The Real World

There is a place between the real world and the world we find ourselves in throughout our lives. In this other world it doesn’t matter if we have someone to hold at night, if we are alone at Christmas and it doesn’t matter if we look anything like we feel deep inside.

But in the real world, the one that hurts when we are in it, the one where it matters if you come in first, we have to wear our masks and hide and go seek isn’t a game. We have to bury our feelings in this world and parlay our emotions so we can survive.

In the real world you’re lonely most when you’re among friends and in the other world you’re never lonely when you are by yourself.

When the sun sinks below the horizon most people in the real world seek out light, they seek shelter in it and are always looking for more. When I am in my other world it is the darkness I feel most comfortable in, in the darkness there aren’t any shadows to follow me and when it rains it’s like my soul pouring out all over the ground, spilling all my truths across the pock marked asphalt and seeping into all those little crevices, slipping away once more into the dark cracks in the Earth. The rain washes over me, holds me and comforts me.

Don’t get me wrong I like the sun; I like its warm, caressing rays. But it burns me too; it wants to peel back my skin allowing all to see my faults and my secrets. So I play with it, I bare myself to it, allowing it to sear my armor, my suit of lies that both protects me from falling apart and keeps me prisoner at the same time. And then when the day is long I step back into the cooling safety of the shadows, crouch down among my treasured fears and watch everyone walk by whispering dirty things to each other, things that I don’t understand, things that make me feel small and weak and lonely.

A Morning in Jasper

elk-with-mountains

The tall, scrawny pines sheltered me from the cool morning breeze as I fired up my small camp stove and made some coffee, the smell of the instant grounds aroused my sleepy senses.

The tops of the snow covered mountains were hidden, obscured by clouds and as I scanned above the tree line across the rocky, glacier carved crags the mist turned into a light, fine rain.

It was seven thirty in the morning and already the sun was up somewhere outside of the valley where we’d camped. I love the early mornings afield, the smell of the fresh grasses and pine needles covered in dew, crispness in the air that awakens the mind and a humbling feeling that explorers who’d come this way long before me must have felt as though they had stumbled into a strange, wonderful sort of paradise.

As I try and sip from my favorite camp mug without burning my lips I notice the rain fading, and suddenly a female and a juvenile elk step out from the trees and into the clearing whose edge I am standing at. They are gorgeous, their coats wet and tawny. They both graze for a bit and finally lay down among the grass just fifty yards from where I stand.

At that moment, as the clouds began to lift exposing the snow capped mountain tops I am stunned by the arrival of a bull elk, his shoulders black, his antlers fat with velvet, he steps out onto the plain and bugles as he postures himself. He is regal, majestic and he is bold and I am in awe of his beauty.

There are no pictures that can relay the splendor of this land, no words that by themselves illuminate the imagery that paints one’s soul by experiencing it, but simply being here, standing among the spiritual essence of this place is purely magnificent.

 

Maybe

Often in our lives we will happen upon a time when we must decide on a direction to travel, metaphorically speaking that is, sometimes the decision isn’t an easy one to make, sometimes the path we know we must turn to is away from our friends, colleagues, our safe places. It is easy to follow, it is less work to remain, it is more comfortable not to climb and meet the challenge you may face.

But what is the payoff, sometimes we might find that we have allowed ourselves to follow others or maybe for whatever reasons we just didn’t want to continue on the path we started down and now we have become lost, as the darkness closes in and we are too afraid to call out for help we lose sight of our way back, and as time goes on we learn to survive right where we are and grow weary of change because we know how to operate here, leaving that safe place if dangerous, the unknown is dangerous.

So we stop moving, we stop challenging ourselves and we stop growing. Our friends and family don’t see the pain we are in, they have lost sight of who we are and don’t understand our struggle. They say to us…”just turn around and come back, what are you doing? Why would you do that? Why have you left, that hurts me and what about me?” They don’t ask us what we need so they don’t know and that makes them uncomfortable so they just fade away and begin to blame us for their loss.

Now it’s just us, what do we do? We know we are lost, we know we are in pain, maybe we are ashamed of our choices, maybe we even begin to feel left behind and vulnerable. Maybe the thought of trying to climb out is overwhelming and scary, we don’t know what’s out there any more, maybe we feel like we are too far gone and nobody cares anyway and the trouble just isn’t worth it, maybe we just aren’t worth it.

Maybe.

But maybe we deserve more, maybe we are worth it. Maybe we made a mistake and have underestimated ourselves. Maybe we forgot how strong we are and how much we love ourselves, isn’t that all that really matters in the end, it’s been said that when we finally decide not to care what anyone else thinks of us is when we finally become free. And besides it is none of our business what anyone else thinks of us right? But we care, we are the only ones whom can make ourselves happy, it is us whom keeps us safe, it by ourselves that we have survived and that takes fortitude, strength and bravery. Those are characteristics that anyone should be proud of, and proud to know, and that makes us worth every bit. It is that sort of power that can beat the darkness and show us the light.

One foot, that’s all that it takes to begin the journey back, one foot in front of the other. Find your own way, cut a new path, and climb against the struggle and the pain because somewhere out there is a better place, a place with sunshine and warmth and people waiting for us to show them what it means to be strong and hopeful in the face of adversity. And with that experience, vigor and knowledge we become that person others look to for guidance because we have fought the demons that’ve held us. It isn’t an easy fight, it is hard, harder than most would understand but through it we shall grow and become proud of who we are. Because we are all worth it, and when we are sitting at the edge of that lake, on a sunny shore and we see our reflection in the surface of the water we will know what it means to love ourselves and be proud and be healthy. And then maybe, just maybe we can show others the way too.

Often in our lives we will happen upon a time when we must decide on a direction to travel, metaphorically speaking that is, sometimes the decision isn’t an easy one to make, sometimes the path we know we must turn to is away from our friends, colleagues, our safe places. It is easy to follow, it is less work to remain, it is more comfortable not to climb and meet the challenge you may face.

But what is the payoff, sometimes we might find that we have allowed ourselves to follow others or maybe for whatever reasons we just didn’t want to continue on the path we started down and now we have become lost, as the darkness closes in and we are too afraid to call out for help we lose sight of our way back, and as time goes on we learn to survive right where we are and grow weary of change because we know how to operate here, leaving that safe place if dangerous, the unknown is dangerous.

So we stop moving, we stop challenging ourselves and we stop growing. Our friends and family don’t see the pain we are in, they have lost sight of who we are and don’t understand our struggle. They say to us…”just turn around and come back, what are you doing? Why would you do that? Why have you left, that hurts me and what about me?” They don’t ask us what we need so they don’t know and that makes them uncomfortable so they just fade away and begin to blame us for their loss.

Now it’s just us, what do we do? We know we are lost, we know we are in pain, maybe we are ashamed of our choices, maybe we even begin to feel left behind and vulnerable. Maybe the thought of trying to climb out is overwhelming and scary, we don’t know what’s out there any more, maybe we feel like we are too far gone and nobody cares anyway and the trouble just isn’t worth it, maybe we just aren’t worth it.

Maybe.

But maybe we deserve more, maybe we are worth it. Maybe we made a mistake and have underestimated ourselves. Maybe we forgot how strong we are and how much we love ourselves, isn’t that all that really matters in the end, it’s been said that when we finally decide not to care what anyone else thinks of us is when we finally become free. And besides it is none of our business what anyone else thinks of us right? But we care, we are the only ones whom can make ourselves happy, it is us whom keeps us safe, it by ourselves that we have survived and that takes fortitude, strength and bravery. Those are characteristics that anyone should be proud of, and proud to know, and that makes us worth every bit. It is that sort of power that can beat the darkness and show us the light.

One foot, that’s all that it takes to begin the journey back, one foot in front of the other. Find your own way, cut a new path, and climb against the struggle and the pain because somewhere out there is a better place, a place with sunshine and warmth and people waiting for us to show them what it means to be strong and hopeful in the face of adversity. And with that experience, vigor and knowledge we become that person others look to for guidance because we have fought the demons that’ve held us. It isn’t an easy fight, it is hard, harder than most would understand but through it we shall grow and become proud of who we are. Because we are all worth it, and when we are sitting at the edge of that lake, on a sunny shore and we see our reflection in the surface of the water we will know what it means to love ourselves and be proud and be healthy. And then maybe, just maybe we can show others the way too.

Have You Ever…?

Have you ever peered into the eyes of someone completely lost, hopeless, forgotten? To look into their eyes and see nothing, no dreams, only despair? Often when folks see a homeless person, they will joke that they are talking to themselves, have you never spoken to yourself? Maybe you didn’t feel like there was anybody else to talk with, no one to listen, no one to validate your existence.

Being homeless, even for one night can be scary, it can be devastating for a parent with children, there are families separated because there might only be a room at a shelter for the wife and children, not for dad. In general, society tends to look the other way when they come across homeless people, mind you I said homeless people and not “the homeless”; the later is a way of disassociating them from society. Someone whom is homeless already feels alone, in fact it might be the absolute loneliest a person can ever be, and then on top of that for others to literally look away or cross the street to not have to come close is demoralizing at best. Not only are they marginalized but then they are simply ignored or admonished by the public as trash might be.

What put the homeless people onto the streets, why are they there? What happened to lead them into the shadows, to live under bridges, in sewer and run-off tunnels, along the river in tarp covered hovels built from fallen trees and branches, during the winter? Did they succumb to a mental illness not having insurance or ran out of money due to an illness? Did they lose their job, their home and their family?  Have you ever felt so desperate that you found yourself sifting through someone else’s garbage? Have you ever been so distressed that you did things you might never have dreamed of doing? Things that made you feel dirty, immoral, disgusted with yourself or even less than human?

I am not attempting to make anyone feel bad or guilty, I just want people to remember there are folks out there barely surviving, they are sick, they cry at night because they are beginning to forget who they are, they fall asleep at night wondering if they will wake up, if they will be raped, if they will get to that point tomorrow where they will finally give in and do something they won’t be able to forgive themselves for, will they become the people they used to see wandering the dark places, ghosts of society, whose only thought each day is how to keep their selves or their children alive one more day.

This happens every single day, even in your community, believe it or not no city, neighborhood, community is immune. I know, I’ve seen those eyes before, I’ve stared into them, looking for some flicker of hope, some remnant of a bygone dream, I have looked past the dirt, the shame, the guilt, into the reddened, yellowed tired eyes through a broken mirror.

There is a reason lives are counted officially by souls, its because no matter your religion, race, culture, political stand, sexual identity, economic level or you live in the suburb or the city, in an apartment, a home, a car in a parking ramp, or under a bridge, we are all souls in the end, thriving or barely alive. We can never forget that.

I Don’t Belong Here

I am not like them, don’t take me wrong, I have my own issues, I have skeletons, ghosts and regrets, and I am over 25 years sober, I wore out my drinking ticket early on. More so than alcohol I really enjoyed drugs, illicit; I self-medicated for years. Then somewhere along the way I had to decide whether living was something I was game for. I had lived through physical and emotional and verbal abuse, I had my share of sexual abuse too and I even called some commercial rooftops and bridges my home for a while. That has all changed, I am sober, emotionally stable, well let’s face it stability is something of a moody little…well, you understand, it comes and goes, and I think that is applicable to everyone. But I think my stable days are far more prevalent than those days when I just can’t seem to make sense of how or why I feel a certain way.

But as I sit here in the back of the room, I feel guilty, I feel like I shouldn’t be sitting hear listening to them talk, listening to their feelings, to their honesty, to their admissions. Because I am not like them, I don’t have an eating disorder, I don’t think I ever have. I don’t understand what it’s like to break down over a snack, over eating something that should sustain my life, to not wanting to consume enough calories to satisfy my body’s needs. I don’t get why it’s so hard to stop eating, or to want to force myself to throw up afterwards. It’s not logical. I can listen to them and hear why they do the things they do but I have not experienced it and can’t put myself in their shoes, and as guilty as I feel being in the room with them, I also feel blessed.

When I quit using alcohol and drugs, I knew I could survive because I was no longer doing something that might kill me outright, I didn’t need the drink or drug to live. But with these people the very thing that is supposed to give them life, the very thing that is meant to provide them sustenance so that they may live is something they are deathly afraid of, just the thought of having a snack can trigger a panic attack sending them into a downward spiral leading to dark places, places where they question their very self-worth and depression envelopes them so much so that it blocks out all light, where the very argument for living is a losing battle.

Eating disorders have so many facets and classifications to them, it is difficult to follow for someone whom has never experienced it. There is anorexia, orthorexia, bulimia, restrictive food intake disorder and binge eating. Then there is Other Specified Feeding or Eating disorder and Unspecified Feeding or Eating disorder.  The only thing that I can share with these people is the catalyst trauma, for me dealing with my sexual abuse meant doing drugs to mask or hide the pain for a while, for someone with an eating disorder they may quit eating, absorbing the hunger pangs caused by not eating, seeking comfort in the hollow, empty feeling. Or they may seek that pain of over eating and then maybe the dizziness and pain of retching to rid themselves of the food they just consumed. For some there is a seemingly innate desire to rid their diets of everything not deemed healthy to a point where they are so anxiety ridden it affects their relationships with anyone around them, that the very thought of any form of fats or carbs is enough to stress them into a frenzy.

I get those feelings, maybe not the triggers, and maybe not always the behavior but I know what it’s like to struggle, to not see light through your own anxious shadows, or to not have a dream of the future, that the simple idea of living causes me great anxiety. Some people are starving themselves to death, committing agonizingly slow suicide by disallowing themselves much needed nourishment. I have found myself not allowing me to be happy, to do things that I know I might enjoy because some of my buddies never got the chance to do those things and lost their lives somewhere in the desert, face down in the hot sand. Sometimes its difficult not to hold it against people for enjoying themselves knowing that they can do so because my friends sacrificed everything in the name of their freedom to live.

I think the more I sit and listen, the more I hear their stories the more I realize we have more in common than possibly either of us realize. The catalyst may be different, the means of self-medicating may be different and so may the trauma and the forms that each of our sicknesses, disorders take on. I see the sadness and the pain in their eyes, I can hear the struggle and the disparity in their voices, when they speak it’s evident their throats are straining as they wrap their own arms around their knees brought up tight against their chests. They are afraid, they are desperate, and it seems there is no one their to help them. They could be standing deep inside of a crowd of people, hundreds even and still feel absolutely and utterly alone, as though no one can see them, as though no one might ever miss them.

It is devastating to be in the room with them, I want to hold them, I want to allow them to feel safe and loved and valued. I want to help them but I don’t know how, sometimes I feel like I barely made it out alive and still some days I catch a glimpse of my shadow, its cold, dark presence looming behind me, waiting for me to fall and then it can cover me, sucking the warmth from my body and stealing my will to live. Maybe that’s meant to be, maybe it’ll always be there just waiting, waiting for me to refuse to pick up the spoon or stand up and declare power over it, like the devil, just waiting for me to give in and collapse.

When I supported my wife in starting this journey, this non profit to help all those affected by eating disorders I knew I was in over my head, but I didn’t think it would affect me in the ways it has. I know what it was like to be one of the million homeless in this country, standing curbside, having not eaten, not being able to think clearly because I haven’t slept for days and watch as people flow out from the theater and throw their popcorn and half filled fountain soda’s into the trash, not being seen by them, living in the proverbial shadows as if I was wearing the cloak of invisibility. These people are there too, marginalized by society, shamed because they are overweight or ignored by fear because their lack of weight makes people uncomfortable. I admire these people, they are soldiers, the act of fighting natures programming is no small affair. They are dreamers and lovers who can’t love themselves and some of them are barely keeping their own heads above water, their feet burdened with anxiety and shame and guilt and fear and their grip on the world secured only by their fingertips, watching as people walk by over head not seeing them, not helping them.

I feel for them, I get angry at what I determine to be the only option for many, a clinically sterile treatment center that exists only to refeed them and kick them back out, with no skills, with no hope, seemingly knowing they’ll be back again soon with their insurance companies in tow. There must be a better way, no one ever talks about anything other than their shortcomings, than their poor choices and hurting others. What about their strength, what about their desires, what about their dreams and what about empowering them to live life despite everything? There are plenty of people ready and willing to tell them all about all the bad they have done, about their expectations of failure, there doesn’t seem to be enough people ready and excited to help them live out their dreams and find their passions,  these are beautiful people, smart, strong, people whom just need a hand, one to pull them out of that frigid water and into the sunlight, to give them a chance and listen to their songs. I want to be one of those people, we all should be those people. I used to think I didn’t belong here, but this is right where I belong, I need these people because they can show me what it means to fight, I need to hear their voices, it gives me strength, strength I want to use to fight for them, because put simply, as a woman who means the very world to me once said, “They are worth it, we all are worth it”.

The Pain in His Eyes

I could see it in his eyes, there was a deep seeded pain there, one that was planted under fire, when the world had gone dark and thoughts of home and green grass and Sunday dinner had faded from faint memories to fantasy.

His hands were calloused and so was his gaze. If he looked at you it was circumstantial, he wasn’t really focused on you but something far off in the distance behind you. There was a darkness shrouding him, he seemed uncomfortable in his skin, like a tag on a shirt that wouldn’t stop itching your neck, something bothered him, something that continued to hurt and wouldn’t go away.

Sometimes as we talked, he would disappear, I don’t mean from sight, physically, but he would drift off, into the shadows of a place only he understands, a place the hurt welcomes him, comforts him. It’s a place he has grown to feel more comfortable than in the lighter places where people expect things from him, where they want to know what it’s like and how he feels.

What would you know, how could he explain? You stand there wanting him to speak, wanting to punish him for things he’s done, as though he hasn’t been punished enough.

Just when you think you understand him, he says something that makes no sense and you laugh, and he laughs, and you both stand there looking at each other like you’ve lost your way and don’t know where to go. In that silence you can feel his anxiety, it’s palpable, it’s tainted with shame and mistrust.

So, as you stand there, the silence quickly becomes awkward, uncomfortable, and as you peer out of the corner of your eyes at him his gaze has turned downward, his scarred and tangled fingers move against each other, rubbing, searching for something in his hands and he closes his eyes tightly. For a moment you can almost hear the wretched screams inside his head.

You want to touch him, hold him, comfort him, but you can’t hold a reflection, that’s when you clear away the fog and realize its you in the mirror you’ve been talking to, and it scares you.

You attempt to take a deep breath and then get dressed, and think about those fantasies, thoughts of home, green grass and Sunday dinners.

The Bad Guy

There is always a bad guy and a good guy in every story, it’s the very existence of which, can make for a good read. It is possible that a single character can be both, or that the bad guy is an element or idea the Protagonist forms a front against. Like in the Never Ending Story the antagonist is the Nothing, it’s a non-existence, a lack of good that the protagonist fights against. They are elements we are taught to believe in from a very early age; as babies we aren’t born with the idea that anyone is bad, but soon thereafter we learn not to trust certain others, that our parents, in most cases are the good guys.

When my children were small I propagated that myself; I taught them that if they ever were lost to look for someone in a uniform like a police officer, because they are the “good guys”. I taught them never to trust someone they did not know, strangers are bad guys, right away they learned to fear what they did not know, and strangers are bad because you don’t know them or anything about them. It may be an unfortunate lesson but one I believed would serve them better than simply trusting everyone. And sometimes we as people may go so far as to convince them of that truth by making things up that aren’t or haven’t exactly been proven, or by lumping them in with others who’ve wrong us.

An author may work so hard trying to convince the reader that a certain character is the very antagonist that they take away the opportunity for the reader to make up their own minds, based on the strength of character of that person in the story, by demonizing the person they want so badly to portray as the antagonist they can put less energy into proving why the protagonist is the good guy. It seems to me we see this daily in politics, and in social media; by making someone else look so bad it can make me look better, it seems to be the basis of every campaign strategy.

As the audience or reader we are left with the daunting task of trying to filter through all of it to try and form our own unadulterated opinion, that’s not always an easy task, and for children it can be even harder, who do I believe, who must be the bad guy, maybe it’s the one I know less about, if even what I think I know about the other person is solely what they’ve told me. The quickest way to proving one is the good guy is by portraying them as a victim, suddenly as the victim the strength of their character is no longer a major consideration; a victim must always be protected and supported.

During my previous marriage I learned that even men can become a victim of abuse, even if it is just verbal abuse and I don’t mean to say that anyone whom suffers under verbal abuse is hurt any less than someone who may suffer physical abuse, it is all relative and it can all be just as abusive and destructive. For years I never saw it, I may have felt it but I was reared not to complain, as a man I was taught to suffer through things or I might be considered a wimp, a pussy. It wasn’t until late in my marriage when I realized that if I had witnessed one of my daughters in a relationship with someone who verbally abused them or neglected them I would have most certainly stepped in, I would have attempted to save them from such abuse. Then I thought about my son and wondered if I would do the same for him. Then I looked at myself in a mirror one day, and in the lines in my face, in the shadows in my eyes I saw someone I might save if he were not a guy. How sexist of me.

In many abuse cases the abuser, the antagonist usually treats only their partner or child abusively. I had a cousin who was verbally abused intensely; her spouse treated his extended family respectfully, but would tease my cousin, his wife from time to time in front of them, it grew til he constantly teased and degraded her in front of their friends and then their children. Then he began getting her drugs, and in what I can only assume was an attempt to soften the proverbial blow she began taking them. Once she was hooked he would tell people and this made her look, to her friends, family and children that she was bad because she was a drug addict. By making her look like a bad mother and friend it made it easier for him to portray her as the bad guy and him as the victim; the poor guy who had to take care of their kids all alone. That worked of course until she committed suicide, then the lines between antagonist and protagonist became blurred, who is the victim now, the kids? Was it her or could it be him? He may also be considered the savior for their children; it makes for a complex dilemma for the reader to sort through.

My marriage had essentially ended a year or two before the divorce, I wanted to renew our vows but she did not, she said she would never do that. I had known for some time that the marriage had failed, we had tried for so many years despite our growing in different directions, we had gone to counseling and with each one at some point my wife made the decision that that counselor was the wrong one for us. The verbal abuse had grown too, it was at the point where whenever we would join our friends for dinner and my wife would drink, she began to tease me, and it would start out with her poking fun at my strange sense of humor, that it didn’t make sense. By the end of dinner she was making derogatory remarks about my political views or how I would tear up at the start of the national anthem but not when each of my kids was born, finally joking about my inability to perform sexually. When we argued she would get into my face, yelling, cursing and even threatening me. This all may sound like I can’t handle myself, like I may just be complaining, as though I might need to “grow a pair”, but for someone whose never been in this situation to this extent, woman or man, it can grow and fester like a disease, I was already suffering from PTSD and this compounded my issues, emotionally and mentally it was destructive.

Eventually this would take place in other social situations, in front of her family and in front of our own children. She constantly spoke down to me in front of the kids and blamed any discrepancy in communication on my apparent inability to communicate successfully; mind you, my job, my career is centered around my teaching folks how to navigate complex programs and communicating with employees’ throughout the world from Japan to Mexico and here in the US. I am good at it and have been for over twenty years. I am a project manager and an Engineering Coordinator. Then she decided to quit having sex with me altogether, she said she just couldn’t do it and wouldn’t until we were in a better place and that went on for over a year.

We had begun counseling once again, we were attending our own sessions but then we would also attend a group session with an additional marriage counselor as well, two counselors and my wife and I. In these sessions my wife would begin being verbally confrontational and outright abusive. The counselors would address that behavior and suggest she change it, speak more appropriately. This began to happen in each session and be carried through in our home again. By this time I felt as though I couldn’t do it any longer. I had reached the end of my patience, I knew that we each had our own issues from the past, our own skeletons and demons to fight; mine stemmed from physical and sexual abuse as a child, Post-Traumatic Stress Dysfunction from the military when I was overseas too. She had her own but always made it a point to state outright how I was the issue; the thing that needed fixing, that she was not the problem.

In many successful stories the author recognizes the value of arguing for and against what makes the antagonist and protagonist exactly that, why is he/she bad, why should you, the reader consider whether or not the bad guy is such or whether or not the good guy really is a good guy.  What is it that makes them such; the author may go so far as to leave some ambiguity in those roles so as to leave it up to the reader to make those distinctions themselves, this lends to a much more intriguing and entertaining read. And the writer becomes less of a preacher per say and more of an objective story teller.

Finally one day I wrote a letter to my wife, I stated that I could no longer take her verbal abuse, that I thought it was not only inappropriate in front of our children but also down right damaging to the relationship I had with them and that if she were to promise to quit treating me in that manner, to stop being verbally abusive that I would stick around for a year to see if we can make things work. Her immediate and only response to that letter was…”how dare you call me abusive!” She never, at that time or any thereafter asked me why I would say such a thing, why was it I felt that way? She never addressed that situation but instead turned it around to me and accused me of calling her something she was not, that I was “a horrible person for having said such a thing” about her.

Later, when I finally stated, during a counselling session after my then wife ranted in a verbally abusive manner, and after the counselors’ having had to stop and correct her, that I had decided to be done, that I no longer could deal with her abuse, that for my own mental and emotional well-being and that of the relationship between me and our children, knowing very well that I may be the bad guy for doing so, I could not stay married to her and decided then and there to seek a divorce. It scared the hell out of me, saying those words, we had been married for over twenty years and I had just made that decision and truth be told, even after that in a corner of my mind up until standing in front of the judge, I still held out some measure of hope that things would suddenly change, if for no other reason than to save months if not years of emotional distraught from affecting my kids.  It was the single most difficult thing I had ever done; I had entered villages ruled by hordes of people whom hated me and whose mission it was to kill me on sight when I was overs seas with less fear than I had in the counselors office that day.

At that moment I was both the antagonist and protagonist; the bad guy and the victim, don’t get me wrong, I was not the only victim and in this situation there are always many victims. My sisters and I were children during my own parents’ divorce, in fact as a child I lived through three divorces. So my kids, my young daughters and my son would be trying to figure out how to feel, whom they ought to side with after all its only natural to assume roles on both parents, as children we taught them right and wrong, good and bad and now they are faced with a situation in where someone must be a victim, someone must be the bad guy.

This is something we as readers all end up doing near the end of the story, we simply cannot close the book without a clear thought as to whom filled those roles, we may struggle and we may even feel bad for the antagonist, we may judge the protagonist harshly but we need to, more times than not draw a clear line, assume those roles so that we can better understand how we feel about the characters, it makes it easier to accept how things are, we can figure out how to move on more easily. It’s the basis for our judicial system, how many times have you heard of a case where at the end the judge stands and says…”so here is the deal you are both wrong, there are no victims and there are no hero’s here, so let’s call it a draw and move on.” Instead, someone must pay; someone must have the finger pointed at them. Suddenly on social media my ex-wife was the victim, she was raising her children all alone, as a single mother.

I found a place where I felt safe, a friend from a writing group where I found solace in troubled times, a space I could spew out all that hurt me, that caused my greatest pain, my secrets and my haunts to no judgement from those I shared my experiences with. So when I needed someone to listen, to bounce my troubles off of, my friend was there without discrimination, she was there for me. That relationship turned quickly into something more involved after my divorce, I was not looking to get involved in another relationship and at the time I had actually swore to myself I would not get into a serious relationship or married again. Hell, I had nothing to offer anyone anyhow, financially since I had been married for twenty years the state decrees that my ex-wife would get a percentage of my income. And let me make things clear, I argued to stay with the kids in the house and let her leave to pursue her own desires, after all, she had stated a couple years before the divorce how much she missed dating since we had married so young and how much she regrets doing things the way she did, she regrets “wasting so many years.” Her response was to state that “a mother never leaves her children”. So I left, I had nowhere to go, couldn’t afford anywhere else and moved in with my friend.

Occasionally in a story the writer can rely on cultural expectations or assumptions to deliver a message or feeling about a character, this may depend on the writer’s chosen audience, if the content is political the writer can suggest that a character belongs to a certain party in order to guide the reader to a specific assumption. Sometimes it doesn’t hinder on the audience, if a character has a history of serving time in prison, even without knowing the basis for his or her conviction that person must be a bad person, at least initially, it puts the burden on the reader to determine at some point if that is really the case. And it is a given that in most places one only has to mention that a man whose left the home of his family and is involved with a younger woman after that, that he must be a bad guy and was tired of his older ex-wife, people might assume that the ex-wife was innocent and he is a jerk.

After my ex-wife and I divorced, people we had befriended through our children’s school suddenly turned away from me at school functions when I attempted to say hi. Assumptions had been made, whether through social media or other means, despite the fact that I still supported my ex-wife and my children by paying more than the state suggested for both child support and spousal support, covered my kids health insurance, having put additional funds away to cover co-pays and other extra costs for medications and all medical fees, cover the kid’s car insurance outright and even decided to sign over my half of our home to my ex-wife to ensure that the kids were able to remain there and have some sort of normality by retaining the safe place where they had all grown up. I still seemed to come off as the jerk. In the end, more than a third of my income went to the support of my ex-wife and my children, half of my 401K was written over to her and I had to find another place to live and get a second job to support myself and have my children over every other weekend.

Never mind that I no longer got to have breakfast with my kids before work and school, be home when they got there to talk about the tough times and the struggles, if they didn’t already assume I did something wrong and chose to leave them and their mother behind they seemed to struggle with whom to rally around, for them, their mother would appear to play the victim card and set a scene wherein she was wronged. It is difficult for others to accept that from time to time there are no clear lines, that everyone loses in some cases, that there is no clear or obvious person to blame. That is not an easy place for folks to be in, it is uncomfortable and emotionally taxing, and especially for children so sides must be chosen to better deal with the situation. It might not seem fair and it most certainly is not, for anyone, and as my mother use to tell me as a kid…”life isn’t fair kid, get over it”.

I told my counselor when I decided that I no longer could remain married to my ex-wife, that her and my relationship had gone sour and I grew bitter and angry as time went on, and the only way I saw to save my relationship with my children was to leave my ex-wife that I could accept being the bad guy. I knew my kids would hold it against me; I had been there myself as a kid and blamed my father for many years even though I knew my mother had cheated on him. My father must have done something wrong I thought.  So I would leave my ex-wife and pray that I could save my relationship with my son and daughters. There is a saying that reads “if I knew then what I know now”, I hate that saying now, and I writhe at the sound of it when someone repeats it. If I knew then what it would feel like to wake up in the morning without my children asleep in my home, without being able to hold them when they have a bad day, without the opportunity to be there when my son’s heart is broken by his first major crush, I am afraid I would not have made the decision I did, that’s a hard thought to swallow.

I am no longer an angry person, I have moved on and married my friend from the writing group, and I love her as I have never loved anyone. I feel like I am part of a team, a partner entirely. I still miss my children terribly; it’s all I can do when I see them to not beg for their forgiveness, when I see the misguided mistrust in their young eyes, and feel the absence of safety when I hug them. I am suspicious of what their mother tells them when they go back home, or what my ex-best friend says to them as he sits at the table and eats dinner with them and desert, but that’s none of my business. I must trust that one day they will understand or at the very least give me the benefit of doubt. And I have had to learn to live with that constant, emotional pain that comes along with thinking of my kids, and wishing I could have somehow kept them from living through this situation, hoping that they don’t see me as society might write me off as. That I am still the man that helped rear them, that still loves every aspect of their different, beautiful ways.

Every now and again there is a story we might read, one wherein we might categorize the characters and walk away feeling quite strongly about them and the roles we placed them in, but then as we live, as we go about our lives, day by day we might remember that story and for some reason we suddenly feel different about the characters we remembered, and it changes how we feel about them today. To that I can only hope, and for now, I suppose I’ll remain the bad guy.

Why I Cry

I can talk all day about how I have a thick skin, how it’s not my business what others think of me and how I love myself and when folks talk poorly of me how it doesn’t affect me. But the truth is, it does, usually I can deal with it and especially from strangers’ I could care less, they aren’t part of my world and if I am not doing anything illegal, immoral or hurtful to anyone then why should I waste my time worrying about it right?

When I was married to my first wife she would say many times over to family and friends, in front of my children how I didn’t cry when my kids were born but I would tear up every time when our Nations anthem was played. She would mock me. Truth be told I always nearly cry outright every time I hear the Star Spangled Banner. That’s what it looks like when someone literally doesn’t understand, I would gamble to say that most veterans would get it at this point, they would know exactly what I am talking about, but there are segments of society whom will never get there, they just fundamentally cannot comprehend that feeling.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my children, for their entire lives I have altered my own to be there for them and care for them and love them. Everything I have done, including serving my country was for them even though they had not been born yet. I may not have teared up at their birth, I have never cried at happiness, but I was and still am proud of each one of them, I was the day they were born and am still today.

When I hear the national anthem of our great country I immediately think of all the opportunities my children and those of my friends and relatives, and all the people who’ve found their way here away from tyranny will have to become what makes them happy and successful. I think of all the freedoms they will enjoy in this land that so many around the world will never have. And I know the sacrifices that have been experienced to keep it that way for my children and all those who’ll come behind me. I think of my grandfather and his siblings fighting in Italy and France, my father and my cousins all serving to protect our freedoms, I think of those I have served with when I myself served over-seas whom didn’t come home and their families who’ve experienced those sacrifices. I think of all those soldiers who’ve come home to face protestors enjoying their freedom to speak out against those soldiers, the freedom they are given because of that soldier’s detriment. I think of all the soldiers who deal with post-traumatic stress disorder every day, and the guilt of being the ones to make it home.

You don’t have to agree with me and you don’t have to understand. But every day I spend free because someone from this country is somewhere around the world without their children, holding a blank check they have written to the United States of America for an amount up to and including their life, is  another day I get to spend with my children and my loved ones.

That is why I cry.

Caden

Her laughter is genuine, not faked or pretentious. It echoes throughout the hospital room, bouncing off the sterile walls and tiled floor.  I imagine she would too if not for the IV or the wires and cords hanging from her as if to hold her down.

Her hair is matted and stuck to the side of her temples, shaved just above her brow, despite this a smile stretches across her young tender face when I see her, she pulls the thin hospital blanket up over her chest, sorta snuggles in a little, her small sock feet tapping against each other out the other end of the blanket.

A brain tumor they said. I suppose it explains a few things in her overly whimsical behavior. My mind races to understand the misfortune, which resonates in the pained faces of her parents and her older sister. She is my niece, she is funny, she is smart, she is beautiful and she is struggling for control against a dark and looming force, one that threatens to rob her of her, of her strength and that light in her eye that shines and sparkles like an early morning sun on the ripples of a lake.

It is unfair, it is unfortunate and it is hurtful to all those around her as well, it is a war only she can fight, from the inside. The rest of us can only attempt to comfort her and do what we can from behind enemy lines. We can see only the fragments of the pain through the growing darkness in her eyes.

That was twelve months ago, the doctors did what they could with what they knew, and now the beast is back, it showed itself in the scans of her brain, in sterile black and white images, new growth where it had once been erased, echoes of the pain felt the first time run through our minds and seem to pierce through the walls of our hearts as we try to reel in the madness and portray a strong front against the uninvited beast.

And as she smiles her unpretentious smile, we fear the thoughts running through her delicate mind, wanting to hold snugly her small, young frame to protect it, to protect her, to ward off the darkness from her heart, from her undeserved burden.