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.