Seventh Generation Stories

Sample 2

The Shaolin Way: Ten Modern Secrets of Survival From a Shaolin Grandmaster

You could say I didn't have the best start in life. I was born in 1953 to Concetta and Al DeMasco in Spanish Harlem, where I lived until I was nine. My mother Concetta, who for some reason was always called "Carol," had two wooden legs and four fingers on one hand, both resulting from birth defects and abuse by her unhappy mother. Carol was my inspiration and my reason for living until she died several years ago. My father, Al, was a psychotic, abusive man who beat and sexually abused me repeatedly as a child, until my mother remarried in 1962 and moved us away to Brockton, Massachusetts. Al disappeared from my life when I was sixteen.

Coming from a really bad beginning like this - where I was lucky not to become a poverty statistic in the ghetto -- there were a lot of changes I needed to make on my journey over the years. About 35 years ago, when I first learned about Shaolin philosophy and the kung fu martial arts that go with it, I had no idea how it would profoundly change my life, but it did. It was Shaolin -- a mysterious practice created by a special group of men fifteen hundred years ago in China -- that saved me.

Growing Out of Survival and Into Living

When I was about 15, I got my ass kicked in one of the rough neighborhoods of Brockton, where I lived with my mother, sisters, and alcoholic stepfather, Mitch. The beat-down was pretty bad, I looked like hell, and I had to take myself to the hospital: I was afraid to go home after that, because I knew that I would have to deal with Mitch and I didn't want to upset my mom. So I figured this was the time to move out of my house and move in with my friend Dennis Burton and his family: my mom knew where I was and I figured living with Dennis was the best way I could survive my high school years and avoid further humiliation and drunken abuse from Mitch.

My first major step towards survival came after this incident, no much differently than the Shaolin Monks when they started to learn kung fu. Besides the health benefits, they too needed to protect themselves from the bad guys. My life at the time was very much about survival, in the way that people who have little to nothing know every day.

I was a chameleon, and could adjust my needs to fit in pretty much anywhere. When I moved in with Dennis Burton, I was used to being around an alcoholic, so I blended in just fine at Dennis' house. His mother was a drunk, and his father was also a drinker who never came home. Every once in awhile I saw my mom, and one day we went to buy a pair of shoes for me, and there I saw Russ Alvarez, a good friend of mine from school whom I hadn't seen since the term ended. "Russ, man, how you doing?" I asked, while he was selling me the shoes. "Well, I'm doing OK...I'm living at this place downtown," he said, and I wondered where he meant.

Russ was only 16, still in high school, and it turned out the place he was referring to was a dirty, cheap boarding house that cost $15 a day. "My stepmother threw me out," he said, when I asked him why he was living in such a dump. There weren't a lot of happy families in Brockton in our class at the time, and the Alvarezes were no exception. I was bothered by the fact that Russ no longer had a real home, and he was trying to make us believe he didn't care. I knew the real truth was that he was just getting through the days - surviving, and so, living to die. In his case, there's not much else he could have done: Russ' intention in his life was to live, but because he was just getting by, he was barely surviving and missing the quality his life might otherwise have had if he had money or means. Russ was a kid who many times had to make adult decisions, and his options were few. He was still young with little life experience, and the only option he had was to simply try the best way he knew how. It was sad.

Many of us are like Russ, in that we put ourselves in a race against time in which we are at such a pace of survival, where we overload and can't keep up with ourselves. It's a matter of time before our systems break down mentally and physically. No one can tax their mind and body at such a high level, because humans need joy. Russ's system broke down many years later, in his late 20's, and by the time he was thirty, he was homeless. He had had a total survival meltdown.

We as human beings need to experience joy in our lives and we have an innate need to be happy and have companionship. Russ had many good things in his life: friends, my family, nice girlfriends, and eventually a great wife and a child. But Russ's only mode of functioning was survival with no training for enjoying life, and therefore he later lost all of what he worked for and ended up alone.

After my mom and I saw how Russ was living, we went to the nasty hotel he was staying in and moved his few things into my mom's house. I also moved back to the house for a short time until Russ and I could afford our own little shit hole, which we did.

Every day was a struggle to survive in the only way we knew how. Unfortunately, the only full time position for two of us during my summer break was over fifty miles away from our ugly little apartment. Russ and I hitchhiked almost 100 miles daily to make rent by working at a shoe store, in a suit and tie, since we couldn't afford a car. There were many times that it took so long to hitch hike home we would barely get three hours' sleep, only to have to get up and start hitching to work again. On Saturday nights, we'd pull a midnight shift at his father's donut shop back in Brockton.

Russ and I would get back to the tiny dump we called home and pass out at six am in our bed without having a shower. There we'd be, two dirty, nasty-smelling, greasy kids curled up together in our twin bed, powdered sugar, flour and sprinkles under our nails, in our eyelashes, and stuck to our backs. We were living to die, pretty much, but we had no idea.

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