Thursday, July 1, 2010

Free Flow

There’s a lot of debris clogging this harbor, metaphorically speaking. Something has to give.

I’ve been reading a new book called “Seven-Tenths: Love, Piracy, and Science at Sea,” by David Fisichella. He writes about the ocean’s many layers of currents, the volume of water in each current, temperature, speed, salinity, water density. There’s even a special nomenclature (Sverdrup) for describing water volume because there’s so much of it. That book had me thinking as I slogged through my 8 a.m. run on Sunday. It was 78 degrees, 62 percent humidity, and the Hudson River Parkway smelled like the inside of an exhaust pipe.

Nature is where I get my best lessons and I never have to look that hard.

Oceans are deep, vast and complex organisms. Sometimes I sit on my Rockport deck, as I did the other night, and look out over an Atlantic Ocean so flat and still I cannot believe a wave could be tweaked out of that expansive lethargy. Air’s movement across the surface abrades, piques, teases ripples that join other ripples. Waves crash at our feet. That’s all just surface activity responding to external forces.

Fisichella tells us that waves can travel in opposition to current direction. Rogue waves — unexpectedly large and powerful aberrant waves — derive from this phenomenon and they can be troublesome.

So, too, women’s internal workings and surface responses can be at odds. I speak of women of my generation. We grew up feeling responsible for our fellow man and woman. From that orientation, many of us find ourselves striving for unity, harmony and compassion among friends, family and colleagues.

It’s not easy being nice all the time. I, like others, have engaged in a long and frustrating struggle to reconcile opposing forces: my valued role as humanitarian vs. my responsibility to my singular voice.

Does this sound familiar? Like something in assertiveness training we never really caught on to the first time we heard it in the early ’70s? Only a year or so ago I heard Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine admit to a large Barnes & Noble crowd that they still had trouble saying “no.”

Saying ‘no’ — code for direct communication — feels counter-community.

About a year ago I met one of my clients in a train station. I was just coming into Boston from New York City and, after weeks of doing business by telephone, we were going to have lunch and discuss face-to-face the events we were planning to promote his new documentary film.

I recognized him and approached. Immediately the 6-foot, 5-inch man began yelling. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You,” he shouted. “You are what’s wrong.” He stormed off to the Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk to order a few doughnuts and coffee. When the non-English-speaking server got his order wrong, he shook a long stick-like doughnut in her face and screamed obscenities. The doughnut broke off and flew across the counter. Everything she did enraged him more but when she handed him a pink frosted doughnut instead of a Boston Crème concoction, I thought he would smash it in her face.

I shoved money at her and dragged him by the arm to a seat in the station. “Where’s your wife?” I shouted, desperate for help. She was across the country and I was there, stuck with this madman, just a day before a long weekend full of events I’d already been paid to publicize and oversee was about to commence.

My job shifted from arts publicist to psychiatric nurse as he trained the invective stream back on me. Any minute the police officer I saw out of the corner of my eye was going to arrest him.

My one overriding reaction while the encounter was taking place? As absurd as it seems, all I could feel was this: The man is suffering.

At least I had the common sense to cancel lunch, though I sat with him 40 minutes as he settled down and explained his concerns about getting an audience, getting bloggers to cover the events, getting interviews in all the big newspapers. He was a man of little faith and enormous rage. The last leg of my train trip to Rockport from Boston was spent managing my PTSD-like shakes. It had been a truly horrid time and yet I never did the one thing that could have saved me. Instead of walking away, as I should have, I stood and tried to help him calm himself and avoid the embarrassment of a confrontation with police.

I could have said: I quit. I could have said: Goodbye. Call me when you’ve got a grip.

Diplomacy takes precedence and my form of diplomacy clearly isn’t as forthright as I want or need it to be. This problem, I suspect, is surmountable. It has to do with knowing what we want, what we want to say, and finding a way. I am of the school of problem-solvers for which there is always a way. But we have to factor in the reality: For women there’s a nuanced art to speaking honestly, being heard, helping and not offending. When we activate our voices, we are doing so in the context of community.

I call myself ‘politic,’ but that way of thinking has become a rationalization for a form of verbal cowardice or confusion.

Since my memoir Free Fall has been published and since I no longer report to a day job, I’ve had the privilege and time to take a deeper, closer look at myself. Believe me. This was nothing I would have volunteered for. It hasn’t been fun or easy. I’m not distracted, like I was, by a contentious boss or the ongoing threat of a loved-one’s suicide. I wake up and the first thing I think about is not work but the knot of anxiety in my gut. Why is it there? What is it?

Now, with nature in front of me once again as a model, I see what needs fixing.

The gradual clearing out I desire has to do with opening up the harbor, letting the waters flow in and out as conditions shift and change. I want currents to align with surface activities, to say what I mean.

The next time my client wields a doughnut as if it were a weapon, I would like the presence of mind to hand him a cup of coffee and say, “Dunk it.”


  1. I like your description of the way many of us were raised and expected to behave, and the way you write of nature. Confrontation can be so difficult. Good luck with the Dunk it!

  2. The first step is to say "no" or tell him to dunk it. Every now and then I manage to set boundaries. Even more difficult is to do it and not feel guilty or selfish afterwards. I still struggle with both of those. Great post!

  3. Love the metaphor as well as the snappy ending - Lynn