The Ineffability of a Hug

BEHIND THE SCENES:

SETTING: This morning, 6:30. Jan is sitting at her computer. Steve walks in with a cup of coffee.

STEVE: Are you going to walk this morning?

JAN: No, I’m going to work on a blog.

STEVE (Happy to know she’s writing): What are you going to write about?

JAN: “The Ineffability of a Hug.”

STEVE: Ohhh…what are you going to say?

JAN (after a slight pause): I don’t want to talk about it, because I’ll cry. That’s why I just want to get it all written in words.

STEVE (walks out of the room, sipping his coffee): Okay.

 

I wrote that little scene to “show” the emotions behind my thoughts on hugs. Because to put it into words will be difficult–ineffable.

This past weekend, Tommy and Allie stayed with Steve and me while Adam and Emily went to Cleveland to look for a house. As you might imagine, the weekend was filled with joy, sadness, a few meltdowns (admittedly by each and every one of us at one point or another) and lots of memories.

But, I managed to hold back the tears through most of it, torn between whether it’s a good thing to let Tommy and Allie know how much I’ll miss them, or whether it would scare them to see Grandma cry.

The only time my eyes burned so hot, my lump in my throat got so big and my eyes went from watering to brimming and overflowing were those times that Allie crawled into my lap, often saying, “I love you, Grandma.”

Just typing the words brings tears back to my eyes.

As I felt her head pressed against my chest, as I buried my nose in the scent of her hair, as I felt the weight of her little body pressed against mine, a flood of thoughts and memories filled me up and carried me away to the past and future.

When my children were small, and especially if I was experiencing some sort of challenge, like a day full of tantrums, or a night full of wakings, I remember holding them and rocking them, their heads pressed against my chest. I wondered if they could hear my heartbeat, and if it might comfort them.

But most of all, I remember telling myself it would all be over too quickly, and that even though I was tired and even though their crying might have interrupted sleep and I had to be up for work early in the morning, someday I would miss those hugs.

I imagined myself into the future, at a time when I truly did miss their childhood and their hugs. From that future, I imagined transporting myself back in time so that I could be with them as children again, feeling their little bodies, their unconditional love, smelling the scent of them, and listening to the sound of their breaths become rhythmic as they fell asleep.

So, as I hug any of my four grandchildren now, I’m back to the far, far future. Farther than I’d ever imagined as I used to hug my little kids.

Now, the brevity of childhood is no longer in my imagination. I know it all too well, which makes the hugs even more precious and dear.

Last night, I had a dream. It started out with a large group of people sitting on either side of long tables. We were to choose to sit across from a person whose story we wanted to know.

I suspect the dream had to do with the loss I’ve felt about the isolation of this pandemic–that it’s been so long since I’ve been able to sit across the table from someone and just talk.

As I sat, I began to talk to someone about sailing to Tortola. I was excited about the conversation, because I’ve been to Tortola twice, and I knew we’d have adventures to share.

But then, Allie came up to me and asked to sit in my lap. She crawled up and I wrapped my arms around her. As I felt her body drift to sleep, the conversations around me softened and the people began to blur, until all that was left to the dream was the hug.

Ineffable.

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The “Both/And” of Saying Goodbye

“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”   ~ Kahlil Gibran

A few weeks ago, on the last day of a memory-filled vacation to Florida, we learned that my son, Adam, got a double promotion.

Cheers!

Of course, that meant that he, his wife, Emily, and two of our grandchildren, Tommy (6) and Allie (4) would be moving to Cleveland, Ohio. (Daughter, Andrea, her husband James and my two other grandchildren, Jack (2) and Harry (3 mos.) already live far, far away in Arlington, VA.)

Tears!

Since then, as Adam and Emily excitedly show us houses in Cleveland (both for themselves and for us–should we make the decision to move to Cleveland–hint, hint!) I’ve struggled to hold back tears at the thought that within weeks, they will be gone from our day-to-day lives. A few times, I’ve left the room, because I don’t want either Adam or Emily, and especially the kids, to see me cry.

After all, I’m HAPPY for them, right?

But, at least in the solitude brought by this cursed pandemic, I don’t have to hide my tears.

So, I’ve been having an internal battle. As soon as I feel my throat tighten and my eyes burn with tears, the “Inner Mom” in me begins to chastise the “Inner Grandma” in me for feeling sorry for myself.

Inner Grandma:  What am I going to do without any grandkids living nearby?

Inner Mom:  Stop it! You should feel proud of Adam. You raised both of your kids to do their best, to pursue success and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Inner Grandma: But I’m going to miss our weekly dinners, seeing Tommy’s and Allie’s smiling faces at the door, hearing, “Hi, Grandma,” or “I love you, Grandma.”

Inner Mom: Stop it. They have every right to pursue their dreams, even if that takes them away.

Inner Grandma: And what about Grandparents’ Day and Christmas programs at school? No more Halloweens, or walks to the park. No birthday parties. No sleepovers.

Inner Mom: Oh, I give up. Go to your room.

Inner Grandma: That’s what I was going to do anyway. At least I can cry in peace there.

Don’t let my attempt at humor fool you. The “Inner Mom” in me, the one who tells me I don’t have the right to feel sad, or that I’m being selfish for wanting both of my kids and all four of my grandkids nearby FOREVER, at least gave me reason to procrastinate writing this blog long enough to save my readers from “Inner Grandma’s” mournful, blubbering sadness.

But trust me, it’s there.

Still, I find some relief in the passage of time, in long conversations with Steve about both what we’ll miss and what we have to look forward to, like trips to visit both Andrea and her family and Adam and his family, since they’ll now only be five hours from each other. That’s one thing I’m grateful for–that my kids will live close enough to each other that their kids will get to know each other better as cousins.

And, of course we think about the possibility of moving closer to either Andrea or Adam, or possibly to Pittsburgh, PA, which would only be 2 1/2 hours from each of them–a very easy weekend trip. I almost have to laugh at the thought of us living in Pittsburgh, or even Cleveland, OH or Arlington, VA. How many years in my early adulthood did I dream of moving back to California while living in Tulsa, OK? Who would have ever thought that one day I might be living in Pittsburgh?

In thinking back to those many, many years I dreamed of moving back to California from Tulsa, it occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought–taking my kids so far away from my mom, their grandma–who loved them every bit as much as I love my grandkids. It’s only in seeing it from a grandma’s point-of-view that I understand how sad it would have been for my own mother. Yet, at the time, that’s not what I thought about. So, this helps me to see the move from Adam’s point-of-view. He’s doing what he believes is best for him and his family. Period. (Still, I know by the Zillow pages they send us of houses we could buy, they’ll miss us, too.)

But, the point of this blog post–besides exposing feeling sorry for myself–is the revelation that this, too–as with so much of life–is “both/and” and not “either/or.”

I can feel BOTH happy for Adam’s success AND sad teary-eyed devastated for our loss. I can miss the past AND look forward to the future.

And I can be so very grateful for the six years we were blessed to spend living 10 minutes away and so very sad that that time is coming to and end.

 

 

 

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Farewell to the Grumpy Cat Who Loved the Best She Could

Malika, 2010-2020

Yesterday evening, as I began to prepare dinner, I heard Steve call, “Jan,” kind of soft, kind of panicked. In that one short word, I knew something was wrong.

I hurried from the kitchen toward his voice in the hallway, where he held Malika. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“She can’t move her back legs.”

“What?” I thought, initially thinking, How can that be? “What do you mean she’s not moving her back legs?”

“She can’t move them. I just found her dragging herself across the room.” He put her down gently as she whined.

Our minds filled with all kinds of questions.

What could have happened? She was okay just an hour ago.

Did she fall from something? Break her back?

Did she have a stroke?

Did she jump from something and injure herself?

We only knew it was serious, so Steve called our vet. He said we should take her to the emergency room. Before yesterday, I never knew there was an emergency hospital for animals.

We rushed her to the Center for Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Care in Lewisville. I drove while Steve tried to comfort Malika.

When we arrived, we faced one of the great sadnesses of the COVID pandemic. Even at a veterinary clinic, we were not permitted inside. They took all of our information by phone from our car, then asked us to bring Malika to the door, where they would take her inside. We were asked (as compassionately as possible) to wait in our car for the vet to call us.

Steve scrolled through a decade’s worth of photos on his phone, recalling memories of Malika while I went to find something we could eat in the car for dinner.

After about 90 minutes, the vet called with Malika’s diagnosis. Aortic Thromboembolsim. Put simply, a blood clot had traveled from her heart to an artery, where it lodged itself and blocked the blood flow to her hind legs. The prognosis was poor, and as we feared, it became clear we would not be bringing Malika home.

Steve asked if we could go inside to say goodbye. Fortunately, they allowed us to do so.

Anyone who’s ever had to make the very difficult decision to have a beloved pet euthanized knows much of the pain and many of the thoughts we experienced in that room.

I can’t speak for Steve, and I know his pain was far greater than mine. After all, Malika was a part of his life longer than I have been. He’s been the most loving fur-baby Daddy I know to Obi, Samba and Malika.

So, I can only speak for myself.

I’ll admit, perhaps at my peril, that I’m not particularly a cat person. I’ve always preferred the demonstrative love of a dog–the wagging tail, the unbridled excitement upon my return, the unfiltered, uncontrolled, unconditional love expressed throughout the day–as opposed to the “I-can-take-you-or-leave-you” attitude of a cat.

Perhaps a cat lover is more secure and doesn’t need love to be so expressive, who instead finds love in the way a cat rubs against her leg, or nudges with her head while sitting on the couch. Or, perhaps she finds joy and calming in a cat’s purr. Or surely a cat lover finds humor in the trot of a cat as she walks ahead (aka, leads), tail stretched high in the air when it’s finally, finally, FINALLY time for a treat she’s been watching for, waiting, transmitting brain waves, all the while wondering how a human could be so dumb not to know it’s SNACK TIME!

This is not to say I dislike cats. In fact, as I think about what I just wrote, I realize that I may be more attracted to the personality of a dog because I’m more like a cat. I’m not demonstrative of my love–instead, I show it in more subtle ways. And, as I think about it, many of the cat lovers in my life are more dog-like–physical, expressive, if not uncontrolled.

Maybe it’s simply a matter of “opposites attract.”

So Malika and I took a bit of time to accept each other. She was one of the most timid, nervous cats I’ve known, and it took her months, if not years, to completely accept me. Of course, I take some responsibility for this, because it takes two to be unloving.

In time, she would allow me to get close to her, and some of my fondest memories are of when I’d come upon her in the hallway and she’d stop, look up at me shyly and tremble just a bit as she allowed me to bend and pet her. Sometimes, however, if I moved too quickly, she’d run and hide.

Always, always, at the sound of our doorbell, she’d run and hide and sometimes, it would take an hour to search all of her hiding places to let her know it was okay to come out of her fraidy-hole.

She often raised my ire when I’d hear her using our rugs or worse, our furniture as a scratching post, though by the time I rushed into the room to shoo her off, I’d barely catch a glimpse of her white body zipping out of the room to hide. I always wondered how such a fat little blob could move so fast.

But as she lay on the table in the ER, helpless, paralyzed and softly whining, none of that mattered. As I listened to Steve whisper to her that she’d been a good friend, and he’d never forget her, none of that mattered. As I contemplated the decision we’d made, the terrible uncertainty of our responsibility to be humane vs. letting her live a lessor life, none of that mattered.

Suddenly, in my eyes, she went from being a grumpy cat to a sweet girl who had shown us her love in the best way she knew how.

When we came home without her, we were sure that both Obi and Samba sensed Malika was gone. And even though Malika often hid from view, and didn’t join the rest of our little family in the living room in the evenings, we missed her. She was a part of “us.”

It’s no longer Samba and Malika and Obi. It’s just Samba and Obi. And that doesn’t seem right.

Yes, Malika was a grumpy fat cat. But she played a part in our lives. She loved the best she could. And we loved her back. She’ll be missed, but she’ll be remembered always.

 

 

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Empathy – A Cure for Our Ills

What makes you love a book? For me, it’s the author’s ability to draw me into the character. If I can sink into a character’s mind and see the world through her eyes, feel her joys, sorrows, anger, passion, love or lust, I love the book.

My friend Linda Apple and I sometimes debate whether it’s called point of view or perspective. But, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. What’s important is to understand the importance of the author’s ability to help the reader experience the story through a character–to get the reader to empathize with the character.

My own writing journey began with writing in journals in my early teens. In the very secret and very private writings of those journals, I tried to get someone to see the world through my eyes, even if that “someone” was only my diary.

From there, I began to write stories in my high school creative writing class. Often, these stories were about myself, thinly masqueraded as a fictional character. It was my way to covertly get the world to see something through my eyes.

Over the years, I grew as a writer and person, and the inspiration for my characters came from other people in my life–people whose lives I wanted to understand and wanted my readers to understand.

Trying to understand my mother was the biggest motivation in writing my historical fiction, The Red Kimono. By the time I completed my novel, I was also better able to understand what it must have been like to be Japanese during World War II, and I hoped my reader might step into the shoes of those who were perceived as “different.”

Which brings me back to my original question: What makes you love a book?

Whether it’s the character, the story, a lesson learned–whatever–it seems to me, it all has to do with the ability to empathize–to feel a story that’s not your own, and as a result, also feel compassion.

Which leads me to my next question, and the reason for this blog post.

What has happened to empathy in the real world?

I ask this because from what I’ve seen on social media, we seem to have lost the ability or desire (not sure which it is) to put ourselves in another’s shoes–to try to see the world through another’s eyes. Instead, we stay within our “tribes,” perhaps because it’s safest and most comfortable there.

In my opinion, most of the divisiveness today might be resolved with practicing empathy:

  • Political differences
  • Racial differences
  • Pandemic differences (The fact there we battle each other against a common enemy is proof of how tribal we’ve become.)

A timely example of this is the ire I see at the statement, “Black lives matter.” I’ve seen the following meme as a response from many of my friends and family.

Of course, “All lives matter,” and I don’t believe the intent of saying “Black lives matter” is to negate the value of all other lives. As a writer who has used writing to understand the world, when I hear the words, “Black lives matter,” I think about the individuals who have cried those words:

A mother whose son has been killed.

A man handcuffed for no reason, other than the color of his skin

A senator who is pulled over for driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood

But instead of thinking of the individual stories behind the words, we communicate with talking points and memes, rarely making the slightest effort to put ourselves in the shoes of “the other side.”

“There is nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul, than when you know you’re following the rules, but being treated like you’re not. Recognize that just because YOU do not feel the pain, the anguish of another does not mean it does not exist.”                                                                                           ~ Senator Tim Scott

Writers communicate with our characters by asking questions like the following to get to know them. I call it “Interviewing Your Character.

  • What is it like to be you?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What are you trying to say that nobody seems to hear?
  • How can I help your voice to be heard?
  • Tell me a secret.
  • How did you feel when [that bad thing] happened?
  • Tell me about your perfect world.

What if we asked those same questions in the real world? Even if we can’t or won’t ask questions like these out loud, we can think about how we’d answer the questions ourselves, if we were in their shoes, to try to imagine the thinking, feelings or challenges of those who differ from us.

In its series, “A Year of Living Better,” The New York Times published an article titled “How to Be More Empathetic.”

  1. Practice Empathy – Try talking to new people – those outside of your “tribe.” Better yet, try out someone else’s life. Visit their family, their place of worship.
  2. Admit You’re Biased – We’re all biased. Once you can admit it to yourself, find ways to overcome your bias.
  3. Stand Up for Others – I’ll admit, this is a tough one for me, because it takes courage, especially in this politically correct era. What if I say something wrong, or offend someone with what I say? Is that a setback? Also, on social media, so often we’re plunged into a rabbit hole, trying to get someone to understand. But the NYT article states, “It’s not about you.”
  4. Read Books – As I mentioned earlier, my favorite books are written in deep point-of-view–in a manner in which I can “become” the character. So, books can be a way to exercise our empathy muscle. Right now, I’m reading the book, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

I’d like to add another item that wasn’t included in the NYT article, because it’s something I see happening far too often, and I believe it’s the enemy of empathy.

Don’t Generalize – Generalizations are just another form of prejudice. It’s an “out” for us–a simple way of thinking that enables us to disregard the hundreds, maybe thousands of INDIVIDUAL stories in every group we generalize.

We can change who’s president. We can change the laws. We can tear down statues, censor movies and books. We can be rid of all the things that divide us now.

But none of it–NONE OF IT–will do any good at all, if we don’t also change our hearts with empathy and compassion for those with whom we differ.

 

 

 

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Bad Apples

Have you ever thought about the meaning of the word “generalize,” and how often we do it? How it can affect us as a society?

I’m sure we’ve always done it. But now, with social media, memes, 24/7 media, it seems to have grown exponentially, and, in my opinion, it’s caused the chasm between us to grow seemingly larger by the day.

  • Cops are corrupt/racist.
  • Protesters are thugs.
  • People who wear masks are sheep.

These are but a few of the generalizations I see on a daily basis on social media. (I won’t even get into the political generalizations out there!)

Here are a couple of things I notice about generalizations:

  • They (almost) always lump everyone/everything together as “bad.”
  • The word “all” is implicit in every statement. We may not say it aloud when we generalize, but we certainly think it.
  • The almost always lump everyone/everything together based on the “bad apples.”

William Blake’s quote is harsh, but I think it’s true. Generalizing is too easy and too convenient. It’s an “out” for us–a simple way of thinking that enables us to disregard the hundreds, maybe thousands of INDIVIDUAL stories in every group we generalize. If we’re honest with ourselves, generalizing–avoiding a more critical consideration of any “group”–truly makes us idiots.

We must consider the harm we’re doing to ourselves and to society. Generalizing is a form of prejudice. (And not all prejudice has to do with race.)

  • Generalizations lead to black and white opinions. But the world is full of individual stories in a variety of colors we experience if only we’d go beyond the word “all.”
  • Generalizing emboldens “tribe” mentality and our insistence that “we” are right, and “they” are wrong. But it’s all an easy lie we tell ourselves, because we haven’t taken the time find the truth–to try to understand the stories beneath the word “all.”
  • It not only stagnates us, it rots us. If we don’t move forward with empathy and compassion gained by critical thinking and going beyond the word “all,” then bad apple generalizations will truly spoil the whole bunch.

The next time you hear the word “all” in your head:

  • Question it.
  • Research it. Look deeper
  • Most of all, don’t form your opinion based on a meme.

If we take the time to learn stories rather than focusing on the “bad apple,” we can turn around opinions based on idiotic generalizations.

 

 

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