When life gives you lemons…

Astounding tales of resilience.

Things are not working out. This shit’s too hard. I’m giving up. The odds are stacked against me. Life’s not fair…

Writing ‘The Hero in You is beginning to feel like a conversation with myself. I now understand what Ursula Le Gwinn meant when saying that storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.

More than a conversation unspooling in story, it’s like an extended, revelatory life-coaching session; like having a one-on-one with Obi Wan Kenobi, the legendary Jedi Master in ‘Star Wars’ training young Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force.

It doesn’t feel like a book for just boys anymore but one with the potential to transform the lives of men and women; young and old alike. It’s certainly changing the life of an aspiring writer fast approaching sixty.

Take adversity for example…that bitter lemon of life.

I began the book four months ago. With still no income in sight, a small pension claimed by old debts, and credit cards maxing-out, it felt like one more reckless decision. Irresponsible! Especially in light of the slew of rejections to my Memoir assailing my inbox like a storm of jagged hailstones. After two years with little to show, starting another project seemed as futile as plowing the sea.

How about a ‘real’ job, Dad?” my daughters counseled.

I was smack inside the Inmost Cave; the edge between life and death found on every hero’s journey; the darkest hour where the hero must face his greatest fears. Think of Dorothy walking into Oz’ throne-room and facing the giant head of an angry old man surrounded by flames, smoke, and thunder; where the mighty Wizard says he’s prepared to grant Dorothy her wish but imposes seemingly impossible tests in hopes that she will desist.

I keep reminding myself I’ve been in worse financial situations before, and still here, now doing what I believe I was meant to all my life.

If this is not a real job, why does it feel so right?

J.K. Rowling was unemployed, divorced and raising a daughter on social security while writing the first Harry Potter novel. After Sidney Poitier’s first audition, the casting director instructed him to just stop wasting everyone’s time and “go be a dishwasher or something.” Poitier went on to win an Academy Award.

Sometimes in life, situations develop that only the half-crazy can get out of. — French philosopher La Rochefoucauld.

In a way, I am still inside the cave, quivering with my greatest fears: losing face with those I love — my two daughters and my partner — and the fear of a final deathblow to my lifelong dream of becoming an author stirring uncertainty of what I’d do if I fail. Add to the mix the fear of reaching the end of my life without meaningful impact…I do not want to be someone who ends up simply having visited the world.

Life’s bitter lemons…

More like first-world laments I’ve realized as I sift through hundreds of stories of real-life heroes for my book and finding astounding examples of ordinary people who turned much bitter ones into lemonade.

Some, literally, like Alexandra Scott who two days before her first birthday was diagnosed with cancer. When she was four, having just finished receiving experimental treatment at Connecticut’s Medical Center, she told her parents she wanted to set up a lemonade stand and give the money she raised to her doctors. That first stand raised $2,000.

Alexandra Scott

In the next four years, inspiring hundreds of supporters who set up lemonade stands throughout the country, ‘Alex’ raised a total of $1 million for childhood cancer research. She died at the age of eight, yet her cause lives on through the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.

I then discovered William Kamkwamba, the African boy who harnessed the wind to save his family and village from starvation.

William was born in Malawi, Africa. He was the only boy among six girls in his family living in a mud and brick shack with no electricity. He was a simple farmer in a country of poor farmers.

When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought. Within five months, all Malawians were starving to death. William’s family ate one meal per day. His father could not continue paying for his education so William dropped out of school.

“It was a future I could not accept,” William said.

Hungry all the time, with little education, poor English, and no computer or access to the internet, William spent months inside a rickety library pouring through outdated magazines and books learning all he could about physics and electricity. He dreamed of building a windmill to power a pump which would draw water from a well to irrigate their fields.

Boy who harnessed the wind

Armed with that knowledge, William scavenged through a nearby junkyard and finally convinced his father to surrender his only bicycle whose frame was needed to build the contraption. William eventually erected his windmill and saved the day.

Talk about bitter lemons turned into lifesaving lemonade!

What about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a frail and poor farming boy in 14th Century Japan?

Hideyoshi was short (about five feet tall), weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was butt ugly and unathletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him an ape-like appearance resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.

This “monkey” squeezed all the daunting lemons of his physical ‘limitations’ and ‘disadvantaged’ beginnings into practical wisdom which ultimately put an end to Japan’s Age of the Warring States and made him supreme leader!

He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.

Hideyoshi

Alexandra Scott, William Kamkwamba, and Hideyoshi are among the real-life heroes featured in my book as examples to young boys who might feel overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable odds to do something meaningful with their lives. I reassure them they do not need superpowers to break through the prison of their limitations. I then guide them — like Obi Wan — to tap the Life Forces they already possess to write their own hero story. It doesn’t have to be something extraordinary, I tell them…

“Helping a blind man cross the street because you have the power of vision is a heroic act. Helping a friend with his math homework because you’re good with numbers is the act of a hero. Cooking dinner for the homeless in your neighborhood because you love to cook is heroic. If you make just one positive difference, you’re a hero.”

Boy feeding homeless

My extensive research has also led me to author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, someone much closer to my — and every writer’s experience.

In his late thirties, armed police dragged Ngugi from his home and jailed him in Kenya’s Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison for having written a play critical of the government. While in prison, he wrote ‘Devil on the Cross’ on toilet paper.

“The paper we were given was not the soft kind we find on television,” he says. “It was a bit hard, a bit rough, so to speak, but very good writing material. It held the pen very well.”

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A recipient of the Nonino International Prize for his work, Ngugi has also been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in literature. As for that elusive prize, Ngugi says he is more interested in what he calls “the Nobel of the Heart.”

If Ngugi was capable of squeezing such nasty lemons onto toilet paper and inspire the world with his noble work, what’s my excuse?

In Spanish (my mother tongue) we have a word for such work:

‘Ofrenda’ is work offered in gratitude, love, and service to others; work dedicated to a noble cause. That’s how I consider my work on The Hero in You.

Rightly shamed by all these ordinary heroes, I am done with my first-world laments!

While still in the cave, like Dorothy, I will defy my fears and will not desist. I will see this to the end.

Failure is an option, fear is not. — James Cameron

When overwhelmed by the stacks of books and publications I must research, I attack them with a Warrior’s sword and a Lover’s heart. I remind myself that, while strapped for cash, I have found purposeful work; that sweet spot Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world. Further, I am loved and am loved in return by three extraordinary women. I possess the wealth of kings. I ask for no more.

Finally, I’m committed to help as many young boys enter the path of authentic, generative manhood and won’t let them down. I consider this cause to be of supreme importance to the world.

Will my book be a hit? Will it make me money? Will I be famous? Wrong questions.

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

“No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive,” wrote Ella Wheeler Wilcox. “Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity.”

Sweet are the fruits of adversity. — William Shakespeare

Dead tree with fruit

From now on, I promise to spare you my first-world laments and let my book inspire you.

Whether you support its cause or don’t, I am rewarded by believing its footprint will guide you on your own hero’s journey.


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Read the book’s version of lemons and lemonade.

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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