Rush of Achievement

There’s weird. There’s wonderful. And then there’s David Rush. The man is in a class by himself.

Several classes by himself, actually.

You see, Rush is an Idaho man who’s trying to become the Record Holder of Record Holders – the man who holds more Guinness world records at once than any other person. It’s a quest that has led to some extremely bizarre accomplishments.

Such as being the fastest person to sort M&M’s by color.

Or popping 200 balloons in less than 12 seconds.

Or, just last Thursday, hitting a target with a pump-powered rocket 37 times in a row.

Right now, according to UPI, this gold-level master of strangeness holds 163 simultaneous records, 20 short of his goal. He’s actually achieved 250 different records but – inevitably with a goal this long-term – some of them then got broken by others while he continued his journey. They had to move fast, though: at one point, Rush broke 52 records in 52 weeks.

Why do it? As he’s mentioned to Guinness and many others, he’s a promoter of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math) who simply wanted to show what focus on a goal could achieve.

“Too many students try, fail, and give up with a fixed mindset,” he says on his website, where he encourages a “growth mindset” instead – the idea that abilities aren’t simply innate, but can be developed through time, effort and help from others. “I can only do a very small part, but I’d like to do that part as well as I can.”

I suspect that hits home for a lot of us. It’s a message of hope, which I’ve described here before as “optimism plus sweat”: the willingness to commit to something better and then see it through.

And it remains powerful even when we’re aware that it’s not always that simple.

We’re all aware of boundaries in our lives. Some are more pliable than others. Some may be physical limitations, whether they’re as everyday as nearsightedness or as profound as severe childhood brain damage. Some have been set by society – we’ve all seen (or even experienced) stories of the additional challenges and barriers set due to poverty, race, gender, or an array of other qualities that can become a dividing line.

Can sufficient work, time and help overcome those? In many cases, sure – but the definition of “sufficient” is going to vary widely between individuals. For one person, a particular achievement may be as easy as a walk in the park. For another, it may be the equivalent of designing an entire space program from scratch.

Does that mean we should all give up? Heck, no. But it does mean  we all have a few additional lessons to remember.

First, be kind. Don’t assume that someone else is lazy just because they haven’t achieved what you think they should. You don’t know their burdens, their battles, or what they may have going on where no one else can see.

Second, try to see. Be aware of those around you. Understand as you would like to be understood, care about them as you would about yourself.

Finally, be the “help from others.” Encourage, teach, stand alongside. Find the boundaries that shouldn’t be there and help bring them down. Even when the limits are severe, work to grow what you can, like a garden behind a stone wall. Create opportunities – not all of them will be fulfilled, but you may be surprised at the ones that flourish.

Together, we can help each other grow. And help ourselves in the process. That’s an exciting feeling.

You might even say it’s quite a Rush.

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.

Stepping Out

For a moment, the steps grow faster, the leash tighter.

“Holmes, wait.” We stop until the lead slackens. “Good boy. Ok, let’s come.”

A fenced-in dog challenges us, creating a short pause. A neighbor across the street draws some barks. It’s not a perfect run yet , especially when rabbits – the ultimate temptation – cross our path. But it’s already so much easier than it was.

Step by step, Holmes is learning.

If you’re only just joining us, Holmes is the latest addition to Chez Rochat, a one-year-old mixed breed with a boatload of smarts and Way Too Much Energy™. As a result, we’ve been throwing more Frisbees than a California beach, filling up food puzzles with the efficiency of a North Pole assembly line, and even trying to teach him how to calm down when needed, something my wife Heather calls “doggy Zen.”

And of course, there are walks. Followed by walks. And more walks.

Of the three dogs we’ve owned, Holmes is already the walking champ for sheer frequency. But he’s also new, stepping out with a mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm and anxiety about what he’ll  find … and still learning which situations merit concern.  (“Hey! Hey! That man getting into his car is VERY SUSPICIOUS! I mean, who does that?”)

I follow and guide with treats and patience and a slightly sore shoulder. Which means that as Holmes learns the world and how to behave in it, I’m learning Holmes at the same time.

Isn’t that always the way of it?

Everyone has a story and a struggle. Part of being human – or at least, a better kind of human – is to be aware of those stories and struggles even as we’re dealing with our own. It’s why almost every faith and philosophy on the planet has some variation of love your neighbor, help the stranger, reach out and touch someone … wait, that last one might have been AT&T.

The point remains: we’re here to help. But as some have pointed out, that’s not a one-sided proposition where help simply descends on someone like Batman from a skylight. When we teach, we learn. When we see into someone’s heart, our own is opened a little wider. Just like a handshake, you can’t touch without being touched in return.

That can be a little frightening. Not just in the responsibility it gives us for others, but in the possibility – no, certainty – that what we do will change ourselves in ways we don’t expect. It’s a reminder that we’re not really in control, a lesson that few of us enjoy learning. (If you’ve ever stepped on a phantom brake while in the passenger seat of a car, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

But it’s also an exciting lesson, too. It means that no single one of us has to have all the answers or plug all the holes. It means there’s room for surprise and discovery. Most of all, it means that all of us need all of us, and that together, we can shape something pretty amazing.

Even in something as small as a morning or evening walk.

Reach out. Walk together. Look around. You might just find yourself on a path you never knew existed.

One warning, though. If that path has rabbits, you’d better keep a firm grip on the leash.

Right, Holmes?

Stream of Second Chances

Smart phones have found their Timex moment

I realize that I just dated myself with that one. Anyone under the age of 30 who recognizes the phrase “It takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’” is probably either a serious YouTube fanatic or a time traveler in disguise. But how else do you describe the super-powered phone of Jordan Miezlaiskis?

According to UPI, Miezlaiskis was up in Canada last year to celebrate her brother’s birthday when she dropped her phone into the fast-moving Chippewa River, where it quickly vanished  from sight. Worse yet, her brother died a short while later that year – and naturally, the last photos she had of him had been on that phone.

So far, it sounds like 2020, right?

But here’s the thing. Miezlaiskis returned to Canada this summer to remember her brother, and a Facebook message from a stranger popped up. Usually, social media messages from strangers are a little dodgy … but this one had amazing news. While diving near Chippewa Falls, he and his brother had found her phone.

Even more amazing, it still worked.

“(The photos) just popped up like nothing,” she told UPI. “It was wild. The phone had been underwater for a year in 12 feet of water and it was as if nothing happened.”

If someone hasn’t signed her up for a commercial by now, then the American advertising industry is really asleep at the switch.

That one stayed with me, even after the few moments it took to chuckle and shake my head in amazement. After all, we’ve all been there. We’ve all had the screw-up that seemed irreparable, the moment we would give anything to take back.

So it’s kind of nice to remember that, every once in a while, second chances exist. That not all mistakes have to be forever.

And those weird odds get just a little better if you face them with some friendly help.

When I was still newly married, I went on a feature assignment at the Arkansas River near Garden City, Kansas. Usually running at a trickle at the best of times, it had real water in it that day due to a reservoir release, so a photographer and I had traveled thereto meet with some folks who were boating down the stream while they could. Not a world-shaking story, but a fun chat and some good pictures.

As I started to drive the two of us back, my car hit an area of soft sand and bottomed out. The photographer and I got out to try to push it free … and my wedding ring, which still fit a little loosely, slipped off my finger and disappeared into the sand.

Panic does not begin to describe my mood. I tried to dig in but couldn’t see anything. Worse, the sand itself was so loose that I feared I was pushing the ring deeper with every attempt. I stared, frozen.

The photographer then knelt down and began to pick gently through the grains with her small hands and careful fingers. Nothing … nothing … wait …

There.

A friend’s patience had literally struck gold.

Small treasures like rings and phones may not seem like much in a cosmic sense. But they carry a heart. And when we each look after the heart of our neighbor, the world gets a little better. Maybe in small ways. Maybe in life-saving ones. (After all, what has this last year and a half been if not a constant reminder to look out for your neighbor?)

 If you’ve been that friend, thank you. If you’ve been helped by that friend, great. Pass it on. Make it better.

Together, maybe we’ll all keep on tickin’.  

In The Moment

After last week, I’m starting to feel a bit whiplashed.

You too? Welcome to the club.

Every so often, we hit a moment where life seems to have only two speeds: full tilt or stopped in its tracks. In fact, it’s usually both at once. Events seem to rush by us like an express train bearing down on a Hollywood victim-of-the-week … and yet we feel frozen, unable to do anything but watch as our mental phaser resets to “stun.”

They’re the moments that mark a generation. Pearl Harbor. Kennedy. The Challenger explosion. The towers falling on 9/11.

And now this one. COVID-19. The moment where “social distancing” became a virtue and closures became common, from the local school to the NBA.

Granted, it’s not a single discrete moment. Viruses aren’t that simple. (And scheduling would be a lot easier if they were!) This snowball started down the hill in January, half a world away, and Colorado is just the latest skier in its path. But it’s quite possible and maybe even a little appropriate that Friday the 13th will be the date that stands in memory here – especially if you’re a Colorado kid faced with the longest Spring Break ever and almost nowhere to go.

In a way, we’ve been here before, if not quite on this scale. It hasn’t been that long, really, since polio epidemics were common. Even a hint that another outbreak of the disease was underway would be enough to close swimming pools, to have people keeping their distance from each other at movie theaters, to do what you needed to do to diminish the risk.

And then to worry. People do. We like to think we’re in control of our lives. And when that control proves to be an illusion, it’s a blow. A hard one.

We’ve long since driven polio back in defeat, armed with effective vaccines and dedicated souls. But worry is harder to eradicate than any disease. We want security. We want to keep our loved ones safe and happy. But how do you fight something you can’t even see?

The answer in one word: Together.

That’s how we always get through our worst moments.

Wildfires. Tornados. Blizzards. Floods. We know the drill for those, don’t we? We know to stay aware, to stay ready, to gather information and then act on it. To learn what we need to do before it’s necessary, so we can act in the moment if we have to. To be prepared and not panicked.

And most of all, in all of those situations and a hundred more, we know that the first rule is to look out for our neighbors.

We see it every time, whether it’s a random driver helping free someone else’s car from a snowdrift, or an entire nation sending aid to hurricane victims. You look for where you can help and how. And when someone does the same for you, it unbunches your shoulders just a little bit.

This time, the help is a little different than shoveling snow. Some of our neighbors are more at risk from the virus than others. Some already have it. We help them out by lowering the chances for it to spread, like a firebreak in the mountains. We help them out by being their (well-washed) hands for errands they can’t go out to do.

We help however we can. Because that’s what we do.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Easy to feel like one thin reed against the tide. No one person alone is big enough to meet the moment.

But we’re not alone.

And when we meet it together, that becomes the proudest moment of all.

When the Bough Breaks

It stood through a lot of things. But The World’s Biggest Bonsai is finally gone.

It wasn’t really a bonsai, of course, except in my own wisecracks. The WBB was a small fruit tree on the corner of our property, one that had the ludicrous survival ability of the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – even after losing limb after limb, it would keep coming back for more.

Woodpeckers gnawed away at its trunk. Ice storms broke off a large branch, windstorms another, leaving less and less. For the last six months, it had had one major branch left, reaching out to the sky in mute appeal.

For a while, it looked like it would survive yet again. The smaller branches remaining on that thick wood had begun to bud, getting ready to offer what shade and bounty it could, with whatever it had left.

And then Tuesday’s windstorm came. The one with the 80 mph gales.

Crack.

Broken at the base.

When a tree is pretty much all one branch, there isn’t much margin for error.

It’s mostly been removed now. (For which, by the way, I must offer thanks to a kindly neighbor who left me a pleasant surprise while I was at work.) But even though it no longer stands, the memories it entwined with have deep roots.

This was the tree that was casually referred to as “the cherry tree” by most of the family, even after years of growing and dropping crabapples.

This was the tree that our cousin Melanie’s family helped us doctor once, carving up the remains of its latest battle. And also the tree that stood nearby as I hugged Mel for the last time when she’d had an impossible morning, just a few days before her unexpected passing.

It was the Tree That Lived, with apologies to J.K. Rowling. Always a little smaller, always a bit more battered, but somehow still standing against all the odds.

And against the odds, it had become a milestone.

You know what I mean, I’m sure: a memory that holds down one of the corners of your life, one by which you orient your other memories. “Remember when … ?” Some of them are obvious, like a wedding or a birth or a death. Others are more unusual but still unmistakable – parts of my life, for example, are sorted by whether they happened before or after The Night Scott Stepped Off The Stage And Into The Orchestra Pit.

But some are much more subtle. The quiet events that meant so much later. The place where so much happened to happen. The person whose influence you didn’t realize at the time, but can’t think of now without wanting to thank them.

They can be the phone call in the night. The chat on the bus ride home. They can be a hundred things that suddenly leap to mind after the fact, a flashbulb that makes the picture clearer.

And they can be us.

Most of us don’t get to write grand history that gets set down for the ages. But we all touch lives. We all have the chance to hurt or heal. Which means we all have the chance to be that memory that means the world to someone, even if we never know it.

The branch breaks. The moment passes. But the marks remain, shaping what’s left behind.

Reach out. Take the moments, large or small. You never know which one will be the one that lasts.

Even if it does mean going out on a limb.

A Ring of Support

Among the usual headlines for the week – foreign trips, political accusations, football uniforms that looked like bad Nintendo graphics from the 1990s – a story slipped in that caused an earthquake in the geek world.

Christopher Tolkien has retired.

Normally, a retiring 93-year-old might not draw much attention, aside from admiration for staying on the job so long. But in Christopher’s case, “the job” involved heading up the Tolkien Estate. For over four decades, the son of J.R.R. Tolkien has been the principal guardian of his father’s literary legacy, holding the rights as closely as dragon-gold and weighing on the worthiness of those who would adapt Middle-Earth to their own purposes. Inevitably, he was also his father’s foremost literary scholar, publishing reams of information about how the world of Elves and Hobbits and Rings of Power came to be, along with works by Tolkien that had never seen the light of day.

In The Hobbit, when the dragon’s treasure becomes unguarded, armies come racing to claim it as their own. Much the same has been happening in the real world, but with less chainmail and more contracts. There are already reports that the Tolkien Estate is working with Amazon on a Middle-Earth-based television series, and a lot of speculation about whether this means a new era for the classic tales or the final downfall of the West.

But for me, the real story is both smaller and greater.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun to play the guessing game of what a new adaptation will look like and who might be involved. (“Morgan Freeman leads an unlikely band of heroes to death and glory in … A Game of Rings.”) But lost in all of this has been Christopher Tolkien himself, and the role he has played for so long.

A role that I think many of us could empathize with.

Most of us are never going to write a bestselling novel. (Though I do hold out hope.) Nearly all of us will go through life without having won a Nobel prize, or led a nation, or opened the new smash hit of the Broadway season. That’s no judgment on anyone’s skills or talents, just a simple fact of life in a world of more than 7 billion people.

But all of us touch someone’s life. All of us have the chance to take who we are and use it for someone else. A friend. A relative. A chance-met passenger on the bus. Whether for moments or a lifetime, we join our story to theirs. And the tale is forever changed.

in The Lord of the Rings, it’s Sam Gamgee carrying Frodo on his back when his friend can’t take another step … unheralded strength that means more to the world than all the armies preparing to clash miles away.

In the real world, it’s been Christopher Tolkien putting his shoulder to his famous father’s epic for decade after decade, illuminating and enhancing it for millions with maps and histories and tales not told – tales that included The Silmarillion, his father’s lifework of Middle-Earth mythology that was never completed in his lifetime.

For all of us, it’s that someone or something that truly matters. Enough to earn our help, our sweat, our outstretched hand. Not for spotlights or applause, but because it needs to be done and we care enough to do it.

We don’t have to be epic heroes. We just have to be willing to see where we’re needed and take the step. Because enough steps, from enough stories, can scale even Mount Doom.

All it takes is a willing heart. And that’s worth more than all the dragon gold ever forged.

Even with the television rights thrown in.

Looking In

In the wake of an attack, normality can be the strangest thing of all.

When the first reports came out of London, my heart sank. This seemed to have the earmarks of a scene that we’d witnessed many times in different forms – the public spectacle, the first word of fatalities, the wait for information that would link this all to terrorism. The chaos had begun again and I waited to see the next familiar steps of the dance.

And then someone turned down the music.

I don’t mean that the attacks near Parliament completely fell off the radar screen. But for an American, unless you were looking for more accounts, they seemed to get quickly pushed to the background. By Saturday,  if you did a quick drive-by of online news and social media, it’d be easy for someone on this side of the Atlantic to miss that anything had happened at all.

Why?

The distance? France was farther and #prayforparis remained an online trend for days in 2015.

The low number of casualties? It’s true that this produced (thankfully) few deaths – no bombs in the crowd, no mass shootings or falling buildings to endanger more lives.

The most likely explanation, my reporter brain suspects, is that there’s only so much media oxygen to consume and most of America’s was being tied up in the Congressional health-care drama as the Republican proposals came to a screeching halt. What was left seemed to be consumed by the intelligence hearings. That sort of follow-the-leader isn’t uncommon, especially when local stakes are high and newsroom budgets are thin.

But when even the social media ripples are few (outside of English friends and sources, of course),  that suggests that much of the audience has moved on, too.

This either suggests something very good or very bad.

On the one hand it could mean that, like the English during the Blitz of World War II, we’ve finally become good at carrying on normal life in the face of those trying to disrupt it, that we’ve gained some perspective about how to sort out the severe from the sad. I’d like to think that, I really would.

But it’s also possible that there are just too many alarms on the bridge. When crises seem to fill the headlines, when every story demands your attention (with or without justification), how easy is it to become numb to one more alert? At what point are there too many things to invest your heart in any given one?

At what point do people, do countries, say “Forget the rest of the world, I’ve got my own problems?”

It’s easy to do. Problems need to be attended to, whether it’s a fight to make sure your family is cared for, or a struggle to address or prevent national calamities. Attention can’t be everywhere and priorities have to be made.

But when eyes turn too far inward, when our neighbor’s problems become invisible in the face of our own, we become less of an “us” and more of a crowd of scattered “me’s.” Worse, we miss the chances for shared strength that can come as we reach for each other and face down our mutual problems as one.

We don’t need to be traumatized by every new peal of the bell. That way lies fatigue and madness. But we can’t close the door and pull the shades either. Care for self and care for others need not be exclusive from one another. Should not be. Cannot be.

Be someone’s helping hand. Be someone’s neighbor. Even if all you can offer is attention and sympathy, pay it. It spends well.

Together, we can build a “normal” worth having.

Rushing to Help

With bowls and ingredients in hand, my wife Heather armed herself to make my birthday cake. Naturally, Missy jumped to help, eyes aglow.

For those of you who remember my previous chronicles of our disabled aunt/ward, who’s 43 in physical age but much younger in heart and soul, you may recall that she lives life with enthusiasm. So when she helps out in the kitchen, Missy throws everything she has into it – in more ways than one. As Heather later related it, the script for the afternoon looked something like this:

HEATHER: “Oooh, hang on.”

MISSY: (Begins plopping spoonfuls of cocoa directly on the cake.)

HEATHER: “Wait, honey, I have a bowl.”

MISSY: (Drops two-thirds of the cocoa and most of a bag of sugar in the bowl.)

HEATHER: (Turns around from softening butter) “Oh, my goodness, hang on, that’s a lot of cocoa!”

The result was perhaps the most well-frosted cake in the sidereal universe, along with a broadly smiling Missy and a thoroughly exhausted Heather. Rarely has a baker been so eager to light the candles.

It’s not the first time Missy has hurried to assist around the house. If we start to hang up clothes, she immediately grabs a hanger and a shirt – though her coordination is such that she often tries to place a sleeve on the hook rather than the base. In dish washing, she’s quick to rinse and eager to help empty the dishwasher – but it sometimes takes a sharp eye to make sure that dirty glasses don’t join the clean ones on the shelf.

So yes, at times, Missy’s help requires an extra dose of attention. It can leave you feeling a bit wrung out by the end of the task. Sometimes it’s even tempting to quote Max Bialystock in “The Producers” and say “Don’t help me.”

But when a willing spirit offers, what can you say but yes?

It’s something that’s familiar to a lot of political movements these days. When groups have a common overall cause but different agendas, a lot of energy can be wasted on internal friction as each decides the other isn’t “doing it right.”

“Don’t you know that …?”

“Where were you when … ?”

“Oh, this is so important, but what about …”

Without careful attention, a movement can end up going sideways rather than forward, unclear where its next step should be and how it should be taken. Again, it’s tempting to say “Go tend your own garden and leave mine alone.”

But that kind of splintering results in a lot of small nudges rather than one big push. And it misses so many opportunities.

As with Missy help, it can be a teaching moment. An awkward alliance can be a chance for everyone to truly learn another’s cause, history, and motivations.

Even more so, it forces you to pay attention to the task at hand. We spend a lot of our life on auto-pilot, doing familiar things in familiar ways. But when you have to keep an eye on how someone else is washing the dishes, you also focus more carefully on your own. If you have to instruct someone else on your goals and tactics, you’re also reminding yourself.

The enthusiasm can make things take longer. But with care, it can also produce a satisfying result – and just maybe, some long-term lessons that stick with everybody for the next time.

As it happens, the cake was beautiful. Sure, the frosting was a bit thick and the sprinkles were all in one small area. But it didn’t matter. The result was something sweet, to the taste buds and the heart.

So thank you, Missy, for helping out Heather.

When it comes to assistance, you really take the cake.

If There’s Anything …

I’m tempted to just write the words “Thank you” and be done with it this week. After all, what else is there for me to say?

I’m referring, of course, to the steady stream of comments, offers and good wishes that followed the appearance of last week’s column, where I noted that my wife Heather had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That included the oddly celebratory mood both of us had been feeling, since we had finally ripped the mask off our opponent and knew what we were fighting.

Pieces like that are always a little risky to write. My oldest rule for this column, taught to me a long time ago, is “No navel gazing” – anything said here has to be of interest to more than just me. There has to be a universal tie, something for a reader to latch onto and care about, even in the most personal of stories.

Even so, I was shocked at just how many of you turned out to care very much indeed.

Some of you shared words of encouragement or stories of friends and family with MS that kept living normal lives. Others had suggestions for how diet could help Heather, or how activity could. A couple of very powerful accounts talked of their own struggles to put a name to a chronic condition and how isolating and painful it could be to just not know.

And of course, from friends and family across the board, we’ve heard the invocation: “If there’s anything I can do …”

Simple words. Powerful ones, too.

We’ve all said it, of course. Often when we don’t know what else to say. The times when the mountain seems so large and threatening, a mystery too great to even comprehend – and yet, we know we can’t let a friend go up it alone.

And so, when the hard news comes, we reach out a hand. Maybe with a confident grip, maybe unsure of our own strength and ability. After all, sometimes there isn’t much one can do. The late, great fantasy author Terry Pratchett, who died recently from Alzheimer’s-related complications, once said that he appreciated the sentiment but was only accepting offers from “very high-end experts in brain chemistry.”

But it does help. More than anyone realizes.

Pain isolates. It can be the physical pain of an illness, the emotional pain of a death, the all-consuming anguish of news too terrible to comprehend. All of it tries to draw limits, to seal us off from the world, to trap us in our own bodies and heads.

Granted, some withdrawal can be necessary to heal. But it’s easy to get trapped in the cycle, to become convinced that you have to deal with this yourself, that you don’t want to be a burden. It feels like a surrender to ask for help, an admission that you’ve lost control.

And then, someone reaches beyond the walls.

It may not be huge. It may not even be much more than the words themselves. But like a candle in the night, it becomes a small gesture that changes the landscape.

Someone cares.

Someone noticed.

Someone wants to help, even if they’re not quite sure how.

Someone’s heart has opened to me.

That is a powerful realization.

A friend recently reminded me that it’s a gift to allow others to give. It’s a harder lesson than it sounds. But a true one.

In admitting our mutual need, we summon our mutual strength. We become a family. No … we remind ourselves of the family that we already are.

Thank you for that reminder.

“If there’s anything I can do ….”

Trust me. You certainly have.