Recently, when picking out a tie for a formal event, I was overcome with sadness. So many of the ties are gifts from my mom. She always knew what I might need to look professional, and she kept at that for decades. She was mostly right all of the time. She knew my taste—basic but proper. Now, she can’t even remember a conversation that happened five minutes ago. I wasn’t ready for that. I still feel that well of feeling when I see my ties hanging in my closet. It’s not just a tie. It’s a connection to a relationship that has been disappearing now for years, and that journey is not over.
In the more than the three decades since I graduated from college in Portland, I have maintained a good friendship with classmate of mine. He now lives in southern California. I have been visiting him periodically in Utah and there now for nearly 30 years.
As we have aged together, we have encountered different and also similar challenges. I stayed single. I moved to more locations. He got married, got divorced, raised his daughter, became a river guide, succeeded professionally in a grander way than me, and always stayed true to his curious, creative self.
Though we were raised in very different circumstances—him in a Jewish family in the West, and me in a Lutheran family with a single mother in the Midwest—we had more in common than I would have thought possible when we first got to know each other at our college library steps on long evenings.
Last night we caught up on the phone. I was sharing my feelings of loss concerning people I am close too, including my mother. She is still mostly well, but her issues are ones I will not share in detail here. My friend also shared stories of his mother, who has passed away.
During that call, we experienced a moment of understanding that transcended our distance of nearly 1,500 miles and the time we have spent not seeing each other in person the past few years. I learned things about him I did not know. I also shared things about myself I seldom share with others.
I am by nature private and stoic, and I have learned how to control my negative emotions and also my public displays of sadness or anger. I also realized during our talk about life and its inevitable end with death that my embrace of existentialism has given me the ability to confront these challenges I face more clearly.
I told my friend that in suffering, we really can find purpose and meaning. And whatever I did as a result of these circumstances, I would be making choices to respond to the challenges before me. Those actions would be mine alone, and freely chosen. I was mostly telling myself these points, as I considered those actions yet to come with my mum.
That is pure Viktor Frankl. But it is also how I can face up to what is inevitable on the road ahead. I shared these thoughts with my friend, and he listened in the right way. He did not need to do much other than let me know he listened.
Mostly, I felt relieved to know I could unload to a friend and share my fears and also my resolve. Facing the world alone is not easy for anyone. Maybe it will be easier because I will have friends there to listen when the moment of the void arrives in full force.
Sun Tzu, the brilliant Chinese strategist, reportedly born in 554 BC, should be studied and read by every adoptee in the United States who is denied equal treatment under the law and their original birth records. His classic treatise, The Art of War, remains one of the most frequently studied, quoted, and referenced tools in human civilization for anyone who engages in advocacy and, yes, war.
Everything is there for the adoptee or birth parent seeking his/her records and past and for advocacy groups seeking reform and justice from a system that denies basic justice and equality to millions.
For adoptees who are plagued by insecurity, doubt, and depression about the injustice of discriminatory state adoption laws and historic and unspoken prejudice against illegitimately born people like adoptees, I first recommend drawing from your wisdom and discipline you have gained from your experience. Finding wisdom in books will be meaningless unless you can first put that knowledge into a perspective you have lived yourself.
So Why Sun Tzu and an Ancient Text?
Most adoptees will learn that their path to wisdom and later action will eventually require discipline, awareness of one’s adversaries, and adapting successfully from tough experience. Luckily, Sun Tzu provides one of the easiest to access toolkits to guide you as you embark on your journey that only you can make.
If your mind is open to new ideas, Sun Tzu’s timeless observations and tactics allow anyone to become an irresistible force. As Sun Tzu says, “Being unconquerable lies with yourself.”
In my case, I embraced many of these strategies to overcome the country’s discriminatory adoption system and achieve a measure of justice and wisdom, which I describe in my book on my adoption experience. Sun Tzu correctly notes, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”
A year ago last weekend, I became an Oregon surfer. I now feel confident enough to be in the lineup with every other surfer who shares my passion.
It is a feeling of accomplishment. I started from nothing and had to “wipe out” my way to my new-found status literally hundreds of times. Yes, I had to fail repeatedly before I became competent to feel welcome in the ocean and among the community of surfers globally. I admit I am still slow and clumsy getting upright. I will never be great.
Beginning Surfing Later in Life
In September 2016, I bought a beginner board, the right wet suit, and other gear, and I began the long journey of mastering the art and sport of surfing by travelling from Portland to nearly all surfing spots on the Oregon Coast and even California and Washington.
I learned how to understand surf forecasting and paid close attention to the storm systems in the Pacific Ocean that control the weather from Alaska all the way down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. I met people who shared my passion for the ocean and this highly alluring sport. Many of them have lived and surfed all over the world and country, and we all speak the language of surfing. Some are visitors, and others are residents who now call Oregon home. We all come together in the water, waiting for the wave, patiently sitting on our boards and scanning out for the next set rolling in.
I have learned how to read waves and practice the craft of positioning myself at the right place at the right time. In Oregon’s tough, stormy waters, this involves punching through feisty breaks that pound you as you try to reach to lineup in the water, where the waves give you that window of opportunity to tap their energy and capture moments of transcendence.
I have surfed during snowfalls and blinding rainstorms.
I have seen sea otters, harbor seals, humpback whales, and signs warning me of great white sharks that are common in these waters.
I have made new friends who love to wake up at crazy morning hours and meet at the ocean, just to capture the magic of the ocean in the morning, as the smell of saltwater fills your nostrils and the sound of the wares creates a feeling of calm in morning’s first light.
I have also learned how to ride waves during this time. When I started, I could barely get any. Now, when I go out, I can catch sometimes 20 or 30 rides, if the conditions are perfect or near perfect. Even on bad days, I am mastering the art of riding our very common cheeky waves. These can be fun.
It Was Worth It
This past weekend, on Sept. 22, 2017, I rode perhaps one of the best waves of my life. I started in the lineup at Seaside, near the rocky shore, and grabbed a quiet overhead that took me almost 100 yards to the beach, riding its face and seeing the translucent water carry me on a pulse of energy. My grin grew wider with every second I was steering my nine-foot Stewart longboard. This ride repeated a nearly identical ride I had a week earlier, at the exact same spot.
Now, a year into this journey, I capture each outing with a surf diary, describing the ocean color and smells, currents, sets, wave patterns, colorful characters, my memorable experiences with wildlife and aquatic life, and my memories of the day. As a lifelong writer and journal writer, I can say this is perhaps the funnest journal I have ever kept.
(Click on both photos to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)
Balance is an important element in finding purpose and meaning, and perhaps pleasure—but that is not as important for me. In my case, working on big things, in my daily practice with everyone I meet and myself, and in my life’s trajectory, give me the ability to keep things upright and tall, when it seems like life can just topple things down. Also, you can always re-stack things when they tumble. Life teaches this lesson all of the time, and we should embed this memory into our subconscious, as our reservoir of strength.
The stack on the right of the color image above fell the day I took this. It was restored shortly after by someone, and so was balance.
(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)
Regret is not an emotion that we like to speak of. Speaking of it is an admission of failure and lost chances. By saying one regrets something, we diminish our standing in the eyes of others and ourselves.
But I do have regrets. They are sharp as hornet bites on a hot, muggy day. For me they stemmed from my foolish pride and my familial disagreements I should have risen above.
These thoughts accompany me now whenever I visit and speak with my mother.
Because of her illness, she cannot remember the past in its full richness. There are fleeting, diaphanous moments that she can recall good and bad moments. But these are fragments, not fully formed memories.
I feel this loss especially now, as I get older, and I want to hunt down stories of my past that only my mom would have. But they are now lost forever, because she cannot recall them.
Me and Mum, the Good Days:
My mom and I have had our fierce challenges. I do not intend to share them here. I always did my best to not let them cloud the possibilities for the future, even if the bargain may not have been a fair one, from my perpective. But as we both grew older, so did our friendship.
Between 2010 and 2012, when I was in graduate school earning my MPH, we hit an impasse. We once went more than six months without talking. The rifts between me and my stepfamily and my mom widened during the rough time, when I was not in a good place.
When we did talk, it was not pleasant. I was, in essence, estranged from my “unique” family when I probably needed them the most. It was not until I finished my imperfect masters program at the University of Washington—quite drained fiscally and likely spiritually—that we made amends.
My mom flew out to see me in July 2012, and we found our old routine.
At that time I was living in Seattle, and I was doing contract work while still looking for full-time employment right out of graduate school.
So we had time. We visited the Ballard Locks, where I took one of the best pictures ever of my mom. I brought her to Discovery Park on a glorious sunset, where we could see the sun slip behind the Olympic Mountains and light up Puget Sound in the soft summer light. We rubbed our toes in the sand at Golden Gardens Beach. We ate out for dinner and laughed. We saw Shakespeare in the Park, outdoors, in Seward Park at Lake Washington.
These reminded me of our other precious times we spent together, without my step-dad or others around. We could confide in each other. I could hear stories about her first husband, my father, that she seemed to hide inside for years, and for good reason. That 2012 trip was a lot like one she made in 2004, the summer before I went to Alaska.
She also flew out in July that year, and we spent great days walking around Greenlake Park, attending a Wooden Boat Festival, and being happy-go-lucky tourists in Seattle. Both times were transition periods for me. In 2004, I was getting ready to leave Seattle for a job in Alaska, unsure what living in the True North would be like. I needed to know we were still connected.
On the last day of her 2012 trip, I realized something was not right. She was having trouble remembering things and feeling more anxious than normal. I was still able to get her safely to the airport and on her plane. Not long after I learned that the issues I let slide by were more pronounced. She was not going to be the same person when I saw her again.
I would no longer be able to have a conversations with someone who could listen to me and knew me. That new person would never be the confidant I once could share my stories with, in confidence.
Facing Tomorrow, Today
The loss from a half decade ago is more pronounced today. It is July. I think of our past summer walks, in Seattle, in the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and in Forest Park in St Louis, where we spent many great hours together.
Today, my foolish pride for two years from 2010 through 2012 seems like my greatest squandered opportunity. Why did I allow that?
Perhaps the stress of doing my degree and spending my savings on an expensive and imperfect professional program clouded my thinking. They likely did. Now, at a more calm place in life, I can fool myself and say, I could have done better.
Maybe I really would not have been able to do things differently. But I still wish I could have those days back. I wish I could have spent my precious dollars and flown from Seattle to St. Louis on a short trip to have conversations that would have been more important than my money in my bank today.
I will fly off to St. Louis to see my mom again in two weeks.
When I visit her, I won’t be able to ask her about our brief time spent in Detroit, when I was a baby and we lived as a model middle-class American family, in a city just before it started sputtering to economic decline.
I can’t ask her about her life in college, when she struck out on her own and left New Jersey as a beautiful, smart young woman.
I can’t ask her how she and my father decided to adopt two children, or what it was like for my father and her to move from Saginaw to Detroit in the early 1960s.
I wish we could have back those past Julys, walking and talking and sharing stories about our lives. They were some of the best times I ever had. I wish I had known that when I was living those moments.
The power of resilience remains as one the bedrock storytelling themes since humans first swapped tales around the campfire. It appeals to all of us and our desire to find inspiration to confront the challenges that life throws in our way.
To my surprise, one of the most creative and gripping versions of the thousands-year-old storytelling trope came packaged in the 2013 sci-fi action drama Riddick, starring Vin Diesel. Riddick, for those who are not diehard fans, is an interplanetary outlaw, hunted by mercenaries, evil empire and evil religious despots called Necromongers, and baddies who either want him killed or captured.
The film opens with a shot of a hand sticking out of rocks on a god-foresaken landscape. A flying vulture lizard lands on rocks and starts gnawing on the fingertips.
In the background, Diesel’s gravel voice mutters, “Don’t know how many times I’ve been crossed off the list and left for dead. Guess when it first happens the day you were born, you’re gonna lose count.” Then the hand grasp’s the creature’s throat until it thrashes and dies. And we know at that instant that our hero is going to show us that no challenge will stop him from achieving his goal of leaving that planet, alive. “So this, this ain’t nothing new,” he says.
So starts the 2013 reboot to the franchise, which began with muddled and bloated 2004 Chronicles of Riddick that is best forgotten.
But, I simply love the beginning to the latest installment. Everything about it is fresh, mythical, and ancient at the same time. (See the first 10 minutes on YouTube.)
You have your classic hero story. Having been nearly killed by falling off a cliff after a double-cross by the intergalactic religious power maniacs called Necromongers, Riddick crawls with a busted leg on a desert floor to a pool of sulfuric water. Unable to drink it, he escapes a pack of giant hyena type carnivores by diving in the pool. “Just me and this no-name world. Gotta find that animal side again,” he says.
He resets his broken leg in a brutal fashion, screwing in armed plates into his flesh to act a cast. He then encounters a species of bear-sized, two-legged mud demons who have giant scorpion-like tails and giant mandibles that are poisonous. They block his path, and he has to go through their pool to a better place. “There are bad days, and then there are legendary bad days,” Riddick says after nearly getting eaten by one. “This was shaping up to be one of those. Whole damn planet wanted a piece of me.”
For the first 20 or so minutes of the film Riddick embraces the man vs. nature and man vs. beast storylines flawlessly. You don’t really care that this is a sci-fi action film at this point. You basically care about a guy who is unfazed when the odds are stacked against him. You admire his resilience to not only overcome the planet’s hostile nature, but to even grow as a person.
Riddick does get through the mud demons, befriends a puppy wild jackal-like creature who becomes his sidekick, defeats two crews of mercenaries who land to capture and kill him, fights off countless other mud demons when he’s left for dead, and leaves the planet. A survivor to the end—pure Riddick. Never a moment of pity, never a moment of whining. He just accepts his fate and finds a solution.
I can point to countless books I have read and loved that follow this same storyline and outcome, and they are among my favorites. They include The Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton and his crew of the Endurance and their survival from disaster in Antarctica in 1914 and 1915, and Escape from Auschwitz, by Rudolf Vrba, about his incredible escape from the German death camp in 1944 with fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler. They are great yarns because they deal with human ingenuity and strength that withstand unimaginable challenges. Those are also hallmarks of great people and true leaders.
Stories like these will always be retold, and relived. I think they speak to something powerful inside all of us, which rejects misfortune and turns it into growth and conquest.
So give the film Riddick a chance. You might be surprised you have read or seen the story before but find its telling good enough to inspire you when a few bad days and legendary bad days cross your path. Remember folks, that ain’t nothing new.