Thursday, July 21, 2016

The giant man at life school

I don't know who this is,
but I don't think
she's  an optimist. 
The advice columnist Carolyn Hax recently explained to a writer why it is easier to be unhappy than optimistic.

"Optimism," said Ms. Hax, "demands that you greet new people and situations with an open mind, instead of just lumping them into some lazy category of Things You Already Know." 

There is no better place to witness people and situations you don't already know than the supermarket, or as I like to refer to it, life school.

Sooner or later, we all show up in this place of aisles that reflect our myriad needs, and stand in lines with our choices of how to meet them.  

There is this man I see there at least twice a month. He's a giant guy, several inches over six feet and not fat but, well, "stocky."  He looks like David Crosby does now. 

I notice him because I won't forget the first time I saw him.

It was during the summer last year and we were in Produce. The woman he was with was tiny, just over five feet tall. She wore enormous dark glasses that covered half her face, had a blond beehive hairstyle and was dressed in an expensive looking sheath dress and high-heeled strappy sandals. She looked like she'd just come from a cocktail party in 1965.

She trailed the big man in sullen silence, as if they'd left an unfinished argument in the car.   

As happens when you start with others in Produce, the giant man, his unhappy companion and I began to journey through the aisles together, from Deli, into Beverages and onto Spices and Salad Dressings. Very thoughtfully, he placed things in his cart while the woman said nothing.
She erupted in Nuts and Canned Vegetables.

"What the hell did you just say to me?" she hissed.

The man didn't say or do anything, and so, loudly, she repeated the question.

With his silence, she only became more agitated.

They reached the end of the aisle and were out in the open now, in the stretch that separates the registers from the ends of the aisles. 

"You don't talk to me like that!" she said. "You know what? You're the biggest asshole I know."

"And you are drunk," the giant man finally said.

The crowd stepped to the side as they approached, but then clustered in their wake, saying to each other, "Did you see that?" Cashiers gaped. Small children stopped slapping each other in line to watch.

"Oh, man," whispered an employee next to me, pen poised over his clipboard.

"I DON'T HAVE TO BE HERE!" the woman yelled, and wobbled toward the exit.

The giant man rolled up to a line next to mine. Something in the way his gaze traveled, settling on nothing, seemed practiced.  I tried not to look over; nobody wants to see their misery reflected in someone else's expression, but then he looked right at me.

It wasn't a look that said you don't know the half of it, or, I know, right? It was a look that said no big deal.

And then he looked away.

I saw them again about a month later as they left a local restaurant. He walked ahead, she stumbled after him, nipping at his heels.

If you were in your underthings, and the house caught fire, and you had to run outside as you were, because you had no time to grab a robe, you wouldn't care that neighbors saw you in your next to nothing, you'd be worried about what could be perishing inside, in the flames. 

To witness, and withhold judgment, ignore your assumptions – why would anyone put up with that? – like happiness, is harder to achieve sometimes, but worth it. It's something I've begun to do reflexively. Maybe because I've learned that I usually don't know the half of it, or just don't like being judged myself. 

Or maybe it's because we're hearing from so many from different walks who have felt so misunderstood for so long by those people who don't greet new people and situations with an open mind, and do  lump them into some lazy category of Things They Already Know.

Several times since that afternoon in Produce, I've seen that giant man on his own in the supermarket, strolling with his cart, looking at labels, calmly adding things, moving on.

Yesterday, I pulled into the parking lot and had to wait to park behind a big truck that had stopped in front of the door. From the rear view mirror hung a handicapped placard. The plate said "Veteran." I heard yelling.

"Don't you tell me to shut up!"

The giant man was in the front seat, and the 1965 woman was struggling to get into the passenger seat. 

He looked at me as I passed. I looked at him. Again, I glimpsed that veteran plate.

In my category of things I already know, this is an intolerable situation, a house on fire. But in the category of things the giant man already knows, this could be underthings, while more important things have not yet perished, or harder things have already happened.  

I don't know the half of it.

But at life school, is where I have learned how to keep the door to my mind from swinging shut, because those doors lock from the outside. Then, there you are, stuck with the other half.  

Note:  Other campuses of life school are conveniently located at the DMV or the ER, but they don't offer upbeat, overhead music from the seventies that will stay in your head for the rest of the day.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

We are all horrified

---From a shared Facebook post by Jim Hightower
Once, in my early high school career, I joined a group of kids who decided to skip school and hang around someone's house listening to John Lennon's White Album, which had swears in it. Two of the members of this group had terrible reputations.
But I wanted to see what it was like to be a badass. 
I squirmed with guilt the minute I knew my first class was underway and nothing felt better until 2:15 when I could go home and stop feeling stupid and disappointing. 
My mother found out of course, and asked me why I'd done it. I told her I didn't know why. Then, in veiled teen speak, I asked if she thought I was stupid and disappointing. 
I might as well have asked her if I was not actually a human, but a mountain lion. 
"No," she said, mystified by this. "Of course not. Why would you think that?" 
She didn't patch a few facts together and pretend to know what was going on with me. She just loved me and wanted to understand. And, so, she asked me to tell her what she didn't know.

Some time later, I told her how much I liked talking to her because she always "understood." Actually, she told me, she didn't always, because her life and experiences were nothing like mine. But she always listened. 
The honesty of that distinction has been on my mind lately, with respect to the "Black Lives Matter"movement and the "All Lives Matter" response that appears to frustrate everyone. If I get this even a little, both sides have a different take on the meaning. The "All Lives" people see the slogan as divisive, while it is meant by "Black Lives" to suggest greater inclusion, a desire to have one's fair share too. Not more. Just as much.
But what I hear above the din, over and over again is a response I understand better than any: don't explain what you haven't experienced.

Jim Hightower's post on misunderstanding which appeared several times in my newsfeed recently appeals to me for its elegant truth:  We can differ in history or culture and other characteristics of identity - race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin - and still  honor each other on common ground: we are human beings who love other human beings. 

Our children, and parents, and spouses, our family and friends.  

And we don't want to lose them. 

It isn't the inability to relate to the lives and loves of others that widens the divide. It is the inability to admit that you don't know more about a thing than you do, and failing to ask for enlightenment. It is failing to locate and honor that common ground where we share more than we don't.

Especially now. 
Because, now we share Dallas.
We are all horrified.
We were all horrified by Sandy Hook, and Oklahoma City and Orlando. 

And 9/11, the first time in my memory when the country, united by massive trauma, turned to itself for comfort, then fell to either side of our common ground in the month or so after, when, just as we were hoisting flags and listening to Lee Greenwood, some politician blamed another for "letting this happen," and there we were, united and polarized in crisis.
Here we are again, united and polarized by crisis, this time with a black, blue and white conflict at its core.  
However we dissect cause and effect, we are all horrified by the taking of lives not lived, people not at fault. We have all been left under a cloud of apprehension, a feeling of dread – where will the next one be? How bad? Who will die when an officer interprets a civilian's show of fear for his life as a threat to his own? What video will go viral?
I'm losing heart. Like others, I fear growing less horrified, and I dread the next crisis that will crowd this common ground with broken-hearted people. All different in ways that matter less than those in which we are exactly the same.  
I'm going to start with that.
I'm going to ask, I'm going to listen, I'm going to read, and I'm going to keep showing up at the humanity party as a life that does not matter more than any other.

Even if I wish I could do more.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Don't let them take your heart

It happens quietly, and slowly 
the way the spirit fights for life
But the spirit is only so resilient

The heart must act.

Don't let them take your heart

The fear that fills us
The sadness that slows us
The anger that devours us
The dread that comes with the first glance at morning headlines
Don't learn to expect the worst
Don't become less surprised

Don't let them take your heart

Shore up your faith in the humanity which connects us
Keep the capacity to grieve, to cry for a stranger
Don't let your spirit lose its fight

Don't let them take your heart.

When it seems unsafe to be where you belong
When it seems everyone might be a killer in the making or a victim in waiting
Remember that fear only feels like information
And that far more evil has been stopped than perpetrated 

Don't let them take your heart.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Now to then and back again.

Grief is heavy
If it slows your steps at times
It is  to remember who you lost
Without getting lost yourself.

Three years ago today, my brother Bill died.   
In the still fog of the days that followed, I wrote this  about grief

June 14, 2013

"I made you laugh. I LOVE when that happened." --Bill Cook (1960-2013)

Grief is a boulder in the middle of the room.
It can't be budged.
If you push it away, it won't yield
When you aren't watching where you walk, you fall over it
And it hurts
You can't pretend it isn't there
You can move the furniture to walk around it
But it still blocks your view of something
You can try and live in another room altogether
But you have to pass by it eventually to go from now to then and back again
Grief is like a boulder in the middle of the room
It doesn't belong there
You don't want it there
You throw a blanket over it
It feels too big for the room
Too big for your life
You cry

And finally, grief speaks
It says: I might be in your way, but I used to live in your heart
I am your memories
I am your loss
But I am what you cherished for a long time
I am trying to find a way back in
But you won't open it
You walk around me
You avoid me
Open your heart
And I will live there again

You sit next to the grief boulder
Because you understand
You need to fill that space in your heart
To feel whole again.
So you make a deal
You will honor grief
And grief will help you heal.

You let it in.
It feels heavy, hard to carry
But your view is clear
Your travel is unobstructed
from now to then and back again

Without that boulder in the way.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Everyone you meet could have a Frankie at home

This is not Frankie. This dog belongs to some friends
 and is here to help create the right mood.
I saw this on the internet:
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always. 
Most of us read something like that and instantly think of people who really need to read something like that. 
Last week, while waiting to board a flight to North Carolina, I stopped for lunch in one of those places where you probably won't become ill, but would not order lobster salad either. There was no denting my mood. In two days, we would see the last of our four kids graduate college and yes,we are looking forward to the raise. 
I was feeling generous. 
A seventy-something server, trailed by a young trainee, greeted me and showed me to a table. She was chatty, with a familiar manner I always find endearing. She couldn't have been nicer to me. 
A man came in who looked like he'd just left a serious job or meeting. He was nicely dressed, fit, and carried an elegant brief with a Wall Street Journal poking out of the pocket.  In response to the server's cheery greeting, he quietly hung his coat over the chair and then said, "I'll take an iced tea." 
Next to me sat a diner who was known to everyone who worked there, in that regular customer or former employee way. My server greeted him with a hug and began to update him on goings on. 
She lowered her voice. "Hey. I had to finally put Frankie down," she told him.
"Aw, no. Really?" 
It was a long story, and at points in the telling, I didn't think she'd make it to the end. 
"And what do you think was the last thing that dog did, right after they gave him the stuff?" she asked.
The customer shook his head.
She leaned in. "He licked my face," she said. 
I prayed this how about that kind of comment would not fall sideways into a sob, because already, I was welling up.
When she brought me a dessert menu, I told her that I was sorry about her dog. "Aw, honey," she said. "Thank you." She leaned on the back of the chair across from me. 
"The worst part" she began, "worse than when Frankie went deaf and stopped walking, the worst part was when Jack,  the other one, didn't know where Frankie was when I got back. Wouldn't leave the door. Wouldn't eat. So, now I lost one and here's the other one, won't eat." 
Her chin crumpled. "I didn't know what to do," she said. "I was beside myself. So I got him a brother at the rescue. Ugliest little thing you ever saw." 
This brought a sudden, husky laugh. The serious man looked over, gave her an up and down look.
I asked how they were doing. 
"Oh. My God. Oh. My God. You should see. Can't be apart. One's big, one's little. They're both rescues." 
Later, she came back with the check and I left her a 100% tip because I couldn't help it. "You're the best example that a trainee could have. Thank you," I wrote.
I can get annoyed. I lose patience with people who drive 70 in the left lane or walk too slowly on the sidewalk in front of me, or talk without listening, or too loudly, or too close. I get frustrated when people don't seem to be acting like who they really are, or walk into elevators that are full with people trying to get off. I have to breathe when I'm behind travelers who won't move on people movers.   
But I've thought about the server since I saw that simple thing on the internet. 

I suspect that when Frankie was going downhill, there were probably times when my server didn't count her items before bringing them to the express lane. She may have walked into a building before she let the other person come out. In her work place she may not have gotten to a customer as fast as she should. She might have laughed more than necessary, to fill silence that might have been unbearable. 

And, I've thought about that well put together man too, grim and immune to a warm greeting, whose maybe-meeting might have been of a Frankie nature, over anything, might  have changed his life, and maybe not for the better. 
It won't always work, but I hope the ones who really should, like me, can remember:
Everyone you meet could have a Frankie at home. Be kind. Always.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The most important question to ask and answer in a relationship - often.

A picture of heart talk.
I'm not going to be annoying and bury it five paragraphs down. And it's not "I love you," or "Do you love me?" because that is too sprawling and massive and hard to answer in a single convincing way, even when it's completely true.

In my opinion, the most important question to ask and answer in a relationship is: 

What do I mean to you? 

I think so for two reasons.

It is important because when it is unasked or unanswered, the person whose heart needs to know this feels like they're walking around underdressed for the weather. Some days are colder than others. 

And, it is important because it is the easiest one to answer. Examples of what someone means to you are everywhere, all the time. 

Words are best. But if you're awkward with heart talk, deeds are acceptable as long as they say:

Here's what you mean to me.

My husband is a consultant whose travel takes him away every week.  Because it clears his head, and because we aren't living in a maintenance free place, he spends some part of  the weekend staying on top of yard work. 
I help with "selected" projects, mostly ones that involve turning things on or off. 
Eventually we'll be working from home again, using our "I" statements when we get annoyed with each other. But for now, to be apart all week, and then engage in separate projects for any amount of time on the weekend makes things, as my mother used to say, "skew-gee" (unbalanced).  
It was my birthday recently. 
I'd asked for a new laptop bag but I really didn't need one. Between all of us in this family who have used them and then upgraded to others, we have laptop bags lying around all over the place. We keep them for the same reason people keep other things that have been replaced by much nicer things. You don't want them anymore but you never know. (What is the rest of that, I always wonder. You never know what?)
My husband handed me a wrapped box which was big enough for a couple of pairs of shoes and told me to guess what it was.
"I don't know."
I felt the box.
"A helmet."
"What kind of helmet?" 
I was still kind of wondering why it wasn't a laptop bag.  Gifts are hard to come up with after you've been with someone for many years and I'd handed him that idea. 
I opened it. It was a bike helmet. 
This made no sense. Years earlier, I'd surrendered my bike to one of the kids or gave it away because I didn't ride anymore, even though you never know. 
So, I said "Wow, this is really nice, the colors are great." 
He said, "It goes with that," and he pointed to the corner of the kitchen behind me where he'd leaned a brand new bicycle against the wall. 
I immediately got on it and rode it around the kitchen table.
Inside the house.
For about ten seconds, I had that feeling one gets when one races to the end of a dock knowing they will fling themselves into the air in only seconds. 
"Oh my God, I love it," I said.   
"I got it because I thought we could start doing this together," he said, "when I'm home."
He handed me a second gift, a book describing where in our state we'd ride. He shared thoughts he'd had of mapping rides around other things – places to stop and shop, gentle landscapes to take in. 
"I thought we'd start over by the Tech, and ride to that restaurant near Mountain Road, and then stop and have some lunch and then head over to..." 
He was as excited as I was.
When I was small, and felt bored or lonely from time to time, nothing was better than finding someone I wanted to be around and asking, "Wanna ride bikes?" You could spend hours in motion, feeling the rush of downhill speed, soaking in sun, or leisurely peddling while you talked elementary school politics. You loved so much about that freedom, but mostly, you loved doing stuff with someone you really liked, and who liked you back.

"I got it because I thought we could start doing this together," is what he said to me. But what I heard was:

"Here is what we mean to me."

It is the most important question to ask and answer for another reason and it is this:  the most important things we know, as sure as our own voice, are also the things we need to know again and again. 

It can get cold outside. Make sure your loved one has their coat before they leave.

And their helmet.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dogs, cars, and a really good decision I made while applying mascara one day.

A chase dog getting ready to write the next book
I made a story for you.
A dog sits comfortably in a fenced yard where not much goes on, but little goes wrong. From where he sits, he has a decent view of what the other dogs in the neighborhood are doing.  
Occasionally, a car passes by and the yard dog watches as a neighbor dog rips and races after it, barking to wake the Gods, until the car is out of sight. 
The dog in the yard shakes his head, goes over to the fence and says to the chase dog who is on his way home, "Come here a minute." 
The chase dog approaches. 
"Tell me something," says the yard dog. "Why do you frustrate yourself, chasing something you can't catch?" 
The chase dog says, "Haven't caught. I don't know that I can't." 
The yard dog says, "You have a record of complete failure." 
The chase dog  trots across the street and says over his shoulder, "So do you." 
The yard dog shakes his head and goes back to his spot, where not much goes wrong.
The end.

Some of you know I've been working on, and submitting my novel for several hundred years.
I started it in 2008 and began submitting the first version of it in 2010. Then I went back to work full-time and left it on the desk next to the cat. Three years later, I came back to writing full-time but now my novel and I had grown apart.
My writer-cat Percy had died. My crazy, funny, muse of a brother had died. The last two of our children were leaving home at once. And now, my book didn't even look familiar to me. It just seemed as heavy as a memory, and not one of the good ones.   
But I'd come this far. 
So I put it on a diet and it lost three characters. Then I gave it a better central conflict. Then I decided one of the characters was particularly likable and gave him more presence. Then, because you never paint just one room in the house, I gave the other characters more presence. 
Which only made it gain the weight back.
I tried to change it's personality, but there were holes that I couldn't see and the charm leaked out. So, I listened to music that reminded me of when my book and I first met. I tried to remember the feelings I first had for it. We went to counseling and got advice, and I rewrote it. But then, it just looked like one of those strange looking homes that were probably nice before someone put on too many additions.
And then. 
One day, about two weeks ago, while I was putting on mascara, I started to see a story. I saw the characters, what they looked like, and the way they looked in a conversation. I saw them develop and the way their pasts moved them around each other like game pieces on a board. 
Writer-kitten Gus
"Holy crap," I said to my new writer-cat, Gus. 
I knew my characters would meet each other, and I began to see how they would react. I watched them talk to one another. And after a while, I sensed a problem brewing in their universe.
I began to feel for them, and I couldn't imagine how it would work out.
And then. 
I could. 
Don't be sad, but book 3 and I have decided to separate.  Some people I know would look at my submission stats and say it's too early to give up. Some would say, "I see where you're going with this." 
But I'm not quitting.
I'm not giving up.
I'm not sad.
And, I didn't fail. 
That part of my training is simply over. 
A picture of practice
And, there is opportunity cost. I won't catch book 4 without a chase, and I can't chase book 4 if I'm still begging book 3 to tell me what it needs from me. And I may not even chase book 4 at all if book 3 makes me too frustrated and discouraged to leave the yard. 
And so, that's it. I've stopped chasing book 3, and book 4 and I are in a relationship. 
I made this story in case you need to remember that failure, turned another way, can be seen as practice for success. 
Whether we're putting books we've known since they were wee little pages in the drawer, or ending a relationship, or leaving a job, or moving to a new state, the act of cutting our losses and leaving who we were is universally wrenching. 
Until it isn't.
My advice: free yourself of the old, free yourself for the new, let the writing begin, and tell your next story, because it's waiting.