the Just World Hypothesis

I’m here to offer yet another plug for aging. Getting older can be so marvelous, because you start to see with clarity. (Not everyone; I’ve known some bitter, small, mean old people who became concentrated nuggets of ignorance.) But if you’re lucky — or whatever, however this works — you understand more and more. And the funniest thing is that your understanding gets simpler and simpler:

 

  • It’s all one thing.
  • You are who you are.
  • Life happens to everyone, and we all die.

I think it all boils down to that. Just because it’s so simple, however, doesn’t mean it’s simple to talk about. And just because it’s so simple, that doesn’t mean you can just tell other people, younger people, what you have learned and suddenly they have the same complexity of understanding. For me, anyway, it has taken living my years to be able finally to see this.

Simple complexity, impossible to say clearly, but I’ll try, and I’ll start with a social psych principle called the Just World Hypothesis. It’s a more elaborated idea than this thumbnail, but basically it’s a deep belief that we get what we deserve. That if we’re good, good things will come to us. Bad people get what they deserve. Etc. It unfolds into a whole ethical landscape of implications, but at the center that’s what it is. Like me, I’m sure you’ve frequently heard people wail, “Why me???” And then they provide the list of explanations for why X shouldn’t have happened to them. If it’s a health thing, the list includes their health-related behaviors. If it’s an accident, the list includes the ways they are always so careful. If it’s about their child, the list includes the ways their child was innocent and they were watchful parents.

Undoubtedly because of my childhood, the fact that I was born to a couple who wanted to destroy everyone and everything, I was disabused of the belief in the just world. And one freezing night, in an alley on the wrong side of town in Wichita Falls, I thought through it very carefully and solidified my understanding: shit just happens. Life happens to everyone. In a larger way, it’s all random.

And it’s all one thing: Life happens to everyone. Why would we ever think, even for a second, that only “good” things will happen to us? (And yet we do: Shelley Taylor’s work showed that people don’t believe things like house fires, bad car wrecks, serious illness, etc., will happen to them in their futures; that we all believe we’re above average (leading another psychologist to dub this ‘the Lake Wobegone effect,’ when the law of averages alone proves that we cannot ALL be above average.)) We must believe that because of some deep, unexamined reliance on this just world hypothesis.

And so once again I have to leave space for the possibility that I was luckier than most people to have the childhood I had. That’s not Monday morning quarterbacking, or brave, chin-quivering denial, it’s an understanding of the way it’s all one thing. My life is a whole, the experiences I’ve had all along the way are so woven into the cloth of who I am that it’s impossible to pull out a warp thread, a weft thread. It’s impossible to sit here, in my chair at Heaventree, and even begin to entertain some fantasy of what it would’ve been like to have had a loving mother, a father who didn’t try to kill me. A safe home. Security. It’s impossible to do that, the entire cloth of me disintegrates and there could be no “me” sitting here to ponder that question.

Whenever I hear someone ask, “Why me?” my only thought is, “Why not you?” Of course I never ever say that, because at that moment the person asking the question needs compassion and help, and this fact of “why not you” is completely irrelevant. There may come a time in their process when it makes sense to gently talk about it, if it helps them realize that they aren’t being punished, or whatever they are thinking, but never at that first wailing.

But really. Why not you? Why not me? Life is just happening, and often we are just in the wrong place. A knot forms in an umbilical cord. A car veers into the oncoming lane. Cells take a left turn and start dividing wildly. Myelin disappears, plaques form, bones honeycomb. Unexamined parts of ourselves commit an act of sabotage or treason and we won’t recognize it for years. And as impossible as it is to grasp in the thick of it, it’s all of a piece and the landscape of your life, and yourself, are bigger and more vast and complex, and this is one warp or weft thread in your tapestry. When I was a child, of course I had no perspective to understand this, and I mean that literally: those experiences did not have the context of life that followed them, they were my endpoints at that time, and they represented the bulk of my life. Assuming we survive the terrible thing that happens, and have the good luck of living to put it in perspective, there are good things to be drawn from it; we are changed by it, and to some degree it’s up to us how we are changed by it (emotionally and psychologically, at least) (and I mean to some degree it’s up to us).

When my life fell apart at the end of 2012, I was coincidentally reading a book about trauma survivors (one of my favorite topics) called When You’re Falling, DiveI really recommend the book to everyone, because if you are a magical unicorn and nothing bad ever happens to you, then at least you are going to know all the rest of us to whom bad things will happen because we are not magical unicorns — so you can learn a few things to be present with us. I highlighted dozens of passages in the book, but I share these two with this post, and encourage you to click that link and get the book:

“Survival doesn’t really mean anything without acceptance,” John explains. “That’s the paradoxical part. You have to take the thing that’s wrong and own it. Make it into something that has meaning for you. If you try to hide or negate it, it will just eat you up,” he says. “If you’re hoping for things to be other than they are—constantly wondering how or why something happened, or how to fix it—you’re lost. You’ll completely miss out on the graceful time you have.

“When people are in need, you must be present. When people suffer, you must let them know you’re suffering with them.” “The good side of bad acts?” I say. “I would not say that from horror comes goodness. That would be giving horror too much credit. But goodness prevails in spite of horror.

I’m not in the midst of trials in my own life, at the moment, so I acknowledge that it can feel like “easy for her to say.” But if you’ve known me long, you know that I say this even when trials do come my way, and this is part of the clarity of understanding I’ve gained as I’ve gotten older. It’s all one thing — the “good” and the “bad,” who we are, how we live, and that we are who we are with that entire context in place. We came into the world exactly who we are and we live the life we live and it’s all one thing.

It’s fascinating to me how utterly complex simplicity is, but that it can still be simple. Something to ponder on a beautiful Friday, the first day of autumn. xoxoxoxo

my kind of [X]

readerOne of my dear friends was facing a situation that would require a slow recovery, so she asked me and our friends for recommendations of books, television shows, and movies — but of a specific kind. Easy to read, light, the kind that are often (and often unfairly) disparagingly called junk reading, junk TV. She pointedly said, “Not the stuff you read, Lori.” Over time I’ve gotten the reputation for only reading Holocaust or big trauma literary fiction, a category that (I think) is meant more broadly than just those specifics, but definitely with that degree of heaviness. (Although I looked at my Netflix queue and it was one after another Holocaust movie, so hmmmm…..) I enjoy a book that asks something of me, that requires me to participate.

And then another friend recommended a show and in an aside said, “You’ll LOVE it, man. It’s dripping in humanity.” The show was about punishment and retribution and recovery and redemption. My kind of things, my kind of themes.

It isn’t that I’m dismissive of “junk” entertainment, and I’m certainly not judgmental of it. I watch Project Runway, Top Chef, some sit-coms. It’s just that I have so little spare time for entertainment (and not for nothing, I read all day long, almost always stuff I would never ever read of my own volition although sometimes I get the most amazing book/client and that’s a huge gift). So in my rare bit of time for passive entertainment, I want to finally read what I want to read, and what I want to read are stories that grapple with the questions you face in the dark, the situations that harrow you and force you to face yourself, force you to encounter the shadow — either of others, or the world, or yourself. Because I’m always looking for answers! I’m always looking for an articulation of my own shadow, my own experiences. I’m always wanting to better understand people and how they affect and are affected by others and the world. What makes some people turn this way or that, or NOT turn this way or that.

I’m also wanting to be engrossed, enmeshed, and moved in a deep way. My daily life is kind of light; for the most part I sit in my living room, in my chair, reading and working on a client’s book. The ordinary tenor of my life is quiet, solitary, easy, slow. I’m very happy in solitude, it occurred to me again the other day. I was the only person at a wedding alone recently, and I could’ve invited someone to go with me but it never crossed my mind. I enjoy going to movies alone. I enjoy walking alone. I enjoy shopping alone. My days don’t have enough hours for all the ways I want to fill them.

But emotionally my days are just kind of steady and quiet. (YAY!) My life is steady and quiet. (YAY!) So I read or watch something to move my interior, to swim in the vast ocean of human experience. One of the saddest moments — and maybe you know this one too — is when I finish a deeply wonderful book, when I close it and feel so much, and it has left its deep mark on me, and I know it’s going to be hard to find another one that will do that. And sure enough, I try this one (nope!), that one (ugh, no), the next one (maybe…oh, no.) and none are of the same kind.

Although there are some exceptions, most of the books on my “absolute faves” shelf on GoodReads are of this type, and I’m good with that. The only sad thing for me is that I don’t really know other readers who like to read what I do, except for one woman in my book club who chose a book that became one of my favorites (The Orphan Master’s Son, my review on GoodReads here). The specifics of her life mean that she doesn’t have much time to read, though, so I don’t really have someone to share this with and that’s a secondary joy of reading. I do know people whose recommendations usually connect with my interests (Dixie, for instance), but that’s rare.

This is one of the very rare ways I’m lonely, and I am very lonely in this way. If you glance at my “absolute faves” shelf and see yourself there, I’d sure like to know about it.

Happy reading y’all, whatever you read. xoxox

the question is wisdom, the answer is complexity

In 2011 I read a great book called Difficult Conversations: How to Talk About What Matters Most. Difficult conversations are so hard for me, and I found the book quite useful. The real value of the book, though, spread so far beyond difficult conversations, and it all came from one little word: AND.

One point made in the book is that when you say “….., but ….” you essentially negate the first part. Saying, “…., and ….” allows space for both to be true. Because with very rare exception, there is truth in both.

  • “Yes, you do the shopping but you only do it when I ask.”
  • “Yes, you do the shopping and you only do it when I ask.”

The first makes the point in an oppositional way, the second in an acknowledging way. If someone said the first to you, wouldn’t you get a little riled up? My response might even include a bad word that starts with the letter F.

Escher gets at the complexity of 'and.'
Escher gets at the complexity of ‘and.’

And so I made a very conscious effort to use and instead of but, and I never came to an instance in which I really could only use but. ‘And’ was always appropriate. This fit easily into my understanding of the complexity of the world, leading me to a simple phrase for a big idea: It’s an ‘and’ world. I write about this over and over, and I can’t track down the original post I wrote in 2009 or 2010, so here’s one I wrote called ‘plucking out the story‘ that includes a good real-life example. It’s an ‘and’ world, y’all. It is. And that is a bigger issue than you think.

The problem comes in when we think or feel conflicting truths. Our minds are uneasy with conflicting truths, with cognitive dissonance, and we’re pulled to resolve the conflict. One of my favorite cognitive dissonance experiments had research participants in the US eating crickets, for which they were paid either $1 or $20, by random assignment. Afterwards they were asked why they ate the crickets. The people who received $20 said they did it for the money. The people who received $1 said they did it because they like crickets. Because they surely did not really like crickets, but they’d received so little money to do it — both true — so they resolved that conflict by telling themselves the story that they liked crickets. Isn’t that fascinating?

And then when you add in a should, it becomes even more complex. You have two conflicting feelings, and one comes with but I shouldn’t feel that way, or how could I feel that way! and so you rush to negate or ignore the “bad” one, and you certainly don’t admit it out loud. But both are true! You act on the better one, and you feel it fully, AND the other is also true. They both are true. BOTH. ARE. TRUE.

A made-up example: Let’s say you have a very dear friend in trouble and you want to help her, you truly do, because you love her. She needs help and you can provide the help, you have the knowledge or skill or experience. The thing is, she’s a pain in the ass. She’s ungrateful. She’ll try a little and then go right back to complaining about the very thing you’re helping her with. I’ll bet everyone has had that experience. So you feel super annoyed and irritated with her, and frustrated. Oh, but I shouldn’t be annoyed, I know she’s doing the best she can. And maybe there’s something that really is in her way, some very real roadblock, so you also think, God, what a jerk I am to feel this way! What is wrong with me?! So what do you do? You block those “bad” feelings. You suppress them and try not even to acknowledge them in your own mind.

But both are true! Because both are true. At the very same time. Because you are complex, situations are complex, the world is complex. You get to choose which one you act on, but both feelings are true and that is fine. In fact, if you need this point made, the fact that you are acting on the ‘better’ feeling and keeping the other to yourself—while you still feel it—isn’t that a good thing? It is!

One thing I have learned, though, is that talking about both sets of feelings upsets people. I don’t mean the person you’re helping, I just mean other people. So you’ve been helping your friend, feeling both kinds of feelings, and when you talk to another very good friend and tell the fullness of your experience, your very good friend will shut you down. She will focus on the “bad” feeling and discount it for you, disagree with it, explain it away, tell you you’re wrong. And maybe even judge you about it, though she’ll probably be too polite to tell you.

IT’S AN AND WORLD. You feel what you feel, and whatever you feel is absolutely fine. You choose which feelings you express (and when, and to whom), and you choose which actions to take in response. Social norms are so very strong, you may even shut down feelings you “shouldn’t” feel so quickly you are scarcely aware of them. I’ve come to believe that it is a sign of deep wisdom to be able to acknowledge the world’s complexity and simply let it be. In this feeling example, to resist pushing down the “bad” feeling and allowing it also to be true. You help, you want to help, you choose to help, you love your friend, and you feel frustrated with her even though she has this terrible roadblock.

I don’t have very many friends I can share the complexity of life with, but those few I do have provide my safe space, my true space, and the space where I feel it easiest to be who I am, in all my own complexity. I get to be my authentic, full self. There I feel deeply understood . . . because those friends know that BOTH sets are true, that the love and “good” is also just as true, that those are the ones I act on because I mean them with all my heart. It’s just that I also feel the other, as people do.

Wow. You really can find ANYTHING on the Internet.
Wow. You really can find ANYTHING on the Internet.

And so I share this with you, to try to help you remember that the world is complex, you are complex, your thoughts and feelings are complex, and when you think or feel contradictory things (when, not if, because you do!), it’s fine. Feel them both. Think them both. Breathe and allow yourself to be open, to learn how to hold them both at the same time without rushing to close one door. It’s good practice for all the other ways the world is contradictory.

(It has so become my habit to talk and think like this—which isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes slip—that I have developed funny automatic sentence constructions. SO many of my sentences begin with “and,” so many begin with “and so” [which my daughter Katie pointed out to me], and also “and though,” which kind of is a ‘but’ construction but it brings the ‘and’ in, which I believe also reflects the truth of the world because it allows the essential tension between conflicting truths to be present.)

And so. Allow complexity. Acknowledge complexity. Hell, see complexity. Black and white categorical thinking is nice and easy (X is good. Y is bad. End of story, and I am absolutely certain about that…), but it isn’t real. It isn’t true. Hitler and the Holocaust were evil; Pol Pot was evil; but otherwise, there are so few things that are just one thing that the default toward complexity will keep you closer to the truth of the world.

And that’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.

gray

Apparently gray hair is having its moment. It’s the “fashion trend” and “everyone is doing it.” That’s fine with me, but what I mean by that is that gray hair is fine with me. I have a great clump of white hair right at my part, and it’s still concentrated there but the white is spreading throughout my hair — and that’s kind of cool. It’s what my hair should be doing. I don’t have to dye my hair, unlike the young girls. It’s popular for now and that will pass of course, even though in other cultures, gray hair indicates wisdom and strength. That’s what it suggests to me.

imagesI love gray, and have to work pretty hard for it in every area other than my hair. The first part of my life was spent among people who were completely black and white about being completely black and white. The literal and frequently shouted family motto was “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” It wasn’t a joke, it wasn’t ambiguous, it wasn’t unstated, it wasn’t a suggestion, it wasn’t a sometimes thing. Besides that sentence, the most often-used words were always and never, and few sentences passed without one or both of those words. ‘Very’ made a frequent appearance too. It wasn’t enough to be “always wrong” when you could be “always very wrong.” Completely. Absolutely. 100%. That was my earliest training; I don’t remember any thought or life before black and white, so for me, every gray step has to be thoughtfully taken, worked for. It’s like if you grew up being told that the sky was called “orange ocean” and tree was called “car” and blue was called “milk,” and that’s how you were taught from birth to age 18, and then suddenly you learned that all of it was crazy wrong.

graySome things really are black and white. Black, for instance. White, for example. Otherwise, isn’t it all some shade of gray? What is always or never true? What experience is wholly one thing? What memory is 100% without a shadow of a doubt absolutely what we recall? (Assuming we recall it at all, which is increasingly my problem.) Given that, it’s strange that gray isn’t our evolutionary default . . . but it doesn’t seem to be. We don’t seem to default toward complexity as our starting point, as our basic understanding of things. Our brain evolved toward the creation of basic categories and our quick judgments toss things and people into the biggest possible box. Bird. Black person. Gay person. Cat. Chair. We get befuddled when we encounter the gray and can’t immediately place it. Is that a man or a woman??? Is she black or brown or white or what? What would you call that, a couch or a chair? No really, what would you call it?

Gray also gets right at the heart of my idea about the power of the word and instead of but. “I love you and want you to go out with women friends and it makes me feel insecure and scared.” How different is that from “I love you and want you to go out with women friends but ….”  When we replace the word but with and (which I think we could reasonably do 80-90% of the time) we get closer to the truth, which is usually kind of messy and conflicted. I am against the death penalty. As long as it wasn’t my little daughter who was raped and murdered. Conflicted truth. Before my son came out, I had zero conflict around gay people, and would’ve said that stupid thing, “Some of my best friends are gay.” But then having this appear in my house revealed all kinds of subterranean and previously unexamined thoughts and feelings that I’d absorbed during my ignorant childhood. I’d never had to dig them up before, so I’m grateful I had to do that. Truth, whether it’s some idea of truth ‘out there’ or truth deep inside our minds and hearts, is surely almost never black or white.

So much thought and conversation is black and white. It always kills me in New York when a New Yorker says that X (something that happens elsewhere, by which they usually mean in Texas) just doesn’t happen here. Racism doesn’t happen here. Sexism doesn’t happen here. Homophobia, nope not here. Smart women are all just out and smart and it’s never a problem, no not here in New York, you won’t find that here. Ignorance, that doesn’t happen here. I sit in disbelief when a New Yorker says something like that to me. For the longest time I would get really pissed off and then get loud and equally obnoxious, and usually sarcastic. For the longest time, I collected examples — oh really? So what was that noose someone hung on the black professor’s office door at Columbia, then? Oh really? So how do you explain that gay kid who was beaten within an inch of his life downtown? (The answer was usually something like, “Well, the person who did that wasn’t a New Yorker.”) Then for a long time I felt silent contempt and pity because they were being so stupid and provincial. Now I pause and remember that I too am stupid in my own ways, even if it’s not about this specific thing. We all are at one time or another, about our own things.

I still struggle with black and white responses, and always feel a big relief when I realize what I’ve been doing. For several days in a row, and coming on the heels of my vacation when it was also very hard to keep it up, I skipped doing yoga. Every day it was reasonable: I’d walked 10 miles and was tired. It was a flying day and by the time I had a chance, it was very late. I was rushing to get everything done and didn’t have enough time even to get through half of my must-do list. When a day came around that allowed me to carve out time and return to the mat, I first had my usual old thought: oh well, too late now, I’ve blown it. I pushed myself anyway, changed into my yoga clothes, unrolled the mat in NYC, pulled up a session I’d done before, and it was hard. Oh no! See? I’ve blown it. I’ve lost ground, might as well give up. Thank heavens for gray . . . because I remembered that what mattered was doing yoga, giving myself that discipline, that reward, that movement, that stillness, not that I keep doing more, harder, longer. So I found a session that was at a lower level and that was 30 minutes instead of an hour.

The only gray I’m not really crazy about is gray skies, after a day or two. Otherwise, more gray, more gray, more gray. Happy Saturday, I hope it’s not gray skies where you are (it’s sunny here in NYC), and I hope you have a wonderful weekend planned. xx

not in an obsessional way

Someone my husband knows learned that he had a melanoma on his cheek. Fortunately, it was discovered very quickly and removed, and he is in no real danger. It left me thinking about the fact that the melanoma had been there, growing, getting ready to bloom, before it was discovered. And that left me thinking about the possibility that a cell inside me somewhere just took a left turn. Maybe something has shifted just enough that I am now on a path I’m unaware of. Perhaps some day I will be looking backwards, wondering just how long the thing had been happening and I wasn’t aware of it. And perhaps today is that day, the day it began.

beginnings and endings, arbitrarily picked in an actually seamless experience
beginnings and endings, arbitrarily picked in an actually seamless experience

This could be seen as a really bizarre and probably hypochondriacal concern — an obsession, maybe — and I do know people (*coughmyhusband) who can be that way. I don’t feel any anxiety over it; this is more a curiosity, a fascination with the seamlessness of life. As I sit here typing this on Tuesday afternoon, watching the windy day out my French doors, enjoying the beautiful day, something is being born and something is dying. It’s true within me, it’s true outside me, it’s true everywhere. As I sit here at this moment many families are around the beds of someone dying, maybe someone they dearly love. As I sit here, babies are being born, lives are just getting started on this beautiful spring day.

Perhaps the truck that is going to crash into me just drove off the car lot with a new owner, and he is beginning the [perhaps] very long and circuitous road that will eventually put him at odds with me. Perhaps at the last minute he decides to take a short cut and that last-minute change is what puts him on the road to me.

Perhaps something I wrote and submitted to a contest is floating in the judges’ minds, the piece of writing against which the others are being compared, and as I sit here typing the judges are realizing that my piece is the one that will win the $1500 prize. And perhaps that prize-winning piece will lead me to other publishing opportunities and people enjoy reading my writing enough that my life changes direction. Perhaps that is in the air, in their minds, right at this moment.

Perhaps the guy who is responsible for the triple-washing of the “power greens” (spinach, chard, and kale) I buy had a rough night  because his wife decided to leave him, so he drank too much and wasn’t paying attention, so some of the greens don’t get washed before they’re packaged. Perhaps those unwashed greens make their way to my HEB and are now sitting in my refrigerator. Perhaps they have just a smidge of e. coli and tomorrow my smoothie will be delivering a prolonged bout of misery.

Perhaps his wife decided to leave him because she had fallen in love with someone else, because they had married too young and she just didn’t know herself. Perhaps she married too young because she wanted to get away from home, and perhaps she wanted to get away from home because her father, who had also married too young, drank too much and made her home life hellish. Perhaps her father had married too young because he got his girlfriend pregnant.

Perhaps at the beginning of my prolonged e. coli-induced misery, I run to the bathroom and fall and break my hip. Perhaps I am hospitalized for a long time and my business falters. Perhaps in my prolonged hospitalization with a broken hip I develop pneumonia and the now more-prolonged hospitalization turns out to be the beginning of the end. Perhaps I become so frail I die. 

So perhaps I die because three generations ago a young man somewhere very far away from me got his girlfriend pregnant.

I love this stuff. Of course this pretend storytelling is presented in a linear way, but the reality of it is anything but linear. Lives all around each actor in the chain are affected by the lives around them.  And yet we insist — with great certainty — that we know why you did this thing, why that thing happened. Well, that happened because you weren’t paying attention! Or, that happened because I was distracted by the sun in my eyes! That’s why! That happened, I responded that way, because you were a jerk when you did this other thing. That’s why! And here I sit in apparent great good health and happiness, planning my future with blind belief, completely unaware that the illness that will perhaps kill me has started doing its thing.

It cracks me up, in a not-at-all obsessional way, in a not-at-all gloomy way. Happy Wednesday, everyone. xoxo

oh, and p.s. In the lovely memoir I’m editing, written by a poet, is this wonderful bit by John Keats, which seems somehow appropriate here, and to so many of my posts:

Negative Capability: that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

we’re never one thing

I don’t need to tell you that I’m pretty open. It’s a conscious decision, a carefully-thought-through position. And yet that doesn’t mean I reveal everything, of course. I keep others’ secrets . . . you cannot possibly imagine how hard it was not to reveal that Katie was pregnant, since so many of you were there for us through the last tragic year after we lost Gracie, and since you would ask me, with great kindness off-line, if she was pregnant yet. You were holding such hope, such care, offering prayers and good thoughts, and it was so hard to keep her secret. But it was Katie’s to tell, Katie’s and Trey’s to hold, and so obviously, I kept that secret.

You know I’ve had a cold, wah wah wah I whine about it. Ugh I feel bad. Oy this cold. Yuck it’s so gross. Going to sleep early, thank you NyQuil. But otherwise I’ve been my regular old self, feeling grateful and happy, thinking about things, processing stuff that happens, glorying in the good and trying to make sense of the difficult. It seems I am an open book.

But I’m sad, too. I’m very sad, and feel heartbroken that my son Will keeps himself away from us. I think about him almost all the time. Everything makes me think of him, and especially here at the holidays, as we all gather together, I feel so very sad that he won’t respond to us, that he continues to be a jerk. He’s just right there in NY, we reach out over and over and over, and once in a blue moon he’ll grant me a visitation. Once in a blue moon he’ll respond to Katie. He hurts us over and over, but he is our son and brother, he stays in our heart as the boy we knew and loved, even if he is now a man we barely know. He will forever be my son, he will forever be their brother, but he does not seem to want to be in our family.

2003, the last time we were all together at Christmas. Ten years ago.
2003, the last time we were all together at Christmas. Ten years ago.

Katie wrote so very eloquently about driving to the hospital to deliver Gracie and looking at people in the cars next to them and . . . . well, let me just share her words from her public blog because I can’t possibly do them justice:

As we drove to the hospital the morning of my induction, I tried to look at the faces of the people in the cars around us.  The faces in our car were washed in heartbreak and loss.  It was the worst day in our lives.  What about the car next to us?  What’s happening in their life today?  Did they just lose someone they loved? Did they lose their job? Did a loved one just get a cancer diagnosis?  Are they driving like a maniac because their child is sick?  Everyone is nursing some kind of pain.  Everyone is broken in some way.  Be kind to the people around you.  You never know what their life is like and what your kindness will mean.  Be kind.

And this was on my mind today. Yesterday morning in response to a non-political Facebook post, a friend went political and even after I said I was not taking a political position, this friend continued. To her, it was just an interaction, nothing more and certainly not intended to hurt or upset me. To me, though, I feel fragile and it felt harsh and more than I was up for, although she didn’t know how low I was feeling. I have been sick — very small potatoes, of course, just a cold, but I am alone here and have been wishing someone were here to take care of me and make soup for me.  I am so very grateful that Marnie and Tom are coming from Chicago for the holidays, and Katie is pregnant with our little Oliver, and we will all be together . . . but not with Will. I’ll glow with the joy of being with my wonderful daughters and their wonderful husbands and I will feel the hole that is Will’s absence, and I don’t even expect that we will be allowed to speak to him on Christmas. He certainly won’t call us, and if we call him he won’t answer the phone. It’s very painful to a mother’s heart, and I am always aware of it. Always. When I’m smiling, when I’m laughing, when I’m lost in an experience, when I’m bathing a mama elephant in a river in Sri Lanka, that pain is always there.

And so you interact with me and I’m laughing, I have opinions and things to say, good things happen and I share them with joy, difficult things happen and I try my best to make sense and integrate, ordinary boring time happens and I pass it as you do. We spend time together and I am so damn glad to get to be with you. I have a lot going on, more loving friends than most and more wonderful opportunities than many and a pretty great life. But don’t think that’s the whole story; it isn’t for me, and it isn’t for anyone. As Anne Lamott said, “the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the  emergency ward, and we, who are more or less OK for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people, you bring them juice and graham crackers.”

That is the thing. We are all patients in the emergency ward; maybe not right at this exact moment, but something hurts, there is some unspoken secret, some dark worry, some sharp pain, some unnoticed-by-others silence. Everyone is dealing with something. We just don’t have the spare attention to keep this in mind all the time, and we can’t, really. And we probably shouldn’t, or we wouldn’t ever get anything done, we’d be too busy trying to consider everyone’s everything.

But if you have a moment, it’s always worth remembering that every single person you encounter has something else in their heart and you just may have no idea what they’re dealing with. As Katie said, be kind. As Kurt Vonnegut said, be kind babies. It’s the only real rule. You can never go wrong.

be kind

the totality

icebergIt’s not like I don’t get it — the iceberg as Freudian symbol of the psyche. Yeah, got it, all that submerged stuff that motivates us, and the deeper and deeper and darkerzzzzzz…..

As a metaphor, the iceberg works for other concepts too, and I think about it quite often as I write here (and this is my 1,202nd post, good grief). I am pretty open, obviously, and share my emotional life freely. Well, some of it. I keep a goodly portion private, for myself, and some is private just for particular people in my real life. So even though it seems like I’m an open book (er, iceberg in this story?), there is just SO much more that’s not visible. So much more. Like, most of it.

I have an ex-friend in New York who never could seem to grasp that life is complex. She’d ask me a specific question about some aspect of my life and I’d answer it — not trying to dissemble, or act as if I’d just told her the whole of everything. So she’d ask, I’d answer. And then another time, her question would be slightly different (or my situation would have shifted in some way) so my answer would reflect another bit of the whole truth and she’d say, “But that’s not what you said last time! You said the answer was THIS, but now you’re saying THAT!” It used to drive me mad.  There are very few questions that have narrowly delineated and fixed answers — and when the questions are about people and relationships, wowie. It’s impossible to give a single answer because reality is chunky and amorphous and shifts and some is deep and some is exposed and sometimes things shift but it’s not like this wasn’t true the last time too, GOOD GRIEF. (Hallelujah for friends with complex minds and hearts.)

Which is a long, roundabout way of saying this. Like yours, my life always has so many things happening, and some things are good (and some of those are not ready for sharing) and some things are bad (and some of those are not ready for sharing) and when the time is right to share they will be well-developed, perhaps they’ll have been going on a long time by that point. Last year at the end of October, in the immediate wake of Gracie’s death, I wrote about the farcical nature of language, that life is all there like a sky full of balloons but to start speaking you have to grab one thing and pull it down and try to say that thing . . . but you actually have a sky full of balloons. This is why I often get a deer-in-the-headlights look when someone asks me so how’re you doing? Well, I’m great! And I’m terrified! And I’m lost. And I’m happy. And I’m heartbroken. And I’m busy. And I’m anxious. How am I doing? Can you be more specific? (I mean, I can do the shallow ‘fine’ thing for a small talk chat, of course.)

My post yesterday spoke of a whirlwind of trouble around me and that’s true. Those troubling things swirling around me are true. And those of you who spotted a couple of things and contacted me off-line, oh thank you for that so very much. You were there in the post too, at the bottom, where I peered through those troubles and saw you waving at me from the shore. And then — and this is just so you — you tossed me a rope, too. You sent me love, you offered soup. There are a couple of deeply wonderful things perking along in the background and one day before too long — next month, maybe — they’ll be mine to tell. There are troubles perking along in the background too, of course. And you know? A whole lot of boring crap. 🙂 Because this is life.