Sunday, August 18, 2019

I went looking for acts of kindness. I found this gem.

I mentioned that I would be keeping an eye out for acts of kindness.  Well, here's one.

Two weeks ago, a man of about seventy struck up a conversation with an older man of about eighty-five in an eye doctor's waiting room. 

He must have seemed to the younger man to be lonely and in want of conversation, or maybe the younger man himself was. Maybe the older man looked like someone the younger man loved, or missed.

I know this happens to many of us. When I see someone bagging groceries who looks like one of my children when they were teenagers, I can’t help but mother-smile at them.  If I see someone who looks like the brother I lost a few years ago, I sister-smile at them, and enjoy the seconds when they consider whether or not to smile back, but then do. Some offer a little wave with the smile. One guy saluted.

The younger man in the waiting room started the conversation by pointing at a headline and bemoaning the political climate that has polarized even “some of my best friends,” as he put it. Citing younger years and earlier times, he recalled when "it wasn't like this."

The older man listened politely, but didn't say much. But at some point, the younger man must have landed on a favorite memory or time in the older man's life, because now, he began to tell stories of his own. A lot of them. A very large number of stories.

Fishing with his grandsons.
Hunting pheasant with his partner and dog, both gone now.
The childhood years when all the families vacationed together and "the kids" walked home from the lake at night, guided by porch lights.

For nearly an hour he described his life and times, while the younger man encouraged him with questions ("So, what does your son do? Does he have children? What are they like?") 

Positive connections with strangers happen all the time in a normal world; you talk to people in line at the grocery store, or laugh with a stranger over something weird that you've both witnessed. You connect with another audience member before a show starts. You smile at young couples in a restaurant and they smile back. 

For all the times that strangers have annoyed me - oblivious drivers, slow-walkers on sidewalks, space-takers in general - I am thinking  lately of the ones who have made me laugh, or pause with respect, or taken me down a peg with just a look when I've been a jerk.  

Strangers educate us, make us reflect, show us how we affect others, and how we can do better.  

My brother used to chat up strangers as if they’d grown up next door to each other and gone to school together. It could have been sports or politics, if something was on his mind, or made him happy, he assumed others felt the same way and needed to share like he did. 

It might have been a little of him that I saw in the younger man’s behavior at the eye doctor’s.

I stopped that man as he left the waiting room and told him that the conversation between him and the older man had made my day. 

“You mean just because I talked to him?” he said.
“No, because you listened to him,” I said.
“I’m seventy-one,” he responded, “I like it when I still get to hear stories from older folks.”
We laughed, and then more seriously, he said, “I could tell from looking at him that he had a lot to say.”

Later that afternoon, I turned  around in line at the grocery store and began to unload the cart of an elderly woman in back of me who couldn’t reach the belt, or move easily around her cart. "I'll do that for you," I said. She smiled and started handing me things. "Thank you," she said.

One day later in the week I saw a woman slow her pace to allow her toddler to walk by her side, while they talked in the simple language they'd forged. I told her how much I loved seeing people respect children that way.  If you could have seen the look on her face before I said anything, and the one immediately after, you would run right out, this minute, and find a chaotic young parent to compliment. 

The times will try to tell us who we are, and how we've changed, and how our differences have proved that humanity has limits. If we’re not careful, we might believe the times and forget that it is always possible to see ourselves or the people we love in people we've never met,  but might like to know better.   

So, here's something to try:  find someone who needs to be told they’re doing something right, or could use a little praise or a sudden conversation, and then offer it. 

And then, enjoy the effect it has on both of you. 



Friday, August 9, 2019

The old man with the Trump sticker and me, at a light.

I'm just going to use this graphic for
the rest of the summer, okay?

In 2014, a frustrated young man wrote to Andrew W.K of the Village Voice to express how much he hated his father’s far-right political views and what they were doing to destroy the world and everyone who cared about him.  The response, broader in scope than perhaps the letter writer expected, included this statement:

“The world isn’t being destroyed by democrats or republicans, red or blue, liberal or conservative, religious or atheist — the world is being destroyed by one side believing the other side is destroying the world.”

I used to think a fair fight between Trump critics and Trump supporters would not ever be possible while one side, the civilized one, was using sticks to bat back the craggy rocks being hurled by the other side, the barbaric one. 

Sooner or later, everyone is just going to start hurling rocks.

A few weeks ago, I pulled up at a light next to a truck with a Trump sticker. The way I don’t need to see an actual crime in progress to know I’m in a bad neighborhood, I knew who was driving this truck before I lined up alongside him.

Mentally closed probably, narrow minded, old, rigid, ignorant, frustrated. Probably mourning the past when kids could play outside until the streetlights came on, and mothers had pie ready for you after school, and men kept women in their place, and in fact, everyone knew their place without trying to be in someone else’s. Like migrants. Like women. Like members of the LBGTQ community.

So, I looked over at this person I’d never met, using a facial expression that I believed would make my feelings about him clear. He looked at me and reflexively smiled until he saw my expression. Then his face fell, and he looked straight ahead.

And now, I looked at him more closely. I pegged him at mid-late eighties. He had a dog, also elderly, on the seat next to him. His face was drawn and deeply lined and the only word for his posture at the wheel was tired. Life-tired. Long, hard life-tired. He wore a navy-blue work shirt and he was thin. He was probably coming from his work place of other navy-blue shirts, and his dog was probably looking forward to his dinner. 

Right? Before Trump started trampling on our humanity, I would have left it there.

But think about what I did. I gave this very old man one of my most damning looks. Even my God, who was watching, put down his drink and said, “Are you kidding me?”

Others of us may be doing exactly that right now. Using our faces and words to hate Trump, or, anyone who doesn’t hate Trump.  

But here’s the thing. In that moment of hate, when I became angry with this person I’d never met for not just sporting a bumper sticker, but for probably being like Trump himself, I didn’t like myself either.

Remember my bottom line from last week’s post?  If you’re doing something that makes you think less of yourself, it’s not the right thing to do.   

So, while I sat there feeling angry with this person I’d never met for choosing judges who could strip women of their rights and small children of their parents, or the torturous warehousing of children at the border, or  the failure to properly account for the death of an American college student in North Korea, I didn’t like myself either.

And now, in the second that I was preparing to look away, he looked right at me again.

My instinctive affection for the elderly trumped the Trumper and I smiled back. And in response,  maybe because I resemble someone he likes, who knows, or because only small children continue to stare blankly at you when you smile at them, his face softened and he smiled back. He raised his hand in a “hello,” and gave me a short nod.

I nodded back, and the light changed. 

To me, it is the worst casualty of our times to now see each other as stick carriers and rock throwers.

The old man in the truck had his reasons for voting Trump, and might also have become horrified to see what Trump has done in only three years to “please his base” which may include other elderly truck drivers with dogs who just want their dinner.

It is a choice people make now to accept or reject entire other people – friends, family members, spouses – based on their politics. But generalizations are the language of the lazy or ignorant, on both sides. Not all who loathe Trump are civilized and humane and not all who support Trump attend rallies and froth at the mouth.

Some of us are neither, and wonder if the stick carriers and rock throwers will destroy all of us. Some of us remember when you could express and defend your beliefs and enjoy the challenge of connecting with others who are nothing like we are.

It was, it is true, that on some way-down level, we are human beings, all at the same light, all waiting to move forward with our work shirts and long days and tired dogs who just want their dinner.

Next week: Tiny acts of kindness to try when your soul needs a pick me up.  

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A memory of Dad, at just the right time



I just want to read the news in the morning again without feeling like my entire psychological constitution is at risk. My dad, who wondered how Trump could stand himself, would have responded to that observation with a slow, sad shake of his head. 

I’ll come back to my dad in a minute.
                                                    
First of all, this won’t be a full-on Trump post, because discussions about Trump are no longer interesting. My appalled reactions to his speech, behaviors and attitudes are like everyone else’s. We’ve all seen how Trump leverages and gives voice to the darkest human feelings people can possess. He’s been lampooned, mocked, called out, and decent people now know the worst they once only feared.

And yes, it’s possible we’ll have him for four more years which is like being in an abusive relationship and being told “I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to live with it for four or five more years and then you’ll be free.”  

There is Just. So. Much. Hate. 

People will say that the hate was here before Trump came and that’s true. We’ve always had hate, like we’ve always had dogs who need to be kept fenced because if they’re loose, they will damage someone badly whom they perceive as a threat.

Self-control and perspective and general evolution and progressive societal leanings and new generational influences have helped us keep hate in check, or learn from it, or at least know we should try for the greater good.

But a while back, Trump opened the gate to let those dangerous dogs run and now, if we try to put them back in the pen, Trump will just come back and remove the gate altogether. 

Watching, or even reading about people who hate is like living in a climate you don’t like but must find a way to deal with every day. It’s like Florida in August. You have to be near the air conditioning if you’re going to remain civil.

So, what happens I wonder, to people when they are allowed, permitted, or even encouraged to hate for so long? What happens to a person who is exposed to hate for that long? What are we going to do with all this leftover hate in four or five more years?

I’ve been lulled into seeing the sides of humanity that I don’t like, and I fear I’ll become the frog in the water who doesn’t realize it’s dying from exposure to the slowly rising temperature.

It’s during times like these that I feel my dad’s absence most acutely. For years, we traded observations over lunch of the general human condition, the comedy and drama of it. Always, there was a spin, a take, a view that would lead to one of the many laughs we shared.

And so this morning, I talked to my father as I often do when I miss him. I told him that I had been feeling a little aimless on the writing side because my spirit has been suffering from all that climate hate. I said I wasn’t really sure where I belonged on the page but that I was feeling more drawn to the negative than the positive and didn’t like the things I was believing about complete strangers.

And Dad said:

If a course of action makes you feel like a person you don't like as much, change it. It's the wrong one.  

This, of course, is also known as listening to the gut, something my dad did reflexively, and encouraged me to do from the beginning as well.  

Starting today, I’m going to make an active effort to find examples of anti-hate, or even better, love and kindness. It’s what makes me the person I like most to write the stories of everyones and their everydays.

Next week: the man in the truck with the Trump sticker, and me, at the light.

I might not be able to leave my abuser for four or five more years, but somewhere in this heat, there is air-conditioning and that’s where I will be while it’s August in Florida.




Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A little story about Jenny Ball


There is a story in the Post today about a town in London where some of the park benches have been designated as “chat benches,” meaning that if you sit, you may be approached by a stranger in want of a “chat.”

I loved reading this. Everyone gets lonely, and I believe the elderly may suffer most and are least likely to do something about it.

In the comments that followed the article was one response that struck me, and it was from a woman who suggested we consider that predators may now lay in wait for targets exactly like the ones being “lured” to the benches.  

Okay.

I understand. There is danger around every corner. You never know who’s on the phone. Telemarketers, as mentioned in the Post story, prey on the elderly, and con persons in general will go to great lengths for that money under the mattress. Look at the phony grandsons calling to ask unsuspecting grandparents for money and getting it? And how are we supposed to square this facilitating of stranger liasons with what we tell our children about stranger danger?

Don’t forget, people. Kids watch our every move.

Quick story.

When I was very small, maybe six, I used to come home from school, say hello to my mother and leave to roam our quiet, end-of-town neighborhood looking for whoever was around, maybe playing with Barbies or building a fort in their living room.

But I had another friend in the neighborhood. Her name was Jenny Ball and she lived in a tiny house below the railroad tracks surrounded by waist-high weeds. In my memory, she was about ninety, and “no bigger than a minute,” as my mother would say, probably not over 5’2”. 

Jenny grew rhubarb, kept pigeons and was a hoarder. While my mother took care of my infant brother and probably believed I was across the street in Janey Woodman’s pink flowered bedroom putting tiny rollers in a Barbie’s hair, I was sitting at Jenny Ball’s kitchen table, peering at her between stacks of magazines while she told stories of all the husbands and dogs she’d had who had died, and were buried, “right out there,” she’d say, pointing.

“Right out there” was a patch of earth near the front door surrounded by a tiny picket fence and dotted with little crosses. Her son, Junior, had made them for her. Shortly after, he went to prison or died or both, I can’t remember, and maybe Jenny made it all up and buried her own dogs, I don’t know.

I was riveted by her stories.

The pigeons, who lived in a closet off the kitchen, cooed the entire time that she talked to me at her table. I got a few things in about school, and my brothers and my cat but it was Jenny’s show. She had a lot to say, and I was her very young, slack-jawed-with-fascination fan.

When it came time for me to go home, she would say, “Now you wait here. I’m going to get my gun and watch you go up the hill, so hobos don’t get you.” I’d wave and walk, turning periodically to be sure she was still there, and of course she was, stooped with a bent arm over her head, waving while keeping the other hand around the barrel of her shotgun. I could see the row of horsey false teeth when she smiled, and the glint of her wire glasses. “Bye Byye!!!”

I remember going home and telling my mother about Jenny Ball’s gun, and I don’t remember her sitting me down, or the color draining from her face, but there was a last time I saw Jenny Ball alone and I think it was that day.

Years later, I asked my father if he remembered Jenny Ball and whether he did or not, I think for my benefit he said, “Oh sure, I do!” When I told him the whole story and came to the shotgun part, his  eyes widened.  

“Jesus Christ,” he said. “She could have shot you.”

To this day, I am grateful for those afternoons in Jenny Ball’s kitchen. It may have been where I laid roots in the concept of offering less that means more, or learned that lifelong connections can form around words. Or, perhaps, it existed to supply one of the earliest and most lasting examples of kindness that would serve me when my own father became first ill, and then, “no bigger than a minute,” and still needed a listener.

But  however it came about, or should or shouldn’t have, there we were, a very elderly lady and a very young child finding happiness in each other’s company, in a cool, not very well-lit kitchen, while the pigeons cooed, the stories flowed, and “right out there,” her little colony of dog-friends rested below their tiny crosses. 

Those "chat" benches?  I'm a fan.




Saturday, July 13, 2019

Own your history- even if you get mad at it sometimes.

Recently, I connected with an old friend I haven’t seen since we were in our forties. We would have stayed in touch, been closer, but we had teenagers, and generational divides, and marriages and looks that were changing and relevance issues and we were just too busy salvaging our identities to deal with friendship maintenance.

Well, not salvaging – that’s very dramatic – let’s say, “managing.” We were managing our identities, which we agreed, had turned on us like mean girls.  

We had a great time owning up to stuff we thought only we were going through at the time, and sharing one truth that is only possible to admit after you’ve put your act together, which is:  how we projected ourselves back then only somewhat resembled how we really saw ourselves, because the way we saw ourselves was so packed with pass-fail messages from ourselves and others, it was a full-time job trying to figure out which inner voice was in charge.

Not everyone feels this way of course, and very likely at-home mothers feel it more intensely while they both create and react to the climate at home and identity begins to wrap around that climate  like parentheses. 

“Here’s the thing,” she said, recalling passages – a parent’s death, empty nest, and divorce. “Nothing that’s coming will be as hard as what I’ve been through. I can’t wait to see what happens now.”

I felt that, as the kids say.

Reader, if you’re in your late forties and any of this resonates, don’t lose track of people at this point. You will need them when you go through this “second adolescence” as my new-old friend called it, and you will definitely need them when you’re older to help you make fun of yourself and the drama you created when you were younger.

Like many people who have reached age not-forties, I have received the gift of clarity on a number of things. I know for instance, that there are few transitions and life stages I've gone through that almost everyone else doesn't go through which leaves me with a larger peer group than I thought I had. I know too, that we can control how easy or difficult our lives will be once we understand the far reach of our unique history, and its influence over:

How we choose to view everything.
How we choose to perceive and react.
How we choose not to react without thinking things through.

Choose.

Choose.

Try something when you're by yourself. Think of things that are wrong. People doing things that worry you. A thing someone said. A thing you did. A thing that’s happened.

Now, force yourself to think with the other hand. Using the words of an entirely different, positive perspective think about every item on your list differently, even if it bends your mind to do it. If you have an issue with someone, force yourself to look at it entirely from their point of view.

See that point of view. Keep thinking about it. 

Do this as often as you can, until it's a habit.

All of us, I am understanding, come into our stages and transitions dragging bags and bags of what our histories have taught us. They are filled with joyful discoveries, exhilarating triumphs, first loves, shocking revelations, memories of people who loved us and made us feel strong and safe, and memories of abusive or cruel people who screwed us out of better self-esteem.

It is often not the random events, or things people do or say, but rather the way history tells us how to interpret them that informs our every behavior, and in turn our every relationship.

That is good news, because the work of writing out your auto-responses will allow you to see through whose eyes exactly, you are viewing your life and it might not be your own. It might be someone who makes you aware of your shortcomings, or people who have messed up their own lives and would like you to feel as badly about yours. We internalize all kinds of people, the ones we love and the ones we've tried to love. 

The history that leads to the way you view and decide to tweak your life can be a hard thing to face, but here’s something else I learned after I was age not-forties anymore:

Time makes us stronger, but mostly time conditions us to face our histories. And if you don’t believe your history has helped or hurt you more than any other influence in life, think of the thing you would like most to hear about yourself.

Now ask, where, if, and from whom you’ve heard that thing before. If things are good, you heard it more than once from someone you love and who loves you, or will when you tell them you need those words in your heart.

Listen to me.

I didn’t go through my forties and fifties for nothing.






Tuesday, June 4, 2019

There is salt in apple pie

I didn't make this, but
it looks like me.
Lately, my mother has been asking me to write about my God which is her favorite occasional character on this blog.

Backstory: I didn't grow up with a God I knew that well (although my God would argue with that). And so I made one up that I thought would work for me.  

It happened after I met our first baby, and realized that compared to this little being sitting in my two hands struggling to meet my eyes, everything else... And that is where I left that statement, because everything else had slid off the scale of importance and into the sea of not-important-anymore.

One night, while I was rocking our daughter and looking into the stars, I became overcome by emotion, not only because of the hormonal action I wrongly thought I could will away,  but the reality that now, with a capacity for love that defied description, I had, curled and tucked between my body and my left arm, the proof of a loss I would not survive. 

Now, I say this as a person who used to apply makeup and read the newspaper in traffic jams on the Tobin Bridge every morning, without a trace of worry for the safety of myself or my bridge-mates:   

I had never felt so afraid. This was not up to me anymore. This was up to whoever was on the other side of that window. So, I said aloud to the window,  "I don't know who you are, but can you just help me with this?" And ever since, my God and I have been close, and my daughter did not grow up to be neurotic.

My God responds pretty quickly to my requests for clarity, or, if my God is scanning the earthly security monitors and sees me in spiritual hot water, my God just skips the submission process altogether and pretty soon, I feel better. It is not a placebo effect and it is not me being my own God. Is not. Is. Not. 

Today, because I am looking at a yellow and green summer morning, and my sleeping cat, and feeling generally humbled and grateful for so many things, it's as good a time as any to write about my God. My God was actually just here, but left to check out someone who didn't want to consult my God, but see my God's I.D.

Doubters. I don't know. If there's really not any form of a spiritual power or mystical presence with which to conspire on our fate, then that is just a lot to carry around in the satchel of hope-for-the-best. 

Because.

We are all the things we are – admirable and less desirable things, selfish, hard things that we struggle with, or brave things we're proud of, platinum, kick-ass things -- all within our single selves. But every now and then,  our darker sides take the wheel.  They get bored. They wake you up to remind you that things really aren't that good because look at how often you still project and take things personally at age not-forty. Look at all of your friends who are in better relationships and have more money, more successful careers, nicer kids, more polite pets, healthier lives, and all the other "ers." What happened? 

You will need your God, (and it is acceptable for you to be your own God if necessary) to say this:

"There is salt in apple pie. If it’s worth having, smelling, tasting, experiencing, it must have salt. 

Then your God will go away and you’ll feel something that is better than apple pie, which is balanced.

Now, I say this because I learned when I was older than I wish I was, but young enough to make it count, that it should not be a goal in life to get rid of your occasional darker-sides. They are not in the way of your real light. They are giving your real light a break, because your real light gets tired. 

Warmth and love and gratitude get tired. The darker side – envy, insecurity, resentment, inferiority and all the rest of the ugly – is your soul’s way of making sure your  “light” gets a  nap now and then so that you don’t start faking it. Giving your warmth and love and gratitude and precious soul a little time off, is what makes it come back warmer, wider, deeper - and truer - than you even thought it was.

So, for today, I wish you moments of self-respect and admiration, and a few real conversations with those you love most about things that matter. But mostly, I wish you memories you can't even imagine making right now. 

And, your God willing, I wish you those moments of a lifetime that bring you face-to-face with your massive capacity to love, so that you are the never the same again, in a very good way.

You know who you are.


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Later

This is not mine. I
will put mine here
when I take it off of
my rear view mirror.

School is over and my blogging hiatus has ended. So, first of all, hello again.

I thought it would be fitting to come back with a story for anyone who once gave up on something valuable for reasons that seemed smart at the time, but unwise ten years later, and just regrettable after that. 

Before I had children, I lived in a quaint apartment with kind-of an ocean-view and I drove a sports car. I had a lot of stuff. And then I met my husband and I had things that were better than stuff. I didn’t have a college degree, but you know, I'd do it later if it still mattered.

It mattered seven years later when I realized how much difficulty I’d have if I had to go back to work and how much less I’d make without a degree, and, in a mind-storm of clarity, I started classes at UNH.
By then, however, more important priorities had been born and were scrambling about, needing juice and snacks and naps and help with shoelaces. Pulled from them, I became unhappy and left school after the semester ended. It was okay, I’d do it later when they were all in school all day.

Later, I did try again, and withdrew again over similar conflicts, but now with less faith in later, because later had arrived as expected, and I had been as ready as I could be, which was not ready at all.

Later never looks like you think it will – with you in the center as you were, but now surrounded by taller people who can feed themselves. Or you as you were, but with more time, and patience, greater maturity and a sense of discipline. No. Later is more likely to be you with an old unmet goal, and possibly less drive, and maybe less memory of how it felt when all you needed to do anything was to want to.
Later for many of us is making peace with not doing what you thought you would do, pointedly making it less important in your vision of the future, and finally taking it off the big To Do list altogether.
But, damn, I said when I drove past UNH years after that.
Damn.  
Goals and dreams are different. Goals can be annoying and demanding while you fight with “should” and “maybe,” until you finally surrender to guilt, or the fear of failure, or conversely, hang on to that later-in-life burst of desire to improve yourself and be happier while you still can. But goals can expire in the transitioning to a new life stage, and they are no match for excuses. When the excuses win, there is not “I’ll do it later,” but “Maybe I can’t.”

They die, goals.

Dreams are different. Dreams don’t demand, they don’t make you feel guilty if you don’t honor them. They don’t make you irritated with yourself. They just leave it up to you. Dreams sometimes do not even introduce themselves until they can be fit into where you are in life. Sometimes they bear a faint resemblance to those dead goals, you know, the goal-ghosts.

One morning, a little over a year ago, ten years after my last withdrawal from UNH, I went to their page. Then I went to the Psychology page, and the commencement page after that. I began to think about it. I tried to imagine it. A stage to cross, a cap with a tassel, a gown. The faces of my husband and children in the audience. I practiced saying it, “I got my degree in Psychology.”

I dreamed.

My dream and I went back to school for the last time on August 24, 2018. And damn, it was hard. It was discouraging. I had to learn how to do homework again and I felt old. But I felt something else which was strong, and with each passing week, I felt stronger still. There were other feelings that happened, which are called growth.
Finally, finally, last Thursday, with my children, my husband, and my mother looking on, I crossed that stage, and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Psychology.

See? Here I am! (@ 50:40, give or take).
  Please feel free to view this if you are considering a stage of your own to cross. I look at it every day. Several times, usually. It's fun to be under your own badass self.
Here is the point. 
Dreams that don’t seem to happen on time can be easily confused with unmet goals. 
But dreams, however elusive, or shapeless, or senseless as they may seem, exist to make you understand that your better life still waits. Just when you don’t think you can do it, or worse, already had your chance, dreams introduce themselves and say, “try it now.” 
And dreams are free. They are free because while you work your way toward them, even if they still too far away to seize, they remain – possible. They are more than a thing we hope for. Dreams keep us alive.
Good luck with yours.