Solutions can be elusive. Sometimes my mind feels like a desk piled high with print outs – presentations and research papers and analytics reports. Rather than painstakingly plow through it all, I find it so much more effective to just toss it wholesale into the circular file. Enter yoga.
When seemingly intractable problems become obstacles, I walk them into a yoga studio. Some yoga instructors will say to check your problems at the door, but that’s not always possible for me. When there’s something nagging at me, I walk into my yoga practice with an intention – to find a win-win solution that serves the highest good. I’ve yet to be disappointed.
I’m the kind of person that mentally wrestles with a problem and then beats it beyond recognition. I really hate not getting what I want when I want it. Here the critical voices derive from my frontal lobe, where reason and logic and ego reign. Some call this phenomenon, “Monkey Chatter.”
One of the great lessons from my yoga teacher training is that no pose is ever perfectly expressed. Like life, each pose is a dynamic tussle between opposing forces. So when an instructor says to press down through your figure tips in down dog, you’ve then likely lost focus on pressing back through your heals, or some other part of your body in the pose.
But here’s my takeaway: all those verbal cues from the yoga instructor aren’t just meant to get you in physical alignment. They’re also using your body to distract you from the world beyond your mat and focus instead on the moment between its edges. It’s a trick for physical and mental alignment. Here’s where the magic happens.
Recently, I walked into my yoga practice with a nagging thorn: a girl who’s all wrong for me, but somehow had consumed weeks of precious mind share. Hardly the biggest problem, but that mental space could be put to much better use. I was well into class and beyond my chatter brain – amenable to suggestion – when the instructor said, “Release what doesn’t serve you.” At that moment, I realized that I hadn’t been able to gracefully let go of something that obviously wasn’t meant for me.
And beyond that, what did this infatuation reveal about my relationship to women? I peeled back another layer of the onion. As I flowed through class, I let those thoughts simmer and from it arose a mantra: Release what doesn’t serve you. And be grateful for what it revealed about you. My desk had cleared.
Truly great teachers don’t teach. They are sculptors of the soul.
We are born into the world as a block of marble. Somewhere inside of that block exists our highest self, the raw potential of our destiny. If we’re open to it, the Universe presents us with experiences that work away at that block to reveal who we’re meant to be.
I’ve experienced times when the daily grind seems to just barely chisel away at my block. And other times when huge chunks of marble get broken off. I prefer the latter, when I feel like I’m making huge strides towards becoming my highest self. And few times in my life sculpted me more than my first semester of college, when I walked into the classroom of Dr. Charles W. Spurgeon.
To say that I was a block of untapped potential when I met Dr. Spurgeon would be a euphemism for saying that I was dumb and aimless. But over the course of a semester, he presented me with ways of thinking that turned into north stars of my existence. Through Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, and Jiddu Krishnamurti, he gave me a gift of value beyond measure — a sense of destiny.
In the play Thomas Becket, T.S. Eliot presents us with the historical Archbishop of Canterbury, who, like the story of Jesus, knowingly sticks to his beliefs at the expense of his own life (martyrdom). He had an immutable sense of destiny, no matter the consequences. In Hamlet, Shakespeare asks us to contemplate “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” And the great Indian philosopher Krishnamurti teaches that “truth is a pathless land.” In other words, there’s no one way, except your own way.
Those of you that have read my blog know of my personal struggles, especially those with my sick wife. During the worst of those years, I never seriously contemplated leaving her. It pushed me to the brink of insanity at times, but my sense of destiny strengthened me and helped me push through. And while I am no Thomas Becket or Jesus, in my own way, I emerged reborn and stronger because of it.
Earlier this week I met with Dr. Spurgeon for the first time in almost 17 years. I’ve thought about him often, but never managed to find him. We met at an English Pub near Marymount College, my old school. I finally had the opportunity to tell him all the ways he helped to shape my life. As he nears the final years of his career, and as he contemplates all the struggles and time wasted on so many oblivious students, our lunch helped to reinforced his own sense of destiny. I took his gift out into the world and returned it at a time when he needed it most. We completed one of life’s cycles — where a teacher goes from sculptor to sculpture.
Laurie the day Sky was born. She never looked healthier or so beautiful. – Mary Birch Hospital, San Diego, CA
Laurie had been on birth control for more than 12 years. When you consider that there’s a 1 in 200 (99.5%) chance of getting pregnant on her birth control, we couldn’t help but believe that we were witness to a miracle. We had experienced a few miracles in our lifetime, but getting pregnant with all the odds against us, was the greatest miracle of all.
Laurie didn’t figure out she was pregnant until month two. Had she taken those chemotherapy pills that she intuitively rejected a few weeks earlier, her pregnancy would have to be terminated immediately. I learned never to underestimate a woman’s intuition.
Over the 7 months of her pregnancy, Laurie never felt better. She was swimming and walking and doing all the things she wished she could do before her pregnancy. Later I learned that it’s not unusual for a sick woman’s hormones to push her disease into remission. It was a beautiful time filled with love and compassion. Her pregnancy brought us even closer. It was bliss.
We discussed a few names. Laurie, being the consummate New Ager suggested we name her Earth Song. We had a good laugh over that one. But then we remembered that sad poem I wrote for her 12 years before. Sky Meadow Harms was born premature at 28 weeks (just 4 pounds, 7 ounces), but she was absolutely perfect and healthy. We were home three days later, hopelessly in love with our little miracle that we were told, and Laurie believed, would “never” be born. Cradling Sky in her arms, Laurie looked at me and said what every husband wants to hear at least once in his lifetime – “You were right.”
A weakened Laurie picks up her energy for Sky after several nearly fatal surgeries. – Cedars Sinai, Beverly Hills, CA.
Laurie lived for another two and a half years. She witnessed Sky’s first steps, her first words and got to see her fledgling personality shine through. Although six months after Sky was born, Laurie experienced the most violent two years of her disease, she fought to be Sky’s mom for as long as she could. It was as if her disease had given her a break (finally) to have a healthy pregnancy, but then returned to same degeneration after Sky was born.
Laurie said our love kept her fighting to stay alive after her first major surgery, but now she was fighting to stay alive for Sky. Sky gave her life the meaning she longed for. Even though her countdown had begun, she would leave me a gift with worth beyond measure.
Today, Sky is an extremely smart, sweet, funny, well-mannered, beautiful little girl. Her name is a daily reminder of a time when I foolishly believed in Never. Despite all the struggle, eventually even losing my soul mate, Sky gives me the feeling that it was all worth it – that in the end, I came out ahead. Having this beautiful creature depend on me, helped me to quickly pick myself up after Laurie died. I had to move forward with my life for the both of us.
Laurie believed that in the spiritual plane, Sky had chosen us to be her parents. She also believed that Sky was born to change the consciousness of the world. On this Earthly plane of existence, Sky gave Laurie the satisfaction of knowing that her life had purpose. And even in death, through Sky, her spirit would live on.
Just like her mommy, Sky hams it up for the camera on an impromptu photo shoot at Grandma’s beach house. – Algarrobo, Chile
Never is a useless word. Highly unlikely, I’ll concede. But my pathological optimism is at odds with certainties like Never. I cringe when I hear the word. It also motivates me. Most people say it because they believe that Never actually exists. Convincing you to believe it too is a way of validating their own defeatism.
When I was 19, I was deeply in love with a girl named Laurie. One of the reasons why she requited was because, like her, I was a romantic and a poet. She fell in love with me when she saw me reciting poetry to a table I was serving. We were romantic twins. Even at that tender age, we were contemplating what life would be like as a married couple. We even named our future first child – Sky.
So when she broke up with me to avoid the angst of a long distance relationship (I was leaving for a new University), I turned to poetry. I wrote a long, sad poem for her titled, Now Sky Will Never Be Born. We broke up for three years and only ran into each other once during all that time. But within two weeks of graduating, we saw each other again and never looked back.
Laurie was already suffering from the disease that eventually killed her when we reunited at 22. After a 13 hour marathon surgery that her neurosurgeon said would be a 9 out of 10 difficulty, he gave her just two years to live. I refused to believe it and the next day asked her to marry me. She had a good recovery and lived for another 9 years. We were happily married for eight of those years, but there was something that Laurie believed that ultimately threatened our marriage – that she could not and didn’t want to have a baby.
Her doctors had confirmed that getting pregnant would threaten her life. Though I had always felt that being a father was a part of my destiny, I conceded that it would now be highly unlikely. But that she didn’t want to have a baby, and that we would never have one was something I struggled with.
On this one issue, Laurie decided to believe in Never. I remember calling my mother and sharing how distressed I was and that a part of me wanted to leave because she was so adamant that we would never have a baby. Though I didn’t share that sentiment with Laurie, she told me that she would understand if I wanted to leave her to be with somebody that could make me the dad I deserved to be. She loved me so much that she was offering me an out of all the hospitals and stress created by her illness. We didn’t come to an agreement on the issue, but I stayed because I couldn’t imagine a life without her. I told her that I still refused to believe in Never.
Me worshiping Laurie’s pregnant belly at a perfect sunset in Del Mar, California.
Years later, after a few years of relative peace, Laurie’s disease returned with a vengeance. After two rounds of radiation, her doctors were at a loss. After all, for diseases as rare as hers (3 in a billion) there are no known treatments. Pharmaceutical companies understandably don’t develop treatments for markets that small. So her doctors threw a hail mary: an experimental take home chemotherapy pill they believed might help, though it had never been given to a patient with her disease. After much ado with our health insurance, they approved her $7,000 a month treatment. When the pills arrived in the mail, Laurie surprised me because she had an intuition that she shouldn’t take them.
A few weeks later, Laurie drove by a McDonalds and had a craving to eat a Big Mac. It was a bizarre craving since we normally don’t eat there. Laurie knew something was different and she drove directly to the pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test. Positive. When I got a call from her at work, I froze – total shock. On my way home, I had a most disorienting feeling of being both ecstatic about the potential of having a baby, while simultaneously feeling that my soulmate’s very life was at stake.
I didn’t pressured her either way, I was just there to help her think it through. Three days later, and after much discussion, Laurie decided, despite the likelihood of a tragedy, that we were witness to a miracle. She would risk her life to give me the child that she felt I deserved. We would go through with the pregnancy – no matter the consequences.
Have you ever identified with a character in a book? Most of us have. But have you ever thought of your Self as actually being a character in a book? It’s a distinction that has kept me preoccupied. I wrote a piece related to the subject for TED Weekends last week, but I still need to develop the concept further in my own mind. I say need, because it’s become the unexpected central theme of my book. I know that I can write about my past, but is it possible for me to use the book to write (create) my future?
Searching Google for answers, I found a fascinating (yet drably academic) dissertation on the concept of “Life as Art.” Nietzsche is central to the paper because he sees the self as a material to be produced, molded, and crafted along aesthetic lines – not as a stable subject. He called it, “autoaesthetics,” the self-conscious molding of one’s life.
Nietzsche assimilates the ideal person to an ideal literary character and the ideal life to an ideal story. He believed that one can live artfully, or autoaesthetically, if one actively engages in the process of understanding one’s life through the process of writing. In a literary sense, narrative self-formation is character formation: one is involved in the process of creating one’s own character through the process of dispensing with and creating a series of settings and relationships.
I haven’t posted on this blog in a while because I’ve been writing my book. After a lot of stress and self-doubt, the book is finally leading me instead of me leading it. During the process, I had an insight that changed the course of the story, both in my book and in my life. Somewhere along the way, my life became the book and my book became my life. In a literal sense, I’ve started to live my life the way that I want the story to be told in the book. Nietzsche might say that I’m living autoaesthetically. After wrestling with the idea for a bit, I think I’m ready to let go of my preconceptions going into this journey, and instead allow the process to take over.
I love a good story. I love them so much that I want my own life to be one. I want to follow my bliss, visit exotic locations, open the world to my daughter, get to know interesting people, and write it all down to share with kindred spirits. I want to live a life worth writing about.
On that quest, I also have a tendency to overlook some important details. I figure that I can overcome any obstacles with sheer will and positivity. Often times I can. But at what cost? In the long run, some details refuse to be overlooked.
Life is about decisions. I often write about the moment when I asked Laurie to marry me the day after she got two years to live. That decision set off a chain reaction that defines my life to this day. In my mind, I had a story that I wanted to tell. I wanted the story to be that our love saved her life.
I wasn’t thinking in these terms back then, but I wanted to be prince charming riding into the castle to slay the dragon and save my damsel in distress. I couldn’t control the medical reality, but I could control how I wielded my love for her. Love is a nuclear weapon. To a large degree our extraordinary love succeeded – just not happily ever after.
Laurie lived another 10 years, 8 more than doctors predicted, but she did inevitably die. No matter how much sheer will and positivity one can muster, some details are final. When she died, and even the two extremely difficult years prior, I was living with the consequences of my fairy tale-like fantasy.
Suffering during our final years together was relentless. And not just for me and Laurie, but also for all of our friends and family who chose to be there for us. They found our story compelling enough to write themselves into it.
Many of my struggles today are a legacy of the original love story I wanted so badly to come true. It didn’t turn out exactly as I planned – no matter how bravely I fought. But maybe I wasn’t really looking for a good or a bad ending. After all, unlike a fairy-tale, a good story must have both.
My life has been uniquely mine. No man has walked in my shoes. Starting with my first decision as an adult: proposing marriage to a girl who had been given two years to live by her neurosurgeon. Had I listened to reason or looked out for my own self-interests, I might have wished her the best and walked out the back door. Nothing held me back from doing so. Instead, I rejected the evidence before me and chose to believe what I felt inside to be true.
We had a choice when Laurie unexpectedly got pregnant. She had been on the pill for 10 years without fail. Her doctors advised her that having a baby could have fatal complications. She might not survive. I also had someone very close to me try to dissuade me from going through with the pregnancy. The baby would grow up without a mommy. Everyone around us would have added responsibility and burden. Laurie and I discussed it. We decided that we were witness to a miracle. We rejected the facts and did what we were meant to do. In exchange, Laurie and I got a purpose for living.
Yesterday, one of my uncles pulled me aside. He was concerned. He said that I looked melancholy. For two days he’d heard me retell old stories about Laurie. He didn’t think it was healthy. I replied that Laurie has been on my mind more than usual because I’ve been writing our story. He explained that what I’m writing is about living in the past. I should be looking to the future. I should be focused on all the beautiful women around me and looking to create a new family. Leave the tragedy of what happened in the dusts of time.
I’ve never been shy about giving advice, but results have been inconclusive. Everyone’s life is uniquely their own, so how can I purport to know what’s best for anyone else? From my uncle’s perspective, what happened to Laurie is tragic. I don’t blame him for thinking it so. He’s also right that living in the past is dangerous. Over the next few months I’m going to be picking at scabs from old wounds. If I do a good job writing my story, I will have relived many of those painful moments a second time.
It’s true that life is best lived in the present. Still, I feel that before I can move freely into the future, I need an opportunity to release everything that happened to us into words – for my daughter and anybody else that may gain from it. Not to give advice, but to connect with those who can relate to my story. Perhaps even to find the strength to do what they feel is right – even when the people who care about them disagree. Even when those people are also right.
Controlling a candle flame with your mind is an insightful exercise. Laurie did it to reflect self-control over many areas of her life. She was able to move a flame to one side and then the other, minimize the flame and then raise it unnaturally high. Through deep meditation she could change the nature of reality within herself, which was then reflected in the candle flame before her. Prior to marrying a psychic, I would have been dismissive of the idea that one’s mind can directly control the physical world. But as any skeptic will tell you, seeing is believing.
For Laurie, it wasn’t enough for me to believe that she believed. She made it a point to present evidence to me over the course of our ten years together. Over time, she wore down my skepticism. She believed that each of us has a supernatural gift (a sixth sense), but we stop listening to it as we grow in society. She even helped me discover my own gift: the ability to picture a future state so clearly in my mind that I can actually make it a reality. She called it a “mock up” of the future. I now make a conscious effort to visualize my future before I create it.
When Laurie and I met she was just starting to discover her psychic gifts. At the time she had a brand new black Honda Accord. Eight years later we still had that same Accord. I reluctantly drove it to work sometimes. One day after work the car wouldn’t start, so I called her to come pick me up. When she arrived she sat in the driver’s seat and simply meditated on “grounding” the car. After about 5 minutes of meditation she turned the key and the car started right up. She repeated this feat at least four more times before we eventually sold it. Each time we looked at each other and smiled.
Laurie possessed a psychic talent. Like any talent, she believed that betterment required practice. She spent hours a day exercising her psychic abilities. She even attended a school for psychics, the Southern California Psychic Institute, where she found kindred spirits that helped her evolve. As Laurie strengthened her abilities, she weakened my assumptions about reality. When I watched her melt and impossibly twist a spoon with her mind, it opened me to a whole new world of possibilities.
Laurie once guided my mother, aunt and I through the meditation she used to make a hard metal spoon feel like soft, malleable plastic in our hands. We were to start by imagining a light energy from the center of the earth, moving up through the soles of our feet, and eventually through our entire bodies. My eyes closed in a long meditation. I remember feeling my hands move, bending the spoon with ease. To my surprise however, when I opened my eyes I saw that the spoon was unbent, exactly as it was made. Laurie went on to impossibly twist several spoons right in front of us. I kept one of those spoons for my daughter and posted a picture of it here.
Ironically, Laurie was able to melt spoons and manipulate flames, but she couldn’t heal herself. Perhaps there are limits. Still, she made a believer out of me and taught me how to be active in the creation of my reality. I will always be thankful for that. The unmeasurable world has enriched my life immeasurably.
We all have a dark side. Some dark sides lurk closer to the surface than others. Inevitably, when the Universe seemingly conspires against us, the person we thought we were breaks down. We feel trapped with no means of escape or personal release. We lash out – sometimes violently. Walter White, the protagonist in the hit show Breaking Bad, is a dramatic example. But more than once, I too have broken bad.
Laurie’s final two years included 13 life or death surgeries (in and out of ICUs for months at a time). Each surgery added a new layer of complications. A feeding tube, a tracheotomy, metal piercing through her skull, a perpetual state of morphine detox. I worked hard to be the emotional rock for Laurie and my daughter. But one can only hold in so much before emotions volcano.
It started with a phone call from my mother who was vacationing in Chile. She informed me that my sister got invited to the Golden Globes. She asked if I’d go with my sister to the mall to purchase a new necklace and a purse for her big night. My sister’s plan was to return the items the day after the event. I normally would find that plan unethical, but I agreed to help given how excited she was to go. What could possibly go wrong?
After the Golden Globes, my sister and I arrived at the Topanga mall to do the unglamorous work of getting my refunds. My sister can be a little confrontational, so I told her to hang back while I returned the necklace at the jewelry store. When the unassuming sales lady asked why I wanted to return the necklace, I sighed in mock defeat: “Let’s just say that I didn’t get the response I wanted.” I could feel the store fill up with pity. $750 refunded to my Master Card. Feeling of pride from my brilliant spin: priceless.
I walked into Nordstorms feeling confident. Again, I asked my sister to hang back. I walked up to the purse department and handed the Jimmy Choo clutch and my receipt to the same pretentious lady who sold it to us a few days prior. She opened the box and saw a scratch on the buckle that wasn’t there when we purchased it. A return wasn’t possible. I argued. She called the manager over. Same response – no refund. Few words raise my blood pressure like, “No.”
I wasn’t stressed about the $600 I paid for the purse. I had been promised repayment for anything that couldn’t be returned. But I kept arguing with the manager. I could feel my body start to shake in anger. Years of stress and bent up emotions surfaced. And then I broke. I slapped a plastic credit card application holder off the cash register. It hit the ground with an angry thud. Credit applications strewn across the pristine floors. I heard the manager call security. I walked towards the door a little faster.
“Hey you, stop!” I looked back and saw a guy built like a linebacker stride towards me. I walked outside, slipped off my flip flops, and sprinted away with my Jimmy Choo clutch tucked in my right arm like a football. I looked over my shoulder, he was in pursuit. I was running barefoot across the Nordstroms parking lot. I thought to myself, what the hell just happened?
I kept running as fast as I could. He kept gaining on me like The Terminator. I made a rash decision to run across the four busy lanes of Victory Blvd. I switched the purse to my left arm and stuck out my right arm as if to stiff arm oncoming traffic. Headlights headed towards me, cars honked. I risked my life, but made it across to street to a parking lot. I looked back and watched in disbelief as the unshakable security guard dodged traffic too.
I ran towards a Coco’s diner, but my exhausted legs gave out on me. I fell forward, my chest hit the concrete, and the Jimmy Choo box spilled out of my hands. I mustered my last ounce of strength to get up, picked up the box with bloodied hands, and stumbled forward. Once inside, Coco’s somehow felt like a safe house. I sat down in the waiting area and in between gaping breaths politely asked the concerned hostess, “May I have a glass of water please?”
“Give me that purse,” demanded the 6’ 4’’ 220 pound security guard.
“No, it’s my purse,” I screeched. I handed him the receipt as evidence. He studied the receipt and handed it back to me.
“Why did you run then?”
“Because I knocked over the credit card thing.”
“You threw it at the ladies? That’s assault!”
“No, I just knocked it over on the floor.”
He called to confirm my story. He looked at me with reluctant respect and said, “Good run.”
I felt like I’d been knocked unconscious. In the throws of an asthma attack, I started puking my guts out by the side of the restaurant. My sister drove me home. I didn’t say a word when I walked in, just headed upstairs and laid down on my bed. Laurie walked up behind me and asked what was wrong. Embarrassed, I told her what transpired. She started laughing, caressed my face and said, “Oh baby, you’re under so much stress.” Everyone had a good laugh at my expense. What I did was so out of character. I allowed myself a smile.
I got a phone call from my sister later that night. She successfully returned the purse at another Nordstroms. No receipt. No problems. No breaking bad.
Take a moment to relax. Lean your neck back and then swivel it in half circles from side to side. Go ahead. It feels good to stretch out your neck when you’re a little stressed. Now imagine a world where that release isn’t possible. Maybe your neck was precariously rebuilt by a neurosurgeon using stiff but durable titanium. You can’t just turn your neck to see over your shoulder anymore. Your neck muscles would eventually compensate by becoming rock hard, creating serious chronic pain from your central nervous system that radiates across your entire body.
For Laurie, who spent years in hospitals having her upper spine rebuilt, a day at home with chronic neck pain was a pretty good day. Pain forced her to live in the present. Past and future take a back seat when all you can think about is how much it hurts right now. Experiencing the present, no matter how painful, was also how Laurie turned what could have easily been a miserable existence into a life with an overabundance of meaning.
Laurie refused to play the victim. Things didn’t just “happen” to her. Instead, she took responsibility for the present. She believed in escalating spiritual planes. Reaching a higher plane required that certain lessons be learned. We don’t learn them all in a single lifetime, so we choose the lessons that will move us up the spiritual ladder before we become conscious at birth. The harder the lesson, the higher we climb. Understanding this deeper meaning helped her move beyond the realm of good and bad. She understood that the present was indeed “pre-sent.”
We all have a breaking point. Even in the story of Jesus, when he was wasting away on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some say that was God’s way of showing humanity that he too suffers. Laurie could relate. With a dilapidated spine, body shaking in pain, nourished only through a feeding tube, and breathing through a tracheotomy, she looked at me one night with defeated eyes and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Just two days later she died.
If the present was “pre-sent” then there’s nobody else to blame for our suffering. It means that I chose to be widowed. It also means that my daughter chose to grow up without her mommy. As you can imagine, it’s not a concept that can be taught to a 4 year-old, but it’s something that she may learn to embrace as a woman. Instead of asking, “Why didn’t I get to grow up with a mother like everybody else?,” I hope she asks, “How can I use this life lesson, that most may never understand, to create the life I was destined to live?”
You sent yourself this moment as a gift. You can choose to live reactively like a victim, or you can use the present, especially when it’s painful, as an opportunity to create. It’s impossible to always live in the now. Not even Jesus could do it. But next time you’re feeling sorry for yourself, relieve some stress by leaning your neck back and swiveling it from side to side. It may help you put things into perspective.
I was born an optimist. I'm a widower, a father, and a writer reborn. I quit my happy life to write an extraordinary true story for my daughter about love, struggle and purpose. My next chapter is unwritten. Follow along to witness how my optimism unfolds.