Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thoughts on a missing friend..

The motivation to write this book came from the death of my friend Sam, whose passing got me thinking a lot about the way I was living and what I wanted to do with the rest of the time I have here. It ends with the disappearance of another friend, who vanished in the Costa Rican jungle a couple of weeks ago.

His name is David and he craved adventure as much as anyone I’ve even known. When he began his trek into the jungle I was only a short ways away in the capital city of San Jose. He sent me this message upon his arrival into Costa Rica. It may have been one of the last things he ever wrote.

Hey Joe,

Are you still in Costa Rica? If so, how long are you going to be there? I'm coming in this Sunday (August 9th) to Liberia and leaving in the early morning of Saturday August 15th. We should meet up. I'm staying at the Hacienda Guachipelin.

I never responded back to David and I regret that immensely. Having just spent months writing about the interconnectedness of human beings and how there are no coincidences, a friend of mine writes me and wants to connect.

But I am too busy.

I write this not to beat myself up or take some kind of blame for what happened, but to make a point about the importance of nurturing friendships. I thought I would just see him when I got back, or some other time, and continued on with my vacation.

I figured there would be other days.

But there were no other days.

I’ve thought a lot about the “coincidence” of David being so close by to me and what it all means in my personal story. It was certainly a reminder of how we are never promised another day with the people we are close to, and how to never take friendships for granted, but I think there is more. A greater lesson, a more powerful point..

David and I had talked a great deal about spirituality, and we were very much on the same page about finding peak experiences in nature. He was an avid traveler, and we had shared stories about our various journeys and some of the conclusions we had drawn about the power of nature to broaden our understanding of the universe. He was very philosophical about these things, and wrote often about how he had been transformed through his adventures and his experiences.

But strangely we shared another view of spirituality that had a lot more to do with synchronicity and connections between human beings. In one of the earlier essays in this book entitled “Reflections on Spirituality” David wrote this to me after reading it.

“Jung brought me to psychology as well. This sounds like some things I have been thinking about as well lately, especially the part about interconnectedness.”

We both seemed to be wrestling with a lot of the same things. Paradoxically, although we clearly saw spirituality as consisting of the ways in which people helped each other out along the way, we both chose to conduct our searches into the wilderness alone.

I truly wonder what Dave was searching for out there in the jungle, but a big part of me understands, because I have walked alone on the same metaphorical trails. Somehow a trip into the wild helps a person find a place in his soul that provides comfort. When you return, it is often with a kind of new understanding about your place in the world, and how much we really need each other as we stumble through this life together.

But this time David did not return, and I can only hope that he found what it was he was searching for. Terrifying thoughts go through my head as to what may have happened to him out there, but I also know he was devout about meditation and would have been able to calm his mind in even the most frightening of circumstances.

So my one thought for David as he was out there in the jungle, was that he could have somehow seen the thousands of people who had bonded together to help find him, and had spent countless hours planning and hoping and praying for his safe return. I hope he settled into a kind of peace as he looked into his heart and felt, that beyond anything, he was loved. That is my wish…

So although I can’t personally tell David what he meant to me, I can once again vow to do better with the people who are still in my life. Today I was reading a book by Mitch Albom called “For one more day” and came across this quote.

“Have you ever lost someone you love and wanted one more conversation, one more chance to make up for the time when you thought they would be here forever? If so, then you know you can go your whole life collecting days and none will outweigh the one you wish you had back. What if you got it back?”

So I’ve thought long and hard about my two friends who I’ve lost, and how it's possible I'll never get the chance to have my one more day with them. But I’ve also thought a lot about how I can have my one more day with everyone else in my life. I can return those calls, write those letters, and say the things I want to say before it’s too late.

Because one day it will be…

So David I vow to continue our search for interconnectedness during the remaining time that I have been given. Clearly we were both searching for some of the same things, and I have very much enjoyed what you have added to my own journey. To quote from the movie “A River Runs Through it.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

Some of the words were yours David. And you will be remembered…

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Small Acts of Kindness

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
Leo Buscaglia

I watched one of my favorite movies today as I began my preparations to return to Chicago. The movie is called “Blue” and it follows a woman who has lost her husband and daughter in a car wreck as she disappears from her life, and then slowly begins the process of reconnecting to other human beings. The movie ends with a powerful look inside her memory, as pictures flash across the screen representing all of the people who touched her life in some way.

I felt like this today as I though of all of the people that touched my life in some significant way here in Costa Rica, including dozens, if not hundreds of new friends from all over the place. But it was a blind man with a cane and a lovely lady in a wheelchair both in their 80’s that really registered the most with me today as I think about all of the ways this country has transformed my life.

It began with me attempting to push this little Costa Rica woman named Blanca to the cafeteria for lunch, when she politely touched my hand and pointed me in the other direction. Having had a great deal of experience with women refusing my requests, I politely followed her instructions. She pointed me through a labyrinth of turns in the home until we reached a little room with a man lying inside. “AquĆ­ mismo mi amigo,” (right here my friend) she said softly and slowly patted my hand.

I waited as she tapped softly on the window. Soon a blind man named Leonidas came to the door and took his position behind Blanca’s wheelchair. Slowly they began their walk to lunch, her guiding him slowly with measured directions as he adjusted to his lack of sight. It was kind of wonderful actually.

I asked around a little bit and found out that they walked like this to all of their meals together. They weren’t lovers and they weren’t romantically involved, just two people who had each lost something the other one had, who had worked out a system to get their lunch together despite the somewhat difficult circumstances.

I was incredibly touched by what I saw, and took a long look at them together as they fell into their familiar routine. I learned that they had been doing this for a long while. Anna in fact had many offers to accept a push to the cafeteria, but was always faithful to her little helper Leonidas, who seemed to relish the work of pushing her, despite the fact that he walked with a cane and had completely lost his eyesight.

The Zen Buddhists have a parable that says it is the giver who should be thankful, as they are truly the ones who may gain the most from the ebb and flow of human experience. And this applies to me as well. Although I was the one technically “giving” my time this week in Costa Rica, in the end it was me who was utterly transformed by the people I had the privilege of working with. I will never, ever forget these little acts of kindness I witnessed here, and my strongest wish is that I have somehow absorbed some lessons from all of these things I’ve seen.

We may never pass this way again..

So - I wanna laugh while the laughin' is easy
I wanna cry when it makes it worthwhile
I may never pass this way again
Seals and Crofts

Sitting high up in the mountains of Costa Rica today I looked around and took it all in. Watching children kick soccer balls on abandoned roads high up in green mountains, I could actually feel a memory being created that I knew I would remember for the rest of my life. This is the nature of a peak experience. We have billions of experiences in our lives, and perhaps 10 of these moments will truly etch permanent pictures in our heads so clearly that we can remember every smell, every sound, and every emotion.

As powerful as these memories are, they also come with a kind of melancholy. So many times when we travel we swear we’ll get back to a place that touched our hearts, but in reality this is never truly possible. As Heraclitus said, “No man can step into the same river twice, because he is not the same man, and it is not the same river.” This is kind of akin to having the most wonderful meal of your life and then coming back to the restaurant a second time, it’s the same food in the same place, but somehow everything is a little less dazzling.

This is the tantalizing part of these kinds of moments. We somehow glimpse something that is magic and we want to feel a whole lot more of it. But even as we are in the middle of it, a part of us can feel the moment disappearing. Perhaps we even contemplate in these moments how a part of ourselves is receding from reality into memory. G.K Chesterton said “The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” I think this is how we come to appreciate that the time we have has meaning. By contemplating it’s impermanence we realize that we have been blessed for a fleeting moment with pure universal awareness.

So I guess the point I want to make here is to try and live our lives with gratitude when these moments do chose to present themselves. Words and pictures can freeze memories forever, but the real permanent snapshots of our lives happen on an emotional level, when all of our joy and sadness seem to fuse with the place we’re at into a mystical kind of energy. That’s what I experienced today and I am eternally grateful for the day. Somehow I am drained, and I think it just kind of what happens as we have to come back to waking life after moving however so sparingly onto another plane of understanding.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Everyone has a movie that they loved and that influenced their life in some meaningful way that nobody else, including the critics, seems to like. Mine is a movie called “Elizabethtown” by Cameron Crowe, which I felt was full of wonderful insights and deep life lessons. Although I liked a lot of stuff about that movie, one thing that stood out was when the female lead Claire would hold an imaginary camera up to her face and take snapshots of people, which was her way of freezing memorable moments in time.

Why is it that certain memories freeze themselves in our minds while others don’t? Of course we all share some collective memories like where we were during 9/11, or when the Challenger blew up, or when JFK was assassinated, but what about the little memories? What it is about certain memories that make us keep them so readily accessible, and why is it that we keep these memories as little guidebooks as we move through life? It is a question that intrigues me greatly, and one that I think makes for an interesting study in terms of human synchronicity.

My first of these memories came when I was 6 years old sitting in church with my mother and my brothers and sisters. I remember looking up at my mom and smiling at her and her smiling back, and taking a long look around. Even then I didn’t enjoy going to church, but there was some feeling I had at that moment that was significant to me. I specifically remember thinking that I was going to remember that moment forever. Even when I was old (like 30) I vowed to come back to that place when I needed to.
As an Adlerian therapist this is fairly easy to interpret psychologically. According to Adlerian theory, our minds select memories from our childhoods that reflect our current
Psychological state. Therefore a therapist might look at my story and say that safety and family were important narratives in my life, and that by selecting that memory of the millions I have made in my life, that these themes were the most salient and relevant in my day to day affairs.

But this is wrong. There is nothing about my life that has ever been safe. I am reckless in my endeavors to the point of foolishness, and I have wandered and traveled all over the world instead of staying close to home. I have a wonderful family and they make me laugh harder than anyone, but still, I also don’t have a family of my own, and am far from a regular reunion kind of guy, so that didn’t quite fit either.

I’ve instead chose to think about that memory in terms of spiritual meaning in my life and synchronicity. Even at 6 I hated the actual church part of going to church, and that hasn’t changed a bit, (it’s gotten worse in fact). The dogma of the Catholic church seemed wrong to me for as long as I was able to make conscious decisions, and I have rejected dogma in all of its forms adamantly and even vehemently throughout my life.

But what to make of this memory? What was that feeling that I experienced and what relevance could I draw from it in my current life?

The answer is I believe an understanding of spirituality as a feeling of connectedness to other people. A feeling of belonging, of acceptance, and that somehow when we as humans are together we’re all a bit stronger than each of us alone. This is certainly how I’ve come to understand spirituality and it also speaks to what I am wrestling with so much as I try to make sense of where I am going on my personal journey.

All of this comes with a very big but however. Despite being extremely social and fun-loving, I am a single man who lives alone despite the fact that I have had a number of opportunities to share my life with someone. This even applies to my friends, who can certainly testify that I am one of the world’s worst people at returning phone calls, keeping appointments, etc.

This speaks to snapshot number two, which occurred when I was at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon by myself, where I had a tremendous surge of understanding that some psychologists refer to as a “peak’ experience. I emerged from this vision sure that I was part of something bigger than myself, but oddly, not only was I by myself, there was no one within miles of me. Somehow being so amazingly alone helped me understand that the interconnectedness of people was a powerful and benevolent force. What to make of this contradiction? I didn’t really know at the time.

Snapshot number 3 occurred on the top of one of the Wicklow mountains in Ireland where they filmed the movie Braveheart. For those that are unfamiliar with the movie, the lead character William Wallace hurdles to the top of the highest peak in the country and looks down at his beloved Scotland (yes it was filmed in Ireland) and seems to arrive at a decision about his own destiny in this world

Although there was no hurdling, I also made it to the top of this mountain, and was utterly amazed at what I saw beneath me. There below me appeared to be the entire country of Ireland sprawled out over hundreds of miles. This was where part of my blood came from, and it was the piece of my lineage I have always felt the strongest connection to. It was truly a breathtaking experience and, as incredibly embarrassing as this is to admit, I raised my hands over my head and assumed the “I’m the king of the world” pose from the movie Titanic.

And then, amazingly, my beautiful moment came crashing down to earth when I heard, “Sir, sir, can you help me please” come ringing literally out of nowhere. There behind me stood a large woman who seemed to have virtually descended from the clouds. How did she get up here? How dare this woman wander into my moment and ask for help. I was surprised, irritated, angry, and interested. Eventually I did wander over to help however, and was able to soothe a very lost soul who had almost miraculously wandered to the top of a very big mountain in search of something bigger in her own life.

Looking back now, this snapshot makes perfect sense to me in terms of my own personal development. Despite having an incredibly powerful moment, ALONE, a mysterious person improbably showed up in need of help. I work as a therapist, which is perhaps the most intimate profession a person could choose in terms of connecting with other human beings. People tell you their greatest fears, darkest wishes, and most powerful longings. You then listen, you advise, empathize, and encourage, but still, when the person walks out of the room that’s the only physical thing you see about their lives. It’s intimate but it is also, oddly, incredibly safe.

So in retrospect I think I know what my third snapshot means. You can have some wonderful, mystical experiences by yourself, but ultimately we have to let some other people behind the curtain. This can feel intrusive and irritating, but truly, whatever it is we are doing here, it’s quite a bit more bearable when we have others along for the ride. I remind myself of this lesson all the time, but constantly struggle to remember it on a day to day basis. It’s so much easier keeping your thoughts to yourself. Every intimate conversation is a kind of adventure really. We brave telling people our most private and revealing ideas, and often these things either go unnoticed or don’t have the impact or power we anticipated. In these moments we feel misunderstood, and the danger in these situations is we withdraw more deeply into ourselves.

But this is a mistake. In those moments we do feel understood everything seems to make a lot more sense. Finally someone has taken a fleeting glance through our personal kaleidoscope and seen what we see, and this is an amazing feeling that often dashes off as quickly as it arrives. We’ve all glimpsed it however. And if we’re lucky enough we find people who we can share the view with a lot more than once in a while. If you find such a person hang on to them. Whether they be a lover, a friend, the janitor at your job, a bus driver, or a person you meet in some unlikely twist of fate, this understanding is a rare thing and should be respected.

I share these snapshots with you from an airport in Dallas. I am about to embark on 3 weeks in Costa Rica where I am quite sure my mind will freeze another snapshot in time. What and why and how this happens is not entirely clear to me, and frankly I may not even recognize it until much later in my life. What I do know is that my personal slideshow is not finished, and I am looking forward to adding a couple of more pictures to the photo album. After 30 some years on this planet I am just now beginning to understand my own narrative, and it is a story I want to make worthwhile. I have no real power to predict where this story is gong, but I do have the power to choose how I’m going to live in the meantime.

Monday, July 27, 2009

No Accidents

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”
Anatole France

Growing up I used to sit around in my little backyard in my little town dreaming of faraway places. I didn’t get to travel a whole lot growing up, and can remember just looking up at the sky with a kind of intense longing, wondering when something was gonna happen to me. I remember my mom’s favorite movie growing up was called “Windy City”. The movie was about a writer from Chicago who was struggling with getting older and creating something as an artist that was meaningful to people. He used to walk along the shores of Lake Michigan trying to figure this all out, and my mom would remark quite often how she wanted to walk these same shores as he did.

Cut to years later and this portrait of a life from a movie that my mother loved so much is my own. I too walk those same shores of Lake Michigan wondering if I’ve created anything of value, and if people will remember me when I’m gone. How did I end up here? How did I step into my mother’s dream like this? Interesting questions to me and I can’t help but wonder how much all of this has to do with synchronicity.

Alright so my life is not exactly like the writer in the movie. He was a mailman and I am a therapist. I’ve hedged my bets a little by finding a profession that pays the bills and brings me a lot of personal fulfillment. And yet, a big part of me is still that little boy looking up at the sky wondering when something is going to happen.

This is strange. If I had described my life’s adventures to myself when I was younger I think I would have been thrilled. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a comedian, bartender, actor, etc., etc. and for the most part I have accomplished all of these things. So why this feeling? Are we born with the brass ring just ever so slightly outside of our grasp? It sure feels like that sometimes, and it’s something I’ve reflected on a lot as I prepare for an extended adventure in Costa Rica.

I think the trap I fall in, the trap we all fall in, is becoming attached to the idea of destination. We think to ourselves, when we just have enough for the big house, or when we just get the kids through college, or when I finally write that best-seller, then things will be different. Be better.

But it’s just not true.

How many of us get to that finish line only to realize we are still the same person with the same thoughts, feelings, and doubts? I remember reading how Katie Couric lived in constant fear of being bankrupt, despite being a millionaire many times over. Think of the seemingly “glamorous” life of Owen Wilson, who became so depressed last year that he attempted suicide. The Hindus have a word for the illusion of outward appearances they call ‘Maya.’ I think almost all of us have tried at one time or another to convince ourselves that some accomplishment or possession was the key to being happy. Part of it is embedded in the very structure of our society. We compete, we compare, we judge, and hold our lives up to the microscope and examine how well they stack up to the person next door.

This is a mistake that may take a lifetime to overcome, because truly and simply, happiness is not a place to go.

It’s a way of living, really living, as if each present moment had some potential lesson. Something of value that we could grasp if we could just cue the focus out of the past and away from the future. Such a simple idea really that is so hard to master. Our minds don’t like it. They’re busy worrying and preparing for all the things that may potentially go wrong. Part of this is baggage from our evolutionary heritage. Worry used to be a necessity for survival, and it’s a part of our legacy that has been difficult to shake.

But the good news is it can be done. With practice, determination, focus, and by simply letting go, we can get there. This seems like a paradox. How do you focus and let go at the same time? It’s a feeling that’s difficult to describe, but you know it when you feel it. A great deal of it can be done through breathing, mediation, yoga, and other mind-body techniques, but for me it has been thinking about synchronicity that has helped me begin to throw this switch a lot more often.

An example of this presented itself to me this weekend at a street fest where I was listening to music and hanging out with a bunch of friends. Ever have one person in a group that you just don’t seem to mesh with? Well this weekend I met up with one of these guys and it was terribly uncomfortable. I always felt like I was on eggshells around this guy, and it always dampened the mood a little when I saw him.

So rather than sulk about it I decided to try and figure it out. I knew this energy between us meant something. Jung said “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” This idea snapped into my head at that moment and I knew that regardless of how this conversation went, I would have a better understanding of why this was happening.

So we talked over a beer in a rowdy Irish bar. He explained to me that he found me a bit intimidating,. That he knew I had published all these books and so forth and he wasn’t sure we would have anything to talk about.

The idea of me being intimidating is so far from the construction I have of myself that I could scarcely believe what he was saying. I guess I just don’t see myself as that important, but somehow I was giving off an entirely different impression. I thought back to time we had spent together. He had watched me more than once rip the microphone out of a singer’s hand and belt out a song. Yea, that could definitely give off a vibe of self-importance. What else? Did I brag? Monopolize the conversation? Drop names? What impostor energy was I putting out into the universe?

So we talked a little further and he talked about how he was riddled with self-doubt about his career as an artist, despite the fact that he was really a brilliant musician. I was taken aback. This guy was insecure? He projected such confidence on stage, but inside he worried all the time. Somehow we both had badly misread each other, and a strange alchemy occurred which created a whole lot of awkwardness.

So in one conversation it occurred to us that we were so much alike that we actually disliked each other. This is a strange feeling because I like a lot of things about myself, but somehow the part that bubbled to the service when I was around this guy was a part I didn’t like quite as much. We eventually parted company after laughing and talking and having a couple more beers, both understanding ourselves a lot better from this one simple conversation.

How often does this happen in life? I am convinced we have a tuning system that intuitively sniffs out these uncomfortable parts of ourselves in each other. Most of us avoid people that make us feel like this, but I am convinced there is a far greater opportunity for self-discovery if we can brave a moment of uncomfortableness to figure it out. Like strange magic potions we all mix together in mysterious ways, and in some situations these formulas are obvious, while in others they take much longer to reveal themselves.

So today I resolved to say yes to everything that comes my way on my upcoming trip to Central America. I am as excited about this as I ever have been for anything in my entire life. I feel like I’m on the cusp of a very big change in my life, but what that change is, I’m still not entirely clear about. I do know that I will enjoy the ride, which is pretty easy to do in paradise, but a little harder to do in the midst of our day to day lives. Yet I’m convinced there are treasures to be found in every human experience if we are perceptive enough, or perhaps unblocked enough to recognize them. This interaction this weekend was a seemingly small thing, but represented for me a continuing switch in the way I look at the world. I want to be humble to the power of these seemingly ‘little” things, as I am beginning to understand that perhaps there really are no accidents.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Caught between a couch and a dream.

"According to Vedanta, there are only two symptoms of enlightenment, just two indications that a transformation is taking place within you toward a higher consciousness. The first symptom is that you stop worrying. Things don't bother you anymore. You become light-hearted and full of joy. The second symptom is that you encounter more and more meaningful coincidences in your life, more and more synchronicities. And this accelerates to the point where you actually experience the miraculous.
Deepak Chopra

The other day I came home form a very long day at work. I was tired, felt like I hadn’t been particularly effective, and just wanted to come home and watch TV and go to bed. I was feeling like I was in a little bit of a rut, and felt the faintest twinge of self-pity kicking in. I hated feeling like this, but as a human like the rest of the humans I’m prone to all the same self-doubt and regret as everyone else. So it goes.

I took a long look at my couch and it pissed me off. There is a tear in the middle cushion and every time I look at it I get irritated. I know it’s time to buy another couch, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to do it.

One of the most meaningful peaces of research I ever read discussed how when people buy ‘things”, such as cars, clothes, electronics, etc. it makes them happy for a VERY short while. Part of the point of the article was to emphasize the point that money doesn’t buy permanent happiness, not a huge surprise to me. The second part of the article was more interesting however. It seems money can buy happiness under certain circumstances, specifically when you spend your money on meaningful experiences. The research showed that in these cases the memories produced by these experiences are a reward that lasts for a significant amount of time, in some cases even for the rest of your life, and that therefore, in this one instance, money could in a sense buy happiness.

But back to my story. Because I was feeling so irritated, I decided to do the unthinkable and clean my house. I am a single man and I live alone, and this is not something that is very often at the top of my list. I knew that perhaps giving myself a clean environment to relax in would make me feel a little better, and I begrudgingly got to work.

The turning point in this story came when I actually moved my couch to vacuum, which for me was about a once a year kind of project. There, to my extreme disbelief, sat 7 crumpled hundred dollar bills. How in the hell did they get there? Were they left by the previous owner? Had I hid them like a squirrel and repressed the memory? I didn’t know, but wow what an incredible surprise.

And here is where I came to the fork in the road. I looked back at my sad-looking couch. For 700 dollars I could get something kind of spiffy. Maybe black leather, or tiger-stripes, or something like that. Damn.. Now I was anxious again.. I’d had this money for 5 minutes and it was already causing me distress..

Then I remembered my research. I had recently looked in to going to Costa Rica for several weeks to do some volunteer work with children while also taking a hardly-earned vacation. I could swing it, no doubt, but it would be 3 weeks I wouldn’t be bringing money in as a therapist, and quite a bit of money spent down in Costa Rica. I wavered and put it on the back burner to think about a little before making a commitment.

And now, improbably, a solution to the problem emerged. It was kind of hard to believe. I took one last look at my couch and made a decision. Two minutes later I had booked my trip and, now, will likely embark on a life-changing experience in less than a week’s time.

I’m not totally sure yet how to make sense of this story in terms of synchronicity, because of course I don’t know how the story ends. Kierkegaard said, “life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.” I could meet the love of my life down there, or I could create an international incident and get thrown into a dingy Central American prison. One thing I do know is that this feels right. Of course I’m looking forward to doing all of all of the fun, touristy, nightlife stuff while I’m down there, but beyond that it is a chance to truly stretch my consciousness and explore a world totally different than my own. My Spanish is not great, and I will have to rely heavily on truly listening to make real connections down there. Perhaps this opportunity is some kind of a cosmic reminder to talk a little less and listen a little more. I don’t know, but the die has been cast and I am terribly excited.

Joseph Campbell talked about money as energy. If you want more money than you have to figure out how much of your energy you really want to expend in pursuit of this. He also said, “I think the person who takes a job in order to live - that is to say, for the money - has turned himself into a slave.” I think that’s true as well. We all have to make choices and sacrifices, but eventually we may come to the end of our lives and realize we have worked and sweated and saved only to see that there were so many dreams we didn’t get to follow while we were in survival mode. This is sad to me. I saw many people in nursing homes that delayed travel and adventure until old age, and then got sick and saw all of their “bucket list’ money go up in smoke paying medical bills. It never failed to break my heart. An excellent essay from Steve Paulina reminds us, “don’t die with your music still inside of you.” Wonderful advice and something I will very much take to heart on my Central American adventure.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Finding my way back..

My grandmother always used to say, "It is the fool who fails to return to the place of his last happiness."
October Road

People ask me all the time if I’m really a therapist. They knew me as a comedian or a bartender, or a beer-guzzling maniac, and at various times (like yesterday) I’ve been all of those things. One goal in psychology is called integration, which describes what happens when you kind of merge all of the different parts of yourself into a unified whole. I’m not sure I’m totally there yet, but a couple of years ago while working in a hospital I figured something out about all of this.

At the time I was an Activity director at an Alzheimer's unit. My job in a nutshell, was to entertain people who were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. My mission was to keep them occupied as they were slowly dying of a disease that was ravaging their brains. It sounds like a morbid and awful job. It wasn’t.

People say the sex drive is the last thing to go. They are close, it’s the second to last. It was my experience that silliness was the very last thing to go. Although an awful degeneration occurs in Alzheimer’s disease, one of the oddly positive things that can happen is that people suffering from this disease begin to act like children again. I saw people who laughed until the day they died. I saw people who were nearly catatonic giggle hysterically when someone tickled their hand. I saw women laugh hysterically when they couldn’t even remember where they were at, over some simple knock-knock joke or slightly off-color comment about kissing one of the “boys’ (who were 90 year-old men in wheelchairs). In any case this taught me a lot about how deadly serious humor can really be. Kind of a paradox to be sure, but I have seen first hand how powerful it can be in helping cope with even the most tragic of situations.

This became apparent to me while I was working at this hospital and filling in for a week on the skilled nursing floor, which was where they put people of all ages who usually had some serious physical health problems.

While there I met a woman named Karen who was in her 40’s and totally confined to a wheelchair due to ALS. Although she had days when she could barely move, on days she was feeling better I would wheel her over to the piano and she would play the most wonderful old songs from the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. I learned some classic tunes from her in those days, like In the good old summertime, and Swanee by Al Jolson.

As time passed I returned to work on my own floor, but made a point of coming down to see Karen whenever I got a chance. She seemed generally glad to see me when I showed up, and the feeling was certainly mutual. As a life-long music lover, I had soon developed an amazing repertoire of show tunes, sing-alongs, and other older classics from hanging out with Karen, and this was actually quite helpful in entertaining my wayward troops upstairs.

Eventually Karen’s disease progressed however, and she was unable to even get out of bed, let alone play the piano. She was dying, and she specifically asked me if I would come by and see her whenever I could, as she had no one else to keep her company.

And so I did. I made a little time every day to pop in on her during lunch, or after work, or whenever else I got a chance, but it was clear she was not doing well. It was incredibly sad to see this woman who was only in her 40’s dying alone in a hospital, but I always reminded myself that there but for the grace of God go all of us. Eventually she did pass away, and I held her hand and sat with her almost to the end. A couple of days later one of the nurses pulled me aside and told me she had left a letter for me that she had helped her transcribe onto paper. It read;

Dear Joe,

I knew you for only a short while, so it may seem strange to be getting a love letter from an old woman with a crippling disease. I wanted to let you know that our time playing the piano together and listening to music were some of the best times of my life. As odd as that may sound, I have been a loner for most of my life. I have been sick for most of my days, and didn’t get to do a lot of what the other kids got to do growing up. I took solace in my music. I learned to play all the old songs because I used to sit around and dream about living in a simpler place where the “livin was easy.”

Meeting you and being around YOUR lighthearted spirit, improbably took me to this simpler place. I can’t thank you enough for seeing me through these last days of my life. I have no idea why the good lord is taking me so young. It’s not for me to know. What I do know however is that you made me laugh until the day that I died.. And that was truly an incredible gift. Goodbye my friend..

Love Karen..

I was so stunned when I read this I could barely breathe. The way I saw it I was popping in on someone for a few minutes a day to cheer her up, but clearly what these few minutes meant to her was something completely different.

The reason I post this story is because prior to starting this job I had decided it was time to “grow up” and become a little more serious in my life as I focused on my goals and aspirations. What a stupid idea this was. I had met several authority figures in my life who had given me this advice, and ultimately I think it said a lot more about them than it did about me. In silliness is the preservation of life. I’ve seen it breathe spirit into all kinds of people, from dying Alzheimer’s patients, to abused children, to my dear friend Karen, who accepted her fate in life and smiled and laughed until her dying breath.

This is why I included the quote that I did at the beginning of this vignette. Somehow people had convinced me to be more “serious’ in life, and it was truly the worst advice I had ever received. It took seeing people die to make me realize that the best gift I had to give was this silliness, and I will NEVER again make the mistake of relinquishing this very large part of myself. I discovered this lesson in the most unlikely of places, but it is a lesson that will endure with me forever.