One evening a couple of weeks ago, I gathered with a dozen or so others to listen to a poet friend share her love of Korean poetry. As one who has created a small collection of my own work over the past several years, I found its simplicity both inspiring and refreshing. Upon returning home, I heard that quiet inner voice encouraging me to share some of what I’ve written, and with April being National Poetry Month, what better time to do so.
If interested, please visit my Poetry page.
Two little words: I understand. I had the good fortune to be on their receiving end one afternoon last week, and they made all the difference. I wasn’t looking for an answer or a quick fix for that with which I was struggling. I simply wanted to be seen and accepted for who I was in that moment: a human being in need of support.
I understand—two little, yet powerful words.
Two dear friends of mine, a married couple for more than fifty years now, invited me out to dinner one evening a few weeks back to thank me for picking them up at the airport upon their return to St. Louis from visiting family out west. Though there was certainly no need for them to do so, I was—of course—happy to accept. Both the food and service were excellent, and on a few occasions throughout the course of our meal, we engaged our waitress, a delightful young lady, in random conversation when she would stop by our table to inquire as to how we were doing.
Interestingly, as we were preparing to leave, she demonstrated being exceptionally grateful for the manner in which we had treated her, which, quite honestly, took my friends and me by surprise. (After all, didn’t everyone treat her that way?) Outside of being polite and understanding, we truly didn’t feel that we had done anything out of the ordinary. Therefore, all we could think of was that our interacting with her on a more personal level is what made the difference. When all was said and done, perhaps she simply felt seen as a fellow human being, and not merely someone who was there to serve us that evening. That’s my hope, anyway.
I had some free time on my hands after dropping my car off to be serviced the other morning, so I headed for the park via my usual route to get in a short walk. Along the way, I glanced to my left and the other side of the street to see if a certain elderly woman who lives in the neighborhood happened to be sitting outside, as she often is, on the wooden porch at the entrance to her apartment. Weekdays, she passes the time there alone, but weekends are a different story, when loved ones line the flight of concrete steps leading down from her place to the sidewalk.
It had been a while since I’d last seen her there, and she was absent that morning as well. And then it dawned on me as to the (now obvious) reason why—the temperature. It was twenty-two degrees! Fahrenheit! But that’s just my point: It appears that her contagious smile and always friendly “Good morning!” have had such a positive effect on me that I’ve now become conditioned to look in the direction of her front door each time I stroll by—regardless of the weather.
Though we’ve waved and exchanged greetings on many occasions, we have never actually met. So, come spring, I plan to cross the street and introduce myself; ask her how she’s been.
I received a message from my daughter this past Thursday informing me that the poet Mary Oliver died. I’ve always enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winner’s writing and recently heard her poem “The Uses of Sorrow” recited by a guest on a podcast I listen to on a regular basis. Her words spoke to me in such a way that I now have a framed copy of it placed in my office.
One might ask (and understandably so), especially while in the midst of it, what purpose this inevitable part of human life could possibly serve. I won’t speculate as to Ms. Oliver’s inspiration for composing the piece, but for me personally, it provides the opportunity to appreciate the heartaches of others through the awareness and acknowledgement of my own. And as simple as that may sound, I find it invaluable.
Some time ago, I had the opportunity to take part in a weekly, mindfulness-based sharing and discussion circle. And while it wasn’t uncommon for things to proceed slowly at first, I remember the initial several minutes of one gathering during which my fellow group members, many of them newcomers, seemed particularly hesitant to speak from their hearts. With that being the case, I went ahead and began by speaking from mine since I had been participating on a regular basis for quite a while by then and, as a result, felt fairly comfortable doing so.
I don’t recall specifically what it was that I talked about that morning, but I do recollect asking if anyone happened to be struggling with fear. And I was glad that I did because, one by one, the hands gradually began to go up, followed by those who had raised them telling their stories—mostly having to do with loss and the anxiety and grief surrounding it. By the time we were through, a few tears had been shed, and I like to think that at least a bit of healing had taken place.
Experiences such as this have led me to believe that one of the highest aspirations we can have as human beings is to ease the fears of others. In order to do so, however, I feel we must first be honest with and accepting of ourselves regarding our own trepidations, for only then will we be able to genuinely embrace the concerns of those around us.
There is what I consider to be a particularly beautiful tree in the park in which I walk—asymmetrical and full of knots. Majestic.
One morning, as I made my way up the slight incline that leads to where it stands, I could see a small bouquet of yellow flowers sitting just outside the hollow at its base. In front was a young woman crying softly into her partner’s chest.
As I walked past, I naturally began to speculate as to what it may have been that brought them there that day. Meanwhile, the one with the offering at its feet simply bore witness without the need to know.
On the shelf of my nightstand is a small, framed photograph of me as a child: a school picture, on the back of which is my name and “3rd Grade” pencilled in my mother’s handwriting. Mom, now in her late seventies, would have been twenty-six at the time, my daughter’s age in just a little over a month. In it, I sit before a light-blue background, sporting a buzz cut and with black, thick-rimmed spectacles perched on my nose and oversized ears. A half-smile can be seen on my face.
Most days, I forget that it’s even there; however, every now and then it catches my eye as I take a quick look around before turning out the light and leaving the room. And when it does, it serves as a gentle reminder to be good to myself—and the young boy on the other side of the glass.
When I awoke and checked my phone for the time Saturday morning, I was pleased to see a text message awaiting me from a good friend of mine in the United Kingdom. We’ve known each other for a couple of years now, ever since an impromptu conversation he and I had outside the cafe of the university we were attending. He was beginning his final year of undergraduate studies in finance, and I had just begun the fourth semester of my master’s program.
Before returning home to the UK recently, he thanked me for all that he had learned as a result of our friendship and for helping him through a particularly difficult time. While I appreciate his kind words, I hope he understands that I learned a great deal from him too, especially the importance of keeping a positive attitude and not taking oneself quite so seriously. He comes from a beautiful, caring family, and as a father myself, I’m certain that his parents, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when they were on campus for his graduation, are delighted to have their son back.
I plan to cross the big pond and pay them all a visit sometime this summer. Believe it or not, I’ve never been to Europe, so I’m looking forward to spending a week or so enjoying their company and taking in the countryside about two hundred miles north of London. From the pictures I’ve seen, it looks lovely.
One of my favorite places on the planet is a stand of twenty or so cypress trees located in a nearby park. And on its eastern edge sit matching hand-crafted wooden benches, on one of which my daughter and I sat side by side and shared a sundae from a local creamery on a hot and humid St. Louis afternoon this past June. Since then, I can’t help but smile every time I return and picture the two of us enjoying two of life’s simple pleasures: ice cream and the good company of a loved one.
Over the past few years, I’ve developed a sincere interest in expressing myself through the writing process, due in great part to having taken a handful of classes offered by a writer friend of mine, all of which I found to be quite inspiring and helpful. During the most recent, I suggested to another participant that the most valuable quality a writer can possess is honesty. I happened to be reading a couple of memoirs at the time, Paul Auster’s Winter Journal and Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Anne Patchett, and the genuineness and transparency of both authors had a real impact on me.
I truly admire those who possess the courage to write openly and with dignity about themselves and their experiences of being human—what a gift to those with the good fortune to receive their words. I can’t help but believe that writing in such a straightforward, unabashed manner must be intimidating at first, if not always. And I imagine that those who do so must have reached a time in there lives when they no longer felt they had a choice; when the pain of hiding was far greater than any they feared experiencing as the result of telling their stories and allowing themselves to be seen.
While it may not necessarily lead to the writing of a memoir, I believe the counseling experience can, nevertheless, provide a unique opportunity for anyone tired of hiding—writer or otherwise—to practice the gradual dropping of one’s persona in the interest of emerging more willing to share one’s authentic self with the world.
I like to walk in the park, especially in the early morning. It’s quiet, the people whose paths I cross are friendly, and spending time in nature is, of course, never a bad idea. I’ve noticed lately, however, that when I first arrive, not only is my pace quite a bit faster than usual, but I also have a specific plan in place for the time I intend to spend there. For instance, make one quick lap around the perimeter so as to be back home by nine and at the office by ten, as was the case today (hardly relaxing or meditative). I find the experience to be much more pleasant and therapeutic once that initial energy has been released and I’m proceeding in more of an aimless manner. Sure, there are things that need to be addressed in the day ahead, but it’s nice to feel otherwise, at least for the moment, and simply listen to the sound of my footsteps, or take in the sun coming up through the trees.
During a phone conversation the other night, a dear friend of mine brought up the topic of acceptance, suggesting it may be the place where healing begins. Since then, I’ve been giving her sentiment a fair amount of thought, particularly as it relates to self-acceptance. In this regard, a practice I’ve been doing my best to implement throughout the day for a some time now is simply noting and acknowledging with mindfulness what I’m experiencing in the moment, whether it be fear, frustration, shame, you name it, and gently allowing it to be before letting it go and moving on. For I’ve come to understand that when I do otherwise, such as getting lost in discursive thought or distraction, I’m missing a precious opportunity to embrace my humanity with compassion. In essence, to accept myself just as I am.
We need each other. We’re connected. These may not be overly popular sentiments in a culture that tends to pride itself on individualism, but I believe, as it’s certainly been my experience, that they’re true. For instance, a colleague of mine and I recently began meeting once a week to share and discuss our latest writing endeavors, and I’ve been pretty straightforward regarding my need for his support. In the same way, I’m honored when a fellow counselor knocks on my office door or a friend or family member calls simply wanting to talk. With that said, I must admit there’s a part of me—predominantly the culturally conditioned male—that would love to sit here and say, “I don’t need anyone’s help; I can do it on my own.” But that’s simply not the case. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and make good use of my time alone; however, there’s just something about connecting with another human being that confirms we’re all in this thing together.
I recently helped my son move back to the St. Louis area from out west. Thanks to an early morning flight to Denver, we were packing boxes and loading up the U-Haul by midmorning. Our plan was to be on the road by noon and put as much of I-70 behind us as we could before stopping and calling it a night somewhere in eastern Kansas. The temperature hovered around freezing, and a steady drizzle fell as we made one trip after another from his apartment on the second floor to the parking lot. By late morning, the ramp leading up to the back of the truck was covered with a thin sheet of ice. Fortunately, the furniture and larger items had already been loaded, so it didn’t present much of an issue.
Understandably, I wanted to get on the interstate before the roads got too bad, but each time I became aware of my urge to pick up the pace, I would gently remind myself to ease up a bit and not rush. And I’m not talking about physically, as it goes without saying, me darting around in icy conditions with my arms full would never be a good idea. What I’m referring to here is my inner voice inviting me to slow down mentally, emotionally, and treasure the time with my son, for, and I know it sounds cliché, it feels as if it was just a day or two ago he came into my life, when, in actuality, it’s been more than thirty years.
It’s interesting. If someone would have told me five years ago that I would return to school, earn a master’s degree in counseling, and begin a new career doing fulfilling work that significantly contributes to my life’s meaning, I would have politely suggested they were mistaken—someone else, perhaps, but not me.
But here I am. And while I won’t claim to know exactly how I got here, I am certain I would not have made it without the support, encouragement, and inspiration of so many: friends, family, community, classmates and professors, fellow counseling interns and therapists, supervisors, and most important, my counseling clientele, from whom I have learned so much about carrying suffering with dignity.