I stepped into my local coffee shop and with all the tables full I took a seat at the bar. As I was settling in an older gentleman sits down to my left with his coffee. At first I didn't pay much mind. It's a busy shop and my eyes wander the room regularly to see the people that come and go. As the man removed his jacket I took note of his tattoos. A full sleeve on one arm and the other close to it. Not that this is all that unusual, but the tattoos I saw weren't very old and still had quite a pop to them. One of them even looking quite new. What, I wondered, inspired a man to make such a decision of permanence later in life? As he then removed two books, a notebook, and a pencil from his bag I knew I was about to have a conversation. He'd piqued my interest.
"Where'd you get your ink?" I asked. And so began an hour-long conversation that started about tattoos and went through the ins and outs of the human experience. Naturally, at the end of it all, I asked if Elmo would take part in Project 104.
Meeting Elmo certainly had a great impact on me. I don't want to speak for him, but I think that we both found some surprise in one another the more we talked. I don't meet many older men quite like him and I'd wager that he doesn't often come across a younger one such as myself.
Elmo's stories he told in answering the project questions made an equally great impact. They were tales from a truly kind soul that has learned and experienced things. He truly desires to connect with others for their greater benefit. I watched him tear up and pause as he talked about his late wife, Tracy, and what he learned from her and her adventurous spirit and stubbornness. I also listened to him speak on love in a way no one quite yet has for Project 104.
Toward the end of our conversation on that initial meeting he gave me a great compliment, saying that I was very far along in thought, especially considering my being a young man. I did take this as a great compliment, not only for myself but my generation. I know so many others that think as I do and with so much of the same drive and tenacity.
I'm still very much unpacking what I found in meeting Elmo Shade. Not only in what he had to say or our conversations, but also in some observations and comparisons such as our generational gap and differences. I feel like there may be some answers for all of us in there somewhere. Answers that end in acceptance and in love. For now, I'll keep searching but I highly encourage you to read what he had to say.
Love Aimlessly, My Friends
What gets you out of bed every day?
My purpose statement. I didn’t always have one. I spent many years as a leadership development coach and consultant and at one point in that career discovered three important tenants about leadership. One was a sense of autonomy. Another being a sense of mastery, and the third, which really captured my attention, was to have a really definitive purpose.
That encouraged me to actually write a purpose statement. Not necessarily aligned to any one profession, but what embodied what I valued and what get’s me up in the morning.
My purpose statement reads, “To connect with people in such a way that they come to realize the beauty of their own true nature.”
So what gets me up in the morning is opportunities like we had [referring to when Elmo and myself met] to make a connection. If it’s time, the right moment or circumstances or situation, you’ll see that person transform and really come to not only appreciate but maybe for the first time realize who they truly are.
A purpose statement becomes your North Star. Everything won’t always go as planned, as we all know. With one in place, when the the unexpected happens you have something to fall back on and not trip over your own feet.
To date, what is the greatest lesson that you’ve learned?
That’s a powerful question. If you’re fortunate enough to live like me into your sixties, hopefully you’ve learned a few lessons. To answer your question specifically, the greatest lesson that I’ve ever learned I learned from my late wife, Tracy. She passed in October 2015 of liver cancer. She was from Seattle. Very adventuresome. Very athletic. She could outrun me, out-throw me, out-hike, out-bike me, out-cook me… I mean… she was just an incredible incredible woman!
As her cancer progressed her health began to deteriorate, as well as her physicality, even to the point of having to use a walker. The Tuesday night before she died the following Sunday I was teaching a mindfulness class at Vanderbilt. Tracy had just gotten out of 15 days at the hospital. Imagine being cooped up in one room for 15 days. Needles stuck in you 24 hours a day and your arms looking like a Serbia war zone…
Around 4:15 that day as I was getting ready to leave to go teach she was putting her clothes on. Now she couldn’t drive, she had to use a walker and we had her best friend and RN Jen staying with us to help. I said, “where are you going, love?” and she said, “you know, I think I’ll drive down to five-points and get some tea.” I said, “sweetie, you can’t drive. If you want Jen to take you she can and you’ll need to take your walker.” “I need some alone time. I haven’t had any alone time and I don’t need Jen to go with me” she said. I said, “Love, I know this is important but I have to go to work or I would take you and I would just sit in the car if you wanted but you have to use your walker.”
So, I left. About 7:00pm I get a text message from Jen saying, “please come home." She wouldn’t tell me what happened. She just said to hurry home.
I have a kind of shotgun victorian home. Tracy was on the front porch in a rocking chair and Jen was in the kitchen in the back of the house preparing dinner. While she was alone, Tracy called an Uber to pick her up and didn’t tell Jen. Jen came to the front porch to check on her and she was gone and her walker was still there on the porch.
Long story short, Tracy and Jen exchanged some text messages, but Jen never really knew where she was. At some point Tracy fell. She was bleeding from the mouth and nose and took some skin off her nose and cheek. Just, straight on the asphalt. She was fortunately able to get back home.
When I arrived Tracy was on the couch and holding an icepack on her face. You can imagine how difficult it was not to be upset. Not to be angry. Meaning, you’re doing everything you can to keep the woman you love alive and have some quality of life and she goes on this maverick solo tour and could have died in the middle of the street. She could have died!
I remember her looking up at me, and I think she was expecting me to be angry, because I’d been angry most of my life. I’d battled with anger most of my life. She said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, love. I won’t do this again. I’m sorry!”
So there are two lessons there:
The first one is that whatever situation we’re dealing with that isn’t serving us well (mine was anger,) never give up on finding a way to purge yourself of it completely. It was that night, and her subsequent death that completely purged me of anger.
The other lesson is that we will all, every one of us, will come to a point in our lives, whether it’s young or old, healthy or sick, where we have to make a choice to either keep our foot on first base and play it safe or take the ride. The greatest lesson that Tracy taught me is that I am going to take the ride!
What is love?
Man, they get harder! I’m glad there’s not a fourth question. That’s a tough one too!
I remember when I gave my daughter away in marriage and it was time for the father’s toast, I remember standing up and saying this: We spend most of our lives picturing the perfect person or partner and trying to find them. Some of us are very fortunate and do and along with that, usually within a short period of time, we come to a juncture where we have to make a conscious choice. That choice is that we’re either going to choose to rip up the person because we need to accept the picture that we have, or we’re going to rip up the picture and love the person.
I’ve done both in my lifetime. I’ve probably done more ripping up the person than the picture.
Another way I’ve heard love explained is on three levels. One is love without knowledge. Erotic, passionate, sensual, and romantic love that we all feel and experience where you can’t get the person out of your head even if you don’t know a whole lot about them. Everything about them seams to be perfect... for a while… then we get a little more information. Maybe we move in together. Maybe we marry. We get more knowledge about them.
In the second stage it’s knowledge without love. It’s accepting the picture and tearing down the person. I guess that’s the reason the divorce rate is 50%. We often hear, “you changed! You’re not the person I married!” That’s usually not true. Usually they’re the same person they were, but you were seeing what you wanted to see.
The third level that some are fortunate to reach is moving beyond tearing down the person and simply abiding love. It’s a combination of acceptance and selflessness.
I don’t think that’s the whole definition of love. I think it’s a part of it. A human definition. Acceptance and selflessness.
As a mindfulness practitioner I don’t claim any particular religion. For me, I think of a deeper level of selflessness or what the Buddhists call “Anatta." It’s the aspect of no-self.
Love means first loving yourself and at the same time realizing that there’s no self to really love. What we are is a connection with all human beings. Spiritual beings having a human existence. It goes beyond duality. It goes beyond subjectivity. I’m not even sure that I have a word that can accurately describe what love is. I don’t think that we’ll really know until we see our souls leaving our body and experience what that is like to be out of this shell which imprisons us to a degree and limits us from really experiencing the true meaning of love. I think that love is just… eternal.
About Elmo : Elmo is a mindfulness coach and also writes a bit of poetry. If you're in the Nashville area I would encourage you to get to know him!
Lives Nashville, TN
From Memphis, TN
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