Running

It strikes me as odd that two people can experience the same event at the same time but come away with different theories of what happened.  I work in a Level III Behavior school for students who have experienced trauma.  When we see a child running across campus, we assume they are running away from programming; for the casual observer, it appears as though the child is enjoying a lovely escapade in the greenspace.  Same action – different goals.

In life, we run a lot; we run to the store, in from the rain and away from our problems.  These actions all look the same but are guided by very different intentions.  Having observed my running habits over time I realize that there is a difference between running away from problems and running toward solutions.  Running away from troubles leaves you lost, out of breath, and no further from the stored-up fear than when you started.  Running toward solutions, however, creates space to examine the problems while we catch our breath, sort through the details and come in from the rain. 

Flamers

When I was 17, I came out as “gay.”  It was 1990 and I had just ended a relationship with the girl I had been dating since middle school.  In a matter of weeks, I had gone from boyfriend to flamer.  My gay light shined proudly and lit the path for other closeted gay boys to open up and become their truest selves much the way my homosexual predecessors lit the path for me.

As a 47-year-old gay man, my path has opened up to a great many more wonders.  Thanks to the teachers and gurus who have shared their light, my life is filled with contentment and acceptance.  I am no longer just a flamer; I am a candle – solid in my understanding malleable in my thinking and ready to help others ignite their happiness.  If it is true that thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened, then allow me to share my flame and my truest self.  Together we can conquer the darkness. 

Team Spirit

As an elementary student I went to James B. Rue School.  We were the Roadrunners and we were proud.  As a Roadrunner, I competed against other local elementary schools in track, art and academics perceiving we at James B. were the best.  For Middle School, I attended Woodrow Wilson Jr. High.  We were the Warriors and we were proud.  We warriors were comprised of Roadrunners, Roughriders, Eagles and a dozen other mascots from a dozen other elementary schools.  My former competitors were now my classmates and my perceived superiority diminished as we formed a new and better team.

As a registered voter I am a Democrat and I am proud.  We stubborn donkeys believe Muslims are good Americans and immigration is an asset for the U.S., unlike those Republicans who disagree with us on everything.  Or do they?  When polled about the topic of immigration, the majority of Republicans agreed Muslims and immigration are good for America.  What if the problem isn’t that we disagree on everything, but that we don’t know on how much we do agree?

In a world where algorithms determine our news and perceptions are presented as fact, we’ve got to ride through the roughness of political warriors and find our commonalities.  We must reimagine a bigger ‘story of us -- a story of our country that prizes understanding over judgment, openness over dogma, and empathy over exclusion.  A united American team. . . I can be a part of that.  Go Eagles!

Kryptonite

In 2000, 3-Doors down released a hit single called Kryptonite and, until recently, I never knew all the lyrics.  I loved the song and would mindlessly mumble along spitting out the chorus with conviction feeling as though I was both Superman and Crazy.  The opening lines:

     “Well, I took a walk around the world to ease my troubled mind

      I left my body lying somewhere in the sands of time.”

felt strangely apropos, and it seemed as though the song had been written specifically for me and my wandering mind. 

Come to find out, 50% of the time we are not really paying attention at any given moment, rather, we are mind wandering.  Our attention gets hijacked by our troubled mind and this kryptonite makes us feel stressed or threatened. Superman uses his X-ray vision to see things clearly, we mortals must develop other skills such as mindfulness to accomplish this clear-sightedness.  Using mindfulness’ laser-like focus enables us to ignore what is happening 3-doors down and stay in the present moment.  It might not make us super, but Man, it sure does help us enjoy the sands of time.

Heavy Loads

Last weekend, my husband and I ripped out our old concrete steps and replaced them with new wooden ones.  For 9 hours I tore apart, loaded up and reassembled a variety of materials until  my little body could take no more; I went to bed early and slept soundly.  For the next two days I felt about 120 years old; my back ached, my legs hurt and I had a hard time getting up and down my freshly constructed stairs.  The load was heavy, but I lifted with my legs and not my back, so recuperation was successful and I once again feel like a 20 year old.

About a decade ago my husband and I nearly ripped apart your relationship.  We had torn down our trust and built up emotional walls as thick as concrete.  For the next two years we worked on reconstructing our selves as individuals with thoughts and dreams, and as individuals who are part of a couple.  We took the necessary steps of personal growth and couple’s therapy, and can now look forward to another 20+ years together.  Rebuilding a life is hard work.  It takes time; it takes patience.  Eventually, you realize, it’s not the load that breaks your down: it’s the way you carry it. 

Uncork

As a man in America, there are certain gratuities that govern my existence: I’m allowed to pee outside, to have grey hair and to drink before noon.  What I am not allowed to do is express emotion.  No, these I must suppress in order to live a productive and fearless life.  “Real men don’t cry,” is what we’re told; we should, “Suck it up and be a man.”  So that’s what I did – I sucked it up, bottled it in and let it ferment like a not-so-fine wine, and like a not-so-fine wine, after 40 years, I exploded.  I blew my cork and spewed my discontent.  I hadn’t been living fearlessly, I had been living feel-lessly.   By not allowing myself to feel and express my emotions, I had successfully kept myself in a cellar of despair. 

To uncork the pain of my screwed-up life, I sought stewardship.  I needed someone to serve me information and a kindly ear.  I searched the menu of supports and ordered a sampling of several (paying attention to the body and breath, taking time to evaluate situations, identifying stressors).  With a full glass of pertinent information, I can now go forth and live fearlessly while feeling what I feel without judgement.  It is a fine life indeed.

Short Circuit

To keep my students actively engaged in their learning experience, I have invested in a variety of STEM activities.  One of the student favorites is a circuit block system where students connect electric circuits in order to light a bulb or play music or start a fan.  After a bit of time and practice, the students can quickly assemble the blocks to achieve a desired result.  Last year, I had a student who mindlessly connected the circuits to light the lamp but had incorrectly snapped a block in place and unintentionally turned on the fan which flew off its base and clipped the tip of his nose.  He had short circuited himself and needed a band-aid to fix his boo-boo.

We humans seek patterns due to an inherent negative bias.  Our brains have evolved to navigate our environment using bias and speed rather than accuracy and analytics.  We scan for patterns around us and rapidly respond in fear.  This stems from primitive days but tends to short circuits our happiness in modern times.  To fix this boo-boo, we have to form new connections.  We can do this by practicing gratitude.  Each day connect with 5 things that make you feel grateful.  After around 21 days some of the old brain circuitry may be clipped and new connections formed to create a more positive bias.  Positivity – I’m a fan of that.

Tall Orders

One of my favorite leisure time activities is to try new foods at local restaurants.  Oftentimes, during these culinary adventures, I’ll order the 3rd item on the left or have the server surprise me with his or her favorite dish.  Some servers enjoy this task, others find it a tall order to fill, concerned I won’t approve of the choice.  I respectfully assure the waiter that I will harbor no ill-will toward him if I dislike the selection.  For many, this practice seems like a ridiculous waste of time, but for me, it broadens my world and opens possibilities.

Another practice of which I like to partake is Loving Kindness Meditation.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the need for “aggressive nonviolence,” and during troubled times Loving Kindness Meditation is my preferred form of aggression.  It’s a pretty tall order, loving the unlovable, but it is how we best serve humanity.  When one practices good will, one removes fear and negative reactivity from the mind.  Once the mental plate is cleaned, it can be filled with patience, kindness and understanding.  Think of all the things that could be possible if we served each other a big, heaping plateful of love and respect.  It might taste a little bitter at first, but a full heart is a delicious possibility.

Splat

I once wrote a newspaper article about roadkill.  If you’ve ever driven cross country, you’ve probably played the game, “What Splat is That?” where contestants try to identify the various carcasses littering the sides of the road.  In the Midwest, a great deal of our large splats belong to deer leading me to wonder, “When will deer adapt to leaping rather than looking when they see the oncoming lights of a Mac truck?”  A deer’s stop and freeze action may assist him in the woods where he blends in with the surroundings, but his forest camouflage does nothing to slow a moving semi.  Evolutionarily speaking, it’s time for an upgrade.    

One would think that staring down a semi as it barrels down on us would give us the impetus to move, yet often times we knowingly repeat the same bad habits and reap the same bad consequences.  Our lives are littered with the carcasses of poor choices, yet when faced with the evidence of our shortcomings, we struggle to identify the problem.  We haven’t yet adapted to a new way of being and so we stand there letting life run all over us. 

If a deer wants to avoid a Mac truck, it need only step aside; if we want to avoid being run down by negative consequences, we must step outside ourselves for a moment, witness our triggers and monitor our responses.  Once we realize the cause of our actions and our response to them, we can evolve and adapt.  The next time you feel like a deer in the headlights, step aside, look at the situation and determine an appropriate course of action.

Audi-os Troubles

Once upon a time I drove an Audi.  It was used and green and got me where I needed to go.  After driving it for about a year, it began to have engine issues.  It had trouble starting, the radio would cut out randomly and sometimes the interior lights wouldn’t work.  I tried expensive gas, replacing the tires, and cursing at the darn thing to no avail.  After months of issues, my Audi finally stalled for good.  I took it to the experts who informed me rain water was making its way from the windshield, down tiny flaws in the car’s design and into the wiring underneath the floorboard which drown out the circuitry effectively rendering the car useless.  No longer would the Audi take me to the grocery store or therapy appointments.  I would have to find another way.

Often times, we humans attempt to solve internal problems with external solutions.  We change our location, change our medicines and change our cars in an attempt to drown out our troubles; these changes are akin to putting on new tires to fix a broken engine – the tires will help you run smoother while you’re headed downhill, but they won’t fix the internal workings.  Eventually you’ll wind up stranded.  To bid our troubles Audi-os, we’ve got to fix our internals systems.  We may need to seek experts and design a new plan, but it can be done.  But first we’ve got to get started.

Toxic

I have spent a fair amount of time (years on end) putting toxins in my body, booze, pills, poor choices, etc.  Unfortunately, this makes me the rule rather the exception in America.  To counteract our habits of making poor choices and self-medicating, we Americans have developed “cure-alls” like juice cleanses and aromatherapy.  Drank too much last night? – try a beet and carrot juice cleanse.  Stressed out by a relationship – light a lavender candle.  These remedies temporarily purify us leading us to believe we can continue our toxic ways.  The more we detox, the more we retox.  But applying a materialistic approach to our pain, boredom and need for attention, is just a band-aid.  What our suffering really deserves is compassion.  All suffering is worthy of compassion, even the suffering we create for ourselves. 

Although compassion is an innate skill, it takes practice to apply it properly.  The Tibetan word for practice is “gom,” which means “getting familiar.”  The practice of self-compassion is about getting familiar with the part of us that is naturally caring and getting familiar with what it feels like to apply that tenderness to ourselves.  Rather than applying a quick-fix band-aid that numbs the pain, we need to face the problem.  Mother Teresa said, “Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”  The person nearest to us is ourselves.  Compassion starts with us, for us.  Light a candle, grab a glass of beet and carrot juice and treat yourself as you would treat a dear friend who is struggling.  No matter what pain you’ve experienced or toxic environments you’ve created, your future is spotless, and you can begin again. 

Beauty Products

Having been a cosmetologist all of my adult life, one may expect my medicine cabinet to be filled with miracle creams and magic spritzes meant to keep me young and amazing.  In reality, my beauty regime consists of shampoo, conditioner and a body lotion.  Globally, anti-aging products are expected to rake in over $330 billion by 2021. But a recent study suggests a cheaper way to stave off senescence is loving-kindness meditation which aims to cultivate warm-hearted, positive emotions toward oneself and others. 

The magic ingredient in loving-kindness meditation that aids in youthful looking skin isn’t ceramides or Hyaluronic Acid, its Telomeres (DNA-protein complexes inside every cell that protect it against daily wear and tear).  As we age, our telomeres get progressively shorter and the shorter our telomeres get, the sooner our likelihood of dying.  The good news, however, is that certain behaviors and lifestyle choices can either slow their shrinkage or even make them longer.  For a cheap way to lift sagging skin, try lifting your spirits with exercise, sleep and loving kindness.  You may not look 20 or 21, but you’ll feel amazing.

Love Hurts

Last Saturday I was dancing to my 80’s playlist when Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” blasted through my speakers.  I got so into it that I smacked my hand on the edge of the table proving that love is not only addictive; it hurts.  So many songs, poems and movies have been written about the pains of love that one feels there must be some truth to the sentiment.  According to scientists, social rejection and physical pain are rooted in exactly the same regions of the brain, so as far as your brain is concerned, the pain you feel from a breakup is no different from a stab wound, and as much as we think of “heartbreak” as a verbal expression of our pain or say we “can’t quit” someone, these are not actually artificial constructs -- they are rooted in physical realities.  Like pain teaching us not to touch a hot stove, heartache exists to teach us something.  It focuses our attention on significant social events and forces us to learn, correct, avoid, and move on.

Love isn’t all bad though; love is effectively a painkiller.  Love activates the same sections of brain stimulated by morphine and cocaine, and like these drugs, the effects of love are quite strong.  It appears as though love can both hurt and heal depending upon its usage.  I’m not sure about Robert Palmer and his love addiction, but I plan to use my love to heal (starting with my injured hand).

Moonlight

Each night, before going to bed, I look to the moon, grateful it is there, and say a list of things for which I am thankful.  Over time, the list has grown and the moon, in all its phases, has remained a constant companion for this tradition. 

It’s not always easy being grateful.  Sometimes, the dark side of life creates shadows over the good and I want to push away the sadness and grief.  The desire to avoid what’s unpleasant is part of human nature.  But this nature only increases our psychological distress, inflexibility, anxiety, and depression, while diminishing our well-being.  Allowing these emotions to eclipse our being creates irrational worries that darken our days.

But shadows let us know there is light.  When we turn toward our physical pain, we are less likely to be trapped in cycles of suffering; when we turn toward our sadness, we are less likely to be stuck in depression; and when we turn toward our anxiety, we are less likely to be paralyzed by it.  Believing that we can live lives devoid of suffering is sheer lunar-cy.  Bad things will happen, and when they do, we can invite them in as a temporary guest, take a gentle and curious look, then release the pain.  Each time we practice being with our difficult emotions, we grow inner resources and become more full.  Though I appreciate the moon in all its glory, I rely on my own inner light to illuminate my path.

Socia, Meania

I was a small kid – at least, compared to my fellow elementary students.  For a long time, this bothered me until I realized it was all relative.  I was only small when compared to other midwestern 7-year-olds; when compared to starving nations, I was a veritable giant.  Comparing ourselves to others is a great way to know if you’ve reached a growth spurt or not, but it is hardly an accurate means to value personal growth – for that, we need social connection rather than social comparison. 

New studies suggest that happy people avoid the trap of social comparison.  In modern times, our need to be social can backfire on social media, if we accidentally activate the comparing mind – a source of much unhappiness.  Of course, this can happen offline, too.  But the toll looms bigger online, with of all the perfectly curated images of people’s lives inviting us to compare our insides to other people’s projection of their outsides.  If we’re not aware, social media can become social meania and make us feel small and insignificant. 

Yes, social media is contributing to a new era of social stress, but when we accept that it is here to stay, we can also see it as a new opportunity for connection and mindfulness.  Before opening your favorite social media site, consider your intentions and expectations – use this time to connect rather than to distract.  Technology does not define us, despite social media trying to put us into categories and reduce us to a series of likes and interests.  We’ll have to make big decisions to not feel so small in this ever-expanding world, but it can be done.  We grow with each little change and become better versions of ourselves.  I was a fine 7 year, but I’m an even better 47-year-old (but who’s comparing?).

Magic

For the longest time I was stuck in a rut of depression and loneliness until one day, “Poof,” I felt less sad; it was like magic, one day suicidal, the next day hopeful.  So, what had changed?  The word magic dates to the 14th century and means "the art of influencing or predicting events and producing marvels using hidden natural forces," and I suppose it is the perfect word to describe the process.  The truth is, I was less depressed than I was scared – scared to change, scared to admit my shortcomings, scared to forgive and to ask for forgiveness.  The fear of what might happen or the worry that I was somehow not enough kept me stuck.  Regression and depression had become a habit, and old habits are hard to break.

To break the old habits, I enlisted the assistance of others.  These folks helped me face my fears by helping me become better attuned to my body and my personal narratives.  Our brains tend to seek the fastest, most efficient way to relieve stress when we feel it.  That means, because the brain likes predictability, we rely on solutions that have provided short-term stress relief in the past – like seclusion and substance abuse.  Unfortunately, these habits aren’t magical solutions, they are illusory.

For most people overhauling their lives, there are no seminal or life-altering, “Ta da!” moments. There are simply communities, sometimes of just one other person, who make change believable.  So that’s the magic then – believing.  Believe in change.  Believe you can.  Believe you’re worth it.  We are our own natural forces; sometimes we just need another person to show us how marvelous we really are.

Silos

Driving through Iowa doesn’t lend itself to much excitement; the land is flat and filled with mile after mile of, what looks like, the same cornfield featuring the same silo.  It feels less like you have traveled 310 miles and more like you have driven around the same country block 310 times.  If one were to take I-80 through Iowa, one might believe the state has a population of 3 people and 600 silos when, in reality, there are 3.15 million people and 161 silos.  Funny how the facts don’t match the perceptions.

In today’s world of “othering” politics, we often find ourselves in fields of disinformation.  Our media diets, social media feeds, even our in-person relationships lock us into silos of agreement, where it’s easy to demonize and oversimplify those with whom we disagree.  But are we really that different?  An ear of corn has approximately 800 different kernels all making up one delicious ear of corn.  America has approximately 328.2 million different people all making up one United States of America.  So how do we get along?

Corn kernels are packed closely together to help ensure pollination and species survival.  To ensure our species survival, we’re going to have to get a little closer.  We must connect with people with whom we disagree.  Me must politely share are differing views.  We must, “love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”  Let’s take a que from Iowa’s motto as “A place to grow.”  Let’s get out of our silos and sit together at the dinner table, eat our corn and cherish our differences.

Beer

I used to drink beer.  The problem was one beer was never enough.  I needed 10 or 20 or whatever it took to feign some degree of happiness.  I felt good for a while, but ultimately the numbness wore off and I was left with the core feelings of depression and despair.  I guess the wealth of alcohol didn’t solve my problems.

In America, we are raised to believe that more is merrier, bigger is better and money buys happiness.  We spend our weekdays slaving away at jobs to earn money we can spend on the weekends.  We buy houses and cars and microbrews and consume two-thirds of the global market for drugs prescribed to combat chronic sadness and hopelessness.  While we’ve been on this shopping binge, our rates of depression, obesity, heart attacks, divorces, and suicides have skyrocketed.  Without money, it’s impossible to thrive and difficult even to survive in the modern world.  But money isn’t a god.  It’s something to use. Not something to crave or to worship, and certainly not something that should rule our lives.

Up to a certain point, money is vital to happiness for almost everyone. It can buy food, clothing, and beer and provide for our basic needs. Once a person’s basic needs are met, though, money takes on a different meaning.  The more one looks at the data comparing people’s monetary wealth with their levels of happiness, the harder it is to see any correlation at all once you get past the poverty line.  Surveys of the richest Americans, for example, show happiness scores identical to those of the Amish, a people who intentionally live almost entirely without cars or telephones or brewskis.

Money, it seems, is a lot like beer.  Many people like it, but more is not necessarily better. A beer might improve your mood but drinking 10 or 20 not only won’t increase your happiness tenfold, it might not increase it at all.  

Permanent

When I was in the 6th grade, I got a home perm; it was tight and fuzzy and turned my hair into a lovely shade of burnt.  The high hair highlighted my buck teeth and highwater pants and made me a target for a great deal of teasing.  One may think this harassment would have scarred me for live, but truth be told, I only remember it because of pictures.  Why is it our brains tend to hold on to negative memories like Velcro while good memories slip away like butter on a Teflon pan?

Unfortunately, humans are a bit hard-wired to remember bad things while forgetting the good ones, but this doesn’t mean we are stuck to depression.  Life is full of difficulties and name calling mean kids that have the potential to hold us down.  The key isn’t to avoid these pains —it’s through our challenges, after all, that we learn deep lessons.  Instead we can foster positive experiences that offset those challenges.  These good things that we recall can over-write negative memories.  When I am stuck in a negative rut and don’t want to make that depressing memory permanent, I go on a Happy Hunt – I search my surroundings and find three things that make me happy (a flower, the sound of laughing, my own good health); this presence and state of mind helps me relinquish my pain and transform my mood into something more positive.  With enough practice, this skill sticks and becomes a way of life.  Try it – look around you.  What, at this moment, brings you joy?

 

Curious

I am a huge fan of the TV show Sex and the City.  It’s funny, its sexy, it’s hot.  On the surface, the show is a glitzy frolic into a make-believe world of fashion and fornication, but at its heart, Sex and the City is about relationships and curiosity; and mixing the two together (as the show deliciously depicts) is often like playing with fire.

Our curiosity, as humas, has evolved over millennia helping us make decisions in an unpredictable and uncertain world.  Take fire for example.  Man didn’t just wake up one morning and declare he would invent a means of advancing himself; he observed nature and experimented.  He persisted, until finally – heat and lasting fulfillment.  Choosing to explore the unknown rather than avoiding it is the key to a rich, meaningful life.  So, let’s get all glitzed up and be present for whatever the world has to offer.  It might not be sexy, but it’s bound to make us better even if we get burned at first.

 

Contentment

Though I have no children of my own (and have no desire to have any), I do get a secret thrill watching babies giggle at their own feet.  They seem perfectly content sitting in their chairs or laying in their cribs and shoving their feet into their mouths.  As an adult, I have stuck my foot in my mouth on many occasions and have derived no pleasure from the experience.  Instead, I chase happiness the same way Wile E. Coyote, chases Road Runner – always two steps behind and headed for a cliff.

Perhaps it isn’t the chase that’s the problem; perhaps it’s the goal.  I have spent years seeking happiness in more friends, more experiences, more success only to realize that this “more” strategy is, by its very nature, not sustainable.  If we hope to return to our childlike contentment, then maybe we should seek that contentment in whatever moment we happen to be experiencing. 

The word “contentment” comes from the Latin “contentus,” which means “held together” or “intact whole.”  Since then, the word has evolved to describe one who feels complete, with no desires beyond himself.  With this in mind, I begin to reexamine my relationship with what is going on around me rather than my reaction to it and I find that I don’t have to chase Road Runner, I don’t need to tally up more successes and -- although I am physically capable -- I don’t need to put my feet in my mouth.

Old Man

Last week, in a fit of rage, a student called me, “Old man.”  Though tis is hardly the worst thing I have ever been called, I found the comment stunning, not because the statement is particularly rude, but because I have never been called, “Old man,” before – “Faggot,” sure, “Asshole,” you bet, but “Old man?” – Never.

Later, with this new nomenclature bouncing around in my head, I questioned if I was, indeed, an old man.  The average life expectancy of the American male is 78.5 years, and at 47 I am on the downhill slide which, I guess, by definition, makes me old.  The problem is, I don’t feel old.

For a good portion of our lives we engage in unconscious conformity (taking the views of others and making them our own).  This conformity leads to fatigue and disappointment.  So why is it this old man has such energy?  It’s simple – I have based my life around my views and not those of society writ large.  Don’t just take my word for it; try I for yourself.  What is your definition of age?  Of success?  Of happiness?  Answer honestly – live thoroughly. 

Good Trouble

I got in trouble at work two weeks ago – it wasn’t for misbehavior, obstinance or shotty work, it was for advocating change.  I asked the right people the right questions, got the right answers only to be told I was wrong for doing so.  I had officially gotten into, what John Lewis called, “Good trouble.”

Good trouble is seeing something that is not right or fair and then doing something about it.  Good trouble frequently involves sit-ins, mentoring, and peaceful protests.  Good trouble is a slow process that elicits lasting change.  Martin Luther King jr. said, “Be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process,” and this is what I try to do at work – this is what I try to do every day.  So, let me get myself into some more good trouble while I sit down to stand up and ask, “What are you going to do today to elicit positive change?  How are you going to get into good trouble?”

Philosophers

I like to think of myself as a considerate human being, and by considerate I don’t just mean thinking of others, I mean considering the ways of the world and my part in it.  We are all philosophers on some level – we have opinions and views and love to point at events and say, “This is the truth.”  The problem with this philosophy is that “truth” and “fact” are two different beasts.  “Truths” are rooted in beliefs of events, whereas “facts” are events untainted by beliefs.  These two concepts are similar, but different.

The way facts become truths is an interesting journey through our mental filters.  When we are presented with a set of facts (say a bottle of soda placed in front of us), 10-15% of our brains take in the new, visual information, while 85 – 90% of our brains begin searching our memories for meaning.  If we have seen a bottle of soda before, our truths align with the facts; if we have never seen a bottle of soda before, our brain begins telling stories and our truths don’t match the facts.  This very scenario was hilariously played out on screen in the movie The Gods Must be Crazy

So how can we trust our truths are in fact, factual?  We begin by seeking all information.  We often miss what is directly in front of us because we aren’t looking at the whole picture.  Our brains are hardwired for details – this is why we miss the forest for the trees.  If we want our truths to be as factual as possible, we must look at the subjects of our attention objectively.  Slow down, look at the big picture, listen to opposing views, gather the facts.  We don’t live in a world devoid of our pasts, but we don’t have to let the past taint our present.  As students of philosophy (the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence), realize that many facts can be simultaneously true, and that sometimes the best philosophy is to agree to disagree.

 

The Birds and the Bees

One of my favorite ways to relax is to sit on my front porch and watch life pass by.  I was deep in the middle of this very act last week when I spied a flock of birds spring to life from a distant tree; they flew up like a swarm of locust, glided around a bit, then landed back in the same tree.  They did this several times as if they were performing some kind of primitive bird ballet.  “Why do they do this?” I wondered.  “How do they know where to go?” 

This type of behavior happens all over the animal kingdom – Bees swarm to protect the group, ants gather to find food, even cells combine to replicate and grow.  If it weren’t for cooperation, humans literally wouldn’t be here today.  So why do we find it so hard to get along?

As living organisms, our first instinct is to cooperate, yet it is clear to anyone who’s ever been stuck in rush-hour traffic, human cooperation can break down, sometimes suddenly.  To cooperate means, “To work jointly toward the same end,” and as thinking beings we tend to believe our end is unique.  In a small sense this is true; we each have a multitude of interests we’d like to see to at any given moment, but the ultimate goal of humanity is to thrive, and the only way to successfully thrive is to cooperate.  Cooperation isn’t the absence of conflict of interest, it’s a set of rules for negotiating conflicts of interest in a way that resolves them.  With this in mind, let’s resolve to cooperate.  I’ll forgo my interests in your time of need if you forgo your interests in my time of need.  If we can do this, we can glide through the tough times and grow to become better human beings.

Something in Me

One of my favorite silly jokes is to reply to an unsuspecting individual who has stated, “I’m hungry,” with the retort, “Hi Hungry, nice to meet you.”  It never gets old.  We often begin statements declaring who and what we are: “I’m cold.”  “I’m tired.”  “I’m depressed.”  The thing with these declarative statements is that it implies that our existence is determined by our feelings at any given moment.  Most of us would agree that feeling hungry for a snack is a far cry from literally being starved.  Rather than declaring we are a feeling, we should state that, “Something in me feels. . .   “This subtle shift in language reminds us that we can be multiple things at once – We can be hungry and happy; we can be cold and thoughtful; we can be depressed and hopeful.

We, as thinking beings, are greater than the sum of our parts.  We are not simply humans having experiences of being (happy, sad, hungry) – we are beings having a human experience.  “Hi Being, it’s nice to meet you.  My name is Mark, and something in me is delighted to see you.”

Black and White Television

When I was a child, I had a 13” black and white television set on which I watched the black and white world play out before me on 3 channels.  As I grew older my sets grew bigger, the channels greater and my black and white world opened up to all the colors of the rainbow.

Recent events have made me once again examine the black and white world – not through the television lens, but through the lens of my privilege.  My Leave it to Beaver world has opened up to a technicolor extravaganza and I am left wondering, “How can I help change the channels of racism?”  I can admit my privilege.  I can be aware of my biases.  And I can write black words on white paper to create sentences of togetherness, acceptance and love.  It’s not much (those three words), but it’s a start.

 

A New Pair of Shoes

My husband has upwards of twenty-five pairs of shoes, of which he probably wears six.  He sees them, buys them, then shoves them under the bed or in the back of the closet or any where else they will be out of the way.  It’s as if simply owning a good pair of running shoes will help him win a race he has yet to run. 

Being in the proximity of any one thing hardly makes that thing a useful commodity.  Having good intentions, for example, is a worthy quality to possess, but good intentions without action are as useful as boxed running shoes.  We’ve got to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk.  We’ve got to slip on our fancy new shoes and run around doing the good deeds that have been gathering dust in the back of our minds. It’s not enough to have the shoes, we have to start walking in them too.

The Corner of "B"

A few years ago, I was in a car accident; I was T-boned at the intersection of “B” and “25th” by a preoccupied man who missed the stop sign and plowed into the side of my car.  Both of us were rattled, but neither of us were hurt.  The police were called, a ticket was given and apologies were made before a tow truck came to haul away my wreck of a vehicle.  Though no lasting physical damage was caused, I’m guessing that man pays closer attention at the crossroads.

There are many crossroads in life that alter our existence; most are minor and leave no lasting damage, but others have the potential to wreck our lives.  If we fail to stop and pay attention to the details, we can hurt ourselves and others.  Slow down.  Look around.  Pay attention when you come to the intersection of “B” and “Aware.”  The signs to happiness are out there – we just have to open our eyes and see them.

Another Man's Shoes

As a minimalist I have five pairs of shoes of which I purchased one of them myself, the rest were hand-me-downs from friends and family.  Each pair of shoes serves its purpose as formal wear or athletic attire and though most of them aren’t a perfect fit, I have managed to wear the soles down from usage.  It is no exaggeration to say that I have walked a mile in another man’s shoes.

This ability to tread with another man’s soul not only applies to shoes, it applies to empathy as well.  Our collective conscious feels and carries the weight of friends and family – when they feel joy, we feel joy; when they are in pain, we are in pain.  Just as wearing a single shoe makes walking difficult, dealing with our emotions solo makes traversing Life’s path troublesome.  Through empathy and kindness for our fellow man, we can minimize life’s hardships and maximize life’s joys.  I’ve shared the empathy of others, and trust me, it’s a perfect fit.

Astroturf

I grew up watching the Brady Bunch on TV.  I learned the importance of telling the truth, the glory of togetherness, and that life’s major problems could be solved with a potato sack race on the perfectly coiffed lawn.  Later in life I learned that the family members I held so dear were just actors on a set – the children I thought of as friends weren’t brothers and sisters, their parents didn’t always have the answers and their perfect lawn was really Astroturf.  These “family” members struggled with drug addiction, disease and death just like the rest of us.  Perhaps the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Last year I was offered the perfect teaching job in the perfect school, so I quickly accepted the positions as one might perfectly well suspect.  When I got there, the hours were long, the job was impossible and I found myself longing for my old work bunch of previous years.  Sometimes in life we have to learn the hard way that the things we dislike most about our circumstance may be the things we desire when circumstances change beyond our control.  With this in mind, I left the new, perfect job and returned, with renewed optimism, to my old job.  I realized, once again, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, and sometimes, it isn’t grass at all – it’s Astroturf (as was the case for the sports field in my last job).  Rather than continuously searching for the next perfect thing, we should feel gratitude for the blessings that are right in front of us – the good, the not so good, and the potato sacks.

Purpose

My mother passed away last winter.  It was a snow day and I was home from school.  I was scooping snow so the mail carrier could access the box when my sister told me it was time.  I put down my shovel, went inside and stood by my mother’s bed as she took her last three breaths.  One moment she was there, the next she was gone.  It wasn’t unexpected and I didn’t cry.  I said my goodbyes and went back outside to finish scooping the drive, except now I wasn’t doing it for the mail carrier, I was clearing the path for the hospice workers to collect my mother’s body so it could be prepared for her funeral.  It’s funny how the same act can have different meanings depending on its purpose.

When I think back to this event, I realize how fleeting our moments are – they are here and then gone in a single breath.  It’s what we do with our moments that matters. And that is why I have taken to checking myself and asking, “Is what I am doing bring me joy?  If not, what can I do so that it does bring me joy?”  Sometimes that change involves a change in activity, other times it involves a change in attitude about the activity.  My mom was 77 when she died – older than most, younger than many.  I wonder what she thought in those last few breaths. . .   Was she grateful to be surrounded by her loved ones, or was she simply trying to breathe?  I’ll never know.  The time has passed.  You see, it’s not about how many moments we are allotted, but how much purpose we put in each moment.

Bendable

I have been practicing yoga for several years and this practice has made me more flexible in body and mind, so when a friend of mine (32 years my junior) challenged me to a backbend competition, I felt I was up for the task.  He went first.  From an upright position he thrust his arms behind himself, leaned back and fell into a near perfect isosceles triangle.  This approach was new to me as I begin my backbends in a prone position and pop up from there.  Surely, I, with my years of yoga experience, could perform this minor feat of acrobatics.  I stood up straight, thrust my arms over my head and fell backward into an isolated lump.  This was clearly going to take some practice.

The word “practice” means: to perform, to work at, to exercise.  And that is what we must do if we ever hope to better ourselves.  I practice yoga not only to exercise my body, but also to exercise my mind – to stretch myself beyond my usual thinking.  Notice the definition of practice does not include: to work toward perfection.  I’m not perfect.  I still get angry.  I still harbor resentment, but, because of practice, I do so less often.  And because of practice, I can now fall into a backbend from an upright position – not perfectly, but better than I could before.

DNA

It is widely known that humans share 98.8% of their DNA with apes; not so surprising considering the similarities – both have opposable thumbs, both live in groups and both show signs of care and concern for their brethren.  What is not so widely known is that humans share 50% of their DNA with bananas.  Try though I may, I struggle to find the similarities.

I got to thinking about this scientific fact while watching a political debate the other night.  Given what I had seen on TV, one would think political parties have less in common than humans and bananas.  It seems as though we can’t agree 10% of the time let alone 50%.  And so, I began searching my own opposing views.  Is it possible to find commonalities with such extreme differences?  Let’s see. . . both parties have opposable thumbs, both parties thrive in groups, and I’d venture to say, both parties care for and are concerned with their fellow man.  Hmm.  Caring for our fellow man; that sounds like a good place to start.  Now, as for bananas – more than 96% of Americans have them in their household.  I guess we can agree on some things if we try hard enough.

R-evolve

According to my horoscope, today will bring more clarity to life and bonds will be strengthened.  It appears as though the stars and planets have finally aligned and shined their light upon me.  As I pondered this confluence of information, I got to thinking about space and how the planets and moons revolve around a single star the same way protons and neutrons revolve around a single nucleus at a cellular level.  Is this similarity strictly coincidental, or is it by design?  And if so, can it be that our universe and all its inhabitants (including myself) are merely a part of a much grander life?

The human body is comprised of approximately 30 to 40 trillion cells.  When functioning properly, a person is capable of living a long and healthy life, but if a single cancerous cell begins to relentlessly divide and conquer, then that life is cut short, however, humans also possess evolved white blood cells capable of disrupting the membrane of the cancer cells forcing the those cells to undergo programmed cell death.  It appears that cells are capable of both good and bad deeds and that, depending upon those deeds, a body will live or die.

If it is true that our universe is part of a single cell in a grander life, then our deeds affect that life.  So now we have a choice – do we want to be a cancer to this and all existence, or do we want to promote health and well-being?  The answer seems clear; by being better and kinder people, we not only help ourselves, we help all of existence.  These bonds are inextricably linked – what affects one, affects us all.

Flipping Out

Last week my cell phone died.  Actually, it didn’t so much die as wouldn’t charge.  This caused me much distress as one may imagine, but not for the reasons one may suppose.  It wasn’t the fact that my phone wouldn’t recharge, it was that my phone, a Motorola Razr V3 flip phone circa 2004, was no longer supported by the network.  How could this be?  The V3 flip was so innovative 16 years ago – sleek, modern and oh so satisfying to flip the case closed to quickly end an argument.  How could this marvel of technology no longer be supported?

A phone, according to Webster is: “an instrument for reproducing sounds at a distance,” that’s what a phone does – that’s what the Razr does; I use it to connect to others when we can’t connect in person.  Since 2004, cell phones have come a long way.  They are no longer used to connect, but to disconnect.  The average American spends 5.4 hours a day on his phone avoiding connecting with others and the network supports that.  I want to recharge by spending a mere ten-minutes a day talking to a friend and have been banished. 

So, I called the network and flipped out.  I stated my case, I talked with a supervisor and eventually I got my way.  My new vintage Razr is connected to the network and I can connect with others.  Having successfully navigated this minor crisis, I have learned that, when faced with adversity, I can support myself.  Case closed.

The Real World

When we are young, we tend to believe that we live in a cartoon world made of Nerf where no harm can befall us; a world where actions don’t have consequences, gravity doesn’t exist if you don’t believe in it and mistakes are always forgiven.  The first time I realized this world only lives in Cartoon Network is when I was 31 years old and working in a retail shop.  I was storing unused goods on the top of a closet roughly nine feet above ground.  While in a hurry and not paying attention, my foot slipped off the walkway, propelling me forward off the ledge where gravity quickly took hold and pulled me face first into the concrete ground below.  Stunned and in pain, I surveyed my body for damages.  Thankfully I only received a bloody nose, a bruised arm and a blistering dose of reality.  At that moment I knew I was not invincible and that actions do have consequences. 

Later, having been checked out by a doctor and given the okay to return to work, I climbed back up on the ladder and finished the job I had started.  I figured, if my face could take the reality of concrete, certainly I could face the reality of my life.  Sometimes we get hurt, sometimes our egos are bruised, and sometimes we fall.  But in the real world, it isn’t how many times you fall, but how many times you get up that counts.

Almost Great

I recently went on a vacation to Branson, Missouri and like most good travelers, I made my packing list and checked it twice: Shorts? Check. Underwear?   Check.  Camera?  Hmmm.  I wrestled with this one for a bit.  Why shouldn’t I pack my camera?  How could I prove the fun I had without photographic evidence?  And then I thought back to all the great pictures I had of almost great life moments; moments spent getting the camera out of the bag, composing the shot, faking the smile – moments that could have been spent enjoying the experience. 

Research shows that humans devote 47 percent of their waking moments mentally time-travelling and that the more time a person spends mind-wandering, the less happy he is likely to be.  And so, I opted not to pack the camera, but rather to focus on the experience as the experience happens.  So how was my trip you ask?  Amazing – I ziplined over the lake, I shopped, I ate, I thought and I appreciated; I appreciated every little moment.  I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures to show you, but I went on vacation for me, not to regale others with my fantastic adventures. 

Window Pain

No matter how much I research and how much I learn I am always surprised by how glaringly simple life really is: we are who we are, when we are and where we are, yet we’re so busy looking beyond our present moments we cause ourselves ceaseless pain.  It’s a bit like running into a plate glass window; we know it exists because we see it every day, but somehow, in moments of distraction, we run smack into it.

This very thing happened to me the other day; I was busy living my life when something caught my eye outside.  In a hurry to escape my present pain I ran face first into the pane of glass separating my current self from my perceived future self.  At first, I was shocked; how had this happened?  From where had the glass come?  How did I miss something so obvious?  And then, as the pain subsided, I started to laugh at the absurdity of it all.  Once again, I had failed to focus my attentions on the present moment and I wound up paying the price.  If one wants to enjoy life, the answer is as clear as the plate glass window separating us from the future – pay attention to the moments as they happen then proceed with caution to the next.

Wake Up

The other night I dreamed of mass suffering -- the kind that implores people to forgo their morning cups of coffee in order to sponsor a child or perhaps an entire village, except in the dreams I was the perceived savior.  These sufferers looked to me to end their pain.  I dutifully proposed plans to feed, clothe and shelter the masses, but none of the plans seemed viable.  I racked my brain for ways to help, but came up empty handed.  After what seemed like an eternity of sadness my dream-self told my real-life self to, “Wake-up.”  And so, I did.  In the light of day, with eyes freshly open, the suffering ceased at last.

With the feeling of the dream still weighing heavily on me I realized that I need to “wake up.”  I need to open my eyes to the ruth of what is – the good, the bad and the insufferable.  With eyes open I can face the facts as they are: Yes, there will be suffering.  No, I will not be able to end it all.  But I don’t have to focus on it.  I can make my way through the dark, stumbling along the way, but always certain my suffering is a choice. and today I choose light.  I choose to be awake.

Mess-age

It has been said that a little white lie has never hurt anyone; little things like, “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat,” or, “Of course I still love you,” often smooth over a sticky situation until the truth unfolds itself.  But when those little white lies become the dark existence of your life, the whole thing becomes a mess.

After years of telling little lies and big, fat fallacies, I decided I wanted to transform my mess into a message.  And thus, began a quest.  After hundreds of hours of therapy and hundreds of dollars spent on self-help books, I’ve found the message is simple:

Tell the truth.  Tell the truth.  Tell the truth.

Tell it to others.  Tell it to yourself.  It’s simple, it’s powerful and it works.  And best of all, it doesn’t make you look fat or leave a sticky mess – I swear it’s true.   

Invasive Species

Last week I watched a documentary about invasive species.  It seems that in man’s infinite knowledge he thought it best to bring in foreign life such as plants and pythons to help control the population of the less desirables, as Mother Nature clearly didn’t know what she was doing when she designed her Garden of Paradise.  Indeed, these foreign adversaries choked the life out of the lesser beings then continued right on conquering and killing anything else they chose since they were now the top dog in town.  Now we have a new problem – How to overcome these new nuisances without destroying what remains of Nature’s delicate balance.

The thoughts of this conundrum invaded my mind as I attempted to meditate this morning and instead of accepting them and working with them, I chose, in my infinite wisdom, to replace them with other thoughts which eventually invaded and overtook the entire meditative process.  The trick to meditation, and to life itself, is to work with what is present in any given moment.  Instead of railing against or trying to choke out the unpleasant, we have to find ways to create balance.  This may be through quiet contemplation, friendly chatter with a close confidant or it may be to learn that all things serve a purpose; even snakes, weeds and personal pain.

Forecast

This morning I awoke to the first above freezing day in weeks.  Birds were chirping, stars were shining and hope loomed heavily in the air.  I deeply inhaled the Day’s potential and wished this Tuesday a hearty, “Good morning!” knowing today was going to be a good day.  And it was until I checked the forecast upon which my mood suddenly turned cloudy with a chance of pain.  Sure, today is lovely, but tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that mark a return to Winter’s bitter cold.  Chances of rain and snow dot the future like landmines dot an Iraqi field.  Leave it to Tomorrow’s sorrow to overshadow Today’s glory.

And so I realize I have a choice – I can fret about the coming Week’s bitter potential, or I can enjoy Today and all it has to bring.  So, I open my eyes and see what is currently around me: warm coffee, warmer friends and a blazing sun.  The weather may turn cold and pain may befall my future, but for now my heart is full of sunshine and happiness which makes the future seem a bit more bearable.

Exercisism

One of my favorite horror movies is The Exorcist – it’s scary, tragic, a little gross and part of me believes the events depicted on the screen might actually happen in real life.  Not that I’m a believer in Heaven and Hell (except the ones we create for ourselves), but you never really know until the jig is up, and so I’ve taken to exorcising my demons through mental and physical exercise.  Yoga, meditation, a bit of cardio and a lot of gratitude have become my heavenly ritual.  By exercising my body and mind I hope to exorcise any demonic thoughts that may possess and hold captive my being.  By freeing my thoughts and shining the light on my darker side I have gained acceptance to the good, the bad and the slightly gross aspects of my person.  I’m neither an angel nor a devil -- I am a human and am therefore, horror of horrors, imperfect.  May the power of Christ (and Allah, and Buddha, and the universe) compel me.  Until then I will keep exercising and exorcising my mind.   

Working Through the Pain

The other night I spent a good half hour in the hot tub soaking my cares away and hoping to relieve the pain in my aching back.  I turned the jets on in the “hot zone” which are meant to be a shiatsu massage of sorts for whatever body part they are aimed, in my case my shoulders.  I sat, neck deep in hot water, grinning through the pounding pain of the jets working away at my scapula convincing myself I was relaxed.  Ahhhh, nothing is more soothing than having jet propelled water pierce your inflamed soft tissue.  After about ten minutes of torture I toweled off and went to bed.  Two days and several ibuprofens later I did indeed feel better.  Not quite the instant relief for which I was hoping, but relief none the less.

Easing suffering often comes with time and pain.  When I first began my journey to happiness, I was hoping it would be as simple as saying a few New Age-y Hail Mary’s, reading a couple of spiritual books and maybe having a long commune with nature.  I did all those things and more, yet happiness remained elusive.   I should have taken Lily Tomlin’s advice and known that “Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse.”  Facing your fears, admitting your faults and accepting your consequences sucks.  Worry and doubt pound away at you making your heart ache and your head spin.  But in time, this pain becomes a part of you.  It’s like learning to wear a ring or a pair of eye glasses – you get used to it – it helps you remember from where you came and to where you are going.  Happiness might not come today, it might not come in a year, but with patience and practice your burdens will relax their vice-like grip on you.  But first. . . you’ve got to work through the pain. 

Courageous Addictions

I’ve had many vices in my life -- booze, pills, 70’s television shows, and as I’ve aged, I’ve managed to wean myself off of them.  I no longer drink; I swallow nothing stronger than an Advil and only watch about an hour of TV a day. The one vice I can’t seem to shake is coffee.  What can I say. . .? I love it -- the taste, the smell, the pure joy of the first sip. Coffee brings me pleasure and, according to science, is good for my liver.  The downside to coffee is it stains the teeth turning my pearly whites to a lovely shade of mother of pearl.

At this morning’s dental appointment my hygienist polished my chompers, not once, but twice. The machine roared to life scraping away the remnants of my last remaining vice and I began to wonder if maybe I should give up coffee all together.  Then my mouth began to water as I thought about the Super Chug of java waiting in my car and I knew I didn’t have the courage to quite today. For a moment I felt weak, then I remembered that courage doesn’t always roar, sometimes courage is that little voice at the end of the day that says, “I will try again tomorrow.”  Perhaps I will try again tomorrow, but for now, I’ve got a mug of “dental hygienist job security” calling my name.

Homework

My new teaching job in my new school comes with a new roster of students.  This year, in my Advisement Class, I have a Hispanic girl, a gay guy, a bisexual girl and a transgender student; one might say my class is a veritable United Colors of Benetton ad.  Like most working adults I tend to discuss my job when I am out and about with friends. Having such a diverse group of learners leads to many questions from those who don’t have the luxury of working with such a fine cross section of humanity.  Most of the questions focus less on what I teach and more on how my students live their lives, especially the lives of the transgendered classmates. “Are they boys or girls?” to which I respond, “They are both.” “Do you call them ‘he’ or ‘she’?” they inquire -- “I call them by whatever pronoun they prefer.”  Then the questions get really personal, “Do they date boys or girls? Do they date other transgender people? Are they gay? Are they lesbian? What are they exactly?” and on and on the inquiry goes fixated on gender and sexuality, never once pondering the students as people with dreams, ambitions, problems and goals.

Being aware that people are at dis-ease with what they don’t understand, and knowing that others who are different are frequently considered to be diseased, I have tried to come up with answers that will both quell the curiosity and ease the unwarranted fears in a language I know will be understood.  The simplest answer is, “LOVE.” These students love who they are, they love one another and are seeking love from others. The “who,” “what,” and “how” are irrelevant. Love is love no matter what parties are involved. My advice, as a teacher, is to practice love. Practice it at work, practice it at play, practice it whenever you can.  Think of it as your homework. Good luck. I hope you get an “A+.”

Backward Thinking

Often times, when I am stuck in traffic or waiting for a train, I entertain myself by reading bumper stickers and road signs backward.  It passes the time and makes the waiting more bearable. Through this process I have discovered many palindromes (a Toyota = atoyoT a), as well as several interesting backmasked messages (Dog Park = kraPgoD).  Though this is a fun way to ease the mind, sometimes I can’t help but curse my bad luck and worry I’ll be late for life, even though I am perpetually 15 minutes early for everything.

As humans, we frequently find ourselves stuck behind a train of thoughts worrying life is passing us by.  This backward thinking causes much anxiety and leads to krappy moods and depressing dispositions. When will we learn to stop and enjoy what is right before our eyes be it a Toyota, dog crap or God’s park?  Life isn’t out there somewhere beyond the train tracks -- it’s the thing that happens when we are busy making other plans. Today is a new day. This moment is a fresh start, so no matter where you are (in a car, at your desk, lying in bed), take in your surroundings, count your blessings and be an active participant in your existence.  

4-Letter Words

I’m not much of a cusser and never really have been; even as an awkward teenager I never felt compelled to sprinkle 4-letter words throughout my speech in an attempt to fit in.  It wasn’t as if I was a prude, I just never really understood the value, purpose or meaning.  When one says, “That was sweeter than shit, man,” that doesn’t narrow the category down much – I’d venture to say most things are sweeter than shit.  And who exactly are, “The fucking cops,” anyway?  Are they physically fornicating while in hot pursuit?  The words don’t make sense in the context in which they are used.  This topic interested me so much that in college I wrote a term paper about the etymology and usage of cuss words.  Come to find out, most swear words have humble beginnings and only bear a vague resemblance (if any) to today’s context.

Cuss words aren’t the only words that have changed throughout time – their meanings shifting and morphing into other forms of speech.  Take, for instance, the word “love” – my favorite 4-letter word.  Love can be a noun (an intense feeling of deep affection), a verb (a deep romantic attachment), or an adjective or adverb (one can own a lovely scarf, or we can lovingly care for others).  Of all the definitions for love I think I prefer bell hooks’ the best -- Love is a combination of six ingredients: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.  With this meaning at heart I go forth and spread my Love to others, sprinkling it throughout my day in both actions and words.  To me, that makes sense.  It has purpose.  It adds value.  Man...  I fucking love, Love.

Aches

Yesterday I shoveled what had to be a literal ton of snow; not only did I scoop my own driveway and walks; I also shoveled the neighbor’s and my mother’s drive and walkways.  Midway through this unintended work-out, I pulled something in my back.  The pain shot through immediately, yet I kept on keeping on until the task was complete making sure to lift with the legs and twist as little as possible.  Later that night, having swallowed a couple of Advil and a Melatonin I drifted off to sleep cursing my aching back and smiling at a job well done. 

This morning, during yogatation, I practiced body scanning meditation in an attempt to listen to my body and figure out its needs – when I know what I feel, I can then begin to heal.  Sending deep, soothing breaths into my back eased the suffering and opened the day up to possibilities. 

Oftentimes it’s not my body that aches, but my heart and my soul, and in much the same way as I treat an aching back, I can treat my aching thoughts.  To ease the suffering, one has to stop and decide what really hurts – perhaps we need to forgive someone, let go of an expectation, or release pent-up anxiety.  Once we know what we feel, we can begin to heal -- to do this, start with a deep, soothing breath.  Now exhale and let the possibilities of today open up before your eyes. 

Insurance

One of the quickest ways to ensure you have reached adulthood is to count the number of insurance policies you possess: health insurance, car insurance, life insurance, etc.  All of these insurances are meant to ensure you are covered for all of life’s little mishaps.  Crack a windshield – fill out the auto insurance paperwork, crack a tooth – file a dental claim, crack a skull – time to check out your health (or possibly life) insurance.  If you are properly covered, nothing will be cracked but you will be broke.

Having been an adult for some time now I’ve begun to ensure the insurance of life beyond my Self.  I ensure a clean environment by reducing, reusing and recycling, I ensure the health of others by donating to charities, I ensure clean air by planting trees.  I’ve cracked my heart open and have let all my love infiltrate the entire universe.   Loving everyone, I assure you, is the best insurance policy.

Filling Cracks

When I was younger, I used to pass the time, while washing my hands in the restroom, by making faces at myself in the mirror and wondering what life would be like if my face stuck in the twisted contortion I had created.  Would people laugh at me?  Would my friends still like me?  Would I still like me?  Nowadays, when I look in the mirror, I pass the time by pulling my wrinkles taught and wondering: Do people make fun of me?  Are my friends as wrinkled as I?  Should I do something about these wrinkles?  I could slather on creams or fill the lines with Botox and make them disappear for a while.  But would that make life any different?

Recently I read about the Japanese practice of Kintsukuroi (golden repair).  In this ancient practice, broken pottery is repaired with powdered gold or silver mixed with lacquer, so that the repair reflects the history of the breakage.  In essence, the repaired object reflects the fragility and imperfections of life while adding beauty and strength.  The once broken object now returns to its wholeness.  So, I’ve decided to apply this same principle of acceptance and reparation to my life as reflected in my face.  As I near my golden years I go forward embracing my silver hair and facial flaws proudly displaying and growing from the error of my ways.  It appears that flaws aren’t fatal after all, they just add strength to character and beauty to being.  I’ve earned these laugh lines and natural highlights.  They aren’t signs of old age; they are signs of a life well laughed. 

The Ants Go Marching

It has been said that humans are the most advanced species on the planet having brains composed of 100 billion cells.  It has also been said that we advanced thinkers spend approximately 38 hours a year stuck in traffic.  We curse at, run into and even shoot one another in frustration only to get up the next morning, take the same roads and hope for different results.  This, according to Einstein, is the very definition of insanity, yet here we are X number of hours into an equation that always equals frustration.  So much for advanced thinking

Ants, by contrast, have brains that contain a mere 250,000 cells yet ants are never stuck in traffic.  Hundreds of thousands of ants get up each day, work together and literally move mountains without ever having to shoot one another.  Ants, like most animals, have learned the shared value of cooperation; they know that if they all march to the same drummer, they move much faster.  This cooperation happens throughout the natural world – nature nurtures life through communities.  Mutual cooperation began 3 billion years ago when single celled organisms combined and helped one another build all that surrounds us today.  So the next time you are stuck in traffic, instead of making mountains out of anthills, practice cooperation; after all, it’s cooperation, not combat, that makes life flow smoothly. 

Forgiveness

I grew up a small child with buck teeth and glasses.  I was awkward, lacked rhythm and wasn’t particularly smart.  When one dawdles through life with such stature one tends to be at the receiving end of name calling and harassment.  And though these clever nomenclatures were meant to offend I wore them as a badge of honor: when my classmates would say to me, “Get off the bus Waldo,” as if they were in a Van Halen video I would hunker down behind the bus driver and bury my nose in a book knowing someday I would get even.  I harbored this anger and honed my verbal skills until by the time I was prepared to graduate high school I could return hateful epithets with the best of them.

Developing verbal ballet skills did indeed come in handy – they got me through college which parlayed into a newspaper writing job and eventually filtered into books and magazines.  The one thing of which I could never find a use was the pent-up anger.  I carried it with me through my party hardy twenties, my angst-ridden thirties and dragged it behind me over into the big 4-0 at which point I declared I had had enough.  I was tired of lugging around this excess baggage.  So, I decided to let it go.  I forgave my past and all the people in it.  I forgave Richie Becera for asking me if I was going to be a midget in the second grade, I forgave the pair of junior high boys who tried to stuff my head in the toilet and most importantly I forgave myself.  I too had caused suffering; I too was weighing me down.  It’s a hard thing forgiving one’s self.  It seems silly and selfish, but it’s not.  It’s a necessity.  Forgive others, forgive yourself and then get back on that bus and let it take you into your future.

Costumes

Next to my birthday, Halloween is my favorite holiday.  I love getting dressed up as someone else, collecting goodies and maybe frightening a few unsuspecting folks.  Growing up I, like most people, had no knowledge of the true meaning of Halloween; to me it was a day to get loads of free candy from perfect strangers.  As of recent I have begun examining the reasons I do the things I do – including encouraging kids to dress in drag and take candy from strangers.  Turns out Halloween is an ancient Celtic celebration marking the end of summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter.  It was at this time the Celts believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and that the ghosts of the dead may return to earth.  It seems only logical that we should offer them candy to bridge the divide between their old life and their renewed one.

I no longer feel compelled to dress up and be someone else on Halloween or any other day of the year.  Through the years I have learned to strip away layers of ego and artifice to uncover the real me.  No longer disguised as funny or fragile or faulty I have found that I am a treat unto myself.  Like the Celts, I believe in building a bridge between my old life and my renewed.  I can be saucy and saintly, pray and play, collect the good while alleviating fear.  I am leaving the dark, cold days behind me and celebrating the warmth of fine friends and perfect strangers (who hopefully have candy).

Buying Happy

When one is feeling down in the dumps it is common practice to go forth and buy a little happiness.  Nothing lifts the spirits like becoming the proud new owner of this week’s must have fashion trend -- ruffled shirts, skater sneakers and cinched waists.  Or was that last week’s trend?  Considering the constant flux of fast fashion, it’s no wonder the average American throws away 65 pounds of clothing per year at an approximate cost of $1,700.00 per individual.  Many of us drop $50.00 on a shirt without ever knowing that that same $50.00 could feed a school-aged girl for an entire year in most third world countries.  With all this merriment littering our floors you’d think we would be the happiest nation on Earth yet only 1 in 3 Americans report being happy while citizens of the poorest countries rank among the jolliest folks in the world.

How can it be that the same people who work for pennies on the dollar to assemble my wardrobe can create happiness for themselves without spending a dime while I own a closet full of clothes and still see a therapist?  Maybe it’s because these folks have learned to stop treating people like things and treating their things like gods. Maybe they are aware that happiness doesn’t exist in tangible goods.  Instead of heading off to the store to bury our problems in cashmere, let’s face our problems and accept them as part of existence.  If we can learn to do this, then maybe we can learn to create our own happiness, after all, happiness is always in fashion and it’s always available. 

Not Something Else

For all intents and purposes, I can justify just about anything I want in the world if I try hard enough.  If I want Raisinets, I call them “dairy” and “fruit.”  If I want to sleep in I call it “beauty rest.”  If I want to binge watch an entire season of Will and Grace (yet again) I call it “research.”  And I can convince myself that these thoughts are true for a short period of time.  Inevitably reality smacks me in the face with stomach aches and missed appointments.  Oh, why do I try and make things other than what they are?

Most things in life are what they are precisely because they are not something else.  Raisinets are not dairy and fruit – they are sugar and soy lecithin.  Twelve hours of Will and Grace followed by twelve hours of sleep don’t make me pretty or smart, they make me a well-rested smartass.  And try though I may to believe it, my thoughts do not comprise my Self.  I am me precisely because I am not something else – I am not the air in my lungs, the cells in my body or the thoughts in my head.  I am something more.  I am the thinker of the thoughts, the conscious of my brain, the justification of my being.  Though I am comprised of cells and thoughts and Raisinets they don’t constitute my Self.  The Self is more than the sum of its parts.  The Self is hope and dreams and will and grace, so it’s time I stop thinking I am something I am not and accept that I am all of what I am – fatally flawed, hopelessly hopeful and ever evolving.

Seeing Clearly

I have worn glasses ever since the third grade.  Through the years there have been some style hits and misses as evidenced by school pictures and vacation snapshots.  Though the looks change, my eyes keep getting worse.  Last summer I updated my appearance with some snazzy little frames scarcely bigger than my eyeballs themselves.  Insert bifocals, coat the lenses with scratch resistance, pay the man half a week’s salary and see clearly once again.  The price of vision is astounding.  Even without the rose tint and glare guard, eyewear is an investment that requires a bit of saving.

Vision doesn’t only exist through the eyes.  Vision is also a mental process – it’s a series of thoughts and beliefs that form our views of others, ourselves and the world.  For years I’ve stumbled around blindly making my way through life running into obstacles and tripping over bad habits.  It became clear that I needed clarity.  Enter “Mindfulness” and “Meditation” – eyewear for the soul.  These practices made things glaringly obvious.  I had made one hell of a mess, most of which was a blur, all of which I had to see.  Mindfulness and Meditation don’t rose tint the world and make it something it is not, they show the painful truth – only we are responsible for our actions and only we can fix them.  So, I set about adjusting my thoughts.  I accepted fault, made amends and vowed to do better.  This investment in self-examination has saved me from a life of blind ambition.  My vision isn’t perfect (it never will be), but with a little focus, I can make it better. 

You're Fired

When I first got a real job, I took my first real girlfriend on our first real date.  I picked her up in my parents’ station wagon and took her to the movies.  The night’s feature was Disney’s The Little Mermaid and it was fantastic.  We held hands, ate popcorn and, as the show neared its happily ever after ending, we professed our love for one another.  Years later I quit the job and fired the girlfriend; turns out neither one was compatible to who I was at heart, and it was too much work trying to be someone I was not.  I needed to stand on my own two legs and venture into my unknown future.

Though it is difficult, it is sometimes necessary to leave the past behind.  As we grow and change, sometimes we expand beyond the restraints imposed on us by the people and situations with which we are surrounded.  And sometimes those we love outgrow us and must leave us in order to pursue their future.  Recently I was fired from the heart of a friend who had moved beyond my drama – I had become too much work and it was time to leave.  Although this saddened me a great-deal I have learned that the connection between two people goes well beyond location and that sometimes happily ever after doesn’t always look the way you thought it would.  My friend and I are both standing on our own two feet, making our way through the flotsam and jetsam of life searching for our happy endings.  Our movie is less like Disney where everyone gets what they want and more like Hans Christian Andersen where everyone gets what is necessary.  Our lives are different.  We’ve traveled different roads.  But as long as those we love are happy and free from suffering, then all is well.  I wish those in my past the best of all things for as Mr. Andersen said in his original The Little Mermaid, “The prince’s happiness is my happiness.”  

Labels

As a teenager I was obsessed with the way I looked.  My hair was perfectly coiffed, my jeans were tightly rolled and I made sure everyone knew I was wearing a “Calvin Klein” T-shirt.  During my formative years, labels were important to me be they clothes, social status or relationship specs.  I skipped school to be one of the “cool kids,” and started dating just to be part of “a couple.”  I raced from place to place and fad to fad to fit in allowing these labels to define who I was – I was “a teenager,” and therefore I was “normal.”  To be anything other than a white, middle class, Calvin Klein T-shirt wearing, tight jean rolling, ½ of a twosome would have been unthinkable.  What else was there?  The only other labels were derogatory and unsavory.

As I grew older and cool kid gave way to humanitarian I chose “lifestyle” in lieu of “labels.”  Instead of being part of a “couple,” I became part of “oneness,” I traded “Calvin Klein” for “Goodwill,” and grew from “teenager” to “hu-man.”  It took some time, but I finally came to the realization that labels are for spices and the only race I want to be a part of is the awakened human race. 

Fitness

Many years ago, I joined a fitness club thinking dumbbells, trainers and treadmills were going to make me healthy.  Adorned in sweatpants, T-shirt and sneakers I joined the ranks of New Year’s Resolutioners working off those extra holiday pounds in vain attempts of acquiring an Adonis like figure.  Having embarrassed myself on most of the machines I settled down onto a state-of-the-art treadmill so fancy I swear it could do my laundry if I programmed it to do such a thing.  Walking side-by-side with other stationary movers I began my journey to nowhere.  We listened to our earbuds, wiggled our fannies and watched the digital display slowly remind us how far we hadn’t gone.  After walking through an entire 80’s playlist I found I was still where I had started – just more tired and more frustrated.

What I learned from the New Sole F80 Treadmill was that I was getting nowhere fast.  Going uphill and gaining no ground couldn’t be what life was all about.  I decided the treadmill was not my salvation, so I cancelled my membership and headed outside where I could commune with nature and find my own New Soul.  Instead of going nowhere, I realized I was now-here – I was in my moment, fully present, making changes and appreciating the scenery.  I still don’t have the body of a Greek God, I still make dumbbell decisions, but I’m learning.  I’m training myself in the art of Living.  Through hard work and constant-change I am becoming fit – fit in body and fit in mind. 

Crushes

My first childhood crush was on a boy named, Mick.  Mick was smart and handsome and completely unaware of my feelings.  When I was a teenager and more experienced in the ways of the world, I developed a crush on a young man named Michael who also remained blissfully unaware of my existence.  These minor emotional infractions hurt my heart and caused it to crack a bit.  It wasn’t until later in life when I bore witness to the pain and suffering of others that my heart truly felt broken.  Racism, sexism, ageism and all the other “isms” tugged at my witness and left me feeling hopeless and depressed, and just when I didn’t think I could take any more, I experienced death up close and personal. 

Crushed by the unbearable weight of despair I let my heart burst.  All the pain and misery bled out and numbed my being.  Slowly and methodically I examined the bevy of pain – I invited each one to show his face and make his case.  I listened.  I acknowledged his existence.  And then I let him go.  After a while my heart began to feel whole again and for the first time, I realized that hearts don’t break – they break open, and when they do, they are ready to be filled with love and light and forgiveness.  An open heart isn’t a crushing end, it’s the beginning of a beautiful experience. 

Performance

In certain circles I am known as an entertainer of sorts – this may be because I am likely to burst out in song at any given moment, or perhaps because I love to make a splashy entrance, or maybe it’s due to the time I have spent on stage.  Yes, Folks, I am an actor, or what’s left of one anyway.  I’ve been on stage countless times and in many roles.  From my humble beginnings as a silent mime to award winning performer, I have honed my acting skills.  The thing about acting is that a performer must surround himself with a committed cast and be willing to practice, practice, practice – each movement, word and breath must have a motivating reason, otherwise the performance won’t feel real.  Through the years I have become a better actor yet remain far from perfect.  And that’s okay with me. 

My newest role isn’t one I play on stage, but one I have implemented as a way of life.  I have become a Practitioner of Mindful Living, and as the name implies, this role requires a lot of practice.  I begin each day with an hour of yogatation – this is the Mindful Practitioner’s equivalent of acting rehearsal.  I stretch my body and release my mind searching for my intentions and motivations.  When these have been cast, I can go about my day peacefully inter-acting with the world’s cast of characters.  Sometimes I struggle, sometimes I forget my lines, but as they say in the theatre world, “The show must go on.”  And on it goes.  It’s not a perfect performance – I’m not a perfect practitioner, but that’s okay with me.

Growing

I have been 5’ 9” ever since I was 17 years old.  My driver’s license says 5’ 9”, my body mass index is based around this number; this is the height that makes me an average sized man for a guy in his 40’s.  Given this information you can imagine my surprise when, upon my last two physicals, I measured a stately 5’ 10”.  Statistically I should be shrinking not growing, yet somehow, I have gained an extra inch.  I have been eating better and exercising regularly, but according to science I should have stopped growing at 20, yet somehow there is more of me.

The fact that I continue to grow is encouraging.  Against all odds, I have become a fuller, more densely developed individual.  I’m sure science will attribute this phenomenon to cell division and rogue hormones, but I attribute this growth to spiritual maturity.  In my younger years I was devoid of any set belief system – I shrunk away from the thoughts of God or Gods or Heaven or Hades and lived in my own private Hell blaming my circumstances on whatever unforeseen spirit was convenient at the time.  I was stuck in a rut stunned and stunted by own circular thinking.  Life wasn’t measuring up to my expectations and the whole world was to blame.  Barely able to keep my head above water I chose to stand up right and accept my life exactly as it was – messy, disjointed and running short on spiritual highs.  I sought help from without and worked from within.  I asked questions and found answers.  I consumed what worked and spat out what didn’t until there was more of me.  So here I am: 44 years old, 5’ 10” and still growing.  It’s amazing what a healthy diet of leafy greens and spirituality can do for a person.

Naked and Nude

When I was 24, I posed nude for an artist friend; it was the most revealing thing I had ever done.  When the portrait was complete, I put my clothes back on and went about my life.  The painting was called “Adam” and no one knew it was me except for the artist and myself; at this point I realized how much one can hide when one bares one’s ass – no one knew my thoughts, my feelings, my dreams.  I kept those to myself.

When I was 42, I got emotionally naked and wrote a book of personal essays laying bare all the asinine events of my life.  My thoughts, feelings and dreams were out there for all the world to see and judge and although I had been nude before, this was the first time I had stripped off my emotional armor and lay my naked self out there for all the world to see.

Having had both of these experiences I have learned that taking off your clothes is easy – what lay beneath is just anatomy; flashing folks your thoughts is tough – what lay beneath is your soul.  If you want to connect to others, you must expose yourself; you don’t need to strip off your clothes, but you going to have to get a little naked.

Homos

As a young gay boy growing up in the mid-west, I was called many names: faggot, queer, homo, etc.  and even as a child I was aware the intent was hurtful, but the name calls made zero sense.  Take “faggot,” for instance -- faggot just means “a bundle of sticks, twigs or branches bound together.”  Was this supposed to be offensive?  And how about “queer?”  Queer means “strange or odd from a conventional view point.”  This was a compliment, not a put down, after all, most unique things are valued primarily because they are different like a Picasso or a custom motorcycle.  Finally, we come to “homo” or, “the genus of bipedal primates including modern humans.”  Nothing quite as offensive as being called a modern human. 

Of all the names I have been called I think “homo” is the most accurate.  “Homo” is the beginning of “Homo-sapien-sapien” – what scientists refer to as “beings that are aware and are aware that they are aware.”  Essentially this just means that we are thinking primates, but, like most names, when you dig deeper, there is more to the story.  Thinking is different than being aware.  Humans spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours “thinking” about something other than what they are doing.  Being “aware” however takes great restraint.  To be “aware” one must be totally present in whatever is happening at the moment.  Take this moment for instance.  A you aware of your posture?  Your breathing?  Your surrounding?  Your thoughts?  If you are a “homo-sapien-sapien” then you are aware of all of these things and more.  If you are not, then see if you can stop “thinking” and start becoming “aware.”  Take it from this “homo,” awareness is worth thinking about.

Friendly Population

On a recent trip to distant states, my husband and I passed the tiny town of Friend, NE – population 996.  At the heart of Friend is Shop EZ Gas where one may fill up on petrol and peanuts; needing neither of those, my betrothed and I headed west to meet friends further down the road.

Unlike Friend, NE, our distant companions offered us neither gas nor nuts (though we did do a few nutty things), yet somehow, I felt full – my love tank runneth over with joy.  When you stop and think about it, friends are a lot like convenience stores – they’re there when you need them and are open 24/7.  Friendship may not always be EZ, we may not have 996 of them, but if you are lucky, you’ll always have a few in your heart no matter what state you’re in.  

Practice What You Teach

I have worked as an Elementary and Reading teacher for a good many years now, and through those years I have grown in my profession.  I have learned how to develop relationships with students, assess needs and relay information in a digestible fashion.  These skills (developed through years of hard work) have made me a valuable team member and a leader in my school, so it came as quite a shock when I was recently informed I would no longer be teaching Elementary, or Reading, or even in the same complex as I had been, but would be moved to a new building, in a different school and working with secondary students on Social Skills. 

Initially I was angry, and then hurt, and then confused?  Had I done something wrong?  Were my skills outdated?  Was I being replaced by an app.?   Why had this obstacle been thrust into my path?  After a few days/daze of internal discussion I realized I could look at this situation in one of two ways:  as an obstacle to be overcome or as an opportunity to be enjoyed.  Being the consummate student in Buddhist wisdom, I chose the latter.  As soon as I viewed my new role as an opportunity, my mind calmed, my heart swelled and I began thinking of all the ways I could affect positive change in my new role.  As a teacher, I expect my students to practice what I preach, and as a student of life, I must practice what others teach and this lesson in acceptance has been thoroughly learned thanks to a shift in thought.

Mission Accomplished

There are a few words of wisdom from childhood that have served me well in my adult life.  My dad used to say to me, “Any job worth doing is worth doing right the first time,” and, “Don’t waste your one phone call on us, because we’re not getting you out of jail.”  So far, I am arrest free and continue to work diligently at everything I do.  Diligence has paid off for the most part.  I have graduated college, built a home and remain steadily employed.  I tackle my responsibilities with fervor and work until the tasks are completed at which time I can sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor.  Mission accomplished.

There is, however, one aspect of my life that has been hindered by this, “can do it,” attitude.  And that is meditation.  Like most things in life I sought to do meditation right.  I read books, watched videos and bought CD’s in order to tackle this whole mindfulness thing so I could cross it off the “to do” list.  But when your mind is full of mindfulness know-how it becomes nearly impossible to meditate and to meditate “right.”  After many frustrating attempts at getting meditation done, I began to question why I was meditating in the first place.  What did I hope to accomplish?  What did “right” meditation look like?  Slowly I began to realize that meditation isn’t a job and can’t be done “right.”  Meditation is simply attention with intention.  By focusing my attention on noticing the comings and goings of my thoughts I was no longer held prisoner by them.  I was a free man – free to sit back and relax, free to get the job done (or not), free to just be.  If our job in life is to accept our lot, then thanks to meditation and mindfulness, I can honestly say, “Mission accomplished.”

Carry On

When traveling, I can pack an entire week’s worth of clothing in an overnight bag; my husband, on the other hand, requires two full sized suitcases.  Since we are a couple, and couples merge their lives and their belongings together, I gladly carry my husband’s baggage along with my own.  “I got this, Honey,” I say while hoisting our bags into the trunk, “You go ahead and check us out.”

For many, my willingness to carry both bags seems subservient – they reckon each partner should carry equal weight.  But let us not forget that the root word of “carry” is “care.”  Simply put – I care and because I care I accept all manner of baggage from all manner of people.  And because others care for me, they check out the road ahead and smooth the path.  It appears that if everyone cares enough, our journeys will be fruitful.  With this in mind, I suggest we all go forth and carry on (though I reckon we can all let go of some of our baggage).

Detours

I’m a creature of habit by nature – I eat the same meals every day, follow a tight schedule and know one way to get to every place I need to go.  For the most part this rigidity keeps me on the right road for healthy living and peaceful prosperity.  This being said, when an unannounced change occurs, I skid off track and am forced to cool my engines while I come to acceptance and develop a new plan for this unexpected detour.  Eventually I arrive at my destination, unscathed but slightly rattled.

Coming to grips with the winding roads of life has been a challenge, but I’ve begun to read the signs, take in the sights and enjoy the journey.  If, like Tom Cochrane says, “Life is a highway,” I find I do want to “ride it all night long.”  I want to experience all the bumps, beauty and blessings this life has to offer.  I also want to enjoy this road trip with a few good friends. 

Like most people, my friends and I started off this road trip searching for Happiness – we’ve travelled together through hills and valleys, weathered storms and soaked in the sun.  Somewhere along the way though, our motorcade got separated – our paths changed.  As we each seek Happiness, we are getting off on different exits.  For now, I am resting in the City of Contentment waiting for the roads to cross and our journey to continue.  I’m aware we can’t all be at the same place at the same time, but it brings me peace to know my friends and I are travelling down the same road and that we will arrive at our shared destination of mutual Happiness someday.

 

 

Supplement

I graduated high school at 5’9” and 120 pounds; now, 25+ years later I am 5’10” and 120 pounds.  For many retaining their high school weight seemed an impossible task due to slowing metabolism, the chaos of work and family, not to mention Krispy Kremes popping up on every corner.  For me, I maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly and compulsively read labels and self-help articles.  While others supplement their fast food diet with jars of vitamins, I like to get my nutrition direct from the source.

Nutrition isn’t the only thing people have been supplementing.  It seems as though we have been trading real life experience for Kardashians and chaos – we rationalize how our lives may be bad, but at least we’re not directionally naming our offspring.  We busy ourselves hoping to be rich, wishing to be thin and buying our way to happiness As Seen on TV.  The problem is supplements aren’t food, reality TV isn’t real and neither will satiate our hunger for actual experience.  I have tried supplementing pain with pills and boredom with booze but they never really satisfied.  I needed to experience them whole heartedly and in the raw.  Once I faced my fears, I became healthier in both body and mind.  It took many years and a lot of tears, but I no longer drown my carrots in Ranch or supplement experiences with distraction, instead I keep my plate full with leafy greens, fabulous friends and a colorful existence. 

T.V.

Last night I had dinner with some fabulous friends.  We shared our thoughts, our feelings and our memories.  We laughed, we cried, we ate too much.  It was as though we were in the final minutes of an episode of Golden Girls where all life’s problems are solved with a few words of wisdom and a slab of cheesecake.  Picture this, six friends, some old, some new and all having a good time – that was pretty much it.  It was the kind of scene with which I’ve always wished my life were filled.  As a child, I wanted desperately to go to Eastland School for Girls, hang out with my friends and have Mrs. Garret solve my problems.  When I grew older, I strove to be a Sex and the City gal, hang out with friends and have a disembodied voice solve my problems.  I guess what I have always wanted was to hang out with friends and have someone else solve my problems in 30 minutes or less. 

Growing up I thought life functioned like a T.V. show -- a little drama, a little laughter and a quick solution to our predicaments.  I carried this belief into adulthood only to realize no one was going to solve my problems for me.  It became clear that I was the narrator of my life; I had to write the script, direct the show and star in the production.  Once I was fully able to accept this new title, I set about casting the supporting roles and to them I’d like to say, “Thank you for being my friends.  We’ve traveled down the road and back again.  Your hearts are true.  You’re my pals and my confidants.”  Together we can face The Facts of Life no matter what they be – good, bad or overflowing with cheesecake.

Stars

When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a movie star.  As I aged, I devised a plan to obtain that dream then proceeded to put that plan in motion; I took theatre in high school, performed in local plays as a young adult and developed an addiction to alcohol as all good movie stars must do.  According to my research (Entertainment Weekly and TMZ) these steps should have guaranteed me great success, but much to my chagrin I did not become a movie star, instead I became another statistic – a middle-aged wannabe with mounting debt and a cabinet full of anti-depressants.  What went wrong?

At 40, and with the realization that my chances of becoming a movie star ranked near that of becoming an astronaut, I finally did the unthinkable – I stopped.  I stopped reliving the mistakes of the past, I stopped planning for a future I cannot predict and I stopped playing by someone else’s rulebook.  To put it plainly, I began living in the moment.  That moment is this moment and this moment is good.  I am not a movie star, I am not addicted to alcohol, I am not watching TMZ – I am breathing peacefully and enjoying the fact that someday I may be famous and that someday I may become a different kind of statistic all the while knowing that that someday will happen when it happens and I will be grateful for it when it occurs.  Until then I will sit back, relax and watch the stars twinkling around me.

Anchors

Once upon a summer vacation a few friends and I went on a snorkeling adventure in Cancun, Mexico.  Ahhh, the sun, the surf, the sin all bidding us, “Welcome,” at least for a while.  Our snorkeling exploration began under a blazing a.m. sun where two-by-two we boated five miles to a secluded reef, dropped anchor, masked up and dove in.  Mesmerized by the colors of coral and the fine selection of fish I slowly drifted away from my touring group and into the middle of nowhere.  The sights were breathtaking and so was the sudden surge of waves lapping over my snorkel.  I popped my head up just in time to feel the rain pelt my face and experience the panic of being eerily alone in a vast sea.  Panic stricken I tried to retrace my strokes following familiar coral and friendly fish.  After what felt like hours of flailing about, I reached a group of non-English speaking tourists who pointed me in the direction of my rain-soaked compadres patiently anchored and awaiting my arrival.  Safe at last -- I had survived the storm.

Since that fateful summer extravaganza, I have applied the skills of paying attention and staying anchored to other aspects of my life.  I'm still searching, following beauty and seeking adventure, but I stay anchored to the present moment knowing that there may be storms, but I am not lost.  I am a seeker and a finder.  I can navigate the waters of life like a free-swimming fish and simultaneously stay firmly grounded like a stout, colorful coral -- as the great Sufi poet, Rumi, said, "You are not a drop in the ocean.  You are the entire ocean in a drop."  being aware allows me to stay afloat in an ever-changing sea.

Winter

Every year as the snow falls and temperatures drop, I curse myself for living in the Midwest.  November’s nippy air is nothing but a nuisance, I detest the dark days of December, fret the frost of February and vow that someday I will move to the tropics where the only battles with nature will be hurricanes and heat waves.  Yet every year I survive and find that the bitter winter has brought about an appreciation for spring – the days seem sunnier; the flowers appear brighter and life gets livelier.

It is said that from darkness comes light; this is true not only in nature’s bounty, but also in human nature.  Darkness falls upon our lives be it crumbling relationships, financial hardships or the build-up of stressful minutia in day-to-day life.  When we are in the depths of our despair it feels as if emotional winter has left our hearts cold and empty, but with time and understanding, we can begin to thaw and accept our situations without judgment.  We can step back and let the storm pass knowing that darkness cannot survive in the presence of light.  Pain inevitably will come nipping at our hearts – we needn’t fear it or reject it, it is a part of life.  It is temporary and it helps us appreciate the little miracles that happen every day.

Catch and Release

I’m not a hunter, but I have friends who are, and through them I have learned a couple of laws that govern the “sport.”  For instance, for catch and release programs, many states require a license just to catch fish and put them back in the water. It does not matter that you are not intending to keep the fish. You pay for the use of the land and waters, and the upkeep of the area.  For those who hunt to kill deer, it might be prescient to know that it is illegal to hunt at night and that a buck must have both antlers shorter than two inches OR have three or more points on one side of his rack before being taken.  So many rules, so many deer and all I ever hear about is the one that got away.

I don’t want to catch, release or kill anything in nature.  I’m much more content sitting and observing it all passing by while appreciating the fact that nature exists at all.  No rules, no laws, just pleasure.

These same principles guide me in my meditation practice.  The goal of meditation isn’t to kill our thoughts or catch and release them, the goal is to observe our thoughts – recognize that we have them, appreciate their existence then watch them leave.  This isn’t a law and there is no punishment for doing it “wrong,” which is a good thing, because on more than one occasion I have found myself wrestling with a 3-point thought trying to kill it – that’s the price we pay for maintaining our mental landscape.  Through practice and patience, I can now take pride in bragging about all the thoughts that got away.  There one goes now, and she’s a beaut. 

Roots

As a reading teacher, one of the skills I teach my students when they are struggling to comprehend is to find root words that anchor the sentences they have read.  For instance, the root word for “patiently” is “patience” which comes from Latin’s “patientia” meaning: a quality of suffering – submission.  Knowing the meaning of the key word gives the sentence a purpose – it’s no longer just letters on a page – it’s an idea being expressed. 

Finding the root is a skill that goes well beyond the written word.  Armed with patience and persistence (Latin – “persevereus”: continue steadfastly) we can seek out the root of our suffering and comprehend our existence.  We suffer because we cling; we cling to ideas, people, even life itself.  Once we come to the realization that clinging causes misery (Latin – “miseria”: a cause or source of distress) we can opt to let go of our false ideas and accept life as it is (life – Middle English: the general or universal condition of human existence) – nowhere in this definition does it say life is good or bad.  Life is just existence.  It’s a collection of moments vast and unique and interconnected.  Any definition beyond that is all Greek to me.

Routine Mainenance

Owning a house is constant work; there’s routine maintenance, emergency repairs and constant cleaning.  The other day I was scraping and painting my trim when I spied a storm on the horizon.  Thinking I could beat Mother Nature I applied a thick coat of paint to my porch railings only to feel the first sprinkles of what promised to be a full-blown storm just as I was applying the final strokes.  It seemed as though Mother Nature was, once again, showing me who was boss.  Rather than rail against the rain and curse Ms. Nature for spoiling my plan, I opted to sit back and enjoy the show of lightning.

Observing what Is has become a skill of mine.  When storms are brewing on my mental horizons, I watch carefully as the clouds begin to block my thoughts.  At this time, I begin a little routine maintenance of acceptance – I scrape down past my initial reactions, peeling through perceived pain and injustice to get to the bare bones of the problem.  At this point I sit – I let the storm wash over me as I remain unattached to an outcome I cannot control.  From here I let my thoughts dry out while I clean away the constant clutter of useless thoughts.  The storm moves on and I am grateful for having applied another coat of peaceful existence.

Changing Spots

As thinking beings, we have the great luxury of being able to change.  We can change our minds (unlike the fruit fly whose brain only consists of 250,000 neurons), change our address (unlike the barnacle who never leaves his home), and we can change our hair (unlike the leopard who cannot change his spots).  It seems as though we can change virtually any aspect of our self on a whim, but can we ever really change who we are?  We hear things like, “Once a cheater always a cheater,” or “Men – they’re all alike,” and tend to believe these things to be true.  This broad, overgeneralization of people may have been useful in our primitive days when quick decisions determined life and death, but in modern times when we are less concerned with marauding villagers and more concerned with lasting happiness, perhaps learning to change our spots would suite us well.

A leopard’s spots are no mistake – they help it blend in with its surroundings providing camouflage for survival and therefore have no need to change.  But people do need to change.  We do make mistakes and we do change our surroundings.  So, how do we effectively change our spots?  We change our spots by changing our brains, and we change our brains by changing our behavior.  The mind will try to force any situation it meets into its favorite ways of perceiving and will react with distress when it meets resistance.  Conversely, when we stop and examine how we typically respond to situations, we create space for more flexible responses.  What flows through the mind sculpts the brain.  So, if you don’t want to blend in with all the other cheating men in the world, learn to detect yourself falling into old, familiar patterns.  Once you spot them, you can change them.  Now go get ‘em, Tiger.

Major Identity Crisis

When I first went to college I majored in Theatre.  I put on costumes, memorized lines and became someone else for a while, but a star I was not, so I switched my major to writing where I could create worlds to exist the way I wanted them – I set the scenes, wrote the lines and created a pseudonym, yet a famous writer I did not become.  So, I switched my major, changed my life and became a different sort of wannabe.

Eventually I graduated with a handful of degrees and no discernable identity.  Throughout those years I changed and morphed in desperate attempts at finding myself and only managed to become unglued, unhinged and unrecognizable.  So, I stopped.  I stopped looking beyond myself, I stopped the incessant cycles of wanting and hoping, of dreaming and praying for things to be different.  Instead of creating worlds of my own, I learned to appreciate the world as it is.  Instead of acting as though things were different, I accepted that things are as they are.  The paradox is that once I accepted myself as I was, only then could I change.  Let me introduce myself – My name is Mark.  I’m not a famous actor, I’m not a brilliant writer, in fact I’m nothing special at all – I’m simply everything I need.  And that’s quite enough, thank you.

Picture This

I’m a bit of a freak when it comes to backing up important files.  I save a copy to my laptop, desktop, work computer, USB and then print two hard copies – one for home and another for a separate location just in case a tornado comes and destroys my home and workplace taking with it all my life’s accomplishments.  The one thing I didn’t have stored in multiple locations was pictures.  I didn’t bother to do this because I had safely stored these thousands of memories to “The Cloud.”  Ah yes, this great technological mystery that no one understands but everyone trusts – this modern-day god. 

Well, like a god, The Cloud can sometimes be vengeful.  Such was the case for my pictures, or shall I say, my former pictures.  Yes, The Cloud in all its infinite wisdom decided my digital memories were no longer valuable and thusly deleted the files effectively erasing years of happy documentation.  How could this data deity delete my past?

After much turmoil I decided that instead of railing against the computer gods I could reboot my thought process and accept that the past clearly did not want me.  It was time to let go and move into the present where new memories are waiting to be made.  I can still access the old files when necessary – they are effectively on my memory’s hard drive, but now I can focus on what’s currently on my home screen – the present – today’s sunshine, today’s flowers, today’s clouds.

Table for 1

According to School House Rock, 3 is the Magic Number, after all, it takes 3 legs to make a tripod or to make a table stand.  Taking this bit of wisdom to heart I built my life around 3 good friends, each serving a specific purpose and each supporting the pedestal on which I placed myself.  This design worked for many years until one of my legs suddenly ceased living.  Needless to say this made my magic design a bit wobbly, so I supported myself on my two good friends and fashioned another support out of vodka bottles and prescription drugs.  This new configuration proved functional, it wasn’t near as sturdy, but I remained upright.  It held for a few years until the second leg and then the third leg exited my design. 

With nothing left but bad habits and misplaced anger I decided that 3 was not the magic number; no indeed, I decided that 1 was the magic number.  When I looked at the number 1 written on a scrap of paper I noticed how much “1” looks like “I”.  Was it possible that “I” was the magic?  That “I” already possessed the things necessary to be happy?  I wanted to find out, so I build a new table with love as the core and compassion as its top.  Turns out this table is quite sturdy standing alone, it’s tall and proud and capable of handling what forces may come down upon it knowing its one lovely leg is not going to buckle under pressure.  So I invite you to pull up a chair and sit for a while.  That’s the thing with tables – that’s the thing with love, they function best when serving others.

Prize Nuggets

I have been an avid reader for well over twenty years now, everything from pulp fiction, to song lyrics to the sides of cereal boxes.  Reading is my way of making sense of the world, seeing it from different perspectives and trying to make my way in the safest way possible.  Throughout these many years I have come across little nuggets of useful knowledge.  These tidbits of hidden agenda are a bit like finding the prize in the bottom of the cereal box – you search and sift and make your way through to retrieve the item for which you purchased the darn thing anyway.  And when you find this shiny new nugget, all is right with the world.

Having poured over a vast array of books and closely studied the music I have come to the conclusion that, “What the world needs now, is love sweet love.”  We don’t need any added flavors or sugars; we can take our lives exactly as they come: bitter sweet and perfectly balanced.  We need to love always and, in all ways, fill our hearts with gratitude and let our cups run over.  There’s no need to cry over spilled milk; there’s more in the fridge anyway.  So, my friend, sit, relax and know that life, as Tony the Tiger says, is “Grrreat!”

Choosing My Religion

People, as a species, like to put things into familiar boxes -- we are, Single, Married, Widowed, Divorced, Separated; we are White, Hispanic, African American, Native American, Asian, Other; we are our gender, our age, our income, our religion, and so forth.  When forced to describe myself in these terms I am a married 45-year old middle-class white male of ________ religious persuasion.  That last one is a tough one.  What religion am I?  

I’ve attended all sorts of religious institutions, from the Temple of Christ to the Church of Disco, only to discover that none of them felt quite right.  As the author of Buddha in the City and the creator of Buddhist art, I am frequently asked if I am a Buddhist.  Putting the, “Is Buddhism a religion?” debate aside, I will answer the question by saying that I practice Betterism.  By “Betterism” I mean that I take what I feel are the best parts of religious practices and combine them to create a better existence for myself and others -- I seek God in the details, Buddha in the silence and the Best of all situations.  To put it simply, my answer to, “What religion are you?” is “D -- all of the above.”

Balancing Act

In an attempt to make my life easier I have set up automatic withdrawal for several different bills.  The thought was, “I can sure save a lot of time by not filling out a check, stuffing it in an envelope and dropping it off at the post office.”  Having withdrawals taken out automatically also saves on paper, gas and money -- all great things for myself and the environment.  The down side to all this goodness is that I often forget about these depletions in funds and continue to fill out checks to my heart’s content believing I have the dough to cover the checks.  Before long I am negative on all accounts – bank and attitude.

The only way to solve the problem of being negative is to do whatever is necessary to turn the situation around.  This may be to do a little extra work to rake in the cash or to do a good deed to crank up the karma.  Either way it’s all about balance – what we take out we must put back, and more importantly, what we put out, we will get back – it’s all about investment.  Invest in being a good person now: deposit happiness wherever you go, check your attitude at the door, save the love you receive.  Do these with pure intent and your karma bank will always be positive.

The Fabric of Life

When I was a sophomore in high school, I signed up for sewing class.  Sewing is not the kind of elective most 15-year-old boys deign to take, but for me, sewing was just another creative outlet for an unruly mind.  Throughout the weeks and months of pinning and stitching mismatched fabrics together to form an article of clothing I learned how sometimes seemingly unlike patterns can form a cohesive unit when assembled in the proper fashion.  The end result of my foray into stitch-witchery was a novel little vest whose two fabrics (one “Dry Clean Only,” the other, “Do Not Dry Clean”) yielded my first hand-wash only garment.  It was in this proudly worn, hand-made vest that I had my Senior pictures taken for the yearbook two years later. 

Blending into society is a bit like sewing mismatched fabrics together – we are different yet must come together to form a cohesive whole.  After all, we are all a part of the fabric of existence – tiny threads woven through place and time.  If we can acknowledge each other’s unique qualities, capitalize on our shared interests and understand that our differences make us stronger we may just create a snapshot of a peaceful humanity that lasts for years to come.

Renewal

The other night I was watching a documentary about the atrocity of Chernobyl.  I sat emotionally crippled being witness to the death and destruction brought about by man’s carelessness.  If only more attention had been paid this devastation may have been avoided.  Then just when I had become thoroughly numbed by the hopelessness of humanity the documentary shifted paradigms to present day Chernobyl where flowers bloom through rusted swing sets and trees peek through the roofs of dilapidated buildings.  Interesting how that works – through chaos comes life.

This natural order of things applies to life in general – destruction happens, relationships collapse, tempers flare, emotions disintegrate.  At this point we can either feed the flames of chaos and wait for our lives to implode or we can step away, take some time, breathe calmly and let the goodness of nature fill the cracks with renewed faith.  In time this goodness will permeate our existence and create a new landscape of love and acceptance for ourselves and for all who venture in.

Weird Science

As a nerdy child and awkward teenager my social status ranked somewhere near that of the single celled amoeba.  My dignity and pride were frequently feasted upon by larger, more complex organisms in the food chain.  To shield myself from the pain I often retreated in the movies and, like all good children of the 80’s, I found particular solace in the movies of John Hughes.  Of all Hughes’ films the one to which I most related was Weird Science – the story of two social outcasts who used their ingenuity to recreate their world and join the ranks of the cool kids.  Lacking the scientific prowess to realign the human genome I sucked it up, toughened my skin and joined the ranks. 

As time progressed, I put less faith in movies and weird science and hung my hopes on live people and real experiences.  What I learned is that we don’t need crazy experiments to alter our existence to fit in with the rest of humanity, we only need to accept the fact that all life is interconnected.  Real science has proven that all existence is woven together into a single fabric.  The stars in space, the stars on the screen and the single celled amoeba are inseparable.  They are one.  We are all one. 

Center Stage

In college I briefly majored in Theatre.  Having been in high school productions and won a few awards, Theatre seemed like a logical choice for a successful career.  After all, I had been an extra in Fame and West Side Story, surely a three-picture movie deal couldn’t be far behind. 

The thing I love best about the stage is its predictability – every move is blocked; every line is memorized.  There are no surprises -- at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  The problem is sometimes in the middle of a performance and in front of a packed house a line is forgotten or a prop goes missing throwing the unprepared actor off his game, but as the saying goes, the show must go on.  So, you do your best, take your bows and hope for good reviews.

These types of fumbles happen in life as well – you expect events to occur a certain way, expect others to behave in a pre-prescribed manner and expect a happy ending just like in the movies.  Then, somewhere in act two, someone forgets his line or completely exits the scene leaving you center stage without a script.  Life, like theatre, doesn’t always unfold in expected ways.  If we want to make it to curtain call with some degree of happiness, I suggest we stop expecting people to act in the ways we want them to, stop expecting things to go the way we planned them, stop expecting to ride off into the sunset.  We can’t always expect the unexpected, but we can accept it, and if we can learn to accept the challenges of act two, we won’t be disappointed at the final curtain.

Clearing the Path

This winter has produced nearly four-feet of snow so far; and with a month to go before the calendar says it’s spring, my aching body wants nothing more than to bend, melt and contort my shovel into a lawn sculpture.  I’m tired, I’m sore, and I’m feeling a bit bitter toward the bitter cold.  Each time the snow falls blanketing the trees and walkways with fresh powder I head outside to clear the path for those who trudge through to get where they are going.  I don’t know who they are or why they cross my path, but I do know what it is like to trek through difficult terrain.  And so, I shovel, knowing full well I’ll be thriving on ibuprofen for at least a week.

The paths in our life aren’t always as smooth as we would like them to be.  Sometimes we head out on a sunny day only to be stuck in the snow.  Other times we face difficulties we could never have imagined.  Thankfully, we aren’t alone in our travels.  Someone has always gone before us to make our way a little less painful.  We may have to contort old thoughts, melt old grudges, or stop and shovel ourselves out from time to time, but the path is there if we continue to work through the heartache.  Eventually we will get to where we are going; and when we arrive, we can look back and see how our struggles have helped others struggle a little less.  And that makes me feel better than ibuprofen ever could. 

Less is More

For the past couple of months, I have been in the midst of a minimalist movement getting rid of tired old keepsakes and tired old habits in an attempt to streamline my living space and my mind.  Decades of “Can’t live without,” keepsakes purchased with the intent of creating a fashionably inviting living space littered every flat surface and zapped any thoughts of relaxation as I spent my time guarding, dusting and rearranging these seemingly precious things until one day when I dared to ask myself, “Why do I have all this stuff?”  Unable to answer this question sufficiently, I decided I could live without it.   As each item was dropped off at donation centers throughout the city, I felt my soul stretch out in its new expanded horizons.  

Suddenly my home appeared larger and more inviting.  By living with less I found I had more – more room for peaceful thoughts, more space to expand my horizons, more freedom to cherish loved ones.  Although I have removed a great deal of superfluous stuff, I still hold tight to the things that bring me true joy.  My art no longer matches my sofa, but the few items I proudly display match me.  They remind me of those who bring comfort and joy to my life.  They let me know that I am loved and that I am capable of love.  By shrinking my world, I find I am capable of living a bigger, more focused life.

Home Run

I’m not much of a sports fan.  I know the basic rules from elementary gym class and usually root for the team with the cutest uniforms.  The only time I ever watch anything that centers around a ball is when I’m dining at a restaurant that has a big screen TV hanging on every flat surface.  At this time I am glued to the set cheering my fashion forward sportsman on to victory patiently waiting for the crack of the bat to unleash the possibility of a homerun; and although I don’t have a favorite team, I somehow feel disappointed when the team I’ve declared should win, based solely on their color choices, has their star player hit by a curveball and removed from the game.  No chance for victory now. So, I return to my dinner a little bummed but no worse for wear. 

This game of ball is rather like the game of life – you practice hard, you do your best and hope to win.  But sometimes life throws you a curveball.  This may come in the form of a break-up, political setbacks or harsh words delivered by a loved one.  When this occurs, we can wallow in pain and remove ourselves from the game, or we can check our game plan and realize that only we have the power to hurt ourselves.  Words, like the crack of the bat, are only sounds – we ascribed meaning to those sounds.  They can signal a homerun or game over; the choice is ours.  Live in pain or live in acceptance knowing we are all on the same team and we are all searching for home.

Freshly Squezed

For most of my adult life I have tried to treat my body with respect by eating well and exercising regularly.  Recently, in an attempt to up the healthy quotient ante, I’ve traded my pre-packaged entrees for nature’s fresh produce and home cooked organic meals.   Sure, this procedure is more time consuming and I don’t always know exactly what I am doing, but the rewards, I’m sure, will prove worthy of the effort.  The other day, in this enlightened state, I decided to start my morning with some fresh squeezed orange juice.  The problem was I didn’t have any oranges – just bananas, so I contemplated a glass of fresh squeezed banana juice.  This proved to be a difficult task and even if it had been successful, would not have satiated my craving for orange juice.  

This squeezing oranges out of bananas conundrum got me thinking about how often we, as wishful thinkers, try to make events in life something other than what they are.  We plant the seeds of hate and try to harvest a field of love, we dream of peace but argue over how to achieve it and we hold on tightly to the things we need to let go.  If we want love or peace or freedom then we must already possess them, we must make them an organic part of our being. Just as it is impossible to get orange juice from bananas, it is impossible to give hate if you only have love inside. 

Want

When I was a tween I wanted, more than anything, to fit in.  This meant I needed tight rolled frosted jeans, a leather bomber jacket and penny loafers with a dime in the tongue.  When I was a twenty-something, I wanted a high paying job, a nice car and a well-manicured lawn.  In my thirties I wanted world peace and to house the homeless.  For all those years what I really wanted was for the world to bow down to my needs be the selfish or selfless.  As life unfolded and my wants and debts grew along with my depression and social pariah status I realized I could want until the proverbial cows came home and still not be happy. 

I have sought for, and fought for and even attained some of the things I so desperately wanted only to find these things didn’t solve my problems.  Searching for happiness in attaining wants is like trying to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just when you think you’re about to get to it, the reward fades away leaving you tired, jaded and empty handed.  Having learned this lesson the hard way, it pains me to say that what I want most now is to not want.  It seems paradoxical to want to not want, but it’s what I need.  I need to know that the rainbow is a joy unto itself and that life is its own reward.  I need to know that wanting is akin to wasting – it’s wasted time, wasted energy, wasted thoughts.  I want to know; I want to fit in with this logic.  But until this want fades away, I will continue to chase it.

Ripples

One of my favorite holiday movies is It’s a Wonderful Life.  It’s my rock in the stream of Christmas movies playing from Thanksgiving to New Years.  I watch a great deal of this genre bobbing along with the Grinch, or the Ghost of Christmas Past, but it is always George Bailey and his journey that catches my attention.  Like most movies of its day the makers bait us with star power, reel us in with an impossible love story and hook us with an indisputable truth – we all make a difference.

For many years I had been sinking, reliving painful pasts, hardening my heart and trying too hard to swim upstream.  Like George Bailey, I could see no way out.  So, I sank to the bottom where, without being pulled by the currents of discontent, I examined my life and what I wanted it to be.  I discovered I wanted two things: to be happy and be free from suffering – the same two things all sentient beings desire.  So, I decided to stay there, a tiny pebble in a tumultuous stream knowing that by accepting all things that pass by with love and gratitude I create a calming ripple affecting all who come in contact.

Connected

Last summer my husband and I visited friends in Colorado.  This friendship came about like most in-so-much as we met them through mutual friends who introduced us and we hit it off due to our mid-west roots and love of all things nature.  While visiting these friends, the six of us took a historic train ride through the mountains where we were instructed in the ways of the steam engine and the laws of land. For instance, did you know it takes 22 tons of coal to travel about 200–250 miles?  Or that aspen trees propagate themselves primarily through root sprouts, and that each colony is its own clone so all trees in the clone have identical characteristics and share a single root structure? These trees help cleans the environment of the coal dust -- the same coal that was mined from directly beneath the aspen’s roots.  Funny how things are connected.

Connections are everywhere if one takes the time to notice.  This morning, while trying to connect my mind to the earth during yoga, I began to think about these linkages.  My body is connected to the ground (the same ground to which all beings are connected). My breath is part the same air the rest of the world (including the aspen) is breathing.  Each time I breathe in and with every step I take, I am connecting with all of humanity through all of time. This is the case every minute of every day, yet rarely do I stop and think about it.  With this in mind I challenged myself to make friends with the world -- every last dirty, mean and lovely part of it. Afterall, its totality resides within my lungs and keeps me grounded in my moments.  I have a choice: I can focus on our divisions or take joy in our common roots. So, for today I fill my lungs with joy and stand firm in my belief that I am okay. And if I am okay, then the rest of the world must be too.

Definitions

My college experience represents a general facsimile of my life – continuous and ever evolving.  I’ve changed my majors a half-dozen times, I’ve taken classes slowly over the decades and have collected degrees as though they were trading cards.  My first bachelor’s was English and although I went into it knowing it was probably “useless” as far as employment was concerned, I simply had to invest in my love of language.  Part of that love was understanding words, their roots and their uses.  For instance, “khaki” is a Hindustani word meaning “solid color” and has been morphed over the years to mean boring “business casual.”  That’s what happens with words – they start out meaning one thing and evolve into something completely different.

Applying this knowledge of word evolution to the words I use to describe myself I’ve come to the conclusion the meaning of “me” as a person has also expanded to include a vast array of seeming unrelated terms.  For instance, me as a “writer” used to mean I was paid to put words into print, now me as a writer simply means I think on paper – different, yet born of the same root. 

In all my seeking and finding and learning and growing I’ve come to the conclusions that no matter how far I search or to what depths I explore I will never come up with a definitive definition of what it means to be “me.”  I am a work in progress, a day-to-day evolution of who I was and who I will be.  I am evolving: developing gradually, especially from a simple to a more complex form.  I accept that.

Presents

Around this time of year, when the leaves are changing and early morning fog haunts the air, I bring my holiday gift purchasing to a close worried that I don’t have enough time to finish up those last-minute trinkets that add spice to my presents.  For many folks, October seems a bit early to even contemplate Christmas – Halloween candy isn’t even ½ off yet, but the task of gift giving has been weighing on my mind since December 26th.  I’ve spent months thinking of themes that put the “fun” in “functional” and bring joy to the lives of others.

It used to be that I would drive about town, finding a bit of this and some of that to add to the basket until everything was just right.  Now, all my shopping is one click away – I don’t even have to show up to be one of the first 100 customers in the door to receive my discount; in fact, I don’t even have to show up to give my loved ones my long thought out present.  I can order online and have their gift shipped directly to their door.  Lately though I’ve been contemplating the meaning of presents.  Why do we give them?  Is gift giving an act of love or a responsibility?  Are they meant to bring us closer or to one-up each other?  And why are they even called “presents?”  According to the dictionary a “present” is to “give something to (someone) formally or ceremonially.”  In the modern world we have forgone the “formally and ceremonially” part in lieu of “quickly and conveniently.” 

This year I’ve decided that instead of “presents” I will give “presence.”  The most personal gift a person can give another is his time.  What better way to show love and affection than to put another being above all other life responsibilities?  For me, personal connections are more important than sweaters, or blenders or candy canes and they have a better return policy as well.  So, I may still show up with a spicy little gift purchased months ago, but more importantly, I will show up with my well thought out presence.

Poop Happens

When you live in a household with nine dogs it is sage advice to, “Watch your step.”  You would think after years of canine cohabitation I would have taken this advice to heart, yet somehow, I’m still surprised when, in a hurry, I “Put my foot in it.”  Though I am frustrated when this happens, I accept that dealing with shit is just a part of life; I clean off my shoe and carry on with my day.  That’s the price you pay for the unconditional love of fine, furry friends.

Proverbial, “shit” happens throughout life: sometimes we’re sick, sometimes we’re tired, sometimes we are just sick and tired of being treated like a dog.  It is when life has kicked us around to the breaking point and beyond that we have to lick our wounds and accept that this too shall pass.  Nothing lasts forever: Not joy.  Not pain.  Not the crap on our shoes.  If you want unconditional love, you’re gonna have to put up with a little poo when you least expect it.

 

Weathering Storms

As of recent there has been a spate of natural disasters: hurricanes, tidal waves, tornadoes, drought – you name it and it’s happening somewhere in the world.  Here in the Midwest though, our natural disasters are typically less destructive than in other areas.  Sure, we have storms and snow and the occasional tornado, but these events come with warning.  Unlike earthquakes, tornados don’t usually happen suddenly; first there are clouds, then driving winds and finally destruction.  For us Midwesterners, we hear an alarm and head to the lowest level with a flashlight and a radio and brace ourselves for chaos.  Earthquakes, on the other hand, just happen.  One minute you’re baking a soufflé, the next, the ground is falling out from under you.  It’s true that warnings save lives.

 Emotional storms, much like weather, can come without warning.  You’re going about your daily business when you spy dark clouds on the horizon.  They look threatening, but, like the Midwesterner who stands on his front porch watching the circling clouds unaware of the tornado, you don’t prepare yourself for the tidal wave of grief coming your way. Suddenly the world collapses beneath you are you are drowning in depression wondering, “What happened?”  With no way out you cling to whatever is thrown your way: booze, pills, false hope.  But these external things won’t save you; they can’t save you.  The problem isn’t the storm on the outside, the problem is the storm on the inside.  If we hope to survive the storms in our lives, we have to prepare.  We have to be aware.  We have to heed warnings.  Know your Self.  Take time to examine your intentions, your motivations, your goals.  Ask yourself, “What do I hope to achieve by doing what I am doing?  Does this act bring peace to my world?  Are my intentions good?”  If you can ask yourself these questions, then the answers are as clear as a summer’s day.  Heed your warnings, prepare your mind and you can weather any storm.

 

I

Last week, while sitting in yet another “team” meeting at work, we began discussing the importance of working together to achieve our common goals.  This discussion has happened many times in many formats and typically ends with the sage words of wisdom, “Let’s work together, folks.  There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team’.”  This saying always gets my mind wandering (as so many things do) and I realized that there is no ‘I’ in ‘eye’ or in ‘aye, aye, master,’ either.  Funny, I thought.

I played this ‘I’ game for a while and wondered who exactly is the ‘I’ in ‘I?”  Is the ‘I’ my braIn, my mInd – I don’t thInk so.  So, who am ‘I’? Scientists have studied thisphenomenon for many years now and still can’t point to a specific spot in the human anatomy and say, “This is the origin of being.”  Perhaps this is because we are all a team after all.  We are a part of each other working together to make the entire universe succeed.  We are pieces of a total oneness, a collective conscience wanting to be happy, to be loved, to be at peace.  Funny. . . there are no ‘I’s in ‘happy,’ ‘love,’ or ‘peace.’  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

Chess

I am the youngest of four kids and as such I learned different skills from each of my siblings.  My sister, Cynthia, taught me to sew, Jennifer taught me to bake and my brother, Todd, taught me how to play chess.  Of all these lessons, I found chess to be the most difficult; there are so many rules and schemes – Castles can only go forward and backward or side to side, Rooks can only move at an angle, and don’t even get me started with the Knight.  It seemed impossible.  I was just a boy, what did I know about strategy?

Eventually I learned the rules and got pretty good at the game.  Navigating the chess board is kind of like navigating life – we follow the notion that we can only move in certain directions at certain times and that certain people have certain jobs.  But life isn’t chess.  Life isn’t about right and wrong, black and white, win or lose – it’s about suffering or not suffering.  If moving forward causes suffering, then move sideways.  If that causes suffering then stand still a while, no one is going to knock you off the board.  Others may flit about trying to avoid suffering but you can simply stand still and breathe – be the king of your life.  Choose happiness.  That’s the only way to win.

Deeds Great and Small

I’m always looking for ways to better the world.  I plant trees in the rainforest, I give to charities, I donate blood products, yet I still feel like there is more I can do.  What is that one thing, that stellar action that will define me as altruistic?  How can I, “Heal the world; make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race?” in much the same manner as Michael Jackson sang about in 1991?  I’m not famous.  I’m not rich.  I don’t have a million followers on Facebook. 

I struggled with this dilemma all morning long debating what my next move, as an insignificant mortal, should be.  After much thought I decided to smile.  “Worthy” causes are no more or less worthy than the causes in our own backyard.  To heal the world, we’ve got to heal ourselves then present that self to those around us.  Kindness knows no size, sees no color and knows no bounds.  So, for today I smile.  I smile and know that the problems of the world aren’t solved by a few great deeds, they are solved by a million small kindnesses. 

Time

I’m not the kind of guy who has to have the latest invention in technology, I still have a flip phone, I’m not on social media and the only reason I ever got email was because my job required it.  Still, I do have many of man’s newest inventions and, at times, they have made my life a bit easier.  Speaking of time, this is another of man’s inventions that is overused by modern society.  We are constantly rushing toward the future while dragging our pasts along in an attempt to beat the clock.  The problem with time is much like the problem with social media –they are both poor substitutes for actual connections.  Being connected to others via facebook is hardly the same as being connected face-to-face; and being on time is hardly the same as being in time – being in the moment.

To be free of time means to be free from the psychological need of the past for identity and future for fulfillment.  Time is less an invention than an illusion.  Worrying about past mistakes stunts present growth; believing in a future heaven creates a present hell.  Being where we are, when we are and with whom we are is undeniable – it is one of the only truths that exists.  Put down the phone, disconnect with artifice and connect with the Now.   The Now is perhaps the greatest invention: it never goes out of style; it’s constantly updating itself and it’s available to all.

Losses and Gains

For a man in his mid-forties I haven’t experienced much death; so little in fact, that I can count the number of deceased close companions on one hand.  For all intents and purposes this is considered a good thing and I count myself blessed for the good health of myself and those around me.  When I first experienced the passing of a loved one, I was numb – it was too soon, I wasn’t prepared.  I sucked in my tears and filled the hole in my heart with mundane activities that glossed over the pain.  This technique worked for many months and I went about my life preparing for the next inevitable loss.  This preparation for the unknown was exhausting and wore down my reserves until I came to the acceptance of impermanence and the scientific laws of energy.

The first law of thermodynamics is that energy can be transformed from one form to another, but can be neither created nor destroyed.  With this in mind I realized I didn’t have to feel a loss when dealt with death.  My loved ones weren’t “gone,” they were just transformed – their energy still existed, their essence still moved about in the universe.  Their energy, my energy, all energy in fact, has been around since the dawn of time and will continue to be around long after this life as we know it ends.  Now, when I admire the beauty of a spring flower or feel the first rays of the morning sun caress my cheek, I know that I am being touched by loved ones; it’s their love communicating with my love and instead of feeling loss, I feel gratitude.  I haven’t lost anything, in fact, I’ve gained another fond memory.

 

 

Hats

I love hats: bowlers, fedoras, porkpie, you name it I wear it.  Every time I put on a new hat I feel as though I am slipping on a new personality.  When I wear my porkpie, I listen to jazz and snap my fingers to the beat saying things like, “Dig it,” and, “Go cat, go.”  When I top off my wardrobe with a fedora, I get mysterious and hang out in dark corners taking in all the goings-on around me. The point is the hat dictates my behavior.  The good thing is the hat is easily removable – take it off and I am plain old me.  But who is that?

Much the same way hats have dictated my persona, the identities others (and myself) have ascribed to me have guided my behavior.  At one point in life I had decided I was the crazy drunk uncle and as such I arrived at many family functions inebriated and full of silly jokes – I was crazy after all.  Being the crazy drunk uncle gave me the excuse to behave badly and to make poor decisions because, everyone knows, that is what crazy drunk uncles do.  Unlike removing a hat though, getting rid of this nonproductive persona was a bit more difficult.  First I had to realize I wasn’t the person I pretended to be.  I wasn’t innately crazy; I didn’t need to be drunk.  In fact, I didn’t even particularly like those aspects of myself.  I behaved that way out of habit.

So, who was I exactly?  That took some examining.  Once I took off my crazy hat and disrobed the costume of expectation, I realized I am not any one thing.  I am an amalgamation of all my experiences, of all the people I have met and of all the choices I have made.  I am constantly changing.  If I were to sum up my findings and knit them into a hat I would have to say I am a basic stocking cap – warm, inviting, malleable.  I am comfortable.  I can endure tough times.  I can adjust to fit whatever occasion over which I am stretched.  I can “Dig it.”

Second Chances

When springtime comes and Mother Nature graces us with sunny days and warm nights, I like to hop on my bike and pay tribute to Ms. Nature’s bounty.  I enjoy riding through town with no destination in mind, listening to the birds and taking in the sights.  Some days I pay heed to the budding trees, other days I take notice of new construction in the neighborhood.  One day last year I was on such a ride when on the corner of 32nd and 2nd, I spied glimmers in the road.  Upon further examination I realized the glimmers were quarters – a whole bunch of them -- $6.00 to be exact.  For a man who doesn’t gamble, it felt as though I had hit the jackpot.  I collected my slightly worn coins and continued on my ride feeling especially blessed.

I have passed that same corner of 2nd Ave. for virtually 47 years and have never found so much as a dime, now, since experiencing my lucky loot, I feel as though 32nd Street owes me more than a penny for my thoughts; it owes me a second chance at money and happiness.  I am so insistent a bounty of treasure lay there that every time I pass by I nearly miss the STOP sign and ride head on to an ugly demise at the front end of a Mac truck all because I am too busy paying attention to what I believe should exist.  The problem with second chances is that we often don’t get them and riding our luck may mean we head ourselves into preventable circumstances.  We shouldn’t waste our time wishing for what isn’t or counting or blessings before they’ve happened, we should practice appreciating what we have right now.  In this spirit, I recently rode by the corner of 32nd and Second Chance; I didn’t find a jackpot, I didn’t get hit by a Mac truck, but I did notice a freshly bloomed daisy.  “Wow!” I thought, “This must be my lucky day.” 

Conver-skating

As a former theatre major, newspaper writer and hair stylist I think it is safe to say that I am a bit of a talker.  I come from a line of talkers with, bless their hearts, southern roots.  I can talk to anyone, anywhere, any time and if no one is available I am quite content having a conversation with myself.  Conversing is a bit like ice skating – just skim the surface and execute the landings, no need to get bogged down in the details.  The problem with this triple Salchow approach to the exchange of ideas is that this glossing over is only the short form of the program.  As the saying goes, “God is in the details,” and if you miss the details, you miss the point.

Conversation is meant to enrich our lives and help us better connect to our fellow man, but if we listen only with the intent to respond we miss the connection.  Ice skaters get bonus points for connecting skills, humans get bonus points for connecting ideas.  If you want to enjoy the long program then you’ve got to connect – you’ve got to listen with the intent to understand.  If you can listen with both your heart and your mind then the long program will be filled with fascination and you will find all the practice has made you a first-class communicator. 

Walk the Walk

One of my favorite exercises has been, and continues to be, walking.  I love communing with nature and watching life unfold around me as I meander to no place in particular.  It is during these walks that I unfurl the deep crevices of my mind and let out all the unknown anxiety that has silently been plaguing my freedom.  Frequently I will invite friends to come along with me hoping that they too will take a few minutes to relax and unwind.  During these walks we exchange ideas and offer each other tid-bits of wisdom learned from hard fought battles.  It is easy to talk the talk when you are not actively living your pain.

But how do we walk our talk when we are deeply embroiled in the conflicts of day-to-day living?  We must, as they instruct in walking meditation, walk as though our feet are kissing the ground with every step – that is to say we must be purposeful and attentive. The soles of the feet are extremely sensitive to touch due to a high concentration of nerve endings, with as many as 200,000 per sole.  Like the soles of our feet, our souls need to be aware of our surroundings.  Sometimes life’s terrain is rough and we may stumble and fall.  Sometimes the roads are long and arduous.  But if we keep going, feeling with our soles, believing with our souls, we’ll make it through.  So, kiss the ground, take your time – eventually you’ll get to wherever you are going.

Exposure

For someone who works in the public-school system, I am rarely ever sick.  Sure, I’ll get a runny nose or a sore throat from time-to-time, but never am I debilitatingly ill.  I liken this immunity to being exposed to virtually all manner of disease and disgust as a teenager working at the grocery store counting bottle returns and cleaning restrooms.  I’ve touched all sorts of unknown substances and have, thus far, lived to tell about it. 

This being said, my first year in the school system exposed me to a new strain of stomach flu the likes of none I had ever experienced before.  Until that moment in time I was unaware how many orifices in the human body could simultaneously leak – “If this is dying,” I thought, “let me go.”  I lost 5 pounds and all will power that day. 

Suffice it to say, I did survive and came to the conclusion that the upside of being sick is that it helps you realize how nice your regular condition is.  Sure, we may be disgusted with the world or feel debilitated by our thoughts, but if we stick it out, we develop immunities to life’s imperfections.  Let go of all the crap and learn to go with the flow and you’ll find that this too shall pass. 

Making the Grade

As a teacher I am often called upon to judge various student works: writing samples, art projects, behavior needs, etc.  Years spent in the field have made me pretty good at this task.  I’ve memorized the writing rubric, I understand the goal of art projects and I get the need to teach replacement behaviors; still, I prefer to judge tasks that are less interpretive.  I like to grade math papers where the answer is either right or wrong or history exams where the dates are set in stone.  Regardless of the task, it is my job to determine growth.

As people, we often judge one another.  Sometimes there are standards that we all agree upon: vandalism isn’t art, two wrongs don’t make a right, punching someone in the face is bad behavior.  But often times we judge people for reasons that aren’t standardized.  We call them ugly, or deficient or failures because they don’t look or live like we do.  We say they worship the wrong god or have the wrong priorities.  We judge them by a set of standards that aren’t standard.  We judge them not by who they are, but by who we are, and who we are is still a work in progress.  When it comes to making the grade for myself and for others, I’d rather get an “A” for Acceptance than an “D” for Discrimination.

Consumption

Like most American children of a certain age I spent a good portion of my youth consuming T.V. shows such as Sesame Street, Scooby Doo and anything by Hannah-Barbera.  Television was a wonderful escape from the strenuous duties of homework and hide-and-seek.  As I grew older, my appetite for entertainment switched from cartoons to cable news – the adult way to escape life’s calamities.  My media cup flowed over with perils from around the world and stuffed my head with negative thoughts.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized the consumption of media is much like the consumption of food – we are what we eat.  If I feast on cookies and cakes my body responds with high blood pressure and excess poundage; if I feast on violence and heartache, my consciousness becomes dark and dismal.  With this in mind I looked up the definition of consumption which is: The using up of a resource.  My being is a resource and I want not to waste it, so cookies and cable news must become, as Cookie Monster says, “A sometimes snack.”  Instead, I shall feast on leafy greens and positive affirmations – and perhaps a small dessert of CNN and a Scooby Snack.  Now that’s a diet I can stick to.

The Luxury of Waiting

I’m a pretty patient person by nature.  I am unperturbed in the grocery store when the patron in front of me has chosen the express lane to purchase her entire weeks’ worth of foodstuff, I kindly slow down so unobservant travelers can change lanes at the last minute, I am totally content reading out of date magazines whilst I wait for the physician’s assistant to call me back to the cold examination room.  I think of these events as exercises in day dreaming preferring to let my mind wander instead of focusing on these minor injustices.  The one thing for which I have no patience is myself.  I curse my inability to finish a book before it’s due back at the library, I loathe the fact that I haven’t yet finished my latest art project and I hate knowing that I have not yet figured out a way to save the world from itself.

Like becoming good at most things, becoming a patient person took practice.  By constantly monitoring the way I reacted to situations and catching myself in the midst of inappropriate responses I was able to stop and begin changing my habits.  Slowly my new and improved acceptance took shape.  Now if only I could use this same technique to mold myself into a being of perfection.  It’s not as though I don’t try – I practice deep breathing and going for walks, I stretch my muscles and my mind in vain attempts of attaining the ever-elusive enlightened state, yet flawed I am.

I guess the good news is that I don’t have to be perfected, I simply have to accept the fact that I am already perfect – I am everything I will ever need.  I have good moments and not-so-good moments, moments of clarity and moments of confusion, but most of all I have moments.  It is what I do with these moments that enlighten the spirit and today I choose patience with the world and all its inhabitants, including, and most importantly, me.  Someday this too will be habit, until then – I accept, I accept, I accept.

Have a Nice Trip

I’m the type of person who considers “being late” as arriving at my destination anything less than fifteen minutes ahead of scheduled time.  I hate to make people wait and will treat myself with reckless abandon in an attempt to arrive within my quarter-hour comfort zone.  This being said it is no surprise that I have driven without caution, failed to properly yield for my fellow citizens and recently came crashing to the ground while scurrying along the icy walkway leading to my appointment.  It was just one of those days where time kept slipping by and before I knew it, I was late. 

So, there I sat, cold and miserable being forced to yield to destiny.  I stayed like that for some time and felt the ground, and smelled the air, and absorbed the lesson in life – time and circumstance can alter at any minute and change the future in unforeseen ways.  My job is not merely to arrive at my destination, my job is to love much, live peacefully and gracefully accept what was not meant for me along the way.  I’ll arrive when I arrive – it may be 15 minutes early, it may be 15 minutes late, it may be a quarter past never, but somehow knowing the journey is the destination makes life’s little slip-ups a little less painful. 

Making Room

Last night my husband and I stopped to help a stranded truck driver broken down on the side of the interstate.  With flashers blinking and safety vest on, we lent a helping hand to this down-on-his-luck driver.  As my husband poked and prodded engine nuts and bolts, I watched as oncoming traffic shifted lanes allowing room for the broken down to make repairs.  A twist, a turn, a sudden shift in hardware and all was well.  Upon completion, my husband and I reentered traffic and made our way home feeling better for having lent a helping hand to someone in need.

Sometimes, when we are broken and down, we need a little space to falter – to breathe; we need room to twist and turn and shift our thinking without fear of injury or a mangling death.  Sometimes we can do this alone, and other times we need a little help from friends.  We’ve got to make room in our hearts and allow others to see the nuts and bolts of what makes us work – we must merge our souls if we want to keep on trucking on.

Seeing is Believing

I’ve worn glasses since the third grade and since that time my eyes have progressively gotten worse; now I’m at the point where I can’t even see the eye chart – just a lovely Rorschach Ink Blot on the wall that resembles an angry butterfly or possibly a three-legged frog doing the Can-Can.  I expect my eyes to degenerate over time, it comes with aging and I accept that.  My biggest problem with the eye doctor is that the test has been the same since I first got glasses some 35+ years ago.  The doctor asks me, “What’s the first line you can read?” and I say “E.”  I don’t really see the “E,” I just know that’s what the letter is.  Someday the test will be different and I will still see an “E” because when you look for something long enough, there’s nothing else you’ll see.

Seeing the things for which we look happens in our daily life – psychologists call it “self-fulfilling prophesies.”  If I think I will fail, chances are good that I will.  If I think I am sick, my body reacts with hot flashes and a turned tummy.  But, if I look for beauty or hope or love, I will see them because, much like the “E” on the eye chart, these things are always there.  Sometimes they are difficult to make out, but they exist – you just might have to read between the lines.

Forget Regret

I’m a forgetful person by most accounts – birthdays, PIN #’s, future plans.  In fact, I am so forgetful that I have taken to mailing out a year’s worth of birthday cards on New Year’s Eve just to ensure I don’t forget to wish those closest to me a happy day.  I’ve tried mnemonic devices, day planners, clever acronyms, to-do lists, and colored post-it notes, yet I still forget why I entered a room.  With all this memory loss you would think I could forget my past transgressions yet they manage to haunt my life and taint its little joys. 

When I am in the midst of painful despair wishing I hadn’t done the things I have and forgetting the fact that I somehow managed to survive the bad choices and atrocious judgment, I find it helpful to stop and ask myself, “Why am I doing this?  What do I hope to accomplish with rehashing all this regret?”  The answer is always the same – “Nothing” – nothing is accomplished by living in the past.  So, I’ve learned to let go – let go of the “shouldas,” let go of the “couldas,” and just accept that it “woulda” been nice if I had lived life differently and to accept that I didn’t.   Since then I’ve never regretted letting go.  But if in the future, I ever do regret letting go, I’ll be sure to let go of the regret.

 

The Road Less Traveled

Spring is my favorite time of year.  I love watching the trees turn from brown sticks to green velvet to fruit laden treasures.  It lifts my spirits and energizes my soul.  When nature is kind enough to shine her love down on me, I take the opportunity to walk near the river’s edge or hike amongst the forest meandering through the well-trodden paths of previous nature aficionados.  I can spend hours watching the breeze dance in the trees and musing as squirrels play games of tag or argue over nuts.  Every so often I get a Robert Frost moment and am compelled to take the road less travelled just to see where it leads me.  It is during these moments that I find how truly wonderful nature can be.

Trekking through Mother Nature is much like treading through Human Nature – there are well trodden paths that lead to predictable results of arguments and discomfort and there are other less examined trails that lead to unforeseen adventures.  I spent many years mapping the route and following the path that lay before me only to realize I was stuck in the same forest of confusion and dismay wondering how I got there.  Finally, I saw the forest through the trees and realized that how others treat me is their path; how I react is mine.  Instead of being mired down in the underbrush of hidden agendas or drowning in despair, I can stop struggling, go with the flow and chart my own destination.  After all, it’s spring – everything is new.  It’s time for a new way of thinking, a new way of non-reacting. It’s time to start down our own paths.

Scene 1

Growing up my life was very much like Leave it to Beaver without the pearls and cardigans – my dad worked, my mom took care of us kids and I did all the fun, mischievous things children are supposed to do.  As I grew older my life more closely resembled Rosanne – troubled, but loved.  As a young adult my life could best be described as an HBO original film fraught with self-made trauma and spiraling despair.  These scenes played out as my thoughts and the things I thought I should be directed my every move.  I cast myself in many roles trying them on for comfort, dressing the part, saying the lines and going through the motions only to discover I wasn’t any of them yet they were somehow all a part of who I was.

Slowly I began to realize I wasn’t the actor playing a role written by thoughts, I was the director witnessing the thoughts and guiding the actions.  When a thought passes through our minds, we assume it must be directed by our true self.  But much like TV, those mindless thoughts lull us into preprogrammed characters that have cast us as “unawares” who act on conditioned, habitual responses.  These thoughts are merely surface phenomena, a commercial break trying to sell us an identity that isn’t really ours.  Thoughts are just thoughts; they are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong – they’re just reactions, not an identity.  Instead of getting lost in the story your thoughts have written, witness your thoughts and write your own script.  Be the director of your life.  You might not win the best actor award, but perhaps you’ll be nominated for best original screenplay.

Intentions

As a traveler I am hopelessly inept.  Outside of knowing the sun rises in the east and settles in the west I am totally lost; I can even get lost in my own home town.  There have been many occasions where I have intended to arrive at my destination 15 minutes early looking impossibly fresh and totally together only to be veered off course by the sight of falling leaves, grazing cattle and wrong turns – Next exit: Nowheresville – population: me.  Yet again my good intentions have gone out the window.  I am frazzled and late and fit to be tied.  You’d think I’d learn to pay attention and use a map.

It is said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and having been to Hell on several occasions I believe this to be true.  I never intended to hurt my loved ones, I never intended to wander astray yet somehow, I have been distracted by the shiny objects and empty promises of the road most traveled.  Having driven down this rocky road for many years I finally learned to stop and ask for directions.  I have been guided by wise words in helpful books, knowing smiles from friendly elders and tough lessons from hard knocks.  The path I follow now is less traveled and has better sign posts.  It’s rocky and beautiful and filled with the same potholes as before, but now I not only have good intentions, I have awareness.  I’m aware distractions exist and wrong turns are abundant.  But now I’m in no hurry.  I’ll arrive when I get there wherever there may be.  For now, I’m just enjoying the journey looking impossibly fresh and sort of together.

Micro-Moments

My favorite horror film of all time is William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.  It’s engaging, it’s scary and one has to watch carefully to thoroughly enjoy all of its subtle nuances and subliminal messages.  To fully understand the importance to detail in The Exorcist one needs to understand how film works.  Celluloid moves static pictures at a rate of 24 frames per second.  Unlike a camera however, the eye does not see motion as a series of frames.  Instead, it perceives a continuous stream of information rather than a set of discrete moments.  This persistence of an afterimage fools audiences into thinking things are other than what they truly are.  In the case of The Exorcist, the filmmakers slipped in 3 frames (⅛ of a second’s worth) of the demon, Captain Howdy, periodically throughout the film to keep audiences off balance and constantly wondering if they saw what they think they saw.

Like film and its afterimages, our lives tend to flit by without us paying much attention to each individual moment.  We spend our nights rehashing our days and our years remembering our demons.  We miss the sunrises, the laughter, and the miracles occurring every ⅛ of a second.  Having lived most of my life off kilter, I have recently decided to take a page from Blatty’s script – I’ve inserted micro-moments of joy into my days in hopes those details will somehow put my life back on balance.  I give this new life a 5-star rating and applaud the fine, nuanced performance of its star player – ME.

 

 

Remote Control

Like most couples my husband and I often disagree about what to watch on TV.  He enjoys reality shows about million-dollar sailing yachts or individuals surviving naked in the wild while I prefer news networks or reruns of old sitcoms.  Rather than engaging in disputes over mindless television viewing and reaching for the remote, I tend to sit back and go with the flow, if this doesn’t work, I’ll engross myself in a magazine in the hopes that he will see my disappointment in programming and offer up the remote control.  Typically, this does not happen and I find myself slowly paying less attention to my reading and more attention to the debacle unfolding on the screen.  Though I hate to admit it, I often times enjoy this unforeseen adventure. 

Scenes like this happen a lot in life.  You start out with the intent of doing one thing and begrudgingly wind up doing another.  Life is like that – you chart a course, set your sails and hope for the best, but sometimes life has other plans and this is where it gets interesting.  You could rail against the wilds of life feeling naked and afraid determined to remain in control or you could relax a bit and channel into the present moment viewing what it has to offer.  By relinquishing the perception of control of what it is you think you want, you will find the enjoyment you seek – it may be on a different station, but it is always within your reach.

Set a Drift

Recently, in a state of reverie, I listened to the 90’s P.M. Dawn song “Set a Drift on Memory Bliss,” and like most songs from the 90’s I realized I really didn’t know the lyrics even though I once owned the cassette.  I belted out the chorus, eyes closed and in what felt like perfect harmony only to fumble through the verses spitting out the few words I thought I knew.  We’ll it’s not the 90’s anymore and there are no excuses for misquoted lyrics, so I Googled the words and found them to be nothing like what I had been singing, yet totally relevant.  One verse in particular stuck out in my mind:

“I can remember when 
I caught up with a past time intimate friend
She said, "Bet you're probably gonna say I look lovely
But you probably don't think nothin' of me"
She was right, though, I can't lie
She's just one of those corners in my mind
And I just put her right back with the rest
That's the way it goes, I guess”

I let these lyrics wash over me thinking about all the friends who have come and gone through the years, each one serving her purpose only to become a faded picture in a dusty frame.  This thought saddened me for a while until I realized that unlike the P.M. Dawn cassette, I didn’t own my friends and it is impossible to lose what you don’t possess.  I do, however, own my memories and those I know line for line and am able to replay them whenever I wish. In fact... I feel a bit of nostalgia coming over me.  I think I’ll set myself a drift on memory’s bliss right now. 

Waiting to Exhale

I was a happy child by all accounts.  My needs were met, my heart was full and I was blissfully unaware of the world beyond my nose.  In my 20’s I opened my eyes and I saw, for the first time, the abundant suffering all around me: war, famine, climate crisis, addiction, destruction, etc.  I took these problems very seriously and went about saving the world without a plan and with total conviction.  I was so intent on my misguided mission I would hold my breath to save oxygen for those who lived in polluted parts.  Of course, this didn’t save the world – it just made me out of breath. 

By the time I reached 30 I was exhausted and the world was still falling apart.  I had failed and now the world was kicking me about like some kind of grand experiment in emotional pain.  If misery does indeed love company, I had partnered with the entire universe.  I no longer held my breath, yet I couldn’t breathe.  I felt as though I had taken on the suffering of the world, made it my own and now we were all infected.

Finally, at 40, I exhaled.  I had been holding in, for too long, unnecessary suffering.  What was done was done, what will be, will be.  I learned that wearing a fur coat to the beach does nothing to house the homeless – my suffering did not ease the suffering of anyone else no matter how hard I tried.  So, I developed a new plan.  If misery loves company, so too might joy.  Instead of choosing to be miserable, I chose to be happy.  I focused on sunshine and green grass and the daily miracles of existence.  Suffering hasn’t gone away and war hasn’t ended but now I know they are not the only things out there – so I smile.  I smile and I breathe: Inhale.  Exhale.  Ahhh.  Life is good.

 

Minor Adjustments

This past summer my husband and I purchased an adjustable bed which goes from flat to zero gravity in a matter of seconds. I can program my favorite positions into the bed’s memory and, with the touch of a button, I can prop my head up to read, elevate my feet to soothe my aching legs or fold myself in half in reverse downward dog style.  The possibilities are limitless, and since the acquisition of this new bed and its minor adjustments, the kinks in my neck have subsided and my REM sleep has increased.  Who knew such a small change could have such a dramatic effect?

In addition to the bed, I have been making other small changes in life.  I have learned how to forgive (myself and others -- we’re all doing the best we can with what we have), how to accept what is (pain is inevitable, suffering is optional), and how to witness my thoughts (they are not good or bad, they are just thoughts).  Implementing these small adjustments in my mental process has subsided the pain in my heart and increased my ability to love.  Now, I need only program these new thought processes into my memory for a more restful existence -- an existence that props up my heart and elevates my soul. 

Races

When I was in elementary, I was a part of our school’s track team.  We were the Roadrunners and we were proud.  I was a sprinter and therefore relied on quick, short bursts of speed and agility to lead me to victory and blue-ribbon pride.  Long distance, easy does it, pace yourself was never my forte.  What had to be done, had to be done now – none of this, “slow and steady wins the race,” stuff for me.  I set my goals and was off and running. 

I kept this same go get ‘em attitude for the next several decades until I experienced what all athletes experience – I hit the wall.  Suddenly I wasn’t 20 anymore.  Energy was harder to come by, finish lines seemed farther away.  Faced with this realization I changed my course of action.  I switched from running to yoga and from “gotta go,” to “let it be.”  The finish line is still the same, but the rewards are different.  I no longer strive for good, better, best; today I strive for happiness and contentment.  I’ve learned that the final stretch isn’t somewhere down the road, it’s right in front of me, it’s the day-to-day victories of human connections and heartfelt camaraderie.  I’m still in the race, but this race is simply known as the human race – or as I sometimes call it, the “humane” race and everyone gets a participation ribbon.

Little Deaths

Once upon an emergency room visit, I had an epiphany – “Today is the day.”  Ever since I was a child, I had the aching feeling that at some point I was going to lose my precarious hold on to reality.  For decades I had successfully managed to stay balanced between the real and imagined world dipping into one or the other to avoid confrontation and unpleasantness.  I had grown adept at skimming the surface of actuality keeping myself busy without ever really facing facts.   Then one morning, when I awoke with the desire to escape, I crawled into a vodka bottle and couldn’t quite get away so I kept right on crawling.  Having literally banged my head on the countertop to try and knock some sense into myself I decided it was time to let go.

When I awoke in the ER, I wasn’t surprised or mad or scared, I was strangely at peace.  I knew at that point that I couldn’t hide from the facts any more.  My life was real, my choices had consequences and only I could change things.  Four days in what I affectionately called “The Nut Hut” allowed me to unwind and focus on myself without the distractions of everyday existence.  I died a little in there, but I came to the realization that to live is to die over and over again.  Each day we are reborn and what we do today is what matters most.  So for today, I celebrate life – I accept my tiny deaths ever grateful for having the experiences.  Today is the day; the day my life begins anew, the day I become a better person.  I am 16,380 days old today yet still a newborn looking at the world through fresh eyes.  What an amazing place.  Happy Birthday to me.

Tests

As a teacher it is my job to assess student progress and adjust plans as needed to meet my classroom’s needs based upon the results of tests given throughout the year.  In the past this was done in formal fashions with pencil and paper and rights and wrongs.  The problem with this method is that formalized tests only give you a snapshot of what a student knows on one particular day – these assessments don’t take into account learning styles, gender / race biases or the fact that the student may perform differently on any of the other 364 days of the year.   Unfortunately, all too often, these tests become the only means of determining if a student is passing or failing.  Students then get lumped into groups where they tend to self-fulfill the prophecy given to them in red ink.  Thankfully, in more modern times, we have come to the conclusion that assessment is an ongoing process and that the only way to determine student knowledge and need is to take the student as a whole being who has highs and lows, good days and bad days, right answers and wrong thinking.

As a student of life, I find I am tested a lot.  Sometimes these tests are of a formal variety: Do I believe in Heaven?  Can I forgive injustices?  Where are my keys?  These questions have definitive answers and give a snapshot of the kind of person I may be, yet they do not determine exactly who I am.  Spiritual practice isn’t tested all at once, it’s tested daily in normal situations where no one is looking except (hopefully) you.  These tests aren’t a matter of right or wrong, good or bad, they are a way of helping us make adjustment in our behavior so that we can become the kind of person we hope to be.  There are days when I fail even the most basic assessments in human dignity, but this does not make me a failure.  It simply shows that I am growing.  Though I try my best, sometimes I succumb to wrong thinking.  But if I pay attention, this wrong thinking may lead me to the right conclusion.  Life is full of tests.  The best we can do is study often, try our best and hope for growth.


 

Perspective

I love art – everything from Pollock’s splatters to Rothko’s squares.  I’m fascinated by the way a few controlled brushstrokes or slight change of hue can transform a painting’s mood from exciting to somber to chaos.  I’m mystified by an artist’s ability to envision a scene and create that image with his own two hands (or, in the case of Christy Brown, his left foot).  Of all the artists I’ve viewed I’d have to say my favorite is Monet.  His play of light and perspective allow me to see something new each time I witness his work.  When seen close up it appears to be a jumble of chaotic brushstrokes applied with no thought or plan, but when viewed from a distance, one can see the beauty of the entire picture and how each stroke contributes to the whole – one less bit of light or dark and the entire picture would be incomplete.  It’s easy to see why Monet’s impressionism has left an impression on me.

I’ve noticed how perspective applies to many aspects of life.  Sometimes, when I’m stuck in the middle of my own chaos, it appears as though things are happening for no rhyme or reason – as though I’ve painted myself into a dark corner.  But then, as time progresses, I’m able to step back and see the whole picture.  This bit of darkness was necessary to help me see the light – to see something new.  These highs and lows, lights and darks give perspective.  Thanks to these experiences I am able to grow and transform from a person who envisions peace to a person who creates peace.  I am my own artist and, just as Bob Ross paints happy little trees, I’m going to paint a happy little life.

 

 

Monkey Mind

Last night, just before bedtime, I had a brilliant idea for a new Buddhist children’s book about 10 Little Monkeys Jumping Through The Mind, and just like the monkeys that jump on the bed, the mind monkeys cause turmoil until one by one they leave the mind and the brain is free to relax and meditate.  It was such a good idea that after two hours of story development I had to get up and write the whole thing down.  Now I could rest.  If only it weren’t for the brilliant illustration idea, which I kicked around for another hour before getting up to jot down a few ideas.  Finally, I could get to sleep. . . if only I weren’t so excited to start this new adventure. 

It was at this point, 4 sleepless hours into a good night’s rest, that I realized my monkey mind had gotten the best of me.  I had spent the past several hours developing a story to teach children how not to follow their brains down every rabbit hole only to fall down my own freshly dug terrain.  This big, deep, tiring hole was filled with flashy “What ifs” and “Can’t waits.”  These future selves were so exciting that I sacrificed the present peace. 

So today I sit, the present moment of last night’s future self, nodding off and dreaming of a good night’s rest.   Sleep – now there’s a novel idea.

 

Improvement Projects

Recently my husband and I have gutted our Kitchen in the hopes of quickly installing a shiny new one.  I should have known at the first swing of the hammer that no home improvement project is ever quick or easy.  First come the decisions: what color of cabinets, what type of countertops, which style flooring, wall color, curtains, etc.; the list goes on and on.  And just when you think you have it all figured out, an unexpected electrical error forces a change in plans.  If I have learned anything from home improvement projects it’s to pack plenty of patience, accept that alterations will be made and know that things don’t often go as planned.   Someday my home will be my sanctuary and all the work will pay off in dividends.

Self-improvement projects often follow the same pattern.  One guts one’s soul in the hopes of quickly filling it with laughter and joy only to discover that laughter and joy are on back order.  Instead you fill it with late night television and early morning cocktails.  Finding your peace is like making your house your home.  You’ve got to shop around a bit, try religions on and pick what works for you.  Sometimes you hit the nail on the head on the first try, and other times you discover one religion isn’t big enough to fill your soul.  Slowly – patiently your head will become your home – your sanctuary.  So, go ahead and swing that hammer.  It won’t be easy, it’s sure to get messy, but it will always be worth it in the end.

Mountains

The other day I was having coffee at my favorite little shop when some friends and I began discussing spiritual quests.  Having dabbled in a variety of religious expeditions it was stated that I should move to a remote mountain top and sit in contemplation where I might come to extensive realizations about the meaning of life.  I must confess that this picture did seem rather quaint and fit the images of sages throughout history.  As lovely as this journey appeared on the surface, I am a city boy and need my creature comforts such as heat and indoor plumbing.  Besides, I have spent a lifetime making mountains out of molehills, climbing to the top only to sink down to the valleys of depressions – I have experienced great highs and terrifying lows.  I don’t need elevation to take my breath away.

According to the mountain sitting sages of yesteryear everything we will ever need in life is already with us – we are complete, self-actualized beings waiting to burst forth from the shells of disillusion.  With this in mind I sit in the coffee shop, 1,090 feet above sea level contemplating life.  It appears to me, from this vantage point, that life is pretty darn good.  I’m breathing easy, climbing obstacles as they come and enjoying the view.  I am my own mountain and each day I climb a little higher in a quest to conquer my fears and disillusion.  Someday I will arrive at my peak.  Until then I’ll continue navigating the terrain with a little patience, a lot of love and indoor plumbing.

 

 

Ageless

One of my favorite fair games is the “Guess Your Age / Weight” booth; it’s my favorite because I always win.  My slender build apparently makes me look younger and terminally ill as I am always being under guessed on both accounts.  Mother Nature and Father Time have been kind to me throughout the years blessing me with good health and dewy skin.  Time, however, marches on and it has recently started marching across my face leaving little crow’s feet in its wake.  Age spots and laugh lines now announce to the world that I have changed age brackets and can officially be called “middle aged.”

I guess life isn’t a fair game and one cannot be young forever.  This wrinkle in time known as my existence is a blessing.  With this knowledge I’ve decided to gray gracefully, be ageless instead of trying to age less and consider my wrinkles as a sign of a life well laughed.  I still exercise and moisturize not because I am trying to defy Father Time, but because it’s a healthy habit Mother Nature rewards with high energy, a glowing smile, laughter and a few laugh lines.  I guess I can live with that.

Simple Simplicity

I used to cheat on tests.  Rather than study my notes or read the assignments, I spent my time devising elaborate plots and sneaky plans to acquire answers much the same way Scooby and the Mystery Gang developed zany traps to catch the bad guy.  I did things like write answers in code on the rubber edge of my shoes or create a system of coughs, yawns and pencil drops to coordinate with choices A, B, and C.  These highly detailed tactics helped me pass class, but they hardly prepared me for life.  I would have been better off to simply put forth the necessary effort and broaden my mental horizons to include the slope intercept formula and the names of all the states and their capitals. 

I used to cheat at life as well.  Rather than putting forth the effort to face things as they were, I devised storylines and characters that intercepted one another creating drama and despair.  My zany plans trapped me into thinking life was a constant struggle and capital sins were being committed to and by me.  Since this time, I have studied my behaviors and patterns and have come to realize that life is kind of like a test where each day we are faced with challenges and uncertainties.  The trick is to not cheat ourselves out of unlikely joys, but to read our intentions and respond accordingly.  The difficulty in life is realizing how simple it really is.  Sometimes life isn’t a matter of A, B, or C -- sometimes the answer is D (all of the above). 

Filling Gaps

My job title is technically Academic Specialist which is really Title 1 which means that I am a remedial reading and math teacher which means that I am . . .  well, that’s a bit more difficult to pinpoint.  My job description is to provide intensive interventions to students who struggle in reading and / or math in hopes of catching them up to speed and preparing them for their future academic endeavors.  I’m a gap filler – I find what skills are missing and I try and teach those skills in a way that is significant to the individual learner.  To accomplish this, I meet with students one-on-one for 30-minute sessions several times a week.  We get to know one another; I find what makes them tick and how best to teach to their needs.  Thrice yearly I assess their growth and continue down this path of recovery.  It’s a fantastic job and I cherish it dearly.

As a human my job description is simple – my job is to love; to love people, the planet, the unlovable.  My job is not to be loved or to tell people how to love.  To accomplish this task, I sit one-on-one (just me and myself) for 30 minutes in daily meditative contemplation.  I search my soul to seek what is missing and what skills I intend to set forward that day to help thrust humanity into a more peaceful future; this may be a simple smile, a kindly word or a helpful gesture.  Each day my skills as a peace keeper are tested.  Some days I fail, some days I succeed.  But the fact is I’m growing.  I’m filling in the gaps created by hardship and love loss.  I’ve found what works for me.  It wasn’t easy. It took lots of trial and error.  But here I am -- a teacher, a student, a lover of humanity. . .  and I’ve got a lot of work to do.

Alignment

Growing up I had a smile that could best be described as “out of place.”  My teeth were better suited for a Jack-O-Lantern and maintained a somewhat “sculpted out of barren earth” quality.  This, however, did not stop me from smiling and upon entering high school I headed to the orthodontist who, through pain and patience aligned my chompers to a more suitable position.  Through the support of braces, headgear and faithful friends willing to look past my metal mouth I survived the awkward years.  Today I smile freely confident all is right.  I still wear Invisiligns at night to keep things from shifting and visit my dentist regularly in hopes that this maintenance program will keep things in place for years to come.

My teeth aren’t the only things that were out of line.  My thoughts too had shifted throughout the years leaving me hopeless and barren and, much like my teeth needed support, my soul needed assistance.  I needed something to put things in place so I could smile again.  And thus, began the ongoing process of awareness and acceptance.  Like visiting the orthodontist, witnessing your truths can be a painful experience, but through pain and patience comes alignment.  Thoughts, like teeth, shift if left unattended.  Our souls need support – something to brace them up in times of trouble.  I’ve found that with a few quiet moments of nonjudgmental contemplation and a few good friends willing to accept your flaws, the truth is a lot less painful than perceived.  In fact, the truth is pretty darn good when accepted for what it is – it’s a moment in time – a fleeting experience.   Like braces captured in senior pictures, the truth is undeniable and totally harmless. 

 

 

Learning the Language

Bon jour, mon nom est Mark and I am learning French.  I’m not travelling to Paris or taking a college class, I’m not even making French toast; learning the language is just something I want to do.  So, I’ve bought some books, downloaded the app and have begun fumbling my way through conversations, conjugating verbs and missing connections.

Another language I am trying to learn is the language (or should I say, “languages”) of love.  According to Gary Chapman there are five love languages and each of us speaks a primary version.  My own is Acts of Service, but I dabble in Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, Words of Affirmation and Physical Touch.  For now, I’m struggling to make the connections – my verbs (actions) don’t conjugate well with my intent, but I’m learning.  By practicing giving love the way others receive love I am hoping to communicate in a more meaningful way.  I’m not fluent in love yet, but I’m certainly getting better.  Until then, as the French say, “Beaucoup d’amour àvous, mon ami,” -- “Much love to you, my friend.”

 

Stop

This morning, while sitting in meditation, trying to silence my thoughts, I began noticing all the sounds around me – the heater fan, the ticking of the clock, cars running the stop sign outside my home, and I realized how much noise is involved in silence.  Through much patience and practice, I managed to tune out the outside world and began to notice the noise inside.  My mind was aflutter with questions: What shall I have for breakfast?  Is my spine aligned?  Does anyone stop at that stop sign? 

For all the noise about quieting the mind I realized it is the most difficult simple thing to do.  I also realize that as days tick by unnoticed and weeks pass by into years, stopping to appreciate the calm in the chaos is something I must do.  I must stop my incessant thoughts, I must stop worrying about my imperfections, and I must stop at the stop sign outside my house.  I must do all this and more, but first I must stop obsessing about stopping.

Making Friends

Making new friends can be an arduous task.  Often times we are bogged down with fear and doubt in the presence of the unknown; we question our beliefs, our interests and if we have spinach stuck in our teeth.  We create scenarios where we are laughed at, degraded or completely ignored, and by the time we have built up the courage to make our presence known, the moment has passed so we retreat back into ourselves missing yet another opportunity to connect with a like-minded spirit. 

Miss Manners tells us to make friends we need to be A.L.E.R.T. – Amiable, Loyal, Encouraging, Respectful and Thoughtful.  Follow this simple acronym and abundant friendships will be awaiting your chance encounter.  So, brush your teeth, hold your head high and introduce yourself.

Thanks to Miss Manners I know how to make friends with strangers, now how do I make friends with myself?  Over the years I have cordoned off parts of my personal history that are less than flattering – not only do they have gunk in their smiles, they are fairly well grimy all over, yet this unfriendly past likes to creep into my friendly presence and make me question my interests and my beliefs.  For years I have chosen to ignore these truths and hang out with the parts of my mind I enjoy.  But I can’t hide any longer.  I must remain ALERT.  So today I greet the unsociable parts of my soul – I stick out my hand and I say, “Welcome.  Thanks for coming.  Because of you I am me and because I am me, I think it best we be friends.”  I respect my pain, but I shan’t remain loyal.  Sorry Miss Manners, but four out of five ain’t bad.

Tears

It is said that the average American weighs approximately 175 pounds.  It is also said that the average person will cry 64 liters (141 pounds) of tears in his lifetime.  I’m no mathematician, but that formula doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else.  In fact, it leaves a mere 34 pounds for the rest of living.  We could fill that 34 pounds with 16 pizzas, or 44 cans of bear, 15,422-dollar bills or with countless smiles.  Many things weigh heavy on our hearts and make us feel like we are drowning in sorrow.  Literal oceans of tears are created by human suffering.  And if we allow ourselves to float along and never rock the boat to see what happens, we may be stuck in this sea of sorrow forever.

This may sound depressing, but the beautiful truth is that freedom and joy are our true nature.  We may cry tears of sorrow or tears of joy – the choice is ours.  So, go ahead and rock the boat; if you fall in you can laugh at yourself knowing that suffering is a part of life and that joy is yours for the taking.  As Truvy Jones said in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

Air Breathers

According to science the first air breathing animal dragged himself onto land about 4.8 billion years ago.  Finding himself in hot water and wanting a bit more out of life, this pre-historic fish dragged himself onto land and took his first breath of fresh air beginning an evolutionary process that has led to this moment.  This process was fraught with difficulties – how to walk for instance or how to protect oneself from the elements to name just a few.  Somehow this fish, through time and patience, gave rise to a new life form from which all of us air breathers have descended.  

Evolution is a change in an organism that better allows it to adapt to its environment in order to help it survive.  Humans, like all life forms, evolve.  I think of my own evolutionary processes.  Finding myself in a bit of hot water and wanting more out of life than the cesspool of misery and discontent in which I had been living, I dragged myself out and took a deep breath of fresh air.  And then I took another and another until I was able to ground myself in my new-found freedom.  No longer tied to my past thinking I am able to stand upright and accept responsibility for my own evolution.  I have developed skills to protect myself from the harsh realities of life.  Through time and patience, I have arrived at this moment – a moment of utter contentment and though I still haven’t grown a set of wings, I feel as though I can fly. 

Games

I played many games as a child, everything from Red Rover, Red Rover to Freeze Tag to Hide-n-Seek.  For me, as a tiny child, Hide-n-Seek was my favorite.  I was wiry and malleable and fit nicely into tight crevices and dark corners.  Throughout my years as a hider and a seeker, I have found that the best places to hide are in plain sight.  Humans, hard wired to sense danger, see only what we are seeking which means we are blind to the obvious and blind to our blindness – when we focus intently on one thing (such as where a person may be hiding), we don’t see other things (such as the person sitting next to the fence).  This single-minded blindness helps us get immediate tasks done but also severely limits our sense of the world.

I have found, from years of looking for happiness in all the wrong places, that joy can be found in the most obvious locations.  Happiness is a budding tree, a kindly word, or sitting quietly next to the fence.  There is no need to travel the world when there is a world of pleasure right in your own back yard.  With this knowledge in mind I open my eyes and holler out, “Red Rover Red Rover send Happy right over.”  With any luck, Joy will bust through. 

Forging Ahead

I have been small my whole life – sleight in stature and vertically challenged.  This ailment has left me stranded on the high end of the teeter-totter and the last one chosen for sporting event on more than one occasion.  To overcome this dainty dilemma, I grew a big personality and an incredible work ethic.  I’ve garnered awards, accolades and an appetite for achievement.  I push myself to exhaustion and beyond all in the attempt to prove my worthiness to a past that doesn’t even know I exist.  At this pace I may push myself right into an early grave.  The average American male has a life expectancy of 78 years and I am certain, with a little hard work, I can die at 73.

The problem is I don’t want to die at 73 or even 78.  I want to live to be at least in the triple digits (as if I needed to prove something else).  But how do I live to the high end of mortality with my heightened sense of duty slowly killing me?  Perhaps I don’t need to prove myself so much as forget myself.  I need to forget the follies of the past and forge a future of forgiveness.  I need to pitch perfection and downshift my drive for success.  I need to let go.  So now I begin.  I’ll start with this senten. . .

Utopia

Once upon a time my husband and I bought two tickets to paradise (otherwise known as Jamaica).  We strolled along white sand beaches, dined on richly seasoned food and drank deep, dark coffee; we snorkeled, played games and sipped exotic umbrella drinks to our heart’s content.  For 5 days and 6 nights our spirits were lifted and our souls were brightened. And then we boarded our plane and came home descending down from heaven and into drizzling rain, bland cuisine and Folgers coffee.  So much for paradise.

Since our time in Nirvana I have dealt with dark days and poor choices.  For years I’ve yearned for my utopian paradise growing deeply depressed and broken hearted.  Why could I not find my own heaven on Earth? With spirit broken I took some time to investigate this conundrum.  Utopia, by its very definition, is an imagined place or state of being in which everything is perfect. Simply stated -- utopia doesn’t exist in reality.  So, I took it upon myself to make the best of what I had. Sunshine? Check. A place to call home? Check. Someone to love and who loves me? Check. Once I focused my attention on the things I had rather than on the things I wanted, I realized my paradise was with me all the while.  Nirvana isn’t a location, it’s a state of mind -- the only thing missing is an exotic little umbrella.

A Grain of Truth

When I was a child my brother told me that grits were made from pig guts and, as a dutiful younger sibling, I believed him.  It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20’s that I discovered grits are made from grains and are actually quite delicious.  For the greater part of two decades I suffered the loss of a breakfast staple holding fast to a belief that wasn’t mine.

It appears that we, as people, are loyal to our suffering.  I was told I had depression and therefore was depressed; I was informed I was manic and dutifully swung into action.  I held onto those identities without question, believing in my guts that I was born to suffer.  Truth is – I wasn’t.  Grits are grains and suffering is optional and both can be a delicious part of life when prepared in the proper fashion: a little cheese, a lot of love and smothered in acceptance make both grits and suffering completely palatable.  But don’t believe me. . .  try it for yourself.

Mullets

In the 80’s I had a mullet.  It wasn’t Billy Ray Cyrus long or Bon Jovi big, but it was business in the front, party in the back and I wore it proudly.  This fashion faux pas required a lot of work and we children of the 80’s worked hard.  We moussed and dried and sprayed and fluffed a hole clean through the ozone layer in an attempt to plug said hole with big bangs and crunchy curls.  Volume was the key to this style and we cranked up the puff to unnatural proportions.  Now, years later, we look back at our high school yearbooks with fond memories and nervous laughter giving the caveat, “Everyone was doing it,” so the atrocious hair was forgivable.

Today my hair, what’s left of it, is cropped short and requires little more than a spritz of water and a light pat down.  I’ve replaced my businesses in the front, party in the back to peace in the front, chaos in the back.  I’ve left the heartache, the pain and the mousse in the past and face my present with patience and understanding knowing that forgiveness holds my heart and hair in place better than Aqua Net and anger.  I’ve worked hard to make myself whole – I’ve lowered the volume of distraction and have filled my heart with love, neither of which cause holes in the ozone.  Come on, try it – everyone is doing it.

 

 

Eye for an I

Growing up I was taught that I was not allowed to throw the first punch but that I was allowed to hit back.  With this sound piece of logic tucked into my pocket I went forth doing unto others as they had done unto me – when hit in the eye, I hit back, and when hurt in the heart I hurt back.  I held on to grudges and grief letting them build up until a hurricane of emotion unleashed itself onto the innocent.  Tucked safely away in the eye of my own storm I trudged on giving as I had been given believing all of my actions were justified.

All this emotional and physical punching did little to ease my pain and brought even less in the form of gratitude.  Turns out “an eye for an eye” doesn’t make the whole world equal, it makes the whole world blind.  And blind I was indeed.  Not only did I suffer from the “eye for an eye” mentality, I had also been inflicted with the “I for an I” attitude – meaning I did what was best for me.  I took what I wanted without stopping to see the effects of my actions.  My selfishness had effectively blinded me and in turn had blinded others to my good qualities.  I am a kind soul with a gentle heart whose eyes have opened to the error of his ways.  I now see people for who they are – individuals struggling to make their lives better.  If we stop to take the time to see people as complete individuals and not as individual acts, we may find the infliction of pain isn’t about hurting an individual, it’s about an individual’s hurt.  Let’s see each other as equals who make mistakes.  “An eye for an eye” may make the whole world blind, but having “an eye for an I” can make the whole world kind.

Pro-active

My husband has recently been on a hunt for health care coverage – not an easy task for a man of a certain age with a certain number of pre-existing conditions.  The thing with insurance is they will gladly pay for your long term, reactive care but will not pay for pro-active tests – no need to check the heart if it’s still beating, but when it stops, they’ve got you covered.  It seems Blue Cross and Blue Shield may leave you feeling blue and we, as a society, have grown to accept this reactivity as normal.  We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours covering up and bandaging what could have been prevented.

This is how life unfolds for many of us – something happens and we react (or overreact) without ever investigating causes and intent. This pre-existing judgment frequently leads to unnecessary suffering: misunderstandings lead to broken hearts instead of conversations; missed dates lead to cancelled friendships instead of rescheduled laughter.  If we want to be content with our lives then we have to pro-actively manage our thoughts.  To avoid the blues, we have to investigate the blues, to unbreak the heart we must examine the heart.  Look inside and trust yourself because, as All State Insurance says, “You’re in good hands.”

I Spy

I’m not an observant person for the most part.  I miss the forest for the trees and am certain to be struck dead by a bus while I am busy thinking of future endeavors.  Though I tend to miss the big picture, I can pick out the details.  I can find Waldo in a sea of red and white stripes and spy 7 “G”’s and 2 Paper Clips hidden in the I Spy photo.

This absence of a big picture has plagued me most of my existence.  I’ve searched for God and the meaning of life only to get bogged down and mired up in the silly trivialities of day-to-day troubles.  I replay injustices over and over, dwell on past pains and predict imperfect futures all the while blaming God and the Universe for my failures when instead I should be focusing on lowercase god – the god who is in the details.  This god (the god of good) presents himself not in a flowing white beard and red and white striped shirt, but in the warmth of a breeze, the aroma of a flower, the crook of a stranger’s smile.  This god, like Waldo, frequently hides in plain sight and can only be spied when you aren’t trying too hard to find him.  So stop searching for the capital “G” God and take in all the good around you; maybe then you will see the god in the details and, if you really pay attention, you won’t get hit by a bus either.

Events

There are many events in life that help shape who we are.  Events such as winning a sporting competition, being elected Prom King or getting an “A” in Algebra give us a sense of accomplishment and value like few other events can.  We regale strangers at parties with tales of accomplishment to ensure them we are worthy of their time and though these events are small pieces of the puzzle known as the Self, they are not the total picture.  I say this because there are other happenings in life which are less productive but also tend to define who we are; memories of abuse and failure often creep into our daily lives and bring us down making us feel as though we are somehow incomplete and broken.  Balancing the positive and negative can be a royal pain in the ass, but if we can somehow exercise our free will and separate Self from the things that happen to the Self, we may begin to realize that we are a whole lot greater than the sum of our parts.   Events may define a moment, but a moment doesn’t have to define a life.

Baggage

Over the past year or so I have been deeply entrenched in a minimalist movement.  I’ve whittled down my clothing to a total of 100 articles (including shoes, socks, shirts, shorts, pants, ties and manties [panties for men]).  Having completed this gargantuan task, I moved (or should I say removed) on to room décor, furniture and finally luggage.  Through the years I have collected quite an assortment of travel paraphernalia from exotic locals and stashed them away thinking I may someday use the swizzle sticks and beach bags.  Sifting through these items brought about thoughts of old escapes and future disappointments.  The time had come to move on – a new life doesn’t need old baggage.

As humans we tend to drag our pasts into future endeavors.  We over pack, pay the fines and never use the things we thought we needed.  In truth, we need only a single carry-on containing love and forgiveness.  So, let go of regret, release heartache and hop on the plane to your happiness.  When you leave the past in the past and live for the now you always arrive on time.

Soundtracks

When I was a teenager, I joined BMG Music Club and got 12 cassettes for a penny.  Being a lover of music, this deal seemed tailor made for me.  Among my first tapes were Cindy Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, Greatest Hits of the 80’s and John Lennon’s (Just Like) Starting Over.  From these cassettes I collected a dozen of my favorite songs and placed them on a mixed tape – the soundtrack of my life at the time.  I played this tape over and over, memorizing every word and dancing to the beat.  It is safe to say that I knew 12 songs really well and mumbled through any music played on the radio.  Change was not my favorite track and thusly never got played. 

Frequently we structure our lives like a mixed tape – we play set rolls, believe certain things and close ourselves off to anything deemed “unusual.”  Each day becomes a repeat of the day before and our greatest hits become yesterday’s favorites.  It is at this point we need to tune into the world around us and channel our energies into acceptance.  Life is more than just our top 12 memories.  It is a veritable playlist of potential hits, but if we never play them, we’ll never know.  It’s time to update our stagnant mixed tape to digital radio where the hits are non-stop and new favorites await discovery.  It’s time to make a new soundtrack, and the good news is it won’t cost a cent.  Every day is a new day and it’s just like starting over.

On the Menu

I began my writing career as a food columnist for a weekly paper.  Once a week I would dine at a new restaurant to sample its delights.  I tasted wines from around the world, ordered hors d'oeuvres and devoured decadent desserts. For the most part my reviews were positive, but there were the occasional culinary catastrophes that left a bad taste in the mouth.  After a year or so of this adventure I left the paper to sample other offerings from Life’s menu.

I tasted success, ordered friendships and devoured new experiences and for the most part this new life was good, but there were a few catastrophes that were unpalatable – too much drinking made me a drunk, friendships flailed and death was anything but decadent.  So, after several years of these misadventures I ordered a fresh start and came to the realization that all men will taste disappointment and death, but only some will taste life.  So today I taste life and it is good.  I start with a glass of gratitude and finish with a feast of forgiveness.  Mmmmm.  Tasty.

 

 

Timber!

Morning yoga has its problems – it’s early, I’m tired and my brain is still stuck in dreamland, but physical exercise is a priority so I buckle down, limber up and try my hardest.  Like most life events, I feel it is best to ease into my yoga session; I start with recumbent stretches and work my way up to standing poses before settling back down to sitting meditation.  After years of this routine, you’d think I’d be a pro, but alas I am not.  Frequently, when I try to exercise my body and exorcise my mind, I allow my brain to branch out into other thoughts.  Before long a storm of mental activity has hijacked my routine and my tree pose sways precariously, its weak roots twisting and turning in an attempt to carry the weight of my thoughts.  Timber!

Storms of the mind are much like storms in the sky – they are dark and scary and make our days difficult to complete.  Frequently, when darkness falls upon us, we topple over succumbing to the winds of chaos when instead we should take heed from the trees.  Trees bend and shift allowing storms to pass through, and each storm makes the tree take deeper roots.  We too can become malleable in thought and stay rooted in peace.  Instead of lumbering around rehashing the past or predicting the future, we can plant ourselves in the present moment and open our minds to the possibilities of the Now, even if right now is tiresome and early.  Eventually Now will be later and the storms will have passed, but until then I remain slightly off balance -- Timber!

Lost in Translation

In modern times we rely on electronic communication to relay feelings and ideas – we email, text and tweet our messages to friends and coworkers in vain attempts of actually communicating.  Often times these messages are misconstrued and become something completely foreign to what was intended.  It’s as if we were in the 2nd grade and playing a game of “Telephone” where the first student whispers, “Freedom, love and the pursuit of happiness,” and the last student hears, “Feel free to sue my Aunt Enis.”  What?  That doesn’t make sense.  Such is the case in disembodied words. 

According to psychologist these crossed wires have more to do with our own feelings and expectations than the actual words.  In the absence of facial expression, tone of voice and good old-fashioned “vibe,” we tend to “fill in the blanks” with assumptions and judgments.

Over the past several years I have tried to disconnect with judgment and instead call my attention to the truths of each moment, and in doing so I have hung up my past depression.  Today I am happy.  Most people see the word “Happy” and think euphoria, laughter or unbridled frivolity, but that is not what true happiness means.  Janis Joplin once sang that “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” and I feel that definition is spot on, so if I may dial into Ms. Joplin, I will define happiness as, “having nothin’ left to fear.”  Today I am happy – I am unafraid.  I fear not my past, I fret not my future and I don’t even have an Aunt Enis to muck things up.  Happiness. . . pass it on.

Beliefs

I used to believe I was adopted and that my real parents were fabulously wealthy.  I was certain they were watching me from afar and waiting for the moment when I performed some amazing task like saving a child from a burning building or turning water into wine.  Upon the completion of said miracles this make-believe parental unit would burst onto the scene, grace me with their presence, sweep me away from my menial existence and thrust me into a new lavish life of servants, sailing and sunshine.  So far there have been no miraculous mergings of water and wine and no money bags; just regular ol’ me and my fine, fancy-free folks living our lives of minor miracles and little graces. 

Another belief to which I clung was the belief that I was broken – that life had singled me out and beat me down.  Not only were my parents not fabulously wealthy, I was scrawny, sad and sick of myself.  I believed I was hopelessly flawed and destined for heartache.  Yet here I sit unbroken with a beating heart.  Perhaps it is not me who is flawed, but my beliefs instead.  Maybe we all cling to better versions of ourselves – someone richer, someone stronger, someone heartier.  But I’m guessing that person already exists inside us and is just waiting for the moment we perform the miracle of opening our hearts and minds to the possibilities that we are already perfect.  We don’t need money or strength or wine.  We need acceptance – acceptance of ourselves and of others.  Adopt this belief and you will see how perfect your imperfections can be.

 

The Art of Acceptance

As an appreciator of art, I have always wished I could paint like Picasso or draw like da Vinci, but instead I do both like an uninspired toddler.  I start with a grand idea and somewhere between my head and my hand the vision is jumbled -- my dainty dog has turned into a horrific horse and my house has become a hapless heap.  I could erase it all and start over hoping to turn my mess into a masterpiece or I could call my landscape an abstract and decide it is a beautiful expression in form and idea.  After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I think it is better to call this art experiment a happy accident rather than sad ineptitude.  Whatever you call it, it is definitely not what it started out to be.

Like my misadventures in art, my life too has become something other than what it started out to be.  Somewhere between the grand idea of fame and fortune came sorrow and sadness and since life is the art of drawing without an eraser, I had to make the best of what I had created.  Instead of calling my existence a fantastic failure I call it an act of acceptance; my many mistakes have become mini miracles for lessons learned for without the hapless happenings I wouldn’t be where I am today, and today I am an appreciator of all things present be it houses, horses or uninspired toddlers.

Give a Cheer

Growing up I was never much of a sportsman – I wasn’t into football or baseball or any other ball for that matter.  I was however into Tae Kwon Do.  My brother (my childhood hero) was into it and therefore I was into it.  I kicked and stretched and punched my way to a second-degree black belt before quitting and joining the Cheerleading squad where I kicked and stretched and spirit fingered my way to the top of the pyramid.  Back in those days I could do the splits, back flips and kick higher than I could reach.  Ah yes, the glory of youth.

These days I’m into yoga and spirit leading.  I kick and stretch but can no longer do the things I once could do – my splits don’t reach the ground and my kicks only reach my head, but I haven’t given up.  Instead, I have let go.  I’ve kicked the idea of forever young out the door and have spread my thoughts to the acceptance of an aging body.  My muscles may ache, but my heart is content sitting at the top of this new, sturdier pyramid.  Now I cheer for my Self the way I used to cheer for others, “We are proud of you, say we are proud of you!”

History

My first Major in college was Theatre, and then it was Liberal Arts, Writing, then English, then Education, back to English, one more shot at Education and now it’s Reading.  Some of these have ended in various degrees, others will just be chalked up to life experience.  During this major Major crisis of identity seeking, my one constant was that throughout the schooling experience, my Minor remained History.  I love history.  I’m fascinated by other cultures and times.  I am thoroughly perplexed that hundreds and thousands of years ago, without the aid of computers, we could build pyramids, create governmental systems, aqueducts and Parcheesi; we found love and family and uncharted islands then somehow, during the Dark Ages, managed to lose or forget that knowledge. Now, with all our advanced technology we can find solar spots on distant suns, but we can’t recreate the pyramids, keep the government operating or manage to find two matching socks.  Yes, history’s mysteries are fun to explore and have much to teach us; yet the mystery of our personal histories run deep with moral and intrigue.

Today I was thinking, “What if my history had been different?  What if I had made better choices, had always done the right thing, had listened to my heart?  What might my present be if my past had been different?”  And then I realized it didn’t matter.  I am where I am.  My life has been built up, crumbled down and rebuilt, I’ve been lost and found and thoroughly confused.  I’ve survived my dark ages and now I’m in uncharted territory.  I’m discovering that it’s not me who suffers, only the person I have imagined myself to be.  My past is done, my future is not here, it’s the present that is omnipresent.  And so my story goes.  I’m living my now, accepting my past and searching for my missing sock. 

Faking It

When I was in beauty school we were instructed to, “Fake it ‘till you make it,” – so you’ve never given a crew cut, act as though you’ve given hundreds; all of your perms relax after 48 hours, pretend it was a body wave.  Basically, we were told to lie until the skills we were learning could catch up and turn our fibs into facts.  Now, decades later, this heresy of hair truths can be backed up by hard fought know-how and practiced integrity. 

Faking it reaches well beyond business and deep into our personal lives.  For instance: I used to fake that I was happy – I smiled, I laughed and did the things I was supposed to do and then 48 hours later I’d shut the door and weep.  I did this for decades believing that someday I’d make it – I’d actually become the happy person I was faking being.  But faking it isn’t enough.  We have to work at it; we have to get uncomfortable and face unhappy truths.  We must keep doing this and faking it until we aren’t faking it anymore.  Much like the practice of perming requires trials and errors, the practice of happiness too takes a bit of trial and error.  So, relax, mistakes will be made, suffering will occur.  Keep smiling and learning – eventually you won’t be faking it and, when that moment arrives, you’ll see the beauty in the journey. 

Evolution

When I was in high school, I had many nicknames; there was “Marky Mark,” “Markus Aurelius,” and my personal favorite, “Shut Up, Faggot,” this last one given to me by a Neanderthal football player whose locker was housed just outside the Drama Room (my home away from home).  Each day I was greeted by this cro-magnum’s personalized nom de plume and each day I ventured forth a little changed by the experience.

Since the days of nicknames and their ensuing drama I have evolved.  The mild-mannered Marky Mark has grown to become magnanimous Mr. Edmondson.  My calloused heart has collapsed and softened, my fragile soul has expanded and forgiven.  This evolution has led this homosexual Homo-sapien to forgive that Neanderthal for I now know that hurt people often hurt people and that loving people can love people.  So, I send my love to the big bully and to all the bullies of the world for the only way to conquer hate is with love. 

Road Blocks

As a creature of habit, I know one way to every place and I take that way even if a shorter route is available.  For the most part this strict regime has served me well, but every now and then my road is blocked and I am forced to venture into the unfamiliar.  My stress levels rise as I chart dark alleys and dead-end roads.  Curse those city employees and their flashing yellow lights – how dare they make my path smoother.

Eventually, the roads are fixed, the barricades are removed and all is forgiven.  Forgiveness seems to have that effect – it removes blocks between where we are and where we want to be.  If your relationship is a little bumpy – forgive your partner.  If past thinking is blocking your future endeavors – forgive yourself.  If dark thoughts have led to dead ends – try forgiveness; it’s a turn in the right direction.

The Big Bang

Once upon a creation, on the corner of Time and Space, there was a Big Bang and all life was born (or born again [and again and again]).  Eventually this hot mess spread out and formed the Earth and life and sticky situations.  Since then people have explored the farthest reaches of the galaxy searching for answers to questions of origin, purpose and identity.

I too have sought answers to these questions and it appears to me that if our DNA is essentially stardust then, aren’t we all the centers of our own universe?  With this belief in hand I boldly went where every man has gone (and has come from) before – I went inside; I explored my thoughts, my intentions and my big, banging heart.  What I discovered was the universal truth: We are all one -- one perfect being waiting at the corner of Time and Space.

 

 

Going Through the Motions

Every day I greet the morning with a hearty, “Good morning, Morning.  It’s going to be a wonderful day.”  It’s my way of getting started on the right foot.  After this ritual is complete, I feed the dogs, brush my teeth and begin my hour-long session of yogatation.  This time is meant to be a retreat for my body and my mind, stretching both and soothing raw nerves and painful reminders of deeds done.  A few Downward Dogs, 108 chants in Sanskrit and a million thoughts later I’m ready to start my regularly scheduled life.  That is always the intention, but like many good intentions, things don’t always go as planned.  My mind wanders, I lose my balance and I go through the motions never really getting myself aligned. 

I do this a lot in life – go through the motions.  I show up for events, smile, nod my approval, spend my 108 minutes in the company of others without ever really aligning my spirit with theirs.  The experience is pleasant but forgettable and I soon retreat to the comforts of my own home where I can begin the downward spiral of, “Oh woe is me.”  Eventually I catch myself in my negative thinking and stretch beyond the thought and into the acceptance of the thought.  Thoughts have no real power; they’re just firing and misfiring of neurons; we give them power by attaching judgment – this thought good, that thought bad.  Judgment throws us off balance.  If we want to stay aligned and start off on the right foot, we’ve got be fully present in every aspect of our lives rather we are brushing our teeth or brushing off the events of the past.  Take a deep breath.  And exhale.  Now back to your regularly scheduled life.

Al B. Sure

The number one song for the month of April, 1986 was Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” or as my good friend thought it was called, “Eat me I’m a Danish.”  A silly mistake, but I can see how it could happen, after all, I was certain P.M. Dawn’s “I’d Die Without You” was called “I’m Down with Al B. Sure.”  These minor mishaps prove that we only know what we know and we stick with that (singing it at the top of our lungs) until we learn the truth.

History is riddled with men (and women) who were sure of one thing only to discover their truths were based on falsehood.  Christopher Columbus, searching for spices, found America.  Dr. Spencer Silver sought a super-strong adhesive only to develop the Post-it note.  Siddhartha Gautama shielded from the suffering of others eventually became a Buddha and taught that suffering is the path to enlightenment. Each of these men were experts in their field yet somehow managed to fail on an epic level and turn that failure into an unforeseen success. 

Though I’m no expert on any one thing, I have experienced epic failure – I’ve failed at love, I’ve failed at friendship, I’ve even failed at “Name That Song.”  And like Columbus and Shakyamuni Buddha I have sought to turn my failures / sufferings into success.  I’ve embraced life’s difficulties, acknowledged my shortcomings and learned the falsehood of my truths.  I may be no history maker, but I am making a new history for myself; a history of seeking and finding, of learning and growing, of acceptance and love.  I may remain uncertain about song lyrics and geography, but Al B. Sure to keep on searching for the truth.

Choosing Paths

I love hiking.  Trekking through the woods and taking in nature in all her glory.  I’ve spent many an afternoon walking down the paths carved out in the hills by all of the nature lovers who have gone before me.  Every now and then I get adventurous and walk my own path.  Hoofing it through the rough and tumble hills can be challenging without a guide and more times than not I wind up twisting an ankle or breaking a nail.  That’s the price you pay for going it alone.

Trekking through life can be a bit like conquering nature.  You can stay on the well-traveled roads created by others and live the life someone else has created for you, or you can venture off and make your own way.  Mistakes will be made, twisted thoughts will occur, you might never reach your planned destination; but much like the rogue hiker in uncharted territory – you must trust the ground beneath you.  Approach each step carefully, feel your feelings and for Goodness’ sake, use a guide book.  Read.  Listen.  Ask.  Although the path is yours, you are not alone.  Seek your truths in the truths of others who share your goals.  Cherry pick what works for you and create your own map.  Eventually, with time and patience, you will see the forest for the trees.  After all, the journey is the destination.

Clouds

On warm summer days I like to lie still in the grass and make shapes out of clouds – tiny turtles combine to become giant giraffes which are swallowed by seas of cirrus clouds making their way into the future.  On other occasions, when I’m feeling less perceptive, I see only wisps and blobs making storms on the horizon.

Our lives, like drifting clouds, change from moment to moment with our perceptions.  Sometimes tiny events are blown into giant storms and those storms wreak havoc on our lives.  Without awareness we may misinterpret our experiences as something other than what they are -- a moment in time making its way into the future.  So, sit still for a while and let the clouds clear.  The future is what you make it.

 

 

Infomercials

One of my guilty pleasures is staying up late and watching infomercials until the wee hours of the morning.  I’m enthralled by the inability of the average adult to successfully crack an egg or hold a beverage without the aid of today’s newest “can’t live without” invention.  Sleep deprivation makes me think,” Gosh, my life would be so much easier if only I spend the $9.99 on this fantastic item.”  So, I whip out my credit card and anxiously wait for my next disappointment to arrive in the mail.  And disappointing it is; I use and abuse my cracker of eggs making a mess and cursing my gullibility.  Slowly I begin to realize that wrapping lies in pretty packages doesn’t make them true or worthy or any less messy.

I’ve followed this pattern for much of my life – thinking I am broken or inept then believing the lies I am told hoping for a quick fix.  But the truth is I’m neither broken nor inept.  I’m quite good at handling broken hearts and broken eggs.  I don’t need the aid of empty promises and free shipping.  I just need to crack open my heart, examine my truths, trust in my abilities and maybe go to sleep a little earlier.

Wisdom

I’m an intelligent man by most accounts.  I read voraciously, write studiously and love unconditionally, yet with all this wisdom I still do a lot of dumb things: I chain myself to untrue thoughts, I break my heart again and again and behave in ways that are detrimental to my health.  Oh, when shall I smarten up and free myself from this pattern?

They say that as we get older, we get wiser and I believe this to be true for I have taken a few lessons to my broken heart and have accepted their truths as fact.  Wisdom tells me I am nothing – that the world will survive without me; Love says that I am everything – that my heart will go on and on.  It is between these two that I must learn to live for as we become wise, the heart becomes free and I am intelligent enough to know that a free heart is a wise thing to have.  Lesson learned.

 

 

6 Degrees

Back in the 90’s I used to play a game called 10 Degrees of ME.  It was based on the game 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but since I’m not famous I reckoned I should get a couple extra steps.  Having met a few famous people, I could usually connect any person, anywhere in the world to me within 10 steps.  Here’s an example: I’ve met Mathew Broderick who is married to Sarah Jessica Parker who was in Footloose with Kevin Bacon who is connected to everyone in the world.  Done!  The idea is that all living things and everything else in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other.  In other words – we are all interconnected.

Today, my 10 Degrees of ME game is somewhat different.  Instead of linking myself to movie stars, I’m attempting to chain my happiness and peace of mind to those who need it most.  If the theory is correct that we are all connected and it is also true that happiness is contagious, then isn’t it possible that my smile could literally brighten the universe?  So, to you, my new-found friend, I wish you all the joy in the world – may your days be filled with wonder and merriment.  Now if you can smile at one other person who in turn smiles at another eventually Kevin Bacon will smile and we all know what happens then.  Now, more than ever, we “Gotta cut loose,” and let our happiness shine through. 

Two Doughnut Days

I’m a naturally fidgety person – I shake my legs, pace the room, randomly burst out in song and dance, and in doing so manage to burn a lot of calories (around 350 a day according to most experts).  This constant movement helps me maintain my svelte figure and eases the guilt when I decide it is a two-doughnut day.  The problem with this movement is that it often detracts from feeling a presence with my moments.  I can’t seem to, as Depeche Mode sang, “Enjoy the Silence,” I flit about like a humming bird avoiding my thoughts and busying my hands with menial tasks meant to bring about a brighter future.

It has been said that, “Stillness is the language God speaks, and everything else is a bad translation,” and as much as I would like to say I am fluent in Godaneese, I can merely state my name and ask for directions.  As I wander aimlessly searching for answers, I’m forced to question what I am avoiding.  Why the need for constant movement, for mindless mental chatter?  I guess it doesn’t really matter for no matter where I go, I have no choice but to be there.  I’m tired of avoiding and I’m sick of being lost in translation -- it’s time to stop and learn the language.  “Hello, God.  It’s me, Mark.  Would you like a doughnut?  I have a feeling we’re going to be here for a while.” 

Diets

I’m skinny by nature – I can eat what I want and not gain weight.  As a teen I took advantage of this metabolic fortune and gorged myself with fries, fritters and fajitas never once thinking about the health consequences of my dietary choices. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I took an interest in my physical well-being; I began exercising and became conscious of what I fed my body.  My diet became balanced and my body responded with lasting energy and a smooth complexion.

Recently, having studied The Science of Happiness, I’ve come to realize that our souls need a healthy diet as well.  I’m not talking about broccoli and Brussel sprouts, I’m referring to developing healthy habits of consuming and appreciating micro-moments of joy on a daily basis.  These moments may consist of observing grass growing in the cracks of pavement or the sound of church bells on a sunny day.  These precious seconds are the leafy greens of happiness.  If we can train ourselves to notice these minor miracles (as we train ourselves to eat five servings of veggies each day) the result may be lasting mental energy and a smoothing out of life’s rough spots.  Now that sounds like a diet worth trying.

 

 

S & M

Most people spend their lives attempting to avoid discomfort – we swallow aspirin, get massages, and sidestep conflict, but according to Madonna, “There’s a certain satisfaction in a little bit of pain.”  For those of us who find pleasure in masochism we set up parameters to ensure our exquisite pain, as John Mellencamp says, “Hurts so good.”  To guarantee satisfactory satisfaction we create safe words, safety knots and establish mutual trust.  If these things can be guaranteed, then the suffering can be divine. 

Though I can appreciate a slap on the rump every now and then, I’m less than pleased when life slaps me in the face with emotional unpleasantness.  I used to tie myself to the turmoil describing it and myself with unsafe words such as: alone, broken, and hopeless.  What I lacked was trust – trust in myself and in the universal goodness of humanity.  Gradually I untethered myself from my misunderstandings and developed a new set of safety words to help me appreciate the pain, words like: acceptance, time, and presence.  Armed with these words I go forth, not seeking pain, but accepting its exquisite lessons. 

Genius

Olnygeniuoses can raed this sentecne. . . at least that’s what scientists tell us. It seems the mind wants desperately to make sense of the world around it and will, when necessary, make things fit into a context it recognizes.  “Olny” becomes “Only” or Jesus is spotted in the burnt crust of a grilled cheese simply because we really want those things to be so.

Sometimes this trick of the mind serves our greater good – typos don’t slow us down and the miraculous grilled Cheesus gives us hope in the divine.  But sometimes this mind play interferes with our acceptance of life as it is – the moment-to-moment unfolding of events that constitutes our existence.  Sometimes our minds make things that are things that aren’t.  For instance, if we have been hurt in the past, we assume we’ll be hurt in a similar fashion in the future.  This fallacy causes anxiety that tricks us into thinking we are destined to a life of disappointment and pain; but just as a grilled Cheesus is nothing more than burn toast, a painful past is nothing more than a difficult moment in time.  So, eat your sandwich, live your life and accept that you don’t have to be a genious to see the truth (and the truth is I misspelled genius).

Space

Space, the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. . . and every other sentient being.  Space is the one thing that is relatively constant on the micro and macro levels.  Everything of which we know (or think we know) consists of 99.99% space – this is the distance between planets, galaxies and the atoms in our bodies.  Our brains, which contain approximately one hundred billion nerve cells (about the same number as there are stars in our galaxy), think of this space as nothing.  The problem with this view of space is that it negates 99.99% of who we are (or think we are).

Space is not nothing – space is emptiness.  Emptiness doesn’t mean nothing exists at all, it means things don’t exist the way our grasping minds suppose they do.  A table, for instance, is not one solid object, it has legs, a top, sides, etc., and those parts are comprised of smaller parts – the top may be wood covered in glue and laminate which is comprised of malamine resin and fiber board, which is . . . well you get the picture.  And just as I (a man, a writer, a citizen) am made of even smaller parts (thoughts, feelings, emotions) which are made of even smaller parts.  My mission is to boldly go and investigate the space between my thoughts for just as the entire universe arose from emptiness, so too might my awakening arise from somewhere in the 99.99% of emptiness that comprises the Self.  It’s time to explore new worlds – to seek out new life, not in outer space, but in the space inside myself. 

Hungry

“I’m hungry.”   I’ve said it a thousand times in a million different ways: “I’m hungry for fame,” “I crave the spotlight,” “I’m starving for attention,” yet rarely (if ever) have I been truly hungry in the traditional sense of the word – feeling or displaying the need for food.  There have been times when I wanted a second cookie or desired another helping of macaroni and cheese, but never have I gone without -- I simply plopped down my $5.00 and gobble up my designer cupcake.

It is estimated that 1 in 9 people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy and active lifestyle.  It is also estimated that ending world hunger would cost $30 billion per year.  Both of these problems seem too big to fathom, so let me do the math for you.  If every person, who isn’t starving, exchanged their $5.00 cupcake for a $5.00 food pantry donation, we would have a surplus of money in the World Food Fund.  You see, we don’t have to do everything, but we must do something.  Mother Teresa once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”  With this in mind I find I no longer hunger for fame or desire fortune, but I do crave the chance to make a difference even if it is just $5.00 at a time.

The "F" Bomb

I was raised to never cuss.  No “F” bombs or foul mouths at my family table.  My mom was so opposed to “F” words that we tooted instead of farted.  Since that time of tooting and not giving a poop about cussing I haven’t really inserted “F” words into my every day existence.  For the most part this alleviation hasn’t caused any harm and has only led to a richer vocabulary fraught with fantastical hyperbole.  There is, however, an “F” word I have recently come to embrace that many find difficult to say.  That word is “Forgiveness,” and just as most people don’t know the true meaning of the “F” bomb (it’s Indo-European for -- to stab and dates back to the 1400s), they tend to misunderstand forgiveness.  Forgiveness isn’t about letting the offender off the hook and it isn’t a passive activity that demeans the offended.  Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; it doesn't necessarily even mean reconciling with the person who hurt you. Instead, it means changing your own attitude toward this original hurt so that it doesn't continue to wound you.  And the best part is that forgiveness can be learned and tends to be contagious.  So, the next time you’re thinking, “I hate you, you fucking asshole!” try thinking, “I forgive you, you little toot.”  I bet you’ll find your heart rate slows, your tension eases and your heart feels fuller.  Mom would be so proud. 

Continue Going Forward

I am directionally and technologically challenged.  I can’t find my way around a detour or a Smartphone.   To get to where I am going, I tend to rely on familiar landmarks and directions written on a post-it-note.  Having said this it will come as no surprise that my first encounter with a cell phone GPS system left me separated from my destination by a bridgeless ravine and the instructions to, “Continue going forward.”  With no place left to go, I nearly cast myself into the abyss in an attempt to be anywhere but where I was.

Detours such as this happen frequently in life.  We travel down our path to happiness only to find the road blocked with anger and ennui.  When we find we have come to the end of the road we can either hurl ourselves into the pit of depression or park our thoughts for a moment of quiet contemplation on the corner of Acceptance and Patience.  From this vantage point we can reprogram our hearts and just be happy to be on the journey.  Breath in.  And breath out.  Now, “Continue going forward.”

What Happens In Vagus. . .

One of my favorite vacation spots is Vegas.  It’s my favorite because it’s like a mini tour of the world: Paris, Rome, Hell – it can all be found in Vegas.  I am in “awe” beneath this neon heaven and when one is in awe, one’s stress level is reduced, one feels humbled and one’s state of well-being is improved.  When I wander the streets of Vegas, I feel a part of the global community – I am sophisticated like the Parisians, I am strong like the Romans and sometimes I act in devilish ways.  It’s a good thing, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

Another Vegas that lights up my life is the Vagus Nerve.  This nerve is our longest cranial nerve and acts as The Strip does in Vegas – it shuttles emotions from the brain to the heart, lungs and gut much the same way as Las Vegas Blvd. shuttles people from Paris to Caesars Palace; both have the potential to make us happy or sad, to feel good or bad.  To stimulate the Vagus Nerve, one only need to chant, laugh, breathe deeply, exercise, relax or engage in positive social relationships.  When these things happen, the Vagus Nerve lights up and we are transported to a state of “awe” where our devils are banished and you can bet feelings of well-being will pervade extending beyond ourselves and into the global community.  So, sit back, relax, chant a bit and know that what happen in this Vagus, doesn’t stay in Vagus.

Fullfeeling

For many years I crammed my days and nights with activities – work, rehearsals, cleaning, drinking, partying, drinking, movie watching and drinking.  This flurry of activity was meant to ensure I had a fulfilling life rich in experiences and void of emotional attachment.  If idle hands are indeed the devil’s workshop then I did everything I could to keep him (and every other soul) away.  I skated along life’s surface swallowing my feelings and numbing my mind trying desperately to avoid thin ice, but when one skates in such haphazard ways, one cannot avoid a breakdown.

Perhaps breakdown is the wrong word – maybe it should be called a break through, for once you have sunk to your bottom and the numbness wears off, you get a chance to see things clearly.  I wasn’t living a fulfilling life; I wasn’t really living at all.  A fulfilling life is one full of feeling, in fact, “fulfilling” literally means: making someone satisfied or happy because of fully developing his or her character or abilities.  Notice fulfilling isn’t about the self, it is about helping others and the only way to help others is to feel fully, to listen intently and to give freely.  So today I give myself to you.  And you.  And you.  Helping you fulfill your needs, fulfills mine. 

Labeling

I like to think I am an organized person.  My bottles face forward, my spray tops face East, and if left to my own devices, I would label everything from (and including) floor to ceiling.  “A place for everything and everything in its place,” I always say.  This compulsion for labels and order help to simplify my life and make it easier to access whatever becomes necessary in any given moment be it flashlight batteries or organic pumpkin seeds; I have it all bagged and tagged.

There is a time when this order causes chaos and that time is morning meditation.  I sit facing East, counting my breaths and labeling my thoughts – in breath one, out breath two, this thought fun, that thought blue.  From this point, the mind panics, “Wait a minute, I’m not supposed to be judging my thoughts.  Oops, that was a judgement.  Crap!  Do I have any batteries?”  And on I go labeling my discontent.  Eventually I get a hold of my compulsion and label my thoughts as just that – thoughts.  They are not good.  They are not bad.  They are just thoughts coming and going somewhere beyond my head.

Professing to Pray

Working with children forces one to constantly look at life through different lenses.  As a teacher, each year brings a new group of students with different needs, views and beliefs.  As a professor of Life Skills, the topic of religion inevitably surfaces forcing me to challenge my beliefs.  Students ask, “Do you believe in God?” to which I respond, “I believe in Good, the double “o” god.” “Do you believe in Hell?”  they’ll inquire. “Where did we come from?” “What happens after we die?” And on it goes.

I don’t profess to have the answers, I just moderate the debate.  I espouse the views of religion, introduce the facts of science, and show them how to disagree appropriately.  Class ends and I carry the debate with me well into the wee hours of the morning where I come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what any of us believe.  We’re here now and we’ll get wherever we’re going when we arrive. Until then, I pray to Goodness for acceptance.

Buddha's Hand

My first professional writing job was as a food columnist for a local paper.  This weekly gig paid me to go forth and eat.  Having feasted upon local fare, I put my experiences into type and gave readers a taste of something new.  Usually this task wasn’t terribly difficult as most of my culinary readers had adequately sampled Mexican entrees, southern soul food and Italian gelato – a few properly placed adjectives to activate the salivary glands and voila – an article is served.

The problem with writing comes when one is forced to describe the indescribable; for instance, how can one inform his readers of the delectability of Buddha’s Hand Fruit Sorbet to a reader who has never sampled the fruit?  It has a bright flavor with a pink finish.  Does that help?

Now, as a writer of soul inspiration, I am tasked with the job of describing things like “happiness,” and “Nirvana” to readers who may have never experienced either state.  So what is “happiness”?  How does “Nirvana” feel?  I reckon they are a bit like the Buddha’s Hand – bright and pink and worth checking out for yourself.  But don’t take my word; go forth and feast on what makes you happy.  It may be a walk in the woods or a bowl of gelato.  Whatever it is, savor it mindfully, sample it frequently and feel your Nirvana.

Observation Vacation

One of my favorite places to vacation is Las Vegas, Nevada which seems odd to most people as I don’t drink, I don’t gamble and I don’t consume mass quantities of food.  What I do do is observe.  I sit and watch the cast of characters parade past me on their way into the bowels of the Neon City where they will follow their dreams of fame and fortune down to the conclusion of their very last dime lost at the Craps table.  For me, this is entertainment.  I don’t judge, I don’t follow them up the strip, I just observe and appreciate the fleeting parade of eccentricities. 

Sitting in Vegas is a bit like sitting on the meditation cushion – eccentric thoughts come and go and the mind wants to follow them down to their very last conclusion.  There is a lot of crap in my head and to try and sit and observe without judgement is always a gamble.  Sometimes I win the distraction battle, other times it’s a bust.  But unlike Vegas where the house always wins, the odds in meditation are stacked in your favor. 

 

 

Adjustments

When I was a kid my spine was a bit out of whack causing my left leg to be a quarter of an inch longer than the right. To combat this misalignment, my chiropractor skillfully twisted, contorted and cracked my back until all of my vertebrae were precisely ordered.  I wore a cork lift in my right shoe and patiently waited for my body to realign and leave me with a perfectly straight gait and a proudly held head resting on a nicely ordered spine. In the end, the pain was worth it and I can look back to those years with satisfaction and nervous laughter.

Having successfully aligned my back, I am now working on aligning my Being.  Often times, for reasons I have yet to fully understand, I feel a bit out of whack.  Sometimes I have anger and fear and depression and these feelings can be crippling. To adjust these temperaments and lift my spirits I try to practice radical acceptance and loving kindness. I contort and twist my mind around situations in order to align my thoughts. I find that having my thoughts in line helps to support mental habits that are capable of carrying me through the day much the way a nicely ordered spine supports and carries the entire body.  For now, the process can be a bit painful, but I know someday I will look back with nervous laughter and satisfaction -- if only I can put in the hard work and patience.

Time Passages

One of my favorite gifts to give is a page-a-day calendar.  I love it because each page brings something new -- some nugget of information or helpful thought to make the day brighter while leaving me to wonder, “What will I learn tomorrow?”  It’s also a reminder that someone is thinking about you. Each time a page is ripped off leaving yesterday behind, the receiver may pause and think, “I am grateful I have friends who care about me.”  Perhaps that is all just wishful thinking on my behalf, but it makes me feel better to know my best intentions are broadening the horizons of another while simultaneously surrounding them with warm feelings of love and respect.  For me, the calendar is the gift that keeps on giving.

Much like the page-a-day calendar offers little lessons in life, life itself offers lessons that transcend time.  Each morning we rise to a new day full of challenges and unexpected adventures. If we can learn to pay attention to our thoughts and our bodies, we may learn something about ourselves and the world at large.  Go forth into today with courage and acceptance, leave yesterday’s trepidation and fears in the past. This day is a new day -- one I have never lived, and according to my calendar it is National Look at the Leaves Day.  That sounds promising. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

Illusions

Some people pass their time watching funny cat videos or laughing at Olympic diver faces, I like to pass mine viewing optical illusions -- I enjoy the enigma and trying to figure out what it all means if I first see the vase or the two faces in Rubin’s Vase, or if I notice the old woman or the beautiful lady first in My Wife and My Mother-in-Law.  The thing with illusions is that once you declare something as true and unchangeable, it is difficult to see it any other way. M.C. Escher made an entire career out of challenging our perceptions and forcing us to see the improbable as probable.

It wasn’t so long ago that I held the belief that my life was destined to be a certain way.  I had said certain things, endured certain injustices, performed certain deeds and therefore had no choice but to suffer -- my vase was full of self-pity blinding me from the kind faces seeking to help me notice the beauty within and around me.  I had clung to this suffering for so long I was sure there was no other way. But like most illusions, destiny can be many things at once. Sure, there is suffering and of course there are repercussions for actions, but if we can slow down and back up for a bit, we might notice the life in the cracks of our despair.  It takes rain to make a rainbow and shit is an excellent fertilizer. The light of prosperity comes from the darkness of pain. We have a choice. One must decide on what one is going to focus -- will it be old habits, or beautiful possibilities? I’ve made mine. What will yours be?

Partisan Divide

We can agree (can’t we) that modern politics is divisive at best.  Rather than working together to vote for what is suitable for society, parties work independently to seek what is best for themselves.  With all the bickering and backstabbing nothing much is getting accomplished except the division of a nation that is strongest when standing as one.  It used to be that we voted for something, now we vote against something else and wind up with nothing to show except embittered parts that refuse to work as a whole.  By failing each other, we are failing ourselves.

This morning, while trying desperately to put my heart into my yoga flow, my mind kept wandering to politics.  I fought against this intrusion, but it kept coming back. “Focus,” I told myself while shifting to downward dog, “Be in your moment.  Appreciate your presence.” And for a brief bit of time my heart melted into the mat and felt the solidity of the earth beneath it. Then the mind piped up, “How dare they . . .” and on the battle went.

Much the way a divided government accomplishes little, a divided soul can scarcely govern a life.  So today I unite my heart and my mind. At times they are in conflict, but they each have something to offer if only I can listen with patience and acceptance.  Patience and acceptance, heart and mind -- all one standing together working to unite the bitter pieces of its broken universal soul. Now that’s a thought I can stand behind.

 

Intentions

I begin each school day by posing the question to my students, “What is your intention for the day?”  By doing this, I am asking them to actively participate in their lives. An intention, unlike a goal, must be stated in a pro-active fashion (meaning: tell me what you are going to do, instead of what you are not going to do).  And unlike a goal, which is either pass or fail, an intention can be unmet, yet complete -- an example being: “My intention is to finish all of my homework.”  This is a great intention that I strongly encourage, but sometimes you get to the end of the day, and despite your best efforts, unforeseen events such as illness or fire alarms or productive daydreaming get in the way leaving a bit of work unfinished.  If task completion were a goal you would have failed, but since the completion of a task was an honest intention and was striven for with great fortitude, your intention has been met. Simply stated: an intention gives us permission to fail without being a failure -- it gives us room to grow.

I pose these types of question to myself every morning as well.  My intentions are:

“To listen in order to understand.”

“To accept life on life’s terms.”

“To forgive those who have harmed me.”

“To ease the suffering of others.”

At the end of the day I find I still talk too much, I am still resistant to change, and regret still lurks in the dark corners of my mind.  But I am not a failure. I am a work in progress and I intend to keep trying until my intentions are met.

Seeing With Our I's

A recent change in jobs has forced me to return to college to earn a degree I’d rather not acquire.  As the start date looms nearer, I find myself dreading the prospect of homework and deadlines and final exams.  I complain aloud to no one in particular that: “I’ve already been to college,” “I already have multiple degrees,” “What could I possibly benefit from more assigned reading and reports?”

Deep in the midst of my whirlwind of despair I catch myself seeing the world through my I’s instead of my eyes.  When I stop and look at the situation, it becomes clear that this schooling isn’t about me, it’s about learning new skills to help my future students.  Frequently, when faced with the unknown, people tend to become insulated and can’t seem to see beyond themselves while growing fearsome of what they don’t know or understand.  It is at these times that we need to take a step back and open our eyes to the whole picture. Most things aren’t about us personally, we are just a tiny piece in the puzzle of humanity.  As for me, I’m going forward with my I’s wide shut and examining the ever-expanding horizon. If I have learned anything from this experience, it’s that I still have a lot to learn.

Sorry, We Are Closed

Once upon a long while back, I ventured into a coffee shop, laid down my bags and baggage and filled my soul with good vibes and better java.  This joint felt like home when home wasn’t such a happy place. Since that first day, my cup has runneth over with positive changes and happy events.  Through it all, this space -- my space -- has remained a constant, nurturing environment that has allowed me to grow and express myself with old friends and new ideas.  And now the shop is closing.

As I look around at barren walls where my art once hung, I can’t help but feel a little saddened.  A chapter of my life is ending, my cup is nearly empty. Where will I find another home away from home?  How will I express new ideas with old friends? How will my life remain the same? The simple answer is: it won’t.  The one sure thing in life is that change will occur. So, I guess I’ll pack my friends in my heart and make my home wherever I am at any given moment.  And at this moment, I am taking my final sip and thinking, “Maybe I’ll start drinking tea.” That might be a nice change.

 

Kindsight

My eyesight is 20/400, which means that what the average person sees clearly at 400 feet, I must be a mere 20 feet to see -- basically this means I am rather blind.  This insight into my eyesight comforts me when I consider all the mistakes I have made in the past – I couldn’t see clearly and therefore fumbled and fell and continued blindly making mistakes a mortal ought not-make.  The good thing is that since hindsight is 20/20, I have seen the error of my ways and can now go forth making new, different mistakes.

As my eyes worsen and my path narrows, I look to the horizon with kindsight.  Like the perfect vision hindsight provides, kindsight lets us know what we should do, and that is to see the kind that is all around and within us.  I still make mistakes, I continue to run into obstacles, but now I see them clearly – these bumps in the road are a chance to grow, to adjust my vision and continue on.  With kindsight the world is a little less frightening, the past a bit fuzzier, and the future a lot less blinding. 

 

 

Bon Voyage

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I watched a lot of television.  One of my favorite shows was The Love Boat, especially the beginning when each week’s cast of characters would stand on the ship’s deck and wave to their loved ones on shore who would emphatically wish them a hearty “Bon voyage,” -- a term used to express good wishes to someone about to go on a journey.  Confetti would fly, hopes would soar and the Pacific Princess would make her way to the horizon where it would slip into the beyond so hearts could connect and new adventures begin.  After much travail, the cast would return to port with their hearts full, ready to enrich the lives of the ones they had left behind.

Saying, “Good bye,” to the ones we care about is difficult.  Often times we stand by and watch our beloved slip closer and closer to life’s horizon.  We wait, waive, and hope to keep them with us for just a moment longer, but like the Pacific Princess fading out of sight, into its next adventure, our dear ones fade away to embark on their new journey waiting for the moment they can return to our hearts and enrich our lives.  I guess it’s not saying, “Good bye,” so much as saying, “Bon voyage.  Have a safe journey.”

Déjà View

I’m not a big fan of driving; it bores me.  I have a hard time staying awake.  I don’t find it relaxing.  Driving, to me, is a necessary evil that helps me get to where I am going.  Perhaps it is because of this dislike that I am a cautious driver.  I get in the turn lane miles ahead of my exit, check my mirrors and brake accordingly.  Because I am cautious it caught me off guard when the other day, during a winter snow storm, I managed to get myself stuck in a rut.  I had done all the right things: I had driven slowly, I had pumped the brakes, I had checked my mirrors – in fact that was when it happened, while checking my rearview mirror.  I was to busy looking behind me to see the rut in front.  “Déjà vu,” I thought to myself as I slid in deeper, “Haven’t I don’t this before?  Haven’t I spent enough time looking behind me?  When will I learn?”

It's true my past has been a rocky road filled with ruts and dangerous curves, yet somehow, I have managed to navigate my way out.  I have learned how difficult it is to transition to the next phase of life while still clinging to the last.  In short, I have learned to look ahead with cautious optimism and a sense of déjà view (remembering the past, while looking to the future).  With this in mind, I rocked my car forward.  And back.  And forward once again until I had moved beyond the rut.  I was back on the road, eyes ahead and well on my way to where I was going.

 

 

Out of Focus

As an elementary teacher, it is my job to set rules and ensure all abide by these rules.  As a rebellious adult, it is my job to push boundaries and break rules, so it is no surprise that while playing a riveting game of Freeze Tag with my students, I broke my own rule about sliding down the slide feet first and thus broke my glasses when I slammed face first into a student.  “FROZE – ha-ha – Gotcha!” was my initial thought quickly followed by, “Oh, crap, now I can’t see.”  I used this opportunity to illustrate to my students the importance of following rules – actions have consequences.

I somehow managed to fenagle my students into the classroom where I left them with other staff and proceeded to drive home to get my spare pair of glasses.  Easy enough (or so I thought).  The problem with this plan is getting home.  My glasses had snapped in half and therefore would not rest on my face which meant I had to balance holding my glasses together while navigating the road, steering the car and stopping before I ran smack into a bridge or any other obstacle in my path. 

Trying to balance your vison of the road with the actual road is a lot like trying to balance your vision of your life with your actual life.  Sometimes the two are the same, but often times there is a split and I wondered, “How can I see a clear future if I can’t see the end of the hood?”  And then it dawned on me. . . Imagination.  By combining my memories, my realities and my imagination I was able to navigate home safely – It takes all three to make your visions a reality.  One cannot accurately see with the eyes if the imagination is out of focus.  Live your life and dream your dreams, somewhere in the middle of the two lies existence. 

Seven Days a Weak

Recently we, as a country, have been asked to socially distance ourselves from one another.  For many, this change goes relatively unnoticed since certain generations were seemingly born with an i-Phone permanently attached to their faces (I guess the old adage, An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” is more appropriate than ever now), but I, being of the rotary dial generation feel this distance weighing heavily on my shoulders.  I do my yoga, walk my dogs and try to maintain an otherwise healthy lifestyle, but seven days without a meaningful connection makes one weak. 

To strengthen my resolve I spend my time, not on the phone checking in with others, but in the open air checking in with myself, and what I’ve found as that I don’t know me very well.  I’ve been so busy doing this and avoiding that, that I’ve forgotten what a great person I am.  In modern times life is less about living fully and more about living from one distraction to the next.  Now those distractions remain at least six-feet away and are seemingly unreachable.  So why not reach in and shake a perfectly sanitized hand with yourself?  Get reacquainted with your hopes and dream.  Ask yourself tough questions and stick around for the answers.  Put down the phone, grab an actual apple and check in with yourself – “Hello, Self.  How are you doing?  Things are a little rough, but I think we’re going to be okay.”

 

 

The Truth

Once upon an opening night I played audience member to an awful play staring a tertiary friend.  I clapped dutifully, slept periodically and kept my snarky asides to a minimal.  My plan of making an unnoticed escape was thwarted by the ambling audience and I was forced to exchange pleasantries with said friend.  “What did you think?” was the first thing out of his mouth.  “Ahhhh,” I said hoping to find a sparkling spot in the unpolished stone of a play.  I scraped the edges of my cranium searching for a true statement that sounded remotely positive, “I really liked that costume,” was what came out of my mouth.  “Thanks, it was borrowed,” was his reply.  “Well I really liked it, and now I really have to go,” I said before making my escape.

Later that night I got to thinking about this exchange of information.  Did my friend want my praise or my truth?  Sometimes these two are the same, but often times they are not.  That’s the danger of asking questions. . . You might not like the answers.  But if you are brave and you are willing to get hurt, then the truth can help you grow.  I applaud those who seek.  It’s a dirty job, but I find wearing a swanky costume helps you sparkle through the unpleasantness. 

Wind Chimes

Throughout history, wind chimes have been used to detect changes in wind speeds, to frighten away birds and evil spirits and to gussy up an otherwise dull front porch.  Whatever their purpose, I have always found them to be a disturbing nuisance disrupting my sleep and interrupting my thoughts, so it was quite a surprise when within one month of my mom’s passing, I received two sets of windchimes from three different friends.  As any good friend must do, I hung up my wind chimes and waited for the evil spirits and birds to clatter away upon the inevitable clanging of the tubes.  Much to my surprise the sound was not a nuisance – in fact I found the ringing filled me with a new sense of wonder and delight.  What had changed?  It wasn’t the sound, it wasn’t the wind and it wasn’t the evil spirits.  Perhaps what changed wasn’t the things, but rather my thoughts of the things. Having received these chimes in honor of my mother they no longer represented commotion, they now stood for memory. 

Upon further investigation, I find that wind chimes have been used for centuries in cultures around the globe and not just to scare away the undesirable, but also as a tool to attract peaceful spirits and to ward off evil.  Amazing how a tool, like a thought, can be used for so many purposes depending upon the intention.  Hmmm, determining my thoughts. . . I like the sound of that.

 

 

Juggling

I learned how to juggle while working the Bag the Cat game at the 1990 Renaissance Fair.  In order to drum up business for my “shooting stuffed cats through a hoop” game, I tossed my cats in the air, catching and releasing them until, eventually, I was juggling.  It took a lot of patience, a lot of time and a lot of concentration.  The trick to juggling is to keep your juggled items close to you so as not to lose control chasing a rogue one and throwing your balance completely off.  Sounds simple enough, but it requires a bit of practice.

Learning to meditate is a lot like learning to juggle.  When we slow down our thoughts, our brains switch to Default Mode – the mode that propels us to the past or the future in an attempt to satisfy it’s desire to “think.”  As we try to non-judgmentally observe our thoughts, they tend to go rogue and our mind chases them, throwing us off balance.  Keeping our focus close to us, say, on our breath, helps us maintain balance.  With a lot of patience, a lot of time and a lot of practice, you can have this whole meditation thing in the bag.

Advertising

As a compulsive observer of life, I’ve come to realize how much we are products of advertising.  We buy scents to make us sexy, clothes to make us successful and spa treatments to make us serene.  We work, work, work in order to buy, buy, buy ourselves a little happiness as seen on TV – Act now and receive two orders of happiness for just $19.99.

I, as a product of advertising, have purchased a bit of this “lifetime guaranteed” happiness only to realize the “lifetime” must be referring to that of a fruit fly, for I still have moments of anger and sadness and discontent.  It appears I have fallen for a bit of false advertisement.

The problem with advertising is its intent is to make money, not to create lasting happiness.  In fact, lasting happiness is exactly what advertisers don’t want you to feel, for if you were truly happy, you wouldn’t need the advertised product.  The next time you whip out your credit card to buy a little joy, check your intentions and ask, “How will this product improve my life?”  “What void am I trying to fill?”  “Why do I think I need this product?”  My guess is you’ll find that happiness can’t be bought, but rather, must be created.  I guess this means happiness is internal.  Hmmm?  Internal happiness . . . I buy that.

 

 

Peace

Every morning, after yoga and before meditation, I take three deep breaths inhaling positive energy and exhaling negative energy.  Then I take one deep breath inhaling peace, patience, and loving kindness, before sealing these in my heart and beginning the arduous, 30-minute task of non-judgmental thought witnessing.  This routine sets me on the path for a peaceful existence in a chaotic world.

Normally I am successful at letting the world roll off my back, but every now and then the chaos shatters my peace and the brunt of the world becomes too much to carry.  I huff and I puff and I blow things out of proportion wishing they were different while praying for peaceful solutions which never happen.

Illusions of peace are straw houses meant to deceive us.  Peace isn’t an experience free of challenges; peace is an experience that’s expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened.  With this realization in mind, I huff and I puff and I blow my illusions down.

Pulling Focus

When I was a child, I wanted to be a magician.  I practiced card tricks and simple slight of hand illusions in the hopes that someday I would find joy and success as a Vegas Lounge Act performing nightly at The Stratosphere.  The trick to magic is to pull the audience’s focus from one place and put it in another; for example, if I want to secretly remove your watch, I might snap my fingers in front of your eyes with my left hand while simultaneously removing your timepiece with my right hand.   You think the magic is happening in the snap, when really, the action is taking place in a completely different focal zone.

Focus is not only the trick to magic; it’s also the trick to happiness and meaning.  In our search for meaning, we tend to focus our attention on the meaning of life rather than on the meaning in life.  Meaning manifests itself in what we creatively choose to do with our life – it’s in our experiences.  If we focus our attention strictly on the results of our endeavors, we miss the joy in the moments, so snap to it and see the magic that is happening right before your eyes.  If you look closely, I’m sure you’ll see through your disillusions. 

 

 

Practice

Once a month, every month, the school for which I work practices disaster drills -- sometimes fire, sometimes tornado and sometimes intruder.  At best, these drills are a distraction, at worst, they are a freezing foray into the outdoors where we pretend to watch the school burn until a staff member has checked the building and assured us that, “All is clear,” at which time we reenter the building and continue on with our lives.  Students often ask, “Why do we have to practice these stupid drills?” to which I respond, “So we will know what to do in an actual emergency.”  This answer does nothing to assuage their dour attitude, but is true none-the-less.  Preparation is key to survival.

Disaster comes in many forms from burning buildings to burning desires that destroy us from the inside out, and much like we must be aware of the emergency exits in occupied buildings, we must be aware of ways to escape the thought processes that preoccupy our mind.  The only way to do this is practice.  Meditation and awareness help us recognize our thoughts while shedding light on paths to end the suffering created by these thoughts.  Implementing a daily drill of mindfulness helps ensure we will know what to do in a actual emergency without leaving us out in the freezing cold.  Focus.  Breath.  All clear.  Time to reenter our lives.

 

 

Absence

When I was in the fourth grade, I had a tumor on my lung.  No one knew how I developed it, how long it had been there or if it would ever come back; they only knew that it had to be removed so I could breathe freely.  They knocked me out, removed the growth and sent it to pathology where it was deemed benign.  I was disease free, yet one would hardly call me healthy – I had been cut in half, split apart and sewn back together.  It seems that the absence of disease is not health.

Having no guarantees as to if my tumor would come back or not set my mind at dis-ease.  For years I thought every little pain meant I was riddled with cancer.  Thankfully this has not been the case and I have learned to accept that pain is inevitable, and suffering is optional.  This all leads me to believe that although the absence of disease may not equal health, perhaps the absence of dis-ease may equal contentment.  Once I let my worries go, I could breathe freely.  Ahhh, acceptance – just what the doctor ordered.

Linked

As a freshman in high school, I signed up for drama class.  One of our first tasks was to perform a group exercise, known as The Human Knot where all of us stood in a circle holding a tissue in one hand.  From here, we reached our arms toward the center and grasped someone else’s tissue until we were all linked together via a paper chain.  From here, we were to unknot ourselves without letting go of or ripping the delicate fibers that held us together.  We performed this task a number of times learning to cooperate and communicate.  As one might expect, our tissues were worse for wear, but still recognizable.

Our next task was to make something new out of the tissue, with the caveat being we could not add to, glue, tape or otherwise alter our tissue.  I made an origami heart, Steve made a nose warmer, and Patty made a picture of a white polar bear playing in the moonlight.  Who knew so many wonderful items could be formed from a torn-up tissue?

Since that time, so many moons ago, I have had to try and make something new out of my torn up and broken-down life.  Thanks to the cooperation of friends and strangers I have managed to rebuild my heart, paint myself a new life and keep my nose warm.  By taking what was useful and refashioning it into something different, I find I can release the knot of panic in my stomach and mend my delicate soul.