Thursday, June 9, 2016

My heroes have aways been...human

When I had my daughter, I felt like a kid myself. A kid raising a kid. I had all of the skills one DOESN'T need to take care of an infant. I could run for miles up a mountain, I could open a beer with a lighter, I could make etouffee with my eyes closed. I could translate ancient Confucian texts...drunk.

Changing a diaper was...something my older brother had to demonstrate to me in the hospital. Swaddling a screaming 9-pound human, again, I had no clue. The first six months of that child's life were the most terrifying six months of mine.

I did the only thing that I knew to do. I remembered. I called up the strong memories of my grandmother, who passed away a year before I discovered I was pregnant. I figured, she kept her six kids alive into adulthood, and a couple of grandkids, too, so she'd know. I had long talks with her, wherever she was, about what I should do. I thought back to the times that she held a baby, disciplined a wild toddler, and nudged a reluctant teenager to make the right choice. I had daily 'talks' with this woman, who in life didn't hardly stand five feet tall. (She thought I was a giant at 12.) She was my hero. Her get-it-done attitude, her unashamed pursuit of knowledge, her skills as a gardener, a cook, a master knitter, a patient badass mother, her love of Elvis...she worked nearly every day of her life. One morning she didn't get out of bed to go to work, that's how anyone knew something was wrong.

One of the last times I saw her, she told me that she always knew I'd surprise everybody. That meant everything to me. And then, in a blink she was gone. I named my daughter after her, because it could be no other way.

A hero is not a god. A hero has flaws and makes mistakes and hits low points. A hero is human, and yet they rise above their humanness, and still manage to peek over the ledge of impossibility and
see something greater than themselves.

Imagine that. Having the bravery to see through the thick fog of life as we know it, to the unknown greatness. That's scary shit. 'Cause you really don't know what's going to happen when you step out of that fog, but you're eager to take the leap.

Maya Angelou, another hero of mine, was unashamedly herself. In fact, she reminded me of my grandmother. Grew up in a desperate way, had a baby too young, faced unthinkable abuse and bigotry...yet, she jumped. Every time she put pen to paper, she jumped through the everyday nonsense and straight into the abyss of truth. She even wrote a cook book. And shared an anecdote about a day when her own mother turned to her and said:

"'Baby. I've been thinking and now I'm sure. You are the greatest woman I've ever met.'"
At that moment...I decided the time had come to cut down on dangerous habits like smoking, drinking, and cursing.
   Imagine, I might really become somebody."

Just the audacity of that thought. Of becoming 'somebody' in a life of nobodies. It's brave. Sometimes people don't like it. They don't like the ambition, the 'arrogance' of having honest-to-god dreams, and the sheer tenacity to live those dreams out. Some would even call it lunacy. People think that kind of self-assuredness is dangerous. And it is.

Maya Angelou died just two years ago, and it was the first time I wept, openly, over the death of a 'public figure.' I felt like I knew her. I felt like she knew me somehow. Like we were on that same road together, toughing it out against the haters.

The second time I have wept openly, was just a few days ago. When, in the deep dark night I couldn't sleep because I was so sore from five days of non-stop training and, to be honest, way too much boxing bullshit, I learned (thanks social media) that Muhammad Ali had succumbed to Parkinson's disease. 

"No. No, no, no..."

Who could sleep after that? I sat out on the back steps in the pitch black and was shocked at my sadness. Like a big hole just opened up in the world, at least in my world, and what if I fell in?

Ali had a lot to say. And people didn't like that. They didn't like that what he said had the dagger of truth in it. Of course, his boxing was impeccable. He was easy on the eyes and his work ethic and odd grace made him legendary. But it was his unabashed forward momentum, being only himself, that made him a hero to me, to my daughter, my son...

"I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want.”

Of all the great things Ali has said, and all the quotes and talk show reels I've memorized, imagine that. I don't have to be what you want me to be.

Heroes are incapable of being anything but themselves. The compulsion to move forward is too great. A hero doesn't just clock in a 10-hour day and quit. A hero is smart, they have vision beyond what the rest of us can see. When a hero is 'too tired', well that's too fucking bad because there is greatness to be achieved and truth to be told, so tired isn't an excuse for not being the thing that you could become. Despite being...made of flesh and bone.

"You have to be willing to sacrifice what you are for what you will become."

I am all out of heroes now. They live in the clouds. I won't stop reading Maya's books, or stop watching old clips of Muhammad Ali floating his way to victory and railing against the hypocrites of his time. I won't stop 'talking' to my grandmother when I can't hear her on the wind. But it's sad. These ghosts of greatness.

Yet, the other day I was watching my daughter from a distance while she played soccer with her brother in a wide, green field. A few kids came and joined the impromptu game and she teased them and played and did foot tricks with the ball and the other kids laughed, never taking their eyes off of her. Even her brother seemed a little mesmerized.

Maybe it was the sun shining behind her. Or the wild shock of her Afro bouncing on her head, or the gleaming white smile...but it caught me in my chest. And I wondered about this powerful young woman living under my roof...

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

New Year, Same Me

Our MMA class was full to the brim last night. Everyone was in high spirits at the beginning of the class. What a turnout. Some were there on a bet, others were there to make good on their physical promises to themselves. Promises that are made all over the globe the second that ball drops to mark the beginning of the New Year.

The bitch of it is you've got to sustain. Without looking around me, about two minutes into the jump-roping warm-up I could feel the reality setting in. The collective ‘holy shit, this is going to suck’ of the new students. I felt their pain. Just over a year ago, I was that guy, quietly dying inside and fighting the urge to puke. Any trace of cockiness at being a trail runner, a dancer, a former athlete and lifter, falling into the puddle of sweat on the mat below me. What the ever-loving fuck was I thinking?

“Are you making any resolutions this year,” B asks me sarcastically. She knows.
“Fuck no. What for? I’m always trying to do better and to take it to the next level. If anything I should resolve to take it down a notch.”

“Maybe be normal…less…intense.”

“There’s not enough hooch on the planet for that to happen.”

Resolutions are things that happen as a result of circumstances. At least that’s been my experience. And they’re usually terrifying ones. Life-changers where you pound at your chest, pray, let tears fall, beg…and then resolve right then and there that this, whatever this is, is how it’s gonna be, how it’s gotta be from now on.
A few months ago, my father had open heart surgery for a deformed valve and an aneurysm that had formed and was on the brink of exploding in his chest. From the day of his diagnosis to the day of his surgery (and even now) he was a time bomb. If the aneurysm ruptured, he would most likely die in 45 seconds. Maybe a little more because he’s a stubborn bastard. Some days, I half-expected to find him dead on the kitchen floor. I had nightmares that I would discover his body and his eye sockets would be flowing unstoppable rivers of blood.

I could not sleep with these images. I was building my resolve. It was a reckless promise to myself.
The morning of his surgery, as we were saying our goodbyes before he went under I leaned over his hospital bed and quietly begged him.

“Please, please don’t leave me here by myself. I got nobody if you go.”

He nodded his head. He knew what I meant and he promised that he wouldn’t. He probably doesn’t remember any of this.

Fourteen hours passed before my father came up from that goddamn operating room. Gray and small and totally unconscious. My mother and aunt and I went to ‘view the body,’ the only proof of life was the noisy whirring of the breathing machine. I felt my legs lose their solidness and I dropped to my knees by his little gurney. Like God had pushed me down.

“I had a revelation—well a lot of revelations—while we were waiting for him to get out of that surgery.”
“Oh, about living healthier, meditating, stuff like that?”

“Fuck no! This me we’re talking about. No, no. I’ve decided I’m going to do what the hell I want when I want and how I want. You never know.”

“That sounds…dangerous.”

“I’m just following my heart. The only one who has to live with it is me in the end.”

“Yeah, ‘cause there will be an end. Especially if you live like that.”

 I can feel how this resolution has changed me. How that moment has liberated me and wrecked me at the same time. Just like those other pivotal times, where I just plant my feet harder on the ground and whisper in my head.
“This is how it’s gotta be.”

Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters
Long before dozens of schoolchildren were slaughtered in their classrooms by a psychopath, there should have been a resolution. Yet we wait, with no resolve with eyes to the fiscal calendar.

Long before a 12-year-old with a toy gun was snuffed out by an unstable cop, there should have been a resolve to end this one-sided enforcement of ‘the laws.' Yet we wait, and deliberate and ‘have dialogue’ where there should be action.

Long before…we should have resolved not to displace more thousands of Syrians from their homes with a war that has no end, then tell them that there is no room at the inn while we watch their dead children wash ashore on the beaches of Greece.

 My resolutions are a direct result of circumstance, not Roman calendars and religious holidays. I don’t wait for April to start working on my ‘bikini body,’ whatever the hell that means. I won’t wait until I’m 65 to finally enjoy my life. It’s too late.

When I was 12, my very close friend died. She was 12, too. We were totally silly, all of us. When we buried her, I could feel that do-or-die beast being born inside me. I resolved to be less silly, to get shit done. I was madder than hell. But that’s the year I got serious about music. And I’ve been playing now for more than two decades on stages, at bars, in my living room.

There was this boy, a man actually, who I stupidly fell in love with one summer. I was 17. I wrote him poems and we talked about Greek mythology and went fishing and mulled over his obsession with Ireland…then the summer ended. And he disappeared, cruelly removing me from his life but not before turning me into a lovesick puppy. I resolved to get to that green island before he could. And I did, the very next year. It was a drunken journey to a war torn country, practically dripping with danger, heroin, and violent romanticism. (Don’t worry, I met another man there, a few actually, took my mind right off that fella.)

Once the excitement of the New Year wears off, which it will—it always does, what then? What’s going to sustain these promises we make to ourselves? Nothing. Not unless somewhere deep in that promise, is a raw memory, a moment where the sky cracked open and you had to negotiate who the hell you were, who the hell you are, to be able to take the next step.

And still be able to look yourself in the eye.