The secret to my success, or playing on while the Titanic sinks

In my last blog, I shared an unfortunate series of events that affected this blogger, which led to several friends saying things like, “Good grief!” “Ugh! So sorry!” and “I don’t think it can get much worse for you! Things will get better!” and “Hang in there!” I bet many of you can relate. If you can’t, I hope your life looks better in comparison. Here, I share the secret number one solution to how I manage(d) to not fall apart completely on a sinking ship.

Oh, um, that. Yes. Ahem. Well, I did in fact fall apart completely while at jury duty when I got notice that my unemployment benefits would be reverting to less than a third of the full amount, for approximately the next year. If you call sinking my head into my hands and going through a box of Kleenex kindly provided to me by the courthouse juror staff “falling apart.”

There’s a scene in the Monty Python movie, The Holy Grail (my all-time favorite), where a medieval mob brings a “witch” to a judge and wants to burn her. As evidence against her, one villager (played by John Cleese) yells, “She turned me into a newt!” Everyone looks at him. He says awkwardly, “I got better…”

Monty Python's the Holy Grail

“She turned me into a newt!…I got better…”

And so did I. Here’s the rest of my story.

And the “secret” of my turn around.

Get dismissed

Wouldn’t you know it? If you are crying inconsolably and obviously distressed and emotional, they dismiss you from jury duty! I was in the first group called into the courtroom, and they called “Juror number 2” immediately. That was me. They brought me up in front of the judge, looked at my swollen red eyes, asked if my condition would make it difficult to serve, to which I answered, “God, yes!” Juror dismissed, thank you, for another three years. How about that? Within a short period, things were practically looking up.

But as I drove home, I didn’t know what I was going to do. What would I DO???

Find a life boat

Here’s what I did. I posted my most recent bad news status on facebook (adding it to the long list I’d already posted, for anyone paying attention). And I started calling friends. It was the middle of a work day on Tuesday. The first person I called was my friend Carol, who I worked closely with for several years at a previous job. She had also experienced a layoff from the same publishing company along with its subsequent unemployment claim, which eventually ran out, forcing her into early retirement. She follows my story closely, especially on facebook, where I obligingly (and/or rather self-absorbingly) post my general ups and downs. I had been talking to her on Friday about the second job I didn’t get. I call her Mama Settino because she has an uncanny way of following my situation as if I were her own kid. She tells me her family talks about me and what’s going on with me, which is touching, and somehow hilarious, like I’m a Kardashian reality show and they can’t help but tune in. I left her a voice mail.

The first person I reached was my friend Sally, also a past colleague (at the same company as Carol) and now a freelancer, who, like me, has seen plenty of her own difficulties. She knows the struggles of trying to find work after being laid off. I had just been in touch with her about the job I didn’t get. Sally was outraged and sympathetic and comforting in sufficient measure about the news of my unemployment income shock. She calmed me down, and I eventually stopped weeping. She gave me some ideas of what to do next.

Then I reached my friend Jill. Jill is also a past colleague laid off from the same company as Carol and Sally (hmm….a theme…many of my good friends are from work. And boy, did that company leave a lot of hurt people in its wake). She, too, has struggled to find work and provide for her young daughter in the years post-layoff. Jill did what a truly good friend does: she told me how awesome I am. She reminded me how smart I am, how professional, how good I am at what I do, and how much she looks up to me for getting by on nothing for so long and making do. She told me I was going to be okay.

Row, row, row

Soon I had racked up several sympathetic calls and posts on facebook from my friends and family. The next day, I received a call after hours from the MA Medical Security Plan that my application marked “RUSH” had indeed been approved only three business days after I submitted it (miracle of miracles)! I was given a subscriber number over the phone, just hours before I headed to appointments with my new physical therapist and my surgeon. Crisis averted!

Also on that day, I got a request for my resume from an HR contact at a local company. I sent it in immediately and got a call back within five minutes. I’m expecting a follow-up call, so that restored some hope.

I sat knee-to-knee with The Fixx lead singer, Cy Curnin (R) after the concert, a rare occurrence that gave me a significantly better outlook on life.

On Thursday, June 7, my friend Rick called to tell me he won tickets to see the 80s group The Fixx perform that night. He had an extra ticket; he knew I had a tough week; would I like to join him? Why, yes, I would, I said, sniffing and drawing the back of my hand across my tear-stained face. I put on my make-up and went. And I had a blast. Out of the blue, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in a while who had some ideas on how to help me, so that was promising. And I got to hang out with the lead-singer and the drummer (Yes! of The Fixx!) after the concert and connect with my inner groupie.

Hit the beach

On Friday, June 8, my friend Pam invited me to join her at her time share on Cape Cod for the weekend. “It’s already paid for,” she said, “and we have an extra bedroom. Many of our friends from our ski and sports club are going down. Come on down!” Pam had also had her share of shoulder and neck injuries, which caused her to lose her job, and basically her story just makes me feel like I have plenty of company in my own situation. You know what? I had a great time. I got lots of hugs from long-time friends, danced a little, talked a lot, and met several new friends. On Saturday, we enjoyed a sunny, warm day at a gorgeous beach. All my problems (much like the sinking Titanic) seemed very far away, and as of Monday night, they still do!

Love your fellow survivors

Over the weekend, a friend pointed out to me that I had almost 500 facebook “Friends,” which he felt was a lot. “You may not have millions of dollars,” he said, “but you’re a millionaire when it comes to friends.” I love that!

Looking over my list of Friends, I realized, I do have a lot. And I don’t “Friend” anyone lightly. I have to know you to Friend you. And truthfully, I have to like you, too. I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter whether I can pay my bills, or keep my house, or my stellar credit rating, even if I can’t go kayaking or canoeing this summer, the one thing I can count on is friends. For getting through hard times intact, one of the most important things you can do is cultivate one’s friendships. Friends and facebook, man: my personal route to salvation.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that friends are my “secret.” Calling on your friends and family for support isn’t rocket science. It comes naturally to most people, and obviously many people (ideally) rely on their spouse or significant other for support in life. But if you’re single (and even if you aren’t!) it pays to have a support network as <-wide-> as it is high^ with people you can count on.

Of course, I don’t get to hob-nob with rock stars and visit world-class beaches spontaneously whenever I’ve had a bad week (much less for free). I wish! But the way this week played out was just an awesome example of a sudden turn-around that I had to share. It is great to know it is possible for a sudden turn-around, and maybe that should be the default expectation to cling to when we’re going through hard times. While I’m not looking forward to the fall-out that I must deal with ahead, I know I’m going to continue to cultivate opportunities to keep my attitude adjusted and my head on straight.

The truth is, as much energy as I’ve given to setting up a business, juggling parenting and bills, and staying healthy, it’s the energy that I have put into making friends and keeping them has really been the one thing that has saved my ass again and again from drowning in that freezing water.

That, and playing Bejeweled Blitz. ♦


Related links:

Another great story of hitting rock bottom and recovering

JK Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” is inspiring and funny, and is an instant perspective changer. How lucky we are to be free and safe. Thanks to my friend, Paul, for sharing it!

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A Thanksgiving letter from a stranger

Sock Monkey in Vegas

Sock monkey in Vegas (a second home to me), thanks to my sister. Thanks also to NN, and JM.

Some dear friends of mine who I keep in touch with primarily on facebook have been reading my blog (aww, thank you!). When one friend (bless his heart, and that’s somethin’, from an atheist)  suggested that all my facebook Friends (I capitalize facebook Friends to distinguish them from just friends) should contribute $25 to my book-writing seed fund, I thanked him for his faith in my abilities, but pleaded that please, nobody should send me any money. Writing a book is no way to make a living, and besides, half of my Friends are in the same boat I am. Then within a week, two Friends asked for my address. Of course, I guessed that they liked my other Friend’s idea and they wanted to send me money. I LOVE THESE GUYS. Do I have generous, amazing friends, or what? But I didn’t give them my address.

So it’s time to explain why I don’t want people to send me money. There are so many reasons why. First, it would take a lot more money than I could raise from my facebook Friends to support two people in the highfalutin’ lifestyle to which we have become accustomed (we have a refrigerator) while I write a book. Let’s see, $25 times 200 (half my facebook Friends) is $5K. That would pay my expenses for, hmmm…about two months. And the book would make…hmm…about $5K if I’m really lucky. How long would it take me to write a book? Hmm…about 6 to 12 months I think, if everything went smoothly. So…you see the problem. Writing a book is just not a value proposition. It’s a luxury. Even $5K wouldn’t give me that luxury at the moment. And besides, I’m no J.K. Rowling. I can’t make up a story for the life of me. I can only tell my own, which isn’t all that fantastic. Plus, most people are struggling to stay within a budget, to manage consumer debt and student loans. Everyone is grappling with the crappy global economy, …and I don’t want anyone to go into debt to help me out of my debt, y’know? There are other reasons, but that’s really a big one.

So imagine my surprise when I retrieved my mail today and found a thick envelope, hand addressed, from Raleigh, NC. I didn’t recognize the address, but at first glance, I saw the word “Church” in the return address and thought…hmm…maybe someone reading my blog has decided this atheist needs some churchin’. They’re sending me a little New Testament, or some Watchtower materials.

Then I noticed the letter wasn’t specifically from a church, it was from an address, well, let’s call it “XYZ Church Road” in Raleigh. I don’t know anyone in Raleigh. At least, not currently. I slashed open the envelope, and found two pieces of cardboard taped around a handwritten letter and a holiday WalMart gift card.

Here’s what it said:

Dear Valerie,

Please accept this gift in the spirit of the season, and use it to make sure that you and your son have a merry Christmas.

And please maintain your spirit of hope that things will get better for you, because they will. Your positive attitude is one of your best assets when times are tough like this.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a great New Year in 2012.

A friend

Just want you to know, new friend, that this made me weep profusely. Thanks for that. I had to redo my mascara. And it makes me weep again every time I read it. I’m tempted to frame the letter, but I ripped it in two with my letter opener. And anyway I can’t afford a frame. I’ll tape it back together and keep it, for sure. I’m tempted to send back the WalMart gift card, which says it’s worth $100, because I have your address, and I could do that. But…I thought about it, talked to my closest friends about it, and…well, I really do want to use it to have a better Christmas. I might buy myself a frame.

I just want you to know that you are indeed someone I would love to call my friend. You are an amazing, generous, trusting person. And a little more resourceful than my other Friends for finding my address, which you got correct, by the way (just kidding, Friends. You checked with me first and that is infinitely better! I’d rather spend time with you in person and you can pick up my extensive martini tab). I can only hope that my new friend is really in a place where that money will not be missed. Like, I hope you didn’t steal it. You didn’t steal it, did you? Does Raleigh have a Wall Street?

I have to confess that I also received an anonymous gift of holiday Visa gift cards in the mail in 2009 when I told my story of my first visit to the food pantry to friends on Christmas eve. I think I know who it was from; with a central MA postmark, it came wrapped in Santa stationery that said we had been very good this year, ho ho ho! To that person, to that family–I know it was you guys (I didn’t tell that many people)–we can’t thank you enough. I was profoundly moved, as was my son. I have also been lucky enough to have been gifted with numerous non-anonymous donations that saved my ass more than once in the last four years. From my dear family, from my closest, longest friends, as well as from friends I only know a little. But I didn’t have a blog then. I could only thank them with a thank-you note and an oblique mention on facebook.

It’s not just the money that is so profoundly moving. It’s the kindnesses. The gestures. That lady I didn’t know handing me that gift basket on Christmas eve, the innumerable times my sister has flown me to visit her in Nevada, the invitations, the sentiments, the encouragement, the understanding from friends, family, and strangers. It all adds up to one helluva support structure. I’m so very thankful. If I added up all the checks and gifts I’ve received…no, I couldn’t, it’s too much. Too much to ever pay back except in kindness, and in saying, simply, “THANK YOU. THANK YOU.” I can only hope I can pay it forward someday. But for now, I’m just thankful. THANK YOU.