Splat and the New Year

Splat“You want I should wash the dead bugs off the windshield?”

Elwood, The Blues Brothers

“Life seemed to be going along fine and then, splat,” was how H phrased it.  We were talking about how a moment occurs when life suddenly changes. S-P-L-A-T.  It’s the fly breezing along in the wind when suddenly — it becomes little more than road kill on a car’s window shield. Its ride is over.  There is no way to reclaim its former life.  It no longer looks like it once did.  Like it or not, realize it or not, in a seeming moment, transformation occurs.

In H’s case, it was her multi-decades marriage to a seeming pillar of the community that collapsed under the dual strains of alcoholism and affairs.  No matter how much she might have anticipated the end, seen the signs, the “splat” moment felt like a surprise.  The big house was sold.  She moved to the city.  Took a job, then another.  The old life becomes a distant memory.

S-P-L-A-T.  Until the conversation with H, I hadn’t thought of these situations under the auspices of “splat” but it certainly made all the sense in the world.  If you live long enough, the “splats” simply can’t be avoided, which isn’t to say they don’t occur when you are young, as it did when I was just two years old and climbed up the stove that would change my life.

As far as I know, there is not an instruction manual to guide you through a splat.  As a child with a life-threatening injury, I think my coping mechanism was to fight.  Fight, in the sense of pushing hard to regain my physical ability not only to walk to but swim, do gymnastics, play tennis and the like.  Fight, in the sense of pushing myself to achieve socially and academically.  Today, when I think of my “splat” situations, my approach is very different — more surrender than anything else.  Pema Chodron, the beloved Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother says it this way, “Don’t run away from your fear.  Lean in to it.”  Our natural tendency is to fight, flee or move away from what is uncomfortable just as I did as a child.

From talking with H, it seems she did what Pema suggests in per post-splat life and that is to open her heart and experience what it is to be genuine.  What it is to be human, what it is to experience life truthfully in all its pain, with all its beauty.  Even when you still don’t believe life will get better.

And then there is another thought that seems to go hand-in-hand with her new-age advice:

“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

As today drew to a close not only for the work day but for the year, H and I were the last to leave the office.  “Here’s to good things in 2015,” I said.  “And to a no-splat year.”  She who coined “splat” nodded in agreement.

Good luck to us all in the New Year.  May we not be squeamish about taking a good look at ourselves.  Let’s not let life harden us.  Let’s try to always see the tenderness, beauty and grace in being alive, together.

Tell me about your S-P-L-A-T moments.

Too Much Fire

Too Much FireMan plans, God laughs” goes the old Jewish proverb.

It’s nice to know God has a sense of humor.  We make plans.  They don’t always turn out as expected.

There are probably many reasons why I stopped writing the blog about a year ago.   What I know is that I just stopped.  I thought I’d lost the fire.  People asked from time to time.  I didn’t have a good answer.

This week, after much too long a stretch of time, I met with one of those people dearest to me.  We talked about the blog and I gave the “I lost the fire” explanation.

But she saw it differently.  “You stopped because you had too much fire going on,” she said, rolling her eyes a bit at my density.  In consideration of that perspective, I do admit, the flames have been rather high.  That’s why I was thinking in terms of an “inner lack” rather than, well, a raging fire.  She suggested that all would come back as the flames inevitably ran their course.

She made me laugh at myself.  It was laughter suggesting possibility, not mockery. Laughter in the right form — representing joy, creation, love, faith and passion.

I’m not sure of the next plan but I see the fire much more clearly.

 

Dinner with Richard Dreyfuss

Dinner with Dreyfuss

“Hello,” she said to me in a thick foreign accent, when I turned around to take a peek at the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who was sitting at the table next to me.  I heard her “hello” but turned quickly back to my table companions, thinking she couldn’t possibly be talking to me.

I was out with clients in La Jolla, California following a presentation skills training session I conducted.  Our group was a mix — some in-house marketing people, me and the company’s outside agency.  They were shooting a commercial the next day so anticipation rode high among our rag-tag group of creatives, out to dinner at a restaurant on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Marine Restaurant in La Jolla, CA

Marine Restaurant in La Jolla, CA

Our table faced the ocean, waves crashing against the window before the tide receded.  “Richard Dreyfuss is at the table behind us,” my friend Anita announced quietly to our table.  I saw her told her phone low to her lap so she could take a picture of him.

“Hello,” she said to me again when I turned my neck and took another look at the table behind me.  She was blond and exotic looking, wearing a tight, sleeveless, sequined white and black dress.  I didn’t know why she was talking to me; I thought it was a mistake.  I turned back to my table companions.  By now, we had all pulled out our phones to google Richard Dreyfuss.  From the accounts we read, it appeared that his third wife was a Russian woman named Svetlana.  Was this Svetlana?

The sun began to set with its warm orange glow as we talked about our work and our connections.  Maria, the producer, lived just blocks away from me in Chicago.  Jaime, the agency head, and I realized we had met and worked together more than a decade ago and had a variety of both personal and professional friends.

And there she was again.  She was saying ‘hello’ to me.  This third time I turned to her and said, “Hello, are you talking to me?”

“Yes, I have been trying to get your attention,” she said with a heavy accent.  At first I thought she was Polish.

“Well, hello then, ” I chirped back.

“Tell me about your table,” she asked, raising an eyebrow in an intriguing way.  “I’ve been interested in your table tonight.”

“Well, we are a bunch of people from Chicago.  That’s about it,” I reported.

“Are you Republicans?” she asked.

“Well, I can’t speak for everyone but I know we all have an independent streak, which is not quite Libertarian but very individual,” I hedged, wondering why she would ask such a question

Without having to wonder, she offered, “Well, my husband Richard Dreyfuss does not like conservatives,” nodding to the white-haired man across the table from her, and confirming what we already knew.  Yes, this was Svetlana, the third wife.  “Let me introduce you to my friend,” she said, gesturing to the man sitting next to her.  “He is a doctor.”  The man nodded.  “A doctor of our muscles,” she said.

“Oh, he is a physical therapist?” I asked.

“Yes, that is exactly what he is,”  she said.

Our earnest conversation continued, and my seat-mate Bill joined in as we asked questions and got to know Svetlana.  “You ask me so many questions.  You need to know I could kill you in five ways and you would never know it,” she hissed, intimating that the heel of her Chanel shoes might indeed be one of these secret weapons.

“Did we do something to make you angry,” I asked?

“No, not yet.  You must know that I am Russian and have learned very much before coming to America.”

Just then, I felt someone move close to me.  It was Richard Dreyfuss, pausing as he walked past and whispering in my ear, “What do you think of my wife,” he asked.  “She is an interesting woman to be sure.  How long have you been married?”

“Ten thousand years,” he said.  Svetlana heard this and reiterated.  “Yes, ten thousand years.  Is there any question?”

We talked a little more and then Svetlana moved on to the bar, joined by all our table companions except Bill.  Richard was now sitting all alone.  “Bill, let’ move to his table,” and in an instant we were sitting across from him at his table.

The three of us talked.  We talked about life, about Richard’s career and about things.  Richard talked about the moment he knew his life was changing.  His star was ascending and he was performing in a Shakespearean production.  “I knew that if I continued, there would be no turning back.  That my life would no longer be my own.  That I would become a celebrity and everything would change,” he said.

“I did it anyway and the rest is history.  But when all is said and done, I’m just a person.  A person having a conversation with you, which is nice because I can’t have conversations with people at will, so this is very nice,” he said. Indeed it was nice.  I thought of his work —   American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  The list went on.  This was a unique moment.

Sun setting over the Pacific; view from the Marine Restaurant

Sun setting over the Pacific; view from our table.

Eventually a woman came to the table to let Richard know they were ready to leave when he was.  Taking the cue, he thanked us and excused himself, collecting his wife at the bar and leaving the restaurant.  We were the only patrons left and we called cars to take us back to our hotel in downtown San Diego.

Later I surfed the web, learning that Dreyfuss had been a cocaine addict in the 70s, among other many other colorful life facts.  And then there was this tidbit:

“Dreyfuss attributes much of his ability to end drug addiction to a life-altering vision experienced in hospital after a bad car crash. Under the influence of drugs while driving, Dreyfuss knew the crash was his fault. Though he was the only one injured, in his recovery state he was moved by the image of a beautiful little girl in a white dress. The girl served to remind him of the kind of innocent life he could have destroyed, and it compelled him to save his own life, he says, by confronting his drug demons.”

If only we had more time, I would have asked him about this too.  Was it a brush with the divine, a figment of his imagination or a sign that came just when he needed it?  And why did he heed it?  What made it so powerful that it made him change?   (Read Sarah Hinze’s account of this incident here.) But, for now I was satisfied — we had a moment, a very nice moment.

I thought about his comments, when he knew his life was changing, when he knew he could never go back, when he knew he would be a celebrity.  And how he brought us to his table, to talk, to discuss, to have that moment.

If we think about it, we all have moments when we know our lives are poised to change, when we can no longer go back.  These are the fires of our lives — whether it’s an actual incident like burning on a stove or a shift in our minds.  Sometimes things change forever and we don’t know it at the time.  But Richard Dreyfuss did, he saw his life moving from the precipice of rank-and-file actor to celebrity, and knew nothing would be the same again.  Imagine that moment.   Would we all take the risk ahead of us when we are fully aware of the moment?

Spring Blizzards and Dire Thoughts

“But there are dreams that cannot be

And there are storms we cannot weather.”I Dreamed a Dream, Les Miserables

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Mack had a rough night of basketball, not finishing the last game until nearly 11 p.m. and so I thought I’d let him sleep in at the hotel a bit.  I watched him sleep and surfed the news on my laptop and  listened to the rain pound on the window, learning that a winter storm was brewing on our route to Chicago from Southern Illinois.  Rain didn’t seem so ominous for a winter storm nor enough to take away our  lazy morning.  We started back to Chicago about 10:30 a.m.  That timing proved pivotal.

Rain turned to snow quickly and before we knew it the three lanes of I-55 North compressed into one, whipped by high winds and fast-accumulating snow.  Before we knew it, we were driving on chunky patches of ice.  Having grown up in Wisconsin, I knew the dangers of black ice — treacherous and unseen zones — and began to feel fear build up inside me.  One wrong movement with the wheel and the car could spin-out.  It had happened to me years ago, driving from Green Bay to Chicago in a frigid Wisconsin January and the car landed in the ditch.  My hands clenched the wheel.

“Mom, why don’t we just get off the road at one of these exits,” Mack suggested.  He had seemed nonplussed thus far.  While I appreciated the thought, I also knew that the off-ramps weren’t plowed or salted yet and would be as dangerous if not more than the road we were on.  With cars in front of us and behind us, it seemed best to drive on slowly and see if the storm would break.

Then without warning, white-out.  No visibility.

I turned the radio off to concentrate on the road and whispered to Mack, “Let’s pray.”  Intuitively I began to pray the rosary, aloud.  My mother used to make us kids pray the rosary when we drove from Green Bay to visit her parents in Milwaukee.  I did it grudgingly and with a lot of eye rolling.  But now, it was like a meditation, keeping negative thoughts and perhaps weather conditions at bay.

Given those conditions, I mentally gave us about a 10% chance of survival.  Before the white-out, we had passed maybe 25 cars in ditches along I-55,even  including a tow truck, which presented an ominous example.  We had about a quarter tank of gas left, enough I hoped to get us past the eye of the storm.  Though I wasn’t sure I could maneuver the car well enough to stay on the road that long, particularly without being able to see a car in front or behind us as a guide.

In between the Hail Mary’s, I seriously began to wonder if we would make it.  When your number is up, your number is up but I looked at the 15-year old boy beside me and thought, “That’s not fair, he has a whole life in front of him so focus yourself and drive him out of this.”  My stomach clenched and I slowed the car’s speed to about 20 miles per hour.

If it all ended today, would I have done all the things I wanted to do?

Certainly that was a question old people considered but was hardly ripe for my demographic.  And yet, I thought it and thought about it.  I felt anxious.  Would anyone get a perfect score on that report card?

The whiteness lifted and I could see the car in front of me again.  I breathed a deep breath and looked at Mack.

“It was never as bad as you thought,” he said, then smiled.  We both knew it was as bad as we had thought.

When we pulled over for gas in Springfield, a thick piece of ice covered the entire front of the car.  We hacked it off, then went for coffee and food.  What should have been a five-hour drive home took eight hours.  It wasn’t the ride we anticipated; simply the ride we were meant to have.

Please. A Pleaser?

It wasn’t until I talked to my Aunt Mary that I fully understood how I’d become a pleaser, and I wasn’t really pleased about it.  Not that having a pleasing behavior is always a bad thing; it’s just that I’d never pieced together this aspect of myself in quite this way until I spoke with Aunt Mary.  Aunt Mary is my mom‘s only sister and since my mother’s death, seemed a ripe source of information about my accident.  Yet, the conversation was uncomfortable.  As we talked, it seemed to me that Aunt Mary was going out of her way to not blame my mother, since the accident did indeed occur on her watch.  As my mom ironed in the basement and my sister Susie played nearby, I snuck up to the kitchen to get some crackers, secreted away above the stove.  “Aunt Mary, the accident was my fault,” I told her.  “I knew what I was doing and remember doing it.  I have no one to blame but myself.”  Aunt Mary seemed taken aback and heartily disagreed.  “Annie,” she said with exasperation, “It was not your fault.  You were two years old.  How could it ever have been your fault.”  Her words hung in the air.   I thought about them for a long time. 

For the first time in my life, my perspective changed.  For the better part of my life, I felt guilty about the accident, believing that I had caused my own fate and was forever doomed to be responsible for it, which I must add, I always have been.  I rarely felt sorry for myself, fully rehabilitated myself and developed a persona of never letting other people down.  In my young mind, I reasoned that because no one talked about the accident, particularly my family, they knew what I had done and how stupid it had been.  I pledged to myself never to let my family down again…..and became a pleaser.  Straight A’s.  Editor of the school newspaper.  Athlete.  Generally good person.

Aunt Mary’s words had such power and made so much sense.  When I thought of my own children as two-year-olds, I’d marvel how the train was in motion, but the conductor was rarely home, which is to say, they didn’t know enough to be responsible for much.  Yet I didn’t give my small self the benefit of that doubt.  In fact, I’d never thought of it any other way than that it had been my fault.  In my mind’s eye, whether I’d created the memory from strands of conversation or whether I actually remembered it, I saw myself going up those basement stairs and heading for the stove.

The power of not talking about it meant that I had to give myself an answer however far-fetched it might be when I examined it as an adult.

How might my answer have changed if the event would have been processed this way as a child?  How might my behavior have changed?  These days my pleaser tendencies are not so noticeable and I like to think of myself squarely as a “B+”, hardly a type A anymore.  Age mellows me.  Exploration like this frees me.

Rain on the Scarecrow

Scarecrow (John Mellencamp album)

Image via Wikipedia

Saturday night we went to the John Mellencamp concert at the Chicago Theater and when he sang, “Rain on the Scarecrow”*, I remember us playing that song after my dad’s funeral in December 1993.  When the funeral ended, we drove aimlessly around the Green Bay farmland.  The snow barely covered the ground and you could see the fallow dirt.  The crops were long gone and what remained looked sad and straggly, drained of moisture and color.  It was fitting for that day.  During his entire life, my father never once mentioned my accident.  He was doggedly supportive of me; never turned down a good idea if I had a plan to go with it.  He became ill when I was only 17 , and when that happened the focus shifted to caring for him as his health and mental acuity diminished.  I wish now I had the courage to ask him about the accident, to understand his thoughts and feelings.  When I heard that song Saturday night, I remembered the aimless farmland drive as well as all the things I hadn’t had time to ask him before he died.  I wondered then if he ever wanted to talk to me about it.  Many years later, I got my answer by going to a woman who channelled guides.  Out of the blue, she told me she had a message from him and I got the answers I had been wanting.  It felt like a miracle.  When the universe has a plan for you, there is no stopping it.  Have you ever felt that?

Rain on the Scarecrow

Scarecrow on a wooden cross, blackbird in the barn

Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm

I grew up like my daddy did, my grandpa cleared his land

When I was five, I walked a fence while grandpa held my hand

Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the land……….

Time-and-Space Leg-Look-Lag, or How About Some Denial?

Well, I finally did it. I actually opened and read the medical records I’d ordered about 18 months ago. I know this sounds strange. When they arrived in separate, non-descript manilla envelopes last March 2009, I quickly ripped opened one packet. Doing a quick flip through, I saw the unthinkable: My leg. I was 7 years old and the plastic surgeon took a full leg picture from various angles. While it was thankfully taken in black and white, the sight was such a shock to me that I put the package back in its envelope. Unbelieveable as it was, I had never seen a photo of my own leg. Truth be told, it looked awful and made me feel that way too. Good god that must have hurt, I thought realizing at the same time that I was starting to detach me from myself. That’s a long way of saying, I wanted to forget about the picture for a while. And so I did. It’s one of the many ways that this “project” of mine continues to surprise even me. More on what was in the two packages later.