Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog

August 29, 2009

Life’s Resume

From the time, it seems, we are barely in high school, we are coached, advised and prodded to start putting together our resumes.  We are taught to acquire “smart” victories and garner certain strategic awards, rack up hours of community service and put together a comprehensive picture of our best selves in order to make us marketable and fine choices for what we hope will be satisfying and well-paid careers.

In today’s economy, with so many jobs lost and so many people needing to reinvent themselves, the scrambling unemployed and under-employed are retooling their resumes and hurrying to add more attractive fonts and eye-catching phrases that “pop”.  A lifetime’s worth of work needing to fit onto a single page. 

While I was watching coverage of Senator Kennedy’s funeral today, it struck me how full his life’s resume.  Story after story this week and into today of instances and events, gestures and words which so many consider selfless, humorous, generous, thoughtful.  Unforgettable.

I don’t think all of his fit on one page.

Made me wonder how hard we work to pad our life’s resume.  Made me wonder how much we impress upon our young people the importance of filling a life’s resume that will highlight a history of selflessness, humor, generosity, and thoughtfulness.

Senator Kennedy had a huge family.  He was charged with filling the paternal role for fatherless nieces and nephews.  He was a Senator.  A public figure.

A busy guy.

And yet so many have told how he personally called all 171 families of those who died in 9/11.  During the week his nephew JFK, Jr. was missing and then found dead, he called every day to check on one of his staffers who had lost his mom.  Story after story.

He made the time, took the time, prioritized the time to pad his life’s resume.

These are the things that I remember.  These are the things that “pop”.

Is it important to ask, from time to time, what will they say about me when I’m gone?  What am I doing to fill my life’s resume?

Some will laugh and cast aside the notion, stating that they don’t care because they won’t be there to worry about it.  But I think the questions are critical in inspiring us to build a volume of work and deed which is notable for its compassion, valuable to the people we raise and influence, and memorable for it’s grander humanity.

Our time is so fleeting here.  What can we do in this short period of time that will last beyond it?

Is it simply our children?  What, then, are we actually teaching our children?  What are they going to take of our lives, our words, our examples?  What, today, would they write in their eulogies of us?

Maybe most important is to keep close the truth that we do not possess, every one of us, the gift of long life.  Perhaps it is worthwhile to not keep our life’s resumes for that time in the future when we believe there will be fewer crisis, fewer demands on our time, fewer challenges…

Today may be the last day for us to add to our life’s resume.  What is going to pop?

What will our spouses, partners, children, friends, neighbors, colleagues-say about us?  Is it all that we intend?  Is it all that we hope?  Is it already enough?  Right now, are we enough?

Or are you like me, humbly realizing today how much work lies still before me, praying for time.

August 17, 2009

What Is It We Are Really Fearing?

In this current economic mess, even as there are modest signs of recovery, there is evidence that the patient is getting sicker.  There lingers a widespread palpable fear that is scaring the bejesus and sucking the life out of countless- more than a 94 degree afternoon with high humidity and bad hair.

Will I lose my job?  Will my spouse/partner lose his/her job?  Will I miss my mortgage payments?  Will I lose my credit rating?  Will I lose my house?  Will we have to move in with the in-laws?  Will I have to uproot my kids from all their friends and move somewhere else?  Will I have to pull my kid out of college?  Can I find another job?  Am I too old to change careers?  How can I lose my health insurance?

A thousand fears.  A thousand sleepless nights.  A thousand unanswered questions.

Maybe I’ve had too many cognitive martinis but it seems I’ve coasted through this recession from a curiously buffered and hazy distance.  A strange objectivity.  Watching it all happen around me.  Hearing the tormented worries of so many people I love and, yet, not feeling that same fear. 

Oh yeah, that’s right.  I already lost everything…

I feel bad when I hear the real fear in people’s voices.  They can’t hear me when I tell them they will make it.  They can’t hear me when I tell them it’ll be OK.  That maybe new opportunities are knocking.  That maybe their real life’s work is about to begin.  That maybe they are meant to emerge on a wonderful new path.

It’s too big right now, screaming in their ears.   Raging in their darkest, prickliest doubts.  Whispering even as they try to sleep, “It’s coming.  It’s coming…”

Ruin.

I was thinking today that perhaps it is so scary simply because they’ve never experienced it before.  We fear what we don’t know.   Sometimes it renders change and sometimes prejudice and often it isn’t as hard or awful as we’d feared.  We just feared it because we didn’t know.  Hadn’t been through it before.

So what does all this financial ruin mean?  What is this scary monster hiding under so many of our beds during this recession?  Would it help to know?

I can tell you I lost 80% of my wealth after my injury and subsequent inability to return to my career.  You can do the math on your own incomes and imagine your own lot but what it looks like from my front window is this:

When none of my insurances would accept responsibility for my situation 13 years ago when I got hurt, I didn’t receive any income for seven months.  Seven.  That would take us to next March right now if you stopped receiving any income today. 

In those seven months, I used credit cards, in large measure, to survive.  Thirteen years later, I’m still paying for a can of coffee I bought on my Target card in 1996…

After not getting money for seven months, I resumed receiving an income of 85% of my former wages.  I could no longer afford my new house so I downsized to a smaller house and, two months after I bought it, my former employer found a loophole that immediately terminated the disability insurance I was receiving from them.  Yikes, now I was in trouble.  But I hung onto that house for five years and that’s longer than this recession is going to last. 

You can do this!

Financial ruin means I don’t even look through the catalogs they continue to send me a dozen years later.  They sit in a pile in my corner for friends and relatives to page through when they visit.  

It means I continue to wear two pairs of sweats that don’t even have any elastic anymore (when they fall down, I tell myself I must be losing weight).  My t-shirts have holes in them.  I buy everything I can at the Dollar Store (except coffee-don’t ever buy coffee at the Dollar Store).  I have had exactly two sets of sheets for thirteen years.  I reuse vacuum cleaner bags.  Sometimes I use paper towel for coffee filters.  I ask for coffee and cream for Christmas.   Any new clothes are gifts. 

I color my own hair and even have cut it myself a time or two.  OK, maybe ten.  There aren’t maintenance actions any more.  No upkeep.  Not for hair highlights or dental checkups or rotating tires.  You go when there is an emergency.  You go when you sell your favorite mementos on eBay or in a garage sale.  Whenever you have an emergency, it takes months and months to recover even a hundred dollars.

You don’t have credit so, if you don’t have cash, you don’t get it.  You lose your house and you move back home into a basement.  Creditors call and they really don’t believe you when you tell them you don’t have any money.  They imagine that you are hoarding all your money and are simply enjoying hearing from them every day.

You meet friends for a meal out maybe a couple times a year.  You eat well one week a month when you can afford to buy fruit and a decent cut of meat or fish.  The rest of the month you gain weight on cheaper meats and fattening fillers of rice and pasta.  You go from sirloin to chuck, Folger’s to Kroger’s,  and from Jiffy to no brand…

You make presents for loved ones when you used to enjoy shopping for expensive gifts.  Walking the malls during the holidays used to feel exciting and giddy with a wallet full of cash and plastic.  Now there’s really no sense to it at all except for the exercise.

You wash your laundry more times than you’d care to admit in hand soap.  You hang clothes out to dry when you can’t afford to fix the dryer.  You simply sigh when the gutter finally falls off and you can’t afford to replace it.   You drive in the middle of August with your heater on because you can’t afford to replace the radiator.

Is this the fear?  Is this everyone’s fear?  That they will end up like me?

Imagine that.  To be the poster child for everything that everyone you know doesn’t want to end up like.  

Laughing here.

I’m laughing and not crying because I know that, when you’ve lost everything, you haven’t lost anything.  And when you’ve lost everything, you have no idea how much more you could lose. Or how much more you can gain.

When it all gets down to brass tacks, then you actually take a look at what the hell brass tacks even mean.  And, if you’re as fortunate as I’ve been, you realize that you didn’t lose anything that meant anything at all.

I don’t fear losing anything in this recession because they already came and cleared out the cupboard 13 years ago.  I don’t fear losing everything because I’ve long ago filled those cupboards with the things I found that were actually important to me in this life and actually irreplaceable.  And they weren’t anything I could order out of catalogs.

But what I do fear is losing the people I love because of the stress they are experiencing during this awful time in their lives.

Stress kills.  Make no mistake about it.  I’ve read that stress affects a body more than aging, obesity and smoking.  Think about that.   Although it’s easier said than done, worrying really doesn’t help anything.  Worrying is simply asking for things we don’t want.

You’d be amazed at how much satisfaction, happiness, reward and love you can experience and enjoy while living in your parents’ basement with an awful hairdo and eating plain rice twice a day.   You’d be amazed at how far you can go with a 12 year old car and three dollars in your purse.  It would blow you away how inexpensive it is to decide that different isn’t always worse and that making lifelong dreams come to life is extraordinarily cool at any stage and at any age.

I once had a fancy office next to an indoor waterfall, an assistant, expensive suits and fresh flowers on my nightstand every payday.  Now I’m an author and a public speaker.  I’m watching curled up Basset balls and calling high school football games and enjoying the time of my life.

The recession cannot take the only thing that really matters.  Not unless we allow it to.  It cannot take those people and pets we love from us unless we allow the stress to chip away at our mental and physical health, leaving us…

Dead.

Just for the fact that it’s almost 4 in the morning and I’m enjoying cognitive martinis after watching four Basset Hounds all weekend….Let’s pretend….

Say we all died today.  All of us.  Gone.  We all get to the other side of the lawn, waking from our dirt nap,  and we find out that THOUGHTS REALLY ARE THINGS!!!

That all we needed in our lives was to imagine, to voice, to believe, to determine, to strive, to dream….That all we had to do was to stop walking around saying we are fat cows or that we have huge butts.  That we simply needed to stop saying we would never get another job making X amount of money.  That we only had to stop saying no one will hire me, no one will love me, no one will understand me, no one will see that I’m good enough, pretty enough,  interesting enough, smart enough, capable enough or lovable enough…

What if we found out that all we needed to do was to become aware of how often we tell ourselves detrimental things that end up being drawn in and becoming self-fulfilling prophecies?  That all we needed to do was to realize that we are capable of anything?

Wouldn’t we all be red faced then?

Change is shocking.  You are humming along and feeling pretty good about yourself and tomorrow you lose your job.  Or you acquire a brain injury.  Or your spouse drops the divorce bomb.  Or the doctor’s office calls and asks you to come in to hear your test results.  Whatever.  A thousand possibilities.

Your life gets turned upside down.

If you realize what you truly need and you can look around each night and count it, you’re going to be OK.  If you’re fortunate enough to wake up tomorrow morning then you still have the chance to change and better what you don’t like about your life, regardless of how many arrows are coming your way.

We don’t have to waste time fearing the unknown because there’s already enough of the known to keep us busy.  We don’t have to fear what’s going to happen in ten years because we don’t know if we even have ten days.  A million things can happen to change every moment.  And if we’re alive and if we’re reading this right now and understanding it, we’re already armed with enough ammunition to make it better.  To make this life something we really want to live and enjoy, not simply to survive and endure. 

Happiness can be found beyond our greatest fears.  Dreams can be realized no matter the bank account or the stage in life.

Just ask the poster child of ruin.  🙂

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