Man with a pipe

On my way to work one morning, I spotted a man in a truck smoking from a pipe. It was one of those old-school, Sherlock-Holmes-type pipes. To me, that kind of pipe is a mark of sophistication. Yet, here was this man with that kind of pipe driving an old, beat-up green truck. The juxtaposition made me laugh, and the image stuck in my head — I thought it would be a funny anecdote to tell a few friends. Nothing more than that.

The next day, I noticed the man again, in the same spot, turning onto a street after having just left the highway. Same pipe. Same truck. It was as if the universe had just copied and pasted the moment from one day to the next.

I had driven the same route to work five times a week for four months and had never recognized any familiar vehicles or faces. But here was this man, with his truck and his pipe, in the exact same spot as I was for two consecutive days.

I felt a sense of kinship toward the man. It was an unusual feeling, I recognized that, because I didn’t know the man. Not his name. Not his profession. Not where he was driving on those two days. The only aspect of the man’s life I knew was that he was in the same spot as I was on two days in a row.

Of the 197 million square miles on earth and the 86,400 seconds in a day, I unexpectedly found myself at the same location at the same time as another person on two consecutive days. I won’t — and probably can’t — calculate the probability of that happening, but I’m going to take a shot in the dark and say it is quite small. Yet, it happened, and it felt comforting.

I thought about that for a long while — why seeing the man comforted me. Initially, I didn’t understand how a stranger could bring me comfort. Again, I didn’t even know the man’s name and I didn’t care to. I had no desire to get to know this man. It was just seeing him there, at the same time and place, just like me, made the world seem a little less lonely.

There I was — commuting to work, a task that can be both mind-numbing and lonely — and I found someone else presumably doing the same task. I wasn’t alone in the world.

Of course, I realize several people commute to work every day. A few dozen or so probably take close to the exact same route as I do. Still, sometimes it is hard to see the people around you, no matter how many there are or how close they are.

We get so busy going from point A to point B — doing all the meaningless tasks we have to do each day — that we become imprisoned in our own little worlds and we shut out everything else. Then, we wonder why we get lonely.

Our minds naturally look for the easiest solutions, and, when doing these everyday tasks, it is simply easier and more efficient to block out everything else than to make connections. The thing about easy is that it’s not always better. In fact, it’s often worse. That’s something many people already know, yet we are still so quick to take the easy way out, operate on the default mode.

So, it was easier for me to not make connections while commuting to and from work. It was more efficient for me to tune out everyone else and simply drive. But that led to loneliness. Moreover, it caused me to lose my connection to the universe. I felt as if I were operating on another plane, detached from the world around me. I self-isolated myself, and through that isolation, the universe became foggy for me.

I realized it wasn’t the man with the pipe for whom I felt a connection; it was with the universe. Seeing him simply snapped me out of my funk, lifted the veil off the universe, made me realize the universe is a heck of a lot bigger than just my car, my life. And I am connected to all of it.

There is a place for me in the universe. There is a place for you, too.

Many of us have a tendency to self-isolate. It’s us working on our default — the easy way out. What grounds us, what helps us regain our connection to the universe, is making connections with other humans. I believe it is these connections that help us understand ourselves and the world. They repel the fog that so often descends on our lives.

As for the man with the pipe, I never saw him again. It was just on those two days, a small fraction of my life. But look at the results.

When Your Heart Stops Beating

I noticed her lips first. They were gray and chapped.

I moved closer to her bed. In my left hand, I squeezed the markers I had just grabbed from on top of her dresser. They were for my younger cousin, who was waiting for them in the next room.

“Hey,” I said.

No response.

“Dodi.”

Silence.

I pushed on her arm, rocking her thin body as it lay on her day bed. She didn’t move.

I walked out of her room and went to my mother. She was sitting on her bed talking on the phone.

“I think something’s wrong with Dodi,” I told her. I couldn’t say anything else. I felt if I used more words the situation would be more real.

My mother walked to Dodi’s room and did the same things I had done: said her name, shook her body, wished it were all a nightmare. She dialed 911, and the operator guided her in CPR. The paramedics arrived a few minutes later. My 18-year-old self stood in the corner of her room and watched them clammer around my aunt.

“Maybe you should leave the room,” one of them said to me.

I shook my head. I needed to be in that room. I needed to watch what was going on. I needed to make sure it was real.

After about five minutes, the paramedics lifted my aunt onto a gurney and wheeled her through our house and out the front door. We followed the ambulance to the hospital; it was only about a mile away. We waited in the lobby until a doctor ushered us into a consultation room.

I can’t remember the exact words the doctor used. I imagine it was something like, “She didn’t make it” or “We did all we could, but…” I’m pretty sure he didn’t say, “She died,” because most people don’t. They use other phrases, like “passed away,” to cushion the blow. It never works, and we all know it, but yet we still do it.

The doctor told us her heart likely stopped beating while she was sleeping. Her cause of death was listed as cardiac arrest. She was 57.

I filled those solemn days after her death with hours of research. I wanted to figure out what had happened to my aunt, a woman who had lived with me and had been one of my best friends since I was 5 years old.

In my research, I learned a cardiac arrest occurs when “the heart’s electrical system malfunctions,” according to the American Heart Association.

“In cardiac arrest death results when the heart suddenly stops working properly,” the American Heart Association states on its website.

A cardiac arrest can happen for a number of reasons, and I won’t pretend to know why my aunt’s heart suddenly stopped working properly. I believe she had a heart attack prior to her heart stopping. She had complained of back pain and tiredness the evening before and vomited into the sink at some point over night. I didn’t know it then, but those were all subtle signs of a heart attack.

I try not to live in the past — in the could of, would of, should of. I don’t know if my aunt would have survived if we had known she had symptoms of a heart attack. I don’t even know if she did in fact have a heart attack.

I do know, however, that being familiar with the symptoms of a heart attack, particularly the subtle symptoms that often occur in women, can save lives. I’m sharing this story in hopes our family’s tragedy will help save someone else’s family member.

February is American Heart Month. Become educated on cardiovascular health. Obtain knowledge that could save your life or others’.

What better Valentine’s Day gift is there?

Thinking in the Temporary

My life shifted when I started to think more temporary and less permanent.
What I mean by this is, previously, I considered most aspects of my life to be permanent. I defaulted to thinking jobs, relationships, feelings, etc. were permanent features in my life.
To be fair, many people are permanence-minded. I would argue society teaches us to be this way. We are led to believe our studies will lead to our permanent jobs and that we will stay married to the same person for life. We learn permanence is the goal — it’s stability, safety. We strive for permanence.

The thing is: achieving permanence is incredibly difficult. There are some people who find a permanent job and a permanent spouse. However, many of us will switch jobs, get divorced, realize our lives are filled with temporary elements we misconstrued as being permanent. We get disappointed because we fail at achieving this goal of permanence.

Personally, I thought being a newspaper reporter was my permanent job and I was devastated when I realized it wasn’t. Bitterness and despair dominated my life the months before and after I quit that job.

During that time, I thought back to what I had been told after my aunt died when I was 18. Someone — I can’t remember who — said I should try to take things day-by-day and, if that didn’t work, hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute or even second-by-second.

Thinking in the temporary has helped me get through my life’s most traumatic events, pulled me out of my darkest places. In those moments, I think about how the negative feelings are temporary. And, I remember how this person I am right now, in this dark moment, is not my permanent self. Just like most everything else, I am a temporary being filled with temporary thoughts and feelings.
Initially, I worried that thinking in the temporary would increase my anxiety. I feared I would be anxious about losing everything, everyone, at any given moment. But those fears were still rooted in being permanence-minded.

I had to switch my view that permanent is the default. It isn’t. Temporary is the default.

After making this switch in thought, I became much less anxious and much more deliberate in the way I conducted my life. Now, I appreciate good moments more. I care more about other people. I don’t fall into despair when plans fail. I am just a significantly happier person.

With all of that said, I still desire the stability and safety that permanence offers. And, if a relationship or a job becomes more permanent and less temporary, I would also be happy. However, I have learned that temporary elements — jobs, relationships, feelings –can also offer safety and stability.

The temporary can bring me happiness… you know, temporarily.

Finding Yourself, Lost in the Woods

I remember getting lost in the woods when I was about 7 years old.
I had gone with my mom to visit one of her friends, and her friend’s house overlooked a wooded area. As my mom talked with her friend, I snuck outside to play with her friend’s dog.

(For those who know me, that action shouldn’t be surprising. I still avoid human interaction in favor of playing with dogs.)

After about five minutes, the dog evidently got bored playing with me and it took off into the woods. I sprinted after it, stumbling down the hill that sloped into the wooded valley behind the house. I had to continually look down to avoid the branches that were threatening to trip me. In the process, I lost sight of the dog; its golden fur blended perfectly into the fall foliage.

Unable to spot my reluctant canine companion, I decided to resign my search and head back toward the house. The problem: I had no idea how to get back to that house. Every direction looked the same — just a bunch of bare trees and piles of orange, yellow, and red leafs.

For what seemed like hours — it was only about ten minutes, I paced up and down the hill. I would reach the top, discover I didn’t recognize the surroundings, and then retreat into the valley.

I felt my heart rate accelerate as I watched the sun fall lower and lower in the sky. It would soon be dark, and the serene valley would turn into a nefarious abyss.

Exhausted, I eventually crouched down next to a creek. The creek was only about a foot wide and a couple inches deep. I dipped my tiny hands into the water and splashed it on my face, mixing it with sweat and tears.

It was at that moment, after I had exerted all of my anxious energy trying to find my way out, that I began to feel calm. And then, that calmness turned into relief, excitement. I was, for the first time in my young life, totally in charge of all my actions. I didn’t have anyone to dictate how I should act. It was all me; finding my way out was all on me.

I felt terrified and exuberant.

I realized only recently that I’ve had that cocktail of terror and exuberance several times in my life. It’s the mixture of feeling scared to be lost and feeling excited to be found.

I think that’s what life is: a series of feeling lost and then finding yourself. After all, can you ever truly find something if it weren’t lost in the first place? How do we expect to find ourselves if we never feel lost?

My mom eventually found me that day in the woods. I remember watching her trip over a fence as she raced to me. She enveloped me in her arms and just held my body against her chest. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

And that’s what keeps me going when I feel lost. I know that that happiness I felt that day is just around the corner. I know feeling lost is just one step behind feeling found. I know I will find myself… I’ll just have to feel a little lost first.

Kind of love

I’ve always been a bit of a romantic.
I guess you could say I took Disney movies a little too seriously as a kid. You know, the kind that preach love at first sight, soulmates, destiny.

While I had enough sense to know these stories were fictional — and dragons didn’t exist and teapots didn’t actually talk — I couldn’t separate fictional love with real-life love. These fictional movies helped form my very real view of what love should be. They assisted in creating this idea in my mind that true love is formed only through grand romantic gestures and loud declarations of adoration.

With this view, I spent years believing my parents didn’t actually love each other. Growing up, I never saw any of these grand romantic gestures. They never showered each other in verbal adoration. Then, when I was six, my parents separated and my dad moved into another house in the same town. Their split bolstered my belief of what true love was and that my parents didn’t have it. Even when my dad moved back into our home a decade later, I still had my doubts. I thought they bonded over mutual needs, financial and medical. If they did have love for one another, I thought, it was mediocre at best.

But, like they say, with age comes wisdom. As I grew into my 20s, I started noticing little acts of affection between my parents — a kiss on the head, a grip of a shoulder. I watched my mother struggle to learn how to operate clippers so she could cut my dad’s hair — because she knew it was difficult for him to walk from his car into a barbershop. And I noticed how my dad would stand in the doorway of my mother’s room every night, rocking back and forth on his heels trying to alleviate the pain in his arthritis-stricken knees, and ask about how her day was at work.

All of these little moments added up in my mind, and I started to believe my parents did actually love each other. It just wasn’t the kind of love I wanted.

That all changed this week. It happened as I watched my parents hold each other in a hospital room — my dad lying in a bed and my mom huddled over him. My dad, delirious from the infection flowing through his blood, screamed from the pain caused by his broken hip, while my mother whispered soothing words into his ear. They clutched onto each other so tightly the earth could split between them and still wouldn’t tear them apart.

It was the most beautiful act of love I had ever seen — both real and fictional.

Through my parents, I’ve learned true love doesn’t have to be fantastical or over-the-top. It isn’t always an eye-catching spark. True love can be plain, boring, even sometimes dull. It can be a small fire that burns unnoticed by most people, but, unlike how extravagant sparks often burn out quickly, these dull fires endure. And these kind of love stories may not have movies created about them, but they are still special to those who know of them.

In short, I’ve learned love doesn’t have to be fairy tale perfect. It can be riddled with flaws but can still be just as beautiful. And just as desirable.

And just as romantic.

Calling an Audible

I purged my contact list last night. And not because of any particular event; more out of sheer boredom and concern over accidentally butt-dialing someone I hadn’t talked to since high school. I expected the contact list cleanse to be therapeutic. You know: out with the old, in with the new. Or that idea of spring cleaning, a foreign concept to a slob like me.

What I didn’t expect was how frustrated and bitter I became in the process. I mean, we’re talking my mood went from a 10 to a 3 in about five minutes. It seemed like the more I scrolled, the deeper I sunk into this hole of negativity.

And that hole felt familiar. I remembered feeling the same way a year ago, unbeknownst to just about everyone around me. I felt like I was at the bottom of a deep hole with only the company of anxiety, hopelessness, and confusion.

I tried to blame my poor state of mind on other people and on circumstances beyond my control. Like many others, I preferred examining external factors over internal. It was a lot easier to look at the outside world than actually delve into my inner psyche.

But once I did, I discovered the main cause of all those negative feelings. It was something I had been doing all of my life, something that brought – and still brings – me enjoyment. It was planning. Well, it was actually what happens when planning feels futile, when your game plan goes astray.

I had spent hours and hours and hours in high school and college planning what my life would be like. I took dozens of career quizzes to write my future – in pen, not pencil. I even used cost of living calculators to determine how much I could spend on rent, utilities, and food each month. Looking back now, I feel confident in saying I was obsessed with planning my future.

However, even with all that time and effort, I still neglected to plan for one element of my future: that it could change. I didn’t take into account that life has a way of not going the way you expected, that you can’t always control variables that will affect your future. You can draw up some plays, but you may not run them. You may have to run an audible.

And that’s what I’m doing with my life now: running audibles. I’ll be honest, it’s still kind of scary to not have a complete game plan – what kind of career I’ll have, where I’ll live, whom I’ll love – but, contrary to what I felt last year, it’s also really exciting.

In the process of cleaning up my contact list, I had the opportunity to reflect on how my life has changed in the past year. My life still isn’t perfect, but I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be and, no matter how much I plan, I won’t always be able to make my life perfect. Those doses of imperfection make life make life interesting. They make me appreciate when life goes right.

Uninhibited Happiness

I was eating at a Hardee’s a few months ago and noticed a man really enjoying a cheeseburger. I mean, this guy looked like he was in Heaven, like God personally grilled that burger patty and angels placed the patty between the two buns. With every bite, the man’s face looked more and more blissful. I was sitting about 15 feet away and could still hear the orgasmic – yes, I’m using that word – sounds he emitted from his mouth. I felt guilty I was eavesdropping on such a seemingly intimate experience. But the guilt didn’t stop me from staring at the man. I was shameless; I didn’t even try to hide my gawking. My eyes followed the burger as it went from his tray to his mouth and back again over and over, until the burger was gone.

The man also never removed his eyes from the burger. I don’t think he even noticed I was sitting a few booths away. It was just him and the burger; everything else in the world had faded into the background.

I’ll admit my initial thoughts on the man were unkind. I thought it was weird for a grown man to so openly express his pleasure in eating a burger. Did he have no pride? Was he not embarrassed? How could any self-respecting adult display that kind of pure enjoyment in public?

Then, I realized the dismay and discomfort I felt wasn’t specifically about the man eating the burger. I would have felt the same way if I had seen any adult showing that kind of uninhibited pleasure doing any activity in public. He could have been running or skiing or jumping or painting. He could have really been doing anything, and I would have felt the same way.

It’s kind of like that lyric in “Let It Go” from “Frozen” – bare with me; I know that song has become so overplayed it’s unpleasant to think about. “Conceal, don’t feel,” the line goes. Isn’t that what we are taught?

Think about it this way: When you were a child, did you ever hesitate to express your happiness in doing some sort of activity? Can you remember ever stopping yourself from showing your enjoyment in coloring or playing tag or winning a video game? I know I can’t.

At some point, between childhood and adulthood, most of us learn that we should control our emotions in public. We are taught to be cool-headed and rational. For example, we learn to not throw temper tantrums when things don’t go our way, and, obviously, that is beneficial. Can you imagine if adults threw temper tantrums like children? (And yes, I know some adults still do). It would be chaos. We wouldn’t be able to get anything done; we would all be too busy crying and rolling around on the ground.

The downside: We also learn that we need to control our positive emotions, too. Adults should regulate how much excitement they display while in public. You can be happy, but don’t you dare be visually exuberant. People will think you’re crazy. They’ll look at you and make fun of you behind your back. If you loosen the reigns on your emotions, people may look down on you, just like I had with the man eating a burger at Hardee’s.

And as I watched the man finish his burger, I realized my disgust toward him had turned into envy. Here was a man who was not bound by the fear of embarrassment and, therefore, could fully experience his happiness. After all, of all the things we can limit, why limit happiness? Why limit pleasure? Enjoyment?

We all get one life. For mine, I want to savor every moment of happiness, of pleasure, of joy. I don’t want to tamper those feelings because of my fear of embarrassment or because of the judgmental looks from others. I want to live like that man eating his burger at Hardee’s.

My Grandmother, My Guardian

I didn’t notice them at first. I was too focused on power-walking to the Taco John’s counter. My stomach was growling, and the only thing that could appease the growling beast was some greasy Mexican food.

I ordered my lunch – a cheese quesadilla and some potato oles – and found a table near the storefront. Being a curious and slightly paranoid person, I always do a full sweep with my eyes of my surroundings whenever I’m in a public place. It was when I did this that I noticed them.

They were seated at a booth right along the path I took to reach the cash register. An older woman with curly white hair sat on one side of the booth, her back slightly hunched, while two young girls sat on the other side. Both girls had jet black hair. The oldest was probably about 12 years old, and the other girl was about 10.

The two girls stood up from their booth and walked their trays over to the garbage container placed next to the front door. After dispensing their trash, the girls turned back around and looked at their still-seated companion. The older woman grabbed her cane that was lying next to her and slid out from the booth. The girls pivoted on their feet and walked out the door. Once outside, they talked and danced – spinning around and flailing their limbs – as they waited for the older woman to join them.

I continued to watch the trio as they made their way to a station wagon parked about 20 feet away. After about five minutes of sitting in the vehicle, the older woman began to back out from the parking spot, a process that took an additional five minutes to complete.

I felt a lump form in my throat as I watched the station wagon pull out of the parking lot. My fingers wiped away some pre-tears that had materialized on my eyes.

The image of the two girls and the older woman reminded me of all of the lunches I had shared with my grandmother when I was a child. Instead of Taco John’s, my grandma and I would always go to Village Inn, where my mom worked as a waitress for a good part of my childhood. We would take a cab – my grandmother never learned to drive – to Target, I would pick out a toy, we would walk over to VIllage Inn and eat lunch, and then we would take a cab home.

I can’t remember exactly how many times we did this routine, but I would guess we did it at least twice a week for about three years. One particular memory I have involves me, with a bowl cut-styled hair and a tomboy outfit, playing with a Tonka trunk at the restaurant. My grandmother sat on the opposite side of the table, her long, slender fingers wrapped around her coffee cup. Nothing life-changing happened during this lunch, but, 20 years later, I still remember how I felt that day – happy, safe, loved.

That’s how I felt every day I spent with my grandmother, at least the days I can remember. I would always run to my grandmother whenever I felt sad or mad or lost or confused. I even did this after she had had a stroke that left her unable to walk and talk. I would curl up on her lap as she sat in her recliner and I would feel instantly relieved. To me, there was no safer place than in her arms.

My earthly relationship with my grandmother ended when I was 15 years old, when she died of old age. In the week before my grandmother’s death, my aunt and I slept in the hospital’s intensive care unit’s family waiting room for four nights. We “slept” on uncomfortable chairs that could be converted into even more uncomfortable cots. Looking back, I’m not sure if we spent those days waiting to take her home or waiting to say goodbye.

I decided on the fifth day at the hospital to take a break and go to a movie with my friends. We went to see “The Guardian,” an action-adventure film about the U.S. Coast Guards, at our local mall movie theater. I returned home from the theater and found my aunt sitting on the love seat in our dining room. She didn’t need to say anything. I knew she wouldn’t have left the hospital if my grandmother was still there.

I hated myself for not being there. I thought, “You were too busy watching a mediocre movie to be there with the woman who taught you to read and write – the woman who sat in your backyard and watched you play at recess, making sure no one picked on you. She was the person who went on daily walks around the block with you, laughing as you went out of your way to step on a extra-crunchy-looking leaf. She spent every day with you, since the moment you took your first breath, and you chose to not be with her when she was taking her last.”

Like many teenagers, I decided to take out my anger online. I began an instant messaging conversation with one of my friends who had been at the movie theater with me. After listening to me vent for about a half hour, my friend said something that has stuck with me for the past decade. He reminded me that while I was watching a movie called, “The Guardian,” my grandmother, the woman who protected me and educated me and made me the person I was – and am – today, died. My guardian died while I was watching “The Guardian.”

The thing is: my grandmother didn’t really stop being my guardian when she died. I still feel her protection and support during times when I feel depressed or anxious or confused or hopeless. My grandmother, my guardian, is still with me when I need her, just like she was when she was living. Just like she was when I was watching that older woman with her granddaughters at Taco John’s last week.

She’s here with me now, as I write this post on National Grandparents Day. She’s with me, and I thank God – whom she taught me about – that my grandmother, my guardian, will always be with me whenever I need her.