Holiday Expectations

Who needs an excuse to gather with loved ones and be grateful for all we have?

We all do.

Holidays are our wake up call. Strung together by everyday life, holidays give every single person a reason to treat a day differently. A reason to slow down – or stop – to do something… anything… special.

The greatest threat to the holiday experience can be summed up in one word: expectations.  In fact, it could be said that the likelihood of a pleasant holiday has a negative correlation to one’s expectations of it.   The higher the expectations, the lower the likelihood that those expectations will be met.  We’re human, after all.   You put enough of us in a box together and talons will flash.  How many movies – comedies all – have been based on the common human experience of dysfunction at holiday gatherings?  It’s as common as pumpkin pie and Cool Whip.  As latkes and sour cream.

So we might all benefit from a touch of mental preparation for what’s to come as these holidays approach.

Let’s start with the agenda.  Prepare yourself. The TV may or may not be tuned in to the game you want to watch.  You may or may not want to participate in the tackle football game on the lawn with the teenagers.  You may or may not want to listen to your niece play her violin. But what the hell.  You can record the game, cheer for the teenagers as they play, and applaud the violinist.  Hey, someone probably applauded for you at some lame grade school recital, so you owe the Universe something in return.  I remember a year at my brother’s house when his wife suggested we play charades.  What? We had never done such a thing. Everyone froze and waited to see if she was kidding.  She was not.  And so….we played.  It was a riot.  No regrets.  Just go for it.

Now let’s move on to the food.  Prepare yourself. It may or may not be good.  There may or may not be enough for seconds.  Or even firsts.  It may or may not taste like you remember it when Mom used to make it.  There may even be some weird stuff there.  Something with soft, cooked nuts on the top and greenish squash-like vegetable below.  It’s a meal, though.  Not everyone gets one of those – not even on a holiday.  So – particularly at Thanksgiving – we should be thankful.  I recall a year when my husband – the cook in the family – prepared everything but the turkey.  We had a turkey, but he searched for hours for that thingy that makes the giant rotisserie work…and he searched – in silence – until dinnertime.  I was furious.  But I had no business being furious, because there was plenty of food.  My mother saved the day by good-naturedly suggesting we just run to Kentucky Fried Chicken.  We did.  And we laughed.  And we ate.  That was the point, right?

Finally, and most important of all, there are the people.  The “loved ones”.  Prepare yourself. They may or may not be at the top of their game that day, well-rested, and feeling good.  They may or may not dress appropriately for the occasion.  They may or may not have voted the way you did in the recent election.  And they may or may not notice you’ve lost 50 pounds.  It doesn’t matter.  They’re here.  They’re alive.  They may have had a horrific argument in the car on the way here and they may have worries about the future….of the country, of the their children’s lives, or of this dinner.  But they’re here.  And what you see may be the very best they can do at this point.  Love them.  They’re the “loved ones”.  Make it so.

Are we ready now?  Are our expectations of the agenda, the food and the people re-calibrated to a healthier state of flexibility and generosity?

Deep breaths, my friends. This is gonna be great.

“If all else fails, lower your expectations.”  – Susan Murphy

Image result for dysfunctional holiday gatheringsCredit:  Modern Family abc.com

A Precious Collection

I am a collector.  Not trinkets in a curio cabinet.  Not fine art and not even wine.  (I drink what I buy.)

I collect friends.

And just like any fine collection, each item is special and valuable.  I can describe the nuances of each one.  And I can tell you about the moment it entered my collection.   The flash of light that caught my eye.  The joy I felt when I realized what I had discovered.  And as it traveled with me, it collected more value because of the stories it now carries and the love it represents.  Just a glance at it reminds me of moments – full of color and laughter, and some of the best ones had lots of tears, too.  Like a living journal of the best parts of my life.  Times of learning and failing and taking risks and leaping into the future.

I’ve lost a few pieces from my collection over the years.  Mislaid or disappeared.  And tragically one was broken.  Lying shattered on the floor, I wondered how it slipped out of my hands.  And how long I gazed at it, wondering if I should just accept it as gone.  Imaging it with the clumsy cracks and blobs of glue….never the same.  So I’ve left it there…out of the way and swept to the side for now, and maybe forever.

But the rest of the collection is really in fine shape.  Some pieces are up front where I can reach them easily.  There are the ones I take with me everywhere I go.  There are ones I pull out for special occasions…

And then there are those tucked away in the back.  I know they’re there.  I haven’t dusted them in a while, but it’s easy to see them.  And OH the fun it is to reach back there every once in a while and pull out an old favorite.  Just holding it in my hands makes me laugh out loud.  Stories coming pouring into my head of those times when I had found this precious piece.  And there is something special about the fact that no one knows the stories we know.  And no one knew me better in that time.  That friendship grins back at me with its stories and secrets and trivial details.  Proof of those times.  They were real and wonderful and part of who we both became.

And now – so many years later – here we are.  Thousands of meandering miles traveled when our paths finally cross again.  We quickly stitch together what we remember and scramble to catch up…then we sit quietly and smile at this precious thing we have.

Such a precious collection.

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One Way Friend

I had a moment of panic today.

I needed comfort, but not engagement.  I didn’t want to worry anyone or to get help problem solving.  I just wanted reassurance.  There were several people I could call, and they would drop everything to listen and empathize and pump me up again.  But today I felt like I needed to think, without managing another person.

Then I remembered that I have a one-way friend.

A friend who gives without being able to receive.

A friend who is wise and perfectly objective.

A friend who loved me and loves me still.

She’s gone.  But I have precious video-recorded conversations of her before she died. Hours of this.  Her head wrapped in the unmistakable cancer kerchief, gently reflecting on what’s important and wonderful and funny and difficult about….things.  All things. Everything.

We taped these conversations for her kids.  She wanted to somehow be there for them in the future.  To be glimpsed by possible grandchildren.  To be remembered for her thoughts and her simple presence.

I loved having these conversations with her.  I was honored to do it.  And I knew I would treasure them myself, too.  For the first year, I couldn’t watch them without grieving aloud.  It’s been 3 years since she passed, and now I just want to see her.

She was a brave, bold, passionate person.  She loved deeply and craved adventure and challenge in her professional life.  She could – and would – switch careers, industries, or locations without hesitation.  She was a risk taker and a creative force.

I, on the other hand, enjoy security.  I love having a place in an exciting organization where I can build depth and breadth from the comfort of one company to whom I am deeply committed.  I’m loyal as a Labrador.  And for 25 years, I’ve found excitement and challenge in one such special company…where I’ve never stopped learning and growing and the people with whom I work are of the very best sort.

But on a milestone birthday, I had to think about what the last 15ish years of my career should look like.  Do I imagine myself retiring with 40 years at this wonderful company? Forty years? Or should I consider using this 15 years to build something different?

Many voices – from others and inside my own head – were telling me, “Create something. It’s now or never.”  There were also voices – loud ones in my own head – saying, “If it ain’t broke….”  When I recruit people for my company, I mean it when I say that it’s one of the best companies you could ever work for.  A feast of challenge in one company.  Why else would I have been here 25 years?

Yet I do know deep in my heart that the things I do best – better than most other people – are things I only do part of the time in my current role.  Doesn’t it make sense to try to do what you do best – and love mostall of the time?  Isn’t that what we are all building toward?

So leaving the secure cocoon of my wonderful company – while counterintuitive to me – feels somehow inevitable.  I feel sick.  I feel worried.  I have flashes of insecurity.  And occasional panic as the target date draws nearer.

I suddenly needed my friend.  My brave, bold, passionate friend.  I did know what she would think this decision of mine.  But I needed to hear it today.  And I hoped I could find it amongst her reflections in those hours of video.

Sure enough – much like a church sermon that eerily seems to be directed at YOU – she delivers.  Hanging on every word, I found the reassurance I was looking for in her voice, her pithy, off-hand comments, and her calm presence.

And as she concluded this particular recording, she looked directly at the camera and I paused it.  The feeling of her looking into my eyes washed over me like a warm wave of comfort, love, and confidence.

I feel her love.  I wish I could still love her back.

My beautiful, wise, one way friend.

Blossoming

I remember a colleague who came from a Big Company to work at our Small Company, because our Small Company was so cool.  Not cool in a hip way, but cool in a lots-of-smart-people and a really-appealing-product way.  This new guy was well-qualified, good-humored, and extremely squared away.  We were glad to have him because we knew he had come from the Land of Success and would know many tricks of the trade that would make us bigger and better.

He was gone in year.

It was hard not to take it personally.  We liked him and we were so….well…likable.  Why would he leave such a cool company just to go on to yet another Big Successful Company?  (Which he did.)

Then I thought about the first time the New Guy asked me for help. (I was his peer.)  He’d lean in my doorway and give me a scenario he was managing.  This was typical.  Our team always collaborated and calibrated and we’re always bouncing scenarios around.  No problem.

So he’d spell it out, then ask, “So, what do we do?”

I’d think for a second, then talk through my response so he’d know how I reached my recommendation.

He’d say, “OK.  So that’s what we do?’

I’d say, “Uh, yeah.  That’s what I’d do, at least. Does it make sense to you?”

“Well, sure.  I’m just asking if that’s our policy.”

“Oh.  Well…no.  I mean, we don’t exactly have a policy for a scenario like this, but it makes sense to me, so I think you should just do it.”

“Wow.  I can’t believe we don’t have a policy for that.”

“Hmm.  Maybe you’re right.  Maybe you should write a policy for that.  It might be good to have.”

He seemed baffled by the absence of a policy.  And probably by my apparent lack of interest in writing the policy myself.  He took my advice.  It was good advice and he agreed with it.

He did this several times.  And each time I’d give him my opinion, and he’d roll his eyes and say, “Don’t tell me.  There’s no policy on this either.”

“Nope!” I’d reply with a grin.

I could see this bugged him no end.  He clearly felt like he was suddenly doing business in a 3rd World country.  He missed his credenza with the neat little row of binders containing the wisdom of the ages. And admittedly, I felt a little embarrassed.  Like my company was so green and underdeveloped….

Wait a second.  I loved my company.  And the people in it.  When applicants ask my why I like it here, the answer is easy:  The people are amazing.  Smart, funny, inventive…resourceful.   Every day is a puzzle and everyone is here to help you solve it.  We ‘re masters of problem solving and complexity doesn’t freak us out.  I love that about us.  We don’t want a stinking policy manual.  We want to think.

We’re amazing.  He’s a fool.

Humph.

Wait.

He’s not a fool.  In fact, he was well-qualified, good-humored, and extremely squared away.  He just needed something different that what we could give him.  Structure.  Guidelines.

I was fine without a policy for everything.  Flying by the seat of our pants and problem solving was part of the thrill.

But for him, those policy binders freed him.  To do what, I’m not sure.   Maybe to straighten out the details so he could focus on the future? It’s hard to say.  Because I’m not in that world, and I don’t think I’d like it as much.

It’s made me realize, though, that just because somebody is smart and good-humored and squared away, doesn’t mean they’re a fit.

To be the best you can be, you need to find the root of your gifts.  The thing that floats your boat every day.  You need to know what you need to do your best work.

And find a place where your best work is what’s needed.

Then you can blossom.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/blossom/

policy-manuals

I Am Special

I hear her.

On the porch.  She’s opened the canister with the cat food.   There’s the crunch of the scoop.   Yes, and the sound of falling kibble.  And there they go, those damn cats.   Leaping through the hole made in the window screen, then dropping onto the floor with a velvet PLOP PLOP.

And then I hear her voice.  Her high, sweet voice cooing at them.

She’s up.   I can ready myself.

The sky behind the little house is orange and pink.   There’s a breeze and it feels good on my skin.   I do love mornings.

The peace is broken by a terrible commotion. It’s Sonny. He’s heard her, too. Although not until the door closed with a slam behind her as she went back into the house.   He’s not very attentive, that one.  He’s slow and loud.   Who put him in charge?  I think to myself.

I’m waiting now for another glimpse of her.   It’s like waiting for a jack-in-the-box to spring.   Except I never know where she’ll pop out.  Over there by the porch?  Around the corner where the big tree stands?

It’s titillating.  And maddening.  Because sometimes she doesn’t pop out at all.

I’ll wait and wait, sometimes through thirst, but mostly through cravings for the treats she brings.   Something rich and filling and flavorful.   So when she doesn’t pop out – when I hear the crackling and popping of gravel under the tires of her car instead – I want to join Sonny and raise some hell out of frustration.

But today is a good day.   Today she pops out.   My body is electric with excitement.  I pace and chatter with the others.  Busily arranging ourselves to receive her at the door.   Straightening up and pushing and shoving for a good position in the group.  It’s important to be close.  It’s important to look her in the eye.   It’s important to stay out of her way, yes…but it’s more important to be close.   It’s an art, this greeting.   And there are so many of us vying for her attention that it’s stressful.

Each of us wants a chance.  A chance at feeling that feeling you get when you’re fed.  The feeling of satisfaction and contentment.  The feeling of being loved and protected.  It’s a joyful feeling.

I can see in the distance that she’s carrying something in her hands.   I can hardly control myself.   The others see it too.   Suddenly we are all frantic with anticipation.   It’s strangely upsetting, because I know these are sinful feelings of greed bordering on desperation.   “Surely there’ll be enough for all of us.   Surely she loves us all the same.”

But I know she doesn’t.

I know that as kind as she is, and as hard as she tries to give us all what we need, I can tell by the look in her eyes that I am special.

When she sees me in the crowd, her eyes soften and she says my name.

“Grace.” she sighs.

The name itself proves I’m special.  She gave that name to me. She said it was because of my slender, willowy build and my pale softness.

“Grace.”

She’s here now.   She’s in.  It’s as though she never left and she’ll never leave again.   Our time together is the best time of the day.   The time in between is eternal.  But this time she’ll stay.  I just know it.

We have gifts for her.   We leave them here or there and we keep them warm for her as best we can.  It’s an honor to have that job.  It requires patience and dedication.  But the reward is that special moment when she’s particularly pleased with all of us.   She’ll stroke us and tell us “Thank you!” in that high, sweet voice.  Sometimes we’ll hide one or two as a surprise.   She seems to enjoy that so we’ll manage it every week or so.

Now it’s my turn.  The crouch.  The warm hands reaching out low and slow. The invitation.

I take a step to this side, then that.  I show her my colors and I stretch my long body for her.   She laughs and reaches further and I melt into her hands.

She holds me close. She rocks me and walks.  I’m weightless and warm. Safe from the ground and from the others.

And for that one moment, I’m not just any chicken.

I am special.

 

 

 

Are You Crazy Busy?

“How’s everything going?”

“Oh, crazy-busy, as usual!” with an exasperated sigh.

“Oh, yeah.” (Eyes rolling.) “Me, too.  Crazy busy!  Well, try not to work too hard.”

“Yeah. You too.”

This summarizes so many of the brief exchanges I have with the people I see during the day.  Work friends, mostly.  People I like.  Some of them I love.  But we’re all busy.  Of course.  And until resources are unlimited – or maybe not even then – we’ll all be “crazy busy”, and reminding each other of it every chance we get.

It would be interesting if one of us would respond, “Everything is going very smoothly, actually.  My work is fulfilling, and my team is happy.  We go home at a reasonable hour and get a good night’s sleep. Everything is going at a reasonable pace and I have a very balanced life.”

Our first reaction would probably be envy.  Accompanied by the thought, “Clearly you’re not working hard enough.”

It all seems so important. And so urgent.  Well….at least it’s urgent.

Last week, I came off of a “crazy-busy” period at work – an acquisition, preparation for a Board meeting, the start-up of a new system – when I stole away for a few days to visit a sick friend.

Wait, that description won’t do.  She’s not just a “sick friend”.  She’s a sick, friend.

First of all, she’s someone who’s been my friend for a good 30 years.  Since college.  We plugged through the 80s in a gang of friends who has stayed in close touch all these years.  The kind of friend who’s seen all your stages and moods and hairdo’s.  And still loves you anyway.  That kind of friend.

And when I say “sick”, I mean sick.  Like….in the world-renowned hospital where she’s now been for 7 weeks, the chief doc described her to a gaggle of med students as “the sickest patient in this hospital” sick.  Maybe it was the rare combination of four life support machines she was hooked up to.  “Take a look,” the sage doc said to his students. “You may never see this setup again.”

And that set-up worked.

It got her from a bi-lateral lung transplant (her lungs were failing as a result of a rare autoimmune disease she’s been fighting for almost 20 years), past a post-op pair of strokes, and back to independent breathing and even walking a lap around the hospital ward.

She’s weak, though. Her muscles have atrophied and she’s still being fed through tube in her stomach.  Now the biggest thing may be that she’s lost her stamina.  And she’s working hard to get it back so she can get the hell home.

She’s working hard.

She’s crazy-busy.

Every minute is a battle.  Mentally and physically.

I yanked myself out of my work life so I could offer some comfort and maybe some relief to my friend and her family.  I left what I thought was a crazy-busy period, and I got my definition of “busy” all cleared up.

As I sat in her room, trying to assess what she needed and offering feeble comforts like adjusting pillows or putting her hair in a fresh ponytail, I was spellbound by her.  Realizing that every hour is a battle.  And I was arriving at about the 1200th hour of hospitalization.  Nurses came and went constantly – changing her IV, picking at in-grown stitches, tearing dressings off her delicate skin, taking her blood pressure, checking her circulation, listening to her new lungs, unclogging her feeding tube…

She would glance at the TV and make a dry comment about the presidential candidates or Muhammad Ali’s funeral.  Then in the next breath who would say, “I need my anti-nausea medication.  Could you call the nurse?” and I would be reminded that we weren’t just sitting there together watching TV.  She was at work.  She was crazy-busy.

While I was there, her husband was able to get in some time at the office.  His employer is one of the smart ones.  The ones that know a “keeper” when they see one.  The ones that think of this “employee” thing as a long-term arrangement that’s stronger when it weathers bumps in the road with patience – and even generosity.  The ones that know dedication goes both ways.  And that loyalty begets loyalty.  And so he wants to work when he can.  When he has help.   I can help.

I can be by her side.  Letting her rest, and helping her up. Keeping her jacket close as we travel from the occupational therapy session to the physical therapy session. Following her with the wheelchair as she sets a new “personal best” record for walking distance in the hallway.

I’m a mother to four kids.  When they were sick or injured, I would defer to doctors and nurses initially, but when we were on our own, I would assume a position of confidence and command the situation.  I knew what to do, and I did it. Nothing freaked me out.  Not vomit.  Not poop.  Not blood. (Except once when I caught a glimpse of a deep gash across my son’s face that caused me to go weak at the knees…)

But in this situation – one so serious and so complex, I felt in over my head. Searching for a thing to do.  Re-arrange the pictures on the nightstand.  Offer a swab of water to moisten her mouth.  So I sat quietly, letting her rest and watching for signals.  Like an eager intern who is willing to make copies or wipe up spilled coffee.  Anything to just be here. And to witness this miracle taking place.  This hard battle….being won.  One obstacle at a time. Unrelenting yet all surmountable by my friend.  My strong, resilient, exhausted, well-loved friend. She knows what to do.  And she’s doing it.

My favorite moments were when her husband arrived to see her.  He would appear – having fought through his own “crazy busy” day – like a knight in shining armor, and our girl would glow.  For him.  Knowing they’d both had a big day.  And that they’d been together throughout.  For one cannot wander far from this situation.  Not unlike a mother leaving a newborn in good hands.  You have no reason to worry…She’s safe.  But you know where you really want to be, and even though work might provide a temporary distraction, the pull back to the bedside is strong.

And even if she’d had a bad day, she would gaze at him and smile. She’d tell him the truth about the day.  Ups and downs.  And he’d enter it into the detailed journal he was keeping in his head since forever.

Healing is a team sport.  In the center is the heart and soul:  the sick person upon which the team is built.  Then there’s the right hand and the left hand: her husband and their twelve-year old son.  Then there’s her Mom.  And her vast medical team. World class.  Completely committed to her.  Then on and on, in spiraling circles reaching out beyond that rock-solid core, are her family and her friends and her co-workers who fortify and cheer and cry and pray.  We’re clumsy and uncertain, but we’re earnest and in awe of her.

And now that I’ve visited the hot core of this star, I cannot get it out of my head.  Even as I return to my own routine and my many responsibilities, I’m humbled by what I’ve seen.  I think about things like breathing in and breathing out.  And chewing food.  And drinking water.  I’m still with her in that quiet room with the beep-beep of the machines.

And her lying there.

Crazy busy.

A Little Wish Coming True

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My husband can draw.

I can draw.

Therefore, our kids can draw.

It’s a handy talent.  Like being able to whistle with your fingers. (Or without.) Being able to draw was especially handy back when I was a kid in school and people seemed to need stuff drawn all the time.   Signs for dances, book covers, flyers for parties…  That’s not as true today since you can download any image from the internet and a printer produces it for you.  Still, when you play Win, Lose or Draw you have an advantage.

Two of our kids are active artists.  Both have felt inspired lately and it’s a joy to watch.  Interestingly, their inspiration has came from very different sources.

Alex is inspired by all things Disney.  Her ability to capture the essence of each character and create unique and impactful designs is impressive.  The look of her work is crisp and professional, uplifting and thoughtful.  But even so, she’s after more than the look.  She delivers the messages tucked inside each charater’s backstory.  She’s laid in an impressive supply of materials for creating this art, from paint to pens, and from canvas to plaques. She’s a veritable happiness factory, and she does it with love and enthusiasm.

Liza’s artistic inspiration initially came from her dad.  The pieces he created in high school and college – ink drawings of soldiers in combat,  lithographs of fish – are scattered thoughout our home.  On the lighter side, he signs almost every note he writes with a cartoon of himself.  Liza wants to create, too.  Like her dad.  Something.

When Liza and I traveled here to Paris together, she imagined herself drinking wine in cafés with me and sitting in museums copying the works of the masters to train herself.  I bought her a sketch pad to encourage this, and we planned to visit art exhibits and museums.

Today her wish came true.

img_7294We found ourselves at the Rodin Museum.  There were many students sketching Rodin’s sculptures. Liza was thrilled to see this.  It gave her permission to participate. She searched for a sculpture to inspire her and found it in Rodin’s Madame Fenaille.  Liza stood there, flipped open her sketch pad, and began to draw.

imageIt was remarkable.

She was exhilarated.  Focused.  Deeply satisfied.

So was I.

I was watching my daughter beginning to find herself as an artist.  And she likes what she’s found.  She’s  energized.

I love seeing our children in moments like this.

I recall watching our eldest daughter, Kate, listen to 40 students talk about what they’d gained from the leadership camp they’d just attended.  A camp Kate created.  She was overwhelmed and humbled by the reality of the good her idea had done.

It happened, too, when our daughter Alex,  discovered where she wanted to be professionally.  “I’ve found where I belong, Mom.”   And I knew she had.

For our son, Louis, it was when he arrived at a decision – on his own – about where he would attend college.  The certainty and conviction he expressed when he announced this to his dad and I was so impressive.   He had taken charge of his life.  It was a moment I will never forget.

imageI’ve had breakthroughs in life.  Moments I discovered something I felt sure of.  But there is something particularly moving about watching this happen for someone you love deeply.  It doesn’t matter how their story turns out in the end.  Whether the choice they made sticks, or they change direction down the road.   What matters is that they experience that moment of discovery.  Of certainty.  Of optimism and hope.  The feeling that propels you forward to discover yourself and your purpose in this life.

A little wish coming true,