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.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Beautifully Synchronous Adoption Story

“For when the heart insists on its destiny, resisting the general blandishment, then the agony is great; so too the danger. Forces, however, will have been set in motion beyond the reckoning of the senses. Sequences of events from the corners of the world will draw gradually together, and miracles of coincidence bring the inevitable to pass. ”
Joseph Campbell

"Maybe these are miracles. Maybe we don't have any experience with miracles so we're slow to recognize them."
From the Movie Grand Canyon

Not everyone is immediately aware of the power of synchronicity in their lives. I was having this conversation with my friend recently, who seemed a little stuck in her life and was having a hard time seeing where her own path was going. We talked a little more, and she acknowledged that there was one powerful event in her life that seemed to indicate some grander sense of design. This story truly knocked me out, and it really helped me better understand how the rhythm of synchronicity can exist for generations before truly clarifying itself properly.

In short, her father wanted her mother to have some company, and introduced her to a couple he had met while working in the National Guard. Over the years her mother stayed close with this family, and cut to generations later a member of this family had a daughter who is addicted to Heroin. A sad story made even sadder when my friend found out that she had a baby that she couldn’t take care of.

My friend was outraged. She wanted badly to have more children, but because of some health issues it simply wasn’t possible. Like many women who are given this news, she felt some anger towards women who have babies so easily and then seem to have very little interest in taking care of them. So an idea began to crystallize in her head, adoption. She would offer to adopt this child and give her a life her mother was clearly incapable of providing.

But none of this was in the cards. My friend returned home and slowly resigned herself to the fact that this was a child whose fate was out of her hands. Two years passed, and eventually she went back to her life. Then she heard something that devastated her. This woman had become pregnant again, but was no closer to beating her drug habit and providing any kind of safe environment for a child.

So my friend had her dark night of the soul. Once again an unwanted baby was somehow coming into the world, when she herself would do anything to have another one but couldn’t. In desperation she made a call, once again offering to adopt this child and provide a safe and caring home.

But time passed, and as the months went by my friend again resigned herself to the idea that this child’s fate was out of her control. Then, inexplicably, she had a dream. In her words,

“I was pregnant and gave birth to a baby, she wasn’t breathing so I had to give her CPR. This brought her instantly back to life. She hugged me and thanked me for saving her life. She told me without me she would have died. She told me her name was Zoey.”

The next morning she got a call. The woman had decided that my friend and her husband would make good parents and that she would like them to adopt her baby. She informed my friend that it was a girl. One month later my friend traveled to a drug treatment center to pick up her new little baby girl. Her name was Zoey.

There are so many amazing examples of synchronicity in this story it boggled my mind. What are the butterfly effects of a child being raised in a loving and safe home versus being raised by someone addicted to Heroin? How many lives will this little girl touch because of this story? How about the lives those people then go on to touch? Each life truly touches so many others. To me the implications of this are tremendous…

In the quote at the beginning of this entry there is a line from the movie Grand Canyon. In this scene a woman is trying to present the idea to her husband that all of the extraordinary things that have happened in their lives were miracles, and he responds “I'm getting a terrific headache.”

“No, you're not,” she replies
“I’m not”
“I'll tell you why I reject your headache”
“ Please”
“ Because it's inappropriate. If I am right and these events are miracles......then it is an inappropriate response to get a headache in the presence of a miracle.

This exchange kind of explains my response to people who doubt that this kind of thing happens in their lives. We get mired in our ruts, our self-pity, our gripes, complaints, and everyday drudgery, when really these amazing miracles are happening all around us. Somehow we just miss them though…Work, bills, chores, and whatever else eats up so much of our precious time.. But really, if we can cut through the fog and take a long, deep breath of each present moment, we may find there are wonderful opportunities to observe these things. That’s why I try and introduce myself to at least a few new strangers every day of my life. What do you have to lose? This person may not even give you a second glance, but on the other hand they may alter your world in some significant and meaningful way. I am convinced lightening can strike however. I’ve lived it, I’ve seen it, and I certainly saw a great deal of it in my friend’s wonderful story.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The High Priest of Happy Hour

“The Road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.“
William Blake

A couple of months ago I reconnected with a good friend from a few years ago. At the time we were both working in a bar in a downtown Chicago. It was like working in a war zone at times, and the stories we accumulated over those years were truly priceless.

I first met this guy on an elevator when I bumped into him when was applying for a job. That was almost ten years ago now but I still remember it well. He was 21 at the time, and we went through more than our share of passages as we tore through these years together.

Eventually he became a cop and I became a therapist. At the time nobody who knew either one of us would likely have predicted that, but life takes unpredictable turns. The point is we put that part of our lives to bed, knowing that we had a pretty wild run that we emerged from miraculously still alive and kicking.

A couple of years passed, and he found me online. It’s always nice to catch up with old friends, but it’s something I’ve been terribly lax about. Anyway we went out for drinks a couple of times, and he told me he was getting married. I was in for a shock however when he asked me if I would consider getting ordained online and performing and writing the wedding ceremony.

To back up for a second I was not only not religious, but so hedonistic for so many years I thought I would start on fire if I stepped into a church. Even still I was intrigued, and accepted the assignment with great gusto.

So I set about writing the ceremony. Which I have included here-

Hello everyone and welcome…..We are here today to celebrate the union of Emily and Kevin ….It’s a sacred day a wedding day…..And these two may only have 2 or 3 more of them in their entire lives…So let’s everyone try and pay attention please.

I never would have guessed when I bumped into this guy in an elevator 10 years ago that I would be performing his wedding ceremony….At the time I would have placed odds we would have met back up in jail….But here we are….He a cop and me a priest…Well an internet priest anyway……My license expires in a half hour so lets get this show on the road…

In all seriousness…….We are here today because two people solved life’s most perplexing mystery and fell in love…I take that back…..Not two people…Three actually…Any conversation about these two has to include their beautiful daughter Nola, who I know Kevin has fallen in love with as well…….I’ve never seen him so happy and so filled with a sense of purpose, and I know that having these two ladies in his life is the best thing that ever happened to him….

When I’m not faking being a priest I work as a marriage counselor…I see a lot of couples that have lost their way…And often a big part of what they’ve lost is their senses of humor….I can’t imagine that ever happening to these two…..They are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and after spending a little time with Nola it’s clear that there will soon be a third class clown in the family……Jean Houston said “At the height of laughter the universe is thrown into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” My guess is that laughter will be the lifeblood of this family’s interactions, and that they will grow and thrive as they laugh their way through life together…

I know for these two, there is no job they take more seriously than being parents, and I can’t imagine Nola being in finer hands as she makes her way through life….So Nola, to paraphrase another high priest like myself named Bob Dylan,

May the good lord be with you
Down every road you roam
And may sunshine and happiness
Surround you when you’re far from home
And may you grow to be proud
Dignified and true
And do unto others
As you’d have done to you
Be courageous and be brave
And in my heart you’ll always stay
Forever young, forever young

Try and remember these words as you grow older….But on the other hand bear in mind that their may be times you’re the only adult in the house…..I’ve seen your dad whine when the White Sox lose…

So although this is a wonderful day and a happy time, I would be remiss in my duties to suggest marriage is easy. As many of you here know, it may be the hardest yet most rewarding thing a person can ever do. Ruth Bell Graham said, “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” Seems pretty accurate…Marriage is the ultimate test of cooperation, and cooperation is pretty hard without forgiveness….Deep down we are all a little broken and miswired…As you go through your life together please keep this in mind….

And marriage is also unpredictable… A favorite quote of mine on this subject comes from Gilda Radner who found her own true love Gene Wilder later in her life…

“I always wanted a happy ending… Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.”

And so guys, remember that there’s a lot of stuff you can’t even see right now…You will argue, you will fight, and you will do the silly, petty, and ridiculous things humans do.. You will survive this because you have learned to laugh together…..A simple look around should show you how many of us are rooting for you 3 to have a wonderful life together…..I know I speak for everyone in this room when I say we love you and wish you the best on this terrifying rollercoaster you are about to jump aboard…You may scream, you may protest, and you may even feel like yelling at the deranged Carny to stop the ride….But in the end, the fun you have together will I’m sure make it all worth the trip……

The reason why I have included this vignette is to demonstrate a point about friendship. So often we get lazy about putting in the time and effort to maintain friendships and they just kind of wither away and die. Because my friend took the time to find me, I am now a part of one of the most significant days of his life. The fun we had that day and the story of me performing his wedding ceremony will I’m sure be something we remember when we are old men, and it happened because he was willing to do a little extra work to stay in touch.

So perhaps the lesson is to work hard at maintain these friendships, as the dividends echo much longer than we may realize. I have attended several funerals where person after person says the most glowing things about the deceased, while also acknowledging that they had unfortunately lost touch with the person over the years. What a shame this is, that people often go to their graves not knowing how everyone felt about them.

So looking back now as an officially ordained “reverend” I realize again that there is a strange serendipity in the fact that I was ordained to help bring people together, when this perfectly describes how I am trying to make sense of the world right now. How and why do we all fit together like we do? How is it that you can bump into one guy on an elevator and perform his wedding ceremony, while you walk blindly by others who may have been a doorway to some other fascinating new experiences? I’m not sure I know the answer to any of these questions, but what I do know is that I want to know as many of my fellow travelers as possible while I try and figure it out.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Interlude in Ireland..

Some People Live a Lifetime in a Moment.
Scent of a Woman

Looking back now I am noticing all kinds of connections I hadn’t before. Today I found myself thinking about a trip to Ireland I took last year and some of the things that happened to me while I was there.

I’d hit kind of a rough patch in my life and was struggling to figure out where I was going. I decided a trip to Ireland where my grandmother was from might help me make sense of where I came from, and maybe even offer some clues as to where I was going.

I had a deeply transcendent moment when I was in Ireland. High in the Wicklow Mountains I climbed to the top of the highest peak and looked around. Miles and miles of green hills, beautiful mountains, and clear skies surrounded me, and something just came over me. I knew that there was something bigger out there than just me. That I had been given a gift to get to dance here on this beautiful planet for however long, and that I was called to do something bigger than gratifying my own selfish needs.

So it was with this newfound awakening that I returned to Dublin to finish the rest of my vacation. I was staying in hostel that weekend, and my roommate was a girl from Spain who spoke very little English. I tried to talk to her but it was difficult, as I spoke predominantly busboy Spanish from my many years working in restaurants. Even still we tried to talk over dinner in the bar downstairs. Then I looked at her and saw a single tear fall down her cheek.

"Yo se que la vida es dificil" I said, (I know life is hard)

And with that she began to chuckle. She studied me closely and looked deeply into my eyes, apparently wanting and needing to convey something deeply important. Soon her smile faded though and she looked back down into the napkin that was folded in her lap.

"I am alone in the world," she said in broken English as she wiped a tear from her face.

"Me too," I replied, and she looked up with understanding eyes, this time patting my hand as she tried to comfort me.

"I know life is hard" she said.

And with this we both smiled, having discovered, in this odd little corner of the world, the power of making a small human connection.

So we spent some time together over the next couple of days, neither one of us speaking the other’s literal language, but both very much strangely attuned to something the other seemed to need. We drank, we ate, and we danced over the next couple of days, and in a sense it was one of the most intimate connections I had ever made with another person, despite the fact we were virtually unable to hold a conversation. We were two lonely people, who made each other a little less lonely by trying very hard to understand each other. This is exceedingly difficult with someone who knows the same language as you do, as often the words just keep getting in the way. Yet here, in this time, in this place, we had found a language that was unique just to the two of us, It was wonderful.

Eventually our trip came to an end. My last memory was the bus ride together back to the airport, where miraculously I remembered I had the song ‘Guantanamera” on my ipod. We both took an ear and sat and listened to the song as our time together came to an end. Both of seemed to sense that, although we had made an intense human connection, we both had to return to very different lives. It was sweet, it was sad, and it was perhaps the most melancholy moment of my life.

So we exchanged information and wrote back and forth a few times, but in the end, neither of us had the patience to continue to translate the other’s language. I hadn’t thought about her for some time, when a couple of months ago I got a postcard from her saying simply.

“Life is not so hard now, thank you for being my friend, it meant more than you know.”

My heart was deeply touched. I thought about her a lot after that. Was she my lost love? Should I have pursued her further? Tried harder? But in the end I think we were just supposed to have those few days together. In those few days we found a way to give each other something we both seemed to desperately need, and for me, it was an experience that will remain in my memory forever.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Death of my Father

The death of the father is the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man's life.
Sigmund Freud

The dream shows the inner truth and reality of the patient as it really is: not as I conjecture it to be, and not as he would like it to be, but as it is.
Carl Jung

It started out to be the kind of day like any other day. At the time I was managing a large nightclub in Chicago, making good money, and living a hedonistic, carefree life living in the city. I had been doing this for a while and was pretty content if not a little bored.

I had fallen into managing nightclubs almost entirely by accident. I had moved to Chicago to become a comic, and often worked as a bartender to actually pay the bills. I was so bad as a bartender that eventually they just kind of made me a manager, and soon I had given up my dream of being a comic and instead spent the majority of my time doing various chores running a bar.

Something was nagging at me though and I didn’t totally know what it was at the time. I knew I wanted more out of life than what I was doing, but I had gotten very comfortable and at the time I couldn’t see too many other options than to continue to do what I was doing. I had developed an interest in Psychology, and had taken to analyzing my dreams in pursuit of this interest.

One night I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I had dreamed that my brother and I were wandering through the woods in ragged clothing, terribly impoverished, and searching for our father. I woke up with a tremendous sense of loss, foreboding, and pending doom. I opened one of my books on dream interpretation and found a passage interpreting a dream similar to the one I just had. It said this kind of dream may be indicative that one would be called to a deathbed soon. I dismissed this interpretation as fatalistic. One hour later my mother called, informing me my dad had died during the night.

At my father’s funeral the priest read from the book Tuesdays with Morrie. Sitting in that church and hearing those words about loss and regret, I vowed to change my life. Upon my return home I enrolled in school and began my personal journey towards being a Psychologist. And my first assignment in my first class? Read the book Tuesdays with Morrie and relate the concepts in the book to a loss in my own life.

I could have simply dismissed all of these events as coincidences, but I knew from my experiences that the universe had just hit me with a thunderbolt, and that I had better begin paying attention.

So years later I’m a therapist. It’s an incredibly gratifying job and one that I feel totally energized doing. I get lazy all the time and forget to listen to the signs that surround me. I’ve become convinced that everyday the universe is trying to tell you SOMETHING… Most days I miss the sign. Jung said one of the fundamental drives of human beings is to be lazy, and I am as guilty of that as anyone. But when a person has experienced these kinds of things in their lives they start to pay a lot more attention, and right now, I can say, in this period of my life, I’m awake…

Sliding Doors

“When you look back on your life, it looks as though there were a plot, but when you are into it, it’s a mess: just one surprise after another. Then later you see it was perfect.
Arnold Schopenhauer

I’ve thought about this quote a lot in my life. My life feels like a chaotic mess about 90 percent of the time. And yet, often when I look back on other messy periods of my life, I realize I emerged from these experiences a much wiser man.

The first truly astounding “coincidence” in my life occurred when I was 24 years old and road tripping across the western United States to work in Glacier National Park for the summer. It was a glorious time in my life. I had a Volkswagen bus filled with so much beer I could barely fit my luggage in there. I brought along dozens of books to read for the summer. I was young, I was single, and I was free.

So I took my time getting out to Montana that summer, stopping every hundred miles or so to camp, to drink, to meet the locals in little towns, and really just relax. At one point I pulled into a little KOA campground in Idaho and set up shop for the night. I began icing down my beer when I noticed a young couple doing the same in the campground across the way.

As was my custom, I walked over to them and invited them to come by later and hang out and drink some beer. They were a couple of years younger than me and were traveling across the United States for the first time. They were a little lost as to where they were going, and accepted my offer to come and hang out with great enthusiasm. The offer of free beer of course didn’t hurt..

So we talked well into the night. I gave them some advice on places to go, and they told me about their lives back home in Kentucky. We talked about books, philosophy, sports, beer, and everything else people in their 20’s talk about as we watched the sun come up as the fire slowly dwindled. Eventually they returned to their campsite and I fell into a very deep and contented sleep.

When I woke up they were gone, apparently eager to hit the road and check out some of the places we had talked about. I envied them, seeing this beautiful part of the country for the first time. At 24 I felt old, not knowing that I was in fact in one of the most wonderful and adventurous periods of my life.

I had the most glorious, wild, reckless, amazing, summer of my life that year. From the little bars in strange corners of the state, to the Calgary Stampede, to road trips, and hiking and drinking, it was a summer I would never forget, and yes I even fell in love. I met a Southern Belle, and cut to two years later I moved down south to be closer to her.

I never pictured myself living in the South, but I actually adapted pretty quickly. I was working as a bartender and trying to figure out my next move in life as I continued to get a little older. Although I loved traveling and adventure and being free, I was starting to think that maybe it was time to get a little better plan together as to what I actually wanted to do with my life.

So one day I was at a party at my girlfriend’s house when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I didn’t know to many people there at the time, so when the kid asked me, “Is your name Joe?” I was definitely a little surprised.

It turns out it was the kid from the campground who I certainly thought I would never see again. Certainly this was a small world kind of moment and kind of an amazing coincidence, but simply seeing him again was not the end of the story.

“This may sound weird man, but I want to tell you something that’s pretty important,” he went on. “Talking with you that night and hearing how passionate you were about all of these books you’ve read really sparked something. I guess what I wanted to tell you was, I decided to become a teacher because of that night and that conversation that we had.”

And I was blown away!! Here I hadn’t even scratched the surface on my own career and I was altering people’s lives with a one-night conversation. I can still remember that conversation as if it was yesterday. It was the first taste I really had that people paid any attention at all to the things I had to say. I always felt a little like an imposter, dispensing advice, discussing literature, and pontificating, when at the time I didn’t even have a college degree.

And looking back all of these years later, I realized that conversation did in fact send me on a long road to becoming a kind of teacher. I’m a therapist now and a writer, and while I’m still not totally convinced anyone really listens to what I say, I do know how much power even one small conversation can potentially have. In this particular story I met this man twice, but somehow we had improbably each altered one another’s destiny in a profound and powerful way. It still amazes me really.

Reflections on Spirituality

My journey with religion has been a long and winding road. I went to Catholic school for the first 8 years of my life, and just by the process of Osmosis I learned a lot about the Bible and all of the major players in it. I fainted once on Ash Wednesday. I dreaded the idea of someone putting dirt on my head and my body just shut down. I was in fourth grade. Another time the Bishop of our dioceses poked me in the eye and then went right back to working the room. He knew he did it. That was the end of the religious chapter of my life. I was about 14.

The next 7 years or so me and spirituality kind of broke up. Books became my salvation, and these were the years I did some serious discovery, most of it in the hammock of my own back yard. One day when I was 21, I was reading the book “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles and came across this quote.

“Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

And that was it for me. I hit the road. My first stop was Yellowstone park for a summer. It was incredible. I remember watching the movie Field of Dreams. One of the characters said “We don’t realize the most significant moments of our lives while they are happening.” I didn’t know it at the time but that was incredibly prophetic. That summer was my first taste of so many things. Somehow the time spent out in the wild had also reignited an old spark. I felt something when I was wandering in those mountains..I don’t know what it was, but it felt like what I thought religion should have felt like. Plus no one was poking me in the eye or trying to rub dirt on my head.

Something was stirring, but I didn’t know then what it was. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

A year later I was working at the Grand Canyon. One day I went hiking all the way to the bottom with a couple of friends. We got separated and I would up all the way at the bottom of that place with not another soul around for miles. 

It was Dusk…

I took it all in All of this had been around for millions of years, yet at this time, in this place, it belonged to me. This was my moment. This was my time. And then I felt an energy. An incredible energy, rise up inside of me… I knew. I knew that whatever energy existed in this world I shared a piece of it. I was connected to it. I had access to it. I also knew that I was supposed to add to it. That I had been given gifts that would help me add to it. Improbably, against all odds, I had defined at that moment what spirituality meant in my own life…

This experience would lead me to the study of what Carl Jung called Synchronicity, which defines how there are really no accidents in our lives. If we can break though the noise, the apathy, the laziness, I discovered that we just might find there were incredible secrets to unravel as to why people come into our lives when they do. This is a lesson that has been presented to me over and over again. I still don’t understand this in real time. I need to stumble, to fail, to push people out of my comfortable world, before I really realize their importance. I am humbled by this.  But it has, finally, after many years, made me a person who likes to listen. It’s why I love people’s stories. They are transformative.

So for me the interconnectedness of human beings is the spirituality we have in this world. We all need each other so much, yet we find a million little ways to push people out of our spaces. I do this too. People that come into therapy do it a lot as well. I am well-equipped to advise them because I have fallen down all the same stairs. We all have little parts of ourselves that loves to sabotage our happiness. Like a Big Blue marble of misfit toys, we are fallible and we are flawed, but we can come to appreciate and even love each other’s imperfections because we have them ourselves. That is our shared legacy. That is what spirituality means to me…

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The energy we leave behind

Synchronistic events offer us perceptions that may be useful in our psychological and spiritual growth and may reveal to us, through intuitive knowledge, that our lives have meaning.
Jean Shinoda Bolen

After the death of my friend I received a letter from one of his good friends who I did not know. She said something that really struck me and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head ever since. She said “Sam's death will make just as much of an impact as his life did.”

That one sentence summed up so eloquently everything I’m trying to get my head around right now. The chain of events all of our significant actions (and many of our seemingly insignificant ones) set in motion. I am paying so much more attention now, as I am starting to observe where I once turned a blind eye.

One explanation as to why we turn this blind eye is that we are simply too busy to go around noticing coincidences and paying attention to mystic omens in our lives. Joseph Campbell, a great believer in synchronicity and a kind of disciple of Carl Jung, referred to this as “the refusal of the call.’ He explained that,

“The Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or 'culture,' the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration."

In essence when we refuse the call, we are trying to avoid the suffering that taking risks may bring, but in this avoidance we bring another kind of suffering on ourselves. Jung said, “Nobody, as long as he moves about among the chaotic currents of life, is without trouble.” All of us will grow old, get sick, lose loved ones, and die.

So although that sounds rather morbid, perhaps by truly seizing this adventure we can beat back the mundane, the boredom, the pain, the illness, and all the rest of it for the short time that we have been given. Hemingway talked about making love as “beating back death” and I think that’s a good metaphor for life’s grand adventure.

So all of this leads me back to the idea that my friend may have as much of an impact in his death as he did in his life. Something about his dying sent a little existential shock wave into my life that I haven’t been able to fully comprehend. Part of this came from contemplating my own mortality. Whenever someone close to us dies, at least some of the grief we feel is thinking about the fact that one day we will be gone as well. One quote that always reminds me of this comes from J. Furniss who reminds us,

“Never forget that you must die; that death will come sooner than you expect... God has written the letters of death upon your hands. In the inside of your hands you will see the letters M.M. It means "Memento Mori" - remember you must die.”

I’ve always loved that quote but I’ve rarely lived that quote. Until recently I’ve really felt a creative spark that was ignited by my friend’s death. I haven’t done comedy in years. My writing has very much been on the shelf for the last couple of years, but now, well, I have been massively creative. But why? What was it about someone dying that lit this fire?

I do know that I saw the outpouring for my friend when he died, and I thought to myself, what is the secret to being remembered like this? What are the qualities of this kind of life? What does it look like?

And I kept coming back to overcoming fear. My friend was pretty fearless, and whatever energy he left behind, I know I somehow absorbed a lot if it. Perhaps that is what the afterlife really is. The goodwill, laughter, friendship and wisdom you leave behind becomes a kind of energy that those you left behind can use as they wish. That’s what it means to me anyway, and I’ve been getting some daily reminders of how this is true..


"Factual information alone isn't sufficient to guide you through life's labyrinthine tests. You need and deserve regular deliveries of uncanny revelation. One of your inalienable rights as a human being should therefore be to receive a mysteriously useful omen every day of your life."
Rob Brezsny

I feel like my eyes have been opened lately and I am coming out of a very deep sleep. Suddenly I’m having all of these chance encounters with people that I no longer believe are coincidences.

I was riding home from work the other day on the train, when I heard a loud booming voice yell, “Joe” and I was immediately alarmed. I was on the far Sough Side of Chicago, and I was pretty sure I didn’t know anyone in this neck of the world that I wanted to see again.

But I was wrong.

What I saw astounded me. There in front of me was a strapping, well-dressed, 200 hundred pound Black man dressed like he was going to a movie premiere. I couldn’t believe it. When I knew this man he had a major addiction to crack and was also a pretty serious alcoholic. He lived on the streets and weighed about 120 pounds. I truly was astounded.

When I knew him I was managing a large nightclub in downtown Chicago. This guy was like our own personal bum at the time, who would park our cars, run errands, and basically do whatever we needed him to do. In a strange way he was very trustworthy. He basically spent his days and nights working one scam after another, trying to get money for more alcohol and drugs. Even still, I liked him, and actually most people in the neighborhood liked him.

So cut to years later and I’m working as a therapist on the South Side, and here he stands before me. He explained that one bar owner in the neighborhood took a chance on him and gave him a job, and the rest just feel into his place. He was now managing the concessions at several bars, and looked like he was truly a different man. He credited it all to God, but I knew there was also more to the story. Something about someone taking a chance on him again had seemed to awaken something that had lain dormant for quite some time. He had been invited back to the human race, and this time he had decided he was going to do things a little differently.

So we had a nice little chat, and I told him I was proud of him. Eventually we reached my stop, and he yelled “Hold on.” He ran over to me, pulled out a wad of money, and peeled off a fresh 5 dollar bill and handed it to me.

“I wanted to give you the five back you loaned me.”

Now over the years I had given him hundreds of dollars, but that was beside the point. I explained to him that I didn’t really need it, and he looked a little hurt.

“I insist”, he said..

So I took it and he gave me a hug…

”You were nice to me even when no else was Joe, and I'll never forget it.”

And so I exited into the night, thinking I would take that five and frame it. I couldn’t believe the transformation this guy had made, and I was once again reminded that often all we have to judge the majority of people’s lives we intersect with is a snapshot. We make assumptions about them and where their lives may be headed, but we really rarely ever get to know how the story ends.

And that was not the end of this story….I still had to jump on one more bus to get home, and there was a long line of people waiting to get on. I put my card into the machine and found, to my dismay, that it was expired. I didn’t like to carry cash on this trip as I went through some dangerous territory. The thought of walking after a long day was immensely irritating, and I scanned my pockets one last time for posterity's sake.

And there it was, a crisp, clean, 5 dollar bill….

A small thing.

But in that moment, in that time…It mattered a lot to me…..
"Everybody has something noble inside of them waiting to get out. If you catch them at the right time, you'll see this to be true. At other times, people are less noble and heroic. When the media spotlights one individual over another as a hero, they're simply showing the goodness that's in all of us. In other words, we're all heroes if you catch us at the right moment."

From the movie "Hero."

Today I received a letter from a woman who I used to know when I was working with Alzheimer’s patients in 2006. Her mother was a patient at the hospital I worked at, and a very difficult patient at that. Even still, I always tried to keep in mind that she had been ravaged by a terrible disease that had likely drastically altered her personality. Some days I was better at remembering this than others.

This woman had a daughter who was exceedingly difficult to deal with. This is the woman who wrote me today. She would come to the hospital at all hours barking out orders to the staff, and would hover over her mother to no end. We dreaded when she came to visit, which was often, and, because I was the Activity Director I was the one that often had to deal with her the most.

I tried my best. She was terribly impatient, had awful listening skills, and talked in a loud voice that induced anxiety in virtually everyone she spoke to. I considered it a personal challenge to try and calm her down, but often she was inconsolable. I learned from her brother that she had been through a divorce recently and that she had a very strained relationship with her mother for most of her life. I had more compassion for her when I found this out, and tried my very best to listen to her despite her difficult personality. Over time we got to a point we could talk at a much calmer and slower pace, and she used to bring me candy sometimes during Christmas and Easter other holidays.

One day when she was particularly harried, she really overstayed her welcome, and I turned to my partner and said, “thank God the bitch is gone.” She wasn’t. She was standing right behind me.

The look on her face was one of the saddest things I had ever seen. I was one of the only people in the world that listened to her, and I could tell by the look on her face that I had broken her heart. I went home that day feeling as low as I ever had in my life..

As time went on she came by less and less..I tried hard to explain I had just had a bad day, but trust had been badly damaged. As the months passed, I did my best to listen and try and understand her, and very slowly she began to soften. Our relationship was much better, and I often found myself talking to her about her relationship with her mother, and how much I admired her dedication towards her mom now that she needed her the most. We had several long talks during those months, and over time even developed a kind of friendship.

So today I received a letter from this woman telling me that her mother had died. Although she was sad about this, she was writing me for another reason. She wanted to say that I had helped her get through the most difficult time in her life. That she felt so disgusted with herself during this period of her life that she had contemplated suicide, and that her visits to the nursing home were at times the only thing that kept her going. She said she was happily remarried now, and that she truly felt like a different person than she was when I had known her. In short she wrote to say thank you. It was a thank you I’m not sure I deserved, but wow did it make me stop and think.

I guess the lesson is this. Everything we say and do is important, especially when we are in positions when we see people at their most vulnerable. When you see a person who is extremely difficult to deal with, it’s likely this person is deeply hurt and they have no other way to deal with it than to take it out on the world. We have all BEEN this difficult person at one time or another in our lives. We didn’t always know the things we know now. It took some falling down, some broken hearts, some time and reflection to get here.. And we’re still going to fall a bunch more times. One day we make look back at the things we know today and be amazed by how little we really knew and how much we have grown and changed. It’s something I hope I can remember. Truthfully I had totally forgotten about this woman, and today was a cosmic reminder that our words and actions ripple much, much deeper than we ever truly comprehend….