The assignment: Write something scary

I love assignments. My daily to-do lists serve a useful purpose, but there’s nothing like an official assignment to set me on point. Blank screen and GO.

Hmmmm… on second thought, “write something scary” is somewhat ambiguous. The upside is that it allows a broad creative license. The downside is that it didn’t come with the neat parameters most often associated with an assignment. How should one run with this?

Obviously, there are options. Write a scary story, write about something universally scary, or write about your personal “something scary.” Sometimes even those lines blur.

Good people struggle daily with “something scary” in the form of mental illness, addiction, abuse, adultery, housing insecurity, terminal diagnoses – I’ll stop there but you know there are others.

Uncertainty alone can be a “scary” trigger. A well-placed “what if” can set some into a tailspin of terror.

Stephen King routinely writes something scary. His greatest gift is his ability to tap into some fear that we all had as kids. Whether the “something” lived under the bed or in a storm drain surrounded by balloons was irrelevant. The fear of the lurking unknown evil creeped us all out. Still does. I was 50’ish before I dared to dangle any body part over the edge of the bed after lights off.

Seems like the more wrinkles I get the less scary life is. Either that or I’ve simply grown accustom to my fears and they no longer have the power they once did.

My fears as a child were much different than when I was a young mother – hoping to keep my babies safe and healthy. The first night I set the bar pretty low for each of my three daughters. I just didn’t want them to stop breathing on my watch. Of course, parents are destined to live in perpetual worry if not downright fear about their kids—whatever their ages. Experiencing this kind of “something scary” is uncomfortable, but it’s worth it.  Guess that’s the price of love.

Something scary has the power to wake you up in the middle of the night, but you don’t see many horror movies about unpaid bills. I suspect we’ve all been there at one time or another.

And, all that, my dear readers is what my friend, Nancy, would call revving up—the wandering free writing we do until we arrive at some central truth.

I think I’ve arrived. What scares me now is that life windows are beginning to close. From the “you can do anything you set your mind to” of my youth to something less certain now. Almost 20 years ago, I went through a period where I needed a reason to get up in the morning—a reason to imagine a future. Long before making a “bucket list” became trendy, I put three things on a “long-term” to do list. 1. Graduate from college – check – better late than never. 2. Get buff – ha! It took me years to realize that “buff” is relative; something one achieves at (always) the next level, never the current one. I’ll settle for healthy – check. 3. Hike the Grand Canyon. No checkmark. One day, I realized I may have waited too long. Some windows close before we step through. We wait for more money or more time. We wait until… fill in the blank. And, then, one day that particular option has been grayed out. You couldn’t choose it now, even if you wanted to. It’s gone.

A few years ago, I asked my mom to illustrate three children’s stories I’d written as an undergrad. Before I turned the series in for a grade, I’d added ridiculously rough sketches to the first story with wordy picture descriptions for the other two. I’d always treasured the quilts that had been collaborations of my mom and grandma. My stories paired with her drawings would give us a chance to do something similar for the next generation. I was pumped when I pitched my idea to Mom.

Yet, even as I handed her the first book, she said she wasn’t sure if she could it. For an instant, I saw something unfamiliar in her eyes—self-doubt. Somehow, I managed to say, nonchalantly, “oh, well, give it a try. It’ll be fun.”

Inside I was thinking: What? She’d tackled projects like this before. Mom was a practical artist, more of “a figure it out as you go” vs. the artsy/visionary type. Like me, she worked best with an assignment. She loved a challenge. Mobility issues may have sent her to assisted living, but she was still quick-witted, smart, and creative.

We didn’t mention it again for a week or two. One day, she handed the book back to me and said simply, “I can’t do this.” She didn’t make a big deal about it, so I didn’t either. It wasn’t until after her death when I found her sketching attempts in a small notebook that I realized she was right. Her practical, on-demand drawing skill that had served her well for a lifetime was no longer available. That window had closed.

Suddenly the future seemed less certain. If it happened to Mom, it will happen to us all.

As windows close, our worlds shrink, sometimes so gradually we don’t even notice. Until. Use it or lose it went from old adage to a warning for me. Logically, I’d always known that. But, this made it real—transformed it into my something scary.

Today, our planner leans heavily toward active vacations. “While we can,” I say. Joe gets it. There’s plenty of time to see things through a tour bus window when we’re old. A meme on Facebook sums it up for me. “One day I won’t be able to do this, but today is not that day.” Stay tuned on that Grand Canyon hike.

The last good day

Sidenote: Can’t tell you how much I wanted to read this to my mom before sharing it. She would know whether it was too dark, whether my writings recently had focused too much on death. Whether my wandering definition of “the last good day” here moved from believable to self-serving. But, she’s not here, so I had to ask myself – why do you write? I write to process. I write to purge. I write to move forward. I write because I must. So, within the context of that jumbled mess, you get to hear it all.

A few years ago, we ordered the audio book of “The Fault in our Stars.” Seemed like a good choice for a road trip – nothing too complex or deep; in other words, a listen that would be easy to follow while we drove. The mini-vacations that brains seem to take on a whim have caused both of us to miss important segments of audiobooks before. Spending our miles pushing the 30-second back button tended to distract from the whole story experience. Plus, this title was a good choice because we’d already seen the movie, giving our wandering attention spans less power over us.

Once we ordered it, we promptly forgot about it. That is until I drove home solo from Florida a few weeks ago. Being the frugal one, I opted to listen to something we owned instead of splurging on a new, bright-shiny best seller.

Spoiler alert – two teenagers fall in love and support one another as each battles his/her own unique cancer monster. One survived the end of the book, despite the odds. The other?  Oh, come on, you knew someone had to die—good storytelling and all that. Resolution isn’t always a happy ending. I’ll spare you the details.

So, why has this teenage saga stuck with me? Because of one line. After the death of her beloved Augustus, Hazel is struck by the realization that his last good day, sharing a spark of normalcy amid cancer’s ravages, was just that—his last good day. Beyond her years, the learning is clear:  “There’s no way of knowing that your last good day is Your Last Good Day. At the time, it is just another good day.”

My mind houses memories of several last good days. I suspect anyone, especially those of a certain age, can say the same.

Last good days aren’t unique to terminal illnesses. One of my first recollections is of a laughing man picking me up. His eyes exuded warmth and love that even a barely walking toddler could feel. Was it my dad? Was this his last good day before a bulldozer ended his short reign of fatherhood and all else at 23? I’ll never know, but I hope so. I would have wanted to be a part of his last good day.

My mom’s last good day was lucid and mostly alert—she was in there. She looked me in the eye. She held the pictures I gave her—one in each hand. I asked questions, she responded. We talked about the black and white movie on the Turner Classic Movies channel that had hummed in the background nearly continuously for three months. She was characteristically opinionated. Routine stuff. Small talk, just a bit slower. Nothing earthshattering. Though logic told me these days were numbered, I didn’t know it was her last good day.

On Allan’s last good day, we laughed easily and shared with each other in that mysterious and relaxed way that couples who have survived and thrived through decades of life together often do. Filled with love. Filled with anticipation for a fun evening with friends and all the days thereafter. I’m glad neither of us knew what the rest of that day would hold.

I’m not sure if my visit with Uncle Ronnie was his official last good day, but it counts. His body was a train wreck by then. Diabetes, a near-fatal bout with MRSA, intestinal and back surgeries… you name it. By the time we got to Florida for the umpteenth time, he’d been moved to a Hospice facility. Pain control and oxygen demands had surpassed Aunt Lois’ ability to care for him at home.

It was easy to see why he was, and always had been, my favorite uncle. He took us kids on adventures, like shooting abandon refrigerators at a nearby dump and slot car racing. He treated us like real people, not just kids. He listened. He took the boys hunting and told them off-color jokes. He took me to my first concert—Gene Pitney. He also treated our band of cousins to the heart-stopping, death-defying figure 8 track at the Speedrome in Indy.

The best memories were just the two of us. Later I learned that the Saturday Cherry Coke dates at Rexall’s soda fountain he started when I was small were less about me and more about the attention he attracted from the pretty teenage girls in town. They found it endearing that he made time for his little curly-haired niece. Apparently, I was a chick-magnet long before such a term existed.

That day, I stood by his bed as I had through other illnesses. For years, each time I left him, I knew it would be the last. Then, he would rally. Not this time, my gut told me. Yet walking into the room, he was much better than I expected. After some small talk, I could see he was tiring. I asked if he needed anything. He said yes. He wanted me to go to the nurse’s station and get a Cherry Coke for the two of us to share. It was my first memory of him and it would be my last. But, this time there weren’t any swooning teenage girls around. It was the best Cherry Coke ever.

Someone once said that we die as we’ve lived.  If I ever had any doubt, Aunt Wilda and one other would persuade me.

The family surrounded Joe’s aunt Wilda. The all-too familiar cancer to Hospice journey. She was fading fast—no longer eating; resting for the journey ahead. As if all that weren’t enough, she’d also fallen out of bed and hit her head on the bureau. Both eyes were black. But, Joe’s “hey slugger” greeting when we got there earned an immediate smile. Although most of the conversation went on without her that day, every once in awhile a wide smile or a chuckle would let us all know that Wilda was listening and that despite it all, she was still filled with the same joy that had always accompanied her.

Maybe I simply missed my cousin’s last GOOD day. I like to think I caught him on his last bad one. I hope so. Although his initial diagnosis and surgery had loosened the shoulder chip he’d carried for always, I saw a flash of the old him on that last visit. Although his last words to me were “I love you too,” it was what he said before that left me feeling powerless. “How are you really? I asked when we were alone. “If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have blown my brains while I still could.” He said it simply, but I could feel his fear and apprehension, like a ball of sad helpless anger—resigned frustration is how I thought of it later.  No comforting response came. All I could manage was to take his hand and say, “I love you.” To this day, I hope my face mirrored only that. He trusted me with his raw truth. I get that.

My dad’s (we’d ditched the “step” long ago) last good day was awesome. I can attest to that. Mom and I were talking when he walked in the door. She handed him the phone to say hi, as she often did. But, he didn’t stop there. He absolutely raved about fishing with his buddy Kenny. A day on the Braden River never sounded so appealing. I don’t remember what they caught. I just remember how great he sounded. His voice was full of energy. In fact, he said he felt better than he had in years. His doc had put him on a new drug. He was thrilled. He felt normal again. We talked longer than usual that day. I’m glad we did. By the next morning, he wasn’t feeling well. By the time our flight landed in Florida, he was on life support. The same medication that gave him his last good day had triggered an irreversible brain bleed. He was surrounded by love as the wires and tubes were removed and he passed. But, you know what? He went out on a high, with renewed energy looking forward to more good days to come.  It was an excellent last good day.

So ends my last good day ramblings. Who knew a recent birthday, a long solo drive, and a line of dialog from a predictable audiobook could make one so introspective.

Wonder who will be there for my last good day? What would you have your last good day look like? Who will be there? What will you share?  What will they remember long after you’re gone?

Every day can be the last good day. Let’s act with that in mind.

Dear Nancy

Dear Nancy,

I hurt for your friend who just lost her husband. As always, your gentle questions are wise and nonintrusive. What helped? What clearly did NOT? Your desire to, as you put it, “stand with her in her grief” made me reflect back to that time. You knew it would.

Enough years have passed that clarity has replaced the fog that overtook me for so long. I couldn’t have responded to your questions then. Now, the answers are within reach.

I hid after Allan died. Sounds like your friend may be doing that too. Don’t take it personally. She may not know it yet, but the fact that you care, and that you don’t presume to know how she feels gives you credibility as an authentic presence in her life. Write to her. I promise she will read and reread your words and they will strengthen her.

Everyone is different. It’s possible that supportiveness is solely in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t think so. Humans respond to empathy and compassion. Trying to fix, minimize, distract, or simply check “offer nice words” off your list isn’t helpful. Doing no harm seems a good universal practice.

A wise man once said, “you can’t know what you don’t know.” I have no doubt—none—that my own efforts through the years to console or comfort people in grief have fallen short, despite my best intentions.

From my perspective, there were five kinds of post-death gatherers—all with good intentions.

First, were the “well-wishers” who sent a Hallmark card signed only with their name, paid their respects at the memorial, and offered well-worn platitudes.

Second, were the “distancers,” those who knew us and cared but found the whole situation overwhelming and simply stayed away. I’ve never held it against them. I’ve always assumed they had bigger issues around uncomfortable realities.

The third group was the “gut punchers,” who made me feel worse, although I wasn’t sure why at the time. “At least he didn’t suffer,” “at least you were home,” at least, at least.” Your label fits. I share your disdain for the at-leasters. Others grief-trumped me with their own horror stories (conversational narcissism at its worst). Who knew grief is a competition?

Fourth, were the “loyals,” those who loved us and bore witness to my total devastation. Although most of them had no frame of reference, they never gave up on me. And, with a nod to your insightful brilliance, they didn’t lie. You’re right, we don’t know how other people feel and we can’t read the future, so we don’t get to make that stuff up. Instead, the loyals continued to reach out with help/motivation/compassion EVEN when I was in hiding. EVEN when I couldn’t/wouldn’t respond.

Lastly, there were the “grief-standers.” Their heartfelt words outshone the dreaded platitudes. “I’m with you…. I’m sorry…. Don’t forget to breathe….” landed differently on my heart than “thoughts and prayers,” “so sorry for your loss,” and vague offers to help. Grief-standers offered specific acts of kindness. Karen sent a book of stamps with her card for the thank yous she knew I’d write. Louis and Margo gave me a $100 bill to cover unexpected expenses those first few days. Barb and Herschel brought a simple food that we christened “Man Bread.” Hot or cold, it gave visitors something positive to talk about.

A few not only stood with me in my grief but gave me a lasting gift, whether they knew it or not.

• My mom. Not just because she was my mom, but because she lost her husband (my dad) in a construction accident and was a widow at 21. She knew firsthand that the road would get a lot rougher than it felt to me in those first few “love bubble” days. Even after she and my step-dad returned to Florida, I knew she was just a phone call away. The gift: She wasn’t afraid of my emotion.

• Allan’s friend, Mike. Mike was out of town when Allan died. He cut his trip short and came directly to our house. I was sitting at the dining room table. The girls were there. My mom/dad, I think; maybe others. Mike walked in and simply stood in the dining room. When it was obvious he couldn’t take another step, I went to him. He just hugged me and cried. There was no doubt we were sharing the weight of this new reality. The gift: He didn’t shelter me from HIS emotion.

• Our neighbor, Sam. Sam is a quiet man. An introvert to the extreme. He and his family have a small farm with a big red barn and a plethora of animals–large and small. The stereotype that comes to your mind is the right one. It may have been the day after? For some reason, I was drawn to the front door. Had the dogs barked? I looked out and there stood Sam in the middle of the yard with a casserole dish in his hands. I walked out. He never said a word. I took the dish. We stood there–each with tears streaming. He tried to talk once and couldn’t. We just looked at each other and finally we nodded and he turned and walked home. In that shared nod, I felt all of his love, care, and concern. A look of full empathy. The gift: A total heart connection when you least expect it.

• My client, Cassie. Years ago, Cassie was a training director at Bank One. By then, I’d moved on from my job and she’d moved on from hers and we’d lost touch. Her mom still lived around here and alerted her when Allan died. A couple of weeks later, I got a letter from Cassie. Though we’d only known each other through a client relationship, here she was, speaking my language. I learned that she’d lost her husband to cancer the year before. She knew (as close as anyone could) about the void that is left, about the excruciating feeling of half of you being torn away–your history, your promised future. We wrote back and forth for years. Now, we’re connected on Facebook. We share the knowledge that even though we’re both remarried, we are WIDOWS too. That doesn’t end. You can love again. You should love again. But, that never (ever) diminishes the love that was. It’s not an either / or. Love is an AND. The gift: HOPE.

I leave you with my ponderings—quasi answers to your insightful questions. Maya Angelo said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” May we use our shared experiences and both become better grief-standers.

FYI – I didn’t proofread this. Decided that if I did, I’d likely delete a ton of it. So here it sits. As is. Raw.


That road not taken

Casey Kelly is a singer/songwriter. We go way back. I still listen to my scratchy LPs. The dust covers are scarred and faded, but the music can still stir my soul. His voice isn’t polished to perfection, it is plaintive and raw. It is that of a songwriter who’s lived the story. Although I like it best when he sings his songs, admittedly, most were made famous by others. Kelly may have penned “The Cowboy Rides Away,” but, for the masses, it took George Strait to bring it to life. And, Tanya Tucker’s rendition of “Soon” likely reached a far bigger audience than Kelly alone could have.

Kelly’s lyrics can get into your head. Two stand out for me. “For Miss Julie” remains one of my all-time favorites for personal reasons. It took me two bottles of wine and a hundred listens one night to figure out its significance to my life. When that moment of clarity came, there was no one to tell, but its truth is no less with me.

The best songs are stories that make you feel something —understanding, confidence, power, empathy, anger—the list is endless. Simply endless.

There’s another Casey Kelly song that I think we can all identify with, “That Road Not Taken,” co-written with Deborah Beasley. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve even heard the Joe Diffie version, although that’s the one that hit the Billboard Country charts in 1995.

Please read the lyrics or listen to Diffie’s song. Either way, see if it touches something within you. Metaphor abounds. Think about the pivotal moments in your life, those Yes/No, Plan A/Plan B moments. What if you’d chosen a different path? What if you’d said yes?

Lyrics courtesy of The presumed misspelling of “Yesterday” in the first line may have been intentional(?). All versions of the lyrics show the same spelling. No. That doesn’t drive me crazy. Really.

“That Road Not Taken”

Yesteday I missed my exit
On my way to Sears
A song was on the radio
I hadn’t heard in years

For a minute there the interstate
Was 2nd Avenue
And I was singing “Everlasting Love”
And driving home to you

Somewhere down that road not taken
Will forever live those dreams that were forsaken
Just every now and then
I think what would have been
Somewhere down that road not taken

By now we’d have our own business
And a house just out of town
In a neighborhood that smelled like dinner
When the sun went down

Two kids playing in their rooms
With toys we never had
A little girl who looks like you
And a boy, just like his dad

Somewhere down that road not taken
Will forever live those dreams
That were forsaken
Just every now and then
I think about what would have been
Somewhere down that road not taken

What if I had asked you
What if you’d said “yes”
There’s no way I’ll ever know
Still I can’t help but guess

Somewhere down that road not taken
Will forever live those dreams
That were forsaken
Just every now and then
I miss a place I’ve never been
Somewhere down that road not taken

Yesterday I missed my exit
On my way to Sears

I’m so glad I said yes. Sometimes I think about that. If I’d said no, I might never have left my hometown. And, oh, the life I would’ve missed…. Years later, if I’d said no, I wouldn’t here today—healthy and happy and blessed.

Like everyone, I could come up with a few things I may have done differently along the way, but all-in-all, I have no big regrets. Even when your path narrows for a while, you always have options. Sometimes, you just have to dig deep to find your ace in the hole.

What was your road not taken?
Miss your exit on the way to Sears sometime. If you explore your life, you may just find that your big decisions were good ones after all. If not, it’s never too late to change direction.

Short note from behind the curtain

Post note from the pare-down project. Part of that quest was to go through my memory boxes. If I couldn’t remember why I saved something, it would not make the cut, meaning it would be instantly trashed, donated, or given away. Anything left, I would document with pictures and a written recap of why I’d saved it. Once done, I would be free to trash, donate, or bequeath the item. Well, there would be a few exceptions. I knew that. Some I would keep, because… well, because I had to. They were an integral part of me. Of my story.

So, I told a friend all about my master plan. So proud.
I thought it was my idea and that it was brilliant. Turns out she was doing exactly the same thing! Ha! Guess I wasn’t as inventive as I thought. In fact, she told me, the Swedish have a term for what we were both doing, döstädning. It means “death cleaning.” Gosh I love words! When does one death clean? What prompts it? For my friend, it was her husband’s retirement. Illness or a death in the family can also trigger this cleaning/simplifying process. It feels like a crazed obsession with organization.

There are three parts to this first round of my death cleaning, 1) A need to be courteous—not leave overwhelming clutter for our children to have to deal with if something happens to us. Especially, if a catastrophic event takes us both, our kids will have enough on their minds without having to wade through 800 past issues of Woodworking Magazine, 2) A need to simplify—with fewer things, cleaning is easier; having company without an emergency clutter-up(!) frenzy is possible; finding things is easier; and, 3) A need to document—what do I treasure? Why? What are the memories associated with each item squirreled away in attic totes? Things without the stories are just things. It’s all about the story.

Blessed beyond measure
Another friend lost both her parents when her kids were just toddlers. Gut-wrenching. There was no “stuff” to sort, no treasures to spark warm memories. Yes, I am fortunate. There is an abundance of love amid the dust.

Gift the story, not the clutter

I wrote an essay titled “Camouflaged Memories” as a late-in-life ungrad.  Its purpose was to explain to my daughters the contents of a single Pendaflex hanging file folder of stuff I’d saved. The class was Advanced Expository Writing (aka W350, creative nonfiction) with Nadene Keene, Ph.D. I would say later the class saved my life. In it, I penned “My Elephant” – the narrative poem that allowed me to breathe again.

On February 12, 2003, I turned in the paper for a grade. Although I expected that to be the end of it, I found myself thinking about this project off and on through the years. Thoughts that were usually triggered by 1) someone dying; or, 2) realizing, again, that I may drown in clutter if I didn’t do something. Although the two might seem like isolated issues, in my mind, they are inextricably joined. Why?

Death. We all leave material things behind when we leave this world—even avowed minimalists (my heroes). I’m not talking about TVs and washers. I’m talking about the stuffed squirrel, the mason jar of M&Ms, and the autographed baseball cap. The things we save BECAUSE of the story behind them, because of the memories they evoke.

Through Spring cleanings, moves, and reorganization frenzies, there are some whatever-things that survive the purge. Why is that? I think it’s because on some level we understand that they are a part of our legacy. Having just gone through my mom’s keepers, I’m reminded once again that the things we treasure give clues as to who we are even when no one is looking.

Sidebar: My mom left a book that told us a little about the things she saved, and who should get what after her death. How awesome is that?

Of course, we live on through the memories of those we leave behind (which, although true, sounds to me like warm fuzzy rhetoric accompanied by funeral music). But, those memories are filtered through another person’s perspective.  Unless you tell someone why you saved the stuffed squirrel, for example, it will be unceremoniously tossed in the death-cleaning dumpster… and its story will die with you. *shudder*

Let’s not let that happen. Your stories are too important. Grammar and spelling aren’t. Forget perfect. “Gift” your stories, in your words, to your people.

The things we’ve kept can add richness to the telling of our respective life stories.  They can reveal dividing lines; pivotal events that signify a clear before and after. We all have them. Before and after kids, a marriage, a job, a death. Things may even shed light on life choices. Profound observations that can deepen your understanding of, and patience with, someone you love.

Clutter. Alas, at some point, the collection of things and stuff is not sustainable. Clutter ensues. My throat closes and I can no longer hold a thought or process rationally. Mom’s stuff added to mine, added to Joes, added to Allan’s, added to…. It’s time to simplify. Must. Make. Room. Out came the memory boxes with their treasures and endless loose pictures. There was only one problem. With few exceptions, I couldn’t seem to part with anything. HELP ME.

An epiphany – document and declutter
THEN, I remembered that long ago paper, “Camouflaged Memories.” What if…? After some pondering, I decided to take pictures of each whatever-thing, or group thereof, and write its story and its place in my life—in other words, what it is and why I saved it. These summaries will be (should be, please be) short. Well, at least that’s the goal. Wish me luck with that. I get a bit wordy. What I’ve already written in my old college project proves that. But, at least it’s a starting point.

Once the picture is taken and its story written, the whatever-thing will be either
1) donated
2) trashed
3) gifted
4) kept.

It’s a way to offer parts of my life and its intersections with the people I love. In so doing, I will be free from clutter now and my kids will have less to contend with when I’m gone (no hurry on that). Beyond the TVs and washers, I’ll leave them with a few remaining treasures and a piece of me in the form of a Word document with pictures.

Your turn. What do you think? Have you done anything like this? Would you have appreciated it if your parents had done a similar project? Right now, it sounds daunting, but necessary, if that makes sense. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s coming along.

Box #1……………………………….!!

My Year of Magically “Wishful” Thinking

Joan Didion’s masterpiece, The Year of Magical Thinking, was recommended to me years ago by a colleague/friend. She was shocked that I hadn’t read it. She assumed that because I’d experienced a similar sudden loss that somehow the book would’ve found me long before she mentioned it.

Although it’s been over 10 years, I vividly remember tears rolling down my face reading about the complicated, dichotomous emotions Didion and I both shared. We always tend to think we’re the only ones, don’t we? Yet, here it was in black and white. I wasn’t alone.

Push/pull of reality…
Like Didion, auto-pilot drove me to do the things I needed to do—feed the dog, do the laundry, arrange for cremation, write an obituary, stand and smile.

The protective self-deception (aka Magical Thinking) gave me hope and kept me from falling over an unseen edge. I left the passenger seat open to accommodate a silent partner on a cross-country car trip. Several weeks later, I bragged about my husband and the homecoming awaiting me to a seatmate on a Northwest flight from California. Pretending he was still there. Pretending things were still normal.

It would be years before a new normal would put joy and fun and enthusiasm back into my life. I am blessed beyond belief because of it—alliteration honoring (unexpected) love at its best.

Just now, I bought the Audible version of Didion’s book. It’s time I revisited its insights. It occurred to me this week that over the past year, a form of Magical Thinking has returned. Well, not exactly the same kind. The circumstances are vastly different. A new term is in order….

Magically Wishful Thinking
Magical Thinking is special. You buy in. You believe. This was more like Wishful Thinking. I didn’t buy in totally. In my heart, I knew better. After losing my job last January, I wanted to believe that I’d get an even better one quickly. When Mom had a heart attack in August, I wanted to believe that she would rally and be fine. Neither ended up being true.

Even though the endings weren’t what I’d wished for, they were exactly as they should be.

Everything works together for good… even the unexpected
If I’d gotten a new job right away, my life would’ve been instantly chaotic, filled with new learnings, and being acclimated to new people and a new company culture. Striving for perfection. Hitting the ground running. You know the drill. Instead, I had the time I didn’t even know I needed to de-stress and recharge.  Because of that, I had time for Mom visits that no longer had to fit around a busy schedule.

That extra time brought with it a “relaxed” energy and a new kind of patience that I didn’t expect. When it really mattered, I was able to concentrate on the things (and people) that were most important.

When it was clear that she wasn’t going to get better, Mom’s goals—no pain, no distress—determined her care from that point forward. A private room, Hospice, and a coordinated care plan followed. Fortunately, my sisters and I all agreed to honor her DNR (do not resuscitate) order.

Mom’s clarity in making the big decision to opt out of life-prolonging medical treatment took the burden off of us. My sisters and I weren’t faced with evaluating, and agreeing to, options that might extend her life with no regard for the quality of it.

I am grateful to have been there at the end. She left this world in much the same way that she led her life – with the same no-nonsense class that made her an incredible mom; an incredible person.

Mom didn’t rally, but she went out on her terms. A new job may follow, but I’m fortunate that it didn’t come according to my timetable.

As my year of Wishful Thinking comes to a close, I realize that it was pretty magical after all.

If you haven’t read the book, do it The Year of Magical Thinking

The search

For the first 10 years, I had the world’s greatest job. The past two, however, not so much. In the end, our small company was bought out by a “larger” one. After promises of “no changes” and “business as usual,” we saw lots of changes and it was certainly not business as usual. Ah well.

Big News via conference call
When the VP of HR is suddenly invited to your weekly call, you know something’s up. It didn’t take long to learn that my position had been eliminated. Was I stunned? No. In fact, just between us, my first reaction was relief. I could actually feel the stress melting away. Was I disappointed that it ended the way it did? Yes. I’d always envisioned myself riding off into the company sunset according to my timeframe, not someone else’s.

Professional grief is a thing – who knew?
Suddenly, I was among the unemployed. Wow. The last time that happened to me, the World Trade Towers were piles of rubble and a nation wept. Because that horror touched us all, I wasn’t alone. So many lost so much. My job was a small casualty in comparison. I was lucky. In the aftermath, I got my degree and rebuilt my life.

This time was different. This time didn’t stem from a sudden devastating blow—but rather from a slow steady leak. I saw it coming. I could’ve taken action before action was done to me (direct vs. passive for fellow grammar nerds), but I chose not to.  Maybe my natural optimism won out and I simply assumed the ship would right itself? Nah, it’s more likely that my confidence had eroded over the past two years to a point that I allowed self-doubt to hold me hostage. Notice, I said “I allowed.” Destructive self-talk, Have my skills slipped? Have they ever existed? was not a good mindset for tackling a new professional chapter. Even when I knew better. Even. When. The quiet voice inside persisted….

Still, after the first few weeks, I expected to bounce into a new job—with little effort (my Pollyanna period). I’m working through my job search because I must. However, I feel like I should want to move quickly. I don’t. I feel like I should want to get back to the business of sales. I don’t. I feel like I should want to learn a new batch of company acronyms and processes and people’s names/roles. I don’t.

In reality, I needed this break. I’m grateful that I could take it. Professional priorities: Let it all wash off, rebuild confidence, and discover untapped strengths—sign me up. The new chapter will come, and it will be amazing. Because, then, I’ll be motivated, re-energized, and ready.

Posts to ponder

Found my hand-written topic list from a while back. You know, back when I vowed to blog every week. Across the top of the page, in my neatest handwriting (script, of course), “Blog Topic list.” Over to the right, “4-14-12.” At left, “Check off as posted” shows determination and hope. Official Plans.


My writing got messier as ideas popped into my head. You should see the bottom of the page.

Each topic represents a story or a life learning
Although I knew I would (must) write about each one, I planned to consider each topic carefully before actually posting it. Too personal? Too obscure? Too gut-wrenching? Too philosophical? I always feel a high degree of anxiety that the dots won’t connect, leaving readers with only one reaction, “Huh?”

Here’s my list
Some have titles; some are just random thoughts. Some include prompts to remind me why I thought the story was important enough to tell. Wish my prompts had been more descriptive.

  • Jimmy Carter! – Who’s your favorite President?
  • Pivotal moments – identifying transitions
  • Never too late – Ann’s office, then share Liz Stanton – pay it forward
  • Looking in windows – golf cart, facebook
  • “The story that wasn’t told… almost” – Joe hunt story – diary, you’ll be glad you did; proposal and cruise
  • Teachers I have known
  • Lewis Grizzard & Erma Bombeck
  • “The story I couldn’t write” – forces you to use words
  • “Mask of grief” – pushing it back, Red Cross
  • Heros
  • Runners I have known
  • “Why do you drink?”‘
  • Letter to me – draw on Stephen King
  • Blog titles (YAY! I can check this one off!!)
  • 47, younger every year
  • Call of the west – Wyoming
  • Love Bubble – DONE!
  • Stake through heart – Den (sadly, my prompt was no help. I have no idea what this was about. Hoping my cousin Den will know)
  • All or nothing – cuticle cream (Huh? Another useless prompt. Looks intriguing)
  • Security light – no
  • My Elephant – DONE!
  • “Interrogative lilt” – valley girl speak, grrrr…
  • Recovering true crime reader – good ones –  Misbegotten Son and Alone with the Devil – and then… one day too much
  • “Rose-colored glasses” – Aunt Rose, Wilda Rose
  • Grandparents – positive, love, humor, and enthusiasm
  • Only child, early – living inside my head
  • Collateral damage – DONE!
  • Mom
  • On aging – internal age, 10/21/2010, my kids are now as old as I feel; Grandma, 18
  • Shades of gray – the lives we touch
  • The view from Heaven – dialog from An Unfinished Life
  • Wake up your stories – make your own list, then write and write and write

Preview of things to come?

‘isms to live by

Before I dive in, I have to tell you a secret. I’m my own worst critic. Ha! Who isn’t? My quest for perfect sometimes gets in the way. Oh Hell, that’s an understatement. It almost always gets in the way. It can be paralyzing. You too? I have an idea! We can support each other in our recovery. Let’s stop agonizing over every little thing. All in?

Repeat after me: “Perfect is the enemy of good (Voltaire). Or, as one of my colleagues always says, “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.”  I didn’t plan it this way, but I just realized this is a really good segue! 

“Grandpa always said….” “My best friend always says….”  What did your PERSON, whomever that may be, always say? What phrase(s) offered advice or words to live by? What do you still hear inside your head even if that person is long gone (literally or figuratively)?

At our house, we refer to these life instructions as ‘isms. We have a plethora to choose from—Jack’isms, Allan’isms, and Mike’isms are among the most often quoted. But, there are many others.

A good ‘ism offers just-in-time enlightenment
It can help guide behavior, offer support and encouragement, or simply force you to look at things from a different perspective.

Each ‘ism was born out of a personal experience with an ultimate learning

“You can’t teach awareness” (Allan’ism
Allan spent most of his adult life as a restaurant manager. He loved it. He loved his customers and his employees—most of them, most of the time. After decades of managing people, he was convinced that you can’t teach awareness. People either have it or they don’t. The older I get, the more I know he was right.

Watch people. You’ll see what I mean. For instance, a server who fills your coffee cup at just the right time, who knows when you’re ready for your check, and who makes every trip through the dining room count (refill a drink here, bus a table there) with no wasted movement. That’s awareness—seeing what needs to be done and doing it. A manager’s dream. Beyond the workplace, awareness is also a great attribute in personal relationships.

Some ‘isms take on new life as mash-ups and new stories build from the original

“Do it with class or let it pass” (Mike’ism)
Mike will forever be “THE BOSS” for having mentored me way back when. At different times in his career, Mike has managed teams of high-level salespeople and sales managers. Years ago, one of his top-producing salespeople, Dave, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig Disease).  Eventually, as Dave’s muscles failed, he could only move his eyes. His wife would hold an alphabet board, touching each letter until Dave blinked to signal his choice. Using this painstakingly slow method, he could communicate. Knowing his time was limited, Dave “wrote” his life learnings to share with his grandchildren. How awesome is that? What a gift. The first learning was a reflection of his life and of his dying: “If not with a touch of class; better, then, to let it pass.”

For THE BOSS, this borrowed wisdom soon became a tenet that guided him always to do his best. I worked for him for several years so heard Mike’s shortened version often (roughly a zillion times). Long after we went our separate ways, and still to this day, if I’m not giving 100% to something, I can hear him…. First, I cuss him silently for this ‘ism that continues to hold me accountable. Then [sigh], I regroup and give my whole effort, or I walk away.

Some ‘isms are intentionally passed from one generation to the next, while others…
My daughters can recite their dad’s ‘isms in their sleep. They are passing these along to their own children now, and that makes me smile. Some, however, we seem to adopt through osmosis. I never met Jack—never heard his voice, but every time (Every. Time.) I drop an ice cube, I can hear him: “you always drop one.” And, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I am always compelled to say it aloud. Eventually, will those within earshot begin to attribute this Jack‘ism to me?

Other ‘isms will forever be a wonderment
“Damn ‘er boys!”  What prompted this particular ‘ism is anyone’s guess. I’m sure there’s a story here, somewhere. Anyone?

‘isms as metaphors
Beyond the literal interpretation, ‘isms can help us combat some of life’s biggest challenges. Take time, for instance. There never seems to be enough of it. We’re constantly pulled this way and that. Invariably, we shortchange the people we love because, well, there’s just not enough time.  The Jack’ism, “let’s just have one more” was typically followed by many more. While the origin for this ‘ism involved alcohol, as a metaphor for time, “let’s just have one more” could represent a yearning for more time. Just one more day, just one more minute. ‘isms, then, can trigger action—we are empowered (“let’s just…”) to spend more time (“have one more”) with the people we love, while we can. It’s worth the effort.

‘isms offer coping strategies
Ask yourself, “how bad do you want it?” Meet obstacles head on and remember, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Always, “do it with class or let it pass.” And, if all else fails? “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Your assignment

Capture your ‘isms before it’s too late
Poll your kids, siblings, parents, in-laws, cousins—and brainstorm a list of shared, family ‘isms. Make a list. Capture the stories before they’re gone.

Do you have an ‘ism of your very own creation that you think will live on to inspire/guide/warn others? Write it down, along with the story that led you to first conceive it.

I’d love for you to share one of your ‘isms with me. Use the comments below. Let me know if I can make it public.

On a slightly different note, I can still hear my Grandma say, “Get those SHOES OFF THE TABLE!” While not exactly an ‘ism, it does ring inside my head from time to time.