Zach And I Are In Love

Holly & Mark / Gillian & Zach
Holly & Mark / Gillian & Zach

By Mark E. Smith

It’s official: Zach Anner and I – the two most eligible men with cerebral palsy in America – are in love.

Now, when I say that Zach and I have been the two most eligible men with cerebral palsy in America, what I really mean is, we couldn’t get dates if our lives depended on it. And, while we were tempted to date each other out of pure complacency, it turned out that waiting for the two most beautiful women in the world to sweep us off of our feet (which, let’s be honest, isn’t hard to do when we’re not on our feet to begin with), turned out to be a better idea. I should clarify that we weren’t both waiting for the two most beautiful women each, which would equal four women in total and would be really weird and a TLC reality show, but one amazing woman each. And, we scored!

In an uncanny twist, about 10 months ago, Zach and I started falling in love – with two separate women, not each other! – in Southern California. And, amazing women they were (they, of course, still are amazing, even more so, but I’m trying to keep my tense straight). Zach’s beloved Gillian is an internationally-known singer-song writer, and my beloved Holly is an artist. Both women are creative, witty, caring souls, who’s personalities truly radiate at a tangible level. Their depths of character range from funny to empathetic to being up for all that life has to offer. So, how did Zach and I ultimately get so blessed with such amazing women?

Cerebral Palsy. Fellas, trust me on this one. Forget the cheesy pick-up lines, fancy cars and medical degrees. All you need to attract a woman is cerebral palsy. Even if you don’t have cerebral palsy, say that you do. You can have a Ferrari and medical degree, but unless you tack cerebral palsy on the end, you don’t have a chance. Why? Because every woman knows cerebral palsy is where it’s at.

Of course, cerebral palsy has nothing to do with Zach and my finding love. The truth be told, we know the real secret to our finding the two most amazing women in the world: We’re just ourselves. What makes Zach and me who we are is just that – we’re happy as we are, cerebral palsy, poor posture, twisted senses of humor and all. And, with self-acceptance comes a confidence and comfort, where we have the ability to laugh and love and embrace life with an enthusiasm that’s contagious. We’re easy to love, but we equally love easily, where we know that vulnerability is a strength, empathy is a gift, and a true lover is also a best friend.

If you want to be loved for you… well… just be you.

Awesome socks don't hurt, either!
Awesome socks don’t hurt, either!

More Than Enough

Mark and Emily001

By Mark E. Smith

I’ve spent my whole life not being enough. Truly, from my birth, onward, I’ve never been enough. The doctors declared me a vegetable who should be institutionalized. My father was so ashamed of my disability that he refused to push me in my wheelchair in public. Mrs. Robinson, my third-grade public school teacher, fought to keep me of her classroom because I wasn’t physically on par with the other students. My prom date wouldn’t dance with me because I used a wheelchair. Waitresses have refused to serve me, and even in 2014, I still occasionally face discrimination because in the eyes of some strangers, I am not enough.

And, it remains the case, that in so many situations and perceptions, I am not enough. However, I want to share with you a very fitting story about what it’s like to face such a struggle, what it means to be labeled, to go through life as never being enough. See, when I was around 13, I desperately pursued my physical independence, knowing that in a world that didn’t view me as enough, I was in a race for survival, avoiding the potential of ending up in a long-term care facility because I couldn’t care for myself. And, so as part of enhancing my physical strength toward independent living skills, I began going out every day after school and pushed my manual wheelchair along the street in front of my house. I was severely spastic, with terrible coordination, and used a power chair, so pushing a manual wheelchair was a tremendous struggle. I fought to get both hands on the push rims, and gave a single thrust of the wheelchair, throwing my body into spasms – then, as the wheelchair coasted to a stop, I started the process all over again. It took me over an hour to go down the block and back.

However, it wasn’t physically pushing the manual wheelchair that was the biggest challenge. Rather, it was the literal voices along the block. A few neighborhood boys of my age taunted me every day, calling me retard, mocking me with spastic gestures, telling me I was not enough, that I couldn’t even push a wheelchair correctly.

Nevertheless, every day for that school year, I put myself in the line of ridicule and humiliation and pushed that wheelchair up and down the block, literally being told I wasn’t enough with each challenging push of the wheels. It was a set schedule: at 3:30 every day, I pushed my manual wheelchair, and the other kids followed along humiliating me. It was painful and scary and enraging and embarrassing, but I had to endure it for my greater good.

That one year taught me a lot about not being enough. In pushing that manual wheelchair, all the while being mocked, I didn’t merely improve my physical abilities, I developed perseverance, determination and autonomy. I wasn’t pushing to be enough to the other kids or the rest of those who discounted me. Rather, I was pushing my own race to become more than enough.

The fact is, I’ll never be enough. Heck, my own father went to his grave unquestionably ashamed of me, I had a ex-girlfriend give me a written list of why I wasn’t worthy of her love, and I still face public discrimination and humiliation from time to time. I will never meet certain standards or be enough as a person in the eyes of some.

So, then, how are many aspects of my life explained? If I was not enough to my parents, how did I go on to successful careers in the mobility industry, writing and speaking? If I was not enough to my third-grade teacher, how was I able to go on to college and grad school? If I have not been enough of a man in the view of some strangers, how have I succeeded in raising a beautiful daughter as a full-time single father? The list goes on and on, but the point is, despite my never being enough in the eyes of so many, how have I, to the contrary, had so many successes?

The answer is universal. We should never strive to be enough in the eyes of others – it’s a low bar to measure ourselves. Instead, we should ignore the false ceilings that others place upon us and instead push to our own best abilities. And, in that process an amazing transformation occurs: we eclipse never being enough by actually becoming more than enough.

At the End of the Tunnel

lightendtunnel
By Mark E. Smith

In my roles within the mobility industry, I often encounter very difficult situations. No, I don’t mean broken wheelchairs or grumpy customers – those are typically easy to resolve. Rather, the difficult situations I face are families in emotional crises, where a husband is newly paralyzed or parents have lost a child to a progressive condition like muscular dystrophy. And, along that harrowing road over the past 15 years, I’ve seen such families turn tragedy into triumph, while others crumbled into ruins. What is it, then, that separates these two outcomes? What is it that allows couples to survive devastating circumstance while others dissolve?

I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist, nor have I done any scientific studies. But, I am a real, thinking, feeling person with empathy toward those facing adversity – I’ve been there and I know what it’s like. And, as I’ve been in the trenches with families in crises, I’ve observed two very distinct factors that allow couples to face and overcome life’s most profound tragedies, actually strengthening relationships, not destroying them.

The first is factor that successful couples have in the face of adversity is unyielding love and respect for each other. Now, all couples will say that they have unyielding love and respect for each other, and it seems obvious that couples would have this. But, we live in a culture where relationships are about as sacred as trip through a drive-thru, and there’s too often very little respect among partners. Think about couples around you, or maybe your own relationship, where each individual makes him or herself the priority, not the relationship or partner. Or, think about how moodiness, arguing and name calling are deemed acceptable by many. Those are traits of dishonor and disrespect, and when crisis hits, such couples are doomed. In crises, the blame-game ensues and rather than protecting each other’s hearts, they go for the jugular.

However, surviving couples are different. Mutual respect reigns over moodiness, arguing and name calling. Surviving couples run toward the safety and shelter of their relationship during crises, not away from it. There’s a sanctity to the relationship that’s upheld, serving as an unconditional safety net during crises.

Statistically, the average length of marriage prior to divorce is eight years. Why eight years? Money magazine recently reported that over any 10-year period, we have a 98% chance of facing a major life crisis, albeit financial, health-related, and so on. Therefore, if we’re in rocky relationships, and are all but certain to face a crisis, of course it’s just a matter of time before it’s game over, logically right around that 8-year mark.

Yet, truly loving, respectful couples ultimately find crises as opportunities to grow close together. So, at eight years, having faced crises and embraced each other, their commitment is stronger. A couple simply has to have unyielding love and respect to weather crises. I have yet to meet a couple who’s stayed together through a life-changing crisis who didn’t have a foundation of unyielding love and respect for each other.

The second trait that I’ve found couples must have in order to survive a life-changing crisis is a sense of a higher power. Now, I don’t mean formal religion – although it’s often the case – but a true belief in a guiding force that everything happens for a reason, with larger meaning and purpose. This is such a powerful tool toward coping and healing because it often explains the inexplicable.

I was born with severe cerebral palsy. If I looked at that as a random act, solely making me suffer, can you imagine how bleak my world view would be – there’d be no purpose for my life. However, if I truly believe that there’s a purpose to why I received cerebral palsy, I then naturally look for the positives, giving my life purpose and meaning. Couples who succeed through tragedy do exactly this – that is, they share a belief in a larger purpose and meaning to all. If one or both partners are bitter or resentful over a crisis, again, they’ll go for the jugular, not the heart – and the relationship won’t survive. Both partners must believe in a higher power of meaning and purpose.

What I know is that given enough time – statistically within a 10-year period – couples will face crises. And, having witnessed many families experience the most harrowing of circumstances, I can attest to this fact: As long as you and your partner have unyielding love and respect, and believe in a larger meaning and purpose to all, you’ll make it hand-in-hand to the light at the end of the tunnel.

Real Men Use Electric Razors

photo (9)

By Mark E. Smith

I know a lot about strength. No, it’s not because I’ve long worked out with weights, toned and trim for a man my age. Rather, I know a lot about strength because I know that’s what it takes to expose my every vulnerability to those around me.

It’s natural that all of us feel a need to “present” ourselves in the best light, not wanting others to see our vulnerabilities, possibly perceived as weaknesses, at least in our own minds. After all, our biggest fear as social creatures is rejection. And, while there are certain environments where putting only our best face forward is appropriate, such as a job interview, there are other circumstances where if we’re going to demonstrate our ultimate strength, it means exposing our ultimate vulnerabilities.

I was recently at an event where I was fortunate to be a known figure, fitting the cultural norm of “strength.” I was a bit of a celebrity or politician, you might say. I was well-dressed, poised, blessed with the graciousness of many recognizing me. And, I had the privilege of having my partner with me, where she witnessed me move through the event as a “man of strength.” And, isn’t that how we want our romantic partners to see us: successful, poised and recognized as someone of merit?

Yet, for me, there was ultimately nothing proud or strong about any of that. Sure, I was authentic in truly caring about the people around us, and humbled by the recognition. But, breezing through a crowd with my hair combed just right and people recognizing me didn’t make me strong. What made me strong was what happened hours earlier, that only one other person knew about – my partner.

See, having cerebral palsy often makes me the opposite of poised, far outside the cultural framework of masculinity, the archetypical male model we see shaving shirtless in the mirror of Gillette commercials. Rather, I have vulnerabilities. But, that in itself gets to my definition of the epitome of masculine strength – that is, having the courage to share with others your deepest vulnerabilities, where you don’t hide any part of you, allowing others to see all of you. That takes the truest form of strength.

And, although I’d strolled through the event poised, of strength, hours earlier my partner and I shared a much different reality: my vulnerabilities. I wasn’t a recognized figure in a tie and jacket, but a man with severe cerebral palsy struggling to go through my morning routine in a hotel room not set-up for my needs. And, my partner both witnessed and assisted with my struggles. And, with the truest of strength, I shared with her my utmost vulnerabilities. Yes, it was emotionally scary. And, yes, it was embarrassing at moments. However, most of all, it was ultimately liberating. Just being you, in your most vulnerable ways, and letting another see and accept you as-is, supporting you as-is, is a life-changing experience.

What I’ve learned is that the minute that we have the strength to drop all pretenses, and share our utmost vulnerabilities with someone we trust, it removes all between us, and our relationships become deeper and totally authentic. Masks create barriers to intimacy, whereas having the courage, the strength to remove them allows us to be us, and others to love us for us.

In this way, if you want to live with ultimate strength, there’s only one way to do it: have the courage to share your ultimate vulnerabilities. And, I don’t worry about being the guy in the Gillette commercial – I have an electric razor.

Unlike Romeo and Juliet

romeo

By Mark E. Smith

I remember reading Romeo and Juliet in the 11th grade, thinking, This isn’t going to turn out well for these two young, star-crossed lovers! After all, nothing aligned for them, where even their families despised each other. And, I was right (insert 400-year-old spoiler alert here), as both end up dead.

Interestingly, Romeo and Juliet serves as a great metaphor toward how all of us should properly make life-changing decisions – albeit relationships, careers, health, and finances. Romeo and Juliet unquestionably loved each other, and many romantics for hundreds of years have wanted to believe that such love is enough. But, solely following such a single-minded view rarely turns out well. After all, Romeo demonstrated such impulsiveness that it resulted in Mercutio’s death and the ultimate double suicide. Lots of people want lots of things – including true love with the one who he or she is drawn toward – but wanting doesn’t make for good decision making. So, whether we’re in a relationship, handling finances, or making career moves, how do we know we’re truly making the right decision instead of simply following impulses?

In my life, I’ve evolved a very simple formula for making decisions, and I apply that formula especially toward the major decisions in my life. It’s a single question that must have a yes answer, or I won’t move forward: Is this healthy and will it prove successful? If the answers can be demonstrated as yes-yes, it’s a petty safe bet. If the answers are no-no, yes-no or no-yes, then it’s a poor decision. The literal answer must be, This decision will prove both healthy and successful.

Think back to Romeo and Juliet. If they’d simply asked, Is this relationship proving both healthy and successful, no one would have died, as the insanity of the situation would have been seen! Asking ourselves that simple question – is this decision both healthy and successful – will virtually always steer us in the right direction.

Now, I haven’t always been the best at doing what’s both healthy and successful – that is, I’ve learned this tool through the School of Hard Knocks. If you think you’ve done dumb, I’ve done dumber. Yet, every time I’ve applied the question of, Is this both healthy and successful, to my life, it’s proved exactly that – healthy and successful! In 2009, when the “mortgage crisis” hit, devastating countless hard-working, well-meaning Americans, I wasn’t one of them. However, I could have been. See, when I built my home – the most modest in my development – every so-called financial expert advised me that I should have assumed a very large mortgage and built a much larger home. After all, your home is your best investment, right?

Wrong. The best investment is one that’s both healthy and successful – and there’s only one right answer. If I had taken the suggested mortgage, it would have added stress to my life and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest over the life of the loan. There’s nothing healthy or successful about that! To the contrary, I stayed debt-free, where when the mortgage crisis hit, I had no mortgage, and rather than putting money in a bank’s pocket, it stayed in mine. No stress and preserved income – that’s both healthy and successful.

I likewise have been applying this vital tool toward decisions of the heart. Unlike Romeo, I’ve not followed impulses lately, but have been striving to better recognize what creates a life-changing relationship, and the answer is, it has to be both healthy and successful on every level. Love between two people isn’t a vacuum. Rather, it not only directly effects their emotions, but also their children, extended families, careers and finances, to name a few. In this way, I’ve felt increasing satisfaction in my life by ensuring that my romantic life builds health and success on all levels. It’s not hard to feel happy in love, but by ensuring that all is healthy and successful – especially in building a future together – is a great way to gain perspective and get it right.

Every day we face decisions, and making the right decision is often the difference between health and success or misery and failure. Simplify the process by resisting impulses and avoiding sketchy thinking by living to the rule of making decisions based on, Is it both healthy and successful? If so, that’s a winner!

Where Divorce Leads

Divorce

By Mark E. Smith

I’m at that age, in my 40s, where many I know are either divorced or in the midst of divorce. And, it’s hard for me to watch because I understand the tragedy of divorce, but not for the reasons you might presume. And, I know the ultimate goal of divorce, but, again, it’s likely not what you presume. Divorce is different for each couple – and, even more unfortunate for each “family” – yet there’s a common thread of humanity that too many overlook. It’s by understanding that common thread that takes divorce from the court room and places it back into the heart, which is really where it resides.

Interestingly, while I am a generational divorce statistic – my parents divorced, and I subsequently divorced as an adult – I’ve never been through a “typical” divorce in the legal sense. My father simply left when I was very young, then my mother and stepfather had a very simple divorce. Then, in my divorce, it likewise was a very simple legal process, no custody issues, gracefully splitting of assets amongst ourselves, never even a foot in court. My marriage was deeply dysfunctional, but we still treated each other with dignity and respect in the divorce process – there was no excuse not to. None of these divorces in my life were by any fathom ideals – divorce never is – and emotions ran deep; but, they weren’t legal battles and drawn-out War of the Roses, either.

However, I’ve helped friends emotionally get through some tough divorces. And, it’s struck me that so many divorces are a seemingly surreal process. Think about how divorce transpires. Two people have gone from loving each other, vowing to spend a lifetime together, and even having children, to needing a court to decide who gets the kids on Sundays, utterly despising each other, paying attorneys thousands of dollars to literally fight over items like who gets the $50 DVD player. And, the process takes on a life of its own, where individuals abandon all rationale and systematically their lives are devastated by one or both of their actions – home lost, bank account drained, kids made a pawn, and everything so lovingly built is destroyed, including those once-priceless wedding photos. When two people’s lives – and worse, their kids – are sanctioned entirely by court order, life has jumped the tracks in among the most tragic of ways.

Yet, as horrible as the legalities of divorce can be, it’s the impact on our humanity that’s the real toll – and this is what few realize or wish to admit. Alcoholics and addicts aside (a leading cause for divorce, where such individuals by nature of altered brain chemistry cannot process rational thoughts or feelings), it’s the emotional impact of divorce that’s more life-shaking than any other aspect. The monetary can be rebuilt, and the court appearances eventually come to an end. However, the realization that the person and union that you so believed in turned out to be completely unfulfilled in the end, rattles you to your core. What you thought was, wasn’t. What you trusted in as a forever, came to a soul-numbing hault. The person who you married isn’t recognizable anymore. And, whether you do it consciously or subconsciously, you’re bound to feel the scariest, most helpless emotion of your life: After witnessing the implosion of my beliefs, hopes and dreams, how do I believe in anything ever again? See, that’s what divorce truly is for most. While couples duke it out in court over meaningless materialism, fueled by spite and bitterness, thinking that’s the nature of divorce, they’re overlooking the real consequence and battle: How do I restore my faith in humanity, to trust again? It’s not just a dissolution of a marriage, but the dissolution of all that one believed – and that’s soul-shattering for many.

In this way, the ultimate goal of surviving divorce can’t be preservation of capital or righteousness or bitterness. Rather, the ultimate goal in surviving divorce is a preservation of faith, the ability to trust and love again. While you may lose a lot in divorce, as long as you don’t lose faith in humanity, you not only have the opportunity to recover, but to go on and live the life of your dreams.

And, to me, that’s the ultimate goal of divorce. It’s not about distribution of property, who’s right or wrong, or being bitter with your ex. Rather, the ultimate goal of divorce is among the most consequential processes of your life: Preserving your faith in trusting and loving again toward ultimate happiness wherever it awaits you – and sincerely wishing your ex the same.

Evenings in the Kitchen

kitchen-dance

By Mark E. Smith

In fairy tales and films, they end happily ever after, but in our lives, they always don’t. However, just because they haven’t till now, doesn’t mean that they won’t.

Life proves more potential than even fiction, where heart break and sorrow can lead to Etta James, John Coltrane, slow dancing and kissing to jazz as together you cook dinner, dim lights and sips of wine in the kitchen.

Jazz, rhythm and blues, life isn’t what happens to you, it’s truly about what you choose. And, as you be you and me be me, life doesn’t imitate art, but it is the only reality. Bukowski and Basquiat were not philosophers or saints, but they knew our futures are written with our own hands, a great painting is what a painter paints.

And, so we write our own lives, paint who we are, where we can reach our potentials, hearts dangling from a star. No scripts needed, just an understanding of who we are – poets and painters and jazz players in a sentimental mood. It’s all what we choose.

Life isn’t about accepting just what we’re given. It’s a novel written, a painting painted, a jazz song played, a slow kiss in the dim lights of the kitchen.

And, a life isn’t truly lived when we hesitate – great novels and paintings and jazz compositions, see, they never deliberate. They follow the flow of the heart and soul, and if you want to live great, live to your dreams and potentials – liberate. Life is an art, not a role.