Broken

The idea that anything or anyone could be born broken relies on the conceit that the born thing must have at one time in its past been in good working order to begin with. Still the feeling that nothing worked the way it should have from the start weighs heavily on any number of people I know.

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It’s wrong in my opinion to identify with one’s damage. We are more than our broken places, more than our shattered intentions, more than deeds we couldn’t bring to life or heroes we never quite managed to become. We are far better than our shortcomings, which are so necessary to guide us in our quest to better ourselves. In this regard there are two kinds of people — those consumed by their mistakes and those inspired by them.

It is pointless to walk a mile in another man’s shoes simply to discover how he feels. If you are a true human being, walk the most difficult mile there is to walk — in your own shoes. Only then will you own every success and failure and only then will you understand the breadth of emotions that any other man feels in running that gamut. If he has done the same then he will know you as well.

I am not unsympathetic to the struggles of another. I merely realize that I must first understand the nature of struggle itself before I presume to compare mine to theirs. Unwell though we may be, and occasionally crushed and devoid of all that makes us beautiful, it is incumbent upon us to keep getting up, to keep moving forward, to leave defiant footprints in the efforts we make to grow beyond our damage. Brokenness only works to our benefit when we leave it behind.

Alchemy

It’s one of those touchstones of ancient charlatanism that has thrived beyond its medieval origins; a term that smacks of old world wizardry while holding its own in a contemporary tongue.

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As a precursor to the modern physician, the alchemist conjured any number of potions to ward off evil, subdue ailments and summon great fortune, and all with the wave of a wand. Ah, for the grand old days when a pharmacist could exorcise devils and regrow hair with the same elixir.

Then there’s the alchemy of affection, the essence of all that enchants, arriving readymade to seduce and satisfy. This rarified promise of handcrafted magic still intoxicates as we pine for its spell in whatever mystical form it assumes. Internet dating aside, there is something to be said for the allure of romance, the only real magic in which any of us wittingly invest ourselves. Fools that we are, oh to be subdued by beauty, ensnared by lust and shackled in the throes of love’s torturous trance.

Alchemy exists to transform a thing without value into something precious. It’s little wonder that such a seductive notion still holds sway after so many centuries. And who among us wouldn’t grasp with both hands at the thread of hope that happiness can actually be conjured from the bubbling crucibles of our most secret dreams?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scars

We humans cannot help being prideful creatures. When I have been wounded, either sleight or deep, my instincts push me to a private place. Solitude always feels right for coming to grips with an assault. Healing is another matter altogether. Especially when the skin has closed over but the offense continues to fester. That’s when exorcism seems like a pretty good idea. Managing our demons takes on many forms.

There is honor and endurance in choosing to heal and let go of that which has wounded you. However, there are occasions when a scar is so reviled that it must take on another persona altogether. I know a young woman who once was a cutter. But as she matured she concealed these physical scars with tattoos that depicted uplifting imagery. As a result, her emotional scars began to heal as well. Now when she looks at her wrists, there is no hostile reminder but rather inspiration, and that has made all the difference in her growth.

Not every tattoo has to be a traumatic touchstone. Some are well thought out and others added on impulse. It can simply be for aesthetic appeal. Or a tattoo can be the artful manifestation of a wound — the celebration of a battle survived, an offense overcome, an enemy endured. Whether the physical fight is won or not, there remains this symbol of dignity for having the belligerent gall to survive it.

A metal worker has confidence that a weld is the strongest metal on a machine. By the same token, it is equally true that scar tissue is the toughest skin on our body. Any truly resilient spirit commands a durability that surpasses pain.

Bullets, blades and automobiles do not create scars. The true authors of our deepest disfigurements are betrayals, bullies, and broken promises. And despite its origins, a scar can be a friend whose very presence is a cautionary reminder — “Don’t go this way again. Find another.”

Scars are proof positive that the past was not imagined, whether they began with the unceremonious tearing of flesh or a deeply affecting trauma that has burned itself into your skin with ink. There is something liberating in looking at a scar and have it almost say to you, “See, we got through this, didn’t we?”

For many people it takes a very, very long time before self-worth and value may deem to make their first blessed appearance. But the moment they do — the very instant a person sees himself or herself honestly — it’s love at first sight. For those who are healthy, a scar is simply a tattoo with more interesting tales to tell.

When I study a scar long enough, I see more than evidence of a wound — I recognize proof that healing is possible. If, and hopefully when, I stand before my maker, he will not look me over for virtues. He will examine me for scars and for evidence that I rose above them.

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Grace

I know too many sad and angry souls who simply cannot bring themselves to forgive. The wounds are too fresh, too deep, too profound.

I concede that some offenses are frankly unpardonable. But when such oppressive anguish has its hooks into you so deeply, it eats away at the fabric of your wellbeing so that only one of two significant events must take place — either it will kill you, or you will kill it. A gesture of grace can be a fine weapon.

Some say they can live without forgiving someone. But holding onto such profound anxiety devastates in equal parts, mentally and physically. This pernicious decay is gradual and, though you may disguise it for a while, angst will always beat you down. That’s what angst does best.

Buddha said, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

Absolving a cruelty or personal attack is never painless, which is why so many stay far afield of it. It’s an instinctively alien concept to actually allow someone who’s so clearly guilty to just waltz away with a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card. But think of it rather as doing something wonderful for yourself.

In the 1970’s when I was a brakeman for the Santa Fe railroad in Wellington, Kansas there was a puppy that had lost one of its front legs to a train. It would hobble around the train yard and people remarked how sad and pathetic it was. I didn’t see that. His little face was curious and playful. Yes, he was missing a leg but he didn’t dwell on the loss. How miserable would it be to carry that kind of anguish around? Pain is not something we’re meant to hold onto.

Christ said turn the other cheek. But really think about where that came from. Imagine you’re Jesus, walking down the street on your way to give a sermon or comfort a sick soul. Suddenly a man punches you for no discernible reason. You and I would get into it with him and end up with an ambulance ride, a police report, and a fairly unflattering mugshot. But Christ knew, in the bigger scheme of things, this clown was nothing more than a distraction. Forgiveness, at its very core, is merely a difference engine.

It helps you choose — do I stop and confront my assailant, which accomplishes nothing and pulls me away from my intended goal? Or do I unceremoniously dismiss him with an “I forgive you” so I may stay on track with what’s important? There may be pain either way but which tact ends up being the lesser hurt?

Yes, there’s something definitively Christian in the concept of absolution, but at its rudimentary level, forgiving a person is really a matter of emotional economy. Do we invest our anguish in those who are undeserving of our attention in the first place? Or do we unburden ourselves of their ability to meddle with our happiness?

Terrible things will always happen to good people. And good people will always manage to navigate beyond tragedy and loss. Sometimes it takes a while, but it’s always achievable.

When I am wounded, either by circumstance or cruel intent, I remember the three-legged puppy — savaged by the world, yet determined to embrace the good that is in it. The giving of grace to another is a truly healthy act of selfishness. And it’s what I will always choose.

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Fear

All the really ugly emotions are firmly rooted in fear. Fear that we won’t measure up, fear that we’ll look foolish, fear that we’ll lose success or love or respect. Prejudice is a product of fear. Anger too.

Most people, myself included, allow too many important aspects of our lives to be dictated by the anguish of embarrassment or the dread of what may or may not come to pass. So much of our self-esteem is bound up in what other people might perceive. And that is the polar opposite of healthy.

In the recovery group Co-Dependents Anonymous there’s a saying that goes, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” They have a lot of sayings but that one pretty much sums it all up.

I suspect that being the most sentient creatures on the planet, we’re instinctively bent on hubris. Humans have the biggest brain-to-body ratio so naturally we’ve got control issues. It’s that Power-and-Small-People Syndrome. Basically, as a species we think way too much of ourselves. Take for example your typical road rage. Why does it happen? One word…… Control.

You’re the good driver. You take extra pains to stay in your lane. You mostly come to complete stops, usually signal for turns and stick pretty darned close to those speed limits. Rules are there for a reason. Then another driver breaks the rules right in front of you. And why should THEY be allowed to disregard the letter of the law when you so clearly comply? That’s when the control reflex kicks in and you decide to force him to play by the rules. Of course tensions elevate and tragedy ensues.

We humans fear a lot of really stupid things that constantly land us in trouble. It’s a widely held conviction that any really important decision should never be made when one is in an elevated emotional state. Because nine times out of nine it’s not only the wrong decision but also the worst possible one.

I once read, and firmly believe, that we cannot control our emotions. But… we can control how we react to them.

Some people take issue with that and claim they have full command of all their emotions. If they truly have that power then they’re more disciplined folk than I. My experience doesn’t bear that out. My emotions suddenly arrive out of nowhere like a moth at a porch light. Where did that come from? And even though I’ve always possessed the power to choose how I react, it never really occurred to me to exercise that choice.

Once I did, I started leaning toward the path of least resistance, or rather the path of best resistance. Now when a driver cuts me off, I just stay out of his way. It’s not my job to make him obey the law. His family has to live with him, I don’t.

When I gave my daughter her first driving lesson, I told her, “You have no right — no right — to get angry at someone else in traffic. Most drivers are basically self-absorbed brain donors and when they behave badly it HAS to be what you expected. Always count on it. The only genuine surprise should be when someone actually drives courteously. That, my love, is the rarity and should be your only unanticipated event on the road.”

I give her full credit for taking that to heart. She’s a marvelous driver now and I’ve never seen her upset in the car. At least not because of other drivers.

Yes, fear is the culprit for every negative feeling we encounter. As a writer, I cope with creative fears all the time. Over the years many people who didn’t know me, and a few who did, have suggested I let go of this fruitless dream of being a writer. And there are days I actually consider it.

When you’re on your own, there’s only so much self-induced encouragement and back patting you can muster. Now, whenever taunted by self-doubt, I refer to a sign on the wall over my desk. It simply reads:

“FAILURE IS FAR LESS FRIGHTENING THAN REGRET.”

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Entrancement

Some years ago a cynical friend remarked to me, “I thought I fell in love once. But it turns out I only stepped in it.”

I almost laughed. But I could see he meant it.

Eric was a really sweet guy who’d subjugated himself entirely to a willful woman. He bowed to her wants and never challenged her. He had believed that was the best way to get along with a woman. And, truth be told, I thought so too.

I grew up with five sisters and a doting mother and it was made abundantly clear that when a woman says no, she means no. My mother and father cultivated in me the traditional behaviors of opening doors, paying compliments, presenting flowers, and all the courtesies and kindnesses attendant to gentlemanly behavior.

But my dad shared an insight with me the day I left home to strike out on my own.

“Michael”, he said. “There are two things you need to know to understand women…… and nobody knows what they are.”

That time I laughed. It was only years later that I realized he meant it.

Spending a couple of decades in the same house surrounded by that much estrogen meant the man knew from whence he spoke. I still don’t know that much about women. It’s likely they’ll remain mysterious to me and, of course, that will always be part of the attraction. Romance isn’t romance without mystery.

Being a fairly even-tempered fellow, friends have had occasion to confide in me. A lot. And I’ve learned something about men from these late night laments over beer and self doubt. It turns out the same two things you need to know to understand women are the pretty much the same two things you need to know to understand men. The upshot of which is that nobody really knows anything.

I am getting better at picking up signals. I’m listening more. Especially to women. One of them recently shared that, “Yes, a woman wants a partner who isn’t afraid of tenderness. But she also wants a MAN who can stand in the fire of our emotional changes.”

That’s an intimidating way to put it. Still it brings me to a slightly higher level of understanding. But only slightly.

There’ a good deal of bob-and-weave involved in courtship. So much conflicting wisdom. And yet I persevere. I expect the fighting now, but I’m looking for a fair fighter this time. Love may be a battle. But love is also a growing up.

My parents, it turns out, were fair fighters. They enjoyed 62 years of the greatest love story anyone has every been audience to. Now that mom is gone, I recognize one more thing I learned from my father — you don’t get to really know yourself until you know yourself in a relationship. It is revelatory to see yourself in someone else’s eyes.

Victor Hugo once wrote: “The greatest happiness in life is the conviction that we are loved. Loved for our self, or rather loved in spite of ourselves.”

To be so entranced is an honorable conviction and one I deeply aspire to. To be elevated, even levitated, by a swooning rush of delight and filled with wonder and a sense of enchantment — that is the aim of the human heart. It is among our baser instincts to defy loneliness.

I believe and desire all of this. But one must also consider S.J. Perelman’s take on the matter as well:  “Love is not the dying moan of a distant violin; it’s the triumphant twang of a bedspring.”

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Dickens

I suffer no small amount of grief from friends and acquaintances that know of my penchant for Christmas music. I’m unapologetic about it and I listen year round.

There truly aren’t enough songs out there with messages of love and peace and joy to the world. Even Mr. Scrooge eventually declared he would keep the holiday spirit all through the year. Yes, we need more unbridled affection, tolerance and generosity.

As a kid with a keen analytical mind that practically never shut down, I bought into this philosophy hook, line and tinsel. That sort of thing makes good sense when you’re seven. But even Ebenezer would testify it’s no easy task. Who wants to be around someone so relentlessly and ruthlessly cheerful every bloody day of the year? I get it.

So yes, I slide in some yuletide tunes every month or so. I’m no longer seven but I still need the fix. And it’s all the doing of that dear Mr. Dickens.

When the real holiday rolls around, I wrap myself up in the tradition of it all and am happy when I stumble upon any previously undiscovered bits of seasonal fare.

For the past several years, holidays have been relatively quiet since my family is widely distributed around the country. One of these recent Christmas mornings alone at home I turned on the television and discovered a 1938 version of “A Christmas Carol” I had never seen. Perfect!

I’m in the best of moods, all settled in for the telling of a good tale. And then it happened. My analytical mind woke up.

About ten minutes into the film I started wondering — what exactly is wrong with Tiny Tim?

Neither Mr. Dickens nor any of the film adaptations I’ve seen have ever been clear on this point.

While this very thought is building up a healthy head of steam on the hamster wheel in my mind, up on the screen Bob Cratchit comes bounding down the hall of his home with little Tiny Tim perched high on his shoulders. Really high.

And they’re headed straight for a very low doorway.

And suddenly it hits me what the kid’s malady is — Bob Cratchit is an idiot. A sweet-natured, bumbling good guy, yes. But still an idiot. Multiple and massive head trauma is surely in store for this kid, but no one else in the family ever seems to notice, especially Bob.

“Poor Tiny Tim,” they cry. “The nose bleeds and dizzy spells are getting worse. His hats no longer fit and the doctors are stumped.”

I’m trying to recapture the feeling of a holly-trimmed, pine scented Christmas of yore and my damned brain won’t turn off. Why can’t I just enjoy this?

As the film progresses, a disturbing pattern continues to develop. Consider when the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come announces, “If these things remain unchanged, Tiny Tim will not live to see another Christmas.”

Well, yeah. This kid’s not going to make it to New Years if Bob keeps smacking his little noggin into those solid oak door frames.

Later in the graveyard scene, it’s a little off-putting trying to stay with the story when I just can’t help scanning the background to see if maybe there are a few other little “Cratchit” headstones for Tiny Tim’s predecessors. Long-gone tykes like himself who suffered the same unwitting fate.

I made it through the end of the movie and of course it was all smiles and warmth and giddy camaraderie. But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I’d somehow been robbed of a bit more of the innocence we all hold in reserve to see us through the horrors of adulthood.

I still lament a bit for all my grown friends who heeded the call to “act your age”. In so doing, far too many among us have allowed the lessons of childhood to slip away. It’s important — in fact crucial — as an adult to remember to laugh at ourselves and to play like children. These are mandatory requirements for being a fully functional adult.

As evidence in my argument I call your attention to the main character of “A Christmas Carol”. Charles Dickens did not write this story for children. His target audience was, and is, any and every contemporary of Ebenezer Scrooge.

At any age, and at any time of year, the spirit of this wonderful philosophy supports me in my darkness and my joy.

God bless us every one…? You bet.

You’ll excuse me now while I crank up some Burl Ives and dance in my pajamas.

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