I Am Not Me Anymore, At Least I’m Not The Same Me I Was

vcxa8286To be full of strength and vigor one moment and virtually helpless the next, in the pink and pride of health one moment and a cripple the next, with all one’s powers and faculties one moment and without them the next – such a change, such suddenness, is difficult to comprehend, and the mind casts about for explanations. —  Oliver Sacks

 

One of the readers of these pages commented recently that I write a good deal about death. Strangely, a few weeks earlier a reader commented that she thought I wrote a lot about love. Everything is a matter of perspective based upon our experiences of the moment. To these readers I responded “I write about what I know about life and two of the strongest elements of my life are love and death.”

It has taken me two years to write about this experience. I do not know why as a day does not pass without my conscious remembrance, but until now, I have not written a single word about an event which completely changed my existence. The three things having the most influence upon my life have been my experiences, travel, and the people I meet along the way. On December 28, 2016, two years ago today, I had a heart attack, and everything in my life was suddenly and forever changed.

A heart attack is a scary, life threatening experience. I did not know if I would survive it. I believe remembering my EMT training and somehow getting a few aspirin into my body before I passed out on the bed saved my life, although I fumbled with the childproof cap for a few moments as my left arm was completely numb with pain. I was surprised when I regained consciousness as I saw death positioning himself to take my soul. The most frightening part was being alone and not having the mental or bodily control to call for help when it happened. I know exactly how my brother felt during his last moments of life when he recently died alone in his home of a heart attack. The police think he was trying to make it to the front door for help as he had his keys in his hand. I was doing everything I could to remain conscious that afternoon trying to get assistance. I had walked a bit farther than normal that day, nothing unusual. I thought I was just dehydrated until I stepped into my room and experienced that tightening in my chest. 

The attack itself was the most pain I had ever experienced. It was as if someone had put a 200 pound belt around my chest and tried to squeeze it into the last hole ten sizes smaller than my body. The pain through my left arm and my jaw was unbearable. I remembered thinking, “I know the symptoms, if it is my time, thank you for this life.” As I fell onto the bed, with my head almost drowning in sweat and waited to die, no position was comfortable and I could not speak to call for help. It was not possible to stand up. My entire body was overheating, bathed in perspiration, and in excruciating pain. I tried to focus my mind on the front door, perhaps I could make it, but I could no longer even move. The moment before I went unconscious from the pain I remember thinking, “I will go, but I am not ready yet.”

This all started around two o’clock in the afternoon. I regained consciousness around eight that evening. It was dark and I was not sure where I was until I was able to discern from the darkness my desk, my bed, my room, little by little coming back to me, or I was coming back to them. I do not know which. The pain was mostly gone. I could move my jaw and speak. The key indicator in knowing I was still alive was I had to pee. “I am still alive.” I said to no one or to anyone who might be listening. I did not expect to experience this life again.

I cannot change myself any more than I can pull myself up by my own bootstraps. Changes to ones self usually happen from outside the self primarily through experiences which the individual hopefully is prepared to handle. How can I change myself when I am asking that which I deem inadequate or in need of change, myself, to do the changing? To correct its own self? It is akin to asking Congress to police itself of its own corruption when corruption is its nature. An individual can only change himself through a lobotomy, death, a life altering, or other worldly experience. I am reminded of the Parable of the Scorpion and the Frog.

A  scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, they would both drown. Considering this, the frog agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When the frog asks the scorpion why, the scorpion replies that it was in its nature to do so.*

Our nature is who we are at the core of our being. I have had a number of life altering experiences. This life has taken me on many journeys, and I have come back, knock on wood, from each a changed person from the one who started the adventure. Each time I return with a larger spirit, with a greater capacity for love, for life, for the understanding and appreciation of my fellow man and woman, with an abundantly greater acceptance and love for myself. 

Although I do not wish a repeat of my experience and I do not wish a heart attack on anyone, I think everyone should have a metaphorical heart attack. An experience that takes your everyday life to the edge. An experience that shakes the body and soul from the roots of your everyday existence to the stratosphere of what it means to be alive. Unfortunately most humans will reach death without ever having such an experience in life. I hope you are not one of them.

Following my heart attack, I was uncertain if I would make it to my seventieth birthday. I am now approaching my seventieth-first. Life is complicated. I had no say in my arrival to this life and will have little input if any over my departure. In between I dance with the joy of being alive with greater appreciation for this gift I have been given. This is my nature.

Everything means something until one is dying. In that moment books, movies, lovers, paintings, collections of anything; suddenly, they no longer matter. Their prior importance and place in my life instantly disappeared. Their roles did not diminish, understand, they completely disappeared as if they never existed or had any importance what so ever. I was that close to death.

Everything means absolutely nothing when the heart is a beat away from its last beat. Life becomes a pin pointed focus. I was ready for death then but now the only thing that matters for the rest of my life is that I am alive. Death will come. I know that. I was given an extension, not to change my life necessarily, but to embrace it with a greater capacity. 

I am not the same me anymore, at least I’m not the same me I was.

————————

*The Scorpion and the Frog*

The title “I Am Not Me Anymore, At Least I’m Not The Same Me I Was” is taken from the book Motorcycle Diaries. The words were spoken by Alberto Granado at the end of his journey around parts of South America with Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

 

A Magical Christmas Morning

vcxa8286Tonight is Christmas Eve. The cat is curled up at the foot of the bed, the gas fireplace heats the room and I have just climbed into bed. As a child and during my early adulthood, my Christmas Eves were spent doing all those last minute tasks before the big day. I only remember bits and pieces of those times. It was a tapestry of colors, smells, family members gathered together in Aunt Florence’s dining room to play poker or in Aunt Doris’s living room eating the cakes and pies she and my mother had been baking all day. But of the Christmases I have lived, one stands out,  as if it were yesterday, as the Christmas when Magic became a permanent fixture in my life.

I was four and a half, we were still living in Prospect Village, a small ghetto enclave of row houses, a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks. The freight trains would pass by three or four times a day and I would run out of the house and watch until the black smoke disappeared or mom yelled for me to come back inside.

It was Christmas, 1952. My brother and I were sneaking down the stairs to see if Santa had come. From the nightlight on the table, we could see the floor covered with railroad tracks and train cars and signs and cattle and so many things. We shrieked with surprise and woke up our parents who then came downstairs to join us.

I didn’t know you could ask for things from Santa. I thought he just gave toys to good little boys and girls. I didn’t know the train set that overflowed on the living room floor was for my brother. I thought Santa left it for me. He must have known how much I loved trains.

“Your train is over there,” my mom said.

My eyes had been so fascinated by  the lights, the whistles, the sounds of the engine that I had not taken my eyes off the train since I had come down the stairs. I started to look, expecting to see something similar to my brother’s train. My eyes were already lit with anticipation when I turned to see a small circle of tracks, no more then two feet in diameter on top of which sat a engine and two cars. There was no cardboard tunnel made to look like a mountain and covered with fake grass. I did not have a cattle car where the cows automatically load themselves. There were no plastic homes complete with plastic landscaping. If Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree had been around in 1952, this would have been the train going around it. But it was a train and it was mine.

My mother brought over a plastic tree and a red and green sign and placed them inside my circle while I watched my train go around its tracks. Its headlight coming toward me then turning away from me. I took the red sign and placed it on the outside of the track and when the train reached it, my train stopped. Then I turned the sigh around so it’s green side was facing the train and the train continued around the tracks. I did this three or four times, each time stopping the train with the red side and starting the train with the green side. My journey was beginning.

When I tried to share this occurrence with my parents and brother, he called me stupid and mom said it was just my imagination. Naturally my train wouldn’t stop and go while they were watching. They had stopped believing in magic, but since that moment, I never have.

In his book, The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg ends with these words, “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”

Merry Christmas and Magic to All!

Brothers—Hermanos

B4C0A454-579E-47EC-B306-E76CD25BDF24“Hermanos” is the Spanish word for brothers and was the first Spanish word I learned. On a trip to the Yucatán, I visited a cenote, or underground pool. The water was freezing cold as the only sunlight entered through a small opening at the top of the cave about fifty feet from the turquoise blue water. Inside the cave young boys would dive into the water to retrieve coins tossed in by the tourists. As I sat on the side, a young Mexican boy came over and sat beside me. “Hermanos,” he said in a shivering voice as he placed his brown skin arm next to my brown skin arm. “Hermanos,” he said again. “Si, hermanos,” I replied, and he smiled. I gave him my remaining coins and left. In that brief moment I had the greatest feeling of brotherhood I have ever had in my then forty-five year life.

My older brother and I were never close and now that mom has passed the boundary between us has become wider. She was the glue which held everything together. I know this is not the way mom would have wanted us to be and yet it is this way.

My brother has always been an angry person. His anger grew greater during his tours in Viet Nam. As children, he bullied me relentlessly until I learned to protect myself. He is this way, I think, because of our father who was the same. He, my brother, was the first born. Because of his blazing the trail, things were easier for me and I believe he always resented that fact. I was closer to and more like our mom. He was closer to and more like our dad.

I do not believe anger is an emotion that can be easily outgrown. If we permit it, anger grows and festers inside the person until they become blinded by it to the point where they no longer see it as the core part of who they have become. It is so with my brother. His anger metastasized like a cancer cell inside his body. My brother still denies that he is an angry man, but his actions say otherwise.

He still believes I had an easier life than he and for that reason I should pay. He still treats me like his little brother who, as a child, did anything and everything my big brother demanded of me. I did it out of fear, as with our father, not out of love. Through the course of our childhood, he shot me in the head with a bow and arrow and in the foot with a gas powered pellet gun. Of course after each of these incidences, he promised mom he would never do it again, but those promises were empty. An angry person is like an alcoholic. He will always have angry issues unless he learns how to deal with them in a healthy manner.

During our last incident when I returned home to be with mom as she died, he pointed a .38 at me and threatened to “blow my fucking head off.” It was not the stress of the situation. It was the way he has been my entire life. This moment was my prime meridian. I could not change the before, and I knew there would not be an after. I could no longer be around him. I packed my bags and left as soon as I could after mom passed without attending our mother’s memorial service. She had already been cremated so there was nothing else to be done. I did not sleep that last might I spent in our childhood home. I no longer knew that person sleeping in the other room. I was afraid of him for the last time. I take any threats to my life seriously.

How do I disown and end a relationship with the only person left on this planet who has known me my entire life? I do not know. I have made the decision to have no further contact. We have never been hermanos like me and the young boy at the cenote. As far as I am concerned, we are no longer brothers.

Note: Born 08/15/45 Died 12/01/18 Age 73

This Hollow Emptiness In My Soul

FCF38573-2929-4C13-B491-12CD9E788FD0At a time like this I want to write
about the joy of your life and not my pain.
I want everyone to share your wisdom,
hear your laughter, know your devotion to Jehovah,
but all I feel is sorrow and devastation.
I want to share stories of our closeness,
the things that came between us and kept us apart.
The things that seemed like uncrossable chasms then,
disappear now in the light of your death.
I want everyone to know how hard you worked
to keep a solid roof over our heads, to feed us,
to care for us when no one was there to care for you.
I want the world to read the words you wrote to me
in the time of my deepest grief and despair.
How you helped me when I had no one else to turn to.
About all the times you held me and said to me
“everything will be okay,” and it always was.
Who will write to me now? Who will be there to shoulder
my tears, to bring calm to an aching heart? Who is left
to tell me they love me and mean it, like I know you did?
Who will I call when overwhelming grief and joy
bubbles up in the heart of this life you created?
You taught me from birth I was different from,
but not less than, equal to,
but not better than anyone else.
You raised me to be independent, even from you.
To make it on my own and I did and I will.
There is no one on this earth who can replace you.
There remains only this hollow emptiness in my soul.

 

When Memories Are All That Remain

The other day I was thinking about memories, why they occur, their frequency and triggers. I was walking along the river under my own contemplative spell when I was suddenly hit with a memory of a lost love. The trigger was the back of the woman’s head in front of me. She had the same silver hair, the same hairstyle, haircut, and the same untamable cowlick that Kathleen had. For the briefest part of a second I created this fantasy story in my head as I moved to get a look at the woman’s face to see if by some trick of fate it might really be her.

The body was so bruised and swollen when they found it. The police woman only identified it’s twisted form by her passport photo. Perhaps they had made a mistake. Maybe those were not her ashes in the wooden urn her daughter brought back from México but those of some other body who had drowned in the river that day. Perhaps destiny had carried her down the river and she ended up here in Cuenca… Hope defies logic even fifteen years after her death. As I observed the woman’s face, my momentary hope turned to despair. I felt as if I had lost her all over again.

The memory, for only a moment, brought her back to life in my consciousness. She was real, alive from my memory of her. We forget but memories still exist in the consciousness like on a computer’s hard drive. If you dig deep enough, they are there. I can not remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I remember every detail down to her cowlick. The suddenness of this experience transcends time, but because I remember her in my consciousness, in this moment she still lives.

I recently watched an animated film, The Book of Life. Although it is primarily a coming of age film about a young man stuck between following in his family’s footsteps (bullfighting) or his own heart (the guitar and music), it also examines the divide between life, death and memory. Manolo, the young man, is bitten by a snake and dies. He travels to the Land of the Remembered and reunites with his mother and other family members who have also died, but are still remembered. They are happy to be together again. The new home is colorful, full of music and life because they are loved and remembered by those still living.

In contrast to the Land of the Remembered is the Land of the Forgotten. Here the terrain is barren, everything is gray, and dark. There is no music or celebration because the souls here have been forgotten. They no longer have loved ones who remember them. They are no longer a part of the consciousness of a living person.

There is some element of truth in all myths and beliefs. The lands of the Remembered and Forgotten are easily metaphors for Heaven and Hell. Celebrations like the Day of the Dead help us to keep the memory of loved ones alive in our consciousness allowing them to remain in the beautiful Land of the Remembered.

I wrote a poem which was actually “transmitted” to me from Kathleen following her death. The last line of the poem is:

When memories are all that remain, Remember to remember me.

It might be true that the sprit only dies when we are no longer remembered and enters the realm of those forgotten. Kathleen was as real to me the other morning as she was fifteen years ago. My mother was standing in the kitchen as clear as day when I bit into a piece of bread covered with butter and jam and was instantly transported into my four year old self sitting at the table watching her cook.

Memories are real, just another reality separates them from this time and place. Conscious awareness keeps the people we love and lost alive in our memory of them. We just can not hold them the way we once did.

Language — The Tower Of Babel

B4C0A454-579E-47EC-B306-E76CD25BDF24Remember the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel? After the landing of Noah’s Ark, the survivors wanted to build a monument to God. They wanted their gift to reach up into the heavens to God’s kingdom. God realized the combined efforts of the citizens would make anything possible because of their common language and he did not like the possibility of his creations knocking on his front door. So he made them speak different languages to each other and their conversations sounded like babel. Those who spoke the same language banded together from that common trait and set off to establish their own kingdoms.

A common language ties people together and gives them a combined strength. Those who do not speak or fail to learn the same language of the inhabitants are outsiders. They can never truly belong. Twice now, I have placed myself in living situations where I did not know the language, but as Nick Cave said, “Places choose you. They take hold of you whether you wish them to or not.” Although almost everyone in Fiji spoke a little English as a result of Fiji bring a British colony for a number of years, the inhabitants still spoke to each other in their native tongue. A language which could only be understood or learned by growing up in the school system or as one kavalingi told me when I asked how he learned to speak Fijian. “You have to live here for thirty years.”

Although Spanish is a much easier language to learn than Fijian with a vast resource of material available, it still takes time and at my age it takes a lot of time. The process is slow but I am learning. My background in Latin has helped with reading but my difficulty is with speaking and listening. I am determined to be an integral part of my new community. To have friends whom I can engage with in their language and not rely upon them to understand mine.

Systems

B4C0A454-579E-47EC-B306-E76CD25BDF24Sometime during the late ninety’s I read the Biography of William Blake (1757-1827) by Peter Ackroyd. Prior to this, my only connection to Blake was in college where I read his Songs of Innocence and Experience. I saw Blake as a visionary, poet, and gifted artist who chose to be detached from the affairs of everyday life, but many thought he was insane due to his personal choice of self examination over fame and fortune and because of his reported visions. William Blake said:

I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare, my business is to create. I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art.

Today he might be called a renaissance man because of his refusal to be defined by society, and his refusal to be a part of any system which could enslave him. When I found the above quotation in his biography, the words took hold of me the way the wind sucked the air from my lungs on a cold Chicago night. I was left breathless for a moment. These words have been with me ever since.

All systems to some degree enslave us. They are designed to force us to adopt them or to fail in our own footsteps. Systems are designed to keep us in toe, to stifle individual creativity, and to control and enslave us. It does not matter if the system is social, political, economic, or religious. The primary edict of any system is to control the outcome, to prevent individual thinking, and to encourage mass obedience.

Even the program I use to write these words is a system designed to make me follow a set of rules. In order to have the benefits or ease of placing my words into a computer, I must adhere to the rules of the program. I can chose another system, Microsoft over Apple for example, but I still have to follow a set or rules to use either one. As operating systems become more sophisticated, I might be able to do more things on the computer but I am still bound by the rules and limitations of the operating system itself. It is like a paint by number drawing. I am told what color goes where. The only way to beat the system in this example would be to paint outside the lines and to not be attached to the expected outcome. The end result will not look like the picture on the box cover.

True creativity should not be bound by any system. It should flow from the mind and heart of the creator onto the chosen medium without the rules of language, or color combining, or critique and criticism. True creativity is the creation of an expression which has never been expressed in quite that same way before. As artist and creators we must create our own individual systems and not be enslaved by what others think or what will make us money. An artist creates because he/she has something inside that needs to be expressed and he/she is the only one who can give birth to that expression.