Showing Up

When I was young, we called them old folks homes. People use more enlightened terminology these days. Retirement Homes. Assisted Living. Convalescent Homes. Unfortunately, these places are still quite often used as warehouses for the elderly and the inconvenient.

Having chosen not to have children, I often worry about my future. I don’t fear death. What I fear is winding up in one of those human warehouses, my body being indifferently maintained by strangers. That, to me, would be hell on earth.

I come by that feeling honestly. There’s an image embedded deep in my brain that I will carry with me for as long as I live. It is of an old, emaciated man, in a dimly lit room, and he’s crying.

I must have been about 8 or 9 years old. I was on a field trip. We had spent several days hand making Christmas cards in class in preparation for our visit to an old folks home nearby. We sang Christmas carols, and we gave out these cards.

I was a shy, quiet, chronically depressed child. All this activity and noise had me really intimidated. I hung back and watched as the other kids gave out their cards, with mixed results. Many of the patients were unresponsive. One ate a card as if it were a Christmas cookie. The attendants seemed unconcerned.

Other residents were, if anything, overly responsive, shouting with delight and giving bear hugs. They scared me most of all. I don’t come from a demonstrative household, and I wasn’t comfortable with this kind of behavior from total strangers. I didn’t want to give my card to one of them. It would take some research to find the perfect nonintrusive and yet mentally present elderly person to interact with.

One advantage to being the most quiet child in a group is that you get to fly under the radar. That’s how I found myself wandering all alone down a deserted side hall. It was quiet there. What a relief.

At the end of the hall I saw a partially opened door. I peeked inside. The shades were closed and the lights were low. It was really hard to see, but I could tell that there was someone lying in a bed. I thought this person was sleeping. Maybe I could sneak in and leave the card on the nightstand and then make a break for it, having fulfilled my obligation.

So I went inside, approaching the bed as quietly as I could. But before I could put the card down, a claw-like hand reached out and took it. I turned to look at the man, and was instantly terrified. He had tubes and wires coming from all directions, and he was so skeletally thin that he barely looked alive. And yet there he was, gazing at my card. My heart was pounding out of my chest.

And then he started to cry. I hate it when men cry, because many of them do it so rarely that it means they really, really feel it. It makes me feel helpless.

He said, “Nobody ever comes to visit me. Thank you so much.”

I said, “You’re welcome. I have to go now.” And I backed out of the room.

The adult me wishes I had done more. I wish I had stayed and talked. I wish I had touched his hand. I wish I had wished him a Merry Christmas. Something. But I was just a scared kid who was entirely out of her element.

I haven’t always been able to afford fancy gifts at this time of year. But sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone is to just show up. Ever since that long ago day, I’ve done my best to at least show up for the people in my life. It’s not much, but sometimes it can be everything.

Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate it. Equal amounts of love and respect to those who don’t.


A book about gratitude is a gift that keeps on giving!

Little Pebbles in a Big Pond

Sometimes I see this big old world of ours as a gigantic pond. We all sit along its banks, so far apart that we struggle to make an impact on each other’s lives. But if we gaze at that glassy water long enough, if we think about how it stretches out before us to distant shores, and if we are just the tiniest bit creative, then we start to figure out what we have to do.

We simply have to drop a tiny pebble into that pond. Make an effort. A small gesture. It doesn’t take much to cause a ripple that will spread out to those near you, and cause them to drop in a pebble too, and so on.

And we each have different pebbles. We can be kind to a stranger. We can donate to a charity. We can write a blog or start a little free library or pick up garbage off the side of the road. We can recycle and compost and carry our own reusable grocery bags to the market. We can teach and we can learn. We can let a car in ahead of us during rush hour. We can listen to a troubled teen.

There are so many little things you can do in the course of a day. You may already be in this habit, to the point where you don’t even realize the ripples that you put out or the impact that you make. Or you may be in despair, thinking that nothing you do really matters or is noticed. But keep it up, because it does matter and it is noticed, and it’s appreciated more than you will ever know.


pebble in a pond

A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book.


The Grand Gesture

Okay all you men out there, Valentine’s Day is 10 days away so there’s still time. You can make this day the most memorable ever for your significant other, and you don’t necessarily have to spend a dime. Sure, diamonds are great, and roses are lovely, and chocolate is wonderful (although, personally, I spend the entire time I’m eating it awash in a sea of self-loathing). But contrary to what the advertisers tell you, it’s not about gifts. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: what most women really want is the grand gesture.

You see extreme versions of this in every chick flick you’ve attempted to avoid throughout your life. It’s when Richard Gere climbs the fire escape for Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman despite his fear of heights. It’s when Adam Sandler serenades Drew Barrymore on the airplane in the Wedding Singer. It’s when Dustin Hoffman bangs on the window at the back of the church to break up Katherine Ross’ wedding in the Graduate and they run away together. It’s when Billy Crystal runs through the streets of New York to find Meg Ryan and declare his love on New Year’s Eve in When Harry Met Sally.

You don’t necessarily have to go to such an extreme. What all these gestures, and in fact any grand gesture has in common is this: it says, “I was thinking about you when you weren’t there.” “I heard you when you said what you need or want.” “I want to make you feel special.” “I care about what’s important to you.” and most of all, “You matter to me more than anyone else in the world.”

The reason women love these chick flicks is that we’re quite often starved for these messages in real life. But you can change that so easily. All you have to do is give it a little thought and make a little effort. Ask yourself what the person you love is into. What do they like? Or what causes them the most stress and how can you remove that stress, if only for one night? For example, at this moment in time, as tired as I am, I think the most romantic thing in the world would be to come home and find that someone had vacuumed and mopped the floors and wiped down the counter tops. It’s not going to happen, but it would be so wonderful if it did. But I certainly wouldn’t say no to a serenade or a foot rub, or even movie night curled up on the couch with pizza. Take me to the beach and write something romantic in the sand. Draw me a picture. Take me on a picnic even though you think they’re silly. If the most important thing in my life is my annoying little dog, do something nice for my annoying little dog. Do something I’m interested in that you wouldn’t normally do yourself. Be willing to make a fool of yourself. Just once.

I think the most amazing grand gesture of all time was when Jack Nicholson told Helen Hunt, “You make me want to be a better man” in As Good as it Gets. If someone sincerely sent me that message, they’d have me for life, because what he was really saying was, “You matter so much to me that I’m willing to try to improve, even though I’ve never really wanted to make that effort before.” That, gentlemen, is the ultimate Valentine.