“You want a dog, Mister?”

He had no teeth.  That was the first thing you noticed.  He had no teeth.

But he had a dog.

A big, clumsy labrador mix with white paws and a shiny black coat that was quickly becoming covered with snow as the two of them stood there in the Safeway parking lot next to the wheelchair that the man used instead of a shopping cart to transport all his earthly goods.

“You want a dog, Mister?” he said as I walked past.

The dog looked up at me with big doleful not entirely trusting eyes.  She knew something was up.

“She’s a really good dog,” he said.  “She don’t cause no trouble.”

Like all of us, I’ve become hardened to the homeless in a way I never would have thought possible.  Years ago when I was in Europe I was appalled at the beggars on the streets and how people just stepped over them as they sat wrapped in blankets holding out their hands or shaking cups full of coins.  Now I am one of those people.  Not all the time, but, sadly, far too often.  There is too much need, too much pain, and too much uncertainty about which of these people really are in need and which are merely taking the path of least resistance in a society that has become increasingly cruel and difficult to navigate.  A better man than I does not make these distinctions, but I am no longer that man.  I see what I want to see when I want to see it and just go on with my life.

But a man giving away his dog.  That I can’t ignore.  It tears at my heart.

“I can’t take your dog,” I say.  “I’m really sorry.”

The dog looks up at me. I reach down and pet her head.  She moves instinctively back toward the man, as if she knows what is being proposed.

“She’s a really good dog,” he says again. “She don’t cause no trouble.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, and smile weakly and walk past him into the store.

What are we supposed to do in a world full of such moments of unnoticed sacrifice and pain?  A man should not have to give away his dog because he can’t afford to feed her.  A man should not have to choose between staying with his dog and having a place to sleep.

I fill my shopping basket with orange juice and grapes and a bag of French roast coffee — treasured  pleasures in my life of warmth and comfort and ease.

“She’s a really good dog. She don’t cause no trouble.”

I should leave, but I can’t.

“Where’s the dog food lane?” I ask a clerk.  She directs me to the aisle with bags of dogfood ranging in price from $20 to over $100.  I grab one on closeout for $15, check out, and head toward the door.  I take a $20 bill out of my billfold and tuck it into the top of the dog food bag.

The man is still standing there in the ice and snow next to his wheelchair.

His dog is gone.

“Where’s your dog?” I ask.  “I bought her some dog food.”

“Some woman took her,’ he says.  He does not look at me.

I hand him the dog food and the $20 bill.  “Give it to one of your friends,” I say.  He takes the bill and puts the dog food on top of the green garbage bags piled on the wheelchair.

I walk back to my car.  In the back seat is a stack of unused sport coats and dress shirts I’ve been trying to donate to a transition center for men attempting to get back on their feet after addiction or incarceration.  No one will take them.  “The types of jobs our men are trying to get don’t require sport coats and nice shirts” one woman told me.

I place the bag of orange juice and grapes and coffee next to the pile of clothes.  The smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the car.

I drive out of the lot toward the street. 

The man is still standing on the icy sidewalk next to his wheelchair.

There is no happy ending to this story.  There is no ending at all.  Just one more in a series of choices that we make or don’t make in a world where children get warm puppies for Christmas and homeless men give away old dogs that they can no longer care for or feed.

I am not sleeping well tonight.  I hope that dog found a good home.  And the snow is still coming down outside.

Rick Rubin — An Encounter that Resonates — and a reminder

One of the strangest and most resonant encounters I’ve had in the last few years was with the legendary music producer, Rick Rubin.  I had never even heard of Rick when HBO contacted me and asked if I could come to Malibu to have a conversation with him for a documentary they were filming.  Who’s going to say “no” to that, even though I didn’t have a clue who Rick Rubin was? 

What I did know is that when I mentioned his name to people, their eyes got wide and their tones got hushed and they whispered, almost reverentially, “Rick Rubin?  You’re going to meet Rick Rubin?”  I hadn’t gotten that type of response since my meeting years ago with Robert Plant.  One person even went so far as to say, “Robert Plant.  That was great.  But Rick Rubin. . . I mean, that’s amazing.”  I thought they were going to fall to their knees and touch my sleeve for the mere fact that they were in the presence of someone who was going to meet a man who clearly sat at the right hand of God if, indeed, was not actually God himself.

Well, I went, got filmed walking and talking with Rick along the Malibu headlands, received about an eye blink of time in the documentary, and returned to my private and anonymous life with little further thought about the encounter beyond an occasional reminiscence about what it had been like to dip my toe in the waters of the Malibu lifestyle of the truly rich and famous.

But the encounter continues to resonate.  I had been brought down to Malibu because Rick had been intrigued by Dancing with the Gods (later put out in paperback as The Artist’s Journey).  Though we were from different artistic planets, our thinking on creativity and the artistic journey was surprisingly similar.  It turns out he had asked for my participation in the documentary precisely for that reason.

Well, Dancing with the Gods/The Artist’s Journey, became the proverbial tree falling unheard in the forest.  But Rick has just put out a book entitled The Creative Act which is rocketing to the top of the New York Times best seller list.  This was to be expected.   Kent Nerburn is Kent Nerburn and Rick Rubin is Rick Rubin.  And I spent my entire book making references to Michelangelo and Bach and T.S. Eliot (much to the chagrin of my publisher, who pleaded, “What about people like Banksy?”).  Rick’s world is Def Jam Records, Public Enemy, and a Who’s Who of contemporary musicians and creatives. (Listen to the astonishing rendition of “Hurt” sung by Johnny Cash that Rick pulled forth from him at a time when Johnny thought he was done.)  My readership is, shall we say, ahem, “selective”, while his is almost universal. 

I mention this because I’ve been digging into Rick’s book and it is a reminder to me of how the creative experience, though infinitely varied in its forms, has a common core that crosses generations, genres, and lifestyles.  Though Dancing with the Gods/The Artist’s Journey is built upon an honoring of the past and The Creative Act is a call to arms to the creators of the future, they beat with the same heart.

As the world is awaking from the pandemic, and the movement for people to speak in their own voices is surging, I hope all of you who have said, “I’d love to write a book” or “I’d love to learn to play the guitar” or some other long deferred or abandoned artistic aspiration will realize, “If not now, when?”  We all have a story or a song within us, and we all long to have it be heard.  The challenge is how to overcome our reticence or sense of inadequacy or simple lethargy in order to get it out into the world.  I’ll write a bit more about this in the future, but, for now, take the counsel of two very different men from very different places in life, creatively, culturally, and geographically:  You have something unique to say, and no one else can say it.  If you don’t say it, the world loses it. 

As Lao Tzu, one of my spiritual mentors says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 

Time to get walking.

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