Unlikely Friends

I am a people person. Far more than most. Although, I think getting older has made me a bit more cynical or selective about who I chose to befriend. But I recently found myself wondering if that is a good thing. Shouldn’t age and wisdom teach us tolerance and open-mindedness rather than keep us bound to the immaturity of judgementalism? All people, from all ages, walks of life, classes, and cultures have something to offer. We can all learn from each other if we are open enough to receive the lessons. Even from people we deem to be beneath us. Perhaps especially from them. I have learned more from my son in the two years he has been on this planet than I have from many of the “intellectual” adults I have encountered. I have learned more from old people who many would call out-of-touch than I have from some of the hippest acquaintances I have made. Some people who I may have initially thought too immature to contribute much to a balanced friendship, end up being the light-hearted relief that I crave in the middle of an otherwise stressful time. Others, for whom everything seems to come easy, who have never had to fight for their supper and electricity, may once have spawned jealousy in me, but lately inspire gratitude for the richness that the struggle has brought to my life.

Unlikely friends

This awareness of the unseen value in friendships that we might not have initially given much of a chance, came yesterday as my husband was making plans with a relatively new friend. Without being asked, I volunteered that I was not very fond of this friend. My husband was quick to point out that I used to say the same thing about another of his buddies who’s friendship I now consider myself lucky to claim. If he had not prodded me to overcome my initial judgements about that person, I would have missed out on a valuable, affirming, kind relationship simply because I was too closed minded to be accepting. Patience with people is an immeasurable virtue I am only beginning to comb the depths of. Acceptance of differences is what connects us with people unlike ourselves and these people then bring balance and change to our lives in ways our other similar, like-minded friends never could have. Friendships come in all kinds of packages and sometimes it’s the oddest looking ones that have the most valuable contents.

Nostalgia Covers a Multitude of Sins

There are moments we know, without a doubt, that we will remember fondly. But it doesn’t mean that those moments were completely idyllic or picturesque. Often times, as we dive back into our memories, they are blanketed with a think layer of nostalgia that covers a multitude of sins. Family gatherings, for instance, are often fraught with familial tensions. Unspoken but implied criticisms. Hurt feelings or frustrations. But these are not the things we remember. We remember with rose-colored glasses the good times. The unguarded enthusiasm of children experiencing things for the first time. The brash and also unguarded comments of the aged who no longer feel the need to bother with social niceties. Fingers in mixing bowls getting smacked by mammas. Christmas presents opened just a smidge at the corner when no one was looking. Or endless games of monopoly in which we seek to dominate our beloved.

But it struck me this weekend as I experienced just such a moment of pure nostalgia in the making, that it is often incredibly hard to get past the difficulties that exist in those moments so that we can see, all around us, the things we are sure to remember fondly. Why is it that we so often only appreciate things that have already passed? It is because we’re too busy dealing with the stresses of the present to notice. But shouldn’t our memories, time and time again, be a lesson to us to let go of the things that don’t matter in the present? If we can just find it in us to brush off a harsh word, let go of unwarranted criticism, or never return the slight of someone else in kind, we can remember, in the present, the love that holds us together and the joys that are the building blocks of our memories.

This weekend found me and my family in a very small town in northern Mississippi where my husband was participating in a reunion concert for a local band who’s first gig occurred 40 years previous. It was astonishingly beautiful. Already, I remember it warmly. But I do regret allowing myself to be taken up with some of the stresses that surrounded the weekend. Some of them were silly stresses. Some of them serious. But none of them will factor into the beauty of the memory. What did it matter, in the long run, if the hotel room was old and small? Or if my sick son was a bit whinny and slept in my arms for most of the concert? That, in and of itself, will bring a smile with its memory. Was it really justified of me to feel somewhat jealous of the time I didn’t get to spend with an old friend when he was surrounded by family, friends, and a girlfriend he doesn’t get to see often enough? Should I have allowed myself to embody the stresses of those around me who were prepping for the concert or dealing with their own family tensions? Or should I have been an oasis for those same people – a stress free zone to refresh their mind and spirit? Of course, none of these difficulties compared with the wonderful beauties that the weekend afforded. Such as the constant bombardment of strangers telling me how wonderful my husband was both as a person and as a musician and how much they appreciated his help over the last several months. Or seeing the pure excitement on my son’s face, despite being sick, as he watched his daddy play in a concert. Or witnessing old men relive the passions of their youth with unrivaled enthusiasm and the support of their home town for their endeavor. And seeing a mother dance with her grown son, my friend, as though no one was watching and imagining myself and my son, who was sleeping in my lap, dancing in their shoes in the not so distant future. This is the stuff of life. All the rest is not worth remembering, and so, it is not worth dwelling on.

Reminding Ourselves to Remember

I recently had the opportunity to revisit one of my favorite childhood pastimes – something I hadn’t done in over a decade. I went roller skating. Was I taking Aiden for his first experience with wheels on his heels? No. Was I attending a birthday party for some friend’s child or chaperoning some other young person’s event? No. I was just reliving the good ol’ days with some coworkers and the nostalgia of it was overwhelming.

It was yet another reminder to appreciate things as they are happening and not as we look back wistfully in the rare opportunities that we have to relive them. Although I loved roller skating as a child and even as a teenager, I don’t think I ever slowed those wheels down long enough to savor the experience and recognize that I wouldn’t be able to do it forever. I’m certainly not saying that we should take every happy, wonderful moment full of innocence and joy and make it serious, sober, and appreciative. But rather that we should learn to take mental snapshots. We are all so very good at taking digital photos these days – capturing flat, visual representations of the things we experience. But there is so much more to those memories. There are smells, tastes, sounds, feels, emotions, thoughts . . . all connected in an intricate web of vitality. And our minds are capable of cataloging all of it – if we would just take a moment to breathe and remind ourselves to remember. Tell ourselves in a fraction of a second, “This is good!”

As I looked around the rink at all of the other skaters, most of them half my age, I found myself wondering how many of them would remember. The twelve-year-old boyfriend and girlfriend with matching T-shirts skating hand in hand in countless circles. The new recruit to the roller derby team, getting a strong sense of her stride. The flamboyantly gay twenty-something spinning pirouettes at each turn and squealing with delight, not caring what anyone else thought of him. The middle-aged, excessively bearded beginner skating back and forth in the center at a painstaking pace, trying to prove that you can teach and old dog new tricks. The six-year-old little girl with white skates just like mine who put my moves to shame. Will all of these people find themselves in this spot a decade later trying to pull the cobwebs off of these memories? Or will these moments flood back with a vivid force because they LIVED them now? I am very glad I took the opportunity to experience this small part of my past again. And this time I drank it in deeply and will not easily forget.

Stop Teaching And Listen

It is so easy to look at the behavior of a toddler and condescendingly shake your head and think how silly they are, when, in reality, many of their desires and actions mimic our own. We’ve just become better as masking the silliness of it. But it struck me the other day that maybe we’d all be a bit happier if we stopped trying to mask our own silliness and sought to learn in such an independent and experimental way.

Allow me to illustrate. Last weekend, I took Aiden to the pool on both Saturday and Sunday. The difference in him was so stunning and remarkable from one day to the next that it was hard to believe that Sunday’s child was even the same boy. Had I not witnessed it with my very own eyes, I would not have believed. Saturday’s child was anxiety ridden and whiny. He clung to me like a chimpanzee repeating the same constant refrain, “I wanna get out!” It wasn’t until we gave up and went to the baby pool that he finally began to relax and have a good time. Whereas Sunday’s child was jumping off the edge of the pool into my arms, getting fully submerged, and crying, “I do it again!” He never even mentioned the baby pool. But what was the difference? Had some magical developmental switch been flipped that suddenly bestowed bravery on him? I think not. The difference lied entirely in my approach to him. On Saturday I simply undressed him and brought him into the pool with me and went straight out toward the middle. And, because I had read in some parenting book or blog that it was wise to do so, I held his nose and dunked him completely underwater. He emerged coughing and sputtering and even more terrified than he had been previously. He had no control over the situation or what he did and how he felt about it. Whereas on Sunday, I listened to his ever-present mantra of, “I do it myself!” and let him take the lead. I got into the pool by the steps and never told him one way or another what he should do. I left him walking around the steps on the concrete (watching carefully of course) and let him see me enjoying myself. When he determined for himself that what he was watching looked like fun, he got into the pool on the first step. I proceeded to lure him with a ball, just out of his reach, till he was standing, of his own volition, on the “deep step” where the water reached up to his chin. Then he surprised even me by stepping off of that step and letting his feet dangle in the water while he held onto the edge. Later, after seeing the other kids do it, he decided he wanted to jump in, but absolutely could not do it without both of my fingers and “no dunk.” This quickly morphed into one finger and then no fingers, full dunk, followed immediately by “I do it again.” The whole way home from the pool all he could think about was sharing his accomplishment, “I tell Daddy I dunk!”

I didn’t just tell you all of this because it is cute, although it undeniably is. I told it as an illustration of behavior. Many parents would look as this situation and tell the child some version of, “See, I told you! If you had just listened to me on the first day, you could have had fun then too.” But I think it’s the other way around. If I had just listened to him on the first day, then we all could have had more fun. Instead of trying to force my knowledge on him, I should have allowed him to learn it in his own way, in his own time. I believe this principle is true in most of our relationships. We need to learn to meet people where they are and not expect them to meet us where we are. How many of our relationships could be improved if we learned to listen to the desires of others and better communicate our own learning desires to them? Spouses, Bosses, Friends, Coworkers, Parents, Teachers, Boyfriends. But, when asked to learn a new project at work, too many of us are afraid of looking silly by saying to our boss some version of, “I do it myself!” (That is: “I actually learn much better and will retain the information longer if I can just dive in and experience it for myself.”) And so we let them teach us in whatever way is most natural to them and we learn only half of what’s expected. We’re too afraid of sinking to learn how to swim. And we’ve lost the gumption of our toddler selves that approached every new situation head on with a drive to learn by experience. I think we all stand to learn quite a lot if we would stop teaching long enough to listen.

“Our Kind”

Today I am humbled and inspired to gratefulness by an unexpected encounter that I had with some gentlemen working in the yard of the vacant house across the street.  When Aiden and I went outside to turn on the sprinkler and play in the yard, Aiden immediately became enamored with these workers and was desperate to investigate further.  “I go see them, Mommy!  I help!” 

I was hesitant because I didn’t want to get in the way or seem like we were gawking.  The men were not just doing yard work.  They were demolishing an enormous deck that enveloped much of the back yard.  I’m sure the last thing they needed was a two-year old staring at them, asking odd questions, and insisting he help, right?  But then I remembered the many other encounters I have had lately that have so inspired me to engage people . . . to give them the opportunity to share their lives, their passions, their work with someone who is excited to learn about them.  So I led Aiden by the hand across the street.  I was not disappointed with my decision.  The men, who, until that moment, had been quietly engaged in their back-breaking labor in 100 degree weather, stopped, looked up, and smiled.  They immediately began addressing Aiden as “little man,” inviting him to sit on their tractor and speaking to him about what it means to work hard.  It was like something out of an old southern novel.  I couldn’t bear to see them working so hard in this desperate heat, being so kind to my son without offering them something in return.  So I went home and brought back iced tea and popsicles.

I was greeted upon my return with phrases like, “Thank you kindly, ma’am!”  “You’re too sweet.”  “You’re gonna tempt me to go find an easy chair.”  As the conversation blossomed, I discovered that the men were brothers.  Two of TWENTY children born to their mother, who is currently 89.  There were 13 boys and 7 girls that grew up together in Pocahontas, MS.  The older of the two gentlemen, who didn’t look a day over 50, if that, said he was 70 years old.  And still working hard every day.  “What would I do with myself if I stopped?” he asked.  He recounted as he pried floorboards off the deck with a crow bar, sledgehammer, and brute strength how he was trying to teach his grandchildren to be eager workers, but “they just aren’t raised like they used to be.”  But he always let them help whenever they were willing.    The “younger” brother bragged about his family and seemed ashamed to need the help of his older brother, but explained that he has had health problems and just can’t handle it alone anymore.

The longer we spoke, the more filled with respect I was.  These men were humble and kind.  Lived a simple life, worked hard, and made no excuses.  They knew the value of family and earning their keep and would not give up even in the face of age and adversity.  Yet somehow I find myself worrying on a regular basis about things like money and time and health, when in reality we have plenty of all three.  It is amazing how perspective can change one’s outlook. 

As we were getting ready to leave, the younger brother mentioned off-handedly that he “thought sure it was [their] kind that lived across the street . . . black folk, that is.”
“But you know,” he said with a grin, “you’re the first people to come visit us in all the years we been workin’ this yard, so I guess you’re our kind after all!”