Lands End

Walking the trail from Sutro Baths to Lands End and on around to a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Robin Williams’ house, I stopped to look at the photographs of historic scenes taken along these very shores: women in full length dresses strolling along ocean beach, men in hats and suits escorting them. They walked here once, as I do now and all these people on the trail with me today.

And, just like those caught on film and now plastered on historical guideposts memorializing all their nomoreness, we will be here no more one day.

cliffhouse

All the furor, the sublime, the wars, the aching beauty of the coastline yearning for the shore, all the kindnesses, the lies, the greed and the unselfishness here and now will be gone. bather

But we always will have been. We always will have lived here now.

Between the infinity of the past and the eternity of the future we will have been alive, standing courageously in the face of our certain demise. 

Every last one of us, the universe reaching out to itself. Arising awareness, seeking to know itself. Full of only love.

We always will have been here. 

You and me.

stairs

Eulogy for Olavs Eriks Lejnieks*

*while he’s still alive

5/12/2016

Olavs Eriks Lejnieks was born on May 12, 1935, 81 years ago today, in Bauska, Latvia. On March 7, 1960, his first son was born. That’s me. Rachelle and I sent him one of those funny, email-able birthday cards last night. You get the card in your inbox, you click play and, in this case a cartoon depiction of God tells you that you are his special human and go ahead and eat all the starch and sugar you want on your birthday because, after all, you’ve already made it in his eyes and there is nothing more you need to do in order to prove that you are deserving of his love.

 

Along with the card, I think that writing my dad’s eulogy and sharing it with him before it is read while he is in a state where he can’t hear it would be a great birthday gift. This may occur as morbid but I think that we all might be curious what people might say about us at our funeral although it’s one of those things most of us will never hear. Unless you believe that we somehow float around in church, above our casket, listening to all the fuss about our lifeless body and the life it used to contain.

Eulogy for Olav Eriks Lejnieks

 It is important to know that my dad did not believe in an afterlife. Despite his father being a Seventh-Day Adventist preacher and he himself studying theology at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California (or maybe because of it!), he was certain that his body contained all the life he would ever have. In response to one of my emails to him, where I shared my difficulty in conceiving of eternity, he responded:

“In my finite thinking I have a hard time to believe other than He, She, It is a collection of finite wisdom of centuries. Eternity: when we crump, we crump. THAT’s IT! End of story on this earth.”

 I questioned whether he really believed that. After all, his personal history suggested that there might be something more powerful going on. Olav’s mother died in childbirth, having birthed twins, my father and his sister. At the burial of his mom, as his father was lowering the casket into the earth at the graveyard in Riga, news came that the sister, Alma Laina had also died. My grandfather stopped the proceedings, got into his truck to drive back to Bauska and retrieve the body of his baby daughter. An accomplished carpenter who had built his own house, he quickly constructed a small casket for her and brought her back to Riga that same day. No one had left the burial site and one can only imagine the grief of the hundreds of family and friends there, who all loved my father’s mother, Alma Lejnieks and saw her husband not only bury his young, beautiful wife but now also place the small coffin next to hers.

When I was growing up, my father would often sing, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”. I think we all have issues having to do with our birth. Separation, being expelled from that beautiful womb, being slapped on the butt, emerging from the warm love of mother into the cold and bright world. But my father came into a world where mothers not only are separated from us. They are dead.

I can only imagine what psychic pain this must have caused. His dad the minister required belief in God, hard work and strict rules; there was no therapy or nurturing. Olav could only imagine the love of his mother as he grew up under his authoritarian father. He did, however, have his grandmother, “Babushka” who looked after the surviving brothers, Olav and his elder Arnolds. My dad told me she was a saint and once pulled him out of the Daugava River where he had slipped into the current and begun to drown.

 

These narrow escapes with death were an intrinsic part of his childhood, made more horrific by the rise of Hitler in the 30’s and 40’s and Nazi Germany’s expansion towards the Soviet Union. Latvia became a pawn in the struggle between global super powers. Dad told stories of bullets whizzing past his head, goosestepping armies marching through town “liberating” the “Lettlanders”. Once, when the Red Army returned to town after pushing back the Germans in the seemingly-never-ending chess match using millions of lives as pieces, little Olav became stuck in a mud hole and could not escape as an advancing column walked towards him.

His father had told him that as evil as the Nazis were, the Russians were much worse. The Nazis, at least, had a code of ethics about conquered lands, unlike the Reds who were simple barbarians, spawned from Satan himself, said his father.

As my dad stared in paralyzed fear at the Russian soldier walling towards him he was sure his short life was over. All of 8 years and this was it. The soldier flicked away the butt of his still-lit cigarette and it landed close enough to Olav that he could hear it hiss in the pool of water surrounding his trap. He imagined it was the sound of hell opening up and that the soldier was about to take his brown boot and smash him into the eternal fires.

But the solder reached out his now-empty hand, grabbed my dad by his jacket, yanked him out of the hole with a slurp and swung him over to dryer land. Laughing hard at what must have looked like the funniest sight the warrior had seen in a long time, he swatted my father on the butt and said, in Russian, “Get the hell out of here, this is no place for a little boy!”

My dad scampered home and never said a word to his father about it but told me many years later and thought it might have been when he first learned that people are basically goodhearted and the uniform you wear, or flag you wave, doesn’t determine your character.

Despite the evil he saw all around him, he acted from that belief the rest of his life.

My dad crusaded for Civil Rights in the 60’s. He became a teacher’s union representative, went door-to-door campaigning for Eugene McCarthy and other progressives and always made a point of reaching out to the downtrodden and those whose voice was often squelched by the powerful.

He taught secondary education for over 45 years. He loved blowing his students’ minds. He didn’t care that they often went home to tell their parents, “Guess what Mr. Lejnieks said in class today!” (Introducing himself in his German 1 class, he said, “I don’t care if you swear, but you must swear in German.”) Some parents took him to task on his radical approach, which I boil down to treating kids like adults.

“How could you tell my son that the reason he can’t learn is because he is a lazy S.O.B.?!” asked one outraged mom. Because it’s true!” my dad would answer. By the time the parent left, they were convinced that Mr. Lejnieks was the best thing that ever happened to their kid.

Because they got that he cared.

My dad was frustrated because parents often did not participate in their children’s education. The attitude showed up in his classroom with roomful after roomful of teenager, sitting like they were bored to death, doing their best Marcel Marceau interpretation of, “Teach me!” Once, he just sat at his desk in front of the class with his arms folded, staring like they stared at him.

At the end of the period, after 40 minutes of this standoff, he said, “That’s how every class will be until you all come ready to contribute to your own education.”

I love my dad. He had balls and he liked sticking it to the man.

At times, I look in the mirror and hear him talking as if it is my own mind. I am so much of him. The hard-work ethic, the struggle to do the right thing, the compassion for the weak among us, the fight against unjust power, wielded irresponsibly. The hate for war. The love for women. The quest for becoming better. All these are qualities either inherited from or taught by my father.

On his 81st birthday, Rachelle and I called him. My heart was warmed just to hear him answer the phone. He sounded good…clear and mind fully intact. He doesn’t always sound that way. Sometimes, when he’s tired or maybe on a bad day, he doesn’t sound so present. But on his 81st birthday, he sounded great! It seemed like he might be around forever again. Just like I thought he would when I was a little boy. But with the passing of my mom so recently, I reset my expectations and hoped he might be around for another 20 years or so. If he stayed away from the gluten, the sneaking of bear claws and occasional overdoing it of Cabernet.

Or, he might go that very day. Or, it might be me. Who knows, for sure?

But one thing I knew. I wanted him to read this before I had to read it over his grave. I wanted him to know how much I love him because I love him with all my heart.

What I wish for my father on his birthday? I wish many more years on this planet. I wish health and happiness. I wish he knows what a great life he has had and what an impact he has made. I wish he knows that the world is better because he was here.

And when that time does come for him to go, regardless of his personal beliefs, I wish him one more thing when he dies:

I wish that he could meet his mother.

With all my love,

Todd

 olav1

I Want to Read Every Book in This Library

I love libraries. Surrounded by knowledge, the artistry of imagination and language, here with the comforting agreement of quiet whispers and furrowed silence, I look outside the window of Redding Library and see Mt. Shasta, snowbound, powerful and magic. Can all humanity’s books, all of our combined words, our crumbled, fallen and emerging civilizations amalgamated amassing of information compare against the glistening, white peak that seems to declare Earth’s billions of years of wisdom?
redding library shasta
Still, I am comforted by the cool blanket of stacks of cataloged books. On my table, a San Francisco Chronicle, a Time Magazine “The 100 Most Influential People” edition (Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg on the cover), “Write Your Novel in a Month” by Jeff Gerke, “Gratitude” by Oliver Sacks—a collection I picked up on a near-somnabulent stroll through the aisles now not neatly but quite perfectly disorderly piled in front of me.
Oh, this feels so good!
Where to start? With yesterday’s news of basketball playoffs and water rationing? With Sacks’ achingly beautiful summary of his life well lived, written just weeks before his metastasized liver took him?  I wonder if I stayed here long enough, if I lived here, slept here, ate here…never left here, I wonder if I could read all the books in this library?
A melancholy feeling passes over me.

I will never know all the information in the world.And even if I were able to somehow digest every tome ever written, what about those ancient texts lost to antiquity? What about the library in Alexandria? These thoughts lead to a sensation in the core of my stomach that knows I will die before I do everything I came here to do.

 

When I was a boy, no more than 11 or 12, I would lie awake at night and contemplate eternity. I was told that if I was a good boy, and believed in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, I would be able to live in heaven forever with my mom, dad and brother and all my “saved” friends. The alternative, in Seventh-Day Adventism, was not the never-ending torture of a napalm-flesh-searing sentence in hell. Rather, it was the finality of being left behind.

That’s why my mom said she wanted me to believe. She did not want to live her eternal reward without me. She could not imagine the pain of that. When I asked her how could an all-loving God come up with a system where loved ones were separated from each other forever just because they did not believe in the guy who created that fucked up system, she just said, “our minds are too limited to conceive of God’s plan for us.”

“God’s plan for us”?

 

The plan where he created the sun, moon, stars and our planet, then Adam and Eve. The plan where he gave us free will but that free will boiled down to a choice of eating of the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And if we choose wrong, we are evicted from his perfect garden. Then, he sends his son to die as some kind of magnanimous miracle and now whosoever believeth shall have everlasting life. The rest of us (Taoists who never heard of Jesus, Jews who missed the news, Hindu who choose to deitize the creative energies of the universe) all get the gate shut in their face.

 

As I lie awake those nights in Napa, California, imagining what it might be like to survive the Holy Test of Faith and make it, somehow, to heaven (even though in some way I knew I must have snuck in past God’s all-knowing radar that could read my every thought), I tried to stretch my mind into imagining my dad, mom, brother and me walking the streets of gold forever. Forever and forever. Forever and forever and forever. No matter how many “forevers” I could string together in my mind, there was still a finite number to them. I could not count high enough to get to forever. Ever!
It was in these nights that I began to realize that my brain could fathom the vastness of the universe, let alone the god who created it. Indeed, my mom was right, I could not conceive of God’s ways, no matter how hard I scrunched up my face, tightened my brow and pressed my hands against my temples trying to focus with all my brain cells.

I began, in my waking hours, to study every book I could: science, fiction, science-fiction, philosophy, astrology, mysticism. I wanted to find out if someone had figured out eternity, if someone could explain forever.

 

I read Carlos Castaneda’s “Don Juan” series. I read “Maps of Conscmapsofconsciousnessiousness” by Ralph Metzner. I read the newspaper. I read Kurt Vonnegut. I loved Vonnegut because, although he didn’t spell out the answer to the universe and the secret to eternity, he seemed to know it and leave great clues. I read Douglas Adams. Oh what a find! “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe” didn’t bring the answer I had been seeking but it sure did show me the absurdity of the question. I read all the philosophers. Plato, Socrates, Descartes, Hume.
I felt that I was joining a team. And that, maybe, by standing upon the shoulders of all those who asked the same questions I had, I could somehow peer over the wall in my mind that kept me from seeing forever.

Taking a Break

deactivatefacebook

I am deactivating my Facebook account. I am going to write, get shit done, connect through other means. I am not making Facebook wrong. I think it is a great tool, perhaps even an evolutionary step in the way we communicate and it has certainly helped me reconnect with friends I would not have found otherwise.

But I am taking a break.

More time for walks, yoga, metabolic exercise, meditation, and devotion to the love of my life, Rachelle. More time for me.

For those I only communicate with through FB, see you later! For everyone else, perhaps I’ll see you soon in “real life”.

Much Love,
Todd

Returning to Earth

Two months ago, I stopped drinking alcohol. No more delicious sip of Petite Syrah, no refreshing mouthful of Herradura margarita. At the same moment, I surrendered caffeine to Holy Mother Durga and her 8-armed, weapon-wielding, demon-slaying ferocity.

I needed every bit of her.

But it’s not the lack of brain-altering that pairs so nicely with a glass of 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, nor the absence of the resplendent neurological buzz that comes with that first smile of morning coffee that is so difficult to bear. It is the staying in each moment without reprieve that really has my lizard mind yanking at its leash. Before February 15, whether I actually ended up popping a cork and enjoying the very ritual that is so romantically fulfilling when drinking wine, I could escape painful, boring or confrontational moments throughout the day by the mere envisioning of that first sip of tannic respite massaging my taste buds. 

“Just get through this day,” I would say to myself. “There’s a comfy chair in front of the TV, next to the liquor cabinet, waiting for you at home and a more-than-decent Dutcher Crossing 2005 Proprieter’s Reserve inside.” The thought of it, even still, transports me.

I’d try to accelerate time, pushing through to the next moment, the hopefully better moment, with a cup of dark roast organic, single-origin coffee. Lurching and jumping through the day like a monkey across a river with erratically placed stepping stones.

So why now deny myself of what I had come to view as some of “life’s pleasures”? The story goes back, again, to the Big Bang of my becoming a Type 1 diabetic, that explosion of time and space  into smithereens from which my life seems to have begun. 

The day after I woke from a diabetic coma, at age 14, 42 years ago, a nurse came into my room in the hospital with a syringe, a vial of saline solution and an orange. 

“This is it,” I thought to myself. “This is where I learn to give myself shots for the rest of my life.”

(I’ve always had a penchant for dramatic self-conscious narration.)

“We’re going to practice giving shots to this orange,” said Nurse Betsy. “It’s pretty close to what your actual subcutaneous layer of skin feels like.” I knew what “subcutaneous” meant from diligently reading my “So, you have juvenile diabetes” cartoon book.

I obediently pulled back the plunger of the syringe, filled it with the fake insulin and followed Nurse Betty’s instructions like a good little juvenile diabetic as I filled the syringe then tapped it to bring any bubbles to the top, and pushed them out the end of the needle.

No bubbles, all clear, 15 units. Check, check, check. 

“A big bubble can kill you if it gets into your blood stream and makes its way to your heart,” she said. “But most bubbles are too small for that and you are also going to aspirate before injecting the insulin to make sure you haven’t hit a vein. Remember, what kind of injection are you giving yourself?”

“Subcutaneous,” I said. My tone was “like…no duh!” I might have been a recovered coma patient but I had not lost my teenage know-it-all attitude.

Nurse Betsy frowned a bit, then quickly prepared another syringe, her dexterous fingers nimbly expressing her competency as it seemed to be locked and loaded in a second or two.

“Now, watch carefully,” she said, as she jabbed the half inch needle into the orange. “You can pinch up some fat to inject into if you need.” 

She gave me the nurse once-over, her brown eyes peeking over her plastic-rimmed reading glasses.

“And you WILL need. Now, I’m pulling back on the plunger…just a little bit…to see if there is any blood. No blood, see? Just clear. That means it’s safe to inject. Just a steady push, not too fast or slow and…see! It’s over.”

She must have looked at me for my reaction but I was lost in my head, my heart beating, tears welling up in my eyes. 

This? This every day, 3 to 4 or 5 or more times a day? For the rest of my life? How could I possibly do this? What had I possibly done to deserve this? 

No, please, please, I’ll be good. I promise, I’ll be good! Just please not this. My mind recalled getting into trouble for being involved in a building block war with my brother and me versus our babysitter. Mom and Dad coming home to little specks of color all over the hallway walls. As soon as I saw their faces, full of shock, disbelief and anger, I ran up to my room, holding my butt with both hands and shut the door, pleading as I went, “no spanking, no spanking, no spanking!”

That’s what I felt like now, about to give myself my first shot.

But my bargaining, my pleading, my begging “no, please, no”, was unheard. God had already passed his judgement. It was done. If I wanted to keep on living in this body, in this life, on this planet, this was the way it had to be.

My sentence. My karma. My fate.

My spanking.

I halfheartedly stuck the syringe into the orange, aspirated and pushed in the saline.

“Do you want to try again?” asked Nurse Betsy.

“Yes,” I said. “But on my thigh, for real.”

Moments later, I am staring at the spot on my leg where I am about to plunge in the needle that will deliver 15 units of Regular mixed with 20 of NPH insulin, a combination of fast acting, to work on the hospital breakfast I am about to eat and slow-release insulin to keep my blood sugar down over the next 4-8 hours.

I hold the syringe above that target on my leg.

Nurse Betsy has already shown me again how fill the syringe, wipe the injection area with an alcohol swab, and pinch some skin, ready to pierce at an a 45 degree angle to get to that subcutaneous sweet spot. 

Now, all I have to do is jab it in.

One of those time-frozen moments when everything stops and will must overcome inertia. Like diving off a cliff.

A voice in my head says, “Pretend it’s not you.”

But it is me, it is me, it is me, I think. And I’m about to pay the price for whatever I did to deserve this my having to jab a needle into my leg, or die.

Maybe I could get rich and pay a nurse to live with me and give me shots. I think. I am 14, my mom is broke, my dad is working 4 jobs to try and keep up.

Maybe later on that idea.

My leg is still there. The needle still poised. 

“Just pretend!” The now-louder voice implores.

And that’s exactly what I do. I pretend my leg is not me, as I poke the needle through this object in front of me that I hold in my fingers, that I see with my eyes, safely walled up from the vantage point of my head. 

The voice says, “see, I told you!” As I pull the plunger back to make sure I have not hit a vein then inject the cloudy liquid into my thigh.

I pull out the syringe.

The nurse and the voice in my head say in unison, “that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Nurse Betsy pats me on the shoulder and adds, “you’re so brave!”

Not a bad reward, getting to keep on living and being acknowledged for my bravery.

It is a workable strategy for living and getting love: pretend I’m not in my body.

The doctor with whom I work now, in my 56-year-old body, is a “medical intuitive”. The consultation she gave me the day I stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine shook me to my core with the truth she told me.

I am not well. I have been a Type 1 diabetic for 42 years and the ravages of that disease, combined with the choices in lifestyle I had made had wreaked havoc on my body. And this tactic of escaping my body had not started that moment when I gave myself my first shot. It had been a strategy since shortly after my birth, when I nearly left the planet at just a few weeks old, needing a complete blood transfusion to be kept alive due to “hyperbilirubinemia“.

“You have always had one foot out the door,” she said. “If things got too painful, too difficult, or even just hard to handle, you could always just return to the other side.”

My mind flashed to all the times in my life I have brushed with death. Although not always pleasant, each visit to the threshold of mortality had been transformational, and felt like a viable alternative to whatever pain I was suffering at the time.

My diabetic coma. Blacking out on the way home from a bar at 3 in the morning and waking up with my car about to pummel into a Carl’s Jr., swerving away only to hit the median on the street, park my car in the parking lot and walk home in the rain. Falling asleep with low blood sugar and being resuscitated by Rachelle as I plummeted to a bg of 24. That episode, only a few months ago was the night my mother died, a full moon shone out our  window and I felt the pull of it, and what surely was my mother, even though I had not yet received the news from Uncle Dennis of her passing. Rachelle, her Taurus, earth-goddess energy and soul said, “No”. She held onto my spirit, spoon-fed me honey and refused to let me go.

That night, I experienced the peace of the final moments before death. I really don’t know what happens afterwards but I can say, unequivocally, clearly remembering it even now, that the moment of death itself is so beautiful, so peaceful and so full of love that, although my ego still wants to go on surviving, my soul is always ready.

And therein lies my conundrum. I am in love with death, or at least the possibility of it as a valid means of escape.

My empathic, functional MD, was now telling me, “The result of your strategy is that you have left your body. And the outcome of that is your current health.”

 I wanted to say, “but I’m a diabetic, it’s not my fault.” But I didn’t because I knew what she was saying was true. I had spent years denying my body, doing the best I could to live with it but not be in it, always ready to escape it should it should whatever I was feeling become too difficult. My easy out had been outed.

“What do I do now?” I asked, ready to hear anything.

“This is not going to be easy,” she said. “Think of it like renovating a home that has not been inhabited for many years. The results of neglect, weather, the ravages of time, have taken their toll. It’s not just a matter of new paint and dusting. You are going to have to get back to the foundation and rebuild yourself.”

She gave me a list of supplements, dietary advice, and then the edict about caffeine and alcohol, along with the familiar, “one day at a time” motto that I previously might have mocked but now hold onto like a life jacket.

Our call ended with me in tears, thankful that I could be told, and tell, the truth about how I had been living for all these years. It was not guilt or shame I felt. It was letting go of hiding shame I experienced.

And now, as I consider what is true right now, and whether I might have a sip of coffee this morning, or a glass of wine this weekend, I feel into my body, my grateful body. I am indeed rebuilding, healing. Each positive food choice is another layer of concrete. Each time I exercise is a stronger beam set in. Each time I feel the wind on my face, the sun on my back or the rain in my hair, it is my body feeling the world–and in the feelings of joy, sadness, contentment or fear, the rebuilding slowly, steadily occurs.

I am moving back in.

Death might bring the eternal ecstasy of bliss. But along with feeling my body, I am also feeling the world through it. It is a good place. And sometimes, when I am fully present, here and now, it feels like where I’ve wanted to be all along.

It feels like heaven.

 

A Story of Becoming a Type 1 Diabetic

“The Wound is the place where the light enters you.”  Rumi

This is a story. As with all stories, it has a measure of truth, a good amount of interpretation and a point of view.  Each time I tell it whether in my own mind, to another or a group, it shifts in meaning, lessons and implications. There are an infinite amount of ways to tell it.  As a reader, you will add your own meaning.

Our minds are meaning making machines.

In 1974, my grandfather died. I heard the news from the backseat of my dad’s Ford Maverick while he drove me home from Napa Adventist Junior Academy, where I was in 7th grade.

I grieved for a loss for the first time.

That week, my parents loaded my brother Greg and me into the car and we drove to Glendale, California to stay with “Mimi”, our grandmother, the widow of “Boppa”, aka Dr. and Mrs. Harold and Martha Beasley. Harold had killed himself by means of an overdose of prescription pain killers.  He was a doctor so the script was written in his own hand, on a pad he still had, even though the ravages of duodenal cancer metastasized into his lungs, heart, and brain had stopped him from practicing medicine for over a year. He sent Martha on a shopping trip and gave her a big enough list that she was sure to be gone for the time it took him to draw a bath, call his friend Wayne, and drift into the darkness of eternity. He made sure that it was not his wife that discovered his lifeless body in the tub. Wayne, his best friend, did what a good friend would do in this horror and took Harold’s corpse away before Martha came home.

Greg and I didn’t go to the funeral.  But we were there for the quartered cheese sandwiches, potato chips and 7Up served afterwards.  All we and cousins Mark and Vonnie wanted to do was watch “Creature Features” and fight over who got to be in charge of the “blab off”, the wired sound switch hooked up to the back of our Uncle Wayne and Aunt Ruth’s color RCA.

But Uncle Wayne interrupted us and told Greg and me to meet him in his room.  We thought we were in trouble and looked at each other as we often did when an adult asked us to go to a room.  “Who was going to get spanked?” We didn’t wish a whupping upon each other but neither did we want our own butt to feel the slap of a belt. But Uncle Wayne asked us to sit down and then spoke softly. This would somehow be worse than a spanking, I thought.

“Your mom and dad love each other very much,” he began.

“Duh!” I thought!  Anyway, what did he know about our family, this Uncle by adoption that wasn’t even related to us? And where were my mom and dad?  If there was something to tell us, why weren’t they telling us?

He continued, “But sometimes, two people who love each other decide to live apart.”

Things began to fall into place.  Greg and I were 14 and 10 years old. Neither of us had a complete understanding of all the dynamics, the dysfunction and the story leading up to this clumsy explanation by our Uncle Wayne.  But the overheard late-night fights emanating from my parents’ bedroom, the slamming doors, the long silences and the messages written on the bathroom mirror with my mom’s lipstick all began to make sense.

“Of course Mommy and Daddy will never get divorced” became the lie it was always feared to be. The long absences and late nights home by Dad were now coming to their inevitable conclusion.

After Boppa was buried and everyone made their way back to their homes, their lives and did what people do after someone dies (talk about the stock market and what’s for dinner), Uncle Wayne came up with the idea of a trip.  All the boys, he, my dad, Greg, me, and our cousin Mark would get into his brand new Cadillac and go to the Grand Canyon.

It was with terror I climbed into the backseat of the car.

I had already been sick for months.  No one knew but I was urinating every half hour, streams coming out by the gallon.  My thirst was unquenchable. There was a sickly flowery smell coming from my breath.  I would sneak out to behind their narrow easement behind my grandmother’s house and pee in the middle of the night, lest someone discover my shameful secret. I couldn’t stop peeing!  At 3 in the morning, I tip toed into the kitchen, silently opened the refrigerator door, pulled out a gallon of milk and poured it down my throat.  I lost weight. Somehow, no one noticed any of this.  And if they did somehow see I was thinner or tired or ill, they would comment, “He must be feeling bad because of the divorce.”

In Uncle Wayne’s car, I held in my pee as long as I could before asking to pull over so I could go to a gas station bathroom.  Again and again, I would ask.  My cousin Mark began to make comments.

“You sure go to the bathroom a lot!” he said.  Uncle Wayne (Mark’s grandfather ‘Boppy”) said, “Don’t tease Todd.”  I stayed silent, praying for the car to run low on gas so we would pull into a station with a bathroom where I could relieve my bursting bladder without having to ask to pull over again.  In the bathroom, I would drink straight from the sink faucet until my stomach could hold no more.

In my mind, the problem must be that I was drinking too much water which made me pee so much.  I didn’t think that my excessive thirst could be part of a more serious problem.

Somehow, I made it to the Grand Canyon without peeing my pants.  In front of us lay the immense geological timescape where humans could see the earth’s progress since prehistory.

All I could think of was “where is a tree I can hide behind?”

When it was time to go back, I was tired.  I couldn’t eat much and all the liquids I was drinking seemed to go directly to my bladder. I was always either taking a nap or peeing.  I dozed off somewhere in Arizona, even as I was desperately trying to hold in my pee.  I woke up to Mark, screaming in what seemed like glee, “Boppy, Todd’s peeing in the back of your brand new Cadillac!”

Sure enough, a cascading flood of warm urine was dripping down my legs, soaking my pants and ending up all over the back seat and the floor of Uncle Wayne’s used-to-be-new-car-smelling carpet.

I melted in shame. But even in my shame, it felt so good to just let go.

“Don’t worry,” my dad said.  “It happens to everybody once in a while.”  But I was envisioning a life where this happened to me all the time.

We made it back to Glendale, California and my mom, dad, Greg and I flew back home.  I must have been getting worse but I wasn’t urinating as frequently or as thirsty.  But I was still losing weight and very weak.  Mom, Greg and I went back to our home in Napa and Dad went to his rented house in Fairfield. A few days after returning, my mom packed a few suitcases and announced, “We’re going on a vacation!”

Later, I found out that she didn’t tell my dad, or anyone else, where she was going, or that she was taking us. That night, we checked into the Holiday Inn in Monterey.  I became even sicker.  The nauseatingly sweet odor from my mouth now reeked from every pore of my body. I couldn’t eat.  My ribs were racked with pain.  I slept all night and most of the day. We might have been there a few hours or a few days.  Or was it weeks? I can’t recall.

I vaguely remember a nurse coming into the hotel room. Then the bellman, his nametag “Orlando” in front of my eyes as he carried me to my mom’s gold Ford Maverick and laid me down in the backseat.  Looking up at the sky out the window as I slipped in and out of consciousness. Pines and Cypress trees whizzing by as we hurtled through the curvy road in the seaside forest of the central coast.

I heard a siren.

The car stopped.  A policeman pulled me out of the car and handed me to a doctor.  I woke up on a table.  The doctor pressed into my rib cage. “Does that hurt?” he asked.

My agonizing scream answered him as I blacked out.

I woke up to see 6 tubes running into my three left arms.  When I saw my mom’s three faces leaning over my bed, I recalibrated and deduced I must have two tubes going into my single left arm.

“Thank God you’re alive!” she said.  “I’ve been praying all night.”

I was clear that my mom’s prayers had no impact on whatever happened.  I was clearer than I’d been in my brief 14-year life.

“I chose to come back,” I said.

In the summer of 1974, I became a Type 1 diabetic. My genetics, combined with trauma of my grandfather’s death, my parents’ divorce and my mother’s behavior, along with environmental and nutritional effects, led to my becoming ill with an autoimmune disease where the beta cells in my pancreas stopped producing insulin and I had to inject it. According to many “experts”, I would most likely end up losing my feet, going blind and suffering from all manner of neuropathic and vascular issues.

Well, that’s one story.

Each member of my family has a different version of what happened.  For example, my mom told me yesterday that soon after she had checked in to the Holiday Inn, she thought it would be nice to take Greg down to the hotel pool.  I was sleeping. She sat in a pool chair next to a woman while Greg played in the shallow end. She told the woman that her other boy, Todd, was upstairs and wasn’t feeling too well.

“I think it’s because of the divorce,” said my mom. “He’s just not himself.”

“What kind of symptoms is he having?” asked the woman, adding, “I’m a nurse.”

My mom told her about the shortness of breath, the thirst and constant urination.  The lethargy.

“Would you like me to take a look at him?” offered the nurse.

Here is how my mom told me the rest of the story:

“She went up to the room and looked at you.  She said, “You get this boy to the hospital now. Immediately!”  I called the front desk and talked to Ron, the hotel manager.  He came up to the room, picked you up, and carried you to the car.  He got in his car and said, follow me.  I drove, your head was in my lap and you were writhing in pain.

“A cop stopped us.  I said, we’re going to the hospital.  The cop took one look at you, said “follow me”. He led us at up to 100 miles an hour.  The cop called the hospital so they were ready and the doctor met us in the ER and took us into an exam room.  They told me you were in a diabetic coma.

“After a few hours, someone came out and said, “We lost him.  We lost your son.”

“Another doctor came out a minute later.  Someone yelled out, “I think we got him, I think we got him back!”

“They got you stabilized and pushed you out to a room with a bed.  You were writhing in pain.

“I stayed all night with you, praying, in the room.  After a while, your pain subsided and they stabilized your blood sugar. You woke up the next day and I knew it was a miracle.  You didn’t think so but I knew it was.”

My brother’s story included swimming in the pool one minute and watching his brother being carried away as his frantic mother ran beside him while he remained behind with strangers in the hotel room next door.  He was 10-years-old and didn’t know where they were going or if they’d ever come back.

Things happen.  We tell stories about them.  We interpret those stories. We make decisions based on those interpretations. We create our world. I tend to be more open to miracles, these days. At the very least, I give thanks in deep gratitude for the nurse who decided to go sunbathing at the Holiday Inn, Monterey pool that day. Maybe there are angels, maybe there aren’t.  But I am calling her one. Her, and the policeman who escorted us to the hospital and called ahead so that they would be ready for me.  And Dr. Barry Gendelman, one of the leading Endocrinologists in California, who was visiting that month and saved my life.

How about this for a story?  We are all beings of light and love.  My Type 1 diabetes has led me on a lifelong journey of hope, hopelessness, healing, despair, love, loss of love and learning to love again.  Without my T1D, I would not be who I am.  And I love who I am, in all my strength as well as my weaknesses. I love my life. It is so full, joyous and beautiful.

I chose diabetes. And I choose it still.  I am grateful for the many gifts it has given me.

As I am grateful for the gift I bring to the world. The gift of light, that shines brightly through my wounding.

As the light shines more brightly, the wounding disappears.

Pre-order “Take Off Your Socks – Disappearing Type 1 Diabetes” by Todd Lejnieks (copyright 2015 by Todd Lejnieks)

holiday-inn-swimmingpool

Holiday Inn, Monterey, CA poolside.

Randy McNamara and Conversations that make a real difference

W.H. Auden wrote, in his poem “The Art of Healing”, “Must all diabetics contend with a nisus towards self-destruction?”

Well, W.H., that’s a good question.

Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease. The immune system, which is meant to protect you from foreign molecules, such as those in viruses and bacteria and/or other toxic substances, mistakenly attacks and destroys the beta cells that produce insulin in the pancreas.

Insulin is crucial to life.  Without it, glucose cannot move from the bloodstream into the cells of a human body to provide them with energy to function. When a pancreas fails to produce insulin, glucose levels in your bloodstream start to rise and your body can’t function properly. Over time, the high level of glucose in the blood may damage nerves and blood vessels and the organs they supply.

When I first started noticing I was getting sick it was because there was no way for food to be absorbed into my body. It didn’t matter how much I ate, drank or exercised. Without insulin, my body was starving to death.  What happens when a body is starving?  It begins to use its own fat for fuel.  In the four months that led to my coma, I lost 45 pounds, wasting away via ketoacidosis.  I went from 117 to 72 lbs. My body was at war with itself and there was no winner.

To answer W.H. Auden’s query, I was self-destructing.

What does this have to do with ending up at Randy McNamara’s house?

In 1982, I participated in the est training. After resisting the “enrollment techniques” (as I perceived them) from my dad and his lady friend. I finally signed up when my high school girlfriend suggested I take the course.

The things I do for love.

I don’t remember that much about those two weekends but I did discover three things about myself:

  1. I am not alone in my fear of losing love, being ashamed, or being powerless to make a difference in the world.
  2. My mind is a stimulus-response machine whose primary job description is to be right..
  3. I am not my fear or my machine mind.

My est training was led by 20 different trainers.  It was called a “train the trainer training”. est always had a way to add alliterative and syllogistic phrasing to its ontological presentations, as well as its course descriptions (e.g. “I used to be different, now I’m the same.” Or, “You know what you know, you know what you don’t know but you don’t know what you don’t know, the knowing of which would make a difference.”)

Randy McNamara was the man in charge of training all the trainers.

The Sunday of the last day, the San Francisco Forty-Niners were playing the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game.  As Dwight Clark was picking  a desperate heave into the back of the end zone, a pass that seemed like Joe Montana was just throwing it away, that somehow ended up in Clark’s outstretched fingers, later to be known as “The Catch”, I was “getting it” in the back of a hotel room in San Jose, California.

Cut to: 32 years later.  Randy is looking for some artwork for his home in San Francisco.  He is now “Forum Leader Emeritus”, semi-retired from Landmark Education.  He was part of the team that changed est (erhard seminars training) into “Landmark Forum” when Werner Erhard left the scene.  Between Erhard’s original teachings and Landmark’s upgraded, kinder, gentler delivery of “the work”, 2.1 million people had gone through the program, in one form or another. I wasn’t in the gallery when Randy came in but he met Steve who worked as a sales associate at the time, and, since Randy didn’t find the artwork he wanted, Steve suggested that the gallery could bring over a few pieces to show him how they looked in his home. A few days later, we were holding up paintings and various stretched-on-canvas photographs while Randy and his wife Suzy made their decision. Then, Randy said, “Let’s try that photograph of the ocean upstairs.”

In his third-floor home office, next to the map of the world with pins stuck in to memorialize Randy’s world travels, I saw the Landmark brochures. I had not remembered Randy McNamara until that moment.

We both realized that we had been in the same est training 32 years ago, As I caught up with Randy, and what he had been up to, I dropped names like Stewart Emery, Carol Augustus, Laurel Sheaf and asked where and what they all were. I was making chit chat but I knew I desperately needed a refresher. Enlightenment is never ‘”once and for all”. (In fact, there is a saying at Landmark, “Yesterday’s transformation is today’s ego trip.”)  And I was stuck in a rut of automatic thinking that was killing me.  I knew it, even as I wasn’t admitting it.  I was irritated, angry, thwarted in my life, not even aware of my dreams, much less living them. And righteously pissed off at being a Type 1 diabetic.  I recalled those 20 trainers back in 1982 taking turns yelling at me for a day and a half, “Your life doesn’t work!”

Randy invited me to an introductory event so I could find out about the course. My mind comforted itself by thinking that maybe this would be just the trick to get Randy to buy the $8,000 painting I had recommended even as I knew, from a deeper place, that I was going to sign up for the next available Landmark Forum as soon as the first of a roomful of smiling graduates asked, “So, do you want to register?”

Being in that room at 75 Broadway, in San Francisco, in the environment created by a Landmark Forum leader and all of the graduates and guests, I felt the rarefied air of no BS truth telling that is presented as “distinctions” at Landmark. And, indeed, I did sign up that evening.  I needed a place where I could tell the truth.  I also knew what was in store on Sunday afternoon.

During the course of the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the Forum, I raised my hand and volunteered to “share” in front of the group.  A lot.  I did all the homework, including calling my mom, my ex-girlfriend Angel, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my dad, trying to undo a lifetime full of blaming and sharing my irritation and complaints. And both felt and expressed how much I loved and appreciated my family and friends. I looked at my behaviors, decisions and stories with the relentless Forum leader never letting us blame anyone else or point to what happened to us as the reason why.

“Story” became distinct from fact. Yes, things happened to me. My mom yelled at me and hit me.  She packed Greg and me into a car and ran away from my dad. I became a Type 1 diabetic, and had to give myself shots or wear an insulin pump ever since. All of that happened.  In this Landmark Forum of October 2014, I clearly saw how I had been telling myself stories about those facts, and what I made all those stories mean about me and about my family and friends.  And how I chose certain behaviors because of those stories.  Some of those behaviors actually worked.  They became my “strong suits”. When I woke up from my coma in 1974, and found out about my disease, I immediately decided that I have to handle this all on my own.  I became a strong, independent loner.  No one would ever have to be burdened by my illness. I had learned how to “cope” but never accept help.  I gutted it out but never was fully committed to being healthy. And I thought, somehow, I deserved to be sick.

God, I decided, was either a malevolent all-powerful jackass or non-existent. There are a plethora of choices available to make real when faced with a powerful life event.  Those were some of mine, as equally valid and ridiculous as any other.

On the Sunday of my Landmark Forum, October at 4:52 PM, using the distinctions created by Werner and the founders of Landmark Education, ontology explained to the masses, but feeling more like magic, my mind stopped. Oh blessed relief! My constant companion, my ever-present judgements, evaluations, comparisons and right vs. wrong thinking just gave up in the clear presence of my Self seeing the mind for what it is:  an already always listening machine.  It gave up trying to convince myself that it was real.  That it was me.  Because I could clearly see that it was not. In the existential chasm created by that awareness, my mind just gave up and stopped.

Busted!

Oh sweet liberation!

In the absence of thought, love became present.  Inspiration was available.  The future was no longer tied to the past.  The future had NOTHING to do with the past. There was only the present, and in the present was nothing.  And everything.

There was no such thing as “I’m not worthy”.  That was just a thought invented by a five-year old with no other choice available.  Thoughts like “I’ll never have romantic love again”, “Life is not fair”, “I’m going to lose my feet” all lost their power.  All the stories I told myself about why I wasn’t, didn’t, or couldn’t were now seen for what they were.  Lies I had made up and then made real by acting them all out.  One perfect, self-perpetuating system of thought creating reality then using that reality to justify thought.

Poof!  Gone. And in the empty and meaningless space now created between those invented thoughts and the self that was now aware of them, was a possibility.  No, there were infinite possibilities.

These are the ones I chose:

This is it.  Life is perfect.  From nothing, who I am is the possibility of love, inspiration and health.

Just as my life, my being and my soul were fully present without the restrictions of the past and as I realized that my future had nothing to do with my past, I was able to invent a new future.  One in which everything, including the memory and stories I told myself about my body, could be transformed. I was not doomed to self-destruction.

W.H. Auden be damned.

How my T1D occurred to me was a poem I had written myself.  And my body had listened and responded to poetry’s alluring seduction. I put down the pen and took a stand. I would live into a new story, and write it as I went.

“My Project” was born.

Was it coincidence that Randy McNamara walked into my gallery and I ended up in his house? The next few months of my life suggest otherwise.  But regardless of either dumb luck or divine Goddess intervention, I was opening up to a cascade of possibilities, including meeting Sheila Wagner and the impossible-yet-real woman who introduced me to her.

Pre-order “Take Off Your Socks – Disappearing Type 1 Diabetes” by Todd Lejnieks (copyright 2015 by Todd Lejnieks)