I was gone for four weeks, tending to Mom, then came home for a week before going back. Mom said it wasn’t worth making the trip and I might as well just stay but I disagreed. It was good to … Continue reading »
I was gone for four weeks, tending to Mom, then came home for a week before going back. Mom said it wasn’t worth making the trip and I might as well just stay but I disagreed.
It was good to go home. It was good to have a break because when I went back to her place, I could have a do over. I wanted to be different than I was the first time. The first time I had too many expectations, too much internal drama. The second time I went back with a mental model that changed everything:
I didn’t go back as a daughter.
I went back as a home health aid.
I prepared by imagining myself in the chartreuse polo shirt worn by the aids where she lives. I imagined wearing one of their badges with my name on it, pinned just below the logo on the shirt. When Leda and I arrived, I showed up mentally in uniform. My mom made a remark about Leda. She probably meant it to be funny but it came out sounding snarky and I felt my chest puff, ready to defend my dog.
I stopped myself. Asked, “How does the home health aid feel about this?”
The home health aid looked at the dog trotting into the bedroom to lie down on the carpet. The dog appeared to have taken no offense. The home health aid decided that if the dog wasn’t bothered, neither was she. The home health aid let it go.
That is how it went for the next twelve days. I was surprised at how often the home health aid decided it didn’t matter, how much internal dialogue went away. Gone: Should I say something? How would she feel? How would I feel if I don’t? What would I say? It was an efficient way to live.
A few times the home health aid spoke up, when she thought it mattered. But when she spoke, she wasn’t trying to tamp down her anger and sound calm because she wasn’t angry. She simply said what she thought with few words. Most of the time, what the home health aid said to herself was, “She’s an old lady, acting like an old lady.”
On the first trip, I wanted to take a more Buddhist approach of non-duality, along the lines of this, from Thich Nhat Hanh:
“As long as we are caught in the idea of a separate self, ignorance is still in us. When we see the intimate relationship between what is self and what is not self, ignorance is healed and suffering, anger, jealousy, and fear disappear. If we can practice no-self, we’ll be able to go beyond the questions that make people suffer so much.”
No-self might have been too big a stretch for me with my mother. A reach within my grasp was to be the home health aid. The aid does her work, goes home, sleeps well.
* * *
Chewing the Cud of Good
It had been closed up for four weeks, waiting for me, wafting scent into the air to greet me. I opened the door and smelled wood, not pine like a hardware store but oak. The smell wasn’t obscured by me or Leda or whatever I had cooked the night before. This is what the condo smelled like all by itself. Last year the condo endured a gut renovation. This year it holds me. It makes me happy every time I see it.
Last week’s post was about not seeing. This week’s is about the flipside: seeing but not changing.
It’s easy to do. Or rather, not do. I had been married for seven days. After the loneliest week of my life, I knew I had made mistake. But it would have been horribly embarrassing to get a divorce after only a week. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. Maybe it was simply Jamaica that had lured him away. Do I give the gifts back to the store or back to the givers? It was too hard to think about so I didn’t. I told myself it would get better. It didn’t. It took me seven years to leave.
When I worked for a global Fortune 100 company, I was in a meeting to make a decision about a software project. We were one year into the project and had spent one million dollars. There were twenty people in the room and every one of us agreed the project should end. There was no possibilty for a good outcome, nothing could be salvaged. It was time to pull the plug. But the plug wasn’t pulled until a year later, after the company had spent two million dollars more, for a total loss of three million.
At the heart of sunk costs is pride. The company was more willing to throw good money after bad than admit we had made a mistake, we were wrong. In my marriage, I was more willing to throw good time after bad than admit I had made a mistake, I was wrong.
So much pain, so much loss could be avoided—for companies and people—if we could simply say to ourselves, “I was wrong” and say to the others, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
* * *
Chewing the Cud of Good
Sixty-four degrees is one of my favorite temperatures. When it’s 64°, I don’t need a jacket, just a long-sleeved shirt. I can stand outside and feel the cool air on the skin of my cheek. I can be warmer if I stand in the sun or cooler if I stand in the shade. Leda can run and not get too hot from running.
There is a photograph from 1860 that hangs in the elevator lobby of my condo building. Most people who look at it, if they look at it at all, probably think “That’s pretty,” or “What an interesting historic photograph.”
I don’t see a pretty picture. I see a warning.
The warning is easy to miss. The construction of the John A. Roebling Bridge commands the center. Construction began in 1856, when Cincinnati was the sixth largest city in the United States, bigger than Chicago.* Beginning in the 1820s, if you were in the east and wanted to travel west, you traveled by water, by steamboat. Cincinnati was a port city and like all port cities when the flow of goods and people is high, it boomed.
If you asked Cincinnatians walking along the street in 1860 how long they thought the current boom would last, they probably would have looked at the bridge and the buildings and homes under construction and guessed several years, maybe decades, maybe more. Few probably would have given the correct answer: “It’s already over.”
The ending of the boom in Cincinnati began on January 24, 1853, when the railroad route between New York and Chicago was completed. People who had traveled by boat instead traveled by rail. And they did not travel through Cincinnati.
The Roebling Bridge would be completed in 1866, but the steamboats, on the right side of the photo, are already idle.
When I was in my 40s, on a work trip in London, I picked up a copy of Charles Handy’s The Empty Raincoat. I believe the US version is called The Age of Paradox. In a chapter called “The Road to Davey’s Bar,” Handy writes about the sigmoid curve. Handy had been looking for the turn for the road to the bar and couldn’t find it. He asked a passerby who told him to “go down the road a ways and then look back, you’ll see it.” Handy’s point was that some things are easier to see in hindsight. He then makes the point that we live on the sigmoid curve—things begin, they develop and grow, they peak, they decline, they end. This is true of a a product, a project, a career, a life.
Handy believed a good business, and a good life, is made of a series of successful leaps to a next curve. The goal is to innovate, reinvent, before decline sets in, while we still have the energy and resources to make the change. But the challenge is that it is hard to see we are already at the peak when we are at the peak. Handy says that we should always assume we are farther along the curve than we think, closer to the red dot than the green.
The longer we wait, the less able we are to change, to start a new sigmoid curve.
When I was in my 30s, I planned to retire at 62. In my 50s, I revised that to 65—I was attempting to stretch the curve, which makes sense—when you are riding a successful curve it feels good. But at 61, it became apparent that it was time for me to change. I left my job at 62, not 65. It was later than I thought. I might have done some things differently at 60 if I had known that I was leaving full-time work in two years instead of five. Maybe not, but I know I would have done some things sooner than I did.
Now I tell myself that I have twenty years on this next curve of being a writer, that it is equivalent to the length of time that I went from being an intern at Arthur Andersen to starting my business as a consultant. But maybe I don’t have twenty years of being an author. It’s probably later than I think. I need to see reality. I need to read the signs. Even in my 60s, I need to be agile.
* * *
Chewing the Cud of Good
These penquins sit on my desk and make me happy. The speckled one was made by me in second grade. I still remember how amazed I was that the beige glopy glaze turned into magic aqua sprinkles. The copper one is from my friend Andrea. And just now they reminded me of my high school friend Steven, who liked Monty Python. “What’s on the telly-vision then?” “Looks like a penguin.”
Before we went to brunch, Mom and I waited in her living room for it to be time to leave, she on her petite sofa, me at her table by the sliding-glass door. She had washed her hair that morning and it fell in soft waves that framed her face. Her hair is light gray but the part closest to her face is bright white. She was wearing a sage green sweater that complemented her coloring and her pink lipstick was fresh. She had color in her cheeks that wasn’t there before the surgery.
“You look pretty, Mom.”
She looked at me and I could feel her study my face, determining whether or not it warranted a reciprocal complement. She decided, then silently lowered her eyes to her lap. I turned to look out the window, the rain falling, drops bouncing out of the blue birdbath, drops dripping from the bright green tips of the spruce. The thirteen-year-old girl who had been dormant came to life inside me, the one who had just finished getting ready for her first dance, touching her fingertips to the soft velvet of her new dress.
“Look, mom!” I stood in the kitchen, holding my hands out to my sides so I wouldn’t get sweat on the velvet. Mom turned to look at me.
“I used to love going to dances, when all the girls look so pretty and all the boys look so handsome,” she said.
“Am I pretty, Mom?”
She tilted her head, considered the question.
“No. You’re plain.”
I looked out the window at the rain that fell on the baskets of flowers that we had bought and repotted and hung. I could see that two of the bunches of daffodils I had transplanted from the guesthouse had collapsed their leaves on to the grass. The third was still upright. I heard Mom’s voice behind me.
“I’ve started to like your hair. It’s taken a long time.”
I had been tending to my mother but right then I was tending to myself. I reminded myself that she cannot give what she had not been given, that I was the daughter of a motherless child. I thought of what Trent had said, “You only have to look beautiful to one person.” He was right but he was wrong. The one person I need to look beautiful to is myself. I got up to use her bathroom. Washing my hands, I took a long look in the mirror. My mom is right. I am not pretty. And my mom is wrong. I am beautiful. It’s taken a long time for me to see that.
* * *
Chewing the Cud of Good
When I do my morning meditations and stretches, when I get to the part where the app instructs me to take a big breath in and then let it all out, I make a big sigh. At the same time, so does Leda. The sides of her mouth flap when she makes her big smiling sigh.
I am 50 days into writing the novel and as of today the word count is 51,894, so I’ve met my goal of a minimum word count of 1000 words a day. It’s a good thing there were some 1300, 1500, and even 1800 word days because they carried me over the days when the word count was zero. It’s fun on most days, I think the writing is horrible on a lot of days, and I remind myself that this is the first draft and the whole point of the first draft is simply to get the story on the page.