feels good to me. They may not represent a manifesto, but I think they accurately capture the head space and physical place where I find myself at this point in my life. I am glad to have actively reflected upon them to gain a more structured peek into the morass of my mind, busy and buzzing with noise and weirdness, always.

If there’s a core theme that runs through them, I believe its an active acceptance and embrace of the fact that I’m blessed to be able to think and write about such matters, a luxury many cannot afford, and that I need to use whatever time I have left on our blue-green glorious rock to embrace wonder in ways that produce joy for me and those whose lives intersect with mine, directly or indirectly. That joy and wonder should be anchored in the real, observable world around us, but with a recognition that our powers of observation are limited by biology and culture and habit. There are surprises and unknowns out there. Some will feel good. Some will hurt. Such is being alive, and aware. There’s no brilliant revelation there, I know, but it still feels good to actively contemplate and test such conclusions, and to decide whether they feel right and true. For me, they do.

Here are the twelve key quotes that frame “what I will have believed” in each article under the Credidero rubric:

  • Hostility: We can know how to kill without killing. We can know how to hate without hating. We can feel hostile without being hostile. Or we can be hostile without feeling hostile. We have agency in the presence of hostility imposed and hostility expressed, both individually and institutionally, but we must choose to accept that agency. I believe we should do so, and I believe we may all become better humans by occasionally facing the ugliness that sits at the very heart of our species’ collective soul, and also occasionally considering the ugliness that our societies ask us to assume as part of our social contracts, and then consciously, actively shaping our behaviors to manage, accept, or reject that ugliness, as best befits our personal and collective circumstances.
  • Curiosity: When I ponder what a personal end of days might look like, I tend to think that losing the desire for these types of inquisitions will be among the key dominoes falling in an ultimately failing physical system, and I’m going to rage, rage against the dying of that light, for as long as I can. For all of the emotional negatively that morbid curiosity might theoretically inflict upon me, were I more prone to explore it, I can’t help but think that the emotional positivity of eager, open, innocent investigation of the world around me will always return a net positive position for the time and energy spent in its pursuit. If I am the sum total of my experiences, then my curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes me me. And your curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes you you. And the glorious variety possible through endless permutations of those equations is what makes so much of life so very enjoyable, in ways that I hope to remain always curious about, until I disperse the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen that composes me, so that other curious entities might form from it.
  • Security: The little moments remain precious, the little touches remain important, the little objects remain iconic, the little steps remain productive, and on a personal basis, I will pursue and appreciate them as I always have, and they will anchor me, daily, in their comfortable familiarity and emotional warmth. That said, they should not, must not, render me numb to the realities of the world around me, and the real — not imaginary — threats to me and mine, and you and yours, that await there. We must feel at least “cum minima cura” about those realities, to create the friction and heat needed to prepare us to do more than hug fantasias when we’re required to do so by events beyond our individual control. Perhaps that collective sense of edge and unease will serve as the fulcrum upon which change is finally levered, and perhaps that’s the greatest little step than any of can truly take toward building a more secure world for the maximum number of its residents, human or otherwise. As good as it feels to hug our transitional objects, and as often I’m going to continue to do so, I think I’m also going to try to hug my own anxieties every now and again, if for no other reason than to look at them, understand them a bit better, and maybe decide that they might actually be trying to tell me something that I shouldn’t be hugging away at all.
  • Absurdity: I am absurd, I admit it, inside and out — but I am not a philosophical absurdist. I do believe we can glean meaning and value in an unfeeling, unthinking, and unknowing universe. And I do not believe that a fundamental conflict between the quest for meaning and the universe’s indifference to it drives my own inner absurdity.
  • Inhumanity: [All cultures], throughout our history, have created stories and religions and narratives that seek to guide humanity’s future through the examples of non-human actors, be they other living things on our planet, or mystical beings beyond it. I doubt that any one of them is any better or any worse than any other, so long as they focus individuals and small groups (remember, we get horrible en masse, always) on goodness at a scale perceivable to the perceiver, and receivable by a receiver . . . Maybe we all become better, more humane humans, the more we embrace the inhuman-ity around us.
  • Creativity: Creatio ex nihilo was long the sole province of God, or the Gods, or Muses, or Daemons, or other inhuman forces swirling in the vapors around us. I believe that by claiming creativity as our own human right, in all the things we do, and celebrating its fruits, we don’t denigrate the God(s) that inspire us, but instead become ever more like them.
  • Community: Somewhat ironically, this month’s “community” topic has been the hardest for me to consider and write, almost entirely because I’ve already spent so much time thinking about it and writing about it over the years that I already have a stronger set of well-formed beliefs on the topic that I’ve had on any of the others thus far. How I act on those beliefs, though, I think is evolving, hopefully in ways that connect me more meaningfully with a more local or in-person communities, rather than spending so much time alone (in real life) while sort of together (in virtual space). I imagine that retirement, with all the newly available time it entails, will be a much richer experience that way. Less thinking and writing about community all by myself, and more experiencing community with others.
  • Complexity: If simple work is the opposite of complex fun, just as entropy is the opposite of creation, just as the Devil is the opposite of the Watchmaker, then we’ve got to wrap back around to opening arguments and conclude by accepting that work must be the purview of Satan, and play must be the purview of God, and that we model ourselves most clearly in His image when we frolic in fields of phlox and fescue and philosophy and felicity and feeling and friends and family and festivity and fun. I’m ultimately happy to believe in such a simple truth when staring into the awesome face of such a stupidly, gloriously complex universe as ours!
  • Eternity: It seems to me that a belief in and commitment to the tangible (though as yet indeterminate) time span “L” is of greater utility than being afraid of and/or longing for a metaphysical eternity and what it might (though probably doesn’t) represent and contain. So is anybody up for starting The Church of Maximum “L,” with a defining core belief that “N” is greater than one, if we can only stick around long enough to establish contact and connect? I’d be a darned good early apostle if you need one. (Note: “N” and “L” are terms in the Drake Equation, discussed in that month’s article; “N” is the number of intelligent species in the galaxy capable of communicating across celestial distances, and “L” is the length of time they — are we — able to do so).
  • Authority: I believe we need to be constantly vigilant as we evaluate the various authorities that govern and shape our lives, but when all is said and done, I also believe that there’s a need for such authorities, and I hope that I am able to continue authoring my own life story in a fashion that encourages others to look my way and say “Now there’s an expert. Let’s see where he’s going to take us . . . “
  • Mortality: What else can we do in the face of the ways that mortality will impact us, sooner or later, except live life to the fullest while we still can do so? As trite or pat as that might sound as a concluding sentiment for this article, it’s what I have believed, do believe, and hope to always believe.
  • Possibility: Not everything’s possible, but more than enough things are plausible, and probable, to keep my sense of wonder and expectation high, and I believe that’s a rubric worth living in, and living through, and living for.

As mentioned above in the comments about the prevalence of writing-related words, I also found myself considering, from a technical standpoint, what it was that I was doing with this project, and how it differed from what I “normally” write. I knocked the idea around a bit, and eventually kept coming back to there being four key types of writing in my world, as follows:

  • Reactive: These would include reviews and related pieces; I saw, heard, read or did something, and here is how I react to it. Political pieces probably fall into this bucket too, as they are often written in response to governmental or social actions that generate a reaction requiring explanation.
  • Descriptive: I see these are being my experiential pieces, and I probably do this most often in travel articles and in my professional writing, where I am trying to tell readers something in ways that lets them see what I see, or understand what I understand, or value what I value.
  • Creative: The most obvious of the four categories, these would be my short stories, poems, lyrics, or whatever else just spins out of my head without direct anchor in the real world, until I make it so by writing about it.
  • Reflective: This is where I put Credidero. I see it as a type of writing that is personal, but is not necessarily anchored in any specific outside stimulus or activity. If I go back through the 1,200+ articles in my web archive, it’s unquestionably the least represented category of writing in my archive.

When I think about writing across these four categories, I believe that to hone my craft, I need to find ways and spaces to create more pieces that straddle multiple categories. A descriptive travel piece would become more compelling with a deeper reflective component, for example. Creative writing is strengthened when the descriptive elements are rich, even if the descriptions are of imaginary spaces and places. I can see other opportunities to blend across the four categories, and as I work in the year ahead to frame and market various writing projects, I want to be mindful of not just defaulting to my three usual silos (e.g. reactive reviews, descriptive travelogues, creative stories), but to think of ways to cross-pollinate my usual styles within each one, and to bring the reflective elements more to the fore. We can always get better at what we do, and that’s true for me and writing as with everything else. Maybe this will be a good rubric for formalizing that aspect of improvement.

One final thought, on “belief” itself. If asked to briefly summarize my most deeply-held beliefs before embarking on this project, I generally would have offered something glib like “physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics,” rather than anything anchored in mystical or metaphysical worlds. One needs a particularly deep faith to embrace the untestable, the invisible, and the unknowable, and my personality is a bit more “show me” oriented than ones that are receptive to believing in something simply because someone told me to believe in it. In our culture, those faith-based life practices tend to be seen as warm and nurturing, where science-based life practices are viewed as somehow cold and without deep emotional reward. I beg to differ on that front. I found myself reflecting regularly in this series on mysteries and margins and mind-blowing experiences — which can exist in the material world — and I glean deep emotional resonance from being a small, sentient object in a vast universe, composed of an uncountable number of ever-smaller objects, moving across a globe that seethes with living, breathing, moving, growing and dying objects of all shapes and sizes, each of them as important as I am, in the grand scheme of things. As noted above, “belief” is as much about feel as it is about know, and I do not see that as being the least bit out of alignment with a science-based view of the world around me. I’m happy to know things empirically, and I’m happy to feel things emotionally, and my beliefs sit comfortably atop both types of life experience, always. I do not feel a void in my life where faith should sit, at bottom line.

And with that note, I think this project is now complete. I appreciate those who have read along with me over the past year, especially given the fact that this is not the type of thing that has generally brought an audience to this website, nor sustained it. The project may have been an act of creative self-indulgence accordingly, but I gained value from it, and I’m glad to have played it out in a public domain. Here’s hoping that the insights and perspectives it provided me result in better writing and richer experiences in the years to come, however many more I might be blessed to experience, actively, in good health, and with eyes wide open to wonder and joy.

Note: This epilogue summarizes a 12-part, year-long writing project. If you wish to read more deeply, you may do so at the links below:

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

Thanks again, St. Anselm of Canterbury, for letting me borrow “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam.” You have been a good guide.

Credidero #12: Possibility

When I was framing this long form Credidero writing project late last year, I was living in a high-rise condo just off the Loop in Chicago, with plans to move back to Des Moines in the spring, where my wife’s work was based, where our daughter lived, and where we’d kept a second apartment for three years at that point, splitting our family life in professionally expedient, but personally unpleasant ways, for both of us. Despite the planned change of residency, my Board of Trustees asked me to stay on in my job as a nonprofit CEO, working remotely, with a monthly visit to the Chicago-area office, supplemented by my usual national travel schedule. Seemed like a good and stable “new normal” to me at the time, and I would have expected and predicted that when I was writing the final Credidero article (this one) twelve months later, that still would have been my current personal paradigm.

But that’s not the case, not at all. My wife and I are still in our Des Moines apartment, yes, but I retired from my nonprofit CEO job in November, and my wife shifted from her in-house corporate general counsel position to a freelance/contract situation that same month, allowing her to work from home. Our daughter and her partner are in the final phases of evaluating their next steps after she finishes her dual masters degree program next May, and they hope to be moving by next summer to an area that will allow them to pursue their outdoorsy activities more regularly, and for more months each year than frigid Iowa allows. My wife and I are using our newfound ability to travel when and where we want to both for international pleasure trips, and also to do our own sussing out of potential domestic markets for our own next steps.

If I had to guess, none of us will be in Des Moines by Christmas of 2020. New Mexico seems like the likeliest destination for my wife and I, with Arizona in second place (we’re both ready to own a house and some land again after five years of apartment/condo living), while Nevada looks to be the leading contender for our daughter and her partner. On the professional and personal improvement fronts, I’ve registered for two writers’ workshops in the year ahead, and may do others as time and resources permit, working toward a goal of getting back into paid freelance and/or contract work, and taking on some larger projects than have been possible for me while working full time. Once again, it seems like there’s an appealing “new normal” out there for 2020 and beyond, if I was asked to predict one.

But I could (and probably would) be just as wrong about that prediction twelve months from now as I was in the ones that I would have made a year ago. And therein lies the beauty and mystery of “Possibility,” this month’s Credidero topic. There are a lot of futures out there with our names on them. While it’s a obviously hyperbolic to claim “anything’s possible,” there certainly are a lot of branching decision points ahead of us, some within our control, some driven by external forces, with myriad variant outcomes shaped by ever-shifting combinations emerging from each of those nodes. We have a frequent family saying (and belief) in our household that “options make everything better.” I truly believe in that more and more as I get older and (maybe) wiser, given that the more options one has, the more possibilities that may spring from them. I find that to be deeply exciting, if only occasionally a little nerve-racking.

I referenced an old song of mine called “Anathematics” in an earlier Credidero article, and it contains the line “The future’s uncertain, as only the past can’t be” within its chorus. Indeed. Possibility can conceptually only be forward/future-looking, as what’s happened in the past is set, 100% possible by definition, at least outside of quantum or multiverse realms beyond what human beings can actually experience. That said, I do know that our tree of possibilities is heavily shaped by the decisions we’ve made in the past, e.g. what resources we’ve accrued, what types of work we’ve done, what we’ve valued and prioritized in how/where we live, how we’ve managed professional and personal relationships, etc. We’re always positioned at an inexorably forward-moving crux point, where all we are is all we’ve been, and all we can be is cantilevered out in front of us, hinged precipitously off of this slippery now. But as our collective past gets longer, and heavier, it provides an ever-more robust inertial ballast to what may yet be. No paths forward exist independent of the paths that carried us to this point, right here, right now. That’s why I don’t believe in regret. We can’t change the past, and wishing to do so devalues our now, and cramps our then.

If words can carry emotional heft beyond their dictionary definitions, then “possibility” certainly seems to bear a positive energy in most Western Cultures, most akin to and aligned with “hope” in its most common usage. People generally want to and choose to consider that tomorrow, and its tomorrows, will be brighter and lighter and better than today, even if today is pretty darn good, and we all hope that from all the possible futures before us, we may be graced with benign and gentle and prosperous ones. Just a quick surf through any online quotation bank for famous aphorisms including the word “possibility” affirms this sense:

“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” (Thomas Merton)

“All the possibilities of your human destiny are asleep in your soul. You are here to realize and honor these possibilities. When love comes in to your life, unrecognized dimensions of your destiny awaken and blossom and grow. Possibility is the secret heart of time.” (John O’Donohue)

And those are just the first three of 489 quotes returned from my single search, with most of the ones following them carrying similar optimism, joy and wonder about that which is not, but yet may be. Of course, it’s also possible that nuclear war will scorch the planet into a cinder tomorrow too, or that one of countless possible natural apocalyptic events (super-volcanoes, asteroid strikes, solar eruptions, etc.) could render 2020 a year much like the one at the heart of the K-T Boundary. Some folks spend much of their time considering such possibilities, either for professional, or personal, or poor metal health reasons, but for the vast majority of us in prosperous developed cities and nations, when we ponder possibilities, we’re generally seeing them as paths to future health, wealth, and goodness, or at least improvements on the now, whether subtle and personal or transformational and global.

When we want to consider the less fuzzy and warm facets of possibility, we generally turn to its more mathematically robust cousin: probability. While every child in America may cheerfully be told, under our “land of opportunity” rubric, that it’s possible for him or her to become President some day, we know that with ~325 million people in our country right now, only ~0.0000005% of them actually achieve that goal in a typical eligible lifetime. And as we assess those few human beings who are in reasonably serious consideration for that leadership role at this point in our never-ending political cycles, we’re bombarded by polling that attempts to cull the probable from the possible in next year’s elections. (You’d think we’d be better at picking Presidents, given their statistical oddity and uniqueness, yeesh!).

Natural global catastrophes are assessed in similar probabilistic terms: they’re pretty much all possible over the remaining existence of our planet, but when they happen, how much they destroy, and how likely each one might be at any given time are subjects for whole schools of research, scholarship, and (sadly) crank science and pop culture or religious fear-mongering. Climate change certainly has emerged as the most possible existential threat to our species in the short term (geologically speaking), but even there, credible experts and specious profiteers still differ wildly in their views on the when, what, how and how much of this evolving global process. Bringing things closer to home, in the era of big data, similar probabilistic and statistical analyses are constantly helping our governments, our doctors, and our businesses to make macro decisions that ideally reduce micro individual uncertainty and move us toward desirable (to them) possible futures. We can only hope that what we might actually desire doesn’t deviate too far from those calculations and the policies built upon them.

I found an utterly fascinating article by futurist Ruud van der Helm written in 2006, wherein he adds a third element to evaluating what may yet be: he considers the possible, the probable, and the plausible, and hopes that semantic clarification between those terms may improve both science and practice in the domains of future studies and foresight. I could easily spend the full text of this month’s Credidero piece summarizing his report, since it rings most true and clear to me, but I’ll settle for quoting the definitions that he uses in his summary for those three key terms:

Probability refers to concepts of chance and likeliness. A probable future is a future that is more likely than some other future. Likeliness should mainly lead to the ordinal ranking of alternative futures between more likely and less likely. Whether we select likely futures or less likely futures is a matter of study objectives. Any future, whether probable or improbable, is by default a possible future.

Possibility refers to a claim of reality, whether some future either can be or cannot be (and nothing in between). A possible future is considered by default potentially realizable (either passively or actively). Possibility can be challenged for absolute reasons (violation of established laws) or for contingent reasons (lack of realism with respect to the proposed time frame or available means). The latter consideration is the most relevant for futures studies and may yield important input for futures analysis.

Plausibility refers to the structure of the argument, where truth-value is based on the convincingness, the credibility, of the discourse describing the future. A plausible future is a convincing description of a future, which we can hold true, even though this future itself can be factually fallacious. A future can be plausible without being possible (excluding Bloch’s primary level of the formally possible). As a consequence, plausibility cannot be established beyond a personal or social process of negotiation.

When I personalize those concepts as I look forward (actuarial science would suggest I’ve got another 22 years or so before I’m beating the longevity odds), I see great possibilities in terms of my core personal goals, beyond just being a good husband and father, and a decent participant in the communities in which I reside. It’s entirely possible that the great American novel that I believe has been percolating within me for most of my adult life can finally be brought to fruition, for example, with the gift of time that retirement and smart management of family resources has bestowed upon me. It’s possible that novel could be successfully published. It could be a best-seller, even. And it could spawn some sequels, or a movie, or a television show. The sky’s the limit, hooray! But, then, yes, the probabilities of those high-achieving successes are lower, even though I think that their plausibility is actually quite reasonable, since I have been paid to write already, I am often told that I am good at it, and writing seems to be one of the few professional skills where practitioners can get better with age.

I do tend to see the arc of my professional plausibility with a bit more of an optimistic edge than others might, in large part because my career to date has been, by most objective standards, fairly to extremely implausible. If I pitched a story to a publisher about a Marine Corps brat Naval Academy graduate who went from working as a contracting officer for a highly classified military organization involving nuclear reactors to jobs as a music critic and museum development professional, in one step, and then went on to head organizations devoted to tree research, managing a historical house museum, and University food service, after stops in Catholic campus chaplaincy, independent K-12 education, and HIV/AIDS community service, do you think the average editor would buy it, or deem it an unbelievable narrative? I’m voting for the latter choice.

But whether or not it tracks as a viable fictional narrative, it is my personal reality, and I can only model my own possibilities, probabilities, and plausibilities upon it. Which is good, I think. I’ve played things in ways that most people wouldn’t have tried with the cards that I’ve been dealt, and I’ve been able to invent and adapt myself to wildly changing circumstances, with reasonable success, as judged objectively by outside observers of my work and its outcomes. And if I had to pick a single word to describe the best and most important facets of my professional work over the past 40+ years, that word would unquestionably be writer. I had my first paid freelance writing gig when I was 13 years old, hired to be the teen editor of a military base newspaper. Two years later, I won a state-wide poetry contest, competing mainly against writers far older than me. And I’ve never stopped scribbling since then, writing for more organizations, customers, clients and colleagues that I can begin to remember, crafting and sharing millions of words, covering a dizzying array of topics and writing types.

This Credidero writing project itself was designed to help bend some arcs of possibility over the course of a year, to hone some writing chops in different disciplines and styles that I felt were missing from my portfolio, as I look to a future where writing will be even more of an anchor for me than it has been over my working and student lives to date. The project was also designed to bend other arcs of possibility by forcing me to consider some topics of relevance and interest to an aging creative type, in ways that I’ve not often done in the past, looking at personal beliefs, rather than just reporting on or reacting to something placed before me, and seeing if that focus might produce some changed or changing behaviors as an outcome. I’ve now produced about 45,000 words in the project, which is a credibly hefty manuscript in its own right. It may just stand now as a completed personal exercise, or it may be something that takes life in some other form. We’ll see. The possibilities certainly aren’t endless, but they’re there, adjacent to or supporting other possibilities. And, again, I find that exciting.

As I usually do in these articles, I looked up the etymological background on my subject word for the month. “Possibility” came into use as a noun in the late Middle English period, derived from Old French possibilite, which in turn came from late Latin possibilis (“able to be done”), which followed from Latin posse (“be able”), which is posited to have evolved from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root poti-, which means “power.” It’s pleasing to me to perceive possibility as a source of power, be it political, or financial, or psychological, or spiritual. Once again, options make everything better, and there’s motive energy to be gleaned from the worlds and experiences ahead of us, with that energy being directly correlated in my mind to the number of nodes of opportunity we face. Open doors are far more exciting than blank walls, and if one door leads to a room with two more doors beyond it, then the excitement grows.

This Credidero project has opened some doors of interest for me, and the courses of my family and professional lives over the past year have opened others. I’m eagerly peeking into each of them, treading through portals as confidently as I’m able (with a beloved buddy by my side, which also makes everything better), hopeful to explore as many rooms of possibility as I’m able with the years left before me. I do feel powerful in this exploration, and I do believe that I have opportunities to use that power in meaningful ways, though I may not know what that meaning will be until I can assess it as fact, not potential, from the other side of the experience.

Not everything’s possible, but more than enough things are plausible, and probable, to keep my sense of wonder and expectation high, and I believe that’s a rubric worth living in, and living through, and living for. And as I wind down this writing project, I find it apt and fitting that the final randomly-selected topic was “possibility,” as that’s on some plane exactly what I wanted to create when I embarked upon the project. It’s not the one word I likely would have selected had I planned out the course of the twelve articles in advance, but sometimes chance, and choice, and options, are smarter than we are, if we open ourselves to them and let them be. And let them Be.

So many doors, so many rooms, so many paths . . .

Note: This article is the final monthly installment of a 12-part, year-long writing project. I plan to spend a month or so reflecting on the series as a whole, and will prepare one final epilogue piece before January 2020 ends to capture any general themes or take-outs that I glean from it all. Watch this space . . .

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

 

Credidero #11: Mortality

I have written ~32,000 words to date as part of my planned 2019 writing project, Credidero, including an introductory article followed by ten pieces in ten months reflecting on ten topics. Some of my regular readers may have gotten through all ten of them. Many probably haven’t. Without checking the data, I suspect that the ones with the highest readership levels were those that covered the more common, basic aspects of  shared life experiences, e.g. community, security, or authority. Pretty much everybody will have to think about these topics at some point, some of them fairly regularly, and many of those folks might be inclined to see what someone else thinks about them. On the flip side, I expect the more esoteric topics — say, absurdity, complexity, or inhumanity — would have drawn lower readership levels, simply because not everybody has a need to consider such concepts regularly. So why bother investing any time in my thoughts on them?

If I’m correct in this assessment, then this month’s Credidero article — covering mortality — should be the most widely read of them all, since it’s the only topic of the twelve I’m covering that every single human being who has ever lived, is living, and ever will live, has or is going to experience. Some of us will face our own mortality sooner, some later, some suddenly, some after terrible lingering illness, some surrounded by loved ones, some alone, some welcoming the final curtain with a graceful bow, some raging against the dying of the light. We all experience birth (thought none of us remember it, so we can’t reflect on it), and we all experience death. In between those points, the only things that we all will share are breathing, eating, drinking, excreting, sleeping, and aging. When any of those activities stop, we die. Everything else is noise, on some plane. Or vanity, to cite the more eloquent words of the Preacher, the Son of David:I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”

King Solomon went on in his Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes to lay out a rubric designed to give meaning to our experiences between birth and death, beyond the basics of biological function. His crowning instruction was “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,” but before that, he exhorted us to (among other things) enjoy life with the ones we love, seek wisdom instead of folly, cast our bread upon the waters, share our riches with those less fortunate, etc. But even if we follow all of the Preacher’s instructions, eventually the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it,” and forever [the dead] have no more share in all that is done under the sun.”

I cite Ecclesiastes here simply because it’s a relevant text in the faith tradition in which I was raised, so I’m most familiar with it, but I just as easily could have picked just about any culture in the world, ever, and found texts related to death and dying, and how to prepare ourselves for that imminent eventuality. The universality of mortality means that death must be among the most discussed and debated topics in human experience, and as each of us wrestle with its inevitability individually, so too do we seek to find shared senses of meanings about it, through practices designed to postpone and/or mitigate our fear of death, through rituals related to the disposition of our bodies, and through spiritual traditions designed to inspire or frighten us as to what we might experience after our final exhalations.

In considering mortality for this month’s article, I kept returning to the fact that there are really two aspects to evaluate: beliefs about what happens before we die, and beliefs about what happens after we die. Most faith-based and spiritual traditions put heavy focus on the latter, presuming that we all possess some unseen living essence that will survive the death of our bodies, and will either be reborn in some form under the sun again, or experience eternal paradise or endless damnation in some non-corporeal world. Typically, such spiritual traditions also provide rules for living our physical lives that are designed to heighten the probabilities of positive outcomes for our posthumous infinities. Some focus on litanies of sins to be avoided, some focus on lists of good deeds to be done. But in either case, all of our experiences, and all of our relationships, and all of our accomplishments in our brief (cosmically speaking) physical lives are ultimately just ticks on a tote board, elements of grades to be assigned in a final judgment, precursors to a metaphysical life that’s considered to be of infinitely more worth and value than our mean slogs through the mud of measurable human experience

As it turns out for the purposes of this series, I reflected on and wrote about my own beliefs regarding metaphysical life after death in an earlier Credidero article on eternity, so I won’t revisit them in detail this month. Suffice to say, I believe that when I die, I will not experience any lasting metaphysical consciousness or existence in any way that is identifiable as me, or by me. I will leave behind physical remains, of course, and I’ve left instructions that they should be burned, and my ashes be kept or disposed of as my surviving loved ones see fit. While I have always enjoyed visiting graveyards and cemeteries, I don’t wish to have any permanent marker placed with my name upon it when my time comes. While it won’t be my call, if asked now to identify a place where my remains most sensibly belonged for ceremonial reasons, I’d pick Stoney Creek Cemetery in South Carolina (some images and stories about it here). There are plenty of fire ant nests there, and in my sense of the perverse, I would find it apt for them to spread the little bits of me around the marsh over a period of months or years, the better to sustain whatever living things might find my constituent elements useful.

Neither of my parents will be there, though, should Stoney Creek actually be the final resting place of my scattered remains. My father is embalmed and buried at Beaufort National Cemetery (if you visit that Wikipedia link, I took the photo at the top of the page; my dad’s grave is just to the left of and below the huge live oak in the center of the shot), and my mother has directed that she wishes to join him there, an intention that I will honor as the executor of her estate. Neither of them were comfortable with the concept of cremation, and both of them place(d) high value on their remains being together in a dedicated location specifically managed as a memorial resting place for those who served in the armed forces and the spouses who sustained and supported them. So be it. I’ll honor those wishes. And I’ll likely continue to visit the cemetery and keep the graves clean and pause for moments of reflection. As one does. All good.

That being said, I’ve still never emotionally embraced the logic behind preserving a body with chemicals, putting it in an impervious (and expensive) metal box with fine decorations outside and within, then burying it all in the ground — especially in cases where the deceased believed that they are going on to some greater glory where their meat container is as meaningless as a shucked cocoon. Why preserve it? Why look at it before we close the box? Why keep it from the bugs and the plants that could make use of it? It seems most odd to me that we put such expense and effort into disposing of our bodies, beyond taking the most simple and effective steps to ensuring that our remains do not create health hazards or aesthetic displeasure to those who survive us. I suppose in the case of cultures like ancient Egypt where the Pharaohs believed that they’d need all of their corporeal bits in the afterlife it made some sense to keep things from decay, or if we expected to lie in state under glass, Lenin-style, for a couple of centuries. But within the precepts of most modern monotheistic religions that clearly describe a living spirit existing independent of its former body, it seems a largely meaningless excess and indulgence that preys on the emotions of the bereaved and plays into the funerary industry’s profits. But I know mine is a minority opinion.

(For a less jaded view on how our modern American funerary culture arose, I highly recommend reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Many of the elements of contemporary death rituals in this country, secular and spiritual, trace their histories to the ways in which our Nation endured and moved on from the carnage of its greatest historic convulsion. I specifically noted above that I do not emotionally embrace the modern practices of managing the death process, because I do intellectually understand how they came to be, and why people want them that way. It just doesn’t feel right to me).

So as I consider the posthumous elements of my own mortality, those are my basic beliefs regarding both the metaphysical and corporeal elements of what happens after I die. Which leads to the second element of the analytical dichotomy posited above: What are my beliefs about mortality before I die? Not to be facile, but the easiest way for me to answer that question on a macro basis is probably to post a picture of the tattoo on the back of my left calf:

Those words come from a song called “Amethyst Deceivers” by COIL, one of my all-time favorite musical groups, who were (the two core members are both dead) hugely influential to my creative and musical aesthetics. That quote, to me, means that I know death is coming, and that I should be mindful and respectful of that fact, and to the other living things that live with me, and will follow me, or even consume me, when I am gone. I’m a small organism in a big ecosystem, and all of us are doing what we do while we have the chance to do it, none of us any better or more worthy than any other. The sigil above the quote is the black sun, an alchemic symbol that represents the first stage of the magnum opus, illuminating the dissolution of the body, and the namesake of Harry and Caresse Crosby’s incredible Black Sun Press, many original editions from which I had the chance to research and work with in a prior professional engagement.

That sign recurs regularly in the COIL oeuvre (they were artists as well as musicians), including the lyrics of the song “Fire of The Mind,” (click the link to hear it), which I’ve suggested should be played at any memorial service held on my behalf. The song’s lyrics are as follows:

Does death come alone or with eager reinforcements?
Does death come alone or with eager reinforcements?
Death is centrifugal
Solar and logical
Decadent and symmetrical
Angels are mathematical
Angels are bestial
Man is the animal
Man is the animal
The blacker the sun
The darker the dawn
Flashes from the axis
Flashes from the axis
On the hummingway to the stars
Holy holy, holy holy, holy oh holy
Holy holy, holy holy, holy
Holy holy, holy holy, holy
Man is the animal
The blacker the suns
The darker the dawn

(As a related side note, for many years, I suggested the Velvet Underground’s “Black Angel’s Death Song” as my final musical elegy, though my feelings about Lou Reed evolved over the years to a point where it seems less fitting for me now than it once did. Still, that song’s lyrics, especially the last ones — Choose to choose, Choose to choose, Choose to go — speak to me, and I know its truly abrasive music would be terribly uncomfortable for the people being forced to listen to it in the stuffy confines of a church or funeral home, which appeals to me. Have I mentioned my sense of the perverse?)

So, is it morbid that I wear that COIL quote and image on my body, and will until my body is no more? I didn’t intend it to be so, and I don’t think that it is. The tattoo celebrates the memory of artists who moved me, it reminds me of my place on the planet, and it exhorts me to be respectful of even the least attractive denizens of our amazing living world, for even they have their places, and their roles. (The song “Amethyst Deceivers” also references crows, rooks, ravens, humans, and the toxic little mushrooms that give the song its title, also all things I like). Man is the animal, indeed. One of many. The COIL quote doesn’t make me think about death, it makes me think about life. It’s not telling me to dwell on the vultures (metaphoric or otherwise) that will consume me, but rather telling me to be in the moment, alive, now, mindful, and to acknowledge the vultures on the occasions when our paths cross, graciously.

For the third time in the Credidero series, I find myself returning to an old article of mine called “Seawater Sack Guy Speaks,” which I originally wrote as light parody or absurd satire, but which, as I get older, somehow moves closer to being a sincere manifesto of sorts, though it’s still a bit more extreme in places than my real views might be. The key quote relevant to the topic of mortality is this one:

I’m not going to be carrying any metaphysical seawater around any metaphysical heaven or hell when my sack breaks down and releases all its atoms, so I figure I should use every bit of the consciousness I’ve evolved, here and now, to enjoy my fleeting, warm, moist moment in the Sun. This is not to say that I’ve a problem with other sacks of seawater whose enjoyment of their own fleeting, warm, moist moments in the Sun involves the belief in something different. If such chemical processes provide them joy or comfort (or at least the chemical processes that cause their seawater to produce such sensations), then such is their right, and who am I to force my chemistry upon them?

I take joy and comfort from just being conscious, and consider that scientifically miraculous enough.

When I actively think about my own mortality, which truly isn’t very often, I usually end up thinking and feeling along the lines of that quote, rather than finding myself consumed with existential terror and despair. (I do recognize that this might change were I given three months to live, or were I a frail 95-year old). I don’t come out of any occasional reflections on my own mortality feeling like I must do anything and everything to push death as far away as I possibly can, but rather I come out thinking that, well, it could happen tomorrow, so I’d better do something I like doing today, and be happy doing it.

Sometimes that’s an active pursuit, sometimes it’s a passive one. I love adventure travel, as an example, but I can also have a really good day hanging out around the apartment, puttering, occasionally popping in to bother my wife with kisses and nonsense. It may not be an epic and memorable day, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. If all goes well, I’ll be able to do it again tomorrow. And I’m good with that, I really am. As someone who has wrestled with anxiety, depression, addiction, chronic pain and/or neurological health issues through different significant chunks of my life, I have learned to appreciate every day that doesn’t hurt, mentally or physically. Damned if I’m going to create bad days when I don’t need to by dwelling on the inevitability of my death until I make myself unhappy.

I will admit as I was researching the topic of mortality that I felt like I should sort of think about it in ways that made me unhappy, or at least uncomfortable, but I just couldn’t really make myself do that on any meaningful emotional basis. Maybe I’m too shallow or unimaginative, or maybe I’ve just built such strong walls between my intellectual and emotional states that I can’t deploy the former to excite the latter. I found the concepts of mortality salience and its underlying terror management theory to be the most interesting new (to me) things I uncovered during my research, but they remained intellectually stimulating, not emotionally so. The Wikipedia summary of those related articles explains that:

Mortality salience engages the conflict that humans have to face both their instinct to avoid death completely, and their intellectual knowledge that avoiding death is ultimately futile. According to terror management theory, when human beings begin to contemplate their mortality and their vulnerability to death, feelings of terror emerge because of the simple fact that humans want to avoid their inevitable death. Mortality salience comes into effect, because humans contribute all of their actions to either avoiding death or distracting themselves from the contemplation of it. Thus, terror management theory asserts that almost all human activity is driven by the fear of death.

There’s boodles of academic and popular writing out there to back up this premise, but it rings hollow to me when I try to apply it to my own life experience. If there’s anything about the concept of mortality that does make my soul quake on occasion, it’s not pondering my own departure, but rather pondering the departures of those close to me. I don’t have a lot of deep personal connections in my life, but the ones I do have are titanic in their import to me. If I were to outlive them all, then the ratio of “hurt” vs “doesn’t hurt” days would probably change pretty dramatically for me.

Most couples who have been together as long as my wife and I have will pick up inside songs or phrases that speak to the nature of the relationship in casual, affectionate terms. One of ours is a song called “More Than The World” by FREEMAN (the band that Aaron Freeman, a.k.a. Gene Ween, established during a hiatus from his better-known act), which features these lines:

I can’t make it alone
I’m too dumb to be on my own
I’ve never been very strong
I love you more than the world

That would be me speaking to her, not the other way around. And while it’s been a long time since I’ve had to test the theory, the “too dumb to be on my own” line is probably still true, so I’m more frightened by that future than I am by the prospect of my own departure. I do recognize that works both ways: while I might not spend much time or energy dreading my own flight into nothingness, those who love me likely worry about and fear my departure as much as I fear theirs. That’s the main thing that motivates me to consider longevity in my actions, despite my temperamental proclivities to embody that old joke about the stereotypical redneck’s final words: “Hey, y’all . . . watch this!”

But once again, what else can we do in the face of the ways that mortality will impact us, sooner or later, except live life to the fullest while we still can do so? As trite or pat as that might sound as a concluding sentiment for this article, it’s what I have believed, do believe, and hope to always believe. While death is ultimately just the absence of life, living is not just the absence of dying. There are so many things, big and small, that give me joy, and that I want to do, that it seems short-sighted to dwell on the time when such joys and desires are going to be snuffed out.

I’ve honestly spent more time thinking about death and dying this month as a result of writing this article than I probably have in all of the years combined since the early grieving stages that followed my father’s death in 2002. And once I finish tidying up this article and hitting the “publish” button, I’m going to get right back to happily respecting the vultures and moving my seawater around and loving my wife (and daughter) more than the world, because I can, and it’s good to do so, no matter what tomorrow might bring.

Your plumage looks very nice today, Mister Vulture. Respect!

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’ve used a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this eleventh article complete, I don’t need to roll the die again, since I know that December will be dedicated to that last remaining topic: “Possibility.”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

 

Credidero #10: Authority

Back in the mid-’90s, when I was writing for an alternative newsweekly, the features team was occasionally given a summer gang project called “How To.” Each of us were tasked with writing a piece explaining, somewhat obviously enough, how to do something at which we were (nominally) experienced and knowledgeable. Being a quirky and contrarian crew, most of us chose to explain how to do things that were of a marginal degree of usefulness to our readers, producing articles that were probably intended to be entertaining (to the authors, anyway, if not the readers) more than they were educational.

Over the course of a few years, I explained How To Write A Record Review, How To Get a Grant, How To Keep a Secret, How To Talk To a Sleeping Rock Star, and How To Be An Expert. The grant-writing one was nominally useful, objectively speaking, if you were a fundraising professional, and the record review one has long been used by a journalism professor in Texas as part of her syllabus, so I suppose that one was legitimately of some value, too. The Sleeping Rock Star one was me making lemonade out of lemons after I was given a “phoner” appointment to interview then-trending singer-songwriter Abra Moore (who was asleep when I called her), and the secrets one was a result of me leading a weird double life where I was a music critic by night and a contracting officer for a highly classified military program by day.

Of those five pieces, How To Be An Expert was the one that hewed most meaningfully to my own real experiences and beliefs, and I have returned to or referenced it regularly over the past 25+ years as a basic operating tenet in my professional life. It stems from some of the best professional advice I was ever given, very early in my post-college career, after a simple conversation with a supervisor/mentor that went like this:

“If you want to succeed here, or in any other job,” he said, “then you have to become an expert.”

I asked the obvious question: “An expert in what, sir?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just make yourself an expert in something, and when you’ve done that, you’ll be indispensable.”

 

I used the word “expert” in that article, because that’s what my boss said, but I just as easily could have used the word “authority,” because that’s the gist of what he was communicating to me: if people perceive you as an authority on any particular subject, then you are useful to them, and you’ll always have a place in the organization, so long as you maintain your position as the organization’s authority of record on that particular topic, or maybe on a variety of topics, if you’re really good at exploiting this concept.

When I first started contemplating this month’s Credidero article, this “be an expert” narrative sat the center of my reflections on “authority.” I’ve spent most of my professional career in positions where I’ve been held up as an (or even the) authority on an evolving and branching stream of topics, as my work has taken me through a somewhat dizzying array of professional disciplines. I am self-aware enough, though, to know that in each and every case where I’ve been accepted as an authority on a particular topic, it was very much an act of me claiming that role, more than it was an act of others bestowing it on me — because if you say something long enough, often enough, and confidently enough, then it becomes reality, or at least is perceived as reality, and there’s really no difference between those outcomes.

My skills at self-marketing have always played into this paradigm, on top of the cultural cues and biases that benefit me by virtue of who I am and what I look like: a tall, white, older male with a degree from a “big name” college, who’s a glib speaker and solid writer, and with the ability to quickly process, retain and regurgitate a dazzling stream of facts and opinions. As such, most people are culturally conditioned to accept whatever I write, say, or do, if I offer my words of expertise confidently and with, yes, authority. There have been many times in my career when I have not been the most-trained, or most-knowledgeable, or most-experienced person in a given room or sphere on a specific topic, but people have still turned to me as “the authority,” simply because I’ve carried and presented myself as such more effectively than those around me, using the cultural privileges that are bestowed upon people like me as part and parcel of our society.

Is that fair? No, not really. But I have used it to my advantage anyway, and (more importantly, I think) to the advantage of my employers and their causes. I do not believe that I have ever used perceptions of my own authority for negative or negligent purposes, or to advance a crooked or conflicted agenda, or to denigrate, demean or disempower others who might, in fact, have more expertise than I do. I’m good at sharing credit when it’s due and when I can. That ability to advance the causes of my organizations in an authoritative way that makes people feel like they are invested in and connected to those causes is high among the traits that I believe have most contributed to my professional success over the years.

While I may claim to be an authority or an expert earlier and more forcefully than others might under similar circumstances, I also believe that I have managed those positions in ways where most people are willing to accept and reflect that authority back at me, confident that I will use it wisely, even if it is still nascent. And I say “most people” most purposefully, because I know that there are certainly a subset of my work colleagues over the years who just thought that I was a really good bullshit artist. That’s okay, I guess. I probably was. And probably still am. It’s hard to tell the difference between being a doctor and playing the role of a doctor on television sometimes, as long as you’re not performing brain surgery. I know my limits.

The word “authority” has several subtle definitional aspects to it, and I’ve only been focusing thus far on one of them: “the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something.” This form involves being an authority (where I am the subject noun) on a given subject, which is somewhat different from having authority, where the subject noun is a standalone external right, and not me personally. That form of authority is defined as: “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” When it comes to that form, there’s no “be an expert” bullshit or cultural bias at play, because you either have it, or you do not, typically as a result of your position within an organization.

As the CEO of a variety of nonprofits over the years, I’ve had all sorts of authority when it comes to this second definition of the term. I have had the ability to negotiate and sign contracts, take out loans, pay bills, sign checks, hire people, fire people, award grants, buy things, sell things, and a myriad of other rights that are integral and essential to the positions I’ve held. In the nonprofit sector, the ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the corporation resides in the board of directors, who are also tasked with governance and with hiring and supervising their chief executive. After that, it falls on the chief executive to manage the organization within the mission and vision established by the board of directors and ideally embodied in a strategic plan. That means I’ve had a lot of latitude to do what I thought was the right thing to do for each of my organizations, and I had the authority to implement whatever ethical and legal tactics I deemed best to getting the job done effectively and efficiently.

My understanding and living of this form of authority is also highly influenced by some of my early professional training, in this case while still at the Naval Academy, where we learned the differences and distinctions between authority, responsibility, and accountability as part of the Leadership and Management Education and Training (LMET) curriculum. At the simplest level, authority is the ability to make a decision, responsibility is the  job we are tasked to do, and accountability is the way in which we answer for the work we’ve done. The balance between these three factors has an immense impact on how effectively one can function in the work environment.

For example, if an employee has a high level of responsibility, but little authority, then he or she will likely be heavily frustrated by having to seek continual approvals elsewhere while trying to achieve necessary tasks. If an employee has both high authority and high responsibility, but no accountability, then it becomes easy for him or her to just coast, knowing that there are no likely repercussions for not fulfilling expectations, and the organization will suffer as a result. On the flip side, if the accountability function is ratcheted up too high, then it becomes difficult for an employee to achieve his or her responsibilities, even with clear authority, because of the constant micro-managing attention to activities that should be free from continual oversight and evaluation. I’ve always used my LMET training in evaluating potential work situations, and then once engaged, I’ve done my best to create the proper balance between those three facets of management, for myself and for those entrusted to my supervision.

I’ve been fortunate in most of my professional roles to have identified or developed nonprofit boards that allowed me to build and maintain appropriate balance between professional authority, responsibility and accountability. But with my pending retirement from the salaried work world in a few weeks, this will change for me, as I will no longer possess authority (nor responsibility, nor accountability) as a function of the position that I hold within an organization, for the first time in well over 35 years. In most typical freelance or consulting roles, I’ll likely have defined responsibilities and accountability, sure, but not much positional authority. Which means that I will have to fall back more heavily on that first form of authority, which I can claim for myself as a function of what I know, what I can do, and how well I can communicate it. I’m okay with that, I think. I’ve proven over the years that I’m pretty good at positioning myself as an expert, and I’m also fairly adept at being accountable to myself when I need to be. (Pro tip: I’ve found that it’s helpful to publicly state intentions on this front, e.g. telling all of my readers here that I was going to write a 12-part series called “Credidero” last January made me more likely to actually do it this year. Ten down, two to go!)

A few other facets of meaning and belief emerged for me as I considered the concept of authority over the past month. The first came when I did my usual research into the etymology and history of the word to be studied for the month. “Authority” has its roots in the Latin auctor, meaning “originator” or “promoter,” and that root also produced the modern English word “author.” I like the concept that developing and claiming authority is an act undertaken by an author, in that we write our own narratives, and then (using another element of the ancient word), we must promote those narratives in order to bring them to meaningful fruition. I do this continually, in so many places and so many ways, here on this website and in my “real world” personal and professional lives. All we are is all we’ve been, so in theory, I should get ever better at this as I age, so long as I don’t ever lose the rampant curiosity that’s often the motive force and lubricant of my learning and communicating processes. We’ll see how that goes.

There was another interesting intermediate evolutionary meaning in the etymological history of this month’s Credidero word. In 13th/14th Century Old French, between the Latin auctor and the English authority, we find autorite, which was an “authoritative passage or statement, book or quotation that settles an argument, passage from Scripture; authoritative book; authoritative doctrine.” In this usage, authority wasn’t a particular person, nor a power held by said person, but rather an inhuman physical artifact that was deemed to embody decisive decision-making power. This reminds me of the most beautiful of the Gospels, which John the Evangelist opened by simply explaining that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” While we read this metaphorically, obviously, the idea that written and spoken words may carry the purest essence of the divine within them has always been highly appealing to me.

A self-professed and self-proclaimed right of authority has more heft if the very words that anchor it are right, and true, and inspired as outward manifestations of inner truths, or local observations of universal realities. In this sense, standing as a personal authority, even without positional authority, may be a path along which or a vehicle through which legitimate and pure societal good may be promulgated and promoted. Words have immense power to foster change, if you use them wisely. I like to think this is what I’ve done in my work over the past three-plus decades, and I am hopeful that I will be able to continue to do so in the years that remain ahead of me.

But the dark flip side of this paradigm is embodied by another modern English word that derives from the Latin auctor: Authoritarian. It’s tragic and troubling to consider how relevant this word has become again in modern political practice and parlance, as weak and insecure national leaders at home and abroad expect unquestioned obedience, and act tyrannically when they do not receive it. I read an interesting interpretation of the etymology of this word, which likened it less to “authority” and more to “author,” as authoritarian leaders seek to be the masters of the fictional worlds that they create. Unfortunately, almost all of them also have positional authority, which allows them to leverage vast monetary, legislative and military machines toward their own nefarious ends. That way evil lies. And madness.

This tendency toward authoritarianism becomes all the more dismaying and tragic when leaders are propped up by corporate propaganda machines and other weak and insecure legislators who use their own positional authority to propagate their leaders’ hateful messages and paper over their childish and/or criminal behaviors, lest they rock the status quo that’s elevated them, Peter Principle style, to positions well above their apparent capabilities and capacities. I think most folks my age in the United States grew up perceiving authoritarianism as a dead or dying political system. I doubt that many of us would have imagined that we’d be close to living in it as we eyeballed our retirement years, and that the centuries-old system of checks and balances designed to protect us from it would fail for nakedly partisan political reasons. Here’s hoping that enough of us wake up and exercise the authority constitutionally bestowed upon us as voters in 2020 to turn this tide, before it sweeps us away into the type of future that dystopian science fiction writers favor.

While there’s no question that authoritarianism is a bad thing, and must be resisted by sane citizens of any state, I find it interesting how often people look through that same lens when considering any form of authority. If you go search Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or any other similar online quote banks for the word “authority,” the vast majority of the quotes that search returns will be focused on questioning, disobeying, challenging, or dismantling authority. Now, this may be a function of the fact that the types of writers and thinkers whose quotes end up in Bartlett’s are more apt to be anti-establishment types than the average citizen, or it may just be that these sorts of “Fight the Power” epigrams are more memorable and inspirational than the “He loved Big Brother” ones are, hence their appearances in such anthologies and encyclopedias.

But I have mixed feelings about blindly conflating authoritarianism with authority, as I loathe the former, but am more than willing to accept the latter, if it’s properly earned or bestowed. To some extent, that may be a function of the fact that I’ve counted on my own authority time and time again in my professional life as a key tool to achieve the things I want to achieve, and I don’t feel that every act and every decision I’ve taken with the authority vested in, or claimed by, me should be subject to scrutiny, question or rebuttal. I give other authorities the same benefit of the doubt that I expect from other people in considering my own actions and activities. I hope that as I move into a phase of my life where my authority stems from who I am and what I do, rather than from what position I hold, that I’ll be able to still leverage such authority to achieve my desired ends. Which, hopefully, will not be authoritarian in tone or tactics.

As I read back over what I’ve written this month, I note that there are more subtle semantic dances than usual, as I seek to shoehorn “authority” into the “what I will have believed” rubric behind this Credidero series of articles. But I think that was a necessary approach to wrestling with a concept that has so many significant variables operating within closely-aligned, but not exact, definitional distinctions. When I look at the authorities around me, I value those who bring earned or acquired expertise more than I value those who are granted authority by their positions, but I still value those positional authorities, so long as they don’t become authoritarian. I believe we need to be constantly vigilant as we evaluate the various authorities that govern and shape our lives, but when all is said and done, I also believe that there’s also a need for such authorities, and I hope that I am able to continue authoring my own life story in a fashion that encourages others to look my way and say “Now there’s an expert. Let’s see where he’s going to take us . . . ”

When an eagle explains stuff to you, you listen . . .

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this tenth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Three: “Mortality.” Since there’s only one topic left after that, I also know that December will be dedicated to Topic Number Two: “Possibility.” I guess those are two heady concepts with which to wrap the project! 

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

 

Credidero #9: Eternity

As I pondered this month’s Credidero topic over the past thirty days, it occurred to me fairly early on that there’s a “one of these things is not the like the other” facet to this particular concept, in that “Eternity” is the only one of the twelve topics that cannot be tangibly experienced by human beings in any way, because it does not actually exist in the natural world.

I could go take a walk right now and experience complexity, or hostility, or curiosity, or any of the other eight topics I’ve considered and written about before this one, but there’s no way for me to experience an infinite span of time — unless I put my absolute faith in the premise of eternal life after death, snuff myself, and evaluate never-ending time as a tree in Dante’s Forest of Suicides. Or, conversely, if I was unexpectedly squished by a bus, and all was well with my relationship with my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at that moment, in which case I could be granted eternal bliss in the presence of the The LORD and all of His angels, world without end, amen, amen.

I certainly don’t intend to do self-harm in the name of research, and I hope that there’s not a bus grill in my immediate future, so those avenues for exploring the concept of endless time are not on the table at this point. And even if they were, do I believe that my incorporeal soul would tread one of those paths when my incredibly fleeting time as a sentient seawater sack plays out? No, not really. I’ve formally directed that my bodily remains be cremated when that time comes, and they’ll presumably be scattered somewhere (informally, I’ve suggested that they should be put in a fire ant nest at Stoney Creek Cemetery), so the closest thing to eternity that the constituent bits which once were me will likely experience is a slow dispersal of elements which will be reintegrated into other living things (most likely plants, or fungi), which will feed other living things, until such time as life is exterminated from our planet’s face, or the planet itself ceases to be. And even then, some of those bits may travel through interstellar space, landing who knows where, who knows when, until the universe itself collapses, leaving behind . . . something? Maybe?

That will take a long, long time, for sure, but not an eternity, in the normal use of that word. While the earliest moments of the universe are mind-bogglingly complex and confusing, and its final moments will likely mirror that incomprehensible chaos, time as human beings understand it will have started at one point, and ended at another, a finite (though immense) period, short of the infinity required to accurately capture the core concept of eternity. Scientifically and objectively speaking, the story arc of every other human being, and every other living thing, will be exactly the same on a macro basis, and even if we aggregate all of the life spans and all of the experiences of all of things that have ever creeped, crawled and croaked across our planet’s surface, we’d still come up with a time span that approached infinity, but never actually reached it.

Eternity is, therefore, a non-existent physical state in a non-metaphysical universe. And yet, it’s a cornerstone concept of most global faith traditions, where gods always have been and always will be, and human souls are presumed to endure over never-ending time spans, once they are sparked into being. (One of the quirky things about infinity is that a thing that has no beginning and no end exists for the the same amount of time as a thing that has a beginning, but no end). A logical corollary of such belief systems is that the periods of time when our souls are resident in their physical forms are essentially non-existent in the grand scheme of things, as ~80 years of corporeal life divided by an infinite number of life-after-death years equals zero, mathematically speaking. If we go to hell after death, then eternity is suffering, always. If there’s a paradise, then eternity is bliss, always. Everything that we are, and everything that we do, in our physical lives, condenses down to a single, timeless point, a toggle-switch in which the indeterminacy of forever is resolved into one of only two possible eternal states.

While I wouldn’t have understood or stated it quite that way, I can tell you that few concepts were more terrifying to me as a young person than this one, having been raised in an evangelical Christian household. The concept of The Rapture — when all believers, alive and dead, would rise to meet The LORD in glory — made eternity even more terrifying, as it could happen any time, and if it occurred during that one little moment of doubt, or that one little second after temptation had become sin, then I would be left behind to bear the tribulation, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, after which eternal damnation or eternal salvation awaited. All I knew as a young person was that if I had been bad, I could wake up one morning to find that my parents and all of the “good” people in my life were gone. In theory, that should have helped me to behave. In practice, I sinned with great aplomb, and was just scared all of the time that I wouldn’t be quick or thorough enough in my prayers for forgiveness to dodge that incoming Rapture bullet.

This was real enough in my world that I can remember having deadly earnest conversations with friends in middle school church youth groups about what we would do if didn’t make the cut when the Rapture came: where we would meet, how we would hide, what we would do, when finally faced with the undeniable reality of eternity, to ensure that we made the next cut together, and weren’t cast into eternal darkness and suffering. We saw it as some sort of post-apocalyptic action movie scenario, where we’d live on the run, protecting our little community at all costs from the Beast, and the Whore, and the Antichrist and their minions, faithful in our hidden catacomb headquarters, desperately repentant that we didn’t get it right the first time, determined to make amends if only given one more chance. And we had those conversations, more than once, because we all knew that we were woefully inadequate in our abilities to maintain sin-free, fully faithful lives, 24/7/365, so that the odds were stacked against us that we might all be right, true, and squared up in our faith at the precise moment when the virtuous souls began ascending. None of us pondered eternity with any expectation that it would be a positive experience, at bottom line. At least not without a whole lot of suffering before we got there, anyway.

So that’s what “eternity” meant to me through a good chunk of my formative years, a fraught concept fully anchored in an arcane belief system, and not in any observable reality — but terrifying nonetheless. That fear has abated over the ensuing decades, thankfully, and when I ponder the definition of eternity as “infinite time” now as an adult, I find that I can only perceive it at arm’s length, far more so than I can with any of the other Credidero concepts, as it has no meaningful impact or import in how I live my daily life and interact with other human beings. If I have any adult fears related to the concept, they spring from the knowledge that there are a shockingly large number of death cult zealots in positions of national leadership who are actively fomenting unrest in the Middle East in a misguided effort to hasten Armageddon and bring on the end times described by John the Revelator. I suppose eternity isn’t as frightening to them as it was to my young self, so secure are they in their faithful infallibility in the face of some final judgment. Must be nice.

Interestingly enough, the generally accepted definition of eternity as “infinite time” is (in relative terms) somewhat recent, having emerged only in the late Sixteenth Century. The ancient roots of the word are (possibly) found in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language’s aiw, meaning “vital [life] force.” From there we pass through the Latin aevum (age), aeviternus (great age), and aeternus (enduring). That latter form morphed into eternité in Old French, and thence into eternity in Late Middle English. The concept certainly captured long time spans over the aeons, if not infinite ones. There is also a specific philosophical usage where the word “eternity” means “outside of time,” as opposed to “sempiternity,” which is used to describe objects or concepts that exist now, and will continue to do so forever.

The crux of any discussion of eternity’s nuances, therefore, really hinges on whether the word is being used to describe very, very long time spans (which exist in our material world), or infinite ones (which do not). Which begs a second level question: does anything infinite really exist in the observable world? If there is no infinite time, is there an infinite distance, or an infinite mass, or an infinite number of some particular object(s), or anything else that has no beginning and no end when we attempt to count or measure it? Or even anything else that has no beginning and no end and exists somewhere else in the material world beyond our view or understanding?

I’m probably going to create a vision of myself as a most terribly neurotic child by sharing this, but I have to admit that “infinity” was another concept that kept me up at night as a young person, some years before fear of eternal damnation moved to the forefront of my existential anxieties. As a child of the ’60s, I was deeply fascinated by space exploration, and read voraciously about the topic. Our understanding of the solar system was a bit simpler then, with nine planets, and a readily countable and nameable number of natural satellites, plus some junk in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Beyond Pluto, there was Deep Space, which went on (we presumed) forever. I have specific memories of laying in bed thinking about that: I’d fly my mental space ship to Pluto, and then go further. And then further. And then further. And there would still be further to go. I could make myself woozy if I kept at it long enough, trying to comprehend space with no edge and no end. (Honestly, I could probably make myself woozy today if I thought too long about what’s out there 13.7 billion light years away from the center of the universe, at the very leading edge of the Big Bang’s reach; it’s just as mind-numbing to ponder now as it was then, if less scary).

Despite its questionable existence in the real world of tangible human experience (or our questionable ability to perceive it), infinity is a readily accessible, and useful, concept in higher mathematics, which fascinated me to no end when I was studying advanced calculus and differential equations in college. The key kluge to tangibly dealing with infinity is captured in the concept of mathematical limits, where the value of a function (or sequence) approaches some limit as the input (or index) approaches some other value. So we can say that the limit is zero as an input approaches infinity, or we can say that the limit is infinity as we approach zero, or any number of other possible permutations that can be framed by various formulae and equations. We can’t actually get to infinity, but we can understand what happens as we approach it, in perhaps simpler terms. We can also accept that anything divided by infinity is zero — but not that anything divided by zero is infinity. (I’ve seen various explanations and proofs of that concept over the years, and I accept them, though there’s still some sense of logical incongruity there for the casual mathematician).

My math studies in college were one place where contemplating the infinite, the imaginary, and the irrational — and the ways in which they can modeled — was actually a positive, pleasurable experience. One of the most sublime intellectual moments of my life was seeing the derivation and proof of Euler’s identity:

“π,” as most know, is the ratio of the circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number (e.g. it cannot be written as a fraction), and to the best of our knowledge, it continues irrationally infinitely; it has currently been calculated out to 31.4 trillion digits, and it never repeats in any predictable or discernible fashion. “e” is Euler’s Number, the base of natural logarithms. It has been calculated out to about 8 trillion digits, as best I can ascertain, also continuing irrationally in perpetuity. “i” is the imaginary number unit, which is the square root of -1. It cannot be calculated as it does not exist in the set of real numbers, but it’s a cornerstone concept in complex number theory. “0” is of course, zero, the opposite of infinity, and 1 is the first non-zero natural number, and the first in the infinite sequence of natural numbers. The fact that these five numbers — discovered and/or calculated and/or understood in different times, different ways, and different places throughout history — are provably related in such an ultimately simple and elegant way still utterly blows my mind with wonder and awe, both at the natural order that produces such relationships, and at the human powers of observation that divined and codified it. 

Those mathematical studies also inspired and spilled over into my creative life at the time. Around 1983, I wrote a song called “Anathematics” (there’s a demo version of it here), which included these lyrics, among others:

There’s a school of thought that is so large, it can’t be learned by one.
Six hundred monks are studying it now, but they have just begun.
The more they think, the less they know. They less they know, they’re not.
The more they’re not, the less I am. There’s more to me, I thought.
The limit is zero as we approach infinity.
The future’s uncertain, as only the past can’t be.
Anathematics explains what cannot be . . .

It’s less elegant than Euler’s Identity, certainly, but it was an attempt to try to capture the awesome confusion of the infinitely big and the infinitely small and the ways in which they overlap, taken from the viewpoint of modeling that which cannot be, rather than that which can. So essentially a poetic (and much shorter) version of what I’m doing here in this article, with a stiff beat that you most certainly cannot dance to.

There’s another way, in my life right here and right now, that I find myself reflecting on the limits of eternal time and eternal distance. My wife, daughter, and I all have the Drake Equation tattooed on our right forearms. Here it is, if you’re unfamiliar with it, along with an explanation of the terms embedded within it:

The Drake Equation was written in 1961 by Dr Frank Drake as a probabilistic argument to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. We know a lot more about some of the variables today than we did when Drake postulated this argument (e.g. rate of star formation, fraction of stars with planets, etc.), but for most of the variables related to life, we’re obviously still operating with an observable set of one species on one planet with the ability to cast electromagnetic signals outward to the stars, and we haven’t been doing it for very long, at all.

“L” in some ways is the most interesting variable to me, since we have no idea how long we’re going to be able to keep broadcasting before we destroy ourselves, or something else destroys us. I suspect in the grand scheme of things, it’s likely going to end up being a relatively small number. Imagine, though, if L for human and other civilizations was vastly large, approaching eternal, meaning that once a planet began broadcasting, it would broadcast forever, or at least until the collapse of the universe. I believe that were that the case, we’d be picking up myriad signals from across the galaxy, since I also believe that we are not the first planetary civilization to develop broadcast capabilities since the Milky Way emerged some 13.5 billion years ago. (Compare that to the current estimated age of the universe at 13.7 billion years . . . our galaxy was born about as early as it was physically possible for it to, if our understanding of those ancient events is accurate. Wow!)

Given the immense distances at play, I’m not sure that we’d ever actually meet any of the other civilizations, but it would be transformative for humans on a planetary basis to know that we’re not alone, rather than simply believing it. It would also be truly revelatory to know that our sentient non-human colleagues in our universe are not metaphysical in nature (e.g angels, demons, gods and goddesses), but exist instead in the knowable, experiential world of real things. I’m not a dewy-eyed optimist about how that knowledge would instantly make everything better on earth (we’d likely still be prone to inhumanity in our dealings with others of our species), but it would certainly answer a lot of big questions, and it would certainly present some big opportunities.

After we got the Drake Equation tattoos, my wife summarized what she thinks when she looks at hers thusly: “It reminds me that we are small, but special.” True that, for sure, for now. Given the fact that a longer “L” for humanity means we would have a higher probability of eventually demonstrating that “N” is greater than 1, I’d be most inclined to adopt and hew to a belief structure and practice that’s anchored in managing our lives, our cultures, our civilizations and our planet in ways that increase the likelihood of extending “L” for as long as humanly possible. It seems to me that a belief in and commitment to the tangible (though as yet indeterminate) time span “L” is of greater utility than being afraid of and/or longing for a metaphysical eternity and what it might (though probably doesn’t) represent and contain.

So is anybody up for starting The Church of Maximum “L,” with a defining core belief that “N” is greater than one, if we can only stick around long enough to establish contact and connect? I’d be a darned good early apostle if you need one.

Two-thirds of the family’s Drake Equation tattoos, freshly inked . . .

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this ninth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Five: “Authority”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

 

On Community

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the September 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here. This article was adapted from a much longer piece written earlier this year, and available on my website here, for those who are interested in reading more about my views on “community.”

If you were to create a word cloud of every document, article, letter, and email I’ve written during my four-plus years as President and CEO of TREE Fund, I suspect that after the obvious mission-related words — tree, forest, research, endowment, education, arborist, etc. —  the word that would show up most frequently would be “community.” I use it all the time, referring to the Tour des Trees as our primary community engagement event, discussing how our work helps the global tree care community, noting that our work focuses on the importance of urban and community forests by promoting research designed to benefit whole communities of trees and related organisms (including humans), rather than individual specimens or species.

If you ran that same word cloud for the four years before I arrived at TREE Fund, I suspect you would not see “community” ranked so highly in our communications. We used to refer to the Tour des Trees as our primary fundraising event, and we discussed how our work benefited the tree care industry, and how our efforts advanced arboriculture, with much of our research focused on individual plant response, rather than forests as a whole. This change in language was not necessarily an organizational shift driven by some strategic planning decision, nor was it a modification to what we do and how we do it directed by our Board or emergent outside forces. It was frankly just me shaping the narrative about the organization I lead, and I how I want it to be perceived.

Calling the Tour des Trees just a “fundraising event,” for example, misses the critical component of how we interact with people as we roll on our way throughout the week, providing education and outreach to help people understand our work and how it benefits them. Saying that we work only for the “tree care industry” seems somehow antiseptic to me, implying that the businesses are more important than the community of people they employ, who collectively engage in the hands-on work of caring for trees. “Urban and community forests” is a helpful rubric in expressing the full scope of our focus, evoking and including big city park spaces, street trees, yard trees and trees along utility rights of way in suburbs, exurbs, and rural spaces. And thinking more about communities of trees, rather than individual plants, helps us better understand and communicate the exciting, emergent science exploring the ways that trees have evolved as communal organisms, and not just as disconnected individuals.

I think my focus on the word “community” is indicative of its deep importance to me, personally and professionally. My desire over the past four years, and hopefully into the future, is that TREE Fund acts and is perceived as part of something bigger and more connected than our relatively small physical, financial and personnel structure might otherwise dictate. I have been awed, truly, by the immense generosity, enthusiasm, wisdom and diligence of the global tree care community, and it has been an honor for me to be a small member of that great collective body, which works wonders, and makes a difference.

Getting ready to rejoin this great community of tree-loving cyclists again this weekend. You can click the photo if you want to make a last minute Tour des Trees gift to support the cause!