My smile is a mask I hide behind

I am often complimented on my smile. Good genetics and 5 years of orthodontia contribute to make it warm.

Watching a movie entitled, Many Masks, I realized my smile was a mask that hides my true feelings much of the time. It is a learned response, trying to project the idea that “I’m fine!”

I remember walking on the sidewalk at college when a girl called out to me to say: “You’ve got a great smile.” All I could think was “Can’t she see the pain I’m in?!?” I was very depressed at the time and thought I was wearing that on my sleeve, for all to see. Perhaps in feeling so low, my mask was turned up high.

When I was 3½, I came down with Perthes hip. Shortly thereafter, a neighbor of ours invited me to see his new puppies, hoping to take my mind off my predicament, knowing my love of dogs. The mother dog was scared by the metal brace on my legs. She bit my cheek off while I was cradled in her master’s arms.

Not long afterwards, some of my parent’s friends visited our house and came into my room to see me. They looked at my legs in their brace, and at the bandage on my cheek. But they did not look me in the eye. I felt their pity. It was an awful feeling.

I learned to smile so deeply as a tool to get people to look at me, and not my infirmity. For the most part it worked. It reassured people that despite appearances to the contrary, “I’m fine!!!” It drew their eyes towards mine, away from my diseased legs. Most of the time it brought a smile to the other person, too.

I read that if you are trying to convince other people that you are sick, you cannot heal. I was cured at 7 years old, but I wasn’t healed. My body and mind carried allegorical open wounds for 40 years or more. That’s a lot of smiling to hide feelings.

The day after I realized my smile was a mask, people thought something awful must have happened, my face was so sad when compared with my broad smile from the day before. Over time, I have become more comfortable wearing my natural resting face, instead of my smiling mask. I still have a great smile, but now it comes from genuine joy, not to hide my pain.

What masks do you wear? Do you have any new ones for the aging you?

My Spiritual Practice

I believe strongly in the benefits derived from having a daily spiritual practice. I have seen it transform my own life.

I’m a morning person. Currently I wake up naturally at about 5 a.m., well before 6 when my phone alarm is set to go off. Perhaps having a spiritual practice early in my day comes more naturally to me than it would to a night owl. It’s a nice way to start my day. If you really cannot do this in the morning, and you could if you schedule it for later in the day, then by all means schedule it when you can devote the time. The most important standard is to actually do it every day, not when in the day you have it on your calendar.

The first part of my daily spiritual ritual is walking my dog. It took me a while to recognize this time as a walking meditation. I love getting outside, especially in the morning when the world is quieter. Even in the rain it’s a treat, as long as I have on my big yellow poncho. Nature is waking up, and it’s especially beautiful at that time.

My dog, Boomerang, keeps me present. I’m always watching him, to see what piques his interest, sometimes it’s a smell, sometimes a sight. When I know what it is, I know whether to let his leash out or to reel him in.

As I walk, I monitor my thoughts, too. I’m curious as to what subject pops into my head. I do spend a few seconds exploring topics that come up, but I don’t hold on to them. When a new one comes to me I start contemplating it, dropping the other easily.

At the half-way point of our walk I stop and sing a bit. I sing the first four lines of “Oh, what a beautiful morning!” I thought about sharing a video clip of my singing, but I sound better in my head than I do recorded. I’m not much of a singer, but it still feels good to do it. I end with the statement “Wonderful, wonderful me!” I feel empowered, lighter and more connected to Nature as soon as I finish this ritual.

When I get home from the walk, I meditate. Some days this is more readily accomplished than other days. I set a timer, but sometimes I don’t go the entire time, and sometimes I go longer.

Then I go about my day. I feel grounded and in tune with Nature. When I don’t, all I have to do is take some measured breaths in and out. I have cleared my head of most of my concerns, having disarmed them by not running from them, nor hanging on to them.

Try it, you’ll like it! Om!

Patience

I’ve had a refrigerator magnet for 35 years which reads, “God grant me patience, but please hurry!” Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s how patience works. In that 35 years, though, I have learned a measure of patience.

What I have come to understand is the basis for my impatience. If I believe that something is not going to work out the way I want it to, I have a hard time holding myself back from stepping into the process, feeling that I need to micromanage. I step back in, and force a speedy result. Yes, I get a result, but it is almost never what I want it to be.

If instead, I believe that I have done all that I can do to have something happen, with positive expectation that it’s going to work out well, it’s easier to stand back and let the process play out, to its natural end. Hence, learned patience.

I’ve found that I can do this with others better than I can do it with myself. With others, I know that their parts will take some time, as did mine; with me I feel like there’s always more I could do to make something happen. It seems like I have more confidence in others than in my own self… I’m working on that, too.

I have a natural tendency to be very linear. It is often hard for me not to fixate on the next incomplete step in a process. If it’s mine to do, I ruminate about how to do it, tossing it over and over in my mind. I can get so stuck that I cannot even see that there are other subsequent steps that are mine to do that I could do while I’m waiting for someone else to do their part. I used to fret and fume when I had to wait longer than expected, especially if it’s passed the promised delivery time. The trap I would set with others was to ask them to tell me how long something should take. If it went passed that time, I acted very righteous. No one likes that, I’ve found. It was not a productive strategy.

Marc Chagall puts it well: “If I create from my heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.”

More heart… I like that!

Wisdom from Trees

I have always admired trees. They start out so small, from a seed, and then grow so big; they stay in the same place all their lives, no matter what the weather. Trees go through a cycle of birth and death each year. Stanley Horowitz said of this cycle of nature, not just of trees: “Winter is an etching, Spring is a watercolor, Summer is an oil painting, and Autumn is a mosaic of them all.”

Think of growing from something maybe an inch in diameter, an acorn, into a stately oak, perhaps 100 feet tall. To paraphrase T Harv Eker, “If acorns had the mind of humans, you’d rarely see an oak tree over 10 feet tall.”

Why do we limit ourselves so? Why do we belittle our innate greatness? Is it really humility, or is it fear? Are we afraid of what others might think if we were to be as fabulous as we are born to be? I prefer to be inspired by the words of Satsuki Shibuya: “By doing what you love you inspire and awaken the hearts of others.”

A Native American shaman friend of mine, Kathy, taught me how to admire a tree, starting at the base of the trunk, follow each branch out to its end, returning to the trunk, tracing the next one with your hand and eyes. Take in the entire tree. Then contemplate that the root system is just as large. When I take all that in, I am even more in awe of the fortitude and flexibility it must take to spend your entire life “planted” in one place. No matter the conditions, a glorious sunny Summer day or a thunderstorm with gale force winds, you cannot move from where you are. Wow!

It is said that trees grow for 50 years, and then die for 50 years. A lot of people have the same thoughts about their own lives. They think that it is natural to peak at middle age, and then it’s downhill from there until they finally die. They give up living to the fullest extent possible for half their lives. I don’t think that’s what nature intended, nor is it how it has to be. I prefer a life of continued evolution, continued growth, each and every day. With our accumulated wisdom we face each new day as a new person. I like the model of an upward spiral. Have you stopped growing?

Seek First to Understand

“Seek first to understand” is one of my personal commandments.

Whenever I get myself into a tricky situation, it’s where I fall back to in order to get myself out of trouble. It constantly amazes me how far afield I can get myself when I forget this primary adage.

I pride myself on being a very good listener, but it’s a not a superpower. I have to work at it. Sometimes, deep into a conflict, I have to consciously turn it on. I have learned the importance of taking a step back to truly understand the point someone else is making. Usually, there is such richness that I initially missed when I as I  formulated my “wise” response, instead of listening, and really understanding.

Each of us have many incredible stories to tell. Some people may be better storytellers than others, but each of us has wisdom to be shared. I’ve found that all it takes to get someone to tell me a story that is important to their being is having a kind ear. I like to lean in to be sure I catch every word. I also like to ask questions along the way, to check to be sure I am getting a correct understanding of what’s being said.

In asking such questions, I’m cautious not to interrupt the flow of the story. Some people get distracted by questions, and lose their place. In that case, I know to save my questions until the end of the story.

In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey’s adds on to the adage “Seek first to understand,”, “and then to be understood.” While this is also true for me, I think some people might mistake it to mean, “Speak your piece.” Just because we’ve listened to someone’s story doesn’t give us the right to then unload our opinions on them.

A friend of mine, who is a professional speaker, is excellent at “listening” while he speaks. He’s constantly aware of whether what he is saying is being understood as intended. If he’s not getting positive non-verbal confirmations of being understood, he modifies his delivery, or stops speaking altogether and checks in with the audience.

I think this applies especially as one ages. It’s easy not to keep up with the latest lingo, or the latest fashion. If I don’t understand the context of something said, I inquire, seeking to understand what was meant. It’s amazing to me how often things get misconstrued with written words in an e-mail or text, as opposed to spoken ones, where we hear the tone and facial emphasis. It can save friendships to ask.

Wise or bitter

During the AIDS epidemic, I started my day reviewing the obituaries. About once a week I would find the name of a friend. I kept a list of people I knew. When I had filled out both sides with three columns of names on each side, about 200 of names in total, I threw the paper out in disgust. I was in my 30s at the time.

I said to myself that those of us who survived, not knowing if I would be in that number, would be either very wise or very bitter, from all the death we had seen. I’m happy to report that I have seen more wisdom.

One incident in particular stands out. A friend who’d been a leader of gay Birmingham spent the last year of his life with his family in his hometown of Vienna, in South Georgia. There, he took up his Southern Baptist roots, and renounced his gay life, whatever that means.

At his funeral, there wasn’t a flower arrangement to be had in the entire county; they had all been bought up by his Birmingham and Atlanta friends. Gathering outside it was easy to spot who was from Vienna and who was not. The locals showed up in pickup trucks and Cadillacs. They wore their Sunday-best clothes. The out-of-towners drove late model black imports and wore fancy suits.

The church was square and didn’t have enough pews for everyone to have a seat. The gay men let the townspeople in first, to take the seats. The gay men stood around the inside perimeter of the church.

I don’t know if it was deliberate, or not, but the service did not start until at least 45 minutes after we had all entered the church. During that time, it felt like each group was looking at the other group, blaming the other for my friend’s death. The locals blamed us, and our wild gay lifestyle. The gay men blamed the locals and their intolerant religion. The air was full of tension.

All we had to do was to stare at the other group; us looking at them, and they looking at us. By the time the service started we had each come to see the others as people, not as opposites. We recognized each other’s humanity, everyone perfectly imperfect.

During those years I saw numerous young men become instant elders, suddenly facing death. Too often they did so without the support of their families who disowned them when they were found to be gay. The primary lesson I learned from my friends’ deaths was that it is best to live life fully now, because no one knows when their last breath is going to be. And that we all will die.

Today I wish I had that piece of paper, because I know I have forgotten some of the names on my list.

Learning to ask for help

When I turned 7, I got my first pair of regular shoes. I had spent half my life, three-and-a-half years, in a cast, or various braces, and custom engineered shoes. That was the treatment for Perthes hip, a childhood disease. Cured, I didn’t need them anymore.

During some of that time I had to ask for help to go to the bathroom, and to do many other things. To get around I scooted across the floor, often on my stomach, dragging my legs behind me. I came to resent having to ask for help, becoming fiercely independent.

As an adult I spent a lot of time contemplating. A favorite subject was “If you’re so smart, open a Coke bottle without touching it.” In my early 50s a friend noticed me staring at a Coke bottle sitting in front of me. She asked me what I was doing. I told her I was trying to open it. She grabbed the bottle and twisted off the cap, saying “You mean like that?” I was speechless, thrown for a loop. My friend could see my consternation.

Several weeks later I realized that I had in fact accomplished what I was after, opening the bottle without touching it. I relayed that to my friend, to which she retorted “All you had to do was ask for help.”

What a revelation! I could accomplish more by asking for help, instead of trying to do it all by myself.

As we age it’s especially true. Actions that were once easy alone come to be only accomplished with help, with the assistance of another human being. After a life of independence this can be a hard lesson to learn.

The choice we are faced with is to stop doing something or to ask for help to get it done. Instead of losing desirable results, we can still get them, but it takes getting out of our comfort-zone and asking for help.

What have you given up doing that you could do with a little help?

Do it now

Growing up, when I had homework or chores to do, my mother would tell me, as I sat in front of the TV, “Do it!” This was long before Nike came out with its slogan “Just do it!” Later I was working with a coach, Means Davis, and he relayed his mother’s adage “Do it now, or schedule it.”

Before I took these ideas to heart my shirt pocket was overflowing with pieces of paper containing lists of things I wanted to do, from the mundane to the life-changing. A boss even got 2-inch by 4-inch card stock notes printed for me, for my lists. When the Palm Pilot first came out, I bought one, thinking that it would help me with my endless lists of to-dos.

I kept such lists because I am both a font of ideas and forgetful. If I don’t capture an idea before it goes out of my mind, I fear I will lose it forever. Or the opposite will happen, and I can think of nothing else until I write it down.

What I have finally learned is instead of writing something down, is it’s better for me to “do it now.”

There are three immediate benefits to this strategy. First, I get the item off my mind. I can go back to a relaxed state. Next, I get whomever asked for the something off my back immediately. Lastly, I get everything that comes from completing something, beginning right then. Sometimes I startle people with the speed with which I respond to a request. They’re used to immediate protests, not instant compliance. One of my nicknames is “quick Karl.”

As I grow in trips around the sun, I have gotten more forgetful. My head is already full of ideas and a new one seems to have a very short lifespan if I don’t do something about it quickly. My latest technology is the app Evernote, which syncs thoughts on my phone, tablet and laptop. But even better is doing it now, as soon as the idea arises.

Doing it now is a way of getting more things done without pinging my radar that usually thwarts my actions with growing doubt and excuses. And the benefits of completing something are often too great to count.

Test it out for yourself. Do it now.

If you can’t be good…

In high school, art class was my refuge. It felt as if everywhere else, I had to be a wunderkind, yet there I could be just a regular kid. At the end of every class, Mr. Foley would dismiss us with the admonition “If you can’t be good, be good at it!”

Of course, being in high school when hormones are raging, we all thought it had to do with sex. As I matured, I saw that it applies much more broadly.

The first place in my life, where I saw more to the adage, was in accepting myself as a gay man. Today the atmosphere around coming out as gay is more accepting. In the early 80s, it was still something largely unspoken of. That was the start of the AIDS epidemic, and being a gay man appeared to be an almost certain early death sentence. To many religious folks, being gay was an abomination.

Many friends and family members withdrew from having much to do with me. It hurt, deeply. But I knew I had to continue the path of being all of me anyway. Eventually, I found comfort in Mr. Foley’s words. To some people, I would never be good. But that didn’t mean I had to stop being me, gay and all. I found that freeing.

When I began exploring my spirituality in 2005, it was in a very welcoming place. The previous minister had been known to say “Your opinion of me is no business of mine.” As one who had felt defined by others’ opinion of me, the possibility that it was not how I had to live was liberating! I began an earnest exploration of “Who am I?”

A major struggle for me as I age is internalized stereotypes of aging. I remember expecting my body to feel different, “old” in some way, when I woke up on my 55th birthday. It was a revelation to me that I didn’t feel any different than I did the day before.

Ageism is alive and well today. American society has prejudices and stereotypes of what aging is supposed to look like. And I know that I have internalized many of these. I must make myself aware of these when I limit my possibilities as I age. Looking for a new job I must repeatedly tell myself not to limit my options because I’m afraid that I won’t be considered for a position because I am “too old.” I have to recall Mr. Foley’s wisdom, often.

“If you can’t be good, be good anyway!” Or perhaps “Party on, Garth!”

Do it now

Growing up, when I had homework or chores to do, my mother would tell me, as I sat in front of the TV, “Do it!” This was long before Nike came out with its slogan “Just do it!” Later I was working with a coach, Means Davis, and he relayed his mother’s adage “Do it now, or schedule it.”

Before I took these ideas to heart, my shirt pocket was overflowing with pieces of paper containing lists of things I wanted to do, from the mundane to the life-changing. A boss even got 2-inch by 4-inch card stock notes printed for me, for my lists. When the Palm Pilot first came out, I bought one, thinking that it would help me with my endless lists of to-dos.

I kept such lists because I am both a font of ideas and forgetful. If I don’t capture an idea before it goes out of my mind, I fear I will lose it forever. Or the opposite will happen, and I can think of nothing else until I write it down.

What I have finally learned is that instead of writing something down, it’s better for me to “do it now.”

There are three immediate benefits to this strategy. First, I get the item off my mind. I can go back to a relaxed state. Next, I get whomever asked for the something off my back immediately. Lastly, I get everything that comes from completing something, beginning right then. Sometimes I startle people with the speed with which I respond to a request. They’re used to immediate protests, not instant compliance. One of my nicknames is “Quick Karl.”

As I grow in trips around the sun, I have gotten more forgetful. My head is already full of ideas, and a new one seems to have a very short lifespan if I don’t do something about them quickly. My latest technology is the app Evernote, which syncs thoughts on my phone, tablet and laptop. But even better is doing it now, as soon as the idea arises.

Doing it now is a way of getting more things done without pinging my radar, that usually thwarts my actions with growing doubt and excuses. And the benefits of completing something are often too great to count.

Test it out for yourself. Do it now.