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It is okay

I give many presentations to many different groups. I try to bring insight or understanding in a matter to the group. Recently, at a post-deployment event, I gave a talk where I brought out a variety of lessons learned to ease the reintegration from war. One of those lessons, often glossed over and missed by some (and I am very guilty to this as well), is my insistence that just as necessary as healthy food is the need to have quality time with quality people. I add quality here because spending time with destructive people isn’t good for health, just like watching Fox News all day breeds a warped sense of things. The dilemma for many veterans is that the more angst they feel, the more they want to isolate from others, which adds to their angst, so on in a negative spiral. This isn’t all that is going on with the veteran, it is an over-simplification, but it is a powerful one.

To illustrate this point I tell a story about when I was running one of the 9 marathons I’ve done. It was at the Portland Marathon, a really great one to run by the way, and as usual I had no friends or family in attendance. I did, however, have my BIB customized with my name… ‘Eddie’. Somewhere around  mile 22 I was struggling to run and was feeling the pain in my legs. I joke about it while telling it, but unless you’ve run a marathon, you don’t know how much pain I was really in. I was very aware of every pain in my legs and I berated myself for signing up for another marathon and when will I ever learn my lesson?. As I was running (read: hobbling), a bystander yelled out “Way to go Eddie! You can do it!”. I was already very aware of my pain, all systems were monitoring ship life support (to use a Star Trek metaphor), and I noticed that my pain level, lets just say it was an 7, dropped a little. Not a lot, it wasn’t a drastic change, but it was something. It is like when you are on a sweltering day, the air is thick and muggy, and you can’t imagine what feeling cool feels like, and you move your body a little bit and the slight breeze caused by your movement is pleasant. It is still very hot, it is still uncomfortable, but for a brief moment in time you not only feel but you embody hope for cooler temperatures to come. Running the marathon, feeling the pain decrease ever so slightly, even for a moment, gives the slightest bit of hope that this too shall pass, to persevere and to just keep swimming. In fact, more than once I’ve been known to finish out the last couple of miles  of a marathon singing this song… just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, much to the amusement of onlookers.

Among my various sets of stances, beliefs, and views, all of which are constantly reviewed, challenged, discarded, picked back up, altered, as this journal attests to, is that I am not only sex positive but also hold that a person ought to be able to be monogamous or polyamorous, or switch between, and so on. I attended an open discussion group of poly-minded people, some of which brought along some of their primary partners. We were all in a circle and did a lengthy introduction. I was third from the end of about twenty. Working in group therapy for seven years now, I’ve gotten used to not only listening to what people are saying, but watching their bodies, hearing their tones, and trying to discern what they are not saying but really want to. It was clear to me that a few of the people that were brought along were uncomfortable with the notion of non-monogamy but didn’t want to be seen as ignorant fossil stuck in an old way of doing things. When it came time for my introduction, I gave just the basic… I’m a nerd who has cats. But I took the opportunity to say something else. I cannot remember the exact words, and I’m sure it wasn’t as clear as below, but this is the gist.

I hear a couple of you struggle with jealousy and view it as proof that you are inferior or not as developed as the enlightened. I wanted to say, with respect to everyone in the room, that you are not underdeveloped. You are feeling jealousy for different reasons, each of your heart’s are telling you something important, something you need. Instead of viewing your jealousy as something with distaste, honor it, cherish it, welcome it into your dialogue with yourself and with your partner. What does it say? Jealousy is often called an immature emotion coming from someone with a poor sense of self-esteem. What if jealousy was something else, something protective, that was always looking out for your deepest wants? What are those wants? Only in honoring jealousy can we fully enter into that discussion and free ourselves to experience what we truly need. It is here that we become ourselves and not mirrors of our fears. It is here that we learn love.

The relief was palatable. When we finished our group discussion and entered into the mingle phase, I was instantly surrounded by a handful of people, eager to hear the message that they weren’t crazy or broken or stupid or such. They wanted to feel loved. This isn’t to say that their partners hadn’t told them they were loved, hadn’t done things to illustrate their feelings, they had. But the jealousy itself hadn’t been honored, and it was crying out for love for it self.

I watched a great anime movie last night, Expelled from Paradise, and I chewed on the notion of human minds living in virtual reality, especially from such a young age. I questioned if we remove the meat sack of the body, and its emotions (one character didn’t know what the pain in her body meant when went down to Earth on a mission), what would this do to who we are? Simply put, without the imperfect emotional system that guides most of our thinking, and as frustrating as it is to try and root out racism and other ideologies because of it, we wouldn’t be human without it. We seek to build artificial intelligence, and we question deeply what is sentience. Is it merely an elaborate feedback loop? Is it a perceived ghost of oneself in spatial time central located within sensory perceptions? As usual, Star Trek had it right when Kirk says “I need my pain”. Simply put we have two systems, a fast and messy system (emotions) and a slow and cleaner system (conscious assessment). See Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow for a wonderful introduction. Emotions, developed over the span of our species, motivate us to work together, protect each other from danger, nurture each other, and more. Without the fast part (the body), the humans raised in virtual reality would not operate with love, with friendship, with support, or any other thing that makes us human. It is our meat sacks that make us human.

Combat veterans have learned to distance themselves from feeling their meat sacks. I couldn’t resist, that was a great sentence to type out and it elicits a laugh from me. Back to the point. We learn to dissociate, that is, unplug from feeling our body. This means we learn to ignore the pain, whether that pain is caused by exhaustion, heat/cold, hunger, or emotional. Yes, emotions cause physical pain. Dissociation, or anything working with emotions, is a very generalized anesthetic, meaning that deadening one thing in the body deadens the rest. As veterans begin to do the work to return home, that is, to assume the roles other than warfighter, the begin to lessen the anesthesia. What results is a seemingly cacophony of bodily feelings. They feel how weak they are, how tired, hungry, confused, happy, depressed, anxious, angry, lost, achy, sad and a host of other feelings they are. The emotions are quite strong, because the body has been trying to get the message through to the self, only to be ignored. Since the message doesn’t get through, the body tries to send it stronger, and when the phone lines are opened up… BAM! it is overwhelming.

This is where the help of a trusted guide is invaluable. This person doesn’t look at the emotions as negatives, that the tiredness or sadness or jealousy or what are things to cut out, to eradicated, but that they are messages. Why am I sad? What images come to mind? What if we honored the sadness? What else would it tell me? Over time the body learns that the message are received and read, the self learns to read and understand, and the Self becomes more adapted at operating in what it needs. Again, we have a very long evolutionary history of moving through a chaotic world and the only calculator to perform the risk assessments was our emotional systems. This is why economists, unless they start studying psychology, will always get human behavior wrong at a deeply profound level. Homoeconomicus is a myth, it is the humans raised in virtual reality using only mode of thinking.

It is okay. What you are feeling is a valuable voice to paid attention to, honored in the shrine of your heart. Meet it under the Full Moon, welcome it, and ask it for its wisdom. Healing comes when we open our arms.

Forgiveness

I have held a grudge against my biological mother for a long time. Wait, not a grudge… I’ve been indifferent to her. She didn’t hit me… no more than the typical spankings that most kids got in Arkansas in the 70’s and 80’s. I don’t have any harsh memories of her spankings. The last time she tried spanking me I remember I just stood there as she wailed on me with a measly fly-swatter, trying to elicit a reaction from me. I just stood there and took it, not feeling it. That was her last time. Her spankings always paled in comparison to my dad’s. His brought Old Testament fear. He rarely had to follow through on his threat of a spanking. He was a “one warning” guy.

Mom was a manipulator. I watch on the television as comedians make stereotypes of the Jewish mother that lays guilt upon her hard-working comedian son. It is a caricature and intended as a joke. My mom wasn’t like this. She was a sledgehammer some days, or a slow painful poison other days. She’d pick at your defenses. She’d let all things be well and then bring her trap down upon you. If you watched Roos Bolton toy with Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, that was her, only without the physical torture.

I’ve tried to remember a time that I felt comforted by her, when I knew she was truly comforting me and not setting me up. The last time I can remember is when I was in the third grade. At her behest to be bold I marched into another class at school and gave the prettiest girl in school some candy for Valentines Day. She was nice, but by lunch she chose another boy instead. It broke my heart and I remember sitting in the couch, crying, and mom comforting me. This is the last thing I remember. I know, or hope, there is more, when she wasn’t acting, but I cannot remember them.

I had some issues growing up as a kid. I was a bit different in some respects of which I am still greatly ashamed of. Mom had a big part in that shame. She cultivated it. But I will not say that I was abused. I had it lucky. I had books and toys and a farm to grow up on and explore. Christmas was never lacking for me, we did trips as a family, and more. I reject any notion that I was an abused kid. I had a great dad. But for decades I have harbored no love for my mom. No hatred either… Just an utter indifference to her plight. People who know me are surprised to hear this. I’m not sure how to answer, but I think it is where my attention to character comes from. To this day I will not waste my energy on people of poor character. My mother is such a person. She is dishonest, manipulative, hateful, and more.

Many times over the past 20 years I’ve wondered about sitting down and writing a letter to her. But I never do. I simply do not care. I had no desire to offer her anything, positive or negative. Why waste time on someone for whom I hold no regard? I knew what the great spiritual traditions taught, about forgiveness, and I searched inside myself for just such a motive. Nothing.

I have a couple of sides within me. There is one side that is the cultivated soldier. I can bring out great violence, if needed. That side of me is a cold, hard side. I am very intimate with it. There is another side where I am political. This side comes out often in the world around me where I often challenge the BS around me, especially in areas of racism, sexism, or some other cause for equality. I offend many people often as I loudly call out bullshit when I see it.

There is another side that was much stronger in the 90’s. I lost touch with it for a while but it is coming back, thanks to Stoicism and meditation. This side is a more clinical, yet humanistic, self. It is this self that, in the 90’s in college, I was questioning how to get treatment to pedophiles before they committed their acts. I thought that if we psychologists could show a more caring front we might invite more people to seek our treatment beforehand. Shame, I believed, only served to push people away. Love, or as Rogers referred to as positive regard, doesn’t mean acceptance of the act. This insight is, perhaps, a result of the lessons in shame that my mom gave me.

The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or her self vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior—and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.
Carl Rogers

I have been growing as a person; therapy, marathons, Crossfit, good friends, good and meaningful work, pets, philosophy, psychology, a mustang, zen and meditation, and stoicism have helped in this. I am often reminded of something…

Begin each day by telling yourself : Today I will be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness–all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good and what is evil.
Marcus Aurelius

A point made by the Stoics, and other philosophers, is that nobody does evil intentionally. This would take more time to explain, so I’ll refer you to this here. This is a cornerstone of Stoicism, and it is something that I’ve sorta believed at a shallow level since I first came upon it in some of Descartes writings over a decade ago when he discusses freedom and constraint of action as one learns more. It was a fascinating read. Still, as I get read Carl Rogers and positive regard These ideas are not incompatible. In fact, they have formed into a foundation for me. While I am vociferous in politics, inwardly as a philosopher and psychologist I am cultivating love and compassion. Instead of seeing Ted Cruz as the idiot it is so easy to see him as, I see him as a human with wants and needs and fears and etched pathways of emotional experiences. I wonder how Marcus Aurelius would meet him, or Ann Coulter, or Trump. Remembering the Stoic belief in the Logos and how sin is not living within this, or the idea that they don’t actually choose to be a putz (they are merely ignorant, not evil), I find myself with more patience with them.

Back to my mom. I was driving along in the Oregon sunshine and contemplating some thoughts along Stoicusn. A Beatles song came over my iPod, and I remembered my mom loved the Beatles. I could remember her sitting on the floor next to her big Fingerhut stereo, headphones on, listening to a Beatles album. And for a moment, in the theater of my mind, I did not see my mom. Instead I saw a young woman who was clueless about a great many things that I have learned through 10 years of college and 6 or 7 trips around the world. She was from a small town in Arkansas, with a past of her own, a human need to love and feel love, and here she was, seeking some comfort in a Beatles song. And for a moment I looked upon her memory in my mind with love. Not the love of a son, but the love of a human that recognizes another human, bruises and all. In that moment I forgave her for not being perfect, for teaching me about the landscape of shame and self-doubt.

Recently she has had a stroke and she, being old and poor health, for being an all around spiteful person adds years to ones body, she has had to retire and move into an assisted living home in Mississippi. I have a desire now to ensure that she has a record player and some Beatles albums. Perhaps she can, again, find some small solace. For I’m sure that for her it’s been a hard day’s night.

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Do the work

I use running as a metaphor for a lot of things. So I’ll start here with another one.
For some reason it was on my list of things to do to run a marathon. Not sure where I got this idea or why. I think that it might have been a thought along the lines of proving that I have grit. It isn’t enough that I was a Marine, nor deployed, nor done a lot of things… being a typical man and falling into the trap that masculinity is something that must be earned everyday, I signed up for a marathon when I was 39. I wanted to do it before I was 40. I trained and trained and it was rough going, the learning curve and growing stronger. Before then I was not a runner. I hated it. I got bored. I only ran over a 5 miles a handful of times ever. Only three or so 10K’s ever. I wasn’t a runner.

Training required me to schedule time to do the running. To be honest, there were times when, overcoming a year-long ankle injury one one foot, and a two-year old injury on the other ankle, where a mile was too much and I’d have to quit. But I did what I could, didn’t berate myself, understood that more important than ‘all or nothing’ as the approach of ‘consistent effort’. I was plugging into the mindset of growth.

I did my first and it hurt, but I was hooked. I did another, then another, and another, and so on. One year I did two, the next year I did three marathons and four half marathons. This year I have run 1 marathon already, have 2 more to go, have run a 1/2 marathon, am going to do a Spartan race, and have signed up for a grueling ‘soul crushing’ 13 mile run up a mountain, the second biggest incline race in the US behinc Pikes Peak. It took me a couple of marathons and a few hundred miles to finally think of myself as one. Somewhere I transistioned from ‘training so I don’t hurt’ with only one way to run (a sloppy energy wasting run) to running for fun (most days) and a better, tighter, energy conserving glide. I’ve changed my approach, my pace, my training, my mindset, everything. After over 2000 plus miles, I would hope that I’ve learned something about running.

Now to the heart. For a variety of reasons I entered puberty and young adulthood with a low sense of esteem in relationships, a clingy dependancy, constant worry and self doubt, and so on. Self esteem is not global, it can be specific. I have great confidence in my abilities in many areas, but romance is not one of them. Go back a few years on this journal and the weight of the immature emotions,  the raw insecurity, conclusions that are quick and simple, are stunning to me. Though I repeatedly found myself in the same cycles in every relationship, I had enough sense to realize that I wasn’t dating clones, I was bringing the same issue to every relationship. In a Stephen Covey book I came up a phrase that stuck with me for years;

The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.

John Foster Dulles
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Former Secretary of State

I noticed a pattern of clingy neediness that was poison to every relationship that I was in. I could see the pattern and the quote showed me it was about me, not them. I didn’t know why I was so clingy, but I knew I had to get over it.

Flash forward to deployment to Iraq. This, naturally, threw a HUGE monkey wrench in my relationships. Before Iraq I had the longest relationship ever with one of the great loves of my life. After Iraq, I was emotionally volatile and barren. I’ve given many talks where I’ve been as upfront and honest about this as possible. I tried dating many people afterward and each one was highly problematic. I wasn’t present with them, I was 100% involved and then I shut them out completely and was distant. I began to see another pattern… the six month ending. 1-2 months were bliss. 2-4 months were okay, with good and blah. 4 months the wheels were coming off and I tried holding on until around month 6 I could take it no more and would end it, if she didn’t end it first. I would fear the same pattern the next partner and the pattern would repeat again.

Lets take a side step for a moment. I used to be a goofball. Total goofball. I was always happy. Sure I could be moody, but usually I was loving life. Five years ago, or more, I was birdwatching and it struck me that it was the first time since Iraq that I felt absorded in watching the bird (a common Robin) instead of the feeling of angst. In other words, I was comfortable being in the world. The realization of that moment was a gift. Every year since then I would note how ‘well’ I was, that I was ‘better’ than the year before. I was calmer, easier to get along with, and so on. The facial twitches and muscle spasms were less and less common, the ringing in my ears less and less, the headaches less and less, the tired feeling everywhere in my body less and less. Soon I felt… good. And every year I felt more good. I did the work. I kept running, I picked up meditation semi-regularly. I read a lot on the concepts of resilience and awareness and growth and so on. I worked every Tuesday night as a co-facilitator for a veteran PTSD domestic violence batter intervention group, teaching them the lessons that I was still working on, and learning a lot from them. It is not uncommon for me to call an ex-girlfriend I had dated since Iraq and tell her how much I appreciated her kindness while we dated, how I’m sorry I wasn’t as present as I could have been, and how were they doing in their life, or ask about what was their good news for the day? The next year I felt not only more good… I actually felt I could call myself healthy for once. I felt that the word ‘flourishing’ applied to me. The next year was even better. Today I am in my best shape ever in my life, in no small part to a much lower stress response and constant CrossFit and running and eating healthy. Today I was driving down the road, singing like a goofball with the top down, and it occurred to me how at ease I was… in traffic. Doing the work has paid off.

Three weeks ago I was able to go to Arkansas for a week-long conference. While there my Dad came to see me. We had a short talk one night and he told me how happy he was to see me doing well. He looked at Mom and asked her ‘do you remember what my first words were when he (me) first came home from Iraq?’. She said “yes… you said ‘my son didn’t come home. That’s not my boy’.” What he meant was that the happy-go-luck optimist was replaced by a different person, a dour pessimist quick to react with aggression. Finally that optimist is back.

Just like I learned new running strides, footfalls, leg postures, center of gravity positions, for running, and what my tempo and pace are for different times and places of a race, I am learning more and more of my emotional landscape again. Recently, while feeling great bouts of pure joy and happiness I was struck with other feelings of… negative (?), what I have surmised to be the piggybacking of emotion. This is not uncommon with veterans who’ve learned to supress emotions and once they start letting them out again suddenly find that random emotions pop up in clusters. Faced with the growing melancholy I reached out to some of my best friends, all of whom have been women that I’ve dated. That didn’t strike me as too strange at the time, yet what occurs to me now is that 3 of the 4 are women that I didn’t date until after Iraq. This simple fact gives me great hope.

So it is that I train on my running with the hope of getting a better and smoother stride and a faster pace. Likewise, seeing that I have grown in physical health, spiritual and emotional health, and that several women that I’ve dated when I was struggling to return from deployment I am able to call my dearest friends, who love and support me, is proof to me that I’ve come a long way. Perhaps I am not able to call myself a romantic partner… but I can call myself friend.

So here is my hope for the future. Aside from the negative iceberg belief that I am still trying to root out of my core beliefs, that I am unworthy of love (it is deeply entrenched), I have a hope that seems possible now, when it didn’t seem so a couple of years ago… that I can actually love someone. Knowing the people that I’ve dated since Iraq, who’ve I’ve treated poorly and yet still love and support me, gives me confidence that others are strong, that I can not hold myself to impossible heights of responsibility for breaking their heart, which is a factor in my isolation. There is hope for the future.

This is worth lacing up the shoes and hitting the trail for

If the glove fits

A couple of weekends ago I was had the opportunity to open the windows to Spring, make some black coffee, and sit with a few books. I have stacks of them around my apartment. When I get into a mood I will let my interest wa/onder where it may, weaving from archetypal mythology to gender studies to psychology of trauma to philosophy to environmental literature and so on. After a few cups of this I had to get up and go on a hike. The sunshine was glorious, the Spring air was fresh, various birds were singing… it is a magical time in the Pacific Northwest. I donned one of my kilts, put a notebook and pen in my canvas bag, grabbed my worn hiking stick, put the top down on the Mustang, and headed out to a stretch of forest I had not yet visited, the McDonald-Dunn State Forest.Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 7.14.47 PM.6cd25236f1f541d0abaf9456578e616c On the drive over I put my Spotify app onto a music channel based on Sheila Chandra. Several of the songs that came up were drone songs, great for meditation. I took my Mustang in and out of curves with a leisurely, mindful attitude. I didn’t attack the curves, pushing my skill and the car, as I did in the past. Instead I just flowed through them.
IMG_2479I drove down a road, onto another road, and passed a gorgeous valley. The picture above doesn’t do it justice… it is a beautiful space. The valley walls were green with dots of white and pink from blooming trees.

Though it was only 63 degrees, the sun poking between clouds, my left hand was cold. After four decades, I still have only the most rudimentary understanding of my left arm and hand. I have a birthmark on it, specifically a large hemangioma where I have a higher density of blood capillaries than normal. Not only do I look different with a purple/red arm and 1/2 my chest, but it affects my physical performance somewhat. For example, I can pace myself on a 26 mile marathon, but if I go flat out for a 2 mile sprint… I lose circulation in it. I can’t hold my arm up and it turns into essentially dead meat. Once I finish running and rest for 10-20 seconds, it comes back. Same is true for push-ups, overhead presses, and other expercises that require chest and arms. To be honest, it frustrates the living hell ouf of me in CrossFit WODs when my strength fails and I transition to one-armed movements. But as soon as I start to feel pity for myself, I remember seeing videos of people doing CrossFit with no arms, or no hands, or no legs. So I shut down my self-pity and move on.

Still, my left hand was freezing cold. The rest of my body was fine. Sometimes it isn’t so much the temperature as something else that I am unaware of. Diet? Stress? I don’t know. When I reached the location where I was to park my car, my hand was positively ice cold. I had tried driving with it in my arm-pit and in my crotch for warmth. I know it looked funny, but I was seeking warmth. And no… it wasn’t because the top was down on the Mustang. I took a picture of it because it was a particularly brilliant shade of purple. As I get hot… it gets deep red, cold… deep purple (good band).
IMG_2524No matter, I parked the car, grabbed my thermos of hot Douglas-Fir tea, my walking stick, and headed out into a forest I’ve never visited before. I passed a couple of people, getting smiles from them, I assume because I am wearing a kilt. It gets a lot of attention. Honestly, I don’t know why I ever wear pants anymore. Kilts (essentially a skirt… admit it dude, deny it all you want… same damn thing) are so much more comfier. Hell, I might start wearing skirts. Why the hell not. What have I got to prove to anyone? Not a damn thing! It is an odd thing that the ultimate refutal to any argument, to the small-minded, is resorting to violence. It matters not how I would argue wearing a kilt/skirt to anyone… I would still have to beat someone up to prove myself. This is, it must be stated, utter bullshit and typifies misogynist beliefs. But I digress…

Walking down the road I enjoyed every little thing I saw. I stopped to watch a bumble bee buzz around for a few minutes. I stopped to watch a bird hunt for insects in the grass. I looked at water flowing on rocks and took note of the way the moss formed at the water’s edge. I noted the growing patterns of trees in an area that had been clearcut a decade earlier. I looked at new plants springing out of the dirt in the Spring air. I tried to walk as mindfully as I could, soaking up the forest into every breath that I took.
IMG_2487Still my left hand was freezing. The sun was warm, the air was perfect, and still my left hand was ice cold. It wasn’t painful, but it was irritating. I even poured scolding hot tea onto my hand and kept the hot water cupped, trying to take in the heat. Nothing worked. I lamented that I didn’t have a nice set of gloves I bought for running. Normally I kept this sleek pair in my bag, but a friend had borrowed them a few weeks earlier. I was really wishing that I had a glove, but I was determined to not let it ruin my day. I wasn’t going to end my hike, so no use lamenting about it too much. Perhaps with my hand in my armpit, and if I picked up my walking pace a bit, I could get the blood in that hand to move some. When it gets this way, whether from fast exercise or temperature, it feels like molasses or lead in the veins… heavy and slugglish.

Less than five minutes later I spied something off the side of the road. I knew what it was instantly. As often as I go hiking, it is not uncommon to see someone post a lost/found glove or hat onto a bush or sign in case the owner walks by again. Ahead of me, off the road a bit, was a funky glove posted in a small sapling.
IMG_2489As I got nearer to it, I could see that it looked like a kid’s glove. It was a delightfully wonky color, filled with exuberance.
IMG_2490I put it on. It was a hair too small, but not so that I would notice. The fuzzy fabric easily stretching over my hand. It was dry from the sunshine and it felt great. Within a few minutes my hand felt better wearing that glove than it did walking around with it in my armpit. Though there was also likely the effect of the faster pace. The crazy purple also matched my arm!
IMG_2523I found a stump that was situated on a switch-back. It provided a great seat for meditation. So I set my tea down, grabbed a seat, and just breathed. Being an amateur birdwatcher I know that this is one of the best means of seeing birds. Instead of stomping around looking for them, find a spot, get quiet, and wait.
IMG_2495Walking for another hour, I followed a crow through a stand of trees. There I found a horse trail, then another horse trail, then a game trail, then a regular hiking trail. I came into a small hollow and was immediately struck by how quiet it was. It was as though the rest of the world, with its distant lawnmowers, helicopters, diesel trucks, and airplanes had disappeared. I sat and revelled in the stillness of it. A nearby hornet, buzzing around the ground, was now prominent with its volume.
IMG_2509Further along a horse trail I came upon some old fallen trees. There were signs everywhere marking them as habitat trees. It is a sad state when we must resort to marking off habitat trees. We’ve lost nearly all of our ancient growth forest in Oregon. Timber companies lobby to get the definitions of an ancient growth forest defined by the diameters of trees. This is like measuring the wisdom of a person by how tall they are. An ancient forest, of which I’ve seen only 1 thus far in Oregon, itself a tiny strip along a highway, is a complexity of biological processes. It is an ecosystem. Do not be fooled for a moment that anyone getting a forestry degree is a biologist or an ecologist. The term forestry is a ploy. Forest is defined as a crop. Our forests are not treated as ecosystems, but instead as crops to harvest wood. Our State forests have long been sold off to timber companies at the expsense of habitat. Instead of investing in diversifying economies in the timber counties, such as Curry County, they have relied heavily upon timber in one way or another. And whenever we, the citizens of the state of Oregon, demand a stop to the wanton disregard for our public forests, whether state or federal, the counties that are dependant and working with/for Big Timber, cry foul. If anyone challenges this, they are met with ‘don’t you live in a wooden house?’, yet nobody talks about the timber we ship overseas. It isn’t about Big Timber providing for communities, it is about them making a buck. When they are done with an area, they’ll simply close up shop and move on. And while timber mills do close, not because of environmentalists but because efficiency (production has increased while demand for labor decreased… blame the machines), struggling communities that bet everything on the local timber economy, now abandoned and worried, wrongly point the finger of hate and distrust at those who are different than them… hippie environmentalists.
IMG_2508I’m not sure where I’ll end up. I’ve gone down some paths that were unknown to me. I’m not where I thought I would be when I originally moved to Oregon in 2000. But I still believe in people first, in the radical notion of clean air and clean water, of a healthy self-regulating ecosystem. We don’t need to regulate a forest; crops are a different matter.

Some people believe the world is evil… others that it is good. I believe that it is both and many shades in between. That the world one lives in is the world we seek, the world we perceive, the world we inhabit. I use inhabit in an active sense, not a passive one. On the many walks that I’ve taken into forests, I’ve seen a lot of gloves and hats left along the trail, some posted prominently so that the owner might see it upon a return. So I keep my eyes open for opportunity, whatever it may look like, to create a positive change in the world around me. I don’t know what it will look like, but I know it when I’ll see it. As always, my life in service to the Logos… or Beauty… or God/dess. I’ve offered this prayer many times in the past… I offer it still. May I be of service to a purpose greater than myself.
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Traffic is my yoga (or Marcus Aurelius in a Mustang)

Traffic. Who likes it? Growing up in Smalltown, Arkansas, I never really experienced traffic until I was stationed at El Toro, California, which is south of Los Angeles. I remember thinking that thea person must be truly, and deeply nuts to drive on the freeways there in the best of conditions. And I saw people driving in a way to make it the worst of conditions. It seemed that nobody had a shred of concern for human life as they darted in and out of the smallest of spaces. If regular automobile drivers were nuts, my opinion of the motorcyclists who opted to travel on these freeways was that they had already came to a sense of peace with their impending doom, that they were traveling Buddhas without any attachment to their lives. Either that or they were the very definition of insane.

A few years later I lived in Houston, Texas and another knot of traffic jams. Now I was a civilian and had to move from one location to another on a regular basis, from school to work to home to shopping, all using the city freeways. Such frustration was never an issue in when I was a Marine, lived and worked on base. Now I was in daily competition with other drivers to get to the next opening, the faster lane, ahead of that slow-moving truck, hitting the red-lights just right, and so on. Now my fellow drivers were not nuts, we were all competitors. Once, while trying to merge onto the freeway, a little old lady in a large Buick, closed the gap and would not let me in. I was suddenly faced with the choice of slamming on my brakes, causing the dozen cars behind me to pancake me, drive over the railing and off the overpass, or nudge her out of the lane. I quickly chose the nudging. For my troubles I got tire marks down on my left side of the car and her flipping me the bird. To me these paled in comparison to hospital bills and vehicle costs from the alternatives. When my girlfriend told me that her friends and her would all pile up in a car, grab a cooler of coca-cola, put some tunes on, and jump into traffic… for kicks, I looked at her with another deeply felt sense that this person was utterly, and completely insane. Why would anyone subject themselves to this rat race intentionally? Also, they were adding to the congestion, making it worse for those of us stuck in the morass.

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. -Lao-Tzu

A few years later and I have moved to Eugene, Oregon. My car is on its deathbed and so I give it away to charity and become one of the bicyclists everywhere. I’ve been narrowly missed by cars, I’ve purposefully laid the bike down onto the ground to avoid getting smashed by a careless driver, and I’ve been hit by a car that turned into my bike lane. I developed an acute sense of defensive driving, so much so that when I rode in a friend’s car, I couldn’t help but check around me when ze turned the vehicle. I was constantly looking for the next car to come out of nowhere. Some days did suck, when it was stormy or cold and rainy, but most days it was a pure joy to ride the bike. I remember riding up Skinner Butte and passing a minivan. The driver had the windows rolled up and was mindlessly driving along the road. I, on the other hand, was exposed to the wonderful scents of Summer in the Willamette Valley, the sounds of my beloved city (Eugene is still my favorite), the feeling of the breeze. I remember looking at the driver with a feeling of pity that they were losing part of their life by not being present.

Flash forward a couple of years and I am driving an 11,000 lb up-armored Humvee. I’ve deployed with A Co, 2-162 Infantry to Baghdad, Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. I was the driver, there was another E5 in the TC seat, we had a soldier manning the .50 cal machine gun in the turret, and sometimes 1 or 2 soldiers in the backseat. My defensive tendencies now switched to an entirely offensive tendency. We operated with the “3 P’s”… that is be polite, professional, and prepared to kill. Instead of fearing the hit, I was looking to hit. This doesn’t seem to make sense because in this environment, more so than Eugene, OR, I was constantly under threat of being attacked. Roadside bombs with IED’s, ambushes, carbombs, erratic civilian drivers, were always a threat. And yet we knew that one of the safest protections for us, more than the armored vehicles, was our posture. We constantly displayed a posture of vigilance, of a readiness to fight. The thinking was that the enemy would rather attack someone that appeared sluggish, mindless, hesitant or afraid of fighting, than they would someone that appeared on ready and eager to fight.

When I left Iraq I moved to Portland, Oregon and fell into another routine of school, work, home commutes. This time I had the feelings of competition that I learned in Houston, with the feelings of defense I learned in Eugene, with the now stronger feelings of offense in my driving. Offensive driving was more than mere competition, it carried a greater urgency and a moral imperative to it, and coupled it with the fight/flight response. I could not drive 2 miles on the highway without completely losing my cool. I would routinely slam my fists into my passenger seat, curse the people around me, and anger filled my heart. Twice I have gotten out of my truck on a busy street and started to move toward the vehicle in front of me with the purpose of beating the person within it. I lived 10 minutes from work and even in such a short drive I would arrive to work in the foulest of moods and it would take me hours to get out of this mood, if I could do it at all. I began therapy and for two years I worked to regain control of my emotions. I did not like the person I was. I was not who I used to be. I went through a lot of brake pads and rotors on my truck due to aggressive driving styles.

A couple of years later I got a job that required a lot of travel. I had a company Prius and the entire state to cover. I was constantly on the road. Soon into the job I thought I would die of a heart attack. Every day on the road was another increase to my stress. Even though I was no longer in therapy, I was still using the tools and skills I learned. I was still making progress. I learned about some signs that I was going to lose my cool. The first ones was that I was cursing and slamming my fist on the dash. Before this I was clueless and if asked I would’ve said that the anger came over me all of the sudden. This is not true, in reality I was constantly angry. It was just that I was not aware of it until I was hitting things. My next tell was that I was not satisfied with the music on my iPod while driving. I learned that if I skipped 20 songs to find one that felt right, then I was on edge and needed to use some calming tools. But I kept at it, trying to learn an earlier sign. I soon noticed that I would begin to tense my thighs up, in preparation for gas/brake use. I don’t have a tell earlier than this one yet.

For the past 15 years I’ve read a lot of Yoga magazines. I am constantly buying one. I have some DVDs, a mat, and several books. I’ve attempted some of the asanas at home, but I’ve only been through one class out in the world, something that I want to change, though I’m spending a lot of money on CrossFit currently. I’ve started meditating 3 years ago and have become more and more regular in it, mostly every day. I am not a yogi, but I am constantly working on myself.

As I understand one approach to asanas is that they are difficult poses to hold. While in one I am unsteady, shaking, breathing erratically, mind is moving from calf to stomach to this to that. And yet, if I can sit in this pose, without rushing it, allowing myself to be in it without judgment, and focus on my breath, I gain self awareness that is wider than whatever part of my body is struggling at the moment. This, over time, lends a calm serenity to life. I understood this with asanas… but what really hit home was that traffic was the same thing. By being present with myself in traffic, without judgment of myself or others, by focusing on my breath, I could gain greater awareness, and then acceptance, of my situation.

I finished my degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, and readily applied all that I learned into my own life. One school of thought that stuck well was that of Stoicism. I began to read Marcus Aurelius as well as contemporary writers influenced by the Stoics. These writings matched well with what I learned in Positive Psychology, my own therapy, working as a group co-facilitator in a domestic violence batterers intervention program, experiences in the military, and practical knowledge as an infantry instructor. I am convinced that much good could be accomplished if our public schools taught mandatory courses in Stoicism. A thought that took shape was the Stoic idea that difficulty in life was a good thing if one viewed it as an opportunity to develop virtue. Virtue is not something that a person is born with, it isn’t something that is learned from a book or in a class. It is learned only by application of one’s reason in one’s daily activities. Each situation that upsets us is an opportunity to deepen our soul, to broaden our perspective, to actively engage our selves to the end of becoming virtuous. With this in mind, I saw traffic as an opportunity to develop patience and kindness.

It was not easy at first. I failed every day. Yet there were moments when I made progress. I started to string those moments together. Then they became lengthier periods, then days. Now the norm for me is to be a better person while I am driving. It was this year, 9 years after returning home from deployment, that I noticed a new behavior, and when I did so I was filled with joy. I’ll explain… in Iraq if a vehicle came towards our patrol it was my job to stop it. This first meant deploying weapons, but if it were too close, too fast, it meant ramming it with my own vehicle. You see, it is better that my vehicle, which was the rear vehicle in the patrol, to be destroyed by a car-bomb than the possibility that it get past me and near the center of the patrol, possibly taking out my Patrol Leader. Sacrifice is a part of the job. For 9 years after, whenever an oncoming car would cross the center-line and into my lane, my immediate reflexive reaction was to point my car toward it, regardless if it is a small car or a bus. This is, needless to say, a very dumb thing to do. Now, years later, a car crossed into my lane and my reflex was to avoid it.

I have my days, when I am tired, poor diet, stress, boredom, or whatever, when I slip into past habits, and find myself gassing the car forward simply because the person that came up behind me is driving faster (competition) or weaving in and out of traffic (aggressive). When I catch myself I will use a variety of things to gain center again. Breathing, music, purposefully driving the exact speed limit (everyone else is driving faster), critically examining my assumptions about the other drivers, and more.

Fifteen months ago I put my truck in the shop for the weekend and the loaner car the dealership gave me was a convertible Mustang. I drove that car all weekend and fell in love with it. Though it was the winter time, I put the top down and was taken back to the days when I rode my bike around Eugene. Two days later I traded my truck for that car and never looked back. I’ve found myself sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the freeway swollen with cars at a standstill. I would look around and see the faces of people in their cars, faces twisted with frustration and angst. Then I would look up at the blue sky, feel the warmth of the sun, and smile. It was hard to be in a hurry when one was savoring an experience. Driving to work in the morning I will sometimes put on a chill music list, put the top down, leave with an extra 10 minutes, and enjoy the drive without hurry. Around me drivers are jockeying for position, trying to beat red-lights, or fit into a space with their vehicle. I’ll notice that a car, driving with anger and aggression, will reach a point across town at roughly the same time that I do, or perhaps 60 seconds faster. Is 60 seconds worth increased stress in my life? No.

I might not have been ready for my car five years ago. But doing the work, meditating regularly, viewing difficulties as opportunities to develop my best self, realizing that I am not the center of the universe and that others have their own interests also, has helped prepare me for this car. Now I can drive my car, enjoying the experience, being energized by it, instead of the other way around.

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Open

I had Friday off. I did my 06:00 CrossFit workout, went home and made coffee, and goofed off on the computer a bit. I checked on projects, emails, calendars, and then made my way to WordPress. I have 20% of what I’ve journaled in my life on the computer. Prior to discovering Livejournal I filled up large binders with journaling, and then many paper journals. I have boxes of them. I’ve shifted everything from LiveJournal, after they were bought by a Russian company and the community spirit was essentially ruined, and now live on WordPress. I’ve transcribed some of the paper entries over to this format.

So here it was that I was going through some of the earlier posts on WordPress and adding tags and categories to some of the posts. Many, MANY of the posts could be embarrassing to me. But I keep it as a record. I’ve ripped the scabs off of my heart over and over and over, and looking back over time I see that my capacity to be loved and to love have grown tremendously. It is hard to believe that I was that person writing those entries twenty… ten years ago. So I keep this blog for three reasons. First, again, it is a way to gain perspective of how far I’ve come in development. I have no less a drive than to become what Maslow termed Self Actualization. I recall a Psychology professor telling the class that Maslow himself said this was exceedingly rare, that he might meet one person in each of his classes that fit the description. In other words, it was very hard.

This reminds me of several discussions that I’ve had with my family… why I am not married. Common to many is an idea that one purpose of life is to have a family and kids. Recall the television show The Beverly Hillbillies where Ellie-May is constantly being pushed toward eligible bachelors by Granny. It is a strong influence in the calculus of my Self and many relationships that I’ve had in the past there was this influence, along with the misguided notion that we have one soulmate out there for us, as though it were Fate or a divine plan that we meet up our other half (which seems to imply we are incomplete without that person).

The second reason I share this is that I’ve met others who experience the same as I do. It is strengthening to see that one is not alone. This is a primary reason why I share my close calls with committing suicide in the past (one and two), in the hopes that another person will see them and realize that they are not a different species of thing, but a human like the rest of us, mucking things up on the road of our lives.

The third reason is that perhaps someday, there might be someone who knew me, and after I am gone, would be interested to learn more about me. Though the window to start a family is nearly closed, that is another reason I do so.

So here it was, Friday morning, and I came upon this post… Remember Kim. What happened the next two days is still a mystery to me. But reading that post hit me hard. I lost all vigor. I wept my eyes out, repeatedly, for the next two days. I felt lead weight throughout my body. I couldn’t walk with much energy. I was a complete mess. I met Kim a few months before she died in an auto accident, July 14 2001.

I live in Salem, Oregon and when I knew Kim I lived in Eugene. While there I would often take trips into the Cascade Mountains to the East. So I decided to take a trip to the Cougar Reservoir and check out the Cougar Hot Springs and possibly the French Pete Wilderness, both of which I’d not visited for a decade. I drove my car down I-5 and picked 65 MPH to drive. I didn’t feel any sense of hurry at all. The normal push/pulls of traffic that can sometimes get me to jockey for position, passing slow cars and such, were not there. I simply drove. And while driving… sometimes a wave of emotion would hit me and I’d cry. Still, on I drove to get to the mountains, the constant source of solace that I’ve had since I moved to Oregon. Whenever things get their worst, that is where you’ll find me.

Driving on I-5 I was reflecting on my inner states, the chaos of emotions, the heavy sorrow that I felt, the guilt, loss, regret… it was as though a slow-moving whirlpool of mud within. I followed thoughts and emotions where they lead me. Though I was hurting, underneath it all is the belief that this is necessary to become truly a soul in life.

Of the realizations, it struck me how I had no taste for violence at this time. I thought of my role as an infantry instructor, how I prepare soldiers for combat, and that part of me, the creator of a certain type of fighter, one that is as I’ve described in my trainings as ultimately having a complete mindset of what psychologists call Hostile Attribution Bias. This mindset is utterly foundational in the full understanding of masculinity. It plays a huge role in the behaviors of veterans in crisis. I thought on this while driving, 65 mph, on the freeway. I didn’t have the stomach to perpetuate these mindsets onto people. I know full well the usefulness of one side of Ares, God of War, in combat. But the usefulness outside of a combat situation was rare. It is as though one is allowing a single paragraph to define the tone of an entire book. As I felt my way around these thoughts, I noted that I didn’t feel any more desire for the organizational structures of the military. I didn’t feel any motivation to go to drill. I didn’t feel anything at all. Only that something was missing in all of it,  something that was vital. I thought to myself that I had two years left on my enlistment, and I was looking forward to its end.

This reminds me of something that I’ve read. Thursday I picked up the book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life and flipped through parts that I had read before. This page seemed pertinent to my current state… Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 12.48.42 PM

The author postulates the spreading of JenIf this is so, what is it that we spread when we are fully wrapped up in the learning/training/experiences of the military/combat/masculinity? What is the opposite of Jen?

The above was on a chapter on touch. I recalled a fond memory with Kim. It was a sunny morning, we both woke up, lazily, and laid in bed with nowhere to go. Her eyes were, as always, bright fires, utter singularities of existence in the vastness of space, and she looked at me and smiled. I remember her warmth, her touch… and her endearing knobby feet as she slid them against mine. That is one of my cherished memories. Years ago I watched a charming movie called After Life where in the movie “after death, people have just one week to choose only a memory to keep for eternity.” I highly recommend this movie. Given the past three days, this one memory would be my choice.

I stopped at my favorite gas station SeQuential BioFuels at their location near I-5.  I love this gas station. I stopped for some actual coffee and some healthy snacks. As I was leaving, holding my purchases, a lady stopped and opened the door for me. It was a nice gesture, one that occurs around us often, and wasn’t unique. What I did notice, however, was that I was… this is hard to define here… open. You see, when much of the politeness that I have, though it may be fueled by genuine friendliness or the like, is still within the bounds of some sort of guide. Not the behavior… the behavior is the same… ‘thank you… you’re welcome’. When the lady opened the door for me I merely leaned my head slightly forward, smiled a genuine, heart-felt smile at her kindness, and said ‘thank you, how very kind of you‘. The reason this struck me as different isn’t the behavior, but the emotion behind it. I… had no inhibition to my gratitude and happiness toward others… if that makes sense. It is hard to pin it down.

Allow me to use an analogy that I give in some of my trainings about veterans and post deployment. Imagine that I am standing five feet before you. Now, imagine that I hold up my arm and stretch a rubber-band back and it is pointed at you. I’ve done this in trainings and people will sometimes, ever so slightly, tighten up their body, preparing for the small sting of the rubber band. Now, when I take away the rubber band, the tension in the body goes away. It is easy to feel the difference because you are aware of the transition from one state to another state. When you are in the tension state you can also pinpoint its source… the impending rubber band. Now imagine living with this tension, but every waking minute, every day, for years… for life. You cannot imagine what it feels like to not be tension-less, you cannot point to any particular source of the tension (so many things we can blame) and where does one begin? At an unconscious level, one is always awaiting the next rubber band to snap. Among other things this fosters a sense of guardedness. And it is easy to hide guardedness behind social convention and rules. So when I, as normal, said thank you to the lady opening the door for me, I noticed that I wasn’t guarded. The inner part of me moved forward to meet the inner part of her, with no other agenda than expression of gratitude. It was, to me, quite stark.

When I lived in Eugene I made the trip out to Cougar often. So it was strange that I continued past my turn on and continued to Oakridge. Past Oakridge, looking for the road that leads to Cougar Reservoir, it hit me that I had driven too far south. Strange that I would make such a mistake. I knew this area well. So I drove back through Oakridge and hit the Old Willamette Highway. With the temperature now over 60 degrees, I put the top down on my Mustang and tried to make up time. What was a two-hour trip was now taking me over three hours. I took the turns aggressively, but felt no joy. Normally I cannot help but give out loud ‘woo hoos’, but this time I merely drove, trying to get to where I was going.

At Cougar Hot Springs the parking lot was packed. I had only been at the springs three or four times before, and each time it was deserted when I did so. Though that was usually after sunrise. Now it was almost 3 pm. I had hoped to soak in the hot springs, but really what I wanted was a walk among trees, without the sound of traffic or people. I contemplated going to French Pete Wilderness, just down the road. But I decided to pay my $6 and check it out anyway. At the 1 of the 3 pools is shut down due to a cave-in, and the other two were full. I didn’t mind the nudity, and changing would’ve been easy for me (wearing a kilt and all). But now I didn’t really want such close proximity to other people. Earlier I had been open to the lady at the door, now I was closed to people. Plus, as is usual wherever there is any clothing-optional areas, there was a male creeper vibe from a couple of the soakers. What I really wanted was a hike, so I left.

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Back at the parking lot the attendant said there was a good non-trail that went past the hot springs and up the creek to a waterfall. It wasn’t a trail, but one could follow it if they looked. There had been some trees cut down, and some others that fell down in a recent storm, so he was unsure  of the status of the trail. But most people didn’t go back there and it was quiet. So I turned and went back. I found something little bigger than a game trail that lead off the path. I followed it up and over the creek and soon came to an area filled with very large trees knocked down. They were huge. I had to climb over and under them. I lost the trail a few times, and in taking any avenue that could move me upstream, would find a portion of it again. It was very much like the elf trail in Mirkwood. From three feet away, given the wrong perspective, the trail would utterly disappear. I scaled up the sides of the draw, down and over more logs, and so on. Many times I would say to myself that I was thankful for the added mobility that CrossFit has given me. It was much easier going through this terrain than I anticipated. Thank you box jumps, overhead presses, cleans, burpees and pull-ups. And while pushing/pulling up/down obstacles and cliffs to go upstream, my muscles and blood working in conduction, I felt small moments of life within me. They were fragile, like sparks yet to take hold in a campfire on a windy night. And just like that, they were gone.

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I finally got to the end where the waterfall was. I didn’t know if it had a name. Likely it does on some map somewhere. But I dubbed it ‘Kim Falls’. Though I doubt she ever saw it, I carried her memory there on this day.

I sat there in the bowl of the waterfall and I struggled to feel any joy. All I felt was loss. I talked to Kim, telling her how sorry I was that I wasn’t with her the night it happened, how I’m sorry for the fight we had prior, how part of me wishes that we had run off together, and a million other thoughts. I felt the sting of the loss and the loneliness and wondered if what I truly wanted was a cessation of the pain. The selfishness of this, that my pain was more important than the loss of Kim’s life, stabbed me like a dagger. I beat myself up over this, that I should wish for an ease of the hurt while in the universe there was a system that allowed for someone like Kim to die. I hated how small and petty I was. I hated how I squandered the time I had with her. I hated me. In the parking lot I had seen a bumper sticker that read something to the effect of “we’re judged by the good that we do not do”. This single sticker was inline with the theme that had been running through my mind all day long. It was hard not to take its appearance as some sort of providence.

I sat there, struggling to find something. Before I left home I had looked upon all of my books for something that would give me comfort. I ended up with The Essential Marcus Aurelius, and I opened it up.

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I remembered The Logos… or for me since my first close-call with suicide… beauty. For me there is no separation between the two.

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This was it. I didn’t read this and was suddenly filled with joy. But I read it and recognized it. I looked up again at the waterfall, the logs around me, the various stages of rot, growth, erosion, and more. I saw the carbon cycle, the watershed, the niches of micro habitats and microclimates. I saw my life and I looked wider and wider. I was a small moment of pain in a vast… vast web of connection, of influences and results, the wyrd of mythology. I will honor this pain, this loss, and I hope, in so doing, I will learn greater patience, greater compassion, greater perspective. I wish to continue to learn to be that light at the tip of the candle… I am not there yet.

I drove home, sluggishly, with the top up on the car. Sunny, and 65 degrees, and I didn’t care. I drove home and that night I watched a movie, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which was itself quite charming. It was a good end for a long, weary day. My eyes hurt from crying all day. My body ached. I wanted to close my eyes and sleep.

There were no dreams that night, but when I awoke I laid in bed, consciousness dawning on me slowly. I breathed deeply… in… out… in… out… and I was aware of my breath. I was here. I was alive. Kim was not, I still felt loss, but I was here. Though the power of the emotion would still hit me through the day, I started to turn a corner. That night I went to a hockey game, driving an hour to Portland, top down on the Mustang, playing music and singing and dancing like a mad man. I’m sure more than one person on the freeway thought I was a odd duck. But I did not care. What if I could have 1/10th of the love of life, that singularity of existence that I saw in Kim’s eyes… I would care less about meaningless inhibitions.

And so I drove to the game, the sun setting over the Coastal Range, Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World by Neil Young and Round Round by the Sugarbabes blaring on the radio.

I am a better person to have known Kim Beers. Often, over the years, I’ve thought of her. I am not sure why the loss has hit me so hard 14 years after her death, but it has and, even so… I am thankful for the short time that I had with her. And, if there are parallel universes, where all the infinities of our choices play out, I imagine that Kim and I did indeed run away together and are on the open road, living as beatniks, as free and as fully as human beings could do so. In this life, however, I am without her and though I am still half asleep as a soul, not yet sprouting into the light, her memory helps me. Some of that fire in her eyes has caught spark, after all this time, on the tinder of my heart. Now it is up to me to nurture the flame.

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Homeless Veterans

A couple of years ago I was asked to be a Motivational Speaker at a picnic for homeless veterans in Portland. I was quite nervous. I was worried that I couldn’t connect with them and their story. In the end I picked what was, and is, our commonality… our military experience and the values we share. I read Shakespeare to them, St Crispin’s Day speech, which is one of my favorites. From what I was told, I was successful in what I was tasked to do.

A few months later, my job was gone, I couldn’t find other work, and soon I was homeless. At times I did feel self-pity raise its head, yet for the most part I took it as an opportunity to learn. Why didn’t I go to one of the resources that I knew of for the homeless? Why didn’t I call one of the many friends that offered their assistance? I felt deep emotional currents pushing/pulling me down different paths, none of which were towards a shelter or friends. This was fascinating to me.

In the 23 days that I slept in parking lots and behind buildings and at rest stops, the last few days sneaking back into my empty apartment (I knew the maintenance people were behind schedule in turning the unit) for a few hours of sleeping on the floor. This, in no way, makes me a bonafide experiencer of homelessness. 23 days is nothing. I took showers at a local armory. I could get food readily with the cash I had saved. I didn’t experience anything near what our homeless experience in their day-to-day lives. But I got a glimpse and I try to learn from that glimpse. Of all the things that stuck with me, it was the following that still does.

One night I was driving around (I lived out of my small truck) looking for a place to sleep for the night. In Beaverton, OR there is an abandoned Circuit City (or there was) and I drove behind it and in a corner and settled down for a nap. Soon there were headlights. A police car. The officer came and tapped on my window and asked me what I was doing. I said that I was just trying to sleep. I didn’t have a home. I would move along in a few hours. He said that there was a ‘no camping’ ordinance in Beaverton and that I couldn’t stay there. He looked at my window and saw my various stickers and asked me if I was a veteran. When I answered ‘yes’ I saw the quick flash of pity across his face. That was the worse thing for me.

Now to the present day.

Most of the time I am engaged in something or other, but at times I just let myself veg-out. Driving a long trip yesterday I turned off the radio and just let my mind fantasize. What if I won the lottery? This is unlikely, notably because I never play the lottery. But it is a fun exercise to do, imagine if I won. So I was driving home and imagined all the usual stuff… give money to my family, friends, etc… typical stuff. But then I got to the ‘what would I do’ part. Instead of just going down a list of charities, I fantasized about actually doing something.  There is a lot of about homelessness that is more than just people that are without a home because of employment. There are mental health issues (thanks Reagan) that I am not addressing here. I only saw one sliver of the whole, that of the homeless veteran. It is this that I fantasized about helping. Here is what I imagined…

I hire an executive assistant that knows stuff that I don’t know. Such as real estate, taxes, legal things, whatever. Then I buy a warehouse near downtown Portland. Many buildings around it are empty and the owner was happy to sell it to me and get some money back. I then light it up with inside and outside lights. It is bright. Inside I add a row of computers to a computer room. Another room is a barracks style room with beds and footlockers. There’s a box of locks and keys available for anyone. Free linen for the beds.

In another room I have a large laundry facility, no coin-ops, and lots of soap. There are showers too. In another portion I build a dozen small rooms of various sizes, 1 to 4 person rooms. The rooms and laundry and shower are open all the time.

Computer room is open only with staff. Volunteers from the community offer resume classes, and other skills teaching from time to time.

Another room is the kitchen with tools to make and cook. There are freezers and refrigerators lining the wall. I hire a permanent staff to oversee the kitchen, particularly with sanitation. But mostly this is a place where people can cook for themselves. They can store food. I’ve worked a deal with many local businesses with rotating donations of food. Some of the companies have staff volunteer to come and cook or setup a buffet table. I emphasize that the food must be healthy. I accept nothing that is detrimental, such as overly processed food. Whole food. Nourishment.

Along the walls are various flags, mottoes, insignias, etc… to fill a person with pride. Nobody pays to be here, there are no tenants, it is use as you need it. No lengthy questionnaire, no microscope, no history, no shame… just come here and regroup yourself. I’m not here to fix you. I’m just providing coffee.

In another room is a wardrobe room. Donations of suits and shirts, ties, shoes, and jackets to assist in job hunting. Local dry cleaners offer to clean for someone doing a job interview. In another room there is coffee and pastries. People congregate there. Music plays. Some of the people volunteer to ‘work’ at the cafe, though nothing is for money.

Another large room has the equipment in it… weights. Twice a day, morning and night, an instructor from some gym in the city comes and gives a WOD.

Sometimes a yoga teacher gives a class. In another room it is sparse and quiet. A meditation room. I’ve established connections with different religious traditions in the area. On various religious holidays, a local religious leader of (insert religion here) stops by to assist.

In another room is the bike room, with lots of tools and benches. Local bike shop owners give classes on maintenance. Some of the people have built their own bikes.

In another room there is the ‘theater’ where there is a regular movie night.

And here is where there is a real difference… we have formations. Every week a new ‘Platoon Sergeant’ is picked from the ‘ranks’, as are squad leaders and squads. Every person that walks in is greeted by someone who lives there. They are put in a squad, the SL meets them, and spins them up. It isn’t me, or any other people who are saving them. Give them space and they’ll take care of themselves. I recognize this is applicable only to a portion of the homeless population. I recognize that there is a need for specialized treatment, psychotherapy, and more. But I was not that, nor, I believe, are many of our homeless veterans. But I am open to seeing the data.

Not only formations, but posted Plan of the Day as well. The vets who live there are encouraged to sign up for ‘working parties’ when they are not looking for work/housing. These working parties offer volunteer services around town. They give to their community. In other words, they are not moochers taking hand outs. They are veterans who are, again, giving themselves to their loved communities. It is easier to receive services when you feel that you’ve done something in return. I know, I know… we’ve served, that is all that is needed. Not really, it is more complicated than that. But see further below for more on this.

Let me explain. I’ve been to a couple of Veteran Stand Downs as a service-provider. From Portland to Medford and in between. I’ve seen the generosity of the community as they offer services and goods to a population that needs it. But it lacked something.

I saw this 60 Minutes episode and it was night and day from what I was used to. Watch that clip. It is powerful. It has something that I’ve never seen in 6 or more stand downs in Oregon… pride. All the problems found in the homeless community are there, but there is pride in this clip. Standing in formation you can see it in their eyes. That! That bit right there is huge! How could I create an environment that allowed for pride?

After my brief stint of living in my truck, I was talking with some workers at Central City Concern about my experience. There are some wonderful people that work there and I have great respect for them. I told them that everywhere I looked at services for homeless, didn’t apply to me. They all REEKED of victimhood. The term ‘handout’ was poison to me. I wanted nothing to do with them. I told them that if there was a small room some place where I could have just showed up, checked my email (for a job I was looking for), grab some coffee, take a shower without having to make excuses or play a part, maybe do some laundry, no questions asked, no big drama, no ‘how can we help you’, I would have loved it. If, instead of a shelter of services there was something like a ‘tactical resupply checkpoint’, I would’ve been all over it. I didn’t need anyone to save me (how I felt whenever I went anywhere near some services) but I could use a resupply.

This is what I know. That veterans are different. Give them space and opportunity and get out of their way. They’ll surprise you. They can organize, plan, and execute.

Speaking, briefly, to the mental health aspects and the possibility of some having PTSD, TBI or moral injury, given a chance to step outside of the role of victim and into a role of autonomous person, is powerful. Moral injury is not easy to get over. In one study that I read (I’m looking for it again so I can cite it) the author states it takes 25 acts of heroism to balance one act of murder. It is possible that in an environment like this, they can start to work themselves out of that hole. Working on work parties, picked and chosen by the tenants. They are the ones that find the work and opportunities to volunteer. They are not a cheap labor force to abuse. They might find a school with a broken fence, or a help rebuild a playground for kids, or something of the sort. Who knows. But they are in control of their fate.

In my fantasy about this, I merely provided space and equipment and then I got out of their way. I paid staff to regularly do maintenance, food safety, security for items, etc… but that was it. If case management was needed, or more involved services, there are entities in town that did that. We were just a bad ass tactical resupply checkpoint where bad asses, who happened to find themselves homeless, could regroup.