Over the weekend, my sister texted me a photo of my mom. It seems the two had gathered to bake Christmas cookies. The photo was simple: my mom sitting at my sister’s kitchen table, a smile on her face, decorating cookies. I burst into tears at the sight of it.
This year was a hard one. My mom was sick – really sick – twice. There was more than one moment when I thought, “OK, this is it. I’m going to lose my mom.” By the grace of God, she is still here with us. That photo, her smile, reminded me in one simple second how close I was to losing her.
One of the things I’ve been reflecting about all year – even before my mom got sick – was how she and my dad are both aging; how I am aging. That process – the process of aging – is a weird thing to try and understand. It’s as if you are slowly peeling off a band-aid, revealing some version of skin that resembles your own. That skin, however, is a little less resilient, a little less vibrant, a little less able to take a blow and fully recover.
What I came to realize this year is that I am already grieving the loss of my mom as I once knew her. It’s hard to truly describe, but I miss her, even though she is still here. The things we once connected over are often not the things that tie us together now. And her physical limitations often call on me to demonstrate more patience than I think I really have. But I am trying. I am trying to maintain patience when I have to repeat a sentence for the third time. I am trying to remain calm when she falls and I have to help her back up to her feet. I am trying to preserve the loveliness of our relationship when she’s slow to follow or comprehend. I am trying to remember that she did all of those things (and more) for me once – when I was unable to stand on my own, make my own way, or understand the world. In the same caring way that she parented me, I am now trying to care for her.
There are days when I really miss the mom I had before. Most days, though, I am really grateful for the mom I still have here with me. Despite the challenges that come with her aging, I know that she is still teaching me valuable lessons – lessons that challenge me to grow in new ways, to develop qualities I wasn’t sure I had, and to become the kind of woman she has always been: full of strength and love.
My mom is different now in many ways. Perhaps so am I. But in a simple picture, I saw the smile I have known my whole life. And, I am reminded of how she is still the same in so many of the ways that really matter. She is my mom. And I am lucky to have her.
Earlier this fall I attended a funeral. The mother of a dear friend had passed. In typical fashion, time in the service was dedicated to recalling parts of her life; things about who she was. But as the priest began, he said something that’s been prompting reflection now for several weeks.
In preparation for the eulogy, the priest reported that he had asked the family about their departed loved one. “But don’t tell me the things I would read in an obituary,” he said to them. “I can read those things. Tell me about the special things – the things that made you love her; the things you admired about her.”
As I listened to the remainder of the eulogy, I heard so many wonderful things about my friend’s mom. Her qualities and positive traits were highlighted and celebrated in the most beautiful way. Her heart and soul were alive in the comments. But as I listened, I also couldn’t help but wonder if anyone ever celebrated those qualities with her while she was alive. Did she know that people felt that way … that those parts of her personality made such an impact?
It is quite possible that my friend’s family told their mom how wonderful she was all the time. It may be true that they shared their admiration with her or even thanked her for certain things she did to routinely make a difference in their lives. I have no doubt that she knew she was loved. But what I wonder is why it often takes something like death for us to think about – and acknowledge out loud – those characteristics that we admire in another.
I had another friend who used to be the best at sharing reasons for loving someone with them. In the middle of a conversation, she would easily find a way to deliver a compliment to point out something she admired in me. Now that she’s passed, I so often remember the things she praised. And because she was so specific, she helped me to further nurture those qualities in myself. I not only knew that she loved me, I knew why. What a gift that was.
Why is it so hard for us to be specific about our love? Why does honest expression so often feel awkward or embarrassing?
As Thanksgiving and the holiday season approach, many of us take extra time to reflect on our blessings. Perhaps what I am suggesting is that instead of privately counting the things for which we are grateful, that we make an effort to share that gratitude with others. Say out loud what you admire in a friend or loved one; maybe even write a note to call out a quality you find inspiring or refreshing in another. If someone makes a difference in your life, maybe tell them how or why. My guess is that your sentiment may be the greatest gift they get this year.
If you could choose one word to express your intent in life, what would it be? If people could describe you with only one word, which would you want them to choose? Tough questions, aren’t they? I think we spend so much time trying to be all things to all people. It’s as if we create a competition of words, if you will. Are we smart, sincere, loving, strong, kind, passionate, determined, inclusive? Do we want to see more kindness, tolerance, peace, harmony, or inquisition in the world? Which is the most important? And how do some words conflict with others? It’s a lot of questions, I know.
This thinking was prompted by an ad I saw today on Facebook for a line of jewelry called the MyIntent Project. Featured on The Today Show, the company website says, “We believe there is purpose inside each of us and we want our efforts to encourage people to share more truth and inspiration with each other. We are not a jewelry company – we are an intentions project.”
I won’t speak about the intended marketing goals of the Intent Project, but I will applaud its ability to get people thinking. At least it got me thinking. The company offers a line of bracelets and necklaces that are inscribed with a word chosen by the client. The first step is to “choose your word.” And I’m stuck.
I guess it could be argued that as a writer I take words and their meanings much more seriously than other people. But I think my hesitation in picking a word is really much more complicated than that. Sure, I could order more than one. But that’s kind of against the point, isn’t it? I mean, you’re asked to pick a word. What single word sums up who I am, what I want for the world, what I hope to model or what I value most?
Once a word is spoken, it can’t be taken back. And the spoken word is really so much more than a word, isn’t it? Words are a catalyst for emotion and for action. We are judged by our words, loved for our words, trusted for how we live our words. They must be chosen carefully. In contrast, the words we don’t choose to speak also convey meaning. What is implied by what we don’t say?
Poet Emily Dickinson said, “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes, I write one and look at it, until it begins to shine.” Maybe that’s the whole point of picking a word, putting it on a necklace, and wearing it close to your heart. Once written, the word cannot be denied. Once spoken, it cannot be taken back. And once lived, a word has power like nothing else.
It’s important to pick the right word.
Like many Americans, the results of last night’s election are weighing heavy on my mind. Like many, I am disturbed and disappointed. And if you are a reader of my blog, you know that this is where I often process my thoughts and ideas. I am going to make the bold assumption that you read my words because you find some value in the thoughts I share; that somehow, I inspire you to think about something in a way you maybe haven’t before. And so today, I write this blog for that reason.
I just need to share some of the things I am worried about.
I am worried because I believe that last night’s results are a reflection of this country’s unwillingness to truly embrace a woman leader. I’m not sure people even consciously know it exists. But there is an underlying and archaic prejudice that pervades our country’s values and belief systems. It is one that sets double standards and often calls women bitches when they hold positions of power and are strong leaders. It is thinking that criticizes women for many of the things for which their male counterparts are applauded, and it permeates the way girls are educated, hired, and celebrated. It is evident in white society; it is even worse for women of color. That needs to change.
I am worried because we have elected a bully. Some may admire Trump’s outspoken honesty, even arguing that his honesty, although often offensive, is refreshing. But what we saw throughout the campaign was someone who often used scare tactics, who raised his voice when he felt threatened, and who promised to exclude people who are often on the fringes of society. Now, on the day after the election, he speaks of inclusion and representing all people and their interests. It’s like the abusive husband who kisses his wife’s cheek on the day after he beat the shit out of her. That cannot be tolerated.
I am worried because we are focused on making America great again when, in reality, I don’t think we’ve come close to realizing our true greatness. While we have made strides, we are still a very long way from ensuring that all voices are heard in this country. We are even further from guaranteeing that those voices are heard with the same level of interest and validation. Am I to believe that the perception of greatness lies in a time when white men ruled the roost and women and minorities had less (or no) say? Many people have fought and died over time for the rights we have. Does making America great again imply that those rights have somehow diminished us? I don’t disagree that there are many, many great things about our country. But when we talk about “again,” I think we have to be careful about what exactly that means.
Finally, I am worried about what we will say to our children. Every day, we teach kids not to bully, to be inclusive, to think about how their words and actions impact others. What will we say now when they see all of the qualities we discourage rewarded with the highest position in our country? How will we explain that the person leading us does it not by example, but by modeling exactly how we shouldn’t act?
Someone said to me today that watching the election results come in last night was much like watching this season’s Walking Dead premier (I apologize to the readers who will not get the analogy here). In the case of the election, she said, some voters are like Negan who is swinging a bat named Trump to squash and kill those whose ideas and values are different than his own. Abraham and Glenn, she said, represent the morality and humanity that are killed in that swing. I hope that is not the case.
And so, perhaps the most important question is “Now what?”.
The “now what” is critically important. Sure, the face of politics is changed. Sure, there’s a celebrity in the White House. Sure, history has been made. But beyond that, we must all ask ourselves “now what” and decide how we will move ahead.
I remember when Obama was elected and there was a certain positive energy around the change he promised to bring to our country and to politics. I remember thinking that people saw him like some kind of savior. And now, eight years later the same people are full of criticism and disgust – to the point that they are now looking at more of a fallen angel to be our redeemer. Here’s the hard and honest truth: our salvation is up to us. No longer can we be complacent. Instead, each of us needs to embrace the democratic process and hold our politicians accountable: for their words, for their ideas, for their actions. With a president-elect, a House, and a Senate all representing the same political party majority, we can no longer blame disagreement between parties for our failure to make positive change.
The “now what” will be defined by our ability to be proactive, to advocate for rights for all people, and to hold our elected politicians accountable for representing not special interests and big money, but all of us. Our civic responsibility – and our need to be responsible to and for each other – is now greater than it has ever been. We need to be educated about the issues, we need to invest concern in each other, and we need to pressure our legislators to make decisions that truly benefit all of us.
Most importantly, when our children watch TV or log into social media, we have to make sure the messages they see reinforce for them that every one of us believes in them – all of them – and that the future of our greatness lies in the contributions they will make to our world. No matter their gender, their sexual orientation, their body type, or their color, our children must know that their ideas are respected and considered. I hope that they not only hear “United” States of America, but that when they stand and place their hands over their hearts to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, they feel united in a country that has their backs. That’s what will make America great. It is our duty to get us there.
Since this is a blog about relationships, I thought I’d talk a little bit about friendship. Friendship, I think, is the foundation of any solid relationship. Whether that friendship turns into a romance or if it remains platonic, it requires attention. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the friendships in my life. Admittedly, I realized that there are a few very important relationships I have been unintentionally ignoring; but there are also others that I think I’ve been maybe nurturing too much.
To the dear friends who I’ve left feeling ignored, I apologize. Chances are good that if you haven’t noticed my lack of contact, you’re not one of the people for whom that apology was intended. But if you read that first sentence and thought, “Yeah. I haven’t heard from her in a while and I wonder why,” or if you’ve been feeling like I’m distant (maybe that distance has even annoyed you)? Yep. That was for you. There are a handful of you that I could absolutely do a better job of keeping in touch with. I’m sorry. I will try harder. And I mean that sincerely.
Conversely, there are a handful of people who get entirely too much of my energy. I think about those people, I make time for those people, I reach out to those people to see how they are. Some of them deserve that attention; some do not.
In a meditation class I recently took, we spent a lot of time on living in the moment. The goal was to learn how to focus energy on the present, to let go of the energy of other people, and to become more self-aware. Through a series of exercises, I was asked to visualize things outside the present, to release the energy associated with them, and to picture blowing them up. And when I say “blowing them up,” I literally mean visualizing them in the distance and then blowing them up – with TNT, with a shotgun, as fireworks. We were told to use whatever worked for us to make those visualizations completely disappear. I think the whole point was to help us release any energy we were carrying from those people and experiences and to learn to live more fully in the present, but for me that exercise of blowing things up was very stressful. I never really mastered it.
As I think now about letting something go, I realize that we rarely do that with people and relationships in an active way. Instead, we begin to ignore someone or we change the parameters of the relationship in such a way that it simply begins to fade. And, as it is slowly and passively dying, we make excuses for why that’s happening: I’m busy, he moved, we had an argument, I work so much, etc., etc. etc. Often, this process of delay and excuses causes us a lot of undue stress and guilt.
Are there relationships in your life that are dying a slow death? If you can identify one or some, I think the most important question you can ask yourself is whether or not the loss of that relationship truly matters to you. If that person with whom you were once close disappeared completely from your life, would it make you sad? And, if you knew there was something you could do to hold onto that relationship, would you? If the answer to those questions was “yes,” I think you know what you need to do.
But if you answered “no” to those questions, I pose another: Why are you holding onto something that means so little to you? Is obligation or guilt the reason? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t someone to be my friend for those reasons. And you probably don’t either.
Today’s social media world has transformed the word “friend” into a verb. You can now “friend” someone and instantly access their life, their families, their everyday. In that way, the word “friend” has lost so much of its meaning and significance. And then we are left dumbfounded to understand why people feel lonely. The truth is that there is a significant difference between being a friend and being an acquaintance.
I guess my point is this: It is important to decide what role people really play in our lives so that we can spend our energy wisely. Investing too much energy in someone who is not really a friend is like waiting for a ship at the airport.
I’ve been thinking lately about the notion of intuition. But my reflection is not focused on the “gut feeling” we’re often told to trust; instead, it has been about the ability (or inability) of others to sense another person’s needs and to respond to them without being asked. I am trying to balance what is reasonable with what is fortune-teller-like and I am thinking about whether or not I am an intuitive friend to others – and whether they are to me.
I write this with an admitted hesitancy to ask for help. Yes, I am that person who feels bad asking others to do something for me. It’s not so much that I view asking for help as a weakness in myself. I think it is more that I never really want to put anyone out. I never want to inconvenience anyone and am not comfortable asking them to change their plans to accommodate me. Ironically, I am also the one who gets easily frustrated by friends who don’t ask for help when, clearly, a little assistance would go a long way in making their situation easier to handle. It’s a dichotomy, I know; a classic kettle meets pot situation. But I bet a number of readers will see themselves in what I wrote.
I also pride myself in being an intuitive friend. For the most part, my friends don’t have to ask for help. If I’m aware of a need, I often step up to help long before I’m asked. But please don’t misunderstand me. I am not tooting my own horn or making myself out to be some kind of exemplary human being. It’s just the opposite, really. I help because it makes me feel good. I am also a born problem-solver. So for me, an offer to help is really a way to solve a problem. I am, in fact, a pretty selfish person.
And so if I never ask for help, but find joy in offering it, why am I spending so much time reflecting on what’s painted as the ideal situation for me? The simple answer is that I am miserable. I have painted myself into a really uncomfortable corner where my inability to ask for help comes to a point with my frustration about others’ inability to actually sense that I need it sometimes. And in that corner, I am annoyed – mostly at myself – for the disappointment I often feel when people fail to step up.
As part of writing this blog, I did a little bit of research and came across a really great article called “8 Struggles Highly Intuitive People Experience Every Day.” Published by the Huff Post, one of the struggles outlined is that “We feel weirdly responsible for fixing the world’s problems.” And so true that is! Perhaps the reason I often step up to help without being asked is because I internalize everything. And with that comes a deep desire to just make things better. Again, it may sound valiant. But damn it, I’m exhausted.
Interestingly, the number one struggle cited in the article is that “We always know when someone is bullshitting us, even when we aren’t able to say anything about it.” The author claims that in order to maintain peace in our professional and personal relationships, we often don’t call people out on their “absolute lack of awareness.” Instead, we experience the frustration I have already described.
And so I will just say this. If you are not typically an intuitive coworker, friend, or partner, maybe try just a little harder to anticipate someone else’s needs. If you’re not sure what they need, ask. Everyone needs support for something at one point or another and a simple, “What can I do to help?” means a lot. Maybe at the moment you ask, they won’t need a thing. But they will know that you’re willing to help when the time comes. And for those like me, I can only suggest this. Try harder to communicate what you need. People are not mind readers and not everyone is as intuitive as you might be. While that can be extremely frustrating (and downright annoying sometimes), the people who love you aren’t being intentionally clueless. And, if you’re clear about what you need and they still fail to step up … well, then maybe you’re just better off without them.
Rivers and the oceans are the subject of countless poems and stories. In these anecdotes, we often read about a hero weathering a storm in a small boat or learning to conquer powerful and relentless waves. Sometimes the protagonist battles a creature of the sea or he learns to master the winds to set his sails in the right direction. All are metaphors for life.
As I sat and watched the water recently, I, too, was struck by a metaphor that the sea presented to me. Through my observation, I noticed that the water always seems to be moving forward. The roll of soft waves is never away from the beach. It is a constant motion toward the sand. What we don’t see (or maybe don’t always notice), however, is the action that happens underneath the surface; the undertow that pulls the water back to its source.
I sat and watched that water for quite a while. As I did, the metaphor grew stronger and stronger. I could recall with great clarity the feeling of standing in a surf zone where the water is relatively shallow, but the waves are high. Some of those waves I was able to jump. Some simply swelled around me, lifting my body off the ground in a carefree float. And some of those waves knocked me over and pushed salt water down my throat. I can recall in every situation, however, the sensation of undertow – the sand rushing backward over by bare skin as I regained my footing in the surf. That undertow says to me that even the strongest waves can be balanced out; that another force in nature knows the ocean so well that it works perfectly in tandem with it in a beautiful and productive way.
Many people confuse the term undertow with a rip current. The two are actually different things. While an undertow occurs wherever there are shore-approaching waves, a rip current is actually a more localized event that only occurs in certain places along the shore line. Undertows, I think, are a healthy and necessary characteristic of the sea. The rip current, however, has the potential to be dangerous. Both things, I believe, also serve as metaphors for life.
How much our lives are like the sea! It is no wonder so many of us are drawn to it. Like the water, we have an energy within us that drives us forward. It opens our eyes in the morning, calls us out of bed, and sends us out into the world with the hope that today will be better than yesterday. But under the surface of that drive, don’t we also have an undercurrent of thoughts, ideas, and connections? That undertow helps us to balance the momentum of enthusiastically moving forward with the reminder of who we are and what we value. The partnership of undertow and waves helps us to make decisions that are good for us.
The rip currents in our lives, however, are those things that serve as potential distractions. They interrupt the natural balance of ebb and flow and pull us from our intended direction. I think it is sometimes dangerously easy to confuse the two influences in our sea. But one clear distinction can be made: undertow is constant and true. It is a natural hesitation in us; an impetus to think before we act; a reminder that progress forward requires us to work hard, to navigate the world well, and to trust that even with the forces that sometimes work against us, another surge will come to push us once again forward.
Conversely, rip tides in life pop up unexpectedly – often when we think we have comfortably mastered how to ride the tide. The danger of the rip tide is that often presents itself with great force and passion…the kind of force that leads us to question our own decisions, to forget the lessons we’ve learned from the past, and to undermine our own well-being. As a result, we begin to make decisions that are “safe.” We fall into a pattern of surviving instead of thriving. We lose our ability to embrace adventure. The secret to the rip tide? Relax. Tread water for a while. Do not make sudden changes to direction as a reaction to the rip tide’s pull. Instead, live a life parallel to your shore. In time, the forward motion of the waves and the corresponding undertow will set you back on course, safe from drowning in a distraction that – for a moment – seemed like something that required your attention.
Because I always bring my reflections back to our relationships, I ask you, “Who are the rip tide people in your life?” Are you able to identify the people whose energy or intentions pull you away from your shore? Who are the people whose decisions have left you fighting in one way or another to survive? And do these people exert an energy or passion that is hard to ignore (despite the danger they represent) simply because you share a common ocean in some way?
Conversely, who are the people who know what lies beneath your surface and still choose to work in partnership with you? Can you identify the people who are able to both ride your waves and also keep you grounded? Who are the people whose actions push you not into an open and scary sea, but who more gently invite you to a place of love and acceptance? These are your undertow people. Embrace them, celebrate those relationships, and remember that when a wave knocks you over, these are the people whose influence will pull back the tide so you have time to once again stand.