School Choice

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“We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us.”
― Ken Levine

So two of the blended teenagers cleaned up nicely, found wonderful dates, donned their best duds, and attended the junior/senior prom at their new school last weekend.  Too expensive dresses and flowers, oversized limos, lots of friends and family, big smiles that seemed genuine, and too many pictures marked the event. The high heels and rented shoes that made walking a challenge were later discarded on the dance floor, while the certainly not functional must-wear dresses and tuxes the kids (and parents) worked weeks to afford were soon treated like sweatpants, but they returned with big smiles and lifetime memories, sleeping most of the next day. They even posed for a photo together for us, certainly not something they would choose do on their own!

The smiles on the two harried parents who ushered the kids off to the promenade and burgeoning independence and adulthood were genuine, too. Not necessarily of happiness, although that was certainly a large component of it. The biggest reason for our smiles, though, was relief.

The hardest part of parenting – by far – is decision-making. Parents have to tow the line between discipline and independence, allowing their children enough room to make mistakes, but not mistakes big enough to affect the rest of their lives. We have to choose between our dreams and desires and the needs and wants of our children, between their safety and strangulation from boredom. There are no formulas to follow, every child and situation is different every time, and the world changes so fast now that there often isn’t precedent and wisdom to fall back upon.

It is even harder to make the difficult decisions as a single parent. I found this out immediately, and in the hardest way possible, as my wife literally lay dying, and I had to decide whether my nine- and twelve-year old boys should be there with their mother or not through the hardest of all journeys. It was the rudest welcoming to single parenting imaginable, it struck abject terror into my heart, and left me trembling and questioning how I could ever do it.

Fast-forward a few years, and a strong beautiful angel who knew a few things about making hard decisions by herself (like deciding to start a life and family with a man just diagnosed with a brain tumor and given only a couple years to live) was divinely thrust into my life. I honestly don’t know where I, and this family of boys with me at the helm, would be if my wife and Kim’s husband hadn’t arranged for us to get together. I’m pretty sure it would not have been in the many good places we are today, though.

And so it is that the smiles of relief Kim and I share today are rooted in gratitude for the  miracle of our meeting and the wisdom to follow our hearts. For we certainly needed the lessons life had forced upon us soon. One of the first and hardest decisions we had to make was to blend these families (even knowing as we did so that 75% of blended families fail) – especially when that entailed moving three of the kids out of the only school district they had ever attended, right smack dab in the hardest school years to do so for the two who are now attending the prom.

Making decisions of this sort is truly a sort of torture, for while of course it affected us, it also changed incontrovertibly the course of our kids’ lives. What we wouldn’t have given for a crystal ball to peer into the future and see we were doing the right thing, and not fucking the kids up for the rest of their lives! And oh man, it certainly felt like we had made the worst decision ever when Emily curled up in ball, crying her guts out and begging her mom to turn the car around and “please let me go to my old school” that very first day. It’s true, we are always just one decision away from a totally different life.

But of course there is no way of knowing the outcome at the time major decisions have to be made. That is why it is so hard. That is why you have to know what your priorities are, and know what is real for you, and retreat to those places of firmness in your life, in you heart, when the tough decisions need made. It’s when making these decisions that we find out who we really are, and how strong we really are. “It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do”, says Elbert Hubbard.

Kim did not turn around on her way to the new school with Emily that day, despite her heart breaking. She did pull off the road to ball her eyes out, though, after dropping Emily off and before continuing on to work. This parenting thing is hard, and sometimes the hardest part is being strong in front of the kids, to give them the courage and strength they will need, even when we want to turn around and run, too.

“It is our choices that show who we really are, far more than our abilities”, says Dumbledore to Harry Potter, says a mother to her daughter, says life to all of us. We get to decide how we will respond the loss of a parent, a spouse, to a broken family, to a new school, to growing up, to making the hard decisions a good life requires, even in the face of long odds.

So maybe we have all done some things right – for both of these dressed up high schoolers who are looking all grown up today, chose to make the most of their new school, their new opportunities, their new house and neighborhood, and new living arrangement (though we wish they would do a little more here 🙂 They both have grown and expanded the last two years, making a new volleyball team, taking new classes, making new friends, and learning new skills that have helped them to grow and mature and will certainly benefit them in the next phases of their lives. Both have expressed that yeah, maybe changing schools wasn’t so bad, maybe even some good things have come from it, maybe we are better people from having lived through it.

Kim and I certainly know they are. Growth comes only at the end of our comfort zones, as these kids now know a bit, too.

And so for Kim and I, our smiles today are not about how good they look, but for how proud we are of them for choosing to embrace the choices we foisted upon them, that they themselves would not have chosen, but for which we felt a few years ago was best for them. Certainly for two worried parents living with the results of making the tough decisions, getting this confirmation that yeah, maybe we did do the right thing – well, that is certainly reason to smile, and further reinforcement to continue trusting in our hearts. I hope the kids are seeing a bit of that, too…

I Am the Tortoise

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“We are committed, my legs and I; there is no turning back. I shoulder the pack, resume the trek, the step-by-step progress into … an infinite regress. … I am the tortoise.” – Edward Abbey

So the second of the blended brood is getting ready to flee the nest and head off to college. What once seemed abstract and exciting (and even enviable, when our parental bounds seemed suffocating) is suddenly real, and the professions of going to school “as far away from here as possible” have morphed into going to the closest big city school, closer even than Kim’s workplace. Funny what happens when kid talk needs turned into action, and rhetoric into responsibility.

And suddenly there is a lot of thinking and talking and questioning, about majors and courses of study, and “what am I going to do the rest of my life”, because now it comes with the realization that childhood is over and the results of their decisions will determine their quality of life. Or maybe it is the even starker realization that mom and dad will soon be done stocking the refrigerator and paying for that next car. And here’s how we know the shit is really hitting the fan – they are even asking us for advice!

Of course I don’t have answers for them, and this is hard on both of us – the kids have always relied on their parents for answers when they came up short (or maybe they were just being lazy), and we have always provided them with solutions (even if they didn’t always like it.) I remember once when the fire alarm was falsely going off in the middle of the night and the fire trucks were on their way (again!), asking Emily how she would handle the situation if we weren’t around. She replied, irritated, that “I don’t have to think about that for another year because I’m not an adult.” Well, now you are, and in four months we won’t be taking care of midnight alarms or getting her up for that 8 a.m. class or bailing her out of budget emergencies. Welcome to the real world, ready or not.

But for the big questions they are asking – well, we (parents) truly cannot help them this time. We don’t know what is in their hearts. I’m not sure they know what is in their hearts, because I don’t think they have ever had to really look, with real stakes (the future quality of their lives and happiness) on the line. But they truly are the only ones that have the real answers they are seeking. And the answers are inside them; but they need to figure this out for themselves, not always an easy process. Now it gets real.

I can only pass on what I have learned, but my path will not be theirs, so my specific advice to them is very limited. But I don’t want them to hear what I did (and they most likely won’t listen anyway, I’ll get the same blank, disinterested stare I got doing the “boring” budget talk.) I want them to hear how I reacted to becoming an adult, what mistakes I made, what I would do differently if I could, and what I learned when asking the same questions they are asking now.

Hmm, I am sure there were many wise adults who tried to tell me what they learned, too, and I am sure I passed on the same blank stare I get now. Sigh, it is one of the most frustrating aspects of parenting. Teenagers think their parents are old and irrelevant, and that only they know everything. I’m sure I thought I knew everything at 18, too, but I know now that I most certainly didn’t.

A funny thing did happen over the next 32 years, though – I did learn a few things. Life taught it to me, whether I wanted to learn or not. Usually it was the hard way, and usually after not taking a wiser persons advice. Maybe that’s just the way it has to be; but now from a parent’s’ point of view, it is truly painful to watch your children make mistakes and do things the hard way.

But that’s not going to stop me from preaching, to the kids, and especially on my blog that no one reads anyway. And maybe on some level a little bit of this will seep in if I keep up the repetitiveness. Someday…

I’ve written extensively about the importance of following your cairns, your signs, your path, not the crowd, not the latest craze – and that will always hold true. This is often the hardest thing to learn for a high schooler, to whom the crowd holds mighty sway, especially in the digital age of likes and instagram and electronic followers. Trust me, kids, that will only lead you away from your higher self, the pursuit of which is also one of life’s more rewarding and nobler pursuits (but that is a whole post in and of itself, for a later time…)

Doing something because the crowd likes it will most often not be the best way. Sorry kids, but remember that conversation about being an adult now? Well now it’s time to be a leader, at least of yourself. A tough lesson to learn, to be sure, but one that needs to be understood for you to find your path. You’ll get there, especially as you put distance between your true self and high school. Find out who you truly are, and then trust in your true self. Again, that is another post, also.

But this post is about finding what is real; for you will need a place to stand when life tests you. Of course, you have your family, but we have our flaws and limitations, too, as you already know. Perhaps you have a faith that is solid; lean on it. But most likely, you haven’t found what is real for you, because you haven’t had to really look. But you probably already know that high school is not real, and finding what is not real is an important part of the process, too.

Finding what is real to you is a lifelong journey, and what is real to you is also different for everyone. That’s what makes it so difficult – it is a solo journey, no one can travel it for you. You will have to do the hard work and make the difficult decisions. Again, I can only pass on what I have learned, but these are the lessons that have stuck with me – because they are real. Life has tested me and I have tested myself in places that are real to me and on solo journeys.

But again, this is not about my lessons, it’s about how I learned them. I did not always follow my heart or my passions when I was making the same decisions you are making now, and I took a lot of detours and made a lot of wrong turns. And maybe I needed those wrong turns (maybe we all do) to break through my self-imposed limits and stubbornness. But I wish I would have looked a little earlier for what is real to me, before life forced me to find it.

It’s not that I’ve made some huge mistakes that I regret – it’s that I didn’t do things as I should have, honoring who I really am. I took the long way home, just learning lessons recently that I should have learned long ago, and that might have made my life a little easier, and less miserable at times. But the wisdom to learn from others advice is rare, as I am sure we will see with our children. And that’s ok, too, some of us are just plain stubborn. I suppose it is better to get there late than never, though.

I wish I would have followed my passion for the outdoors earlier. Nature, the natural world, so much a part of my childhood – it is so much more real than the human world, especially the workaday world of jobs and making a living, the fast paced “connectedness” of the electronic world, and the modern culture of convenience and comfort. Nature demonstrates true connectedness, every piece intimately connected to every other part if you look closely, life and death dwelling right beside each other. And she still operates on the same slow, patient, unfolding pace that so soothes my soul when the human world attempts to consume the real me with its insatiable demands for more – which is most certainly, to this old curmudgeon – not real. Yes I still root for the tortoise, even in this rabbit-paced world.

The kids will all find this out soon enough – life has a way of doing that. Soon, the hollowness of electronic “relationships” and the shallowness of comfort and convenience will be revealed by the timeless demands of making a living, of careers, of marriage and parenthood, of the decline of our own earthly bodies. Life is hard, it is full of death and hardships, and rebirths and resurrections, if you can muster the gumption. If you have found something real to stand on.

I have found one of my reals, outside, as I have written about extensively. It is a bit sad to me that my teens don’t share in my enthusiasm for the outdoors, of hiking and biking and backpacking, despite my exposing them to these activities from the time they were little (indeed, little Trevor was only 2 months old when we took him on his first three-day backpacking trip.) Outside is where my feet find solid ground, where my soul blossoms in the presence of the intricate beauty of the landscape, in a place that feels like home, where I can let go of my human roles and responsibilities and just be the real ME.

But my kids are not unique. Many an author has argued about the death of nature, the death of real risk and adventure (replaced now by theme park thrills and virtual reality) and the death of backpacking, especially for Gen Xers. Christopher Ketcham does an especially eloquently job of it in “The Death of Backpacking.” And yes, I agree one hundred percent with his points, and he is so spot on on many levels. The outdoors can’t compete with the instant gratification and constant connectedness of the electronic and social media, it’s too slow and not flashy enough. Plus, it’s too much work for this next coddled generation, who have been spoon fed “success” as a right and whom think the outdoors is just the place between the front door and the car. Yes we are teaching the next generation that convenience and comfort is worth more than their souls, and that is a disservice.

These kids don’t understand – it’s not the happiness that’s most important, it’s the pursuit of it. That’s what gives life real meaning, the long, hard journey of pursuing and bringing to bloom the unique gifts that are only inside of each of us. So far, they’ve gotten everything they’ve ever wanted all their lives, handed to them, without really working hard and struggling for it. It’s usually only a few days before they become bored of it, when the lasting happiness they thought would come with it quickly fades. So they move on to the next prized possession –  but the results are the same. Kids, you can continue this pattern your whole life – certainly our out of control consumer society encourages this. You can then choose to mask your continued disappointments with whatever diversion and drug makes you feel “good”, lord knows we humans have perfected the art of avoidance. Or you can look inside, do the hard work – and find what is real.

Shame on us parents, myself included, for spoiling our kids. We have given them one more huge roadblock in the way of finding their own path. But alas, parents are human too, and it’s hard to refrain from giving our kids everything when we see everyone else doing it.

Have we taught them to find the drive and the passion in themselves to undertake something hard, and the perseverance to follow through the inevitable storms, even when the trail is all uphill and every muscle aches and the summit seems forever out of reach? Have we taught them to work through the discomforts of the journey, the bugs and dead ends and wrong turns and backtracking, and carry on their path? Have we taught them to take the right path for them, to strive for the bigger goal, the more nobler reward, the highest version of themselves, instead of going easier and giving in to the highest bidder? Have we shown them the true satisfaction and lasting happiness of achieving a goal that only you can see, that others said was not worth it, but which makes your soul bloom? I don’t know…

But here is one thing I do know – I don’t need to teach them all of those things. Because life will shake them out of their comfort, out of their ruts, out of their unconsciousness; it will shake them to their core soon enough. Then they will look around in earnest for something real. And when they do, whatever is real to them will be there, if they know where to look.

And yes, the rocks and the big sky and the trees and the glaciers will still be there for them, too, if that’s what speaks to them (well, ok, the glaciers may not be there). And hopefully, so too will be the voice of their old man, even if it is only an old dusty whisper from long ago, but still preaching about looking inside to find their path, to find what is real, to strive for the highest version of themselves. Maybe then they will remember some of what I am trying to say. Hmm, maybe then they might even strap on dad’s old pack…

 

In the meantime, though – the temporary death of backpacking means no one is out there in the backcountry now; woo-who, let’s get out there and enjoy something real, God’s big empty playground!!!

I am still the tortoise, too…

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Surviving Normal

Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow.” – Vincent van Gogh

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Stress specialists tell us we are actually pretty good at surviving the big challenges – death and divorce, sudden loss of a job, even major personal injuries and health problems – mostly because we usually have lots of help with these things. Yes, they tax us beyond what we think we can handle at the time, cause us to shed tears and endure more pain and discomfort than we thought we could bear – but they also force us to grow and expand, which often times leads us to new and sometimes better places, and higher versions of ourselves. How many times have we heard survivors of horrible ordeals say, after they had recovered, they wouldn’t trade the experience they endured if given the choice, because of who they grew into and what they learned?

But we humans don’t like change. Therefore, it is often the ever-changing nature of life itself that forces us to change and grow, by forcing us to march through life’s big events. When faced with the choice to change or curl up and die, most of us finally choose change, and we are usually happy about the place where the changes lead us, once we get through the tears and tough times.

Certainly that is the place where I am arriving at, finally. The amount of wrenching changes to my base life I have endured the last five years finally seems to be settling down into a new normal. Compared to five years ago, I now have a new life partner, a new address and new house, a new and much more dynamic living situation which includes a new family (immediate and extended), a new career, and a whole new (and much more humbling) financial situation. Wow, I could write a book about this journey! It’s been a lot to endure, but I have survived, and I am thriving once again, and I carry with me now the lessons I was meant to learn, which I would not now give up.

And so we (this blended family) are settling into “normal” again. God, that is what I so wanted five years ago, symbolized by my intense longing for just a simple family meal after my wife died. Well, we have that now. (Ok, only sometimes – trying to wrangle four teenagers to agree on or do anything, even something as simple as dinner, is never easy or normal!)

So I have not been blogging as much on this site, because, let’s face it, normal life is boring. Who wants to continually read about the challenges we all face raising teenagers? Like how a few weekends ago we actually got three of the kids outside and away from their phones and screens, and got them cross-country skiing, a new experience for them and us, and we actually ALL had a good time! It would have been a perfect story too, had it ended with us all curled up on the couches watching a movie as planned – except that one teenager ended up spending the night in the hospital with breathing difficulties (it turned out to be a minor ailment which poses no immediate threat, but which we will keep warily in the back of our minds), and another teenager abruptly leaving the movie when friends beckoned, only to come home a few hours later in a mildly altered state that is not legal at his age.

Of course these events abruptly ended the already interrupted movie and destroyed what Kim and I hoped would be a nice, “normal” night. In fact, Kim and I didn’t even get the chance to revel in our minor skiing victory that day – she ended up sleeping in a chair at UPMC East, while I was at home disciplining a wayward teen deep into the night. So much for plans and expectations of normal, or even sleep!

But of course, that is how life is with children, especially teens. Every parent already knows this, and it makes for boring blog fare (though it does make for entertaining Facebook posts.) And Kim and I certainly understand that life can change direction on a dime; that is also just how life is.

But I am so happy I can share these normal life challenges with someone who cares. It makes it so much easier to handle, versus making these tough decisions solo. I totally appreciate Kim and our relationship, we are so lucky to have each other. But everyone already knows that, too, no more blog posts needed on that topic, either.

But it is in the normal where the little stresses of life take their toll. There is a lot of help from others for the big things – meals brought over after funerals, hospital visits to people we don’t make the time for when they are healthy, calls just to see how you are doing after a job loss that just don’t get made when things are going “fine” – but the ordinary ups and downs get neglected. We are left to handle the little things on our own.

I am not complaining, just pointing it out, as I now find myself sliding right back into the same habits as I get my own normal back. But this is one of the lessons I learned from the past five years – I’ve got to make it a habit to appreciate the ordinary and normal, too.

“Normal” and routine allows us to accomplish many things everyday – it gets us to work on time, makes sure food is in the fridge and the bills are paid and the cars are inspected – but it takes a lot of our time, and is usually done on auto-pilot, without thinking or appreciation. The morning “goodbyes” are often rote; they certainly don’t convey the meaning they did in the months after my wife died. This is the danger of routine – it encourages the erosion of appreciation for what is truly important, and causes complacency.

This spills over into all aspects of life, whether in our work careers or in our relationships with our families and children, and in our romantic relationships with our spouses or significant others. So we occasionally need reminders that what is normal and routine, is still very special.

Valentine’s Day is one of those reminders. I can certainly recall being jaded and cynical about Valentine’s Day. Geez, gotta buy cards and flowers and candy, another item on my to-do list, another commercialized opportunity for someone else to reach into my wallet. And yes, there are grains of truth to both of those thoughts. But it is also important to remember the days’ intent – to break through the routines that so often takes so much of our attention, and simply take a day to pause to reflect on love, the hardest emotion to protect from normal. It’s still a relevant good intention.

Kim and I so wanted to shout to the world “look at us, look at this incredible love we’ve been granted!” the first couple of Valentine’s Days we shared. But it was too soon, too many would have scorned and judged us. And last year, we lost our Valentine’s Day to another teenager crisis. Ha, but these were all okay, because we were so much in love, and were still building our normal.

Now we have it, and even with our amazing love story and incredible bond, we now have to pause and make a conscious effort at recognizing and remembering our specialness, just like most couples who have been together a long time. And Valentine’s Day gives us that opportunity, every year.

We did something completely ordinary this year – we exchanged cards and flowers, and enjoyed a nice dinner, just the two of us. But we’ve never had that opportunity before, and we so appreciated it, because we have learned the hard way that next year is not guaranteed.

Kim, in her beautiful letter to me, expressed so eloquently what I am trying to say in this post. Valentine’s Day provides “an exterior prodding that urges us to think about our loves, those who make our hearts beat rapidly, those with whom we’ve chosen to build a life”, even among the “celebration of normalcy” that, as Kim pointed out, “feels of so good.”

Certainly, as Kim also pointed out, we have to keep up the exploring and adventuring as an integral counterpoint to normal, and I don’t think we will have any problem with that! We have certainly also learned that adventure and experiences are what makes life worth living – it breaks up the monotony of routine, and we have way too many things we want to do to lose sight of this!

But can we keep up the appreciation the ordinary?

Ahh, that is the challenge.

I see other couples still in love after decades of marriage, and I think they have mastered to art of appreciating waking up together, of sharing dinners and kid challenges, even “the days of sweatpants and no makeup and the nights of just reading or watching tv with the kids.” I hope we can keep that.

We need Valentine’s Day, and birthdays, and anniversaries, not for the cards and the gifts, but to remind us what is important, to jolt us out of complacency. We also need the reminder that the ordinary is deserving of appreciation, too.

So don’t wait until the next big inevitable change and challenge that life will certainly bestow – take the opportunity these special days give us to remind ourselves and others of their specialness, even among the normal…

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Saints and Sinners

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“Saint: a dead sinner revised and edited.” – Ambrose Bierce, American journalist, 1842-1914

“I hate you dad (mom)! I wish it was you that died!”

This charge has been leveled more than once. It hurts when I hear it, but I don’t blame the kids. I remember feeling the same way towards my mom after my dad died. It’s a natural reaction when life forces us to change way before we are ready. It applies to adults too. And the reality is, sometimes Kim and I do wish we were the ones who died…

It’s not often, certainly not that much recently, now that Kim and I have found each other, and have found in each other someone who truly understands what I am going to talk about. But certainly when we were struggling single parents, the unfairness of the charges that our kids occasionally levied, in their times of weakness, brought home with the force of a body blow the worst unfairness of losing a someone close to you – The Canonization of the Dead.

I understand it. No one wants to speak ill of the dead. We all change our perspective on the deceased, once we have gazed down into their casket and now fully know they cannot defend themselves from whatever slights we might bring up with them if they were still alive. Now we have to let them go. That’s part of the healing that viewings and funerals offer. Its water under the bridge now, it’s time to let bygones be bygones, let’s remember only the happy and good times now. Deficiencies and shortcomings are swept under the rug, and even the deceased’s worst traits are sanitized, laughed at, forgiven.

At some time, usually a bit after the shock of a too young death, but before those closest to the loss have begun real healing, the deceased is made a Saint. Put right up there with Mother Theresa and Saint Paul. From now on, all those around him or her are not allowed to remember flaws, but can now only sing their praises.

The leftover survivors are now deprived of a vital piece of the healing puzzle – the right to be mad at the deceased, for leaving too early, for leaving us with a big mess to clean up, including some of the mistakes the Saint made before leaving.

Let me be clear here – certainly, Debbie was as close to a saint as anyone I have had the privilege to know intimately. Kim has shared with me numerous times that John was a really good guy too, he was just dealt a really bad hand. Both of them shined even more and both truly did march towards sainthood with how they handled their illnesses and how they faced death. Debbie taught me more about grace and dignity and the true meaning of this life than any holy book and all the saints in it combined.

But she was not a saint all her life. She was human, just like me – and she left me with a big ole mess. She left me with a burden that required changing every aspect of my life to deal with. She left me with broken dreams and broken promises. She left me broken.

And in my brokenness, especially at my lowest – I cannot live up to her sainthood. This is what is so unfair. And sometimes it still pisses me off.

My kids now remember only Saint Debbie, the perfect mom whose perfection becomes even more complete when compared to my ineptitude and struggles, especially at first, when I couldn’t even do the simple things right, like grocery shopping and laundry. Family and friends speak only with a reverence about her now, at every remembrance and anniversary and holiday, as they should, but they never mention her shortcomings and flaws. And they certainly never mention the yeoman’s job I do everyday to keep this family going, to keep myself going.

They didn’t see me at my lowest, when there truly was doubt I would make it, when I wanted to just throw in the towel and just drink my responsibilities and life away. Nobody celebrates what a victory it was some days just to get out of bed. It made me mad as hell that we celebrated her, our family saint, all the time – doing charity walks, on birthdays and anniversaries and at holidays – but we never celebrated the one who toiled alone to pick up her pieces.

It’s not fair, I would cry out. All Debbie had to do was die. Dying is easy; it just happens. There is no homework or preparation necessary, it starts happening the day we are born. The Second Law of Thermodynamics – everything in the universe tends toward disorder -cannot be violated. Life is, at best (and only briefly) a breakeven with the forces out to drag us down, but in the end, entropy wins, and life ends. Living is the struggle. Continuing to live, staving off entropy – that’s the hard part. Living is always hard, it never relents, it never stops – until we die.

Certainly carrying on after a partner has left is much harder than leaving, especially if we believe that the next life is better. Extra especially, as in Kim’s case, when you have dedicated so much of your life to taking care of a sick spouse. Only Kim knows the scars she carries from watching a husband fade away over twenty years, of the loneliness of being with someone who is no longer there, of the indignities of brain cancer and the heartbreak of taking care of someone who pledged to take care of you.

Will Kim’s kids at some point recognize that she couldn’t be there as much as she wanted to for them because she was cleaning up her husband’s messes, because she was too tired from working more than full time and trying to run a household and be both parents? Will they grant her some forgiveness that she did the best she could? Will they ever want a “Mom” tattoo? Will they recognize that Kim truly is already a saint, certainly in my eyes, because of what she has already done and the Herculean effort it took just to get to this point – flaws and mistakes and warts and all?

This is part of what cements Kim and I together in such a strong, unique bond. I know, partly, what she has gone through. I know she did the best she could. I know she did better than I could have. I recognize now, before she has died, that she is a Saint.

Will my kids cleanse their memories of my patience breaking, of the screaming and yelling when things didn’t go right, of my breakdowns and shortcomings in those weeks and months and years following Deb’s death? Will they be able to deal with the scars I left on them because I was just too tired, too physically exhausted, to do the things that needed done the way mom used to? Will there be some recognition of how fucking hard it is to juggle raising a family and a career and my own grief? Will they appreciate the choice I made to be there for them after their mom died, or will they hold a grudge for what I couldn’t give them, materially, after I quit my job?

Will Kim and I both be forgiven for the times we curled up and cried and just gave up in the middle of the night? Will we be forgiven for the choices we made, to get together, to blend these families, with all the hardships and change and pain this has caused? Will the kids someday understand that often times the only way we found the strength to get through the next day was in each others’ arms?

The answer is yes. Yes, there will come a time when all is forgiven, when the base understanding we all so long for is finally accepted. When will that be?

When we are face up in the casket.

When others are left to carry on, to fight solo against entropy, to shoulder the burden of life’s daily struggles. When we have become Saints.

But that is not when I want it. I want it now.

And that is why I am not a saint.

“Tripping Over Joy”
by Hafiz

What is the difference
between your experience of Existence
and that of a saint?

The saint knows
that the spiritual path
is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved
has just made such a Fantastic Move
that the saint is now continually
tripping over Joy
and bursting out in Laughter
and saying, “I surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
you have a thousand serious moves.

Debbie taught me one big lesson from her extraordinary passing – that it’s all okay. Our sins and deficiencies are washed away in the grace of forgiveness and surrender. It was a beautiful, profound lesson.

And I have learned since then that life does indeed, work out the way it best should. My problem is that I often cannot see it at the time. It’s not all okay at the time we want it to be okay, and we don’t always recognize that we get what we want, because we often get it much later, at a time when we don’t always appreciate it.

This is one of the biggest gifts Kim and I share – we recognize our specialness, now. We try to remember it everyday (though that will always be a challenge for me when life starts knocking us down and the unfairness of it all begins to teeter towards forgetting that “it’s all okay.”) This is as close as I have come to sainthood. I don’t always recognize it in everyday life.

I recognize the sainthood of my mom now, though. I understand just a bit her struggles as a single parent raising four kids, and my mom’s specialness shines through everyday in her cards and letters and gifts to all of us, in her extraordinary support of Kim and I and our blended family, in her overly generous heart and selfless expression of living everyday in the joy of life. Mom shares the same joy of living that Debbie had.

The truest saint, however, recognizes this specialness and joy in everything – even in the unfairness, like the death of a spouse and being a single solo parent. Even in people’s weaknesses, and mostly, in their own flaws. Debbie achieved sainthood not when she died, but when she accepted her flaws and that “it’s all okay” – even a cancerous fate, a degree of grace that I am not sure I will ever achieve.

It should not be forgotten, though, that she made her fair share of mistakes and fuckups. These are what pave the road to sainthood. Just ask Saint Paul.

And this is the danger of the Canonization of the Dead – it takes away from the honesty and authenticity of a person’s life. We are allowed to talk about those things, even when the saint is gone. It is not a sin to remember that the dead weren’t perfect. In fact, we need to talk about these things, because it is a reminder that even though the deceased weren’t perfect, they still could choose to forgive themselves their imperfections – and we can, too. That is the true path to sainthood…

Vegas Redux

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Hello from sunny Las Vegas!

Well, that was the plan anyway. Free airline tics to Vegas, some vacation time left, an anniversary to celebrate, a well needed break from the gray of Pittsburgh in November.

But instead here we sit, staring at the bare branches, the color of fall washed away. Damn I should have never written that last post, the one about how great my life has been. Because it’s certainly different this week…

Today there is a hole in our living room ceiling, and drywall is missing from a large section of wall. Water stains leak through the bricks outside, and heavy-duty industrial fans and humidifiers ran all weekend, drowning out all normalcies. The just out of warranty new dishwasher quit working too, no longer locking shut, probably due to a kid leaning on it. My car has been in the shop all week, too, the gas tank leaking, its 18-year journey showing its’ age. Hmmm, but that’s okay, because there is a new car in the garage now, a car purchased solely by and for Kim, without her consulting me, and I’m not real happy about that. And me, I am physically falling apart right along with my house and car and relationship, five of my fingers bloodied and bruised from playing too hard in the dirt, and worse, a red ring forming around one of my tick bites. Sigh, and oh yeah, we are not enjoying the sun and fun in Vegas right now…

I don’t handle these everyday ups and downs very well. I am chicken little, the sky is certainly falling with just one of these events; it’s an absolute catastrophe when they all pile on at once. After blossoming at my feet for a while, the whole world turned tables against me last week. Well, that’s what it feels like sometimes.

That job I really, really want, that I interviwed for? They never called back. Sure would be nice to know we could handle these financial burdens with two good incomes. We are staring at $thousands$ in repairs to the house and car – so glad Kim decided to drop all that money on another car last week! But the repairs make me feel I need to help out more financially, especially with four colleges to pay for.

The doom really hits rock bottom as I sit and watch coverage of a Trump victory Wednesday morning. The screams of his supporters to repeal Obamacare, which has wonderfully protected my family and has allowed me to stay home and raise them without working full-time (and whose premiums only increased $5 per month for my plan), ratchets up the pressure to get a job with benefits. This combined with the direct impact his presidency will have on Kim’s job (she is a government employee, she protects the US Constitution, but certainly the new administration will not be friendly to those who defend criminals), and there is building wall of fear growing in our house, in our hearts.

I feel vulnerable, very exposed, and my heart is beating so loud that at first I don’t even hear the drips soaking into the carpet right next to me in the living room that terrible Wednesday morning. The ceiling is soaked and sagging; truly the sky is falling…

“Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.” – Hugh Parker

I write lots of pretty, happy words on this blog, make it seem like my life is blessed all the time. It is not. We have the same ups and downs and challenges as everyone. Kim and I are very special, I know in calm and happy times. But we have our challenges, too, and her buying another used car without discussing it thoroughly with me has put a strain on us, has sent a chill through the house too, especially now, as the repairs and financial pressures mount, as the future looks gloomy and dark. For a few days we were not very special.

I chose not to write about these things because, quite frankly, I don’t want to remember them. I know we all have to experience them, I know our trials test us and force us to grow, but it is not always pretty with me. Kim has much more faith and grace in handling these things than I do, she can one day write about my weaknesses if she chooses, because it is the truth. You can’t hide from the truth in a long-term, committed relationship; life will reveal them, just give it time.

But life also is constantly changing, and it doesn’t stay at the bottom forever. I know this in my heart, and was even able to practice this a bit going through our hell week, though not as much as I should have.

Friday was our anniversary, four years since we met around a campfire on a chilly November evening. We both would have killed to have the “normalcy” of all the crisis we had this week back then. Sure, there is a bit of melancholy and sadness about not celebrating in Las Vegas like we planned, but we have lost worse. And we’ve gained so much more. Even amidst of all these crisis, when we are certainly not at our best and our specialness seems so far away, a simple bouquet of flowers brings us right back to that campfire. Tears well in our eyes; we are no longer the last lone katydid calling out that night.

Life will not always be roses, we know. When life gets tough, you have to just roll up your sleeves and get to work, tackling things one at a time. Kim has taught me this one. She is able to finagle the dishwasher door so that it now closes and we avoided a repair on that appliance. The car repair shop found a used gas tank for my old Honda, and we survived the water leaking all wekend (though it still will be a very expensive remediation, and we still have big holes in the living room.) Antibiotics should take care of my tick bite, and my fingers will heal, and other jobs are out there. We might even survive a Trump presidency, who knows?

True, we had to cancel our Vegas anniversary vacation, trading the sun and sand for frost on the grass in the mornings. Not exactly a fair trade – but we are still together, happily. I catch Kim’s eye as we watch TV with the kids; her lips curl up at the corner, she flashes me her beautiful smile, and we are suddenly locked in again, bonded, connected, soul to soul. The kids don’t notice, the hole in the ceiling is still there, the new car sits in the place of the one still in the shop, but all that really matters is still intact…

 

Second Bloom

50th-birthday-quotes“I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming… Suddenly you find – at the age of 50, say – that life has opened before you.” – Agatha Christie

Well, I made it to 50…

Not all of us do, I know. I am always aware of the empty space of those who used to walk closely with me, who didn’t make it this far. They have taught me to appreciate my good health, and to occasionally pause and reflect on what a blessed life I have had up to this point. Not everyone is granted the privilege of earning their AARP card.

Speaking of which, I received mine last week. Hmm, in addition to a free insulated travel bag, I think I’ve also earned to right to sit naked on a rock, contemplate life and love and our place in the universe, and do a little pontificating. So that’s what this old man is going to do…

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It’s been a helluva 50-year ride. I like to think I’ve paid enough attention to gain some wisdom, but I reserve the right to amend these things if I do enjoy more birthdays. Some things I think I’ve learned…

Take care of your health as best you can. I am acutely aware of and appreciative of my greatest gift, my relative good health for the first 50 years. Thank you, God, the Universe, for my Divine Plan, for the wonderful combination of genes and lineage from my parents, and for my guardian angels who have been kept a little too busy for fifty years. I certainly know that this can change in a heartbeat, though, and so I try to appreciate each day (though I still often fail, caught up in the minutiae and headaches of daily life. Another life lesson – even with 50 years of “wisdom”, it still takes daily practice to stop and smell the roses.)

I also recognize now, at 50, that I made some basic life decisions 30 years ago that have helped me get to this point. We all know what to do – eat right, exercise, do the right thing even if it is harder than the easy way – but doing it every day, well, that’s the challenge. In my early 20s I decided to incorporate exercise into my daily life. I don’t think there has been another decision that has paid bigger dividends than this one. I turned 50 this month, and just completed my first triathlon. I am still able to bench press nearly fifty pounds over my 180 pound weight (which is still near my college weight!) and I can still do 50 push-ups and 15 pull ups. I just did a 100-mile hike across the Sierra Nevada mountains, and I still bike to work most days and walk to the store whenever I can. Because of this – I am still here and healthy, physically able to take care of myself and my kids, still able to enjoy being alive relatively pain free (though I can’t see much up close or far away without glasses now, and it takes a little longer to recover from some of my activities.)

Yes it is a challenge to make healthy choices, whether eating or exercising or trying to reduce stress – but life is worth it. It may seem like a sacrifice at the time, going to the gym instead of watching tv, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, a salad instead of a pizza, but the benefits and payoff for these daily choices is seeing your kids grow up, gazing over a glacier lake that took 5 days to hike to, and holding hands with a soulmate. A healthy body allows you to actually BE there for all of life’s beauty.

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And speaking of challenges…yes, life is full of them. Having survived my fair share, I have a different view of tragedies and challenges now than I did as a young person. I didn’t always understand that we need our trials and tribulations to wear us down, to break through our fears and the barriers constructed over a lifetime, that we ourselves have built, to protect our fragile hearts.

Of course I didn’t know this at the time I was going through my rough times; it just seemed hopeless. My faith was weak, I hadn’t been tested. And that’s the way it has to be – very few of us are wise enough to actually learn from others. We only truly learn through experience. If only I had known when I was going through these ordeals that “the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be,” as Elizabeth Lesser so gracefully teaches.

It’s true, it is only when life has conspired to truly deconstruct us that we finally see the wisdom of our own hearts. It was only when I was completely devastated, at rock bottom, when all seemed lost, that I found the courage to finally start listening to my heart, to recognize my signs, and start walking my path. And that has made all the difference. Almost everything in my life is different now versus 4 years ago – yet I have survived, in many ways thrived, and mostly, am living a blessed life now, at 50. This did not seem even a remote possibility at my nadir.

Just this year, I’ve camped in the desert and had a wild time in Vegas getting “married”, spent three months holed up writing the book I have always wanted to write (just need to find some editing help and a publisher), backpacked solo through spring thunderstorms in the Rockies, and celebrated a lot of good friends’ 50th birthdays this year. I completed my longest and most challenging backpack to date (until the next trip!), camped in the redwoods with my boys, did the triathlon thing, and spent time in Vermont with my sister and an amazing group of writers, and will be going back to Vegas again soon. All without a “real” job (though very few would be physically able to do my “weed picking” job), all while settling into a normalcy in our blended family and seemingly getting the kids adjusted and prepared for the next phases of their quickly changing and challenging lives. And most importantly, all while traveling hand in hand with my twin soul…

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Ahh, my beautiful Kimberly Rose, angel sent to rescue me, keeper of my open heart. We are so blessed, and we know it. We have certainly not always chosen the easy route (blending, 100-mile treks for “vacation”), but we both know that life is here to be experienced. We have both been given a second chance at love, the greatest of life’s gifts, and ours is truly a special one. Of all the amazing things I have experienced, at the top of my list will always be our connection and bond and glimpse into the Divine that you and I share.

We’ve been granted a second bloom hon, and it has been beautiful so far. We’ve been granted another (maybe last?) chance to let go of our preconceived notions and expectations, and truly LIVE, and we have done that as much as we can.

And now we mark this milestone with a celebration, me joining you in the next age bracket – what a gift! Thank you so much for this one, for the party and gifts, for putting up with me, and mostly, for traveling with me on this crazy road of ups and downs. Love you with all my heart and soul, beautiful girl!

 

That’s my view today from 50, high up on the rocks…

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Dreams

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“I have had dreams, and I’ve had nightmares. I overcame the nightmares because of my dreams.”
– Jonas Salk

We had a flashback this week, an email from the past (see below) that somehow was thrust poignantly back into the present. It stopped us both in our busy lives tracks, a gift, a timely reminder that maybe all our dreams do come true, but sometimes we are too distracted to notice. Or maybe we just simply forget that what we have now was once something we only thought possible in our dreams.

Time, memory, perspective, they all play tricks on us; this human life is funny like that. This is why I write – memory fades, perspective is always shifting, and our struggle to escape the cages of linear time is the biggest challenge to our human happiness. I wonder, if in the course of looking back over our lifetime at the end, we will see that all of our true desires and dreams really did come true; and it was just simply not when we expected or desired it the most.

Case in point – read Kim’s email to me, from three years ago. It was truly some of the most challenging times either of us have ever faced. And in the midst of this trial by fire, we expressed our true desires, our dreams, for just some of the simple things in life that were so sorely missing…

from: KB 
to: Joe Walko
date: Tue, Sep 17, 2013 at 8:49 PM

I drove out tonight to return my movie to the library, and to fill up the gas tank. On my way, I admired this incredible full moon in a light blue sky just beginning to cede to night. I have been lucky enough to visit much of the United States, but the one place at which I have not spent a significant amount of time is the Southwest. I suppose it is because of our text conversations today that I immediately imagine being with you under a full moon near the Grand Canyon, the desert chill kept at bay by a roaring campfire (and maybe a little wine or whiskey) and no one but coyotes and rattlesnakes within miles of us. And I feel so grateful because this vision might actually one day come true.

I truly never imagined when I sent an email last year to this man whom I never met, and who was clearly struggling in so many ways as was I, that we would meet and develop such closeness, such incredible love. You have helped me so much Joe, and I will never be able to thank God and the Universe enough for putting you in my life.

Thinking back to just last night, awakened by the most horrible nightmare I can recall, literally drenched in sweat and unable to breathe, alone in the quiet and dark of my house, the first person I think to reach out to is you. And incredibly, at 1 o’clock in the morning, you immediately answer my text, have me call you, and talk to me for nearly an hour, until I’m able to breathe normally again, and chase the horrid scenes of my dreams back into the recesses of my consciousness.

And now I sit in my back yard under a near Harvest Moon (it officially arrives tomorrow night), its glorious light contrasting with the navy blue sky and illuminating the trees and grass and fences of my backyard, and I listen to the water spilling over the rocks of my pond, and I am grateful.

I’m trying to train my brain, Joe. I am trying to train it to be happy and content. And I am right now, despite the 17 page “to do” list. And while I seek this state alone, I know that you have so much to do with my happiness. I don’t ask for promises and I don’t expect anything except for us to be true to ourselves. But I know – as do you – as you said this morning – that we are soulmates. I cannot believe I found you right here so close to me all along.

Thank you hon. I love you with all my heart and soul.

XOXOXO

 

We have now kept the desert chill of the Grand Canyon at bay huddled together under the moon and stars. We have now traveled together my dream of an extended hike in the Sierras. We do now share the security of chasing nightmares away by simply reaching across our shared bed to the comfort of each other at arm’s length. Dreams do come true.

Life is not easy. The daily distractions of duty and domesticity sometimes cloud my vision, distort my perspective, and cause me to forget that what I have now was once among the things I only hoped for. Maybe all of our dreams do come true, in time. We just need to remember and appreciate what we have asked for…