Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: September, 2017

A Vulnerable Moment

It’s been an interesting week or two for me. And I’m debating just how much of it to share. But I’ve always said writing is how I make sense of the world, so in the hopes of encouraging you, I’ll be a little more vulnerable than I might be otherwise. 

While some people seem comfortable with sharing every bit of pain they experience, I’m generally not one of them. But pain, if we let it, can be a wise teacher. If we look carefully for the source of our pain, be it physical or emotional, we can learn a lot about ourselves and maybe even others too. This past Sunday,  

my latest lesson with pain began at the end of a lawn mower starter cord. 

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at starting this shiny red contraption by turning the ignition key, I resorted to the old-fashioned way of cranking the ornery beast. On the third pull of the rope it roared to life. And simultaneously, I felt the unmistakable pain of a disc exploding in my lower back. It was unmistakable because I’ve ruptured two discs in the past and had two very successful surgical repairs as a result of my misadventures. Now, I’ve had three surgeries. And as I write these words I’m hopeful the skill of my surgeon will result in a claim of a third successful surgery. 

After starting the mower, I somehow pressed through the pain and got the yard cut. Albeit, it wasn’t my best work. When I was finished, patches of grass I’d missed dotted the landscape like tiny oases of Mother Nature’s refusal to be tamed. I’m sure my neighbors thought the work had been completed by some near-sighted nine-year-old who just wished he was playing a video game. 

Over the following Monday and Tuesday a series of MRIs, X-Rays and CT scans confirmed my own diagnosis and my doctor promised to see me again Thursday. Only when he had reviewed all of my deductible-based evidence he had amassed would he then offer his thoughts about surgery. In the meantime, he put me on a mixture of medications intended to make me “comfortable.” But no amount of narcotics was sufficient to make me comfortable prior to that Thursday appointment. And Wednesday morning I awoke in such perfectly exquisite pain that I couldn’t get out of the bed.  

Since I live alone and am reticent to let people see me in pain, I pondered the most dignified way I could get to the ER. After an hour or so of debating with myself, I called the fine people at Huntsville Emergency Medical Services Incorporated. The kind dispatcher wondered if she should stay on the line with me while help was on its way, but I told her I was going to need to crawl to the front door to unlock it. Which I did with the stealth of Gollum muttering “my precious.” It wasn’t a pretty sight I’m sure. And you’d be surprised at all the things you see when you crawl through your home. But that’s another tale for another day. 

When Joe and Charlie arrived, the EMTs, they helped me navigate from the bed to the gurney. This was not pleasant. And I’ll confess there was no dignity in it. In truth, I was six feet seven and 250 pounds of helplessness, alternately cursing (not at them) and crying out in discomfort. As a writer, I’m rather proud of how well I  managed to string together bits of profanity in a creative symphony of pleading. Nouns became verbs; verbs became adjectives; and adjectives became pronouns in my litany of prayer for both the saved and the damned. 

In a moment of unexpected but profound comfort, Joe smiled and noted I was hanging off both ends of the gurney, suggesting that I  might not fit in the freight elevator. We laughed at that in a kind of macabre amusement. But after a bit of work, and my awkwardly pulling my feet into the gurney, the door finally closed and we were on our way. Mercifully, the only other witness to my awkward exit from the building that morning were the kind eyes of Kathy, the property manager at my apartment. Passing by her, I tried to remember if I’d paid my rent. (I had.) 

So what of my pain? To see me was to know something was wrong, but there was no blood. There were no broken or wrapped bones. There was no visible evidence that I was injured beyond the contortions of my face. All I had was the claim of my own distress.  

On the ride to the ER I worried I would face a skeptical medical staff weary of those poor souls whose addiction drives them again and again to the ER in hopes of a prescription for narcotics. God knows I was hoping for more than that. I wanted the good stuff. The really good stuff that makes the world seem like an effortless place to be. Hopes of Dilauded and Valium danced in my brain like joyful children playing in a spring shower. 

But what if they didn’t believe me? What if they left me to writhe in pain for hours while some secret society decided if I was worthy of their magical potions. Thankfully, I knew I had insurance, so I reassured myself that maybe I’d be okay. I tried to look at the nurse I met as if didn’t care if I got the meds or not, hoping my feigned indifference would convince them I wasn’t a pill shopper. 

Fortunately, I got the medicine I needed. But as the discomfort subsided, I realized how afraid I had been to let anyone see my pain. I hadn’t wanted a friend to drive me to the ER. I didn’t want to be a bother. I hadn’t wanted to seem helpless. I didn’t want people who respect–or at least like me–to see me near tears or hear me cursing like a demon being exorcised from a beleaguered soul. While I would gladly have come to the aid of any one of my friends or family who needed such assistance, I just didn’t want to be seen as vulnerable.  

But now, since my surgery, I’ve had to rely on people who love me to bring me food, take me to the doctor and even clean up my apartment. When you have back pain whatever you drop in the floor stays on the floor for a while. But strangely, all their kindness hasn’t been awkward. It’s been redemptive. By allowing others to help me, I’ve learned some things about myself and about them too. It has continued to reinforce the knowledge of just how rich my really life is—even with spine I’d trade for a couple of chickens, a goat and a nice cheeseball. 

The phone calls and texts and messages I’ve received during the monotony of my recovery have been overwhelming. And the friends who have come with a cup of coffee and sat with me, if only for just a few minutes, have made a profound difference in my recovery.  

Pain, no matter what kind it might be, is a nefarious thing. It shrouds our mind with lies and unearths our deepest fears. It makes us wonder if we will ever return to the fragile thing we call “good health.” But I’m learning it is also a teacher. I’m learning not to run from it. I’m learning not to try to hide it behind a facade of perfection. No, I don’t wander through life asking people to indulge me while I tell them about all my trials and pain. But I’ve widened my circle just a bit more. I’ve let a few more people see what’s really going on inside me. It’s made a big difference in my life. I know it’s scary. Maybe you should try it too.

And if your looking for someone to talk to, message me. We can get a cup of coffee when I’m back on my feet. Until then, we can chat by phone or swap a few texts. 


Virgil Matthews: Chapter Five–Old Men

Author’s Note:  For the first four installments of Virgil’s tale, please scroll back to the entry labeled Virgil Matthews: Coward


It seems I may have wandered off course.  But that is the province the of old men, I think.  Ask me of my youth and I will regale you with labyrinthine tales that still twist and wind, exploring every illuminated crack and crevice of days long since passed.  Ask me of yesterday and I will stare into those same places, my eyes blinking, seeing nothing but darkness.

To grow old is to be left in the company of ghosts.  On those treasured days I find the strength to wander into a public house, still fearing that the worst of my failings might be the cause of other men’s laughter, the men with whom I once drank ale and broke bread no longer come.  The man who serves me does calls me friend, but this is but a courtesy.  Though he is polite, he is not my friend.   Yet I do not allow myself the indulgence of melancholia.

Though my vision, even on the brightest of days, fails me, and though my scarred hands are thick, knotted and aching when the days are are long and warm, I will not allow myself the deceitful respite of regret.  I have come to terms with where my journey has led me, with this land I inhabit today.

“Come with me, boy.  If you will work, you will eat.”

Somehow, woven into the towering man’s brusque proposal, there was a thread of kindness.  He frightened me, but hunger overcomes both pride and fear; or so it did in me. So I followed him through black and white and gray hues of East London.  After months of avoiding the work houses, snatching but a few hours of sleep each under some alcove, petty crime, and begging, my resolve was failing.  The voice of my father was still strong within me, but I was more half-dead than half-alive, and, as I have said, I was hungry.

Virgil Matthews: Chapter 4–The Blessing

Author’s Note:  To find the first three installments of Virgil’s story, be sure to scroll down a few blog entries.


Men choose to live their lives on the sea for myriad reasons.  There are those men, restless souls that they be, who cannot bear the monotony of a life ashore. Boarding ships of elder and fir, they find their balance only in the rocking pitch and yaw of a vessel coursing across the deep.  Some abandon terra firma simply because they are following the path of their fathers and father’s fathers.  The purest among them set out upon the seas for a nobler cause:  to find something within themselves that is true and honest and strong.  I went because I was hungry.

“I am dying, Virgil.”  My father said, his body covered with weeping red blisters.

“Yes, father.”

“It will be soon.”

“Yes.  Soon.”

Together, we accepted our fates.  He, his death.  Mine, the life of a foundling.

In truth, I believe my father welcomed death.  When the pox first invaded him, he resisted.  More for my sake than for his own, I’m certain.  My father had never been a kind man.  But after my mother’s death, whatever ember of warmth that might have once burned in him was soon drowned by grief and ale. What remained in him, however, was some vague sense of responsibility to keep me warm and fed.

Sitting there at his bedside, I was Esau to his Isaac.  He offered me the meager remnant of his few un-stolen blessings.  “Do not let them take you to the workhouses.”

I nodded, receiving his blessing.

Virgil Matthews: Chapter Three–Casting Off

Author’s note:  This is the third installment of Virgil’s tale.  Chapters one and two precede this blog post.  Please be sure to read them before proceeding.  Thanks.  


It was an auspicious beginning to our voyage.  The sun was warm and white and slowly rose into an endless azure sky that morning.  The air was cool and as full of hope as our hold was with bread, dried beef, potatoes and fresh water.    Our Captain (I’ve long since forgotten his name for I have lived more years than a man of such meager gifts should be granted) was preternaturally calm, gazing over the deck as God himself might have after six days of labor.  I suppose not even the Captain—churlish though he was most of the time—could resist the spell of Poseidon’s deceit that morning.

The East Indiaman on which we sailed that morning had returned from her prior voyages without incident.  Her three masts, rigged with square linen sails, had captured winds and raced across the seas undaunted by its terrors:  treacherous storms, starvation, unquenchable thirst, jagged lurking reefs, the madness of reaching for a horizon without end.  Yes, her hull had ached and moaned and creaked, crying out for the comfort of the harbor as even the best ships do.  But she had never faltered, had never given her crew reason to succumb to thoughts of their lifeless bodies, lungs filled with the ocean, floating atop cresting waves in some macabre ballet until they finally sunk into the murky depths of eternity.

As the Invictus cleared the harbor that day, I glanced over my shoulder only once knowing that my wife was about the business of her day just as I was about mine.

Virgil Matthews: Coward–Chapter Two

Author’s Note:  If you haven’t read chapter one of Virgil’s story, please scroll back to the prior blog entry.  


Like most boys, I had my childhood dreams of glory.  I often imagined myself the slayer of menacing dragons, the redeemer of maidens held captive in high towers, and as a fearless warrior sacrificing breath and bone and blood for my companions in some great quest.  Gallantly, I took up my sword, riding my stallion, its nostrils flaring, into the fires of hell and struck down demons.  And in my dreams, men eagerly followed me into battle, inspired by my fearlessness.

But we boys must grow up.

Somehow, we become men.  And we learn the hard reality that the battles we must fight are rarely quite as glorious as we had once dreamed.  Yet these battles are no less treacherous.  Along our journeys, we find our battles must be fought in high places, in the darkness, or in the unexpected cacophony of thunder and lightening and wind.   Worst of all, we find we must fight our battles in the deep black waters of our own souls.

And we must fight them alone.

Virgil Matthews: Coward

Coward.  It is an ugly word: a summary judgment of a man’s inadequacy, a dull and dirty knife used to cleave a man’s soul from the deepest part of him without anesthetic or antiseptic, an accusation of irredeemable failure, a pronouncement that a man is bereft of the essential quality of what it is to be be authentically and unmistakably a man.  It is a word oft spoken by men whose days have not been too short to encounter the sort of trials that slowly, unceasingly, and mercilessly suck the moisture from their once verdant souls until they, like the ones they accuse, have become the withered and cracked branches of a once-proud oak.  It is a word often spoken by fools, an accusation by men who must allege the shortcomings of another, making another man less so that the accuser might be more.

My name is Virgil Matthews. I am a coward.  But that is not all I am.

This is my story.