When I was child, my dad’s dental office was attached to our house. On one side of the door was our private, domestic world: home. Pass through the back room with its overflowing bookcases full of dental textbooks and journals, maneuver around the desk piled high with bills and paperwork, step through the small brown door by the laundry room, and you were in the reception area of my parents’ busy practice. Many afternoons I’d forgo the TV reruns my brother was watching in our den and slip into my dad’s quiet waiting room to read magazines. I loved the jokes in the Readers Digest, the photographs in Life, the lavish meals in Gourmet, and, most of all, the hidden pictures in Highlights.
There was a trick to solving those optical illusion puzzles with their lists of random objects hiding in plain sight. At first glance, all you’d see was the scene itself, a complex drawing of animals in the jungle, perhaps, or a crowded playground scene. But squint your eyes just enough to change the focus, and you could begin to discern the outlines of those other things: a slice of bread, a pencil, a teacup, a button. The only way to find the button amidst the tangle of palm fronds and swinging monkeys was to blot out everything else. You had to narrow your gaze and go in search of that one thing you most wanted to see.
My life lately has felt as complex as those multi-layered drawings of my childhood. On the surface, things appear orderly enough. But what I’ve experienced internally is a series of invisible, painful losses — each a challenge to my equanimity, to my sense of the universe as a fair and benign place. Feeling fragile and overwhelmed, I’ve been experimenting with an emotional version of that old eye-squinting thing. I keep thinking I’ll suffer less if I can just look more deeply into the picture. Somewhere, I know, goodness is hiding in plain sight. My task is simply to find it.
And so I repeat these words to myself like a mantra: “Look for the good.” And then I narrow my focus until I begin to see what I’m hunting for: the delicate outline of a blessing, some well-camouflaged scrap of goodness amidst the hurt, something to be grateful for.
“Look for the good,” was the intention I carried with me to Georgia last week, as I flew south to see my son Jack for the first time in six months. Six months! It’s still almost inconceivable to me that I could go so long without seeing one of my children. Since he left New Hampshire in May to change schools and begin working toward a degree in sound engineering in Atlanta, Jack hasn’t slept under this roof for one night. We stay in touch by phone and text, but I’d never seen where he lives, or met his roommates, or ridden in his car. He was about to turn 22. It was time to go.
Jack invited me to stay with him, on the futon in their spare upstairs room. Although I had a plan B in place – the serene guest suite of a young friend of ours who happens to live a mile away — I really did want to be with Jack, to see his life up close. And I was grateful that these three guys (and one nearly live-in girlfriend) were willing to welcome me into their midst for four days.
“I’d love it,” I said. “All I ask is a clean set of sheets and that you wipe down the toilet seat for me.”
I got a quick glimpse of the picture on my first night. Jack seemed too thin to me. I wasn’t crazy about the beard, dark and straggly. Although he’d washed some sheets, they hadn’t actually made it onto the bed. The spare room, my room, was a jumble of cast-off furniture, various cords and cables no one needed, a lamp that didn’t work. The toilet seat had definitely not been wiped. A cockroach skittered across the kitchen counter. There was clutter. A massage table but no sofa. Random piles of clothes in the living room. Dirty spoons and empty glasses.
The fact is, twenty-two-year-old guys don’t set up housekeeping the way fifty-plus-year-old women do. There are different standards for just about everything, but especially for how often a male face needs shaving, or a floor needs washing, or a toilet needs scrubbing.
But I wasn’t there to approve Jack’s facial hair or to pass judgment on his home or to grade the tidying skills of its occupants. I was there to spend time with my son and get to know his friends. My only agenda for the visit: enjoy Jack’s company for four days and depart with a sense of what his life is like.
I narrowed my focus. “Look for the good.”
And sure enough, goodness was everywhere.
Jack and I made up my bed. We sat in the kitchen with his room mates and drank hibiscus tea. I saw how they were with each other: kind and easy and attentive. There was lots of laughter. It was obvious that Jack was happy and comfortable, that these kids don’t just live together, they care about each other.
I’d worried four days might seem too long for a mother to hang around, but it didn’t turn out that way. The time flew by. We shopped for groceries and cleaning supplies. (I was so happy to buy cleaning supplies!) Jack made me eggs and veggies for breakfast. We hiked up Kennesaw Mountain with their beloved foster dog Clyde, a sweet, well-tempered ten- month-old Lab-Pit Bull mix and we talked and talked.
On Friday, two days in, I swept the floor, donned a pair of rubber gloves, and scrubbed the bathroom. That night Jack and I made a huge pot of spicy lentil soup and a salad with oranges, grapefruits, avocados, and pomegranate. A couple of friends came over and we had a dinner party. That’s when I “got” the décor: all the other kids are chiropractic graduate students. They don’t sit around after dinner; they work on each other’s bodies and adjust each other’s necks and spines and occiputs. The living room, with its massage table and bongo drums and resistance bands and keyboard, works for all of them — a place to lift weights, exercise, stretch, make music, play with the puppy, and practice the art and craft of healing themselves and each other. The conversation was great – and after the dishes were done, I got my cervical spine adjusted.
By then it was apparent to me: the desire to live thoughtfully, healthfully, and well, is what binds this small household together. There isn’t a bag of Doritos or a soda in sight. But there are two refrigerators, and they are full to overflowing with kale, carrots, apples, broccoli and almond milk. There are good knives, good cutting boards, good pans. Two blenders. A compost bin. Purified water on tap. A sign on the wall that says “NO ICE CREAM.” Jars of coconut oil and bags of raw almonds. Kombucha mushrooms growing on the counter, carefully wrapped in dish towels.
By Saturday morning, as we all piled into two cars to go to the Farmer’s Market, I was feeling like part of the household. Later, as we unpacked our bags, I asked Jack about the cockroaches.
“Yeah, we have a few,” he said. “We ignore them till they get big, then we do catch and release, and put them outside. They’re just trying to survive, like the rest of us.”
On the last night, Jack’s birthday, I offered to take everyone out to dinner. Jack shaved off his beard. They chose a funky raw/vegan restaurant in midtown Atlanta, their favorite “special occasion” place. There were four of us, me and Jack, his room mate Jules, and Jules’s girlfriend Melanie, who had led us in a “high intensity” interval workout in the park that afternoon. We passed on the “shots” (coconut water), and ordered a raw platter to share, quinoa bowls, salad. The food was fabulous. When the bill came, Jules reached for it. “Actually, we decided we want to take you out to dinner,” he said. “To thank you for cleaning our bathroom. It just feels so nice to walk in there now, I don’t really know why we never did it before. I took a bath this afternoon, and it was so relaxing.”
I told them what a great time I’d had, how grateful I was to them for making me feel so welcome. “You guys have created a really wonderful home together,” I said. They agreed.
“Yeah,” Jules said. “And it’s even better when there’s a mom around.”
Goodness in plain sight.
sharing Lisa’s journey
To my dear readers,
I wanted to answer every single one of the kind, thoughtful comments on my last blog, but the time slipped away and pretty soon I was on an airplane to Georgia. And so, I hope this general “thank-you” will suffice. Thank you for reading and for writing and for being here. Your words validated mine. So often the conversation we most need to have is the one in which we all remind each other that we aren’t alone, that everyone struggles, that life is easier and more beautiful and more fun when we share our vulnerabilities and move forward arm in arm.
So many of you have written me expressing care and concern for my friend Lisa, that I want to share her story with you here, and the fundraiser I’ve launched to help ease her path going forward.
If you click the link below, you’ll see that this effort has become about much more than the money being raised to help support Lisa and her husband. It’s also an outpouring of love and appreciation for all the lives she’s touched, the difference she’s made for so many over the years. The decision to reach out and ask for help is never comfortable for anyone, but I’m reminded again and again these days that this is what we’re here to do: make the way a little easier for someone else. Every little bit helps, every kind gesture makes the world a better place, every loving word nourishes a heart.
Click here to find Lisa’s story.