Jan 072012


Every once in a while I am arrogant enough to think that life has left me in charge. When I believe I am, life is quick to remind me of my arrogance.
Just before Christmas, the Operation Snowball family lost another teen to suicide. This past Thursday, the teen directors decided to use the weekly meeting to explore the scourge of teen suicide. They chose two videos and asked me to facilitate.
I watched the videos that afternoon. They were compelling. In the second, based on the song Why by Rascal Flatts, the line “Why would you leave the stage in the middle of a song” rips my heart out, especially as I recall the loss of my dear young friend Dakota Lewis. All afternoon, I held tight to an emotional roller coaster as I imagined the powerful evening that might emerge. In my hands would be the hearts and minds of 50 or more teens. These extraordinary young people mean so much to me, the possibility of turning these few sacred moments into a deep learning experience—one in which they might look inside and glimpse a bit of their radiance—was overwhelming.
I contemplated what I might say…the stories I might tell… and the tears and emotions that would surely show them the depth of my care and concern. I recalled words from Thich Nhat Hanh and his metaphor of the master gardener who could see flowers in the midst of compost. I searched for the perfect reflections from Dr. Rachel Remen, who, in the course of her work with those dying of cancer, discovered the power and meaning that can emerge even from life’s most horrific moments. I even brought a few written words that flowed from my heart in the aftermath of the death of Dylan Wagner and Dakota. I recounted hundreds of ways these words and stories might help the teens peer into their own lives, even with the moments of excruciating pain and heartache, and glimpse the magnificence available on the other side of the journey into hell.
As the evening progressed, I felt lost and confused. The teens brought forth their wisdom, and shared their stories, and I felt nearly a deaf mute. The hundreds of thoughts that coursed through me that afternoon were elusive. The tears and emotions that would show the depth of my love and concern were simply unavailable in those moments. I went home devastated. I felt as though I had let the participants down. Even worse, I felt I let down the Teen Directors who have so much respect for me that they entrusted me with these moments. At the very least I let myself down.
The teens come to the Thursday night meetings to reconnect over games, experiences and exercises—most of which are fun. To expect them to spend a precious evening on a difficult, emotional topic is a great deal to ask. The least I could have given them was some deep insight into the meaning of life. Some small awakening would perhaps be adequate compensation for a somber evening. That wisdom is inside me; I feel it welling up even in this very moment. But in those moments, it was simply not available. We spoke that evening about the moments in life in which we feel a sense of worthlessness. I went home that night fighting those very feelings within.
So, Megan, Jack, Molly and Aaron, I am sorry if I let you down. My intentions were fueled by care, concern and love. I was simply unable to let you and the participants see deeply into the soul that held them tightly that night…unavailable to me and to all of you.
You may have left me in charge, but life had another lesson in store.


Dec 312011


He sat alone, with his head buried in his hands. One of the other adults on the Snowball weekend turned to me and suggested he didn’t look good. I offered to speak with him. As I approached, he looked up and I asked if he was okay. With sad, averted eyes he told me he was.
As I turned to leave, something inside begged me not to walk away; I knew he was not telling me the truth of his life. I returned as he stood up, looked into his eyes and said, “Here is what your words and body language just spoke to me. ‘I am really not okay, but you are not the person I would talk with about it.’ You don’t need to talk with me; I just want to know you have someone you can talk with.” In that instant, his body language, and our relationship, changed. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “Thank you, I’m just going through some tough times, but I’ll be okay…and yes, I do have people I can talk with.” I offered him a hug and left. I still didn’t even know his name.
At the end of the weekend, intermixed with numerous “warm fuzzies” written to me by participants, was one that said, in part, “You’ve shown that some people really do care. You’ve given me a reason to carry on.” The note was signed, “Love, Dakota”. It was several days before I could confirm that this kind and generous note was from the young man with whom I had the brief exchange the Saturday before.
For the next two years, I saw Dakota Lewis on Snowball weekends and at occasional Thursday night meetings. We shared many emotionally horrific times, including the suicide of his father. Dakota continued to affirm—through sincere embraces and many kind, generous words—the beautiful person he saw in me; even if I was often unable to see it in myself. I too, spoke to him of the beautiful young man he had become—a person able to instantly see, and speak to, the beauty in others.
After he graduated from high school, our opportunity to see, or speak with, one another became more and more rare. A graduation gift, and several text and voice messages, went unanswered.
The year 2010 ended quietly in my life, but I awoke early New Year’s morning to learn that the young man who so often pointed to my inner beauty had taken his life in the moments before the new year emerged. As hard as so many of us tried, Dakota was never able to see the extraordinary gifts we could see shining from within him.
On this, the first anniversary of his suicide, I sit with tears welling up inside…tears that represent a mix of sadness over losing him, and guilt for not being there one more time to draw him back into his life…a life that touched and changed many others.
As the New Year begins a few hours from now, I will continue to try to help others see the beauty that exists within them. But I will try to remain cognizant that the only one who I can truly help see inner beauty is me. If I cannot learn to witness mine, I remain a hypocrite when I try to point others towards theirs. As is so often noted, changing the world truly is an inside job.
I love you Dakota. I miss you terribly. And I will be forever grateful you remain one of my most profound teachers.
Mar 022011

Note: This piece was published recently in the March/April Issues of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

If you allow me a moment of reflection, regret and deep sorrow, I have an invitation to share.
There are times life leaves us wondering and wandering. Where life’s path led me in the early days of 2011, I even felt a bit of a fraud.
Just over a year ago (See “Beginnings”, January 6, 2010) I wrote of an intense experience with a young man who, having witnessed his father’s suicide, was questioning the value of his own life. I spoke of two suicides many years ago that set the stage for the emergence of Suicide Prevention Services where I have been learning to help others deal with depression and helplessness. When I recently reread the words I wrote last year, I realized I spoke with too much hope and far too much self-confidence. As 2010 reached its final moments, this brilliant, caring young man, Dakota Lewis, succumbed to what I can only imagine was unimaginable pain. He ended his life in the final minutes of 2010.
Then, just after 2011 broke upon us, another well-loved, amazing young man, Ben Wilkinson left us, also by his own hand.
In both cases, I, like so many family and friends, am left devastated. I feel helpless, because I, of all people, believe I should have had the skills to help. The words of a year ago seem premature…presumptuous…and, yes, a touch fraudulent. I am left wondering what I might have done, and wandering into the future with less certainty and much greater humility.
In the midst of the pain and confusion, I am offering an invitation. Long before I encountered the heart-rending twists and turns of early 2011, I met a generous, kindly man, Mike McKinley. Mike has been given a life of challenges and pain through which to wander, but, as he encountered life, he found laughter to be his guidepost. Mike speaks to audiences all across America about how to remain focused on what gives life meaning. I liked him the moment our wandering paths crossed.
As a result of our chance encounter deep in 2010, I asked the Batavia Chamber Board of Directors to bring Mike to Batavia. He will be with us Thursday, April 21 to help create a conversation entitled “Laughing Your Way to Success & Happiness…in Life, Labor and Love.”
If it seems a bit incongruous to juxtapose the tragic loss of two beautiful young lives with laughter, I beg your indulgence. I knew both Dakota and Ben. Each of them had internal radar that enabled them to spot other humans in need—even at great distance. And whenever or where ever they found a person battling the darker side of life, they shared a weapon of choice: laughter. Each had the uncanny ability to find a brilliant practical joke, comedic face, or funny phrase to bring a smile to those who felt lost. They will both be in my heart that evening; poking at my funny bone should I begin to feel sad.
We are inviting everyone in the community—young and old—to join us for two events. If you want to meet Mike and purchase an autographed copy of one of his books, we will be at the new Confident Aire showroom at 416 E. Wilson Street from 1:30 p.m. to about 4:00 p.m. Then, at 7:00 p.m. the school district has given us the cafeteria of the Rotolo Middle School to laugh along as Mike challenges us to focus on what animates our lives and makes them such a limited, yet infinitely valuable, commodity.
Join us to rediscover how life, labor and love—while often disorienting and painful—can make the wondering and wandering seem less fraudulent and more like the extraordinary gifts they are.
Jan 022011
“They would not listen, they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now.”
                                                         Don McLean
With the tragic loss of Dakota Lewis, I sit with tears streaming down my face. I grieve that the joy he was able to give to so many is now lost to us—and to those who never looked into his eyes and felt the affirmation he was able to give in the moment of connection. We have only the memories of his joy in which to seek comfort. I am comforted by the few but vibrant memories he wrote upon my heart.
I was reminded of Don McLean’s words about the troubled life of Vincent Van-Gogh on the Facebook page “In Memory of Dakota Lewis.” As I have dwelt in the aftermath of Dakota’s passing, I have wondered why he was deaf to the words so many of us tried to share with him about the beauty and joy he brought to the world. But upon further reflection, and in the shadow of Don McLean’s lyrics, I also wonder if there was a quality of deep listening I was unable to give when I was with Dakota. No matter how hard we tried, I wonder if we were in a constant dance of conversations that ran parallel…never collided in a way that we could both hear. While I wish it were different, perhaps that is just part of being human. If I let you down my young friend, I am sorry. I tried, and was simply unable. I am, after all, only human. Perhaps, just perhaps, I will find a way to listen to the one next to me today in a slightly deeper way.
Dakota, while your life was short, you used your time here to leave us with many blessings. None of us, in a single lifetime, can witness our impact on the world. It is only in setting “initial conditions” (see “Stepping Gently Into the New Year”) that we change the future. Dakota, in a few short years, you helped us set in motion a future with more love, kindness and generosity than would be possible without you.
I miss you my young and very dear friend.