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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

WHY I AM A BAD GUEST

I have just returned from our annual family vacation and my annual reminder that I am in fact a really bad guest.  This year’s infraction was minor in relation to many in my past, but still notable.  To set the scene, what you need to know is that every summer my son and I join my Mother and younger sister as guests of the world’s MOST GRACIOUS and GENEROUS hosts, my sister-in-law’s Mom and Stepdad.

Every year for the past I-have-lost count, they open their homes, gardens, refrigerators and wine cellars to our invasion…this year, it was the wine cellar that got me in trouble (BIG surprise there).  As part of the communal living deal, we each choose a night to host a meal.  On my chosen night, everyone was over at the main house socializing while I was finishing prep work in the guest house kitchen.  You know what goes great with prep work?  A glass of wine, of course!
Although I had brought my own wine I had not brought a wine opener, so this device had been borrowed from next door.  As a longtime waiter/caterer, I routinely use the old-fashioned waiter corkscrew and was a bit bemused by the fancy gizmo I was given.  My sister (who doesn’t even drink!) showed me how it worked…now it was my turn at the wheel, metaphorically speaking.

Everything seemed to be going just fine; a little handle at the top that rotated in a consistent direction not only drove the corkscrew into the cork, but then back out again!  As I was marveling at this, the entire device exploded in my hands.  Literally shattered in several pieces.  There was no moment of resistance before this happened—it almost seemed like part of the show. Except it wasn’t.  I had irreparably broken their fancy gizmo.

This mishap was greeted with gracious good nature, but it did prompt a bit of a walk down memory lane with my sister-in-law about the time I was the world’s worst guest at her house.  First of all:  I invited myself to stay over, the epitome of bad form.  I was 8 months pregnant and my own home was being treated with chemicals so I wanted to stay away for the recommended 24 hours.  Because her and my brother’s guest room was already occupied on the night in question, she had blown up an air mattress for me.
But I was 8 months pregnant.  Not super comfortable in my body and a whole lotta peein’ goin’ on, so I opted to sleep on the couch in the family room instead.  Not so far to get up and down for those bathroom visits.  At some point during the night, some kind of alarm started chirping.  This did not rouse the rest of the house, so I began to wander around searching for the source.  I stood under fire alarms; put my ear up to doors, all to no avail.

Finally I determined this noise was coming from my sister-in-law’s phone.  Her phone was much fancier than my phone, so therefore I had no clue 1) what the alarm was for or 2) how to turn it off.  My solution?  Take the phone into the furthest room from where I was sleeping and stuff it down between upholstered cushions to mute the alarm.
As we reminisced about this bumbling bit of bad-guest-behavior, my sister-in-law also reminded me that I had borrowed her bathrobe during the visit and somehow managed to dunk it into the toilet while struggling to get up (8 months pregnant).   In the interest of full disclosure, I will now admit that I have dropped the sash of my own bathrobe into the toilet more times than I care to confess while decidedly NOT pregnant.

There are other, more subtle examples of my horrible guest acumen that involve carrying on bad habits from my home while in another’s.  I constantly open cupboards and drawers to get things and then forget to close them again.  I am always drinking something, so there is often an assortment of mugs and cups strewn about the place.  And I am hands-down the most unskilled bed-maker on the planet!  I have the ribbon somewhere.  The only time the beds in my house look tidy is when my husband makes them.  So there’s that.
But my very best worst-guest-ever story took place in the home of the parents of a dear high school friend.  I had driven the 95 corridor from NC to CT in one horrible, belabored shot, complete with an all-lane closure in the DC area that had me fumbling with my atlas and my terrible sense of direction for a detour around it (this was before GPS—and lo and behold, I figured it out without one!).  By the time I was crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge (why is there always so much traffic???) the world was swimming before my eyes.

14 hours alone in the car had rendered me slightly catatonic, so when I arrived at whatever impolite hour I arrived at, I was soon ushered to my sleeping quarters, which turned out to be a converted office space over the garage with a very comfortable pull out couch.  I quickly fell asleep but was just as quickly wakened by a chiming clock.  I lay there in the dark completely disoriented--the bed actually felt like it was revving forward as a side-effect of my long drive—and after a bit determined that the clock was striking on the quarter hour.
I stumbled out of bed and stopped the pendulum.  My parents were fans of the antique chiming clocks, so I figured I could start the pendulum in the morning and reset the time and no one would be the wiser.  I had just begun drifting off when the clock chimed again.  WHAT THE BLOODY HELL?????

I fumbled with the clock again—this time, the pendulum came out in my hand.  I was obviously mortified, but assumed this would solve the problem and I could express the mea culpa first thing in the morning after a good night’s sleep.  Except the clock quickly chimed again. 
Now this was full-on war…in my delirious and exhausted state, I proceeded to entirely dismantle the thing until I finally realized it was actually battery operated and all I ever needed to do was take out the batteries.  Oopsie!

Naturally my destruction of their clock was acknowledged not only with gracious good manners, but also an apology for the nuisance.  If there is anything worse than being the world’s worst guest, it has got to be being the world’s worst guest to the world’s BEST hosts. 

And btw, I’m a mediocre host at best.  Because if you come to my house and starting breaking stuff and dropping my bathrobe into the toilet, you are going to get at the very least a whiff of my utter exasperation with you.  And that’s if I’m having a good day.


Saturday, June 4, 2016

WHY I LEARNED TO 'LET IT BE'

I’m an answer girl.  Years ago, before we all had the world wide web at our fingertips to reveal anything to us at lightning speed, my friends would often call me to ask questions, from personal advice to just random trivia… “Just ask Kara, she will know” was sometimes injected into debates as the closing bell.  Even after Google swept in to usurp my authority, I still found that people contacted me so frequently for information they could easily access themselves that my sister began to joke I should set up my own business called “I Google For You”.  It sometimes feels like that could be a viable money maker, especially when it comes to politics.  People so often claim that there is no evidence of facts they could find in just a keystroke, it is difficult not to call their ignorance feigned or willful. 

I won’t lie; I mostly enjoyed being the answer girl because being helpful is a top bell-ringer for my soul.  But later I became more like Holly Hunter in “Broadcast News”, when her boss snarkily says, “It must be nice…to always think you are the smartest person in the room”.  She replies in anguish, “No, it’s awful.”  Yes, it was nice, before I was a Mom, without the responsibility of this little person’s life on my shoulders.  Now it’s awful.
That is life’s big game changer, isn’t it?  When we realize we are actually responsible to and for people other than ourselves.  It doesn’t have to be a child, either…it can be a sibling or parent who is struggling; a spouse, an employee…anyone who is looking to you for real answers and support. 

Still, the perspective we have on other people’s lives can make us very effective guides to whatever they are grappling with; our own struggles are an entirely different story.  Especially when life has got you “up to your ass in alligators”, there is no brain space for strategizing and wisdom.  So often when we are facing incredible stressors we just downshift into survival mode, and that is as good as it gets.
The first four years of my son’s life were spent entirely in this survival mode for me.  Life dealt a series of blows so hard and quick that I never even got back on my feet before the next one came.  In the first year alone we had to deal with scary health issues for our tiny newborn, my husband losing his job, my living alone with a baby who never slept, a dog and a house on the market when my husband left to start his new job, the move itself, a terminal cancer diagnosis for my Father and the death of my husband’s Dad.  That was year one, and it turned out the universe was just getting started with me.

I remember at one point in the second (even worse, believe it or not) year, I was sitting in my car at the side of the road.  My Mother was watching my son and we were waiting for the results of some frankly terrifying genetic testing the doctors had decided to run on him, tests that took 2 weeks to “develop”.  I was so afraid and broken; I just sat there alone sobbing my eyes out, until finally I started screaming, “I DON’T WANT THIS!”  Over and over again.

And after I had finished, I felt calm and somehow reassured.  I had already absorbed so much loss and grief that was beyond my control, it felt good to state a preference.  It felt empowering to claim my desire NOT TO BE MESSED WITH anymore.  And though life continued to be very challenging for all of us after that, those particular tests came back normal.  Although if they had not, I know I would have managed that too.
By the time my son turned four, we had also suffered the death of my Dad, the very untimely death of my 39 year old writing partner and friend, a serious hospitalization for my sister, another job loss for my husband and another quite horribly bungled move...that, in addition to the difficulties my child faced.  In short, it was awful.  And there were no answers I had at the time that could have made it any better.

But I survived and my son is now a happy, healthy almost 11 year old boy.  And while I learned that it is critically important to our mental health to both KNOW and be able to VOICE our preferences, the tactic that is most effective in coping with back-breaking stress is to just LET IT BE.  Circumstances happen that are beyond our control and there is no good in banging our heads against walls or pushing up against a fact. 

LET IT BE is not about giving up; it is about acceptance and our ability to receive the help and answers we need as they become available.
When we are coping with grief, stress, crisis or all of the above, it is cruel to believe we should have all the answers, or should be able to handle it on our own.  We all have experienced times in our lives when just getting out of bed in the morning and taking a shower feels like a Herculean accomplishment (and it is!).  As counterintuitive as it may seem, it is when we are most under pressure that we must relax and let it be. 

I remember reading a story once in which a woman asked her gardener in exasperation, “Will it EVER stop raining?”  He answered her quite simply:  “It always does.” 

This is the essence of letting it be.  Even though we ourselves are powerless to stop the rain, it WILL stop.  And so we get out of bed and take a shower and keep putting one foot in front of the other until it does.
And also:  even in the most turbulent downpour, there is room for joy.  As horrible and devastating as those years were in many ways, I was also the mother of a precious boy.  And a physically healthy and capable woman.  And a friend, daughter, sister, wife.  These were things that helped keep me anchored in the storm.

Now, when I face challenges and disappointments, I know that I have not been done in yet and am unlikely to be taken down any time soon.   I have learned that sometimes, when I don’t have the answers, the best thing I can do is just let it be.  And wait for the rain to stop.