Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog

November 24, 2009

Succotash

When I was little, on Thanksgiving Day, my Mom used to make us put a couple of kernels of succotash next to our plates to remind us of how little the Pilgrims had and how grateful they were for it.  It was also to remind us how the Pilgrims and Indians helped each other and, also, to represent what we were personally thankful for.

Thanksgiving has always been a favorite of mine.  Moreso back when Michigan used to win more of those clashes with Ohio State…And moreso when I used to awaken to the smell of fresh pumpkin muffins hot out of the oven.  We’d eat them while watching the parade from Detroit and then my Mom would warn us all, “OK, now out of the kitchen until dinner.”

Thanksgivings at the Swansons… There was the one when all of the relatives got so blotto that they forgot to serve dinner.  They opened the oven door and stood around the roasting pan of dried up turkey, laughing and pulling off pieces to eat.

Then there was the year my Great Aunt’s dog, Cinder Lou, jumped up on the table and started mowing down the turkey right off the platter.  And the time we went to my aunt and uncle’s and it wasn’t until 5pm that we realized she had cooked the turkey all day without turning on the oven.  Or that one year my Mom cried because my brothers were out of state, eating Arby’s roast beef sandwiches.  That broke her heart… 

One of my favorites was that first year I was injured when, despite the burned rolls and limited menu and screaming headache, I realized that I COULD do the things I wanted to do, even with a brain injury.

And, of course, there was that Thanksgiving Day two years ago when my Dad died…

Holidays are a lot like life, I think.  Snapshots of life all crunched and schmushed into one day.  We fantasize about holidays like we do our lives.  We imagine and hope that the Lions will win, that everyone will get along, that our homes will be filled with lovely decorations, great food, loving people, family and friends all singing around the piano, lots of warmth and laughter…

Perhaps, too, we imagine that maybe the spouse won’t drink too much this year.  Maybe that special someone will finally forgive and call.  Maybe the child won’t be so angry, so lost, so distant, so indifferent.  Maybe the Mother-in-law won’t be so critical and maybe the Uncle won’t be trying to touch the niece.

We dream and we hope.  Some of us pray.  And we scurry and we hurry and we exhaust ourselves shopping and cleaning and hiding all the piles of unpaid bills and hoping that you-know-who doesn’t look behind the shower curtain or peek in the bedrooms…

Like with life, perhaps we page through glossy magazines, fawning over Martha Stewart creations of  ideal.  Wine glasses perfectly lined up and shined up and spotless silver so clean you could check your lipstick in it.  Meticulously-folded linen napkins as elegant swans decorating each place setting.  Serving golden-brown turkeys in high heels and painted nails.

But too often holidays, and life, don’t live up to the magazine covers.  Martha Stewart goes to jail.  Biscuits get burned.  The turkey, for some reason, ends up dry.  The potatoes turn out like goopy paper mache.  The kids argue and your back is killing you before the company even gets there from all the cleaning you did…

Too often we end up wishing them away.  Wishing them over.  Happy when all of them finally leave or you can grab your coat and head for the door.  Lamenting the mess.  Lamenting the cost.  Disgusted by whatever whoever and whomever did or didn’t do.  Again.

Like life.

Too often after childhood, we don’t put as many kernels next to our place setting.  There are loved ones we miss, dreams long abandoned, relationships ruined.  Jobs, abilities, confidence, looks and retirements lost.  We gaze around the table and, too often, sadly realize that, were it not for our name, we would not even hang out with some of these people.  Everyone so different.  Strangers in familiar faces.  

I read a story today of a man who, 23 years ago, was severely injured in a vehicle accident and mistakenly diagnosed as being in a vegetative state.  In reality he was simply paralyzed, unable to express that he was alive in his mind and in his brain.

For 23 years he stayed mute in his prison.  He thought and he talked and he dreamed and he  pleaded and he listened and he screamed.  All in his head.  I cannot even begin to imagine…

All he wanted to do is what so many of us fail to or choose not to or refuse to.  He wanted to express.  To communicate.  To be heard.  To share what was on his mind, on his tongue, in his heart.

My hope this Thanksgiving is that maybe this holiday we’ll all take a little extra time.  To actually look each other in the eye.  Maybe we’ll actually FEEL grateful for the ability to smell that first waft of turkey, that first taste of stuffing, that first sight of pumpkin pie.  Maybe we’ll slow down just long enough to actually hug.  To kiss. To touch an arm.  Take a hand.  To look around the table, look around our homes and our lives and SEE ALL THERE IS to be grateful for.

I know that I am blessed with abilities and options and choices.  I know love and I love deeply.  I carry so many generous, humorous, selfless, amazing people in my heart whom I am so thankful for. 

I’m not going to take the chance to lose the chance…I’m not even going to wait for Thanksgiving to be grateful.  I’m going to be grateful right now, here, tonight.  For all of me.  For all of you.  For the roof over my head, the clothes on my back and the food in my belly.  For the music in my days and the dreams in my nights.  For the options every morning to choose what kind of day I’m going to have and what kind of person I’m going to be. 

I’m going to be grateful for every moment of love, of warmth, of laughter we’ve shared.  All the gifts, all the love, all the shoulders, all the support, all the giggles you’ve given me. 

I wish for you, all of you, a great big mound of succotash this Thanksgiving.  Piled high aside your place setting.  Piled high inside your hearts.  May we all recognize our incredible bounties and fall asleep in warm beds while trying to count them… 

Happy, Happy Thanksgiving to you all.  Please, pass the succotash…

 

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September 25, 2009

The Unforgettable Tests

What grade did you receive on your first quiz that fall in Algebra?  How many did you get wrong on your Zoology final?  What was that red-inked letter at the top of your third paper in Freshman English in college? 

Do you recall?

There are so many tests we sign up for.  To get your driver’s license.  To determine whether you are a nutball before landing a job.  ACTs and SATs and MCats and LCats and kitty kats…

OK, not kitty kats.

Your first debate.  First oral book report.  First interview.  First piano recital.  First 5K… 

Preparation.  Cramming.  Fear.  Conquering fear or succumbing to it.  The immediate response:  applause, satisfaction, shame, a lettered grade, a pass or fail, a parent’s disappointment or pride.

You blow away the Bar Exam or get blown away at the bar after you fail it.

How many mattered?  You can count the ones that did.  The ones that stuck.  The ones that hurt, wounded, fed or filled you.

I’ve come to believe that we choose the tests that will ultimately define us-determine the grades of our lives.  Maybe unknowingly, unwittingly.  Perhaps.  But we choose them.

We choose.

What are yours?

I’m not sure when the tests I chose became clear to me but they revealed themselves and I drew them close.  Close to my heart.  My success or failure in them would be a telling measure of my life’s accomplishments.  Major ingredients in the stew I call life.

Somewhere along the way I decided that there is no greater responsibility than to the children, pets and people in our lives who need help they cannot provide themselves.  What could loom higher?  Greater?  To me these felt paramount.

I helped take care of my parents for fifteen years, always aware of the inevitable ending.  The final test.  My job was, I imagined, to help deliver them to God, to Heaven, to death…with as much safety, peace of mind, comfort and dignity as I could muster.  I spent many days researching their conditions.   I spent many nights praying for the strength to do the right thing, whatever corner we turned next.  To stand up at the end and be there for them no matter how painful I suspected that moment would prove to be.

I practiced.  Studied.  There were pop quizzes along the way.  I did the Heimlich Maneuver when my dad was choking on Jell-O.  I carried him over my shoulder when he snuck halfway down the stairs in the middle of the night and couldn’t go up or down any more.  I dove between him and the ground when he lost his balance and his head was heading for the corner of the side table.  I cleared his airway with my fingers when he was choking on vomit.  I changed the dressings on bed sores those last days every two hours and moved all of his pressure points every 30 minutes round the clock.  I recognized subtle changes in behavior which indicated dangerous elevations in blood pressure.  I gave him aspirin and cold packs and averted strokes more times than I can count.

Getting ready to pass the test, I thought.  I felt ready.  Prepared. 

And then he died ten minutes after I left the hospital on that Thanksgiving night and I felt that I had failed.  Failed him.

Loved ones tell me that’s how he must have wanted it.  Chose it.  That it often happens exactly that way.  Certainly there are days I choose to believe that instead of the ridiculously-painful alternative.  After all, my mom died within an hour of us leaving her at the hospital on her last day.  Surely I couldn’t have failed them both.  Not after fifteen flippin’ years of preparing for those moments…

Other days I tell myself it really is about the journey and not the destination…Sometimes that helps.  But I can never quite escape the feeling that I didn’t show up for the final exam.  I feel like I climbed Mt. Everest and turned around a hundred yards from the Summit and started walking back down again.  That I ran 24 miles of a marathon and then simply stopped running.

How many moments are lost forever…

I don’t get to retake them.  There are no makeup exams.  I only had two parents.  Some days I’m like, Thank God we only get two because I couldn’t bear to bury another one.  

But it hurts.  Guts me.  Still.  It holds close where tears stay. 

The unforgettable tests.

Kids grow up.  Parents grow older.  Pets begin to slow.  Friendships drift.  Marriages hit rocky patches.  Years fly.

Which are your tests?

To raise children who will, one day, become decent members of society?  To show your kids how to handle adversity, bankruptcy, infidelity, cancer?   To repair a damaged friendship?  To rise to the top of your company or make the most money in your family?  To be the best sprinter, shooter, passer, kicker on your team?  In your league?  In the world?  To be skinnier than her or wealthier than him or more popular than all of them put together?

To survive whatever is your personal diagnosis?  To get the nerve to leave your marriage or get the nerve to try fixing it?  To make it to retirement?  To hold onto your job?  To have the best lawn in the neighborhood?   The loudest voice at church (we know who you are)…

Are the tests you choose as broad as wanting to green the planet and save the polar bears or as intimate as wanting to lose forty pounds or overcome your not-so-secret dependency on pain killers?

Do you know?

There are a lot of things that are difficult to live with.  Bad hair, of course.  U of M losing nine games last season, certainly.  No chocolate in the house when you’re PMSing, most definitely.

Traumatic brain injury?  You betcha.

But, for me, one of my remaining tests doesn’t feel like simply living with brain injury.  The test, in my mind, is to, every day, force my damaged peanut and faulty memory to recall what I’ve deemed more important.

I have friends and loved ones living with cancer, daily chronic pain, crippling MS, debilitating arthritis, slow-stealing dementia…

One of my tests is to remember even when I struggle to remember-that life is not to be wished away.  The end of a hard day, the end of the work week, the end of a seemingly endless sermon, the end of humid August. 

How dare I wish one moment of my life away when I know, too well, how frighteningly close I came to losing it?  Shame on me. 

My test, too, is to find balance when I have no balance.  To tally joy and laughter for every tragic, sad moment life reveals.  To find firm footing in the choices I make and the people I love when my legs are rocking and rolling like they have no bones.  To walk tall and confidently in the better parts of my convictions even when I must use a wheelchair. 

To seek out calm, quiet happiness, pure simple happiness, in my head when it is so often filled with loud pounding pain. 

To know that, of all the things that we can live with or end up having to live with, the worst of these, by far, is regret.

What is your test?

Your unforgettable test?

I love the saying that, “If you’re not coaching it, you’re letting it happen.”  I’m an athlete and a coach still in my head, despite what that snickering bastard of a scale says.

I believe that everyone has tests.  Unforgettable tests.  Tests which will define their lives.  We choose the subject.  We choose the class.  Sometimes even, we choose the teacher.

It’s September.  Football weather.  I raked today.  Nights are cool now.   Summer’s over.  I hear the bell sound.

Class is in session…

August 17, 2009

What Is It We Are Really Fearing?

In this current economic mess, even as there are modest signs of recovery, there is evidence that the patient is getting sicker.  There lingers a widespread palpable fear that is scaring the bejesus and sucking the life out of countless- more than a 94 degree afternoon with high humidity and bad hair.

Will I lose my job?  Will my spouse/partner lose his/her job?  Will I miss my mortgage payments?  Will I lose my credit rating?  Will I lose my house?  Will we have to move in with the in-laws?  Will I have to uproot my kids from all their friends and move somewhere else?  Will I have to pull my kid out of college?  Can I find another job?  Am I too old to change careers?  How can I lose my health insurance?

A thousand fears.  A thousand sleepless nights.  A thousand unanswered questions.

Maybe I’ve had too many cognitive martinis but it seems I’ve coasted through this recession from a curiously buffered and hazy distance.  A strange objectivity.  Watching it all happen around me.  Hearing the tormented worries of so many people I love and, yet, not feeling that same fear. 

Oh yeah, that’s right.  I already lost everything…

I feel bad when I hear the real fear in people’s voices.  They can’t hear me when I tell them they will make it.  They can’t hear me when I tell them it’ll be OK.  That maybe new opportunities are knocking.  That maybe their real life’s work is about to begin.  That maybe they are meant to emerge on a wonderful new path.

It’s too big right now, screaming in their ears.   Raging in their darkest, prickliest doubts.  Whispering even as they try to sleep, “It’s coming.  It’s coming…”

Ruin.

I was thinking today that perhaps it is so scary simply because they’ve never experienced it before.  We fear what we don’t know.   Sometimes it renders change and sometimes prejudice and often it isn’t as hard or awful as we’d feared.  We just feared it because we didn’t know.  Hadn’t been through it before.

So what does all this financial ruin mean?  What is this scary monster hiding under so many of our beds during this recession?  Would it help to know?

I can tell you I lost 80% of my wealth after my injury and subsequent inability to return to my career.  You can do the math on your own incomes and imagine your own lot but what it looks like from my front window is this:

When none of my insurances would accept responsibility for my situation 13 years ago when I got hurt, I didn’t receive any income for seven months.  Seven.  That would take us to next March right now if you stopped receiving any income today. 

In those seven months, I used credit cards, in large measure, to survive.  Thirteen years later, I’m still paying for a can of coffee I bought on my Target card in 1996…

After not getting money for seven months, I resumed receiving an income of 85% of my former wages.  I could no longer afford my new house so I downsized to a smaller house and, two months after I bought it, my former employer found a loophole that immediately terminated the disability insurance I was receiving from them.  Yikes, now I was in trouble.  But I hung onto that house for five years and that’s longer than this recession is going to last. 

You can do this!

Financial ruin means I don’t even look through the catalogs they continue to send me a dozen years later.  They sit in a pile in my corner for friends and relatives to page through when they visit.  

It means I continue to wear two pairs of sweats that don’t even have any elastic anymore (when they fall down, I tell myself I must be losing weight).  My t-shirts have holes in them.  I buy everything I can at the Dollar Store (except coffee-don’t ever buy coffee at the Dollar Store).  I have had exactly two sets of sheets for thirteen years.  I reuse vacuum cleaner bags.  Sometimes I use paper towel for coffee filters.  I ask for coffee and cream for Christmas.   Any new clothes are gifts. 

I color my own hair and even have cut it myself a time or two.  OK, maybe ten.  There aren’t maintenance actions any more.  No upkeep.  Not for hair highlights or dental checkups or rotating tires.  You go when there is an emergency.  You go when you sell your favorite mementos on eBay or in a garage sale.  Whenever you have an emergency, it takes months and months to recover even a hundred dollars.

You don’t have credit so, if you don’t have cash, you don’t get it.  You lose your house and you move back home into a basement.  Creditors call and they really don’t believe you when you tell them you don’t have any money.  They imagine that you are hoarding all your money and are simply enjoying hearing from them every day.

You meet friends for a meal out maybe a couple times a year.  You eat well one week a month when you can afford to buy fruit and a decent cut of meat or fish.  The rest of the month you gain weight on cheaper meats and fattening fillers of rice and pasta.  You go from sirloin to chuck, Folger’s to Kroger’s,  and from Jiffy to no brand…

You make presents for loved ones when you used to enjoy shopping for expensive gifts.  Walking the malls during the holidays used to feel exciting and giddy with a wallet full of cash and plastic.  Now there’s really no sense to it at all except for the exercise.

You wash your laundry more times than you’d care to admit in hand soap.  You hang clothes out to dry when you can’t afford to fix the dryer.  You simply sigh when the gutter finally falls off and you can’t afford to replace it.   You drive in the middle of August with your heater on because you can’t afford to replace the radiator.

Is this the fear?  Is this everyone’s fear?  That they will end up like me?

Imagine that.  To be the poster child for everything that everyone you know doesn’t want to end up like.  

Laughing here.

I’m laughing and not crying because I know that, when you’ve lost everything, you haven’t lost anything.  And when you’ve lost everything, you have no idea how much more you could lose. Or how much more you can gain.

When it all gets down to brass tacks, then you actually take a look at what the hell brass tacks even mean.  And, if you’re as fortunate as I’ve been, you realize that you didn’t lose anything that meant anything at all.

I don’t fear losing anything in this recession because they already came and cleared out the cupboard 13 years ago.  I don’t fear losing everything because I’ve long ago filled those cupboards with the things I found that were actually important to me in this life and actually irreplaceable.  And they weren’t anything I could order out of catalogs.

But what I do fear is losing the people I love because of the stress they are experiencing during this awful time in their lives.

Stress kills.  Make no mistake about it.  I’ve read that stress affects a body more than aging, obesity and smoking.  Think about that.   Although it’s easier said than done, worrying really doesn’t help anything.  Worrying is simply asking for things we don’t want.

You’d be amazed at how much satisfaction, happiness, reward and love you can experience and enjoy while living in your parents’ basement with an awful hairdo and eating plain rice twice a day.   You’d be amazed at how far you can go with a 12 year old car and three dollars in your purse.  It would blow you away how inexpensive it is to decide that different isn’t always worse and that making lifelong dreams come to life is extraordinarily cool at any stage and at any age.

I once had a fancy office next to an indoor waterfall, an assistant, expensive suits and fresh flowers on my nightstand every payday.  Now I’m an author and a public speaker.  I’m watching curled up Basset balls and calling high school football games and enjoying the time of my life.

The recession cannot take the only thing that really matters.  Not unless we allow it to.  It cannot take those people and pets we love from us unless we allow the stress to chip away at our mental and physical health, leaving us…

Dead.

Just for the fact that it’s almost 4 in the morning and I’m enjoying cognitive martinis after watching four Basset Hounds all weekend….Let’s pretend….

Say we all died today.  All of us.  Gone.  We all get to the other side of the lawn, waking from our dirt nap,  and we find out that THOUGHTS REALLY ARE THINGS!!!

That all we needed in our lives was to imagine, to voice, to believe, to determine, to strive, to dream….That all we had to do was to stop walking around saying we are fat cows or that we have huge butts.  That we simply needed to stop saying we would never get another job making X amount of money.  That we only had to stop saying no one will hire me, no one will love me, no one will understand me, no one will see that I’m good enough, pretty enough,  interesting enough, smart enough, capable enough or lovable enough…

What if we found out that all we needed to do was to become aware of how often we tell ourselves detrimental things that end up being drawn in and becoming self-fulfilling prophecies?  That all we needed to do was to realize that we are capable of anything?

Wouldn’t we all be red faced then?

Change is shocking.  You are humming along and feeling pretty good about yourself and tomorrow you lose your job.  Or you acquire a brain injury.  Or your spouse drops the divorce bomb.  Or the doctor’s office calls and asks you to come in to hear your test results.  Whatever.  A thousand possibilities.

Your life gets turned upside down.

If you realize what you truly need and you can look around each night and count it, you’re going to be OK.  If you’re fortunate enough to wake up tomorrow morning then you still have the chance to change and better what you don’t like about your life, regardless of how many arrows are coming your way.

We don’t have to waste time fearing the unknown because there’s already enough of the known to keep us busy.  We don’t have to fear what’s going to happen in ten years because we don’t know if we even have ten days.  A million things can happen to change every moment.  And if we’re alive and if we’re reading this right now and understanding it, we’re already armed with enough ammunition to make it better.  To make this life something we really want to live and enjoy, not simply to survive and endure. 

Happiness can be found beyond our greatest fears.  Dreams can be realized no matter the bank account or the stage in life.

Just ask the poster child of ruin.  🙂

July 24, 2009

Writers, All Of Us

Over the years people have asked me what it’s like to be a writer.  They tell me they “could never do that” when I believe that we are all writers.  All storytellers.

We rewrite our personal histories to quiet regrets, to prove any number of favorable traits, to impress bosses and employees, new lovers, family and friends.  We decorate the oft-harsh realities of our pasts to color our present.  To entertain.  To comfort.  And, especially, when our present isn’t what we had hoped it would be, our gussied-up pasts remind us that yes, we have been something special in this lifetime. 

I often noodle this question, when is enough enough?  What job or career is the one that cannot be recovered from if you lose it?  Which is the one we cannot move on from?  The one that nothing can follow?

If you are a professional baseball player, is that it?  Your family, your hometown, your friends…They’re all so proud of you.  Surely that must be the one career you can’t recover from losing.  But even if you are the best on your team or the best in the league, is that enough?  Is it enough when there have been thousands who have become professional baseball players before you?  And, even if you are the best baseball player that has ever laced up spikes and taken the field, what does that mean?

What about becoming a doctor or a lawyer, going to Yale or Harvard?  Is that enough?  How about if you become a millionaire?  Surely that must be enough then.

But there are 8.7 million millionaires in this world.

People in my community struggle so much with the life they lost.  The careers left behind.  What they cannot do any longer.  Often, as it becomes more apparent that we will not return to those abilities, we paint them and retell them and romanticize them until nothing we are and nothing in our present or our foggy futures could possibly be as good as before we were hurt.

I’m sure that, if I live long enough, I will be the best caterer that ever choreographed a seven course dinner.  Just you wait.  Laughing here.

So I’m wondering exactly what particular job or position is enough.  That one title, that one achievement…that so stands alone that we cannot recover its loss?

Michael Jackson was one of the greatest and wealthiest entertainers in the history of entertainment. Was that enough?  Rumor has it he was obsessed with recovering his record-breaking status of the early 80’s and couldn’t accept that he had lost so much of his perceived relevance.  That he never overcame it.

Why is it that so many of us feel that all there is is what was back there?  That all that matters is we can’t get back that career and status we enjoyed before our lives changed? 

People do it in all areas of life.  How many times after a rocky relationship and breakup does that former partner become idolized and thrust upon a pedestal and emerges this glorified one that got away

We storytellers and re-writers of our histories conveniently forget that it wasn’t all perfect then.  Not our jobs and, often, not our relationships.  We didn’t bring home paychecks of gold (unless we were hedgefund managers) and, if we got divorced, obviously the actual relationship we shared (not the edited version) with our spouse was not all smoothe chocolate kisses, diamond sunsets, sultry tangos and soaring rainbows.

How long does ideal have to last?  How long is good enough, good enough?  Why, when so much can go wrong, are we so surprised when it does?

Could it have been enough for Michael Jackson simply to enjoy that he once did it better than anyone else on the planet? 

For 13 years I was a catering manager and a darned good one.  I enjoy rehashing the “glory days” with former colleagues and friends.   They are cherished memories.

But I am good with the fact that I did it once and I did it well.  I don’t have to do it again.  I don’t have to go back.  I don’t suffer one moment when I believe that that was all that defined me.  All that I was meant to do in my entire lifetime.  All that I could succeed in.  Or that my catering success was supposed to take me from A to Z instead of from C to F. 

Is any job?  Would it be different if I had been a critically acclaimed opera singer or a professional tennis player or a Congresswoman?

Our lifetimes are stories we write.  Our injuries demand, this economy demands, life itself demands that we  are able to close chapters and start new ones.  The only one thing we are throughout our lives, after all, is alive.

A dear friend of mine was a therapist and a social worker before she acquired breast cancer.  Now she’s a photographer, an art gallery owner, a breast cancer advocate and a painter.

I was a catering manager before my injury and now I’m a high school sports announcer, a dog sitter, an author, a blogger and a public speaker.

No book is one chapter. 

No life is, either.

I was walking tonight and listening to one of my favorite songs, “I’m Movin’ On” by Rascal Flatts.  I love the lyrics:

I’m movin’ on
At last I can see life has been patiently waiting for me
And I know there’s no guarantees, but I’m not alone
There comes a time in everyone’s life
When all you can see are the years passing by
And I have made up my mind that those days are gone                

Nobody has to be one thing all their lives.  There isn’t one job that is the be-all and end-all in this world.  Happiness is found in constants and commitments that aren’t dressed up as titles.  Success and reward can be found in a thousand different places.

How do you explain the man who works as a sewer parts distributor making 23-5 a year and is happy as a clam?  Completely delighted with his life.  Or the woman who absolutely loves her life while scrubbing morgue floors on the midnight shift in nowheresville?

What is supposed to be the goal?  Surely recent headlines must prove that nothing secures the perfect life.  No amount of career touchdowns.  Not money.  Not titles.  Not millions of adoring fans.  Not corner offices or lifetime batting averages of over .300 or an armful of Oscars.

My goal and, too, my challenge to those like me…is to believe that we can write a fabulous next chapter.  That every old chapter can end and every new chapter can begin and that we are the ones who fill it.  We write it.  We choose what goes into it.

Everyone is a writer.  And, make no mistake about it, the book will end one day.  But the book doesn’t have to end after the third chapter because of injury or difficult childhoods or terrible parents or lost jobs or lousy marriages.  The rest of it doesn’t have to be blank pages. We have more power than that.

As authors of our books, of our lives, we write in the successes.  As much as we want and in whatever area we choose it.  We aren’t chained to anything.  It’s OUR book!  We put in the love.  We insert the laughter.  Wherever we want it!  We create the characters who triumph over adversity.  We choose the supporting characters who can turn the story this way or that.  We start and end the chapters when we want to and on what note. 

Nobody else writes our story and thank God for that.  There’s not just one way to write our story.  There’s not just one way to be happy.  No one job to feel successful.  No one path to find that equals right.

The greatest stories of all time all contain drama, sadness, heartbreak and struggle.  It’s what makes them worth reading. 

 It’s our great fabulous wonderful exciting opportunity to turn the page.  The screen is blank.  The cursor blinking.  I can’t wait to see what you come up with…

June 18, 2009

Macaroni and Soy Sauce

My brother and I were discussing the scuffling economy the other day.  We were recalling the other down periods during our lifetimes when, as a nation, we’ve struggled.  Those years when there were long lines at the gas station, so many people out of work, empty store shelves and families struggling just to put food on the table.

I remember when I was a kid and my Dad, so many nights, eating macaroni and soy sauce or macaroni and ketchup.  I thought he really really liked it.  I cry about that now.  I didn’t know.

We never wanted for anything, my brothers and me.  We enjoyed a hot breakfast every morning and a hot meal together every night.  We ate meat at every meal.  Salad.  Homemade baked bread.  My dad ate macaroni and soy sauce while I complained about having to eat the roast beef with carrots and potatoes again.

I didn’t know.

Sure I saw coverage of the long lines at the gas stations on TV back then.  I heard unemployment figures and inflation numbers.  I didn’t appreciate them.  Didn’t know to apply them.  I didn’t understand when my dad would ask the neighborhood pharmacist to, “hold a check until next Tuesday”.  I didn’t pay notice when he wore the same two pairs of winged tips for fifteen years, taking care to shine them at the bottom of the stairs.

They let us get the new shoes.  They let us get the new school clothes and go to the sports camps and out with our friends.  They let us get the baseball gloves and guitars and roller skates and hockey sticks.  They struggled together in silence so that we wouldn’t have to.  So that we wouldn’t know.  So that we wouldn’t suffer or stress or struggle.  We used to joke that all our mom seemed to eat was bread and all our dad seemed to eat was macaroni with soy sauce.

I weep for that tonight.  I didn’t know.

Seems all kids, at some point, consider their parents to be embarrassing nerds.  They are mortified that their parents wear what they consider to be outdated clothes with outdated hairstyles and tired shoes.  Most kids don’t realize it’s because they get the new hair cut and highlights before prom.  Mom has four inches of new growth and faded highlights from 13 months ago.  They get the new shoes for the first day of school and the next sports season.  Dad shines his old winged tips at the bottom of the stairs…

I used to think it was kind of lame that the biggest thing we do for our moms and dads on Mother’s and Father’s Day is to treat them to dinner.  Now I realize that a good steak dinner or shrimp or whatever they wanted that day meant a lot more than I ever imagined.

I guess I just want to say thank you to all you parents out there who, like mine, struggled through the worst of the 70s and 80s in order to afford us such a wealthy childhood.  A childhood rich with games and giggles.  Carefree summers of pool hopping and baseball games.  Exciting nights in tents in the backyard.  Chasing the ice cream truck and Red Rover on the front lawn.  Daydreams of infinite possibilities.

In today’s recession, for today’s moms in bad hair with dark roots and bedraggled bathrobes and three-year-old mascara and bras that have no elastic anymore, bless your huge, generous hearts. 

And thank you to all you fathers out there eating macaroni and soy sauce today.  Shining your shoes.  Covering that thin, stretched-out tee shirt with a snarky old dress shirt and a limping tie.  Thank you for letting your boys chase toads and eat dirt and dream of playing major league baseball and trade baseball cards and sharpen popsicle sticks on the cement.  Thank you for allowing your girls to sing into a hair brush and wobble in her mom’s shoes and name her stuffed animals and knock tennis balls against the house, believing she’s going to one day win Wimbledon.

You’re heroes to me, you are.   Every precious one of you.

Happy Father’s Day.

June 1, 2009

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet

I cried a little for GM today.  It wasn’t because I believe GM, or Ford or Chrysler for that matter, to be the innocent victim of some unforeseen catastrophe.  I don’t.  And it wasn’t because I don’t believe they can emerge from this painful low and again stake their place in a competitive auto industry.  I do.

No, I cried a little for GM today because it’s all we’ve known.  Growing up in Warren, MI, just outside of Detroit, most of our neighbors and friends and classmates were from auto industry families.  They worked the lines and drove the brands and there was a real sense of pride hailing from the Motor City.  It was drilled into our heads from the time we were little, “If you get in with the Big Three, you’re set for life.”  And for all my life that has been true.

It’s not true any longer. 

It’s hard to lose all that you’ve known of something.  Painful and disorienting to lose the comfort, familiarity and security of that constant.  It’s hard to lose an identity.

I cried a little for GM today because I know what it’s like to suffer that moment when you realize nothing will ever be the same.  I’m sure each of the decision makers and board members and VIPs and employees from GM had their one moment when it became apparant that they weren’t going to resolve this problem and hold on to all they’d built and all they’d known.

It’s a tough moment.

My moment came not long after I was injured.  I didn’t tell anyone but I knew.  Until then I had denied the looks I had caught between family, friends and co-workers.  Between therapists and doctors.  I had denied the voices taunting  in my head between pledges of hope and untired determination.  Denied the mounting evidence. 

I didn’t speak those words.  Wasn’t ready yet.  I kept quiet even when my eyes were screaming in the mirror.   My heart breaking with disappointment.  Even when I continued to tell myself, prod myself… if I try harder, wait longer, believe more strongly…

And then one night when no one was around, it came.  My moment.  Lonely in the middle of the night.  Like the first frost.  Things were dead then.  I knew my life was turning fast to winter and there was no more denying that the sun wasn’t staying as long or burning as brightly anymore.

It’s a tough moment when you realize that the only life you’ve ever known has already died.  It’s already gone.  You just didn’t want to say good bye.

When a door locks behind us and we no longer have the key, it takes a little while before we stop pounding and jimmying the knob and kicking it and cursing.  We simply don’t want it be closed for good.

But if we are blessed enough to see a day that holds only what we are no longer, then we are equally blessed with the opportunity to use that day to start becoming what we wish one day to be.

Like GM, those of us who suffer life-altering events will keep those bittersweet memories of easier times and top-of-the-mountain moments when the choices we made and the paths we walked brought success, reward and satisfaction.

But there is much work ahead if we are going to become more than simply what used to be.  If we are going to revamp and retool and redesign our present into a future we can again stand proudly aside, then what is lost is best left to the ruins. 

The time comes in all of our lives when we must finally toss out that favorite old coat, now full of holes and moths and smelling of disappointment.   

The time comes to all of us when we have to determine a second chance to be all that we need.  To re-evaluate and to see if the dreams we once clung so tightly to even make our hearts swoon anymore. 

Sometimes we believe something simply because we have always believed it.   Because our parents told us to.  Or because our friends did.  We eat something cooked a certain way because we have always eaten it that way.  We don’t even wonder if maybe something else could be better.  Or we don’t even pay attention to whether it even tastes good anymore.

I once heard a story of a man who had always dreamed of owning his own boat.  He had dreamed of it and pictured it and planned it and told everyone over the years.  He would buy that boat when he retired and sail around the world.  It was the dream he lived by.  The dream he was known for.

But over the years he had been in the Navy when his ship was bombed severely in WW2.  He had almost drowned on a family vacation in the ocean.  His knees were horribly warped and painful from arthritis. 

So when he retired, he bought that boat.  But the memories of those bombings and his fear of the water after almost drowning and his limited mobility from the angry knees made it impossible for him to fit into that old dream.  He never even sailed it before he died.

If tomorrow is simply another  yesterday, they wouldn’t call it tomorrow.  If tomorrow were only yesterday, we’d be going backwards.  But we’re not. 

We’re going forwards.

New dreams that haven’t been realized yet are better than old dreams that no longer can be.   Tomorrow is better than yesterday because we can still change tomorrow.  We can still shape our dreams to fit our actual desires, abilities and needs. 

It’s OK to cry a little bit when the first frost comes and the future feels horribly cold and dark and the soft warm light of summer has long faded.  But in a moment comes Spring and that is worth every wait. 

Let’s get going now.  Our lives have been patiently waiting.

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