Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fences Make Good Neighbors and Boundaries Make Better Friends

by Zinta Aistars

A rainy Friday morning getting in to the office, and I’ve sprinted from the parking lot, shaking off raindrops like a wet dog. It is pouring out there. And I am loving it. Every drop. From the moment I woke this morning, my mood has been bright and shiny. I heard that pitter patter on the roof turning into a steady splash, and I knew my brand new roof was going to keep me dry through the entire downpour. The crack opening in the living room ceiling has yet to be repaired—Joe, from the roofer company that, as it turns out, also does interior repair and renovation, is scheduled to come by on Monday—but at least I know I am not coming home from work tonight to a chunk of wet plaster on my living room floor. Safe!

Putting my mind to other concerns, I had made my commute to the office (a full hour and then some) through the rain, mentally ticking off errands and projects to complete during the day. The week had been satisfyingly productive; I had completed many projects already, most ahead of schedule and the rest right on time. I was feeling pleased and breathing easier.

Indeed, tight deadlines aside, it struck me just how much I really do enjoy my job. Oh, this is no revelation, mind you. I am struck by this very thought nearly every day. An hour to and from work is just enough time to count major blessings. My job as writer and editor for a large and deservedly successful health care organization is among those major blessings, especially in this time when Michigan ranks highest in unemployment in the entire country. (Ouch.) And it is steady employment that pays for things like new roofing and home renovations without much of a hiccup in my budget. Hurrah!

I’m not just tickled pink, though, because of a steady and comfortable paycheck. I’m in the pink because, among other factors, I’ve made some terrific new friends in my upward and onward life. Working among people I respect and whose company I enjoy makes a world of difference. One of these friends, in fact, pops her head around my door shortly after I settle in for the day.

“Hey, Z.”

I look up from my laptop.

“How are you today?”

I smiled. “Pretty good, actually. What’s up?”

She mirrored my smile, tipping her head to one side. “Oh, I just thought I’d come by and give you a hug. You seem to be carrying a lot of stress on your shoulders lately.”

I paused and studied her face. Sincerity. No agendas hanging out. I pushed my chair back from my desk, stood up and accepted the proffered hug. Nice. I’ve read a human being requires eight of these on a daily basis for good emotional health, and goodness knows, I am far behind quota.

Well hugged, and enjoying a quick morning chat about our kids and life in general, my friend went off to her world and I returned to mine. Even as I shuffled my to-do list for the work day, however, my mind lingered on the warmth of a just-because hug and the concept of friendship. I enjoy very much the many diverse friendships that have blessed my days: work friends, personal friends, writer friends, family friends, shared history friends, casual and best friends and those in evolution from one to the other. Over a lifetime, I’ve had many, and a few have faded away as bonds have weakened, while others have entered my life, reflecting my own evolving interests and needs (or lack of).

We love our families, most of us, and family members, except for our partners (who are, after all, our best friends first), are people we cannot choose. The challenge of family is that we must accept people as they are and make the best of it. And even then, if boundaries are crossed too far and too often, family can drift apart, too.

But friends—these are a special group of loved ones. Our friends are people we consciously choose to have in our lives. We choose each other when we take a special pleasure in each other’s company. We choose each other when we have built a trust over time. In deepening friendship, time has tested and proven that we can depend one on the other when we need a friend most. A friend shows affection and caring. A friend is loyal. A friend will take the time to nurture that friendship. A friend listens, a friend shares, is willing to give and take in balance, because we all need to give and we all need to take at different times in our lives. A really good friend respects us enough to tell us the truth—even when it stings. We can count on our best friends to tell us not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. And then, offer a hug of reassurance.

Most of all, best friends have boundaries. Yes, friendships come wrapped in conditional love. As in any relationship based on whatever kind of love—and our romantic partners should always, without exception, be our best friends first—boundaries are the insurance that keep a relationship strong. Boundaries are the lines we draw in the sand that should never be crossed. Usually, these are lines concerning honesty, fidelity, respect. Boundaries are how we show ourselves respect as well as to each other.

This was a tough lesson I learned years ago when I found myself in a relationship in which my partner had absolutely no respect for boundaries. He did as he pleased and everyone else be damned. It took some real friends, including family, to sit me down and tell me the painful truth: without boundaries, I was putting myself at risk of ever increasing abuse. They were right. I walked. The lesson to me was that fences make good neighbors, boundaries make healthy relationships, and even God offers a conditional love. To be saved, to earn the privilege of hanging out with Him, He says, we must meet certain conditions. He lines them up into Ten Commandments, throwing in a Golden Rule for quick study: treat others as you would be treated. It’s all about respect. He may love you just the same, but you’ll be hanging out in a much warmer place if you refuse to meet His conditions.

Now I, too, have boundaries. Boundaries such as mutual respect—now, that is a boundary with no room for negotiation. Older and wiser, I’ve learned that anyone who tosses about platitudes about being accepted “as is”—is actually, in translation, asking to get away with treating you with disrespect. “I’ll treat you as I damn well please, and by golly, you’re going to like it.” It is the language of an abuser at his charming best. It is the language of someone who wants to do a lot more taking than giving and get away with it.

See my fence? It’s sturdy, hand-hewn, posts hammered solid into the ground. It won’t even falter in a long, hard rain. When I open my gate to welcome in a good friend today, it is because we both have respect for a clear boundary. Family I cannot choose, but my friends can know they are carefully chosen—not in spite of who they are, but because of who they are.

Worth hugging often, my friends stand by on rainy days as well as in sunshine. They bring their own light into my life. They are the solid roof over my head.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's All in the Details: Buttering My Bread

by Zinta Aistars

Wise Woman Pam, someone who offered me guidance over rocky paths years ago, said something to me once that I find is with me still, many years later. “You can know a person by how they butter their bread.” I don’t know if this originated with Pam, but she is the one who gifted me this wisdom.

This morning, I had occasion to ponder this. I have also heard it said, after all, that the human being can survive great tragedy—witness the survivors of the Holocaust, or the Bolshevik revolution, or the raped and ravaged women of the Congo—but it is the details that break us. That proverbial straw on the camel’s strong back. Marriages can survive affairs, many have, but how many divorces are caused by a mate leaving the cap off the toothpaste just one time too many? Chinese water torture: drip, drip, drip, a ceaseless dripping, death by a thousand pin pricks, insanity caused by one single, final, drop of cool water.

We are broken not by one great crisis, but by many “trivial” incidents of disrespect. It is the accumulation of tiny, delicate snowflakes that finally cause the avalanche.

How many times have I seen one of my father’s paintings suddenly come to life when he dabs just the very tip of the tiniest brush to the canvas on his easel, leaving a miniscule white dot in the pupil of his subject’s eye?

Oh, the metaphors and the examples are infinite.

I imagine this buttering of a slice of bread. I recall the memory of Wise Woman Pam telling me this story, how she spoke of a woman she admired, who taught her this wisdom that she now passed on to me, and how this woman approached the entirety of her life—in all its meticulous detail—with appreciation and joy. She was a woman who enjoyed washing dishes by hand, because she found it to be a time of meditation. To stand at the sink, warm and soapy water running over her hands, sponging clean plate after plate, glass after cup, fork and spoon, and restoring order to her life. A meal had been prepared, loved ones had been nourished, the dishes were now put away in waiting for another meal.

When she buttered her bread, she did it with full awareness. She did not allow herself to be distracted in that moment by anything else. She buttered the bread with a layer of golden and creamy butter, then sat down to eat it.

“You don’t have to know how a person does big projects to know him or her,” Pam said. “You just need to observe how a person handles the details of life.”

Kind and charming and pleasant in a crowd… but rude and coarse and arrogant at home. Observe the man who drops a coin in the homeless woman’s cup, but he kicks the cat when he opens his own door. His presentation to the board is written beautifully, but he neglects the thank you note to his neighbor for a gift of time.

We all take great care in how we present ourselves to the world at large, but we show our true faces when we think what we are doing is too small to notice. Our true selves come out in the details. In the little things. We squeeze a friend’s hand when she is having a bad day. We smile when someone smiles at us. We smile even when they don’t. We let the car in a hurry cut in front of us on the highway without leaning on the horn. We nod thanks when someone else allows us to do it. We put the cap back on the toothpaste even when we can’t figure out why that is so dang important—we just remember that to our mate, it is.

I think about the frequent, long and involved discussions I have with my co-editors at the office. The four of us can “twirl,” as we call it, about the placement of a comma literally for hours. We debate the construction of a sentence until every word in it has been turned every which way but loose. When that much discussed and dissected sentence later appears in print, perfect, we all grin when someone says—you make it look so simple (well, okay, now and then, one or two of us snarls at such praise). I realize these are some of my favorite times at work. I have great respect for the quality writers and editors in my office. We each have a different skill set we bring to our team, different training and work experience. All of us have valid perspectives on just where that comma should land, or if it should land at all. It is in our grammatical “twirling” that we show who we are: professionals in written communication who have a deep love of language and a respect for clarity. It is our concern over the finest details that makes of us artists and not merely craftsmen and women.

It’s all the minutiae of life. We know we are loved not by the grand bouquet of flowers on Valentine’s Day, but by the single daisy our mate stopped to pluck in a field of daisies on the way home from work. Just because.

I butter my bread slowly this Sunday morning, breathe deeply, and remember this wisdom: how I do the small things tells the truth about who I am. I lick the knife. What that tells you about me: I don't mind taking the occasional risk, I believe life should be rich with flavor, my cholesterol numbers are healthy, I'll ignore good manners now and then—and I love butter.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Think It Couldn't Happen to You?

by Zinta Aistars

Sure it could. If it could happen to me, it could happen to you. All things are possible, and with time and various puzzle pieces falling into place, the impossible is possible, too. That applies to the good stuff as well as the not-so-good stuff, and, oh woe, the really nasty stuff, too.

After two years of procrastinating and willfully ignoring my doctor’s advice, I finally got my baseline colonoscopy done. Once a person steps over the threshold of 50, it’s on your to-do list, and as the years go by, it ranks up higher and higher on that list. It is important. Doctor reminded me, and I kept ignoring her, because most of what I heard about colonoscopies is icky and so very easy to ignore. The laxative powder, I heard, was especially icky. Smelled bad, tasted worse. Guzzle it down with 64 ounces of something, then make a run for the bathroom and camp there for hours. Fun. The procedure itself? Well, if nothing else, downright humiliating, don’t you think? I thought so, and putting it off because of a busy schedule was ever so easy to do.

Thank goodness for wellness programs. Last couple of years, I’ve been with a new insurance company, and one of the things I like about this company is that it doesn’t just cover bad things when they happen, but encourages doing good things to prevent bad things from happening in the first place. Turns out this approach is cheaper for everyone in the long run. I even get a financial break for doing good things. Every year, I sign up for a wellness program that gives me points for being healthy and taking care of myself. That adds up to discounts on my premiums. I take yoga and Tai Chi classes, for instance. I keep a log of daily walks with my chow pup. And, I get credit for keeping up with whatever I should be doing at my age … like getting a colonoscopy.

Once again, I came very, very close to canceling the appointment. Work was piling up on my desk, and the last thing I could afford was to take a couple days off—one to prepare and one for the procedure—for some preventive health measure. No, wait. The last thing I could do was to take time off for colon cancer. The work stars aligned, and I didn’t cancel. Face it, I’m always going to be busy. If patterns hold, I will be even busier next year than I am this year. Colonoscopies are never convenient, but they are smart. Okay, Z, let’s get this done.

So I did it. The powdered laxative did not stink. It didn’t even have a taste. I mixed it in with my ginger ale and downed it, took a good book and my BlackBerry with me to “the powder room,” and got myself ready. No big deal. The next morning, I had an IV attached to my hand to keep me all liquidy, I was wheeled into an outpatient operating room, and a very pleasant doctor came in and asked me about the ethnicity of my name.

“Wait, wait, let me guess!” Dr. T. held up a gloved hand to stop me from answering.

He guessed. Took him a couple minutes, and he had it: my name is Latvian. I was impressed. He knew about the large and bustling Kalamazoo community of Latvians, and as he told me about some Latvian friend he had, I drifted off into Neverland. Or, I fell off a cliff into Neverland. All I know is that I remember nothing, not even being humiliated, only that I woke up in the recovery room some indistinguishable time later, and a smiling nurse was telling me that Dr. T. had found and removed three polyps, all benign, and I was as good as almost new.

Three polyps. I blinked. Sounded like a lot. Three too many, in fact.

“That normal?” I asked.

The nurse shrugged and smiled.

“Dr. T. will want you to schedule your next colonoscopy in three years.”

Okay, so I’d talked enough to family to know that three years was just a little bit of a red flag. Dad didn’t have to do one more often than once every ten years, and mom had to rinse and repeat every five (he’d never had any polyps turn up; she had had one or two).

As I drifted back out into the world, it occurred to me how important it was to listen to my doctor, keep up with wellness programs, and do what I must—on schedule. Another year of procrastination and the result could have been …

I didn’t want to think about that.

I thought about that. What a blessing it was that this procedure is covered by my insurance program. I thought about the time in my life when I didn’t have health insurance. I drew a deep breath and thought about how many, how far too many—I’ve been reading in the news that there are some 45 million Americans who do not have health insurance—cannot do what I just had done, and would be forced to procrastinate, not out of cowardice or embarrassment, but because they had no choice.

Suddenly, the great health insurance debate hit home. Not that it was the first time to hit home. Years ago, as a newly divorced, single parent of two small children, I found myself without. I left a very comfortable lifestyle—a large, beautiful home in the suburbs of Cincinnati; a family business that was growing by leaps and bounds; seven vehicles in the driveway (yes, seven); maid service to do my housecleaning for me; a nice, fat savings account; and health insurance to cover the entire family—to forge out, tots by each hand, and make a new life for and by myself. For all the security and niceness, the husband attached to that scenario found a bit too much fascination at the bottom of a bottle. It was time to go before that beautiful and easy lifestyle came crashing down on us. I left with nothing but a few personal belongings and my kids.

It takes a while to build from nothing. The beginning years were hard, very hard. Name it, and it happened. Murphy’s Law was a real presence in the lives of my little family of three musketeers without anything but my mama’s love to hold us together. That’s all a different story for another time. But the point of this story, at this time, is that I would find myself a single mama with two babies depending on me—and no health insurance.

Accidents happen, and when my boy heated oil in our tiny apartment to pop some popcorn, the oil overheated, burst into flame, and when he dove for the pot to get it off the flaming stove, I dove right after him. His hands were burned, both of them in moments blistering up so that it looked like he had two pink turtles perched one on each hand. Another splash of hot oil had splattered across my face and into my left eye. Half blinded, I called my parents to drive us to the nearest hospital. Heck with me, but my son was in serious pain. I had no idea how to pay for this, but what’s a mother to do?

Later, in the hospital emergency room, once I had been assured that my son’s hands would be just fine, and he appeared to be comfortable, sporting two heavily bandaged hands that looked like white boxing mitts, the doctor leaned over me and peered into my eye. By now, a thin, opaque white skin had appeared over it. And he was telling me something about needing a corneal transplant to save my eye.

I blinked my good eye at him. “No,” I said.

He blinked back at me. “What do you mean no?”

“I mean no. No, I have no health insurance. I can’t pay for anything like that.”

“Do you understand what I’m telling you? That your eye will probably remain blind? That you are going to lose your vision in this eye?”

“I understand,” I said. “Do you understand that I have no money? That I have no idea how I will pay for my son’s medical care, let alone mine?”

I recall his frustration. Even anger. I wasn’t sure whether it was aimed at me or my situation, but there was no choice here to be made, so I simply accepted what I could not change. There was nothing to debate. It was all I could do to feed my kids and pay the rent. A seeing eye was a luxury.

He treated me as best he could, and he bandaged up my eye, and he sent me home, insisting I return a couple days later to his office. “Don’t worry about paying. Just come to my office.”

I recall that kindness. I recall the blessing of a small miracle, as a few weeks later, he carefully slit and peeled the opaque white skin from my eyeball, and I was able to see with my left eye again. I blinked and saw the doctor’s grinning face—through both eyes. My perfect vision was no more, but it was still good.

As I recall, it took many years for me to pay the hospital for our emergency care, especially when there were times that I had to choose feeding my babies over paying the medical bills. When I had returned to work the next day with my bandaged eye, my boss told me he would have to let me go. He couldn’t have somebody working the front desk looking like I did, with a patch over one eye and a seared red spot across my left cheek where the oil had splashed. I wasn’t good for business.

All of this was a long time ago. Seems almost a different life now, looking back. A different person, even, another me. More hard times followed, and more jobs that paid just barely enough, and it was several years before I finally had health insurance again. Things happened, and kept happening, and most of them were not good. But I kept working as hard as I could, sometimes balancing as many as four jobs at one time. I raised my kids, not without bumps along the way, and today, they both have college educations, and I am working in a terrific place … and I have terrific health insurance. My son, however, who is working full time and still taking some college classes in the evenings and on weekends, has no health insurance. My daughter, even with her master’s degree, is staring down a possible layoff, as funds dry up for nonprofits like the one where she works, as irony would have it, helping the poor and the still forgotten. She could well be without health insurance very soon, through no fault of her own.

Something is wrong with this picture. Really wrong. No one is or was a bad person in this story. No one here did anything wrong. No one here was unwilling to pay dues or work hard.

The highest percentage of the poor and uninsured are women and children. My story could have had a very different ending. My son might have had two crippled hands. I might have been blind in one eye. And, I might have had to pass on preventive care, like a colonoscopy that nabbed three little nasties that might have eventually turned into one very big nasty, costing me—and costing others around me who must take on the financial burden of those who cannot pay, cannot afford preventive care, only show up in emergency rooms when there is no alternative left. I could easily have become a major expense I would not have been able to afford, even in my much improved living situation of today. Because we all pay. Now or later, for ourselves or for others, we all pay.

Consider if anything like this, or anything remotely like this, could possibly happen to you … or to your children, or your grandchildren, or your best friend. Think it couldn’t happen to you?

What do we do about this?