Monday, December 31, 2012

Things I learned about people and passion in 2012

It's December 31, I'm watching the last sunrise of the year, and your gifts are ready.

If you're a regular reader, you know I'm fascinated by relationships. All kinds; with spouses and children,  parents and siblings, friends and relatives, total strangers.

I read about and saw the same things on the news that you did. But this year, I also watched:

A mother speaking in gentle, full sentences to her pre-verbal child.
A teenage boy draping his arm around a girl who stood on the street weeping.
An elderly couple arguing with ease and humor in line at a deli.  
A man grocery shopping with his two-year-old daughter, helping her with the words to the songs she sang while he patiently fetched the items she tossed from the cart.
A man in his twenties bounding up some stairs to hold the door for a man in his late eighties- then  waiting until he was all the way through.

I observed cranky, unhappy people driving $80,000 cars, and young people working in awful jobs with a smile on their face. 

I saw some people ruin themselves, and others fight to save their own lives.  

I noticed one woman sitting alone one morning, quietly turning the pages of a book while she waited for a methadone clinic to open. 

And, after the horror in Connecticut, I saw young parents in an entirely new way, as they probably saw themselves.

The spirit is a miraculous, stubborn thing I learned in 2012.

Below are the other important things I learned or learned anew. Most of them are about relationships. Some are of the "duh" variety. However, they are all worth mentioning. If any make you consider the  gifts you offer, and withhold, in your own communication then you're welcome. Come back again next year and bring your friends.   

And, since this was the year I went back to writing full time, I've included some thoughts about work-in-progress which really is what life is all about.

And finally,  I've included some  thoughts about love because, well, you know,  love is all around. No need to waste it.


If you feel it, say it. There is no better expenditure of time -even when there isn't time and even if it's awkward - than to tell someone, out of the blue and with as few fluffy, confusing  words as possible, some reason why you cherish them.  It's harder than it sounds which is why we don't do it more often.

The most beautiful parts to a true love relationship are these:  the magical infatuation stage when one can describe their attraction to another for as long as their listener will tolerate it.  And later, when it is like walking and breathing to have them  in your thoughts a little bit, all the time.

We love the way we know how, and usually the way we ourselves would like to be loved. But some need words and some need actions and it's a big part of love to know how you differ.  

Every nice thing you do for someone you love, every "I Love You" you offer,  loses meaning with every "I'm Sorry" you can't bring yourself to say.  

There are wealthy people who  never want for food, warmth or shelter but allow themselves to starve emotionally in loveless, lonely relationships. Even if it's practical and tidier, do they wonder what dies in the process? I do.

Pampering someone is not the same thing as loving them and both the pamperer and pampered know it.

Difficult people
You just can't reason with someone who wants more than anything to be right (or show you that you're wrong).  You probably don't lack the skills, it's just that a righteous person feels unfaithful to his or her point of view when he or she listens to yours.

Even lazy, pampered, entitled  people have moments when they know they haven't earned what they have and wish they could fix that.

Be gentle with obnoxious people. The ones who won't give up the floor. The ones who talk loudly about Important Things  on their cell phones in public. The ones who try too hard to be funny. They probably don't want to be that way and they have to live with themselves all the time.

Be gentle with unhappy people, even if you must flee their company at the first opportunity.  That surly butcher who doesn't make eye contact or say thank you may be coping with a loss or disappointment that would overwhelm you. Assume there's a reason, and be kind. 

Do not be gentle with bullies, young or old. They know they make people uncomfortable and they resort to intimidation because they can't earn respect. They deserve neither your respect nor your fear.

Rare is the person who is truly, honestly unaffected by what people think of them. Everyone has someone they'd like to impress. And  I've seen uppity, successful people  hold serious grudges, for a long time, when someone of greater stature refuses to admire them.

What others think of you when you misstep is fleeting and variable and stays with you far longer than it stays with them.  You however, are your own constant company, critic, and champion. Be as good to yourself as you would be to your child. You can nurture yourself with understanding, or shred  yourself with doubt, rebuke and criticism.  Don't turn on yourself like that.

I don't believe anyone is without passion. Everyone has something they would do, all day long, would miss meals while doing,  if they had the money they needed already.

People shouldn't confuse passion with career selection, but they do. The difference is that one requires spirit and connects us to life, while the other requires training and validates our planning and organizational skills.

Explore your passion if you've been lucky enough to discover it but don't drive it into the ground.  The  less  income or outcome you demand, and the more joy you derive from a passion  the more you will be brought things by your  passion which you weren't looking for, but needed just the same. 

Work in progress
Don't sulk over what you might have accomplished if you started sooner. There are things - important things - you can only do well or better if you're older.  

We obsess over the completion of things. Finishing. Ending. Being done.  That kind of preoccupation is for students in college, or new  interns, or those who  wish to publish before they perish. It's true in building a career, it's true in being married, it's true in writing:  When it comes to the heart and mind, work in progress is as exhilarating - but not as sad - as finished work.

If it is time to end something,  start something else first.  Don't close a door behind you only to discover that on the other side is where the floor ended too.

Even if you dream about how, when, where and what things in your life should come next, they can be the hardest to start. Don't wait. You give up the romance of dreaming when you give in to the fear of failure and vice versa. If you don't surge ahead and risk the downside, you'll just be vaguely frustrated forever and you won't have any new stories to tell at dinner parties.

And finally, if it's happening right now, there's  probably a reason for it, you will probably  learn something you didn't know, it will probably be something you need, and eventually, you will share it for the right reasons.

With wishes for peace and all the rewards that you dream of in 2013, I love you, I appreciate your visiting, and will see you next Monday.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Questions and answers

Once when our son was very small, we waited  in line at a supermarket behind a man who was rather large in the stomach area. Our son stared at him, fascinated. I knew what was coming but  I wasn't quick enough with a distraction.

"Man," said our son, "Do you have a baby in your tummy?"

The man was not upset or amused, he simply turned away. I was mortified. In the car, I explained to our son that there were things we shouldn't ask people about themselves. Personal things. Things that they might not want you to notice.

"Like what?"

I'm sure I came up with something like:  "Well, generally about the way they look. It could hurt their feelings."

Or maybe not, I'm thinking today.

On Saturday, I shopped for a last minute gift. It was a crowded , knick-knacky place where busy people wandered on this third day before Christmas, moving past one another gingerly, saying "Excuse me" in voices edged with their hurry.  A few in line checked their watches.

A man in a wheelchair sat parked to the side, out of the way, while his companion made her way through the line.  Standing in line in front of  the man was a woman with her small child, a girl of about four.

The line halted while someone checked a price and there was time for the girl to stare at the disabled man. He looked the other way, but she was captivated.

"Why are you in that chair?" she asked him.

He looked at her and tilted his head a bit. Then he smiled patiently and said in a tired voice,  "Because, my legs don't work."

She nodded and he offered nothing more.

The mother watched.

 "Why don't they work?" asked the girl.

I looked at the mother to see how she'd react...Don't ask people personal questions...Leave the man alone...I'm sorry sir, she's just curious. But she didn't stop the exchange. Didn't hurry the girl along and didn't say "Shh."  She rested a hand on her shoulder.

"Because," the man said with a little shrug, "that's just the way it is."

She looked at his face. "Is that hard for you?" she asked.

"Sometimes," he said, nodding, "sometimes it is."

The woman wished him a Merry Christmas and he smiled. They moved on.

How easily, in our  zeal to explain the world and the people in it, we presume - often wrongly - their feelings. How in our efforts to shape tact, we can suppress candor. And how easily, in our wish to cultivate tolerance, this can be confused with pity. 

But this candid little exchange gone right stayed with me.  The child's natural curiosity, only an inquiry still, about someone different from herself.  The  mother's willingness to trust that this  exchange would  unfold without her interference.  But more than that, I appreciated the man's  honest shrug of a response to the complicated question of "why?"

"It's just the way it is."

That, this child will discover, is the reason for many, many things beyond the doors of that shop.  

And maybe, I would tell a young child today,  adults of all types might not wish to discuss themselves with people they don't know. Possibly, I would dovetail this with a discussion about the issue of striking up conversation with strangers.

Maybe not.

There is a difference between a child's curiosity and an adult's judgment. Not all of us know what it is, but I observed one man who has probably learned it the hard way.

But I could be wrong. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

A survivor's view of the world after tragedy

Hollis, who is mighty, and 
 also knows how to drop the
 F bomb with class. 
People come into your life when you don't expect them to, don't even wish for them to because you wrongly believe you've no room at the inn. Later, you realize you not only have room at the inn, but a few deadbeats living there for nothing. After you boot them to make space,  you realize this new friendship will more than help you through the wretched moments that life may bring.

This friendship will make you a better person.

My cousin Hollis Cook, is six years younger than I am. We lost touch with each other after my parents divorced and I moved from the area. I can't remember how old we were when we last had a conversation  of length but I remember that we were very young and that even as a small child, she was loud and lively and  direct and obstinate and - joyous.

It was decades before we saw each other again, but over the summer, she found me on Facebook.
She was going to be in the neighborhood.
She wanted a reunion with the family - maybe a cookout.
She wanted to catch up.

After she surfaced, I thought about that feeling you get running into a friend from high school in the supermarket. You see them cross the end of the aisle, and you want to know where they live, how they look, if they stayed married, if they're successful, if they have children now... The wisp of an idea crosses your mind that you might resume your friendship but you look the other way.  There's so much to talk about but you have only time enough to get through frozen foods and head for the car if you're ever going to arrive at the end of your day on time.

You move on. But you wish you knew, still.

Hollis is a person with a history of  tragedy and loss so staggering, I both craved a chance to hear her story and feared she'd tell it. Before she was a teenager, she lost her father and fifteen-year-old brother in a  plane crash. Before she was an adult, a fiery accident left her with massive second and third degree burns that required an extended hospitalization at the Shriners Burn Institute in Boston. Multiple surgeries and skin grafts helped restore her function and movement but the therapy and reconstruction which followed, I remember hearing, was excruciating. A few years ago, she lost her remaining, younger brother to lung cancer. 

At the cookout, without a trace of hesitation, Hollis walked toward,me, arms open, laughing that loud laugh - music from my childhood. "I knew when I saw those glamorous sunglasses it was you," she said. "God, I remember when you lived in Miami and came to visit us in New Hampshire and I thought 'wow, she is so glamorous.'"

You'd be charmed too. 

In her instant and easy conversation, Hollis recalled for everyone's benefit the times and places we might all recall, before and after the plane crash, and not with sadness but with simple, sweet nostalgia. Of me she asked the kinds of questions only a compelling, savvy and  interested person would ask, while I asked the kinds of questions an eleven-year-old who's been told to speak to the adults at a cocktail party would ask. Like this:

Hollis: "So  you have one more and he's leaving for college, how do you feel about that?"
Me: "So where in Florida do you live exactly?"
Hollis: "So your husband is gone all week,  how is that for you?
Me:  "So where do you work?"
Hollis: "So you wrote a novel, how did you start doing that?"
Me: "So you don't really mind the heat?"
And, so on.
Eventually, Hollis said the F word which makes me like anyone immediately, if they are otherwise well-spoken, and I checked on those vacancies. 

I thought of several things in the days after catching up with Hollis, but mostly about that unique view of life you detect in those who have triumphed over monumental loss. They don't survive, they conquer. They don't avoid the pain of memories but cull them as they heal. They move not away from devastation, but toward hope, and ultimately toward peace.  You sense behind that loud laugh, and joyous embrace, an unwillingness to sacrifice life a second time to the weight of grief. 

This view is demonstrated in the post below written by Hollis in the aftermath of the horror in Connecticut. If it seems impossible that life will ever feel safe again, that evil is everywhere and has only yet to be discovered, have a look at things through the eyes of someone who could have turned from life to face the wall, but said, instead, "I think the F not."

By Hollis Cook

I couldn't sleep last night. I kept thinking of Maple Street School and the little stairs that went down past the library to the new Kindergarten room that had just been built, of my dear friend Kimber who works there and must be shaken to her very core...of our cubbies, and singing, "red and yellow, green and blue", of how proud I was when my dad came in his suit for my 2nd grade parents night and sat at my tiny desk, and how sad I was when I realized I had misspelled "clothes" with "close" throughout my entire booklet about the seasons. 

I was lucky enough to grow up in a small town surrounded largely by people who cared about each other, who cared about me--when I was hurt and hurting, but not lucky enough to be unscathed by the ravages life can deal out. I was tempted, as I have been my whole life, to think of how unfair life is, God knows I know that more than most, but the temptation I did resist. 

So as your thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims and the citizens of you find yourself remembering the safety of your own elementary school, please resist the thoughts that we live in an awful world and that things have "gotten worse". If I can do that, I know you can too. There have always been, and will always be bad people--regardless of how we look for clues or search our mental health system or our laws. Since the beginning of time there have been horrible, shitty, evil people who do atrocious things to the innocent victims around them, including children, without reason; laws and armed guards and pills don't stop them; they weaken and scare the survivors. 

We can stand together and be there for one another with open hearts and open eyes. Resist the urge to watch endless news cycles trying to "explain" this. Bad people happen, mean people suck, and good people stick together.

Monday, December 10, 2012

December in the empty nest

When we were little and felt sorry for ourselves, my father used to help us keep perspective with this gem:

 I cried because I had no shoes. And then I saw someone with no feet.

Or words to that effect.

I got the point.  Of course, it trumped the point to picture my barefoot father having a calm  conversation with a man whose legs ended above the ankle, but it resonated.  To this day, I am not comfortable with self-pity.

With some exceptions.

So I will apologize in advance for the self-pity you will come across in this post by mentioning the "feet" for which I am truly thankful every single day:  

  • Children who are happy, healthy and making their way in the world with grace and appreciation for their own feet.
  • Work that is not-income-producing-at-this- time but which makes me complete.
  • Larry, who supports this and all of my dreams.
  • Family who knew me when I was at my most wretched and love me anyway
  • Friends who call when I haven't been around and suggest lunch.
  • An existence that  teaches me new things about life and love every day.
 As I've posted before,  my nest did not empty with gentle exits, but with a gust of wind which blew up from underneath and tipped it all over. Two sons moved out within a week of each other. Two weeks later, Larry started an assignment and was gone five days a week.  Gus, my empty nest cat, and I were left to blink at all those tail lights together.

Gus, empty nest cat.
Everyone asked how I would handle this sudden change - the loneliness - but I wasn't worried. I had plans, and, after being everyone's administrative assistant for a couple of decades, I rather liked that I would be thinking about me, me, me for awhile.

Before mid November, not only had I grown tired of  me , me,  me,  but knowing the kids would be home, I regressed altogether and looked forward to creating the holiday home they experienced as children: At Thanksgiving, pumpkin bread, favorite dips, casseroles.  In December, cookies with red and green sprinkles,  letters from Santa, notes on closet doors reading "don't look in here" with a stern face.

In my excitement, I lobbied for an earlier tree  than usual - say December 1 - suggesting to Larry that with everyone gone it might help keep my spirits aloft.

I will pause here to say that very responsibly, Larry objected to this on the basis of dry needles and fire hazards before saying, hero-like, on November 30,  "So who feels like getting a tree?"

On December 5, I  looked around. An unopened package of sugar cookie mix sat on the counter where I'd placed it days ago.  On my wrapping table no boxes waited for me to find the time to wrap ... there was music in the air that I wished would end already, and across the room a fire flickered which just seemed out of place.

I thought of two empty nest friends and their recent remarks about the new feel to such a traditional season.
"I'm not a fan of Christmas these days," said one.
"I don't really like anything about December, now." said another.

I didn't want to understand the sentiment, but here I was, the Christmas Eeyore I never thought I'd become, relating completely. 

So, before my fully decorated November tree I sat and waited for something to happen without knowing what it should be.  I looked around at the decorations - Santa on the piano, snowman on the table, deer and tree thing by the fireplace - and wanted to put them back.  Certainly, I realized that  I was missing my kids and husband, but it was more than that.  No nostalgia touched my soul, no sudden thought for a long lost friend or loved one drifted through my heart. No sweet memories in connection with all those ornaments, ours now for nearly three decades, rose before my eyes.

I waited a long time for my spirit.
I tried again the next day.
Finally, I stopped expecting it and avoided the whole festive scene.

There's your empty nest.

There's your missing shoes.

It used to surprise me to hear our kids say,  even in the last days before a holiday reunion with each other, "I'm just not in the spirit, but I will be as soon as I'm home." This holiday season, I get this. I am reminded of when I dated Larry on the weekends, and how very little spirit in December I felt until I sat across from him in a restaurant on Friday night, whether there was a tree to look at or not.  Spirit to be spirit, must be shared. Somehow. 

Next year, I'll remember:

I can't summon my sluggish spirit by putting up the tree,  rearranging the furniture, and putting the deer and tree thing near the fireplace early. Next year, in the absence of others with whom I  have always shared these surroundings as well as my spirit, I will instead, change things around a bit;  create new traditions, maybe put up the tree no earlier than December 15 and in a different part of the house, decorated only with ornaments that we buy in places to which we have started to travel, maybe do these new things  every year after that.

As for this year's shoes:

Tomorrow, Sam will come home for the long holiday break. I'll pick him up and we'll dine in the city - something we both love. On Wednesday, I will meet a favorite new friend of mine for a holiday drink. In a few days Larry will be home and over the weekend, we'll entertain and be out with our oldest friends.  The cookies will be made and the gifts will be wrapped and I will leave signs that say "do not look in here" with a stern face.

Old traditions and rituals are wonderful as long as they free the spirit and don't leave it trapped in the past. When that happens, perhaps it's just time to find another kind of November tree to look at.

Maybe even an artificial one that the kids would hate, but which is there for you when they can't be.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Someday Me

I will never change enough
 to wear this shoe

Recently, I had lunch with my friend Bernice who shared this curiosity:

 "So now that Courtney's getting married, it's only a matter of time before..." and here she raised her eyebrows to finish the sentence. "How do you feel about that?" she asked.

Funny, the timing of that. Funny, the déjà vu.

Before I became a mother, I could imagine myself having children like I could imagine scaling a building in my favorite black pumps. I couldn't. I didn't understand babies. I was intimidated by the way they stared at me when I was left alone in the room with them.  They cried when their mothers asked me to hold them.

My friends who had children carried tiny little photo albums in their purses which unfolded like accordions. If there was any lull in the conversation, out it came.  You couldn't "hide the story" or refrain from comment; you had to look, you had to comment and I never knew what to say.

"Oh, wow. Is she noisy?"
"Did labor hurt more than you thought?"
"He's really mature looking for his age."

But I felt about these tiny people like I felt about small dogs. If cute, peaceful,  and well-behaved enough, I might want one. But when they were demanding, rude and disruptive, I wondered how I would ever adore them the way other people did.

What would we talk about?

Toward the end of my self-absorbed twenties I met Larry and things began to change.  On long car rides, late in the evening, sitting around with nothing to do, the thought of someday children began to not horrify me. There were other reasons, I suppose. I was aware that this me-first-me-only  stage of life would expire eventually, and I liked looking ahead. I also found it more enchanting to think about someday-children than another way to do my hair or what to wear on Monday or why Donna was mad at me or why Jay in Finance was such a jerk  or whether or not I'd ever make Employment Manager.

And I started to picture them,  my someday children.

What they would look like.
What their names would be.
What they would do when they grew up.
What we'd talk about.

Every picture I formed, every idea I had was dwarfed by what I learned in the stunning moment when my someday child became my right-now daughter. I was changed forever, in ways I couldn't have predicted.

It's only a matter of do you feel about that?

Certainly  in connection with Courtney's engagement,  I have been going through a time like that period in my twenties when I sensed the sun was setting on one phase in life and rising over another:
  • I no longer believe that a grandsomeone will turn me into my cranky third grade teacher with the sensible shoes.
  • I don't believe I'll become annoying or intrusive or anything else that comes from wanting to live someone else's life more than your own. 
  • In department stores now, Larry and I look at tiny down vests and shoes that could fit the cat and say, "Oh, look at this." 
  • Out and about, I notice grandmummies who cherish  their grandsomeones who cherish them back. 
  • I can picture a small child being given the news that Grandmummy  and GrandLarry are  coming to visit and I can imagine the text I'll receive to tell me about their response to this. 
  • I can picture someones-in-law talking to me about how life has changed in a conversation that is like the ones I have with my children now.
But most of all, my long and luxurious dance with change has taught me to open my heart to every someday that waits, the way I opened my heart long ago to a someday me, and the someday child who changed everything with one look.

And when I see Bernice tomorrow for lunch, I'll bet she asks me about something else.