Need a Little Slack
I have been on all sides of griefs, if grief has sides. A loss of thirteen family members and close friends in seven years is my qualification for experiencing grief; living life is my qualification for comforting someone in grief. And yet, neither grieving nor comforting get any easier.
I’ve taken grief classes, been part of grief support groups, read many books on the subject, worked as a hospice volunteer and still I am, like many people, paralyzed when it comes to saying the right thing at the right time.
There is a whole swath of phrases people are cautioned not to say to a grieving person. I don’t say those things. But, everyday it seems, there are more things you shouldn’t say. The latest comes from a very articulate, thoughtful cancer survivor who explained how telling someone how strong they are can actually put more pressure on them to act that way--especially when they are feeling vulnerable and anything but strong. To have your strength recognized can make a person feel like a failure when they break down; to offer positive words of hope--“you’ll get through this”-- may make them feel trapped and invalidated, as if what they feel is small enough to capsulize.
So, when you are trying to be mindful, trying to comfort without making things worse, trying to help without minimizing someone else’s pain, you are often left without safe words. And so, you don’t say anything at all. That too, is perceived badly. All of these well-intentioned guides to what not to say and do can immobilize, leaving those who want to offer their love and support hesitant and unsure about what is acceptable to say.
We are careful with those who are grieving, recognizing that they are not wholly themselves; that they are in a different space and their lives have forever changed. We treat their words and actions gently, knowing that they are speaking and acting from a different perspective. We cut them some slack.
But, speaking from the other side of grief, maybe the comforters should be cut some slack as well. They are trying to show love and support; they are trying to help. It’s especially difficult to know what to say or do if you’ve never experienced great loss. You send flowers, agonize over a sympathy card, and offer to do anything your grieving friend might need. The flowers and cards are eventually swept up and thrown away and your friend never tells you what they need because, usually they are too caught up in surviving every day to think about someone else and how they could help.
You stop calling because your friend doesn’t want to talk and time goes by. You, too worried about making it worse, stop calling. You live your life. There’s nothing wrong with any of this. But there is something wrong with making people so concerned that their words will be misunderstood or add more pain, that they stop saying anything at all.
Grievers, please see those imperfect phrases as coming from love. You are hearing them from a place of pain and pain is a poor filter. Comforters, understand that your words might not be welcome or understood in the way you meant them. Say the words from your heart anyway. Don’t worry about saying the perfect thing. Offer your love even if it is thrown back at you—because often it will be. Let’s cut each other some slack.
Hope and expectation
Don’t we all go into a new year with hope and expectation? Expectation that this year will be better, that our grief will be less, our joy more, our problems resolved. We hope that we will do better and be better even though there is a sneaky feeling in the pit of our stomach that those expectations might not be realized because fulfilling those hopes of weight loss, fitness, job change, being more compassionate and loving, depend upon us, not Divine Intervention.
Optimists and traditionalists use the new year to make resolutions; realists and pessimists refuse to make them, suspecting they will be broken within days. Pundits offer advice as to how to keep resolutions do-able, how to break big ones down into achievable goals and they give their blessing on the occasional cheat day so you don’t beat yourself up if you skip working out to have an extra glass of wine.
Personally, I no longer do resolutions on New Year’s Day—not because I don’t think they work or because I think they are ridiculous. Instead, I make resolutions all year long, using my own timeline for my starting and ending dates. It’s because things change all year long and so my resolutions have to keep up. Losing ten pounds might change to upgrading my internet plan or spending at least one morning a week walking the beach.
It’s a question of priorities and priorities change—at least mine do. The big ones—family, home, dog, friends—don’t, but all the other ones shift around.
I can’t make resolutions to change the political system, but I can resolve not to watch the news every day which can also affect my personal energy and attitude.
Whatever dims your light—be it watching the news every morning and evening, hanging out with friends who make you feel small, eating things that make you feel lumpy and slow, arguing with your spouse and children, a toxic work environment or one that is going in a direction that no longer works for you, driving a car that you feel is going to fall apart on the freeway—resolve to change. Resolve to open up and do all that you can to allow your personal light shine. I think that’s really all you need to focus upon. The other stuff—career, finances, relationships, logistics—fall into place once you focus on removing that which blocks your light and in deliberately doing that which causes it to flourish. Eas
Easy to say; harder to do. First, of course, you have to identify the people, things or situations that dim the light. Then you have to figure out how to remove them. Last, you have to deliberately allow that light to shine and figure out what makes it grow. And do or be those things.
I Had a Plan
When I was a teacher, I formulated a plan after a spate of mass shootings in the late 1990 and early 2000s. My classroom was in a quadrangle of portable classrooms and located at one corner of the quad. My plan, if I saw a person with a weapon enter the quad, was to flick off the lights and push out the screen to the window that overlooked a narrow dirt area bordering the road behind our school that lead to the community college.
The Last Wave
We are ocean people now. Not on-the-beach ocean people, but six miles away which is the closest we have been in our lives. Previously we were foothill and mountain people; people who lived among pine trees and shady places. Now, we’re in an open place where little obstructs your vision except buildings, and shade on a hike is almost unheard of.
Still, there is the ocean…and surfers who have a whole glossary of terminology to describe everything from waves, surf conditions and apparel to non-surfers, wanna-be surfers and equipment. Falling off your board is pearling if you fall off the nose, bogging if you fall off the back; parts of a wave can be the barrel, shoulder, lip or crest while wave conditions can be mushy, massive or ankle biters. Surfers, body boarders and beach people might be dudes, wahines, Bettys, Barneys, kooks, shredders, quimbys, Jakes, or the dreaded shoobie. There are terms to describe equipment such as leash, stick, wettie and boardies; terms to describe performance (shred, slash, rip, deck-check, bail.) There is even slang to describe what you did on your stick and how it felt (akaw, amped, pitted, axed, gnarly, stoked). But, in this Technicolor language, there doesn’t seem to be a term for the last ride of the day.
I asked a surfer what he called the final wave of his day, sure that surfers had some colorful, amazing word for the last ride just before you paddle in to stand under the shower and take off your salty wettie. The last wave before you pack up your stick and go home. The man I asked was fortyish and looked like he probably surfed every day of his life until he grew up and became a financial planner who surfs either after or before work every chance he gets. He looked puzzled and finally said with a question in his voice, “It’s called…uh, the last wave?”
None of the surfing dictionaries (yes, they exist) have such a term. Maybe there isn’t one because surfers never want there to be a last wave. They will be back tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, testing themselves, testing the waves. Maybe there is no term for the last ride because surfers simply become Gandalfs: white-haired, wet-suited dudes who ride the waves forever. I’m not sure if they have a term for women who ride the waves for eternity
I may be an ocean-loving, beach combing, non-surfing hodad, but I think we need an addition to the surfing dictionary. Something to tell your fellow surfers that you’re leaving now, be back tomorrow? Maybe something like, “Hey dudes, wave out!” or “Wavadios, I’m gone.” A term to describe the bittersweet end of one thing; the promise of return--the last wave of the day.
Five minutes to play
I’ve been using a book of writing prompts, “5-Minute Daily Writing Prompts,” lately. Starting as a review of the book for the author, my friend, Tarn Wilson, my use of the prompts has been an eye-opener to me.
Writing prompts always seemed like assignments , as in “What did you do on summer vacation?” So, I have always avoided them. But, then, I couldn’t review Tarn’s book without actually using a few of her prompts and so I jumped in.
The past year and a half has been spent finishing a novel and renovating a house—mostly renovating. I have also renovated my now-finished novel, but other than that, my writing muscle has gotten slack. When I started to write, that’s all that would happen—a start. Nothing truly excited me enough to make time to write on a daily basis. Laundry, digging a garden path, painting a wall, planting new trees, shopping and cleaning all superseded writing. Even cleaning out my makeup drawer took precedence.
After writing to a prompt every day for a week, a task I set myself in order for the review, I found that I was looking forward to those five-plus minutes each day. Maybe it was the diversity of the prompts which span many genres, story elements, formats and viewpoints. Maybe it was just following through on a writing task. I’ve never used prompts so I don’t know whether these are particularly wonderful ones, but their diversity certainly intrigued me.
The book of prompts encouraged the reader to write every day for five minutes and to not skip a prompt because it wasn’t in a genre that interested them. It wasn’t necessary to work the prompts in order, which was good for me since that would have made it seem like a task to slog through. Instead, I played with the order by thinking of random numbers between one and five hundred and one ( the number of prompts in Tarn’s book) and writing to whatever prompt was revealed by my random choice.
Playing with different genres, different voices, different formats and different attitudes was refreshing. I remembered why I love to write. I enjoyed the feel of my fingers on the laptop keys and seeing words spool out like a roll of ribbon. And the things I wrote were amazing! At least to me—and that’s all who mattered.
If you’re stuck, if you’re bored, if you need a boost to start, if you want to remember how to play with writing again, try a book of prompts. Keep one on your resource shelf. “5-Minute Daily Writing Prompts” by Tarn Wilson was a great start for me.
Buddy, can you give me a dime?
What if you do a good deed, if your intentions are to help and instead, you end up enabling a bad habit, one that goes against your principles?
I was standing in line at the 7-11 with my Slurpee. The line ahead of me was short, but the cashier was slow and so I waited behind a big, black man and a homeless man for quite a while.
The black man had an Australian accent and was wearing a sports jersey. He was holding a turkey wrap in one plastic box and had another plastic box full of fresh fruit.
The homeless man was young, white, slender but muscular. His beard and hair were dark blonde and kinky-curly—exactly like my son’s hair and beard when he let it grow a bit. He was wearing faded pink volleyball shorts, inside out with the tag looking like a tiny tail, and avocado green and black striped trouser socks with the toe part stretched out and dragging on the floor.
The black man said something to him about the socks—I couldn’t hear it all, but it sounded as if he were cautioning the young man about the need to change his socks often so he wouldn’t get foot fungus. He also said something about healthy food, like his turkey wrap. The young man looked keyed up, but he was polite, said something I couldn’t hear in response.There was a little more conversation which I could hear little of, but it seemed to center around ways to stay healthy. Maybe the black man was a doctor.
When it was his turn to pay, the black man put his plastic boxes on the counter and then said to the homeless man, “Anything you want, man.”
The clerk waited, the black man waited and then homeless man pointed at the display of cigarettes behind the clerk. “The short ones, please.”
After a few minutes in which the clerk picked out the wrong cigarettes, the homeless man pointed and repeated that he wanted the short ones, the clerk picked up the wrong ones again and the homeless man corrected him again, finally the homeless man got his cigarettes. After the clerk rang up the order, the black man paid for everything and then, he shoved the boxes of fruit and turkey wrap still on the counter toward the homeless man and walked out of the store.
My husband, waiting outside in the car, was incredulous that the homeless man had checked out before me. It seems that when I went into the store, the homeless man was outside, searching in the garbage from the laundromat next door and in the dumpster for cigarettes. He found a couple of butts and then Bob said a security guard who came out of the 7-11 shooed him away.
I am sure that the black man, who wasn’t in the store when I arrived, came to the 7-11 to pick up something for lunch and he saw the homeless man outside and wanted to help him. So, he offered to buy him something in the store. From their conversation, I think he thought it would be food, something to tide the guy over for a while. But, cigarettes? From the way he pushed his purchases toward the homeless guy, I think he was disgusted—maybe with himself, maybe the homeless man, probably a little of both. He still wanted the guy to have something good and he wasn’t going to go back on his word, even after the guy picked something not good. So his compromise was to pay for everything and then to give the healthy stuff to the man along with the bad.
We want to help, but often, we want to help in a way that will truly help, not enable more destruction. So, we attach expectation to our help and judge the person who will receive it. They don’t have to show gratitude, but we want them to meet us halfway—to be willing to make their life better. And sometimes that is not their choice. And the next time you have the opportunity, you don’t help because you don’t trust that person to make the right choice—your choice. It’s a conundrum.
If the black man had known that the homeless guy would choose cigarettes instead of food, would he still have offered to help? Would he have found another way—maybe bought food and brought it out to the man. He chose to give the homeless man some dignity—bringing him inside the store and giving him a choice, not just buying something and handing it to the man outside the store. He tried to make the homeless man’s life a little better and that makes me a little sad, because it had to have felt like a small failure. In his day to day living, will the black man reflect on this past experience to tell him what to do in the future? It’s something he’s going to remember.
And the homeless man? His life is all in the present, getting what he needs at the moment from the environment, which includes people. I don’t think he will reflect on this past experience. He might not remember it. He lives in the moment. Living in the present, isn’t that what philosophers say we all should be doing?
Not a meeting halfway, not a meeting of the minds, not really a connection with a fellow human. And that is often the way help is received—just take it and run. And it’s often given with expectation. Two different paths going in diverging directions. It wears out the givers and is only a brief moment in time for the takers who have endless need. And so it goes.
It's been a long nine months
It's been nine months since my last post--time enough to gestate and give birth if you're a human, enough time to completely remodel a 1,500 sq. foot home both inside and out. Every square inch of that square footage. Time enough to almost complete the cycle of seasons, but not enough time, apparently, to train our thirteen pound terrier to stop resource guarding when we are the resources she is guarding.
It has also been time enough to complete the first draft of a new novel and to begin the process of editing which I love. Really, I do love it. Polishing the jewel, tweaking words, sentences and phrases into place, expanding, cutting, changing it up--I love all of it. This is the way I choose to give birth. And this novel is all about birth. What if you could communicate with a little human before it was born? Know its likes and dislikes, its needs, the things that frighten it in its limited world? What if you could help prospective parents and their child through the process of development and birth? Would you want to?
Finding your purpose
What must it be like when you finally do the thing you were born for? The thing that is part of your very DNA. I saw this in action a few days ago when my Lakeland Terrier found a gopher hole. Lakies are bred to hunt vermin; to dig rats, foxes, badgers out of their dens and kill them. Cali is almost two years old, and until we moved to a house with a yard, her idea of grass was to fly over it in pursuit of her Frisbee.
A couple of days ago, we saw a few piles of dirt in the grass and Cali noticed movement in one of the holes next to the dirt. Like a bullet, she flew out of the house and fetched up against the closest pile of dirt. She began to dig furiously, pausing only to poke her nose down into the hole or to place an ear close to it. When I came up to her, she backed up, paws splayed on either side of the hole and froze into guard position. The look on her furry face was one of total focus and the energy coming off her was full of purpose. She looked…transfigured.
I thought, later, that must be what it’s like to find what you were born for and to be able to do it, at last. To have a purpose that feels like destiny, like finding the puzzle piece that fits exactly, like being whole. Wouldn’t we all want that feeling? To experience it, even vicariously through your dog is a gift.
Cali stares out the window, waiting for the gopher; she digs in every hole she sees and tracks dirt into the house; she’s almost as obsessed with gophers as with her Frisbee. I guess obsession is the flip side of finding your purpose, but it still looks good to me.
I write for a newspaper. I write to tell stories that might otherwise be forgotten. I write to process my world..