When laughter gets swallowed by the dark

So sad when the demons win. Connie Di Pietro-Sparacino

The creative mind houses all manner of demons, but those of a comedian have sharper teeth it seems. What a terrible loss. Dale Long


Robin WilliamsI remember it vividly, even though it was thirty-four years ago. It was the morning of December 9, 1980, a Tuesday, just like today.

And like today, that long-ago Tuesday was a supremely sad one. I heard from the announcer on the radio that John Lennon had died the night before. And my world changed.

I couldn’t imagine a world without John Lennon in it. Truth be told, thirty-four years later, I still can’t.

Last night, I picked up my phone, logged into Facebook and read

Jesus. Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide.

His family… Wow… I can’t deal with this right now.

And my world changed. Again.

In this day and age, it doesn’t take long to determine the deeper story. It’s one we’ve heard many times. A celebrity, seemingly someone who has it all: wealth, a rewarding career, a loving family, adoring fans…but is dogged by something darker. Addictions. Depression.

Robin Williams, the man that could make almost anyone laugh, couldn’t find enough light in the world to carry on. I can’t imagine that. I can’t conceive of it. Just like I can’t imagine a world without him.

Many celebrities die. God knows we lose enough that there’s website devoted to tracking the latest one to go. And each time, we shake our heads and say, “Gone too soon. So sad. What a waste.” And it’s the case here too.

Right now, I’m sad. I’m hurting. I’m grieving as though this was someone I knew all my life. In a way I did, if only through the television and movie screens.

But most of all, I’m angry. I’m pissed right off.

The difference for me, I guess, is the person. In this case, Robin Williams. He wasn’t just a movie star. He wasn’t just a comedian. It wasn’t a job for him, it wasn’t his career. It was encoded into him. Whether he was on stage, performing for thousands, or standing face to face with one other person, he was always on. He saw the world differently from the rest of us. His brain worked differently from ours.

You could see it in his improv, especially when he shared the stage with someone else. If that other person was smart, they’d simply get out of the way and let Robin go. Because his mind was a finely tuned machine. He made connections where most of us saw nothing. He found humour where there was none to be found. He turned his performance into an Olympic-calibre sport. And no one could touch him.

But, of course, there was the dark side. He had his demons, like the rest of us. But some of us have bigger demons than others, ones that whisper in their ear constantly, always trying to get them into a room alone so they can hammer and beat them down. And there’s no escaping that demon. Many find a way to deal with it, but it never goes away.

Unfortunately, Robin’s demon finally gained the upper hand. A horrible, devastating way for a man that brought joy to an entire world to go.

He’s not the first to commit suicide. Or suffer from addictions. Or depression. He won’t, unfortunately, be the last.

A very smart man that I know once told me that anxiety and depression often affects the highly intelligent simply because they’re capable of reasoning out all the bad things that can happen. They can see the deeper levels of the world and be affected by them, instead of bumbling along, blissfully unaware, thinking all is wonderful.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all happy people are stupid. They absolutely are not. And I think any of us would trade places with a perennially happy person.

I’m also not saying that those that are not as intelligent can’t suffer from depression. I know they can, I know they do.

All I’m saying is, I’ve seen a great many very intelligent people–those people who should “know better” and that should “snap themselves out of it” –dealing with depression and thoughts of inferiority and unworthiness.

All I’m saying is, we’re all worthy of being happy. Of not feeling inferior.

Ed Kurtz, a great man and gifted writer, said something profound in his blog yesterday. He said

ya’ll have only the very best intentions when you implore sufferers of depression to “reach out” or “seek help.” I appreciate that deeply and I can see how kind your heart is to make that statement. The trouble with this sentiment is that people like me don’t always know how, or don’t believe at a given moment that we can, or don’t even want to. We withdraw. We get trapped in our heads. We slink off into the ouroboros of our own solitude.

And, even though I have quite a few loved ones that suffer from depression, I was one of those kind-hearted fools. He’s right, of course. If Robin Williams could have reached out, I’m sure he would have. Instead, he withdrew. He got trapped in his head. He got lost. And we lost him.

I know Ed is right, because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the cries for help. I saw someone cry out on Facebook and no one picked up on it. I went to my wife and pointed out the post. She agreed it was a cry for help. And she was able to help in some small way.

But what if no one had noticed? I’ve lost cousins and friends and, I’m guessing, my father, because no one noticed. Or didn’t notice enough.

So I’m begging you. If you notice something that’s off with someone you love, ask. And keep asking until you’re satisfied. They might reach out if they need help, but if you reach out to them, it just might show them that whispering bitch of a demon is wrong and there is someone who cares. That there is a reason to push that demon aside one more time.

And for God’s sake, and for the sake of your loved ones, don’t treat someone with depression as a pariah. You wouldn’t push them away if they got sick, would you? Well, that’s what this is, it’s a sickness that’s harder to see, but just as real.

I am, by nature, a somewhat optimistic cynic. I expect the worst, but hope for the best, I guess. But there’s no upside to what happened last night…unless we can somehow lift the shroud and expose these demons to the light of day.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams not only made people laugh, he helped people. He helped Christopher Reeve after his accident. He did what he could to cheer the cast of Schindler’s List as they reenacted one of the darkest moments in mankind’s history.

Let’s try and turn this terrible loss into something that means something. Let Robin Williams be the face and the voice of those who find the courage to laugh in the face of depression.

And if you need help, try to fight it long enough to reach out.
Suicide Prevention – Find a Centre

Robin

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Cruising to fifty, part five: Lennon, linen and uncooperative pigeons

This is the fifth part of a series of blogs about the cruise the Wife and I went on last October. You can read the others here:
part one | part two | part three | part four

A quick set up:

I turned 50 on October 6, 2012. My wife surprised me about three weeks before, during a particular low spot in my life with a piece of paper. “Happy birthday,” she said. I opened the paper and quickly scanned it.

“We’re going on a cruise?” I said, and my mind kind of shut down with happiness after that. In fact, it wasn’t until several minutes later, as I was refolding the paper, that I saw the word “Greece” and just about shit. This is the story of what happened on that trip, taken almost exclusively from the diary I kept along the way.


Now I am older
The more that I see the less that I know for sure
Now I am older
The future is brighter

Borrowed Time – John Lennon

October 9: John Lennon’s birthday

Sleep in day! Last night, prior to going to bed, Karen said, “We don’t get into Mykonos until later, so I’d rather sleep in. I don’t care if I have breakfast or not.”

This morning, I get up early as usual, grab a quick shower and, with Karen still snoozing, head off to grab some breakfast.

A little while later, I head back and find Karen up. She looks at me, crestfallen and says, “You didn’t bring me back anything?” Turns out that not caring if I have breakfast or not does not include hubby piling a plate high with pastries and bringing it back to the cabin for the wife who may or may not still be sleeping. The stereotypical wife move…don’t listen to what I say, read my mind and understand what I’m thinking at you.

So, off I go again, back up two decks, fight the breakfast crowds and get her a couple of damn pastries. Well, actually, scratch that because, as I’m leaving the cabin, the request for pastries suddenly changes to French Toast. To quote a tour guide…Jesus Christ!

Once I’m back, she’s still getting ready–seriously, for any female readers of this, please answer this question: Why the hell does it take women and teenage boys so damn long to get ready for anything? –so, I get to deliver the French Toast to the woman who didn’t care if she got breakfast or not, then head back out yet again to head down two decks to pick up tender tickets.

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The ship doesn’t actually dock in Mykonos. Instead, the passengers are ferried back and forth from ship to island to ship on small boats. Instead of everyone lining up, they issue tender tickets so you know the rough time you should be ready, and they call your number. We got tender 17.

So, I head back up to our cabin again, vowing never again to listen to my wife or punish myself by actually getting up early ever again. Finally, Karen was ready and fed, then we headed up to the deck to look at Mykonos and wait for our number to be called.

They started calling the tender numbers around 1:20 and, judging by how many boats came to the ship and how long each one took, I guessed we wouldn’t get called before 2:30. Karen guessed it would be before then. So, of course, a bet was wagered. If Karen won, she could buy all the jewelry she wanted in Mykonos, which is dangerous, because God knows Karen loves her jewelry, and Mykonos had been pushed as a great place to buy it. Now, on the other hand, if I won, then she gets absolutely no jewelry whatsoever.

We settled in to enjoy the warm weather and wait. Understand that we were out on a deck. People were all around us. Not necessarily close by, but milling around in the general area. At one point, I felt a bit of…pressure. Okay, so, let’s just be honest here. I dropped a rather raucous fart out on that deck. It was not quiet. I looked over and was rewarded with Karen’s jaw dropping as she smiled that oh no you didn’t smile of utter shock. Yeah. Like she should be shocked…have you met my wife? Anyway, I calmly, clearly and logically explained that I’m fifty now. I can do this now. I’m allowed.

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She didn’t seem amused. But then she cheered up. They called tender 17 at 2:20. Daaaaaaamn.

We took our short boat ride to Mykonos, which is simply beautiful from the ship, but when we got off the boat and hit the main street, it’s solid jewelry stores and restaurants. Nothing else. And the restaurants, which are mostly open air, each have waiters doing everything they can to entice you in, to prevent you from walking ten feet (no, I’m not exaggerating here) to the next restaurant. Annoying at first, it kind of became fun after a while, because you could mess with them. “Oh, sorry, we were thinking of heading over to that one…”

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While on the main drag, I watched a massive flock of pigeons. They would mass on a roof, then one or two would head off into the air, then they’d all take off, fly in a great, main square-circling arc, then all light back on the same roof. They did this about once every two or three minutes.

Until, that is, I mentioned it to Karen and she pulled out the video camera to catch it. Then, they just sat there. I kept telling her to watch for the tell-tale launch of the first couple of birds. Of course, the next time, as though they all got the same memo at once, they took off en masse, with no warning. Karen kept missing it. It was quite amusing to watch.

The best shot we could get of the uncooperative birds. Doesn't come close to doing them justice.

The best shot we could get of the uncooperative birds. Doesn’t come close to doing them justice.

And then there were the cats. Cats everywhere, just like yesterday in Corfu. As a cat lover, I completely dug the Greek cats.

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We broke off the highly commercial main drag and angled over to the general direction of the now-unused windmills. Once off that main drag, the true character of Mykonos came to the fore.

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The windmills, five of them, stood iconic, like the Easter Island faces, out to sea. They had once been used to mill grain, and now two or three had become private residences as the rest fell into disrepair.

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The guy sitting out front here, I believe actually lives in this windmill. When I asked if I could take his picture, he simply ducked his head and stopped moving.

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From the windmills, we took a moment to add some graffiti to the most incredibly dusty car I’d ever seen, then moved on.

I love the two additions here..."I wish my wife was as dirty as this car," and the answer, "My wife is."

I love the two additions here…”I wish my wife was as dirty as this,” and the answer, “My wife is.”

My addition: "Experimental test dirt. DO NOT WASH."

My addition: “Experimental test dirt. DO NOT WASH.”

We headed down into the confusing, but charming back alleys, reminiscent of the Italian city of Polignano we’d visited a couple of days previous, these streets were narrow, sometimes close enough to touch both sides with arms outstretched. Everything was clean with a whitewash that covered virtually every building on the island. Some of the shops here catered to the standard tourist fare and, of course, jewelry, there were also some more interesting shops.

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As we came to a small courtyard in the middle of the maze of the city, I saw a t-shirt that I quite liked hanging outside a particular shop. I went inside to see if they had it in my size, then spied a series of shirts based on the art and music of John Lennon. And this happened today, on what would have been Lennon’s 72nd birthday. On a small island of 5000 people. In Greece. Shirts I’d never seen before. Go figure.

I bought one of each. Happy birthday, John. Happy birthday, Tobin.

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Speaking of the population of 5000, apparently this island sees something like almost a hundred thousand visitors a year. Mykonos is becoming known as a party destination, much like Ibiza. That kind of saddens me, as I know it will eventually impact some of the culture I got to see today.

This is my...okay, I don't know what the hell I'm trying to do here...

This is my…okay, I don’t know what the hell I’m trying to do here…

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We then entered another shop, and it was, quite frankly, surreal. It was filled with shawls, scarves, wraps, sheets and other clothing, all white linen. Now, there was a bit of a language barrier, but from what I understood, all the clothing had been handmade by a pleasantly cheerful old woman sitting at the back of the shop, smiling and nodding at anyone that came in. She had learned the method from her mother and it had been a skill handed down from one generation to the next. Not something you see much of in North America.

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I can’t imagine any North American business person ever considering opening a business in one of these back alleys. A hundred square feet at best, no storage, no access to receive stock, no way to advertise, no place for a massive neon sign…and yet, we see business after successful business making it work here.

And not one franchise to be seen yet on this trip. Nice. I can’t express how refreshing it is to not see a familiar chain store.

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So, no franchises, but they DID have stairs leading nowhere. Bizarre.

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On our way out of Mykonos, back to the boat, we saw a fat old pelican sitting at a public faucet. He appeared quite content for all the attention he received, though I wouldn’t ever want to piss him off. He was big.

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I would have like to have taken a second boat over to the island of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo. No one lives there and it’s the site of an archeological dig. One of the tour guides described the island as quite barren and rocky, like walking on the moon.

Though Karen had won the bet fair and square, she actually couldn’t find any jewelry that caught her attention enough to buy. And yes, I’m well aware of how much of a bullet I dodged there.

We got back to the ship and ate dinner with the same group from last night and an added group of three from Edinborough, Scotland.

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Took a few nighttime pics, then headed off to bed earlier tonight. We’re up at 6:00 tomorrow for Athens.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 531See part six here.

And so this is Christmas

And so this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year older
And a new one just begun.

Happy Christmas (War Is Over) – John Lennon

This isn’t going to be one of those funny, heartwarming Christmas blogs. This one won’t put the fun in dysfunctional. This one’s pretty much all dysfunctional. So, if you’re looking for funny, if you’re looking for heartwarming, look elsewhere.

Every Christmas is a struggle for me. I have a family that loves it. The Girl will start looking forward to Christmas carols as early as July, and the second Halloween passes, she’s playing them. The Wife spends hours making the house look beautiful and Christmas-y, warm and inviting. The Boy starts throwing out hints for gifts as early as October.

Bauble On Christmas Tree Background by Petr Kratochvil

And then there’s me. I tend to try and shy away from the season as much as possible. Every year it’s a struggle to get me to decorate the outside of the house. It’s not that I hate Christmas, though that’ll always be my pat answer to anyone that asks. No, it’s just that I absolutely want to avoid it with all my soul.

When I was a kid, I loved Christmas. Even when there wasn’t much under it, I didn’t care. It was just a wonderful time full of anticipation and wonder. The world was white, perfect for showing off all those lights and decorations. The smells of the food that would be prepared days in advance would drive me crazy. Family was always stopping by, or we were visiting.

Christmas Tree Lights Effect by David Wagner

Christmas Tree Lights Effect by David Wagner

Maybe this all started the year my mother and step-father broke up. Because it happened Christmas day.

Or maybe it started the year after, when my mother was alone, and none of us had any money for gifts. But still, we were together.

Even if it was then, I should have gotten over all that in the years since, when I got married and had children of my own. And for a time, I must admit, it abated somewhat. It never went away, but it lessened for a while, this desire to avoid it all.

God knows my in-laws make it amazing. My father and mother-in-law are absolutely amazing, and every year, they come over Christmas morning for a big breakfast. Then we all head over to the Wife’s sister’s place where she and her husband put on a ridiculously amazing Christmas dinner. All of the Wife’s family is there, including all our nieces.  There’s always a lot of laughter and fun.

Yet still, for all of that, in the back of my mind, a big part of me just wants to go home and avoid it all.

I love the family I married into. I couldn’t have found a more amazing group of people. They’re funny, supportive and they treat me as their own. And our friends always make it better too. Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve wouldn’t be the same without the Hickey family. There’s no one like them and I’m thankful for their friendship and love and support every day of the year.

I have other friends that know what I’ve gone through and are always there to talk me through it.

And maybe that’s it.  Maybe it’s the fact that, because my mother has never accepted my wife, she is no longer welcome in my home. Maybe it’s because my brother can’t be trusted with anything. He made the choice a long time ago to not act as a brother would. Maybe it’s because I haven’t really talked to my sister in almost three decades because she made the choice to live in a paranoid wonderland of hate and poverty. Maybe it’s partly due to knowing I have this other group of nieces and nephews…Todd, Tabitha, Ryan, Kelly, Buddy, Genevieve…probably even more that I don’t know about…all these people that I last saw as young children that are now all adults…and I know nothing about them. I haven’t seen any of them in far too long.

My brother and sister I’m done with. My mother I’ll visit at times during the holidays, to be served up the usual helping of guilt and sadness. It’s something I refuse to subject my family to anymore. So I guess I’m part shield, part martyr in that respect. But I do it to protect them. I’m sure the rest of my family has heard a startlingly different view of this and view me as the asshole with a bitch for a wife. I’m past caring about that, to be honest. If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned people will think what they want and I’ll have little control over it. The ones who have taken the time to know both myself and my wife know the truth.

Anyway, back to Christmas.

Maybe I’m being selfish. I have all the family that anyone could want. And I feel extremely selfish for wanting someone from my side of the family to treat me that same way, to give me that same courtesy that these other people–people who didn’t know me half as long as my family have–show me. I feel selfish because I already have more than most.

So, as I attend all these Christmas functions, there always seems to be this black hole that sucks and pulls at me. It shouldn’t be there, I shouldn’t give it that power. I know I should turn away from it and look at all I have and how incredibly lucky I am.

But I can’t help feeling like an orphan at this time of year.

oliver_more

So for any of you that know me, please don’t ever shy away from wishing me a Merry Christmas. Just understand that I may not wish it back with the same level of passion. This is the time of the year when those cracks in my own family have the most light shone on them. The time when, at least for me, they become most obvious.

And so this is Christmas.

Nothing to kill or die for

Thirty-one years ago tomorrow, I was an 18-year-old moody kid.  My mother and step-father’s seemingly happy marriage was exactly 16 days from imploding, but no one knew that yet.  It was just another Tuesday to endure before looking forward to Christmas holidays.

In other words, it was a normal Tuesday morning for this teenager.  He was young for his age, naive in some ways, though he’d lived through a lot already in those short first years of his life.  More than anything, he was insecure.  He’d learned to hide it very well over the previous three years, to mask it, but it had never ever really gone away.

But at this time, things weren’t bad.  Yes, he was moody, but what teenager wasn’t to some degree?  Yes, he thought he knew everything and his parents knew little.  Yes, he thought this was one of the hardest times of his life.  It would be years before he would understand these were some of the best years of his life.

And the one thing that always got him through the worst times.  When friends let him down, when family disappointed him, when life became hard…he could always retreat to his room and put an album on.  Music was his salvation.  Music made all the bad stuff go away, even if for a little while.  Music was rebellion, it was attitude, it was confidence…it was everything he wanted to be and could be, even if it was for the duration of a three-minute song.

Music was life.

So on this Tuesday morning, the teen was, as usual, the first one up in the house, his parents both retired and usually not up for another half-hour or so.  He got up, let his dog out, had his shower, let the dog back in, fed her, then set about getting his own breakfast.

Before he poured out his cereal, he was already turning on the stereo that was set up in the dining room, already tuned to Ottawa’s CHEZ 106, the only radio station worth listening to at the time.

And the teen was delighted when he came in just as John Lennon’s “Imagine” began playing. 

The teen then set about getting his breakfast, singing along with the words, memorized years before and, as far as he was concerned, not only one of Lennon’s best songs ever, but one of the best songs by anyone, anywhere.

Then the teen sat down at the dining room table, opened a Fantastic Four comic book and had only gotten a couple of pages in by the time the song ended.  And then the DJ came on and told the teen that John Lennon was dead, that he’d been shot late the night before.

And I sat frozen, one palm flat on the table, the other holding a forgotten spoon, as the tears first welled up, then spilled over in a torrent.  I couldn’t catch my breath.  I realize now that I was having my first panic attack. 

I don’t know how long I sat there.  I don’t know how long I cried for, but it was quite a while.  Then I got up and called my brother.  He’d heard the night before so he’d had some time to process it.  We commiserated briefly, then I had to hang up.

Around then, my mother came out from her bedroom.  She saw me and immediately asked what was wrong.  Again, looking back, I’m sure she was simply relieved nothing was wrong with her son, but at the time I took her reaction as callous.  Cold.

Though I felt I could barely function, as though my brain had grown cold and sluggish, I still managed to be ready and waiting as the bus stopped to pick me up, the last student before hitting the high school.  I don’t remember what anyone else on that bus looked like.  I wasn’t seeing anything.

I also don’t remember much of that school day.  I know I drifted from class to class.  I know one of my friends, Robert, seemed as upset as I was, the two of us having discovered the Beatles around the same time.

And yes, I know some of it was the fact that I was enamored with the music of not only the Beatles, but of all four musicians’ solo work.  And some of it was my age.  I know how, from an adult perspective, it’s stupid to become so despondent over a guy who, when it comes down to it, wrote and performed music for a living and did some strange events with his strange wife.  I know all this.  Hell, I knew it then.

But my world got a little bit darker then.  It would get much darker before I began to finally see some light again, but this was like the first hint of that.  With those four words, “John Lennon is dead”, I had been led to an abyss that I had only been vaguely aware of previously, and I had been shown a first glimpse of its depths.

And my tour guide was a shitstain named Mark David Chapman.

It wasn’t just that my world got darker, it was the blossom of an idea that there were other people out there that were simply monsters in human skin.  That there were minds out there that were broken and twisted.  That there were some that would hurt you badly, and do it on purpose, and smile as they did it.

This wasn’t the world the Beatles sang of.  This was all the injustices John Lennon railed against, both in speech and in song.

This was this other world, this darker world rising up and muzzling him, shutting him out, cancelling him out.  This was the dark hating the light and swallowing it.

I couldn’t, as that teen, ever express that sudden knowledge, and the paralyzing fear that accompanied it.  I don’t think, before writing this, that I’ve ever had the words to express it.  I don’t feel I’m even doing it justice now.

All I can say is, that teen, that moody, naive, insecure, scared teen had his eyes opened a lot wider that day over three decades ago.  He didn’t like what he saw, and, for a long time afterward, he flinched and looked away, not wanting to believe what he saw.

There’s a lot of good and beauty in this world.  I know that.  But not far behind it, sitting just out of sight, but always ready to rear up and tear your heart out, there’s a lot of bad.  There’s ugliness and terror.

John Lennon fought that ugliness.  He saw it for what it was, looked it in the face and had the courage to stare it down.  To shout it down.

Even knowing that one day, it may get the better of him, he still railed at it.  To quote another singer, he kicked at the darkness til it bled daylight.

I don’t ever think we’ll see his like again.

And all these years later, right or wrong, I still miss the man.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one