Old Friends, New Friends

During the summer of 2012 I embarked on a quest to examine my existing friendships.  I had had a rough year.  I disliked my job, lost a dear friendship and was painfully adjusting to the loss of a social group that had long been important to me.

I needed to reconnect to people with whom I could expect a reciprocity of trust and genuine interest, where personal depth didn’t stop at the throw-away line, “Hi, how are you?”  Like a diet lacking essential nutrients, superficial interactions online and off were depleting me.  Nourishment would come from old-fashioned face-to-face.

I decided to make a list of local New York area friends I wanted see in the flesh (for now, long-distance friendships would have to remain virtual).    Some I had seen within the last year.  Others not for twenty or thirty.  I was determined to reevaluate–and hopefully reestablish–both older, deeply rooted friendships as well as more recent ones.

I scheduled get-togethers with each person on my list of eighteen over the next few weeks.  One or two visits felt awkward and uncomfortable.  Those won’t continue.  With most, however, things picked up where we left off, never feeling the distance of time.  I enjoyed catching up, opening up and simply feeling the warmth of a lovely friendship.

As nice as this was, I hoped my summer efforts would prompt more frequent contact, either virtual or real-life.  Regrettably, many fell back into their daily lives, pushing the importance of staying in touch to the back of their priority list.

To be fair, I get it.  Life happens.  Lesson Learned–Know when to make an effort and when to let go: I’ll take the initiative and give you the benefit of the doubt a couple of times but then I’ll wonder if you’re interested in maintaining the connection.  People do get caught up in themselves but if you’d like to sustain a relationship, ya gotta give back.

I treasure the life-long kinships made during camp, college and early work years.  I’ve been lucky.  These friendships seem to have the most staying power.  I trust they’ll be in touch, if not in person then through technology.

But as I get older, finding durable friendships is more challenging.  I thrive on social interaction.  Meeting and getting to know others energizes me even if most won’t become more than a nodding acquaintance.

That realization will sustain me for now.

 

 

 

 

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Shaming Shame

He could not have been more than 3 years old.   The little guy, occupied with toys displayed on a pharmacy shelf, was sitting alone on the floor at the front of the store. I noticed him as I weaved my cart in and out of the aisles searching for the items I came for.  My eyes swept the immediate area.  There was no adult in sight.  After several minutes, I circled back. He was still on his own, unaccounted for.  My concern grew.

“Where’s your mommy?” “Do you have a grown up with you?” I asked. The boy looked up at me, sweet-faced and quizzical.  I wasn’t getting anywhere.  If his safety was compromised in any way, I couldn’t ignore it.

I alerted the cashier and he, in turn, called the manager.  At this point, another customer, a woman in business attire from a nearby office, overheard my conversation with the cashier and also became concerned.

But here is where it gets dicey.  The boy’s mother comes rushing back from wherever she was in the store.  She looked utterly harried.  My heart immediately went out to her.  Just as I was about to let her know of my relief, Biz-Lady begins lacing into the mother, firing a stinging string of epithets: Leaving your child alone is unacceptable!  You are so disgusting!  You shouldn’t have children!

I was dumbstruck.  It’s one thing to express a brief concern to a stranger but quite another to appoint oneself a brutal tongue-lasher.  What type of response did the screamer think she was going to get from the mom? Sadly, that’s the point.  She put herself first, never considering the mother in any way or the effect of  verbally attacking her in front of her young child.  She was more interested in shaming and embarrassing the mother.  The woman’s goal,  it seemed, was to feel good about herself.

Let me be clear: Children must not be left unsupervised under any circumstances.  I don’t know why this mother didn’t keep better tabs on her child.  Lapse in judgment perhaps-we’ve all had those. She was lucky all ended well.  Still, I think the stranger’s reaction was dreadful.  She knew nothing about the mom.  If she felt she needed to react, there were more appropriate ways to do so.

I was desperate to defuse the situation but only had a split second to figure things out.  I wanted to come to the mom’s defense but I feared further escalation of a situation that had no real resolution. Chastising the woman for her vitriol wasn’t going to help.  I hoped to find a way to reach out to the mother and perhaps find a way to soften the impact but never had the chance.  Mercifully for them, mother and child quickly left the scene.

This incident may be an extreme example of a subtler problem but once again raises a question I’ve long been struggling with. Is basic decency between otherwise civil people on the decline? Is empathy? Research studies from 2010 have indeed found, among college students, declining empathy levels for over 30 years while self-centered behavior has risen. http://tinyurl.com/kobwsre 

When did character traits past generations took for granted—courtesy, decency and respect–become too high an expectation?  Is even a friendly acknowledgement between acquaintances too lofty a goal?

Dr. Brené Brown is also bothered by the growing lack of heart and simple kindness. The research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work has spent years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. She discusses her findings further in her 2012 New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

According to Brown, shame’s power is in making us “feel trapped, powerless and isolated.”  Its danger, she says, is its ability to make us feel alone, different and outside our social circles.   Empathy, however, according to Brown, is shame’s antidote.

Whether or not Bible is your thing or the upcoming holiday of Passover is one you observe, it is hard to ignore lessons of empathy in one of the oldest stories of freedom. For instance, Moses, raised by Pharoah’s daughter as a privileged child, deeply felt slaves’ suffering. He went outside his comfort zone and imagined what it would be like to be someone else.  As a result, he was not only able to physically free the oppressed but show that they deserved lives of worth.

In another example, tradition requires readers of the story to see themselves as having been freed from slavery.   Again, vicarious experience requires identifying with the other.

Lastly, tradition again makes certain we recognize enemies’ suffering by spilling wine, symbolizing that the joy of freedom is incomplete, having come at the cost of others’ lives.  Everyone’s emotions are asked to be understood.

Reminders for essential decency surround us. We don’t always take note. I hope we can spot the signs more easily and catch ourselves before we take more than we give.

X, S

 

Link to “Ready For Takeoff”

A huge thank you to GrownandFlown.com for publishing my essay, “Ready For Takeoff?”.  The piece will also serve as this week’s newest blog entry.  (http://grownandflown.com/ready-takeoff-facing-question-autism).

 

The last 6 weeks have been an interesting experiment. When I set up my blog I had no idea what would happen.  Thank you all for the wonderful support.  Your ‘Likes’, shares, follows and words of encouragement have put a smile on my face.

I always liked to write and did so professionally for a human rights organization in the ‘80s but only recently did I consider personal writing. Blogging intrigued me. But did I have enough to say? I liked the thought of it but my negative self-talk–which I’m really good at—always won out. Still, the prospect kept drawing me back in, beckoning seductively, “You know you want to.”

I did want to.

Writing is my meditation like dancing is my prayer. Both are important expressions of creativity for me. Writing, however, allows me to share parts of myself I cannot elsewhere (unless we meet in person).  Connecting with others is my oxygen, my energy.  Blogging is my social medium of choice.

Banter between people on social media can be enjoyable. We’ve also seen communities powerfully pull together in time of need but superficial ‘friending’, either online or off, doesn’t do it for me (Full disclosure: I use several popular social media.) Writing, however, though it starts out as an isolating activity can link people together, to reveal depth and to welcome.

Thinking up weekly entry ideas has been a challenge but part of the fun.  Thanks for  reading.

X, S

 

 

Rampant Stupidity

Dear DD (Distracted Driver):

I saw you the other day from my car on the way to one of my many errands but you didn’t notice me.  You couldn’t have.  You were too busy talking on your cell–and it wasn’t even hands-free–when your attention should have been on the road.

May I ask you a question? What were you thinking? More specifically: Are you thinking?

Perhaps you believe you’ve got the uncanny ability to balance the responsibility of a potentially dangerous machine with your everyday activities.  You don’t. No one does.  According to Distraction.gov, several states have banned hand-held phone use and texting for all drivers.  Stricter rules apply for novice drivers.  (http://www.distraction.gov/content/get-the-facts/state-laws.html)

Pricey traffic tickets and points on your license may not deter you.  I cannot understand why possibly being responsible for a disaster wouldn’t.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that in 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving distracted driving. In the same year, 387,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes also involving distracted driving. Each day, says the CDCP, at least 9 people are killed and more than 1,060 people are injured in crashes where distracted driving is responsible. (http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/distracted_driving/)

I have to drive for two when I think you aren’t paying attention. Once I see you on the phone (or texting or eating or otherwise doing something other than driving), my defenses are heightened, knowing yours are compromised.  I implore you to leave your ego at home and put maturity and sense in the car with you.

My 17-year old will be on the road soon with a freshly minted driver’s license.  When she walks out the door, I cannot keep her safe.  It’s a level-orange fear a parent has for her child. Please don’t contribute to an already scary world by creating an unnecessary danger and a risk that needn’t be taken.

 

 

 

 

After 70 Years: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

If you were to ask me when exactly I knew about my father’s experiences as a survivor of 1940s Europe, I couldn’t tell you.  Though I was too young to know the facts, the war’s impact on my father—and by extension, on me–was unmistakable.

As I was growing up, I came to know my father as a determined worker, single-mindedly fixed on making a living for his growing family as a design engineer.  He loved us, sure, but kept himself on the emotional periphery. The war years had trained him in the practicality of survival. Feelings had no place in his fight to get out alive. They needed to be suppressed, pushed way down. Vulnerability was too risky.  His life and that of his mother and sister were at stake.  Emotional release, in whatever form, would have to come later.

Dad’s formative years in Debrecen, Hungary were steadily defined by the growing victimization of that country’s Jewish residents by Hungary’s fascist government. His father had been conscripted into Hungarian forced labor service in 1942 and was separated from the family.  His Jewish grade school was closed down.  All Jews were required by law to wear the yellow Star of David as they went about life in their town.

By the time he turned 16 in 1944, 70 years ago, the Nazis had taken over Hungary and began to apply their “final solution” to the area’s Jewish population.  In June of that year, Dad, his mother and sister were herded, along with thousands of other Jews, onto one of Adolf Eichmann’s trains to Auschwitz headed toward likely death. Instead, in a stroke of circumstantial luck, a politically connected negotiator, Rudolf Kasztner, successfully secured the train’s new destination (Eichmann, a major Nazi leader and organizer of mass murder, proposed trading Jews for Allied trucks. That plan failed).  The Auschwitz-bound train was then sent to Strasshof labor camp near Vienna where he and his family were put to work until liberation in 1945.

I’ve summarized my father’s story into a basic sketch, leaving out immense detail. There’s so much more to know (see: tinyurl.com/oqtg6da). As a teenager held at Strasshof, he suffered beatings, risked his life in ghetto escapes for food, and once daringly fought back by sabotaging ammunition production. Miraculously, Dad’s immediate family survived intact. My grandfather survived as well and was reunited with his family. Most of Dad’s extended family, aunts, uncles and cousins were killed.

In many ways, my father’s story isn’t a new one.  We’ve all, no doubt, heard countless first-person accounts, read books and seen movies. The common thread here is the impassioned plea Holocaust survivors have made to the world to not simply “not forget”, but to remember what evil can do. Over the years, Dad has expressed fear that history could repeat itself–anxious that the lessons taught by bigotry and discrimination would be lost. Dad wonders if he, his family and 6 million other Jews will have suffered in vain.

Thirty-six years ago I volunteered to have Dad talk about his experiences for a college class I was taking on the Holocaust.  My professor never let him go.  Dad was subsequently connected to the then-burgeoning Holocaust Resource Center (now named The Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives) at Queensborough Community College (CUNY) in Bayside, New York. He’s been a sought-after speaker ever since.

Prior to his becoming involved in public speaking Dad’s emotional safety valve had been weakening. He had no outlet to express this part of his life. The opportunity has been, ironically, a lifesaver. He feels heard. He thrives on feedback he receives from the schools and the students.  Their rapt attention time after time has given him hope. He’s made a difference.

There is a concept called muscle memory–a continuous repetition of motor tasks we may engage in until we are able to automatically repeat the movement without thinking, like playing a piano, punching in a phone number and my favorite, choreographed dance.  It’s far easier to embed when we have had first-hand experience.  The age-old question is, how do we transmit the lessons of history effectively? Is it even possible? There are many different ways to repeat a lesson. Books, movies, museums and survivors’ accounts are important.  However, we receive the information passively.  All theory.  Practical application, I think, is our big test: Have we sufficiently impressed upon our youth the importance of using our own actions to counter hate?  What structures have we put in place?

On a more basic level, we’ve got to wonder if we’ve planted seeds of compassion deeply enough for empathy and grace to take root, where goodness not only becomes second nature but becomes the ultimate memorial.

Refresh Button

The days may be longer, the birds may be singing and I finally may see the post-snowmelt grass on the front lawn. But what really excites me these days is the prospect of spring cleaning.  I know–you can think of several other activities that get you hot and bothered.  So can I, but stay with me here.

I hate clutter. Despise disorganization. I am a ruthless purger of junk and items long-forgotten since the second Bush’s first presidential administration. I get my thrills winnowing closets, hauling out garbage bags filled with unworn clothing and throwing out collections of broken appliances idly amassed in the garage. Prepping for the upcoming Passover holiday where many people engage in radical cleaning spurs me on. Knowing that everything has its place helps organize my thoughts. It creates space not only in my house but also in my head.

I’ll admit to you, these days there’s not too much left for me to oust. My junk-purging is a regular part of my routine. Now it’s just maintenance. And, yes, it’s not only the concrete act of cleaning out unwanted and unneeded items. This practical act cleanses my soul as well.

Sounds corny?  For me, it works.  I believe if our minds are cluttered, there’s a good chance our lives are too.  What is most difficult is re-evaluating parts of life that are no longer working. I ask myself “cleansing” questions constantly: Am I happy in this job? Do I like spending hours with these people? Are relationships reciprocal, trusting and satisfying? Can I still enjoy myself despite negative group dynamics?  Finding the answers may not be so simple. The search may be a struggle. But I’ll work to get that clutter–that internal mess–to finally sweep itself up and make room for what matters.

Starting Out

Will you sign my petition to move New York to the south? If you live wherever the temps have barely been above freezing these past three months, chances are, like me, you are “seasonally fatigued”–exhausted from relentless snow and frozen limbs, perhaps traipsing to twenty-seven stores in the unsuccessful hunt for suburban gold: a measly bag of rock salt.
 
I unequivocally do not do well in the cold. I wear gloves indoors. The early darkness depresses me, and the cold plucks everyone off the streets making suburbia’s isolation worse than I think it already is. Sure, the winter season can be pretty for about an hour and a half. After that, temps under 45 degrees get old fast.  For my own good, I need constant assurance that the mercury will rise.
 
 Luckily, while I’m waiting for nature to correct itself, flower arranging has come to my rescue. My interest in flower design has bloomed this past year. I’ve taken a couple of classes where I’ve learned how to cut and care for these beauties, placement techniques, and how to match containers to certain types of blossoms. I created my design gradually, building it layer upon flowered layer.  The transformation was quick and yielded beautiful results.
 
I read up a bit on my new hobby and began to pay more attention to creating small arrangements at home.  I try to work on one or two bunches a week, placing them around the house where they’ll be in my frequent line of vision. The flower’s various colors and textures have a soothing, happy effect on me and can be an effective stand-in until spring arrives.
 
What do you do to remind yourself that spring is just around the corner?
 
“She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbor:
“Winter is dead.”
―  A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young
 
X, S