Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Art of Being Supportive

Being a supportive friend isn't as easy as it seems.  There is an art to it. 

I can't even comprehend what it must feel like to know that death is a real possibility due to illness.  I think for most people who are in reasonable health, it's a concept we toy with occasionally, but quickly push to the back of our consciousness.  It's a fear that most people don't examine in depth because it seems so very remote and so scary to contemplate that one day we will just be gone with no genuine idea of our destination from that point. I cannot imagine what it might feel like to have to face that reality.

I have a dear friend with a life-threatening illness.  He's pretty young and has already had a close brush with death.  He has children and family that care for him very much and who, I am sure, depend on him to be there.  He has an abundance of friends who all seem to thoroughly enjoy his sense of humor, sarcasm and wit.  He has a definite presence in this world.  And the idea that he might die really scares me because a world without him will be a little less bright and a lot less interesting. I can only imagine (and not very well at that) how he must feel.  In addition to that particular stress, the illness has caused him to be unable to work and do many things he previously enjoyed.  The pressure he is under is intense.

That amount of stress and pressure can be isolating, especially if that person is someone who handles most of life's issues with introspection and self-reliance.  No one in that person's immediate circle would really understand what kind of fear, doubt, uncertainty and anger that the ill friend would experience.  Self-reliant people don't want sympathy and unless someone has been in those circumstances, empathy wouldn't apply. A lot of friends would want to be 100 percent positive and cheerful, but that too could be isolating and irritating for some people because it seems disingenuous. In situations like this, distance is created because no one is really sure how to act. The people who support a sick friend have to figure out how to do it right so that it will be meaningful, impactful, and appreciated.  It's a really hard thing to determine which line to walk or which emotions and behaviors to balance.  There is an art to being a supportive friend.  One I have yet to fully master.

I will freely admit I am not very good at it.  I want to be supportive.  I want to be helpful. I want to be positive and stoic and fearless for him. What I really want is to fix the problem and make him healthy.  In my efforts to be a good friend, I forgot that receiving support and help can be a hard thing to navigate as well and can cause undue stress on the person for whom it's intended.  I think my attentions, which were well-intentioned, created a sense of expectation for thank yous or appreciation which in turn sapped energy from my friend who needs every ounce he has for healing.

Life is a learning process.  I've never really loved someone who had a long-term illness, so figuring out how to be a good friend in this situation is new to me.  I think, after a lot of reflection, I realize that I need to pay closer attention to the details, to listen to my intuition and his words, to not overstep my bounds, and to be very clear that the sole expectation I have is to help without any strings attached. A good friend is there when needed and wanted--no more, no less.

I am pretty confident that things are going to work out well.  I am a firm believer in positive thinking and happy endings.  I am also well aware of how strong, stubborn, and determined my friend is.  The disease should be intimidated by him, not the other way around.  As long as he wants me in his life and as much as I possibly can, I will be good friend and keep learning how to be a better one.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How to be a Champion Even When You Lose

A healthy dose of competition goes a long way.  I think for many people, it works as a motivator to do one's best at whatever endeavor they engage in.  In addition, it adds an element of thrill or excitement to see who will come out on top.  It lets people dance with the fear of losing or coming in second place to push them to become more emotionally invested in what they are trying to achieve.  At it's most basic incarnation, it provides tangible proof that out of a field of rivals, one person is the best. Besides those things, winning feels good.  It's nice to be able to say, I gave it my all and I prevailed.

Unfortunately, it also has a down side.  For some people, winning can become everything.  It morphs into the sole validation for one's worth and value.   When this happens, people can become ruthless, calculating, and obnoxious.  Unless a person has a healthy relationship with and an attitude towards competition, being competitive can cause more heartbreak than satisfaction. It is essential to have the right perspective about winning, losing, and trying one's best.

It's funny how life cycles through themes, but this week's theme seems to be about competition. Through conversations with my children and friends, the topic keeps popping up in one form or another. It's made me think more about it lately than I have in a long while. Somewhere along the line, the need to win fell way back on my list of priorities. I used to be incredibly competitive about most things.  I wanted to be at the top of whatever I did. I won a lot of the time due to hard work and effort, but I lost frequently too.  I used to get so upset when I lost--tears, doubt, anger--the whole nine yards. Thankfully, as I've aged, life became much more about the journey than the destination for me and constant competitiveness fell by the wayside.

My daughter who is fifteen and has a similar competitive streak as I did at that age recently auditioned for section leader for the band.  She practiced not only her music on a daily basis, but spent hours writing and reviewing her interview questions.  She has innate talent, but more importantly, she has a solid work ethic, especially when it comes to achieving goals for herself.  Even with all her preparation and her confidence that she was going to perform at her greatest ability, she was prepared to lose gracefully.  And that makes me very proud of her.

Some people might question why I would be proud of her to be prepared to lose. There is a school of thought that believes if a person makes room for the idea of losing, they have already lost.  They believe that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. I thoroughly disagree.  I think evaluating what it might be like to win and to lose before it ever happens let's a person focus more on the experience than the objective and to frame how they will react to both outcomes.  It makes you a winner at life, not just that particular test of skill.

Since they were very young, all of  my children know that sometimes you just don't win, no matter how hard you try.  No matter how talented a person is, someone out there could be better.  The only thing to do is to give 100 percent of what they can do and wait for the results.  Win or lose, if they did their best they could be proud. I wanted them to know early on that it is the effort that matters most, not the achievement.  I want them to be champions at life, not just soccer, or band, or school work. Learning to be resilient in the face of defeat, gracious in both winning and losing, and confident in their attempts means more to me than any trophy, position, or grade.  Winning is nice, but it isn't everything.  Learning from your mistakes, acknowledging and appreciating skill or talent beyond your own, motivating yourself to work harder and smarter for the next test of skill, and being completely present in the moment no  matter how painful it might be are all much more important than winning.

As section leader next school year, I know my daughter will continue to strive for excellence because it is something she wants to do for herself and for her band family, not solely for external validation. She will still be competitive, but mostly with herself, I am sure.  Just like her Momma, she wants to be a little bit better tomorrow than she was today, and frankly that's the most productive and fruitful kind of competition of all.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Making Room

I've been thinking a lot lately about the people who populate one's life.  Some arrive on purpose and others just pop up seemingly out of nowhere.  How a person comes to you is pretty easily answered-either you made the effort to place them there or they randomly fell in through circumstance. The real question I think most people have, however, is who stays and who goes and why that is.  I like to think that we have some modicum of control over who sticks around, and oftentimes we do, but my experience seems to validate the idea that fate really plays a major role in this arena.  

A person can behave in such a way to either keep or chase off people.  He or she can be abrupt or warm, insulting or complimentary, thoroughly disengaged or actively participating in a relationship. How we behave and what we say and do has an impact on who remains and who leaves.  But then, every now and again, people disappear for no reason at all or someone who was gone returns.  It seems as if the Universe has an agenda or timeline and just does what it sees fit to do in regard to who shares your life. 

Sometimes I feel as if I can actually sense the Universe pulling people out of my life.  The past twelve months seemed like a year of goodbyes.  The harder I tried to hold onto things and people who were important to me, the more I could feel the bonds.stretch and tear.  It was an uncomfortable feeling.  Painful, even.  It left me doubting myself, wondering what was so wrong with me that people didn't want me in their lives.  And then, somewhere during those months of feeling abandoned and bereft, I realized that I didn't have to think of this cycle in my life negatively.  I likened the process to spring cleaning-getting rid of the old, worn out aspects of my life and making room for the new.  Holding onto anything or anyone that doesn't readily want to stay or that serves no meaningful purpose only makes it more difficult to jump forward into something better, healthier, and happier.

It's inexplicable, but when I transitioned to actively thinking of the goodbyes as necessary and well-intentioned, I not only felt more free and at peace, but some people came back.  People whom I thought were gone forever returned to me. When I let go and truly meant it, wishing them well, they appeared again.  Others stayed gone, and in retrospect, I see how good that was for me.  Some people are only meant to be there for a short time until the lesson is learned.  Some stay forever.  And some thought to be lost and never to return show up again as if it were meant to be. The relationships and friendships may not be the same incarnations as before, but often they are better for having had the distance and separation.  Like an artist or an author who returns to a piece after leaving it alone, you see it with new eyes and a sense of depth that did not exist before.  There can be new levels of appreciation and understanding which makes for more enriching experiences.

I've seen this phenomena in not only my life, but in others as well.  I have one friend in particular who is where I was last year, holding on and stuck in a cycle of hellos and goodbyes.  It's taking its toll and all I want to do is have her let go, to be unafraid, and to see what the Universe has in store. Like most things, it is easier said than done.  Nevertheless, I still hold hope in my heart that she reaches the spring cleaning stage in her life.  When she does, I think she will learn to not have too many expectations for who stays and who goes.  It took me awhile, but I now know that the only thing I can really do is be me and listen to my intuition. I need let go when everything is telling me that is what must happen and to be unafraid to embrace the room made for the new.  I'm looking forward to seeing what happens and how that increased room will be filled.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

You Can't Suck Forever: Getting Back Into the Writing Game

It's been more than two years since I wrote anything for this blog.  I have thought about it several times, but I each time I did, I felt as if I had nothing to contribute, nothing to say that had interest or value.  More so than anything, I think  my creative energies focused on fitting back into the working world by returning to teaching after an extended break, and figuring out how to balance home and job in the best way possible.  

I also had to find out who I was again, in the context of myself.  I had been solely Momma for six years and I needed to rediscover exactly who Melanie was.  I'm still working on it, and still surprising myself on occasion when I find a new facet of who I am.  The itch to write, however, has been resurfacing lately and getting harder and harder to ignore.  I feel rusty at it, but like I tell my students and my own children, the best solution for almost any problem is action.  You'll never know if you don't try.  So please forgive this attempt if it falls short, but getting back into the regular writing game is going to take some practice. It's kind of scary because I am used to being good at putting words together, to conveying a message.  I hate not being good at something I care about.  Nevertheless, I need to just suck it up and jump back into writing, even if  takes several attempts to get back to being coherent and well-written. As a friend of mine told me once when I was lamenting about using technology in the class room and my fear of screwing up, "You just need to go ahead and do it.  You can't suck at it forever."

I just finished my third year as a social studies teacher for a small alternative high school, and for the most part, I have enjoyed every minute of it.  In addition to teaching several different courses and sponsoring clubs and classes, I jumped into becoming a member of the teacher's union. With both endeavors, I discovered that as I have aged my voice has become clearer and stronger.  Initially I worried that my break from teaching had caused me to lose my ability to teach well, to lose my sharpness and skill. However, I was very pleasantly surprised that my confidence regarding my skills and contributions became more solidified.  I actually think I am a better teacher now than I was when I worked for 11 years straight.  Taking that time to be a stay-at-home mother, facing financial difficulties, living through some very challenging personal issues, and having time to reflect and explore what's important in this life  gave me a better perspective on all different kinds of people, especially young people.  I think I am better able to empathize with students and the issues they bring with them to school because I have faced some of those issues first-hand.  Taking that time helped to clarify a lot of my ideas about what is important in teaching, and even though I had to play a lot of catch up with pedagogy and the best practices, I am a better teacher than I was before.  I am better a person than I was before, and I am fortunate that I can bring my improved self to the class room and share it with students.

I am at a point where I feel pretty balanced and centered in my life.  I think that's why I want to write again.  I don't know if I have anything of merit to say, but that's not really the point anyway.  It's a creative outlet and I have both the desire and the room for it again.  That makes me happy.  So, I am going to pursue it.  I am going to enjoy it, work at it, and get better at it.  It feels good to be back. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Corner the Market: The Convictions of Youth

Youth has the market cornered on truth.
I have a tendency to surround myself with intelligent people.  I like their conversation and ideas, usually accompanied by sarcasm and dry wit.  People who think quickly on their feet entertain me and inspire me. I appreciate that.  I like it when people make me think. My friends come in all shapes and sizes, with varying ethnic backgrounds, ages, sexual orientations, education levels and religions, but they all have the common denominator of being deep thinkers with strong convictions.

I have one friend who likes to get into debates about anything and everything. He often plays the devil's advocate just to see how people will react.  More often, however, he likes to argue because he thinks he's right. At twenty-five years old he has all the righteous conviction of youth.  One of the more entertaining aspects of our conversations is attempting to get him to consider different perspectives.  Occasionally it can be like pulling teeth from a chicken, both frustrating and impossible.

The other day I debated with him on an issue I can't even recall.  What I do remember, however, is how adamantly he defended his position, never thinking of other possible interpretations and views.  He reminded me of me when I was twenty-five--so certain that I had the market cornered on truth, justice and morality.  My, how things have changed.

At twenty-five, I was a good daughter, a good student, a good friend, and a good wife.  I did and said all the right things for which I received praise and admiration. At forty-two, I don't classify myself by those identifiers. I don't even know if I am "good" anymore and I don't care if I receive praise. The the thing is....I am better person than I used to be, and  I like that much more than simply being good.

At this age, I am peaceful and centered.  I'm more humane and forgiving.  I'm not nearly as self-righteous, uptight or judgmental as I used to be.  Time and experience have mellowed me, have made me really think about what is important in life and who is important in life.  I believe that kindness should be a guiding compass for all behaviors.  I think that if a person moves from a place of love and pure intent, he or she can be truly happy. People can have their own joy and celebrate the joy of another without jealousy or judgment clouding it. Once I adopted those beliefs, I moved away from the superficial appearance of goodness into living goodness.

Don't get me wrong, I still have my convictions about things.  I'm not all-accepting of everything. I have non-negotiables that I've held onto regarding what I believe to be right and wrong. But like a long-simmering sauce, those convictions have been reduced, strengthened and clarified. All the other BS has floated to the surface to be skimmed off and tossed away. One of the compensations for losing the physical vitality of youth is that increasing mental, spiritual, and emotional vitality we experience as we age.

My friend has some amazing ideas and thoughts, and I'm privileged to help him explore them.  I am grateful to be his friend, just as he is right this minute. But I keep thinking, how amazing he's going to be in twenty years, when he's had time and experience to enhance and refine his thoughts and qualities. I look forward to debating him then too.  I'm sure it will be a good one.

Monday, September 8, 2014

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Forty Years Ago

I am going to turn 42 years old tomorrow.   Forty-freaking-two!  For some reason, that age is throwing me for a loop.  It's not that I am feeling particularly old physically or mentally.  I am not worn out or run down.  I'm actually better than I was a decade ago.  I should be all smiles about this age, but at best I am ambivalent. At worst, a wee bit discomfited. I think its the sound of the number itself.  It's a heavy, round number.  It's dense.  There is nothing light and airy about forty-two. It's exactly twice that of the long-awaited, much anticipated birthday of becoming 21 years old, the seminal milestone in every young person's life that marks the full entry into adulthood.  No wonder it's a weighty number. I've been an adult for twenty-one years already and that's the thought that boggles my mind. When did all that time pass without me really noticing?  When did I grow up? Have I really grown up at all?

I can remember both of my parents being forty-two, and they seemed so old to me then--so very grown up and responsible and solid.  My kids probably view me in much the same way.  But now, unlike when I was 11, I know their secret.  I know that my parents probably felt a lot like I do now. Older, but not old.  Responsible and solid in many ways, but still desiring fun and adventure and excitement. They probably wondered themselves where the time went.  Wondered how we as human beings absorb all those years and change and bend, but don't really feel those changes until some distance has been achieved, and in a lot of meaningful ways we don't change at all.  On the inside, we are still the same age.  We are still young at heart.

I know I am old when I can remember the Virginia Slims ad campaign that sold cigarettes to women in the 1970s based on the misogynist, pseudo-feminist slogan, "You've come a long way, baby."  I can't imagine that any company would be so blatantly patronizing to their customer base these days. That's something distinctly thirty years ago.  Along with my memories of getting our first microwave, not having to wear a seatbelt, riding a bike without a helmet, renting a VCR and watching a movie at home for the first time, those old cigarette ads remind me that I have definitely gotten older.  There's no denying it,  I really am going to be forty-two tomorrow, even though I don't feel like it.  I am going to be that dense, heavy number on the outside and still floating somewhere in my twenties on the inside.  I am going to be solid, responsible and grown up and still feel as if I am not grown up at all.

I wonder if I will always feel that way--not quite there yet.  I hope so.  I don't ever want to feel completely grown, no matter how many years I rack up.  Like the old campaign, I've come a long way baby.....but I still have a lot more to go yet.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Fresh Starts and Broken Hearts

When people think of the phrase "fresh start" it conjures positive images.  I always think of new life, grass and flowers, springtime, and infinite sunshine.  Most fresh starts, however, do not begin in fertile soil already tilled to perfection.  They originate in the hardscrabble, rocky dirt of brokenness and neglect.  Fresh starts begin in desolate, bereft fields full of potential but not much else. They are fields that require intense hard work to make them ready for new growth.

This morning my friend told me that without the knowledge of the opposite thing, a person never really knows the truth of the original object.  Fresh starts are born of this knowledge, this slide along the spectrum of emotion.  They come from having known both happiness and sadness, right and wrong, light and dark.  The desire to move back into the lighter aspect of the spectrum from the darker end creates the catalyst for positive change.  It is what motivates a person to begin the painstaking work of digging out the rocks and weeds in one's life to prepare a field for newness and growth.

I never regret feeling badly about things that go awry, people that disappoint me, or failing myself through my own behaviors.  Being upset, hurt, or angry allow me to understand myself better, to have a deeper knowledge of the truth of the entire emotional spectrum, to acknowledge that for which I am grateful just as much as being happy, joyful, or peaceful do. Life is a series of fresh starts.  It is, by turns, fields in their full glory of blooming health and barren scraps of dirt and desolation. You can't have one thing without the other, and I want it all.