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…..”
Yesterday I met the family who may have saved my son’s life.
The daughter heard the car crash late that night. She roused her mother. They ran outside in their pajamas to his car.
Everyone who saw the car said the same thing. They all thought no one could have survived that crash.
The woman and her daughter sat with him while the dad called 911.
The mom stayed with son til the police and ambulance came. She couldn’t reach him–he was too entangled in the dashboard. The car was so badly crushed, he couldn’t move.
It was cold that night, in the teens. She gave him her coat to staunch the bleeding from his head wounds. She kept talking to him, trying to keep him from passing out or falling asleep. He was obviously in shock, and suffering from a concussion.
The first police officer on the scene waited with him til the ambulance came. “He was gentle and supportive,” the mom said.
If the daughter had not heard the crash, my son could have lain there for hours before someone found him. No one else heard it–all the other houses in the area remained dark and silent.
I know he is a man, all grown up, with a deep voice, a scowl for his out-of-it parents, with a job and an apartment, a whole life we know so little about.
In my mind’s eye, I still see that small child, solemn one moment, giggling with laughter and joy the next. In his purple snowsuit, wearing the purple hat I knit for him, pulling his beloved wagon and carrying his stuffed dog.
I asked him if he remembered her. He said no. He’s too embarrassed to meet her. Someday, he may feel differently.
In the following weeks, the mom and daughter gathered up the detritus from the crash–broken mirrors, pieces of metal–that the clean-up crew overlooked. They didn’t want anyone else to be injured by sharp glass and metal. They also found some CDs, some computer games, a hacky-sack or two. They gathered these in a box, and called our home a few days ago to let us know we could pick them up.
“We’re in the big house right across the street from where it happened,” she said on the phone. “You can’t miss us.”
My husband had been to the site, taking pictures of the skid marks, the road, later the car at the tow garage. I hadn’t been to the site. It was hard to look at that deep drop-off from the road, the gash in the tree, the scrape on the telephone pole.
I remembered the photos my husband had taken of the car. I remember not being able to take my eyes off those images. They were horrible.
The mom and dad came to the door to greet us. I thanked her. It was nothing, she said. She simply did what anybody would have done–taken care of a stranger, a young man in need.
She’d been in a bad accident once. She’d fallen asleep on her way home, and woke up to confusion and pain. But she was not as fortunate. No one heard her car crash. She’d made her way, slowly and painfully, to a nearby house. They wouldn’t let her in. They made her wait in the driveway while they phoned the police. She remembers how that felt–in the dark, in the cold, in pain, waiting. She said she couldn’t let that happen to someone else.
I was thinking, so it’s NOT what anyone else would have done.
I took them some of my jewelry as a small token of gratitude. I told her how grateful we were, that she had been kind to my son. We hugged, and went back home.
I had a chance to meet the police officer, too, at the emergency room. He was gentle and kind. We met again at the police station a few weeks later. He did his job, but without the need to heap further humiliation on top of my son. I shook his hand. I told him it had been a very difficult night, and he had made it a little easier with his kindness.
It was nothing, he said.
It was everything, I said.
I thought of the police lieutenant in Ann Arbor, the one who listened to me when I called asking for help, for guidance when we found out our daughter’s fiance was a potentially dangerous person. She couldn’t offer much as a police officer, she said. But as a mother, she had a lot to give.
We spoke to her many times over the next few weeks. In our trips out to Michigan to be with our daughter, we got to meet her. A wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful woman, she was one of countless remarkable souls who were with us in our hour(s) of need.
Her email address said “Angela”, and as I got up to leave after our visit, I called her that.
She laughed. “It’s ‘Angela’ here in the department,” she said.
“But my real name is Angel.”
Of course it is, I thought.
Of course it is.
We’re still in February and it’s been a rough year already.
We thought 2011 was bad. My best friend/lover/husband/sounding board and I hit one of those places in our marriage–you know what I’m talking about–where we’d look at each other and think (or even worse, say), “Who the hell are you, and what have you done with my husband/wife??!!”
Oh, we’ve gone to couples therapy before, for short-term help. And I mean really short-term. Sometimes we’d only need to meet with a
referee counselor two or three times to get clear on our stuff. We jokingly referred to those interludes as ‘tune-ups’–just like a regular oil change to keep our partnership running smoothly.
This time, like our Subaru Forester, we went in for what we thought was an oil change, and ended up having to pull the engine. (No, we are no longer happy with Subaru.)
The repair process was simple, but not easy. If you want a year’s worth of couples counseling reduced down to a few suggestions, here are mine: Don’t assume–ask. Then listen to the answers. And don’t eat those restaurant leftovers unless you ask their owner first. (It’s one of those situations where preferring to ask for forgiveness instead of asking for permission will backfire. Just trust me on this one.) Oh, and the biggie: Value the relationship over having to be right.
It was a tough process, but we’re on the home stretch. We can now afford to look back and say, “I almost lost you” and be amazed. A good thing.
So what could be worse than almost losing your marriage?
Almost losing your kids.
Last fall was the time of extreme anxiety. Finding out your kid is in an abusive relationship? It’s the worst (or so we thought.) We had to tread carefully, keeping doors open, staying grounded, trusting in….well, trust. Putting our faith in the love and trust we’d built over the years.
We were rewarded with a happy outcome. Our child is safe. Life is good. We’re moving on. We breathed a grateful prayer. 2012 was going to be so much better!
Then, a few weeks ago, we got ‘the phone call.’
It’s the one in the middle of the night, the one you never want to get.
The police telling us there had been an accident.
Before my heart could stop, the caller rushed to assure us, “He’s okay! He’s okay!”
We nearly lost our other kid. To a car accident so fierce, our aforementioned Subaru Forester would now probably fit inside a large refrigerator. I still can’t look at the pictures without choking up.
He’s okay. Or rather, he’ll be okay. Miraculously, though his injuries are numerous, he will recover fully. It will be a long, hard journey, but someday he will be able to put this behind him. And I am very aware that this is not always the case, for so many people or the families they leave behind… My heart breaks for them.
Of course, there are blessings in all of this. I learn from everything, even the bad stuff. But sometimes it’s just too….too. As one of my sisters said years ago, delirious with pain after burning her hand badly while dealing with a small kitchen fire, and listening to us all tell her how lucky for her it was her left hand, not her right, just her hand, not her life, just the kitchen and not the house, etc., “Well, I don’t feel so damned lucky!!”
I just spoke with my beloved hospice supervisor, Lorraine, who struggled to find the right words today. I finally said, “Oh, yeah, there are are blessings here…..DAMN IT!!! And we both burst out laughing.
But…there are blessings.
I am grateful we both believed our marriage was worth fighting for.
I am grateful that my kids know for sure how much we love them. Or, if one of them isn’t sure, we’re getting another chance to prove it to him.
I am grateful for the people who listened. Really, truly listened
I am grateful for the small courtesies received from friends, and family, and complete strangers.
I am so, so grateful for the people who do not judge.
I’ve learned a lot, too.
I know now that a good day doesn’t depend on the weather, or how much I got done, or what didn’t go wrong. Sometimes a good day is simply a day where nobody dies.
Some people think we are ‘bearing up’ well. It’s simple. I know now that there are times when you know the worst has already happened, and times where you know the worst might yet happen. The first is a piece of cake, compared to the latter. I know now that the latter is much, much scarier, and harder to bear.
You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn’t, he will. You realize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrows and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevators first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember…
I’ve learned that people will judge. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, though. I want to say to them, “Look, if the universe slapped us down or tried to KILL US whenever we did something careless, there wouldn’t be too many of us still walking around…” But I know it’s just human nature. It’s how we convince ourselves that something like that would never happen to us, a way to distance ourselves, a way to protect ourselves. “Well, my kid/husband/daughter would never do that!” Really? Huh…..
Today, my wish for you is what I would wish for myself.
Today, may your blessings be small ones. Simple ones. Easy ones.
May they involve a hug or two, and perhaps a good laugh, and someone to share it with.
May you get a chance to learn something the easy way. Not the hard way.
And may you always get a second chance, another chance to say, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” To say, “Thank you.”
To say, “I love you.”
Every hospice experience teaches me something. And my latest hospice client has already taught me something big.
The first client visit can be tricky. Each situation is very different, and I never know what to expect. So I come prepared for almost anything.
My visiting bag usually holds several books. One is something for me to read if the client is sleeping or not conscious. Another is a book of poetry, or a prayer book, or perhaps a favorite story to read aloud. (One of my favorite memories is reading Dodie Smith’s bittersweet “I Capture the Castle” to an elderly gentleman, who was as enthralled by the story as I was.)
I also carry a good supply of crossword puzzles, a notebook or journal to write in, and sometimes, my latest knitting project.
On my first visit with this client, she spied my knitting needles and asked me about my project. I pulled it out and soon we were talking about knitting. Turns out she was an avid–and extremely talented–knitter. And though her yarn stash does not rival mine, it’s still impressive.
Sadly, she’s losing the ability to knit. “But we can still look!” I said cheerfully. So we spend our time looking at knitting magazines, exclaiming over the pretty pictures of sweaters, hats and scarves, commenting on the yarns and the patterns. Last week, she turned to me and said in a fierce whisper, “I just LOVE looking at knitting patterns!” “So do I!” I whispered back.
Today she spoke sadly (and metaphorically, which is common at this stage) about not being able to knit anymore, and about “an event” that’s coming, something that cannot be stopped, something that comes for everyone.
It’s hard to talk about, she said. And people sometimes pretend it’s not coming, but it is. “It is hard,” I tell her. “People don’t know what to say. So they say nothing.” She nods fiercely.
I ask her how she feels about it. She thinks for a moment.
There are things that have defined her, all her life, that are now slipping away softly but surely, into a growing gray mist. “I can’t remember what it is, but it’s all going away,” she says sadly.
My heart goes out to her. It reminded me of my very first day in hospice training.
One of the hospice chaplains ran the exercise. It sounds laughably simple.
But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
She gave each of us ten little slips of paper. We were each told to write down ten things that were important to us.
They could be people (family, friends), they could be experiences (marriage, traveling, work), skills (arts, gardening, dancing, martial arts), character traits (intelligence, humor).
We spent quite a bit of time getting our lists just right.
Then the chaplain said, “I’m going to come around and take one of your slips. Decide which one you can give up.” It was hard, but it went quickly.
Then she said, “Now I’m going to take three things. Here I come!” Those three things were much harder to choose. We all breathed a sigh of relief when she was done.
Then she said, “Hold up your remaining slips. This time, I get to choose!” I guess I thought she would read each ‘hand’ and make a decision. Nope. She strode purposely around our circle, grabbing randomly at the slips in our hands.
It was really really hard.
What we lost was hard.
What was even harder, was knowing it was coming.
And not knowing what we would lose.
Some people tried to fight it. They held on tightly, refusing to let go. (But they had to, in the end..)
Some people–okay, all of us!–cried out in dismay when a precious slip was taken.
Many of us just cried. I did.
It wasn’t fair! Some people got to keep a few precious slips. Others lost all of them.
I cannot describe how it felt. Anger, fear, resentment, sorrow…. None of us were unscathed.
The power of those little slips of paper was palpable. Losing them was devastating.
“This is what it’s like,” said the chaplain softly. “This is what it’s like, at the end. Everything–everything–is lost.”
Such a simple exercise. Such a powerful lesson.
I looked at this amazing little woman, who was looking at me, wordlessly asking me….something.
I couldn’t remember the rest of that training day. I couldn’t remember what the chaplain said next.
I could only remember a little story this woman’s daughter had told me an hour earlier.
“Remember the sweater you made for your daughter?” I said. “How beautiful it was, and how beautiful it made her feel?”
“That is what will never go away. You did that. You made something beautiful. It made her feel beautiful. It made her feel loved. That is what will last.”
She nodded fiercely again.
I think I saw a little smile on her face.
My friend Kerin Rose once tried to tell me this, a few years ago when I was in a bad place. I felt apart from my art for awhile, and was frightened of who I would–or wouldn’t be–without it.
“You would still be you,” she insisted. I wasn’t sure….
But now I understand.
Yes, my art is who I am.
Not because of what I can or can’t do. Nor because of what I could do.
But because of what I’ve already done.
Because of what it’s already meant to me.
And because of what it’s already meant to others.
And that is what will last.
Being a part of someone’s life, because of the work we make, is a powerful thing.
Today is Day 4 at my big retail show, The League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair. It’s been exciting, exhausting, enervating, exhilarating, excellent and entertaining. Sort of New Hampshire’s own Big E.
Years ago, a mother and her young daughter came to my booth. The girl–around 9 or 10–fell in love with my horse jewelry, and begged her mom for a necklace.
“No way!” exclaimed her mom. “You always lose your jewelry. You lose everything!”
The girl pleaded her case, promising she would cherish the necklace. There was a little bargaining involved, I found a horse necklace that was a little less expensive, and both of them left with their Luann Udell horse.
Scene: My booth, one year later. A girl and her mother walk in the booth. The girl is wearing–my horse necklace!
We hug and laugh. Her mother tells me the story: “Every night, before she goes to bed, she takes off her necklace and places it in the gift box you gave her. And every morning, she puts it back on. It is the last thing she does before she sleeps, and the first thing she does after she wakens.”
I was so moved that she loved my work so much. I told this story to a friend. She said, “Do you realize, Luann, that YOUR jewelry is her first piece of ‘grown-up jewelry’? Your necklace took her to the next place in her life–you’ve been a part of her growing up.”
Now they come back every year. Sometimes the daughter buys a pair of earrings, sometimes her mother buys a necklace. Sometimes they pick something together, agreeing to share it between them.
It is beautiful to watch them.
They came this year. The girl is a young woman now. There is talk of college, maybe even a gap year program. As always, the love and warmth between them is obvious. She picks a pair of earrings, Mom picks a beautiful necklace–with a promise to share. They may be back for the girl to pick another ‘big’ piece for graduation. As they leave, I feel tears coming.
Yes, their purchases over the years have supported me as an artist. They are lovely people and I’m honored they love my work.
But even more, I am humbled at the idea that I am now a part of their family story. My work, from my hands, graces their lives. It encouraged a child to take her first steps to adulthood, and greater responsibilities. It’s been part of her life for almost a decade now, and will be with her on her first steps out into a bigger world.
I have been a witness to this. I’ve been invited to be a part of this. My art has been my ambassador, and I am astonished and grateful.
Today another young girl and her mother came to my booth for the first time. The girl begged her mother for a horse necklace. I shared this story with them. They laughed, the mother looking thoughtful. They looked and tried on a few pieces, then moved on to see the rest of the Fair.
I have a feeling they’ll be back.
As hard as it is to do this show, these moments, these precious moments, remind me of what the world asks of me. They remind me that my gift serves others, sometimes gentle, sometimes obscured, but always with purpose.
It is why I am here, today, at the Fair.
Learn to look twice to get at the ‘better lesson’ from life’s setbacks.
My nephew Michael was a tiny hellion when he was young. He wasn’t mean, or malicious, or difficult. He was just….busy. We have many family stories about his escapades. One of my favorites is when my sister left him in the car briefly while dropping something off at my parents’ house. When she came out, he was in the driver’s seat with his hands on the wheel. Before she could say a word, he jerked his head and thumb to indicate the back seat and said firmly, “Get in back. I’m driving!” (He was four.)
Here’s another favorite story about Michael. He visited my folks, and all day he got into all kinds of mischief, including getting into my mother’s purse, looking for gum. Instead, he found a medicine bottle and ate some of her high blood pressure pills.
He was rushed to the emergency room, where his stomach was pumped and he was forced to drink lots of water to induce him to vomit. We were so relieved when he was declared out of danger. As he lay bleary-eyed in his little hospital bed, my sister asked him sternly, “And what did you learn from today’s little adventure?” Whereupon Michael snuffled quietly and croaked sadly, “Not to touch Gramma’s new refrigerator.”
Earlier that day, Michael had been fooling around with the features on my folks’ brand new refrigerator, and Grandma had told him to stop. Not to touch her new fridge anymore. (Gotta admit, that ice-and-water dispenser is pretty appealing.)
Years later, we still laugh at that story. But it’s sad, too.
Michael connected his emergency room ordeal as punishment for not listening to Grandma. He thought that was the lesson he had to learn.
(It’s sad that a loved and cherished child would think a stomach pumping was an appropriate punishment for touching a kitchen appliance, of course, too…. Such is the trustful nature of children. Makes you think.)
I refer to many of my life setbacks as ‘life learning experiences.’ Sometimes finding the knowledge and experienced gained helps offset the pain of falling, failing and flailing. This looking for something good and useful out of the bad things that happen…. It’s a useful skill. It’s part of being a human being and learning how to make our way in the world.
But sometimes, like a child, like Michael, we look at the easy lesson, the most obvious lesson. Not necessarily the deeper, more important lesson.
Sometimes the obvious lesson is not the best lesson.
Learning to choose your better lesson is a way to unchain yourself from your sad old story. Your sad old story about not being good enough, worthy enough, talented enough to achieve your heart’s desire.
Years ago I was part of a small artist group. We met monthly, to support each others’ efforts to fulfill our dreams as artists.
One person, a budding book illustrator, had singled out one lone book publisher as her ‘dream work place.” She submitted her portfolio to them and waited anxiously for their reply.
When she received a rejection letter, she tried to put a good face on it. “I’ll never get hired by that company. I guess I need to learn how to accept failure,” she said dejectedly. “I’d like help from the group on how to do that.”
We managed to convince her that piling all her dream eggs in one tiny basket was too limiting. We encouraged her to explore other possibilities, too. One person offered to put her in touch with a working illustrator who could offer her feedback on her portfolio. Another suggested other small publishing houses she could approach, to gain more work experience. But the last person, reading the letter carefully, opened an even bigger door.
She had experience in the corporate world, and read the letter differently. “I don’t think your portfolio was even seen by the appropriate person,” she said firmly. “I suggest you call the company and ask where to send it. Get a name, not a department. Make an appointment to follow up. You haven’t ‘failed’—you sent it to the wrong place. This line here actually sounds like they’d like you to resubmit it with more support materials, and more examples that match their current needs.”
Our friend, despondent and self-defeating, had looked no further than her own limited vision. Seeing the window barred, she failed to see the door standing wide, wide open.
When I trust a person, and they end up shafting me, it would be easy to say, “Well, that’s what I get for putting my trust in such a person.” But what I prefer to say is, “I like to expect the best of people, and I’m open to all kinds of friendships with many different people. That means some of them will disappoint me or take advantage of my openness. I accept this as an occasional side effect of trust. Bbut I’m not going to let that change the way I am .” (However, I am more careful about who I lend money to.)
Don’t assume life is giving you a smack-down because you touched the fridge door.
Look for the deeper knowledge, the more powerful challenge, the more meaningful message. Because YOU….are worth it.
Wanna here something funny? Michael ended up working as a receptionist at a nursing station in a hospital. He loved it. He’s now working as an emergency medical technician, driving an ambulance.
A much higher calling, for him, for us, than selling refrigerators at Sears, don’t you think?
P.S. I know young people who are proud to work at Sears selling refrigerators. I my intention is not to malign their efforts to be productive people earning their own way in life. But you know that about me already, right?
Do you realize how amazing you are?
Why are we so willing to believe the worst about ourselves?
I had a conversation with a friend recently. She tends to believe she presents herself worse than she does. She accentuates her perceived weaknesses and berates herself for being “stuck”.
When I commented on her strengths and her perceived weaknesses (more on that), she smiled. “Yeah”, she said, “A friend once told me what my real problem is. My friend said, ‘Your problem is, you don’t realize how amazing you are.”
I agree with her friend.
I told her about a presentation I made last year, to an auditorium full of people. I’d goofed pretty badly–thought I was doing a presentation on one topic, only to realize the night before I was committed to a different one.
I was still more than adequately prepared. I’ve taught this workshop before, and have plenty of material on hand. But throughout the presentation, I kept apologizing. “I’m handing out a resource list–I’m so sorry, it would have been longer….” “Blah blah blah, sorry!, blah blah.”
When I read the evaluations later, everyone raved about me.
Except for one astute soul who commented, “The presentation was excellent, good information. Just one negative. She apologized too much. I found it distracting.”
It’s time to quit apologizing for ourselves.
It’s so easy to see this in other people. So hard to see it in ourselves: Not trusting our instincts. Focusing on our weaknesses and flaws. Taking our strengths for granted.
Taking ourselves for granted.
So in the interest of full disclosure, here’s the back story behind my blog:
I merrily make my art/write my column/prepare a seminar. Things are humming along. Life is good!
Then I hit roadblocks. An envious peer. A missed deadline. A new injury (usually acquired doing something absolutely stupid.) A rejection from a show. Oh, and a very low checking account balance.
Some people thrive in adversity. Yay for them! (And we all can do that sometimes.) But often we are struck in vulnerable places. The roadblock looks similar to a struggle in our past. And there are some people in this world, in a kind of pain themselves, who know exactly where to aim their blows.
If I’m in my powerful place, I shrug these off as annoying but manageable, tiny little bumps in my path. I will not be deterred from my journey.
But if I’m in a fragile period, I get knocked off-center. “Why do I bother making this work? Nobody likes it!” “How can I make her like me and stop being so mean?” “I’m so disorganized!”
Soon I feel like there’s no place for me in the world. No gifts I can offer. No way I can contribute. I’m just a whirling bundle of fret and anxiety and unkindness and ineptitude. (I thought I was making that last word up, but spell check says no, I’m good to go. Until I spelled “spellcheck” wrong….)
I eventually sit down to write. I dump it all out onto paper. I whine, I cry, I resent, I blame.
And then something wonderful happens.
I realize how amazing I am.
Not in the swelled-head, I’m-okay-you’re-not, aren’t-I-grand kinda way.
Just…amazing…in the ordinary way. A person, here in this world, in this time, trying to love and be loved. Trying to be kind. Trying to shine. Trying to do the work I was put here to do. Trying to do the best I can. (Another friend, years ago, said to me, “I like to believe people are doing the best they can.” It brought tears to my eyes.) (Although it’s hard to remember that when someone cuts me off in traffic.)
For a few wonderful, incredible minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe even an entire day, I see how powerful I am, how brightly I shine. Just enough for me to get back in the saddle and try again. (OH! A riding metaphor!)
At some point, this struggle, this journey, turns into a blog article, or a keynote speech, or a new wall hanging. If it’s funny, it goes to my column at The Crafts Report.
I write about the struggle. I write about how I end up in the hard place, and how I find my way back from there.
And how I still end up there again.
And find my way back home, to my own heart–again.
I write about how our weaknesses are not something to be cried over, but something to be celebrated. Because our weaknesses are the true source of our strength, if we let this awareness happen.
If we are the victim of cruelty, we can still choose to be kind.
If we are gripped by sadness, we can simply embrace that, for now. Or we can choose to act as if we are happy. Or we can help someone else who is sad.
If we grieve, it is because we loved. Or because we wanted to love, or to be loved.
These things are not imperfections. Or rather, they are imperfections. They are what make us beautiful, just as as stress, flaw, disease and even death make something beautiful in wood.
If we don’t think we are amazing, it is simply because we are afraid of what that might mean. We think we don’t know what that looks like. We don’t know what might change or what we might lose, or that we are setting ourselves up for even bigger failure. We are afraid we will have to work harder, and we are afraid we won’t be able to.
We are afraid we are not enough.
And yet, in each of us, is the potential to simply be ourselves. To be present. To respect our gifts, and USE them.
What inspires me, what makes me cry, is that this very place that’s so hard for us–“I am not enough”–comes from a very powerful, very beautiful place–“I want to be somebody</em, somebody worthy of love, respect, kindness, joy, achievement. I want to be seen and cherished. I want to do good work. I want to be remembered after I'm gone."
Don't you think it's amazing that we all want these things?
Isn't it astonishing that this desire drives everything we do, every choice we make, whether we act on this consciously ("I'm going to hold the door open for that person behind me.") to unconsciously ("Huh! That person cut in front of me! He acted as if I were totally not worth his kindness!" or choice words to that effect….)? (I am praying you did not get lost in the punctuation of that last sentence.)
And that's why, when people say I'M amazing, or do such beautiful work, or write something good, I do a little foot shuffle and blush, and say, "Aw, tweren't nuthin'…"
Because I DON'T have this all figured out, or rather, it doesn't STAY worked out. I'll have to do the same thing tomorrow, and next month, and probably for the rest of my life–fall down, cry, take hope and get back up.
I know I just have to do this. And I don't have to do it perfectly, either.
Because when I look at my work, at my art, at the artifacts, the fiber work, the little bears and otters, the grumpy fish, the horses….oh, the horses!
When I remember my story I tell about myself and this work, what it's done for me spiritually, and what others say it does for them….
When I remember how far I've come from that lonely, sad place, where I was so sure there was no place in this world, I actually tried to leave it….
When I look at the wonderful guy who is my life partner, and our children, our friends and family, even the stranger on the street who chooses to be kind… When I realize all the opportunities there are in life to BE that partner, that child, that friend, that stranger…
I realize we truly are all made of stars.
I am. And so are you.
p.s. Thank you, Moby, for the title of this post.
When is “What you see is what you get” not what you think? When it’s something else.
(Originally published December 4, 2002)
Last week I got a call from someone on committee. They were in a bind. They needed someone to help with a project–could I volunteer for half an hour? I checked my calendar, saw an open spot and said yes.
I went in today for my assignment. I was greeted by the person in charge and put to work. Half an hour later, the task was done, and I asked the person in charge, “Is that it?”
She said, “Yes. Now, wasn’t that easy? That wasn’t such a big deal, was it?” with a kindly smile.
Being a grown-up, I managed to bite my tongue before the words “I think the words you’re looking for here are ‘thank you’!” popped out. I simply smiled and left.
At my next stop, I related my story to the woman behind the counter, bemoaning how ungrateful some people can be..
“Oh, that’s nothing,” she said.
Last year her fiance was at a local organization here in Keene, NH. He saw their Christmas tree project in the lobby, covered with dozens of tags. (This is their special Christmas project. Each tag has a child’s name, a child who was in one of their community outreach programs, with the child’s age and one wish for a gift.)
It was a week before Christmas, and no one had taken any of the tags.
Her fiance found the woman in charge of the program. He told her he wanted every tag on that tree. He was determined that no child’s wish went unfulfilled.
Together, they went shopping. He bought every single child not only their designated gift, but lots of extra presents as well.
He spent over $2,500.
They returned to the facility and stored all the presents to be distributed the next day. He told her he preferred to remain anonymous. And he had to hurry, because he still didn’t have a Christmas tree himself.
The woman said, “You said you don’t even have a tree for Christmas yet? Why don’t you take that tree home with you? It’s the least we can do to thank you!”
So the took the tree. As he walked out the door with it, the facility director walked in and saw him.
This week (one year later), the man saw this year’s tag-covered tree in the lobby. Again, he approached the front desk, where the facility director was standing. “I’d like to help out again with your Christmas program again this year,” he said.
The director looked at him. He only remembered seeing this guy walk out of the facility a year ago with the tree. He sneered, “I don’t think we’ll need your kind of help this year.”
What you see is not always what you get…..
I told the woman to have her fiance write a letter to the guy, cc’ing the board of directors, the woman in charge of the Christmas program, and the local United Way, which supports and funds this facility. Oh, and the local newspaper, too.
He should explain that last year, he had donated his time and $2,500 of his personal money to make sure no child in their care was left out at Christmas. This year, he had repeated his offer, and had been told his help was not needed this year. And he should say how delighted he was that the facility had been so successful in their efforts that they needed no other help from their membership or the community to ensure every child had a wonderful Christmas.
He won’t do it, of course. But what a lesson for all of us!
Sometimes what you see is NOT what you get.
Sometimes…there’s whole nother story being told.
Update: The generous gentleman preferred to suffer in silence, and vowed never to participate again. But eventually, he realized only the children were hurt by his decision. He continues to make Christmas wonderful for these kids.
P.S. This is a perfect example of BIBS, the Baby In the Back Seat phenomenon. Here’s where I read this concept by conflict resolution expert Anna Maravelas and here’s a recent retelling.) Please read them if you have a moment, it will change your life!
To achieve new heights, we have to acquire new habits and tell ourselves a different story.
Stay with me, there’s a point to this drinking water thing.
We’ve always had cats. If you have cats, you know what happens.
Cats train you to do some really funny things. They get us to act in ludicrous ways, irrational ways. And we end up believing in the idiocy, too. We even believe it’s natural. “Cats are like that–they’re finicky!” we say.
It starts out very innocently. Maybe the cat starts playing with water coming out of the kitchen tap. Soon, every time you turn on the tap, the cat is there to play some more, and maybe take a few sips.
After a while, you begin to notice that the water level in his official water dish, stays the same. “Oh, no!”, you think. “The cat isn’t getting enough water!” So you turn on the tap. He jumps up and gratefully starts drinking.
Before you can say, Holy Catfish! you have a cat who will only drink out of the faucet.
Eventually, you even have to adjust the flow of water to just the right speed–not too fast, or he’ll be frightened. Not to slow, or he’ll walk away in impatience.
It will seem very normal to you, too. You will simply accept the process as what you have to do to get him to drink.
Until you see someone else doing this in their house, with their cat. And then you see how ridiculous the situation is.
For us, it was when we visited a friend with a cat. He had half a dozen caps from cans of shaving cream arranged around his bathroom floor, each cap filled with water. He told us (in total seriousness) he had to do this so his cat would drink water.
I burst out laughing. Because, you know, I know, and Pete knows….
No cat dies of thirst because his water is in the wrong-sized container.
No cat starves to death because his food is not the right brand.
Your teenager isn’t going to starve because you don’t make his sandwich the right way, with the right bread.
“Finicky” goes out the window when you’re hungry enough, when you’re thirsty enough.
“Finicky” goes out the window when you want something badly enough.
I was thinking about this today. Oh, all right, I admit, because I now have a cat
who will only drink water who has trained me to think she will only drink out of the bathtub faucet.
As I watched her drink this morning, it suddenly occurred to me…
I wondered what have I trained myself to do….
What story have I told myself….What story do I ‘know’…
That’s getting in the way of getting what I really want in my life?
I’ve been fearful of “not doing it right” with an upcoming workshop I’m teaching–to the extent that I wanted to cancel it. I want to do it badly. But I think I can’t do it unless I do it perfectly.
I have a project dear to my heart, something I’ve been dreaming about for six years. I have a million reasons ‘why it won’t work’. Today I wrote in my journal all the excuses I’ve made up for why I shouldn’t do it: ‘I know’ there’s no way to exhibit it. ‘I know’ there’s no one who would buy it. ‘I know’ I shouldn’t start it til I have the whole concept figured out perfectly.
Well, duh, who cares??!!
I want to do it.
And the only thing holding me back is the story I’ve been telling myself, and all the ridiculous reasons I’ve made up about why it won’t work.
So giggle a little at the thought of Tomcat Toes drinking daintily out of a lovely assortment of plastic cups. Smile at the thought of chubby Chai shlurping heartily from the bathtub faucet. Let’s tease my sister not wanting her son to go to California years ago because he would never make himself a sandwich and so he would go hungry….
But the next time you have a project, an idea, a glimmering of something that makes your heart beat a little faster….
Listen hard for the imaginary can’t/shouldn’t/no-way thinking that could have you drinking out of a shaving cream cap within a few weeks.
Won’t that look silly?
Now go to your studio. Write that song. Start that video. Get out your brushes.
Me? I’m gonna go dust off my sewing machine.
And yes, I will share my big project when it firms up a little more. Just keep those cups of water outta my sight for awhile, okay?
I was going to title this “Small Lessons Learned Lately” but didn’t want to miss out on that alliteration.
I had long posts started about my recent trip to England. If you read me regularly, though, you know my mind doesn’t work that way. I never tell anyone where we stopped, what we ate for lunch, who we saw or what we did.
It all comes back as little anecdotes and little lessons learned.
Here’s an example. One of the highlights of our trip was visiting an older couple in Wales, old family friends, on the Isle of Anglesey. This beautiful coastal trail is the northwest corner of the island where we hiked one day, and this view of the Snowdonia mountain range sort of looks like the view from their living room window. (You can see the mountain range on the mainland, from the island.)
Don and Barbara Roscoe are amazing people in many, many ways. But for the point of this “little lesson learned” today, I will share one.
In his 60’s, Don went back to college and received a doctorate’s degree in biology. His thesis (right term?) was on….spiders.
He showed me pictures of them in the Big Book of Very Scary-Looking Spiders, where they looked about a foot tall. But they are actually very very tiny spider, only about 1/4″ big. I can’t even remember the genus name of them (sorry, Don!), but they were beautiful.
Even with all those patterns and colors, Don said there are many, many different species, and they can look very similar. The only way to properly identify them is to carefully measure the length of their leg segments and determine the ratio of those lengths. Each species has its very own, very specific leg segment length ratio!
I was astounded, and entranced. It was as if a tiny world the size of a tack had expanded into another infinite universe. I paged through the book and marveled. The wealth of colors and patterning was astounding. I said, “I respect spiders, and I feel bad that I dislike them so much. In fact, I kinda feel sorry for them, with all the antipathy most people feel towards them.”
Don said, “Yes, it’s a pity, because if you ask people why they are afraid of spiders, they’ll say ‘oh, they bite!’ If you ask them how many times they’ve been bitten by a spider, they’ll say, ‘uh….never’ or ‘once’. Yet they get bitten by midges and mosquitoes thousands of times, and they aren’t afraid of midges and mosquitoes!”
Rats. Good point. I think about Charlotte’s Web, too.
Soon after our return, I went to an outdoor flea market. Sitting on a teacup is a very small, very ugly spider. “Look out for that spider, Mom!”, cries my daughter, and I get ready to smack it.
But I didn’t.
I looked at it, and I swear, it looked up at me. It was very stubby, and its eyes were huge. And it really seemed like it saw me.
My heart melted. I gingerly picked up the teacup, moved outside the tent, and gently blew the little fellow back to the safety of the grass.
I wrote Don about my experiences, and described the spider. “Sounds like a jumping spider”, he wrote back. “Totally harmless. And good for you for your change of heart!”
In fact, I think it might have been a daring jumping spider, a species known for being especially “friendly” towards humans. (I love the line where Valerie says, “Anyone familiar with jumping spiders has probably marveled at their perceptual abilities, which include watching and reacting to us as if a tiny spider and a medium sized mammal are on the same scale…..”)
In the last few days, I’ve found and released several very tiny spiders from my environs into the wild.
I’m not totally comfortable around these savage-looking creatures yet. And I haven’t seen a big one, which will be the ultimate test.
But I think the lesson is sticking: There are things to fear in life, and there are things we fear that are totally undeserving of that fear.
Like little spiders. And making changes. And taking chances.