Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Yearning to Shed My Skin . . .

Shedding My Skin

I’ve kicked the habit
Shed my skin . . .”
~ Peter Gabriel So

Sometimes when I write, I shed my skin, exposing what’s beneath. It often feels too raw, too new—this fresh skin that’s not quite accustomed to the light and the elements of life around me. I feel too vulnerable, too transparent, so I rush to cover it with other words, with humor, with an opaque cloak.

That opaque cloak, even though it might mimic a safe environment, voids the transparency with which I want to greet the world, with which I want to meet life—head-on, open, clear, innocent, trusting, ready to shed yet another skin, another layer, to feel life and all its elements.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Dumb Things People Say About God

 "God Never Gives You
More Than You Can Handle"

Dumb things people say about God could fill a book, or two, or three.
How do I know what people say is dumb? I don’t as a biblical scholar or on an extra-personal level. However, I am a rather practical person in most respects and I think of God as a rather practical God in most respects. That’s why I believe people say dumb things about God. I have what I call a relationship with God; however, it’s not the kind that born-againers talk about when they say “personal relationship,” like they have a BFF thing going with Jesus and He’s directing their lives as if He’s sitting in the passenger seat of the car and saying “Slow down, speed up, get in the far-left lane, now get ready to turn into the CVS parking lot.” I don’t believe God has such a hyper-focus on my life or anyone else’s.
It seems to me that if you’re God you probably have a lot more important things to do in the universe than micromanaging whether someone’s life is best served by moving to Omaha rather than Ontario. Not that I don’t believe in a powerful God, I do. And I do in spite of some of the dumb things people say when they are trying to make sense of events that make no sense.
Dumb thing number one, I read a few weeks ago in response to a friend facing a health crisis with their child, and it’s been festering in my psyche ever since:
“God never gives you more than you can handle.”
I hate that saying. In the context of a God who reigns over the universe, passing out the good cards and the “bad” cards, God gives many people much more than they can handle, every day, all over the world.
This blithe comment bugs me for other reasons. This statement is almost always said to someone in the process of trying to handle a serious challenge. By serious, I mean tragic or frightening, maybe death or the looming spectre of death. Maybe that challenge means a loved one has been injured or is facing a dreadful disease. Maybe someone is facing persecution for his or her religious beliefs. Maybe an earthquake or tornado destroyed every possession they own. Maybe a tsunami swept away everything and everyone they cherish. Maybe a doctor just broke the news their child has leukemia or their spouse needs a heart transplant.
When someone is in the midst of a crisis, they need a life preserver given to them with the most kindness and compassion the giver can muster. Saying “God never gives you more than you can handle,” even though it comes with fine intentions, borders on cruelty in my opinion.
When someone is in a crisis and they are told that well-meaning, albeit misguided “God never gives you more than you can handle,” I wonder if they respond the same way I do—at least in my mind; I’m not rude enough to retort what I really think: “What? I’m supposed to handle this because you say God’s not going to push me beyond my endurance? Let me tell you, I am beyond endurance. I am scared out of my wits. I am tired. I feel alone. I am trembling in fear and knee-capped. And now I must face the prospect that a loving God gave this to me? And because I’m still standing, there might be more to handle? And, I also have to hear you say that God has not given me “more than [I] can handle? I'm still here, so is there something more I'll have to handle?"
People, believers and nonbelievers alike, get more than they can handle—all the time. Grief, desperation, despair, drug and alcohol addiction, death of someone loved and cherished, mental illness, crimes so horrid as to not even be believed are committed against people daily. And, yes, I believe it’s more than they can handle. I also believe a loving God didn’t choose to mete out those events. I would love to believe that the universe and life have order, but they don’t. Bad things happen, they just do. Ernest Hemingway said “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” “Some” are stronger, but not all.
Where does God figure in this? I believe God figures in the effort we make to mend those broken places. I believe God figures in the hand that holds the trembling hand. I believe that God figures in the home-cooked meal that arrives at one’s door when hunger prevails, but energy is gone. I believe that God figures in the doctors who work to heal the “broken places,” be they physical or emotional. I believe that God figures in the folks who look at the broken places and find what’s intact and focus on that. I believe God figures in the Christians who thump hammers in earthquake-ravished places such as Haiti, rather than thumping Bibles. I believe God figures in every smile, every hand we can reach out to help those who need us, especially at those times when we believe that we have been given more than we can handle.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Botulism Belly Blues at 3 a.m.

Botulism Belly Blues at 3 a.m.

I hate it when I wake up with botulism at 3 a.m. Not that it happens often; it doesn’t. In fact, only once . . . so far, but when you have botulism at 3 in the morning, who’s counting?
I woke at 3 with a stomachache and was certain I had botulism. Saturday evening, I made artichoke-spinach dip and ate about half a casserole dish of it. It was delicious, but not worth botulism, I realized at 3 a.m.
I didn’t have botulism, but I was afraid I did. Earlier in the evening before I opened the can of artichoke hearts, I noted a tiny bit of rust around the ring you pull back to open the can. At $3, I didn’t relish the idea of tossing these, so I inspected the can. I didn’t see any swelling or dents, so I figured it was okay to eat them. My daughter said to check the artichokes and if they smelled okay, then they were safe. “You can’t smell botulism,” I said. Nonetheless, I opened the can, checked for any rust inside the can, noted the clean, shiny surface, smelled the artichokes, and decided they were just fine. I made the dip, ate half of it, and took my sleepy satiated self to bed.
Everything was fine until 3 a.m. when I woke with pressure in my belly. “Oh, God! I have botulism! I just know it. What was I thinking? Is my life worth a $3 can of artichokes? Now I’m just going to die of botulism!”
Sane self said, “Now, just wait a minute. You probably have a stomachache because you ate too much dip. Calm down and read to distract yourself.”
I reached for my glasses in the dark, turned on the light, and tried to focus on my book. The words were blurry, so again, I was convinced that I had botulism! “I do have botulism! And now I’m going blind!” idiot self wailed.
Sane self said, “No you don’t. It’s 3 a.m. and you’re not even awake. Small wonder you can’t read!”
Idiot self calmed down for a minute and I thought about the spinach artichoke heart dip, which felt like a pound of bricks in my gut. Half a pound of mozzarella, a cup and a half of spinach, Parmesan and Romano, mayo, and 8 ounces of cream cheese, all mixed into a fabulous whirl of fat, which I baked and then scooped up by the tablespoonful onto crackers and ate until I almost gagged I was so full.
Sane self then recalled the last time I ate a baked dip that had cream cheese as an ingredient. I got sick in the middle of the day that time and nothing canned was involved, but something about the baked cream cheese had the same effect—pain in the gut.
“Well, I didn’t have botulism then, so I probably don’t now,” sane self said. Idiot self got quieter and quieter and realized it was probably okay to go back to sleep, which I did. I woke up without botulism and no desire to eat even a drop of the leftover dip.
In retrospect, even though I’m laughing about sane self and idiot self battling it out in my bed at 3 a.m., if I ever see rust on any can ever again, I’ll just toss it. It’s not worth botulism at such an early hour.

Jokes aside, dented, swollen cans, or cans with rust can be dangerous. It isn’t worth taking a chance—even for $3 worth of artichoke hearts.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Happiness Is a Warm Gun . . . And a Teddy Bear

Comfort Items: A Warm Gun...
And a Teddy Bear

The Beatles had it only half right when they sang, “Happiness is a warm gun.” A warm gun might be number one on some lists, but other comfort items also weigh in.
In October 2006, I spent two weeks in a tiny southern town. The inn where I lodged was a refurbished fifties-style motel. From the outside, it looked like a row of concrete rooms. Rows of hanging plants lined the fa├žade of the rooms and benches sat beneath the overhang that protected guests from the area’s frequent rains.
It was the only motel in town; I was exhausted and I noted the vacancy sign was lit, so I parked and walked past the ice machine to the second row of concrete rooms and entered a different world. A courtyard separated the rows of rooms. Birds, flowers, plants, and inspirational quotes composed the hand-painted murals covering the exterior walls. The courtyard was lush with greenery and flowers. Fountain gurgles joined birdsong to complete the tranquil setting.
I registered and got my key, yet I was still a bit wary—until I turned the key and opened the door to Room 3. No McMotel this; it was bright, clean, colorful. I felt like I’d stepped into a Mary Engelbreit painting. I had all the amenities of the best McMotel—central air and heat, microwave, refrigerator with freezer, iron, hairdryer, cable TV, and a wireless Internet conduit to my 1200-mile-distant family, friends, and editing career. Blessed relief washed over me.
I hadn’t ended my nicotine addiction, so I smoked outside my smoke-free room on the bench beneath the hanging pots of Boston ferns. Cars parked in front of the rooms, so guests were only a few steps from car to room.
I was in the south, so I had to reacquaint myself with the fact that people spoke to each other. My years in New England taught me to avert my eyes, keep my face straight ahead, not acknowledge people, and never speak to people unless I knew them. That ended when I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. I relearned how to say hello to folks I don’t know. I starting making eye contact and greeting people.
When I sat on the bench and someone walked by, we spoke. Often, it was travel talk: “Hi, where you from? Where you headed?”
One afternoon four young men and one woman arrived. The next morning, as one of the young men was packing their car trunk, we began a conversation. It was awkward to have a conversation from a distance of 20 feet, so I got up and walked toward him. When I was about five feet away, he pointed to the waistband of his shorts and said, “I have a gun here. I didn’t want you to see it and get scared.”
That warning was a miserable failure. I was scared out of my wits. He tried to reassure me. He pulled out his wallet, opened it, and said, “Here, I have a license to carry it,” and pointed to a plastic-sleeved card that I couldn’t read from my five-foot safety zone. “I carry it for protection, I’ve been robbed too many times. Don’t worry, the safety is on.”
I said, “I’m glad you told me.” But I rather would not have known and I probably would not have noticed. Hyperaware that I stood in a parking lot talking to someone with a G-U-N, I tried to act normal, like I always stand around making small talk with people who have a G-U-N.
“So, where are you from?” my words said, but my mind said, “Oh, my God, he’s got a gun!”
“I live outside Savannah, but I’m from Jamaica.”
“How long have you been in the United States?” (Mind: “Yes, he really has a gun. Act normal!”)
“Six years.”
“What do you think? Do you like it here?” (Mind: “Yep, still has that gun. Make small talk. No big deal, it’s just a G-U-N.”)
“Yes. My country is beautiful, but it’s poor. I can work here and make money. But people steal things here. I am the only one of my friends who keeps getting robbed. That’s why I carry the gun.”
“Did you carry a gun in Jamaica?”
“Oh, no. There, we carry knives.”
My mind was on overload: Guns here, knives there. This guy was going to kill me for sure. “Stop it!” I said to myself, He was simply telling me about his life: “Here, I have a gun. There, I had a knife.”
“Do you have another cigarette?” he asked.
I laugh when I’m nervous, so I laughed. “Sure,” I said and put my hands up. “You’ve got the gun. I’ve got the cigarettes.” I went to the room and got two—I needed another one even though I was a bit more at ease. I said to myself, “What’s he gonna’ do, shoot me?” That was too far-fetched to imagine. I walked to the back of the car, where he continued packing the trunk, and gave him the cigarette. “Are you leaving soon?” I asked. (Mind: “And I hope you’re taking that G-U-N far away from here!”)
“As soon as I finish packing,” he said as he stuffed clothing, shoes, blankets, and pillows into the trunk. He walked back to the room and returned, holding a three-foot-long teddy bear. The bear was champagne colored and had long silky fur. He placed it on top of the pillows and tucked it in, cushioning it against any bumps in the road.
Puzzled, I looked at him and asked, “Is that your teddy bear?”
“Yes. It goes everywhere I go.” He patted the silky fur, touched the bear’s face, and then turned to me and smiled.
I smiled, too, but I was stunned. I said, “So, you’ve got your gun, and you’ve got your teddy bear, and you’re all set?”
He smiled and said, “That’s right.”
We said our goodbyes, but before he drove away, I said, “Be careful with that gun.”
Later, I realized that he is like all of us—but perhaps more honest.
Most of us have comfort items: things that make us feel secure. When I’m traveling, it’s usually a AAA membership, a charged cell phone, a zero-balance credit card, and a McMotel. For forty-plus years, everywhere I go, I have carried my good-luck sea bean my sister found on the beach. I have far too many superstitions. In spite of my superstitious nature, because I am a person of faith, I also pray, pray, pray. But my comfort list continues to grow. It includes food, clothing, rituals, numbers I avoid, numbers I embrace, days on the calendar when I tread with a softer foot and quieter tongue.
My comfort items don’t match the comfort items of others. My daughter totes her stuffed blue cat with her everywhere she goes. Some people don’t wash clothes on New Year’s Day. I start each year eating black-eyed peas, collard greens, and herring. I avoid thirteen, and gravitate to any multiple of seven.
My comfort items come from fear, from lack of control, uncertainty. I have lived long enough to be touched at a deep, personal level by tragedies I could not control, so I want to avoid such events. I don’t know if carrying a gun is something I would do, but I haven’t been robbed. My pocketknife is the only blade I carry. I am safe in some ways, and vulnerable and fearful in others. I comfort myself in ways that work for me. Many song lyrics speak of fear, safety, our longing for comfort, the hunger we have for security, for warmth. Life has room for many comfort items and songs, even one that could be titled “Happiness is a warm gun—and a teddy bear.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

“You’re So F'ing Pathetic”

Evil Things We Say to Ourselves

“You’re So F'ing Pathetic”

Never, ever say such an evil thing to yourself. I did—just days ago. My usual critique plays far too often in my consciousness, but my most recent evil self-talk unfolded in circumstances different from the usual litany of life’s errors, omissions, and disappointments. Here’s how that self-denigrating, self-flagellating experience unfolded:
I wrote something. Not a big deal; I write something most days. Few days go by without at least a journal entry. Too many days go by without a blog entry it seems, but I wrote one, and published it. In my self-congratulatory frame of mind, I thought it was good, more than good. I pondered just how good I thought it was while I was preparing for the day: brushing my hair and applying my daily smidgen of make-up. Because of those activities, I was looking into the mirror. I thought about what would happen if my blog entry got lots of readers, maybe hundreds, maybe even thousands. Sensing how implausible that was, I laughed aloud, certain that would never happen, because I’m not good enough as a writer, not popular, not talented, blah, blah, blah. How could I even think of such success? As I looked into the mirror, the next words came to mind: “You’re so f _ _ _ ing pathetic.” Ouch!
Negative self-talk is something most people engage in, much to the dismay of our tender psyches. On too many days, my negative self-talk is a running commentary in the back of my mind, difficult to turn off. Nonetheless, I set the volume to low, do my best to ignore it like it’s an annoying mosquito buzzing about my ears, turn the other cheek, and go about my day. Until a few days ago, never has my self-destructive chatter happened while I was looking in a mirror. As soon as I said those words, I saw the shape of my face change. I saw my eyes go from smiling to downcast. I saw the pain. I felt the pain, more intensely than usual, because I was viewing it, as if I had taken a sharp object and sliced into my own heart and watched the blood flow over me.
Visible evidence of the effect of destructive things I said—say—has changed my perspective about that self-talk. Glib pop psychology says to put the focus on the positive, to not engage in negative self-talk, to think happy thoughts, to build ourselves up. Easy to write in a how-to book, article, or blog on happiness or the power of being positive, but when it comes down to the daily commentary, it’s more difficult. I am certain I am not alone in this.
I would never speak to others the way I talk to myself. “You’re so f_ _ _ _ing pathetic” would never enter the realm of words I would say aloud to someone. Yet, I said those very words to myself. Mirror self-talk is recommended for people trying to focus on positive change. Mirror notes are encouraged. I’m not one for putting “You go, girl!” on my mirror, even though such efforts are purported to be of great benefit.
The destructive power of negative mirror talk is something I never considered because it’s not something in which I (or probably most people) engage. I know I haven’t read a self-help tip that says: “Do not say evil things to yourself while looking in the mirror.” People probably don’t need to be warned away from such mirror talk, but without the mirror, the talk does go on, too often unabated. The harsh effects of my negative mirror talk have stayed with me. Seeing that pain etched on my face changed me, deep inside. This is not to say that right away I stopped negative self-talk. The mosquito still buzzes in my ear, but when that mosquito buzzes, I have the memory of my face in the mirror and the image of that self-damage, so it’s becoming easier to swat the mosquito and to silence it.
I believe most people are on a quest for self-fulfillment, and take whatever paths feel right. Each of us has a deep desire for a feeling of being worthy, of being honored, of being loved. After seeing my face in the mirror, I know now, more than I ever even dreamed, that the quest, the desire, begins with each of us, within us. To have that worthiness, that feeling of honor, that feeling of being loved, we must start within ourselves. It’s not easy to combat the negative voices within us, especially if those voices reflect and enlarge upon words we’ve heard from those we thought loved us or cared for us. I believe that I, that we, can nurture our gentle psyches, can heal them, can enhance them, beginning with silencing the voices in our heads that say the worst possible things.
It’s time to look into our hearts and find the best possible things to feel, to think, to express, throughout our days, throughout our lives, so that any mirror reflects what is most beneficial to us and to others.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mets Hero Gary Carter Gave Us Hope in a Dark Hour

Cruel Ironies of Life

Gary Carter’s brain tumor is spreading and it breaks my heart. I never met him, but for a few hours in October of 1986, he changed my world from a dark, serious cave of grief from which I saw no exit to one of light and hope.
October 25, 1986: Where were you? Red Sox fans cannot forget and Mets fans cannot forget. When October 25, 1986 dawned, I was a fan of neither team. Baseball did not interest me a bit. The World Series? Something on TV to avoid.
However, when you’re sitting in a hospital room that is quiet, save for the breaths of your child who has a terminal illness, television is a welcome distraction. On that night, all I had to do was sit by my child’s side and continue to pray that a miracle would diminish the brain tumor that was stealing her life. My husband preferred the distraction of television.
Distraction, indeed. As game six of the World Series progressed on the TV in the hospital room, I watched him change from subdued to intent, to beside himself with anxiety, curled up like a spring twisted beyond its limits and ready to burst.
Why? That game on TV. As he became more intent, I began paying attention, too. The Mets were the underdogs, and the Red Sox were supposed to win—something about breaking a Curse. Ken was rooting for the Mets. Why? I don’t remember, but I figured they were as good a team as any, especially because Mets catcher Gary Carter lived in Palm Beach Gardens, a few miles north of us. I joined in, wanting to root for the Mets, but clearly seeing that their situation was as hopeless as the one in which we had existed for the preceding 16 months. As the final moments of the game ensued, I envisioned the Mets losing, just as we were losing, as Alexa’s life ebbed away in the bed beside me.
Red Sox fans who weren’t even alive on October 25, 1986, know what happened. I am not a baseball aficionado, but from my perspective, it went this way: The bases were loaded, there were two outs, two strikes, and as soon as Gary Carter struck out, the Red Sox would win the series. As Ken trembled and groaned, I said to myself, “The Mets are going to lose. I know they are,” and I felt that loss compound the greater loss we faced at that time.
Bill Buckner changed all that as he let Carter’s game-winning home run slide past his mitt, through his legs, and into World Series history.
Ken and I jumped up and clapped and cheered. We won! We won! We won something that we needed to win, something to diminish our grief, to put a temporary band-aid on the bigger game of life that wasn’t going to end the same way as the Series.

When life is darkest, a glimmer of hope can sustain us, can help us carry on, can help us meet the next challenge. We lost our next challenge on November 2, 1986, a short week later, as Alexa died in our arms. But for those short hours on October 25, 1986, we felt hope, we felt victory, we rejoiced. Because of that, I’ve always felt a special bond with Gary Carter and the Mets.
I had nothing to cheer about when I learned of Gary Carter’s illness several months ago. Irony is cruel. How can it be that the very brain tumor—glioblastoma—that robbed us of Alexa now threatens to rob us of Gary Carter? I don’t understand it. All I know is that it breaks my heart and because of October 25, 1986, I feel such personal grief, and I want Gary Carter to know how much he means to me, to Ken, and how he moved us away from dark and toward hope. I want to thank him and wish him God speed. I will continue to pray for Gary’s miracle.

The newspaper clipping is from The Palm Beach Post editorial page, late October 1986.
The photo of Alexa was taken a month or so before she died.
For the most recent (not very encouraging) news on Gary Carter's condition, please see: http://www.palmbeachpost.com/sports/doctors-discover-new-tumors-on-gary-carters-brain-2112309.html

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

To Every Thing There Is a Season--Then Again, Maybe Not

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
Ecclesiastes 3:1 King James Version

Brown at the Edges
Out of Season, Out of Time

If every thing has its season, then my yard, like me much of the time, is out of whack. Gardenias do not bloom in January. They do, but they are not supposed to, at least not where I live. I know they do, because after pulling into the driveway the other night, I spied a bloom on the bush beside the boat. The boat hides the bush, and it’s been cold, and I’ve been too busy to get outside, so I didn’t notice the first bloom until it was a little brown at the edges, kind of the way I’ve felt lately.
Putting aside my sheer surprise, of course I plucked that first bloom, brought it inside, and put it in a vase. I hope the scent will permeate the house and mask whatever is bombarding our olfactory nerves after 12 days of non-stop work and time for only the most rudimentary of household duties.
I’m disappointed about the gardenia blooming so early. In late April and early May, I cluck, cluck, cluck like a mother hen as I hover over the gardenia bushes waiting, anticipating the first bloom of the season. As my anticipation builds, it is difficult to contain my excitement when the white petals unfold and the fragrance fills the air.
I missed all that this year. Maybe by April if no more buds unfurl, I can revisit that anticipation, but it will not be the same because of this January gardenia.
Anticipation and attention are lacking for this first bloom, but what this bloom does have (that the previous years’ blooms do not) is surprise. The bloom also has a gentle reminder to practice simple awareness. The slight tinge of brown at the edge of the petals reveals that the bloom was on the shrub for at least three days, maybe five, maybe seven. I don’t know, and that’s part of such awareness, or lack thereof. Caught up in busy-ness for more than a week, because it certainly took that long for the bud to form and swell before it opened, I was unaware. Had I not glanced to the side of the boat the other evening, I would have missed the bloom completely until it was wilted and its fragrance spent.
To every thing, there is a season, but in nature, just like all aspects of life, events happen out of season, out of time. That means the time to pluck what has been planted might change. The challenge of every season is to be awake and alert to life’s surprises, to see events and participate in them, even outside their season. The challenge is to remember to put aside disappointment when my expectations are not met, and instead to cultivate childlike awe when nature and life surprise me, even when I’m feeling a little brown at the edges. The lesson is that it is important to drink in the scent of out-of-season gardenias, and to drink in any pleasant surprise with gratitude.

Ecclesiastes 3:1–8
King James Version

1To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Friday, January 6, 2012

“Ways? I Have Ways?”

Endearing Though Some May Be,
Others Are Blind Spots

Life Lessons—Check Your Blind Spot
Not the One in the Car

“Check your blind spot” is a driving directive that stuck in my mind from driver’s education class many years ago. Recent reflections on blind spots and rules I learned in driver’s ed have opened my eyes to other blind spots in my life.
Robert Burns said it well in his poem “To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church,” especially in the following lines:

                                    O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
                                    To see oursels as ithers see us!
                                                               —Scottish version

                                    And would some Power the small gift give us
                                    To see ourselves as others see us!
                                                               —English version

I don’t have the gift of seeing myself as others see me—I have blind spots, behaviors of which I am unaware. They are the annoying tics that drive those around me mad, sayings I have overused, and reactions that are so “me,” that my kids probably say, “Yeah, she did that—again.” They know what that is, but me? I’m blind to it.
A recent online exchange about a movie I didn’t want to see—The Help—exposed a blind spot. I had no interest in seeing The Help because, unlike millions readers, I was not overjoyed with it, nor did I share the enthusiasm that greeted the movie’s arrival. I expressed that (and more) to a friend when I declined seeing the movie with her.
I didn’t hear from her for several weeks, but was distracted (blind, perhaps) so I was relieved to receive a holiday e-mail, relieved because I worried I had slipped off her friend list due to my comments regarding the book. Her reply did not have the subject “Blind Spot,” but it would have been appropriate:

You are funny, Chris. I just chalked it up to your ways ... :-)
My reply:
My "ways"? I have "ways"? Is this something my family and friends have known for any amount of time? And you finally were the one to tell me? The things we learn from our friends...

I was jesting (kind of). I knew I had ways, but I didn’t know I had “ways.” Rarely has any soul other than one of my children been brave enough to speak of my “ways.” (There was an ex or two, but nothing about ways is fair in marriage and divorce.)
I have an idea about some of my “ways,” but not all of them because they are blind spots. I don’t spend much time contemplating the mirror or my navel, and I spend far too little time in social activities. My freelance work doesn’t lend itself to a great degree of outside contact. This limited contact has allowed what once were spores of blind spots to become giant fungi that perch on my shoulder blades where I cannot see them, yet everyone else can.
Like most adults, I am unaware of the majority of my “ways” because of the limited feedback I receive. I know about a few of them, however.
One of my worst “ways” is what my kids and their friends call “the death look.” I didn’t know I had it (blind spot) until someone told one of my daughters that they had received it. In short work, I woke up to when “the death look” crossed my face and even summoned it on purpose on an occasion or two (perhaps more, but again, blind spot). I haven’t used it recently and aspire to never do so again, but if it continues to be a blind spot—a “way”—I hope someone calls me on it the next time they see it.
I hope to be called on at least a few additional blind spots, but in moderation. I don’t want open season on my psyche wherein everyone I know all of a sudden fills me in on my “ways.” I want to be aware, but not hyperaware. As with bringing any change to one’s life, I think developing an awareness of my blind spots is a process that will work best one step at a time. Life’s epiphanies spark change when we pay attention to them, but a spark must be tended to become a lasting fire. Lasting changes are most often integrated into one’s lifestyle when they are taken in steps.
My objective is not to scrutinize every human interaction I have, but to be aware of those blind spots and to strive toward opening my eyes to them so I can extend my relationships and bring peace, comfort, and joy to everyone, myself included.
Such an awareness of blind spots is a beginning. As when driving, if I didn’t know my car had blind spots, I wouldn’t know to check them. Now that I have received a gentle note that I indeed have “ways,” I think it’s a good time to explore some of those “ways,” and whenever I notice a “way,” to look at it, and figure out whether it is a blind spot. If it is, it is an area that I need to check, and not check as in inspect or scrutinize, but check as in stop, restrain, or repress.

This one's for Lisa--who had the courage to mention my "ways."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Check Your Blind Spot."

Who Saved Your Life Today? Yesterday?
Last Week? The Last 45 Years?

Life Lessons and
Driver’s Education Class

“Thank you, Mr. Lockmiller” is a phrase my children often hear.
They have never met him, but they know to whom
I refer when I express my gratitude.”

“Check Your Blind Spot.”

Deadliest highway in the United States--
I-95 in Florida

It’s the deadliest highway in the United States. I try not to think about the death toll as I drive on I-95 in Florida. It’s easier to forget the statistics when I’m on the two-lane Indian River County section of ’95, although it, too, has had many fatalities. As I drive south and the lanes expand to three, four, and then six, the number of cars expands exponentially and it’s less easy to forget. Perhaps it’s the raceway atmosphere or the tailgaters, for whom no speed is high enough, or the remnants of vehicles, or the crosses and silk flower memorials that dot far too many off-road areas. I have a friend in her sixties who stopped driving I-95 several years ago. She figures she’s logged her share of miles on that road and won’t tempt fate.
I don’t like to tempt fate, but US1 takes way too long for trips longer than fifty miles, and Florida’s Turnpike, although safer, gets pricey, and also has six lanes near Ft. Lauderdale.
I don’t know how many I-95 accidents result from drivers not checking their blind spots, but I imagine the number is high. I see drivers preparing to merge onto ’95, and it’s rare to see anyone turn their head to check for oncoming traffic. People use side-view mirrors, but anyone who’s driven any amount of time knows about the dreaded “blind spot.” You hear about the “blind spot” when you take drivers’ ed classes, and “blind spot” checking is now a feature on new “smart” cars that “tell” you when you’re about to hit something, or something is about to hit you. I have leaned on my horn many a time when someone does not check their blind spot and veers into my lane, so I know few people have smart cars and not everyone checks their blind spot.
When I learned to drive too many years ago, I had the best-possible version of a “smart” car—Mr. Laverne Lockmiller, my driver’s education teacher. Mr. Lockmiller cut nobody any slack when it came to the rules of the road. The running joke when I’m in the car with one of my kids is that the brake on the floor of the passenger side of the car does not work. The brake on Mr. Lockmiller’s side of the car worked quite well, and he often demonstrated its effectiveness. It is so disconcerting when the car you are driving slows to a crawl or a stop, and your foot is nowhere near the brake.
“What? What did I do now?” I wondered each time I felt the result of Mr. Lockmiller’s foot on the brake and saw him shake his head from the corner of my eye. I don’t know if he had any nervous tic in his personal life, but I imagine one class with a student like me could have produced several, not to mention the hundreds of students he taught in his career.
Several lapses in skills accounted for Mr. Lockmiller’s foot on the brake—driving over the speed limit, not keeping a safe following distance, veering too far into the lane next to you—but as I recall, none produced the brake as often as the blind spot directive.
Mr. Lockmiller would say to change lanes and because I had checked my rear-view mirror, I would start to move toward the lane next to me. I felt the car slow to a crawl. “What? What did I do now?” I wondered. “Check your blind spot,” he said. I don’t know how often the students and I heard “Check your blind spot,” but it stuck and stuck well. I can be driving I-95 in South Carolina where the only scenery on the plywood-flat road is pine trees and too many miles stretch between exits and rest stops. It is a boring road and when driving it, I have to use every stay-awake and pay-attention trick so I don’t doze or daze. At certain times, few cars are on the highway, creating a double-dose of tedium. I might drive for twenty-five miles and not see another vehicle and something in the road ahead, perhaps a chunk of truck tire, necessitates a lane change. “I don’t have to check my blind spot,” I might think. “I haven’t seen another car or truck for fifteen minutes.” I’ll begin moving to the left, and whoa, I feel the car slow, even though my foot is on the accelerator, and I hear his voice: “Check your blind spot.” And I do.
I cannot count the times in the last forty-five years that checking my blind spot has saved me and my family and other passengers in my car from certain destruction. I might be ready to change lanes and I hear his voice, “Check your blind spot.” I do and there it is—the car, the truck, the motorcycle that I would have hit had I not checked. At those times, and probably hundreds of times over the years, I always say aloud: “Thank you, Mr. Lockmiller.” Years ago, the kids asked “Who is Mr. Lockmiller?” They now know who he is and no longer consider him a stranger in the car. And he’s not. He’s still there, next to me, every time I even think about changing lanes before putting safety first. I feel the car slow, I hear his voice, “Check your blind spot.” And I say, once again, “Thank you, Mr. Lockmiller.” 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Does Your Coffee Lose Its Flavor on the Trash Can Overnight?

What Did You Crave This Holiday Season?
Could It Be Contained in a Cup?

Petty annoyances in life abound, but one I confront almost every week is the empty trashcan and recycling bins sitting at the edge of the street. We’ve been here a few years, but every week, I feel like I’m telling my son something new: “Bring in the trash can and recycling bins.” He takes the full ones to the street, and for that I am grateful. I will scrub a toilet, clean up dog barf, scoop and change cat litter, scrub floors, and dispense with giant spiders and other uninvited pests, but I loathe going near the trashcan, much less touching it.
I might spy the can and bins outside late Friday after the sanitation workers have ended their day, and unless I remind my son to bring them in, many Saturday mornings I look outside and see the upended can and bins. It looks tacky when the can and the bins remain at the road’s edge, and if irked enough, I fetch them from the street myself, and moments after the deed is done, I race to the sink and scrub my hands.

I do not live in a gated community, or a Stepford neighborhood, but most of the homes are fewer than 10 years old, and most streets have several undeveloped lots. Few roads are paved and for the most part, I don’t see much littering. When I do, I wonder what possesses anyone to whip trash on the ground. From my perspective, even one paper cup, one can, one bottle, one fast-food wrapper is too much. I am too often reminded that not everyone shares my perspective.
Saturday morning when I stepped outside to walk the dogs, I again for the 80th-something time noted the can and bins at the street. At first, I didn’t notice the ornament on the can’s bottom. As I got closer, I saw its bright red beacon: an empty coffee cup from the world’s largest fast-food vendor.
Most mornings, I’m out before first light to walk the dogs, so whomever left the cup probably did so the night before. It’s dark at night on these roads, but the skies have been clear and the stars bright the last week, so the can, although dark itself, must have been just visible enough to present itself as a place of rest for the refuse.
I cannot claim ever having tasted this particular brand of coffee, nor is it likely that I will at any future date. I also admire the effort of the person who put the cup on the trashcan, rather than toss it to the ground.
I often look for life lessons in what I see around me on a daily basis, and when I consider this cup on the can, I find it funny, clever, and sad in a way—sad because I know that much of what we “crave” during the season just past has so little to do with the cup, what it holds, and what it represents.
I also feel grateful because what I crave during most seasons and the most treasured gifts I receive—time with those I love—goes far beyond this cup and its message.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

OWN-ing 2012

Stepping Into Owning a Year

The most thought-provoking holiday card I received this year—any year come to think of it—has the following words:

I WISH for YOU to have the BEST Holiday Season EVER!
And I WISH for you to OWN Next Year!
Have a GREAT one Christine!

Wishes for a great, positive, peaceful, loving holiday season abound, so the first line does not move me toward any profound thoughts or sentiments.

It’s the second line that gives me pause:

And I wish for you to OWN next year.

I checked some online definitions and found that the origin of owning has to do with hacking. If I hacked MIT, for example, that means I “owned” it. I think I’ll pass on that kind of owning.

Moving right along to http://onlineslangdictionary.com/meaning-of/own, I found the following definition: Own—to be extremely good.

I like that one.

While I paused, and it was a long pause because I received the card over a week ago, I kept going back to that phrase—OWN next year. I started considering just what that would look like and what I can do to OWN a year—an entire year. I have some ideas, and they don’t take the form of resolutions. I shy away from resolutions because honestly, I get up every day with a fresh batch of them, and often feel the sting of defeat by the time the sun goes down. To feel that sting after an entire year would be too painful.

Owning is different. The idea of possession, of taking an entire year, embracing it, and stepping through it appeals to me. The prospect of taking that year and making it mine, not in a selfish way, but in an empowering way, appeals even more.

So here’s to OWNing 2012 and the reality of that, step by step, every day.

This one's for Jeff Gordon. Thank you!