Lessons I Have Learned

Academically I am a relatively fast learner, in most subjects. I excelled in anything math-related, struggled with science and English, but picked up languages as easily as ridding sidewalks of garbage.

I loved most PE exercises unless it involved swimsuits or leotards (primarily due to weight issues and fat-shaming). When computers came on the scene, wow, did I ever master that quickly!

Unfortunately due to poor awareness in social situations, it takes me a lot longer than most to process what’s happening and develop an appropriate response. This is the area where I have had to work very hard over the seventy years of my life. It’s something that I continue to struggle with today.

So what have I learned?

When entering a given social situation it’s best to find a spot off to the side of the room, close enough to what’s happening to hear words and register facial responses, but not in the midst of the crowd. Once I have analyzed the situation and calculated an appropriate strategy, I move in, with a pat comment prepared. This works almost all the time.

I seldom initiate an invitation to lunch as I afraid of rejection. This means that I rely on the kindness of others to include me, a strategy that often fails. Because of this I seek out loners. Say there’s a woman sitting by herself, I will approach and ask if I can join her. Since she’s also a loner, conversation can be awkward, but at least there are two of us!

When someone asks a question about an interest of mine, I assume that person is simply being polite. I have learned to give a short response then turn the conversation toward the asker. Since most people love talking about themselves, this strategy has paid off.

For example, if I’m walking with friends and one asks what I’d like to eat, I might say, “Oh, a lot of different things. What would you like?” Notice how easy that is? Of course now I have to hope that she chooses something I really do like to eat!

Because I belong to several groups, this strategy is incredibly effective. The few times when I have clearly stated a preference, if it’s not supported, I will acquiesce.

My husband’s family is quite large and they love to gather together. These are challenging for me. He grew up with a ton of cousins that all have a shared memory, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time together as adults. Within minutes of the greeting, they are deep in convivial conversations that I know nothing about. My strategy is to get something cold to drink and find a corner in which I can find solace in my own thoughts.

Hiding in plain sight is something I excel at due to years of invisibility, so I find it exceptionally easy to implement. Unfortunately it also means that I am isolated for the duration of the gathering.

The most challenging situation for me is when my writing is being critiqued. I want to hear the advice of colleagues, but I also want my turn to end as soon as possible in order to move the spotlight away. The thirty minutes or so that my submission is being discussed are the longest minutes of my life! I have learned to minimalize eye contact, take copious notes, and never ask clarifying questions. The problem with this strategy is that now that I am older, it is hard for me to write and listen. I am much better with eye contact than depending upon what I hear, so my pen can’t keep up with spoken ideas.

What I need to learn is to ask for written comments. Notes. Critique. But I don’t because that requires the strength to initiate the request, which I don’t have.

Not everyone who is socially awkward has the same issues that I have, but many do. I hope that by sharing strategies that work for me, others will find something that they can implement.

Or perhaps someone reading this will look about and find that loner and realize that she is sitting on that bench or at that table or leaning against that pillar not because she wants to be alone, but because she doesn’t know how to reach out. Then when realization hits, the outgoing individual will remember what I have shared and approach, smile ready, and invite the loner into the circle. And invite her over and over and over again.

Life’s lessons are sometimes challenging because often life dishes up issues that are never resolved. You just learn to deal with them. To make do.

That’s what I have learned.

 

Holiday Blues

What do you tell the children

who find no quarters under their

pillows – the missing gift of the

tooth fairy – when the proper

homage has been paid?

 

What do you tell the sad little girl

whose stocking is empty

Christmas morn – after leaving the

last cookie and a small cup of

milk – the thanks for the Santa

who never came?

 

What do you tell the young boy

who has no basket to leave on

the table – decorated with colorful

paper eggs and filled with shredded

newspaper – and all that’s inside are

a few stale jelly beans?

 

What do you tell the teenager

whose fifteenth birthday came and

went – with no party, no gifts, no

happy times – to mark the majestic

coming of age?

 

What do you tell the lonely ones

who never get a heart-shaped card

or candies – a sign of friendship and

love – who had only wished that just

one person would care?

 

What do you tell the children

who have no masks, no quirky

costumes – in celebration of All

Hollow’s Eve – and so can’t knock

and threaten tricks?

 

What do you tell the little ones

who have no feast to cram into

their mouths – in honor of those who

survived – and so bite into stale

peanut butter sandwiches?

 

What do you tell all the unloved

children, young and old, who rise

day after day – wanting nothing more

than a gentle hug – and receive

harsh words instead?

 

For some children have everything

they could ever want while others

have nothing but emptiness – no

hope for more – the rejoicing washes

over, leaving not a drop of joy.

 

Let us cry for them

And then pick up our mantle

Of gentleness and offer whatever we can,

Whatever small bit of joy

Lurking in cabinets and pantries

Deliver it to a charity

Where we can witness the joy

That abounds in simple giving.

Our Life Stories

 

all of life is a series of

nonstories

the might-have-beens

the almost becames

the things we dreamt of

doing

but never did

the wishes unfulfilled

presents never delivered

or received

places never visited

near-misses

chance occurrences

that developed into nothing

the left-behinds

and

soon-to-be forgottens

all stories untold

mysteries locked

romances closeted

things never experienced

foods never tasted

but secretly yearned for

nonstories frozen in place

and time

with no characters to lament

plots stagnant

themes dragging behind

do we obsess

over the lost stories

and live life in a

vacuum?

NO

we constantly create

our personal life stories

our dreams springing to

a life lived luxuriously

laughing joyously

over the endless

possibilities

A Huge Loss

What do you do when your eyes dim

and gray clouds cover the world

and you live to read and write and

admire the photos of your grandchildren?

 

What do you do with your time when

it hurts to read and the words dance

in crazy swirls that hop across the page

and you have stacks of books to read?

 

What do you do when you feel like

crying about all the lost joys that

you most recently discovered, knowing

that, in time, they will fade away?

 

What do you do when you want to write

but the words drown in a sea of gray

sinking to the bottom of a speckled pit

and fall out of your mind like dandruff?

 

What do you do when the world you used

to see disappears behind a distorting mist

that threatens to take away your freedom,

your driver’s license, your mobility?

 

What do you do when hope seems to have

abandoned you in your time of need and

when you are too young to fall apart and

there seems to be only a steeper fall ahead?

 

You cry, weep, moan and seek the company

of family and friends who will listen and

understand how truly great the loss is

and offer sympathy without comment.

 

You get down on your knees and pray

to the Lord of all, to the God of mercy,

and ask Him to give you a few more good

years of loving the printed page.

 

You think of all the good years that have

come and gone, all the places seen and

friends loved and family times shared,

and rejoice in the Lord’s blessings bestowed.

A Teacher’s Lament

I spoke with your teacher today,

And this is what she had to say:

Please tell Billy I like him a lot

But not when he licks each tiny spot

Of food off his plate.

It’s just plain gross.

 

It’s not polite to pick your nose

That’s why tissue’s good for blows

Putting snot between his teeth

Makes kids stare beyond belief.

You just don’t do it.

It’s just plain gross.

 

He needs to keep his shoes on his feet

The stench smells like rotten meat.

While in the playground yard

Children find it too hard

To forgive him.

It’s just plain gross.

 

People don’t put their hands on their butts

And scratch until they make big cuts

Blood through the clothes

And a stink up the nose.

It’s just plain gross.

 

 

As far as work, Billy’s losing out.

He wrinkles papers and runs about.

Seldom sits for more than a minute.

Pencils in places where they don’t fit.

He’s failing.

It’s just plain gross.

 

There’s not much more that I can say

Except that you should be on your way

To talk to Billy. tell him I care.

For him I’d go anywhere

To find him help.

He’s not that gross.

Being Me

For the longest time, I really didn’t like myself. I knew, intrinsically, that somehow I was not the child that my parents wanted. That’s a hard cross to bear.

I was not pretty. I was not talented in any way. I took a long time to learn things. My memory was not the best, so I repeated the same mistakes over and over.

I was not girly. I wore dresses only because that’s what my mother gave me to wear. I wanted to wear pants and shorts and t-shirts because that’s what my brother wore.

I hated long hair. It took too much time to brush it, and then what I got older, it was difficult to style it because I had no skill in that area. I wanted short hair cut in a “boy” style. When I finally did get it sheared off at shoulder length, it angered my father so much that he called me foul names.

In terms of academics I was not my brilliant brother. He excelled in science. I excelled in nothing. No, there was one thing that I could do better than him! I could write beautiful cursive.

I was so slow to learn that I spent most lunches in a tutoring room, supervised by a strict nun who offered no support. I hated the room in the summer as it was sweltering. In the winter, however, it was shelter from the cold.

In high school I discovered that I was good at math and languages. I was still awkward. I was still not pretty. I was still not girly. I was now able to wear shorts and jeans at home, but had to wear dresses to school and church. I felt fat and dumpy. When I sat, the width of a single one of my thighs matched the width of both of anyone else’s combined.

I discovered that I had a talent for bowling and badminton, so played on my high school teams. I was not the best, but I held my own. This gave me something to crow about. I held my head higher and walked prouder.

When a young man asked me out, I felt desired. Not at first, but as he continued to date me, I accepted his amorous fumblings with positive regard. Because of him I began to understand that beauty is not defined by what you see on television or in magazines, but what others see when you walk by.

Once I was in college I realized that my skills in math and languages were appreciated by my professors. My heart swelled with pride.

When contacts came on the market, I entered a trial program on my campus to wear them. Without my glasses I didn’t feel as old-fashioned or as clumsy. I dated several men at the same time! Wow! Imagine how it felt to be popular for the first time!

I smiled when I walked about campus. I greeted casual acquaintances and sat with people I barely knew. I worked in the bookstore and found myself a valued employee. I was a good roommate and a good friend.

As my circle of friends grew, so did my self-esteem. By the time I graduated, I must have had at least fifteen friends! A record number for me.

After college I had no choice but to return home, back to the environment in which I was less-than my siblings. I was subjected to cooking lessons which I never mastered. I was forced to clean house every day, including my sibling’s rooms which I felt was grossly unfair. I was little more than a servant.

To make matters worse, I could not find employment. I applied wherever I could. I was rejected over and over because potential employers didn’t like that I was a college graduate with no office skills. I wasn’t even hired to distribute cards from store to store! What skills would that require?

The longer unemployment went on, the lower my self-esteem plummeted. At home I was that unhappy, unfeminine little girl. I was worthless because I lacked domestic skills and had no desire to learn. My activities were monitored, so I was not allowed to be social. I could only go out when my activities were chaperoned by an adult.

I was an adult! I was twenty-one. I could drive and vote and drink legally.

When I finally got hired at a now defunct furniture store, I was out of the house forty hours a week. I bought a car. I rented a studio apartment. I was free! And once again I began to like myself.

From there I slowly became who I am today. It was not an easy road. I spent hours alone, but I also went skiing, saw movies, ate out with colleagues. I saw Joan Baez in concert. I went camping in the Santa Cruz mountains. I took a class in hiking and went with the group. It was tough! My backpack was canvas on a metal frame. By the time it was packed and on my shoulders, I feel over backwards! But I went.

The rest of my story, my story of learning to like myself, was like climbing a ladder. Each rung up taught me that I could do things, that I could succeed, that I had value.

When I look back and I realize how long I struggled to overcome those early restrictive years, it’s amazing that I emerged as me. I wish I could spare all girls the struggle. What I can offer is my life as example.

No matter where you are in life, never give up on yourself. Fight against whatever forces hold you back. Find something that you do well. Anything. It doesn’t have to be academics. It doesn’t have to lead to career, but it could.

Believe in yourself. No matter how others treat you, no matter those who try to hold you back, know that in you, there is value. You have much to offer the world.

Like yourself. Be you.

 

Conquering Loneliness

When I was a little kid I didn’t feel loved at all. I was a shy, miserable child. A loner who yearned to be held, caressed, even though I didn’t yet know the meaning of the term.  I wanted to be held in the same regard as my brother, who, in my mother’s eyes, could do no wrong.

I played alone most of the time, preferring my own company to the tension-filled interactions with my family. I knew that I was often the cause of much yelling even though I don’t recall hearing my name being uttered as the cause. Little kids just know these things.

Recently I saw some old home movies that were taken when I was a child. In all the scenes in which I appeared there were two brief moments when a tiny smile creased my lips. In one I was running toward my grandpa, in the other I was in his arms.

It was a great consolation to see that there were, indeed, periods of happiness.

When I went to school I understood that I was going not because I was smart, but because I was dumb. This was reinforced daily when my mother, who learned how to drive so she could get me to a school, reminded me of what she was giving up, the sacrifices she was making to enroll me in the school.

Later on when I went to elementary school I knew my place in the hierarchy of students. I was the dumb one, the girl who never knew the answers when the teacher called on me. I was the one who never got Valentine’s Day cards and who was never invited to play dates and parties.

Granted, it was probably my fault. I was a sullen, sulky kid who wandered the playground aimlessly, interacting with no one. I remember seeing in a magazine ad how to make tornadoes in a jar. Every recess I carried my jar, twirling it, setting the miniature tornado in motion, finding limited solace in watching my creation. Imagine what the other kids thought when they saw this strange girl roaming the playground with a glass jar in her hands. No wonder I was alone.

There was one girl who became my friend in fifth grade. She was new and so didn’t know my status. One weekend she invited me to spend the night. It was a revelation to me. At the dinner table her parents conversed without yelling. There was no name calling or bickering. Everyone had smiles on their faces.

I fell in love with that family. I wanted to live with them, for them to adopt me. I cried when my mother came to take me home.

In eighth grade an odd-looking boy invited me to go roller skating. I went because it was a date, my first one, and he was a nice kid. At the rink we skated side-by-side. The music was too loud to talk, which suited us both. After a while he held my hand. His was damp but I didn’t care.

In ninth grade he invited me to my first school dance. My mom made me a powder blue dress for the occasion. He arrived in a suit, bearing a corsage.

Neither of us knew how to dance, so we spent a lot of time standing on the outskirts of the floor, leaning against walls or, if possible, sitting on folding metal chairs. I thought he was nice because he was kind.

We moved to California that summer. I brought the addresses of neighbors that I had thought were friends. I sent them letters every week. None of them wrote back. I cried.

Because I was still shy, I made no friends that first year. My Algebra teacher was the closest thing to a friend that I had only because he smiled when I got the right answers.

Across the street from us was an older young man who showed an interest in me. He looked like every glasses-wearing boy of the sixties. Black haired combed to the side, black-rimmed glasses, and button up the front plaid shirts. We went bowling, to movies and hung out at his duplex listening to music. He wanted more.

Sometimes as our date was ending he’s park in an isolated spot and we’d make out until my lips hurt. I was terrified that the police would find us, arrest us, and then I’d be in trouble with both my parents and the law. But no cruiser ever found us.

He moved his love-making to the couch in his house. He told me how much he loved me. I believed him but I never said the same to him. My parents were thrilled. The daughter that they felt was unlovable had someone declaring true love.

When I transferred to USC I joined a group of lonely looking people who sat at the same table meal after meal. They welcomed me. We spoke about a variety of things, many of them intellectual in nature. For the first time I had a group in which I felt an equal. I don’t know what they felt when they saw me, but I was always treated with respect. I dated two of the guys. They were really nice.

And then the boyfriend showed up and took me to Disneyland. We had a good time, but all the while I knew that I was going to break up with him. He loved me, but during our separation I understood that I liked him, but did not love him. He cried when I told him. I did too.

At that point in my life I realized how much I had changed. I was no longer the lonely kindergarten kid but a part of a social group that did things together. That treated each other as equals. That valued intellect over money and appearance.

We did crazy things together, like drive across town just to buy chili burgers. We went to the beach even when it was raining. We studied together in the lobby of our residence hall. We were inseparable.

I still have my lonely days but I don’t let them drag me down. I know that they are only a blip in what are normally busy times with friends and family. I have a husband who likes to be with me, who respects me and encourages me to do all the different things that I love to do.

Being lonely as a kid is a terrible thing. You see other kids running around in groups that are ever changing, but you stand alone. There is no one to help you navigate the social circles, to teach you how to fit in. But there are glimmers of hope.

For me it was the girl who invited me over to her house, the boy who took me roller skating, the young man who said he loved me and all the college friends who respected me. Because of them I entered the world of work prepared to interact with those who showed signs of openness.

For the sake of all the lonely people in the world, be open. That will help them overcome loneliness. Be kind.