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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why Accidents Will Happen

I am a driver.  A road warrior.  I once drove from Rhode Island to DC to visit with a relative in the hospital then on to Wilmington, N.C. in one day with a 7 year old in tow.  Distances don’t faze me; heavy traffic is an annoyance, not a phobia.  The 95 corridor is my well-beaten path but my son and I have regularly taken other 6 to 10 hour drives on roads less travelled.  I have driven in Boston, New York City (and the boroughs) and drove the mean streets (and meaner highways) of L.A. for nine long years.

And I have never had an accident.  Or even been ticketed with a moving violation.  Until last weekend.
It was a routine, 6 hour trip from my Mom’s (once my grandparent’s) summer cottage (cottage too grand a word, so we refer to it as a “camp”) on Lake Ontario.  I have made this exact same trip every summer for the past 7 years with my son.  This year we were heading home to celebrate his 11th birthday the next day.

I was tired from our week away and deliberately made several stops; gas, Costco, restrooms, even some ice cream for the almost-birthday boy.  We were about an hour and 15 minutes from home when it happened.  In a flash.  A flash that left me shaking uncontrollably while whispering, “Oh my God, I just had an accident” over and over.
Once the helpful and courteous police and paramedics had done their jobs and the most badly damaged car had been towed away, the kid and I were on the road again.  Seatbelts locked in the crash position, airbag light blinking (although no airbag deployed), glove compartment askew.  But most of all the surreal sense that life was changed, that I was changed, forever.  And not in a good way, either.

Once I got home and unloaded a week’s worth of luggage and laundry and treasures from the vehicle, the woulda-coulda-shoulda’s began in full force. 
If ONLY we had left 15 minutes earlier.  Or later.  If ONLY we hadn’t stopped for ice cream.  Or gone to Costco.  If only I had done just one little thing differently, I would not have been in the wrong place at the wrong time and all of this chaos and destruction could have been avoided.  So many situations that if they had taken a few seconds less or more would have gotten my son and me out of harm’s way.  Instead, we found ourselves quite squarely the victims of a horrible machination of fate.

And I had never had an accident before.  After the hundreds of thousands of miles I had driven, NOW I realized the bizarre and statistically improbable glorious good luck of it.  How suddenly an accident happens, with no warning, in that flash; I had certainly experienced near-misses in the past and although I had appreciated those moments of grace, they had instantly been elevated to the miraculous. 
So many tiny things that can go wrong, so many tiny decisions that can influence a devastating impact (literally and figuratively)… “Hey, accidents happen”….those parting words from the State Trooper have taken on a mythic quality.

I have heard a lot of people say that the words “Everything happens for a reason” are an absolute punch in the stomach when grieving a loss, enduring an illness or recovering from a trauma, and I understand those feelings.  But I am the sort who does search for meaning in everything and I find comfort in doing that. 
The relative I visited in DC at the hospital on that marathon drive day was a young cousin of mine who would later succumb to her illness at just 27 years old, leaving a tiny daughter behind.  I was lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time with her when I was living in Charlottesville and she was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia; she and I were in many ways “birds of a feather”.  After her untimely death, a local newspaper printed a story about her called “The Meaning of Life”.

The article discussed, among other things, a video she had made for her father’s birthday with the same title.  A video depicting people from all demographics and walks of life that emphasized we are all “in this thing together”.   In my travels, this has always been a point that impresses me.  Highway service areas are such a fascinating cultural phenomenon, even more so than airports, because the road weary are so courteous to each other.  We hold doors open and make eye-contact and share “moments” because we have literally walked a mile in each other’s shoes that very day and want to show some kind of support.
At highway service (rest) areas we all know that the “other” has been driving too, at least long enough to require a break and probably a lot longer than that.  We are hungry, tired and need to pee.  We are “fellow travelers to the grave” as Dickens so poignantly put it, and we take comfort in each other and whatever niceties we can extend.  We are all “in this thing together” and for a moment we remember how a smile can make a difference.

I thought I had never had an accident before.  But then I had an accident and realized that (to paraphrase something Einstein may or may not have said) either all of life is an “accident” or all of life is NOT…in other words, I have either had millions of accidents or else every little thing about my life, every moment has impacted and built on others in deeply meaningful ways I may or may not ever fully comprehend. 
I am choosing to believe the latter.    I have always been in awe of people who face personal tragedy and trauma with courage and grace…they stand in such sharp contrast to those of us who allow ourselves to be undermined and overwhelmed by daily nuisances and inconveniences.  But now I understand:  to survive anything is to know grace.  When we are confronted with our fallibility, our vulnerability and our mortality in an undeniable way, it ironically makes us stronger.  And more humble.  Much, much more humble.

My “accident” has changed me forever; I realize above all that while every decision I make has some kind of influence on the world, I am not in charge or “in control”.  Accidents will happen.  In a split second, life will be changed.  We will lose people we love too soon. 
The best we can do is to consider that we are all "in this thing together”, as my wise young cousin put it, and make decisions that reflect that knowledge.  Like the butterfly that flaps its wings, we can never know how far-reaching our influence truly is…so we become ever mindful that “all for one and one for all” is the best approach. 

To everything, really.

Thursday, July 7, 2016


My Dad was a fan of the well-worn expression.  Also, the catchphrase.  And: the cliché.  He had so many sayings, slogans and mottos and he trotted them out on such a regular basis that he effectively brainwashed my siblings and I into “being all that we can be”!  No, actually, that wasn’t one he used.  Dad was more prone to tell us, “The good news is, life is a do-it-yourself project!  The bad news is, there may be an idiot in charge.”

I get a big kick out of the fact that whenever I hang with my brother’s children, inevitably at some point I will dish out one of our Dad’s golden oldies and be told with awe “My Dad says that too!”  This last visit I got to use “I SEE, said the blind man…but he didn’t see at all.”  It’s a classic.  And it applies to SO MUCH of the stuff that comes out of a kid’s mouth, am I right???
I have related before that my Father’s rallying cry was “This is it!  This is what you’ve been trained for!” and I have to admit it was subliminally very successful; my siblings and I all have a general “can do” attitude about most things.  Not a princess in the lot, and I’d say that was quite a parenting accomplishment when you consider that 3 out of 4 of us are girls.  But in spite of Pop’s desire to raise a prepared and practically competent brood, he also used to preach that when given the opportunity, we should “buy the red dress”.

He said it as often as anything, and we quote him on it whenever it is appropriate to the occasion…but I have to admit, of all of the madly effective conditioning my Father employed on us, this was the least successful for me.  It definitely worked for my siblings, but somehow my closet Puritan/miser would always manage to wrestle the red dress out of my hands while screaming, “HOW can you even CONSIDER buying that?  Don’t you want to EAT???”
Of course, in my poverty stricken, starving artist 20’s, that was actually a reasonable question.  But as time went on and the budget increased, my attitude did not keep pace.  “Buying the red dress” seemed frivolous to me…grandiose, almost.  Whatever the red-dress-of-the-moment, I could always quite easily talk myself into something less—or just as often, nothing at all.  I told myself I was emotionally healthy because I didn’t need “things” to make me happy.  I was a bit smug because I had never been bitten by the “retail therapy” bug.

As my life continued to grow and expand there was definitely the occasional splurge; but it never brought me much joy because I felt so guilty about it.  My husband and I had decided early on in our relationship to live without credit card debt, so everything we bought (apart from cars and houses) had to be subsidized by cash-on-hand.  We never purchased ANYTHING we could not pay for immediately, so I began to understand that my guilt was probably not the healthiest response; why was it so difficult to “treat” myself?
Then I had a significant exchange with my Dad in the last few months of his life; I had expressed contempt for a young starlet who had just spent $100,000 on a watch.  A WATCH, for crissake.  After I finished my rant about how the thing “better have the ability to stop time or at least make her breakfast!” my Dad very calmly reminded me that it was her money to do with as she pleased.  Cue my second rant, imploring that if she had an extra $100,000 lying around to spend on a watch, might she not have budgeted maybe only $50K for the watch and given the rest to a worthy charity?

My Dad countered—would I be okay with her spending the 100K on a watch if she had additionally given 50K to charity?  Now I’ll confess:  I still wasn’t okay with the watch.  It seemed frivolous and grandiose, wasteful and stupid.  So then I had to admit it…I had been harboring a deep-seated prejudice against red dresses and the people who think it’s okay to buy them when there is so much suffering in the world.
I continued to pinch pennies, shop at TJ Maxx and roll my eyes at anyone who purchased anything that wasn’t on sale.  I continued to refuse to replace anything that was still working, no matter how “outdated” or shabby.   I started using the phrase “I’m not externally motivated, I’m internally motivated” to justify my disdain for people who took pleasure in material objects.  I lived life on a tight budget and like Scrooge, took pleasure in THAT instead.

Then, we replaced the showerhead.
To set the stage for this dramatic, life-changing moment, I will inform you that when we bought our current home, the showerheads were original to 90’s construction and cheap, flimsy affairs.  Additionally, we have a well and at the time had an inadequate pressure tank, which meant water had to be meted out in the most parsimonious of fashions.  Naturally I was very comfortable with all of this.

But some inciting incident that has slipped my mind prompted us to replace the showerhead in the master bathroom.  And you know what?  I actually didn’t buy the cheapest thing available!  I threw caution to the wind and bought the second or third cheapest thing and once it was installed was amazed by the luxurious phenomenon of taking a shower that didn’t approximate a Great Dane drooling on my head.
The sheer bliss!  And the utter wonderment that I hadn’t forked over the 50 bucks years earlier in order to experience a halfway decent shower!  I finally had my A-HA moment, as Oprah with her totally frivolous, grandiose, wasteful list of “favorite things” would say!

I finally understood that “buying the red dress” is not at all about the shameful disregard for other people’s suffering.  It is about taking care of yourself so that you can go forth in life in an empowered and joyful way.  It’s amazing what a nice, long, hot shower can do for your soul, isn’t it?  We just replaced that inadequate pressure tank too, btw.
And I did actually buy the metaphorical red dress, two years ago NOT ON SALE.  I have worn it so often I have lost count, and it always makes me feel pretty and happy.  My Dad was right.  Go ahead and buy the red dress.  You can’t play Scrooge with yourself and call yourself a generous person. 

Go ahead and be happy, even though there is still suffering in the world.  As Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”

Never go hungry again!!!