New Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Twitter Launch Party!

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If you’re like most people in the world, you own at least one of the over 250 Chicken Soup for the Soul books. This is my 18th story published with the franchise, and I’m particularly proud of it because it tells a story I always wanted to tell – about a six-month backpacking trip I took through Europe, Greece and Great Britain.

The book is called Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, and my story title is More Kindness Than Danger. It encourages people to not let fear prevent them from living an adventurous life. There are 100 similar stories by other authors in this book, stories that will inspire you to reach beyond your comfort zone and live the life you are supposed to be living.

Tune in to Twitter tomorrow, November 1st, between 2 and 3 EASTERN time (11-1 Pacific) for a Q&A session with the contributors and the publisher, Amy Newmark. Tell them Mark Rickerby sent you. I hope to see you there!

 

 

Halloween Lollipop Storage

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I may have just solved an age-old dilemma. How many times have you been half-finished with a lollipop and set it down for a moment, only to pick it up again and find it covered with lint, cat hair, and all manner of filth? Well, problem solved! I’m thinking of patenting the idea. What do you think?

UPDATE: There are a few bugs in my design. I left the lollipop on too long on a hot day and peeled off some skin when I tried to remove it. I am now working on a lollipop removal method, which basically entails inundating the forehead with water for several minutes before peeling off adhered lollipops. Very low-tech.

Book Signing Today in Burbank, Ca

For anyone who’d like to get off the Internet for a while and actually meet in person, hear some story readings, talk about America and kindness (this book’s theme), and gobble up some snacks, I’ll be signing copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul’s latest book, My Kind (of) America, today between 2 and 4 PM at Barnes and Noble at 731 N San Fernando Blvd, Burbank, CA 91502.

Fellow contributors Isela Lieber and Susan Deo will also be there. I hope you can make it!

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Messin’ with Mark, God’s Sitcom – Episode 17 – Cartoon Physics

Looking back, it is clear to me that my starring role in God’s sitcom (or YouTube prank channel) for heaven’s amusement didn’t start when I was an adult.

As a kid growing up without an iPhone or laptop, Saturday morning and after-school cartoons were the best thing happening for the under 13 set. I grew up in one of those houses where the TV was a babysitter. It was always on. As a result, I was exposed to “cartoon physics” far too early, before I had learned to properly separate fantasy and reality. I just assumed since the people who created these fantastic worlds were obviously geniuses, they would also keep the content of said cartoons factual, and would never lie to sweet, bright-eyed children. So, I believed whole-heartedly that:

  1. If you run off a cliff and don’t know you did, you will hover in the air until you look down and realize the ground is no longer beneath you. Solution – don’t look down and you can float indefinitely.

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If you paint a tunnel on the face of a cliff, the paint magically dissolves all that rock and you can drive through it like any other tunnel. But again, it’s important not to think about it too much, or you will not have the power to pass through, sort of like that train station portal in Harry Potter. Wile E. Coyote found this out the hard way over and over.

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If you are shooting a bow and arrow and forget to let go of the arrow, you will fly forward instead of the arrow.

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If you fall from a great height, you will take on the shape of an accordion and regain your original dimensions within seconds. You will also make an accordion sound, which is kind of a bonus.

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Protruding cliffs that have been there for centuries are actually very brittle and can be snapped off just by hanging on them for a few seconds. Oh, and they can fall on top of you and squash you flatter than Florida, but you’ll be okay in a minute or so.

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Dynamite can blow up right in your face and the charring about the head, face and neck will go away by itself almost immediately.

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The skull is hard enough to break through solid rock.

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You can get squashed as thin as paper and, again, you’ll be fine. You just need to wait until you pop back to your original shape. 

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You can fall from any height and survive. 

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When I was about eight, I decided to test Looney Tunes Physics. I climbed onto the roof of a friend’s garage, stood at the edge, and reminded myself that if I stepped off and just didn’t think about it, I would stay aloft, floating like a balloon. Boy, would my friends be impressed when they found out I could fly! I took a deep breath, stepped off, and . . .

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. . . hit the ground like a bag of potatoes.

As I lay there on the grass waiting for the air to return to my lungs, I immediately went to work thinking about what I did wrong. I concluded that the thought of not thinking about it must have put the kibosh on it. It was one of those Samurai mushin / no-mind” things. Not thinking about it equals thinking about it. 

But I was not easily discouraged. Having seen a documentary on the Wright brothers, and how many times they had tried to fly before they were successful, I vowed to myself that I would try again. However, avoidance of pain being a greater motivator than the desire for schoolyard fame as the first flying (okay, hovering in mid-air) boy, I never did. Just another childhood dream that swirled and died in the puff of dust my body made when it hit the ground. I never watched Wile E. Coyote fall off those cliffs the same way again, and I stopped rooting for that annoying Road Runner. Compassion is always magnified by personal experience. 

I’m sure the re-run of me stepping off that roof and going splat is a big favorite in heaven’s theater. Slapstick plays well up there, too. I seem to recall my eight year-old self saying those words I would repeat many times in the subsequent years . . . “Well-played, God. Well-played.”

 

John Denver – In Memoriam

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Twenty long years ago, it happened, the day every John Denver fan wishes he/she could go back to, swarm that airport and sabotage the experimental plane John Denver would crash into the Pacific Ocean that day, or at least beg him not to fly. But he did, and all his fans have left is his music and the memories of the time when he was alive, when they and America were younger and more innocent.

It’s easy to be sad and cynical, but listening to the treasure trove of music John left us doesn’t allow it. Every song is an embrace, a conversation with a good friend, a celebration of the sweet and simple. Collectively, it is a call to live life the way John did – deeply, completely, fearlessly, and with great love for all living things.

I wrote a poem many years ago after my brother died. Ironically, he died only four days after John, on 10/16/97, but it applies just as much to John or anyone else we have loved and lost. I hope it gives some comfort.

Rest in peace, Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.

How We Survive

If we are fortunate,
we are given a warning.

If not,
there is only the sudden horror,
the wrench of being torn apart;
of being reminded
that nothing is permanent,
not even the ones we love,
the ones our lives revolve around.

Life is a fragile affair.
We are all dancing
on the edge of a precipice,
a dizzying cliff so high
we can’t see the bottom.

One by one,
we lose those we love most
into the dark ravine.

So we must cherish them
without reservation.
Now.
Today.
This minute.
We will lose them
or they will lose us
someday.
This is certain.
There is no time for bickering.
And their loss
will leave a great pit in our hearts;
a pit we struggle to avoid
during the day
and fall into at night.

Some,
unable to accept this loss,
unable to determine
the value of life without them,
jump into that black pit
spiritually or physically,
hoping to find them there.

And some survive
the shock,
the denial,
the horror,
the bargaining,
the barren, empty aching,
the unanswered prayers,
the sleepless nights
when their breath is crushed
under the weight of silence
and all that it means.

Somehow, some survive all that and,
like a flower opening after a storm,
they slowly begin to remember
the one they lost
in a different way . . .

The laughter,
the irrepressible spirit,
the generous heart,
the way their smile made them feel,
the encouragement they gave
even as their own dreams were dying.

And in time, they fill the pit
with other memories,
the only memories that really matter.

We will still cry.
We will always cry.
But with loving reflection
more than hopeless longing.

And that is how we survive.
That is how the story should end.
That is how they would want it to be.

– Mark Rickerby

The Lost Country

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I like to write about childhood, for different reasons. There were times when everything was perfect, like when I was 7-9 years old and my family lived in a serene (then) and beautiful neighborhood in Santa Monica, California. My best friend lived a few houses away, my piano teacher lived on the opposite corner, my babysitter was just down the street, and my first crush, a blonde, freckle-faced cutie named Linda Coss, lived at the bottom of the street in the only pink house in the whole neighborhood. Flowers perpetually smiled through the white picket fence surrounding her garden, and bluebirds and butterflies circled above her room constantly. (In my memory, anyway.)

We moved fifteen times before I was fifteen years old. Some kids are given the tools to be okay with that. I wasn’t one of them. Perpetually the new kid, and very small in stature (one of my older brother’s nicknames for me was “Pail and Frail”), I got bullied a lot. I resented my parents for disrupting my life every year or two because they were unhappy, and blamed them for everything that went wrong. I was like a sapling getting yanked out of the soil every time I started putting down roots. As a result, I grew more confused and angry as my teenage years came along, eventually developing severe shyness and low self-esteem. The bullies had accomplished what they wanted to do to me.

When I got out of high school and got my first car, I would often drive to that old neighborhood and walk around. Of all the neighborhoods we lived in, that was the one that felt like home to me. It was where my “wonder years” happened. But it wasn’t the same, of course. Everyone I knew as a child had moved. Other people lived in our house. I resented them, even though we moved out over ten years earlier. My brother had become a heroin addict, my father was cut down to skin and bone by cancer, my high school girlfriend had an abortion that killed me spiritually, and I had no college or career aspirations. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to do or be. This all caused a desire as overwhelming as it was unrealistic – to go back to the time when everything was still ahead of me and my family, when no mistakes had been made yet. I was like a ghost haunting my own life too early.

As I got older and started writing, childhood was one of my favorite subjects. It still is. They say writing is living twice. Maybe that’s why. I’m still trying to find what I lost, fix what was broken, and relive the moments when everything was perfect. Moments of pure joy, like when I saw Santa Claus fly right over my house while laying on my front lawn. I even heard the reindeer bells. Or my best friend Dana and I sitting in trees and rooftops with walkie-talkie’s, pretending the neighbors walking below were enemy spies. Or making gelatinous bugs and snakes in our Mattel Thing-Maker oven, then scaring the girls on the street with them. Or watching Sci-Fi movies in chair-and-blanket forts while stuffing our faces with candy. Or my teenage babysitter Shirley arriving with a handful of toys and puzzles for my brother and I to play with. As the saying goes, “God was in His universe and all was right with the world.” 

While reading a book by Gail Carson Levine called Writing Magic – Creating Stories That Fly, I came across a perfect description of the desire to somehow access childhood again through writing. She wrote:

“I used to think, long ago, that when I grew up, I’d remember what it felt like to be a child and that I’d always be able to get back to my child self. But I can’t. When you become a teenager, you step onto a bridge. You may already be on it. The opposite shore is adulthood. Childhood lies behind. The bridge is made of wood. As you cross, it burns behind you. If you save what you write, you still won’t be able to cross back to childhood. But you’ll be able to see yourself in that lost country. You’ll be able to wave to yourself across that wide river. Whether or not you continue to write, you will be glad to have the souvenirs of your earlier self.”

I’m a father of two girls now, three and six years old. They are bringing the magic back to me. Before I became a dad, I used to be annoyed when parents would say “Really? Wow!” to their young children with false enthusiasm in response to something nonsensical they had just said. But I get it now. Today, my youngest daughter said to me, very excitedly, “Jelly Bean has a tail!” and I found myself saying, “Really? Wow!” Still not wanting to be one of “those” parents, however, I asked her to explain the comment. But her answer confused me even more.

I concluded that saying “Really? Wow!” is actually a very wise admission, a surrender to the fact that children live in a world grown-up’s are not allowed in. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet –

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Not wanting to give up so easily, I asked my daughter if I could go with her to her world, to visit Jelly Bean and see his tail. She said, “Yes, daddy!” very exuberantly. We walked across the room, sat down and played for a while, despite the spaces between us – between her innocence and my world-weariness, her perfectly unfettered joy and my comfortless logic. But still, all I could do is watch her in wonder and envy at the delicious irresponsibility and frivolity of her life, a frivolity I encourage and protect. The bubble of childhood will pop soon enough, and always too early.

In his song Too Many Angels, Jackson Browne wrote:

There are photographs of children
all in their silver frames
on the windowsills and tabletops
lit by candle flames.
And upon their angel faces,
life’s expectations climb
as the moment has preserved them
from the ravages of time.”

I did not begin to let go of my childhood until I had children of my own. How could I when only my life concerned me? Their effortless ability to save me from endless reminiscing was and still is my salvation. Their future is more important to me now than my own, or my past. I’ll still visit it in my writing, but with far less aching melancholy because now, anytime I need to see what joy is, I just have to find them and watch them play. I will not allow my restlessness to uproot my little saplings. I will not allow any unhappiness I feel to disrupt theirs.

Living Well, Dying Well

In December of 2014, my father died after five years with Parkinson’s and Dementia, and breaking his hip, then being tortured by a grossly incompetent medical staff at Kaiser Permanente’s hospital in Panorama City, California. I won’t go into detail but it was a real trip to hell and the staff were the demons running it.

My dad died on December 21st, his young dog died without warning four days later on Christmas Day (also from a brain problem, ironically), leaving my mother completely alone. Then, as if all that weren’t bad enough, her house was burglarized. She not only felt sad in her empty house, but afraid, too. 

As I was dealing with the burglary, my father’s sister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was found dead on her bedroom floor. She had been dead for four months but nobody noticed because she was an agoraphobic recluse. She lived badly and died badly. A tragic end to a tragic life. More irony (or something more) – she died within a week of my father, even though she was twelve years younger than him, and she didn’t even know he had passed. It was as if my father’s soul, free of that broken body, found her and said, “Come with me, sis. This is no life for anyone.” Maybe his dog died to be reunited with him, too.

We will all die, and usually badly, in physical terms, from some diabolical, incurable (is there any other kind) disease or combination of them. This is the inherent courage of living – knowing the end will come, but waking up, getting cleaned and dressed, smiling at strangers, and making the most of every day anyway. We all deserve a medal. There is valor in just staying positive and living life knowing the end will come, whether or not we believe in heaven and the continuation of the soul.

My father’s miserable last month of life, made infinitely more miserable by the ghoulish staff at Panorama City’s Kaiser Permanente hospital (with a few rare exceptions), would have been completely hellish except for one moment at the end, after the morphine drip that would end his life had begun, when somehow, he opened his eyes and searched for me in the room full of friends and family. A friend said, “Mark, he wants you.” I was sitting in the corner with my face in my hands, crushed that I wasn’t able to save him. I looked up and saw him reaching for me. I rushed to him and held his hand. He couldn’t speak because his throat was ravaged by numerous botched tube placements. (Another thing Kaiser stole was my father’s right to say goodbye.) He pursed his lips, pulled me close, and gave me the last kiss he would ever be able to give me. I hugged him and told him I loved him, that it was okay to go, that I would take care of mom, and thanked him for all he had done for me. I asked if he understood and he nodded yes. I thank God for that moment now, and am still baffled at how he was able to reach through his brain diseases and all the drugs flooding through his system to give me that moment. A golden moment if ever there was one. I have despaired greatly since his death, about how he died, so without that the despair would have been infinitely worse.

Which brings me to my point – dying well. That moment said everything there was to say about my father. He had a rough upbringing in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with loveless parents, crushing poverty, and almost daily fistfights, but he never complained. He came to America and started a business that flourished for 35 years while others rose and fell around him. He lost his stomach to cancer at 45 and was cut down from 200 to 150 pounds. And again, he never complained. He never complained or made the slightest whimper in the hospital despite his hip and femur being broken in four places, despite his throat being so dry his tongue cracked open, despite the hospital staff making every mistake it was possible to make out of a combination of incompetence and heartlessness. And he didn’t complain as morphine ended his life. Instead, he reached for me and gave me a kiss.

I thought of my dad when the actor Gene Wilder died recently. He was asked in an interview why he didn’t act anymore during his final decades. He was sent scripts constantly so demand for his talent was still there. He said he didn’t like all the cussing and vulgarity. Decency and integrity like that is almost non-existent in Hollywood, where money and attention are usually the only factors considered when making a decision.

Gene Wilder suffered with Alzheimer’s Disease during his final years. He said he rarely went out because children still recognized him as Willy Wonka and he had trouble smiling so he didn’t want to make anyone sad. He didn’t get bitter and hostile because life was dealing him a terrible hand. He was good, sweet and kind to the very end despite his troubles. He lived well and died well.

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While writing this, a scene from the Robin Williams movie Patch Adams came to mind. A patient (played by Peter Coyote) was very angry and bitter that he was dying young. Patch was determined to help him make the transition more peacefully. Here’s the scene:

When I was in my early twenties, I climbed over the wall of a cemetery one night and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles, trying to summon up something, anything, that would prove to me that there was something beyond this life. I had been told that Ouija boards could be dangerous portals for demons, but I didn’t care. My faith in God had been destroyed by atheistic philosophers like Bertrand Russell and I desperately needed to know if we were immortal or worm food. I chose that night for this “seance” because it was Friday the 13th, and not only a full moon, but a blue moon, too. I figured the timing couldn’t be better. But nothing happened. I sat in that hole in the ground in dead silence until I felt enough like an idiot to pack it up and go home.

But maybe something did happen. My brother had a troubled life filled with drugs and prison and died of an overdose at 37. My mother had breast cancer twice. My life wasn’t exactly easy, either. Maybe demons stay below the radar and do their damage instead of making flashy displays like they do in movies. Life doesn’t feel like nothing to me. It feels like a mystery. It feels like a struggle between good and evil. I can feel the devil push me one way and God push me another. We can write it off as imagination or believe in something larger than ourselves. It’s always our choice.

But no matter what the ultimate truth is about the afterlife, there’s one thing I know – life wasn’t given to us to spend it in misery and sorrow. It just feels right to be happy, generous, kind, loving. I don’t understand people who spend their one, short life buried in greed, anger and/or hatred. Such a waste. Kind of like having a sumptuous meal prepared by the world’s greatest chef then pouring ketchup all over it.

Timothy Leary said dying is one of the greatest things any of us will ever have the chance to do. He was right. How we die is perhaps the largest reflection of who we truly are, beneath all the surface behavior and easy words. Depending on how we live, we will die with integrity or despair. *

My goal is to have the same smile on my face on my final day as I do today. Death shouldn’t extinguish the light within us. It already takes enough.

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  • Erik Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development.