A Crying Shame

Rainbow LighteningOn our first day at grammar school, each of us had to state out loud our name and address while the teacher wrote down our individual details. Around the class the roll-call went until it came to me. When I said my address, the teacher looked up from her register.

“Oh! I didn’t know we allowed anyone from that place to come to this school,” she said.

My cheeks blushed and I cast my eyes down at the desk while the whole class looked down on me and sniggered. The emotion I felt, most powerfully, was that of shame. I was ashamed that I had been allowed to attend grammar school when it was clearly against the rules of their society. The teacher had given her humiliating judgment and the class agreed.

It was clear that the emotions those class members felt were a mixture of judgment and pleasure. The pleasure of shaming a poor boy from state housing coming to a wealthy grammar school.

There is a huge difference between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment is a sense of being exposed without having violated some personal or social norm. On the other hand, shame is a painful feeling about oneself, often as a result of being judged in a social context for being sinful.

It’s ironic that society mostly looks down on people who have very little and looks up to people who have everything. Should judgment really be so shallow that I should look with disdain at a hungry child but look with admiration at someone who has a sprawling estate and a personal cinema room?

Frank McCourt, the sadly deceased author of Angela’s Ashes, said he could not watch an appeal for hungry children on TV without weeping. He wept because he knew the gnawing pain of hunger. He also knew the absurd sense of shame that society can make you feel for being impoverished. The same feelings I had in that grammar school classroom.

If we look at the other end of society’s measure of wealth, we see that the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. Yes, billion. Is that a shame? It depends what they do with their wealth and whether the contest to see who has the biggest super-yacht is more fulfilling than giving a destitute child a glass of milk each day. It’s not for me to judge.

Regardless of wealth, we can all live in a state of constant poverty. A poverty of compassion, a poverty of humanity, a poverty of true happiness.

But I do want to thank my teacher for something. She taught me that it’s a crying shame to judge people by their possessions or by where they live.

Remembering Fathers

Love DadI don’t have many memories of my father, but I remember like it was yesterday how he said he was going out to see a man about a dog and never came back. I was six years old. The only time I heard from him again was when he sent me a postcard to say I was now the man of the house and should take care of my mum, the way he knew I would.

For the rest of my childhood, I held onto that tiny postcard and slept with it under my pillow. I played a movie inside my head in which my dad had taken passage on a boat from England to America where he was making his fortune. Soon, he would return and we would eat chicken everyday and drink lemonade, even if we were not thirsty. He would hug me and give the greatest gift of all – his smile and praise for being his boy.

But I would not see my father again until I was a young man. He cried when we met and I wondered about all the adventures he had had without me. We were strangers with no shared memories beyond him joking that he wanted some of my hair because all of his had fallen out.

And then, by some hideous twist of fate, he died on my birthday. It seemed like a tortured final gift from someone who had never sent gifts for any birthday before. He died alone and in poverty. There was no adventure in America, no fortune, no lemonade. Any chance for us to know each other as men was gone forever.

But I have no time for pity parties. I found ambition from my father’s absence. The same movie that he should have starred in became my movie and I came to America to find my fortune. The memories that I should have had as a boy became the memories I made as a father to my own children.

Now, my youngest daughter is six years old and I cannot imagine abandoning the memories of her upbringing to a stranger. I cannot imagine the emptiness of losing a thousand moments of joy that are made just by coming home and having her leap into my arms. And I cannot imagine the loss that a man must feel when he realizes it is all too late because the child he could have known is grown and the beautiful age of innocence is lost forever.

Fatherhood lives in shared memories. It is the movie that is the life of our families. It is our authentic, unique existence.

Around the world, we are celebrating our fathers and being a father. We celebrate fatherhood because it is the greatest gift a man will ever know. And as we stare into the loving eyes of our children, we have our own precious sense of immortality.

And no one can take that away.

Rejecting Paradise

200456192-001Sometimes we just want to feel alone, to feel sad, to feel failure. It’s not that we enjoy self-pity. It’s just that loneliness, sadness and failure are what we think we deserve.

Growing up with poverty and abuse creates a powerful sense of where you belong and what you are worth. In its most destructive form, it gives you an overwhelming belief in your own worthlessness.

As I distanced myself from poverty, I eventually realized that not once did I feel that I deserved what I had achieved. And as I formed loving and caring relationships, I looked for ways in which those relationships would be used to inflict emotional harm on me. The more my life became ideal, the more I seemed to want to reject it.

I was not worthy of love or success in any of its forms.

Sometimes it is a parent who infuses in you a belief that you must, “Never forget your roots,” or, “Don’t get ideas above your station.”

Other times, it is the bullying of a sibling who constantly tells you the world would be a better place if you had never been born.

And so, when life gives you good things, you work hard at pushing them away, at not being happy.

A friend of mine sold his company and overnight he became extremely wealthy. I asked him how it felt and he said, “I’m worried and I’m fearful. I’m afraid that I will lose it all.” As the conversation continued, it became apparent that he had grown up poor and didn’t think he deserved to ever have more than his parents had.

In the end, for me, it took one loving, beautiful person to come into my life and explain to me my destructive behaviors. To show me how powerfully I was rejecting paradise because of a deep-rooted belief that I was not worthy of it.

Some people may think this is utterly ridiculous. But to someone who has experienced the self-destructive behaviors that reject love, happiness and material rewards, it is all too real. For some, rejection is a way of life – so much so, that paradise is always just out of reach and therefore not even available to be rejected.

The Boy Who Lived With Ghosts

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I live in a haunted family, in a haunted house, on a haunted street. One day I will live in a place where there are no ghosts but right now they’re everywhere. Some people don’t believe in ghosts but that’s alright. Those people have orange nightlights glowing in their bedrooms after dark, reflecting little moons and stars on the ceiling, and cups of hot chocolate to make them sleepy before their blankets are tucked in cozily around them by their mums. I don’t think my mum believes in ghosts. If she did, she would not turn out all the lights when she puts me to bed at night.

I am almost five years old and I was born in our front bedroom with my twin sister Emily. It was on the Twelfth Night. That’s the night when the Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus with their gifts. It was also my sister Margueretta’s fourth birthday. So we are three gifts for the baby Jesus. If I am a gift, I would like to be a lamb. Animals don’t go to Heaven but I am sure there is a lamb up there. I think there is also a donkey.

Margueretta hates me because I was born on her birthday and now she has to share it with me and Emily, so she locks me in the cellar in the dark. And there’s something scary down there in the corner that goes drip, drip, drip. If I die down there I will go to sit at God’s feet because Dad says God suffers all the little children to come unto him. And Jesus loves dead children the most because they will never grow up to become sinners.

God wears brown sandals and no socks but Jesus doesn’t wear anything on his feet and he washes God’s feet for him because there is a lot of sand in Heaven and it gets between God’s toes. Dad says Heaven is a warm place and you are never hungry in Heaven because you can have as much bread and jam as you want to eat. So you shouldn’t cry if a little boy dies, having been killed by his big sister who locks him in the cellar in the dark.

Nana says we will all go back to God one day so long as we are not sinners. Because if we are sinners, we will go to live with the Devil and we will scream and burn as we catch fire in a lake for all Eternity, which is a very long time. And Nana knows what a long time means because she is very old, which is also why she has hair that comes down to her knees. She ties it in braids on top of her head but I mustn’t see my Nana’s hair when it is down or that will mean I have been in her bedroom and a little boy should never go into his Nana’s bedroom or she will hit him on the back of his head with her hairbrush.

A True Story of Childhood Haunting – Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle

I’m Living with a Fool

Droopy DogThere is a fool inside my head, but I have repeatedly denied knowing him. He knows everything about me—my hopes and dreams and my deepest fears and anxieties. But he never listens to me.

We grew up together, me and the fool inside my head. We were there in the blackness of the cellar, where my sister locked me as a small boy. We were both there when my dad said he was just going out for a drink and never came back. And we were together when we were cold and hungry in the dark of the night.

The fool inside my head judges people and holds onto regrets. He harbors thoughts of revenge and retribution. He lives in the past.

He is a fool and I’m not.

I am looking for the positive things I have learned from all the bad things that have happened to me. I am forgiving everyone and I’m moving on. I am building a terrific future that is based on what I have learned and how I can be a better person.

From abandonment, I found the loyalty of friends and the commitment to my family. From the hunger of poverty I found a burning ambition to succeed. From insanity, I found the comfort and joy of living in the perfect moment.

That’s why I deny knowing the fool inside my head.

Maybe there’s a fool inside your head, sapping your energy with negative thoughts, destroying your hopes and dreams with the belief that they will only end in failure.

There is no weakness in forgiving. There is no gain in retribution. There is no future when you live in the past.

Not all of the people from my past will be with me in the future. The one I am sure I am going to leave behind is the fool inside my head.

We may learn from the past but the greatest future is made in the positive beliefs of the present.

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