¡Hola mi Gente!
I usually post this around this time of year… it’s a Thanksgiving tradition of sorts on this blog. Sometimes, when I think this too self-indulgent, or clichéd (I am a walking cliché, it seems), someone will send me a message usually beginning like so: “I read your blog and I never comment… ” (LOL!) and it never fails, someone will tell me that reading the following helped them, or they shared it with someone they thought it could help. So… here goes.
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My life is my message
The cliché that life is stranger than fiction is true enough. I guess that is why they are clichés — they are true, if nothing else. And believe me: my life has been pretty much “strange.”
Thanksgiving Day has its own personal meaning for me, as I am certain it does for everyone. Actually, Thanksgiving Day has layers of meaning. First, there is the “we’re thankful that no one forced us to completely assimilate to their culture and then celebrate by stealing our land and killing our people,” meaning, and we should never forget that…
On another level, people of Puerto Rican descent have traditionally taken US holidays and used them as opportunities to express our own cultural identity. For example, Puerto Ricans will eschew the traditional holiday fare of turkey and potatoes and substitute lechon and pasteles, Puerto Rican culinary staples. If we do cook turkey, we cook it pavo-chon-style — a turkey prepared in a manner that makes it taste like lechon (pork suckling). Also, the holidays are always a chance to celebrate our music, our unique forms of dancing, and kinship ties. Therefore, Puerto Ricans subvert the mythical (actually genocidal) Thanksgiving and give it their own meaning. And as humans that’s what we do best, we create meaning.
Thanksgiving Day is also now primarily identified as a secular all-inclusive day of expressing appreciation for life and having gratitude for the things we need to live a happy and healthy life. As a Latino, the cultural values of extended family ties and Thanksgiving evoke childhood memories of large (and often hilariously insane) family get-togethers.
However, for me Thanksgiving holds its most significant meaning on a very personal level. You see, it was around this time twenty-three years ago that I experienced the first of a series of “spiritual awakenings” that would change my life. The exact date is November 26, 1990 and this significant date often happens to fall on or near Thanksgiving Day. A couple of weeks before that fateful day, on a cold, drizzly November day, I was so overcome with despair that I considered and attempted suicide. It is actually a little funny: As I climbed over the rail on the Brooklyn Bridge’s pedestrian walk (it’s not easy to jump off that damned bridge!), I was so skinny from malnutrition and years of substance abuse that a strong wind knocked me back to the pedestrian walkway on my ass. I saw this, not even being able to kill myself, as the ultimate failure which gives you an idea of my state of mind at the time.
I walked away from that only to opt for a more torturous suicide: the daily act of chasing that White Lady, Heroin. Ensnared by my warped thinking, I had this fear that I would botch up my own suicide and merely succeed in paralyzing myself, damning myself to chase drugs from the disadvantage of a wheelchair. In fact, I remember another addict who was in a wheelchair. I decided I would make someone else put myself out of my misery.
And though I speak lightly today of that time, I was extremely miserable. I do not believe in a God in the traditional Christian/ Judeo sense – an anthropomorphic omnipotent super being. Yet back then I would pray each night that some Higher Power would find it in its mercy to take my life me my sleep. Still, every day I awoke to my pain and despair. I would always wake up sick and broke, but somehow manage to spend $300 by the end of the day, feeding a merciless heroin habit.
If you are wondering, in the end I fed my drug habit by ripping off drug-dealers, never a safe proposition. One day a victim of one of my swindles threatened me with a gun. I grabbed the gun by the barrel, put it to my forehead, and begged him to shoot. All I asked was that he made sure to kill me because, “You would be doing me a favor.”
This occurred in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded New York City street. I remember a crowd forming and people screaming; but what I remember most was thinking that this was my way out. “Do it,” I yelled. He pulled the trigger and…
I don’t know if the gun jammed or if it wasn’t loaded, whatever the reason, the gun failed to discharge. My would-be assistant “suicider” freaked out, yanked the gun from my hands, and walked away, calling me crazy. I called at him, let him know he could get another chance. That’s how much I wanted to die…
I thought I could do nothing right.
That wasn’t the worst of it, my life continued to bottom out until November 26th, 1990 when I experienced an incident so traumatic it would change me and my world in an inexplicable way. Actually, most people would consider the events that transpired on that drizzly, dreary November day as a defeat. Very simply, after being released from prison for exactly fourteen days, I was re-arrested. It was also that last day of my active addiction — the last day I took a drug.
I didn’t know it then but it was the beginning of a new life: a life that today is far from perfect, that has suffering, illness, death, and many challenges, but also contains an invincible of joy at its core. This is part of the reason I do the work that I do. I know even the worst of us have the potential to liberate ourselves from our own self-made prisons. And let me be clear: we’re all “doing time” in some way, we all wear shackles. To a degree, we all enact patterns of behavior or carry the proverbial baggage.
No, I am not a religious person. My personal view is that religion is for people who are afraid of hell and spirituality is for those who have already been there. I simply try to be the best person I can be on a daily basis and oftentimes I fall short of the mark. However, my intentions are usually good and my direction somewhat orderly — I try to live a life centered on compassion for others, personal growth, and self-actualization.
On that day, twenty-three years ago, I had no way of knowing of the possibility of life as it has manifested itself today. There is joy in my life today. It’s a joy independent of any person, place, or thing. On the surface I can be sad, happy, angry, disappointed, disgusted — I can be experiencing any number of attachments — but at the center, at the very core of me, there is an invincible joy greater than any drug-induced high I have ever experienced. And believe me, coming from me, that’s saying a lot.
On that day, sitting there in the midst of total failure and utter humiliation, I came undone. And that was a good thing, because in experiencing complete obliteration I became open to something more than my small self. In emptying myself, I came to see that what I perceived as emptiness was in reality my innate potential as a human being.
I am genuinely grateful. This past year, as with all years, has been a challenging. I have experienced sadness, frustration, happiness, love, rejection (the full catastrophe!). I could easily surmise, if I were so disposed, that my life, that life itself, sucks. But that’s a coward’s lie. Life is a gift — probably the most precious of gifts. My life today is like a redemption song — a song of freedom. And at the very least there is nothing worse (or better) than that fateful day twenty-three years ago. Today I woke up and I am… here… and for that I am most grateful.
May you all have as much to be thankful for.
My name is Eddie and I am in recovery from civilization…