We are never truly safe. And that’s OK.
It’s been exactly one week since Jon woke me, telling me we might have to evacuate from the now-infamous Santa Rosa Fire.
More manpower and resources, and less wind, have helped to contain the fires. Last night, we finally left our home, together, for a drive to the coast, taking the dogs but leaving the cats (they do not enjoy car rides) for the first time since that horrifying day.
It was restorative, in so many ways: Watching the waves peacefully roll in (unusual for the Pacific Ocean!) Poking around for pretty pebbles. (I find foraging extremely soothing. Hence the thrift shopping skills…) Stopping for a beer at a local pub in Bodega on the way home. (The Casino is an unpretentious, funky little bar and grill that serves some of the best food in the county. Check them out, here! ) To our astonishment, our dinners were free. A gift to our community, the waitperson said. We were only asked to consider donating money to the fire victims aid fund, which we did with gratitude.
Then, just before we got home, we saw it: More flames atop the ridge east of town.
Although this new fire is somewhat managed, with the aforesaid manpower and resources now available, it was a sobering thought: This isn’t over. And for thousands of people, who are now homeless, or out of work, for businesses destroyed, this won’t be over for a long time. That’s when it hit us….
We are never truly “safe”.
Home again, we toyed with the idea of where we might relocate to that’s perfectly safe. Someplace without wildfires? That would eliminate the entire west coast. Someplace with no earthquakes? Hmmmm…. Someplace with no hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, ice storms, blizzards??
We soon realized the futility of focusing on being “safe”.
There is actually a house in our neighborhood in Keene, NH that was a strange anomaly. It was totally made with concrete, slightly reminiscent of Brutalist architecture. A couple had built it and lived there, the story was, who were extremely paranoid about fire. So they build a house that was completely fire-proof, and felt completely safe.
They died in the Cocoanut Grove Fire in Boston, in 1942.
This sobering story is not meant to inflate your fears and misgivings. The thing is, we all walk on thin ice, every single day. We just don’t know it! Every day, we may get that phone call, that evacuation notice, we may hear the shrill wail of dozens of sirens, or see the very flames that will drive us from our shelter.
But we can’t live like that.
In the middle of all this, I sent an email to someone at the wrong address. Three other people saw it, as they passed it on and on to the next person, before it got to the recipient. I was pretty embarrassed, and wished I’d been more careful….
Until I saw these words in one person’s signature line:
“If only this, then music. If only now, forever takes wing.” *
In the middle of this conflagration, in the middle of our anxious days, this destruction, a stupid mistake on my part let something heartbreakingly beautiful cross my path.
For me, I hear, “This moment is enough. This experience will stay with me forever, if I chose to see its beauty, and if I hold it in my heart. All we ever have is “now”. Be here for it!”
(You, of course, may hear something different. That’s poetry.)
I’m not to saying, “Don’t worry so much” because that’s not helpful, or even possible. When I wrote last week about finding a tiny space of peace in the midst of chaos, I didn’t mean to imply I wouldn’t be devastated if we actually had lost our home, or my studio. (I keep telling people, I am not the Buddha.)
I just realized that worrying about it was useless, draining, unproductive. It’s just my buzzy lizard brain screaming, “DO SOMETHING! FIX THIS! FIGURE IT OUT!!!”
Our brains are hard-wired to solve problems. We instinctively try to find perfect, permanent solutions to whatever we face in life. Our brain spins and buzzes, trying to do the impossible.
When we recognize that, perhaps we can make different choices. My choice? I went to my studio, and found some peace.
Art and creativity, in all its forms, restores us to our higher selves.
If we are granted even a few moments of peace, a sparkle of joy, a ray of hope, it can inspire quiet grace. If we breathe deep, let go of the notion we can control every aspect of our lives, we can be open to those precious moments, those tiny gifts that help us go on.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book, The Gulag Archipelago, shown a light on people who refused to give up their humanity under horrible conditions, thus giving us all a ray of hope. Solzhenitsyn chose survival. Did that make him less-than? No! Because his choice gave him the chance to share these acts with us. Through his creative work, his voice helped us hear those other voices, which otherwise would have been lost.
Moments of courage and kindnesses, great and small, are found in the ashes of concentration camps. Stories of crucial forgiveness (not excusing, but letting go) allowed for the restoration of Rwanda. In the middle of a firestorm, someone gave a ride to others fleeing the fire. Someone opened their home to those who had lost theirs. In the aftermath, a local pub fed its guests, and even the waiters put their tips into the donation bucket.
Tiny, magnificent acts of grace, and compassion, and courage.
I don’t know if I would have the courage to enter a burning building, or the compassion to give up my bit of food to another, or to let go of anger when someone else deliberately harms me.
But I am grateful for those who do, for those who give me the knowledge that our human history is full of moments like these.
They give me hope. They make me want to be better.
Making my art, and sharing my words, is a tiny way for me to restore me to myself. And in the process, maybe I can give hope and encouragement to others.
The message is loud and clear: Our creative work, the work of our heart, matters. Our art heals ourselves, gets us to our best place in the world. In our ART, we are safe.
And when we share that with the world, it can save and heal others, too.
If you can, go to your studio/kitchen/garden/shop/dance floor today. If not today, then soon. Be fearless with your art. Then share it with the world. Give a little courage, and hope, and solace, today. We need it, desperately.
*Thanks to Cynthi Stefenoni, she graciously gave permission for me to share her words, part of a poem she’s written. (Yes, I’ve been twisting her arm to publish the entire work!)
I had a little existential crisis a few days ago. No worries, it’s solved. That is, I politely (I hope!) disengaged from a venture that wasn’t really a good fit for me. (I only took it because I’ve been freaked out by a major writing gig I’ve had for years, and had to walk away from recently.)
Anyway, a good friend and wise woman called me on it. Called me on wallowing in self-pity, when I’ve already proven I have something to give that the world needs.
A few years ago, I met up with another wise woman I’d taken a workshop with, and told her how much her words had affected me. I can still see her face as I recited several things she’d said, powerful words that have stayed with me for years.
She said, “I don’t remember saying that. You must have a good memory!”
I said, “Not really. But it was exactly what I needed to hear, and I carried them in my heart for a looooong time.”
It made me realize then (and hey, right now!) how we never, ever know how far our words will travel.
We may never know who needs to hear them almost as much as we need to say them.
And maybe we’ll find that someone has held our words in trust for us, for a time when we ourselves will need to hear them so badly.
Last week my sister and I drove home to Michigan. A lot happened on the trip, mostly good stuff, and even the bad stuff ended well.
There was one sad thing that broke my heart.
We were zipping along the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way), the major highway that connects Niagara Falls (where we entered Canada) and Hamilton. It’s always frenetic, full of traffic, with one of those solid concrete barricades down the median. We were going 75 mph, five miles above the posted speed limit, and people passed us like we were standing still.
We were talking and laughing, and all of a sudden, we saw a mother duck and two baby ducks at the median, right next to the fast lane. (AKA “even faster lane”…)
It was heartbreaking. They were in a panic. There was absolutely no way we could stop. Even if we could, there was absolutely no way we could have rescued them without endangering ourselves, other travelers, even the ducks.
Our hearts sank as we flew past them.
We could have called “someone” about them. But who? I have no idea who to call in Canada about highway-stranded ducks. And I’m sure there are limited resources to deal with such things.
I’ve been thinking of them ever since, imagining their terror, and empathizing with their helplessness. I know I won’t forget that image of them easily. Why are there solid medians in expressways? Why aren’t there ways to prevent so many animals from being run over on highways?
From what I’ve read about animal brains, they were, indeed frantic and confused. But one of two things definitely happened.
They were probably killed within minutes of us seeing them.
Or they somehow made it back across the highway.
Either way, their agony is over.
Animals, it’s said, don’t dwell on the drama. If they made it safely across, then they immediately focused on the next task in front of them–getting to water, finding food, finding a place to rest for the night.
They didn’t carry that agony and that terror with them any longer than was necessary for their survival.
People, however, tend to fret, to “ruminate” over things that upset us, sometimes endlessly. I know I do! I go over and over the event. I hold my tongue for fear of saying something awful, then regret not speaking up. I make up stories about the people who hurt me, sometimes demonizing their intentions to justify my own indignation and anger.
I’m tired of it.
I know good things can come out of sad experiences. I know this incident helped me connect strongly to an article in our town newspaper, of a local project–high school kids taking record of how many animals are killed on local highways, and thinking up ways to cut down on the daily slaughter. And I know that animals die every day in the wild, if not from a racing car, then from predators and other natural causes.
I’m just saying that I’ve fretted far longer from that image in my heart than the ducks did.
This is what it means to be human. This is what it means to have a compassionate heart.
But I also realize that I should either do something about it or put it in perspective and let it go. Endless remorse serves no one, and nothing.
And so today, I’m telling you–and myself–a different story:
Even an “ordinary” duck and her babies crossing the road have a story to tell.
And I can learn from it.
I’ve been thinking about guilt and shame. Two states of mind that can really rack us up. Especially if we’re not clear on what they are. Especially if we’re not clear on what their purpose is.
I read that guilt is when we do something we shouldn’t. Or don’t do something we should. It’s not right, or fair, or kind. It doesn’t fit our idea of who we are, or who we want to be.
Guilt, in a good context, is an alarm, an “intruder alert”, that our lizard brain is running the show.
Shame, on the other hand, is feeling there is something wrong with ourselves. It’s the feeling that we are a bad person, not worthy of anything good. We don’t deserve forgiveness, success, respect or love.
Shame has no good context. It is truly destructive, because we feel incapable of making better choices.
I’m not going there with shame today. Too big!
But I’ve learned a big lesson about guilt.
I injured my back awhile back. In desperation, I sought out all kinds of alternative therapies, including the services of a local chiropractor, Frank Abbate.
Frank and I talked as he worked. He’s a martial artist so we often talked about principles and personal integrity. One memorable discussion centered on excuses.
One of his pet peeves is when people are late. Not the “late” thing itself. But the excuses people offer up.
I cringed a little, because I’m often running late. I know that being late can imply I don’t respect the wait-ee’s time. Or that I’m being unprofessional. Both are not who I want to be.
I was also curious. Why did the excuses bother him? Sometimes the things that make us late are beyond our control. (Though I’ll admit here, on the record, that I often fall victim to the creative person’s sense of time as fluid and elastic, stretchy enough to accommodate my belief I can really squish an hour’s worth of tasks into 27 minutes….)
Frank said, “If you’re late, you’re late. I’ll take the next person in line, that’s all. Or whatever….”
But, he added, “When you offer me your excuses, you’re really trying to put the load on me. And I refuse to pick that up.”
Frank is saying an excuse is a justification for what we’ve done. When we try to justify our actions, we are actually trying to avoid guilt. And since we’re trying to avoid our responsibility–to show up on time–we are ever-so-gently sort of resting it on Frank.
“Nothin’ doing'”, he said. “Just apologize, and try not to do it again.”
It was such a new concept to me, we spent the entire session talking about it.
And of course, I realized he was right. Whether I had a good reason or not, I’m responsible. Not him.
When we mess up, and create a problem for someone else, the honorable thing is to own that.
Maybe the traffic was terrible. (Could I have left a few minutes earlier, just to be safe?)
Maybe someone else kept ME waiting. (Could I have phoned Frank and given him the option of rescheduling me?)
Maybe my car wouldn’t start. (Could I have noticed the battery was problematic, and been proactive about replacing it?)
Even with a good reason (an emergency situation, a last-minute deadline, bad weather), it’s not Frank’s problem. It’s mine.
And by offering excuses, I’m subtly trying to involve him in my problem. To let myself off the hook.
And he wants no part of it.
“I’m not mad, I’m not resentful,” he said. “Stuff happens. I just don’t want it on my plate.”
Now, at first glance, this seems like small potatoes. Late to an appointment? Pfhhht! Big deal!
But carried to an extreme, we find people who habitually blame others for their own shortcomings.
If I don’t put the effort into doing my marketing, if I don’t set aside enough time to clean my workspace for an open studio, if I don’t take the time to add new work to my online shop, who’s to blame for that? Not some mythical set of circumstances. Me.
Maybe it was a bad year. Maybe there wasn’t enough time. But the reality is, I made a choice. I set up other things as a priority–and rightly so.
But that decision was mine.
It gets worse. And you’ve seen it for yourself, among your peers, in the news.
Sent that fair application in a month late? Then blame the producer, saying they’re money-grubbing for charging the late fee? Yeah, right.
You overcharged a client, or cheated them out of money? Then say it’s because society doesn’t respect your line of work enough to allow you to make more money? Yeah, right.
You cheated on your spouse, and then say it’s because they aren’t fun to be around anymore? Yeah, right.
I’ve been making a better effort not to offer excuses anymore. (And boy, do I have really, really, really good excuses this past year.) It’s just not who I want to be.
It’s hard, but it’s…rewarding.
It feels a little bit like being a grown-up.
I told you I’d forgotten something! More tips on how to make your visits richer.
TALK STRONGER, NOT LOUDER
If the person you’re visiting is hard-of-hearing, try this simple trick: Get closer! Move so you can speak directly into their ear. Often this is all they need, and you may not need to speak any louder.
If you do have to speak louder, go up in increments. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen visitors and staff go from normal voice to YELLING. It always startles the client (and me!) so much, they nearly jump out of bed.
Or hum, or bring a CD of their favorite music. This is especially nice if someone is non-verbal. Our brains are hardwired for music (and art, by the way.) If you don’t believe in miracles, test yourself by watching this short clip of an elderly man restored to himself through the power of music.
Don’t be afraid to be silly. One client was only conscious a few minutes each day, and spent most of her time semi-conscious or asleep. I’m not good with remembering lyrics, so I sang the only song I could think of: Come Away With Me, Lucille, in My Merry Oldsmobile. In my defense, I was in a lot of gay ’90’s (that’s 1890’s!) musical revues in high school, and I love the word “automo-bubbling”….
Janey (not her real name) roused, opened one eye and glared at me. “Just how old do you think I am?!” she asked indignantly.
TURN OFF THE TV
I don’t think I need to explain this one. You think the electronic babysitter is just used on kids?!
It’s especially heartbreaking to see how deeply affected clients are by having non-stop soap operas blasting all day. Some of the actually incorporate the dialogue into their dreams and memories. One day a poor gentlemen told me that people were angry at him, and yelling. He’d confused the the evil plots and cruel machinations of a daytime soap with real life.
PICTURES ARE WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
If you have pictures of you and your friend together, bring ’em! Or ask them about the photographs they have on display. Usually these are ones they cherish and brought with them, or they are important photos their other friends and family have brought. Photos can be powerfully evocative.
NO GUESSING GAMES
Even people with plenty of cognitive aptitude can get confused. Poor eyesight, compromised hearing, being roused from sleep….Have mercy! Good Lord, no one likes it when a stranger turns up at a party and says, “Do you know who I am?” or “Do you remember me?”
Don’t ask them to guess who you are–tell them! “Hello, Frannie, my name is Luann. I’m Mary’s oldest daughter, the one who lives in New Hampshire.” Or, “Hello, Mrs. Brown, I’m Bill Meyers. I was your student when you taught second grade at Houghton Elementary School. I’m the boy who brought a snake for show-and-tell, and it got loose in the classroom!” Trust me, she’ll remember you.
For more great suggestions, visit JazznJewelry’s excellent comment to my previous post.
I read about it in OPRAH Magazine, and something about the article resonated. I bought a copy. When it arrived, I started reading it.
Well, dear readers, it’s such an amazingly wonderful book, I was up til 3 a.m. reading it.
Okay, okay, truth in advertising–I couldn’t sleep last night, and it’s the book I reached for to read myself back to sleep.
There are many lovely life lessons in there, including a few to help me through the situation that kept me up til 3 a.m. But the one I’m thinking about today is the column she wrote to an anxious, anguished, angry bride-to-be.
The last few days I’ve been feeling like I’m not “handling things right”. There’s been a lot of anger and confusion, there is resentment at being manipulated by someone I’m trying to help, there is the thing I fall into from time to time about trying to keep everybody happy, made worse by me operating on my idea of what will make people happy. (You think I’d know by now….!!)
But as I read Sugar’s advice to the bride, I realized I’ve done at least one thing absolutely right in my life.
My mom, with only one daughter’s wedding planning under her belt (she and my dad now have staged six weddings at last count), offered to host and pay for the wedding, if it were a modestly-priced one. “That’s what I want!” I exclaimed. I’d moved away from home twelve years before, but we decided Gladwin, my hometown, was the perfect location.
My dad went into lawn management overdrive. He always has beautiful flowerbeds and a lovely yard, but he went to great lengths to make everything perfect for our outdoor wedding.
The minister at my childhood church refused to marry us, and refused to let us use the church my sister was married in. (I’d moved away long before he came to preside there, so I didn’t “belong there” anymore.) “No worries,” I said. Instead, we would get married in my parent’s back yard. My mom found out we could be married by the mayor of Gladwin. “That’s so cool!” I exclaimed. We asked, and he said yes, he’d do it. It was the first marriage ceremony he’d ever performed. He was elated, especially when we invited his wife, too.
When my mom asked me who we should invite of all my relatives and hometown friends, I thought for a moment and then said, “Anyone who would be happy to come to my wedding.” That actually worked out really well.
When asked about the flowers, I chose the flowers I found in Jon’s apartment the first time I visited him there. He’d picked orange daylilies from someone’s garden. (He didn’t know at the time that people do not plant flowers so other people could pick them. I kid you not.) I’d picked my own bunch, from a ditch by the roadside out in the country, while on a drive with friends. We marveled that we’d both picked the same flowers on the same day. I thought it was sweet he’d picked (admittedly illegally) flowers for me. So we decided that’s what we’d have for my bouquet, corsages and boutonnieres. Most florists don’t stock daylilies, so I picked Stargazer lilies instead.
When asked about the food, I said, “Let’s keep it simple.” Mom ordered hors d’ oeuvres, and fresh strawberries, and a wonderful wedding cake. I was so busy mingling and talking with our guests, I never got to eat anything. Except yummy wedding cake, so I was happy. (I LOVE wedding cake.)
When asked about the colors, I named my (at the time) favorite color, pink. When Mom found out there were no pink linens to be rented, I said, “What colors DO they have?” Well, there was white, and…..well, just white. (My hometown was very small, with one caterer and one rental source.) “Okay,” I said. “White it is.” When overwhelmed with the wedding cake choices, I chose white cake with white frosting, and fresh flowers for the cake’s decoration.
Flowers for the reception tables? I went out into the fields surrounding my old home and gathered wildflowers. They only lasted the day, but that’s all we needed. They were beautiful.
The weather had been cold and rainy right up to the day of the wedding. One hour before the ceremony, the clouds dispersed and the sun broke through. It was a bearable 68 degrees and sunny right up to the end of the whole shebang. Then the clouds regathered, the warm sun disappeared again, and the drizzle resumed.
We splurged and ordered a case of champagne, which in the end provided most of the wedding entertainment. My two youngest sibs were in charge of opening the bottles. They took turns exuberantly popping the corks and watching them fly right over the roof of the house. Several men in the family “went to see the new tractor mower” in the garage, (which to this day is man-code for “Let’s go drink some champagne!”) right before the ceremony. Jon’s memories after this point are rather hazy.
My dress was an off-the-rack white summery prairie dress (in my defense, it was trendy at the time) I’d bought on sale at a regular clothing store. And a white hat.
I had no bridesmaids, no maid-of-honor, no grooms or best man. It was impossible to choose among so many candidates without hurting someone’s feelings, and I also didn’t want to put anyone through that expense. (Let me tell you about my bridesmaid’s dress collection. The dresses I bought, when times were hard, that every bride assured me could be worn again as “an ordinary dress-up dress.” HAH! I’m just going to say two little words: Hoop. Skirt.) Instead, we had two of our best friends be the legal witnesses on the paperwork.
I lost my wedding license the day before the wedding. One sister and I were very much on the outs at the time, and (I can hardly believe I’m writing this) I suspected her of hiding it. By some tiny miracle of self-restraint, I managed to keep my mouth shut and not voice this opinion. A dear friend who was attending from the same far-off city Jon and I lived in, managed to get a legal copy and brought it up the day of the event. A few days later, I found the lost license right where I’d put it–on top of a file box. It had fallen in and “filed” itself. And a wedding or two later, that same sister extended the hand of reconciliation to me, and I took it, and we have not had an “out” ever since. And I am so grateful that something in my heart, on that day before my wedding, overrode my pitiful lizard brain and I kept my mouth SHUT.
I was very nice to my new mother-in-law, even though she was behaving very oddly throughout the marriage ceremony. She was not a fan, let’s leave it at that. But again, something stomped my lizard brain long enough for me to realize I was surrounded by love, more than enough love, to overlook and forgive anything and everything that day.
We hired the son of a family friend to play guitar for the ceremony and reception. He got sick right after the wedding and left. We were having too much fun by then to miss him much.
My favorite teacher from high school read a poem for us.
My only regret is that we have very few nice photographs from the wedding, which were taken by someone who offered to take pictures for free–a sister, I think. But I’m also glad we were spared the endless line-ups and staged assemblies that usually hold up the reception for hours. And to be fair, there WAS no local professional photographer available. If there had been someone like my good friend Roma Dee to photograph my wedding, I know there would be more amazing, intimate yet unstaged moments captured. (If I have have to go through a nerve-wracking, soul-strapping event that needs to be photographed, I pray I have Roma at my side. She is so warm and chill–the good kind of chill–at the same time. She is intuitive, grounded, sane.) But I have enough images to spark many good memories.
I do know that an hour after the ceremony, Jon decided to go for a swim in my parents’ pool, which we all still laugh about. He doesn’t remember much about the rest of the day. Too overwhelmed, and too many visits to the tractor mower. He remembers thinking it might have been a little too chilly for a swim… I remember thinking how buff he looked in his swimsuit.
I do know that the casual, stress-free, easy-going wedding we had, set the tone for the next four weddings in our family. The rest of us all were married in my parents’ backyard, too, and they were all delightful, low-key events. My all-time favorite photo from those is one of Jon, after visiting the mower in the garage a few too many times, sitting in front of a doghouse with my folks’ dog Cammie, offering her a sip from his glass of champagne.
I laughed all the way through Sugar’s response to the racked-up, anguished bride-to-be about her own mishap-laden, chaotic, wonderful wedding full of what’s really important about a wedding–friends, family, your community watching you and your partner promise to make a go of this complicated, amazing, scary and joyful thing called “marriage”.
I cherish her last words:
….We all get lost in the minutiae, but don’t lose this day…..Let your wedding be a wonder. Let it be one hell of a good time. Let it be what you can’t yet imagine and wouldn’t orchestrate even if you could. Remember why it is you’ve gone to so much trouble…. You’re getting married. There’s a day ahead that’s a shimmering slice of your mysterious destiny. All you’ve got to do is show up.
Okay, I know there’s more than “one thing” I’ve done right in my life (there I still wish there were many, many more.) But I know that one thing I did right, for sure, was our wedding.
Oh, and June 26 was our 30th anniversary.
So what’s the secret to a good marriage?
1) Marrying the right man for the right reasons.
2) Through thick and thin, and through the very, very thin, realizing I would marry him all over again in a heartbeat.
3) There’s a lot of luck involved.
4) Know that it’s not a “thing”, it’s always, always a work in progress.
5) When you need help to keep the work-in-progress working, get help.
6) Remember the wisest thing my husband ever said about our relationship: One day, after listening to a friend share how she and her husband were trying to save their marriage by taking up tennis so there was one thing they could do together, and working myself into a fever pitch about how little he and I had in common, and how few things we did together, and worrying that it meant our marriage was shaky, he commented, “But we’ve never actually done lots of things together. We just like to be together.”
Recognize the times when being is more important than doing.
Years later, my dad still rues the fact that our special day fell during a late, cold, rainy spring. “None of the flower beds I planted were blooming yet!” he says.
“I don’t remember that,” I tell him. “The only flowers I remember are my pink lilies in my wedding bouquet, and the wildflowers I picked that morning. All I remember is how perfect everything was that day…..”