Friday, February 22, 2019

Creativity Tips: Find Your Zelda

Picture this: I'm 22 years old, just graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and am driving back to Kansas City with my entire life packed into my old car. I have to go home, because there's no where else to go.* I have no job and no money.

I do, however, have a bonsai! That I've grown myself. Potted, wired, shaped, cultivated, loved.

And, on that long drive, the bonsai dies. Falls down and dies. Given the mood I'm in to begin with, I take the tree's death as a sign.  Not a good sign. All life, as we know it, is over. We're doomed.


Now, flash forward 40 years.The hubby remembers me talking about the heartbreak over my much-loved bonsai. He researches bonsai nurseries in the KC area, then takes me out for Valentine's Day to select a new little tree.

WHOO HOO! Perfect present. Maybe I'll keep him.

I'm proud to introduce Zelda, the Zelkova elm. She survived repotting, and is now happily settling in to her new home. Too early for trimming and shaping, but ... watch out world. My bonsai shears are ready to go.

The ridiculous amount of pure joy I get every time I walk by Zelda reminds me of the power of creative adventures from our youth. What did you love to do when you were a kid, a teen, a 20-something? Did you fingerpaint? Bake? Dance? Write poetry?

Are you still doing it? If not, that's your assignment for the day: Find your Zelda.

*'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.'
Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sorry for Your Lost: How to Help a Grieving Friend

First things first: The title is not a typo. Amid all the "sorry for your loss" messages I received after Mom died in November, I got one text that read, "Sorry for your lost." The friend who sent that speaks English as her second language, so I don't know if it was a typo or exactly the word she wanted.

Either way, it's perfect. "Sorry for your lost" made me feel better.

Now, my reaction to that text is random and reflects my life as a word nerd. However, after a few months of mourning Mom, I've discovered some (possibly) universal, creative ways to help people we care about through tough times, whether they are mourning the loss of a person, pet, job, or relationship.

Grief is, of course, incredibly personal -- and different each time. A friend might react differently to the death of his father than his mother. One person might see divorce as a Hallelujah! moment, while the other spouse is heartbroken. There is no one size fits all answer. There is no "solution." You won't "fix" life for a grieving friend.

But you sure can help.

How to Help a Grieving Friend
Show Up
Let's start with a question: Is the grieving friend a Facebook friend or a face-to-face friend? If we're talking high school pal you haven't seen in 30 years, then a heartfelt comment on Facebook is fine. If it's possible to add a personal note ("I loved going to your house after school because your mom always made me feel so welcome."), that's tremendously comforting.

If the grieving friend is a colleague, relative, coffee buddy, book club buddy, faith-group buddy, etc., posting online, even with a personal note, is not sufficient. Change your plans and attend the memorial service. It may be cold and inconvenient and you don't want to be there. Keep in mind, your friend doesn't want to be there either. Can't attend? Make a donation. Send flowers. Do something that says, "I share your pain." One friend, knowing how much I love the e.e. cummings poem,
"i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)"
sent flowers with the note: "I carry your heart and your sorrow." I will treasure that note forever.

If you're not sure what to do, consider what this friend has done for you in the past. If she sent a sweet card with a handwritten note after your pet passed away, send her a sweet card with a handwritten note. If he sent a funny card to cheer you up after you got fired, send him a funny card to cheer him up after his partner walks out.

And, in these days of social media, remember the power of a phone call. I know it's hard. But you can do it. Remember: It's not about you. It's about your friend. She'll remember the call long after she has forgotten the conversation.

Ask the Right Question
When you call, let the grieving friend talk. If you feel awkward, try this: Rather than asking your friend, "How are you doing?" ask, "How are you doing today?" As noted in Option B, Sheryl Sandberg's book on grief, that one simple word changes everything. "How are you doing?" prompts the automatic, "Fine. I'm fine. Thank you for asking." "How are you doing today?" opens the door to honest conversation.

"How are you doing today?" also reflects the reality of grief. During the course of a month, a week, a day, an hour, how I feel changes. Maybe you're calling right after I've opened a drawer and seen a note Mom wrote to me 18 years ago, a note I saved because it was dear. I'm missing Mom so much at that moment that it's a physical pain. Or, maybe you're calling after I wrapped up a big client assignment and feel like I knocked it out of the ballpark. I'm not thinking about Mom at all. After the initial tsunami, grief is not a constant flood of emotions. It's an ebb and flow.

Of course, not knowing what mood you'll be dealing with can make picking up the phone even more daunting. I get it. This works for just about any grieving situation, any mood: "Hi! I was thinking about you and wanted to check in. How are you doing today?" 

Warning: Try to avoid cliches that really don't help. "I know exactly how you feel," is never an accurate statement. And, while you may believe that, "It's all God's plan," your friend -- even if deeply religious -- may not find that comforting.
Emily McDowell Studio. Buy her cards. She's amazing. 
When in doubt, listen. Remember, the call doesn't have to be lengthy; it's the thought and effort that count. 

To wrap things up: "Good to talk with you." lets people know they weren't a burden as they unburdened their grief. If you're nearby, take the phone call to the next step: "Want to grab some lunch next week?" 

Provide Food
I know, I know. Everyone's on a diet. It doesn't matter. Everyone has to eat. And grief doesn't lend itself to menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc. Unless your friend, and your friend's family, is on such a strict eating plan that food would be an irritation, bring food. Send food. Take him to lunch.

If you love to cook or bake, homemade food is wonderful -- one of the most comforting moments in my grieving process was when a friend brought an entire Italian feast to the house, including pasta made with her grandmother's old recipe. The food was delicious, we felt the love from my friend and her grandmother. Bonus: Talking about the food opened the floodgates of conversation.

But, don't feel like you need to bring homemade goodies -- or stick around for the meal. Some people prefer privacy. Some friends prefer not to stay. All good. Buy a roasted chicken at the store, bag o'salad, and a baguette. Drop it off, give a hug, and go.

Out of town? Send food. We received several baskets of goodies, and they were wonderful. They not only kept us fed, but they made us feel loved.

Show Up Again
While the ebb and flow of grief never ends, the first year can be horrifically hard, especially when the grief involves a death. All those firsts. First birthday without him. First anniversary without her. First Thanksgiving. And on and on and on.

Grief is also isolating. Something that helped identify you -- a person, a professional position, a pet -- is no longer here. As my sister told me recently, "It's time to find a new normal."

True friends are the GPS on that path. One dear friend, who lives in another state, mails little notes to me on a regular basis , with a handwritten message like: "Thinking about you and hoping it's a good week!" The real message, of course, goes far beyond that. Every note tells me that I am in her heart. I am in her thoughts and prayers. I am not forgotten; my loss is acknowledged and remembered -- even when the words on the paper say nothing about that. Each note is a gift.

Another friend called recently and left a voicemail: "It's been a little while since your mom died, and I'm just thinking about you and wondering if the world feels a little less shaken."

She left the message while stuck in traffic on her commute home. The voicemail lasted 27 seconds. Not a huge time commitment, my friends. And yet, by showing up again, she told me that I matter to her. That my mother matters. That my grief matters. Now, that's huge.

Console Better
Years ago, I wrote a post titled Dance Better. What the past few months have taught me is that I need to console better. Being a baker, I typically bring food to grieving friends, but too often I've taken a "one and done" approach. In the future, I'll do better.

And, unfortunately, I'll have the opportunity. We all will: Loss is an inevitable part of love.

To everyone who has helped me these past few months, thank you doesn't begin to cover it. I do carry your heart, and I am blessed that you carry mine.

Monday, December 31, 2018

May You Live Like Lillian

Every year, no matter how infrequently I post on the blog, I try to wrap things up with a wish for all you dear hearts who have stuck with me throughout my random writings. This year is no different.

This year is completely different.

For the readers who know me only through the blog, I am very sorry to share the news that my mother passed away on Sunday, Nov. 25. Ordinarily, I would use "died" rather than "passed away," but Mom truly just slipped away. Her passing can only be described as a good death: She was 97 years old; she had seen all three of her children in the week before she went; she wasn't ill or in pain; she was at home and surrounded by love; she was up and ready for the day; she closed her eyes and peacefully passed.

The last words she said to me and my siblings were, "I love you."

I'll write more about Mom in the days ahead -- I want to write at least one post about the incredible value of showing up and another about the real five stages of grief.  (The Kubler-Ross model doesn't do it for me.) I want to write about the lives Mom touched -- you wouldn't believe the outpouring of love and the remembrances.

But, for right now, I want to give you this:

In 2019, may you live like Lillian. May you have faith. May you wake every day eager to see what happens next. May you be willing to be delighted. May you look for the best in everyone and everything. May you face challenges with courage and strength. May you write poetry. May you play bingo or mah jongg or a board game with people you love. May you celebrate every win. May you forgive and forget. May you always be a flirt. May you create a family of friends. May you live a life that helps and cheers and inspires others. May you live like Lillian.

Mom's most famous poem.
One of Eva's friends had this made for her.
It's lovely. People are lovely. 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Supporting the Tree of Life

In my volunteer job at a local Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), I rock babies. I rock babies of all colors and nationalities. Black babies, brown babies, white babies, yellow babies -- and every beautiful blend you can imagine.

To my knowledge, these infants don't care that I'm a white Jewish woman. They snuggle in because they sense safety in my arms. They know I will hold them close, rock them gently, and sing quietly off-key.

It's lovely. It's my weekly contribution to a Tree of Life that grows with a glorious variety of branches.

And yet. And yet. One of the grandfathers of one of the preemies I rock could want me dead.

Let's say that again.

One of the grandfathers of one of the preemies I rock could want me dead. Without knowing me, without a grasp of my politics, without understanding my religion.

According to today's news reports, one of the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue murders -- 97-year-old Rose Mallinger -- was a Holocaust survivor.

Let's say that again.

A 97-year-old woman who survived Hitler was killed by an American simply because she was Jewish. She was murdered by an American fed on a constant stream of anti-Semitic, anti-Other rants that continually gain momentum in today's virulent, violent political environment.

You still with me?

Good. Because we can do better than this. We are better than this.

Let's say that again.

We are better than this. We are good, caring people. We are Americans. This is not representative of who or what we are.

What reminds me to believe we can do better? Let me share part of a note I received on the day of the shooting from my dear friend Deb A.:
"I just had to reach out to you to let you know that my heart is broken over the events of today. These are such troubled and sometimes hopeless feeling times right now. It seems like every day brings some new horror to face. We have to get through them, we will get through them. Please try not to be discouraged. For every madman, there are so many more good people who want to do the right thing."

Every week, at the NICU, I say a silent prayer for the babies I rock. It's not something I plan to do, it just comes automatically -- possibly because the Jewish prayers I grew up with often involved standing and rocking, a kind of rhythmic full-body prayer. So, as I rock, I pray to the G-d I know, the G-d of the Jews.

But it could be any higher being. I just want as many positive vibes in the universe as possible for that teeny person.

I recently chatted with a Muslim mother about her daughter, born far too early, but doing well. The baby was born on the 18th of the month, so I told her that was a good sign in Judaism -- 18 stands for chai, life. And this exhausted, worried mother took a deep breath, smiled and said, "Thank you for telling me. All our traditions must be respected."

If you respect me and my traditions, if you're one of the good people who want to do the right thing, then I have a favor to ask. Do the right thing. Reach out to a Jewish neighbor or colleague. Donate to a group that fights hatred. And, for G-d's sake, vote.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Love Letter to My Baby, on Turning 25

When Mary Nell was a baby and toddler (she's 2 in this pic), I told her she was cute approximately 99 million times a day. I mean, look at those curls. Look at that face.

But, every once in a while, my feminist self would kick in, and I'd also tell her she was smart and kind and brave and good. You know, all the traits that actually matter.

When Mary Moo was a little girl (4 in this pic), we had a different daily conversation. She would do something absolutely wrong, break all the rules, then look at me, bat those eyes, and ask, "Are you happy of me, Mommy?" And, all too often, instead of a well-deserved punishment, I'd give her a hug.

But, every once in a while, my sensible self would kick in, and I'd also tell her she knew better and send her to time out. (Where, I have to tell you, she would sit and giggle and play with dust in the air. Everything that worked with Kate was useless with this one.)

Now, whoosh! My baby is 25 today. I'm very happy of her. And she's still cute.

More importantly, she's also smart and kind and brave and good. Happy birthday, Mary Nell, Mary Moo, Mary! Here's a candle for this year, all the years past, and one to grow on.

May all your birthday wishes come true.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Got Style? Get Dreyer's English.

Did you know that William Strunk Jr. wrote the original version of The Elements of Style in 1918? And not one single person went online and preordered. Oy. 

Fortunately, a century later, we're better prepared to embrace the next style classic: Dreyer's English, by Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief of Random House and continual proof that social media does have redeeming value. 
According to the good folk at Penguin Random House, the book -- available for preorders now -- is witty, informative and chockful of good advice that can help us all write better. And we all write. (Yes, yes. I write for a living. But you, dear heart, write emails and reports and Tweets and love letters. If you're not writing love letters, shape up.) 

More good news! You don't need to wait until the book publishes in January to enjoy Dreyer's clarity and style. Follow him on Twitter. Then, check out his grammatical bon mots at #CopyeditingProTip, such as: 

Wondering if I was compensated for this post? I do love a cynic. Thank you for asking, and the answer is no. I preordered a book, and look forward to receiving this century's style guide!
New style guide? Absolutely welcome.
But old typewriters cannot be replaced. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Problem with Dead People

Writers don’t typically give you the punch line to a story in the lead paragraph. We want you to have a reason to keep reading. Nonetheless, I’m going to clarify the problem with dead people right now: They can’t apologize.

Ah, now you know. And you’re still here, aren’t you? I understand why. Your dead person can’t apologize. Neither can mine.

The good news? We can still forgive them and move on.

Have you seen Coco? And, no, I’m not digressing. The movie beautifully illustrates the Day of the Dead concept. To loosely summarize: Our loved ones aren’t truly gone as long as we remember them. I want to take that theory to the next step – let’s say the ones who hurt us in life aren’t truly at peace until we forgive them.

Sure, they had power here – your dead one might have seriously damaged your self-esteem or changed your perspective on life. But they’re gone now, and we have the power. We can stop letting their past actions determine our future. We can let them rest in peace, as we move forward in peace.

Step One: Reclaim your power.
In my e-book, I talk about wizards – we grant some people (living or dead) the power to change how we see ourselves. Every time your mind goes to that negative place, with that negative interaction, visualize a stop sign. Clearly see it in your head. Then, stop the voice and force yourself to think of something else. I’ve done it, and you can too – I know you can.

Step Two: Hear me.
If you have trouble stopping the voice and mentally turning the corner, substitute my voice. Hear me saying, “You are amazing and good and wonderful and strong.” Because you are. (I know, there are one or two CI readers who don’t actually know me and haven’t heard my voice. If that’s you, and you can’t hear me, then see this in your head:


If that seems like a leap, then try the affirmation I use: I choose to be kind to myself.

Step Three: Grant forgiveness, for your own sake.
This step is the big one, and we all have different ways to forgive. Maybe you write the issue down on paper and burn the paper. Maybe you say, aloud, “I forgive you.” Maybe you say, “What you did was horrible and wrong. I love you still. I thank you for all the good you did. And I forgive you.”

Step Four: Understand that it’s a process.
If you’ve been carrying a dead person on your back for years, that’s a lot of weight. You might not drop it all today. But, you can let it go! You can. Because you, my friend, are amazing. And far stronger than you know.