I’m Sad Today and That’s Fine

joshua-earle-557-unsplashI’m sad. I wasn’t this morning. I won’t be soon enough. I’m sad right now.

I can’t tell you how much being able to recognize that and acknowledge it has changed my life.

When I was younger I would process a change of mood perhaps as often as once a day. Back then I might not even notice the presence of my feelings for a few hours after waking. That was true whether happy or sad or angry or whatever. I say whatever because I’m sure there are more than 3 moods. In general though it was one of these. For a long time there were just two since ‘sad’ would morph immediately into angry. I don’t know why. I guess it had something to do with a limited emotional palate and an abundance of youthful testosterone.

I once heard a person who had been abused talk about their decision to forgive the abuser that took so much from them. Initially I didn’t understand how they could ever truly forgive them. I thought perhaps they were still reeling from the abuse and reacting out of fear. But in their explanation I learned about what they were really doing when they chose to forgive. How it was actually an act of self preservation. 

‘Forgiving my abuser was very hard. I didn’t do it for a long time. Instead I held on to that anger and felt like it was my armor. I somehow thought that carrying and caring for my anger, keeping it alive, was what kept me safe. But it didn’t. He didn’t abuse me again. He didn’t have to. Carrying around that much anger and bile did all the damage he couldn’t do. In time I had to forgive him to let go. Think of it like this, anger is a poison pill. For me, holding on to my anger was like swallowing poison in hopes that it would make someone else die. But of course it doesn’t work that way. The poison was in me. It was killing me.’

The second I heard that my whole perspective shifted. 

I have not had to confront abuse, thankfully, but I could see myself holding on to anger. Compiling resentments and scorn and holding them close in order to keep them fed. In the years I’ve spent thinking about this piece of wisdom I’ve come to relish the opportunities I have to recognize and identify my feelings. My anger was my poison pill. Still is. 

It may sound silly, but to me feelings were an outside force somehow. That was how I perceived them and I’d guess I’m not the only man who has felt this way. My feelings felt like a threat to my stability, best denied or ignored. At least the negative ones. But that’s not how it works. I can’t deny my feelings away and the more I may try to do so the more I am at their service, providing them only enough oxygen to live but never enough to recover and heal. In that kind of cycle joy feels more like a liability and I treated it that way.

So today for some reason I started to feel sad. I recognized it, I acknowledged it, I’m feeling it and soon I’ll be moving on.

Sometimes emotional maturity is as simple as that. As simple as recognizing that which is evident and allowing space and time to do their work so I am not controlled by that which I struggle against and try to wrestle into submission.

Instead I just say I am sad today and I am thankful that I recognized it. Being sad now does not mean I’ll be sad tomorrow and it doesn’t mean I won’t be. It just means I’m sad. It’s a feeling and feelings change. Sometimes I’ll discover there was a reason I felt that way and other times I’ll discover there was no reason other than being human. 

The Lodge, Part V: Figuring it Out

‘I really love it. It’s crazy. I’m here with people from all over the world, we work around the clock and we get one day off per 13. It’s perfect.’ I said. I meant it.

‘Joey, I’m so happy for you. I’m so excited.’

‘Thanks. It’s just a lot, but I think I really like it.’

This was my first call home after the guests had arrived. After the week long, 9AM-9PM trainings we were all ready to get to it, whatever it was. Even with that much time spent learning, with that many people who’d done it before there was no amount of preparation that was going to give me so much as a clue as to what that first day would entail.

‘I got picked to be on the bus that went into the city to pick up the guests. It was crazy. Unbelievable how much could happen in so short a time.’

This is not the staff picture from my 1st year. 3rd year, maybe?

About half of us staff were selected to ride the bus down to the city that first day. It really was a good omen, even if I didn’t know it yet. I’d be prepping the busses and coordinating the drop offs and pick ups within a couple of years and would continue to do them for many years after. You really had to trust the people on that crew. Any number of issues could arise, between the guests and their anxiety or separation or some other totally unexpected thing having to do with their diagnosis to random cars breaking down in front of you in the Lincoln Tunnel, car accidents, staff walking off never to be seen again (this happened more than once, place could drive you mad), incidents between guests on the bus, anxious, angry or just plain mean parents (as a rule they were ALL lovely. As a rule. Rules are ocassionally broken), mixed up medication, short fuses, insane heat, torrential rain. Whatever we ran into, whatever ran into us, we were there to check in 60 or so individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, process their personal effects and account for them, ensure they were fully stocked with meds, check in money get them on the bus and start to entertain them and continue to do so, and to be entertained by them for two weeks, sun up to well past sundown. It really was the most amazing thing I’ll ever do. Having and raising kids will mean more, but we can relate to so many others who’ve done it. But this, this was a singular experience.


‘Oh, yeah. Thing is they aren’t campers really. They’re grown ups and face it, grown ups don’t go to camps. They go on vacation. So they aren’t campers, they’re guests.’

‘That’s interesting.’ Mom said.

‘Yeah. Not so much, it’s just what it is. You forget about the word after a day of using it. Not even when you hear it so much during training. Truth is I was ready to see some guests by Sunday. They got here, Sunday.’

I was already spewing my person first language, practicing my committment to treating people respectfully and in line with their life experience and not the way I had before those trainings, which would have still been sensitive, but wouldn’t have been mindful of age appropriate language. In real terms I have learned a hand full of things in the 22 years since that week of training, some real valuable things, but none of it will ever come close to what I learned in those two weeks. Two because the training really didn’t end until after the first week that you were putting it into practice with the guys.

The training wea almost all centered around the arts and crafts room that was off the kitchen, the dining hall and the administrative/infirmary hallway. It was painted grey cement floors with knee to ceiling roller windows lining the walls to either side of our rows of chairs we lugged back and forth to and from the dining hall between meals to reset our classroom all day every day. I was given basic, sanctioned safety trainings, by the book and repeated yearly or near yearly since. I was given first hand trainings on what it meant to work in a field that was still populated with residents and former workers at Willowbrook State School. I met some of those who transformed our entire service system, from the inside, from one fraught and underfunded, filled with systemic abuse into one that was so truly person centered that we busted our asses to ensure that every person was given every ability to choose every single activity on their own and we would modify everything to ensure they could do it regardless of ability. I learned what it was like to be a sibling or a parent of a person with a disability from one of those parents. I met some of the heroic figures who said no to Doctors in the fifties who told them to put their child with a disability in the institutions and forget them. I met many of those children who found their way, through decades of darkness, both literally and in every other way and emerged on the other side heroic and still in touch with their tender and delicate humanity which had been so forsaken. They taught me. And I soaked it up. I loved it.

img_0191And I wasn’t alone. There was a core of us who made it through and reaped endless rewards because of it. There were at root about 30 or so of us who worked in cabins, lived with the guys. We were on call all through the night and working every waking minute (save the one hour break you lived for in order to shower and make a ten minute call to whoever to say how amazing the whole thing was or to cry because it was breaking you). Of those thirty about 16 or so made it through the summer. My cabin started with the full allotment of 6 staff. We lost Ausberto and Jim the Marine and I can’t remember who else, but one more. We made it through 3, two week sessions with just me, Mike and Tony. A suburban, an urban and a comrade. We cared for and loved 16 guys in that cabin every day. Two in wheelchairs? No problem, everyone will have what they need cause anyone of us would push ourselves miles past our limits to make sure of it. Truth is we did it to gut busting laughter much of the time. There were moments of discord and hot tempers, but they were over fast. Still love those guys and dozens more and would have the time of my life sitting around a fire all night reminiscing on those days. I can say confidently we all would. I met real family there.

‘Joey. I’m really proud of you.’

It’s still the most important thing I ever hear them say. Whenever they do I just eat it up.

‘Thanks mom. I think you would love it here more than anyone.’

And I’m sure I was right. It was a utopian society experimentation lab built on the ideals I learned from her. Love, compassion, understanding, committment, service and tireless giving that results in you getting so much after giving all of yourself.

My Kodachromatic Memories

I’ve had tightness in my chest and shallow breathing for going on a month. It’s largely a result of pollen and my bodies late life decision to no longer recognize that springtime friend that greeted me with joy for so many years as I thawed out from so many winters. What was once my friend, the dawning of life in the blooming and bursting nature outside my door is now my enemy, a predator and my body has chosen, without consulting me, to fight it using all the parts of me I can’t control as it’s shield.

It’s no big deal. It’s a minor pain in the ass that I forget about sometime in May and remember in early spring annually. The older I get the less invincible I am.

I’m changing jobs and as exciting as it is I’m taking on a massive new challenge. I’m looking forward to it and I’m thinking about it and the tightness in my chest feels a natural psychosomatic reaction as well. Though I know it isn’t. It’s merely my body deciding not to work like it once did. Same way the knees did when I tried to run the Brooklyn half 10 or more years ago. I made it one mile before hobbling to a train and turning to low impact ellipticals in the gym. The way my lithe and supple and strong body turned to a big and broad and strong body before turning to a big and unresponsive mass. Thankfully I’m told the heart keeps getting stronger even if it’s harder and harder to make what I see in the mirror reflect what I still think I am in my brain.

Getting older is hard for many reasons. The physical reason’s are a lot to be sure and I’ve only just begun that journey. Being where I am now, mid-career, early family and years from financial security is a constant struggle. The same one so many travel with me. But there’s also the dawning realizations that an active mind, one at rest and given a few minutes to contemplate can’t help but notice. For me it can happen in the car or at work or watching my kids in the back yard as they bounce from one thing to the next, bound by no laws of energy I’ve come to think of as universal since being bound by them years ago. It’s all gonna end and it’s gonna happen soon.

IMG_0030I love my kids beyond all reason. It’s the only way I know how to do it at this point. I understand that their are some terrible situations out there where children aren’t afforded that type of love and it shatters me when I hear of bad things, scary things happening to them. Things I could watch in movies or read about in the news years ago about terrible things happening to young children are no longer things I can ignore. I feel it now viscerally. Iit kills me now in a way it never could have before. It’s empathy for strangers and it’s hard to have at times, but it’s proof to me of some sort of reason for all this. My mind intellectualizes and thinks that reason is survival, we are here and our point is to survive. Even if that’s so, for me that contains within it what others find in God.

I’m a slightly older dad, but in a life so short as this one even slightly older has ramifications. Perhaps nostalgia just overtakes you at this age, I don’t know. What I know is that for me the overwhelming rush to nostalgia and the amplifying emotional response to it is something that came around the same time I had kids. In a real way they’ve been my greatest teachers about what life is all about. I’m living in a museum at this point. Our home is awash in the memories that will be those I sprint to as the ‘time of my life.’ This is the golden passage that will live longest in my mind, this time when we are a small, highly interdependent family who’s only plans, only one’s we can even imagine, revolve around all of us. Their will come a time when that isn’t so, which is sad to think about.

2015-02-28 22.31.44All the stuff to come actually has some sadness in it. For me at least. Because what’s next after our family is our slow walk away. We aren’t going to live forever. Even those of you firmly in belief that this is not it, that there is more after, surely even you must share some of the melancholy I can have when it hits me that what comes next isn’t this. This amazing life all opened up to me, when my kids want to hug me and read with me and kiss me and tell me they love me.

For me it’s good to remember that I’m going to die. It’s a positive reminder that what we don’t take and hold and cherish will be gone. Nostalgia is my guide as I look longingly back at the life I’ve lead to here and all that life yet to happen, yet to be stored in memory. We curate this museum in our minds, Karen and I. We arrange and rearrange the memories because we simply love to hold them. In doing so I’ve come to learn the value of my young memories.

2013-02-05 10.40.55In those memories of my youth the world is colored like 70’s and 80’s quality Kodak film and there are faded edges. My mother is there in her Jean bandana and my dad in t-shirt and Lee’s and we’re eating cereal from little boxes at picnic tables at Hamlin Beach, about fifteen miles from home. They had six kids and it was how we took some vacations. We loved them. or we’re at Hersheypark and loving the rides and smelling chocolate in the air. Or we’re all crammed into any of a series of station wagons driving down the highway on our way to adventures. I’m sitting in the back facing bench seat, crouched so my back is where my butt should be, so I can dangle my bare feet out the rear window, dangling in the Kodachromatic sun as the wind sweeps over the lot of us from all the open windows, always open in the summer, a thing we barely do anymore.

I have to visit there to keep my mom mommy and to see my dad as the ¬†strapping man much younger than I am now managing what I now am able to see was a circus of nonstop work, that I lived in and couldn’t possibly conceive of then. I have to go back there to keep the edges from fading in any further than they already have. These are the glory times of my life, just like these times are now, and for the rest of time I’ll return there, here, because I don’t want to go.

Life can only be lived forward and as far as I can tell it can only be lived once which is it’s only flaw. I used to think nostalgia was something silly people did who were afraid of life but I was dead wrong. It’s what lucky people do to remember all that was so graciously and gloriously bestowed on them.

The Pursuit

I’m not entirely opposed to participatory trophies. I don’t love them, but I get it. But there are times that I think we adults are making decisions that avoid headaches for us and rob kids of a chance to grow for expedience sake. To get them in the car without hassle. In terms of their experience of life as youngsters we are certainly raising the floor but in doing so we are lowering the ceiling. Which is fine, I guess, as long as we do it knowing this is the result. I’m not worried about kids getting a sense of entitlement to a trophy, I worry they are starting to get a sense of entitlement to happiness when happiness doesn’t work that way.

I was amongst the earliest generation of kids who were handed self-esteem. This too doesn’t work this way. The tsunami that came shortly after was a flooding of positive reinforcement heaped on children that was perhaps reflective of a truth, but connected to nothing. It was positive reinforcement for breathing and being. Now it’s far better than it’s opposite and there might be a need for remediation for children raised in brutal environs. But surely us bike riding, middle class suburban kids didn’t at all need to be rewarded for being. But we were. As a result many of us had no idea of who or what we were until we took ourselves out into the world and were made aware pretty quickly that we weren’t perfect. It’s a lesson that might be better learned before embarking on adulthood.

The disappointment of real adult life, with all it’s challenges and hard work and unfairness is jarring to some and I see people using the magic of technology to broadcast how unhappy they are. To lament the state of life. They aren’t wrong. It’s hard.¬† Where they miss the point is that it’s supposed to be. If it didn’t seem impossible and too hard to do at times it wouldn’t have any meaning. Happiness is found, achieved most of the time. Sure, it can be sprung on us and we can rent it for a time with money, but ultimately its not to be possessed. Its to be experienced. Remembered fondly. To be pursued.

Assessing one’s own ‘happiness’ in real time is a futile exercise indulged in by privileged people. I know. I’m one of them.

2015-07-10 18.21.48-1The reality is though that I’m never happier then when I’m working. Not at my job, though often there as well. What I mean by working is that my curiosity is piqued and I want to explore. Playing would be a more accurate way of looking at it. It may be physical, hiking a mountain in the Adirondacks or it may be a stack of books staring me down begging me to add my imagination to the half finished story the author offers requiring my brain, my imagination for it to become complete, to enter the world. It’s an idea that has congealed into an intriguing thought, transformed into a sentence that is telling me to write it down so it can have a chance at life. Too often these thoughts feel so compelling that I wrongly assume I will never lose them but I always do if I don’t write them down. Still, sometimes I don’t. I’m unhappy to have lost an idea. On the whole, though, that ability to be moved, even negatively, to care about something just because it intrigued and inspired me is something, an ability that makes me very happy.

Happiness is very often bought. I love that kind of happiness to. I just respect it’s fleeting nature. It’s here but a second and leaves little to no residue of it’s existence. The lasting type is the type that comes with effort. Effort that has risk inherent. You might find happiness and you might find disappointment. You might put down the pursuit for a time when it’s defeating you only to find renewed motivation and vigor upon jumping once more into the breech. That kind of happiness, the kind that comes from full engagement and commitment, from the excitement of the chase, that is born of curiosity or desire or inspiration, is happiness you can access and should access whenever you can. Even if the frequency of achieving it is low.

2015-08-23 10.30.30Happiness is not an entitlement. It’s not a pot of gold that once found can provide endless, unceasing joy. Happiness is a relative state of being that depends completely on the presence of a full spectrum of feelings. The founding fathers were wise in not focusing on happiness. It’s ethereal and gelatinous. What isn’t is the pursuit thereof. I have sons who are small right now and I have to say, like all parents, it hurts me to see them upset. I tolerate it. I even cause it when I must. But there happiness is incredibly important to me. It truly is. But a true sense of well being must incorporate disappointment, frustration, loneliness as well as excitement, purposefulness and connection. For my children to experience it all they should aim at happy, they should pursue it. But I hope they come to understand the nature of happiness to be more than that which is so often presented to them. True happiness requires engagement and effort and is never guaranteed. That’s why it feels so good.

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