“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” ~Jospeph Campbell, Philosopher and Mythologist
The other night, I had a short dream about me and my late father-in-law. He was 81 years old when he passed away a little more than a year ago. We were about 15-20 years younger in the dream. Although Sandra’s dad was small in stature, his work ethic, humility, and quiet strength made him a giant of a man. Few words were needed for him to express approval, disappointment, encouragement, or mischievousness. His eyes and a simple nod of his head spoke volumes.
The dream reminded me of a time in my life that was full of opportunity and professional excitement. I was in my late 30s, confident and a little full of myself. Providing for my family, working my way up the corporate ladder, and serving the community in a variety of ways were priorities. My father-in-law looked like he was in his early 60s, full of life enjoying retirement and the fruits of his labors as a cement mason.
He was from the same region in Mexico where my grandmother spent her childhood. I loved hearing stories about his boyhood and he loved telling them. We also talked about politics, history, and current events, usually while grilling ribs on the barbecue pit or around the dining room table over rounds of Budwiser, Coors Light, or Corona. In the middle of me waxing eloquent about some historical event, he would suggest another round of beers with a simple nod, raised eyebrows, and encouraging eyes. It was his way of asking, “Are you ready?”
Despite these shared interests, we couldn’t be more different on the surface. He was great with his hands and could build or fix anything. I can’t hammer a nail straight into a piece of wood to save my life. He was soft-spoken and I’m outspoken. When he talked, it was mostly in Spanish. English is my language of choice. With a few too many beers under our belts, we would switch languages and howl with laughter at each other’s attempts to tell a funny story.
Perhaps our biggest difference was in the way we approached life. He was a steady as he goes kind of guy. I’m a dreamer. He worked in concrete construction for over thirty years. I’ve had no less than 5 professions in the same span of time. Throughout my career, each day brought new experiences. Without fail, he awoke before dawn, labored in the elements all day, had dinner with his family, and watched the news and novelas before going to bed.
I admire how he just got it done, day in and day out. He was a prolific cement mason on large industrial projects and especially talented working small side jobs. With perfectionism and creativity, each patio, driveway, sidewalk he did was a work of art. I’m sure he didn’t plan for that life when he was a boy in Sonora, Mexico. Per the old Mexican saying, he took it un dia a la vez – one day at a time.
His story brought to life philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell’s classic quote. This kind of philosophical outlook builds resilience and strength. We spend too much time trying to mold our lives into the “perfect” life of meticulously designed happiness. When the inevitable unplanned event happens, we grow uncertain, unhappy, and frustrated. Last year was the perfect example.
2020 started with the optimism of a year befitting a symbolic and symmetrical number. Before the first month was out, we experienced the tip of a global pandemic iceberg. It all went downhill from there. Before long, “Covid Fatigue” had set in. As a society, we opted not to take it un dia a la vez. Any possibility of resilience and strength gave way to vulnerability and weakness. People were uncertain, unhappy, and frustrated.
Ironically, 2020 was actually a pretty darn good year for me. On January 1, 2020, a titanium pump was still attached to the lower left side of my heart to help my seriously diseased heart circulate blood throughout my body. On April 16, 2020, I had a heart transplant and a new lease on life. By New Year’s Day 2021, I felt physically and mentally stronger than I could ever imagine 365 days earlier.
I paint a rosy picture of a wonderful and blissful year. Of course, that wasn’t the case. It doesn’t account for an extremely difficult transplant recovery. Physical and mental challenges in the aftermath of surgery consumed me so much that it may have been God’s way of protecting me from the darkness of world events. With or without Covid and smoke from devastating fires, I had to shelter in place.
I had the luxury of taking that solitary time to read, think, and reflect. My ancestral and cultural “one day at a time” belief system started to sink in. We have no power over future or past events. The Lord’s Prayer even tells us to ask God to, “give us this day,” not yesterday, not tomorrow...this day. The pandemic, political nonsense, and fires were out of my control, so why worry about such things.
2021 is finally here. Now what?
I’m sure that millions of us will resolve to eat better and become physically fit in the new year. Other resolutions probably include things like working toward career advancement, finding love, pursuing a lifelong passion. Then the first week of 2021 came. The optimism that blew air into the 2021 balloon on New Year’s Eve developed a slow leak before we could recover from the 2020 hangover.
Like many of you, I sat stunned, saddened, and angry watching the images on TV of modern-day barbarians sacking the symbol of democracy and freedom. I’m a Mexican American eastside Yankee Doodle Dandy with a deep love and profound respect for the traditions and institutions that secure our American way of life. As my anger grew, my thoughts turned to the spiritual journey that has given faith, hope, and love to my life.
My anger and sadness began to drift away. I learned the lessons of 2020 well. I had no control over the awful images that came from the Capitol and have zero power over what happens in the days to come. All I have is today. “Give us this day…” I’m resolved to use the remaining 351 days of 2021, a day at a time, to explore ideas that lead to a deeper understanding of life and inner peace.
That’s just a fancy way of saying that I will look for ways to keep the bullshit that causes emotional pain from taking control of my thoughts. Inspirational memes, superficial feel-good rah rahs, and trendy mindfulness gurus won’t get the job done. It’ll take hard work and dedicated commitment to the craft of learning to understand our world and the universe beyond. God’s prophets, philosophers, and psychologists will be my guides.
I strongly recommend that everyone also use the remainder of stay-at-home time, however long that may be, to do the same. I urge you to read, think, and reflect instead of fruitlessly looking for ways to fill in empty spaces with diversions that imitate the “good old days” before the pandemic. The worst that can happen is you’ve occupied your time with something that isn’t harmful or unhealthy. The best thing that can happen is that you find the ever so elusive inner peace.
In the dream with my father-in-law, we were at a backyard party. I was chatting with a group of faceless men and he was digging through an ice chest fishing out a couple of beers. He turned around and slowly walked toward me extending his arm offering a can of Bud. He gave me his signature nod with raised eyebrows and encouraging eyes as if to ask, Are you ready?
Rather than asking if I was ready for another drink, I think he came to me in the dream to ask if I was ready for the next stage in my life. I’ve come a long way and I know there’s a long way to go. I have so much to learn. I have more experiences waiting in the wings. I still have room to grow intellectually and spiritually. Am I ready? I think so.