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 “
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.
Warning. I am not at risk of self-harm or suicidal but I want to use harsh terms and serious language about my state of mind. I am as universally screwy as everyone I know. Just different. Here is my screwy. Here is my must be, because anything else would be untrue.
I am not good with failure. It sends me into a tailspin. But the one that has always given me the most difficulty is failure in relationships. And that is a misnomer. I doubt I failed so much as recognized the relationships failed. The relationship was not meant to be because of personality, emotions and/or history that could not be overcome.
But if I invested my heart and affection into the relationship, I define it within me, that hidden self thing, as “my” failure. Sometimes I went to great lengths to try and fix it. Sometimes I could shrug it off and move on readily.
Old age and circumstances have conspired the last few years to puncture my defenses and leave me feeling defeated after relations failed. I conjure up numerous personal demons to explain why I failed. But note, even if I had no real role in a failed relationship, even if I blame the other person, I still find a way to blame me. I might tell myself that I should have seen failings sooner. Or, I should have never given my heart and made myself vulnerable.
This attachment to the outcome of important relationships is the primary source of suffering for me over the years. I suffer from a deep-seated insecurity that I do not have the skill to be in relationships. Believing I do not deserve to be in a good relationship, the belief that I am a warrior and destroyer not a lover and a healer.
The insecurity eats at me. It erodes my sense of well-being. It pushes me deeper into social isolation and when I need others the most, I repel from reaching out. (Ultimately I reach out but I am exhausted from the effort.)
I have years as a student of the mind and emotions. I know the truth. But I can rarely harness my knowledge of the nature of life to mitigate the bad, bad feelings. Sometimes I want to die. Not kill myself. Just die, not cope anymore, stop showing up for life….escape. Other times I want to bury myself in pleasure. Sex, drugs, and play should help the situation.
At my age, these avoidance techniques do not even bring temporary relief anymore. Nope, I have no recourse but to navigate the choppy waters of my self-inflicted torment. I tread water as I am awash in waves of melancholy. I have all the skill and knowledge anybody needs to successfully move on. I have not the ability to avoid or escape that drowning feeling, of feeling really really bad. I always seem to have a period where I struggle daily, hourly, against feelings of doom and gloom. The world sucks, I suck and you suck.
When you hurt I know just what to say to you. I use my experience and knowledge to guide you to safety. But when I hurt, my emotions interfere with any attempt to return to a place of equanimity.
But I do have the coping skills. I do not expect to die over bad feelings. I know my wounds are self-inflicted. I am aware that how you treat me should not dictate how I treat myself. I have wisdom, compassion and yes, affection and love. Despite years of trying to pummel the vulnerability out of myself, toughen up, I will eventually surrender to the pain that is an inevitable result of giving access to my affection.
All things are impermanent. Someday, you will not be here to read this or I will not be here to write it. Everyone I know who has not passed, will pass. With each passing there will be sorrow and pain. Sometimes I bounce back like a rubber ball and sometimes I hit like a raw egg.
Your concern, love, empathy are so helpful. But at the end of the day, the only way I have found out of pain, is through the pain. I let it in and feel it. I hold it up to the light and see its power and its source. I use pain as a meditation object sometimes. It is called mindful contemplation of feelings. Allowing it to reside within me, but refusing to let it take root, I think, “this too shall pass”.
But damn man, I hate the hours spent in self-reflection, self-pity and self. Gosh, I hate feeling locked up inside, unable to express the full extent of my sorrows. I hate the unguarded moments where anger, greed and hatred run rampant, and I disdain making the effort to nurture love and compassion. I hate that some of my closest confidants who I shared my personal issues with, have died and taken years of trust, sharing and memories with them.
As always I offer to end my blogs with blessings. May all beings be happy, safe and free. It feels a little better to go to a place of loving kindness. People in Alcoholics Anonymous taught me this lovely (St. Francis) prayer which I think serves to take me out of self and makes me focus on being of service. Focusing on the needs of others is like the release valve when the pressure of depression builds.
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace;
that where there is hatred, I may bring love;
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
that where there is error, I may bring truth;
that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
that where there is despair, I may bring hope;
that where there are shadows, I may bring light;
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.
I saw this saying, Be humble, you may be wrong, about a year ago and decided to make it my slogan for a while. Participating in 12 step recovery, practicing meditation and studying Buddhism has taught me some seemingly very important things.
It started with learning something about humility. I abandoned drugs in the throes of despair and surrender. It was obvious that all my intellect, physical strength and wealth of experiences were fruitless in salvaging my spirit from addiction. I feinted right and ran left. I dibbled and dabbled. I abstained and indulged. No matter my will, I could not pull myself out of my bondage to substances.
So when I finally gave up and returned to a 12 step program which had previously kept me sober for 14 years, I did so feeling humiliated. But that feeling was transformed in short order to humility. I recognized that my way of viewing the world could be bettered. That was to be the tip of the iceberg.
Over a period of time and spiritual meditative practices I experienced a reversal. At first it was quite subtle and subsequently a deep reversal in the way I viewed life. I became certain that a new course was right. There were many paths ahead. Forks in the road awaited me often. I inched my way forward, afraid to make a (another) wrong move. There was certainty only in my sentiment that my previous path was not right. I worked to let go of my belief system and adopt a healthier one.
I left Tucson AZ. about 4 years ago and returned to Dallas TX. Shortly after I relocated I found my patience was running out in traffic. I was getting increasingly angry. I sought a mental health counselor. I said to her “I am hardwired for aggression”, She replied, “it is not a hardware problem, it is a software problem.” In that moment I felt that there was new hope that I could indeed reprogram myself. And I have come a long way.
I read an article on the Art of Being Wrong. I recognized myself in said article. Essentially, I do not know “right”. What I have learned is how wrong I was. I now am learning and gaining significant proficiency, thanks to all that has happened over the past several years, to simply be wrong. The author Henry Shukman, asserts that success is to not have a “right view’, but to give up any view. It is enough for me now and I am comfortable with the realization that I was clinging to wrong beliefs. Beliefs that did not bring about happiness, did not make me a worthy companion and restricted my capacity to grow spiritually.
I counsel many people on a variety of subjects, mostly legal and spiritual.I knew instinctively all these years to distinguish what I thought with what I knew. I learned early on that stating my beliefs as facts was a non-starter. It eroded whatever credibility I had. It alienated the clients I worked with. So, when sharing with others I was careful to differentiate between fact and opinion. I held other persons opinions to the same standard. What I did not do, was to tread as cautiously inside my own thoughts and feelings about myself. I made my internal life a grand story and then acted it out in real time.
Meditation has taught me to scoff at my internal dialogue. I watch my thoughts like a good movie. Good or bad, it will end and some new dialogue or feelings will rise up to occupy my time. I refrain from clinging to any thoughts. Some thoughts and feelings are so powerful I feel that require my full attention, even obedience. But practice has proven that the best approach is to watch my thoughts as one would watch clouds. They are not to be grasped, held or fondled. They are simply objects to be observed as they float in and out of my purview.
Odds are that I will continue to make proclamations which are simply wrong or at best, useless. It is better for me to remember that I am a wounded healer and that my wounds can distract me from viewing situations objectively. I am a warrior who needs to remember that if all I have is a hammer, I will treat everything as if it were a nail. If all I have is a sword I will cut what offends me.
So to return to the beginning, I am learning to be humble, because I may be wrong. In fact, the likelihood is that unless I pause, I am likely to be wrong. Maybe not about facts but certainly my perceptions.