A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn, but what can I give you in return?
But I would rather you let me give my heart “
If there is a me, this might be. Can you summarize a life? I did so much living, I cannot recall half of it. But memories flow when I find that those memories may be helpful to others. I also realize that all I am in many regards, is memory. This moment fades immediately into a memory. Here I lay out the substance of memories which comprise the path I follow to freedom from suffering. I have learned studying the Buddha that the most precious moment in my life is this moment. If you read through I hope it will be worthy of your time.
I am 66 years old. I am recently identifying as a lawyer, meditation teacher and recovering addict. I relate to Marilyn Monroe when she said, “I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I am not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world trying to find someone to love.”
I arrive here by luck and by being very street smart. I spent most of my teens on the streets of Chicago, as a runaway from a physically abusive dad. While my family was affluent, I chose to live in poverty and crime, sometimes living on pieces of foam in the basements of apartment buildings and churches. I spent my teens stealing property, selling drugs, hitching rides and evading pedophiles.
Runnin’, hidin’, losin’, cryin’, nothing left to save
But my life
I made my break and a big mistake, stealin’ when I should have been buyin’
Probability of survival, low.
When I was 23, I created the nonprofit youth agency called Local Motion Inc. because it was the only way I could get a job working with teens. All the established youth programs I applied to declared that my lack of any formal college education disqualified me. So I hired me, I learned how to write grants for funding, and spent most of my time working in the streets with the toughest kids I could find. I was drawn to spending nights on street corners inhabited by gang members. My goal was to draw them away from the violence and facilitate their productive participation in society.
I dropped out of high school at 16. I tested and received a GED, high school equivalency when I was 18. I didn’t see the inside of a classroom again until 11 years later when I began a college program called University Without Walls. I spent 2 years in (and out of) the program getting a bachelors degree. My college program was interrupted when I went into drug treatment. After being clean of drugs for a year I returned to college and social services. Got my addictions counselor certification and my Bachelors in Human Services.
In 1985, at the age of 33, I enrolled in the John Marshall Law School. I was awarded a law degree 2.5 years later. I continued to work as a social worker with high risk populations in the inner city until I began a solo law practice in 1988. My own experiences as a street urchin and a drug abuser made me feel drawn back to the streets even as a lawyer. I could stay with what I had come to know the best, the streets! I have learned most of the tricks of survival by always bringing my work to the streets and the streets to my work.
I have been in numerous life and death encounters, including being shot at a few times. I have been witness to or involved in probably 100 violent incidents. Some days I saw multiple assaults. I have seen hate and most of its permutations. Probability of survival, low.
I am licensed to practice law in Texas, Arizona and Illinois. I studied law with some of the best trial lawyers in America including Gerry Spence and Racehorse Haynes. I loved doing trials and represented clients in all types of criminal and civil cases. I am especially proud of my representation of those accused of murder. The stakes for the accused are almost incalculable..
Moved to Dallas TX when I was 43 with my second wife. She was a corporate executive and I started the DFW Gun Range and Training Center, the largest firearms training center in Dallas. Studied handguns tactics with some of the best, Thunder Ranch, Gunsite Academy, and the Executive Protection Institute among others. I was certified by the state of Texas to teach police and security firearms and the laws of use of deadly force. Survival odds, improved.
I made a best friend of my little brother Ricky when I became a Big Brother of Chicago over 35 years ago. He was 8 years old then. My second and best wife and I became foster parents to Danny, an 11 year old I met when the juvenile court in Chicago assigned me to assist in his criminal defense.
I have owned 7 businesses including 3 nightclubs. I regard nightclubs as a world infused, infested with drugs, alcohol and pain. Probability of survival, low.
So let us summarize what I think I am. I do fail more than I succeed but my failures are so delightful to others that I enjoy sharing them when opportunity knocks. So I identify with my failures. At the same time, my failures were harnessed to create subsequent successes. I identify with that.
If I get past labels, it is because I realize that saying I love biking Dallas or hiking Tucson AZ. is not satisfactory. Teaching Buddhist meditation for several years at the Buddhist Center of Dallas and being present for my daughters/family Annastacia and Alexandria, does not explain who I am now.
Should it be a thing that I relapsed on drugs for 10 years but in 2007 I reengaged with and remain in 12 step recovery? Does my study of Buddhism help sketch out who I am?
Funny story. On my way to losing a fortune during the economic tsunami of 2008, I befriended a Buddhist monk from Thailand who was living in Tucson Arizona. He and I hiked hundreds of miles of mountain trails discussing and learning meditation the next 2 years. Then I ordained as a novice Buddhist monk and lived in his monastery for a little over 4 months. That monk, Ajahn Sarayut, taught me how to meditate and then to teach. Odds of survival, very good.
I eat healthy, treat the Earth with respect and seek the companionship of great spirits. I have two mottos. Do no harm. And, Be humble, because I may be wrong.
I do wish to label me not. I prefer to be what I can be as the moment dictates what is true and right. My study of the Buddha taught me that the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment would lead to a state of calm well-being and to use that calm state to look at all experience in terms of suffering and freedom from suffering.
I am certain that I must be accepting of everything. I may not approve but with a gentleness I never knew, I must accept the pleasure and adversities and how fleeting both are. Drug addiction was a quick way to allay my emotional discomfort. Meditation is a slower, safer more skillful way to free myself from the very torment that drove me to abuse chemicals, relationships and money.
The time I spend trying to be certain of the solidity of things and thoughts the more suffering I have. When I bathe in the uncertainty of everything including myself, while it is bewildering, it is liberating. When I sit a look closely, there is nothing I can cling to with certainty. I was asked to challenge myself as to where my thoughts began and where the went when they left. I was challenged by my teachers to show that my thoughts and emotions were mine to possess by adhering to happy thoughts and pleasant emotions. I accepted the challenge and discovered I could not successfully cling to my thoughts or emotions.
“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” Abraham Lincoln.
If I fail to stand for what I believe I would fail to be who I think I am. When I act mindlessly, not mindfully, when acting selfishly not selflessly, and when my intentions are unwholesome, then I am not who I want to be.
Who am I? Have not a clue. I no longer intend to let the armor around my heart remain there. I have been letting go of the pain of life’s encounters which close me, protect me and subvert me when I wish to love. Breathing in I am mindful I am breathing in. I practice in meditation to be aware of the physical sensation of the breath, in and out. When I am fully mindful, meditating the sediment of mindlessness settles. There is then a clarity which I never had of this moment and all the pain of yesterday and the anxiety of tomorrow is dissolved. I am free to love my family and friends and even strangers without the rubbish of judgment and opinions I love attaching to.
I do not have an answer by the way. But I think it a good question. I just came home from watching a movie called Instant Family with Mark Walhberg. It is about foster care and adoption and many of the problems associated with it. The movie is good in that it depicted areas of the foster care and adoption system and the obstacles.
I applied to be a single adoptive parent when I was in my late 30s. I attended an adoption fair, as depicted in the film, and I consulted with the hosting staff. The host, Illinios Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) would only allow a single male to adopt an older male child. When I met the caseworker, a black woman, she recoiled when I told her I was open to a child of any race. The caseworker would not consider letting me adopt a child of color. It was a distressing event because you walk around this area with all these foster kids running around. Almost all were children of color. Most were cute as a button, even the older ones. Older kids in the system are designated HTP, hard to place. Families usually want to adopt infants or very young kids.
After I complained about the case worker’s attitude on race pairing, the DCFS assigned me to a private agency called Lutheran Welfare Services where they assured me I would get better assistance in my pursuit. Wrong. While they had no issue that they openly shared with me about race matching, they had little experience with single parent/older child matches. Fail!
A few years later, my second wife Laurie and I became foster parents to a an 11 year old boy I was appointed to represent in the juvenile courts in Chicago. He was convicted of some thefts and was ordered removed from his chaotic home in the public housing projects which proliferate the south side. Because he was under 13, he could not be incarcerated so he was remanded to DCFS for foster care.
When the court orders a child removed and placed with the state, in Chicago, the first step is a group home. Bad, bad situation with kids of all ages and issues. I liked Danny although he was very quiet. He looked quite innocent, despite his history of stealing, and I assumed he was overwhelmed to be caught up in the juvenile criminal court. I asked the court to place him in my home until a suitable foster family could be found. This cannot normally be done because neither I nor my home was licensed for foster care. The judge thought I might be crazy so he took me into chambers to determine if I knew what I was doing, could I provide an appropriate and safe home. Then he ordered the DCFS to immediately put Danny in my home. until a foster family could be found.
Danny had mental health and developmental issues. A wonderful boy who was a good thief and a bad student. But he adjusted well to our home. He was with us about a year before they found his first race appropriate home. He remained in the system in one placement or another for a number of years. Such a long story for another time.
He was eventually returned to his mom’s home, which by the way, was still chaotic. While he lived with us, we pursued becoming licensed foster parents but the system was so ineffective we were never licensed despite taking the classes and submitting to background and home checks. I lost track of him about 24 years ago, but I continuously search for him.
My then fiance, Laurie, was not crazy about me bringing a foster kid home before she and I had actually moved in together or got married. She complained once, that I recall, and never again. She was a wonderful foster mom to Danny. I loved that while Danny could not read, she read to him most nights before he went to bed.
On a side note, Danny escaped from some other placements when he was 13. He fled back to his family of origin. His oldest sister called me to please take him into my home again before he gets killed. He was running the streets, selling crack cocaine and had ripped off the drug dealer twice who was fronting him the crack. Great stories about the rescue for another time.
So many of us want to help. We want to love and provide a healthy environment for children. The film, Instant Family, was hokey and over the top at times but in large measure depicted the crazy chaotic feelings of foster children, foster parents, and the challenges of foster care. There is a story thread depicting how the family reunification policy which guides the courts can result in a mixed, often bad result. And no exploration of the foster care system is complete without showing how some foster families treat the kids like a business. It was a tear-jerker at times for sure.
DCFS creates profiles for online kid shopping where you can view hundreds of kids who are available for adoption or foster placement. You read their profile, see their photos and then are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem.
I did finally adopt two daughters. raised them and perhaps failed them. Loved them and sheltered them. Not sure by any measure that I am a good parent, but I know these two quotes are true.
We should not be asking who this child belongs to, but who belongs to this child.
Not flesh of my flesh, nor bone of my bone, but still miraculously my own. Never forget for a single minute, you didn’t grow under my heart but in it.
“Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.” Buddha
The message is unavoidable and simple. The reality is that it feels like more effort than I can muster to get things done today. So now I actively harness mindfulness into my life. More on that later.
If you read this blog today, you should at least care about one of two things, preferably both. Me and you. Not together, just as participants in this exchange.
I have been thinking about my pal Gary Coursey. He died almost 2 years ago. He was many things to me. Important things. But here is what he brought me today. I knew Gary about 49 years when he passed. I have 2 friends that go back further, Kerry and Marv. They are my oldest friends. Gary and I were friends about 36 years when he became my best friend for about 13 years.
We started living close together in Arizona about 15 years ago. Gary began a habit of calling me everyday or so and checking in. I did not think about it a lot the first several years but then I began to notice he had become my best friend. I knew that within a day or two, we would call each other and I would share with Gary whatever was going on. And usually vice versa although he always had more secrets than me. I moved away and back to Texas about 7 years ago. But we still talked almost daily.
After he died I still had my two oldest friends. The oldest friendship is with Kerry of some 52 or 53 years. Last year his wife and life companion of 45 years died. While she was dying and since then we have been in closer contact. I wanted to check in and see how he was doing after such a blow. We have always tried to be there for each other. We have always trusted each other, mostly. He too has more secrets than me.
So, I decided to call Kerry as often as I want. I have always been measured in how often I call friends, including Kerry. Not too often, not too little. Whatever that means. But as I reflected on my friendship with Gary, I realized that Kerry could handle all the love and friendship I have for him. Gary had shown me that I have a deeper capacity for friendship that I did never thought about.
I called Kerry and said I plan to call him as often as I like and if that was a problem, let me know. Of course it is not a problem (yet). We are best buds. We have weathered high school, drugs, marriages, disease, surgeries and death together.
Gary Coursey, you gave me, Ken, permission to be as much friend as I wish, without measure or hesitation. I never had that before and I surely have not realized what a gift it is.
So dear reader, if aging is inevitable as well as death, better start on that bucket list today. And knockout everything else that was on that list because tomorrow may not go as well as today.
Do not put off showing love to family/friends. Maybe call some friends monthly if possible and try all friends annually or more. Do not put off making a will and trusts or power of attorney for healthcare. Get the annual physical, travel and most important, ride a bicycle.
Mindful meditation brings things into focus. It settles the chatter in my mind and allows for attention to the moment. I simply notice whatever arises. Today this insight into friendship arose.
A favorite Buddhist author of mine Maritine Batchelor, wrote this paragraph in an article 15 years ago…. “You must also be careful not to equate meditation solely with concentration. It is essential to cultivate inquiry as well. This is the quality of the mind that sees clearly into the impermanent and conditioned nature of reality. Whether you are focusing on a specific object or not, the cultivation of inquiry requires you to look deeply into and investigate the nature of each phenomenon in your field of awareness. Whether it is the breath or a sound or a thought, each and every thing can be seen as conditioned and constantly changing. It is essential that you cultivate together and in harmony these twin elements of concentration and inquiry. Concentration will bring stability, stillness, and spaciousness; inquiry will bring alertness, vividness, brightness, and clarity. Combined, they will help you to develop creative awareness, an ability to bring a meditative mind to all aspects of your daily life. In this way, meditation becomes both a refuge and a training: a refuge into being, and a training into doing.” Maritine is a practitioner of Zen Buddhism but Theravada Buddhism, which I teach, recognizes this as Vipassana (Insight) meditation. Insight meditation is believed to be the oldest of the Buddhist meditation practices.
I suggest we live the new year with an awareness of the need to attend to the “now”, this moment. I think it would be wise to look at any inclination to delay and balance that against the possibility that there will not be a “later”.
Like going to the gym to exercise the body parts, meditation is exercise for the spiritual and mental parts. A well-rounded visit to the gym should include aerobics in addition to weights. Likewise, loving/kindness is the balance for insight meditation. The Buddha insisted that a strong mind should be balanced with a loving and compassionate heart.
“May all beings far and near, all beings young and old, beings in every direction, be held in great loving-kindness. May they be safe and protected. May they be healthy and strong. May they be truly happy.” May all who read this have a good, safe and peaceful year.
» 23,079 CBP officers
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» 19,437 Border Patrol agents
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» 256 aviation enforcement agents
» 883 trade personnel
An aside, on the subject of money and personnel, thousands of medical jobs at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country remain vacant because VA leaders contend they can’t find qualified candidates who want them, an agency report released Thursday revealed. Directors for 140 VA hospitals reported a total of 3,068 staff vacancies that they are struggling to fill. On average, it takes the VA 110 days to hire a nurse, 177 days to hire a nurse practitioner, and often even longer for a physician.