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Social Experiment

It started many months ago as a hypothetical question posed over coffee, as many hypothetical questions are ought.  “If you knew someone was struggling–really having a tough go at it–what would you do?”

There was a quiet pause as everyone’s eyes shifted to a different location—the wall, our coffee, the corner of the table, our shoes.  Then the babble began.

“Take them to a funny movie.”  “Kings Island, baby!”  “Have them over for dinner.”  “Take them dancing.”  “Girls’ night out.”  “Send them a balloon bouquet.”  …

Unfortunately, the data our questioner shared with us shows that most of us—almost 90 percent of us—will ignore them.  We didn’t believe it.  So our questioner asked us to try a little experiment.  “The next time you feel down, confide in a few people and see what happens.”

I guess I’m lucky that it took so long for me to feel “down,” but “down” is exactly how I felt for about a week here recently.  I’m not talking suicidal.  I’m talking about depression—probably even only low-level depression at that.

Getting out of bed was a major feat that felt like it sucked out every bit of energy I had.  I skipped taking showers if I didn’t have client meetings, and I only put makeup on once that week.  I took—on average—two naps per day and couldn’t even manage to walk my dogs around the block.  I cried—on average—90 minutes out of every day.  I checked facebook –on average—every 20 minutes instead of the once-every-three-days plan I had been checking; and I posted drunk messages, promptly deleting them the next day when there was only one or no responses.  I bought and ate an entire box of double-stuffed oreos and then promptly threw them up.  I counted every dumb thing I’d ever done, ever said, ever thought.

And then I remembered the challenge.  “Tell someone.”

I mentioned it in casual conversation with a confidant.  I wrote a brief post on facebook and left it up there for four days.  I told my daughter.  I told my dogs.  I told a few friends that I see regularly…I summed it up in an e-mail to my long-time pen pal:

Help! I’ve been feeling the sucking, draining onset of depression pulling at me. I’ve lost every bit of energy I own, and I can’t stop crying or feeling sorry for myself! Why?  There’s nothing really wrong with me—I know that.  But, I don’t even have the energy to go shower right now. I’m so lonely. I feel truly and completely alone, uncared for, unloved and worthless for anything but work—which makes me feel even more tired.  I don’t see any joy in living.  All I see is work and responsibilities and more work.  Don’t worry—I’m not suicidal.  But I feel like there’s no hope!

Did you ever read a short story called The Electric Ant in which a man is in a car accident only to find out he’s a robot, so he pulls his “tape” to find out how much of his life has been programmed? I read it years ago in philosophy class and somehow it’s stuck with me. The question being…was the accident programmed? Was his finding out he was programmed programmed? Anyway, I bring it up because I feel like I’ve discovered I’m a robot—programmed only to work and do what other people want—raise kids, make money, clean house, take care of parents and family. No fun, no emotions, no affection, no attention, no warmth, no rest, no reward—just work, work, work. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve laughed? Or felt worthwhile…

My e-mail pen pal never responded to my e-mail, but several days later sent me a book recommendation about a technology book he’s reading.

My confidant told me to focus on work.  One person—a person I only met once for about an hour, who lives across the country—commented on my facebook post.  One of my regular friends offered to buy me a glass of wine and talk about it, but never responded to my text about meeting up.  Most of the rest of my friends still haven’t responded.  My dogs snuggled up with me for a nap the afternoon I told them, then promptly left me to go chase a squirrel in the yard.  I admit, I did blow off one friend who didn’t know I was feeling low, but who invited me to go out…mostly because I didn’t have the energy to shower and get out of my pjs.

I must admit, Gentle Penguin, the experiment made my depression worse.

By the way—I’m feeling better now.  To start with, I’m delighted to tell you that when I told my daughter I was feeling really alone and low, she dropped everything, pulled me over to the couch, put her arms around me, told me she loved me, then asked me why I felt that way.  She didn’t argue with me about it, or try to be logical.  She just listened.  She reminded me of many people who love me.  And suggested that I talk to a professional or go see my doctor.  Then she told me it would be okay and hugged me again.  The next day, she asked me if I had made an appointment, and told me she was glad when I said I had.  “You’ll feel better soon, mom.” She hugged me again…and kept a close eye on me for the next few days.

Soon, I was feeling better.  I’m fortunately to have such a wonderful girl.  And that my depression is (and has always been) mild and manageable.

Now, the POINT of this isn’t to berate my friends or make anyone feel badly.  The point is that the experiment was my first-hand awareness that discomfort leads to avoidance.  And that is frightening.

Why is this frightening?  Because research now shows that when women hear someone they work with has been diagnosed with breast cancer, they’re LESS likely to get screened themselves.  College students were willing to PAY MONEY to not have blood that was already drawn tested for herpes.  And according to various statistics, when an overweight person loses weight, they also lose—on average—two friends for every 14 pounds.  When people break up after a relationship, they lose—on average—eight friends.  When a person gets divorced, they lose—on average—twelve friends.  When a person’s parents die, they lose—on average—four friends.  When a person’s spouse or child dies, they lose—on average—almost 80 percent of their friends.

This is really simple to fix.

Don’t avoid discomfort.  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said President F.D. Roosevelt.  Have your mammograms and take the health tests you dread if you’re at risk.  Find people you trust to talk to for support.  And when you know someone is struggling, listen, respond when they ask for help, remind them you care.

I care.  And I’m here if you need my help.

Refraction

There’s a lightning bug outside my bedroom window. At first, I thought it was my headache, or even my imagination as I lay awake worrying about things I can’t control but somehow seem determined to try.

I honestly didn’t know they could come up this high. They always struck me as more down-to-earth, flitting about among the grass blades or in my lavender or amidst the tree trunks of the forest first floor.

But there, against a black sky and a waxing moon; there, on the other side of my writing desk, separated from me by only the gilded curtains of Vlore fame gifted to me recently; there, distracting my thoughts from money and time and questions of purpose—there it was.

Wink. . . . Wink. . . . It had my full attention.

After several moments of complete darkness, however, I abandon my worries and the false attempt at rest. I get up. I try to be quiet as I look for my pen and paper, but my clenched jaw only makes my headache worse. And every noise seems magnified.

I sit still for a long time watching for the lightning bug.

It seems perfectly natural to be sitting at my writing desk in the dark, and for a moment I wonder if I would sleep better laying my head down on the smooth, cool mahogany wood surface.

Wink. . . .

I can’t help but notice that while the momentary flash is beautiful and awe inspiring, it doesn’t offer much light and passes rather quickly.

My desk lamp got moved in my most recent decluttering frenzy, and I’ve been forced to test the lighting options of my cell phone. Much brighter and consistent than the lightning bug, the phone flashlight dulls the darkness of my room. However, the narrow focus of its beam makes it impossible to read or write.

So I’ve borrowed the bathroom mirror and discovered that if I position my cell phone just right, I can create an oval of light that illuminates my desk top perfectly with little refraction elsewhere. Whatever stray light remains glints off the gilded curtains and my clock so that I feel as if I’m surrounded by magic.

Then I do the only thing that ever seems to make sense—I write a letter.

Tonight, the letter is to someone new, someone I recently met who reminded me of something important, someone who will never receive the letter. I learned long ago that it’s the writing of the letter that the Universe cares about, not the sending. And I’m thankful for that because I’m not a brave person; I could never send the letter I wrote because it contained pieces of my mind, heart and soul.

I write the letter anyway because I’ve learned that putting my mind, heart and soul into a letter is like spending savings. You sacrifice and work hard to accumulate your savings—not for the accumulation, but for the opportunity to trade it for something rare and precious when it comes along. And when the opportunity is right, you end up richer for the expenditure.

So too with this letter.

It was a thank you letter to someone who showed me such admiration and attention that I remembered something important about myself—something I’d forgotten.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been admired, not for my abilities, but for my charm. It’s been awhile, quite frankly, since I’ve been able to be a woman—high heels, lipstick, dresses and smiles. Most of the time these days, I find myself in pants and flats and a controlled self expression ever pervasive as I navigate rules and regulations at work and home.  But charm and femininity are worthy of admiration.  I think about it and realize I have been admired for both occasionally throughout the past few years.  It was the next point that was so rare and valuable.

I was admired for skills so subtle and natural but powerful that without much effort I could have moved mountains.  And I was reminded that I was once considered an exceptional chief of staff, who often is more powerful when I join someone else’s dream instead of trying to push my own agenda.

Could it be that my loneliness has also been a misunderstood construct of a society that says the only way to success is alone?

Oh Gentle Penguin, you may think I’m daft, but everywhere I turn the cheers and chants are for entrepreneurs, people who pour themselves into something of their own making in hopes it makes a difference or at least a profit. Could that be a siren call?

Could it be that those who support another’s dream instead of just their own are also heroes and demigods because they believe and work hard to make those dreams come true?

I’m not talking about giving them a plaque or a closer parking spot or even a raise. What about giving them admiration and attention for the knowledge and heart they contribute?

I can tell you for certain, a little admiration and attention can go a long, long way.

I’m also not talking about giving up your own dream, but rather finding a way it fits with someone else’s dream—a way that brings both dreams closer, perhaps, to reality…like a mirror reflecting a focused beam across a writing desk instead of dimming the darkness slightly or momentarily.

The letter is finished…carefully sealed, addressed, and placed in my desk drawer. Maybe it will yet find it’s way to the recipient. We’ll see…

In the dark

I love driving, and once again I can’t believe how beautiful the landscape is just hours from my home.

My forested green fields and waving corn stalks give way to rolling hills dressed in purple heather and beige grass, dotted with so many different types of trees all highlighted with sunshine. Soon, though, the hills push higher toward a sky that’s becoming more crowded with dark gray clouds filled with thunder. It heightens the experience and sharpens my focus while my car and I trace the curves, the climbs, and the deep inclines.

On the other side of those mountains are the enchanted forests—you know, where the grass barely grows tall enough to touch the top of the toadstools, but the tree trunks flash their bare, lanky trunks beneath flirty skirts of foliage. I could swear I saw the sprites playing hide and seek as I drove by…or maybe those were the elves working feverishly to protect their beloved wooded home from the pollution of our passing cars.

My beloved Ohio wines are replaced by wineries from other states, but the exits often claim names of cities and streets that match the grapes Ohio made famous—especially Catawba.

And though the sun is still elbowing for space in the sky, I’m acutely aware that if it were a clear night, I would once again be able to see the Milky Way. I haven’t seen it in almost two years. It’s just not visible in Ohio…anywhere.

It’s quite eye-opening to know that when the sun goes down, there actually is no darkness around. Why is that? Are we a state of people afraid of the dark?

Lost

Something someone said to me last week has been bothering me. At first it was just a prick at the back of my mind, but every day since then something else has occurred to deepen its impact until it has become a gash in my thoughts. I’m officially losing sleep over it.

“No, individualism is the only way. I can go it alone. And so can you. We can be at complete odds but both be right, because it’s all about what’s right for ‘me.'”

Right.

“But what about ‘you,'” I asked.

“There is no more ‘you.’ Only ‘me.'”

Now, Gentle Penguin, I may have whined about feeling lonely before, but there are no words to describe how utterly and completely destitute that conversation made me feel.

I understand the point. And I know there are lots of merits to individualism. I myself have always been a fan of individualism—we each have value and should strive to bring it to full fruition. But could it be that we’ve taken it a bit too far?

A few days passed, and among those days a commercial airplane was lost—shot down over a power and land battle. I heard the word “evil” creep back into the vernacular. Somehow, I was uncomfortable with the word.

“Are we allowed to say ‘evil’ anymore?” I asked.

“Why not? Don’t you think the murdering of hundreds of innocent lives—lives in no way connected to the pursuit of the power and land greed that caused it—is an evil act?”

I have to admit that I do.

I trace my illogical discomfort with the word “evil” to a growing suspicion that in our individualities we have lost sight of the fact that we actually aren’t alone. Yes, I said “we.”

Gentle Penguin, have you ever lived with someone else? Shared a room with a sibling or a roommate? Were you ever married or had children? Do you take care of an aging parent or grandparent? Do you have a dog?

Maybe you commute on a train or work in an office or live in a city. Maybe you’ve shopped at a store or driven on a road or voted. Maybe you’ve eaten at a restaurant or gone to the doctor or played a sport.

All these situations involve other people. They make a “we.”

Have you ever noticed that you sometimes adjust your behavior slightly around someone else? Maybe lower your speaking volume or move your oversized purse sitting on the only empty seat at the bar. Maybe you adjust your schedule, or your walking pace, or your path. Maybe you put down the toilet seat or fix several servings of food instead of just one. Maybe you spend an hour playing Fetch or helping with homework.

There are times (especially lately with both my daughters home ALL the time) when I think it would be easier to just let the mess go, to decide I don’t feel like driving my youngest to soccer practice every night, to fix sushi instead of cooking something that suits the three of us, to bypass the daily dog walk in favor of an hour of TV.

But my core is care for the collective good. And I value peace in my home more than my need for individual gratification. I realize I’m odd. But I don’t think I’m that odd.

The need for individual importance (autonomy) is only one of the five core social needs in humanity. Belonging (acceptance or affiliation) is another. Maslow ranks it just above safety. (Incidentally, the other three also have to do with societal structures: appreciation, status and role.)

But to achieve these things, there has to be a “you” in addition to your “me.”

That means there have to be rules. Scientists call them constructs. You might also know them as manners or etiquette.

Now, I know our distrust of governments, corporations, religions, rules and regulations is at an all-time high. And God knows I too find myself questioning and defying all those things from time to time. But as Thomas Jefferson taught us shortly after the birth of our nation, ignoring or defying manners will only tear us apart.

Because no one will understand. And when people don’t understand why you behave the way you do, they usually end up hurt, angry, frustrated, annoyed, irritated…and another link in the chain of humanity is lost.

When you know what to expect and what’s expected of you, you will succeed. Everything else leads to…evil.

So how do we fix this? I doubt I’m going to be selected to share this insight with Putin…or those in the Palestine/Israeli dispute…or to drug lords in Central America…or militants in Iraq…or ivory poachers in Africa…or anywhere else there is great need. I doubt they’d even listen so great is their greed, their anger, and perhaps their need for more basic things (like safety and food, health and protection).

And etiquette sounds so “establishment,” so “snobby.” Not at all like a life-saving, world-changing idea.

But it is.

Thee isn’t a day that goes by in the past few months when I haven’t found evidence for the power of etiquette to bring about hope, peace and joy.

Try it. Perhaps you could hold the door open for some walking with their hands full today. Or say “thank you” when someone does so for you. Perhaps you could look your barista in the eye when you purchase your cup of coffee…and smile. Or understand that the Muslim woman who seems to be sneering at you at the bus stop is really just tired and hungry after a month of Ramadan (it ends in Monday. And if you don’t know what it is, find out from a reputable source—ps. if it sounds hateful and evil, it’s not a reputable source.).

Perhaps you could make an effort to groom a little more carefully knowing that how you appear is a natural way for people to decide how to interact with you. Perhaps you could avoid talking with food in your mouth so that people will listen to you rather than silently ponder the grossness of seeing your mastication.

Perhaps you could let a car merge in front of you as you queue at the light or wait in traffic after work. Perhaps you could take a moment to check your timing so you don’t keep someone else waiting and wondering. Perhaps you could be more aware of how much space you and your cart are taking up in the grocery aisle when someone is trying to pass by. Or ensure you park between the lines in the parking lot so everyone can find a space.

Perhaps you could write a quick note thanking someone for something that made you feel important, and send it in the mail. Or bring a bottle of wine (or flowers) with you when someone invites you to dinner. Or answer the RSVP they sent for an upcoming event and make sure you attend. Or turn your phone on vibrate or silent when in a meeting, at a movie, out to dinner or in the bathroom.

There are a hundred other suggestions I could offer that will—when accumulated—turn the tide toward peace and save the world.

I ask you, please, could we could all try just one or two for the next week? Do it for the families of the lost. You just might find you feeling a bit more hopeful and peaceful too.

Life and death

Wednesday was my first brush with death; but today, I knocked elbows with him twice before noon. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t death that rocked me to the core, it was life.

Because my schedule is flexible, I decided I should dedicate some of my time to something meaningful, something that would give me perspective, something that served others and took my attention off myself.

I volunteer at Hospice twice a week.

It sounds so giving, but really I just spend my shifts making and delivering coffee to tired family members and patients, sitting with them, and listening to whatever they have to say.

They tell me about illnesses, disappointments, triumphs, pains, families, and memories. They tell me about nothing in particular, or we talk politics or music or coffee. Sometimes I just sit and hold their hand. Did you know that even the boniest, coldest hand can still be warm and soft?

I said something about how soft one woman’s hand was to her daughter today, and she started crying. “Did you know that since my mother has been dying, I’ve lost most of my friends?” These types of blurtations seem to happen frequently with family members of the dying. “Sheila, one of my friends, said it’s because they don’t know what to say. Honestly, saying anything would be better than facing this alone.”

I mentioned that to my volunteer boss. “Oh, it’s very common,” she told me sounding surprised that I was surprised. “Our society is very uncomfortable with death; and we’ve learned to avoid and make excuses for that which makes us uncomfortable.”

“It’s true,” said another volunteer. “I lost almost all my friends when my husband left me for another woman. They didn’t choose him, they just chose to avoid the entire situation. I was abandoned, twice.”

It honestly made me shiver. Could humans be so cold to those we care about?

I watched the families of the two people who died today on my shift. They seemed to hum with care for each other, to grow in number as time passed, to organize around the lowest member and spring into new shape when another fell into sadness. Maybe it wasn’t true.

Meanwhile, the peace of the dead was palpable. I felt enveloped in it.

Surely, we don’t all give up on what’s uncomfortable.

I’ll call him Joe, even though that’s not his real name. I was specifically asked to go see Joe. Joe is a musician who has travelled extensively playing bluegrass and country music with bands—at least until he went blind recently. Now he sits alone in his room, sleeping and sighing in silence.

“He has little or no support network and could probably just use some friendly chatter,” I was told. Well, I’m nothing if not friendly chatter. Especially if music is involved.

I knocked on his door, and he invited me in. I introduced myself and said I was excited to meet him and talk about his music and his life. He laughed sarcastically and ran his fingers through his thick curly hair. “What life?” He asked.

“Why, yours, of course! I understand you’re a musician and have travelled all over the country. What an exciting life that must be!” I meant it.

But Joe could only see his blindness. He was tired of music, he said after mentioning that he’s played since he was eight, He was useless, he said after telling me he could still play, but not as well as he did in his prime. He didn’t think there was anything exciting about life, he said after extolling the greatness of listening to something totally out of your genre (Frank Sinatra) and loving it because it wasn’t anything you’d ever even attempt.

I’ve never had a debilitating injury. Nor have I had an exciting life of travel and music and fun. So I don’t know if Joe is right. He could be. He very well could be. I don’t begrudge him his frustration or his weariness. Nor do I judge him.

However, he got me thinking about myself. I have lived my entire life with music too. I sang before I talked. I played piano before I learned to tie my shoes. And I’ve done both until the past few years when the weight of responsibilities depressed and repressed me. Then, just when I’d be about to hit the edge of the cliff, a well timed Chopin piano concerto or Rachmaninov rhapsody or Tchaikovsky overture would prick at my soul and remind me that I am made of music.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about life. It’s about people who feel they have lost so much but lose more. It’s about people who try to live the way they believe they ought to find that they are faced with suffering and obstacles. It’s about Joe, who is blind, alone, and dying.

I stew in this jumble of peaceful death and suffering life all day. I think about this surprising twist as I work, care for my daughters, and grocery shop. I’m confused as I make dinner and walk the dogs.

Finally, I find some quiet space to curl up with a glass of wine and a Woody Allen movie I love. Maybe I can forget the puzzle for awhile.

“The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote to the emptiness of existence,” says one of Allen’s characters.

Indeed.

The rain that’s been pretending to fall finally makes a valiant effort and descends with gusto. My dogs and my brother’s dog curl up on the love seat with me. And just then, a car drives down my street blaring Rob Thomas.

And maybe, someday, we’ll figure all this out.
Put an end to all our doubt.
Try to find a way to just feel better now.
And maybe, someday, we’ll live our lives out loud.
We’ll be better off somehow.
Someday.

81 Day Challenge

Did you notice, Gentle Penguin, that this summer I haven’t yet tried to channel my inner Phineas and Ferb to create 81 days of summer vacation before school comes along just to end it?  It’s true.  Mainly because when I looked at the calendar, instead of seeing stretches of days with nothing on them, they were already half filled.  Soccer tournaments, commitments to family and clients, and meetings to prepare for my daughter’s freshman year in college have swallowed any chance for travel.

I can tell it’s past due, though.  My climbing rose, which normally seems like a whimsical and charming tendril-like entrance to my home seems much more like a noose ready to strangle me.  The talented starling who knows speaks so many languages to me almost every morning has begun to become annoying.  And it’s no longer a moment of wonder and awe to sit and watch the sun rise or set from my designated spots at d’Anconia Square…it feels more like a duty.

But my last post gave me an idea.  There are 170 days left between now and the end of the year, and while I doubt we can pull off 81 days of vacation moments, I bet we can do half that many!

So I’ve thrown down one of my everywhere shoes and issued the 81-Day challenge to my daughters.

Before the new year—40 days with a touch of vacation!

My youngest suggests horseback riding, my oldest suggests Disney World.  I write down the first and roll my eyes at the second.  I quickly add a dark sky excursion, fossil hunting at a new park I’ve heard about, winery tour weekend with my friends, the local beach, an outside Shakespeare performance at the community theater, fly fishing in the river, maybe an organ concert at a church downtown, or a visit to the Anti-Saloon League Museum…

A touch of vacation

Travel may be my most favorite thing in the whole wide world of things to do. But this summer, it’s just not possible. And I’m pouting about it.

I’ve been in this spot before—too many responsibilities and perhaps not enough resources…like time and money. I admit, I’m not handling the lack of change in scenery well.

When travel wasn’t an option as a child, I was perfectly content to imagine amazing adventures. While walking to the library, I’d imagine I was climbing a mountain, scaling boulders and picking rare wild flowers to cure an ailment that plagued the world. While swinging at the park, I’d sail to uncharted islands using the stars and a whisper on the wind to lead me to teas and spices for trade (and maybe a handful or two of pirate booty). While riding my bike around the neighborhood, I’d imagine myself atop a black stallion leading a camel caravan through the desert to an archeology dig.

They were the best summer travels! I still treasure the pressed flowers, rocks, and bits of twine and twig I collected along the way. They may well be from my neighborhood, but they were somehow also momentos of promises to far-away dreams.

Then, I became an adult. I travelled a little for business, but my income went to other things—like a plot of land and a bigger house, retirement and some mad consumerism I thought would save me. It didn’t.

Just when I thought all hope was lost, I read Eat, Pray, Love. I loved that book! I also hated that book! How was I, a newly divorced mother of two young daughters and primary, but broke, breadwinner supposed to go off and find myself? I could barely take an evening off, let alone a year! And forget leaving the country, I was lucky to go to Kroger!

For a couple weeks after I read the book, I pouted.

Then, one Saturday morning, I packed a picnic lunch for my daughters, buckled them into their safety seats in the car and grabbed my antique suitcase of maps. I put the windows down and pulled my shades on; turned up the Beach Boys and turned down the country road. And we drove.

A couple hours later we turned to follow the Ohio River, and a couple hours after that we turned into a park where we spent the next three hours wading and looking for fossils in the rocks underfoot. We ate our simple lunch and piled back into the car for home.

A few Saturdays later, we drove in a different direction and after several hours reached a Great Lake. Again, we waded, and this time we looked for shells and sea glass. We ate a simple meal. And we drove home.

As time went by, we filled many days with small adventures that included driving, eating sandwiches outside and collecting rocks. We also found and toured different kinds of churches in our community; discovered the tiniest, most obscure museums; dressed up for free outdoor concerts; created our own scavenger hunts, and (our favorite) determined which fast food vanilla ice cream was the best.

When we finally made it out of the country for vacation a couple years ago, guess what we did. We waded in tide pools, collected rocks and sea glass, toured obscure museums and attended free community concerts. Oh yes, we ate ice cream too.

I open the antique suitcase that still holds my map collection. It also holds a number of pebbles, shells and flowers that I study in the bright Thunder Moon’s light flooding through my window. I’m no longer able to distinguish between momentos from our tiny local vacations and our grand far-away ones. I rub my eyes and smile…and I imagine myself preparing to camp out under the stars along a pilgrimage route. Tomorrow, I’ll start again and see where the trail takes me.

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