This year the classics

Reading is a sanctuary for me. I suspect this is so for most book lovers. In addition to being a sanctuary, reading offers endless amounts of knowledge; endless amounts of emotional, spiritual, and physical experiences. The latter point might strike some as odd but read a book like Hampton Side’s Ghost Soldiers and you may notice yourself feeling physically drained at times.

I guess that is the wonder of reading, the all of the reader’s person is involved. And given that the world, thankfully, has an endless supply of books, one is wise not to miss the classics. It would be rather disingenuous of me to say I’ve read many classics, though I have gobbled up quite a bit of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. I am immensely glad I did not let the length of War and Peace peace deter me. When I read it (it is one of the greatest reads of my life) my only complaint, one I have with all the books I love, is it ended.

My instinct this year is to read more of the classics. I’m not sure why this is, though I have my suspicions. I am getting older and am well aware that the clock runs out, so, if not now, when?  And then there is this. I wrote my first play in the 1970s when I was living in Brooklyn near Brooklyn Heights. I reached out to the writer Louis Sheaffer. He’d written a Pulitzer Prize winning two-volume biography of playwright Eugene O’Neill; a wonderful read. I asked him if he’d read my play and he said yes. I week or so later I went to visit him. He was a writer’s writer. Hard working, fully committed to the often exhausting craft that is the act of writing. While there were parts of my play he liked, it needed a lot of work. I asked him what advise he had for me as a writer. His answer remains emblazoned in my mind. “Whatever you want to write, read a lot of it. If you want to write plays, read a lot of plays. Novels, read a lot of novels.” He was right, I’ve learned more about writing from my reading than anywhere else.

And so, why the classics? Because, it is clear to me that writers like Dickens, Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Shakespeare, Defoe, Melville, the Bronte sisters, Twain, Goethe and more, are the greatest teachers.  While anything but easy, I love writing, and I want to learn.

And then, of course, there is the sanctuary of books. A place to go that, for the time I am there, I am away from daily life. When you are a human rights advocate, which demands that you hold people, companies, agencies, governments, government officials, publically accountable, you will be targeted. Usually, I have learned, not to your face. This is probably so because those who target you know they can’t win on the facts of the matter. And so they take runs at you behind your back. And while these behaviors a predictable, pointless, and will do anything but silence me, managing them can be exhausting. And so, what better sanctuary than reading a classic?

 

The Roads Less Travelled

John Steinbeck once wrote, “We are creatures of habit, a very senseless species.” He was right. We all get caught up in patterns and relationships in life that hold us back, that result in our taking part in life with one hand tied behind our back. We don’t do this consciously, so, when we notice these patterns, we are wise to treat ourselves (and each other) with kindness, not harsh judgment. After all, new beginnings, while often rewarding and wonderful, are inherently scary, at times terrifying.

Recently I got to contemplating a passage from the Robert Frost poem, “Road Less Travelled”, 

Two roads diverged in a wood
And I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference

and Henry David Thoreau’s words,

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.

Contemplating both passages brought me out of the darkness of indecision and led me into the sunshine of clarity. As a result, I have been able to make some changes that will free me to walk the roads less traveled. Both passages helped me to make these changes because when I read them, to myself or out loud, and then align them with those I admire most: Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Dr. King, Beethoven, Geronimo, Tolstoy, Teddy Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steinbeck, Rosa Parks, Dickens, my father and more, it is strikingly clear that all of them lived the lives they imagined. All of them took the roads less travelled.

New beginnings often are the roads less travelled and they are often the roads best taken.

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25 Years Later

Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of the day two teenager held me up on a Brooklyn street. One put a gun to my head and fired. He and his accomplice, who was rifling through my pockets when the trigger was pulled, got $63 for their efforts. The bullet is still lodged in the brain and I take great pleasure in feigning disappointment that I do not set off  airport alarms (if you were hoping for a humor free essay you might as well stop reading now).

To this day there are occasions when, upon hearing about the shooting, a person will lean forward, their brow furrowed a bit, and say things like,  "Did it change you?", or, "Is life different?" or, "Do you understand life in a way you didn’t before?" Honest questions all, but I always get the impression that the asker believes being part of an extraordinary act of violence automatically results in a deeper understanding of life. It doesn’t. At least I don’t think it does.

The experience did give me a new appreciation for the importance of ducking. It certainly increased my awareness of the human capacity for cruelty. And, it has helped me to remember to live, not miss the moment I’m in,  and not miss the chance to tell people I love that I love them.

Much has changed in the last 25 years and there is nothing unique in that. Some wonderful things in life have happened as a result of the shooting. I have been given the gift of being able to work with survivors of brain injury, their families and people in the health care field.

The health care field itself exposes you to wonderful people and to people who have a capacity for cruelty that outdoes the cruelty of shooting an innocent person in the head. Health care providers who see and treat people with disabilities as sub-human beings that are on this earth so they can make a profit ought to be jailed. I know one owner of a community-based program who has run clinical meetings for people in the program and doesn’t have one iota of training as a clinician, yet his ego is so distorted and the lack of regulations so prominent, he gets away with it, to the detriment of those receiving services in the program. I know another director of a brain injury program who told the wife of a brain injury survivor, with her husband present, that there needed to be a funeral for her husband because he no longer exists and she and her husband needed to allow this director and his team of sycophants to re-create him. By comparison, the kid who shot me was simply having a bad day.

There is another thing the shooting gave me. An appreciation for having a bucket list, though it wasn’t until the movie came out that I became aware of the term bucket list. I was, however, aware of experiences I wanted  and want to have before my time is up. I want to meet Bruce Springsteen and thank him for the role his songs had in helping me stay alive during some dark times. I’d like to visit the Grand Canyon and spend a week or more exploring the canyon itself. I want to stand in a room that Beethoven was in, and in a room Tolstoy was in, and in a room Dickens was in. I’d even like to get married again some day, really share life with a soul mate. I’d like my daughter and I to have a relationship again before time’s up.  And, of course, I want to write and write and write. The list goes on.

One other thing, I’d like to thank God with all my heart and soul that I am alive 25 years later to even have a bucket list,  and write this essay for you.

 

Living With Brain Injury – Part III: The Isolation Challenge

Isolating yourself from the world is an all too common occurrence among those who live with brain injuries, myself included.

For those who know me from a distance, this acknowledgement on my part may surprise them. I give speeches and facilitate workshops and seminars and so forth, but other than that, getting out of the house and into the world around me is no easy task, and, in the world of brain injury, I have a lot of company.

There are reasons I have three dogs and a vegetable garden. They all get me outside and once I am outside, away from home, and engaged in a task of some kind, I’m fine and enjoying myself. I love wonderful conversations and bookstores. I hope, for example, that heaven itself is a book store and there I will find an endless supply of books not published  on earth written by Dickens, Tolstoy and Steinbeck and others. I love the sound of laughter, especially the sound of a baby giggling; I’m not sure there is a sound anymore heartwarming than that.

But it is breaking the isolation barrier and getting out of the house in the first place that can be the “Mount Everest” challenge.

When I work with others – and on myself – the are some basic Life Growth tenets I teach. Life Growth is a life-management philosophy and protocol that gives back to the person their individuality and identifies the challenge – not the person – as the opponent. For example, I am not my brain injury. I have a relationship with it and I am the one who deserves to be guiding my life, not the injury. It is the same with isolation. It is not who I am, none of us who struggle with it have our character and worth defined or diminished by it. But, like in any relationship, we do have some say.

The very first step for those who face the isolation challenge is to accept that the challenge is real. It seems to me that any hope of gaining freedom from this or any challenge slips from our grasp if we don’t accept the reality of the challenge in the first place. I would not be celebrating seven years of sobriety this month if I did not accept that I deal with the disease of alcoholism. I would not be able to write these words to you if I did not accept my eyesight was getting bad and, as a result, got me some glasses that let me see the damned words in the first place. (Are you smiling? I hope so. There is no reason for sadness as we discuss this. Isn’t it kind of nice that we get to connect with each other like this, through words, isolation or no isolation?)

The emotional equation goes like this: You have to accept it in order to manage it and you have to manage it in order to get free of it.

What those of us who know us should not do is judge us. We get trapped in isolation for a reason,  not because we are lazy or weak and need to simply snap out of it.

As to why the challenge of isolation is so prevalent for those of us with brain injuries, I’m not sure there is any one set answer, though there may be. Part of the answer for many of us, I think, is this. When you are traumatized with a brain injury, no matter the cause, your it can’t happen to me syndrome is gone. The task then becomes taking part in life knowing these things can happen, so it is no wonder so many of us hunker down in the perceived safety of our homes and stay there.

But then here’s the question, the key question in my book, if we surrender to the isolation, then the very trauma and presence of our injuries now robs us of taking part in life.

Let me ask you, who do you think deserves to be in charge of your ability to take part in life, you or the injury? I vote for you – and – by the way – for me too.

 

The Freedom of You

I remember songs.

Songs that moved my stride forward, lifted my head up. In the dark days of hunger and homelessness songs kept me warm, fed, loved, gave me air to breathe. Through all my life music carried me through Certain songs in certain times got me to the sunrise and let me rest my head in peace after sunsets drifted to deep blue, then black.

I don’t know what lifts your spirits, but I can tell you they deserve to be lifted. I don’t know what feeds your soul and fills your heart, but your soul deserves feeding and your heart has a right to be full.

Today I saw an old clip of Emerson, Lake and Palmer singing “Lucky Man,” one of those magic songs that wet my eyes and moved my heart. There were many, many others. For years Bob Dylan kept me going and for many years since it has been Bruce Springsteen.

Always Beethoven has mirrored my soul, jazz my mind, Steinbeck, Dickens, Tolstoy and others the thoughts that fill my mind.

Yet, when all is said and done, freedom seems to me to be the clarion call. Freedom for us all. Freedom to be who we are safely in the world we live in, unhindered by the bigotry and hatreds of others. Free of our histories, of the poisonous trappings of stereotypes.

Freedom to be you is what my heart and soul wishes for you.

And so, I can think of no better song then the one I place below. Paste it into your browser and enjoy. Take it with you through your days. Let it lift you, bring a smile to your face, maybe tears of joy and hope to your eyes, and fullness to your heart.

You are here to be you, it is your right to be you in freedom and peace, after all, you can’t have one without the other.

Go ahead now. Give it a listen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2o9WUCqQzS0
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