I crossed the street to come out of the shade and into the sun. With the temperature well below zero, I was wishing I’d worn a hat. The west side of Locke Street granted a degree or two of warmth to help prevent my ears from feeling frostbitten. It was late afternoon and I was trying to squeeze in a quick tea and chat with an old work colleague before my boyfriend got home from work.
It had been years since I’d seen Nina. She reached out to me, seemingly out of the blue, weeks before. There was tension with a new girl at work and she needed to talk it out with someone- someone who didn’t know this woman, but who knew the dynamics of a cardiac research department. At least that’s what I was thinking as I made my way to her. I’d always loved Nina. She was patient with me back in the day as I tried to learn the ropes of running a study in a busy hospital and never made me feel like I was bothering her. She had a way of teaching that left you feeling as though you had figured out the solution all on your own.
We were meeting at a hipster café near my house. It had humble beginnings of vegan cuisine and a vast selection of herbal teas, but had recently succumbed to the local hedonistic desires for fried chicken and craft beer. The chairs were metal and red vinyl- the kind your grandmother would keep in a corner in her kitchen to use as a step ladder. Only here, there were thirty of them and they were your sole seating option. Nina was at the back of the café, fidgeting with a lone pink carnation in a narrow, tiffany blue vase. She didn’t see me until I stood before her.
“Oh, hi!” she beamed, immediately rising to give me a hug. “I’m sorry. I’m so distracted lately.” She tucked strands of her chestnut hair behind her ears and ran her hands down the sides of her navy blue cotton dress nervously.
I waved my hand in dismissal, “Don’t give it a second thought.”
She visibly relaxed and sighed, “You look the same, Danielle. The glasses are new? But you look comfortingly the same,” she said and I laughed, taking no offence since none was intended. “I ordered you a peppermint tea. Hope that’s ok? You still like it?”
I smiled. “I do. Thanks, Nina,” I said, taking off my bulky winter coat and hanging it on the back of the chair. “So shall we dive in? Or did you want to update me on Eli and the kids first?”
She laughed, “Speaking of being the same…. Eli is still trying to make a go of painting professionally. It’s hard. I’m still the breadwinner. And the boys- well, they are still noisy and destructive going-concerns.” Her tone was sarcastically harsh and flooded with love. I knew her family was her world. I also knew that Nina liked to be liked which could make her work environment difficult at times. “How about you?” she asked warmly. “How is your little blended family?”
It was my turn to laugh. “I’m starting to hate that term!”
Nina looked confused. “Oh? How come?”
“Oh, it’s not that. I just didn’t realize that the term meant different things to different people. To me, it meant my boyfriend and his daughter were a family, my kids and I were a family and together we were blending families. Since writing about it, I have been emailed by people that a blended family means that my boyfriend and I would have a child of our own or that it includes the other parents or blah, blah, blah. It’s been a whole thing…”
“Geez. That’ll teach you to write about your life, eh?”
I laughed again. “Maybe it should, but I’ve been doing this for nearly seven years now. It’s all part of it. As for my crew, we’re good. Lots of ups and downs, but loads of love. We’re good.”
Nina smiled, pleased. “I’m so glad, Danielle.”
The waitress set down our teas and offered menus which we declined. When she left, I leaned forward: “OK, so tell me everything about this new co-worker.”
Nina gritted her teeth and rubbed her hands nervously. “Danielle, this woman makes me question my belief that I am a good person…” she began. Then reaching for her mug of tea, she cleared her throat and started over. “So, Ann and I are very different. She’s in her late twenties, single, doesn’t want kids and does not like hearing about mine. She’s haughty and very ambitious.”
“OK…” I said, feeling her tension.
“You know me well enough to know that I, of course, tried to be friends with her. It didn’t take. She had zero interest and almost seemed offended by the idea. So, I thought: ‘Well, we’ll just be co-workers and keep conversation to work stuff. I can totally live with that.’ But then, she saw that I was close with Dr. Singh, the Principle Investigator of the study we’re working on, and all of a sudden Ann wanted to be best friends! She started a conversation with me about incentivizing doctors in Brazil to get higher enrolment and I came up with a really good idea.” Nina paused to take a sip of tea.
I cleared my throat. “I think I see where this is going…”
She swallowed and continued, “Yes, and you’re right, but it’s worse. She brought up my idea at the next study meeting and claimed it as her own! And Danielle, when I confronted her about it she made me feel like I was crazy…like we had actually come up with it together. She totally twisted my words around. And then she began pointing out mistakes I had made when I was validating patient records- shifting the blame. She completely dominated the conversation until I finally had to leave our office because I was losing track of what was happening. I was even starting to believe that maybe it had been her idea!”
“Oh Nina…” I said with sympathy.
“And now she is paranoid of my friendship with Dr. Singh. She’s accusing me of talking to him about the study without her- stealing her ideas. Every time I get up from my desk, her eyes are on me asking me where I’m going. It’s ridiculous. She’s accusing me of shit that she has done!”
She was visibly upset now. “Danielle, how do I work with someone like that? This is not the first time she’s done something like this, but it is the first time she has screwed me over on such a massive scale. And it’s her word against mine! Plus I look like a total whiner for bringing it up with Dr. Singh. Anyway, the main reason I called you is because I don’t want to be a dick about this. I want to try to see this situation in a more spiritual way, you know?”
I smiled and had to hold back a groan. I knew what she meant, but I felt silly for a moment- like I had somehow given Nina the impression that my method of dealing with problems was superior because it was “spiritual”. Of course, this was just my insecurities talking. What Nina was saying was that she recognized that her usual way of dealing with things wasn’t working and she was ready to try something different.
“Nina, let me just start by saying it’s OK to be pissed right now. It’s alright to feel wronged. In fact, you can’t avoid those feelings. You have to sit with them. Sit with the feelings with the intention of hearing out your inner child because that’s what it’s like- we have this inner child that says “No fair!” when shit like this goes down. Hear her out. And then the next step is to recognize that you could see Peace instead of conflict. Basically, recognize that there is a better way to see this situation- a way to grow into love and kindness instead of wallowing in fear and victimhood. And then, be willing to surrender all of it to a Higher Power.”
She nodded, her eyes misted with tears.
I continued, “Lastly, be gentle with yourself. This takes as long as it takes.”
Nina was listening intently, looking me square in the eyes. “OK, but I think I need to try and confront her again,” she said, her voice wavering slightly.
“Ah,” I said.
“I mean, I can’t let her get away with that. I don’t need to tell on her, but it’s not OK what she did.”
I lowered my head for a moment to gather my thoughts. “I hear you,” I said. “Here’s what I’ve learned about these kinds of confrontations whether it be with a colleague, your kid or your closest friend: Clean up your side of the street first. I learned it in Twelve Step, but I didn’t learn it until the past few months or so. If you don’t take the time to feel your feelings, take responsibility for your own actions and get clear on your intentions you won’t be heard.”
She nodded, taking in my words.
“What I mean is: she will hear your anger, not your intention. And it seems to me your intention is peace.”
“Yes,” she replied. “Ultimately, I just want to get along or move on. I’ll transfer to a new study if I have to.”
“Right,” I said. “I also think there may be something else going on with Ann- something psychological. I mean, most people don’t act like that. So, I guess what I’m saying is: try not to go into this with any expectations. It’s cool to stand up for yourself and your values, but that will, in all likelihood, have to be enough.”
Nina gave a long exhale. “That’s good advice. Thank you.”
“Let me be clear about this,” I said plainly. “I hate this process at times- or, I should say, I actively resist it. Just once, I would love for the other person to be wrong! And to admit it! But truly, the victory would be short-lived and it’s never about the other person anyway…”
Nina gave a short laugh, “It’s funny you say that. I saw a meme the other day that said something like: ‘I’m grateful for the assholes in my life because they show me what I don’t want to be.'”
“Hmm,” I replied. “I have seen that, but I think of it differently. I’m grateful for the difficult people in my life because they show me what’s still within me to heal. It’s come to my attention recently that if I’m going to use the challenging situations in my life to make other people feel beneath me, then I’m not healing anything at all- it’s just a vicious cycle of blame. It’s only when I can be willing to see I am no different than they are that God can begin to help me.”
“Ugh, can’t I just say that?” Nina asked.
“God help me!”
I laughed, “Yes! Or ‘Fuck this shit!’ Both are really the start to asking for miracles.”