Reach Out With Meaning

Facebook is a range.  It’s the good, the bad and the ugly among a group of people they call your “friends”.  This means I should already have had some idea of their goodness, badness or ugliness. I don’t know about you but I would be hard pressed to even picture some of them.  I’ve been fairly careful over the years to make sure they are actually people I do know, but there are easily a handful that I do not know personally.  They are “friends of friends” who collect friends.

Facebook isn’t generally a platform for reaching out and touching people.  I don’t find it sociable at all.  I am partial to Instagram myself.  I hated when the folks at Facebook purchased it.  I was afraid they would ruin it.  It’s less about your words, which, let’s face it, can sometimes be awkward, and more about your images, how you view your world visually.  That’s pretty beautiful, even when it has an harsh edge to it.  It is a place to say many things without saying anything.

Friends are not something you collect contrary to what Facebook might promote.   They are, to use another popular social media term, something that you “curate”, over time.  You carefully and thoughtfully select the most relevant, highest quality content when you curate content on a page – it should be the same with friends.  Even high-quality friendships are going to include one or two that stand out as a bit strange.  I suspect I am that person on a number of people’s lists.

I have several friends who have fallen into the pit of political scornfulness.  They are unable or unwilling to see the negativity that these things stir up.  I feel they are caught in the trap that is the modern media.  It is no longer the job of a reporter to report news in an unbiased manner.  It is their job to be a commentator.  It’s all gone tabloid.  It is their opinions and purpose, it seems, to distract people from the need to come together by constantly selecting the best (or worst) soundbites and pushing them to the farthest possible limits away from compassion and attention to those closest to us.  It’s a shame and I do hope one day some of my friends return from the Neverland that is the uselessness of the national political stage seen through the eyes of online personalities.  It is theater after all.  And not the best theater.  We would not buy tickets to see it.

Let’s not dwell on the negative.  There is a button to hush that after all – for 30 days – one of the few features of Facebook that actually was a good idea.

Another friend posted an extremely vulnerable thought last night.  One that had been floating through my mind a lot during the past few weeks.  That is the one I want to talk about.  It read:

“Will we ever get to hug again?  I don’t want to live in a hug-less world.”

Simple. Vulnerable.  Brave.

My first thought was to make her laugh, post something funny to get her out of this thought spiral.  I only know it is a spiral as I was in it last week.  This is a very emotional world we’ve come to be in, in spite of the fact that we are generally distanced now and people do not even like to make eye contact.  But this was not a time to laugh.  This was real. This was pain and sadness and quite a bit of bravery that lead her to say this.

Yes, we will get to hug again.  I believe it.  Our future is not a hug-less world.  It may be a world where handshakes are replaced with a bow or an elbow bump (which looks a little like dancing to me).  We will get to remove the masks and smile.  My spiral had been brought on by the masks, which did not allow people to see that I was smiling at them.  We will not be living in a masked world and we will get to hug again.  We will never stop needing that.

To be honest there is no reason we can’t hug now.  You can hug yourself and pretend it is someone else.  You can hug others in your home, if you are lucky enough to be sheltering in place with family or friends. I am hearing that the closeness of quarantine with others is wearing thin but hug them and you may be able to forget the mess they just left in the kitchen.  Maybe.

I hug a friend when I visit to drop off groceries or have tea.  We chat without masks.  It’s a risk we are willing to take.

The world has been through times before when we were in danger of losing hugs and it did not happen.   Not all hugs were deemed sexual harassment.  Not all hugs indicate you are a predator.   Hug yourself. Hug your family. Hug your friends.  Hug someone in need of a hug.  The health benefits are enormous.  If you are not comfortable with a physical hug at this time, then reach out virtually.  A text, an email, a letter, an invite to a Zoom chat – all of these can mean the world to someone feeling extremely alone right now.  They are a hug of sorts.

I applaud my friend who was brave enough to post that.  I am rarely brave enough to shout out when I am feeling lost, scared or alone in this.  She is a great role model for me.

Reach out.  Now is the time for it.

 

 

Close But Not That Close

One of my cousins died last week. One of the 36 at my generational level on my mother’s side – which, I can tell you, spreads so far across the ancestry.com page that it is impossible to print.  My mother was one of 7 children–not counting my grandfather’s son from his first marriage.  He wasn’t divorced, but was widowed by the flu epidemic of 1919.  That son was called a cousin my entire life, but was really my mother’s half-brother and my uncle.  That first showed me that families have some flexibility in their bonds.  I have no recollection of ever having met him as he lived in upstate NY and we were in Ohio, two states which were further apart in the mid 1900’s than they are today.

Of my mother’s other six siblings only one had moved fairly far away to live, in Atlanta. The rest of us remained clustered in Northeast Ohio.  Considering the six families were all within an hour’s drive of one another we generally only saw each other at special occasions:  First Communions, wedding showers, which were for the ladies only at that time, the subsequent weddings and baby showers, also ladies only.  There were many years during which this was constant getting together, but as we grew older it became less and less often.  We were close but not that close.

I can only assume that even though we were geographically near one another’s families, there were other things that needed to be done that kept us apart except on those special occasions.  Work, school, home – obligations.  I recall more often getting together with the daughters of one of my father’s friends, who we referred to as cousins; and, of course, the kids in the neighborhood.  Even within my own household, we were close but not that close.  It seemed everyone was busy with their own stuff.  I grew up with characters in storybooks as my closest friends.

My father worked 40 plus hours a week at a factory.  When he came home at night, we had supper on the table as he walked through the door. Then he would read the paper or a book, watch the news and go to bed.  We all had roles, chores, expectations of behavior.  My father would take my mother grocery shopping on Saturday mornings at the Acme in our small town, for a long time with all five of us in tow.  We were all too young to be left home alone.  And believe me, we never made a peep at the store, never begged for snacks while we were there or strayed more than to the end of the aisle in which she was shopping.  We knew better.

Growing up we learned of people’s deaths, usually someone much older, by reading the obits in the local paper every morning first thing or from a phone call.  It was as though there was an informal phone tree. Someone called two people and they each called two people and they each called two people and so on and so forth until the entire day the wires over the area were buzzing with the news and plans for casseroles and which funeral home would it be at – the one on the lake or that other one.

When word of my cousin’s death came via Facebook, where I am connected to only a small handful of the 36, I hesitated for a moment to comment on his sisters’ profiles.  I didn’t feel close enough to make a comment, but it was the expected thing to do, wasn’t it?  Should I send a private message instead?  I consider us friends, but not close friends.  I finally decided to leave the comment that “friends, not close friends” leave.  You know the one, “So sorry for your loss!” with the exclamation point for extra sympathetic emphasis.   It was just a couple down from my younger brother’s similar comment.  That was only the tiniest bit comforting in terms of my choice.

Any other time of the year the few blood relations on my social media page are treated the same as other acquaintances.  I like what I like, ignore what I don’t and snooze them for a while during elections.  A death puts me in the awkward position of questioning blood vs. chosen family, a debate I have had many times over the years.  My chosen family – a very small group of close friends that I have made as an adult, people who actually have taken the time to truly get to know me, people who I know I can go to when in need, they are my family.  How strong should the blood bond be considered if it is just that tiny fluid strand and nothing more?  If there is no substance to support it, it is not “thicker than water” at all.  It is simply an anemic reference.

Yes, I care.  I have compassion.  I feel for my cousin’s family – his children and their children of whom I have no direct experience.  I feel for his sisters and brothers, who, I assume, will miss him. It isn’t the devastating feeling that I had after my mother died.  Or, the flip side, relief when my father died.  His life and death really taught me that a blood bond does not automatically come with honor or trust.  I am somewhere in between for people with whom I have that acquaintance relationship.  It is a loss and I do feel that loss.

I believe that you grow up with the family into which you were born or adopted.  It’s like an incubator.  Some incubators provide more nourishment and protection than others. Some provide more opportunities than others.  Some have more warmth than others and develop the deeper friendship/family bond.  Often you escape from that incubator to create your own space, your own nourishment, your own opportunities with your own family who will likely view you in the same manner that you have viewed those who came before you.  Close but not that close.

I don’t feel I learned to attach as a child and I do not have an answer to the question why. Attachment bonds are one of those things that psychologist and psychiatrists will continue to mull over for centuries.  What can ensure that a child will develop a deep, lasting attachment to its family?  What can ensure that life experiences will maintain the blood connections over time and space? We were together every minute as children, in a very small house and I am only truly connected to my mother and one of four brothers.  How do modern families of today constantly on the road to extra-curricular activities create a knowing, loving bond in their own home let alone with extended relatives?  What can keep us together beyond the algorithms of a social media account?

“So sorry for your loss.” I had commented after some thought.

“Your loss, too.”  Came the comment back from my cousin.  Was it? I wondered, my hand frozen over my mouse, the cursor blinking, demanding a reply.  Was it my loss, too?

In that a human being is no longer on this earth, yes, it is everyone’s loss.  A deeper personal loss for me, no.  I did not attach to my immediate family when I was young and did not attach to my many cousins.  I am not feeling an attachment suddenly as an adult. That is not to say that one could not have been created or could not be created now.  Anything is possible but we would have to come together as people and make the effort to get to know each other, then, if we became family, I would feel that loss more deeply.

 

 

Dinner is Over

This is a piece about several endings.

Whenever I went out for lunch or dinner with a lady named Bonnie*, I always knew when the meal was over.  Her purse would snap open and she would draw out her lipstick like a magic wand or a light-saber bent on conquering the world. She would apply it with an air of self-confidence I always envied to a mouth out of which words came that I did not always envy.  Bonnie could make me laugh until I wet myself or cut me ‘til I bled all over my soul without a second thought.  And she never seemed to realize that she was funny or that she was sometimes hurtful.  She was just being herself. She was being honest.

She had a bird, a cockatiel that had his own room in her house.  I found all birds amazing and I thought he was stunning.  Even when he was dive bombing my head or biting my toes, I thought he was beautiful.  And she loved that I was the only person who cared about him.  She called me on the phone weeping the night he died.  I drove over in the darkness on a freezing cold November night.  I took with me a special decorative box I had emptied some special keepsakes from. I knew we would need an appropriate coffin.  Under the light of a full moon, I helped dig a grave in frozen ground in her back garden.  I stood with her while she said a few words about him.  Then in true Lucy and Ethel fashion we wrangled a large boulder to cover the grave so that wild animals would not dig it up.

Years later when her husband died, the love of her life, she announced it to me by text.  I would have to say that is one of the biggest pieces of news I’ve ever received by text.  I had to read it several times before I believed it.  I know from personal experience that sort of news can be difficult to say out loud. For her it was also a challenge to face the questions and the condolences.  She was angry with him for dying.  I went immediately.  I was “family” in her eyes and so in my mind I had an obligation to go to her.  This time I didn’t need to bring a box or shovel, thank goodness.

For the four months after his death, I was there for her two to three times a week, baking her sweets because she wasn’t eating, taking her out to lunch, going to the movies or watching television with her – pretty much doing anything that might help her not be alone with her grief.   These bad things had happened to her at a time when my life was turning around.  I was figuring things out about myself. I was changing.  My changes didn’t always fit well with her grief.  I was no longer willing to accept things she said to me that were hurtful.  Her negativity had deepened and my positivity was growing.  It was an unstable combination.

Over the years I had just taken a lot of her verbal hits shrugging them off, telling myself “Oh that’s Bonnie, she doesn’t really know how she sounds.” Or “She doesn’t mean it the way it sounds.”

“Your bag looks like a piece of shit,” she once told me sneering at my much loved hobo bag from a consignment shop. She gave me a used but designer purse as a birthday present.  It looked ugly to me and too dated even for someone my grandmother’s age. The only thing about it I found useful was it had an old Xanax rolling around in the bottom.  I accepted it as graciously as I could and buried it in my closet.

“You’ll never know what real love is. You don’t have children,” She said to me once in the car.  That one was hard to keep my bare lips silently pursed for, but I did.   “After all Bonnie doesn’t know how she sounds.”  Thank goodness we were at a red light when she said it.

Over the years she criticized my clothes, my makeup, my hair, my car and pretty much anything else that came up. As I began to change I realized, as I had with my father, that I did not want this negativity in my life.  But I was her friend and she was my friend.  You don’t throw away friendship, right?  She’d suffered a great loss, the love of her life.  I needed to be there for her.  I wanted to be there for her.

Five months after the funeral, she decided that she would go on a trip to help her feel better and that she would let me watch her dogs.  I did not want to be there for that.  But she hadn’t asked me to watch the dogs, two extremely overweight elderly retrievers that were both in ill health, she ordered me to watch the dogs in front of other people and somehow made it sound as though she was doing me a favor.  I suggested that I could cancel my client meetings for the planned week, cancel those billable hours at a time when I needed the money.  I pointed out quietly that I would have to drive home each day (an hour each way) to take care of my own pets.  I could manage this for seven days, I said to myself, because she needed me.  I had talked myself into it.

In the weeks before her trip, she called regularly talking about the plans as they became closer and more concrete.  At some point it came to my attention that the week long trip had stretched into nearly two weeks.  I held up a virtual hand for attention and pointed out that it was not a week long trip anymore.

“Well, I wasn’t counting travel time,” she said in response.    I was, I thought.

One day she called with what she thought was great news!  She’d found someone to watch the dogs on the weekends so that I could go home and do my own thing those days.  I made the mistake of opening my mouth to point out that I didn’t work on weekends and I generally stayed in, so it was the better time for me to be at her home.

“It would really help me out if they could do Tuesday and Wednesday?” I said. Look at that I was speaking up for myself. I was asking for something for me.

“Of course they can’t do that,” she shrilled at me over the phone line, “they have real jobs.”  Oh right. And I didn’t in her eyes. I froze. My head felt bigger than it was and it was completely empty. I couldn’t seem to open my mouth.  I hung up.

I failed to say good bye or I had to go or you inconsiderate cow….I just hung up.

The next day I got an email.  There was no subject, but she never wasted time with subjects.  The email itself was short and sweet.

“I can’t take anymore of your petty bullshit,”  it read, “I’ve found someone else to watch the dogs.”

That was that.  I should have been elated and somewhere in my mind I was, but I was stuck on that one phrase, like a splinter the size of a redwood tree had just been rammed underneath a fingernail and absolutely nothing else could take attention from it and the throbbing it was causing. “your petty bullshit.”

I did what any other completely insanely pained person would do, I picked up the phone to have this conversation full of emotion in person.  She didn’t answer, of course.  Damn her, taking all the power again. I was left with the voice mail and I managed to get out a rather lengthy message.  I believe I covered the high points of all the petty bullshit I’d experienced for nearly eight years.  I don’t even recall what I’d said fully. I was shaken and angry and finally speaking up for myself.  It was like moving muscle you hadn’t used in such a long time.  It ached and moved awkwardly but felt good to stretch it out.  I had to take responsibility for allowing her to treat me the way she had all those years. It was my own fault.  But she was going to hear what petty bullshit really was.  It was quite a bit of stretching.

When I hung up and I knew that a weight had been lifted and I was free from a friendship that never really was one. I’d never felt anything quite like it. It was an amazing feeling.  It was at that point that if I wore lipstick, I would have opened my purse and pulled it out and applied it with confidence knowing that this dinner was over.   It was a dinner I would never have to eat again.

 

*name changed for privacy