Love Ya, Mean It

Standard

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.

close up of tree against sky

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Listen to the companion podcast, Keep it Juicy! 

Breathe

Standard

(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

Standard

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

 

Regrets

Standard

I saw a wonderful new play last night, “A Sudden Spontaneous Event” at the Pure Theatre here in Charleston.

The play opens in Heaven’s waiting room and, without spoiling it, it deals with forgiveness and what one big do-over you would do if you got a second chance at life. It’s a beautiful play and I found myself wondering, as I walked home, what my do-over would be.

Of course, there are regrets, large and small. Ugliness and pettiness and betrayal. Things that would make me squirm if I were held to account. Most, I discover, are based on fear: fear of being abandoned, fear of not having enough, fear of being hurt if I didn’t hurt first.

But, if I had to choose, there is one small act that stands out as the first soul-killer.

I was never a bully in middle school. I tried to be nice to everyone, but mostly I felt like a junior anthropologist, observing from the outside what it took to be popular. Kathy rode my bus to and from, and she always sat alone. We talked every once in a while. She always seemed a bit sad, a bit more outside than I was, but I never considered her bullied – bullies were the playground loudmouths who pushed people.

Bit by bit, she confided her loneliness to me. I was different, she told me. I was kind.

Until the day someone did something to her. I don’t even remember what it was. I just remember she found me and collapsed into my arms in tears. Without thought, I put my arms around her. And looked over her shoulder. The commotion had brought the popular girls over, and they were all staring. At Kathy, but also at me.

I caught the eye of the most popular. And, over Kathy’s shoulder, I rolled my eyes. And betrayed the sobbing girl in my arms with just that careless, thoughtless gesture.

Kathy never knew. The popular girls opened their circle to me and Kathy gradually took the hint and stopped seeking me out. I ignored the puzzled, hurt looks she would occasionally throw my way on the bus.

There are worse things I have done in life. Hateful, angry things I wish I could take back. But none haunt me with the poignancy of that very first betrayal, the one that can still make me cringe when I remember. That would be my do-over.

Undo

Cool to Be Kind?

Standard

Maybe it’s the election cycle; the politicians seem to be taking that whole “bully pulpit” thing literally.

Or maybe it goes back to Alice Roosevelt Longworth who said the quote later attributed to sharp-witted writer Dorothy Parker: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

Whatever the origins, it’s no longer cool to be kind. It’s more important to be clever.

Listening to the political ads, you might think that it’s all about survival of the fittest, and being fit means being unkind. Is it instinctive?

You might think so, except for some recent rodent studies.

We all have seen the wordless sympathy dogs can display when we’re down in the dumps or sick. With a soulful gaze and a head on our lap, dogs offer comfort.

But apparently, this instinct for kindness goes all the way down to rodent life.

A recent study at Emory University found that prairie voles would console one another through grooming, especially if they were from the same family. The study looked at the voles’ brain chemistry and found that fellow voles in distress caused the release of the same chemical – oxytocin – that is related to maternal nurturing and social bonding.

So if our more complex brains are similarly hard-wired for compassion, why do so many resort to bullying? Does that feel better than being kind?

Not if you believe the authors of the book, “On Kindness,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor.

They argue that kindness has become our forbidden pleasure.

“In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness — like all the greatest human pleasures — are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess.

[…]

In giving up on kindness — and especially our own acts of kindness — we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.”

I’m not one for self-deprivation. So, at the risk of no longer looking cool, I think I’m going to try a little more kindness. It may not get the laughs at parties, but I’m not sure that kind of laughter is the best medicine anyway.

Be Kind

5 WAYS TO KNOW IT’S TIME TO FIRE A FRIEND

Standard

Sometimes, you just have to let a person go. It happens all the time in the corporate world and the metrics are fairly clear: the person didn’t make the sales goals, never showed up on time, stole money.

But it’s much harder to know when to let a friend or lover go. We want to hold on and make it work, against all odds.

When is it time to move on?

  1. You spend a lot of time making excuses for their behavior

Maybe they’re just always like that when they’re drunk. Maybe they’re mean to waiters. If you spend a lot of time explaining that he or she has a good side, too, it’s time to move on.

  1. You can’t get them to see you for who you are now, instead of the tubby/goofy screwup you used to be.

You’ve spent a long time improving yourself, and your new friends know you as a fairly competent person. That’s why it’s so hard when an old friend downplays your every achievement by reminding you that you’re still that same fat, clumsy screwup you always were. There’s having friends who ground you, and having friends who bury you. Move on from the latter.

  1. You know every detail of their dramas but they know nothing of yours.

Every friend goes through hard times and needs support. But when the whole friendship is an endless loop of her troubles and she never asks about your life, there’s an imbalance. When you’re tempted to put the phone down while they ramble on and on about their sad little lives without stopping for breath, it’s time to move on.

  1. You need a drink or a nap to recover from time spent with them.

Some friends are exhausting, and not in a good way. They’re like emotional vampires and you need recuperation after every visit. Let them go.

  1. You hate yourself, just a little, for the person you are with them.

Some friends or lovers are just a whole lot of fun. But maybe they’re catty bitches, inviting you to snark along. Or maybe they’re always filling your glass a little too much. Whatever the reason, you leave them and feel like you’ve failed yourself somehow. Time to move on.

It’s understandable that we feel loyal, or we want to fix someone. But sometimes, you just have to tell a loved one that it’s just not working. And, unless there’s a divorce in the mix, there will be no severance package because, don’t worry, this is no wrongful termination.

Firing a Friend

A Letter to My Younger Self

Standard

The start of a new year, and we all hope that the coming year brings something better than the old. Out with the old, in with the new.

But the truth is, the old wasn’t so bad. I just wish I had realized it at the time. In case someone invents a time machine that can send a letter back to my younger self, I offer myself this hard-won advice:

Dear Younger Self:

I know the things that worry you, the things you feel like you will never master. So let me tell you what you will learn one day.

Jobs

The longer you’re in the workforce, the less entitled you will feel and the more grateful you will be for a job. The arrogance that came with your jump-start into a nifty job right out of college, will dissipate a few firings and one layoff later. But on the positive side, people will finally start to listen to the credence that experience brings to your voice, and motherhood will give you management experience with the tiny tyrants who populate most offices. And eventually, you won’t have to sell yourself so hard; jobs will start to come to you, and you will be grateful for each one.

Boys

The things that drew you to the bad boys will fade along with the bad boys’ hairlines. You will learn that you no longer need bad boys. On the other hand, the boys who seem like bland best buddies are still bland. You’re smarter, not dead, when you get older, and that sexual sizzle is still important and still worth getting out of – and into – bed for. You’ll just be more selective. Eventually, you’ll find one person who can deliver the lengthy best friend chats along with the lengthy bad boy sex.

Friends

You will figure out that swearing best-friend status for life is laughable. Your life will go through many twists and turns, and friends will come, go, then come back again like angels when needed. You will become so varied that no one friend can possibly fill all your needs, nor you theirs. So you will develop a tribe, a posse, a coven of friends who cover every occasion.

Life

You will work every day to get out of your own way. Sometimes you will succeed and do a little victory dance to celebrate the awesomeness of you. Other days, you will curl into a fetal position and consider it a victory if you get out of bed. But mostly, you will learn that you are good enough. Good enough to handle whatever life throws at you, whether it is losing a marriage, a job, or a mother. And you will learn that good enough..is good enough.

Dear Me