Would You Rather Be Right Or Happy?

“They say that as you get older you gradually lose your mind. What they don’t tell you is that you probably won’t miss it very much.” – – unknown

I had a dream a few months ago in which I was clutching a copy of A Course In Miracles. I suspected I knew what it meant but took no action on my hunch for a few weeks. It was then that I started reading the text and doing the lessons. It is a lifetime process, comparable to the twelve step groups that saved my life. Indeed I have often said that A Course In Miracles is the Big Book on steroids so, I think it’s content can be summed up in one line: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”

Step three suggests that we made “a” decision, not “the” decision. I read an estimate years ago that the average human has approximately eighty thousand thoughts per day. To me that’s eighty thousand opportunities to work step three. When I think of will it is not in the vein of “What does God want me to do? I honestly don’t think my actions play a large part of what I’m seeking with this step. What I think the step is telling me is to focus my attention on God, or ask to see something through God’s lens, then the proper action will follow. As St Augustine put it, “Love and do what you will.”

A Course In Miracles says that everything is either an expression of love or a call for love. What I’d like to tie this to is Eckhart Tolle suggesting that the need to be right is a form of murder. Throughout any given day I can be prone to a number of upsets – a rude customer on the phone, getting cut off in traffic, etc. In each of those cases I more often that not perceive an attack on me. It is precisely at this point that I choose between looking at this “attack” as an expression of love or somebody asking for love. I’m an infant to this concept. I’d rather be right.

Recognizing that I’m projecting my anger (most common emotion for example) onto someone else is actually step one of the ACIM forgiveness process. You’re attacking me. I’m pissed. What I can do at that point is the dynamic of the forgiveness process – bring my attention from outside of me (from the object of my ire) back inside, and ask for help in looking at my own projected anger differently. That’s step two. At that time God can step in and ease or erase whatever my dominant emotion was. That’s step three, in which I have no hand. This at least temporarily stops the “attack/defense” cycle I work every day. Most of this is subtle. I can coolly say “No, I’m not upset – I’m just making my point” as a response to a social media post for example, then add a lengthy addendum to explain what I was saying. That I’m right and you’re wrong. To my credit I have refrained from this lately. But even citing my non-participation is an attack. I’m basically saying I’m not like the people who do so. I’m better than them. Plus I’m right. They’re wrong.

My ego, like anyone else’s can be pretty clever. I have begun working the forgiveness process and it may be the most difficult mind exercise I’ve ever attempted. I have no clue how anyone can say out loud “Oh, I did this step” in referencing step three. To me it is hardly a one and done. But to each their own. A Course In Miracles says that the forgiveness practice is all-inclusive, and that any kind of upset is grist for the mill, because as it also says, a small annoyance is actually “a veil for intense fury.” Most of us aren’t aware of the mountain of anger we sit on. My need to be right is insidious. The amount of healing my mind needs is beyond comprehension.

There is one insane example that I’m embarrassed to say I still put into play even after thirty years in AA/Al-Anon. I take my turn and state confidently that “God’s will” has nothing to do with my actions, that in fact God will is something I align with, or as in step eleven I marinate in for awhile, and afterward intuitively my course of action. God does not want anything from me, as want implies lack and God already IS everything. So how can God “want” anything? Thus God will not be happier if I’m a fireman or flipping cheeseburgers for a living. Then the next person takes their turn and goes on and on about how they don’t know what God wants them to do about their car, or which job to take, or how to discipline their child and when will they get a sign. So I sit and stew because they did’t let me brow-beat them into my viewpoint. Don’t you know I’m right, dammit? That may or may not be true. But I’m sure not happy.

Within my mind lies a right minded Self (leaning toward forgiveness) and a wrong minded self (pure ego). In the middle lies my decision maker, often symbolized by the late Ken Wapnick as a tiny dot dwarfed by both sides. Every moment of every day I’m making a decision for either side. Inspiration or memory. Past or present. Looking at the sum of self forgiveness I need to do (through others)is staggering beyond comprehension. I prefer to think of it as job security for being human. And I truly have come to believe that someone with “good self esteem” still is in the same boat as the rest of us. Self esteem fluctuates. I believe there is a massive untold story of self loathing lurking in all of us unconsciously, just waiting for daily projection onto others.

I have a visual of the aforementioned forgiveness process. I see a miles high stack of paper detailing the contents of my mind, and each time I practice forgiveness a single sheet is removed. I feel more peaceful when it happens, and I feel hopeful every time I can conjure that image. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I’d rather be happy.



Diamonds On The Water

“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers.  The original meal has never been found.”- – Calvin Trillin

I have a rather fond recurrent memory of my Mom, one that stands out among all of the others.  I was thirty years old, visiting her, and she decided to lay this absolute bombshell on me.  I’m the youngest of 7 kids, 6 of us born in consecutive years, then “poof” – – I showed up four years after my sister Barb was born.  Mom tried in her gentlest tone to advise me that I was unplanned.  I honestly tried my darndest to keep a straight face, but given the stand-up material that was just delivered I started giggling and had to leave the room.  Such was the mark of the level of innocence my Mom managed to maintain throughout all of her years, though: she honestly thought she was unveiling a profoundly deep and shameful secret on me.  The good news was that since I obviously took it all as a great big joke, Mom considered herself forgiven.

There was much unintentional comic relief in my home that for whatever reasons (being active in an addiction might be one) I never really grew to appreciate til Mom was gone. I remember hearing about the version of forced marriage that her soon-to-be husband was brought into when my uncle Joe, Mom’s brother picked up the man who was to be my Dad, started driving, and as the story goes within seconds said, “Well, are you going to marry her, or what?”  So I guess technically since no weapon was produced, this wasn’t a shotgun wedding: let’s just call it a “threat-wedding.”

So my folks followed the good Mexican Catholic old school rules and cranked out one kid after another, until apparently Dad got tired of the whole deal and started seeing his mistress, an alliance that went on for years and years.  Mom also played the dutiful long-suffering stay-at-home mom role to the hilt, a role her genuine meekness made her a natural for.  And truly, what person needs to be subjected to cheating for years?  The huge difference between then and now in Mexican culture is that it is now looked upon with a little more favor to leave the cheating party after telling them in no uncertain terms where to go.  Mexican culture as I know it, still has a long way to go in this arena, at least to my knowledge of my extended family.

Mom really was quite uneducated, unscholared, and socially extremely awkward and shy.  I believe she made it up to fourth grade reading level when America called, offering her the opportunity to diss her education in favor of working in beet fields for slave wages in order to help support her family.  One of my saddest memories of her is her unabashedly announcing every now and then to anyone who would listen, “I’m stupid.”  I’m not sure what purpose this served to her, but I know it made me really uncomfortable to hear her talk about her self in such an abusive way, although I didn’t have the terminology to place on what I was feeling at the time.

There is no question in my mind that Mom felt trapped her entire married life.  Dad had a habit of picking places to live that were absolute dumps, effectively ending any dreams that Mom had of living in the palatial style that she would sometimes try to describe.  Luxury to her would have been a dishwasher: she was certainly not asking for the moon. Dad in turn validated her “stupid” status frequently while heaping on other abuse whenever the spirit moved him.

And so Mom resorted to whatever she could to make herself feel good.  She was a huge fan of soap operas.  Heaven forbid my getting hungry at 12:30 in the afternoon, because quite frankly, for Mom, the whole world stopped for “As The World Turns,” a show she got a belly laugh out of any time she heard Carol Burnett refer to it as “As The Stomach Turns” in her evening show parody.  After her first viewing of the Burnett show, Mom took to referring to her favorite soap very simply as “Stomach,” as in, “I can’t do that right now I gotta watch ‘Stomach.'”

One area that I continue to view with considerably less humor is the fact that mom had a number of JFK pictures strategically placed throughout the house, I’m assuming so as not to be without her fantasy partner if she could at all help it. I also believe that Mom was really quite lonely during her married life.  Parenting skills were obviously not there, and when I got into various recovery groups in the early nineties, I began hearing phrases like “they did their best, and their best wasn’t very good,” or things like “they were never ready to be parents.”  While those phrases were definitely fuel for recovery in those days, my question today is whoever is ready to be a parent? Nobody gets a manual.  I’ve yet to hear a single person say that parenting is a piece of cake. Not much of her life lived up to any of her fantasies as far as I could see.  I don’t think she had any idea what effective parenting might entail.  She could only know what she was taught.

I never considered myself particularly close to either parent.  Still, as I got sober I drifted further and further from mom, really beginning to resent a symbiotic relationship that had been enforced on me due to my Mom’s need for the proverbial “little husband.”  It’s not like Mom was the first person to ever do such a thing.  I remember a friend once telling me she had a tarot card reading in which the reader advised her that her mom was having an affair with a much younger man, something my friend protested because she knew her mom to hardly ever leave the house.  She then put two and two together to figure out that mom was “married” to her little brother.

As I began to find my own internal resolution to my patterns, I gradually let Mom back in.  It became a juggling act when I began dating someone, and Laura won out with my time.  When Laura and I broke up, however, I began to be a bit more dilligent in attempting to resolve our differences, and I do believe I made much headway.  The humor re-entered.  I used to absolutely love it when my sisters took Mom out to a movie and then after she would struggle to tell me the title of what she saw.  Mom was still heavily accented, and when she tried to tell me she had just finished seeing “Beaches,”  per her phonetic capability it naturally came out “Bitches.”  I think my all-time favorite was when the girls took her to see “Poltergeist” and she excitedly told me a few days later that they took her to see this really scary flick called “Pocket Full of Guys.”  The conversation usually ended with Mom snorting a “shut up,” as I laughed hysterically.  She was indeed a card, and miraculously, through all the misery that was visited upon her during her years, she somehow managed to hang on to and nurture her innate ability to laugh at herself.

On December 9th, 1991, I stopped off at Mom’s to deliver a care package and visit for awhile.  Mom had suffered a stroke earlier in the year, lived alone,and absolutely refused being moved into a nursing home. As I got into recovery and found my voice and boundaries, clashes with my siblings ensued over what I considered to be unhealthy behavior, situations they obviously didn’t see anything at all wrong with.  Still, at the thought of possibly running into me and being called on some covertly abusive behavior, they began staying away from her house.  Mom was lonely again.  On this visit, at about 7:30 at night, I literally pounded on the door for her to come and help relieve me of some heavy grocery bags I was carrying. We had all pleaded with her to make her bedroom downstairs so she wouldn’t have to climb a flight of steps repeatedly, but she resisted as she did moving.  She finally made it to the door, parted the curtain, and gave me an extremely confused look before she fell backward.   The door was locked, so I sprinted for the liquor store across the street, grabbed their phone and dialed 911.  The paramedics were just around the block, so they broke in through the locked back door of Mom’s house and carted her away in an ambulance.  She was still conscious and reasonably alert. I still remember the doctor at the hospital very patiently trying to get out of me the list of medications and supplements that Mom was taking, occasionally telling me “you’re dolng just fine.”    She had just had stroke number two.

Mom died that night.  Then was brought back and we were told that she was alive but would need some extreme care going forward.  The next morning I got a call from the hospital saying that Mom had suffered a major heart attack,and might not live very long.  I remember the jolt, then straggling, quickly slipping into denial that I was now going to be totally without parents, and slowly made my way to the hospital.  By the time I got there she was gone again.  The doctor told me she had “a massive coronary right at the bottom of her heart.”  Though unintentional, he couldn’t have painted a more morbid, guilt-inducing description.  I immediately began running over and over in my head how long it took me to get to her, and to this day still the the look of what was obviously excrutiating pain that was frozen on her face haunts me.  With no one there to hold her hand.  Like I did for my Dad.  Like I did for my sister Rose.  Today is the first time I’m talking about the guilt that still hasn’t gone away completely.

Not long after Mom passed I saw the movie “Jacob’s Ladder” and considered that my “aha” moment around death.  Dad had also died on the table, was revived, and died again the next day.  I truly believe that they were both given an opportunity to see what lay ahead if they decided to stick around, and opted for what was behind door number two. I’ve tried on several occasions since 1993 to describe the sense of absolute desolation at losing my second parent, and coming to the realization that I won’t be issued any more of these, and have never even come close to putting those feelings of holy terror into words.  And I wasn’t even close to my folks.  I don’t envy anyone who is close to theirs what they have to go through. Just writing out some of this is relieving some of the guilt I’ve carried all of these years, guilt that I’m sure Mom wouldn’t want me carrying.  Guilt at driving the rest of her family away from her because I had become the perceived enemy.  Because I was learning to stand up for myself.  Guilt at not being there to comfort her as she died.  It really overwhelmed me today as I was talking to some friends.  Unlike Mom, I had the good fortune to not be alone at the time.

During the weekend that Mom died, I attended an angel workshop at a church in Woodbury,a workshop in which we were all asked to request angelic signs.  My obvious request was to know that Mom was ok.  Throughout the course of the weekend, not a sign in sight.  I had moved into Mom’s house and was sitting and reading (ironically) A Course In Miracles in preparation for that Monday night’s class at the same church.  It was really very windy outside, and I was sitting alongside a picture window that was taking a beating as I sat and read.  To my right was a  sort of trophy case where my mom used to put her collectibles, including a large Opus doll I had given her, as Opus was her favorite cartoon character.  All of the items were behind glass.  At one point during my reading, I heard this loud “whoosh,” and assumed it was the window taking another blast of the icy wind.  After finishing a page, I looked up and noticed the 12-inch Opus doll standing there.  Outside the trophy case.  I could’ve sworn it was behind the glass.  I had gotten my sign.

Dear Mom: In a practical sense, you came up a bit short in parenting skills.  In a more Universal view, you gave birth to me into a life and conditions that were perfect for setting me onto a path that has never been easy, but more often than not has been rewarding beyond my wildest dreams.  I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you to help you cross over.  My fear got the better of me.  I know you forgave me long ago, but please pardon me if I hang onto my feelings of inadequacy  for just a bit longer – – they’ve just become too familiar for me to let go of all at once.  You know how it works.  I remember the dream I had of you the day after your Opus doll shenanigans: I remember asking you if you were ok, and you giving me that exasperated look of yours and saying, “Oh sure – – they’ve got me walking and walking.”  Yeah, I kinda figured you were busy. I only regret not asking you what movie you had seen up there recently.  Just to hear you laugh one more time.

A friend of mine has said a few times that as her Mom was dying, she told my friend that going forward she was to “Just think of me as the sunlight on the lake.  Just think of me as the diamonds on the water.”   That’s you too, Mom.  In this shadow life I know you thought little of yourself.  From your current vantage point I hope you see yourself reflected on the water often.  You are indeed a whole cache of diamonds of eternity.  I loved you more than I ever said.  And I’m so sorry I didn’t say it more often.  Please know that in my heart I miss you so very much.  Happy Mothers’ Day.


A Tale From The Darkside

“The past is never where you think you left it.” – – Katherine Anne Porter

Another Cinco de Mayo celebration has come and gone in St. Paul and elsewhere, with my body and unconscious mind conspiring to prevent me from being there for yet another year – plantar fasciitis rules out going very far on foot, and I managed to spend myself broke this week.  It’s no secret to those close to me that I’ve had difficulty reconciling my Mexican heritage with the contamination it combined with in my youth – a huge dose of alcoholic dysfunction and insanity. But that’s another story for another article. I didn’t go largely due to the memory of my last time there over twenty years ago. I remember walking around by myself for awhile and then feeling as though someone was watching me. I turned after a while to look and saw the person who had been sitting at a table a block or so away from me, staring at me for who knows how long. It felt sick, and my whole youth seemed to relive itself within a few seconds at my recognition of the man at the table. It was my oldest brother Paul.

Let me say right off that the being an untreated paranoid-schizophrenic, alcoholic, body-builder can make for a very intimidating combination in an older brother. Somehow, I managed to defend myself rather admirably if I may say so myself, during some truly crazy episodes with my brother Paul. As the years went on and the two of us went in and out of living in my mom’s house periodically due to our various successes/failures, we both managed to survive each other til I was in my early thirties. And then came a turning point.

At four years of sobriety I was in a vastly different place emotionally and boundary-wise than I was during the years of my brother’s constant abuse. I was not alone – he terrorized the entire family. Including my mom. And in an old-school Mexican family, you don’t get help – you just deny what’s going on. And so it happened one day while visiting mom that I found out he had been making visits at two or three in the morning to her house (he would come seven miles or so on foot), waking her up and then laying into her with verbal abuse for whatever reason struck his fancy. I felt my blood boiling as I listened to yet another episode played out by my mom, and coincidentally the phone rang about ten minutes after she got done. It was Paul. I listened quietly as he told me how he and his wife were hit with hard times again and thus they had decided they were moving into my mom’s house. They didn’t ask if it was ok, they had just made up their minds. In retrospect, as I was fresh off hearing my mom vent about him for a half an hour or so, I’m quite surprised at how calmly (albeit feeling just a tad angry) I replied slowly and calculatedly, “the fuck you are.” After a couple minutes of calling me names and denying he ever mistreated my mom in his life, I heard him hang up the phone. I then found my mom and told her I’d had one too many years of hearing complaining and that with or without her, I was heading down to city hall the next day to get a restraining order.

My brother’s retaliatory gesture was hardly unexpected. And the impact of how nauseated I felt after hearing about it has dissipated, but not so much to the point where I’ll be inviting him out for lunch any time soon. I didn’t find out about it until a couple of years later when one of my sisters relayed to me what he had done.  Paul placed a lewd call to my middle-sister, disguised his voice and said it was me. Like I said, his behavior was hardly surprising. And considering my family history I could have been a little less surprised by the response I got from not only the victim of his little prank, but from all three of my sisters. They all believed it was me.

My sister Rose didn’t speak to me for the last twelve years of her life. My sister Barb told me just a year ago the specifics of what my brother said on the phone. I was still dumbfounded, but had matured into recovery enough to know that 1) my family is nuts and nothing is out of the question regarding insanity and 2) it’s really not my business what anyone thinks about me. I’m the only member of what was once a nine person family in recovery. Setting boundaries with my brood is a lot like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun. So I don’t go there. Things have truly improved between my youngest sister and I, but I still am wary enough to remind myself it’s perfectly ok in the name of self care to make a quick getaway if I need to. I see my sister and her boys only occasionally.

My sister Rose died in 2005. She had contracted Steven’s Johnson’s Syndrome, a skin disease so little was known about at the time that when I googled it all I came up with was a slew of pages about law suits. She died in terrible pain. As she was taking her last few breaths I was asked to administer Reiki, which I gladly did. And then right or wrong, I took the opportunity to lean over and whisper in her ear, “It wasn’t me.”

As I said earlier, the whole story of my turning my back on my heritage is for another day, another article. Or two. Or three. I’m writing more lately, and while I only get about fifteen or twenty hits each on my articles, I’m all for the healing power of “putting it out there.” Maybe I’m just channeling my inner David Carr (see “Night Of The Gun”). Or maybe my my inner Charles Bukowski (for that one, sit on a bar stool for a few decades). Whatever reason it may be, I still have the secret hope that it will help someone, that they’ll know that they’re not alone.

Cinco de Mayo will happen again next year, and I learned long ago that recovery is not linear. All events happy or sordid will pass after living their own life. I know my heritage will wait patiently for me.