The Big Ice Storm

Was it possible that their positive experiences had a lot less to do with attitude, and a lot more to do with just plain luck?

Some years ago I was part of an online New Age chat group. Most of our discussions centered on matters relating to our spiritual growth and understanding, interspersed with light chatter.

The group fostered some very real friendships, but there also arose spats and quarrels and misunderstandings. No emoji can really convey the intent and tone of written words, and misinterpretations occurred. Moderators did their best, but harsh words were sometimes exchanged while the spectators took sides. The group eventually dissolved due to these problems, but I had left it months previously. My departure was triggered by The Big Ice Storm.

Heavy sleet had begun to fall mid-afternoon on a weekday. In no time at all, roads, sidewalks, trees, shrubs—everything was encased in a thick glaze of ice. Office workers who could do so began heading out early, piling into their cars in a futile attempt to evade the worst of the storm. But the ice outran every effort people made to escape its freezing grasp.

My supervisor bailed hastily, and advised me to do so, also. Sadly, this meant only that I spent more time huddled in the glass-sided shelter house at my bus stop. Clustered together with other public transit sufferers, I stood for nearly three hours waiting for a delayed bus in plummeting temperatures, as frigid winds snaked about my ankles and froze my feet to pain.

After a terrifying journey on ice shrouded roads, I arrived home nearly four hours later than usual to an apartment that was dark and cold. I’d left no lights on, since most days I got in well before darkfall; I always thriftily turned the thermostat down for the hours when I wasn’t at home.  Power lines had collapsed all over the city, but I gratefully found that my electricity was working, and switched on the lights and furnace. When I’d finally stopped shivering, I checked on family members, discovering to my relief that everyone had arrived home safely. Finally, I sat down at my computer to read e-mail messages.

There, to my horror, I learned that the sister of a friend had been among those who died in a pileup on the icy interstate highway. Tears sliding down my cheeks, I dashed off a sober response expressing shock and sympathy; then turned to messages from the chat group, hoping to hear they were all safe.

They were. And their descriptions of their own journeys home bore, I found, very little resemblance to my experience. Some had not even needed to travel; the storm had fortunately coincided with their days off. One mentioned that, as a manager, she’d been able to leave her office before the first pellets of sleet cascaded from the sky. Her route home unencumbered by the traffic that would flood the streets only a short time later, she’d stopped at the grocery for a few items and enjoyed a warm chocolate chip cookie fresh from the bakery. Then she’d pulled into her driveway, where her teenage children had bounded out to schlep in her shopping bags.

She and other chat group members prattled on about how minimally they’d been affected by the storm, attributing their experiences to their positive attitudes. It was all in one’s expectation and mindset, they asserted. It was all about gratitude and belief.

I considered the differences of my own experience to theirs. I remembered, shaking with cold, yet grateful that I’d been able to claim a space huddled within the crowded bus shelter. I recalled my thankfulness as my bus evaded the accidents plaguing the roads. I thought about my relief and appreciation that the electricity had remained on at my apartment. I reflected on the tragedy of my friend’s sister, and a journey home that didn’t include warm chocolate chip cookies and happy children, but arriving to a lonely apartment that was both frigid and dark.

Then I put my fingers on the keyboard and called bullshit on their remarks.

My mindset had been, I pointed out, positive throughout. I was both grateful and appreciative; thankful for my own and others’ safety. But my experience was miserable nevertheless: freezing, fear, loneliness, and the terrible news of a death. Perhaps, I suggested, perhaps they could tell me how I could have effected any difference in these events by my attitude? Was it possible that their positive experiences had a lot less to do with mindset, and a lot more to do with just plain luck?

It wasn’t a popular position to take, as evidenced by the onslaught of shaming replies I received to my statements. Still, I refused to back down, despite reprimands from nearly every group member.

Shortly thereafter I quit the chat group, although I’d quite enjoyed it up to then.

Sometimes still, especially in on bad winter days, I think about that chat group and the Big Ice Storm. I think about the fact that, if I’d been angry and resentful, the misery I endured that day might well have been, at least emotionally, far worse. But all the positive attitude in the century would not have changed the actual outcome of the nasty events of that storm.

It’s not always only about one’s attitude. Truly, it isn’t. Often, it’s just the simple luck of the draw—or not.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “My Be-Attitude”,
which can be found in the Archives dated April 17, 2019,
or “The Wrong Road”, from March 4, 2020.

Folding the Laundry

§ If recognition, praise or approval are the reasons that we are working so hard for others, then we are lying to ourselves. §

A man I once dated was in dire straights. He’d been unemployed for quite a while following a series of life disasters (all, let it be said, of his own making), so he’d been forced to move into his sister’s home. Unable to pay rent to her, he took on (with, let it be noted, no little grumbling) all the household chores—cleaning, cooking, laundry, repairs, lawn care. His sister was working long hours of overtime at her retail job, so the arrangement suited them both. They barely saw one another, yet money was earned and necessary household work got done.

But one weekend Boyfriend needed to attend a meeting, one that he hoped might lead to a job. His sister would not be home, he explained, but his elderly cat was seriously ill and likely to pass soon. He did not want the animal to be alone, so he asked me to come out and look after the kitty for a few hours. I agreed.

Now, I am simply not one to sit idly. Even while watching TV, my hands are usually occupied with some chore—sewing, mending, crocheting, paying bills, or even just giving myself a manicure. So while I sat beside the poor sick little cat, stroking him occasionally and trying to convince him to drink or eat, I cast about for something to do. That was made fairly easy by the fact that several baskets of laundry were sitting there, clean but waiting to be folded.

And so I folded laundry, as I always do: carefully, precisely; sorting it all into categories so that it could be put away easily—socks here, towels and washcloths there, bedsheets and pillowcases in a separate stack. Shirts strung onto hangers with the top button fastened; jeans smoothed into a flat square so they could fit tidily into a drawer. I demolished those four baskets of laundry in no time and set them near the hall door so everything could be put away.

Arriving home in due course, Boyfriend noticed the baskets of finished laundry. He flung a “Oh, good!” in my general direction and grabbed them up to put the clothes away. (And if you’re thinking his behavior says something about the unhealthy quality of our relationship, you would be correct. But that’s a story for another blog post.)

I walked over, thinking I would help him store the clothes…and watched in disbelief and dismay as all my carefully, precisely, beautifully folded laundry was flung haphazardly onto shelves and pitched into drawers. The towels, washcloths, sheets and pillowcases were lobbed into a closet in which the linens were not even sorted by item, where nothing was folded at all, but simply wadded up in piles. The jeans were pitched into a pyramid at the bottom of the closet, and the shirts flung in the general direction of the rod, their hangers tangling together and dangling askew. The socks, neatly matched and sorted between dress and athletic socks, were tumbled together into a drawer atop a mess of other unmatched and unsorted footwear.

Worst of all, not even a word of genuine appreciation—something along the lines of, “It was nice of you to do this”—was spoken.

All my hard work was not only unappreciated, but totally for naught. Quietly fuming, I considered heaving the empty baskets across the room! Only the sight of the miserable kitty lying there on the couch kept me from doing so.

Putting my resentment on pause gave me a moment to reflect, though. I recalled that I hadn’t done this work for Boyfriend’s sake, but for my own, to keep my hands and mind occupied while I sat there sadly with his dying pet.

That incident was, I think now, a metaphor and a warning for all of us who are caretaker personalities; who continually go above and beyond for our loved ones, hoping, yearning for just a little recognition of our efforts, perhaps even a compliment. If recognition, praise or approval are the reasons that we are working so hard for others, then we are lying to ourselves. We are caring for our own needs, not theirs, and we need to acknowledge that fact; to pull back, and find a better way to take care of ourselves, before resentment and bitterness overcome us.

As for myself, I still fold laundry as I have always done, with precision and care. And in the years since my precious granddaughter was born, I have spent many an hour at my daughter’s home, not only folding the endless baskets of clean laundry as I watched over the little one, but washing dishes and sweeping floors; keeping my hands busy while helping my children, who suffer the overload of most modern parents. And each time they arrive home, seeing the baskets of neatly folded and carefully sorted and organized clean clothing, they inevitably say to me, “Mom, thank you so much for folding the laundry!”

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like
“The Day the Vacuum Cleaner Rose Up to Smite Me”,
which you may find in the archives on 10/27/2017)

Three Things

§   I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude.  §

I was experiencing a fully-justifiable meltdown not long ago, and turned to a trusted friend for advice.  Her reply was not the one I anticipated, and at first I was taken aback: Right this minute, she told me, right now, name three things for which you’re grateful.  Write them down, she advised.

My initial response was resentment.  Was she minimizing my feelings?  Did she believe my depression and fears weren’t warranted?  But I know this woman very well, and trust her even more, so I had to conclude that minimizing or belittling my feelings was in no way part of her agenda.

So I took a deep breath, settled myself down, and picked up a pen and paper.  Three things.  Just three things.

It was hard…and then it wasn’t hard at all.

I was grateful for my family.  Once–for many years, in fact—sundered, we were now united once more.  I was grateful for my toddler granddaughter, whom I love beyond life itself.  I was grateful for my dear little condo, the home I had never thought I would have.  I was grateful for my four porch-rescue cats.  I might have saved them from a life as ferals, but they daily saved me with their love and attention.  I was grateful that my Dad, age 91, was still with us.  Few people get to have a parent in their life that long, and even at the times when he drove me nuts, I still loved him.  I was grateful to have survived cancer, to have had two years cancer-free.

I was grateful, I was grateful….  I filled an entire page with statements of gratitude, and possibly could have kept on going.  But when I put my pen down, I realized that, although nothing that had caused my meltdown had actually changed, I  had changed.  Oh, I was still distressed over a very dreadful situation, but at the core and center of my being, I felt calmer—not relaxed, not at ease, but calmer, and better able to deal with my problems.

I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude when what I really wanted to do was write out a list of people whose noses I wanted to punch!  I learned that, as a result of early childhood abuse, ‘fight or flight’ was always my go-to response, even when it was not really warranted; that I felt constantly beleaguered.  I learned that there is a difference between a healthy, justifiable anger, and simple rage.  I learned that my feelings were, actually, under my control.  No one could “make” me feel anything; I chose my responses.

I’d like to say that this exercise taught me a lesson, and that it’s a strategy I now always employ.  I’d like to say that, but it would be a big, fat lie.  Three Things is usually the last thing I remember to do when I’m caught in a distressing situation.

But when I do settle down and remember to do it, it opens a gateway to an entirely new perspective on any situation.

Oddly enough, there had been a time in my life when I spent a few minutes every morning writing out a sentence—or sometimes four or six or more–of gratitude.  I usually chose to do this as I rode the bus into work each morning, putting that empty time to good use.  And then, when I had been engaged in this process for several months, my entire world collapsed around me.  My husband walked out to live with his “true love”, and I became at the stroke of a pen a divorcee and single parent.  I recall now the rage I felt, asking the Universe exactly why, WHY, when I had been practicing daily gratitude, such a load of total crap had fallen upon my head.  Emotional anguish, not just for me, but for our child.  Financial distress times ten, as I paid for the divorce, found us a place to live, acquired used furnishings, moved.  Physical suffering, as the stress I was experiencing led me to fall ill one time after another, so that for over a year, I was constantly sick.  Depression so severe that suicide began to seem a viable option.  Why, when I had been practicing gratitude so unfailingly?  Why did all this evil befall me when I had been doing the right thing?

I don’t recall that the Universe ever answered my questions, but I do remember that, perhaps a year later, I came to the realization that, had I not been making a daily practice of gratitude when my safe and familiar world collapsed around me, I would have been in a far worse mental state than I actually endured. I had not seen at that time—perhaps had not wanted to see—that my practice of gratitude had acted as a shield around my emotional state, buoying me so that I did not completely drown in my own misery.

Three things.  Just three things, on the worst of days, in the most dreadful of situations.  It is hard, sometimes even painful.  But it makes all the difference in the world.

Apples of Gold

§   As the Thanksgiving holiday is fast approaching, I decided to re-run this essay, (originally posted on January 6, 2018), about the importance of thanking those who give to us.   §

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”   Proverbs 25:11  KJV

I first read that proverb many years ago in a book of daily prayer, and it caught my imagination and lodged there. I visualized a tiny, beautifully-crafted, three-dimensional, 24-karat golden apple, suspended within a shining circlet of silver.

If I had start-up funds, I would produce a thousand such pendants, and around the edge of each silver circle would be inscribed the words, “Thank You”.

It strikes me that saying thank you, either in words or writing, is fast going the way of the dodo. I genuinely doubt that toddlers are taught these days to sing the little rhyme that small children of my generation sang repeatedly: There are two little magic words / that will open any door with ease / One little word is “thanks” / And the other little word is “please”.

Thinking on the lack of gratitude displayed by recipients today, I vividly recall the dismay that I felt, years ago, when a coworker for whom we’d given a baby shower came in the following week with a single thank-you card which she proceeded to hang on the office bulletin board. Thirty people had gone to a great deal of trouble for this woman: provided plenty of food and funds for decorations; bought and wrapped lovely gifts.  They had each individually done a good deal of work to make the event special for her.  Yet not one of them received, even verbally, personal thanks—merely a cheap card, without even a personal message–just quickly signed and stuck to a corkboard with a pushpin.

Years later, as I discussed this upsetting recollection with a friend, she related to me an even worse incident: A family had moved into the area, and one thoughtful neighbor had stopped by to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood with a home-baked pie. Standing there on the doorstep with her offering in her hands and smiling words of welcome on her lips, she was told by the new neighbor, “Well, if I’d wanted a pie, I would have baked one!”

I’d barely recovered from my shock at this story when my friend went on to describe a further incident of rudeness in place of thanks and courtesy. Acting out of appreciation for several helpful things he’d done, she’d taken a loaf of home-baked bread to a neighbor.  Weeks later, not having heard even so much as what he thought of the bread, she innocently asked him if he’d enjoyed it.  “It was awfully dense,” was all he said to her.  Not, “Thanks, can’t remember the last time I had home-baked bread”, nor even, “It was nice of you to go to so much trouble.”  Just a criticism of the food’s texture.

These and a dozen other incidents are the reason that I feel saying “thank you” is, like so many other common courtesies, becoming a dying art. And that saddens me, for it speaks badly of our civilization as a whole.  If we cannot express gratitude to the giver, do we even truly experience feelings of appreciation?

I don’t give myself a free pass on this situation, either, for I know there are all too many times when I’ve forgotten to at least speak words of thanks. Those memories shame me.  But I have a few other recollections, perhaps balancing the shameful ones, in which I’ve gone the extra mile to thank someone.  I especially remember the time when my teenage daughter, driving home late at night with three friends in the car, was t-boned by a driver who ran a red light.  A witness to the accident not only called 911, but stopped and got out of his car to direct traffic around the accident scene until the police arrived.  He then provided the officer with a description of the accident, absolving my daughter of blame.

Days later when the police report became available, I found the name and address of the witness. I sat down immediately to write him a thank-you note for his actions, concluding my words with, “You helped keep those kids safe, and I’m so grateful”.

I hoped then, and still hope, that he felt he’d received an apple of gold in a setting of silver.

 

Apples of Gold

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Proverbs 25:11

I first read that proverb many years ago in a book of daily prayer, and it caught my imagination and lodged there. I visualized a tiny, beautifully-crafted, three-dimensional, 24-karat golden apple, suspended within a shining circlet of silver.

If I had start-up funds, I would produce a thousand such pendants, and around the edge of each silver circle would be inscribed the words, “Thank You”.

It strikes me that saying thank you, either in words or writing, is fast going the way of the dodo. I genuinely doubt that toddlers are taught these days to sing the little rhyme that small children of my generation sang repeatedly: There are two little magic words / that will open any door with ease / One little word is “thanks” / And the other little word is “please”.

Thinking on the lack of gratitude displayed by recipients today, I vividly recall the dismay that I felt, years ago, when a coworker for whom we’d given a baby shower came in the following week with a single thank-you card which she proceeded to hang on the office bulletin board. Thirty people had gone to a great deal of trouble for this woman: provided funds for food and decorations, bought and wrapped lovely gifts.  They had each individually done a good deal of work to make the event special for her.  Yet not one of them received, even verbally, personal thanks—just a cheap card, quickly written, stuck on a corkboard with a pushpin.

Years later, as I discussed this upsetting recollection with a friend, she related to me an even worse incident: A family had moved into the area, and one thoughtful neighbor had stopped by to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood with a home baked pie. Standing there on the doorstep with her offering in her hands and smiling words of welcome, she was told by the new neighbor, “Well, if I’d wanted a pie, I would have baked one!”

I’d barely recovered from my shock at this story when my friend went on to describe a further incident of rudeness in place of thanks and courtesy. She’d taken a loaf of home-baked bread to a neighbor out of appreciation for several things he’d done.  Weeks later, not having heard even so much as what he thought of the bread, she innocently asked him if he’d enjoyed it.  “It was awfully dense,” was all he said to her.  Not, “Thanks, can’t remember the last time I had home-baked bread”, nor even, “It was nice of you to go to so much trouble.”  Just a criticism of the food’s texture.

These and a dozen other incidents are the reason that I feel saying “thank you” is, like so many other common courtesies, becoming a dying art. And that saddens me, for it speaks badly of our civilization as a whole.  If we cannot express gratitude to the giver, do we even truly experience feelings of appreciation?

I don’t give myself a free pass on this situation, either, for I know there are all too many times when I’ve forgotten to at least speak words of thanks. Those memories shame me.  But I have a few other recollections, perhaps balancing the shameful ones, in which I’ve gone the extra mile to thank someone.  I especially remember the time when my teenage daughter, driving home late at night with three friends in the car, was t-boned by a driver who ran a red light.  A witness to the accident not only called 911 but stopped, got out of his car to direct traffic around the accident scene until the police arrived, and then provided the officer with a description of the accident.

Days later when the police report became available, I found the name and address of the witness. I sat down immediately to write him a thank-you note for his actions, concluding my words with, “You helped keep those kids safe, and I’m so grateful”.

I hoped then, and still hope, that he felt he’d received an apple of gold in a setting of silver.