Amnesty

Every once in a while someone makes up a new holiday that resonates with me.

Kim and I were sure that Sweetest Day was one of those made up holidays just to sell greeting cards and candy.

All holidays are made up – we just meant that it was recently made up and just for crass commercial reasons.

It turns out we were wrong. It wasn’t as recent as we thought. That said, we never celebrated it. We didn’t see the point of waiting for such a day to do something nice for each other.

But I digress.

In a week there’s a holiday that I like a lot: Email Debt Forgiveness Day.

The folks at Reply All (a podcast from Gimlet Media) invented this day to encourage us to write that email we’ve been meaning to write but haven’t gotten around to.

You know how it is. You’re going through your inbox and you come across an email that’s going to take longer than a minute to reply to. Maybe you need to gather information or maybe you have to cover something awkward or unpleasant.

Whatever the case, you put it aside until you have more time.

And then it sits there.

And sits there.

And the longer it sits there the harder it is to write because now you have to explain why it’s taken so long – or the fact that it’s taken so long has given it more import than it might otherwise have.

So you never write your response.

But you continue to think about it. You feel bad about not answering. Something that shouldn’t be that big a deal has become a big deal.

Email Debt Forgiveness Day is a day on which you are to feel free about digging up those unanswered emails and writing the short response they deserved. You can include a link to the official page: http://emaildebtforgiveness.me to explain what you’re doing.

Like Sweetest Day, I’m not sure why it should only be one day a year. You should feel free to send your overdue email and link to the site any day – but having it on one particular day might pressure you into actually doing it.

Your debt might not be an email. It might be a text, a card or letter, a phone call, or an in-person visit.

The level of guilt and resistance increases as we move towards the end of the list.

On the other hand, the relief of having done so also increases.

Last week I noticed I was speaking at a conference where a former boss of mine was speaking.

Our relationship had gotten awkward at the end of our time together and we hadn’t spoken in many years.

He sent me a nice email after Kim died and I replied.

That wasn’t a small thing for him to do. We hadn’t spoken in many years.

His business partner hadn’t contacted me after Kim died and we had spoken since I left and it was never pleasant.

So after noting we’d be speaking at the same conference, I sent him an email asking if he’d like to meet for a cup of coffee or a drink or something.

He emailed back right away that he would.

And we did.

And I feel so much better.

Neither of us talked about the past. We didn’t re-argue disagreements or even think about them at all. We talked about the present and the future. I remembered what I liked about our relationship and left feeling grateful that we’d had a chance to talk.

Will we talk again?

I don’t know – but we won’t avoid talking to each other.

Friends asked if we cleared the air.

I don’t know how to explain it but there was no air to clear. We weren’t who we were back then and what would have been the point.

Friends asked if I asked him about collaborating on work.

No. That wasn’t the point of the meeting. The point was for us to sit for an hour together and talk to each other. It would have confused the issue if I’d brought up a project or two. That wasn’t why I contacted him.

I’ve been doing a lot of this lately. I’ve been considering people that I should reconnect with, just because – and I’ve been doing it.

Not everyone welcomes it.

There are people who don’t respond when I reach out.

That doesn’t keep me from trying.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve greeted one of my neighbors for years and he’s never responded. The other day he replied and we stood and talked for a while. I didn’t need anything. I just wanted to say “hi”.  I felt great. It may be another four years until he replies again, but I’ll continue to speak to him whenever I see him.

I hope you’ll celebrate the upcoming holiday with me on April 30. There are no cards for Email Debt Forgiveness Day – that’s kind of the point.

I think I’m all caught up in my email – if I owe you one, you should let me know so that I can send you something next week.

Published in: on April 24, 2017 at 10:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Eight Months

Still doesn’t feel real.

Then it does.

Then it doesn’t again.

Published in: on April 23, 2017 at 4:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Easter

A month ago I had dinner with a friend in London who asked me to imagine a world where each of us had all that we needed.

Would people be satisfied?

 

I think about that today as people celebrate Easter.

If we could provide food, clothing, and shelter and health care to all and you could still have everything you need, would you be in favor of that?

I would.

I know people who don’t feel that way.

They want to make sure that the un-deserving don’t get things they don’t deserve. Some people vote in such a way that they themselves don’t get services they would be entitled to just to keep the un-deserving from getting those services.

So, I told my friend, “no.” No I don’t think people would be satisfied.

We can talk about what religion is at its worst. We can worry about the divisiveness and the “othering” that can come from gathering with a group of people and celebrating your love for God and God’s love for you.

But at its best, religion can bring a community together to remind it of the blessings they enjoy and to point to those around them who could benefit from the love, kindness, and generosity of those in a position to give.

We’re all in a position to give love and kindness.

Do we?

 

 

In my friend’s world, everyone would have enough. Not just a minimal amount – but by your own standards you would have all that you need.

But, I said, people keep score. It’s not enough for some that they have enough. It’s not enough that they have all that they could possibly need. It’s not even enough that they could have more than they really want. For some, they must have more than their peers.

We’ve been asked that since youth. Why do you care what the other kids do or have?

We just do.

It’s not healthy.

It’s the root of our unhappiness.

If we have all that we need and want, why do we care if someone else is given what they need and want?

“It’s not fair,” we think.

It’s not equal. It might be fair.

There’s the cartoon of the three people behind a fence of different heights. In one image they are all given equal height step stools and only the tall one can see. In the second image they are given different stools of different heights and all three can see over the fence.

The shortest one had the tallest stool.

Is that equal? No.

Is it fair? I think so. Not everyone agrees.

The tallest one can see over the fence in either situation.

There are two sorts of tall people.

One tall person complains that his stool is less high than the other’s. It’s not my fault they can’t see. We’re all given the same advantage.

The other tall person is happy that all three can see. He doesn’t mind that more material and effort went in to assembling the other stools.

To my shame, I cannot say that I am always that second tall person.

I try to be.

There are days that I know I’m that first version – mostly it’s when I don’t notice. Sometimes when it’s pointed out to me, I still don’t change appropriately.

My friend’s utopia has us all living as the second tall person.

I love thinking that that world could exist.

That we could stand side-by-side peering over the fence and being able to talk about what we all see.

Perhaps when there are fewer fences, we won’t have to worry about the different heights of the stools.

Until then…

Published in: on April 16, 2017 at 11:12 am  Comments (1)  

More

It started with an innocuous quote reminding women they don’t find their worth in a man, they find their worth in themselves.

That seems fine. It’s a lesson we tried to teach our daughters. I would replace the words “a man” with “others” because I think it’s not just about dating.

The final line of the quote continued in the dating direction rather than the self worth direction. It added that you then “find a man who’s worthy of you.”

Or not.

After a positive message, this seemed to imply that your process isn’t complete – that’s it’s not enough to find your own worth – if you don’t find that man.

But that’s not what moved me to respond. After all, maybe the woman sharing the post had found such a man and wants to share it with friends. Maybe she’s angry at a man who turned out not to be. Maybe she’s just posting advice for the young women she knows based on her experience.

That still wasn’t what bothered me. Well it was – but something else was calling for my attention.

Among the comments on her post was one from a woman who wrote, “that is what all people should realize – You are most important.”

I was horrified.

The quote began by reminding us that we must find our own self-worth. Perhaps we can re-couch that as a reminder that we should be on our own list of important people.

It does not say we are more important than anyone else.

It took me a long time to find my own worth but I am not the most important person in my life.

Maggie is.

I would do anything for her.

I would and have stopped or changed what I’m doing if she needs something.

Needs. Not wants. I often will if it’s only a want.

Before she died, Kim was more important to me than I am. In many ways, her memory is still more important to me. My memories of her and honoring what she was still make me a better person.

Before she died, Elena was more important to me.

I can’t imagine I would have been a very good husband or father if I was the most important person in my life.

I hope to surround myself with people who feel comfortable in their own skins – people who understand, yet may undervalue, their worth.

Am I making too much of this?

Maybe.

It bothers me that this benign quote becomes a checklist.

Got yourself in order? Check.

OK, now go find yourself a man.

You don’t have to – you’ve got yourself in order.

You can. You just don’t have to.

Find other people who you can see are important to you. Don’t rank them in importance – just spend time with them and enjoy.

 

Published in: on April 15, 2017 at 7:42 am  Comments (1)  

Passover

For me, Passover is all about the stories. Not just the central story of Passover – which is more of a meta-story – but the stories we tell in our homes each year that become part of the tradition.

I just couldn’t bring myself to celebrate Passover this year without Kimmy.

I know that’s silly. She was Catholic. How could her loss keep me from celebrating a Jewish Holiday?

Simple.

Kim was a central part of my celebration for a quarter of a century.

Kim is part of my story.  She always said her sister was my best audience – but Kim was my favorite person to talk to and to listen to.

So many stories.

There are the stories I remember from Passover’s growing up.

There were stories that my mom would start and that my dad would interrupt and say, “that’s not what happened” and then she’d say, “ok, you tell it.”

There were stories my father would start and my mother would decide he was telling it wrong or taking too long and she’d interrupt and take over.

There were the stories where they would begin them and interrupt themselves because it wasn’t on a Thursday it was on a Friday and they remember it because cousin Beth Ann – wait no, it wasn’t Beth Ann it was her sister Carol …

I’d listen and think, “wait a minute, that’s not how they told the story last year.”

Or I’d think, “we’re opening the door for Elijah, we’re going to hear about the year the cat walked in.”

Passover is about stories and family traditions.

We go to each others houses and swap stories and add to each other’s traditions.

One year Kim and Jodelle and Bill signed up for a Seder that was intended for non-Jews at a nearby reform temple. I went with them and had a great time. There’s a story we still tell from that seder.

The Rabbi led everyone through the recitation of the plagues where you dip your finger in your wine and dab the wine drop on your plate for each plague.

After the recitation most people put their finger in their mouth – you wouldn’t want to waste that wine.

The Rabbi said one of the purposes of that section is to remove a drop from your cup for each plague. If you put your finger in your mouth then you are “drinking” one of the drops that you removed. You should instead wipe your finger on your napkin.

We tell the story each year at that part of the service but we still put our fingers in our mouth instead of wiping it on a napkin.

Another year we went to my thesis advisor’s house. Initially his wife was reluctant to have us as she never included non-Jews at her table but she thought about it and welcomed us into their house.

That year the Seder fell on Good Friday. Kim participated fully in the Seder. The hostesses’ mother and father were there and Kim and I just loved them immediately. When it came time for the meal, Kim took a little bit of everything but passed on the meat. The father looked at her and winked and quietly asked, “Good Friday?” She nodded.

Our host, my thesis advisor, shared something at that Seder that stuck with me. It was a little thought but meant so much to me about the meaning of the holiday. So much of the meal talks about the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt.

Our host reminded us that while many cultures think back to a time when they were kings, it’s important to us to remember that we were once slaves.

It’s a sentiment I shared every year that we hosted a seder.

Another year we went to a friends house where the hosts were all non-Jews. They had somehow mistranslated the song “Dayenu” to mean “It would not have been enough” instead of “It would have been enough”.

And so instead of a grateful people, who would have been satisfied with lesser gifts, their translation amounted to us repeating, “really, that’s all you’ve done for us – that’s not enough”.

Kim kept looking at me until at last I quietly said something. “Oh,” said our hosts, “that’s very different.” Suddenly, the text made more sense.

It’s a story we told in our home every time we sang the song.

We used to watch the Rugrat’s Passover Special with the kids each year before our seder. I loved it. In that telling the babies were the Jews, as in, “Pharaoh, let my babies go.”

There’s a scene where the Pharaoh wants a bunch of babies thrown out – but then complains when it is time to take a bath, “you threw out the baby with the bathwater?”

Genius.

Before we had kids we looked at our religious differences and commonalities as we prepared to get married.

We first met with the priest who married us at around Easter/Passover time. We were talking about how many traditions from each are similar. The priest told us that when he was at Seminary they had invited a rabbi to lead a Passover Seder. Midway through one of our priest’s fellow priests-in-training and whispered in his ear, “look at all the traditions they stole from us.”

Kim loved telling that story at our table.

Actually, my favorite expression of that story is one that I’ve told here and elsewhere. But on Passover we retell stories even if we retell them differently.

The fact that we didn’t have a Seder this year isn’t going to keep me from sharing it.

It was Elena’s last Passover and she sat between her grandfathers. She took the matzoh and passed it to my father. He looked at her because she held it back a moment. She looked him in the eye as she put it in his hand and said, “body of Christ.”

That is still my favorite Passover story to share.

 

Published in: on April 14, 2017 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Club

I finished teaching a four day class in Portland and headed to the airport on the light rail.

The woman who checked me in at the United counter was chatty. She glanced down at my tickets one last time before handing them back to me.

“Hang on,” she said.

That’s not good.

“Uh oh,” she said.

That’s not good either.

She told me my first flight was going to be delayed. That’s ok, she explained, the flight that was supposed to go out an hour ago is going to be three hours late so it will leave when your original plane was going to leave.

She put me on that flight.

An hour later that flight was cancelled.

Fortunately, I’d used miles to join the United Club and the woman there came over to tell me the bad news and to hand me a ticket on my original flight. It was now a middle seat but it was still a seat.

I was trying to get home in time to leave for my next trip – nuts, I know. But both flights were on United so I figured we could work things out if need be. I’d brought my passport with me just in case.

I called United. Fortunately, when I would call back later I would get a kind, empathetic person. This one was neither. She tried to explain to me that weather and runway construction isn’t United’s fault. If my plane didn’t make it out tonight and I missed my next trip from Cleveland that wasn’t really United’s responsibility.

But, I said, instead of flying me back to Cleveland and then from Cleveland to Washington DC, why don’t you fly me from Portland to Washington DC. It’s fewer legs, there’s plenty of room on the flight.

I’ll spare you the next ten minutes but the upshot was that this woman was where she needed to be and didn’t really care about getting me to where I needed to be.

Fortunately, this was unusual. Most of the United people I talked to were nice and tried to be helpful.

I check with Maggie. She says when I call back I should get angry.

I’m not going to get angry.

She says I could cry. Sometimes that works.

For the moment there was nothing to do but wait and see if I got on the flight to San Francisco in time to catch the flight to Chicago.

I look down and there’s a text from Maggie. It says “Cry.”

I nod at the guy opposite me. He smiles and nods back. It turned out he was a tall Chemistry professor originally from Zimbabwe. He asks me where I was from.

“Cleveland,” I said.

“Cleveland,” he smiles, “the mistake by the lake.”

Sigh. Is that really all he knows about Cleveland.

Nope. It turns out he wants to talk about the Indians. He doesn’t want to talk about them starting the new season with three wins. He wants to talk about game seven of the World Series.

I mention the Cavs.

He nods but wants to talk about the Browns. He remembers red right 88, the drive, and the fumble.

He went to school in Boston but was a Browns fan.

I tell him I went to school in Boston too. I tell him I went to Brandeis.

“Me too,” he says.

“I graduated in ’81.”

“Me too,” he says.

He was a chemistry graduate student while I was an undergrad. He has been on the board of trustees and is active in the local chapter.

The woman behind the counter waves me over so I excuse myself.

The plane has left San Francisco for Portland but our flight back to Portland won’t get in until after the flight for Chicago has left and there’s no room on later flights.

Sigh. Travel.

I call the mileage plus number again.

This time I get a woman who wants to help me but it’s a challenge because I have two different bookings. She works really hard to get me two options. I ask her if she would mind hanging on a minute while I text my daughter to ask her what she thinks.

Kim used to do that for me. It was probably unfair to put Maggie in that position – she hates being responsible for decisions like that – but it was helpful to run it by her. I decided to fly home, spend the night, and then fly on to Dublin through DC.

The woman puts me on hold and works to book the flights. I get a confirmation number while I’m on hold. The United themed version of Rhapsody in Blue repeats and repeats. I think it’s so that you’re so grateful that the agent has returned to the call.

We check the itinerary together and chat a bit. She says something about knowing how stressful travel is and she just wants to help if she can.

I thank her.

And then I tell her about Kim.

I don’t know why. It’s just that if Kim were with me all this would somehow be less stressful. We’d go through it together. We’d have each other.

The woman tells me that her husband died suddenly a few years ago.

We trade stories about our marriage. Like me and Kim, she and her husband had had a great marriage that was only getting better. The years before he died had been particularly good.

We trade stories about life since our spouses died. She has four kids in the same age range as Maggie.

I know she’s got to go back to work and I’ve got to retrieve my bag and find a hotel but I just feel so much better after talking to her.

She’s used the phrase “meant to be” several times and I don’t tend to believe in that but somehow this conversation feels like it was meant to be.

This person I don’t know and will never talk to again has unlocked something in me that helps me see that so much that I’ve experienced in the past seven months is normal in the face of Kim’s death.

I hang up and take my bag tag over to the woman behind the counter to see if she can have them pull my bag so that it doesn’t go on the flight. During my phone conversation she has brought me over the newly booked tickets.

I ask her for suggestions for hotels and I start calling. There’s nothing.

Some sort of convention in town and after a half hour I still haven’t found a hotel.

The plane to San Francisco is boarding. The man from Zimbabwe comes over.

“Excuse me,” he says not smiling, “did I overhear you to say that you lost your wife?”

I nod.

“Me too,” he says.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“She died of AIDS in 1998.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. It’s not much but it’s all I have. “Is that why you studied AIDS?” I ask.

He had told me he studied AIDS before switching to his current line of study.

He nods.

The woman behind the counter is nodding too. “I understand,” she says, “my boyfriend died as well. He drowned.”

“i’m sorry,” I say.

It feels inadequate every time I say it but I do feel it and it’s all I have.

I guess it’s our club’s secret handshake when we greet each other.

I’ve met three other members tonight. Perhaps I was meant to be here tonight. I don’t feel better but I don’t feel as alone as I did when I walked in the door tonight.

 

Published in: on April 7, 2017 at 11:36 am  Comments (2)  

Mother’s Day

A week ago someone I’m connected to on Facebook “liked” one of their friend’s new profile picture.

I was hanging out in a hotel room in London looking for reasons not to work so I clicked on her friend’s picture and saw a great picture of this woman I didn’t know with her adult son.

It made me smile. It was a greeting card from some woman I don’t know, celebrating being a mother.

I don’t think this woman or her friend knew that it was Mother’s Day in the UK – their Mother’s Day (or is it Mothers’ Day) is about two months before the day we celebrate in the US.

Kim and I were in London a few years ago on their Mother’s Day and saw all the cards and displays and panicked a bit.

“Wait,” I said, “we didn’t forget to send Mother’s Day cards to our mothers, did we?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Isn’t Mother’s Day in May?”

A quick search revealed that they celebrate Mother’s Day earlier than we do. As one friend put it to me at a conference last week, “It’s kind of funny that Mother’s Day in the UK is nine months after Father’s Day.”

Once Kim and I knew we hadn’t missed Mother’s Day and we weren’t in trouble, we relaxed and continued to walk down Portobello Road.

Kim being Kim took the opportunity to buy British cards to “Mum” for each of our mothers.

There’s so many things I loved about Kim being Kim.

In England Kim would drink Gin and Tonics because you should.

Kim would always say, “we should drink more often.” We hardly ever drank at home but always enjoyed relaxing over a glass of wine, a beer or cider, or a cocktail while traveling. Kim mostly ordered location specific beverages – whisky in Scotland, whiskey in Ireland, G & T’s in London, and wine in Paris. Wine was a fallback pretty much everywhere, but always in Paris.

I’ve been traveling a lot teaching. One of my examples on the first day is to create two people “daniel” and “kimberli”. I’ve been teaching a variation of this example for a while. I haven’t been able to remove it since Kim died.

In the example, you see what it takes to change daniel’s name to “kimberli” and whether or not that changes kimberli’s name. It turns out it depends on what type of objects we’re creating.

At the end of the example, I clean up a bit and delete the parts referring to kimberli.

The last time I taught this lesson a student said, “time to say goodbye to kimberli.”

He didn’t know.

To him it was a coding joke.

I caught my breath and continued – I don’t think anyone noticed.

I’m at a strange point in this process. It happened with Elena too.

There are times that, just for a moment, I forget that Kim is dead.

Usually, I’m in a hotel somewhere waking up. I used to text her in the morning. I wake up and reach for my phone and then I remember and say, “oh.”

I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to say goodbye to Kimberli, but there are those moments when I forget that she’s gone.

Mother’s Day in the UK reminded me that Mother’s Day is coming here in the states.

I expect it to be horrible.

Kim and I had a long tradition on Mother’s Day and another on Father’s Day. We celebrated each of them together before the kids woke up to join us. Crepes on Mother’s Day; bagels on Father’s Day.

I enjoyed Mother’s Day in the UK. I glanced back at the woman and her son like I was glancing back at a greeting card before putting it in a drawer.

I poked around a bit on Facebook and found that the neighbor whose link had led me to the card also is friends with one of Kim’s cousins and her husband. I think she teaches with Kim’s cousin.

The world is so small.

One thing Kim loved about traveling was seeing the stores and tasting the foods that were special to the places we were visiting. She hated that the world had gotten homogenous.

When we were first married she loved going to Nordstroms in San Francisco. Now there are Nordstroms everywhere – they aren’t special.

When Starbucks was small, she would go to one now and then. Now there are Starbucks in London, Paris, and just about anywhere – they aren’t special.

When we were in London, Kim would drink tea and not coffee because it was London.

So many things are now the same everywhere – the places are still special but not in the same way.

At least their Mother’s Day and ours were on different days.

The day on which their clocks “spring forward” is also different than ours. This year I lost two hours.

This year the clocks in London spring forward on Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day was an hour shorter than Father’s Day will be.

I like to think that that’s in honor of Kimmy.

They did it because this year the world is one “mum” short.

 

Published in: on April 4, 2017 at 8:47 am  Leave a Comment