THERE are many ways to physically express the creative thought process. Some use brushes and paint, while others use a pen or keyboard. Some, however, are talented enough to use multiple art forms to tell a story. One such person is Rich Okun. His anthropomorphic tale, The Sun, The Moon, The Stars and Maya, takes the reader on a journey of the soul told through the eyes of a little dog called Maya by way of short but poignant vignettes. Beautifully illustrated, the book is aimed at children as well as “the child in us all” and hopes to help bring good feelings to as many as possible. Spiritual rather than religious, Rich generously shares his life journey with us in this candid and unusual interview and, in keeping with his creative process, has even added a few of his colourful illustrations.
1. Who do you think you are Rich Okun?
As the Mayan would say – In Lak’ech Ala K’in – meaning “I am another you”. I best like the phraseology of Native American cultures Mitakuye Oyasin meaning “all my relations” in Lakoda.
I have struggled with that question every moment of every day until recently – I think the best way I can describe it is using a quote and a poem… It is my style after all.
My story begins with when the hummingbird came to me one Saturday morning talking to my uncle: I knew at the moment I arrived here on Mother Earth the reason I was here was to be a witness, to help birth a new earth by saying yes to it. My mission is to bless the flowers and be blessed by them and to reveal to others the sacred beauty of the earth. Thanks Creator. Raven Redbone.
Maya says –
We all have a story
so the story is told.
To live in our glory
to have and to hold.
Mine is like yours
all a part of the we.
Each hummingbird ensures
to unlock, that masterkey.
Hear beneath their twitters
that ‘yippidee!’ melody
soft iridescent flitters
‘come fiy with me’.
So I have discovered that this is what I do too. I like to share my own journey because it is like everyone’s journey, in fact I think we are all the same, but for a matter of degree – so I have felt that if I am honest with my own spirit and stay aware of what comes, I can relay my story as it unfolds and others will relate to it because we are all going through the same things.
People have told me that they find these vignettes (the package of ever-expanding thought: quote, poem, illustration ) to be very timely in their lives, and some find the messages remind them of things they may have already known, but simply forgot and it provides a healing.
An example of what I mean is that everybody faces challenges of “Am I good enough?” when they venture out there in this competitive world. In my rhythmic approach, expressing the way that I do, many people have compared my efforts to some of the real greats, like Shel Silverstein, Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and others. I had a difficulty with this. But then I said, well if I don’t think I am good enough then I shouldn’t even try since I would defeat myself through sabotage. I found myself procrastinating and other behaviours that I observed.
But then I sat down and wrote this. (In this case I wrote the poem first and then found a quote to go along with it.
Just who do I think I am?
dare compare to such a great.
I dunno it just happens so,
its my destiny, its my fate.
I may ask,
why shouldn’t it be this way
Are you up to the task
is today the day?
or maybe tomorrow,
yes tomorrow, might be better than today.
Shed no tears in sorrow,
any time will point the way.
Start or wait,
it doesn’t matter.
then watch your illusions shatter.
And just then will be,
an opening right where
an opening should be.
So yes, dare compare.
So the long-winded answer to your question is that I think I am just a guy trying to figure it all out, looking and finding magic wherever I go, lucky enough to have found a way to express what needs to come out one way or another with intentions to help.
The best way to explain is to example in realtime – I just found out that one of my good friends died on Saturday – I had visited him a month ago and knew the end was close at hand. His brother posted the information about his death and some details surrounding his condition. He closed by saying that he would miss not being able to have any more adventures with his brother. Those words resonated with me as I saw my friend as an adventurer and I wrote:
What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within the span of his little life by him who interests his heart in everything. – Laurence Sterne
Always Seeking Love
Eyes of a child
open wide as can be
to the ways that life flows
into you and out of me.
Wanting it all,
accepting what you get.
Its a way of being;
its an adventurer’s bet.
Then roll them dice,
then sleight that hand,
and muster your courage
as if it’s all planned….
So who is Rich Okun? What happens is that as a consequence of some life experience, or progressive thought, I try to use the act of creation to transmute anything that might be judged bad into something that was good and bring a little color into a grey situation. I am a storyteller..
2. Art and words: which format do you feel best expresses your creativity?
I really don’t have a good opinion on that since I always find that one or the other seems to be better in each of the vignettes that I do. In some, the illustration is what makes the message come through clearly and movingly; in another it might be the poem, or the quote, or the audio reading. I love to carve stone as well and find that this too expresses a part of me better than another medium might. And then even within the mediums there are variations such that oils, or watercolor, or pastels in painting, or rhyme, prose, or story in writing might be better compliment the expression. So for me the subject of the creativity (the thought, rather than the piece) guides the best format of the expression of that thought.
I wrote this book to contribute and help and to do my part in lifting the energy of the planet, especially families and the young as they are distracted by the world of entertainment and electronics. Because of the economic challenges, families may not be able to spend the quality time together Often spiritual matters are not discussed as they are complex and may not be easy to bring into view as everyone’s busy schedules can interfere with the best of intentions and the multitude of distractions both electronic and entertainment lull us into a state of numbness.
I am and have been a student of spiritual studies all of my life. My path to get to this book is a 61-year journey having taken the circuitous route to this moment in time. There are many things that have influenced my life in such mystical ways and after having experienced so much magic, I felt compelled to help.
About four years ago I started an online business with my sister and brother-in-law who own a Bead store in Encinitas, CA. I was doing all the online work (programming, inputting, customer service etc) and, as a way to drive more traffic to our site, I started a blog (about two and a half years ago) as I wanted to explore the spiritual side of our business and our customers (beads and stones have great and ancient spiritual connections). Every day I would find a famous quote and then write a short poem expressing my interpretation of this spiritual expression. I would then find photographs online to go along with the poem and created a slideshow presentation of this for our readers to enjoy. I also posted these on my social network pages. These became very popular and I was told by many that these helped them with some of their difficult issues that they were dealing with and that it was very timely for them to read the message. The business was not doing what it needed to so we closed it down this past summer (2012, however, this concept survived.
A little background. We had a Shih Tzu named Sammy who died in April 2011 he was 15 + years old. After seeing me mope around for a couple of months, my wife thought it was time for another puppy and Maya (our new Shih Tzu puppy) chose us as her family.
My daughter had asked me to perform her up-coming wedding ceremony to take place in September of 2011 and I became a Justice of the Peace to be able to do this.
One hot summer’s day in July 2011, as I was walking Maya and thinking about my daughter’s wedding and what I wanted to say and convey it happened. I am and have been like Tevye (the father in Fiddler on the Roof), always talking to God/Spirit – sharing a joke, a prayer, and having a conversation especially while in nature, everyday of my life, and like so many other people, I ask spirit “what am I here for? What should I be doing with my life, how can I help?” I always wanted to hear a great big booming voice come down from above, maybe Charlton Heston or James Earl Jones saying “Just do this Rich” but I have never heard anything back. This did not deter me from continuing with the ask.
That day I heard a whisper – it was telling me to further develop this format (quote/poem-story/illustration) but to use Maya as my muse and do it for children to be able to learn about spiritual matters much earlier in life. Make it so “parents can use it to discuss these things with their children – help to awaken the Indigo/Crystal Children out there sooner in their lives” – I was taken aback as I knew that I had received a message – I also had a chill (on a very hot summers day) which usually indicates some connection with spirit.
Over the next few months and with seemingly no concerted effort on my part, my style of writing became more “simple-languaged” and more appropriate for younger people, but it still maintained a deeper meaning. I then started to draw Maya and naturally evolved illustrating her in scenes that helped to tell the story of the quote/lesson. I wrote well over 500 quotes, poems and stories and got better at illustrating. These illustrations and sayings became very popular on the blog and social networking pages.
I received many serendipitous events (too numerous to mention here) that seemed to confirm my movement towards this conclusion, and I decided to listen. One of them was – at my daughter’s wedding dinner the night before, one of the children (on the groom’s side) came over to me as I was eating dinner, and handed me a book called Thomas the Tank Engine and insisted that I read it to him. This had never happened to me – ever – and as I read him the book, I saw how vacant it was in its substantive meanings but held his fascination. He insisted that I continued to read it to him well after I finished. I had not even met him before he singled me out to do this. Later I saw the synchronicity of this event and I became motivated to fill the vacancy with my efforts to help the flower blossom.
After we closed the business (Summer of 2012) I decided to start a blog – Maya the Puppy Poet and populate it with my work – in a very short time and with only posting on Facebook and Twitter, I had well over 16,000 viewers from over 129 countries. People (adults) have been writing to tell me how much these are helping them in their lives and that although I may be writing with a children’s audience in mind, the adults found these sayings and illustrations most helpful.
After a few months, another spiritual encounter came for me to “get this out there” in a bigger way, help more people, and pay the bills. So I decided to listen to that whisper and jump in head first and write this book. To be helpful and to foster a life based on creating, not competing….
4. In what way has Maya become your “muse”?
I often use the term when describing Maya “This is what love has made, and as it has made you, so to has it made me.”
We love each other so deeply that she keeps me grounded in what’s important, reminding me of the “every moment” she helps me open my eyes to see beauty, and forget all the ‘stuff’ that accumulates in our heads and makes it hard to appreciate life.
I think of a muse a little differently in that I see Maya as the vehicle for allowing me to follow my passion for expressing through the creative process. I feel that she gives voice to my inner spiritual heart and allows me to put it out there in a package that can help tell a story of relevance through the ages. The great questions, the great mystery, the mystical. In a word, she Inspires me.
5. What is the significance of colour in the book?
When I was younger I was afraid of colour and using it so everything I did was in black and white, but when I started this effort, I used colour openly and with courage, and vividly as another source of expression and to capture the child’s eye (and the child in you) and draw attention. I found that my fears of the past were unwarranted and that I could approach colour with confidence. The use of colour represents the vibrancy of life and stimulates a sense of beauty.
6. Do you believe in magic?
Absolutely – I think its magic that we are here. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in science, because I do, but that science is only good at explaining things we know, but we don’t even have the instruments to know what we don’t know – for instance we do not hear all the frequencies of sound, nor see the all spectrums of light, or smell all the smells etc. Our vast knowledge is but a dent in what we don’t know. For instance we know what infinity is as a definition, but what is it really? How can we explain this in real terms that make sense – something that has no beginning and no end…
I see magic everywhere – it’s one of the things I try to use Maya to reveal the magic in the ordinary – some people call things that happen serendipitously; coincidences, I see them as “coincidings” and I have to ask why and how, and the answer may not follow any logic or science as we understand it.
7. Which audience do you hope to attract the most?
I want to help bring good feelings to as many as possible.
Parents and children to close relationships and have broad discussions about important spiritual topics – also other family members like grandparents – but also people that need to be uplifted in spirit and look for ways to incorporate inner thinking and meditation into their lives.
8. Is your work inspired by religious conviction?
I do not consider myself a religious person. I have no prejudice against any and have studied many, but I find that religion is the people part of spirituality – you know the part that we add, and subtract, depending upon our agenda and judgments and level of control we want over others. I find that spirituality strips away those barriers of acceptance that religions often put up.
All of my work is highly spiritual in content and nature, but I do not seek to give answers as most religions do, but rather to beg the questions, which spirituality does.
9. What events in your life have led you towards following a spiritual path and The Golden Rule?
A short background:
I was born and raised in a not-too-religious Jewish household in New York City. My parents divorced when I was 11 and, because of the economic situation, I started working to help support my mother and sister (I had the largest paper delivery route in the Bronx). My mother who was an opera singer but could not break out, was very ill until she died at the age of 39 of pancreatic cancer when I was 17. My mother encouraged my art at a young age with accordion lessons (which did not survive) and art and at six, I became the youngest member of the Art Student’s League of New York (across the street from Carnegie Hall). I went to Woodstock just before my freshman year in college in 1969, which affected me greatly, although I didn’t know it at the time. I went to Syracuse University and studied many different things. I didn’t think I was a good enough artist to make it on my own and I didn’t want to be a “starving” artist so I changed majors many times. I tried to see if commercial art would be a good fit, but I did not like the mixture of business interests being such a heavy influence on art so after it was clear that the war in Vietnam was coming to a close in 1972, I joined Air Force ROTC to be a pilot and see the world. In the service I travelled around the world and expanded my interest in world cultures and religions. However, the military was not a good fit for me, so I left Southern California (where I was stationed) to go back to the East Coast but not New York and chose Connecticut because it did not have a helmet law and I loved motorcycle riding but not wearing a helmet. I climbed the corporate ladder to various senior executive management positions. I enjoyed good fortune in my careers, but ultimately nothing was a good fit. All throughout my life, I have pursued creative ways to express myself spiritually, and always to help others and using the “give-away” as a means to express these things.
Although I was spiritual my whole life I didn’t know it (or want to admit it to myself) and to hide my true feelings (Including from myself) I was more pessimistic and sarcastic in my outer face to the world. My deeper awakening happened as my second divorce was in play, 1997, which was a very difficult time in my life. I had decided to visit my mother’s grave site.
This is the story of my true path:
Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan changed my life. A good friend of mine had shared a passage, which speaks about finding the path that has a heart, the one that makes for a joyful journey as long as you follow it- you are one with it, the one that makes you strong. This passage was one of the many things, which led me to my current path.
I lost my mother too early, and my father as well. Here is the story of why my email address-name is ravenchief:
It was early on my path and one of the events, which is most meaningful in my life. Over 16 years ago, near my birthday, I decided to visit my mother’s grave. I had not been there since she was buried over 30 years earlier. When she died, I was an angry young man, and without applying psychoanalysis somehow I guess I carried some hurt that I didn’t allow to come to the forefront about her death and the frustrations of my growing up. Something told me that it was time to reconcile this in me, to finally find and feel forgiveness. It was a very difficult time while this was happening. I had no idea where she was buried because I had not been there since 1969. I didn’t even know the name of the cemetery nor how to get there so I called my uncle in Florida (her brother). He gave me directions to the cemetery in New Jersey, and he tried to give me directions to the grave site without remembering the grave or block number.
I braved the dreaded drive from CT to Jersey and drove the two-plus hours to the cemetery on that Saturday morning, only to find that it was closed. This is a Jewish cemetery, and Saturday is the day of rest and nothing is open. I stood outside the gates next to my car, very disappointed and thinking to myself that I would have to come back another day. As I stood there, I looked up to see three ravens flying and cawing overhead. For some unknown reason, I decided to get into my car and follow them. They led me a couple of miles down the road and then swiftly made a sharp right turn. I looked to my right and saw an obscured but open gate, which led to a different park. I entered and as I got to the top of the hill, I was able to see that there was a back-unmarked entrance to the cemetery and went inside. Now I was trying to follow my uncles’ directions (which were wrong anyway) from where I was, which was not the place he told me to enter. I back-tracked every-which-way. This is a very old and very large cemetery with tens of thousands of gravestones and blocks. The administration building wasn’t open and I didn’t even know the block number. I drove around for a couple of hours without any success, so I pulled over and got out of the car. I was standing by my car and looked up, and saw the same three ravens (I think they were the same). Again, inexplicitly I got into my car and followed them. They led me through a maze of blocks and countless sites and landed at the corner of a block so I pulled over next to them.
A moment later one of the ravens flew just past my window and as my head turned to follow him I could see there, about three rows in, a plain, unassuming gravestone and I was able to make out the label “Popper” (my mothers maiden name). It was my mother. She is buried next to her mother who I never knew (she had died before I was born but I was named after her in my Hebrew name as an honour to her). About a row closer to the road was the grave of my Tonta Rosie (aunt) who was not related to us, but my grandmother’s best friend from the old country, Estonia. I loved Tonta Rosie who treated me as family. Many an afternoon, on my paper route in the Bronx, I would stop by her apartment and do chores for her. I can still taste her chicken soup. She was always the grandmother I never had.
After my visit and reconnection with these very special people, it occurred to me what had happened. These ravens really did lead me there and I place meaning on that. To me they were the spirits of my mother, my grandmother and Tonta Rosie. There was no one else in this massive cemetery and I remember crying as my heart filled with the understanding of connection and the blessing I had just received. I have been back there many times since. Now every time I see a crow or raven, the gift of being connected to my mother fills me up. I tend to see crows and ravens in threes. The real blessing is that crows are quite plentiful so I am now connected to my mother many times a day.
This after over 40 years of not having that beauty. My mother was an extraordinary person, and she is with me now stronger than when she was alive. This was 1997 so when I got my first Internet account about a week later I decided that my name was ravenchief. That quote from Carlos Castaneda has haunted me ever since: “All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long paths but I am not anywhere. My benefactors question has meaning now. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good, if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t.”
Now, many years later, I finally decided to listen and do this book, The Sun, the Moon, the Stars and Maya.
Right after I returned from my mother’s gravesite, my Native American elder found me and the beautiful teachings of a connection with all things and that all things have spirit imbued within it, in their cultural beliefs and ways of being resonated strongly with me. I donated my land to ceremonial and sacred uses; I carved my own pipe, and had a sweat lodge on my property for the sacred circle and community. I also found my way back to my Jewish roots through the ancient teachings of the Kabbalah and my own personal path was a blend of these two great spiritual paths. I have studied extensively these teachings and many more.
This story is only one, there are many. I have been lucky in my life to be able to not only experience magic, but recognize it and then find a creative outlet to express it. The Golden Rule becomes the foundationary and universal law as you gain insight into the spiritual nature of things.
10. What do you hope readers will get out of your work?
One of the reviewers wrote this “When I began reading I was looking for a category or a niche to place it in the proper place among all other books that I have read. I soon recognised that Maya moved me beyond content to an experience of thinking and feeling.”
I want each piece of my work to evoke a feeling – to provoke deep thinking.
I am telling my story in a unique way chopped up into topical segments and that has an ability to adapt to different purposes.
I hope that they can find these vignettes as openers for even larger more expansive and personal conversations. One reader wrote to me that he was using the stories as a bedtime reader to his son, when a discussion of fear and love (one of the poems in the book) revealed that his son was being bullied at school but was too ashamed to bring it up. As they were discussing the poem the son found an opportunity to share with his father what could have had tragic consequences.
I hope that they see a little bit of them in my experiences
I hope they see some of the magic in the ordinary
I hope they feel a little lighter, a little brighter, a smile, a question, a thought to ponder.
11. What’s next for Rich Okun?
More books. I have enough material for about four more books and lots more to come. I am extremely excited and almost ready to launch our IPhone/Ipad app. – Here I will push to your device once a day at the time of your choosing, a unique quote, a poem, an illustration, and an audio reading of the quote and poem – all very similar to my book and posts. I expect I can release it for $1.99 for a full year (365) of these posts, and I am currently seeking corporate sponsorship to help take Maya to visit children’s hospitals like St. Jude’s hospice for the terminally ill, senior communities and other places, where a lick and a book can bring smiles and uplift spirits.
Author website: http://www.thesunthemoonthestarsandmaya.com