Thursday, May 6, 2010

Let Me Complete You

There was a long stretch of time, say, about forty-seven years, when I knew I was right about everything. I was sure that without my careful attention people wouldn’t be happy.

I never said the sentiment out loud because I had enough self-awareness to know it wouldn’t be received well. That’s as far as my ability to be honest with myself went, though.

My success rate at helping others for a long time was even pretty good.

I believed I was in control and could get things done better than most other people. Lucky, lucky people.

The main tools at my disposal were charm, patience and gifts, big and small, instead of shouting or threats, because I still wanted to be seen as a nice person.

There’s an incident where I gave a car, a nice maroon Ford Escort to someone hoping this would cement our friendship. It didn’t but she took the car anyway. At the time I was more upset over my plan not working out.

I was particularly good at being the audience for someone, sitting patiently through whatever they were doing so that I could count them as a friend. Long hours watching someone else shop, or work on a car, or rehearse for a dance recital while I sat there, immobile. Now, I’d call it passive hostage taking.

I also had a lot of practice taking care of others and even now I can still multi-task with the best of them. I managed to author three books, write a syndicated column, raise a son and tend to elderly parents all at the same time. I got used to trying to write something cohesive about the elections while listening to my father’s TV in the background.

Sure, there was help available but I told myself that it was easier to just do it myself.

At the same time I was investigating self-help books, spiritual gurus, sweat lodges, churches and more, trying to fix the gaping hole inside of myself. All along, I never saw any kind of connection.

My view was that I was being of service even if it was wearing me out. Besides, I loved the way people responded to the framework of my story. There were ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ as people admired what I had valiantly done with the circumstances I’d been given. I had soldiered on, my story said, despite all of these people.

Eventually, those closest to me stopped wanting my help. Some, like my son, grew angry at my constant need to mention how with just a tweak what they were doing could be better. He started to avoid me. Others would either laugh good naturedly that they were okay without my assistance or gave me a quiet lecture about minding my own business.

My entire vision of myself was quickly deteriorating and in its wake I saw that there was very little to fill the vacancy. All of those years of ignoring my own desires or starting and stopping a project of my own, or just outright giving away the fruits of my efforts had left me with only the outline of a life. I was still stuck at the beginning stages.

There had been a house but I had sold it a long time ago. There was a career as a writer but I had kept switching genres and trying something new. There had been relationships but I had picked those who needed me the most. It was like I was building my own house but every time there was the beginning of a solid foundation I tore it apart and gave away the bricks to someone else or started yet another new house just down the block.

Even worse, all of my meddling had taught those I loved that I was their Higher Power and they couldn’t make a move without consulting me. On their own, they would probably fail and disaster would surely follow. I was teaching them to be afraid of trusting themselves and their own choices, which is really what I believed about myself all along.

It’s taken a few years but by consistently sticking to my own business I’ve been able to figure out a few things. I’ve discovered I’m a decent runner and guitar player, both new, and had the nerve to jump out of a plane this year.

My literary agent has been especially relieved to see me ask for her advice and actually take it and we now have a plan. And, lo and behold, some of the people I love have noticed all of the changes and come back to share it all with me. It’s a real life and I’m going to keep building it from here. More adventures to follow.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Million Words

It’s been a few months now since I entered remission from the double bout of melanoma last fall and winter.

Since then, I have moments where I realize things have changed forever but mostly my brain still hasn’t caught up to the new reality. Some lasting changes are that I have to take stairs a little more deliberately and I can’t do all of the moves in my exercise class. Suddenly, I’ll have a moment of awareness where I get it’s not getting older that’s making something more difficult, it’s the aftereffects of cancer.

Frankly, I’m stubborn so I push against that notion and try harder.

The other noticeable change is I get asked a lot how going through cancer has changed the way I see things. The answer depends on the day I get asked. Mostly, I’m not as sure that I’m going to be around for at least another thirty years or maybe I just think about it more.

The question also makes me feel grateful, once again, that I jumped out of that plane last June because for some reason surviving that has made me feel like my odds of living to be an old woman are better. It’s not quite logical but neither is jumping out of a perfectly good plane.

The one consistent thought I do have these days is about what I’ll leave behind for my son, Louie. I wonder whether or not it will be enough to sustain him for whatever comes up in his life.

I don’t own much so it’s not going to be a lasting mark financially. Fortunately, I do have a pushy insurance agent, Jerry, who insisted I take out a life insurance policy a few years ago, so there’s that. I’m no longer eligible for new policies unless I remain cancer free for the next four and a half years.

And, I’m not sure Louie was really listening when I was handing out profound advice and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s a good thing. Advice is way too subjective to be of any real use and he’s got a good head on his shoulders.

So, my legacy is going to have to be the million words I’ve already left behind that float around in archives, three books and hundreds of columns so far. A million words of how I was feeling about something on any given day about almost any topic. I’ve really held very little back.

Hopefully, they’ll serve as a guide of sorts for him to being himself and celebrating all of the wonder the world has to offer. I’m hoping there’s a few laughs buried in there as well.

Even if I live to be ninety if my past is any guide I’m not sure there will be much more than words left behind me anyway. So far, making money or acquiring stuff has not come naturally to me. I’m still hoping that’s not going to be a life long trait and there’s a bestseller in there somewhere but I’m fifty, there’s a Great Recession going on and I’m just not sure.

The last book, A Place to Call Home, is a memoir that chronicles my side of things as Louie found sobriety and I found some kind of peace and any kind of sense of humor. Even now, I go back and reread passages from the darkest times and I’m reminded of just how fortunate we are today. That’s one of the bigger blessings of a trail of words. It’s possible to see clearly just how much things have really changed and breathe a sigh of relief.

But, I also hope Louie sees just how strong he was in the middle of it all. There were some very hard times but even in the worst of it neither one of us gave up on the other. That’s saying something.

Right now, there are other families reading this who are trying to figure out how to connect with each other and reach a better day. Perhaps some of our story can help them find hope or even lasting change as well. That would be part of the legacy then as well.

Sometimes, it’s not the triumphs that are remembered by everyone and serve as some kind of guide. Sometimes it’s the places where we fumbled through and carried on with as much love as we could muster that gives everyone who bears witness to it a lasting piece of hope.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Recycling Everything

Recently, I wrote about the Nicholas Effect that happened in 1994 after US citizens, Reg and Maggie Green donated their seven year old son, Nicholas’ organs to save seven Italian lives and forgave the men who had murdered their child. So many people reported that just seeing the acts of compassion on TV had profoundly impacted their lives. That’s the Nicholas Effect.

Thanks to readers in New Bern and Yuma who sent Reg the column in California by way of Rome we were able to connect and chat more about the grace that comes from organ donation. According to UNet, which was developed by UNOS, the United Network for Organ Sharing and the largest registry of its kind, there are currently over 100,000 people in America waiting for an organ. The average wait time for those at the top of the list is about two months but the time grows the further down the list someone falls. Many people die waiting for a new organ and many never make the list.

Most people who are eligible to donate their organs don’t take the necessary steps to ensure that can happen. Checking the little box on your driver’s license is not enough. A health directive or living will that clearly states your intentions with some or all of your viable organs is really necessary if that’s what someone intends for their remains.

However, just referring to ourselves as potential remains gives most of us the willies and we end up doing nothing. Its one thing to check a box while filling out an unrelated form but to actually say, sure, take it all in a formal document is a bigger hurdle. It’s why a lot of people haven’t even taken out a will. It’s like we can push death away just a little if we refuse to look at it.

That method never works with death or collection agencies or spreading waistlines.
Right in the middle of when I was being treated for cancer, the rector at St. John’s Episcopal in Chicago where I’m a member, was making a valiant effort to get everyone to fill out a form that would say exactly what they’d want in their funeral service. It was a unique and practical idea.

I couldn’t get myself to do it, especially with the real possibility that it might be used sometime in the near future, so I ignored it altogether.

However, facing something and dealing with it to the best of our abilities can not only relieve us of small bits of guilt or resentment but can also open up the possibilities. We rarely gain something by holding on to what is no longer useful to us and we can even inadvertently trap ourselves in the memories of a painful era.

Reg Green’s newest book, The Gift that Heals, chronicles the stories of families on both sides of the donation process and how the act of being able to give and receive changed everyone for the better. It’s the Nicholas Effect at work again when out of something dark, goodness is able to prevail and it always begins with someone who is able to literally give of themselves.

Like the story of Dereck Lopez, a beautiful 18 year old girl who was a US citizen for two weeks before being killed by a drunk driver. Dereck was in school to become a kindergarten teacher and had spent her short life helping others. Her family wholeheartedly gave their approval knowing it’s what Dereck would have wanted. The family was then able to make long-lasting connections with the people whose lives were saved and her father, Jorge was able to find some peace in a senseless accident. In some ways, Dereck’s generosity saved his life as well.

There’s an old saying, ‘the hose gets the water first’, that means when we’re of service to someone else we receive the blessing first because we’re reminded of some basic truths that can get lost underneath tragedies or even just busy schedules.
There is also something to be lost when we decide to keep everything for ourselves because we can’t see how there’s enough in the deal for us or we can’t accept that things have changed forever.

Sometimes, you just give because it’s the right thing to do and then the rest unfolds. That’s when the cynicism and fear falls away and can be replaced by the idea that more is possible in our lives if we’re willing to go toward it. That’s what we receive in return and it’s worth more than anything we could have cooked up on our own. Martha’s latest book is a memoir, A Place to Call Home.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nothing's Wrong

Western medicine loves to change their mind from day to day about what’s good for us and what’s not like health was a spring fashion line. However, there’s one item that has always consistently gotten the thumbs down. Stress has always been seen as something that will do in our quantity and quality of life.

I get that now.

There was an infamous visit to a holistic doctor a few years back that involved a test of my adrenal glands and the amount of stress I was experiencing on a moment to moment basis. I remember something about an assistant swabbing my abdomen with some yellow stuff and a timer to see how long before the smear disappeared. The absorption rate was an indication of how hard the adrenals were working and the norm was somewhere around a couple of minutes.

My belly was back to pale pink in under ten seconds. I still remember the look of astonishment on the doctor’s face and how normally she had such a blank expression. “Is this good or bad?” I asked.

“Let’s put it this way,” she said, measuring each word, “most people who have overworked adrenal glands think that danger is around every corner. You see the tiger right in your face.”

She was not the first person to point this out. Back then I thought life was a constant set of problems to micromanage to avoid bigger problems that grew far-reaching roots. Good stuff happened in the middle of the crises. Frankly, when I hit a good spot where my brain was shut off and I could actually be fully present, I was surprised and it never, ever lasted more than a day. Even then, I thought it was some special gift. It didn’t enter my crowded thinking that anyone actually lived with peace on a regular basis.

My thinking was wearing me out.

I had lived my entire life like that and really didn’t know what any other way felt like. I was way too busy trying to anticipate the future and then manipulating what might happen. Imagine how much angst can be created trying to cover the future.
That doctor’s visit was the beginning of some real change for me. I started with self-help seminars and books, which was a great gateway but really, I was still trying to fix the future like some kind of psychic super woman. If I kept searching I just knew the solution for a permanent kind of peace was out there.

Okay, so I was right, just not in the way I had predicted.

Eventually, the search wore me out as well. I wasn’t quite as stressed out but I wasn’t really making progress either. In my attempts to get what I wanted when I wanted and insure I didn’t lose anything in the meantime, I had left everyone else out of the process. I wasn’t very good at asking for help, much less using it and I was even worse at being humble.

Finally, after trying every kind of guru and self-help idea out there, I stopped searching for a quick fix and gave in to the idea of prayer. Not begging, pleading or demanding, which isn’t prayer, but prayer as a way to remind myself that God is present and I can be of service.

For months my anxiety levels remained near my hair line because I wasn’t practicing any of my old behaviors to try and control a situation. And, not everything was going the way I thought it should, which only increased my angst. But, I kept taking a moment to pray whenever it all got to be too much. I mean, it’s free, it’s simple and it was worth a try.

Over time things actually started to get better in every area of my life and in ways I could not have forced into place. I was able to not only see opportunities but let go of what didn’t work out with grace and ease.

I stopped believing life was happening to me and was able to be present till I woke up one morning and realized I had nothing left to complain about in my life. I’m not saying everything is hunky dory, just that I’m okay and I know it. I can see my life for what it is and be grateful, instead of trying to make it into something else. More adventures to follow.

Martha’s latest book, a memoir, is A Place to Call Home. Email Martha at:

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Cooking Lite

My culinary skills have always left a little something to be desired. I lack that instinctive element that tells a good cook to add a little more salt or just a little rosemary or even just how long to cook a chicken breast.

My son, Louie, who at least survived enough to get to adulthood, still loves to tell his friends about the fried chicken breast that was neatly charred on the outside and raw on the inside. He poked a fork in the chicken’s side and blood came out. I got out the bread and peanut butter.

He uses a tone of voice usually reserved for tales of being tortured by generally malicious people. I was trying to make something tasty, not instill nightmares. When I point that out he rolls his eyes.

When I was living in New York, I took cooking classes at the Whole Foods store down in the Bowery that were taught by visiting chefs from restaurants in Manhattan. The dishes were relatively simple to make but were beautiful to look at and tasted like we all knew what we were doing.

However, even then I kind of goofed. There was an incident with the fish baked in banana leaves when I forgot to add any salt. The dishes were then distributed for eating in no particular order. An older man looked up, disappointed, after his first bite and said, “Someone forgot the salt.” The curse continued.

I tried a soup that had only three ingredients and watched the pot, stirring occasionally. Somewhere in between the stirring I still managed to burn the soup and every bite had a certain crispy taste to it.

I became legendary as the girl who could follow a recipe and come out with a different dish every time. When potluck lists were made, I was automatically given the task of bringing the roast chicken because I could get that, already made, from the local grocery store.

Once I was given fruit salad and went by Sam’s Club the night before and picked up a frozen bag of fruit salad. Who knew it would take more than a day for the bag to defrost. All of the fruit bits had a nice, frosty crunch to them.

I come by my lack of cooking skills honestly. My mother, Tina who managed to get five children to adulthood, may have had some of the same challenges. My mother faithfully reads this column in her local Florida newspaper and clips each one. So let’s just say she was one of the first to buy in bulk the Chef Boyardee pizza in a box, the first instant dinner of its kind, and would say with a lot of enthusiasm, “Look kids, you can do it yourself!”

There was also a famous clear Jello and tuna with peas and carrots recipe, which is probably all I need to say about that one.

However, things may be inexplicably changing. I asked Louie to give me a crock pot for Christmas and a couple of dishes have turned out okay. I even attempted a chicken with garlic that turned out so well, Louie looked up in amazement and said, “You made this?”

I understand why he was baffled. It was not only cooked through, it was really good.
My success with the crock pot has encouraged me to get a recipe book and friends have been sending me recipes they’ve spotted. I’m on a roll of sorts.

This is one of those rules of getting older than no one really tells you. Yes, there are some things that you may not be able to do very well anymore, or at all, but suddenly there are some new talents that emerge to replace them. There’s always this balance thing going on that only requires us to keep trying new things. I may get older but I only grow stale if I stop seeking out something new to learn. More adventures to follow.

Friday, April 16, 2010

And in the Role of Mother

As we get older we change roles from child to adult and maybe to parent, and from student to person-stuck-in-cubicle-working-long-hours.

However, most of us regard our parents as frozen in some kind of alternate universe where they never change and still feel the same way about everything. To us, they are in the last role of their lives except for maybe some day getting to add on the tag of grandparent.

Whatever our parents said when we were twelve still goes when we’re thirty-five. It doesn’t matter if Mom protests vigorously that she’s changed her mind about dining out at places with actual dishes. She said she preferred Wendy’s that one time and we’re going to make her stick to her word.

This is one area of our life that we can count on to not change and be rock solid certain. Boy, that’s a relief.

That is, until our children start to grow up and make sly, little jokes about us in front of their friends, while we’re present, as if we can’t really hear them. Suddenly, our own miscreant behavior comes back to bite us.

My son, Louie, who’s 22 makes sure that I never try to carry anything that weighs more than five pounds. That’s a dilemma for me because I am freakishly strong but hate toting things. Do I correct him by picking up some large object or take a seat and enjoy watching him work? So far, I’ve been taking a seat and I’m a little concerned that’s how old age gets you.

Louie is also convinced that I don’t know how to use any new technology and I’m too afraid to learn, can’t stay up past eleven o’clock and don’t recognize any current tunes. In response I like to randomly start singing parts of rap songs when he’s around, which totally weird’s him out, dude.

Yes, I know that last statement is going to only encourage him to think I’m dotty, but that’s okay. It’s starting to feel like part of my role as mother to amuse my only child with my un-coolness. Maybe for awhile we all need to believe that there are touchstones in our little world that don’t change and are therefore reliable.

Last weekend, I had a chance to enlarge my role as mother of Louie and go to his girlfriend, Kathy’s aunt and uncle’s house for Easter on the south side of Chicago. Kathy’s mother, MaryBeth, has nine siblings who are all married and have children and a few grandchildren, and there’s her grandmother, Mary. They were all there at various parts of the day.

Huge Irish Catholic family who all live in the same neighborhood, except for Uncle Mike who moved over one town to Aurora, which no one can figure out why. They were funny, loud and enveloped me as if I was one of their own even going so far as to tell me, “If you get to your feet, you lose your seat.”

There was also a good story about a Brite-Lite that never got picked up out of the shag carpet by Kathy or her brother Bill, or her sister Julie over twenty years ago. So, MaryBeth lived up to her word and drove them to the poor box where Bill was sent to drop it in while the girls watched forlornly from the car. However, last year there was some closure when MaryBeth gave each of them a replacement for Christmas.

All day long I was introduced as, Martha, Louie’s mom and everyone responded with that, ‘oh’ of recognition as they shook my hand. It was my first occasion as mother of the grown child at the serious girlfriend’s family’s house. It made me happy to see that Louie had managed to fall in with such a large, rollicking family. And, bottom line, as long as I know who I am and love what I see, it’s okay to let go of how everyone else describes me. More adventures to follow.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Then You Do the Hokey Pokey

So, I've been trying to find a real job. I draw a line between what I've always done to earn a living, which is write books, articles and columns and is something I love, and what everyone else does, which is go to a specific building and perform delegated tasks for an agreed upon sum. Despite how that last sentence reads I've also always envied that group because I adore order, lists and boundaries. Love that stuff. My life has always had very little of it.

Now, if you're going to listen to the manifestors among us, it's my own doing. If I wanted structure and reassurance, I'd have it by now. I must be picturing something else.

It's true. By a very conscious choice, I spent a lot of the previous years balancing on the head of a pin. I was the caregiver to an ill elderly father who passed away, my mother who's now in Florida and my son, Louie while hitting deadlines for the Washington Post and writing two books. The idea of a job was tantalizing but I wasn't sure how to get there and vacate the premises all at the same time.

Now there is nothing is in my way, except the Great Recession, of course and all of those out-of-work people who have been working in a designated building for years till they were laid off and are on the hunt right next to me.

My resume seems to say, 'she didn't really want to be here'. I feel like Lucy Ricardo and have some explaining to do, but not sure how to get across family obligations that I was grateful to have in a flat resume.

Let me tell you a little about these past ten years. My late father, Dabney Carr was an old southern minister and a great storyteller. In the end, he needed a lot of help and that put us in a lot of close proximity each and every day. He had time to dig out some stories I'd never heard before and even add a lot of great details. A small sample: he delivered the afternoon paper on his bike during the Great Depression in Richmond, Virginia. On Friday's he had cotillion and had to wear his tux to get to both duties on time. However, a lot of the poor, who hadn't always been poor, got the paper as a group, which meant he was pedaling through shanty areas wearing his tux. Great visual.

He also told me about how his father died when he was nine and he lost interest in school. He was passing just enough in high school to get to the next grade but when he got to his senior year he found out there was one more to go, just for him. His mother kicked him out and he ended up as a boarder, digging ditches while he finished high school. Watching the men he worked with waste their paycheck on beer at the end of the week changed his attitude forever.

Now, before I go any further about what I've tried or haven't tried in order to get a job (and I've tried every tidbit I've heard, and then some) I know that in the end, God needs to be invited in to the process as well. That means, God may have other plans altogether. The nice office or even cubicle may never be a part of my future. I may actually already be exactly where I'm supposed to be. I find that very frustrating when I'd rather be somewhere else.