Saturday, July 16, 2016

Displaced

The courtyard outside the North York Civic Centre is busy. People sit around the picnic tables scattered under the trees or on the metal benches that line the fountain in the middle of the square. Unlike the suburb where I spent the past three years, or the quiet street where I grew up, Yonge and Shepherd is a constant swarm of activity and noise and traffic. The relentless nature of it is overwhelming.

Today, however, it does not bother me. I am sitting on one of the benches, sipping my morning coffee. It is my first day off in a week. I have done my best to keep busy, but the truth is, I like my job. Working with special needs students -- be it in a group home or residence or camp -- is always rewarding. My clients remind me that it is in the simple things where we find the greatest portions of joy. And while I'm with them, for a while at least, I don't have to think about home.

But today I am not working. And I am home.

If only I knew what that meant.

I can tell you my physical address, can take you there and point to the room where I sleep. But I might as well be pointing to a bed on a stage. My condo represents my house. But it isn't my home.

A small brown and white puppy bounces in behind its owner, tail wagging, excited by its morning walk. His owner, a tiny woman in her mid-thirties, leans down to rub its face before continuing. I smile as the puppy twists the leash around her legs in excitement, and it is some time before the owner untangles them. My gaze drifts. Beyond the puppy, a ripped Wendy's wrapper twists and swirls in the wind.

I am still not sure how I got here. All displacement is hard, and all of us will deal with it a few times in our lives. Moving. Changing jobs. Deaths in our family. It is part of being human to see change and see it suddenly, so much so that the movement of "there to here" feels like a chasm.

In my case, the chasm is not only moving to a new location, but doing so without the one I thought was my life partner. And it is that part with which I struggle on a daily basis. The one that deals with home.

Before I moved here, the building never mattered. Neither did the address.

She was my home.

The wrapper flutters in the wind and sticks against the side of a garbage can. I stare at it for a while, hoping it will shake itself loose.

I take a deep breath and slowly get to my feet. An elderly woman walking a medium sized Pointer stops and lets me pet him.

Time is a wonderful healer, but it moves slow for me these days. I try not to think about her and what she's doing or what we could be doing together. I try not to think about home.

Sometimes I am successful.

And yet, I am lucky. I have friends who take the time to wade through this painful transition, friends who are helping me face the chasm behind me and pushing towards the future. Not everyone has this. I think of the homeless man that I spoke with the other night. He claimed to be a professor from Columbia. He spoke of how much he missed his family. I have no idea if what he was saying was true, but it was clear that he was lonely. Clear that he had no house. Clear he had no home.

What I face, and what so many of us face, is not unusual. It is painful and awful and isolating, but it is normative. At some point in our lives, we will all feel this loss. I have worked with many children who grew up without a home. Too many. And so while my days are long and filled with questions, I remind myself that I have been given insight into the hurt of others, an insight I do not take lightly.

I slowly head back to my building. I notice a man sitting alone on one of the benches. His pants are pulled up high, his face unshaven. He is muttering to himself. He rises suddenly and sits again, still muttering. It looks like he hasn't showered in some time.

Where is his home? Who takes care of him? Is he alone?

I walk the final two blocks to my building. A torn piece of newspaper swirls in front of me before sticking against the window of the convenience store. I think about the puppy, so excited at his new world. And I think about the garbage, abandoned and left to the wind.

I put the torn newspaper in the garbage bin.

Everything has a place.


















Wednesday, July 06, 2016

New

Below me, the roar of traffic is constant. It is unlike any place I've ever lived. Twenty stories above the street and it feels like I am on a ship on the ocean. Although where it is going, I am uncertain. The only certainty of my home is the newness of it all.

A new journey.

A new life.

A new direction.

This worries me less than I thought it would. Displacement is difficult because change is difficult, which is what makes moving so traumatic. And in my case, it isn't the only significant change.

There are people who love change, embrace it, seek it out even. But they are rare, and I am not one of them. I much prefer status quo, with perhaps the odd "challenge."

This is not that.

For most of us, change of this magnitude creates fear. What will happen? How will I get through this? How did I get here? The list of questions is as endless as the sea, because the inevitable impact of change is just that: questions. Self examination. World examination. Life examination. Everything we have ever believed is under scrutiny, and it is here where change becomes extremely valuable. It gives us a chance to re-examine everything, because the world not only seems different, it is entirely unrecognizable. And in this strange new place we have the opportunity to see ourselves with new eyes. Is it challenging? Yes. But it can also be rewarding, if only we have the courage to see ourselves through a different looking glass.

WHERE AM I?

I have, for the past few months, desperately tried to figure out how my life went from "there" to "here." I am still without answers. Oh, I could detail what happened, but I still don't understand it. Not fully. Listening to the roar of traffic still makes me feel like I am drifting out to sea. And so I wonder. Where am I headed? Am I moving in the right direction? Am I open to the inner work that needs to be done?


I pause and glance up at the sky. Clouds have moved in. The balcony faces east, and so even on the brightest of days, the sun is gone by mid-morning. On this day, a typically hot summer Toronto afternoon, I am grateful for the relief. It is still odd to write with so much movement and noise below me, with the continual awareness of so many people heading in so many directions. I try to reassure myself: I, too, am headed somewhere. Even if my steps are a bit slower than they once were.

But I am still overwhelmed. That much is clear. Every day I add a piece or two to the puzzle that is now my life, and slowly, achingly so at times, I am beginning to see a new portrait. It is difficult not to rush things. To throw the pieces together however they fit and force them together.

It doesn't work that way.

It's not supposed to work that way.

As much as I do not like to wait, times like this -- and we all go through them -- are necessary to create the lives we want to lead going forward. It gives us a chance to breathe, to remember our dreams, to remember the things that excited us about the future.

It can be difficult to accept, but that future is still there. Even in the midst of turmoil, it breathes inside of us, waiting for a chance to speak, waiting for a chance to remind us why we're here and the joys of life yet available to us.

I do not write those words in a vacuum. I can tell you what it means to be in pain. I can tell you what it means to feel trapped in a joyless existence. I can tell you what it means to live your life based on the next thirty minutes.

I can tell you that, but there comes a time when explanation is redundant.

We do not need comprehension.

What we need is hope.

Two years ago I saw the ocean on the sandy shores on the East Coast. It was winter, the beach abandoned, the water cold. I thought it would just be another body of water. It was not. I was shocked to find myself experiencing something entirely different.

The waves were gentle enough, but there was a distinct sound to them, an endlessness that was difficult for me to fathom. I remember thinking, 'this is not a lake. This is nothing like a lake.'

On the edge of the ocean, my mind was drawn to many things. Its power. Its endlessness. Its eternal nature. And for those moments, I felt small in a way that I'd never known.

Not belittled.

Not less.

Just small.

As if I finally realized what it meant to be human.

ETERNAL

We are all shaped by vast sources that we can hardly fathom. Regardless of our life, or the dramatic changes within it, we are a speck next to the ocean. We are human. Part of something much greater than ourselves. An important part, to be sure, but just a part. What seem like mountains to us are nothing within the scope of those parameters. And when we overestimate the size and complexity of our lives, we lose perspective on how easily we can find happiness again.

We are not mountains. Or glaciers. Or oceans.

We are human. And we exist to create change in the ones around us by changing ourselves. By accepting all that happens in our life as a by-product of living. And by understanding how and why we these changes have occurred and what we can do to create an even larger impact on the world around us.

Change makes us vulnerable. It asks us to stand in front of the ocean and acknowledge that we are are mortal. It teaches us that we know much less than realize.

I look down at the traffic below me. Can I do that? Can I look at myself through the ocean's mirror and see what needs to be done? Can I raise my sail and trust that I will move in the right direction, even if I do not understand all that is happening? Can I lay aside my need for control, my need for an inflated sense of importance, to do what needs to be done?

These are the questions we need to answer. The ones I need to answer.

I do not know how I am going to respond. But I'm listening.










Saturday, June 25, 2016

I Wish


            A cool breeze wafts across the porch. It carries with it the scent of the purple flowered bush next to the steps, sweet and tangy. It has flowered every spring, but only for about six weeks, when the flowers die and do not reappear until the following year. I wish I knew the name of it. I wish the flowers bloomed longer.
            I wish for a lot of things.
            It is bright today. Hot. But under the shade of my neighbor’s towering birch, it is cool enough on the porch. Cool enough to write, anyway. And think. Though only one thing dominates my mind these days. It follows me everywhere I go, lingers like a foul odor, does not allow much room for anything else. It is all I can do to go to work, and try, at least, for a little while, to forget that my life has changed forever.
            I glance over at the window where my cat has curled up on one of the many boxes that now fill my house. They line the walls and lay scattered across the living room floor. Books and kitchen things. Old files and memorabilia and photographs. Tools and Christmas decorations and things from my childhood. All packed away. The furniture is still there, but the shelves are empty.
The house is empty.
I am empty.
She left three months ago, and I still do not understand. I wonder if I’ll ever understand.
Last year was hard. I have wrestled with depression my entire life, but last year it struck in a way I had never experienced. I lost my job. I broke into hives. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Some days it was all I could to get out of bed.
It was hard on her, too. It is painful to live with someone with mental health issues, and last year must have been a nightmare for her. It is one thing for me to talk about the emptiness and loneliness inherent with depression, but altogether something else for our loved ones who are powerless to help. I had hoped that she would stay, counted on this year being better, but it was all too much, I think.
She deserves to be happy.
I would have fought for this relationship, done whatever it took to make it right, but sometimes we reach the end of our rope and must protect ourselves. We’re no good to the rest of the world if we’re miserable, and everyone deserves the right to be happy, no matter how much it hurts. No matter how much I hurt.
Love is not about me.
I take a deep breath and stare out across the street. Watch the leaves on the trees shift and sway in the wind. Love is not about me. I have said that a thousand times these past three months. I believe it, but it only helps a little. It certainly sounds right. Something you say to convince people around you that you’re being wise and kind and patient, when inside your emotions are a boiling cauldron of frustration and sadness and anger. When your emotions are desperately trying to escape so they can scream and yell and lash out, and all you have is this thin barrier, largely constructed of mantras and clich├ęs and whispered hope, to reign them in.
Sometimes they escape. Sometimes I do not think kind things. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed I can hardly move.
She deserves to be happy.
I have always believed this. That hasn’t changed.
Pain of this magnitude is a great teacher, if we allow it. It gives us a mirror into our lives that we rarely see. And for a while, we can see ourselves from the perspective of someone else. I have stared into this mirror for three months, and it has taught me a great deal. It has also given me more wishes.
I wish I’d known she was so unhappy. I wish I’d been a better husband. I wish I’d been enough.
I sigh and put down my laptop. It is time to pack again.
Back inside, I pack two more boxes. The wedding photos are the hardest, but I see her everywhere. I remember everything, every story behind every book and nicnac and kitchen appliance. And every time I put them in a box, part of me disappears with them.
Tears slide down my cheeks. It feels like I have been crying for a long time. I know that one day the tears will stop, and that spring will come again and I will live without pain. I believe that, I just can’t feel it. Not yet. Perhaps not for a while.
Some days I think about our life together. Think about what I could have done differently. At night, I sometimes dream that we’re together, that I’ve made better choices and she is happy. Those mornings are difficult.
I do not believe everything is my fault, of course. I am not that arrogant. But I cannot control anything but who I am and the choices I made, and to focus on anything else is fool’s gold. The intent of pain’s mirror is not to cast blame or throw stones, but to check my thoughts and heart and actions.
Where did I go wrong? What could I have done better? What kind of person do I want to be going forward? Again, these are the kind of questions that sound like I have things all together, but don’t be fooled. No one “has it all together” when they lose the love of their life.
As a Christian, I believe in God. I also believe in a broken world, which is as much a reflection of my faith as it is my understanding of humanity. We are not perfect. We make choices that hurt people. And we do it every day.
I do it every day.
And somewhere along the way, I made too many of these choices. Perhaps she made too many of these choices. And so we broke.
That doesn’t make me a bad person. And it doesn’t make her a bad person. It makes us both human.
I put down the third box and head back onto the porch. I scrub the tears from my face. I am greeted by the fresh scent of my little shrub. I wish she were here. I wish I could tell her how much I loved her and hoped for her happiness. I wish that my heart did not feel so empty.
I wish for a lot of things.


























Tuesday, May 03, 2016

What Do You Want?

When we're young, we're asked this question a lot. What do you want for breakfast? What do you want to do this weekend? What time do you want to leave for your soccer game? We have little control over our environment and our world, so we rely on our parents and guardians. We even rely on them to think of these questions, because the concept of creating our own world isn't feasible.

Eventually we move out. We get a job or go to college. We start our careers. And as life passes, we never think to ask ourselves, except vaguely, the one question that dominated our childhood. Perhaps we find someone, a partner, who is willing to ask us. Perhaps we're motivated enough to go on a retreat or vacation and ask it ourselves.

But most of us forget. Most of us get caught up in the routines of daily life, that unending cycle of busy-ness and business, and what once seemed so important now seems like the question from a children's story. It never strikes us that it's the one question that will dictate who we become.

The Most Important Person in Your Life

Who is the most important person in your life? I'm a Christian, and I know some friends who will say 'Jesus.' Others will point to their spouse, their children, or one of their parents. All of these answers are selfless. All of them speak to generosity and kindness.

And all of them are wrong.

The most important person in your life is you, if only because it is the only life that you control, and it is the only life you can change. Yes, you can have great impact on people around you, whether its your kids or your partner or your friends, but you can't make their decisions for them. You can't create their world, no matter how hard you try.

In psychology they call this 'self-care,' this notion that you have to look after yourself before you can be of use to anyone else. If you don't take care of yourself, if you're miserable, everyone else is going to feel it. That said, most of us don't identify as 'miserable.' If I asked fifty people how they felt about their life, I'd guess that about eighty per cent would say that they're "doing okay." That life was just... life. Most people would consider their complaints 'common' or 'part of life.'

If I were to rephrase the question, however, and ask if their was one thing they wanted. One thing that they could have, all things being equal, I would get a very different response. Why? Because everyone can think of one thing they want -- whether its a vacation to a certain place or a skill they never learned or just more time to themselves -- and when its asked without impinging on what they do for others, its easy to find something. In some ways, it's like asking for a dream, and everyone has a dream or two that never quite panned out.

We Have To Be Practical 

If you had asked me six months ago what I wanted, my answers would have been vague. A healthy marriage. To manage my depression in a positive manner. To be happy. If you had pressed me, I would have said something like selling a lot of books, though I doubted such a thing was possible. (I would have said it apologetically, with a smirk and a shrug, like someone who buys a lottery ticket.)

If you had pressed me further, I would have said that I couldn't control these things, and that I had to be practical.

I would have been wrong.

That is, I would have taken an important truth (I couldn't control certain things) and turned it into a lie. Which is exactly what I did. In turn, it sowed the seeds for the worst year of my life.

Dead In The Alley

I spent most of last year lying prone in a back alley. My depression had kicked me to the ground in a way I'd never experienced. My relationships eroded, some of them souring so badly the damage was permanent. A month ago, I experienced a loss so great, so unexpected, I was no longer certain of anything. If I'd spent the previous year lying in a back alley, this event was the equivalent of someone sticking a knife in my side while I was face down in a puddle.

It was like waking up into a nightmare, where one plus one no longer equaled two. A place where the sun rose in the West, and when it did rise, it burned like gasoline over an open wound. And in this scorched earth, I was forced to re-examine everything. Well, either that, or just give up. However kind I had tried to be, however generous I'd wanted to be, and however concerned I'd been for other humans, none of that seemed to matter.

Life Doesn't Keep Score

Sometimes life hands good people a lot of pain and sometimes it doesn't. Believing that life was unfair was probably true, but it was also unhelpful. I had a choice, made stark by my circumstances. That choice was to get up, find a different approach and do things differently, or wallow in self-pity.

The first week I wallowed. Much as I had the year before, when I didn't understand why the world seemed so dark. I complained bitterly to God about my circumstances, about how it wasn't fair. Why bother being a good person when life was just going to crush me anyway? And yet, somewhere in this vague haze, I heard a single question, over and over.

What Do You Want?

At first, the question enraged me. I wanted what everyone wanted! I wanted to be happy! I wanted a healthy marriage. A job that I liked. A life I could be proud of. The question refused to let go, probing my mind, goading me, angering me.

What Do You Want?

I told you what I want, dammit! I want the same shit everyone else around me already has! All my friends have these incredible lives with great families and nice homes. I want what they have! The voice refused to relent. Refused to leave me alone.

What Do You Want?

Like a child after a tantrum, I remember mentally slumping against the wall of the alley, too tired to fight anymore. And so I thought about it. No more lazy answers. No more vague niceties. Nothing to do but answer the question. And so I did.

The answer was surprisingly simple. I wanted kids, and I wanted to own my own house. Yeah, I know. That doesn't seem like much of a revelation, does it? But my path was unlike that of my friends. I'd been a writer for the past twenty years, an aspiring novelist. My day job was working with special needs kids. I'd never made very much money. Not enough to consider buying a house. Not in one of the most expensive cities in Canada. As for kids, it had always been a dream, but never practical. I didn't make enough money to consider having them. And so much of my life seemed wrapped up in my writing. And yet, as soon as I said, out loud, what I really wanted, the voice left.

We Must Be Practical

The lie I'd believed earlier, that we only controlled certain things, was only a lie in the wrong context. Yes, we only controlled certain things, but we had far more control over our life than we imagined. This was, again, a revelation. By stating aloud (and writing it down) what I really wanted, these two simple goals that were deeply embedded in my subconscious, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders.

Pointing Our Life Towards the Solution

Those two simple goals, difficult but not unattainable, created something I hadn't seen before: a map. They were markers on a board I didn't know existed. Whatever else I wanted -- selling a lot of books, good friendships, a life of giving back -- revolved around those two locations. And with those two goals in place, I was able to start placing other markers. If I wanted a house, especially in this market, I would need to work. A lot. I would need to squeeze out TV and mindless surfing to be able to keep writing. My writing would have to become more efficient. If I wanted a family, I would have to switch my priorities, be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to put children first.

For the first time in a long while, I stopped worrying about the questions and unfairness and complaints about my life and started seeking solutions. Something vague and hopeless had just become a math problem. A challenge. One plus one suddenly equaled two again, and if I didn't have all the answers right away, that was okay. I could do this. It wasn't going to be easy, but I could do it.




First Steps

As I chewed on the end of my pen, poised over my recently acquired "goal" notebook, I realized the first question I needed to address was that of my mental health.This meant understanding what my depression meant, how it worked, and what I needed to do to manage it in a healthy way. Last year I'd been blindsided, but mostly because I lacked the tools to see what was happening. If I was going to stay healthy, I would need those tools, which included professional help, accountability from my friends, and other resources. I could not have a family and go AWOL for a year.

The first thing to go was alcohol. No more drinking. I'd used it to manage my depression, to take the edge off, for the past few years, but the more I drank, the less it worked. Depression makes it difficult to control your emotions, and alcohol is a depressant. It can fool you for an hour or two, but it's an illusion. And it only makes things worse.

So I stopped drinking.

I'd also learned the past year the importance of regular exercise. The endorphins and physiological benefits helped counter my depression and gave me confidence. So I set a goal to work out thirty to sixty minutes every day.

I haven't been in this kind of shape for nearly two decades.

I needed to be more efficient about it, but I still needed to write. I thought about my regular schedule. I tended to be a night owl, but never really accomplished anything after 10:30pm. So I would need to go to bed earlier and get up earlier.

I'm up by 6:30am every day now.

One by one, I was able to draw branches from my two goals and create smaller branches needed to support them. I'd expected the process to be hard. Instead, I found myself motivated. Excited even. The pain of recent events had not diminished, but I was doing the only thing I could do; I was taking control of my life. I couldn't control the people around me. I couldn't control how they responded in certain situations or what they thought about me or the way some would react to this "new"me. And frankly, I didn't care. I was more excited about the possibility of something great than anything anyone might say or do. I had, if unwittingly, created purpose in my life. Something for my compass to point to. I wasn't about to give that up.

There were, and still remain, other questions. Other challenges. I have a new job, and it will be challenging. I will be expected to work in some difficult environments. I will be expected to do some things that make me uncomfortable.

Even that creates one thought: bring it on.

Fear was no longer part of the equation. I could handle it. I'd taken the hardest blows the past year, and I was not only standing, I was creating a new life. If I had learned one thing, it was this: the choices we made dictated our life.

Movie Moments

I've always loved inspirational sports movies. (Rudy is at  the top of the list) I love the scenes that show the hero or heroine getting knocked down and getting back up again. Of course, in a movie, those scenes depicting weeks and months of hard work only last for twenty or thirty minutes. But they inspire me just the same.

Why? Because we have the ability to do that! Because we have more say in our life and who we become and what we attain then we realize. Because we are the ones who determine our life.

E + R = O. Event + Response = Outcome. 

We cannot change the events in our life, but we can change our response. That is what determines the outcome.

What Do YOU Want?

So let me ask you this. What do you want? Take a look at your life, really look, and tell me what it is that's missing. Maybe you're one of the lucky ones. Maybe you have everything you ever wanted. Maybe you can't fathom losing everything or feeling like you were dumped in an alley. Chances are, however, that there is part of your life that feels incomplete. Relationship issues? Familial difficulties? Job problems? Or maybe you want to try that new hobby. Maybe, if you're honest with yourself, you realize that you're just going through the motions. that you 'lost control' of your life a few months ago or a few years ago and have no idea how to get it back.

I know that feeling. I've been there. Hell, I feel like I spent too much of my life there. But if I've learned anything, I've learned that we CAN control our world. We CAN create a new life. New habits. New routines. And yes, it may be painful. It may require more falls, overcoming fears we didn't realize we even had, and thinking about ourselves in a completely new way.

But you can do it. We can do it. We are all so much more than we realize. We are not just a mother or a husband or a friend. We are not just a son or an accountant or a deacon. We are more than a profile on a page. We are beautiful and boundless and limited only by our own expectations. We are unique and special and gifted. And we are all here, together, sharing time and space and relationships, for one purpose: to make this world a little bit better.

I don't have it all figured out, and I'm not writing this to suggest that my new life, my new approach, is easy. It's not. There are days when I am torn about the past year, days I wish I could go back and scream at myself to get off the floor and do something. And there are nights when it is hard to fall asleep, because the goals I've set seem so very far away. Nights when I feel very much alone, as if the whole universe has gone quiet. As if I've set some impossible tasks for myself that won't make a difference.

But those are lies. To get to where we want to go, we have to create new patterns of thought, and consequently new habits, that refute those lies. Dwelling on them does nothing but bring us down, however difficult that is at times. We have no say over our past, all we can control is our future.

So today, before you get into your daily routine, before you set your weekly schedule, might I suggest something? Look in a mirror, look at that beautiful person staring back at you, the one who has been with you through every heartache, every sorrow, and every storm, and ask them this one question.

What do you want?

-Steve