(3) Life’s Puzzle

Answering the phone, I put it on speaker mode and laid it on the desk in front of me. Week three was under way and I had work to do, so I was doing my best to multi-task: 

“How are the candidates?” 

Marshall asked me the question, but what he said did not really resonate with me as I was lost in what I was writing.

“What candidates?” I responded; half-paying attention as I finished the sentence I was working on.

Marshall raised his voice, “Can you stop typing for a few minutes and actually talk to me—” Laughing at himself he added, “I mean seriously…I am me after all.”

Adding a period, I saved the document, ‘Life’s Puzzle’, and stood up; grabbing my phone off the desk. My youngest son; six-years-old, was on the couch playing on his iPad. Miss Dunn, his teacher, had just dismissed the students for lunch. He was being taught remotely also. While I ran my class and did what I needed to do, he worked at a little make-shift desk behind me. 

“Ham and cheese for lunch bud?” I asked him; walking up and rubbing the dirty-blonde hair on the top of his head.

Not taking his eyes off the screen in front of him, he responded sweetly, “Yes please.”

The phone in my hand spoke, “What’s up little man!”

This voice caused my son to stop and look at the phone, seeing that it was his Uncle Marshal he responded shyly, “Nothing.”

My son was not much of a talker, especially with people he did not see in person much. Which was becoming an issue with his teacher this year. He was definitely suffering from not being able to be in the classroom physically. We were doing the best we could, but I knew he was falling behind (just like everyone else). 

I did not worry much about this. I’m just stating facts. Personally, I had faith that in time everyone would adapt just fine.

Marshall; probably recognizing that he’d have to be the one to spark a conversation with my son, asked him a question through the phone, “Are you letting your dad date yet little man?”

Smiling, and looking into the phone, my son replied, “Daddy doesn’t need a girlfriend! He’s never gonna have a girlfriend!” 

He spoke with authority now as this was an on-going joke between the two of them.

“Well…how bout a boyfriend then?” Marshall said seriously; trying to confuse him.

At which point I interrupted, “—Real nice M…” 


Back at the halfway house I was five weeks into my stay. My hands were pruned as it was my night to do the dishes after dinner. While I was busy at work some of the men in the house were playing a card game in the large dining room adjacent to the kitchen; a game called ‘Pitch’. It was from their table that one of the men hollered to me from across the room, “Yo—Jose, who killed your dog man?”

I remember this day vividly; it was on a Saturday. This was the first day I was allowed to see my wife, Sirena. House Rules permitted residents a two-hour visit after their ‘Probationary Period’ in the house had ended. With not much time for anything else, my wife picked me up for lunch.  We ate together in our family minivan so that we could catch up…

“I’ve been talking to someone….” From the driver’s seat my wife explained everything to me without making eye contact. “I didn’t want to say anything to you because we are really just talking, but I know your mom saw his truck at the house the other night and I figured I better be the one to tell you.”


The details of the conversation between her and I were nothing but a blur as I did the dishes; but this disclosure of hers was seared into my mind. The reason I was asked, ‘who killed my dog,’ by one of the men playing cards was because I clearly looked sad while doing the dishes.

“He found out today that his wife is banging the landscaper,” said Ron; from across the table to the other men playing cards.  

Ron and I had become very close in that first month. He was probably ten years older than me, and I was ten years older than most of the younger residents in the house. For some reason we just hit it off.

If you are trying to picture what Ron looked like, imagine the father in the show ‘Shameless.’ Ron reminded me so much of Frank in that show that I eventually told this new friend of mine he should have chosen this name to go by rather than ‘Ron’.  

Earlier that afternoon Ron had let me bum a few cigarettes off of him. Prior to my lunch date I had gone two weeks without one. So, without any of my own, it was with my new friend’s cheap, cigar-tasting, ‘cigarillos’ that I tried to ease my anxiety. It was during this smoke-filled afternoon that I told Ron everything Sirena had told me.  

“I’m sorry…they are just talking right now—she was lonely and needed a friend,” explained Ron to the guys at the table. He said this after our eyes had met when he made his crude comment about my wife banging the landscaper.

This guy Sirena was talking to was a landscaper however; Ron at least got that part right. I had actually been the one who hired him a year earlier to do the site work on the re-built house of ours. It was not like he was always at the house though. As Sirena explained, she had just seen him on a night she was out having dinner with her friends and they started talking. His name was Bart. 

That’s right, go ahead and laugh: My wife was leaving me for an effing Simpson’s character. 

It’s funny—I get it.

At the time, this was not a foregone conclusion of course. I was convinced that I could win her back; that this was simply a hurdle in our fairytale love story. I had not lost hope. 

“What’s your bid?” 

The men at the table continued to play cards as I did the dishes in silence; unable to help myself from listening in on the conversation that now turned into a round table discussion about my marital problems.

The men discussed my situation amongst themselves but were considerate to my eavesdropping. A lot of what they said revolved around claims of women not being worth the trouble. Keep in mind that what I listened to was dialogue between bitter men that were simply trying to make me feel better. I let most of what they said go in one ear and out the other. I had to as they had no clue how invested in Sirena I was. They did not know our past. They did not know how much we had been through. And they did not know how important it was that I get her back. 

What they said to one another was intended to support a fallen brother; a man they saw doing dishes, but one they knew wanted to run to his room and cry himself to sleep. They were hoping to lift my spirits. But this was a feeble endeavor as a someone so shattered at the time could not be glued back together with encouraging words. I needed to simply grieve. To convince myself that I could fix this…   

“It’s her loss,” said one of the men at the table playing cards. “When Jose turns himself into a king then she’ll know she made a mistake.”  

Of all the things they said that day it was this comment that really got my attention. Upon hearing it, I wanted to slam the dishes on the floor and yell at them; “—You’re Wrong!” 

This seemingly harmless declaration dislodged memories of my past that I did not want to be reminded of. If they had only known, then they would understand why this statement infuriated me. 

This desire for revenge; this redemption fueled attitude towards life, that they were encouraging, had gotten me into so much trouble already. Over a short period of time, it was exactly this type of mentality that got me locked away—TWICE!

Nonetheless, everything happens for a reason, and maybe him saying this was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. 

That night I considered those words of his in my bed. The words he spoke scared me. With everything stacking up against me, I needed to make sure I did not make the same mistakes, again….  

***End Of Breaking Knews****

For the record: I’m not gay. I feel obligated to tell you that right now as I do not want it to interfere with our story. Between how I ended that last article with my students, “I am (blank)”; and with Uncle Marshal asking my son if I had a boyfriend; and now having you know that my wife would eventually leave me; thinking that I’m gay might be something some of you readers try to assume. Well, I’m sorry, that’s just not the case.

Although I will tell you that people have called me gay—a lot.  Maybe it’s because I am comfortable with man touching (hugging and stuff you weirdos). Or maybe it’s because I make jokes like the one I just did. 

Or maybe it’s because one of my best friends as an adult is gay. A man that I do not shy away from saying I love as he has been a selfless and loyal friend through some of the darkest days of my life. 

Regardless of why people want to call me gay, I want to make sure you know right now that this is not the case. Don’t worry though, my little secret is a lot more entertaining anyways.  But now that we have cleared that up, let’s get back to Uncle Marshall shall we…

In attempt to re-start our conversation Marshall asked again, “The candidates…how are they?”

Realizing now what he was referring to I responded smartly, “Saving the world of course.”

We were talking about my students. We had jokingly come to call them ‘candidates’ when I found out that I’d only have four students in the class. It was a reference to my all-time favorite show, ‘Lost.’  

In what can only be reflected on now as what might seem like a drunken conversation, I recall telling Marshall; “This class will be my Oceanic 6…. four students, myself, and my readers…out to save the world!”   

Marshal knew that part of the grant that got my program funded required that I periodically share articles on a national blog page that was created to ‘Promote Recovery.’ When I was first published on this blog, I remember thinking it was an honor. But now, realizing that most of what I shared was simply noise falling on deaf ears, it felt more like a burden than anything else. It was an article for this blog that I was working on when Marshall called this day.  

I had not shared anything with this page for a while, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone: The article I would write for my students this week would also be the one I shared on this blog.  

Knowing that my audience would not simply be my students I was racking my brain the last few days trying to come up with something safe. I wanted to write something touching of course, but I also had to remember to keep it: “…short and sweet; around twelve-hundred words, something that someone could read in the time it takes them to take a shit.” (This was an actual suggestion made to me by the person I spoke with who ran this distinguished blog.)  

On the kitchen counter everything that I needed to make my son’s sandwich was spread out in front of me. As I continued my daily lunch duties, Marshal continued to ask me questions; interested to hear how my class was going.

“Have you shown them the video yet?” he asked through the phone.   

Repeating myself for what seemed like the tenth time I said to him yet again, “I told you I’m not gonna show them—”  

“—Jose, it is that video that made me join your little squad in the first place. I don’t know why you are so embarrassed by it.”  

He was being genuine, but I did not want to hear it. Walking over to give my son his ham sandwich, I spoke to Marshall in a way that I hoped would end this conversation, “My crazy is for me…not them.”

He got it, “Alright J, but your crazy is why we are friends…that has to mean something right?”

Knowing that he had a point, I politely thought of a way to change the topic, “They are making fun of my song choices by the way. Got any suggestions?”

Thinking for only a moment before speaking, he said, “How about Tupac? His music will speak to them. That shits like venom—This new generation needs to hear it!” 

Smiling at his enthusiasm, I asked, “Wouldn’t using that be kinda racist of me though?”

“Shut the f*** up—”  

Covering the phone and mutely telling him to wait a second, I walked into my room so that my son couldn’t hear the language being used. 

He continued; a little quieter now, “…Why—Because you’re a white boy, and the fact that Tupac was black means you can’t use his music to help share a message. You gotta stop being a pussy Jose.” explained Marshall; now that we were not in earshot of my son. 

Not offended by the way he spoke his truth, I replied, “I’m just not there yet with them. I will get there…just not yet.”

We talked for a while longer before ending our conversation that day.  

After eating lunch with my son, I sat back down to finish my article. Once I was done, I stared at the posters on my wall trying to come up with a song to use. Reflecting on Marshall’s statement from a few minutes earlier, I needed to think of one that would change things up a bit: Something that would throw them off my scent…

Week 3 (9.25.20): 

“Life’s Puzzle”

Hello World!  

Today I am speaking to directly to Y-O-U.  

Under such pressure where should one begin?

I’ve been told starting with a quote is always compelling: Let’s try it, shall we? …

Thomas Jefferson inspired a nation by saying, “All men are created equal.”

Well, I’m here today to tell you that all people are not equal.

To realize that there are millions of things that make us different is part of understanding how life works. In contrast, to appreciate that there are just as many things that make us the same is part of understanding how spirituality works. It is ok to disagree with this, or to ask questions. We are human beings after all: It is what we do. In fact, humanity has evolved in a way that we are becoming experts at disagreeing and asking questions. I could argue that the world we live in today, with the help of social media, encourages it.  

What is real, what is fake? Who is real, who is pretending? When will it get better? How will it get better? … And to me, the most difficult question of them all— What if it never gets better?

Unfortunately, for someone trying to live in recovery partaking in the socially acceptable behavior of questioning everyone and everything like this can be toxic. 

Let me be clear, I am not here to tell you to stop asking questions. Questioning things is important. I will however warn you that expecting answers without a sense of patience is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes you just need to have faith that the answers to your questions will come in time.  

But not everyone is trying to “Live In Recover;” so why should we care about any of this?

Let’s try and tackle this question right here, right now.

First off, it would be helpful to find some common ground between you and I before moving on. Are you an addict in recovery? Do you suffer from what others describe as mental instability? If so, then great, we know each other already, don’t we? If we do not have these characteristics in common, then how in the world can we relate to one another?

Luckily, in my experiences, I have found one thing all humans across this vast globe have in common—Can you think of what it is?

To discover the answer let us look at the human experience together. Let us simply call it ‘life.’  

‘Life’ presents each and every person a puzzle to put together. The pieces of that puzzle are unique, and when we begin building it there is no way of knowing how all the pieces will fit together.  

For some, happiness and prosperity will fit together first. Building your puzzle will come easy and you will not know how to look for the pieces that represent struggle and hardship because you do not know what those pieces look like yet, or where they fit in your ‘Life’s Puzzle.’ 

For others, struggle and hardship may make up the entire boarder of your puzzle, so naturally you begin working there. To you, happiness and prosperity may or may not even exist in your puzzle, so why would you waste your time trying to find pieces that may never fit?

This analogy serves two purposes:

First, both people are in a struggle to put the pieces of their lives together—in that, they have something in common. The other thing I hope you realize is that there is no definitively right or wrong way to work on your puzzle (though you may choose to argue this point). Some may choose to focus on the easy parts and struggle with the difficult parts later. Others may choose to do the opposite.  

In life, unlike this puzzle analogy, we don’t often get to choose: “You get the hand you’re dealt.”

There are millions of tragedies that I have not had to endure in this life. Because this is true, there is no way I could understand what you have been through in the process of putting your puzzle together. Similarly, I cannot remember what it was like to be a child without direction. Dealing with the hardships you are going through. Managing the rapidly changing world the way you are now. 

While I do not know you, how many years you have walked this Earth, your gender, your race, where you live, who and what you love…if you love…I am comfortable telling you this one truth about me: I have been both blessed and cursed in this life.   

—Can you relate?

In this experiment called ‘Life’ we all suffer, in suffering we can all relate. That is what we have in common. 

So…. What do we do with it?

We are all recovering from something. Regardless of age, things are changing so rapidly that trying to cope with change is a struggle in itself. While I do not pretend to have all the answers, I have learned three key skills in successfully putting my life’s puzzle together, 1) Ask Questions. 2) Be Patient. And 3) Have faith.

But if the desire to change the world still stirs inside you after practicing these three skills then add this final piece to your puzzle: “Take Action!”

I believe that the future for us is bright. With more resources at our disposal than ever before we can use them to write a new story. One that will create a new future. One that will serve as a monument to all that we wish to become. However, if we are to accomplish this, there is one thing that we must accept first: This world needs Y-O-U to make it happen.


Does the word ‘Faith’ bother you?  Why or why not?

The Teacher’s Playlist

“… I’m on my way to the promised land.” 

—Highway to Hell by AC/DC

(Click here to continue to next chapter)

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