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

Vanity at Any Age

Before I even type the first word I realize that if I’m going to write about vanity, I’ll have to reveal thoughts I usually reserve for my journal and trusted friends. I will try my best not to rant or overshare.

“The surest cure for vanity is loneliness.” Tom Wolfe

Image result for vanity quotese

 

I’m about 20 pounds overweight and I hate it. What I hate even more, is that I care about it so much. I go back and forth between loving food and wanting to be slender. My weight is about the only thing about my body that I can control and I, like so many others, have very little control. My face is my face and I can’t/won’t change it. I do the best that I can with skincare — meaning that I keep my pores clean and I moisturize. This part all makes sense to me for a number of reasons. First, the minute I let myself go, that’s when it all goes south; drinking too much, spending too much, watching too much television; it’s a slippery slope. It all goes back to moderation; doing most things to excess, is not positive or healthy.

For me, vanity means giving too much thought to physical appearance. I want to care, but I’d like for it to be a healthy amount of caring. For example, I don’t want to be fat, but if I want a slice of cake, I’d like to eat it without feeling guilty about it. A good part of this is looking good for dating. I know how much emphasis I put on potential partners taking care of themselves and I know that others will judge me the same way. Unfortunately, this is how we’re wired.

What I Have Done to Look Good/Better

  • Denying myself — At various times in the recent past, I have denied myself something I really wanted (e.g., dining out, another piece of cake, buying ice cream at the supermarket). I do it all day, everyday. Monitoring your own behavior and actions is not a bad thing; what is bad, however, is when you impose your own restrictions on others and when you deny yourself happiness.
  • Plastic surgery — I had a nasty scar on my face (under my mouth) that I had cleaned up. I don’t compare this to plastic surgery to rid oneself of sagging eyelids or an extra chin — not judging here, I just haven’t done it and I do not intend to.
  • Laser work — I have had small oily glands zapped on my face over the past thirty or so years. This is a genetic issue I’ve always hated. I’m usually left with a tiny scar and if I cannot see it, I assume others cannot either.
  • Facials — I’ve been getting facials since I was 20 years old. I do them myself now. I once purchased placenta to smear all over my face for deep cleansing (I still have some); it wasn’t cheap. Every once in awhile, an extravagant present to yourself can be a healthy thing.
  • Improving my daily routine — I wish I’d known about toner was I was a teenager. I use face toner everyday and it does close your pores. It also makes your face feel cleaner.
  • Go to the gym five or six times a week — I’ve been going to a gym since graduate school. As an undergrad in North Carolina I mostly ran around the track to keep my weight down, and at that point in my life I was shy about my body. This was when I started running; can’t do that anymore because of a bad knee. When I could no longer run marathons, I lamented running for two years. Running was my emotional therapy and I still miss it a great deal. Yes there are other physical activities that can take the place of running, but a runner’s high is like no other.
  • Had some work done on my front teeth — I was born with a minor birth defect:  my two upper front incisors never grew out. I had caps made to fill in the gaps. Until I could afford to have this done, I could not smile with my teeth showing. I also had surgery at 21 to push back my lower jaw. I had a horrible underbite (lower jaw stuck out further than my upper jaw — I believe Michelle Obama has the same affliction). I saved up to have it corrected. I blame it all on my mother’s smoking while she was pregnant to me. I know that most of what I am describing was cosmetic, but imagine at age 20 looking in the mirror and seeing all of these flaws. I couldn’t do anything about losing my hair, however, I could fix my teeth and improve my skin. I’ve become much more relaxed about my face. At this point in my life, the best I can do is take good care of what I have.
  • Removed a large mirror from my bathroom — I had a floor-to-ceiling mirror that I hated. It took 16 months to have it removed because I couldn’t justify the expense. In its place is a beautiful piece of marble and I love it. Do whatever you have to do to feel better about yourself.

What have you done?

 

What I Tell Myself

Like most people, I have these little conversations with myself that sound something like this:  You need to eat less because if you gain too much weight you’re going to have problems with diabetes or other health related issues. Also, your clothes won’t fit. Okay, go ahead and have that piece of cake, but no other desserts today. Don’t look in the mirror, it will make you feel bad about yourself. You look pretty good for a 60 year old man. It doesn’t really matter because at this age nobody wants to be with you anyway.

People will read my thoughts and say, “Nonsense, you’re an attractive guy and you have a lot to offer.” That’s all well and good, but the truth of the matter is, we feel what we feel and the human condition is unique for each of us.

I keep telling myself it’s all about balance and moderation — the yin and the yang, the highs and the lows, the peaks and the valleys, and the do and the don’ts. Sometimes I feel that I have grown tremendously and at other times I feel that I’ve regressed.

Some of the other things I say to myself — you may or may not relate to this:

  • You’re fat
  • You’re unattractive
  • Nobody wants to be with you
  • You have a double chin
  • Your back looks terrible
  • There is more, but I can’t bring myself to type it

All of these awful thoughts undermine good mental health. If anyone else said any of these things to me, I’d be furious with them, but I take it to heart when it comes from my own thoughts; the dark side of vanity. There is hope for me yet; there are times when I actually feel good about myself.

 

We’re Not Alone

Societal pressure — We feel pressure from all around us; however, pressure from society as a whole is difficult to combat. The pressure to be young, look young, and think like the young, is strong. Many of my friends laugh at me for going to bed at 9:30 p.m. “You act like an old man.” Good night is my reply.

The Media — People in magazines and on television look so freakin’ good. It’s difficult not to compare yourself, but obviously, it’s better if I don’t. A few years ago I started to see bald men modeling. I was pleasantly surprised by this since “fat and bald” are two descriptors that usually go together. I’m hopeful that the media is giving thought to doing the right thing.

How we’re raised — My mother had a horrible obsession with weight. My sisters all had some form of an eating disorder and I think her sons had unhealthy issues with weight as well. Imprinting is difficult to overcome.

Culture — Some pressure to look good is probably a good thing — sort of a way to keep ourselves in check. Unfortunately, some cultures take it too far. I’m not talking about plastic surgery. Although I wouldn’t spend money on major work to my own face or body, I do not judge people who do. What I am referring to is professions where the way you look determines whether or not you are promoted or able to keep your job. The damage this can do to an individual is impossible to measure and sad to think about.

 

How I Can Help Others

Disclaimer:  I cannot and do not speak for everyone. When I share my thoughts, I never claim to be an expert. I write about men as a man; I write about women as the brother of five sisters, as a son and as a friend of many women; I write about gay men as a gay man; and I write about the human condition as a human being. What I write about is also based on what I have read. All of it is either firsthand experience or conjecture; please do not read more into it.

Gay men — It is difficult not to generalize a bit:  gay men are a lot like women when it comes to body image. Could be a feminine thing for some; could be who we identify with? Part of it is the gay culture in the States; gay men tend to want to be with younger men — youth is revered. There are only so many younger men who want to be with older men, so this is an obvious supply and demand problem. You have a good many older gay men trying to look younger and they’ll do whatever it takes to be “young.”  This part of the gay culture worries me. People sometimes take these things to the extreme and the results can be pretty scary. One of the many reasons I love RuPaul, is that he does not take himself too seriously. Vanity is not a bad thing in and of itself; however, issues arise when one’s thoughts concerning body image are imposed on others.

Older men — There are a good many men out there, gay and straight, who struggle with body image issues and the challenges of being seen. We get older and become invisible. Invisibility is tough on the psyche. Self-worth does just disappear when you hit 50; we need to feel good about ourselves until we no longer can feel anything.

Women — Women (from what I have been lead to believe) are expected to do whatever it takes to look good. Look good to whom? To their husbands, their bosses, their fellow passengers on the train, to the person in the mirror? I have seen that kind of fierce pressure make a person do horrible things; hurtful things to one’s body and damage that is irreversible. I know that this is a problem that has existed for centuries, but I still have hope that woman will take control of their own lives and do what is best for themselves. I admire woman who are strong and determined, despite the men in their lives who believe that they are second class citizens. Sure there has been progress in progressive societies, but as long as one culture on earth minimizes the equality of women, all women are adversely affected. The same is true of humankind in general.

 

 

Goals

Weight — A constant struggle because I love food; sometimes rich food, sometimes sweets, and pasta. I’d like to lose a few pounds. I don’t believe my current weight poses a health risk; however, losing some weight would satisfy the vanity box.  I haven’t been able to check that box for 20 years.

Diet  — Always trying to eat more fruit. Otherwise I eat fish, lean meat, vegetables, whole grains, maybe two beers a week, a glass and a half of wine in the evening, and too much hard alcohol. I currently average about six cocktails a week and I’d like to cut back to three.

Sleep — When I sleep well, I look better and when I look better, I feel better. There are things that I do that make for a poor night’s sleep (e.g., alcohol, staying up late, worry). My memory is short when it comes to vices.

Disposition — When I’m upset about something or worrying, I look awful. I’m often upset about the smallest, stupidest, silliest things. I want to have a sunnier disposition.

Open mind — An open mind and an open heart, is so important for how you look and feel. I want to be less judgmental.

Writing — Writing about superficial matters (i.e., being bald), helps me keep my life in perspective. I need to keep writing.

Be Present — I’ve written about this several times. Let me just say that when I practice mindfulness, I am a much happier person.

 

img_4769
I had this tattoo done this week. I associate tattoos with youthfulness, so I guess it’s making me feel younger. I now have two tattoos and I intend to stop there.

There is a tiny thread hanging off of my sock (see photo above). You have no idea how much that loose thread bothers me. That pretty much sums up my life.

Doing the Right Thing

Image result for do the right thing quotes

 

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.

Letting Go Can Be Difficult

It’s been a difficult week of reflection. I imagine some might say that every week in one’s life is difficult; however, I would argue that there are times in one’s life when thoughts are more negative, more self-critical, and harder to sort out. Sometimes the yin & the yang seem out of balance and it has more to do with your brain doing a number on you than anything else. Rebooting only works some of the time. Sample thoughts like:  am I enough? What do I want for my future? What role am I playing in somehow making the world better for others? These are all normal thoughts for those who think and have a conscience. For me, at least at this point in my life, what I choose to let go of versus what I hang onto, is taking up more thinking time than usual.

 

 

I know that I write about “letting go” often. At different times in my life, letting go has been my biggest challenge. There are numerous reasons that this particular defense mechanism is important to me. When I have something weighing on my mind, it tends to be all consuming. I find it difficult to focus on other things in my life and it disrupts my sleep and interferes with my desire to be in the moment.

Getting older has been a gift in a way, in that maturity has helped me put many things into perspective. Things such as what is most important in life and why hanging on to things or people we cannot change, is destructive. When you have a fair amount of success “letting go” of a thing, an idea or a person, it helps you to see how freeing the process can be.

At one point in my life I was quite certain that I could never live outside of New York City. I could not imagine leaving the people and experiences I loved most. I forced myself to relocate by telling myself that I could always return to NYC if that’s what I truly wanted. Because most of us can adapt to almost anything, once I was in my new environment, I was able to see the benefits of being in that place. We tell ourselves that we’d miss certain “things” and that’s why we should remain. Then there is that other voice that tells you that if you leave, you are running away from something. In my case the theatre was keeping me in New York. I have always loved Broadway and could not imagine living far away from the Great White Way. In reality, even though I left New York almost seven years ago, I have returned to New York to attend the theatre every year. Now when I get tickets for a play, I am much more thoughtful about what I see and because I’m making a special trip, Broadway has become even more precious to me.

[I could go off here about how Disneyfied Broadway has become; however, I think it’s best that I spare you the rant. It only forces you to be more selective about what you choose to see. Most things can be traced back to the almighty dollar.]

Now that I am living much closer to London, I feel as if I get to enjoy a bit of both theatre meccas. The point is, when you care a great deal about something, it should not prevent you from letting go of something else; one does not preclude the other. There were of course factors tugging at me to remain in New York; I cannot same the same for Maine.

People are more complicated and that presents greater challenges. I met an older woman here in the Algarve who was originally from Ireland. She lives about 30 minutes west of Faro. She’s worldly, smart, loves food, and we got along fairly well. At one point in our friendship I realized that she was putting me down quite a bit. It was subtle, but she would often be condescending or passive aggressive. She a tiny woman, however, she’d raise her voice to speak over me or she’d tell me that something I felt or vocalized, was nonsense. I decided that I did not have to tolerate such behavior just because she’s older. I spent a good deal of time on a letter explaining how I felt. I thought a letter would be more effective because she could read it and consider my words (I know a lot of people prefer in-person conversations, but I believe that particular method is sometimes better as a second step). In the letter, I was careful not to generalize and I was clear and kind. I told her that I cared about our friendship and that I was hoping she would consider changing the way she sometimes treated me. One has to be very careful not to use absolutes in these situations. She responded fairly quickly, however, she did not acknowledge the contents of the letter. She basically told me that she was leaving town and that we would speak when she returned. I accepted her email as a positive sign. I thought this would give her time to consider my words. Obviously, it goes both ways and I was willing to listen and alter my behavior as well.

And then nothing happened.

It’s been eight months and I am not caving. This is the letting go moment when I say to myself is this woman worth my time and consideration? I tried and failed. There are times in your life when you just have to walk away and cut your losses — sound a little harsh? I think it’s a defense mechanism I have developed over time. The former me would get all worked up, make an angry phone call or send an angry email. I would beat myself up for saying anything at all in the first place. Then at some point I decided that if in fact I was going to be true to myself, I would have to come clean and say something. Keep in mind that when you are living in a foreign country, there are a limited number of people who speak your language and truly understand your culture. This sort of empathy is important for social interaction. I do enjoy having people around I can share experiences with.

Image result for truth quotes

Journaling your feelings helps when putting situations and interactions into perspective. It provides the ability to step back and process.

One of the things that I have starting doing is to cultivate good relationships and show gratitude for those that are nurturing and positive. For example:  I have been in the process of getting a tooth implant for a year. There have been complications that are too boring and tedious to discuss here. Through it all, my dentist and her assistant, have been patient and supportive; I am beyond grateful that I found them. I’m a month away from getting the actual tooth, which I know will improve my life — chewing is essential. I have a visit today and I plan to bring flowers to both my dentist and her assistant. I’ve known them long enough now to know that they will not misinterpret this gesture. They will know that I am showing them my gratitude. Letting people know that they have had a positive impact on your life and that you do not take them for granted, is essential for building strong relationships. Replacing hurtful and toxic relationships with rich, fulfilling ones, helps in the letting go process. For some people it’s almost like getting over the loss of a pet, some people go right out and get another. It’s not something I personally can do, however, I do appreciate that for some people it is a way to let go.

By the way, I am not advocating for simply dismissing people in your life. Communicating, giving people a second chance, making sure you did not misinterpret someone’s behavior or words, and being aware of your own behavior, is very important. Letting go should happen when all else fails and the level of toxicity or pain is hard to bare or out of balance.

 

Practice, Practice, Practice

At times the thought of walking away from a relationship is much too difficult to even consider. It might be a parent, a sibling, your boss, a long-term friend; you get the point. In a case like this, you might have to let go slowly. Putting distance between yourself and another can be a good first step. If you normally speak to someone daily, you can try skipping a call here and there. If you go out every Friday night, you can suggest cutting back due to schedule conflicts. This is not dishonest. There is nothing wrong with protecting someone else’s feelings or being kind. Some people have no sense of self and others cannot see what is right in front of them.

 

What Happens When You Walk Away

A friend once told me that when you walk away from someone or something, the shadow (memory) of that person or thing is left behind. This will have a lasting impact. She used a wart as an example:  if you have a wart on your hand for 20 years and you have that wart removed, your memory of that wart will be so strong it will feel as if it’s still there. If you choose to let go of a relationship, you will occasionally think about that person; in this way, you’re not totally letting go, but is it possible to completely erase someone from your mind and would you want to. If you believe as I do, that all of our life experiences and relationships are necessary in order to grow, then embracing that they were a part of your history and therefore, a part of who you are at this moment. It’s better to be grateful that you one, have the ability to learn from a person or thing and move on, and two, that our past leads us to the present.

 

Grieving Loss

Sometimes letting go of a person might be the best recourse; however, be prepared to grieve the loss. Even if the relationship was highly toxic, if it’s been a big part of your life for a long time, you will miss aspects of it:  routine, company, validation; whatever it might have been, you will lament the loss. Allow yourself the time to grieve and know that when it’s over, you will be far better off. Congratulate yourself for taking care of yourself and for enriching your own life.

 

Side Bar:  I have been enjoying a new show on Netflix called Terrace House. It’s a reality show, however, what makes it different is that it takes place in Tokyo and you get a sense of Japanese youth and the culture. I find myself laughing a lot and wanting more. Check it out.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7776244/

 

A Kitchen Accident on Thursday

Thursday evening I decided to have a big salad for dinner. It was a beautiful night and I wanted to eat out on the terrace facing the water. I opened a local red wine I had not tried before and I noticed the bottle seemed heavier than usual. I thought that maybe it was larger than the normal 750 ml and I did not think about it again. I poured a glass and put the bottle in the refrigerator on the side door. During the warmer months I refrigerate red wine so that it will last longer. When I’m drinking it, I take it out about 30 minutes prior to pouring so that it’s just a little cooler than room temperature.

After dinner I decided to have another half glass instead of dessert. I opened the refrigerator to retrieve the bottle and the entire shelf went crashing down. There was wine everywhere; the walls, the cabinet doors, the refrigerator — everywhere. The cabinet doors had just been painted last week and I was concerned that the wine would stain the doors. I acted swiftly and cleaned the cabinets first. Next, when I started picking up the large pieces of glass I discovered that the bottle of wine was not larger, but thicker. This explained why it was so heavy. Two things happened to my new kitchen:  first, the bottle put a chip in the tile floor below the refrigerator and second, the refrigerator shelf cracked in six different places. The cleanup took me over an hour and I was sweating from head to toe. I walked into the living room, sat down and thought about the incident. It started with:  why did I have to put the bottle into the refrigerator? I was fully aware that this was about to become a “let’s beat the shit out of Chris” session. I decided to practice what I preach and to let it go. I showered, read a bit, and went to bed. I slept like a baby. My kitchen is no longer in pristine condition and that’s okay. It’s sort of like the first scratch on a new car; you just have to accept that it happened and move on.

2b688f9e-0838-4d39-8e7a-13751439cfd1

e2c5d226-9cf1-46d6-b672-812700da2cd0
My new urbano azul cabinet doors; they survived the crash without red wine stains.

How My Childhood Experiences Shaped Who I am

img_4518-1
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.

Image may contain: Christopher Papagni and Julie Ratner, people smiling, sunglasses, plant and outdoor
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.

couple holding hands
Photo by Luis Quintero

Finding the Right Balance/When Loneliness Strikes/An Act of Kindness — Reblog

man walking on train rail
Photo by Chinmay Singh on Pexels.com

 

Hard to imagine doing anything these days without feeling some guilt. An overwhelming number of articles, television shows, religious authorities, relatives and so on, telling us what’s good for us; who knows what’s best anymore. Truth be known, most of us know what’s good for us. We don’t need a know-it-all “expert” to share their opinion on how to live. Lately, I find myself almost offended by every Tom, Dick or Harry who tries to influence my next thought.

And it’s not just experts weighing-in. Social media are awash with opinionated people who get angry when you challenge their opinion; I’m not making this about politics mind you; I’m talking about every day thoughts, opinions or advice. It’s terrific that people are willing to share their good fortune or experiences, but one needs to accept that not everyone cares or wants to know. As a blogger, I think about this every day. I’m fully aware that a reader can skip over a line, disagree with a thought, or challenge an opinion. In fact, I welcome it. Like anything else, there are appropriate boundaries and we’re all guilty of occasionally crossing them. The art of discourse is a lost art and I for one would like to champion its return.

You have to find a balance between what you listen to, who you listen to, and listening to the voice within.

 

Loneliness

As trite as it sounds, I enjoy my own company. I’ve always secretly been critical of people who claim to be lonely — I just didn’t relate. Truth is, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. this morning feeling very much alone. The difference is that the Atlantic Ocean lies between me and all the people I love. I didn’t imagine this move would be any different than any I have made in the past, but yes, it is far from the same. When you can’t just jump in your car and see someone in a few short hours, that’s a huge difference. The feeling didn’t last long mind you. I thought about a number of friends and family members who will be visiting soon and I felt better. I also thought about how I take those I care about for granted and of course, I now have a better understanding of what it’s like to be alone.

Lots of lessons here and many ways to cope. Revealing these thoughts to you is a first step. When friends and family told me that I was brave to make a move like this, I shrugged it off. I still don’t consider it brave, but now I know what they meant. So the next step is to search for meaning. I have been trying to protect myself from feeling love, empathy and sorrow. If I live in the moment and fully experience these feelings, what will they teach me and am I ready to learn?

Here’s what I know:

  1. Loneliness is temporary.
  2. There is truth and meaning in the exploration of our feelings.
  3. Strangers can help fill a void.
  4. Memories are powerful.
  5. Loss of any kind hurts.
  6. Accepting your truth is to be fully aware of who you are.
  7. You may not always like what you learn, but you have to forgive and embrace.
  8. You have to put yourself out there.
  9. Be prepared for change.
  10. Books can be delicious company.

Prologue:

I wrote this piece a few hours ago and decided that a cloudy, muggy day is a great day for the mercado (market). I walked in and the first face I saw was Myriam’s. I met Myriam my first week in Faro. She was born in Venuzuala, but she has lived in the States and still has family there. In fact, she just returned from visiting her daughter in Miami. Myriam lives about 30 miles away in Tavira and she has not been in Portugal very long. She manages a Brazilian owned coffee shop in the Mercado — great coffee by the way. Her warmth and smile were what I needed today, but what she shared with me, I needed even more:

Myriam asked me how I am adjusting to life here in Portugal and I told her what I was feeling this morning. She said, “I want you to read what I posted on Facebook this morning.” Reception is bad at the mercado and we both just about gave up on logging onto to Facebook and then this appeared on her home page:

La soledad espeligrosa y muy adictiva. Una vez que te das cuenta de cuánta paz hay en ella, no querrás lidiar con las personas.

– – Paulo Coelho (click for wikipedia biography)

 

Translation:

Lonliness is very addictive. Once you realize how much peace there is in it, you will not want to deal with people.

Me:  Enough said.

 

4e5e1028-a246-41c9-a4a3-0e00db30457f
Friday on the beach with a good book and the sound of the ocean.

 

When you’re looking for reasons to be grateful and there it is, staring you right in the face:

As is to be expected . . . I’ve been second guessing my move to Portugal. I don’t mean that I lie awake at night regretting my move or wondering, “What did I do?” What I mean is that this is still very new (10 weeks) and I sometimes ponder if this huge change was the right thing to do. I think it’s perfectly natural to wonder and then this happened:

I bought a piece of artwork that needs framing and I asked a friend here if he knew of a frame shop. Funny thing here in the Algarve, when you type “frame shop nearby” into Google, it only lists a select few options. I’m not sure I understand why, but perhaps that will be another blog. Of course Pedro knew of a place, Pedro always knows. He didn’t know the name of the shop, but he pulled out a map and pointed to where it was. The smart thing to do would have been to take a picture of the map; however, I am not a Millennial (not by a long stretch) and so I often forget that I have that option — there is a probably an app that will link the map location with the type of shop and tell you the name of the shop, but alas, I wouldn’t know how to find that app.

I did, however, set out to find the frame shop. I got the general vicinity right (I could feel it) but after 15 minutes of going back and forth on the same three streets I finally gave up and went into a hair salon to ask for directions. The owner knew instantly that I was not a customer (stop laughing, it’s not that funny). I asked her if she spoke English and like most Portuguese people, she responded, “A little.” I joke about this because most people hear will respond that way and then speak beautiful English. I’m not yet at a place in my studies where I can even attempt to have a conversation in Portuguese. I asked her if she knew where the frame shop was and she seemed disappointed. Then she shouted to someone in the back room of the shop. A young woman stepped out and asked me what I was looking for. I told her and she said, “Come with me.” At this point I thought we’d step outside and she would point toward the shop. That is not what happened, instead, she crossed the street (I followed close behind sort of amazed) and then she crossed a second street (I was baffled), then she turned left and then right and there we stood in front of the frame shop.

As I said, earlier, I have been daydreaming about life back in the States; however, today I realized that I am home. I’m not sure I could be living in a friendlier, more welcoming place. A small act of kindness was all I needed for a lot of reassurance.

As my friend John always tells me, “Palms up to the universe.”

The Power of Your Smile

“Always wear a smile because you never know who is watching.” Gracie Gold

 

 

I want to smile more. I do. One would think that this would be an easy goal, but trust me, if you’re not inclined to smile, deciding to do so, just like that, is a difficult objective. I was born cynical, but coming up in my world, how could I not be. I also believe this is one of those nature/nurture arguments. Was I cynical because of my genetic makeup or did growing up in a tortured household make me cynical. For the purpose of this piece, let’s call it a draw and say that both factors are the cause. The point is, I have to work at smiling and how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

“Love yourself for who you are, and trust me, if you are happy from within, you are the most beautiful person, and your smile is your best asset.” Ileana D’Cruz

Some Ways/Places to Practice Smiling

  • Tell yourself to smile every morning. You can do it when you’re brushing your teeth. It won’t take any more time out of your busy day. Soon it will be as routine as brushing; you won’t even think about it.
  • Add a little caveat to practicing your smile:  make it so that you cannot smile unless you add something you’re grateful for. For example:  this morning, before I brushed my teeth, I thought about how grateful I was that I slept well and then I smiled.
  • Practice while you’re doing something mundane — like when you’re on the treadmill at the gym or while you’re riding in a bus or on the subway.
  •  Look straight into a mirror and keep smiling.
  • Practice with a friend or family member. Let them tell you what they think of your smile and accept the feedback. Is it genuine? Too broad? Too big?

 

Be Your Own Motivator

I have a friend whom I met at a gym in Portland, Maine. He was struggling on an abdominal machine near where I was working out. He saw me watching him and asked me if I knew how to use the machine. I hopped on and did a few reps (gym lingo for repetitions just to show you how cool I can be). Chomba is from Zambia, he studied in Europe, he’s in his 20s and he’s quite a specimen; naturally I was pleased to show him how to use the machine correctly. Like any normal man, I preened and walked away triumphant. A few days later I saw him using the same machine and he was smiling ear-to-ear. Honestly, Chomba has the most genuine and beautiful smile I have ever seen. I noticed him using the very same machine on a regular basis. I finally approached him and asked him if he used any other equipment at the gym. He shared a big laugh and thanked me for showing him how to use the machine. I said, “Chomba, because I always see you on this ab machine, I am naming it the Chomba Machine.” From then on I when I would see him I would ask if he had done his ab reps on the Chomba machine that day.

Weeks went by of just saying hello in the gym and I thought it was time to become friends outside of Planet Fitness. I approached him and invited him over to my place for dinner. I was having a dinner party and I thought he’d be a great addition to my guest list. Chomba was delighted and came to my place with a nice bottle of wine. Everyone at party fell in love with him. He’s the kind of person who lights up the room and makes everyone feel special. That night I learned that he was a motivator working out of Boston. His firm was hired by companies to motivate their staff (Chomba if I’m getting this all wrong I apologize). What I loved more than anything is that he did not boast about his work or his life. We had to poke and pry before he came clean. Chomba is a modest fella. By the way, Chomba models now and always stays in touch. I’m grateful for his candor, his loyalty and his beautiful smile.

What Chomba has taught me is invaluable. Essentially, you can be your own motivator. You can do what he does, but in your own head. You can get yourself charged-up and energized whenever you feel yourself needing a little boost.

 

Experiment

Having been a sociology student in college, I often love to go back to my roots and do human interaction (behavior) experiments. I like to occasionally spend the day smiling all day just to see how people respond to it. I also enjoy seeing if it affects my mood.

I have to say that I get pretty amazing results:

  • People almost always smile back.
  • It sometimes feels like you’re waking someone up and suddenly they seem to come alive.
  • It makes me feel lighter.
  • The results make me want to do it more often.
  • Sometimes it makes strangers laugh; especially when I smile really big. I’m thinking, they must think I’m crazy, but who cares.
  • There is a reason for the saying “A smile goes a long way.”
  • I am in the middle of a very frustrating experience with an upgrade to my apartment. The person responsible for getting the work done has been slacking off and it’s sort of driving me crazy. The project began 14 months ago. I decided to give him an ultimatum knowing that he might walk away from the job. Instead, when I saw him I smiled. It appears that is not what he expected and I believe he may be close to finishing the job. Yesterday, I received a call from a man who will hopefully complete the job this week.

 

Current Mood

One of the interesting things about blogging is how your mood and thoughts change as you work through a particular thread of thoughts. I woke today in a non-smiling mood. You may relate to what I’m feeling, except that I don’t quite know what I am feeling. What I do know, is that I don’t feel like smiling. I had an interaction yesterday that was troubling and it’s still on my mind. I’m pissed to put it bluntly.

I am going to work through these feelings and thoughts by forcing a smile and see where it takes me . . .

The next day:  the left home for a bed & breakfast about 90 minutes away. Sometimes it helps to be away from your familiar environment. I found myself smiling just as soon as I boarded the train.

 

Smiling is one of those things you can do to brighten your day and/or someone else’s day, and it cost nothing! Nada! Zip! Zero cents! In fact, studies have shown that it’s good for you too.

The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness. … The feel-good neurotransmitters — dopamine, endorphins and serotonin — are all released when a smile flashes across your face as well (4). This not only relaxes your body, but it can also lower your heart rate and blood pressure.Jun 25, 2012

 

 There’s Magic in Your Smile

 

img_4342
Definitely more of a kiss than a smile, but we’re both happy 🙂

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

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.

No photo description available.
Gasha to my left

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

From Troubled Boy to Troubled Man

Image may contain: 1 person
Me when I was two years old (I know, I was adorable). That’s my baby sister Debbie on the right.

I am not writing this blog so that you will feel sorry for me. In fact, I am only able to write about this chapter of my life as a result of having learned lessons and having done the hard work of self-reflection; by all accounts an on-going process. One big lesson:  do not dwell on who is to blame for your misfortunes. It’s all about looking toward the future. I am happy, looking forward to new adventures, and a hot mess — yes, it’s possible to be all these things at the same time. My hope is that I might help those who feel psychotic, lonely and lost. There is of course the added bonus of empathy from those who know me well or are just getting to know me.

 

Looking Back

Do people tell you not to worry? “Oh you’re fine; you’ll be alright” I think I may hate that more than people telling me I’m too sensitive. We all know people say stupid things all the time and I’ve learned that, for the most part, they mean well. Self-reflection may be more productive then listening to the advice of people who do not know you. Reflecting on what I was like as a child has always helped me to appreciate where I am today.

As I boy witnessing chaos all around me, I was always certain that it was all happening because of something I had done. I’d like to say that I grew out of that way of thinking. I would like to tell you that my mother sat me down and told me that none of it was my fault or that an elementary school teacher gained some insight into my family life and whispered that I was not to blame. I’m afraid that didn’t happen. Deep down I knew that I was a horrible little boy whose sins were the cause of all the terrible things happening around me. Some kids believe this and they cut themselves; some kids start taking drugs when they are nine years old or drink booze till they’re inebriated at eleven. Some kids take their own lives. I retreated to dark places and hid my shame. I bargained with God so that it would stop.

God, if you make my mom love me, I’ll be good for the rest of my life.  If you’ll just make the noise stop, I’ll clean the whole house tomorrow. God, if you make me stop thinking about men, I’ll go to church. Growing up Catholic was confusing; I found myself wanting to repent.

The chaos continued and I continued to find reasons to blame myself and hate myself even more than I already did. This self-loathing went on throughout my childhood. I’ve shared an incident in a previous blog that I frequently recall just to remind myself how much better life is today. On my 10th birthday, before blowing out my candles, my wish was to die before my next birthday. I was too afraid to kill myself, but if I wished hard enough, I was certain I would die. I thought about death a lot when I was a child. In my mind, it was the only way out. I firmly believe that children should not be dwelling on death.

For the longest time I thought it had something to do with my sexuality; or at least that’s what I told my therapist. In retrospect, I think it had more to do with a need that was not being met. As a child, I needed to belong, to be accepted, and to be loved. I’m certain most children feel this way. What was different for me, and I’m sure others, was that since not all of my basic needs were being met, I carried that longing into adulthood and continued to search for belonging, acceptance and love. Often, I looked in the wrong places. There were times when I was so desperate for it, I put myself in a compromising position to have it. What followed was self-loathing and a lot of pain.

Escape came easy during the day; it was at night that the demons were harder to run away from. Looking back, I guess I had pretty good coping skills. I would always tell myself that if I did well in school, my life would improve and it did, by leaps and bounds. I also took myself out of that very negative environment as early on as I could. Being on my own at 16 years old wasn’t easy, but I was free and able to make my own decisions; good, bad or otherwise.

 

The Journey

Getting from point disaster to a better place isn’t easy and there is no formula for making it happen. It’s a combination of exercise (physical and mental), goals (long term and short term), meditation, therapy, gratitude, keeping your eyes on the prize, moderation in all things, forgiveness, listening, letting go, being true to yourself, loving yourself, and looking forward — not an exhaustive list. I’d throw a bit of luck in there too.

You put all that down on a list and it’s daunting to say the least. I also try to congratulate myself when I complete a goal and I start projects by taking baby step. If you try to do anything too quickly, you will either do a half-assed job or you will fail. Take it slowly, do the best you can and pay no attention to those who tell you it’s not possible.

 

Looking Forward

You can’t hear me, but I am sighing. I am constantly sighing. The various meanings are below, however, for me, it has been about relief. I am relieved that I no longer (for the most part) feel the weight of the world on my shoulders.  I intend to be easier on myself, to accept who I am, to be more forgiving of others, to be more grateful, to spend more time resting, to see more of the world and do it with intention, to care less about the things that do not concern me, and to smile/laugh more.

 

sigh

/sʌɪ/

verb
gerund or present participle: sighing
  1. emit a long, deep audible breath expressing sadness, relief, tiredness, or similar.
    “Harry sank into a chair and sighed with relief”
    synonyms: breathe out, exhaleMore

 

Troubled Boy to Troubled Man to Loving Myself

97475edc-4b6a-41d5-9eb0-4492e4325902

Stepping out on a Friday night. I have to remind myself to look in the mirror and smile; keeping in mind that if you are the best version of yourself you can possibly be, well then, you’re okay. Not quite as adorable as the first photo when I was two years old, but none the worse for the wear.

Publishing when I finish a thought rather than waiting until Sunday. I hope that’s okay with my readers. Happy Gay Pride everyone; we’ve come a long way and have an even longer way to go.

Porto and the Duoro Valley

 

img_3905-1
A view of Porto and the Duoro River from the Museu Romântico.

 

I have to begin by admitting that it took much too long to get to Porto. When I first visited Portugal, I knew that I wanted to live in the south because I had done research on the favorable climate and the robust, affordable economy.  I concentrated on exploring areas in the south and since Porto is north of Lisbon (about 3 hours by train — see map below), it was not in my travel plans.

Side note:  traveling throughout Portugal is a pleasure. Public transportation is usually easy to navigate, the airports are not overcrowded, and most people speak English fairly well. It’s good to know some Portuguese because as with all natives, they truly appreciate any attempt to speak their language.

 

Porto

I had some friends (Neal & Winnie Borden) coming into Porto on a cruise ship on Tuesday of this week and that gave me an excellent excuse to fly to Porto. I have been trying to keep these short distance excursions to three or four days. I believe three days is plenty of time to get a feel for a place and if there are parts I do not get to see, it gives me a good reason to return.

I rented a studio Airbnb in the city centre — I usually stay in the center so that I can walk out of my apartment and visit many places on foot or use public transportation — this particular apartment was in the back of building and it was quiet and had a magnificent, large terrace.

 

img_3908-1

 

Neal and Winnie are true foodies. Their son Adam and I met at the James Beard House in Manhattan over 20 years ago and we bonded over our love of fine food; he gets it genetically from his parents. I arrived to Porto on Monday evening so that I could meet them at the cruise port early Tuesday morning. We only had about five hours and there was lots to see and do. We had decided that lunch would be the only pre-arranged item on our itinerary. I made us a lunch reservation at Antiqvvm (a one Michelin starred restaurant) and decided we’d discuss the rest of our time together over coffee.

If you’re ever going to meet friends at a cruise ship, leave yourself lots of time. I discovered that being drop off at a pier doesn’t necessarily mean you will be close to the ship. I had to walk over a mile to get to where the ship was docked.

Fortunately, I arrived in time to greet them as they disembarked. We took a taxi from the pier to the historic part of Porto. I had heard about the Majestic Café and thought it would be a good spot for planning.

 

 

 

The Majestic Café, opened in 1921, this absolutely gorgeous and charming café should not be missed. [note:  for those of you who are new to my blogs, you can click on the names of restaurants and places for more information. Also note that I do not share every place I eat or visit; only those that are exceptional or awful are mentioned.]

The historic center was perfect for walking, but be aware that many of the streets are hilly and should be carefully navigated. We decided to head out and see as much as we could see on our way down to the river where the “colorful houses” were located.

 

The incredible colorful houses in Ribeiria (a UNESCO world heritage center) on the riverRelated image

Sites in Porto you will not want to miss:

 

 

Stay away from Puro 4050 — awful “Italian” food. Viva Creative Kitchen was interesting, fresh food, in a cozy contemporary setting.

Antiqvvm

Antiqvvm is a one Michelin star restaurant minutes from the center of Porto. Spend a few minutes at the garden overlooking Porto right outside of this beautiful glass and stone building — it’s a magical experience and you will not want to miss a moment. A memorable meal is all about the mood of the day, the people you are dining with, the quality of the food, and the service and ambiance of the restaurant. This was one of those meals where everything was as you hoped it would be. I am savoring this memory and I know it will remain with me for a lifetime.

A big thank you to Neal Borden for these gorgeous photographs of the food we were served. The soft shelled crab, lobster and veal were just some of the highlights.

 

 

 

The Duoro Valley

If it’s true what they say about doing things when you are supposed to do them, then I was not destined to explore wine country in Portugal until now. I’ve been enjoying Portuguese wine for awhile. The best thing about Portuguese wine, besides the great taste, is the value. I have taken several wine classes, but I am far from an expert. There is so much to know; however, I only know enough to appreciate it — I have a lot to learn.

Airbnb offered a full day excursion I could not resist. José, our guide, was knowledgable, friendly, funny and a very good driver. The last part is important when traveling through the Duoro Valley:  with its mountains, curvy roads and narrow streets. Sometimes group tours can be a bust — too large, obnoxious guests; you know the score. This was a group of nine people from five different countries. All of us were delighted to experience the Duoro Valley on this perfect weather day. I honestly enjoyed getting to know all eight of my fellow travelers.

The Duoro Valley is most famous for Port wine. We were fortunate to do a tour and tasting of Quinta do Tedo vineyards. This beautiful vineyard is a boutique winery selling 80% of its product to consumers who visit the vineyard. We were given a very thorough tour, followed by a generous tasting. We tasted tawny port, ruby port and late bottled port. I have always been a big fan of port wine. Good ports are easy to find in the States and I have been enjoying them for many years. I’ve also been fortunate to taste several fabulous vintage ports.

The Spruce Eats — an informative piece on Port wine.

The best part of the day was the drive to the top of one of the mountains. It was a clear, gorgeous day and the vista was breathtaking. We were also treated to a boat tour on the Duoro River. We drank a sparkling Duoro white and marveled at the beauty of the land and water.

My take away from a marvelous day in the Duoro Valley is that this place is a well kept secret. I learned of several train trips I can take for a weekend getaway or pleasant day trip. I have a feeling I’ll be blogging about this wine region in the near future.

 

 

 

 

It’s going to take me a very long time to truly appreciate the breath and beauty of Portugal, but heck, all I have is time. The next stop? Well, who knows.

 

MAP of the Iberian Peninsula

Portugal And Spain Map From Kolovrat 1
So you can see how far Porto is from Faro (about 7 hours drive). It’s actually not far from the Spanish Galician border.