Empty Chairs

KITCHENCHAIRS

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken. –Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Les Miserables

By Mark E. Smith

I’m really striving to keep a super clean house these days. It’s always been tidy, but after 11 years of living there, dust bunnies and cobwebs collect in corners. However, my close friend sneaked into my house while I was away working an Abilities Expo, and did a dramatic deep cleaning, where my kitchen looks new again. So, I’ve been doing my best to keep the house spotless.

Yet, my 16-year-old isn’t so mindful. She has a bad habit of piling jacket after jacket on a kitchen chair. And, with her virtually never home anymore – at school during the day, and drama rehearsal, band practice, and hanging out with friends at night – I’m the cerebral palsy version of Ozzy Osborne, with this over-the-top career by day, but puttering alone in the house in the eves, somewhat lost beyond my work.

So, amidst my immaculate kitchen, I saw my daughter’s myriad of coats, sweaters, and hoodies once again piled on a kitchen chair one evening, and I got really mad. How come she can’t just put these jackets in her bedroom? I’m stuffing all of this in a garbage bag, putting it on the curb, and teaching her a lesson!

Of course, I didn’t really do that. Instead, I went and lay on my bed, surrounded by the silence of the house. And, when my daughter got home around 10pm, I asked her how rehearsal was, not mentioning the jackets piled on the chair.

A few days later, I was working on a project, and a distant colleague raised a very trivial issue, one of no real consequence other than to get a rise out of others. “Why’s he making an issue of nothing?” I asked another colleague.

And, she said among the most profound insights, “Sometimes when people feel a lack of control over aspects of their lives or careers, they focus on that which they can control, the small things.”

Indeed, we do often focus on the small things that we can control when the bigger aspects seem overwhelming or uncontrollable. In the wheelchair world in which I work, consumers sometimes hyper focus on small details regarding a wheelchair, only later to share how overwhelmed he or she is by the entirety of disability experience, that the small issue with the wheelchair was merely a way to avoid facing the larger issues in life. Similarly, think about how often emotions build up in relationships, where a small issue ends up representing much deeper issues. Even in the movies, think about how often one character wants to tell another his or her feelings, but can’t get the words out, instead rambling about something trivial – it’s a classic cinematic tension builder based on human nature. …It’s true that it’s often emotionally easier to hyper focus on small issues rather than tackle the big ones – especially when we’re not ready or don’t feel emotionally safe doing so.

For me, I immediately thought back to the jackets on my kitchen chair. In the grand scheme, it really doesn’t matter if they’re there. But, as a single dad puttering around my empty house, it’s about all that I felt that I could truly control these days in the larger picture of my parental life. After all, my daughter’s growing up, times are changing, and while it’s all good, healthy, and normal, it’s also a bit scary – namely on my own, as a single dad, where my daughter has been my foremost focus. It’s the realization of, Wow, I’m not caretaker of a child anymore, but father of a wonderfully-flourishing young lady…. and where do I fit into all of this, and go from here?

Of course, I know the logical answers. My role remains vital, where my daughter comes home at night, plops on the big, stuffed chair in my master suite, as I’m already tucked in bed, and I listen to what’s going on in her life, asking questions, sometimes giving advice. Sure, she still needs me very much – just in different ways – and I’m forever there for her.

But, the heart isn’t so logical. It realizes that my little girl is growing up, and soon the jackets piled on the kitchen chair will be a fond memory as she heads off to college. And, there’s both a joy and sadness in that process. So, what I’ve realized is that those aren’t just jackets piled on the kitchen chair, but my own emotions as a father watching his truest pride, joy, and love grow up – and rightfully struggling with it all.

And, so for now, I’ll just leave the jackets on the kitchen chair, not worrying about it, but appreciating this stage of her life – our life – before it changes even more. Why strive to control such trivial aspects when I can just enjoy the more important aspects of life as a father.

The Real American Dream

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By Mark E. Smith

We often hear of the American Dream, but what does that really mean? In my home, it means a lot – because we’re living it.

This past week, I was in Atlanta, working with the Georgia Association of Medical Equipment Services, advocating at the Capitol and its Legislature for sustained mobility funding and disability-related services.

Before I left, my daughter and I sat at our kitchen table, and laid out our 2013 schedules, finances, and priorities. As a family – even though it’s just the two of us – we must be on the same page, as a team, pursuing my goals, her goals, and most importantly, our goals as a family building a legacy.

At just turning 16, my daughter is on her high school’s honor role, and on an Ivy-League track toward college, leaning heavily toward an ultimate doctorate in psychology. She plays and holds a seat not just in the school band, but regional orchestra, too, and is next auditioning for the state level in March. She’s a member of the National Thespian Society, where she acts, as well as serves as Secretary for her troop, and she’s a gallery-shown photographer. This summer, she’s attending George Mason University, where she was nominated as among the top 250 youth leaders in the country, and she’s also volunteering as a counselor at a muscular dystrophy summer camp. Yes, the kid is freakin’ awesome, nailing life at 16!

My career continues in full swing, where I have more corporate, advocacy, writing, and speaking projects lined up than in the history of my career, and what I’ve accomplished in just the first month of the year makes my head spin. Again, I was in Atlanta last week – recently back from Detroit! – now I have a radio interview, magazine columns (both in print and in process), a MDA Muscle Walk fundraiser, which I’m helping coordinate, an on-going book project, engagements in Nashville, and Los Angeles, and a full-time corporate job, message board, and weekly blog. And, that only gets me to mid March! (Then it’s Capitol Hill time, Abilities Expos… you get the idea….)

Yet, as a family, my daughter and I not only have to annually budget time, but also finances. We take money management very seriously in our home, where it’s not just about wealth-building and security, but “stewardship.” We believe that what we’re blesses with isn’t truly ours, but that we manage it for a greater good. We live totally debt free, put necessity before want, share with others, and give as much as we can to charity. We don’t live with a scarcity mindset, where we hoard for ourselves; rather, we live an abundant mindset, where there’s enough for us to really enjoy life and not worry, but we have the ability to give generously, as we believe giving to others is the absolute most fun that one can have with money (and, it’s the reason why we’re “stewards” of income – that is, to ultimately do good with it for others, as opposed to seeing it as ours to keep).

But, here’s what struck me about our 2013 family schedules, finances, and priorities meeting: We’re living the American Dream. In two generations – mine, now my daughter’s – we’ve changed our family tree beyond what many would deem possible. The number of firsts for us is astounding. Although a non-traditional family of just the two of us – there’s no mother figure in our family photos – we personify the American Dream.

See, it’s easy to look at me in a suit and tie traveling the country, speaking to audiences, or read my magazine columns, or know of my corporate career, or see me sunning on my boat or jetting off to Vegas, and say, Sure, Mark, life is easy for you when you and your daughter have money and opportunity….

However, the fact is, I was born into less than nothing, with the four generations before me living in abject poverty, all addicts, most serving prison time, none with an education, most just to steal and harm whoever they could. As I open some of my speaking engagements, On the day I was born, my grandfather was in prison, a lifelong criminal; my grandmother was a heroin-addicted prostitute; my father was an alcoholic, drinking in a bar at noon; and, as I was born on that day, I wasn’t breathing….

And, my family tree got worse from there. My grandmother called my mother on the phone and shot herself in the head, committing suicide. My grandfather died of a heroin overdose after endless years of prison time. Both my parents were Skid Row alcoholics, dead by the time I was 40. And, it all made sense, going back for generations on both sides of my family.

So, how did my daughter and I end up here today? Well, there’s been a lot of hurt, pain, struggle, and success in-between; but for me, it all started with getting myself in and out of a bathtub at age 11, where I simply learned that with unyielding tenacity and vision, my potentials could extend as far as I wished. I couldn’t just change the direction of my family tree, I could grow my own. …And, I did.

I was the first one ever to graduate high school in four generations. I was the first to go through college. I was the first to never serve jail time. I was the first to have a career. I was the first to own and invest. I was the first to not be an addict of any sort. I was the first to not do what those before me and around me had done, but to live by a radically different moral and ethical compass. I was the first to live the American Dream.

Yet, the climb has never been linear. Many of the ghosts of my heritage have chased me at times. At 17, I awoke in intensive care after my own failed suicide attempt. I got myself horribly in debt in my 20s. And, I have yet to sustain a life-long romantic relationship. Yet, every time I’ve fallen down, I’ve used second chances, which we all have, to make things right. I immediately got into counseling at 17; I worked my way out of debt in my early 30s; and, at this writing, I’m currently in counseling, striving to take accountability for a string of ended relationships, and get this whole love life thing right. Indeed, the beauty of the American Dream is it gives each of us the chance to change the directions of our lives at any time and redefine who we are. Again, we can get knocked down and fall down, but we have the chance and the choice to get up stronger every time. And, I’ve never passed on that opportunity.

And, while my daughter’s life hasn’t been a piece of cake, either – her mother ultimately unable to break free of her past and demons, to the point where she hasn’t been in my daughter’s life – my daughter has taken the torch of the American Dream, and ran with it. What we’ve both learned is that life isn’t what you’ve been born into; rather, it’s what you make of it, and despite hardships and hurt, you can move through it all, day by day, hurdle by hurdle, to success that you’ve earned by simply striving to do right – that’s living the American Dream.

Listening, Loving – Present

By Mark E. Smith

It can be argued that there’s no song more emblematic of the late 1960’s counter culture of flower-power, psychedelic drugs, and free love than “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix.

However, contrary to the logical presumption that Purple Haze is about drug use, the late Hendrix swore it is a love song, a lament about a girl. And, he pointed to the lyrics, Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me.

Of course, the lyrics that most of us know from Purple Haze are, Excuse me while I kiss the sky. But, what really puts it all into context is the preceding verse, Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why? And, so you have an amazing, iconic song about a love-sick guy, not knowing how to get himself out of a bad place, questioning, Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?

Fast forward 40-something years, and in today’s culture, the love-sick soul in Hendrix’ masterpiece becomes seen in a vastly different context, pathologized – that is, someone who needs help, some sort of intervention. Hendrix’ lyrics could easily be, Excuse me while I fix this guy.

See, we now live in a culture where it’s not OK to sometimes not be OK – and sometimes we’re just not OK, and it’s OK! Truly, we live in a society where everyone wants to fix everyone – if you have a problem, there’s no shortage of friends, family, TV personalities, doctors, and prescription drugs ready to fix you. And, yes, sometimes we need help – clinical mental health issues and various dependencies require medical intervention.

Yet, a lot of times, when we’re seemingly not OK, it’s OK. In my roles, I hear from a lot of families who want to help their loved ones who have disabilities. And, what I’ve come to understand is that a lot of times, the best help is no help – simply listen, love, and be “present” – and let the person work through his or her emotions and problems in his or her own time and way. For the most part (again, with the exception of clinical issues), we have an innate way of finding our way through the proverbial dark spots in life, back to the sunlight, where all we really need is time, space, and someone to just listen and be present with us during trying times, without judging or preaching. As Wayne Dyer puts it, “Love is the ability and willingness to allow those that you care for to be what they choose for themselves without any insistence that they satisfy you.”

As a full-time single dad raising a teen daughter, I’ve been practicing what I’ve coined the “listen-love-present approach” – and it’s challenging! I mean, I have all kinds of advice just waiting to be blurted out, but that’s not what my daughter – or most people! – need or want. Rather, what my daughter needs and wants is for me to listen, love, and be present – not dish-out advice. Sure, there are places and times for advice – including with my daughter – but, there are far more moments where the listen-love-present approach is the most sincerest form of support that we can give others.

I have an oversized, over-stuffed chair with pillows in my master bedroom. And, some evenings, my daughter will come in when I’m in bed watching TV, and she’ll curl up in that chair, and start talking. Recently, in that comfy chair, she shared with me that she’d just been dumped by her date for the Semi-Formal school dance – that is, it wasn’t just her first real school dance and “date,” but her first time being dumped. As a father, I could have given her tons of immediate advice and opinions: You’re beautiful, and he’s an idiot. I’m sure you’ll have new date in no time. We all get dumped. You won’t remember his name in 10 years. Look at how many times I’ve been dumped, and I’m fine. Everyone gets dumped – it’s just part of life. But, I didn’t tell her any of it because it would have no effect. If I did, it would really be a dismissal, wouldn’t it? Yeah, yeah – you’re 15. Trust me, you’ll get over it! That’s no way to treat anyone in real pain, who, as Hendrix noted, is questioning in a way, Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?

Rather, I asked her some listen-love-present questions: How’s this situation make you feel? …What do you think about the guy who bailed on you? …What are you going to do about the dance? And, she found the answers within herself, not just that evening, but in the coming days. (And, she gave me permission to share this story with you, as I would never betray her confidence.)

The fact is, as her father, my role is to facilitate her growth, not dictate it – and, as a father, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your child overcome life’s hurdles in healthy ways on his or her own, where he or she needs love, not fixing. However, this really applies to all our relationships, where often the best way to support someone isn’t with advice, but just loving, listening, and being present.

See, the truest lessons are often learned not through advice or preaching from others, but by thinking and feeling on our own – with someone who’s listening, loving, and present along the way, when we’re fortunate. As for my daughter, of course another boy asked her to the dance. And, as one might presume from Purple Haze, being broken hearted – for any number of reasons in life! – certainly shouldn’t be equated with being broken. We all need someone to listen to us from time to time, but rarely do we need fixing.

Changing Like the Rising Sun

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By Mark E. Smith

My daughter looks so cozy, curled up, under the covers on the sofa bed this morning as the sun rises over the Vegas strip, the full-wall of window glass framing her. She hated the thought of the sofa bed at first, preferring her own bedroom, but now she loves it – it is a tiny Vegas high-rise condo that she agreed after all is perfect for us, just the two of us, the way it’s been for some time. This is a week-long getaway, where I can visit my company’s western manufacturing facility and give a talk at the University of Nevada (UNLV), all while my daughter and I pursue some writing and photography in a town that’s a never-ending flow of story lines and imagery – and a sofa bed turns out to be just fine by her as a place to dream.

Glancing at my own bed, I wonder if I should make it or leave it for Housekeeping to change, but I can’t remember if it’s laundry day? I’ll wait till my daughter awakes, and discuss it with her – she knows the condo’s schedule better than I do, as she pays attention to such details. For now, I’ll sit quietly, watching the Vegas sun rise over my daughter, waiting for her to awake with a smile and a stretch, as she always does, and we’ll talk about whether to cook breakfast or walk to Starbucks or Denny’s, and she’ll tell me whether it’s laundry day.

After this quick trip to the Vegas condo, we’ll be back in Pennsylvania, on our usual schedules, celebrating our birthday that’s only three weeks away. Hers is March 3, and mine is March 2, so beyond the separation of midnight, it’s kind of a shared date, so we just call it our birthday. She’s turning 15, me, 41.

I always said that the joy of parenting is in seeing your child evolve and grow, where there’s no ideal stage, but that the entire process is awe-inspiring. However, as I sit here, I realize that I just want to stop time after all. She’s perfect the way she is – ideals, flaws, no matter – she is perfect, and I just want time to stop, freeze this moment forever, much as she does with her photography.

In three years, she’ll be off to college, and our relationship will evolve in yet more ways. Of course, I want her to move out, attend an ivy-league school, maybe in the northeast, maybe out west, but far from me – she needs to fly on her own, to soar on her own. And, I, too, will be on my own – an empty-nester at such a seemingly young age, likely lost for a while. Maybe I’ll have a live-in girlfriend, or it’ll just be me and the dogs. But, no matter what, I’ll still be lost for a while – and it will be OK. It will all be OK.

And, as I sit here watching my daughter sleep, I can’t help but already miss having her as the everyday center of my life. I was the first to hold her when she was born. As a toddler, she spent more time on my lap than walking. We moved across the country together, sitting side-by-side on the airplane when she was three. I still take her to school each morning. My weeknights and weekends are filled with her band and drama rehearsals. And, the big comfy chair that she sits in while talking to me at night in my master bedroom remains her safe place to let it all out when needed. Yet, as I sit here watching her sleep as the sun rises over Vegas, I know it’s all changing – it’s ever-changing, her, me, life, all changing like the rising sun.

I really should wake her up to talk about breakfast, laundry, and our day’s events. But, I can’t. For a moment, at least, I can just sit here, admire her perfection, and watch the sun rise. Indeed, time can stand still – if only for a precious moment.