On a Note to Remember

I received a small note in the mail three days ago. Adorned with a super hero stamp, the card  was a picture of a Georgia O’Keefe painting, and the message inside was a kind inscription, wishing me a happy birthday. The writer wished me as wonderful a celebration as I had arranged for him on his 40th birthday over a decade ago.

The note was from my former partner, and reading it was one of those moments where time slows down and everything else slips into your peripheral vision. The note didn’t bring back any rush of affection or love. Rather, it gave me pause to consider my own generousness, my own capacity for forgiveness.

When most relationships end, it’s messy. Lots of hurt feelings, maybe some bitter words, yelling, and slammed doors. My seven year relationship didn’t end like that. After my partner admitted a months-long infidelity, our relationship began a death spiral almost imperceptible at first, but undeniable at last. I can’t remember yelling or screaming or gnashing my teeth, but I can remember the sad dawning of realizations that Humpty Dumpty could not be put back together. It was a long, quiet, torturous goodbye.

Throughout it all, I was pretty remarkably stoic, and I’ve written previously how, to a large extent, I probably just couldn’t process the awfulness of it. As the relationship ended, as I caught my breath, and as I just happened to meet someone amazingly wonderful the following year, I found myself growing in understanding as to what had transpired, and, rather than reaching a peace about it all, I became more indignant, more self-righteous, and, for lack of a better word, more angry. I didn’t lose sleep, but I no longer cast the ending of the relationship in my mind as something poetic and sad. Now, I understood how shabbily I had been treated, and grew to appreciate how moving on had been the right choice. At the same time, I was enjoying a maturing, deepening love (with Hubby), and hindsight allowed me to see all that had been missing from the prior relationship.

In that process, my heart hardened toward my former partner. We did not communicate regularly or see each other, so it was very much an internal process, but it happened nonetheless. No “Happy Birthday,” no “hope your move goes well,” no anything. We tend to cast the people in our lives into character roles, and he had been sent to the “villain” line in central casting. I’m sure most people would just call this “moving on,” but I know that my feelings were not true to who I am. It wasn’t just moving on; it was taking cherished memories and a decent soul and rewriting them out of existence.

And, then, one day, you find yourself standing in your office, holding a birthday card harkening back to a wonderful trip to New Mexico and reading a kind inscription, and you understand that the inner turmoil, the judgmental posturing, it was all just an indictment of yourself and no one else. And you reflect that we are all screwed up, flawed, inconsistent, hurting, wonderful beasts, and you know that nothing and no one is ever all bad or all good, and you remind yourself to see and embrace nuance, and you…well, you just exhale.

A thoughtful card doesn’t erase the past. And it doesn’t make up for transgressions. But that’s not the point. I think the secret is learning to let go of all the hurts and all the pain, and to keep opening yourself up to love and kindness. And to loving and being kind. Ultimately, nothing else really works.

Since starting this blog, I’ve continually written and rewritten a post on forgiveness, and it never works out. Something is always off. But, standing with the note in my hand, with a little paper reminder that life’s kindnesses come in many different shapes and forms, I think I found some forgiveness.

On Being Nice Where and When It Really Counts

I recently sat through a long work meeting where the retirement of a senior executive was announced. At the end of the meeting, employee after employee spoke up to not only offer their good wishes but also to explain how this executive’s patience, kindness, and wisdom had touched his or her life. The comments were sincere and moving, and I can only imagine that the retiree must have been gratified to hear such wonderful thoughts shared.

In that context, it came as quite the surprise when, the following day, the executive admitted to a colleague that, as nice as he had been to his colleagues, he had ignored and often treated his spouse poorly at home. It seems all the good will was spent at work, with none left by the time the workday was over. The glowing remarks hardly seem worth it, if you ask me.

Hubby and I celebrated seven years together yesterday, and I can honestly say that my love and devotion grow stronger and deeper every day. My life changed when I met him, all for the better, and I am excited about all the adventures that remain before us. I cannot understand why people settle for anything less than greatness in their personal lives. I know there are reasons, but, still.

I think many people confuse intimacy with a free pass to treat their spouse poorly. They think the familiarity means they can be “real” and “honest.” I think they’re dead wrong. Certainly one should be able to be honest in a relationship, but your spouse deserves your best, not your worst. It seems obvious, but I’ve met many people that treat friends, coworkers, or even total strangers with more respect, more patience, and more concern than they show their significant other.

I also maintain that fighting is failure. Whether it’s a failure on one person’s part or a shared fault, fighting is a sign of a relationship that’s not healthy. Why do so many people accept it, then? Why do some even celebrate it, as if it is only a sign of the passion bubbling beneath the surface? It’s not. It’s a sign of immaturity. Yes, of course couples must navigate conflict; you can’t share a life without disagreements, different points of view, and the like. But, cruel words, yelling, emotional blackmail, histrionics, slamming doors, they simply aren’t necessary in a healthy relationship.

No one is perfect, and no relationship is perfect, and I certainly don’t intend to come off as a Pollyanna about the ease of making a relationship work wonderfully. I don’t have all the answers; far from it, actually. I do think, though, that lots of people aren’t willing to put in the work. I also think lots of people settle for mediocrity. Both are sad.

At the end of the day, your choice of partner is the single most important decision you make in your life. It’s more important than career, children, where you live, all of them. It’s not easy. It shouldn’t be. In the process of trying to get it right, mistakes will be made. Sometimes, big mistakes will be made. The most important thing to get right, though, is to have your priorities right, because, no matter how awesome your colleagues at work think you are, you don’t go home to them. And, after the retirement dinner has been eaten and the gold watch given, the plaudits will be cold comfort.

On 20% Off

I love my Gmail account. I like how it organizes my e-mail, groups my messages together, and allows me to quickly and conveniently search for that random e-mail I sent six years ago. My Gmail account works effortlessly on my desktop, laptop, iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch. It’s ubiquitous and priceless at the same time!

One of the more recent awesome iterations of Gmail separates your e-mails into three categories: Primary, Social, and Promotions. By separating the e-mail related to social media and promotions, Gmail allows you to focus on your “real” e-mail. Still, every day, because I am fairly OCD about my “inbox zero” status, I check my Social and Promotions tabs. I estimate I receive 10 promotional e-mails daily. Often, they’re from the same handful of companies, offering me a “special discount,” a “valued customer” deal, and sneak peek at the latest and the greatest. I can’t deny: these companies want my business. I mean, surely they aren’t giving anyone else these amazing, mind-blowing, time-limited deals. That would be madness!

The constant bombardment from companies with deal after deal got me to thinking — always dangerous. What if we approached the relationships in our lives like the companies that e-mail me every day? What if we awoke one random morning and informed our spouse that, that day, that very day, we were going to be 20% more loving with 10% less nagging? What if we told our friend that, hey, you give me one hug, you’re getting a second hug completely free! But, wait, there’s more! Hug me now, and I’ll throw in a high-5, no shipping and just a little handling required! Walk into the office and tell your coworker that, this week only, I’m being 10% more patient. [Note: patience cannot be redeemed for other discounted qualities and has no cash value]. Go next door and tell your neighbor that you’re having a clearance sale on this batch of cookies; they are 100% off. All bites final.

Companies are willing to wheel and deal to get your business, or at least make it look like they’re wheeling and dealing. They’ll sweeten the pot just a bit. Maybe a little bit of this approach would be a good thing in our personal lives. Maybe if we had to work a little more, show the value in ourselves, even to our loved ones, we’d actually get more out of our relationships. You’ve got to get out there and sell yourself, legally of course! It’s not about being transactional; the point is to not take your relationships for granted. To go the extra mile, even when you don’t have to, because you want to close that deal, make that proverbial sale, day after day.

We can all do a little more, go out of our way, cut someone some slack, and, fortunately, there’s no expiration date on that.

On Staying in Touch

During my high school graduation ceremony, the principal on multiple occasions remarked that the graduating class would never be in the same room together again. It was an odd statement. It was not only the last time we would be in a room together, but it was the first time we had ever been in a room together! Moreover, when your graduating class has over 500 students in it, it’s not as if it’s a close-knit family. I’m sure there was a sizable percentage of students I graduated with that I did not know, or recognize for that matter.

I’m sure not a single classmate has bemoaned the fact that the entire graduating class can’t be back together again.  Then again, I guess I need to give my high school principal a little slack; surely he could not have envisioned how easy it would become, in just a few years, to stay in touch with almost everyone you’ve ever met in your life.

Staying in touch has never been easier. Sitting on your couch wondering what happened to your pal from 4th grade? You can probably find out in less than 5 minutes. Technology allows us to stay in touch with speed and ease, but that very ease begs the question: why stay in touch? Once our voyeuristic curiosity is settled and we learn that our 4th grade pal sells insurance in Kansas City, we’re quickly reminded there’s a reason we needed Facebook to learn about his life now: we are not close. We haven’t been close for decades. We will never be close again. Our lives stopped intersecting in elementary school. Sure, you can send that awkward “hello” message, but what will you talk about? What’s going to rekindle this relationship that barely existed in the first place?

The ease of social media to stay in touch has a bigger pitfall: it’s not a real relationship. To a very large extent, social media (like writing one’s own blog) is an exercise in vanity. We want to be seen by people. We crave the acknowledgment. The validation. The acceptance. The Likes. It’s one thing to share that cute photo with your great-aunt, it’s another to think all 289 Facebook friends really care. (Hint: they don’t) (Double hint: you don’t have 289 friends). It’s not an equal footing, a dialogue, a shared experience. Sure, you can “Like” or comment, but, at bottom, it’s bits and bytes and really not much more.

Relationships, no matter the relationship, aren’t easy. You can’t “friend and forget” — a phrase I’m definitely trademarking. They take time, energy, and intention. It takes the willingness to listen, to care, to make something not about you. To genuinely invest in and care about a life experience other than your own for no other reason than love. We shouldn’t confuse the ease of social media for the real thing.

Our inner circles are delicate, intimate things, and whom we choose to inhabit that space is no small question.  And, the more time we spend tending those real relationships, the less time we have for social media…and the less interest we have in it too.

On My Grandfathers’ Ghosts

My family has a long, proud tradition of game playing. Board games and cards were staples growing up, and our annual family vacations wouldn’t be complete without a round of cards. Over the years, even our scorecards have developed traditions. As an experienced game and card player, I can tell you that nothing is more frustrating than when a piece or card is missing. Monopoly just isn’t as fun when the Boardwalk property card is missing, especially if you have a little OCD, which is also an enjoyed family trait.

“Missing things” run in families, but they don’t get a lot of attention. Maybe that’s why they’re missing. Or, maybe, good things and bad things get all the attention, and missing things fade away into those forgotten places where socks, discount coupons, and extra keys gather.

My grandfathers were missing. My maternal grandfather died before I was born. My paternal grandfather died five years ago. I can’t say I really knew either of them. It’s not unusual, as accidents, distance, and frayed bonds affect every family. What’s interesting, though, is that, unlike those socks, missing family members still have a presence.

As a younger man, I resembled my maternal grandfather to a degree, and I took an unusual pride in that. I’m certain it was because my connection with him was so tenuous. I didn’t know and still don’t know too much about him, except how fondly my mother thought of him. Sometimes I thought about what it would be like to meet him, to share my life with him, and it’s one of life’s minor cruelties that, instead of knowing him, I only felt the silent power his memory wielded. In some ways, my grandmother’s life froze when he died, set in amber never to change. We pity that, but maybe those who have loved and lost find a strange comfort in that sort of living death.

My grandfather died before therapy and “closure” were in vogue. Maybe that would have helped my family to deal with the pain and move on. They all did in their own way, of course. But, even when we have all been together, one cannot escape the feeling that something that should be there is not.

My paternal grandfather died five years ago, but, in so many ways, he too was more apparition than presence. We never lived close, and his battles with personal demons exacted damage on his family that may have been too much to overcome. I don’t really know. He was always pleasant and kind to me during the once- or twice-a-year visits, but he never seemed particularly interested in being a grandparent. Maybe it was a generational thing. Maybe I just wasn’t as fascinating as I thought I was, but that shocks the conscience to consider. I’ll never know.

The last time I saw him, a strange thing happened. As I walked out the door of his home, he gave me a big hug and followed me out to the porch. As I stepped away to leave, he said, “Next time, bring your friend.” I was not out to him and had never discussed my partner with him, but his meaning was clear. It was an odd intimacy that caught me off guard, a palantir with a vision of a grandfather/grandson relationship that I could not recognize. I said “Okay,” got in my car, and never saw him again.

One doesn’t usually mourn what one never had, and I don’t mourn my grandfathers. But I do feel their presence or, rather, the absence of their presence. I’m left with questions and riddles that do not bother me terribly, but, rather, fascinate me with “What if?” Whenever I hear someone share a story of their grandfather, I immediately think that I cannot reciprocate, that that piece of the puzzle will always be missing in an abstract way for me.

At the end of the day, you can play the board game without the missing token, and you can accept the fact that something isn’t quite right, something isn’t whole. Every family does it in one way or another, it’s part of the human experience. Perhaps the lesson is to not be that missing piece for those that you love, if you can help it. I want to live my life that way, and I’ve made a real effort to be an intentional, loving uncle to my young nephews. I live far away, but they know they are loved. I know I’ll always put in the work to be a positive force in their lives. I have a feeling both of my grandfathers would be proud.