Category Archives: Friendship

Growing into Thanksgiving

Americans seem, generally, to have a hard time with official holidays, as though the added pressure of suspending their daily living patterns tips the population into a crowdsourced demand for succor in the form of either consumption or mining family tensions. In my dotage (!), I’m pretty content with playing Thanksgiving as a necessary reminder to pause and simply feel gratitude; no need to go feast it, cheer its football teams, oggle floats and store displays, or make haste to exit the kitchen before the relative who likes to not like me enters it.

For the past 25 years, Thanksgiving has marked a special and grateful moment in my personal life, for it was on this day that I determined myself to be, in fact, pregnant with someone who has turned out to be purty darn wonderful.  But that’s personal, not a blanket experience for society around me, even my own best buddies. They have, each and every one of them, something or another just as personal, and just as gratitude-evoking, from their own years. And some of them are cranky enough to want to bypass that reminder to just pause and remember a moment of lived joy or grace or even bliss.

Which gets to the nub of pausing to feel grateful: I’m not thanking some entity out there or even my various and assorted continent exploiting ancestors, or the ones who, Johnny Come Latelies, managed to find a place of safe harbor. Those happenstances are readily mineable for all their cultural implications of greed, luck, and bad actions taken in the name of a fantasy called by various names for a deity.

And I’m certainly feeling no thanks at all, in a “there but for the grace of luck” way, for being in a safer, healthier place than friends and strangers both who live the fallout of American racism and solipcism and a bunch of other pernicious -isms that barely poke at the surface of what they are up against to simply maintain, let alone enjoy dominant culture’s smugness.

Feeling gratitude, however, is a bit like literacy: it’s something I had to learn and then have to practice, and can continually refine, without need of trappings like a feast or even a collection of others in the room. It’s a day off to remember that possibility exists. And possibility, for me, is the alphabet of the future.

Leave a comment

Filed under American cultures, Friendship

Stasis and movement

The time has come to relocate–again. For most of my life, relocation has happened with the frequency Others expect to spend attending levels of scholarship:  high school, university, graduate school–only repeated to that disappearance point on the horizon. Three years at this address, five years at that, four and then less than one at another. Sometimes the moves have been within the municipal limits of one place or another (three addresses across six years in a Boston outskirt community; three across a dozen years in a tiny city demarcating Alameda County, CA’s northern border) and, more often, between coasts (Pittsburgh to LA, for three; followed by LA to Boston; followed by Boston to LA for a year before heading north to Oakland; some years later, across North America to Nova Scotia).

As we all age, those whom I know shed any shyness about interpreting how my moves are either about them or about my personality being deficient. The very longest of time friends don’t–they have become acclimated to where they themselves are geographically and in no doubt that our relationships outlast any address at which I might be located. It’s the ones I think of as “midlife gold” who seem most concerned with identifying me as fools gold: 20 years of friendship and she leaves [again] replacing their expectation that I go along and get along. Nothing I seem able to say brings our viewpoints closer: at our age, you hit the road again and you’re a bounder, not someone to look forward to returning.

And, for me, that is the sadness: the friends who cannot imagine that I’ll return (as I have demonstrated more frequesntly than any of them).  And, given the ages my friends (and I) are getting to see and be,  maybe they know somethng (intuitively) that escapes me: that there won’t be time (for them, for me) to get back.

I’m not them and so I press on: the shore–and whatever it is that promises succor from a friend–behind me only for now, with my every expectation of flipping back, through the waves, and seeing their faces clearly again…in a couple, four years.

Leave a comment

Filed under conflicting beliefs, Friendship

Living formal learning

I

About ten years ago, one of my favorite children’s librarians explained the utility of algebra to me so compellingly that, in all the years since then, I have regularly been grateful both for her explication and the fact that that branch of mathematics had managed to stick upstairs even though I had no appreciation decades earlier when its principles were dinned into my twelve-year-old brain.

“Our entire workdays are solving for X,” she explained (with more patience than I recall Mr. B showing that 8th grade class). “We work our ways through projects with some knowns and the possibility to derive the unknowns from them. And we write out proofs in our evaluations, showing ourselves whether we put the right values in the right places.”

In all the years since that illuminating conversation (which, as I recall, took place as we marched in September’s heat in an annual civic parade celebrating silliness, for which we had had to plan and execute silly costumes for the library contingent), I have found myself willingly turning to rooting out that elusive X when faced by major planning, personally as well as professionally: what do I know for certain? How can what I know be combined to express a path toward what I need to know?

II

Even earlier than that life lesson, I had the great good fortune to be a library school student of Michael Ochs. There are lessons I learned both in his long ago Reference Methods course (circa 1978) and Reference of Literature and the Humanities (same era) that have remained true guides to me in situations that have nothing to do with addressing someone who has put a reference question before me (although plenty of other learning from those classes has been plowed into plenty of years of active reference service).

One such classroom based knowledge acquisition speaks to the need to remain aware that data can reveal only what those who designed the data query used in their collection actually asked. In library resource awareness terms this principle  underscores the fact that demographic conclusions cannot be reached using statistics that did not pose exactly corresponding questions: if drug testing results report how the drug affected those who used it prescriptively, and all the users are over 65, largely white, middle class and covered by health insurance, the data can’t support what may be known about the drug’s effects on children, for instance.

In the personal world, this means that I have to check myself against subscribing to a conclusion based on information derived by someone who didn’t have quite my circumstantial need in mind when developing that information. He or she has, or may have, perfectly good and valid information, and yet I still need to judge whether the information on offer actually fits with the information gap I have. Should I wear a sweater outside this morning? I can ask someone who has already been outside the door. Unless we have similar metabolisms, however, the forthcoming information could be a lousy guide.

That’s a simplistic example, of course. Here’s something more nuanced: I am apartment shopping and take along a buddy to look at three. We discuss the relative merits of the kitchen cabinet set-ups, my buddy expressing concern that two of the places have considably less cupboard space than the third. Before I allow myself to get wrapped up in whether this observation is one I can use in my decision process, I need to think through whether my cupboard needs are in a general way similar to my buddy’s. If they aren’t, then that information, while nice to offer and welcome as an expression of support in the apartment hunt, doesn’t provide me with a C/a to plug into the algebra equation I should have in mind for finding the “right” apartment. (Lest anyone who has ever gone apartment hunting with me be questioning whether I am ungrateful, let me assure you that that is not the case; we are talking evaluating data here, not the reassurance one derives from having a friend along when home hunting!)

Another, and equally lasting lesson I learned in Michael Ochs’ classroom is the difference between translation and interpretation, and how the plasticity of the latter trumps the mechanical and stultifying qualities of the former. When we take possession of an idea, an insight, a question someone else has felt or spoken, we had better interpret it. Otherwise, we are stuck with something that is closer to piracy or stultification. To hear is to interpret. To speak a pure translation is the work of a parrot.

While I am far opposed to the popular conflation of higher education with job marketability, I do stand on my belief that the formal lessons we have had in school can open up worlds to our future selves. It’s just not about passing the qualifying exam by ticking the appropriate boxes. It’s about the very real mind changes those lessons can burn into the way we see our possibilities and efforts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Friendship, Philosophy

A story flies

The well-coiffed and carefully casually dressed middle aged woman seated next to me at a cluster of airport boarding gates had suffered a deep bruise to her index finger hours earlier. The pain was so exquisite, she told me, that she simply needed to share the fact aloud. Neither whiney nor apparently self-conscious about breaking the kind of intimacy barrier between strangers that the setting typically inspires, she began our interchange with no small talk and instead, noting that my own fingers are bound in a clearly post-injury state, confided that she was startled by the level of pain she was feeling and felt so pressed by its force to speak of it that the visual cue of my recent experience with something that must be remotely similar gave her some immediate relief.

This is not how strangers of her age, class and culture typically present themselves to strangers, in my experience, and yet, I could meet her halfway across that peculiar landscape because her very forthrightness carried me there. She was asking nothing of me except to hear her. She had no expectation other than that in her own ability to communicate with another. Both were measures of her assurance in herself and her respectful recognition of another self who could understand.

This is the most essential breath of stories: the nexus of pressing narrative on the teller, the mutual trust between performer and audience, and the listener (or reader) as available to hear more than her own interior monolog. When my own attempts at telling sink on sandbars of audience discontent–“you tell it backwards;” “I want to know the end before the middle”–I have blamed myself. But maybe those particular listeners weren’t able to listen. Maybe my narrative could not broach their own personal space because that space was already too crowded with themselves.

Our separate flights were called. We did not mention any words of parting. No need for that existed. The teller had spoken, the listener had heard, the story had been able to take flight ahead of our embodied travels.

Leave a comment

Filed under American cultures, Friendship, Health and wellness

Bumper sticker questions

“Do you ever really know when your philosophy assignment is due?” the parked car asks me. It’s a question that I’ve outgrown: there haven’t been philosophy assignments in my life for 35 years…although certainly I continue to have a related task to consider: “Do I know when my philosophy is as complete as this life–for me, the only life I get–allows?” It’s a question about acknowledging limits, about keeping Self from overgrowing into a selfish life.

“Take time to smell the roses,” which I can’t remember seeing on a bumper in decades, is the text my friend Issukee (her nom de web) adopted as her personal summation six or eight car bumpers ago. “Well behaved women never made history,” another assertion rather than a question, still floats on Subarus and Toyotas in this proto-feminist town, and is the self satisfied mantra of other friends who want the mantle of history maker more than the challenge of finding ways to make the present habitable to as many as their pairs of arms can reach (Tip: arms joined with other arms hold more of the world; when Self is subordinated to Sorge, history no longer leads as raison d’etre).

Questions move me to become more. Statements, in the manner of bumper sticker proclamation formulations, suggest the Outside Evaluator holds an upper hand that will be qick to sweep me off the map.

And so it is in my relationships as well. Assumptions are walls; questions invite the use of windows that open outside and in–showing more than already is, shedding light. To ask is to continue to live, to discover the boundaries where history hasn’t yet been “made” and the scent of roses calls as a possibility.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under conflicting beliefs, Friendship

Blanche Dubois said it well

Four weeks ago, I had an accident that has left me with multiple broken and dislocated fingers, as well as a couple of hand sprains, affecting my dominant paw. Such events necessarily come with a quantity of learning opportunities and lessons delivered uninvited. Some are painful, others rays of sunlight through the storm clouds, the condition that gives rise to the magic of rainbows. And, like rainbows, these phenomena are facts, stripped of supposition. While the storm centers can be analysed to reveal how limited my friendships are–a broken toy is readily abandoned–the beams invite celebration:

  • The London cabbie who offered nothing other than patience as we counted through what remained of my coins to make up the fare from Marleybone road to Paddington Station
  • The Heathrow Express employee who came to the rescue with a magnetic strip enabled ticket device when the Tube strike’s removal of staffed ticketing booths had left me unable to purchase a ticket in the chip-and-pin only dispensers
  • The barmaid at Heathrow who insisted on carrying my pint of cider and second of water to a table for me

Back home, an acquaintance who has long eschewed both me and her partner’s friendship with me willingly stepped up to cut my now-progious toe nails. A week later, another casual acquaintance responded graciously to the need for ten fingers with which to squeeze open the battery-chirping smoke alarm and insert a new battery.

In a larger view, getting along one-handed has been eased by years of observing how a variety of local folks with permanent physical challenges have managed opening jars, closing long zippers, and other seemingly small and daily chores that most of us typically bring either two mobile hands or more than six digits to resolve. Their modeling has been invaluable as I go about keeping house and self in my enforced solitude.

Another cadre of spectral glimmers are the shopkeepers in my daily life: the barista who asks about my pain level everyday, reminding me to check and contrast it with previous days, both post-injury and when I was whole; the haircutter who overcame her initial panic–what-would-I-do-if-this-happens-to-me–to joke with me; the staff at my place-of-resort who put my dinner together so that no knife is required; the postman who stacks arriving boxes of books inside my apartment, a suggestion I would never have thought to ask of anyone.

Four weeks. Lost friends. Flaming depression as well as physical pain. And, shot through all that, the wonder of the kindness of strangers. Thank you.

Leave a comment

Filed under Friendship, Health and wellness