Friday, May 27, 2011

In Search of Comfort

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking. That’s a good thing, I’m pretty sure, as I clear away the cobwebs in my head and make way for new things to come. Frankly, I’ve been thinking a lot about plumbing lately, and although there are many things that I am thankful for (family, friends, community, really good coffee, kittens…), I have recently realized that one of the things about which I am most grateful is that I am not a plumber. And, as Kathryn said, no problem can be that interesting if you can make it go away by throwing some money at it. In this case, it is a lot of money, and a lot of sludge, but by this time next week, it will probably be fixed. Woo Hoo!
When my head has not been filled with plumbing (or sushi, which is my default, and which makes me smile like a good plumbing problem never will), I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort. That is a word that I use many times each week, often without putting too much thought into what it really means. You may do this, too. I think of comfort related to my big girl shoes – actually, they are really the opposite of comfort. In my experience, comfortable shoes usually mean chuck taylors. I think of comfort in terms of food. For me, macaroni and cheese (but not the box kind, and therefore, not neon orange and not involving anything that really should not come in powder form) is the ultimate comfort food, especially with some peas mixed in. I also think about mattresses, sweat pants, and hammocks. And all of these things can, and do, provide comfort.
But what does the word comfort really mean? I’m not talking about a dictionary definition. I’m talking about the kind of comfort that sooths us, that makes hard things not seem so hard, that helps us remember that we are not alone, even when the world feels very lonely. I’m talking about the kind of comfort we get from holding a sleeping baby (or a sleeping cat if your baby is all grown up and rarely falls asleep in your lap anymore.); the comfort we get from a gentle smile from someone we love; from sitting with people in conversation about the things that are most real to us, or, if we are very blessed, with those with whom we have an even deeper connection, in silence.
Many of us, whether or not we are aware of it, spend significant amounts of time on our quests for comfort. Hopefully, the physical comfort is not too hard to find. If you’re having trouble, you’re welcome to put on your flannel garden gnome pajamas, toss some shredded cheddar into a pot of noodles, and curl up on the couch with a good book (and a cat. Or a baby, if you’re really lucky.)
But for many of us, it is emotional comfort, spiritual peace, that most eludes us. And it may be the most important thing to find. I know that for me, the times when I am most in need of emotional comfort, I often feel least able to ask for it. Instead of reaching out, I hide, actually or metaphorically, or put up walls to crouch behind, or smile and pretend that everything is okay. And eventually, it usually is. But I wonder how my life would be different if I were more able to ask for the comfort I need? Or accept the comfort that is offered? Comfort won’t fix the broken pipes. Or miraculously fill my bank account so that I can pay the plumber. But comfort will help me feel less alone. Comfort will help me be less alone. And comfort, whether from someone I love, a new pair of converse, or a big bowl of macaroni and cheese, can often make all the difference in how I experience my day and give comfort others. And so, as I clear my head of dust and worn out ideas, I will try to fill the empty space with things and thoughts that bring me peace. And I would be happy to share.

Friday, October 22, 2010


I once knew a really cool woman that I will call Rainbow. She was a pretty colorful character. She was gay and although not a particularly in your face lesbian, she did wear her pride pin proudly on her backpack. She also usually wore purple socks, which I know because at that time in my life, I usually wore purple socks, too. But I am calling her rainbow because her passion was fishing. Trout fishing, to be exact. And if I had to have a favorite fish it would probably be the rainbow trout. She liked to get up really early in the morning, put on a pair of big green rubber boot-pants, and spend the day standing up to her hips in cold, cold water, gently swinging a fly made out of yarn and feathers over her head and trying to entice a trout to join her for breakfast. She especially liked to go fishing in the rain.

It was not my idea of a good time. How about yours? I don’t like to be cold. I don’t particularly like to be wet. Even though I often do I really don’t like to get up early all that much. But Rainbow talked so enthusiastically about fishing that one day, I decided to give it a try. In my own way.

I did not have a fishing pole. And although Rainbow offered to lend me one of hers, I was fine with a stick. It was a very nice stick, smooth and a little crooked, with some scars where smaller branches had been broken off. I also didn’t have any fishing line. Rainbow had many spools, of many different thicknesses that she called “tests.” I learned later that “test” referred to the weight of fish the line could theoretically hold without breaking. “Test” probably plays a major role in theonethatgotaway stories that I often heard when I lived in Maine. But I didn’t have any spools of any test fishing line. So I used a piece of string, tied to the end of my stick. It was a very dangly piece of string; any fun loving cat would have been proud.

Rainbow also had a bunch of little silver metal cases that held her hooks. When you are trying to catch trout, the hooks are called flies, because that is what trout eat, and that is what the hooks look like. Rainbow sometimes tied her own, looking intently at pictures in an insect guide and trying to recreate the tastiest looking fly. I tried this once, and it was pretty fun. But my fly ended up looking more like the very hungry caterpillar at the end of his progressive dinner and after he had slithered through a very messy paint store. So my fly probably wouldn’t have caught any trout. But that was okay, because I didn’t really want to catch any trout anyways. Has anyone ever heard of trout sushi?

So there I was, sitting on a rock, holding my stick and dangling the string in the water. Sometimes, people, usually grandfatherly men, would walk by. “Anything bitin’?” they’d say. “Nope,” I’d say back with a smile. And sometimes, just for show, I would jiggle my string a little. They would nod knowingly and move on, and I would go back to fishing.

Needless to say, I didn’t catch any fish that day. But I still had fun. For Rainbow, fishing was about the adventure, the thrill, the anticipation of success. For me, fishing was an excuse to take a little time by myself, to sit and think while I held my stick and dangled my string in the water. I can’t think of a better way to spend my day.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Am That Mom - A Guest Posting by Kathryn Baptista

Beth is that mom…

Who fell in love with a child to whom she did not give birth, and knows that it doesn’t make any difference at all, even a tiny bit.

Who once got frustrated with her son and told him he’d have to sit on his bed for the rest of the day, but when it was pointed out to her that it would never work and that it would break her and his heart, never did again.

Who, when her partner started talking about homeschooling and unschooling, looked at her kid and said “Yes!” even though she majored in education in college. And then enthusiastically embraced the idea that the whole family needed to be a Learning Family, and signed up for the violin lessons she’d always wanted to take.

Who has inspired and supported her son in exploring and living in the wilderness for long periods of time, in learning to play the guitar, kayaking and hiking, in watching basketball and having long conversations about it, in driving him anywhere he needs to go, whenever he needs to go, to doing a little gardening together, and countless other things. Who says “Yes!” when invited to backpack and camp, because she is so happy that he wants to do that with her, even if she really does prefer to sleep indoors.

Who trusts her partner and her son with a Trust so fierce that it’s hard to ever feel unsafe.

Who has attended every acting and music performance that she possibly could, including Space Opera three times. That’s NINE HOURS of an opera based on Star Wars, folks.

Who lets her adult son tickle her until she laughs and smiles when she’s cranky, rest his arm on her head to prove how tall he is, and is very patient when she is nagged about her foibles.

Who is totally honest with her son about the good and bad she’s experienced, tries to bring her best self to every part of her parenting, and is goofy and smart and fun and kind.

Beth is that mom that her partner and son are very, very lucky to have.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gainfully Employed and Loving It

I’m sitting here on a historic stone bench on the common in bustling downtown Waltham, sipping a really delicious iced coffee, enjoying the sunshine, and thinking about my new job. After a search of almost a year, dozens of responses to the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” (relaxing on a tropical beach with a thick book and a glass of chilled fruit juice?), a new pair of shiny big girl shoes, and a rapidly dwindling savings account, I am back to full time work. And I like it!

I like getting up in the morning with the birds and packing my lunch. I have a really great lunch box. My friend, Jessica Harmon, gave it to me, and it has pictures of sushi all over it. Those of you who know me know that sushi, eating it, thinking about it, and thinking about eating it, makes me very, very happy. I like writing Kathryn a morning note and petting the cats before I leave. I like carrying a brief case. I even usually like my commute, which, depending on traffic, takes anywhere between forty minutes and two hours. I listen to story tapes, and they, like sushi and morning notes, make me happy. I also have a new red and orange striped thermos, which makes me smile. Imagine how ecstatic I would be if my red and orange striped thermos was filled with sushi?

So I go to work every morning, and I talk to a lot of people about a lot of things. I ask a lot of questions and marvel at the variety and diversity of different people’s responses. I balance budgets, set goals, and write reports. I explore a lot, out in the community. I know where to find the best coffee, the best ice cream, the best independent booksellers, the best place to park near the post office. I know where the mayor hangs out on her lunch break. And yes, I know where to get the best avocado and tuna rolls. I found that place on my very first day.

And so, except for missing my family, which I do, very much, I like my job. Maybe I even love it. My days have purpose. I am accomplishing important things. I spend my days talking with interesting and often influential people who seem genuinely glad to be working with me. As I am with them.

Most days, I even wear lipstick. And more and more often, I can put it on without smearing it all over my face in a big red clown mouth. I did that once – the clown mouth, I mean, directly before going into a job interview for a job that at the time, I really, really wanted. Luckily, I looked in a mirror and managed to wipe most of it off before anyone except the receptionist had seen me. I wonder if she still remembers me. Or at least my clown mouth.

But that was years ago, and I apply my lipstick there days with a steady and confident hand. In fact, most things I do these days, I do with a renewed sense of confidence and competence. I smile more. I sleep more deeply. I feel calmer and happier and more patient. Like Erma Bombeck, who pledged to eat more ice cream and fewer beans, and despite the extra large ring of fire robust brew, with extra cream and lots of ice, I am drinking less coffee and eating more pears. (All right, I confess, what I really wanted to say was that I’m eating more sushi, which I am, but I don’t want to be too predictable.)

In many ways, I am the same person I have always been. But in some ways, hopefully better ways, I am different, too. I am re-creating myself, learning to trust myself again, figuring out who I am and who I want to be. My new business cards tell me some things. The feeling of anticipation I feel when I turn the last corner before getting home tells me others. And I am sure that I will continue to discover new things about myself and about the world. And it is sure to be a wild ride.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

60,000 Things to Do With a Q-Tip

A couple of months ago, Kathryn came running into my office, where I was browsing through a stack of books on negotiation looking for inspiration about how to teach a class based on interaction to a group of Northeastern undergrads online. She had a big, excited smile on her face. “Guess what I just bought?” she said. “A new microwave?” I asked hopefully. We are eagerly anticipating the death of our current one. “No,” she responded with an even bigger smile. “Ten cases of Q-Tips. And they only cost $2.50 per case!” Ten cases of Q-Tips. Wow. I struggled to control my excitement. “That’s really cool. Um... how many Q-Tips are in each case?” “Six thousand.” Wow again. That meant we were getting 60,000 Q-Tips. Wow. Don’t get me wrong. I like Q-Tips as much as the next person. They’re fun, they’re soft, and they are particularly useful to clean soap scum out of the shower tiles. When we were in London, I spent a few hours one day trying to find Q-Tips. In case you haven’t tried to find Q-Tips in London, there, they are called cotton buds. But 60,000? I did some quick math. There are three people in my family, plus often a random guest or two. If we each use 10 Q-tips per week, how long would it take us to use 10 cases? A really, really long time.

But this is not really about Q Tips, or cotton buds, or swabs, or whatever you want to call them. But I guess it kind of is….

A few years ago, I attended a workshop on change management. At the time, I was working for an organization that was entering a time of major change, and everyone was feeling more than a little stressed. When we got back from lunch and walked back into the classroom, we immediately noticed that there was a box of Q-Tips at each place around the conference table. They were real Q-Tips, too, no generics or store brands for us. We all had rather quizzical looks on our faces as we looked at each other. Why were they giving us Q-Tips? Did the spouse of one of the trainers work for a Q-Tip company? Were we going to do a really cool craft project with glitter and glue? Did someone in the course have an ear-related hygiene issue?

As we soon discovered, the Q-Tips symbolized one of the most basic concepts of effective change management. Q-Tip stands for “Quit Taking it Personally.” An important lesson for all of us. Like many people, I have a tendency to personalize things, even things that have nothing to do with me. I sometimes make things about me, even when they are not. Sometimes, if someone makes a decision that is not what I have recommended, if someone chooses a course of action that is not what I would have done or that changes something I have done, I take it personally. I get my feelings hurt, or I get defensive, or I get mad and, at least in my imagination, stamp out of the room and slam the door behind me. All in all, it is not a particularly effective or productive or happy way to lead my life.

But things changed for me on that day when I was given a box of Q-Tips. I began to take a few minutes to really think about things before assuming that things are about me. I remove my ego from situations in which my ego just doesn’t belong. I regularly remind myself about some words a good friend of mine once said to me when I was ranting about someone who had not taken my advice. This is what she said, “What they did had more to do with them and their stuff than with you and yours.” In other words, quit taking it personally.

And so I did. Or at least I try to. And now, because I don’t spend so much time stewing about things that have nothing to do with me, I have a lot of extra time. This is lucky, because even though our Q-Tip order didn’t go through, I don’t know when I may encounter another Q-Tip bonanza. And I want to be prepared. So now I spend my extra time thinking about innovative things to do with 60,000 Q-Tips. Do you have any ideas?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Getting Rid of Grudges

We all hear a lot about the wisdom of children. Many of us experience this every day, in the faces of our own children, in their words, their songs, their spontaneous gestures. From children, we learn curiosity, humility, and a sense of justice. We learn that unfamiliar foods are sometimes great and sometimes yucky, that bubble baths are both really fun and really clean, and my favorite, that sharing really means letting someone else have or do something that we are not ready to be finished with yet. But still, our children constantly hear messages about sharing, from parents, teachers, neighbors, siblings, and, of course, from the person who wants what they have. Funny, we don’t so often talk about sharing with grown-ups.

I don’t want to write about sharing today. I want to talk about one specific wisdom of many children, something that I wish I were better at, something that seems to come so easily to those of us with wide eyes and unlined faces.

What I am talking about is the practice of holding grudges. I do it. I admit that I am a holder of grudges. I wish that I weren’t, but I am. Despite my best intentions, I haven’t yet learned the art of letting things go, of forgiving and forgetting.

When someone hurts my feelings, usually by accident, I remember it for a long time. I replay the scene over and over in my head, searching out new details and nuances, experiencing and re-experiencing the hurt and embarrassment, wondering about the underlying motives, until, at least in my mind, a simple interaction has grown into something huge and hairy and smelling of rotten fruit.

I’m not sure why I do this. But I bet some of you do this, too. Maybe because it makes me less vulnerable to future hurts. Maybe because there is a part of me that believes that the hurtful words or actions are true or deserved. Or maybe it is just because.

When I was little, my sister and I would sometimes fight. Usually it was over something silly. One huge fight I had with my sister happened when I was about five. We were at the beach, and I put wet sand on my sister’s doll, Diane, even after she asked me to stop. Once, she mixed up the Light-Brite pegs that I had spent several hours sorting by color, because she thought they looked prettier all mixed up. Once, I broke the ear off of her chocolate Easter bunny and ate it. I don’t know why – I had my own chocolate bunny. But we would yell at each other and call each other names, probably like most young bothers and sisters do. After a while, one of us would usually storm off, fuming and often stamping and muttering under our breath. I have spent a lot of my adult life working and playing with children. We would play by ourselves for awhile, until we got tired of being alone. Then, we would find them, say we were sorry (or stand there waiting for them to apologize first), and our game would usually pick up from where it was interrupted. I did that, the children I know do that, and you probably did it, too.

I wish that I could do that today. Life would be so much simpler if I wasn’t so committed to holding onto grudges, so committed to perpetuating my own hurt feelings. I try to let go, and the more I practice, the easier it gets. But I am still aware of the time and energy I waste, time and energy that I would prefer to put into more fun and worthwhile endeavors, like spending time with my family, playing or writing this blog. It will be a long and winding journey, but I am confident that I will get there, someday soon. I am making progress. Just the other day, I thought about emailing my sister to forgive her about the Light-Brite incident. And boy, did I feel better.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Old Friends and Happy Endings

I reconnected a few days ago on Facebook with an old friend, someone who I haven’t seen in almost twenty years. Boy, it makes me feel old to say that…I have thought about her periodically, but because I had moved many times and she had, too, I had no idea how to find her. So imagine my delight when I got her message.

After catching up on family, work, and the other vital details of life, she told me a story that I really related to. It was about her son-in-law, who was facing some challenges in his personal and professional life. Like me, he had lost his job recently. Like me, he was struggling with his self-identity, struggling to redefine himself and find a new direction. But unlike me, he, for reasons my friend has yet to discover, chose to keep his job loss a secret. Even from his family.

We have all heard stories like this. Someone, usually a man, usually a husband, father, and breadwinner, loses his job. In the story, it is usually unexpected, although in real life, it often is not. But the man, although he has a family who loves him and believes in him, is so paralyzed by what has happened that he pretends that nothing has.

Each morning, he gets dressed in a suit, kisses his wife and kids, and leaves the house with his Blackberry, his briefcase, and his mug of coffee, just like he always has. But instead of going to the office where he no longer works, he spends his days reading the paper in coffee shops, at the park feeding pigeons, or wandering the mall, killing time until it is time to go home again. And so at 6:00, he opens the door and call out, “Daddy’s home!” The kids come running, smothering him with kisses. He can smell dinner cooking and hear pre-dinner cartoons on the TV in the living room. Just like he has for years.

And then the wife enters, wearing a pretty dress and pearls like June Cleaver, with perfect make up and an adoring smile. She hands him a drink and says, predictable, “How was your day, dear?” The door peeks open for just a moment. Here is the opportunity for him to tell the truth. He knows that he should. He knows that he will not be able to keep up the charade forever. He knows that eventually, he will run out of money and run out of stories about things at work that never happened because, at least right now, there is no work. He knows that the longer he waits, the harder it will be, the more drastic the consequences. And the door opens, just a little, every day. And every day, he makes a choice. “Brutal,” he says, a grim look on his face. The rest of the evening is all the same – dinner, baths and stories for the kids, and television until bedtime. The next morning, the alarm goes off at 6, and it starts all over again. Eventually, he gets found out, but that is a different story.

When I lost my job, at first, I didn’t want to tell anybody. I was embarrassed. Would people think that I wasn’t good enough? I was sad. I was afraid. Much of my identity had been tied up in my job, and what I though about myself and how I thought others perceived me was because of my job. And so, initially, I didn’t want to tell anybody. But I did. I told my family. I told my friends. I told the cashier at the supermarket, the couple who sits behind me at church. And I found that each time I said it, it became a little less traumatic. It might have been easier, at least at first, if I had kept silent. I might not have felt so embarrassed or so worried about what people would think. But I chose not to. I trusted my family and friends who assured me that it would be okay. I trusted them when they said that people would understand and not think less of me. I trusted that things would turn out fine. And guess what? They have.