Sunday, October 24, 2010

Not on the List

My name is Susan and I am a recovering snob. I’ll share.

My organization hosts, coordinates, promotes, sponsors and facilitates professional development events and meetings for educators. Because we’re a small, no-frills, not-for-profit outfit, this requires me to get off my high horse and be event-Cinderella – serve a few lunches, and do a few dishes from time to time. I don’t mind this role because I’m so grateful to have found this workplace, it feels good to feel sorry for myself now and then.

It’s easy to carry out this task effortlessly because our little office pantry is always stocked with boxes-grande of everything I need to get the job done. These boxes-grande come from Sam’s Club – the jumbo warehouse store that sells everything in quantities of five thousand and looks on the inside like they never quite finished the building. A Sam’s Club membership is required to shop there, and only two of our staff have one. For several months, this has allowed me to offer to go “if only I could.”

I don’t like most stores to begin with but I really don’t like warehouse stores that feel like airport hangars, have bad lighting and are high and wide enough to have indoor birds. If I have to be in a store, I want it to look nice, smell nice, sound nice, and preferably sell shoes somewhere on the floor.

I’d rather go to Saks than Macy’s
I’d rather go to Macy's than JC Penny
I’d rather go to JC Penny than WalMart
I’d rather go to Walmart than Toys R Us
I’d rather go to Toys R Us than the dentist
That's not true. I’d rather go to the dentist.
I'd rather go to Toys R Us than to the emergency room with a head wound
But I’d almost rather go to the emergency room with a head wound than Sam’s Club.

I never wanted a Sam’s Club membership or one of those Sam’s Club IDs that make everyone look like they’ve been apprehended for a serious crime. It was my plan to continue leaving for the rest room when the subject of “getting Susan a Sam’s Club membership” was raised by staff/members.

A few weeks ago, my co-worker Bernice (who understands me almost like my mother does and likes me anyway) handed me a form and said something like, “You’ve been offering to go to Sam’s, so I got you a form for membership.” She sipped her coffee and said, “You should probably make a list.” Then she turned around and laughed up her sleeve.

My first shop was yesterday and my first stop was at the membership desk where my photo was taken while I was looking at someone walking by. Then, I went looking for paper plates and found the ones I needed in a sealed crate several hundred feet above my head. I moved on to bottled water and encountered the same situation. I couldn’t find the Granola bars at all, and the freezer bags came in crates of six units each. When I looked for someone in a smock who might help, I found nobody.

I went back to membership services and leaned on the counter. A worker came over and looked at me without saying anything.
“I need some help,” I explained, “I need dinner size plates that are too high for me to reach.”
“What kind of plates are they?” asked the worker.
“Dinner size, 10-and-something inches,” I said.
“But what make?”
“I don’t know, they’re blue around the edges.”
“You’re calling them dinner plates? Where did you find dinner plates?”
“No, dinner plate size,” I said. I motioned toward the left half of the store, “Over in that section.”
“What aisle?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know the type of plate or the aisle they’re in?” He spoke into his collar microphone, “John, got a woman who needs dinner plates and she doesn’t know what kind.” To me he said, “Glass or ceramic?”
“You shoulda said paper. See, that's the difference. Paper plates, John,” he said to his collar. To me he said, “He’s on his way, let’s meet him halfway.”
We walked, and I asked the worker where the water and granola bars were. The worker said to me, “Not sure, but wait until you meet John. John knows everything about this store. Been here forever. Like the whole time the store’s been open. No question you ask he can’t answer. You’ll see. You want to know where something is? He’ll tell you. Like the granola bars. Just ask him.”
“Maybe he can just stay with me while I shop,” I said.
John met us halfway and the worker said, “Here’s the woman.”
John and I said hello.
“And she wants you to stay with her while she shops.”
John looked at me and quickly, I told him I was kidding. He led me to my plates, pointed out the other things, and I was on my way.

At the granola bars, I turned around and the other worker was standing there cradling two cases of water. He laid them in my cart. “So what else do you need?”
“Oh, you don’t have to do anything else,” I told him.
“But I thought you needed someone to stay with you,” he said.

Back in my car, I paused for a moment. I looked at the bumper sticker on a pick-up truck up in back of me which said “Pro-life Dad” and I watched a teenager enter the store, wheeling a huge cart. I saw two men talking who looked like they might be neighbors, and a scary looking guy with a zillion tattoos and an indoor pallor walk past them. I sat there for a while.

You can’t be a writer without getting in the business of life. You can’t be a writer and only venture into the kind of places that turn the price tags from view. You can’t be a writer and not look for the chance to be Everywhere.

Real life isn’t for snobs. But real life is for writers.

I forgot the Diet Coke. I’ll have to go back. But I know who to look for.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Long Term Love

A while back, when my friend Jordan, twenty-five today, was in the throes of a torturous relationship, we discussed the subject of love. What it was, what it wasn’t, what it looked like, what it didn’t.

“What do you think long-term love really means?” asked Jordan in one of those conversations.

For me, it was like wading into the middle of an ocean and remembering how to dog-paddle to offer perspective on this; you know that love is something you do and may do well, but can’t say why. You don’t remember learning how to love, and you can’t tell someone else how to do it. Trying to describe love is like telling someone over the phone how to walk.  He asked me to write about it Someday.

Well, my friend. It’s still only a dog-paddle, but here goes:

Love – real love – can’t be anything but long term in my humble opinion, because unlike lust, which is a function of attraction, love is a function of time – it can’t happen without it. Love isn’t born. It steeps. It becomes. The way we transition into who we are, so does love transition away from what it was in its younger period – lust, dependence, need, possessiveness, validation, passion – into what can be likened to a relationship with life itself.

Yes, even I had to read that again but it makes sense. Love is not a way of being with someone. Love is a way of enriching your own life, by enriching someone else’s. Love is wanting to know what makes someone who they are, finding out, and then believing in it with all your heart, because your own heart is who pointed them out to begin with. People find each other, fall in pre-love and make plans for you-know-what, while their hearts circle each other and say “not so fast.”

First, as I’ve already pointed out, before it is love it is the conditional, highly circumstantial, frequently confused, but never interchangeable experience of attraction when you are drawn – sometimes so powerfully and irresistibly that your respiratory system has to bang on the ceiling with a broom handle– to the outer Everythingness of someone; the look of them, or the way they walk into a room or make eye contact with others, or act around the elderly, or whatever. It is an experience you can see, smell, hear, touch, feel, and respond to for so long, you feel betrayed when it turns to you, thanks you for the party, and disappears, leaving only a void. If it’s love that keeps you enjoined, it’s barely noticeable when age and time change something about who you care for, much less is it a dealbreaker. Love doesn’t go off in a huff. Love turns a page of the newpaper and says, “I could really go for Lobster Thermidor tonight, doesn’t that sound good?”

Love isn’t conditional and it takes a long time for that to be true of even the deepest unions. It doesn’t vanish when looks fade, or when scales climb, or when jobs get lost because love is about your heightened respect for another person’s individuality without being forced to give up your own. Life can be crappy, can seem hopeless and endless and disappointing for one of you and sometimes the other must leave to remain whole . A good, strong pre-love may sigh and be willing to wait it out. But love helps you find your raincoat so you can walk into the storm at the side of your "other." You know you might both get wet, but you also know you'll dry out in time. Love does not create voids, love fills them.

Love doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t happen temporarily, and it doesn’t happen because we ask it to. But there are signs you’re dealing with someone whose heart talks the language of your own; someone who views life as you do, who understands who they are and doesn’t need you to complete them, who treats others with the respect, kindness and gentleness that you do. Cultivating love, celebrating it with such a person are both a matter of choice. But love is as determined as it is deliberate. If you try to make it leave, it says “You and what army?”

But the most wonderful thing about love, and because it’s your birthday Jordan, I’ll call it long-term love, is that as it transitions from the could-go-either-way period, to the place in your heart where it puts its bags down, it fills you not with worry, or fear, but with trust. For a little while, you may be aware that you’ve begun this slow, occasionally mystifying, sometimes painful, often joyful trip into your own heart. But then, with some surprise you’ll realize you’re far from where you started. You will look around, you will not see how you got there, you will not see the way back. But you’ll realize that only from there can you have the best view of someone else's heart.  Dear Jordan, when that happens, you will never want to leave.

With wishes for your happiest of birthdays, and with long term love,

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Oh the Dreams We Dream

My sister’s recent post about dreams made me remember something from my big-hair, pencil-skirt days of olde. I love remembering anything from those days, even if I love these days more. It’s like hearing good things about your best friend from high school, even if you don’t want to run into her at the grocery store.

Back when I was Barbie-on-the-job, I worked with a woman who, unlike the rest of us twenty-something girls-about-town, was solemn and quiet and industrious and frankly, a little unnerving. She had very dark hair, an angular too-white face, and huge, dark eyes that always looked too hard at everyone. While my Barbie co-workers and I wore sweaters with belts around the middle, Frye boots and long straight skirts that we hoped made us look like Pam Dawber from Mork and Mindy, the gloomy one wore frumpy jumpers and turtlenecks and clogs and looked like Wednesday Adams. She was pleasant enough and we never talked about her in her absence but you also didn’t want to make eye contact or have a lengthy conversation with her, because she gave you that therapist stare while you spoke and then nodded when she should have been responding. She was more than unnerving. She was spooky. Her name was Merle.

One day I was holding court, talking about a dream I had which featured me and a runaway elevator. While everyone was saying things like, “Oh, I have that dream all the time, and the one about yelling but nothing comes out, and the other one about running away but not moving,” Merle stood off to the side making copies, nodding her spooky nod. When we all went back to work, she came over to my desk and stood there noiselessly until I sensed a “presence” and turned around.

“I interpret dreams,” she said.

“Okay?” I said, hoping the phone would ring.

“I know what your elevator dream means.”

“Oh,that,” I Barbie-said. “ I always wake up, it’s no problem.”

“You have it often then?”

“Only when I sleep on my back. Really, it’s fine.”

She left and went back to her dimly lit fortune-tellery office which I had been avoiding like eye contact.

But my curiosity took over. About an hour later, armed with a document which doubled for an excuse to visit, I went in and said awkward-cheerfully, “So! How long have you been interpreting dreams?” She got right to the point. “People make the mistake of thinking literally about their dreams,” she said. “Dreams aren’t television shows. They are symbolic. You were not in the elevator. You were the elevator. How long have you been feeling like someone cut your cables?”

“Oh,” I said, “No, it wasn’t like that. That was definitely me in the elevator. I was wearing my beige corduroy skirt with the flaps over the pockets, and these boots. It was definitely me.” She nodded and I nodded and then I praised her “gift” and went to find Hansel on the path.

But it stayed with me that day, and later into the week, and then beyond. Whether it was insight, or an uncanny “read,” it was accurate. In life, I was in exactly the position she described, trying to be all things, for all people, all the time. Afraid that the smallest of wrong moves would send me in all directions. Frayed cables. It worked at my outlook like a splinter under the skin until I made Serious changes in my perspective. I calmed my life and I didn’t have the elevator dream again.

If you are lucky enough to dream, pay attention. You might be the traffic jam, or the lightening in the sky, or the crowd that wanders the street. But there are answers in there and we’re never too old to need answers about Everything. We’re old when we run out of questions.

Now go and check your own cables. Make sure they’re good and tight and if not, get them serviced.