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.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Once upon a time on a little island...

Once upon a time, on a little island off the coast of Maine, I worked at a daycare center. It was a really fun job, almost as much fun as my three week stint making pizzas. Mostly, I got to play all day. I happily rode my bike to the dock every morning and boarded the 5:45 ferry. Most of the time, it was just me and the island mail man on the boat. I often shared my thermos of coffee with him. During the winter, it was still dark when I left my house, and when I pedaled past the time and temperature clock on the top of the Casco Northern Bank, I would think that it was a warm day if the temperature was in double digits. I used to wear a red and gold ski mask under my bike helmet, and sometimes, the eye holes would shift a little and it would be really hard to see. But luckily I always wore fingerless gloves under my down mittens, so the problem was easily remedied.
The kids at the daycare were described as typical island kids. I wasn’t really sure what that meant – mostly, to me, they were just like any of the other kids I had known. They painted and played with blocks and rode trikes on the playground. We read books – some of our favorites were about a little boy names Alfie who lived on Trotter Street and often wore his boots on the wrong feet. Alfie and his friends had very cool four year old adventures. So did we, at the daycare. During the warmer months, we often went to the the island swamp to look for water beasties. We built massive sand castles on the beach, decorating them with shells and wild flowers. We grew radishes in a tiny garden, and ate them, only once, for snack. Another time, just before Thanksgiving, we cut up a really huge pumpkin and each kid went home with a pie they had baked themselves.
The kids also told stories and corny jokes, told on each other, and sometimes, told lies. Because they were typical kids, their lies were typical kid lies – lies so that they wouldn’t get into trouble or so they would get what they wanted. Luckily, the philosophy of the center was that, as much as possible, the kids got what they wanted. And there weren’t a lot of arbitrary rules, so they hardly ever got into trouble.
During the three years that I was there, I worked hard to be the kind of person the children could trust. I didn’t lie to them or pretend that they were invisible or try to trick them into doing what I wanted them to do. Mostly, what I wanted them to do was to play and laugh and explore and ask lots of questions. They did, and I did, and we spent many happy days together. I think, looking back, that part of the reason they trusted me was that I acknowledged that, however much fun our toys and however many exciting the activities we planned, any of them, given a choice, would have chosen to be at home with their parents. I did not take that personally, even though occasionally, my feelings were hurt. I tried, instead, to make the time that they were with us as enjoyable and full of fun as I could. I’m not saying that I never got irritated or frustrated. I’m not saying that I was perfect. But I did my best, and I expected them to do their best, and for the most part, we trusted each other.
That was a long time ago. The children I worked with then are grown and probably have children of their own. Many of them probably do not even remember my name. But I hope that they do remember that person who baked with them and read to them and rubbed their backs at naptime. I hope they remember feeling safe and warm and valued, and I hope that they help their own children feel like that, too.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Little Penguins Love Fondue, Too!

The other night, I decided to make fondue for supper. I don’t make it often, but it is one of our favorites – it works for both the veggies and the carnivore in the family, it’s delicious, it’s fun, and it doesn’t require long, messy prep or cleanup. I had a block of good (substitute expensive, but luckily on sale) swiss cheese, a loaf of crusty French bread and some sirloin tips (for that unpredictable carnivore), so I was, as they say, good to go. There was only one problem. My bottle of Little Penguin white wine was empty, re-corked and in the fridge, but empty.

To be honest, Kathryn and I are not big drinkers of any sort. I could try to sound classy and say that we enjoy a nice glass of wine with a fine meal. But the truth is that Kathryn prefers her Diet Coke and I mostly go with coffee or water. So we really know nothing about wine – fruity bouquet with undertones of sarsaparilla, whatever. When I buy wine, it is usually for cooking, and I pick the wine with the cute animal names. Thus we often have Little Penguin or, more recently, when the Little Penguin rack was empty, I chose an equally inexpensive bottle with an equally pleasant name – Crazy Llama.

A few years ago, I traveled to Bend, Oregon, for my little brother’s wedding. The wedding was held a few days before one of Kathryn’s conferences, so I went alone and ended up leaving the reception at midnight, driving the three and a half hours back to Portland, and sleeping by the Southwest gate at the airport in order to get back in time to help with the final preparations. It was really important to me to be the first one in line and the first to board the plane. I’m not sure why, but it was. (And it still is – consider this fair warning for any of you who might have the opportunity to travel with me in the future.) But back to the story. My brother’s friends had planned a wine reception for them, and each guest was asked to bring a bottle. I went into downtown Bend with a few of my soon-to-be sister-in law’s friends to visit the local wine shop. They all knew Mike and Debbie well and knew what (brand? flavor?) kind of wine they liked. I asked the wine store guy to recommend something, and he said that if people were not wine connoisseurs, he usually suggested that they pick a bottle with a label they liked. So that is what I did.

I looked at bottles with mountain vistas, trees, barrels, castles, and all sorts of pretty pictures, searching for the one that spoke to me. I was almost at the end of the final rack when I spied it – I don’t remember any of the words, but the picture on the bottle was a bear in a hat. Now, any of you who read my previous entry, Lessons from a Bear, know that I have a thing for bears in hats. I remember grinning happily as I took it from the rack and carried it to the register.

All of the others in my group had made their purchases and were waiting by the door. But I was finally ready. The clerk nodded and said, “Good choice.” I smiled. A little bear would never steer me wrong. I got out my wallet. The clerk smiled back and said, “That will be $179.99, please.” I gulped. I was thinking that it would cost, maybe, $30.00. I glanced over at the group by the door. I’m sure they weren’t, but I was sure then that they were all watching me. I know that I should have grinned sheepishly and asked him to point put something a little more in my price range. But I didn’t. I handed him my credit card and carried the bottle out with me. I did make a really fancy tag for it before that $179 bottle of wine joined a few dozen others in a wicker laundry basket on the deck. I never did ask my brother if they’d enjoyed the wine. I hope that they did, but even if they didn’t, I did learn some valuable lessons.

By now, you probably are wondering what this has to do with trust or fondue. With trust, not much. Maybe I should have trusted my instincts and asked for another bottle of wine. Or maybe not. This is what I wanted to write about today, and so I am. With fondue, a little. On that night, when the bottle of white was empty, I used the next best thing: Little Penguin Red. We had a wonderful supper of purple fondue, and we all lived happily ever after.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pokes and Jabs and Crushes...Oh My!

One of my first real jobs, when I was in my late twenties, was at a Rape Crisis Center in Portland, Maine. I had had other jobs before, but this was really the first one in which I didn’t live in a tent, wear pink polka-dotted rubber boots on days that it rained, or regularly eat mid afternoon snacks of peanut butter and saltines. I was a real grown up. I carried a briefcase and a beeper. And I spent my days counseling survivors of sexual assault. I liked my job a lot, and I was very good at it.

On the second Saturday of each month, we offered a self defense class for women, run by a local martial arts expert and attended by high school, and college students, mothers, professional women, senior citizens, and many who were some combination of these groupings. They learned the eye jab, the bridge of the nose whack, and, my personal favorite, the ball crush. I attended many of these workshops, because every other month, it was my job to check people in and provide a healthy and nutritious lunch. I practiced diligently and became rather skilled and confident about my ability to foil a potential attacker and, potentially, inflict some damage myself. I was much younger and spryer in those days, and, even if the potential damage infliction went against my pacifist leanings, I felt like I was ready for anything.

I remember coming out of the sessions feeling strong in mind and body. I would scan the parking lot for danger. I would walk briskly, with my head held high, aware of my surroundings, just like the instructor instructed us. I had practiced my attention-grabbing yells, and I was pretty sure I could bellow with the best of them should the need arise. I was confident that I could poke, jab, and crush my way to safety. In short, I was the ideal student. In all ways except one.

There was one phrase which the instructor, first, and the class, in response, recited many times throughout the class. It was, “I trust my instincts.” I could say it, in a loud, assertive voice, often accompanied by a poke- jab-crush. Intellectually, I knew how important it was to listen to what my instincts were trying to tell me, more important than the whacks and bellows. I could say it. I could understand it. But I was not sure that I could do it.

These days, I do not often find myself in situations that I would call dangerous. But I have learned to rely on my instincts, to listen to that little voice that tells me that something is not right, and to trust what it is telling me. I am no longer fending off rapists, even in my imagination. I am warm and safe, with good food and good coffee, with cats and a life filled with meaning and people who love me. But I have not forgotten my little voice. I check in with it every so often and listen to what it tells me. Just like, every once on a while, I finish my workout session with a few practice pokes, jabs, and crushes. And it still feels really good.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pay No Attention to That Girl Behind the Curtain

A popular television personality has a nugget of wisdom which I have taken to heart. “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory.” This is definitely true. I am sure that as you read this, many of you are nodding your heads, remembering times when you got caught in a lie because your memory was less than perfect.

Luckily for me, I have a pretty darn good memory. I am especially good at computer concentration-type games, in which you score points by finding matches within a grid. I also tend to remember minute details of situations – the song that was playing on the radio while I was waiting for an important business meeting to begin, and what I was wearing the time, in the fifth grade, when I lied to my teacher, Mrs. G. I actually don’t remember the details leading up to the incident, but here is what I know. I got caught hiding behind the drapes in the classroom of another fifth grade teacher, Mr. B, so that I and two kids from my class that I really didn’t even know very well, wouldn’t have to go out to the playground for recess. My mother had just bought me new sneakers – white with blue stripes, and I was wearing purple toughskins jeans from Sears and a pink sweater. I remember wondering if anyone would be able to see my shoes beneath the curtains. I remember holding my breath as Mrs. G stormed into Mr. B’s classroom. I even remember my shame as she yelled, and the hotness of my face, and my worry that she would call my mother. And I remember the complicated story I told as I tried to explain away my disobedience, the feel of the brick wall pressing against my back as I, a few minutes later, pressed against the side of the gym and tried not to cry as my classmates ran and threw and jumped all around me. What I don’t remember, though, is why I didn’t want to go out to play. I liked recess. The playground was bordered by some woods, and I liked to collect acorns and pretty stones and watch the squirrels. Sometimes, I was even picked for a kickball team, especially if it was cold and flu season and some of the really good kickers were absent.

I don’t know why I chose that day to disobey my teacher. I don’t know why I hid behind the curtains in the classroom across the hall. I don’t know why I thought I might get away with it. And, when I was caught, I don’t know why I chose to lie. But I did. Luckily, I was usually a very compliant, obedient, polite child, and maybe Mrs. G saw my embarrassment and remorse. I don’t remember if I was punished. I don’t remember being sent to the principal or having to write 1000 times, “I will not hide behind the curtains in Mr. B’s classroom when I am supposed to be going out to the playground and then lie about it when I get caught.” I don’t remember, even, if the school sent a note to my mother. But what I do remember, even to this day, more than 30 years later, disappointing someone I liked and respected and who I desperately wanted both to like me and to think that I was a good girl, the feeling of disappointing them, and in turn, disappointing myself.

I would like to say that, from that experience, I learned my lesson and never told another lie. Trust me, I could tell you that, but it would not be true. What would be true, however, is that the next time I chose to lie, I remembered hearing Mrs. G’s footsteps as she strode across the room and the look on her face as she pulled back the curtains and saw me huddled there. I remember vowing to myself, afterward, that I would never tell another lie; that, whatever I would gain from lying wasn’t worth the bad feelings it caused; that only bad kids lied, and I was a good kid, really I was. Those are the things I thought about the next time I found myself avoiding the truth. And I hope that every once in a while, when I am tempted to lie, the memory of that fifth grade lie and its consequences will make me stop and think, take a deep breath, and tell the truth, no matter how hard it feels to be honest. Trust me, I never want to feel that way again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How I Learned to Trust

It was bedtime, one of my favorite times of the day, time to settle into a soft, warm bed under soft warm blankets, with my head on a soft, warm pillow. It was time to relax, to unwind, to review the ups and downs of my day and think about all of the possibilities that tomorrow might offer. I thought about the day that had just passed, the people I had talked with, the things I had done and not done, the exciting and the more mundane. As the pictures flashed through my memory, it felt almost like I was watching a rerun of a 1970’s sitcom with me in the starring role, a sitcom in which everything turned out happy in the end, with laughter and hugs, and, too often, earnest conversations about lessons learned by a one-dimensional character who somehow got herself into, and miraculously, out of a series of hysterically precarious predicaments.

My life is usually not like a sitcom. I usually don’t figure everything out in a single episode. There is usually not a laugh track or a producer to make sure that everything turns out happily. But that was okay with me. I have learned to trust that life will have its ups and downs, its unexpected twists in the road, those things that, as popular wisdom confirms, will make us stronger if they don’t kill us. And I have learned to trust that everything will, eventually, be okay.

I am sure that we have all experienced those things, those curve balls that disrupt the normal and predictable patterns of our lives. They are situations that have no clear cut answers, conflicts in which, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, someone will be hurt. They are the times when I wish that Mike Brady would have that earnest conversation with me to help me figure out which fork in the road to follow. But real life does not come neatly wrapped up in a twenty-two minute package with a guaranteed happy ending. That would be nice, sometimes, and occasionally, problems do seem to fix themselves, just like on TV.

But I actually prefer the unpredictability of a real life lived by a real person with real problems and real feelings and real relationships. I prefer a life where people are not perfect, a life where many of us spend a good portion of our days just living life and coping with both the predictable and the unexpected.

Sometimes and hopefully more often than not, life is fantastically exciting. We make a new friend, learn something new, or discover an awesome new blog about trust. At other times, things are lousy. But most of the time, life is just plain good. Not great, not terrible, just good. And to me, that is not a bad way to live my life. What do you think?

That is what I think about as I settle into bed each night. Most often, I feel satisfied and sleepy. I think about the day that I have just lived and am filed with anticipation for tomorrow. I hope that tomorrow will be a day of curiosity and smiles. I hope that there will be sleeping cats, an email from a friend, and sushi. I fall asleep, not knowing what tomorrow will bring, but secure in myself and my commitment to find the best in every person and every situation I encounter, secure in the love and support of my family and friends, secure even in uncertainty and occasional fear, that life is good.

That is how I learned to trust.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Better than Shiny Red Shoes

I was in a job-related workshop once a couple of years ago. I don’t remember what we were supposed to be learning, but we were wrapping up the session by doing one of those exercises where you go around the table and everyone says one nice thing about each other person. Sometimes, I like that kind of activity, and I have been known to use similar techniques to promote bonding and group cohesion. But in this case, we really didn’t know the other people in the group well enough for the exercise to be effective. As a result, most of the things that people said to each other felt kind of contrived and trivial. “She seems to be a nice person.” Or, “He helped me wipe the snow off of my car once last year.” And I, because like the others, didn’t know the other people too well, said similarly insincere things, although I am sure I had a very sincere and earnest expression on my face as I said them.

But when it was my turn to hear something nice about me, one of the people said something that I still remember. I had heard all of the typical things, including one person who told me that she liked it when I wore my shiny red shoes. I like it when I wear my shiny red shoes, too, which I often did when I anticipated a particularly long or frustrating day. As I remember I was wearing them often during that time in my life. Sadly, I actually dropped one of them out of my bag when I was trekking through downtown Boston one day to catch a train. They were pretty shoes, and it made me happy when I wore them, but they were not all that well suited for long walks, on the beach or through the city.

It was not the red shoes I remember that day though. It was this. “I think that your family is very important to you.” Even though I did not know the person who said this too well, she was totally right. My family is very important to me. They are, in fact, the most important thing.

My family gives me unconditional love and support. They encourage me to pursue my dreams and grant me permission not to be perfect. They laugh with me, and sometimes, but only when I really deserve it, they laugh at me. They know all of my foibles, and believe me I have many, and they love me anyway. They trust me, and I trust them. With them, I can be my best self and my worst self. I can be strong and confident or small and vulnerable, and I know that they will still love me.

And that is a really good feeling. It is better than thinking about a party platter of sushi, better than a Hawaiian vacation, and better even than coming home after a long and frustrating day at work and kicking off my shiny red shoes.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Trust and the Glowing Maggot of Doom

As many of you already know, when I was much younger and much less decrepit, I worked at an Environmental Education school in Maine. It was a very cool job, perfect for a just-out-of-college-trying-to-decide-what-to-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life girl. I lived in a tent most of the time, not because I had to but because, particularly at that time of my life, I had some pretty strong hermit tendencies. Besides usually being cold, damp, and possibly a little moldy, it was a good place for me to be. And it paid me $75 a week.

Most of the people who worked there were a little weird; Birkenstocks and wool socks even in the winter and an unnatural obsession with Dr. Bronner’s Organic Peppermint Soap, even for tooth brush related activities, so I fit in pretty well.

I spent most of my days teaching nature and group challenges to school kids. In many of the challenges, the group had to accomplish a complex physical and mental task based on the 4 C’s: cooperation, confidence, communication, and compassion, and the big T: trust, in order to escape from the dreaded Glowing Maggot of Doom. The Glowing Maggot is an imaginary but very real relic from the nearby Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. (Imagine former President Bush and Homer Simpson saying, “Nuc-u-lar.”) Maine Yankee was so close that we had a Geiger counter constantly clicking in the office, and during summer camp, we always had a couple of school busses on site in case we had to evacuate in an emergency. Luckily, we never did. I think that the plant has shut down now, and rumor has it that it is now a kitty litter factory.

But back to trust and the glowing maggot. In order for our groups to have a “positive learning experience,” we had to learn to trust each other. That was pretty tough. The groups were mostly elementary and middle schoolers, usually randomly mixed and placed in groups of about ten. We would camp out, rain or shine, cook all of our food over a campfire, explore forests, fields and salt marshes, rock climb, barn climb (an indoor high ropes course), wall climb, and as a culmination of a week of progressively challenging tasks, conquer the gulch. The gulch was about 100 feet across and fifty feet deep, a coastline chasm full of ocean at high tide and mud at low. We had a few ropes, a steel ring, a helmet, harness, and some other safety equipment, and a couple of carabineers. It was, in many ways, the ultimate test of trust. We had to trust that the group would use the skills they had learned throughout the week to solve the puzzle and figure out how to get the ropes across the gulch and fastened securely, get the entire group across, and retrieve the ropes, all while trying to escape from the glowing maggot of doom. We had to trust that the ropes would hold, and that we would be able to pull ourselves across the gulch while suspended from the elephant rope. The elephant rope, as I remember, was about two inches thick and was supposed to be strong enough to support the weight of ten dancing elephants. We had to trust that if we did not have the strength or the courage to pull ourselves across, the group would help with their muscles and their words of encouragement. But mostly we had to trust that we would be accepted for all of our strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies, that we would be supported, physically and emotionally, when we needed it. We had to trust that we would not be teased, ridiculed, or excluded.

For me, and for many of the kids I worked with, this was not easy. Trusting other people, particularly people who were acquaintances rather than friends, was probably even scarier than the glowing maggot of doom. But during the week, my job was to help them learn to trust each other. We ate together, often cubes of congealed spaghetti if the cook crew forgot to stir the noodles. We worked together to build fires in the rain, to stay warn and dry, to find our way with a map and compass. We talked about being afraid: afraid to try new things, afraid of heights, afraid of spiders, afraid of the dark, afraid of being teased, afraid of looking foolish. In the light of a campfire, some of the kids were able to relax a little, let down their guard, and speak from their hearts. Others weren’t there yet, but sometimes even they were able to fall backwards from the steps into the arms of the group. Sometimes they were able to ask for help, or to share their ideas, or to admit to feeling scared. On Friday afternoon, when they got back onto their bus to go home, they were always tired and always dirty. But I know that at least some of them got onto the bus a feeling little more confident, a little more secure with themselves and their abilities, a little more honest, and maybe with a few new friends. And hopefully, many of them felt a little more trust, for themselves and for each other. After all, if they could trust each other and successfully foil the glowing maggot of doom, I’m pretty sure that they can do anything.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Friend Fred

Long ago and far away, I once had a friend, a pretty good friend, that I will call Fred. Her name was not really Fred. She was a girl after all, but if I call her Fred, even if you know her, you won’t know that this blog is about her.

Fred was a very cool person in many ways. She had traveled all over the world and she spoke a whole bunch of languages. She had lots of interesting jobs, lots of interesting adventures, and lots of long, curly hair. She was smart and pretty and could be pretty funny when she let her guard down. She had a lot of acquaintances, but, I realize now, few real friends. And despite what seemed from the outside to be a pretty good life, she was often unhappy. When I knew her, years ago, I wondered, sometimes with compassion, sometimes with frustration, why she wasn’t happy more of the time. Like I said, from my perspective as a not-so-uninvolved observer, her life had all the things I though necessary to be good. And I just didn’t understand.

But I am older now, and, as I often joke, possess the venerable wisdom that comes with age. Actually, I am not that old or that wise, and certainly not venerable. But time and distance has given me a perspective that I was both too far away from and too close to see back than. Fred was unhappy because she was not able to really trust anyone in her life, and, perhaps even more important, Fred did not trust herself. She did not trust her own inherent worth, and so her days were full of posturing to prove herself worthy. She did not trust those around her to accept her or love her unconditionally. She did not trust the people in her life to tell her the truth, even those most of us did tell her the truth most of the time. Or at least we tried to.

When I think back to those young adult, first time living independently times, I feel sad for Fred. She missed out on so much because she wasn’t able to trust. Although I don’t think that she was ever actively dishonest, I don’t think that she was often truly honest, either with herself or with other people. She would not read stories or any fiction that would not have been on Oprah’s book list if Oprah’s book list had existed back then, because she did not want to appear frivolous. When we went out to dinner, she often did not order the food that she really wanted, because she thought that there were foods that she was supposed to want. She bought glasses with plain glass lenses, because she thought that they would make her look smarter. And, like I said, she was pretty smart. Through it all, though, the thing that I remember most, is that she hardly ever smiled. Or laughed.

As for myself, in addition to not being all that old or wise or venerable, I, too sometimes pretend. I pretend to be smarter than I sometimes think I am by randomly filling in the squares in Sudoku puzzles, really fast, so that anyone watching will think, “Wow. Look at her. She must be really, really smart.” In reality, I know that most likely, no one even notices, and if they do, their overwhelming state of awe is probably quite fleeting. I often don’t get what I really want in restaurants, but that is only because these days, all I ever really want to eat is sushi, and the other members of my family don’t share my passion/obsession for avocado and raw tuna.

So I truly admit that I am not paradigm of virtue. I do worry about what other people think of me. I do want people to like me and sometimes choose to say or do things that I think will make them like me more. I do sometimes hesitate to let my true self show, especially when I am just getting to know people. I sometimes feel shy and insecure, just like I imagine almost everyone else sometimes feels, even though I try to hide it. So maybe, the thing that most separates me from Fred, is that I smile and laugh a lot more often than she did. Even if a lot of the time, I am really laughing at myself.

So these days, when I think of Fred, I have to remind myself that just like I have reinvented myself over the past several decades, she likely has, too. I googled her once, just to see what I could find, and in the picture that popped up, she looked happy. And old. And I hope that she is. Happy, I mean. I hope that she has learned some of the things that I have learned. I hope that she reads whatever she wants and orders whatever she wants and has friends who truly love her. I hope that she has learned to trust herself and other people. But mostly, I hope that she is happy and living the life that she wants to live. I hope that her dreams are coming true.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

LittleWhite Lies

Here I am, an advocate of trust and building relationships based on trust, thinking about lies. I am not talking about lies that cover big, life-altering secrets. I’m not talking about lies that cause people needless pain. Nor am I talking about lies that eat at our souls or are just a small part of a complicated web of prevarication. (I really like that word – prevarication. It reminds me of things I like, like vacation, recreation, and circumnavigation. Also coagulation, but don’t get me started on things that start out thin and get thick, like gravy. I am afraid of those things. )

What I am talking about are little white lies, lies that are created to spare people’s feelings, to make uncomfortable situations feel a little bit better. Little white lies. They sound pretty harmless, don’t they? They are little, the opposite of the webs mentioned earlier, where one little lie leads to a slightly bigger lie, which leads to a slightly bigger lie, until, if you follow the trail, you get to a whopper lie, the kind that can change a life and not for the better. So, by the virtue of their name, little white lies are little, although not always insignificant. They are also white. I am not sure what that has to do with anything, but I picture a candle casting pale whitish light to illuminate a shadowed corner, showing that there are no monsters or spiders. In my house, though, the candle is likely to illuminate a dust bunny or two.

So these lies, these little white lies, are simple, are often relatively meaningless, and usually cause no real harm, at least on the surface. But, despite this, they are lies. They are not true. And I believe that anytime we do not tell the truth, there is the potential to damage relationships. Which once again, leads me back to trust. And American Idol.

In a few days, the 9th season of American Idol begins. I am not a huge American Idol fan. I have never voted, and it is not likely that I would buy tickets to the tour or even download a song. But I like it okay. One important truth about me, if you don’t already know this, is that I really only like music that I have heard before. So I’m a big fan of Michael Jackson night and Top 40 from the 80’s night.

American Idol starts with several days of auditions. And several days of truly awful singers. Truly awful singers who someone, probably someone they trusted, told them sounded good. What were they thinking? I’m really not much of a singer. Actually, I can sing – whatever the person next to me is singing, especially if you don’t mind approximate lyrics and, as Randy would say, a little pitchiness. But even I can tell that many of the singers are truly horrid. I think about them, the horrid singers, smiling shyly but proudly as they state with certain, “I am the next American Idol!” And I think to myself, “Why didn’t someone tell them the truth? Why didn’t someone, someone who loves them unconditionally and thinks that they are the best person in the whole world, why didn’t one of those trusted people, tell them the truth?” I wonder.

How many times each day do we tell little white lies? Usually, as I said before, we tell them to avoid conflict, to avoid disapproval, or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Sometimes everything turns out okay. The not-so-flattering outfit is changed, the not-so- delicious dinner is removed from rotation. No one is worse off for the lie.

But sometimes, even though we don’t mean to, we do cause harm. We inadvertently hurt those we love, those who trust us to tell them the truth, because we try to spare their feelings. Or we hurt ourselves, and in the process, hurt our relationship. Little white lies are easy to tell; they are often much harder to apologize for. And sometimes, however little and white they are, they do hurt.

And so I challenge you today to turn over a new leaf of honesty. Think about the little white lies you tell every day. Think about the possible consequences. Think about who might get hurt and who will be spared. And then I challenge you to take a risk and tell the truth. It might be scary at first. It might cause some hurt feelings or discomfort. But in the long run, I think that telling the truth is always the best option, and our relationships will be all the stronger for it.