Outside my window, the backyard is usually abundant with green leafy vegetables, colorful flowers, and trees bursting with foliage. But as the days grow cold, and light is precious, the vegetables die back, the flowers shrivel and disperse in dust, the trees drop their once massive leaves.
I sat on the patio this morning reading Norman Vincent Peale. I set the book aside, and looked around the garden. My landlady had cleared out the dead branches, raked up the leaves, pruned the bushes, pulled up any lingering vegetable plants. I looked around and saw the death that signals autumn.
Yet the sun shone warmly on my hatless head. Birds tweeted. A biplane motored softly into the distance. A lovely summer day in the midst of fall. And there, right in front of me, a yellow rose grew on a trim bush.
How could I have missed the rose? My gaze had taken in all that wasn’t, and missed this small miracle thriving directly under my nose. I got up to smell it, because it’s written that one must stop whatever one is doing to smell the roses, and this tiny flower offered the most magnificent scent.
How often do we overlook the sweetness in life? How often do our squirrelly minds rack up a laundry list of everything that’s wrong in the world? My back hurts. My teeth are crooked. My shoulders are stiff, my neck is cranky. I can’t sleep. I oversleep. My hair is too thin or unruly, too curly or straight.
And that’s just the body. It’s not enough to find fault in our immediate surrounding; no, we must search outside ourselves, too.
My desk is cluttered. My shelves are dusty. The wall needs painting, the rug needs replacing. My mattress is too hard or too soft, too lumpy or thin, too small or so vast that I feel lost and alone in it.
But it’s not enough, is it, confining our dissatisfaction to what houses our bodies. We must look even farther afield. The driveway is cracked. The road has potholes. The grocery store is too big or too small, has too many choices or not enough. Those people in line are too noisy or shifty or sneezy or slow or just plain annoying. It’s probably their fault that my taxes are too high, my medical plan too expensive, my health or job or children at risk, and my life a living hell.
And yet…and yet…there, overlooked by our critical eye, a rose offers a magnificent scent. The woman in front of you lets you go ahead because you have just the one item, a small bottle of cough syrup. The sour-looking clerk lights up when you wish her a great rest-of-your-day. Your car, a clunker with high mileage, still gets you safely home. Amidst the dust on your shelves sits a photo of your daughter at the age of eight. A painting of the seashore covers a crack in your wall. The sun slants onto your bed from one to two o’clock, making a cozy nest for reading a novel. A solitary rose grows on the vine.
This week, look for the rose. Lift your gaze and notice the smile. Focus on the stretch of road free of potholes. Firmly set aside the laundry list in your mind and visualize a sunny nesting spot instead.
Over the past couple of weeks, I finished a short story and entered it in a contest.
The beginnings of this story came to me one morning as I warmed up on the keyboard. It was worth exploring, so I tucked it away in a file I call Write Aheads.
When I read the announcement for the short story contest in a local paper, I scrolled through my Write Aheads, came across this beginning, and thought it had potential.
Hmm. Wonder where this might lead.
It was the kind of story that revealed itself word by word. As E. L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
It was pure blind trust on my part, following that feeble light.
Enter Detective Bloch
The protagonist, I discovered, was a detective with multiple personality disorder. In the third paragraph, he contaminated the evidence at a crime scene. He wasn’t likable. His energy was dark. In short, he was an anti-hero. He even told the reader straight up, “Don’t make me into a hero.”
The fact that this character sprang forth from my subconscious gave me pause. Was I mentally unhinged? Steven King wrote dark characters. As did Michael Connelly. And Robert Crais. Were those writers unhinged?
When this detective first appeared on the page, he caught my interest. The actions he took surprised me. Not to mix metaphors, but as I continued to write the story, the way he played cat and mouse—only showing his cards when he was good and ready—made me want to follow, and by the end of the first scene, the curve ball he threw rocked me back on my heels.
I was all in. I had to know what happened next.
As writers, we play God with our characters. We give them form, imbue them with habits and thoughts and emotions, bring them to life in the fictional world we’ve created. No matter how flawed they may be, how despicable, they’re our creations.
This detective, this anti-hero, wasn’t the sort of character I’d want to know in real life. But in my fictional world, he interested me. I was curious to know more. And when he revealed why he did what he did, I felt compassion.
Which brings me to…the assignment
I’m sharing this, because the assignment for week 6 of the LIFE XT program was:
Add Compassion. Use leaving the house as the cue to Notice-Shift-Rewire the habit of Compassion.
As I left my house, I immediately forgot to notice, shift, or rewire. But by the end of the week, driving home from the grocery store, listening to politics on the radio, I had the opportunity to practice compassion. Nothing hardens my jaw as much as political news. It’s all fake. Except, of course, the news I tune into. And while I’m being honest, I may as well admit: the only side that’s right is mine.
Did I remind myself, while grinding my teeth into a fine powder, that there are people on the opposite side of the aisle, listening to a different version of the news, who are having those very same thoughts about me? Did I use this moment to practice compassion?
But I did practice Presence. I turned the radio off.
My “ah-ha!” moment
Circling back to Detective Bloch, I reflected upon how, in spite of his dark nature, I could feel compassion for the character.
That must be what the Big Kahuna feels for the evil among us.
Writers and the Creator of the universe are similar in that we form something from nothing, and sometimes that something goes rogue (Don’t eat the apple, Adam!). Yet in spite of how wrong, how vehemently opposed we might be to someone’s actions, we can still be curious about what brought them to that place, intrigued about where they’ll end up, and interested in learning their story.
Being curious, intrigued, and interested are pathways to understanding.
And understanding is the bridge to compassion.
I could always be curious about someone who angered me.
Interested? Why not?
But could I remember to take that long view, that God-like perspective, when someone was in my face shouting their opinions?
At the very least, I could take a giant step back. Make room for something more divine to light up the shadows between us.
Obama jokingly referred to the bank bailout as being as popular as a root canal, which pissed off those who do it, but illustrated perfectly how the rest of us feel about having it done.
So when my dentist told me I’d need the dreaded procedure, and gave me a referral to an endodontist, my hand shook as I signed the form.
Who to believe?
My previous dentist, the hypochondriac, never mentioned root canals.
No, it was my new dentist who opened the can of worms. I switched to him, because:
My previous dentist no longer accepted my cheap insurance.
I had a limited pool of dentists from which to choose.
The new guy, Dr. A, got rave reviews on Yelp. Well, two. But there were only two.
He seemed friendly when we met, although I could have done away with the handshake.
He was downright handsome.
After his initial examination, Dr. A told me, “The good news: your oral hygiene is excellent. The bad news: your crowns need replacing.”
My previous dentist never mentioned that scenario, either.
“Good News, Bad News”
I soon learned, this handsome fellow liked those phrases. He also relished the word “extreme.”
In my next visit, while I waited for the Novocain to kick in, he scurried across the hall to examine another patient.
“The good news: there’s no problem with your teeth. The bad news: your gums are receding. It’s extreme.”
While I waited for the squishy stuff to harden into a mold of my teeth, he scurried next door to consult with a third patient.
“The good news: your gums are in great shape. The bad news: you have extreme cavities and you’ll probably need to mortgage your home to pay for the dental work.” (I may have misheard that last part, but the subtext was loud and clear.)
Off with the Crowns!
Replacing my first crown went without a glitch, although I shivered in the chair, having a deep fear of dentists. Had my dentist also been a clown, I may have been scarred for life.
After the procedure, Dr. A said, “You might elect to have a root canal,” then shoved his hand out to shake.
Why would anyone elect to have a root canal?
Replacing my second crown, Dr. A ran into a snag. During the procedure, the nerve was exposed. It was “extreme.” He didn’t offer good news, just the bad.
“There’s a ninety-nine-percent chance you’ll need a root canal,” he said, and shoved out his hand.
Oh, how I hated this man.
I wondered if he was getting kickbacks from the endodontist.
I refused to take the bait. Or his hand.
A second opinion
The pain began. Heat, cold, chewing…everything hurt. With dread, I visualized enduring a root canal, of something going horribly wrong, of ending up in the hospital.
I googled “holistic dentists,” called one, and asked her opinion.
“If the nerve was mechanically-exposed, ozone treatments MIGHT work,” she said, “but I can’t guarantee it. If it was cavity-exposed, you’ll need an extraction or a root canal.”
What!? I thought those words didn’t exist in the vocabulary of holistic dentistry.
The lesson begins
I was in week five of the LIFE XT program, which I began blogging about here.
The instructions for the week:
Add Gratitude. Use sitting down to meals as the cue to Notice-Shift-Rewire the habit of Gratitude.
Since eating involved heat, cold, and chewing, this proved to be a challenge. Still, I told myself I was grateful to have teeth, and to have a credit card to pay for the fixing of those teeth.
On Sunday, in desperation, I called my dentist on his cell to find out how the nerve was exposed.
His brother answered.
His brother didn’t know.
Dr. A, he told me, was “extremely” ill and in the hospital.
“I’m so sorry!” I said, metaphorically backing out the door, grateful for my health.
Root canal? Or no root canal?
I didn’t need a neon sign to tell me I’d need to deal with the problem tooth. So I scheduled a visit with endo-guy. I convinced myself that after performing whatever tests endodontists perform, he’d straighten and announce, “You don’t need a root canal!”
I was willing to take the gamble.
The day came. I had a plan. If I needed the procedure, I’d visualize lying on the beach. I’d visualize Dave waiting for me in the waiting room. I’d remind myself it would be over in an hour. I’d remind myself of the line I’d recently heard on a tv show: no matter what happens, I’ll get through it. I’d count my breaths: two hundred and twelve of them, the length of time, I was told, a root canal would take. (I ‘d worked out the math in the shower when I should have been practicing Awareness.)
I’d read the reviews about endo-guy on Yelp.
He had a lousy bedside manner.
He’d do the work without telling the patient what he was doing, then disappear.
I considered those good reviews. I prefer not knowing what a dentist is doing. I don’t want to be that involved. My new dentist is far too chatty. He even offers a mirror so I can watch.
Endo-guy ran through a list of questions, then performed the “ice” test, applying an ice-cold instrument to one of my regular teeth. As soon as I felt the pain, I raised my hand. He tested the crowned tooth. No pain, then, after several long seconds, I raised my hand. He tested a regular tooth. Up went the hand.
“It took longer for the crowned tooth,” he said, “which could be a problem. Is the pain gone?”
“If it goes away quickly, that’s good. Let’s try again.”
He applied the ice to the back of the crown and my hand shot up, followed by the rest of me.
“That’s a good sign,” he said, and straightened. “You don’t need a root canal.”
Oh, the joy! The relief! I was ready to dance down the hallway.
“Is the pain still there?” he said.
“Well, yes,” I admitted.
“That’s bad. You need a root canal.”
The sun went behind the clouds. I stared at him.
“You can think about it,” he said, “decide later.”
I didn’t want to think about it. My anxiety would shoot through the roof. I’d lose twenty pounds. I’d end up in the hospital, like my dentist.
“What do you advise?”
“A root canal.”
There it was. I could either go home and worry myself sick, or I could suck it up and get it over.
I sucked it up.
After all, I had a plan, right?
The plan goes awry
Endo-guy sprang into action. I didn’t have a chance to back out. He shoved a rubber dam in my mouth and went to work. Other than the shot he jammed through the roof of my mouth, nothing hurt. But the whole experience was so overwhelming, my ability to visualize anything vanished. I couldn’t remember my reminders. Counting breaths didn’t occur to me. All I could do was clench my toes so my focus would be on my feet instead of my mouth. He barked orders. “Open wider!” “Resist against me!” At one point I reached up to brush something from my cheek and he barked, “Don’t touch anything! There’s a lot of sharp instruments here!”
It was all a blur. And then, it was over. Faster than I thought it would be.
And endo-guy disappeared.
The view ain’t so bad from here
I was grateful it was behind me.
I was grateful I’d had the nerve to get through it.
If the alternative had been an infection that reached my bone, I could even say I was grateful to have the root canal.
Gratitude shifted my outlook.
I had a choice. I could be fearful of the bad or grateful for the good. Anxious of what scared me, or thankful for what gave me strength. Leery of the germs on my dentist’s hand, or comforted he was trying to put me at ease.
By adopting an attitude of gratitude, I saw all that was right in my life.
Above the dark clouds, the sun was always shining.