What I Do With Unwanted News

At the risk of contradicting myself by describing a very complicated and nuanced subject in a short and simple post, I felt the need today, so bear with me.

I’ve sought to live a life of faith for a little over 40 years now. I have lived long enough to encounter some disappointments along the way and these hardships have shaken my faith to my core.  

Faith informs everything I do. It underpins my whole thought process. You could say it’s all I know. Therefore I can only speak from this perspective.

I write these words to those who have chosen a similar path as me.  If faith is irrelevant to you, then this post will also be irrelevant.

You may have questioned why there is no reference in the four Gospels as to what to do when my prayers go unanswered.  I got stuck there for a season, but now I think the inference is pretty obvious.

I learned the simplest definition of prayer as a little boy in the most childlike way. The point is to ask.

Ask and keep on asking.

If there was a caveat inserted into that statement, I would have gotten stuck on it.  If the invitation by the Son of Man was presented as, “Ask, but….”, I would have tripped over the but.

About two years ago, the leaders at Bethel Church in Redding, CA called the members of the congregation to join together in praying for a two-year old girl to be revived after the child suddenly stopped breathing. The vigil went on for about five days without receiving the desired outcome.  They relented and turned their intercession energy into a memorial service.

This caused a firestorm of nationwide response, the loudest of which were the detractors calling these leaders false prophets. It was an extremely controversial moment.

But I could not help but ask myself what I would have done in that situation?  Would I have had the courage to join in, and ask and keep on asking?

I concluded that my faith may have not drawn me toward such a response, but I could not find a reason to judge them for their zeal. The Son of Man said to ask and keep on asking. And they did.

This is why the Son of Man did not leave us a list of things we could and could not ask for.

I found myself in a similar situation when my wife was diagnosed for a third time of a recurrence of ovarian cancer.  I believed she would be healed. I wrote it down and gave the story to some of my family and friends.   I still have a picture of the lab test that showed a 900% decrease in her CA 125 blood test in less than 30 days.  I thought that was my affirmation.

She died a year to the day later.  I didn’t get what I wanted, nor what I asked for.

Now what?

This led me to a second important discovery about faith. This time written in the Pentateuch.

“The secret things belong to our Maker, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever”

My faith was built as a child, and it will always stand on that foundation. Faith might appear to be childish to some, but there is a big difference in being childish and being childlike.

A child at its innocent core, is full of trust and acceptance of things he doesn’t understand.  Especially about mom and dad.

I recall asking my dad questions for which there was no way to explain to a child, like, “Dad, what’s the Vietnam War?” His famous answer/non-answer is still in use today:

“Sorry son, you just have to pay attention.”

It was a complexity that a seven-year old could not grasp. All I could understand was what I didn’t understand. And I had to be OK with that.

I don’t know why my late wife wasn’t healed. And I’ll probably never know. I have to file that under The Secret Things. But I do know that I can’t allow that incident to prevent me from asking so boldly in the future.

A third lesson of faith has helped me navigate the uncertainty and incongruence of my experience. It is what I call Embracing The Paradox.  A paradox is a contrast between two propositions where both seem true and yet self-contradictory.

The ancient wisdom of The Preacher states it this way:

It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears his Maker will avoid all extremes.

Faith is too complicated and complex to be solved by reliance on black/white, either/or solutions.

The recent Joe Rogan/Neil Young argument is an example of this simplistic thinking.

I’m not defending either party. I like Joe Rogan as an interviewer and I loved seeing Neil Young in concert in 2015 as a man in his 70’s that could still rock with the best of them. What didn’t set well was the My Way or the Highway ultimatum.

Let me defend NY’s freedom to make his choice.  It’s his music and he can choose to distribute it as he pleases.  I don’t question that right.  I do question the ultimatum motive.

I can only speak for myself, and as a tiny voice in the social change machine, I don’t have the luxury to make demands out of an ultimatum. Do this or else.

Instead, I have to hold one and not let go of the other if I believe in an awakening of hope for a better future. I’m called to love my neighbor and my enemy. I don’t get to choose between one or the other. Nor can I see a better future where I silence, destroy or annihilate my opposition.

As with my unwanted circumstance and unanswered prayers, my faith requires me to hold all three of these

I need to ask and keep on asking

I need to accept there are secret things I will never know

I need to grasp the one and not let go of the other.

To be continued….

10 Songs That Saved My Life

The title may seem hyperbolic. Did these songs literally stop me from going off the deep end? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is how these songs intersected my story in a timely fashion and deposited a word of truth into my heart that could not have otherwise found its way in without the Keyholder of Music unlocking that dark place.

These ten saved my life by adding and contributing, not preventing or suppressing. They addressed the negative script I was following by singing to me a lyric of recompense.

Recompense means to ​​make amends to someone for loss or harm suffered.

And here I am, these many years later, still telling the story

I will always be indebted to the beauty of music and the role she plays in my story.

There are numerous other songs that I could write about for days. But these reveal my starting point for telling the story.

Little Room by White Stripes – 2001

Well, you're in your little room 
And you're working on something good

In 2001, I met a guy on an airplane. He was lost in himself and the huge tuna can headphones that emitted muffled sounds of music that felt of a punk persuasion. I’m not much for talking while flying but he took his headphones off before we taxied toward the runway. I asked him what he was listening to. He said the new White Stripes album. He looked at me incredulously when I said I wasn’t familiar with their music. In what felt like disgust, he said, “Well you should be.”

Thankfully that was the extent of our conversation. He disappeared back into his aural cave.

Upon returning home, I went to Barnes and Noble, (which is what you did back then) to look up the White Stripes. They had it on their listening station (remember those?) and I decided to buy the CD (I don’t even own a CD player anymore.)

On the disc was this little 0:50-second song titled, Little Room. It became an immediate anthem.

I was in a place of transition in my career. I was contemplating making a change, and I was working on ideas about what that change should look like. I was literally in my own little room, my basement kitchen and recording studio, working on something good. It was the start of what would eventually become bread&cup, Jack&June and Piedmont Bistro.

But eventually everything crumbled. I wondered why I was in the bigger room? 

Today, twenty one years later, I’m back in that same little room, working on something good. It’s called The Portico Experience and 55Degrees.US

City of Hope by Journey – 2011

There's a city of hope beyond our fears 
Where miracles happen, where truth can be heard

In early 2017, the proverbial shit was hitting the fan in every way possible; business collapse, personal life crisis, marriage crumbling, spiritual doubt, financial uncertainty. It was the worst pressure I had ever experienced.

I credit the two guys at Spotify for this one. They pushed it to me in their Discover Weekly suggestion. I was at the gym, trying to do something that resembled exercise, hoping it would distract me for a brief moment.  Then this song came up in the queue.

I cut my teeth on Journey’s music, even before Journey was Journey. I loved their progressive rock fusion sound of the 1977 release titled Next. This was pre-Steve Perry’ evocative vocals, when all the ladies would fall for their sound.

I hit replay over and over again that morning.

The message of the song is made even more prescient by knowing the story of Arnel Pineda. He went from being homeless on the streets of Manila, to fronting one of the most influential rock bands of the world in 2007. This song is his biography.

It helped me redirect my course to The City of Hope that day.

Spies by Coldplay – 2000

I awake to find no peace of mind 
I said how do you live 
As a fugitive? 
Down here, where I cannot see so clear

This song began with one meaning for me, but over time, that meaning changed. All because of noticing one word in the final lyric.

The word Just.

Sometimes I glum onto a song because it allows me to feel the emotions more deeply.  And  I realize that last sentence makes no sense to many of you, but this is the plight of an introverted, introspective, Type 4 feeler. Sometimes it appears we breathe different air.

The song is moody. In fact, the whole Parachutes album is moody, which is why I return to it over again.  I would listen to it in the dark, some nights by the light of the summer moon. But one night, an apocalypse occurred. My eyes were unveiled, and this song took on a new life of its own. I heard Chris Martin singing, They’re ALL spies throughout the entire song, then he concluded it with,

They’re JUST spies

LIke a flash of lighting can turn the night sky to immediate, momentary daylight, that’s what happened to this song. I have nothing to worry about, nothing to fear, because everything out there that consumes my concern is just an impotent spy.

Up To The Roof by BlueManGroup – 2004

Tried to go the way you told me
But each time I got lost 
The stairs didn't lead me anywhere

I credit BlueManGroup for one of existential reasons I took the leap toward opening bread&cup.  I saw their live performance in Las Vegas Luxor Theater in 2001 and it moved me in such a way, I had to sit in my chair until the auditorium was empty and I was asked to leave. I kept asking myself, “what did I just witness?” This is the role of art. It doesn’t answer questions. It provokes them. 

And I was duly provoked.

Three years later, they released an album with lyrics. Since The BlueManGroup schtick is mime, guest artists were engaged to sing.  Tracy Bonham lent her talent to this song.

The years of 2000-2005 were very critical for my transition away from The Church As We Know It and into an expression of faith that made more sense to me. I was paid to have faith. I knew I needed to depart from that mooring and set sail into open waters.  I describe this time as a moment of leaving the church to find my faith again.

Anytime I tell this story, I always feel compelled to explain my motive because it can sound like I am blaming my church heritage as the reason for my midlife angst. And that is not the case. I blame no one. I’m looking ahead. I’m conserving the better future, not my previously explored past.  The dreams and visions that I was holding needed new territory to be unleashed. And when I came to the realization that I had permission to do that, my faith took on new meaning. So I left the confines of The Church As I Knew It and went out surveying for more.

Portrait by Kansas – 1977 / 2019

He had a thousand ideas, 
You might have heard his name 
He lived alone with his vision 
Not looking for fortune or fame

I’m a few days into my reality as a widower. And true to fashion, I’m searching for music that can help me map this territory.  And it took a 1977 song from my high school days to germinate into full bloom in November 2019.

The song is about a mythical man, searching for something otherworldly. He was nonplussed by the cares of others around him. He was consumed by the many ideas in his heart. And…

He lived alone.

This was the first time in my life to ever occupy a living space completely by myself.  I grew up in a rural area and didn’t have any friends around, but there was always someone at home at night and the next morning.  In college and grad school, I always had a roommate, and my last roommate lasted 30 years. Now I’m all alone.

I am entering a season where I get to pay attention to those ideas, dreams and vision. They would not be dependent on anyone other than me for now.

This song became a daily hymn. And since I lived alone, I could crank it to 11 day or night. Good thing Hank loves to rock.

I AM by Joseph Arthur – 2004

To find out what you really are 
You must wake up from this long night

This is a song I wish I could have written, because it expresses so accurately what I feel about living a life of faith. I just didn’t have the words like JA did.

Faith is being sure of what I hope for, and certain of what I don’t see.  It’s my belief that the physical realm that I see is a temporary one. That which exists beyond the one I can currently see and feel, is the permanent reality I was created for.

Your world is in danger 
Because your world isn’t real. 
You see what is imagined, 
Dreaming of what you feel.

Holy Visitation by Charlie Hall – 2000

Sound the alarm 
Awaken the watchmen 
Open their ears 
Let their voices be loud

I have never heard the audible voice of God, but I have heard words in my spirit so clearly that their source is unmistakable.

One damp May night in 2000, I was listening to this song while lying in bed. The word in the song, awaken the watchman, was followed by a voice saying, You are the Watchman. Startled, I got out of bed, put some clothes on, and went for a walk in the night.

I walked through my neighborhood for about an hour around midnight that evening. I pondered this encounter. What does, “You are the Watchman” mean?

The short of it was this. “You are a man that watches out for others. But it’s not enough to watch. You must be capable of waking others up when it’s time to step into action.”

I’ve been holding this name for 22 years.

Heaven’s Gonna Burn Your Eyes by Thievery Corporation – 2002

Do you applaud fear 
Do you hold it near 
Are you afraid to live your life 
The way I perceive

Back in the good old days, before streaming, music had to be consumed via hard copy media, ie an LP, tape or CD. In 1979, I fondly remember driving to Tulsa to the Starship, a head shop on the north end of town, to buy a copy of Pink Floyd’s new double album, The Wall. There would be no sample clips or previews, nor could we listen to it when we got back in the car. I recall holding the album on the forty minute drive back to Robert’s house, where we got our first listen.

I’m no grumpy old man yearning for those days back, but I do miss the anticipation of new music. It required patience, something that is lost in this generation.

Before a road trip with friends, I implemented a practice called The Risk CD. The rules were simple. Everyone would go to a local music dealer and pick something out solely on appearance and gut feeling. Bring it in the car unopened, then we unwrap them one by one, and listen to each in its entirety until all selections are heard.

There were many losers and a few winners, but occasionally a gem like this one gets unearthed. The opening track is timeless for me. It always calls me back to square one of my faith.

Fake Plastic Trees by Radiohead – 1995

But I can't help the feeling 
I could blow through the ceiling 
If I just turn and run 
And it wears me out

I have The Warrior to thank for this one. He put together a mixtape for me of songs that reflected my current mood. And this spoke to the fatigue I was experiencing in propping up my status quo.

I yearn for authenticity in everything, and I wasn’t seeing a lot of it in my world of faith.  This track mourned the loss of what I was experiencing in my culture that settles for appearance over substance.

It resonated.

Snow Angels by Over The Rhine – 2006

Goodbye to this cruel wicked world 
And all the tears I've cried 
Snow angel, snow angel 
I'll meet you in the sky

This is a Christmas song, from my favorite Christmas record.  I love it because it’s a mix of hope and lament. It allows me to acknowledge pain during a season usually only relegated for celebration. 

It was there for me when my dad died and when some of my students passed through the years.  It accompanied me during the holidays of cancer, and now the last three Christmases of living alone.

Behavior I Don’t Understand

I had an interesting opportunity to observe amusing human behavior yesterday. My last remaining and fully operational CD player, aka The Kia, decided to shut down in the left turn lane of a major intersection here in town. It went dead suddenly, nothing, kaput. Even the emergency flashers didn’t work. As they say where I’m from, “I was up shit creek without a paddle.” But at least I had a cell phone, but it might be hard to paddle a canoe with it.

I was always taught when in a situation like this to raise the hood and trunk as a signal of distress, but evidently that is no longer a universal indicator of malfunction, judging from the varied responses of drivers who got stuck behind my immobilized car blocking the street.

The first guy pulls right up behind me and everything seems normal since the light is red. But the disconnect appeared when the light turned green and he started honking at me. I don’t read lips but I know what the f-word looks like. Once he clued in that I was not going anywhere, he abruptly backed up, swerved his car around me that gave me the business finger on the way past. 

I’m notably fascinated by behavior I don’t understand, and that was a perfect moment for me to absorb and ponder while waiting on a tow truck.

The next player up to the plate was Camaro Guy. Same song, second verse. Pulls in, does not put two and two together that the open back hatch and lifted hood would add up to something equalling four. But everyone isn’t’ good at math, so he didn’t solve this particular equation. As he started laying on the horn, I got out and walked back toward him to deliver the message personally that the car ain’t gonna budge.

Judging by the look on his face, he must have thought I had a gun. Even though I was yelling, “Sorry dude. I’m broken down,” he hit reverse and went around, making sure he didn’t look me in the eye. Thankfully no one was behind him or the situation could have gotten worse. No middle digit salute from this guy, though. Slight improvement in the human response mechanism.

The most puzzling episode was a carload of high school girls who pulled up behind and started waving, giggling as they went. I couldn’t tell if they knew what was going on and felt sorry for me or if they just thought they were on Candid Camera. I waved, laughed in return and their bevy went around after the green arrow appeared.

All this time I’m waiting on AAA emergency roadside service. I felt the urge to be upset, because there was plenty of gravity inviting me in that downward direction. Broken down car, blocking traffic, pissed off drivers etc. But I remembered what I wrote on Monday. How do I get back to a Place of Peace, a domain where it’s always calm despite the atmosphere down below?

I just took a mental step up. I got a better view as a result.

This cognitive shift didn’t make my car start or change my circumstances. My morning was disrupted. I still had to wait 40 minutes for a tow truck, but it did provide an opportunity to change the way I chose to view the moment.

The other thing it reminded me is the importance of paying attention. Everything may not be as it seems. The car that isn’t moving when the light is green may not be due to an inattentive driver distracted by that unnecessary text.

In another context, the shopping cart up against my car door in the Target parking lot may not be a result of a lazy deadbeat. It could have been the single mom who just got chewed out at work before picking up her three cranky kids and it was all she could do to get them in the car after picking up the prescription and the thought of returning the cart to the corral was lost in her mental triage.

There’s always a better story to start with.

The Place I Want To Be

When I was 9 years old, my father wanted to take us as a family to visit his sister, who lived in Bermuda at the time.  I credit my dad’s willingness to take advantage of moments like this that has shaped me into his mini-me. He lived by this philosophy, “stop and smell the roses because we may never pass this way again.” I’ve never been to Bermuda since, but it etched some very formative memories into my nine-year old brain, and that experience is an influential part of my story that I still draw from fifty years later.

I have since substituted his words with mine.  If you know me or have dined, traveled or hung out with me, you have probably heard me say:

“Did we do what we came to do?”

And if you’ve drank with me on St Patrick’s Day, or any other Irish celebration, you will certainly have seen me in my Guinness jersey that I purchased in 2009 on our family trip to Ireland. That year, I made a similar choice as my dad, thinking, when will I get this opportunity to take my kids abroad?  And I took it. And I’m so glad I did.

On the last day of the trip, I was contemplating taking home a souvenir and the Guinness jersey was on my radar. For some reason, I declined. As we left the shop, my son, using my words, said, “Dad, did you do what you came to do? You should go back and get that shirt.”

Another moment where I’m glad I listened. I have more than a shirt. I have a memory and a story attached to it. And I’m relaying that story thirteen years later.

Back to the Bermuda trip.

I recall the nervous energy in my nine year old body as we boarded the Pan Am 747, a monster plane with features of engineering I couldn’t understand. The sheer size of it was intimidating.  Add to it that this was the first time I experienced air travel.  Needless to say I was overwhelmed.

We sat in the back of the plane, in the smoking section as was standard practice on airplanes back then. I recall being fascinated by the ashtray in the armrest. I could push the button and watch the lid flip up.  It was as effective as an electronic device is today. A distraction for a small child in a foreign space.

It was raining at the time of departure. Cloudy, dark and windy. This added to the turbulence at take off and I grabbed my mom’s hand tight as the bumpy air shook the aircraft. My seat was by the window and I pulled the shade down thinking that might help reduce the stimuli provoking my anxiety.  But something happened shortly that changed my entire perspective and demeanor.

Slowly, light started entering the windows of the cabin, and so I lifted my shade to see the sun appearing with the clouds below. The sky was now bright and blue and visibility was infinite. I turned to my mom and asked, “what is going on?” and I’ll never forget her answer:

“This is what it’s like all the time up here.”

At the time, I couldn’t fully grasp the geography of earth, clouds and sky. But my fear subsided because I had a new perspective of my circumstances. I come back to this visual illustration again and again in my adult life. 

I have discovered a place where it’s like this all the time. It’s called Peace. It has its own jurisdiction and governing bodies. I daily seek to make this place my home. If I find myself covered with clouds, I understand that it’s just for a moment. If I ever wander or find myself outside the city limits of Peace, there’s a road that always leads back to where I belong and where I’d rather be.

The best is yet to come.

KS

Making Room For Loneliness

In a session with The Keyholder, she asked about loneliness and what I do when I feel lonely. I replied back very confidently,

”I don’t allow it.”

Her face had that look that indicated I had said something profound, and her slight grin indicated a playfulness guarded by a professional demeanor.  Channeling her inner Tyler Durden, she shot back, “So how’s that working for you?”

I told her, “Very well, I might add.”  

I didn’t see the truck that was about to hit me, but I was blindsided by a force that I had avoided for years. Let me see if I can outline the impact.

I describe my childhood as lonely. I lived out in a rural area 15 miles from school and any potential friends that would serve as playmates.  As a result, I developed at a young age a keen ability to be alone. I retreated to my imagination for help in passing the time. I taught myself how to build things, shoot things, catch things, and even cook things. I relied on my creativity at age 12 to deal with loneliness and that skill has stayed with me at my current age of 58.

So is there a downside to this part of the story? What’s my point? It sounds like I was a clever child.

Clever, yes. There was more underneath it. 

Scared? Yes. Sad? Yes. Lonely? Absolutely.

I grew up learning to survive, but I didn’t know what it meant to thrive. I didn’t know what to look for.  I didn’t know certain conditions were even possible. Being alone was the safest place I knew, I told Loneliness to leave me alone. And she did.

Until now.

In that session with The Keyholder, her curiosity plied me with questions regarding why I didn’t allow loneliness. Bluntly, I said back, “because I don’t want to start drinking to chase her away again.”

These last two years have been marked with epiphany and apocalypse.  The Lights are coming on and the Truth is standing in the doorway. Both are asking me permission to come in and set up shop, but I’m hesitant because I like the house a little dark. My eyes hurt from the new luminescence.

The Keyholder gave me a simple way of reframing my thought process.  She asked me to consider Loneliness as a companion, as an actual person that has my best interest in mind. She said, “What if Loneliness doesn’t lead to despair?  What if she was walking you along a frightening path that leads to a place of spacious freedom?”

This is why she is the Keyholder. She unlocks these hidden places so I can move about unbound and unrestrained.

This explains why the last few weeks have been some of the hardest in my grief recovery.  I am allowing myself to be with Loneliness at her invitation to come sit with her. She wants to talk about hard things that I have shut out for years.   But I can see in her eyes that she has only my best interest in mind. She assures me that she is here to make me prosper and that I will emerge a richer man.  

She also tells me that her work is temporary. She has no intent on moving in. She just wants to clean the house so that Joy and Peace have a nice place to live.

The Tone of the Voice inside My Head

I live alone. Of course there’s Hank, but he doesn’t really count. He swears a lot, especially when I don’t throw the ball often enough or feed him on schedule. His conversation skills are limited in that way.  So I end up having conversations with myself. And I’ve learned much from these talks.

Specifically, I’ve discovered that the voice in my head has a tone to it. I didn’t know this until I found myself in this season of isolation. Here’s a little example:

You did what

These three words have no punctuation, nor non verbal cues or tone of voice to add meaning to them. Words left alone in the dictionary are inert. And it is impossible to leave them that way. As soon as I pick up a word, I add to it, simply by using my voice.

These three words could be a question.

You did what? I have no idea what you just did.

They could be a clarification:

You did what? Say again. I didn’t hear you.

They could be a shock

You did what!!! Unbelievable.

By adding a few punctuation marks, the meaning changes, but you still read them with the voice in your head.  You put your own spin, your own history, your own bias onto the words presented. This is my new discovery

The voice in my head often has two predominant tones.

An imperative mood. It tells me YOU NEED TO DO THIS NOW, even when that task or activity isn’t pressing.

And it’s a voice that isn’t always kind.  YOU COULD HAVE DONE A MUCH BETTER JOB THAN THAT. It’s hard not to agree when it sounds so authoritative like this.

The advantage of this season of having this much time alone is the opportunity to hear voices that are true and right. When the Voice in My Head says “It’s OK, son. Everything will be alright.” I like the sound of that much better.

Now when I’m in doubt, I listen for the kindest voice in my head and follow that one.

I’ll Take That Chance, Sir

I made a decision in 9th grade to not play football any longer. That choice turned out to be extremely important for me. It’s one that I still draw on today. I was 14 at the time. 

I had transferred schools in 7th grade and in an eager attempt to fit it, I signed up to play football. I learned quickly that I was not wired for the aggression required to play the sport, but I stuck with it for three years.

In the spring, the 9th graders would load a bus in the afternoon to practice with the high school team in preparation for the fall season.  I didn’t get on the bus. I stayed behind in class.

About thirty minutes into class, I got a notice saying I need to report to the principal’s office. I anxiously made the long walk down the stairs, then to his office at the end of the hallway.  He signaled me to come in. The principal was leaning back in his chair, smoking a cigarette and asked me a pointed question. “Why didn’t you get on the bus?”

I replied, “I’ve decided not to play football anymore.”

He had this look of disappointment, maybe even disgust. I recall feeling nervous, but something in me refused to cave.

“You’ll never have this opportunity again. I’m afraid you’ll regret this.” he said.

And 14-year-old me said confidently, “I’ll take that chance, sir. Can I go now?”

This probably seems like an innocuous story, but it was a defining moment for me as a kid. I felt the pressure to perform in a sport that I was not wired up for. But the desire to fit in pushed me to submit and go beyond my own sensibilities. I don’t know if there was a last straw, but I chose to listen to my heart at an early age and trust myself to do what I needed to do.

And no, I never regretted it.

This foundation gave me the courage to pack up and move to California after college.  It led me to take the risk against common sense and open a restaurant, for which I had no prior experience or training. And it also helped me in my marriage to see what was really at stake.

I was married 29 ½ years. It was buffeted by a tremendous amount of life challenges along the way, As does with any marriage, the stress took its toll and strained our relationship significantly.  We sought counseling, and each time I tried to describe the issues, the therapist would send us home with a new book on communication style or love language. 

And it never helped.

As time went on, our conflict continued. It was like two squirrels chasing each other around the same tree, getting nowhere. I kept thinking to myself that communication style is not’ our problem. There must be something deeper that is preventing the trust and openness that fosters good communication.

Eventually, I found a therapist that could see what I see. She saw past our repetitive conflict and identified the unmitigated core issues that stem from childhood trauma. These would need to be solved first.

And then cancer took her away.

Suddenly, I feel like I’m 14 again. I’m alone, just like I was in the principal’s office. Now what should I do? It wasn’t the violence of football that I wanted out of. It was the cruelty of life. How do I deal with this unfairness? There would be no hope of resolution. Our conflict went to her grave.

At the onset, there were many voices that proved helpful to me in sorting out this dilemma.  I am grateful for each one and the unique contribution they made in my recovery process.  But eventually, I had to start relying on my own voice. I couldn’t just read someone elses thoughts about grief. I had to put mine down on paper.

When I write, I am my first audience. The paragraphs above that represent the past hour of writing are primarily for me and my own inspiration and encouragement. And once I am satisfied with the result, I’ll share it with the rest of you.

This is why my mission in writing is to use my voice to help you hear yours. My work might help you think or process, maybe even smile. But ultimately, I want you to trust the voice that’s inside you. This is where your real power resides.

It All Comes Down To This

I’ve only recently discovered the Tour de France and I’m already trying to figure out how to travel to see an actual stage. It seems excessive, I know, but let me try to explain.

When my late wife was in hospice at home, she spent a lot of time sleeping. I’m an early riser to begin with, and there were many mornings that I would wake with nothing productive to do as I waited for her to wake up and tend to her needs. I don’t watch much television, but for some reason, I staggered downstairs with my coffee a little after 5am and flipped on the tube and found a live broadcast of Le Tour just beginning. As I recall, it was around a 4 hour stage and I watched the entire thing uninterrupted while she was in bed.

I was immediately hooked.

Each morning following, I intentionally got up according to that day’s start time. I paid attention to how the announcers outlined the strategies of the different teams, how some guys are just workhorses, or domestiques, whose main job is to get their superstar on the podium.  I loved learning about the distinction between physics and psychology and how teamwork plays a role just like drafting does.

Then there is the genetic piece of the pie.  And it’s simply not fair. Some riders have a genetic advantage over others. One in particular is the ability to metabolize lactic acid, which is the cause of the burn in the legs.  It differs remarkably across the athletes.  This genetic superiority allows that rider to recover from the climb or sprint much quicker, reducing the mental stress that goes with it.

But there is one common denominator that is equal throughout the peloton. 

Pain. 

No rider is immune. Everyone feels it. Acutely.

I don’t know why I thought this way, but I imagined at that level of world class talent their strength was so well developed through training that they operated on another stratum.  But Anthony McCrossan made it clear to Simon Gerrans in Stage 17 as Tadej Pojacar, Jonas Vingegaard, and Richard Carapaz made the grueling climb to the finish. McCrossan gave this illumination:

“It all comes down to the one rider who can best deal with the pain.”

World class. Top of their sport. The best of the best. Training is extremely important but it doesn’t eliminate it. None are immune to pain. 

McCrossan’s words stayed with me.  It struck a chord as I was watching the woman upstairs deal with the pain of cancer. Mixed in that was my pain of helplessness. She can’t avoid it and I can’t get rid of it for her.  I can attempt to relieve it, but no one will ever be able to prevent it.

Anyone Know What Time It Is?

About 40 years ago, I made a deliberate decision to live a life of faith. Even though there have been many points along the way that challenged the validity of that decision, I don’t regret making it. I have learned much along the way about the secrets of living a life of faith. But secret isn’t the right word. In my experience, there is nothing secret about faith. It’s available to anyone who wants it and is willing to look for it.

On several occasions, I’ve had eye-opening revelations or as I like to term them now, apocalypses. This word is often misrepresented by associating it with a foretelling of catastrophic events, or doomsday predictions. But simply stated, apocalypse means to unveil or reveal truth. Something like that happened to me this week, and I’m excited to see if I can articulate it in a concise manner this afternoon.

As I have gotten to know The Ancient of Days in my journey of faith, I have found that he teaches a course on time management. The whole class centers around this one equation:

A quick glance at it seems confusing. What the hell does that mean? That literally means nothing, because they both cancel each other out.

Brilliant analysis. I wish I had seen that earlier.

I had an epiphany this week about this equation as I listened to the story of Diane Van Deren. She’s one of the best ultra-runners in the world. She described a series of events that has enabled her to have an advantage over other competitors.

Diane has epilepsy.  She was an average runner when the seizures started. But her disease gave her a predictable warning signal before a seizure occurred. She described an aura that began to surround her. Over time, she learned that as soon as she felt this sensation, she put her running shoes on and went out the door to run. Running would quickly calm this aura and the seizure was held at bay. This was her strategy, and it was successful, but only short term.

Eventually, the seizures came quicker, so quick she could not get her shoes on fast enough. Her plan was rendered ineffective. Now what was she to do?

She submitted to an extensive bout of scans and tests to try to determine a solution to this crippling illness. She would be tested during a seizure. In so doing, doctors discovered the part of her brain governing the seizure was in her right temporal lobe, the place in the brain that oversees short term memory and orientation.

Diane agreed to do surgery to remove the misfiring part of her brain. The surgery was successful. No more seizures. This meant she could run again.

She returned to the sport she loved, and quickly discovered she had the ability to run for longer distances and durations. Why was this? 

Diane describes that the surgery didn’t take away any discomfort of running, nor did it give her any super ability to process pain. So what was her newfound edge over the competition?

She no longer had a sense of time.

She told of running a 10-day endurance event in the Yukon, where she would run 23 hrs and sleep only one hour a night. By day 6, other runners would be complaining about mental exhaustion, “I can’t believe I’ve been out here 6 days and we have 4 more to go.”

That never entered Diane’s mind, because she no longer thinks about time the same way. She’s unable to. That part of her brain is now gone. Time became irrelevant to her.

The light bulb went on for me as I saw the implications of this story to my life of faith.  It’s the point of the equation. A day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day because the Ancient of Days doesn’t deal in the boundaries of time. As Diane discovered, when time isn’t a factor, she gets to function very differently now, because she thinks very differently now.  Without that limitation, she can go much further than she ever believed she could.

I have been praying for 35 years for some things to happen. I’ve gotten discouraged over that time. If I did the math right and applied the equation of The Ancient of Days, 35 years means I’ve only been waiting about 50 minutes. That’s a very different way of looking at things.

While time seems to be irrelevant to The Ancient of Days, it appears he has much more interest in timing.  

Have you ever been waiting for something good to happen or to have a prayer be answered? And you wonder if you are stupid for thinking so, then all of a sudden, a random person from out of the blue contacts you, and then the next day, someone says a word to you in passing, then you get in the car and a song comes on the radio that outlines how you feel, and then you open your phone and see a word of encouragement on IG that seems like it was meant solely for you?

That’s kind how his timing works.

In my 40 years of connection with The Ancient of Days, I find him incredibly patient, delightfully humorous, and especially interested in involving me with his plans. He loves getting people enlisted in his effort to speak to us.  When he wants our attention, he’s going to have fun orchestrating the timing of it all.

And that might take 35 years. Or 50 minutes, give or take.

Make room.

KS

Fight The Good Fight

Two years ago today, I was inducted as a member into a society for which I never sought association.  But since then I have gained a camaraderie with other members here that are among my richest life connections.

I became a widower two years ago today. I have experienced what feels like another lifetime of change in those 24 months. 

One of those changes is in how I approach my writing. I have made a commitment to myself as a writer to be as honest as possible in my work.  

No one needs guidance to know what to do with the good times. It’s when times get dark that we can’t see our way forward. That’s when the light of others becomes much more critical. I choose to be more forthcoming about the ugly parts so you can gain courage to deal with yours.

Anxiety was one of those ugly parts.

Our marriage took some heavy hits. We had plenty to upset the applecart along the way. Any disease is a struggle. Hers was ovarian cancer, an aggressive foe that takes a woman down in about 18 months. She stayed in the ring against it for 9 ½ years. It was an exhausting fight for both of us.

But for different reasons.

I witnessed a more formidable opponent show up to join in our match. Cancer called in Fear from ringside. Neither of them fight fair.

At times it felt like three against two. Cancer and Fear emit a toxin when you rub up against them in the ring. Their poison is Anxiety. It gets in the bloodstream and it wreaks havoc from within. And now we’re outnumbered.

On some days, it appeared the fight was over. Cancer and Fear were keeping quiet in their corner. She and I were in the other. But unbeknownst to us, Anxiety was still contending, gnawing at us both with an insidious appetite that ate away at our souls.

I started paying attention. Anxiety had a predictable pathology. It was akin to something like LSD. With permission from Cancer and Fear, Anxiety worked on the mind, creating hallucinating scenarios, causing us as victims to conjure mental circumstances that were not true, but produced responses as real as the nose on your face.

Anxiety nearly convinced me that my life wasn’t worth living. As I tell my story of depression, some find it hard to fathom that I was at that point. They would say. “You seemed like you were strong through it all,” Or “I’m so glad you recovered. You have so many people that love you.”

The venom of Anxiety kept me from seeing those kinds of truth statements.

Cancer robbed us of years. Anxiety robbed us of life within the years we were allotted.

I use my words to help you hear yours.

This is my mission as I try to become more effective in communicating through the written word.  If I can help put words to your thoughts or validate a feeling that you had but weren’t quite sure how to articulate it, I’ve served my purpose as a writer.

Your circumstances may never mimic mine. Hopefully your spouse never gets cancer, let alone die of it.  You may have better luck resolving conflict than I did.  Financial security may not even be an issue for you like it was for us.

But there will be challenges of some kind to deal with. No one gets through life without a big ‘ol bite of the shit sandwich.

As a man who sat bedside and watched his life partner die, I’ve earned the opportunity to speak honestly about that assignment. I learned a lot about marriage under the vow I took, “till death do us part.”

Marriage provides an unpredictable environment for two people to join together and bear their hearts and souls to each other in search of a deeper, richer life than could be experienced alone.

With an emphasis on the unpredictable part. Neither of us knew what was going to eventually hit us.

On that Saturday April morning in 1990, when I stood before witnesses and said “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part” I wasn’t expecting to take that literally. If I had seen the end from the beginning, I would have probably lost heart along the way.

Some days were better than others. Some years were worse than others.

We were healthy most of those days, but sickness once required me to learn how to administer an enema out of necessity during the season when the infirmity was its most acute.

“Till death do us part….” And it did.

It’s in this place I can speak about the “for better or for worse” parts. And it serves no one for me to gloss over those. I am willing to go there because it’s real life. Not just mine, but yours also. 

These are my memories today, two years into my new identity. We fought long and hard against Cancer. But at times, Fear and Anxiety caused us to turn and fight each other. If I could go back, would I do things differently? Honestly, probably not. I did the best with what I knew at the time. I was present. I stayed at the ring. I fought well. No regrets.

Thanks for reading,

KS