I caught crickets with the boy you would marry. “I’ll give you a quarter for the Queen,” I offered, and he dispensed the prize insects in glass Coke bottles. My cousins got to keep theirs on the fire escape but aghast at the sight of black crawlies in her home, Mom threw mine down the incinerator chute. I was so mad. The Cricket Catcher breathed restlessly and contrived guns from wooden clothes pins and soda can tabs. Who knew he would find and love my dear friend someday?
You were in a different class in elementary school but somehow I liked you. We still get a kick out of the way that I, the bathroom monitor during lunch in fourth grade, had the girls wait in size order…because you were short.
Even if I’d journaled the way we clutched bellies aching in laughter, how does one record the telepathy that provoked it? I could’ve noted all the times you found me waiting on the stoop of your building after school but the smell of your home, of worn leather couches that invited me to stay? I showed you how to make Jello and bake out of Betty Crocker. You taught me generosity. Whether from sugar or hormones or real profundity, we cried harder than we laughed. The peals of hilarity, tears and confidences – a million signatures of friendship. You saw the dumbest, boldest, smartest things I did and the words that spilled from my pen; were moved by the poem I published in the eighth grade yearbook but asked in high school what the point was to the vignette. We wore honesty like skin and tread a hundred thousand steps between our homes, passing apartment buildings that boxed in the sky when we looked up. And you told me to make something of myself. The encouragement, acceptance, breakfast and TV dinner rituals: the muscle and fiber of a childhood.
If I erased you from those early pages, I’ll end up with more emptiness than story. We didn’t expect to follow our hopes, heartaches, regrets to two lives on opposite coasts full of joys of family and the tiredness that is our inheritance as Korean mothers. I could not have guessed your boy would one day walk the shiny halls of my old high school. He would think, eyes on the girl by the window, that his parents never felt what he has with such density. We are startled by time because we feel younger than we did when we knew everything at fourteen.
Your toe broke through the sole of your shoe. I didn’t want you stepping on the cold, wet ground. I put you on my back – my boy almost seven – and had trouble walking. With a friend of mine, we peeped into some run-down restaurants for a new shoe. Leaving the row of shops, we stood on a threshold under the eaves, facing the pavement. I cradled you.
I would carry you in the rain.
You grew a few years smaller in my arms. As I asked my friend to cover your face with your blue jacket, you slipped into bed with me, pulling me out into the fresh, dry morning. The first thing you asked was what I’d dreamt.
Last week you mused, “I wonder what’s inside the sun, Umma. I want to see.” You expressed this so imploringly. Should I not have told you that you will burn? Should I have left you to dream impossible dreams? Did I kill your wondering?
The other day you took car tracks bereft of car and remote, and turned them into a runway for your plane. The delight on your face when that plane took off. And Daddy and I had wanted to get rid of the tracks. You blow me away. Life blows you away.
I forget why I keep you close. To free you to stand on your slab of questions and ingenuity, ready to run into the sun. I know that this side of dreams, there’ll be no carrying you in the rain.
We walk around self-absorbed.
He wasn’t very responsive over lunch. What’s gotten into him?
I’ve been so sick. I expected her to show more concern. How insensitive.
She’s kept away from my family and made me feel judged. How rude.
I won’t say what I really feel because he would think less of me.
We need to get over our self.
Our life is all about us, but their lives are not. Remember, as soon as we step outside and start interfacing with others, we have two people talking about the same thing from his own perspective, experiences, biases. Let’s look at the way this autobiographical listening plays out when we feel slighted or offended.
He just mumbled during lunch? Maybe he had a headache. Maybe your illness is too much for her because it replays Mom’s battle with cancer. Or she’d wanted to show more support but has been sick herself. What if some bad news had come her way? Think about the things that get a rise out of you or cause you to withdraw. These triggers tap buried wounds, insecurity, or pride which like to feed one another. Though I’ve attracted plenty of them over the years, I don’t do very well around needy people, those with fragile egos. Though my childhood could’ve been a lot happier, I was well grounded in parental affirmation. I need to be more compassionate toward those whose wounds from childhood still drive them to behave in ways that exasperate me.
A few years ago, someone returned my kindness with a persistent cold shoulder. My husband saw that she felt she didn’t measure up to me. She later confessed her sense of inadequacy under my shadow. I was baffled. Who ever said she had to mother like me? We are mothers in our own way, give our child what no one else can. She was 35 and still hadn’t picked a lane on who she was. Every time we talked things out the drawn-out wrestling match found me wiping the emotional vomit of her past off my face. My last words to her were one of peace and genuine well-wishing but for the sake of my health I had to cut off ties. There is probably a little delusionary confidence to this but I usually don’t take things personally. When this woman looked at me, it was not through a magnifying lens but a movie screen where I was just one character among thousands traipsing across the screen – many from her past. And the star of the film was not me, but her grand self.
To recognize we’re part of a bigger drama doesn’t justify our wrong. You well may have offended Jenny. But even though you really owe an apology, her response will likely still trace back to dormant issues – because Terry next to her would’ve laughed off your quip. In issues that spring from abandonment or abuse, the debt remains greater than perpetrator or victim usually can handle. But understanding that our parents or lover acted out of the dysfunction and poor parenting he, she inherited releases the steam valve so we don’t keep cooking in our anger. I’m not talking about exonerating those who commit heinous crimes.
Wrapping up our angst-ridden list. What about what people think of you? Oh, you swear they will think funny of you for what you did or wore? You really have to keep in good standing with John? Do you think your coworkers will remember your project three years from now? Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less (C.S. Lewis). And trust me. You are on people’s minds a lot less than you think you are. Know why?
They’re busy worrying about what others think of them.
My launching pad is an enlightening New York Magazine article that explains how praising kids for being smart often backfires, straitjacketing them to fear of failure. It spoke to me not only as a parent of a boy fairly fresh on the path of formal education, but as the studious girl whose achievements were marked by a curious mix of confidence and anxiety. The ten-year string of studies on the effects of praise spearheaded by psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia (now at Stanford) University shed light on the aspects of overachieving we have been exploring in this series: persistence, assurance, motivation, talent. She offers insights on the inverse power of praise:
A sizable portion of gifted students, the very ones who grew up hearing they are smart, lack confidence and will keep to the safer road of doable tasks rather than set out for the hill that promises challenges.
According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart…The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. But recent landmark studies make the case that labeling kids just this way might actually cause them to underperform.
In one of her ground-breaking experiments with 400 New York fifth graders, Dweck took the students out of the classroom one at a time for an IQ test in the form of puzzles that pretty much guaranteed success. The students were divided into two random groups, one praised at the end for the kids’ intelligence, the other for effort. The children then chose a test for the second round. They were told that they’d learn a lot from the one that was more difficult. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The ‘smart’ kids copped out. Why did this happen? When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes. And that’s what the fifth graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.
In a following round, students were offered no choice. The test actually designed for kids two grades higher set them up for failure. The groups exhibited a marked difference in response. The ones who were initially praised for their effort assumed they had not worked hard enough and went on to tackle the puzzles vigorously. Many actually commented that it was their favorite test. The kids who had been praised for their smarts deflated, taking their failure to mean they really were not bright after all.
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control…Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls – the very brightest girls especially.
One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is their unflagging confidence and trust in my abilities. It was in my working years that I saw just how deep their affirmation had rooted me in the self-assurance people sensed of me even when I was growing up. While I was praised for being smart even in diapers, I also suffered migraines for taking elementary school so seriously. My mother not only vouched for my intellect, but urged me to work as hard as I could. I remember crying, asking for her forgiveness, in the face of her withering disappointment over the 98% on a test I’d brought home. It was decades later that she remorsefully revealed she’d feigned dissatisfaction to push me to my utmost.
Dweck slowly began to make sense of my confusing dance with ambition. Through all the praise from family, friends, and teachers, fear of failure – the devil on my shoulder – goaded me to double-check all homework instructions with my friend who really was smart. I distrusted myself. Just before every piano recital in the junior high orchestra, my fingers would freeze, turning cold and stiff. I didn’t answer a call-back on the first audition for the sophomore musical in high school, rejecting the role before anyone could reject me. When my Latin and Linguistics professors later encouraged me to pursue a PhD, I rued having fooled them into thinking I was so capable. My mother wondered in exasperation why I volleyed every career suggestion with “it’s too hard.” I had set my standards so high that I couldn’t meet them. Deep inside, I feared being exposed as a fraud, of not meeting the expectations I wore.
To describe my metamorphosis in thinking is another post. But briefly: at 27, I visited Harvard for a possible PhD track in language, literacy, and culture. I enjoyed meeting with a professor and sitting in on her class, although in the end, I left the the east coast for the California sun. It’s doubtful I would’ve been admitted to the storied institution, but the life-changing shift in confidence that had come about largely at the encouragement of a principal I’d worked with was an unlocking inside. Slim chance, but why not dream — and try? What had locked me in the first place was the praise over my innate ability that had followed me in my youth. But when trepidation gives way, amazing things can happen. Because this release came so late for me, I am fascinated by people who dream bigger than the life they’ve known. My uncertainties in myself did not arise from low self-esteem. I always had a strong sense of self. Research has shown that great emperor of modern psychology, the credence of self-esteem, was found to have no clothes on.
From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything – from sex to career advancement…results often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 The Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature…Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standard…Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves)…Baumeister said his findings were ‘the biggest disappointment of [his] career.’
I had little patience for the touchy-feely you’re-so-wonderful-what-do-you-feel-today approbation I was told in graduate school to give my students. How can a society, let alone marriages, expect to survive the sacred right of every person to nurse his, her individuality and feelings above else? (The sun does not orbit the earth.) We all should know our inherent worth, and no child should feel unloved or unworthy because there is no higher glory than that we bear the very image of God. Self-esteem champions who haven’t quit this page by now may see it differently, but wherever we draw our security from, to keep on point: giving kids credit for smarts they did not earn is to build their sense of worth on sand. Once they find themselves struggling in a more demanding setting, they “surmise they’ve been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery – increasing effort – they view as just further proof of their failure.”
The ability to respond to repeat failure by exerting more effort – instead of simply giving up – is a trait well studied in psychology…persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain…While putting people through MRI scans…this switch [lit] up regularly in some. On others, barely at all…The key is intermittent reinforcement…The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear. We could be priming our kids for a chemical addiction to constant reward with bribes or effusive praise that’s misdirected, hijacking their capacity to work toward goals. The greats whose accomplishments we’ve been discussing apparently have a different brain. But the beauty of intelligence is its organic adaptability. I love how Dweck’s researchers improved math scores in low-achieving students: the adults simply taught the kids that the brain works like a muscle and exercising it makes us smarter.
Within eight weeks, my six-year-old has memorized over 350 facts in science, history, Latin and English grammar, math, and geography – some, long sentences. At this pace, he will go on to grow his knowledge base through the years ahead. I worried on Day 1 that I was overloading him. “What are the seven types of biomes? Grasslands, deserts, scrublands, tundra, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, tropical rainforests.” Aye yaya. Since then, I’ve discovered that the brain of children expands like Mary Poppin’s bag. The more you require it to hold, the more it gladly will. With a modest estimate of 100,000 students worldwide on this Classical curriculum, my son is no exception and smarts can’t really take the credit. It’s work. And we make it fun. But there’s no getting around daily application. How do I encourage his success? The article describes the kinds of praise that encourages effectively: sincere, specific feedback with repeatable strategies that moves the child forward. I’ve replaced much of the “you’re so smart” with express pleasure at the evidence of effort and minilessons on the capacity of the mind.
We all love commendation, and exchange plenty of it as bloggers. I’ve said that with more talent, I could afford to work less hard on this blog. It’s taken me 40 years to lay down my thoughts with a deep satisfaction that I have communicated my purpose. It is the pains and time I take to get it down just so that keep me on sure course. Faith in my aptitude? No. And it’s no timorous dissent. My work may not make the ranks of the literary pantheon. But with joy, great care, and dreams I answer my calling as a writer, standards higher than ever.
I woke up with a big lump in my neck the Wednesday before Easter in 2018. My wife was on her way back from a business trip. That night I went to the hospital because it was getting worse. She met me at the hospital, I had emergency surgery that Friday because they didn’t know what it was. I got the call from the doctor that Tuesday. He wanted me to come in, I asked him for the news over the phone. Stage Two Hodgkins Lymphoma. It was in my neck and a node behind my heart. Close friends came over that night. I wanted a second opinion for the course of treatment, and my father who’s worked in the health care industry many years got me an appointment at City of Hope for a week later. They confirmed the diagnosis. We didn’t cancel the trip we had planned to DC. The doctor said we could take it. We went on the trip with the boys, thinking it might be our last vacation. We had a great time but my wife got upset with me when I kept stepping away from the family at times. She wanted me to be more present, didn’t know I was having my moments, passing by these monuments, looking at the three of them, feeling like a ghost.
We came home, I started treatment end of April, which went through Sept 2018. I started eight rounds of chemo. My wife wondered how I was going to handle it ‘cuz I hate needles. Thirty-seven pokes. I documented my journey on Facebook, calling the day we got the diagnosis Day Zero. Highs and lows. I wanted to show people that God had this under control. We were not going to be fearful. We were going to be fearless. I didn’t paint a pretty picture but a realistic one. I told people the days I felt like absolute junk. I wanted my boys, who were nine and seven at the time, to know that whatever happened to me, God had a plan and it really made an impact, I think. Their class, their school, their teachers, our Little League, my CrossFit gym, our church, my dad’s church, the whole community was behind me.
When you get cancer, it’s what everybody feels right now with COVID-19. Keep social distance. What everybody is concerned with right now is what a cancer patient deals with on a daily basis while they’re going through treatment. We’re told that if we have a common cold, a fever of 99+, we gotta go to the hospital. So I’ve lived this. My family has lived this. So what people are concerned about – welcome to the cancer world. At the same time, everybody’s cancer journey is personal. And you can’t tell a cancer patient how to act and react. But I chose to be proactive, use common sense. I never stopped working and working out. I stopped traveling because I didn’t want to get on a plane. But I still met with customers. I practiced good hygiene, washing my hands. I would still shake people’s hands when I was sick, though I would do a lot more fist-bumping. because I had a great God. I was not going to let the cancer dictate my situation. Was I scared? Yeah, but as a believer in Jesus how can I be so scared that I was gonna stay tucked away in my house? No matter what happened, God had it under control. I used the strength of the community to give me that guide. Text messaging, phone calls, video calls, what people are doing right now I did a lot. But I’d still go out in public, I’d still go to gyms and still work out, but I’d use common sense and listen to my body. I exercised, ate the right foods.
Making a Difference
We started a company called Move through Motivation with the people that actually came to my house the night I found out I had cancer. I’ve known these people for 15 years. We have a Youtube channel, a podcast about my mission and the story behind the story. The podcast shares people who’re going through struggles and what their life is looking like right now. Feel free to go on. I wanted to start a company that got people even just walking, exercising in an encouraging environment to show them how that would keep them healthy. And so Pray and Move is a small group we started in 2017 with some guys from our baseball group and friends from church, and we meet every Sunday morning at 5:15. We’re still meeting every Sunday. Because the parks are closed, we’re practicing safe social distance running on the streets in our neighborhood. This past week there were six people that came. I’m a military man, served in the US army, I deployed in 2003, was in a severe accident, landed in the hospital. I’ve been through many tragic experiences that have set me up for this and to encourage people in this current situation. But further than what’s going on with COVID-19, my goal is to help people with health. So if you’re sitting on your couch all day, I want to be the encouraging voice that says let’s get up and go for a twenty-minute walk. If you need an encouraging group, I can find people you can be accountable to and I will be that motivation, although I can’t be the driver. The drive has to come from you day in, day out. I want my company to inspire people. Before COVID-19 hit, we were about to start a Just Move campaign with our two neighboring cities to help families come out and move, provide fun activities. If I can change the mind of just one person to walk just twenty minutes everyday, to do something more than what they were doing months ago and start them on a track to health and wellness, normal and healthy people will be able to fight a pandemic like this. The cancer didn’t define me. It just motivated me to help others any way I can, whether they’re going through cancer or just struggling to move more.
What happened at the end of your treatment?
The chemo killed the cancer cells. I’m in remission. We get a five-year window. So far after a year and five months, I’m clear. I scan every six months.
What was the greatest lesson you learned?
Spread love and positivity in dark times. When you go through something trying, you have a different perspective on what life’s really about. Spread love.
A big thanks to Matt for this conversation, his strength, love, and service. He roves the church (when we gather) looking for ways to lighten the load for everyone. Be sure to catch the awesome Youtube he filmed the day he got his diagnosis, and plug into his podcast and adaptable daily regimens on his Facebook page.
Please address comments to the blog host.
Being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life. People made fun of my stilted manner, my pedantic speech, and my detachment from other people.
I walked through the scenes of my life like an outside observer, stepping carefully over the rubble and staying out of trouble. There was very little happiness in my world. Luckily, I had a natural gift for understanding machines and making things work. But people were a complete mystery to me.
– Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening
You may have brought John Elder Robison into your home in the 70s if you watched TV or played with an electronic toy. His was the brilliant mind behind the guitars that breathed fire and launched rockets and drove the KISS fans wild from the stage. The sound equipment he built for Pink Floyd’s sound company played before millions across North America. But he left the world of rock and roll thinking himself a fraud and failure, unable to see his value in the social fabric because he couldn’t read social cues. John didn’t know he was successful because he didn’t feel successful. So he moved into the corporate world, engineering electronic toys and games for Milton Bradley until he climbed the ladder where at the peak he found himself managing engineers, and social skills became more important than technical expertise. Although he remained troubled by people’s response to the differences that were evident in him, John didn’t know he was autistic for 40 years until he picked up Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood. Nor does he consider himself a genius, but Malcolm Gladwell will disagree because by the time John was 20 years old, he had spent well over 10,000 hours studying music and taking apart electronics, beginning with repair and eventually creating circuits of his own design. John made full use of the laser focus and prodigious capacity for knowledge that was characteristic of Aspergians alongside his commitment to hard work to carve for himself a fulfilling life. His first book, New York Times bestseller Look Me in the Eye, opens the door into the mind of autistic children and those who seem disconnected from the world. I was deeply touched by the testimony that takes us past the struggles of the autistic to the hopes of connection and belonging that embody the human spirit. Our celebrated guest, who has appeared on the Today Show and given countless interviews and talks throughout the country, has graciously taken the time to share some of his discoveries and triumphs with us.
Can you take us through the various points of your journey where you successfully applied your gifts in the face of obstacles?
With a drunk, violent father and a mother who was often manic and sometimes out-and-out crazy, my home life was chaotic and unpleasant. Teachers sometimes saw flashes of exceptionality in me, but that was overshadowed by the many deficiencies kids and adults loved to point out. With no support at school, I dropped out at 15 by which point my parents were in states of collapse, both of them having been committed to the state hospital numerous times.
There were no disability supports for kids back then, at least ones like me. I still managed to have a lot of fun as an emergent adult, playing music, riding my motorcycle, and tinkering with cars and machines. Musicians and car enthusiasts welcomed me because I could do things they valued. Knowing my social limitations, I realized I would never be the guy on stage playing the guitar or the driver racing a rally car to victory. But I could be the guy behind the scenes with the technical skills to help make those things happen. I also became good at fixing cars and between those things, I made enough money to get my own apartment.
I am really lucky to have the ability to fix and create things that others value. Repairing a car or a broken electronic device is a skill that is useful everywhere. Creating stories also has universal value. At first, I wrote reports and proposals for clients. Then I wrote articles in car magazines. After learning about my autism, I decided to write a book and then wrote three more. Now I am back to writing car articles and stories on neurodiversity while running a business that restores, sells, and services high-end cars.
My parents had their share of problems, but despite alcoholism and mental illness they were both successful teachers. I think they would be proud to see that I’ve followed in their footsteps. I enjoy learning and sharing my ideas as the neurodiversity scholar at William and Mary and the neurodiversity advisor for Landmark College. I get to speak on autism and neurodiversity at other colleges every year. As my father did as a professor of philosophy, I grapple with difficult ethical issues in various settings like government autism committees.
Creating pictures, also something I enjoy, too has helped me find success. I earned the down payment on the garage complex of my car company from concert and carnival photo royalties. Today I am proud to see hundreds of musicians and circus performers using my images, which have been widely published, from the pages of the Wall Street Journal to billboards along the highway.
What compelled you to reach for success over against your difficult upbringing and social disability?
Looking back at what I’ve achieved, I guess one thing is how important it was to me that I produce good work. The absence of security in my childhood also gave me a very strong drive to make it. I made myself successful as I learned how to minimize my disabilities to the point of acceptability and how to build up my gifts and find people like those musicians who could appreciate what I could do and whose minds were flexible enough to excuse what I couldn’t do.
I believe knowledge of autism at an earlier age would have changed the course of my life. Without the understanding of what made me different, I grew up thinking I was a second-rate human being. Today, with a large number of extremely successful clients in the auto restoration field, I look at myself and them and see how much social disability had held me back. At the same time, I see how far logic, reasoning power, and technical skill have brought me. These things gave me a strong desire to prove I was good and drove me to my various accomplishments.
You’ve cited studies that measured the internal physiological response of autistic people in the face of emotional prompts like watching someone get poked or hurt. Turns out autistic people sustain a stronger response of empathy than nonautistic folks for longer, at that. Could you talk about autistic people’s capacity to love?
Autistic people have the same capacity for love or any other emotion as anyone else. We just don’t always show our emotions in the expected ways, or to the expected degrees. And our emotional responses may not be the same as those of a person who is not autistic for a given triggering event.
How did you manage discouragement?
I just kept working. I failed at things, lost jobs, made and lost friends, but through it all I just kept going because I had no other choice. The weight of that mantle of sadness was very heavy for a long, long time. It’s much less so today. I have always wrestled with anxiety and depression.
Who inspired you in your journey?
In whatever field I worked there were always older engineers and technicians who seemed to be better at everything I could do. They challenged me to improve my skills. Looking back, I am not so sure they could actually do everything better than me, but being older they certainly possessed more wisdom and experience, and many had families and lives outside work, which I hoped to have one day (and eventually did).
For the longest time I internalized my failure in school and saw myself as just a high school dropout, an uneducated failure. I wish I had models who succeeded outside the mainstream but self-educated people are rare today, although they were quite common before the rise of “big education” in the 20th century.
I may look and act pretty strange at times, but deep down I just want to be loved and understood for who and what I am. I want to be accepted as part of society, not an outcast or outsider. I don’t want to be a genius or a freak or something on display. I wish for empathy and compassion from those around me, and I appreciate sincerity, clarity, and logicality in other people.
– Look Me in the Eye
I was crossing a rough set of tracks in a 28-wheel diesel truck in October of 2013 when to my astonishment and fear, the crossing gates suddenly dropped, the reds lights began flashing, and the warning bells rang. With not even time to think, all I could do was tighten my grip on the steering wheel. I watched the train come at me before I heard the metal on metal and felt the impact. Everything slowed to a deafening silence and darkness.
When I came to, blood was running down my face. It was over half an hour before someone showed up to help me out of my twisted cab. It took that long before the 107-car freight train could stop after pushing my trailer down the tracks more than a mile and a half and the engineer could reach me on foot. I fell limp into his arms. After a grueling ambulance ride to a clinic, I was emergency-evacuated by helicopter to a medical facility an hour away. A priest there told me it was a miracle I was alive.
I suffered a major concussion with loss of consciousness, contusions on my chest and lungs, and open lacerations on my face. Thankfully I had not damaged any organs. A nurse said God was not finished with me yet. After three days of stitches and morphine, I was discharged into the care of my wife who flew to North Dakota from our home in California.
We discovered weeks later that my jaw had broken and my wrists fractured. The right one got a cast and the left was left to heal on its own. Nine weeks after the accident, my jaw had to be rebroken, realigned, and held together with a titanium plate. I drank Christmas and New Year’s dinners through a straw. Even long after the surgery, it hurt too much to chew, and I remained weak, constantly dropping things. I had never known pain like what I had in my neck and back.
Making my way through 24 specialists, I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD, nerve damage, and chronic back and neck pain. I went from being healthy and active to depending on a cocktail of sixteen drugs: pain meds, psychiatric meds, muscle relaxers, sleep meds.
The valley of the shadow of death was no metaphor for me. And told by my doctors that the pain and terrors would be forever, I set up camp in that valley. For several years, I could not drive from the trauma and hardly left my room. Most days I hid beneath the covers, hanging thick blankets over the windows because the dark felt safe, although it didn’t relieve the pain as I imagined it did. The nights were the worst with the horrible nightmares. And startled, I bolted up in bed anytime I heard the train pass.
Was this how the rest of my life was going to play out? The anxiety took a serious toll on my family. My uncontrollable bursts of anger was growing too much for my wife and damaging my relationships with my daughters. I was not the husband or the father my family knew.
Something had to change. I needed to change. I had cried out to God for help and heard that whisper, “Are you ready?” in answer. But no, I wasn’t. I had settled for what my life had become instead of fighting the good fight for His best for me. Seeing me in excruciating pain three months ago, my wife prayed, “Lord, I’m not even asking for healing at this point, just mercy and grace,” She heard back, “I have already healed him. The rest is up to him.” She did not know about the book by John Sarno that our blog hostess HW had encouraged me to read. But I was tired of hurting my family, tired of being estranged from caring friends, tired of all the medications, tired of the suffering, tired of living. I told God I was ready and picked up the book.
In Healing Back Pain, Dr. Sarno, who had freed thousands of people crippled from pain, explained the mind-body connection and how emotional pain seizes the opportunity of a physical injury to make its home there. Though he made no spiritual references, I was brought back to Biblical truths I used to teach on the importance of our thought life. I realized I had to see myself healed before I could embrace my healing. I changed my self-talk and stopped coddling myself. I slowly but purposefully started exercising and through very difficult withdrawal symptoms, weaned myself off the meds. I am down from 16 to 2, and am reminded that I need to hold that picture of myself drug-free.
Six years, four months and counting, I am free. No more bone pain throughout my body. No more anxiety and depression. No more PTSD. No more pain killers. I grab a gallon of milk with no thought. I recently drove over six hours from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back home, my back just fine. I work out regularly and the other week went skydiving for my 60th birthday. Eager to get back to the working life, I am at a new job and excited for what the year holds for me.
God sure isn’t finished with me. I am just beginning.
I was going to say no, I didn’t fall off a cliff, but actually, I did. And though I lay on the rocks, wishing nothing more than to be wiped off the planet, I somehow made it back up, half-carried by angels, broken bones and all. The bruises linger, but the bones, to my wonder, have healed and the bleeding stopped. I wasn’t done for. As long as I had breath, as long as I could form my words, the world had a place for me. Like the page in this year’s California’s Best Emerging Poets anthology. And the classroom in the private university where I taught composition this past semester. I had walked past that door many times early this year, wondering why a job at a homeschool center across the street wasn’t working out, when God had my name on that door, His writing on the wall. We launched Drummer Boy this Fall. (After 12 years of indentured servitude coupled with preteen warfare, I was done. I practically threw him over the school fence.) It was time for me to launch, too. I enjoyed the teaching immensely, and although the steep learning curve on school protocols, the grading platform, and the amount of writing to grade made for a ride under a dam that had burst, I didn’t feel mentally challenged. And the impossible hunger pangs for the writing – to do it, not just teach it – didn’t help. I’d been away from the page too long.
In thinking through what the upcoming years might look like for me unchained to my son, I discovered the other night a generous, astonishing opportunity a prestigious institution had extended me on LinkedIn months ago. Two, in fact, when I failed to respond. I glossed over the solicitation before tearing up the golden ticket and tossing it not only because the timing was implausible for me as a mother, but because it was such an amazing invitation I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Then there was my age: my son’s long-awaited self-sufficiency would put me over 50. Yes, I want to build a career with the teaching and writing, but I’m supposed to start tiring after 50, not go pursuing the academic equivalent of a rhino chase on an African safari. But Awesome Friend #1 started taping up the ticket: It seems doable, she wrote. And Awesome Friend #2 pressed it in my hand : Why limit yourself? Who cares how old you will be?
Turns out, I was the only one who cared. I was the one who intended on losing steam after 50. And as the playback on my life revealed, I was the one who’d chosen the classrooms with the low ceiling all these years, afraid to prove I really wasn’t smart or capable. But we won’t find our greatest self where it’s safe or comfortable. Retired Navy SEAL and seemingly superhuman athlete David Goggins says we have to suffer. He named every fear he could before running straight into each one because it was only when he had to decide if he would go on with the broken leg and bloody hands that he met with his highest self, not when he was downing a dozen doughnuts on the couch at 300 pounds. He discovered “that the answers are all in the suffering.” Accustomed to them, I am very good at anguish and affliction. I am less skilled at mapping the endurance into lasting victory beyond survival. Hope is not a plan. And no matter how we might dress it with color on a vision board, hope glorified, called a dream, will remain nothing more than a pretty picture without concrete day-in, day-out goals we move toward both physically and mentally.
I am coming out of a brutal year, one in which I faced the hardest truths about myself. And yet grace has met me in the dungeon, thrown open the doors, and held up a breathtaking life that is mine for the taking if I will shed the self-doubt and get to work. At just a few words from friends who wouldn’t let me shortchange myself, my life took on sudden definition. So I’ve drawn up a game plan that will reorder and fuel my life, the things time and stress had gotten in the way of, but that now tangibly serve a larger purpose, from organizing my house to working out again, studying, and writing. No longer am I sitting and hoping that my writing will be good enough and that the future will favor me. I’m gettin’ up to go git it. I will make my work good enough, silencing the imp on my shoulder that’s whispered all my life: but there are so many writers better than you. I shoved Goggins’ book in her face and refuse to hear her out anymore. I couldn’t care less who’s over me or in front. I will continue to write as though my life depends on it because it does. God has shown me that the works I have published and the classes I have taught are only a prelude to what He has in store if I will reach for the life that is bigger, so much bigger, than my failings and my fears.
It saddens me greatly that I have only one life in which to read and write. All those books I will not have opened, the ignorance I will take with me to my final bed. And of course, the books I will have left unwritten. And yet, I’ve been given, this year, pages to add to the annals of community, and to culture and art at large.
You know how writers start a blog in the dubious hope of being discovered out here (by a publisher)? Well, one found me. I responded to the encouragement to submit, and the narrative The Measure of a Woman made its way into the 2018 New York’s Emerging Writers anthology. I put in under New York for the relevance to my mother’s early immigrant years there. The editors will offer a solo book deal to the author who draws the best reader feedback, so imagine how much I will appreciate anyone who takes a moment to put up a good word for me on that Amazon page. You can take to the bank this public assurance that I will remember you when I’m rich and famous, ’til I wake from that dream. Here are examples of comments that their readers have dropped on a previous series.
In the summer, I then reached out to WestCoast Magazines, a publication that serves the affluent families and businesses in this part of Southern California. After reading my work, the CEO gave me the run of her upcoming feature, each hard print issue drawing 100,000 views. Don’t bother tapping in if you’re not within distance, but I will say the article explains the distinctives of public, private, charter, and home schools to help families navigate choices and to build bridges across the school sectors. Unwittingly, I made some important contacts in the research, and now am on board with a large reputable school district to teach its students poetry and its teachers how to write. For starters, I was asked to share some poems at the district poetry showcase last week, where my husband and son also got to do a steel drum duet. (Yes, that is really my husband out of costume.) A few things have evolved for me simultaneously in all this.
Camera-shy (more like vehemently averse), I had always preferred to be read, not seen. And I honor the written poem because the way it looks on the page matters to me. Add to this the jarring thought that in performing a poem, I myself visually become part of the piece. Just as I had talked myself into going for it, I learned of a sudden passing of someone I had known in high school. Her lights went out after 45 brief years in a brain aneurysm. She was my age. In the face of the sure limit on my own time, I decided to forge ahead into the world of Spoken Word. Perhaps it’s as simple as middle-age bungee jumping. But I want to create in new ways, while I can. It turns out that some of my posts – prose and poetry – work well in speech. And so in an earnest defense against dementia and related demise of brain cells, I have been memorizing my work, and performed – not recited – it at the showcase last week in an electric evening with a great turnout. Entering my zone while connecting with the audience was an amazing experience that pushed me beyond the comfortable ride of rolling out words in print.
Connecting with readers virtually is a special privilege, but engaging an audience face to face – offering my physical and emotional self – is a challenge, thrill, and power all its own. Blogging has taught me to write not like I’m educated but like I’m human, to step closer to the reader. Similarly, performing literally brings me in front of people to ask them to let me in. Perhaps a student of color, along the way, will find her own voice from watching the way I modulate and present mine. Of course I questioned whether I was good enough, but was invited back for a literacy conference next month and a poetry festival in March. Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge, and I think this is so because knowledge brings us to just the knowing, but imagination allows us to keep discovering, as the arts enable us to do – not with the fastidiousness of a scientist or scholar, but in wonder. The turn in my journey isn’t only about fuller living and the evolution of an artist but also a modeling for my son. I want to help nurture his own proficiency in presentation and performance because if you can look a crowd in the eye and tell a story or share your conviction, you can influence a great many people in today’s world. DIY YouTubes and the variants of TED talks that are shaping our culture say it all. I applied and was accepted as a speaker at an annual state homeschool conference a few months ago. It both empowered and concerned me to see the homeschooling parents take to my workshop like water. They were so grateful to be led them through the precepts on writing I have shared in past posts, the response made me want to go to the public school teachers. Writers who teach are busy with aspiring writers at conferences and special programs. They are not in the schools. I am excited to be guiding teachers so they can build their own skill set along with their students’.
I laugh some moments, marveling that I can make up stuff and convince people to buy my wares. But I embrace the deeper lesson that opportunity isn’t so much something that shows up, as something to create. Don’t wait for your life. The doors I tried this year have swung open, but I first had to imagine and believe people would make space for me, should make space for me, and then knock. Only one life, friends. To dream, think, pursue, make, and because we have not only hands and brain, but also spirit, to do it in community. You bet I had the little Naysayer on my shoulder to deal with. But you’re too old to be doing Spoken Word. Talk to me when Sarah Jones stops doing whatever strikes her fancy on that stage. Your material isn’t angry enough, hip enough. As long as I’m asked back, I will stake my place among the ten thousand voices of poetry. There are better writers. Always. But they didn’t call the district superintendent. It’s one thing for finances, health, or death to get the better of me, but I will not live beneath my ability out of self-scripted fear. Do my job where I am? I am letting life and joy follow where I go.
Mrs: How did you get me to marry you again?
Mr: I’m getting a dog when Tennyson goes to college.
Mrs: NO. It’s me or the dog.
Mr: (No comment)
Took over 10 years, friends, but I finally did it. Decoded Malespeak:
You look pretty, honey. (I want to have sex with you.)
Mmm. You smell nice, honey. (I want to have sex with you.)
That’s a nice outfit, honey. (I want to have sex with you.)
What a great dish, honey. (I want to have sex with you.)
Mr: Here, let me take a picture of you.
Mrs: No. I’m chunk-a–munk.
Mr: Oh, no you’re not. I want a photo for when you die.
Mom: Remember it takes a year for the Earth to revolve around the Sun?
Boy: So that means the Earth’s revolved around it ten times since I was born?
Mom: Yes. As I have around you these ten years.
Mrs: It kills me that one day he will grow up and know heartache, that he’ll suffer at the hands of a girl. Pause. Women are powerful.
Mr: Yeah. It sucks. They take your HEART, they take your MONEY, your self-ESTEEM. They take EvErything.
[Speaking of postpartum depression]
Mrs: Actually, I haven’t been depressed since I met you. Pause. I’ve been pissed off like hell, but not depressed.
Mr: You’ve been too pissed to be depressed, ha ha ha.
On her last birthday:
*Taking wife’s hand, sentimental* Oh honey, when you were born, the angels…
the angels…laughed. Detour. They laughed…at me.
9 Years Old, bedtime:
Boy: Can you see me?
Boy: Even in the dark?
Mom: Always. Even in the dark.
Te amo tambien, México.
Mexicano, hermano, ya eres Coreano.
Pero no más tequila, por favor. Tacos Coreanos, bueno.
Way to go, South Korea!