Letters as a Meditation

If we are friends on Facebook you might be aware of my daily “Creekside Chat” videos. I’m really enjoying making them — just a few minutes of conversation about something, and a reading on Sundays — because they give me a feeling of conversation with friends. This morning I talked about something that I thought I’d mention here, because I had a lot more thought about it than I mentioned in that short video. (I do try to keep those short, three minutes or so, but sometimes they stretch to five and I don’t want to push that.)

I’ve mentioned this here before, too, so I’ll just briefly mention it and move forward. Several years ago in the context of a personal restoration project, for 40 days I wrote an email to a different person in my life, telling them what they meant to me. It turned out to be a much bigger gift to me than to the 40 people who received surprise emails, although their responses showed me what a gift it was to them, to hear what they meant to someone . . . and that’s a gift I know too, from the times it has happened to me.

But you know, there are all kinds of people in our lives. When I was talking, in my Creekside Chat, I started thinking about my dad when I talked about the importance of knowing what we mean to others. For the briefest moment I had the automatic cliched thought we have about suicides — oh, if only he’d known what he meant to us maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself. But so quickly on the heels of that thought came the truth: he was a nightmare in my life. I was pregnant with my first child and knew that I couldn’t allow him to be alone with her, ever, and that was going to be awful, handling that. He wore me out, calling me drunk in the middle of nights ready to kill himself, me dancing as fast as I could trying once again to talk him out of it. His not-at-all contained rage and fury, terrorizing all of us. He broke his wife’s arm in their last fight. He spent his entire adult life trying to die, and it often felt like he wanted to take out as many people as he could in the effort. I very barely survived him, and it took me more than 30 years after his death to recover from the 23 years he was in my life.

As we drove the five hours from Austin to Tyler, the day he killed himself, his sister and I were complaining bitterly about him because we knew he was going to ruin their mother’s birthday (and of course he did — he killed himself on her birthday, a second act of cruelty to go along with the note he left blaming me). We said we wished he’d just go ahead and do it. We meant that. I meant that.

And of course he is the most extreme example of what I’m getting at, but the fact is that I couldn’t possibly write a letter to him that would feel good to him, and be honest. It would be a kind of ‘damning with faint praise’ thing. When my stepfather was dying, in prison, I was able to write a letter to him, a very brief one, and I thanked him for sneaking a milkshake to me once when Mother forbid me to have any food because I was a fat cow. He did that at great personal risk. Since he had written me a note asking forgiveness for the years of rape, and he gave me a small gift he’d made in prison, I found it (shockingly) simple enough to forgive, and to write that letter. It felt like quite a thing, that out of the 20+ years of knowing him, I had only one very small thing to say thanks for, but it was very heartfelt, my gratitude for that milkshake. I had remembered it for decades.

In a much more ordinary way, there are people in our lives whose friendship is fraught in ways that would make it harder to write an email of gratitude — like the no-longer-friend who relished my trouble and resented my happiness. Because, you know, we all have friendships of varying depth, or varying closeness. We have friends we count on in times of trouble, friends who really see us, friends who are just light and somewhere between acquaintance and friend, friends who we just expect to listen to because they have no interest in listening to us, friends whose gifts come with such very long strings that you want to refuse them. I’m thinking about taking up my daily email project again, and thinking about this more difficult category of friend, in particular — thinking about how hard it would be to find enough of substance to say in an email. But maybe there is greatest value in writing those emails, in particular. Maybe for me, having to really dig deep and look, and think; having to search a little harder; maybe that will help me value those friendships more. (Or maybe the effort will help me let go of the relationships!) And maybe for those individuals, receiving an email that came from a deeper search — that will locate those core gifts — will be more meaningful than the easier emails that relish the loud, visible gifts. I don’t know, but I’m thinking about it.

Dixie (and her mother) calls this “giving flowers to the living,” which is the whole idea in five simple words — why I’m not a poet, I need hundreds when five do the job so beautifully. That’s a great aim for today. You don’t have to do the deep hard work of finding words for the more difficult person today. Just today, just with an easy person, maybe, tell them what they mean to you. Tell them the gift they are to your life. Tell them in writing, so they can keep it. I’m still glowing from the note I found waiting for me when I woke up, and I will glow all day long. When my memory fades, as it’s guaranteed to do because ME-NOW, I can open it and read it again.

Yep. I think I’m going to start writing those letters again. I’d love to have your email address. If you don’t have mine, there’s an envelope icon in the right sidebar (in the “Find me elsewhere!” section) you can click on to email me.

xoxoxo

The Time of Big Days

Ordinarily, days are ordinary. You make the coffee and make the bed. Do your work. Interact here and there. Make meals. Relax however you do. Turn in for the night. If you’re a small-pleasures-seeking person, you seek them, you notice the moments, the clouds drifting, the shadow on the wall, the ladybug, the sound of the beans grinding and the smell of the coffee. You go through the day in a kind of emotional neutral, interrupted by small spikes of pleasure or frustration, and you’ve learned ways to manage the onslaught of daily trauma by the Republicans. (If you’re me, you’re doing that mostly by shutting out all forms of media that will put it in your face. Ostrich mode.)

My days aren’t ordinary now, and I keep thinking of how unordinary they were when I moved here. How for a month we’d gone through all the terribleness — the shock of the phone call from Katie, Gracie died, we didn’t know why; the horror of Katie’s labor and delivery; the disbelief of their homecoming without her; the numbing arrangement of a funeral; the funeral itself, and a few days later her cremation; everyone drifting home; me leaving and not knowing how I could do that; and then back in New York and the shock of divorce, and moving back to Austin within a month of Gracie’s death, and starting all over, and and and and and. Big giant days, unbearable emotions, each day a tsunami of such intense emotion it was exhausting. As someone told me during those days, you just get tired of feeling so much.

This couldn’t be more different — it isn’t tragic, it isn’t permanent loss, it isn’t unexpected upending of anything, but boy are the days big, and filled with intense emotion. Last night I thought about how one of these days, when I’m settled into my Big Indian palace, I’d return to the more boring days, the kind where small pleasures are sought against a background of ordinary. But first, I have to touch all my places, sit across tables from people I have loved so dearly.

A farewell dinner with Lynn — at the same restaurant where we first met, so special to me that she thought of that. She is one of my DEEP sisters in the world, I have a few, and we will always know and love each other.
This picture was published in the Austin Chronicle, perfect with the capitol in the background. This protest was the most powerful protest I’ve ever participated in, and I’m still being affected by it. There is something potent about dressing in that costume, something very LOUD and yet also it’s self-negating. Protest is not about self, anyway, but dressing alike (and in THAT recognizable costume, especially) makes it even less about yourself . . . which contributes to the confusion I feel about how deeply personal it was, nevertheless. That’s me on the front, right.
Texas Republicans would put us in handmaid garb if they could get away with it. It’s unbelievable what they are doing. Thank God for these women, and all the others who will keep fighting.
We stood silently, pointing at each legislative chamber. Our silence was so powerful, and then we went to the rotunda and shouted SHAME SHAME SHAME for 10 minutes. I still shiver, remembering it.

My first protest as a Texas resident was in support of women’s right to choose; Wendy Davis had just completed her famous filibuster, and I gathered with thousands of women wearing orange, around the capitol. I am so proud that my first and last protest here was for the rights of women to self-determination. That fills me with pride and it means a lot to me that Marnie is proud of me. But oof a big day, because the handmaid protest was in the morning and then my poetry group gathered for what turned out to be a party — and I’m so gullible, and was SO not expecting it, that I believed them when they said the food was in the clubhouse for some other event. My place is in such disarray, and I sold my dining table and chairs, so George kindly hosted us in the clubhouse of his condo complex, a very beautiful setting filled with people who have enriched my life beyond belief. I just can’t even really talk about it yet.

Here we all are — starting from me, bottom center, and going clockwise: George, David, Marilyn, Rebecca, Hadiya, and Nick. These people. <3
Rebecca took some pictures and she just caught the spirit of our time together. Here are David, George, and Marilyn, reading along while someone reads a poem aloud. We really love poetry, and this kind of engrossed experience was our norm.
And here are Nick, me, and Hadiya, engrossed in the poem. Seriously. How much they have given me.

I’m glad Rebecca is in the group selfie since she’s not in the other shots. I wasn’t sure I could say goodbye to everyone, so I just kept trying over and over. A rambly, teary farewell to the group, a hug and goodbye to each person individually, and a clinging by my heart to the wonder of what happened with us, over the last 4.5 years.

Last night was the last meeting I’ll join of a new book club I’d recently formed a few months ago, women who share my politics and who I met in Pantsuit Nation. They will continue on, but it was my last night to sit among them and talk about the book (we actually did that! We talked about the books we read!), to rail about politics, to share information and support in this political insanity, and then to talk about other books we’re reading. It was such a great group, I loved every meeting and I will miss them so much. Today I am having afternoon tea with George, who has been such a good friend to me over the years. I’m sure I will find it hard to get in my car afterwards and drive away. We will always be friends, all these people, it’s not that. But it is farewell to a moment, to an experience, to a specific kind of connection that we had and oh how much it meant to me.

Then tomorrow I get to babysit Lucy while Katie accompanies Oliver on a school field trip, how precious that will be, and Saturday I have a late lunch with Deb, another deep sister. I will be so thrilled to leave this hateful state with its cruel politics, but oh the people. As I say on the About the Queen page, I am rootless, geographically, but I’m very rooted, people-wise. I will never lose these people, and they will stay in my heart with the same strength they have today — but oh it’s hard to have these ‘lasts.’ It isn’t that I mind the hardness; I’ll take it any day, because it’s evidence of the bond. Many still to come, some I can hardly bear to think about, but I’ll cross them as they come.

<3 <3 <3

the goodness

diamondsIn Sierra Leone, when the British first came in and started the diamond mines, the people in the area didn’t know much about diamonds, and they certainly didn’t yet know their worth. After a rainfall, the ground would glitter as small diamonds were brought to the surface; the people thought it was bits of stars fallen to the ground. But the NDMC quickly instructed people to draw circles around those sparkles on the ground and not to touch them, and then they would retrieve them. Rob them. Soon the people were punished if they took one….off their own ground.

But that’s a powerful image, the ground glittering with small diamonds. I edited a memoir of a man who grew up in a tiny impoverished village in Sierra Leone, and he described that with such beauty and pathos, the image stays with me and likely will for a long time.

It came to mind earlier this year when from all over the world, people who know me reached out to help me when I was in the midst of an intense and prolonged period of insomnia — I didn’t sleep at all for four days, remember? No one could do anything about it, including me, but people sent small bits of help, glittering bits of help, light-catching bits of help.

  • Since I’d recently written about needing my spirits lifted because of the political discourse, a beautiful friend in Connecticut (who has been really quite generous and amazing and caring as long as I’ve known her) started love bombing me on Facebook, with one funny thing after another, chosen because she knows me and what I like, and sent one after another beautiful thing, another and another good thing in the world, spirit-restoring in so many ways. Love bombing is incredible.
  • I received middle of the night texts from a couple of friends, so caring and personal. It surprised me that people would reach out to me like that. Surprising that he would be so gentle and caring. Surprising that she would tell me just the right thing. Not surprising about them, but surprising to me that I was valuable enough to them to reach out in those ways.
  • In the midst of that period of terrible insomnia it was free donut day at Krispy Kreme. I mentioned it on Facebook and said if anyone’s going out, and would be in my neighborhood… It was a joke, just funny I thought, since I have a reputation around donuts. And then a friend texted me — hey, we’re bringing you some really good coffee cake. I know it’s not donuts, but it’s good, you’ll enjoy it. Seriously? I couldn’t believe it, and felt so cared for.

Diamonds all around me. And some of the things shared by the first friend I mentioned also restored me from my political despair; yes, people are still good, people still care about others including those who can’t do anything for them.

this was Marnie, when we lived in New Britain -- easy to understand why Marjorie fell for her!
this was Marnie, when we lived in New Britain — easy to understand why Marjorie fell for her!

But I’ve always found this to be true, haven’t you? Goodness all around, people willing to reach their hands out when you reach out yours. People ready to help you however they can. I remember when we moved to New Britain, CT, when Will was 3 months old, Marnie was 2, and Katie was 5, and we had nothing. And less than no money, it was a terrible time. My kids didn’t have winter clothes, and we couldn’t afford to buy them. But I met one woman, Marjorie, who was the crossing guard at Katie’s elementary school. She fell hard in love with little Marnie, and she became a friend. As the weather started to get colder, Marjorie started bringing clothes. Her friends, her church, she’d mentioned us and people gave. My kids had all the winter clothes they needed, and we felt surrounded by care — and not just that, care from people we never met, people who’d never met US.

Little diamonds glittering all around, as far as the eye can see. And you people never let me forget it, you diamonds, you, with your texts and messages and notes and little touches and constant care.

xoxoxox

the bright side

Some of the recent events of my life have made me think of this specific lyric:

Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true

But then, since it’s such a catchy tune, the rest of the song shows up:

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I mean, the whole song is on the money. Life IS a piece of shit. Absolute shit happens to good people, to loved ones, and you can’t do a damn thing about it except show up. Unfair things happen and yet no one ever said any of this is fair. Tragedy befalls people, they lose everything, a simple step off a curb turns into the end of it all, a quick trip to the grocery store is the last trip ever made, he suddenly leaves her with no warning, or she suddenly leaves him. A little cough, or an ache in the side, turns out to be the big bad thing and you never saw it coming. A little kid is born into a family that will brutalize and then kill her. Another little kid is born in a refugee camp. Another little kid is trying to stay alive in some other dread setting . . . and the handful of people who own everything don’t give a shit — and in fact, blame those people if you can parse their bullshit language.

But the other part of the song is on the money too! There is a bright side. We show up for each other, again and again and again. We show up even though (maybe especially though) there isn’t anything we can do. There isn’t anything we can say. If you think about it, isn’t that what makes it remarkable? That despite our misery over being unable to fix things for people we love, we show up anyway. I just find that so overwhelming at times, I cry in wonder.

Something surprising and bad happens, and people call. People write and say, “I have this access, how can I help?” Or “I’ve had this experience, let me share what I learned.” Or “I know someone, let me hook you up with her.” Or a complete stranger writes, “Our mutual friend told me, let me help because the same thing happened to me.” Or “Let me have all the books on this topic shipped to you, what’s your address?” Or “I love you.”

I think THAT is the bright side. Sometimes it’s dark and sometimes it gets even darker, and then sometimes you only thought it was dark but it gets darker still. The bright side is that people are all around you, and some may have been in this dark place already, and most haven’t but they’ll go inside with you, so you don’t have to be there all by yourself.

darknessIs anything really different? Isn’t the Big Bad Thing still there? It is.

Is anything really different? YES. You aren’t there alone.

 

Thank you to everyone who reads this for keeping me company. Sometimes you stand in the light with me, and sometimes you show up when it’s dark. Even if all you do is read my words, you are showing up with me. One thing I never quite get is that people comment on my honesty, my willingness to be vulnerable — and the reason I don’t get it is that I’m not doing anything that’s at all hard, or that requires courage, or that is in any way noteworthy to me because it’s just how I am, in the same way that I’m tall and have brown hair and blue eyes and a great big smile. So take this honesty as truth . . . ok, maybe just my truth but I don’t think so: Just showing up for someone is everything. Don’t be afraid to do that because “you don’t know what to say.” Sometimes there simply isn’t anything to say, and if there were don’t you think they’d have said it already? Show up anyway. Sometimes there isn’t anything to do, and sometimes what there is to do feels so insignificant that you feel embarrassed to offer. Show up anyway. Offer the insignificant help anyway. Show up for family, for friends, for acquaintances, for strangers. Show up willing not to have answers, not to fix things, but simply to be there.

Today is my son’s 29th birthday, and another time when he won’t respond to my birthday wishes. Last Sunday was another Mother’s Day I didn’t hear from him. Today marks another year of his absence from the life of our family. I grieve without the finality of grief — grateful for the fact that nothing is final! What there is to say has already been said to me (and by me, for that matter). I’m so sad, it’s hard to bear it but I will. The troubles that are befalling my friends and my loved ones are hard to accept, and my inability to make it all OK is hard to bear but I will. It’s what there is to do.

xoxoxoxoxo

1: Cultivate Honorable Relationships

This is topic #1 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. The 16 items on that list are described as ‘resolutions,’ but I’m not taking them in that way. I mean, I kind of am incidentally, in that these are all concepts that I believe are worth reaching for, and as a result of reading and thinking for this project, my efforts will be clearer. Maybe not much closer to an ideal, maybe a little closer, but never perfect, seeing as how I’m fully human.

rich_liesThe funny thing (to me) about this topic is that Maria Popova, the woman behind the site, focused her attention exclusively on a single essay by Adrienne Rich, published in a collection called On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. This is a collection of prose, not poetry, and it’s almost entirely addressing issues of feminism, the place of lesbians in that concern and in the larger world, political aspects of the feminist movement. The Brain Pickings page presented this quote by Rich, which is easily found everywhere:

An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

The post didn’t indicate which specific essay contained these words, so I started off trying to guess by reading chapter titles, and finally found the right one after reading ~70% of the book. To save you the time, in case you also want to read the essay, it’s titled “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” (1975) [apparently available here in pdf!]. As the title suggests, the entire essay centers around lying, and Rich is harsh, as far as I’m concerned, beginning so many sentences with “The liar …” does this, feels that, does the other. Her definition of liar is stark — the moment you say anything that isn’t the bald truth, and no matter the reason, you are a liar. She means to be addressing the ways women have developed slippery ways, often passive ways, to explain things out of fear of partners, institutions, culture, but it’s hard to hold that in mind when you are yourself apparently a liar. Because who isn’t, by her definition? Even if you are lying to literally save your life, she says you are a liar. It’s a very good essay; I argued with it in places and then she’d win me over, and then she’d say something provocative and I’d bristle and then I’d see she was right.

She ends on a much softer note about lying and the honorable relationship, and I can totally get behind this:

It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us. The possibility of life between us.

I began to feel confused about the very concept of an “honorable” relationship, even as I generally think yeah, that’s a good thing. But it’s surely more than speaking only the bald truth — or at least most of the time wanting to do that, apparently. I understand her need, in 1975, to be speaking in such hard terms, and she wasn’t actually addressing all human close relationships. She was focused entirely and exclusively on relationships between women; but why doesn’t that apply to all relationships? An honorable relationship is an honorable relationship. There is surely a hierarchy (coming back to what I even mean by honorable in a minute); we just can’t have the same goals for our monthly relationship with the barista at Starbucks as we have with our partner, children, parents.

And so I return to my curiosity about the sole focus on this one 40-year-old essay that was written to be presented at a writer’s workshop in Oneonta, New York (and was later published in a pamphlet). It isn’t the responsibility of Maria Popova/Brain Pickings to present exhaustive thoughts on topics like this, of course, but it does make me curious. So I started thinking: more broadly, what is an honorable relationship? What does it mean to be honorable? Before I turned to dictionaries and other books, I just thought. Honorable means you keep your word. You don’t betray people, and you don’t tell others the things they have told you in confidence. You are honest, yes, but maybe it’s the search for honesty together, and support for each person individually, that makes one honorable. Whatever your relationship is with a person, you are reliable in that way. But how is this different from just being a good person? Is honorable synonymous with good?

The definitions were of no help: “bringing or worthy of honor,” more or less, but the synonyms were helpful: honest, moral, ethical, principled, righteous, right-minded; decent, respectable, estimable, virtuous, good, upstanding, upright, worthy, noble, fair, just, truthful, trustworthy, law-abiding, reliable, reputable, creditable, dependable. And what do you know, the first listed synonym is honest. Maybe this ‘resolution’ should instead be “Cultivate honest relationships.”

Maybe Rich was right and my own definition reveals my difficulty with being fully honest. I found very little that talks about honorable relationships; I found a couple of websites that dealt with being an honorable person, and one focused immediately and heavily on honesty. Everything else I found was pointedly Christian, and I don’t have anything against it but I’m curious about this idea outside of dogma.

I can believe that an honorable relationship is one in which both people are honest with each other, but that is a difficult topic, “honest,” and not just because it’s hard for me. What does it mean to be honest? Bald unvarnished truth 24/7? Essentially, what I found focuses on being honest about who you are, about not pretending to be one thing while being another, about trying your best (and the relationship being strong enough to facilitate) to tell your own truth and not fear the outcome beyond experiencing a difficult interaction (-ish). I mean, you ought to be able to say how it is for you without fear of being physically or emotionally hurt, without being attacked for it or mocked or betrayed, and without being punished. How it is for you might be pretty awful for the other person, so there may be hard times afterwards, hard conversations, maybe even hard consequences, but they occur within a safe space. But is that an honorable relationship? That feels like such a narrow definition.

To cultivate an honorable relationship with very close friends, I expect these things of myself (red star indicates a place I have a lot of work to do):

  • doing what I say I’ll do
  • not betraying the person in any way, large or small
  • apologizing (meaningfully) when I am wrong or have made a mistake
  • not deceiving the other person (except maybe about a surprise party for them?), but especially about who I am and how I am feeling where they and important people and issues are concerned.*

That red asterisk, my hardest thing. Isn’t that funny? Because I seem to be extremely honest, willing to share things about myself that others keep hidden. But that’s not the source of my dishonesty. I find it very easy to be who I really am, usually. And yet there are exceptions, and they’re not good.

  • When I am afraid. Well, that doesn’t seem so bad, right? People are not honest if they’re afraid, it might be a bad idea! One big problem for me is that I am overly vigilant about fear. And once I feel afraid, I can’t be honest any more. Since I too-easily feel afraid, there you go. Problem.
  • This is a close corollary but has its own orbit: When I feel that a person isn’t trustworthy. I over-trust, and too quickly, and then when something happens it’s all over, that’s it. So if a person uses something I’ve said against me, well, no more trust! If someone is passive-aggressive toward me consistently, no more trust. And so I won’t reveal important things any more. If you really hurt me and fail to take responsibility — and especially if you then gaslight me about it? That’s it. Not only will be trust be gone, but our relationship will diminish pretty substantially.

Even though my darling friends don’t do those things, or do them so rarely that it’s incidental and immediately overlookable (because we are all real people), I know two people (probably three) with whom I believe I can be completely honest. Say whatever is true, reveal anything about myself, have conflict with them, and it’s always going to be OK. It’s that honorable relationship described by Rich, although I would never have characterized that as an “honorable” relationship. I might call it a true relationship, a fully honest relationship, a home, a safe space, and those relationships are more precious to me than I can say, especially since (aside from my kids) I’ve never had them until I moved here to Austin. [Coincidentally, these few relationships are with people I don’t have to wear my bra with. 😉 ] [Also coincidentally (not), this possibility really comes from the other people rather than from me, so I am grateful to them.]

Rich was right about this: we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us. And that’s not a slam against anyone at all! Our connections with each other live within and between the two of us in relationship, and that space can’t exist with others because it is of us. So the connection I feel with a person can’t be the same connection you feel, even though the person is the same to us both.

I don’t think I’m any nearer to understanding how to define or explain an “honorable relationship,” although replacing honorable with honest clarifies it. Maybe we all have to define this ourselves, and decide whether this specific construction is central to us. To me, the word honorable still focuses most heavily on keeping my word, holding secrets, and not betraying in any way, but after studying this, and thinking hard about Rich’s definition, I’ll loop honesty into the concept a little more pointedly. I want to be more readily honest with people in my close circle, I do, it isn’t that I want to be deceptive. My big challenge with this part of the equation is speaking up when something is wrong for me and it involves you in some way, or I fear you may have an aggressive reaction. YIKES. Not good not good danger Will Robinson. But the point of the topic, the ‘resolution’ is to CULTIVATE honorable relationships, and however I define that term, cultivating it is a process. I can undertake that process, try as hard as I can to be honestly and more fully myself with people I consider friends, feed relationships that have this potential and release my clasp on those that don’t. If I engage this process for a year, I will learn — to some degree — how to be more honest with people I love.

[that is so scary]

And now, off to #2: Resist absentminded busyness which centers on Kierkegaardian philosophies but does seem extraordinarily relevant to today’s non-stop FOMO online world.

that friend

Of the myriad ways I’m the luckiest person in the world, one is that my friends believe in me. They (you) encourage me. I had one who didn’t, who preferred and delighted in my troubles and failures, and she’s not my friend any more. (Was she ever? If you have one like that, let her go. Just do it. Life is too short and difficult already.)

My darling Dixie
My darling Dixie

I could name each one of you and say the specific ways I feel your belief in me, list examples of things you’ve said — either in person, or in emails, or in instant messages that come out of the blue and for no apparent reason. This would be a l-o-n-g post if I did that, and I have an idea perking in the back of my mind to acknowledge your importance to me, but it has to wait until after the holidays. Perhaps the most extreme of you is my darling Dixie, who just believes in me 1000%, thinks I hung the moon and whatever I do is nearly perfect (sometimes perfect), and I swear that if I killed someone and were caught standing over them with the bloody knife in my hand, Dixie would defend me and stay by my side to the end. So she is in her own category in the whole world, because this is how she is with everyone she loves — and she means it, very individually.

writingSo many of you have quietly and insistently encouraged my writing, and I love you for it. It’s funny; my friends are encouraging and supportive and my kids have never ever been that way with me — so I appreciate you even more! You are my team. You’ve stuck with me on the ups and downs: I’m writing! I’m giving up! No, instead I’m going to do this kind of writing! Maybe not. Maybe so. I am! I can’t. Who would care. I have one thing most writers don’t have: an understanding of the realities of the publishing world. Not having that would be helpful! My clients all finish their books in the belief that their books are going to be bestsellers. Surely that helps them keep going and get it done. My friend Traci knows very well the realities of the publishing world and writes one beautiful book after another, which she publishes through her own press and practically works a second full-time job promoting her books. (And her husband’s work. And she has a school-age daughter. And she writes book after book. She is clearly in her own category.)

But I have this one friend, Nancy, who is in a different category in terms of encouragement. I don’t have any idea, maybe this is what it’s like if you have a mother who thinks you are OK, and who encourages you and believes in you with great vigor. Nancy is my friend, not a mother figure, but there’s something about the way she believes in me and encourages me that makes me think about what it would be like to have had that from the start. Just as Dixie replaced the cruel voice in my head (my mother’s) with hers (you are so darling, you precious thing), I think Nancy has replaced the mean discouragement in my heart (my mother’s) with hers (you don’t have time for that, you need to be writing. Are you writing? I believe that it’s very possible that your writing will be of significant value. I just had an idea, have you ever read your work before an audience?). She’ll just write me out of the blue and in her direct, Kansas way say these things to me — apropos of nothing, which tells me she had been thinking about it herself. When we have our regular coffee breaks, she’s likely to bring it up. My book club friends made me a VERY special gift as I was coming out of my suicidal place, a jar filled with notes from each of them telling me what I add to their lives, how they see me, etc. Nancy’s contribution was a nametag, the kind you get at a conference, and it had my name and WRITER. See what I mean? It’s insistent and said as if it were simply the truth.

So this post is much less about writing and encouragement, and much more about what it is to receive that, on whatever topic or maybe no topic at all, maybe just about who you are. I know this is a theme of mine, but it’s because I mean it, and know it so solidly: If you live long enough, everything is possible. The thing you simply could not understand (how to spend time alone, how not to care what others think of you) becomes simple and true in your heart, and in fact an important thing! The struggle you’ve found impossible to overcome, like getting rid of the cruel voice in your head, dissolves and disappears. The fear you always had goes away. The bad thing you clutched to your heart, your ‘grim belief’ as my friend Marg calls it, falls away. It’s so good that life is long, if you’re lucky and open to it.

It would be such a different world if everyone had one person who believed in them like this. If you have a friend you believe in in some regard, express it a little more often. Encourage her in the various ways you can think of. You have NO idea how transformative it might be. And if you change one person, you might change the world.

Thank you for the ways you encourage me and support me in all the ways you do. I’m keenly aware of each instance, each moment, each effort, and it all keeps me going. I hope with all my heart that if we know each other, I do some of that for you. xo

zero sum games

I’ve always said that all the wrong people have all the money. I do not want all the money; once I tried to figure out what I’d do with some extravagant sum of money and I couldn’t really get that far. If I had lots of money (figure unspecified), I would pay off my debt, which consists of my student loan debt, and I would pay off all my kids’ debts. I would get them each a new car. I would put money away for their children’s college funds so that was covered. I would see that they had what they needed to direct their lives the way they want them to go. Friends who needed help would get what they needed, immediately.

a bit fancier than this, less primitive, but like this! I saw a place in Woodstock once that fit my dream perfectly...
a bit fancier than this, less primitive, but like this! I saw a place in Woodstock once that fit my dream perfectly…

I would not buy a gigantic mansion . . . what would I do with that? I’d just have to clean it. (See how fundamentally I misunderstand big wealth? People in mansions pay others to clean them.) I would like to have a small house of my own somewhere, my very own, a kind of cottage but big enough to have a library in it and a room for guests. And then I’d put away enough to be sure I could afford to be cared for the rest of my life if something happened to me, so I wouldn’t be a burden on my kids, and with the rest I would travel. I wouldn’t buy stuff, I’d just travel. And I wouldn’t travel differently than we do now — I wouldn’t travel first class, what a silly waste of money; I wouldn’t go to different places; I wouldn’t stay in bigger fancier hotels; I wouldn’t eat more extravagant meals. I would be so very darling at having money, I just know it.

So I feel jealousy of the people with all the money, I do feel that. I know how that feels, that kind of jealousy. Resource allocation. It isn’t that I think money buys happiness, but it does relieve you of some of the things that eat away at you. Having to worry each and every month about having enough money to get to the end of the month, having to figure out what you won’t pay so you can meet an unexpected need, not being able to afford the outrageous expense of health insurance so always living in fear that someone will get sick or hurt — those things make it awfully difficult to have a happy life. You can be happy, of course, but it’s grinding and hard. I have been so very poor throughout my life I know what that’s like. Stole food in high school. When my kids were little, my food budget was so tight I put the monthly allotment in four envelopes and took one with me to the market each week, and if I got to the register and had spent more than my limit, I had to choose what to put back. That was humiliating. I tried to spend less each week so that in the last week of the month, the extra had accumulated and we might have enough money for a tiny treat. (Of course this is first world trouble and I realize that.)

What I don’t understand, no matter how hard I try — and I have tried — is being jealous of my friends. For some reason it makes no sense to me. An ex-friend recently accused me of being jealous of her (after listing a whole bunch of things she was jealous of me about) and it shocked me. She had a bunch of strengths that I didn’t have (like, at ALL) and that always made me feel so lucky. Hallelujah, I’m so bad at X but she’s good at it so we have that covered! When a friend succeeds at something, accomplishes something, why wouldn’t I be happy for her? I don’t get that. I love her, I want good things to happen for her. In the course of my life I have ended two friendships and jealousy was a factor in both. The other friendship I ended was with a woman in New York whose jealousy was so destructive I had to end it for my own health. When my life fell completely apart in November 2012 and I moved to Austin, after a few months of hiding and sobbing I started rebuilding, and I found friends and did what you do. She wrote me that I was a bad influence on her because I was able to do that but that she decided to let it go. I still have a hard time understanding that. A bad influence? Really?

Occasionally I’ll see things about Facebook, articles that talk about how people feel so bad by their friends’ Facebook streams. And apparently they’re not referring to 13-year-old people, that fragile age. This bewilders the hell out of me on so many levels:

  • Seriously? People can be that tissue-thin and fragile and uncertain about themselves? Well, I know they can be, having been tissue-thin myself at times, so at least that one I can begin to grasp.
  • Do people think a public presentation represents the whole story? Every single good thing shared has a corresponding difficult thing, and the balance tips and sways, it’s not a one-to-one correspondence, but photographs of that beautiful trip you see? There are difficulties going on too, surely you know that. This success, that one? How many rejections and losses happened too? Everyone curates what gets shared and does anyone really believe what they see is the whole story? I don’t understand this one at all. There’s that great AA saying, “Never compare your insides to other people’s outsides” which sums it up so beautifully. I know what a tangled-up mess I can be on the inside, and I assume it’s the same for everyone, varying only in frequency and degree.
  • ZeroSumDoes anyone think this is a zero sum game? That there is a finite amount of good stuff and if someone else has some there is that much less for them? If you have a wonderful success and I have a wonderful success, mine diminishes yours? On some wholly made-up scale for this point, if your success is a 9 and mine is a 9.25, yours doesn’t matter?

I am so happy about your successes, about the good things that happen for you, I really am. Even when you have success in a domain I am also striving within! When you travel somewhere I want to go, I feel like you are scouting for me, and I’ll get to see it vicariously and then hear your stories. If the time comes when I get to go too, I’ll be so glad you went so you can give me advice. If I never get to go there, how lucky I am that you did so I got to see it through your eyes. I love Greece with all my heart and will probably never get to go back, but a friend goes to a very small island on occasion and she’s a wonderful photographer, so on her next trip I’ll get to ‘visit’ Greece again, and what a pleasure that will be.

If we have a success in the same arena and yours surpasses mine in some way, how does that diminish my success? For I know exactly what it takes to run that gauntlet, I know how hard, I know the accomplishment in a way others might not. And assuming I know I did the best I could, how can I be anything but proud, however you may have done? Because hotdamn, it was HARD and I succeeded.

Yeah, that's me and Peggy in Austin last summer. She's my bosom sister. I'd do anything in the world for her.
Yeah, that’s me and Peggy in Austin last summer. She’s my bosom sister. I’d do anything in the world for her.

My friend Peggy and I applied to the Yale Writer’s Conference and decided that if one of us were picked and the other wasn’t, we would just feel so happy for the other. We didn’t get tested — we both were accepted — but I believe with all my heart that we’d have been happy for each other even if we hadn’t been picked ourselves. Now maybe if it were someone other than Peggy I might struggle, but when I think through my friends I think it would be true of all of them. BECAUSE WE ARE FRIENDS.

That situation is a zero-sum game, an exact and finite number of slots and she gets one might mean I don’t. But beyond situations like that, life is not a zero-sum game. Why do people act as if someone else’s success diminishes them? I don’t understand it now and I guess I never will.

I share the good things that happen for me as easily as I share the terrible things, because I am keenly aware that life gives both and to pretend only one exists is a lie. But I do wish those people with all the money would share a little bit.