Make pain a friend, and you will have no enemies.
Deep down, everyone wants to feel loved. It doesn’t seem like a big ask.
Oftentimes, facing our own history, unraveling it, then making peace with it in the present is a necessary first step.
Gazing into the mirror we unknowingly ask, and answer a question in silence, “Am I lovable?”
This unspoken answer serves as subliminal instruction for all those we come across in this lifetime.
Dissatisfaction sings an alluring siren’s song in the mental cocktail lounge of life.
Many a patron has run aground hypnotized by the sweet melody of her maliciously delicious vocal stylings.
We all dig tunnels and call them lives. Our perspectives are defined by the scenes on the walls of the paths we burrow. These tunnels we dig may lead to a vein of metaphorical gold that runs deep through the terra firma of our lives. Striking such gold is a wonderful if rare outcome and cause for much gratitude. Other tunnels may lead to silver, copper, coal or stone, etc.. Each discovery a direct, if unforeseen result of the direction in which one chooses to place their effort. In misfortunate circumstances, our digging may lead to flooding or cave in, and there the story ends.
Why tunnels? Many feel trapped by life, and here the metaphor is clear. Others see double rainbows, climb the world’s tallest peaks, or hurtle themselves from aircraft at 14,000 feet. These souls feel free. Indeed, “freedom” is a familiar battle cry, and an excellent alternative to feeling trapped, but it is still freedom within a confined mental space. It is only an experience of the concept of “freedom” based on a singular perspective. It is a mindset defined by the path they’ve selected to carve a life out of this endless universe of possibility. Have you ever met someone who “knows” they are “right,” perhaps in the mirror even? Case in point.
One can be “free” anywhere; on a mountain top, in a tunnel, even in shackles if strong enough of mind. The point is not freedom from bondage; rather, it is to recognize and acknowledge the limits of the human capacity for perspective. Each person’s path is unique. Therefore, even in the presence of the most compassionate, empathic soul on earth, our stories, while perhaps listened to by many, will be experienced by us alone. Empathizing is the act of stopping for a moment as we delve, turn to the wall, and swing the pickax with the goal of opening a window to a world that has not as yet entered our passageway. It is a way of honoring the fact that our’s is but one of a countless set of perspectives to consider.
No two lives are alike. No law of balance exists between the worlds of choice and fate, good or bad fortune, or life and death. With the infinite experiences occurring simultaneously and continuously on this planet alone, it is perhaps prudent to consider this reality before we level judgment on others. We may think we know how existence works, and overlay that template onto the world around us, or we may feel lost, alone in the dark. In either case, compassion suggests remembering this simple, empathy-based truth; we all dig tunnels and call them lives.
The expression, “The world is going to hell, (sometimes in a handbag)” implies that some of us haven’t already been there. In my experience, heaven too gracefully finds its way into everyday moments.
Last Saturday, while racing our mountain bikes through the lush spring woods, my eldest son asked me, “Do you believe in heaven and hell?”
“I do,” I said. “Right now, here with you, I believe I am in heaven, though on my journey to this moment I have at times passed through what surely seemed to be the heart of hell.”
He smiled and offered, “Yeah, that’s what I think too.”
Heaven! At least for now, in this precious moment.
It is a luxury to clack these keys; to form these sentences. I rarely think about illiteracy then remember that many cannot read these random thoughts or the instructions on a bottle of aspirin. How easily, absentmindedly and accidentally I take good fortune for granted. With a roof, rations, and relationships in my treasure trove, how is it that at times darkness comes as a thief in the night, stealing my perspective?
Misery makes quick partnership with any who invite it, including those who do so unwittingly. It stays as long as it is welcome. Many of us attempt to keep up with, or surpass the “Joneses.” Reaching the goal of a cup running over seems at first a sure defense, but more often than not discord infiltrates, souring the wellspring of contentment.
The void within a heart can be ignored, obscured, disavowed, but not transformed. Dancing with it, sitting in silence, pouring buckets of unrequited gratitude into the vastness of unknowability are the exercises I perform during the very few moments I remember to truly live.
Distant lightning flashed. White light careened through the skylights momentarily illuminating the dark bedroom. The air bristled with discomfort, disquiet coursing through my mind, through every cell in my body. Thunder rolled across the night, and the wind rose to a harsh whistle at the windows. The unease that filled the night was not however born on the wings of the coming storm. It was of my own making; a rising tide the origin of which was a mystery, unknowable and ominous.
As the first huge drops of rain began to hammer the skylights, I huddled in the darkness wrestling with the sense that everything in my world seemed beyond control, beyond the possibility of repair, beyond hope. The spread of this darkness began to envelop my mind, strangling my thoughts, paralyzing any ability I once would have used to still the maelstrom of doubts. For reasons the genesis of which escape me, there are times in life when the smallest thing, the largest thing, everything seems overwhelming.
As the storm overtook the house in its full force, I lay still in the darkness. Fear of living is not something I choose to dance with, but there are times when the music comes up, and that fear reaches for my hand and pulls me out onto the floor despite my resistance. This was such a night, such a dance, spinning around the room I moved to the tune of unfounded fear.
The sound of the hammering rain drew my eyes in the direction of the skylight. As I stared wide-eyed into the blackness a lightning bolt struck, once again blasting the world with white light. At that moment I saw the myriad raindrops exploding against the glass. That’s when it dawned on me.
The raindrops are a metaphor for life. Moments before they had not been raindrops. From an ineffable particle field of clouds miles above they had formed, born into the shape of a water droplet; a singular entity created from the ether. They live in individual form hurtling through space and time; their unique existence real and measurable, for a moment. Upon striking the skylight, the rooftop, or the ground they were transformed; no longer individual drops, returned to the shapelessness of rushing water, washing away to be absorbed by the earth. There they are assimilated and redistributed as means for growth and current for streams and rivers. After a few hot days, any evidence of their unique existence is diminished and finally vanishes.
So it is with life. A beginning from nothing followed by a meteoric plunge through the universe of existence; and finally a return to the fathomless whole of all things. Everything that has a beginning has an end. Once placed in this perspective no journey is without hope, without relief, or without its own particular brilliance. The storm of disquiet within dissipated, understanding washing over me in a gentle wave of acceptance and appreciation. I pulled the covers over my slowly relaxing body, rolled to my side and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Night fell hours ago. As dusk settled over the barren desert landscape, I switched on the headlights. The hum of the engine seems to drum in rhythm with the broken white lines that define the two sides of this strip of desolate highway. Darkness envelopes the world leaving only that which is directly before me to consider. The interior lighting of the console wraps me in a soft amber glow. The high beams offer about one hundred yards of insight into my future; my immediate future to be specific. I drive on in what I believe to be relative safety; confident in the precept that, though I cannot see my destination I will, in ever forward moving hundred yard increments, ultimately reach it.
In truth, though night fell years ago, decades ago, a lifetime ago, metaphorically speaking. The droning of the engine is comforting here in the desert, a white noise lullaby. One of my favorite memories from childhood, prior to the wise institution of seatbelt laws, was be to curled up on the bench back seat of my parents’ station wagon on the way home from some night time gathering. There in the darkness, I’d find comfort in the purr of the Dodge Polara engine and the gentle pitch and sway the given roadway afforded. The gatherings themselves were sometimes fun, sometimes awkward, these were my parents’ friends, who often happened to have children around my age. Regardless of how the evening went, whether I enjoyed it or simply endured it; I always looked forward to the comfort of the slow strobe of street lights reflecting off the vinyl upholstery. I would bury my face in the seam between the seat and backrest, welcoming the warm decent into dream state.
The white lines whip past me, ticking my journey off in nanoseconds. I see little more than these in my given hundred yards of illumination. An occasional signage alerts me to a coming lonely intersection, or town if one could call a desert gas station and closed motel a town, but that is about all I know of my next few minutes. So it has been with the daylight of my life as well. Many of us take life day by day, week by week or month by month. I count myself among that number. I drive through life using the throw of metaphorical headlights to see just far enough down the road to keep my foot on the accelerator. This approach has gotten me here, now, halfway across the southern border Joshua Tree National Park eastbound on U.S. Interstate 10 in the dead of night; speeding I might add, 95 in a 70mph zone.
What if instead of headlights I had searchlights? Of course, mounting searchlights to the roof of my car and plowing through the night might be perceived as incredibly inconsiderate by oncoming drivers, and likely more illegal than my 95 in a 70. But I think as I fly by another desolate rest stop, what would my life be like if I used searchlights to illuminate the future? How would my understanding of this present moment change? Hundreds of miles of possibilities, opportunities and choices would suddenly be illuminated in the space that was once a desert of impenetrable darkness. Some have done so, or we wouldn’t have electric lights at all.
A salesman came to the door yesterday. I was drinking black coffee in the living room when I heard the knock. We don’t get many uninvited callers on our long dead-end street, which works out well for me. I slowly set down my old white porcelain mug and rose from my writing perch on the dark brown leather sofa. Click went the lock. We have no peephole so the next bit would have to be a surprise. There he stood, in a smart black suit, attaché case in his left hand, right hand cupped to his mouth. Think he was checking the state of his breath.
“Hello,” I said.
“Good afternoon,” he replied, quickly lowering his hand.
“My name is Xavier Mulligan, may I please have a moment of your time to present a most irresistible opportunity?”
“How irresistible?” I asked, wreaking of doubt.
“Exceedingly irresistible sir, I assure you. Give me but two minutes to introduce the offer and if by that time you are not interested I will vacate directly,” he said with unwavering confidence.
“Ah, okay.” I reluctantly mumbled.
“May I come in?”
“I suppose,” I said. My hesitation painting my face into a near grimace. Though truth be told, I was a tad intrigued.
“Thank you kindly,” he said accepting the opening door with a quick step forward and then there we were in my living room. My cooling coffee cup reminding me of traditional hosting duties.
“And how would you like to be called?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Your name?” He nodded.
“Oh, Landon, Landon Cooper,” I said. Then with the slightest of disarmed stutters, “Would you like a cup of coffee Mr…?”
“Please, call me Xavier,” he offered politely.
I almost laughed thinking that calling him “Xavier” seemed a thousand times more formal than using any surname I’d ever heard.
“Alright, coffee then Xavier?”
“No thank you, but I would love a spot of tea if you happen to have the leaf in-house.”
“I do,” I said fighting the involuntary raise of my eyebrow. “Will Earl Grey do?”
“Oh yes, that would be splendid,” he said, running his free hand through his silvering dark hair.
I realized that by asking for tea, he had cleverly extended the original terms of his ‘two-minute pitch cap.’ What had I gotten myself into?
As I microwaved the water for his “spot of Tea” I found myself thinking, “spot of tea?” “Did this guy come to the neighborhood in a Tardis?” My next thought was, “This fucker may be completely psycho and looking to eat my liver with those beans and a fine Chianti.”
I mentally checked in with the baseball bat in the hall closet, then the shotgun in the laundry room; took a breath, set the Earl Grey tea bag in the steaming mug and returned to the living room in the full bloom of questioning my sanity for letting this tea drinking stranger into my home.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, taking the mug and bouncing the bag to encourage the darkening of its brew.
“Again I don’t want to waste your time, so I’ll get right to it.” He said, adopting a serious tone and looking me straight in the eye.
“I’m in the business of unique opportunity.” He began, “extremely rare opportunity actually.” He paused, sipping his tea, eyeing me with a calm, confident smile.
“I see,” I said. “And what sort of opportunity are we talking about?” I asked with a hint of polite aggression.
“I’m in the business of second chances,” he offered, taking another sip of tea.
I stared at him. No words formed.
“Yes, it is an unusual product, to be certain.” He offered, “In short supply and little known on the open market.”
My blank stare slowly transformed into an open-mouthed “huh?”
“Mr. Cooper, if you had it to do all over again would you?” He asked.
“Do what all over again?” I’m sure my tone of voice unveiled the blend of curiosity, incredulity, and consternation coursing through my mind. A mind that had minutes before been at relative peace. Which for me is saying something.
“It, all of it, your life!” He stated matter of factly.
“Okay, what the hell,” Was all I could come up with.
He stared into my eyes, took a long sip from his mug then spoke. “I’m am authorized to offer you a do-over; a second go at this very life you are living right now.
“How…what the…how the hell would that work?” I sputtered.
“Very simply actually. You sign a few documents acknowledging your desire to indeed “Do it all over again” then poof, off you go to take a second run at this one life.”
I gaped at him in total disbelief, absent-mindedly spilling a bit of black coffee into my lap.
“Poof!” I stammered. “What exactly do you mean by poof?”
“I mean you would be born again into this world to have another go. Don’t you think it would be amazing to have a second chance at a lifetime here on earth? Think of all the things you could do, create, accomplish with a second chance!” He settled back on the sofa opposite me and waited, unblinking.
“What about this life?” I thought to myself. “I love this life.” I took a gulp of lukewarm coffee which suddenly seem not nearly strong enough.
“Forgive the language Xavier, but what the fuck are you talking about? How the hell would that work and why should it? More importantly, why have I of all people been selected for this, and I quote ‘unique opportunity’?” My voice rising to a crescendo of insolence by the end of the sentence.
“You’ve earned it,” he offered politely. “I understand that this is, well, odd at the very least but I assure you this opportunity is most legitimate. Please take a moment to sit with it. May I refill my tea? The kitchen is just through there yes?”
I nodded. Xavier rose and headed toward the kitchen; the clip-clop of his dress shoes on the hardwoods gradually fading. I fidgeted on the couch, uneasy, certain that I was either dreaming, crazy, or had accidentally made myself an unbelievably strong midday Irish coffee. Not my habit.
“As a rule, there are knives in a kitchen,” I thought. But if he came here for that purpose, he’d most likely have everything he needed for the job in that attaché case of his. I accepted the likelihood that he was not going to the kitchen for a knife and turned my thoughts the far more ridiculous reason for his visit, offering me a do-over!
Was he offering me a second chance at life because I’d fumbled this one? Was the offer a reward, an act of charity, or on a more sinister note, was it a punishment? Was it a test? I took quick synaptic inventory of my many years and saw ample flashes of regret. Yes, I found things I would have done differently if I had them to do over again. I also found moments, hours, years that I would not trade for all the Earl Grey in China or anywhere else. I sipped the now cold coffee.
There are a million ways to do life; to lose and to win, to surrender and just let it happen. There are moments of triumph and moments of regret. There are memories to wish away, others to celebrate. Perhaps, most importantly all those instances are available to make peace with. Though I’m sure these thoughts have lived in my subconscious every day, I realized in that instant that I’m not proud of everything I’ve done, neither am I ashamed of the life I’ve chosen. Are we here to be perfect, or to learn, and grow? And there was the answer. Crashing out of my flashback trance, I released a deep sigh. Mr. Xavier Mulligan returned with his tea, smiling.
“So,” he said, “What’s the verdict?”
“Hmm, Mr. Mulligan?”
“Please, call me Xavier.” He corrected
“Oh right, Xavier, I’m, ah, I’m going to have to say no to your kind offer,” I said with a new found smile.
“Really,” he said taking a sip of what seemed from the copious amount of steam to be scalding hot tea, without wincing.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m grateful for the gesture, and I do believe this is a most rare opportunity indeed. That said, I also realize that the very trip I’m engaged in at this moment is also a rare opportunity. An opportunity to experience my ‘one’ life, complete with all its gifts, and its share of misfortune; experiences which I’m not likely to recapture should I abandon it now.” I said raising my mug to swill the last bit of room temperature clarity.
“I see,” he said. “Understood, understood. Well then, I suppose it is time for me to take my leave as we have no further business here. Before I go, are you absolutely sure of your choice?” He asked.
“Yes, I am,” I said. Then in what appeared to be a choreographed moment we rose simultaneously, his steaming cup still holding court on its coaster. He lifted his attaché, gave a slight bow, and strode toward the front door. I followed and reached to open it as he buttoned his coat.
“Thank you for your time Mr. Cooper, I’m sorry to have wasted it,” He said.
“Not at all Mr. Mulligan, if fact it seems you’ve given me a gift.” I offered.
“Have I?” He smiled. “Excellent!” He said crossing the threshold and making his way down the front steps into the brilliant sunlight of the late spring day.
This random thought began as a journal note in 2014.
Table manners. Ah yes! A tiny window view into the vast array of merit badge earning opportunities awaiting on the shoulder-sash of parenthood.
My youngest son is hyperactive…seriously! I’ve been told that during his toddler years, when he was scheduled to attend mother’s day out the staff added an extra person just to handle him. Ha, that’s my boy. Nowadays he can often be seen orbiting the table while we enjoy family dinner, which at my choosing we share every night. It appears he came into this world with a wicked case of the “can’t-be-stills!” I could force him to sit…but why? Will he turn out to be a better citizen if I make him do so? Will he feel it’s okay to be him if I force him to “not be him?” Will any of us digest our meal more healthfully, or feel the world has been made a better place if I declare martial law at the dinner table? Probably not. However, at times, while chewing my food, seated within the gyroscopic whirl of his dining room orbit I do hear distant murmurs of a disapproving throng.
“Can’t you control that kid?”
“That walking about is not proper dinner time behavior!”
“Have the decency to teach the boy some manners!”
As though having trouble staying seated while masticating will lead directly to the unraveling of the social fabric of our entire culture.
As a nod to Emily Post and her followers, I have explained to my son that some people will expect the use of traditional, “proper” manners and that table-orbiting may not be considered acceptable in the homes of his friends. He gets it. He has managed to avoid becoming “that kid in the principal’s office” at school, etc. When required, he’s capable of masterful-ish self-control. Perhaps the best way to look at manners is in context. Are our opinions about the matter based on childhood experience? If so they are traditional, possibly passed down through multiple generations. Yes, these specific rules of behavior have been taught, but are they still supremely relevant? The doctrine of a flat Earth was too once widely taught. Do these lessons still hold their weight in the face of scientific, or in this case cultural evolution?
With that view in mind, one has to decide the goal, and more importantly the ultimate impact of one’s parental decisions. I find that after deconstructing most etiquette protocol and running it through the, “Does this rule truly make the world a better place” test, flexibility and acceptance usually win the day. Because really, are we here to “control” children, or help them flourish? I know which answer sits, or doesn’t sit (pardon the pun) best with me. I’m not advocating mannerlessness. I’ve taught my boys every social rule and regulation that I’ve ever learned. They are aware of and able to adhere to social decorum protocol at will. Afterall, knowing the rules is a perfect starting point on the road to doing the right thing, staying out of trouble, and for those of you who remember high school, avoiding embarrassment.
Long after we are gone, our children will unconsciously run their lives on the operating systems we’ve implanted in them. Our decisions about how to handle their youthful “behavior issues” will have shaped more than those teaching “moments.” That is why I let the kid orbit the table at dinner time. And no, I don’t let him do laps at Thanksgiving with the extended family. Even I have my limits. There are times and places for rules to be followed, and at least in my universe, times and places for their bending. Most adults unconsciously carry childhood memories of being brought to heel over issues of manners or rules. How the lessons were “taught” matters, even decades later. The cumulative effect of an upbringing may leave one with a deep-seated sense of self-acceptance, ambivalence or shame. I know which perspective I’d like to see shaping the future of this world. I bet you do too.
Do you have a similar experience to relate? Please comment. Life is bigger and better with shared experience!