Serendipity

orangutan

(I feel like I need a hug this week.)

 

It’s been a rough couple of weeks around here. The house is cold because the house fire left a Mack truck sized hole in the living room wall. I mean, it’s covered now with cheap plywood and blue tarp, but it is frigid outside. I guess frigid is a relative term, so I’ll elaborate. Our night temps on Monday are projected to be 6 degrees. Single digit, six, just 6 degrees. Barely higher than that for the next few nights.  I’m not a big fan of ambient temperature less than the sum of my fingers and toes and here we are in the midst of a cold wave that doesn’t even require all my fingers. As my Yankee in-laws might say, it’s wicked cold. Six degrees. Now there’s a fine night for a fire in the wood stove. Oh yeah, I forgot. That’s the reason I have a gaping maw in my wall.

So, I’m a little brittle. Peevish. Ask my husband. He’ll say “snappish.” Short-tempered. All is not right within my world. The word “bitch” is not inaccurate this week. I am in a right fine snit.  Hissy fit a coming.  Woe be to those who seek favors, donations, or “just a minute of my time.” Go ahead.  Ask.  I dare you.

In the midst of all this internal chaos and pitiful coping skills, I took a moment to listen to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. It’s a short daily program on NPR (National Public Radio) that explores word origins, poetry, birthdays of august writers, and whatever else strikes Mr. Keillor’s fancy. I would categorize it as mildly interesting fluff, except that I’m a word origin nut so it really pushes my buttons. Love it.

Yesterday they reran an old post on the 2004 paper by a British translation service that listed the ten English words they thought were the most difficult, if not downright impossible, to translate. I can not find the complete list of ten, but some of the words included were gobbledegook, poppycock, spam, and whimsy. Kitsch was also included but that word is originally German so I don’t think that qualifies as an English word that is impossible to translate.

Then there it was, shining brightly among the rest, my favorite word in the whole world: serendipity. I love saying the word serendipity. I love the melody of it. I love the way it feels in my mouth. More than anything, I love the whole idea of serendipity. It is defined as a fortunate happenstance, or a pleasant surprise, but it is so much more than that. It is a moment of good luck when you do not expect it and are not looking for it. It’s not life-altering, just a magical flash of delight in your day. Ta da, it’s the quarter on the sidewalk, the front row seat becoming available right as you ask for a ticket, the perfect parking spot just as you turn into the lane, arriving in a foreign city and bumping into a long lost friend in the taxi line.

It is Alexander Fleming forgetting to disinfect some of his petri dishes holding bacteria cultures before vacation and coming back to discover that the penicillium mold that had taken over in his absence killed the bacteria. Ta da, penicillin. Viagra was developed to treat angina and hypertension, and it failed. Ta da, head south of the belly button and Viagra rocked the house. Serendipity loves laboratories, as X-rays, radioactivity, inkjet printers, the Slinky, all were moments of ta-freaking-da as other things were being pursued.

Julius Comroe, Jr., a medical researcher and surgeon extraordinaire specializing in the heart and lungs, was no stranger to the concept of serendipity. His most famous quote on the subject is, “Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter.” I have to think that old Julius would have been fun at parties.

There’s a trick to serendipity, though. You have to be open to it. You have to be wandering through life with open eyes and an open heart to catch the many moments of serendipity dropped in your path. If you have your head down, texting away, mind whirling with a Sisyphean To Do list, grumbling, multitasking yourself into numbness, you’ll miss it all.  I am sad to admit that I have been too shut down to recognize serendipity lately.

So to pull myself out of the living-room-as-a-refrigerator blues, I reviewed the more obvious moments of fortune I did not fully appreciate this past week. Insurance adjusters were prompt and more importantly, they were sympathetic and reasonable. State Farm got us a check in just three days. Contractor has been here and has started getting materials together for the rebuild. My dear friend Mary Ann sent me a surprise box stuffed with goodies. I found a $5 bill in the laundry. All things that I simply wasn’t appropriately grateful for at the time they happened. I hope I did not miss too many more because I wasn’t paying attention. If I walked past a winning lottery ticket, please do not tell me.

I guess six degrees will be tolerable. I own multiple sets of long underwear. I have four large, lovable dogs and a cuddly husband for extra warmth. There are blankets here. I have all the ingredients to make a big pot of chili. There’s a well-stocked liquor cabinet.  Who knows?  It might turn out to be my coziest night ever. How’s that for serendipity?

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NOTE:  If you are interested in listening to the Writer’s Almanac, the link is:  http://writersalmanac.org

Bad Buddhist

Brsa Orange Delight 'Starbeck' HCC

 

(This piece first appeared on my old blog in May, 2011.  I still struggle with this issue today.  I am trying my best though.  Not being a vendor at the flower show helps.)

I absolutely did not want to write this piece. I fought like a rabid badger to prevent this story from appearing in public. I am deeply ashamed of myself and saw no good reason to reveal this story to anyone. I have tried for more than three months to write anything but this, but it’s just no use.

This story held all my other story ideas hostage and would not let go. This story demanded to be exposed and until I did that, I was locked in block. My mind was thick and stupid. I couldn’t write anything fresh and funny until I told everyone this hairy, horrible, admit-to-the-whole-world-that-I’m-a-total-bitch-ass-monster fable of disappointment. I totally screwed up. I hope telling this will make amends. I hope it lets me write humor again.

“The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.” ~ Buddha

I have been a practicing — and I could not mean that more sincerely — Buddhist for over twenty years now. I have committed myself to aiming for the peaceful mind, holding compassion for others foremost in thought and actions, and trying to walk the positive, calm path. While I am at home surrounded by comfort, security, my loving husband and my dogs this is a piece of cake. I got this. I pretty much nail the whole “one with the universe” thing and I expect to start levitating any second now. I am so freaking enlightened I scare myself.

“Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.” ~ Buddha

Unfortunately, I am often called upon to leave the house. My goal is to walk in public and carry the same serenity that I achieve within my own four walls. For short trips out, I can do this. Well, if everyone plays nice. And then there’s the special Tourette’s Syndrome affliction that is specific to when I’m driving. I’m working on that. Anyway the point is, I have to practice Buddhism a lot harder when I’m with other people.   A lot harder. But this is the whole point. Any jackass can be calm and centered if they’re by themselves. It’s taking the act on the road that’s killer.

My husband and I are orchid vendors at the Philadelphia Flower Show. It is physically, mentally and emotionally depleting. It is nine days of plastering on a dazzling pageant smile, standing on concrete from 8:30 in the morning to 9:30 at night, answering questions that are often where-the-hell-is-security levels of weird, and making too little money in this economy for this level of effort.

The first weekend of the show all the vendors are excited and happy. The show is full of possibilities, a potential treasure chest of profit waiting to be swept into our booty bags and carted home. We are all springtime fresh, full of expectations, and barely able to control our giddiness. I strongly suggest to all consumers that they visit the show the first few days it is open. Trust me. It’s a better experience for all.

“In a controversy the instant we feel anger, we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.” ~ Buddha

The last weekend of the show the vendors are beat to crap and beyond. Our backs have compressed from standing on concrete for nine days making all of us shorter in both stature and temper. We’ve totaled our take and it’s nowhere near our expectations. My tiny booth costs just over $5,000 for the event. The vendors that have taken multiple booths are stressed to their eyeballs. We’ve not slept well in days. We are dehydrated and cranky. We have caught whatever communicable bug is circulating amongst the show attendees and we’re getting sick. Even if you don’t realize that you are the 253rd person to ask me about the goddamned Home Depot “Just Add Ice” orchids this week, I know it. I know it and I am about to lose what’s left of my mind because of it.

At this moment in the show, I am struggling to plod on until the doors are locked and breakdown begins. I am focused on getting out in one piece. I desperately want to bury my face in my mastiff’s neck and sleep in my own bed. I just want to go home. I am so tired that I am near tears and I don’t know why. I just am.

When it is announced over the PA system that the show is officially closed and vendors are allowed to break down their booths, a cheer and applause rings out loud enough to be heard through all of downtown Philadelphia. This outburst holds more sincerity and emotion than any sports event could ever muster, it is the cry of hopeless prisoners being released.

We rack and stack as fast as humanly possible, running material and plants out to the van and sprinting back to the booth for more loads. Imagine my disappointment to see that a florist in a large rented truck had sideswiped our van and failed to mention it. I know this florist hit our van because in addition to the damage being at the exact height of his bumper, the paint chips from our van were still clinging to his vehicle.

Here’s where I made my first mistake. I got angry. I was mad that the florist didn’t have the decency to tell me he’d hit my van. My name and phone number are plastered on three sides of the vehicle, it’s not like he couldn’t tell who owned the van. Honestly, the delivery van is ancient. If he’d come to me and confessed that he’d hit the van I’d probably have let it go, the damage being purely cosmetic.

 “You will not be punished for your anger. You will be punished by your anger.” ~ Buddha

I sought him out to discuss the matter. He started the conversation by calling me a liar, telling me he had two witnesses that said he had not hit my van, and I told him that was meaningless because I could conjure three witnesses who said he did. We walked outside and en route I referred to him as sweetheart which offended him. Really? You’ve just called me a liar, and the word sweetheart offends you. Darling, sweetheart was so far down the quickly edited list in my head that it was not even in the top ten choices of what I really wanted to call you.

Here’s where I made my second mistake. I snapped. I started screaming and shaking. The calm, centered, enlightened being who had been hovering near the exit completely fled the building and was replaced by a violent lunatic who was consumed by thoughts of snapping this asshole’s head back by the scrap of hair he had left and drawing a serrated knife across his trachea. Buddhist go bye-bye. Psychotic Samurai is in the house!

My husband saw what was happening and intervened, calling the gentleman something we could all agree was far more offensive than sweetheart. They argued and hollered while I stood, twitching, on the dock. Of course, no agreement was reached. It seems that this guy’s very life depended on his not admitting that he had possibly done anything wrong.

We cut our losses. We left. We drove the five hours home in near silence, only speaking to ask each other if we really wanted to sign up for the event again. Not sure. Not sure at all. We were on the waiting list for the Philly show for seven years. We’ve done it three years now. It’s not what I thought it would be. What is?

I am disappointed. I am disappointed in the sales numbers. I am disappointed in the gate. I am disappointed that someone could sideswipe my van and think that it was okay not to mention it. Most of all, I am disappointed in myself. Even though I was tired to the bone, it was wrong of me to want to hurt someone. It was wrong to explode. It was wrong to rage.

I am deeply disappointed that I crumpled so quickly when faced with a simple test of my composure and compassion. That’s all this was to me in the end. It is a failed exam. I flunked out.

This situation belts me across the face with the humiliating realization that in twenty years of learning and trying to follow the tenets of Buddhism, I have not come nearly as far as I thought I had. Not even close. Now I wonder if I have enough time left in my life to understand that which I’m seeking to achieve. I hurt myself because I wanted to hurt another. When tested, I failed. Miserably.

 “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.”  ~ Abraham Lincoln

Bossy and Proud

I am bossy. There, I said it. Bossy from birth, as a matter of fact. I come from a long line of bossy women, all beloved by their men, their families, and their communities for all they accomplished.  So when I heard that my beloved Girl Scouts had hooked up with Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, to ban the word “bossy” I was confused. Sheryl Sandberg, her eyes glistening from the painful memory, said that she was labeled as bossy as a little girl and how hurtful that was to her.

Hurtful? You are the chief operating officer of a multi-billion dollar company and the best selling author of the alpha-business-female bible, Lean In. Hurtful? We should tattoo all little girls with the word “bossy” if that’s the end result.

With all your clout Sheryl, the best you can come up with is to tell everyone to ban a word from their vocabulary? There’s some bossy irony, right there. I’m a writer so I think every word has its place, no matter how vile. I’m not one for censoring any word. Limiting one’s vocabulary is a no-go in my world.

You could use your considerable clout to make progress on real issues affecting women today. May I suggest the gender wage gap, domestic violence, science and math education for girls, the attacks on the food stamp program, or women’s health care? Surely it is far more damaging to tell a little girl that she’s not getting a hot lunch at school because of program cuts than to call her bossy.

In fact, it was in the Girl Scouts that I was encouraged to be bossy. I was taught to dream big, formulate plans, lead others to implement them, overcome obstacles through persuasion and determination, and succeed like only a truly confident, bossy girl can. I will forever love the Girl Scouts for that lesson.

I think the Girl Scouts should start handing out Bossy badges. Bossy has passion, leadership, and drive. Bossy makes the world a better place. Case in point: Ms. Sheryl Sandberg. Let’s not pull that bossy ladder up behind you Sheryl, just because you’ve achieved your success.

I must explain a truth to you, little ones. Bossy is what you’re called before puberty. After puberty, you’re going to be called bitchy. So what? Bitch isn’t an insult, either. To quote Tina Fey, “You know what? Bitches get stuff done.” “Bossy” and “bitchy” are just two words that are often synonymous with “strong leader.” It’s what weak, lazy people say when confronted with passionate vision and competence in girls.

Sheryl Sandberg, if you want to gather your A-list friends to campaign as America’s word police go right ahead but you’re undermining your own project. By telling everyone to stop using the word “bossy,” you’re emphasizing the message to little girls that being “bossy” is somehow bad instead of badass. You’re not helping. I’m bossy and proud of it.