Tag Archives: compassion

Filling Station

As seen on Huffington Post 50

When I was little, one of the things I most loved to do with my father was go to the gas station.  A child of the early 1900s, he called it the “filling station” and he always made sure that he had at least a half a tank of gas.  He took the filling station very seriously.  Shopped around for the best prices.  Knew the attendants and shot the breeze with them—Chicago Lake Effect weather, price of beans and corn down in central Illinois, the youth these days.  I kept my mouth shut and listened to the
soothing sound of his part scorn/part idolatry of it all.

And when we were back on the road, I memorized the lyrics and Big Band tunes on his a.m. radio station, “The Music of Your Life.”  This was safety to me.  The thought of women in white gloves, hats and heels, and smart cocktail dresses, and men in suits with slicked hair and doffed fedoras and overcoats…dancing in sync on a parquet dance floor with an orchestra and a cocktail waiting for them back at the small round table in a lowball glass.  I agreed:  what was wrong with the youth these days….sitting in ponchos and bell bottoms, smoking pot, talking about free love and war mongering?  I wanted his youth.  And I found it at the filling station.

I used to go there just to smell the gasoline, to see the rainbows of fuel in the wet pavement after a good old fashioned Midwestern thunderstorm, to see if the guy behind the counter might chat me up if I bought a Hershey’s bar or a bottle of Coke.  Over the years, I became friends with that guy.  His name was Bud.  He used to give me little plastic animals.  One time he gave me a whole tube full of Noah’s Arc plastic animals, who gladly joined my china figurines collection that I played with religiously (and now more religiously), in wooden structures I made in shop class.  I’m not sure what happened to Bud, but I do remember the look he gave me when I tried to buy beer in sixth grade.  Part scorn/part iconic.  The youth these days.

***

Now I live in a small mountain town in Montana.  I drive a big gas-guzzling truck because here…it’s justified, given the roads we travel and the creatures who travel it with us.  Thusly, I spend a lot of time at the gas station.  I go there for gas.  I go there for a carton of
milk.  I go there for elk meat.  I go there for box wine.  I go there for conversation.  Now my Bud is a guy called Murray.  For months he called me Laurie.  NOBODY calls me Laurie.  One day I got up the courage to tell this kind man with the Peace tattoo and the Jerry Garcia hair and the kind smile:  “I’m Laura.  Not Laurie.”  He looked at me in what I would come to know was mock-befuddlement, and belted out, “Hey, Munson!”

Now most every time I come into my gas station, there’s Murray saying, “Hey, Munson!”  I love this man.  Over the years, I’ve told him
jokes, we’ve shaken our heads over national tragedies playing out on the corner television.  He’s bought me a box of wine here and there.  He even gave me a glass horse figurine that he picked up at a consignment shop.  It’s clear with cobalt blue inside.  It sits next to another glass horse figurine that is almost identical, only I bought it for a lot of money at a glass-blowing factory in Venice.  The one I bought is on its knees, struggling to get up, neck craning and stretching.  The one Murray gave me…is just a little bit more on its feet.  I repeat:  I love this man.

A friend once told me, when I was new to Montana, that there are saints everywhere.  “Pay attention,” he said.  “They will stun you with their loving hearts.  Just when you least expect it.”

Well the other day, amidst all the holiday scrambling—sitting on the living room rug in a fit of wrapping paper, scissors, ribbons, and tape, my son entered the room and requested a ride to the ski resort in the town where we live.  Maybe you’ve noticed something about the kids these days:  they don’t make plans.  They text.  They walk in and demand things last minute, like your whole world revolves around their social life and their techno needs, even if it’s good clean fun like skiing.  I’ve got pretty amazing kids.  Kids who listen to NPR and write in journals and ring the Salvation Army bell.  Still…it’s different than it used to be and I’ve learned that being a mother requires some level of going with their flow, lest we be in constant conflict.  So I ditched the wrapping paper, and stuffed my night-shirt tails into my yoga pants, donned my Sorels, and with neither underwear nor bra, I grabbed my big parka and hit the road with my son.

You know that thing they say about always making sure to wear clean underwear?  Well…here’s what happened:

In the car on our way up the mountain, my son realized he had no money for his standard grilled cheese lunch at the Summit House.  I looked around for my purse, and there was no purse.  Which meant there was no money.  I always leave my purse in the car.  I was perplexed.  I said something to the tune of “Blame it on the holidaze.”  But then I realized that I had no license, and that just the other day I realized my registration had expired.  Blame it on the holidaze?  And my insurance card was expired.  And…then I looked at my gas gauge…and it was low.  Really low.  I always keep at least a half a tank of gas, just like my father.  And no cell phone to boot. This was so entirely not like me.  Holidaze?

I scanned the car for an errant twenty, or at least a five.  And there under the teacher gifts yet to be delivered on the dash, were two fives.  “Here, I’ll take one and you take the other,” my son said.

“I don’t know if I have enough gas to drive the ten miles home.  And my purse must be at home, so I have to go home in order to get money in order to get gas.”  I didn’t tell him about the part where I was driving totally illegally.  Not in unclean underwear, mind you…but in NO underwear.  Etc.  “Can’t you borrow some cash?” I said.

But there I was, teaching my child to be a mooch.  I humbly took the remaining five.  “Don’t worry, Mom.  That’s a gallon of gas.  And a gallon of gas goes fifteen miles.  We live ten miles from here and you probably have at least enough to get home and back to the gas station.”  He smiled, all faith.

For some reason, I bid him fondly adieu, feeling like a combo of Debbie Reynolds the later years, and Carrie Fisher, ditto.  What happened to me? I thought.  Two seconds ago I was in a twin set and khakis, fresh from the gym, with exfoliated skin and lunch plans. Now I am one beat-up Suburban away from bag lady with no buttons to push, and only an accelerator from which to hope for power. And then I remembered what my friend said about saints being everywhere.  And I thought of Murray.

So I pulled into my gas station on fumes, rehearsing what I could possibly say that wouldn’t be a total breach in customer privileges.  After all…what have I ever given him, except for a kiss on the cheek once when he told me that I was one of his favorite customers.  This after I’d spilled my guts about a particular glich in a particular relationship with a particular persona non-grata—also a customer of this said gas station.

Needless to say…I felt like the worst mooch ever.  Because I was about to ask him to spot me some cash.

I threw my shoulders back like my father used to do in facing an awkward situation.  Walked in.

“Hey, Munson,” he belted out.  “How’s it going?”

“Well…” I confessed, “Not so great, Murray.  I need gas.  And I don’t have any dough on me.  And I’m wondering…if I could borrow a few bucks to get home, so I can grab my purse, so I can come back and fill my tank and reimburse you.”  I looked past his Peace tattoo and into his kind eyes.  “I feel horrible, Murray.”

It’s a great experience going from the false power of button-pushing and bitching about little things like the holiday rush and the price of gas…to actually knowing that you are one step away from standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign, just to get home.  Where is our power, really?  Not in buttons.  I can tell you that.  It’s in making those connections with real live people over the course of time. It’s about looking in their eyes and past their tattoos and into their hearts.  And sometimes, it’s about asking for help.

Of course Murray spotted me that cash.  Saints are like that.

Look around.  Pay attention.  Chat with the people at your local filling station.  And be filled.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

Modern Love Strikes Again! Check out Kelly Valen!

As many of you know, the Modern Love column launched my career.  I am weekly inspired by it, and I want to share with you my new writer friend, sister in words, and high-road kind of a gal, Kelly Valen. 
You will be hearing a lot about her, if my instincts are right.  She is holding up a mirror to human behavior, asking the question: why can women be so brutal to one another.  Her book grew out of a Modern Love essay published a few years ago

that really hit a nerve.

Some of you may recall this piece I posted a few months ago about receiving an unexpected apology, years later, from a college friend. I think that we can hold the space for those apologies, without holding on with entitlement or bitterness. There is much freedom in that!

Check out Kelly Valen’s new book, The Twisted Sisterhood (Random House, Oct. 26). It’s getting great buzz and is sure to change the way girls and women think about their friendships. Get the scoop at www.kellyvalen.com and pre-order NOW through any online retailer.

Kelly Valen’s official site at www.kellyvalen.com

A smart, savvy, breakthrough look at the compelling, complex bonds that divide — and can ultimately unite — women of all ages and every culture.”
—Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of New York Times bestselling memoir Crazy Love, editor of Mommy Wars, and former Washington Post columnist
“If you think you are alone in nursing a clique-inspired emotional wound, are wary of certain types of women, or are worried about your own daughter’s peer-group, you need to read this validating and important book. Kelly Valen’s research shows that many of us have been hurt deeply by a girlfriend and we often carry the lingering pain throughout our lives. In sharing the poignant voices of women from her study, Valen shows us that we are certainly not alone and points a way toward civility, kindness and true sisterhood.”
—Rosalind Wiseman, internationally known educator and author of Queen Bees and Wannabees.
“Kelly Valen has written a smart, sweeping book about the ways women relate and given us all something to think about.”
—Kelly Corrigan, bestselling author of The Middle Place and Lift
“This is a brave and deep book. Kelly Valen shares her own painful experience of exclusion and humiliation at the hands of “friends,” as well as the details of incidents she’s gathered in her research – the looks, gestures, gossip, and confrontations – that have wounded other hearts. Yet she shows us that it is the caring side of sisterhood that gives our relationships the power to hurt. She rightfully suggests that we understand and monitor our own behavior and potential to wound as much as we scrutinize how we’re treated.”
— Cheryl Dellasega, PhD, author of Surviving Ophelia, Girl Wars, and other books for girls and women; Founder, Club and Camp Ophelia

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Filed under "Those Aren't Fighting Words, Dear", A Place For Writers To Share, My Posts

LOVE FEST

Okay—I’m back.  Suitcase still sitting in the corner of my bedroom.  Mouse droppings all over my office.  River birches flaxen.  Dark cool mornings.  Silence at night save for coyotes and the occasional logging truck down-shifting out on the road.  Ahhhh…home sweet home.

 

My New York, Hartford, and Chicago area events were all a success, and by that I mean that I felt the love.  From high school students at my alma mater, to the women who helped raise me, now in their 70s, to friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years, to the many supportive fans who came out and said hi…it was quite frankly, a love fest.  And love fests are a good thing.

But they don’t necessarily cure claustrophobia.  As many of you know, I took a stand for myself recently in this regard, knowing that I was going to spend the next little while in elevators and airplanes and subways and buses.  Things with doors that close and don’t provide easy answers to opening them.  It was getting in my way and I wrote about it here on my blog.  In short, I was limiting myself.  I was spending hundreds of extra dollars to not have to take small planes or stay in hotels that required an elevator.   And when I couldn’t find one, I was walking up and down 15 flights of stairs in business attire, trying not to trip over my boots on lonely, dirty stairwells–and arriving to every meeting in a full sweat.  I was carrying around anti-anxiety meds just in case.  It was exhausting.

 

I was embarrassed and fed up and I called on the help of my new friend the wonderful therapist La Belette Rouge to share her wisdom.  She told me about EMDR, and after hearing her success story, I promptly scheduled four appointments with a local practitioner.  I wasn’t sure if it was working at the time.  Though I recalled intense early childhood memories including crying in my crib and what it was like to actually be stuck in the elevator in the John Hancock building at age five.  I didn’t do much research before I signed up for the sessions, mostly because I didn’t want to walk in a doubter.  I just wanted to get “better.”  And I’m happy to report…that I think I did.

Here’s what happened for me:  in every re-processing of my traumatic memories with the bi-tonal sounds in my ears and the vibrating paddles in my hands, I was able to see that nothing contains you.  You contain you.  Life is no better on the outside of where you are.  And short of a lifetime in prison, you can usually get out, eventually, from where you are.  And when you can’t, I’d hope for the grace to call upon the container that is me, and find solace there.

What I really got to see and feel is the amount of exhaustion that comes with drama, not unlike the driving forces of my book.  The payoff to engaging in the drama is thin compared to the freedom of non-reaction.  It’s less spiritual (though I’d like it to be moreso) than it simply is self-preservation.  It’s easier to sit on an airplane and not be staring at the door wondering when they’re going to close it, thinking about how hard it would be to get them to open it again and let you out.  It’s easier to stand in the elevator and think about what the woman next to you is wearing, or how your next appointment is going to go, or what you want for lunch, than invent and indulge a 70s horror film that has you in a blackout, stuck with a birthing woman and an axe murderer.  It just is.  I spent $500.00 to figure this out.  Well worth it.  I recommend it highly.

 

But here’s something else I learned.  I’m not particularly nice to myself.  In watching those mental movies they ask you to re-live in EMDR as you re-program your mind, I wasn’t often that able to be my own gentle mother.  I told myself at every turn to buck up.  Suck it up.  That there are far worse problems.  And guess what:  it doesn’t do a damn thing but make matters worse.

Mostly I was okay on this trip. I got into elevators and small planes and subways without incident, and when I started to engage those old patterns of thinking, I was gentle with myself, using the methods they teach you in EMDR. But more than being a spokesperson for those methods…my larger message is to be gentle with yourself.  If you need to take the stairs up nine floors, oh well.  It’ll be good exercise.  If you need to talk the person’s ear off next to you in the airplane, so be it.  They’ll survive.  Go gentle into that dark night.  And call it good.

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Filed under City Hits, My Posts

Apology. Grace.

A person from my past, with whom I’m have not kept in touch, sent me an email today, apologizing for being mean to me when we were in our teens.  It was an act of generosity and integrity.  I urge us all to do the same.  This is the sort of pass-it-on behavior that can change the world.  Think back to someone you were mean to.  In the sandbox.  At camp.  In the classroom.  At a birthday party.  At a fraternity party.  At a PTA meeting.  At work…  Get to the bottom of it in your heart.  Did they scare you?  Did you feel wronged by them?  Threatened?  Did you see something in them that you loathed about yourself?  Did they hold up a mirror for you in a way that was too hard to bear?  What kind of pain were you in at the time?  How did it feel to be mean?  Not so good.

Now go find their email address and tell them you’re sorry.  I have passed on this gift today, and while at first I couldn’t think of a specific incident– of really being mean to somebody, after I got real with myself, I thought of a few people I’m sure I hurt along the way.  And I reached out to them.  It felt like coming out of a cool lake. For both of us.  Thank you, then, to this old friend and her morning email. For her generosity of spirit. She didn’t have to do it. But she did.  That’s what really makes the world go ’round.

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Filed under Motherhood, My Posts

Mean People Suck. Love Them Anyway.

 

 

“Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be misunderstood.”

Even though these are my own words, oh how hard this is to carry out sometimes.  Especially when people misrepresent you and then other people react to something that you never said or wrote or even remotely believe.  Why have we grown a society which wants to prey upon its own kind like vultures to smaller birds?  Why can’t we look at our society like us/us?  Will we ever outgrow our survivalist fittest-ish ways?  Will we ever grow up?  Will our hearts ever communally break apart so wide open that love will really rule?  Especially when people are willing to be honest and vulnerable in the hopes that it will help other members of this collective We that acts more like an auto-immune diseased species, fighting its own constitution.  

            Recently I’ve had the pleasure of writing a book that has helped many people.  I hear from people daily—men, women, religious, not religious, married, unmarried, from the US and abroad, sharing their own stories, opening their own veins.  And it blows me away that something as simple as being willing to commit to a philosophy of non-suffering and then getting the chance to apply it to a real life personal crisis can fill a heart hole in the world.  It makes me wonder how much we are all hiding and stuffing away—how much we are so silently suffering.

            What’s shocking to me, well maybe not so shocking really, is how people don’t want to be happy.  Or free from suffering.  Convinced that being victims serves them well, thankyouverymuch.  How violently they’ll resist and attack this simple age-old message that well-being is really a choice. 

            It inspires me to think of the work of mothers.  We would do our children well, then to point out that, no, no one made you mad.  No one made you cry.  No one made you sad.  You chose that.  Short of being punched in the face.  Emotional pain is your choice. 

            Why do so many people NOT want to hear this message?  Why?  Because they get to be right.  “See—the world sucks.”  And they point the finger just like they’re used to doing, and they stay in their world of hurt.  Again why?  Because that’s their comfort zone.  Well what if you started out being able to identify the pain and suffering in this sort of relationship with life and yourself?  What if you learned and loved what it was to be internally free from an early age?  Think of what the world would be like.  Mothers, we have work to do!

            It’s like the telephone game in grade school.  Begins in one form, ends in a new creature altogether.  It’s like the mean girl in high school starting a false rumor about you because her boyfriend has a crush on you or you grew boobs over the summer.  People, young and old, have all kinds of guts behind a computer screen, or in closed rooms without an audience. 

            I remember once when two of my friends started a rumor about me in 7th grade.  It was entirely untrue.  And I was pissed.  Not as much because of how it portrayed me in my school and my town, but because it proved that people are mean and I hated to see that this was so even in my own circle of beloved friends.  So I got on my bike and I rode it over to the house where they were spending the night.  I walked in the back door, and found them in the sunroom watching cartoons.  My heart was pounding and I lifted my head and breathed deeply and sat down on the couch. 

            They ignored me.

            I just sat there.  Heart pounding, but my mind strangely calm.

            Finally I spoke.  “Why would you make up a lie about me?  It hurt my feelings.  What did I do to you that you would be so mean?”

            They had no answer.  We just sat there, like I was waiting to be absorbed into a cell wall but didn’t really care if I was or not.  I just wanted to be a presence in the field of honesty.  A heart pumping visibly in a room of meanness.  Reminding them that they too had hearts.  And that I would forgive them their humanness, even though it hurt.  Eventually, we ended up playing outside and doing what kids/people do when they’re not being afraid and small and mean.

            Years later, I was out to dinner with one of those girls.  She had a big job in NYC and was a big celebrity because of it.  People came up to her and fawned all over her and I sat there in the wrong outfit feeling a bit invisible.  And finally, she said to me in a moment of privacy, “I’ll never forget that time I was mean to you when we were kids, and you came over to my house and confronted me.  I think about that all the time.  You were really brave.  We were just jealous of you, because somehow you were able to be a nice girl and be popular– have power and still be kind.  I don’t think we knew what to do with that.  I was in a lot of pain in my life back then.  You stood for a hope I didn’t know how to have.  I’ve used that as a baseline way to be with people who are mean to me.  And believe, me, people are mean to me, a LOT.” 

            I’d actually forgotten about that morning in the sunroom until she brought it up in that chic New York City restaurant.  And I’ll admit that I breathed deeply and felt proud of my little girl self.

            And now, although most of it is so incredibly positive and gracious, when I do read mean things about me or what I’ve written, I wonder what kind of pain people are in, that they cannot see the freedom in choosing to let go and that happiness is a simple choice.  But just like that sunny room all those years ago, there’s not much I can say except that my heart is open.  Is yours?

“We all need more kindness in this world”– Guy Davis

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, Motherhood, My book: This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, My Posts