Did you ever see an animal screw up and then look embarrassed?
It happens sometimes. A dog swings a toy and hits himself in the face. A cat jumps to the counter and misses. A robin loses his battle with a worm. A usually surefooted squirrel wipes out on ice-crusted snow.
And they might looked embarrassed. Maybe for a moment.
Then it’s gone.
And really, it was never there. Animals may have a moment of confusion, as they try to figure out what just happened. But it is not embarrassment. We humans interpret it that way. Because we see embarrassment all the time. We feel embarrassment all the time.
Only humans feel ashamed of themselves.
This may be a good thing. For our own self-esteem, we want to see ourselves in a good light. The fear of shame keeps us on a righteous path. After all, what will everyone think?
I saw this image just yesterday:
Oh yes. We want everyone to think kindly of us. We want to think kindly of ourselves.
And so we often behave quite well – as we try to hold on to the best image of ourselves.
Some people who do not believe in a Supreme Being think that humans invented an omniscient God to make sure people behaved well when there is no one to judge them. To ensure that people will self-judge, believing that someone is watching their good and bad behavior. I won’t delve into whether I believe this or not. But I certainly see the use of it in a civilized society. Just ask a four-year-old about Santa.
So yes, Shame is useful. Beneficial even.
But it has a very significant drawback.
People will go to great lengths to avoid Shame.
Being wrong has become enormously shameful in its own right.
But everyone is wrong sometimes. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. When did being wrong become such a horrible shameful emotion that hardly anyone wants to admit to any level of wrongness?
“I made a mistake” is not such a bad thing to say.
But the shame that is now attached to making a mistake seems to be a source for the protective shell that people build around their decisions and beliefs.
Can one be wrong about something they formerly believed? Why not? Ask any ten-year-old about Santa.
Why is it so much harder for adults? Why, when we make a decision, do we then feel that we have to defend it with our very lives?
I remember years ago when I had set up a certain procedure at work that didn’t turn out very well. I said, “Well, my idea sucked. Let’s try something different.” my co-workers were shocked. How could I just abandon my own program? Well, because not every idea I have is a good one.
Was I embarrassed that my protocol didn’t work? Maybe a little. Ashamed I had made a mistake? Maybe a little. But for heaven’s sake, I needed something that worked, not something that made MORE work. Why in the world would I stick to it, just because it my idea? I certainly would not have stuck with it had it been some other idiot’s idea. So I was an idiot that time. Time marches on. Shame doesn’t have to.
Perhaps our human reluctance to admit a mistake has always been there. Pride is a powerful emotion. I think many wars were fought for important justifiable reasons, but I also think that many wars were the result of an inability to back down.
On a personal level, I think we hurt ourselves by self-enforced blindness to our mistakes. By sticking with a decision long past its usefulness. By our ego-centered need to protect our beliefs. By our inability to admit that we were just plain wrong.
We stay at jobs we detest. We lie to ourselves about our expenditures. We live in homes that no longer fill our needs. We have an excuse for being late, missing the phone call, burning the dinner, running out of gas, filling out the wrong form, not visiting our relatives,
We maintain our loyalty to politicians and clerical or civic leaders when their actions demonstrate that they do not have our interest at heart. Instead of admitting we were deceived by rhetoric, we explain away or even deny abhorrent or dangerous decisions.
We hold onto relationships that are unhealthy emotionally or physically, because we once thought that a certain person was the love of a lifetime. Maybe it is okay if they were the love of a year. It was not a mistake to savor that year, but admit it is over.
Just admit it.
Just say – just once in a while,
“I made a mistake.”
You will live through it.
Save your shame for something truly bad. Being wrong isn’t it.
Yesterday, I warned the dogs: “I am at my limit.”
This warning was at a decibel level that surprised even me. I don’t think I have been that screechy-loud since the day about sixty years ago, when the gang playing Red Rover thought it would be funny to just let go when I ran full-tilt into their linked arms. They were standing in front of a brick wall.
The dogs slunk away. Theo went to lay by the door in wait of his other parent, who may only be seven-eighths at his limit. Henry went in his crate, pushed aside his nice fluffy pillow-bed, and crawled under the pillow-bed.
Which makes it pretty self-evident which of the dogs made the burglar alarms go off in all the synapses of my brain.
Of course, it wasn’t Henry alone who got me to that state.
I feel kind of sorry (afterwards of course) for anyone – human or animal – who is unlucky enough to display his stupidity at precisely the moment that someone is ready to explode. That poor “final straw” may had only been mildly annoying if the circumstances were only better.
But there it an accumulation of annoyances, and the poor fellow who is the last annoyance gets the wrath would have been more appropriately divided equally among:
- the calorie content of peanut butter
- reading the wrong use of ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ and ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ in the same hour
- the stain on my new shirt
- the abrupt ending of the lane I thought was the exit ramp
- the bill I was sure I had paid that I found under the bananas
- and of course, Politics.
Yes, the state of the country is bad for my dogs.
The hatred, the corruption, and even the basic lack of civility has raised my stress level to a constant red alert.
I feel like everything I have believed in, all the progress I have witnessed in human rights and equal justice, the sacred protection of our environment – all this is being dismantled.
I have always had difficulty comprehending how – throughout history – people who live in repressive regimes or under dire physical and economic conditions managed to continue to raise their families, smile at the small joys – or even find those small joys.
And yet they did and still do.
I am an optimist at heart. I do not believe that state of the world today is as dire as in other times in the course of our civilization. Yet I see the real threat to happiness is the same: that circumstances around us add a tension that is is cumulative. We may fail to see the small joys through the mire.
And the mire gets mir-ier. Just as it suppresses the light of joy, it darkens the small annoyances. They grow heavy in the mire. They add up. And some little thing becomes the last straw.
And although it is a little shallow of me, I also feel the stress of trying to stay out of the fray. I will admit that I worry that saying anything about this Administration and its policies will offend those who do not agree with me. I have so few followers on this blog and on Twitter. I worry that I can’t afford to alienate anyone. I want people to read my novels. I look at Steven King – who can criticize the Administration, and anger tons of people – and he has still has millions of people who do support him. And he has the serenity (in the mire) of knowing that he speaks out when he sees something wrong.
Well, I am at my limit.
I no longer see it as a benefit to stay apolitcal. It no longer feels safe to play it safe.
I want the small joys to lighten my load. And I am failing at that, because the political situation and my silence weighs too much. Pretending everything is fine does not work in the long run. I don’t need to take to the streets or try to convince anyone of my own beliefs. I just have to stop hiding them.
Perhaps if I just admit that I am mad, I won’t be so mad at the wrong things.
So let me admit it.
I am at my limit.
I am angry. Angry about child separation and the horrible emotional and physical treatment of refugees. Angry about the rollback of environmental protections that are desperately needed. Angry about danger and mistrust that results when treaties are abandoned. Angry about racism. Angry about the demonizing of Islam. Angry about attacks on the press. Angry about the preference for dictators over our own democratic institutions and agencies. Angry about the misogyny. Angry about the lies. Angry about the name-calling and the meanness.
I am angry at Donald Trump.
Maybe by saying so out loud, my dog can come out from under his bed.
I have a memory that keeps repeating in my brain.
It was the summer of 1979.
I was 28, and I had been working for the past three years at a research organization at the lowest possible rung that existed in that organization or perhaps any organization. I had a college degree in English, but in this job I only needed the alphabet in order to do everyone else’s filing. But then again, the boss knew I was pretty smart and offered to pay for graduate school for an M.B.A. So I was doing a fairly easy job and going to school on their money. Life was okay.
There was a seminar being offered at the University of Connecticut (where I was not only working on my MBA but where I got my BA degree.) It was a two day course – in what, I have no idea. I cannot remember one single thing about the seminar. Not the subject matter, the teacher, the building where the class was – nothing. It is a complete blank.
But what is not a blank is the only evening I spent at Storrs after the first day of classes.
The University put up the conference attendees in the single-bed dorm building – the only one on campus at the time. I remembered it from my undergrad days as the dorm where the really antisocial kids lived, the ones who had been through several roommates until the administration had to admit that no one would live with these guys. (I had a roommate my first semester who ended up there, and I will attest to her un-live-with-able-ness.) But anyway, the dorm was empty in the summer, and the perfect spot for offering an inexpensive room for short stays by adults. Of which I now was one, being a whole five years past my undergraduate studies.
The room had a low cot-sized bed with stiff white sheets that smelled of bleach, a shallow closet with no door and no hangers, and a square foot of mirror hung so high short people would have to jump a little for a glimpse of their eyebrows. But it was clean and completely, serenely quiet. It was wonderful.
After the class I have no recollection of, I went out to dinner. I went to the little pizza/hamburger joint a short walk from campus, where as a student, I used to eat about twice a month. (The dorm I had lived in had a wonderful cook, and so I only ate out on the weekends I did not go home… I never missed a dorm meal. Besides I had no money.) With my lack of funds back then, I could not even afford a pizza. But I could get a hamburger for $1.25. If I felt really rich, I would have a side salad for $0.50 more. That’s what I ordered that night five years later. The grease ran down the back of my hand when I picked up the burger. It tasted just as good as it did back then.
There were people in the restaurant who looked vaguely familiar, and I guessed that they were in my mysterious seminar. But I didn’t join them. I sat by myself in a booth, and was quite content, although sitting alone in a restaurant was usually agony for me then. I smiled a few times at my maybe classmates.
There was a small theater right near this restaurant. It was my second home back when I lived on campus. They had a student rate of 75 cents. And lots of kids went to the movies alone. I was so afraid of doing things alone back then – of looking friendless, I guess. I often knocked on doors in the dorm to see if anyone would go with me. But I sometimes went alone. I was embarrassed if I had to stand in line, but once I got in the dark theater, I became invisible. Just the movie existed and I let myself be enveloped. I remember taking a break during finals my last year by going to the matinee every afternoon. I saw “Jesus Christ Superstar” five days in a row.
And five years later, I decided to go sit in that theater again. The movie was Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” I know that many are re-examining that movie in light of Allen’s personal history. But at that time, it didn’t seem creepy or pedophiliac. It was glorious. It was innocent. Shot in black and white, with long sweeping romantic views – it seemed more of a love affair with New York than with a young girl.
And the music! Gershwin as he was meant to be heard. Gershwin as he was meant to represent all the joy and melancholy of Life.
I left the theater that night with “Rhapsody in Blue” singing through my fingers and toes.
The evening was one of those perfect summer nights. Warm and cool at the same time. A light breeze and dark stillness at the same time. Companionship and solitude at the same time – as my fellow moviegoers strolled in the same direction or drifted away.
I was overwhelmed by the feeling that, at that moment, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
And now, forty years later, I remember that feeling as strongly as I did then. That feeling of being completely and precisely where I ought to be.
In the moment, they call it now.
And forty years later, I cannot recall very many of those moments.
But that one is vivid. And it is enough to cheer me every time it comes to mind.
But how can that be? How does such a simple evening stick in my memory as faultless and complete? How can there not be more moments of such joyful awareness?
Are there no other such moments? Have I not felt – in forty years – another occasion where I was uniquely present? Have I let them drift away unnoticed?
I hope to not let so many moments disappear in the future.
I need once more to be in exactly the right place.
I like to present the positive side of Life.
I believe in the positive side of Life.
I believe in happiness and kindness and sweetness.
My husband calls me a Pollyanna, and I never minded when he calls me that, because seeing Life as sweet and Humanity as decent is a good way to survive.
But I am not unaware of the bad things. I choose not to give them much room in my life. But I know they are there.
A good example is the new puppy, Henry.
I love him already. He is sweet and happy and funny and affectionate.
But oh my God, he is so much WORK!
And not perfect.
Oh, so not perfect.
I think sometimes when I look back on previous posts, it may seem my life is perfect. I think – like so many people on social media platforms – I may give that impression. Because I write of all the wonderful things in my life.
And maybe some people reading my blog or seeing my Facebook page or Tweets think that maybe I have the perfect life. Maybe they are envious.
And here’s another ‘maybe’ –
Maybe I need to set the record straight.
Here’s a glimpse of not-so-perfect.
Henry was four-and-a-half months old and 35 pounds the day we took him home. He was not housebroken.
He is now six months old. Forty pounds. He is not housebroken.
Oh, he is better. He is catching on. But he’s not there.
And I am also not there – if you define ‘there’ as being of sound mind.
Henry drives me crazy.
I start the morning all positive and happy.
By evening I am a quivering teary mess.
I am exhausted.
Henry needs supervision.
I am not a good supervisor.
Before I retired, I had a staff. I was not a good supervisor then either. But I knew it. So I hired the best people I could and stayed out of their way.
I am not a good supervisor because I am a daydreamer.
I read. I paint. I get lost on the internet. Sometimes I just drift away to La-La-Land. (that’s another story.)
And while I am away with my thoughts, Henry is amusing himself. He tears things up. He counter-surfs. he takes his brother’s toys. He is a herding dog, and he gives his best effort to herd the cats, who do not appreciate it.
And often, he pees. He poops. Not always outside.
I am exhausted from supervising him when I do not like to supervise.
My life for the last seven weeks has revolved around pee and poop and the constant question, “Where is he now?”
I walk him.
I walk him several miles a day. My other dog – my beloved Theo – has to come too. Two leashes are extraordinarily difficult to manage when the boy will just not stay on the same side of me. Or on the same side of any tree. But I cannot take them separately without a lot of shrieking (and not all of it is from me).
Oh the jealousy.
The cats are mad. All except Thor, who insanely loves the puppy.
The other cats are furious. Lillian especially wants to know why there was not a vote. With four cats and one dog against the idea, and one of the two humans ambivalent – a vote would have spared me all this frustration and exhaustion.
At least I could say that all the walking has led to a nice slimmer me. Except it has not.
Because of all the chocolate I need right now.
I tell Henry every day that he should start looking for new parents.
Yesterday, I remembered a woman I met in the Fall of 1969.
At the time, I was under the delusion that I was going to be a nurse.
My mother was a nurse and I wanted to be like her. She had her doubts but she and my dad supported my decision to go to nursing school rather than college. Of course, I could have gone to college and still pursued nursing. But my mother had graduated from a hospital program, and since I wanted to follow in her footsteps, I wanted to do it exactly her way. (I don’t think those R.N. programs even exist any more, but they were still prevalent in the late 60’s.)
The hospital nurses’ training program consisted of a mix of classes and immediate hands-on experience. I liked that idea. Why spend all your time studying nursing when you can jump right in and actually do it?
But ‘actually doing it’ was not a matter of going into surgery or delivering babies or stitching people up in the E.R. Thankfully (and logically) it was a gradual introduction to hospital work. Helping sick folks with their baths and eating and getting to the bathroom came first.
And that’s what I did. Good thing I liked old people. Because mostly that was what the hospital was full of. One of my classmates seemed to find young good-looking boys without infectious diseases but I mostly had World War I vets.
One patient I cared for was an elderly African-American man named Pleasant Butler. I still remember his name even though it is nearly 50 years since I spent just one morning with him. He was as congenial as his name. I forget the medical issue that required his hospitalization, but I do remember that he had an old colostomy, I think from an injury that occurred in WWI. It was fine and problem-free – he had lived with the colostomy for many years, and he showed me how to care for it. I remember the pink bud of intestine popping out against his dark skin – and surprisingly, I thought it was rather pretty – like a little rose. And I told him so.
Another patient was a very elderly woman named Emily, who told me she had no children or grandchildren but that she always pretended that everyone who was nice to her was a child or grandchild, and that she ended up loving most people because she always imagined they were hers. I tried very hard to be especially nice, so that she could pretend I was her granddaughter.
But the woman I suddenly remembered this week was a sad woman. And though I have searched the recesses of my brain, I cannot come up with her name. So I will call her Margaret, a name that I rather like and one that many women of her generation bore.
Margaret was probably in her middle 40s, though I do not remember her exact age now. She had been admitted for surgery scheduled for the following day. So caring for Margaret was just a matter of getting her settled in, and making sure she understood and followed her fasting restrictions in advance of the surgery.
Margaret was both sad and hopeful. Sad because her life had been terribly unpleasant and lonely. Hopeful because she was finally trying to change her lonely life.
Margaret was very unattractive. She had an extremely large hooked nose and a receding, nearly nonexistent, chin. She looked like a mean eagle. She told me that when she was growing up, children called her a witch. They still did, and adults too, only now it was behind her back.
She was dreadfully unhappy with the way she looked. It’s easy to say that beauty is not important – only skin-deep and all of that. But to wake up every day, and hate yourself, and know that it would never change… how difficult her life had been!
But it would change. She was having plastic surgery. The surgeon would reshape her nose and also utilize an implant to construct a chin.
To me, still only eighteen, I could not begin to understand the decades of self-hatred and external abuse she suffered.
I asked her, “Why did you wait so long? Was this kind of surgery not available when you was younger?”
Margaret said, “Oh, plastic surgery is better now of course, but it was available twenty years ago too. I didn’t have it done earlier because of my mother.”
Her mother had told her – since childhood – that her looks were God’s will. It was God’s decision to make her ugly and it was her cross to bear. She needed to accept God’s will and offer up her suffering to atone for her sins.
I was appalled. What sins? What God would punish a child for no reason or any reason? What God would want her to suffer?
Then she smiled her sad smile. The smile that did not make her suddenly beautiful, as it would have in the movies. It was just a sad smile on a homely face.
“My mother died last month,” she said.
“She died thinking I would go to heaven because I had lived my whole life accepting God’s will. I let her think so. But the rest of my life is mine, not hers. And I don’t care if I go to Hell.”
“God made me. But he made Plastic Surgeons too.”
I never found out how the surgery went. If Margaret is still alive, she would probably be my mother’s age – 95 or so. I hope she is as beautiful as my mother.
Indeed, God made Plastic Surgeons.
When I was a kid, I used to play this game when I watched TV. Sometimes I played with my sisters, but mostly I just played it alone.
The game was: How Much.
How Much was played during commercials. Bad commercials.
Example: A commercial with a woman with huge armpit stains. She gets in an elevator, and the other folks crinkle up their noses in the the look that says Peee-Yoo.
So – How much money would it take for you to play the part of the B.O. Lady in the commercial? Knowing all your friends will see it (and your enemies) and will tease you for the period known as Forever.
Now, this was back in the early sixties, and I was a kid, and money was different, so basically the game was
C) Not For Any Money.
I figured I would be the B.O. Lady for $100.
I’d be the extreme dandruff lady or have the heartbreak of psoriasis for only $10, though. Because in those commercials, the victims get cured and a boyfriend too.
But no money in the world (or a boyfriend at the end) would get me in a diarrhea commercial.
I still play this game during really bad commercials. But my financial requirements have gone way up. It’s:
A) Ten Thousand Dollars
B) One Million Dollars
C) Not For Any Money.
But the interesting thing is – my threshold for humiliation is much higher – meaning I would be willing to play almost any role for $10,000. I could be constipated or phlegmy or have bad breath or even bad children for a decent paycheck. Embarrassed? As Liberace used to say about the ridicule he endured – “I cry all the way to the bank.”
And the reason is simple. I can separate myself from a character in a commercial. My self-esteem is not based on what others see. Adult diapers? No problem.
What is a problem, however, is what I promote. Not For Any Money is my answer to products that are dangerous or politicians or causes that I would never support.
And the How Much game came in handy several years ago. A headhunter called me with a very lucrative offer to work for a big tobacco company.
Adult diapers and stool softeners can actually help people. Tobacco cannot.
Money is nice. Money is necessary. But Ethics are also necessary.
Although the benefits (or at least lack of harm) for lots of products can be debated, endorsing an idea or person is a much more substantial question for me. How Much is enough to even appear to lend support to policies that would hurt someone or limit someone’s rights? That espouse Hate?
Of course, I have the luxury of being in a position to say no.
If I were starving, would I endorse a product or person or idea I hated? Maybe.
I hope not.
Once in a while, I still ask myself,
I’ve been terrible with my blogging lately.
I want to say I’ve been busy – and that’s true enough. But moreover, I think I just needed to take a break.
I didn’t want to focus on something else. I wanted to UNfocus.
The end of winter is always my least energetic time. I am tired of being cold. I am tired of being housebound. I am tired of boots.
As Goldie Hawn said in “Private Benjamin” – “I want to wear my sandals.”
But I’ve tried to stay engaged. I’ve done lots and lots of watercolors. Two or three every week. Mostly dogs and cats, which it seems I have a feel for. Here’s one of my recent favorites.
I’ve also continued to tweet Theo’s pup tip of the day. A bit of wisdom from my dog. I’ve been writing one little snippet of advice (with an accompanying photo) for almost a year now. Someone asked me recently how I can think of all those little lessons. I answered that I didn’t have to come up with all of them – only one a day. If you break your projects down into the smallest piece, it really is achievable.
Here’s a recent Theo tip:
But I’ve also been ruminating (and vegging).
I’ve been working up to a decision. Something that I’ve gone back and forth about wanting.
Sometimes you want something very badly one minute, and the next minute you absolutely abhor the idea.
Or you know you really do want it but you also know it will be really hard work.
Or you think about how much joy this action might bring to your life. But on the other hand – your life is pretty good right now, and what if this makes it worse, not better.
Or you want it very badly, but not everyone in your family is quite on board. How much does what you want take precedence over what someone else wants? Do your wants ever come first?
And so back and forth I went. While the weather stayed shitty and my energy level was just as bad.
And now it’s officially Spring. I see the tiny sprouts of daffodils peeking up through the snowy ground. They are ready for Spring, despite the continued cold. And I am more than ready.
And I was finally ready to take a chance.
To go for my crazy idea.
And here’s that crazy idea.
Welcome to my crazy life, Henry.
May you learn to love me and Tom and Theo and Lillian and Thor and Niko and Athena and Moonlight.
May they all learn to love you.
I already do.
Every day on Twitter, my dog Theo posts a tidbit of advice for a happier life. I will admit that I help him because he doesn’t type or spell well.
But Theo also helps me because he definitely provides me with a happier life every day.
Someone asked me recently how I (or Theo) come up with all those bits of wisdom. I answered that I didn’t have to come up with ALL of them… only one. One each day. I have broken down my project into just one sentence a day. One good sentence. And looking at it that way, it doesn’t seem so difficult.
Of course, some of my/our sentences are better than others. Theo has his mediocre advice days. But there’s always something. Maybe a mediocre line of encouragement may resonate with one person who is looking for just that tiny snippet of support.
Most of our inspiration comes from love. From understanding. From the trust and affection that my friends and my family (and dog) and even strangers reveal to me constantly.
But once in a while, Theo is inspired not by the goodness of our souls but by some display of unkindness.
Today, for example, he wrote (and I transcribed)
The idea for this tweet came from the comment I received on my birthday blog. (What You Can Learn)
I had tons of sweet and supportive comments on this post, in which I wrote that twenty years -perhaps how much time I have left in this world – is still plenty of time to learn and do a great amount of wonderful stuff.
But to my astonishment, I also got this:
OMG! Evil? Psychopath? Drop dead?
No one has ever said that to me. Ever. In my whole life. Even my great enemy, whose name I am not sure of but it might have been Joyce, who, when I was thirteen, called me “Stupid” – and that hurt a lot. But evil?
After my heart stopped pounding and the flames stopped coming out of my every orifice, I thought about what part I really do play in this apparently-young person’s anger.
Have I played a part in destroying children’s future? Yes, I think I have. My generation has certainly significant guilt in ignoring climate change. And it is mostly people my age who are still denying our environmental crisis because that is so much easier than trying to do something about it. We are definitely leaving our children a horrifying prospect. So if that is what she means (and I am assuming it is a woman, since most of my readers are women, not for any other reason), yes, I am guilty. I’m sorry that I have been as careless as most people with the trail of waste I have made my whole life. I promise to try not to add any further burden in my remaining years.
As for my part in destroying the economy – Sorry, no. Only rich people have had the power to do that. Us regular people have just tried to get the bills paid. I have no responsibility for whatever it is she may mean – and I am unsure what that may be. I’m not sure the economy is even that bad – although I am sure that wealth is unfairly distributed. I have used the only power I have – my wallet and my vote – to support a fairer allocation of wealth, health care, and education.
Laughing smugly? I laugh a lot. I love to laugh. I also cry a lot. But smug? No, I honestly am not smug. I truly believe I have empathy and respect. And you can’t be smug unless you have neither. (I do admit to a kind of smugness when folks use the wrong ‘its’. But that may not qualify me as evil.)
I could have deleted that comment. Some of my friends thought I should. But I thought about all the sadness and anger that must have precipitated that response. Something hurt that child badly. Even if it was not me. And that makes me sad.
So I wrote:
I wish I had been more eloquent. But it will do.
As Theo said, I hope she feels better soon.
And as far as my dropping dead – that will come soon enough.
About a year ago, I wrote about kindness and friendship, and how I helped but ultimately failed a dear friend.
I discovered yesterday that at the time I wrote that essay, my friend had already been dead for two years.
Someone I loved – someone who had helped me and hurt me and I had helped and hurt in return – had died and I didn’t know it. This has added to my guilt and all my other mixed emotions I hold for this woman.
But in the end, I think the conclusions I drew last year concerning our friendship are still true.
Here is that essay:
Terms Of Endearment
I can easily come up with dozens of little kindnesses that I’ve experienced lately. If I go back further, I can come up with hundreds. Maybe thousands in my whole lifetime, which is about 2/3 of a century now. I’m grateful for those kindnesses and also grateful that I remember them. I’d hate to let a kindness be forgotten.
But I am now thinking of kindnesses that I myself have offered, and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, I seem to have forgotten most of them.
Maybe it is a virtue to pay a kindness and let it go.
But what if it is because I have been stingy with my own kindnesses?
I really hope not. I know I pay a lot of compliments. And not just lip service – I try to recognize excellence – to notice and call it out.
I tell people when I like their shoes, or when they have a great idea, or when their kids are fun to be around. I tell loved ones I like how they smell when I hug them – because I do.
I try to be considerate. I hold the door for people. I let people cut in line at the checkout – or change lanes on the road. I pick up trash.
And when I observe someone being nice to other people, I tell them that they made my day better too. Yesterday I was in the drug store and an old lady (probably my age) was shopping with a teenager. And the kid said, “I’ll put it back. It’s too much money for eye shadow, Grandma.” The lady said, “I don’t think it’s expensive if you like it.”So I went up to them and said to the woman, “That’s a really nice thing to say.”
So I guess I do a little to contribute to the kindness in the world.
But I think I could do better.
I need to be a little bigger in my kindness.
I’m trying. I joined my community’s preservation and beautification organization – and I helped with their website, and I planted daffodils this fall, and sorted returnables for their recycling program. Not much really, but it’s a start.
I think maybe I am a little cautious because the biggest favor I ever did someone backfired. And I was hurt.
Years ago I had a very dear friend, who I will call Anna. We met at work, and after both of us moved on to other jobs, we stayed close. We went to the movies together, and out dancing, and shopping. We had dinner once a week. We used to call our dinners, “My Dinner With Andre” dinners, since we had long, crazy, wonderful conversations. Anna drove over to my place late one night when my boyfriend broke up with me so I would have someone to cry with. And I took her to the hospital when she needed outpatient surgery.
We had been friends for about ten years when Anna called me early one Saturday and asked me to meet her for breakfast. Over coffee, she told me that she had gotten herself into serious financial difficulties, including pressure from the IRS. I loved this woman. So I bailed her out. I loaned her enough money to pay off her tax debt, her other past due bills, and the next month’s rent.
But then the worst thing happened. And it wasn’t that Anna didn’t pay me back. It was that she dropped out of my life. She made excuses why she couldn’t meet for dinner, or see a movie. After a while she didn’t even answer my phone calls.
I felt horrible. I thought at the time – and still do – that she couldn’t pay me back and that was embarrassing for her. And so she couldn’t face me.
I did finally hear from her years later. Out of the blue, she phoned me. Said she was sorry she had stayed away and wanted to see me. I met her at a diner for lunch. She was the same sweet woman I had cared so much about. She was also broke again and asked me for money. I gave her everything I had in my wallet and went home. I never saw her again.
It broke my heart.
I have been reflecting on this whole experience lately, as I have been thinking so much about Kindness and being a good human being.
But the moral of this story is not ‘Don’t lend money to a friend.’
For I would give Anna the money again.
The loss of money was not meaningful, and besides, I didn’t lose it. I used it to give respite – however short that respite may have been – to a friend when she needed it. It wasn’t the loss of money. It was the loss of friendship.
There are lots of good reasons why friendships end, but money should not be one of those reasons.
And I don’t blame Anna either. Whatever hardships – whatever demons – she was experiencing – who am I to judge?
My mistake – and it was MINE – was that I did not discuss the terms.
Not the terms of the loan.
The terms of our friendship.
The Terms of Endearment.
For here is what I should have said:
“Anna, this money is a gift to you because you are my friend and I want to help you. If someday you can return this gift to me, I would accept it with love. We will always be friends, regardless. I’ll call you and you’ll call me, and we will have breakfast and go to the movies and have great intriguing conversations. Our friendship is a gift. It is not on loan.”
Well, here it is again.
I’m now 68.
How in the world did that happen?
In some ways, being 68 is scary. But overall, it’s not so bad.
My father lived to 88. My mother is still gracing this world with her lovely presence at 95. So I figure I probably still have at least 20 years left.
My life is more than 75% done. I want to make the most of that last 25%.
But the years go by so fast as you get older. Remember how long the summers were when you were a kid? Now in June, you say, “I need to get to the beach,” and before you know it, it’s September and you didn’t make it.
So I know that a season can escape before you can catch it. And so can a year. And so can 20 years.
And that’s frightening. When you retire, you tend to do less. I remember the years I worked full time and attended graduate school at night. I don’t think I ever had more productive years. Because time was so precious, I never wasted it.
But when you are retired, there can be a devaluation of your precious time. There is always tomorrow, you think, as you sit with a second cup of coffee and a third cookie.
But my tomorrows are limited. And each day I will have less of them. I need to fill them up with things I love. I want to learn everything I don’t know.
And how much can I learn in twenty years?
Why just think of what I learned in my first twenty years!
I learned to:
Talk – Walk – Use the toilet – Handle a spoon, fork and knife – Dress myself – Open doors – Run – Take a bath – Use a toothbrush – Read and Write – Sing – Dance – Pray – Jump – Sit still – Drink through a straw – Say No – Add, subtract, multiply, divide – Ride a bike – Lace sneakers – Make friends – Tell time- Tell a lie – Borrow books from the Library – Play cards – Skip rope – Turn a somersault – Use scissors – Dig in the sand – Swim – Take a test – Fight – Throw a ball – Believe in Santa Claus – Not believe in Santa Claus – Climb stairs – Climb a ladder – Climb a tree -Vacuum – Learn history, geography, and science – Ice skate – Get on the right bus – Bowl – Swear – Play the piano – Play dumb – Draw – Write a story – Write a poem – Shoot an arrow – Grow tomatoes – Sew – Type -Speak French – Like boys – Kiss – Apply makeup – Mow the lawn – Read a map – Knit – Crochet- Solve a crossword puzzle – Solve for x – Insert a tampon – Drive a car – Cook – Get a job – Use a slide rule – Pay bills – Play tennis – Camp out – Understand football – Pretend to play chess – Apply to college – Travel alone – Make love – Survive a broken heart
Oh, and two gazillion other things: There were coloring books and cap guns and monkey bars and lincoln logs and hair spray and fountain pens and skate keys and protractors and monopoly and toboggans and chemistry labs and the hokey pokey and Shakespeare and laundry and carbon paper and gas pumps and eyelash curlers and ferris wheels and combination locks and protest marches and square roots and square dances.
If that’s only scratching the surface of what I can learn in twenty years –
Bring it on, Old Age!
I’ve got plenty of time!
As always, I am posting an unretouched, non-photoshopped birthday selfie. My purpose is always twofold – to say to you, It’s not so bad getting old, and to say to Mother Nature, Screw you, I’m Not Quite Old!