theledger.com:
The Renowned Miss Manners

When it comes to social niceties, I wouldn’t put myself up there with Miss Manners. (Where in the world is she, by the way…and is she feeling hopelessly redundant these days?). But, even when it requires effort and feels really tedious, I can behave as I’m expected to “in polite society” – at least for an acceptable amount of time. It’s not that I want to be disrespectful – definitely not mean – it’s just that certain social conventions seem so silly:  like we’re doing things according to some script, and not because anyone really wants to do ‘the thing’.

workingmums.co.uk

Cases in point:  I will never say, “Oh, that’s ok” if it really isn’t. I’ll never invite you to lunch if I don’t ever intend to have lunch with you. If I’m not ‘feeling it’, but you press to get my phone number, I’m going to send immediate signals that’ll be very hard for you to misinterpret.

On my recent overseas trip I met another traveler who telegraphed romantic interest right away. I enjoyed our conversations in the moment, but when he asked if I might like to visit him in New York, well…

There’s a social convention that I find totally mystifying. I don’t know if it’s a lack of authenticity, Extreme Manners, or just a discomfort with self-expression. Here’s one scenario:  I run into a friend I haven’t seen in a long, long time. We were never very close – never shared personal information, family updates, etc. When we meet, we hug and smile and briefly catch up. When we’re about to part company – there it is:  “We should get together for lunch or a drink sometime!” So we exchange phone numbers, pretty sure that neither of us is going to call or text the other. (Sometimes we do, but mostly we don’t.) Why is this?

For busy people – jobs, family, our hobbies, or just being happy hermits — we’re all engaged in what I used to call ‘sifting’, but now realize is actually Swiping. Who has access to us begins with our close-personals:  spouses, kids, genuine friends; sometimes co-workers.

Working outward from our Inner Circle, we begin sifting / swiping our Connections. After all, we only have a finite amount of time, energy, compassion, interest, (I call it mental file space) to entertain the thought of more Person-able responsibility. Which means more conversation; more sharing; perhaps more obligations. Most of us have to guard against becoming overloaded. Makes sense. Add to this a delicate Truth:  we all know the person who ‘means well’, or has ‘a good heart’, but who is a human Black Hole, demanding more time and energy than we can muster or give.

So, as we all go about our lives, conventional behavior dictates that we also go through the motions of “let’s try to get together’, or, “I’ll call you”, even though we know there’s never going to be any follow through. But what’s the polite alternative? Pretty rough to say, “I’ve enjoyed seeing you again but – sorry – I’ve gotta Swipe Left.”  I don’t know…is this actually worse than committing to a call or a text, with no intention of doing either?

The fellow traveler suggested that I plan to visit him ( in NYC) – a gutsy leap, considering our short and superficial chats, so, ‘points’ for assertiveness. Still, I did not, could not say, “Sure, that sounds great.” Because it didn’t. (The ‘chemistry’s’ there, or it isn’t). So, I just smiled and pointed to an enormous stork nest atop a minaret, in Morocco – with a stork perched in it. The New Yorker clocked my stork-distraction as a ruse to get out of answering his invitation, and the moment passed.

I did feel a little bad that I couldn’t respond more favorably to New York, but proud that I didn’t say that I would come – or, even worse – create a plan to go without feeling a genuine interest in the man.

At the end of the day, these kinds of things can weigh heavy on my mind, causing me to scrutinize my own authenticity. I don’t ever want to intentionally mislead anyone, or be hypocritical. So yes: I’m going to Swipe My Life, hoping that that the other person can somehow appreciate this as a kindness. I doubt that Miss Manners would approve, but my own conscience does, and that’s what matters most.

This recent trip overseas, I decided to guinea-pig myself in an experiment. Always seeking remedies to reduce the dreaded Jet Lag, I’d read about how face masks – the kind that filter germs – can actually shorten your ‘lag time’. Something about breathing moist air, reducing overall dehydration caused by flying, which apparently contributes to feeling so rotten. So, on the roughly 13 hour flight over, I wore the mask pretty much the whole time. Whether it was the excitement of landing in a new country, or the mask actually working, I perked-up  after only a day and a half of feeling rough. The second half of the experiment:  I didn’t wear the mask at all on the flight home. What a difference. Four full days of a spacey head and not wanting to do much beyond sleep. I’ll definitely be packing a mask from now on.

Back home, while I was still feeling like a zombie, I decided to go to my local grocery store for a pick me up ‘shot’ of immune booster. (What I eventually settled-on was an eye-watering, nose-running, cough-spluttering combo of really hot fresh ginger, turmeric, black pepper and some exotic berries I’d never heard of.) While I was trying to read the teeny tiny print on itty bitty Alice in Wonderland bottles, all in psychedelic colors (is that part of their appeal, I wonder), I felt a person behind me. As I scooted out of the way, the woman began talking to me.

I’ve never heard a person talk so fast. Of course, she didn’t know my brain was ‘toast’ from flying. I smiled, and nodded, and she talked. And talked. Some of what the woman said filtered through my mental fog – she seemed to know a lot about those little super-shots and had tried most of them. Helpful. But then the topic meandered a little…to her battle with all kinds of Life stressors and her body’s ‘breakdown’ as she put it.

This happens to me a lot. I’m in a store. Any store. Someone wants to know, “Does this melon smell ripe to you?” “Does this dress look good on me?” “Do you know anything about the benefits of celery juice?” This last question came from the woman in the store yesterday. Far from being annoyed, or anxious to be on my way, I was transfixed by her story:  it just kept rolling out as I continued to read labels, hoping that one in particular would whisper, Choose me!

In a span of the past five years, said the woman, she’d endured the following:  flying 2,000 miles to support a niece through rehab; caring for her mother-in-law until her death from breast cancer; taking-in her brother and his wife when he lost his job; losing another brother to alcoholism; and coping with the death of a dear aunt who meant more to her (she said) than her own mother. After sharing an impressive (and scary, to me) list of meds she’d been prescribed by various doctors (“I had a full-on breakdown and was hospitalized”), the woman told me she was intent on getting well naturally. Clean foods. Juicing. Ah – that explained her super-shot knowledge.

It was time for me to try to edge – gently and tactfully – away from this encounter. I wished the woman luck – she seemed better for having talked non-stop for a bit — and almost immediately flashed-back to when I was a care provider for my own father. How it wore me down. How my love and care for him caused me to almost get into a similar state of total physical, mental, emotional and spiritual collapse. I can’t imagine a succession of caregiving demands. Love is strong. Love is the greatest power on earth;  but we are fragile systems, often unaware and unable to realize when our breaking point is near. Love allows us to endure unimaginable hardship without a thought for our own welfare; love blinds us to any and all things that are not a part of our impulse to care, to sacrifice, to find strength when strength is gone.

I was glad, suddenly, that I was there yesterday in that store isle. The woman who unburdened herself to me didn’t know I had a minimally-functioning brain. It didn’t matter. She talked. I listened. We both connected, intimate strangers. I walked away marveling at her strength, and at the amazing things we do for Love.

Being a fledgling writer (is there a rung below that? I’ll put myself there), I appreciate well-crafted writing. Especially poetry. Its economy of words, when strategically joined together, that can make me feel connected to a complete stranger (the poet):  a shared intimacy that sometimes feels deeper and more satisfying than many relationships.

Poems I’ve read return to me at odd times. I hear them in my mind like gentle whispers – not overtaking whatever I’m experiencing at the moment, but adding to my experience by reminding me that human perceptions and emotions can feel amazingly ‘universal’:  across time, across countries and cultures; across all other real or imagined boundaries that might divide us.

cornishstonehedging.co.uk

During my recent trip to northern Africa, a poem by Robert Frost came to mind. “Mending Wall” is about Frost’s experience with a farmer-neighbor who insists that each Spring they both walk the waist-high stone wall separating them, re-positioning the boulders. “Good fences make good neighbors”, the farmer says. But Frost is not so sure. He says to the farmer, “Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know – what I was walling in, or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.”

Global travel brings me into contact with ‘walls’ of all kinds. The surprising attitudes of my travel companions as they clutch their home culture, its behaviors and its expectations, as opposed to relaxing into the new country. What clearly feels like hostility from Passport Control, in completely unfamiliar surroundings and language. The potential is great, to allow those walls to impact the full experience I’m seeking.

I’m acutely aware that, being viewed as a ‘foreigner’, I’m not always enthusiastically welcomed in my new country. I’ve felt this before, especially while traveling in the middle east. I get it, and I’m not offended by it. But…who built these ‘walls’? And who consistently walks them, re-positioning the boulders? It doesn’t really matter at this point; the barriers travelers encounter are as real and as palpable as actual stone.

As poet Robert Frost writes in “Mending Wall”, “Spring is the mischief in me”:   he gently prods his neighbor about why the stone fence is so important to him. After all, Frost says, “You have no cows.” To that, the farmer has no response other than to say that his father before him always maintained the wall. Frost muses about this, but says nothing.

We can choose not to travel, to accept the walls between us; or, we can decide to playfully disregard our role in re-positioning the boulders that dislodge over time. I accept that barriers provide some comfort and security, but, as Frost writes in the opening and closing of his poem, “Something there is, that doesn’t love a wall.” I don’t want to tear it down…just continue to look for openings where I can see, know, experience and feel what’s on the other side.

dissolve.com

cats.org.uk

Yesterday I was literally down on my hands and knees cleaning my floors, feeling so pleased with the results. But a few hours later, as the afternoon sun streamed through the glass storm door at the front of my house, I saw tiny little paw prints trekking figure-eights in the polished glow. How, I wondered, did one of my cats come in without my seeing it, to dance on my floor while it was still wet? I thought that cats were averse to anything wet, never mind sticky, as the floor wax is. Sneaky. Unexpected. Yet there the prints were, proclaiming ‘territory’. That’s how cats are. What did I expect – really? As I grow older, I think of a similar metaphor that’s been present throughout my life. Ideas and beliefs that were fulfilled, and those that were crushed to bits in the process of living.

Starting pretty early-on (I think it began when I entered school), I’ve always had expectations for myself; and soon afterwards, for others. To be honest, the bar was set pretty high for a long time; the pressure intense, for me and anyone I was close to. How did this develop? As I look at my own upbringing, it’s clear that my parents and grandparents drove much of what I thought was my own initiative. Turns out, it wasn’t. Still, I can’t say that their expectations for me were out of whack. Most of what they asked (make that, quietly and subtly demanded) turned out to be helpful.

But being shaped by our elders is a kind of an expectation in itself; the method doesn’t always translate so well when we try to shape others, so that their attitudes and actions conform to what we want and need. How much influence do our expectations have on the people we say we love? And how do we ‘put them – what we expect to happen — out there’ — as demands, and even ultimatums? Or, do we go into what I call ‘stealth mode’:  our expectations are very specific, but we don’t share them overtly. We alone know what they are; we  sit back, waiting for others to intuit what they are. Disappointment and resentment lurks, then grows.

Entering into relationship – especially the kind that is deep, heartfelt and crucially important (we feel) to our wellbeing – we bring expectations. They’re driven by our needs and our desires. As I think back, and look forward, I’m learning from experience how my expectations are sometimes unrealistic, ego-driven, and completely impossible for another to fulfill. It stands to reason, then:  either I’m trying to make someone into the version I want, or, my expectations are a reveal of my own faults (read unresolved fears or insecurities). Perhaps I’m basing my expectations on what others around me use as a measurement of Success and Happiness? Are they even mine?

That would be just as silly as waxing a floor in a household full of cats, believing that not a single one will go dancing on the wet floor.

Michaelangelo’s David, vam.ac.uk

Before I turn the spotlight on men, I want to offer two bits of context. First, my Post for today is from a ‘binary’ perspective. Limited, I know, but there it is. And second, I need to give a fact-based “nod” (you’ll see how it relates, promise) to women. Author Gita Patel (2013) compiled extensive research-based data about how uniquely qualified women are considered in global business and overall professional settings. Women are valued in the corporate world as being more “people-based”, “democratic and participative”,  and more “inclusive”.

womankind.org.uk

The stunner (for me, anyway):  Patel’s research reveals that women were “rated more competent in taking initiative, practicing self-development, integrity and honesty, as well as for being results-driven.” These are generally considered more masculine attributes in many societies.

Which leads me (and other Readers, I imagine) to wander – mentally – into the territory of Power, and what it means to men and women. But since this Post is In Praise of Men, that’s where I’m headed.

Social psychologists (pop, or legit) have always regarded Power as a key driver in the male psyche. Personal power. Professional power. Feeling a degree of control and influence over internal and external happenings. As I think about the men (surrounded by them while growing up) in my life — the energy, aspirations and drive…the tension, aggression and occasional acting-out – this makes so much sense. Maybe it was because I was the only girl in a crowd of brothers, but my father liked to ‘school’ me about males. Paraphrasing here, my own father (a stern, strong, stoic) said that, despite how single-minded they can appear (trying to address the need to find, and hold on to Power), most men need and deserve compassion and, most importantly, praise. No matter how gruff, ego-centric or stoic they appear (of course, Dad was also referring to himself), they are “no match for women and they know it” (a direct quote).

The Red Planet, Mars, independent.co.uk

Men, as author Robert Ardrey implied, have always been – since the days of early man – programmed in certain ways that have become increasingly difficult to act out in today’s world. Since the early days of Feminism, many men have struggled to re-align themselves with the changing needs and perspectives of women.

As a young (single) man in his 30’s recently confided, “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”. Too emotionally attuned to your girlfriend’s needs? She ghosts you for a Bad Boy. Too focused on your career and establishing yourself (trying to find your own balance of power in the corporation)? She accuses you of not valuing the relationship and your future together – she suddenly wants to marry and start a family.

psychologytoday.com

Yesterday I was out and about and had to stop in for a shot of espresso to fortify myself for another few hours. A man was coming out of the bistro as I was entering. I reached for the door handle, which he already had a hold of on his side. Our eyes met. Not for the first time, I saw the tentativeness in the man’s expression as he prepared to hold the door open for me. As I tell my millennial son, “Your mom raised you right.” It’s not that I needed the door opened for me, being perfectly able-bodied to do so myself. It’s that the man chose to open the door, in gallant fashion. (Personal experience note:  Southern men will always open doors for women.) This was his choice, and I allowed it.

It’s not just ‘gallantry’ that I appreciate in men – far from it. It’s more the way they’ve continued to evolve and find their correct and comfortable place in confusing situations. As a woman, I encourage and embrace men: “Welcome to our world.” That’s just a small part of my role on Planet Earth.