Sunrise…Sunset

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Swiftly fly the years
One Season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

What words of wisdom can I give them?
How can I help to ease their way?

                           ~ Fiddler on the Roof

 

The year is 2014. I am 66 years old. Sixty-six.

This past weekend marked 15 years since my cancer surgery. Fifteen years. 1999 – 2014. Fifteen years. In another 15 years, I will (stars aligned) be 81 years old. Eighty-one. 2014 – 2029. Fifteen years.

Blink

The year is 2029. I am 81 years old. Eighty-one.

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1999 – 2014. What an amazing fifteen years these have been!

In 1999 our oldest, Brent, was a single guy living in Kalamazoo, our son, Derek, was a senior in high school, and Logan, our daughter, was in the 10th grade at Saline High School. Hillary, my wife and life partner for the past 27 years, was busy running a household, and being a speech pathologist for a local school system. As for me, I was continuing my journey across the country as a health promotion educator, lecturing on the importance of primary prevention, personal health responsibility, early disease detection, and early intervention. Life was good. All as it should be.

Full speed ahead!

Then, everything changed. In April, I made a chance discovery that men, too, can develop breast cancer. A deeper, self-discovery, showed that while the lifetime odds of a man developing breast cancer is extremely low (1 in 1,000), my odds were no odds at all. May 28, 1999, Dr. Manny Marcus says, “Michael, you have cancer.”

Full Stop!

“Cancer.” The word is so horrific that it has become a metaphor for anything that is ugly, insidious, all consuming, and deadly. But, hey, I used to think; it’s only a metaphor, not the real thing. You know, hyperbole, an exaggeration for effect. Not the actual thing; not the pathology, the disease, the kitchen table whisper that killed my father. And then someone says the word in the same sentence as “you.” “I’m sorry, what did you say? Cancer? Me? I have cancer?” Both the question and the head-nod response seem to echo as if whispered loudly in a hollow tube placed too close to my ear. The volume is fine, but surely I misunderstood. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” I begin to float. Time is just a word that rhymes with dime, and the echo grows louder. …

That summer of 1999, after the surgery for “Breast (Right) Invasive Ductal Carcinoma,” after the meds, after the pain, after the cards and loving wishes, I look in the mirror and there it is. A diagonal line, about 8 inches, it stretches from my right armpit to my sternum. The scar. It’s always there along with the creeping, leaping thought that I might die, soon. But, “No,” says, Dr. Marcus, “Your margins are clean, your chances of living a long and healthy life are looking good.” Okay, that’s great, of course, but I ask myself, “What does that mean? I’m gong to live. I’m going to live? I’m going to live! But, what does that mean? Life is not the same. Living is not the same. So, what does life, living, mean…now?” I direct my answer to the scar, “I don’t know; I’m not sure. Different, I do know that. Better? I hope so. More finely tuned? I know so!”

Full speed ahead!

Blink

Fast-forward. It’s fifteen years later, 2014. Brent is 38-years-old, working in the healthcare field and looking forward to being a father someday in the near future. Derek, 33, a teacher, just finished his MA degree in School Administration, and is expecting a baby brother for daughter, Allegra, any day now. Logan, 31, a successful businesswoman, is enjoying watching her beautiful little boy, Christian, grow by leaps and bounds. All happily married and living responsible, full, lives. Hillary continues to be the loving connective tissue that holds us together and keeps us centered.

Of course, they are, and have always been, much more than a paragraph, but that book is for another time.

As for me, I took the advice from the man in the mirror. After my surgery, I became certified in technical climbing at the Alaskan Mountaineering School, trekked to the base camp of Mount Everest, climbed to the summit of Mt Kala Patar in Nepal, and hiked across the Davidson Glacier in Alaska. In addition, I reached the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa in 2006. In July of 2011 I trekked over the Salcantay Mountain Pass in the Peruvian Andes on my way to Machu Pichu. This coming November, I am scheduled to board the National Geographic ship, Endeavor, for a photo and hiking Expedition in the Galapagos Islands. Why? Well, in part because I moved out of the Village of Someday. You know the place; it’s where we put off living life because of the Toos. Too old, too poor, too busy, too out of shape. Now, as I look in the mirror and see the eight inch diagonal line that stretches from my right armpit to my sternum, the line that’s always there—the scar—I often smile with the realization that the only “Too” I know for sure is the fact that life is too short.

Full speed ahead!

Blink

2014 – 2029. What an amazing fifteen years these will be!

So, I want another fifteen years just like the last fifteen years. I want love, adventure, and freeze-frame moments. I want more hugs from grandkids. I want beautiful life-embraces from and with Hillary. I want to face challenges as opportunities. I want adversity to be a springboard to discovery. I want to experience minimal pain from aging and to enjoy maximum quality of life. I want to progressively and consistently achieve measurably higher levels of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual awareness by living a life of integrity, curiosity, authenticity, compassion, and dedication to the collective needs of all beings. AND, I want to combine these last fifteen years with my total thirty-five years in the field of health and wellness to help others do likewise.

Full speed ahead!

Blink

___________________________________________________

In the Process of Becoming — Don’t Forget to Simply Be…

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In “The Wizard of Oz,” it takes a storm and a good knock on the head to make Dorothy realize that life’s real treasures are not found at the end of a yellow brick road. In fact, as Dorothy discovers, you never even have to leave home! No need for long journeys, strange companions, favors from Munchkins, fights with flying monkeys, witches of any kind, great sacrifices, and all-knowing wizards. All you have to do is open your eyes and look all around you! Here’s a nice irony: our favorite part of the movie is really Dorothy’s big mistake. How she longs to travel “over the rainbow”! Hey, folks, put away the hankies! Remember the guy behind the curtain? The treasure is the rainbow! And the answers lie in the journey, not at the end of the yellow brick road. For those who pay attention, the answers are on the road and in the scenery alongside the road. Open your eyes, enjoy it, and quit spending your time running from the witch’s cackle and chasing imaginary pots of gold. Life is in front of you today, this moment. And that includes your little dog, too! Many people spend so much time seeking the great and powerful Oz that they miss the wonders and magic of life’s journey. When they eventually discover that it’s only the charlatan, Professor Marvel, behind the curtain, it’s often too late. Their health is ruined, they’re sleeping with strangers and their children have grown up and moved away … emotionally as well as physically. In their quest to become, they forgot to be. There is a distinct difference between those who mark time in years and those who mark time in moments: those who check off years miss the journey. Freeze-framed moments have independent value. They are complete in and of themselves, requiring little more than our presence and focus. Look at your little girl’s smile and then name your selling price. What would tempt you to trade away even one hug from a grandchild? Is there a stock with market value equal to a photo album filled with family memories? In contrast, a life of constant guilt, blame and pursuit consumes enormous amounts of physical resources and emotional energy. The reward? The rewards are bitterness and perishable hard goods. And this life of years has a perpetually moving end point. Eventually it does end—at its own pleasure, not yours. Here are a few questions to ponder: Are you running down some path so fast that you’ve forgotten why you’re running? Do you push aside gold as you reach for tin? Do you realize you have a choice? Oh yes, you do have a choice. Some of you are just too busy blaming others, chasing pots of gold or trying to figure out how to get over the next rainbow, to notice. As Dorothy once asked the Scarecrow, “What would you do with a brain, if you had one?” Sorry for that last snide question. It’s just that I’ve seen too many nice Scarecrows get torched.

This material is from my upcoming book  “Wake Up: Beyond Survival…Living a Life of Thrival”

Wake Up: Beyond Survival…Living a Life of Thrival

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THE GAME OF LIFE

Look at people in a crowd. Look at their faces.

At any given moment, you will see faces weighted down by turned pages. “If only I…,” “I should have…,” “Why did she…?” Consumed by a funhouse distortion of lost possibilities, they drag forward with wads of nostalgia bubblegum stuck to their shoes.

To escape the pain, they leap forward to the safe world of Someday. “Tomorrow, honest, tomorrow. Well, maybe the next day or, ummm, perhaps next week, but soon, I promise. Okay, it probably won’t happen next week, but it will, someday…I promise.” As the hours pass, they stall between disturbing memories of yesterday and Walter Mitty dreams staged in their personal version of Tomorrowland. As the calendar peels back, they are struck with a nagging sense that something is missing from their lives. That “something” is called Today. And each day is made up of moments, not years.

For much of my forty years as an educator and six-point-something decades of living, I have watched, sponsored, refereed, and participated in the game of Yesterday & Tomorrow.

Here’s how it is played:

YESTERDAY & TOMORROW

First of all, there is an age requirement to play. Very small children, are simply too focused on the moment to be any good at this game of past memories and future possibilities. Childishly (not such a bad thing), they go about their days without regard for the past, without pinning hopes on the future. They believe that their world, as presented, contains all that is necessary to meet their needs and make them happy. A small child simply uses what is close at hand. When hungry, they put anything they can find into their mouth and spit out what they don’t like. When bored, they entertain themselves with their toes, their voice, crawling bugs, empty boxes, cold oatmeal, the cat’s tail or an imaginary friend. When angry, they throw things and scream until someone pays attention and fixes whatever needs fixing. When tired, they lie down and sleep. And when they gotta go—they go!

Of course, all of us start out this way. We begin serious training for the game of Yesterday & Tomorrow almost immediately. The world around us sends signs and offers up lessons: a disapproving look, the warmth and security of a hug, the gritty taste and texture of dirt, a burnt finger, the comfort of a smile, the discovery of a sweet tooth, an angry cat with hiss and claws. Until the age of about three, we use instincts and limited memories to satisfy our quest for happiness. What amuses us? What makes us smile? What causes us pain? How do we get rid of this ache in our belly? Guilt, regret, and finger wagging couldas, wouldas, and shouldas do not exist for us. Why? Well, because, for the most part, these emotions are the products of socialization. They too, are lessons and signals learned from life’s book of expectations, rejection, and acceptance, the latter being a lifelong beacon, often with Siren consequences. We remember. Then, too, we quickly forget.

To follow this thought, let’s put our child into the world of big people. Quickly, the rules of the game spill out. Crying will work most of the time, but not all the time. We learn that different cries make different things happen. One is good for a hug, another gets our pants changed; one is good for a game of peek-a-boo, another brings food. If we let out a really loud cry, the big people will do anything we want. A long, whimpering cry gets us our blanket, a stuffed animal, the dancing colors that make music above our crib and our pacifier. Oh, and if we gurgle a lot and make singsong noises, the big people laugh and seem happy. If we giggle and laugh, they are putty in our hands! We are learning to communicate and manipulate our world.

For the most part, this world is pretty friendly and accommodating (yes, I know that for many children this is not the case, but that discussion is for another time). In this world, there is at least one person who seems to truly care about our needs and gives us a wonderful sense of ourselves; sometimes there are even two or more! We are clearly in control, or at least in high command. We have a fairly small, self-contained, protected world populated by our parent(s), relatives, playmates, and closely watched strangers.

As time goes by (ages 3–5), we learn more about how to get attention, how not to get attention, how to make people happy and how to make people angry. We also learn how to feel bad (“I didn’t mean it, Mommy”), sad (“Why did you hit me?”), envious (“I want one, too!”), possessive (“It’s my toy!”), guilty (“I’m sorry”), embarrassed, ashamed, and repentant (“It was an accident; I’ll be better, honest. Please, don’t be angry.”). We are lifted and soothed by memories of fun and play, but we’re also beginning to replay the tapes of pain, frustration, fear and doubt. And we’re still not even in kindergarten!

The clock moves ahead. We are now in school. Because we were born with this amazing imagination, we sit at our desk, looking out the window, thinking about catching frogs, or fighting imaginary dragons, or playing with angels in the clouds. The pictures are vivid, the sounds are real, and the feelings are true. Then, all of a sudden, someone yells our name! It’s our teacher and she looks angry (we’ve learned what this look means)! Her forehead is all crinkly, her finger is pointing at us, she’s leaning in our direction, and all the kids are looking at us. She’s saying something about it not being recess and that we should pay attention. Now she’s yelling, clapping her hands, saying that if we can’t pay attention we’ll have to change our seat (whatever that means). We’re not sure what we did, but it must have something to do with catching frogs, fighting dragons, and playing with angels.

So, do we stop using our imagination to create wonderful worlds and limitless possibilities? Not yet. The natural inclination to wonder and dream is still too strong to let go. But to us, newly released into an expanding world, there is clearly something wrong (Bad?) with what we were just doing. This teacher, who is so important in our life, has just yelled at us, and we feel really embarrassed! Well, we will just have to look right at her (that’s what it means to “pay attention”) and, at the same time, catch frogs, fight dragons, and play with angels. She’ll never know!

Hey, we just got away with something! Again, the child learns to manipulate her world to, in essence, become (or remain) happy. Clearly, childhood fancies, desires, and dreams are not always consistent with society’s expectations.

As a maturing child and young adult, we have learned that acceptance and gratification require sophisticated communication skills. Smiles and gurgles won’t do the trick anymore. We must anticipate, react, change, adjust, modify, charm, evaluate, compromise, assert, pressure, negotiate, and concede¾for the moment¾in order to meet our needs.

Okay, fine. If that’s what it takes, we can do this!

Certainly, in a very real sense, all of the above survival skills are part of a recipe that may well lead to a truly happy and fulfilling life. However, poorly and haphazardly mixed, and allowed to develop without guidance, this formula yields a shaky chameleon-like foundation of guilt, anxiety, confusion, projection, paranoia, wishful thinking, and regret, leading to an adult world full of couldas, wouldas and shouldas. Should this be our launch platform, we now have a one-way ticket to the Land of Someday and sterling qualifications to play the game of Yesterday & Tomorrow.

Let the games begin!

Actually, the game is quite easy to play. All we have to do is focus on our mistakes while disregarding the nature of being human. You know, think that we are basically rational beings with emotions instead of emotional beings with the capacity for rational thinking. At any given moment, should we forget and start to feel good about ourselves, we simply erase that feeling by remembering how inept, undeserving, hopeless, fat, ugly, undisciplined and stupid we really are. That brings us back to where we belong, and fast! Of course, feeling like a loser can overwhelm even an all-star self-loather, so we optimistically lean back into our circular course. We daydream to a time in the future when we won’t be so inept, undeserving, hopeless, fat, ugly, undisciplined and stupid. Funny, though, like the poet says, it seems the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-sliding away.

YESTERDAY, TODAY & TOMORROW

(Players of All Ages Welcome & Encouraged to Play!)

Memories of yesterday can be gentle and patient tutors that guide us today, while dreams allow us to set goals and rehearse the success of tomorrow. But, these are merely the bookends that outline reality. The living part of life occurs between the two dimensions of past and future. To use an old analogy, they are the grains of sand that pass through the hourglass. Or, more to the point, it is the dash on your tombstone that separates the year you were born from the year that you die.

In order to survive, the developing child needs to adapt, adjust, compromise, negotiate and learn all the other subtleties of life. However, to thrive, she must also hold tightly to her independence, spirit, imagination, zest for living and respect for life’s treasures. When she lets go or has these treasures ripped from her, the bookends gradually collapse until the essence of life, available only in the moment, is squeezed out, leaving the world of couldas, wouldas, shouldas and somedays. Gone is the magic of the sunrise, muted are the sounds of laughter, screened are the faces of loved ones. Awe is replaced, at first, by skepticism, and finally, by cynicism.

Just for fun, let’s not disturb the dust of yesterday, and let’s put away the crystal ball filled with narcotic dreams of tomorrow. Simply open your eyes and look around. What do you see, feel, hear and sense in your world? Where do you fit in? Not in the past and not in the future— right now, at this moment. This is where you live. Those other places are merely spun memories and looking-glass dreams.

No matter your chronological age, I encourage you to re-capture the wonder of the child who lives in the moment and to run from the analytical adult whose days are filled with doubt and insecurity.

Welcome to my world! Come. Let’s play!

This material is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Wake Up: Beyond Survival…Living a Life of Thrival”

THE ULTIMATE GOAL and Everyday Goals and Objectives

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A couple of thoughts about…

THE ULTIMATE GOAL and EVERYDAY GOALS & OBJECTIVES

First, can we all agree that the ULTIMATE goal is to have a good life—healthy happiness, including freedom from physical, psychological, and emotional pain—for all residents of this universe, a perpetual stretch goal for the advancement of all sentient beings? Okay? Yes? Good. For now, however, let’s consider the slightly less lofty and decidedly more immediate issue of personal aims and aspirations.

When listing or even thinking about everyday goals (goals are broad and general, i.e., lose weight) and objectives (objectives are narrow and specific, i.e., lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks) make sure that you focus on fertile personal benefits and not sterile metric features. For example, weight-loss without context and texture — stuff that shakes your bones and lifts your spirit — is simply a feature, a measurement, a physical, psychological, and/or emotional state of being. Lose ten pounds in ten weeks? Okay, sure, but so what? What will that bring me? What’s the benefit? How will it shake my bones and lift my spirit? The quick answers are:

  • “It will bring you nothing.”
  • “There is no benefit.”
  • “It won’t shake your bones or lift your spirit.”

Unless…unless, and until, the activity is put into personal context and enhances the texture of your life. The emphasis, by the way, is on YOUR life. If your goals are selected and declared in order to please mom, dad, spouse, partner, or Oprah, and not triggered and fed by personal passion, they will starve and die quickly and, often, painfully. But you already know that.

Sticking with the example of the bathroom scale, the goal is not weight loss. Shedding unhealthy or —self-ascribed — unattractive pounds is a vehicle used to get you somewhere. The goal, the destination, is subjective well-being, HAPPINESS according to you. And, for most people, that includes things like:

  • physical comfort
  • emotional contentment
  • mobility and travel with ease
  • ability to pursue active hobbies
  • confidence
  • liking what YOU see in the mirror
  • fun with kids, grandchildren, friends, and neighbors
  • improved job opportunities
  • expanded social relationships and engagements

So, If your goals are not shaking your bones and lifting your spirit, you are either pursuing goals assigned by others, or, perhaps, you are missing the point. It isn’t what the scale reads, the calories you count, the days marked off the calendar since your last drink, the packs of cigarettes you didn’t buy, or the number of miles you ran last week. It’s about healthy joy and fulfillment. It’s about the dash that separates the year of your birth from the year of your death, It’s about the quality of thriving, not the metrics of surviving.