The icing on the cake

Kara80s-8Years ago when we were young and ambitious and thought we had a lot to prove, a friend of mine began to prepare a birthday celebration for his girlfriend. As on any birthday, the crown jewel of the celebration would be a cake, but this one would be her favorite flavor, made from scratch.

Everything went according to plan–until it didn’t. In the middle of the cake prep, the power went out. Okay, you say. These things happen. She’ll understand. I mean, really, is it that big a deal? Just go to the store and buy a cake. Take her out to eat and finish it later. It’s just a cake.

Nope. That wasn’t the point. That cake was his labor of love, an all-in dedication of the work of his hands. It was important.

The next step in the recipe was to beat egg whites into stiff peaks. You have to beat fast and hard and continuously for some time before those snotty little suckers finally submit and stand at attention, a feat normally best accomplished by an electric mixer. With no power and thus no mixer, my friend simply grabbed a wooden spoon and got started.

After nearly 25 minutes of beating (and probably laughter and sweat and finally, cursing), those snotty little suckers eventually submitted to his hand and stood at attention. Mission accomplished.

The power came back on in time for the rest of his cake bakery to proceed without incident; the birthday celebration went off without another hitch. In fact, I don’t know if my friend ever told his girlfriend what he had done.

In the grand scheme of things, is this really a big deal? People roll with the punches every day. We take detours, make allowances, adjust our expectations and move on.

Or do we?

How often do we go the extra mile for another person? More importantly, how often do we go that mile when we may not get credit for it? You couldn’t tell the effort that went into that cake just by looking at it, so did it really matter?

Yes, yes it did.

This, my friends, is caring. It’s what we do for the people we love to make their lives better. We go the extra mile when the bottom falls out, when we’re tired, or when they need us. We do it because we can and because we love them, not for the recognition. Real love is not transactional.

Love your people every chance you get.

 

For Tim

a long time ago tim

“Have you been writing?”

“What have you written?”

“Why haven’t you been writing?”

He hounded me. Every time we talked or texted, he hounded me. He valued my words and wanted more of them. I had a few well worn excuses, but he always pushed me to come back to the keyboard.

“Find your words,” he said.

Now he’s gone, and I have no choice. I owe it to him. These words are for him, about him, to him.


Tim wasn’t perfect. He was full of flaws and I stopped falling for his bullshit long ago. But he was special, really special.

Other people who love him, whom I’ve never met, describe him the same way I knew him:

Smart. Quick witted. Funny. Loving. Kind.

Radiant light, bursting forth from an imperfect vessel.

He made me feel like I didn’t have to be a whole, complete person to be smart and creative and valued.

Of course I’m stealing their words; I couldn’t write them any better.

He was the kind of person who makes you better, even when he struggled himself. He always knew how to draw out the important parts and he didn’t care if he pissed you off doing it. In fact, that’s the thing I think he liked most, because getting a reaction usually led to the getting better part. It made me see my flaws or my excuses or whatever, and that made me face them. And he always, always stretched me, though I’d never admit to him that I sometimes struggled to keep up.

Once I asked him for advice in overcoming my writer’s block. This was our text conversation (the real deal, not paraphrased):

Me: How did you find the wherewithal to return to the keyboard?

TJT: Just pound out something shitty and return to it with your critical eye.

Me: Words fail me.

TJT: Sure, blame it on the words.

Me: And I them.

TJT: Now we’re getting somewhere. Maybe you need to be told to shut up by someone or something. Then those words would be itching for a fight.

Me: Perhaps, but not likely.

TJT: Shut up.

Sure, he said. Blame it on the words.

He was right. It has never been the words; it has always been me.

Others have written long, loving tributes to this man who left the world before we were ready. Mine is less long, though no less loving.

Tim, you were as wonderful as you were difficult. We saw each other’s flaws and loved each other anyway. Sometimes you even flaunted yours to me, and I knew because of it that you trusted me. Our connection was deep and real, though miles and time separated us. You made me laugh. You made me mad. You made me think. You made me better.

Sometimes I don’t know how to explain you to people who don’t know you, but I guess I don’t have to. All that really matters is that you were my friend.

Rest in peace. You deserve to finally find it.


Love Over Gold
You walk out on the high wire
You’re a dancer on thin ice
You pay no heed to the danger
And less to advice
Your footsteps are forbidden
But with knowledge of your sin
You throw your love to all the strangers
And caution to the wind
And you go dancing through doorways
Just to see what you will find
Leaving nothing to interfere
With the crazy balance of your mind
And when you finally reappear
At the place where you came in
You’ve thrown your love to all the strangers
And caution to the wind
It takes love over gold and mind over matter
To do what you do that you must
When the things that you hold can fall and be shattered
Or run through your fingers like dust
Written by Mark Knopfler, performed by Dire Straits

Piece by piece

I just found this in some old files. It’s something I wrote years ago but had forgotten. I still believe it.

Colorful fabric with natureWhat if life isn’t a tapestry, a garment patterned by events, moods, cycles, and stages? Where even a slight change in weave changes the visual effect? What if life, instead, is a collection of swatches, where not the pattern, but the very fabric itself provides the illustration?

Some phases might be unbleached broadcloth. These times are straightforward and functional. Sturdy and strong, but unadorned.

Other times are more delicate, like linen. Crisp and cool, linen phases look pristine, but add a little heat, a little moisture, or a little pressure, and the fabric crumples.

Flannel phases are warm and safe, comfortable and sheltered.

Satin cycles are sleek and sexy.

Burlap patches feel rough and unhewn. They scratch and irritate, and they’re tough to break through.

Taffeta stands up, crisp and sassy.

Cotton times wear soft but true, dependable.

Nylon periods are something made from nothing.

I am a swatch book. You can get to know me by flipping through my pages, using all of your senses to understand who I am and where I’ve been. See the all colors, strident and faded and shimmering and dull. Feel the textures, smooth and rough. Smell the sweat and tears and celebrations that stain me. Hear my crackle and snap under your fingertips. Taste my life through these snippets of cloth. Find me, not in my design, but in my very foundation.

Rearrange my pieces over and over again, and my nature does not change. The elements of my life are indelible; my swatches are product of that which has already happened. No amount of reordering will produce another end result; life is not retroactive. Only a new swatch will adjust my character, piece by piece.

Duck, duck, goose

IMG_6058

Since I decided I needed to focus less on myself and more on making a difference to others, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my ducks in a row. In the past I’ve served charities that didn’t hold my attention for long–not because they weren’t worthy, but because I thought I could do more elsewhere. For lack of a better expression, they didn’t speak to my heart.

In this new quest for meaning (I sound so cheesy), I knew it was important to serve an area where my passions lie. The problem was that I wasn’t sure what that might be. So I researched and self-examined and researched some more. I’ll spare you the details of my three-month odyssey toward enlightenment, but the result is that I feel compelled to help in ways that address the most basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you need a refresher on that, it’s the purple segment of this diagram:

maslow-5

To that end, I’ve begun volunteering at our local food bank, as well as with an organization that serves homeless families in transition. I was prepared to have to undergo training and work my way through some kind of hierarchical process of establishing trust. I expected documentation and lots of recordkeeping; after all, this is important work, so it must require an appropriate bureaucracy for organizing volunteers, right?

Boy, was I ever wrong.

The first time I arrived at the food bank, I listened to a ten-minute safety speech and then found myself being directed to a spot in a food line. When someone asked, What do we need to do?, the only answer that came before the doors opened was, You’ll figure it out. And I did. Within minutes I was elbow-deep in giant boxes of donated bread, stuffing it into bags held open by the outstretched arms of grateful, hungry people.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and a few miles to my interview with the volunteer coordinator for an organization serving homeless families. She only wanted to know what I wanted to do and when I could start–and oh yeah, had I submitted a background check, by the way? With her two cell phones and a steady stream of in-person questions continually interrupting our conversation, she didn’t have time to worry about org charts and personality fits; she just needed help. I said I could start next Saturday.

Silly, bureaucratic, play-by-the-rules me asked, Won’t I need some kind of training? 

Don’t worry, said the volunteer coordinator. The person working with you will show you what to do.

Not having all the answers up front and organized into neat little systematized packages sits well outside my comfort zone. I don’t usually dive willingly into chaos and just start doing. I need a PLAN.

Well, I’m discovering that’s not the way this stuff works. The needs are just too great. There’s too much to do. This work is about survival. They need people to jump in and DO, not sit back and contemplate. After all, when someone is drowning, that person needs someone to dive in and lend a hand as quickly as possible. Sure, there’s necessary preparation, but at that moment, it’s too late to prep more–you’d better have already had your swimming lessons.

I’m not saying these entities aren’t organized; I’m just saying that it’s not my job. In this case, my hands are more important than my head. The lesson I’m learning is that when people are in need, there’s no time to waste. They don’t really need me to have my ducks in a row–they just need ducks.

Okay, then. Let’s get this party started.

The other side of the mountain

Snow_on_the_Fischer_Ranger_96_Ti_SkisWhen I made plans to join my son in Colorado for a ski weekend, I envisioned days of swooshing gracefully down mountain slopes celebrated by nightly dips in the hot tub to soothe happily sore muscles. After all, I told myself, I’m in pretty good shape, I have great athletic endurance, and I’m not afraid to try new things. I might need a little practice to start, but how hard could it be? After all, I had done this before. I even bought a cute new ski jacket to seal the deal.

Did I mention that my “I had done this before” event occurred in 1994? In Michigan, where the highest elevation is 850 feet and the longest vertical drop is 240 feet? I mean, the technique is the same even if you’re skiing in the Colorado Rockies at elevations approaching 13,000 feet, right?

Okay, I’m not a complete idiot. I signed up for a half-day lesson for our first day on the slopes. My son took his snowboard and went off to enjoy the nearly 100 inches of snow base that graced the mountain while I headed to the bunny hill with my instructor Scott and two other guys. My fellow instructees were young enough to be my kids, and I determined that I would NOT be the prissy old lady who was afraid to engage with the mountain.

And I wasn’t. Of the three of us, I was the first one to accomplish all the tasks Scott set forth. I put my skis on. I took them off. I put them on again. I took them off again. I could get in and out of those suckers in a flash.

I sidestepped back and forth. I duck-walked up the hill. I side-stepped up the hill. I snowplowed forward. I mastered the magic carpet conveyor (okay, I fell once when I lost my balance, but I came up laughing) and took the ski lift like a champ. My movements were a little less confident skiing down the bunny hill, but I got it done. I even took my first real fall with aplomb, happy to have gotten it over with. When my lesson was over, I knew I just needed one thing: practice. Lots of it.

I stayed on the bunny hill for a while longer, and then my son and I ended the day together on a green (easy) run. It was a lot higher and a whole lot scarier looking down from the top than it had seemed looking up from the bottom, but I got it done. My future was looking bright, and it wasn’t from the glare off the snow.

Day two started pretty much as I had imagined. We took the lift to a green run, and once again, it seemed a lot scarier from the top. Besides, a little of my confidence had leaked out overnight, but I still made it down in an upright stance. In any case, I just knew that by the end of the day I’d have it mastered. Practice, practice, practice. Green runs were my friend.

At that point, we decided to hop on a different lift to take us to some green runs on another peak to avoid the crowds at our original lift. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so my son navigated the resort map and directed us accordingly. We hopped on the lift and went up. And up and up and up and up.

By the time we got off, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain. It. Was. Gorgeous. Blue skies, snow covered peaks, views for miles. It was breathtaking.

So was the sign that showed we were at the top of a BLUE (intermediate) run. You know, the ones for people who have skied for more than one day–and it was one of the more challenging blue runs, at that. My heart started racing and my breath came faster and faster. There was no way I was going to be able to get down that mountain. I was still wobbly and tentative on the easy green runs; this one was steeper and faster, and all I could think of was Sonny Bono. Holy crap.

Unfortunately, there was no other way to get down. My son coaxed, cajoled, goaded, and shamed me. He tried everything to get me to point my skis down the mountain and let go. I just couldn’t. Finally I convinced him to go without me and I’d figure it out. I didn’t want the pressure of disappointing him to add to my fear.

Finally, inch by inch, I started down the mountain. I had to do it; I wasn’t going to let the mountain win. I did it my way, though. The skis were too fast, and I just wasn’t ready. Remember that side-step I said I perfected during my lesson? It works going downhill, too. It took me two and a half hours, but I made it down that mountain, side-step by side-step. In my own way, I conquered that mountain.

I’m not proud of the fear that held me back, but I am proud that I found a way to make it down the mountain without assistance. I knew I wasn’t ready, so I had to engineer a different kind of solution. Did it deter me forever from skiing? Not a chance. I thought about little else for the first week after I came home. I’m not going to be that prissy old lady who is afraid to engage with the mountain.

I’m going back. I’m going to ski the green runs until I can do it with my eyes closed. Then I’m going to the blue run that (almost) won and I’m going to make it mine. And I’m going to take my son with me to make sure he witnesses it.

Here’s what I learned that day:

  1. There’s more than one way to get down a mountain.
  2. If you don’t prepare enough, you won’t get the results you want.
  3. Fear is a big inhibitor. Mental preparation counts as much as the physical.
  4. Keep trying till you get it right.

I’m going to own that mountain, and I’ll let you know when I do.

P.S. For those of you with kids, I also learned that it’s very humbling to let your kids see your limitations, and it’s exhilarating to see your kids conquer something you haven’t.

Promises, promises

The last time I wrote here, I made a bunch of promises–including a promise to write about the things I promised. Well, if you thought I forgot about that, you were wrong. I’ve been busy, albeit sporadically, trying to make good on those IMG_2375[1]promises and learning lessons along the way. I’m going to break up my report into a series of posts so it’s easier to digest.

Before I dive in, let’s recap the promises.

  1. Go skiing with my son to honor his desire to spend time with me and show me what he loves.
  2. Focus on something other than myself. Look outward rather than inward.
  3. Write about the process.

That’s only three items; how hard could it be to check off that list, right?

Well, a quarter of a year has passed and I only have one definitive check mark. I’ve made progress on the other items, but as I described it in my original post, it’s more of a journey than a destination.

You have probably surmised from the photo that I made it to the ski slopes with my son. (Yay, me.) I’ve also spent a lot of time researching possibilities, evaluating opportunities, and trying some new things. My head is full of information that is begging to be mined for nuggets of wisdom.

It’s coming, my friends. Here’s what I’m going to share with you in my next several posts:

  1. There’s more than one way to conquer a mountain.
  2. Overthinking kills ambition.
  3. People who need help don’t want you to wait to get your ducks in a row. They don’t need them to be lined up; they just need ducks.
  4. My grocery cart looks a whole lot different to me now.
  5. Never, ever lose sight of the people.

Stay tuned.

New beginnings

I have struggled mightily this holiday season. I can’t say what brought it on or why it seemed to take hold so deeply, but I’ve been depressed and angry. I’ll spare you the details; there’s not much to tell anyway. I was just in a bad place.

This morning my kids and I exchanged gifts and I’ve been thinking all day about the choices my kids made for me. I’ve been teary and reflective since they left to celebrate with their dad, but this time I’m teary in a good way.

Allow me to share.

My son gave me a balaclava, ski goggles, and long ski socks. I don’t ski. I’ve tried a couple of times–one dismal and one mildly successful–but that was years ago and with my wonky knees, I never really had any intention of doing it again. Besides that, I live in the glacially-leveled Hoosier heartland. There are no mountains here, not even hills where I live. Potholes provide the only elevation changes I see around home.

But I. Love. This. Gift.

It means that my son, who now lives in Colorado during the academic year and has taken up snowboarding, wants to share his world with me. He has asked me repeatedly to come visit and hit the slopes. With his gift, he’s asking me to spend time with him doing something he loves. I don’t care about the goggles so much as the wish behind them. You can bet I’ll be heading to the Colorado Rockies soon, wonky knees and all.

And my daughter. That beautiful, wonderful girl saved my life.

Her gift to me was a small book entitled 1: How Many People Does It Take to Make a Difference? It seemed modest at first glance, but I’ve already read it cover to cover and it has started to heal my heart. I’ve been so focused on myself and how bad I felt that I didn’t realize all I was doing was digging my pit of misery deeper and deeper. That little book is so full of wisdom that I’m going to have to reread it several times to take it all in.

Its message? GET OVER YOURSELF. Well, okay, it doesn’t say exactly that, but that’s the sentiment I took from it. Get over yourself, stop focusing on YOU, look outside yourself, and do good. And it’s sort of an activity book, too–it has spaces for thoughts, ideas, and goals.

Here’s the thing. Just like the ski gear, it’s not the book. First, my daughter sensed I was struggling and wanted to help. Second, I’m not sure how anyone else would receive the wisdom in the pages or even how it would have struck me a few months ago. I just know that in this moment, it offered what I needed. Words. Do. Matter. Especially the right ones at the right time.

I’ve had a cathartic few hours since my kids hugged me goodbye for the day. I’ve been finding myself again under the muck and the junk that has buried me for weeks. Some of the thoughts bogging me down–sorry, they’re too personal to share–found their foil in the printed words my daughter gave me. I have started to find my way back from a place I thought I might never leave.

So maybe it’s a week early, and I don’t usually do them anyway, but this year I’m making a resolution for the New Year.

This year, I’m going to focus less on me. Not just a little less, but a lot less. I’m going to get over myself and see where it takes me. And I’m going to write about it here.

Hold me to it.

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life. He said to them, “A terrible fight is going on inside me. It is a fight between two wolves. One is the wolf of joy, love, hope, kindness, and compassion. The other is the wolf of fear, anger, cynicism, indifference, and greed. The same fight is going on inside of you and every other person, too.” The children thought about it for a moment, and then one child asked, “Which wolf will win?” The elder replied, “Whichever one you feed.”