Connection! (aka: Unexpected Encounter on Aisle 4)

 

human connection contact

Connection.

After food and water (and, some would say, sex), connection may be the greatest thing we crave.

It’s why we become slaves to our cell phones, eyes glued to the tiny glowing screens, anxiously awaiting word from our contacts. It’s why we flock to social media. Our comments and Tweets, likes and shared memes are like drops of water, filling our empty cups. We need to reach out, to have meaningful conversations, to belong.

Connection used to be a simple thing. People rose in the morning and connected with family around the breakfast table. Or exchanged greetings at the local market, met with customers face-to-face, shared personal struggles and successes with neighbors, with coworkers, with fellow churchgoers. You were a member of the community – not a virtual one artificially contrived to group together the like-minded, but a real life community of people with real names (not user names) and real faces (not avatars).

Remember those days? Neither do I.

Imagine! Working side-by-side in a community garden while chatting with a human being instead of chiming in on a gardening forum online. Going for a jog or walk with a regular group instead of running alone, then posting your milestones on social media. Arguing with your local book club discussion group about the finer points of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World instead of tossing your personal review into the virtual soup.

Connection – real connection, is intimate. It has eye contact, and touch, and awkward pauses. It is the surprise of saying the same words at the same time (jinx!). It is the smell of someone else’s cologne, the sounds of sighs and tongue clicks, the inflection of voices.

It is ironic that I write of these things, since I am a writer and deeply introverted, and enjoy my time alone more often than time interacting with people. But once in a while, I actually crawl out of my cave to explore the human world. As I happened to be doing just the other day, during a somewhat routine 10-minute stop at the supermarket.

supermarket aisle shopping cartAs I pushed my cart down Aisle 4, an elderly woman leaned forward on her walker and complimented my dress. “It is so pretty, and it goes so nicely with your skin. You have lovely skin,” she added. “You are so lucky that it doesn’t burn easily.”

I flashed the woman a grateful smile, and nearly continued on my way, but stopped. What if this woman was not just offering a compliment? What if she was reaching out, seeking connection? “That’s true,” I told her. “But the trade-off is that it is harder for me to absorb Vitamin D from the sun.”

“It is?” The woman’s eyes widened in surprise. “I never knew that.”

The conversation continued, revolving around the challenges and benefits of my toasty brown skin and her pale, Irish complexion. We spoke of race relations throughout the generations, and of travel, and of the ups and downs of relating to siblings. My 10-minute shopping trip stretched out an additional 30 minutes. But that didn’t matter at all. What mattered was the mini-miracle of two complete strangers having an actual, meaningful dialogue about life right there in the aisle of the supermarket. Connecting. Just as everyone used to do, I imagine, in the days before cell phones and the internet.

At last, we said our goodbyes, and thanked each other for the unexpected and strangely satisfying experience. Who knows if we will come across one another again? Maybe that is the sort of thing that only happens in small communities. But still, my cup was filled, and I imagine hers was, too. Now, of course, I ironically must relay the experience here in the virtual world. But perhaps in reading these words, you, too, may decide to pause when the opportunity arises, put your cell phone away, and connect with a real, live human being.

community

 

Onward! (aka: Your Amazing Journey)

lifes journey

Life is not just a journey.

It can be like a journey though. It starts when at last we leave the nest, empty-handed, fluttering our barely-tested wings. Life is not so new anymore, and yet, everything is fresh. Like babies, we toddle into the vast unknown, swiveling our heads to take in everything around us. Our hearts are open to love. We blaze with light, high on new ideas.

Onward!

journey toward sun

It doesn’t take long, though. Somewhere in those ten years, we forget the steps. Our wings droop, weary. Our lights burn lower now, a candle’s flicker, shocked by the splash of sudden responsibilities. In our hands, we carry sacks, heavy with disappointment. Sometimes, we stop in our tracks, compass spinning wildly. Maybe we retrace our steps, searching for the safety of the nest we left behind.

But there is no nest. Not anymore.

So on we continue. When we are lucky, we find others journeying in our direction. We take turns carrying the load for one another, emptying sacks with laughter, with words. Candles together, we shine, lighting the path ahead. We remember our wings. We soar.

candlelight people lights

But luck does not always last. Those moments will come. Our paths may split, companions scattered. What was once you is no longer you, but an empty hole that fills with salty rain and empties again. The light is snuffed, the darkness overwhelms. We want to stop, to curl into the darkness, wrap our wings around us and forget.

But there is this wonderful thing called time. You will hate that word, but you must trust it. Time will gently unfurl your wings, lift you from the darkness. Time will open your eyes to the good ways to be you once again. Time will reveal a great truth to you: life is not just a journey.

Life can be your very own novel. You are the protagonist, fresh ink on each new page. You can begin the dialogue, write the verse, and when you aren’t happy, you can change the plot.

Life can be your canvas. Sketch your plan. Add your own splashes of color where you can. Or better, make yourself the canvas. Trade your jeans for polka-dot skirts and wild, artsy jewelry. Grow the longest beard you’ve ever seen. Sculpt your form like clay, love your softness.

Some say that life is a spiral. You move onward and upward, but the climb brings you around to where you began. But now, you have grown, learned, hovering above the steps you once climbed.

No matter how you see it, there is one thing that remains unchanged. This is your one and only life. No matter where you are in the journey, no matter which page you’ve reached in your book, you have the power to choose what happens next. Who will you be when the sun rises next? Where will your next steps take you?
remember your wings and fly

I hope that your baggage will grow lighter as you travel. I hope that you remember your wings and fly.

I hope that time and love will seep into your cracks and heal your hurts. I hope that when you wander from your path, you will find your way back. I will be here, waiting for you, my fellow traveler. My candle is lit, ready to share my light when you need it.

May your journey be long and filled with great love.

The Clothes Make the Man (aka: Dress the Part)

Women's clothes what to wearThe clothes make the man. Or rather, the person.

It’s true. Not just because Polonius said so to his son, Laertes, in a rather ironic speech about being true to oneself and not being a phony. And not just because the idea has transformed into a cliché, handed down throughout the years. But in fact, science indicates that the clothes we wear, and our symbolic associations with them, can indeed affect our psychological processes. (Adam & Galinsky, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology).

In other words, dressing smarter may make you smarter. Dressing sloppily may make you – well, sloppy.

This totally makes sense. When I go to work each day, I take great care to wear outfits that are neat, well put-together, and professional. And also cute. Because dressing this way sets my attitude for the day – I have it all together. I am a well-organized, focused, and confident professional, ready to excel in the workplace. And also cute. However, when I’m home during the weekends, I pull on comfortable sweats, or jeans and an old t-shirt. My I-don’t-care uniform for lazy hours of reading, video gaming, or Netflix marathons.

In addition to the way our clothing can affect how we think and feel, the way we dress can also influence the perceptions of the people around us. Wrinkled shirts, ripped nylons, scuffed or worn-out shoes may give off an impression of laziness, apathy, or untidiness. By contrast, a well-fitting suit, a trendy yet conservative dress, and voilà! The people around us may perceive us as successful, full of confidence, even more trustworthy.

superman movie dress the part

Are these perceptions as important as my own self-perception? Maybe, maybe not. I am inclined to think that the two are dependent on one another. Perhaps, if I were to pull on a superhero suit, it would make me feel and act like a superhero – not only because I appear to myself like a superhero, but because I am aware that the people around me will also see me as such. If a sexy red dress makes me feel sexy, then perhaps it is because I know that other people will also see me as sexy. And if a well-fitting, conservative (and cute) business suit makes me feel successful and confident (and cute), then perhaps it is due to the perception of success and confidence that my suit gives to others. The clothes do indeed make the man (or woman) – both to his or herself, as well as to the people in his or her life.

This is not to suggest that our clothing choices must always take into account the reactions of other people. No matter how snappy a dresser you may be, there will always be someone who sizes up your appearance and makes an unfavorable judgment about your character. Too provocative. Too conservative. Too frumpy. Too matchy-matchy. Too juvenile. Oh, the faux-pas! We can’t please everyone.

Now plenty of people are perfectly content to live their lives in one standard go-to outfit, be it jeans and t-shirts, khakis and polos, or something more Walmartian, as my daughter likes to put it. And that’s totally their prerogative. But for those of us who enjoy the process of “dressing the part,” it is important to strike a comfortable balance between making a good external impression and feeling positive about our own sense of self-expression through the clothes we wear.  Although the clothes make the man, we must also remember, above all, “to thine ownself be true.”

Barbie fashionistas

 

 

 

 

 

Offensive Coffee Cups (aka: #BoycottStupidity)

 

Red Starbucks Coffee CupsA sad fact: it does not snow in California. Okay fine – I guess it snows up in the High Sierra, where people still pan for gold and grow beards that would make Dumbledore envious. But throughout most of Cali, it doesn’t snow. No snow days. No adorable little snowmen in our front yards. No white Christmases.

I know what you’re thinking.

No snow at Christmas? I should boycott Starbucks. After all, for years, they have insisted on printing tiny snowflakes and snowmen on their red holiday coffee cups. So offensive! They totally left out the snow-less citizens of California, Nevada, Hawaii, and Florida. How dare a coffee company not represent our group. From now on, if Starbucks does not start printing little golden sun symbols on their red cups, then we should no longer buy their delicious, overpriced coffee drinks.

Oh wait – looks like I can’t jump on the #BoycottStarbucks bandwagon. It’s already full. A bunch of Christians have recently joined forces with the Anti-Political Correctness Club to raise their voices in outcry against Starbucks. Because of unfair labor practices? Because some company executive verbally insulted the Christian faith? Because of some blatant unethical behavior?

No. The #BoycottStarbucks / #WarOnChristmas Christians are outraged, because Starbucks chose not to print any little white snowflakes on their signature red coffee cups this year.

Snowflakes.

Snowflakes.

I wish I were joking. I wish I could find some redeeming value in this religion-fueled coffee-cup protest, which apparently now has Donald Trump as an unofficial spokesperson. But I can’t. In fact, the whole controversy is so ridiculous, that I feel like starting a #BoycottStupidity hashtag on Twitter. I also have a sudden urge to go to Starbucks and buy a half-dozen Grande Double-shot Peppermint Mochas to hand out to my coworkers. But I won’t. Not because I am offended by the company’s decision not to put snowflakes or snowmen or even sun symbols on their red holiday cups. But because just outside my neighborhood Starbucks, there are people shivering in the cold, who have had nothing to eat today. And the money that I could spend to treat myself to a sweet, syrupy drink could instead help a struggling fellow human being.

Some things are more important than coffee cups.

Businesses never exist purely to promote and defend specific religious ideologies. They exist, first and foremost, to make money, and though some owners may have and express certain values, looking to businesses to enforce the cultural symbolism of your faith is a bad bet. (Emma Green, The Atlantic, 11/10/2015)

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Everybody Wants to Be Superman (aka: Useless Goals)

Supergirl TV ShowLook! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…it’s…Supergirl? A collective groan runs through the crowd. Oh come on! What a gyp! Everyone knows that Supergirl is a total wannabe. No matter how supercool she tries to be, she will never live up to the badass standard set by her cousin, Kal-El.

Really, no one can.

Here’s the thing – I am totally not a superhero person. I get the Green Hornet mixed up with the Green Lantern, and the Hulk mixed up with the Jolly Green Giant. I think that Batman lives in a cave and likes bats, and drives a weird car, but I could be wrong about some of those.

Super SomethingBut here’s what I do know: every superhero and supervillain wants the same thing. They all want to be Superman. But no one – not even Clark Kent himself, can be that awesome. Want superspeed? Fine – but that’s the only superpower you get, Flash. So you wish you could fly? Here – have some stretchy spider-webs so you can fake fly around the city. Have an invisible jet (seriously, Wonder Woman creators? Was that the best you could do?). Want to be strong enough to push a ginourmous meteor deeper into space so it doesn’t destroy Earth? Yeah, good luck with that one. Good luck with freezing a lake with your icy breath, cutting through rock with your laser vision, and super-self-healing, too.

SuperheroesJelly yet, Justice League losers?

It’s hard not to love someone who is the ultimate superhero. I mean, his only weakness is kryptonite. And unless you live in Smallville, kryptonite is pretty rare stuff.

Okay, okay, maybe I’m judging too harshly. I should acknowledge that the other superheroes all have their special, unique gifts, too. Where would we all be if not for Wonder Woman’s incredible ability to lasso people and force them to tell the truth? And the Wonder Twins’ ability to turn into animals and…um…water? So much better than the ability to keep an entire jet plane full of people from crashing into a crowded stadium.

There’s simply no way to compare. Nor should we try. Superman is just…super. But as super as he is, he is not my most admired superhero. Who comes to mind when you hear the words, Go Go Gadget car!? A truly impressive superhero, right? One who can use technology to fight crime, chase super-villains, and do amazing things. No, not Inspector Gadget! Don’t be ridiculous! The true superhero was his niece, Penny, who kept saving the world while sitting in front of her computer screen. Now that’s the kind of superhero act I can get behind.

Penny and her computer book

Paper Lives and Paper People (aka: Misimagination)

  “You had been a paper boy to me all these years – two dimensions as a character on the page and two different, but still flat, dimensions as a person. But that night, you turned out to be real.” (~ Margo Roth Spiegelman; Paper Towns, by John Green)

paper town map

One of the books that I recently finished during my summer reading spree was Paper Towns, by John Green. Although I found the story itself to be, well, mediocre, the author managed to strike a few surprising chords that still echo within me.

From the very beginning, I thought I knew the story. Troubled teen, Margo Roth Spiegelman, makes impulsive choices to gain attention from others. Disillusioned with life in what she describes as a “paper town,” she runs away. The main character, Quentin Jacobsen, who is in love with Margo almost to the point of obsession, disrupts his own life to follow the clues Margo left behind, determined to find her.

Aha, I think. Now I understand the theme of this story, and the meaning of Paper Towns.

“All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.” (~ Margo Roth Spiegelman; Paper Towns, by John Green)

where is Margo Roth But I am wrong. Just as Quentin discovers that he doesn’t really know Margo Roth Spiegelman, I discover that I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg in regards to this story’s theme. Margo Roth Spiegelman is more than just a metaphor – she is a real-life girl. And guess what? Paper Towns are a real-life thing (which both exist and yet do not really exist).

But that’s not all. As the story continues to unfold, I learn yet another concept of paper people from paper towns. They are the people who we create of the people who actually exist. Everyone takes the stories that they had heard of Margo and uses those stories to form a “paper,” 2-dimensional version of her. Likewise, Margo uses her memories of friendship with Quentin to create a 2-dimensional, fictional version of him.

misimagined How often do we do this? How often do we read celebrity gossip or see flashes of these celebrities in the media, then use those to tiny snapshots to determine who they are? How often do we take in tiny bits of information about the people around us, then assemble those ideas into a shallow, incomplete version of a person?

Do we shake off our complacency, like Quentin, and make an effort to get to know the real life human being before us? Or do we content ourselves with the fake, 2-dimensional, paper image of that person which we have created in our own imaginations? How real do we allow other people to become? Are we disappointed when the real-life person fails to live up to the false paper image in our minds?

Marginal (aka: Cultural Nuances and Frustration )

I recently threw a birthday party for one of my kids. It was great fun – a house filled with the noisy, gleeful laughter of little boys, floating balloons made to look like owls, and a punch bowl of frothing, bubbling green “potion” to drink. And candy. Lots and lots of candy.

“Why didn’t you invite me?” one of my older sisters asked in a hurt tone.

I was stunned. “Invite you? But it was a children’s birthday party!”

Apparently, this is a thing in some families; a cultural expectation which eluded me, as cultural expectations often do. And so, I hurt the feelings of my sister by not inviting her to a birthday party full of candy and noisy kids whom she doesn’t even know. Just as I hurt the feelings of my mother by having my child send a lovely, written thank-you card instead of calling her on the telephone.

Black family culture churchYou see, that is what culture is. Many people think that it is about the big things – the language, the foods, and the music shared by a cultural group. But really, culture is a patchwork quilt of hundreds of tiny nuances that can translate into huge misunderstandings.

Sometimes, I am frustrated when people from other ethnic groups expect me to fit into some narrow mold which, in their minds, defines Black American culture. I am equally frustrated when people within my own family hold the same expectation. “But this is how black people think. This is what black people do,” they say.

individualism-vs-collectivismI just grit my teeth. I have never subscribed to the idea that, just because one’s ancestors originated from a particularly geographical location, one is obliged to identify with the subculture of that ethnic group. Of course, voicing such thoughts aloud among those of my family’s ethnic group has the tendency to spark wildfires.

It is not an easy thing when you only identify marginally with your family’s subculture. No matter how hard you try to be kind and accepting of their ideas, lifestyles, and worldview, the differences always separate you. My relatives see me as an outsider. A snob. “Whitewashed.”

I only see me as being who I am.

I wonder sometimes how my own culture diverged so much from my culture of origin.  Perhaps it was due to my constant diet of books from a very young age – the never-ending exposure to new ideas, and new ways of thinking. Through literature, I learned the history behind many of the customs and practices of various American ethnic subculture groups, including that of my family. And in learning the history, I also learned to evaluate the need to continue such a custom.

And maybe that is the problem. I have never been able to simply sit back and accept. There is always that urge to analyze, evaluate, and throw out that which seems unnecessary or unfruitful. Perhaps for most people who fit comfortably within the cultural norms of their family’s demographic group, that urge doesn’t exist. Or the volume is turned down low. In a way, I envy that. I imagine that with simple acceptance comes a certain sense of peace and safety among the herd. And a lot fewer misunderstandings.

But still, there are a few things which perhaps transcend cultural construct, such as consideration, tolerance, and family   . Regardless of how silly and pointless the expectations may appear to me, the fact is that I inadvertently hurt my family members’ feelings. And really, it would not take much to avoid such a thing in the future. Offer an invitation. Make a phone call instead of putting the sentiment in writing. I guess it is no different than in a business environment, where one cultural group creates stronger goodwill by respecting the other group’s foreign cultural practices. Bow instead of shaking hands. Avoid or make direct eye contact. Use formal or informal language.  cross-cultural-communication

Cultural nuances can be a tricky, tricky thing. Especially within a family, where emotions can be heightened and judgments can be sharp and punishing. But when it comes to maintaining relationships, one must practice tolerance and strive for common ground in order to construct those large bridges made up of “little things.”

practice tolerance quote