The Wrong Way to Monterey
August 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
The good news… is you came a long way,
the bad news… is you went the wrong way
When we find ourselves traveling in the wrong direction, we have two choices: We can either curse life for our unfortunate circumstances, or we can give a hats-off to its great wisdom. We can see this road of life as cruel and unfeeling, or as the provider of gas refills to help us eventually get to the right destination. Nasty adversary or benevolent friend—we decide which we choose to believe —but either way, life always gives us the option to make a U turn and change course if we find we’ve gone in the wrong direction.
But for most of us, the road headed in the wrong direction has much invested in it. We planned it. We worked for it. We envisioned how it was going to be when we got there. And all along, we were mindlessly driving to a place we never believed was the wrong destination. But it was.
I don’t know if it takes character or courage, humility or humor, but when some people recognize that they went the wrong way, they simply make a U turn and change course. They’re not always sure exactly where they will be going, but they’re certain they should not be where they are. With a bit of grace, and perhaps a chuckle to replace the natural churlish rage, they seek once again to find a joyous destination.
There is a calm to it all, mixed with the positive excitement of possibility. They do not know where they are going, do not know where to exit when they turn back, but they do know they’ve gone in the wrong direction and landed in the wrong place. And in spite of the time they may have wasted traveling toward the wrong destination, to paraphrase Harry Chapin, they know that anywhere is a better place to be.
Therein lies the possibility of happiness—to make the mistake and not beat oneself up for it. Happiness can be found despite the wrong choice by graciously admitting the mistake, and trying again somewhere else, at a later time. Happiness is found by deciding not to spend more time sitting in the wrong spot, when we realize we’ve just gone the wrong way.
Many years ago, before GPS existed, I was driving to Monterey, California and wound up in San Francisco, some two hours away. Realizing I was lost, I stopped at a hotel to get a sense of how to get to the right place. The concierge said, “Make a U-turn and take Highway 1 back down. It’s so much better than the crowded freeway. It’s the most beautiful road you’ve ever travelled, and it takes you right into Monterrey. Just stay on the road, and eventually you’ll get there.”
And that is what I did—quite by accident, I travelled the most beautiful road I’d ever seen to Monterey; by way of an error and some lost time, I got to Monterey refreshed and energized. I will never forget that road, or that day. There is no way to explain what happened or why, but on Highway 1, I connected into something inexplicable; into awe, and into something so much greater than what I had known. There’s no way to forget the cliffs or the sunshine reflecting off the water, no way to disconnect from the serenity. Some days I think God was talking to me that day. On others, I think it was just a serendipitous encounter with beauty that reminded me why I was here and that there was much left to do. But regardless of what it was, in a glorious testament to life’s strange ways, I found a great moment in my life by simply going the wrong way.
I wish that I would remember that blunder whenever I make others, but most times, I don’t—I sit and complain at the wrong exit instead. I keep moaning about the time I’ve wasted and all the things I could have done had I not gone the wrong way.
It’s a choice. Get churlish and argumentative, resentful and irate, or make a U-turn and hope for the possibility of wonders. Because if you’re lucky, you just might find that it’s much better going the wrong way to Monterey.
July 13, 2016 § 2 Comments
I’ve spent my days roaming the country. In 58 years, I’ve lived in 7 states and 8 different cities. My friend John once joked that my family has moved more frequently than people in the witness protection program. I’ve left behind a host of friends and family, and have become disconnected from many of the everyday sights and sounds that were mainstays of places where I once lived. Over the years, I’ve become a master of letting go of one place and moving on to another. I’ve also learned some things along the way.
I’ve learned that whenever life circumstances change, it’s important to get back to your center, figure out who you are in that moment, and simply extend a welcoming hand to the new and unknown. To be honest, I’ve not liked much of it. I always found that it took a lot out of me to start over. But there was always an excitement that came along with all the challenges; a sense of learning something new, of figuring out new places, and of entering into a mysterious void that other people called home. Sometimes the void became my home as well, but at other times it remained a void up until the day I left. Even in the void, however, my life was never dull. There was always the exhilaration of knowing that I might move on, followed by the inevitable hunt for the next place. I imagine it must be similar to the excitement of parachuting out of an airplane, scanning the panorama below and knowing you will land somewhere—even if you don’t know where. I’ve always felt as if I were dangling in the air. Much like a parachutist who has just free-fallen from the safety of his plane, I tried to steer myself toward the right place each time; even when something told me that the winds were more powerful than I was… and that I would ultimately land wherever I needed to.
But even after all these years, I still don’t understand change—and I’ve long decided to accept it. The life of a virtual vagabond has always left me relegated to saying, “that’s just the way it is.” I’ve had an ongoing tendency to stay, but at the same time, a willingness to leave. I eventually decided to move each time I was pointed that way; accommodating my soul to the change because I knew I could always move on once more. I found freedom in that thought, and serenity in the possibility.
Being a vagabond has made for loneliness and friendship, for losing and gaining, for tears and sleepless nights, for wonderful things I would never have imagined, and for experiences I wish I’d never had. It’s been a mixture of all things; of dark and light reimagined on different stages, and in different climates. My life isn’t much different from anyone else’s, except that mine has been lived within shifting scaffolds; always twisting in a different wind.
This is the way that my life has gone, and as I get older I sometimes wonder what might have materialized if I had stayed in one place or another. What would have happened if I had simply taken off my walking shoes, put my feet on the coffee table—and stayed? That is something I will never know.
But that thought never stays with me for long. Because something at the core of my being tells me that this vagabond life, with all of its twists, turns, surprises, and uncertainty, is precisely the one I was meant to live.
The Price of Admission
June 21, 2016 § 2 Comments
Like most people, I’ve grown sadly accustomed to the horrors of the daily news, the sight of voracious rage that pits people against one another, and the sound of a most unruly world continually exploding. Each day, the images of mankind at its cruelest make me grow increasing weary. It’s a sobering spectacle that could make even the most religious person question God, and could afford most atheists a convincing argument for their beliefs.
It hurts to watch.
There are unimaginable cruelties perpetrated on children, on animals, and on those who have done nothing more than seek the same joy that each of us so badly desires. There are things that I wish I never knew existed, actions I wish I never knew were possible, and feelings I wish no human being would ever have to feel.
It hurts me to learn about them.
And so, I spent too many of my days drowning in the sea of things I never wished to know or to see. For much too long, they preoccupied my thoughts and overwhelmed me. Until the day finally came when I understood: these seas also harbored miracles; ones I had simply chosen to ignore. Until then, my focus had been only on the seas of misery, for I had developed a blindness for all of the wonderful things in life.
I had become blinded to the joy in people’s smiles, and had deemed the wagging tail of a dog irrelevant. I had been sightless as the sun rose, and the smallest of seeds grew into beautiful and fragrant flowers. And because it hurt so much to watch all the misery, I had begun to shut my emotions off like a spigot; to cauterize the nerve endings in my mind, and seal my soul off from the practice of living.
But blocking everything to avoid the horrors of life is no way to live. This is because to do this eliminates all things, even the good ones. Long ago, I once heard Leo Buscaglia say, “I’d rather feel pain than feel nothing.” I did not understand him at the time, but I do now. I understand that in avoiding pain, we often block out everything good in the process. Our fear of pain effectively dulls our experience of life, causing us to miss out on all the beautiful things that the news never talks about. In fearing the waves of everyday life, we often fail to see that in every moment of every day, somewhere in the word, the seas part. In every moment, much of what is most simple is most miraculous. In every moment, we’re sailing on oceans where wonders are not just the exception; they are the rule.
I now understand that painful, ugly things are the price of admission for this ability to see miracles, because the experience of awe comes with a price tag: the responsibility to see the world as it really is, not just with its abundant grace and beauty, but with all of its imperfections too.
Every now and then, I look out of my window after watching the nightly news and hearing the ugliness of the day. I see the Rockies in the distance, and the incredibly beautiful sunset. I think about the times that I’ve stood at the top of Pike’s Peak, with the wind blowing in my face and the breathtaking panorama all about me. I think about the snow-capped mountains I am blessed to look at regularly, and I remember standing on the beach at sunrise in the Outer Banks of North Carolina nearly 20 years ago. I recall the words I heard in the wind that came off of the ocean that day: “What has created this will no doubt take care of you.” Even with the news blaring in the background, on the days when I think of this, I can’t help but smile.
No, I will never fully accept the horrors of this world. Rest assured, I have no great affinity for the pain. But what I’ve finally come to realize is that I love the gain. That’s why I’m willing to pay the price of admission.
March 23, 2015 § 3 Comments
I used to live a few blocks from a very old cemetery that I passed on my way to work. The headstones were worn down so much that the dates were hardly visible, and in many cases, the names were hard to discern. I often wondered who these people once were, as with the passage of time, nothing but a headstone now remained as a reminder that they ever had been here. We know nothing about them– who they loved, what they did, what their challenges were, what made them laugh or cry. We know nothing of those who cried at their graves and in whose hearts their memory remained. They, too, are long gone now.
This realization left me wondering about our legacy as human beings. While difficult to confront, we will one day all be in the same position. But even more critically, one day in the distant future, the country we live in will also cease to exist. When this happens, eventually even the lives of those we revere in our history books will be forgotten. One day, the planet on which we live will be gone. And on that day, there will be no trace that the human race ever was here. There will be no one left to remember any one of us. The old cemetery reminded me that our existence, as well as its memory, no matter how famous we may have been at one time, is always temporary. Yet we hear many eulogies describing the deceased as someone who will be remembered forever. While this is undeniably a very nice thought, a salve for the souls of the survivors, it is also undeniably false. The truth is that given enough time, a day will inevitably come when no one will remember any of us.
Not surprisingly, this was a very depressing thought at first! But as I considered it more carefully, it actually became the most life-affirming thought I had ever had. If nothing lasted, if even the most wealthy and famous people revered by our society are eventually forgotten with the loss of our history, then what is this life really about? There is no doubt in my mind that what it’s about is now. It’s about this very moment, and whatever miracle it brings. And no doubt, there are many of these miracles that happen to all of us in the course of our lives.
In the Japanese movie, After Life, the deceased are able to take only a single memory into eternity with them. One memory. I wondered what those people buried at the old cemetery would have chosen. I wondered what lovely story they would want to remember for all eternity, regardless of whether anyone else knew or cared about it. I wondered which of their precious moments they would want to relive again and again.
I thought about it myself for a bit–for me, the memory is the first time I saw my wife.
Whatever you decide, asking yourself which single memory you would choose is undoubtedly a great exercise. It takes you through the reels of your memory, and ultimately fills you with gratitude. In the process, you will note that the options are many, and the final choice is difficult. It’s a wonderful realization; a small walk through all of the priceless things in your life that money simply cannot buy. Best of all, it provides you with valuable practice at the essential skill of noticing everything that you have not been experiencing fully.
It’s a reminder to start paying attention— because you’ve already missed too much.
One Summer To Every Customer
November 15, 2014 § 5 Comments
When my brother-in-law’s father died a few years ago, I traveled with my wife from Philadelphia to the town where I spent the first 22 years of my life, Flushing, New York, to attend his wake. We arrived early, and the funeral home was still closed, so I decided to take my wife for a drive to see two houses I had lived in as a child.
I hadn’t seen the outside of those houses in 40 years, and was immediately struck by the memories that flooded me. The streets didn’t look as they did when I was young. As expected, the trees had grown much larger, but there had been other changes too. Many of the houses I recalled in those neighborhoods had completely disappeared, while others had aged almost beyond recognition. Both of the houses that I had lived in as a child appeared even uglier than I remembered. Flushing was never a lovely town, and even after all these years, the place had not failed to disappoint me.
Returning to my old neighborhood reminded me of an old Twilight Zone episode called Walking Distance, where a man travels back in time to the town where he grew up, and meets his 11 year old self. He is given the opportunity to see himself having a wonderful time, enjoying one of the many carefree summers of his youth. There, he meets his father, who reminds him that he’s already had his chance to be young. His father warns him that he cannot stay there, remaining lost in the past. Because he longs to be a carefree child again, so he asks his father why. “I guess,” his father tells him, “because we only get one chance. Maybe there’s only one summer to every customer.”
My experience of returning to the past was eerily similar that day, except that my childhood was very different. When I was a child, I never had that kind of summer.
In my childhood, I never experienced carefree days at the park or weeks away at camp. I don’t remember playing with friends outside in the warm weather, or spending lazy days at the ballpark. I cannot remember a single pleasant summer; not with the simple, safe kind of summer days that every kid should have. It simply never happened. It’s not that it was a bad childhood; it was just not a good one.
Still, even as I recalled the overcast days of my youth, I realized something wonderful: I have been blessed with an endless number of those lovely summer days ever since leaving my hometown. I have known many warm, sunny days, and the freedom of doing what I truly wanted to do. I have known how it feels to smile and laugh, to feel safe, and to eat an ice cream cone in the sun. There have been so many wonderful friends to enjoy, so many baseball games to watch, and the kind of days that have made me feel lucky. I have come to know and appreciate the simplicity of doing nothing but look at the sunset. Summer days like these have surprised me on the coldest of February mornings, the most temperate days of April, and the hottest days of August. I have experienced them in different cities, in different countries, and with different people. My childhood summer days never came in three-month increments, but since leaving home, I’ve undoubtedly had more than my childhood share. And on that day in my old hometown, I realized that my life had somehow found its summer.
I cannot tell you why I have been so fortunate. Maybe the Universe chose to compensate me because I never got to have my carefree, youthful summer. Maybe because the world loves balance, the equation that is my life simply had to catch up. Maybe I’ve been rewarded for working so hard to change my life. Maybe it’s just been plain, dumb luck. I can only tell you that in going back home, I realized that it’s best never to think that the worst of today will be the framework of your tomorrow. It reminded me that it’s best never to give up hope.
And after revisiting my yesterdays, we attended the wake, tried to comfort my brother-in-law, and said our goodbyes. As we headed back toward the highway, I looked back, once again, at the streets I used to walk as a child. I saw new stores that I had never seen before, kids I had never met walking out of the high school, and houses that had not existed when I lived there all those years ago. The hometown of my memory did not exist anymore. New people lived there now, and they were having great summers. On the streets where I lived, children were playing stickball and having fun. It made me smile to see them living in a happy Flushing, not the city without summers that I knew in my childhood. I wished them well as I drove away.
As for me, I knew I would never come back again. I was going to places where another summer day awaited me.
March 29, 2014 § 5 Comments
This past summer, I moved from my home in suburban Philadelphia to a new home and job in Denver, Colorado. The new job was an opportunity of a lifetime; a chance to work at a wonderful institution, to focus exclusively on work I love to do, and to live in a place that everyone seems to rave about. And so it was that I made the move, looking forward to the new opportunities that awaited me.
But about two weeks before leaving, all of this wondrous possibility became tempered by something quite different: the realization that I was leaving friends that I loved behind. When I moved to Pennsylvania in 2004, I didn’t know any of these people. One by one, they came into my life, and one by one, each became so pivotal to my life that I could not remember a time when I did not know them.
I was with them through laughter and fun, and to share a drink now and then to help smooth life’s occasional ruts or to celebrate its many joys. I was with some through their cancer diagnoses & treatments, and others through the loss of their parents. I was with some as they struggled with a child’s addiction, and others as they faced marital problems, divorce, mental health challenges, and alcoholism. And they were there for me, every single one of them, whenever I needed a friend.
One by one, I had to say goodbye to them. I watched my friends well up with emotion. I cried with them, and realized the true depth of our pain and loss. I tried to comfort myself in any way I could. I was reminded of Richard Bach’s line from Illusions: “Don’t be dismayed by good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends.” I reminded myself that the Universe is a friendly place that would never allow bonds like ours to know the pain of permanent separation. The history that affection creates has certainly etched our connection into eternity. I know that we will continue to find each other, again and again.
But above all, it was a single thought that carried me—a singular understanding that allowed me to leave Philadelphia feeling not only sad, but heartened as well. I realized how incredibly lucky we all were to have been given this opportunity to feel the pain of our separation. I further realized how incredibly lucky we were to be blessed with relationships surrounded by such love that it now made our distance painful. I realized how wonderful this bittersweet pain really was, because it signaled an equally great and rare affection.
And with that thought, I sat and cried. Not because I was sad, but because I was grateful.
One Scene Each Day
September 16, 2012 § 6 Comments
Artists have long understood the essential elements of life with seemingly greater ease than the rest of us. This is what gives them the ability to teach us so much about what brings us happiness. I have often watched a movie and thought, “yes, I get it now.” Whether it’s the meaning of commitment depicted in The Notebook, the inexplicable selflessness depicted in the final scene of Casablanca, or the meaning found in helping others depicted in Schindler’s List, movies have always taught me something about what real happiness is about.
Perhaps none more so than the film Cinema Paradiso, which tells the story of a little boy who loves the movies, and his relationship with the projectionist of the local theater who becomes a father figure to him. The theater is located in a small, conservative Sicilian town, where the church has mandated that the projectionist cut all of the love scenes the movies that are shown there. Many years pass, and the little boy becomes an adult, who moves to America and becomes a well-known film director. He achieves great financial success, yet he struggles with matters of the heart. He eventually receives news that his old friend, the projectionist, has died, and he returns to his village in Sicily to attend the funeral. He learns that the old man has left something for him: a single reel of film, with no title. In the final scene of the movie, we see the director sitting alone in a screening room to watch the reel that his friend has left him. What appears on the screen before him are all of those lost love scenes that had been cut from the movies all of those years ago, one after another. His friend has left him a beautiful collection of scenes filled with passion, love, kisses, and affection. We see the director crying with powerful emotion as he watches these scenes unfold, but we also see him smiling through his tears at this priceless gift of love.
Do you want to be truly happy? Don’t wait to watch the reel of love that’s been given to you. Watch it now, and every single day! Replay each and every joyful moment, relive each embrace, and remember every sign of affection. Do this while you are working, before you go to sleep, and when you wake up. Remember to feel gratitude for all of the people who played a role, and always remember to thank them.
Most importantly, remember to leave a lovely reel of film each day for others as well—a reel of love that no one can ever take away. They will forget their birthday presents. They will forget what was under the Christmas tree. But the reel of love is never forgotten. The memories are replayed in ones mind and they become a warm blanket on a cold night. Each day, resolve to leave behind a wonderful scene for someone– a loving moment for them to replay.
When you live this way, you will experience joy you have never known.
August 23, 2012 § 3 Comments
In a culture obsessed with fame, it seems that everyone wants to be a “someone.” Whether the notoriety is achieved through significant accomplishments, or simply through a strong public relations machine, the primary goal is recognition. It is often irrelevant whether an individual is famous for their good deeds and contribution to humanity, like Mother Theresa, or is simply famous for being famous, like Paris Hilton. People simply want to be known in order to feel that they count in this world.
What they fail to understand, however, is that they already do count—this is a given. Everyone counts, and so do you. Whatever you may do, or whatever you may fail to do, there is an essence within you that is completely distinct, like no one else’s. You are unique and special in ways that neither you nor most other people can even fathom; you are just unaware of it. That’s the good news.
But we all need to recognize that counting in this world comes with important responsibilities. While this may be something that many of us prefer not to hear or acknowledge, it is a fundamental truth that Mother Theresa clearly understood, embodied, and chose to live by. She recognized that whatever we do or fail to do invariably impacts others, and that we each have a purpose to fulfill. This means that because you count, you have a very specific job to do, and that doing that job will invariably bring you joy.
It is also important for each of us to understand that our particular job need not be near the level of Mother Theresa’s. So often, people overstate their responsibilities. To save the world, for example, is not a responsibility—it’s an unrealistic expectation. Bring about world peace? That is likely beyond your job description. Your job can be accomplished simply by doing little things. If you have the gift of humor, help someone to laugh. If you have the gift of empathy, listen to someone. If you have the gift of compassion, work with someone who needs help. Small things, when accomplished regularly, aggregate into big results that impact many people. Small things, when done out of the goodness of ones heart, can transform others’ souls. Small things, when done by everyone, can change the world.
Remember that you count. Smile at someone today. Say something soothing to one who needs it. Help someone move a piece of furniture. Send someone a heartfelt email to tell her how she has helped you.
Remind people that they count, and watch the world begin to change.
May 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
I have often heard people say that they wish they could ask God a question—it’s usually something about the meaning of life or why bad things happen to good people. More often, it involves an angry diatribe about how messed up the world is, and how God owes us an explanation for this mess. As for me, there has never been a day when I wanted to ask God anything. This has nothing to do with a lack of questions on my part, or with a belief that I have all the answers. I simply know my limitations, and realize that I am just not smart enough to understand divine answers.
Instead of asking questions, I have long wondered what it is that God would ask me. There have been times when I thought he might be angry and ask, “Are you stupid?” More often, however, I believed he would be much kinder: “Hey, Bob—can you explain some of those decisions you’ve made?”
Lately, I imagine different questions, such as: “How do you think you might have done that better?” I even imagine that God could ask me to role play: “Can you tell me what she felt when you did that?” I feel certain that he would be reassuring: “That’s okay. You have learned from this mistake, and you will do better next time.” Regardless of the particular issues addressed, the questions are consistent in that they are always kind and loving, and they always serve a higher purpose.
So, I’ve learned to use God’s questions as a diagnostic tool that can help me to do better, by learning to ask these questions of myself before they are asked of me. This strategy helps me escape the trap of seeing my errors as catastrophic, and of allowing my limitations to define me. I have discovered that my errors carry the keys to my salvation; with each wrong turn, the Universe guides me through the next door and provides another chance. I now view my errors as the keys that can free me from the prison of my own ignorance, rather than the locks that shackle me to my lowest moments.
I have no illusions that my questions will miraculously lead to a carefully crafted and completely correct answer every time. But there is also something very awe-inspiring in the attempt. There is something courageous in the simple effort to face your lowest moments. There is something to be gained with each misstep that is ultimately understood. Rather than simply seeing a flawed world and questioning the Universe, there is something very empowering about taking personal responsibility without falling back on our habit of blaming God.
And so, with the help of kind and loving questions, I can begin to do a bit better with each new day. With kind and loving questions, I can begin to understand the best of who I am. I can begin to measure my life by improvements, rather than by mistakes. I might even begin to understand the best of who I am. And if I ask myself enough of these questions, I won’t have time to question the divine plan—only my place in it.
Miracle of the Day
March 4, 2012 § 6 Comments
There are days when I get up in the morning, and I’m not quite sure why I’m around. Don’t get me wrong; my life is fine. I have my issues like everyone else, but I wouldn’t trade my life for someone else’s. Still, I sometimes wonder exactly what it is that I am really here for. After all, I’m just a small guy in a big world filled with problems; a small guy who sometimes doesn’t seem to possess the mental muster to see an opportunity, or the physical strength to carry on through a day. I am not sure if I’ll ever have the spunk or the smarts to figure out why I am here.
And yet, what I’ve come to understand is that figuring it out on my own is actually unnecessary. This is because each and every day, I know I am going to encounter a miracle. You read it correctly: a miracle. Each day, this mysterious universe that we live in is going to hand me the miracle of the day— and when it does, that miracle will tell me why I’m here.
Every day, there is something that crosses my path, explaining my assigned job in great detail. This description is much like the opening scenes in Mission Impossible: “Your mission, Bob, should you decide to accept it, is to…” So begins a miracle I am being asked to participate in. Each day the miracle is different; it can be small or large. Help this person. Sit with that person. Say something meaningful to that person. Each day, it’s a matter of dealing with tears or smiles, victory or loss, intelligence or stupidity. I never get to choose. Those who make the recordings decide; I am just a servant.
You may ask why I would spend any of my time doing this for people. I do it because it’s my job. I do it because they need me. I do it because I can remember what it felt like when I needed someone, and that someone showed up. I know the feeling of being pulled out of a dark well by a stranger and taking a fresh look at the sun. I know what it feels like when people follow their instructions to help me, even when they have nothing to gain. I can also remember what it felt like when I needed someone who did not show up. I never want to be the person who the missed the appointment and undid the miracle that was meant for that day.
So, why are you around? I realize that the answer is complicated, but believe that one significant reason is to listen for your tapes to arrive, and then follow your orders. It’s to do something for someone else, even if your mission of the day is simply to plant a seed. It’s to understand that while it’s impossible to truly change another person, the impossible is not your mission. It is simply doing what you’ve been asked to do today. Let go. Listen to your heart, and to the tapes the Universe has handed to you.
Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to follow the orders, and in so doing, experience the miracle of the day.
Tag, you’re it.
After The Last Play at Shea
February 23, 2012 § 3 Comments
I was a quiet kid with few friends, and baseball was my link to the world at large. I followed terrible NY Mets teams that only a true fan would enjoy watching. It was never about how well the game was played, but the simple joy of watching the game. As I got older and developed more and more friendships, baseball was often the connection.
Last week, Gary Carter, the great NY Mets catcher died at 57. I felt a sadness I’d never experienced for someone I did not know personally. Coincidentally, I recently seen the documentary, “Last Play at Shea, “ which culminated in a fast motion dismantling of Shea Stadium that brought an equally sad feeling. So often over the years, I had described the dilapidated Shea in derogatory terms, particularly when describing the lovely smell that emanated from the surrounding areas. Neither the death of a former catcher nor the demolition of a stadium should have evoked much emotion, but they did for me—and it left me asking why.
Gary Carter was part of a Mets team that should not have won the World Series. He was the team cheerleader; the “never give up” hard-nosed guy who always kept going. He was my emblem of what happens when you keep trying, when you do your best, and just let the Universe play out the game of life. Although I never realized it as I watched him play, Gary Carter represented hope for me. It was the hope that things would work out all right. Keep playing hard until the last out. Don’t quit. And with his demise, I lost a symbol of hope. If you are the fan of another team, your symbol of hope has a different name. If you are a fan of dance, theater, art, music, or literature, your symbol will come from a different walk of life. But wherever your symbol comes from, I know you understand what I mean. So often, our symbol of hope has a name and a face.
Shea Stadium held a different meaning for me. I once saw a tee shirt that read “Shea Stadium: It may be a hole, but it’s our hole!” I laughed at that then, because Shea really was a hole. But it wasn’t until watching the scoreboard drop upon demolition that I realized that along with the crumbling scoreboard, a place chock full of memories was disappearing as well. Shea was where I saw my first baseball game and my two oldest kids saw theirs. It’s where I first understood the joy of just watching something that no one had to tell you to enjoy. And when I saw the footage of that scoreboard coming down, I realized that those days were gone forever; all that was left were the memories. Everyone has place like that. For you, it might be a beach, a restaurant, a park, a theater, or the local neighborhood hangout. But I know you understand what I mean. So often, places and memories are inextricably linked.
What I am left with now, whenever I think of Carter and Shea, are wonderful memories of hot summers without air conditioning, and watching Met games on a small, low quality screen. With all the technology we have today, I have yet to see a game I have loved any better. I will always remember a wild, wind-blown ride in a convertible on the way to Shea with my old friend John. It was a day when we were carefree and our lives were in front of us; a day when neither of us knew that this past year, he’d be sitting with me at my mother’s funeral. I will always remember walking out of Shea with my friend Paul, taking one player’s name forever in vain on a needed break from a doctoral program and a mentor that nearly killed both of us. I’ll remember my son Drew pretending to be a New Yorker, and abusing the other team so much that fellow New Yorkers just stared in horror. I’ll remember my laughter when the cup of peanut shells I’d collected fell over the ledge and down below. When I remember Shea, I’ll remember it like a good donut, never thinking about the hole. And I learned that long after the last play at Shea.
Gabriel García Márquez said it best: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” So today, do yourself a favor and think about your best memories and smile. Think about the days you laughed best and laugh again. Remember the people who made your life better and say a prayer of gratitude for them. Remember that today will be the yesterday you recall years from now. And on that day, you will understand something critical about happiness. It is small things that count, small things that have significance, and small things that will make you wonder why you spent time on anything else. It will be moments, small moments that you collect and hug in your memory.
There are many joys you will appreciate long after they happened. But pay attention: Appreciate them today. Hug the moment as it happens. Don’t wait until after the last play.
Living Without Our Illusions
January 22, 2012 § 5 Comments
Many of us live most of our lives feeling feel fairly certain of who we are as people. We feel comfortable with the image we have of ourselves, leading us to feel comfortable with most of our choices. Unfortunately, the aspects of ourselves that we tend to feel the most certain of are all of our perceived “holes” or imperfections. We believe, with great certainty, that these imperfections strongly limit what we can do with our lives and who we are able to be. We may feel certain that we do not look quite right, that we are not quite smart enough, or that we do not have the right personality to do what we want to accomplish or become. We are convinced of things that simply are not true.
We are certain of our illusions.
The paradox is that one day when we are older and more tired, when we have hit the proverbial brick wall, many of us finally recognize the fallacy of so many things we have believed about ourselves; illusions we have harbored with an almost religious faith. We finally figure out, much too late, that much of what we believed was untrue.
And that moment of realization is truly unpleasant. Too tired to fight back, we must look at our purported illusions of inadequacy and realize they did not exist. One day, we look back at the photographs and realize we got it all wrong. There really was nothing wrong with the way we looked. We weren’t really too fat or too thin; we actually looked pretty good. We realize we were never stupid; we just never even tried. We see clearly that there was nothing wrong with our style; we were just being who we are.
We come to see that we had illusions about others as well. We realize our kid wasn’t inadequate because he failed to pass calculus, and our spouse was never the flawed soul we had imagined. Uncle George, who managed to ruin every holiday party, was never really a bad guy, just a troubled soul who warranted compassion. They were all illusions, created by expectations of what should have been, what should have happened, and what others should have done.
If you haven’t gotten there, I assure you that you will.
Even if you find the basic facts to be true, you are still likely to discover a different kind of illusion. One day you will awaken to see that even the facts never warranted the conclusions you drew from them. Yes, you may have been overweight or too thin, too tall or too short, or you may have had too little hair. Yes, your grades may not have been not quite as good as you wished, or your promotions as frequent as you had liked. You may not have had as much money as you needed. One day, you may be certain that objectively, the facts were true. But you will come to see that the real illusion was that they were the cause of your unhappiness. These facts were not the reason for your lack of joy. These things never led you to a life of anxiety and dissatisfaction. One day you awaken and see others living in the same objective circumstances, yet you notice that they are happy nonetheless. That is when you will know: it was not the facts that stopped you, but the illusion that the facts were the cause of your unhappiness; the illusion that your life had to turn out a certain way because of the facts.
What would happen if you stopped living your illusions?
- You would stop getting in your own way. You would begin to relinquish your self-imposed limits, and instead let your reality begin to reveal itself. You could begin learning the real parameters of who you are and are not; beginning to live as you were meant to live, not as you have deluded yourself into living.
- You would focus away from ideas that get you nowhere and move toward ideas that can change your life. You cannot build anything on a foundation that isn’t true. But when you build your life upon what truly exists, you have the opportunity to build something real, and experience the tremendous wonder that it brings.
- You would live more profoundly, more deeply, apart from all the surface inclinations that are taught by our culture. It tells you to be this or that, but when you live apart from the illusions, you begin to understand that these illusions never needed to be yours. You start to look for what is real in you, not for what they want you to pretend to see.
- You would allow the Universe to do its work. When you admit that you don’t know everything, you place your life in the hands of something bigger, something that knows better. Call it God. Call it a force. Call it whatever you prefer, but trust that it will always reveal the truth.
- You would have a chance to discover the happiness you deserve. Without the illusions, you are better able to follow the course of your destiny. Will it be a perfect journey? There are no guarantees. What I can guarantee is that setting a course based on an illusory GPS gets you nowhere. You receive no direction, no gauge of progress, and no knowledge of your target destination. You are simply traveling haphazardly, without any guidance.
It is time for us to wave the illusions and their influence goodbye. Start today. Begin questioning the “facts” about yourself and others that you have always viewed as absolute truth. Look for different evidence that leads you to different conclusions. Refuse to accept the illusions. Look for others who possess similar traits, similar “holes,” and find those that weren’t limited by their reality. Resolve to stop buying into the illusions, simply because you have always have.
You are so much more than you believe, so much more capable and worthy than you ever imagined. Resolve today to discard the illusions, and discover a new ability to change your life.
A Society of Elvis Impersonators
January 7, 2012 § 9 Comments
I have always found Elvis impersonators somewhat disconcerting. While I have always had a fondness for the King, I’ve never understood what satisfaction could be drawn from transforming, on a daily basis, into someone other than who you really are. What confused me more was the strange allure that these impersonators seem to have for others.
Upon further reflection, however, I think I am beginning to understand. We live in a society where the bulk of our citizenry live their lives pretending to be something they are not; aspiring to emulate the “kings” of society, i.e. the rich, famous, and powerful. Sadly, this deceptive way of life is, quite simply, a grand stage show that has gradually overtaken our country. People of relatively modest means are now boasting homes that heretofore had been the abodes of the affluent. Lawns in suburban neighborhoods are now meant to emulate the gardens of large estates. With the additions of designer clothing, unaffordable automobiles, expensive vacations, and fine dining, what we have is a citizenry that impersonates kings—all done on credit, of course.
In the true form of Elvis impersonators, we are not truly impersonating the kings of our society. Much as the Elvis impersonators rarely impersonate the drug-addicted, fat, dysfunctional version of the King, we tend to emulate the stage presences of our own social kings without the flaws, the personal dramas and struggles they may have faced, or the ethical shortcuts they may have taken; essentially, without an understanding of those elements that make them fallible, yet real human beings. We effect this impersonation after viewing their lives from our own very narrow telephoto lens. As a result, despite our best efforts, our impersonation is never really quite accurate.
We train our children to be impersonators as well, injecting them into activities that are designed to help them emulate these self created models of wealth, power, and prestige. We delude ourselves into believing that we are enabling them to develop their talents and life skills, but what we are actually doing is teaching them to imitate the behaviors that we believe will elevate them to royal status. In the process, we risk masking the unique talents and abilities that our “commoner” children may actually possess. Most troubling is that we dub this impersonation The American Dream, and identify ourselves with the aspiration to live our lives defined by a culture of copycat kings.
But America was never meant to be defined by counterfeit lives. The American dream was never about emulating someone else’s life. It was never about allowing snapshots of other people’s lives to define our personal and cultural aspirations. It had long been about following our own personal dreams, finding a place where we could define ourselves, and creating a better life for our children. These days, that life can simply be found and photocopied directly from our high definition televisions, where skilled manipulators provide us with the blueprints for our dreams.
As a society of veritable Elvis impersonators, we can no longer remember who we are; choosing instead to live a faux life defined by our synthetic appearance and inherited aspirations. We have become a society of fakes, so intent on emulating the kings that we cannot even figure out who we are. Of all that this new American dream has wrought, that is the most troubling.
With each individual who succumbed to mimicry, a bit of talent and soul escaped us as their talent and creativity were squandered. In the aggregate, we lost much of the character of our nation by creating a faux reality. We lost artists and poets who became television personalities in order to achieve fame. We lost healers and teachers who became executives in order to achieve wealth. We lost journalists, clergymen, historians, philosophers and intellectuals, all in an effort to achieve the money, power, and status of the social kings. We ignored our own innate talents, abilities, and inclinations in our attempt to live someone else’s life.
We lost what makes a society rich, varied, and great.
Undoubtedly, some impersonators have been enriched by their mimicry. Some have indeed become social kings; trapped by success, and floundering to understand their unhappiness. Much like the Elvis impersonators, each leaves behind only the vestiges of their parody: the black bouffant hairstyle, bushy sideburns, and garish sequined clothing that defined them. They leave behind their version of Graceland, and an emptiness that defines the vapid spoils of living a charade. For those never crowned, there is no royal history, for they were never kings. Their gravestones mark a fictitious identity and claim that they were once alive, but few ever knew who they really were since their core never came to life. Few people ever learn the true names and identities of Elvis impersonators.
In the end, the culture is left with an eerie silence; a feeling that something inexplicable was lost. It is something that no one will ever be able trace or recapture.
It is an American nightmare.
Walking Out of Hell
December 31, 2011 § 9 Comments
Once upon a time in a miraculous Universe where all things are possible, amidst the fires of hell where all is unholy, the devil had a son who had nothing in common with his father. Good to the core, virtuous and loving, the young man was a saint by the definition of anyone on heaven or earth.
And so it was that a saintly creature was born into the infernal fires of hell, where demons and evil souls resided, and was forced to live among those whose essence was entirely different from his own.
Each day, upon arising, the devil’s son would find himself mocked by all those about him. Rejected by his father, his actions derided and criticized by those who inhabited hell, he found himself lost amidst a sea of hatred, anger, and evil. Vowing never to capitulate to what others in hell deemed acceptable, he lived a life of constant sorrow, of inadequacy, and pain.
With no friends and a father who despised him, he awoke one day and decided that he would walk out of hell. His father and all the inhabitants of hell were glad to be rid of him, mocked him as he left, throwing balls of fire, and poured the foulest substances they could find on him.
Walking onto planet earth and finding himself hungry, burned, and smelling foul, he ran into a man who helped him clean up and took him to a nearby hospital. There, he met caring people who tended to him and made him comfortable. There, for the first time in his life, he ran into love and understood that good things and people were possible. There, he understood there was goodness in the Universe and found that he was loved and could love others. And when he was well, he left the hospital and spent his time on earth happy among people who understood and gave love.
What does this fable of the devil’s son tell us?
It tells us that you can find goodness—somewhere. Where all is wrong, in your families, at your workplace, in your neighborhoods, on the often callous streets, it reminds us of that goodness. If you are living in hell, it’s time to get out and be around people who are loving and caring. Risk all by leaving your hell and you will find the love you deserve.
It tells us that it’s not where you come from, but who you are that defines you. It doesn’t matter who your parents were. It doesn’t matter what horrors were perpetrated on you. It doesn’t matter how you were betrayed and what you were told; you can let your inner light shine. Oscar Schindler started as a Nazi himself, yet saved many in the midst of a mass extermination campaign that was well-funded and filled with hate. Goodness does not have a genetic strain, nor is it based on a history. Risk all by walking away from whatever negatively defines you—but that you know simply does not fit who you are.
It tells us that it is important to be vigilant, to begin to understand ourselves apart from our surroundings. The bad places where we may live and work should not define us. The “bad people” we know and meet should not characterize us. Hell should not and cannot make you believe that acting divinely is bad. You have to agree. You have to capitulate. You have to give in. Risk all by refusing to agree.
It tells us that for each of us who seek good and act out of love, there is a place. There are kind and caring people. And it reminds us to keep looking for that place and those people. On a planet called earth, the devil’s good son found in the arms of our neighbors the good he had been yearning for. So it must be that we who are not born in hell must hold on to our goodness as well. We must continue to act out of love, even as we see and experience hate. We must continue to look for the love that we deserve and can share with others. Risk all by believing in the power of love.
Never give up. Never give in. What is good is irrepressible. What is good is never alone.
Risk all—except love.
Supermarket Sweep Life
December 23, 2011 § 15 Comments
When I was kid, there was a strange game show on television called Supermarket Sweep. Part of the show was a live-action, timed competitive race through an empty supermarket. Contestants would hurl the most expensive goods they could find into a shopping cart in a given time period. The total value of what was in the cart determined which team won. It did not matter what was in the cart and whether the goods were useful or tasty—what mattered is that you hoarded more expensive goods than others did.
I have found this silly game show is a good metaphor for our modern American life. We spend so much time buying and gathering things that are often entirely unnecessary, and sometimes meaningless. Got a working cell phone—no problem, buy another one just because it is the newest thing. After all, your friends will have one and you need to compare favorably. So you spend money you often do not have, discard the other phone and leave it for the dump, and then move onto the next thing to buy. The television tells you all you need to know—buy, buy buy, and have more than the Jones’ next door. It hardly matters whether you need (or even like) that McMansion or fancy car. You buy it to keep up, only to find that once you have it, you are no happier. Sadly, once you get it, you are soon onto thinking about its replacement—something bigger, fancier, and more expensive. You struggle to get it before the Jones’ do.
It is no surprise we aren’t happy. We are too busy filling the metaphorical shopping cart to pay much attention to anything else. We fail at happiness because we are not focusing on doing those things that bring happiness. There is no time left to do important things because we are so busy running around accumulating and acting competitively with others.
What are the consequences of a Supermarket Sweep life? I’m left to wonder what this way of living has done to our children, to whom we leave a vacuous legacy of mp3 players, video games, and cell phones.
I’m left to ask what this has done to our neighborhoods, where once family helped family, but we are now all to busy to help one another.
I’m left to ponder if in the end, all we are aiming for is a life of shopping carts replete with meaningless things and empty relationships. A life in which we get a winning financial score compared to our fellow citizens, but a losing life score. I’m asking myself if what we are left with are nice houses and beautiful cars that unhappy and unfulfilled people can inhabit.
I’m left to question whether we all see that the end point for all of us is the check-out line, where life’s clock always ticks to a grinding halt, and contestants leave behind items for an estate sale.
I’m left to wonder if there is a better way.
I think there is. I am not suggesting we all live in mud huts or ride in foot-pedaled cars like Fred Flintstone. I am not suggesting we stop eating good food or go on vacation. I am not suggesting we dress in rags. What I am suggesting is that the best life can offer will not be found in the things we meaninglessly own, but in a more balanced approach to life. We can find that way by asking better questions about what we want and why we want it, before mindlessly dropping goods into our shopping carts.
1. Do I really need this? So often the answer is “no,” so the spent cash is money down the drain. Even more often, quiet reflection leads you to conclude that what you were considering as a purchase was baited on a hook by clever advertisers. Most of us listen to ads like they were the advice given by knowledgeable friends with our best interests at heart. Instead, what we are getting are the artificial hunger pangs for things planted in our mind.
2. Will it make me happy? So often the answer is “yes” because we are not thinking about the difference between long-term and short-term happiness. I loved new sport cars. They made me happy for about a week, and then I would forget all about them, though I would be paying for them for 5 years. In a culture that has us conditioned toward purchased, short-term happiness, learning this is not easy. So, be gentle on yourself and start slow, but mindfully. If you have reason to believe that something will make you happy—then perhaps you should get that one thing you want. But then carefully monitor whether it makes you happy. You will learn by trial and error that you were not correct in your assumption, and soon, you will begin to choose differently.
3. What am I hiding from? We are being sold goods that are designed to cover us from reality. The new miraculous makeup, for example, may be hiding the lines on your face, but likely it is hiding something deeper that the make-up cannot fix. It’s hiding the fear of rejection, the inevitability of death, and the desire to be perfect. What is tragically true is that it will fix none of these. You are trying to purchase what cannot be bought.
4. Why do I care what the Jones’ have? The answer is frighteningly simple: you were told to care. You were told to compete with them. You were told that if you had one less item, you were less of a human being, less worthy, and ultimately, less lovable. None of it is true. Accepting that reality will not change the Jones’ competitive mindset, but it will change how you behave. They can compete with someone else. Instead, as William Faulkner noted, your goal is to “Try to be better than yourself.”
5. How can I allocate my resources to help someone else? Once a week, stop focusing on yourself and look outside yourself to help another. The answer is not necessarily to donate more money, but to become a real part of people’s lives. It is not always about feeding the hungry, though this is a good thing to do. So often, we ignore the well-fed souls ripped apart by the hunger for relationships and meaning. Ask yourself if there is a way to spend some of your time (and perhaps some money) for others. Immerse yourself in them Help them. Be there for them. You soon will learn a kind of joy that no fancy car or expensive watch can ever bring.
And there are no doubt other questions. Feel free to suggest them!