Times for more pics from my trip to Turkey. Even though there is much history there is also much going on today.
I just spent two amazing weeks in Turkey. Thought you’d like to some of the insanely cool pictures of things I did. I traveled with my wife, Mother-in-law and Brother-in-law to visit my wife’s sisters family.
Things That Were
My favorite part was seeing and touching the things that were. 2000 year old ruins.
I have a few issues in my life. I have no doubt you do as well – we all do. My issues, however, have recently disrupted my life fairly significantly. This blog lay unattended for many months as I began grappling with them. My issues are part of my story, and I’d like to share piece with you. Of course, doing that will be a bit of therapy for me, but that’s not the point. The purpose in sharing here is to discuss how we can shape our own reality, change our own life, by how we choose to tell our own story, and especially how we choose to tell it to ourselves.
Exactly one year and two weeks after my mother died, my father followed her to the grave. She died on January 18th, 2002. My father was sick at that time as well, and as the year progressed, it became obvious he was going to lose his battle. Just after Christmas of that year my father went into hospice. He knew the end was coming, we all did, and with mom’s anniversary coming up, my dad realized he might also die in January. That really troubled him. It became very important for him that he somehow last until February. As life slowly evaporated from him, that became his number one goal.
I wanted to be more involved with what was happening, to spend more time with my dad, but my own emotional issues got in the way. To make matters more complicated, I was dealing with a failing marriage, and I was a full-time caretaker for my two children who were four and five at the time. My older brother and his wife were forced to bear most of that load, with help from my younger brother. It was they who changed dad’s dressings after surgery, they who kept his chemo port clean. It was my brother and his wife that helped dad clean out the house and make his final arrangements. I was distant, detached, too wrapped up in my own issues. As a result, I wasn’t there when my father died, but I was told what happened in those final hours.
You see, my dad, by force of will, had managed to hold on until the morning of February first 2003. His last act in this life was to make sure his boys didn’t have to grieve both parent’s death in the same month. What a precious gift that was, and how I have cherished it!
Sometime that day he died. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know specifically when. And, before he died, a friend of his leaned down and said “Bob, it’s February first. It’s okay. You can go now.” That moment became an important part of my story, and I would frequently relay it to others. My story. My memory.
But that isn’t quite how it happened.
I wrote about that event on this blog a few years back. I wanted to share my story with others. As fate would have it, however, my older brother and his wife were shown that post, and they were furious. Turns out it wasn’t my dad’s friend, it was actually my older brother who was with dad that morning. You see, my version of the story is focused on my father’s final act, so I didn’t really remember who it was that had told him he could go. That detail wasn’t the purpose of the story for me. But for my older brother, the story was not just my father’s act. From his point of view, that story is also about how he, the dutiful son, was with my father, fulfilling his obligation to care for the parent. And, also from his perspective, not only was he dutiful, but I was not. He rightly expected me to be more involved, and resented having to carry that burden without my help. So his memory of that moment, his telling of the story, is different from mine. It isn’t a one-sided tale of love – the final gift our father gave us – but an exchange of love, where the son cares for the ailing father, and the father in return hangs on just a few hours extra.
It’s a good story. Heck, it’s much better than my version, and not just because it’s more accurate. My brother had good reason to take issue with my memory of those events, and these days when I regale people with my story of dad’s death, I am sure it’s my brother who is there, whispering in his ear. But that isn’t quite my point.
My brother and I don’t talk anymore, because of this very issue. I have spent years trying to understand his righteous wrath. I blamed myself for getting that detail wrong, beat myself up for my failure. The story for a couple of years became a negative one. They way I told it to myself was hurting me.
That’s the real point here.
We all have a choice with our personal stories, to make them positive or negative. The older I get, and the more I explore the craft of storytelling, the more I come to believe that it’s even more than that. It’s isn’t just a choice of positive or negative, it’s a choice between letting our stories hurt us or letting them bring healing. Further, I believe we have an obligation, a duty to choose healing, since hurting ourselves with negative stories invariably hurts those we love most.
It hasn’t been easy, but for this story at least I have chosen healing. I don’t blame myself anymore for my mistake. I remembered it the way I did because of its importance to me. I fully accept that my brother’s version is what’s important for him. Perhaps that includes his anger at me, since his version of that day now involves his conflict with me.
I’d like to talk to him again, but that’s up to him. It’s his story, different than mine. He isn’t responsible for my version, and I’m not responsible for his.
I am working to change other negative stories in my life to positive. I hope you see the value in that, and you try as well. But changing old stories is hard. If you can remember to make the healing choice when you first construct the story, well, that’s way easier.
In the end, we’re all just stories, piles of them. Try to make yours the healing kind.
It starts even before we’re born. Our parents, expecting a child, try to imagine what kind of life we’ll lead. They talk over coffee or whisper to each other late at night, trying to see what the future holds. After we’re born, we join in, telling ourselves stories about the doll or the toy car we’re playing with. The stories are very simple at first, but as we grow from toddlers to children they become more complex. Many of those stories are wildly fantastical, totally unrealistic, but we tell them just the same. In our teen years we might make up stories about who likes whom, or what a certain teacher’s home life is like. The stories are less fantastical, and more about understanding others, and how we fit in. By the time we become adults, the stories we tell ourselves and each other tend to be more realistic. We gush about our trip to Disney World, our new job, our favorite show or movie. Different stories, perhaps, but stories nonetheless.
This need, the need to tell stories, is one we all have, one of the defining features of being human. Some people will claim they aren’t good at storytelling, or that stories are for kids, but they are wrong. I would go so far as to say we can’t function without them.
Storytelling is so ingrained in our minds that it permeates society, culture and language. We tell local stories, national stories, religious stories, historical stories. You can make a pretty solid case that nearly all human communication is rooted somehow in our need to tell stories. The ancient Greeks explored issues of morality, purpose and ethics with stories. Jesus of Nazareth used parables to try to teach us His lessons. Folklore and mythology, fables and fairy tales are necessary for us to understand how the world works and what it expects from us. In fact, from a neurological point of view, they way our brains retain information and encode memory is by association with other memories and associations. Our brain remembers that movie we saw better because we saw it with a friend, or it was our birthday, or it was a sequel to another movie we love. Our entire personal history, and the larger cultural history around us, is built on stories.
Not all of the stories have to be fiction either. I am sure there are people in this world who only connect with stories of the ‘real world’. If that works for them, then great. It isn’t so much about the content of the stories as it is the purpose. Why are we telling the story in the first place? It turns out they are an incredibly useful tool, a fantastic way to educate and learn. We use stories to practically comprehend ideas that might be too big for us, or too complex, or perhaps very alien. Almost every American could tell you stories about George Washington. One of the most popular is the tale of him cutting down a cherry tree and, when his father confronts him over it, he says “I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree.” If you happen to know that the tale of George and the cherry tree is a fiction, does it change what the story means?
We tell that tale in America because it’s an extremely fast way to teach children that George Washington, the most important of our Founding Fathers, was regarded in his day as an honest man. Really honest. In comparison to his peers, he was the most truthful and principled of them all by a great margin, and that is a very important piece of the American puzzle. A historian could cite you chapter and verse of Washington’s life to prove how serious he believed honesty was, and that would certainly give you a more accurate picture including his less clearly honest decisions. That takes time, however, and children need to learn about more than just George Washington’s honesty. In effect, we don’t have the time to give all the details.
We do the same thing with our personal stories. You cannot remember every detail of every situation, and why would you want to? You only need to remember the part of the story that matters for you. That becomes the purpose of the story. Why it matters to you is exactly why you remember it. For example, at my mother’s funeral I learned a detail of her life I had never known before. That moment is clear in my mind…or is it? I was standing at the back of the viewing room looking at a small table with little mementos of her life, her wedding photo, a picture of her in nursing school. I picked something up, a card I believe, and I read about how as a young woman she had wanted to be a pediatric nurse. I remember the general setting, small table, various items, how I read instead of heard it, even the direction I was facing in the room. But so many details are missing. Was it a card I picked up? What music was playing? Where was my father at that moment? I don’t have those details because they aren’t important to the story.
My mother was a nurse all her life, but not a pediatric nurse. That detail is now part of the larger story I have in my memory of my mother, specifically who she was as a human being. It changed my perception of who she was, and that makes it important to me. The story is about my mother, about her life, and what her story means in my life. Who cares what song was playing? It’s irrelevant to the story, so my memory dropped it, and that’s how it should be.
So we use storytelling constantly because we need to. Storytelling is a form of shorthand, allowing us personally, and society as a whole, to communicate important ideas quickly, and it’s the best way our brains learn. Embrace your stories, but more than that I would hope you think about how you use stories to shape your own view of the world. The way you deal with stories can have a huge impact on your life, and I’ll talk about that more in my next post.
My mother worked in the psych ward at St. Luke’s hospital in Bethlehem for many years. Around the dinner table she would often tell us stories of the crazy people she had to take care of. I use the word crazy because my mother did.
I was never sure what to make of her callous attitude toward her charges. I think I understand now that it was the way she needed to be to survive seeing such broken people all day, day after day. But, as a boy growing up hearing your mother tell stories about the outrageous behavior of these people, and how it was such a problem to deal with them when they started screaming or thrashing, I thought what you would expect. I though my mother was callous. I thought she looked down on these people whose minds were so disordered. I had no reason to doubt it, since I had a similar relationship with my mother. Often callous.
It has been decades since I was a child, and I am sure I don’t remember all the details of my childhood properly, but the emotional impressions are there, as real as the keyboard I am typing on. Perhaps more real, considering how they shaped my life. I will be forty seven in January, and I am still learning how my childhood damaged me, and how it is still damaging me. How it will always be influencing my behavior.
I wonder how much sympathy my mother would have for me now, almost fourteen years after her death. I doubt either of my parents could truly accept how injurious my childhood was, how their decisions – or lack thereof – harmed me more surely than a knife could have, and with wounds both invisible and difficult to heal. But if she was here now, and saw what was happening to me, how compassionate would she be? What if she knew one of her children had become one of her “crazies”?
Yes, mom, I have depression. Real. Serious. Chronic. Anti-depressants. Therapy. Time at the hospital. Depression. I didn’t want this, but who does? I didn’t cause this. Other people harmed me. Others did this to me. Yes, mom. You were one of them. Yes, dad, so were you. I’m angry at both of you. I’m angry that you’re both dead and I can’t tell you how angry I am. I am angry, and also I am not. I’m not sure you could have done any better. It’s far too late for what-if’s now anyway.
I am not ashamed that I have this disorder in my mind. I am not ashamed to put this up on the internet where the would could see it. We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about any illness, and illnesses of the mind are no different. It’s just an unknown, and so it scares people. What are we if we aren’t our minds? Mental illness threatens our very basic identity, and so we make it bad and dirty and don’t talk about it. But a growing number of people like me are talking about it. We are talking about it like the illness it is, and not something to mock and laugh at.
I wish my mother had lived to see me fall apart this year. I wish that, because she would also have seen how you’re supposed to love someone. She would have seen my wife love me this year in a way I’ve never been loved before. She would have seen my wife love with boundless compassion, but also with strict boundaries. But my mother isn’t here, so I turn to you, dear reader. There is a right way to care for those you love, and it doesn’t change just because they have an illness. If you find yourself dealing with someone who is hurting like I have been, think deeply about how you deal with them. If the first thing that springs to mind isn’t compassion, keep thinking.
She was a beautiful woman, that much I remember. Her dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and her pale neck was visible.
I was sitting in Introduction To Theater, a standard survey course at Kutztown University. Being a survey course, there were many students required to take it. KU is, after all, a liberal arts college. So about 250 of us were packed into the stadium seats of the Rickenbach Research and Learning Center theater. Since I was sitting behind this young woman (I say that now; she was probably 19 at the time, just like me), I was sort of looking down from behind her.
I remember clearly sitting down, noting the students around me in passing, and getting out my book and notepad (yes, we used paper back in those days…). Then something extraordinary happened. I saw the girl, saw her pale neck, her dark hair, and her headphones. She was playing a cassette tape on her portable Walkman (again with the age…), and I heard – through her headphones – for the very first time a sound that would change my life for ever. This discovery has echoed down all the years of my life and, to this very day, influences my thinking. That moment, burned indelibly into my mind, marked a before/after moment, and the discovery gave a voice to a heart that had been mute for 19 years. For the first time in my life I was able to understand that I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did. I was one of many, thousands, millions even, who could feel both pain and joy simultaneously. I was one of many who understood life has so much good, but also so much bad, and they can both be beautiful in their own way. That day, in early September 1989, I heard the first band that empowered me to embrace my pain and to love it unabashedly. That band?
I sat there mesmerized for a while, listening rapt to this music. Then the professor came in, and the girl took off the headphones and stopped the music. It was like cold water in the face, but I had the presence of mind to bend down and ask her “What band was that?” “The Cure” she said. The Cure. I didn’t learn anything that class, and as soon as it was over, I walked across the street to a shop called “Young Ones” which sold used cassette tapes and records. This is another memory I can see as clearly as if I was right there. I didn’t even bother to look through the cassettes, I just walked up to the shopkeeper and asked where I could find The Cure. He showed me, and I promptly bought one of every tape they had. There were three as I recall, but the one I had heard was titled Disintegration, and remains to this day one of my favorite albums ever. Twenty five years later, those songs still speak to my soul.
Much has happened since then. I graduated from Kutztown, got a job, got married, had two amazing kids, got divorced, lost people, suffered, learned much about myself, got married again – properly – and realized I had a lifetime to write about. So here I am, moving into a new career, struggling to help my kids do better and wander less than I did. I wonder if they’ve found their “Cure” yet, or if that is yet to come. But it will. I think most people find something that ignites their soul. At least that’s my experience. Most of my friends have some of that spark within them, and I really would hope everyone could experience what I did that February day 25 years ago.
That moment defined who I was, by helping me understand I was what some would call “sensitive”, which is both good and bad, both positive and negative. In the very excellent Doctor Who episode “Blink”, the character Sally Sparrow says that sad is happy for deep people. I guess I’m deep, then. But whatever I am, I’m not the only one.
To be clear up front, I can sing. There are better singers around, but I’m a pretty strong voice, and I can hold my own against almost anybody else. I would be embarrassed if that weren’t the case, however, considering how much of my life was spent honing my vocal skills. Church children’s choir from five to twelve years of age and school choir from fourth grade through my senior year, along with county chorus a couple of times, and then on to Kutztown University. At KU one of my two majors was Vocal Performance (not its formal name, which is long and boring, but that’s basically what it was. A “music theater” degree), and I took private voice lessons for six years in college. During my college years I was also in the full choir (about 70 voices most years) and two of the speciality choirs (or “elite” choirs, but I dislike that word…). And I was in multiple musicals during that time, including Cabaret, Jesus Christ, Superstar and H.M.S. Pinafore. My parents tried to get me into playing instruments, french horn and piano, but instruments always felt alien to me. Voice is what called to me, what gave me those wonderful butterflies of anticipation.
I tell you all of this not to toot my own horn, but to show that I’ve been tight with music for my entire life. I want you to believe that my opinions on music, although they are just opinions, might be rooted in something worthwhile. I want you to read what I write and, just maybe, appreciate something new, something different. I want you to trust me just a little, so I can share my love with you. Got it? Good. Let’s start at the beginning, for me at least, which is my big brother.
I was already developing an interest in some more popular songs by the time I was ten or twelve. It wasn’t a very good taste in music, but it was mine, gosh darn it! Hooked On Classics was one of the first records (yes, vinyl) I remember having. It came out in 1981 – I was twelve, and that was the same year I discovered a little game called Dungeons and Dragons – and I can still hear it in my head today. Around that time I also purchased my very first 45. For those of you younger than, say, 35 years of age, a 45 – or 45 RPM – was the vinyl equivalent of a CD single. That first 45 was Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go by Soft Cell. I think I played that a thousand times before I moved on. That would later lead me to ’80’s New Wave, but not yet. First, my brother.
David is four years older than me. That means, of course, that when I was twelve, he was sixteen. He, in his own personal journey, was apparently influenced by music of the ’60’s and ’70’s, especially bands such as the Beatles, the Moody Blues, and Kiss. Keep in mind this was the early ’80’s, so the ’70’s was just a few years before, and not the ‘classic rock’ of today.
So one night, just any old night, David pulled me into his bedroom and played a song for me. It was 22,000 Days by the Moody Blues off of their Long Distance Voyager album, which is still one of the most deeply moving albums in the world for me. It’s a pretty deep song, and I was blown away. I had never heard music like that before, and it opened up a new musical road I was eager to travel down. He did similar things with other music, including the Beatles. He would be so excited, and even then I could tell he was dying to share this with someone. Perhaps it was me specifically that he wanted to share his excitement with, but I’ve never been conceited enough to believe that. I think I was there at the right time. Our parents would have never had enough energy to focus on what he wanted to say, and our younger brother was only about seven at the time, so he was too young. I was the lucky beneficiary, and it changed my life.
I didn’t like the Beatles initially, for various reasons, but the Moody Blues took my breath away. Within a few years I had purchased every album they had put out (on cassette or vinyl). I even had an art teacher in high school give me a couple of their albums (on vinyl). She had purchased them for their album art, which was beautiful, but gave them to me knowing how much I adored the group. I don’t like most of their work since the mid-1980’s, but their work from the ’60’s and ’70’s was full of hard questions and deep thoughts, and so much of what I took from them wasn’t just music. It was a deeper view of the world, a richer understanding of what it was to be a human. And, to make it even better, they didn’t try to dispense the answers because they didn’t claim to know them. They were just asking the questions.
Looking back on those days, I realize it was my love of words that captivated me. It was the first time in my young life that I had been spellbound by the power of language, in this case in the form of the lyric poetry of music. I began to seek out similar groups, searching for similar minds who refused to blindly accept the world.
In short, because of my brother, I began to seek my tribe.