Sometimes the only way to tap into wisdom is to make a deliberate, conscious attempt, like counting your steps instead of simply walking forward. That’s what I did this summer by writing down phrases, ideas and even questions that struck me as “wise.”
My first entry was a question, back in June, from my friend Larry whom I hadn’t seen in months. Larry is a fellow writer from Sacramento, a tall, African-American man with a heart of gold. We met over dinner and after more small talk than either one of us wanted, he asked, “What is your struggle right now?”
Larry knows me well enough to know that even in the best of times, some part of me is clawing through the darkness, and I’m willing to discuss that with him. His well-worded question was more effective in moving the conversation to new ground than a dozen casual inquiries.
My daughter’s friend Katina, a young attorney, formerly with energy to spare, has been keeping a blog since her husband Jeff, 32, was diagnosed with lymphoma and began chemotherapy. When the cancer was discovered last spring, Katina had just given birth to their second child, so their situation is profoundly difficult.
In June, Jeff and Katina were doing a bit better and blogged about how to comfort someone who is suffering. The very last line of the entry I’m quoting here is one I don’t want to forget.
“When going through an experience that fundamentally has no upsides (your spouse has cancer) it is not comforting to hear about the ‘bright side’ of your situation or ‘how lucky you are, relatively speaking…’
“Don’t get me wrong. I am also quick to count our blessings. We are surrounded by people we love who have been able to support us in so many ways … We have great health care and other benefits. We live close to UCSF, not in say, Fresno.
“Still, blessings are something best counted for oneself, rather than to have counted for you by others.”
Later in summer, I found myself in the company of a very experienced therapist in her 60s. She talked about how life is full of contradictions. For example, she said, I could be looking forward to my husband’s retirement and I could be dreading his retirement and both could be true.
“Tell him the whole truth,” the counselor said to me. “If you’re brave enough to say all the truths, the other person in the relationship will trust you.”
My friend Sally, whom I met when she was photographing everything in sight on our trip to Cambodia, recently blogged about a photography workshop she attended in New Mexico. Here’s an abbreviated version of what she learned.
“…how beautiful little things are, how grand and (difficult to capture) big places are, how light changes mood, how water reacts and reflects, how looking up and sideways and under produces a new view, how shadows can be sharp and diffused, how focus draws or redirects attention, how backgrounds affect foregrounds and vice versa.”
She is talking about photography, but her words apply to any observing I might do.
My 2-year-old grandson Dane came by plane with his family to California. He hated his seat belt. When the word came that he had to put it on, he wailed nonstop for 15 minutes. His parents and every nearby passenger felt as if they had entered the first circle of hell.
Then Dane paused, settled into his seat and said, “All done now.” He was a good little passenger for the rest of the flight.
I wish I could make it so clean and simple. Cry for what hurts, cry as hard and as loud as I can, and then stop.
Here’s another airplane story that my friend “Greg” told me this summer. Greg says that it permanently changed the way he speaks to people, even when he’s upset. No wise words here, but a good nonverbal message.
Long ago when Greg was a young dad, he got on a plane and discovered that his family of four had been assigned the same seats in the economy section as another family of four. Outraged and panicked, Greg pushed his way to the front of the plane and complained loudly and angrily to the flight attendants.
One of them contacted someone, and then came back to Greg’s seats where the two families were waiting. She glanced at Greg.
Then she gathered the other family together and moved them to first class.
My final wise words come from a 3-year-old New York Times article a friend sent me called, “What Broke my Father’s Heart” by Katy Butler. The article is about Butler’s parents’ struggle to achieve their final wishes regarding their medical care before they died.
One of their advocates was their long-term physician, who must have found them a pretty special couple.
The physician told Butler, “I bonded with your parents, and you don’t bond with everybody. It’s easier to understand someone if they just tell it like it is from their heart and their soul.”
All my “wise words” from the summer come back to that idea.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org