Monday, November 14, 2016

How Can You Be the Perfect Stranger?

Can You Be
The Perfect Stranger?

“Don’t talk to strangers.” It’s good advice if you’re a child and it’s difficult to know if a stranger is friend or foe. It might even be good advice if you’re older and it’s still difficult to know if a stranger is friend or foe. Strangers are scary, aren’t they? I’m a stranger to billions whom I have yet to meet, so I might be considered a foe. One person to whom I recently was a stranger does not think so.

The memorial service for a friend’s twenty-six-year-old son was a solemn gathering. Mourners filled the room, heartbroken, grieving for a life ended much too soon. The eulogy focused on how much life he had, how much life he brought to those who knew him, and how much they grieved his life cut short.
As people made a futile effort to wipe their tears away and comfort his family following the eulogy, I excused myself to step outside. My grandson was quite ill and I wanted to call to check on him.
The sidewalk in front of the service location was crowded with young people holding each other, grieving together. I stepped to the end of a long walkway so I could speak in private. I was relieved to learn that my grandson was on his way to wellness.
I headed back down the long sidewalk to return to the memorial gathering. As I walked, a young woman came toward me. She was heartbroken, crying, anguished. As I approached her, I noticed the intensity of her grief. She was gasping. I’ve had far too many panic attacks in my life, so I knew she was having one.
In our culture, we often shy away from strangers. We don’t want to “bother” people, especially people we don’t know who are upset. But my heart leapt out to her and I stopped as I neared her.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She began telling me that she was attending a memorial service for a friend. I nodded my head and said that I had been there, too. We spoke for a few minutes. I knew she was still panicky. I didn’t want to leave her, so I asked if it would be okay to walk with her for a few minutes. She said yes. We went to the end of the sidewalk and she began telling me about her friend. She hadn’t known him long and she was new to the area. She didn’t know anyone attending the service. She found out about the young man’s death from his mother, who answered a text message sent to him. She was numb and didn’t even know what to say to the mother. Shock combined with the feeling of being alone in her mourning sent her grief into a deep low.
I know a little bit about grief. I also know a little bit about feeling alone. I spoke gentle words to her about how she felt and how alone she must feel. I acknowledged that having no one with whom to mourn increased the depth of her pain. For those few minutes I spent with her, I did my best to let her know that she wasn’t alone.
As happens in conversations, we moved away from the loss and away from the immediate pain. We even spoke about relationships, about social media and how we strive to stay connected in whatever ways we can.
I sensed she was calmer. A friend was waiting for me inside and I didn’t want her to be concerned about me.
 But first, I asked the young woman if she was feeling any better. When I was reassured she would be okay, I returned to the memorial gathering.
Later, as I sat at a table inside, I saw her again. She was calmer, no longer panicked. I saw her speak with the young man’s relatives. She came over to me and we spoke. She shared that, although still grieving, she was coping better. She then said, “Thank you for being the perfect stranger.”
I was touched by her gratitude and sweetness mixed with her sorrow. I don’t consider myself perfect at anything, but perhaps being what she needed that day made me her “perfect stranger.” We hugged as we said goodbye.

This story might seem like it’s about me. It isn’t. It’s about you. In your life, in these days when so many of us are hurting, so many of us are afraid, wary, grieving for deep loss within our country and our relationships, loss within our own hearts and lives, ask yourself this question:

How can I be the perfect stranger?

Ask yourself: How can I bridge the divide that separates so many of us? How can I soothe? How can I help? How can I heal? How can I dry someone’s tears? How can I let someone know they aren’t alone?

How can I be the perfect stranger?

I told this story to only one person—so far. A few days later, she called me to tell me the story of how she had been someone’s “perfect stranger.” As you become “the perfect stranger,” I look forward to hearing your “perfect stranger” story. Was there a time when “the perfect stranger” touched your life? I hope you will share those stories with me, too.

Monday, October 31, 2016

No Hiding from the Night

Part of Me Wants to Escape the Night, Escape the Loss
But When the Doorbell Rings, I Will Answer
I hate waking with this sense of failure permeating my being. I’m sixty-four, sixty-four, and I feel alone and inept and unaccomplished. I ask myself: Is it the day? Is it the October that ends today? Is it that November 2 waits to meet me again in two days?
I remind myself that it is the day, it is the month, it is the prospect of marking thirty long years forty-eight hours from now.
I tremble. My breath comes in rapid gulps. I don’t want to celebrate this Halloween. It’s my first living alone and it takes me back thirty years to a Halloween night when I was home alone, watching my child nearing the end of her own breaths. The house wasn’t lit up, and I asked my husband to leave the outside lights off before he left for his errand. The idea of children—whole in their Halloween happiness—coming to the door made me shrink in fear.
Of course, the doorbell rang. I couldn’t hide from the mother and child waiting outside, knowing someone was home. We’d been on a no-sugar, no-flour, no-treat eating regimen for years, but I did a frantic search and found something resembling a treat. I brought it to the door and apologized for the meager offering. I was met with smiles and gratitude.
When they reached the sidewalk, I turned off most of the lights in the house and went to sit by my little girl’s side.
I wished she were whole, healthy, and running the streets with joy, candy bag filled, and face chocolate smeared. But she wasn’t. We were not mother and child, hand in hand, ringing doorbells and gathering treats.
As I sat by her side, however, we were still mother and child, my hand in hers. Two days later, we were still mother and child as she breathed her last. Thirty years later, we continue to be mother and child—even as I sit here, tears threatening to smear the ink on these lines.
I say to myself: Yes, it is the day. It is the next two days. It is the last thirty years. It is the next however many years.
I will always miss her, and part of me will always yearn for a Halloween night when I could hold her hand and go door to door.
Part of me, this year, as every year, wants to dim all the lights and hole up in a dark room and escape the night, escape the loss, escape the sadness.
But I’ve learned a few things as these years go by. Foremost is that I’m still here. I have life and love to give—and even to receive. So tonight, I will turn on the lights, and when the doorbell rings, I will have real treats. I will open the door and smile and be grateful that, in spite of the greatest loss, I can still share in the joy of a child.

My precious daughter, Alexa Renee Provo, died on November 2, 1986, from brain cancer. She was seven and a half years old. It is my heartfelt hope that in spite of this greatest loss, that I can continue to live with joy and let others know that in spite of loss, they can, too.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Pain Walks the Streets of Our Cities

The Door Closes on yet Another Life
Tears brim in my eyes, ready to fall away and spill down my face. I found out on social media early this morning that a friend lost her son. Someone said his death was addiction related. She lost her aunt and mother not long ago, and a few years ago, she lost her soul mate. I feel so broken for her. She is sweet and tender and sensitive. She adored her son.
I wish I could do something, anything. I know I can pray, but even that feels hollow, lacking substance. I hate it that yet another life has been cut short because of this vile affliction.
It grates when I think of the millions and millions and millions wasted on this dumb-ass election—not only this sleazy sideshow of a presidential election, but all the offices, from mosquito control officer on up. That’s the true evil in this country. And we have people in Congress who have made it their purpose to do nothing except support the companies who keep drugs on the streets and the insurance companies that deny addiction treatment services to all those except the wealthy. And, unlike some things, support for Big Pharma is bipartisan. They all line their pockets with their foul gains.
Meanwhile, people are dying, like my friend’s son, for lack of treatment. People are suffering. Families and societies—counties, states, our entire country—we’re all affected by the pain of this current system.
And that pain seeps out of the space in those pockets where money hasn’t crowded it aside. That pain walks the streets of our cities. That pain rides in ambulances to emergency rooms. That pain escapes in the sighs and groans of an EMT when Narcan fails to work. That pain sits in the living rooms and at the kitchen tables of thousands of families who are brought to their knees in grief. That pain streams from my pen as I write these words.
That pain is compounded by the frustration of those who desperately want to close the door on addiction and say goodbye to it. That pain sears the psyches and hearts of those who instead say a different, gut-wrenching goodbye as the door is closed on yet another life.
That pain is echoed in the futility I feel and the frustration I feel. What—just what—are the priorities in our country? I don’t know what to do to fix this skewed, screwed system of ours regarding the most important assets of our country—our people, our youth, anyone who is suffering.
I tell myself to breathe, that I can do some things. I can make my voice heard by letters, e-mails, phone calls, And, I can do the most important thing: offer comfort to my friend and do whatever I can to ease her pain of saying goodbye.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Won't You Be My Friend?

UnFriends and Friends
Choosing Heart in a Heartless Campaign
 I have in-real-life friends and, like most people who have joined the twenty-first century, I have social media friends. My social media friends are a mixed bag: family members and real-life friends, classmates, colleagues, neighbors, and even friends of family and friends of friends. Many of my social media friends are those with whom I share common interests: the development where we live, orchid growing, epiphyllum growing, gardening, supporting local businesses, and local events groups. I don’t know my friend count offhand, and it changes depending on who is angry with me or who is angry with my family and/or other friends. It likely changes when I mention something controversial.
This vile political season has people dropping friends, hiding friends, unfollowing friends, and some pretty heated vitriol among “friends.” Earlier today, I read a status in which someone said that they would remove all people from their friend list who disagreed with their choice for president in the upcoming election. The person decided that those people aren’t worth any further association with them.
I understand differences of opinion and I understand differences of politics. I have immense differences regarding politics, religion, and social issues with several of my social media friends and even with my real-life friends and family.
In the years I’ve been on social media, I have removed one person from my friend list. One. I removed her because she attacked me personally without cause. She attacked me regarding my beliefs and knowledge, and she attacked my professional qualifications. I don’t need someone like her in my life, so she isn’t.
I disagree in the most strong terms with some of my friends’ choices for the upcoming election. I will not unfriend them. When I think of each person, I know they have goodness in their hearts. I know they love their family. I know they love their pets. I know they love their country. I know they love their God. I know they have compassion and caring because of the very things they have said to me. I know they have hearts that love, hearts that yearn, hearts that grieve, hearts that are full of hope.
It’s those hearts that I want to keep as my friends. I know that this election will end. Someone will be president. I refuse to separate myself from people who have hearts that touch mine and continue to touch other hearts each day. I intend to keep my friends.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Hold Me Closer, Tiny Dancing Angel

Tiny Dancing Angel
My Tiny Dancer visited me today. I never know when she will appear, but I always get a sign. That sign is “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. On a bright November day in 1986, I took one of the worst rides of my life. My husband and I drove to the cemetery to bury our daughter, Alexa. Alexa died three days earlier at the age of seven and a half from brain cancer. The ride was quiet, muted, but we had the radio on. Somehow, my broken heart tuned in as I heard the melody of “Tiny Dancer” pulling me away from the gut-wrenching present. It is a song I’ve always loved, perhaps best the line, “Hold me closer, Tiny Dancer. . . . ” I would have given anything at that moment to hold my Tiny Dancer one more time. As the song faded, I said, “I will always think of Alexa when I hear this song for the rest of my life.”
The song resonated all the more because six months earlier, Lexie had danced in her first and only recital, which brought us so much joy and light in the face of a darkening illness.
It has been almost thirty years since the meaning of that song forever changed for me. Since that time, it has been a message from my angel. It comes when I’m sad, when I’m scared, when I’m facing a challenge. And it stops me, always, and makes me consider just what it means, and what my next moves, my next life decisions will be. The song always moves me toward my best self, the self that would make an angel proud.
I have faced a conflict over the last few days. It’s a serious one, and like most serious conflicts, it involves people I love. I’ve prayed about it. I’ve shared my feelings and concerns with only a few people because it’s a private matter, and I keep such things close to my heart.
Nonetheless, I have been fraught with emotion, yet I also know that the best thing for me to do is sit with those emotions and not act on them, to continue to pray and to ponder.
 I don’t often listen to the radio, but when I do, I prefer NPR. It is a rare weekday that I listen to the radio. Today was that day. While scrubbing walls in preparation for painting, I listened to the radio. I didn’t listen to NPR because I wanted something livelier—music. Not long after I tuned in, as I scrubbed and rinsed, the familiar opening notes of “Tiny Dancer” meant I put the cleaning cloth down and listened, not only with my ears but also with my heart.
I shared the song with someone I love while it played. I know the message is one of love. I know the message is one of reconciliation. I know the song was for me, just as I know I am typing on an iMac. It’s that clear. No one could ever convince me that my angel Alexa wasn’t here with me today, telling me to love, telling me that’s my only choice in this situation.
I don’t know how many people have a conduit to their angel. I don’t know how many people even are aware of such gifts. I hope they are. When I pray today, it also is my prayer that those of us who have suffered deep loss also have their own “Tiny Dancing Angel” who reminds them to stop, listen, and continue to love.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Running the Hamster Wheel—When It's 93 Degrees Inside

Running the Hamster Wheel
When It’s 93 Degrees—Inside
The air-conditioning died two weeks ago on Saturday afternoon. I knew the repair would be pricey. I’d avoided the freon leak repair too long. No longer could I afford to refill the freon. I had to get the leak beneath the concrete slab of my house fixed. I was daunted knowing I faced a $1200-plus repair. However, that despair was minimal as I watched the thermostat creep up, up, up inside on an August day in Central Florida. Every window was open, the doors were open, the fans were spinning, and it was 93 degrees inside.
In spite of being wilted, I had to meet deadlines. I edited until my computer was hot to the touch, and knew that wouldn’t work. It’s a desktop, so skipping off to the nearest Starbucks wasn’t an option. Instead, at 8 p.m. that Saturday evening, I began the race to find a window unit before every store closed at 9 p.m. Sebastian Walmart, none. Vero Beach Walmart, none. Home Depot, no, too expensive. Lowe’s, no, again too expensive. Best Buy? Maybe. I found the last unit tucked in a corner on the floor in the rear of the store. The clerk carried it to the counter, where I paid for it. He asked if I needed a cart to get it to my car. Five-foot, two, 115-pound, weakling that I am, I said, “No. I need a person.”
My neighbor installed the unit in my bedroom window Sunday afternoon as I was lying on the sofa in a near-faint from the heat. A few hours later, I began to recover in a cooled room, icy drink still in hand.
Monday morning, computer in my room, I got back to work. Tuesday morning, the air-conditioning repairmen arrived. By 3:30 or so, the house was beginning to cool. Not so cool was my near-sub-zero checking account balance.
I continued to meet my deadlines, and the checks started rolling in. I paid my bills and began to ponder a new computer purchase. Mine has been a workhorse for six years, a long happy life for a desktop iMac. I don’t want to risk being without a computer, so I am thinking it’s time for an upgrade. The upgrade would allow me to continue working and earning. To meet my responsibilities—the payment on this 1800-square-foot house, utilities, repairs (such as air-conditioning). It hit me that I needed a new (expensive) computer to keep working to pay for my too-large (expensive) house and maintenance (often-expensive) and just keep going, going, going. It then hit me that I work to pay for my house and I work to pay for air conditioners and I work to pay for a new computer so I can continue working to pay for all these things and all this stuff that I think I need, but just might not.
In the meantime, because I have been working to pay for a lifestyle that doesn’t meet the true needs and desires of my soul, my soul is not fed. Until yesterday, it had been two weeks since I exercised. Until right now, it has been months since I wrote more than a scribbled word or thought on a piece of paper. I’m tense, I’m anxious, and I’m not particularly joyful.
I am on the hamster wheel and I’m running, running, nowhere and while running, I’m running past all that gives my life meaning.
Today, I got off the wheel. I’ll be back on it for a time while I continue to work today. But I’m exploring ways to stay off the wheel and live in such a way that the true needs and desires of my soul are met, so that my soul is fed, and in the process I can feed others.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Not Going Even a Tiny Bit Postal

Not Going Even a Bit Postal
After a Crushing Delivery
Cram it in the mailbox. Doesn’t fit? Doesn’t matter. The mail must be delivered. If it gets in the box, that counts as delivered, even though cramming is damaging.
I have a precious (albeit cracked and mended) cup that was wedged in a too-tight mailbox. I’ve pried packages from mailboxes. Recently, a flat package with a hard surface was folded and then pushed into the mailbox. At least the letter carrier didn’t do a complete fold and was satisfied with a bend, so the gift doesn’t have a hard crease all down the middle.
The hard crease is only the top inch of the mat of the original watercolor painting I received. I glanced at the painting for only a moment, and then I focused on the crease. Then I focused on the slight bowed shape of the painting.
The mail carrier is busy, busy. She has a schedule to meet. I’m in a Facebook group for the development where I live, so I know far too many people received damaged mail. I suppose I should be grateful that the gift even arrived at my address. I am, but I’m not grateful for the damage.
I flashed on writing a nasty note to the carrier. I imagined taking a photo of the painting with its bowed shape and crease at the top. I would print the photo, add a not-so-nice note, and place it in the mailbox with the flag up. I also would post that photo on my social media group and sit back and wait for multiple angry notifications as others shared their own mail woes. We could have a collective bitchfest/mini-rage about the mail. I also imagined reporting the carrier to the post office and having her reprimanded.
As I devised my small acts of vengeance and savored the fruits of my anger, I also imagined describing the painting rather than taking a photo. I then realized that I was so invested in being angry that I didn’t really know what the painting looked like.
That stopped me short. My energy was so caught up in anger, spreading the negativity, and contemplating acts of vengeance that I didn’t even know the basics of the painting that had only minimal damage.
I stopped complaining and looked at the painting. The multicolored flowers greet a swallowtail butterfly hovering above them. Looking closer, I realized that it isn’t exactly a swallowtail, but it has similarities. It has deep blue in several shades, so I know my gift giver paid attention when she was here. She noticed the blue throughout my house and knows it’s a color I love. She also noticed that the color isn’t overwhelming. The blue in the painting is subtle—it is only a part of the painting, just like blue is only a part of what could loosely be called the “d├ęcor” in my house. The flowers are masses of colors and shapes, just like my flowerbeds.
I spent so much energy thinking about how I would wreak vengeance and express my anger at the mail carrier, that I missed the painting. I missed the colors. I missed the attention. I missed the details.
Anger does that. It obscures most of what is happening with the red film that covers one’s eyes. It isn’t an attractive film. It’s less attractive when the film obscures reason and one then acts on the anger.
I’m relieved that I didn’t vent and complain on social media. I didn’t take photos and leave a nasty note for the letter carrier. Instead, I looked at the painting and focused on what matters to me. I focused on what kind of response I want to make in my life to things that bother me. I focused on the beauty of the painting. Does it have a flaw? Yes, but the flaw is in the mat, not the art. Will I cover the flaw when I frame it and hang it? No, I won’t. It is a good reminder to skip anger and go to what matters in my life: art, beauty, gratitude.