Each year, we celebrate something old with something new. We celebrate birthdays and holidays, and of course, Thanksgiving and Christmas are claimed to be the most wonderful time of the year. We celebrate with our families. We enjoy meals at tables with unending plates of food. We exchange gifts. We welcome in the New Year and talk about our New Year’s resolution. Then we laugh and say, “Hey, maybe I’ll stick with it this year. You think?”
New Year, new me. Isn’t this what people say? In fairness, the holiday season is not always so wonderful. Not everyone has the same family experiences nor do they have the means nor the position to celebrate this time of year.
Back when I was working on a farm, the snow covered the fields with blankets of white. I can remember being so cold that my toes were numb. We’d gather the sheep and lead them to the barn where they slept overnight. I was one of the barn bosses at the time, which meant that I ran some of the barn crews. Suffice to say that none of this was easy work. Safe to say that the wind was enough to freeze your hands. While at least there was warmth inside the main house, there was still work to be done outside. Try as I might, there was no way to get out of my responsibilities.
I cut myself once. I nearly lost my right pointer finger on an 8′ mower bar that was under repair after breaking in the hayfields during the summer months. This got me out of the barn crew for a few weeks. Either way, there was still work to do. Barn crew or not, there was always something going on.
In all honesty, this was some of the hardest work I have ever done. This was during a hard time for me. I was young and unsure of myself. I had recently lost my Father to a series of heart attacks. Life was kicking me around but the world still moved. Regardless of what I was thinking or feeling, the alarm in the bunkhouse rang at the same time every morning. I was up and awake before the sun. I was on fire watch in the middle of the night. I stoked the furnace with wood in the main house in the middle of the night to keep everyone warm. I was tired as ever. The cold wind blew right through me but I swear, cold or not. the mountains in upstate New York are a beautiful place to be.
I can clearly remember a night where I stood overlooking the cow pasture. Blotches of dark colored earth poked up through the snowy ground, which glimmered in the shade of an electric blue beneath the hue of a big full moon. I had never been as lost as I was then; yet, I had never been so found. I was alive in a new way because I allowed an old part of myself to die. This way, a new me could begin.
I learned more about my life in the 11 months on that farm than I ever did in my years of schooling. I learned about the success of getting up when the alarm sounds. No matter what hit me at the time, I learned about the importance of having my feet land on the floor and be off and running to my first job before the count of 20 seconds. There was no time to consider my aches or pains. There was no time to lament or complain. There was only movement. If you didn’t move, there was a barn boss screaming to move faster.
I was clean in every sense of the word. There was nothing pressing and there was no impending doom. For the first time in my life, I had seen proof of what happens when I learned to get out of my own way. I learned to replace thought with action and emotion with plans. I learned to cut back the complications with methods, plans and tactics. Besides, I had no other choice.
There were people here who were like me. They found themselves in trouble. They found themselves in too deep and with a little luck, we ended up on the farm together. We learned from one another. We supported each other and in the coming moments, I was about to depend on my new surroundings for the ultimate levels of support.
On a Sunday morning, two weeks before Christmas Eve, people in the house were about to sit down and eat breakfast. I was in good spirits at the time. I was happy that it was Sunday, which meant work details were easier. Plus, the sun was out, bright and high, but the air was cold with no warmth for the hand. The wind whistled and froze the snow on the ground that had somewhat iced over into a pearlier shade of white.
I sat with some of my housemates and prepared to eat my oatmeal, eggs and whatever else there was when suddenly, I was alerted that I had to leave the table. One of the younger senior members by the name of Brian had come to find me. No one had ever delivered troubling news to me and in my history – I have never delivered news like this to anyone. If I ever do, I hope I do this as well as Brain did. He escorted me away from the table to give me the news.
He told me,“Your Father had a heart attack.”
In a display of angry defiance, I ran down the steps to the main level and punched a hole in the wall. This is a lesson that I will always remember.
Brian asked me,“Who are you trying to intimidate?”
I never realized that this is what that was. I was angry. I was mad, like a child who throws a temper tantrum. But life is never intimidated by us. Try as we might, life still moves no matter what we have to say about it.
Brian told me“You can punch the wall all you want but it won’t make your Father any better.”
“You have to get yourself together now!”
Two things happened on that day. First, I learned that kindness and warmth are truly healing and second, I never punched a wall again.
I think about people on the expressway and how they drive. I think about the “me first” mentality on the subways and how people push in. I think about the road rage and the useless arguments between two strangers on the sidewalk. I think about the brutal coldness of truth when we don’t want to hear it and how things can be hard; and yet, life keeps on moving.
They call this a rat race. I call this a small part of Project Earth. There are more than 7 billion people in this project and somehow, we find ourselves so interested in opinions that benefit us the least. We get lost in our distractions that take us away from our best possible self. We lose to ourselves and to our emotions that degrade our mental fitness.
Yesterday we said we would talk about our future today. We were talking about the people I lost and the people I loved. I gave examples of my humbled motivation and my reasoning as to why this trip is important to me. We were talking about the dreams that never come true and the lives that go without nurture or warmth. Life can be like the barn in midwinter, cold and brutal. No matter what we think or how we feel about it, the alarm still rings at the same time every morning.
Back when I worked in my Father’s shop as an apprentice, I would struggle to keep up with the mechanics. There were times when the machine and the tools were too heavy for me to lift. There were times when I was tired. My body ached and my bones were sore. I didn’t have the stamina or the drive. I’d complain too but my Father would laugh. Then he’d say the words “Que lastima” which means “What a pity” in Spanish.
I was up early. I was working with men much older and much stronger than myself. This made it difficult to keep up. This made the hazing tougher on me, which made me angry but angry or frustrated, either my Father or one of the other workers would tell me “Que lastima” as in, “What a pity,” which meant “Stop complaining and keep working.”
I was always the one who had to clean up after the mechanics. I had to carry the tools. I had to do the grunt work and if I complained, what did they tell me? They’d tell me “Que lastima” as in “What a pity.” Or, more accurately “Stop complaining and keep working.” Nobody wants to hear it. We’re all under some kind of stress. Life hurts us all but the alarm still rings at the same time each morning.
Maybe it was days like this that had me thinking about a desk job when I grew older. Maybe it was the cold nights on the farm that led me to think that perhaps my body was not cut out for labor like this. The truth is as hard as I worked; there was a sense of accomplishment. I might not have enjoyed falling into a pile of “God-knows-what” inside the barn. I might not have enjoyed myself while cleaning the tubes inside the shell of an oil burner when I worked for my Father.
Safe to say that I had no idea who I would be when I grew up. I never thought that I would be a doctor or a lawyer. Plus, I never trusted someone who would spend an extra decade in school on purpose. I never saw myself as a teacher. I never thought of myself as a factory worker—but I’ve been there. I’ve had jobs that ranged from door to door sales, to telemarketing, to better sales jobs and then effectively, I decided to get away from the white collars and the suit and tie. I traded meetings for machinery. I switched gears and moved into a different career.
Years ago, I found myself in the blue collar world. I met new people who reminded me of my Father. They worked with their hands. To be honest, some of the people I worked with are the most incredible people I have ever seen. Somehow, the world spun in a full circle and I found myself in the same field as my Father. I had outgrown where I was and I needed to find something different. Fortunately, I had age on my side. It was safe enough to start over because I was still early in the game.
But age and I have recently agreed to disagree. My back is in poor shape. My knees hurt and my ankles kill me. Along with my chemical makeup, my physical makeup has changed. I can’t stay up late anymore. I fall asleep early and I wake up early. The alarm still rings but I’ve been trained; so I am up before the clock is. I work a lot of hours and with regret; admittedly, I find myself on the couch after coming home from work arguing with the television set and complaining about the price of gas.
I have somehow become my Father.
I am on the verge of reinventing myself. Then again, we all are. We do this on a daily basis. I am approaching the second half of my life. And as I said, I am nearly at the half-century mark. I find myself afraid. I am worried that I might not have enough time to pull off my trick. But none of this stops me because none of this stops the clock.
At the worst times in my life, I had to make an honest assessment of myself. I had to give a true evaluation of myself. I had to search myself. If this is not the way I wanted to live my life, then what steps would I have to take to be able to live my life to its fullest? I questioned my future. I questioned my heritage and my culture and my background and yet, I had no idea who I was.
I never felt as if I had any true friends or real social associations. For as long as I could remember, I was never part of any club—not even the Cub Scouts. I was searching for my hidden self, which hid in plain sight.
It was time for me to find this.
I thought about the people in my life. I thought about the people that I worked with. I thought about the bitterness of some and the awesomeness of others. Then it came to me; I don’t have to play this game anymore. I can quit. I can move to the side. I can say my goodbyes and then move on. And I’d try and deliver my speech for this, which I’d practice all the time. But when the time came, I would never pull it off.
This is my speech but this time, I’m sharing it with the world. I am putting this in writing because this makes my dedication official. I have chosen to take advantage of every possible opportunity. I’ve learned about the things that make me unhappy and now that I know this, it’s time to study the things that make me jump up and down. I focused on the shade side instead of feeling the sun on my face.
Not anymore though. This, here, is my testimony and you are my witness. I am not going to waste another second on blame, shame, fault or regret. I’ve seen enough of this to last me a lifetime.
There is no more “Que lastima,” and no more pity.
There is only a plan and action.
I was on a call with a private client last night. There was a list of things for this person but life kept moving. We talked about “Losing our shit!” I told my client “You and I can lose our shit tomorrow. We have things to do now.”
My alarm just went off . . .
Time to go.