Still Sad After All These Years

I found myself weeping unexpectedly this morning.  People gave money when Tom died to fund a scholarship for a graduating senior at his high school alma mater. This year’s recipient sent me a lovely thank you note and I felt compelled to write back, proving once and for all that I am the daughter of Irene Robertson who was once accused of writing thank you notes for thank you notes!

I always feel vulnerable this time of year as it was right about now in 2014 when we got Tom’s diagnosis. He stayed positive throughout, but I was steeled for certain defeat from the get-go and watching chemo sap his strength and joy did not help a bit. Early June is such a beautiful time here, iris and peonies in full splendor and the temperatures usually perfect, but I still remember walking around in a fog for weeks. How could my strong, handsome, brand-new husband have cancer that was “treatable, but not curable”? It seemed like a bad joke and in some ways still does. Wait 55 years to find true love and have it snatched out of your tight grasp while still a honeymooner.

I wrote to the scholarship girl about Tom. I told her he would be pleased to be helping someone headed for a career in Interior Design as he had the soul of an artist. I told her a few stories about him and the beautiful house in Davisburg that he designed and built with his own hands, the watercolors he painted, the exquisite boats and guitars he made. I told her he could fix anything and shared the story of  our trip to France where he immediately endeared himself to the large family group we were staying with by fixing the broken dishwasher. Didn’t matter one whit that he couldn’t speak a word of French. They loved him anyway, as pretty much everyone did.

Just last week my niece told me some great stories about her boys, both of whom loved Tom dearly. She found her son singing away on head phones to the song “My Old Man”. He asked her if she could guess who it reminded him of and she said “Your dad?” but he said it was actually Tom. He has also stopped playing tag because Tom once played it with him and now it makes him sad. The amazing thing is that these boys were tiny when they knew Tom. The fact that they remember him at all is miraculous and that they remember him so fondly is a thing of beauty and makes me feel so much less alone in my grief, which has more staying power than I ever would’ve guessed.

So, when exactly do you stop loving someone you have lost? The answer, of course, is never. Love has no beginning, it has no end. I’m sure that’s a song lyric, but it’s true. I will love him until our souls do their happy dance in heaven and will then love him all the way through eternity, whether that means coming back to earth as a bird or a cow or an Oak tree or if it means floating somewhere like a wisp of cotton. I don’t care, just as long as we are reunited in one way or another. Because this love we had, this great big huge, breath-catching, life-giving love is not over. Not by a long shot.

It felt ok to cry while I wrote about him. It is very sad that he isn’t here anymore. Not just for me. For his friends and his family and Alyssa and my niece and her husband and boys. For the neighborhood boy he wanted to help make guitars. For his best friend who could talk to him about anything. For the family he lived next to briefly and impacted forever.  Every life he touched he made better. His core of calm and kindness just made you want to be and stay in his presence. I knew it when he was here, but I know it more now.

I miss you sweetheart.  Alyssa’s playing your guitar and singing Cat Stevens while I type this.  Just another way your love lives on in our lives. Keep spreading love up there. Or maybe that’s all there is up there? Just love. Endless fields of love. I hope so.

Advertisements

Behind the Wheel

I live in Michigan and we have something unique besides a mitten shape. We have the Michigan Merge. I thought everyone had this until I read an article by someone who moved here from elsewhere. It turns out in other states (and possibly the rest of the civilized world) people approach merging far differently than Michiganders. In other places folks use all the lanes provided right up until the point where one is being eliminated and then they take turns merging into the remaining lanes. What a concept! Everybody just keeps driving as they normally would until they need to do something different.

In Michigan we are both paranoid and overly compliant. The very SECOND we see a sign that our lane will be disappearing at some point waaaaay down the road, we honor the contract we signed at birth (or whenever we moved here) to IMMEDIATELY move over. Never mind that this causes a huge slowdown in the flow of traffic and leaves perfectly good pavement empty for miles.  We are worried that failure to move now will result in being stranded at the point of the actual merge. We have been taught that merging at the merge point is rude and that others will resent us for it and will drive bumper to bumper in order to prevent us from entering their lane. And, in fact, anyone who dares to ignore this sacred custom may be subjected to harsh treatment including horn blowing, third finger raising and in some cases a particularly aggressive form of shaming where a car that has already pulled over comes back out just far enough to keep custom-breakers from using the perfectly good lane.

I have tried to discuss this insanity with otherwise intelligent and reasonable people who will not budge. When I admit that I always drive in the soon-to-be-eliminated lane right up to the merge point, there is a collective groan and the occasional hiss and boo as they shout “I HATE those people!” The collective wisdom seems to be that I think I am better than everyone else, special, not required to follow the rules. But there are no actual rules in effect here except to get over before the lane goes away. I have received my fair share of tickets over the years, but have never once gotten one for “failure to merge three miles early”!

This leads to the broader topic of Road Rage. Having driven on the unbelievably congested 6 lane freeways in southern California I can certainly appreciate how people would lose their minds and start acting out all over the place.  The relentless sunshine alone might put me over the edge. I get it. But here in sleepy, gray little Michigan my biggest commute is about 5 minutes, so on the rare occasion when I am out in rush hour traffic it is a shock. I had to go to the dentist at 8 a.m. this morning and truly feared for my life. People drove 85 miles per hour in almost bumper-to-bumper conditions. Once when I tried to create a little breathing room between my car and the one in front of me, some guy came barreling up on the left and swerved into my lane nearly taking off my front bumper. I honked at him briefly and he gave me what looked like a well-rehearsed finger salute, first with his right hand in his rear view mirror and then with his left out the driver side window. WOW. Equally troubling was my powerful urge to skip the dentist and follow this jerk to work to give him a piece of my mind or maybe shame him in front of colleagues or customers.

My daughter was driving to a certain large university (the identity must be kept secret for fear that certain relatives might become overly excited and start sending her T-shirts and cup holders) on a look-see trip and was cut off in this fashion twice. She had thankfully taken my nimble small car with great brakes as she is convinced she might be dead if she’d been in her slow old Chevy.  I recently watched a guy in a fast car weave in and out of very heavy, fast-moving traffic causing nearly every driver he cut off to have to brake. This crazy behavior is what gets people killed as happened last week when I-75 was completely shut down due to a double fatality case of road rage.

The answer here, of course, comes straight from Buddhism. Detach. Get in your car with nothing invested in the trip save your safe arrival. Let the anger, frustration, speed and bad behavior of your fellow drivers stay right where it belongs–with them. Breathe and keep your eyes on the road and your mind on something pleasant–like living long enough to eat dinner with your family that night. And remember that whatever is making these drivers so bat-shit crazy has NOTHING to do with you so don’t take anything they do personally. They are either having a bad day, week, (life?) or trying to punish everyone else for the troubling fact that some people refuse to observe the Michigan Merge.

Love Over 50

I just had lunch with a woman I like very much. I see far too little of her and always look forward to our infrequent meetings. I told her that I was watching her carefully for clues on how to make love (and life) work after 50.  The last I knew she had survived the end of one senior relationship and moved into another with a guy who came highly recommended by mutual friends, was just retiring from a good job, had kids and grandkids, was physically active and nice-looking and seemed to want to make a life with her.

When I told her she was my role model she rolled her eyes. She told me she had been with this great-seeming guy for three years and had sold her house in anticipation of moving in with him. As the date approached for that, he got cold feet and told her he needed more time and just wasn’t ready. My reaction would’ve been to scream a lot of hateful things and dump him, but she marched off and rented a place of her own and hung in there, thinking he was worth the trouble. As it turns out he was addicted to watching porn, which as she pointed out to me, would be a little awkward with your partner sitting next to you on the couch. Oy! She said they had been to couples therapy but he did not seem to be able to give it up.

This woman is beautiful, smart, funny and kind. She has already been through more bad life events than any one person deserves. She is resilient beyond all reason and as we kept talking it was clear that she had STILL not given up on love and she admitted she would likely start looking again as soon as she and porn guy finally moved irrevocably into the “just friends” category. She expressed relief at having not gone in with him on a vacation condo.

Although this is an extreme case, I have several other friends who have struggled to make romantic relationships work later in life. It makes me wonder if it is even possible. I understand that one of my very favorite writers, Anne Lamott, has found happiness in a relationship after decades on her own. I intend to investigate further to see how she’s done it. The truth is that we all have a TON of history at this stage of life and all those experiences and memories and times we were hurt/burned/disappointed rear their ugly little heads and swim to the surface when our new partner leaves a dish in the sink or a sock on the floor or speaks in a snarky tone or forgets to call for a couple days.

My poor sweetheart can barely make a move without reminding me of someone or something. I finally realized: I am 62 years old and have been married THREE times! It stands to reason that the poor guy is going to exhibit some characteristics of one of those men from my past every now and then. The trick is not to get triggered but instead to stay focused on all the traits that are uniquely his and make my heart sing. But even so, blending well-established lives is just plain hard work.

I know plenty of people my age, especially women, who have no interest in pairing up. They lead busy happy lives filled with work or fulfilling volunteer commitments, time with grandchildren, travel with friends, golf or tennis leagues and other hobbies like painting or writing, bridge or mah jong. They don’t want anybody in their space and certainly don’t want to be asked “What’s for dinner?”  They may occasionally wish they had someone to hold hands with on a walk or at the movies or someone to escort them to weddings but those infrequent longings are not strong enough to make them seek a relationship.

And many older folks who are in good relationships choose not to marry or even co-habitate. As one friend said when I told her I was getting serious with John, “Nobody needs to move in with anybody!” She is a very cool person with a full life and a stable long term relationship with a man she does not live with. The economics alone make that hard for me to get my head around. Two mortgages or tax bills not to mention water and heat and electricity, just so you can each have your “own space”?

I am just old-fashioned enough to believe in marriage. I like the idea of saying “husband” or “wife”. It sounds committed and permanent. But it is also true that many relationships seem to be very happy right up until the point people say “I do.” I am certainly not privy to any Brangelina relationship details, but it did all crumble pretty soon after the wedding, right? I love the Joni Mitchell line from “My Old Man” that goes “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true”. But there are practical considerations like having the right to make decisions if somebody is hospitalized and …..ok I can’t think of any other reasons to get married right now, but it still seems like the right idea!

I think mostly I want to believe that something can still be permanent in a world where people don’t even RSVP to invitations for fear they may change their mind and not feel like going after all. We seem poised to forever be looking over the shoulder of the one we’re with to see if something shinier is there for the taking. We are terrified of settling. We are convinced we need to keep our options open. I don’t care. I know better than most that marriage is not necessarily forever. In fact, it is usually NOT forever. But I like the hope contained in the DESIRE to make a lasting commitment. I think it is like yoga class where they ask you to set an intention for your practice. You might not keep it, but at least you spent a moment focused on what you really want. Saying you want to spend the rest of your life as the committed partner of the person you love is a big step. I like grand gestures. They are hard and I have always liked doing hard things. Anybody can do easy things. Why not take a chance? As a man I was once married to  said (like THAT narrows it down!!) “This is your life! There are no dress rehearsals.”

So, love after 50. Pro or con? Discuss with a bend towards hope. Because what else is there?

 

On Writing

I just don’t feel like writing anymore. That, says my friend and writing buddy Elissa, is PRECISELY why I need to start writing. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t need to be profound. It just needs to be.

I know she is right, damn her. I knew the second I read the quote “I write to figure out what I think” that whoever said it was talking about me. I still have just as many free-floating thoughts and feelings as I ever did, but they don’t knock me quite as flat as they did in those paralyzing days right after Tom died. All great growth seems to come out of deep pain and I’m not there anymore.

But maybe that’s the point. Not how to live life at the margins, gulping in the high highs and finding a way to survive the gut punch low-lows, but how to live in the smack dab middle, how to slog on and on through the normal up and down and all around days and nights, weeks and months. How to show up for all that living and pay enough attention to have a word or two to say about the experience.

So that’s my goal. Make time to write. Look under the pile of mail and find my voice again. Or just put some words on the page in the hopes that they might have babies and grandbabies. And that someplace along the line there will be something good, something that brings insight or comfort or a laugh.

Here I go……again.

Becoming One

My sweetheart speaks often of “being one” or “becoming one” and I don’t really get it. I love him, I want to make a life with him, I am happy when we are together and I think about him and us all the time. But I am my own fiercely independent person with 6 decades and three marriages already under my belt. My individual identity has been hard won and I treasure it. The whole “becomingone” thing strikes me as the stuff of Hallmark Valentines—-hokey, cheesy, impossible and undesirable.

But he is away right now, trying a month in Florida as a baby step to transitioning out of his job and into a life that includes being warm in the winter. And during his absence we have talked more rather than less. I am not a phone person, but when the man you love is hundreds of miles away you gotta suck it up and stay in touch. He has a wonderful voice, a rich warm baritone that I am always happy to have in my ear. And sharing the minutiae of our lives in daily phone calls has brought us closer. It makes me realize how important that is in a relationship and how much I have missed it.

My first husband was a sharer and we were young together, building our lives and careers. We talked a lot and helped each other with career advice and suggestions. But there were deeper things that went unsaid; the fact that I didn’t really love him, should not have married him and that he was trying to fill the gaping love hole left by his abusive father and disconnected wife in the arms of a string of other women.

My second husband preferred me silent or in another room, or city or state. We liked each other best when he was traveling. We talked in the early days when figuring out where the land mines lay in each of our histories, but there was never anything approaching emotional intimacy.

Tom was a calm and quiet man who thought and processed for a long time before coming to dead-on conclusions. He would listen to me chatter endlessly and then say exactly what I needed to hear to feel better or take the right action. We shared everything in our lives, daily travails and triumphs, plans and hopes for the future, spontaneous desires to go here or do that. So I was brought up short by how little he wanted to speak of the biggest life event of all—dying. I badly wanted to get inside his head and assess how he was processing all of it—the shocking diagnosis, the treatment plan, the failure of same, the inevitability of an abbreviated life span. But he went silent. We faced each day, each chemo appointment, with resignation if not good humor. When told his best outcome would be 2-3 years, he dismissed that as not enough and said he would settle for 10, feeling he was being pretty reasonable to accept even that much being shaved off our years together. He seemed so sure and looked so strong that I bought into the plan and we just shelved the whole topic of dying.

I look at pictures from our last Christmas together and cannot believe I did not take in the strange cast to his skin, the look of weary knowing in his eyes, the clear signs that he was leaving me very soon. We were both determined to make our planned New Year’s trip to New York to see the country house of dear friends. Right up until a day or two before, we kept thinking we could do it. Finally his pain became so great that he said he could not sit in a car that long, that if it was a shorter trip he would make it for sure. As it turns out we went to the ER on New Year’s Day when he could no longer tolerate the pain. He stayed there for two weeks, we had one more trip to the oncologist to start yet another chemo cocktail, but she said he was too weak and sent us home to call hospice, assuring us that some people get stronger in hospice care and can start chemo again. You know you are at the end of the road when the brightest picture of the future is a chance for more horrible chemo. He died Feb. 13.

Our time together was mostly so sweet and good that I try very hard not to live on Regrets Street. But I never imagined that he would slip away into the ether without one final big talk. THE talk. The “I know you are going to be fine, sweetheart. My mom will be waiting for you as will lots of others who love you and you can join the Carpenters Club headed by one Jesus H. Christ who is sure to make you Vice President. And Alyssa and I will miss you terribly, but we will be ok. We will go on living and loving in your memory. We will hike and bike and kayak because you can’t and we will think of you and love you every single time.” And his lines would be “I know it must be wonderful where I’m going and I’m not afraid. I am so very sad to leave you, but you are strong and that lets me know you will be ok so I can leave with no worries.” And we would agree that we had been the love of each other’s lives and that we were so immeasurably grateful to God for bringing us together while also pissed at him for giving us such a short, delicious taste of human love at its finest. We would reminisce about the special times and trips and family events we’d shared and maybe linger over pictures on our phones. He would slip away on a cloud of morphine and I would hold his hand and be the last thing he saw on Earth.

But none of that happened. He went quiet months before he died and when I would gently ask if he wanted to talk he would not really even answer. He had already left me. He was doing the work of the terminally ill to separate. Also, he was afraid and determined to cling to life instead of going gently. This surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Even before he got sick he had said “I believe we make our heaven right here on earth, by treating others well every day.” That is how he lived. How many of us can say that? No wonder he didn’t want to go.

So, with Tom I had true intimacy. He knew me to the core and loved me anyway. He accepted me exactly as I was so it was safe to show him all the warts and watch him turn them into beauty marks. I gave him all the love I had, but it was probably not as much as I received. I think he just had a bigger tank. But he taught me how to love, what it meant to open yourself completely to another human being and see only love reflected back.

John says no one has ever looked at him the way I do. I believe him. No one had ever looked at me the way Tom did—with pure love, acceptance and understanding. That is a gift I can pay forward. John deserves to be loved like that. We ALL deserve to be loved like that and now that I know how, now that my tank has been filled and refilled and topped off endlessly by my sweet departed husband, I think my mission, for however many years I might be granted on this planet, is to spread it like a blanket. OR, as Tom’s brother said at his funeral, like mulch. He encouraged all who had known Tom and basked in his love and goodness to go out and spread it like mulch. (Once a nursery owner, always a nursery owner.)

Meeting John does not feel accidental. It feels purposeful. He too has a huge love tank, but has been running on fumes for a very long time. He is so unaccustomed to having someone truly care that when I asked him how his round of golf went it took me several tries to tease out that he shot a dazzling 77. If I had shot 77 I would have posted a picture of the score card on Facebook! That’s what Facebook is FOR—unabashed bragging. But he is not a social media participant and was raised never to brag. I like being the one who gets to show him that when you share your triumphs with someone who loves you and cares about your daily interactions with the world it isn’t bragging. And as he does more of this sharing so do I and the tight little buds we are start to open into flowers and our bond grows deeper. This is all quite beautiful and breathtaking to discover anew in one’s 7th decade. I guess we just are never really done growing up. It seems there is always something new to explore or deepen or understand more fully.

I don’t really have the intention to merge my identity with his or to truly “become one.” I’ll be satisfied with becoming two who love and care for each other to our very cores. But I do like the idea that we are never done learning how to love and that as each layer is exposed and peeled back there is something even more precious underneath. What a privilege to witness another’s life and try to create a safe space for them to become their own true and best self. Even in the midst of dirty laundry and back aches and tax returns and the train wreck that is our government, this is something wonderful to hold fast to and celebrate.

A Walk in the Woods

We spent a lovely, peaceful New Year’s at the cottage in the Leelanau peninsula, for my money one of the prettiest places on earth. Alyssa and I had arrived first and taken a hike of the Leelanau Conservancy Clay Cliffs trail. It was slippery in places, but the walk through the meadow and the view of Lake Michigan from the cliffs were spectacular. Tom and I had made the same trek when the trail first opened and had little or no signage. We somehow completely missed the viewing platform at the actual cliffs and laughed like crazy later thinking we had been so dense. We went back another time and basked in the view.

He and I had also long ago taken another Conservancy trail, Houdek Dunes, that I remembered as kind of nothing burger, but the book I just bought about hikes along M-22 said some nice things so I was determined to give it another chance. I knew it did not go to the lake, but the book spoke of nice elevated views and lovely birches and pines. I extracted commitments from Alyssa and my sister to make the trek with me, but on the day after New Year’s when the sun was out, John had headed home and Franny was still sleeping, the group enthusiasm waned. I was not in my usual uber bossy/guilt-inducing mood so I decided to set out alone. I took my phone and two old walking sticks we’ve had in a closet forever but hardly used.

There were no other cars in the parking lot which gave me a moment’s pause, but I remembered that I had my phone and could always call if disaster befell me. I was properly bundled, had on the Sorrel boots that Tom had bought me and I was determined to do the entire 2.9 miles if things went well.

The trail was as advertised, peaceful with lovely trees and a path that was navigable despite lots of ups and downs. It was only icy in a few spots. I walked carefully and was glad to have my walking sticks for support on a few descents, but in general the trek was uneventful. The sun was out for quite a while and I finally had to unzip my coat as my layers were doing too good a job of holding heat in. There were several crossover points where I could’ve shortened the route and I was tempted at the last one as the sign warned that the loop ahead was “difficult”, but the stubborn Scot in me said “In for a penny, in for a pound” so on I went. It was a little longer and more arduous than I had expected, but by the end I was very glad I had seen it through.

The entire time I walked I never felt alone. There was not another soul on the path, but I had the strangest sense that Tom was right beside me. I took the opportunity to talk to him a little. To remind him how much I loved him. To thank him for introducing me to hiking and a love of the outdoors in all seasons. I’m sure he already knew I would never ever have made such a hike before I met him, but I reminded him of that also and thanked him for the sunshine, which he was famous for carrying with him like a pocket knife.

I also talked to him a little about John. I already know he would not want me to be alone and that he would recognize the good heart that John possesses and be glad of the kindness and love he shows me. Still, it is a little strange to continue to love someone so powerfully, to long for their daily presence while simultaneously forging a loving relationship with someone new. I know there is nothing unusual about this and that people who lose loved ones do it all the time—or don’t, choosing instead to live alone with the happy memories of life with their beloved. I thought I might do that, but it’s just not who I am. For better or worse (and I have definitely experienced worse) I believe I am built to pair up. I am happier being part of a couple. I like having a significant other. I like knowing someone has my back and that I have his. I like sharing experiences of all ilks and building a memory bank together.

I do wonder a bit about the whole heaven thing. I am a believer. I visited a psychic who trotted out a number of my dead relatives and said things to me on their behalf that she could not possibly have known. So I believe they are all “up there” someplace waiting for me. John is older than I am and the chances are he will get to heaven first. I have always believed Tom would be waiting for me. I am a little worried about who I will sit by! But then I keep remembering the book I read by a very learned woman who had a near-death experience and said all the questions you have, all the stuff you are so worried about finding out about just fades away. Either the answers become immediately obvious or the questions themselves become needless in the presence of all that love. I can’t really wrap my brain around that, but it sounds incredibly cool. I’m sure not in any hurry to leave this beautiful (albeit a little fucked up right now) planet and all the people here I love, but I like knowing that there is NOTHING to fear about the next chapter and I will look forward to swimming in that sea of love with all my loved ones and yours and everybody else’s. I hope it is Tommy who’s assigned the job of greeting me at the end of the white light. I’ve missed him so.

Precepts of Right Speech

 

In this season of careless, mean and harmful speech, I have been thinking a lot about words. I have been accused at various times in my life of having a sharp tongue, of not thinking before I speak, of being an occasional blurter. I have watched the faces of loved ones crumple when my words were unintentionally cutting and I have had my children complain about the harshness of my tone. During the 5 day silent retreat I attended in June, I laughed when we broke silence for a small group session and people seemed to be telling our teacher why they had come. I wasn’t sure what I would say until my turn came and then surprised myself by saying I was there to work on practicing mindful speech, which, I quickly added was pretty funny considering it was a SILENT retreat. But tears sprang to my eyes as I realized how little care I had often taken with my words and the powerful impact that our speech can have on others.

I should know better because I have suffered on the receiving end. Ken referred to my extremely poor housekeeping as “a Mary mess” but then began to use that phrase to describe anything that might go wrong with or around me. “Ah, yes another Mary mess”. These words not only stung but started to be internalized. If someone says you are something often enough it will start to seep its way into your self image. There are many stories of super models being called ugly as children, (too tall, too skinny, to unusual of features) and taking years to erase that thought from their own minds, if they ever could.

My minister interrupted the long-planned stewardship service yesterday with his take on a deeply troubling post-election incident of bullying at a local middle school. A group of 7th graders surrounded a table of Hispanic kids in the school cafeteria and began chanting “Build the Wall!” while their victims wept. As Peter pointed out, we can tell ourselves that 7th graders are wired for cruelty and not be overly alarmed, but we know better. We know the atmosphere of hate, of divisiveness that has been fostered during this election. We remember word for word the reckless, impulsive and deeply damaging speech and actions of the person the electoral college will likely choose to be the President of what is still one of the greatest nations in the world—a land of freedom and opportunity. A land where it is legal to say almost anything except “Fire!” in a crowded theater if there is none. We treasure this freedom above all others for we have witnessed the very many societies where it does not exist. But it comes with a price.

The first of The Four Agreements in the brilliant book of the same name by the Toltec philosopher Don Miguel Ruiz is  “Be Impeccable with your word”. I originally interpreted this as never tell a lie and was squirming thinking of a few white ones I had told along the way, the omissions here and there, the tax returns that might contain a few inaccuracies. But that is not really what he meant. The message is to take great care with the words you choose to utter for they are powerful and can work for both good and evil. He is advocating for words chosen to uplift, to support, to comfort and to encourage both ourselves and others. He is asking that we use our words to spread love.

That is so very much harder than it seems. Many of us believe that the truth is all that is required for right speech. The truth is its own defense. If it is uncomfortable for someone to hear it—oh well, it still needs to be said because it is TRUE. This topic always reminds me of the scene in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Canada that my dad had booked for a family reunion. All family members were on their own to arrange transportation to the fairly remote site, but once there my dad was generously footing the bill for his kids and their spouses and kids. It was no small expense for a retired minister and an act of great kindness and generosity. Ken and I had experienced a number of inconveniences along our very long route and when we finally arrived in the lobby and were greeted by my very excited dad who said “How was your trip?”,  Ken replied “Perfectly dreadful.” This was true, I suppose, but in my opinion was absolutely unnecessary to share. A small white lie response of “Fine” or even” A little long, but we’re so happy to be here” would’ve been a far better choice in my opinion. Why make your host feel bad about something that is over and out of his control? There is no defense for such a response except truth and I don’t think that’s enough.

So what is right speech, anyway? Well, according to a yoga teacher of long ago, it is something that passes a three point check list, with two out of three affirmative answers required to justify speaking up:

Is it true?

Is it kind?

Is it necessary?

If you think about applying this in daily life it makes some real sense. Maybe you are already careful and measured with your speech. If so, I truly envy you. But if you are not, this formula may prove to be helpful. Think of all the times you have had to say something hard. Your roommate is a slob and you are on the verge of moving out. Should you confront her? Is it true-yes. Is it kind-no. Is it necessary—absolutely as she will soon be paying rent alone. Maybe a friend drinks too much and is worrying all her friends. True?-check. Kind?-maybe not. Necessary-for her health and well-being-yes. Maybe the person you love is leaving the house in an outfit you don’t like. They ask does this look ok? Saying no may be true, but it is not kind (unless they might actually embarrass themselves in something scary) and not necessary. There are better examples that escape me right now, but you get the idea.

The point is really just that we must take more care with what comes out of our mouths. People are listening. People who can be hurt by our words. People who may quote us in ways we never anticipated. I am pretty sure even crazy, orange Donald would not want his ridiculous, shoot-from-the-hip “We’ll build a wall” comment to be chanted by 7th graders to torture classmates. At least I hope not. At least I PRAY not.

Our speech has the power to destroy, but also to uplift. How many times have Americans listened to their eloquent leaders (or at least the powerfully delivered words of gifted speech writers) and found comfort and inspiration? FDR’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and other fireside chats got an entire nation through the ravages of depression and world war. Or JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” which motivated a whole generation to take on public service.

Words can prompt action, give solace, change hearts and minds. They move us for good and evil. They help us figure out who we are and when we lack our own we can borrow those used by others. Let’s commit to making our words work to build people up, to encourage them, to make them feel good about themselves and spur them on to even greater goodness and accomplishment. So when I make a small step toward a cleaner house I hope people in my world will say “Looks great! Good for you. Can I help you keep it that way?” Instead of “Hmmm. We’ll see if it lasts.” When a student makes a step toward better grades or study habits, may we respond with “That’s wonderful! How did you do it? Can I help you keep going? I believe in you”. And when a political opponent extends an olive branch and says, “I honestly think we want at least some of the same things” try listening hard, looking for the thin spit of common ground and see if you can dredge up even more land you can both stand on. It seems the only way.

I would like to make those Active Listening exercises they make you do in relationship counseling mandatory right now. The super slow-moving, often tedious kind where you listen very hard to the other person list their grievances and then parrot back to them what you heard with “I think I heard you say that….” And then they can correct anything you didn’t hear correctly with “No what I actually said was….” I HATED this shit. It took FOREVER to cover one single topic, but when it was my turn to talk and be truly listened to, it was a powerful experience. It is really something when someone invests the time to hear you and try to understand and fully take in not just your words, but the feelings and emotions behind them. It can bring genuine healing, but it is very hard work.

I wish for all of us in the months ahead, the fortitude to have those kinds of conversations. To move past the blather and rhetoric and flat-out hate speech to try to really utter our truth as we know it and allow people we disagree with, are appalled by, are shocked to know even exist in numbers that make them nearly our statistical equals, to do the same. If you’re blue, ask a red person to lunch and vice versa. No way out except through and that means dialogue. Lots and lots of exhausting dialogue. Take your vitamins!