The Stories We Share

OUR_STORIES

By Mark E. Smith

When I entered San Francisco State University’s creative writing program some two decades ago, I did so with one goal in mind – to be a better writer. After all, writing is a technical craft – not unlike painting or music – and if you want to get better at the craft, you expand your skill set. And, I wanted to possess the largest skill set possible so that, as a writer, I could write about virtually any topic, in any form. If writing was carpentry, I wanted the skills to build anything.

Upon my first week in the program, I realized it wasn’t what I expected. The fact was, I quickly learned that the true craft of writing wasn’t about technical skills at all. Yes, as students, we’d long learned the formalities of writing, with more to come. However, what we were there to really learn was the power and universal impact of stories. We learned what it was like to be impoverished and black in the south under Jim Crow laws through Alice Walker. We learned what it was like being a disenfranchised white, middle-aged male through Charles Bukowski. And, we learned what it was like to be a teenage heroin addict through Jim Carol. The stories went on and on, and we learned that every one has a story – ones of universal impact. We learned that writing wasn’t just about a skill set, but more so a deep acknowledgment of the human condition we all share.

As students, we were required to write with courage and vulnerability, to share our stories. Writing workshops, where you critique each others’ pieces, were cathartic, safe places where we could write and share the stories in our lives. The beautiful twenty-something who seemed to have it all wrote about her struggles with self harm, cutting her thighs with razor blades. The silent guy in the army surplus jacket wrote about being raped in his high school locker room by three jocks. And the happy-go-lucky, surfer dude wrote about living on friends’ couches because he was disowned by his parents when he came out as gay. What it taught us was that everyone had a story – including ourselves – and the true craft of writing isn’t just about telling stories, but honoring them.

During that time, my twenties, I was struggling with a lot. I was trying to understand my identity as one with severe cerebral palsy, and struggling with the guilt of separating myself farther and farther from my dysfunctional family. When we go through these periods of our lives – deep emotional struggles – it’s impossible to not feel alone. It’s unfortunately intrinsic to the process. Yet, our individual struggles – read that, stories – are universal to the human condition, and whatever we’re feeling or have experienced, we’re not alone.

What I gained from attending the two-year creative writing program – and writing of my struggles in the process – was recognizing the importance and vulnerability in sharing our stories, as well as embracing those of others. While there’s a time and a place for light conversation, it’s in sharing our stories that truly connects us.

Since that time, not the writer in me, but the person in me, has lived a life of connecting with others – through stories. Of course, I’ve shared mine countless times, as cerebral palsy can’t be hidden and understandably can become a topic. However, what’s shaped my life are the stories that others – with trust, courage and vulnerability – have shared with me. See, I’ve learned that no one’s story is more or less significant than another, just different. And, we intrinsically relate to them all. Pain, joy, sadness, fear, courage, failure, success, heartache, love, guilt, pride, resentment, elation, self-doubt, confidence and on and are all emotions that we universally share. They unite us.

However, sharing our stories does more than unites us. The process has far more power. Sharing our stories can heal, uplift, inspire, empower, and most of all the process shows us we’re not alone.

I don’t know what your story is. Maybe it’s one you’re struggling with alone. Or, maybe it’s a story that can help another person in your situation. Share your story. Let it out to someone, somewhere, in a safe place, where I promise it will change both your lives. None of us need to be writers to be courageous and vulnerable in sharing our stories. We just need to be ourselves.

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Full-Court Throw

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By Mark E. Smith

Imagine your basketball team is tied at the ending of a game, seconds from the final buzzer. You’re standing at the opposite end of the court, and the ball comes to you. What do you do with it?

Most players dribble, hold or pass the ball as the buzzer times out. After all, what can be accomplished at the buzzer, an entire court away from the basket?

My answer every time in life is to take a leap of faith in our talent, luck and what’s meant to be, and throw the ball as high and hard as we can across the entire court, toward the basket – because there’s a chance it will go in. When we have nothing to lose and everything to gain, go for the longshot every time.

I was writing an article a few years ago on pediatric wheelchair use, and I called the mother of a little girl in Southern California for an interview. We’d met a year or so earlier at an event I attended in L.A. on business, and we were linked through Facebook.

When I called her for the interview, I only had one thing on my mind – the interview. However, she was so engaging and wonderful to talk with. We ended up speaking the next eve, then the next, then the next. I quickly realized this woman was amazing, having it all: outer beauty, humor, intellect, compassion, you name it.

But, by all accounts, she was out of my league, though. If anyone objectively looked at the reality of the situation, I was at the wrong end of the basketball court to have any chance of making a basket. I was a single dad with cerebral palsy living in rural Pennsylvania. Why would a gorgeous high-end optician and artist living in San Diego even entertain me as a potential love interest?

However, as I fell for her, I turned to the one trait that’s always got me to new heights in my life: I went for the seemingly impossible longshot. I put my heart out there with nothing to lose and everything to gain. You might say I threw the longest basket in history – from Pennsylvania to California – and it miraculously swooshed the net. Yet, while making a full-court basket only lasts for one game, my now wife and our marriage is for a lifetime.

Life is going to put us at the end of the court from time to time. When we’re blessed, a ball comes our way. And, when the ball comes to us, we can pass or we can trust in ourselves and fate, throwing the ball as high and hard as we can toward the basket. No, it won’t go in every time – it hasn’t for me. But, when it does, it changes our lives forever.

The Most Sacred Trust

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By Mark E. Smith

Every week, I take a leap of faith on this blog and write essays that are often very personal and expose vulnerabilities about myself that I know can range from liberating to uncomfortable for readers. Yet, there’s a deep meaning and purpose to it all. Firstly, as a formally-trained writer, I was taught that if you’re truly going to write, you owe it to yourself and your reader to write with unflinching courage, to expose that which others may not dare, all in the name of integrity – the best writing is fearless and scary all at once. Secondly, there’s such power in universal experience, where if through sharing my own vulnerabilities I can help someone else embrace his or hers, realizing that none of us are alone in life’s challenges, that’s a tremendous privilege. I write to connect, and that demands unflinching honesty, candor and authenticity.

However, here’s what might surprise you: I don’t believe that this unyielding, wide-open form of trust should be practiced in our personal lives. The fact is, whether a child or a so-called hardened criminal, there’s a fragility within all of us – our inner-most vulnerabilities. And, they aren’t to be trusted with just anyone. We’re too valuable to risk handing over our emotions to those who may not honor, respect or deserve them.

Many of us know a lot of people, many of whom we call family and friends. For me, I can’t even count how many people I know. All are wonderful people. Yet, if you think about your own friends and family – as I do mine – how many have truly earned your trust to possess the capacity to treat your deepest vulnerabilities with the safety and security you deserve?

Chances are, not many. Unfortunately, we’ve often learned this in the most painful ways. We’ve shared our most vulnerable selves with someone, only to have that person attempt to hurt us with it later in scorn or judgement at the most opportune – make that, malicious – of times. True family and friends don’t use our vulnerabilities against us. Rather, true family and friends treat our vulnerabilities as sacred, those which are to be addressed with compassion, empathy and support.

So, how do we know with whom our deepest vulnerabilities are safe? For most of us, it’s a tiny fraction of those who we know, maybe only one or two people. And, the litmus test can take time, often years. See, true trust isn’t assumed; it’s earned, piece by piece. You share a little, see how that’s handled by someone over time, and if it’s honored, you share a little more, until ultimate trust is earned. Along the way, let us not be guarded, but aware, as if we witness the slightest violation of trust, it’s a sign to put on the emotional brakes and realize that person may be a loved family member or great friend, but not one who we can trust in our most sacred places – again, that’s reserved for those who’ve earned it.

By far the toughest practices of setting boundaries of who’s earned the privilege of being trusted with our deepest vulnerabilities is in romantic relationships because the emotions are so intense and the stakes are so high. In our desire to love and be loved, it’s far too easy to dismiss violations of our vulnerabilities. He only said it out of anger during our argument…. No, there’s never a reason or excuse to use someone’s vulnerabilities against him or her. That’s not love, its betrayal – and that never makes for a relationship you deserve. I married my wife for a lot of wonderful reasons, but the big one was our mutually-earned trust. Sure, we get mad and frustrated with each other, but we know that each other’s vulnerabilities are the sacred boundary line that we respect above all else. I’m also blessed that this ultimate sacred trust holds true with both my oldest daughter and my lifelong best friend.

When it comes to our vulnerabilities, let us seek comfort in others – it’s healing for the soul. However, let us likewise know that our vulnerabilities shouldn’t be entrusted to anyone except those worthy of respecting and cherishing such a gift. See, when it comes to ultimate trust, it’s quality, not quantity, that serves our heart.

No More Second Chances

Smith Wedding Reception, October 10, 2015
Smith Wedding Reception, October 10, 2015

By Mark E. Smith

On the surface, my life is one of second chances. In fact, from the moment of my birth, not breathing, resuscitated, then given only hours to live, my life started with a second chance.

As my life went on, second chance after second chance all but saved me from countless perils that could have stopped my life in its tracks. I went from lying on therapy mats in a special school to being mainstreamed in public school; I went from virtually no mobility to having a power chair; I went from moving into a garage to moving into my stepfather’s home; and, I ultimately went from not having a father to being among the most dedicated fathers myself. Indeed, if it wasn’t for second chances, my life would have derailed at so many points.

However, now at mid-life, my experiences and insights have allowed me to realize that second chances don’t truly exist beyond cultural mythology. Life doesn’t offer second chances. We can’t erase where we’ve been, we can’t change what’s happened, and we certainly don’t get do-overs. No, life is a journey, a linier equation, where all that we’ve experienced shapes who we are, where we are – the painful times, the prosperous times, the losses and gains, the tragedies and triumphs all serve a masterful purpose.

The notion of second chances suggests that the firsts were an error, not meant to be. Yet, without whatever came first – the tragedies, the mistakes, the failures, as commonly labeled – we could never have what came next, we could never continue on the journey that makes our lives… well… our lives. And, when we remove the notion of second chances from our beliefs, and value all aspects of our life as a linier journey, it gives meaning to all, turning even the most painful parts of our lives into purposeful, into having reason, into healing and success.

See, if we don’t look at life as second chances, but rather as what’s meant to take time to unfold and come to fruition, it’s impossible to be bitter, resentful or regretful of the past. Instead, we become intrinsically thankful not just of where we are, but likewise where we’ve been. Sometimes life’s journey is not to be questioned, but lived.

Now That’s Sexy

The-Wedding-Singer

By Mark E. Smith

Let’s talk about sexy! This conversation started for me about a year ago when I asked my lifelong best friend – both of us wheelchair users – about whether he was observing what I was: there seemed a sudden shift where many of our peers with disabilities were now in amazing relationships. “When did disability become the new sexy?” I asked.

There have always been cultural stigmas around disability and sexuality – the most historic and inaccurate being that those with disabilities are asexual, that sexuality doesn’t exist within the disability realm. Further adding to this is the totally inaccurate message in society at large that physical perfection directly correlates with sex appeal – that is, the better looking you are, the more sexually desirable you are.  Now, we know in our progressive culture that neither of these are true. However, here’s the question: if we know that imperfect physicality doesn’t deter sex appeal, what then actually drives sex appeal?

The science is in, and the results are encouraging for the 99% of us who aren’t supermodels. While most might say a big bosom or bulging biceps are what people find sexy, the true factors are far more complex and equalizing according to researchers.

Firstly, people find integrity sexually appealing – which makes sense because healthy people aren’t attracted to those who aren’t forthright. The deeper the trust, the purer the attraction.

Secondly, people find a smile and eye contact totally sexually appealing. Admit it, when you’re checking out at the grocery store and the checker glances up at you with eye contact and a smile as he or she runs your V8 juice across the scanner, you’re like, “Was that a flirt?” and it feels awesome. So, imagine when someone at a cocktail party smiles and makes eye contact from across the room – that’s hot! And, if you’re the one doing it, you’re hot! And, if two of you are doing it with each other, it might be time to find a closet – the coat closet, that is, where you can exit the party and go have great conversation over coffee (what did you think I was implying?)

Thirdly, wit and humor are huge turn-ons. Wit and humor make us fun, engaging, grounded, disarming, comfortable and charming. Seriousness is like rain: it’s great as needed, but you don’t want to live with it every day. Wit and humor is the warmth and sunshine that draws others to us.

Fourthly, intelligence is seen as very sexually appealing. Intelligent people both make us feel more secure and stimulate us mentally and emotionally – and that’s sexy. People who demonstrate poor judgement aren’t those who attract others. Act with intelligence; be sexy!

Fifthly, compassion is exceptionally sexually appealing – it ties into deep biological reproductive drivers, where we’re compelled toward people who nurture. It’s a huge turn-on when your partner recognizes and addresses your needs, and you, his or hers.

Last, but not least, people find confidence ultra sexy – bring in the alpha! Now, arrogance shouldn’t be confused with confidence. There’s nothing sexy about a narcissist. However, confident people are cool, calm, collected, in control, comfortable in their skin – and who isn’t attracted to someone with such composure? Just be you; that’s confident and that’s sexy.

Now, the fact is, I haven’t shared anything that you don’t know – and researchers on this subject aren’t rocket scientists. Yet, it proves a powerful point for all of us: sex appeal ultimately doesn’t stem from the body, but the brain. And, if your brain demonstrates integrity, knows how to flash a smile, can make someone laugh, demonstrates intelligence and compassion, and is absolutely comfortable in who you are, well then you are exuding sex appeal wherever you go, a love magnet!

Did I just catch you smiling at me?

Three Words

Here_I_Am

By Mark E. Smith

The ultimate liberation of the spirit comes when you look into the mirror, realizing that you can’t change who you are – based on any number of factors totally beyond your control – and you just say to the world with pride and contentment: Here I am….

Sunsets and Rooftops

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By Mark E. Smith

Sometimes our pasts, presents and futures collide all at once – and for a moment we see how it all makes sense.

I’m at Perch, an insanely hidden but outrageously hip rooftop patio bar and restaurant atop a skyscraper, with a 360-degree view of Los Angeles. It’s like walking onto a terrace party on Manhattan’s upper east side, only I don’t know anyone. But, they all are fashionable and laid back, sitting in upscale patio chairs around fire pits – 65 degrees in L.A. is cold, even for me, an east-coaster.

I’m with my fiancee, my soon-to-be step daughter, and my fiancee’s high-school friend, Deb. Deb is so down to earth and grounded that you’d never know she’s an exec with AE Sports, the video game giant, and her husband is some sort of brand manager for Aston Martin in Beverly Hills. I ask Deb if she knows of Magnus Walker, but she doesn’t, so I just tell her he’s a crazy Porsche guy in L.A.

The L.A. skyline at sunset is stunning. As spectacular as the ridges of the Grand Canyon, the surrounding skyscrapers create reflections and shadows that make it all appear beyond man-made. I just take it all in, and wonder amidst the beauty of it all – the rooftop, the sunset, the view, L.A., my fiancee – how’d a guy like me ends up here, at this place, this moment, this point in life where I feel blessed in so many ways?

Earlier today, I worked a big consumer trade show. While returning from lunch, I ran into my ex-girlfriend who I hadn’t seen in 24 years. We were so young when we dated, and when we broke up, I was crushed. There’s fragility to a young heart, and I just couldn’t make sense of the breakup. But, then I met who would become my wife, then we had my daughter, grew my career, moved cross country, built a very prosperous life, got divorced, raised my daughter on my own and just strove to live right by all. That first breakup turned into just good memories from my youth.

As I chatted with my ex-girlfriend, it was a very touching moment, no weirdness or awkwardness. Through the wonders of Facebook, we’d both known where each had traveled in life, and we both were genuinely happy for each other. It was sort of like just smiling at how far we’d both come. And, after a hug and a picture, we parted ways, she going to catch a flight home to her husband and daughter, and me, back to my company’s booth.

And, so as I sit on this L.A. rooftop, I look out at the sunset over the Pacific and flash back over those 24 years – my beloved daughter having turned 18 just a few days ago – and the question of how I ended up in this breathtaking spot, at this exact time, answers itself: despite the twists and turns, life always leads us to where we’re supposed to be.