Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Is Spiritual the New Sexy?

On Sunday something unusual happened: Jack and I attended church. Yes, my son who—last time I checked was sorta down with Jesus, not wild about shaving his head for Buddha, but most interested in Zeus and Perseus—was down-right giddy about attending Sunday service. Before you get all dewy eyed and start claiming miracles do happen, let me assure you there was a major “carrot” involved to inspire his shift in perspective about church: a girl. And not just any girl, but the girl who said “Yes” to his proposal of “Will You Be My Friend?” (And for those of you who are keeping score, it was not Caroline* the classmate who he previously asked to be his "girlfriend," but another girl in his class named Zoe.*)
   I didn't intend to bribe my son into going to a religious service. I'm friends with Zoe's parents and I knew they attended this particular church, so I called to get the scoop. The next thing I know, Jack and Zoe are sitting in a pew together, whispering to each other and giggling. (Yes, I did have to give Jack the evil-eye every now and then when he continued to talk after the service began, but overall, they behaved wonderfully). The day before, I explained to Jack that I was looking for a church to attend—in addition to my Buddhist practice at Losel Maitri—and we were going to try out this one and see if we liked it.
   "What if we don't like it?" Jack asked. 
    "Well, we'll try another one," I said. "Every church is a little bit different. Some have good music. Some have a priest or minister who gives inspiring sermons. One church might be more laid-back, another, more formal. We just have to try them out and see which one we feel most comfortable in. Some people call it 'church shopping'." 
      Suffice to say, by the time we left the church, Jack was sold and practically begging me to bring him back next week. I'm not sure how much spiritual instruction Jack received (they didn't have Sunday School because of the holiday) but I was very happy that this foray into the world of organized religion was a positive one. 
   Watching Jack whispering to Zoe during church, I felt a little tug at my heart. First of all, it was just plain sweet, but I was also struck by something I've learned of late in my Do-Over life. Although there are many attributes and circumstances that go into the making of any relationship, I now realize the importance of sharing a sense of faith and convictions with the one you love. Without that shared perspective and beliefs, you lack a strong foundation for continued spiritual and emotional growth. Exploring spirituality with someone you love can bring about remarkable discoveries about yourself and each other. 
   But there's more to having a spiritual practice than going to church or meditating—and this is the tricky part—you have to live it and apply its principles into every aspect of your life. No matter your beliefs, practice is essential or you're just paying lip service and not doing the work, nor reaping the rewards. Surrounding yourself with people who share those beliefs makes it so much easier to practice. Of course, there's no guarantee that a shared spiritual practice will bind you together through thick and thin, but it's a good foundation on which to build.
   Now I know a lot of happy marriages where the husband and wife practice differing religions, but I suspect they must meet in the middle and support the common practices that are evident in most faiths, and respect the differences. Maybe simply having a spiritual practice is the important thing. Of course, until I embraced my own spiritual practice, I didn't fully appreciate the relevance—and coming to terms with what I believe is really what my Do-Over life has been about. Like Jack, I had a "carrot" who showed me what true intimacy was by sharing his beliefs with me and loving me for mine.
  Granted, as a Buddhist in the Deep South who believes in a compassionate and loving God, it might be a tall order to find someone who's spiritually compatible. But at least I know now what's important to me. Yep, one of the litmus tests for the man of my dreams is that he be able to sit through the recitation of the Tibetan prayer book without laughing out loud at the part where we say, "Ho ha ha hum." (Okay, I admit I got tickled by that at first, too, but I was able to contain myself.) 
   I never thought I'd say this, but at this point in my life, attending Dharma class on a date is a huge turn-on. When you think about it, meditating and praying together are more intimate than sex. And I may be onto something as more 40-somethings go searching for what's missing in their lives. Could it be that spiritual is the new sexy?

*  Not her real name.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Do-Over Life: 1 Year Later

One year ago today, I launched this blog to chronicle my foray into Buddhist Practice. It's been my "Year of Living Buddhist-ly," otherwise known as My Do-Over Life. No, I have not achieved enlightenment, but I have edged my way closer to finding clarity in many areas of my life.  I've found that the more open I am to accepting the truths about myself, the happier I am—even if discovering those truths isn't exactly pleasant. And that the best way to learn about myself is through my relationships with others. In other words: I honor every person who enters my life as my teacher.
Jack's beloved and well-worn companion,
Panda Ping.
  Relationships have always been important to me. And the lessons I've learned have been a common theme throughout my blog. Whether it was through my relationship with my son, my relationship to my ISP, my relationships with my girlfriends, or my relationship with an annoying ex-boyfriend, these personal connections have taught me about my shortcomings and my strengths. I've always learned from the people in my life, starting with my parents and siblings, but now I'm more keenly aware of the messages imparted by everyone who crosses my path. How I react to each person and the actions he or she might inspire in me have helped define what is truest in me, and what I should let fall away. In fact, I look at this year as a reductive process, stripping away all the old, worn-out perceptionsreactions and dreams. Letting go of these old, comfortable ways may be harder for me than for Jack to give up his beloved Panda Ping. We all have relationships to people, places, things or behaviors that we cling to, either emotionally or physically. Understanding why they are so important to us is part of the process of growing up and letting go.

    I recently asked a friend and loyal blog reader to suggest a topic. Since relationships have been a running theme throughout the blog, I shouldn't have been surprised by his request: "An open letter to potential suitors on what qualities single moms look for in a future partner. (I know  your perspective on men may have changed since the first go-around, and I think that’s what would be interesting to readers).  I know it’s a personal topic, but I think that’s what makes your writing great." 
   At first I thought this topic was too personal, but since his query addresses the essential aspect of relationships, I decided to take on the challenge. (And yes, I've given this topic more than a little consideration over the past months.) In the past I've made lengthy lists of qualities that my Prince Charming should possess. Today, I have just one all-important characteristic, but it's a biggie and very simple, yet difficult to attain. And like most attributes we seek out in others, I know that I must first possess it myself. It's no coincidence that my Buddhist Practice is bringing me closer to this goal. 
   The ultimate quality in a future partner is not success or wealth or status—these qualities are superficial. It's not good looks or charisma or chemistry—although these attributes don't hurt. It's not kindness, compassion or unconditional love—yes, these qualities are admirable. The single most important quality in a future partner comes down to this: He must be Present. Let me explain.
   At this stage in the game—in our 40s—most of us have accumulated more baggage than can fit in the overhead compartment. Most people suffered disappointments, heartache, death of loved ones, abuse or worse. Many had parents who were less than present in their lives. Many have gone on to marriages and divorces with bitter consequences. All that is in the Past. Yes, I believe it is often necessary to explore those past wounds, find the source of the suffering and uproot it. (A good therapist can help, as can meditation and prayer.) I have a lot of compassion for anyone who has carried the woes of their past with them for decades, sometimes without even knowing it. I understand it because I've lugged my share of baggage with me, too. I'm clung to my emotional Panda Ping, afraid to let it go. But in embracing Buddhist philosophy coupled with the belief in a loving and Present God, I see that the past doesn't exist anymore. To cling to it is to cling to an allusion. 
   Likewise, projecting into the future is folly because the Future is an allusion as well. It doesn't exist. Remaining in the Present is the key to any spiritual practice. Of course, it's easier said than done when our thoughts are trained to race back to what is known, or rush into the future to concern ourselves about what is not known. 
   Being Present means simply focusing on whatever is happening right now; appreciating the beauty of the world as it is right now; loving the people who are in our lives right now; acting with compassion and kindness right now; speaking with the best intentions right now. Being present means finding joy in all of life.
   Being Present means being attentive, not self-absorbed or selfish. Being Present means not withholding affection, love or intimacy because of some deep-seated fear. I believe being present is the essential element necessary in any healthy relationship, romantic or otherwise.
  The good news is, we can choose to be present at anytime. We can choose to put aside our Panda Pings. What happened in the past is past. Every day provides the possibility for Do-Over. Over the months to come, as I strive to be more present in my Do-Over Life, I'm trying not to think about "future" partners. But when I do meet that special someone, we will both be present.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Not-So-Psychic Friends

One of the fringe benefits of having children is that through them you can relive your childhood. Not in a weird I'm-going-to be-the-starring-quarterback-through-the-achievements-of-my-kid kinda way, but by gaining adult perspective on childhood woes.
In fourth grade, my new specs improved my vision,
but not my perspective.
   The truth is, I don't remember a lot of details from when I was Jack's age. But that was the year I was diagnosed as near-sighted and bestowed my first pair of glasses. I remember distinctly the first time I put on my new specs and walked out of the optometrist's office, amazed to see there were leaves on trees.
   In fourth grade, I had a cool teacher named Mrs. Shoptaw, and I can recall making my first foray into creative writing through book reports. And I remember we read the book A Wrinkle in Time. It was 1972 and there was a lot going on in the world. A quick Google reveals the details. Gas was 55-cents a gallon; terrorists attacked the Winter Olympics in Munich; Watergate became a household word; and the last ground troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. I don't remember my emotional reactions or thoughts about any of those events, but I can still recall all the words to the #1 single that year, Don McLean's American Pie, which provides further evidence of my childhood myopia.
   Although I can't be sure, it's probable that a lot of behaviors, which have dogged me all my life—my willfulness, my emotional outbursts, my love of chips and dips, my belief in fairytale romances,—all began somewhere around that time. In my Do-Over Life I can't transport myself back to fourth grade and rewrite my missteps, but thankfully, I have a son in 4th Grade to remind me of what it was like and provide some insight into typical fourth grade incidents.
  Jack's an amiable kid who makes friends easily. Last year his best friend was a boy named Tom.* Jack and Tom played together on the playground and got together often after school and on weekends. Tom was a nice boy and I liked his parents. When Tom came over to play, I knew I'd have several hours of relative quiet as they settled into playing their Nintendo games or trading Pokemon cards. They didn't bicker, and if they disagreed, the arguments were quickly resolved without incident.
  So I was surprised when Jack came home from school one day this fall reporting that Tom hit him on the playground. When I questioned Jack about what started the fight, he shrugged and said he didn't know. Tom was such an easy-going kid, so I suspected there must have been something Jack didn't want to tell me. Perhaps Jack had annoyed him or had hit him first? Jack was fine so I didn't make a big deal of it. But later that week Jack told me that Tom was "being mean to him." Turns out, Tom had run up to Jack on the playground and tackled him for no apparent reason.
   "Well, honey," I said, slipping into Dharma-Moma mode. "You never know what's going on in Tom's life. He could be frustrated by something that has nothing to do with you. But he shouldn't hit you or knock you down."
   Later that night, Jack's Dad called Tom's Dad. A few weeks went by and it seemed the problem was resolved. Then last week, while Jack was playing with his new Halo Megabloks figures, I asked him about his day. I expected the all-familar shrug, or the typical "It was fine," but he looked up at me and said, "Well, Tom knocked me down in the cafeteria today."
   "Really?" I said. "That's awful. Were you okay?"
   "Yes," Jack said. "I was just standing in line, talking to a friend and he jumped on me so I was caught off guard and I fell."
    "Did the teachers see it?"
    "Why do you think Tom would do such a thing?" I asked.
    "I don't know, Mom," Jack shrugged. "I can't know what Tom is thinking."
   Jack was right. We could spend all night trying to psycho-analyze Tom and why his behavior had changed, and we would never know what was really going through his ten-year-old head when he ambushed Jack in the milk line. After a word or two about telling the teachers if anything like this happened again, I let the subject drop. Jack wasn't looking for me to swoop in and fix the problem, he was just telling me about his day. He hadn't retaliated or escalated the incident into a fight, so I was proud of him for showing restraint. But more than that, I was proud of Jack for dismissing Tom's behavior as belonging to Tom, rather than taking it personally.
   Although I can't recall a similar situation during my fourth grade years, it's doubtful I wore my son's brand of Teflon. I was the girl who believed deep-down that the 4A classroom was somehow better than 4B—I, of course, was in 4B—because it was alphabetically superior. I took things personally.
   Buddhist Practice teaches that "taking things personally" is a form of egotism and causes a lot of unnecessary suffering. It's a hard rut to climb out of. The truth is, we can't know what others are thinking. We don't know if their words or actions are aimed at us, or the product of something else in their lives that has nothing to do with us. Our perception is limited. Generating a mind for compassion is the antidote.
   Of course, that's often easier said than done. For example, when a fellow-driver cuts me off in traffic, it's not a personal affront, but I can react as though that person deliberately intended to make me slam on the breaks. Or I feel that the person in the other car somehow thinks he's better than me (he's in 4A) and deserves to be ahead of me in line. Unless I make a rude gesture or honk my horn, my reaction isn't even registered by the offending driver. He is in his own little world—literally—but I'm left seething about his inconsiderate behavior. My reactive state might even cause me to drive recklessly and put myself and others in real danger.
   The truth is, I don't know what other people are thinking when they say or do things I take as a personal affront. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with other stuff in their lives. Perhaps the person is worried about a sick family member, or just got bad news about his job. Maybe he's just tired or running late for his child's soccer game. Maybe he's talking on his cell phone—while driving—because the President of the United States just called him for advice! (Okay, that's extreme, but you get the point.) Like Jack, I can't know what other people are thinking, so why not give them the benefit of the doubt, generate some compassion, and let it go.

* Not his real name.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Unexpected Lessons

In the spring of 2007, I accepted a position as Senior Editor for a division of Time that created custom publications for clients. I was thrilled to be offered this full-time job, but one of the publications I was handed was on a topic of which I knew very little: Epilepsy. How in the world would I fill the pages of a magazine about seizures? "Okay," I told myself, "I can learn about anything." I would research and edify myself on this topic, just as I had learned about telecommunications, movies, personal finance, Latin-American cartoons for the assignments I received from other clients. I had some health-writing experience and I knew how to Google. How hard could it be to learn about epilepsy?
November is National
Epilepsy Awareness Month
  Epilepsy is a condition that's surrounded by a lot of stigma. Many people with epilepsy don't like to talk about it, let alone admit that they have seizures. For one, people with active seizures aren't supposed to drive. And there is this fear of the unknown that surrounds the condition. Seventy percent of all cases are idiopathic in nature, meaning there is no known cause. Epilepsy can literally strike out of the blue and transform someone's life forever. As many people are diagnosed with epilepsy every year as are diagnosed with breast cancer, but it doesn't get the play in the media, nor the dollars in research other more well-known diseases garner. (See, I have learned a lot.)
   As editor of this magazine, it was my job to develop stories of interest to people with epilepsy and those effected by the condition. So the best way to understand epilepsy was to talk to those who had it. Fortunately, I was given about fifty people with epilepsy who were the spokespeople for this magazine, and who were more than willing to share their stories. In fact, helping others with epilepsy and their family members was a way for them to make sense of their challenges. I learned through my journalism experience that I loved giving voice to those who might not otherwise have a chance to speak. I felt good providing a service to an underserved population, but I didn't realize (until later) how much I would by served personally by the people with epilepsy who informed every issue.
    During the height of my crisis in July, 2010, I assigned myself the cover story about a remarkable young woman named LaKeisha. I had spoken to her over the years, and was always impressed by her strong faith and optimism. Since this was a feature story, I spent more time interviewing her and learning about her incredible journey. She had almost died due to the sudden onset of her epilepsy. While recovering from her injuries, she lost everything—her home, her car, her job. At first, she felt that she'd lost all sense of who she was. All her dreams for the future were shattered, and she had to remake her life. But LaKeisha accepted help when it was offered, and found in helping others, she gained perspective. Although it took years for her to overcome all the set-backs, she never gave up faith. And that faith in something greater than herself sustained her, made her whole, gave her purpose and new direction. Her's was an inspiring story for someone like me who was embarking a Do-Over Life, but I was in such a fog, dealing with my personal dilemma, I wasn't able to apply the lessons she imparted to my life...not yet. At the time I was just grateful for the work and to focus on someone else's story rather than my own.
   The beautiful thing about lessons and the teachers who come into our lives to impart them, is that if you don't "get it" the first time, I believe God gives you another chance...and another...and another...to fully appreciate the meaning.
   Earlier this year, I was assigned to write a story about Chris, another person with epilepsy who had overcome a life-threatening illness, only to literally wake up a different person with a seizure condition. I'd known Chris for years and always admired his spirit and conviction. Not only did he find the strength to survive the illness and manage his epilepsy, but like LaKeisha, he's gone on to re-cast his life using his experiences to help others. I knew Chris's story but until I went to his home for the interview I didn't understand it fully, because that's when I met Chris' wife, Debbie.
    In our interview, Debbie told me about visiting Chris in the hospital during those first difficult days and discovering that the resilient, smart, confident man she married had been changed in an instant. They had three small children at the time and her role shifted dramatically as Chris made his slow, but steady recovery. As much as I was impressed by Chris, who is a scholar, teacher, counselor, motivational speaker and accomplished author, Debbie blew me away.
  When they met in college, Debbie was attracted to Chris' good-looks and his spiritual maturity. (According to her, in that order.) They married young and started their careers and their family, and they were enjoying the realization of their shared dreams when Chris became gravely ill. This was not what she signed up for, but she vowed to love him "for better or worse, in sickness and in health," and she was true to her word. And here I was, getting divorced for reasons I didn't quite understand. I left the interview that night wondering what it was that made Debbie so strong, and thinking perhaps I was just too weak.
   I pondered this message on the drive home and in the weeks and months that followed. What was it that Chris and Debbie had that I didn't?
  It took several more months to yield an answer to this question, but an answer did arrive. Chris and Debbie shared this strong sense of Faith and it was the foundation of their marriage, which is what brought them together in the first place—that and Chris' long, hippy hair, which Debbie loved.
   What buoyed up LaKeisha, Chris and Debbie was their Faith in a power greater than their own. And when things got rough, these remarkable men and women said to God, "Okay, I'm struggling here. I no longer have all the answers, but I trust You do. Please show me the way." In return, they were given the guidance they needed. I'm not saying it was easy for any of these folks, but all of them now say that epilepsy was a blessing because it tested them and helped them define what is most genuine and true in themselves. One might say this is just optimism, or a way of making lemonade from lemons, but I believe that they were all given great Grace to overcome their difficulties, and then, in finding inner-peace, they've each turned around to help others—including me.
   Although I am sorry that these amazing people (now my friends) had to endure what they did, I am so grateful to them for sharing these lessons with me. A few years ago I thought I was being offered a job...really I was being given these priceless gifts of clarity.

PS: To all my Epilepsy Advocate friends, THANK YOU for sharing your stories of hope.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Attack of the Killer Bees

When I'm writing on deadline, anything can become a distraction. Today it was a fly. Not just your average fly, but a fly about the size of a pick-up truck..okay, the size of a smoked almond..okay, the size of a peanut. Suffice to say, he was a larger-than-average housefly. And he was a buzzy fly. You know the type. Some flies are rather stealth. Then there are the large, greenish dudes who exist just to make noise. The fly buzzing loudly against the casement windows in my office was of the latter breed, and if I were casting the remake of the horror movie with Jeff Goldbloom, he would have gotten the title role of the scientist, post-transformative experiment gone wrong.
   "Really?" I said to the fly. "You're going to do that buzzing thing in here? I have a big ol' house you could terrorize and lots of great windows to throw yourself against, but you have to come in the one room occupied by a human and bug the living crap out of me while I'm working?"
  "Buzzz, buzzz," he replied.
   "Why don't you go buzz the cat?" I said. "She has nothing better to do."
   "Buzzz, buzzz, buzzz," replied the fly.
   Good point, I thought. The cat's not Buddhist. Apparently the fly has been talking to the cockroaches and word's out that the smelly incense I burn in front of the statues of happy Asian men means I don't smash insects on sight. Okay fly, time for some Buddhist practice.
    I've never tried to catch a fly before, but I went to the bathroom and retrieved a thick white hand towel. And it was amazingly easy. I just waited until he stopped flying around and landed on the window, and I covered him gently with the towel cupped in my hand. Trying to get away, he flew into the towel. When I heard him buzzing his muted, pissed-off buzzy sound, I pulled the towel slowly from the window, folding the towel over the places where he might escape. Then I walked quickly to a window I could easily open (with one hand,) held the towel fully outside of it, and gave it a good shake. I didn't exactly see him blow me a kiss as he flew away, but there were no fly guts on the towel when I was done, so my practice was successful. It took all of three minutes. Amazing.
   I sat back down to write. After a while, I heard another buzzing sound, but this time it was not a big, fat green fly. It was a Bee, to be specific, it was a Should Bee. And it wasn't clattering around against a window. That's not where Should Bees are found. No, Should Bees throw themselves against the nice smooth, surfaces of your mind and try to annoy you into swatting them. Never heard of a Should Bee? As in "I Should Bee working right now, but I'm checking Facebook," (that one's rather benign). How about "I Should Bee more successful by this time in my life," or "At my age, I Should Bee happily married and edging towards a comfy retirement," or "I Should Bee a better wife, mother, friend, sister, daughter, person..."? Those are the Killer Bees and they will distract you from many a good purpose or intention, if you let them. You can spend the better part of your life swatting away the Should Bees, and they will keep coming back. And unlike the annoying buzzing fly, if you get too close to them, Should Bees will sting you in the ass every time.
   But today, when a Should Bee landed on my nose, and start buzzing about how I "Should Be Working at a Real Job with Benefits," I didn't reflexively try to slap it into oblivion. Of course, it started making noise so I would pay it more attention. I flicked it into the corner. Should Bees don't like to be flicked and it came back with a vengeance.
  "How do you think you're gonna pay the mortgage for this swanky new house on a freelancer's pay? I've seen your A/R statement, you know," said the Should Bee.
   "I've done this for years," I said. "I work hard, I'm a good writer and my clients love me."
   "Well, you Should Bee saving more, you know. What if something happens and you can't type? What if you break a hand or something? You can't just call in sick when you freelance."
   "I have savings. I have an emergency fund. I have a financial advisor. Go away!"
   The Should Bee was quiet for a moment.
   "But you've never done this all on your own before," it whispered sotta voce. "You're divorced now. You're all alone!"
   The Should Bee's sting found purchase in a very tender spot. Ouch! Fortunately, there was another sound, that familiar "ding!" of an email landing in my in-box. It was a meeting request from a client who wanted to discuss the project we were working on. I hit accept.
   The Should Bee was quiet, although I could still hear her flitting around against the well-worn grooves created by worry in my mind. And then I realized the secret of exterminating the Should Bees: They were all about the future and therefore they did not have any basis in reality. Should Bees are the product of limited perception, and as such, are flawed. As long as I stay in the present, they can't hurt me, because where I Should Bee is not as important as where I am Right Now. If I'm going to believe a perception, why not choose the one that says, "You are doing exactly what you should be doing in this moment"? It might take a little more faith to live in the moment, but faith is the ultimate Should Bee swatter.
   Without another thought of the Should Bee, I returned to my work. As I opened a new window on my computer and began writing my next assignment, I gently shooed the Should Bee out of my head and away from my Present. She might come back, but as long as I have faith that my life is as exactly as it should be, I'll never be stung again.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Best Worst Day

My friend and former colleague, Chris
 happily holds friend and former colleague
Liane's baby at our 2nd anniversary of
 termination celebration.  
In the fall of 2009, we knew something was up. As we headed into the holiday season, there was an air of nervousness, the collective holding of breath. Of course, we had not been singled out. On October 28 the NY Post heralded the news: Time was about to layoff 400-500 employees.
   My little editorial group in Birmingham had been established in the spring of 2007 as a cost-savings outpost to the larger custom publishing unit in New York. We handled the overflow of work, but after the mortgage crisis hit in 2008 and more general economic woes began effecting every industry work stopped flowing, let alone overflowing. Still, we thought we might be safe from the onslaught. Out of sight, out of mind.
   As the days ticked toward November, whispers and closed-door meetings sent waves of paranoia and panic through the ranks from Manhattan to Birmingham. I tried not to worry, sought counsel from those who might know what was going on, focused on the work at hand. We had magazines to produce and deadlines to meet, despite the uncertainty. And I had other, bigger things to worry about: My 93 year old father had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital.
   I spent the last week of October sitting in his hospital room at UAMS in Little Rock, waiting for doctors and physical therapists to provide some insight on his condition as my Dad drifted in and out of consciousness. We watched the World Series together (Yankees v. Phillies). While he was still quite lucid, he spoke of his days as a soldier, fighting in the Pacific Front during WWII. He recounted stories made familiar to me over the years. My Dad was a survivor and, during that week, I thought he might pull through this latest set-back, just as he had all the others. He seemed surprised to still be alive.
   "I don't know the meaning of all this," he told me. "But I'm beginning to believe that everything happens for a reason."
   I laughed.
   "Really, Dad?" I said. "You're 93-years old and you've just now figured that out?!"
   He smiled.
   Dad was in stable condition but still hospitalized when I made the six hour drive back to Birmingham the following week. I knew an announcement would be made about the layoffs, but I still hoped my little team would be spared.
   On November 4, word came down that a number of people in our New York office had been let go. As we gathered the news through our East Coast colleagues, we thought maybe the worst was over. That afternoon, however, we all received an email about a required meeting the next morning in our boss' office.
   Over my 20+ year career in media and marketing, I'd seen companies come and go, departments reorganized and down-sized, jobs eliminated. Somehow I'd managed to stay ahead of the axe, nimbly jumping from limb to limb as I built my career. Seeing a white 9" x 12" envelope with my name printed on it was surreal. Surely there'd been some mistake. But there we were staring at our packages and there was no denying the truth: We'd been job eliminated.
   There was some small comfort in the fact that we all went out together. Our team had been formed almost three years before, and we were friends as well as colleagues by now. We were a little family, helping each other through difficult situations in the office and outside it as well. We made each other laugh. Pissed each other off. Celebrated birthdays and births. Praised each other and gave critiques. The dissolution of our department was the end of an era. None of us knew what we'd do next. For all the foreshadowing, no one had a Plan B. My colleagues and I had worked hard, often spending nights and weekends away from our families in the name of "doing whatever it took to get the job done." For this we were repaid with a standard 9"x 12" white envelope—the contents of which detailed the terms of our severances.
   The next day I sat at my desk, finalizing layouts for the last magazine I would helm for Time when my sister called from the hospital in Little Rock. Our father had suffered another stroke and passed away. I left my desk, walked into a colleague's office, closed her door and sobbed.
   On that day—or even the day before it—if anyone had tried to tell me that these tragedies would effect immense good in my life, I would have probably punched him. I could see no possible silver lining. I could not foresee all the good that would come out of losing our jobs: The resetting of goals and values; the difficult process of taking a step back, to move forward.
   In the months that followed, our lives—in different orbits—unfolded. Although I could not recognize it at the time, 11/5/09 was not my termination date, but the start of my Do-Over Life.
   Yesterday, my former colleagues and still-friends convened at my new-old house for lunch. There had been no big reunion plan. Yet our gathering happened like a scripted scene from a movie. By "chance" we ended up together on the (almost) 2nd anniversary of our termination from Time. Each friend has journeyed forward towards goals that she might not have reached if things had remained status quo at our former employer. Liane's baby is now over a year old and she's steadily freelancing. Stacy just had baby number two, and has launched her photography career. Chris has a great job in Texas, close to her family—whom she missed—and is dating a great guy there. Thames, who also freelances now, had to leave early to pick up her two children from Mother's Day Out. Jeanne's career has barely missed a beat. (And me, well, if you read this blog then you know what I'm up to.)
   As we sat down to eat, I raised my glass in toast: "Two years ago today, we lost of our jobs...and it was the best day of our lives!" Everyone laughed, but only because they knew it was true. As my Dad said, "I'm beginning to believe everything happens for a reason." (Well, actually Dad, I've known that for a while.)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Last Minutes

Morning mist rises upon the Sacred Ground.
It was a beautiful, clear-blue-sky Tuesday morning. After a typical hot, humid southern summer, the first nip of fall promised relief. I was upstairs in my office, writing advertising copy and pausing on occasion to contemplate the gentle thumps of the tiny elbows, knees and feet from the baby (Jack) who was growing restless inside my belly. I enjoyed quiet in the mornings—no television or radio until much later in the day. The house was quiet, void of the usual hum of the air condition, which had labored all summer, and too soon for the furnace. The one reminder of the outside world were the freight trains. Our 150 year-old plantation cottage vibrated with their passing, but after two years living there, I didn't even notice the sound—unless the engineer blew the whistle. At a little after nine am, a more startling noise broke my tranquility: the phone rang. I considered letting the call roll over to the answering machine, but I thought it might be a client, so I picked up. It was our friend Bruce.
   "Oh my God, are you watching TV!?" he asked.
   I don't recall the rest of the conversation or if any other words were shared. By then my husband and I were downstairs watching fire blazing out of the World Trade Center Towers. We didn't know what had happened until later that day as reports were released that in total, four commercial airplanes had been hijacked by terrorists and deliberately crashed into key American targets. Well, three had been flown into targets. One plane, United Airlines Flight 93, did not hit its mark, and I wouldn't fully understand the importance of that event for another ten years.
    On September 10, 2011*, I found myself sitting behind hundreds of cars, SVUs, buses and motorcycles, creeping along a winding road in the lovely Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands. The remote, rolling countryside was familiar to my southern-girl sensibilities, yet the landscape felt distinct. The difference was the absence of long-leaf pine crowding the woodland edges. This was a land of hardwood, too cold in the winters to support such tender growth. The houses, too, were more substantial, built of stone and brick and without large, breezy verandas. The people here draw inward for warmth and comfort, and they extend that warmth out whenever the need arises.
   One might have thought I was in queue for a Disney attraction by the size and length of the line, but on this day the attraction was quite different. We pilgrims were visiting the somber scene of the Flight 93 crash site, near the small town of Shanksville, Pa. There is no easy way to get to this place. I flew into Pittsburgh, rented a car and drove almost two hours to get to Somerset County. For almost four hours I lurched along the approach road to the Memorial in my rental. The lack of frustration among my fellow drivers would have told me this was a unique occasion had I not already known it was the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Strange that such a tragic and violent act was now effecting such kindness and compassion. I began to appreciate the karma yielded from the events of that day.
   When I finally arrived at the Flight 93 National Memorial, I was greeted with more lines. There was no grumbling or complaining. An air of reverent excitement held the day. The site itself was abuzz with media. The large satellite vans cast their dishes to the sky on a nearby hill, and beyond them, mounted Park rangers kept vigil. On top of the visitors plaza, armed CIA agents told a more somber story. Beyond them was the field, the Sacred Ground on which 40 passengers and crew members, and four terrorists, rest. This place, I realized, was not so much a monument as it was a battlefield, like the fields Gettysburg or Shiloh.
   Twenty thousand visitors poured into the Memorial that weekend—and the site was not yet complete. The skies threatened rain. No matter. Rubber boots were the order of the day. But the clouds burned off by the time former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush took the stage. They spoke of the extraordinary courage exhibited by the 40 people on that plane. These men and women were fully aware of their fate. They had time to assess the situation. They talked to their relatives and knew that their plane was one of four hijacked that day. They knew the other three planes had hit their marks. They knew their plane's course had been changed and was now barreling toward Washington D.C., rather than San Francisco, where vacations and business meetings awaited never to be fulfilled. They knew there were only a few precious minutes left...and what did they do? They could have spent that time whispering "I love you's" to family and friends. They could have spent that time shouting prayers to God. They could have spent those last moments lost in unspeakable terror. But they chose to take action to thwart the intentions of the terrorists, and they ended their flight and their lives in the process. They took action for the right reasons. They knew they could not save themselves, but they chose to at least try to save other innocent lives. And they did.
   And these 40 Heroes, as they are now called, set forth many reactions with their concerted loving act. As I stood and looked out over the field where a great boulder now marked the spot of impact, I was moved by the humbleness of this site. Golden rod and black-eyed Susan, the last blossoms of summer, punctuated the tall grass. Thousands of people came to pay their respects to this remote patch of land—and more than a million visited here before the park even opened. Why? Why would we go so far out of our way to see a forlorn field of wildflowers? Although there were many family members of The Forty present, most of the visitors had no direct connection to that flight. Some, like me, were members of the press, sent here to report a story, but the majority were regular people, regular citizens...just like the passengers and crew of Flight 93.
   In truth, any of us could have been on that flight that day. We never know what will happen when we kiss our loved ones good bye and board a plane or, for that matter, hop in the car to drive to the grocery store. Yet we live as if we know the outcome. We take for granted that we will arrive at our destination and return home without event. Walking the length of the Memorial to the shiny marble Wall of Names and running one's fingers across the engraved names of the dead connects us to the sense that we live with the allusion of invincibility.
   I like to think that I live in the moment, but I fail to do that most of the time. That night, as I drove through the mountains back to my hotel room, I wondered what I might do different if I knew I was going to die. Of course, I do know I'm going to die, it's just not so eminent yet. If I only had a few moments left on this earth, what would I do? Who would I call? What would I say?
   This is the legacy of the Flight 93 National Memorial and gift given to us by the forty men and women who died on that plane that day: Will we live whatever time we have in fear? Or will we spend our time acting in compassion and love? If we lived each moment as if it were our last, would we act differently? I think so. If, like those forty passengers and crew members on that ill-fated flight, we were given the omniscience to know the eminent moment of our death, we would act more heroically with whatever time we had left. Because, fortunately, we are not so different that the 40 Heroes. It truly could have been any of us on that flight. With so much anguish, suffering and hatred in the world, we can look to their example to provide hope for all mankind. We do have the ability to rise above our individual concerns and act out of pure unconditional love and compassion.
   That night, I called Jack and told him how much I loved him. Then I swallowed my pride and called a friend who I swore I would not call, and I listened while he told me things I did not want to hear. I filled the space between us with understanding, rather than disappointment. And I placed my faith in something greater in this world than terrorists and uncertainty, and I knew I was not alone.

* The Flight 93 National Memorial was dedicated the day before the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The UnHappy Meal

Between October 24, 2006 and November 6, 2009, my life is a blur. This three-year period marks the span of medical crisis involving the decline and death of my parents. For the most part, the individual incidents are now fused. The actions—sitting bedside in the hospices and hospital rooms, attending doctors' appointments, touring nursing homes and assisted living facilities, driving the long stretch of highway between Birmingham and Memphis, and the seeming-longer, flat monotony of the drive between Memphis and Little Rock—blend into a hazy, yet poignant, soup. Fortunately, it's hard to remember the emotional turmoil. Time is good that way.
  The one instance I recall most vividly occurred during the summer of 2007. By this time, my Dad was doing better—after suffering a heart attack, being diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and given three months to live...in October, 2006. Earlier that year, my sisters and I moved our parents into Pleasant Hills, an aptly named retirement community. Despite his diagnosis, Dad improved, but Mom continued to spiral in the clutches of vascular dementia.
   I don't recall the exact reason for this particular summer trip. Perhaps it was to celebrate a birthday, or simply because my schedule allowed it. Maybe Mom had a doctor's appointment. Thinking back now, I'm sure there was no immediate medical trauma, because I brought Jack with me. It was the first of many "last times to see Grandma and Grandpa" trips we would make.
   Mother was in what I now know as Stage 5 of degenerative dementia. She was still able to walk—with assistance—and communicate, although not clearly, but her perception of reality had shifted. In some ways, this stage was the most difficult because she was still present as the mother we knew and loved, but her appearance and demeanor had changed drastically. We feared she would fall. We begged her to use her walker, to eat more, to take her medication. She still knew our names, but became very frustrated by the fog in her brain.
  To Jack, she was just Grandma. He knew she was sick, but he (thankfully) didn't comprehend the gravity of her illness. Jack loved visiting Pleasant Hills with its maze of hallways and frequent elevators. In the dining room he could help himself to ice cream and there was always candy in the lobby. The residents doted on him, as they did on all children who visited. Jack thought Pleasant Hills was a swanky hotel.
  For me, the trip was arduous. I wanted to spend time with my parents, but once there, I was overcome with their frailty and all that came with it. Their apartment was too hot and stuffy for mid-summer in the south. Although it had two-bedrooms, the scant 600-square-foot layout was too small to spend extended periods of time, especially with a 5-year-old. My mother's caregiver hovered, which was wonderful and also frustrating. There was no where to run or hide from the oppressive sense of the inevitable.
   Jack didn't notice the clutter or chaos that I saw. His toy-seeking radar took him straight-away to the cupboard, where he retrieved a tattered, red box. Inside were Grandpa's old dominos—a well-worn set of ivory double-nines, turned cheddar-cheese yellow with time. Jack was thrilled with this discovery and dumped them from the box. Over the years, my Dad and I played dominos together. The game was a great equalizer. No matter my demeanor, or age, I could relate to my Dad in multiples of five.
  "Hey Grandpa," I said. "Wanna show Jack how to play dominos?"
   The cool tiles clattering out on the table top calmed my nerves for a while as I sat with my Dad and Jack and focused on the game. We slowly explained the rules to Jack, who caught on quickly—and then pouted when he lost. Grandpa took pity and threw the next game to him. (Something he never did for his daughters. To us, he showed no mercy when it came to sending us to the "bone yard" for more tiles that could be played.)
  Mother tottered in and out of the rooms, worrying over things she could no longer remember. She wanted to return to their old house and retrieve some items, or to live there again. Either option was futile. Although standing, little was left of the house. It was just as futile to try to convince her she couldn't return there. Thankfully, my Mom's caregiver, Stella, distracted her with a promise to take her to church on Sunday.
  We could not have survived without Stella. She was patient and loving. But she also talked too loudly, as if we were all deaf and scattered across a football field. She filled the apartment with prattle as she went about her tasks, helping mother to bath and dress and eat.
  When Jack became frustrated with dominos, and I with the heat and noise, we went for a walk around the grounds of Pleasant Hills. There wasn't a playground, of course, but there was a bench swing that some residents set up surrounded by plastic flowers in a perpetual garden. When we returned to the apartment, Dad was reading the newspaper and Mom was napping in the next room. Stella recounted my Mom's bowl movements and every item she consumed for lunch. Jack busied himself with a puzzle from the cupboard and then began to complain he was hungry. I felt guilty for leaving, and worse for staying. There was no easy answer to be found there.
   On our drive back to my sister's house, I stopped at McDonald's to pick up dinner for Jack. Idling beside the drive-thru kiosk, Jack spotted the Happy Meal® special. The new Pirates of the Caribbean movie had just been released and there was a particularly cute Jack Sparrow doll being offered as the Happy Meal toy. Although I hate being suckered into purchasing food to get a toy that Jack didn't know he wanted before he saw it, the day had beat down my resolve and I gave into his request. A Happy Meal is such a simple thing to be able to give my child. I set aside my aversion for cheap marketing ploys—which, I knew all about since I was one of those evil marketers who concocted enticing gimmicks—and ordered the Happy Meal with chicken nuggets, fries and (yes) a Coke.
  Jack was thrilled. Although we often indulged in fast-food nuggets, getting the Happy Meal was special. I told him that he had been so good and patient at Grandma and Grandpa's that he deserved this treat. And the Jack Sparrow toy looked to be a better-than-average-break-in-two-seconds-or-end-up-under-foot-on-the-floor kinda prize. I paid at the first window, and then pulled around and was handed the trademark Happy Meal box, resplendent with Pirates licensed imagery.
   "Okay, Jack," I said. "Eat first. Toy later."
   When I opened the box and pulled out the toy, I saw that something was distinctly wrong. Lying on top of the piping hot french fries was a hard-plastic car with The Incredibles logo plastered over it. What foul trickery was this?
   As it happened, I was still sitting at the drive-thru window, and there was no one behind me in line.
   "Excuse me," I yelled into the closed restaurant window. The McDonald's worker appeared and slid open the glass.
  "Can I help you?" she asked.
   "This isn't Johnny Depp," I said flatly. "My son loves Jack Sparrow. We thought we were getting the Jack Sparrow toy. Don't you have any of those left?"
   "I'm sorry," said the McDonald's girl. "We're out of those toys."
   A white hot rage came over me. All my disappointment, frustration and sorrow came bubbling up. And then...I lost it.
   "If you were out of those toys," I said indignantly. "You should take down the advertising for them! That's false advertising, you know!"
   "I'm sorry, mam," the girl said.
   "I never buy Happy Meals because I don't believe in them," I continued. "But today, I decided to treat my son because he likes Jack Sparrow. His name is Jack! His Grandpa's name is Jack! And I wouldn't have bought the damn Happy Meal if I'd known I'd get a stupid Incredibles toy!"
   "I'm sorry—"
   "When did that Incredibles movie come out, anyway? 2006? That was last summer!"
  The poor girl behind the window was at a loss for how to make me happy. Then, from the back seat, I heard a little voice of reason. Small and soft, like the voice deep inside you that you can hear if only you'll listen.
   "Mom," Jack said, "It's okay. I like this toy. It's good."
   I pulled away from the drive thru window and into a space in the parking lot, and sobbed.
   "I'm sorry, son," I said. "I guess Happy Meals do not make Mommy happy."
  Through my tears, I apologized to Jack and tried to explain that I was just tired and sad about Grandma. I calmed down and apologized again. Then I handed Jack the offending toy. As we drove home, I heard him playing, making those Vroom! Vroom! noises that only little boys can effect while running something—anything—with wheels across a semi-flat surface. If I could have listened over the roar of my own chaos, I would have heard the the sound of happiness.