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Front-Porch Conversations

It was a couple of years ago when my friend and I sat on the porch and talked about “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” He’s mostly retired, has a garden and a goldfish pond, and is very much engaged in relationships with family and friends. Somehow it was easy to talk about our lives, the brevity of them, and to be at peace with the idea that one day we would each be part of the earth in a different form.

Porch
Porch
by Gika Rector

Since that day on the porch, my oldest child got married, my younger brother died, and two of my favorite people on the planet are slowly dying.

I like the married couple, and I’m trying to be a good mother‑in‑law.

My brother’s life was shorter and tougher than anyone would want, but he seemed to have made peace with much of it, and was spending time doing what he loved to do. He died suddenly, apparently in his sleep.

The part about the people who are slowly dying is hard to sort out. They’ve lived rich, full lives, and are leaving the world a better place because of their presence. Certainly they’ve enriched my life in lots of ways. The slowness of their dying means that we’ve already lost much of who they were and how they interacted with the world. Their brains just don’t work the way they once did. Short term memory is gone, and odd fixations have emerged.

They mostly look the same, but every now and then I’m startled by how old they look, and wonder how strangers might see them. How could a stranger know the intelligence and passion and drive that once lived here? Could a stranger see the curiosity and dedication and learning? Probably not.

One of them is quite confused; the other depressed, perhaps even suicidal. How can this be? Hard to watch, and hard to understand. The one who is confused is trying hard to work it out. Trying hard to get organized, have important meetings, and prepare for a trip. The other is quite unhappy, resentful of the situation, struggling to find a way to make things different.

There are still moments of ease and clarity, warmth and good will. Intellectually, I can see that this is a time of withdrawal, winding down, and letting go. Emotionally, I’m wondering why it has to be so challenging and why I can’t “make it all better.”

My front-porch friend once said that we each choose our own way to die. I’ve puzzled over that concept for a really long time. Is it true? If so, what does it really mean? My best guess is that how we live is a part of how we die. Are we curious and present? Are we responsible? Do we look outside ourselves for someone or something to take the blame or to fix it? Are we response‑able? Do we resist the reality of our living and dying? Does that take us away from our purpose on the planet?

Do we have a purpose? I’ve heard and considered a number of answers to that last question. We’re here to love one another, or to learn to love one another. We’re co-creators. We’re here to be fully human.

I like that last one. We’re here to be fully human. Another meaty morsel from that same friend. And again, something to puzzle over for a long time. To be fully human means so many different things. To live, to breathe, to laugh, to love, to die—maybe slowly or maybe quickly. And perhaps the best way to be fully human is to experience the richness of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The fullness and the wonder. As sad as I am to watch dear ones wind down their lives, I’m equally grateful for the richness and grace that their lives have added to mine. I think they know that, and I hope it brings a little richness and grace to their current experience.

And for all of us, my favorite quote, from a stone somewhere in India: lift your heart, open to grace.

Feelin’ Stupid

I did something this evening that made me feel stupid. And then I did it again. Still stupid. Actually, I did it at least three times before I figured out how to correct the problem. Well, darn. I’m a smart woman. I really am. I made good grades in school. I figure things out pretty quickly. Most people who know me will tell you that I’m smart.

And yet I did something pretty stupid. Granted, it was related to household mechanics, which is not even remotely in my comfort zone. Granted, I was tired. Too tired to think through what I was doing, to be a bit more careful. Granted, “someone” should have explained the process a little better.

But there you go: I was tired, doing something outside my expertise, and neglected to get a full explanation, and I did something really stupid—three times.

I didn’t want to clean up, but it needed to be done, and so I did it.

Photo credit?

And then I cleaned up the mess. I was too tired for that too, but there was no getting around it. It had to be cleaned up, or the consequences would make me feel “even more stupider.”

And then I figured it out. I figured out where my mistakes were and what I needed to do to accomplish the task. I did it. I got it done.

Still feel stupid. Still wonder what possessed me. And I feel stronger. The cleanup was hard work, especially for a tired person. And I feel disciplined. I didn’t want to clean up, but it needed to be done, and so I did it.

Winding down afterward, I listened to a talk by Seth Godin. He mentioned telling an employee that in a full five years, the employee had never failed at anything. Sounds like a compliment, right? Nope. Seth told him if he didn’t start failing soon, he’d be fired. And he meant it. Failing, you see, means we’re stretching, trying stuff we don’t really know how to do. Taking risks. It’s where we have to go for exploration, creativity, innovation. And, once we get over wondering how much more stupider we can possibly be, it’s downright fun.

Have all the fun you can. And let me know if you’ve done something stupid lately, especially if it turned out to be fun.

Other People’s Projects

When you’re a kind, generous, and concerned person, it’s easy to take on other people’s projects. You like to help. You like to utilize your knowledge and skills, and you like to make other people’s lives better. Being helpful is great, except when it’s not.

I was watching Paul Rubin set up a table in preparation for a Feldenkrais lesson. I asked if he’d like some help. He thanked me, but indicated that he preferred to do it by himself, “This way, I know what the ‘other fellow’ is going to do.”

Norman Kennedy

Norman Kennedy

My friend Norman Kennedy was warping a loom, while I stood idly watching him. When I asked if I could help, he bristled. Among the “old people” in Scotland, where he learned to weave, it was considered an insult to try to help someone do something that they were perfectly capable of doing singlehanded.

I’ve taken on some big jobs that in retrospect were other people’s projects. What I notice—mostly in retrospect—is that they were not my projects. I saw a better, grander, more elegant, more Gika-like way to do them, and generously stepped in to help. What I also see in retrospect was that I got to do a lot of “heavy lifting.” I got to nudge and poke and prod and persuade, in order to get things done. I even found myself occasionally being resentful of the amount of work “I had to do.”

I’m a little humbler now. I know that the Gika-like way is just that: the Gika-like way. Not better or worse than someone else’s way; it’s just my way.

The greatest thing about getting carried away with other people’s projects has been that in between the bouts of heavy lifting, there’s been a lot of room for fun and learning and growing. Some great stuff got done, no one died in the process, and now I’m really clear that I want to work on my projects.

How can you tell that a job is not your project? Were you invited to work on the project? Did someone give you permission to work on it? Are you finding yourself re-inventing or redefining the work at hand? Are you resenting the amount of work involved? Was it your idea?

It’s not always easy to make the distinction between collaboration, genuinely generous assistance, and minding your own business, but it’s worth doing.

Chances are you have some projects of your own that are hanging around waiting for you. How can you tell which ones are yours? The following are clues that you’re getting warm:

  • You get excited, maybe even nervous at the idea of doing them.
  • You wonder if you really could do them.
  • You’d love to, but it makes you anxious, because it’s a stretch.
  • It feels selfish to consider these projects, because they’d be so much fun, so satisfying.
  • If you had the means, you’d pay someone to let you work on this stuff.
  • It makes you happy to think that maybe you really could do this.

Here’s the best part: when you work on a project that is really yours, and you know it in your heart, then, inevitably, what you’re doing is kind and generous and makes the world a better place.