Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Burning Ships: Go Big or Go Home

No escape route means a more determined effort for success.

In July 1519, Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes determined he would invade the interior of Mexico to subdue the Aztec Empire and gain gold and glory for Spain and himself.  He had 500 men, 15 cannon, and 15 horses to accomplish what seemed to be an impossible task.  In an effort to motivate his men to accept nothing but success, he scuttled his fleet, leaving themselves with no opportunity to return to Cuba should the need arise.  He burned his ships with the idea in mind, "Go big or go home."  He definitely decided to "go big" and ultimately conquered all of the Aztec Empire for Spain.

I don't necessarily agree with his motivations and subsequent actions, but I do admire his desire to succeed at all costs. Unfortunately, the end result of his dedication decimated an entire race and destroyed a sophisticated civilization, but his tactics can teach all of us something about perseverance and a possessing an unshakable determination.

Although I taught my students about the conquest of Mexico in world history classes for a dozen years, I hadn't thought about this topic for quite some time.  Recently, however, a friend and I discussed how a person should go about setting personal and professional goals.  We argued the merits of having a laser-like focus on an objective versus leaving room for other options if failure occurs. Cortes and his conquest popped into my head, and I told my friend he should burn his ships and make it impossible for his attention to be diverted to plan B's or escape routes.  Once you've determined what you want, work for it with all your being and it will assuredly be yours.

Sometimes having an escape route means that we always know something else is available and then we don't give 100 percent of our efforts to attaining our objectives.  In addition, mentally holding onto the idea that failure could occur can actually, in my opinion, draw failure to a person.  There should be absolutely no room in your mind for the idea that what you want isn't going to happen.  I believe Cortes succeeded in his efforts because he knew that he had to either succeed or die. He had no escape route and thus solely focused his everything on completing what he set out to do.

It may be a drastic measure to not prepare for outcomes other than absolute success, but I truly think it allows a person to channel all of his or her energy, drive, and dedication to attaining whatever is important to him or her.  With a divided mind, success becomes more difficult and definitely more random.  Besides, if on the outside chance you don't get exactly what you want, at the end point of your journey towards achieving your objective, you can regroup and develop a new goal.  At least you have the satisfaction of knowing you tried your best and gave it your all.  Odds are, you will have grown and developed skills on your journey that will aid in future successes.

The older I get, the more of a "go big" kind of woman I become.  I used to try and prepare for all eventualities, but I realized that half the battle in obtaining objectives is choosing the objective and the other half lies in focusing solely on the goal.  Being scattered makes for mediocrity in everything you do.  I would rather be masterful at one thing than a Jane of all trades and a master of none.  Focus is everything.  I am going to continue to "go big" and burn my ships when necessary, and I hope my friend takes my advice and burns his ships too.  If he does, there is no telling what levels of success he will experience and the idea of that makes me very excited for him.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Only You

Life should be a balance of emotion and control.

I had a friend tell me the other day, "There are no good and bad days, there is only you."  At first his statement somewhat rankled me because I had just finished sorting through some of my father's things,  reviewed the million things I needed to accomplish and didn't have time for, and watched my cat of 18 years slowly die. I thought...."No, there are some definitely damned bad days."  Days exist where nothing goes right, everything you touch for some reason turns to shit and you just want to crawl back into bed and hide under the covers until things get better.  And forget the luxury of just one bad day. I would appreciate just twenty-four hours of bad. Unfortunately, I have been having one really bad month.  Suffice to say, his platitude rubbed me quite the wrong way.

A few days have passed since then, however, and I can't seem to get his words out of my mind.  I understand the meaning behind them and I am desperately trying to apply them to my own situation.  He meant that life happens....the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Life continually changes for better or worse, and we have absolutely no control over anything outside of ourselves.  He wanted me to understand that attitude and perspective determine how you handle what life throws at you and how you determine whether a day is "good" or "bad."  Theoretically, I get it.  Practical application of this idea, however, seems to be much harder to master.

I consider myself to be a very emotionally controlled person.  I am very empathetic to other's emotions, but in regard to my own, I play my cards close to the vest and rarely express how I am feeling.  I work at maintaining a positive attitude and try to temper my reactions to situations by keeping an eye on the big picture, fitting instances or moments into the context of something larger.  I want to remain placid and unaffected and patient.  My emotional goals remind me Paul Simon lyrics, "I am a rock, I am an island.  And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries."  I think they are valid goals to have, to remain a constant rock in times of trouble, but at the same time, I don't think that indulging in a bit of emotion hurts anything.  Allowing yourself to feel, to react, and to be present with the moments life gives you is a necessary human function for processing and integrating what happens in your life.  The trick for successful living, though, lies in not allowing the emotions to overwhelm you or dominate your thoughts and actions.

In essence, I agree with my friend.  There are no good or bad days, there is just you.  Everyday is a day to work towards achieving a balance of feeling and control.  Every morning you wake up provides an opportunity to effect a positive attitude, an understanding of the world, an acknowledgement that yes, bad things do happen, but you can get through them with growth and grace.  So, I am going to allow myself to feel and to react, and then I will allow myself the room needed to create a healthy perspective and a sanctuary of self.  There is just me, and I am going to be the healthiest me I can be.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Doors and Windows: Navigating Grief


I've always believed in the saying that when God closes a door He opens a window.  I came across this cartoon the other day and thought it apropos for my situation lately.  Sometimes when doors close, the windows do open, but getting to the window can be pretty damned difficult.  Certain days within the past week I have felt as if I were stumbling around in the dark but still thinking that my navigation skills worked properly only to run smack-dab into a wall.  There I am, chugging along at my daily tasks, cleaning, care-taking, and cooking not really thinking of anything and feeling relatively emotionally even.  Than BAM!  A thought of my father crosses my mind and I dissolve into tears right in front of God and everybody.

The trigger for tears can be the simplest of things such as walking past grape Gatorade at the grocery store or making meatloaf for dinner.  A memory of my father has attached itself to almost everything in my home and in my life and bumping into them can either feel like brushing past something lightly or being hit with a two-by-four.  It just depends on my mood and the moment.

I am familiar with deep-seated grief.  When my mother passed away suddenly, even when my grandfather passed, life after that moved on slowly and sometimes awkwardly, but it definitely progressed.  Day by day things got easier, the bumping into memories hurt a little less and pleased a little more.  It is terribly cliche, but the truth remains in the old adage, "Time heals all wounds."  It may never heal them completely, but allows happy memories and just the sheer work and joy of living to replace the sadness of missing people who were integral to your life.

The window that God opens may not be apparent immediately, but if a person keeps moving forward, continues to get up every time he or she slams into one of those mysterious walls that suddenly appear to knock them down, and keeps his or her eyes open for the light, it will be found.  I know this to be true from past experience, but on a more fundamental level, I believe it to be true because life just works that way.  Opportunity lies in the wake of devastation.  Living continues in spite of death.  People engage in kindness even after they've been treated badly.  Windows exist all over the place if you just look for them.  I am still somewhat in the dark and I am continuing to navigate the hallways, and yes, some days they are a real bitch.  But I know with certitude that my window is out there somewhere and I will get to it soon.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Guinea Pig Love

This weekend my nephews transferred custody of their guinea pig, Theodora (a.k.a. Teddi)  to my children. Due to being middle school aged boys with an attention span of approximately seventeen seconds at a time, they had forgotten they owned a guinea pig. Their father told them they would have to give her away, and me with a ridiculously soft heart said, "Sure, we'd love to have her." Oh goody!  Just what I needed--another pet that requires more attention than my children will probably give. She is a sweetie, but I can already tell that she will require much more maintenance than the Killer, our cannibal guppy and slightly less than Gus, the dog from Hell.  The only animals in the house that give me any respect or peace are my cats and that's primarily because they ignore me most of the time unless they are hungry or want the odd moment of affection.  I love my kitties, they make the perfect pets.  You have to love any animal that shows such classic restraint and good manners as a cat.

So far, our menagerie now includes one fish, one dog, three cats and a guinea pig.  I don't know what has happened to my husband but he has seemed to grow more mellow in his old age.  If he is this easy at 43, God help us all when he hits his fifties.  I keep expecting, nah...really hoping, he puts his foot down and says, "Not another animal!" but he hasn't yet.  I know I am weak when it comes to any furry, cute, breathing thing, but he should have more backbone.  I count on him to keep my empathy and animal-love in check.  The dude is seriously slacking these days in the non-animal lover department.

The kids, as usual, have fallen completely in love with their new pet.  I hope this adoration lasts long enough that they continue to take care of her well.  In this instance, I am going to put my foot down and require them to take on the entire responsibility for her maintenance and well-being.  As we all know, the dog has fallen upon me to ensure his survival (the poor thing), but I will not cave on the guinea pig. I am drawing my line in the sand.  Besides, the children really could use this as a step towards becoming more responsible and more other-centered.  Loving and caring for something makes you a better person and a more thoughtful person.

My kids are pretty good in regard to thinking of others and they have improved quite a bit on helping around the house, keeping things tidy and initiating their own clean up operations. Nonetheless, they still have a long way to go, but I have faith that they will get there eventually.  I think Teddi will be the perfect learning opportunity for them.  She's going to be messy, I know already.  In less than twenty-four hours I have found pine chip bedding stewn from one end of the house to the other, but oh well....the more the merrier.  Adding more love to the house is never a bad thing, even if it means a little more work.  Love compensates exceedingly well for increased housework.  Seriously, though, I am really hoping the husband gives a resounding "No!" on our next animal adventure.  If left to my own devices, who knows what kind of zookeepers my kids will become?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My Amazing Father

John David Whitaker
May 22, 1939--April 4, 2012

I have thought a lot of my daddy, John Whitaker, in the past few days.  Memories that I had forgotten I possessed came back to me.  I thought of instances and events I hadn’t recalled in years.  I realized one thing after going through a lifetime of moments with my dad.  In all the memories, one quality characterized this amazing man’s life.  Laughter.  If I had to use just one word to describe my Daddy, it is laughter.  He loved to make people laugh and he loved to laugh himself.  He smiled all the time, enjoyed a good joke, flirted outrageously, and always had a good word for whomever he encountered. He liked to tickle his own soul as well as the souls of others.  He enjoyed feeling good and making the people in his life feel good too.

His easy going nature and good humor stemmed from the fact that my father enjoyed life and the people in it. He lived it fully and appreciated every aspect of living.  More importantly, however, he maintained a deep and profound gratitude regarding the blessings in his life and he expressed that gratitude through his joyfulness. If he said it once, he said it a thousand times how very lucky he had been throughout his lifetime and how lucky he continued to be. 

He only recalled good memories from his childhood.  He always described growing up in Youngstown, Ohio as an idyllic existence.  A close family, good friends,  and a friendly neighborhood helped to mold my father into someone who always said thank you for the good things in his life, and someone who always focused on the positive aspects of it.  Rarely did he indulge in negativity.  Even though he suffered through his own father’s death at a young age, Daddy always appreciated his childhood and his family and used those memories as a touchstone and compass for the remainder of his life.

He had such a positive, joyful soul and only talked about the good things that had happened to him. He described his time in the Air Force in glowing terms, even his tour of duty in Vietnam had a positive spin.  My Daddy chose not to dwell on the bad moments, only the good ones.  He told people all the time how fortunate he had been to have such a good career and one that he enjoyed tremendously. 

Whenever he spoke of his family…my mother, my sister and I, my father could wax eloquent for an extended period of time.  His family meant the world to him and he meant the world to us.   He loved my mother with the deepest, most abiding love I have ever seen and he would praise her to anyone who stood still long enough to hear him. He loved my sister and I equally as deeply and never failed to tell us that.  He liked to make us happy however he could and I am so grateful to be able to say he succeeded on a regular basis.  For example, even if we had fixed the worst dinner ever, he would always tell us that it was the best he had ever had and then he'd thank us for taking such good care of him.  He wanted to make us feel good and he wanted to show us his gratitude.  My mother was the soul of our family, but my father was its heart.  And such a positive, complimentary, joyful, happy heart it was. 

My father loved his sons-in-laws and his grandchildren tremendously too.  When my sister and I brought our prospective husbands home to meet the folks, Momma scrutinized them and Daddy embraced them.  They became his sons almost from the beginning because he was the type of person who believed if someone or something made a person he loved happy, then he would be happy to love them as well.  His grandchildren brought him joy and he constantly purchased them toys and knickknacks from the senior center thrift store, just to put a smile on their faces.  It was kind of cruel though as they always required batteries, made huge amounts of noise and rarely had an off switch. He would sit and talk with them after dinner and tell them funny stories from his youth.  The kids always made my dad smile, even if he was yelling at them while he was smiling. (Well, I know he was smiling on the inside at those times….)

He loved and appreciated his many friends too.  He spoke of them constantly, regaling my sister and I with stories about them.  He also loved his music.  Music brought him so much pleasure.  It would drive us crazy to have him turn on his music in the middle of a conversation with us, or to hear for the hundredth time about how wonderful the latest production of the Alamogordo Musical Theater had been, but we knew that it made him so happy that we listened without resentment and waited to pick up the conversation later.

All of this that I have shared with you simply testifies to kind of spirit my father embodied.  It also illustrates well the lessons he taught my family.  He taught us to love the little things in life and to appreciate them and to express gratitude for them.  He taught us to laugh loudly and long and often.  He taught to be positive about life and to focus on the happy moments, the joyful memories, and the love and beauty that surrounds us all the time, if we just look for it.  My father showed my sister and I how to not sweat the small stuff, to not only live and let live, but to do it well and fully and to embrace the people in our lives with a happy spirit and an inclusiveness that isn’t very common these days.

I will miss my father every day for the rest of my life.  I will miss laughter, his thoughtfulness, his compliments, his friendly and happy nature.  I will miss watching him flirt with waitresses, nurses, and even my friends.  I will miss his stories, his music, and his overwhelming generosity of spirit.  The only consolation I have at this time is the knowledge that he is in a happier place, reunited with his beloved wife, parents, and family that has gone on before.  However, I will take all that he has taught us about how to live life well and fully and move forward.  I will focus on the positive, the good memories, and the joy that he brought to all of us. I will honor him by being happy, by making others happy, and most especially by laughing loudly, long and often.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Phantom Heart

My father died on Wednesday.  I think I must have said, written, and typed this sentence a thousand times since then, but it doesn't feel real.  I  keep wanting to call him and tell him about all the activity of the past two days, to invite him to supper and share the news, and to hear him walking slowly up to my front door just to say hello.  I imagine this must be something akin to the situation of an amputee still experiencing pain and sensation in the phantom limb, except I have a phantom father.  More like a phantom heart right now.  It's been cut out and torn to shreds, but all the pain remains.

I knew that his health had been declining over the past year.  I could see him slowing down and subconsciously understood that I needed to prepare myself for all possibilities, including his death.  No matter how much one prepares, however, it always comes as a tremendous shock.  Unfortunately, his death did not result from age or natural causes as such.  He fell out of bed and laid on the floor for thirty-six hours before my husband went to check on him at my request.  I had been out of town for the weekend and when I couldn't contact him two days in a row, I knew something was amiss.  At first we believed he would recover, but as the days wore on he became seriously ill.  Suffering from crush syndrome caused by being prone for so many hours, one by one all his organs shut down.  I couldn't believe this was happening to my strong, vibrant, wonderful, amazing father.  How could this random type of death be remotely fair for a man as generous, loving, spirited, kind and complimentary as him?

 I could feel my heart cracking and breaking as I said goodbye, as I wished him well on his journey, as I told him it was okay to go.  He waited for that....permission from my sister and I to leave.  So many thoughts and memories flooded my mind in those last hours.  I remembered episodes with Daddy I hadn't remembered in decades.  One story melded into the next as my sister and I talked to each other and to him.  We wove a blanket of love, memories, and prayers to warm him and us in his remaining time.  And, although unconscious, he knew we were there.

I am so grateful that I got to say my "I love yous" and my "Goodbyes."  I didn't get that with my mother.  She died suddenly and instantly from a massive heart attack.  My father's passing, while completely different from my mother's didn't hurt any less.  It hurt differently and the same simultaneously.

I cannot believe that they are both gone.  My link to my childhood, the two people who raised me, taught me, and loved me unconditionally are now somewhere else.  A far better place, I am certain, but still not here with me.  I know from past experience time will heal my heart. I will laugh again at the memories and stories of my father instead of cry. I will continue to live fully and well because of the values and beliefs he instilled in me.   Right now, however, it just hurts too much to even consider feeling better.  Feeling better almost seems like a betrayal to his memory.  The love I had for Daddy was so great, the pain should be equally sized as well.

I am going to get through this.  I am strong.  I keep having to remind myself of all the things I tell everyone else.  I just don't want to listen to me right now.  I want to cry....to wail my grief out loud....to rail at the universe for being unfair and selfish and cruel.  I don't want platitudes that although trite, are true.  Time heals all wounds...the circle of life....he would want you to be happy....What I want, what I truly, deeply, passionately want...is my father back.  I know that is not going to happen, and I know I will have to deal with my new reality as it is, but I also know that I am not going to deal with it right now.  Right now I am just going to love him, to miss him, and to cry.