Saturday, July 22, 2017

You don't have to have lunch with Shirley

Here is a lion who does
not want to have
lunch with Shirley anymore.
My mother  told me a story once about her friend Mary, who decided in middle-age to no longer be around people who were a bummer. Period. The end. Starting now. 

Shirley, another woman in their circle who was negative, and self-absorbed and needy was the first casualty.

"I'm past fifty," Mary said to my mother. "I don't have to have lunch with Shirley anymore."

This happens a lot to fifty-somethings. 

They don't just wean themselves off negative relationships or pleaser behavior. They figure it out in the night and the next day, they look in the mirror and say, "That's it. We're not doing that anymore."

Figuring it out never ends. Boomers, Millennials, small children, and the elderly all have that in common.

At age never-mind, I'm understanding the things we learn after we know them; things we have to practice for a long time before they become as natural as walking across the room.  

As a recovered pleaser I can tell you that one of those things is the concept of choice. Choice is worth talking about because it often hurts before it rewards you with self-respect which, we all know, is delicious.  

It takes a while to become good at it because even bad choices can make sense before they don't. 

We choose to be silent when we should talk, to keep the peace.
We choose to talk when we should be quiet, to keep someone's attention.
We choose to dismiss someone's behavior rather than call them on it, to avoid conflict.
We choose to over-compromise because "assertive" feels like "selfish."
We choose to stay where we know we don't belong because, change.

We walk past our crooked paintings of vague dissatisfaction when we should be stopping to straighten them. But in every situation, even the ones that lied to you, we still choose how to deal.   

Here is what you learn when you become age never-mind:

You can choose to stop neglecting your needs to make others comfortable
...and people who have taken advantage of you will think more of you, not less. 
You can say, "I just don't agree,"
... and people who value independent thinking will respect you more, not less.
You can say, "I'd really rather not,"
...and people who don't like being squeezed or manipulated will like you more, not less.
You can say, "That's not something I'm comfortable talking about,"
...and people who value privacy will honor yours more, not less.
You can say, "When you (use that tone/mock/tease/are sarcastic)  it hurts my feelings," 
...and people who care about you will not ask you to change your feelings, but will fix their behavior.
You can say,  "I love spending time with you," 
...and even if people don't know what to say, they will feel the right thing.
You can say, "You mean the world to me,"
...and some people will be awkward and turn red, but they will have a little joy where there was just happy a minute ago.
And you can say, "I need to be alone for a while,"
...and some people may wish that wasn't true, but will give it to you easily, because they love you more than they need you at the moment. 
You have a choice.
State your needs. 

Don't apologize.
Do it now. Period, the end. Starting today. 
You don't have to have lunch with Shirley anymore. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Pet Peeves #10: Facebook edition

Here is a person who just looks
like she's doing something
 unhealthy on Facebook
In 2010, after I'd been blogging for a while, my son convinced me to join Facebook so that I could start posting "like everyone else."  

Also, he suggested, I might want to create a special page that directed traffic to the blog. 
"What's the difference between a Facebook page and a Facebook page?" I asked
"People can go to your newest post from your special page and not their newsfeed."
"What's the difference between a post and a status?"
"Same thing."
"What's the difference between a timeline and a wall?"
"Same thing."
"Why is this going to help?"
"It just will."
"Who can see what I post?"
"That's up to you." 
Loaded with information now, I signed up. 
There were bumps in the beginning:

It took me forever to post anything because to "go on" Facebook in the beginning is like entering a party where everyone has known each other since Pre-K. What to say?

My first posts were agreeable, possibly  sugary affirmations - neither incendiary nor interesting - which make me wince to remember, like most of my essays written around 2004 do.  

I shared videos of my cat with myself more than once before my son PM'd me about it.  
But soon enough, I was good at Facebook.  

I discovered the difference between sharing with friends and sharing  with the public.

I found, and was found by, people I've worked with, gone to school with, met through writing. I was "friended" by the kids' old babsysitters, which I found touching. 
I read everything on my news feed, at first.  When I became overwhelmed by provocative, angry, traumatizing or boastful posts, I learned how to "hide posts" without "unfriending," the Facebook equivalent of hanging up on someone and not talking to them again. Ever. 

I've been looking at Facebook more closely as we've endured these wildly inconsistent political times. It's not the coffee break it used to be when we were trading our coins of pretty food and pets and backyards and, of course, our latest articles and blog posts. Now, with steady frequency, it has become a place where one can trot out one's uncensored, angriest side and be reinforced in seconds by someone who might be as stable as a pinball. 

It can be an unhealthy place, Facebook, if you started as a frog in cold water with all those pictures of your vacations and girls' nights out. 

The majority of people who pop up in my feed still bring something of value, something that makes me laugh, or smile, or think. Post-Trump, I've toned down my own posts. But it matters that Facebook has the power to lure us from healthy thinking that springs from real engagement with the world. It is the McDonald's of social media. A little once in a while won't kill you, a little more, more of the time will kill you slowly. 

With that, I dedicate this edition of peeves to Facebook, the drive-thru social media that can feel good for a few minutes if you're bored, but a little queasy later when you know you should have had a salad instead.

1. Facebook "memory" posts.
What if "one year ago today!" you were battling depression, or thirty pounds heavier, or still married, or still the owner of the pet who has passed on? This is one of the most intrusive gimmicks Facebook has launched, right up there with:  
2. People we "may know" on Facebook
And yet, have not friended, and yet are being coaxed by Facebook to consider "adding" to the grid of faces, the way you were once encouraged to try peas because "you might like them now." 
3. Facebook users who post links to "disturbing," or, "heartbreaking," or "horrifying" stories with comments like  "This guy should fry for what he did."
Why, oh why, oh why, with all the unavoidable grief in the world, all the in-your-face opportunities to be sad, do we float these things around on Facebook like sad little balloons
4. Idealistic/Facebook memes
A. Memes that encourage us to live better right this minute (like I do here on the blog but never mind).  They are not annoying because they're banal. They're annoying because they're true and don't come with instructions. How exactly does one get to "the other side of fear where anything is possible." 
B. Memes that target toxic people who will never understand that "If I cut you loose, you gave me the scissors" is about them. They should, but it's not in their DNA to understand that a bad situation is, in fact, their fault.

This concludes another edition of Peeves. I hope you had fun, but mostly, as regards Facebook, I hope you know when to walk away and  know when to run, and have learned not to share videos with yourself.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Envy: ugly but useful

Journals are excellent listeners
when you're feeling wicked
insecure, and so are cars.
I read this recently:

When it hurts, pay attention. Life is trying to 
teach you something.

I thought about that. I thought about it a lot. A few days later, I needed it and did it come in pretty hamn dandy? Yes, it did. 

On Facebook the other day was a post featuring a long-ago friend of mine who has achieved, without breaking a sweat,  and not for the first time in her life, extraordinary success at something I kind of thought I would also have done by now, LOL.

It hurt.

Originally, I was going to try and describe the way my reaction unfurled, from the fake-cheery "Oh look at that!" to a more authentic "Oh, I did not need to see that today,  thank you very much," without using the word envy.
Because, oh my God.


"Envy" in my teen world was worse than "jealous." Jealous meant you were (admirably) ready to tangle with anyone who wanted to slow dance with your boyfriend to The Air That I Breathe "Envy" on the other hand, at least among my shallow, back-biting, blue eye-shadow and white lipstick-wearing peer group who knew about these things, was "wicked insecure."

Today, in my writer world, "envy" is the most uncomfortable of reactions to a peer's success. It feels disloyal. It feels childish. It feels wicked insecure. 

First I talked to my journal about it, then I went for a drive and thought about it. 

Do I wish I had her life? No.
Do I wish I were an award-winning writer? Yes and no, it's not a deal-breaker.
Do I wish I were younger and prettier? Not really, no.
Do I wish I could be more driven during times of scattered thinking? Or tougher, or more compelled to dispense every drop of talent from the gift set of skills that God gave me on my birthday?


I'm paying attention.

First, I'm realizing how infrequently I feel envious, because I have no practiced response to it. I just get wicked insecure.

Second, I'm understanding that I look up to some kick-ass writers, which means I have a pretty healthy opinion of my own potential if I think I should be up there with them, smiling down encouragingly on the Susans.

Third, if I'm side-eyeing my own accomplishments because of a Facebook post about a person I barely know anymore, I'm thinking it's time to have a little talk with the writer in the mirror.

Life is trying to teach me something.

Here are some things that occurred to me during my drive, after I felt the you-know-what.

Envy, even if it bums you out, is useful. It makes you think. It shakes you up. And, even if for a while you're pissed that someone else is more disciplined and driven, it can make you  change the way you behave.

Envy of course, is never about the person who's done "well" versus you, who have done "less well," because "well" is relative to one's personal failures and expectations.  What do we know from another person's idea of well?

Understanding envy doesn't come easy, and it doesn't  come with flowers and champagne. It usually comes with a mixed bouquet of self-pity, shame, and uncertainty over exactly how to feel better. 

Unlike perspective, which comes from inner reflection, envy is produced by outer events, the way a headache is produced by a rake in the lawn. Since you can't really know when an outer event might spring and make you wicked insecure, the best response is probably no response until you think about what life is trying to teach you.

Not for the first time, envious-me has sighed at how easy it seems for this one-time friend to soar, while real-me says from within, you know better.

I do know better. This person did not wind up in that Facebook post because she's lucky. She wound up there because she works her bum bum off.

It's been a little while, and I'm understanding that envy isn't about what my long ago friend has – but about what I haven't tried harder to get. I don't want what she's achieved, I just want the same flowers of tenacity and elegance in my bouquet when I walk into the future I am meant to marry.

I've seen a good example of what happens when you toss that bouquet.

You throw it to a Susan.

I feel better.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The power we should not use

Guaranteed, the person at the head
of this line has no clue.
Recently, the editorial board of the Washington Post  published a column titled "Trump clearly won't change. Here's what the rest of us can do." 

Do tell, I thought. 

Long story short, the Post reminds us:

"We should all be focused on preserving a little flame of decency so that, whenever the Trump era ends, that flame can be rekindled into the kind of discourse that would make the country proud again."

Even before the Post suggested we work to protect our civility I'd added a great tool to my Life Kit which has a few parts:

First, if  you can't solve big problems, resist the temptation to dwell on smaller ones just to feel you've solved something. 

Part B, of course, is don't make it worse by noticing everything else that's wrong. 

Part C is that this tool only works with frequent use.

Let's say, that despite your efforts to rise above it, you've had it with the Trump tweets. With the trotting out of one rage-filled outburst after another, about which you can do nothing, you've developed a tendency to notice and complain about stuff you used to ignore: 

The weather. The lines at the grocery store. A co-worker's Eeyore attitude. Facebook nonsense. Selfish, demanding people.
You're on your way to Dunkin Donuts for something to bring to work and the person in front of you is doing twenty in a thirty. You are irrationally upset about this, you can feel your face get hot.  You hear yourself saying bad words about the driver. You look in your rear view mirror and it looks like the entire town is following you to work. 

There is a light up ahead where you can branch off in another direction but it's not efficient for you, so you linger behind that car. By now you don't even want to look at your own expression in the mirror while you think about how inconsiderate that driver is.
Which isn't true of course. 
The driver is clueless and lost in talk radio, or dwelling on the troubling phone call from an adult child he got just before leaving the house, or thinking this may be the day he's going to get fired, or feeling what he thinks is chest pain, or must deliver a presentation to senior management and would rather die. 
You gesture,"Come ON" and you're shaking your head and the driver catches the look of this and slows down to make a point. Now you've upset two people. You, of course, and the driver in front who is also fed up with those tweets.
We had dinner in Portsmouth recently at a restaurant that we love. The line was long, but we knew we'd earn a table by the water if we waited and so we did. 
We had just been handed our drinks when from behind us, a woman's voice rose like a siren.  "OH MY GOD!!! OH MY GOD!!!"  
It was a surprised, hysterical cry. She'd either won the lottery or lost her finger whilst cutting into her fish. 
Five heads turned to look at this woman, who was now clutching the shoulders of the woman in front of her who, it turned out, was someone she once babysat for!!!!!!!!!
Sandy's response couldn't be heard. 
"HOW IS CHARLOTTE???" (pause) "SHE'S WHAT????? " 
There was no way to know what happened to Charlotte because Sandy was responding at a normal volume.  We were left to wonder. Was she okay? This Charlotte?  

It might have been maddeningly distracting, intensely annoying. I might have been unable to block the shrill tone, or been drawn from my own conversation, I might have become irritated enough to shoot them this look:

Instead, a fun conversation developed between the four or five of us at the bar while we eavesdropped on the former babysitter and Sandy. 
"NO WAY IS SHE IN COLLEGE!!!!!!! OH MY GOD!!! HOW ABOUT BRIAN???? " said the woman.
"How do you think Brian is?" I asked another patron. She shook her head and smiled. 
"NO WAY!!" said the woman, suddenly. " OH!  MY GOD!  REALLY???"
On and on it went. 

It was great. 
Had our table taken a very long time after all that, it might have been a different Ketel of vodka. But in the restaurant that night, I made a choice with the first "OH MY GOD!" to be amused and not irritated by this woman's failure to use her in-the-bar voice. 

Some things you can't fix, and you can't make better, and you can't feel good about, no matter what. But as we lack the power to make some things better, we also possess the power to make other things worse, from moods to relationships. 

That is a choice to resist.

That is power you should not use.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Three in the morning

I don't know this person, but she's
going to be tired tomorrow.
It is Worth Mentioning that we will be different some day.
Think about that the next time you have "monkey mind," which is also known as three o'clock in the morning. 
Sometimes three in the morning is when you bolt upright, click on the light, reach for a pad and say, "I can't even stand my own brilliance right now." 
But sometimes, three in the morning is when your guilt and regret and self-doubt get together and party next to a poster of you on the wall.
I had a conversation with the man my daughter just married that I maybe liked as much as the man himself.

The backstory isn't important but it led to a discussion about regret, and whether regrets even make sense since they're just punishment for not knowing more than we possibly can at any given moment.  

I told him that when I'm having difficulty with someone who matters in my life, I imagine myself in the future remembering exactly the way I'm handling the situation in the present. I do this because I've learned that stubborn silences and refusals to bend and harsh remarks only make sense in the moment, which join with the other moments to become the past, which is where three in the morning holds those parties with the poster.

He said that this sounded noble, but that it isn't easy and sometimes it isn't possible, to set the present aside and stretch the imagination enough to assume future perspective.   
We were both right. 

Today, my elderly father is slowing down. Friends I've had for decades are talking about where else they "might" live someday, three of our children are nearby but for how long I don't know, and I am on a roll in my career with the desire and ability to stay at the wheel. I've been imagining for a while how I want to, and don't want to, remember - exactly now. 
I don't want to wish I was kinder,  more available, more patient, more attuned to the feelings of those I love, or more dedicated to my writing if those are things I can be exactly now. 
And while consulting the future to guide behavior in the present is hard, I know that for those who are nursing grudges, standing their ground, putting their pride way out in front, it will be a lot harder when there's no longer any point to it. 
My hope for people is this: consider that estrangements end, often over the birth of a child, rifts pass because they just seem stupid after a while, unimportant people may be your biggest fans,frail people are more frustrated with themselves than anyone else will ever be, and if you avoid hospitals because you hate them, the people in them hate them more. 

Someday, you will find that the ones you lost touch with, or those with whom you've grappled have moved out of your way. There may be a fleeting wish that they were there again. There are ways to make that hurt less.
Maybe you are already in the present that you wish to remember, and maybe there are people you would like to cut loose, thank you very much, the sooner the better. If so, Godspeed. 

If it's not like that, consider finding the strength to turn from the "I won'ts" or "I can'ts,"  that keep you comfortable on your side of distance, or safe on your side of a grudge and experiment with "I'll try." Understand that this is not giving in, but excellent training for kicking three in the morning in the ass. 

I have learned some things the hard way but I learned this easily: we don't stand in another's shoes often because it can be hard  on us to view our behavior from the outside without all those justifications that make it acceptable.  And this:  if it's hard to keep unnecessary comments to yourself until the moment ends, it's harder to take them back after you've released them.  

And this. 

Three in the morning should be about dwelling on better things, like, how it ever took this long to understand your incredible brilliance and all the things you can do with it when the sun rises, or, whatever happened to that kid in sixth grade who told everyone what the dirty words meant, or, whether it really is a deal-breaker to start a novel with a prologue.  
It's bad to live in the future, or the past. Some regret is inevitable. But some is preventable. 

That is one of my favorite things about life. 

It almost makes up for three in the morning.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Yes, you're reading too much news.

Is there anyone  who
doesn't wonder?
It starts with just once, usually in the morning.

Maybe a second look at night, right before dinner.

Soon though, it's halfway through the day when you have an odd feeling that something is happening without you, and when you check the headlines, there it is, the bright red ribbon at the top of a news page which tells you that, oh my God. You were right. You were only gone a few hours and already there's BREAKING NEWS

What the hell happened?

You realize you need more news to feel sure you haven't missed something. You start checking headlines when you break from big tasks. Then you start big-tasking when you break from checking headlines. 

Pretty soon, your normal activities become influenced by your news reading. Now, you don't want to talk about life and happiness with a friend over a glass of wine but the hidden reason Trump did so and so, and where he'll be in six months, and 

What the hell will happen?

After two or three weeks of this, you wake to the mother of news hangovers when you realize you're still upset about that awful story you read yesterday and couldn't stop thinking about. Your sense of humor is MIA. You're anxious and depressed.

You'll cut back, you say. You'll check headlines only once in the morning, like before. You fail.

When people say, "I never look at news more than once a day," you envy them.

Later, you think about that. "Ridiculous," you say while you stare at your phone and don't type "W" into the google box which has learned to instantly bring up the Washington Post.

Later still, however, you are vulnerable. You're working on a short story, you've been productive all day, and right there is the Google Chrome button saying "just two clicks and you'll be at the Wall Street Journal learning new stuff. Come on, you know you want to."

You wonder, as Kathleen Parker wondered in a recent article, if  you along with others are going a little crazy with Trump spreading viral crazy all over the place.

You remember that news hangover from last week .

You say your mantra: "Not doing this."

You walk away.

For a while you stand by the window and think about what's really going on.
You realize, you're not looking for information. You haven't been looking for information for a while. You just haven't been sure what would happen if you stopped looking. 

You remember what you've always known about anxiety: Fear is not information.

You realize that if these days feel uncertain and scary, BREAKING NEWS is not information either, but a hand yanking you into a dark alley as you pass by, minding your own business.

And now that you're tuning into your inner ally, a very, very good thing happens before you even have to find a local News Readers chapter.  

You no longer wish to be vigilant.

You just want to live to write and write to live the way you're supposed to.

A day or two later, you're laughing again and telling funny stories. Reading novels has left you with less time to read the news and today, you even forgot to check the headlines.

You're texting with your friends and talking about kids getting married and finding great jobs, and you're making plans to get together and talk about more stuff that doesn't come in red boxes with white letters.   

This was not a boating accident. You didn't happen in and happen out of your preoccupation with news. You know you need both a micro and macro feeling of control over your world and for a while you lost the latter.

Now you know, if reassurance  isn't available via Google Chrome, it is attainable via your powers of reason, resistance, and resolve as long as you protect them.

You won't forget that.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Every once in a while

Where I am

Every once in a while, I feel extraordinary attunement with the moment I'm in, which is also known as the present. 

In that moment, I know I am 
taking care of the people I love,
doing what I must to remain centered,
reaching out when someone else needs help.

I know I can
counsel myself away from a regrettable comment,
walk away from drama,

I know I have
done my part,
pulled my weight,
shown my love.

Emptied the trash.
Bought ice cream for my husband.

I know now
that originality is more important than popularity, 
that the way to change behavior is to imagine how you'll remember it when you're older,
that I  have taken the right things from my mistakes,
and have started to forget the rest.

Every once in a while, I don't think about improving
or excelling,
or being read or seen or heard,
or noticed at all.

I don't dwell on times I've been in pain because in persevering, I've become a person I once didn't think I could be.

I don't look back,  
I don't look ahead,
I just look.

Every once in a while, in that still moment of the present, I realize,
I am not what I once wanted to be,
but what I am supposed to be.

I don't have what I once wanted,
but what I've always needed.

I don't hope for things to go well
but realize that things go the way they will,
and that "well" is up to your view of them.

Every once in a while, I feel really comfortable and I realize... 
It's not a mood,
It's not a good night's sleep,
It's not that I'm behaving,
It's not that I got good news or found money.

I feel really comfortable because I understand,
I'm not looking anymore, 
I'm here.

I'm remembering it. 
Because right now,
up or down, 
I'm where I'm supposed to be,
before I go anywhere else.