Our Wake of Kindness

Thank-you muffins

I started this blog before my dad, from whom I learned the importance of doing good unto others, was given just days to live. Soon, he will leave behind his wake of kindness. Hold tight–it’ll be a tsunami.

Dedicated to you, Dad, for all you’ve taught me.

Dear Friend,

Earlier this year, my hairstylist and I experimented with a new hair color. I was iffy about the results when I left the salon, and after a few days, decided the gray/blond was too silver/purple–like, really purple–so I went back in for a fix.

The failed experiment wasn’t a big deal since so few people would even see it. I was usually stuck at home with chronic health issues anyway, and even pre-COVID, I didn’t go out much. Besides, I had okayed the color experiment. I was 50% at fault, not that I was looking for anyone to blame.

Months later (after waiting-out the COVID salon closure), I returned to the stylist, who gave me a container of home-baked muffins as a thank you for not being upset. Upset about what? I thought, until she reminded me of the experiment. It moved me to tears (granted, not a difficult feat) and validated how I choose to live my life.

I avoid conflict. It’s a manifestation of my people-pleasing, my sensitive nature, my upbringing–too much to unpack here. But sometimes, what looks like conflict-aversion is really a choice to err on the side of kindness.

Choose to err on the side of kindness.

Like me, no one is perfect. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen. If I trust someone’s good intentions and if the consequences of whatever went wrong are minimal, I choose not to fight that battle.

It doesn’t mean I let people take advantage of me, or walk all over me–not anymore. And I’m better at holding people accountable for their mistakes, such as asking my stylist to fix my color. Only recently, through my journey to shed my people-pleasing, did I understand that kindness and assertiveness are not mutually exclusive.

The thank-you muffins reminded me of one of the first blogs I ever wrote, about my 2016 flu shot, when the CVS pharmacist asked me to relax my arm.

“I would hate to hurt you,” she said, “You’re always so nice.”

It’s that noticeable? I thought. I pictured the hundreds of times I’d walked through the aisles and stood at the pharmacy counter. The thousands of interactions with staff and other customers. The times I’d complimented the manager on his employees’ exemplary service. I didn’t think the pharmacist even knew who I was, but not only did she know me, she knew me. She was right–I am nice. Feeling the color rise in my cheeks, I thanked her.

“Nice” is the public face I try to present to the world. Part instinct, part intention, it is who I imagine myself to be, who I want to be. And, although I didn’t know the distinction in 2016, I am also kind.

The flu shot scene was great fodder for my blog, but I was stymied by this question: How do I write about being nice without sounding self-righteous?

When writers get personal on the page, they are advised not to indulge in Look how great I am prose because it’s a turn-off for readers. We’re in this together is more relatable. But I was too new to figure out the nuances. I ended up questioning if being kind really matters, though I knew the answer was unequivocally “yes.” And now, thank-you muffins in hand, I had proof.

Kindness matters.

Your kindness matters to the hairstylist and the pharmacist and the grocery store cashier and the stranger for whom you left the last roll of toilet paper on the store shelf. It matters to the person whose life may be falling apart, when your smile gave them a moment’s relief. It matters when hate fills our airways and our psyches and threatens to poison the world. People don’t always speak up when they’ve received a kindness, but that doesn’t mean they don’t notice. And if they didn’t consciously notice, neural connections in their brain still register the transaction and store it permanently. Your kindness becomes part of them.

When we die, I believe we leave a wake on this earth caused by our actions. Our wake can push people under, or give them a footing to rise above the moment, and get a clearer view of the challenges facing them. I choose the latter. People-pleasing may be one of my character flaws, but kindness is not.

Kindness is not a character flaw.

In honor of my dad, whose kindness, generosity, and selflessness have lifted up so many people in his 88 years, I ask you to consider your wake. Especially in the coming months, when almost half of our fellow Americans will be hurting and scared even more than they are right now, the world needs all the kindness we can muster. Fight for what you believe, hold politicians accountable, demand the truth, and, most importantly–VOTE. And leave a wake you’ll be proud of.

All the best. Stay safe and well.

Karen

Do you know someone who needs to hear this message? Please share it!

Accountability matters–here’s an example why.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Troy, NY.

Dear Friend,

I had an interesting exchange on Facebook recently about personal accountability, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

I’m in a private group for Recovering People-pleasers. (There’s a Facebook group for everything isn’t there? If you’d like to know more, reply to this email.)

A group member—I’ll call her Jane—posted that a close circle of friends had excluded her from a party at which everyone received an inscribed gift. The friends then plastered social media with pictures of the party and the gifts. It seemed clear to Jane (and to me) that the group intentionally ousted her, and they wanted her to know (in a passive-aggressive way, if you ask me.)

Jane asked for advice about how to respond.

I rarely give advice unless it’s requested, but since Jane asked, I started working on a reply. I was going to suggest that she mourn the loss of her “friends,” and then move on, as it was clear they didn’t value her friendship.

Before I had a chance to hit “post,” another member—I’ll call her Sue—replied with a much more direct and assertive suggestion. Sue suggested Jane contact one of the friends and ask up front why she had been excluded.

It was an aha moment for me, and immediately, my planned reply seemed lame. It was way too victim-y. I realized I had stooped to my people-pleasing fallback–to avoid confrontation, walk away, accept whatever people dish out. As much as I’ve grown in standing up for myself, avoiding conflict is still my default response to the world.

As a people-pleaser, avoiding conflict is my default response.

In contrast, Sue’s reply felt empowering. It held people accountable for their actions, a position I’ve not often taken in my life.

Personal accountability is the impetus behind my memoir. When I looked back on the saga of my son’s brain tumor, diagnosed over twenty years ago, I realized how much my people-pleasing hindered me from fighting for him. It was and is a horribly humiliating awakening.

I realized the only way to make sense of what happened was to hold myself accountable for my actions, or lack thereof. Doing this in a very public way–here, in my other writing, and especially my memoir is how I will finally overcome my people-pleasing. And I know that others who read my truth and see themselves in my story will experience their own accountability, and grow as well.

Personal accountability–owning our truth–demonstrates respect for self.

Holding myself accountable for my shortcomings required me to hold others accountable, too. My intent wasn’t and isn’t that anyone would change their ways or apologize, as that’s not within my control. And I don’t expect that someone else will see the story the same way as me. My purpose is to acknowledge how someone’s actions, words, and/or attitude impacted me and my story.

It’s a sign of respect for my self, showing that I had confidence in calling out the Emperor’s lack of clothes.

Confronting others about their behavior is hard for people-pleasers because it carries the risk of rejection. It’s less scary to pretend negative things don’t happen.

A friend excludes you from a party? Pretend you didn’t know and don’t care.
A romantic partner ignores you? Ignore it.
A colleague fails to complete their part of a project? Do their work for them.
A boss passes you over for a promotion? Lick your wounds in private.
A doctor fails to return a call/order a test/identify a serious diagnosis? Don’t make waves.

What we fail to see, however, is that being accountable–owning our truth–is a path to personal growth. Only when you’ve named the problem can you fight the problem. And opening up an awkward conversation may lead to new insights for both parties. It’s another opportunity for growth.

Being accountable is an opportunity for growth.

In the Facebook group, Sue suggested that Jane invite a member of the inner circle to coffee, talk about what happened, and explain how it made her feel. It would be gentle, caring accountability.

Once my conflict-averse floodgates were open, however, I imagined Jane calling one of the “friends,” and demanding to know WTF was going on. Sometimes, being all nicey-nice just doesn’t work. Often, though, aggression backfires.

I ended up posting my initial comment in the thread with a caveat that I changed my mind and liked Sue’s idea better.

Jane didn’t report back to the group, so I don’t know how she handled the problem. But I’m curious what you think.

What would you recommend to a friend who was ousted or “ghosted?”

If you’ve worn those shoes, what did you do?

Speaking of my memoir, I’ll be sending an update in my quarterly Newsy Letter soon, which includes book recommendations, and an embarrassing (G-rated) photo with a fun or funny personal tidbit about me. Wouldn’t you like to be in-the-know? Just scroll down or over to find the “Subscribe via email” box. If you can’t find it, click here. (If you’re already subscribed, don’t worry, I’ll weed out duplicates.)

I look forward to hearing from you, and hope you are safe and well.

All the best,

Karen

Pandemic Brain

Pinball machine image by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay

Dear friend,

I recently had an aha moment about the pandemic. It came after days of typing and clicking on my laptop without producing or accomplishing anything of value. I had zero energy and wondered if I was depressed.

Do you have those days?

Many writers have struggled to practice their craft after COVID-19 hit. I had been fairly productive for several months, but lately, I’ve felt my enthusiasm wane. During this period of writing sloth-dom, even this short blog took me three four five days to finish. (Below, I list of some of the topics that bounced around my head in the process. It’s kinda funny, actually.)

I was pretty discouraged, as I get sometimes. Building a name for oneself as a writer is not for the faint-of-heart. And the pandemic adds another layer.

The pandemic adds to our already-full plates.

I think it’s because every day—every hour and minute, for some of us—we’re facing existential questions about our lives, the future of our country, even the future of humanity and this planet. My husband and I have gone so far as to give each other “if I get COVID” instructions above and beyond our advanced directives.

Many of our deepest existential questions have no easy answer, if they have an answer at all. The whys and hows just bounce around our brains until they fall in a black hole, only to pop up again the next time we ask.

This intensity of unknowns creates… (and here’s my aha moment)…Pandemic Brain.

Pandemic Brain is caused by an overload of existential questioning and the intensity of the unknown.

When I realized I had Pandemic Brain, I already felt better. Funny how naming a problem can do that.

Imagine a pinball machine. If you walk past it, it’s quiet. But as soon as you engage with it by pulling the plunger, you’re trapped. There’s so much pent-up energy in that tightly coiled spring, it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to let it snap back. And when you finally release it, bedlam ensues.

With Pandemic Brain, the plunger is engaged by the news, a Facebook post, a comment from a friend, or even a thought you have in a quiet moment. You may have felt on top of things, but as soon as you release the plunger with a sproing, your thoughts zig zag in a million directions with a gazillion different trajectories all at at once, and you try frantically to create some semblance of order, knowing you’ll have little control.

Pandemic Brain is like a pinball machine

Yup. That about describes it for me. So whatami gonna do about it?

What I’m going to do is return to the strategies I use anytime I feel overwhelmed, distracted, unproductive, in a funk:

  • Give myself permission to be imperfectly human.
  • Look for and articulate the lessons I learn from every struggle.
  • Meditate–even five minutes helps.
  • Look for moments in the day when I am not in overwhelming pain or discomfort, nor under extreme pressure. For many of us, there are more of those moments in a day than we realize. I revel in the calm of those moments.
  • Practice gratitude of the little things. Of course we’re all grateful for family and friends, but don’t forget to appreciate curbside pickup at the liquor store, plentiful rolls of toilet paper again available, and programmable coffee makers.
  • Laugh. I’ve never watched the Ellen Degeneres show, but her funniest moments Youtube videos are fall-on-the-floor hilarious.

And for some roll-your-eyes humor, here are some topics that dinged around in my Pandemic Brain for this months blog:

  • Why I call my husband Michael “Mike” in my book, and my son Matt “Matthew,” and what it’s like to be “Karen” lately now that the name is infamous, and do you even know that “Karen” is a thing, and what’s really in a name?
  • My book proposal is almost done except the marketing section, which is the thing I dreaded most about writing a proposal and I think I’m having a major flare of imposter syndrome.
  • I’m such an introvert that even virtual engaging like on Twitter and Facebook is exhausting so I take breaks for a few days but then I think about what I should be posting and tweeting and I’m going to coin the phrase “the vortex of engagement,” and that would be a great essay if I ever have the time or energy to write it.
  • And what authors can I ask to blurb my book, but the real question is, do I have the nerve to ask?

One thing I failed to mention in my list of “treatments” for Pandemic Brain is writing. It may be hard to generate intelligible prose with a blur of ideas and questions and fears buzzing around in my head, but when the words come, they help me understand myself and the world I inhabit.

So writing is another thing for me to be grateful for. And I’m grateful to you for reading this today. Thank you, my friend.

Now it’s time to get back to work.