Losing My Hero

It was a long, hard week so when I finally got to Friday at 4:00pm I thought it would be smooth sailing. I had one more quick task and then I could hit the road. I’d promised the family we could go out for tacos at our favorite hole-in-the-wall and after that I was committed to only two activities: changing into comfy pjs and falling asleep on the couch.

Hopefully in that order.

So, when I got a group text from my mother telling my brothers and I that my grandfather was unconscious and wasn’t expected to make it through the weekend I felt the blood drain from my face. Somehow, I managed to compartmentalize the news long enough to finish what needed to be done and drive home. I kept it tucked away when my parents and brother told me about their last visit with him. I kept it tucked away when my mother called this morning to tell me he had passed overnight. I kept it tucked away all day as I saw Facebook tributes and ran errands that needed to be run.

I kept it tucked away until now.

My grandfather was a constant in my life. He was there the day I was born and he spent the rest of his life telling the story of my birth and my unlikely survival. Growing up he was there every Sunday telling stories of business, while I sat on the floor playing with the toys my grandmother kept for us in the closet. When the time came, he was there packing me up in his Crown Victoria and driving thirteen hours to settle me in college. He was there to take the first picture of my husband and I, walking in his coveralls around the farm where he grew up looking for a picturesque spot for two young people in love. He was there when I put on my wedding dress in his house and he watched me say my vows from the front row. He was there to hold both my children when they were babies, and he was there to watch them grow to be taller than me.

He was a part of every significant moment of my life and many thoroughly ordinary ones.

In every single one of those moments my grandfather was my hero. He was smart and driven, wrestling with challenges and problems without letting it wear him down or wear him out. He was humble, giving credit for his success to fortunate circumstances and treating everyone with respect from the lowest busboy to the highest executive. He was authentic, proud of the community where he was born and the life he had lead. And he was grateful, amazingly and consistently grateful for the gifts he had been given and the people with whom he shared them.

For as long as I can remember I was desperate to be like him. I desperately wanted to be worthy of being liked by him.

Hero worship is hard. No one is perfect and there were times when I failed to live up to his example. The feelings of inadequacy would weigh me down but somehow I would find the energy to drag myself through his front door, down the slate walkway and into his bedroom. I would sit across from him and confess imperfections, my heart filled with dread. He would sit across from me listening, providing wise and thoughtful counsel, his heart filled with love.

Over the years, those chats with my grandfather are some of my favorite memories. I would go over there for a quick task and come home three hours later because we got wrapped up in a conversation. There was never a topic too mundane — or too electric — for my grandfather. He reveled in sharing my trials and tribulations, my joys and celebrations, never getting enough of it. My heart is aching today because I won’t ever be able to sit across from him again and just chat.

I take solace in the one letter I have. He wrote it to me when I was seventeen and I’ve carried it around for 26 years. I pulled it out today so I could feel him and try to understand how I am going to find my way without him in my life. The scrawling unmistakeable handwriting offered two messages today that I needed to hear.

First, he reminded me of my endless potential and that I will never be alone.

Now I know you are wondering what brought all of this on? It started when you sent your beautiful card from Washington. This card was not written by an awestruck, flighty teenager. This card was written by a loving, perceptive and exciting young lady who has learned the meaning of essence. With your strength of character, soundness of mind and abundant energy the world will be your oyster. Never forgetting grandma and I are always with you, too.

Second, he asked me to keep pushing new thinking in a world of constant change.

There is one request I do have. Please, please don’t stop bouncing your ideas and thoughts off me. But when you do let me challenge them. I think it’s great to have give and take because Melissa I’m not always right. Also, change is always with us, things change, customs change, life changes. So don’t every stop questioning, exploring, and learning. Just remember the Ten Commandments, always!!!

As I was reading his letter it struck me that he is still a constant in my life. I’m smart because of the intellectual curiosity he passed onto me. I’m driven because he told me the world was my oyster. I’m humble because he showed me how to carry success without arrogance. I’m authentic because he didn’t need artifice to make friends. I’m grateful because he taught me the joy of a thankful heart. He may not be in this world, but he will always be within me, especially when I am at my best.

And he’ll always be my hero.

Cheering the Cheerleaders

We headed out today for a pleasant jaunt in our speed boat. Our family, and every other family in Northern Illinois, thought it would be a great day to get out on the water. But, there was a ton of algae in the water and our intake got plugged up. Twice. The channels were crazy crowded and at least three boats came barreling into no wake zones in full throttle. So, I had been finding the bright side of every complaint, looking for something to be happy about, when my husband caught me with a knowing glance.

“Why are you always so positive?” he joked, “It’s irritating.”

I’m not sure when I realized that there was something unique about my blend of energy and positivity, something quintessentially too much Mel. The first glimmer of it came during a late night my first year in college. I was struggling trying to write a standard 3-5 page lit paper and I had sought help from a woman one year older than me. In the course of the work we got to discussing our high school experiences and she asked me, completely seriously, if I had been a cheerleader. I was shocked. Beyond shocked. It must have shown in my face because she clarified. “You’re so energetic and perky; you have a great smile. You would have been an awesome cheerleader.”

On that night, in that room, I came up with many reasons why that wasn’t true. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t popular enough. I wasn’t athletic enough. I tried to help her understand why I could never have been a cheerleader, why she was wrong. I wanted her to be wrong because I had built strong images of both myself and cheerleaders and I knew that they couldn’t co-exist. I knew it like I knew the sun rises in the East and a rock thrown into a pond will sink.

And as much as my eighteen year old self knew it was wrong, my forty-something self knows it is right: I am a cheerleader.

At some point I realized that people count on my energy and positivity to push through hard moments. My friends rely on me to stand on the sidelines of their life and remind them that they are strong and capable and good. My co-workers rely on me to come into the office each day with the certainty that problems can be solved and to roll up my sleeves and make it happen. My family relies on me to take the ups and downs of life in stride and find a way to smile and power through it. I don’t resent that reliance, I understand it. They aren’t expecting me to be anything but me, an Energizer bunny with a unique capacity to find the good in life.

Most of the time it works out great.

And once in a while, once in a very great while, I just can’t put on my cheerleading outfit. I look at a situation and I really don’t know how to handle it. I am overwhelmed by a hard relationship. I feel hopeless and not hopeful — against all facts to the contrary I feel alone in my failure to figure it out. Depending on the depth of the problem, it might be enough to get a good night’s sleep or sing loud and off key to my motivational playlist. But sometimes that doesn’t work and I am wracked with sobs that echo from deep in my chest, with snot and tears everywhere.

It’s not a pretty picture, the emotionally capsized cheerleader.

But, I’m lucky. I have a great network of people who are watching out for me. When I send out warning signals people offer me chocolate or a hug. When I just tell my network I’m on rickety ground the support is overwhelming. People who would never consider themselves cheerleaders stand on the sidelines of my life with shaking pompoms chanting, “Give me an M! Give me an E! Give me an L! What’s that spell? Mel, Mel, Mel!” And it’s enough for me to dust myself off and get back into position.

I get it now. I understand that my contribution in this life isn’t just about what I can accomplish, but about what I can inspire other people to accomplish. Years ago I rebelled against the cheerleader moniker, but today I embrace it. Who wouldn’t welcome a chance to support others achieving their best self? And if there is something in my DNA that makes it just part of the way I’m wired, well, it would be unexcuseable not to leverage it. I’ve stopped fighting it, I’m here on the sidelines of your life ready to cheer you on.

Just don’t ask me to wear the outfit.

Betting on Cally

Flying from East to West is the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing magic. I never have enough time to do everything I want to do, so when I can jump on a plane at 7:30pm in Chicago and be asleep in my hotel in Phoenix by 10:30pm it’s like I’m Hermione Granger with a time turner. I focus on the magic trick and ignore my body, no matter how exhausted I am from reality. Look at the clock, woman, it’s only 10:30pm.

So, when I checked into my hotel room and noticed the short handwritten note from my housekeeper, I didn’t think too much of it. I went to bed and got up and went to work. Normal day, normal stuff.

But, when I got back to my room after work that day I noticed there was a new note. It was from the same person, but longer. More insistent that if there was anything I needed just to let her know. Her name was Cally and she signed it with a smiley face. There was something so appealing about it that I had to respond, jotting a quick note at the bottom of the page. I posted a picture of the note and my response on my personal social media page — I said that although it was possible that writing notes like that was a management mandate, I didn’t think that was driving Cally. There was something about her sincerity that came through her words and that fun smiley face.

I posted that I was betting on Cally. That it was a “betting on Cally” kind of day.

Throughout the day, I thought about Cally. My brother got a job cleaning hotel rooms one summer and it was such a grueling job he quit after a day. I know it is hard work and I found myself thinking about the character of a woman who would take the time out of that job to hand write a note. I wondered if my brief comment would elicit a response. And then I worried about something I hadn’t considered: what if today was her day off?

I shouldn’t have worried. I came back that night to a new note. She thanked me (two exclaimation points), told me she was happy I was comfortable and to have a super stay. She signed it with her signature smiley face.

The next morning, I left Cally a longer note. I had decided to stay in the hotel one more night instead of moving closer to the airport and I asked, jokingly, if she would make sure they didn’t throw out my stuff. When I got back that night they had deactivated my room key, but I had all the faith in the world in Cally. After getting my key re-activated I opened my door and walked to the bedside table. There it was:

Hi… I want to thank you for writing back to me! I want my guest to feel welcomed and enjoy staying with us when away from home. I wouldn’t let them throw away your belongings. Glad to see you stayed another night. Thanks again!

It wasn’t an easy week, I worked too many hours and had some hard conversations. I hadn’t been clear about how long I would be gone and when we talked my husband was disappointed he wouldn’t see me until after work on Friday. I lost a blog post because of connectivity. Nothing crazy, but there were a few moments when I was struggling with keeping everything in perspective and staying focused on what I could do instead of dwelling on what I couldn’t. And the truth is that those notes, brief and unremarkable perhaps, helped. They made me smile and cheered me on. Cally reminded me I wasn’t alone.

I woke up today at 3:00am to head back to the airport. I was tired and rushing but I took a moment to write one more note to Cally. I thanked her for making it easier for a working mom to be away from her family. I did something I’ve never done — I told her I write a blog and that I would likely reflect on her kindness in a post. I gave her the website. It’s anyone’s guess whether she will look it up and if she does whether she will feel as appreciative reading these words as I am writing them.

But I’m betting on Cally. It’s a “betting on Cally” kind of day.

Life Happens

I woke up at 3:30am this morning to catch a 6:45am flight. I’m not a freak, so I struggled a bit to get up and get going, especially because I knew it was going to be a rough day. Traveling all morning and then an afternoon of meetings and presentations three time zones away would mean a long day, no matter how you look at it. So, when I got the text in the car to the airport that my flight was delayed I knew that it wasn’t good. My connection would be blown and I’d be standing in lines trying to put Humpty back together again.

Oh well, life happens.

After I had successfully rebooked my ticket and navigated security I decided to grab breakfast. I found a quiet table in a restaurant near a power outlet and ordered. I popped over to my bags and got my electronics out and as I was plugging in my chargers I heard a voice over my shoulder, “I’m behind you, sweetie.”

I thanked the waitress for the heads up; if I had backed into her it could have gotten wet and sticky for both of us. And because it was empty in the restaurant, I took the time to tell her about the last time I had found myself on the receiving end of a full diet pop. 

I was having lunch at the university where I worked and a young student waitress got unbalanced and spilled an entire glass of diet pop down my back. It was exceptionally cold and soaked my sweater and my pants. The young woman was mortified — who wouldn’t be? I could see her spiraling downward and somehow in that moment I only knew one thing: how I responded was important. She was a student and for all I knew she had an exam after her shift, a critical exam in a class that mattered.

I smiled, looked her right in the eye and said, “I’m fine, don’t worry. It happens.”

To be honest, it had never happened to me before and I am hopeful that it won’t ever happen again. It was the soggiest lunch I’ve ever had, as I sat there finishing my meal. But I continued to smile, carrying on pleasantly with my lunch companion as if I wasn’t soaked, sticky and miserable. I tried not to think about it. I repeated the magic words several more times every time she stopped by to check on us, “Don’t worry, it happens.” 

Once we had paid I walked back to my office, told my team what had happened and went home and changed.

After I shared the story with Mindy, she opened up with her own story of a waitress who had spilled an iced tea on a woman’s coat. Unfortunately, the customer response in that situation was much different. She had called the waitress names and refused to accept any apology (including purchase of a new coat by the waitress). When Mindy shared it, I could tell the story was well-traveled, the kind of cautionary tale that coworkers tell the newbies and chat about when work is light.

Hearing it, I wondered for the first time if that young waitress tells our story. Did it impact her beyond that day? She’s in her mid to late 20’s now, out in the world somewhere likely doing something other than waitressing. Maybe it was a moment easily forgotten, or maybe a random kindness one shift in the spring semester is something she remembers.

Gosh I hope so.

Life happens. The good and the bad and everything in between. A delayed flight, a spilled drink, it’s just part of the complex spinning of the world that I can’t control. All I can control is my response and I try to respond to bumps with grace and empathy. I don’t want to sit in an airport for an extra couple of hours, I don’t want to rush frantically after I land to get to a presentation for 400 people. But, I will. And who knows, something awesome may come out of it.

I’ve already got a new blog post.

The Illusion of Isolation

Every once in a while I listen to a podcast that fundamentally changes the way I think about something. I can almost feel the new idea take up residency in a corner of my brain and the new connectors fire into place. And when a new life experience triggers that idea it lights up like an outfielder under a pop fly. “Yep, I’ve got that one.”

Last year I listened to a podcast that changed my view on why people seek out groups that are like themselves. It was an Invisibilia episode called The Power of Categories and it argues that humans use categories as a kind of decision short hand. It argued that we can’t possibly assess every new data point fully on its own, so we use categories and we generalize.

To make the point it talked about a gated retirement community in Florida specifically designed for individuals who grew up in India. The development started just as the real estate market collapsed and yet surprisingly it still managed to thrive amidst foreclosed properties and a housing glut. Why? Individuals who felt they were dying wanted to be around people who were most like them, safely in a category of sameness. They didn’t want to feel weird for living the way that was most familiar, the way they had grown up — from little things like how they liked their coffee to big things like the rituals of dying.

In short, they just wanted to live in a place where it was easy to be normal.

So when the Brexit vote results came out, and later when the polling data suggested that there were strong splits based on age and nationality, that little light in my brain flickered. And I thought about the whole thing not from the point of view of a 43-year old enjoys that feeling of discomfort in the new, but as someone who is struggling every day to exist in a world that is changing, a world that no longer feels normal. People who, like those Indian retirees, want to create a place like the one they grew up in where they don’t have to work so hard to make sense of things and fit in.

The light intensified, I got it.

I have watched firsthand the challenge of adapting to a new normal. My husband struggled painfully when we lived overseas where everything felt like an attack on his foundation. Road signs were weird. Hot dogs were weird. Shopping was weird. TV was weird. Language was weird. Traveling was weird. I tried to make a little sanctuary of normal, but I couldn’t do enough. Living as an outsider takes a proactive willingness to shift your normal and we never got there.

So, I get it. Both philosophically and personally, I get it. Categories are real, normal is easy. There’s just one problem with that: isolation is an illusion. 

In 2016 we can’t put up walls to keep foreign people and ideas out of a neighborhood or a country. In earlier times there were real obstacles to overcome in order for new ideas to shift the normal: mountains and oceans and forests. But today the spread of people and information means that we are exposed daily to other normals and some of those are going to better. Some of them are going to stick and become the new normal, whether everyone wants it or not.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, those physical obstacles never really kept our normals from evolving, they just lengthened the time it took for those ideas to take root. One immigrant coming into a community can influence normal a very small amount, a group of immigrants can make a shift. One book from an outsider causes some readers to think differently, one video gone viral causes a mass of people to see differently. We live in a time when a well-established normal can change within a generation, when it used to take multiple generations. It’s scary, the speed of change, but we shouldn’t pretend that we can stop it.

I spend a lot of time with my children cautioning them against using the word weird. We talk about how our experience is different than others, but that it is not better. I try to ask them to think about how others would view a situation, to recognize that they are judging the circumstances in a way that is limited by their narrow experiences. I will not promise that the world they live in will remain unchanged, and I believe that it is my job to give them the ability to adapt.

Because I know it will hurt when the world busts open their normal box and every crack I make will help it hurt a little bit less.

Reflecting on Mother’s Day

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and I am reflective. Not just about my own experiences as a daughter and a mother, but of the wide range of experiences of daughterhood and motherhood that can exist.

When I was a child, I only had one data point around mothering — my mother. And, as I’ve shared before, I got super lucky in the mom lottery. Trained in early childhood education and with one of the kindest hearts I know, my mother was supportive, encouraging and never withheld love. She gave me a solid base of security to explore the rest of the world. She grounded me and gave me wings.

As I captured new data points, one friend at a time, I started to add to my personal understanding. Eventually, my data point as a mother myself was added. But my data set was limited by my own sphere, how much and how far I had journeyed into the world. And how much people were willing to share with me.

I’m not sure I really started to understand the range of mother-daughter experiences until Facebook. That sounds odd, but hear me out. Every Mother’s Day people I know, and people I don’t know, share personal reflections on the ways that Mother’s Day hurts them. How it reminds them of a broken, abusive relationship with their mother. How it reminds them of a child lost. How they struggle with the overwhelmingly positive feelings everyone seems to have but them. How friends and family struggle to say anything, not even the right thing.

I read as many of those articles and blog posts as I can. I weave as many of them as I can into the fabric of my experience. I try desperately to put myself in those situations and ask myself, “What would you have done? How would you have handled it?” For me, it is an exercise in building the muscles of empathy — making myself stronger and more capable to listen someday when someone confides in me that they did not have an easy relationship with their mother or that their experience as a mother was hard.

What I’ve learned is that the myth of natural mothering — the idea that the very act of carrying and birthing a child is guaranteed to create an unbreakable bond — is just that, a myth.

For those of us who have those bonds, it can be easy to assume that it is universally true. I know that I always felt it with my mother and I felt it the minute that my children were placed in my arms. I know that my attachment to my children has helped me push through frustration and stand up again when I stumble; I feel the pull of “you’re all they have, be better” and I roll up my figurative sleeves and try again. I know I will try again as many times as I have to until they are ok. Because that is my experience.

But it is not the only experience.

On this Mother’s Day I will cherish my experience, but I will also consider other experiences. I will be mentally offering my support to the individuals who grew up being told they were a burden and that it would have been better if they had never been born. I will be sending comfort to the individuals whose mothers put them into harm’s way by bringing a dangerous person into their lives and not listening when harm was done. I will be aware that there is a child out in the world right now whose mother is — for whatever reason — not capable of providing them with the foundation of love that I take for granted. And that child is going to have to find some way to survive and build a life of meaning on their own.

Every day, but especially on Mother’s Day.