Thick love

Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.
— Toni Morrison

I've got a story about thick love.

I write stories about women and men who use determination and compassion to beat the odds. I came across a post by Drew Dickson that's just this type of story. It struck a chord on so many levels I wanted to share it in it's entirety. It's a bit long, but worth it. (Thank you Drew for being so forthright.)

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This is going to be an uncharacteristic departure for me. This story is deeply personal, for our family, and for our oldest son in particular. But it is a story he’s letting me tell, because it is a story he wants people to hear.

My son Max was born in Detroit in 1997, he spent the next summer in Hong Kong when I was interning at Fidelity Investments, and moved to London before he was two when I accepted an offer to work for Fido there full-time.

He was an amazing child, and became an amazing young man. But he had his demons. And just before he turned 16 years old, those demons arrived with a vengeance. I will spare you the details, but for the next three years, he went through a personal hell. Imagine all the things you don’t want to have happen to your teenager. They happened to him. For three years my wife and I would wait on our front stoop until 5:00 am, in the shadow of the Albert Bridge, hoping that he would come home. On those nights that he didn’t, we would call the hospitals, and call the police. And sometimes the police would call us.

We tried all the things that parents try, and we were very lucky that we could afford to try just about everything. But none of it helped. The change in schools didn’t help. The psychologists didn’t help. The wilderness therapy didn’t help. Our closest friends and extended family all waded in too, but nothing helped.

Max didn’t want to be here. He didn’t feel a sense of belonging anywhere. His self-esteem was non-existent. The anxiety was paralyzing. He often contemplated ending it all, and only the thought of the impact on his three younger siblings prevented him from doing so.

It was a living hell for Max. And honestly it was a living hell for us too. There was nothing we could do about it. The most difficult thing for my wife and I to accept was that only Max could make the choices. It wasn’t up to us. We couldn’t save him. It was up to him if he was going to live, or going to die. As one of my best friends told me at the time, only Max could choose to live.

Just over two years ago, he realized that the scene in London was poisonous for him, and he asked if he could head out. He’d asked before, and we’d let him go to far-flung destinations, but the grass wasn’t greener in any of them. And we didn’t honestly expect anything to come of it this time, but told him that we’d pay for the flight, because he really did need to get out of London, and there was almost no way things could get worse.

He chose a destination a lot of rudderless kids like to visit. It might as well have been Goa, Tulum, Koh Tao or Maui, but he chose Costa Rica. A friend of his, a good guy, was backpacking there, and invited him to come. I told Max we’d cover the first week, but if he wanted to stay longer, he had to get a job and support himself. We honestly didn’t know what to expect, but it felt like a last shot for him.

He loved that first week there, and indeed got a job working at one of the hostels (in exchange for room and board). But after the honeymoon was over (and eventually, the honeymoon is always over), reality set in. His anxiety set in, and his depression set in. At the darkest point, he almost called it. And there was nothing we could do about it. Even if we weren’t 5,000 miles away there was nothing we could do about it.

But, for some reason, he decided not to. Max decided to stay in the game.

We later learned the reason. He’d found an eight-week old puppy roaming the streets of Santa Teresa. The dog had been abused, was eating scraps from trash heaps, and was terrified of people. But Max and the dog, which he named “Chica”, connected with each other. Max and Chica became inseparable.

Max, who by then was 19 years old, started to realize he had something to offer. Chica needed help, and Max was there to provide it. Max started doing adult things, like earning and saving money so that he could take Chica to the vet for check-ups and vaccinations. And Chica started getting healthy. And Max started getting healthy. I could hear it in his voice when he would call. There was an excitement about life and the future that I hadn’t heard since he was 14 years old. He was starting to get his groove back.

On one of those phone calls he said to me “Dad, I think I’m ready to leave Costa Rica.” Then he continued “and while I miss you guys, I don’t think I should come back to London.” “I want to go somewhere where I won’t be tempted by my old habits, but where I can feel at home, and restart everything,” he said. “Somewhere like Georgia or Indiana.”

He said “Georgia or Indiana” because he was vaguely familiar with both. I grew up in Indiana, and then moved to Atlanta, where I lived for several years, and ultimately met my wife, Max’s mom. I told him that either Georgia or Indiana would be a wonderful idea, and that there were great people in both places. I mentioned that I would be comfortable knowing that my old buddies in the ATL would be around just in case he needed a backstop; and that back in Indiana, he’d of course have his grandparents and uncle there for support as well.

So he chose Indianapolis. My wife and our other kids flew over to help get him settled into a new apartment downtown, and they got to meet Chica. And before we knew it, Max was working a full-time job, and not doing any of the bad stuff he used to do. He still had his demons (these kids always have them - heck we all have ‘em – they just learn to manage them), and things were by no means perfect yet. But he could work through the anxiety, and work through the depression, because he had responsibilities now. He had Chica.

On his own in Costa Rica, Max had figured out how to get Chica into the US, and convinced someone at American Airlines to let her fly on his lap, because they wouldn’t let dogs fly in the hold due to the heat. Thereafter, he and Chica settled into their little apartment downtown near the White River canal, and each of them began their new life, together. Max had saved Chica. And Chica had saved Max.

One afternoon three months later, when Max was walking Chica, she saw something she hadn’t seen in Costa Rica. It was a squirrel, and before Max could stop her, Chica chased that squirrel straight out onto Indiana Avenue. Right in front of a speeding car.

The car ran over Chica. My son screamed. In that brief moment everything that Max had worked for, everything he had overcome, everything that he was living for, was gone.

But the blow didn’t kill the dog. The driver that hit her sped off and left Chica half-dead and crying in the road. But the next car did stop. It was a young black kid. A young black kid who saw a young white kid on his knees in the middle of downtown Indianapolis. His name was Kenny. He opened his door, got out of his car, walked up to my son, and said “hey, I got you”. He then walked Max out to the middle of Indiana Avenue and they picked up a bloody Chica and loaded her into Kenny’s car.

Turns out that Kenny had just moved to Indiana, and had grown up down in Georgia. He had been traveling around a bit, and had recently lost his job up north. He subsequently found an offer for a temporary position down in Indianapolis, and had just started work there. He was apprenticing at his new shop, and was hoping to be made a permanent employee. Kenny was just 21.

But none of that mattered to Kenny at that moment. What mattered to Kenny was Chica and my son Max. So Kenny looked up a vet clinic on his phone, and took Max and Chica there. The vet said that without surgery, Chica would die, but the vet wasn’t a surgeon, and they needed to go somewhere else.

Luckily Kenny had stayed. Kenny was there by Max’s side, like a big brother, and this wonderful young man then took Max and Chica to another vet, one that could do the surgery.

The vet did the surgery. It worked. Chica lived. Her pelvis was broken, but over the next six months Max nursed her back to health.

Without Kenny, none of this would have happened.

Kenny even stayed in touch with Max afterward. He would text and see how Chica was doing, and how Max was doing. This last Thanksgiving, about one year since the incident, Kenny even got some tickets to go see the Colts play, and asked Max if he would like to come, and then took him out to dinner afterward.

Max is doing great now. He’s been working full-time, got super healthy, started running marathons, and is now on the good path. These were his choices, they had to be, and he did it. But it almost didn’t turn out this way. Kenny made sure he stayed on that path.

This guy Kenny, I want to reach out and give him the biggest hug he ever got. I want to tell him that he is special. I want to thank him for saving Chica’s life. I want to thank him for saving my son’s.

Oh, and as a follow-up. We got some news about Kenny this past week. It’s some really good news.

Kenny not only got that job offer, he just got a nice long contract along with it. Kenny Moore, from Valdosta, Georgia, just signed a contract with the Indianapolis Colts to be the highest paid slot cornerback in the NFL, in a deal that is going to pay him at least $30 million over the next four years.

Good things happen to good people.

Kenny stayed in the game too.

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There are tears in my eyes again. How caring for another living being is healing. How compassion is not turning away -- not from a broken puppy, or a crying teenager by the side of the road, or making sure they're at the right vet, or even staying in touch. Or being a parent letting go. How selflessness is self-care.

How love is taking a risk.

If the story made an impression on you... in what way?

Oh, may my writing be true to these truths.

I decided my grandma name is Jojo. Husband settled on Gov'nor (!) We were in Flagstaff when Toni Morrison died and on that same day came across a used bookstore where I purchased one of her books,    Jazz   .

I decided my grandma name is Jojo. Husband settled on Gov'nor (!) We were in Flagstaff when Toni Morrison died and on that same day came across a used bookstore where I purchased one of her books, Jazz.

How I'm Writing the Book
I have an interview with a Van Gogh Museum Director! No kidding, my heart speeds up writing that (Deep breaths.) Here's the scoop: I've been procrastinating sending an email to the Van Gogh Museum for months. It's intimidating to tell officialdom that I've written a first draft of a novel about an individual in the Van Gogh family. Their family. I worried that they'd be mad or throw up roadblocks even though my story celebrates Johanna van Gogh. But I've been thinking that sooner or later, I should let them know. After all, it was in their museum that the idea of the book first hooked me. I finally got the nudge I needed to write the email. The museum's research area has been working on a biography of Jo for ages. I've been hoping they'd publish it soon because I have questions about Jo and her world I haven't been able to find answers to yet. A few months ago, I noticed an announcement on the museum website: The biography will be published in September! So Husband and I put together a plan to be in Amsterdam in October. Time to write the email and ask for a meeting. I write an introductory email to the Senior Director heading up Jo's biography. With the help of Google translator, I address him in formal Dutch (hoping this will be a gesture of respect). I cheekily request a meeting during the time we're in Amsterdam, then hit "send." I check my email the next morning. Nothing. That entire first week... crickets. Another week goes by... thunderous silence. (Darn it! Maybe I wrote "m'am" instead of "sir" in Dutch?!) The third week...a hollow, aching voiceless void. So I'm back on the museum website hunting around and notice a link I hadn't paid attention to before: Press Office. The site says the office takes requests from media and bloggers. Bloggers?!! I can say I'm a blogger! Okay, so I send them a note and receive a nice reply back, "We'll be in touch soon. We're all on holiday." Phew! Then this week I received a wonderful warm response from the Senior Director saying he's crazy busy with the book launch but will still meet with me. YAY!!!

Personal Stuff
Just call me the Baby Whisperer. Little Jackson can wail like a champion, but I have the magic of bouncing out troublesome bubbles he needs to burp out. Yes, that pretty much sums up our super-happy Flagstaff visit. Jackson was born on July 24 (early), so we flung mismatched clothes into our suitcases and took off. Being around a newborn brought back a flood of memories of being a new mom. Time recedes. It's a 24-hour continuous cycle of breastfeeding, changing a diaper, cooing, napping, repeat. Giving a good fuss every now and then to break things up. There's no rushing. You must surrender; your reason for being is simply that moment.

Thank goodness for social media or we'd already be on a plane back there.

On a final note, with author Toni Morrison's passing two weeks ago, I've spent some time going back to her writing. Reading her is like taking a masterclass in writing. Toni was 39 when she published her first book. In her early 60's, after writing six novels, she won the Nobel literature prize. In 1988 she won a Pulitzer for her novel, Beloved. Her writing is exquisite and searing. No sentence is neutral. Her storytelling is so indomitable it's intimidating. Then I read this wonderful remembrance of her from the Paris Review, which made her feel more approachable and fun.

So, here's a last quote from Toni:

Make a difference about something other than yourselves.

Lay the love on thick,

Signature
 



Play

Don't play what's there, play what's not there.
-Miles Davis

Last Saturday night Juan and I perched on a balcony above a musical tempest of smooth fusion from the Yellowjackets jazz quartet. 

Although the Jazz at the Bistro club offers lots of tables around the stage, we’ve grown to like sitting above the performers. We catch the little gestures, the nods and shifts that precede the change-up in music when the saxophonist hands over riff rights to the keyboardist, and when the keyboardist, anticipating his own crescendo, shares a look with the drummer who agreeably splashes the transition with a cymbal crash. 

Spontaneous, responsive, alert — their smooth give-and-take the result of the hours and days and weeks — actually years — of practicing and shaping their music together. So much so that this morning an impression of them is still here - the notes rippling in my mind —  and their faces too. The unconscious smiles, the patient watching, the closed eyes while their fingers moved not by dictation but quick-witted inspiration. 

Over the course of their 90-minute performance each musician had moments in the spotlight as well as fusing into the group sound. It looked comfortable to be a part of that group, but not easy. 

You can’t sit on your butt and hide in a group like that. 

You gotta move.

I've learned this.

I remember last fall I was anxiously fretting about the fact that I was not writing. I felt stuck. After about a year of blogging memoir-type essays and sending out a weekly email, I’d sputtered out and stopped in September. Doubt crippled my momentum. It felt so difficult to restart — what would I write and why would someone read it?

My goal to be a writer felt lost. All through the fall I struggled with feeling like a failure. 

Then in December a glimmer of a thought came to me. I remember recalling that overused quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” 

What had I been doing? Repeating the same negative thoughts. Riding an endless merry-go-round of self-doubt. 

"Stop!" I thought, "Knock it off!" 

Then, "Do something!"

So I joined a group. 

It is a virtual group; in fact, the participants live across the country and overseas. Offered by creative professional coach Dan Blank, the original program, called Mastermind, was a 3-month virtual class offered to people who wanted to advance their profession, or aspiration, as writers or artists. Each weekday Dan would record about a 10-minute video on various topics on being a creative professional. We were connected in the digital group space called Slack where we each had our own channel to post questions and leave comments as well as have digital conversations with the group. 

Did I qualify as a "creative professional?" 

I signed up anyway. 

My commitment: To show up. 

So it's been about nine months now (I re-upped a few times). During those months I broke my arm so could only type left-handed, traveled to China and got Internet-blocked, chose my book topic on Johanna Van Gogh, researched comparative authors of historical fiction, restarted this blog, found local writers and the Saturday Writers community in St. Louis, decided to retire from my professional marketing job at year end, traveled to Amsterdam and Paris for some on-the-ground research, and gathered lots of tips on publishing, editing, the craft of writing...it's a universe. I learn one thing only to turn a corner and realize there's another galaxy out there.

Of course, the very best part has been getting to know other creative people in these classes, and the unique, inspiring pursuit each is making to fulfill her (and his) creative dream.

Over the past nine months there have been some key ideas that helped keep me moving. These might apply to you too:

  • You are what you do. I claim to be a writer. A writer writes. Stop waffling. So now, in addition to the weekly blog, I journal for 30 minutes each day and have started a regular 15-minute "timed" writing, in which I write fast, no editing, on my book.
  • Experiment with small steps. At one point Dan wrote, "The first step (or next step) doesn't have to be perfect. It simply needs to be a step. It can be an experiment. It doesn't have to be a commitment you never back away from. Take small steps each week."
  • Find others. Writing may be a solitary sport but a local community of like-minded people, other writers and artists, can be a support network of learning and empathy and information. My goal is to continuously expand these contacts.
  • Double-down. What am I half-baking? What would it look like if I wasn't? 

My mission statement in these blogs has been to share stories of perseverance through challenges, and how this connects us to what matters, and each other. This story of my last nine months may be a little tame as a story of perseverance (especially in comparison to the September 11 blog of an escape!), but I figure the journey's barely begun. At least I'm moving. 

Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Plot Party: Thanks to the generosity of six friends willing to give their time I ran an experiment last week called a Plot Party. I tested an idea to run a collaborative group to dig into what readers of historical fiction especially like (and don't like!), how they select books and whether they like collaborating on creating their own plots. Based on their feedback I've made some adjustments and will try another one on October 10. My goal is to understand the preferences of historical fiction readers more deeply in order to get closer to that audience.

If you are interested and live in St. Louis, are a regular reader of historical fiction (books about a period at least 50 years ago) and are active on social media - let me know soon. Space is limited -- I'd love to have you join.

Suspending the Mastermind Class: Earlier in the year the second 3-month class I took was called "Be the Gateway" and the most recent one was "Mastermind Pro." The next class has a great name and approach, "The Creative Shift," for those who are looking to make that intentional move into a full-time creative career, or to take their current creative work to a new level. I made the difficult decision not to renew. I will miss the Mastermind but have decided to use these next three months to double-down on the previous lessons learned and concentrate on ending my current job strong before retiring at the end of December. 

And thanks to the accountability of this weekly blog, I have to keep moving.

Let me end with another quote from jazz innovator Miles Davis:

I'm always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up every morning... 
Every day I find something creative to do with my life.

Let's play!

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