Mucho complicated. In a not so “It’s a Wonderful Life” way. Though, I wish everyone had a Donna Reed mom and a Jimmy Stewart dad. They knew what to say and when to say it. Those big-hearted Bailey’s could rally the troops and inspire harmony. Encircled by angels, George and Mary’s unbreakable bond protected the clan from sinister forces seeking to destroy.
The 1946 film reminds us what families are supposed to like, providing a safe haven, a place where members can make mistakes, be forgiven, heal and restore.
Instead, what often happens is family members sulk into their own ego-driven separate corners, each thinking he or she right and the other person’s wrong.
No middle ground.
No attempt to see a situation from the other person’s perspective.
Like boxers, it’s easier to duke it out, than say “I’m sorry”. And mean it.
I’ve experienced the sting of being blamed, being wrong, being stupid and misunderstood more times than I can count. At long last, I have a thickish skin. Because when you know what you know whatever someone says or thinks about you is irrelevant.
Now that I’m on the other side of taking everything personally, it pains me to see loved ones not behaving like loved ones.
Why do we have to be so darn complicated?
By nature, I don’t think we’re born complicated. Just look at any child. The junk, the toxicity, doesn’t linger in young kids. Their focus is on the here and now. They throw up and get on with it.
I wish, I wish, I wish I had the ability to power-up my new iPad (thank you Katie and Jason), program-in a news reel timeline, then fast forward to the last scene. Am I smiling? Frowning? Regretting? Exuding a sense of peace and satisfaction knowing that through all of life’s twists and turns I was able to give and receive love, forgive, forget, and let go. If each of us had the ability to scroll through the footage of our lives slowly, slowly, chapter by chapter, and pause on the highlights and lowlights, what patterns would emerge? How might we have done things differently to improve our life and the life of those around us?
An autobiographical documentary would surely help us see ourselves from a third-person perspective and prompt us be more objective about our actions and reactions.
One day, one day, someone will invent such a software. But until then, that’s why I’m writing in beautiful, deserty Barstow, where I’m lodging as I wait for my son and his son to arrive before our second camping trip this year to Calico, my grandson’s favorite Ghost Town destination. He’s not here as scheduled because he’s sick. Another plan averted. Colds, flu, Covid. They hit my family hard this Christmas season and now we’re all braced for the aftershocks.
I have only gotten sick once before when I was on the road. I shivered in my van, slept, drank gallons of hot tea, and then recovered. It wasn’t fun. I would rather have been hiking with my family in Yosemite than sweating under blankets, but I got through it and was even more appreciative of my health.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about my approach to family scabbles, disappointment and unwanted change of plans. As a longtime planner, my newfound go-with-the-flow lifestyle has taught me to become a better listener, observer and much better at not taking-to-heart all the craziness life presents. As my friend Julie reminds me, “Not my monkeys, not my circus.” That is the beauty of age: you begin to remember–and embrace–your values, the person you were as a child, the person you still are today.
Little kids play hard, cry hard, invent, imagine, forgive, and move on. Kids get really hurt, physically and emotionally, but they rebound. Quickly. That’s what I’m returning to; My Little Kid Phase.
Which brings me to why I took my son’s suggestion and sat at the Chili’s bar in Barstow, ordered grilled salmon, broccoli, and a sunny margarita.
In my entire life, I have sat at a bar by myself maybe three times. Sitting there, without the boundaries of a booth, you’re exposed, have no one to talk to. What do you do to distract yourself with? Look at your phone? That’s rude. Write? Read? Or stare at other people, which was what I did to the man to my left, clad in a red flannel shirt, hunched over like an old miner. I looked at his food and asked what he was eating.
“Fish tacos,” he said, sipping on a giant, salted, limed beverage.
“Is it good?” I inquired.
Clearly, he wanted his own space. So, I looked at the shaved head, tattooed female wrestlers on TV and continued to feel silly being here on a rainy, windy night when what I really wanted to do was order take-out and hang out with Monet in the hotel room.
Still, I’m on an adventure, a giddy kid, so I hung in there until my drink and food arrived. Finally, something to do.
I couldn’t help myself, so in between bites of steamed greens, I asked, “What brings you to Barstow?”
“I just delivered Airstreams to San Francisco,” he said.
Something in common. “I love Airstreams,” I said. “I’m always fantasizing about buying one.”
“They’re expensive,” he said.
We chit-chatted and the more he sipped, the more he opened-up, not just his conversation, but his entire face, his eyes, his body posture. As he talked about his adventures traveling around the world, he seemed to get younger.
“I’ve been to Europe seven or eight times. Been to Asia twice, South America at least a half dozen times,” he said. I couldn’t help myself and began peppering him with questions about favorite foods, people, and cities. “How did you manage not speaking the language?” I asked. “You’d be surprised; you can almost always find someone who speaks English,” he said.
We chatted for about a half an hour, both of us ordering a second drink, mine To-Go.
“I hope you don’t think I am being rude when I ask this, but how were you able to do all this travel?” I inquired, thinking it would be hard to afford extensive travel on a truck driver’s salary.
“Early in my life, I was quite successful. Fortunate, really,” he said, describing a Real Estate firm he owned in the South. “I got screwed. That’s why I’m doing this.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“I don’t mind,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “The job keeps me busy.”
I told him about some of my recent life changes, being a vagabond, keeping my mind open as to where I might eventually settle.
“That’s good,” he said. “I know some people who pull the covers over their head and never do anything. They aren’t curious.” Like some members of his family who, he said, “got stuck in a rut. They’re trapped. Never want to change.”
“Do you have any regrets?” I asked, having shared a few of my own.
“No, not really,” he said. “Every mistake I ever made led me to where I am now. It’s like climbing a mountain. You get up to a plateau and rest, then move up to the next spot until you reach the top. From there, you can look around and say, ‘Everything I did in my life led me here.’ I’m grateful.”
He said when his wife left him when his youngest son was a baby, “It was a blessing. I doubt they’d be as successful as they are.” One’s a dentist and the other’s a college professor. “The boys always came to work with me when they were young. We still hang out whenever we get a chance.”
Now of course I don’t know the ins and outs of this stranger’s life, but I have no reason not to believe him when he said that he and his boys, and now their wives, stick together, through thick and thin, whether they agree or disagree, “We’re there to support each another.”
Which is just what I needed to hear as the new year begins: Hope.
Life is complicated enough to compound it with complicated family dynamics. Everyone blunders, does, or says something dumb, yet God calls us to forgive each other as He has done for us. Whatever may be pulling you down, preventing you from living life to the fullest, I pray that this new year grants you love, grace, and transcendence. As Willa Cather wrote, “Where there is love, there are miracles.”