As someone who became a syndicated cartoonist at the tender age of 50, I highly recommend you check out 10 Insightful Tips from People Who Prove It’s Never Too Late.. This great New York Times article provides powerful examples of people who jumped into new adventures in their middle and later years.
I became a cartoonist without even realizing that cartooning was in my future. I had long been singularly focused on my writing.
I didn’t realize I should try my hand at drawings too. I only got the idea after I made a doodle one day and paired it with a funny line.
It was cute and it was fun to share with everyone. And I wanted to do it more. So I kept doing it.
If there’s something you like or love, something you’re curious about, something you’ve always thought would be cool or fun or right for you, try it out.
You don’t need training.
I had no training in drawing or cartooning.
You don’t need money.
I had no major costs connected to drawing or cartooning other than my laptop (which I already had for my writing and work anyway). I needed Adobe Suite (which I already used for work and whose other programs I learned to use) and I purchased a relatively cheap electronic drawing pad which I then used an online tutorial to learn to use.
I still use the same tools.
My greatest expenses associated with my cartoons are snacks.
You don’t need a goal.
Just do it. Just try it. Just look into it.
Because trying something new that you might maybe get into and be all in love with is something that could happen.
I come from a family of news junkies. I remember my mother’s father sitting in our living room devouring the daily papers. And my father’s mother lived long enough to become addicted to CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. She was a 24-hour news devotee debating local and global politics with anyone who enjoyed a lively discussion.
I became a news junkie too. Mostly, I love tragedies and legal procedure. Tragedies provided me an outlet for all of the sadness depression dumped on me. Legal procedure appealed to the other parts of my brain, eventually leading me to law school and then litigation.
I easily lost it in parking lots and on the street. Even better, I began losing it in my own neighborhood. I would walk in circles around my neighborhood, making myself late for everything, just trying to remember where I had last left my little black Civic.
One night I met my brother and his kids for food and music in Silver Spring, a part of town I tend to get confused in anyway since it’s gotten much bigger and busier in recent years. We had a great time, as always, and then walked back to the multilevel garage where we had both parked. After walking around two levels where I was sure I had parked, my brother drove me around the lot until I found the car.
My niece, maybe about 7 years old at that time, suggested that next time I take a picture of where my car is parked.
Best. Advice. Ever.
And now I photograph everything.
The history of my car’s whereabouts can now be found in my phone and I have cut way back on being late from car loss.
I learned to breathe back in the late 90’s in Takoma Park. I was rebuilding my life after a debilitating health crisis and needed tools to help me move forward. After a period of personal and professional dysfunction, my skills were shaky and my confidence was at an all-time low. I was looking for building blocks, bits of accomplishment that could provide a new foundation.
The class met in a yoga studio. We brought cushions to sit on while we were guided through a inspiring talk and then a period of sitting. Maybe it was twenty minutes of sitting. Maybe it was more.
My friend and I both struggled with the task of emptying our minds. My friend had something called monkey mind, where thoughts bounce around in the head like monkeys swinging from tree branch to tree branch. His head was filled with constant chatter and he couldn’t quiet it down.
I had a different problem. My mind would focus on a subject, but any subject was filled with doom and negativity. I was hard wired to think the worst and couldn’t point my mind in a different direction.
We went to those Sunday night classes for some time. And then we added a popular Wednesday night meditation where a few hundred people gathered to hear Tara Brach talk and then guide us through a shared time sitting quietly.
I was relieved, over time, to realize that quieting the mind was a challenge for many people. It gave me hope that many had eventually discovered ways of emptying the mind that had worked for them. Instead of focusing on my own negative, I decided to do the simplest thing the instructor suggested: I focused on my breath.
Focusing on one’s breath is really simple.
You feel yourself breathe in. You feel yourself breathe out.
Then you feel yourself breathe in and breathe out again.
It’s really easy because the breathing pretty much happens without much effort.
The key is to just keep focusing on your breath.
But it’s a bit tricky since the mind tends to wander.
My mind wandered all over the place. My mind left no topic unpondered.
So I ended up getting strict about focusing on my breath. And eventually, I learned what it feels like to think about nothing. While breathing. And sitting.
Eventually, I also learned how to use my breath outside of the formal medication class. I learned how to use my breath when I needed to refocus or calm down or shift my thinking.
The good news about the breath is that it’s alway there, available for you to use as a tool.
Little by little, I added to my breathing experience. I found soothing music that I could listen to whenever I felt my mind going to dark or disconcerting places. Sometimes I added a comforting mantra that helped me to distract my focus from a bad place.
And I listened to so many of Tara Brach’s talks, available for free on her website. Some I listened to over and over, memorizing the words of comfort and reassurance. I ended up being able to hear her voice. And I ended up believing that I could learn to laugh again after going through such a hard time. I heard Tara Brach laughing genuinely, without taking anything away from the depth of her advice.
And years later I started writing cartoons about sitting quietly. Because no matter how good I got at focusing on my breath, my mind was constantly trying to outsmart me and drift to anything and everything else. And eventually it was comical.
Seriously, though. Try focusing on your breath. It’s really helpful.
And if you’re into it, listen to Thich Nhat Hanh whose stories of sitting quietly and breathing purposefully are delightful and addictive.
I was on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional from DC to Baltimore when I got the alert that Kate Spade had ended her life. I couldn’t believe it and I desperately searched the internet for posts that proved the news a hoax.
But it wasn’t a hoax and the horrible news was confirmed immediately by credible sources.
I texted my sister-in-law.
“Kate Spade killed herself.”
Knowing she would be pressed for the best way to respond, I added “I can’t un-know that.”
Kakki, the sister I had always wanted, texted back.
I don’t do it often, but I enthusiastically support the practice.
One of the great things about leaving the house is witnessing other humans’ experiences of life. Other people are a good reminder about how little influence your own perceptions could have if you’d just give them less rope to run around with.
This morning I left the house. I went to an office I go to now and again.
I like to think I’m a mostly helpful person. I have limitations, like any normal person. And sometimes, when I’m not feeling that well, I have some extra limitations, but generally I like to think I’m pretty helpful.
That’s not to say I help everyone.
I don’t help everyone.
Some people I don’t help because they’re too hard for me to help. I’m only good at certain things. I’m good at giving rides or listening or sitting in hospital rooms. I’m good at bringing food and dropping off magazines. And I’m good at helping with legal matters, which is often helpful.
But I can’t really help people who need much more than that.
And I can’t really help people who need too much or ask too much or turn help around into an annoyance. You know, the person you bring groceries to and then they complain about what you brought?
I assume we all have one or two of those folks in our world.
There are other people I don’t help because I know they already have their helpers in place. So I take my help elsewhere…to people I think have less of an accessible support network available to them.
On a scale of one to ten, I would say I average out at a 6 or so on the helpfulness scale.
I could definitely be more helpful if I didn’t have to work so much, but, well, you know how that goes.
What trips me up is when other people aren’t helpful. I never know what to do.
This past week, I pondered three particularly unhelpful situations and my role in managing those situations.
In the first situation, someone who I am sure thinks of himself or herself as helpful, did something that happened to be really unhelpful for me. This person, who I believe is a good person generally, sent me information regarding a criticism of my work on social media.
Now, I should say, I have a pretty strict rule about haters: I don’t engage.
I learned when I first became syndicated that there are lots of haters out there. And they seem to have more time on their hands than non-haters. And they want to engage.
But engaging with a hater just means you’re taking time away from everything that enables you to be creative. It’s bad energy.
So I just don’t do haters. I almost never respond to them and I almost always block them immediately. Perhaps they go on hating for hours or days or months. I don’t know and I don’t need to care.
More importantly, I’m not built in a way that I can engage in negativity and then move forward in life positively.
Negativity affects me. And not in a positive way. Negativity just takes from me. It doesn’t give anything of value to me.
So, when the person I know to be a generally good person sent me a link to social media hate directed against me, I had a problem. I instantly felt like I had to at least check out the hate to see if it was something to be dealt with. Because once in a while a hater has a point.
In this case, the hate was low level hate. It wasn’t anything substantial enough to spend too much time thinking about, much less worrying about.
But I wondered why someone good would have taken time to send me something negative. I wondered if it was on purpose, or whether they were trying to rile me up or get my attention.
Maybe they were just bored. Or maybe they wanted to interact.
I only know that the episode taught me I need to be clear with the people in my world.
I don’t do negativity.
I don’t want to know who hates me and I don’t want to spend time thinking about anyone I might hate. It’s distracting and upsetting and contrary to the constant goal of moving forward.
And that brings us to the second situation.
Later in the week, a lovely group of kindred spirits got together to talk and bond and laugh while eating and drinking. As always, we welcomed new potentially kindred spirits to our group with open arms and the hopeful curiosity that comes from hearing certain stories from certain group members too many times already.
One new member was particularly dynamic, engaged and, for lack of a better word, not shy. This new member took the initiative to meet everyone and talk about topics that were truly interesting. I was pleased to see someone new engaging so energetically and passionately.
The next day, that new member dismissed us all rather rudely on social media. The new member dismissed us as being many bad things, from closed-minded and intellectually lazy to just plain stupid.
I would have been shocked had I not been so tired from a week of snow blizzard challenges.
In my too-tired-to-give-a-shit state, I deleted all of the social media remarks this person had made and sent a sweet email saying “sorry we didn’t hit it off and have a nice life.”
Even now, as I write this, I am trying not to give this person even one extra second of my time or attention. But seriously,…. really?
I know. I know. This person has a problem. Or this person is an A-hole.
Okay, let’s just all agree on one thing: that person was not helpful.
You weren’t helpful, you )(*&^%$ idiot person!
Whew. That felt good.
So, to recap:
(1) please don’t send me negativity in an email; and
(2) please don’t disrespect members of any group I belong to on social media after socializing with them for five hours with the assistance of alcohol.
Now, Number (3) unhelpful scenario really deserves its own essay, but I’m too tired to write two separate essays so I’ll sum it up quickly.
Number (3) happened today.
While walking my dog, I ran into a local who felt obligated to remark on my physical appearance. This person had noticed a change in my physical appearance and just had to let me know it had been noticed.
I was floored.
And I was tired from explaining satire to a nine-year old (more on that later).
Basically, I forgot how to handle someone who is really just being nosy.
I am in no way proud of this conversation, but this is how it went:
Nosy Nellie says “I notice you’ve lost weight.”
Me says “Uh, well, um, yeah, well, no, not really.”
Nosy Nellie says “Well, you look like you did.”
Me says (after rolling my eyes, I believe) “I was on medication for a condition. It makes me very bloated. Now I’m off of it. So now I’m not bloated. I hate it. But it happens. And it is what it is. And thanks for making me feel self-conscious.”
Okay, I didn’t say “thanks for making me feel self-conscious.”
I’m not quite that bold yet.
But I felt like saying it.
And I felt like saying “You know what? Just be quiet. You can never go wrong by just keeping your mouth shut. Believe me.”
But I didn’t.
But typing that sentence just now felt really good.
So lesson number three is don’t comment on anyone’s physical appearance unless it’s a really basic good thing you’re saying.
Tell them you like their outfit or jewelry or makeup. Tell them they look pretty or healthy or alive with the joy of the moment. Tell them you’re glad to see them or that their smile lights up a room.
But don’t comment on a person’s appearance just to get information about how or why they look different to you.
It’s not your business. It’s just not.
And it might not be their favorite topic.
And that’s not your business either.
Which brings me back to just being helpful.
I wouldn’t have minded if the person had asked me nicely if I was doing well and offered to help me if I ever need a little extra help.
I wouldn’t have minded that.
I’ve said similar things to neighbors and colleagues and friends in the past. I’ve let them know that I’m here for them if they ever need me for anything. I’ve let them know subtly that, if they’re going through something, I’m available to help.
I think that’s helpful.
So please, just be helpful.
Don’t create scabs or pick at scabs.
We don’t need more scabs.
Ugh. That’s a horrible note to end an essay on, huh?
Okay, let’s turn this around and talk about the power of the brain.
I am always fighting my broken brain and so I’m always excited at any sign the brain can be changed.
And today I got my sign.
My niece came over to discuss satire and civil rights and political correctness.
And to watch Nickelodeon with me.
And we made Rice Krispies Treats.
We looked up recipes on the internet to see how we might make them interesting and decided to add the caramel Hershey’s Kisses left over from holiday baking.
So we (i.e., me) starting melting the butter and marshmallows.
And then we (i.e., me) realized we were actually out of the caramel kisses. So the Rice Krispies Treats were just the regular kind, which is fine.
I told the nine year old about the missing caramels at least two or three or seventy five times.
But Nickelodeon was on.
And apparently Nickelodeon trumps anything that comes out of my mouth.
Cut to a few hours later when the sister-in-law picks up the niece and her share (four bags) of Rice Krispies Treats.
The niece comments that the Rice Krispies Treats are especially delicious because they have caramel in them.
Yes, she tasted caramel.
And yes, we’ll never let her forget the missing caramel.
So, apparently the power of persuasion is significant.
Now we just need to persuade regular people to just be helpful.
Before you think you know what this post will be about, let me warn you, it’s only tangentially related to the subject of suicide.
Suicide is not my favorite subject.
Suicide is a complicated, painful and tricky subject.
But suicide is the subject that prompted me to write this post today, thus the title.
But don’t worry. This post is about much more than that uncomfortable word I just said.
This post is about appreciating difference. Specifically, it is about acknowledging and really “getting” that the way the suffering or recovering person thinks is much different than the way the loving, supportive helper thinks. In other words, what one person needs could be different than what others believe they need.
Before going forward, let me iterate and reiterate that this is only my thinking about my life experience. These words only represent what I have experienced and what I have witnessed as I have tried to help others. In that way, these words can only really be helpful to those who relate on some level – or understand.
So, back to suicide.
The really unfortunate and annoying news is that I have suicidal thoughts. I have many, many, many suicidal thoughts. Its just the way my brain is wired.
I don’t like it. I don’t choose it. I don’t benefit from it.
It’s just the way my brain is wired.
I won’t go into my family history or my brain chemistry or my relentless efforts to eliminate or diminish these thoughts. That’s personal health information and, quite frankly, I hate debating what I’ve tried and what works or doesn’t work with others who may or may not have had similar experiences.
It’s just not helpful. At least not for me.
But, I will say that I have tried almost everything available, both traditional and untraditional. And although many tools help me to successfully manage the impact of my thoughts on my ability to function and thrive, few tools help to actually diminish those thoughts.
And so, I live with suicidal thoughts.
I live with suicidal thoughts the way others live with whatever they live with. Everyone has a condition, whether it is theirs or the condition of someone they love or care for.
Everyone has something.
That, to me, is comforting. The universality of discomfort actually helps me to keep my own discomfort in perspective most of the time. And proper perspective, for me, is life saving.
The problem with my suicidal thoughts is that they are ridiculously strong and far more persuasive than the thoughts of those who love me or are in the business of helping me.
This isn’t sad or a shame or awful. This is, for me, just a fact of my life. I think about my brain chatter the way I think about any medical condition. It needs to be dealt with as well as possible on a daily basis to avoid any periods of unavoidable health crisis.
Those who are against suicide, for good reason, believe that suicide is wrong or bad or not the answer.
I can’t disagree with any of that. I wouldn’t recommend suicide, generally speaking.
But my brain doesn’t have a problem with suicide. My brain tells me that suicide is a good thing – a better alternative than any of the other alternatives. My brain tells me that suicide is the right thing to do and that it’s inevitable.
If you’re reading this and you’re uncomfortable with those words, then welcome to my life.
Even I am uncomfortable with these words. In fact, I hate these words. I especially hate having to discuss these words from time to time. I hate the fact that I can’t just ‘get over’ the thoughts in my head. But these words live in my head, trying to take over from time to time.
So here’s the question I grapple with in trying to help myself and, more importantly, help others.
How do you help someone who believes what their brain or body is saying? How do you help them without defaulting to persuading them to listen to your helpful brain chatter instead of their unhelpful brain chatter?
The bad news is that I don’t have the answer. At least not today.
To date, no good argument about God, love, life, family or anything else I value most highly has been effective enough in the mental battle of thoughts.
It’s not that I don’t understand the arguments. I do.
It’s just that my brain thinks differently. And my brain thinks it’s smarter about this particular subject than the brain of anyone not living my life.
My 2016 is, in great part, dedicated to helping understand how to bridge the gap between helpful intentions and actions that are actually, effectively and even substantially helpful.
Toward that end, a few observations:
Everyone is suffering or recovering from or managing something. But everyone is different. What helps one person may irritate or agitate the next person. Just be aware and sensitive and open to considering a million different ways to be helpful.
Ask the person you hope to help what is helpful for them. And then honor what they say, assuming they’re a decent communicator.
And never underestimate the value of the tiny gesture.
Dropping off popsicles or magazines or hot chocolate might be the gesture that relieves the person’s pain long enough that they can manage the moment and move forward. Just be sure to thoughtfully match the drop off to the special limitations of the condition. Someone having trouble eating or drinking will welcome different treats. Someone having trouble reading or focusing will welcome different media. It’s better to ask what a good treat would be than to surprise the person with the wrong treat. It’s not that the wrong treat isn’t appreciated…it’s just not helpful. Surprises are for celebrations, not comforting.
Helping the person obtain resources that make life more comfortable are often invaluable. Does the person need groceries delivered? A space heater? A fan? A really great straw? Maybe they need a lift to an appointment or someone to go through their mail.
So many ways to help. So so many.
And, of course, helping the person to alleviate even the smallest stressors can help immensely. Ask them what they are most worried about and help them find a way to relieve the burden of that worry. Remember that a person who is struggling is often incapable of making even simple decisions. Your ability to help accomplish simple tasks might provide the person the break they need from life’s basic – but debilitating – stressors.
Just do something.
And never believe that anything short of face-to-face is unacceptable.
Send the email or text – even if it’s just an xo or a heart or a smiley emoticon. We complain about emoticons when we’re feeling oh-so-smart and bigger than life. But most of us welcome the same ridiculously simple emoticons when we’re feeling small and alone.
And, as I recently discussed with a friend dealing with his own family situation, don’t be scared of the person in pain. Engage the person in pain. The person who is engaged in any way with others is relieved, to some extent, while they are engaged.
And never stop asking or suggesting things that might help. The person you want to help might say no today but say yes tomorrow. The person you want to help might benefit from the 179th suggestion you make even though they poo poo’ed the first 178 suggestions.
And finally, at least for the purpose of this post, remember that the person’s condition is only a part or a piece of the person’s life. Remind the person, through conversation and engagement, that their life is far more than the present moment. Focus on their profession, their interests, their talents. Focus on their stupid collection of whatever stupid things they collect. Stupid collections of stupid things provide great comfort during difficult times.
Everyone is dealing with something. Whether you’re on the up side of life today or the down side of life, you can ask for help, be open to help or, hopefully, give help.
So do something.
Thank you to everyone who helped 2015 be better. Let’s all help 2016 to be better still.