Hey-O! After several months of writing steadily I enjoyed a little break-ee-poo. But things are still movin’ and shakin’, so let’s get back out on the dance floor.
This post (and probably the next few) will contain segments that are all part of my larger story but not necessarily connected to each other. Expect direct follow-ups to what I call the blog’s ‘central story arc’ (all previous posts), fun new announcements, and progress updates on my move to Spain.
Let’s jump in it!
The Fortuitous Veer
My last handful of posts (from To The Healing Side to Welcome To The Party, Breaux), were exclusively centered around my success doing somatic experiencing therapy. If you read each post in order, you were witnessing- almost in real time, my methodical shedding of childhood trauma, and the a written unveiling of the Gary I was supposed to be all along.
It is a minor aside at this point, but I want to say that my initial vision for the blog was to simply share with everyone how I arrived at my decision to move from the US to Salamanca, Spain. Veering off into jarring family stories of suicide and heartbreak wasn’t part of the original plan at all. It just worked out that way….just as it needed to for me to internally heal from the trauma I’d been carrying inside all my life. Somatic therapy was the innovative and ingenious technique I used to heal myself, but it was also the opening up of my mind- as facilitated by the blog -that gave space and opportunity for my body-self to do what it needed to do. When writing about the circumstances of my childhood, I dove far deeper into my psyche than I ever had before. And made revelatory new connections between past and present. It was my mind and body working together that brought me home.
In the end, the blog will forever stand as a body of personal reclamation and universal redemption. I am thrilled to have been able to share it with you (and the world). I am also enormously pleased that at least a couple folks that follow my blog are firmly on their own path of healing from childhood trauma, too.
I am proud of myself. I did something. I barely have a sense in words of what “pride” means, but I know I have felt it more than a few times in recent weeks. It’s a feeling of accomplishment, I suppose. Appreciation and admiration resulting in satisfaction. How does that work for ya?
Proud of what? This blog. This healing. This Gary.
Pride is not the only “new emotion” I have felt recently. Since therapy breakthroughs moved me from blocked to open in terms of my emotional access, I have also felt genuine anger for the first time in….well, forever. Sadness, too. My overall ability to empathize is much greater, as well. Little more than a week ago I was in the presence of a friend who was hardcore venting his way through some harsh emotions- it was a manic episode, in truth. As I sat and listened, my body began to shake and quiver until I started to cry along with my friend. Pretty incredible, right?! No, I am not the Gary you thought you knew.
Even laughing feels different. With the same friend I cried with, (on a different day) I had a laugh so deep I felt it in both flanks of my torso.
Born At Zero
After giving my therapist (Gabe) plenty of thanks, praise and thousands of dollars (over the course of six months), I have now moved forward on my own with all the tools I need to continue doing somatic experiencing at home. My plan is to set aside some time (almost) every morning to keep it going.
It’s been great so far. And the more I do it, the better I get at it and the more I learn.
The concepts of being blocked or open to emotions are something I’ve learned quite a bit about (and now written about extensively). Not surprising to anyone that knows me, but I’ve also “quantified” what it is to be blocked on an imaginary scale of my own invention. [Reminder: Blocked is when someone cannot fully access their emotions, or is unable to regulate them in a healthy, normal way.] Check out this fancy graphic:
Open 0 ——————————————— 100 Blocked
Simple enough, right? Here’s how it works. We are born our pure selves at zero, “Open” in my terminology. This is the mind-self and body-self being synchronized so that all natural human emotions can be accessed and experienced. But as abuse, neglect, disconnection and general dysfunction in childhood accumulates, our blocked score goes up. Narcissists (like Trump, for example) have shitty, abusive childhoods and grow into adults blocked from their emotions somewhere in the 95 – 100 point range. (Psychopaths are right up there with them.) Knowing everything I know now, I would give myself a blocked score in the 65 – 70 point range. My ex-girlfriend and many of my friends [your vibe attracts your tribe] are all blocked by roughly the same amount. (No, not all. I do have good friends with blocked scores very much on the lower end of my made-up scale.)
By the time I said good-byes to Gabe, I estimate that my somatic breakthroughs had reduced my blocked score down to around 35, about half of where I started. This left me comfortable and experienced enough to continue this type of therapy pretty much anywhere, anytime. Further work at home has dropped my score down even further- probably to the 10 – 15 point range. That’s REALLY LOW, folks!!!! Good on me!
What will I be like if I make it all the way to zero? Should I start shopping now for tie-dye shirts and headbands? My answer to this is, NO. I don’t say no flippantly. I plan to remain quite firmly grounded outside and in. This is what I foresee as being my niche within conversations that depart from the material world into one that’s harder to detect with our traditional senses. I will make sense of the non-material “dimension” by anchoring it firmly to the everyday world we see all around.
In Other News….
I have a new adventure I am super-excited about– a podcast. Yes, I know….there are already (quite literally) a million podcasts out there…. but I’m telling you, none like this one. The name of the podcast is Marty & The Bro. Don’t look for it yet because we haven’t even recorded the first episode. Preparations are definitely underway, however, and I am feeling pretty rosy about it.
So, if I am The Bro (per how my last name is pronounced, though not spelled), who the hell is Marty? Readers that have been with me since the beginning were (somewhat) introduced to Marty already. The fourth post I did was called, Smoke ‘em If You Want To Live. Go back and read it if you didn’t already. It’s a great post and still ranked as the #1 most read post of this entire blog. One of the stories I share within that post is about a friend I refer to only as M. The story involves the day he planned to take his own life. M is Marty. Marty LIVES! Marty is my partner on the podcast.
Marty’s given name is Marcellus Wright, Jr. In his old neighborhood a lot of people called him Marty and that’s how he introduces himself in certain situations. I won’t say much more about Marty now or how he and I got to know each other. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out. He’s a remarkable guy and I am excited for others to get to know him as I do. Our plan is to launch the podcast the first week of January 2021.
Don’t Forget Spain
My visa application to Spain is a work in progress. There is quite a lot to it– an FBI background check, medical certificate of health, financial records, health insurance, translations, etc -but I feel like I am still on track to start my new life in Spain on or about February 1st of 2021.
In case you were wondering… last week I received the FBI Background check. And they found nothing! So there! HA!!!
My body is internally “buzzing.” I’m not so aware of it when moving around, but if I stand, sit or lie down, I can feel an electrical activeness within my tissues. Less than a buzzing, really; it’s more of an internal vibration. I park in front of the massage therapist’s building, shut off the car and sit for a second. The vibration is obvious–feeling. It’s like the car’s engine is idling and the whole car is vibrating. But I shut it off…and my car is all-electric anyway; it has no engine.
It’s so subtle, I cannot tell whether the vibration is coming from within me or from the earth. This all started yesterday in the immediate aftermath of what I’m calling the big breakthrough (on Oct 12th).
Tamara greets me at the entrance to her building and takes my temp (Covid precaution). I’m clear! That’s when I start telling her, “I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this, but I’ve been doing these somatic therapy sessions lately, and, uhm… yesterday was a pretty big day. I was thinking maybe you could kinda…” I jockey my hands in front to unconsciously gesture how uncertain I feel towards my own words, “…re-balance me.” My voice actually curls up at the end so it’s more like I’m asking. That’s when Tamara tells me she’s done somatic experiencing herself and is also trained in the practice. Holy mountain of dark chocolate, WHAT!?!
Seriously! I had no idea she had experience with this stuff. I thought Tamara was just a regular massage therapist. Suddenly, she’s my “shaman.”
Pause… wait, what’s going on here?
Once I had moved from being emotionally blocked to open, very quickly coincidences, lucky breaks, and other seemingly random events told a very different story from the one I thought existed. Second pause… I am by no means pointing to a single fortuitous happenstance with a massage therapist and saying “Ah HA!” Not at all. Since the previous day’s breakthrough I’ve been seeing and feeling an entire kaleidoscopic montage of connectedness everywhere. Knowing Tamara was exactly the right person for me at that moment felt like overwhelming confirmation that the universe has some sort of meaningful flow to it. GASP! I said it.
More on this new-agey mumbo-jumbo later, so stick around for that [or run in the other direction…Rick]. For my money, however, the real reason to keep reading is because a little later you will join me underneath the cream-colored sheets on Tamara’s massage table in nuttin’ but me skivvies. I promise you it will be the most bizarre massage experience EVER!
As Real As Gravity
“But we haven’t even gotten to the craziest part of it.” That was the teaser that ended my last post. Was I exaggerating? You will judge– tears flowing on a massage table….sadness trapped inside my buttocks (hip)….orange bolts of energy shooting from my head? Maybe this is normal in your world, but it sure seems pretty crazy to me. [By the way, sincere hugs to those that communicated with me how much Significant Conditions resonated with them. There was definitely a lot there!]
Embedded within all the strangeness you’ll be hearing about in this post, I was just sharp enough to pull out three “super-truths.” And by that I mean universal truths. Like…I can’t see it, but this feels just as real as gravity type of truths. All three truths will tumble forth for you as this post unfolds. But here… since I’ve already half-given one away in the opener, I’ll just say it for you plainly…sans the gasp: Everything is connected.
Last thing before we move on. If at any point I start sounding like a “life coach” or a mystic, please know it’s unintentional. My whole M-O has been and will be to simply tell you what happened. I won’t stop now.
One of my very good friends here in the Denver area is Dr Becky Chance. She’s both a basic knucklehead (like me) but she’s also a bad-ass who earned her PhD just last year at 45 years of age. If you’ve kept up with my blog from the start, it is my own muddled “hero’s journey” that you’ve been reading. Well, Becky has been on quite a hero’s journey herself. In fact, if her and I were to compare personal growth timelines, she’s leading me by about two years.
Similar to me and my situation, Becky has had to overcome the challenges of a childhood filled with trauma. But, thanks to a course of her own therapy (the more traditional type), Becky managed to move herself to the healing side of trauma a couple of years ago. As this shift was occurring within her, there were no big breakthrough moments (such as what I experienced). What Becky got instead was the cumulative effect of hundreds of ah-ha moments, each one a shift towards everything in her life taking on new meaning. At her own pace, and when she was ready, Becky moved from blocked to open. As this happened, she was able to make connections between the string of life events that led her into a new reality– one where the universe reveals its true nature on a daily basis.
Becky and I had dozens of past conversations where she would tell me about something that happened in her life that…maybe, didn’t quite go like she thought it would. But she would say to me, “I guess that’s not what the universe wants for me.” Annoying, right?!
Bumped and Nudged
My own personal mistrust of the guided by the universe concept is on display several times within this blog. It’s wrapped in the things-happen-for-a-reason packaging, but it’s really the same enigma. I’ll happily admit that a great many things have come together for me this year. All of the twists, turns, epiphanies, people, things, events… they seem to have been neatly aligned to bump and nudge me towards this really sweet state of being I find myself in right now. But is it really “forces of the universe” doing the work?
Whenever Becky would use this phrase about what the universe wants, I found myself stuck between an eye-roll and a 10 minute rambling soliloquy about how such talk doesn’t quite add up for me. My wagon has been hitched to the “not buying it” pull-car ever since I departed the nonsensical village of Christianity at age 16. I even look back at my childhood full of Jesus with a good deal of condemnation (how ironic). Not to veer too far off course, but… I once heard it said about both religion and masturbation— neither should be done in front of children. [Amen to that!]
But now get this. All of my universe-schmuniverse thinking came at a time when my modern mind-self was blocked by trauma from my ancient body-self (Explanation). Once these somatic experiences opened up access to the body-self’s vibration, the universe got a whole lot closer. Suddenly, I wasn’t just looking back at twists, turns, epiphanies, people, things, events and wondering if they are connected, I could intuitively feel their connection. Yes, everything really is connected.
Whether you can feel it or not could indicate which side of the blocked / open divide you might be on. But don’t think too much about that right now (if you’re blocked you probably won’t get it anyway), I’ve got to move on to my second and third big truths and how they both sprang from a fractal in nature. [If anyone can figure out what I mean by this, I’ll Venmo you $10 (just to the 1st person, please. (..and maybe the 2nd))]
I’d love for you to have a better feel for the progression of my somatic therapy sessions over the course of the last six months. I’ll describe it using terms all red-blooded Americans will understand- Are you ready for some FOOTBALL!?
You are looking at a football field. When my somatic therapy sessions began in May, I was starting at the goaline with 100 yards to go. Every weekly visit was a simple, predictable 1, 2, or 3 yard run up the middle. BORING! –Go, talk a little, try to meditate, talk a little more, drive home. But I never punted and was steadily (albeit unconsciously) gaining enough on each play to keep the drive alive. The good thing about this therapy was that I never lost yards. With every weekly visit, the gains were virtually imperceptible to me, but I was moving forward.
My particular type of trauma, the kind that left me emotionally blocked, is a tough dam to bring down therapeutically. The biggest gain I made was maybe about a 7 yard run at the start of the analogous second quarter. I was using ketamine in my sessions at that time and finally managed to access a worthy cry after punching a sofa cushion with my fist. That session was followed by a couple of no-gainers, so then I switched to cannabis and kept on fighting for small yardage up the middle.
After 5 months of weekly visits, I was only at mid-field. Granted, I had no sense of my field position at the time. I just knew it had been slow-going and the endzone didn’t look so close. I needed a big play. And got one- my first somatic experience. I’ll call it a 15 yard pass to the tight-end. I missed a week due to scheduling, but once back in the clinic for my next sesh, I completed another pass to the wide-receiver for a gain of 20! Then, on my day of six somatic experience cycles…I scored a touchdown!
To be sure, this did not mean the game was won. Scoring a touchdown was a game-changer for sure, (and my end-zone dance was EPIC!). But I also knew that the 5,000 ruptures I harbored in my body could not be vanquished in one play, regardless of how spectacular it was.
The week after the touchdown, I aimed for a two-point conversion…. and got it. More somatic cycles, more breakthroughs, and even more deep truths revealed about how the universe actually works.
Get Out The Way
I love the football analogy because it makes clear that somatic therapy is a bit of a grind. But, once my first genuine somatic experience was in the bag, I was almost there. So, if any of you therapy-inclined friends out there want to check-out somatic therapy for yourselves, you will have an almost unfair head start because I’m about to tell you one of the keys to doing it.
When I go down into a meditative state and mentally zoom around my body in search of bigfoot, I mean, signals coming from my body, or the somatic experiencing “wavelength,” or whatever we want to call it… what I should really be focused on is simply getting my ever-vigilant mind-self out of the way. If I were starting my somatic therapy today from scratch with this knowledge….? Fuggetaboutit! I could have shortened the field and been doing my endzone dance in far less time than 6 months.
I know I’ve spent a lot of time writing about the nitty-gritty details of somatic experiencing, but not without good reason. This point about getting your mind out of the way is a slam dunk, money-saving, take-it-from-me, pro-tip for anyone interested in doing somatic therapy work themselves. And, it is also the second of my three new big truths!
So, where are we? #1 Everything is connected. #2 Get out of the way. Let me show you how this figures into real life and how not knowing any of this led me to my life’s biggest regret.
Off By One Degree
Hands down, my biggest fumble in life [wait, I think we’re done with the football analogy] was getting my degree in accounting. I understand today why I made this poor decision way back when, but that does not soothe my regret. It all traces back to childhood trauma, wouldn’t you know. And also to my first and second big truths.
I chose accounting for purely practical reasons. You’ll always have a job, is what I heard over and over again. They weren’t wrong, either. But where was the advice about making a decision based on what I was feeling? Since I was way blocked from my feelings at 23 years old, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, but still. If I’d had access to my feelings and, by extension, was open to that whole universe business, the right answer would have come to me….if only I could have gotten my mind out of the way. All that practical thinking definitely steered me onto a career path that was ultimately not a good fit.
Coulda-shoulda-woulda, right? I wonder how many signs I walked past because I was too blocked to see them. If signs were there, the gentlest and truest interpretation of my missing them is that I was simply not ready.
Which leads me to that third big truth. And wait until you see where I find it.
This is a long post, folks. My apologies for that. And you’re only about half-way through. Ugh! But I have some good news. This last part is FASCINATING!!! So, take yourself a little bio-break and then buckle-it up for the bizarre massage and other Gary’s Believe It Or Not moments.
Also, this will be my last post for a while. I need to dedicate time to filling out the Visa application for Spain. Andole!It has been an absolute blast of learning, growing and sharing!Thank you so so much for being a part of it!!
Welcome to the Party, Breaux feels like a good place to draw “Act 1” of the 1MoreWorld blog to a positive and gentle soft-close.
So Where’s My Damn Sadness
Somewhere in the midst of one of the six somatic cycles on touchdown day, Gabe asked me if I could “find my sadness.” I scanned around my body and with a little voice answered only, “I don’t know.” At that point in time, the concept behind Gabe’s question was still very foreign to me. Once I am in Tamara’s hands, it will be found. And I promise we’re almost there. But first…
This wackadoodle notion of the body having “stored-up emotions” has not been an easy one for me to wrap my head around. But the more of this somatic experiencing I do, the easier it is to internally feel this is exactly what happens when traumatic situations are not processed appropriately, especially in childhood. When you are not allowed to cycle-through intense emotions, the tension remains until you (on a sliding scale) become a bundle of nerves. I know that when I’m in a meditative-somatic state, electrical impulses are firing muscles all throughout my body. There was even a moment in one of my sessions with Gabe when I felt two small orange “charges” sort of shoot forward and down out of my head. If there’d been a slice of pizza in front of me, it might have gotten scorched. [I’m kidding. It wasn’t that strong. But pizza does sound good.]
One of several ways my body felt “different” after the big day, was that it instantly felt more relaxed (even with the vibration-thing going on). I went straight to the park after that session and did some stretches- basic yoga poses, really. The vertebrae along my spine easily “released” as I twisted my torso, much more so than I’d ever felt before. Other joints, too. Orange bolts of energy or not, I was demonstrably more loosened-up from head to toe. Plus, it was like all of my standard 55 year old body aches and pains had just received a power-washing and a fresh squirt of oil.
So where the hell is that damn sadness? Tell you now, my ass!
Donut To The Face
Tamara steps out for a moment and I undress down to my aforementioned “skivvies” (briefs, of course). Her return finds me under a soft sheet topped with a light blanket. My feet protrude out the bottom, because I prefer them getting air.
It’s actually my second massage with Tamara. My first was 3 ½ months ago and it was awesome, though also pretty “standard” as far as massages go. [In case you’re wondering, I get massages maybe 2-3 times per year on average.] I heard about Tamara from my friend Vanessa, who felt so inspired for me to go see her, she even paid for my first visit (as a birthday gift).
For my initial massage with Tamara I did about 8 mgs of an edible beforehand. Note that I checked with her in advance to make sure this was okay. Interacting with the world while being elevated by cannabis was not something I had much experience with so I was ever-cautious. Motivating me was that I really wanted to see what a massage would feel like with the heightened body-awareness you get with cannabis. Folks, it was an exceptional experience! Afterwards, I concluded that MOST regular cannabis users already know this “innovation” and would never consider getting a massage sober.
For my session this day (Oct 13th), I did 10 mg, only a slight increase from before; so still not a super-high amount.
My face is down into that little donut thing at the end of the massage table. Soft music is playing from a speaker and Tamara begins. I let my mind-self start floating to the side. She is touching my back with long slow motions that slide along muscles deep beneath my skin. It’s not long before my body gives forth a somatic response- meaning I “flinch.” And, then do it a few more times. Soon I go into more of a full somatic tremble. Tamara is further tuning-in to the fibers within my right shoulder that have apparently been holding onto…..well, something. As I lie there, I am fully aware of my body’s response to her touch, but feel extremely safe in her presence… enough to let my body-self do whatever it needs to do. That’s when, from great depths, I begin to cry.
Envy the Bizarre Massage
For the record, this is not an ugly cry, the one where you fight to hold back and it makes your face all contorted. No, I am flowing and it’s all quite wonderful. Tears are the relief valve of the soul, I once heard. The part of my mind-self that has stayed online acknowledges the bizarre scene I am participating in. I mean, who the heck cries like this in the middle of a massage? But…you know….given everything else I’ve been experiencing lately… it’s all good.
As the massage progresses, Tamara moves down to my lower back and the area around my hips. My earlier crying cycled through and I had momentarily returned to calm. But the best (the worst…?) is yet to come. Gabe had asked me if I could “find my sadness” and I could not. But Tamara will. With the knowing touch of a mystic, she presses deep into the tissues of my right hip; I begin to shudder again. This time even more than before. Never in my life have I felt crying like this. The concept of storing away sadness within the body is no longer foreign to me. It is true. It’s all true and I am feeling it first-hand. The body does keep score and all of the sadness that rightfully belonged to me as child growing up in the breeding ground for suicide is still fucking there.
I cry full body until keeping my head down in the donut isn’t allowing me to breathe. That’s when I prop myself up on my elbows and keep going. Tamara’s experience in this somatic world is invaluable to me. I thought about how Vanessa (with no knowledge of Tamara’s somatic training, btw), not only told me about her, but felt strongly enough about it to buy me a Groupon to make sure I went. I am telling you again, everything is connected. Coincidences are gone! I think about this while crying through the massage. As more and more tetris pieces of evidence find their fit inside my head, a crazy-deep laughter joins into the crying….until it becomes impossible to tell which is which.
Gary’s Believe It Or Not Moment
Last crazy thing from the bizarre massage. At one point, Tamara asks me to roll onto my back, which I do. As she continues to work her hands into my hip area, my body-self’s somatic reaction does not stop. In fact, it begins to escalate even more. I have given up my internal controls to Tamara and simply follow the guidance of her touch. After I reach some sort of crescendo, she slowly brings me back down again to a calm state. The somatic shuddering slowly slows to a stop, my breathing eventually returns to normal. My eyes are closed throughout, so I feel everything. The flowy music continues in the background and I lay completely still once again. Tamara’s hands, both of them, now rest gently on my right hip.
An image of what I’m feeling inside my body forms within my mind like it’s a computer simulation. I feel and “see” an orangish current of energy flowing up from my right leg in the direction of my hip. I feel into my upper body and sense the same flow of energy channeling in the opposite direction, down towards my hip. Then it hits me, Tamara is pulling the fucking sadness out of my body! What the hell is going on!?!! This is freaking my ass out…in a good way. I’m not complaining, it’s all just so far removed from the seeing-is-believing world I’d previously known.
Really?! Do I think I’m going to write about this in the blog? I don’t know, man. I’m not sure if I’m ready for this. Are you?
Ready / Not Ready
Okay, I am done with recounting somatic experiences….almost. I have to share with you an important lesson (the third big truth) that came from my last somatic session with Gabe (Oct 19). This is six days after my bizarre massage with Tamara.
While Tamara had ‘found my sadness,’ and even released a bucket of it, my hip area was still home to a great deal more. Not just sadness, but anger, fear, and who knows what else. After finding my way into a somatic state once again– body-self alert and quivering –I tell Gabe I can feel a “swirly sensation” down in my right hip. He coaches me to keep watching and notice if it changes. It does. The swirly sensation morphs into a colored blob and my body-self instinctively becomes more agitated.
Gabe asks me if it would be okay for him to put his hand there. Without hesitating I fearfully blurt out, “NO!”
Moments later, Gabe asks, “Could you take your own hand and touch it to your hip?” I visualize making this seemingly simple movement, but the thought alone makes my entire body flash with fear and everything within me tightens up another few degrees. I shake my head back n’ forth and say these words out loud, “I’m not ready.” Gabe reassures me that’s okay. He explains that it’s normal to feel conflicted between wanting to protect oneself against an outpouring of potentially difficult and painful emotions, and feeling secure enough to let those emotions express themselves without constraint, knowing they have a safe place to be received.
I did not touch my hip that day, metaphorically with my mind, or physically with my hand. I wasn’t ready. Instead, I just hovered in that somatic state of being for as long as I could without doing anything more than I was ready for. There was too much stored inside my body to let it all come pouring out at once. My mind-self was thinking, Just be here. Do what you need to do, body-self. I will hold the space for you until you are ready.
What stayed with me from the ‘hip-touch challenge’ was another one of those big truths. As I now see it, the concept of Ready / Not Ready applies at any scale- it is universal. So, yes…you have freewill. But that’s a discussion more fitting for another day. Also being saved for later is the rather mundane reason why the universe is connected and flowing in the first place. [Hmmm, maybe I’ll write a book.]
When the universe bumps and nudges, it will only change the course of your life when you are ready. Being not ready is perfectly acceptable, too. The universe will hold space for you, if you get out of the way and let it.
A Million Percent Right
As I mentioned when talking about my friend Becky earlier, once she had crossed over to the healing side of her trauma, she was able to look back at all of the turning points in her recent life and see overwhelming evidence in support of an ‘everything is connected’ universe.
None of this made sense to me while I was stuck in the blocked world. Being blocked left me disconnected from so much, including the true nature of the world around me. As soon as that block between mind-self and body-self was lifted, the connectedness of everything became suspiciously obvious. I called Becky the same afternoon of the big breakthrough day and admitted to her, “You were right.” I said this with playful confidence. However, the truth was that I knew it was way too soon for such firm declarations. What if I come back to earth the next day and see things differently; and realize that ‘connected universe‘ feeling was all a bunch of hooey?
Well, that next day was the same day Tamara ‘sucked sadness from my right hip.’ It was also the same day I could see and feel very clearly how Tamara’s perfectly timed entrance into my chain of life events broke the back of random chance. It was all there, strung out behind me like fallen dominoes. Each one a bump or a nudge to direct me forward…through the looking glass that connects our material world to the instinctual side of existence.
It’s much like nature adjusts and directs the flow of a river over time– sometimes it’s a quiet lean from changing patterns of vegetation….and sometimes it’s an avalanche.
About 24 hours after I’d called Becky to half-confidently say she was right, we had the following short text exchange:
Gary: The “universe is speaking” concept is becoming laughably undeniable. You were not only right, you were a million percent right
From behind the wheel, my mom turns her face towards me, her right arm reaching across the upper part of the seat-back. She tells me she loves me. It’s ordinary the way she says it. How easy for me to tell her “I love you, too, mom.” But I am 13 years old. I am unsure, unsteady, conflicted, angry. I am blocked.
It was typical for me to ride my bike to T.H. Rogers Jr. High, but this particular morning, the one that stands out in my memory more than any other, it’s my mom that drives me to school in our copper-colored big American station wagon. She pulls to a stop at the nearby intersection and I get out from the passenger seat. My backpack is on the seat behind me, filled with heavy textbooks, spiral notebooks, and my lunch. I open the rear door to grab it. That’s when I see her face and hear her saying to me those three awkward words.
Before I close the door, all that I have lived from birth to this moment becomes compressed into a pause of two seconds. She tilts her head, and I can feel her eyes begging me for reflection. She asks, “You can’t tell me you love me?” Two more seconds of heavy silence passes. I close the heavy car door, swing my heavy backpack onto a shoulder, and walk away heavy.
I’m so sorry, mom. I couldn’t say it. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t know what to feel.
No Optimus Prime Time
At this point, we’ll pick right back up from where the last two posts left you hanging. My final words in the previous post were, “Thank you for this day, sweet universe. I don’t understand you. But now I am open.”
What the hell does that even mean?! And then the post just ends.
Friends, followers, (countrymen?), here is what it means. Going from blocked to open was transformative. A bona-fide breakthrough! There’s no way I could have imagined it, either. I have gone through the looking glass that I did not know existed.
[Pause…breathe] I also want to be careful not to overstate what happened on Oct 12th. Those six somatic cycles I went through did not transform me from a car into a six-story tall fighting robot. No miracles occurred. I did not lay down on the futon wearing dark-rimmed glasses and get up 2 hours later wearing tights and a cape. When I say transformative, it’s on the scale of how a person might appear different from beginning to end on an Extreme Makeover reality show. But the cool thing about my “makeover,” is that changes took place on the inside.
To get a true feel for what this transformation really felt like, we unfortunately must first spend more time talking about trauma and what it is to be “blocked” in the first place. The perversely good news is that emotionally blocked is how I’ve been all my life. It’s what I know best. Being open has only been my experience for about two and a half weeks.
But I’ll tell you, the contrast between these two emotional states of existence really pops when you cross over from one side to the other. Did anyone notice that I only began using the terms blocked and open (within this specific context) after the Oct 12th, super-sonic breakthrough? Only after reaching the wider lens of the looking glass could I then turn around to see where I had been. In the post To The Healing Side, (publishedon Oct 10th), I had the concept but used the word “disconnected.” Yes, that is a big part of it as you will see, but blocked paired with open feels much more accurate.
With these concepts revealed to me and the short-hand to describe them, my challenge is now to make blocked and open as clear to you as they are to me.
Trauma, Bury, Disconnect
When a person is blocked it means that childhood trauma has caused them to bury their rightful emotions and disconnect themselves from the feelings of others, and from their own feelings, too.
Notice the italics I have added to the three terms I will be diving into today- trauma, bury and disconnect. Same as the word “inconceivable” from The Princess Bride, each of these words may not mean what you think it means. Let’s begin where the trouble begins, with trauma.
A quick heads up that I will be going back quite often to the terms body-self and mind-self because they are so key to grasping the physiological underpinnings of what it is to be blocked (and then open). Review anyone?
Trauma Is Not So “Bad”
“No House of Horrors” was the subtitle I used for one of the first segments of my post, Breeding Ground for Suicide. Here is how I summed-up my childhood then:
“What’s amazing to me is just how relatively close to center my early upbringing was. There were no alcohol-fueled episodes of physical abuse, no child molestation, no cages, no torture chambers, no material for a future Netflix documentary. The dysfunction in my childhood home was the product of two parents living inside their own blind spots.”
I know the word “trauma” first brings to mind explosions, violence, rape, incest, etc, but I want to make it clear that trauma, specifically childhood trauma, comes in many forms- angry ruptures that go unrepaired; direct (and indirect) emotional abuse; an absence of nurturing love; and willful neglect. My list is not exhaustive, but enough to make the point. Notice, physical abuse is not on the list. That’s because it is additive, not required.
When young Gary both witnessed and experienced these less headline-grabbing forms of trauma without any means of escape, he/I learned to cope. The trade-off was to become emotionally blocked. My body-self was born to scream and cry and love, but when the parental forces around me would not support these natural human emotions, my mind-self had to figure out how to hold the whole of me together. Evidently my answer (and that for males almost everywhere) was to toughen-up, to put a lid on my emotions. This required turning off some chemical “switches” buried deep inside my body.
The next paragraph is one I wish I didn’t feel was necessary to write. It makes it seem like I’m trying to explain sciencey stuff in my blog when a scientist, I am not. Just relax, Max…I am simply passing along something I read about recently, but also quite literally felt. This I will explain after you hear what the science says…
Peer-reviewed, scientific research studies on adults who’ve had trauma in their childhoods confirm there are real-life biological, physical, and identifiable changes that occur within the human body directly correlated to trauma—lower cortisol levels, higher stress hormones, and these little things called “methyl groups” that attach themselves to certain genes, turning them either on or off. Quantities of these measurable physical attributes even correlate to the severity of the trauma.
All this is saying is that trauma affects the chemistry of our bodies in ways that can be measured. But I didn’t have to read this in a book before I knew it was true. The six somatic experiencing cycles I went through on Oct 12th, left me physically feeling changed. [Hey, I’m just telling you what happened.] To be clear, I am not talking about feeling these changes right away. I mean, I kind of did, but I’m slow to trust anything that seems too good to be true, especially while still under the elevating influence of cannabis. However, by days three and four the jury was in. The physical changes were not an illusion or a biased perception. They were just as real as a new haircut.
What kind of physical changes are we talking about? Familiar pains in my right shoulder, right hip and left knee all felt better right away. My body-self was clearly happy to finally complete some full cycles from Danger to Safe, from Anger to Safe, and from Sad to Safe. It was epic!
My right shoulder was especially different. With weights at the gym I do these exercises called shrugs so that maaaaybe my shoulders won’t look so boney. I hang onto a 40 lb dumbbell with each hand and then shrug like I’m saying, “I don’t know” over and over again. If I’m not careful in how I do these lifts, I will feel a crunchy pain when my right shoulder moves in certain ways. After the breakthrough… Gone! [Okay, so that’s not 100% true, but the age-old pains I was very familiar with were reduced by like… a whopping 90%.]
Though the physical changes were quite remarkable, the larger headline font should be reserved for how much different my mind felt- GARY MAKES PEACE DEAL. I am telling you…the literalness of this change is still hard for me to wrap my head around. I had no concept a transformation such as this could be a real thing. The closest relatable feeling I can think of is the one you would experience after learning a piece of good news has cancelled your need to worry and stress; like a weight has been lifted. What is that, right?! Well, the stuff I read about changes to cortisol levels, stress hormones and genes was exactly the type of sciencey confirmation a born skeptic like me appreciates to explain this feeling of change (and change of feeling). In a nutshell, when my direct personal experience is backed up by science, I’m all the way in.
Completed somatic cycles changed my body’s chemistry for the better and I am happy to let that be true.
The day after my super-sonic breakthrough I wondered to myself what I’ll say the next time someone asks me, How are you? I posed the question to myself first and came up with an answer that both sounds kind of humorous and also feels like there’s truth in it. I will say- I haven’t felt this good since I was 3 months old.
Prior to my very first session of therapy in the first part of May, I added a note to my phone with an absurdly long header, “What I Hope to Get Out of Therapy and Questions I’d Like Answered.” In the note I list 13 things. Item #4 relates to this idea of connection. I wrote, Will therapy help me figure out if being “Mr Jokester” all the time is a crutch? Ha! Now I have my answer… Abso-friggen-lutely!
Now that I am open, it’s not difficult to make sense of my own behavior patterns as a person who was pretty dam-blocked. Being Mr. Jokester is not a bad thing, overall. [C’mon, I’m funny sometimes, right?] But my problem was always cracking jokes when the situation called for a higher degree of seriousness and sensitivity. I didn’t care about people in the way I should have. Meaning, I could intellectually care about someone all day long, but what’s always been missing was feeling it.
I can recall a specific moment from when I was 16 years old and working at the beloved (and long-since closed-down) amusement park in Houston called Astroworld. I was working in the “Oriental” section near the Runaway Rickshaw ride when I saw a little boy off by himself, crying and lost. I went over to him, but really didn’t know what to say. Just being honest with you, I felt uncomfortable handling what should have been an easy task. About a minute later, an area foreman named Willie Wamble (Yes, that’s his name) was walking by so I grabbed his attention with a wave and motioned him over. Instinctively, Willie goes straight to the crying little boy and squats down so they are at eye-level. The way Willie speaks to the kid is something I’ve apparently never forgotten. He is so caring and sensitive. He first comforts the boy, then reassures him his parents are definitely looking for him right then. Willie says to the kid, “I’m going to help you, alright? You’re gonna be okay.” Meanwhile I am standing a short distance away thinking, Wow, I could never do that.
Seeing how Willie interacted with that little boy was something I could intuitively admire, but my instincts to do the same were unavailable to me. It’s episodes like this that let me know deep down that something was wrong with me. Being blocked from having normal human feelings not only inhibited my ability to connect with others, but also to myself. It would take me 40 years of cold living, a personal blog of deep psychological exploration, and six months of somatic therapy visits before I would begin gaining access to my own healthy and appropriate human emotions.
Hey! Better now than never, right? What I would really like to do at this point is test my hypothesis. If you happen to lose your small child, let me know and I’ll help with the search. 😉
Sorry Mom…We Got Disconnected
The opening scene at the top of this post is one of my most uncomfortable memories. Reliving this moment hurts now, but I needed to tell the story to show you what being disconnected looks like.
What a far different, more complicated and complete, picture I have of my mother today! If my mom were still alive, this is the conversation I would like to have with her…
Mom, I know the sudden loss of your own mother when you were 13 was a rupture that no one could ever repair. While I never heard much about your father I have connected enough dots to conclude he was an abusive alcoholic and your mom left him when you were around 7 years old. He had a lot of mental problems and spent the last 15 years of his life at the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital in Michigan. He died when you were 25 of pancreatic cancer, but also written on his death certificate next to “Other Significant Conditions” are the words, Psychosis with organic brain disease. I can translate that– Your father was horribly abused as a child.
That was your dad. How about the other men in your life?
I know your first husband (Tommy’s father) was physically abusive, and you left him. Your second husband (my father) was emotionally abusive, and you left him. You had one more significant relationship after my dad with a mercifully kind-hearted alcoholic, but an alcoholic, nonetheless. It took many heartbreaking years, but eventually you left him, too. Your vibe attracts your tribe, mom. You were blocked, and so were all of the men in your life, including all three of your sons… including me, mom. Tommy and Bill succumbed to their inner world of pain, but for reasons I cannot yet understand, I am the son that has survived.
Now I am here to tell your story and connect it to my own. All our family ever knew up until now was disconnection. Well, now it’s time for me to connect.
I do not have children of my own to repair the family’s chain of abuse, neglect, and disconnection. However, I’m writing a blog these days, mom. I think it’s really good. Maybe there’s someone out there that will read it, and it will help them make the loving connections we never could.
More Than Words
One thing you might still be confused about. I say that both my mother and I were blocked, lacking access to our emotions, right? But we all hear my mother turn to me and tell me she loves me. This speaks to the internal battle everyone living in the blocked world faces. Our body-selves crave to feel the love that trauma prevents us from giving or receiving. Our mind-self can intellectually match-up this innate craving to what we know we should be saying and feeling. In short, we try. All our lives, we try. My mother was trying. All her life she was trying.
The understanding I now have of my mother (and every member of my family), is at an all-time high. More pieces of my family’s puzzle are yet to be discovered, for sure. But I’ve got the bulk of it figured out. The bottom line is that we were a disaster of a family. Disconnection breeds disconnection and the painful results speak volumes. All of us, blocked, blocked, blocked.
On a brighter, more positive note, I want to tell you about my mother’s death. [Wait! Don’t smack me. I’m funny sometimes, remember?!] What I’m going to tell you is that the happiest stretch of my mom’s life was definitely the last 15 or so years. She had bouts of depression throughout her life, but I remember maybe only one episode of it in her final decade and a half. I do not believe she ever healed from her trauma, but she certainly worked at it. For that she deserves mad props.
Dam Aunt Sana
Before wrapping up this post about what it’s like to be blocked, there’s someone I’d like you to meet– my Aunt Sana. She was my dad’s older sister and a perfectly pleasant individual, but whoa Nellie, blocked like the Hoover Dam. The family joke was that if Sana came to pay you a visit in the hospital while you were on your deathbed and dying, she would be sure to tell you first, “Well, when I was on my deathbed and dying…”
It was only about one month ago that a few new pieces of my Aunt’s life (and my dad’s) fell into place. The family called her Sana, but her given name was Helen Randolph Breaux. Randolph is a family name intended for the first born son. (It was my older brother Bill’s middle name, as well.) My “female” aunt showed up first but still snagged the name Randolph. I’m adding quote-marks to “female,” because my aunt had uncommonly large dimensions for a woman. She was 5’11” and built like a tight-end. My dad (the last born) was more slender and two inches smaller, like a second-string running back (which he was on his college football team).
It’s a trippy thought, but it’s as though my Aunt Sana should have been the boy, and my dad the girl. Gender identity issues were never discussed over family Thanksgiving dinner, but as I look back, it’s almost guaranteed that my aunt was never able to live life as her true self. I do know she lived into her 80’s, never had a boyfriend/girlfriend, voraciously devoured romance novels, and was a virgin to the day she really was….on her deathbed and dying.
For my dad’s part, to think that he might have been gay, trans, or at the very least, sexually confused, and having to suppress his truest nature, would certainly explain a lot about his awkward personality traits. And also explain the degree to which he was emotionally disconnected from everyone around him. My dad even had quite a few physical “ticks” that I think were a direct consequence of the trauma he suffered growing up. He had this odd, repetitive way in which he would move the thumb on his left hand, like there was a tight rubber band underneath his skin and he couldn’t get it to snap no matter how many times he tried.
Being Blocked Is Soooo Yesterday
Seeing myself in these two examples- the I love you non-exchange with my mom at 13, and also the story about the lost kid at Astroworld a few years later. How could I have been so cold and uncaring? It’s because I literally didn’t possess the ability to connect- the mechanisms of trauma wouldn’t allow for it. Connecting is seeing. And I mean truly seeing another person, taking the whole of them into account when you’re communicating. Being able to feel and reflect-back the other person’s emotions, not just intellectually, but because your own are available to share, as well. That is connecting.
I can see now how my attempts to insert witty comments (to be Mr. Jokester) into otherwise serious conversations were too often a substitute for sincere listening. Frankly, it’s a tell-tale sign of a person who is blocked. Another flavor of this same blocked condition is found in people (like my Aunt Sana) who talk about themselves non-stop. [Oh, you mean like the guy who’s writing this giant blog?] What you are witnessing from people in your life that exhibit this trait in spades is a person who cannot leave their own heads long enough to connect to yours.
The coda to the story about my mother and me is this. Eventually I reached a point in my life where I could tell my mom, I love you, but sadly, while she was still alive I was never able to feel it. Do I feel it now? Honestly, I don’t know yet. Coming into the open world is new to me. [It’s barely been two weeks!] My capacity to love freely is uncharted territory. Plus, great progress on my part does not mean my growth as a person is over. Ha, wouldn’t that be something! It’s more likely that I am just getting started.
So, that’s a lot more about being Blocked. Plus, a little more about what it means to be Open. But we haven’t even gotten to the craziest part of it.
Since this is the second half of a two-parter, you should read part one first, because I’ll be jumping right back into it without much in the way of chicanery. But perhaps one quick shenanigan…. I am one-third of the way through an excellent book called The Body Keeps The Score by some dude with four names and two initials- Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. The book does a groundbreaking job of demystifying all the different types of trauma including mine. To be clear, my explanation of SE (Somatic Experiencing) did not come from this book or any other, it came from me. I was never comfortable with the mysterious “voodoo” aspect of this trauma healing process, so I leaned pretty darn hard on my mind-self to figure this shit out….until I could put it into words I could stand by and present to the world.
(Props also to my therapist, Gabe Schneider- the dude knows what he’s doing.)
Look What I Can Do
The evolutionary distance between my body-self and mind-self will become crystal clear during today’s somatic therapy session. It is Monday, October 12th and I am back at the clinic lying on the futon once again with roughly the same amount of cannabis assisting my brain as the previous week. The music I have requested for today’s session is by minimal techno artist Boris Brejcha. [Good workout music, too. Sample]
Gabe sits in a chair nearby. The music plays. Here I go, back into the depths….
Even after achieving a somatic state on my two previous visits, tuning-in to the right meditative wavelength for my body-self to take center stage remains elusive; it’s like trying to throw a strike blindfolded. After I have been lying still for some time, Gabe gently checks-in with me. I think for a moment and conclude, “I think I might be asleep.” [(The metaphor was unintentional)]
That is the kind of mind-self / body-self separation I actually want to occur. It means I am closing-in on the sweet spot. If I successfully float my mind-self out of the way, my body-self will begin to express the feelings it has been holding onto for decades. I think about mentally “falling backwards” into a blank space. That technique seems to somewhat work for me.
But still, I remain engaged enough to listen and talk to Gabe when needed; and also keep a mind’s eye on any sensations in my body that feel interesting. I’m looking for buried emotions- a nonsensical concept for most. Where is my hurt locker? I don’t know. I watch and nothing comes forward. [This is what being blocked is.] I will have to tease it out of hiding. To the best of my abilities I relax my mind even more, leaving it open to see whatever memory comes to the foreground first.
From the family room, I am looking at the back door of our house on Creekwood. It’s the door my father used to come through after getting home from work. It was also the door he’d slammed over and over again after fighting with my mom. I tell Gabe where my memories are going, but also that I’m not feeling anything in particular. He asks me, “Why do you think that is?” I consider the question, picturing myself at the house in scattered scenes of me at home with my family. I sense where this is going and feel that sadness is nearby, but my mind-self holds on to its control. I hear myself speak these words as I might have thought them when I was six or seven years old, “Because I’m the smart one.” There’s a long pause that hangs in the air, and sadness comes closer. Gabe acknowledges me with a, “Hmmm,” then repeats my words aloud, ’Because I’m the smart one.’ My chest begins to shudder, and my breathing shortens. “Yeah,” I utter softly.
The body-self I can rightly call “I” speaks in the only language it knows and I begin to shake and quiver from head to toe.I sloooowly curl up my hands into fists and draw all my limbs in closer to my body. The atmosphere- the yelling, the anger. How wrong it all was, and scary, too. Goddammit! I tighten-up even more, my breathing, too. I should have been pissed as hell. I should have screamed back at my father, “Stop it, Dad! Stop exploding like a madman. I see you yelling at my mother. I see how you treat my brother. What the fuck is wrong with you?!” I protrude my jaw and tremble all over. But I am the good kid, I am the smart one, the angel of the family. I can never say ‘Goddammit!’ I clench my eyes hard beneath my mask. I’m 4, 5, 6, 10, 14….you thought I would NEVER yell and scream like you! Well, sure as hell I’M SCREAMING NOW!!! I squeeze down into my body as hard as I can, until I just can’t go any further. THIS IS FUCKING BULLSHIT!!! I finally give in and allow myself to breathe bigger, slowly heading towards a state of relaxation. I am safe now.
Holy frijole, what just happened? This is a somatic experience, folks. It probably lasted 1-2 minutes long. So picture me there on the futon, moving through all of this in super slow-motion….with Gabe nearby for guidance and support. Here’s the instant replay in case you missed it:
I begin to shake and quiver from head to toe.
[Gabe: “Stay with it.” “Let it build.”]
I slowly make my hands into fists and draw all my limbs in closer to my body.
[Gabe: “See the legs coming up.”]
I tighten-up even more, my breathing, too.
I protrude my jaw and tremble all over.
[Gabe: “Notice the jaw tightening. You’re doing great.”]
I clench my eyes hard beneath my mask.
I squeeze down into my body as hard as I can, until I just can’t go any further.
I finally give in and allow myself to breathe bigger, slowly coming back down to a state of relaxation.
I am safe now.
[Gabe: “Notice how things change as you relax.”]
Wait! What?! Where did all the other stuff go…? The part where I’m standing up for myself. Um, yeh…well, here is the real noodle-twister. The words written further above, the more “complete” version, that is me today speaking on behalf of my nervous system several days after the fact. And also 35-50 years after the fact. I am filling in the blanks based on memories of what it was like to be me…the smart child growing up in the breeding ground for suicide on Creekwood.
You see, during the somatic experience, none of that talking back to my father was ever said, not out loud, and nowhere in my thoughts either. My body-self nervous system is not capable of expressing itself in words, only in physical actions. Cycling-through a somatic experience is completely silent. My mind-self is thinking stuff like, “Okay, Gary, just let this happen. Don’t get in the way. Geez, this feels weird. Am I doing this right? How much longer? Can I stop now? Maybe I should hang in there. It doesn’t seem like I can squeeze much more. How do I know when this is over?”
(By the way, writing this section has provoked a somatic response. I am trembling inside.)
The experience I describe above was the first of three meaningful “hot waves” my body cycled through during the 2 hour session. Each wave is built upon a different realization, some thought that clicks into place and makes so much internal sense that my body-self feels liberated enough to give physical expression to whatever emotion it’s been holding onto (be it sadness, joy, fear or anger). For me, it’s mostly been bottled-up anger. Afterall, I had 5,000 reasons to be pissed off.
There is no need for me to detail every hot wave I cycled through. I don’t even think I can remember them all. But I’ll tell you that the third one sure seemed like it was extra-strong. So much so that when my body-self got through it and I was relaxed again with my frontal cortex fully back online- meaning I had left the somatic and meditative states of being and returned to the room. I sat up, removed my eye mask and told Gabe, “Whew! That was a lot!” He smiled excitedly and said, “Yeah, you did great.” My response back to him was something like, “Sure, but oh man! I kinda don’t want to do that again.”
In the immediate wake of a powerful session like this one, I’m aware that it’s waaaay too soon to be talking about future sessions. And besides, as I would soon find out, I wasn’t even done cycling through more emotions this same day.
Free Them All
I am still quite elevated from the cannabis as I gather up my belongings, say good-bye to the futon for another week, and relocate myself to the “recovery room” nearer to the building’s entrance. Driving home now is out of the question. I don’t even park my car in front of the clinic. Instead, I leave it in a lot next to some softball fields about 1 ½ miles away to ensure a logistical buffer for myself.
The recovery room is devoid of comfort. Maybe they don’t really want clients hanging around for too long; there’s not even a chair in it. The one thing it has going for it is a lumpy mechanical massage table. I’m not interested in turning it on today, so… with only two choices- massage table or floor- I lay down on the lumps to burn off some time. But think about it, a lot of big stuff just happened in my regular session. I have a lot to process and integrate- the term therapists like to use. I am both physically exhausted and still elevated like Cheech & Chong put together.
As soon as I lay down on the table and close my eyes, my nervous system says its game on; immediately I descend back into a meditative-somatic state of mind. While my mind-self coaches from the sideline, my body-self runs the plays. I have three additional hot waves.
Alright Alright All Right
Exorcising the burden of childhood trauma is a topic many Hollywood movies have depicted. It’s typically the most dramatic and pivotal scene of the movie where the main character visits their childhood self and tells them it will be alright. Good Will Hunting and Rocketman (the recent biopic about Elton John) are two movies that did some version of this effectively. But I don’t know, man. Seems so cliche to me, maybe even corny. I just can’t imagine myself crouching down and hugging my child-self. Sounds lovely, but I just don’t see it happening.
….until it happened.
On my third hot wave in the recovery room, and my sixth one of the day, I drifted down deep into my psyche, somewhere in between mind and body, and searched for little Gary. I looked for myself at different ages. I wanted to find him at just the right point in time, before he started to harden, before the person he was born to be had to become someone else in order to block out all the pain he was surrounded by.
One of my earliest childhood memories, vivid to this day, is sitting on the floor in front of our Zenith tv and watching the first moon landing. I was 4 ½ at the time so that’s around the age I needed to look.
Found him! Looks like he’s a smart kid ;-). I need him to be, because I want him to understand and hold on to what I have to say. In my thoughts, it’s like I was putting a hand on his right shoulder. I told him, Hang in there, Gary. You’re gonna make it through this. You’re gonna be alright.
Instantaneously, all time collapsed. What I said and what I heard, me- the child I was and the adult I am, the one now sitting up on the lumpy massage table, shuddering and crying out tears of joy and relief. Yes, the whole of me heard the words– Gary, you’re gonna be alright.
Thank you for this day, sweet universe. I don’t understand you. But now I am open.
“You know me. You’ve known me for a lot of years. If anyone in this world is grounded, it’s me. And that’s not gonna to change. I’m telling you this in advance, Boris / David / Maria / Vanessa / Double-D / Rob / Isaac / Wels… (and you, too, Greg). I need to say it now because… If I go down some weird path and find out there actually is more to it all, I need you to stick with me, okay? I’ll need you to believe me. I mean, this is Gary speaking. Whatever it is I might discover up ahead, you know I’m gonna keep it real either way.”
To be precise, I did not literally have this identical conversation with every person in my orbit (but you know who you are). I also want to really emphasize the timing. This is what I was saying way back in February, before the Covid shut-downs, before therapy was even a thought in my head (much less somatic therapy), before I’d decided to sell my house in Austin, leave my job, and begin a new life in Spain, before the blog, and way too long before I ever knew childhood trauma even had a healing side.
For whatever reason, however, I had a strong sense then that something was on its way. Perhaps I would discover some curious insight from tripping on mushrooms or LSD. You know, mystical-realm type stuff. As it turns out, however, neither of these substances have had more than a tiny influence on me at all. I never actually did a whole lot of either, just some timid doses here and there. So far, my experiences on that front have given me nothing much to report. Hey! I am keeping it real!
And with that as your set-up, let’s start our fully-grounded mind-bending adventure towards understanding what it means to be blocked.
In this post and the one that will quickly follow, my goal is to make some keep-it-real-world sense out of “SE” -somatic experiencing- that freaky-ass voodoo stuff I’ve finally been able to access in my therapy sessions. Turns out there is a logical explanation for what goes on during a somatic experience. And it’s not voodoo after all. [Still pretty freaky though.]
I will be using a couple of fresh new terms that I’ll need you to grok (FULLY understand) for my thesis on SE to make sense. The terms are body-self and mind-self. What I am doing is deliberately simplifying the body-brain-mind package into having only two parts. Trust me, it will work for this purpose. The body-self is the primitive, nervous system based part of you that would still be there even if your frontal cortex, home to your mind-self, was removed. Throughout my explanation, body-self and mind-self will align with: nervous system and frontal cortex; ancient and modern; squirrel and human. You’ll get why adding “self” to body and mind is so important as my explanation unfolds.
There’s A Nerve Cell In My Soup
Imagine yourself attending a casual dinner party for eight where seven of the guests have been close friends since birth. It’s awkward immediately because you arrive late, but it gets even worse. Much of what goes on at the table- the inside jokes, the subtle digs, the knowing looks -will be lost on you.
Keep that feeling in mind, but switch out the characters. Let your nervous system be one of the friends that’s been there since the beginning, and your frontal cortex be the new guy, able to see and hear the conversations, but with scant ability to pick-up the unspoken queues and greater context of the stories being told.
I think this analogy is useful because… when we go diving into the body-self’s primordial soup, the stuff from which our nervous system cells got their start, all of the elemental forces of the universe were already sitting at the table. Inside the tiny little microscopic bodies of whichever multi-celled creatures eventually evolved into us, nervous system cells are there to aid in survival. These cells of ancient origin cut their proverbial teeth on all variety of invisible signals coming through the ambient that modern iterations of our brain are not specialized to detect or interpret in the least.
We observe examples of animal “intuition,” such as when they run for higher ground before a tsunami approaches. For the animals themselves, they are simply catching a vibe that says danger and heading somewhere they feel safe.
What does any of this have to do with SE? Hold. HOLD..! I’m getting there.
At the truly primal level of existence there is no seeing, hearing, or smelling, but there is feeling. And that feeling needs only two modes to operate in. As I’ve already hinted, I will label them Danger and Safe. I could have chosen 1 and 0, On and Off, Alert and Calm, Rupture and Repair, or any other two terms with similar import. But Danger and Safe are good choices within the larger context of my particular type of trauma. Also, in case it’s not obvious, 0, Off, Calm, Safe… this is the default mode we need to be in to thrive. Danger Mode is where we go when we need to survive.
To bring it all together… our nervous system (the body-self) knows danger and safety at the most basic level our universe has to offer, but that knowing can be overpowered and controlled (think suppressed) by the highly adaptive and ever-dominant frontal cortex (the mind-self). When I was a child “trapped” in that house on Creekwood, hiding under the bed, waiting to get a spanking from my father for reasons I could not make sense of, my nervous system was switched into Danger Mode while the rest of me was trying to figure out how to cope.
But here’s the clincher. That house on Creekwood was a breeding ground for suicide. I lived in Danger Mode. Even when my dad wasn’t around, I didn’t feel safe. What if I did something, broke something, for example? My dad might find out and then what?
It’s so funny to me seeing how a squirrel will bounce away at the most innocent change to their environment, i.e. me walking down the sidewalk. Their acorn-sized brains (so ironic) are dominated by the ancient nervous system where Danger and Safe modes are most of what they have to work with. But that’s okay. The beauty of the squirrel is not just its fluffy tale and oh-so-cute face. The brain of a squirrel has the effortless ability to scamper back and forth between “Danger, Will Robinson!” and, “Yeah, I’m cool…and cute.”
If only I could have switched back to Safe Mode. Instead, my adaptive frontal cortex had to find a way to tamp-down my nerves by controlling and suppressing the emotions I deserved to be feeling- particularly anger and sadness. In my childhood of 5,000 ruptures and zero repairs, turns out my body-self never stopped keeping score.
This left me blocked, unable to truly connect with people, to patiently listen, broadly see, and intuitively feel the universe around me and know my place within it. Fortunately for me, the story does not end there…
I feel like this is already a lot to digest, so I will stop here to give us all a chance to breathe. Look for the fascinating second half in just a couple of days, when I’ll go from Blocked to Open. It’s a supersonic ride!
Ethan and I stand towards the mirror. Dave is a few feet away, facing us. Covid keeps us all in masks as we begin learning the basics. First, Dave demonstrates exactly how to stand, shift weight over the feet, punch and protect. I’m watching with interest as Dave talks, but also eye the signed posters of boxers trained by Dave hanging on the walls. I make note of at least two yellowed newspaper clippings, encased in frames. I’ll look at them more closely later.
One at a time, Dave coaches us on how to take-on a stable boxing stance. I go first while Ethan watches. Red tape on the floor marks off a large “plus sign.” Being right-handed, it’s actually my left side that aims towards my opponent with my left foot placed in the top-left quadrant, my trailing foot planted wide to the back-right. I’m no fighter, but I’ve come into this gym today with the intention of facing all those moments of my life when I should have been. As best I can, I adopt the posture per Dave’s instruction. My fists are high, placed almost in front of my face, elbows-in to guard the body. In front of a wall of mirrors, I stare straight into my past and feel the enormous power in simply standing with my fists up. Dave and Ethan have no clue of what I’m feeling on the inside. I am bristling.
Never in my life have I set foot inside a boxing gym before. Same goes for Ethan, though he was on the high school wrestling team five years ago. The way Ethan is talking it seems like he’s trying to become an amatuer boxer. Me? My therapist suggested it could be helpful.
Dave owns the Front Range Boxing Gym, a minimally converted army barracks hidden at the end of an industrial office park. He is also the gym’s trainer. Every newcomer automatically gets a 60 minute intro-to-boxing lesson from the man himself. Dave is not a big guy, not very tall anyway, but he’s stout. You can visually see that Dave’s biceps and triceps have been put to good use throughout his 70 years. When Dave demonstrates how to throw a punch for Ethan and me, his strength, quickness and power have scarcely diminished since his fighting days.
When we learn how to combine punches, Dave shows us a combination of moves and then has us practice it through a few times. Ooof! It’s not easy. I’m struggling to get my legs to move and slide in rhythm with my punches. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Dave has to correct me several times, and starts speaking slightly faster and louder. It’s a left jab, right cross, then two more left jabs, with the feet moving in rhythm. I am trying to get it, but can never quite hit the mark. And Dave’s frustration ticks up one more notch.
After owning Dave’s attention for several minutes, it was Ethan’s turn. Oh nooooo. If I was bad, Ethan was 10 times worse. Since he used to be a wrestler, his stance is waaay off- his upper body’s too low for a boxer. Dave corrects him, once, twice. What am I seeing? A wave of familiarity washes over me. I see Ethan struggling to get it. In him I see my brother Bill, less coordinated than me, more nervous, not able to follow dad’s instructions. At one point Ethan steps forward when the combination Dave just talked about requires a side-step to the left. Dave’s frustration bursts into the open with an audible grimace, his full body twists around to the right as his arms move like he’s tossing a heavy weight. It’s a big gesture that carries Dave back a full step. His body has exploded with impassioned anger.
Much Needed Repairs
But then the most amazing thing happens. Less than a complete second later, Dave turns back towards us with one palm in the air, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” he says, bringing up the second palm. “I don’t mean to be hard on you.” One of his hands comes down onto Ethan’s shoulder. “You’re doing great. You’re doing great,” he says twice. I see Dave’s eyes above his mask, which has momentarily dipped below his nose because the elastic is getting old. His other hand comes to lift it back into place. Dave’s eyes- I see them smiling. His mouth, it’s covered. But his eyes…they smile with a playful warmth when he looks at each of us, apologizing again. He is genuinely embarrassed for losing his composure. It is Ethan and I that end up reassuring him that it’s no problem. We know he’s only trying to help.
In the parlance of psychology what I had witnessed is called a rupture. Dave’s frustration got the better of him when young Ethan wasn’t able to get it. Dave lost his patience. But what followed was an expression of regret, kindness and nurturing; something I had never seen from my own father. It’s called repair.
I talked about the incident with Gabe, my therapist. He gave me the language for what I’d seen. As he put it, “If there are 5,000 ruptures, you need 5,000 repairs.” I could easily glance back into my own childhood to see 5,000 ruptures from my father, the man whose flesh and blood produced my own….and zero repairs.
I don’t know much about Dave or his life’s story, but the compassion he demonstrated that day towards Ethan (and towards me, as well), was more powerful than any punch he’d ever thrown. Dave had the intention of teaching us the basics of boxing, but unknowingly gave me a lesson in something far more important– rupture and repair. I will never forget it now.
Maybe one of these times I visit the gym I will get the chance to talk to Dave about topics unrelated to boxing. If the moment ever presents itself, I would like to put my hand on Dave’s shoulder and tell him, “You’re doing great, Dave. You’re doing great.”
Give Me Just One More
Welcome to the first of five “final” posts of the 1 More World blog. Yes, after these five there will still be more down the road…since so much story remains. I am 55 years old and restarting my life in Spain; you bet I’ll be writing about it. But the central story of the 1 More World blog has been my 1000 piece puzzle, and that one is mostly solved, both externally (Search for the Pearl) and internally- as you will read about below and in the next posts.
Real slowly. There are some mind-benders in this one.
Childhood is a world unto itself. Blessed are those who grew up in a world of love and safety. Unfortunately, this is not the experience of many people. This was not my experience. As my childhood gave way to the next world, the one where we have to be adults– who I became, the decisions I made, the relationships I had, and the happiness and joy that I missed, all have roots that extend back at least three generations (at a minimum!). Uncovering truths, connecting dots, and healing from injury is the path that has led me to believe… After childhood trauma and the adulthood it shapes, healing has the power to open up one more world. And this one I will live on my own terms.
This post will have several embedded links in it. Use them to pick up the backstory, if needed.
What Has Therapy Done For Me Lately
The third Monday in September I arrived once more for my appointment at the Innate Path clinic on Holland Street, another of the weekly visits I’ve been going to for 5 months. Forty minutes prior, I chewed-up 15 mgs of cannabis in a form that closely resembled a Sweet-Tart in size, shape, and even the tangy taste. Gabe greets me at the door as always and I begin following him towards the room in the back-right, where all of our previous sessions have taken place. But today, Gabe suggests we try a different room, a larger one with a futon-style couch in it instead of a lounge chair.
Every session with Gabe since the beginning of May has been me doing drugs (either cannabis or ketamine), putting on an eye mask, lying back in the lounge chair, and attempting to access a somaticexperience. Despite my never having achieved this mysterious state, it was still true that interesting things were revealed by nearly every session.
Oh yeah? Like what?
In a plot twist everyone saw coming…. this blog you have been reading is the what– THIS IS the therapy, at least the non-somatic part of it. The central story-arc of this blog began with the sixth overall post- Puzzle of a Thousand Pieces -and a scene from my childhood where I find my half-brother Tommy moments after he commits suicide. It begins with these two short sentences:
“I cannot remember my brother’s face. I was six years old the last time I saw it, and blood was everywhere.”
With this for an opener I am clearly not writing a “travel blog.” From that post through to this one I have strived to pick apart the hidden forces that have shaped my life and share them with world.
I am also expressing my basic human need to be seen.
Rock On A String
In the week before my first somatic experience I’d been thinking a lot about a recurring theme throughout my life– not feeling understood. My relationship struggles with Jessica consistently centered around insurmountable failures in our communication. But the deeper, richer, and more troubling reasons for those failures stayed hidden from me until just a few weeks ago. The revelation I’m about to share with you may be the largest piece of the entire 1 More World puzzle. This idea, this thought, these dots connected, are closely related to a very specific an unwanted physical feeling, too.
When Jessica and I struggled to communicate, stress would show up quickly in my stomach. We didn’t even have to be actively disagreeing for me to feel it. It would just be there, hanging like a rock on a string inside my core. When I couldn’t communicate with Marianne (the neighbor), that same familiar physical sensation roared and rumbled. In truth, I can now look back at my entire life and recall the haunting presence of that rock hanging there within me, swinging and tumbling every time I failed to truly connect with someone.
I was out for a walk when the revelation hit me. [In the area where the above photo was taken.] The epiphany was so deep and profound, I stopped walking and put my hands on my head. Now it made sense- Jessica CAN’T understand me. There is much more, but please pause here and absorb that what I mean is quite literal. Look at my broken left pinky finger in the pic. After an injury I could no longer straighten it. If you ask me to….I simply CAN’T. My ability to extend it has been taken away by the trauma my finger suffered long ago.
Jessica has been a hugely important and special person in my life. We first met in our late teens. She was my first girlfriend (on and off) for about 2 ½ years, until we finally broke up completely and went our separate ways. For the next two decades plus two years we had no contact until one day the universe placed us back into each other’s lives. This time our (mostly amazing) relationship lasted almost 10 years. In the latter stages, when I knew deep down something wasn’t right, I searched in the darkness to explain the psychological bond that certainly existed between Jessica and me. I never found it until now.
Jessica’s elemental connection to my parents and to me is ironically disconnection. My dad was totally disconnected, unable to see the anguish of my brother’s six-year old face when Bill struggled to read the clock. My mom was disconnected, too. When her first son (and my older brother) Tommy committed suicide, my mom was both unable to see it coming or cry after it happened. Jessica, the most enigmatic character in the story of my life, for her own complicated reasons, was never able to see me. But OF COOOUURRRSSEE this is not just on her, attentive readers, nor is any of this her fault. I, Gary Breaux, was unable to see beyond my own protective wall, as well, and perhaps even more so than her. I was living my life just as disconnected and unable to love as either of my two parents. Holy shit! This is big stuff!!
And what about that feeling…..about that rock in my stomach that tumbles on a string when I am not being understood, not being seen, and not being loved? I will need to find that rock because it will be the key that opens the door to my first somatic experience.
I promise we’re getting there. But first please indulge me a rant on why somatic therapy is such a challenge.
Restricted Access Only
The brain and the nervous system are really one and the same, connected no less than the roots of a tree to its trunk. And imagine how the tree first begins to grow from a seed, it’s always the roots that emerge first. In a similar way, our nervous systems are the roots of our-selves. In evolutionary terms, the frontal cortex of our brains- the ivory tower where all that smart thinkin’ happens -is the youngest, and our nervous system is as old as the earliest trees.
To say our nervous system is buried deep within us is exactly right. From our towers on high, we tend to think of our bodies as being somehow separate from our minds. No way, Jose! Body-brain-mind, we are one organism. Of course it’s all connected!
The whole aim of somatic therapy is to access that primitive body-brain circuitry (the body-self) and let it do what it needs to do. That is the freaky-ass-voodoo part I still don’t get. But those sciencey types have figured out that when we experience intense threats to our safety, and fight or flight options are not available (like when we are kids), our body-brain-mind system devises alternative and usually unhealthy ways of coping. Cutting to the chase- when ruptures go unrepaired, our nervous system- our body -will hold on to that trauma until it can be dealt with safely.
Not So Fast
So, how exactly does an emotionally-restricted knucklehead like me access my body? The 1-2-3 answer is that I go to a clinic that specializes in this type of therapy, I ingest cannabis- a chemical compound that lowers the barrier to achieving this result, and then I try over and over again (for umpteen weeks) to close my eyes and mentally zoom-in on parts of my body that might be sending me vague “signals.” Meaning anything that feels tight, twitchy, colored, warm or cold, or pretty much any sensation that seems to stand out. From my earliest sessions in late April all the way up to when I finally had a genuine somatic experience the final week of September (next two chunks below), it was most frequently my right shoulder that seemed to have something to say. I can only imagine what could be in there.
Last aside before the good stuff. For all of my efforts, I still have no idea what the hell I’m doing! This is uncharted territory. Exactly what I am looking for when I descend into a meditative state is unknowable in advance. Am I doing it right? I don’t know. It’s an obstacle course in the dark. But perhaps the biggest challenge of all comes in realizing the best mental pathways into the body’s nervous system typically run through the emotions a lifetime has been spent suppressing.
Now let’s get rollin’….
On The Futon River
Today’s session begins like they all do with Gabe and I engaged in roughly 30 or so minutes of preliminary conversation. As we talk, I feel the edible sweet tarts begin to colour my brain and body. I’ve done 15 mgs worth of edible in previous sessions, but what’s different today is that I also add two 5-second draws from the vape pen. [Yes, vape pen. That’s a side-story I’ll be sure to circle back to in some future post.] This is the highest dose of cannabis I’ve ever done.
Ready to be settled, I place the eye mask just beneath my frontal cortex and fully recline my body, placing a small cushion under my head. Whoa! The cannabis is really getting strong. Gabe steps out of the room to grab a bluetooth speaker- a background of flowy music can sometimes facilitate this process. By the time he returns, my mind is already starting to enter my body. I say out loud, “Just to let you know…I’m really rolling right now.”
I distantly hear Gabe say something encouraging before he takes a seat. The music comes on, I take a few extra full breaths, and begin to go deeper….and deeper.
In addition to thinking and having memories, the mind-expanding powers of cannabis enable my brain to create an array of visual representations of my body based on the subtlest of impulses emanating from my tissues. Remember that 60’s era sci-fi movie where a shrunken crew of explorers goes on a journey inside the human body? Well, it’s sort of like that but with a random storyline and in color (and with faaaaar better special effects).
The physical sensation of not being understood (my rock on a string) was a challenge for me to mentally conjure up during a session. Gabe’s core function as a therapist is to see and understand people, so I wasn’t going to recreate the sensation by talking to him. I would have to use my mind.
Slowly, things start to happen. My mind begins to flow from the pebble I manage to find in my stomach up to something in my right shoulder. A muscle fires within it causing me to twitch one time. A few moments go by and Gabe checks in with me, asking where I am right now. I tell him I’m paying attention to my shoulder; it seems like something’s there. He says to keep watching it. It twitches again. And then again.
Cracking the Code
Holding a gaze with the eyes is easy, but directing one’s mind in a single direction for any length of time is not. But I stayed focused as best I could. Another, larger twitch, pulls both shoulders in for a blink. The spot within my right shoulder seems to be growing. Slowly, slowly… I allow myself to tense up.
There is a progression to what I am experiencing and my mission is to keep leaning into it. Starting also around my right shoulder, a low-level fizzy sensation begins bubbling up within my limbs. At a very hushed volume my body begins to quake and quiver, like trembling, but different. It slowly grows louder. Even in this state, I think about how I might express what is happening in words. [After all, I’m a writer.] The physical manifestations of my nervous system’s release of energy continues to grow until the random vibrations I’m feeling bring to mind what it’s like to ride a city bus as it rumbles and shudders down a old street.
It’s all getting weird but I’m intent on staying in the moment. I feel a growing internal pressure to take a deep breath, but I recognize it in real time and resist. That’s how I’d always coped with the emotions my trauma conditioned me to avoid. This is the critical moment- a big deep breath is how I would normally hit the reset button, how I would push the volcano back under the ground and avoid deeper emotions. My breathing quickens as I tense up, but I am able to consciously override the urge to make it go away. I remain on course; even thinking to applaud my own self-awareness while it’s happening. Holy crap! I am so fully present!
At some impossible to define stage in the progression it somehow feels like I’m all the way in. I’ve done it; I finally cracked the code. I am having a somatic experience. Gabe knows I’m in it and tells me I’m doing great. To be clear, all the while this physical stuff is taking place, I am still me. It’s not like I’m unaware of my condition. In fact, I am hyper-aware of it.
The number of minutes this goes on is difficult to say. Maybe between 3 – 10? Or was it 15? Guesses are all I have. Once I had “cycled through” the somatic experience and I was back into the room, taking my eye mask off, I felt mildly bewildered but also content. I had broken through.
Through to what, is an answer I don’t yet have.
I began this course of therapy knowing I had stuff to work on. The internal notion that something isn’t quite right has been with me all my life. In Life As Compost, I tell you about my brother Bill’s deep and desperate desire to remove the dark burden of trauma placed upon him growing up. He never got the help he needed to escape that burden and killed himself with a handgun 10 years ago.
For whatever reason, the universe had different plans for me and I’ve managed to survive; and even do quite well by some objective measures. However, I know in my bones I carry unwanted burdens. And I know there’s a love that is missing. I’ve never been able to maintain a healthy relationship, and worse…I have deeply wounded others along the way. For this I am profoundly sorry.
So, what of my therapy? Is it working? Have my burdens all been lifted? Am I a new man? Yeah right! You know as well as I do it doesn’t work that way. It’s a process with an undefined beginning and an end that never fully arrives. But, I will say this….
Take a second look at my broken finger. You see how it rises from the fingernail to a hump at the knuckle where scar tissue has formed around the injury. It then slopes back down to connect with my hand and the rest of my body. If my broken finger can be a stand-in for my therapeutic progress, sloping upward is the injured side, and that will always be there, but….
A few days after my first somatic experience, after I’d visited Austin and said goodbye to my house, after I’d come back home to Boulder and digested all that has taken place just in the past couple of weeks alone, the leaves of fall and I were changing. For the first time ever I caught myself wondering if I’d made it over the hump. Then a faint breeze swept through my interior. I know there is a lot more work ahead of me, but something within is telling me… I now live on the healing side.
I am super proud of the next three posts, especially. Forward!!
My puzzle of a thousand pieces is nearly completed. I speak of both the analogous one and the one lying flat here on my table. Only the blue and white sky remains unfinished (for now). Based on the image, do you know what city is depicted? I will be moving there in 2021.
The world is my oyster. It’s such a strange and opaque phrase. I am appropriately embarrassed to be using it here but it sure seems fitting as I plan my future. The term has its origins in Shakespeare so it could have five additional meanings, but I’m going with: All possibilities are available, including the chance of finding a pearl. This is pier on which I stand, looking far beyond the shores of America. The world is my oyster. I now search for the pearl.
What an indulgent thought experiment it was. After my decision was made to live abroad, a world of possibilities unfolded before me. Once I had mentally escaped the gravitational pull of my home country, I was suddenly free to float about the spaceship. I could then gaze down upon planet earth from my window and choose where I would like to land. It was exhilarating, liberating. So many grand and exciting places to choose from: Rome, Paris, Istanbul, Sydney, Moscow, Shanghai…. Where in the world shall I live?
I could have taped a map to the wall, put on a blindfold, and thrown a dart towards my future, but that’s not my style. I’ve come too far to not think it through– to interlock more pieces of my puzzle until the right answer emerged. Just as I had arrived at so many other life-altering conclusions in this crazy year of 2020, I would have fun working this where-in-the-world conundrum, too. In a way, I was going home-shopping, but not for a roof and four walls (that comes later); I was shopping the world for a place to call home.
One of the best things about living in Boulder as I do now is the climate. Having lived in Texas my whole life up until two years ago, this climate is new to me. And frankly…what’s not to like? The lower humidity is awesome and, even at the peak of summer, the day’s heat is swept away by the cool night air leaving every morning fresh and chill. More of this, please. So, as my search for a city began, climate was the first consideration. From there I wrote down on a piece of paper all of my critical must-haves. After all, I want what I want, right?! Besides a cooler climate, here’s what else topped my list.
Clean air. I work in solar. I own an all-electric car. It pains me to drive around Denver for work and see that murky dome of pollution hovering over it. Such a downer. Yes, clean air is super-important to me.
English or Spanish. Pretty early-on I decided to limit my search to countries where either English or Spanish is the dominant language. in moving abroad, I’ll have enough going on already to add a language barrier to the mix. Also, though my Spanish is “functional” now, I’ve always wanted it to be better. The thought of making a new life for myself in a Spanish-speaking country is something I find quite appealing.
Small-to-mid-size. In a much earlier blog post (2017 Reboot) I talked about living half-a-year with my friends in Modesto, California. One thing I really liked about Modesto was its size. Not too small, not too big. Size-wise, it was just right. With this in mind, I would focus my search on cities of comparable size- 150,000 to 300,000.
Affordable. Since I was aiming for a lifestyle where working would be optional, I had to focus on cities that scored low on the cost-of-living index.
Quality Healthcare. C’mon! Need I say more?
Low crime. Once I started looking at websites that ranked cities based on all sorts of criteria, I found crime rate indices, too. Ah, good go know. Instantly, low rates of crime became something I would be looking at.
Key criteria in hand, I still didn’t know how to go about conducting a world-wide city-search. “To the Internet!” was naturally my rallying cry. But the internet is a big place. Where would I begin?
Ask A Librarian
I have a longtime family-friend who happens to be a librarian. I called Becky Rose and asked for help. While my question didn’t land directly in her research wheelhouse, she was still able to direct me on to a couple of websites that ended up being quite useful. As an example, here is one of them: numbeo.com
I never found any site that did exactly what I wanted, which would have been to neatly present me with a list of all of the highest-rated cities filtered according to my must-haves. The tedious reality was that I had to hunt, peck and compare cities around the world until I spotted a few places that merited a closer look.
I should also mention that my own chops as a fairly accomplished world traveler (1WorldAtATime.com) gave me a good deal of personal experience to draw upon. Cities like Quito, Ecuador; Santiago, Chile; London, England; and Vitoria, Spain, were all thoroughly considered at one point or another in my search. I have personally spent time in each of these fine cities and think very highly of all of them. However, determining whether or not they became finalists depended solely on how well they matched up against my search criteria.
Conversations with friends who have done their fair share of traveling were also hugely influential. One particular city in Spain called Salamanca was put on my radar after a lifelong friend (David King) told me about the wondrous time he’d spent exploring this small city in western Spain many years ago. I had never heard of this city before, but it ended up becoming one of my finalists.
One city that ranked very high in my search criteria was Montevideo, Uruguay. It has the climate I want, a low cost of living, clean air, a competent healthcare system, and all the rest. Even when I took a deeper research-dive into Montevideo, it remained a great candidate. I read expat blogs, joined a Uruguay Facebook Group for expats, and even had an hour-long Skype conversation with an Austrian retiree who’d been living in Montevideo for the past 5 years.
What I learned is that folks who choose to move to Uruguay sure seem like they’ve got it figured out. It’s a nice life. And so far away from the world’s problems. What ultimately steered me away from Uruguay was that…while it’s a great place to retire, it would be a hard place for someone like me to earn money. As I explained in the previous post, my personal financial resources should provide me with the basic I want what I want lifestyle without having to work. But I just can’t embrace the mind-set of “retiring.” I want to continue working in the solar/renewables industry… assuming they’ll have me.
One other thing that kind of turned me off about Uruguay. From what I gathered, Uruguayans are not very “driven.” They live a super chilled-out lifestyle and that’s the way they like it. No one’s in a hurry. No one (of course I am hugely generalizing) is clamoring to do first-rate work and get ahead in life. Coming from America I thought this might be a little too much culture-shock. Granted, I should expect to make some attitudinal adjustments wherever I’m going, but bounds of reason, right?
The Puzzle of A Thousand Pieces Comes Together
To the six faithful readers of this blog- the ones who have been there from the beginning and read every post with genuine interest. And to all the rest who have caught a glimpse of my musings here and there…. I feel joyous in telling you:
I am moving to Spain. I am moving to Salamanca, Spain.
What a moment this is! I am taking a deep breath now. Getting myself to this point has been such an awesome intellectual, psychological, and literary journey! Of course, my story is far from over (since I am both not dead and haven’t physically gone anywhere yet); I’m just saying the journey from the Puzzle of a Thousand Pieces post to this one has already been epic.
Yes, I will continue to blog as I move forward with my plans. In terms of the central story-arc of the 1 More World blog, however, just a few more posts remain.
Before leaving you today, please grant me a few extra words to tell you about my new city of Salamanca (population est. 150,000), and to thank my friend David King for bringing this spot of earth to my attention. Salamanca is a beautiful ancient-world city located less than 2 hours west-northwest of Madrid by train. Despite Salamanca’s 2000 year old history, it stays relevant today by being a “university town,” home to the University of Salamanca fighting salamanders. [Okay, I made that last part up. I don’t actually know what their school mascot is.] The University of Salamanca is notable for being the third-oldest continuously operating university in the entire world– founded in 1134!!!
I have been to Spain on two different occasions but never to Salamanca. I’m so looking forward to it.
The next four posts of the 1 More World blog are SUPER-interesting. Keep reading!
Only three posts left in the 1 More World blog central story arc! Can you believe that? We’ve come quite a long way since I launched this blog on June 30, 2020. There are still several more key puzzle pieces looking to be set into place. And money is one of them.
My house in Austin went on the market late August. I am so fortunate to have received several good offers right away. So….SOLD! Closing hasn’t occurred yet (as of this post), but it’s scheduled for next week.
Hard to Say Goodbye
Two days ago I returned from a short trip to Austin to tend to my dear periwinkle house one last time. I had to quickly sell, donate, and throw out, all kinds of miscellaneous items, large and small, that were still in the house, mostly in the garage. For me it was emotional to the hilt. I cried a lot. No, like…A LOT! Wednesday afternoon, I had the honor of doing a walk-through with the new owner. I am profoundly sad/melancholy about passing along this house that has been such a big part of my life but also feel really happy about the new owner. I think she’s going to take great care of the place for years come.
My last few minutes with the house were meaningful. I walked slowly through the house from back to front. In every room I paused to reflect and remember. I saw each of the cats that lived there over the years from my first cat Shelly to my mom’s last two cats Sam and Kera. I listed in my head all of the people that lived in the house at one time or another. I even thought of the hundreds of Airbnb guests that house has hosted, as well.
When I stepped into the empty bedroom where I’d slept my first night ever in that house some 32 years ago, I was overcome. I walked my body over to the location where my bed was positioned and crumbled down to the bare floor. I let the tears flow. The moment was deeply emotional. Not all that I felt was sadness, just heavy, complicated, raw, living, human, emotion, spilling out into the room. Whatever it was, I tried to let myself just feel it.
Right after the night of the avalanche back in April, I dove headlong into researching whether or not I might have enough net worth already to pivot my entire 55 year old life towards a fresh new beginning somewhere else in the world. That’s what this post will be about– the money, honey! I will share with you how much I have and my thought process around planning out this last stretch of my life. I will get into some detail below, all without revealing my new city, country and continent. You won’t have long to wait for the reveal, however. It will be in my next post.
Whenever I’m talking about my “net worth,” most of it (two-thirds) is the value of my house. Whatever strategizing I did on how to achieve my bright new fresh and exciting future was built upon when the house would sell and for how much. Now that I am so close to selling it, I can tell you that everything is going according to plan.
Sometimes it takes a while. 55 years is nothing on the cosmic scale, but in my life… it’s everything. That’s how long it took for me to know myself well-enough to identify a “lifestyle” that has a pretty good chance of making me happy. I’m calling it “I Want What I Want.” Before you recoil in horror at how simultaneously arrogant and obvious my declared lifestyle choice sounds, make sure you know what it means. I touched upon this briefly in an earlier post so I won’t retread the same ground here. Just know that I want a house with a roommate, quality cookware, and enough money to make choices at the grocery story without having to stress too much over items that tend to cost a little more…like pecans.
Specific purchases aside, the I Want What I Want lifestyle means I can just be myself. I am not a fancy guy with expensive tastes, so living simply but comfortably without having to stress over money is all I’m really talking about. I think it’s within reach! A little further below, I’ll get into specifics, but first some background on me and money.
Not a Fan
Just being honest with you, I am no fan of money. It’s a means to an end, of course, but if I can avoid being bothered by tending to it, all the better. I was the child of a depression-era father. Do you have any idea what that was like? The constant energy he spent worrying about money created a walk-on-eggshells atmosphere for all those around him. Me not giving a shit about money now is how I am balancing out the equation. Having said all that, I do have a degree in accounting and, occasional minor missteps aside, I am generally capable of handling the basics of money when I need to; I would simply rather not.
As a little kid, I saw my dad go off to work every day wearing his Haggar slacks, button-down shirt and tie, and those polished black dress-shoes. He must have earned a good salary as an engineer for Brown & Root. We owned the house I grew up in, a rental house on Seminole Street, and even a (primitive) bayhouse down near the Texas coast where we’d often spend our weekends. Financially speaking, my dad did well. And yet the Great Depression never allowed him to relax.
Just as the person I am today is traceable back to the environment I grew up in, I suppose this was no less true for my father. He would have been 10-13 years old while the Great Depression wreaked havoc on daily life in the US. At least with me, he never talked about bread lines or soup kitchens, or how his out-of-work father might have yelled at him for leaving a light on, or taking too much time in the shower. I guess my dad didn’t need to talk about his experiences during the depression; he revealed them on a daily basis through his over-the-top, high-volume, angry rants over money and not wasting a penny of it. Within the walls of my childhood home, the Great Depression never ended.
Steve Says To “Buy The Best…”
By the time I was in my mid-to-late teens and earning a paycheck of my own, I started to de-program myself from my dad’s extremist mind-set towards money. Eventually, I went hard in the opposite direction, but it was a process- an evolution that spanned years. Money is a devilish frenemy. Figuring out your relationship to it requires some genuine life-experience.
To be clear, I am not saying my dad hoarded money so I am now a spendthrift. My dad was simply an unbearable cheapskate. I’d prefer having less stuff to buying cheap. Steve Pasco, the late husband of one of my oldest friends, once told me his motto when it comes to buying stuff. He said, “Buy the best and you’ll never be disappointed.” I love that phrase and have repeated it to myself and shared it with others many times ever since first hearing it.
Like nearly everyone I know, my own financial situation has been precarious at best for most of my life. It’s only been since my late 40’s that I’ve been able to breathe easier. In 2012 I inherited about $170K from my Aunt Betty. Over half of this money was from her IRA and not readily available to me without paying unwanted taxes on it, which in some cases it made sense to do. All in all, this money helped me get a solid handle on my financial circumstances for the first time ever. Of the original inheritance I received from my aunt, I still have about $75K left.
By the way, my father– the man that spent his whole life figuratively hunched over every dollar like a miser –died with only a couple thousand bucks to his name. From the “estate” I received around $450 for being the beneficiary on one of his depleted investment accounts. The fascinating corollary to my dad’s depression-era preoccupation with money is that one of the ways he chased the dragon of financial security was that he gambled. Whether it was the stock market, investing in coal mines (yes, coal mines), playing the lottery, or taking trips to Las Vegas, my dad was enamored by the thought of one day “striking it rich.” A few of his investments turned positive over the years, but far more of them did not.
Tim Mullaney, my newly-found financial advisor, is an interesting cat. My initial consultation with him over Zoom was scheduled for 11 am on a Monday. I was ready early and waiting with high anticipation for 11 o’clock to roll around. 11:05… 11:10… 11:15. I watched the minutes proceed and my phone was not ringing. It’s our first meeting, how could he not be on time? 11:25… 11:30. Maybe I have the appointment set wrong. Or are we having time zone confusion? I double-checked everything. I was in the right place at the right time, so where was Tim? I texted my friend Vanessa, the one who had recommended I talk to him. By now it’s 11:40 or so. Vanessa says she’ll send him a text. Another couple of minutes pass and finally Tim calls. His voice is gentle. He apologizes, telling me he was with another client and their meeting went long, which is kind of what I figured, but still…. Then, seeing how my own initial conversation with Tim lasted nearly 4 hours, I understood how he prioritizes his time and why his approach to clients sets him apart from nearly everyone else working in the financial services industry.
When I told Tim I no longer wished to live according to a set of rules I had no say in making….and that I wanted to start living life on my own terms, he was fully on-board. This was something Tim figured out a long time ago in the aftermath of his 22 month old daughter’s diagnosis with leukemia. It was a multi-year long ordeal where Tim learned a painful but invaluable lesson about accepting things that are outside of one’s own control. He also learned the flip side of this— recognizing that many things in life are within our control….if we choose to take the wheel and drive with intention.
Tim’s daughter Kelsey survived her battle with Leukemia. She is now 26 years old and doing well.
Despite Tim’s apology, my guess is that he wasn’t truly too bothered to have been 40 minutes late for our first appointment. He was helping a client. That was Tim’s priority. These are his terms. #RESPECT
After my own initial marathon conversation with Tim, I was feeling more positive than ever I was on the right track. Regarding the big question- Is a little over a half-million dollars of net worth enough for me to achieve my I Want What I Want lifestyle? While not answered until our third or fourth conversation. I will skip ahead and just tell you it looks to be a YES!
In our society (and in most societies around the world), you just don’t talk openly about money. Well, not my rules; I’m so going to spill the golden beans. Really, here’s why. I figure my story has the potential to be instructive to others. If I’m not open and honest about the real-life dollars involved, suddenly there’s nothing for the next person to latch onto and relate back to their own financial situation, be it more or less. Plus, I can’t be the only one in the world in their 50’s that’s been motivated to go to work every day on blind inertia alone…only to have it dawn on them during a night of high-flying revelations that there might be another way.
Knowing if $550K is a big enough number for me to achieve my I Want What I Want lifestyle, I first had few things to figure out. If not in America, where would I be living? Once I had that answer narrowed down to two locations, I was able to make some round-number estimates of how much it would cost to resettle myself into either of these two new-to-me countries. My estimate had to include living expenses for the first year or so it might take me to get settled ($50K), money to put down on a four bedroom house ($110K), and money to furnish it to my liking ($20K). Included within my furnishings figure was enough money to set up an Airbnb at my house, too. While I had no great confidence in the accuracy of any of my estimates, what I did have was a starting point.
Assuming I could pull off the above I still had to think about my ongoing monthly expenses after getting settled. Here’s the way I thought about it. How much would I need to cover all my basics- housing, transportation, healthcare, food, and some modest extras like eating out occasionally? I called this the I Want What I Want- Basic, and started out estimating $2K per month. The thought was that if I were able to afford the Basic without working, this meant every extra dollar I might earn from a job would go towards I Want What I Want- Premium. Meaning, I would be able to afford some “splurges” like extra travel or perhaps even a car. When I talked to Tim about breaking it down like this, he equated the Basic to a paycheck and the Premium to a “playcheck.” With this scheme I would be incentivized to work, but –knowing that all my basics are covered—free to pursue whatever type of work floats my boat; it would all be gravy at that point.
I started out with an estimate of $2K per month for the Basic. This figure assumed my monthly housing expense would net down to about $600/month after considering my plan to have both a roommate and income from the Airbnb. However, by the time all the numbers were crunched, I found there was room for me to bump my monthly living expense budget up to $2,500.
So, here’s the high-level summary of my working plan: If I can walk away with $360K (or more) from the sale of my house in Austin I will set aside $110K for a down payment on a future house. (I’ll tell you why this figure is so big in the next post.) Another $125K will be placed into a 10-year investment, with the remaining $125K plus the roughly $75K I already have in savings put into a more liquid investment vehicle for me to live on (or use for contingencies). I am currently 55 years old so my challenge is to bridge the gap between now and when I can begin drawing on social security. I will rely on Tim’s expertise to handle all “investment vehicle” details, but if he says, “Can do,” imma doin’.
After the night of the avalanche I was excited and hopeful my plan to leave the US and begin a new life elsewhere was indeed possible, but I was not confident. By the time I had developed my estimates and talked to Tim several more times over the span of a few months, my blind hope grew into wishful confidence. Quite a while back I told my workplace I had plans to resign. I am still working my job at Sunrun today- training the new guy that was hired to replace me. My last day will be next week.
It’s happening, folks. I have a lot to feel good about right now.
I am a middle-aged white male in America and I cannot find my tribe.
A soul-crushing level of racism exists in America today, and it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Why aren’t there more people out there that look like me saying it? I don’t have enough brainpower to understand how any person who is not grossly misinformed or just plain dumb, cannot see what I see…right in front of our faces…all the freakin’ time– RACISM. And yet it’s my experience that very few people truly understand and accept the full picture of racism in America. Where are my people? I ask this with all my heart.
Yes, nearly everyone is a racist to some degree. Of course we are! The air we’ve all been breathing our whole lives is polluted with racism, so it only stands to reason. Your chances of growing up in a truly racism-free environment are miniscule, at least in this country [though I don’t wish to invalidate the possibility]. The United States has a 400-year history of racism. Did it end a few years ago and I missed it? Not by a long shot.
If your defenses go up because of the truth-bomb I am hurling at you, stop, drop ‘n roll with me through my explanation, starting with how I define it. A “racist” is anyone who has a race-based hierarchy of value lodged somewhere inside their head. I know Ido. I couldn’t avoid it. None of us can. And when I say lodged somewhere inside the head, I’m saying it’s certainly in the subconscious, and for the unabashed racists it also lives smack-dab in the frontal cortex.
Thinking of yourself as someone who carries around racist ideas is a scary thought-bridge to cross– but it’s one that leads to a more comprehensive understanding of racism. Crossing that bridge is uncomfortable. By doing so you admit to being this thing you’ve (hopefully) spoken out against your whole life– a racist. It’s not easy. Perhaps this is why my tribe is so small.
No Escape from Everywhere
Maybe you think you’re saying all the right things already, so crossing over the I-have-racist-thoughts bridge is not something you feel is necessary or that you’re comfortable with yet. Would it help if I show how you became a racist in the first place? (without your knowledge or consent, btw). The key is first understanding that the consequences of racism are everywhere. No hyperbole, not figuratively, literally EVERYWHERE!!! You have to get this. As a writer, this is what I want leaping off the page. Once more my firm proposition is:
The consequences of racism are everywhere!
If you find yourself unconvinced by this truth, but are willing to consider the proposition, I welcome your attention. My tribe would love to grow. But, if you just flat-out don’t believe it and will never believe it, you are definitely not in my tribe. You are in a tribe of the grossly uninformed or dumb, and I’d love to see your numbers shrivel.
The 10X Diff
Let’s start from today and work backwards. Maybe then you will be able to see racism, not for what it is, but for what it has done. According to a 2016 report from the Brookings Institute, a ‘think tank’ [such a pretentious term!] that is committed to doing independent research, the typical white family in America has a net worth of $171,000. The typical black family has a net worth of $17,150. Just let that sink in for a second. That’s a 10X difference! Now ask yourself Why?
One of two things is going on, take your pick. Choose A, B, or both: A) People with black skin are not as good at managing life as those with white skin; B) Racism is everywhere– from individuals to institutions– and those with black skin are put at roughly a 10X disadvantage.
C’mon, man! If you hesitated between A and B even for a second, it’s a prime moment to pause and look-inside for any racist notions you may have lurking. Make a mental note and let’s keep the discussion moving forward. And just so we’re a billion percent clear… the answer is B and only B. Yes, racism is EVERYWHERE. It’s so damn obvious, people. 10X Diff!!!
Are we on the same page now? No? Not yet? No worries. This is big stuff. We’ve all been so thoroughly conditioned.
Born of Pure Hearts
Babies are not born racists. I was not born a racist! But with racism being everywhere (review answer B, above), one cannot escape its impact on the subconscious ←That’s the key ingredient! The polluted air of racism is so prevalent, your brain begins to code the 10X Diff world as “normal.” It’s like getting used to an odor you are exposed to for a prolonged period of time. After a while you don’t smell it anymore.
Understand, I don’t ever need to have experienced individual or institutional racism directly for me to have been shepherded by its existence. Since I’m white, I benefited. But if I had been born black, that shepherding would always have me at a disadvantage. That 10X racial difference is what we get when the “invisible hand” of racism (personal and economic) operates unchecked across multiple generations. What I am also saying is that we don’t have to be raised by racist parents or surrounded by racist friends to internalize certain notions about how the world works vis-a-vis race. I grew up in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood and went to predominantly white schools from K – 12. For the entirety of my school experience I don’t recall seeing any clear signs of racism. Why would I have? I was benefiting from the 10X Diff world of racism the whole time. The clear signs were all around me. I grew up in a real-life holodeck that was and continues to be racism’s creation. God I hope that makes sense! If this concept is not quite gelling for you, I’ll elaborate on more of those signs in the next segment.
Since the 10X Diff model of the world is all we’ve ever known, and every breath we’ve ever taken is racism-polluted, those on the whiter and wealthier (they often go together) side of the 10X Diff, can look straight at blatant examples of real-life racism and still interpret them as isolated incidents. That stuff just doesn’t happen in their world. This is how some people can watch video after video of the police treating black citizens as if their lives don’t matter, and still not recognize that what they are witnessing is racism in the flesh. Yes, police departments all across the US are filled to the brim with white racist cops that value black lives either a little less or a lot less. Or not at all.
But don’t think for a moment it stops at the cops. Again…it’s everywhere. Though I’m betting heavily there is a higher concentration of hard-core racists in law enforcement than in other professions. [Even the FBI agrees.]
Finding That Confounded Bridge
The level of intensity and depth of stupidity of a given person’s racism places them somewhere on a range, a spectrum, a scale that slides from worst-of-the-worst racist to birds-of-a-feather biased. Someone who grows up in a super-racist, low-information environment might have it really bad. On the flip side, growing up racist sometimes propels people to reject that way of thinking as garbage. Luckily for me, neither of my parents espoused racist language or sentiments. I don’t want to give them too much credit, but it’s even possible they consciously steered me away from such notions. I was 3 years old in 1968, the year many historians regard as being the most racially divisive and socially tumultuous year of the modern era (until 2020). My parents sided firmly with the movement for civil rights, thank goodness. I have a lot to complain about when it comes to both my parents, but this is one area in which they didn’t screw me over.
Is there some hope that 2020’s impact on today’s parents will lead them to consciously steer their children a little further away from racism? I desperately hope so. Perhaps this will be 2020’s silver lining.
Even though my parents did their part, think of all the racialized influences that existed outside of their control– segregated neighborhoods and schools (like mine), notoriously racially-biased local news, even restaurants where the front-of-the-house is white and the back-of-the-house is not. These are all cognitive influencers and I could list a thousand more of them. In the end, racist notions were still getting lodged inside my head all through my childhood and far into adulthood, too.
Wherever you are on the spectrum of racism, the route to more fully “getting it” begins with acknowledging the two things I’ve talked about at length now. One, we are all bound to have racist notions buried deep inside our subconscious. And two, we are all living in a racism-constructed world. If you can get these two things and see how they work together, you will have crossed that bridge and can then look back to the other side and see the 10X Diff world with more clarity than ever before.
Here’s one quick but revealing personal example of how insidious racist notions can percolate to the surface when you least expect it. I was doing some traveling for work last year and I had just taken my seat on a plane. A few rows behind me a baby was crying, and I mean wailing like their diapers were on fire. I didn’t turn to look right away, but when the crying continued for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, I finally twisted myself around to check out all the fuss. In the midst of all the majority-white faces on the plane, a black man stood in the aisle cradling his crying baby, adding some bouncy motions for good measure. A thought-flash darted through my head, chased by a faint negative impulse. I thought… figures.
Wait! What?! Figures…? Why? Why did that thought ever slink through my noggin? It’s a dad caring for his crying child. Holy reveal! The racism buried inside my polluted subconscious had just showed itself. Yes, I caught the micro-aggressive bastard-thought red-handed, but I’m admitting to you: it was there!
Thankfully, I’m on the “lighter” side of racism, presumably because of how I was raised (or maybe because I once thought, Maybe I’m Jesus). Either way, perhaps it’s easier for me than it is for others to own up to racism and recenter myself when needed…and even lean myself harder in the anti-racist direction too. But tragically, there are hundreds of millions of Americans who are not on the lighter side of racism and will deny (on a stack of bibles even) they harbor any racist thoughts to begin with. And they live among us. And many of them are cops…
For decade after decade and decade….people of color in America have been telling stories of police abuse, and of racism in many other contexts. It’s a perversion of common sense to believe they’re all lying. We shouldn’t have to see it from someone’s camera phone to believe it.
The more I hear stories about what it’s really like to be living while black, the more sensitive and aware I become about the topic of racism as a whole. Aware meaning also– self-aware. These days I know enough to identify my own corrosive racist thoughts when they occur. But now imagine if I didn’t have this self-awareness, or far worse, if I deniedthat I was holding onto any racist notions in the first place. How easy it would be for me to say or do things (without even knowing it) that subtly or bluntly serve to uphold the 10X Diff world we live in. It’s practically guaranteed. Without that awareness I might just act…and the racist thoughts lodged inside my head would go out into the world unchecked.
If you are not there already– ya know, able to think it through like I am– I urge you again to tune-in to your own racist notions, as uncomfortable as that might be. Exposing the insidious race-based hierarchy of value we subconsciously place on every racial category of person we encounter is how we begin to recognize what’s really going on around us. It’s how we gain the upper hand on racism.
We aren’t going to fix it, folks, but we can grow our tribe. If we grow strong enough, we can pound away at the moral arc of the universe until it finally submits to being bent towards justice…yes, for all. We’ll know progress is being made when 10X becomes 9X becomes 8X and so on.
There is one perfectly appropriate idea that would facilitate a trend in that right direction….
The Highest Hurdle
Present-day events have brought racism in America into stark relief. Meaning: the state of being distinguished by contrast. From non-stop in your face what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it killings of unarmed black men and women by police, to the BLM protests that have erupted in response, from police brutality towards protesters protesting police brutality [so ironic], to counter-protesters….to rioters, disingenuous agitators, complicit media, dishonest pundits, all the way down to online fighting between strangers, and then in-person disagreements among (soon to be former) friends. The flash-points we bear witness to today are a portal into the greater reality of racism in America (and around the world for that matter).
When I take a wide-angle view, I see the through-line that runs from the slave ships that left the shores of Africa hundreds of years ago to the multitude of racial inequities we are currently mired in.
The issue of unequal treatment of black citizens by police is only an exposure point today because of cell phones. It’s been going on for centuries but now we can all see it with our own eyes. It is no less clear than it was when uniformed white men on horses were swinging their batons at marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965. That through-line screams at us daily. If this has made you deaf to injustice, you are not in my tribe.
YES, I’m going to talk about reparations. And not fake reparations for the sake of political theater. Real reparations in pursuit of justice. Justice that looks a lot more like a 1X diff when we compare our net worth’s, 1X when we grow up in our predominantly mixed neighborhoods, 1X when we send our kids to our predominantly mixed schools. Reparations. How ‘bout it? In my tribe, it’s not even a close call. There’s no need for further debate. A huge debt is owed. And if reparations are what we call repayment, so be it. Let’s study it, let’s figure it out, and let’s make it happen. We’ll never get over the hump of racial injustice in America until we do.
If you have never read The Case For Reparations, by Ta-nehisi Coates, read it. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, until you have taken the time to read this lengthy treatise on the topic (published in 2015). Read it first, then come at me. Until then, we’re not having a discussion because you have no idea what you’re talking about.
I am under no illusion that America will EVER make reparations to right our wrongs. Racism is so firmly entrenched in our society that I’m sadly confident public opinion on the subject won’t ever budge. Money controls our government anyway and the reparationist lobby (if there even is one) doesn’t have big checks to hand out to politicians. I am truly afraid that racial injustice and inequality will never end. This leaves me deeply saddened, angered and disgusted. And I pray to be wrong.
If you are not in my tribe already, well, I certainly cannot join yours. If you are in the tribe that thinks all this talk about racism is overblown, or, for example, is convinced police brutality towards citizens of color reflects the actions of a ‘few bad (and racist) apples,’ you undoubtedly live inside a protective bubble where your daily life is untouched by racial tensions. You are the fish that is asked, “How’s the water?” And responds, “What water?” People of this tribe will always deny being racists themselves, too. In addition to lacking self-awareness, part of their denial stems from the fact that their racial comfort zone is rarely if ever breached. Their lives on the upper-end of the 10X Diff scale of net worth are structured so that any racist notions lodged in their subconscious can remain comfortably stowed away.
If you are in my tribe, where are you? It seems the air is so polluted with racism we can’t even find each other. Please make yourself known; I need to pass along this torch. You see, I will not be living in America much longer. As 2021 begins, the winds of change are taking me to foreign shores. It is my choice to be leaving America and racism is not the reason. However, is it part of the equation? Yes it is. Same as with my other “political” post, Down Goes America, I would not have included these topics as part of this epic blog if they were not relevant to my story.
My final thought. The 10X Diff world that divides us today is racism’s unjust creation. Justice first. Then peace. No justice. No peace.
Wow! This was a tough one, folks. I learned a few new things just from the process of writing it, too. I thank you so much for reading.
That we ever met in the first place was the luckiest chance meeting of all time. It will make you wonder how many potential life-long friends surround us at any given moment, yet we so rarely find them.
I was running the 4-mile loop around Austin’s Town Lake from Mopac to 1st Street. On the north bank to start, then back on the south. If either of us had chosen to run in the other direction that day, or started at a different time, or run at different paces, this chance meeting has no chance.
Four miles is a relatively short run for me so my pace is strong. As always, there are quite a few other runners on the trail, each running at his or her own rhythm. On the last mile of my four, just after passing the gazebo at Lou Neff Point, I begin to catch-up to another runner that’s just ahead of me. His pace is only slightly slower than mine so my approach is very gradual. At the point I am even with him, just before passing, this random runner speaks. He has an accent and is clearly in an exhausted state from his running, but says clearly, “Excuse me…,” he takes a couple of breaths between each set of words… “would you mind….. ….if I finish my run with you?……. …..I am running 18 miles today….. …… and this is my last one.”
“Sure, no problem,” I reply, quite out of breath myself. Nothing more is said in the way of conversation. After running 17 miles and working on mile 18, this man is in no shape for talking. I know what long runs are like. With each incremental mile, staying motivated becomes increasingly difficult. I am glad to help this stranger keep up a strong pace to the finish. Together, we make the final turn onto the Mopac foot-bridge and run it all the way back across to the north bank. Once finished, I give him a high-five and sincere congratulations for completing such a long run. He introduces himself as Boris, and thanks me for running with him, adding with a big smile that it really helped.
Little did I know, I was living the origin story of my life-long friendship with Boris Padovan.
Only later did he confess the real reason he asked if I would run with him. For 17 of his 18 miles nobody had passed him on the trail. When he heard my footsteps coming towards him from behind, he had no more strength left to increase his pace and prevent me from overtaking him. He concluded only two choices, let me pass him and spoil his perfect record on the day, or make me into a friend and finish his run unbeaten. I am forever grateful he chose the latter.
Despite his russian-sounding name, Boris is pure Italian, born and raised in the lovely, but remarkably little known northern Italian city of Padova. When I met him on the Town Lake running trail in Austin it was during the short, 10 month window Boris stayed in my city while fulfilling part of his doctorate program at the University of Texas at Austin
I introduce you to Boris because part of his story has blazed a trail in front of me. By the end of this post you’ll understand what I mean. Here is the true story of the Golden Boy, the Drunk and Boris.
Note: ‘Cause I don’t want no trouble, and the Internet can be a thorny rose, two of the names were changed, one of them for especially obvious reasons.
Antarctica is a harsh, barren landscape of snow, ice, craggy rocks and penguins. But for a few special souls it screams of adventure. In 2009, my good friend Boris Padovan applied to be a crewmember at Concordia Base, a French-Italian research outpost located at the very bottom of the Earth. If he were to get this job it would mean spending a full year at the most isolated and remote research facility on the planet. Imagine the ice-planet Hoth from Star Wars, absent the Tauntauns. For the crew of 12 hearty (and crazy) souls there was only a small window of time each year to fly personnel and supplies in and out safely.
What a thrill it was when Boris learned he was one of three finalists to be the Information Technology Specialist on the upcoming year’s crew. To narrow the candidates down to one, Boris and the two others would have to undergo a rigorous, near two-week, military-style training program run by Italy’s version of the US Navy Seals. And these muscle-bound studs don’t mess around!
As the training begins, Matteo, Stefano, and Boris, are meeting for the first time. Matteo shines with confidence. He is both charismatic and good-looking. His golden hair falls around his tanned face, almost reaching his shoulders. Whenever it swings in front of his eyes, he is comfortable brushing it away at just the right moment. Maybe Matteo is not the brightest of the three (he doesn’t even have a degree), but he knows how to tell a good story, rides a bad-ass motorcycle, and wears a short necklace like he was born with it. Truth be known, Matteo is cool and easily liked by everyone.
But something is slightly amiss. When Matteo shakes hands to greet both Stefano and Boris, he cannot hide his surprise. He was unaware until that moment that any other candidates were being considered. We know this because, perhaps stupidly, Matteo drops a comment indicating the recruiter had told him the research position in Antarctica was already his.
To my friend Boris, what Matteo gives away is an unexpected and devastating development. Later on that first evening, Boris does his own quick bit of research on his laptop. What he finds is that Matteo has already been working for one of the four centers that make up the Program for National Research in Antarctica (“PNRA”). Matteo knows the people that will be making the hiring decision; he has already been working with them. Matteo, with the long golden hair and tanned face, has it all. He is not only cool, charming, and handsome, he also has “connections.” Matteo is the chosen one, he is the “Golden Boy.”
Stefano, the third finalist, is quite another story. Short, stocky, and with a thick black mustache straight from the 70’s, “Stefano” is the acronym for “Matteo.” Instead of charming he is socially awkward, always two beats behind everyone else. Stefano makes the inappropriate jokes and never finds the right moment to let out his oversized laugh, which those nearest to him opposed due to his chronic bad breath. When Stefano speaks, those standing nearby glance at one another to silently say, What’s up with this guy? And it doesn’t stop there. As the training gets underway, suspicion quickly grows that Stefano may be concealing a flask for his vodka. Stefano is “the Drunk.”
As the realization around Matteo sets in, Boris is not happy, but he is also not a quitter. After coming to terms with Matteo’s status as the odds-on favorite for the position in Antarctica, Boris chooses to be fully-engaged in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with Italy’s finest soldiers and strives to show them his best.
Training takes place early-winter at a vast military base in the Italian Alps and focuses primarily on survival skills designed to test the candidates’ mental toughness as well as their physical strength and endurance. All essential qualities the winning candidate will need to possess.
The Heavy Wait
Despite the hard truth that Matteo is destined for the position, Boris has trouble giving up all hope that maybe some miracle would lead to him being chosen. Once the training was completed and Boris is back at home in Padova, he has time to reflect on his performance. While Matteo found a slight edge when competing in tests of physical prowess, Boris very much held his own. As one might expect, Stefano the Drunk did not shine at any skill or task. Boris certainly did! Especially when the challenge at-hand favored intelligence, it was Boris that always scored the highest marks.
But would this be enough?
It is mid-morning on a Friday when the recruiter calls to let Boris know who has been selected for the crew. Boris is in the middle of working, a boring IT job at a bank (and one he is eager to part with). He recognizes the caller ID on the vibrating phone lying next to his mouse. Every nerve suddenly rushes to full attention. As he answers, Boris walks to a quiet area of the floor to take the call…carrying his heart in his throat. The verdict comes as no surprise but still lands a thunderous blow to Boris’ dreams of an arctic adventure- Matteo was chosen and Boris selected to be the first “reserve.” The recruiter explains how difficult a decision it was, but Boris knows the truth. The verdict favoring Matteo had been locked into place long before all the pageantry. Honestly, now the whole thing is just a pisser.
It would take a few days for Boris to mentally and emotionally come to terms with the disappointment. Taking full stock of his life in Padova led him to conclude…it wasn’t so bad. He was surrounded by his close-knit family and a network of beautiful friends, all of whom loved and supported him completely. Boris had been doing a lot of distance running during this time and looked forward to competing in some upcoming races. His weekly karate training was a consistent source of solace and reassurance. There was even a new girl he’d recently started dating that perhaps had some potential. Regarding his career, his professional development, that was the one area of his life that lagged. Boris needed a win in this category and he’d just been handed a heavy loss. Perhaps next year he would re-apply to go Antarctica. Ha! Such a long ways off….anything can happen.
Break A Leg
Five days prior to the date Boris would have departed on his journey to the South Pole, Matteo speeds through the Italian countryside on his crotch-rocket…on his way to the PNRA office in Bologna. He needs only to sign the final set of documents binding him to a year of service at Concordia Base. Some rain had come through the area that morning and the roads were slick. All the charm, charisma, and connections in the world could not keep Matteo’s tires in place around one particularly sharp curve. Instead of signing his PNRA contract that day, Matteo is rushed to the hospital by a passerby to have his broken leg re-set and surrounded by a cast.
The following day Boris’ phone rings. It’s the recruiter from PNRA…
It’s been three weeks since he last spoke to her and a lot has already changed. Boris has a new job lined-up that will begin in the Spring, things with his new girlfriend are starting to heat up, and broken dreams of Antarctica have faded into the background. But now, a twist in the road and a broken leg turn Boris’ world (almost literally) upside down. If he agrees, the adventure of a lifetime could begin in… [HOLY SHIT!!!] …five days.
This is NOT how it was supposed to be. As the recruiter talks, panic is not too strong a word to describe Boris’ side of the call. This is too much. There is not enough time to get things in order. Boris will not be anyone’s marionnette. As diplomatically as he can, Boris asks for 24 hours to think about. It is agreed.
But the seas around Antarctica are subject to many storms. Early the next morning, six hours prior to the 24 hour deadline, the phone number from PNRA rings once again. Boris instinctively rises from his cubicle and starts walking to the where he can speak privately. The recruiter says, “We had a meeting this morning. Your departure date can be extended by another week, but we need your answer in one hour or the second reserve will be contacted.”
You Must Go
Boris sits on the fence. Something just doesn’t feel quite right. He has the sense of being manipulated, out of control. Fear sets in. Poor decisions are made in haste, and now he has one hour to make the biggest decision of his life.
From Boris’ own journal, I share the following excerpt [translated from Italian]:
“I didn’t know what to do anymore. I tried desperately to get in touch with someone, with my family. I called home [to the landline] but the curse of a busy signal blunted my call. I didn’t want to be seen in a panic and went to lock myself in the bathroom. What blackmail! ‘You have an hour to decide, then we’ll have to call the other reserve.’ ‘Either December 16th or nothing.’ Fuck off! This is not the case with the lives of others. We are not puppets. I have decided, I’m not leaving, I’m not going anymore. I’ll tell them to shove it. Soon I will start working here for Infocert as they promised me and I will build my life as I have been trying to do for some time. To hell with remorse. I won’t have any, or at least I’ll drive it far away and bury it too. Damn the South Pole!”
Boris calls home… and calls again. With 15 minutes remaining before he owes an answer, his call finally goes through. His mother’s voice is soothing, wise, pragmatic and caring. She says decisions should not be forced upon us from the outside. If making this decision in an environment of haste only serves to terrify, the answer must be no. She states her piece and then hands the phone over to Boris’ father.
His words catch Boris by surprise. As he speaks, there is a heaviness to his voice. A lifetime of hard work and toil replaced his own dreams long ago. As a young man, how many adventures did he sacrifice for the sake of the family farm? Or was it some inner fear that had kept him from exploring the world he read about in books or saw on the movie screen? What remorse lay buried in his own past?
“Boris,” his father says firmly, “You must go.” Boris listens through the phone but sees clearly his father’s face- his graying hair, the wrinkles around his blue eyes. “This is a goal that you have been chasing for many months, a dream of a lifetime. It is the kind of adventure you have always wanted and now it is waiting for you. This train may never pass again and now it slows for you to get on board. You must go.”
Minutes later, Boris has the recruiter back on the line.
One final excerpt from Boris’ journal:
“Our life is a stormy sea and we are on board a miserable little boat that goes where the current wants. Our free will and the control we exercise over any situation only orients the rudder and unfurls the sail. We go where the current goes and where the wind blows. My winds were blowing strong from the North to the South.”
Much has happened in the decade since Boris spent a year at the South Pole. Today he lives in St. Gallen, Switzerland, about a 6-hour drive from his family’s home in northern Italy. He’s married to a Chinese wife he met while living in Perth, Australia, and has two incredible young daughters (that will grow up speaking four languages).
In my last post, I revealed that I plan to leave America, to move away and make a new life in some other part of the world. Arriving at this decision isn’t due to any one thing; it’s mixed, complicated, nuanced. But without question, one huge factor is that I feel inspired. Boris’ story encourages me to not be afraid, to be open to new challenges and opportunities. And to let the currents and the wind carry me onward to my own new adventures.