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.