email sent June 19, 2015

Subject: What’s Your Story?…

… or, Bring on the Grand Chasm

This update does not report any CT scans results. That will be a month from now. But I will address my status as it relates to heading down the Colorado River at the end of next month. Since I’ve accumulated a substantial amount of material to share I figured I’d send this now and perhaps the next installment will be short. It is possible, really.

When the previous CT scan results came back in May, I felt as if I had passed some sort of qualifying exam for the river trip. My breathing still needed to improve and it did in the ensuing weeks, doing so surprisingly soon after radiation. Thank you, Dr. Spierer! And thanks to the electroacupuncturist who gave the nerves in my feet a wakeup call. The neuropathy has been subsiding a bit (which will greatly improve my balance in rocky terrain). I still harbored some reservations about going on the trip. I didn’t want to anchor the enjoyment of others. At first, I anticipated the fun and excitement of giant roller coaster waves, the indescribable beauty and awe-filled experiences. But after I expressed some doubt about my health to Vicki, she gave me an entirely different perspective. She pointed out an entirely different aspect of the 14-day trip with friends and without electronic devices and without engine noise, through one of the greatest natural wonders on our planet. It will change me. As it did her many years ago. That reasoning and expectation removed all doubt. Soon after that we visited the local REI store and bought all sorts of cool stuff for the trip. (They have very nice, huge changing rooms with mirrors, benches and plenty of hooks. But I was disappointed when I exited it unchanged. Maybe next time.)

Little feats like this shopping expedition feel like big wins. As I’ve suggested many times, belief in the future makes the present all the more magnificent.

A few months back a long-time very good friend likened me to a fairy tale character who “learns a lesson from every foe he encounters along the dangerous trail.” I was flattered by the allusion, but I dared not to engage in such self-indulgence. I hear many kind words, many undeserving. I appreciate the spirit in which they are offered, very much so. I do acknowledge that I’m crazy fortunate and determined. But I do not allow myself to fall prey to that most deadly of all ancient Greek flaws, hubris. I mean, come on, I’m well aware that I can’t hold a candle to the many people that I’ve quoted in these missives, including many of you. I do admit that at times I’ve looked back and wondered how I ever survived a previous challenge. As I’ve said before, I’ve been blessed in so many ways far beyond any reasonable hope and expectation.

After writing the above passage, I began reading a book entitled, The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit. Within the first few pages she wrote, “Fairy tales are about trouble, about getting into it and out of it, and trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route of becoming. All the magic and glass mountains and pearls the size of houses and princesses beautiful as the day and talking birds and part-time serpents are distractions from tough core of most of the stories, the struggle to survive against adversaries, to find your place in the world, and to come into your own. Difficulty is always the school, though the learning is optional.”

She opened her book by asking, “What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of the world that spreads in all directions like Arctic tundra or sea ice To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.”

I continue to happen upon stories that describe the extreme highs and lows, positives and negatives, we encounter in life. Sheryl Sandberg (COO, Facebook) posted a heart wrenching, profound and poignant tribute to her recently deceased husband, David Goldberg (CEO, SurveyMonkey) on Facebook. I strongly recommend that you read it in its entirety. A few excerpts follow.

“A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: ‘Let me not die while I am still alive.’ I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.”

“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.”

“I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before — like life… I no longer take each day for granted.”

“As Bono sang, ‘There is no end to grief… and there is no end to love.’”

A good friend who previously shared the anecdote about the server who asked the Dalai Lama about the meaning of life, shared another enlightening story, that of the highly accomplished Gilman High School football team in the Baltimore area and its coaches. The following is recounted in Jeffrey Marx’s, Season of Life.

The meeting with the players on the first day began with, “‘What is our job?’ Biff [Poggi, the head coach] asked on behalf of himself, Joe [Ehrmann, the defensive coach], and the eight other assistant coaches.

‘To love us,’ most of the boys yelled back. The older boys had already been through this routine more than enough times to know the proper answer. The younger boys, new to Gilman football, would soon catch on.

‘And what is your job?’ Biff shot back.

‘To love each other,’ the boys responded.”

In another instance… “‘The rest of the world will always try to separate you,’ Biff said. ‘That’s almost a law of nature — gonna happen no matter what, right? The rest of the world will want to separate you by race, by socioeconomic status, by education levels, by religion, by neighborhood, by what kind of car you drive, by the clothes you wear, by athletic ability. You name it — always gonna be people who want to separate by that stuff. Well, if you let that happen now, then you’ll let it happen later. Don’t let it happen. If you’re one of us, then you won’t walk around putting people in boxes. Not now. Not ever. Because every single one of them has something to offer. Every single one of them is special. Look at me, boys.’”

And also… “‘I expect greatness out of you,’ Biff once told the boys. ‘And the way we measure greatness is the impact you make on other people’s lives.’”

I’d like to add that the good friend who shared this, along with his wife, were two of the four people who saved my life at the outset by paving the way for me to get the critical second opinion from Dr. Weiss. Some impact, eh?

I’ll finish with a story of my own. A few weeks ago I had an outstanding dream in which I enjoyed a brief conversation George Harrison. He was sporting his casual White Album-era look. He looked good. As expected, he was down to earth, very matter of fact, and soft-spoken. I mentioned how much I enjoy Isn’t It a Pity. I also discussed Within You, Without You, which I thought might impress him. Lastly, I brought up While My Guitar Gently Weeps, my favorite. I refrained from asking a question long on my mind: “Why would you ever concede the slide guitar riffs to Eric Clapton on such an epic song?!” Our discussion ended with him advising me not to overlook My Sweet Lord. I definitely won’t.

With continuing love, gratitude, appreciation, and awe,

Jim

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