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!

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.

Racism is hidden within ourselves.

Kneeling in prayer for George Floyd.

Dear friend,

Once again, I’m writing about a topic I didn’t plan to write about–racism. Once again, as a writer, I feel obligated to use my skills and my modest platform to say something of value. I’d rather leave the societal commentary to the bigwigs—those with sway, with clout, with fancier and more relevant degrees than me. Those who can make a difference.

But to not speak is to be complicit. And. I. Refuse.

So I’m sharing my thoughts about the murder of George Floyd, the black man in Minneapolis who was “kneeled to death” on camera. He was yet another man killed for the color of his skin.

I didn’t want to watch the horrendous video of the last eight minutes and forty-six seconds of his life, and yet I couldn’t not watch. I made myself pay attention to bear witness to his death. To look away was a privilege he and his family and his community could not exercise.

So what am I gonna do about racism? That’s the question we’re all asking ourselves, isn’t it?

I start by looking within. I consider myself a non-racist, but I acknowledge that in the past, I’ve not always confronted racist words or actions of others. That is racist on my part. I own that. For many of us, if we dig deep enough, I believe we’ll find racist leanings in our conscious and subconscious thoughts, and in our visceral reactions.

How do I fight the racist hidden within me?

First, by acknowledging it. And here I am.

Second, by changing.

Speaking up doesn’t come easily to me. Even the potential for conflict is anxiety-provoking. I’ve been actively working to escape the unhealthy people-pleasing box I built for myself. Now, when a voice in my head says, Karen, speak up, I do. I don’t give myself a choice.

George Floyd took his final breath under the knee of an oppressor. I will use my breath to speak up on his behalf and others who are oppressed. I will call out racism wherever and whenever it hides.

This declaration scares me. I’m not an in-your-face person. Then I think of the terror Mr. Floyd must have experienced, and I resolve to be mightier than my fear.

Third, by increasing my awareness.

Other than Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, I can’t recall if I’ve read works by African-American authors. (Truth be told—I’m very bad at remembering authors and titles, so I may have read other black-authored works. I promise to pay more attention going forward.)

So I’ll buy books to enlighten me. Anti-racism books are selling out across the country, and I may have to wait for Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. You can see these and other recommendations here.

Anti-racism books are selling out across the country.

But, even before I became a memoirist, I knew I gained more insight into issues through personal accounts than from most other forms of writing. Offer me story vs. expository writing, and I’ll choose story every time. Here and here are great lists of memoirs by African Americans.

If you have other book recommendations, memoir or not, please let me know.

After I finish one of these books, I’ll pass it along to someone in my majority-white community, and ask that they pass it on when they’re done. Collectively, in my little part of the world, maybe we can become better allies to our neighbors of color. And maybe, if this type of thing happens all over the country, it will make a difference. And maybe, just maybe, George Floyd will be the last person to fall victim to his skin color.

My efforts feel so… disconnected, so abstract, when others are protesting and putting their safety and lives on the line to make their statement. But sometimes, when so many are screaming, one more loud voice is not heard. Sometimes a whisper gets the attention.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi,

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

I will fight racism in my gentle, meaningful way, and continue to look for other ways to change our world for the better. We so need it, don’t you agree?

How about you? How are you fighting racism?