Sunday, January 12, 2014

Universal Beauty

This week it occurred to me that some of the people I've always thought of as being filled with low-drama stoicism, Midwestern stiff-upper-lip types who march through hell and fire with little comment, might simply be, or have been, introverts who didn't see a need to discuss what was simply fact. It has occurred to me that because many people (even those who know me best) think of me as hyper-communicative and very extroverted, the fact that I don't talk about what I feel could be misconstrued. Often is. Hmmm. Interesting. While I always knew I needed to listen carefully to the stoic people in my life, to make sure they were okay under that stiff upper lip, I know that I do not inspire that concern in others, because I seem like the type who will holler if I need help or am unhappy. Do you have people like me in your life? People who are neither quiet nor open about what they need? Do they drive you crazy? Because I'm pretty sure this particular combination has driven several people in my life crazy.  :-)

I've been thinking about this because I am writing essays that are difficult to write and I can't make enough time for them.  I'm struggling to make room in my crowded life and my busy mind to settle at my writing table and put paragraphs on the pages, and I'm frustrated by the things that are tugging at my minutes, demanding my attention.  I want to complain, but I don't because complaining never changed a thing.  Not one.  Or has it?  As usual, what I do is double-down on tasks so I can get ahead of them.  This is a strategy that seldom works, by the way.  What works is to do the difficult and important thing, not get busy with minutiae.

Dani Shapiro, a writer who has written memoirs and fiction, recently responded to an angry Facebook fan who felt her memoir was not close enough to her chronological life.  Shapiro is a thoughtful writer, a careful writer, and the letter is worth reading.  This, however, was the section that spoke to me:
"The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we? We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal."

It was as though Shapiro wrote those words for me. There is no perfect version of the story that I'm trying to tell. There is no version that will include all the angles from which this experience could be seen, or felt. There is no version that will not be filtered through my flawed, imperfect lenses. The version I write will be filtered through the lenses of imperfect memory, of immense love, of pain, of loss, of anger and acceptance and the thousand other filters that each of us bring to our lives and to our memories. But if I can find my way to the truest version, when I can choose the window that will show the clearest view, when I can discipline myself to find language that is clear, that will help me share these moments with my readers--it's possible I will find my way to beauty, and truth. It is possible, and even likely, that the universality I am so certain is a part of my experience will be something I manage to share with my readers.

I've been struggling so hard with these essays. They are so important that I can't stop tripping over my desire to make them perfect. And I need to let that go and make them honest. Perfection can wait. So can laundry.

Best to all who happen this way.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

So Much Damned Beauty

I was talking with a friend today while at work, and found myself in tears while sitting in the relatively public area outside my company's mail room.  I was overtaken by a wave of memory, shaken by a combination of anger and grief and, oddly, gratitude.  My friend's mom is in a coma in a local hospital, having suffered a stroke.  She is terminally ill, and my friend is trying to prepare for what will come.  

My advice was heartfelt and simple.  I said to be gentle with herself and to assume that her mom could still feel her touch, hear her voice if not her words.  I suggested foot massages, head massages, pedicures--whatever was possible in the confines of the hospital bed.  This is something I can help with, the moment when you must prepare for the imminent loss of someone you love.  The logistics are less onerous than you anticipate, and the long periods of not-knowing, of waiting for the next development, are painful and precious in waves of swelling, alternating emotions that are a surprise--or that were a surprise to me.  

And my friend thanked me, and she said she knew I would be helpful.  I've had a lot of early loss, and I share what I've learned freely.  And then she said something to me that made me cry.  She said that I was a beautiful person, and it broke something loose in me to have her compliment me in the midst of her own pain and loss and confusion.  Not because of the compliment, which itself was a lovely thing to hear.  No, it was the experience of witnessing such generosity of spirit.  The fact that we as humans can find the capacity to be gentle and kind with others when we are being crushed by circumstance is something that I am continually amazed by, continually gratified to discover.  There is so much damned beauty in this world, in the midst of pain and loss as well as in the midst of joy and plenty.  

And her words reminded me of so many things, including the generosity of three hospice caregivers who I had the pleasure to know.  I remember my gratitude for each of these women, and I think that part of what they must have been moved by in our time together was the same thing that I was moved by in my friend.  In the midst of my pain, I remember telling each of these women why they were so important, so amazing.  And I'm so grateful that my heart was open enough to see that, because seeing it made those days and hours easier to bear.  And seeing it was a testament to the kind of person I hope to be, try to be.  

It was a difficult day, and my friend's journey is not over.  But it was a good day, too.  Any day that we lessen the burden of someone else is a day worth living.  

Best to all who pass this way.  


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Labors of Love

I spent the last four days making order from disorder.  In my house and in my head.  I reordered some messy cabinets, put away the Christmas stuff.  I worked on some blog posts, a budget, some idea maps for three of the essays that will comprise a big part of the memoir I am working on.  I got some gentle exercise.

The Bat Buggy
This weekend we also said goodbye to a friend who is following her dreams and starting a new adventure in Bend, Oregon. Another friend is at the hospital, her mother had a serious stroke and, while being evaluated, was also diagnosed with lung cancer.  And I've been smiling over photographs of my great-nephew's birthday and crazy-awesome gift, a custom-built Batman-themed go cart created by his Dad.  Eric spent much of his weekend working on the labor-of-love network project that he tackled at the Idaho Botanical Garden.  What I am struck by is how much love is in my life.  How many people I am proud to know and love.  How many lives being spent doing good things intersect with mine--things that might not stack up on some best-of list, or be notable on the national news, but things that require courage and strength, optimism and love.  

In an ideal future, a good part of my time and energy will be spent on things that can best be described as labors of love. I'm in charge of making that happen. Tonight, I'm feeling centered, and happy.  And I hope that I'll be able to hold onto this feeling for a while.  I like it quite a lot. 

Here we go - first week of work in 2014 coming straight at us!


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Firing up the Zen mojo

This morning I was sitting on the sofa juggling banking minutiae and looking out at the blessedly clear skies and the happy people walking dogs in the thin-but-real sunshine.  A man with a Goldendoodle walked past, and when his dog took care of business on the sidewalk, this horse's-patootie of a man just walked away. I was incensed. My coat was on and I was halfway out the door in slippers carrying empty Albertsons bags to "suggest" that maybe he'd forgotten something. But something stopped me at my door. Something more than the blast of chilly air. A quiet voice said to chill out. So I did.

And 15 minutes later, the nice man, who was clearly NOT a horse's patootie, was back, bag in hand, looking for the spot he needed to clean up. And I was glad I'd hushed myself. I was relieved not to have to smile sheepishly at him the next 874 times I see him out walking his dog. I was happy for that little voice, the one that so often helps me take a moment to reframe my assumptions about the motivations of others and determine if what I am chalking up to malice or asshattery could more easily be explained by ignorance, thoughtlessness, bad manners.

When I'm feeling pinned by circumstances, it is pretty easy to assign intention to the actions of others.  Or corporations, banks, traffic lights, weather patterns. It is a pretty quick trip from "this sucks" to "why is he/she/they/it doing this to me?" And, of course, the other person, corporation, bank, traffic signal, driver, weather Gods are blissfully just doing what they do.  Sometimes thoughtlessly or carelessly, but seldom with any intention at all as it relates to me and my (small) concerns.

This is one of the toughest realities I've wrestled with in my life. Acceptance of what is, that's the only way to get to the next step, the one where we deal with that reality. Assigning intention to whomever or whatever has "wronged" us is just a delay in the process. It has served me well, most of the time, to skip over that process and get rapidly back to what I'm doing to do about it.

The trick, then, is determining when it is good energy for me to try to exert some control or pressure over an outcome.  Sometimes that's easy. If I don't like the way banks charge me punitive interest, I should double-down on my efforts to be debt-free. Not, as is so tempting to do, think that my dissatisfaction will in any way change their for-profit motives or actions. If I dislike the mission of my employer, I should look for another position. And driving is really simple--get my Zen mojo fired up, accept that I'm not in charge of the road or the people on it, and plan some extra travel time.

But it gets tricky when my sense of "I deserve better than this" or "I've earned better than this" butts up against my concern that I'm edging toward a sense of entitlement, which I think is a poisonous force in our country.  When should I press for a bigger paycheck or a better title at work, for example, rather than being satisfied with the healthy paycheck and title I've attained?  The answer has to be more complicated than a matrix of rules. It has to consider factors such as the economic climate I'm working in, the other factors that are driving my sense of inequality. During the years that my late husband was sick, I spent almost zero energy on these questions, and that was appropriate. But now it is not. I'm sure I was easier to manage, in many ways, when I had the major demands and distractions that I had 4, 5, 6 years ago. Because even in the midst of lots of other demands, I have always delivered professionally. Always.

But now, I'm wrestling with the question of how to use my work life for the next 15 or 16 years, and how to make space for the other things I plan to accomplish, the other parts of my life that deserve time.  I've begun by accepting that work is an exchange, that Monday through Friday (and occasionally on weekends) I give a big chunk of my one and only today to my employer in return for pay and benefits.  My job is not a definition of me, it is a job. Yay, me, I have a first step. Next has been trying to identify and put a value to the many intangible benefits mixed into this exchange; am I doing work that matters to me, am I developing others, am I able to solve problems, am I empowered to be successful, am I able to live where I want to live, am I able to leave work when I'm no longer at work, do I like the people I work with and the people I lead. And then the really uncomfortable questions, like gender equality within my industry, or my company.

And you know what?  It can be paralyzing. It can make me less happy to spend all this energy on matters I've always trusted would sort themselves out if I keep doing great work and keep a positive attitude.  And that, my friends, is a sign that I'm not feeling valued. Which could be valid, or could be a hint of that entitlement stuff I mentioned up there ^^. It will, I trust, sort itself out. With a little nudge here and there from yours truly.

In the meantime, I'm in the middle of the only today I'm going to get.  I spent some time writing and some time in necessary life maintenance stuff, and now I'm going to queue up some background music and begin writing wedding thank-you notes.

Life is sweet!  My best to all who happen this way.


Photo credit to the Facebook page "Peaceful Daily"

Friday, January 3, 2014

Better Together

Today I'm taking down the Christmas tree. We didn't leave our childhood with many objects to remind us of our family's life together. Illness, financial problems, a sheriff's sale--circumstances. But we have lots of memories. I'm old enough now to have accumulated a great many objects, including 30 years worth of Christmas ornaments. As I look at them, boxing them for another year of attic storage, I see that they tell a story. One collection took years to assemble, the gold plated ornaments with intricate details that sparkle madly on the tree. There is the collection of Lenox snowflakes, glowing porcelain lace. There are ornaments that perfectly capture the spirit of a year. They tell stories of my years of plenty and joy, and the years when no new ornaments came into my home. And I look forward as I box this year's additions, a beautiful silver bell ornament that was a wedding gift, and a heavy, pretty mistletoe ornament that I found for Eric. And so a new chapter, a new season of plenty, begins.

One of the things my counselor often asked me is "what is the worst thing that can happen?" I have relatively few fears about being in the world, or about my ability to "take care of business" but, as it turns out, I have quite a lot of fears about people letting me down. It's a strange business, this messy process of learning to count on other people. And I have lots of reasons to suck at it - many of the people I've tried to count on in my life have had illnesses (and early deaths) that prevented them from being able to be my safety net. My logical brain knows that it has been circumstance that prevented them, not their choice. But fear is not based on logic, as it turns out.  

I accept that I am not practiced at counting on other people. That makes sense, right?  Being out of the habit makes sense. But it makes absolutely no sense to me that I'm so afraid that when I do ask, the person I ask will let me down. This fear keeps me from asking, even when I dimly realize I could, or even should. Why all the anxiety? Really, what is the worst thing that can happen? If I ask and am let down, can't I can just take care of me, instead? Well, yes, but it might be harder because I might have less time, or have budgeted my time or money expecting not to need to handle X. Still, though, I know there is more to it. It has something to do with feeling valued, or loved. Because while we can logically understand why people we love who are sick or absent can't take care of us, while we can absolutely put on our big girl panties and make sure they never ever know that we are hurt or feel bereft--we are still actually feeling hurt, or bereft or both. Abandoned or let down or some combination of the two. And unfortunately, this habit of non-communication can develop into a bit of a problem. Let's be real, here: the last thing a sick person needs is confirmation that the reality they fear most is true, that their needs are very difficult to meet, that the family's resources are focused first on them, that their spouse (or children, or parents) are hurt in ways they cannot fix. Finding a way to live around a loved one's illness, to stay loving, joyful and authentic with one another when an illness is chipping away at not only your health but your finances, your daily lives, your routines, your self esteem--this is one of the greatest of life's challenges. So when counselors say to be open with one another about needs, even in the midst of illness or depression or crippling anxiety attacks, I have steadfastly disagreed. The patient comes first. Corollary: ask only for what can be given or can be soothed away. If I'm ever in that situation again, it will very likely continue to be my plan. 

But I'm not in that situation now. My life has changed. I've moved into a new life with people who are not sick. And yet those habits are deeply ingrained. They extend outside my personal life to my professional life. So maybe I struggle to ask for help. Or maybe I struggle to hold the people in my life accountable because I am so out of practice. Or maybe I become paralyzed in my communication (this is not the same as silent, although sometimes I'm silent). I've done all of these things. But none of these behaviors is "how I am." They are, instead, simply a set of behaviors and habits that I can change. If, as you read this, you find it resonates with you, then this next bit is for you and me: we have to hope that we'll figure it out. We have to try to figure it out, and stumble. And ask for help, or say when we are hurt, which feels as monumentally difficult as a kidney transplant.

So, to answer the question, the worst thing that could happen is that I say what I need and find that no one cares. The worst thing that can happen is that I will need help and no one will be there to help. In the range of human possibility, that's not so big a risk. I can take that one. And I can live in hope and certainty that most of the time, someone will be there for me. My husband, my siblings, my friends, even my colleagues. When it is truly important, someone will be in that scary black void with me.

So - one of my most closely-held commitments this year is to identify, accept and embrace what I need to be fulfilled in my life. I need to practice acknowledging it, first. I need to practice giving my needs and wants language, because that is how they will become real to me, how they will move from pie-in-the-sky dreams to goals. And then I need to practice reaching out to those who could help me find or attain those things. I need to ask people I love, people who love me, people I've helped along the way who would love to return the favor.

The Christmas tree has been disassembled and wrestled into a new storage bag.  I'm here with a cup of coffee, looking at the empty space where the tree has been twinkling cheerfully for the last month or so. It doesn't look bereft, it looks like a blank slate.  And so it is with the year ahead, as I go inward and try to find the route that will put my life, especially my professional life, on the path to something I find truly fulfilling.

We are better together than we are alone.  Happy New Year!


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Commitments, baby!

Five commitments I'm making this year: 
  • Move more, browse the internet less.
  • Write something every day that is not a work product for a major retail company. 
  • Spend less money, accumulate less stuff and spend less time worrying.
  • Eat less sugar and (even) more vegetables, but enjoy everything I consume without the crushing stupidity of guilt.
  • Remember every single day how much the love in my life has sustained me and continues to sustain me.  As a corollary to this one, I will also express my love for others without concern for looking silly, and without expectation.
Tomorrow, I will have more to say.  For tonight, I'm focused on taking some time to read something worthwhile.  Hooray for long weekends!

Note: I've committed to making writing a priority in my life again this year.  And while some writers feel that blogging is a way to avoid "real" writing, I think that the accountability of writing daily in a semi-public forum is just exactly what I need to cement the writing habit in my daily life again.  So if you read these posts, thank you.  Leave a comment here or on Facebook - it will help me make this a priority.