Additional preface: My olfactory powers are strong, and I can’t stand many odors. My sensitive shnoz recoils at old-lady perfumes, and sets off a deathly serious search when I think something has spoiled in the refrigerator. In the kitchen, my nose leads me to seek and destroy, and get rid of the offensive material, which is significantly satisfying.
This smell-aversion is harder to deal with when the sources are people and not products. Now, I am not heartless. I do my duty as I would want someone to do for me: I tell people when there is lipstick on their teeth, or toilet paper on their shoe, or their dresses are tucked into their underpants. However, over the last week, I learned I have a threshold for how much shame I am willing to intercept.
When I see certain customers, I hold my breath.
This is not related to the anxiety holding-my-breath. No. This is due to their foul odors. One older man who hasn’t bathed/washed his clothes/worn deodorant in a while. One woman who wears the same filthy coat with an accumulation of stink from many days’ (years?) wear without deodorant. Another bedecked with a cloud of mothball smell so strong it’s damn near visible. Another with terrible gingivitis.
You get the idea! My question remains, perpetually, how do these people not know?? And once knowing, then adjust?? It is my understanding that these folks all have access to a laundry facility, which may be correct or incorrect. Who knows! It’s not my business, so I don’t insert myself.
However, last weekend, an older woman I had never seen before walked past me and I instantly smelled bodily secretions. Definitely urine, but based on what I saw on the back of her dress, probably more. I froze. And then called our security guy on the walkie talkie. And made a mental note of what seat she sat in so I could Lysol wipe it thoroughly later.
He, angel of a man that he is, came right up and was the bearer of dirty news, and directed her to the bathroom. As if pooing one’s pants unknowingly wasn’t sign enough, I determined officially that there was a mental handicap at play when after visiting the loo, she sat down in another chair. As soon as she left, I took a wipe and went to town, lamenting that peoples’ minds and bodies betray them, and also that I was not compassionate enough to address it with her myself.
As Phoebe Buffet sings, “smelly cat, smelly cat… it’s not your fault.” Maybe someday I will advance from talking to people about toilet paper to talking about accidents, but all I know in the meantime is that I can empathize with nurses and other healthcare workers (who absolutely do not get paid enough).
I don’t know about you, but the holidays do weird things to me. Maybe it’s the expectations, the build-up to the plans and alllllll the social media posts about gifts received, proposals accepted, pregnancies announced. I’m not alone in that I compare my life to others’ online depictions of theirs. Maybe it’s the fact that when an acquaintances asks how the holidays were, the mutually assumed answer is somewhere along the lines of “great! Relaxing! Quiet! Perfect!” And it is definitely the pressure of the societal narrative for New Year’s Eve. Overall, the holidays can leave me feeling single af, jealous and lame.
This one didn’t.
This season, there was plenty of weird. Plans that fell through, my underemployed status yet going to work for a few hours when family was in town… And then the sympathy cards.
Three people in my circle lost parents this holiday season. I knew none of these people, but I know the loved ones they left behind. I know that no sympathy card ever feels just right. Each one got closer and closer to me and my daily life. And as an empath, I hurt for these people. I hope that I can help share their sadness and pain, and that they come to find peace.
But despite being a little sad, I did not stay in my room during all of my downtime. I did not get angry at myself each time I slept past my alarm (often). I did not beat myself up about not having plans. I did not fixate on my closet (at least, not more than usual) or try to find comfort in retail therapy (JK JK I did both those last two, but in the interest of getting rid of things I don’t wear). So, some of my old habits sneaked in, in the form of spending money I don’t have and some social anxiety stuff, but overall I was more present.
Nothing drastically different than what I usually do, but this time I was nicer to myself about it. Just let myself do what I was going to do, without wishing I were somewhere else doing something fancier with more people, more fun, more photos or more gifts. In the interest of doing/getting more of what I need, I called people. I wrote and mailed letters, gave myself permission to watch Netflix, snuggled with my cats, and read some books. I enjoyed spending time with my mom and brother during their visit (and picked fewer fights than usual). I made my New Year’s Eve plan on New Year’s Eve and though I only knew one person there, it turned out to be great because that one person is a great friend. When I’m feeling like I don’t want to/need not to be alone, I only need to reach out to my people and be honest with them (hard for people who want to be self-reliant/independent).
My holidays may have been at times great or quiet, but they certainly were not perfect. They were indicative of real life and the pleasures and pains that arise from it. While the rest of the world is feeling like “back to work, aka real life,” I:
a) don’t have to go back to work yet–don’t be jealous, as I would LOVE TO. Seriously, if you have something you will pay me to do, I am ALL EARS. Especially if it is cleaning out your closet, because that is one of my passions in life. I would also do this for free lol
b) never left real life.
The holidays were the affirmation and reboot I needed, proof that I am making baby steps towards being a better family member and less anxious, more fulfilled human (though still obviously have plenty of work to do).
As I mentioned, I frequently judge myself for not having plans/staying in. During these times, my room felt more like a cave. Yesterday, I happened to look up, and I saw that one of the bulbs in the light fixture had burned out. It undoubtedly has been out for months but I was too depressed/didn’t pay enough attention to investigate/find a solution.
There may not be a better symbol for 2018. The room (and year) is already looking a little brighter.
It was a great week, and I will tell you why. This week, I saw not one, but two amazing speakers. I feel privileged to have seen Ta-Nahesi Coates and Michelle Obama in person, one in a more intimate theater and one a sporting arena. Very different settings, and no one screamed/gave Coates a standing ovation, but both nights were exciting!
These events were particularly significant to me because I don’t do a ton of audience type of activities. In the interest of saving money, I don’t go to a ton of movies, or concerts, or theatre. Crowds are often annoying, because people, so often my money-saving measures are doubly successful in keeping me at home or out with a small/curated group of people I like to be around.
But this week, I saw a lot of different people. At the university event, Coates was in conversation with a professor from the African-American Studies program, and it was the most intellectual conversation I have heard since college! It was great to listen to the two of them, both researchers and writers with a broad knowledge of history as well as each a specific expertise. They discussed the concept of progress, in terms of race relations and current events like police brutality and the NFL protests. Coates’ response about the NFL was perfect. Discussing how some fans dug in their heels and continued to wear Ray Rice’s jersey after the video of him beating his fiancee, he said “if people think Colin kneeling during the national anthem is grounds for removal from the league more than a man who beats his intimate partner, we have to ask whether they should be the arbiters of patriotism.” At one point they talked about their favorite books, and their nods of recognition at the other’s suggestions as well as the knowing “yes!”es and general geeking out made me so happy. I love when people talk about books, and apparently it doesn’t even matter if I am part of the conversation!
The crowd, though… It was a struggle to remain nonjudgmental. Throughout, the people behind me commented back and forth to each other disruptively. The woman two seats down filed her nails. Someone opened a package of fruit snacks with the full CRINKLE CRINKLE obnoxiousness. A young man answered his cell phone. And then, the classic people leaving before the event concluded. Finding all these actions inconsiderate to the fellow audience members and disrespectful to the presentation, I got a little distracted and irritated. However, I could tell that my reaction wasn’t nearly as bad as it may have been six months ago. I chose instead to be mindful of the privilege I had to be there and didn’t let others’ behavior ruin my night when I could pretend I was back in college. Plus, I was there with a friend, and she was the perfect seat mate. Afterward, we discussed our favorite parts, as well as the energy in the room; we noticed the crowd’s way of expressing their reactions (clapping or snapping in agreement, laughter or callbacks) and that it added to the experience. We felt like part of a collective.
Seeing Michelle Obama as part of her book tour was a drastically different experience. The crowd’s energy was crazy. The arena is enormous and equipped with arena-quality speakers, and between the happy vibes and the layout, I couldn’t have been annoyed by neighbors’ behavior if I tried. No one would hear a fruit snack package opening here. Even the fact that I was in the last row (literally. The only thing behind me was a wall, only thing above were the highest boxes) didn’t bother me–the ticket was free, and I love Michelle. LOVE. I went alone, using someone else’s ticket who last minute couldn’t go, and there was a young scholar on one side of me and another woman on the other. Instead of gluing my eyes to my phone as one does sometimes in close proximity to strangers, I chose to chat with both of them. It was really nice. The young man told me about a paper he needed to write after the event (about humanness and artificial intelligence), and we discussed Michelle’s book Becoming and I brought up another book I’m reading, called UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. (Yes, I tell strangers about books. He started it!)
And her talk was amazing. She is such a classy, brilliant, warm human. Her book is phenomenal so far. She talked about her childhood, about marriage counseling, about going to college insecure and realizing she could hack it just as well, if not better than, anyone else there. She talked about the hope she has in the next generation of leaders and citizens. Hearing her speak was a reminder that the current news-burnout of controversy and corruption is not normal and not inevitable. Some of the talking points she discussed are the same as she relayed on Colbert, but being in the room with so many people who also adore her and who she inspires was special!
So, a great week was had by me. I got out of my usual routine, talked to strangers, and felt a sense of community, commonality, and gratitude for being able to go to listen to these awesome (literally, awe-inducing) people.
Answering the phone at work is one of my favorite activities. I already like talking on the phone, which is more than many people can say. However, when people call in to the public library (note: I did not say THEIR public library, since we get scores of calls from far, far away), there are good chances the encounter will be positive. This is because:
The caller is likely to be older. Maybe they are physically restricted and can’t make it in, but gosh darn it, they are pleasant on the phone. All it takes is a sweet old lady calling me ‘dear’ and telling me I’ve been ‘so very helpful’ and I am struck with a good mood for at least two hours.
Often, a mobile customer is asking a brief question, ie “are you open?” or “do you have [this book]/a color printer/paper federal tax forms?” and in a ten second interaction, I can provide a solution to their information need. One reason I’m a librarian is that I actively enjoy answering questions and sharing information.
The library employee maintains a healthy amount of control in the event that a customer becomes demeaning or inappropriate. While this does not happen often, in person or on the phone, I treasure the ability to not have to endure verbal abuse for longer than it takes me to say, “sir/ma’am, if you continue to disrespect me like this, I will hang up.”
My wise and talented colleague taught me a librarian lesson (our version of life lessons) one day with a customer who wanted to babble with no perceived purpose. She told the man politely, “I’m sorry, I have a customer here and I need to hang up.” And then she did! It was crazy how simple it was to reclaim her time.
That said, phone interactions can go south in many ways. You never know who will call in. There is one frequent caller who asks for various conversions of inches to millimeters and for phone numbers to businesses in the United Kingdom. It is not her questions that rub me the wrong way, but her snappish, pushy tone, and the way she does not believe what I report to her. There are weeks where patients in psychiatric facilities call us and we have to encourage them to call priests or pastors because we cannot answer their questions about sin and forgiveness. There are teens who clearly have not used their cell phones for the purposes of communicating voice-to-voice with other human beings, and people who get angry at us because we can’t hear them due to their poor cell reception.
When I worked in Youth Services, we received many phone calls from one mother whose son visited the library for many hours each school night, and Saturdays, and Sundays. He did not have a cell phone, and she knew to find him there. She called once and asked for her son and when I said sure, I will go get him, she lashed into me. “Why do you know my kid?” The thing about librarians who work with kids is that we get to know them in a safe space: what they like, what they read and what magic makes them who they are. We care about them. This is what makes good youth librarians good at their jobs. I told her that I knew him because he was there every day, and she lost it. She screamed at me about how I was judging her for having to work and not being home with her child. She told me she was tired of us at the library and how if we thought her kid was there too much, she wouldn’t let him go there after school. In between saying that that was not necessary, that of course he is welcome and we all really liked him, she projected all of her guilt and single-parenting issues directly onto me. Though I was conscious I didn’t deserve her misplaced anger, I was still rattled. When she was done berating me, I brought him to the phone to talk to her. Then I took a break to walk it off.
And then there is thank-you-for-taking-my-call guy (TYFTMCG). He earned his moniker because he begins each and every call by verifying the library employee’s name and then thanking us for taking his call. If he is not hard of hearing, he does a very convincing portrayal of someone who is, and he is notorious at our library. An elderly gentleman, he never visits our location. Just calls. All the time. The first time I had him on the line, he verified my name. “Emory?” “My name is Emily. How can I help you?” “Ah, Emory. Great. Thank you for taking my call.” There is no one on our staff who he does not irritate. After the second call, I memorized the last four digits of his phone number (0241), so I could at least know I was headed into the Emory phone calls, mustering some degree of preparedness.
He asks inane, often un-answerable trivia questions that feel like when your mom asks you “what restaurant did we go to that one time?” or “what is that thing you were talking about that one time when we were at [that restaurant]?” He asks us to repeat our guesses around a dozen times, and often, to spell them, often a dozen times. On one such call, he asked me the name of places where pregnant girls go for counsel. This led to me near-shouting “pregnancy crisis centers!?! Abortion clinics?!!” over and over again. He also doesn’t accept your responses, which means he denies you have found the answer the whole call, and often calls back to try to speak to a different employee.
Many people have competing theories about whether he is annoying on purpose/calls us for crossword clues or Jeopardy questions, but my theory is that he calls us because he probably has dementia and forgets things he has heard about. I believe we are his external memory.
I have been thinking about this man and that boy lately. No one had seen the kid or his mother in a while, and apparently the overdue notices had come back with a forwarding address in another town, where I hope he has a new library with a great youth team. There were many dormant months when we received no TYFTMCG calls. When he called again, I was glad to hear his voice, but I’m worried that we are nearing a time when he won’t call anymore.
The phone is an exercise in kindness, in dedicating your energy to communicating with someone whose body language is absent. One bad customer service call can essentially convince anyone that the person on the other side of the phone is a fool. During my most recent shift, I returned a customer’s voicemail, and concluded my message on her machine by asking her to give us a call back. I started to give the phone number as I have done hundreds of times, paused for an awkward length, and had to conclude by stating I literally forgot our phone number, but she found it before so to try us again.
I aim to grant people as much benefit of the doubt as I hope she gave me listening to that message.
I hope she doesn’t think I’m a terrible employee. I hope she chuckles at my silliness, or understands that everyone has those days. I hope she grants that there are many reasons why the employee could have forgotten. Maybe, for example, she woke up at 6am after 5 hours of sleep, not able to fall back for another couple hours because she is moving in two weeks, breaking up with her lovely boyfriend, and her mind won’t stop, and she was in pain because her neck/shoulder muscles froze from all the tension she’s carrying but she didn’t want to call out to her very-part-time job and she is trying to make the best of the day, though she can neither remember the library’s phone number nor turn her head.
So, yeah. Conversing on the phone is a solid indicator of who a person is in a moment in time. Call your loved ones, call your libraries, call anyone you want to vet before meeting. And be kind.
Working smarter, not harder is a motto I didn’t know about until I had been operating under it for roughly a decade. One reason I am the last to know many things is that I am a lazy human. On the yoga mat in my twenties, I was the one who stretched a teensy bit deeper when the instructor was nearby, and the one who glared at all the folks who could clearly afford to attend 10 classes per week. Who were all these people who made this their whole life? Some of us were stressed and underpaid and loved to make excuses!
They tried and worked hard to accomplish their physical goals, and I judged them out of jealousy. Ironic, really, considering everyone is at yoga to become more flexible.
The four months of being in my thirties have made it clear that trying is not for people who can afford it, or for people who are more self-disciplined than I am. Money doesn’t buy flexibility, and it sure doesn’t buy self-discipline. No, I’m realizing, trying is not about your conspicuous displays of effort or finances. Trying is not for your act’s observers, not for weirdos, not posers, nor overachievers.
Trying is for adults.
Prior to 2016, I got away with not trying. Distancing and removing myself from other people, from causes regardless of proximity to my heart, from the goings-on of the world stage. Avoiding painful news and regrettable state of some of my relationships, tucked safely inside a cocoon of disengagement.
A typical weekend saw me sitting or reclining on my bed, watching comedy shows on Netflix (avoid feelings! Avoid ads! Avoid paying for cable!), occasionally screening calls from my parents (avoid feelings and accountability to those who love me!), and writing letters to my friends (avoid the phone!) I interacted enough with humans at work. Let me read my gazillions of books in peace (avoid the outside world!). I was too wrapped up in anxiety and my puffy quilt to attend a Women’s March and all prior/subsequent protests.
My lax, avoidant attitude towards the news has only changed this past year, when a month’s worth of government-induced garbage happens every day. To miss a day is to miss a lot. Most of the time, I still miss a lot, but I sign 324,342,784 times more petitions than I used to. I, oblivious and off doing my own thing, used to wait for my mom or my best friend of 20 years (hi Mel!) to fill me in on what I needed to know, in for the most part environmental/social justice arenas and celebrity/entertainment news, respectively. For proof of my anti-involvement in the news ‘cycle,’ I joined Twitter in November 2016. It feels like I was one of the last people to do so, behind even scores of grandmas and fake news bots.
2017, Dan Rather, and tackling anxiety make me want to try harder. Dan Rather’s What Unites Us has spoken to me in a profound way. (If you don’t have time to read the whole book, the linked article sums up much of what is gloriously human(e) about Rather’s work.) It is so easy to be critical, and judge, and immediately fly into a rage about someone whose opinions differ from yours or at all the idiots commenting online about issues they have not spent any time actually cranking their brain-gears about. The campaign against human decency that is our current political “leadership” has worked wonders for my involvement in the world. Translation: thanks drumpf, for violently shoving me into my status as an activist and better human.
I have donated more money to more charitable organizations and political movements than ever before in my life. I have stepped up to deal with my anxiety rather than let it rule me. And, I am consciously trying to be less of an asshole to people who don’t deserve it, a noble act for those of us who work with the public.
As a librarian, I can’t stop reading. Instead, I’m trying to intentionally read for better reasons, like learning and self-improvement. What Unites Us has been both. Reading Mr. Rather, one paragraph struck home particularly loudly. He writes about his modest neighborhood during the Great Depression:
The neighborhood tried as best it could to help these families stay alive. If we had leftovers after supper, we would walk them across the street. One of my earliest impressions was taking that short journey with my father. You might think that these families were humiliated by the offerings, but there is no dignity in being hungry. And there was no judgment or disdain on the part of those offering assistance. No one wondered why those neighbors weren’t working, and no one passed moral judgments on their inability to fend for themselves. We understood that in life, some are dealt aces, some tens, and some deuces.
He went on to say their behavior was not heroic, but instead neighborly.
On vacations during childhood, when my family was complete, we played cards. Of course the kid-friendly go fish, but also poker and gin, where I learned either my card showed up or it didn’t, and I had to maneuver my hand to my advantage. The luck of the draw, Mr. Rather states, birthed everyone into their circumstances. What you do with your hand is based on your adaptability and intellect, but what you do with your hand is also connected to what the other players can do with theirs. Empathy means not only considering other people’s perspectives, but at the most fundamental level, acknowledging their humanity and worth. Our culture’s polarization problem desperately needs more empathy, more kindness, more patience, more thinking-before-speaking. Less judgment, less us-versus-them, and less screaming.
So, like, less Fox News.
Adults need to try to empathize with one another. Neighbors looking out for neighbors. (A topic addressed poignantly by Michael Moore’s movie Where to Invade Next.)
As a devout supporter of the United States Postal Service, I will similarly not stop writing letters. During February, I wrote at least one letter per day (with only 2 days off to rest my hand). The Month of Letters was not about hermit-ing and avoiding feelings; it was about reaching out and spreading love and joy. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like getting a letter among the coupons and bills. Doubtful whether I would maintain enthusiasm the whole month, I surprised myself. It turns out I had a lot to say.
I am trying. I definitely scream less. Maybe tomorrow I will even try to get to yoga.