Having high expectations can be a very good thing.
Mostly, because I have found that when you expect the best from people, they usually give it.
This is my best example. Our foyer.
The carpenter who laid this floor had never done anything like this before. We showed him a photograph from a lovely mansion-turned-bed-and-breakfast in Newport. We wanted to recreate the gorgeous floor. We told him, “Study the photo. Think about how the parquet was done. You can figure it out. You can do it.”
And he did it.
And here’s an even simpler example:
Many years ago, when my nephews and niece were little, everyone was at my little condo for a party. My niece came into the living room to tattle on her brothers. “The boys are in the bedroom with the Legos and they are making a huge mess.” And I said, “That’s okay, because I know your brothers are also really good at cleaning up after they play.” My niece looked at me skeptically, but went back to the bedroom to tell her brothers what I said. After everyone had gone home, I walked into the bedroom. It was spotless.
So yes. I love having high expectations of people. I love to trust that folks will do the best the can. And I might be disappointed once in a while, but honestly – not that often.
But I also see that high expectations – especially for things (not people) – can get in the way of your enjoyment of the simple things.
I am the leader of a book club.
I started the book club after I retired in order to discover new friends and new ideas. The book club has been going strong for eighteen months now. And I have made some wonderful new friends. And read some wonderful books in the process.
But oh my, once in a while we have a clunker.
We are trying now to add some criteria to better ensure that our book selections will be good ones. Because sometimes we have let someone choose a book just because they haven’t selected yet, and it’s nice to give everyone a turn. And sometimes they pick a book out of the blue that they know nothing about, but they think we all might like it. But we don’t.
It’s what happens then that is interesting.
Some people – for the best of reasons – they want to enrich their lives reading great books – are tremendously disappointed by a mediocre (or worse) book. The comments tend to be along the lines of
- “I can’t attend the meeting because I have nothing good to say.”
- “I’ll never get those hours back.”
- “What a waste of money.”
- “Don’t ever let that person choose again.”
- “I’ve read 20 pages and I’m stopping right there.”
I always feel really bad when that happens. Sometimes I dislike the book myself. But I can still discuss it. Civilly. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer myself and so there is always an underlying empathy for the author who spent months and years putting the story together. When writers critique other writers, we try very hard to pick out something good about the writing and make sure we emphasize it, in addition to pointing out what may not be successful.
And as far as “a waste of time” goes – well, yes. I would rather spend my time reading something that thrills me. But if you have ever watched television or played a computer game or gone for a drive on a Sunday afternoon or even listened to a five-year-old tell a very long story – well, just don’t talk to me about how your hours are too precious. We all waste a hell of a lot of time. Reading anything does not qualify as a waste.
I once witnessed someone (forgive me because I am pretty sure I have told this story before) pick up a book from a friend’s kitchen table and say, “Who is reading this trashy novel?” I was mortified. Not for the person whose book is was but for the rudeness of the person’s comment. It’s a book! It’s reading! That’s ALWAYS a good thing! Nancy Drew leads to Jane Eyre and Jane Eyre leads to Jane Austen and Jane Austen leads to … anywhere!
Now I agree that life is too short to spend time reading a book you don’t like. There are just too many good books out there to read a poor one. But although I may not always finish a mediocre book, I will always start a book with high expectations and give it a chance. Who knows? It may surprise or please or teach you.
Last month our book club had a rather unfortunate choice. At the prior meetings, no one was forthcoming with suggestions but one very nice woman brought up a novel that was set in a time period that interested her. So we went with it.
It was not the worst book I ever read – but it was far from the best. It was ordinary in every way. The heroine was perfect. The hero was perfect. The plot and the writing were not perfect. And the ending was predictable.
But the time period – World War II – was interesting, with an original point of view.
Many of these very smart and nice women in the book club, moaned and groaned about the assigned book. Some complained to me privately in emails, some just said “uggh” when the time came during our very good luncheon to discuss the not-so-good novel.
There is one woman in our book club – she is brilliant and well-read and soft spoken.
She said, “World War II was a fascinating time for everyone, and especially for women, who took on responsibilities previously denied them. I brought a few excerpts from a little memoir my mother wrote. She was in the military during the war.”
And she shared with us the captivating and strong and sweet reminiscences of her incredible mother.
Which we would not have known existed if we hadn’t been unfortunate enough to choose that lousy book.
Which is pretty fortunate after all.
This saying was popularized back in the 70s and is mainly attributed to Robert Schuller, a televanglist I didn’t much like. But I did like this axiom. And it came into prominence again in this decade as the result of a terrific TED talk by Regina Dugan.
Several years ago, I found the quote on a paperweight, and I bought it as a gift for my husband. My husband is a super capable guy, and I have never seen him fail at anything. But he’s cautious. He worries about trying things. He worries that he won’t be able to figure out new problems. He sometimes will not try stuff because he thinks he won’t be good at it. He doesn’t want to look foolish. He worries about failure.
I am familiar with these worries. Not only because I have lived with him for so many years. But because I share some of those same worries.
But somewhere in me, I have a intrinsic confidence that I can eventually handle whatever I need to. My husband has always handled what comes at him too. With as much or more success than I have had. But he doesn’t really believe it.
So I gave him the paperweight. I thought it might inspire him. Instill confidence.
A paperweight? Instilling confidence?
Great expectations from 3 inches of pewter. Yeah, that was a little naive.
But still – when you see or hear something everyday, sometimes it eventually imbeds itself into your brain.
And my husband has tried a few new things. He started horseback riding at age 71. At 73, he bought his own horse. That’s courage. (not pewter) He’s a cautious rider. But he rides.
As we get older, instead of being more cautious, some of us actually get a little braver. Maybe we say, “What the hell?” Maybe we want to fill our boring ebbing days with a bit more excitement. Maybe we have less to lose? Or maybe our dwindling fear comes from dwindling brain cells.
And as I get older, another question emerges that is as interesting to me as “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”
What do you want to do so badly, you don’t care about the outcome? If you don’t care if you fail, if you look foolish, if you’re laughed at or pitied….or even if (gasp) it costs you money?
I like to post on Twitter in the guise of my dog. It lets me say stuff I might be embarrassed to say as me. Yeah, that’s dumb. I have a sneaky feeling most people know it’s me. It’s a foolish conceit, but I don’t mind looking foolish. I don’t mind being a silly old lady who pretends my dog has a philosophical bent.
And just this week, Theo wrote:
I think if you only like what you’re good at, you won’t be doing much of anything, because you won’t try anything. You have to be bad at something first before you get good. You don’t play a concerto the first time you sit down at the piano. Everyone knows that. But the trick is to like the piano even when you are awful.
But what if you never get good?
I have been practicing Yoga for 18 years now. I am in the beginner class. If I am fortunate enough to still be taking Yoga classes 18 years from now, I am fairly certain I will still be in the beginner class. I think they call it a “practice” for a reason. There is no Yoga recital – just practice. I am terrible. I like it anyway.
Perhaps the key to being brave is the inability to be embarrassed.
My mother’s very best advice to me was: “You can do everything! You won’t be good at everything. But you can do everything.”
I’ve learned that failure isn’t so bad. It’s an outcome that’s not only possible, but probable. It’s survivable. You just need to stop caring whether you look foolish. Enjoy the experience, even if the ending is terrible. And, once in while, after you do something badly for a very long time, you may find that you start doing it pretty well. Then very well.
It’s rare. But it’s awesome. It’s worth it.
What do you want to do passionately enough that you don’t care if you fail?
There’s a woman who belongs to the same circle of friends as I do. I don’t particularly like this woman.
I don’t like her politics. I don’t like most of her opinions. We don’t enjoy the same hobbies. We have little in common.
But she lost someone close to her and yesterday was the sad anniversary of his passing.
She met up with the rest of us, as always. She was outwardly cheerful.
A lot of us do that.
We pretend we are okay. We go through the motions. We smile. We even laugh. We continue to participate in all our little activities. They are necessary distractions. They help. But they hurt too.
I say that we have little in common.
But we have THAT in common.
That we go on with our lives, and keep our pain in check.
Don’t we all have that in common?
As she was leaving our little get-together. I took her in my arms and hugged and kissed her.
It was brief.
After all, I don’t really like her.
I thought perhaps she could use some affection.
Because I could use some.
We have that in common.
Maybe I like her a little.
A very scary event is on the horizon for me.
My 50th high school reunion. FIFTY!
I remember my parents going to my dad’s 50th. Oh my god, they were so OLD. It’s a good thing I’m so much younger now than they were then.
A reunion is a wonderful time to gather and … measure.
How old do we look? How many children? How many divorces?
How much have we accomplished?
Of course, we could and should ask ourselves this every day. But we don’t.
And by “accomplished,” I don’t necessarily mean how much money or career success or fame we’ve managed to stockpile in the 50 years we have been officially grownups.
All that is nice, of course. I’ve done okay on those counts. I’ve had a rewarding career, and lots of nice stuff in the closets of my nice house.
But more important than success is whether my life FEELS like a success.
In some ways, the answer is YES.
Most significantly, I have tried throughout my life to be a good human being. I try to think the best of people, to understand others, to be kind. I have succeeded in this. I like myself.
For personal fulfillment, the two novels I wrote satisfy me in ways I cannot even describe. I hold those books, read those pages, and think “I did this!” It nourishes my soul.
I never had children, and that is a huge sorrow – and maybe writing stories is a poor substitution – but I do believe there is some of the same feeling there. I have created something of worth. Something I am proud of. Something that will live on after me. No, my books won’t remember me or love me, but it is the best I can do. It will have to do.
And I love the watercolors I have produced. By putting paint to paper, I’ve been creating small joys for others. I may not be immortal, but maybe a few pets are memorialized for the humans who love them.
Back to the reunion.
I looked at our Class Reunion website yesterday. There is a memorial page on the website for those of us who have died. We had a large class – over 400 graduates. The remembrance page had more than 40 names. Ten percent of my classmates are dead.
This fact astonishes and saddens me. Fifty years since high school is a very long time. But we are not that old. None of us is seventy. In ten or twenty years we will be old. Right now we are only just past middle age. Only some of us never got there.
Our losses, our deaths, will only accelerate now.
We have only a limited time left to measure our accomplishments.
There’s nothing wrong with slowing down – with taking life a little easier as you age.
But how I want to squeeze in more accomplishments! I want to feel that I have contributed to the world. I want to feel important- not necessarily to the world, but to myself.
Sometimes I am overwhelmed with shame. The shame of lost time. The shame of future lost time that I know I will waste..
I dawdle too much. I daydream too much. I fritter.
I wonder what I might have accomplished in those hours of television. Crosswords. Twitter. Solitaire. Magazines. Shopping for more nice things for my nice closet. I wonder what I will not accomplish in those future hours of wasted time.
John Lennon (and actually many before him) said, “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” And I agree. Not every moment of your life needs – nor should be – momentous. Watching a sunset has benefits that will not show up on your resume. Or playing with the dog. Or filling in that last square in your crossword puzzle, for that matter.
But the conflict between leisure and the need for accomplishment escalates.
I need to enjoy what short time I have left here. But I want to have something more on my list of what made my life worthwhile.
I will keep my crossword, I think, as perhaps it helps keep my brain sharp. But a considerable amount of Twitter time needs to be redirected. Twitter sometimes entertains, but more often makes me angry. I will try checking in a few times a day – with my oven timer set on 15 minutes.
I will keep playing with my dogs. In fact, I will play more with my dogs. My blood pressure will thank me for the shift from tweets to barks.
And although I love TV, I don’t think “Say Yes To The Dress” will be part of my legacy. A third novel however, just might.
Will I be more successful if I write three books instead of two? Probably not. But will I feel that I made some use of whatever time I have left? I probably will.
And I will search for more. Question more. Explore more. Learn more.
When I go to my class reunion in the Fall, I will smile and say hello to all these nice people who share a common incomplete mission: To be happy and fulfilled before we say hello to our completed companions.
______________________________________________________________________________PS. If you live anywhere near northwestern Connecticut, and you’d like to feel more connected and productive in your writing, I have convinced my friends, authors/editors John and Natalie Bates , to lead one of their terrific one-day intensive writing workshops. The date is September 14th. For more information, click on the banner at the top of the page, Writers Workshop Of Litchfield.
Years ago, a close friend asked me for advice on her workplace issue.
She worked in a very small office – I think the staff totaled no more than five. She had very little in common with any of her co-workers. She was unhappy and had tried various methods to improve her relationships with the rest of the office staff.
She had tried seeking them out, looking for commonality. But they had belittled her interests and done little to share their own.
She had tried offering to help with everyone’s work load. But they had responded by telling her they were perfectly capable of doing their jobs without her help.
She had tried bringing in goodies – baked goods and fruit and candy, but they were left untouched.
She had tried commiserating if they complained, or expressing enthusiasm for whatever made them happy. She agreed with them outwardly even if she privately disagreed. They responded by making outrageous statements, and then feigning shock if she agreed.
She had reached the invisibility stage. She went to work and did her job in silence. She interacted only when absolutely necessary.
And she was miserable.
I wasn’t surprised at her misery. A big factor in liking your job is having friends there. You go and see people you like. You talk. You laugh. You feel like part of the team, part of the family.
And job satisfaction in turn is a big part of life satisfaction. You spend the majority of your day at work. How can you go home happy after eight hours of anxiety?
I told her to look for another job. That she had exhausted all strategies and she should move on. And also that, although many people enjoy the atmosphere of a small office, she should consider looking for employment in a larger corporation. I had seen from my own college and workplace experience that, instead of feeling like an faceless cog in a big impersonal machine, a diverse environment had given me a much better chance to find kindred spirits. I had hundreds of chances to find like-minded friends, not five.
“It’s like dating in a really small town,” I said. “It’s wonderful if your soul mate is one of the only three guys your age who live there. But if one is a drinker, one is gay, and one has his heart set on the girl who is prettier than you, who do you marry? You have to say adios to Hicksville and move to the big city.”
“Oh, really?” my friend replied. “That’s how you solve a problem? You run away?”
That surprised me. I hadn’t really thought of it like that. Was running away from a problem my preferred solution?
And you know what?
Problem avoidance is not necessarily a bad choice.
“Maybe,” I said. “Only I don’t call it ‘running away.’ I call it: ‘I don’t really have to live this way if it doesn’t make me happy.'”
My friend did eventually leave that job. But she stuck it out way longer than I would have. I guess I admire her in some ways for not giving up. But mostly, I think it was a shame that she stayed unhappy for too long.
Yes, we should confront our problems.
Yes, we should be brave.
But sometimes, confronting our problems and being brave also entails running away.
It is not so cowardly to say, “I don’t have to take this anymore”
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.