Cutting Cords: The Right Way to Say Goodbye

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Saying “goodbye” and “letting go” are not the same thing.  Knowing the difference can mean everything to you.

Cutting ourselves loose from friends and intimates is something that we all must learn to do at some point in our lives, and it’s one of those things that there are no lessons for.  We inevitably make mistakes.

Saying goodbye is difficult, but being said goodbye to is much harder, and that is what makes saying goodbye so hard to do.  Deserved or not, we are all reluctant to hurt another.  We tell ourselves it is for fear of reprisal and discomfort, but that’s not really true is it?  We’re really afraid of being wrong, of hurting a good soul wrongly.

I hardly need to say that there are sound reasons for us to say goodbye to another, of removing him or her from our lives.  People who hurt us, physically, mentally, emotionally, or those who are a danger to our growth and happiness must be removed—that‘s the no-brainer of goodbye.

Other times, we must accept the fact that we will grow apart from people we’ve had significant relationships with, and understand when someone no longer positively affects our lives.  We owe it to ourselves not to let them hinder our growth.

As you move forward in life, you may need to change your circle of friends.  Everyone around you isn’t interested in seeing you improve.

Still others may be positive forces in your life that you do not yet understand.  Those that challenge you, lead you to face your demons, love you deeper than platitudes, or offer you things you are not ready for.  These can be family, friends, or lovers.  Saying goodbye to these important people can be more dangerous for you than any of the others.  But how do you know?

The worst goodbyes are the ones that neither of you choose; circumstance does the choosing.

My childhood friend Pete was taller than I, a grade up from me, and went to a different elementary school.  He was raw, guileless, and wildly creative; we were thick as thieves.

With Pete nothing was as it was, it was always something greater.  I grew up in a rural suburb adjacent to a dairy farm and endless pastures.  Pete lived just up the road.  We were cornstalk fighting ninjas; jungle explorers searching for a lost Goddess; spear throwing aboriginals who flung thoughts with our spears; we braved bat nests and climbed mythic trees; we spent our idle times wondering what the world would be like if we lived it upside down, what colors smelled like and how sound tasted.  Pete and I ruled our hundred-acre wood.  We would return at dusk for dinner, drenched in glories.

There were only two summers before Pete’s family moved to Massachusetts. It may as well have been Asia.  Our parents weren’t close friends and in those days, the only choice for a kid was pen pals.  We both knew it wouldn’t due and agreed not too.  I stood at the end of his driveway as he jumped into the rear of their packed station wagon.  As the window closed I heard him say, “Aw.. goodbye Gar.”  I never heard anything so final.  He put his hands on the glass as they drove away—and the cord snapped.  I kicked the roadside gravel all the way home in the late August dust.  I never saw him again.

To this day, that is the image my mind carries as “goodbye”.

Even as an adult, I look to my friendship with Pete for teaching me where I thrive…imaginative, playful souls who cannot forget the child inside.  My profession in the arts allows me to collect them, which is a privilege, but true connections are still rare.

When I grew up, goodbye was as final as a gunshot, if you didn’t have a number or address that was it.  Today our vast virtual connections soften goodbye and makes it too easy a choice.  We no longer need to decide, we just fade.

The saddest goodbyes are the ones never spoken.  The ones where you never get to hear your crime; what you said, what you did, why you weren’t enough.  There is a great difference between hurt and damage.  This goodbye does damage.  It is a cruelty that exposes what you are left to conclude was a lie; that you were ever truly close, that you ever truly mattered enough to warrant their discomfort.  A goodbye needs to be spoken; there is no other way.

s goodbye.jpgA woman I once loved beyond measure told me this before she left my life, “I have decided that you will be alright, that you will find someone just like me and that you will be fine, I know it.”  As hard as it was to hear, it was one of the kindest, most loving things anyone has ever said to me.  She knew the right way to say goodbye and cared enough to do it.  It was her words that allowed me to move on.

Unspoken goodbyes land in me as betrayal.  I’ve had my share.

I remember my first marriage counseling session, where after an initial forty-five minutes of me brightly bringing him up to speed on my life, my work, friendships and relationships (who doesn’t like to talk about themselves, right?), I looked up and saw him staring at me, then he said,

“Wow.  So.  You’ve dealt with a lot of betrayal in your life…”

“Say What?”  It was an eye opener for me.

There was no sense or use in wearing that as an identity, but I have become smarter about recognizing it and learned that it is the denial of it that is dangerous.  I know its effect now too, for me, it makes me numb and drains all the color from a person.  (This feeling is ungood and unfair.  Sometimes those who are heartless once cared too much.)

I will always choose to be hurt rather than betrayed.  I think anyone would.

No matter if goodbye is your choice or another’s, you still both share it.  It creates an absence only; it is then up to you to resolve it.  Saying goodbye is different than letting go.  You’re never done until you have cut the cords that connected you and bound you to each other.

Unresolved goodbyes eat your cells.  They create a “dis-ease” and a host of stresses and mind-body trauma that many believe creates disease.  In any case, it is decidedly unhealthy and must be dealt with.  Literally dealt with, not mused over, denied and forgotten—that will put you in a cancer ward.

cords.jpgThere is an ancient Hawaiian ritual called “Ho’oponopono” that I have used.  It is considered a forgiveness ceremony.  It is somewhat complicated and counter-intuitive so I won’t attempt to explain it here, but suffice it to say that these cords cannot be cut with anger, fear, or resentment.  They can only be cut with love, compassion, and forgiveness.  This is the way to let go.  (Nothing is easy is it? Yeah, tell me about it.)

There is an advantage here, however, so cut those cords, cut all of them and don’t worry about whether you are wrong about goodbye or not, because an extraordinary thing will happen if you are.  The cords you truly need will grow back.  You may or may not have that person in your life again, as you or they choose, but those cords that represent truth will always reach and find their way back.  Love is not diminished, like Shakespeare said, “It is an ever-fixed mark, that looks upon tempests and is not shaken.”

Don’t mistake this for an addiction to self-damage by way of repeated attraction to dangerous or abusive people.  You must learn to discern this for yourself, and if you are one who does it—you must stop that.

I do a lot of reassessing after New Years so I’ve been thinking about all of my goodbyes, the ones I would be glad to have back and the ones I am glad I don’t.  All of them, all together are easy now to picture.  We are all within social media’s easy reach (though I have yet to find Pete).  There are a number of them I have reclaimed, and still others I know I will yet. Even those that have passed on; I can still feel their presence.  They’re all still here.  So what is real, what is permanent?

If we could be honest with ourselves and face down the real lie, we would know this:

There is no such thing as goodbye.

There is only hello.

Where, and when, and whether you say it is always up to you.

 

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As I have been thinking of my “disconnections” recently, a Beatles song keeps playing in my head—not “Let it Be”—it’s called “Hello, Goodbye”.

 

 

What the World Needs Now: 9 Ways to Develop Empathy

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Empathy is part of our humanity, allowing us to organize ourselves into community and create society; we all have the ability to empathize, but to what extent do we use it? There’s the rub.

Empathy is the feeling and experience that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings, even if they are far removed from your own.

Empathy in business and communication has recently become a new buzzword; one can readily find people teaching techniques to increase one’s ability to use empathy for one’s self and others. (Not surprisingly, they have found a way of monetizing it.) I’ve been doing some research on this and my personal reaction has been, “What the fuck, you mean people don’t already know how to do this!?” Apparently not.

I have always been afflicted with this ability (and you’ll see why I ruefully use that term later on), so it has been hard for me to realize that it is not as pervasive as I have assumed. How easy it is to simply assume that everyone else holds an ability that you find natural?

One evening, when I was just out of college and pursuing my plan of being a famous comedian, I had an extreme experience of empathy that taught me a lot. I was living in a rented room at a friend’s house, broke, in the midst of a college town in Syracuse New York. Barely surviving, head full of dreams; I took a walk one balmy evening down a quiet street of lovely turn-of-the-century homes that knew generations of families long forgotten, now used for frats and college life, and some few families still raising their children as their immigrant elders did. It was dusk, just that time when the lights from within each house illuminated the rooms inside, allowing you that accidental glimpse of the lives they harbored.

I loved looking inside as I passed. Like a wind-blown skirt exposing a hidden thigh, I couldn’t help but look. I loved environments and what they revealed of the lives that created them. As each one passed, I’d step further outside of myself and into those rooms; the pictures on the walls, the keepsakes on the mantles, the arrangement of furniture, the mislaid clothing, all drew me into the feeling that they were my home. This favorite chair was mine, that picture full of my memories; before long I could see a half-open bathroom door and know that behind it was a bathrobe, a belt hanging, and a cap on the hook behind it, out of my view but known to me. I felt the people who lived there as if they were I; all of the joys, the troubles, the love, back through time, were mine, were me.

I was overtaken that evening by a genuinely indescribable feeling, uncoveyable—but I will try. Each of these houses were like illuminated books on the self of a great library; rows of cardboard comfort, and I knew all of the lives, all of it, and I made the singular realization that, “everything was alright.” Not only that, but everything had always been alright, and everything always would be. All at once, the light of every hearth was made known to me; I stopped, doubled over, my knees weak, my breathing difficult and halting, my vision blurred and my head (and heart) felt like it was about to explode. The best way to describe it is that it was the exact polar opposite of an anxiety attack. I almost fell to me knees but managed to stay standing. When it subsided, I thought, “I am standing in ‘town center’ of college coed angst, depression, and uncertainty, and here I am blissing-out over interior decor—what a weirdo.” Such is the power of empathy.

All of us have the ability to empathize, but some of us are what they call an empath. (Also known as clairsentient.) It took me a long, long time to recognize and deal with this. There are people who can teach you how to cope with this, but most empaths have to figure it out for themselves. I am not a true empath; I have some annoyingly pronounced empathic tendencies. There are really very few empaths around—only a tiny percentage of the population.

empath 2.jpgEmpaths can have a difficult time in life if they don’t recognize themselves as such and understand it. They must learn how to work with their clairsentient ability without getting overwhelmed, and need to accept that they have a more sensitive nervous system and that this has implications for how they lead their life.

Here are the traits of an Empath: See if any of these sound familiar to you. If they do, I recommend researching how to control the skill:

  • Random mood swings even though you have no idea why. You search for possible reasons why you may be feeling the way you do and attach labels that don’t really fit. (You don’t realize that they are not your emotions; you are feeling the emotions of others.)
  • In crowds, your emotions run high and change often–you get anxiety-ridden, panicky, frustrated, angry. You may want to be in a large crowd, but every time you do, you end up feeling tired (and it’s because you emotionally run a marathon of different emotions).  You can even feel physically ill or have intense headaches.
  • People seek you out to confide in you.
  • People like being around you, but every time they are, they end up talking about their problems/issues and yet, your problems/issues are rarely spoken of, if at all.
  • You have a need to make everyone feel better/feel happier and take steps to make it happen.
  • You somehow just “know” what people need to hear in order to feel better about themselves.
  • You have difficulty expressing your own emotions and much prefer to focus on someone else.
  • You often ignore people’s bad treatment of you–explaining it away because they need you, and on some level, that’s enough for you.
  • You are the natural healer, helper & you always sacrifice for others. You NEED to help people. (This is because their need and pain feels like your own.)
  • You are a magnet/receptacle for negative energy. Not because you started out feeling negative, but because others need a place to put their negative energy (and there you were, ready to receive it!).
  • You don’t like feeling bad/down/negative/sad, but you feel resigned & believe it to be part of your lot in life.
  • You are the natural animal lover! You love animals–they make you feel happy and a love that feels like pure innocence.
  • You are a “nature baby.” Being in the country, by the water, at the beach, a good rainstorm, etc.–anything to do with nature brings you a sense of peace that you just crave.
  • Those you love feel physically connected to you, even when miles apart. You can suddenly feel strong shifts in emotions; good or bad that you know are theirs.
  • You can sometimes see emotions in the form of colors or auras.
  • You struggle with setting boundaries because the disappointment, anger and grief (and other emotions) of other people impacts you deeply. It seems that, no matter what you do, it’s always lose-lose for you. Either you stand up for yourself, and get overwhelmed by the negative reactions of others, or you do what they want and don’t feel good about yourself.
  • Your body often feels icky, murky, dark and unpleasant, even if you have no medical condition to attribute those feelings to. For that reason, you like to do things that take your attention away from being physically aware of how your body feels.

These traits do not make an empath, rather empaths generally exhibit some or all of these traits. If you recognize some of these, you may have a strong empathetic tendency or nature.empathy 3

People who are naturally and consistently empathetic can easily forge positive connections with others. They are people who use empathy to engender trust and build bonds; they are catalysts that are able to create positive communities for the greater good. These are the people who inspire others; people tend to refer to them as “a light”, “an inspiration”, “a gift”. They tend to bring people together and bring out the best in people, without really trying. But even if empathy does not come naturally to some of us, we can develop this capacity.

If you don’t recognize many of the above traits, here is how you can increase your ability to empathize with others.

  1. Listen – truly listen to people. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to others’ body language, to their tone of voice, to the hidden emotions behind what they are saying to you, and to the context.
  2. Don’t interrupt people. Don’t dismiss their concerns offhand. Don’t rush to give advice. Don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.
  3. Tune in to non-verbal communication. This is the way that people often communicate what they think or feel, even when their verbal communication says something quite different.
  4. Practice the “93 percent rule”. We know from a famous study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, when communicating about feelings and attitudes, words – the things we say – account for only 7 percent of the total message that people receive. The other 93 percent of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language.
  5. Be fully present when you are with people. Don’t think of your response while listening to them. Don’t check your email, look at your phone or take phone calls. Put yourself in their shoes; listen as if it is you who is speaking.
  6. Smile at people.
  7. Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, when they speak up. A simple thing like an attentive nod can let them know you understand them.
  8. Give genuine recognition and praise. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things. When you give praise, spend a little effort to make your genuine words memorable: “This was pure genius”; “I would have missed this if you hadn’t picked it up.”
  9. Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and have genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions and so understand their challenges, their families, and their aspirations.

The bonds that connect empaths to others are not mere metaphors; they have power, they are actual, visceral, energetic bonds. These connections have real physical/emotional consequence, and can be confusing and problematic for the unwary Emp. Though few have this ability (or affliction, as I jibed earlier), all of us can learn the positive aspects of empathy and use it to make a better society and a better world.

If we can all learn to step outside our own perceptions, beliefs, attachments and behaviors, and seep into those of another, even if we do not agree, and can see, if only for a moment, the world through their eyes and in a compassionate light, we can understand them—and through understanding comes harmony.

Empathetic people are precious and important. Be one.

When we look at the news today, and witness the hatred, intolerance, violence and unconscionable lack of compassion in the world, it is easy to hear the words of that famous 1960’s song sung by Dionne Warwick, “What the world needs now, is love sweet love…”

We can always use more love in the world, but what we really need now is EMPATHY.

“It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…”

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Helping Hands: 9 Ways Helping Others is Not Good.

helping hands4 (1)In Catholic school first grade, they taught us about sin.

Sister Mary Somethingorother drew a picture of a soul on the chalkboard that looked just like the outline of a t-shirt. Then she made little specks, like stains on a shirt, and called them Venial Sins; these were little sins like lying or picking on your little brother. These, she said, God would forgive if we did our penance for it. Then she turned the chalk on its side and made a big blob and told us this was a Mortal Sin, like killing someone (or spilling a bowl of soup on your shirt–presumably); these, she said, God would never forgive and he (always “he”) would send us to Hell where we would burn in fire and agony for all of eternity with no hope of ever getting out.

Not meaning to be cheeky, but nonetheless compelled, I asked her, “Why is it that God asks us to forgive others no matter what, but he never forgives people who do mortal sins?” She looked at me crossly and said, “Because you are not God, Master Izzo.” I think that was the moment that Catholicism fell apart for me. (I’m not a dogma kind of guy, though I respect those who are.)  I did, however, become more careful when eating soup.

With five other siblings, my mother gave us baths in groups of three until we were too old for that sort of thing. Being a middle kid, I always got the shallow end; it was a big deal for me when I finally got to take a bath alone. I loved baths. The tub became an entire universe all my own, a place to think and imagine. I would keep adding hot water as it got tepid, keeping it as hot as I could stand it. Sometimes I’d overdo it, get dizzy, and experience an excruciating thirst. I would run the cold water in a tiny stream and put my mouth under the faucet, letting the cold-water trickle down my throat—it was true bliss! Really, there’s nothing like it. If you’ve ever stayed too long in a hot tub and reached for an ice-cold beer, you know what I mean!

As I did this, I would think about the souls in Hell, of what it must be like to be burning alive and to have that agony for all of eternity. Trying to imagine what eternity would be like, and burning for that long would blow my little catholic boy mind. I mean, would you get used to burning after a few centuries? Would they make it so that you couldn’t ever get used to it? How could anyone ever do something bad enough to deserve that? I thought that they must be very, very thirsty.

So as the cold water trickled down, I would ask God to send my cold drink to one of the souls in Hell. I would say, “I know that I am enjoying this—and oh man is it good—but I’m asking you please to send this feeling to just one (or maybe two?) of those burning people in Hell.” I did this at every bath for some time.

My saintly reverie would eventually be interrupted when my mother walked down the hall and banged on the door, realizing I was still in the tub.

(Bang-bang-bang!) “Gary! Are you still in there!? Come out of there before you turn into a prune! What are you doing in there so long?? “

(Defying your God and sending a cold drink to those poor bastards he locked away in Hell.) “Nothin’.”

I never asked anything from those anonymous souls, or from God or anyone else for my help–I just wanted to do it. I thought that God wouldn’t be too happy about my request seeing as how he sent them there in the first place, and that I would probably have to pay for it somewhere down the line, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to help.

I have a strong resonance with “lost souls”, always have; not sure why. I’m not saying that their damned, but I think maybe that’s the connection, literally—like a cord. I found that if you put enough lost souls in one place, they’re not lost anymore. You get a kind of Neverland.

I’ve also found that having a helpful nature isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least not for the unwary.

I get to help a lot of people in my work in the theatre, I guess that’s one of the reasons I chose it. I’m no Mother Teresa, but I’ve done well; I’ve saved careers, relationships, probably even lives. I’ve also lost a great many precious things for myself by helping in the wrong way.

Nobody likes needing help; nobody likes asking for help. I definitely include myself in this.  We all like to imagine that where we have come, and who we have become, is the sole result of our own work and effort. We work hard, that should be enough, right? True, everything we are is the result of our work—no one can do that work for us. But who grants us the opportunity to do the work, the tools to work, how to work those tools, guidance on which direction to work to meet our own self-appointed outcomes? The reality is that none of us gets anywhere without allies, those around us that for some reason unknown to us, or perhaps even to themselves, are compelled to help us out.

Accepting help can be dangerous. Manipulation often disguises itself as aid and support from those who seek to take advantage of us. And worse, this isn’t always done with malicious intent. Some people engage in helping others in order to prove their worth to themselves without ever realizing it, and this can also be unhealthy.

I’ve been a White Knight, a Rescuer, and a Fixer; the hell they have wrought in my life cured me of these things long ago. I have nothing to prove anymore, and I am well convinced of my worth.

Why did helping certain people cost me so dearly?

I remember many times determining to help someone, knowing that they needed help; knowing I had the ability and power to help them, knowing that their particular outcome didn’t matter to me, that it was their outcome, their choice not mine; knowing I would have to challenge them harshly; knowing it would be difficult for them, knowing that I would never really matter to them, even knowing I would be resented for it, and realizing that I would forfeit any connection I would have to what I saw as a beautiful human being. I would hear the voice in my head asking me:

“Are you really willing to give this person up, just to help them?”

I would answer in what I thought was a pure expression of love, “Yes. Yes I am. Let’s go.”

Thus, I would throw myself on a bed of swords for someone I hardly knew, but valued highly, then wonder how doing good for another should leave me feeling so empty. I would do this over and over again, realizing each time that it earned me only their resentment, and a subtle, uncomfortable sense of their feeling indebted to me, neither of which I sought. How could I even be sure that they wouldn’t have gotten there without my help? Was it even worth it? Who am I to assume I can make a difference? I’m not God; I’m just a kid in a bathtub.

The vessel I used to hold these awful things, things I once believed to be the necessary residue of selfless, unconditional kindness, is finally full. I’ve had enough. I’ve lost too much that is precious to me. This isn’t noble; it isn’t kind; it is a fruitless act of compassion–like catching tears in the rain. I’m not sure what to do with this giant cup of resentment guck now that it’s full–though it might make a nice fertilizer for the garden.

It had to be full, of course, before I could hear the answer to my question. Why does helping cost me so much? It came not long ago, at great cost, in six simple, honest words: “I never asked for your help.”

helping-handThe realization was swift and painful. I had never heard that before, and I never stopped to consider how demeaning it is to help someone in need without his or her permission. Our quests, our struggles, and our challenges are not just obstacles, they are also gifts. Although we may never navigate them all without allies, and the love and support of others, there are some that we need to overcome ourselves. They are for us alone to rise to, and help unasked for only takes from us the lessons they carry.

I want to ask forgiveness from everyone I ever helped without their permission, and in so doing disrespected them, and made them feel inadequate by robbing them of their right to struggle and suffer. I am sorry. I never meant any harm.

I am creating some new paths for myself as a result of this great insight that I no doubt should have realized years ago. I have a new set of rules for helping others. They’re not standard fare, but please consider them carefully, before you dismiss any of them.

  1. Never help a person who does not truly want help. (If they don’t want to obtain a new outcome, then no matter how much you help, it won’t make any difference anyway.)
  2. Never help a person unless they ask for help (If they can’t ask for help, it means they have a lesson they need to learn, don’t take that from them.)
  3. Never offer help without their offering something in return. (Their offer needn’t be much at all. It is the offering that is important. I’m not speaking of charity here so don’t misunderstand. Their offer is not for you the helper’s sake, but for theirs. )
  4. Stop helping if another does not at least offer you gratitude. (Gratitude should not be the reason you help, but not showing gratitude is your clue that they are not asking for your help.)
  5. Never help a person who only wants help and not a new outcome. (Some people are addicted to Need, they are black holes that will consume your soul, stay away from them!)
  6. Never help too much. (Always putting others first teaches them that you come second.)
  7. Remember that a person’s potential is not who they are now. (See the best in a person, but don’t assume they can give that to you.)
  8. Never help without permission.
  9. Stop catching tears in the rain.

My daughter loves baths too. We used to have many long, crazy bath-time adventures together. It’s sad to think she is getting too old for that. I would have to add hot water several times on the longer ones. Her idea of hot is nothing like mine, but she would occasionally get overheated and very thirsty. She had a plastic measuring cup that somehow became a bath toy, and would thrust it at me and ask,

“Daddy, could you get me some cold, cold, cold, cold water in this, I am dying of thirst!”

I would rinse it in the sink and let the cold water run a while to fill it. Her eyes would roll back in her head as she drank it down.

“”Aaahaaaa… Oh my gosh that feels good!”

“I know… isn’t that great?”

“You know what daddy? If someone was dying of thirst in the desert, I would give them this.”

“I know you would sweat pea.” Then she would ask,

“Daddy, can I have some more?”

And I knew exactly what she was thinking.

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What I Love About Being 50-Something

Old man faceLife: They say the first 100 years are the hardest. I’m roughly half way there, and so far they’re right, but that doesn’t account for the whole adventure.

The average life span of a person only a few hundred years ago would have me looking at the end right now. Maybe that’s why I feel like I’m only beginning; like there is still room for a whole new life to start and end before curtain time on this story.

I am fed up with people my age believing that being half way through life means being half dead.

From where I am now, I hear more and more people my age bitch about the aches and pains and maladies on bodies they themselves neglected and betrayed, bitch about their lost opportunities and failed dreams and ignore the new ones in front of them while they bathe in “too late to start now,” bitch and lament about the failed relationships they find again and again because they never looked at themselves honestly and did the work to change the damaging patterns they cling to.

I see them looking back in mourning at the life they saw from their 20’s and 30’s, so bright with potential, pitying themselves on the tiny corner of “enough” they allowed life to beat them into — still, static, rhythmic ASLEEP. I see them carrying on their shoulders the bulging, useless pile of baggage they never let go of, the old pain, limited beliefs, harbored grudges, the guilt and shame of old selves they never discarded, all dragged along in an eclectic pile of musty un-forgiveness.

They talk of aging as though it’s a blight, a disease, a feebly concealed sin. They enable their self-desertion by hiding behind the hoax of a “culture only for the young.” They buy the lie that “age” is anything more than a number, and miss the truth that the only thing that separates the old from the young is experience.

I revel in my experience. My age is a right, a privilege, and a gift; it is a wealth and a mystery and a prize, age is the dreams of youth come true.

I first learned the hard lessons of letting go of what burdened my joy, ate my soul, and stole my innocence, back in my early twenties. It gets harder as you go. What I used to have to let go of in a year, I now must do every month; I do it daily, just to stay in shape, to stay clear and AWAKE. Like an aging athlete, I work harder just to stay fit. I reinvent, and reinvent, and reinvent.

And I love it.

I love being “old”. I love my experience. My breadth of accumulated knowledge and experience is a super power. I can use it to heal, to guide, and to enlighten others. I can solve problems others cannot, understand to a depth I never could, explain what I could never articulate, defend what I never knew was worthy of defending; I have a perspective wider than I could have dreamed, a compassion greater than I could have known, and understanding, acceptance, and love of myself that lets me be genuine and available and vulnerable and brave.

I love that I can say the hard things to someone I love because they need to hear it, even if it means losing them, that I am actually able to love without condition, to love those in pain when it is so fucking hard to love them, to have the courage to be hurt for the prize of experiencing love to my core, that I can walk upright with a broken heart, certain it will mend itself in time.

I love that I have died a thousand deaths, cast away a thousand Gary’s, but can still dig down through the old layers, the archaeology of who I am, to comprehend the fullness of my landscape without reliving the pain of the past.

I love what I have seen in my time, that I have witnessed the arc of culture and stood in the footprints of change. I love that I can know my contribution, that I can point to the tiles in the mosaic of the evolving world and say, “That bit there, that is mine!”

I love that I do not feel old, that I understand that now is always Now, that age is a myth and time is an illusion. I love that I feel 20-something, but don’t have to relive 20-somethng.

I do not feel old, I feel immortal.

My last wish on the last day of my life is to be able to still want more.

Looking back at 20-something from 50-something, I am grateful and humble and honored at my place, and I can’t wait to look back from 150-somethng.Old woman face

A Greater Voice: The Power of Our Intention

angel-gabriel-1986When I was five years old I was suddenly tired all the time, then I got a bad cold. After a week in bed, I was taken to the doctors and ended up in the Children’s ICU at a hospital in Rochester, NY. I had contracted mononucleosis complicated with double pneumonia. I stayed there for a month, and I left with not only my health, but also a strange experience and an early lesson I have kept with me.

In my family, you pretty much had to have a limb dangling in order to be taken to the doctor’s. My mother was not big on doctors. When I was thirteen I broke my back playing football. I lived on the couch for weeks before I could walk; Mom never took me to get it checked so I only learned years later that I had broken a piece of my lower vertebra off and that my body had eventually dissolved it.

I had two younger sisters and two very loud older brothers then, so I was very happy for the quiet, and more than a little happy with all the attention. There was only one other boy in the ward; his name was Robbie. Robbie had a tracheotomy, and once he could talk we had many pleasant conversations between nurse and doctor visits and being hauled out for x-rays and tests. I was always better one on one. My bed was right by the door and there was a picture window on the wall alongside it, allowing me to watch the comings and goings in the hall when they didn’t have the curtain drawn.

Robbie left after one week, but I had to stay, having only gotten worse. (I still wonder what became of Robbie; he was a fine fellow.) I was alone the rest of my time there. Funny how you don’t retain the parts that hurt when you are that young. Between painful shots of vitamin C in my butt each day (I remember that part), and a nose so continually stuffed that my upper lip was bloody and blistered from blowing, I had a delightful time of it. I had plenty of attention and felt kind of special; I didn’t get that at home.

The long hours and days were filled with the singular bliss of reading my Little Golden Books! You may remember Little Golden Books, they were a popular children’s book series with cardboard covers and a distinctive gold-leaf spine. Every time my parents visited, they asked me if there was anything I needed, the only reply I remember was, “More Golden Books!” The long days were filled with pouring over them again and again. I amassed quite a stack of them. They lived by my side in my bed at all times. I would wake up a lot during the night, and they were my constant companions.

As weeks went on, my condition worsened. My nose and sinus had gone completely solid. I thought I must have been getting better because I didn’t have to brave the blisters and blow my nose anymore. One day the doctor came in with a bunch of nurses and my mother. He was carrying a length of wire that was glowing red-hot. He explained what he needed to do and promised me he would not touch the wire to my skin, and then proceeded to put the wire up one nostril then the other, straight up into my sinus. It smoked, and it sizzled inside my head. It was not at all comfortable, but true to his word, he never burned me.

Some time after that, the doctor called my parents, who were both visiting together, out into the hallway. I watched them through the window talking, but could not hear what they were saying. I remember noticing that my parents looked very serious, and when they came back in to say goodnight seemed unusually nice, said a lot of nice things to me that I don’t remember, and didn’t seem to want to leave. They promised that they would be back first thing in the morning, and kept asking if I’d be alright. “Why wouldn’t I,” I thought, “I’ve got my books, I’m fine”

Years later, my mother told me that the doctor had told them that I probably would not make it. It must have been a hard night for them, but my night was quite different.

The late nurses were gone, the dim lights were on, and I was completely alone and awake in the middle of the night, my trusty Golden Books by my side, just looking around the room when I heard a voice. It is difficult to describe the sound of it. It was at once the most powerful and the gentlest voice you could imagine; I thought of it as a male voice, but it was neither male nor female, it was every voice; it was a great voice. It was not a voice in my head; it was outside of me and filled the room. It seemed to come from behind and above me, I remember looking to see what was there, but there was only the wall.

It called me by name, and I asked it if it was God. I don’t remember the answer, but my little catholic brain concluded that it must be God. It explained to me that I was very very sick and that I was not getting better. The doctors were doing everything they could, but they could not do it without my help. It said that it understood how comfortable I was here, but that I was not doing my part. The only specific words I retained was this sentence, “It is not enough that you are comfortable, you must try little one, you must try to get better.” It made me promise that from here I would pay attention to this and that I would remember that I must try to get better.

I promised.

I got better.

I was elated and didn’t sleep the rest of the night. I couldn’t wait to tell my mother, that God talked to me last night and told me that I had to get better and that I was going to get better. My mother was a devout Catholic, and I can’t imagine what she must have thought of this; I never got to ask her.

Years later I asked a well-known trance psychic about this during a reading and he said “Yes, call it the Angel Gabriel if you like, there are those who look after us and he is the one who sends us messages when we most need them, this is why he is depicted with a horn.” I am not a devout Catholic, but I practice openness devoutly enough to be certain that there are greater voices to be heard and heeded. Certainly this was. And, to be honest, I kind of like the idea that the Angel Gabriel came down to blow his horn for me.

There have often been times in my life when things worked well enough, and I settled into a kind of complacency that kept me in one place, not happy, only merely content. It is always then that things fall apart, forcing me to remember my promise.

Life will never happen to you without the power of your own intention. Had I not heard that greater voice, I would not be here to tell you this: “It is not enough that you are comfortable, you must try little one, you must try to get better.”

I will try.

I am trying.

I have done.

A Dandelion in Winter: How I learned that breaking the rules matter.

Dandelion field 2I am discontent in winter. It’s the death; everything is dead. Dormant, yes, I know, but it’s death to me, and my psyche struggles here in the bowels of February. When this happens it will reach of its own accord to memories of sun and earth and life.

Sister Leona was Hawaiian. She was small, with a flat brown face and round, kind eyes. She was my second grade teacher at the Immaculate Conception Grade School, and other than my ongoing debate over which of the Bodie twins I had the bigger crush on, was my only fond memory.

She was different than all the other nuns there, steal-toed, white-knuckled, bitter women, bent on a wayward course of love through discipline and sacrifice. I survived five years of uniforms, clip ties, ridged single-file lines that followed black habits to silent afternoons of forced reverence, bloodied hands (yes, they did that then), and a catechism that was lost on me from the start.

Sister Leona had a quiet sweetness about her, and she played the Ukulele for us, a large Baritone one that made her look even smaller. She did not fit in there.

It was June. We counted the days to summer and freedom, and we burned for the outdoors. On one spectacular day, we sat at our desks with our proper posture and folded hands, looking jealously out the windows at the recess yard behind the school as she entered the classroom. She took her customary place by her desk, but instead of speaking she just stared at us. She stood quietly regarding her class until the last head turned from the windows to see why she had not begun. Then she said, “Line up class, and follow me.” Then she picked up her Ukulele and went to the door.

We followed her into the hallway and out the front doors of the school, a path unheard of unless there was a fire drill, which there was not. Sister Leona’s second grade class followed her down the walk, across the parking lot and onto the lawn of the convent, then behind it. The sun and the scent of spring soon washed away our whispered questions, and we followed the tiny shrouded figure into the woods.

We emerged from the trees, still in single-file, and stood at the edge of a secluded glade no more than a few acres long and completely surrounded by trees. It sloped gently to the south like an ocean swell. What we saw there, I have never seen since. We stood like pilgrims at the Elysian Fields gaping at an awe-inspiring field of Dandelion.

They stood nearly as tall as we, and blanketed the field in an unbroken, sun-drenched, dazzling yellow tide. You could burry a yardstick in them. I have never seen them so tall. They were packed like wheat the length and breadth of the entire field. We were second graders and about four feet tall, and we could stretch our arms out straight from our shoulders and tickle our palms with the soft yellow canopy.

The silent questions were now voiced, “Sister Leona, what is this, why are we here, what are we supposed to do now?” She smiled and nodded toward the field, “Let’s go!” and waded in with her Ukulele.

The field was pristine, it was easy to tell that no one had been there before or had walked among those flowers, or if anyone even knew they were there. I have thought since about how she didn’t seem to fit in with the other sisters or enjoy the stiff protocols of the school, and how she must have wandered the convent grounds in meditation over questions I will never know. She must have come upon that glade in her wanderings. Whatever she saw there, she must have been thinking of us, because she left it untouched.

The line broke, and with screeches of delight we plowed into the flowers. Some walked alone picking armfuls of dandelions and flung them in the air, others jumped and rolled and tunneled, then huddled together to make nests. We lied in them looking up at the perfect sky, thumbs against the sun, talking and laughing, and guessing at cloud shapes. Sister Leona gathered us after a while and sang songs from Hawaii, only now we learned them and sang with her.

She taught us how to make leis with the dandelions we’d harvested for her. The way we knew each other as classmates ended and we became children again, and friends for the first time. The popular girls championed the lei-making, and helped the boys, who forgot all about their feigned irreverence. They made sure that every shy girl and fat boy wove as well as the rest, there were no loners that day.

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She talked about her home, and the ocean, and we wondered together how the field would look when the dandelions went to seed—a million new wishes waiting to be blown on the wind. We were her dandelions.

Leona is a Hawaiian name, it means “lioness.” This one broke every rule we had learned, and taught us the proper way to value what really mattered. This, it seemed, was her plan.

Whatever questions lead her to that field; I believe that we were among them. I also believe that I had the privilege that day to play in Leona’s miracle.

She did not stay long at the convent. Some years later I heard that she returned to her home in Hawaii, and there the sea took her back.

I never shook the image of a Ukulele floating on the water.

I’ve had many teachers, and I did not know this until I was older, but there have been none so important and formative as that of little Sister Leona.

If what she meant to do for us was to grant one golden day, one pure, bright spot in the seat of the soul…

She did that.

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The Kachina Woman: A Battle of Conscience and Compassion

SedonaYou may as well know now that I am prone to “odd” or what some would call mystical experiences. No more than many, and far less than some I am certain, but I cannot do much justice to The Amber Road without letting you in on a few of my secrets. That being said, this is not a blog about religion, faith, or even God for that matter. For the big questions I tend toward a more secular spirituality, lean Zen, and don’t go in for Dogma much, despite being raised a Catholic. Sorry, my religious friends, more power to you. I grant a wide-open space for anyone who finds what works for him or her so long as it harms none, and I hope you’ll do the same for me.

I have finally embraced the idea that I am “highly intuitive”, mostly because it explains a lot, but I still hold that everyone else is as well, if they only pay attention and explore it. The following story is excerpted from an old journal entry and details my first experience with The Kachina Woman.

A Kachina (kah-chee-nah) is a spiritual being central to the religious life of the Hopi Indians, who live in the arid highlands of northern Arizona, and have done so for twelve hundred years. The “Kachina Woman” is a particular spirit said to inhabit a rock formation of the same name in Boynton Canyon, near Sedona. This first visit of mine has inspired a number of others in the years since, and has offered me some powerful insights. Since it is my intention to share a few of the more recent insights, it only makes sense that I begin at the beginning.

Before we head back to 1996 for this story, let it be said that I do not have a “Belief” in past lives, rather I hold an “Openness” to it. Belief is a strict and stringent concretization of a perception that I try hard to avoid. Blame it on my practice of the creative process, but I would rather embrace ambiguity than do battle with conflicting ideas that I will never understand anyway. It doesn’t matter whether we see “past lives” as a returning on a great wheel of existence, or an active subconscious, or a parallel existence, or the shared Now of a Multiverse, what matters are the lessons and insights we gain from their stories, if we allow ourselves to be available to them, and that we use those lessons to better our experience of life here and now. Fair enough?

Other than the Kachiona Woman herself, the other character in this story is Nancy, my first wife. If you’re going to be divorced, it’s best to do it twice so that you can use a number rather than the “X” prefix, which is no way to refer to a person. Nancy and I spent a good deal of the 90’s exploring all manner of spirituality, and that lead us to Sedona and the Hopi.

I love the Sedona dessert, and the red rock canyons, the sweet pinch of conifer in your nose and the bare blue sky. I could walk it until I drop, which is what Nancy and I tried to do that week on our quest to walk all of the energy vortexes that abound in the area. The New Agers will tell you that they are earth mother energies, and the scientists will tell you they are magnetic fields generated by iron deposits in the rock. I don’t much care, I just feel better here, more connected, and strangely at home.

We made our way up the canyon to the base of the Kachina Woman. The formation itself was a tall spire set apart from the cliff face at the very end of the canyon wall. It had a roundish mass of stone at its peak, which made a sphinxlike head, and gave the vague appearance of a human form. It was easy to imagine a presence inside the rock.Kachina IMG_3435

When we reached the base, I set my pack down and Nancy and I sat with our backs to the rock and began meditating.

I am no master at the art of meditation even today; I do okay, but I was certainly less so then, so I was completely unprepared for what happened. Never before, and nowhere since, have I ever had a more immediate, visceral, and impactful connection to something outside myself. This place is my little mecca.

I closed my eyes, slowed my breathing, and following the Hopi aphorism, “Keep the top of your head open.” I prepared for the usual vague dance of thoughts and impressions, uncertain of what was merely my imagination and what is not. Instead, I felt my consciousness suddenly drawn up into the spire of rock like smoke through a flue, imbedding me in the red stone. It was a force quite outside myself. My vision was clear and waking. I looked out over the canyon from the top of the spire, high above the man seated against the rock below.

I was with a very powerful presence, wrapped in it in fact, unmistakably real and distinctly feminine, but larger. I made my greeting and asked if the Kachina Woman had any messages for me.

“Many roads,” she said. The words were loud and clearly audible in my mind. Her communication was a mix of spoken word and emotional impressions.

“Many roads?” I asked.

“You have traveled many roads”, she replied, referring to many past lives, and that I was an old soul. Yes, it sounded corny to me too, but it was part message, part observation. I felt her regard me with some openness and acceptance. I responded in kind, trusting, and was taken further into the rock. I was enfolded in its arms, embraced, cradled as in a mother’s arms, and felt such a solid, peaceful serenity!

“Do you remember me?” she said with a meaningful curiosity. The feeling is impossible to describe in words, a safety and belonging deeper than bedrock and so familiar! “Yes I do remember you,” I said. The Kachina Woman was showing me my connection with a more expansive realm than I could have imagined possible. It was deliberate, instructional. I was in school it seemed, only I felt like a toddler at a Doctoral dissertation defense.

My analytical nature took over, as it often does when I am fearful that I am becoming “embarrassingly New Age.” I thought about how long she had been in this rock, the millions of years it took to form this canyon, and the improbability of the whole thing. Here I was, in the presence of a great spirit playing with the Tinker Toys of intellect, I should have been embarrassed about that.

I no sooner held the thought out to her, than she showed me her age. My mind expanded across time, silent ages, sand and wind over stone. Then, briefly, she allowed me to glimpse the ages she had passed. My consciousness stretched needle–thin as though forced through a wormhole. I saw before me every instant of countless millennia, every minute detail of every moment, drawn out in an impossibly long line. This line had no perspective, no vanishing point, I saw all of it, and it was endless. Each instant I saw singularly, and I saw every instant simultaneously, at the same instant, the original instant, the perfect Now. She did not sit for ages inside a rock.  Her mind exists outside time.  She had always been there, and it has always been the present.  I experienced a moment well beyond my mind’s reach, she had granted me a part of her “ageless mind” in order that I could know it. It hurt, I must tell you. I do not retain this experience directly; rather I retain the impression of it.

Now fully sober, and still reeling from the experience of being afforded a glimpse of the unknowable true nature of time. Again, ouch! I put away my intellectual Tinker Toys and decided to go for broke. I asked her what my purpose in this life is.

“It is yours to find,” I appreciated the candor of her answer, the celestial equivalent of, “go fish.” What was I expecting? I tried again, choosing my words carefully.

“How can I come to know this purpose?”

“Through faith, trust, honesty, and truth to your Self,” she replied.

“How about a hint as to what my life purpose is, if you care to offer one,” I ventured.

“It is who you are.” She answered.

“Whatever that means,” I thought. “Okay, thank you. I’ll have to chew on that, but later.” I decided that it was much better to let her offer information rather than my asking insipid and shortsighted questions.

I relaxed, refocused, and invited her to send me a message of her own choosing.

A vision came immediately into view. I was looking at a cliff face of red rock, though not quite as red as the Sedona rock. In the side of the cliff face was an angular cave. A long flat ledge extended from the base of the cave and gently sloped away from the entrance. A small promontory on the ledge held the figure of an Indian warrior. Just inside the cave entrance could be seen an Indian woman and an infant child.

The Indian was a warrior, and those in the cave were his wife and daughter. The emotional impressions came: He lived on this rock, she was his whole life, and the child was the gem of his life. I gathered that this was one of my “many roads.” My attention kept coming back to the rock. It was so vivid. Its color and texture stood out. It seemed alive.

“Fine, I thought, another Indian past life. What’s all this with Indians?” As I said this, I felt I knew where it was going, and I didn’t like it. Greyness came over the scene like a mist, and I knew I would see what befell the family next.

“Nope. No thank you! I’ll have none of this.” What approached hurt in too familiar a way, pain like an old wound rubbed raw again.

A few noisy climbers jarred my concentration just then, and I used it to wriggle free of the arms of this vision like a panicked rabbit. “Nope, nope, nope.” I opened my eyes and sat forward to get up, and felt decidedly uneasy. It was as if I still had part of my consciousness inside the stone.

“Oh no you don’t,” I heard as an unseen hand grabbed me by the back of my collar and physically yanked me back against the wall hard enough to whip my head back and smack it into the stone.

“Oww! Fine, show me! (as if I had a choice)”

The first thing I saw was the mist clearing. It wasted no time to reveal the woman and child lying across the sloping entrance; their bodies slit open, gushing blood onto the rock, a dark deep red flowing over the stone. The warrior was there. There had been an attack and he had failed to protect his family, his one greatest charge. I felt the man’s rage, sorrow, and isolation. I knew his shame and self-hatred had only vengeance and anger to act upon, there was no redemption.

I had seen plenty, and I was livid for being forced to see it. “Yes, yes, betrayal and abandonment! I know this place; abused women, dead mothers, absent children. I’ve seen this play! So what!? So I am supposed to have lived another life as some poor bastard who lived these things and they have significance for me this time around too, I get it. Big deal!! I know my demons Kachina Woman, tell me something new!”

She did.

“You are the rock.” Her voice was soft, absolute, and breathtakingly kind.

“I’m the what? I thought I was the warrior guy?”

Slowly and very patiently, she repeated, “You are the rock.”

She then showed me an impression of the rock ledge and mountainside holding, supporting, and cradling this family. A new door in my understanding began to move on its hinges. I asked her to show me what happened to the warrior.

The scene returned with my knowing that with vengeance as his only remaining purpose, he had found his battle and he had lost it. He was lying on the same ledge, cut open and dying. His loss and despair was incomprehensible, I pushed with all my strength to keep it at arms length. He had failed in his sacred charge to protect what he loved; he failed himself, and even failed in his useless vengeance. The emptiness in him was vast.

There alone, his blood flowed over the same stone. In his final agony, buried in his shame, he became distracted by the sparkling in the red stone. He watched his own blood pool and flow into view. He became absorbed by the contrast of his red blood and the redness of the stone, and thought how beautiful it was. He was glad to die, glad to be rid of his life that now held no meaning for him. As his strength faded, his anger gave up and let go. In his final moment, he embraced surrender. He himself thought it strange, but he rejoiced as he died, and in his agony thanked in his heart those who took his life.

Stories have happy endings, I thought, but life sometimes does not. I watched then as his spirit arched up from his form. Behind him, from the spot where they perished, the spirits of his wife and child also rose. Once beyond the earth, they were rejoined. I saw the three glittering spirits embrace, swirling in an ecstasy of reunion. They seemed to merge into one shining mist, and then they rose again, up and away from me to some higher place.

“You are the rock”, she said again.

The epiphany landed, “Oooooh..” I finally caught the leap in understanding that she was bringing me to all along. I am not the man who lived these events, I, the truer, deeper self she knew me as, am like the rock that held these lives, kept them, created them. The man, the entire family for that matter, was an aspect of me. I am not a character in my past lives; I am the rock upon which they play out their pageants, the foundation; deep, solid, whole.

This was the purpose of her playful question, “Do you recognize me?” She was asking if I could see her as she sees me; the greater self that I am. Her message was planned from the moment I sat down. She answered my question about time to show me how much greater the breadth of existence is than the tiny one I thought I knew. She wanted me to know that all of the pain I knew had a purpose and a meaning, and that I was the one who chose it. There is no such thing as a victim.

The Kachina Woman made me aware of a whole new truth. Once I am able to see myself as she does, my whole sense of reality changes. I create my own meaning, direct my own life purpose, and it has all to do with who I am. How can I come to know this purpose?

“Through faith, trust, honesty, and truth to your Self,” she said.

My poor mind was stretched to its limit. I had to leave. I thanked the Kachina Woman for her wisdom and patience. She seemed pleased with me. I slowly drew my consciousness from the spire, and gathered myself back into this my current pageant.

I have since that time began a practice of trying to see others the way she saw me, and I have gotten pretty good at it. We all walk through life carrying a collection of luggage in the form of fears, doubts, anger, questions of self worth, inhibitions, insecurities, mistrust, misconceptions, projections, lies, and a sense of separateness.

In my work as a director and teacher, it is my job to cut through the luggage to discover the artist inside. In my relationships it is my job to see most clearly the person I love. It is easy to get lost in all that garbage we tote around, unless you know how to keep your focus on the prize.

It’s not that hard to do. You just find them in a quiet moment when they have no one to perform for, and watch their eyes. Then look. Don’t look into their eyes, because that makes you an active player, watch them when they are not looking at you. The hardest part is not to see through your eyes. We all look at others through the lens of our own expectation, perspective, and judgment. You’ll have to learn how to see through your own greater self first.

If you do this, you will see them as their original self, in the same way we see a child, before all of that luggage is acquired. If you can do this, no matter who it is, you will be rewarded with a view of an absolute and perfect beauty. Once you have this picture, you will find all the patience you’ll ever need to deal with the luggage.

I don’t try this with everyone; I will pick and choose when the need or desire arises. I think if I tried to do this with everyone my head would explode. My only caution is to be prepared for something quite powerful, and don’t mistake it for something else.

If there is a word for people who can see everyone this way, it must be Greatness. This is its architecture.

For we mortals, I know for certain that there is a word for setting yourself aside in order to see through to the truth and beauty of another.

It is Compassion.