the place where the light enters

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“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
― Jalaluddin Rumi

There are four jagged marks on my abdomen; One runs north from my belly button about three inches as a deep purplish bumpy ribbon, like something is slithering just beneath the surface of the skin. Three others, little, red, uneven potholes, are to the far right and left. I have yet another where the middle finger of my left hand used to reside.

I used to hate them. I hid them. For a long time, I wouldn’t take my shirt off at the beach. They were embarrassing, like dents on a beat up car after years of piss-poor driving.  I saw my scars as symbols of weakness, of being damaged and inferior to those whose skin was pristine and devoid of scalpel or saw marks. Beyond representing the place where my flesh had been cut by a surgeon to save me, they were a frightening reminder of my true lack of control over what life might deal me.

“I don’t want to die without any scars.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

The truth, I realized over time, is that the longest lasting and most hurtful scars are internal. Buried inside my psyche, these are the real and perceived hurts, tumbles and unfairness the world has visited on me. They are all the times I felt misunderstood or disrespected or unimportant.

They start when we are children. Our parents are the first to inflict them, most often unwittingly for they are also most often dealing with the scars their parents left on them. We do the same to our kids in turn. They come from the stories we made up about what happened to us and each time we tell ourselves the same story, the scars became stickier, more permanent, even deeper. They are the internal “collateral damage” of the actual mishaps we’ve experienced.

We all have them. It takes being in a place of fear and deep vulnerability, of discomfort with the uncertainty of what’s around the next corner–and an acceptance–to understand the difference between actual physical and emotional scars.

Here’s the thing: without them, I wouldn’t be who I am. I wouldn’t appreciate the bounty of good things I have in my life and what it took to get here. My scars are a reminder of things gone awry to be sure. Times when I strayed close to the rocky shore. But even more they are badges of honor, earned by skimming the surface of dangerous waters and sailing on.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
―Kahlil Gibran

My scars tell the story of a well-lived life. My personal medals of resilience. As Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, said, “I don’t want to die without any scars.”

My scars remind me that I’ve experienced challenges and survived.   It’s a matter of perspective: at the time, I was scared to death. Now, that fading purple ribbon where my cancer was removed is part of the story of my past, a speedbump, an inconvenience. It’s a piece of who I am along with everything else.

Now I hold others with scars in high esteem. When I see someone with a scar I am immediately fascinated. I want to ask them about the story behind the jagged lines. What happened? What did they endure? How have their obvious mishaps shaped them?

All of these questions come out of the deepest respect. I know that I don’t have the corner on difficult life experiences. Not even close. My scars are merely the remnants of the place on my body the doctor opened to eradicate my cancer. Millions have endured similar and worse.

I’m not so discombobulated now when I see them in the mirror. My scars remind me, as Cormac McCarthy once said, that my past is real. My scars and I share the same body and the same story. Lest I forget, my scars reinforce for me how precious every single day has become.

 

how strange, innocence

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The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. – Carl Rogers

I cannot think of a more powerful truth than one we experience personally. Perhaps this is obvious to everyone but me.

As the doctor spoke about what this, a second blood clot, meant to my physiology, I felt the outer boundaries of life scooch inward. I felt older, more breakable. I even felt, gulp, the urge to ask, “What did I do to deserve this?”

Back in August, I was on a run in one of my favorite places. Bird Hills Nature Area is 160 acres of thickly-wooded, quiet trails sandwiched between M-14 and Huron River Drive in Ann Arbor. The woods comprise a lush collection of non-native Oak, Hickory, Maple, Beech, Hemlock and Tulip trees. They arch high to form a living canopy above.

As I ran comfortably in sync with the up and down of the trail, along a familiar route through the park, I glanced at my watch to check my heart rate. Bad timing, which is when unfortunate things happen, as I caught part of a tree root that snaked across the trail. My left ankle bent 90 degrees outward in a couple milliseconds then swiftly snapped back.

My left ankle bent 90 degrees outward in a couple milliseconds then swiftly snapped back.

Stopped. Suddenly lightheaded and a little nauseous. Bent at the waist, I tested it to see if I could support my weight. Pain like a spear.

Fast forward five days. Elin is rushing me to the hospital because walking the 10 feet from the couch to the kitchen causes me to breathe like my father, who is 85 and has emphysema. I have other symptoms that point, according to my quick internet search, to a blood clot. A couple hours in the ER and we get the official diagnosis: Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism. The doctor said if I hadn’t come into the ER, I’d be dead within eight hours.

Dead? Dead.

This is how a previously unrealized yet powerful paradox was delivered to me, though it still took me several more weeks to grasp: In every mishap that befalls us, there is the chance for good also to arise if we allow ourselves to see it.

Each of us has the capacity to reframe the expectations and assumptions previously held on to as truths. Our challenge is to cast aside “why me?” for “what is this trying to teach me?”

In every mishap that befalls us, there is the chance for good also to arise if we allow ourselves to see it.

I’m more convinced than ever that this paradox is a fact of life. How else can I explain all that I’ve experienced as well as the incalculable suffering I see in the world? I’ve dealt with the usual suspects: divorce, job loss (multiple times), death of a parent, difficulties raising my children, depression. And some others, also difficult to sit with: cancer, two blood clot episodes, an unfortunate collision of flesh with a table saw.

The most frustrating thing about this big life lesson is that it seems most often learned after misfortune and significant pain. It is ironic that we are not set up to understand before something bad happens. In fact, as my sister warned me years ago, life keeps trying to teach us the same lessons until we learn them.

Embracing this paradox, I believe, is key to living on through life. With each setback, I could not see an alternative but to keep moving forward. Divorce taught me to be more authentic in my relationships.  Job loss taught me to be better at interviewing my prospective employers. Difficulties with my children taught me to be gentler and more empathetic. Cancer taught me how fragile life is and that I am not invincible despite my devotion to healthy living. Losing a finger to the table saw taught me that it’s okay to start hiring pros to do some jobs around the house.

Yet I have to admit this second blood clot is challenging in a lemons-to-lemonade-acceptance-versus-why-me-again way. Despite my professing to be so evolved, it’s really hard to feel so unexpectedly vulnerable.

Sometimes I’m like Napoleon during his exile on Elba, obsessing on ways to a comeback, in this case, to idealized, robust 25-year-old health. I’ve read countless self-help books looking for the clues to personal resilience after a fall. Resilience is one of the values I hold closest.

Sometimes I’m like Napoleon during his exile on Elba, obsessing on ways to a comeback…

After four weeks of not running, I was back on the roads and grateful simply for being able to run again. I now try to pay more attention to my most important relationships with those whom I love. I’ve also become more practical:  having the table saw out of the garage allows me to sidestep some DIY renovation jobs around the house I might try and those for which I will call in a pro.

I wish I had learned all of this long ago. But I’m slow. So many choices I’ve made would not have been. I would be more evolved on my path. Yet I’m thankful for this insight. The realization that every setback offers a positive lesson is ultimately what it takes to thrive. It’s what resilient people do. They don’t let difficult times stop them, at least not for long. They keep moving. Without bitterness. Without regret. It’s as if they say, “Oh well, that didn’t work. What’s next?”

“Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before.” – Elizabeth Edwards

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losing the light

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Occasionally, I am able to yank something worthwhile out of the river of thought that rushes though my brain. During a run the other day, this phrase occurred to me:

work on yourself

I’m sure I read this somewhere or heard the words spoken by someone. I never could have come up with this by myself. It’s one of the reasons I love to run. Some people meditate. Some do crossword puzzles. Others do yoga. Still others garden or listen to podcasts. Running is where I do my meditation. In fact, sometimes I zone out so much during a run that even the best thoughts, those I swear I won’t forget, most often disappear. But if I’m lucky, a thought like “work on yourself,” comes like a billboard on a highway and stays. So it was a good day when I got to the end of my run and still remembered “work on yourself.”

A day or two later, I figured out what it meant.

I’ve noticed in our culture that we often blame circumstances and people outside of ourselves for our predicaments. Our days are filled with people taking advantage of us, cutting us off, neglecting our needs or wishes, conspiring against us at every turn. The sales clerk at the mall ignores us or the person taking our order at McDonald’s doesn’t believe in

We often blame circumstances and people outside of ourselves for our predicaments.

fast food or doesn’t anticipate that we need additional packets of ketchup for our fries; someone in customer service doesn’t seem to understand our billing problem even though we’ve explained it ten times already; our friend is too focused on their problem to ask about what’s going on with us even though it’s obvious we are not having a good day; a politician accuses an opponent or the system of being unfair without offering real evidence that’s the case.

Everywhere I see people looking outward, seeing reasons they aren’t happier, healthier, richer or somehow better off. Instead they see others as selfish, unintelligent, apathetic or rude and preventing them from achieving their happiness.

work on yourself

My wife is part Swedish. In Sweden there’s a cultural motto of “lagom.”  It’s roughly translated to “just enough.”  The culture in Scandinavia embraces a kind of humility. Work on yourself implies a similar humility. Before I criticize or even judge that person across the counter at McDonald’s I need to face that fact that I am not perfect. Working on yourself means first focusing on improving oneself. It means that I have to work hard, grow, learn to do myself instead of expecting the world to take care of me. People are people. We are all trying to get by. Cutting someone off on the highway because another guy just did that to you is not working on yourself. It’s a mindless over-reaction to a temporary circumstance.

Another reason I run: Running is taking responsibility for my own health. It’s one thing I can do to contribute to my overall well being, avoiding obesity and illness and not taking a hospital bed that might benefit someone else.

We so often become certain our “truths” are universal and obvious…

I enjoy reading. I read a lot of non-fiction. Reading, not surfing Facebook, is a way of educating myself so I might become even just a little wiser, a little more empathetic, a little better able to help someone with something I learn.  (Here’s a link to one of my favorite spaces on the Internet for learning: https://www.brainpickings.org/) Listening to a podcast from an erudite host who challenges my thinking about something I hold dear also is working on myself. We so often become certain our “truths” are universal and obvious that we are blown away that others can’t see what is so apparent.

manual-tools-black-white-21862675Working on yourself is taking responsibility when you mess up. I’ve heard people make half-assed attempts at apologizing, but it turns out to be a passive aggressive way of deflecting responsibility: “Yes, I did that, but it was because you….” When I hear that the only word that matters is “but.”  That is not taking responsibility.

I am not perfect. I screw up and have screwed up every day of my life. Some of my mistakes have been doozies. One of my favorite authors is psychologist Gordon Livingston, who said in his book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, “You are what you do.” With apologies to those whom I love the most, my wife and my children and extended family and friends, I am what I have done. Please forgive me for my many blunders.

The most intelligent people I know are not only great at working on themselves, they’re awesome at taking personal responsibility for their mistakes and the collateral damage they cause. The crucial element is, despite their failures, however magnificent, they don’t stop moving forward.

Working on yourself means treating failures not as catastrophic and permanent commentaries on one’s character but as life experiments.  You had a hypothesis. You tried something based on that hypothesis and you got certain results. You dissected that data and realized where you went awry. The next time, you do something different to get different results.

We are all imperfect. We all are vulnerable creatures running around in the dark with blindfolds on (that’s really dark). We can’t always know what we don’t know. We can’t control every outcome.

Working on yourself is ultimately a mantra on humility. Working on yourself means that one’s accountability starts and ends with ourselves first. Not with expecting others to meet all of our needs. I’m not discounting the importance of parents either. We are also responsible for our children’s health and well-being. Teaching our sons and daughters to work on themselves as an ethic is one of the most significant gifts we parents can offer. It is one way of preventing a generation of selfish, apathetic and privileged adults. The very ones we see so much of all around us today.

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the profound impact of time

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There is a long hallway on the backside of St. Joe Hospital’s Reichert Health Center. It runs like a tunnel to various rear sections of the medical center complex at St. Joe’s: there is Pain Institute just inside to the right of the wide sliding doors that whoosh efficiently and quietly aside as patients walk or roll in on wheel chairs. If you go straight and then left you enter the broad main lobby of Reichert, which pulses with the comings and goings of the ill and relatives and doctors and nurses throughout the day.

Past the Pain Institute, tucked into the back of St. Joe’s, where the massive infrastructure needed to contain furnaces and air conditioning is packed like patients in a busy ER, are the MRI and CT labs. These huge pieces of technology, which allow doctors to see deep into our bodies, seem hidden, almost deliberately so, as if the work done here is best kept hushed, either because the results of the x-rays and magnetic pulses often signal major medical catastrophe for those that lie in their electronic clutches, or to shield the rest of the hospital’s visitors from a sense of dark foreboding.

These huge pieces of technology, which allow doctors to see deep into our bodies, seem hidden, almost deliberately so, as if the work done here is best kept hushed

At least that is how it has felt to me each time I pull into the miniature parking lot designated for this back entrance. Maybe the stuff was just put here because it makes the most sense logistically. Each time I walk from the little parking lot that seems placed as if by accident or afterthought, like so many employee lots behind shopping malls, through the doors and down the long hallway, I meander past the paintings and prints donated by students from the area’s elementary, middle and high schools. The artwork seems often to depict endangered or rare elephants, monkeys and eagles, or mythologic dragons and sea creatures and it feels like I am passing into a deep chasm into the heart of a medical system designed to diagnose and treat disease but not necessarily allow one to depart.

The tunnel extends to a heavy automatic door to the CT/MRI waiting room. The room reminds me of an artificially bright cave. An administrative assistant greets me from behind the large glass window, a transparent wall marking the zone between the sick and those who are charged with managing one’s journey through the system of health care. After I check in and I’m given an ID bracelet, I sit and wait. A quiver of people of all ages and in various states of infirmity walk in or are wheeled in by red-scrubbed orderlies. Each of us will have our time in the machine, the big plastic doughnut that surrounds the “bed” we lie in as it whirs.   Two little green happy faces on the inside of the doughnut light to a robotic voice that says “Hold your breath” and then “breathe”.

I have been here many times the past five years, the equivalent of once every six months or so. My post-kidney protocol. This has involved drinking over the course of two hours two large glasses of ice water mixed with a contrasting agent that reacts to the x-rays from the CT scanner. Occasionally I have had IV contrast, which my oncologist has limited because it severely taxes the good kidney I still have. The IV fluid courses through my body, flooding my abdomen with a kind of nuclear warmth that, by the time it makes its way to my bowels, causes me to panic a little that I will empty myself right on the bed and in front of the radiation tech.

The IV fluid courses through my body, flooding my abdomen with a kind of nuclear warmth that, by the time it makes its way to my bowels, causes me to panic a little that I will empty myself right on the bed and in front of the radiation tech.

This is my last time here and I am less worried about any bad result. I am confident this final scan will be as clean as the others have been. The routine is familiar in an odd way. I am no longer put out by being surrounded by so many people whom I view as on a different medical trajectory than me, which I realize is unfair because I don’t know their stories. I chastise myself silently as I sit among them for being so smug. This is my psyche protecting me: You don’t belong here with these cancer types, it says, to stem the opposite notion, that I am in the same boat with all of these poor souls, sharing the cancer bond as we share the same waiting room.

It’s my turn: I am ushered into the CT room and before I know it, I’m lying on the platform that has been dressed with some pillows, sheets and a blanket. There is a large photograph of a peaceful mountain lake on the ceiling designed to draw my focus while the tech pushes some buttons and the bed slides into the doughnut, which feels a little like packing a full-grown adult into one of those playground slide-tunnels meant for kids. But I am not worried. I’ve been here before. I see the little green face light up and as the centrifuge-like scanner comes alive. I close my eyes and wait for the voice commanding me to “Hold your breath”. A couple cycles of sliding in and out of the doughnut scanner and the commands. Then, just as quickly, I’m done. The lights, which had been turned off, are blazing and the tech is by my side.

“All set,” she says.

I walk back across the hall to the changing room, which I do quickly, relieved to be done. Back out in the tunnel, I am struck by a thought. I am walking out of this place, past the kids’ artwork and other people headed to the CT scanner, out into the warm sun. There are people on hospital floors above me who will never leave. This is their final place. I think to myself that I am one of the lucky ones. I am humbled by a sense of being alive, of having more time on this earth, of being someone who beat cancer (knock on wood), while others won’t.

There are people on hospital floors above me who will never leave. This is their final place. I think to myself that I am one of the lucky ones.

The tunnel feels now like it has released its grip on me. Allowing me to depart. I’ve served my time in the medical system.

I have this thought too: how profound the impact of time. Five years ago I was in this same place, having just had surgery to excise the fist-sized tumor and my left kidney. It was all about cancer then. My fears were palpable–I sensed cancer in every little ache. Malignant cells ran somewhere in my body, ready to pounce ferociously to take over my body. Every six months I was back here, and though in the interim I was able to push morbid thoughts aside, all my fears rushed right back in the moments before and during my time in the CT. And for a few days afterward, until my doctor called with the “all clear”, my wife Elin and I were on edge.

I have a responsibility now; the responsibility of the survivor

Not true today. Today is different. Each scan has been a benchmark I pass, like mile markers in a 10-kilometer road race, to a finishIMG_0163 line around the corner on some bright horizon. As I walk out to the parking lot and look toward the sun and  its warmth, I feel more peace. This cancer episode, with its doctors and CT scans and fears about my health and the doubts about how long I’ll be around, is done. I am alive. Cancer-free (for now). More like the rest of the people around me than those back in that CT waiting room.

I have a responsibility now; the responsibility of the survivor, to appreciate the joy life gives us, in each moment, to be grateful for being here with the opportunity to worry about more mundane details that fill our heads most of the time. Free to make the choice to be happy for each breath, happy that my body has fought and killed any rogue cancer cells the surgeon missed. Free to enjoy the smile on my wife’s face or the simple pleasure of eating ice cream on a summer day and so many other simple things that I might otherwise take for granted, things which people deeply embroiled in their own chemo and radiation therapy battles don’t.

This time has been my friend. These five years have served up a basic but profound lesson that I either forgot or never knew: life is how we live each moment. Lest we forget that all we have in life is the present, cancer offers a huge and often fatal reminder.

I’m one of the lucky ones who has escaped and gets to pass on its lesson.

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the house where we grew up

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” First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” Alec Baldwin as Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross

The image conjured up is of a fast-talking, cheaply dressed guy with a face unctuous and pocked with acne. He avoids eye contact but acts like your best friend even though you just met. He is not someone one would trust with important financial decisions.

This is how I picture the typical sales guy. Which is highly ironic since I have been in and around sales most of my adult life. Even today, my role as a Realtor in Ann Arbor puts me squarely into a sales career.  I work hard at being nothing like the self-serving, charlatan sales stereotype, but since I have such distaste for sales a logical question is why the hell did I get into it?

An accidental salesperson

There used to be a book on my shelf entitled, The Accidental Salesperson. It was a missive on how to be good at sales without, well, being a sales guy. A lot of us don’t get into sales on purpose. We just kind of float there. I never read the book but it became a kind of mantra for me as a disclaimer in conversation. Almost embarrassedly, I would qualify my answer to “what do you do?” with something like, “I’m in sales but I’m not like the others.”

Yes, I am in sales. (That flows like the aftertaste of cold, stale coffee from the bottom of the pot.)

They say admitting you have a problem is the first step toward a cure, or something like that. The nugget of good news is, while the slimy stereotype is perpetuated on tv and in movies, that is NOT me. I rely on the fact that I don’t have it in me to be the quintessential salesman–I’m not that good. Nor could I be because of one thing: I have a conscience.

Every night, when I brush my teeth, I have to look at myself in the mirror. The resulting conversation, which stays mostly in my head but admittedly sometimes is aloud, sending the klaxons screaming on the early-warning Alzheimer’s radar my wife Elin has directed at me, goes something like this:

“Did you do Good out there today?”

“I didn’t worry about me. I focused on my people.”

“But did you make a sale?”

“I listened to what’s in their heads, what’s important to them.”

“Do you realize you are talking to yourself again?”

I’ve learned that I can be effective and conscientious by putting the attention on the people who choose to work with me.  Understanding them allows me to detach from the Glengarry, Glen Ross “Coffee is for closers” mentality, which is another sales stereotype: forceful, unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer, keeps coming back at you until, worn out, you say ‘yes’ and buy the damn timeshare or vacuum or insurance or cable deal. If I can direct my attention on the process I can stomach–even enjoy–devoting my working life to sales.

Being in sales used to cause a huge ethical dilemma for me: on the one hand I had bosses demanding big bottom-line results and closed transactions. On the other, I had customers who demanded something more of me. I’ve decided through the years, through good training and bad and through life experience, the key to happiness is learning. I learn by listening to people, hearing about their challenges, problems, hopes and desires. Then I figure out a way to get them close to a solution that works for them. I just happen to do it in the context of buying and selling homes. A lot of my approach was learned from observing a good friend when I worked in another industry.

Another friend, a therapist, told me once we all are in sales.

How many times have we as parents tried to get our kids to eat vegetables by selling the reward of dessert? How about the sales job our kids give us on staying out an extra hour by negotiating an extra chore? How is sales different than a therapist devoting themselves to serving their clients and getting a referral in return? Or my daughter’s basketball coach coaxing his charges to do an extra suicide because it might win a game or two?

I see sales transactions everywhere. My friend is right: we are all in sales.

There’s a sales axiom particularly apropos in real estate: you either get paid in money or you get paid in experience.

There is something about sales I do appreciate–at it’s core it’s very genuine.  I don’t get paid for my efforts unless I understand and help meet the needs of others. I only make money if I help someone successfully navigate the process of buying or selling their home, from our first conversation to the day they receive or hand over the keys to the front door. There’s a sales axiom particularly apropos in real estate: you either get paid in money or you get paid in experience. There’s no failure. To be honest, I believe this is more sincere than collecting a salary. Nothing is given. I have to get better at everything I do all the time in order to better serve the people who would pay me in either hard money or experience.

What could be more honest than that?

Work can be a series of experiences with no currency attached.

Living on commission can be scary. Work can be a series of experiences with no currency attached. Or you could go on a run where the money flows and get a little loose with spending. Elin and I live with that and sometimes life is difficult. But I always keep coming back to my core belief that there is great reward in self-reliance; one’s skills, insights, abilities to adapt and grow. And earning a living based on how well one brings out the best in themselves and others is bliss when it works.

I guess that’s how I accidentally wound up in sales. I must have been drawn to the sense of connecting people to what they want. I couldn’t have foreseen it would be as a Realtor. It’s funny. Some people in my business use terms like “trusted advisor” or “consultant.” But I think that’s because they are uncomfortable with the stigma attached to being a sales person. Certainly I see examples that don’t reinforce the image and not as infrequently as one might think. It makes me work harder to stand out as different from the stereotypical salesperson.

I just hope people notice.

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The title of this essay is borrowed from a song by Hammock, one of my favorite post rock bands. Here’s their website:  http://www.hammockmusic.com/

 

holding onto the sand at South Haven in August

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Or, why i re-thought the value of identity.

It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” 
― Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind

A couple months have passed since I spent a Monday night in the hospital so I could have a scan of my body. My doctor ordered the CT to see if there is any new cancer lurking somewhere among my organs. These scans are regular occurrences. Every year I submit to drinking some ghoulish concoction designed to light up my insides when the x-rays pass. It is a safety measure to ensure I am still healthy since I was diagnosed in June 2011 with a fist-sized tumor sitting and growing atop my left kidney. The doctor cut me open, pulled the tumor and my kidney, and I have been clear ever since.

That does not mean I am not affected by the tumor’s ghost. Once you have cancer, you always have cancer. The invasion forever stamps one’s psyche with a reminder of just how fragile our bodies are. I am luckier than many; I had only a short surgery and a month of recovery. I didn’t have to go through the insults of radiation or chemotherapy. Still, I am a cancer survivor like those who have had those treatments. We share a brother- and sisterhood of malignancy. We each have experienced an unwelcome, ill-intended visitor to our cells.

OnFullSizeRender-3ce you have cancer, you always have cancer. The invasion forever stamps one’s psyche with a reminder of just how fragile our bodies are.

The irony captivates me. I have built my life around a love of fitness, particularly running. The endeavor of running and cycling all those miles helped to create a self-image of invulnerability to, among other things, cancer. Running was a pillar of my identity as a vital, healthy, almost unstoppable human. Things could go awry in every other phase of my life–and they had often–as long as I ran and engaged my deep connection to a vibrant self.

Like a hammer to glass, cancer smashed my identity into shards. To someone who was so conscious of how his body operated, what foods gave energy, how muscles and tendons moved, who ran a meticulous check of every sensation when running like a fighter pilot doing an in-flight check on his Stealth aircraft, cancer was an inconceivable shock.

If the miles I ran could not prevent cancer, why all this attention to health and fitness? If I am not the 50-ish exception to the decay I see in “regular people” who the hell am I?

If I am not the 50-ish exception to the decay I see in “regular people” who the hell am I?

The devastating destruction of my physical self-image made me rethink the value of identity. Or more specifically, what is the value of holding onto identity when so much of our lives is constantly changing? I just listened to a podcast with Rich Roll, an ultra athlete, author of Finding Ultra, and vegetarian who advocates plant-based living. Roll, who creates the podcast each week with his wife Julie, said something which stuck with me: our identities reflect our life experience. And new experiences reinforce or tear at those highly protected self-images.

Before cancer, or any life event for that matter, we are one person. After, we are another. We cannot sand-running-through-hands-as-a-symbol-for-time-running-lost-etc_101211841help but be affected by events and sometimes they so shake us our images of ourselves have to change. Divorce, being fired, accidents, departures. Our lives are built of these moments, and like any moment, they must pass to allow for the next. But often we hold onto events and swaddle them around our identities like children we have to safeguard. Roll advises us to check the veracity of our self-images periodically as they also become handicaps.

It is like holding onto sand. The more tightly we grip, the faster it falls away.

Clinging too tightly to identities as if they were as right as concrete runs counter to the realities of life. It is like holding onto sand. The more tightly we grip, the faster it falls away.

In my head–and heart–I am the same runner I was at 24: lithe and efficient, cruising effortlessly at sub-6:30 pace. I am those miles. And yet I’m not.

Here is the truth (and you can tell everyone you read it here): Our identities don’t matter. They are merely stories we tell ourselves. Identity is the narrative we decide to embrace through the lens of our experiences.

But what if that story is flawed? What if the story we tell ourselves about who and what we are is simply wrong? Isn’t it possible the identity based on that story also is just as wrong?

I look at my father, now 85, much in the same way I did when he was 20 years younger and it pisses me off sometimes that he is not My Dad at 65 or 55 or 45.  I want him to be younger almost as badly as I sometimes want to be me 20 years ago.

Identity is the narrative we decide to embrace through the lens of our experiences.

The six-and-a-half pound baby girl I carried through our front door for the first time years ago is now in college. Yet my image of her remains locked as the little toothless, laughing, needy bundle inside that young woman. So what is she? My newborn or my teen-aged college student?

It is not fair. But I can’t help it. Freezing my daughters and my dad at their younger ages is part of MY identity. Another story I tell myself about who I am.

Eckhart Tolle said, “Realize that the present moment is all you have.” The present is who and what we are. The past, at least our interpretation, is the story.

No one gets through life unscathed…We cannot escape the assaults on our self-images.

No one gets through life unscathed. We all have setbacks, hurt, despair. We cannot escape these assaults on our self-images because they are a part of every life. Holding tightly to identities like invulnerable marbles dimishishes one’s ability to respond to what life is giving and to move forward. The more we remain tied to our stories, to our outcomes, the less able we are to shed identities which no longer serve us for more authentic ones. I suspect the happiest, most well adjusted people are more attuned this. Gordon Livingston says in his wonderfully profound book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, “You are what you do.” He was referring to the contrast between our intent and our behavior. But I could apply this to the idea of identity: “you are what you do in this moment.

I’m still going to run. I’m still going to pay attention to what I eat. I’m still going to aspire to be a really good dad. I’m still going to hate those cancer scans. I will fail along the way. I will fail forward. How well we recognize that our identity is as changing and ephemeral as the stories we tell ourselves about who we are is a better measure of life than how much our self-image is reinforced.

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with blinders off, leaving the enchantment forest

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Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely the were to crack.” – Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

My wounded friend sat across from me at the Fleetwood Diner one morning. He fidgeted. Every few seconds he grabbed the bill of his baseball cap and shifted it backwards across his head with both hands. Then he scratched his scalp before quickly replacing the cap.

We had been talking about his life. About how things had fallen apart for him. He had been forced out of his job because of his friendship with a guy who was arrested for doing some bad things.  I won’t reveal any more because I want to protect his identity. It doesn’t matter anyway.

MaineTrip7The point is that my dear friend, in his 40’s, divorced and in a less-than-fulfilling relationship with a woman for the past six years, was looking at rock bottom. Normally his sense of humor is as big as the Oscar Meyer hot dog van, but he didn’t laugh. He barely smiled. He was scared for his future.

“I just hate people thinking so badly about me,” he said.

His sorrow over how things had gone was as bitter as highway coffee.

He toiled for years in his field creating systems and award-winning programs to help others that now would likely be abandoned because none of his former colleagues would care as he did. He did a lot of good work that will be forgotten in all the recrimination for a massive lapse in judgement over how to pick friends. He is an involved, caring dad and has a strong community of friends.

His sorrow over how things had gone was as bitter as highway coffee. I steered the conversation toward the future.

“What is next?,” I said. “What are you going to do?”

Everyone has bad days. Sometimes we have bottomlessly bad days. Stretches of time where we feel completely lost. Where getting up and getting dressed and stepping into our busy lives is as hopeless as a crowded elevator that stops on every floor with mind-numbing muzak to boot. Where we can’t decide the next step for fear we will always make mistakes. And where we feel completely powerless to do a damn thing about it.

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, we think. Life isn’t supposed to be so hard.

I listened to a podcast recently of an interview with Casey Neistat. Neistat is a YouTube dynamo. He puts out a v-log, or video blog, doing at least one video a day. He has a coveted studio in Manhattan. And his videos cover everything from quick hacks to make existing products better to an epic adventure skiing through Manhattan during “Snow-geddon.” If anything Casey Neistat is as self-made as they come. He didn’t go to college. Today he speaks to executives at Google and Microsoft and others about creativity.

It’s when life is hard that you grow.

imagesWhat struck me during the conversation was that Neistat wasn’t boastful despite the accolades his interviewer piled on. Instead he said what made him appreciate his life were the hard times. You remember the down times in life so much more vividly than the good, easy ones. It’s when life is hard that you grow. It’s the place character is built.

This is what the conversation with my friend at Fleetwood reminded me of.

Where do we get the notion that life is not ever supposed to feel shitty? Why do we hold onto expectations and enchantments so much even when they are falling apart? Why do we judge ourselves and others so viciously when we struggle? “I’m glad I’m not that guy,” we say.

I can look at my own difficulties in life and see it is true that when I was the most distraught was when something propelled me to change.

Being estranged from my oldest daughter…taught me some things about being a parent. 

Being estranged from my oldest daughter for three years taught me some things about being a parent. It took me a while to understand, but I learned about being a better dad not just to her but to each of my kids and step-kids.  Being fired or laid off three times in six years taught me something about being employed and how I want to work. I still think one of the guys who fired me is an asshole and I’m not alone in that but what matters is not that this organization didn’t want me to be a part of it any longer. What matters is what I did next and what direction I chose from there.

It was in my miserable divorce and aftermath that I learned about boundaries and personal responsibility and who I wanted to be in a relationship. Cancer and a pulmonary embolism taught me how precious and fragile life is and how to advocate for myself in a medical situation. A sawed off finger taught me about attention and focus and a little about what metal does to flesh.

My friend said I inspired him. He called me resilient. I sloughed off the compliment because I don’t see any other way to live. Things happen. Life happens. We are the ones who choose if something is bad or good. We get caught doing something unacceptable at work and our job gets taken away. It’s just a job. Get another or do something different. Do something about a relationship that doesn’t even come close to feeling good and never will.

My struggles have helped me grow, in effect become a better, more authentic person. Yes, they have helped define me. My life experience is richer because of the difficult times in my life. I am more sensitive, compassionate and dare I say wiser because I have had to let go of enchantments that life had to be a certain way. But it’s not the bad things as much as what I did next. More things will happen to me. I will likely label some “bad” and some “good.”

You are what you do. There is no other way. I love my friend and have enormous sympathy for his predicament. I’m also excited as hell to see what he’ll do with the lemons he’s been handed.

“I’m thankful for my struggle becaue without it I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.”  — Alex Elle, author. 

i believe in your victory

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Adversity toughens manhood, and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempt from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.” –Patrick Henry

Vin Diesel smirks from the cover of a recent Men’s Fitness magazine. He is all biceps and muscled shoulders. His white t-shirt is too tight. Under the title, “Diesel Strength: Vin’s Max-Your-Life Secrets”, he reveals what it means to be true in one’s “man-ness.”

Of all the more important things one could think about–including the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent momentous decisions–I find myself pondering what it means to be a man nowadays.

It is a running joke between my wife and I how manly I am compared to the average guy. On one end are men like Vin Diesel or her perennial favorite, Matthew McConaughey, once her gold standard in masculinity. On the other end are gay men in film and entertainment like Anderson Cooper and fashion icons like Tom Ford with more style, class and something else essential in the rubric of manhood, authenticity.

My wife kids me that she wants me “just this side of gay” which is not meant to be a slur. Quite the opposite in fact. To she and some of her friends, gay men embody more style, have better grooming than the average “manly man”, are funnier and are generally more authentic with their feelings. Gay men are not caught up in appearing tough.

To be a real man, I must be as cool McConaughey, as bad ass as Diesel, as stylish as Ford, as funny as Key and Peele, all while maintaining the sensitivity of a golden retriever…

You might see the enormity of my challenge. To be a real man, I must dance along a line: as cool McConaughey, as bad ass as Diesel, as stylish as Ford, as funny as Key and Peele, all while maintaining the sensitivity of a golden retriever.

Between us, my wife and I have four daughters and one son. It is important for my daughters and for my son to see what authenticity looks like in a man just as it does in women. This includes kindness. I am trying to teach our kids the right way to treat people under all conditions. My wife and her friends sometimes chide me for being a softy. My demeanor is deliberate; Kindness and sensitivity are just right. They are as masculine as strength and grit. 

I want my children to grow up with a sense that chivalry and equality can exist in the same household.  In a world of rudeness and self-absorption I want them to see that kindness and style are cool. That women don’t have to always be feminine and masculine at the same time in order to compete with–and attract–the manly men they will work beside in their careers.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire the tough guy heroes actors like Diesel play. In fact, one of my favorite movie roles is Diesel’s Riddick. Don’t even get me started on Fast and Furious. Car movies rock. 

There is, however, something in our DNA as a culture that speaks out of both sides of its metaphorical mouth: We say it is cool for men to freely express their feelings while in the same breath we make fun of it as weakness. It’s okay to have style that stands out but too much attention to dress and we’ll call you gay.  Not in a complimentary way. We want strong heroes but we say men who exhibit too much strength “need to get in touch with their feminine side.”

No wonder it’s so hard.

It is not beyond me to be sensitive. I can cry. Really. This made me cry: Drew Lynch: Comedian with a Stutter Wins over America’s Got Talent Judges  Ondine, a beautiful movie with Colin Farrell as a down-in-his-luck Irish fisherman who catches a mermaid in his net, made me ball. In fact, I have a reputation for being really sensitive.

Like some gay men might be.

Before you dismiss me as a whiny, confused baby boomer, you have to consider I also do guy things:  I mow the lawn. My puny biceps, built from years as a runner and cyclist, bulge as I wield the Craftsman weed whacker like a maestro.

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I go up on my roof to clear leaves. I know which end of the hammer to hold. I build with the focus and skill of an experienced contractor. (okay, I’ll admit this is an exaggeration. I’m more like those DIY’ers begging the guy at Stadium Hardware to help me out of a jam I’ve created in a home renovation project gone awry).  I am pretty competent around power tools, though those who know I had a little accident recently and there is now one less power tool in my quiver (see Everything Seems Like It Used To Be Something Else).

Just like Diesel, only me.

In recent years I have upped my fashion game. Deliberately. I have a rule: Never be the worst dressed guy in the room. Even if I’m only slightly better dressed than other guys, that’s okay. I notice the nuances of how guys dress and where they go wrong.

I have a rule: Never be the worst dressed guy in the room.

I check out men’s fashion on Pinterest and in magazines. When I dress for work I choose specific combinations of pants, shirts and ties, even socks and shoes so that I can convey a certain look. Is my deliberateness in choice of dress gay?

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To me, a sense of style, sensitivity and kindness are the badges of an evolved man. They have nothing to do with sexuality. Displaying kindness even in the face of the judgement is as masculine as muscle.

Kindness is opening the car door for my wife, listening when she speaks, giving her the last Oreo (most of the time).  I participate in folding the laundry and doing dishes, vacuuming and cleaning and thank her in front of them when she does all those chores. I am not saying other men don’t do these things and more. I am not better than anyone. And I know my daughters have other male role models in their lives; my ex’s husband appears to treat my daughters’ mother with kindness and respect.

I show my kids simple things like opening the car door for my wife, listening when she speaks, giving her the last Oreo (most of the time).

Ultimately, it’s about not judging people on their appearance, but on their Behavior with a capital “B”. Can we appreciate an individual’s approach to style as well as their emotions without questioning their sexuality? Can we as a culture disconnect sexuality from a judgement about masculinity?

When I cut off my middle finger in a table saw a couple weeks ago, the pain was off the charts. I didn’t cry a tear. Is that manly enough?

Ultimately, it’s about not judging people on their appearance, but on their Behavior with a capital “B”.

I smile when my kids notice my efforts. My stepson regularly opens my wife’s door, his sisters’ doors and mine. One moment he rushes ahead to hold the door and won’t relent until we pass. The next we discuss his favorite tool brands (“Dewalt is my favorite, then Porter-Cable, then Kobalt,” he tells me.) This lesson has stuck.

To me there is nothing more powerful than a man living his truth. I only know Vin Diesel the actor not the real man inside. So he can punch harder, kill more aliens, and drive faster than I ever will. He is a man’s man. I will never have his biceps nor his six pack. I’m okay with that. As long as I earn the respect of my wife and my kids for the kind of man I am, I can live with not being a super man. A gentle man is just fine.

“This is the test of your manhood: How much is there left in you after you have lost everything outside of yourself?” –Orison Swett Marden

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seems like everything used to be something else

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The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.- Aristotle

The “e”, “d” and “c” keys are impossible.

they rest on my keyboard just as they always have. it is not their fault they are now icons of despair. the middle finger keys’ places are not meant to have any meaning other than being letters set in rank according to someone’s long ago sense of how frequently words require their use. their presence more than any other letters reminds me that now is a different time, a sort of post-finger apocalypse where the entire typing and writing landscape has changed.

a fraction of a second’s inattention using a table saw, rushing to finish a home project, cost the middle finger on my left hand its life. my carelessness using one of the most dangerous of tools even in safe conditions doomed this useful and loved digit.

now the index finger, my middle one’s smaller neighbor, will bear a double burden. it unnaturally will have to take on much the work the middle finger so easily accomplished.

new mental gymnastics are required. the first few words i started to type were awkward. the first “e” i pressed didn’t happen. it was there. i saw it and naturally my brain told my middle finger “press ‘e’ .” the “e” didn’t respond. there was only air. i stopped typing in that moment and thought about the significance of not only my missing middle finger, but missing fingers for everyone. how different things now will be. my left hand is bandaged so even simple tasks like hitting the shift key and a letter at the same time are not really going to happen.  i know this is a temporary adjustment. but it’s significant nonetheless. i will have to adapt to an unfamiliar way of doing something that has been an intrinsic part of my life since i took my first typing class in eighth grade.

the worst part may not be actually losing my middle finger.

the worst part my not be actually losing my middle finger. on Saturday evening my wife and i had sushi with her parents. i ate as i always eat sushi, with chopsticks. but this time i used my right hand (i am left-handed). it was an adaptation that happened as if automatically. something i just did in order to eat. i wasn’t perfect, but i didn’t have the other-handed awkwardness one might expect.

the darker part is the haunting vision of the moment when the rotating saw blade chopped though flesh and bone.

the darker part is the haunting vision of the moment when the rotating saw blade chopped through flesh and bone. it plays over and over in my head, especially at night just as i lay down to sleep. the past few days, just as i close my eyes, like some horror movie opening on a big screen, i see the churning blade rising up through my finger. the alarms in my head are screaming. i see blood shooting out like auras of sun spots in all directions. i feel the chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk as the teeth scrape the bone. i cannot pull my finger away. i amth watching as if i were watching someone else’s horror. suddenly the pain kicks in and i sweep back to now. in my vision i pull my hand away, scream to whomever is in earshot-“CALL 911!” the burning in my hand rises. i feel faint as i bend over, squeezing my right hand over my left. someone places a blanket over my hand to stem the bleeding. just before they do, i see my poor, trusted middle finger dangle, like a fallen, dying soldier. massively raw at its base, as if gnawed by piranha.

it all was so surreal, movie and real life coalesced. a bad dream. i do not cry. i am embarrassed, scared, angry at myself for  rushing, for not being more cautious. i’m worried what my wife will think. what will my kids feel? dad, the freak with a lobster claw for a left hand. all these thoughts running through my head. all the while the intense burning of my wound.

but when i try to sleep is only the moment where blade and flesh and bone interact that stirs me. haunts me. the replay is so vivid, so real. i sense the rotating blade against bone. i feel the burn. i see the blood. it only lasts a couple of seconds before i wake, trying to stir to consciousness and away from nightmare. it cycles through once or twice before i am able to sleep. i don’t know if it is fatigue or the narcotic pain reliever or both. i don’t care. i welcome the peace from this horrible stupid accident. this lapse in judgement and precaution. it didn’t just cost me my middle finger. this accident is a scar on my psyche. i know it’s not fair to put it into the same silo as servicemen who suffer PTSD from wounds caused by war–not even close and i’m deliberately trying to avoid that comparison–yet something lingers.

i am a DIY homeowner who overstepped a safety boundary.

i am not a soldier. i am a DIY homeowner who overstepped a safety boundary. who tried to do too much too quickly without taking precautions. i set the stage for this exact situation to occur. all the stories one hears about people exactly like me getting injured while using power tools and i am now one of the many, a statistic compiled in an emergency room.

“diagnosis: TRAUMATIC APMUTATION OF OTHER FINGER(S) (COMPLETE) (PARTIAL).” as i stare at the notes from the ER, i get a sense they were written for someone else. “amputation” is such a vile word. as disgusting as any ever spoken. now i am forever connected with this loaded term.

i went to the garage this weekend. the table saw lies quietly on the concrete floor, like some sleeping dragon after a meal. dried blood spatters the table and dots the blade. i was anxious about table saws before the accident. now i am more so. it’s crazy to be irrational about a tool. it’s not a sleeping dragon. the saw has taken an anthropomorphic leap. maybe i have to have a villain. i do not wish to power up this tool agin.

i will look at the empty space on my left hand, knowing that my moment’s inattention caused that. the stitches eventually will be taken out. the wounds on my hand eventually will heal. i’m not so sure about the collateral damage in my head.

the journalist david moranis, said:

i believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet i also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder.

maybe it was time for my middle finger to get ground up in that saw. maybe i needed to suffer this trauma to grow. who knows what doors will open with this new awareness i possess. sure, i lost my middle finger. i could have lost all of the fingers on my left hand according to the ER doc. somehow the damage was limited. i still have NINE fingers, including two all-important thumbs. there’s solace in that. i got off with a warning, a speeding ticket in the fast lane of my life. i still don’t know what to make of it all. i guess i’ll figure it out.

 

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essayist’s post-script: it has been seven months since I last wrote in this space. i have had a serious case of writer’s block. or maybe i’ve just been experiencing life without a pen in hand (ironic seeing the above essay). these seven months have felt oddly; i often felt that i had lost my voice and didn’t have quite the words to say. i hope this is a return to regular writing in this space. as always thank you for reading. if you have any response, feel free to write in the comment box after every post or drop me a line at christianRward@yahoo.com. – cw

no(t) (a)muse(ing)

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Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. — E.L Doctorow

There is no floodgate of prose. There is no muse tapping me on the shoulder and pouring beautiful words into my head. She was there, gently whispering to me as I rushed to snatch pieces of her genius in my fingertips. She was. Then she was gone.

It is a poor man’s fate, mine, to lose my only creative voice. It is unfair when one has so few gifts to steal one of the few things I can offer the world. Not that it is so great that masses will cry out, “Foul!” Maybe someone will notice there have been no recent essays with my byline in their email inbox, no thoughtful analyses of my predicaments. How did he find that door?

It is as if the well has run dry, the toy box of dreams is empty, drained amid all the unspectacular daily distractions of life–work, family, house stuff. In the past there had always been room for all these things and the writing; there was always at least a trickle of inspiration, of insight. And the words always came.

Perhaps my focus has been too much on doing all the other stuff of life too perfectly, or perfectly enough, to demand so much of my attention.

Not now. Perhaps my focus has been too much on doing all the other stuff of life too perfectly, or perfectly enough, to demand so much of my attention. Perhaps this is simply a low time, natural and inevitable in the life of anyone who aspires to the moniker  “writer.” Don’t artists suffer stretches when their brushes move like brooms across the canvas, when what used to be the joyful play with color and light feels worse than paint-by-numbers, a burden, like a migraine and one wants to close the curtains, turn off the lights and curl into child’s pose until it passes?

There is a kind of dullness set in.  Neither sunlight, nor fire, nor passion call the writer, the artist, the musician, the sculptor in this state. As if the source of one’s creative endeavors is swaddled in cotton from head to toe, we feel nothing, except the pangs of guilt and a total loss of identity. All edges are gone. Food is tasteless. Wine has no bouquet. Flowers and grass are gray. For if I am not a writer, an artist, a creative, what am I? What is left of my distinctly un-spectacular life? What am I contributing to the universal dialogue?

Or, is it better to write about it in some overly dramatic way hoping to bring pity to one’s self-absorbed, narcissistic, superficial approach to life?

Is it better to sit at the counter at a diner or in some cafe, drinking coffee after tea after latte in an endless fall to the bottom of depression? Or, is it better to write about it in some overly dramatic way hoping to bring pity to one’s self-absorbed, narcissistic, superficial approach to life?

The practical friend would argue, “dude’s just taking care of business,” and “he doesn’t have time for that stuff” as he pats the crestfallen creative on fragile sunken shoulders. “You just need to chill a little. You’ll be fine soon. Don’t worry.”

In 1978’s North Dallas Forty Nick Nolte’s Phil Elliot kneels next to running back Delma Huddle at the end of the last game of the season as Huddle is carried on a stretcher after suffering a monstrous tear of his hamstrings and then a ferocious hit by a linebacker. Nolte says to the whimpering Huddle. “It’s okay, Del. You’ll be back. You’ll be back Del,” even though everyone, including Nolte, knows he will not.

Where is this muse who has been so kind for so long? Where does the inspiration lay? Why, why has she so suddenly left?

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