Category Archives: Celebrating Recovery

Emily’s story needs to be written

Effin Artist exists for a single reason: To elevate great stories that inspire change.

Emily Green has such a story. And we’re committed to helping her tell it for a simple reason: Her unique approach to surviving cancer represents a serious shift in healthy recovery. Her story represents a sea change in treatment paths chosen by the millions stricken with this disease. This is inspired change at the root, right where it can do the most good for the most people.

Emily is the mother of three, ages 16, 5, and 4. She is the hearbeat of a family that has endured its share of challenges and trials over the years before she learned that she had late-stage breast cancer.  Her story may sound too familiar in an age when cancer plagues so many of us, but it is utterly unique in its message of hope for those afflicted.

img_20160929_080206

Emily doesn’t view cancer as a “fight.” She’s not battling for victory and not waging a war. Instead, she has chosen to step outside of that story to find her own. It is one flavored with such tenderness, healing and grace that a temperature of warmth rises from her words. Like that time when her doctor asked her if she wanted to transfer care after Emily opted not to follow her advice.

“That doesn’t mean that we stop working together,” Emily wrote. “It means that we disagree, and that we remember that I am in this body, driving my healing, and I weigh many factors in making a decision and we continue to move together toward our common goal of my healing.”

Emily’s story was captured this week by the local news in her hometown. Her energy flows through this news report.

Emily doubts she would be alive had it not been for critical decisions she made about her treatment. Vital financial support that “allowed me to take specific healing steps that otherwise would have been out of reach,” empowered those decisions, she wrote.

Which is why we unabashedly ask you to become a champion for Emily today and help bring more healing for herself and others within reach. How?

First, a donation to Emily’s GoFundMe page provides critical help for her care. Some of you already have donated. On behalf of Mike and Emily, we can’t thank you enough. You’ve helped save her life.

Second, share this post and Emily’s GoFundMe page on social media. Invite others to become part of Emily’s reader community.

Third, Subscribe to our mailing list and we’ll send you updates of her book as we finish it. You can be part of her reader feedback. You can offer support and encouragement along the way. You’ll be honored guests at her book launch party and trust us, this is going to be a celebration of life you won’t want to miss.

So we launch this effort today, partners with Emily on her work. Soon we will rally this community to help her launch her words and support her effort to inspire badly needed change.

Just as her life was saved, this effort will help countless others heal as well.  Great stories, do in fact, inspire change.

Advertisements

I didn’t get ‘Fixed’, but Kirkus does

I’ll never forget the first time I read Doug Piotter’s first chapter of what would eventually be called Fixed: Dope Sacks, Dye Packs and the Long Welcome Back.

I’ll confess. I didn’t get it. I wanted to get it. But I wasn’t sure.

Now, we know for certain how wrong I was in my first impression. Fixed has just been given the Kirkus Star, which enters the book in the competition for its Kirkus Prize award and the $50,000 prize that comes with it.

It’s safe to say Kirkus’ reviewer got it.

“The author’s life, as portrayed here, contains enough screw-ups for 10 dysfunctionality memoirs,” the review writes, “but unlike other memoirists, he eschews angst and self-pity and highlights the absurd humor of the predicaments he made for himself. The pathos here is all the more moving for being spare, understated, and well-earned from hard experience. A smart, occasionally wise, and always entertaining recollection of addiction, crime, punishment, and recovery.”

I didn’t know Doug when I went out of my way to introduce myself to him at a writers conference. He unabashedly touted his book during the Q&A, describing it as micro-stories from his time as a drug addict, bank robber and prison inmate. He said, “it’s the real deal. It all happened.”

I introduced myself to him and invited him to a writers group. His moxie and story impressed me. I knew he could benefit from a serious group. Soon, Doug sent me his manuscript. I read the first chapter, and like I say, I didn’t get it.

But he added one more thing to his email, a link to the first reading of the book he had done. I listened to the reading and then I knew we were on to something.

Folks were cracking up. I may not have gotten it, but the crowd did.

Writing funny is nearly impossible. Perhaps it’s raw talent. But it’s also craft. And within Doug was a writer of raw talent and hidden determination to get better at the craft. Beyond the writers group, of which Doug remains a vital member, I’ve worked as his editor to help bring Fixed to life. It’s been a pleasure and an honor. We’ve now shifted into high gear for Doug’s second book, a work of fiction that offers much of the same promise of his memoir.

Meanwhile, Fixed continues to gain momentum, earning acclaim from dozens of reviewers and book awards including, a Finalist Beverly Hills Book Award and  first place of the 22nd annual Colorado Independent Publishers Association and CIPA Education and Literary Foundation, Self Help.

Fixed is funny.

It’s also, as Doug, says, real. It all happened. And that is where the true amazement of this book’s accomplishment sneaks up on you. This funny writer with self-effacing charm survived all this pain and brokenness that makes the book so sharp and important. Funny is good, but impact is better and this book has both.

Don’t take my word for it. Buy it. If you do, we invite you to send us your review of the book. We will gladly post it here.

The kindness of saying no

I think I missed the memo. Somewhere, someone must have published a book, perhaps it’s called MissManners2.0 or some such thing, and within it we are told that the “polite” thing to do these days is to never, ever, say no.

It is now a reasonable expectation to be ignored when making a request.  Enough time goes by and we accept the answer was no. It is now common to send off emails requesting a response and simply never hearing anything. People will go to great lengths to avoid simply being honest and saying, “No, I’d rather not.” We run from any potential confrontation to the point of talking so much more about people than to them. We explain to others why we won’t respond and then simply don’t.

Then we tell ourselves we are being kind. On the surface, such dishonesty being labeled “kind” is laughable, which is why I must have missed the memo that declared it so. Laughable? What, too strong? I don’t think so. Without honesty, we can’t be kind. We perpetuate misunderstanding that ripples out in countless hurtful ways.

I ran across this little saying from something called “Peaceful Warrior” the other day.

kindness

The last line jumped out. We could save people so much trouble with honest communication. “Painfully” honest works when coupled with humility, which is why I think we decided it’s no longer polite to be honest. Humility is nearing extinction, crowded out by the epidemic of narcissism.

This might sound overly complicated, but perhaps it’s not. Perhaps its as simple as this: If I’m the star and cast of my own reality show, if other’s don’t play a critical role, then my decision to respond has nothing to do with them. It’s how I feel that matters. I feel responding to an email with a polite, “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not,” makes me uncomfortable. What will they think of me, I wonder?  If I just don’t respond, it’s easier for me. I can ignore it. I can ignore the conversation. I can ignore having to disappoint someone. I may even avoid conflict or further conversation.

I feel better.

And that’s what matters, right?

If I make excuses to avoid doing what I don’t want, it’s all the better than the truth because A) I don’t have to say “I’d rather not,” which might just be well, awkward… ick, but also, B) I tell myself they will feel better with my excuse, so I’m actually being nice! I like thinking of myself as nice. It’s a win-win.

Right?

Well, the star of the show is happy, so I guess so.

I’m convinced all of this must have been explained in the memo I missed, which is I am so hopelessly out of touch. Worse, because I keep breaking the 2.0 rules, I’m the one who is not very nice.

The irony is my entire life I hated saying no. I wrote an entire chapter of a book about my desire to say “yes” as often as I could.  In rehab I learned that saying no and saying it honestly would have helped me avoid some of the worst behaviors and worst outcomes of my life. I vowed to live sober and truthfully. I learned to say no. Yet, somehow in that transition, someone issued a memo and I missed it and once again I feel out of step.

But this time, I feel a foundation of truth under my feet. I may be 1.0, but I am comfortable in my skin. I am now an ardent fan of “the courtesy of a reply.” I still prefer yes. But I’ve learned no is necessary at times. Or just the best choice. Or simply OK. In every case it is far, far better than simply ignoring the need to respond or to respond dishonestly.

I am not the star of my own show. The ratings were bad and it got cancelled. I hope a lot of “shows” suffer the same fate. Maybe then we can rediscover the healing power of honest communication even when difficult.

Opening Day beckons again, right on time

If my life was a dot-to-dot, many of the lines that connect the picture would run through a baseball game. America’s Pastime, despite its numerous critics who lament the pace of the game, the lack of violence and general old-school feel, represents connective tissue from my childhood to now and too many points in between to count. I’ve loved this game for more than 40 years. For many of those years, I have arrived at this time of year, breathed deep and welcomed the return of the game on Opening Day.

Many have captured the poetry of baseball and the return of the boys of summer better than. Read Jim Murray, Roger Kahn or Thomas Boswell. Better yet, cue up Vin Scully and any of his more than 60 Opening Day broadcasts to experience the background music of my childhood. Maybe Vin, more than anyone else, is responsible for my love of the game.Anything that has been written has been written. I’m content to simply note the passage of time, another year, another long, wonderful season ahead. It’s good enough for me.

Anything that has been written has been written. I’m content to simply note the passage of time, another year, another long, wonderful season ahead. It’s good enough for me.

But as I write every year on Opening Day, it doesn’t count if you don’t call your shot. Who will win in 2016? Come the chilly days of October, who will still be playing on national TV with a the right to be crowned champion on the line? I’ve had a decent run of success in recent years. Here are my predictions:

American League:

Most every team looks decent this year. Few look dominant, which is exactly opposite the National League, where a few imposing teams could dominate all.

AL East- For so long this division was about two teams, the greatest rivalry in sport between the Yankees and Red Sox. Not anymore. Both teams still have inflated budgets, high-priced superstars and serious holes in the roster. The defending division champion Blue Jays look even more dominant this year. The low-payroll Rays still have great pitching, but they haven’t proved the can win since Manager Joe Maddon left for Chicago.  The Orioles never look great in April, but since Manager Buck Showalter arrived, they’ve been very good. In the end, the Blue Jays have one of those great regular season teams that will crush teams often but lack the deadly pitching to win the series. A great defense could be the equalizer and push this vaunted team over the top in 2016. The Red Sox could have a core of young superstars that make them dominant soon, but will the veterans like Dustin Pedroia, Koji Uehara and Hanley Rameriz stay healthy and contribute enough to make David Ortiz final year a historic one?

Prediction: 1- Blue Jays, 2- Red Sox, 3- Orioles, 4- Rays, 5- Yankees.

AL Central- Back in the day this decision was laughable. Again, not anymore. This is a deep, competitive division and home of the defending champion Kansas City Royals. Even after going to the World Series two years in a row, prognositicators are saying the Royals will slump. But the core remains as does the great defense and relentless style of play. The Royals, like the San Francisco Giants, are built for depth and teamwork, not stats and sizzle and both are very deadly, dangerous opponents that nobody wants to run into in the playoffs. The Tigers still have great talent and big holes. The Indians have a great manager in Terry Francona, great pitching and serious questions about the offense. The Twins came out of nowhere to come up one game short of the playoffs last year and look to be even better this year with the most exciting, young outfield in the game. The White Sox made the most noise in the offseason but still have a terrible defense, which never turns out well unless your playing fantasy baseball.

Predictions: 1) Indians, 2) Royals, 3) Twins, 4) Tigers, 5) White Sox.

AL West- I still can’t get my head around the Houston Astros in the American League, but there is no doubt this team of thumpers and pitchers can play. Texas is strong enough to defend its division title. The Mariners tossed up their whole team like a salad. It could be a nice spring mix if the bats finally meet baseballs. The Angels? Who knows. The team looks average, but manager Mike Scoscia has the magic wondoo of turning average teams into contenders. The A’s may be the one team that shouldn’t compete for a title after imploding their team last year, but the bullpen is stocked with veterans and they have the ever-moving parts that worked for them in years gone by. Don’t sleep on Oakland. I think every team in this league ends up around 85 wins.

Predictions 1) Angels, 2) Texas, 3) Mariners 4) Astros, 5) Oakland

Wild Cards: Red Sox and Royals, which will be an amazingly tense wild card team won only by the mastery of David Price.

American League Champ: Red Sox. (This is my heart talking, but their youngsters come together by mid-season and Big Papi pushes back the sun for one more final taste of post-season heroics on a career that ranks among the best ever for clutch hitting and big-game greatness.

National League:

Much, much easier than the American League where the cream of the Senior Circuit is so much better than the crop.

NL East- Two teams, Washington Nationals and New York Mets. The Mets have ridiculous starters, which despite very little offense made a World Series run last year. The Nationals have been the best team on paper for three years. On the field, they have figured many ways not to lose. The one big change: Manager Dusty Baker who is a base (and life) sage. He’s the difference maker. The Marlins young talent will be tough at times and have big problems and time and end up out of the race.

Predictions 1) Nats, 2) Mets, 3) Miami, 4) Phils, 5) Braves

NL Central- The three-headed monster of Cubs, Cards and Pirates waged an epic battle all the way into the playoffs last year. They are likely to do the same again, but the Cubs look a bit like the Midway Monsters in 2016. A great manager, great talent, veterans who know how to win and a front office that knows all about busting curses from their Red Sox days, all add up to 100 wins.  The Brewers and Reds are in trouble.

Predictions 1) Cubs, 2) Pirates, 3) Cards, 4) Reds, 5) Brewers.

NL West- The second best rivalry in sports, The Dodgers and Giants just keeps getting better. The Dodgers have young phenoms all throughout its farm system and sprinkling through its roster with high-priced all-stars. Injuries have already run roughshod through the roster and the season hasn’t started yet. The Dodgers are going to be a beast when the rest of their young talent arrives and the old guys move on, but this year isn’t it. The Giants, like the Royals, remain underrated but have to be the most feared team in the division. The team knows how to win, has great leaders and a hall of fame manager in Bruce Bochey. The Diamondbacks made all the noise in the offseason, but ask the Padres last year, the Blue Jays before the them, the Marlins before them and on and on of teams trying to buy a championship. It’s a quality roster but with little depth and the stunning loss of A.J. Pollock will test that depth from day one. The Padres haven’t recovered from last year’s debacle and the if the Rockies couldn’t win with last year’s offense, they aren’t going to this year.

Predictions: 1) Giants, 2) Dodgers, 3) Diamonbacks, 4) Padres, 5) Rockies.

Wild Card: Mets v. Pirates. The Pirates finally win a wild card game.

National League Championship: The Pirates, Nationals, Cubs and Giants is a murders row of playoff teams. But the Cubs strikeouts will hurt in the playoffs, the Nationals have failed me twice and karma should keep Bryce Harper out of the World Series forever. The Pirates are due, but the Giants are a complete team unlike their previous even-year championships. What to do? I think the Cubs beat anyone except the Giants, who will exploit their weaknesses. The Pirates have the experience to finally get over the top. But in the end, Dusty gets a bit of revenge over the Giants and finished the job for the Nationals.

Nationals vs Red Sox, and the Nationals win it all.

Only 162 games to go!

 

 

A morning run finished, a milestone awaits

Several years ago, I ran my first half marathon on Easter Sunday, the last day of a long six-month slog through rehab. Next week, I’ll run my fourth half marathon but the first with The Bride. Back then we often dreamed of running together and celebrating health and happiness and sobriety. I ran endless loops around the track envisioning someday when we would run across the Golden Gate Bridge in celebration of God’s redemptive work in my life.

Next Sunday, I’ll realize that goal.

So this Easter Saturday, The Bride and I decided on a fun run as a final day of training.

We hit T minus 7 for the Rock N Roll Half Marathon in San Franciso. We needed a final run just to make sure we were ready for what will surely be a windy, hilly, challenging, trek over the Golden Gate Bridge and into city center next week.

For our final long training run, we wanted to get out early because the damn race starts at 6:30 a.m. The Bride and I run early most morning, but not that early. We need our first cup of coffee and general waking up time before we lace up the shoes. This practice became a key point of emphasis, much to my dismay.

We also wanted to keep moving past as much different terrain as possible. Coit Tower’s Filbert Steps, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf and back up into the center of town. In a word: challenging.

We also wanted it to be fun. So we set the finish line at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse in the Tenderloin, for its famous Cruffins.

A Cruffin at the end of miles through the beautiful city of San Francisco was meant to be a reward.  This might have been the only flaw in otherwise beautiful Saturday morning plan. I felt regret in my gut as we ran by Mama’s in North Beach early on. That should have been the finishing line.

At Mr. Holmes, the wait was long, the cruffin itself a poor proxy for the trend- and taste-setting expertise of the cronut and the unnecessary calories a week before a huge run combined to take the luster off the visit. But hey, at least we can say, “we’ve been there” for whatever that’s worth.

And next week, we will truly cross a landmark off the bucket list. I’ve been sober almost seven years. This run is a highlight of just how unexpectedly wonderful this second chapter of my life has been.

Easter touchstones in my long road to redemption

In this seven-year work of grace and redemption in my life, God has used Easter as a powerful touchstone along the way. I spent the most significant Easter of my life running a personal half-marathon and in fasting the day before my release from prison rehab. Everything I thought God was doing my life was wrong. I could never have predicted the arc of suffering and spiritual work that lay ahead, and that too was grace. Had I known, I may have just surrendered and quit the journey, u-turning back into a bottle of ego and self. But that’s a story for another Easter. This Easter, I celebrate the one before that one. A dark day brightened by a visitation from a humble man of God who I’m blessed to call my friend. In that visitation, God visited me as well, and I re-opened my heart to what God may want from me in this life. This is an excerpt from a book I will soon be releasing on EffinArtist.com.  I wish you a blessed Easter and ears tuned to what the Spirit of God is doing in your blessed life.

*An Easter meditation

My close friend Mike is a conservative. I’m a liberal. Yet we don’t clash over our faith. We celebrate it. It’s why he’s like a brother to me, or, at least, one of a gajillian reasons and why I am like a brother to him.

We were both athletic in our heyday. We’re both driven. We both work with a passion to succeed. I trash talk. I can’t bait him to return the fodder, even though it’s far more his culture as a black man than it is mine. Every time I jab at him he says, “Oh man,” Eyes rolling as a huge smile lights across his face. “Oh man. We’ll see about that. Yes, we will.”

He just won’t take the bait.

A couple of times in the years I’ve known him, I heard him gently suggest I should take a look at my pride. It can trip you up, he’d say.

I’d shirk it off. Pride to me was thinking you’re better than you are. That’s not exactly my thorn of the flesh. I felt confident in my skills and comfortable when others had skills different or better than mine. Ambition shouldn’t be confused with pride, I thought. And it shouldn’t. But he was talking about pride, not ambition, not confidence, not esteem. I should have listened.

Because the next time we talked about it was when Mike came to see me through a visitation window behind bars.

For eight months I had been smashing my head against those walls that hemmed me in. Every ounce of the make-up that is me fired furiously against my powerlessness. A born problem-solver couldn’t solve anything. Anything. And in that conflicted state I grew weary. In the weariness, I opened my ears to the spiritual truths I’d long ignored. In my ears, I heard Mike’s voice. “Be careful brother. Be careful.”

 

As he came to see me we sat across from each other, a glass wall dividing us. He smiled that huge smile. We picked up our phones.

“How did you know it was my pride?” I asked before we even said hello.

He was speechless. Then he laughed. Then he said, “God is good.”

“Yes,” I said “He is he’s pretty tough too. Believe that.”

Mike just shook his head and then looked in my eyes.

“You’re doing good. I can see it.”

“I am. Barely”

Before he left, he vowed to do anything I needed to get on my feet when I get out.

“What is your goal?” he asked. “What do you want to do? I’ll help you.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Let me think about it.”

And I did. Back locked in my cell, I meditated on the question. I breathed it in and out during yoga over and over. I sifted my thoughts. I’ve always just wanted to write books. I wanted to be a daily person of calm for my children. I wanted to be with my wife every single night when my head hit the pillow. This was still what I wanted.

Then I tried to listen. “What is my goal?” I asked.

I recalled a memory verse I learned at 16 years old. It had a tune to it that I recalled. I couldn’t, at first, recall the verse. I took a guess and flipped to Micah. It was right there, where I had left it so many years ago. I picked it up and breathed it in and out the rest of the week.

Mike came back to see me the very next day. Easter Sunday.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Why aren’t you in church with your family?”

He spread his hands wide.

“This is church,” he said into the receiver, looking at me through glass. “You are my family.”

I felt my throat grow tight. He noticed and tried to make easy conversation. I cut him off.

“I know my goal,” I said.

He nodded, go on.

“Micah 6:8, ‘He has shown thee, oh man, what is good and what the Lord requires of thee. But to love Mercy, and to do justly, and to walk humbly with thy God.’”

I could hear that faint crackley, echoey sound that makes visits like these difficult and distant. But this silence transcended the thick glass and the circumstance. This silence allowed God to join our visit, to celebrate Easter Sunday with us.

We didn’t know it, but a lot was born that Easter Sunday. I began my rise from the dead. That alignment of priorities opened the way for God to begin a new, terrible, necessary, painful refinement in my life. Exactly one Easter later I fasted for 24 hours, preparing to leave prison. I thought a new day was about to be born, and I guess it was. But it wasn’t what I had in mind. I was banned from seeing my wife on my release. I was put in a difficult trans-leave program with the odds of success stacked against me. Little did I know it, but I’d return to prison, I’d do the entire sentence all over again without having committed any new crimes, still paying a long, difficult, extreme price for my pride.

But it took all that to learn something of humility that Mike suggested I learn years ago. It took all that to learn fully you have to confront your pride. It took all that for me to align my life with God’s plan, to learn to walk humbly. It took all that for me to accept this new phase, to break through my unwillingness to serve, to let the vision of Criminal U, of service, of reconciliation and reform, to emerge. It took all that for me to find this path.

Finally, Mike broke the silence.

“Yes,” he said “Yes. That’s a good goal.”

It was, one I once believed in. If only I hadn’t left it behind so many years ago. Thank God for a brother like Mike that helped me find it.

Dream big. Live well. Be a success. But always, always, check yourself. Confront your pride. It truly does go before a fall.

An Empty Nest weekend 30 years in the making

I was young when I became a parent. Barely an adult myself. For the last thirty years, kids–first mine, then my friends’, then my niece and nephew came along– have dotted our social landscape.

So it was a bit surprising when I considered that a recent weekend with my brother and sister-in-law and The Bride was the first time we ever did anything simply as couples.

We kept an easy, fun agenda. We shopped a bit, drank coffee, ate well. We wandered around Ketchum, Idaho and Sun Valley, a beautiful place in Idaho where Dr. Rev and his wife chose as a vacation getaway. We hunted down Ernest Hemingway’s memorial and graveyard and considered both his literary genuis and failure to evolve into a different season of life as an older, more frail man.

It was a different kind of getaway, one the four of us haven’t experienced before, but I suspect, something we’ll do again.

I’ve never really understood why so many fear Empty Nest. Things change. I miss my kids every day. But, life has its moments in every season. This one seems to be worth checking out.

The fun of a ‘free’ day

Thanks to the cyber nonsense like Facebook and Google calendars and whatnot, birthdays have become the annual equivalent of haircuts, something you do that can even be kinda of fun, but then everybody feels the need to comment afterward. I’m not a fan of obligatory commentary.

Because of the simple fact that my birthday falls on or around Thanksgiving every year, I keep it relatively under the radar. And because I’m not very cyber-aware, the “masses” usually don’t notice my birthday (or if they do, I don’t notice their tweets and posts. I’m not sure which is which, but it’s fine with me either way). In short, I endure little birthday “commentary” from afar.

Sometimes this neurotic behavior backfires. About a month before my birthday this year I took it off. I carved out an absolutely “free” day. Then I didn’t tell anyone about it. The day before my free day, I discovered everyone I knew had plans. I had no idea what to do with my day and nobody to do it with. Nice planning, I thought.

So I tweaked my thinking. A free day, is a good thing, even if doing it alone. I asked a couple people at work what they’d do with a free day (not revealing it was my birthday). We all agreed finding a new author in a used book store sounded like a start. One of my coworkers said it was about time she read George Elliot. I said I didn’t know him. She said, “he’s a she.” Fascinating. Finding this female George Elliot became the first item on my free day agenda.

Next I got an email from a budding friend who is accomplished, brilliant, cultured, creative, a bit bawdy and fucking interesting. He invited me to dinner or lunch or coffee, by sheer coincidence. He didn’t know it would fall on my birthday. I chose lunch. He chose a hole-in-the-wall Chinese place clear on the other side of town. Perfect. A quest on my birthday followed by lively conversation. Check.

My free day started as it always does, an early morning walk with my dogs, a cup of coffee, the San Francisco Chronicle (in print, thank you very much. I despise digital newspaper as much as I despise haircut commentary). The first texts started to pop up, reminding me people like me. That’s a cheery way to start any day.

The Youngest One woke up and barrelled into my room with loud birthday cheer. Anyone else being loud might have annoyed me, but I’m a fan when any of our kids, no matter how old they get, show exuberance. We are all still pretty much that way on Christmas morning, which is why I’m glad we still spend it together every year. Anyway, she made me the best card ever. The Bride then gave me a great gift. It was barely 7 a.m. and the free day was off to a fine start.

The night before I got a hankering to have a record player. I wanted this for my birthday two years before but forgot to tell anyone and didn’t get it. I decided this year I’d correct that oversight. So after reading the paper, I checked out Amazon Prime. It assured me I’d get my new record player by 8 p.m. that night, so I bought it. I added “buy a record” to my to-do list for the day. Cyber isn’t all bad, I decided.

As the house emptied, I thought, “what now?” I noticed half of a loaf of bread. We had just made peanut butter. Three bananas sat on the counter. I decided to make lunch. I made a few of them. Peanut butter and banana sandwiches, some crackers, a protein bar and fruit. I put the lunches in my backpack and went to Starbucks. I ordered some small coffees. Then I wandered outside for some lunch meetings. I hadn’t gotten very far when a man in a trench coat, rain hat and long flowing gray hair said, “Coffee! How nice.”

I handed him one.

“Huh?” he said. “Seriously, I can have this?”

“Yeah. You want lunch, too?” I said, reaching into my backpack.

We sat and talked awhile. He said he was known as Captain Democracy for all the shit he stirs up. His other name was Robert. I chose to call him Captain. I like shit stirrers. He lived in a SRO in North Beach but said it was “Fucking madness. Nobody has brain in their head, man. I need conversation.”

We didn’t make plans to meet again, but both said we’d run into each other again.

“Let’s grab more coffee next time,” I said.

“Yeah, and some stimulating conversation. It’s madness over there where I live,” he said again as I left.

I’ll keep an eye out for him to make sure I keep my promise for another conversation, I decided. I noted it on my Keep list so I don’t forget because well-intentioned I may be, I forget everything.

Next, The Youngest One texted me to meet her at the coffee shop. She’s buying, she said. “Effin Awesome,” I said. We met. I knew she had places to be yet she took the time to share my free day, which kept getting better and better. We had one of those great conversations that Captain Democracy’s been lacking in his life.

I caught a crosstown bus I’ve never taken before to meet my friend for lunch. It exceeded expectations both regarding food and conversations. Being something of a sapiosexual I could have almost fucked him right there, but lacking any homosexuality, I didn’t. It was a great time all the same. I told him I’m learning Italian so I can someday go to my first opera and understand it. He rose to the challenge, setting next summer as the final exam. He offered to turn me from a classical music Luddite into a student with grace.

Fluent in Italian and the opera, he said, “I will take on your training. You will thrive.”

He sent me away with homework to find a certain record and start listening to it. The quest began.

In all, I hit three bookstores. I then thumbed through a small dent in the more than 50,000 records stuffed into a North Beach shop basement that looked like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.  I had in my possession a book by George Elliot, a book for my daughter, a list of three books I want to find used copies of and four records. On impulse, I broke my eating plan and bought a slice, which I woofed down walking amid hurried commuters trying to get the hell out of the city. I felt thrilled I wasn’t one of them.

On the way into our building, I stopped to chat with Andre the doorman, to try to convince him he could come to Thanksgiving dinner without feeling awkward. Eventually, we agreed that I’d bring him down a plate of dinner and let him eat it in peace. I could relate. I wouldn’t want to meet a bunch of strangers either.  I then told him about my day. It had shaped up into a fine, fine day.

I asked him how Amazon would get in once he left. I worried that my record player wouldn’t arrive, which was my only worry of the day so far. I shouldn’t have. Upstairs and getting ready for dinner out alone with The Bride, the doorbell rang, which never happens. Andre held a box from Amazon and sang Happy Birthday. The whole thing. It was not corny or awkward like it usually is. I wanted to hug him but instead told him thanks.

As I set up my record player, I got a call from a guy I know from rehab. “Should I sing Happy Birthday to you!” he said.

“How did you find out it’s my birthday,” I demanded. He finally copped to a reminder from Google. Those bastards don’t miss anything. They should have called themselves Big Brother. I told my friend I’d hang up on him if he sang. Andre had covered that.

Digression: To properly acknowledge a birthday, send something that was planned at least 48 hours in advance (and make sure it gets there on time) Late really doesn’t count. The event is over, and the satisfaction quotient drops by at least 50 percent. Make it a card. A present. A donation to a cause. A ten spot with a note scrawled on it that says, “blow me today!” Something noncyber. This is the one way to show you had known the person’s birthday before Facebook told you. I received several cards, a couple of books, and a phone call from my father the day before my birthday, of which told him “it’s not my birthday, try again,” and promptly hung up on him. He got it right the next day and won quite a few points for trying, even if he missed by a day.

For me, I am aware of fewer than 10 birthdays, and I often forget half of them. So believe me, I’m not keeping score. Just offering a bit of 20th Century advice for a soulless 21st-cyber century. Rant over.

The Bride and I ate dinner in a small restaurant in yet a different part of town and finished it with a berry shortcake. We didn’t have candles or waiters sing, thank goodness. After talking the dog for a late walk, The Bride kissed me and said, “Happy, Happy Birthday.”

“It was,” I said.

 

 

Rule #5 revisited for #worldkindnessday

In honor of #worldkindnessday I am posting a chapter of my upcoming little book called Rules 101Kindness is a gem of a spiritual gift. I’m in awe of those who seem to come by it naturally. I’m striving to uncover more of it in myself.

May you experience some true kindness today.

Rule #5 Be Kind:

Years ago when I taught high school, I led a tour of a dozen or so students to Washington, DC. I recall much of that trip fondly. The schedule was jammed with museums, historical places, and memorable sights. One stands out, distinctly because it was not enjoyable.

We spent a couple of hours touring the Holocaust Memorial, wandering from exhibit to exhibit, through the vast museum, all of which powerfully conveyed the tragedy of genocide. Few exhibits grabbed the students by the collar and seized their attention like this tour did. It whispered in every ear, “Attention must be paid.” Tears trickled down cheeks. Sweat formed on clammy palms. Our spirits merged and mourned for a people we did not know in an era far removed from ours.

We gathered at the end for a moment of silent
reflection, just our group. I felt the need to say something, yet wondered if this was one of those times to stay out of the way and let each person take a few steps of their own on their spiritual journey. Finally, I took out a big white card and a sharpie and wrote, “Be Kind.” I held it up and said,“If you folks learn anything that lasts on this trip, please learn these two words.”

I’m still working on learning that every day. I hardly knew what I spoke of at the time, but I felt it.

Rule 5

As time passed, I realized that little seed had started to grow. The idea of being kind soon infused much of my response to the world around me. I remained a highly flawed person, full of struggles and failings. But I’ve never forgotten that when in doubt simply try to be kind. I think it became a fundamental aspect of how I saw myself and a standard I could gauge my actions.

If it were easy to be kind, the world would be a gentler place. Kindness remains rare, an endangered species of human behaviors despite bumper stickers that state “Practice random acts of kindness.” Easier said than done, though well worth the effort.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that eventually I found my soul mate in a woman who was, and still is, the kindest person I know. I’m enthralled by her kindness. It’s a perfect rose in the midst of thorns, weeds, and crabgrass so common in our world. The more I’m touched by her kindness, the more I’m determined to find reserves of it within myself.

I truly believe kindness kills cancer and other illnesses. Kindness flows out of us releasing a healing energy within us. It is as important to my day as physical exercise, good, healthy food, vitamins and things that strengthen and challenge my mind.

In my journey through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I learned how resentments formed within us like emotional cancers. They fester and latch on and spread through our souls. Yet the only cure is not what I expected. I assumed I’d eventually have me to go to the people that hurt me and the people I resent and tell them how their actions affected me. Instead, it was the opposite. The steps directed me to make amends to those I hurt. In the steps, I had to be kind. And because the process of making amends will likely take me a decade or more, I constantly have to search my actions for the things I do to hurt others and find a way to respond in kindness. The discipline of kindness results.

As for those who hurt me, I learned two powerful things. First, often they are the same people I hurt. By making amends, I often found remission of the cancerous resentments inside of me. I never saw it coming. I assumed it would work like a children’s sitcom. I’d say sorry; the other person would say sorry, we’d hug, and it would all be better. But it didn’t work that way at all.

In one particular instance, I spent a long, difficult time listening to how I caused pain. I wanted to fight back and defend myself. I felt my hurt rise anew. Instead, I prayed. Then I apologized, and I changed how I acted in ways the person said they wanted.

And that was it. The other person never heard me out. They never apologized. But they felt better. They forgave me. Within a short while, I realized my resentments were gone as well. I just felt the kindness I lacked suddenly emerge. For a long time now it seems to have stuck around. The cancer is gone, kindness in its place. Those unexpressed grievances aren’t that important to me any longer.

The second powerful thing I learned is called the resentment prayer. Alcoholics Anonymous instructs people struggling with resentment, to channel their energy differently. Instead of letting those negative thoughts run on an endless loop in our mind, poisoning our mood and fostering bitterness in our soul, they instruct us to pray for these very people. And the prayer isn’t “Lord, smite these sinners!” No, it’s the opposite. The resentment prayer is a prayer of blessing, more along the lines of, “Lord, you know So and So and how I hope they burn in hell, right? Well, change of plans. I’d like you to bless them. I’d like you to make their lives wonderful and beautiful and free them from all that ails them…”

I admit I prayed these prayers through gritted teeth. But I prayed the prayers. In the days that followed, I felt the grip of resentments lessen. Soon, I rarely thought about these things at all. Eventually, I experienced forgiveness to some degree.

Jesus instructed us to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. I never fully understood why we had to do this until I actually did it.

I learned one other amazing spiritual truth about kindness the deeper I delved into it and sought it for myself. It is one of the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Against such things there is no law,” The Apostle Paul — himself once an angry, hateful dude — wrote to us. Kindness isn’t something only a few wonderful people are born with. It is a gift from God that we all can have if we take the time to ask for it.

The more we receive, the more we give it away and the cycle continues to gain steam producing positive energy that actually can transform a human heart, a relationship, a community and a world.

In every circumstance, in every relationship, in everyday opportunities to respond to our environment will present itself. In each one, as much as possible, give serious consideration to a kind response. At times, the kindest thing will cut like a scalpel. At other times, it will comfort like a mother’s embrace. In all circumstances, it will infuse you with a sense of empowerment.

Remember, be kind.

Waiting again for the miracle

There was a time when I felt mired very close to that place we call “the bottom.” A miracle seemed the best hope, maybe the only hope. I’d try to step outside the mess during that time and somehow imagine my way forward to a life that made sense. It seemed remote at best. Impossible at worst. Time and again I found myself thinking, praying, hoping, even begging for the “miracle” that would set my life to rights.

The miracle came. Undeniably. I can point to it there, there, over there and here, in so many places. I’m sure it came.

But I’m also sure it never once came as I expected. Never once came in the simple math of asked for equals answered prayer, like spiritual equations I’ve heard so many preachers promise. It didn’t arrive like a torrential downpour that made me gaze up to the heavens with a stupid happy expression over the obvious miraculous intervention. I pictured that many times. It never once became a reality.

But here’s the thing: I have no doubt that waiting for the miracle was the right thing to do.  The miracles came like dew. Everywhere, yet hardly noticeable. Constant, yet seemingly evaporating before the day went very far at all.

A skeptic would say they weren’t miracles at all.

Skeptics question all sorts of things that others insist are true, like love, like faith, like “signs” and especially miracles. They are fueled by often being right. Let’s be clear. The skeptics are right far more than they are wrong.

We believers in miracles are often wrong.

I think it’s by design. If miracles were that easy to see, we’d all want them, like a genie in a bottle. We’d miss the giver of the miracles and the reason for the miracles and all the other stuff to be learned. That’s why the saints call faith a “mystery.” We can’t know it all. We see, at best, like a glimpse. We are often wrong about what we see and experience. We are often wrong about our miracles. As I look back over the last decade and beyond, I realize I am most always wrong about what God is up to in any given moment.

It was precisely in recognizing how wrong I was that I began to see the miraculous dew that kept my life fresh and growing and vibrant in ways I couldn’t have dreamed up. God’s plan for me far outpaced even what I could plan for myself when dreaming of a miracle.

So why on Earth would I ever think the miracles stopped? This hit me the other day as I listened to a favorite song from singer Marc Cohn who sang,

Yeah, I’m willing to wait for a miracle
willing to wait it through
willing to wait for a miracle
what else am I gonna do 

I have these issues in my life that seem undone. I convince myself that God planned this life then forgot to deal with some really important shit.  I want to fix it all myself. I want to just finish the job. God then asks, “are you willing to wait for the miracle…?”

In AA they have this phrase: “Don’t give up right before the miracle.” It’s compelling to think about. Discouragment can pile on. The slog of recovery can become what seems like an impossible burden. Addicts think about just tossing it in. At those times if we hold on just a bit more, the miracle arrives.

I know this well. And yet… and yet. I still have to remind myself to be willing to wait for the miracle.

I’m living the miracle every day and yet far too often I’m not nearly as happy about it as I would expect. The pressures of the moment, the lack of perspective, the stress I allow to creep back around the edges, the lack of balance that knocks me off stride all conspire to rob me of joy and hijack the gratitude.

When I Iact ungrateful, I make my life more difficult even as it is infinitely better. I choose to be less than happy because I look around and see the need for more miracles. I get anxious about what I can’t change. I stress that I don’t have a plan better than looking to God and saying, “help.” Even now, that place, that dependence is perhaps exactly what God has in mind. Still.

Though I believe I shouldn’t need the miracle any longer, I do. Because that’s the plan. I may be a long, long way from bottom, but I don’t ever want to be a long, long way from faith in the plan that God has that I can’t see.

So the song reminds me. I am best when waiting for the miracles. I am best when I’m willing to wait it through. With so much evidence of blessedness in my life, what the hell else am I gonna do?