If it Were My Last 24 Hours on Earth

“No one here gets out alive.”

— Jim Morrison

 

sky earth galaxy universe
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Not to worry, not checking out anytime soon, just reminding myself how fragile life can be. The last thing I want to do is hurt anyone; therefore, I think it’s best for me to respond in the abstract and not name names.

What if you knew that you were going to die and you had 24 hours or less left to live? Would you want to be surrounded by those you love? Would you run away and hide from everyone? Would you tell people you cared about? Would you share things you have been holding back? Would you look back at memories? Would you end your life sooner in order to control the situation?

These are the kinds of questions I ask myself when considering just how finite life is.  And by the way, the questions come up occasionally, not every day. There are statistics that guide us when we consider our lifespan. There are formulas based on how long your parents lived. Then there are calculations based on lifestyle. Genetics sometimes come into play. However, an accident may make all of those theories insignificant and irrelevant.

I had a pretty bad accident a couple of years ago that made me question life, death and how I feel about both. Up until the accident, I was fairly certain that I would grow old and cranky. If I’m going to be honest, I have to say I’m well on my way.

I attended a dinner party a few days ago and raised my blog topic for this week. It’s interesting to hear what people have to say in a relaxed social setting. I don’t usually share my own thoughts until after I’ve heard from others. As with any difficult subject, some people prefer to avoid the matter altogether and this time was no different. One of the things I love about people is how very unique we all are. It’s for this reason that I try my best not to judge. Our prospective can be polar opposite based on things like upbringing, religious beliefs, the truth we hold on to, and so forth. I would be untruthful if I didn’t admit to feeling strongly about my own beliefs; the power of personal conviction is essential for many reasons. Keeping that in mind, I don’t claim to be right, but I do think that what I am espousing is true for me; sometimes, that’s all that truly matters.

I posed the question to a small group of people sitting at the table after lunch:

If you knew you had 24 hours or less to live, what would you do? 

The answers I got were interesting and understandable:

“I wouldn’t change anything; I’d want it to be a normal day.”

“I wouldn’t tell anyone because all they would do is cry and pity me.”

“I would be with a very small group of people I love very much.”

“I wouldn’t do very much because I would want time to slow down. When you do a lot of things, time speeds up.”

“I might consider ending my life sooner — when I decided it should end.”

“I would have a couple of conversations I have been avoiding.”

“Why, do you know something I don’t know?”

The thing is, do we truly know how we would behave until we are actually in a particular life altering situation? I could easily say I wouldn’t tell anyone that I was going to die, but in truth, if I knew it was the end and I became extremely emotional or scared, I might need to tell or want to tell someone.

What follows are some thoughts on why we live our lives as if there is no expiration date:

I love this poignant comic included in Brian Lee’s piece on living life as if we’re never going to die at Lifehack. Check out www.zenpencils.com.DALAI-LAMA-answers-a-question

We are complex creatures with hopes, fears, frailties and misgivings. Our highly developed brains allow us to tuck away thoughts and focus on things that make us feel good; I should note that some of us are better at this than others. We often behave as if our daily actions do not have consequences for the future. Vices and health related toxins are often imbibed or eaten without concern for longevity. It’s a curious human occurrence considering that most of us would like to grow old. So what drives us to recklessness? It’s as if there is a little switch in our brains that we choose to turn off when desire overpowers restraint.

It is no accident that the precise timing of our death is unknown. Imagine the chaos and emotional instability that would ensue. I think that animals have a better sense of death and what it means than we do and, therefore, have better dying coping skills. I’ve been with several dogs at the end of their lives and the sense of peace and acceptance I felt from these animals was both life affirming and beautiful. We live and we die and that is the true miracle of life.

As I consider complicated mechanisms for denial and delusion, it once again brings me to how I might deal with knowing when my own demise is just around the corner. Here are some thoughts that come to mind (not necessarily in order of importance):

  1. There is no doubt in my mind that I would want to truly enjoy the wonders of the earth. The sunrise and sunset continue to amaze me and I take both in as often as possible. The smell of flowers and the feel of earth between my fingers, gives me great pleasure. I can only imagine that knowing these wonders would no longer be accessible would heighten my desire to experience them.
  2. The people in my life who have shown me love and devotion would be on my mind at the end; I would hope that these cherished few would be nearby. I would want to let them know how much I love and appreciate them. I still do not know that I would share the inevitability of my passing. We all know that we should be showing our love and appreciation often, not waiting until we are sick or dying.
  3. I have loved food since I could smell my dad’s pizza in the oven when I was a wee toddler. My relationship with good food has never waivered and I hope I remain true to my passion until the day I die. I have been reading research about taste buds and how our sense of taste diminishes with age. I refuse to believe that this applies to me. My father and aunts and uncles on my father’s side, all enjoyed savory dishes well into their 80s. If I knew that my death was near, I would want to devour my favorite foods:  shellfish, pasta and cake and a nice red of course. I know that knowing it was almost over would probably have an effect on my appetite; however, knowing how I sometimes eat and drink to feel better, I imagine I’d be hungry and thirsty. A very expensive armagnac would be a must have.
  4. Being present and cherishing every moment of what life I have left, would likely be my mode of thinking and feeling. I have never feared death, therefore, I’m fairly certain i would be at peace with it.
  5. I would want to be comfortable; the right temperature, the right place, and the right people around me.
  6. I would probably want to be on a good dose of xanax.

I have had many people in my life pass:  my grandparents (three before I was even born), my parents, several siblings, close friends, teachers, co-workers and acquaintances. My mother’s brother died of a massive heart attack in his 50’s; how could I not consider the possibility of dying at anytime? Personally, I don’t find this morbid or sad.

Long ago I decided that if I had a fatal illness, I would travel (if I could) to a place where you could choose to die with dignity. If this were to happen, I would have an opportunity to decide how I would spend my final hours; all of this provides great comfort. I am not obsessed with dying, I am focused on living and making sure my quality of life is the best it can be.

The purpose of this blog is twofold. First, it is my hope that it will get you thinking about how you live your daily life; what are your priorities and do you consider and cherish the people and things that bring you the greatest happiness. Second, it is my belief that we as individuals have the power to change the course and direction of our lives. I felt stuck, misguided and unhappy in Maine. It wasn’t so much the place or the people, but an environment that was too comfortable and unchallenging. I moved to Europe in order to reboot, recharge, and start afresh. It’s not right for everyone, but it has taught me more about myself than I anticipated. Self-discovery and change can be as exciting as a new relationship; driving gleefully into the future with renewed hopes and dreams. Fear is what usually holds us back. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of death. Put all of your fears aside and go for it. The unknown can be a wonderful and rewarding future. Focus on the image of a door opening to a paradise you never imagined existed; more often than not, we have the ability to manifest our dreams. I choose to manifest those dreams while I am still alive.

Image result for manifest dreams quote

Doing the Right Thing

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I’m not sure when it was that I started feeling the pressure of doing the right thing. I do know two things:

  1. I spend way too much time thinking about this. The right thing for me or for others; I think about both.
  2. When I do the so called “right thing,” I sometimes spend time wondering if the right thing was the best thing.

Breaking down the issue, I think I can safely assume that #1 will never go away. There comes a time when you just have to accept who you are and what you can or cannot change. I live with a lot of guilt:  gay guilt because I was closeted for the first 28 years of my life and I lied to a lot of people; Catholic guilt, having been raised Catholic and forced to spend too much time with authorities from the church; sibling guilt, being in the middle of 10 whole, half and step siblings; and DNA guilt — I am certain that I got the guilt gene, perhaps more than one.

When you put it into words, no wonder you find it overwhelming. Fortunately, I have found a way to tuck most of it away in little boxes that I can set aside and keep closed.

 

Gay Guilt

If you truly believe that people no longer care if you’re gay or straight or transgender or how you define your sexuality, do not read any further or even better, read with an open mind [There are actually people who have said to me, “Things are different now, nobody cares anymore. Right.]:

I count myself as one of the lucky ones because I came out at 28. I know gay men well into their seventies who are still closeted. I cannot imagine that kind of pain. So when I talk about doing the “right thing,” I mean what is right for you, not what others think is right for you.

I continue to feel that people look at me differently because I am gay. I know that I have family members who have very little to do with me because of my sexuality. Anyone who says they don’t care is lying to themselves and others. Yes it makes me stronger and more determined to be my true self, but it can also sometimes make you feel as if you’re living on an island. The messages on television and magazines have changed, however, we continue to live in a heterosexual world and I cannot imagine that changing anytime soon. Navigating that world can be exhausting and troublesome.

What does doing the right thing look like for you straight or closeted folks?

  1. Show some interest, ask questions.
  2. Ask to be a part of someone else’s world. My brother asked me to take him to a gay bar about 10 years ago and I was pleased and excited to show him a part of my life.
  3. Read articles and books on the subject matter.
  4. Be an ally whenever possible, it truly matters. It’s the reason we have come so far.
  5. Just be with someone who needs you, often that’s all they need.

 

Catholic Guilt

If you were raised catholic (I cannot speak for other  religions) there were clear messages about the sins of the world. I went to Catholic Catechism and was basically taught that it wasn’t evil to think about someone of the same sex sexually; however, it was a sin to act on those thoughts — how’s that for a scary and confusing message. Too many mortal sins to worry about when you’re Catholic. A clear way to push someone into swearing off (sorry) one’s religion.

 

Sibling Guilt

I have a number of half brothers and sisters and I have a step brother. I have a good deal of guilt about being a brother and not having a closer relationship with several of my siblings. We tend to want to spend time with people we connect with and we don’t always connect with our siblings. In some cases, it might be their spouses or partners that are problematic. Nobody wants to be put in the middle, therefore, I personally do not confront siblings about their problematic partners. Then there are partners that are more pleasant to be with than your siblings, best to stay away from that one. It’s difficult not to feel alienated and judged when you receive feedback about something said about you by a family member. The right thing for me is usually distance; stay clear of conflict, it’s painful and impossible to mitigate. Is this the right thing to do or is it the smart path? I admit there are times that I choose the easy way out.

 

Baby I was Born This Way

This is not just about sexuality . . . telling someone that you were born this way is often an excuse for explaining away a personality flaw. For example, I have a relative who is a compulsive gambler. He claims that he was born with a gene that makes it impossible for him to stay away from gambling. I can’t argue whether or not there is such a gene, however, I do know that when someone has a gambling problem, there is a way to get help and overcome the addiction. In some cases you have a choice about whether or not you care to address the problem. I am sympathetic about addiction (I have my own), but I also know that if you care about yourself and the people around you, you can seek help. For me, admitting that you need help and getting help can be the definition of doing the right thing.

 

Miscellaneous Guilt

The guilt one feels which cannot be named. This kind of guilt causes self-doubt, anger, pain, loss, poor decision-making, unhappiness, regret, and so on. You have to ask yourself difficult questions about why you feel guilty. Guilt is often an indication of a problem you may be having around a moral dilemma; did I do something wrong? How do I make it right? If you are the kind of person who lives life without guilt, well then, you needn’t concern yourself with it’s symptoms. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.

 

What is the Right Thing?

The “right thing” is different for each of us. We each have our own moral compass, our own values, and our own personality. Most of us know the difference between right and wrong; that might lead one to believe that doing the right thing would be easy, but we know it’s not always easy. When making big decisions, consequences are usually at play. Dealing with those consequences, is usually a better alternative than doing something that might not be right, which usually comes back to bite you in the ass.

 

A short story:

Many of us can recall a situation at work where the environment became toxic and difficult to endure; this has been a lifelong issue for me. For reasons too complicated to outline here, I tend to link employment with self-esteem; specifically personal failure. Rather than admit the time had come to walk away, I stayed and endured a great deal of emotional instability and pain. In several cases, I stayed for years. What this does to one’s physical and psychological well-being cannot be measured; however, the damage was greater than I care to admit. Had I cleared my conscience and walked away sooner, I might have saved myself from having several surgeries and the work of repairing a lost sense of self.

I am aware that doing that repair work is part of life and growth; however, I also believe that we often do damage that is beyond repair (i.e, divorce, in my case). Another life can be greatly impacted by your deceit.

What I have learned is valuable for me:  think about possible outcomes before making a big decision; think about how it might impact others; think about the worst case scenario; and think about what is right. Some people just go with their gut feelings. That may work sometimes, but I have found that my gut is not always right. I may be so wrapped up in the desired outcome, that I’m not thinking about the process. The way we go about achieving a goal is as important as winning. You might not be happy with yourself if you got to goal by hurting people or being dishonest — we don’t always know the truth about ourselves and we have to face that truth.

“You know you have made the right decision when there is peace in your heart.”

— Unknown

 

 

Thank you Linda Halasa (a good friend) for proofreading this week. I will be reblogging next week due to family visiting Portugal. The following week will coverage of Eindhoven, Netherlands.

How My Childhood Experiences Shaped Who I am

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Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where I grew up. That’s me top, far left. I tried to hide as much as I could.

 

Home Life

My earliest memories are of physical and emotional abuse, alcohol abuse, racial tension, divisive and foul language, death, family turmoil, drug abuse, illness, and poverty; all at extremely damaging proportions.

Conversely, I witnessed love, sexual freedom, a struggle to rise above socio-economic barriers, an acceptance of alternative sexual and gender orientation, and ethnic diversity.

I was profoundly affected by what I saw and heard, how could I not be? In what ways did it shape who I am, determine my values, inform my capacity to love and be loved, create a roadmap for what my life might be like, provide tools for survival, determine my biases, my political beliefs, my predilections, my sexual tendencies, my fancies, my relationships, and my truth.

Psychologists have researched and reported on how your childhood experiences shape and determine who you are as an adult for just about as long as the discipline has existed. About three months ago, Howard Stern interviewed Anderson Cooper (you can Youtube the entire interview; for some reason YouTube does not allow you to post the link). Among the many things they discussed was analysis and how it can help you alter who you are. At one point Anderson asks Howard a very direct question:

“Did therapy save your life.”

Howard quickly answers, “Yes.”

I would respond yes as well. Two of my siblings died as a result of mental dysfunction; one from an eating disorder and the other from an overdose. My deceased sister struggled with poor self-esteem her entire life; the eating disorder was just one manifestation of her numerous problems. My brother, who overdosed, turned to drugs as his only escape. Other siblings struggle with issues I am not at liberty to discuss. I am fairly certain that without therapy, I would have been fucked.

Howard and Anderson spoke about how childhood experiences affect you and how the damage (unless dealt with), remains with you your entire life. I knew early on that I was not in great shape emotionally and psychologically. Doubts about my sexuality and major sleep issues were the first couple of things to haunt me. My first thoughts of suicide were when I was ten years old and I hoped that I would die before my next birthday — I wrote about this in detail in an earlier blog. I did not share these destructive thoughts with anyone until I was well into my twenties. I was ashamed of my feelings/thoughts and did not want to burden anyone in my life.

When I look back on my childhood, I recall that teachers noticed that I was often melancholy and distant. I was frequently asked about how things were at home, how I felt, and did I need to talk about it. I would just brush it off and deny that anything was wrong. Teachers would ask to see my mother knowing she was a single mom with a house full of children. I’m not sure what was discussed, but my mother would just say to me, “Chris you need to smile more and try to have more fun in school; your teachers think I’m abusing you.” I assured my mother that I was well behaved in school (claiming to be happy would have been a stretch).

I loved school. It was the only time I could truly escape from the dysfunction that was taking place at home. I would always arrive early and stay late. After school theater activities were my early therapy. These days, school psychologists spend time with troubled kids; fifty years ago these professionals did not exist on school grounds (at least not in Brooklyn). My teachers coddled me — that only made it worse. The other children bullied me because I was perceived as the teacher’s pet and a “goody-goody.” Admittedly, I did seek the approval and praise of my teachers as a result of not getting it at home; it made me feel special, but I paid the price.

I’m sixty years old and I am who I am. I assure you that this is not a “poor me” moment in my life. I know that understanding where my issues originated helps me to understand and appreciate others. So much of life is about forgiveness; forgiving yourself for characteristics that were born out of adversity and forgiving others for their insecurities, mishaps and home environments.

I had friends here from New York over the last few days. My friend Julie is a very bright woman and we go back many years. She knew me when I had just completed my doctorate (we had this in common). I was passive aggressive, cocky and way too angry for a young man. Julie put up with a lot of nonsense from me back then. We talked about our history while she was visiting me here in Portugal. Julie helped me understand how she perceived my behavior and why she accepted it. I explained how I viewed the dynamic between us. It was interesting to discuss our thirty year friendship and share gratitude for what it is today. Clearly, we have both worked hard to examine who we are and who we’d like to be. This is one of the best things about a long term friendship, you experience life together and apart and revisit what attracted you to the other person to begin with. Too often in relationships, we forget where we came from.

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Julie and I capturing a moment in our 30 year friendship. The similar sunglasses was a total accident, but I love it.

 

A Quick Story (over 50 years ago)

It was just an ordinary Saturday night and this happened:

We were sitting around our small television watching some banal comedy show on a very fuzzy screen when three woman strolled into our basement; nobody knocked when they came to our house. Today we call drag queens who dress in women’s clothes, women, because they prefer that we refer to them as woman; they use feminine pronouns. But back in Coney Island in the 60s, they were men dressed up as women and they were, for the most part, rejected by society.

These men in women’s clothing came by to see my mother before stepping out into the Manhattan club scene. These were my mother’s friends and they knew my mother (she was about 30 years old) couldn’t join them because she had small children, but she could help them with their hair and make-up. What I remember was a lot of laughter, a great deal of compassion and complete acceptance; my mother did not judge. To my eyes, she admired and fully embraced their alternative lifestyle. These individuals were colorful, funny, talented, brave, and present. I realize that I have not had a lot of nice things to say about my mother; however, to be fair, this sort of role modeling is the reason I have always been accepting of differences — it’s what I was taught as a child. My mother loved people; people of all shapes and sizes, race, and sexual orientation.

I have learned that individuals who are not very tolerant of differences, more than likely, were raised in a home where differences were shunned, not celebrated. I don’t believe we are genetically wired to hate; hate is something we are taught.

 

People and Places I have Sought Out in Order to Grow

I knew early on, that the only way I would survive would be to find normalcy and attach myself to it. My childhood friend Joey’s parents were happily married and he had grandparents. Grandparents were nurturing and supportive and I wanted that. I endeared myself to Joey’s family and spent as much time at his house as I possibly could.

Education was an essential part of my early survival. Anyone having to do with teaching seemed well adjusted and were almost always helpful. I was always eager to learn and well-prepared — educators appreciated that. I was somewhat aware of my ability to manipulate certain situations; being quiet, complimentary and naive (sometimes I faked this), helped get me a place at the table.

Friends throughout my life have been supportive and loving. I knew that unless you nurtured your friendships, they would not last. Many of my friends have been a part of my life for many, many years; they are my family and I am grateful to them.

I hired a life coach about 10 years ago. Betsy had a profoundly positive influence on my life and I cherish our professional and personal relationship. Having someone ask the right questions can never be a bad thing. If you can afford coaching, I definitely recommend it.

I have had the good fortune to meet and get to know some very bright people in my life:  authors, teachers, artists, creative and caring individuals. These people have helped me to be a better person. Lately, I am more discriminating and selective about who I spend my time with. Part of being more secure and better adjusted, is making the most of your time and life experiences. There is no longer any place in my life for toxic, angry people. No matter how long I have I left, I want to die knowing that I lived life to the fullest. There is nothing wrong with a laugh or two along the way; oh and a really good meal.

Examine where you came from and choose where you want to be. We don’t have much say in our early experiences, however, we do get to pick and choose how we live our lives as adults. Using a bad childhood as an excuse for poor behavior is not always valid. There are certainly times when early imprinting has an impact on our lives, but hard work, some solid therapy and the desire for change, can help you shape your own present and future.

The best thing about this work is that it never ends. Each day brings new lessons and new beginnings. Start the day with gratitude and hope; a lifeline worth preserving.

Namaste.

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Photo by Luis Quintero

Human Behavior is Complicated

 

 

 

 

Studying human behavior has always been a fascinating pastime for me. I majored in sociology in college and the question was always:  how does the behavior of others apply to me and what am I going to do with a sociology degree?

 

behaviour
noun
noun: behavior
  1. the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others.
    “he will vouch for her good behaviour”
    synonyms: conduct, way of behaving, way of acting, deportmentbearingetiquetteMore

    • the way in which an animal or person behaves in response to a particular situation or stimulus.
      plural noun: behaviours; plural noun: behaviors
      “the feeding behaviour of predators”

     

I admittedly spend too much time trying to figure people out; individuals and groups alike. I make the same mistake over and over again; I usually believe people will react the way I do. We all know how ridiculous that assumption is. We’re raised differently, we learn from different people and we all have a different moral compass. If you think you’re more trustworthy or “right” than the next guy, that’s a huge mistake and it’s bound to get you into trouble.

 

Family

Whenever I write about my family, I am concerned that I will alienate or offend someone I care deeply about. So once again, I will not mention names. Except this one time:  My niece Nicole is close to giving birth to twins; very close. This is a very positive “family” happening and from where I’m sitting it appears that all of the people around her are excited for her. This will of course change the dynamic of Nicole’s immediate family and I consider myself a part of Nicole’s immediate family. Because of Nicole’s positive energy and desire to be a mother, the behavior I am observing and the words I have been hearing, have been upbeat and anxious anticipation, “When will they come, what will they be like, and how what sort of mother will I be?”

I am looking forward to the joy this boy and girl will bring to the family. My sister and her husband will be wonderfully loving grandparents, my nephew will be a terrific uncle and my niece will be an exceptional mother. Observing all of this from Portugal will be joyful and sad; sad because I am thousands of miles away. Thanks to modern technology I will be able to have frequent contact and I will be meeting my great niece and nephew in Baltimore this coming December. Although this experience is not new for me, never having had my own children has made having lots of nieces and nephews, very special.

The behavior of family members mattered more to me when I was closer in proximity; moving overseas has helped me put their love into perspective. It sort of always goes back to how being human makes us all different and trying to appreciate where the other person is coming from.

 

Friends

My close friends are all very different and I love that about them. I have not heard one of my friends disparage another one of my friends; this is important to me. They each know how much I love them and they are also aware of how much I love and admire my other friends. It’s been very important to share my appreciation for them and to show them how grateful I am to have them in my life. What I have observed in my friends is respect, admiration and loyalty. I’m not sure it would be fair or reasonable to ask for anything more than that.

I have also learned that when a friend behaves in a way that disturbs me, it is essential to share my feelings as soon after the incident as possible; waiting is unfair. Friends deserve clear communication and a great deal of consideration. Remember to listen. Also, remember to be loving and forgiving.

 

Strangers

When I observe strangers, it is usually through a non-judgmental lens, unless they do one of the following:

  • fail to clean-up their dog’s poop
  • behave cruelly to animals
  • verbally or physically abuse their partner/child/friend in public
  • speak loudly on their cell phone
  • act extremely intoxicated or tripping out on one drug or another
  • display a weapon in a threatening manner
  • publicly display signs of racism, prejudice, anti-semitism, anti-homosexuality, anti-individuality, anti-freedom, hate or disregard for humanity.

 

Internal Dialogue

Here are some of the things I say to myself when I am observing human behavior:

  • She talks and talks and talks and doesn’t listen to a word anyone else is saying.
  • If he leaves that pile of shit on the ground, I am saying something.
  • Why does she wait until the moment she is getting on the bus to take her money out to pay? She’s been standing at the bus stop for 20 minutes.
  • Who does he or she think they are?
  • Why doesn’t he just stay home?
  • Where does this person come from?
  • How can I make it stop?
  • I need to get away from here.

 

Why I Need to Stop 

Just observing human behavior is fun; however, attempting to figure out why people say or do the things they say or do, is just plain unhealthy. We are so often wrong for the simple reason that we cannot be inside someone else’s head; it’s just not possible. Sure you may know someone a long time and their behavior may be somewhat predictable, but people do often surprise us and sometimes the surprise is positive.

What I’d like to more often, is ask why. Why are you raising your voice? Why are you pointing your finger at me? Why are you angry right now? I think if I ask because I’m genuinely interested, the response will enlightening. It’s important to not be patronizing or passive aggressive.

“Rob, I’m not sure what’s happening today, but you seem upset about something; can you tell me about it?”

“Trish, I’m not sure you whether or not you realize this, but your voice is louder than it usually is right now. What’s up?”

“Mike, some of the words you’re using are hurtful. I wanted to let you know that I’m confused about why you are saying these things to me.”

“Sue, what am I doing right now that is making you angry? I promise to just listen and hear you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living With a Lie

“There are only two things. Truth and lies. Truth is indivisible, hence it cannot recognize itself; anyone who wants to recognize it has to be a lie.” Franz Kafka

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Grace Marie when she was a happy child (to my left). Anthony to my right next to my mom and my sister Debbie.

My mother’s lies taught me two things:  First and most harmful, it was acceptable to lie, and second, secrets are impossible to keep.

I had a beautiful half-sister who died a horrible premature death several years ago; she was in her mid-forties. In fact, it was her birthday a couple of days ago and it was the anniversary of my brother Anthony’s death. My sister Grace found him with a needle in his arm on her birthday. She was already far gone by then and I’m certain, finding her (our) brother lifeless in her own home, must have sealed her fate.

My sister Grace or Gasha (the way we spelled it), as she was known to close family, was a troubled child. She wore thick glasses and was labeled “four eyes” by her siblings and peers. We also called her monkey because of her button nose; kids can be mean and her brothers and sisters were the cruelest of all. I am not claiming innocence; in fact, I may have been the worst culprit. Perhaps it was the secret I held onto that drove me to cruelty.

My parents argued a lot; in fact, they argued night and day. My father would come home from work at midnight and my mother would dig in her hateful claws. Having been exposed to this behavior early on, I worked hard to tune them out and fantasize about a quieter world that I knew existed elsewhere. My memory of their relentless rage goes back to pre-school and a time when I was too young to understand the complicated world of adult anger. One particular memory is vivid because it involved a lie I did not understand at the time; I may have been five or six years old.

Many angry words were exchanged during one very loud shouting match and most of those words were as difficult to comprehend as a foreign language. For some reason I held onto something my father said, “Grace is not my child.” At the time I thought it was odd for my father to say such a thing and so, I dismissed them from my thoughts. Every so often I found myself daydreaming and reflecting on these words. As I grew older and more inquisitive, I wondered why my father said this to my mother. I looked at my sister differently because of what my father said. I naturally wondered who her father might be, if it were not my father. I was not aware of an affair my mother had with her first husband while she was married to my father.

When I turned nine, there was a lot going on around me; my only living grandparent passed, my mother was divorcing my father and marrying my stepfather, and I was repressing my sexuality (I remember having some strong feelings toward one of my mother’s male friends). My mom and I would occasionally spend quality alone time together — rare because she had seven children. On one of these occasions, I decided I would ask her about Gasha. My mother had a way of drawing me in as a close confidant and then shoving me away. I can’t blame alcohol because she wasn’t a drunk, but her father was an alcoholic and physically abusive; perhaps it was his influence. As a child I longed for the kind of closeness where you felt honest love and affection — not likely to get it from my mother, but I never stopped trying.

We were sitting on her bed watching an old black & white film and she was running her fingers through my hair. I may have been as happy at that moment as I would ever be with my mom.

I looked up at her and said, “Ma, who is Gasha’s father?”

My mother pushed me to the edge of the bed and said, “Where do you get these ideas?”

I told her that I had overheard an argument she had with my father a few years earlier and she told me that I was imagining things.

“Who would Gasha’s father be if it wasn’t your father? Honestly Chris, I worry about you.”

I wanted to believe my mother, so I let it go . . . until a few years later when this happened:

I was having dinner with my father at the restaurant where he worked. Our meals were very special to me and we always spoke openly and earnestly. I’m pretty sure I was in my teens at this point. I had accidentally seen my parents marriage license and came to learn that my mother and father didn’t marry until I was three years old. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t bother me. My dad told me that they couldn’t marry because my mother’s first husband was in prison and there was a law about divorce and incarceration back then. He said that they married as soon as they legally could. I shrugged and decided this would be a good time to ask about Gasha. I sort of tricked my dad and acted like I knew for certain that Gasha was not his biological daughter.

When I asked him who Gasha’s father was he said, “Joe is her father, but I adopted her and so she’s my daughter now. How did you know about this? Did your mother tell you?”

I shared that I had overheard an argument between the two of them when I was a kid and he grabbed my face and squeezed my cheeks; something he did to show affection. He hardly ever said anything negative about my mother and I wish I could say the reverse were true.

When I asked him how she ended up with Joe while married to him, he said, “Your mother has always been a bit wild.”

Truer words had never been spoken. Now that I knew my suspicions about Gasha were true, I had to consider what this meant for my relationship with her, how I felt about my mother lying to me, and whether or not I should share the truth with Gasha and our siblings. I knew early on that it would not be fair to share the truth with her. It was my mother’s place to tell her the truth. I was tormented by the lie. I did not approve of my mother’s infidelity and I could not understand why she denied the truth all those years ago. In my mind, I could never truly trust my mother again — in truth, I doubted her always. I’m also certain that I felt betrayed by my mother and it has had an affect on every loving relationship in my life.

My mother did eventually tell Gasha who her biological father was. I’m not sure when or where it happened. My brothers and sisters found out at some point as well. It seemed to me at the time that no one cared about the indiscretion or the lie. I questioned my own reaction to it:  had I made too much of it? Did it really matter? As an older adult I am obviously still questioning the lies I faced as a child and young adult — there were many others.

I recall often looking at Gasha and wondering who she resembled. When she would behave a certain way that was odd to me, I would explain it by considering who her father was or was not. Gasha had a severe eating disorder and made several bad choices in her life. She was angry, she isolated herself from those who cared about her, she refused to acknowledge her disorder, and she trusted no one. I cannot help but wonder if the knowledge that she was conceived during a torrid affair, had had a huge impact on her life and her ability to cope. Knowing her biological father was willing to allow my father to adopt her, must have tormented Gasha throughout her life; her self-worth was shattered.

My mother had a very complicated relationship with her and Gasha was resentful of the way she saw my mother treating the rest of us; she seemed to always feel slighted. I was aware of both the way she was treated and the way Gasha perceived it. I had conflicting feelings about my sister. There was a part of me that believed she didn’t belong and I’m not proud of those feelings. At the same time, I felt sorry for her.

Gasha’s downward spiral was difficult for me to watch. She married trailer park trash and she had a child with him. Freddie shot himself in the head early on in their marriage. I remember visiting her in Knoxville, Tennessee and thinking that there was hope that she’d come out on top of all the drama in her life. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Bulimia took hold of my sister in her early 20s and never let go. All four of my mother’s daughters suffered from some sort of eating disorder as a result of my mother’s obsession with weight. Gasha lived in complete denial — the disease and the consequences of starving one’s body of nutrients destroyed her life. Her two children suffered the most; watching her abuse herself on a daily basis, had to be impossible to observe. Out of respect for my niece and nephew, I will refrain from commenting on their current lives.

The question is, was it the lie that destroyed Gasha’s life or was it her personality and the circumstances of her illness? I guess we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that shielding her from the truth all of those years was not productive or right. If her biological father had stepped up and assumed his role asher father, might she have been stronger and felt more loved? I have to believe she would have embraced her father and adjusted to her circumstances. After all her two oldest sisters had the same biological father. But after being adopted by my father, Gasha, was instead forced into a situation she did not ask to be in and was prevented from being with a man she might have loved. I’m not a psychologist, however, I am fairly certain that Gasha was thrust into a situation that would have caused anyone pain and anxiety. It was a lot for a young person to take on and in truth, she had to endure the ramifications of this terrible lie, on her own. It’s a small miracle she was even with us into her forties.

When faced with the reality of a difficult truth or keeping a secret, always go with the truth. As hard as it is to share that secret and cope with its consequences, that reality is far better than living a lie.

 

“When you check your own mind properly, you stop blaming others for your problems.”

Thubten Yeshe

Being Introverted

man sitting on green chair near trees and mountain under blue sky at daytime
Photo by anna-m. w. on Pexels.com

 

How do I know that I’m introverted? A few tell-tale signs:

  1. I took the Myers-Briggs test numerous times and I always come up introverted. (see below for explanation.
  2. I prefer being myself to being with people. That is not to say I don’t like people; I do like people very much.
  3. When I’m attending a social gathering, I have to go out of my way to be social
  4. I have many, many brothers and sisters. Doesn’t that explain why I’m introverted?

The trait of extraversion–introversion is a central dimension of human personality theories. The terms introversion and extraversion were popularized by Carl Jung,[1] although both the popular understanding and psychological usage differ from his original intent. Extraversion tends to be manifested in outgoing, talkative, energetic behavior, whereas introversion is manifested in more reserved and solitary behavior.

Extraversion and introversion are typically viewed as a single continuum, so to be high in one necessitates being low in the other. Carl Jung and the developers of the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator provide a different perspective and suggest that everyone has both an extraverted side and an introverted side, with one being more dominant than the other. Rather than focusing on interpersonal behavior, however, Jung defined introversion as an “attitude-type characterized by orientation in life through subjective psychic contents” (focus on one’s inner psychic activity) and extraversion as “an attitude type characterized by concentration of interest on the external object” (focus on the outside world).[3

There are times when I tell friends that I am an introvert and they challenge me. I’m often told that I am far too social to possibly be an introvert. Those who know me well, know that there are days when I just need to be by myself. One of the many reasons I moved overseas, was to spend more time alone. The older I get the more introverted I become. There is absolutely no danger in becoming a hermit, I like love my friends and family too much.

Just back of five weeks of visiting the U.S. to see friends and family, may of whom I have not seen in years. I truly enjoyed seeing and spending time with all of these folks, but honestly, being “on” for such a long period of time left me completely depleted of all of my energy. I got home to Portugal, closed my door and sat in the splendor of isolation . . . I sat for a long time.

I know people who can never be alone. My mother was such a person. She would call anyone or go anywhere so that she could have company. I guess that would be a case of extreme extroversion or perhaps it was fear; fear of having to be with oneself.  When I was kid, my mother would climb the attic stairs; my bedroom was in the attic, just to chide me about being in my room alone. She would practically force me to go outside to play. If you have children that tell you that they’d rather read or write or play games, for goodness sake, let them be.

 

A Quieter World

Noise as loud as jack hammers

I cover my ears

Piercing sirens and car horns

Muffle it or make it stop

 

Rock turned up six decibels

Slammed shut to block it out

Doors closed, pills popped, eyes squeezed closed

Two a.m. and I still hear it

 

Chatter, chatter, chatter

Barking, bells and horns in surround sound

Planes take off and circle overhead

Breaking in speeding traffic

 

I tell my brain to turn it down

Use reason to soothe the sound

White noise in the dark

Deafening silence as I sleep

 

[I haven’t written a poem in years; it’s a good sign.]

 

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A quiet place at the top of the world

 

 

The thing is, when you know who you are and what you like, you can just enjoy being.

 

Over ten million people have watched Brené Brown speak, but I had never heard her name until browsing through Netflix offerings last night. Not only does she know what she’s talking about, in fact, she is a pleasure to listen to. Take a listen:

Observations Concerning the U.S. and What is Happening Now

Some thoughts before this American expat flies home later today:

 

I wasn’t going to write this blog until after I returned home to Portugal and had some time to reflect on my five weeks in the U.S. After a year away from my country, my family, my friends and the politics of my former home, there are many observations I feel compelled to share. I will not name names. Not only would it be unfair and inappropriate to do so, but in truth what I saw and experienced could have come from anyone, anywhere in this country. Some might argue this point, however, the culture of the U.S. is reflected in every city and town throughout the country.

If you consider the history of the U.S., a year is hardly more than a moment in time. To be clear, my comments will not be generalizations that can and should be applied to all Americans. What I will share are subjective observations about the people and places I visited.

Politics

One of the things I said when I moved abroad is that I would try not to pay too much attention to the politics in the States. That didn’t happen. I watched the news everyday and I found myself feeling just as angry and bewildered. I left Portugal in April willing to listen to what everyone I spoke to about politics had to say.

I have several Trump supporters in my life. This became a big problem for me when he was elected because Mr. Trump and the people he surrounds himself with, represent just about everything I am opposed to. At first I did not want to speak to or interact with these people. Over time, I found myself missing them and feeling badly about my attitude. I made the decision to put politics aside and to try to understand where these friends and family members were coming from.

I had several very difficult conversations with family members I care deeply about. I remained calm and listened carefully. What I learned was revealing and comforting (in a way):

For the most part, the people I know who support Trump are kind, smart, caring individuals. They are fully aware of most of his shortcomings and they watch and pay attention to a variety of media. They seem to know that, for the most part, they are not the majority of this country. They say that there are lies and distortions on both sides of the aisle and I would have to agree with this assessment. They know how I feel and they respect my thoughts. I could go on; however, the bottom line is that they have thought about the pros and cons and the facts. They are not 100% conservative or 100% liberal. They believe in much of the same things I believe in and they are not all the same; not in any way.

I came out of this experience feeling a bit better about the people in my world. I’m admittedly still not happy about the choice they have made, but I can no longer dismiss them or their beliefs. The best I can do is continue to share when I witness distorted facts or atrocities. I also need to remind myself that my truth may not be my “brother’s” truth.

The Economy

I was shocked at how much more expensive everything was. Hotels, restaurants, the subway; everything has gone up and not just a little. There was a time when I could buy a cup of mediocre coffee at a street vendor for a buck — that same cup of mud is now two dollars. I guess what I don’t understand is why people keep going back for more. You cannot have a casual sit down lunch at a restaurant without spending twenty dollars or more (including diners).

When I was a teenager I would see Broadway shows for $8 and that was considered a lot of money because movies were a dollar. Now, cheap Broadway tickets are over $100 and movies are $15 (or more). My friends told me stories about rising rents. Between Airbnb and greedy landlords, there appears to be big problems for renters everywhere. You either have to live far from where you work or share a small space. Greed seems to have gotten worse.

I realize these kinds of issues arise with every generation; however, the difference today is how pervasive price gouging is and big business and its impact on the economy. If more and more people are using their homes as Airbnb rather than renting on a long-term basis, what inventory will be left for those who cannot afford to buy or pay high rents?

Some of the Comments Made to Me or Overheard

  • Americans should take an intelligence test before they’re allowed to vote — overheard at a restaurant in Brooklyn, NY.
  • I like Trump. I mean he’s just a man and men love women. I don’t care what he does in the bedroom and I don’t care if he sends out mean tweets; what I care about is how safe we are and our the security of our economy — someone I know very well.
  • This country will soon be run by minorities; we have to try to slow them down before they ruin it for the rest of us — also someone I know well.
  • What we’re doing to our planet is scary and I’m wondering if I did the right thing by having children — a family member.
  • What we are experiencing is surreal and difficult to comprehend. I know this country has been through tougher times, but this feels like the beginning of the end. I waiting for a huge implosion — a family member.
  • New York City has become a place where there is no longer a middle class. You’re either very rich and live well or you’re poor and living day-to-day — a good friend.
  • There are no more mom and pop restaurants. All of the new places are owned by corporations or rich investors — a friend in the food business.
  • Keeping cars out of NYC only makes it easier for the rich to get around. If delivery trucks cannot or will not pay to enter the city, how will people get milk or afford milk — a friend in NYC.
  • We better be prepared for a second term of Trump because it’s going to happen — several people.
  • Not all Floridians are pond scum — a stranger at the bar at Miami airport.
  • Guns that kill will always be easy to get in America; it’s the people who use them that are the problem — a good friend.
  • Late term abortions are wrong and causing problems for other more legitimate abortions — a liberal friend.
  • Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are too old to run for president. I know it’s agist to say this, but I know how being old feels and the elderly have no place running the country — an older friend.
  • Doctors will never work for less — a friend in healthcare.

There was so much more said in my presence. What I learned is that opinions and thoughts are strong and real. In the end we have to do our own research and search our own souls for answers.

The Future

What I see and hear concerns me deeply. Many people I know and love have the means to survive for years to come, but there are also many people in my life that are living a life that borders on poverty. I cannot imagine surviving on minimum wage today or being out of work for any length of time. People seem more concerned with their own future and less concerned with their neighbors and humankind in general. I don’t necessarily have answers, but I do have questions:

If the United States becomes a country divided by haves and have nots, how long can it survive? Will there come a time when the marginalized and forgotten rebel? If that time comes, who will survive? Would it not be better for those who have an abundance to share a percentage with those who do not? “Charity begins at home,” has true meaning in today’s world.

What is happening in Venezuela and other parts of the world should teach us many lessons, but are we willing to learn?

Note:  Pardon any spelling or grammatical errors, it’s time to pack.