Tag Archives: kindness

we are the world

My new book, TRIED & (Still) TRUE, just launched this past week. It’s been cause for much celebration.

It’s also been cause for a major lack of sleep.

And staying in sweats all day.

And not showering some days (which, if you knew me, is really saying something).

And, if I’m being completely honest, I even realized after 4:00 PM one day that I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet.

So Sunday afternoon, when I ventured out for a trip north to visit my cousin, it felt strange to have the sun on my face, to feel the gravel of the drive crunch under my shoe-clad feet, which during the last few days had been bare.

Driving along the winding bucolic roads, passing apple farms and waterfalls that had iced over in motion, and with the sun playing like an old-fashioned projector light through the bare tree branches, I found myself singing aloud at the top of my lungs a song that’s been stuck in my head for the last few days:

We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me

If you don’t recognize it, it’s because didn’t live through the ‘80s or at least weren’t old enough to remember what was going on in 1985. “We Are the World” brought together some of the most well-known pop stars of the day to sing what would become the fastest-selling and highest-grossing single in American history, as well as the first song to ever be certified Multi-Platinum (Quadruple Platinum, in fact, selling over 20 million copies).

If you missed it in 1985, you may have heard it in 2010, when another all-star ensemble reprised the song to raise money for the victims of the devastating Haiti earthquake.

Anyway, there I was belting the song in my car. When I reached my destination, I was still humming it. And I got to wondering why. Why was this 35-year-old song stuck in my head? I hadn’t heard it recently nor talked about it with anyone. (As I say, I’d been holed up in my home for days around the book launch.) So why was this particular song burgeoning inside of me on this particular day?

Before I’d even reached the door, I’d figured it out.

I’ve had hundreds of interactions with people during the first few days since TRIED & (Still) TRUE launched. Calls, texts, emails, blog comments. I’ve read each Amazon and GoodReads review. And I couldn’t help but notice that much of the positivity and praise has been shared alongside a common counterpoint that took this basic form:

“It’s so refreshing to read this encouraging, uplifting book with the world being so negative, divided and scary lately.”

I totally get it. I’ve placed myself on total news blackout for long stretches and turned on ad-blockers so that I can’t even see sidebar headlines when I check my email. If anyone in my friend group happens to mention certain names or events, eyes widen and bodies tense, as if Bloody Mary is on her way through the magic mirror. It’s easy to give in to the sense that “the world” is broken beyond repair. That this is it. The End.

But I don’t believe that.

As I wrote this new book, I delved into the lives of the people who brought us some of the most famous proverbs from history. I didn’t just talk facts. I talked lives, reminding readers constantly that those who penned the words that have become part of our literary legacy were real people just like you and me. They weren’t giants or superheroes. The most famous of them wouldn’t have been known by more of the population than the average person today connects with via social media. They were us. We are them.

And I’m here to tell you—they went through some things.

Subjugation by tyrannical emperors.

Religious purges.

Mysterious and gruesome plagues that killed millions.

Natural disasters on a scale not seen before or since.

They had no running water. No hot water on demand. No showers or baths. No porcelain toilets or toilet paper. No sewage system.

They did not have prenatal care plans and epidurals. Their anesthetic for anything from dentistry to amputation was a few swigs of whiskey and biting down on a stick. There was no counseling or medications for depression and anxiety. No pills to control blood pressure.

No multi-vitamins. No toothpaste and toothbrushes. No Tylenol. No dry skin cream.

In many places and times throughout history, people weren’t out drinking with friends and celebrating on their 21st birthday. They were quietly reflecting on the notion that their life was likely more than halfway over. Living to the age of 40 seemed to them as living to 100 might to us now.

And yet, somehow “the world” continued on, no matter how bad things seemed in the midst of tragedy and hardship.

Here’s a snippet taken from page 26 of my new book:

One thing I have learned is that worry serves no purpose other than to waste otherwise good moments in the present.

I am also convinced, however, that we always have a choice. I cannot choose for a society, or even for a single other person. But I can choose what I myself will do, how I will live—right now.

Let me break down a few lines from that earworm of mine—“We Are The World”—in hopes of…

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unplug (kindly)

The Best Advice So Far - unplug (wall socket extension with too many wires plugged in)

Let me say up front that this post may not be for you. Who is it for then? Well, it’s for people like me:

  • who love people and whose natural tendency is to talk with and listen to others
  • who tend to have high interpersonal output most of the time
  • who sometimes find themselves running on fumes
  • who need ways to unplug without resorting to becoming a recluse

If this sounds like you, read on.

There’s a funny thing about me. (Well, there’s a list, but I’ll tell you about one of them.) It’s actually the cause of much astonishment and incredulous shaking of heads in my circles.

People talk to me.

I mean they really talk to me.

I don’t know why exactly, but I could be the ninth person in the checkout line at a convenience store and every interaction in front of me will be some form of predictable script:

A: “How are you?”

B: “Good ‘n’ you?”

A: “Fine thanks. Is there anything else I can get for you today?”

B: “No that’s all, thanks.”

Not so when I reach the counter. I feel like I technically say the same things: “How are you today?” and the like. But the responses are anything but predictable. Let me give you an example in context.

Just last week, I didn’t go into two different convenience stores I otherwise frequent, for the sheer fact that I was unusually busy and pressed for time. Oh, sure, I had time to run in and grab a protein shake and run out. But that just isn’t the way things go, and I know it. A “quick” stop into such a place might have me leaving an hour or more later.

As it happened, however, I noticed that a couple of tires were running low on air. And the only place I knew where I could fill them at that moment…was one of the aforementioned convenience stores I was purposefully avoiding. Still, I needed the air.

I figured it was OK, since I didn’t actually need to go into the store in order to use the air pump. So off I headed on smushy tires for what I couldn’t image being more than a five-minute ordeal.

Well, the air pump requires four quarters. And while I have a large bag full of change sitting right in the armrest of my car, do you think I could find a measly four quarters?

:: rummage rummage rummage ::

Nope.

Alas, only three to be found. I’d have to go in.

Well, no sooner had the sliding apertures parted to bathe me in harsh fluorescent light than the twenty-something store clerk spotted me. And despite the small line waiting to check out, he dashed around the counter toward me, arms spread, joyfully shouting my name: E-r-i-i-i-i-i-k!

This culminated in a bear hug, accompanied by some variety of what I can only call “snuggle noises.”

After releasing me, he jogged back to continue ringing out the waiting line of customers. Soon, the queue had dwindled and I was ready to ask for my quarters for the air pump. (You do remember the air pump, right?)

“So anyway…” the clerk started in, as if we’d only momentarily been distracted from an in-depth conversation to which he was now returning. “I’m going to visit my family out of state soon. I haven’t seen them in a while. But I really need to, because I’ve been depressed. You remember my transgender ex-roommate, right? Well, I don’t know if you know this, but she literally tried to kill me. I still think I’m dealing with all of that drama…”

Thing is, this type of interaction isn’t especially unusual for me. In fact, it’s the norm. Again, why that is, I can’t say exactly. It just is. And so typically, I’d listen and ask questions—and leave an hour later with my quarters.

This particular night, however, two out-of-the-ordinary responses were at work inside of me:

1. While the information the clerk was divulging to me wasn’t the least bit funny, I had the most overpowering urge to burst out laughing at the relative absurdity of the situation from anyone else’s perspective.

2. I realized that I was not only too busy to get into a long conversation at the moment, I was also low on mental energy. So I felt a tinge of impeding panic at the thought of having my limited reserves tapped by either a deep and lengthy conversation or by the energy required to tactfully extricating myself from one.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here by telling you just yet how I managed to leave two minutes later with my quarters. But some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you?

Please don’t get me wrong. I have a lot to say in my book The Best Advice So Far on the topic of “ducking” (i.e., changing your course in life to avoid awkward interactions with people from the past). What I’m talking about here is not “ducking.” I really like the people I interact with at “my places.” I enjoy the sense of community that I’ve invested in building. Ironically, that’s part of the problem.

One of the main topics of this blog and the accompanying book is ways to engage with the other people around you. To go a little deeper. To see people as people and not merely as background noise to our own busy lives.

However, the reality is that there are also times when we need to step back. Sometimes, you just have to take the gracious out for the sake of self-preservation.

As Dib and Holly so often reprise in the words of their mom, Carlotta

“Save yourself.”

In The Best Advice So Far, I go into a fair amount of detail exploring techniques for expanding upon a conversation. It stands to reason, then, that doing the opposite will work to keep things short when necessary. Today, I’d like to offer four strategies for disengaging, while still treating others with kindness.

*****

Unplug Strategy #1: Keep things “closed.”

Open-ended questions have…

 

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choice: the wall

The Best Advice So Far - choice: the wall - dilapidated building inland Bahamas

In my last post, I invited you to celebrate with me the successful completion of a yearlong writing goal I’d set for myself in 2017.

Since that post, I’ve allowed myself a break from all things blog. It was strategic. I knew that if I were to just continue on writing at the previously set “goal pace,” I would have felt locked into it rather than having been able, as I did, to have closure on that goal—and to then begin a new one.

Well, today is the day I begin that new goal where this blog is concerned.

As my focus turns toward writing the next book—currently entitled Tried and (Still) True)—I want to be sure that I continue to give the concepts in The Best Advice So Far adequate development. They are, after all, timeless—just as true and life-changing now as they were at the start of things.

I imagine it’s much the same as having a second or third child: being sure, with all the time and attention that the new addition requires, to continue to love and foster and invest in the firstborn.

An idea coalesced during my short writing break: Why not revisit the advice in every chapter of The Best Advice So Far again, but from an as-yet-unexplored angle or with new stories?

As soon as the notion hit me, it just felt somehow right. Familiar and yet at the same time fresh and exciting. And so, for most if not all of 2018, that will be my new goal and focus. I’m not committing myself to stick stringently to plan, if something outside the express realm of the first book should happen along the way and burn to be told. But I believe it will make for a good guiding force.

*****

Sometime back in the early fall, I caught wind of a great deal on a three-day cruise out of Miami to the Bahamas. Little did I know at the time, when I booked a cabin for the MLK holiday weekend, that winter in New England would be plunging the region into weeks of sub-zero temperatures. During the worst of it, temperatures dropped to -19°F with wind chill affecting -35°F. Attempting such simple tasks as pumping gas (should one have run out of the house quickly without donning gloves) was not only painful but downright dangerous. And try as I might—whether by standing awkwardly with my toes tucked under the old-fashioned radiators in my home, or standing in the shower several times a day for no other reason than warming up—I was never quite able to thaw the blocks of ice that had replaced my feet.

So when the day finally came, I was beyond ready to walk barefoot on sun-warmed grass or sand, to squint with hand-shaded eyes at a too-bright sky—and to bask in the profligate luxury of feeling too hot.

As it turned out, the day I left for Florida, my own home area had a freakish warm streak approaching 60°, while Florida saw a relative cold spell, with one night dipping into the 40s. Still, their “chilly” was shorts-and-flip-flops weather for me.

The cruise was all I had hoped it would be, a real soul restorer. And yet, again, I was surprised by the abundance of generally bad behavior around me.

Before we even set sail, during the mandatory safety drills which required that all hands (and guests) be on deck, many people were disruptive and outright rude to the staff: crying out angrily in the middle of instructions that it was taking too long, or that they were bored, or that the (extremely patient) muster leaders were keeping them from the bar and drinks they had paid for.

I frequently passed people grumbling (to whom, I wondered) about the overcast sky.

Several cruisers with whom I tried to engage in friendly small talk while waiting in a line or on a transfer ferry (not, God forbid, keeping them from the bar or their drinks) were unnecessarily aloof—even dismissive.

Late one night, after a full day of fun on shore and a posh dinner in the formal dining room, I came up to the main deck and slid, smiling, into one of the large hot tubs. I asked the two other guests sharing the spa—a father and his college-aged daughter—how they were enjoying their cruise. They immediately began to complain:

…about the weather,

…about the “small” size of the (eleven-story) ship,

…about the “inferior quality” of the food.

Within fifteen minutes, able to tolerate it no longer, I politely extricated myself from the conversation in search of cheerier company.

Mind you, there were numerous dining options available at all times, each allowing all-you-can-eat access to, I dare say, several hundred varied and exquisitely prepared foods.

You’ll have to trust me when I say that I’m being generous to a fault as I describe the rude behavior of many aboard the ship. More than once, it was not only sad but uncomfortable, even for me.

*****

On Sunday morning, we docked in Nassau, Bahamas.

It’s not a beach sort of place. Rather, you exit the ship and are immediately greeted by a cacophony of urgent voices crying out from just beyond the iron fence:

“You! You! Taxi! Taxi!”

“City tour! Come now! I show you the best places only!”

“Beads! Necklaces! Good price, mon!”

Security guards usher cruise guests out of the melee and into a long, narrow—and carefully presented—strip of shopping options, where one can buy anything from Gucci watches and handbags to Vera Wang shoes at prices that hint at (if not outright tout) the use of slave labor.

The tourist shopping area pops in bright pinks, yellows and blues.

Walking beyond the shops funnels the wayward invariably toward Queen’s Staircase.

Approaching Queen's Staircase, all was looking picturesque and tropical.
A stone wall topped by long-rooted and lush trees funnels visitors toward the steep Queen's Staircase

The tall, steep set of stairs leads upward to—more shops on the periphery of what alleges to be the central attraction: Fort Fincastle.

A bright red cannon beside the manicured lawns around Fort Fincastle, Nassau, Bahamas.

For those who chose to look only as far as the wall or back toward the port, it’s idyllic:

Two luxury cruise ships (Royal Caribbean and Norwegian) dock at port, Nassaue, Bahamas.

But turn the other direction—to where the majority of the island lay beyond that wall—and the illusion quickly evaporates.

I stood on the barricade and hopped down a few feet to a square landing made of cracked concrete. From this perch, drifts of garbage became visible, piling up yards high against the wall. Peering through the nearest thicket of palms, I was able to just make out a shanty. A young woman slumped on the porch, watching a naked child and a chicken totter about in the dirt. A rope drooped low to the ground, laden with a few articles of clothing hung out to air.

I had no interest in the veneer that had been set up for tourists. I wanted to know the real people of the island. So it was that my travel companion and I decided to venture over the wall and into…

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big deal

The Best Advice So Far - big deal

This Thanksgiving held changes for my family.

My mom has been putting in long hours for a while now, caring for her own mother, so that my 93-year-old Nana can continue to enjoy the familiarity and comfort of living in her home of more than 60 years.

In addition to being plumb tuckered out most days, mom was also sick heading into Thanksgiving day.

So for the first time ever, we had our small family Thanksgiving out at a local restaurant instead of at my mom’s house. No preparation. No dishes to do afterward. No leftovers to wrap and store. However odd it felt to set aside tradition this year, no one could refute the sense in it.

We were seated at a spacious, horseshoe booth at about 12:30. The meal was catered, buffet style.

Our server was a young woman named Kim. After making introductions around the table, I asked Kim if she would have any time after her shift ended to join her own family for Thanksgiving meal or desert. She paused, smiled in that way people so often do when they are trying to sound positive about something negative, and said, “All of my family has passed away.”

“Oh no…” I replied. “All of them? Or do you mean there’s just no one local?”

Kim sighed, though her half-smile stayed in place. “Well, I have some distant relatives, cousins. But my own family are all gone now. I figured I’d work today so that people who do have families could be with them.”

I took a moment to just hold Kim’s gaze and let that heavy disclosure stand in silence. Then I said, “Well, we will be your family for today. Let us be your comfortable table, no stress, OK?”

Kim was genuinely appreciative as she explained the buffet setup, then went to fill our drink order.

The meal was good. Plenty of offerings. And I was glad for my mother’s reprieve.

Kim stopped by many times to check on us. She was pleasant and did seem to relax and just be herself when she came to our table. After serving dessert, she brought the bill.

“Kim,” I said, “would you consider yourself an open person?”

Her eyes were curious. She nodded. “Yes, I think I am.”

I stood up to face her. “Good to know. Because… [click link below to continue reading this post]

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what to say (reprise)

The Best Advice So Far - what to say (reprise)

Back in the spring, I introduced you to my writer-friend Diana by way of a unique book review with a personal twist. (By the way, this four-book series, The Rose Shield, would make a perfect, no-fail gift for any choosy Fantasy readers you may know; and Diana’s also just released a beautifully illustrated children’s book, Grumpy Ana and the Grouchy Monsters, for the little readers on your list.)

Grump Ana and the Grouchy Monsters

Sally Cronin of Smorgasbord revived one of Diana’s previous posts entitled “Write and Change the World.” It was written nearly three years ago, before I came to know Diana. As I read it early this week for the first time, it felt current. It reminded me of important things. And I would have missed it, had Sally not seen the value in shining the spotlight on it again, these years later.

*****

A couple of days ago, I treated myself to a meal out. It’s second nature to me to ask the server’s name and give my own, and then to ask at least one others-centered question that has nothing to do with waiting ts.

Holly told me she was a Christmas baby … well, her due date was Christmas, but she’d been born on the 21st. My light non-server question was this: “What’s one thing you love to do in your life outside of work?” She smiled broadly and talked about spending time with her Long-Haired German Shepherd, including pictures of “her baby.”

You’d have thought I’d given her a $100 bill, the way she responded to that simple moment of exchanging names and showing even that little bit of interest in her as a person, outside of her role — of what she could do for me. She just kept shaking her head in wonder that anyone would think to do such a thing, thanking me at least three times thereafter when she came back to check on my table.

It struck me once again that what feels quite natural to me … isn’t, for many people.

This interaction with Holly, on the heels of having read Diana’s wonderful post from yesteryear, got me thinking. I’ve been blogging now for nearly seven years. When I first started, I was posting daily (how I ever managed it, I really can’t fathom); and yet that first few months was when my readership was new and quite small. In other words, most current visitors to my blog have never read those early posts, though they were the foundation upon which the entire blog since then has been built.

Add to this the slate gray sky and rain that has presided over the last few days, and waking mornings to find the car encrusted in frost, and my mind was made up.

This week, I’m [click below to continue reading this post]

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traffic

The Best Advice So Far - traffic

You’re a contestant on an episode of Family Feud. You’re starting the round, facing off against your opponent, your palm hovering tensely above the buzzer. The host presents the next challenge:

“One hundred people surveyed, top five answers on the board … Name something that causes people to feel angry of impatient.”

:: BZZZT! ::

What’d you guess?

I have a strong suspicion as to the Number 1 answer on the board.

Despite the host of major issues happening across the globe at any given time, it seems few things in life routinely get people worked up quite like traffic.

In fact, this is so much the case that I wonder if we’ve conditioned ourselves at this point to start seeing red once the brake lights ahead of us get to glowing.

Likewise, in becoming comfortable with viewing frustration on the road as “normal,” we justify the bad behavior that so frequently accompanies it.

I’ve seen some of the most mild-mannered people I know get Manson eyes (Charles or Marilyn; both apply) in traffic…

Charles Manson and Marilyn Manson

…hands flying off the wheel in all sorts of interesting gestures as they [yell / screech / curse] at all the other people who dare use the same roadway and make “me” to have to sit in this @*$#! mess.

Which reminds me…

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fear: two

The Best Advice So Far - fear two

The previous post wound up being a sort of flight of ideas on fear. I had no intention of taking it further than that when I hit “Publish” last week. But the theme of fear has continued to rear its … well … rather common head in the time since then. So it seems worthwhile to take another walk on the dark side.

*****

I wound up getting to the gym quite late last night — 4:15AM to be exact. (Yes, that was late, not early, considering my usual arrival is between midnight and 2:00.) As you might imagine, the place was pretty empty. Other than myself, there were only two people working out.

One of them was a woman. We were busy at opposite ends of the gym, but I noticed her. She was quite thin, perhaps in her mid to late fifties. Her gait was unsteady, hinting at a neuromuscular disease. And she was tearing the place up (in the best of ways). She moved non-stop between machines, taking only minimal breaks between sets before she was back at it.

By the time I moved that way to use the cables, she was on the mats doing bicycles (an ab workout) for durations that would make me cry. I thought about wandering over, introducing myself and telling her that she was putting me to shame. But she was wearing headphones; and so I kept my admiration to myself for the time being.

We both finished up about the same time. The sky was still black with just a hint of cobalt on the horizon as I headed out to the parking lot, only a few yards behind the woman. I walked a bit faster, thinking now might be a good time to introduce myself. Perhaps hearing my footsteps on the pavement, she cast a wide-eyed glance over her shoulder and then turned abruptly, quickening her own pace.

I decided to let the moment pass, heading for my car instead. By the time I got my things inside and was finally situated, the woman was in her own vehicle and slowly rounding the corner in front of me. Just then, she hit the Caution: Pedestrians crosswalk sign. There was a * thunk * as the plastic yellow tower tipped to the side and scraped along her rear fender before righting itself. She stopped, her face worried. She craned around backward but still couldn’t see what she’d hit.

I knew that getting out of the car and back in would be no mean feat for her. So I hopped out to tell her there was nothing to worry about, that there was no damage to the sign or her car. Our eyes met in her rearview mirror. Her brow furrowed more deeply, so I smiled and waved, moving toward the side of her car where she might be able to see me more clearly.

She gunned the gas, tires chirping, and hightailed it out of there.

As I stood there holding my good intentions, it felt odd to consider that anyone would see me as a threat — that I could ever strike fear into someone.

On the drive home, an interesting thought occurred to me…

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