Monday, December 30, 2013

New Years: Goodbye 13, Hello 14

I apologize for the length of this post... I really did intend to break it up, but it all just sort of poured out at once, a little like pulling off a band-aid. Anyway, if you choose to ride along to the end of the track, I hope it's worth the trip.

Lessons learned are like bridges burned
You only need to cross them but once
Is the knowledge gained worth the price of the pain?
Are the spoils worth the cost of the hunt?

Lessons Learned
~ Dan Fogelberg

Some pretty important bridges burned for me in 2013. And to be honest, I've stared at the places where they used to be for just about long enough. It's time to turn my eyes away from the shadows and back toward the light. But first, one last long look. There are a few pearls I don't want to leave lying in the mud.

January - New Year, new goals.
Get that personal trainer certification. Run a thousand miles this year. Raise $6000 for LIVESTRONG at the YMCA. Grow the program into new locations. Take Martha on a real vacation. Get faster and stronger. Finish my second marathon. 

I learned the joy of knowing where you want to go, and sticking to your plans to get there. 

February - Goodbye old man
Brady, the majestic old Golden Retriever who greeted us when we first moved into our new house, who started staying with us one rainy day when his dad had to work and wasn't home to let him inside, who had been growing a little more stiff and tired with each passing winter day, turned and snapped as me one night as I tried to comfort his aching hips with a gentle massage. He was in so much pain that he couldn't stand. I lifted him in my arms, and carried him across the yard to his dad and we wept together for this old friend who had so touched both of our hearts. Brady was never "my dog," but he took a piece of my heart, and left a bit of himself in its place. 

God bless you, old man. You taught me dignity and friendship, even in suffering. I was going to need those lessons sooner than I could have known.

March - Living Strong
After training hard with Coach Carrie for months to build core strength and increase my speed, I launched my Fundraiser and my spring racing season with a bang. Lowered my time in the Shamrock Shuffle 3K by a ridiculous 3:40. Finished the month with another PR in the Run The Bluegrass Half Marathon in the best shape of my life. Accepted a new position as head trainer of the first LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program in Scott County. 

I learned how perseverance and commitment could make me better than I ever imagined I could be.

April - It all goes to shit
I notice my Blood pressure readings are steadily increasing. The doc sees me right away and orders me to stop running until we can learn if the new meds will stabilize me. I'm running a marathon in three weeks. 

At a YMCA workshop I overhear a conversation that was not meant for my ears, and learn that my friend, mentor, and beloved Coach Melissa is leaving for a new job. In two weeks. I go home, tell Martha the news, and begin crying, almost without interruption for the next month. I increase my therapist visits from once a month to twice a week.

Once the doc gives the go ahead, I'm back on the road. piling up miles, my pre-race training schedule shot to hell. 

There are tearful meetings at the Y. Attempts at business as usual. Attempts to say goodbye. Attempts to teach a new class. All dissolve into tears. I ask for, and am granted an indefinite leave of absence from the best job of my life, afraid I will never be able to return. 

At their annual banquet, the YMCA of Central Kentucky gives me an award for service. I am so ashamed.
Coach leaves. 

The marathon is a blur. I cry as I run in the rain, feeling as lonely as I ever have in my life. Mrs P is trapped in traffic, and doesn't get to see me finish. I wander the streets of Cincinnati, feeling as if even God has forgotten where I am. 

The next day, Martha tells me the family suspects I must be having an affair because I'm so upset over Coach leaving. She hasn't felt me caring about her that much in years. She's had enough, and says we need to separate. It's been a long time coming. 

I don't learn a god damned thing in April.

May - Numb
The crying jags get a little farther apart. I desperately want to return to the Y, but the boss and the shrink both think I need more time to recover. 

Packing. Drinking. Weeping. Begging. Posting painful, inappropriate, damaging blogs.... Taking them back down. 

A few tearful phone calls. Tell Mum. Tell my sister. Tell my best friend. Tell Coach. Our last real conversation. 

Apartment hunting, praying for one that will let me have a dog. 

Coach Carrie calls to tell me she's taking another job and leaving the Y. She didn't want me to find out from someone else. I am so grateful to her for her kindness, that I weep: this time for joy. I contact the boss. So ashamed of failing the program. Without Carrie, they are going to need me back. I need them more than air. He suggests I try to work my way back into things slowly, starting with the LIVESTRONG session that has already started. For the second time that week, the tears are for joy and gratitude. I swear to myself that I will not let the Y down again.

I learn that the people I work with - with their gentle,loving, forgiving spirits -  are among the greatest gifts God has ever given to me.

June - Bachelorhood
So, this is my apartment. Nice view of North Broadway. Nice neighbors. A little loud, but kind and welcoming. So close to the Y, I can walk there. No pets allowed. Haven't slept without a cat in years. Keep seeing Jake in the corner of my eye. 

Less crying. Less drinking. 

A chance to teach SilverSneakers, an aerobics class for seniors comes my way. I leap at it, studying the choreography furiously. I will not fail my coaches this time. 

Martha and I settle into an amicable separation. We talk. We visit. We consider the possibilities. I lie in the bed we shared for so many years. staring at the empty walls. What just happened? What comes next? I thought I would die without my wife. 

I learn that I won't.

July - Funerals
It has been a season of death for the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA family. More funerals in the a few months than the first two years combined. Some I never met. Some I loved like sisters. The dark suit is in and out of the closet every couple of weeks, it seems.Coach Marian and I are asked to say a few words for our friend Becky. A joyful warrior. She survived her first encounter, but not her second. She loved her friends, her family, and the Y. The paper says she "lost her battle with cancer." I am furious. I tell her loved ones, "don't you believe it." Cancer took her life, but never touched her spirit. I saw her without energy, without strength, without connection to the reality around her... but I never saw her without her joy. I never saw her without love. Cancer killed my friend. But it never won. 

I learned that no challenge, no matter how relentless and cruel, can take away our heart if we refuse to let go of it.

August - Reality sinking in
The fifth would have been our 24th anniversary. The papers haven't been drawn up, but already, it's starting to feel like the chances of going back are fading. 

Mum makes her annual summer visit. She has her poodle, Cujo with her, so she can't stay with me. She is at what I've already started thinking of as "Martha's house," and I go over for uncomfortable visits. It's difficult for all of us. Mum is confused. Wants to help. But there's nothing for her to do except to love us both. It's what she does best. The morning of her return to Pennsylvania, she and Cujo visit my apartment. We both cry a little, and she hugs me for a long time. 

Late in the month, I get a letter from Social Security telling me that my Disability Benefits will end in October. I try to kill myself, but chicken out at the last moment, thinking about how someone would have to call my mother and tell her. 

It took me too damn long to figure it out, but my Mom is the most faithful friend I've ever had. 

September - Lights on the horizon
At lunch with Eric from Actors' Guild, he tells me he wants to produce King Lear, and he wants me to play the king. Looks like a November opening. At the Y, a job is opening up for a water fitness instructor. I speak to the Aquatics Director, and send him my resume. 

Therapy is going well. We've stepped down to meeting every two weeks. 

I run what will be my last race of the year with my friend LaDonna and an infuriatingly pokey kid from the Y's Run This Town program who seems to have chosen this morning to decide that she doesn't want to run, hates running, and will never run again. I am even more stubborn than she is. I refuse to leave her behind, and we finish the 8K with her sprinting angrily ahead, and me trotting in as the very last finisher of the race. I skip the awards ceremony because I have to rush off to a rehearsal, and a few weeks later, I receive a medal in the mail. I finished third in my age group. 

October - An Actor's life
Two mornings a week I teach in the pool and in the Aerobics studio. Two nights a week, I coach LIVESTRONG.... And the rest of my waking hours are all about King Lear. 

There are so many lines. More than I've had to learn in years. More than ever, maybe. I work through the play twice, sometimes three times a day, trying to get them to stick in my brain. The cast is young. So very young. I barely know any of them. A couple of old friends, and the rest of them are young and beautiful and talented and I feel like a visitor from another planet among them. They know music I've never heard of. Speak in language I don't recognize. They smell like youth and life and sex and joy. And they work their asses off. Once, when I was touring with the National Shakespeare Company, for just a few months, we found an ensemble, an organic company that fit together so tightly that i wanted to act together with them for the rest of my life. That's what this company is starting to feel like to me. I can't wait to get to rehearsals with them. I rush to be early, just so I can sit back sagely and enjoy their laughter and stories. 

Holy shit. Out of nowhere. I'm an actor again. 

And somehow, in spite of all the changes, I learn that I always will be.

November - Riding the bi-polar roller-coaster
A long interview in the paper about the play. The writer was very generous and kind. Just a brief mention of our separation and nothing about my recent nervous breakdown. 

As opening night approaches, I am exhausted, and a nervous wreck. 

I'm going to suck. I'm going to let the kids down. A dear friend tells me she won't be attending the play because she saw a great production of it once, and doesn't want to ruin the memory.

Mum is coming. Martha is coming. People from my classes and my running group and my LIVESTRONG family and God knows who else - class mates from grad school who I haven't seen since 1985, for God's sake - and I am playing the role of a life time and I have absolutely no business doing it. 

I become irritable. Mumbling under my breath. Bitchy in the dressing room. I'm an asshole during notes after rehearsals. 

And all around me, these beautiful young actors, for whom I have tried to set such a good example.... they remain positive and focused and supportive. The believe in the show. They believe in me. Their courage gives me courage. We open and run for two impossibly short weeks. 

After strike, I'm inconsolable. I feel as if I've lost my family again. Deep, deep depression this time. A bad one. But I will not give in. I say my prayers. I sleep. And I teach at the Y. I will not fail my people again. I have promises to keep.And I keep them. 

Thanksgiving alone passes without the pain I feared, and I learn that I'm stronger, more loved, and more blessed than I knew.

December - Advent and redemption
So then, here we are. I've called 2013 the worst year of my life, and I'm sticking to it. If you'd told me what was coming, and given me the choice between that and a relapse of my cancer, I would have taken cancer. Absolutely. But here I stand. The devil missed me again. 

In December some pretty wonderful things happened. I made some new friends, and reconnected with some old ones, both online and in real life. 

The people in my classes offered me much kindness and love for Christmas. And I enjoy them with an affection that is both devoted and professional.

I've heard a lot of words about myself over the years, but this month, for the first time I heard these two: "Mentor" and "Father figure." I was shocked and humbled to imagine that people saw me in such a light. It just never occurred to me. But to be considered someone who is safe to talk to, who can be trusted, whose life has given them something like insight or wisdom... It really rattled my cage. I'm still sorting it out, but I think it's going to be the catalyst for some positive changes in the way I look at the world, and myself. 

Therapy is helping a lot. I'm starting to make more and more sense to me. My shrink needn't worry about his cash flow, though. I have a feeling we're gonna be together for a long, long time. 

My physical conditioning is shot to hell. My first line of defense against depression is always food, and I have loaded on the pounds this year. It's going to be a long way back, but I'm gonna do it. I know I can. I've done it before. 

Christmas alone wasn't easy. I'm not going to lie to you. Several people invited me to join them and their families, and I gratefully declined. I chose to go it alone this year. I figured if I could get through this, I could get through anything. And I got through it. Not as gracefully as I would have liked, but not nearly has badly as I feared. Santa didn't come to my house this year. But Jesus did, and we spent the day together. We had a long, serious conversation. Both of us had a lot to get off our chests.

There are good days and bad days. That's just life in the Bipolar Nation. Today is a good day, and the future looks full of hope for me. I've started gettingt back into racing shape. I'm finally reading Great Expectations. I'm using more tools in the kitchen than the freezer and the microwave. And someday, when I'm ready, and the time is right, I'd like to be in love again. But in the meantime. I've got work to do. some wise person posted on Facebook one day and I'm paraphrasing: 

"Don't worry about finding the right woman. Work on becoming the right man." 

God has saved my life again, from yet another fatal disease: depression. He keeps doing that.I figure he must have something in mind. Whatever it is, I want to be ready when it comes. Whether that's love, work, a marathon, or just being at the right corner at the right time... I want to be ready. And for all the grief it's caused me, this year will have made me more ready than I was before.

I don't think I'll ever look back at 2013 and laugh. But today, with just one day left of this annus horribilis, I can still look to heaven and say "Thank you." 

It's good to be alive.

Peace, and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Fear not.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. ~ Luke 2:9,10

Fear not.
Life is terrifying sometimes.
Fear not.

You will find yourself at the mercy of things,
Beyond your control.
Fear not.

People will hurt you,
Often on purpose,
Usually not,
Fear not.

Things will flow past in the river of your life. 
Storms will rain down,
Broken branches will block your way,
Currents will change and hide the channel,
Troubles will wound your lonely little craft,
Fear not.

Though the world  laughs and judges,
Offers you shame, not acceptance,
Though the ones you love doubt you,
And the mystery of things seems to bury you
Let it be,
Fear not.

You are not alone,
You have love in you,
Life that leaps inside you,
At the sound of your name.

Like a weary companion trudges along beside,
With no knowledge or understanding, to guide the way,
You have love around you,
Peace, for which there are no words,
Truth for which there is no proof,
Fear not.

There is a place for you,
Shelter from the cold and the dark,
Not what you might have chosen,
Not what you expected or hoped for,
But a place where you belong,
A place only you can fill,
A task only you can do,
Fear not.

There is a story to tell,
Your story,
A story many will hear, 
And many will not understand.
It is as simple as a box of straw,
And glorious as a choir of angels,
No one else can tell it for you,
Much as they may try,
They will need your voice,
Your heart,
Your song,
The ones who hear,
Will not be the ones you expect,
They need to hear you sing,
Even if you sing off key,
Fear not.

An pregnant girl,
A confused fiancee,
A harried innkeeper,
Shepherds, terrified,
Magi, laden with useless tribute,
A puppet king filled with jealous hatred,
And there among them,
A baby,
The innocent creator of the universe,
God in the straw,

That's what Christmas is all about, Linus.
It isn't about trees and paper and bags,
It isn't about angels and virgins and shepherds,
Not hymns,
Not bells,
Not turkey,
Not pies,
Not doctrine or dogma or history or theology.

The meaning of Christmas,
The true meaning of Christmas is in you, Linus,
It's the love that wraps around you like a blanket,
It's the courage that keeps you going,
The compassion that lets you care,
Christmas is the joy you feel for the blessings you have
And the strength to overcome the blessings you lack,
The meaning of Christmas,
The true meaning of Christmas,
In the face of all logic,
In spite of good sense,
No matter what yesterday's failures have taught you,
Or whatever tomorrow's dangers might be,
Is reckless

And if you can't believe in that, Linus,
You can't believe in anything.

Fear not.

Happy, Holy Day.

Merry Christmas.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

It's a little early for an end-of-year retrospective. Not sure I'm anxious to begin that exercise.There's still time for this annus horribilis to redeem itself somehow, but as it stands I have to say I preferred the year I had cancer to this one. Still, four weeks is a long time. I'll reserve judgement.

This is not a day for grieving over the past, but for giving thanks. The truth is that in spite of all the things that I wish hadn't happened this year, I know I am rich with blessings today.

My health is good. No signs that the cancer is returning anywhere. I finished my second Marathon in the spring. I have gained some weight recently, but haven't had to buy any new "fat clothes," and don't intend to.

I am learning to manage my mental state day by day. The meds are a good mix, and my therapist is a very good fit for me. Mentally healthy people may not understand how precious that is, but it took me lots of searching and false starts to find a shrink who made sense to me and made a real difference in my life. I'm blessed there, too.

My mental health issues caused the Y to limit my hours significantly, but they still give me the chance to do work that I love. Helping cancer survivors, seniors. and folks from the general population to fight for their lives though fitness and wellness. I'm grateful, even for this professional set-back: it has taught me just how important the work is to me. I have discovered the strength to keep getting back up and back to work. I'm not sure I knew I had that.

Financially, I'm on the same thin ice that most people are. My bipolar disorder and chronic fatigue issues have kept me from working full time, but so far Social Security has continued to help support me as I find my way back to my "new normal." I have a comfortable apartment with nice neighbors. My car runs. I don't go hungry. I have my medicine. I may not be wealthy, but all I have to do is look out my window onto North Broadway to see that I'm a long way from poverty.

Being a part of the company of King Lear at Actors' Guild was like getting a heart transplant for me. That talented, committed group of artists lifted my spirits like few I have ever known. Among them, I found friendships that I hope will last for many years.They reminded me that in spite of all that's happened, and all the things I've tried to do and be over the years, I remain and will always be an actor.

I am especially grateful for something that didn't happen this year. There was a point, late in the summer, when I couldn't see any way that things were going to get better. I decided to kill myself. I did the research. I made a plan. I even started the process. But as I lay there on my bed, waiting for death to come, I thought of the people I loved. Who would find me? Who would call Mum? Who would tell the kids and the classes I led at the Y? What about the people who called me inspiring? The ones for whom I had accepted the mantle of role model? What about the survivors who had listened to me for months as I preached about fighting for life and never giving up? As each of their faces rose up in my mind's eye, I realized that I couldn't do it. I owed it to them... I owed it to myself to keep on trying... to keep on living. A few days later, Eric Seale called and told me he wanted me to play King Lear.

So you see, I have a lot to be thankful for this year. I have a lot more than many people... a lot more than I thought I had. I'm blessed today. Not wealthy, but a very rich man. I am healthy. I am strong. I am alive. I am loved.

Again and again, God has saved my life. I choose to believe that there is a reason for that. I still have work to do. I can still be of use to God and to God's people. And for that, I am most thankful of all.

So happy Thanksgiving, y'all. And thank you for being there when I needed you... whether you knew it or not.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In Re: 9-11... Do This In Rememberance

It is a strange accident of the English language that words with completely different origins can form connections as they are blended into the rainbow of our dictionary. So it is with remember -  from the Latin rememor: to bring back to mind -  and dismember - from the Latin desmembre: to separate the parts.

Because of their similar sound in modern English, the two words are connected in a way that seems especially meaningful today.

To dismember is to tear apart, to divide, to reduce. To be dismembered is to find yourself disconnected and disjointed. So much of what was true about you yesterday is no longer true today. You can no longer do things the way you used to do them. It is often violent, brutal, and cruel. It is always catastrophic. The one who is dismembered is changed forever.

In this vein, the word remember suggests a restoration of what is lost. Reconnection. Reconcilliation. Redemption. True, the literal meaning of the word remember is about calling something back to your mind or a return to mindfulness, but by virtue of the connection that English provides, the word is much richer than that. It is much more than a mental or emotional exercise. To remember is to take on the difficult task of rebuilding what has been destroyed.

On this terrible day of remembrance, we fly our flags, keep or moments of silence, say our prayers, and change our Facebook profile pictures, promising to never forget. But that is only the first step in remembrance. The question we must answer is this: now that we are once again holding that day in our memory, what are we going to do to respond, restore, and return to a way of life that honors the best parts of our nature that were revealed in the smoke of that dreadful morning?

Revenge? Retribution? Retaliation? These too are distant cousins of remembrance. But revenge often proves to be a cold and unsatisfying meal. The punishment of our enemies can never restore what we have lost.

Only remembrance can do that.

Not in a literal sense. Nothing we can do will make it September 10th again. The broken bodies and sense of safety of that long ago yesterday will never return. Nothing will ever give meaning to the deaths in New York and Washington and Shanksville. But we can restore ourselves. We can reveal our best nature, not our worst. We can imitate those courageous First Responders by showing up at the pile with courage and strength and love: forces more powerful and more noble than fear and rage.

I believe the scripture that teaches us we were made in the image of our Creator. We are creatures of light, imitations of the Love of God. The people who did the murders of September 11 were angry and frightened. They saw their world in danger and lashed out with hatred and violence. Not long after, many in my country did the same thing. The corridors of Hell roar with laughter when the children of God use the tools of Satan against one another. Hundreds of thousands of families, children, parents, lovers, have been separated, wounded, tortured, killed all over the world in the wake of September 11.

Humankind. Dismembered.

On this anniversary of horror and fear, may God grant us the courage to truly reconsider... the strength to do the work of responders... the compassion to restore what can be restored... that we might one day know the joy of redemption: a world once sold to fear, bought back with love.

Never forget? No never.

But more importantly, with God's help, we will always remember.


Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Voyage of the Pennsy: Morning Prayers

As the crew gathered for morning prayers today, we were reminded of who our true Captain is. We have shared many adventures together, and survived many storms that would have ruined ships with stouter timbers and richer cargo. We endure because we are blessed. We sail with confidence because our God has proven to be faithful. The most experienced pilot can never know what lies beyond the horizon, but we hold our course with courage, knowing that our Heavenly Master holds us, even in the gravest danger. Looking back, we can se how our greatest trials gave us wisdom and confidence to face even greater ones. We have known great fear, but even greater joy. Our most bitter losses have always been our teachers, preparing us for unforeseen blessings. We have suffered, yes. But we have never suffered alone. Our current trials are dire, ant the seas toward which we sail hold dangers and obstacles we can only imagine. There is much work to do, and precious little room for error. I would be a liar if I said that I feel no fear. But in my heart, I also know the strength that comes from love. It fills the Pennsy's sails as. Surely as the gentle breeze in the golden sunrise. Everything we have done... Every storm... Every battle... Every loss and every blessing has prepared us for the weeks to come. 

We seek to love and serve ourselves, our neighbors, and our faithful God, wherever the journey may lead us. And God has blessed us with loving friends and hopeful, grateful hearts. 

The good ship Pennsy sails on... But she never sails alone.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Voyage of the Pennsy: Crisis Averted

The Worst Did Not Happen
The crew awoke this morning to unpleasant news from engineering. The ship's computer failed to power up. There was a moment of despair when I considered the consequences of trying to continue our voyage without a reliable command center, but then I recalled a similar situation many years ago when I was "the I.T. guy" in a small company. I had been given that title by virtue of the fact that I was the only one in the office who knew how email worked.... by default, I became the computer expert. Upon discovering that one of the engineer's computers would not power up, I made some desperate phone calls, and the consensus among my counselors was that the power supply had failed. Whatever that was. I made a trip to our neighborhood computer parts store and purchased a mysterious box with a Gordian bundle of wires sticking out the back. By some sort of divine intervention, I was able to remove the old part and replace it with the new one without blowing the device to smithereens.

I never expected to use that knowledge again. I'm glad it was back there in my memory. My fears of life without a computer - or life paying back whoever would lend me enough money to buy a new one - were not realized. I was able to procure and replace the power supply in my Dell with minimal expense, and we were soon back under sail.

The afternoon brought clear skies and exercises on deck, followed by a short training run. The crew performed admirably, and enjoyed a hearty supper of coffee and beans. In spite of the menu, I expect there'll be no trouble sleeping tonight on the good ship Pennsy.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Voyage of The Pennsy: We Set Sail

Beautiful light this morning as we prepare to leave port. I hear calm seas and gentle winds through my cabin window. Supplies have been loaded and the good ship Pennsy is prepared for whatever may befall her on our journey.

Where are we bound? A new world: that is as much of an answer as I know. What adventures await us? Our ship is strengthened by the scars of dangerous seas and brutal battles past. Our crew is seasoned, brave, and full of optimism.  I have every confidence in our ability to overcome whatever obstacles come our way.

I am grateful for the golden sunshine that lights our path this morning. It gives me a sense of hope. We sail into the unknown, but we do not sail alone. God seems to be smiling on us today. We are blessed.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

To Be a Light, Not A Shadow

A New Voyage
Here are the money quotes from one of the all-time good news/bad news letters I've ever received.
After reviewing all of the information carefully, we have decided that your health has improved since we last reviewed your case and you are now able to work... We realize that your condition prevents you from doing any of your past work, but it does not prevent you from doing work which is less demanding... You are no longer disabled... your last payment will be for 10/2013.
Well, then. Here's a new adventure for Pennsy. Thanks to my Social Security Disability Insurance, I was able to continue to have an income throughout my recovery from cancer. I have been able to devote myself and my energy to learning a new profession, and to building my body far beyond the strength and endurance I ever knew as a young man. During my recent mental health crisis and separation from my wife, SSDI has been the only thing keeping me off of the charity roles. I would have had no medical insurance this summer without it. I am grateful. But in a few weeks, that part of my life will come to an end.

The good news: As of today, I am officially no longer "Disabled." Many people never live to say that. My doctors report that I am strong enough to return to full time work. I've been to enough funerals this year to know how lucky I am to hear those words, too. I have the opportunity to begin a new voyage, and I have two months grace to get under weigh.

The bad news: I have yet to prove that I can actually work a full time job without physical or mental collapse. And I have 8 weeks to convince somebody (and myself) that I can be a productive and valuable employee who is worth at least the money I've been getting from SSDI for the past three years. The people who know me best, know only too well how very far and hard I can fall.

My initial response to the news was powerful and violent. Was this the last straw? Had life finally broken my heart? Was it time to give in and let the depression win? I though long and hard about what would happen to me when there was no more money. As it has done so many times before, my depression whispered "suicide" in my ear. For a while, it seemed like the best solution; the only solution; but the thought of Mrs P discovering me after days of silence and the phone call she would have to make to my mother changed my mind. They don't deserve that. Both have fought too hard and for too many years to keep me alive through both cancer and mental illness. And I thought of the kids at the Y. The kids I run with. the people in the classes I teach. Who would have to explain to them that Mr. Bob had done such a thing? What about the people who believed in me at the Y when any other employer would have been glad to be rid of me? I thought of the Strong Eight: the women who fought cancer beside me as we laid the foundation for the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program together, two summers ago. We trusted one another with our hearts. How could I do this thing that would almost certainly break theirs?

And if there were enough people in my life who cared that much... people who mattered that much to me... surely there was a reason for me to keep on fighting for my life.

You know who you are. I woke up Saturday morning because of your love. It's as simple as that.

Yesterday, on Facebook, after a long, long sleep, I posted "I finally have the will. Lord, show me the way." And that is my prayer. God made me wait a long time, but I at last have a reason to live. I will be a light in this world, not a shadow. I don't know how I'll be making money on November 1. But I know what I'll be doing.

Somehow, somewhere, I'll be helping people to fight for their lives, as I must do, as we all must. "The ones who give up... they all die," the doctor said. Physiology and personal loss be damned. I'm not giving up on my people... or on myself.

I'm going to work. That's my next voyage.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ecclesiastes: Eat, Drink, and be Merry? Is this "Bible?"

He was the wisest, richest, most admired and most powerful king Israel ever knew. His reign represented the high point of the Hebrew empire. Unlike his legendary father, the teen-aged giant killer who came from nothing to become Israel's first great king, Solomon started at the top, and went up from there. Entire books of scripture are attributed to him, and they range in subject matter from war and politics to child rearing and sex. Structures he built in Jerusalem are still standing today. His reputation for wisdom is of mythic proportions. It's hard to believe such a man ever really existed.

Until you open the "Book of the Preacher": Ecclesiastes. This is not the frightened young Solomon, newly crowned, asking God for the judgment to be a good king. Nor is it the handsome devil who won the Queen of Sheba's heart with a glance. This is a man who has done it all, seen it all, has it all, and finds it all to be meaningless. "Vanity of vanities," he mourns again and again, "all is vanity."

What do we accomplish with all our work? People are born and die. Seasons come and go. The sun rises and sets and nothing ever happens that hasn't happened a thousand times before. Nothing we do changes anything, and we will all be forgotten when we die. In the first of many chilling passages, Solomon grieves,
What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered.
 All the wise king's pursuit of knowledge has taught him is that wisdom brings grief and knowledge increases sorrow. It changes nothing. It is meaningless. He calls it "grasping for the wind."

Adding to the vanity of life is the absence of justice. Good people suffer while evil ones thrive. Some live for pleasure, others for wisdom, but all end up in the same cold grave.

Next comes the strange hymn that many of my generation probably think was written by these guys.

In the jingle-jangle of 'Sixties Pop-Folk, the words seem sanguine as if to say, "it's a big world. There's room for everything, man. Things may have been bad, but they're going to get better." But in Solomon's mouth, the words lack the sweet smell of Patchouli and leather jackets. The preacher seems to hold up the absurdity of a life where everything is equal. We are born and we die. We plant and we pull up. We gain and lose, tear and sew, love and hate and there is a time for all of them. There is no virtue strong enough to eliminate the vice it mirrors. No peace lasting enough to prevent the next war. We work and strive and none of it makes a damn bit of difference.

And here the Preacher repeats a theme that will echo throughout the book.
Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.
A modern reader can't help but trip over the passage. Is this really "Bible" I'm reading? Do the scriptures really tell us to quit worrying and be happy? Enjoy life and stop banging your head against walls that you can't break? How many sermons have you heard preached on Ecclesiastes? Not many, I'll wager. There are some pretty radical ideas in here.
I said in my heart, "concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them that they may see that they themselves are like animals... Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity.
We want to know we are important. We want to be the center of the universe. We want to mean something. But here is Solomon telling us that our lives have no more meaning than an ox or a mosquito. He also savages what we contemporary folk might call our "Puritan work ethic."
Again, I saw that for all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind... There is one alone without companion: He has neither son nor brother. Yet there is no end to all his labors, Nor is his eye satisfied with riches. But he never asks, "For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?" This also is vanity and a grave misfortune.
 Then comes a strange little passage about something that is not meaningless at all: companionship.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. for if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls. for he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Where can we find our treasure, then? In wages stored up after labor? In books we have written or the people who work for us or the "legacy" we build in a futile attempt to live on after we are dead? Vanity! Our one true pleasure comes from enjoying the company of the people we love, and who love us. There is no "meaning." There is only delight in the world God has made. Everything that exists is going to perish one day. There is no tomorrow. There is only today. At last, Solomon comes to a phrase that I have to confess I did not know came from the Bible.
So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor for all the days of his life which God gives him under the sun.
The first question and answer from the old Westminster Catechism was, "What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Solomon is much more terrestrial in his conclusion. He seems to be saying that our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Creation for as long as we are allowed to be a part of it.

The meaning of life, it's purpose, our reason for being is Joy.

I could go on and on, but even in this, the wise old king has a warning.
Of making many books, there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh.
It's just not that complicated...
Fear God, and keep His commandments, For this is man's all. For God will bring every work in to judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether Good or evil.
And how should we live?
It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage.
Joyful obedience. Grateful delight. A life dedicated to the pleasures that come from sharing God's creation with one another. That's why we're here. The rest? Riches? Glory? Status? Meaning?

... All is Vanity.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Home to the Mountains

I've been out of town for a couple of days, shooting commercials in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. God but I love them. It's been a rainy summer, and the Appalachians are just verdant. I don't know if I've ever seen such greens.

It's a very different experience than the Rockies. Among the giants of the west, I felt awe: such a sense of smallness. Standing atop the peaks of Colorado, you are struck by what a tiny, insignificant speck you are in the universe. Your troubles seem to fade in comparison to the indescribable scale of a world where your eyes are not powerful enough to reach the horizon. There were times when I felt myself disappear in the Rockies, like a drop of water in the ocean.

The Kentucky mountains do not empty me. They fill me. Where the Rockies are jagged stone fingers pointing my eyes toward heaven, the Appalachians are round, soft breasts drawing my heart toward the earth.

We awoke each morning to fog that would make a claustrophobic whimper. The dew-kissed black top rolled under our vehicles as oncoming headlights glowed toward us in the opposite lane. The hollows seemed reluctant to waken, keeping their covers pulled up tight to prevent the morning light from poking in and interrupting the night's final dream.

We crossed over the dam that holds back Paintsville Lake and parked our cars in the brightening mist. Mountain Homeplace is a working farm, run as much as possible like it was when David Mackenzie and his family built it in 1860. You step over the split rail fence and cross into a world of unpainted log buildings and old wooden gates held closed with grass string. Later, guides dressed in authentic homespun will walk the grounds, sharing the history of the place with the visitors who happen by. At this early hour though, we are welcomed by the scolding goats who expect the first humans in the morning to bring breakfast, not cameras and make-up cases.

While the crew set up for the day's first shot, I wandered from pen to pen, greeting the neighbors. In the goat pen, a pair of kids butted their mothers insistently till the teat was offered, then the little ones sucked while the rest of the community eyed me suspiciously. A pair of tiny cows came to the fence curiously, and allowed me to scratch them between the ears till it became clear I had nothing more than friendship to offer. Nearby, but always out of reach, the sheep gathered close, one brave soul after another bawling out at me to either start serving some vittles or move along. Closer to the barn, a piggy couple were downright belligerent, huffing and snorting indignantly that I had interrupted their sleep for no better reason than to satisfy my own curiosity. Across the yard, the ladies in the hen house stirred nervously, and an unseen rooster crowed out a warning to anyone who might try to disturb his happy
harem. As I peeked into the barn, I was greeted by a little gray mother and her kitten. The cats bounded warily around my feet like folks who were used to avoiding being stepped on. And there at the back of the barn were Sunny and Ted, the only animals on the place who I ever heard being referred to by name. Sunny is a beautiful buff horse with a friendly, trusting nature and just enough of a glint in his eye to make you think he might find his way into some mischief from time to time. Ted is the undisputed king of the place. He magnificent: broad chested and black with shoulders and hips that ripple with muscle. He seems to be the animal they had in mind when they came up with the word "horsepower." Watching him chomping quietly on grass in the pasture, it's easy to imagine him in medieval dress with a knight astride his stout back. But here in the barn, he condescends to give me a nod and a nuzzle with his enormous head. I offer a scratch and a short massage in return. The lesser inhabitants made me feel like an intruder. Ted greets me like an honored guest.

Back up on the porch, I find an ancient, cane woven, ladder back chair and park myself on it to wait for the light and watch the curtain of morning burn away in the rising sun. Gently, the sides of the valley in which we are sheltered begin to appear, first in soft focus, then in greater relief as the daylight warms each leaf and dries the dew-soaked grass. A flock of pigeons circles from the roof of the barn to the side of the hill where the sheep are grazing. A few brave souls light in the hog lot where the pigs have left a few morsels of corn in their trough. The surly inhabitants usually indulge them, but now and then an angry snort will send a cloud of gray wings exploding up from the mud as the flock rises out of harm's way.

I wish I were enough of a naturalist to tell you about the music of the mountains: the millions of insect and bird voices that join together to create an Appalachian symphony that Aaron Copeland could not even dream of. This isn't just background music, it is the heartbeat of the hollows and it fills every lonely corner of your soul with something so holy that no human artist could ever hope to imitate it. It is the rhythm of life. It is the song of Creation. There under the cedar shake porch roof, I breath it in, smiling without meaning to. Feeling welcomed into a place I've never been, and where I couldn't survive on my own for more than a week, I am filled with silent prayers of thanksgiving, even as the  among the actors and crew turns toward the tasks at hand, and the work of the day begins.

Shooting commercials is easy for an actor. You only have to learn a few sentences of dialogue, and the shots are short and quick. The crew's job is to sweat the details. Your job is to hit your marks, say your words, and tell the truth. Most of this group has worked together before, so the mood is easy. We trust one another and joke between takes. What could be a day of tedium is actually several hours of down-right fun. It's almost embarrassing to call it work, especially when the people whose job it is to keep the farm running are around. But they are friendly and hospitable. We aren't the first bunch of Lexingtonians to make our way down the Mountain Parkway to interrupt their day, and we enjoy one another's company like new neighbors. Stories are shared. Lies are told. We all admire the way Ted's ebony sides glow in the sunshine and we all groan and cuss when the wind changes and blows the aroma of the hog yard in our direction.

The final shot on the last day was in the church-house where Kentuckians have been worshiping for 150 years. The pews are old and hard, roughly crafted from the same trees as the barn and the well head. The log walls are clad with white painted wainscot, and the light ripples through the ancient glass of the sash pane windows. We work with the same joy and fun as we did in the barnyard, but there is a kind of gentle reverence to our presence here. Yes, our mission is more profane than sacred, and no, I don't imagine that many of the pastors who have presided here would approve, but I can't help but notice that most of the fellows have instinctively removed their hats at the door. As father of the "bride" in this scene, I am seated in the front pew, and next to me is a beautiful lady who looks to have spent 80 or so winters in these mountains. She starts with a complaint about how long the shoot is taking, but soon we are chatting easily about her health and her life, and her pride in the place where we are gathered. The people who hate life in these mountains leave as soon as they can, by any means available. But the ones who love them stay and grow roots as thick and deep as any tree on the hillsides. She has raised and buried children and grandchildren, survived strokes, heart attacks, falls and storms. She is stronger than I will ever be, and when we part, I feel as if I have been in the presence of royalty. I suppose I have.

Back in Lexington, I feel a kind of sadness. I'm glad to be home. Close to the Y and the people I love. But sad, too. Sad that I couldn't share those beautiful moments with Martha. Sad that as a city boy, I will never really be at home in the mountains. Mum sent me a message this morning. "Back to reality." She's right, I guess. I'm back to the reality of  bills and debts and housekeeping and insurance payments. But there is also love here. Friends. The people who come to my exercise classes. The kids who run with me. The healing work that continues in my mind and soul. Reality isn't all bad.

But there is reality in the hollows, too. There is light that melts away darkness. There are fences to maintain and lives to honor and care for. And always there is the land, the rich earth that covers the mountains and feeds every living thing in them. The Appalachians are the breasts of God. They feed me and inspire me like no other place in this beautiful world. One of our actors, a beautiful young woman whom I've had the joy of watching grow up for most of her life, was leaving the shoot to board a train to move to New York City. She is following the dream that so many of us have followed. Talking with her, sharing her excitement and nervous anticipation, I remembered my own move to "The City," many years ago. When we parted, I kissed her forehead and blessed her, and before I left, I gave her my only advice.

"Hold this day in your heart. This is a special place. Sometime, you're going to need it."

I hope she has the sense to listen to a foolish old man. Days in the mountains are worth holding onto.

I know I'm sure going to try to hold onto mine.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Healing Begins at Home

"Arthur" ~ Steven D. Fleshman

Lonely. That's what I'm feeling these days. I am almost always by myself, and I find I am not very good company. And that is a problem.

For as long as I can remember, I have brought home trophies. "I'm singing a solo." "I won an award!" "I got the part!" "I kissed a girl."

I have carried these things home to parents, lovers, friends. "Look!" my heart was saying. "Look what these strangers think of me!" Why did they matter so much to me?

Because I believed they were wrong. Where they saw talent, intelligence, strength, and compassion, I saw only luck, fear, and selfishness. I crafted myself like an essayist, working every day to guide the reader in the direction I wanted them to go. See how funny I am. Look at how much I know. Laugh at me. Learn from me. Admire me. But for God's sake, don't look too close. 

Don't see how afraid I am to get out of bed some mornings, knowing that sooner or later, you're going to discover that I'm faking it.

Don't see the hours it takes me to finish reading a paragraph or memorize a scene because my mind just can't hold onto words.

Don't hear my sobs of self pity for the choices I've made and the consequences I never thought through.

Please turn out the light so you don't notice that after all this running and writing and dieting, I'm still ashamed of how I look naked. 

Please pretend with me that the judges and the bosses and the audiences and the reviewers are right and I am wrong. Love whatever you imagine is lovable about me, but please, God, please don't look close enough to see all the things that are not.

All these years, trying to prove something I didn't really believe. Trying to build an image of the man I wished I was. Longing to be loved for being someone I knew didn't exist. I became convinced that every failed relationship, every lost job, every faded friendship was because of a hole in the wall I had built around myself. Sooner or later, if they looked closely enough, they would see the things that were wrong with me, and they would hate them as much as I did. And they would hate me.

And now I am lonely.

A few days ago, someone posted something on Facebook that really rattled me.

Do I want my marriage back? I'm not sure. Do I want someone else? I can't tell. But out of the fog of my loneliness, something is becoming more and more clear. The relationship that needs healing the most is the one I have with myself. 

Fifty-three years old, and I'm just now getting around to figuring out who the hell I am. 

I know the vices. I can recite them like a litany. But somewhere in me there are virtues, too. The facade I build didn't come from a vacuum. The man I wanted people to see was built out of the best parts of me. That's the man they loved and respected. But I couldn't believe in him because I had treated him like an artist's palette, picking each color carefully. I need to see him too. I need to nurture him.

I've been using my strength to hide my weakness. Using the judgments of others to contradict my own self blame. Using my pride to disguise my shame.

It's time to open my arms a little wider. God has more in mind for me than this.

I am lonely. But in my loneliness, there is an opportunity that I've never really had before. For maybe the first time, I have a chance to look at my whole self with open eyes. There is no one here to fool. No one to hurt. No one to impress. No one to lose. I have a chance to receive the thing I have tried and failed to earn... unconditional love. To lay myself all out on the table, good and bad, sins and graces, and wrap my arms around the whole package and say, "I love you, you big beautiful messy man." 

That's not going to happen today. Or tomorrow. But it has to happen. Because I long to touch someone again. But I've spent half a century building a wall to hide half a man from the people I want to love. And it's going to take a whole man to tear that wall down.

It's time to start making this man right. With himself.

This is going to be a lot harder than running a marathon.