I am sitting at my laptop in a hotel room overlooking the dawn on another coast. The palm trees here are impossibly tall, and the sun is not where it’s supposed to be. Ha! We’ve been visiting family and friends in Southern California for the last week, and I’m overcome with gratitude for these people and this place. (I’m actually a little teary as I write this.) I spent a decade of my life here (the ’80s) and formed friendships so indelible, that even my neglect is powerless to erase.
I planned this trip with this goal in mind: to reconnect. I have been so humbled and inspired by the response of my friends, some I haven’t seen in twenty years or more. Thank you so much for taking the time to brave the LA traffic (and rain?!) to get together with me. I love you all—Melendy, Pattie, Keala, Linda, Kimberly, Susan, Caren, and (hopefully) Jinny.
I’m republishing this story—the third in a series of three—that I wrote last year, with this suggestion: Do whatever it takes to be a friend, to rekindle old friendships or deepen existing ones. Social media is a bridge perhaps, but will never be the Island itself—the lovely warm respite—that true face-to-face (not face-time to face-time) communion offers. Thank you my friends.
Youser Manual, Part Three
I found a letter in an old keepsake box—a love letter actually. Across the top of the single sheet of notebook paper, in careful cursive, was the salutation: To Sharla with love. My heart fluttered a little to read those words. The letter was dated March 10, 1975. We were sixteen.
It is not hard to recall this love from my adolescence. It was a good love, a strong love, a true love. It is not hard to remember this love because it was an enduring love—and to this day remains good, and strong and true. In fact, we had lunch together, this love and I, on Saturday. Along with my husband and son.
Our friendship dates back nearly half a century (oh my!) to Mrs. Peavy’s fifth grade class at Gulf Breeze Elementary school. And it will, I am confident, abide until—and perhaps beyond—death. It is the epitome of “unstoppable” as far as relationships go. And this lovely love letter has helped me write this, the third and final chapter of my “User Manual.” It has helped me articulate the answer to the third question in this series—“How can others (within the context of friendships) use me to their greatest success?”
In April, I wrote a story that was the first in a series of three essays based on a business article I read about a guy named Jay Desai. (Click here to read Part One if you missed it.) Desai is the young CEO of start-up company, Patient Ping, and was struggling to provide guidance and predictability for his employees. He was often frustrated to see potentially great teams stall or fall apart because of misunderstandings on how to best work with each other.
According to the article (click here to read it), Desai decided to write a user guide, “similar to the kind that’d accompany a rice cooker or bassinet—but this one deconstructed how he operated optimally, when he might malfunction, and how others could use him to their greatest success.”
I loved this idea, and the thought occurred to me to adapt Desai’s business model to my personal life. What if I, myself, came with a user manual? What if you did? What would your “Youser Manual” say about you and how you function in relationship with others?
I began to ponder the three considerations mentioned in the article:
- How do I operate optimally?
- When might I malfunction?
- And how can others use me to their greatest success?
That story was fun—I got to identify circumstances and qualities that make it easy for me to be at my best in relationships—to “operate optimally.” This involved reminiscing about some of the best times in my life—times I have spent enjoying my BFFs. And it was very enlightening. My “best” relationships all had three things in common. (You can see what they are by clicking here.)
This second part was a little darker. The reminiscing here was not fun. It necessitated pondering the who-what-when-where-and-why of relationships that had crashed and burned, and my part in the disaster. And, as much as I’m loath to admit it, I always had a role to play in relationships gone awry. (Click here for my true confessions. Ha!)
This last part, I hope, will tie it all together—with the help of a 20-line, hand-written letter from a dear friend in the spring of 1975, because, even then, I wanted—I tried very hard—to “be of use.”
These are the questions I left you with last month to get the juices flowing and help us identify how we add value—how we encourage success—in the lives of the friends we choose.
(If you want to play along, grab a pen and jot down your responses before I bias you with mine.)
- Bring to mind a relationship you are currently enjoying—one that is undeniably “in season.” (Is this a hard question, or do several friends come immediately to mind? If it’s the latter, repeat this exercise for each of them.)
- If you had to list quickly five words to describe this person in the context of your friendship, what would they be? (Don’t overthink this.)
- Imagine this person, at this moment, doing this exercise too.
- Would you make the cut for them?
- If so, what five words do you think they would use to describe you in regard to this relationship you share?
I’ve been working on this exercise for a month now. I drew a simple mind map in response to these prompts. I chose five good friends—some older, some newer—and quickly listed qualities I admire in them that make our relationship so satisfying. I then highlighted one or two qualities that I think (hope) they would feel I reciprocate in our friendship.
And an “aha” insight occurred to me—something I already knew perhaps, but had forgotten: So often in relationships, we offer what we wish to receive. I do strive to stay open and vulnerable in relationships that I deem safe. I am introspective, to a fault perhaps. I am relentlessly encouraging and hopeful. I am eager to be of help. And I am even finding that I am smarter and more creative than I’ve ever given myself credit for—even “wise” in certain situations.
These attributes—and hopefully, others—form the basis for my “usefulness” in life. And despite the unglamorous utilitarian implication of the word “use,” I believe that all of us non-sociopaths have an innate desire “To Be of Use.” As poet Marge Piercy so eloquently expresses: “The pitcher cries for water to carry, and a person for work that is real.” There is no “realer” work than the work of healthy relationships.
Back in January, I was asked, in a writing workshop, to name my “Word for 2018.” The first word that came to mind was indeed, “Usefulness” which I quickly amended to “Creative Usefulness.” Not only do I want to be “of use” in immediate practical and structured ways, I want to also be able to use my imagination, my curiosity, my talents and my passions in my service to others. I want to be creatively useful. This is what I endeavor to bring to the table in my relationships.
I want to help—and in helping, also be helped. Again, I offer what I desire. I have learned, perhaps the hard way, that we need not do this alone. In fact, we should not do this alone. I did not learn this lesson in my upbringing; the opposite was modeled. Asking for help seemed like a weakness; problems were secretive, shameful. The “Silent Generation” indeed remained silent and isolated. It wasn’t healthy for us then, and it isn’t now.
Today, the “healthiest” person I know has spent a lot of time at the Sacred Heart Cancer Center. A lot. Yes, my healthiest friend has had a double dose of cancer. Her most recent bout with the disease had her to-and-fro multiple times every week for months. I was privileged to be asked to be her “chemo-cab” for one such visit. I have since learned that seventeen others were also enlisted to help with transportation to and from her treatments. Laura is so emotionally, spiritually and socially healthy, it’s no wonder that cancer, once again got its ass whipped.
I helped my friend. In one small way, I was “of use.” And in being helpful, I was helped—but in a very big way. I was involved in a healthy paradigm—one I never experienced as a child, but one that I have been diligently working on for several years now. As I become older—and let’s admit it, more prone to frailties—I strive to become more, not less, connected to others. I want to invest (as this series of stories on friendship suggests) more time and energy in those connections, in those friendships.
And this is how I intend to do it—by answering, to the best of my ability, Desai’s third and final question:
“How can others use me to their greatest success.”
- Talk to me. Really talk. And I will really listen. We should do this face to face, or at the very least, voice to voice. Texting, email, even snail mail will only get us so far. We can start a dialogue in those ways perhaps, but—especially in matters of the heart—I require actual conversation, even if it’s hard. Of course, we can have a lovely, casual friendship using social technology, but for me to really feel a connection with you, I need to see you now and then—or at least hear your voice. I almost feel apologetic about this; it’s so “old-fashioned.” And you’d think that, since writing is what I do, I’d prefer the written word to the spoken. But writing can often feel lonely, one-sided, self-absorbing. My friendships are meant to counterbalance all of that.
So, talk to me about what’s really going on—the little stuff, the big stuff, the stuff you’re proud of, the stuff you’re embarrassed about. Make me laugh. Make me think. Make me see things from a different perspective. I’ll try to do the same for you. I often start a visit with a close friend (perhaps one I haven’t seen in a while) with these two questions: What’s the best thing about your life right now? And also, What is your biggest struggle these days? I am dying to celebrate your successes with you. And I am eager to brainstorm with you to overcome obstacles that get in your way. I’m really good at both. (Your turn: What is your primary method of communication with friends? Is it satisfying? Is it effective?)
- Play with me. Yes, lighten me up for God’s sake! I heard a great song in my car yesterday, an old John Meyer song called “New Deep.” The first stanza made me laugh out loud: “I’m so alive. I’m so enlightened. I can barely survive a night in my mind.” Ha! Drag me out of my head y’all. Let’s play—let’s adventure—let’s do stuff!
A couple of weeks ago I went on an overnight fishing trip (140 miles out in the Gulf) with my husband and six of his guy friends. I was so impressed by the camaraderie of these men—from all different walks of life, some having just met. They were so happy to be doing stuff together. Men are better at that, I think, than women. Ted loves to fish and invited a bunch of friends to join him. Simple.
Please invite me to join you in what you enjoy. Don’t assume that I’m “too busy.” I’m not. (Again, I sometimes feel like I should apologize for not being super busy. My kids are grown; enough said.) While my comfort zone is the beach at dawn, the Drowsy Poet for coffee, or Wild Roots for lunch, I really am interested in exploring new places. Trying new things. Learning new stuff. Yes, take me to that Pilates class you enjoy, that meditation group. Teach me how to play a bar chord on the guitar, how to make crawfish étouffée. Encourage me to read your favorite books, listen to your favorite music. Teach me how to crochet.
And I will do the same for you—maybe nudge you out of your comfort zones—by sharing with you my passions and talents. I can show you the beach through my eyes; come walk with me. I can get you up on a paddle board if you’re game. I can show you how to get more exercise into your life—and how to make it fun. I can encourage you with your writing if that is an aspiration; I can help you write your life story. And I think I can remember how to teach you to macramé, if you’re hankering for a jute wall-hanging over your water bed. Ha!
(Your turn: What would you love to learn—to teach? What adventure is calling?)
- Lean on me. Yeah, just like Bill Withers sang: “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on…” I will. If we are friends, true friends, I will walk through fire to get to you if you call, but—and this is so important—you must call. Withers elaborates: “Please, swallow your pride, if I have things you need to borrow. For no one can fill those of your needs, that you won’t let show.”
I understand that we each feel our own private pain so acutely, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that others can’t intuit our needs. Social media further complicates this—where posts are so often skewed to the ideal, the brag-worthy, the impressive.
I wrote a whole essay—one of my most important stories ever—on this crucial life skill. Yes, it is a skill. Not a weakness. A skill. The story, called “Ordinary Light” (click here to read it) starts out with these words: “Ask. For. Help. Go ahead, do it now. It may just change your life of the life of someone you love dearly—in ways you’ve never dreamed possible…”
Be as honest as you can and as specific as you can. When my friend Laura shared that she was battling cancer, and folks asked her if there was anything they could do to help, she said, as a matter of fact, yes—be at my house at this time on this date and accompany me to my cancer treatment. We did. 18 of us.
That said, sometimes we just don’t know what we need. Still, I believe, it is our responsibility to ask for help, and say just that—I’m lost and I don’t know what to do. Please help me.” I will try. I may not have answers or advice or magic pills. But I have hope, and time, and a true desire to “be of use” if only to assure you that you are not alone.
(Your turn: How do you feel about asking for help? How do you feel about being asked? Do your answers conflict?)
Back in 1975, when my friend wrote me that love letter, she thanked me for being a friend and specifically “for being willing to get involved.” Her home life was tragically abusive—horrors I couldn’t fathom as a teenager, and only came to fully understand years later. But even at 16, I was compelled to “be of use.” I do not remember what, specifically, I did to ease her suffering. I don’t know if she does. But the letter suggests that I was there for her that spring in a meaningful way.
Fast forward more than 30 years: My friend hangs up the phone and gets in her car. She drives for nine hours and winds up at my door. I invite her in and we talk. We go for a walk at Fort Pickens. I lean on her. I had been utterly lost in grief and addiction and my own disordered brain. She found me. She was “of use.” I am so grateful.
Yes, it’s true: We offer what we wish to—or need to—receive, even if it’s 30 years later.
I remember that during our time in early 1975, a song played incessantly on the radio, a happy little tune by a guy named Billy Swan, called “I Can Help.”
If you’ve got a problem
I don’t care what it is.
If you need a hand,
I can assure you this,
I can help…
I loved this song, and the last line still sums up my whole philosophy on friendship:
It would sure do me good to do you good. Let me help.
Follow me on Instagram or Facebook (@sharladawnstoryteller) for images and musings from the beach at dawn. Also, pick up a copy of Island Times from any of a dozen or more Pensacola Beach shops and restaurants—enjoy my column—Sharla Dawn at Dawn.
The image featured at the top of this post is an original oil painting, Flowers in Glass Pitcher by Illinois artist, Kirk Kerndl.
“Vices” is now available on Kindle and other eReaders for just 5.99. You even have the option of “gifting” the digital version by clicking the “Give as a Gift” on Amazon.com and entering the email address of the recipient. Of course, the paper version (still my preference) is available at the buy-three-get-one-free rate from this website (Shop).
Books are also available from all these gracious local retailers:
At the beach:
69 Via DeLuna Dr.
Pensacola Beach, FL 32561
In Gulf Breeze:
832 Gulf Breeze Parkway
(Publix shopping center)
Gulf Breeze, FL 32561
In East Hill:
1208 N. 12th Ave.
Pensacola, FL 32503
(at the front register)
5109 Bayou Blvd.
Pensacola, FL 32503
89 Central Square
Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32549
Page and Palette
32 S. Secton Street
Fairhope, AL 36532