Category Archives: Keen Insights Into the Obvious

Run like you

994503_20135338Last night on the freeway I came upon an accident that I must have missed witnessing by less than a minute. The white SUV, flipped on its side on the side of the road, had twisted metal everywhere. Its lights were still on and I could see the silhouettes of two people, still hanging in their seats. I did not let my gaze rest there, having that sick, gut feeling that I was in the presence of lives, if not at that instant lost, permanently altered.

In those same few split seconds, I saw people running. There were five, six, seven, cars pulled over, hazards switched on, with people running, full throttle, toward the people in that SUV. From the furthest car came a uniformed police officer who must have just gotten off his shift. He was, in the parlance of eighth grade, totally booking.

“Wow,” I said out loud. Then, “oh yeah… om mani padme hung.” This is what my teacher says to do when you are not a medic, when you know that you would get in the way of people who know what they are doing, but you wish to help. (I am not a very good Buddhist scholar, but I understand this mantra as basically a wish or a prayer for love and compassion for all of the people involved.)

Moments later, at my exit, a man in a car next to me waved for me to roll my window down. For some reason, I thought he was going to tell me I had a spent taillight or maybe that he liked my bumper sticker, but instead he asked me “did you see that accident back there?”

When I told him I had, he recounted a particularly grisly detail that he had witnessed about one of the passengers, how difficult it would be for him to release that image from his mind.

“I feel so blessed, I’ve never been in a bad car accident,” he said. “Have you?”

I nodded that I had.

“Are you all okay now? Everything better?”

“Um, yeah,” I said, knowing that the answer was more complicated than yes or no. I wasn’t physically hurt. But I was driving someone I love, and he was.  Our lives continued, permanently altered.

“Be safe tonight, okay?” the man said. “You’re too purty to get hurt.”

I thanked him, kind of bemused that purty-ness would or should protect one from anything, but I appreciated his wish for my safety.

This morning I woke up from dreaming about those people running toward that SUV. They were conflated with the memory of hanging from my own seatbelt in my car, at 17, seeing people running toward me and my brother with everything they had in them, having others seem to appear out of nowhere. Having people leave messages on our answering machine that said “was that your car I saw on the news?”

There are people in the world who charge toward people who are hurt with everything they have in them. Sometimes it’s physical injury, sometimes it’s a more subtle one, like shame or fear.

They are such a miracle, you know?

I’m not enough like them. But I want to be.

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Are you okay?

“People help you, or you help them, and when we offer and receive help, we take in each other.
And then we are saved.”
– Anne Lamott

I sat alone in my car at a red light on a busy east side street a few weeks ago.

Feeling tired, I dropped my face into my hands and rested there for several seconds. When I looked back up, there was still a red light and a minivan next to me with a man with a blonde combover in the driver’s seat. He was aggressively waving his arms at me.

When he saw he had my attention, he mouthed the words “Are you okay?” with a point of his index finger and the universal OK sign, followed with a big mime-like raise of his eyebrows.

I think I looked at him dully for about a second before smiling a little and nodding in a way that was probably also more Marcel Marceau than natural human. I might have even given him a thumbs-up sign.  As he nodded back, smiled and pulled away, I felt strangely grateful for his concern. His out-of-nowhere, stoplight, blue minivan concern for some woman in an old Toyota resting her face in her hands.

The last three years have taught me more than I ever expected to know about the kindness of strangers — not to mention other people I might have been acquainted with, but had no way of knowing I could trust. At some point, when things were oppressively difficult in my life, I just started answering the question “how are you?” honestly all the time. I was not okay. I was hanging out with death and deadly illnesses and divorce and the effects of others’ addictions while trying my best to be a halfway decent mom.

But when I told people some piece of that information, I was amazed to find that I wasn’t exposed or embarrassed or humiliated. I was helped and encouraged. They held up a mirror and let me know that I didn’t appear to be as wounded as I felt. They told me I was a good mother or a good person. They rose to meet my honesty with their own. Sometimes they told me things that were braver than I ever imagined, making my own truths less scary and alien. I was saved. Over and over, I was given faith and hope in the primordial goodness of people.

As I made my way home from the minivan man, I drove past the Grill and Skillet – the dictionary definition of a greasy spoon. And I remembered another time in the spring of 2010, when someone asked me if I was okay on a day when I definitely was not.

“Let me take you for a coffee,” she said.

She was a woman of few means, but she was wealthy and generous with wisdom, and she liked to make a big production of treating people to the delights she could afford. She bought me that coffee and some toast at the Grill & Skillet, while she munched on four pieces of bacon.

“I’m skipping all the ordinary calories and just going straight for the devil today,” she told me. Then, eyeballing my jailhouse snack, “You’re a cheap date. Are you sure you don’t want anything else?”

All I genuinely wanted was some of peacefulness she seemed to possess, her natural ability to be true to herself. I don’t remember what her exact words were to me that day, but if I had to venture a guess, it was probably something like “you need to think about acceptance, baby, about accepting things as they are. It will free you.”

Every time I spent a few moments with her, I could feel a deep turning in my life, away from self-created obstacles and emotional storms.

And I remember watching her, usually moving slowly because of a tumor in her leg, dragging a heavy, quilted bag of self-help and meditation books and paper worksheets on things like identifying emotions that she felt would be useful to others. If you were in need, she would probably make you wait a little while. She might have to take care of something for herself first, like getting a drink of water or a snack – often something that seemed quite trivial compared to the desperately catastrophic things you were feeling. But then she would turn towards you, become present with you, and you were enveloped in the safety of her wisdom, usually ending with a hug that was equally, spectacularly enveloping. There was no telling whether you would be lifted for moments or days – that would depend on you – but you would be lifted.

Best of all, you would witness the grace she received for herself by helping you. As she sensed you lightening, she would lean back and smile. “I have an affinity for people like you,” she would say. “We have experienced the same kinds of pain, so know that I mean it when I tell you that I love you and I love to be of service to you.”

You were not a burden. Your willingness to share and trust actually gave her something too. Not only had you unburdened yourself to someone safe, you had been useful to that person.

After the Newtown killings and the apocalypse that wasn’t, Facebook, my email, phone calls and friends on the street have made me feel like we’re becoming a nation of blue minivan combover men and toast-buying women. “Are you okay?” we ask each other in the wake of fallen children, heroic educators and jokes about the world’s demise. Because no matter how much news fasting, meditation or other exercise in equanimity that you practice, there’s little or no getting around feeling a tragedy like this one, feeling the insanity of any human being treating the world like there is no tomorrow.

I keep returning to the notion that we are never as helpless as we think. Two weekends ago, I heard a wise teacher say “Love and compassion are never in vain. They are never useless. They are never powerless.”

And that’s the lesson from my friend that has remained with me most powerfully, a year and a half after her passing. (The lesson that the minivan man and a drive down Main Street brought back to my attention.) She showed me that when you take good, consistent care of yourself, helping or caring for others is not only not a burden, it’s a blessing.  You take that sip of water first. You say “I’ll call you back after I take a nap.” You eat a sandwich. You swim or meditate or pray or spend time petting your dog. You do what it takes to make sure your center is as strong and balanced as it can be today.

Then you walk toward that next person you see hurting, preferably without any expectation that they are even ready or willing to accept anything you have to offer.

“What can I do to help you?” you ask.

If the answer is “nothing,” you accept that.

If the answer is something you consider, then realize that you can’t give them, you tell them that directly.

But there is often something you can do. Sometimes just the question “what  can I do to help you?” is a greater gift than you might imagine. It may be days, weeks or years before you realize that you actually helped someone. You may never know you helped them.

You do it anyway. And you are saved.

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Tract for the Day of the Dead

One of my first official acts as a newly minted 40-year-old was to help my mother pronounce my stepfather dead after a prolonged and terrible brain illness.

It was dawn on the morning after my birthday and it was harder to be sure of this than you might imagine. He left this realm the way a flashlight dims – flickering into a barely perceptible glow before extinguishing completely. We called hospice. A nurse came to confirm our suspicions and called the funeral home. I watched my five-year-old son touch his grandfather’s cool face and arms before he asked me “how do you know for sure?” The undertaker arrived. I remember moving a clay bust my mom made of my stepfather’s face out of the foyer, because I had a sudden and vivid fear that the gurney carrying his body would snag the pillar it was on and smash it to bits. They took the body and left an artificial rose on his bed.

And then I helped my mother organize his funeral.  He was a spiritual man, but not at all religious. There was no minister to call for assistance. We arranged to use the chapel in the funeral home. My stepbrothers and brother and I each committed to deliver a eulogy – four in words, one in classical music. But we felt we needed to wrap the service and burial in some kind of formality, so my mother and my future ex-husband and I dug our way through books and books of one thing we knew my stepfather had faith in – poetry.

We ended up selecting pieces by Wallace Stevens and George Santayana.  But my mother had heard the most from my stepfather about his admiration for Imagist poet and New Jersey physician William Carlos Williams (also mentor to Allen Ginsberg).  We pushed through volume after volume, looking for something of his that one of us could read. The first poem we found related to death or loss began:

He’s dead

the dog won’t have to
sleep on his potatoes
any more to keep them
from freezing

So that hardly seemed appropriate.  Actually, we laughed at its total inappropriateness. Fresh grief can be like that – manic and grimly hysterical. Then there was another poem. It felt too raw at the time, so we didn’t read it either. Williams was left out of the funeral. But that other poem is still with me.

Last week, I completed training to be hospice volunteer for the organization that took such extraordinary care of all of us before and after my stepfather passed. We have had (I have had) several other losses since then, and none of those experiences have felt alike.  The training made me think more deeply about all of the pressure valves people blow open and seal shut in dark times or mourning, the crazy emotional acrobatics and contortions that can lead to accepting — or never accepting — a loss.  For some people, cracking a single emotion may take remarkable courage. Others (like me) may expectorate feelings with more persistence than we are usually able to muster to wipe down the kitchen counters.

I like Emily Dickinson’s poem, which begins “I measure every grief…” because of her stark consideration of several ways that grief may manifest and her conclusion that its very existence is something that unites us all. Death, loss and everyone’s inevitable experience of them at some time bind us like quantum physics, the interconnectedness of Buddhist philosophy or Walt Whitman’s beautiful line from Leaves of Grass – “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

When someone dies after a long illness, particularly one that seems to strip away the person that you knew in pinpricks and bold strokes, it can take time to recover; time to begin to remember them well.  My stepfather was an intellectual, an elitist, even, but a brilliant and loyal man. He inherited me as his very first daughter-like person when I was 19 and while I know I flummoxed him at first, we grew into a relationship that ended with the intimacy of hallucinations and dying.

And I have him to thank for the fact that I’ve read a lot more William Carlos Williams in the last two years than ever before.

I’ve always loved the rituals around Day of the Dead/All Saints’ Day, because they give memories a chance to breathe within us. We can make offerings to the people we’ve lost, remember the parts of ourselves that they gave us.

I think my stepfather would have liked it if this poem had been read at his funeral. It would have been bold. But I think, rightly, that it might have been too raw for those who were grieving for him. So I make it as an offering to him, and anyone who needs permission to feel anything at all they need to feel, today:

By William Carlos Williams

I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral
for you have it over a troop
of artists—
unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary.

See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ’s sake not black—
nor white either — and not polished!
Let it be weathered—like a farm wagon—
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the ground.

Knock the glass out!
My God—glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out or for us to see
the flowers or the lack of them—
or what?
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what not.
Let there be no glass—
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom—
my townspeople, what are you thinking of?
A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.

No wreathes please—
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes—a few books perhaps—
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
my townspeople—
something will be found—anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.

For heaven’s sake though see to the driver!
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that’s no place at all for him—
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own dignity!
Bring him down—bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I’d not have him ride
on the wagon at all—damn him!—
the undertaker’s understrapper!
Let him hold the reins
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!

Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind—as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you ride
Hell take curtains! Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly—
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What—from us? We who have perhaps
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us—it will be money
in your pockets.
Go now
I think you are ready.


I remember you, Stephen.


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Hope & death & Patti Smith

At the beginning of the year, I made the aspiration to read fewer Buddhist and self-help books. I bought and started Just Kids by Patti Smith, but I didn’t get very far. Life-changing things just kept happening. I needed my little daily meditations and other methods of head-clearing. I lacked the focus for much else. So I decided to wait on the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe until I could give it my full attention.

I’ve just been to a Catholic funeral mass for the woman who has been my mother-in-law for over 11 years. It brought up all of the sad feelings I’ve come to anticipate as well as some fragile new hope that I didn’t. Death, a dear friend said to me a few months ago, “can be so generous sometimes.”

This, after three non-religious memorials and a Baptist home-going since last August. On some days the grief is fathoms deep and I do stupid things, like watch “Game of Thrones” (not a good idea when your emotional constitution is weakened) or reach out to people that I know are far too self-involved to practice compassion (also not a good idea — even an exceptionally bad one — when your emotional constitution is weakened).

Other days I recognize stupid moves and emotional missteps for what they are: no big deal. Because I can mitigate any bad day or personal embarrassment with the reminder that nobody died and mean it (although I can’t seem to let “nobody died” leave my mouth without adding “yet,” just in case). I’m like that seemingly insensitive dad guy, shrugging off the horrible, embarrassing thing that happened to you at school because “it’s not like anybody died.” And honestly, on a day when nobody near or dear to you dies, I know with certainty that things could be worse.

For the first time in over a year and a half, I am not acquainted with anyone who is fighting an acute terminal illness (to my knowledge). It’s a weirdly liberating realization. And one I don’t want to be too superstitious to appreciate because things can always change a moment from this one.

So I’m reading. I’m reading a book about the history of cancer because four different cancers claimed four different people that I cared about in the last eight months. There is something comforting about recognizing just how fucking crazy the history of pathology and surgery and radiation really is, how erratic and accidental so many discoveries about cancer have been. There is also something empowering about realizing how many different ways our DNA can get broken, how we can temper the risks of that through some of our choices, but ultimately, like most things, it’s outside of our control.

I’m also reading about rock and roll and art. I came back to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. And damn if it doesn’t feel like self-help. Or Buddhism:

“The things I thought would happen didn’t. Things I never anticipated unfolded.”

It’s a line from Just Kids about the precipice of Smith’s career – the weeks, days, months before her destiny as a poet, playwright and rock goddess began to root.

Now, I go to meetings where people struggle and fight with themselves, sometimes for years, to just let go. To begin to realize that simply responding within the life you have can be so much more magical and rewarding than trying to force the life you think you want to have to happen; to get to “Things I never anticipated unfolded.”

Is that a platitude, or too simple-sounding? Maybe. But I am long since over dismissing things that are true or helpful simply because they aren’t clever enough. I think of all of the years that I gagged myself on cleverness when I could have been happier. There’s really no honor in suffering, especially when you have the choice to not suffer. Happier is better. Happier is more honorable.

Patti Smith grew into her superpowers by surrendering. She and Robert Mapplethorpe used to choose a record to listen to over and over again to let it create the tone of their evening for them. She let her mistakes lead her to the next place instead of withdrawing from the world because of them. She kept herself open to opportunities and took them as they came – like reading her poetry backed by Lenny Kaye’s guitar, which haphazardly landed them in a musical relationship that’s lasted for decades. Smith set out to be a poet, not a rock and roll icon, but the latter evolved because she let it. When she had her children, she let all of that slip away for a while to give herself to the experience being a mother. She seems to have had the inherent wisdom to live inside of the life she had instead of constantly pushing for a different one, as so many of us do.

Then an unfathomable series of deaths slowly brought her back to a public life. Her husband, her brother, her best friend and a dear band-mate all passed away in short order, all young and unexpectedly. But instead of letting it harden her, she surrendered to it. Here’s what she said in an interview with Shambala Sun about 16 years ago:

“I find that sorrow breaks the heart open, makes you more vulnerable. In some ways sorrow is a beautiful state. It can heighten one’s sense of humor. You can find strength and clarity in sorrow. Sorrow is a gift. You have to treasure it. The important thing is to honor it.”

It’s no wonder that when I saw her play live ten or eleven years ago it felt like a religious experience. She may be a bodhisattva.

Now she’s added both of her parents and more close friends and colleagues to the list of those she’s lost, but every time I hear her interviewed, she says something insanely hopeful, like “I promise if you listen, you will hear the dead speaking to you.” She shares stories about the ways that the dead now fill her with warmth, how they live within and speak through her as long as she remains open. I’m beginning to really understand this. I am. And it’s nothing I expected or thought I wanted to know.

Outside of the fact that we don’t know when, where or how we or our loved ones are going to die, death is not that mysterious. But there’s still plenty of mystery in rock and roll, in art, in people, in surrendering, in living.

Lately, when I’ve wanted to give myself a laugh in the dark manner that a surgeon’s granddaughter is wont to do, I listen to “People Who Died” by Jim Carroll. In 2009, Jim Carroll died, and Patti Smith began covering his song regularly in his honor, encouraging audience members to call out the names of their dead loved ones in the middle of the song.

Ironically (to me, anyway) this live performance was recorded the day after my 40th birthday, in 2010. The day my stepfather died, died. It is powerful. You should watch it.

It’s not that nobody died. It’s that you’re alive.

For another celebration of our delicate, beautiful mortality, click this:

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Impermanent impermanence

So I took the better part of a year to complete the 12 Steps (for codependents).

I thought finishing them would crack my life wide open.

There were days when it did. My hope was enormous. My good feelings became at least as intense and vivid as my bad ones, and they rushed right in.  I felt like everything was about to start fresh – new work, a new single mom’s life, a windfall of new sources of inspiration.

But my life didn’t exactly crack wide open.

The friend that walked me through the 12 steps died. I felt myself stall.  I grieved for her.  I grieved for the person I thought I was supposed to be at 41 (again). I waited for the school year to start. I fretted when it did, inflating myself into human lifeboat for my son’s first grade transition. Meanwhile, several other people I care about have continued to deal with real things, like life-threatening illnesses and debilitating depression. I felt like I had no business worrying about the state of my ordinary things while extraordinarily bad things happened to others.  Other times I felt like my ordinary things are all I should be worrying about, because I’m right here and for now, I am breathing. If the last year or two have taught me nothing else, it’s that being here and breathing are nothing to take for granted.

I joked a lot with people over the last year that I had “a high-maintenance emotional hygiene regimen.” I read my meditation books. I went to my step study. I went to Al-Anon meetings. I started meditating more. I even built myself a better, healthier body.  I’m strong enough to hug you hard and punch you even harder.  (Cue Lifetime Channel for Women movie montage video with inspirational music.)  Give me the chance and I will. (Hug you, I mean. I’m not all that punchy.)

I thought I would write about shifts and struggles and steps and changes here more often, but I’ve been processing a lot of it out in the world, where I’ve grown much better at touching people, looking them in the eye when I tell them that I love them or what they mean to me.  A few of those relationships are a direct or indirect result of this place, or have been deepened by things I’ve shared here, so I’m grateful to it.

A friend asked me if all this work has actually made me happier a few weeks ago. The answer didn’t come to me until a day or two later.

“I used to think happiness was something I might be able to figure out how to sustain, but I realize that’s not possible” I told him. “Now, when I’m unhappy, I can see that I have so many more routes back to happiness than I used to. It’s not as scary to be unhappy anymore.”

My life has cracked wide open. It’s just not what I expected, thank goodness.


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He can do it himself

Once, when he was two or three, he asked me in earnest, “can I drive?”

Now he watches my right knee as we travel through town.

“Why does it move when you drive? What is your leg doing?”

I love the way he constantly looks under the hood of the world to find out how it runs. How his school has encouraged that.

At one point, keeping him from falling off the ledge (or driving there, apparently) was so important.

Every year since, it’s been more important to drop that habit and just let him do.

I’m not allowed to see what clothes he picks in the morning until he’s fully dressed. His style is better than anything the celebrities can afford.

He loves to have a job to do.

He loves to get things done.

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“Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

I needed to find a good quotation about patience because I seem to have lost mine today.

I have padded my life with it. It comforts me to have it. I feel safe when I’m surrounded by it.

Then I run into a day like today. There’s no wrong to face, no particular problem to struggle with. My patience  just disappeared without warning.

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Like a prayer

I used to bristle when someone told me, “I will pray for you.”

It seemed presumptuous.

Who were they praying to? And how did they know that their God had anything to do with mine?

I remember going to a Bible study with a childhood friend when we were nine or ten. There was a healing. I squeezed my eyes closed and put my hand over a mosquito bite and mustered every ounce of faith in my body that I could. I listened to the words of the faithful in the room and tried to say the same things they did.

“Heal, thing. Stop itching. Jesus, I believe you can heal me. Praise the Lord. Amen.”

It didn’t work.

This breed of faith had little to do with the churches I went to in my family. We didn’t stand up and testify or expect prayers to be answered. We were the same people we were when we were born, and felt that being “born again” would not erase any of our past transgressions.

Still, I experimented with magical thinking as I prayed for that one boy to like me, or that fellow pre-teen girl to understand me or please God, let me have done okay on that algebra test.

I’ve been too cynical to pray for a couple of decades now. God doesn’t grant ponies or fix the things you ask him to. I’ve had my share of desperate, angry moments, but none of them brought me to that late-night Eat, Pray, Love-style oracle.

Lately I’ve been learning to pray differently.  It’s puzzling when a Buddhist says “I’ll pray for you,” because there’s no God out there running things in Buddhism, just the divine nature that allegedly already resides within each of us.

But I understand personal Buddhist prayer to be something more like this: “I open myself up to the possibility that everything in my life is as it’s supposed be, and that my attempts to control that are making me suffer.” Prayer for others isn’t wishing for specific outcomes either. It’s exhaling hope for the best possible outcome, with the understanding that we, the unenlightened, have no idea what that is.

In the twelve steps, prayer seems to work in much the same way. Even though it’s easy to read the steps and imagine that they invoke a magical, micromanaging, defect-erasing God, that’s not really their purpose. The process isn’t to get God to do your bidding with a quick fingertip to your forehead, it’s to probe deeply into your own heart and recognize more fully how you’ve hurt yourself, then others, and let go.

Twelve step prayer, who or whatever the higher power involved may be, is something more like: “God, I am afraid” or “universe, I am trying to control things that are uncontrollable.” It’s the showing up, the opening ourselves to the possibility that we can handle or surrender to whatever is that changes us. It’s the vulnerability. It’s the faith.

I will pray for you.

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The John Wayne of Meijer

I’ll always drive an extra mile for the sake of a reasonably-priced artichoke.

In my daily swim through the morass of marketing e-newsletters that are available, I accidentally found an obscure and unexpectedly useful one recently. It lets me know about artichoke sales in my area.

As I visited the Eastern perimeter of the city yesterday, I realized that I was within striking distance of a big-box store that this e-newsletter alleged to be brimming with artichokes. So I went. And it was. Yay.

But you can’t go to such a place just for artichokes. So I bobbed and weaved through it, filling my cart with a variety of staples.

My mother requested diet soda, which I found in Bunyanesque 2-for-1 packages. Just as I wrestled with one and realized that I was going to have to move to the other end of my cart to heave it underneath, a cavalcade of shopping carts weaved toward and past me. I propped the diet pop on the cart handle and waited.

A man with a bandana-wrapped head, zero sleeves and lite Hulk Hogan facial hair stopped in front of me.

“Let me help you, there, little lady!” He said. I handed him the soda box. He heaved it under my cart for me. I thanked him. He gave me a manly nod and moved upstream.

This can only mean three things:

1) My quest for artichokes brought me to a mythical encounter with the legendary John Wayne of Meijer, and I should write a trucking song about him, a la Red Sovine’s Phantom 309.

2) Since I’m not particularly little, this was qualitative evidence that my fitness regimen is working (i.e. the wall squats I did Friday – and subsequent literal pain in the ass I’ve experienced all weekend – were worthwhile).

3) The underlying reason that we go to big box stores is to recognize our relative insignificance in the universe. As we meander through huge, galactic clusters of Easter candy, swarms of garden hoses and fields of snack food, we unconsciously see ourselves as Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot, a mere, subatomic speck of a little lady “in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

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Don’t believe what I think

I saw a yellow bumper sticker the other morning. It said, in friendly blue lettering:

“You don’t have to believe everything you think”

I don’t have any tattoos, but I might consider permanently inking that phrase across my forearm.

I like thinking. I do a lot of it. Usually too much, although, periodically, not enough. There have been plenty of times when thinking has served me well. Believing certain things that I think, on the other hand, has been the source of a lot of pain.

When you frequently sit in rooms where family members of alcoholics and addicts are struggling with their particular realities, the pitfalls of believing everything you think become much more vivid. We think we can help people, even if those people haven’t shown any interest in, or have even responded angrily to, our offers to help. We think our marriages, our childhoods, our children, our children’s teachers, our jobs, our coworkers, our lives are supposed to be as we imagined – what we thought they should be – instead of what they are.

I thought that marriage meant that I was supposed to feel loved by another person and that it was understood that such an endeavor is worth the work and times of discomfort that likely takes. I thought I was supposed to have more than one child. I thought that having a child would motivate the other person to be a better person, because that is undoubtedly what it did for me. I thought that respect would mean the same thing to the other person as it does to me. I thought our idea of a “good person” would be the same.  I thought that love would mean the same thing to the other person as it means to me.  I thought.

When these are the kinds of things that you think, and what you think is not your life, or even close to your life, life gets ouchy.

A year ago, I sat in a counselor’s office, and she said something that confounded me:

“Addiction can be your greatest teacher.”

At first, that pissed me off.  Addiction is a sneaky, mean, lying, controlling bastard. Addiction is a villain and I am a moral, loving, hard-working, good girl. Addiction messes I up everything I was supposed to have and enjoy in this life. Or so I thought.

I essentially let go of drinking years ago in support of another person. Or so I thought.  I’m not an alcoholic, so it wasn’t hard.  When I miss it, I have a nice glass of wine. It can be months before I want another glass.

My decision had little or no bearing on the other person’s path of recovery. But my quitting has taught me that I prefer a life of rarely drinking. I’ve learned that I prefer the feeling of being in my body, the challenge of overcoming my own shyness without liquid help (probably the biggest reason I ever drank in social settings to begin with) and the rewards of settling into my difficult feelings instead of trying to control them. Addicts and I have this in common, we just go about it differently. I’ve tried to intellectualize my feelings into neat compartments while an addict may be more inclined to escape from or obliterate feelings with substances.

Living within spitting distance of addiction has forced me to try and look at people more openly and compassionately as they are instead of what I think they should be, beginning with myself.  I am smart about things I never wanted to be smart about, and more aware of how naïve I am about most things. That makes me so common, so wonderfully human, so fundamentally like everyone I meet, addicts included. It has cracked my universe wide open.

I am a moral, loving, hard-working, good girl. And addiction really is a sneaky, mean, lying, controlling bastard that has tried, more than once, to convince me that everyone is really a sneaky, mean, lying bastard at heart, including me. He hunts for our weaknesses and exploits them, grinds into them until feeling itself just hurts, he fuels our cynicism and erodes our faith in anything or anyone. The more persecuted and victimized an addict feels, the more the addiction can thrive. That’s how addiction gets all of us – addicts and the people who love them – to do his bidding.

The moment I stopped thinking of addiction as a dictator or persecutor or something unilaterally “bad” and started looking at the weaknesses it has exposed in me was the moment I felt something new  – maybe a genuine self-respect – begin to take root. When I change the word addiction to death, to job loss, to illness, to bad government, I find the same thing applies.

If I hadn’t been exposed to addiction, I might have cruised through life thinking that it was possible to manage or change other people according to the way I think things should be. What a gift it has been to try and dump that kind of thinking and focus on what I can change, like the way I respond to difficult times and situations, instead.

At least that’s how I’m thinking about things today.

Listen to “Thinking” by Steve Forbert

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