I started out young with not much guidance, surprise, surprise. My parents were the type of people that had little chance to have a childhood of their own, both sides having five or more siblings, so they were constantly trying to reclaim that part of their lives. And then of course, they had children while still kids themselves… Same old story. We are forever playing out these cycles, old as time itself.
My mother wasn’t present for most of my life, which left me in a place of having no strong female role model for quite some time. I don’t know if any of you have experience with that, but for a boy raised by a father from a rough family, it’s like this:
You kind of sink into the life of an animal, not much warmth, not much compassion. You’re tossed into a world of floating on the surface, very little introspection. Little to no chance of any kind of real meaningful growth that you can share with a father that is trying to pull double duty and is stretched so thin that there’s not enough left to cover everything.
But people are people, and he did the best he could. He’s my Pop, what can I say. Time passes, we see things for what they really are. What they really were.
One of the things he did right was the type of women that he brought into my life. From a young age, after my parents divorced, he lived with a woman that we’ll call Debra. For all intents and purposes, Debra was my real mother after my birth mother disappeared on me.
Debra was strong willed and loudly opinionated, which worked well for me because I was what my father liked to call a “selective listener”, which of course means that I would hear perfectly when dinner was ready but I would somehow miss the lecture about not playing with fire behind the shed, and not throwing knives at my bedroom door.
She had excellent values, and a way of saying things so that they stuck. One of the things she taught me was to always be myself. This may sound cliche, and simple to some, but to a young kid, that’s an invaluable lesson. To some, that’s the moment that your life changes, when someone believes in you enough to tell you to be who you are.
She said to me, “You be yourself, because if you’re not you, who are you?”
Really, all the lessons and philosophies we explore later in life must truly have their genesis in this simple sentiment. I never forgot it, and it’s one of the reasons I am who I am today.
But it doesn’t end there.
My Pop later ended up with a lady we’ll call Susan. Susan might have been the polar opposite of Debra in that she was soft spoken, well-read and generally had a different upbringing than anyone we’d had contact with up until that point.
She brought and still brings a grace to my father that I never knew existed in him, and in the way he has grown and progressed, he has redeemed himself. He is truly a different man than his days of drinking and brawling. We are both different for her.
She was really the first person to make me focus on my art, after years of being shamed and seen as an outcast in my family for my eccentricities. She essentially taught me the same lesson that Debra did, only in a more evolved way due to my age. She convinced me, against all my wishes, to go to art school after barely graduating from, basically, a prison/youth detention school of only 15-20 students, each and every student with histories of serious criminal activity.
Before her, my future was no doubt either prison or the grave with the way I was leading my life. I entered college. I excelled in college. And I finished college. My victories in that area will always remain hers as well as mine.
Be that as it may, we all eventually run out of steam and will if we’re not living right. Years piled on, doubts set in, and even my early years working as a vigilante and my “problem solver” business just weren’t right. They didn’t sit right, and as time passed my darkness was something I thought I needed, despite all these lessons. I stopped listening, I’d heard everything.
Or so I thought.
I met Chesi in my 9th year of work as Z, and in my first year of organizing the New York Initiative with the other Founding Four. Before her, compassion was an afterthought, something to explore for later.
Chesi taught me that now IS later. She taught me that time does not move as linearly as we think, and the present moment isn’t about living in some past pain or future worry. It’s about setting an intention and allowing yourself to stay in the now, to explore every moment and truly be human.
She is the most compassionate person I have ever met. She stepped into my strange life and just by being herself, gave me hope for humanity. She made a circuit of the lessons I learned from Debra and Susan, reigniting them in me.
And it’s in that way that she has influenced the people I allow myself to work side by side, my true brothers and sisters of the Initiative. They may not be blood, but we are united in thought and action. In a world like this, how you get there isn’t always where you end up.
It’s in my greatest moments of doubt that I sit quietly, and replay all the wise words of these rare people. Those words that built me, and the lessons that still hold me together.
If we change the world, if we ever make a dent, you thank THEM. Not me.