Category Archives: Life

The Poetry of Team MC

In 2018, my niece Mary Catherine told me about a song that lifted her spirits in the most overwhelming moments of her 2-year struggle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia: O’Lord by Lauren Daigle. I added the song to my playlist, and fell in love with it immediately.

Though times it seems
Like I’m coming undone
This walk can often feel lonely
No matter what until this race is won
I will stand my ground where hope can be found

MC stood her ground where hope could be found, indeed. The terrain she traveled from diagnoses to remission was physically and emotionally turbulent, demanding every ounce of fortitude from her small frame at a time in her life when she should have been able to enjoy the carefree days of young adult life.

mc

I listen to this song when I want to sit quietly with my thoughts, filled with an immense gratitude for music that comforts, medicine that heals, prayers that fortify, and friends that care. The place in Mary Catherine’s story that I now want to spend some time is the space that holds all of the blessings: the people who were there for the Hydrick family in ways large and small, the stories which hover in my heart when I hear Lauren Daigle’s resonant voice.

I think of the doctor who visited the Hydricks at 9:30 at night, giving them hope in their worst possible moment. I think of the Lexus customer who stopped by my office and told me about her young son, who always hated school until he had MC for a teacher, and who prayed for her healing every night. I recall the fundraiser we attended at the school where MC taught, a fun run with families of students, people who love the Hydricks, including friends of mine from Lexus.

mc1

Throughout Mary Catherine’s ordeal, these friends asked about her daily, offering prayers and support in any way available. They still ask how MC is doing, they attend and support every event, from the school fun run to the annual fundraiser for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. The time, prayers, donations, words of encouragement were enduring, unfailing, and inspiring. When someone is there for your loved ones without question, without hesitation, there lies the love, and in that love is what I consider to be the poetry of life.

David Carradine said: “If you cannot be a poet, be the poem”. We may not have Lauren Daigle’s gift for words and melody, but we have the gift for action born of love. For the past 2 years, that action has sprung to life as many Mary Catherine fans support “TEAM MC” in the Light the Night Walk for LLS. On October 2nd, Mary Catherine Hydrick will be the honored hero for the 2020 CSRA Light the Night Walk, and I have no doubt that the poetry will blossom once again.

Team MC page for Light the Night 2020

I am reading a book by Amanda Palmer called The Art of Asking; in it, she explains that “asking for help with gratitude says we have the power to help each other”. In asking for support, we allow people to connect to us in a more profound way. In responding to those requests, we say to the person: “I see you.” It is acknowledgement, it is understanding, it is solidarity. 

It is in this spirit that I ask everyone I know to help me. My dream is to honor Mary Catherine’s victory and her role as honored hero by blasting the roof off of the $5,000 goal we have set for Team MC. For every gift, prayer, gesture and compassion for MC-past and future-I say to you: Thank you for being the poem. I see you.

mc3

https://pages.lls.org/ltn/ga/csra20/teammc

Link to 2018 MC blog

Let me tell you about my Mom

Dad didn’t understand why I needed a new dress. He said I already had a perfectly good one that I had only worn once. I tried to explain that I couldn’t wear a prom dress in a beauty pageant, but I could see his eyes glaze over. I had lost him. Thankfully Mom came to the rescue and bought me the dusty rose colored gown that would allow me to blend in to the crowd of big-haired hopefuls in the 1983 Miss EHS contest. Mom understood, just like she did when I absolutely had to have an Op-brand t-shirt for beach day. Dad thought $10 was excessive for a t-shirt. In all fairness, it was (back then). But I explained to Mom that “everyone would be wearing one” and that I would be left out. I wore that red Op shirt for years.

IMG_1005

Doesn’t look like much, but it was a big deal back then.

Suffice it to say, Mom understood much more than I gave her credit for when I was growing up. The tougher of the two parents, she was the one holding me accountable when I didn’t do my chores, calling me out on poor decisions and waiting for me when I stumbled home too late from a date. Like most mother-daughter relationships, we had some tricky years when I stubbornly refused her sage advice. Over time, however, we cultivated a more balanced relationship. I would learn my lessons the hard way, as most of us do, while she continued to toss out warnings that I ignored. I began to realize that her actions were based in love. Even today, in my 50’s, she still drops hints that soundly vaguely parental, and she still worries about me. That will never stop, and that is a good thing. It means she cares. If life has shown me anything, it is how difficult parenting can be, and how rare when it is done well. She did it well.

IMG_0997

A fave pic of Mom, sassy and savvy.

In the 90’s, Mom and I traveled a bit, taking road trips to Maine (with an accidental excursion to Canada) and New Orleans. She and I share a sense of adventure and learning new things, and I credit her for my open-mindedness, as well as my appreciation for people from all walks of life. I came to realize that I could ask her just about anything (except for technology or sports) and she would have an intelligent answer. She was my Google before Google was invented, and I often find myself telling people who ask me for advice, “I’m not sure about that. Let me call my Mom, and I’ll let you know.” As a retired social worker and avid reader, her grasp of a wide range of topics never ceases to amaze.

IMG_0996

Traveling together in the 90’s

One of her many topics of particular expertise has always been money. Dad (like me) tended to err on the side of short-term, low-discipline financial choices, and Mom had to hold the family together. Budgeting, saving, scrimping and investing all became her strengths by necessity. I recall family meetings in the 70’s when we were told we were going to have to hunker down for a bit and cut some corners. I also recall in 2007, she told me that she was pulling all of her retirement money out of the stock market because she was concerned about the relationship between the dollar and the yen. Her financial adviser thought she was crazy, and then everything bottomed out. It was then I realized the full extent of her financial savvy, telling people that if my Mom told me to invest in dog poop, I would sign up on the spot.

While I never did develop her financial skills, I do credit her for my love of reading and passion for service to others. She took us to the library often as kids, leaving us to explore and encouraging us to bring home our prize finds. When a family in need came into her radar, she would send us to our rooms for clothes and toys to donate, and we would ride with her to the home of the recipient family, where we could meet and play with the kids who would later wear our hand-me-downs in their school photos. Those moments stay with me, and I am grateful for the perspective I gained from what was not only insightful parenting, but also leading by example. When I think about the successful parts of my life, and the good things about how I turned out as a person, I know without reservation that the credit for those traits goes to my Mom.

Today my Mom is 80 years old. She still mows her own grass, walks twice a day, makes kind gestures to others and reads voraciously. While the pandemic prohibits us from throwing her a proper birthday party, as evidenced by our socially distant front-yard photo shoot, we look forward to the day when we can celebrate this special day for a smart, caring, savvy, strong Mom. Like always, she understands.

 

 

Top Ten List of Top Tens

Top Ten Favorite Movies

  1. Casablanca
  2. Shakespeare in Love
  3. A Little Chaos
  4. Beauty and the Beast (Disney version)
  5. XXX
  6. Moulin Rouge
  7. Darjeeling Ltd
  8. The Longest Week
  9. Mulan
  10. Now, Voyager

Top Ten Favorite Songs

  1. Show Must Go On by Queen
  2. Life is Beautiful by Sixx AM
  3. It’s My Life (ballad version) by Bon Jovi
  4. Northside by Tim Brantley
  5. Hold On To Your Dream by Rick Springfield
  6. 50 Ways to Say Goodbye by Train
  7. And So I Pray by Jem
  8. I’m Not Ok by My Chemical Romance
  9. Still Got the Blues by Gary Moore
  10. A Song for You by Ray Charles

Top Ten Favorite Places to spend money

  1. Target
  2. Clinique
  3. Publix
  4. Hallmark
  5. Michael’s
  6. Stein Mart
  7. Dillard’s
  8. Art on Broad
  9. Book Tavern
  10. Barnes and Noble

Top Ten Favorite Causes

  1. Miller Theater
  2. Golden Harvest Food Bank
  3. Augusta Symphony
  4. Leadership Augusta
  5. Child Enrichment
  6. Leukemia Lymphoma Society
  7. Friends of Augusta Animal Services
  8. Salvation Army
  9. Safehomes
  10. Heritage Academy

Top Ten Favorite Writers

  1. David Sedaris
  2. Will Schwalbe
  3. Fr. Gregory Boyle
  4. Adam Grant
  5. DH Lawrence
  6. Atul Gawande
  7. Russell Brand
  8. Elizabeth Gilbert
  9. Joan Didion
  10. Anais Nin
  11. Amor Towles

Top Ten Favorite Bands

  1. Queen
  2. Sixx AM
  3. Linkin Park
  4. Bon Jovi
  5. REM
  6. Matchbox Twenty
  7. Edison Project
  8. Styx
  9. Journey
  10. No Doubt

Favorite Singers

  1. Rick Springfield
  2. Jem
  3. George Michael
  4. Russ Taff
  5. John Mayer
  6. Tim Brantley
  7. David Ford
  8. David Owen
  9. Sade
  10. Edith Piaf

Top Ten Favorite Hotels

  1. Charleston Place
  2. Chateau Elan
  3. Margaritaville Nashville
  4. Vendue Charleston
  5. Hermitage Nashville
  6. Proximity Greensboro NC
  7. Ritz Lodge Lake Oconee
  8. Studio 154 Nashville
  9. Shamrock Ocala
  10. Four Seasons Whistler

 

Top Ten Favorite Foods to Eat

  1. Cinnabon
  2. Shells and Cheese
  3. Takosushi Kevin’s Roll
  4. Guacamole and Chips from Caesar at Poblano’s
  5. Fluff (mine)
  6. Pancakes (mine)
  7. French Toast
  8. Lefse (Dad)
  9. Egg Breakfast Food (Mom)
  10. Lasagne

Top Ten Favorite Books

  1. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  2. Tattoos on the Heart by Fr. Gregory Boyle
  3. 10% Happier by Dan Harris
  4. Books for Living by Will Schwalbe
  5. Selected Poetry of Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell
  6. Everybody Always by Bob Goff
  7. Everything that Remains by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus
  8. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
  9. Naked by David Sedaris
  10. Give and Take by Adam Grant

11. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Freefall 2019

Ten years ago, to fulfill a goal from my bucket list, I allowed myself to be strapped to a robust young man in a tiny airplane climbing steadily in the sky. We watched as the plane door opened, and together we stepped beneath the wings, pausing only for a moment before flinging ourselves into a loud rush of wind. Although the step out onto a microscopic ledge was a harrowing moment, the contrast of exhilaration and sereneness surrounding the release of the parachute sticks with me the most. I have been thinking about this tandem jump in recent days with a forlorn pensiveness, creating an internal narrative in a quest for inner peace following my resignation from Jim Hudson Lexus.

IMG_0043

It is both undesirable and inappropriate to explain the reasons for my departure after an intense 16-year tenure; suffice it to say that they are as complicated as they are depressing. To discuss the reasons would be similar to navigating small talk with well-wishers about the sudden divorce of a seemingly happy couple: way too personal and serving no constructive purpose. I can say this, however: I fought for what I believed was right, and I take ownership of the outcome. In addition to my own departure, the battle culminated in a loss of many valued team members, including two of my dear friends and front-line comrades, as well as my husband. In these situations, where there is a good deal of “agreeing to disagree”, nobody wins, in the end.  Although supremely confident that the store and all departing employees will thrive, I reserve the right to spew optimistic PR clichés while mourning something I have long considered to be my life’s purpose and passion. As I write this, two weeks later, I still feel as though I am free-falling in the air, scrambling for the parachute cord.

IMG_3502

In the heat of the battle, I did not hesitate at all, despite a kind offer to “take a few days and think about it”. I replied that the only required deliberation was to negotiate the transition details. I then promptly stepped onto the microscopic ledge of the metaphorical skyscraper of my career and jumped, with no parachute beyond the comfort of knowing I was not alone. In the days which followed, despite the ensuing tears and a sinking nausea deep in my belly, I also experienced the calm resolve of knowing I made the right decision for myself and my family. An inevitable peaceful floating into the unknown will be a metaphor made more acute with the phrase “I will let you know where I land”, exchanged with friends constantly throughout each day.

I think back to the person I was when I came to the dealership in 2003. Financially, I was in a sad place, living in an apartment with no heat and possessing such a low credit score that I suspect it might have been a negative number. Mr. Hudson had to guarantee my first car note with Lexus Financial. While my financial transformation over the years is certainly a source of pride, my greatest accomplishment is one of personal growth. In the past 16 years, I fine-tuned skills which lend credibility to another of my oft-used current phrases: I truly am a better person for having the honor of working for this incredible organization. I have mastered the art of the apology, I am a meticulous organizer, and I take immense pride in my efforts to be a blessing to customers and colleagues. I understand the value of processes, am a stickler for personal responsibility for mistakes, and have made strides in stress-management (a tough one in the car business). I may have even developed a small sense of humor, but time will tell if the laughter was just my co-workers being polite.

IMG_1074

I am filled with profound gratitude that my team leaders allowed me to engage in so many exciting projects, many of which were my own creations. They empowered me to do what I felt was best for the dealership and the community, and supported me without question. The credit for my personal growth goes to this level of unwavering mutual trust over many years. I can endorse the integrity of this organization and the leaders in the beautiful new facility on Washington Road, and I can also take responsibility for much of that which went awry. In the coming years, I will work on other areas of personal growth still needing attention, not the least of which is a borderline pathological need to help everyone and fix everything. During my tenure, I gradually took on increased responsibilities, so that by the time I left, I was involved in every inch of this 56,000 square foot building, as well as each member of the team within the modern glass walls. Nobody asked me to do this, I just kept adding plates and integrated them into the juggling act which was already tenuous leading up to our move. It was inevitable that some plates would drop, wires would cross and exhaustion would settle in like an unwelcome relative.

One of my PR clichés is calling my next unknown job “a new adventure”. In this adventure, whatever it might be, I will bring my same work ethic, initiative, organization, passion for customer service and ability to work with little supervision. What I will not bring is my proclivity to take on duties outside of my purview because I assume that nobody else can do them with my same level of care. I will share the blessed burden of service with my equally capable team mates, communicating when my juggling act has reached full capacity, and learning to enjoy whatever new terrain awaits me in my safe landing place. In the meantime, I will be floating, more gently, pledging to stay in contact with the many friends I made in the Lexus family and Augusta community, and if I ever find myself in the position again where I need to make such a bold leap of faith from a precarious ledge, I will be wiser for the experience and quicker to find the parachute.

What People Think

One of our customers, I’ll call him Mark, aggressively insisted that we give him free car washes, even after we discontinued the program. When he purchased a new vehicle today, we asked him if he wanted to include a maintenance plan. He declined, stating that he doesn’t do his service with us, he just takes the free washes.

I would be mortified to demand such special privileges, especially if my loyalty to the company was mediocre. Unlike Mark, I have an acute awareness of what other people might think about me. Mark is more worried about getting a deal for himself; I am more concerned with doing the right thing for the relationship. If it occurs to him that we might be expressing our disappointment after he leaves, it certainly doesn’t seem to matter. I, on the other hand, am so sensitive to what people might say when I walk away, that I have a lifetime of unnecessary purchases to show for it.

People always tell you that you shouldn’t care what others think about you, and for certain circumstances, that is absolutely true. You have to be authentic and let the chips fall where they may when you are following your heart. Yet, when I look back on the significant successes of my life, I realize that they were strongly driven by the opposite motivation. The truly cool things about me grew out of a carefully cultivated garden called What People Think. Marketing people might call it building your personal brand, others might label it nurturing your reputation. Brought down to the lowest denominator, you might even call it good ole fashioned giving a shit. Whatever you call it, it is a skill like any other, and it includes knowing when to put it into play.

Twenty years ago, I suffered from many of the common maladies of youth: procrastination, laziness, selfishness, sloppiness. My main priority was my appearance. I spent an obscene amount of time on my hair and makeup, and fished for compliments in the same way a flower leans toward the sun to maximize exposure to light. I wanted to be the nice person who was also attractive. That was about the extent of my garden. What people thought about my looks was such a big deal, that even if I was exhausted or broke, I would find a way to make sure I was polished and shiny when the moment called for it.

Over time, I starting caring about other aspects of my brand, as well. Worrying about what my co-workers would say inspired me to be punctual, work hard and not take the last cupcake. Concern for what the server would think pushed me to be a heavy tipper and not send anything back. Caring about my friends meant showing an interest in their hobbies and listening more than talking. Awareness of the people around me precluded me from overindulging in cocktails. Wanting Kevin to think of me as a good spouse inspired me to be neat and organized around the house.

As I get older, I care much less about appearance-related opinions and much more about ones pertaining to my character. I think about my legacy and the kinds of things I would want to be known for after I am gone. If descriptors such as hardworking, kind and thoughtful are batted around at my funeral, I will be happy with that. Over time, the motivation of caring about the opinions of others has evolved into caring about people in general. Recently I embraced a personal mission statement that simply states -Be a blessing to someone today. I still care what they think about me, but more than that, I care how they feel. Now that is a garden worth nurturing.

Minimalist Wannabe

Like most Americans, I tend to shop or eat when I am blue. I realize that I have too many blessings to give in to melancholy-based habits with any regularity, but I confess that I have indulged enough to proclaim the unoriginal and ubiquitous New Year’s resolutions: lose weight and spend less. I would like to add two more resolutions which are extremely compatible with these goals: own less and simplify.

These last two objectives surfaced after watching a Netflix documentary about the Minimalists. Minimalist documentary Seeing this film about Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus at the start of a new year is fortuitous, because they offer such a compelling message about how our addiction to possessions creates more stress than happiness. Thus my newfound and overwhelming need to participate in some major purging. Keep life simple, baby, I say to myself, and appreciate each moment instead of trying to fill your sadness with a swiss cake roll and a new piece of art.

bt

BT supports my decision, as long as I don’t force her to donate any cat toys

 

I neither want nor expect to reach the level of extreme extrication that Joshua and Ryan accomplished. I read somewhere that Joshua sliced 90% of his material possessions over 8 months. Seeing Joshua’s lone folding chair in an empty living room takes care of most of that temptation. Hearing that he only owns one pair of jeans kills the rest. (Those poor jeans will surely wear out from being washed every night?) Overall, however, the concept resonates with me, because I get a small high from donating superfluous items in my life, and I understand the Feng Shui behind less clutter. So that amazing feeling, augmented with the knowledge gained from the documentary, and I’m a madwoman on a different kind of binge-purge.

spartan-closet

One of my newly stripped closets. Don’t be too impressed, however. There are 6 closets in my house.

 

A couple of things will keep me in check, most of them centered around the fact that I am married to someone who is a keeper in more ways than one. Not only do I want to keep him, he wants to keep his stuff, and he has a lot of it. His reluctance to let go of material possessions is not an issue for our marraige, because we are 2 people in a 2,100 square foot house. The house itself is quite tidy, and as proof, I offer this question posed by Kevin’s home health nurse after his hip-replacement: “So, who’s the neat freak?” As someone who lived single and sloppy for most of her adult life,  this inquiry made me extremely happy.

So Kevin’s stuff is safe from my new proclivity (mostly!) and I have been happily filling bags and boxes to donate. Items which seem too nice to take to Goodwill get shipped to my sister Lisa in Colorado, who has a little Ebay business. I’m on my second box of unwanted goodies for her consideration. She is instructed to keep or sell or donate at her discretion, and she sends me a report of how much she earns from my life’s leftovers, which is fun to read. She keeps the profits (since she does all the work) and I get the joy of knowing that someone in another country is really enjoying my 10 year old silk scarf. Other popular items, many of which ironically are sold to people back here in Augusta, Georgia, include books I know I will not read more than once, and dress up jewelry from last year’s Christmas party.

I often get carried away with whatever my current hobby might be, so there is no telling how far I will travel down the Minimalist road. My last wild hair was a Pinterest-inspired obsession with gift-wrapping, a creative outlet I enjoyed over the holiday. Since I have an entire room filled with gift-wrap supplies, this new hobby is a bit at odds with the minimalist lifestyle. Not sure how that will work out, but I’m not worried about it.

giftwrap1

example of super cute gift wrap supplies I feel compelled to keep

 

If I stay on my current minimizing trajectory the same way I embraced the gift wrap project, Kevin will be sitting in his lonely Lazyboy chair in a spartan room with nothing on the walls. Fear not, my friends, for I assure you that I do possess the ability to ascertain which items have appropriate sentimental value and which ones were just bad purchase decisions. The other saving grace, of course, is my short attention span. I suspect that I will see a new documentary about the joy of baking on Netflix sometime in March, and will be traipsing off to William Sonoma in search of the best pie pans. (I hope not!) In the meantime, I am very happy with my new path of simpler living and am feeling like I can embrace it as a lifestyle change. Wish me luck!

Don’t Send the Bear

I follow a blog about a guy who knits. I subscribed after reading his book, Mad Man Knitting, a mesmerizing tale of a waiter who worked at one of the most successful restaurants in the country, and then lost everything when it closed. The author was homeless for a while, living in deplorable conditions with little to eat and few support systems. Documenting his experience in vivid detail, he writes about how he slowly started scrounging an existence from- of all things- knitting. He knits the most adorable bears, writes about the textures and colors of the yarns, takes a photo and then sells them. In addition to his passion for knitting bears, writing forms his other creative outlet. His prolific output dwarfs the rest of the blogging world, with weekly and sometimes daily posts. He seems to have a lot to say and a lot of time in which to say it.

Mad Man Knitting Blog Link

One might think that the Mad Man Knitter-aka Gregory Patrick-is a similar tale to that of Porkchop Zimmerman from my last blog. They both suffered and found contentment through their art. They both produce an abundance of work, high quality stuff, well-received and inspiring to many. Both seem to still struggle a bit financially in spite of their modest celebrity status. Both personal journeys are fascinating to me. I have pretty much stopped reading the Knitting blog, however. And the reason, surprisingly, is customer service.

While Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman is at home with his mom sending free Happy stickers to anyone who requests them, Mr. Patrick has a long list of unsatisfied customers who sent in money for his adorable bears, only to receive nothing in return. If you read enough of his blogs, far enough back, you will find where he gets overwhelmed by the angry messages from customers who want their money back. The problem is that he has already spent the money and doesn’t have it to send.

It’s a cruel joke, really, because he constantly posts photos of new and adorable bears which he has just created, encouraging you to buy them because he only has beans and rice to eat. You are in love with the bear and empathetic to the artist’s plight. What you do not realize, however, is that you may or may not actually receive the product. Most people assume that even a backlog of orders would eventually be fulfilled. This is not the case. Some of us have ordered a bear, hoping to own this soft, adorable symbol of resilience through adversity, only to grow weary of waiting for its arrival.

I have to tell you that there seems to be a bit of randomness to order fulfillment. If Mr. Patrick knows you, or you happened to order a bear when he had postage money on hand, you receive a well-crafted and huggable bear. The rest of you, well…not so much. Sorry.

img_2758

In his defense, I knew the risk when I ordered. I had read blogs about his angry customers before I even sent in my money. I thought that the other customers were just impatient people, that they didn’t fully understand this struggling artist, and I empathized with Mr. Patrick in his plight to learn to manage a small business after only recently getting off of the streets. I assumed that eventually, a bear would arrive, and it would be an inspiring symbol to me, one I would set out to view daily. I would see it and think about the man who lost everything and learned to rebuild again. It would be a reminder to appreciate the little things, like a simple meal of beans and rice. It would serve as a gesture of solidarity with the blogging world. I was resolute to never contact him with inquiries about when to expect the bear, and prided myself that I would be the patient bear-adopter who waited kindly for my future fuzzy friend.

And then time passed. And then more time passed. So much time passed that I began to view myself as a bit of a sucker, and I decided to write off my purchase as a monetary gift to a stranger (he accepts donations in support of his blog). It wasn’t a lot of money and I didn’t need the bear. The sad thing is that I would have paid twice what I sent to receive it, and had plans to order many more. I eventually realized that I didn’t want the bear. The adorable yarn face would now represent disappointment and broken promises. I hoped that the bear would never arrive. And it never did. It’s been over 2 years since the order, and I’ve long since moved from where I lived when I placed it. He couldn’t send it now if he wanted to.

All of this is OK. I mean no ill will to Knitting Guy, and still admire his crafts. Although I have no interest in reading the blog or receiving the bear, I still think there was a message of tenacity in his story. But my inability to acquire a bear makes me appreciate Leonard Zimmerman even more, the artist who found a way to fund his passion and fulfill his promise to his fans: you have been there for me, and I will be there for you.

I think I’ll order some Happy stickers.

A Happy Choice

 

My stress-filled life had been burgeoning into a borderline melancholy when I agreed to attend the documentary “Happy”at the Imperial Theater with my friend Bethlehem. I was unsure of the details of the story but knew that the film was centered around the artist known for his smiling paintings, Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman.

Image-1

 

Like most Augustans, I had seen the Happy Robot signs plastered all around town, and had worn the stickers myself when they were thrust upon me by the ever-delightful and enthusiastic Tricia Hughes. Also like most Augustans, I was fuzzy about the motivation behind Zimmerman’s colorful and upbeat imagery, but curious to hear more about it, and possibly pick up some pointers.

 

As I am fascinated by stories of personal journeys, I was immediately drawn to the film, which recounts the life of the artist from childhood, through losing his great love, to finding redemption through his craft. I enjoyed watching him at work, fixated on painting while wearing headphones, head bouncing to the music. He would zone in close to the canvas, carefully outlining an image of a smiling bear, then suddenly burst into laughter. I wondered how his mind moved from the music to the paint to the thought which entertained him so much, a little envious of someone so completely in the moment and filled with the capacity for pure joy.

The documentary, created by Michael Patrick McKinley, shows the joyful painter’s lifelong passion for his art, which seems simple in content but is actual replete with symbolism and precise technical skill. As Metro Spirit contributor Molly Swift explains, McKinley has been able to convey that “in the midst of all the noise, the HAPPY campaign stands out both due to its origin and its simplicity. The point is to help people choose happiness. That is all.”

Which brings me back to me, and my current obsession with joy in the midst of stress, simplicity in the midst of chaos. Life has become so complex and overwhelming, that I find myself turning to stories like Zimmerman’s, which demonstrate that elation is a flower on the side of the road, obscured by the weeds and concrete artifacts, waiting for us to just notice it and pluck it for our own. At some point in his arduous journey of loss, Zimmerman realizes that he can either dwell on his pain or discover an outlet for expressing his emotions in a constructive way.

I realize that is naive to think that happiness is as easy as picking the flower out of the weeds; it’s one thing to choose happiness and another altogether to feel true joy in the face of life’s pressures. Viscerally, though, I believe we all make it harder than it has to be. Seeing how other people have overcome these pressures to discover their bliss brings us one step closer. McKinley’s movie inspired me to contemplate the healing powers of the creative process and the helpful power of a bright, simple smile.

#Thisis50

I tried to do a selfie to let you see what 50 years old looks like, but… never having mastered the art of the selfie, I am afraid that all attempts turned out horribly, frightening me with some hard truths that I would rather not think about. I hope that in reality I look better than what my iPhone shares with me.

At least I can take some consolation that my coworkers were kind in their assessment of how I look for my age. The comments I heard today include: “You look 30!” “I swear I thought you were in your 20s!” and “There is no way you are 50!” Some conversation seemed slightly less complimentary, such as the look of surprise from my boss Bill, with: “I thought you were 30 when we hired you. Have you worked here that long?” Mr. Hudson’s comment also came across as less than favorable, but I am telling myself he had good intentions behind it:”Sorry this place has put so many miles on you!”

Although I am not sharing here what 50 years old looks like, I can share what it feels like. It feels like a bounty of happiness, surrounded by amazing people who fill my days with humor and kindness. I appreciate all of the riches in my life, including my incredible family, husband, job, coworkers, home, friends, community, cats and car. I still chase after all of the grand goals of life at full speed, while enjoying incredible good health (knock on wood), every day. In short, 50 feels amazing.

In the interest of full disclosure, however, I am compelled to tell you that 50 also feels…well, a little sleepy. I am tired more than I want to admit, and I crash pretty hard when I get home each night. In truth, I constantly pine after my next nap in the same way my cat Roland constantly pines after his next can of Fancy Feast. It’s always there, in the back of my mind, calling out to me: “Sleep! You know you want me!”

Despite my fatigue and frightening selfies, I was ok about facing the milestone birthday today. I was hopeful for the normally subdued day, as I prefer as little attention as possible. I turned off the birthday feature on Facebook, and tried to sneak under the radar without a lot of fanfare. Birthdays just are not a big deal to me, and I approached today thinking that this would be another quiet one. Not so much.

What 50 looked like today was a barrage of attention. This morning, I arrived at work at 6am to find a bouquet of balloons tied to my chair, and a collage of paper balloons taped to my window. I nearly teared up reading many of them.

I knew that my sweet assistant Rosanne was behind the festivities; she is truly as thoughtful and creative as they come. In addition to the balloons, cards and messages she corralled from the various 70+ coworkers at the dealership, she also created a special presentation just from her and her daughter Mercedes. The card was a singing one, a purple purse which encourages you to extract pink sunglasses, and when you do, lights flash on the purse and the song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” bursts forth loudly. Very loudly, at 6am. Rosanne also made a basket filled with my nectars of life, namely diet coke and wine. It sat near my desk all day, tempting me with its cruel blend of caffeine and intoxication.

It seemed that every co-worker paused to personally wish me well today. All throughout the chaos of work, a steady stream of pleasantries, hugs, songs and compliments were bestowed upon me. Customers noticed the attention and joined in with their wishes, especially when the arrangements began to arrive.

The first to arrive was a fruit bouquet, a gesture from my Guest Services team. Next was a lovely arrangement from a customer, and then beautiful blossoms from my sweet Kevin and finally a creative collection of unique flowers from my sister, brother-in-law and niece.  Suffice it to say, I was touched beyond measure, and filled with the gratitude of one who knows that her blessings exceed her worthiness.

Sometime this year I’ll try to take another selfie to show you what 50 looks like. For now, you will have to take my word for it. I could look better, I could look worse. But I could not possibly be richer in the things that matter most. #Thisis50.

 

Final Moments of Grace

Michelle wasn’t quite a co-worker to me, nor was she really a friend, but maybe she was something in between. She did seem more significant than just someone who did my job at another dealership. After Mr. Hudson hired her for his new Toyota store, he asked me to drive to Columbia to serve as her mentor, since a Customer Service Manager was still an unusual position in the car business. Michelle and I hit it off during training, which wasn’t surprising, since everyone got along well with Michelle. She had the kind of sweet disposition that was both endearing and sincere. I knew immediately that she would do a remarkable job, one that she re-titled Client Relations, and she did. It wasn’t long before Mr. Hudson and the Toyota team leaned on her for almost everything.

Michelle was very young, very pretty and recently married. One could easily get the sense that her life was just beginning, and that it would be amazing. You could easily picture her staying at her job for years, even as she had children and continued life as a wife and mother. Her potential was limitless, both personally and professionally.She was a devout Christian, but she was inspiring to others as much for her unwavering niceness as for her unwavering faith.

Since I am telling you so much about her potential, you’ve probably already guessed that this is a tragic story and not an uplifting one. At about the same time that we all decided that we loved this girl, she revealed her breast cancer diagnosis. Since I was in a different city and not as close to her as the many Jim Hudson employees who surrounded her, I was not in the loop on her medical journey, but received random updates. I do know that it didn’t take long before I was hearing that she was too sick from the chemo and radiation to work full days. Her sporadic, part-time schedule soon was too much for her, and the dealership figured out a way to keep her job and her office waiting for her, despite reports of her continuously failing strength.

I would continue to hear bits and pieces of her battle, which always sounded to me like a medical nightmare. The strategy of her doctors was one of extreme, aggressive therapies, and in vain attempts to kill cancer in one part of her body, the medical team soon faced collateral damage in other parts, including a compromised immune system and a spiral of devastating side effects. I heard so many reports of her declining health that it was not a shock when the corporate HR Manager called to tell me that Michelle had passed away. Young, vibrant, sweet Michelle, newly married and blossoming in her new career, had died.

I’m not sure why I felt so sure in that moment that the treatments did more to kill her than the cancer itself. I am not a health care professional, I don’t have an interest in science and I have an aversion to doctors and hospitals. I just had a hunch that somewhere along the line, the medical practitioners created more suffering than they ameliorated. Perhaps she was always going to die, but I couldn’t help but think that they deprived her of some significant quality of life, especially at the end, when reports from her visitors detailed how brave she was despite the appalling physical decline.

I’m sure the seeds of these thoughts where germinating when I discovered a book called The Emperor of All Maladies, touted as a definitive biography of cancer. Despite the lengthy, science and history-filled 608 pages, I read it as voraciously as if it were a suspense novel. Each chapter confirmed my suspicions regarding the dangers of traditional cancer therapies, and the arrogance which caused the industry to hold on to treatments long after the research indicated that they were counter-intuitive and counter-productive. I was already distrusting of Western medicine prior to reading the book; afterwards, I was convinced that I would rather perish quickly than to suffer in the hands of doctors who obstinately adhered to these frightening and dubious paths.

the-emperor-of-all-maladies-9781439170915_lg

Knowing these experiences, you might now understand my fascination with the latest book to admit some flaws in our current healthcare protocol, entitled Being Mortal. In this shorter work (282 pages), Dr. Atul Gawande admits that there is a need for a perspective shift in the industry. I like how this reviewer articulates the book:

“We have come to medicalize aging, frailty, and death, treating them as if they were just one more clinical problem to overcome. However, it is not only medicine that is needed…but life – a life with meaning, a life as rich and full as possible under the circumstances. Being Mortal is not only wise and deeply moving, it is an essential and insightful book for our times, as one would expect from Atul Gawande, one of our finest physician writers.” – Oliver Sacks

I was so impressed with Gawande’s work, that I did something I’ve only done a few times in my life: complete the book, close it shut, consider it, and then re-open it to begin reading it again at page one. There is so much in the book which is significant and thoughtful, that I daresay it occured to me that everyone should be required to read it.

tM1zAwAAQBAJ

The timing of stumbling upon this masterpiece is intriguing. I was helping my husband through his recovery from hip surgery, while managing the house and my job. This 6-week ordeal was not that difficult, but it was all-consuming, and it caused me some trepidation for the future. If I was this exhausted during a short-term, minor surgery recuperation, how I would fare as a caretaker for him if the issue was more serious? I developed new respect for family members who are caring for individuals with more oppressive health needs, especially when there might be financial struggles, as well. I doubted my own character in such circumstances.

This was my state as I stood in the Target book department, slightly tired and depressed and fully prepared to salve my melancholy with personal purchases. Suffice it to say, I was tossing stuff in the red cart with little regard for my long-lost budget. I went to the non-fiction section and started grabbing any hardback book that wasn’t focused on diet or cooking. I would read the first page, and if it grabbed me, I added it to the cart. My selection of Being Mortal stunned me even as I dropped it in. Surely, this depressing-looking book was ill-advised in my current state? It sat on my nightstand for 2 weeks before I opened it. Once I did, though, I was hooked. It is a testament to Gawande’s writing style and personal approach to an otherwise icky subject that I kept reading it, daily, until I finished, and began again.

The other item of note in the timing of this book discovery is my approaching 50th birthday next month. At this time in my life, it is inevitable that I will be soon facing these very real issues, either again with my sweet Kevin or with myself, or my aging parents. I feel grateful to have stumbled upon this masterpiece, as I now feel so much better, armed with some knowledge and perspective which will surely inform decisions affecting the quality of life for those I love.

Although the book speaks much of mortality as it pertains to the aging process, it also touches on decisions for those suffering from difficult ailments such as cancer.There is too much pressure on the healthcare consumer and their loved ones to make overwhelming decisions while mired in the emotions stirred up by the potential outcomes. Having a few helpful “focus questions” and some insight into the experiences of others can surely offer comfort in those stressful times.

I cannot say that either of these books would have helped or changed Michelle’s path, or that of her family. I attended her funeral in Columbia, where Mr. Hudson spoke of her heartwarming, gentle ways and steadfast faith. As recently as last year, one of her co-workers took me to her former office in the Toyota store and encouraged me to have a moment of silent remembrance of her there. We hugged, and cried, still painfully and acutely aware of the lost potential of her life.  In that moment I knew that I must aspire to her brand of kindness, her character in adversity, and finally, no matter what challenges may be in the future for me or my loved ones, that I am able to maintain what she had all along:grace.