Graduations

EMILY_GRADUATION

By Mark E. Smith

At this writing, my daughter graduates high school this eve. She’s the second to do so in our family’s history. I was the first. Great grandparents, grandparents, my parents, aunts, uncles, no one on any limb of my family tree graduated high school.

However, it’s not like everyone doesn’t try. You start out with all of the hope in the world as a child , but in a realm where we know that cycles of dysfunction are so complex – right down to aspects like addiction having a genetic component – it just gets a grip on you, tough to escape as you hit your teens, your adulthood. I know – I’ve been there.

My daughter’s mother came from a family history of addiction, as well, and not with bitterness or anger or resentment, but with sadness, I watched her fall into the grips of addiction. They say that if you come from a family of dysfunction, you’ll either become it or marry it. Ironically, as 27-year-olds, with our daughter born, my ex-wife and I thought that we’d broken the cycle – we didn’t drink, both went to college, and life was on track.

However, as my daughter hit her toddler years, life went off of the tracks, and my ex feel into a life of mental illness and addiction compelled by her troubled upbringing – while I don’t believe in excuses, I do have empathy for reasons. Again, you can’t fault trying.

As the vortex swirled in our family, I consciously chose to swoop my daughter out. We all were in the generational cycle of dysfunction – my ex-wife became it, I was married to it, and, most disturbing of all, my daughter was growing up in it.

Soon enough, my daughter and I were on our own, my sister a major source of support. And, as my daughter grew, thriving year after year, I was both inspired and scared to death. After all, I was the only person I knew in my family tree to stay on the track during high school, and my worst fear was that my past, her mother’s past would become my daughter’s. Yet, as she grew into a young lady, like watching a thoroughbred round the bend, she never skipped a beat. I can’t count how many of her plays, band concerts, honors clubs, and so many other functions I went to. By 2013, she was named among the top 250 youth scholars in the country, and simultaneously was awarded a scholarship to a summer performing arts program for the top youth musicians in the world – literally. And, all the while, I watched not just with a father’s pride, but awe-inspired by what a person can accomplish with dedication, ambition and passion.

Tonight, my daughter will be among the most honored graduates in her class, her gown decorated with more honors – a stole, multiple awarded cords, so many award pins that my sister had to strategically align them – than I ever knew existed. And, as she walks across the stage, she won’t be the second to change our family tree, after all. No, she will be the first.

See, what I’ve witnessed through my own plight, and now my daughter’s, is that it’s irrelevant where we come from. From a lineage of addiction, poverty, incarceration, illiteracy, and mental illness, none of that crosses the stage with my daughter tonight. My daughter, it proves, will cross that stage as each of us can, where the only legacy her life carries is that of her own – and it’s amazing.

Righting Wrongs

choir

By Mark E. Smith

From the back of the concert hall, I see my daughter in the very front, standing on the choir risers. Even though the distance is far, we make eye contact and I smile big….

Often, it’s our obligation to make things right. If we don’t, then we, too, are perpetuating a wrong or injustice, further harming others. No, I don’t mean make things right because we’ve intentionally done wrong. Rather, I mean that if there’s a cycle of dysfunction, we must have the courage, wisdom, and tenacity to say, Enough! This destructive pattern not only stops with me, but actually changes with me. It’s a really powerful process where you, as a lone person, can change your life, your family tree, and the lives of many around you.

We unfortunately are cyclical creatures, following the pack. Although we have free will and astounding amounts of opportunity, we rarely use it. We know that our life paths are alarmingly dictated by those of most influence in our lives. The surest way to be a teen parent is if your parents were teen parents. The surest way to become an alcoholic is have parents who were alcoholics. And, the surest way to being a terrible boss is to be groomed by a terrible boss. These risk factors create systemic, generational wrongs – and they go on and on.

And, it’s up to us – and only us – to stop them. No rule book said that because my parents were uneducated, impoverished, alcoholic-addicts, I had to follow that path. Sure, statistics said I would. However, I’m not a statistic. I’m an individual. And, I’ve long known that I alone had the power to right the wrongs in my life – and I continue working at that every day. This is my life and no one dictates its potential but me.

Breaking the cycle isn’t easy. I’ve been there, and it’s a never-ending process. It’s a difficult journey because there’s no road map and usually no support. It’s like walking on ice for decades, where as long as you stay up, you’re fine, and the fear of losing footing keeps you laser focused on every move you make. Yet, the struggle is motivating, righting wrongs is empowering, and breaking cycles is liberating. You may have been born into it, but you can likewise grow out of it. Heritage, genetics, environment, upbringing – you can be more than all of it. Right the wrongs, break the cycles, and live to your potential.

…And, my daughter – born to me, where my examples of fatherhood were grim and bleak – smiles back as the choir begins to sing.

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.

Garages

garage

By Mark E. Smith

When I was seven, my mom moved my brother and me into a friend’s garage. It was no mirage. For those few days, I felt homeless and helpless, useless and restless. It’s what happens when the rent’s not paid.

It was scary. Scars that I buried. And, now the chicks wonder why I focus on career and my daughter? Priorities straight, bills never late, and as for a date, they come and go like an occasional snow – storms in the night. It works, but is it right?

In business, I’m bustling. As a writer, I’m hustling. And, as a father I just try to do what’s right. I get done what needs to get done by day, but forever toss and turn at night. See, when we think all heals, again spin the wheels, reminding us of our original plight. Have you known such inner fight?

Work may seem an addiction, but paranoia is the affliction, getting as far from that garage as I can.

But, now I own my own, attached to a house. Dinner on the table, life turned into a fable, and my daughter sleeps soundly at night. I’ve penned books that tell stories, take stages in the glory, and look forward more than back. That’s right.

With a garage as home in your past, it’s always going to linger and always last. But, at some point I realize my past is so far. And, a garage is a garage, just some place for my daughter to park – her car.

Vacationing With Jasper

table

By Mark E. Smith

I’m not a formal vacation kind of guy. My career in complex rehab technology and serving my peers is a ’round-the-clock lifestyle that I’m more passionate than ever about after 15 years – and true vacations get in the way of that. In fact, I sold my boat because it was taking up too much time on the weekends during the summer. I just don’t have the desire to be off the grid long enough to truly disconnect in the way that others do, footloose and fancy free. When you come from nothing, work your way up the hard way, and know that you can go back to where you came from at any time, there’s an instinctive drive and work ethic that keeps you focused and dedicated, possibly to an obsessive degree.

However, in my latter years, especially with my daughter now 16, and wanting to give her life experiences that we all should be blessed enough to provide our children, I’ve done a fair amount of recreational travel in recent years. Even that, though, often ties into my career. I love Vegas, and, fortunately, my company has a manufacturing facility there, so on my own dime and time, I can spend, say, three days in Vegas, but still get to see colleagues as wished. Or, I was recently in Washington D.C. for a day relating to my daughter, and was able to drop by a disability-related conference, and visit with close peers. And, with an iPhone and iPad, I’m connected virtually anywhere, any time, so accessibility to work is always there.

Again, though, I do try to balance life a bit, so my one “vacation” this summer was a three-day stay at a self-proclaimed “luxury resort” in the Poconos, an hour from my house, focused on “world-class products and service that exceed expectations of the most experienced traveler.” My plan was peace and quiet, the ability to sleep, eat, check my online communications, and do it all over again – and based on the resort’s marketing, it seemed like the perfect place to do that. But, alas, not so.

See, it turns out that very wealthy people do a great job at making money, and a terrible job at picking where to take their completely ill-behaved kids on vacation. I hate to sound like a crotchety, old man, but my 16-year-old handles herself with the poise and grace of a socialite – and we live in a ranch house and drive a seven-year-old van. How come when your family flies into a resort via helicopter, you have everything but appropriately-behaved children? Heck, I’ve seen the TV show, Super Nanny, and reckon that if you can afford a helicopter, you can afford to hire someone to teach your kids discipline. Mom brought her collection of Prada purses, but apparently there wasn’t room to pack the kids’ manners!

So, I ended up at the so-called prestigious resort, with a quaint room and, in the dining room, a beautifully-reserved table for my included five-star meals – all the while surrounded by screaming, running kids, who had no parental guidance and nothing to do but bother me and others looking for tranquil elegance in a vacation.

Jasper was my favorite, and when I say favorite, I mean the kid that I most wanted to see trip and get rug burns on his knees. I only knew his name because his mom – who was admittedly smoking hot in her tennis skirts – constantly badgered him in an annoyingly-passive voice. Jasper, honey, please come sit with mommy and daddy, and eat your dinner, she said as Jasper played freakin’ airplane around the formal dinning room.

“Whatcha eatin’?” Jasper asked me, his head barely taller than my table.

“It’s deep-fried kid,” I replied. “And if you don’t get away from my table, you’ll be my desert.”

But, Jasper didn’t care what I said, or what his mom said, or what anyone said. It was his world, and we were just living in it.

And, so, there I was, at among supposedly the most exclusive resorts in the country, just wanting peace and quiet, and I ended up in the middle of dozens of preschoolers in Ralph Lauren polos – lead by Mommy’s little Jasper – acting like perpetual-motion pogo sticks, bouncing around the lodge like it was a barrel of monkeys.

So, I went to the one place that the terrible tykes couldn’t go: the bar. However, within minutes, there’s five-year-old Jasper starring at me again.

“Whatcha drinkin’?” he asked, his hands gripping the edge of my table.

“Boar’s blood,” I said.

“What’s that?” he asked, bouncing up and down on his invisible pogo stick.

“Why are you wearing girl’s shoes?” I asked, and he stopped bouncing, looking down at his Docksiders. “See that lady over there – she has the same shoes on. Girl shoes, just like you.”

I’m very observant, and just happen to notice that Jasper and a woman from Italy I’d met earlier wore identical boat shoes.

“These aren’t girl shoes,” he says, crossing his arms. “They’re boy shoes.”

“Now you’re crossing your arms like a girl,” I say. “First you dress like a girl, and now you gesture like one. I see a pattern here.”

Jasper just stared at me, stumped.

“Cat got your tongue?” I asked.

“I’m going to tell my mom on you,” Jasper retorted, pouting.

“Dude, you’re the one wearing girl’s shoes and crossing your arms,” I shouted as Jasper ran away.

Ultimately, Jasper and I became really good friends. I even laughed when he fell running across the lodge one afternoon, burning the tip of his nose as his face slid across an area rug.

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.