By Catherine Pearson

Recently a couple of friends were reminiscing about their two-year stint in Italy. They were newlyweds at the time, nearly 20 years ago, but as they regaled me with tales, they both recalled one moment vividly. “Tiramisu!” they cried in unison. I was surprised, and admittedly a bit disappointed, that the stand-out moment of their years abroad boiled down to a dessert. But, much to my delight, I was mostly wrong.

tiramisu_ESL_To_GoThey had lived and worked in Genoa and gotten around like the locals via the bus that shot straight up and down the mountain. At one stop, in a commercial-esque scene, a robust, elderly Italian woman climbed aboard with so many bags she didn’t have a spare hand. As soon as she stepped into the stair well, the bus driver took off. The captive audience of passengers watched the woman careen helplessly yelling, “Tiramisu!”

The couple stood entranced and puzzled at the odd time to yell about dessert. And then it hit them. “Tiramisu,” which they’d always known as a decadent dessert, literally translates, “pick me up,” the falling woman’s cry for help. When her plea sunk in, they lunged forward to her rescue.

They chuckle telling the story. Their eyes alight as they relive the revelation. The unforgettable language lesson was enviable to me as an ESL teacher but even more so the universal lesson of a pick-me-up.

I was homeschooled in the power of a pick-me-up. My father had a knack for noticing when someone needed a lift and producing it like a rabbit from a hat. Because April marked his 74th birthday and the 13th anniversary of his passing, his talent for tiramisu has been on my mind a lot lately. Much like the Italian dessert, his pick-me-ups usually involved sugar and caffeine such as a Dairy Queen milkshake or Snapple iced tea. So, although I don’t speak Italian, I, too, grew up equating a pick-me-up with a milkshakesweet treat.

Like my dad, I’m inclined to offer just that to a friend worn thin by a Monday afternoon. But on one such recent offer, the latte was declined. My friend had ample coffee and dessert that she was eager to share. What she craved more than any consumable good was my company. We loaded her dishwasher, savored her pudding, shared the day’s struggles, and I left her presence buoyed. As she had fortuitously texted, the time together ended up being a “pick-us-up.”

Such is often the case when we hear and heed a call for help. The pick-me-up runs both ways. Considering the obvious benefits of tiramisu, it’s a wonder we don’t partake more often. Perhaps that’s because it’s a three-part trick. It takes recognizing when someone needs catching, lunging forward to help, and being brave enough to ask for help when we need it ourselves.

The over-loaded Italian woman knew she needed a hand, said so, and got one. Rarely do all those steps fall into place. At times we see our own need and yell, “Tiramisu!” but it gets misunderstood or missed in the bustle of life. Sometimes we stay silent because we don’t know we’re about to fall even if others see us teetering. Other times we ascribe to the beliefs of our independence-prizing culture and esteem self sufficiency to our own detriment.

Saying we need one another can be perceived as weakness, which is often frowned upon by society. But knowing we need people and saying so is actually strong and brave. When we open ourselves up to others, we risk getting hurt. We risk people judging, belittling and dismissing us. Risking all that takes immense courage. But if we don’t risk it, we are guaranteed to miss the joy of being in it together. We’d miss the memories we make with friends and strangers, the inside jokes, the shared stories and common struggles. We’d miss dessert with two (or three or four) forks.

Author and researcher Brené Brown says that we are hardwired for connection, that it’s our greatest human need. NPR’s Morning Edition aired news of a recent study about isolation that suggests connection must be more than online. We need people, physically present. We need hands to hold, bodies to hug, someone sitting next to us to laugh and listen. Lunch tastes better and nourishes more deeply when shared. Worries lose weight when confided in safe company. Something invisible but potent happens when we get together.

ESL_To_Go_Valentines (4)Last fall I started tutoring a family of Bhutanese refugees. Because their English is limited, syncing our schedules has been challenging. Phone calls and Facebook are relatively useless in this relationship. More than once I’ve pulled up to their apartment and discovered they just left. Likewise, I’ve learned that they had expected me on days I had never intended to visit. But sometimes we do connect, and during those hours, synchronicity abounds.

In an inefficient but refreshing way, we have to sit together, listen intently and lock eyes to convey meaning. We perch side-by-side on couches or around the kitchen table and recycle a smattering of phrases. Through pictures, drawings and persistent attempts at pronunciation, we teach each other our native languages. They insist that work at the chicken plant is good, albeit tiring, and serve me spicy rice and their rapt attention, priceless commodities. I dispense brownies, sip syrupy coffee, hold a restless baby and smile till my cheeks hurt. In a dozen unspoken ways that can only happen in the same room, we tell each other we are glad to be together.

I’m sure plenty is lost on both sides of the communication barrier, but I trust that we are meeting our universal need for companionship. We are combating isolation, which according to the study can be more lethal than loneliness for all of us.

In the Morning Edition story, Bert Uchino, a University of Utah psychology professor, summed it up well, “Have lunch with somebody,” he says. “Take a walk. Give them a phone call. I think those are all important ways that we need to stay connected with our relationships. And I think, in the long term, it can help us.”

My nomadic life has meant often being too far away to lift up those I love. After my last year abroad, I returned to the U.S. and the disheartening reality of my absence through the births, deaths, job losses and weddings of dear friends and family.

It’s hard to accept all those opportunities lost. But it’s harder still to know that even when I’ve been stateside I’ve missed countless chances to offer tiramisu. It helps to remember that strangers on a bus can deliver the perfect pick-me-up if they’re present and paying attention.

Although I mentioned my father as a tiramisu wizard, I’ve been wealthy beyond measure when it comes to family and friends who excel at pick-me-ups. For this, I am profoundly grateful, and I offer this hearty thank you. I hope to replicate the sincerity and creativity with which you have repeatedly picked me up and picked up those around you.

Whether you are well versed at asking for or offering a pick-me-up, I invite you to do both this spring. I wish you ample servings of tiramisu as giver and receiver, which are often one and the same and tend to be equally sweet.

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