Years ago, when I was just starting my working career, I rented a tiny apartment from a very nice older couple.
These folks, Mr. and Mrs. Manchester, were really old. I mean, they must have been the age that my husband and I are now. But of course, that made them very old indeed to me at the time.
They had a lovely old house with a detached two-car garage in their backyard. Years before, the husband had built a studio apartment over the garage for his own mother, where she had lived for many years. After she passed away, the apartment stayed empty for quite some time, and eventually, they decided to rent it out.
They rented it completely furnished with all the old woman’s things – which was perfect for a young person like me who had nothing. There were furniture, pots and pans and dishes, a vacuum cleaner and an ironing board and iron (I love to iron, by the way… I really do.) The tiny kitchen had a two burner stove and a bar-sized refrigerator. But that was perfect for me, since I ate mostly canned ravioli and hotdogs.
I had a very-low paying but promising job that had taken me eighteen months to find. As an English major, my office skills were sparse, but I knew the alphabet. I could file and type. And the small nonprofit I worked for did not have a big staff, so they were happy to get someone with good brains, who’d work for peanuts. And it wasn’t long before they encouraged me to acquire some business skills – by paying my tuition for an MBA.
In the meantime though, I had plenty of nothin’ and was happy to have a pot for my ravioli and an iron, even if it meant I had to wash my hair in the old claw foot tub.
And my landlords were generous and kind and smart. They left me veggies from their garden in the summer and cleaned the snow and ice off my car in the winter.
I often stayed for a cup of tea with the missus when I stopped by on the first of the month to pay my rent.
Their house wasn’t fancy but it had a warm well-used kitchen, good furniture (including a baby grand piano) and some interesting art in all the rooms.
One day over tea, I notice some beautiful plates on display in the dining room.
“Those are really lovely,” I said.
Mrs. Manchester aid, “Thank you. They are very old family heirlooms. They are precious to me.” She added, “Do you see that the one on the right has been broken and glued back together?”
“I see that now,” I said.
“My grandchildren broke that piece three years ago. Knocked it off the wall.”
“What a shame.”
She laughed. “If my own kids had done it I would have strangled them. But when it’s your grandchildren, you say, ‘Oh, that’s okay, sweethearts.’ And you get out the glue.”
“I guess so,” I answered doubtfully.
“I thought my heart would break,” she said. “But it didn’t.”
Years later, I surprised myself by becoming rather a business success. I eventually got myself a beautiful condo and lovely expensive furniture, including some antiques. I acquired fine dishes and crystal and a few good pieces of art.
Of course, I had to clean the snow off my car myself, so there’s that.
Also eventually, my adorable sister had a bunch of adorable kids, and my nephews and niece became an important, loving part of my world.
Mostly I visited – and babysat – at their place, which was childproofed in every inch of every room, of course.
My place was a bit more fragile.
But I loved having the family over. When I wasn’t working like a maniac of course… which was most of the time.
So there’s that.
And one day when my family had come to visit, the kids were playing in my spare bedroom and there was considerable noise emanating from that direction.
My brother-in-law frowned. He said, “I worry about all your beautiful things when we come here. Sometimes I think we shouldn’t visit until the kids are out of college.”
And I thought of Mrs. Manchester and laughed – like she laughed when she told me the story of her family heirlooms.
“Oh no!” I said. “You – and the kids – can come anytime. You are always welcome here.”
“But what if they break something precious?” he asked.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I love my things. I really do. But you know… my things don’t love me back.”
My heirlooms. Only one set loves me back.
Earlier this week, my husband and I stopped for ice cream, which was practically mandatory as it was ‘buy one, get one half price’ day at Carvel.
We don’t usually take full advantage of BOGO day, which I think annoys my husband because the offer is for sundaes, but I would rather just have a nice cup of vanilla, thank you. So my little cup at half price is not as much of a bargain. I have tried to convince Hubby that we save even more money this way, since the sundaes are more expensive to begin with. But savings 50% off something expensive does seem to have more appeal. I lessen the sting of buying something cheaper by getting one size larger than I normally would. That way Theo can have a bit too.
But this little anecdote really doesn’t have anything to do with the bigger anecdote.
Which is this one:
We sat down at a long picnic table where a man and woman already occupied the far end. They were old, very old. Perhaps almost our age. Perhaps a bit younger.
The man wanted something, and it appeared from the conversation that he wanted it quite badly. I didn’t hear what it was that he wanted, as I was a little late in my eavesdropping.
But the woman asked him,
“What would you give up for it?”
This, I think, is a very good question.
They got up and left and I never heard the answer.
But I started thinking about that question and my answer.
What do I want and what would I give up for it?
Well, naturally I want world peace and a cure for cancer and justice for the poor and abandoned. I guess I would give up quite a lot if I could have all three. Some people even give up their lives. That is astounding to me.
The closest I have come is when my nephew was diagnosed with cancer. He wasn’t even two. He was so desperately ill, and I wondered – especially in the middle of the night – if there is a God and whether he could or would help this little baby. I wondered if someone told me I could change places with this small child – if I could take on his cancer so he could be healthy – would I? I thought about that a lot. I decided I would. I would rather have cancer myself than to see it in that sweet kid.
Once I knew that about myself, I felt a great sense of comfort. And my nephew survived and is a teenager now. He’s well – in every way that one measures wellness.
I’m still not sure I believe in God, but if She exists, I think She mostly helps doctors and nurses to do their jobs well.
And what about me personally? What do I want?
I would like my novels to be recognized and successful, for one thing.
But you know, as far as what would I give up? I don’t think I have to give up much. Because I like them, and I am proud I wrote them. So they are already successful to me.
But oh, if everyone else loved them! That would be pretty sweet. But extra really. I’m good right where I stand.
And wealth! I want to be a billionaire.
What would I give up to have an endless supply of money?
Well, I wouldn’t want to work at a job I hated. I wouldn’t want to be unethical in my dealings or have to lie constantly. I wouldn’t want to move away from my friends and family. I wouldn’t want to be hated. I wouldn’t want to give up a single year of my life for more cash.
So what would I give up to be rich?
Not nice weather. Not my favorite songs. Certainly not my pets.
Maybe coffee. But maybe not.
And of course I would like happiness now and through the end of my life. Well, I think I am okay there too. No one can predict the future of course, but I see a happy future.
What would I give up to ensure future happiness?
How about worry and envy and resentment?
You would think that those are easy to give up. Not so, I see. No one wants to worry. No one wants to be angry. And yet, like most people, I am. Often.
I hang onto my hurts and grudges like they are the flags that define me. I nurse them in my heart.
I need to take much better care of my joy.
While I sweep away my resentments with the toaster crumbs, I need to take out my joys and look at them over breakfast every morning. And admire how everlasting they are. How strong.
I wouldn’t give them up.
Not the books I have written. Not the books I have read.
Not the walks I have taken. The sunrises and sunsets I have seen.
Not the flowers I have planted and seen bloom around me.
Not my pets. Not Theo the dog. And not the cats – not Thor nor Niko nor Athena – not even cranky old Lillian. Not Moonlight the horse.
Not my friends. Not my old friends from childhood. Not the new friends I have made.
Not my family – and not their health. Not my husband. Not my mother. Not my sisters nor my brother. Not their families, including my in-laws, my nieces and nephews, and the children of my nieces and nephews.
And if I should lose some of those I love – and I will, of course, eventually – they are still everlasting.
Everlasting in my joy.
I’m not giving that up.
You can keep the money.
Do you ever wish that the writer of the book you just read or the movie you saw would have consulted you before she decided on that particular ending?
Sometimes it is simply historical reality that makes people or characters act the way they act. But I see so many occasions where there could be a much more interesting outcome.
Take Jane Eyre, for example.(my favorite book since I was twelve… and still 55 years later.) In 1847, Jane could hardly embrace immorality, but when you think about it, she does anyway – despite the mores of the times. She returns to Edward Rochester not knowing that Rochester’s crazy wife is dead. She returns to him willingly, aware that he already has a wife. So Jane was plenty subversive – for 1847.
But how I would love it if, when Jane Eyre returned to Thorncrest, she had found everything pretty much as she left it. Mad Bertha still alive, still living in the attic. And Jane stays anyway – her own decision. Married (by love and commitment only, not by the church) to Edward, she has a family of her own, including Adele. And Jane takes good and compassionate care of Bertha, too, for the rest of their lives.
I love the movie Baby Boom. I am willing to suspend all logic and reality to accept that Diane Keaton can inherit a baby from a long-lost cousin, and that Diane had never so much as held a baby in her life. And I even accept that she can be her ditzy self and still hold a high-level management position. I can accept that she gives it all up for a falling-down farmhouse. I accept it all because Diane is adorable and the baby Elizabeth even more adorable. And because she gets to say “screw you” to her big, important job.
But. Oh, how I wish Diane Keaton went to Vermont to that ramshackle farmhouse and fixed it up and didn’t meet a handsome veterinarian. And liked her life anyway.
I loved Friends. I never missed an episode. I planned my Thursday evenings so I could be friends with all those friends. I loved every quirky one of them.
Phoebe was my favorite. I just wish she had pointed out a lot more often to Monica and Rachel how fantastic it is to be completely independent. Not needy. And honest without a trace of meanness. You do not have to lie to get out of an unpleasant situation.
I was on vacation at Cape Cod (in a tent, as I was one of many penniless students) when every other song on the radio was Rod Stewart’s Maggie May. No matter where we were and what we doing, when we heard that mandolin, we would all stop – and sing.
But I wish Maggie May had said, “YOU feel YOU’RE being used??? Get your freeloading ass out of my house, and go back to school. Learn something!”
Years ago I went to a party and there was a guy there I had not seen in years.
He was surprised to see me.
Because six months earlier there had been a murder in my town, and the poor young murder victim bore the same last name as mine.
And this distant friend exclaimed, “Oh my God! I was sure that murdered girl was you!”
As in, “Although we have seen each other hundreds of times, I had forgotten your first name” sure?
Or as in, “I wasn’t surprised that you would be murdered, since we’ve all wanted to kill you at one time or another” sure?
Either way, I was pretty insulted.
But now, more than 40 years later, I don’t think so.
Not that it has taken me 40 years to get over it… no way…
Just that if that happened today, I would see it in a totally different light.
Because I don’t get insulted much anymore.
Because I am the arbiter of what is insulting.
And hardly anything is.
Like when someone told me they hated a certain movie, but that it was the “kind of thing I would like.” Well, now I just think they must mean sweet, simple and touching. Yes, I am like that.
Like when someone commented that I wore an awful lot of makeup. Well, now I just think, they mean that my makeup looks so perfect I look like I had it done by an expert. Yes, I am that good at it.
Like when someone said my dog runs around like a maniac. Well, now I just think that they think my dog is so energetic and fun-loving. Yes, I have raised a happy dog.
Like when someone told me I needed to work on my management skills. Well, now I just think that it’s not in my nature to criticize another person’s work. Yes, I am kind like that.
Like when someone came to dinner and brought her own food because my cooking is not up to her standards. Well, now I just think how much money I just saved because she was generous enough to bring the main course. Yes, I am grateful like that.
Like when someone said that I had a stupid laugh. Well, now I just think that I laugh like a nut all the time because so much in life is so nutty. Yes, I am happy like that.
Like when someone wrote a review on Amazon and said my first book was predictable, unreadable and a complete waste of time. Well, now I just think…
Yes, because I am sensitive like that.
Theo’s pup tips have made my Twitter very popular indeed.
In fact, he is WAY more popular than I am.
That is because he is so much wiser than I am.
Here is some of his latest advice.
Theo would also like you to know that he may have a book coming out soon. His fans are demanding it.
There is a road I take on the way to my mother’s house that has one medium-size hill.
Not a huge omg-will-the-car-even-make-it kind of hill, just a rise that is short but pretty steep. By the way, those runaway truck lanes on hilly highways give me the creeps. Did you wonder how many trucks must have terrible brakes that engineers thought they should make a separate road just for failed-brake trucks?
But anyway, as I climb this little hill on the way to Mom’s house, I reached a point just before the top where all I can see is the nose of my own car. And for that split second, I feel helpless. A sudden queasy flash of panic. I don’t have any idea of what I may encounter on the other side. What if a car has broken down just over the rise? What if there is a child or an animal in the road? Ice? A crater?
I am driving into a complete slightly terrifying mystery. For three long seconds.
And then I hit the top.
And everything is clear. In fact, there is a lovely view and I can see for miles.
Life is like that.
Oh, not the rising of the crest and seeing that everything is beautiful and safe.
It’s the three seconds of complete and blind ignorance.
Only not three seconds. It lasts your whole life.
Each time you think you’ve crested and that you are about to get the view… you realize that the hill is just a little steeper and you still can’t see.
That panic sets in – that you don’t know if there is an obstacle in your path on the other side. There are companion-panics too. Will you even have enough power to make it another foot? Will you have the brakes you need if there is a treacherous downhill section on the other side?
How in the world do we live our whole lives not knowing where we are even going?
All we can see if the hood of our own car. Our own reflection.
Life is terrifying and we never quite get a glimpse of safety.
But we do know that under the hood, we probably do have enough power to get there. We may not be able to accelerate but we can keep going.
And despite our worries that our brakes will fail, we also know that we can pull over to the side – turn on our flashers for safety – and get a breath. Let our engine cool down a bit.
On the side of the road.
There’s where a lot of nice stuff happens anyway. On the side of the road. There are sometimes wildflowers. And an apple tree. A cool brook. There might be a spot for a picnic. Maybe a little dog to pet.
The birds are singing.
Did you know that the birds are singing even when all you can hear is the sound of your own motor straining from your effort?
So when you are ready to resume the endless uphill climb, turn off your flashers and open the windows.
You still won’t be able to see what’s on the road ahead of you, but you may be able to hear the birds.
Summertime – which also means time for a summer re-run.
Here’s a post from three years ago – something I originally wrote for the Huffington Post.
FIVE THINGS YOU DESERVE NOW
Years ago, when I was single – I’d say young and carefree, except I wasn’t quite that young, and I’m not sure I was ever carefree – I went out to dinner with a girlfriend. It was a fairly skimpy meal as I recall, and we were deep in a conversation (probably about work…we hardly ever discussed men; just our crummy jobs), so I suggested we go back to my place where we could continue to bitch and at the same time have ice cream to supplement our small but pricey dinner.
When I took out the carton of gelato, my friend was rather astonished.
“Were you expecting company?” she asked when she saw the container of very premium ice cream.
“No,” I answered. “It’s just a little pint of my favorite flavor.”
“I can’t believe you would buy something like that for just yourself,” she said.
And I smiled.
Because I had learned that lesson long before.
When I was a kid, I knew a lovely old woman who was part of our extended family. Rachel had been widowed for many years. And when I was a teenager, I remember a conversation with her that made a lasting impression. It was one of those small moments that changes your life and you recognize immediately that it is changing your life. I can’t recall what sparked this serious discussion between a young girl and an 80-year-old woman, but we were talking about happiness and loneliness.
Rachel said that the secret to happiness was being nice to yourself. “I’ve lived alone a very long time,” she said. “So I take extra care to be kind to myself. Who else is responsible for making sure I have a good life?” she said. “I often have no company for days on end. So I treat myself like company every day.”
In that moment, I understood.
I see too many people who don’t treat themselves well.
Who don’t think they are worth the good ice cream.
Here are five things you can do right now to treat yourself like company.
1. You deserve to live in a clean house. When company is coming over you always pick up, right? Well, clean the house for yourself. You deserve a nice environment. You deserve a shiny bathroom. You deserve clean sheets when you go to bed at night. A fresh-smelling refrigerator. A clean house is a gift you give yourself.
2. You deserve to dress well. Remember the last time you got all dressed up and felt wonderful about yourself? You can do that every day. I don’t necessarily mean a fancy outfit or an expensive necklace. Just this: When you do shop, buy only what you love. Even if it is a sweatshirt – which I hope it isn’t – but if it is, at least buy one that you LOVE. Too many times I see people shopping whose attitude seems to be ‘good enough.’ As if they don’t believe they are worth the time or energy needed to find something that fits well, compliments them – and most important – makes them happy. Hold out for something that thrills you. Soon you’ll have a wardrobe (even if it is a small one) composed entirely of clothes you love. And so you’ll be wearing something you love every day. Think about how good that would make you feel.
3. You deserve to use your good stuff. Do you have your Grandma’s silver? Some beautiful wine glasses that were a wedding present? Some candles with a heavenly aroma that you never use? USE THEM. Drive that vintage Mustang to the post office. Take out your good china tonight. Light those candles. Treat yourself like company.
4. You deserve to love what you do. Hardly any of us are lucky enough to make a living doing what we love. If you are one of those few – wow. But most of us have to buy groceries and pay the rent by keeping our boring or maybe even awful jobs. That’s just a fact of life. As my mother used to say, “Welcome to adulthood.” But on the other hand, that lousy job is eight hours a day, and you probably need to sleep eight hours too. But that still leaves another eight hours. Every day. Could you fill ONE of them with something you love? Reading, swimming, baking muffins, playing with the dog. You deserve to spend some time with a smile on your face. And what if it turned out that you could do that for TWO hours a day? Double wow.
And while I am on the subject of doing what you love:
5. You deserve to be unashamed of what you love. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I recently overheard someone ridicule a friend for reading a romance novel. And the romance-lover was embarrassed and actually apologized for her poor taste in reading material. How I wish she had said, “I LOVE this book!” What do you love? Star Trek conventions? Dolly Parton music? Making paper airplanes? Knitting little sweaters for your hamster? You are lucky to have found something that gives you such pleasure. Be proud of it.
You deserve it.
You are worth the good ice cream.
About five years ago, when I was in one of my rare poetic moods, I wrote a poem about Reincarnation.
Here it as, and it’s short, so if you are one of the millions of poetry-averse souls, be assured that you can get it through it very quickly and go on without much long-lasting trauma.
Okay, all done. You will be able to breathe normally again in just a second.
Lately I have been rethinking my position.
Not that I have any background whatsoever on Reincarnation. But knowing nothing about a subject has never stopped me from expounding upon it at length anyway.
So that’s my beginning disclaimer. I am not referring to the concept of Reincarnation within Hinduism or within any established belief. I am talking about Reincarnation as I have imagined it – as a wrinkle in my own little curlicued brain.
I have always pictured Reincarnation as your just desserts. You live a good life and you get a really nice next life. You live a bad life and you are punished in your next one. A straightforward Karma.
I am now at the age where my next life is looming closer – perhaps closer than I know. But let’s face it, if Reincarnation is real, our current lives are just the roller coaster ride that leads to the next roller coaster ride. Or perhaps bumper car to the next bumper car, or perhaps even more accurately – laugh-in-the-dark to the next laugh-in-the-dark.
And I see a fallacy in my conception.
What is the point of reward or retribution if you don’t know that it is? What have you learned if you don’t see the continuum of the lesson?
I mean, if you get a horrible life because you were bad in a previous life, but you don’t remember the previous life, how in the world can you understand that your current hell is punishment for being awful, when you don’t remember the awfulness of your earlier self? Wouldn’t you just think, “Holy shit, my life sucks!”? You wouldn’t necessarily know the reason why it does.
And on the other hand, if you are having a great life because you were a gem of a guy before, why wouldn’t you be thinking, “Holy shit, I can do no wrong!”? And perhaps you would end up being quite a prick, and you’d be bouncing back to Bad Life the next time. You’d be a ping-pong ball in tabletop Karma.
So you’d HAVE to remember your previous lives to make my notion work.
And we don’t. Or at least – I don’t. I do wonder sometimes if other people know about all their previous lives and just aren’t telling me, because this is my first go-round.
Perhaps most people are saddle-sore veterans and this is my first rodeo, and they don’t want to spoil the surprise.
Okay. That’s my share today of crazy, inane metaphors.
But it is my best hope for Karma – that I am new to the game but I will remember my past in the future. As everyone else does, but is too polite to tell me.
And the best Karma I can think of – for everyone – is this:
That we get to be the opposite of what we are. That if we are rich, we will be poor in our next life. If we are illiterate, we get to be knowledgeable. If we are lonely, we get friends. If we are hateful, we become the object of hate.
And we SEE.
We see what it like on the other side.
And maybe understand each other.
I’ve had a lot of great jobs in my life. I’ve also had a couple of miserable jobs. But even when the job is miserable there are great moments in there. And even when the job is great, there are bound to be some miserable moments.
I don’t have to tell you that you should concentrate on the little great moments. Well, that is, I don’t have to, but I seem to tell you that a lot anyway.
My long work history has now become history, since I am finally retired from outside employment. I am doing what I love – writing.
Even in pursuing my joy in writing, there are still moments that suck.
But not as many as in working at ‘official’ jobs. And that’s why my writing is a joy – the dramatic decrease in suckfilled moments.
Over the years, though, I learned a lot about getting through the lousy bits.
Here are a few of my acquired coping strategies.
– 1 –
Unskilled work is not so bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. If you have a complicated or stressful home life, or an outside passion that takes loads of energy, work that is repetitive and simple may be just what you need. You get a paycheck and you can devote your energy elsewhere. And even if you have a stressful job, there are often pieces of that job that are easier than others. I had a job early in my career where I did very intricate calculations (or at least they were to me, at that time). But I had one simple task – sorting and listing payments. I saved that piece for the last hour of the day. It was a great way to unwind. Even as I moved up the ladder in that organization, I didn’t delegate that part of the job. I needed that easy piece.
There are often good things to eat. The bigger the organization, the more often it is someone’s birthday, shower, retirement, promotion. Oh, the cake! And in small organizations with fewer birthdays, you can make this happen yourself. Years ago I had a coworker who loved coffee cake. She didn’t want all those calories tempting her at home, so she brought a coffee cake to the office for breakfast almost every morning, and left it (except for her one piece) in the break room for us all to enjoy. When she would go on vacation, the rest of us took turns bringing in the cake.
This one can almost be considered 2(a)… because it also entails food. I once had a job where a good portion of my work required me to file various status reports to corporate headquarters. I soon learned that most of the other employees called me “The Spy.” People tended to avoid me, which not only made me feel pretty bad, but also it made doing my job almost impossible. However, my office was right on the way to the restrooms, so lots of folks tiptoed past. I started putting out a dish of candies – good ones – in an obvious spot on my desk. And little by little, folks started stopping by for a minute as they returned from their bathroom trips. And they started to talk to me. And tell me stuff. And I did my job, and they liked me anyway.
I’ve had mostly decent bosses, but a couple of miserable ones. I coped in two different ways. First, my main strategy was to be determined to outlast the bastard. If a boss is a bad boss, he/she is usually a bad boss to more than just you. So for me, I kept my head down and waited for the boss’s lousy temper or horrible management style to catch up with him. It usually did. And if it didn’t, and everyone else loved him, he usually got promoted – and so, voila! – he wasn’t my boss anymore anyway. Second, I hung up on the idiot. Not in real time of course. On voicemail When I had a voicemail from the boss, I’d slam the phone down in the middle of her message. Sometimes a lot. It would often take multiple tries to get through a whole message. Slamming the phone down on that awful voice felt pretty damn good. Then, of course, I would remind myself that this idiot was paying my rent. And I’d do my job.
If someone had told me how much of a manager’s time was spent in meetings, I would never have gotten my MBA – and would have turned down every promotion (if I had been offered any). OMG, meetings are so boring. But I made them sort of tolerable with a few little practices. For one thing, I gave myself the gift of beautiful notebooks, calendars, and pens. Not just okay. Stunning. So taking notes was a pleasure. And I changed the way I took notes. I perused some calligraphy books and tried out different handwriting styles. I added some flourishes. And most important, I changed what I wrote. I made my notes personal. I listened to what people were saying, and wrote down what I thought was the best thing they said. Each person in the meeting – I recorded their best thoughts. And I began to think that I worked with some very brilliant people. I liked listening to them.
What these strategies have in common is Control.
I concentrated on the stuff I could control. The stuff I could do to make everything just a little better.
I couldn’t control my boss, or my job duties, or my coworkers – or even my commute. But I could have a pretty notebook. I could make it easier for people to talk to me. I could listen more carefully when they talked.
And I could have a piece of cake once in a while.