One Small Dream That Came True

Matheson Hammock

You’re on a beach, beneath a coconut palm, sipping a cold juice, as you watch the antics of a pudgy naked baby digging in the sand and splashing at the water’s edge. It’s not your baby, but the pureness of the scene delights you at your core.

I was that baby. Frolicking in the buttery waters of a small protected lagoon called Matheson Hammock in Miami. 

That joyful memory burned itself into my psyche, and I always dreamed that one day my own child would be that baby, shrieking with the same delight. But that simple little notion stood frozen for decades, buried beneath the fear that I may never have kids. Until, at age 45, my first lovely son waded through that gentle water, his own dimpled tush covered in sand. I stood a few feet away and teared up silently behind my sunnies.

Dreams need not be epic to be important.

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” T. E. Lawrence.

We all yearn for  the home runs: wealth, creative power, professional ascendance. But, we often brush past the everyday events we hope for … and achieve.

Life is the small stuff stacked into a pile. And that pile becomes our memories. And those memories become our narrative.

It could be as basic as doing down dog with feet finally flat on the ground after 20 years of hamstrings tight as bridge girders (thank you, Day!). Or throwing your conservative upbringing to the wind to get a tattoo. Or cooking an eggplant parm tender enough to cut with a fork. Whatever it is, that quiet victory satisfied you deeply. And that satisfaction is something you should revisit and wallow in a while. “Spend some time wit it, mon,” a Rasta once said to me. Sage advice.

Regal Elephant, acrylic & Chinese funeral paper on paper, 8"x12", Stuart Sheldon
Regal Elephant, acrylic & Chinese funeral paper on paper, 8″x12″, Stuart Sheldon

Walt Disney said, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” Bullshit. Many of our dreams die on the vine. But that’s okay. Many do indeed come true. That is not to say that we should not dream big. Quite the contrary. Go big or go home. But keep those big mama dreams in perspective. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I was shooting the breeze with Terry Gross about my memoir, A Lonely Fool’s Masterpiece, and the extraordinary odyssey it represents in the life of my wife and me. But, finding an A-list publisher is tough these days. I get it. It’s fine. I’m on it.

Our big dreams will always be there, the mountains we all aim to climb. Hopefully, we all summit.

But think of a tiny dream you’ve achieved recently that really felt good in your gut? Honor that small personal triumph that meant something to you.

Do a little victory dance in the end zone of your heart. Go ahead and spike the ball! Then share it here.

 This post is dedicated to my friend and food artist, Chris L’Hommedieu and his wife Kendra Stanley. Chris died yesterday at 44. But his food and grace personally fulfilled some of my dreams. 

What’s The One Thing You Really Want To Do Well … But Cannot?

Kelly Slater in the Barrel

What’s the thing you wish deeply to do well, but just can’t nail?

When not dreaming of flying like Peter Pan, I dream of surfing. Not just surfing, but ripping, Kelly Slater style. Deep, stand-up barrels. Cutbacks that thwack, as my board smacks the lip. I can surf enough to maintain my dignity in the lineup … but just. I’ll never be good. That’s just a fact.

Kelly Slater @ Boost Mobile Pro 2006

Still, each time I paddle out, I see in my head, bright as day, me doing what you see Slater doing above, balletic slashes, complete with tai chi arms and sun-dappled spray. I hold that vision, as I carve up the face and prepare, right up until the time that my body cuts back, yet my board continues forward like a runaway pony. Oh well …

Point is … THE VISION IS THE POINT. We need that perfect goal always, no matter the outcome. No one shoots for the outer blue ring; every shot you take in life is at the bullseye. 

So, see yourself driving the golfball 400 yards right down the middle. See yourself running your first sub-7-minute mile. Slaying that PowerPoint presentation. Fly casting into the heart of that hidden nook. Baking that perfect soufflé.

FRUSTRATION IS A CHOICE.

The satisfaction lives in the doing, average as it may turn out. Because, let’s face it, Kelly Slater is an outlier. So is Tiger Woods. And Thomas Keller. We’re just regular folk … BUT, we have the exact same dreams as the rockstars. And that’s good. Because it keeps us hungry and honest.

Morocco Surf Trip with the Boys
Morocco Surf Trip with the Boys

I cherish my too-rare surf sessions with my buddies. The predawn adventure. The smack talk. The adrenaline of an approaching set. The spaghetti arms. And the exhilaration when I do actually show Neptune what I’m made of. Surfing has brought me the highest joy at my successes and the fiercest rage at my repeated failures. I’ve learned, at last, that anger was misplaced and wasted on a false sense of my own ability in that one highly difficult pursuit. I’m excellent at many things. Surfing is not one of them. Damn!

Soul Satisfaction!
Soul Satisfaction!

Regardless, I’ll surf till I’m a geezer on a longboard with jiggly skin hanging down where my biceps used to be. And, I’ll always approach the lip with a clear vision of snapping it like a rattail, ever waiting for that loud POP … and still stoked when I blow it.

How To Disappear

We all need to escape our lives and disconnect every now and then. Change the scenery and the pace.

The color blue alone made it all worth it. The Kingdom of Tonga sits far from everything, awash in turquoise lagoons, aquamarine shallows and cobalt reefs care-taken by the bluest eye sky. It is the only monarchy never colonized in the South Pacific, populated by a gentle people, notwithstanding their club-wielding, brain-bashing, cannibal lineage.

One tranquil sunset, in one of my favorite anchorages called Hunga, a local paddled up on an outrigger canoe to our 38-ft cat, Tikiti Boo, and introduced himself. Vaha was 51 and lived tucked away in that corner of the corner of the world. He sat smiling in his craft, which I learned he’d carved from a stout mango tree 15 yrs earlier. I stood painting a piece of cardboard torn from a box used to load our provisions. I painted daily in the soft light of morning or dusk, when the Polynesian sun wouldn’t quick-dry the paint on my paper plate palette. My cozy cabin became a gallery, where just-finished works like Anthony Quinn Looks Like Me stood watch.

Anthony Quinn Looks Like Me, acrylic on cardboard, 16"x13", 2002, Stuart Sheldon
Anthony Quinn Looks Like Me, acrylic on cardboard, 16″x13″, 2002, Stuart Sheldon

I got the sense that Vaha had not been aboard too many cruisers nor seen too many painters at work, so I invited him up. He sat beside me, rolled a cigarette in his dark, calloused hands and observed, exuding the silent calm pervasive in these islanders. He asked an occasional intelligent question and told me proudly of his son, a cook on a cargo ship en route to the world’s major ports.

I asked him if I might take his mango canoe for a paddle. The boat was a bit tippier than I expected, but I had no problem touring the tranquil waters surrounding Tikiti Boo. With Vaha’s wooden paddle across my knees, I studied for a long time a particularly electric blue bird sitting motionless in a tall tree.

The scene washed my eyes and stilled my soul.

When I returned to the boat, I went below and found a painting I’d completed a few days earlier. I titled it, Peaceful Hunga, and inscribed, Thank you for letting me try your canoe.

“I’d like you to have this,” I said, handing my friend the piece.
He considered it carefully, his smile blending with an air of concentration. Then he honored me by saying, “I will hang this in my home.”

Stuart Sheldon painting
Hunga Beach, acrylic on cardboard, 11″x22.5″, 2002, Stuart Sheldon

Vaha paddled away as quietly as he arrived and the sun gave way to an eruption of southern-hemi stars. I thought of Vaha’s son, coming from this tiny place, perhaps the most remote locale I’d ever visited. What would the young man think seeing Hamburg or Hong Kong or New York? I don’t believe I will ever experience a cultural contrast so great.

A bit later, as I lay in the bow trampoline contemplating the Southern Cross, one of my ship mates announced with great consternation that he could not find his very expensive diving watch. We all searched, and when we failed to find it, there was clear suspicion that Vaha might have taken it. This ate at my guts as I slept, because I felt very strongly that Vaha and I had shared some basic truth.

That epic 2002 journey lasted two months and spanned Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and Tahiti, most of it on a boat, scratching one of my biggies off the bucket list – SAILING THE SOUTH PACIFIC.

There is wisdom one can only gain by leaving.

Mark Twain said it well, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Even so, sometimes our broad and wholesome views of men are wrong.

The morning after Vaha’s visit, I cut papaya into my Weetabix and took a swig of coffee, still dripping from my morning dip into the perfectly temperate water. I’d slept poorly and was contemplating returning to my cabin to read. Suddenly, my mate shouts from below; he found his watch in a cargo hold.

YESSSS … I KNEW my man, Vaha, was one of the good guys!!!

In my journal on that magical boat I wrote the following declaration/wish:

I will sail the world for a long stretch, ideally when I have a family and more skills at the helm. Any special woman interested in joining said trip (and said family) should inquire within. A different world each morning. A world with filed-off edges and no tan lines.

Eleven years after writing the worlds above, I’m most pleased that said woman and family are now by my side. I stand ready to disappear into paradise once again. The only remaining question is:

WHEN DO WE LEAVE?

 

Dis-Appoint-Ment

Easy reading is damn hard writing.
N. Hawthorn

Stuart Sheldon, Follow It Home, acrylic and Chinese funeral paper on panel, 24"x24", 2004
Stuart Sheldon, Follow It Home, acrylic and Chinese funeral paper on panel, 24″x24″, 2004

 

My dry heart drinks …

A National Book Award winner and Oprah Book Club selectee recently thought enough of my debut manuscript,  A LONELY FOOL’S MASTERPIECE, to share it with her powerhouse editor. This generous best-seller acted wholly of her own volition. And her seal of approval ladled cold fresh spring water into me after five years toiling in the blistering sun of obscurity.

I want this badly, more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my creative life. Because what I really want to be when I grow up is a writer of books. One down …

And suddenly appears a bona fide shortcut through the grimy bog known as:

  • finding an agent
  • hoping agent can convince a NY publisher to roll the dice on an unknown man-child from out of the blue

These days, a good story is just the start. Traditional publishers want 10,000 blog followers (thus the recent increase in posts; thank you for reading – now get your friends to subscribe), 5000 Facebook friends, a Twitter feed and a host of other “platform” metrics. It all makes me throw up in mouth a little. Because, even though I stand proud to have launched an award-winning magazine, directed a TV documentary, written national articles and had a few decent art exhibitions here and there …

Let’s be real … in the literary world, I got nothing. Nothing but the words on those 265 pages my author friend sent to New York. Would they sweep this Senior Editor off her feet? Would she ring me up excitedly? “How soon can you be here?”

A week passed. Two. Three. And then the email … “The reading of fiction is, as I am certain you already know, very subjective, and as such I encourage you to try other editors and publishing houses, or even perhaps to seek representation by a literary agent to assist in this process. Your passion for writing is clear in these pages, and I wish you every success going forward with your work.”

My chest ached, as if a brawny man cupped his hand and hit me square in the sternum with a loud hollow thomp! Typically smiley lips pursed involuntary, and I shut my computer and stared at the coconut palms blowing obliviously in the February breeze outside my third floor office window. I stood, walked to my car and simply drove home in the middle of the day. Every ten minutes or so I silently shook my head ever so slightly. Damn!

She did nail the passion for writing part. And I responded gratefully for her time. And gently reminded her that, in fact, every word of my book is true. It is a memoir.

What looped in my brain the rest of that day and part of the next was an echo in negative space. The reverb of a dream not getting fast-tracked. I hate to say it, but after ten years getting brushed off by top-shelf galleries, I’m somewhat used to it. Still, it hurts. And there’s nothing to do but be with the pain … until it goes away. And I sell my book. And it is a best-seller. And I send that lovely editor a signed copy with my genuine thanks for being part of the journey.