Son House

Son House

By Mark E. Smith

When I attended San Francisco State University’s creative writing program, we were allowed to focus on the genre of our choice. My peers mostly focused on poetry, fiction or full-length feature writing. I was the only one in my class, however, who focused almost exclusively on the short-short story, a genre others found too difficult because of its inherent limitations. Whether writing autobiography or fiction, I loved the constraint of having to tell a story – convey a profound message – in 1,000 words or less (that’s no more than two typed pages). The constraints of the short-short form, I found, made me maximize what I had, it made me more creative because I had to learn ways to do more with less.

Of course, looking back, I simply grabbed onto what I knew based on growing up with disability – that is, I was really good at taking limitations and using them to utmost potentials. Constraints, you see, don’t box us in; rather, they challenge us to find innovative solutions to work with what we have. I’ve never found that ease or excess bring out our full potential. However, constraints and limitations do. I know that it sounds counter-intuitive, but if you want to grow, work within limitations.

The way I learned really quickly how to manage money was by being broke. Again, I know that sounds counter-intuitive – how do you manage money that you don’t have? – but what being broke is really about is expertly managing the money that you do have. It goes right back to disability experience, doesn’t it? I focus on what I have, not what I lack.

I was grocery shopping with my daughter recently and we encountered a sort of mirror image of us at the grocery store – a presumed single father and two daughters. In his hand, he had a grocery list and a calculator, adding up the cost of items as he went. It was a familiar sight because I’ve done that. When you have financial constraints, you find ways to do more with less. In that moment, that gentleman was a financial wizard compared to many with far more money because each of his dollars was wisely watched and allocated. Attentiveness and creativity filled his cart beyond financial limitations. Again, limitations bring out the best in us.

One of the greatest blues songs of all time is the mid 20th-century, “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” by Son House. In conceiving and performing the song, House had the ultimate constraints: no instruments and no formal musical training. How do you make an iconic song with none of that? Yet, by working around those constraints, he created a soul-penetrating song using just his voice and clapping, setting time to what sounded great to him. House found the ultimate instrument within the ultimate limitation: he used his voice and hands. Contemporary musician, Jack White, noted about House’s classic piece, “I didn’t know you could do that, just singing and clapping. It said everything about rock ‘n’ roll, expression, creativity, art – one man against the world.”

If we look at ourselves as writers, single parents, musicians, those with disabilities, and on and on, it’s amazing what we can do within constraints grinnin’ in our face. What’s fascinating is that constraints don’t limit us; rather, they inspire creativity, help us find better ways, and ultimately foster personal growth. However, what living with limitations truly does is empower us to realize that we don’t have limitations after all.

boxing

Mark E. Smith

As I lie on my bed in the surrounding silence, I should be angry, frustrated, maybe even panicked. I just literally beat the hell out of myself – scraped, bruised, exhausted – in three failed attempts to simply use the commode.

See, as one with cerebral palsy, in order to use the commode, I have to go from my power chair to my bed to my manual chair to the bathroom to the commode, keeping my balance on the commode, then back to my manual chair to my bed to my power chair. On my best days, it takes 20 minutes; on an average day, 40 minutes; and, on this day, after one and a half hours, I’ve not accomplished getting on the commode. I’ve tried three times, my uncooperative body struggling with every transfer, slamming me off of the commode, against walls, on the floor over and over.

Yet, as I lie here on my bed, I’m not angry, frustrated or panicked. While physically I’m uncomfortable, to say the least, I’m genuinely happy, full of gratitude. As poorly-functioning as this body is, it always gets me through. It’s the body of a prize fighter. It can get knocked down, bloodied, counted out by others, but it never quits and always gets back up.

For the moment, like a jaw-stung boxer dizzied on the canvas, I lie here with all things good streaming across my closed eyes. I think about the upcoming Christmas holiday – I’ve done no shopping yet, but I’m excited to give very meaningful gifts from a list I’ve been covertly gathering from those I love. I think about my daughter’s pending college applications to NYU and Cornell and the University of Pittsburgh, pondering if any of those are better choices than her seeded spot at George Mason University in the Washington D.C. area? I think about having my fiancee and soon-to-be step daughter back from their native west coast in about a week, joyed to be spending another holiday season together as a family on the appropriately wintry east coast. And, I think of the myriad of exciting aspects going on with my career. There’s so much gratitude in my life that I’m even thankful for the predicament I’m in – that is, having to simply use the bathroom, but knocking the hell out of myself in the process, seemingly unable to accomplish such an everyday task.

But, prize fighters never stay down long, and I’m about to sit up, struggle to transfer back into my manual chair, make my way to the bathroom and try to make the small but courageous leap from my manual chair to the commode once again. If I make it this time, fantastic. If my body fails to cooperate further, and I crash from wall to wall to the floor, having to start all over again, that’s great, too.

See, here’s the beauty of adversity: it’s not an easy route to success, but it is a proven route to success. Adversity makes us that promise – that is, as long as we’re willing to embrace it and address with gratitude and perseverance toward whatever it throws our way, we will ultimately achieve victory.

In this way, I’ve only gone three rounds – and I’ve got a lot more in me. Ring the bell. I’m ready.

pinscher

By Mark E. Smith

Never cry over spilled milk – or when your dog goes astray at the National Dog Show. It’s not the end of the world forever.

Or, is it?

Like millions of Americans, I spent part of my Thanksgiving watching the National Dog Show. I don’t know why Thanksgiving and the National Dog Show have become a combined tradition – other than many of the dogs would love to tackle a turkey and turn it into a chew toy – but the two now go together annually.

What I’ve concluded is that it should really be called the National People Show because the show dogs could care less. My English bulldog has some sort of award-winning pedigree, a name on her AKC registration so long that I truly don’t recall what it is. We just call her, Rosie the English Bulldog, and even then she rarely listens. My pedigree pup wants nothing to do with a show ring; rather, she wants to eat, sleep on “her” couch and poop in our hallway when no one’s looking. Basically, a $3,000 show dog is an arrogant, slovenly alien that dwells in your house. At least mine is.

Yet, people are compelled to romp pampered pooches around a show ring on Thanksgiving Day – and we watch by the millions. However, this year was worth the spectral because as a miniature pinscher did what dogs do – playfully making a mad dash untethered across the ring – its frantic handler ran after it, swooping it up, all to the delight of viewers. It may not have been that big of deal, but the fact that the handler cried inconsolably while carrying the dog back and uttered, “My world is over forever,” made a lot of us wonder if she wasn’t the most vapid, self-absorbed individual in the world – forever! I mean, I know people take dog shows seriously, but what kind of person cries and declares that her world is over forever (which is redundant), because her happy dog went for a self-appointed stroll?

All of this made me want to talk to the handler, literally. I had to know why she would take such a mundane – if not cute moment – and process it as a human tragedy? In all seriousness, I deal with individuals and families everyday who face devastating life circumstances – permanent disabilities, terminal illnesses, and the worst-of-the-worst, parents losing their children. And, so, in my world where children pass away at age 9 due to muscular dystrophy and mothers are paralyzed in their 40s due to ALS, how can anyone be so seemingly shallow, to be so clueless toward true human tragedy that she would sob and declare the end of her world over a happy dog trotting around a show ring? Yes, she lost a dog show, but the dog was happy, there was no consequence on anyone’s life whatsoever and, no, despite her declaration, the world didn’t end.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to track her down. Nevertheless, there’re only two possible causes for the handler’s completely inappropriate reaction. The first is that there are other emotional and psychological factors in the handler’s life that came out upon the unrelated catalyst of the canine’s impromptu jaunt. Emotions have to come out eventually, and they can come out at unexpected, unrelated times. Maybe the handler has real issues in her life and they all manifested on the punch-drunk little pinscher. I can’t help but empathize for anyone in such a situation, where flood gates of emotion open at an unexpected time – it’s scary, isolating and, unfortunately, can feel mortifying.

On the other hand, some people do live remarkably privileged, narcissistic lives, where the slightest hiccup – a lost dog show! – is the seeming end of their worlds forever. Maybe the handler truly is as shallow as she’s appeared.

I have no idea where the handler’s life experience resides. However, given the two possibilities, I sincerely hope that her sobbing over a cantankerous canine was emblematic of a vapid narcissist because that’s a far better fate than those who’ve known true tragedies.

The pitch

By Mark E. Smith

As a writer, I can tell you that life is a story that unfolds page-by-page as we live it. Some of it we can predict and when we get to those particular pages in life, those where our intuition is right. However, most aspects of life are totally unpredictable, and much like a novel that we can’t set down, each page brings twists and turns that leave us only wondering what will happen next?

As a person, much like a voracious reader, I learned to stop trying to predict life, to guess or try to control what comes next. Why? Because like a page-turner of a novel, we can rarely guess what comes next. Think about your own life. Go back 10 years. Could you have predicted the twists and turns – the unforeseen plots – that got you to where you are today? Certainly not.

Yet, it’s human nature to want to know how’s it all going to unfold? People may give you answers, from friends giving you comforting thoughts to medical professionals giving absolute diagnosis. However, no one truly knows. The couple who everyone proclaimed would be together forever ends up in a bitter divorce, while the individual with a grim medical prognosis goes on to a inexplicable cure. We’ve all seen these plot twists, the unpredictable nature of life. Therefore, if you try to predict life over the long term, you’re likely going to be both disheartened and surprised much of the time based on any given circumstance.

So, if it’s so difficult to predict life, how do we handle the twists and turns, the unknowns that are bound to come our way? To use a sports analogy that’s fitting, life throws us two pitches: a predictable fastball and an unpredictable curveball. But, here’s what’s astounding, in baseball and life: researches found that when batters hit a curveball, they’re more likely to hit a home run (it has to do with the spin of the ball, the way it deflects from the bat, and so on). Therefore, both our biggest disappointments and successes in life often come from the unforeseen, an unpredictable curveball that can either strike us out or bring us amazing opportunity. Yet, again, one can’t predict the outcome, but merely take each ball – life’s twists and turns, that is – as it comes.

What I’ve learned is to not try to predict or question the future, but to embrace whatever it brings. Whether life sends me a predictable fastball or unpredictable curveball, I accept them equally and take my best swing. Life is a novel – a baseball novel – and I’m forever excited to see how the plot unfolds as my protagonist strives to be the Curveball King.

20141118_175743-2

By Mark E. Smith

Facebook and disability – they’re both masters of illusion, where publicly you never see the whole picture of a person, just the best parts possible. But, what happens when you remove that curtain, where life isn’t glamorous postings or a guy in a power wheelchair, wearing a suit and tie, whizzing by you at work?

We really do live in a kaleidoscope culture, where people only want to see and present the pretty parts of life. The real and gritty parts are scary and painful – and yet all so real. None of our lives are pretty and perfect all of the time. In fact, they can often be messy and miserable. And, what I’ve learned is that the pretty and perfect parts don’t unite us; it’s the messy and the miserable that do – because they’re heartwrenchingly real. We can only relate to the pretty and the perfect to a limited degree. However, the messy and the miserable is often where life lands us – and we all can relate to that. In this way, there’s a reason in all of our lives to shatter the illusion and get real, where we have the courage to expose the messy and the miserable, and that’s when we truly connect with others.

My own Facebook and disability form an illusion. No, not intentionally, but by the nature of it all. My colleagues see me poised and polished in my career – perfect hair, whizzing by in a power wheelchair – and my Facebook shows an amazing life. So, if that’s the pretty and the perfect, where’s the messy and the miserable come in?

All over the place! I attended a gala recently and, if I say so myself, I looked GQ-hot rolling in. But, what no one saw was what it took me to get to that point. I’m no GQ model. Rather, I’m a guy with severe cerebral palsy whose life can be messy and miserable. Like many with complex disabilities, I had to build in my “bathroom regimen” in the process of getting ready, which takes time and is physically taxing. Then, the reason why I was polished and on time at the event was because my daughter and fiancee helped me get dressed. I can do it on my own, but it takes hours, so the more practical of the two options was accepting the gracious help of my daughter and fiancee to get me ready.

But, we never have these conversations, right? It’s not like someone says to me at a gala, “Mark, you look so handsome tonight.”

And, I reply, “Thanks. I struggled through a bathroom regimen this afternoon, then my fiancee buttoned my pants, tied my shoes and styled my hair….”

Yet, that’s the reality, and when I think about that gala, I know that many people there had messy, miserable aspects to their lives, too. After all, life isn’t easy for any of us. Maybe there were couples who argued like mad on the way, but walked in with smiles. Maybe they were couples who drove there in a car with the gas light on because they’re broke, but walked in like a million bucks. Maybe someone recently lost a family member and it took all of his or her strength to get dressed up and attend such a chipper gala. And, how many individuals there had disabilities or conditions unseen, from depression to epilepsy? I know that the beautiful lady on my arm – my fiancee, the one who helped me face my challenges to get to the gala – had her own challenges that eve, ones that no one knew, as she continues recovering from a recent cancer-related surgery.

The fact is, everyone’s life can look pretty and perfect on the outside. But, how many of our lives truly are? Life is often messy and miserable – and, as a result, absolutely beautiful. See, when we let down our facades, and with grace and dignity discuss the messy and the miserable in our lives, it makes those around us let down their guards, and that’s when we truly connect with others. And, when we connect, we’re not alone in the messy and miserable, and it makes all in our life – the messy and the miserable – dramatically easier to cope with.

And, so at that gala, I made my own silent toast to the messy and the miserable hidden beneath the facade of the pretty and the perfect – because we’re all in the trials of life together.

past

By Mark E. Smith

Bishop T.D. Jakes says, “When you hold on to your history, you do so at the expense of your destiny.”

Have you ever lived those words or known someone who has? Many of us have seen the impact of such an emotional and mental paralysis that comes from holding on to a painful past – and some of us have lived it.

My history, which I’ve talked and written about extensively with the hopes that sharing my story will help others, is a bleak one. And, I literally had to let go of my history to get to my destiny, which has included sharing my story. However, it wasn’t easy, and when I spend time with those who are struggling to let go of their histories – those with acquired disabilities still longing for the ability to walk, those who were abused as children still harboring shame and self-doubt, those who’ve had their hearts broken, pining for that lost love – I know how hard it is to let go of that history to move on to one’s destiny. To make it even tougher, our histories sometimes have a way of holding on to us, where we continue encountering reminders of that which has caused us so much pain. So, how do we let go of our histories and move on to our destinies?

For me, it was a long process that allowed me to break free. It’s not like I don’t have memories or emotional scars. Those never go away. But, the pain of my past ceased effecting my daily life and allowed me to truly live my destiny when I found myself finally free of my painful history, where I had solitude within and could simply enjoy the life I’d striven to build. I’d liken it to the gravitational pull of the Earth from space – the force will always be there, but the farther we get from it, the less effect it has on us.

I remember being in the throws of my dysfunctional family in high school, knowing that simply graduating would move me a single step forward from my family history of a lack of education. Then, I knew that graduating college would move me a next step, the one from my family history of poverty. Then, I didn’t have a drink of alcohol until I was 33, knowing that I was healthy enough in my behavior to move beyond my family’s history of addiction. Yet, history can sneak up on us, and when I realized I was married to an addict and I didn’t want my daughter to have that history burden her – though it certainly did, has and will – I had the courage to end that marriage to again pull myself and my daughter farther from my history. At one point, I physically moved across the country, both for my career and to get farther away from my history – so I could live my destiny.

See, moving from our histories to our destinies is a lot of work – it’s being entrenched and digging our way out. It takes awareness, desire and patience. It takes knowing that where we were, isn’t where we belong. But, more than any other factor, it takes knowing that we have the power to move our lives wherever we wish, including far, far away from the gravitational pull of painful histories holding us back. We may not have controlled where we were, but we can control where we’re going. No, it’s not an immediate change, but through many individual, conscious decisions day-by-day, over months, years and even decades, we can let go of our painful histories and shift the tide, where our destinies become the gravitational force in our life.

As you read this, I don’t know what you’ve been through. Yet, I know that you are more than your history. We all are. You may long for the ability to walk again, but you have the power to set that pain aside and literally roll a wheelchair toward the life of your dreams. You may have had a horrific childhood, but you have the power to claim a life of solace surrounded by safety and love. You may have had your heart broken, but you have the power to entrust it with that special someone who proves as your true soul mate. You have the power to release your history – step by step, let it go! – and live to your destiny. None of it’s easy. However, destiny calls each of us to let go of our painful pasts and embrace our dreams. Once you allow yourself to be pulled by the gravitational force of your destiny… well… you’ll experience joys in life you never imagined.

empathy

By Mark E. Smith

Much of my life is spent around those like myself who have physical disabilities. And, because I have faced adversity in my life, many have turned to me for understanding, reassurance and comfort. After all, if you look at me – body twisted, spastic in my power wheelchair – I personify adversity.

Yet, while I know of my adversities – and, yes, some components of adversity are universal – I can never fully understand someone else’s adversities. While two individuals may even have the exact same disability, condition or other life circumstance, what I’ve learned over decades of sharing stories of adversity with others is that no two experiences are the same.

This raises several intriguing questions. Firstly, if no two experiences are the same, how do we meet the innate need for connection with others in the face of adversity? And, secondly, how do we support others in their times of adversity when we haven’t had the exact same experience?

The answer to both these questions is a singular one: empathy. Empathy is an amazing human capacity because it allows us to connect with others on the most genuine levels, where it’s not about relating to an exact circumstance, but truly relating to the person who’s experiencing that circumstance in his or her own way. So, you may wonder, how have I done that in my own life? After all, I was born with cerebral palsy, so how can I relate with a mother who was able-bodied till age 36, then paralyzed from the chest, down? Yes, they’re both disability experiences – but vastly different.

The first interpersonal connection I make is to try to best understand the other individual’s perspective. I mean, can you imagine what it emotionally and psychologically feels like to be the nurturer and caregiver to your children and spouse, and now you’re physically unable to fulfill those roles in many ways? I know, we want to swoop in and rescue and say, “As a mother and spouse, you’re more than your body, and everyone views and loves you just the same.” And, it’s true – but that’s not empathizing with the person’s real, valid emotions. I’ve said in this exact situation, “I can imagine how difficult it is to have gone from the caregiver to needing caregivers. That’s a harrowing life transition. How are you dealing with that?” When we approach others’ adversities by letting them know we’re striving to see their situations from their perspectives, it creates true connection and validation – invaluable aspects of empathy.

This leads to the other aspect of empathy: being truly present in the other person’s time of adversity. No, I don’t know what that recently-paralyzed 36-year-old mother is literally going through – I’ve never experienced it and no one has ever been in her exact circumstance, either. However, I’ve made it through harrowing times in my life and there’s common humanity in that. And, so there’s the remarkable ability to quietly relate with someone, not on a circumstance level, but a human level. This is a scary place. I know scary places, so I’m just going to hold your hand as you move through it.

In these ways, through my decades around disability – both in my profession and in my personal life – I’ve learned a lot about being there for others. Empathy isn’t about having gone through an exact experience. Rather, empathy is about striving to understand another’s perspective and embracing him or her as-is, wherever he or she is in the midst of adversity. If we do that, we navigate toward the most uniting experience of them all: shared human experience.