How I Come to Life

How I Come to Life: Rewiring My Memories

As with all public posts, please feel free to share or discuss this with anyone you’d like. See Logistics (Read Me First) for more detail.

My best friends would tell you I’m more observant than most people, both in conversation and in details. How true that is is not for me to judge. What I know is I value being attentive to detail, as shown by the fact that my exes are more observant than me.

An example: Once I was sitting with an ex inside the “Aztec temple” pavilion. We were silent, holding hands while glancing at each other like mischievous, happy little kids. “I always notice peoples’ hands,” she told me, and then proceeded to analyze mine. When we met again several months later, she noticed a detail about my hands so subtle that only Sherlock would notice.

Interactions like that helped me up my observation skills. Now I’m constantly stimulated by new sights. Details. Discoveries. Sounds. Moments. The world is more rich and vibrant to me than ever before.

But with that came a blessing and a curse: Every moment I experience now stirs up deep feelings within my soul.

This particularly mattered for one of my relationships. Even though we spent a lot of time on the phone, we’d only met twice before we started dating, and we were only able to meet in person a few times after that. Since our time together was so limited, I spent a lot of time in my head replaying and analyzing those moments. Recalling all the individual details in those moments. Not just to understand, but to savor their sweetness. So when we broke up, suddenly everything began reminding me of her.

An example: Several months ago, a visiting married couple played in our church’s worship band. One plays violin, while the other plays cello. Keep in mind I play the violin, and now deduce which instrument one of my exes plays.

Then there was the time I went to a friend’s evening bonfire. It was so dark you could barely see anyone until the flames roared up. To my horror, one of the new people there sounded exactly like the ex who triggers severe nauseous reactions in my body if I even see pictures of her. Even the way she inflected her words was eerily close.

Coincidences like that happened again and again. In fact, they became so frequent that it became impossible to simply ignore those memories and the emotions they evoked.

This is not an exceptional experience. Lots of people go through this after breakups. But because I was now awakening emotionally and feeling more than ever, these moments took on a particular pain.

Then something changed.

It began with a trip to Montreal. A few months earlier, this ex and I had visited there with a mutual friend. Even though it’s one of my favorite cities, I didn’t want to go back because of all the memories I’d experience walking down the streets. But now I had to return to visit The Paradox, a dear female friend from NYC. Yes, I could have bailed. But I really wanted to see her, and she’d scheduled to visit me in Montreal months in advance.

We ended up in the same parts of town that I’d gone to with the ex. As we walked through the town, I felt the deep hurt healing. It’s not that I replaced those memories of being in Montreal with the ex. The Traveler had urged me to accept these memories as things that formed me and set me down my journey. It’s that my new memories had helped put those old ones in perspective. What’s more, these new memories were beautiful, and they became what I thought of whenever I remembered Montreal. (It’d helped that The Paradox and I were able to do more during our time in Montreal than I had with the ex.)

Now I realized Le Bon Dieu was giving me chances to rewire my memories. To put them in their appropriate mental place. To go back and redo moments so that they were no longer connected to the exes. To make different choices. To transform the intense pain into deeper joy.

The cello and the violin players, for instance, were an opportunity for me to accept the joy of the cello, and now connect my first thoughts of it to these new people. And the person with the ex’s voice was an opportunity to separate the nausea from my experience of the sound of her voice, or even of similar sounding voices.

It even happened in ways I never expected. And that leads to perhaps the most precious instance of God rewiring deep emotional experiences within me:

There is a glass bridge connected to my lab building that I often use to take phone calls. In March 2103, I went there to return a call from the ex. As we talked, she told me she wanted to officially date exclusively. An emotional cocktail of joy, adrenaline, love, peace and surety rushed through my body. That high continued coursing through my body for several hours.

I thought I’d never feel something that specific again until my next relationship.

Then in January 2014, I went back to that bridge to return a call from The Vicar. He told me that he and the church officers were inviting me to be the Junior Warden (the number 2 elder) of the church for the next year. My first instinct is generally to sit and pray first, but in that moment, I didn’t need to. I immediately sensed the okay from God, and so I said yes.

As those words left my mouth, that same mixture of emotions I’d experienced with that ex suddenly rushed through my body again. What’s more, it was as strong as what I’d felt before, if not stronger.

I don’t mean to imply this rewiring process results in instantaneous fixes. Frankly, this post has been delayed for over a month because it still hurts to recall some of these “healed” memories. Some pain runs deep. But what isn’t healed is now undergoing remission.

One final coda: I wrote about the ex’s voice. Recently I got a new housemate who looks a lot like her when she puts her hair up. Another opportunity from Le Bon Dieu to deal with the nausea. Now when I look at her, whatever I experience isn’t anywhere near as painful.

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How I Come to Life

How I Come to Life: Grieving The Loss Part 1: The Process of Shiva (or How My Friends Helped Me)

As with all public posts, please feel free to share or discuss this with anyone you’d like. See Logistics (Read Me First) for more detail.

As I near the end of my grieving, I feel ready to to resume chronicling the lessons I’ve been learning.

“The Jewish people have a tradition called Shiva,” the Traveler tells me during one of our coffee shop talks after the fallout with the ex. There are different variants of this custom, but the one he describes seems the most relevant to me right now.

“When someone’s died, these women–professional mourners–show up at your house and stay with you for seven days. They sit in the room with you and don’t say a word. When you cry, they cry with you. When you have to do your chores, they get up and help you.”

“It’s the gift of presence,” I note out loud.

It makes me think of the Biblical story of Job, the good man who God allowed to lose nearly everything he had, and whose friends insisted that God must be punishing him for something he’d done. Oftentimes we Christians villainize the friends as terrible, judgmental people.

But what if they were reacting from a place of confusion?

What if they were deeply perplexed that God would bring such horrific tragedies on someone they loved and respected? What if they wanted to help their friend by saying something, and so they said the only thing that made sense to them? What if they didn’t behave any differently than you or I might?

That’s why I’m grateful for my community of friends. A few have offered me insights, and mercifully most of those were things I needed to hear. But the vast majority have given me something more precious than words. They’ve given me themselves.

I think of The Music Teacher, who sought me out and asked me if I needed to come over, and then let me hang with her for the whole night as I processed out loud. The Heretic, who still seeks me out every week to see how I’m doing and to share his life with me, even though he’s moved to the other side of the country. The random friends outside of Vermont who contact me to tell me they’re praying for me.

I could go on and on. Instead, I’ll tell you one story that still deeply touches me even now as I think about it:


“So is all of this difficult for you today?” The Peer asks me nearly a month after my chat with The Traveler.

Today is his wedding day, and I’ve come to congratulate him during the reception. He could make the conversation more about himself. He could be mentally elsewhere, or at least parallel processing the other things he has to do today.

And yet on this happiest day of his life, in this moment he’s focusing on me with all of who he is.

“Honestly, yes,” I tell him. “Today’s your big day, though. But to answer your question, yes, it brings up a lot of memories and emotions I’m still working through.”

I don’t have time to tell him how during the first week of the grieving process, it felt like several organs had been ripped from my body. Now it doesn’t hurt as much, and I feel closer to accepting the reality I’m living in. And yet if I’m honest, I’m still not ready to stop crying on the inside. Somehow my friend picks up on all of that.

“We spent today praying for all our single friends here,” he says. “We know it can be a hard day for all of you, so we’re praying that God…”

I don’t hear the rest of what he has to say, because I’m deeply moved. Blessed by his presence. Awed by his proactive love.

“You’re a really incredible person, you know that?” I tell him.

How I Come to Life

How I Come to Life: Why Roger Ebert’s Death Hit Me Hard

As with all public posts, please feel free to share or discuss this with anyone you’d like. See Logistics (Read Me First) for more detail.

This post is in honor of the documentary Life Itself being released in theaters on Friday, July 4. 


Why did Roger Ebert’s death affect me so deeply? It may have seemed odd to put the death of a celebrity I’d never met on the same level as losing my grandfather and breaking up with a girlfriend.

And yet it was entirely appropriate.

I first encountered Roger in 2002, after I was blown away by Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Up to that point, I’d liked movies as fun entertainment. But this one was in a different league. Beautiful visuals, great acting and an entertaining script that made me think long after the credits rolled. As I exited the theaters, I saw that Roger Ebert and his colleague Richard Roeper had given the movie “Two thumbs way up!” So I began following their television show to find other movies just as amazing as this one.

Anyone who followed Roger eventually encountered his writing, and soon I was reading his daily reviews and columns at the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of us had a special fondness for his reviews of truly awful films, anxiously hoping for those 1 star reviews to observe his wit and snark in action. (His review of Armageddon begins, “Here it is at last, the first 150-minute trailer”.)

But his reviews of movies he loved were the ones that mattered most. Read his reviews of films like the extraordinary documentary Hoop Dreams, Spike Lee’s powerful debut Do The Right Thing, or the once-polarizing, now classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here was a man who genuinely loved the power and emotion of the movies, and wanted to share that with others. He even held his own film festival called Ebertfest in his hometown of Champaign, Illinois so he could share them with us. (My best friend and I were blessed to attend it the last year he was there.) Through Roger, I found treasures such as Junebug, Synecdoche, New York, Three Colors TrilogyJoe vs. The Volcano, Tree of Life, The Third Man and Kinyarwanda (to name a few.) These are all beautiful, powerful works of art that enabled me to step into the shoes of someone else, and better understand the world.

Roger had a policy that anyone who read him was a friend, and all his writing reflected that. His prose was conversational, occasionally peppered with carefully chosen five-dollar words and references, and always beautiful. Read his journal entry on the beauty of literature, appropriately entitled Perform a Concert in Words. I took it to medical school interviews to read during downtime so I could be emotionally refreshed.

For a long time, I thought he and I were uncannily similar: we both had extraordinarily similar tastes and observations on film, loved science-fiction and literature, had Anglophile tendencies, sought to be completely open with everyone, etc. Now I realize that it wasn’t just me. He made so many other people feel that way, no matter their background, country or gender.

Then in 2006, Roger lost his jaw due to salivary gland surgery, and thus his ability to talk. That would have caused most people to disappear from society. Instead, he became more prolific. Just a few of his accomplishments: He became one of the best Twitter and Facebook users I’ve ever seen, started a new television show, created a blog that connected people (including me) around the world in dialogue with each other and him, and cranked out as many reviews as he normally did before his cancer.

If you didn’t pay attention, you’d never know he was battling illness. But if you did, you saw he was extraordinarily open about his struggle with it. When Esquire published a piece showing his jawless face and detailing his daily life with his illness, it was more than brave. It was the usual, the ordinary. How extraordinary.

Even though it’s been over a year since Roger died, I still haven’t found anyone like him in his tastes. As critics, we often fall into one of two traps: being so open that every movie is a masterpiece (reminiscent of the old joke: if everyone’s special, than no one is), or being so narrow in what we appreciate or deem as art. Think of it like going to a restaurant. Some of us will like everything, no matter how well or poorly it’s made (which means we don’t understand what we’re eating), and others are experienced but only like filet mignon.

Roger was the man who had artistic standards and could recognize good filmmaking, but at the same time hoped anything he saw would be a 4-star film. The man who’d sampled the world, and still was open to having a new dish be his favorite. Whenever you read his writing, you encountered a man who woke up expecting to be surprised by beauty, whatever form it took.

His death meant I’d lost someone who was always expanding my perception of beauty in the world, making it seem more alive to me each year. That beauty was an anchor when life was tumultuous. So while Roger’s death seemingly wasn’t as personal as the other two (although it hurt so much), it exacerbated the inner turmoil I experienced when my artistic girlfriend (who also showed me so much beauty) and I broke up, and when so much conflict arose at my grandfather’s funeral.

What it took time to realize was that even if Roger didn’t know it, he was instrumental in introducing me to my next mentor.

Someone greater than Roger. Who’d continue to make the world bigger and more beautiful to me, and who was involved in my personal life long before I met Roger. Someone more intelligent. More mysterious. And more appreciative of beauty. I’d met Him before, but I was about to meet Him again for the first time.


An old Siskel and Ebert episode: Funny, educational and filled with love