Through great suffering comes great understanding.
Our responsibility now is to do something with it.
Through great suffering comes great understanding.
Our responsibility now is to do something with it.
Full confession…I’m not a very good student. That is, the student that puts in his time; puts in the practice and hones the material. Rather, I am addicted to the discovery, the cognitive leaps. Synapses that bring about thrilling insights and discoveries. But as with any addiction, the short-term reward is increasingly followed by a long-term deleterious effect – malaise.
Salvation comes in the form of doing the work. Of practice and routine in doing something over, and over, and over until the beauty of the practice emerges. But one must work through the ugliness and discomfort first – the plateau that seems to go forever.
“What you resist, persists, Rick.”
I wince when I remember these wise words shared with me at a younger and blissfully more ignorant age. And yet there is grace even in this moment of truth. To choose action is a moment of Creation. And the only question left to answer is, “will Creation be honored with the action that follows?”
when it’s just me
When it’s just the sound of my voice,
in between the distractions,
to remind me
that God is listening,
and occasionally asks,
“What do you have to say for yourself?”
It’s 3:10 am and the dogs have woken me up this morning barking at the east winds that buffet the house. The house creaks more these days, just like my knees. I yell at the dogs and burrow under the warm covers, knowing sleep will not come back this morning. My mind is up and wandering. I give thanks for another day and roll out of bed, surrendering my place beside Teresa. She murmers something unintelligible and annexes my warm spot. She can sleep for ten hours a night. I’d sooner win the lottery than this mind of mine allowing me that kind of slumber.
Fuck you! I want to shout (with a nanosecond of hesitation)
“How did you think it would be?” God said.
“Different than this,” I said.
“Different better, or different worse?” she said.
“Just different,” I said.
“Or better, I guess.”
The questions come abundantly this time of the morning. The answers, not so much. At least, not new answers as I reflect on a conversation with a friend last week. I spoke a brutal truth to him. It surprised both of us and hit him in a vulnerable place.
“I don’t trust you,” I said.
His eyes screamed #backstabbingmotherfucker, though what he said was much more diplomatic.
“I thought I would have more to show for my sacrifices,” I said.
“There are no guarantees,” she said. “But only that which you believe to be true.”
I mimic the refrain in a petulant voice, having heard it many times before.
I can be such an asshole.
“What is it that you want?” she said.
I thought carefully this time. More so than before at least.
“To know what I do matters. And that it helps in big ways, and small.”
I don’t know how to feel. I am full of don’t-know-how-to-feel’s. All I know is it needed to be said. I needed to say it. Whether he needed to hear it is up to him. He may not have heard it. He may have heard something else, no different that what often I hear is my own mis-translation of what others say to me. Convoluted by my own projection of uncertainty, inadequacy, or a plethora of other nouns.
“You have all those things,” she said. “So, what is the problem?”
I don’t know what to say.
“You have chosen your path,” she continues.
“One does not walk through the unbroken brush unscathed.”
“When does it get easier?” I said, the emotion at my throat.
“In time, you will reach the clearing. For now, you must embrace the purpose for how you travel. For that is my gift to you, and is what gives meaning to your story.”
I could watch this powerful TedTalk from Brene Brown a thousand times over and it would still hit me between the eyes every time. If you have not seen this before, I guarantee it will be some of the best 20 minutes you ever spend…
Fear is an attribute of an objectified existence. – rpt
Empty bucket lists haunt the maker
While the garden blooms
Fed from buckets
Filled with rain
I have this habit of wanting clear explanations for things when they don’t work out. The problem with that mindset is that often times there are no explanations.
It just is.
And that is the hardest reality for me to accept because it reminds me that I have little control over what happens to me. Or to those I love and care about. Or to anyone for that matter.
It just is.
Tolkien knew this well:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Oh, that I could have this perspective in the moment. No, rather, I allow myself to be drawn into the drama of not seeing things for as they are, but wishing they were otherwise, tantrums and all.
And it gets worse.
When the reality of the situation is exacerbated by my reaction to it. Like icing on the cake. Perhaps this is God’s way of showing me the old self I must learn to leave behind before I am finished here. The little me.
Until then, I am tethered to him like conjoined twins. Where he goes, I go. Where I go, he goes.
What a lovely pair we make.
In a weak moment last night, I found myself watching reality TV. It was an episode of Botched, a show where plastic surgeons perform restorative surgery on a variety of failed boob jobs, nose jobs, tummy tucks, butt implants…you name it. My wife walked by as I was watching and asked, “what’s wrong?” Apparently the pained look on my face communicated more than I was aware of.
“This show,” I said, getting up from the couch to go to bed. It creeped me out and I couldn’t take any more. It did get me wondering though, about my own obsessions with image as I stared at the reflection looking back at me while I brushed my teeth. We have a running joke in the Thomas family that we never met a mirror we didn’t like. Resisting the double take in the floor to ceiling mirrors at 24hour fitness is about as impossible as driving by Voodoo doughnuts without stopping by to sample a bacon maple bar. Inasmuch, I’ve had my own temptations with “modification” as I’ve watched my hairline creep further back on my head. Thankfully, the thoughts have come and gone without action.
The irony in all of this is my parent’s laments are now mine. Aging, as they say for many, is not kind. I also believe aging is harder on women than men, made worse by the fact that women are held to a higher image standard in our culture (In a weak moment, I shared my opinion with an all female executive team I coach. In fairness, it was at the end of a long day of facilitation and after a couple glasses of wine so my filter was down. Let’s just say I didn’t hear the end of it the rest of the night…).
Yet as I contemplate the crows feet at the corners of my eyes, the growing age spot on the side of my forehead, and my worsening eyesight, it occurs to me that I’ve worked hard to earn these hallmarks of age. Each is an emblem that bears a story of its own; each scar to be cherished and each wrinkle to be loved. They are as much a part of me as my own children and I could no more dismiss them with the surgeon’s scalpel as I could excommunicate the ones I love from my life.
Accepting who I am, in totality and without judgment is what I esteem for. Wrinkles and all.
At 52, I am not where I thought I would be. Not with my career, not with my marriage, not with my relationship with my children. Nor with most of my accomplishments. None of these things are where I thought they would be. And yet, if one were to examine all of these from an outsiders point of view, they would find amazing abundance. Of love. Of success. Of meaning.
I know this. And yet, the feeling of inadequacy still remains. The Song Remains the Same, as Zeppelin rails. I wonder if they looked at their music the same way.
I think too much, being cursed with an overactive mind. I have learned this, however, that if I am certain of a particular outcome, I am more likely to be wrong than right. Especially when it involves people. With the inanimate on the other hand? I kill it. Perhaps it is the logic orientation in my brain that I can step through a process and predict an outcome well in advance of it happening. As long as it doesn’t involve people. There was a time when the satisfaction of process easily overshadowed the disappointment in the relationship.
It is the relationships that stay with me. That I ponder the most when I wake at 3:27 in the morning. Like this morning, leaving me feeling ambivalent and all the more uncertain.
Certainty is the yoke one must let go of.
Without certainty, there is no longer expectation. And without expectation, there just is. Where my wife is. Where my kids are. Where those I love and cherish wait for me.
Is, is an amazing place to be.
So death I say, death to certainty. That we have peace in what remains.
Though hardly five feet tall, my mom could fill a room. Whether her whooping laughter, or her quiet presence that had gravity, she drew attention. One way or another, you knew she was there.
It was this quality that dimmed the most when the cancer spread to her brain. Further, the radiation treatments sucked dry whatever reserve of energy she had left. Thus, when she was subjected to repeated lung taps to drain the fluids from the growing tumors, she would lay in bed for days.
It was 2001 and she had not given up on the idea that she could die on her own terms–in her apartment and definitely not in a nursing home. It was then that I began the weekly trips to the Seattle area on Fridays to spend the day with her, do her dishes and take her shopping.
On one particular visit, I arrived at her apartment to find it a disaster. Having missed the prior week’s visit due to business travel, the apartment showed every bit of the fourteen days since I had been there last. Dirty dishes were piled high, the cat box was overflowing and Mom had spilled one of her funky protein drink concoctions on the carpet in the hallway. The crusty spot, crimson from the paprika in the shake had dried and was virtually impenetrable to anything I could find in the cleaning closet. Mom was asleep in her room when I arrived so I went to work cleaning the apartment, vacuuming and scrubbing until it looked somewhat presentable. Mom was still sound asleep when I finished, so I went shopping for food and more cleaning supplies. Returning to the apartment a while later hoping to find her awake, the apartment was still quiet as I entered.
“Mom?” I called out.
I unloaded the groceries and then checked in on her. She was lying quietly on her side, staring placidly out the window.
“Mom?” I whispered as I kneeled beside her bed.
“Hi, love,” she said.
“How are you?” I asked. She paused to fix her eyes on me, and gently smiled.
“Ok.” She gazed at me quietly as my throat grew hot and tight, and I blinked the tears away.
“Mom, the place was a mess. And what did you spill in the hallway?” I asked, exasperated. Not pausing for her answer, I proceeded to lecture her on asking for help from the other siblings for the cooking and cleaning. “They’re only a phone call away,” I said, doing a poor job of hiding the frustration in my voice.
I hadn’t noticed her hand reach for my forearm until I felt the grip. Her touch was cool, but firm. Strong enough to silence my reproach.
“Mijo,” she said. “Be still. You are with me now. That is all that matters.” She withdrew her arm and closed her eyes. I watched her sleep for the rest of the afternoon, her pulse slowly tapping it’s beat in her temple. She woke briefly late in the day and I helped her to the bathroom. Sipping on hot broth in bed, we shared the quiet moment together and then she went back to sleep. I kissed her forehead, the few straggling hairs she had left brushing my nose, and I left for home feeling heavy and helpless.
Seeking distraction on the radio, I happened on an interview with Ahmed Kathrada, a fellow ANC activist and prison mate of Nelson Mandela. Imprisoned at Robben Island for twenty five years, Kathrada spoke of the experience and his time with Mandela with such energy and positivism that the interviewer eventually remarked (note: I am relating this interview from memory…), “You seem to have such joy in how you speak of your imprisonment.” Kathrada laughed. “It wasn’t always so. I was miserable for many years until a priest began to visit the prison and asked to meet with me. Soon we struck up a friendship and I looked forward to his visits. We would talk and I would share with him my misery of being imprisoned, and then at some point he said to me, ‘Ahmed, there is a Chinese fable I want to share with you. There is an old man in a village. It is winter and it is very cold. The old man who has no shoes or socks and complains to everyone in how miserable he is. And then he comes upon a beggar with no feet.'” Kathrada laughed. “I understood at that moment my the true nature of my circumstances. Though I am imprisoned, I am alive. And unlike my ANC brothers and sisters dying in the countryside, I am fed and have a roof over my head. It did not mean that I felt any less strongly of the injustice of apartheid, nor of the circumstances of my imprisonment. But it allowed me to see the blessing in being alive.”
My thoughts went to Mom as I reflected on Kathrada’s story and it became quite obvious to me where the blessing was in my situation. It came in the form of a dying mom, in one of her last acts of motherhood that she could muster to teach her son a lesson. That the most important and profound thing we can do for one another is to simply, be present. To be still. To be all in with each other.
Anything else falls away like dry husks.