Love Ya, Mean It

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I was on the phone the other day with a friend of mine, someone a few years older than my mother would be. As we finished up the conversation, she said, “Love you!”

“Love you, too,” I responded, but there was a little pause there that I hope she didn’t hear.

When I grew up, my mom always said that words mattered. You didn’t use words lightly, even the “L” word. Words had power and you didn’t want someone to think you were IN love with them when you just loved them like a friend. So, she taught me to use the L word sparingly.

Love came with obligations, kind of like saving someone’s life means you’re responsible for them in some cultures. If you loved someone, you were willing to do anything for them. Die for them. Or, at least go all the way with them. Nothing you’d do lightly.

My parents aren’t around anymore to tell them I love them. But I tell my husband. And my daughter. And my friends-who-are-like-family.

But I have stayed away from being someone who tosses the word around like it’s loose change. Love has currency. It is currency.

And yet.

The older I get, the more I find that love has shades. From light affection to dark passion, there is no one love.

And the older I get, the more I realize that the currency that is love…is scarce. I see so many giving away hate as though it is no big thing. We hate broccoli, this movie, that person’s politics, that person.

And the only thing in this world that seems to pop up every time it gets knocked down, like some kind of round-bottomed doll? Love.

There are times when only love will do. When it is the only appropriate thing, whether the timing or the person is appropriate. After the shooting at a gay club in Orlando in 2016, what mattered was not whether people loved someone of the same gender. As Lin Manuel Miranda said in his Tony acceptance speech after that shooting,  “We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer. And love is love is love is love is love is love is love, and love cannot be killed or swept aside.”

So, when my friend tells me she loves me? Next time, no hesitation. I love you too.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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Letting Her Back In

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People tell you that you should remove toxic people from your life.

But what if you’ve removed someone from your life not because they are toxic but because you were toxic when you were with them? And what if they want back in now?

I had a friend when I was in college.

When I met this friend my first night at the college dorm, I was blown away.  She was sophisticated and glamorous. Everything I hadn’t tried in high school, she had already done, and more. She made being bad seem like fun – kind of like those bad girls in the noir detective films. I was smitten.

We moved from the dorm into an apartment together. It was a big party. Until it wasn’t.

The stuff I thought was so sophisticated turned into adult-sized problems I just wasn’t mature enough to handle.

A few years passed. My friend married an older guy with a lot of money who seemed pretty decent, but the marriage didn’t last long. I found my own – not older — guy and we moved in together.

We weren’t super-close anymore, but we were still friends.

Until the time – the second time, actually – I got a call in the middle of the night from the cops. My number was the emergency number my friend carried. And she had overdosed – again. The cops wanted me to know what hospital she was going to be in – again.

When she was sober, I told her not to call me again. I told her I needed to save my own life and I just didn’t have anything left to give her.

Years went by and then, last month, there was a message in LinkedIn. She had kept track of me. She could understand if I didn’t want to connect, but she had always loved and admired me. How was I?

I let the message sit for days.

She seemed to be doing well, based on what she wrote me about her life. I was happy to hear that.

But did I want her back in my life?

I am left to wonder. If I don’t offer to repair the friendship, am I trying to punish her somehow for things that were completely out of her control? Am I protecting myself from future heartache in case she’s not as put together as her message made her sound? Am I afraid that her sadness might somehow smudge the happy-happy now I’ve created? And am I the person I thought I was if I just shut her out again?

I don’t have answers. I don’t want to hurt her. I just don’t want to hurt myself either.

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Editing Friends

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I was reading a book by business writer and nice guy Daniel Pink. It’s called “When,” and it talks cites a bunch of studies about the best times to do things…from scheduling big meetings to delivering bad news.

It’s a cool book – well, Daniel Pink is a cool guy and yes, I have actually met him. In fact, I may do a whole thing on this book in the future, but for now, I want to focus on one part.

So, in one part of the book, Pink says we have three stages of life…the launch, which gets us from childhood to young adulthood; the harsh reality stage, when life slams us with setbacks and sadness, along with some triumphs. And, finally, the final bittersweet stage.

That last stage starts around age 60 or so.

And the scientists found that the last stage is a time in which the number of friends drops.

You might think that’s sad, but you have to look more closely at the data from the researchers – and they are from the Washington University in St. Louis and Stanford University, in case that kind of thing matters to you. Anyway, these researchers say that it’s not that older people lose friends. It’s more that they EDIT friends. Because there are friends and then there are FRIENDS.

First, there are the kinds of friends who are like family. The womb-to-tomb kind of friends. Those friends, we keep. And, then there are the other friends. The Facebook friends. The nod-to-at-the-grocery friends. The friends you only see at yoga class. Those friends? We start to shed them like a snake sheds its skin.

And it’s not just that these friends drift away. We actively delete them. The researchers say the closer we get to the end of life, the more we narrow in to what’s really important in friendships, and that means fewer, but deeper, friendships.

Interestingly, this phenomenon was true for any ending, not just the end of life. End a job? Suddenly your lunch companion isn’t around anymore, and that’s fine. Graduate? Your study buddy isn’t on speed dial. It’s natural.

I did an episode of my podcast, Keep it Juicy!, on decluttering recently. It’s all about getting rid of the stuff that brings you down and doesn’t bring you joy. If you haven’t worn it in a year, toss it. Don’t be the family caretaker of all the memories. Stuff isn’t people, so have a yard sale.

All of that makes sense.

Except…

Except when it doesn’t.

Now, maybe I haven’t reached that final stage yet. I’m not quite 60, although I can certainly see it waiting around the corner.

And I’m not talking about when you finally fire a toxic friend…actually, I did a whole thing about when you need to fire a friend.

 

So, no, I’m not talking about the kinds of “frenemies” that you need to get rid of, pronto, no matter what stage of your life you’re in.

But…

I moved to a city where I don’t know anyone. If I didn’t want to stay inside the house staring at my husband – and he would have started making references to The Shining after Day One – I had to meet people. I had to make new friends.

I can’t say they are my soulmates like Liz, my very best friend from college days. But they are fun, I care about these people, and they end our dates with “I love you,” so there’s at least some mutual affection.

I’ve been here for about five years. And maybe I just got in the habit, but I still feel that every new person I meet could be a friend. I still get excited when I click with a new person and we make a date to get coffee. I’m not editing, I’m adding.

I like to think of it as building up a valuable collection.

And I don’t feel like these friendships clutter up my life or that I need to edit them.

I’m like a magpie, collecting soft things for my nest. Not every friendship is going to meet every need. But someday, some quirky emotion will have me pulling a particular friendship out of the nest and it will be just exactly what I need right then.

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The Witching Hour & Ghost Voices

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In traditional Roman Catholic teaching, 3 am is the witching hour – when the forces of evil mock all that is good.

Certainly, when I wake up at 3 am, it is never good thoughts that flood my mind. It is shame over my inadequacies, worry over things that probably won’t happen, but might. A few times, I have even been awakened by the silence from my husband’s side of the bed, convinced that I’ve been ultimately abandoned by his death. He does not know how many times I have rested my hand on his chest just to feel him breathe.

Sometimes, as I lay in bed, I hear muted voices. It sounds like a conversation, a calm conversation, but I can never quite make out the words. Maybe it is the neighbor’s television, through thick antique walls and over a driveway. It could be. Charleston is funny that way; sometimes I can hear my neighbor’s laughter louder than my husband calling from the kitchen.

Or maybe it is the voices of ghosts, trapped within this 175-year-old house, words that echo across generations. The tone is so measured, that it is not arguments or passion captured here. If these are ghosts, they are discussing the mundane, chores and meals and minutiae.

You might think that ghost voices would add to the dread of the witching hour. But I treasure voices of the past.

There are some voices I would give anything to hear again.

I recently switched cell phone carriers. They assured me I would keep the speed of my connections, that my old text messages and contacts would appear like magic. They neglected to mention that I would lose voice mails, and I never thought to ask.

And so, the message from a friend, her voice already a bit breathy from the lung cancer that would kill her – gone. The message from my dad, wishing me happy birthday, the one I planned to play next March when I have my first birthday without him – gone.

I have photos so my eyes can remember, but already the feel of my father’s big fingers in mine, gone. The smell that was uniquely my mother’s – I think I would recognize it, but I can no longer describe it. And now, the sound of my father’s voice, a memory growing more distant.

Hearing, robbed. Another sense gone.

So the ghost voices of the witching hour?

They don’t frighten me; they offer comfort even if I can not make out the words.

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Memory Keepers

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We lived in a planned suburb and our back yard jutted up against Farmer George’s rickety old white clapboard.

Farmer George had a tenuous relationship with the suburbanites. We could hear his roosters and some would complain; the neighbor’s dog escaped and chased one of said roosters, and he complained. My family was cordial with him and I was fascinated by this stubborn man, clinging to his last acreage.

Until the exposure incident, when I was forbidden to ever talk to him again.

One night, my mom happened to be looking out the kitchen window, which faced Farmer George. And, according to my mom, there he stood in his window, naked and erect, fondling himself and looking, it seemed, right back at my mother.

It happened a few more times. My dad called the cops. But, they explained, there was no law against standing naked in your own house, and there was no proof that he was “aiming” at my mother. My dad wanted to go beat up Farmer George. My mom’s cooler head prevailed. And, later that night, my dad, for the first time ever, cried in frustration and helplessness at being unable to protect his family from who knows what perversions.

That’s how I remember it.

I can’t know if Mom or Dad remember it differently, because they both have died, taking with them the certification of my memories.

In a family so bound by storytelling, when the only ones who were there as you created memories die or go away, you are left wondering if your stories are the right ones. In my extended family, stories are repeated, burnished, embellished at every family gathering. Like some Japanese movie, each participant has his or her unique point of view.

But, my stories? Who will I share them with, and, if they are wrong, who will correct the details for me?

I know the incident with Farmer George happened. But did it happen exactly that way? I remember my father crying. But was something else happening at the time?

I won’t ever know. My memory keepers have vanished.

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Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.

 

Tribe

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The good stuff about being an only child:

–being the only one to lick the batter off the beaters

–not having to wear too many hand-me-downs

–growing up to have your parents become your best friends

I loved being an only child. Oh, there was a brief time when I urged my mom to adopt a playmate for me, but mostly I loved being the dreamy bookworm who had no problem talking with adults.

My parents moved away from our extended family when I was 8 so I learned to create my own Tribe. As I grew older, I started forming a family of choice: dear friends whom my own daughter would grow up to call “aunt” and “uncle.”

Still, my parents and I were a tight unit with our own memories and jokes, an exclusive triad. Even after marriage and the birth of my daughter, my parents were the curators of my childhood stories.

And then my mom died three years ago and my dad died last month.

And then came the bad stuff about being an only child:

–the knowledge that there is no sibling who can miss your parents in the same way you do

–the realization that no one can vouchsafe a memory that is starting to fade a little because no one else was there when the memory was made

–the understanding that mysterious papers or objects found in old safety deposit boxes will never be explained because you didn’t know about them and you didn’t know to ask

And that is when the Tribe steps in. They say you are stuck with the family you get, but my family by choice chooses to let me in, to fly across the country so that I have my Tribe with me at funerals, to call and to let me say ugly, hateful things or nothing at all, depending on where I am in the grieving process.

An aunt at my dad’s funeral – not one of my more tactful aunts – said, “Now you know what it feels like to be an orphan.”

Orphan as in without parents, yes. But orphan as in alone in the world?

The Tribe won’t let that happen.

Not Alone