A Box of Chocolates

If your Valentine’s Day gifts have felt a bit light lately, there’s a reason.

In a story that’s sure to shake the nation, the Washington Post reported that the classic heart box o’ chocolates has more box than chocolate. Thanks to over-packaging, the nine to 11 chocolates inside take up less than half the available space.

Now, depending on how new you are to the packaging game, this may get a response ranging from “What a rip-off!” to “Duh.” After all, most of us have a lot of Amazon experience these days. Any time a cardboard box shows up at the door, we know to expect more stuffing than stuff – though at least then, it’s to protect what you ordered from damage.

My own response, meanwhile, surprised even me. I realized this felt familiar. And then I understood why.

This is something that most of us have lived.

I don’t mean that any of us have done shiftwork at a chocolate company. (Though if you do happen to have that job, I wouldn’t mind a couple of samples.) But all of us have been through a lot lately. Many are exhausted. Many depressed. More than a few are just trying to get by with what they’ve got – physically, financially, emotionally – while knowing inside that it’s just not enough.

But we’re really good at keeping the outside from matching the inside. After all, we don’t want to worry the people who care about us. And we still have to get through the day. So we take whatever we’ve got on the inside and arrange it as best we can, hoping for the best.

My English ancestors would have called it “Mustn’t grumble.” Some of my family still likes to refer to “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Whatever you call it, it can be exhausting. Like finishing an interstate drive on fumes, you’re constantly watching the gauges, just trying to make it one more mile … or at least to find somewhere safe to break down. And the whole time, the only thing the other drivers see is one more car like any other.

If that’s you, I get it. I think a lot of us do.

We’re there, too. And you’re not alone.

If you remember nothing else from this, remember that.

It’s an easy thing to forget. When the world has gone weird and life is bearing down like a boulder on a cartoon coyote, it’s easy to believe that you’re the only one in the fight. Especially if you’re the main person holding up a family, a business, a life. No one’s meant to hold so much pressure for so long, but so many of us do.

It’s hard to let someone in, give them a peek at the backstage. Just as it’s hard to see when someone needs help, past all the lovely set dressing.

But both are essential. All of us need all of us, whether it’s a helper seeing enough to reach in or a hurter needing enough to reach out.

And it starts by being willing to take the lid off the box and show what’s inside.

Not easy. Not comfortable. It’s not even something I do well, to be honest. But it’s essential.

Think about it, at least.

An awful lot of our boxes may be half-empty. But there’s still something sweet inside.

And it’s all the sweeter when it can be shared.

Leaping Into the Season

Written Dec. 7, 2019

With one excited leap, Big Blake fulfilled his holiday duty of protecting us from plastic pines.

CRASH!!!

To be fair, it wasn’t intentional. Our 85-pound English Labrador is a dog of mighty power, mighty enthusiasm and mighty little brain. Like all good dogs, he wants to guard his family. And like all big dogs, he believes that he’s the size of a terrier.

And so, when Blake watched out the front window and saw a human coming near his house, his protective instincts kicked in while his spatial awareness dropped to zero. Especially his awareness of the freshly decorated Christmas tree within millimeters of him as he turned on a dime – OK, on a quarter – and charged for the front door.

Did I mention CRASH!!!? Yeah, I thought I did.

This year marked a new holiday record for Blake. We had bought and set up the new tree (pre-lit, to spare the family’s spinal columns) less than 24 hours before. It had had a peaceful and beautiful Silent Night to start the season before its ignominious toppling to the theme of Oy To The World, The Dog Has Come.

It had been a while, but we remembered the routine. Lift everything back into place. Check for damaged ornaments (few). Untangle branches and ornaments that had gotten twisted together (many). And then step back and check the picture.

The picture, it turned out, was hung a little crookedly. Like an eager child the day after Thanksgiving, our new tree had developed a Christmas list – it was leaning just a bit to one side.

Somewhere, somehow, Blake had put a bend in the pole. Not a huge one. Not an obvious one (except to my highly detail-aware wife, Heather). The tree’s beauty was still there, but if you knew where to look, you could see that it had been through an impact.

On reflection, that’s not a bad way to see many of us at this time of year.

Every year, we’re reminded that this is a season of joy. It’s in the songs and readings, the lights and decorations, the wishes that we pass along to each other. “Merry Christmas!” “Happy Holidays!” “Have a great New Year!”

And for a number of us, the joy feels muted. It lands softly, or not at all.

It might be a season of ghosts, where memories of Christmas Past make Christmas Present a little harder to bear.

It might be a struggling time, or an anxious one, or a darkness that crept in with the cold and the snow.

It might even be something that has no reason at all, just a gray place that needs to be acknowledged for a while in silence and healing.

And that’s OK.

This shouldn’t be a time of forced gaeity. It’s not about hitting someone over the head with a jingle-bell wreath and then blasting carols at them 24 hours a day, like a Christmas edition of “A Clockwork Orange.” This is a time for remembering that we’re part of a larger family; one with hopes, and needs, and yes, pain that needs to be seen and acknowledged. To be reached out to in love, not bulldozed or whitewashed.

And as we reach out to each other, as we meet each other where we are … sooner or later, we find the joy never really went away. It felt like it. It seemed a certainty that it could never return. But in time, in that gentle, quiet reaching  out, we find the joy reborn. Dented. Marked. Leaning to one side like an injured Christmas tree. But beautiful all the same.

It takes patience. But it’s one of the best gifts anyone can give.

May all of you find your joy this season, whether bright and exuberant or dented but enduring. May we welcome each other as we are and plant the seeds of what can be.

And if that welcome suddenly includes the impact of a loving but clumsy English Labrador, I am so, so sorry.

Making the Reach

It shouldn’t take a celebrity.

It shouldn’t require a death.

But here we are.

Some conversations never seem to be had until something painful and public happens. Like discussing security after a terrorist attack. Or guns after a shooting.

Or, in this case, talking about mental health after someone famous commits suicide.

Two someones, this time around. The most recent spotlight started with designer Kate Spade. And then, before the news could die down, chef Anthony Bourdain entered the headlines as well. Social media echoed and magnified the conversation, full of people trying to raise awareness, or share memories, or simply understand.

It’s what we try to do after all. Find patterns when something makes no sense. Make a painful moment manageable by reaching for an answer, any answer.

And then time passes. The moment passes. No one can live forever in crisis mode, and so the incomplete answers and uncertain explanations fade out for most of us and we return to a more normal sort of life.

Except for those who can’t. Those who continue to face a daily silent struggle. Unheralded. Unseen. Maybe even unsuspected.

And often, as a result, untalked about.

It’s a curious thing. Many of us these days are willing to talk about physical ailments, almost to the point of oversharing. Diabetes. Epilepsy. Multiple sclerosis. Even the once-unspeakable “big C” of cancer. We don’t necessarily pass around our latest medical charts, but there’s little hesitancy about speaking out, finding support from others, sharing stories, maybe even pinning some colorful ribbon to a shirt collar or Facebook profile once a year.

We don’t talk about mental conditions the same way. If we talk about them at all. It’s taboo, unsettling, dangerous. And those in the middle of it all often keep quiet, not wanting the judgment that comes with the label.

We all know someone who’s there. Whether we realize it or not.

I have friends and family who have lived with (and sometimes died with) depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and more. Many of these CAN be lived with, even if that life has to be won again day after day after day. But in isolation, without support, the battle can become overwhelming.

Once in a while – usually after something like a Spade or a Bourdain – the drumbeat will go up. Folks will be shocked into awareness, will post the suicide hotline numbers, will encourage folks to reach out for help. And that is good.

But.

Many conditions are isolating. Your brain outright lies to you, telling you you’re worthless, you’re alone, that no one really cares. There’s a hesitancy to reach out, not just because of the social stigma, but because of the internal soundtrack that’s constantly playing.

The burden of action cannot be entirely theirs.

Don’t wait for someone to reach out. Reach in.

Reach in to the people you do know. Not as a nosy neighbor or a person with all the answers, but as a friend who cares that a friend is in pain.

Reach in so they know they’re not alone. Step away from the center and listen. Don’t worry about having the right words or the magic formula – it’s not about you, anyway. The right words are the ones that remind someone you’re here, now, for them.

You don’t have to be a psychiatrist. You don’t have to be a therapist. You don’t have to solve the problem for them and you’re not going to.

But if enough people reach in, it can become that much easier for someone to reach out for the help they truly need.

It starts with us.

Not every battle will be won. Not every person can be helped. Some will need more than we ourselves can give.

But where we can, we should.

It shouldn’t take a celebrity.

It shouldn’t require a death.

Just open eyes. An open heart. And open, ready hands.

Be there. Reach in.

No Laughing Matter

Picture a driver whose wrists are handcuffed to the steering wheel. A short chain, at that, so no hand-over-hand turns. The gear shift is barely reachable, with the fingertips.

Now send that driver on a trip from Limon to Grand Junction. How much of a miracle will it be to make it? If and when the inevitable happens, how many will blame the driver? How many will see that the driver was largely a prisoner of his own car?

In the end, I think that’s where Robin Williams was. Careening off a mountain road in a vehicle he could not control.

The crash has left echoes in all our ears.

There’s been a lot said and written about Robin these days. Not surprising. For many of us, the brilliant comic and actor was one of the constant presences, always there, always doing something new, always on the move, like a lightning storm that had been distilled into a human body. Too much energy to be contained.

My own personal memory is of a performance he gave in London in the 1980s, part of a royal gala for Prince Charles and Princess Di. My family and I taped the show on TV and darned near wore it out, as we watched his hurricane of stand-up over and over again. The effects of playing rugby without pads. The difference between New York and London cab drivers. The sharks watching airline crash survivors bobbing on seat cushions. (“Oh, look, Tom, isn’t that nice? Canapés!”)

At one point, white-hot, he broke off his routine. Running beneath the royal box, he pointed upward, looked to the rest of the audience and stage-whispered “Are they laughing?”

Everyone broke up. Charles included.

But now I wonder. How much of that question lay at the heart of Robin’s own life? Are they laughing? Do they really like me or just the face I show? Does any of this matter?

Those can be uncomfortable questions even without a poisonous brain chemistry. But that is exactly what Robin Williams had.

I don’t have depression myself. Too many of my friends do, including some of the oldest friends I have in the world. From them and from a number of acquaintances, I have at least a second-hand idea, like a reporter in a war zone watching people in the line of fire.

And that’s what it is. A silent war against your own mind.

“Your brain is literally lying to you,” one online acquaintance said. Even when you realize that, he added, it’s still your brain and you still want to believe it.

That’s a terrifying thing to consider.

Mind you, I’m used to the idea that your own brain can ambush you. I’m epileptic. If someday my medication fails or it gets missed for too long, I can have a literal brainstorm. But that’s a sometimes thing, a sneak attack out of the bushes.

This is more insidious. This is the command center taken over by the enemy. When you can’t trust your own mind, your own perceptions and impulses, what do you do?

There are more tools than there used to be. I have friends who use medicine to fight the chemistry, who use cognitive-behavioral therapy to find a path through the labyrinth, who reach for reasons to even get out of bed in the morning: family, faith, pets.

“Unless brain transplants become a thing, I will always require medication,” one dear friend said. “But I’ll always need glasses, too, and that’s the context I try to keep it in.”

But among these tools, we also have one other thing. A society that doesn’t fully understand. A place where the glasses and the pills aren’t seen the same way, where people see depression as a personal failing instead of a mental illness.

Where it’s the driver’s fault for not sawing through the handcuffs in time.

Like many, I wish Robin Williams were still with us. But also like many, I hope his death gives more of us a chance to understand, to see, to ask questions and really listen to the answers. And by listening, to lift some of the stigma so that more people can get more help.

It takes all of us. Together, in understanding.

And that’s no joke.