When I lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin, I learned a thing or two.
I learned that when people stare at you, it's not usually in an effort to assess what you drive/who you know/what you do for a living, as can so often be the case in my (original) hometown of Los Angeles. They stare in the hopes they will eventually make eye contact so they can say hello. I was genuinely shocked when I finally decided to meet someone's gaze, only to find that the answer to my silent nagging question ("What are you staring at?!") was a friendly greeting. Ever since that day, I've tried to slow down and consciously let that simple joy pay itself forward.
Moral: humanity can show it's kind face at the Piggly Wiggly. Who knew?
I also learned that a clear, sunny day can go hand-in-hand with a -20° temperature. So when you go to a Packer game in December, you bring the Sunday paper to place under your feet. That way, the icy blast lurking in the foundation at Lambeau Field doesn't come right up from the concrete through your boots, warmers, and snow socks into your unsuspecting feet.
We left Green Bay after three years, and since then, I've come to realize that whether you live on frozen ground or with your head in the clouds, it's the foundation we stand on that determines how we feel, what we see, who we are. Certain experiences we have can imitate that icy Wisconsin winter and chill us to the bone, others can warm our souls through and through. But every brick we add helps to build our own unique architecture.
My best friend (who going forward, I think I will refer to as "Chicago", because continuing to describe her as "the one who's kids think I'm a voice in the phone" is just depressing) told me years ago, that each experience we have - good or otherwise - adds up to who we are, and who we are is perfect and beautiful. (Obviously I'm never letting her break up with me, she's my touchstone. Another blog entirely, but it will come.)
When I carry on that midwestern lesson, and make eye contact with strangers, it occurs to me that they are standing on their foundation too, and that it's condition affects their perspective. If it's unstable, or incomplete, or if someone or something has come along and blown it to bits, they're probably trying so hard to just stand steady that they can't see their way to putting one step in front of the other. Even when it's rock solid sometimes it doesn't occur to us to offer a stranger a smile.
As I start the first layer of my daughters' foundation, I hope I'm creating a space where they can always find a good sense of balance, of humor, of perspective. That they are steady enough to be compassionate when people come at them with a dark heart, and then wise enough to walk away intact.
I may be all stressed and verklempt, and I cry at commercials, and I usually forget to give everyone a napkin at dinner. But I stand on the solid ground of two parents who love me (and each other), a devoted husband, and healthy kids. Every time I wonder if I can handle any more of the crazy that surrounds me beyond that, I hear about a friend who isn't quite so lucky as me.
Moral #2: The crazy can always get more crazy, and instead of wondering what I can handle, I should spend my time wondering why I'm so blessed.
So I slow down again, make eye contact, and offer a friendly hello. That simple gesture just might give someone some solid ground to stand on, even if just for a moment.
And if "Chicago" is right, each moment counts, so get to grinning.