A Tribute To Kobe Bryant One Year Later
(Originally posted Jan 2021 on vocal.media)
I’m a one-sport guy. Well, one-and-a-half really. I’ll tune in for the final rounds of major tennis opens. But basketball is my jam. I may or may not have thrown money out the window for a few years subscribing to NBA League Pass. And full confession, when I say I’m a one-sport guy, a watch-one-sport guy is much more honest. It’s a bit inexplicable my obsession with basketball, given the fact I was born in Barbados where cricket and football (aka soccer for you Americans) reigned supreme. Regardless, I fell in love with the game, and that affinity has only deepened over the decades. The sport created one-named global superstars: Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan, LeBron, and of course, the Black Mamba, Kobe.
On January 26, 2020 the world was shaken by the news of the death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash. Kobe was just 41, and four years into retirement from professional basketball. One year and a pandemic later, it’s still surreal. Kobe still means a lot to many, whether or not we knew him personally. His skill and tenacity were inspiring. He both pushed and pulled the best out of himself and those who shared the court with him. Like all our heroes, like all of us, he was a flawed human being. And like all of us, it is not our flaws that define us, but who we are in spite of them.
I wrote the following a year ago, and it rings just as true today. Rest In Power Mamba.
“Holy shit Kobe Bryant’s dead!” I exclaimed much too loudly for the serene Sunday afternoon lunch setting. One of my best friends and I were wrapping up a post-church meal at our favorite Thai restaurant when my smartwatch buzzed with the news alert: Kobe Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash. Hours later, to add to the tragedy, we learned his 13-year-old daughter and seven others also lost their lives in the crash.
You didn’t have to be interested in sports to know the name, a testament to his athletic greatness. But if you were a basketball fan, even just a casual one, this was a gut punch. Just a few highlights for the uninitiated: Kobe was basketball’s 2nd coming; the heir to His Airness, Michael Jordan; perhaps the most anticipated prospect to enter the NBA right out of high school; 5 NBA Championships; two-time NBA Finals MVP and Scoring Champion; 18 All-Star appearances; 4th on the NBA total points made list; two (not one...two) jerseys retired; two Olympic Gold medals; the only player to come close to challenging Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 1962 100-point game when he single-handedly decimated the Toronto Raptors on January 22nd, 2006 by scoring 81 points; just so we wouldn’t forget his on-court prowess, he scored 60 points in his last professional game; and oh yeah...after retiring in 2016 he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2018 for his film Dear Basketball because why not?
Celebrity deaths are a strange thing. I did not know Kobe Bryant. Yet the loss felt personal. Was it because his name floated in and out of the headlines for the last 25 years? Was it because his sheer determination and incomparable work ethic (aka “Mamba Mentality”) was an inspiration for millions around the world? Was it because of the beginnings of a post-basketball career dedicated to family? Was it because he was so young? Was it because it was so randomly tragic and unexpected? Was it because it triggered my own grief from the loss of my wife five years ago when she we 43? Was it because I’m the father of a daughter? Was it because we weren’t ready to let him go yet?
We do our best to find or assign meaning at times like this. If we could make sense of the tragedy maybe it would hurt less. If we knew why it happened maybe we would feel more in control. The difficult truth is that there is no meaning. Birth and death are the sides of the coin of life. We don’t know what our life will be when we are born. We also don’t know when we will die, and this is perhaps why death defines us so much more. We do know we get one shot (apologies to the reincarnation crowd), so as the transcendent (and also recently deceased) poet Mary Oliver invited us to consider, “...what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I would take it a step further and ask, “If you know, why aren’t you doing it?” If there is any meaning we can ascribe to Kobe’s death, it is this: Live life as fully and authentically as you can, and do it now.
As we sat across the table from each other, reeling in shock from the news, my friend asked, “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow or next week, what would you do differently today?” She knows me well enough to know that I’m pretty much living the life I want to experience. But I gave it some thought, and shared my only regret would be not having seen more of the world. “Where would you go?” she asked, and I said Australia and New Zealand are top of my list. Turns out they were top of hers too. So in that moment, motivated by Mamba Mentality and mimosas, we began planning our trip. As we stood to leave some minutes later, with a hint of incredulity in her eyes, she asked, “Are we really doing this?” Hell yes we are.
We let ourselves believe that we don’t have all we need inside of us to achieve our dreams. In his relatively short lifetime, Kobe taught us otherwise. He taught us well.
Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr's Legacy Of Love
(Originally posted Jan, 2021 on vocal.media)
Allow me to set the scene: The steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, on an unseasonably warm February night. Not just any night, but two nights before my wedding. Jennifer and I decided to kill time on the mall after we arrived at Reagan National Airport to pick up her college best friend, only to discover the flight was running a couple hours late. It was 1999 and cell phones were not the ubiquitous appendages they are now so no heads up about the delay. We evidently didn’t call the airline for a flight status check, which led to my favorite pre-wedding memory.
We only lived about twenty minutes from the airport. We could have gone back home, but we realized we were being gifted an unexpected reprieve from the down-to-the-wire overwhelm that comes when only days away from your own wedding. So we took the time for ourselves. I don't remember why or how we ended up on the steps of the Lincoln. The FDR Memorial was Jennifer’s favorite; a life-sized walking diorama-esqe tribute reflecting various stages of Roosevelt’s life and Presidency. With its numerous water features, it was so much more dynamic and experiential than the static statue of the nation’s 16th head of state, but damn if the Lincoln Memorial isn’t still the most imposingly grand shrine of the lot.
So we found ourselves sitting on the steps, leaning into each other, talking with both an air of excitement and fatigue. Suddenly I heard a familiar voice; a surprisingly recognizable voice that was simultaneously impossible since the voice’s owner was long departed, but also because it was exactly where I should’ve expected to hear his voice. It was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr giving his transcendent “I Have A Dream” speech. Was I having an auditory hallucination? Given the look of confusion on Jennifer’s face, I clearly wasn’t the only one.
We sought out the source, and found a gathering a few yards away. A large gaggle of teenagers were piled on the steps, and on each other. Pacing back and forth in front of them, boombox held high over his head, evoking images of John Cusak’s Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything, was a somber looking man who, remarkably, didn’t fall as he locked eyes with his audience while he moved on the narrow step.We were just as transfixed. There was a weighty and palpable solemness to the occasion. Other passerbys stopped to watch and listen as well. We would learn afterwards that it was a group of high-schoolers and their history teacher from Chicago taking great liberties with the concept of ‘field trip’ as they visited various significant sites of the civil rights movement around the country.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington DC on Wednesday, August 28, 1963. Anywhere from 200,000 to 300,00 people attended the historic event. It was organized to bring attention to the civil and economic plight and rights of African Americans. Dr. King was the final speaker, and as we now know, his “I Have a Dream” speech did not originally contain the words for which the speech is called and known for. At the prompting of Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”, he abandoned his prepared text and famously improvised what might stand as the most inspirational oration of all time.
The timing of us hearing that speech, in his voice nonetheless, was poignant beyond measure. It was not lost on us that, as an interracial couple residing in Virginia, our marriage would have been illegal just a scant 32 years earlier, less than ten years before either of us were born. We were less than one generation removed from the horrific racist miscegenation laws that were the status quo of many states, including Virginia. It would take the arrest of a Virginian interracial couple, Mildred and Richard Loving (the absolutely perfect name) and their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to bring a national end to a heinous restriction in the landmark case Loving v Virginia (again, the name just makes it that much more sweet).
In his dream Dr King envisioned a nation where we would not be “judged by the color of [our] skin but rather by the content of [our] character,” and that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Some of his dream has been realized. Much of it has not. We still live in a nation where white supremacy, while no longer the law of the land, still maintains a firm hold on the hearts and minds of millions. Many of those who laid siege to the Capitol on January 6th were carrying the flag of the Confederacy, the symbol of the states that seceded from the nation in order to preserve their right to treat other humans as chattel, and then lost a civil war over it. They did so in the name of a President who began his campaign with racist rhetoric, and who at one point claimed they were “very fine people on both sides” when one of those sides were Neo-Nazis chanting “Jew will not replace us.” Quick tip: if you're on the same side with Nazis, you might want to rethink where you stand.
It is understandable that many of us felt drained of hope that Dr King’s dream would become reality in our lifetime. Had he not been assassinated, he might have celebrated his 92nd birthday this past Friday. Who knows how much hope he would still have? Then again, who knows how much further along the path of true equality we might be if he was alive today? Regardless, my hope tank is starting to fill back up. While no single person or party can fix what ails us, on January 20th we’ll be officially moving in a new direction. The siege on the Capitol was a taste of what can happen if we don’t. And let’s be clear, we’ve tasted worse before. Looking at you Tulsa, and oh yeah, did I mention the civil war? But we assumed we had evolved past that unrestrained barbarism. We keep being told such violence isn't us, but the truth is, it’s who many generations of us have been for literally centuries.
My hope lies in the notion that we’re beginning to accept that it’s not enough to declare who we’re not. We actually have to want to be who we say we are. And it starts with acceptance that some of us have played the roles of oppressor and victim for far too long, both consciously and unconsciously; that we’re not even aware of our implicit biases around race, ethnicity, gender, age, ability, or orientation; that we still struggle to accept ourselves for who we are, much less accept someone else for how they are; that we’ve placed to much emphasis on what’s happening outside of us instead of reconciling and healing what’s happening inside of us; that we will finally feel like we belong when we learn to belong to to ourselves first.
Dr. King reminded us, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” As I love myself more, as we all love ourselves more, I gain hope that I will experience my dream: a world of love that works for all.
How Unexamined Beliefs Could Literally Kill Us
(Originally published Jan 2021 on vocal.media)
My Christmas paraphernalia is still out. I usually give it a week into the new year before I start thinking about undecorating. By then, well actually before New Year’s, I’m thoroughly fried on Christmas music, Christmas movies, and Christmas food, with the exception of eggnog which calls me to marshall every last ounce of my will power to stop drinking because that’s some tasty shit any time of year and thank you sweet baby Jesus the stores stop carrying it otherwise I’d probably most likely be still swilling that creamy goodness. I think I’ve made my feelings on eggnog crystal clear. Not taking down any decorations for at least a week also gets me through Epiphany. It’s when some faith traditions observe the visit of the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. In Latin American and some European countries it’s called Three Kings Day (Dia de Los Reyes) and it’s sometimes an even bigger celebration than Christmas Day.
Let me take this moment to invoke my annual tradition of calling for the Wise Men to be removed from all Nativity scenes. it propagates an untruthful narrative: they were NOT at the scene of the birth. Not to get too deep into the weeds here, but every biblical account of Jesus’ birth does not included the Wise Men. And it’s pretty clear from the only passage that mentions them that it was at some undetermined time after the birth. Some call their inclusion in Nativity artistic license. I call it lazy writing. It fascinates me how those who would use Bible literalism to stir up anti-gay sentiment don’t have a problem with this prevarication. And don’t get me started on the fact that no-one knows when Jesus was really born, and the scholarly research that disputes the location of his birth. Sorry Bethlehem, it was more likely Nazareth after all, but that wouldn’t fit the narrative of the prophecies would it? Virgin birth? Give me a break.
Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Christmas. Even after years of believing the story as fact. It’s a time that inspires generosity and compassion like no other time of the year. It's an occasion that bridges the secular and religious worlds. As a parent, some of my most cherished memories included the glee on my daughter’s face, including this past Christmas when, as a twenty-year-old, she unwrapped one of my gifts she didn’t see coming: a custom-ordered throw featuring a medieval-era image of a man falling from a tower with the quote, “Yippee-ki-yay thy fornicator of motherhood!” Yes…Die Hard is a Christmas movie and yes she’s her father’s daughter through and through and yes I’m super damn proud of her.
I had every intention to have packed up Christmas by now, but then on January 6th, Three Kings Day, the Capitol was breached by supporters of the President in a violently ham-handed attempt to stop the certification of an election he doesn’t believe he lost. People died, and the insurrectionists were so confident in their privilege that they recorded themselves before, during, and after their crimes, then voluntarily shared their videos and pictures with the world. Millions across the country and around the world watched in real time with disbelief and shock. Millions like myself are still processing what happened, what else might happen, and as a result we’ve been caught in a limbo of swirling thoughts and emotions that leave us paralyzed.
I am a pastor, and this past Sunday it took everything out of me to focus enough to prepare and deliver a sermon, then moderate our hospitality hour over Zoom. I’m still struggling to get a handle on how I feel about this. I know I’m sad and angry. I’m conflicted that I mourn the death of the two Capitol Police officers, but that I have no sympathy for the deaths of any of the rioters, especially the Darwin Award winner who electrocuted himself repeatedly in the testicles until his heart give out from the taser he held between his legs while trying to rip a painting from the wall. I wonder what accountability would look like for those who poured fuel on ,and fanned the flames of, this dumpster fire of a coup and the misinformation that led to it. I already feel the frustration that there won’t be enough accountability. The lack of security because of “optics” compared to the unnecessarily excessive show of force for the Black Lives Matter rally adds to the weight of the systemic racism felt for so long, even more acutely since last summer.
I realize that much of my disappointment stems from my assumption that people take the time, ever so often, to do a deep dive on their beliefs; to question the ones that don’t make sense; to release the ones that don’t hold up, even if they’ve been at the core of their identity. That last one is the hardest. It’s easy to forget that our beliefs serve us, not the other way round, and it’s okay, even healthy, to change them. Too often, and too easily, in an effort to meet our intrinsic need to belong and feel loved, we adopt beliefs that both our brain and heart rally against. Loneliness and loss, real or imagined, are powerful motivators. They are also very frightening. In an effort to fill the void we let ourselves believe the unbelievable. To quell the fear, “we turn on ourselves and make ourselves the enemy, the source of the problem…[we] make others the enemy [and] the greater the fear the more intense our hostility. Our enemy becomes the parent who never really respected us, the boss who is preventing us from being successful, a political group that is taking away our power or a nation that threatens our lives.” (from Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach)
Loving ourselves is so very hard. Some of us have a lifetime of internalized negative messages to delete so that there’s space to create our own narrative. The messages came from well-meaning parents struggling with their own worthiness; from abuse and trauma; from a society placing higher value on certain insignificant metrics; from a system built on generational oppression. Some of those tapes never fully go away, and then our work is to be mindful when they start playing and turn the volume down. When we don’t love ourselves and write our own narrative, we are easily swayed by those with a compelling story who appear to love us. In the wake of the attack on the Capitol, there has been a plea for the rioters to come to their sense because, “This is not who we are.” But it is who many of us are: frightened angry individuals who have not yet learned to accept and love ourselves, who can be swayed to the point of our own demise.
I no longer believe in the literal story of Christmas (or much of the Bible for that matter), but I can still appreciate its message of hope, and the reminder that there is always light in the darkness. I deconstructed my beliefs and came out the other side stronger than when I started. It was scary to challenge the beliefs I once held to be true. It still is. And fear is ego’s effort to avoid pain. Pain will not destroy us, but unexamined beliefs can. We all need a safe community and strong supportive friends who will always encourage us to challenge our beliefs and love ourselves. I am grateful for mine. They are the gift that keeps on giving.
Less Is More
(Originally published Jan 2021 on vocal.media)
You probably thought I was kidding at the end of my last post when I said this would be the title for this article. I was. I was trying to be funny…ending the article the same way it started: poking fun at clickbait headlines. Then, as I sat listening to my muse for inspiration and the idea of a 2020 reflection came to me, well, you can probably guess where this is going.
By the way… my muse? The Silence. More accurately, the deep intuitive voice of my truest self that can only be experienced in meditation when body and mind are as still as possible and all there is is the breath. The Silence is more than simply being quiet. It’s becoming so unplugged from any kind of awareness of anything, even my own thoughts, that I don’t even realize I was in it til after the fact. It’s nothing and it’s everything all at once. It’s no time and an eternity. It’s a place beyond ego, beyond fear, beyond all worries.
But I digress. So… 2020… A Year we’d just as soon wish it never happened than spend time reflecting on it. But happen it did, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, we learned a lot. We discovered aspects of ourselves we may not have previously known. We found out what we could really tolerate, both for ourselves and in society. Some of us were shocked to realize we might not be able to live with the person we’d been living with all this time. And some of us were truly shocked that the simple question, “Are You Still Watching?” could elicit all sorts of complex and complicated feelings… especially the third time in the same evening.
2020 didn’t ask us if we were ready for, or even wanted to do a deep life examination. Some of us did our darndest to pretend it wasn’t happening and demanded that life carried on status quo. That didn’t last long. And eventually we all had to ask ourselves, “Was my pre-pandemic life really working as well as I thought it was?” It was a question we dreaded, because any semblance of “No” was an invitation to change. And you know how much we all love to change!
It took months to be able to articulate what began as unsettling and undefined inklings, that would eventually become an intentional list of what I needed to release in order to lighten the load of my psychological, physiological, and spiritual life.
In 2021 I will no longer…
...want things to be different than they are. I’m not saying that things shouldn’t change, or that what’s happening is right. I’m saying that when something happens that we don’t like, that makes us uncomfortable, that frightens us, our knee-jerk reaction is to change it, or control it, or even destroy it. That puts a lot of stress and strain on us. It’s even worse when, in some cases, there’s nothing we can do. Some of us lost friends and family to Covid. They’re not coming back, and no amount of anger with the conditions that created their demise will change that. The pain and process of grief has no time frame, and we can get stuck if we fixate on wishing the precipitating event didn’t happen. We cause ourselves more harm when we sit in anger instead of acceptance.
...want me to be different than I am. Again, this isn’t about saying no to self-improvement or personal and spiritual growth. It’s about self-worth. It’s about knowing that, in spite of my flaws, I am innately whole, perfect, and worthy, and there is nothing I need to do to prove it to myself or anyone else. I am worthy simply because I exist. If I feel otherwise, it’s likely because I attribute what’s missing in my life to what’s wrong with me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with me. Or you. Can we all be better more compassionate communicators and friends and lovers? Absolutely, but those are learnable skills, not character flaws. Who I am, and who you are, is no less than anyone else because their life seems so much more perfect. That perfection is more than likely a carefully curated illusion. Thanks a lot Insta. Just as no-one sees the full picture of our life, we don’t see the full picture of theirs. Why aren’t we sharing more of our darkest moments? Maybe because we’ve been told vulnerability is weakness. The opposite is true. Only the strong dare to remove their armor and expose themselves to the world.
...waste my time, attention, and energy on anything or anyone that isn’t truly important. What and who is important? Do they know and support the real and authentic me? Does it drain or energize me? Do they lovingly hold me accountable while being a safe space? Does it bring me joy even if it’s challenging? Are they as vulnerable with me as I am with them? Does it allow me to be creative? Do they accept me as I am? Any no’s just got to go. If there’s anything I learned from my wife dying of cancer almost six years ago at the age of 42 it’s this: life is too fucking short to waste any of it. Too many lives were tragically cut short in 2020. It would dishonor them to waste ours on meaningless distractions and attention vampires.
...wait for the perfect moment. Speaking of life being too short, there’s no such thing as the perfect moment. That’s just fear doing its best to paralyze us and keep us small. Comfort zones: great places to live but nothing ever grows there. Because there are no guarantees in life, there is no perfect moment to make a different choice, to start your own business, to have a baby, to write a book, to quit the job. All we have is now, and as long as it’s a decision that supports our authentic self, now is the right time. sure, it might be scary as all hell, but heaven is the reality that comes when we live from the heart.
It’s not a long list. And it’s not a simple checklist either. 2020 forced us to stop and take stock of our lives and beliefs. We continue to muse about “getting back to normal” but last year has changed us all. And it continues to. 2021 is the year I go all in. It’s the year I strive even more to stop wanting, wasting, and waiting. It’s the year I fully embrace that I already am all that I am seeking to be. I hope you do too.
Happy New Year!
The Only Real Valuable Thing Is Intuition
(Originally posted Jan, 2021 on vocal.media)
You have to love those clickbait headlines. The kinds that leverage our insatiable need to quell the angst of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) with our succumbing to grind culture’s maxim of saving time to do more. Although, to be fair, I really am super curious about the single decision that ended the trajectory of Julia Stiles’ brilliant career. And confession time: after months of wondering, I finally found out how one injury dashed the Olympic dreams of an extremely attractive pole vaulter. We men can be such predictably sexist neanderthals.
These articles prey on something much deeper as well: a sense of unworthiness that many of us can’t quite seem to shake. While the overt message is about harnessing productivity, the subtext is less clear: you should be doing this better and quicker so you can do more because you’re clearly not doing enough and if you did more people would love you more. If this doesn’t apply to you, congratulations and thanks for reading this far. But if there’s anything I know to be true, is that if I’m feeling it, I’m not the only one.
There’s still a lot of shame around unworthiness. Toxic masculinity bears some responsibility for that. The double-standards placed on women and minorities play a part too. So does the flawed American rhetoric that we are the greatest country in the world where anyone can be anything, thus implying that if we’re not there’s clearly something wrong with us. We hear these messages every single day and the weight of them presses us into submission.
The pandemic didn’t help either. The pressure to produce picture-perfect sourdough rolls was immense. Was it just me, or was I being bullied into baking? I eventually caved, but the best I could do was a few batches of misshapen corn cookies from a Trader Joe’s mix. So many people were boasting about learning to play new instruments, and speaking new languages. It wasn't that long before the “These reminders don’t seem to be working” notifications from Duilingo stopped showing up altogether. And I may or may not have touched the keys of that free upright piano I had hauled up to my apartment since September. Go big or go home right?
The ridiculous thing was, I didn’t lose my job because of the pandemic. I actually had more to do when I started working from home. Why did I think I had more time on my hands to become fluent in Portuguese? Side note: my intentions were noble given my brother and his family live in Brazil and I always felt it would be a nice gesture to learn the language of my new in-laws, but after 14 years they’re no longer new and unless I need water, a house, or an apple, I’m shit out of luck. Compared to others, with the possible exception of my prodigious Netflix viewing (where’s the body Carole?), I felt I was a failure at even the basics of surviving the pandemic. Grind culture, comparison, and shame turned the subtle currents of unworthiness into a monsoon from which there seemed to be no safe harbor.
But every hurricane has an eye; the calm center that provides respite from the torrential rain and unforgiving winds. For those of us struggling with unworthiness, it is that still small voice of intuition. The gentle whisper that says, “this is not for me” or “my bliss lies elsewhere” or “now is the time” or “I am more than this.” Intuition goes by many names: the voice of God; the song of the ancestors; the whispers of angels; the stirring in our gut; the metaphors of our dreams. Regardless of the name we give it, we all possess it, but we don’t all give it the attention it deserves.
Not to get too woo-woo here, but intuition is the connectedness we feel to all things across time and space. I’m not just spewing metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. There are more than enough quantum physics theories and proofs to substantiate our paradoxical beyond-time-cause-and-effect-cosmic-yet-molecular existence that our feeble intellect has yet to fully grasp. None other than Albert Einstein validated this when he said, “The only real valuable thing is intuition.” When we are open to the possibilities that come with being in tune with it, we know, not think, what we need to do and when we need to do it.
Intuition might be the only life hack we really need. It guides us to our purpose and our bliss. It lets us know when to act and when to rest. It brings peace through authenticity. It asks nothing of us but a willingness to listen. It is the beginning of the end of self-doubt and unworthiness. If you’re going to use all those other life hacks, use them to carve out more space and time to practice listening to your intuition. It is your truest voice.
Now… time to go write my next article: You Won’t Believe What I’m Not Doing In 2021!