09 September 2009

Lucky Man

Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) created very successful progressive rock music between 1969 and 1978. So much of culture's identification is reflected in the music of that particular period. The era from 1965 to 1975 encompassed dramatic social change. The assassination of JFK in November 1963 ushered in what would be the teenage years for many of us called "Baby Boomers." The standoff with the Russians, civil rights legislation, assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the entry into and escalation of conflict in Vietnam and Watergate are just some of the hightlights of those years.

While ELP represent only a small aspect of the flood of music, their material covers a fairly wide range of expression. I have to admit, my all-time favorite group of the period continues to be the Moody Blues. My range of musical enjoyment is quite wide...growing up in a home that appreciated the great classics as well as Big Band and "easy listening" of the post WWII years. My parents tolerated well my growing collection of singles and albums of the 1960s. Truth be told, more than once an interloper could have found our family of four dancing around the house to the latest Beatles tune. My mom later admitted that she listened to and enjoyed the guitar riffs of Jimi Hendrix while listening to some of my albums while I was overseas in the U.S. Navy.

I grew up in a home that had a high level of tolerance for a wide range of interests and expressions. We were by no means "wealthy" but we had a wealth of what was important...love, respect, self-expression, freedom to explore our dreams. We had great conversations at the dinner table. Things could get hot! My dad had pretty intense political and social views -- as did I. Not unusual to hear: "Now boys, temper it a bit..." from my mom, as dad and I hit a high note of exchange. My brother was three years younger but would also throw in with his opinions. Mom would hold forth as well. The dog would find someplace else to be. In the end, we would be watching football on television, going to a Red Sox exhibition game (they did spring training in my hometown of Winter Haven, Florida) or going for rootbeer at Andy's Igloo. Rejection was never an option.

If I had to put a title on those years of life, it might be: "Free to Be Me." Consider some of the phases. I was a Boy Scout, which, in those days, and in our troop, was something like Marine Corps training. Whining to mom and dad about "rough treatment" was not met with intervention from either of them. Empathy, yes. I was carefully taught to fight my own battles; work through my own impasses with other adults who had leadership responsibility over me (scout master, teachers, etc) and fight only when it was inevitable with a peer (I got into only one of those. It was bloody, intense and a draw by the measure of those gathered around). I was a tall, broad guy. Most folks seemed not to want to test what that meant. I only got the measure of its meaning years later -- while doing tactical training in the Navy. The one time my parents did mix into my troubles was when I refused to confront with strength a classmate who was confined to a wheelchair with polio. He was a brat, spoiled and mean. Yet, he was, in our view of the day, impaired. There were times, years later, that I wished I had delt a hefty blow to that ugly mouth of his (but, he died in a drug deal gone bad while in college).

In those halcyon years between 1963 and 1975 I canoed every river in Florida, hiked deep woods and swamps looking for (and finding) many species of snakes, turtles, frogs and lizards. A number of them found a home behind our garage -- to the extreme distress of my dad, who hated snakes -- but let me keep them. That is, until a Boy Scout friend and I brought home a 6.5 foot diamond back rattlesnake -- who was very upset with getting tossed in a canvas bag and toted six miles home in the basket of a bicycle. Dad and I had several very long discussions about this event. The rattlesnake found another home with Ross Allen's Reptile Institute...as did many of my other reptile friends. Mom did tolerate well the hatching of 14 Bluetail Skink lizard eggs in a terrarium in my bedroom: all of whom escaped through the wire mesh cover and made their way around the house. Like I said, tolerance was a treasured attribute in those years.

Not every day was a good day. In 2004, I learned that I had been suffering anxiety reaction since sometime in childhood. This may have been a mild form of ADHD, which I compensated for by becoming an internal perfectionist -- over-compensating to the point of purposefully failing at something in order to prove to myself that I needed to be perfect. Heck of a way to walk through life. I came away from that with a whole new sense of being okay. Not just okay but truly fine, thanks. Now the opening words of Desiderata mean something real: "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit." Oddly enough, my mom gave me a copy of Ehrmann's poem when I went to the University of Florida, and it hung on my wall through graduation.

What did those years give me? Something I grieve for our young people now...balance. I was taught that I had a body, a mind and a spirit. That all three are essential and must be developed together. I was taught discipline in an environment of fairness. That anything worth doing is not only worth doing well but also reflects the true measure of a balanced life. Even as a priest, I still have well-meaning people trying to talk me out of this (you know what that sounds like: 'In my day, we did....' or, 'you should/ought to...'). God knows what they are now, and it isn't me.

For a long time of adulthood, I really did try to be what others wanted or expected me to be. Thankfully, those days seem to be diminishing in the rearview mirror that is my accumulating history. I am now resting more comfortably with what my parents gave me -- my life in balance. I am becoming mindful of the balance. Oh, what a lucky man I am!


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