Imitating Art: Between the Method and the Madness

“Why do you wear black all the time?” Medvedenko asks.

“I’m in mourning for my life, I’m unhappy,” replies Masha.

These familiar lines that open “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov may feel a little stiff and melodramatic out of context, but there is truth in them. This classic nineteenth century drama set on a Russian country estate explores universal themes that transcend time and place, such as love, fame and regret. So, the fact I resonate with Masha’s malaise is not surprising. I have always adored Chekhov. I remember recreating many iconic moments during my thespian days at Northwestern—cavorting through waist-high snow in the bitter sub-zero cold.

“This is just so Chekhovian!” we’d announce between the method and the madness.

It’s been decades since then, but the poignant words possess a different kind of relevance today. Mourning is draining. And most days, I am merely surviving. That said, I know that mere survival is not sustainable. It’s not living, but I think I’ve lived there most of my life. Gratefully, there have been countless glimmers of joy and grace along the way, but I think it’s time to recalibrate—to find new and durable meaning, since the worst of all nightmares has happened.

Is that what my grief is trying to tell me?

When I ask grief that question outright, the short answer is this: “Well, Elaine, this totally sucks, and you are completely screwed.” However, if I sit with it a bit and get curious, I discover some nuances and layers. Though the pain of losing my brilliant and complicated 26-year-old son Elliot Everett Wright far exceeds all other losses in my life combined,  I find it also acts as a kind of an accelerant, like a flammable substance CSI might detect in the ashes after a horrific fire. Grief is a ubiquitous, unstable chemical compound that can ignite seemingly innocuous psychological debris in a heartbeat. The spontaneous combustion of new griefs inflaming ancient wounds makes carrying the most unbearable of all losses even more painful.

And while we are pondering incendiary substances, I am reminded of the potent odor of turpentine spirits that would hang in the air and seep into every surface of our suburban house growing up. My mother, Ann Cushing Gantz, a passionate artist who was profoundly frustrated by the fickle art world, liked to repurpose B&M Baked Bean jars to soak her paint-caked brushes. The small, amber-brown containers covered every table, every shelf and ledge in her cluttered studio over the garage—messy and mesmerizing, like an overgrown garden of potted pigment. I can’t think of my mother without catching a whiff of that bittersweet aroma—stringent at times, but strangely appealing. Anything can trigger a grief pang, even years later. And every loss is its own.

Like putting out fire with gasoline, my efforts to quell grief’s urgency simply don’t work very well. And it’s hard to separate it from its grave context. At first, I thought Elliot’s loss had its own private room in my broken heart, but I think compartmentalizing it increases the internal friction. I wish I could find a way to disengage it from the rest of the root system. I don’t want to go under like someone hanging on to a bag of rocks in the middle of a pit of quicksand. 

My grief is shouting at me—but so is everything else. All the experts say I need to feel the ache of this unimaginable loss to find a way to carry it, along with the rest of the baggage I seem to have brought to this place of fresh awareness. I will never reverse the agony of losing my precious Elliot and the relationship we might have had, but one day, I may be able to soften the sharpness of his absence—if I create a space for forgiveness and empathy for myself and the other players in my drama.

“Forgive to live,” Grief says. “But never forget.”

 I guess I’m just not sure what to do next.  

“At this rate, it may combust into a blaze you cannot extinguish,” Grief warns.

It’s an inside job, as I say so often—getting grounded in the now and establishing healthy techniques to soothe my fractured nervous system. I am no longer that frightened little girl who grew up in an atmosphere of confusion, resentment and secrets. So I need to stop trying so hard to fix things that aren’t mine to fix. It’s all bigger than I can ever imagine—a mystery beyond naming. That is where I need to live.

So now, I’m remembering a different Masha from another Chekhov play:

This Masha says, “I’ll go. . . . I’ve got the blues today, I’m feeling glum, so don’t you mind what I say [laughing through her tears]. We’ll talk some other time . . .”

Perhaps, I’ll adopt the countenance of  this Masha—from Act I of “The Three Sisters.” Laughing through her tears. Acknowledging the hurt but finding a way to laugh. She might be on to something. Recently, I read an article recently in The Atlantic that said the expression of seemingly incongruent emotions can actually help moderate intense feelings—tears of joy, smiles of sadness, etc.

Well, Masha, for now, I’m going with that . . . laughing through my tears, and we’ll talk some other time, my dear.

Northwestern Alumni Get a Taste of Pizza Hut’s Secret Sauce

whatsoverI had the opportunity to attend a meeting of Dallas area Northwestern University alumni last night.  Pizza Hut/Yum! Brands on Plano’s corporate super highway hosted us—in all our purple panache. Great, convivial crowd—including DFW graduates of the Kellogg School of Management, as well.

Scott Bergren, CEO of Pizza Hut U.S. and Yum! Brands, was a delightful, genuine, and inspiring raconteur. In fact, he launched his presentation with a preamble that demonstrated he is a leader who truly walks his talk. He has effectively turned this fast food ship around through a precise understanding of his customer, as well as his business. He shared that he even did some market research about the NU group’s expectations of his presentation, and he discovered we prefer to hear stories—the tales of his life, personal dilemmas, successes and the connections to Northwestern that have helped propel his life’s trajectory.

He did not disappoint.

Open about being in his mid-60s, the fit and facile corporate mogul spoke with conviction about his intention to keep delivering the pizza profits— indefinitely. Along the way, he inserted several delicious nuggets of wit and wisdom—worth repeating.

  • Be a “possibilitarian.” Bergren  described himself as such—committed to seeing the possibilities in everything and every idea.  He explained that many corporate cultures reward the naysayer and the hole-puncher. The solution may not always be obvious, but he is willing to be relentless in finding one. That’s how true innovation is nurtured and achieved. He observed, “Steve Jobs did not really make anything. He made things happen.”
  • Make your ideas “sticky.” As marketing copywriter from way back, I love this one. It’s not enough to have idea. It needs to resonate and to literally “stick” in the human psyche and/or organizational zeitgeist—working with external markets or internal teams.  His example was his latest buzz concept — “Rebuild America”  inside Pizza Hut. His staff members in the audience nodded enthusiastically. It started out as something like “Rebuild the Pizza Hut business in America,” but it became the internal battle cry for an audacious goal and compelling vision as “Rebuild America.”
  • Find a “work buddy.” This does not mean the girlfriend you go to lunch with and to review the latest gossip. Bergren is talking about a challenging mastermind relationship that provides a rigorous intellectual workout. He says this is particularly important for leaders. He suggests cultivating a comrade in a completely different discipline or functional area—someone who thinks differently. It may be an accountant or a software programmer—someone who can help you see the things you can’t—and from a completely different perspective.
  •  Ask the right questions.  Bergren explained that one of the most critical success qualities in asking the right questions—significantly more important that serving up the right answers. He attributes his success at Pizza Hut to knowing what questions and when to ask them.  Cultivating curiosity. He recommends asking those questions of everyone involved—from customer to colleague.

After all, “There are no right answers to the wrong questions,” says Ursula K. Le Guin.

This was just a taste of last night’s our fascinating fast food feast.  Great times with my Northwestern tribe. Go Wildcats!

What was questions are you asking today?

Facebook Valentine

Dear Reader, my sincere apologies for such a lengthy gap between posts. I so appreciate your attention to my musings, and I have missed you sorely. Contact me at elgantz @ yahoo.com if I can help you with social media, marketing, or communications.

On Friday, January 8, 2010 I received a Valentine’s Day card from my Mother. She has always been quite enamored with all things mail—postal, that is, so I am never surprised when her cards arrive in multiples and even early, but this was significantly early, even for her. I remember a palpable queasiness in the pit of my stomach, but then, I had felt vaguely uncomfortable about my stubbornly aging parents for weeks. Then, late in the afternoon on Friday, January 29, I received a call at work that my Mother was in the ICU at Parkland. She had been rushed there after a devastating stroke.

I think my heart broke that day.

This was the beginning of an agonizing journey, including my father’s concurrent debilitating health emergency and affliction in February. I will refrain from the intricate detail, but I can tell you that pondering and writing about the theoretical vicissitudes of social media and well—just about anything—became somewhat daunting when dealing with all-consuming family health crises, especially when they came in duplicate, simultaneously—and when the relationships involved had been historically complicated in the best of times. I have been forced to recalculate, reconfigure, re-evaluate, and re-prioritize—everything. And pray most of the time.

Then, consider all of this in the context of an abrupt job “separation.” It’s just one more wave in what a friend has called my “Life Tsunami.”

OK, Universe, you have my attention! Now what?

Still, as a single mother of teenage boys, I have become quite adept at riding the “survival roller coaster” for the last ten years. Yet even Monsieur Maslow, guru of all things needy, would posit that I have many blessings to count amongst the mayhem—and you better believe I am grasping for every possible nugget of gratitude as I navigate the debris sprinkled across these choppy seas.

Fundamentally, I am enormously grateful for reconnection with my sister, Melissa, as we pilot the blind turns, brick walls, and back alleys of the frustrating health care labyrinth. My boys have shown considerable compassion and maturity inside the ominous hallways of ICUs and rehabs—and my friends and church family have provided me with exceptional support. But, one of my most surprising and cherished blessings has been social media—specifically, Facebook. I’m not talking about ROI or conversions or leads. I’m talking about the kind of value for which there is no metric, no Google analytic.

In those darkest moments of loneliness and fear, reading the sincere, heartfelt messages of my friends, near and far, recent and from years ago, on Facebook has been a true gift from God. The arrival timing of some of these messages has been nothing short of Divine.

This sounds somehow saccharin—even to me, but this precious prose has served a miraculous refuge of comfort and warmth for me—when nothing else in my rattled world has seemed steady or solid. The magic even came in the form of timely medical advice from Ann, a Northwestern pal I had not spoken with for years, who had actually worked with stroke rehabilitation patients. Amazing! So, in honor of those special souls in my life . . . here’s my true inspiration. I share a sampling of some of my favorite Valentines—even though it’s March:

From Stephen:
The point is that we do not know why these things happen, and it seems like at ‘our age’ things should be easier. I am sure I am not the only one who knows and is encouraged by the fact that you will come through things wonderful, wiser, stronger, and maybe happier. Thoughts and prayers are with you.”

From Kim:
“Everyone of us is called upon, probably many times to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job; and onward full tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute— driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another— that is surely the basic instinct—crying out, ‘High Tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.’ ” — Barbara Kingsolver

From Joe:
Prayers ascending, Elaine. May God’s abiding presence bring you strength, courage, wisdom, and peace to face this onslaught of challenge.

From Laura:
You are a gift to me, and I love you very much!

From Carol:
“Holding you and your family in The Light.”

And from Amy . . . just hours before everything changed professionally:
“We can’t take all our fortitude and will and force the outcomes we want. But we can open our hearts and time to letting God be right in the middle of everything for us. Daddy and I just said goodbye to his Mom. We didn’t find God in the worrying about what to do for Granny next; we found God in the small stuff, like brushing her hair, and in supporting each others’ choices and process of holding on while letting go. Whatever you face, I trust you will face it with the openness and authenticity I see in your eyes when I look at your pictures. And you will never face it alone.

With deepest gratitude! Share your mystical experiences . . .I would love to hear . . .