Waking up: A tale of depression, integrity, assertiveness and good boundaries

A little over a year ago, I sold out my integrity.

I gave up my perfect job – as a cashier at Earth Fare, not your average grocery store – because I had moved into a subsidized senior living high-rise, where they told me as I was moving in (after putting my application a year before) that – between my Social Security check and my earnings at Earth Fare – I had too much income to live there.  Giving up my Social Security was not really an option, so I quit my wonderful job (the only real problem with which was that it paid lousy wages – $11 an hour, nothing like a living wage).

Within two weeks, I was pathetically depressed.  Desperate to get out of this depression, I decided that I was missing my job and went over to Earth Fare and got my job back.  (I am, honestly, magic with customers and they love me there.)  “So now I’ll move – I don’t really like living in a high-rise two-room apartment in the middle of all the concrete downtown.”

My loving, well-meaning friends absolutely jumped in my shit.  “You have moved way too much in the last year.”  This was true – I almost never seemed to get along with my roommates (the only way I could live in a house, which my dog needed) – the only exceptions being one new friend and the husband of a woman who liked me at first and invited me to live there, and then learned to hate me and my adorable 5 lb. yorkiepoo dog Toni.  (I think it may have become a problem between the husband and wife that he liked me so much.) “The rent is cheap there and you will finally have stability.  You won’t need roommates.  You can live there the rest of your life if you want.”  (Most people do just that, leaving only on a gurney.)

So I dutifully quit my job again and committed myself to somehow make the cursed apartment work for me and little Toni.

It didn’t work.  And not having the job – the structure, the identity, the community of staff and customers – was very, very bad for me.  Over the next eight months, the life energy gradually dripped out of me – drip, drip, drip.  I got suicidally depressed and – with support from a close friend and the building’s wonderful counselor Donna – went to the hospital after, in a kind of hysterical state, coming very very close to going to the top of the 13-floor building and jumping.

I shifted into mania and came out of the hospital happy – high, actually.  I organized and performed a hugely successful “Something Rises 2019 – Majo’s Comeback Tour” poetry concert.  That night after the wonderful poetry concert – having truly been in the zone with those 78 people – I was extremely happy, content and peaceful.

A week later I was again in tremendous pain from depression. (The core symptom of what I call my “depression” – because it alternates with mania – is a very painful physical contraction through my whole body, like every cell is in a vice.  The shrinks, for 30 years, have never known what I was talking about – it doesn’t fit any of their models – and have always pretty much ignored this reporting). I spent most of the next week in bed – mostly isolated from other people, especially my world-class circle of important friends.  I got progressively more depressed and – exactly like the previous time, just five weeks earlier – felt that I could not bear the pain any longer, and prepared to make my departure. (Again by jumping off the roof).  I understand there is actually a long history of people doing just that – which, however, the management of the building works hard to minimize.

Coming out of the hospital after two weeks in what felt like a sensory deprivation tank (my fellow patients almost all were suffering from dementia), I was still almost as depressed as when I went in.  My really very good hospital psychiatrist apologized to me in a very heartfelt way that he was very sorry they had not helped me – that they really had tried every medication that they thought might be helpful, but obviously nothing worked.

I had an appointment with my regular psychiatrist the day after I came out of the hospital and told her, “Don’t let me fall through the cracks – I’m still in danger.”  She said, “Your hospital psychiatrist made that very clear in his discharge summary, which they faxed to me.  He said you are still a serious suicide risk.  They let you go only because you really, really hated being there – and they couldn’t think of anything else to do for you.  And because you told them that you were safe, that you were not thinking of hurting yourself – even though they didn’t really believe you.” And, in fact, I was consciously lying to them – I was ready to say whatever it took to get out of there.

I spent the rest of the week in bed.  My behavior and language were so similar to before my two brushes with suicide that my really good friend Tom Kilby got very worried about me and called me every day.

A week after I came out of the hospital, on June 26, my new little dog Pancho (Toni had very sadly died on October 1) got up in the middle of the night and acted like she was going to be sick.  I got her out of the apartment and took her for a walk through the dark, mostly deserted 3 a.m. streets of downtown Asheville.  Walking down an eerily quiet Patton Avenue, very near Jubilee’s back door, out of the blue several things came together:

“You gave away your integrity.  You gave up a job you loved and that was made for you – to take an apartment that you knew was not right for you – because your loving, well-meaning friends told you to do it.  You always knew they were wrong, but you didn’t trust your instincts and bowed to their pressure.  It’s time to take your integrity back.”

I came home from that walk as charged up as I had been dispirited at the beginning of it.  That afternoon I got my job back – it took about thirty seconds.  Even though I had quit twice in six weeks a year before, when I said to the store manager Brandon that I wanted my job back, he totally lit up and asked, “When can you start?”

Now that I would be making too much money to stay at Battery Park Apartments, that night I started to think hard about my escape.  Wednesday a week later, in the morning I said to a friend, “I need to find two roommates and a house we can afford.  That task feels a little threatening, but I really feel like it’s going to work.  I seem to deal better with male roommates.  My favorite roommate of all time was my friend Tom Kilby.”

That same day in the afternoon, I was shopping at Earth Fare.  I now was employed again at Earth Fare – as is Tom and our old roommate, and his current roommate, Will.  I ran into Will in the store and was bending his ear while he loaded a frig with kombucha.  I vented pretty much the same way I had in the morning.

“I need to find two roommates and a house we can afford.”

“When do you want to move?”

“Around the end of September. Why?”

“That might be perfect.”

“Why, Will?”

“I want to move in with my girlfriend right around then.  I have been feeling a responsibility to find a roommate for Tom and Ian” (Tom’s 19 year old son, who really likes me – and vice-versa). Within a week, I had met with Tom and Ian and we had a plan in place.  All three of us are very excited about this. They both love Pancho.

Will had asked me how much a month I was paying at Battery Park.  I said, “It’s really cheap – $380. ”  I assumed Will’s house – he owns the house – would be a lot more expensive than that.  $500 plus utilities has seemed to be pretty standard for house share situations.  Will said, “I can match $380.  I’m not looking to make money off of this – just to get the mortgage paid.”

Something has really changed in me since I decided to reclaim my integrity.  This sometimes-too-nice guy has become assertive in ways that sometimes shock people – and feel really great to me.

The social scientist Brene Brown says that her research has shown that the personal quality that correlates most closely with happiness is open-heartedness – and the quality that correlates most closely with open-heartedness is solid boundaries.  If we trust our own capacity to say “No”, we feel freer about saying “Yes”.  Without ever thinking about it or consciously willing it, my personal boundaries have become a thing of wonder.  I don’t suffer fools gladly and won’t let someone stay standing on my foot: I start by nicely asking them to get off my foot – but if they don’t I escalate, in stages, just as much as is necessary to get them off.  All this makes me very happy.

At Earth Fare – a place where I have always been loved, admired and known for being outrageous and funny – I am now way more outrageous and funny.  And I will also let myself be crabby with customers in ways I never would do before – especially when their behavior is begging for it.  My signature intervention with customers (and staff) has always been to validate them – to find something fresh and positive and genuine to appreciate about them.  I am now way more enthusiastic and intuitive at this than ever before.  This girl had gotten about two words out of her mouth when I erupted with, “You’re really a fun person, aren’t you?”  “Yes, I actually really am.  How did you know?” I didn’t know how I knew – I just knew.

While my “depressive” physical pain continues non-stop, 24/7. there are ways I can take my mind off it – including reading the Washington Post online, which really kinda helps, I ain’t kiddin’.  But the primo distraction is standing in front of a customer at Earth Fare: it’s a performance, it’s show time, it’s the Majo Show – it’s a total blast.  It’s what I was born for.  It’s what I have been shaped for in these 72 years,  For two hours at a crack, I feel no pain.  When I get a ten minute break and head outside, my hand has not touched the front door before my pain comes back.  It is worst in the morning when I get up – until I open up my laptop and start to surf the Washington Post – and then in the evening when nothing is going on.  But it can also kick up at the checkout if things get slow and I don’t have a customer in front of me.

While the physical “depression” has honestly been kicking my ass, the affective depression that most people associate with the word “depression” never seems to touch me.  In the six weeks or so since my “Integrity Day” (that’s how I have marked it in my calendar), I have never been blue or worried or anything.  I have never stopped liking myself – even (or especially) when someone else is not liking me.  And, as I get way more assertive and emphatically hold my boundaries, those situations where I piss somebody off are more common.  Their upset typically feels like a sign that I am doing something new and very right.

I can feel emotional pain (maybe more acutely than ever), like when a dear friend called me yesterday and – in so much pain herself – told me a horrific story about the sudden accidental death of her cousin two days before.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and cried mightily through her whole telling of it.  I’m crying now remembering this call.  But, while what happened to this guy – and is now happening for his wife and three kids – seems so terribly wrong, I still know that I am not wrong, that inside of me I am safe.

I have never, in six weeks, in any way disliked myself (my old depressive specialty), felt guilty or blamed myself in any way.  I see myself do things wrong, but all that seems very fixable.  I still have problems, like making $11 an hour and seeing my 24 hour a week job shrink to 12-18 hours because corporate is putting the squeeze on every department in every store – but more than ever I trust that “every little ting, is gonna be alright” – in Jubilee-speak, that “all shall be well”.

I sing all the time these days.  I’ve never been a great singer, but that isn’t stopping me.  I sing to my dog a real lot – almost non-stop.  I sing in the woods – loud – and never worry that another hiker might come around the corner.  I really belt out the songs that I know so well and love so much at Jubilee – and I actually sound really good to me.  People turn and look at me.  They may be thinking “Jesus, he’s loud”, but I imagine they are thinking “Wow – what a beautiful voice.”

I seem to be so much a new person – sometimes just like Majo on steroids, but other times like somebody I don’t know but like a lot.  I seem suddenly so awake!  The other day, just for laughs, I googled the word “enlightened”.  I didn’t find any definitions that seemed compelling to me, so I wrote my own list of qualities (which will soon, maybe even tonight, appear in this blog under the title “Enlightened”).  Not too surprisingly, I guess, this list that I just created looks a lot like me in the last six weeks.

What do I know?

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A celebration about forgiveness

A few weeks ago, something went terribly wrong with a friendship that I had until then prized very highly.  This guy and I had an explosive confrontation outside a coffee shop that left me thinking that I might never talk to him again – and definitely would never trust him.

But a couple weeks later, he started “Like”ing some of my Facebook posts – just like in the old days.  That actually felt kinda good. And then he Commented on one of my posts – not positive or negative, just engaging with the ideas I had expressed in interesting, intelligent ways – just like in the old days.  Then he did that a couple more times.  Then I started to Reply to his Comments, in pretty much the same dispassionate – but really kind of appreciative – tone he had been striking.  Then I started Tagging him on some of my posts I thought he might find interesting.

I sent him a brief Facebook message, in which I said “I can’t tell if I will ever be able to trust you again – I just don’t know.  But, for now, these Facebook exchanges are feeling good.”  He wrote back that what he wanted for the two of us was “successive approximations to normalized relations”.  I wrote back “Well spoken.  You sound like a delegate to the United Nations.  But that’s pretty much what I want too.”

I went to the 9:45 Jubilee Sunday celebration today.  The baptism of Amy, our new minister, was so beautiful it blew me away.  I got very, very happy – and cried with joy on and off through the whole baptism ritual.  When it got to be time for the preaching, I took my dog and left.  I had gotten what I came for and – after two hours sleep the night before – was way too exhausted to sit still for a 14-minute sermon.  I had to move.

My ex-friend followed me out into the street.  Something in his whole demeanor told me he meant me no harm – and I never tightened up against him.  We walked the dog down Wall St. and he told me about a new job he had applied for and felt good about.  We swapped stories about this and that.  It was like old times.  Then he wanted to go back in for the rest of the celebration.

I hung around until church let out because there was a woman friend I wanted to talk with.  She knew like nuthin’ about this other guy or my history with him.  But I told her about this kind of amazing conversation with him.  “Maybe I will never trust him again – I dunno.  I really don’t know.  Maybe I’ll just forget the whole fucking thing – like it never happened.  Certainly I don’t understand what went on there – probably never will.  So why am I holding onto it?”

My woman friend asked me “Do you remember what Lauren said the theme for today was?”  The radiant, brilliant Lauren – a good friend of mine – was officiating at the service until the preaching, which she didn’t do.  I had been there for her part of the program, setting everything up, but couldn’t remember what she had said the theme was.

“The celebration was about forgiveness.”

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This blog

The posts are chapters from a book-in-process called Radical Integrity: Reflective Stories for Recovering Your Self.  It’s a book of stories to help you discover, integrate and express more of who you genuinely are, including parts of yourself that are not yet familiar to you – and to do this radically, no stopping and no turning back, fully committed to following your own path in life, doing it ‘your way’.

Actually, life is always trying to move us in this direction of more fully being ourselves.  ‘Radical Integrity’ is simply the process of cooperating with life, going where it is trying to take us.

This book is not about self-help or self-improvement.  There is no advice, no program, no 7 Habits or 5 Principles.  These actual stories (or clusters of little stories), taken from my life and the lives of those around me, are each intended to give a glimpse of another person – with their warts, missteps and learning edge – attempting to be fully human.  You then get to respond to each story in your own unique way.

I’d welcome your comments on any of these chapters: just click on the “Leave a comment” link at the bottom of the chapter.  You might even enjoy reading each other’s comments.

(Some chapters that I judged as being too long or otherwise not appropriate for the book are on a separate blog: radicalintegrity1.wordpress.com.)

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Cafe Dunderfunk

So, I’m sitting in this relatively un-Cincinnati restaurant – an old Victorian house on the west side of the downtown, which serves food that would be more at home in California, like tofu. I’m there with my new boss of 4 months, Tom, and my new colleague of 2 months, Joan.

We are supposedly there to celebrate our biggest business triumph to date – the very successful presentation, that afternoon, of our strategic plan for the next two years, to the top 15 officers of our corporation. But, instead, we are have an extraordinarily painful conversation, releasing all the pent-up stress of the last two weeks of preparation, plus.

Actually, Tom and Joan are letting me have it for a remark I made in the middle of the presentation, which they both found alienating. For my part, while I was at first baffled and knocked off balance by their heavy upset at me as we debriefed the meeting that afternoon, I have since had time to think about it – as I went for an exhilarating power walk through my lovely, hilly university neighborhood on this glorious Spring day, and I’m ready. I know what I was intending with this remark that went so awry – at least with my two colleagues – and I am intent on presenting my side. I am also more than a little hurt that they were so quick to assume the worst of my intentions – although I also understand that we are very new to each other, and have had little time to develop trust.

So. right now, roughly two hours into this encounter in the restaurant, I have had it. It’s not that I’m losing my temper. I’m actually choosing to express my anger pretty much exactly as I am feeling it. This is not an absolutely new behavior, but relatively new for this historically way-too- nice a guy, and (to me, even as I’m doing it) kind of amazingly direct with these two people.

We are really quite new to each other and, in some real ways, they are about the most important people in my life. We have all moved here from other parts of the country to start this new organization development (or OD) department, focusing on the human side of the business (team development, culture change, etc.). I have only a couple of other friends in this city, and nobody who I see anywhere near as frequently as these two.

I know that they both, theoretically at least, believe in the direct expression of feelings – and Tom and I have even had a couple of conflicts before – but we have no precedent together for this strong an encounter. And this does not seem to be going well. My telling my side of the story is not going down – in fact, it seems to be angering my partners more and more.

So, specifically what I am saying right now, to my two new colleagues and possible friends, in really fairly loud tones, and facial expression and body posture to match, is “Just what the fuck do you want from me? We’ve been over this a lot of times now. I’ve acknowledged in X, Y, and Z ways that I didn’t handle this perfect. But we keep coming back to this. Do you want a fucking apology? Do you want me to throw myself on the fucking floor and beg for forgiveness? Why the hell do you keep coming back to hammering away at John?”

Tom, who is really not very much enjoying this part of the encounter, says, “I can’t talk to you when you are like this.” “Like what?” “This angry.” “I am this angry – and I’m actually pretty glad that I’m showing it instead of stuffing it.” (And, in fact, I knew even in the middle of this that something important was going on for me – that being as direct and real as I was being, even while it felt painful and scary and alone, was a very right thing to be doing.) Tom – “Yes, but not in public.”

The next moment was one of the most important in my so-far 44 years of life. Tom, my new boss, on whom a certain measure of my professional future rests – the only real authority figure I have locally – has just given his verdict, that what I am doing is inappropriate. I have eons of conditioning screaming from my unconscious that I have gone too far.

So I slowly, somewhat dramatically, turn to survey this restaurant, which has now been officially closed, door locked, for over a half an hour. The only other souls in this medium-sized room are our waiter and the cook, eating their own dinner on the far side of the room. And I yell to them, across        the expanse of empty restaurant, “Hey, does my being angry offend you guys?” They, somewhat sheepishly, yell back, “No”. “Thanks.”

I knew in the moment that that act of defiance and reality was very big for me. On some intuitive level I really knew that I had crossed a line – had taken a step, for myself, from which there was no turning back. This one time there would be, for me, no regretful post-mortem. I had not been “realistic” in being so confrontive with my boss – I was rather facing my own personal reality and expressing it as if there were no future to protect, only a present to be affirmed and lived.

I had no experience of risk, only clarity. No fear, in that moment, because it had all rolled over into determination and excitement. All my nerve endings were quivering, and I felt completely alive. On some level, I think I knew even then that all the little breakthroughs of my last many years, painful last year, and very painful last few months had just pushed me over the crest of some personal mountain. I was not consciously thinking these words, but I was absolutely living out the motto a good friend had given me years before, “If I die I die, but I will never again be less than who I really am.”

I had known, even during this recent trying period in our relationship, that Tom was a fine man and an excellent consultant – and that our relationship was quite painfully stuck, in ways that had lots of potential for me getting personally hurt. I also knew in my gut, even in the spontaneity of this moment, that this little encounter was not going to help our relationship, at least in the short term. But helping our relationship was not my main priority at that moment.

I needed, I realize looking back, to send a clear signal to my own· unconscious – if not to Tom – that this generally very “nice”, supportive guy would respond in other ways if pushed too far. Expressing anger, yelling at your boss, is not a primary characteristic of integrity work – for some people it would be completely irrelevant. But for me this was a crucial step in taking my own truth seriously.

I did not know at that moment that this personal breakthrough would lead, just four days later, to beginning this book, which had in various forms been bubbling on the back burner of my mind for at least eight years. But it began to write itself, as I completed another power walk on another magnificent spring evening – scribbling madly on the one scrap of paper I had with me, then just trusting that this gift my unconscious was giving me would not be retracted before I reached home and my computer. And so it was not.

You have had the little breakthroughs that lead to this kind of point of no return. You probably have had many of them, maybe almost every day. What you may not have had is a framework that allows you to appreciate and fully grow from them. You may not have known that the impulse to stand up for who you are in the moment, confused and imperfect as that moment may be, represents the song of your soul, calling you back to yourself, to a state of innocence.

Some would believe that innocence is not available to us fallen humans until some future reality. I believe our fall happens moment by moment – as well as the deep pain of losing ourselves – whenever we mistakenly choose to “settle for” security or fitting in or staying in our comfort zone when we have before us the possibility of aliveness, of courage, of exploring new frontiers in how to be ourselves.

This book will give you many windows into different aspects of that humanity we all share. Some chapters may refer to concrete life experiences you do not share, like moving alone to a new city for a new job. But each story will refer to an inner experience that will be familiar or at least possible to you.

If these stories give you some encouragement in the possibilities they portray, some comfort in the humanness we share, some chuckles over the mental predicaments we all tend to get in, ­then they have done their job. Welcome to my world. I think you will find we are neighbors.


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You Made Me Love You

A friend of mine (let’s call her Sarah) came to visit me for the weekend. We had dated in Chicago a ways back, and had had a lovely connection. She had been clearly still recovering from a romantic wound, and in some ways not emotionally available, but we did a great job of respecting each other’s limits and taking each other for who and where we were. Since then Sarah had gotten into a peer co-counseling class and was sorting out a lot of the previously stuck issues in her life. The difference in her when she came to visit was obvious: she had actually been building momentum the whole time I had known her, but now she was really on a roll, healing herself and liking herself more than ever.

We spent a long, delicious Saturday, sampling the delights of Cincinnati all up and down the river. We would sometimes sit on one park bench for a long time, deep in conversation, then just walk and play and be silly for a while. Towards the end of the afternoon, we were sitting in a relatively private spot, again by the river, and Sarah allowed herself to progress from talking about some anxieties in her life, to taking a good cry, sitting there with my arm around her.

I think Sarah had always known it would be all right with me for her to show her feelings this fully, but now she knew it was also ok with her. She let the tears flow freely, then mopped up and felt great – appreciative of me and of herself, her new level of openness and trust in her own emotions and inner strength. The rest of the weekend was even more enchanted. Sarah was more alive and playful than I had ever seen her. We felt very close to each other, and she was naturally affectionate in a charming way that was new in our experience together. We had a great time.

When I spoke with Sarah on the phone a few days later, I could tell that something was feeling tight for her. It took some exploring to figure out exactly what was going on, but then Sarah seized her courage and put it right out. She was having a lot of romantic thoughts and feelings about me. Her limits had always been so clear in the past, and we were now so GUD to each other (geographically undesirable), that it had not occurred to me that this sweet weekend together might take off in this direction. And truly it didn’t make sense to me as a direction for our particular relationship. But it was easy to see what had happened.

Sarah had released her potential for lovingness. She had been doing such good work on herself, learning to trust herself so much more. Then she had taken her new level of openness out on the road. I was a man who she felt pretty safe with, so she came and tried out her freer self with me, and it worked. And, when it worked, she experienced her own capacity to love in a wonderful way that had not been on the scene for quite a while.

But I knew that this love was not specifically about me. It was genuine love, so when it came my way, I felt loved. But it was not so limited as to be defined by me, and it certainly wasn’t caused by me. Sure, I’m a good guy and relatively easy to love (why fight it?) but Sarah was ready to love, and could have focused love on lots of people. In fact, while we were together, she radiated love – towards the people we encountered, toward my fair city, even to the thunderstorm we got caught in.

You may be familiar with the idea of projecting emotions: I’m scared, so think you are threatening me; I’m angry, so I see anger all around. But we can project positive emotions, also. Sarah thought she was falling in love with me, but really she was simply experiencing her own recently expanded capacity to love. I wasn’t the cause, she was. She needed to take responsibility for her own feelings of love.

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The Cropduster

I was driving to Chicago for my friend Eileen’s wedding, feeling quite enthused, in a very good mood – I had had a good day. I was also quite overtired. It had been a challenging week, with a lot of burning the midnight oil. As I was driving along, I was playing the same wonderful Eugene Friesen “Remembering You” song that has done good things for me on other occasions. I’m driving along, feeling good: feeling loved, loving myself, loving my life.

A car goes by and I notice that this young woman has a clothing bag hanging on the hook in her back seat, and I think, “Oh, that’s just like the one that I’ve got – oh, no, it’s like the one that I’ve got my clothes hanging in, still in my bedroom, to bring to Chicago.” And I have not brought them in the car. And what follows for me is a kind of an agonizing couple of minutes of worry, first – “what am I going to wear to the damn wedding?” Then shame and embarrassment at having been so untogether. And then, after I’ve gone through that, I start to do some problem solving. Actually I could go out that evening and get a shirt and tie, and my stepbrother in Chicago probably has a suit I could borrow.

And then I say, “Hey, why is it, Madden, that you have to respond with anxiety and self-criticism to this situation? Maybe there’s no need for that at all. Maybe that’s just a conditioned response. And especially given how challenging your week has been and how strung-out you were today, maybe you could just forgive yourself for this, and not get quite so uptight.”

Then truly, just as I have succeeded at unknotting this knot of anxiety and self-criticism, I see ahead of me, about two hundred yards down the highway, one of my absolute favorite sights – ­which I have seen really only once before in my life. I am fixated on flying, have big-time unfinished business around learning to fly. I find planes, especially small planes, such a wonderful image of freedom. And so, just as I have released some distress inside myself, I see a crop-duster spring up from the field to the right, just in time to climb above the tree line, do a little dance in mid-air, turn around, now just about a hundred yards ahead of me, and dive back down towards that same field.

This aerial ballet for me so perfectly expresses the way my spirit is feeling at that moment. My spirit, whi.ch had felt so sunk just a few minutes before, and now has the opportunity to fly free again. To me at that moment, there was no question of coincidence. That plane doing it’s dance in mid-air, and my spirit doing its dance of liberation from neurosis were interlocked. They were timed together perfectly, and not accidentally. In fact, I no longer have a concept of coincidence. I do not believe in them. I do not perceive the world through those filters. I don’t always observe the connections in the world, but I have no question about the fact that everything in the world is connected.

So, I don’t know how it happened that that plane leapt up in the air there, just as my spirit was leaping up. Did a benevolent personal God send it to me? I don’t know. Did I hallucinate it? I don’t think so.

C.G. Jung talked about synchronicity and I don’t think he ever explained it particularly well – I don’t think our human mind has the power to explain it. But he did talk about how things in this world seem to go together. Events in our inner world weave together with events in the outer world in ways that defy explanation, but that fit pretty good, in really quite uncanny ways at times.

This is really, to me, about as good a definition as I can up with for spirit. And it gets real close to what a lot of the physicists are saying: “Things are connected.” This world is interconnected in ways that have intelligence, that have heart. that have the possibility for a lot of encouragement for us about life and what it’s all about and who we are and where we fit in it. We are inextricably woven into the fabric of life. We belong here, totally.

Once, many years ago, I was at a co-counseling workshop out in the country. On a lovely fall afternoon I had a co-counseling session out in the woods I had a huge personal breakthrough, sorted out a lot of things, and felt extraordinarily liberated. And, in that moment, it felt to me that the birds in the woods were singing to me, that they were welcoming me out from the paralyzing self-criticism I had been feeling before that session. Was this an exaggeration? I don’t know. Would a tape-recording have shown any difference in the way the birds were singing before my session and after my session? Was this simply a matter of my attention getting free? Very likely, in that situation.

However, I think that to try to research and nail down all these situations really would only reflect the analytic, breaking-apart way of thinking that our linear brains imprison us in. On one level, it doesn’t make a difference. Many would say that there is no reality but psychological reality. We are creating how we perceive the world around us. And more and more, over the years, I am creating the world around me as connected.

Now, if I were perceiving it as all responding to me, if it really seemed to me that all the intelligence out there was for my benefit, personally – John, the big-shot, then we might well be talking about paranoid schizophrenia. And, in fact, I do believe that the difference between the religious mystic and the paranoid schizophrenic is not in what they perceive – because to a great extent, I think they perceive the same things – but, to what they attribute it. Whereas the mystic says, “Thanks, God, for creating a world in which we are all so interwoven, where I fit perfectly, because we all do”, the paranoid says, “This entire world circles around me. I must be God Himself.” Not “we are all divine, we are all a part of God”, but “I, personally, this ego, am God.”

I believe that the analytic way of looking at things is a particular set of filters. Mostly, we don’t have the capacity to perceive everything equally, all at once, so we are always using filters of one kind or another as we approach the world. The analytic mode of thinking is based on how our brains are set up and how our senses work – it says that we process individual separate bits of data – separate atoms bouncing around in that universe out there. And we think of ourselves that way. It is a filter, and it actively filters out other kinds of data. It actively filters out evidence of synchronicity, of connectedness.

So if, when I describe things like my plane jumping up in the field as my spirit is jumping up, if that sounds unusual or strange or like just a wild coincidence to you, it probably is because you have been using your logical analytic filter, to the exclusion of other ways of processing reality. I’m sure that each reader of that passage will have somewhat different response, and that those responses will fall, in terms of the credibility of the story, from one end that says “This guy is really cracked” to another end that says “Absolutely – that’s the way it works, that’s the way I experience the world, also – that my outer reality absolutely interlocks with and reflects my inner reality.”

It would not be helpful for anyone, regardless of where they fit on that continuum, to consciously try to force their perceptions to be different. What can be very helpful is to install some softness in our certainty that our perception is correct. Our perceptions are mostly conditioned. The willingness to consider that there might be something else going on out there than what we have been perceiving is often disturbing at first. It was for me. But it can be enormously liberating. It was for me. Otherwise for me that plane would have been just a plane.



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Saving Petey

About six years ago, I lived in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.  This is the last north side lakefront neighborhood before you get to Evanston, the first “North Shore” suburb, home to Northwestern University and lots more pricey.  The Rogers Park neighborhood had, just a few years before, actually been a little rough – and, among most white Chicagoland residents, still had that reputation.

Most of Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline is park, so Rogers Park is really the only neighborhood where you can live right on the lake, as I did.  Those of us who had moved in over the last few years carefully guarded the secret that this neighborhood was making a big comeback and was really a pretty safe, fun, diverse community.  If our secret got too widely known, none of us could have afforded to rent our lakefront apartments.

There actually is about a half-mile of park beachfront sandwiched in there.  Kind of hidden away as this little park is, it had some of its own norms.  Different from other Chicago beaches, no one ever really enforced the “Dogs on leash only” ordinance, except for high summer, when the beach got (relatively) crowded – and even then not before nine a.m., when the lifeguards came on duty.

There was a little posse of us who ran our dogs on that beach in the morning year-round.  Our dogs mostly all knew each other and had a fine old time.  (They were all medium-to-large sized critters – lap doggies got walked at different times and places.)  We dog owners mostly only knew each other by our dog’s names.  (I was “Bobbie’s dad”, after my adorable border collie pup.  Another woman was “Midnight’s mom”, after her lovable if not totally smart black lab.)

Those dogs not only loved running on the beach, but most were very enthused about swimming out into the lake to fetch their tennis balls and various doggie toys.  Most of them would do this all winter, except when the lake started to freeze over, which happened only during especially cold winters.

But this had been an extraordinarily cold winter.  Before the surface of the lake froze solid, it was covered with free-moving ice floes of various shapes and sizes.  Then we got an awesome snowstorm, with monster winds off the lake – driving all those ice floes up onto the shore, creating 10-foot hills of snow and ice right at the shoreline.  These hills dropped precipitously into the lake, which now had frozen over right near the shore, with more ice floes still bobbing around further out.

This flat layer of ice near the shore was new and clearly fragile – so walking on top of these hills was definitely risky.  But most of us people could not resist it, because it was so amazing – and now was the only way to actually see the lake.  And our dogs, always up for an adventure (not so much for the views, I don’t imagine), naturally followed us up.

Then one morning, the worst – which we should have known would eventually happen – finally did.  Actually the second-worst.  Worse still would have been for one of us humans to lose our footing, slide down the lake side of that hill, break through the ice and – because of the sheer face of that side of the ice hill – have no way to get back up.  This would have been worse still because none of us could swim like those dogs, much less tolerate the freezing water.  And worse because, much as we all loved our dogs, just because…

None of us actually knew just when it happened.  While most of us were capable of spoiling our dogs, we really did enjoy visiting with each other – regardless of whether we knew each other’s names.  And our dogs, running around and playing with each other, were pretty self-sufficient.  We sure didn’t dote on them as you might a child at a playground.

But at some point, Petey’s mom asked if any of us had seen him recently.  Petey was a big, floppy, older mutt (maybe some Lab and who knew what else) that got along with everybody – canine or human.  He truly was a sweetie.  But none of us had seen him for a while.  We looked up and down the ice hill we were walking on, then over into the park, then – really pretty reluctantly – out in the lake.  It took us a while to spot him, but there he was – maybe 50 yards from shore, his front paws up on an ice floe.  As we aimed our attention out there, we could hear him making pitiful little moans or cries.  He looked like he was already half-frozen.

His mom and others of us started calling to him, hoping he would swim towards shore.  If he did make it there, we really did not know how we were going to get him up out of the water without putting ourselves at risk.

Clay was a really nice, strong young guy who, with his girlfriend, had two dogs in our little pack.  He and I went up and back along the top of that ice hill, looking for a place where we could pull Petey out, if he did make it back to shore.  The best we could come up with was one spot where there were pretty good footholds for going down to the water’s edge, then a flat ice ledge extending maybe eight feet into the lake.  We conferred and were in total agreement that this ice ledge looked way too precarious.  If you didn’t slide into the lake, you would almost certainly break through it into the water – and then how was anybody going to pull you out?

This all seemed pretty moot, because Petey was showing no signs of swimming towards land.  He was almost immobile, hanging on to that ice floe.  He would make an occasional pitiful and totally hopeless attempt to pull himself up.  It was both way too slick and, the harder he leaned on it, the more his edge dipped down into the water, threatening to slide him off altogether.  And he continued to make those intermittent, way-too-mournful moans.  None of us said it, but I think all of us had the thought that we would end up standing there until he froze and drowned – think Leonard DiCaprio in that awful near-last scene of “Titanic”.

Then, out of nowhere, a miraculous thing happened.  Petey let go of the ice floe and started to swim towards shore.  He was not the most physically vital dog to begin with, and he was obviously weakened from floating in that water for what we guessed was probably over a half-hour.  But swim he did, looking part frantic and part very determined.

But there was still the issue of how to pull him out.  Clay and I retraced our steps up and down the shore, hoping there might be some workable spot we had missed.  But no, the only feasible spot was the one we had already agreed was too dangerous.  We had each announced out loud that we would not risk our own lives on that fragile-looking ice shelf.

Then, when Petey was almost to shore, Clay broke ranks – he laboriously searched for footholds as he worked his way down to that ice shelf.  I was standing right there – I couldn’t believe what I was seeing him do.  And, uttering (I’m sure – I really don’t remember) a litany of “Shit!”s and an occasional “Fuck!” (or maybe the other way around), I went down after him.

When he got to the bottom, Clay started calling to Petey and stretched himself out full- length to the water’s edge.  I stayed at the closer edge (still only a couple of inches of ice from the frigid water) and grabbed hold of his legs.  I remember sliding his socks down so I could get a firmer grip on his ankles.  And Petey – did he know this was his best chance or just respond to the urgency of Clay’s voice? – ignored all the other people on the ice hill screaming to him and swam towards Clay.

It was a good thing Clay and I had not reversed roles.  Number one, I don’t think I would have done what he did – I just went down there because I couldn’t let him do this alone.  In hindsight, my weight as I came down on that ledge may have increased the likelihood of us both crashing through.  But my thoughts were not particularly strategic or analytic – I just wasn’t letting him go down on that ice alone.  But what made it even more important that we were each playing the role we did, was that no way in hell could I – stretched out as Clay was – have pulled that big dog out of the water.  Young and strong as Clay was, I still don’t know how he did it.  He sure had no leverage from that position.

But, when Petey reached him, Clay grabbed him under the front legs and, with one massive pull – and I picture Clay making a karate kind of bellow, though again I really don’t remember – Petey came up out of the water.  Miraculously, that thin, flat layer of ice held. Then I pulled them both back towards the ice hill.  With me pushing Clay from behind, he was able to climb up with Petey in his arms.

Well, let me tell you, it was pure bedlam on that beach.  You have never seen a more jubilant bunch.  Petey’s mom and Clay carried that big, pitiful, half-frozen dog back to her apartment, where she put him in the tub and gradually raised the temperature of the water.  I don’t think she actually knew any better than any of the rest of us what really was the right first aid at that point – she just followed her instincts.

Clay and I got our well-deserved 15 minutes of fame.  By the next morning, all the members of our posse who had not been there knew the story.  I made it completely clear that my heroism was very reluctant.  I had always liked Clay a lot and this adventure had forged a very tight bond between us, but I made quite the point that I had only risked my life for a dog because “this crazy son of a bitch.…”  I think that everyone could hear the love under my feigned anger.

But this was not the end of the story.  For me, the juiciest part of the story came out that next morning.

Christina, maybe 30ish, was, among us who did not know her name, just Cleo’s mom.  Cleo was the sweetest pitbull you could ever want to meet – she totally blew away any stereotypes I had had about pitbulls.  And most of us knew that Christina was a hair stylist, at a cool salon a couple miles away on Western Avenue – we all drove by it regularly.  She did strike me, at least, as just maybe a little spacey – but cute, big-hearted and generally adorable.

That morning after the rescue, she had an amazing story to tell.  “When we were just watching Petey freeze to death out there, I finally just couldn’t deal with it anymore.  I really kind of freaked.  I took Cleo home, got out of my coat and sat in front of my meditation altar.  For a few minutes, I just cried and shook with cold and fear.  Then I started to meditate.  I actually called on all my angels and spirit guides, and all those attached to Petey and his mom, to get Petey to swim towards shore.  And then this real peace settled over me – I knew it had worked.  I went back out to the beach and it was all over but the shouting.  Petey had been saved – just as I knew for certain, all the way walking out there, that he had been.”

OK, call us a bunch of new-age junkies, aging hippies, stoned-out animal freaks – whatever.  But it did sound like Petey had – miraculously, unexpectedly, really quite out of the blue – started to swim like hell for shore, pretty much at the exact time that Christina was calling out the mystical National Guard.

For me, the story works just as well – is just as exciting – if I balk at the angels/spirit guide stuff and simply hypothesize that Christina, herself, sent the powerful psychic command that got Petey swimming.  But at that moment, listening to Christina’s story, I don’t think there was a one of us who doubted for a minute that it was Christina’s intervention that had gotten Petey to stop helplessly dying and to take action.

Christina sent her personal, spiritual cavalry out to get Petey – and they, by God, did it.



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