Next week’s paper will not include my byline.
Five years ago, when I began writing “Ask Wendy,” the column was an extension of my life. I would walk into a store to buy a jacket and end up sitting on the dressing-room floor counseling the saleswoman. At any given dinner party, I would spend all night talking to one person about his fractured marriage or meet only the woman who was frayed from her struggle to raise a child with a degenerative disease. I always seemed to gravitate toward the person who did not want to exchange mere pleasantries on a rare night out. Or did that person gravitate toward me?
For as long as I can remember, life stories have fascinated me above all else. And what particularly appealed was the emotional investment, rather than the resume; as some of my poor neglected friends could tell you, I could be as taken with the waitress as with them. I was always ready with sound and sensible advice that seemed as easy to follow as it was to dispatch. I was shocked when, a year later, I might discover that my affable dinner companion was still stuck in his fractured marriage. My diagnosis, and directions, had been so clear.
I remain as sensible and sound as ever. And maybe even more sympathetic than when I began. The stories I have heard — many written by people requesting anonymity — touch me as deeply today as when I first started the column. Perhaps more so. I am aware of how much pain and despair many of us carry within.
I am also increasingly aware that many of the issues that torment us may feel unique in our experience of them, but are essentially similar in their outlines. And I am continually astonished by the universality of our experiences: One printed letter from a woman caring for her mentally challenged brother yielded 20 from others in the same situation. I only wish that there were more ways for those 21 people to find each other — preferably in the grocery line.
I have learned that there are at least three sides to every story, even when only two people are involved. That people are passionate about many things — passionate enough to write long letters arguing with me on a point or supporting an opinion. That I have loyal and supportive readers, for which I am grateful, as I am for the three marriage proposals they have sent me, including the one from the mother who felt I was perfect for her son. (I’ve kept your number, just in case.) That we all tend to get stuck in the same potholes, like my Pulitzer Prize-winning friend who thinks she hasn’t accomplished anything in her life: We advocate kindness to others, but fail to practice it on ourselves. We’ll speak candidly to an advice columnist, but not to our best friends, many of whom are our parents and spouses. I’ve learned that life is short, pleasures fleeting and that we tend to focus on the negative. And finally, that no wise counsel from an advice columnist can change someone who isn’t inclined toward change.
Which is why I plan to spend the next several months regaining my equilibrium. That said, after a week staring adoringly at my husband and children, I probably will redirect my energies toward locating Osama bin Laden, settling the problems in the Middle East and catching up on my overdue thank-you notes and baby gifts.
While my prize-winning brisket is simmering in the oven, I leave you with some parting advice: It’s all about communication. Do something madcap: Talk to each other. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable or to expose yourselves, to admit your insecurities or to speak what’s on your mind. What I have learned above all is that conversation, dialogue and discussion are the vehicles that do not fail. They may not land us at the destination we were aiming for, but they will always produce motion and movement. As someone even wiser than I once said, life is not a dress rehearsal. Without a moment’s hesitation, I leave you all in your own capable hands.
Write to “Ask Wendy” at 954 Lexington Avenue #189, New York, N.Y. 10021 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.