Sunday, 29 December 2013

TALKING TO STRANGERS





Intimacy is when you into-me-see, and in that moment of connection we are brought closer together.” – Lenny Ravich

 

     It started when I was on maternity leave.  When the buzz of newborn excitement had hushed to a cyclical routine of feeding, and sleeplessness.  When the steady stream of family and friends anxious to lay eyes on the new baby trickled to the occasional phone call.  As I slowly slid into the isolation and loneliness of new motherhood, I lost touch with my working friends whose lives sped along at a pace I couldn’t possibly catch with my stroller and twelve bags of baby paraphernalia.  And while I’d tour the baby- friendly coffee shops with other moms, the fleeting haphazard conversations we’d attempt to have between burping and bum wiping left me feeling empty.  And so…

I began to talk to strangers.

     It began subtly enough.  I’d linger on the phone with telemarketers.  “Are you sure you don’t have any other offers you’d like to tell me about?” “Maybe we could just double check the information in my file since I’m on the phone with you anyway.”  “I really think we should go back and review my answers to questions 7-13.” 

     And then one year on New Year’s Eve, I found myself on the phone with my satellite provider and as he patiently went through the endless steps of updating my system (remotely from Mumbai I imagined), with neither of us having anywhere else to be for those 20 minutes or so,   we started talking to each other just to fill the lull.

     “How’s the weather up there?” He asked. 

     “Oh, much colder than where you are I’m sure,” I answered, “Poor you. It can’t be fun having to work New Year’s Eve,” I sympathized.  We went on to have a delightful unexpected conversation about how we both preferred Christmas to New Year’s and were relatively content to pass December 31st in quiet personal reflection of the year that had passed and our hopes for the one to come.  Before hanging up, I thanked him for bringing Dick Clark back into my living room in the nick of time and I wished him a very happy new year.

     Then there was the travel agent, Joe, with whom I communicated by email for months as I planned and scheduled a much needed family vacation.  Joe and I would fling humorous observations and friendly banter back and forth through cyberspace. 

     “You’re so organized,” he would type back when I sent him spread sheets of our passport details. 

     “Mother of 6.  Not much choice.” I would counter.  His LOL’s would be peppered with details of the weather in his home town, the progress he was making in his Christmas shopping or his own vacation plans.  Once or twice I wondered if it was inappropriate to be cyber chatting with a young man half my age--- (Imagine my surprise when months later I finally had to call in my credit number and heard that “Joe”, the young man I had been bantering with was in fact “Jo”, a middle-aged woman with a smoker’s hack.)  But ultimately the pleasure I got from these random interactions and moments of in-sight was proof to me of their precious value.

     The other day at the bus stop my youngest waited and pensively shuffled her feet in the dirty snow.  “Mommy, I have a question, but I don’t really know how to say it."  I took a deep breath, apprehensive about her serious tone.  Were we about to launch into the where-do-babies-come-from conversation? Or God forbid, the childhood crushing is-Santa-real question?  I braced myself.

     “What I want to ask you is...  How do we make friends?”  I exhaled in relief.  No problem.  I’ve got this one.  The well-oiled gears of parental advice started turning.

     “Oh, well, you could just ask them if they want to play with you.  Or maybe you could introduce yourself and ask them what their name is.  Or you could ask if you can sit with them at lunch, or at recess.  Is it someone at school, baby?” 

     “Nooo!” (How does a seven-year-old manage to pack so much sarcastic exasperation in one syllable?)  “I mean, how-do-we-become-friends?”  I looked at her inquisitive face and realized that I had once again, in my na├»ve overconfidence, grossly missed the mark.  She was asking me about the serendipity of friendship.  She wanted to know-

How do we make friends?

     Around this time last year we had taken the girls to our neighborhood Tim’s for hot chocolate and a donut.  There is something about the steamy familiarity of the corner coffee shop in the holidays.  The comfort of coffee and a donut.  A gathering place for those seeking warmth, connection and a sugary treat. As we sat in silence, cupping our hot mugs, breathing in the cocoa scented coziness, an elderly man got up from where he was sitting with his buddies earlier.  As his friends put their jackets on and started to shuffle out, he came to our table and with a twinkle in his eye, asked the girls if they liked balloons.  Curious, they nodded, and he proceeded to pull out a handful of long skinny colorful balloons from his inner jacket pocket like some retired circus master on a break from the three rings.  We all grinned as we watched him blow up the colorful bits of rubber and slowly manipulate them into a dog and a flower and hand them to my enchanted daughters who in their shock could barely remember how to say thank-you at this unexpected gift.  “Happy holidays,” he said, and just as quickly as he had appeared, he zipped up his coat and stepped out into the blustery evening.

     Somehow these days, these moments of simple connection and in-sight with strangers are few and far between.  We have slipped from  wishing passers’ by a “good morning” to crossing to the other side of the road, from asking the local butcher how his grandchildren are to ordering our groceries on line, from  “ love thy neighbor” to “stranger danger” .  So many missed opportunities for intimate connection, for learning about others, while learning about ourselves.

     From telemarketers and cyber salespeople, I have moved on to cashiers, bank tellers, and strangers in the elevator.  It’s become an addiction.  I am constantly looking for that next connection.  Can I engage the grocery bag boy to tell me about the sports team he is raising money for?  What music does my pretty brooding teen neighbor listen to on her way to school each morning? What special event is the lady in the next chair getting her hair cut for?  Each passing of a stranger is an opportunity for a serendipitous friendship, to have a moment that matters.  And though these transient moments are gone as fast as they come, in the exchange of a few words, a laugh or a smile I am somehow the richer for it.

     This year, we found ourselves making yet another seasonal trip to Tim Horton’s. I surprised my children by picking them up early from school to take them out for supper.  I called their father on the way and told him to meet us there.  It was already dark and the building anticipation of the upcoming Christmas vacation filled the three of us with warm fuzziness. The coffee shop was packed and I sent the girls to grab the last vacant booth while I ordered us all soup bowls, hot chocolate and their choice- donuts with red and green sprinkles. At the next table sat an older woman, waiting for a friend.  We greeted each other and I settled in with my kids.  Periodically I’d glance over and return the smile of the silver-haired woman next to us.  I was clearly not the only one entertained by my daughters’ bubbling energy.

     Finally, somewhere between sipping the last of our soup and peeling the wax paper from our donuts, we looked up and saw my husband’s familiar grey tuque entering the door.  The three of us waved excitedly and he smiled back.  “Is that daddy?”  The woman next to us asked.

     “Yes, we’re having a special family dinner.” 

     “How lovely!” she exclaimed.

     After supper, I shuffled the girls off to the washroom, an essential step before zipping them up into their snowsuits before the long walk home.  As we came out, the elderly woman was waiting to meet me.  Gently placing her hand on my arm, she smiled warmly and said “A very happy holidays to you and your family.”  I grasped her firmly, holding her in an impromptu hug.  “Oh, and you too! Thank-you!  A very happy holiday to you!”  My heart fairly leaped out at this beautiful woman.  Our eyes connected as, in a fleeting moment of intimacy she saw into me and I into her.

     “Who was that?” my daughter asked me.  “What’s her name? “

     “I don’t know,” I answered honestly.

     “Is she your friend?” she persisted.

     “Yes,” I paused.  “Yes, she is.”  And we bundled our coats around us and stepped out into the dark night.



Wednesday, 18 December 2013

WE ARE ALL THE SAME


We are sitting at the dining room table, recapping our days over steaming bowls of linguine.  My youngest starts telling me about how some kids at school were making fun of her older sister in the schoolyard.  My 9 year old daughter was born with a rare genetic syndrome that results in skeletal and craniofacial anomalies, as well as a hearing and intellectual impairment.  She is short and stout and wears hearing aids.  She also sports a wild mane of curly locks that I desperately attempt to tame into some semblance of a ponytail each morning.  Every day by noon her frizzy curls have sprung themselves free and frame her face like the light wisps of a seeding dandelion waiting for a sticky-handed toddler to pluck and blow into the wind.  Her wide set eyes, large flat nose and scarred, partially repaired cleft lip only add to the illusion of a precious lion cub.  At an outing to the zoo this summer, we were watching the mighty gorilla in his enclosure, trying to explain our ancestry to him when she asked, “So you ‘evolved’ from monkeys, and I ‘evolved’ from lions?” Poor thing received only the non-verbal response of her entire family rushing to snuggle and kiss her delicious cuteness.
But not everyone has always been so loving toward her.  As a baby, before any of her reconstructive surgeries, I was given a painful window on both the kindness and cruelty of others.  Everywhere we went, people would stare, laugh and point at the “weird looking baby”.   But I was in love with her and didn’t let it stop us. Years later my close friend confessed that mine had been the first baby with a cleft lip that she had ever seen and we both sat in sad silence as we realized how many other mothers must simply keep their baby’s hidden to protect them from the stares of others.

Her first Christmas, I sat in a corner of my sister-in-law’s kitchen with my two-month-old daughter on my lap.  Many awkwardly avoided us that evening, but I was happy to be there.  I had got dressed up for the first time in months and was thrilled to be out of the house, conversing with adults.  After dinner, her eight year old cousin sauntered up to us.  He took his time to size her up and finally proclaimed, “She looks like one of those vampire-killing monsters in the movie Blade.  You know, with the mouths that open up all weird and sideways? But… like a cute baby one!”  I laughed in gratitude of his accurate honesty and pure heart.

There was the weekly trip to the grocery store which inevitably included a long wait at the cash having to listen to the people behind me whisper foolishness as though I were the one with the hearing impairment. Other shoppers would move away, avoiding eye contact in their discomfort. I’d bend over my cart, smile and play with her little toes, my ears flushing red at the pain and rage that would bubble up.  But I was determined to protect her from their hurtful words and have her register only my love.  Most days I would ignore it.  Others, I would accept that I just didn’t have it in me that day.  So I would stay home, eat peanut butter on toast and rationalize why I could easily postpone the groceries for later in the week.  And then there was the occasional day, when all the deep breathing in the world wasn’t enough, so I would pull her out of the shopping cart, abandon it half full in the centre aisle, and walk out of the store to let the tears wash over me in the privacy of my car.

But as she grew, so did my resilience.  In the park when other children would make fun of her I felt no shame, marching across the sandbox in front of their impotent parents to explain why she looked the way she did and how it wasn’t nice to speak to others that way.  Or when some bold stranger on the street would blurt out “Oh my God!” at the sight of her wearing arm splints, an orthotic helmet and rows of stitches on her face, I would laugh and say “You should see the other baby!” 
 
Through all these moments, I have always known that others’ reactions said little about my darling girl or me, but volumes about who they were as human beings.  And so I smile from the depth of my soul when I think of the older woman in the pharmacy who stopped to tell me how beautiful my baby was.  She had a grandson with special needs and saw right through to my daughter’s perfect little spirit.  Or the man in the grocery store who saw me struggling to rearrange the produce in my cart like some housewives' version of Tetris, and came over to share how he was a retired nurse and was so happy to see how well my little one was doing.  Or my niece, who rushed into the hospital nursery before I could properly warn her, saw my odd-looking scrawny newborn in the incubator and exclaimed, “She’s perfect!”

I have taught my daughter that sometimes when people don’t understand something they can be frightened or not know how to react or what to say.  That sometimes people will say things just to fit in, because they don’t have the confidence to stand up to others and do the right thing.  That sometimes, sadly, there are people who are just not very nice.  But that what matters most is how she acts and reacts.  That she should stand up for herself.  Tell others how it makes her feel when they tease her.  Spend time with friends that make her feel happy, and that she should always treat others with kindness because that is all that really matters.

Dinner is almost over.  The little one is still ranting about the day at school.  “Mommy, they were saying all kinds of things about her face and her nose,” she can barely contain her sense of injustice, “They weren’t being nice!”

Her older sister is barely perturbed.  She is enjoying her pasta but eventually stops for a sip of water.  “They are like that because I’m different.” She says matter-of-factly.

Minutes pass as she scrapes her bowl clean.  How did I create such a bold and beautiful child?  She finally comes up for air to add,

"But really... we are all the same.” 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

JUST A LITTLE SCARED



Most people spend their time thinking negatively about all the “what ifs.”  All the things that could go wrong.  All the reasons why it won’t work out. 

 But what if they’re wrong?


“I’m just a little scared.  I feel like I have butterflies in my stomach.”  My daughters are in the backseat discussing their first trip to an amusement park scheduled for the next day.

“I like having butterflies in my stomach!” her younger sister pipes up.

“It’s normal to be scared.”  I intervene ineffectively, trying to reassure my nine-year old that she will have fun though my own stomach is turning flips thinking of the physics behind rollercoaster engineering.

“No, I mean when you have butterflies in your stomach, it’s more fun!”  The little one’s voice trails off as she turns excitedly to recount to her sister some terrifying ride she loved at the water park she went to the previous week.

I tune them out and let her words marinate in my brain.

My youngest daughter is seven years old and fearless. Not foolish, but fearless.  How many Saturday mornings have I spent searching through the house for her, only to find her perched high on a bookcase, one foot balancing on the top shelf, the other reaching for the back of the nearby couch as she assesses the potential risk of using the shelf to launch herself like a jack-in-the-box into the air.  I can see her little face calculating, what’s the worst that could happen?   And off she goes, floating through the air, landing in a fit of delighted giggles on the soft leather cushions below.

I have long given up trying to keep her in a maternal protective cocoon.  Given up interrupting her circus acts.  Stopped asking “What if you slip and fall?” “What if you lose your balance and crack your head open on the edge of the coffee table?!”   I no longer nag and scold but stand quietly in wonder as she balances precariously on the counter of the bathroom vanity.  She calmly says (before I can), “I know, I know.  This is probably not a very good idea…but just wait…” And then she proceeds to open the mirrored door just enough to see her endless reflection on the other side.  I stand behind her on high alert just in case.

 “Look how many of me there are!” she squeals gleefully as she clings on the mirror with her free hand to stop from falling. And I can’t stop myself from smiling at her wonderful discovery. (I admit when friends have asked me to describe my parenting style I wonder, “Is negligent slacker a style?”)

But her approach to life is infectious.  Fear never stops her from seizing an adventure.  She is aware of the dangers,  but knows only one “what if.”

What if it’s fun?

***

It’s not brave if you’re not scared.

 
I’m sitting on a patio with a friend, enjoying a coffee on one of the last glorious days of summer.  She is relating to me the gory details of the extensive dental work she has been enduring over the last weeks since I saw her last. 

Like many of my friends entering middle age, she has neglected her health for years, tending instead to the needs of her children and family and relegating herself to the end of her perpetual to do list.  But like others, she has discovered this health management strategy inevitably ineffective in the long term.  A nurse by profession, she has learned the hard way that one cannot self-medicate symptoms away indefinitely.  When her teeth began to ache she would just increase the dosage of her homemade cocktails of over the counter pain meds.  Until her fear of what was wrong became stronger than her fear of finding out.  So here she was in front of me explaining how she was emptying her savings account into a sparkling new smile and a healthy future.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she says.  “I was so afraid for so many years.  That’s why I never went to the dentist.  But look at me now.  You know I’ve had almost forty needles in my mouth just this last week?”  My body twitches in sympathy at these details.  “Now I don’t even care.  They want to inject me, I say bring it on!”

I sip my cold coffee and push aside my own guilty thoughts of belated checkups.

“But you know what the best part of all this is?”  She looks me in the eye.  I meet her gaze, lifting my eyes from where I was staring at her mouth, not so subtly assessing the bruising and swelling around her lips.

“That you’re going to have a fabulous smile! “  I try to sound encouraging, but miss the point completely.

“No. You don’t understand.  I was terrified.  But now I’ve done it.  And now I know I can do anything.”

***

Fear and panic are different emotions.  Fear is healthy.  Panic is deadly. 

 
I have been asked to speak at a large public panel event.  I am “just a little scared.” It is weeks away but the butterflies are fluttering away.  I procrastinate writing my speech.  Not because I don’t know what I want to say.  The words flow easily in my mind as I visualize the moment.  But then I panic.  The “what ifs” set in.  What if it’s not what the organizers had in mind?  What if I stumble on my words?  What if I forget to say something important?  What If I embarrass myself?

And then I remind myself, I have survived much worse embarrassment.

***

I am 25 years old.  I have been invited to attend a fundraiser being held in a downtown amphitheatre.  The amphitheatre is built around a small indoor skating rink.  The organizers have hired a few retired Olympic skaters to perform as part of the evening’s entertainment.  When the skating show is over, they open up the rink to the public for a free-skate.
 I haven’t skated in years but the wine I drank earlier has loosened my inhibitions and clearly numbed my judgement.  I emerge from the locker room minutes later, a curious sight in my cocktail dress and proceed to skate around to classic French rock tunes as curious onlookers peer down from the mezzanine.

I’m having a great time.  As I speed around the rink the wind cools my flushed face.  I feel so free and happy.

And then it happens.

Let’s rewind.  Earlier that day I had agonized over what to wear.  My limited wardrobe did not offer much in the way of fancy formal wear so I finally settled on a classic black spaghetti-strapped number made of a knit fabric that clung comfortably in all the right places.  It was too clingy to bother with standard undergarments but I was 25 years old, carefree and not really prone to thinking ahead.

Let’s rewind even further.  Grade 11 physics.  Newton’s 1st law.  An object in motion stays in motion unless met with an opposing force.

And even further back. First law of nature learned by any Canadian child. Knit mittens are useless in a snowball fight because they just stick to the ice and snow. 

Flash forward.  There I am, gliding along at a steady pace when in true form, I stumble and trip.  My body flies forward through the air, finally landing in a full frontal belly flop on the ice. Knit sticks to ice.  My cute dress immediately sticks to the ice BUT (an object in motion stays in motion) my body continues to travel at the same velocity, sliding efficiently right out of my dress.

In case there was any doubt, ice…is… cold.

I look up at the sea of faces staring at me.  They are all frozen in shock and horror.  And in that surreal moment, as I lay bare breasted on center ice, my brain speeds through my options.  I could definitely panic- cry, have a meltdown, or run away screaming. 

But instead, I laugh.  A real genuine laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of my predicament.  And as the crowd exhales collectively and a wave of grateful giggles ripples through the room, I peel my dress off the ice, pull it back on, take a red-faced bow and glide off to the locker room.

People still say it was the best part of the show that night.

***

I think of all the things I want to do but haven’t done. Opportunities I haven’t accepted, apologies I haven’t made, feelings I haven’t expressed, speeches I have yet to write.

We’re all scared.  We are all brave.  But if I don’t leap off the top shelf I will never know where I might have landed. And maybe it will be painful, maybe I will lose my balance and fall.  Hell, maybe I’ll end up naked in front of hundreds of people.

Or just maybe-

…Something wonderful will happen.



Wednesday, 4 December 2013

WHAT'S YOUR HAPPINESS EQUATION?


I suck at math.  I look at a simple math problem and the numbers squiggle around the page like Chinese characters on acid.  I’ve been known to stare blankly at my 9 year old’s math homework when she asks for help.  I learned the hard way to hire someone to do my taxes.  I don’t enter grocery store contests for fear of the “skill-testing question.”

But recently I’ve been thinking about math in a new light.  I’ll never care how fast the train was travelling in the opposite direction of pi, but maybe some equations actually are relevant beyond high school. 

Not long ago, I went through a stressful career moment as I contemplated applying for a significant promotion. I was a long-shot candidate but decided that going through the application process would be good for me. I’ve read all the career-coaching books that tell you to “lean in” to your career, and to “put yourself out there”.  I was encouraged by colleagues to apply, as I have been courting the professional advancement track over the last little while, and seemed to have enough qualifications to not make a complete fool of myself by throwing my hat into the ring. Over the weeks of the recruitment process, as I reworked my CV and perspired over my letter of intention. I spent many hours overanalyzing what this might all mean for me. I was interested in aspects of the job, and was flattered to even be considered, despite my awareness that I was not completely qualified.  But I was surprised, when I ended up spending more than a few sleepless nights and nauseous days with a stress level to rival Jack Bauer.  And then I remembered something I had heard, Stress is your body is saying “No! No! No!” while your mouth is saying, “yes”.  So what was going on?

I wondered if I was just scared.  Scared of feeling like a failure if I didn’t get the job; scared of actually failing if I did get the job; scared of embarrassing myself; scared of change.  But as I pep-talked myself about having the courage to take a risk, to plunge into the unknown, it became clear to me that this was not the source of all my angst.  So what?  Hadn’t I worked so hard for so many years in the hope of coming to this exact moment? Wouldn’t the extra recognition, influence and money be worth the extra stress and hours? Shouldn’t a position like this be a dream come true for someone like me?  Wouldn’t it make me “soooo” happy?

I wasn’t so sure.  In fact, I wasn’t sure about that at all.  I wasn’t convinced this was part of my happiness equation; the constants and elements that would add up to my being happy.  So then I starting wondering, what are the factors that would equal a sum of true happiness for me?  If I can just figure out this one equation, could I build my life around its variables?

What makes my heart sing and my spirit feel light? What would my “happiness equation” look like?

x+y +$$+ ++⌂ +℗ + ∞ = J

(Yes, that’s a lot of money plus a really nice house plus free parking for all eternity.  I have no idea what x or y equal.  I never did in high school and am ready to accept that I probably never will.)

Ok, not really.

Sure, I like my job.  I enjoy the mental stimulation and the overall feeling that I am in some way helping others.  But I am most happy when I feel like I have some balance in my life that allows me to have the time to enjoy the things that really bring me joy, where I can connect with others in a way that seems so much more meaningful than chairing meetings or balancing the annual budget.

I decided to try to solve this proof by being mindful of my truly joyful moments: 

*      Sitting in the backyard, listening to the birds,  my computer on my lap, a cold beer beside me

*      Busting a gut laughing by the kitchen window with my son, trying to videotape a squirrel repeatedly falling off our trashcan.

*      My granddaughter’s milky smile.

*      Spending a Saturday morning piled on the couch with all my kids in our pajamas, debating the feasibility of Hugh Jackman starring in a musical version of Wolverine.

*      Hugging total strangers at a laughter yoga session in the park 

*      Walking home after a long, discouraging day of work and turning a corner and to see the first magnolia tree of the season in glorious full pink bloom. 

*      Watching a hilarious Tig Notaro video on YouTube and snorting out loud unexpectedly.

*      Eating steaming noodles out of a box.

*       Watching my six year old spontaneously choreograph a dance routine at the bus stop, that makes commuters slow down traffic and applaud.

*      Hearing kind words between strangers in the checkout line  

*      The soft cuddle of my bed and my husband’s strong sweaty arms at the end of the day. 

*      Coming home.

I knew the day of the interview that I was not getting this job.  I am not what they were looking for, and I was ok with that.  When they called me a couple weeks later to give me feedback on how I had done, they kindly thanked me for having come to the interview and noted that it was a good thing for me to have gone through the process.  They were sure it must have sparked some reflection for me.  I smiled and nodded, confirming that it certainly had. As I shook their hands and said thank-you once again for all their time and consideration, I looked at them across the table and wondered,

“So what’s your happiness equation?”