conversation

Once and Future Conversations

Picture a Conversation ElephantsOur daughter-in-law jokes that our newborn granddaughter is part baby elephant. At four weeks, Olivia has a full repertoire of snorts and snuffles, back of the throat raspings and full-throated cries that trumpet, “Somebody better feed me and change me, NOW!”  Olivia and her devoted mom are embarking upon a mother-daughter conversation that will last their entire lives.

As for me, one of her devoted grandmothers, I look forward our own conversations.  I adored that brief window of my kids’ verbal development as they acquired language but not the filters that kept their words, and thus their thoughts, hidden. I savored their funny phrasings and crystalline insights, all the more stunning for coming from such wee beings.

Look, Mommee! Olivia’s father said to me some three decades ago.  Bubbles!  IMG_1769He was pointing to a set of iridescent crystal goblets we’d received as a wedding gift. What poetry to see the world through my son’s eyes. There was the time he pulled me to the window to point out the falling snow.  “Look, Mommee.  Doesn’t the snow make you think of God?” “Oh yes, little one. Yes, indeed.”  I thought then.

 

IMG_1771What kinds of conversations will Olivia and I share?  Will we read about Noah’s ark  and imagine together how God might have dreamt up the giraffe and the peacock? Whence came the idea for kangaroos and starfish? Or why sunflowers have dozens of petals and tulips so few? What will be her talk on the changing leaves as fall overtakes summer? Or what it feels like to  jump in a pile of leaves or build her first snowman? As time passes, our conversations may well turn to deeper issues — squabbles with friends,  frustration with her parents’ sage rules and boundaries, broken hearts and promises.

But until then, I savor Olivia’s cries and whimpers, the outsized snuffles coming from one so new.  The conversations will be here before I know it.

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The Conversation Beneath the Conversation

debra-emma-walking-down-the-streetWe weren’t sworn enemies but we had had words. Well, she’d had words with me while I held my tongue. At the time, my daughter thought I was a being wuss, especially because I’d never called this mother about the times her daughter had hurt mine. During the conversation in question, I said what I thought was appropriate — that our daughters, at fifteen, could settle their own differences; if she wanted to meet with me we could do so with our girls and the school counselor. She said I was an unfit mother and a phony. In my mind I was taking the high road but was my daughter right? Should I have responded in kind,  recounting  the times her daughter had mean-girled mine to the point of tears? My pounding heart closed my throat on a whole ton of words, all justified. For months I silently castigated myself. What kind of a mother doesn’t stand up for her daughter, or herself, in the face of such an attack?

We’ve bumped into each other from time to time. I decided long ago to take a page from the “kill ’em with kindness” rule book.  When I saw her at the post office a few years ago, she hesitated. “Come,”    I said moving toward her. “It’s time for a hug.” We caught up on where our daughters were and what they were doing. Hers wields a scalpel; mine a very cool iPad stylus. They are both healing lives and spirits in their chosen professions.

When I saw her this week at a show, I moved from behind my table to greet her and give her a hug. She hugged me back. She looked good; I looked good.  The kids are good.  All is good. Thank God.

I knew way back then the source of her pain, and that’s why I had held my seemingly chicken-hearted tongue. I knew then, as now, that I wasn’t walking in her shoes.  This week I heard more consciously another layer of the conversation that had kept me quiet all those years ago. Because this is likely what the mother was really saying: “It’s not fair your daughter is healthy and mine had cancer. I’m furious that your daughter has gorgeous long dark hair because I’ll never forget the months my daughter had none. You are unfit because in the darkest parts of my soul I fear I am unfit, else why did my daughter have to suffer through chemo? You may think you have all the answers but I cannot find the answer to this question: What did I do to make my daughter get cancer before she even got her period?

In our rational moments we all know how little of this great big life we can control. And yet as mothers, we still feel we should, and ought to, have the power to keep monstrous things from hurting our children.  So when X and I cross paths, I greet her kindly.  I hug her because were her shoes ever on my feet, I don’t know how I could cope. Maybe on some level, my hug is an irrational talisman of hope that my kindness today will bless my daughter, keeping her and even her one-time nemesis,  safe for a lifetime of tomorrows.

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Time for Some Chutzpah

Wisdom Card

Whose wisdom has made a difference in your life?

When I have three conversations in a week, all variations on the same theme, I know something is afoot.

Conversation number one was with a fellow writer.  Some years ago she wrote a beautiful memoir about raising her severely disabled son.  She told me that she had decided to stop giving the book away because it was just too much trouble.  I asked her what she meant that she was giving the book away.  Just that she said.  She wasn’t charging anything.  Not even postage.  Someone asked for ten books and out they went.  I asked her why and she said that she didn’t feel comfortable asking for money and she was OK with that.  But she was tired of shlepping to the post office. Her compromise is to send people a link to a free book download from her website.

Conversation number two was an email exchange with a friend, a brilliantly creative calligrapher who also paints and has designed tile and glass installations as well. In last week’s blog she described her participation in her city’s beautification project thus:  This summer I was asked to put paint on a utility box.

“Putting paint on a box” is how she devalued her creation and execution of four vibrant murals painted on an enormous metal utility structure.  I couldn’t help but reframe reality and send it to her: She, among other superlative artists who reside in this major North American city, was chosen to be a part of said city’s beautification plan.

Conversation number three was with a friend I’ve known for 40 years. She knows me better than anyone but my husband. I was sharing with her an ongoing frustration with a loved one. Although we were speaking over the phone, I could feel how intently she was listening.  She offered her response in broad terms about the human condition and the ebb and flow of all loving relationships.

“You are so wise,” I said. “You have such a way of listening carefully, without judgement. Some how you invite people to see their situation from a slightly different perspective, shifting maybe only five degrees, but it makes such a difference.”

“You said that once long ago,” she replied.  “You called me wise. I had the chutzpah to believe you.”  She is now in rabbinical school and is training for chaplaincy work with hospice. The world is already a better place because in that moment when I praised her for her wisdom, she chose to own her gift.

We have to have the chutzpah to believe in and to claim our strengths!  Not dismiss them as insignificant, but all out recognize that we have each been given something that is distinctly ours with which we can better our corner of the world. Whatever it is, it is of value. We shouldn’t feel dirty asking to be respectfully compensated. We shouldn’t minimize or downplay what we have to offer.

Having the chutzpah to own our gift doesn’t mean we’re better than anyone else. I’m a good writer. I move people with my words. I enlighten and entertain. I’ve even caused a few conflagrations. I’m taking that gift in a new direction with Picture a Conversation™ — inspiring people to deepen their relationships through the simple act of having a conversation. I’m a good writer, yes, and one who can be peevish, short tempered, a procrastinator. I’m still working on not offering unsolicited advice to my beautifully adult children. But I do not duck when praised for my writing ability. I’m good at what I do and am thrilled when I hear my advice column has helped someone or that my children’s book is a treasured favorite.

Enjoy your gift. Share it joyfully. Revel in it and grow it. Be comfortable expecting compensation. You’ve been given something no one else has been given. Have now the chutzpah to own it.

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A “Sprained” Conversation

What a blessing to have use of my thumb!

What a blessing to have use of my thumb!

I fell recently and my wrist, while not broken, was still hurting. The hand surgeon confirmed that nothing was fractured and sent me to the local medical supply place for a brace.  It was a long wait in a place devoted to the old-age infirmities that can befall us — adult diapers, walkers, splints, crutches and more. I signed in and counted the names above mine. It was going to be a long wait.

I picked up a magazine and took a seat next to a woman who was also waiting to be seen. Minutes passed.  Long minutes.  Then a quarter of an hour that turned into a half hour. The woman began talking to herself not so sotto voce,  “I’ve been waiting over an hour to be seen. I KNOW I didn’t have an appointment. But I didn’t KNOW I was going to break my wrist today.” Then her mutterings escalating to curses. I tried to voice commiseration that I hoped would ease the tension. Truth be told, she was just saying what the rest of us were thinking; we just had better filters in place. But I grew uneasy. Would she go from words physical venting?  Did she have a gun? Had she broken her dominant hand?  Could she shoot left-handed?

The receptionist said they were moving as quickly as they could.  Things quieted down, and then I heard crying.  The woman’s body language projected utter defeat —  shoulders slumped, head in her hands, completely withdrawn. Through her cries she whimpered that she was in pain. That it was her twins’ birthday and she needed to get home to celebrate, but how could she make them a cake with a broken hand?  In that moment, the whole drama shifted from a one-person play to a scene in which we all had a part — we were all in some degree of pain; we all had somewhere else to be; we were all wondering how we would handle the physical tasks that, pre-injury, we did on autopilot.  Again, this woman was projecting what all of us were confronting within.  And for this poor woman it was just too much. She was overwhelmed, and simply could no longer cope. Or maybe she was coping better than the rest of us by expressing exactly what she was feeling and facing (minus the cursing, mind you.)

So I started a conversation.  Tell me about your kids.  How old are they? How did you hurt yourself? Turns out her kids were 17, a boy and a girl.  Like me, she had taken a spill in a moment of distraction. She confessed to being an impatient person.  I said the same and joked that the universe was probably testing me by giving me a situation requiring patience.  Trying not to sound too preachy I gently suggested that maybe this was an opportunity for us both to try and go with the flow.  And because I write an advice column, I couldn’t help but add that at 17, her kids could wait a bit. Her physical well-being had to take priority so that she could be there for them later.   A minute or two passed; it was finally her turn. I didn’t see her again.

We are so wrapped up in our own worlds, our own hurts, our own lives. Random conversations are beautiful reminders that we are not as separate as we think and that sometimes, simply talking to one another helps to mend what is broken, yet unseen.

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Reveling in Lupine

In this week’s post, the conversation veers a bit. With pictures, lots of pictures.

UnknownTo visit Maine in June is to slip into the pages of Barbara Cooney’s glorious children’s book, Miss Rumphius. Fans will recognize the eponymous Miss Rumphius as the one who made the world more beautiful by scattering lupine seeds through the fields and headlands, along the highways and country roads and tossing them into hollows along stone walls. Of all her books, this remains my favorite, not only for the lupines, but for the gentle admonition to leave the world a more beautiful place.

We were visiting our former neighbors and forever friends who moved to Maine four years ago. When Shelby left, I gave her a copy of Miss Rumphius. Her first spring, she began planting lupine in the field beyond her barn. We arrived last month just in time for the blooming. I was ecstatic. Color does this to me. Somehow those shades of blue and purple send my spirit soaring and I walked the edges of Shelby’s lupine field in utter color ecstasy.

Shelby's lupines beyond the barn.

Shelby’s lupines beyond the barn.

I always thought that the flower got its name because its bushy blossoms resembled a wolf’s tail. (Lupine is wolf in Latin.) Reading a wildlife journal I learned the plant was so named because of the mistaken belief  the plant wolfed down the soil, depleting it of all nutrients. In fact, it is just the opposite. Lupine, similar to the soy bean, returns nitrogen to the soils where it is planted.

Years back, Shelby and I tried growing them here in Michigan. We’d get a halfhearted stalk or two that would never reseed and soon moved on to hardier choices. As with people, flowers do best when planted where they can bloom. For lupine, this means Maine’s salty air and wide open fields of dry soil. For the rest of us, well, it’s our life’s journey, to find the right conditions for blooming.

For those of you also smitten with these glorious spikes of cobalt, purple, and rose — enjoy!

 

IMG_0476

And now a conversation topic to get you texting less and talking more — What would you do to make the world more beautiful?

 

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Sometimes a Hug Says More Than Words

Darvick-Chicken-Point-SedonaMy husband and I had just returned to Sedona, a place we both love and whose trails we have spent many months and untold miles hiking.  It was early February, unseasonably warm even for this mountain town.  We were hiking Broken Arrow on the way to Chicken Point which has a breath-taking overlook and a cozy spot for lunch tucked in among the red rocks.

As it was early in the season; the trails were pretty empty. Hiking for over an hour already, we’d not encountered another person.  We took a water break along the trail and while we were resting, another hiker came up to chat.  We went through the usual run of questions — exchanging where we were from, how long we planned to stay, what trails we’d done and the inevitable and grateful exclamations of how gorgeous red rock country is and how fortunate we were to be in this special place. All pretty standard fare for these brief exchanges before parting ways.

This hiker was alone, in his early forties perhaps. He was a big burly kind of guy in Sedona for the day, having just attended a work conference in Phoenix. He had a few hours to hike before returning to Sky Harbor Airport and his flight back home somewhere in the Midwest.  Just as he was about to start off again he stopped and said, “My wife died four months ago. I miss her so.” And then he broke down sobbing.

In a single moment a casual conversation on the trail, like dozens we had had before, veered onto another path. My husband and were both a bit stunned. This big muscled guy, shaved head, in a white T-shirt and a pack slung over one shoulder began to tell us about losing beloved wife of twenty plus years.  They were high school sweethearts. They had two  teenaged boys, one off to college in the fall. She had been battling breast cancer for over a dozen years. I did the math and realized she had been ill most of their sons’ lives.

“I feel so guilty for wanting her to die at the end,” he said through choked cries.  “Just so she would stop suffering. Am I a monster for praying for that?  She fought so hard. I love her so much. I’m so lost now.” This stranger, who was no longer a stranger but a fellow human being stripped raw by grief standing before us in such pain. A moment opened and I took a chance.

“May I give you a hug?” I asked. “It looks like you need a hug.” In an instant, this big burly man just fell onto me, collapsed onto me the way a child might, utterly spent and vulnerable. I wrapped my arms around him and held him for longer than I ever thought he would allow.  The moment passed. We all kind of awkwardly regrouped. We introduced ourselves properly, kind of laughing self-consciously at where we found ourselves. He mumbled something about the grieving process. I said something about how crucial it is to give himself the time and permission to grieve, that there is no timetable when processing such a life-altering devastation.

I shared that I was Jewish and had benefited from the structure of reciting Kaddish daily for the traditional eleven-month period of mourning. Having gone through the process when my mother died, I understood the wisdom of follow the timetable as our sages laid it out. I urged him to find a community, whether within his church or elsewhere in his circle, where he might continue to find a place and the support to grieve.

He walked on and we followed soon after, making it to Chicken Point and our little niche in the rocks for lunch.  We didn’t see our friend until we climbed back down and ran into him on the plateau below.  I was astonished to see how much lighter he seemed. He was smiling and came up to us, arms wide, and hugged us each once again with thanks for listening and being there.  We wished him a safe flight back home.

You never know where a seemingly simple conversation can lead.  A total stranger opened up and revealed his suffering right before us. I offered him a hug and held him as cried.  We had been put upon one another’s path by some Divine intention.  What an extraordinary moment of humanity and communion.

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This links to an interesting article about grief and the grieving process.

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