Friday, November 17, 2017

A thing I learned in November about trees, leaves and love.

Here are some brave
 trees showing their bark.
I love November.

Last week, I watched a storm of leaves swirling outside my window. My cat Gus darted left and right on the sill, trying to follow the path of each one that broke free and sailed into the air.  

I wonder why some leaves hang on so much longer than others, but for now, those sturdy trees and their twisty, intricate branches are stark and without cover.  Against the November sky, the contrast is striking or poetic, depending on how you wish to view it.

You see where I'm going with this, right?   

Several years ago, when all of my siblings and I were busy with marriage and kids and the general chaos of life's middle third, we saw each other at usual intervals, the Fourth of July, on Christmas Eve, etc. 

We were together enough to have conversations and enjoy each other, but while our lives grew bigger and richer with each year, we didn't necessarily know each other better, it seemed to me.

That's common.

But, at some point it began to bother me that if I'd been given a quiz about the pivotal  things in the lives of all of my siblings  - what they were thinking about, struggling with, conquering - I wasn't sure I'd pass. 

Disclosure, sharing the things that make you the tree you really are, evolves of  trust and history of course. But ask any tree, when you disclose, you lose your leaves and then, there you are with your  bark showing, making you vulnerable to the elements: judgment, approval, criticism. 

Not showing your bark isn't untrue. For some of us, probably most of us, it's more comfortable to show our leaves. But it is true, that when you do let it show, you're trading vulnerability for the possibility of being loved by someone who is trying to shed their own leaves. 

We are all vulnerable, under our leaves

about something.

We are also capable of accepting

when someone needs it.

and of forgiving.

when someone asks for it.

After our younger brother died, and my sister-in-law lost her mother, some of us gathered for the first time to celebrate Thanksgiving together. There were seventeen of us. We laughed and told stories, and if different and busy lives had made us unfamiliar with each other's day to day,  it was not evident that day, nor has it been since.

I lost a lot of leaves that Thanksgiving, and more over the years and months that followed in all of my relationships. Pretty regularly, I think about everyone more, and more than I wonder what they are thinking about, struggling with and conquering, I ask them to tell me. 

I love November.

I love the way we shed those leaves, easy ones first, harder ones later. If it feels risky and cold at times, you know that in the spring, your cover will be new and fresh and lovely and your bark will be happier, too.

Ask any tree. Good things happen when you aren't covered in old, expired leaves anymore.

So love November with me. And when life is whipping by, don't keep your leaves from leaving their tired twigs. 

It's too hard.

Let them fly on the wind. 

Cheers to you, and all the trees in your forest. Enjoy your Thanksgiving with all your bark.






Friday, November 3, 2017

You don't need the right words. You need something that might be easier.

Here is a picture of honesty
I have a greeting card that I like so much, I bought two of them and I hope I never need either.

It says:  I'm really sorry I haven't been in touch. I didn't know what to say. 

Whether you would send that card or not, the person who does is conveying that their sympathy is real, and probably larger than their ability to express it with the "right words." 

I like that. 

It wasn't until my brother died that I learned - from the receiving end - how much less really is more when people are feeling that absent the "right words," they have failed to comfort you. 

I remember being incredibly moved when someone looked in my eyes and said, simply, "You are going to miss him so much."

Because that was true, and the person who said it understood my feelings, more than he wrestled with making me understand his. 

Here are some thoughts about that.

When someone has suffered loss
...or has been hurt
...or is afraid
...or isolated
...or is alone

Don't worry about what to say.
Be able to say nothing.

No one is waiting for you to come up with something. 
No one is going to be disappointed.

No one is going to doubt your depth of feeling.

Don't worry about how well you can describe your sadness.
Be willing to imagine theirs. 
Keep your heart wide open.

Don't worry about the right words.
If you're present and listening and feeling
that's better than many things you could say.

Don't worry about the right actions.
If you can hold someones eyes, someone's hand
that's as right as actions get.

Don't worry about where to stand or sit.
If you are standing with a person in their place of pain
and you can give up the duty of right words
you are where you should be.

Far easier than finding the right words 
is looking into the eyes of a lost person
and saying with the part of your heart that knows: 

"You are hurting so much right now and I am here with you." 

They will hear you.






Sunday, October 29, 2017

In the middle of a great memory

Here is where people sit
when they visit my loft.
 Have a seat.
Several years ago, after my first marriage ended, I woke up in a sudden, panicky pothole of Oh my God, what's this going to be like?

A therapist said to me: "Not knowing what your new life is going to be like doesn't make the former one better." 

At this moment, I know six people who are making, or dealing with, some level of change in their lives  - divorce, relocation, loss, career change, and marriage among them. Some of them are changing, some are being changed, but all will be happier, after they finish being uncomfortable.

"I'm not a fan of change," said a friend of mine. Nobody is. We go through it for the greater good of personal growth, however, much like we go to the dentist for the greater good of not having teeth like a jack-o'-lantern when we're older. 

If this is you, I have a story and a little advice for you.

When I was a wee me, I took a job that was going to pay a lot more than I was making. It was kind of a haul, but that didn't bother me really.

It was also a stretch skills-wise, "for once," as someone pointed out at the time, because I was very good at finding "safe" jobs that I could do in my sleep and have plenty of time leftover to gossip with my co-workers about the senior executives. 

This bothered me a little.

But the move was right; it was time to have enough money to buy shoes that only went with one outfit,  it was time to move to a nicer place, and it was time to send my brain to the gym. 

I went after this hard, and I was offered and accepted the job. Five minutes after I hung up the phone my first case of workplace anxiety walked up to me and said, "Hi I'm Imposter Syndrome. Are you kidding me?"  

For a while, I didn't know where things were or how everything worked. I had trouble keeping up. To make up for what I didn't understand, I over-listened and understood nothing.  

This bothered me a lot.

A couple of weeks later, I was still freaking out if my boss knocked on my door frame with, "got a second?" and still feeling unsure how to back away from a manager who told stories of her weekend that were five years long.

This bothered me most.

I wasn't a fraud of course. I stayed with it, calmed down,  and  soon, I was able to say "Yup," without looking up when my boss tapped on my door frame, and I could even debate with people who had the good parking spaces.

But until positive changes began to multiply and ripple through my life all I knew was what I didn't have anymore.  I didn't have my old job with the co-worker who did newscaster impressions, or my Friday night drinks, or my cafeteria which served cheeseburgers like they did in my elementary school, or my boss who thought I was fantastic.

I didn't know I'd changed, I only knew I was comfortable. But until I became comfortable, what this felt like was, Oh my God. What's this going to be like?

Here are some thoughts:

Change is exhilarating and frightening and when it's both at once, it can be hard to figure out if you're comfortable or not. What you need to know when that happens is: you aren't. But you will be.

If you feel like you miss your former life it's because you see it as a thing that has ended rather than a point on the continuum of all things that evolve as they live, unless they are plants for which I am responsible.

I have learned that we don't have to do anything about that. You will change without trying. A week will bring footing.  A month will bring familiarity. Six months later, you'll know how to skirt that manager and say "yup" without looking up.

I see it this way.

The things we do, the people we see, the plans we make, the memories we have, the experiences of joy and sadness, the brilliant and bad relationships, successes and losses are the elements of a lifelong portrait in progress; one that becomes richer and more beautiful to view with each step away from the single brushstrokes that have created it.

Whether you move from your home, or change your career, or lose someone who can't stay in your life as you want them to, when all is said and done, if you are in motion, you are adding brushstrokes.

"You never know when you're in the middle of a great memory," said my son recently, who is too young to be so wise. 

He's right.  However many we leave behind, however many we have yet to make, we are always in the middle of a memory.

I wish you many great memories of today, and the happiest of those yet to be made. 

And, thank you for visiting.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Beyond #MeToo

The break rooms of the future
When I was sixteen, I worked in a stationery store as a cashier. My boss, the owner, was intentionally intimidating, and one day, after I came to work from a day at the beach, he stood behind the counter with me. 

"Well," he said, "look at you. I'll bet you think you look like some Swedish movie star with your hair and tan like that."

He wouldn't move to let me pass.

I didn't say, "Get away from me you disgusting, middle-aged creep who married his wife for her money." 

I said, "I don't."  

A customer walked in. I quit two weeks later.

I told my kids this story and others when they were entering the work force for two reasons. First, to let them know about dinosaurs who walked the work planet when I was a young beach-goer. And second, to let them know that smart, self-respecting people can be ensnared in moments of powerlessness that force them to choose between escaping and confronting. 

Recently, after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, Lara Weber of the Chicago Tribune editorial board wrote a piece that I will love forever about the power of millennials to change the culture of sexual harrassment.

They will. We raised them to.

Says Weber: "Women (and men) I know who are in their 20s wince at the stories we tell of the sexual harassment we’ve brushed off over the years. They say they’d never stand for it, and although that’s easier said than done, I believe them. These are the 3-year-olds who were taught to raise hell if anyone touched them, and now they’re filling the workforce." 


In his male-dominated workplace my son has said there is "zero tolerance" for predatory behavior, nor would his female counterparts stand for it. 

On a recent "Closer Look" segment, Seth Meyers made a comment about the #MeToo campaign that went something like this: "Nothing will change until we acknowledge how prevalent the climate of sexual predation is, and until men realize that they are complicit."

The audience went crazy.

I get the applause, I get that Seth would never behave this way, and is sympathetic toward women, and is scornful of complicit men. And sure, I like that he's a contemporary man addressing an age-old problem.

But shouldn't we talk about what already has changed? Shouldn't we talk about what isn't happening to the women Seth is not referring to? And why it isn't?

The number of women who responded to the #MeToo campaign with their stories range wildly in age and the experiences they report. No doubt many of them were cornered in the70's, 80's and 90's and I have no doubt that there are women today who feel dominated and intimidated by men who have not evolved out of that behavior.   

But in talking about "complicit men" is Seth referring to dinosaurs who work for and won't report other dinosaurs who won't change their behavior?  

Because, I know millennials who would go to work in their underwear before they'd sexually harrass anyone they were raised to see as equals.

In high and low places, what went on between men of power and the women who weren't drawn to it for decades, still goes on. But in clear and distinct ways, in far reaching, permanent and progressive ways, the past has changed us all.

It's changed the way we've been raising children for the past twenty years and more. Many of us who have dealt with predators in the workplace, have been even more determined to raise a next generation of neither predators nor prey.

It's changed the way women and men choose friends and partners. It's changed the way they socialize, and it's changed the codes of acceptable social behaviors. Inclusion in those circles is person rather than power-based.  

And, if there are still self-respecting, professional women not calling out predatory behavior on the spot, there are plenty of non-complicit men who will. My son would. His peers would.

With every new #MeToo post that graces my newsfeed, I am sympathetic and sorry to be able to identify with the abrupt feeling of powerlessness that seizes anyone when even for a moment, they know they are not seen as a person, but a personless object to play with.

And yet, for all the stories I've read about powerful men who still exploit the women who work for them, I know there are vast examples of rising stars – men and women – who are taking and will continue to take those executive chairs. They will not be Harvey Weinsteins, and many of them will continue to be women.

We can't kill the dinosaurs through hashtag campaigns and outing alone. But we can look to attrition to assist in the job of eliminating the breed and its behavior. We can have faith in the unwillingness of new players to keep it alive.

Today, I know if my behind-the-register moment happened to one of my daughters, it would not be them leaving; likely the behavior would result in disciplinary action, or even a termination.

There would not be shame and silence, but angry talk about it among a peer group at work, half of which would likely be men willing to co-out such behavior.

As much as women will fuel change over time by coming forward every time a Harvey Weinstein makes the front page, we have already gassed up the "change bus" by putting our experience to use: we've raised good people who will not tolerate the mistreatment of others in the new workplace of the future. 

It's already happening.






Sunday, October 15, 2017

It's a bummer to fear your president


You know how you let things go. 

You wear less make-up and stay on your treadmill longer because feeling better makes you look better.

You stop making starchy sides with entrees because greens make you feel better and more responsible.  

You don't dress up as much because you have a better time when you're comfortable. 

You stop expecting your president to act like a president because you're so repeatedly shocked by his behavior, you are becoming a chipmunk.

My husband used to yell out from the stands when our son was up to bat:  "Okay, you've seen it!"

We will continue to be disgusted, but not surprised anymore.

We've seen it.

Trump has already said things that are worse than his "moved like a bitch on her" comment, which still brings out every woman's ugly. 

But, everyone has their threshold. Even as Trump has challenged our ability to remain reactive, we all have the deal-breaker, a thing, the thing that Trump has said, done, been caught doing, or will be, that makes us put down the paper, turn from the news, stop reading Facebook, and just mentally start crossing off the days (1192, as of 10/15/17) until we can rise without taking cleansing breaths. 

It was the paper towels, for me.
No, that wasn't it.
It was the threat to withdraw federal assistance from Puerto Rico.
No. It wasn't that either.

Wait. 

Was it Trump responding to human suffering with delay, self-aggrandizement, and then assaulting the beleaguered, traumatized mayor of San Juan with punitive, antagonistic, shaming, and threatening language because she didn't love him enough for what he believed he did?

Yes, I think that was it. 

But now?

Trump, a spotlight junkie who rages when criticized, and turns vindictive when he can't get the praise he thinks he deserves, has taken it up a notch. He can't surprise us with tantrum-tweets anymore, so he's scaring us with terror-tweets. They start with "I might," or, "Maybe," or, his latest cliffhanger:  "There's only one thing that will work with North Korea..." 

It's always the "..." that bothers me. 

 have learned to keep my fear of terrorism in check, and can live with uncertainty and risk. But I've never wondered if our safety mattered less to our leader than a perfect political strategy to get back at someone who called him a name on Twitter. 

It is becoming imaginable that he will throw all of us under the bus and then hop into the driver's seat.

I've loved and loathed leaders of the past like you have, but I have never kept track of how many days it would be (1192) before we could stop worrying that our own president would run us over. 

It reminds me of kids who rail against their parents' rules, lobby for their "rights," fight to be understood and respected, and are unabashedly vocal because a) it poses no threat to their life to be vocal, and b) because if they think their parents are wrong about curfews, they also know their parents would lay their lives on the line for their welfare.

In other words, if they feel wronged, they still feel safe enough to act for change. They know that the people in charge have the interests of everyone at heart.

And then, there are children who live with unpredictable, chaotic parents who can never be trusted to show up, to aid, to guide, to impose a single rule because their first and foremost concern is themselves. Kids in homes like that never feel safe, never know what's going to happen next, often become hyper-vigilant while they wait for the other shoe to drop.

What will happen to us, they want to know, because Mom and Dad aren't emotionally or mentally present to make the question unnecessary. 

As Trump rages about being misunderstood, hunted, cheated, screwed over, and takes to  Twitter, deaf to the pleas of sane people not to do that, while more and more red banners appear at the top of national publications to tell you that something is happening that you must know about, we are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What will happen to us, we want to know, because our president isn't emotionally or mentally present to make the question unnecessary.

I wonder, as Kathleen Parker did in her piece on the subject,  if we are all going a little crazy with Trump's splattering of crazy all over the place, attaching itself to damaged minds while the healthy ones just try to look at anything else.

But while we are becoming more afraid of what will happen to us, we have no choice but to become less shocked by Trump's atrocious words because Trump's potential deeds could be so much worse.

But it's not forever. 

If he doesn't kill us, we will never appreciate life more than we will in three short years. 

Whoever is president will be Batwo/man.
  
In the meantime, I will think about how every day shortens the time left  (1192 days) before a grown up is in charge again. Until then, I will be the brave parent to my scared child.

It's a bummer to fear your president.



Sunday, October 8, 2017

In the ways that matter, we are each other

Who we are, still.
After 9/11, I went into a CVS to buy a curling iron and some light bulbs. On my way out, I glanced at the headline and photo on the cover of the New York Daily News. A boy of about five, wearing a yellow rain jacket was shown praying, his head bowed into tiny folded hands atop the coffin of his mother. 

I went to my car and wept, and wept for days, over this photo of the worst things in the world.

It wasn't like that this time. I was sad and depressed over Puerto Rico, and I was horrified and numbed by Las Vegas, but the feelings never rose and spilled over. 

I had fog, but no rain. I wondered what had happened to me. I worried that it might be happening to all of us. 


Last week, New Hampshire organized a food drive to help residents of Puerto Rico. On Wednesday, I took the list of "suggested items" to the store and while I shopped, I thought about the Las Vegas shooting and tried to grasp the loss; the children who lost parents, parents who lost children, friends and lovers who lost each other. 

I saw a photo on the way out of flowers, stuffed animals, and candles laid at the scene. Too familiar, now, this was.

A few nights ago,  right before bed, I read about the doctors and nurses who met the  unrelenting flow of injured patients in Las Vegas, many of them critical upon arrival, some who died right after.

"We just wanted to get them in and stabilize them," said one.

The massacre had already forced the disaster in Puerto Rico to the next rung down on the crisis ladder.

We can't keep up with them now, I thought; the disasters.

We can't stabilize. 


Up and down the streets surrounding the Statehouse in Concord, sandwich boards directed traffic: "THIS WAY TO DONATE."

Main Street had been closed off.   

On Capital Street, which runs along the south side of the Statehouse, a  line of orange cones divided the busy road and volunteers in fluorescent yellow vests,  four or five of them in wait, jumped to attention when a car pulled up.


They waved me forward.
"Thank you," each one said, as I passed.
"Thank you," was all I could say.

When I came to a stop in this make-shift drop off lane,  I was swarmed by helpers.
While they unloaded my car, I looked to my left where items were being organized for transport. Water, canned meats and vegetables, energy bars, food for infants.

I thought about the hands of those helpers. Sorting, piling, carrying, giving, offering.

I thought about the hands of the hopeful, and the hopeless, receiving my bag of dried fruits, my boxes of energy bars, a bottle of my water, my canned chicken. 
"Thank you," they'd say. Maybe they would be holding an infant, holding up an elder. 
I thought about a small child eating from a can of my peaches packed in water.

I thought about these miles and miles between their disaster and my spot in the drop off lane. And how, only a few weeks ago, we were all okay, before they were crushed. 

I thought about the Vegas victims in a different way now,  the morning they might have had, maybe one like mine, before it all blew up. Maybe they'd gone for breakfast, like I might have.  Maybe they'd dropped off items at a food drive, like I'd just done. 

I thought about the hands that helped them, the hands they held onto later that night. 

I cried then, to know I am these people before they lost each other.  I am these people before the unthinkable happened. This was not a shooting that happened far away at all, but one that was all around me. 

This has stayed with me. I am not letting it go.


It has hurt and healed my heart  to know, that if we have witnessed the unthinkable evil that a human can bring, we are discovering the unsinkable capacity for human connection, because of all we have in common - fear, compassion, courage, resolve, determination, spirit, and maybe more important than anything, vulnerability.  


We are these things. We are these people.  In the ways that matter, we are each other. 


God willing, we will never learn to be less.








Sunday, October 1, 2017

Teaching a sleepless toddler and an anxious dog how to be alone.

"You're going where?"
First, some good advice:

On a flight, if an oxygen mask suddenly drops from the ceiling, and if you haven't already died of terror, remember to adjust your mask before assisting others.

You are of no help if you're gasping through your helpful efforts and then just collapse. 

When our first child Courtney was a toddler, she refused to go to sleep without us in the room. Faced with the short-term agony of letting her cry it out, or the long-term agony of letting her sleep with us, we did what any weepy, sleep-deprived parents would do: we bribed her.

I went to a dollar store and bought a bunch of cheap toys, and a stack of  brown lunch bags. Every night, I placed a toy in the bag and after we finished the goodnight ritual, we offered her the "surprise bag," told her it was her time now, and that we would see her in the morning.

She was too young for language, but she understood that she had to wait for us to leave before she could open it.

Downstairs, through the intercom we'd hear the paper crumpling and little coos of  "Ooooooh!" She rarely lasted more than five minutes. We recycled the items for a while, and eventually traded little toys for cloth books.

Almost a year ago, my husband came across Abby, a ten-month-old English Pointer who'd been found roaming alone by a rescue organization in Texas. Abby's write-up on the site mentioned the words "energetic and athletic!" several times, but her eyes got to me and my husband, who had gone years without a dog, was all in.  

At the time, he traveled Monday through Friday, while I wrote at home all day. But, I am Gumby when it comes to beings I care for and so I said to my husband, "Sure it will be different! But that's okay! I'll just switch some things around."

"You're going where?"
To be near the dog, I moved from my girl-loft upstairs to my husband's boy-office on the first floor. While I took files and tools and lamps and finally, my chair, from the space, our cat Gus, who has napped on my desk and at my elbow every day of his five years, stood watching from the corner. 

Not surprisingly, Abby came with separation issues. She didn't trust our presence, she couldn't bear our absence and she craved constant, energetic and athletic! interaction. She paced in and out of the office, barking from the hall when she couldn't see me. She barked if I went into the pantry or when I typed. She barked when I didn't make eye contact. She barked at her reflection, at the leg of the piano and the ceiling fan. I couldn't talk on the phone. I couldn't do laundry or shower without Abby losing it. 

After three weeks, I had written half an essay and I'm sure it was about dog hair on my laptop. Christmas was coming and I'd done no shopping. I moved from the office to the kitchen table, where she could see me all the time.

"Just crate her when you need to write," said everybody I know.

But this seemed harsh when I put myself in Abby's place. How would feel if, after being rescued and placed in five or six short-term foster homes, my forever family put me in a crate just for being myself?

One pre-dawn morning, while everyone slept and I kept Abby company, it became very clear that sacrificing my own place to make Abby comfortable in hers had not helped either one of us. Because, there Abby sat, looking at me,oxygen mask snugly in place while I was struggling to breathe.    

In the loft, we'd pushed the rolled up carpet against the wall, and where my chair had been was an empty file cabinet. The lamps were gone. It was getting dark but I needed some staples and so up I went, and there in the center of the empty desk, taking in what little daylight was left, sat Gus.

I sat down on the rolled up rug and looked around.

Here was where I'd finished a third novel and started a fourth. Here, was where I'd memorized the oddly bent branches of a tree while talking to our son Sam on his campus walks, or to Courtney during her morning commutes. 

Here, in this small, lamp-lit space, was where I found perfect words to express my deepest feelings and here, was where I could look anywhere and see a thing that touched my life. 

Here was my mask.

Once upon a time, we got kids to stay with babysitters and sleep on their own and venture out to school without us, by showing them that "separated from" does not mean "abandoned by." When it was time for kids to go, we'd all learned that closeness not only isn't threatened by separation, but often may depend on it. 

And so, I handled Abby's need to learn about solitude, and my need to recapture it,  the way any weepy, work-deprived writer would: I bribed her. Her "surprise bag" is a special chew that she gets only when she is to be in her crate. In the several minutes it takes for her to mangle it, she forgets about us and just curls up. We started small, and now she takes herself to the crate when she hears the bag opening.  

Like our daughter learned, our dog learned: when people love you, no period of time alone lasts forever. Parents and other people come back. 

It's been several weeks since I unrolled the carpet, brought back my chair and files and lamps and feather-capped pen that my daughter gave me and placed Gus's nap blanket near the corner of my desk. 

It seems to me that sacrifice and giving are different, in that giving enriches us and the one to whom we give, while sacrifice obligates them, in some way, to pay us back.  

I couldn't sacrifice my loft. Abby had no money. She would never be able to pay me back.

And so, we gave her time and reassurance instead. 

Today, we're all better for it.     

Especially this guy: 
Gus in his spot, wearing his mask.