Lighting Fires

By Mark E. Smith

Our 20-year-old is home for the weekend from college, work, and her own apartment in another state.

She and I are arranging logs in the fireplace. They’re not real logs, but ceramic ones.

“There’s a science to this,” I tell her, as she sits on her knees in front of our 19th-century fieldstone fireplace, first log in hand. “How the logs are positioned dictates gas flow, flame characteristics and heat efficiency.”

For almost 200 years, the fireplace in our farmhouse burned wood, but has been converted to a more-practical, modern gas set up. I push a button and it ignites. Not unlike what might happen with real wood, the ceramic logs fell out of place over the summer and now must be reset. My wife wanted to reset them weeks ago, with the fall chill, then the first dusting of snow. But, I asked to await the help of our daughter.

At her age, our daughter sees time as infinite. We all did. It’s like the stones in our fireplace that transcend mortality. How many fires have they seen come and go over generations? Yet, life is different – we learn that.

I, too, was once 20, with nothing but time. Then, I realized that time shifts as we age, becoming tangible. Life brings the abruptness of change and loss, and we awake one day with an intimate understanding of time – gone.

My daughter and I study the log installation guide and talk about her schooling as she carefully, methodically aligns each log in a lifelike but scripted pattern.

This all began when she was 10, helping me wash our van. It started as a chore, but as she moved into her adolescence and teenage years, the van was lost in the background to our father-daughter conversations, safety for all to come out, a bucket and water hose a ruse as to what it was truly going on, the talks and emotions. Those years, like the cornerstones they were, seemed like they would last forever. Time, though, found its way into our life, a meandering of wonderful events, that took us from the present to the future to new presents that showed me that time wasn’t as it once seemed, that it does pass, that it’s not infinite – and that’s the way it should be. Children grow up, fathers age, time passes, change occurs. But, like the mortar of life, we still cling to the memories of what’s passed.

My daughter sets the last log and I press the button, igniting the flames. The fireplace flickers with authenticity and timelessness, another winter is here.

“Resetting these logs might be a new annual tradition, “ I say and she smiles.

Quitting is Winning

By Mark E. Smith

I saw a video of a Little League coach giving his team a pep talk. He rolled out every possible cliché and movie line one can imagine to pump up the kids. These talks work well with 10-year-olds, but not so much for us adults.

See, one of the clichés the coach invoked was, Winners never quit, and quitters never win!

We’ve all heard that saying and it sounds great. However, if we’ve ever struggled, then succeeded at an accomplishment, we also know that that saying isn’t true.

In order to succeed, we do need perseverance, but only in the most successful ways. It sounds great to say, Winners never quit and quitters never win, but such a black-and-white situation is rarely found in life. Perseverance only works when combined with adaptation. If we’re not succeeding at a task, but just keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to fail. Persevering means constantly moving through that which isn’t working by finding different approaches in order to achieve success. Winners always quit doing that which isn’t working!

I’ve faced a lot of adversity in my life and I’ve always known when to throw in the towel and try a different approach. The key I’ve learned is to be realistic, not dogmatic. I remember going through occupational therapy as a child and was taught single ways to accomplish tasks. However, the approaches, although text-book to the therapists, rarely worked with my abilities, or lack thereof. When I couldn’t accomplish tasks as directed, I simply stopped trying – I quit. Even as a child, I understood the futility of metaphorically beating my head against a wall by pursuing failing approaches. It didn’t mean I was a quitter. Rather, it meant I had good sense. I then pursued other approaches that enabled me to successfully accomplish the tasks and move on to more, arguably to degrees of success greater than my therapists fathomed possible. Winners stop pursuing failing strategies and adopt those that work.

If an aspect of life clearly isn’t working, stop doing it. It doesn’t mean that you’re a quitter; rather, it means that you’re motivated to pursue greater paths. We shouldn’t hold on to that which isn’t working, as like an anchor, it holds us back. I read a great quote that said, “Don’t worry, I’m not quitting. I’ve decided I’m going to stay and make life a living hell while I run this business into the ground…” That’s crazy talk, but many literally do just that!

Quitting is, in fact, a part of the path to success. After all, some kids quit baseball for music lessons – and rock stars are made.

Not Giving A Blank

By Mark E. Smith

I’m a firm believer in not caring what the blank other people think of us. In fact, it’s a skill that I developed living with cerebral palsy as a child and one I’ve continued as an adult – and it’s served me phenomenally well.

See, I’ve faced being viewed as “different” my whole life. As a child, I was taunted and teased at times. I wish I could say that changed in adulthood, but it merely shifted toward more discrete forms of ignorance – looks, reactions, comments. People can be cruel toward those of us who are seemingly different.

However, truly not giving a blank proves the ultimate antidote toward those who may try to treat us differently. It doesn’t mean not caring what anyone thinks of us. It means having the confidence and self-esteem to not care what inappropriate people think of us. I’m a fan of constructive criticism. I truly care what my wife or colleagues think of me, and I want to improve myself when needed. Yet, when it comes to strangers or self-appointed critics, I don’t give a blank what they think of me. I learned as a child that I could either let the negative attitudes of others stop me or I could own my destiny and not give a blank about what others thought of me and move through the world on my own terms. I chose the latter.

My I-don’t-give-a-blank attitude has served me well. I’m comfortable being me, regardless of what others may think. I garner attention rolling into, say, a restaurant. But, I hold my head high, smile, and if I’m a spastic mess at that moment, all the better. Here I am, and I don’t give a blank! We’re each unique, and owning who we are is key. We can either let others define us or we can define ourselves.

So, how do we do this consistently – that is, not give a blank what others think?

Firstly, let us move beyond our own self-consciousness and focus on others. It sounds like an oxymoron, but the truth is, when we’re consumed by what others think of us, it’s a form of narcissism – we’re making the world all about us. If we focus less on ourselves and more on other people, we’re less self-conscious and more engaged. If you watch really confident, comfortable people in social settings, you’ll see that they’re very engaged with others. When we focus on others, we release focusing on ourselves, and we’re not dwelling on what others think of us.

Secondly, extend people the benefit of the doubt. Just because someone doesn’t understand your situation doesn’t mean it’s personal. People have different life experiences, and just because someone is ignorant toward yours or mine, shouldn’t be taken to heart. As the proverb says, live and let live.

Lastly, focus on what you’re doing, not what others may be saying or thinking. As an adolescent, a group of kids teased me as I struggled to push a manual wheelchair up a hill. I could have been deterred by them, but I chose to stay focused on surmounting the hill. Focusing on the hill voided the taunting.

Really, all of us should carry an I-don’t-give-a-blank attitude, wielded at the right time. Of course, we should care what certain people think. However, we shouldn’t give a blank what everyone thinks. Move through the world and let the chips fall where they may. Better yet, don’t worry where they fall at all!

The Eye of the Beholder

By Mark E. Smith

The phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” dates back to the 3rd century, with the literal meaning of, “The perception of beauty is subjective.”

While what we may find beautiful is subjective – as in fashion or art, for example – there’s a truth that our beauty is not subjective, but intrinsic to each of us. The beauty of objects certainly is subjective. The beauty that each of us possesses is not.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that all but encourages us not to see our intrinsic beauty, but to see our so-called flaws. Grab most magazines, turn on most television shows, watch most movies, and we’re bombarded with messages that we’re somehow not good enough. Every year the “sexiest man alive” is named and it’s always an insanely rich, handsome, suave celebrity who’s the farthest person from who I am as one with spastic cerebral palsy. I could look at that idealized image of a “man” and think, No woman should ever love a guy like me. Yet, my wife does, just as many other perfectly imperfect couples are madly in love with each other. How is that possible when we’re supposed to meet cultural ideals to be labeled as beautiful?

I learned of an amazing young lady through a friend. Kennedy, who’s pictured above, was born with lymphatic malformation, a condition that results in a mass in the neck or head due to abnormal formation of the lymphatic vessels. If you’ve ever struggled with issues surrounding your appearance, you can imagine how difficult this condition could be to live with in our culture of idealistic beauty.

However, it’s not difficult for Kennedy. At 20, a college student, she’s an advocate for all to “let their inner beauty shine,” beginning with her own. She’s spreading the rightful message that we’re all beautiful in our unique ways.

Of course, no one looks at Kennedy and sees anything less than beauty. She’s a young lady lighting up the world with her spirit and work. Still, so many of us don’t see the beauty in ourselves. We see so-called flaws and beat ourselves up over them, to the degree of not letting others in. No one should love me like this…. No one could find me attractive like this…. We have the wisdom to see the true beauty in all others, but don’t apply that truth to ourselves – and that must change.

Those around us love us for us – perfectly imperfect – and we, too, must take that to heart, loving ourselves for who we are, as we are. It’s most often the case that the aspects for which we beat ourselves up are, in fact, among the qualities that make us uniquely beautiful and endearing to others.

You are you because you are you, and that creates your unique beauty. Don’t resent any differences you may see in yourself – we’re each different! – but embrace them. I have none of the attributes of the “sexiest man alive, “ but my attributes make me… well… me, and they create a uniqueness that my wife happens to love. I don’t want to be the sexiest man alive; rather, I’m confident in just being me, spastic cerebral palsy and all.

All of us – even the so-called sexiest man and women alive! – can look in the mirror and see only our supposed flaws. However, our perception isn’t reality. The beauty that others see in us is the truth we must see in ourselves. If we are to fully open ourselves up to the love of others, we must also open ourselves up to the love of self, recognizing our own beauty.

We’re each beautiful, not because we meet the fallacy of an idealistic standard, but because we are unique. Let us celebrate each of our uniqueness by being the epitome of beauty – simply ourselves.

Counting fIsh

By Mark E. Snith

When I first met Chris at the medical center, I wasn’t sure what was up with him.

Chris sat next to me awaiting blood work. He was in his early 30s, with dreadlocks and crazy-colored basketball ball shoes. A sweatshirt and sagging pants rounded out his urban look.

His first words to me were, “Do you go up and down in your chair for fun?” observing my power wheelchair’s elevating seat that takes me from sitting to standing height.

I gave him my standard answer, that it’s really about increased independence and social inclusion.

“I get that,” he said with enthusiasm. “But, if it were me, I’d be going up and down all day long for fun.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of him. His comment seemed a bit odd but totally sincere. At that moment, though, a nurse came out and embraced Chris with a big hello. I’ve learned that, in medical settings, you can tell a lot about a patient by the way nurses respond to him or her. You sense who’s “family. “

With both of our blood work done, we waited for the results and I observed the way Chris interacted with everyone at the center. Medical centers typically aren’t upbeat affairs. No patient wants to be there and so jovial, happy people like Chris are not the norm. He was as though a door had opened and released all tension in the center as he fluttered about with smiles and greetings for all.

Children are rare at the medical center I attend. It’s not for pediatrics, so children are only there to support a loved one or brought by caregivers who don’t have babysitters. However, there’s a large, commercial aquarium in the waiting area, where children inevitably gather to watch the myriad of fish.

As a little girl stood staring at the fish tank, Chris walked up. He was twice her height, and you could see their reflections in the fish tank as they both stared into the glass, side by side.

“Have you ever tried to count fish in a tank?” Chris asked, pointing at the mixed pool of fish. “Watch…”

Chris began counting the fish one by one, and soon they scattered, to where he could no longer count them.

“You try, “ he said, and she did, the fish scattering again. “See, it’s impossible,” he said and the little girl laughed.

Chris’ girlfriend was with him, and as we waited, he’d jump on the other side of a glass partition and make funny faces. I couldn’t stop watching him and smiling.

Soon, both our names were called for our respective appointments. The center has a giant room with cubicles that administer various care. However, there are four private suites for those with more complex needs or privacy concerns. Based on my situation, cerebral palsy and all, I get a private suite for something as simple as a shot.

As my wife and I entered our private suite, Chris and his girlfriend entered the one next to us. Several nurses followed him in with a cart full of medical supplies like I’d never seen. He told me earlier that he had both multiple sclerosis and cancer – and the suite and the nurses and the cart hit it home to me, with heart-sinking gravity.

One could easily wonder about Chris, how is it that someone facing such profound health conditions and a seemingly unknown future can move through the world with such carefree joy?

In Chris and others, I’ve witnessed the answer: It’s not how much or how little we’re given in life, but how we view it all.

Living By The Hour

By Mark E. Smith

As an undergraduate, I had a philosophy professor who was a former Catholic priest who’d gone on to marry and have five children, followed by a bunch of grandchildren. He taught via the Socratic method and promoted self-cultivation among his students, so I should have known that I was in for it, so to speak, when I showed up for class late one spring morning.

“Mr. Smith, how nice of you to finally grace our presence,” he proclaimed in front of the class. “What was more important than our class this morning?”

“I just got a puppy and I had trouble getting him squared away because he wanted to play outside rather than go in his kennel,” I replied.

“What kind of puppy is it?” he asked.

“A golden retriever,” I answered.

“So, rather than staying home on this beautiful spring day and playing with your golden retriever puppy, you came to class?” he questioned.

I just looked at him. He walked over to the classroom door and held it open.

“Mr. Smith, you shouldn’t be in class today,” he asserted. “Clearly you have a lot to learn about life. When you have the opportunity to play with a puppy on a beautiful spring day, you should be wise enough to seize such moments. Go play with your puppy. We’ll see you Thursday.”

On that note, I went home and spent the day with my puppy. In the process, my professor taught me a lesson that I’ve carried throughout life: Let us use our time in the most meaningful, fulfilling ways, rather than simply letting it pass or our arbitrarily following a routine.

Now, I’m not saying that, as adults, we should disregard responsibilities and engage in such activities as playing with a puppy all day. That would be over-indulgent. However, how many of us have lost sight of the invaluable nature and opportunity of time? How many of us aren’t realizing that how we spend our time directly dictates the quality of our lives and the way we impact others?

Among the greatest equalizers in all of humanity is time. With the exception of varied lifespans, time is universal to all of us, with no distinction. For example, from the richest to the poorest, we each have from 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM each day. What we do with that single hour is completely up to us. Do we use it for the better or do we squander it? Do we use it to help or to hurt? It doesn’t matter who we are or where we come from – we each have the same hour, with the same potential. The only difference is, how we choose to use it.

I practice what I’ve coined the “one-hour concept” because it’s so achievable toward not just bettering our lives, but also those of others. We all have routines we logically follow – I had to go to that philosophy class to graduate college. However, we all can find an hour or more each day to lead more fulfilling, impacting lives.

My wife and I have been in a routine for several years where she picks me up from work, we go home, I turn on the news and go through the mail while she works on dinner. Our routine is normal and responsible, but hardly life-affirming.

On a recent Monday after work, I suggested to my wife that rather than go home, let’s take an hour and go try a new, hip bar and bistro. We felt like kids sneaking around, as it was so far outside of our weekday routine. Yet, as we sat in the funky joint having a hotdog and a shrimp sandwich with chips, listening to David Bowie, it was one of the best dates we’ve had. And, we were home by 6:00 PM!

I practice the one-hour rule in my professional life, as well. I always help whoever is in need, whenever. Yet, separate from all of my areas of responsibility, I set aside one hour per day to solely focus on resolving consumers’ mobility issues. It’s on my company’s public calendar, so colleagues know to book my meetings around it. Often, I shut my office door, silence my phones, and go through the steps to meet each consumer’s needs, one by one. I’m constantly amazed at how one focused hour allows me to serve so many in such meaningful ways.

We typically don’t give a lot of thought toward time – that is, until it’s too late. A doctor once told me that the most common wish among the dying is to have more time to spend with loved ones. I’ve wondered if the tense of that statement is true? Could it be that what many mean is, I wish I had spent more time with my loved ones? It’s tragic if that’s the case, but for you and me, it’s not too late. We can make our hours about creating cherished memories, and say at the end of our lives, I’m glad I lived life as I did, connected and engaged.

There can be a lot of drudgery in our lives. Yet, every hour provides us with an amazing opportunity to not just pass time, but to create life-affirming moments of fulfillment and impact. Make the most of your time, doing what you love and positively impacting others, for the gift of time is just that – a gift.

Doing Best Is Seeing Best

By Mark E. Smith

My wife and I were at church and a gentleman came up to us.

“I know it took your family more than most to get here this morning and I want you to know I appreciate that,” he said.

Based on his genuine demeanor, his words weren’t patronizing but compassionate and empathetic. Between my disability and our youngest daughter’s, it does take a lot for our family to get ready each morning.

What struck me about the gentleman’s kind words was that rather than being oblivious to our challenges or, worse yet, stereotype or judge us as that family with the wheelchairs, he saw us as real people doing our best.

Often, we see strangers who may appear out of the norm. Many of us are quick to make assumptions or judge others. I’ve done it and strangers do it to me. But, we know it’s not right. So, what’s the life-inspiring alternative?

What if like the gentleman at church, we simply extend everyone our sincere belief that most do their best? It changes the whole dynamic, doesn’t it? We go from judging to respecting, from differentiating to embracing. We rightfully apply a sense of humanity to all. As I always say, we never truly know what anyone is going through. Why not extend him or her the benefit of the doubt?

Being a semi-public figure, I have critics, people who, more bluntly, despise me. I recently met one at an event. The individual started out very hostile toward me, but by the end of the conversation the individual, who had a disability, explained that living with a disability is so hard that death would be a better alternative. The individual had expressed tremendous anger at me online, but I then in person understood that the anger wasn’t about me at all, but toward the individual’s own circumstance. The person was simply doing the best to cope, even though it wasn’t the healthiest way.

So frequently, we take strangers’ actions toward us personally and become angry or hurt. But, again, we have the ability to extend empathy and compassion. As one with a disability, I’m often a magnet for odd comments from strangers and I don’t take it personally, but presume that they’re doing their best. My wife and I once had a doctor, born and raised in another culture, ask us a myriad of questions about our family and life. He screamed, Congratulations!, after each answer. We weren’t offended, but recognized that he wasn’t raised with disability awareness, that he was doing his best. He genuinely meant well.

Yes, it’s true that there are people doing really lousy things. But, most people are truly doing their best. They may come from backgrounds and lifestyles different from yours or mine, with behaviors and ideologies we’d never engage in. Yet, there are reasons for why we each are who we are, and it’s vital to extend empathy and compassion to others, just as we wish extended to us.

The fact is, if we wish to see humanity at its best, we must first see the best in humanity.