Monday, January 24, 2011

Just Call Me

I'm not quite ready to enter the world of dating, but I'd be lying if I said I haven't given it some thought. Here's something to consider: The last time I was single was sixteen years ago. Do you know how much has changed in the world since then? In 1995 when I was last single, Bill Clinton was President—and we hadn't yet even heard of Monica; Kevin Mitnick was arrested by the FBI for hacking into secure computer systems—and since PCs weren't widely available yet, most people didn't know what that meant; the state of Mississippi finally abolished slavery (yes! that's true); Timothy McVae and Terri Nichols set off the devastating bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; and O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder.
   More specifically, do you realize how much has changed in the way we communicate? In 1995, only 34 million people in the U.S. had cell phones (as opposed to 270 million in 2009), and the devices were the approximate shape—and weight—of a brick. Think about it. Sixteen years ago, when a man wanted to ask me out on a date, he either had to call me on a LAN line, or ask me in person. Recently, I was told by a single friend to never expect a man to call me for a date again. Text. Email. iChat. Yes. Voice to voice communication, not so much. Really? Really.
Milton Bradley's Mystery Date (circa 1965) was ahead of its time.
  Of course, online dating did not even exist sixteen years ago, and that is—apparently—the way a lot of adults meet today. According to a recent study conducted by, 17% of those who married in the past three years met online. The survey showed that online introductions were only bested as most-frequent means of introduction by meeting through a mutual acquaintance or at work or school. So, apparently, more people meet online than in bars, clubs or at social events. (Of course, would want that statistic published, so I take it with a grain of salt.) And there are other forms of new media, Facebook to be specific, that are just as popular for meeting new mates—or old ones. According to, "Facebook is now cited in one-in-five online divorce petitions." Online divorce petitions? Well, I suppose it stands to reason that if you meet divorce online.
  I honestly don't think I'm going to meet my next Prince Charming online. But, heck, it could happen, so just to test the waters, I made forays into the cyber world to see what's out there for me. Call it a social media experiment.
   There are numerous sites, of course, so where to start? One of my best friends in life found her husband through JDate (the Jewish dating site) so that gave me an idea. Since I typically have a lot in common with people who were raised Catholic, a dating sight for Catholics might be a good place to begin my experiment. Sure enough, there's
   For a nominal fee, I signed up, filled out my profile, said a few Hail Marys and an Our Father and became a CatholicMatch member. Winks, nods and genuflections ensued, but at first, the respondents, though fine fellows didn't strike my fancy. Then I received a response from a gorgeous man in Chicago named Agostino. He was a 44-year old widower from Italy, no less, and said that his dear, beloved wife had died tragically in a motorcycle accident, leaving him with an equally gorgeous six-year-old son. Agostino seemed to be a lovely man, but his writing was, understandably, stilted since English was his second language. ("I speak with a heavy Italian accent," he wrote. "I hope you don't mind." Mind?! Do I mind that a man speaks with an incredibly sexy accent?! Gee, let me think about that...) He also wrote  that he would enjoy ever so much (this is my rephrasing, not his)" taking long walks on the beach and watching the sunset with me, or, alternately, just hanging out on the sofa, watching Andy Griffin and eating popcorn." Although I've never been a huge fan of Andy—yes, I do like Andy, but not enough to put him on my agenda for a "perfect date"—I wrote Agostino an effusive note, saying I would love to hear more about him and mentioning that I was a successful editor who worked for Time. Suddenly, my beautiful Italian disappeared. Within moments his profile was gone from the site. Poof! So much for my dreamy Italian lover. Oh, well, in e-dating, easy come, easy go, right?
   I didn't have to wait too long to receive another note in my Inbox. Fred was not a tragic Italian widower, but he wrote I am a successful man who only wants to please you. We can take long walks on the beach, holding hands, or just sit on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn and watch Andy Griffin if you prefer... Holy crap! Do all men think that women dream only of having sand between their toes, or curling up with a bowl of popcorn and Andy reruns?! I started digging a little and found no less than six profiles of men who included almost exactly the same "perfect date" descriptions right down to the beachside strolls, sofa-sitting, Andy-watching and popcorn-eating. I smelled scam. So much for meeting good, honest Catholic fellows!
   Of course, there were many other dating sites to try, but not wanting to shell out another $30, I found a free site called and decided to see who might be swimming there. Let me assure you, you get what you pay for. I didn't need to read beyond the headlines that these bottom feeders provided as "date bait" to know I was not going to find my next true love in this pond. Here's an example of some of the typical headlines. (I love the last one. I mean, the guy has such low expectations, you just have to feel for him.)

Looking for a great woman: Hello ladies, I am a well liked man. I am a very nice person. I like to go to the beach 'n spend time with that someone special. I like going to the movies, fishing 'n I like to hunt....
Lookng [sic] for sexy lady: I'm a single parent of two boys. We have a good life. I like music and I'm looking for a lady thet's kind, loving, fun, romantic, sexy and god fearing.
Looking for a drug free woman: I love music and sports and traveling to new places. My hobbies are woodwork and drawing. I'm easy going and love life. I work hard and like my job. 
   No thanks, I'm not going to drop my line in that water anytime soon. And yes there are Buddhist social/dating sites, but none of them are too vibrant nor are they well populated by fellow-Buddhist singles in the Birmingham, Alabama area. Yet for the adventuresome, online dating site options are quite limitless, and like all good websites, they are often targeted at specific demographics. For the Faithful, there's ";  for the unfaithful there's "Date Hot Cheating Wives" at Want to meet ethnic beauties? Go to "" ("founded for lonely European, Asian and Black beautiful ladies"). And if you are superficial, but not that picky, there's—the name says it all.
   It's doubtful that I'll end up as one of the reported 120,000 annual marriages spawned by online dating services (according to Online Dating Magazine) but, who knows? I suppose when and if I'm ready to date again, I might give a legitimate online dating site a try. And in our world where millions of people are accessible 24/7 through the power of a global, digital stream, anything is possible. But I can assure you this: Before I go out with a man I meet electronically, I will need to hear his voice. No matter how good he appears to be on paper, ultimately, I will require good old-fashioned communications skills to seal the deal. E-mail is so limiting when it comes to nuance, inflection and tone, and no emoticon can take ever replace the beautiful sound of a spontaneous laugh. Call me old fashioned, but electronic communication will never replace the genuine tenor and warmth of voice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Who is More Valuable: Friend or Foe?

There's a prayer we say in Buddhist practice on Tuesday nights and it always jars me from my recitation and—at times—has brought me to tears. It goes something like this, I will cherish those who wronged me and consider them my most honored teachers and spiritual guides. The few first times I read this prayer, I thought it was the Buddhist spin on the New Testament verse love your enemies, bless those who curse you, but lately, those words have found new resonance with me.
I will cherish those who wrong me and consider them my most honored teachers and spiritual guides.
    I never thought of myself as having enemies. Sure, there were people with whom I disagreed, but to consider someone an enemy meant they did me intentional harm. I didn't have anyone like that in my life! Then one evening as I sat cross-legged on my mediation pillow, following along in the Buddhist prayer book, it occurred to me that the person who becomes the most dreaded foe is the one who was once held in closest intimacy. What the phrase really meant was this: We learn the most poignant lessons about ourselves from the people who have broken our hearts. 
   We think our friends teach us and provide us with insight into our lives. We spend a lot of time trying to cultivate friendships. We amass as many "Friends" as we can on our Facebook pages and feel we've accomplished something when we see that number rise. It feels great to surround ourselves with people who love and admire us, but the true test of our compassion comes from those who won't accept our Friend Request—friendship unrequited.
   Rejection is painful. When you've put your heart out to another only to have it turned away—no matter the reason—it stings physically and emotionally. The sorrow of love lost is enough to make one harden one's heart and resolve to not take that risk again. This is loss upon loss—insult to injury—because in those failed relationships we have the best opportunities to learn and grow.
   When he spoke recently at Emory University in Atlanta, His Holiness the Dalai Lama talked of this dichotomy. He said in order to develop a true sense of loving kindness and compassion, "we must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them. And who creates such opportunities? Not our friends, of course, but our enemies. They are the ones who give us the most trouble."
   I know, it sounds just another cup of lemonade-from-life's-lemons philosophy, but think about it. It's true. If we can get outside the pain and humiliation and anguish we feel when someone fails to return our love in-kind and look at why the relationship didn't work out, there is a lot to be gained. As humans we want to place blame when relationships sour. When someone hurts us deeply, we are quick to rationalize it's not me, it's him. But the bitter truth may indeed be me who caused the rift.
   In peeling back the layers of the proverbial onion on my now defunct marriage, I've shed more than a few tears over vows not upheld in one way or another. But now I'm getting to the true heart of the matter, and I realize in many ways that I have been the cause of my own suffering. This is not to say that I am beating myself up, but, rather, I'm accepting the role I played in the matter. My ex—although I don't think of him as my enemy—has taught me a lot about relationships and of my own flawed nature. Too late, unfortunately to mend our differences, but in time for us to both recover and heal and become better people for it.
   When someone hurts us deeply it sheds light on the source of our fears and anxieties. These may be neurosis we've been carrying around since childhood and we aren't even conscious of how the pattern of behavior is effecting our lives. To find that source is powerful. Often, we go through life tamping down our fears. We think they are our weaknesses, the very things from which we should flee. In truth, these fears, insecurities and anxieties are at the core of our motivations throughout life, and if we can understand them—even embrace them—we can overcome them and live happier lives.
   And this is not only true for romantic relationships, it's true in the workplace too. The boss who drinks too much at dinner and makes insensitive comments may be an ass, but he also might help you define your convictions so you can become a more compassionate manager. Or the difficult coworker who frustrates you endlessly because she smugly takes credit for your work, might just be the person who gives you insight into you deep-seeded sense that you should be more vocal about your own contributions. By understanding insecurities exist, you can address and diffuse them in overt and subtle ways.
    Conversely, chances are the very thing that repels you in the person you abhor is a quality that you possess. As American novelist and civil right activist James Baldwin wrote, "One can only face in others what one can face in oneself." Damn.
   Although it's never pleasant to be at odds with another person, the Buddhist perspective does provide a means to find the good when we are feeling fear and loathing for another person, no matter the cause. It is in those times when we can dig deep and thank our enemy for the lessons he has taught us, because he has done for us what no friend can: Illuminated a dark area of our minds that can now be freed of suffering and adversity. We should also be grateful to the person who we think has done us so much harm, because he has also given us the chance to forgive him and practice compassion—and that is another great gift.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Successful Un-Marriage

When you cannot sustain a successful marriage, how 'bout trying for a successful divorce? Not exactly my goal when Drew and I married almost 15 years ago, but sometimes things turn out very different than you think they will—for better and for worse.
   For those who have never been through the process of divorce, let me assure you of this: You do not want to do it! No one enjoys parsing out one's life on paper with the help of attorneys who charge $200+ an hour. That said, perhaps a good exercise to undertake before getting married would be to go through the process of divorce and see what it does to your relationship. Sound weird? Well, think about it. When you get married, you are planning for an uncertain future. You hope for the best. Perhaps you even have specific goals in mind. You think you know your intended spouse well enough to spend the rest of your lives together, and you take a great leap of faith.
   Divorce is the converse of this, and a lot more pragmatic. You know you do not have a future together. You admit it, and yet—and I'm talking specifically about when children are involved—you sit down and map out a specific plan for how the future will unfold, with respect to finances, child rearing and property holdings. In the process of divorce, my soon-to-be-ex and I have discussed many topics that were never brought up during our marriage. Of course some topics, such as, policies about "overnight guests in the home when the child is present," were not relevant when we intended to continue our marital union. E-hem! Other topics, that will remain nameless, we should have spent more time discussing while we were married, and had we, perhaps we would not be going through the process of divorce now. But even with all the reasons that brought us to this point where we are ending our legal commitment to each other, in the process of divorce, we are reaffirming our commitment to our son. The splitting up of assets means very little to me, the splitting of our son—well, that's a different matter. We are doing everything in our power—short of staying married—to make sure he will be okay, spiritually, emotionally and physically.
   The fact that Drew and I are actually getting along better now that we are divorcing is enigma to most people who have been through this process. I can't tell you how many friends have voiced their utter shock that we are even still speaking to each other only six months out from our initial blow-out. Yes, it is unusual. I have friends with children who divorced decades ago and haven't had a meaningful conversation with their ex-spouse since. If children aren't involved, I can understand it completely. You just need to move on and the ex is no longer part of your life in any way—except as a footnote to your history. But with kids in the mix, I'm not sure how you completely divorce yourself from the father or mother of your child/children. Honestly, that's hard for me to comprehend, although I do realize that the hurt and grief and anguish brought about by the ending of a marriage—and the betrayal of vows, even if that act of betrayal is simply not wanting to uphold the marriage vows until death do we part—is certainly enough to schism any relationship.
  Fortunately, Drew and I have decided to opt for a successful un-marriage and what we may end up with is an ideal relationship, at least in Buddhist terms. 
   Marriage is a tricky union for those who practice Buddhism. It is, in fact, the antithesis of what Buddhism prescribes since marriage usually begets attachment and expectation. Attachment or craving is the root of suffering in this world. When we crave anything—an ice-cold martini, hot sex, a Godiva truffle, the meat-lovers pizza from Jim Davenport's, the end of despair and loneliness—we fall into the trap of attaching ourselves to desire. In other words, we must have this person, place or thing to be happy. That is folly because what occurs once we have what we longed-for is that we are only sated for a brief time. The desire will return again and again, with the only recourse being quenching it. It is an endless, and unhappy, cycle. 
   Why do we desire what will ultimately make us unhappy when it is gone? Simple. We are human and we think we need a certain things in our lives to make us happy: money, a house, a car, someone to bring us flowers, someone to listen, someone with whom to share life's joys and fears. In a marriage inspired by romantic love, we heap all sorts of desires and attributes onto our spouse. They are ours by rite of vows. We promise to love, honor and obey—or whatever vows you may have made up in your hippy-dippy attempt to circumvent the word obey because you felt that was antiquated and sexist. By binding ourselves to another above all else, we are setting ourselves up for a fall of epic, Humpty Dumpty proportions. Still, our culture believes that marriage is the best, most civil way of coupling, for owning property, for filing taxes and, yes, for raising children. Legally, this all makes perfect sense. 
   But let's face it, we typically get married because we think by entering into an exclusive commitment with the person we love—or think we love—marriage will make us happy. And we probably would all be happily married until death do we part, if it weren't for little caveat: everything changes. Life is not static. People are not static. We change and grow even if it is not apparent to ourselves. Even the most stalwart, status quo, dyed-in-the-wool, this-is-who-I-am-take-me-or-leave-me individual is going to change from moment to moment, physically, emotionally and intellectually. Right now, my cells are different than they were a minute ago. Biology is what it is. Even when I am sitting in meditation—especially when I am sitting in meditation!— I am constantly taking in new information, which shapes my thoughts and intellect. And anyone who knows me, knows that my emotional range is that of a well-trained opera diva. I can hit any high or low note on cue, but that reactive nature changes too, based on daily experiences and (now) on Buddhist practice. 
   Understanding that all beings change constantly, how can we possibly expect to maintain a committed relationship for any length of time? To help answer that question, I'm going to defer to an expert on the subject who has a far greater understanding of Buddhism and relationships than I do, Susan Piver. Piver is a best-selling author, mediation expert and practitioner of Buddhism. She attended Shambhala Buddhist seminary. She's a pro. And she's married. She wrote a great piece on the topic of marriage and Buddhism for the Huffington Post last year, and in it she says that "finding love is not the endpoint," rather it is just a point in time when you determine that you will journey forward with a single person through all the changes that life hurls at you. "The relationship never stabilizes, ever. In which case you can't actually promise each other anything." 
   Okay, maybe that's not a great case for marriage after all—at least not in the stereotypical sense of marriage in our culture. But maybe Piver is onto something when it comes to defining what makes a successful relationship between two people who are committed to each other. No attachment. No emotional clinginess. No heaping upon expectations on each other. Just unconditional love and compassion, and feeling an affinity and respect for one another that is just there. It's sounding pretty hippy-dippy, but that is the nature of true loving kindness in Buddhist practice. And following the most basic of Buddhist principles, we should extent this warm, glow to everyone—not just one person who we have plucked from obscurity to be our dearest, beloved.
   Considering the Buddhist principles, perhaps Drew and I are actually on a path to a better, healthier relationship and one that will be enduring and loving beyond any spoken vow. Just because we have determined that we are no longer compatible as husband and wife, does not mean we cannot maintain a loving relationship as Jack's parents. In fact, that bond is greater than any vow—secular or religious—because Jack, by his very nature, is a melding of our DNA. We are bound to him by biology and by, yes, an unconditional, pure love for him as our child. No matter the differences between us, or how much we continue to change and move apart as individuals, we will always have that love for Jack in common—and that is the one bond that can never be broken.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


This week, Lama Deshek, the Tibetan Buddhist monk and teacher at the Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center, created a Mandala for Peace at Birmingham Southern College. According to Lama Deshek, "Mandala means circle in Sanskrit. They often symbolize the natural perfection and harmony in nature. Tibetan monks create sand mandalas symbolizing the residence of Enlightened Beings in order to people imagine the vast and profound enlightened state. They are also used as meditational aids."
   Mandalas are common symbols throughout various Buddhist sects, as well as for Hindus and Christians (many stained glass windows and mosaics found in Catholic cathedrals evoke the same circular patterns.) The intricate process of creating a mandala would be difficult enough if it were a simple circular design—say, one lotus blossom—but they are designed with layer upon layer of pattern and symbol AND they are created entirely from fine sand, which is handmade from crushed marble and then dyed. Each grain of sand is placed through the use of slender copper cones that allow the artist to modulate the precise amount of sand required for each stroke by rubbing a second copper cone across the vertebrae of the first cone. And I'm talking about precise placement of each grain of sand into an impossibly intricate pattern that is all in the head of the creator—in this case, Lama Deshek.
   Watching this process is indeed meditative. I found I could not take my eyes from the copper cone and its issuance. The high-pitched scraping sound of one cone rasping against the nodules of the other became a melodic accompaniment to the work in progress. The word spellbound comes to mind.
   Lama Deshek's creation of the Mandala for Peace was made more amazing by the fact that he was doing the work of four monks. You see, although the mandala itself is a circle, it is created in the center of a square, which allows the four monks to work in concert, each on their own side of the mandala. Four of course, is an auspicious number. The number four evokes Buddha's Four Noble Truths, the four directions of a compass, the four seasons, the four elements.
   Tapping ever-so-lightly on the copper cone, Deshek circled the table, placing the grains of sand in exacting pattern. The work would take seven days, at least, for one monk to complete. Once completed, does this phenomenal work of art remain in the gallery under glass to be admired for generations to come? No. It is destroyed. The heartbreaking truth is that all this incredible labor—from grinding and dying the marble to the precise colors required, to the tapping down of each grain of sand into the impossible pattern that will never be recreated exactly in the same manner again—is swept together when it is completed and the sand is then tossed into a local river to go back into the earth. The mandala is ultimately an exercise in impermanence, which is one of the great practices of Buddhism. To accept that this life is temporal, that all must pass away, and that change is the only constant is one of the more difficult concepts for humans to truly wrap our heads around or embrace. Yet, the principle is evident throughout all of Nature: Everything changes.
   The metaphor is not lost on me.

    For the past sixteen years, I laid down a pattern, grain by grain until I created a life—for good and ill—of an intricate design. My marriage. My career as a freelance writer. The birth of my son. The move to Birmingham. The death of my parents. My career as an editor. My divorce. The resignation of my editorial duties. The pattern is beautiful, but it is now complete, and I can't hold onto it. It must be swept into the ocean just as Lama Deshek's beautiful mandala will be swept away and returned to the earth. Such is the nature of life. It is often difficult to accept, but once we see that by wiping the board clean, we are at once ready to start anew.
   And of course, it is not so simple as all this! I have not deliberately come to this point in my life only to sweep away a fifteen year marriage and four year relationship with Time. But I do clearly see that starting anew is the only way for me to get back on the right path with my life. And it is the only way for my soon-to-be-exhusband to journey forward as well. How do I know this? How do I know how to breath? It would be easier to answer the latter query. How does Lama Deshek know where to place those grains of sand?
   I will never be able to recreate the exact pattern of the last sixteen years, nor would I want to. That mandala of my life is now complete, and although it may be difficult for me to begin again, already I'm laying down the fine grains in an impossibly intricate pattern that I will not be able to fully discern until years from now when I step back from it and appreciate its design.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Are We There Yet?

Although I've recently learned to appreciate traveling solo and all the experiences that affords, nothing takes the place of setting out for adventures in my car with my number one traveling companion: Jack. Yes, if you really want to learn about life, pack your car full of Capri Sun juice pouches, cherry Twizzlers and Goldfish crackers, charge up the Nintendo DSi, safely buckle your wise-beyond-his-years, average eight-year-old in the back seat and hit the road for a six hour sojourn and see what happens.
   There was a time not so very long ago when I dreaded long car trips with Jack. When he was an infant, and easy to manage in a snuggly strapped to my chest, we would board a plane and fly to Little Rock for visits. Even the two-hour layover in Memphis seemed tailor-made to our purpose because it allowed time for the all-important diaper change and feedings. When he started to walk, travel became dicier. As a frequent flyer, I swore I would not be one of those parents who subjected fellow-travelers to the plaintive howling of my young child as his ears filled with fluid upon ascent and descent from the friendly skies. How many times did I roll my eyes and turn up the volume of my earphones to drowned out the screams of someone else's sweet, dear, baby darling, cursing both child and parent as I feigned slumber? Too many to recount. And so, upon entering parenthood, I recalled the dread of sitting in front of, behind, or—God forbid!—next to an inflight infant. No matter how sweet and well-behaved, a baby on board an airport is tantamount to one of Dante's lower levels of hell. Long before I embraced Buddhism in earnest, when traveling with Baby Jack, I already lived by the mantra to end all suffering and the causes of suffering when it came to consideration of fellow-flyers. And so began the era of the road trip.

   I've lost count of how many miles Jack and I have logged on the road together. I'm just counting our twosome outings because, when Drew and I traveled together with Jack, he was much easier to entertain since we had him outnumbered. But the two of us made frequent trips back and forth to Little Rock (that's six hours, each way) when my parents were in their decline, beginning when Jack was about age five. And yes, in those days the inevitable wail went up from the back seat, just an hour outside of Birmingham, How much longer do we have until Little Rock? Are we there, yet?
   My most recent trip to Little Rock with Jack was markedly different, dare I say, even pleasant. Think about it: When do you ever intentionally spend six hours in the same thirty-cubic foot space with your child other than when you are on the road? Outside of sharing a car ride together, when would you ever want to? There is something about travel that allows for the extended proximity (and this goes for adults traveling together as well.) A pact is struck. You know you must get along for the duration, or time will creep by in a most unpleasant fashion. Disagreements must be resolved quickly, or you will sit in funky silence, trapped in a cloud of anger, and that is just not fun.
My backseat driver.
   But fortunate that Jack is of an age now where he can entertain himself for long stretches (thank you Nintendo DSi for your clever and oh-so-portable game system). Long past the Wheels on the Bus stage of life, Jack now shares my taste in music, thank God, and so the trip is consumed by singing together with The Blackeyed Peas, David Bowie (the Ziggy stuff), The Flaming Lips and, of course, The Beatles. And in those quiet times when the DSi has become boring and we just can't bear to hear Fame one more time, we talk, and not just about whether Pikachu could beat Raichu with thunder tail or if Burger King chicken nuggets are superior to Wendy's. I mean, we really talk.
  I suppose I am making a more concerted effort these days to talk to Jack because I want to ensure he feels comfortable discussing his feeling about the divorce, but I've always been fascinated to discover his young take on the world. Now, I'm just listening more closely. So the trip to Little Rock gave us time to get into some fairly philosophical conversations. For example, somewhere near Southaven, Mississippi, we began discussing the importance of friendship.
"Why is it important for us to have friends?" I asked.
"'Cause you need someone to play with," Jack said, looking up from his game.
"Do you need friends, or do you want friends?" I asked.
Jack thought for a minute. "You need them," he replied.
"I think you're right," I said. "Why do we need friends? We don't have to have them to live, you know. You have to have air and water and food, but we won't die without friends, right? So why do we need them? Other animals don't have or need friendship. Why do humans need it so?"
Honestly, I don't know the answer to this question and I was interested to hear what Jack would say. He thought for a few moments, winning another level at Pokemon Heart Gold before replying.
"Well, if someone is trying to hurt you, it's good to have friends to help defend you," he said.
"That's true," I said. "Although today that's not so much the case, but I think you're right, I bet early humans—"
"You mean monkeys, Mom," Jack said.
(I am so relieved our public school system teaches evolution, even though we live in a Bible Belt, fundamentalist state.)
"Yes, monkeys or whatever those earlier humanoids were, I bet they first created friendships as a means of survival. Banding together you know. Well, wild dogs do that, but I don't think they are really friends, do you? But we don't need friends for protection now, do we? So why are friends so important?"
Jack plugged away at his game for a moment and then replied, "If we didn't have friends, we'd be lonely!"
"You're right," I said. "You are absolutely right."
"And I stood up for Mitchell the other day," Jack said. "A fourth grader shoved him so I gave him a taste of his own medicine."
"Yes," I said. "Mrs. Gunter told your Dad and me about that. You're a very loyal friend. What did you do to the boy?"
"I shoved him back," Jack said.
(Jack weighs all of fifty pounds and is one of the smallest kids in the third grade, but he has a big heart.)
"Do you think that was the best way to handle that situation?" I asked.
"Yes," Jack said. "He shoved Mitchell, so I shoved him."
"Did it help? Did it teach that bully a lesson?"
"What else could you have done?"
"I could have told the teacher."
"Yes, that's always a good idea," I said. "You know what else you could do? Ignore him. Walk away. Don't give him the satisfaction of seeing that he got to you, you know?"
"Yeah," said Jack. "But he shoved Mitchell for no reason."
"But shoving him back didn't help, did it? It just made that boy madder. If you walk away, you diffuse the problem. He wanted you to react, so when you react, you are giving him what he wants. Understand?"
"Yeah," Jack said. "But that guy was a jerk."
"Yeah," I said. "And you are not. Next time, just walk away and then tell the teacher."
Jack thought for a moment.
"Mom," Jack said. "Can we stop for Burger King? I'm hungry."

   We were through Memphis and across the Mississippi River bridge by the time we determined that friends are indeed essential in our lives—almost as necessary as food and water and air—and that the best way to handle bullies is to not give them the attention they want. Would we have had this conversation at home while going about our regular chores and routines? Probably not. Would we have then gone on to have a beautiful discussion about the impermanence of life and how death is a part of life and theories about heaven as we drove past the barren cotton fields of the Arkansas delta? Probably not. And that is the beauty of travel: It provides opportunity for perspective if you are willing to view it in your rearview mirror.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Wander Lust

Fully-packed backpack for my week-long excursion to NYC and DC. Contents include: 1 pair of running shoes, 1 pair of suede boots, 2 sweaters, 1 pair of jeans, PJs, assorted tops, a silk Chinese-style blazer, double-breasted, black knit jacket, matching black mini-skirt, underwear, socks, tights, leggings and a robe. I kid you not. (Shoe shown for scale)
This week, I discovered a new passion: traveling alone. Let me clarify. Unless trundling down the road as the sole driver/passenger of my Honda Civic, I never travel completely by myself, so when I refer to traveling alone I mean migrating by my own agenda in the company of strangers via public transportation—which becomes, in effect, a social event rife with possibilities. In that respect, my recent trip to New York and D.C. was a party. For the first time in years, I traveled without benefit of husband, child or friend as companion. Ultimately, my itinerary led me to visit with friends and colleagues, but in route—the actual travel part—I was own my own—surrounded by thousands of fellow-travelers. And those encounters—whether fleeting or lingering—are what make getting from Point A to Point B so incredibly enriching.
   Sure, we have the opportunity to meet strangers everyday while standing in line while to buy groceries at Publix, or when going through the weight circuit at the gym, but there's something unique about befriending fellow travelers. In fact, travel is the great equalizer. Set foot in an airport terminal and we are all out of our element, and thrust into a limbo, away from our beloved neighborhoods and familiar haunts.
   We pack a few choice belongings and leave the comfort of our homes to fling ourselves into a mass of people and situations; and even place our very lives in the hands of pilots and flight attendants, and drivers and engineers and ticket takers, any of whom could ruin our day—at minimum—in a split second of bad-judgment, neglect or just plain indifference. By traveling, we thrust ourselves into a universe of unfamiliar faces, most of whom, we will never see again. For this reason, it's tempting to just keep our heads down, move through the line, have a seat, turn up the iPod volume or feign sleep while we are carried along by the current.
   In my past life, when I traveled extensively for business on the corporate dime, I often kept those blinders on. I didn't want to chit chat with the grandma from Tucson who was going to see her fourteenth grandchild in a revisionist interpretation of Fiddler on the Roof, portrayed by an all-Black cast of third graders, nor did I wish to discover the latest trend in geophysics from the mildly attractive, but oh-so-nerdy PhD candidate seated too close to me on the red-eye to San Francisco. If my iPod battery died mid-flight, no worries, I could fake listening to music or Ira Glass until I reached my destination. But no more. I don't travel that way now.
   Now, among other occupations, I am an Airport Docent. Never heard of the job? Well, it's a very specialized position and it requires no training whatsoever; rather, it is hinged upon the ability to step beyond one's own interest and attend to others around you. Yes, while you are traveling—perhaps waylaid by bad weather or mechanical failure, or strapped for time, victimized by thoughtless TSA agents, etc.—you must get outside your own little drama to discover those in need in the airport.
   I first enrolled as an Airport Docent last summer when I was returning to Birmingham from a trip to Chicago. I was scheduled to fly out of O'Hare on Saturday morning and arrived in plenty of time, very happy and content after spending a few days there exploring the city with an old friend. It was a beautiful, sunny day and, since it was a Saturday, I was relaxed and in no particular hurry, so when an announcement was made that there was a mechanical problem on the plane and our flight would be slightly delayed, I wasn't bothered. Twenty minutes later, when the Captain confided that he would board the flight, even though the techs were still trying to fix the faulty switch, I didn't think twice about complying with his request and dutifully found my seat. Sitting aboard the plane, waiting to feel that first gentle tug of momentum as the plane begins to roll back, away from the gate, I was calm and happy. I would reach my destination eventually. No hurry. But when the Captain announced that, despite all efforts, the switch could not be repaired and all one hundred and thirty-six passengers would now have to de-board and be rerouted to other flights, I joined in the collective groan that went up from the cabin. Still, I had no urgent agenda ahead of me that day, and being in a good mood allowed me to forgive the mechanics of the plane, even be thankful that we had not taken to air with a bad thing-a-ma-jig that might have caused us to plummet from the skies. (You never know when a problem is averted, right?) I gathered my backpack and brief case and ambled off the plane, wondering when I might catch the next flight south.
   But not everyone on my flight was quite so blissed out. As I reentered the gate area, I heard the rising plaintive hysteria of a woman's voice, thick with European accent of no discernible origin. "You don't understand!" she shouted to the gate agent. "I do not speak much English. My husband, has no English! I need help!" The gate agent shook his head and pointed her in the direction of a nearby area of the concourse, which boasted a wall lined with six red courtesy phones. "Just pick up the phone," he said dully. Honestly, I'm not sure what came over me accept that I was in a good mood and buoyed by a feeling of contentment on this warm, sunny Saturday. "I will help you," I said to the woman. "Come with me." The woman and her husband exchanged a look and then picked up their carry-ons and followed me to the end of the (now) very long line that snaked out from the courtesy phone area.
   The couple, named Milnik, was from Serbia and now lived in Houston. We stood in line together for about an hour, communicating as best we could with simple words and hand gestures and smiles, slowly inching toward the all-important red phones. But we were not the last in line. By the time we made it to the phones, I had also befriended an African man, who was traveling with his tiny infant daughter and his two young children. Although he spoke lovely English it was draped with a heavy accent, he too was fearful that it would hinder his ability to speak to a faceless agent on the end of a phone in a loud airport terminal. When I complimented him on his beautiful children, he told me that his wife had died giving birth to the baby, who was born premature and now that the infant was nearing a year old, and at a healthy weight, he was hoping to find work in New York and move his young family there. "I will help you," I said. "Don't worry."
   Just then a frantic Chinese girl who spoke very little English, broke to the head of the line, crying "I must get home! I must get home!" I feared the frustrated mob might turn Lord of the Flies on her as they shouted her back to the end of the queue. Sobbing, she took her place behind the African man. "I will help you," I said to her, although from her unchanged expression of pure dread and fear, she might have thought I said, "I will kill you."
   Once I made it to the Red Phone, I made short work of my new friends' flight changes. The Milniks were placed on stand-by for two direct flights to ensure they would get to Houston that day; the African man and his lovely children were routed to JFK; and, although I left the Chinese girl on the phone with the United Airlines translator, I felt certain she would make it home eventually—wherever that home might be. She smiled and thanked me as I strapped on my backpack and headed out to catch the one flight departing from Midway that would carry me home that day. "You're welcome," I smiled. "Happy to help."
   This trip to New York and D.C. did not yield such dramatic requirement of my Airport Docent acumen, but I did befriend The Good Witch of the Upper East Side, a lovely 91-year-old Jewish grandmother, who was so amazingly sharp and independent that she gave me hope I might enjoy this vagabond life for a very long time. Then on the bus from LaGuardia to Grand Central, a passenger left his wallet and passport, and I witnessed several good fellow-travelers catch up to him as he powered up Park Avenue and return his identity to him before he even knew it was missing. And finally, on my return flight from DC, I offered a hacking man a zinc lozenge and struck up a lively conversation with this fellow Birmingham resident, who entertained me all the way home.
    There are a thousand kindnesses to be visited upon others everyday, and when we travel and are out of our own element, these become more apparent. Everyone is in need of comfort, direction, a smile or a cough drop, when away from home; and what I love most about traveling alone with other lonely travelers is practicing those very essential and basic acts of compassion.