The can without a label

There was a time that I studiously reviewed nutrition information for diet control.  It was a lot of work, trying to achieve some balance, consistency between protein, calories from fat, carbs, and all the rest.  It did, in fact, produce results – if I took it seriously.   Then there were the labels on files, whether the card catalogs in the library of my youth, or the tabs on the decades of files I created during my career that went into drawers to be carefully preserved, then just as carefully shredded.  Or the warning labels on weed killers and solvents, insect repellants and medicines, that protect us from misuse and harm.  All these labels help us make good choices.

Then there are the labels that bring … other results. 

In 2013, I stood in front of a high school audience. My nerves were convulsing, heart pounding, my uncertainty whether my words would have meaning for anyone there was only growing greater as the faces of teenage strangers stared up at me, older than most of their parents.  I was trembling, and I probably gave one of the worst presentations of my life.  

I held up a can with the famous Campbell’s logo of red and white, and asked if anyone knew what was in the can – and of course, a few voices spoke out – soup.  But then I removed the label – one I had attached – and held it higher for a moment before I asked – now what is in the can?  Is it the same as the label?   How do you find out? 

Living in a society requires us to use labels for ourselves, and for others.  Some we get from the day we are born – gender, race.  Some our families apply, as roles; others, we are given by our peers.  They can lift us up and tear us down.  They can change – but sometimes we absorb them, cling to them – they become our identity, who we see ourselves as “being”, which may not be anything close to what we try to present to those around us.  We learn to pretend, to stay in our boxes, and – we learn that some labels are to be avoided at all costs.   I am sure you have a list of your own, one you keep deep inside.  Even “forgotten” – their power may resonate in our lives for decades. 

I cried a lot as a young boy, in the mid 60’s; there were reasons.  The pain was real, and I felt very alone.  I remember very clearly once my mother calling me a “pansy”.  That wounded me; she was a loving mother, but also a product of her time and era, and human.  But it stuck with me, branding me as somehow “not what I was supposed to be”.   I remember in 6th grade the other boys in my “mentally gifted minors” program (where girls were the majority) excluding me because they felt I didn’t belong with them. Of course that happens to most of us – but I took in that labeling deep into my soul. In a way, as I went through adolescence and then into college and career, I began to weave those labels into my being.  They were labels that brought shame, that needed to stay hidden. Eventually, I was hidden away too – buried. 

There were labels I tried to display for the groups that I wanted to “belong to”.  Trying to live up to expectations of my family, school, church, classmates – carefully sewing those “labels” deeply into the fabric of the “clothing I wore” for others to see. I didn’t realize others felt the same way, excluded, unacceptable; I thought I was alone. And I learned to I use labels to blame, to exclude, to justify further retreat, burrowing deeper into the dark cave where I had made my hearts home. 

It took decades, a lot of help, self-honesty and pain – but I found my way out of the cave.   It was a long, hard climb.  I perhaps in some ways am still leaving that cave behind – and big part of it was losing the labels.  The labels others had attached to me, the ones I had clung to, and – the ones I slapped on others like bumper stickers.  Losing them all – peeling them off, ripping them out.  They stick deeply in our vision of ourselves and others – you have to keep on pulling away the scraps, the little pieces that cling – to clean away the grime. 

Back in 2013, standing in front of a bunch of students as a fairly new members of the Gay Men’s chorus of LA, really not having a lot of friends even in the chorus because I lived 60 miles away – I felt pretty alone, still, on that stage.  I had only been “out” for less than a year.  But I told them – the best I could – that labels limit life.  Not just labels that are given us, or we take on ourselves – but also the ones we put up to block others away, to keep them from hurting us.   But – we don’t need to allow other’s labels stick to us, nor must we use labels on those near us. Unlike a can of soup or a chemical table – we are more than just a list of names, characteristics, measurements.   No one is a “fixed value”, unchangeable; sometimes the journey of discovery is about letting ourselves come forth. And learning to let others reveal themselves outside the boxes and labels we use on them.  Together, we become something different over time, through choice, and especially through our relationships with one another.

Today, our journey brings us to a place where things we took for granted seem uncertain. Perhaps this is an opportunity as well as a challenge. Every one of us has a universe of possibilities ahead.  Every single one, even if we only have today to live.  Letting go of the walls we put around ourselves – the limits we set by embracing some idea that we do not measure up, we are not good enough – so what?  We are walking miracles.  Your very existence today, the fact you are here, is a wondrous mystery, swimming with promise – perhaps buried under years of labels that you have lived with, but it is time to tear down.  To toss away, not just for us – but for everyone in our life.  Those around us we have boxed away with our judgments and set aside because they didn’t meet our standards, they don’t look the right way or vote the right way or believe the right way – those walls keep us from becoming what we can, together.   When we stick those “unwanted cans” in the back of the cupboard – we all “go hungry”. 

I doubt whether my little speech to those students registered, and my time with the Chorus was short – but it was a step in my becoming.  We can work towards becoming more like the labels that we want to live up to. Yes, there are labels worth using, and worth keeping.  Yet, perhaps it is worth taking some time to reconsider whether some of the labels we “wear” in our thinking – and those we have “stuck” to others in our lives – need to go.   There are enough limits in life without them.   If we can look beyond them, perhaps we can discover new flavors, new possibilities, and new life.  Together.  

Forgetting what was not

Wow, April is just barely half over, and it’s already been a very busy month!  We started off with our monthly “Mah Johng” group dinner and play – it’s not the easiest game to win but we do have a lot of fun and have made new friends there.  Then we attended a wonderful live program at the newly restored Presidio theater – a tribute to Billie Holiday – preceded by a delightful dinner at “our” restaurant, Arguello’s (we had our wedding near both).  The following Tuesday, I finally saw the famed “Book of Mormon” which Bob had seen more than once – it was hilarious, and we really had a great time.  The next weekend brought the 150th anniversary of Golden Gate park – I had volunteered to help with a very memorable “AIDS Quilt” display and will share those pics another time, it was very moving, and I am so glad I could support it. We enjoyed a visit with our friends from So Cal that same weekend, and took just a few days off before seeing a local production of the 50’s musical, the rarely seen “Pajama Game” by 42ndstreet moon – I had seen it once when my 6th grade class went to the Corona Civic Center to see our teacher, Mr. Compton, in the lead role.  Love that “Hernando’s hideaway” number!  Bob enjoyed the NY Met Opera streaming of Tosca, one of his favorites, and this weekend we will be attending the SF Symphony as they welcome a very special international orchestra – part of our subscription that has really been a great experience.  We really need a break from all this fun!   Before the month ends, we have a special tour of the Sales Force Tower complex by SF City Guides, a weekend getaway to nearby friends, and yes, a dentist appointment (ugh!)

Of course … all that was only on our calendar. They were our plans for the month – but, they never happened.   Most never will. Along with your plans and all the routine, ordinary events of what we considered everyday life. What we took for granted.

When I established this blog several months ago, I wanted to share my thoughts about life as I dealt with constant changes.  As I became the “new Norm L”.   But just weeks ago, no one really envisioned how drastically life would change and how soon.  Now, it seems like there is some sort of expectation that people want to hold on to – I know I do – that things will “return to normal”. 

Time to let go of that expectation, at least from my perspective.

In order to take hold of something, first, you must have a free hand.  Letting go of hopes, expectations – long held dreams and goals – is almost like a loss.   But letting go of what your life was already like – all the things you took for granted, that seemed guaranteed to just be the way they were forever – that is a different kind of difficult.  My friends, we MUST face that challenge, individually and together, to build a new life that has meaning.

Our future will be much better, and we will find our way to it easier, by not expecting it to be “what it used to be”.   What do you, or I, need to release from our expectations?  Maybe that is worth thinking about for a while.  Because being a prisoner to what “ought to be” prevents us from enjoying what is, and what can be.  It takes strength to hold on – and strength to let go – but it takes wisdom to know when to do either. And faith.

It is not easy to practice gratitude for things that aren’t the way you want them to be.  But for me, this is the time to do just that.  To be thankful in the midst of all this, to express hope for an uncertain future – that is a light in the murky greys ahead.  A light for now, and for tomorrow.  

Welcome to – and from- the new NormL

What on earth am I doing?

This is a deeply personal blog – that I am sharing publicly.  Why? And why NOW??  Read on. 

Most of my life, I just wanted to be like everyone else.  To be what I was “supposed to be”.   To meet the expectations of those whose approval I so craved but felt I never lived up to – family, peer groups, social norms.  

But try as I could, I never felt … good enough.  I never lived up to what I though was my potential.  I suffered from depression, low self esteem, loneliness – those grew into other behaviors that drew me further away from really connecting or belonging.  I was always trying to be … someone I wasn’t.

“NORMAL”.     

As the one panel comic once illustrates in 50’s advertising style, with a mother telling her daughter … “oh honey, normal is just a setting on a dryer”. 

Over the years, I have been through a lot of change.  Not always the change I sought, not always the destinations I would have picked.  Some would say I grew, matured; some would say I lost my way and strayed from “the Truth”.   One thing is for sure … my life is very different now.  And … a lot better. Not all easy, but … on the right path, finally.

So, in late 2019, I decided I wanted to start a blog.  A place where I could share whatever lessons my life had to offer, and my adventures, and maybe some humor.  Over the years, when I have written from my heart to family and friends, there have been times I know my words somehow touched them, and I guess my ego was nudging me to put whatever I had “out there”, perhaps in hope that the life education that came at a high price for me might have benefit to someone, somewhere. 

I decided, since my last name  starts with L, that I would call my blog … the new NormL.  Not trying to be normal … but learning to be me.   To somehow through my small little voice among the billions of words flying through consciousness, say something that might help others going through the same questions I was.  The big questions.    Dealing with change, reconsidering priorities, sharing discoveries.  

Being somewhat of a perfectionist, one who never achieved anything close to it but still deludes themselves into the illusion of it’s possibility, I put starting off  “The New NormL” for several months.  Truth is, I wanted to present my blog with all the bells and whistles, learn all the keys, make a splash.  Like we all do with dreams …. Wait for a better day, when you can do it right.  Wait until it’s too late.  

Then, in the last month for many of us, abruptly – our world changed. Maybe, as some say, “the universe” had a different plan.  Maybe not.  Bottom line … all that was before stories started to circulate about an illness in China.  And you know the rest.   

So most of us are holding our breath right now, spring 2020 … waiting.  Waiting for answers.  Wondering what life will look like on the “other side” of all this – will we return to normal?  Well …. Were we ever there?   Or did we accept what was, as what “should be”??   Whatever the truth is about the world before 2020 … I don’t think anyone can honestly say it is going to be the same, someday down the road.  

So now … my blog is finally kicking off without me having learned how to use the software or graphics, without backgrounds and really without much of anything except my thoughts.   This is a place where I am going to write about what I am learning in life, and what I think I learned – in hopes it might help some out there dealing with change.  Maybe you. Maybe someone you love. It will be worth the effort, the honesty, the openness if what I paid a high price for can bring good to another life, in some little way. Change is possible but it doesn’t come easy, and it doesn’t happen alone – but with the love and support of others.  If there was ever a time we cannot ignore the need for change, it is now.  

So, here we go.  I have no plan, just lots of ideas, thoughts … a place for me to share, and maybe for some of you to get something out of what I put out here.  Whether you come along from the start or discover me down the way a bit,  I hope you find your way to your best and truest self – because that’s what our new world needs.  I’m working on it, just like you.  Love always.