Turning Grief into Blessings

Like most men, I am incapable of providing comfort to someone who hopes to find a patient ear for their grief.

My default response is to provide a remedy. To pick them up, brush off their dust, wipe their tears, pat them on the back and spur them forward. It’s instinctive. Honed during hundreds of thousands of years during our life as hunters, it is an inherent male trait. Just imagine where our species would be had we sat by one of our fallen comrades to listen to their hurt. There was no time for that. The survival of those back at camp depended on our stoic courage. We had to get on with the hunt or else.

So when asked to lend a patient ear, I itch to offer solutions, and for that lifesaving instinct, men are often called tone-deaf, callous, and insensitive.

My shoulder is not to cry on. Do not look at me for relief. Come to me only if you wish to regain your footing and find a way out of your misery.

“Your bodily soul wants comforting,

The severe father wants spiritual clarity.

He scolds, but eventually leads you to the open.

Trust your wound to a teacher’s surgery.

Flies collect on a wound. They cover it;

those flies of your self-protecting feelings,

your love for what you think is yours.

Let a teacher wave away the flies

and put a plaster on the wound.

Don’t turn your head. Keep looking

at the bandaged place.

That’s where the light enters you.”

— Spiritual Master Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

My approach to grief, however, is conflicted. On the one hand, I know it’s essential to avoid getting stuck in melancholy, but I also often find its source in humanity’s deluded insistence on permanence. Of wanting things never to change. For loved ones to be immortal, comforts eternal, hardship nonexistent, suffering but something which should only afflict others.

We live in a contingent universe. Death and loss are part of the bargain. Reject those and you will be denied life’s blessings. Run away from the pain and you’ll remain in pain. Better confront it, speak to it, listen to it, and you will soon hear its call to a path of greater purpose. If a period of mourning serves for little else than to wallow in self-pity, the ‘gift of the wound’ will be squandered and the light Rumi talks about will never enter.

I’m not suggesting one can or should overcome a loss but to transmute it into a lavish bestowal of blessings. Of using our pain to heal others. To honor our losses by using them as fertile soil for regenerative deeds.

“Perhaps the deepest measure of our character, of our very humanity, says writer Maria Popova, “is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, when the world withdraws its mercy.”

On the morning of December 14, 2012, the world withdrew its mercy from the lives of Jessica Lewis and her six year-old son Jesse who was slain that day along with 19 of his classmates at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Talk about unspeakable grief.

Despite my previous stern and stoic assertions, I’m not so sure I could pick myself up should I lose one my daughters. I do, however, find inspiration in what Jesse’s mother decided to do with her anguish.

In one of the most heart-wrenching videos I have ever watched, Jessica says that when she went back home to get Jesse’s clothes for the funeral, she walked through the kitchen on her way out and noticed three words Jesse had written on the kitchen chalkboard shortly before he died:

NURTURING — HEALING — LOVE.”

That was Jessica’s calling.

“These words were a message of comfort for his family and friends and an inspiration for the world,” Jessica says. “And I knew I’d be spending the rest of my life spreading this message.” Today, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement is spreading its healing love across the entire country and the world.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

These are the words of Viktor Frankl, who, in 1942, was interned in a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife, parents, and other family members. He spent three years in four camps, including Auschwitz, and was the only member of his family to survive.

Frankl surmounted the experience because he realized that there was an important task he needed to complete: a manuscript he had been working on which later became one of the most influential books of the post-war period — ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a “will to meaning,” which equates to a desire to find meaning in life. He argued that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning.

For people who think there’s nothing to live for, the question is getting [them] to realize that life is still expecting something from them. — Viktor Frankl

In 1982, African American Archie Williams received a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. On DNA evidence, he was released 37 years later.

Speaking of his stay at Angola State Penitentiary — classified as the bloodiest prison in the United States — Archie said he had a choice: “Either be strong, or weak, because you will be tried and tested.”

When asked how he coped, he said, “Freedom is of the mind… I went to prison, but never let my mind go to prison.”

Like Viktor Frankl, Archie had a dream for his future. He loved to sing, and he’d watch America’s Got Talent in jail imagining himself on that stage. On May 19, 2020, Archie brought the show’s audience and judges to tears and a rousing ovation while singing ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.’

Unspeakable loss into world healing… horror into meaning… darkness into song; the transformational stories of Jessica Lewis, Viktor Frankl, and Archie Williams are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit once we choose to gift ourselves to the world and transmute our grief into courageous, all-embracing love.

So when in grief, let its fire burn through you, but not all the way to your soul. Just enough to ignite a white spark of inspiration you can cup in your hands and carry with you to bring spiritual clarity, hope and healing to those who await your blessings.


Related Reflections:

The Beauty in Hardship

The Unhappiest Place in The World

Timeless Wisdom for Troubling Times

“You’ll Figure it Out”

Crying Over Spilled Milk

Is the only way to die with few regrets

They say there’s no use crying over spilled milk, and I couldn’t disagree more.

The use in crying lies in what’s left in the glass and in figuring out how you spilled it in the first place.

Careless, inattentive and unaware, we spill our years under the delusion that we’re eternal. In fact, we often kill time by waking up late to shorten the hours not knowing what we’d otherwise do with ourselves with so much time on our hands. “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” said Henry David Thoreau.

Just wait a little, wait a while’… we tell our hoped for dreams and repressed longings. But while and while have no end, wait a little is a long, long road, and time waits for no man.

And then one day, you wake up and realize there is more spilled milk than what’s left in the glass and the spilling won’t stop.

You panic, cry, regret… What’s the use?

The use is in making sure that whatever milk is left, trickles, instead of spilling. And the trick to the trickle is to live attentive and aware from that moment on.

When Australian caregiver Bronnie Ware wrote a blog in 2009 listing the five things that most haunted her terminally ill patients, she had no idea it would become an internet sensation. The blog took on a life of its own. By 2012, more than eight million people had read her post.

No one, it seems, wants to die with these 5 regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

At 54, I realized how much milk I had spilled, and then and there, decided not to allow one more drop to fall without my awareness. And the only way I felt I could do this was by setting fire to the life I’d been leading up to that point and journey into the unknown on the knife-edge of uncertainty.

That was four years ago… 48 months that have felt like an eternity and I don’t regret one second.

One by one, I’ve examined these 5 venomous regrets and worked-out the antidotes.

Authenticity

Death, says philosopher Alain de Botton, is a terrifying agent of authenticity.

When you take stock of the milk you’ve spilled and how little remains, you realize there is no time left for pretense. No time to show up on stage wearing an ill-fitting costume and mask. Not a second more to waste on pleasing others by denying yourself. The only time you have is for growing into your own plumage, brightly, and end the weary, and ultimately fruitless charade of trying to be someone you are not. As written in the Bhagavad Gita, “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly, than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly.”

Seeing how our modern world is hellbent on making us blend-in like sheep, it is one hardest battles you will ever have to fight. But if you don’t wage it, you will be voicing this regret once your last drop of milk is about to spill. Authenticity, I’ve also discovered, is one of love’s most powerful aphrodisiacs.

Overworked

I don’t think it’s a matter of too much work but the type of work on which we devote our time.

What many call “burnout,” “stress,” or “depression,” author Sam Keen examines under a more useful light.

Burnout, Keen warns, “is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions but your soul has departed.

Stress is not simply a dis-ease; it’s a symptom that you are living someone else’s life (Regret #1).

Depression is more than low self-esteem; it is a distant early warning that you are on the wrong path and that something in you is being pressed down, beat on, imprisoned, dishonored.”

Purposeful work, that which matches your talents and passions to a particular need in the world, is one you will never tire of.

A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation. — Playwright William Herzog

But what if you’re still uncertain what you’re passions are and are stuck in a job you hate, like 70% of Americans?

Consider it then as a means to an end; one that can subsidize a period of exploration until you feel a spark. “Seek and you shall find,” said Jesus.

Expressing feelings

I assume that what Bronnie’s patients meant by this regret is what Mary Evans referred to at the end of this poem:

If there be sorrow

let it be

for things undone

undreamed

unrealized

unattained

to these add one:

Love withheld

… restrained.

Also what writer Anaïs Nin wrote in one of her journals:

“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of wounds, weariness, of witherings and tarnishings.”

And, finally, what Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving:

Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.

Beyond love for others, we also betray ourselves by not having the courage to express and actualize our deepest longings. We repress them out of fear of what others may think… the fear of having our dreams judged unrealistic, impractical, fanciful — even childish.

As we age, life has a cruel way of robbing us from our youthful idealism and makes us stop asking the magical questions of childhood: What if?’ ‘I wonder…’ ‘If only…’ One day, we simply stop building castles in the sky and no longer dare the impossible.

Genius, said French poet Baudelaire, is childhood recovered at will, and I have since killed the old cynic in me.

Dying without this 3rd regret, then, requires us to love with abandon, selflessness, attention, and supreme care, and to give voice and wings to our dreams.

Not staying in touch with friends

Today, more than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship.

The key lies in the last word of the previous sentence: “companionship,” which, at root, means breaking bread together, and springs from the same source as the word “compassion,” or suffering together.

When I finally broke free, I realized how encumbered I had been with frivolous acquaintances, most of whom had only showed up in my life when times were good. The few that did appear when feeling blue, did so with the intent to feel better about themselves and their own fortune.

Approaching my 60th birthday, I’ve since discarded those unworthy of the name “friend” like one would discard a pair of tight-fitting shoes or the unwholesome leaves of an artichoke. I am down to one, but oh! what a companion he is; showing up —both— on sunny and stormy days, patiently watching me spill my guts without once casting judgment as we break bread together.

You know you are in the presence of an empathic man when you feel you have been given permission to be yourself. — Robert Bly

Like Sancho Panza to Quixote, he rides by my side — in victory and defeat — loyally serving me as the voice of conscience when I stray, and not once allowing me to wallow in self-pity or complacency. He is the thorn on my side, not my echo.

“Do not seek friends,” said Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, “seek comrades in arms!” And you will find them once you understand the meaning of friendship, dare to be true to yourself, and work on something which nurtures your passions.

I wish I had let myself be happier

Christ, I was happy! But for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy; happy in the being and the knowing, that is beyond happiness, that is bliss! And if you have any sense, you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it. — Henry Miller

Happiness is not a pursuit, as the nation’s founding fathers have led you to believe. It’s an orientation, steeped in awareness, as Henry Miller discovered. It’s mindful attention to what exactly gives us joy, pleasure, and delight. It’s counterbalancing our unpleasant moments with a heavy dose of gratitude and by recalling positive experiences in the most vivid language we can.

Since the moment of my reinvention, I have sustained an almost daily practice of writing down 3 things for which I am grateful, along with a recent positive experience. A year ago, I tallied and categorized the 118 positive moments I had recorded up till then. This I did to determine the type of experiences which had provoked an emotion, strong and memorable enough, to make me want to write them down. The result was stunning, but not surprising.

A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), or simply making someone happy, or involving ‘meraki,’ a word modern Greeks use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, and love — when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Many were moments when I cooked and shared a meal and stories with loved ones. These kind, loving gestures, however small and seemingly insignificant, will prevent me from being forgotten, something that to ancient Egyptians was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A second third had been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future — with all its hopes, wants, and wishes — was annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ‘ataraxia,’ a lucid state of equanimity characterized by freedom from distress and worry, which, in my case, usually occur out in nature.

One tenth were moments when I celebrated the successes of others.

Close behind were times when I experienced “flow,” the mental state in which time seems suspended while doing something immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment, like William Herzog.

Moments when I displayed grit and discipline when tackling challenges comprised six percent of my positive experiences.

A similar proportion was when I rewarded myself, say, with a double latte as a prize for a small victory.

I was up to 97%, and money, fame, and meaningless thrills and distractions were conspicuously absent.

I discovered what truly brought me joy.

I wish I would’ve savored every moment

This regret is not on Bronnie’s list but I’m sure that, if prodded, her dying patients would have nodded in agreement.

As I recently wrote, when first becoming conscious of the little milk I had left and the much spilled without awareness, I was gripped by unspeakable terror, especially when realizing that many of my past experiences would never repeat themselves. As writer Maria Popova says, “one of the greatest betrayals of our illusion of permanence, one of the sharpest daggers of loss, is the retroactive recognition of lasts.”

I now live with the urgency of the terminally-ill, hurried by what Germans term Torschlusspanik— literally, “gate-closing panic”- the feeling that opportunities are shutting down. But rather than panic, I now think of it this way: Every time I’m about to experience something, whether a solitary walk, a kiss, caress, or moonrise, I assume it won’t happen again and savor each blissful drop. Every act, then, acquires a heightened intensity and deeper meaning, leaving behind an indelible soulprint.

No doubt, I will die with some regrets, but I’m on a spirited quest to do so with the least amount possible.

What about you?

Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life? — Mary Oliver


Related Reflections:

I’m Aging Really Well

Dad Died Last Night

I can’t find my passion and purpose in life

 

 

I’m Aging Really Well!

In ways you can’t imagine.

“At 60, one starts to get young,” said Pablo Picasso, “but by then it’s too late.”

I’m beginning to fathom what this French rascal meant.

Because it now takes me a good part of the morning just to rev up: to discharge all the night’s clogged phlegm, scrape off the rheumy crust from my sleepy eyes, straighten my spine, my thinning hair and unruly eyebrows, ensure all my frostbitten toes are still there, and patiently stand over the toilet bowl watching my piss trickle slower than it takes coffee to percolate. By that time, I’m already tired, a good part of the morning is shot, and I’m close to calling it a day. My biggest fear, I’ll say, is that my decaying body won’t keep pace with my youthful spirit that keeps stamping the ground like a hotblooded bull.

Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho said age only slows the rhythm of the man who never dares walk on his own two feet. In other words: the man who doesn’t live true to himself and so leads an inauthentic life. Still, while I have proven this to be true, my two feet are getting weary and are having trouble keeping up with the frenzied pace I have purposely given my life for almost eight years now.

Back then, at the start of this new chapter in my life, I took one look at the span between the end of my childhood and my present and realized that most of those thirty odd years had elapsed under the implacable weight of tedium; that hulking monster who Spanish writer Luis Landero says approaches by drumbeat in a slow parade with his ashen face and lugubrious retinue of phantoms to officially shut down a life with the death lock of monotony. In a panic, I also recognized that my hourglass was more than half empty which lent the urgency of the terminally ill to whatever time I figured I had left.

It doesn’t take much to remind me what a mayfly I am… what a soap bubble floating over a children’s party. — ‘Memento Mori’ by Billy Collins

Few people live this way. They squander their time as if death were nothing but an unfounded rumor. There you are, in your prime… late twenties, early thirties perhaps, looking ahead at half a century of wonderful experiences until a ghoul shatters your fantasy; a pandemic, say, which does not discriminate between young and old. If you are wise and humble, you are seized with a sudden terror when realizing your half century is nowhere near guaranteed.

My own anxiety flared hotter while sifting my memories and recognizing there were experiences which would never again repeat themselves.

One of the greatest betrayals of our illusion of permanence, one of the sharpest daggers of loss, is the retroactive recognition of lasts. — Maria Popova

I recalled the last time I had been spellbound by the shocking iridescence of a Blue Morpho butterfly weaving through the white-blossomed coffee trees in my native country when I was about ten years old. The last daring dive I took from a cliff into the bracing waters of the most magical lake in the world. The time my daughters last took turns on my back and rode me like a prancing pony across the living room carpet. Unrepeatable moments… the sharpest daggers of loss.

Then and there, at age 54, I vowed to fall in love again — with life — and relish every single moment and experience as if they were my last. To do that, I needed to recover my childhood’s sense of wonder, awe, and delight.

First, I knew I had to disrupt the linear relationship between expense and value, seeing I had spent fortunes in the past on stuff without deriving much meaning or delight. In this realm, children have it licked, having two advantages as says philosopher Alain de Botton: “They don’t know what they are supposed to like, and they don’t understand money, so price is never a guide of value for them. Now, the little money I have, I invest on experiences, not things.”

Next, I needed to see the world with fresh eyes, like children and artists do, for whom everything is relevant and little goes unseen. And for that, I had to train myself to forget the names I once used to label things.

An ‘ordinary’ old tree, then, would cease to be nothing but a ‘tree,’ but also a woodland elder, whose rugged bark, under my caress, could feel like the sagging skin on my father’s back. The moon would cease to be nothing but a dead rock floating in space, but also the poetic beacon for starstruck lovers or the lighthouse of melancholy. Wind not just wind, but the lofty carrier of sighs and seeds. Everything had to become unfamiliar and extraordinarily uncommon.

The whole conception of the normal, the average, the commonplace, is due to a significant mental disease, said English author John Cowper Powys, adding that the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language is the word “commonplace”.

Along with fresh eyes, I also had to train my apathetic soul to feel anew.

“It’s useless to try to feel new things without feeling them in a new way,” said Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. “For things are what we feel they are, and the only way for there to be new things… for us to feel new things, is for there to be some novelty in how we feel them.”

I decided to move “out of my mind” to get lost in sensation. I willfully awoke my numbed senses to the world and began to savor the fresh rain inside blueberries, to imagine a sugarcane field in every spoonful, to hear a beehum in a drop of honey and taste in an apple the summer and snows, the wild welter of Earth and the insistence of sun, as poet D.H. Lawrence said was necessary to live in blissful awareness. Lovemaking became a metaphor; an erotic ritual; a ceremony; raw animal sex transfigured by my imagination. I became voracious, lustful, uninhibited, incandescent, and wild!

Learn to Tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting or having sex. — Kapka Kassabova

It was as if I had awoken a caged beast inside me who clamored for release, so I decided to record his stentorian tumult and logorrheic yearnings in my Memoir:

“I want to carry thunderbolts in my hands. My blood to burn. Dance barefoot in mud while drinking rain. Pluck a slippery fish from an icy stream with bare hands and tear its flesh with my teeth. I want to swim in the ocean and not bathe for months. Push massive boulders down steep, rugged mountains. Prance and lock horns with goats in the Alps. Punch a white shark on its snout and watch it sink, cross-eyed into the abyss. I want to shoot a spear through the black heart of a crow. Women to cower when I look at them with rapacious eyes with the radiance and intensity of stars. I want orgasms like Supernovas! I want to crush pungent leaves and rub them all over my body; I don’t want to smell like soap but loam. I want to throw my shoes into a lake and never retrieve them. I want my flesh to be lacerated by branches, dirt and grime under my nails, fungus eating away at my toenails, heels like sandpaper, and yank snakes from my nostrils. I want to slap the young to wake them from their stupor and then inflame them. I want to kiss a woman wearing a plate inside her lips, have her devour my heart, spit the sinew, and swallow the bloody pulp. I want to communicate by drumbeats, walk naked into a forest fire, blow smoke onto women’s smug faces who refuse to feed their men raw meat. I want to sew bloody fangs onto every child’s cuddly teddy bear. Tumble with a girl who wears a necklace made of men’s skulls. I no longer want to tiptoe my way through life but stomp! Not whisper but bellow. I want my tumult to be heard!

But now that I’m approaching 60, my spirit and my body are out of sync and I’m afraid my moldering carcass will give out before I have sucked all the marrow out of life. There’s so much I still want to do and time’s running out. And yet, I refuse to go quietly into the night.

While I know full well there is nothing I can do against the universal law of entropy (from dust to dust), I still put my body through its paces like a war horse. I keep it lean, sturdy, prepared, just like Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said in ‘Saviors of God’:

I keep my brain wide awake, lucid, unmerciful. I unleash it to battle relentlessly.

I keep my heart flaming, courageous, restless.

I stay unsatisfied, unconforming. Whenever a habit becomes convenient, I smash it!

And to all my ills and troubles, I respond with laughter and the sense that I, and the world, are mad.

Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t strive to live rapt in wonder, awe, and delight. To see the world anew like a child. To savor every moment as if it were my last.

Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will. — Charles Baudelaire

At age 80, writer Henry Miller said he was a far more cheerful person than he was at twenty or thirty. “What is called youth is not youth,” he scoffed, “but something like premature old age. It was only in my forties that I really began to feel young. By then, I was ready for it. I had lost many illusions, but not my enthusiasm, nor my unquenchable curiosity. With this attribute goes another which I prize above everything else, and that is the sense of wonder.”

When Picasso said we start to get young at the age of sixty but too late, he added that “only then does one start to feel free; only then has one learned to strip oneself down to one’s essential creative simplicity.”

We are doomed to decay, says Maria Popova, so we cope by creating.

Therefore, as long as I can still drag my weary carcass out of bed each morning, I’ll keep spinning my yarns as my tribute for being one of the happiest of men alive on this wondrous world.

However many pages remain in my book, I intend to fill them with tall tales of adventure so that after biting the dust, my grandchildren will one day gather by an open fire, read my tumult, and become inflamed with a burning passion for a spirited and well-lived life.


Related article:

The Purpose of Aging is to Become a Wizard

 

Next In Line!

My number’s up and I’m scared.

Next in line

Standing at the foot of Dad’s deathbed watching him take his final breaths, I pictured myself at a Deli counter holding a stub with the #A01 and hearing the butcher scream, “next!”

It’s the only time you don’t want to be next in line.

I can’t hand over the ‘lucky stub’ to the person behind me. That’d be one of my daughters and to outlive them would be worse than death. No choice, then, but hope the butcher gets distracted, at least for a while.

I’m 58, and as far as I can tell from those close to me – knees and hips crumbling in their late 60s – I have about ten to fifteen years left of brain and brawn. About the lifespan of a turkey (I just checked) and I’m certain no almighty, benevolent skylord will pardon my execution.

So 15 years at best.

But how can I be so sure?

Like poet Billy Collins, I often worry that a tiny ship of plaque is about to unmoor and set sail across the bloody rivers of my body headed straight to my brain causing a major stroke, paralyzing half my face, and leaving me bloodshot and drooling like a Basset Hound. Or what if, as Collins said, what if Death were already “stepping from a black car parked at the dark end of the lane, shaking open the familiar cloak, its hood raised like the head of a crow, and removing his scythe from the trunk?”

What if?

Yet most of us live our lives as if we were church pillars, meant to last forever. We think 15 years is a long time until it isn’t. Look back 15 years at your life and you’ll know what I mean. Kind of a blur, right?

In youth, we live as if we were immortal. Knowledge of mortality dances around us like a brittle paper ribbon that barely touches our skin. When, in life, does that change? When does the ribbon tighten, until it finally strangles us? – Amadeu de Prado

Not long ago, I found Dad standing on his balcony looking wistfully at the end of another day and asked him what was wrong. “I don’t know where the last ten years of my life have gone,” he said. “They’re just a blur.”

A blur that began in his mid-70s, and, from what I can tell, the previous ten weren’t that memorable and he died with a thousand regrets.

That’s how life often seems, doesn’t it? A blurry madhouse crisscrossed by our darting shadow busy “making a living” while putting our dreams on ice. Postponing, stalling, dithering, delaying… telling ourselves ‘just as soon as…’ while sitting in traffic gripped by the death lock of monotony contemplating the lugubrious parade of our disavowed longings march down the road not taken. ‘Just wait a little while longer…’

But while and while have no end, wait a little is a long road, and the Deli spool won’t stop spitting-out stubs, bringing our number closer.

Should we, then, live like the terminally ill? Assume we’ve been given just one more year and throw caution to the wind?

With that mindset, I’ve been doing just that for the past three years after taking a hard look at the previous ten and horrified by how unmemorable they were. Ask me what I did, and I’d bore you with an explanation rather than a great story. So I broke free.

I realize that having that choice is a privilege denied to many. Born and raised in a poor country, I suspect that any first-world tourist dumb enough to tell an unfortunate fellow in one of my city’s slums to ‘follow his dreams!’ will most likely get laughed at or punched in the face. Adding ‘carpe diem’ to his callous injunctions will probably get him dismembered with a machete. The poor have no choice — period. They do what’s necessary to survive which is often more heroic than doing what you love.

After I fulfilled my obligation of raising my daughters to the point of self-reliance, I reached a crossroads. I could continue on the familiar, ‘safe’ road, gathering wealth for that hoped-for day when I’d feel secure enough to finally unbridle my pent-up longings, or take the riskier path of adventure. Having witnessed my father lose the lion’s share of his savings in the crash of 2008, I chose the latter.

Ask me right now if I made the right choice and I’d equivocate. I can’t tell for sure, and I’m scared.

On the one hand, I’m doing exactly what I love and believe was meant to do with my life, so my days, just like playwright William Herzog’s, feel like one long vacation. “For me, everything is constantly fresh and always new,” he said. “A vacation is [only] a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine.” I know what he means.

Most days, I’m like a child on Christmas morning, waking up at dawn with great excitement for the creative challenges ahead and hardly ever tiring, despite working long hours.

The awareness of ‘The Blur’ has also been a terrifying agent of authenticity. I realized there was no time to waste pretending to be someone I was not. “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly,” says the Bhagavad Gita, and I now get it.

As I age, I have also learned what a true friend is, and so, like an artichoke’s unwholesome bottom leaves, I have discarded those who are unworthy of the name. I don’t have time for that shit anymore.

My whole being has recovered its erotic power, not just in the sexual sense, but in its broader meaning held by the ancient Greeks: the impulse, or desire, that links us to the whole web of life. I have, if you will, fallen in love with life.

But right about now, my love feels unrequited.

I was under the illusion that if one did exactly what one was meant to do in life and brought the gifts of his unique talents to bear on the needs of the world, the world, in turn, would reward him, not lavishly, but with enough to survive with dignity. I’m not seeing it.

I was comforted and inspired by what Johann Goethe said, that the moment one definitely commits, then providence moves too; that boldness has genius, power and magic in it. I’m not feeling that magic either.

I was goaded at the start of my journey on Mexico’s Pacific shore by serendipitous writings on walls, like, “Don’t let your dreams fall asleep,” and “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Back then, I really felt the Universe had my back.

Taken at an art gallery in Mexico at the start of my adventure.

So far though, the steps keep leading me down a slippery staircase inside what seems a bottomless pit of hardship and despair. I am living the myth of the starving artist and not really enjoying the view. Every time one of my well-intentioned daughters tells me to get a “real” job, I cringe and seethe.

When exactly did art become “unreal”? Was it when we decided that someone skilled at whacking a ball with a stick or good at shooting hoops was worth more than a teacher? How, I ask, would it feel to live in a world with no books, movies, plays, concerts, art exhibits, and so on?

Regardless, I can’t turn back now and rejoin the rat race. People my age appear as unnecessary to society as another pair of shoes in a woman’s closet. Besides, notwithstanding the hardship, I still prefer living on the edge of uncertainty doing what I love, rather than securely shackled to a desk, hating what I do. So deal, right? Grow a pair!

Here’s the scary part, though. If my number’s really up, I mean, like soon, it would make my reckless decision one of the best I’ve ever made. If, on the other hand, the butcher gets distracted for, say, thirty years, I have no idea how I’ll survive.

Author Paulo Coelho better be right when claiming that the road of adventure becomes less daunting over time; that age only slows the pace of those without the courage to follow their true path, and that the world hungers for romance, passion, and daring tales of great endurance.

Otherwise, best to hurry up to the counter and get it over with, or move to Norway, the “best place in the world to be a writer,” though I’d first have to get past my revulsion against Lutefisk and ghostly-white people in tacky reindeer sweaters.


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How to Convert an Atheist with one Beet

Red Beet2

Prime rib works just as well, though it must be rare… blood spattering rare.

In my case, it was a predawn potion of warm water mixed with turmeric, cayenne pepper, cider vinegar and honey.

Anything that will tinge urine with an alarming red color will make the staunchest unbeliever raise his eyes toward heaven and plead mercy, especially someone uninformed about the other probable causes of hematuria besides bladder cancer. Since my dad suffers from this affliction, you’ll understand why I defaulted to the extreme.

“I don’t believe in God. I fear him.”- Gabriel García Márquez

I’m not an atheist, but neither believe I have a direct line to an almighty power with nothing better to do than sit or float around all day listening to the petty laments and supplications of a weak, sniveling species. At least, not until the toilet bowl swirled with ominous blood-red tendrils a few mornings ago.

You should’ve seen and heard me then! Pleading with the staunch faith of someone who’d just been baptized in the waters of the Jordan River:

O please God no, not yet! I beg you. I still have lots I need and want to do.

It’s astounding that so many of us walk around as if death were an unfounded rumor; something that happens to strike 6,000 people every hour but somehow deems our continued presence so worthy to the entire planet that it chooses to spare us from annihilation.

Must we really be the sole survivors of a horrific plane crash to feel guilty and start living our lives with the urgency of the terminally ill? Isn’t life, by nature, a terminal disease?

Instead of survivor’s guilt, why not think of it as self-induced ‘survivor’s enthusiasm’ inspiring us to meaningful action each and every day?

Just imagine the intensity our lives would acquire if we lived with death as our eternal companion as Carlos Castaneda suggested in ‘Don Juan.’ I don’t think we’d ever dare say “just as soon as…” while contemplating our deepest yearnings.

“Just as soon as my urine is soaked in blood” doesn’t make much sense, does it?

So rather than waiting till your number is up, assume it has already and that no amount of genuflections and ‘Hail Marys’ next to a toilet bowl will spare you from the unyielding force of entropy. See if that doesn’t light a fire under your ass. If it doesn’t, and you still need a daily reminder that death is not just a nasty rumor, buy yourself a human skull and plop it on your desk.

Or eat red beets… just try to forget you ever read this.


But don’t forget to join my mailing list.

Then read the companion pieces to this article: 

A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories and Live Like a Pardoned Turkey

 

Wisdom of the Stars – Episode III

What they teach us about death

“Although everything we love, can, and likely will be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and the only permanence we’ll ever know.” – Maria Popova

Maria’s words ring in my mind as I sit by my father’s bedside at the hospital after returning from California where I spent Christmas and New Year’s with my daughters. It was on the eve of the new year that I jotted down the first lessons from the stars.

Dad broke his neck before I left, and now lies helpless, fed through a tube, and breathing through an oozing hole in his trachea. Not the way he wanted his story to end; his life- force sputtering in a sterile room flooded with ghostly light, the stench of urine, and the bedeviling sound of monitors displaying the flattening line-graphs of his vitals.

I am glad the Universe foiled my early plan to move to Mexico, and, instead, cast me to his side where I have been for two years. Glad, because such twist of fate allowed me to know my father deeply and prompted me to capture a vivid snapshot of his unconventional life inside the amber of my Memoir.

In ancient Egypt, to be forgotten was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.

Like a town-crier, Dad has been predicting his death for longer than a decade. From the marks of agony and despair furrowing his countenance right now, I am certain there will be no escape this time.

A few years ago, in response to yet another email predicting his near demise and raging at the prospect, I told him to: “Rage, rage for sure, but not about your dying light. Rage against it not blazing as does a star during the final spasms of its annihilation, its self-devouring. Rouse that inner energy to exit the stage in one radiant burst…a luminous climax. Like a Supernova, there are surely some elements you can scatter as you implode.”

In Part One of this Series, I talk about the gifts bestowed by giant stars when they die in a Supernova explosion. The elements in your body, the billions of neurons in your brain firing your thoughts and imagination, all the life-beats of your heart – all the stuff which makes you, you – shaped by the atoms scattered during a giant star’s final act.

Your aims in life, the intensity of your desires, the might of your struggles, and the impact you have on those you encounter on your path will determine whether you blaze like a Supernova, shine like the Sun, or end up like a brown dwarf – halfway between a planet and a star – whose mass, or life-force, is insufficient to spark thermonuclear fusion.

Brown Dwarf

“Death should not concern us,” said Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. “Death is concerned only with our self and not with this world. The world never loses an atom; it is our self which suffers. Men wish for permanence and not perfection. They forget that the true meaning of living is outliving; it is ever growing out of itself.”

Play it safe, snug in your cocoon, and your life will follow the path of a brown dwarf. Dare to risk everything to fulfill your unique destiny and you’ll shine like a star, a giant one perhaps, even if you fail.

Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage. God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts, must become butterflies. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere that is filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks! – Nikos Kazantzakis


With a nauseating gurgle, a nurse draws brown gunk from my father’s trachea as I keep replaying his life which blazed like a candle lit at both ends until the age I am now, but with a dimmer spirit thereafter. What caused such diminishment, such ebbing of the flame? I wonder. Rather than defying the First Cause, it’s as if he had made a pact with it to stop overdrawing his bow for fear it would break. Perhaps the frenzy of his early years swirling in the chaos of manic-depression had exhausted him and made him seek solace, ensconced for three decades in the quietude surrounding his property tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, there to live the remainder of his life undisturbed, released from the messy and often distressing entanglements to which a human life is subject.

While I willingly accept the inevitable price paid with the currency of anxiety, stress, heartache, and ultimate loss for remaining entwined with the world and the people I love, I have no problem with anyone wanting to live a quiet, simple life. In fact, I am on this path myself, seeking that sweet spot between being in this world, but sufficiently removed from it to avoid being drowned by the currents of its meaningless agitation. In other words, in this world, but not of it.

Ancient Chinese culture revered the yinshi, the recluse, who chose to leave the world behind to live more simply. “The tradition,” says philosopher Alain de Botton, “began in the 4th century AD, when a high-ranking government official named Tao Yuanming surrendered his position at court and moved to the countryside to farm the land, make wine, and write.”

Yuanming explains why:

It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains.
Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap.
Waking up, thirty years had gone.
The caged bird wants the old trees and air.
Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.
I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor.
Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden…
Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage,
Now I can get back again to Nature.

Tao Yuanming

Like a flying fish, Tao Yuanming leapt out of safe waters and entered a more ethereal atmosphere. Yet, despite living the life of a recluse, he left behind his poems, gifting us with a renewed sense of wonder and enchantment with the natural world.

Most of us will never be Superstars like Yuanming, or Christ or Buddha; giants whose bursts of creative and purifying light still shine on us today. But I see no reason why we can’t emulate our neighboring star, the Sun, choosing a smaller arena on which to pour the gifts of our unique talents; bending our bow to the breaking point for a cause in which we believe, and shedding joy, warmth, light and love to the living beings in our immediate orbit. It does not have to be something spectacular to be meaningful; a poem, a mended heart, or restored patch of Earth will do.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain. – Emily Dickinson

As I see Dad’s haunted and fearful glance fixed on the white wall of his hospital room, Dickinson’s poem reminds me of the time I visited him in New England as he and his wife scouted the area for their permanent move. He had booked two rooms at a shabby roadside motel, and on one of those early, cold winter mornings, I heard a knock on my door. At its threshold, Dad balanced a pink cardboard box on one hand and held a steaming cup on the other. “I brought you donuts and coffee,” he said, as he walked in.

Years later, I came upon a poem by Robert Hayden whose last stanza echoes in my mind every time I recall the tender memory:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

To most, my father’s donut-and-coffee gesture might not sound extraordinary, but given his austere nature and meager displays of affection, the light and warmth he brought into my room that morning touched me to the core and still brings tears to my eyes when recalled. He became the Sun, and his offering will remain like those radiant vestiges Maria speaks about; permanently mine, never forgotten.

Equally touched were the lives of his grandchildren, leaving behind these indelible soulprints evoked by memory and rendered in their voices:

“You’re the only grandpa I ever had in my life but the only one I ever needed. You taught me how to fish and possess the coolest man cave I have ever come across.”

jewfish1

“Catching my first fish together which we later skinned and cooked, spending countless hours mesmerized by all the trinkets in your dungeon, the walks with you, whether on a late winter afternoon or summer day…such memories only ever remain so perfectly clear when they have meant something truly special to your life.”

Api intellectual curiosity

You fostered my intellectual curiosity and love of a good yarn. I can’t tell you where I’d be without these two qualities, but I know my life would be much smaller.”

“I like to think I get my sense of adventure from you.”

“I think back to the stories you told me about being in the army and how you used to eat light bulbs and put soap under your feet to make yourself pass out. To me, you are and always will be Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry, John Wayne, Han Solo, and every other action hero, adventurer, and explorer.”

Api Sense of Adventure Jungle

“It is difficult to place into words the impact you have had on me. Through good and bad there has always been an adventure! Adventure of pretending to trek through the jungle or explore the deserts of New Mexico. For any kid, it would have been just another day, but it was you and your imagination that helped transport me to some of the most cherished memories I have.”

Api stardust

“You taught me to spot birds, about forests and streams, knives, and kindling fire with nothing but flint. Your stories made my imagination whirl, from carving ‘Pinocchio’ with broken glass shards, to catching monkeys with coconut shells down in Panama. In my boyish mind, you were the embodiment of a dream boyhood. Part pirate, part cowboy, part rock-star, part soldier, part grandfather. You were tough as nails, dressed the part, and encouraged an unquenchable curiosity (if not a bit of rebellion) which made my heart and imagination soar.”

Api and girls

Alex Haley was right in saying grandparents sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.

I place a cold, wet cloth on Dad’s forehead, slide the thin covers of his hospital bed up to his shoulders, hold his hand, and watch him fall asleep.

Once his light is out, I will be next in line.

“Just as a book is bounded by its covers, by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death,” wrote philosopher Stephen Cave. “You can only know the moments in between; the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.

We are on this Earth but briefly, I mumble, as I turn off the overhead light and walk out. There really is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion.


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