He awoke with his cheek stuck to the pages. The bottle lay on its side, nearly empty. The words had all spilled out. A lonely “L” was left dangling at the rim. The desk was layered in incomprehensible phrases. They had flowed around his glass and dropped over the edge to the floor making a mess at his feet. He grabbed a stack of blank pages and threw them down in disgust. He rose and headed for the kitchen. Maybe some coffee could help clean up this mess.
As he set the coffee down on the desk he reached for a clean sheet of paper. Start over? That seemed like the wisest course of action. Although maybe, just cleaning up the mess would be a better use of his time. Instead, he took a long contemplative sip from the coffee cup and leaned back in his chair. There was the beginning of something there. It had been clamoring to get out all the previous day.
He wondered if maybe he should just call his sponsor. After all, these things do happen. We think we can just drop a little story here or craft a sweet little poem and walk away. Next thing we know we wake up in a pool of our own paragraphs and we’re headed down that long lonely road again. His father had told him not to pick up the pen. Too many in his family had suffered that particular torment. “’Tis an ignoble end,” he said. “Best to stick with numbers. Become an accountant or write software if you must play with words. Just keep away from the thesaurus. Nothing good will come of that.”
He sighed deeply and set the cup back on the desk. Looking down at the pile of papers on the floor he saw a little phrase had slipped out from beneath. It triggered something in his memory. Was that a little bit of the missing plotline? As he flipped over the pages the characters started introducing themselves. Frantically, he bent over and pulled at the pages, arranging them all over the floor. Yes, this is what had been hammering at his consciousness all day yesterday! He wondered if he had the words he needed, the bottle was nearly empty. Still, at that very moment, all he really needed was that “L”. The rest would come, eventually, as they always did.
There’s a certain kind of power granted to one when they realize that they have no control over the future. We are minuscule little deflections in the matrix. Very little of what we do here matters, in the grand scheme of things. Does that mean we should just throw up our hands and concede defeat? Not at all. In fact;
It’s all terribly important. But none of it really matters.
In the end, nothing much of what we do here will be remembered. But, to those we love, it can make all the difference. And sometimes, it means everything to someone we’ve never even met. Every single one of us has the power to change lives. One at a time. That irrelevant seeming little post you make on social media means nothing to 99.9999999% of the population but there’s always the possibility that what you say reaches deep into the consciousness of that one person and gives them the hope they need today. Maybe you only save their life today. But tomorrow their whole world changes. Would you deny them that? If all you had to do was show up and be present?
We all wonder what our purpose here is. What if it’s as simple as telling someone they matter to you? In the darkest of hours, that can feel like someone just threw you a lifeline. We never know the circumstances of the lives we touch. Does that mean we should stop reaching out? I think it means we should extend our hands. Even if they are repeatedly slapped away. The ones who need that help will find us there to help them up. It’s the way of the universe. Ask, and you may receive. Whenever it’s in our power, we should be the ones who are there.
When no one else would hear my pain, I found you, with a hand open and willing to help.
There are always winners and losers, right? He who dies with the most toys wins. Must we always climb over the bodies to reach the top?
Not if we redefine the goal. I’ve always struggled with the idea of competition. On the one hand, it’s the very essence of nature. Species compete with each other for resources. Individuals compete within the social order for the opportunity to mate, eat and survive. The strongest come out on top. Most of the time.
This works quite well. On a local or even a regional level. But scale it up to the level of nations, continents or planets and it’s a recipe for wholesale destruction. Greed is not good. Greed will get us all killed. And guess what? Greed starts with the individual.
That’s right, given the current state of our world, your desire to have it all means somebody else has to go without. As long as it’s “anybody first” we all lose, eventually. The richest nine men in the world have more combined wealth than over half the worlds population. A helluva lot of people are going without for these guys to “have it all”.
The tribal nature of humanity is an evolutionary dead end.
The only way out of this mess is to redefine what having it all means.
The Iroquois held that in all things one must peer seven generations into the future to prepare for the impact of today’s decisions. Seven generations is about 140 years. Longer than anyone will live. Long enough that no matter what you have acquired, it will no longer have any value to you. Long enough that, given the current state of the environment, humanity and most of the rest of the large mammals on this planet may not survive.
And yet almost half of all American’s have essentially no retirement savings at all. People, we can’t even look far enough ahead to make sure we ourselves don’t die of starvation while, in the immortal words of Matt Foley: “living in a van down by the river!”
Why is this? Because, somehow we’ve come to believe that “beating the competition” is a noble pursuit. But it’s not. On a planet with almost eight billion human souls, it’s tantamount to genocide. There must be a higher good. Something beyond animal instinct to create meaning in life. All the wise sages of the past knew this. They taught cooperation, love for your fellow beings, peace. None of the holy writings of our history advocated grabbing all you can get for yourself. And yet, this is what we have decided to hold up as the crowning achievement of civilization.
I submit that we have collectively lost our souls. Sold them for thirty pieces of silver. And that’s a more apt description of it than you might realize. Because if we don’t pull our collective heads out of our asses, we may well have sold out all life on this planet. The planet will survive, even thrive, eventually. But we may not. And how much potential will we have squandered?
I think there’s a better way. But it starts with empathy. We need to learn to care about others. Other people. People who don’t look like us. People who don’t think like us. Even people who don’t love like us. And we need to consider all the other life on this ball of energy too. Only then will we be able to redefine success as a measure of ones positive impact to the world in which they live rather than by the size of the fortune they leave to their heirs.
She stood in the doorway in that dismissive way a teenage girl stands when she’s feeling put upon. Clearly, she had better things to do and he was just an inconvenient obligation she had to address before she could get on with the important matters of the day. Still, she was nearly transparent. When she looked up and met his eyes, his blood ran cold. For here was Death herself. Not carrying a scythe. Not dressed in black. Nope, not this time. Today, she was just a pretty teenage girl. Albeit, one you literally see through. Not exactly what one would expect to see at the moment oblivion comes calling. No one would ever suspect she held the power of eternity in her hands. That is, until they looked in her eyes. There was no mistaking her identity when those bottomless black orbs caught your gaze.
“Relax”, she said, “someone very important to you asked me to stop by and remind you. You made a promise. And you’re dragging your feet. Time’s a wasting old man. Don’t make me come back here. You know she won’t be happy if you blow it again this time.”
He was just about to say something when she interrupted him. “No excuses” she said, “You have had ten years to grieve. She sent along just about every kind of human being you could possibly need to learn the difference between what the two of you had and what everyone else thinks is love. You know this, deep down. Accept it. And do what you promised to do.”
“But the kids…..”, he said. “Will be fine” she countered. “How many times have they themselves told you that? You’re just scared.” And he knew, to his very core, that Death was right. He’d set an intention in motion two and half years ago. He’d retire, somehow make the finances work and go have that adventure he had always dreamed about. The very one he described to his wife just months before she passed away. It wasn’t just a dream. It was a promise he’d made to be more than an empty husk of a man after all she had suffered.
It certainly seemed like every cause for concern was magically removed whenever he came up with another reason to hold back. The job was outsourced a month before he was planning to retire. It put him in an even better financial situation. Every obstacle just seemed to evaporate, almost as soon as he thought of it. For someone who couldn’t seem to stop worrying about what could go wrong, everything always worked out in his favor. And he knew, it was because of her. It was the gift she gave him in return for a promise that had been made and must be kept.
Something flickered at the corner of his eye. He turned to look. In the mirror on the wall, a flash of black wing and the shiny edge of a sharpened blade passed through his field of view. When he turned back she was gone. A waft of burnt cookies caressed his nose and the unspoken words kissed his soul, “Don’t let her down, you promised her you wouldn’t waste the time she gave you.”
It seems a bit strange to write that, since you’ve been dead for over ten years. But, just because death separates us, doesn’t mean I’m not married anymore. Or not still deeply in love with you. Yeah sure, I’ve tried to move on. I’ve even fallen in love a couple times and skipped down the path towards something new and potentially wonderful. But I keep tripping on the rocks and ruts of my history. Of what we had.
No, it wasn’t perfect. But neither is a favorite sweater, or the gloves that fit like a second skin. It’s not perfection that builds a successful relationship. It’s the way you stretch and shape into each other. The ability to grow as a team while still maintaining full autonomy and security as two separate individuals. Truly, a great relationship brings a whole that is so much larger than the sum of its parts.
That’s what we had. Something more than either of us could ever have been as individuals. The reason I know this is because of the holes I’ve had to fill since you went home. I’ve had to become the mom, as well as dad. To pick up the mantle of bad cop, as well as that of the good cop. Four kids need four different kinds of parents. Even two would be barely enough. And yet I had to try to be all of them. I failed, in myriad ways that I’ll probably never even begin to understand. I could never fill the emptiness but somehow we kept ourselves from falling into the abyss created by your death. Together, the five of us found a way to draw the strength and resources from each other to get to this place and time. You left some really, really big empty shoes. And it took all of us to fill them just enough to keep taking forward steps.
The truth is, I would never have made it this far if it weren’t for the kids. Parenting these humans to adulthood is the only thing that kept me here. When you died the foundation of my world crumbled away leaving only those four pillars to hold me up while I slowly and methodically built a life without you.
I’ve also learned how to care about people that aren’t family members. It wasn’t until long after you were gone that I found out there was an empath buried deep inside of me. Yeah, funny eh? The stoic man you married has trouble keeping dry eyes when a sad song plays or he reads a post about immigrant children in cages on our southern border. As the world I live in has grown harder and colder, I’ve become softer and more emotional.
And just look at this! I write blog posts and share them with the world. I even get responses to some of my posts. I’ve been told that I offer hope for a better tomorrow. I don’t know if it’s true or not. I do it because I feel like I was called to it. I’ve become a sensitive man. Or maybe that’s what losing you has done, broken me open and let out what was in there all the time. Culturally conditioned and socially inept, I showed the world a cold, stoic, seemingly heartless man. Until you died and my heart and soul were cast into the hellfire of grief and loss. I’ve since learned how to express that in my own unique way. If it helps other people find a way out of the darkness, I’m more than happy to light the candle.
Even as I sit here today marveling at all the ways I’ve grown and how different my life has become I still struggle with questions of why. What kind of karma am I working off that I should spend a fifth of my life in mourning? And even now, after I’ve clawed my way through hell and come out on the other side into a sunny and warm existence, I think I’d still give it all up for just one more day with you.
I was chatting with an old friend today. A comrade in arms, so to speak, on the long road to widowhood I made over ten years ago. That trip was a painful, soul searing life tragedy I’m sure I’ll never completely reconcile emotionally. We shared the process because her husband was dying of the same disease at almost the same time as my wife.
The conversation led down some paths of reflection that I hadn’t sat with in a long time. Those days were difficult. A million things to do. But what I most remembered was the overwhelming sense of abandonment I experienced. I hadn’t examined those feelings because I let them all go a long time ago.
People fail us, when we most need them. Friends don’t show up to help when their presence would lift worlds from our shoulders. Family members just go on living their lives as if nothing is wrong. We have expectations of the people in our lives. Expectations that they will be there when we need them. That they will love us as we love them. That they will hear us when we call out in the darkness. And yet they fail us. Over and over again.
But guess what? We fail them too. Because the things we need from other people are tied to our own perceptions. Even when we give what we most think someone needs, we often fail.
The measure of a person isn’t if they’re there when needed. Sometimes you will be and sometimes you won’t. You’ll often fail to provide that which is most needed in the moment even when you think you’re giving your all. Unless you’re just an asshole, you’re likely to try to help those you love as often as you can. But you’re still going to fail. Often.
The measure of a person is displayed in their ability to forgive. When others fail them. And when they fail others. To be able to accept the imperfections of all the people in our lives. To overlook the perceived slights and misunderstandings. To accept that we’re all weak in some ways and unable to give even when the demand is great.
Some things you don’t so much get over as you just sort of move beyond. The death of a loved one. The ending of what you thought was going to be forever. Life will never be quite the same. Hanging on to the failures you experience in life, whether those of a loved one, or your own, is a zero sum game. No one benefits and everyone stands to lose that most precious of all possessions — love. We’re here for a remarkably short ride and you never really know what pain other people are bearing. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
Forgiveness. We may forgive other people but the release is ours to celebrate.
I’d never even heard his name before. I was sixteen years old and starting my first “real” job. I’d be doing odd jobs at a golf course. Mowing, raking leaves, “whipping” the greens every morning, oh, and dodging golf balls. Greg was at least fifteen years older than I. He rode a motorcycle. He smoked (not just tobacco, either) and did pretty much any other substance he could get his hands on. He was almost certainly the most intellectually eager human being I had ever met.
I grew up in a mountain town of about five hundred souls. Deep history. But not a whole lot of intellectual curiosity. There were plenty of smart people around. They regularly kicked my ass academically. But there just wasn’t much passion for the unknown. I’m kind of a big question guy. I don’t so much care what the answer is, I just want new questions. Preferably questions nobody has ever before answered to anyone’s complete satisfaction. Greg was my very first introduction to philosophy (my wife would become my ultimate partner in those endeavors).
But here, for what seemed like the first time in my life, I found someone who spent their time thinking the same kinds of thoughts I had always entertained. Thoughts that went beyond “how do I fix this carburetor?” or “will I have a date on Saturday night?”. Here was someone with adventure woven into his soul.
He’d left home right after high school. Spent the last two years of the Vietnam war on an army base in Germany. When he returned to the states he took diving lessons and worked for a couple of years in the Gulf of Mexico doing underwater welding. He traveled all over the country taking on jobs that made him just enough money to get by while he tried to figure out what life was all about. At one point, he found himself in Wyoming working as a roughneck on an oil rig. When that tour ended, he hopped on his Yamaha SR500 and made a beeline for home. Over twenty hours of riding, stopping for nothing but fuel. He was around forty years old and had spent most of the last twenty years on the road. He had a lot of stories to tell and I sat in rapt attention listening to him.
Greg was a student. Not a formal academic, but rather someone who had never stopped learning. He could spend hours discussing the ins and outs of Eastern religion or with a flip of the subject, the mechanics of rebuilding a motorcycle transmission. He defined “Renaissance Man” to me. He knew something about almost everything and was one of those “most interesting men in the world” types.
But life in what Western culture had become bored Greg silly. Like most people with half a brain, a bit of compassion, and a taste for adventure, capitalism represented subjugation and exploitation. It just wasn’t a game he wanted to play. He’d grown up with money and saw the single-minded pursuit of it as something of a moral failing. The fact that all of Western culture had become enslaved to its pursuit had left him more than a little distressed and depressed.
My friend died young. Not in a noble way either. He didn’t kill himself. The end was as forlorn as his view of the world had become. He was run over by a car in whiteout conditions on a cold winter’s night in his hometown. The driver of the car never saw him and his family declined to press charges. It was simply an accident that nobody could have foreseen.
I met my wife about a year after Greg was killed. And to be honest, he didn’t cross my mind much over the years. Like so many of our early relationships, we had just sort of drifted apart. Twenty four years later though, on one of the darkest nights my soul has ever known, this man came to me in a dream.
It was a late December night, about a month after Liz had died. I hadn’t really gotten a decent night’s sleep in about three years. There was something otherworldly about everything since my universe had come to an end on the Monday before Thanksgiving. This particular night I had already been visited by my father (who had passed away twenty-two years previously).
Here, in the pre-dawn hours, I found myself straddling a motorcycle on an empty road. I looked to my right and Greg sat there, on the very SR500 Yamaha he had ridden all those years before. He wore the same blanket lined denim jacket and Marlboro Man mustache he had always sported. He grinned at me, laughed out loud, gunned the engine and took off. I chased him, across the flats and up over the hill. The last thing I saw before I woke up was the taillight of that Yamaha going around the bend in front of me. I was strangely comforted by this visit from a nearly forgotten specter of my past. He hadn’t said a word and yet he told me all I needed to hear.