I was eight or nine years old the night I couldn’t sleep and my dad sat down and asked me what was going on. My dad was a Brooks Brothers suit-and-tie, hors d’oeuvres and cocktails before dinner even at home kind of guy (with deadly accurate throwing-shoes-at-running-misbehaving-kids skills; it was the ‘70s), and we didn’t have a lot of heart-to-hearts until I got to college, but I remember this one.
I couldn’t sleep because I was all tangled up in worry about some school thing—a project or a test or something. I remember my dad sort of sighed and, instead of the “just go to sleep” I expected, asked me a question:
Did you do your best?
It was out of character, and I thought for a second before nodding my head. “Then that’s all you can do,” he said. “What’s going to change if you lie here all night and worry about it?” I snuffled back tears and mumbled, “nothing.”
He sat for a minute and said, “If you did your best, there’s no point to worrying about it. You’ll just make yourself tired and won’t be able to do your best tomorrow. And worrying doesn’t change anything. So let it go. Think about something else.” And he went back to bed. I did too, after a little while.
It was a great conversation for a little girl worried about school, and it’s a good one now, when we’re all worried about our health, our loved ones, our companies, and our general well-being—and everything else. I don’t remember living through a more stressful time and I certainly never thought I’d live through something like a world-shuttering pandemic. I’m spending more effort than usual focusing on the right-now: Right now, I’m working. Right now, we’re healthy. Right now, we have plenty of groceries. Right now, I have these six things to do. And tomorrow will come whether I lie awake worrying about it or not, so that’s pointless (I am too old for such exhaustion, anyway).
Our family has been working hard in our own spaces during the day, but we’ve come together for dinner and a movie almost every night since our stay-at-home orders started in early March. Most of the movies are silly and lots are those we’ve seen before and loved, and sharing a meal and 90 minutes of laughter and goofiness together is good for all of us. We clean up afterwards, walk dogs, and go off to bed or late-night teenage e-socializing, and the next day always comes. I'm sleeping in fits and starts most nights just from latent stress, but haven't lain awake worrying--at least, not consciously.
Do your best and let it go. That’s all we can do—tomorrow will come.
A stomachache turned into an urgent care visit turned into a race to the hospital turned into emergency appendix-removal surgery for my son one Friday night last spring. About 20 sleepless and stressful hours later that included missing a funeral at which I was supposed to read (add guilt to the mix), I found myself at the pharmacy; not the one closest to my house, but one where I'd seen previous random acts of kindness. That was important.
I stood in the typical Saturday line and waited my turn and the pharmacist took the scripts from me without looking up. "About 20 minutes," he said, and then glanced at my eyes. "You know what? Hang on a second." And he walked into the rows of shelves, poured pills into bottles, scanned labels, and gave me the meds--90 seconds, max. "I hope you have a quiet night."
That was a miracle. I hadn't said a word.
I've been thinking a lot about the posts we've all seen asking people to choose three words for the year (can't help it--picking words is in my job description). Pick three words as a sort of mantra and then resolve to live them for 365 days. And after more than a reasonable amount of consideration, I chose. From a Jim Carrey movie, of all things.
Bruce Almighty is the story of a man who feels cursed--personally smited--by a God he's not so sure he even believes in. When he challenges God to bring it on, Morgan Freeman shows up and does just that, giving Bruce almighty powers to do whatever he wants. And then God goes on vacation.
Things don't really go as planned from there (it's a Jim Carrey movie, y'all), but one of the last scenes has stuck with me since I saw it more than a decade ago. "Parting your soup isn't a miracle, Bruce," says God. "It's a magic trick." And then he defines real miracles, sort of explains the notion of free will and choices, and leaves Bruce with a charge: Be the miracle.
I've often thought it would make for a good T-shirt or nonprofit campaign. And "Be the Miracle" is my three-word choice for the year, understanding that a miracle can be anything that changes someone's life--which in most cases, is just changing someone's day. It's holding the door for the person behind me or opening it for the person in front of me. It's speaking kindly. Maybe it's driving an extra kid home or looking out for a lost dog or just smiling at the right moment (which could be any moment, almost). Taking a breath instead of snapping at someone; taking an extra minute to think about where they're coming from, even when (especially when) they're not being quite so miraculous themselves. It's toning down my negative kneejerk reactions and ramping up the positive ones. Which is going to be a conscious effort and, I'll admit, a challenge.
So those are the words and this is the clip and now it's out there as my resolution. Be the Miracle. Tiny little things that might add up, maybe even in 90 seconds at the pharmacy. Would love to hear your three words if you have them. Happy new year, friends.
My mom missed the big moms-making-ceramics trend of the early 1980s. She made up for it when the house emptied into college dorms about a decade later.
If you told my mom you liked pasta salad, she'd bestow so much on you for so long that 30 years on, you'd barely be able to look at it without a slight snarl of innate, oh-sweet-Moses-not-that-again, aversion (true story). Same for Kix cereal, Matchbox cars, knitted doll sweaters--you name it. Generosity to a fault, and when she got into something, it became The Thing for quite some time. And so it was with ceramics, albeit 10 years late. The little green Christmas trees with the holes and the plastic lights, Santa statues with candles inside, a few pumpkins, and several nativity sets. Which is where it got a little weird in the very best way.
Mom made simple nativity sets for my brother and me: Joseph, Mary, a manger, and a detached baby Jesus to be set into place on Christmas morning. She must have had more time after finishing those because she made a set for her and my dad that can only be described as epic. Joseph, Mary, manger, independent baby Jesus, all three wise men, a sizeable flock of camels, a few cows and horses, the angel Gabriel, a stable, and I think a couple each of pigs and birds. Just so you can picture it all, know Joseph was about 10 inches tall and everybody and everything else was in perfect scale with him. This was not your grandmother’s five-and-dime nativity set.
Slightly squished together, the whole, grand ensemble took up the entire top of our family’s well-scarred, yard sale spinet piano. But even that wasn’t quite what Mom had in mind, and shortly after Thanksgiving, she’d carefully set it all up and then go foraging through the neighborhood for holly and evergreen sprays to zhuzh up the place; Bethlehem was apparently very green that year. After that, there was no touching. This was Jerusalem back in the day and she’d chop your darn hand off. Merry Christmas.
Opposite my mom’s shiny, white, slightly obsessive cheer was my dad; guys like him are affectionately called “curmudgeons," which is code for “grouchy.” He never complimented the large-scale sprouting of the pure white holiest of moments atop our piano, but he never openly complained about it either, which was the same as a compliment. He wasn’t into ceramics but he liked boats a whole lot, and we were the family with wooden ship’s wheels and clanging marine clocks on our paneled walls.
The year they finished making college tuition payments, Mom commissioned an Eastern Shore craftsman to make a large replica of a skipjack for my dad. She also had the artist make a mahogany and glass case for it to keep the dust off. Dad’s eyes jumped with delight that Christmas morning and he spent a few hours inspecting every quarter-inch of the new pride and joy.
Around lunchtime, we found ourselves in the family room and somebody asked Dad where he planned to keep the ship. “On top of the piano,” he said before backwards nodding over his shoulder toward it and the epic nativity. “As soon as that meeting’s over.”
Well, there it was. I don’t think anyone in my family has uttered the word “nativity” out loud ever again. It is—all versions of it are—the meeting. Mine is a meeting, the one at my neighbor's house is a meeting, the big one at church is a meeting, and the gargantuan ceramic version my mom carefully set out every year for the next couple of decades is a meeting. Hers is carefully packed away in a big Rubbermaid bin in my basement (I quite literally don’t have a surface big enough to display it), that’s marked in huge Sharpie letters: Meeting. And the box that holds my much smaller version—the one that makes it to my living room every year—is marked the same way.
I guess that’s how lots of family sayings have come to be. And I think grown-up Jesus laughs along with us every year as we call the meeting to order (check out “Between Heaven and Mirth,” by James Martin, SJ, for validation). The meeting is central to our Christmas, which is central to our year, and I hope the tradition carries on way past me, though I won’t be trying to make any ceramic camels anytime soon.
Wishing your family a heartwarming holiday and your own, unique traditions to carry on. Especially the weird ones.
The E.R.'s packed triage area was lined with people in wheelchairs and on gurneys, hooked up to IVs and monitors, being given pills and instructions and shots. We'd been part of the lineup for about two hours (everybody's fine) when two EMTs rolled in an older man with lines of blood escaping down his cheeks from underneath the gauze bandage cap they'd fashioned. He was parked next to us, visibly upset--fidgeting and fidgeting with his broken wire-rimmed bifocals, craning his neck to watch frenetic nurses.
The TV in the hall was tuned to that day's political scandal on CNN and two hours was more than enough of that, so we started chatting with the old man. He needed to get to Florida. Left New England early that morning and had been on the road all day. Stopped for gas, fell, broke his fall with his face, and ended up next to us. His phone and keys were in his car, right where he'd left them at the gas station.
By now, his hands were streaked with blood so we dialed a number and held the phone near his mouth in speaker mode. The recorded voice that answered was his, and his face clouded up for a moment. "Oh," he said. "That's my cell phone number." A different number landed his wife. "OK, well call me when you're done," she said.
When the call clicked off, he went back to fidgeting with his mangled glasses, eyes darting around the area. Anxiety clearly at gravity-defying levels. "I want to go get my car," he said. "I'm very upset that my car is at a gas station." We explained there are worse neighborhoods to leave one's car, but his anxiety continued. We asked if he knew what gas station had it. Not a clue. Knew it was a big road and there were several stations around that intersection. No idea how long the ambulance ride was.
Back and forth, questions and shrugs, and finally a tiny nugget--a road name sounded familiar. My husband started calling the several dozen gas stations there. "Did you call an ambulance for a gentleman earlier tonight?" Eighth or ninth station was the charm. They had his car and his keys, no worries at all, everything's safe.
And they close for the night in two hours.
There is no way anybody's getting out of here in two hours. He doesn't want to pay for a hotel room and deal with it in the morning. Eventually, it comes out that he'd had an accident--a fender-bender, really--about an hour before he fell.
Neither of us is an expert but this isn't our first rodeo in this particular arena. We exchange nervous glances and quietly explain to a nurse what's going on, hoping they'll admit him just to keep him still for a night. She nods. And then it's our turn for a real treatment room, we bid our farewells, and don't see him again.
Saturday mid-day, the man's wife calls back the strange number that called her last night. This time, she's upset--frantic. She hasn't heard from her husband, not a peep. He's not answering his phone, she has no idea where he is or what hospital treated him, and life is upside-down.
Very long story slightly shorter, my husband connects her with the hospital and she's able to connect the dots from there. She calls back that night to say thanks.
We want to ask but don't what her husband is doing driving most of the east coast by himself in one day. Because this is not a good situation at all. But it's not our business and not our fight, so we don't. Just wish her well. I wish somebody would do more. I wish somebody would have that really awful, horrible conversation with him--the one that starts with "car keys" and leads to some shouting and tears, and ends with Amtrak or the airport and a better plan, but does not end up in the emergency room looking like a horror movie extra. The one where we put some support in place for folks who are living longer than ever but have no decent infrastructure or process to do it well.
I hope he slept a lot and then turned around and went home. I doubt it, but I hope so. That's all I can do.
My favorite moments from last night:
The company I had a question for doesn't list contact information on its website, so I reached out on Twitter, where it has an active presence. Two days later ... silence except for what I suspect are scheduled posts all about them. Which isn't using social media very socially at all.
The "social" in social media is the key point. Social media is about connecting, conversing, and generating a feeling of community. The value isn't in using your account as a giant billboard, but in those two-way connections that used to happen in person at the corner store, in B2B groups, and throughout neighborhoods when we all did our business locally. I talk to you, you talk to me, we share back and forth, and we establish and maintain--and enjoy in the truest sense of the word--a lovely working relationship.
So here's my question of the day: How social is your social?
We went to Lowe's yesterday for bathtub caulk to tackle one of those never-ending grown-up projects nobody tells you about before you grow up. This particular Lowe's is quite literally plopped between corn fields and dairy farms in a little town just outside a tourism district, with equal parts beauty and making-ends-meet in a county with 12 total traffic lights and 55 mph as far as you can see--watch out for tractors and buggies.
We find our caulk and get in line at the register behind a guy wearing a maintenance uniform from one of the nearby home rental companies. He's got a lock set he's flipping around in his hands to pass the time. We all nod and go back to staring off into space, waiting our turns.
And then there's a flash of red. Another guy, same age as our maintenance friend (but looking 10 years older) in a sleeves-cut-off red flannel and disintegrating white jeans, materializes in a whoosh and starts talking--Dude, how you been? Where you working? Where? Where? You like it? Hey dude text me sometime--bobbing and weaving and fidgeting. Even his eyes are twitching faster than the speed limit. He is strung out--I mean strung out beyond any hope of anything happening reaching comprehension in his brain. Hopped up on something not at all good and frying as we watch.
Our friend in line avoids eye contact, answers in single words, and gently dismisses the guy. Then he turns to us as if he owes us an explanation and says, "It's terrible what drugs will do." And we start talking. They went to high school together, the maintenance guy and the flash of red, and haven't crossed paths in years. It's a beautiful area but tough to make a living here, and the meth situation is getting worse.
"I've never done anything but work," says our friend, and shakes his head. "The elevator only goes up, you know?" he says. "You either get on it or you keep walking around where you are, but that doesn't go anywhere. Just keep working up."
Then it was his turn to pay and he chatted with the cashier, grabbed his bag, and turned to us again. "You all have a wonderful day," he says, pointing at the rain outside. "Hope you can enjoy some of this liquid sunshine." And then he was off, I'm guessing to install locks in somebody else's house to pay the bills in his own.
Ninety seconds, maybe. Unbelievably sad and very hopeful at the same time. Best motivational speech I've heard in a very long time. I have never been so glad to have dragged my kids to Lowe's in my life.
Maybe 10 years ago, I wrote a series of advertorials for a regional magazine--paid content, so the people who bought them each got an interview and a couple back-and-forths with the copy. Most folks were terrific. There was one guy, though, who was clearly Very Important, blowing off scheduled calls, peppering our interview with heavy, annoyed sighs and interruptions, and letting me know in no uncertain terms that he was way farther up the ladder than I'd ever be and that the article I wrote (from the interview we had) wasn't fit to line a bird cage, only not that nicely. You kid, outta my universe.
I'm now part of his targeted business audience. His ads go in the recycling bin, my business went to a competitor without hesitation, and friends and neighbors who ask for referrals hear both my experience with this guy and get the number of his competition. He recently tried to connect with me on social media. He doesn't remember me, but I vividly remember him.
There's an adage about learning someone's true colors by the way they treat the wait staff. I'd say it's true of the way someone treats anyone "beneath" them, and that it's pretty easy to napalm a bridge they never even considered might exist, but might want to cross someday. Character matters.
We found her by accident early on a Sunday, back when the for-sales and the open houses were in the real estate section of the paper (and only in the real estate section of the paper). The listing down the street we'd come to see in the pouring rain wasn't our style and on our way out of the neighborhood whose streets we didn't know, she and her little for-sale sign caught our eyes. The listing agent had forgotten to submit the ad that week and she was Godawful ugly, with Army green shutters and an Army green porch and an Army green picket fence around the back, but she had great bones--anybody could see that--and so we rousted our agent out of bed way too early, took our shoes off to leave the mud outside, put in a bid against three other people and thanked the Lord for that forgotten ad, and found out while Christmas shopping three days later that she was ours.
The first project was removing painted-over wallpaper (pink and gold stripes...lovely stuff) from almost every room. After that, the walls were skim-coated and painted again, carpet was replaced, locks and toilet seats were changed, and then we moved in. A week later, we adopted our first dog and met our first neighbor, whose 10-year-old son wanted to come and play with the very hyper, very nervous rescue lab. It worked out well for everybody.
We met the next neighbors when they walked over mid-project to thank us for painting over all the Army green outside, and then another while trimming an overgrown tree at the corner of the house; that neighbor had a better saw and sympathy for people who obviously had good intentions but no clue what they were doing. We met more when five of us on the block were pregnant at the same time (five boys--the mailman was sure we were pranking him that summer), and the people behind us when their birdhouse fell behind our shed in a storm.
Nine years went by. New countertops to replace the ones with the burn marks, a new kitchen floor to replace the one that was torn, new cabinets to replace...well...ugly. Joe built me an office off the playroom and behind the hot water heater in the basement when I started freelancing, complete with a tiny built-in bookshelf and French doors, and then we added a bathroom down there because who wants to deal with stairs and toddlers all day long? We cabled the trees, built a shed, swapped out the old windows for new ones that didn't need painting, enjoyed our friends, raised a family. Wrote our names in the sidewalk when the county poured fresh concrete out front. Nine Christmases with way too many people in way too little space. I met the woman who'd grown up in the house, two owners before us, and then the man whose mom dropped her green Woodward & Lothrop charge card behind the cabinets one day for us to find decades later, with a family photo. Black and white, Polaroid, mom, dad, three kids--the youngest kid was past retirement when he rang the doorbell. Found the spot where the builders dumped all the rocks from the lot, too, exactly where we wanted the fishpond to go.
It got tight. We met with three design/build firms and learned the only way to expand was to destroy the character we loved and to tear down the trees. Couldn't do it. So we looked and looked and found the next dream home six doors down the street.
Today, the bulldozers came. Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood and I drowned out the crashes and the booms so I wouldn't have to listen. There's a pile of bricks and wood and metal, shreds of carpet and mangled appliances and gutters where she was, all dumped into the basement. There's no sign of the towering maple trees we cabled or the two smaller ones we planted, or the fishpond we built despite all those rocks under the ground. The basement door is still locked--that made me laugh. Their dream, their happiness; I'm sure the new house will be beautiful and I wish them many happy years there. But I walked over and stood in the rubble after the bulldozer guys left, and ran my hands over the bricks and had a few tears for the old girl. Met another neighbor, too--lady from down the street who saw me, asked what was up, and then stayed so I wouldn't be there by myself. People are good.
She had a good life. She wasn't mine anymore, but I will miss her.
1949 - 2018
The projector crapped out halfway through a presentation I attended a few nights ago, leaving the speaker without her PowerPoint presentation. She stumbled for a moment, took a few minutes to gather herself, and then a wonderful thing happened. She started just talking. No graphs, no regurgitating exactly what was on the screen. She walked around and shared her expertise off-the-cuff, taking questions along the way--without slides, there was no need to hold them to the end and there was no need to stay behind a podium, out of the sightline between audience and screen.
It was terrific. The second half of the night was far more engaging than the first half, and she posted her slides to a website the next day so we could all access them. She also shared that plan with her audience as soon as the screen went dark, so we all stopped scribbling notes and taking photos of slides, and just listened. And I went from checking my watch every 10 minutes to fully and happily participatory, because she was no longer talking at us but participating in a conversation with us.
What a revolution. Food for thought...