Friday, February 26, 2010

The Doctor Is In

Last night Spangles and I were discussing a friend of ours who, we decided, was just too laid back for this uptight city life. We decided he should move to a beachfront community and open a little bistro.

This led us to develop a concept for a show called "What Not To Do." It would be just like "What Not To Wear" on TLC, except instead of telling people how to dress we would tell them how to live their lives. Ultimately we decided the concept wouldn't be that successful because we would just end up telling everyone to move to a beachfront community and open a little bistro.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Happy-ish Playlist: I'm Alive by The Hooters

I highly recommend downloading this bad boy. It was playing on WXPN when I got in the car and the only thing better than starting your day with a loud blast of this song is starting your day with a loud blast of this song and a cup of coffee.

I've got a condition for which there is no cure
I'm in a position that everyone prays for
Got a sound in my head that could wake up the dead
Like The Who singing summertime blues
Got no thorn in my side, got no secrets to hide
I'm completeley and utterly amused

I'm alive, I'm alive
It's a beautiful day and I'm happy to say
I'm alive, I'm alive
And wherever I go it's amazing to know
I'm alive

From running fast as fast as I could getting nowhere
I'm standing incedibly steadily somewhere
Got a hand on a jug and a girl that I love
and it's driving me out of my mind
I'm a bird on the wing with the world on a string
and I'm feeling incredibly fine

I'm alive, I'm alive
It's a beautiful day and I'm happy to say
I'm alive, I'm alive
And wherever I go it's amazing to know
I'm alive

I'm looking older now than when I was a kid
but feeling younger now than I ever did
and I've got no situations playing tricks upon my mind
I'm feeling christmas in the middle of July

In the morning, in the night
though I walk though the valley of the shadows
you are the light of my life
and the song in my soul
and the beat of my heart
and the rock in my roll

I'm alive, I'm alive
It's a beautiful day and I'm happy to say
I'm alive, I'm alive
And wherever I go it's amazing to know
I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive

Monday, February 22, 2010

On Flying Blind

What do you tell someone on a down day, too little and too fitful sleep, too little "accomplished," the ball of Un-done growing in her stomach, on her to-do's too much to do, and to add insult to injury it's a Monday? What will sustain her on the days when the door to the Backyard of Sunny Wisdom has slammed shut, the curtain has dropped, she has tumbled off the mountain of the Vista of Wide Perspectives, and her vision has become myopic and whiny once again and her extremities can't get warm?

Maybe you say, just keep trudging. Do just one thing. Maybe you say, be gentle, you don't have to to do it all today. Maybe you ask her if she has taken her ten minutes to sit quietly today, and she will respond no, quietly, chastened. Or remind her that every day can't be an uninterrupted concert of the angel's choirs. And that all things considered, in her very small little universe, an ordinary day in which no great catastrophes rained down is perhaps better than she gives it credit for.

You might tell her to lighten up, or look around. The quiet hum of the refrigerator, the snow on the ground, the sunlight already getting warmer and longer, belie the thesis that gets unproven again and again that this moment and day and era is permanent and intractable. In fact the shelf life is even shorter than she might guess, and before she knows it she will probably look up and see something else.

You might tell her that her daily work, the efforts she exerts, the humdrum of the routine is a perfectly fine endeavor, worth doing, worth getting lost in. That she will get smart again, and get happy, and accomplish some percentage of the ambitious tasks she lines up next to each other like pickets in a fence.

You might advise her just to ride the waves of uncertainty or boredom or the sense that she left an important part of her brain home that day. Tell her that the important thing is just that she not lose her lightness, so that she can float on that pounding surf until the weather changes or a new tide comes in or she is sighted from shore.

You might tell her all of those things, hoping one or the other sticks, hoping that some or all of them might be true.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

In which the relation of the story of an unexpected gift transforms into rumination on the nature of inspiration

An everyday miracle occurred yesterday, in the sense that it happened not as a result of divine intervention but was a product of real live human effort and love.

I came home to get a few things before Gumbo Night at Spangles's house, and there on the steps was a tantalizing book-shaped cardboard package from I always check the name on these packages left in the stairwell, even if I'm not expecting anything, because I'm a nosy neighbor. Inexplicably, it was for me! For me? My first thought was, great, I bet this is some sort of scam.

But when I brought it upstairs and opened it i found, much to my ferklempt-ting, that it was a brand new hardback copy of The Happiness Project, mentioned as an unaffordable luxury in an earlier post! Since this blog only has one reader at the moment, and I know who she is, I knew this surprise (but not surprising) expression of love came from The Twin. I will leave you to make your own connections as to the sterling character and generosity of heart of said individual, because in my opinion the internet isn't big enough to contain such a subject.

I have already begun to read it, and I'm two months in to her year-long project. (The author, Gretchen Rubin is speaking in Philadelphia in two weeks, too! Guess who will be there with her copy of the book!)

I will hold off on a full blown book review at this point, but preliminary findings suggest that, much to my relief, she has not written the be-all end-all book about happiness after which another one need never be written. There are things I disagree with, methods I question, ways that I would do it differently. My Happiness book remains to be written, my own tune still to be hammered out - as with all of ours as individuals. As she points out, each one of our lives, at least here in the Free World, can be their own Happiness Project.

One of the great things about wanting to create things and taking on enormous amorphous topics like Happiness, is that you never get it completely right. There is always more to be said, a different way to paint the picture that would be more accurate, more beautiful, truer. This is mostly unacknowledged brilliance of the Great Hunger - it keeps you awake and on your toes, keeps you striving, keeps you moving toward the horizon, certain that the answer is just over that next ridge. It's great, because if you're moving you're not stuck, even if that movement comes with this unsettled feeling of incompleteness, of wanting more. I've felt stuck too before in life, and the hunger is by far the more lively option.

I remember when I took a ceramics class as a teenager, as I learned all the different techniques and types of clay and firing and glaze, feeling overwhelmed as I realized the infinite possibilities. You could stay in a clay studio for an entire lifetime and never try out all the different possibilities, never finish all the ideas. And that's great! That feeling that there are too many ideas rushing through your head - that's the feeling of inspiration. It can be anxiety producing if you try to cling to each one and hoard it like a gold bouillon piece. The other option is just to stand there in the middle of the shower and enjoy getting soaked, be thankful for the rain, catch a few drops in your mouth and let the rest roll off of you, trusting that the source and patterns and reasons for rain are far beyond your capacity for comprehension. I think the reason get passionate about anything is precisely this sense of infinite possibilities, the sense that no matter how deep you dig you'll never finish the hole, but there's great stuff down there all the same.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Recipe for Happiness

Dear Diary,

I couldn't wipe the grin off my face this morning, so I thought I'd write down the ingredients in case I want to try this dish again!

1. Obtain a new toy that you've wanted desperately for a long time. (In this case, a new Macbook![acbook...acbook...acbook!]. It was courtesy of the Parent Company, and like many things T-bone and Mama Citta Aperta have given me over the years, how do you ever say thank you for something like that, which they really didn't have to do but they did? As another example, giving me life.)

Enjoy it with the awareness that new-toy-based happiness can be fleeting and furnishes diminishing returns as the body adapts to the gadget high, so be sure to really relish in it while you can. Really get up in there and roll around. Marvel at the simple, unspoiled beauty. Hold it in your hands, caress it, feel the possibilities shoot through your veins like lightning bolts.

2. Before you go to bed, ask your sweetheart to help you get up in the morning, no matter how much you resist. Human intervention wake-up (even tickling) is head and shoulders better than electronic beeping wake-up.

3. The next morning, if possible, have this sweetheart make a pot of coffee just because you ask.

4. Take a warm shower in a sunlit bathroom.

5. Have a job that is flexible enough that you don't have to rush out the door. Drink your coffee while lounging on the bed with aforementioned sweetheart. Include tasty breakfast.

6. If at all possible, let it be a Friday, and let the weekend be full of a variety of pleasant plans, but not so many that there won't be time to relax and do nothing in particular. (These activities include making gumbo and watching a movie about summer camp; wine and sandwiches; a housewarming party with long-lost but well-loved friends; and trying, as you do most weekends, to convince F-Money to make biscuits and gravy for Sunday breakfast.)

7. Borrow an album of music that you haven't heard before but that the lender is pretty sure you'll like based on your music preferences. (I used M.Ward, but adjust to taste.)

8.Let it be a sunny, mild day with a nice tender blue sky. This is most potent after a string of gray and wintry days in which you began to despair that the sun even existed.

9. Get in the car, put in the CD.

10. Drive. Savor. Reflect on the notion that this is it. This moment is your life.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On Seeing Clearly

I’ve been thinking about windshield wipers lately, in no small part because nephew Edbear got "The Wheels on the Bus” stuck in my head. It’s currently the # 1 hit in Edbearsville, especially the wipers-on-the-bus part. Each rendition he sings (and he is generous with the renditions), begins and ends with that verse, with special emphasis on the "Swish swish swish”.

And frankly I think it’s time wipers got their day. I was reminded of their great utility while driving in the recent snows here. They are the unsung heroes of inclement weather. You don’t have to think about it, but dependably, as raindrops plop, the wipers clear. Yet without them how far could you really get? I remember vividly from childhood the time the driver’s side wiper of my parents’ car gave out during a thunderous storm, my dad driving with his head hanging out the the driver’s side window, getting soaked to the shoulders.

What I’ve been thinking is that sometimes life itself could use a good wipe. I walk around in a haze so much of the time, running from one thing to the next, trying to see between splotches and streaks on the windshield, a continual to-do list falling like fat raindrops from the sky and scattering across my field of vision.

But every now and again I’m aware of a feeling of clearness, like my feet are planted firmly on the ground and I’m awake, I see and understand the road ahead. When I am, however briefly, smarter than my everyday self. I’m all: yes, I am one with the universe! I understand the deep yin and yang of it all! I hold within me with great delicacy all the paradox and pain and deep goodness of the fragile and tantalizingly brief moments we spend spinning around on this precious blue marble! I become like Walt Whitman: all this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well. Her Wiseness Anne Lamott has described this feeling as a veil lifting.

I try to interpolate the graph, to understand which things I do (or stop doing) that lead to this feeling of calmness and solidity.

Sitting for a while with my thoughts helps. It doesn't really help while I’m sitting – a few beats after I close my eyes and tune in to my breath like you’re supposed to, I become privy to the deafening cyclone that is the inside of my brain. The whole operation sounds a lot like these cartoon viking kittens plundering the seas to Led Zeppelin, if the sound were piped through subwoofers and garbled with static and scattered sentence fragments and loops of conversations in which my part of the dialogue becomes increasingly witty and self-righteous with each repeat.

Sometimes I wonder how I manage to function at all.

The clarity part usually happens when I open my eyes and realize I’m back where I began, and the room is stunningly silent and still compared to the white water rapids I’ve been cruising down in my mind.

And the afterglow from that is that I tend to feel a little less like an unstable isotope, always whipping my electrons around me at maximum speed, unable to land anywhere to rest happily, slowly decaying into other things. I feel a little more like I live inside my body, and my body doesn’t stretch a block before and after my mind like it usually does. It’s like in the cartoon Peter Pan when he finally catches that hyperactive shadow and reattaches it to himself, where it belongs. It feels like I turned the windshield wipers on.

Another thing that helps me turn the wipers on is remembering a phrase I read in a book by Charlotte Kasl: what is, is. Here's what she says about it:

It helped me accept the moment and stop fighting with myself...It’s just what is. It’s the truth, it’s where my life is right this moment. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just what’s happening at the moment. Saying what is, is helps us stop demanding that situations and people be different. It also allows us to drop into our feelings, which connects us to our inner wisdom.

It’s kind of a reality check. It helps you identify and accept whatever’s going on in your life at that very moment. It puts the horrible and the sublime in perspective. Keeps you from sensationalizing. Helps you get a firmer grasp on reality.

Our eyes are flawed and we forget to see with them. It’s nice to put on a pair of glasses now and then, and see the sharpness and detail you’ve been missing. It's nice to get the high-def channels once in a while.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The V Stands for Ambivalence

Ah, Ballentimes Day. It seems that a blog that so heavy-handedly purports to cover the topic of love might make a mention of this excruciating holiday. So here it is: it sucks. (In the interest of full disclosure I will mention that my valentine, Spangles, is far away on official business and won't be back until late, thereby spending all but 12 minutes of the day elsewhere from me. Not that something like that would ever influence my completely unbiased and impartial reporting.)

Single or attached, this is the holiday-cum-months-long-card-selling-ploy in which "they" try to stuff your highly individual and boundless love into a small, heart-shaped chocolate mold. In which love is colored red and pink and festooned with doilies. In which love is equated with buying useless clutter and delicious but fattening bonbons, not to mention, if you are unlucky enough to be a twenty-something woman who reads fashion magazines, frilly underwear. (If you are attached, editors will include this directive with their instructions on "6 Sexy Ways to Rev His Love Engine"; if you are single they will categorize this advice under the aegis of "treating yourself". Either way, heeding this advice is a lose-lose because in both cases you end up with frills wedged between your butt cheeks. My advice: take the underwear money and invest in something that will improve your quality of life, like jammies. Or IHOP.)

For many years, my preparation for Valentine's Day has involved bunkering down to survive the onslaught of reminders that you don't have a boyfriend and it's probably because of some fundamental personality flaw that everyone's aware of but you. I tend to make Valentine's Day, and a lot of other things, either black or white: either you have a mushy, romantic evening with your one true love who showers you with presents and adoration, or you drink late into the night- in the company of a group of other desperate, bitter singletons, if you're lucky.

But anecdotal evidence suggests, as usual, that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Last year, I had a sweetheart and we went to a monster truck rally, then walked the several miles up Broad St. back to my apartment. The monster truck rally was, well, let's just say there's probably a reason their primary audience is nine-year-old boys. And the walk back was lovely and sweet, but no more or less so than other lovely and sweet things that Spangles and I have done. The year before that, when I was single, I went to Copabanana and had nachos and margaritas with a friend and her friends, who all turned out to be very nice and funny, and we got free promotional tank tops for Absolut vodka! Then one year in college I participated in "V-day," which promotes awareness to end violence against women and girls (which I wholeheartedly support) by getting on stage and using a lot of different words for "vagina" (which, to be honest, I felt weird about.)

So anyway, you can't entirely blame Valentine's Day. It's not the holiday's fault if we choose to think that its fullest expression can only be achieved by young couples who are passionately in love going to dinner in a fancy restaurant. Maybe I even feel sorry for Valentine's Day and all the venom it's been subjected to over the years, all the parties that have been thrown for the purpose of cursing its existence. Maybe people like me are to blame for distorting it into this crazed, candy-gobbling, black-or-white Holiday of Judgment of Self and Others.

After all, it usually turns out to be just another day in the life. So why not use it as a chance to take a look at the people in our lives we love best, be grateful for them, and find a way to make them feel special. Not in an icky way, but in a way that reflects our unique brand of awesomeness. And let's not leave out receiving love, either. Let's rejoice and be glad at being loved by one or many, when we can, while we can.

So let us close, on this long-suffering and long-suffered holiday, with words from Her Wiseness Elisabeth Kubler Ross and co-author David Kessler:

Our lessons in love come in all forms, from all kinds of people and situations. It doesn't matter who we are, what we do, how much money we make, whom we know. We can all love and be loved. We can be there, we can open our hearts to the love around us as we give love back, determined not to miss the great gift.

**PS: I just heard from Spangles - he's catching an earlier flight so we can be together on Valentine's Day. It's a St. Valentine's miracle!**

Friday, February 12, 2010

Welcome to My Sweet and Sour Soup

Speaking of people you are totally jealous of whose idea you totally had too, here is the blog for The Happiness Project, the book I had really planned to write someday, except that someone already did. (She spends a year trying out all advice about happiness she can find.) It just came out in December and is a bestseller, and probably the only reason I haven't read it yet is abject envy. That, and my book budget doesn't generally cover new hardbacks.

However, the nice lady who had my idea keeps a lively and down-to-earth blog about her Happiness Project, and it includes a way to start your own Happiness Project group, something I'm pretty sure I was born to do. (Any interested participants? Comment at me, Gentle Reader.)

It's funny, I never understood the blogging thing really, except when I read blogs kept by family and friends, because they're like little portholes into the generally brilliant and lyrical internal worlds of loved ones. And when I wrote a blog to chronicle the boredom and degradation of the temp jobs I took, it was a really fun way to stay in touch, and tell people in detail about my life without having to call each one up individually. It was like sending a mass email that no one had to feel obligated to read if they didn't want to. But now that I have a very general subject matter (becoming a celebrant and what that will teach me about relationships; the desire for happiness; the hunger for meaning in life) I think I kinda get it more. There are other people writing about these matters dear to me, like this guy , a thoughtful Buddhist doctor, and this guy, a motivational speaker type who is notch more Type-A corporate than suits my personal preferences, but nevertheless is thinking about things that I think about.

I like reading these blogs (in fact I've been reading them this afternoon instead of doing things that have a more direct correlation to my current livelihood).This makes me wonder why I have hesitated at sharing this blog I started with family and friends. My family adores it when I write about anything, and when I kept the temping blog they were known to request posts when there was a lull.

I guess the thing is that topics like, say, Love and Hunger, cut to my quick, to places inside that I don't share with just anyone. I have always walked this tightrope - on one side, you have the most warm n' fuzzy, chicken soup for the soul, incense-lighting, bow-to-the-light-in-you-and-me gal you'll ever meet. On the other side, you have my deep appreciation for potty humor. I feel like I go back and forth all the time. One minute I'm all, yes! Let us dance most jubilantly with our spirit totems! And the next minute I'm like, seriously? You seriously considered naming your blog "Love, Happiness and Hunger"?

Sometimes I have a hard time letting gray areas be gray, rather than trying to parse out the black and white of it all. Maybe I can just let myself be both sweet and sour. In fact, I hope to turn this into my niche market as a Celebrant - someone who can be both down-to-earth and touchy-feely. (Spangles tells me this could be particularly appealing to clients of the male persuasion.) I will eschew pink, and bells, and doves, and hocus pocus. And yet I will try to have lots and lotsa heart.

I suppose it's always scary to put yourself out there. It's one thing to write about the minutiae of the day and gloss it over with a little patina of sarcasm to show everyone how cool you are and how everything just rolls right off your back. It's more difficult to let it all hang out, admit that you care and care deeply, tell the people about the things you guard most carefully in your heart. Reject my little jokey descriptions of the office and life goes on. Reject this - my longings, my nascent dreams, my Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey - and it's much more difficult to continue. (Plus people sometimes use the anonymity of the internet as license to be mean. Then again, some people don't even wait for anonymity.)

Still, what kind of person would I be if I spent all this time talking about the kind of person I would be and then not dig in my heels and admit it: I have feelings and hopes, I'm sensitive, I care what people think, I cogitate on things like how to be happy and what it means to love. The world can be harsh, and we're no dummies - we quickly learn how to make a protective shell around ourselves, be it with sarcasm or shyness or judgment of others or pretending we don't give two hoots. But I think that one of the ways I want to be with other people is open. I want to have the ovaries to reveal myself in all my cracked, insecure, mentally insane glory. Why?

Because, um...well, because that's how you connect with people. Because I want to be real. Because I want to tell the truth about myself. Because I don't want to spend my life in hiding, constructing elaborate facades to obscure my me-ness. And if that opens me up to the possibility of people kicking me in the gut when I'm at my most vulnerable, then so be it. That's on you, gut-kickers.

So here I am, world. Know me.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Dark Underbelly of Engagement Announcements

Can I confess something? When people I know get engaged, I don't always feel unmitigated joy and goodwill welling up in the depths of my soul.

Back in college, when my beloved cousin/extra big sister Ekkie first called to tell me she was engaged, I choked out my congratulations from amidst a queasy feeling of sadness, and shame for feeling anything but happiness for her. It was because I didn't want to lose her to this "fiance" character, whom I hadn't yet met. No one that close to me had gotten married before, and I felt oddly... bereft. I was afraid she was leaving me.

It was only later that experience showed me that I wasn't losing Ekkie, I was gaining Big Mike (and now their heart-rendingly adorable offspring), and in fact they work well as a unit. Big Mike is the rational, snow-shoveling, knowledgeable-about-household-things counterpoint to Ekkie's passion and flair and intensity. They are both funny separately, but the two together can be better than TV.

On the one hand, the part of me that will always be fiercely, unabashadely single (even when I'm in a relationship), will never agree that you need another person to complete you. I think it's demeaning to unattached people everywhere and gross. On the other hand, how great to have someone who balances you and has promised in front of God and everybody to always be on your side.

When someone you love gets engaged or married, the relationship does change. (Don't even get me started on what if the Twin got married. No one likes to share the #1 spot.) Probably part of the reason for a wedding ceremony is to have a public acknowledgment that says "Sure, yes, things are different now, but we're still a family, just in a different way."

What about when someone you may not love, but know from work or school or elsewhere gets engaged? I found out via facebook today that two friendcquaintances of mine just got engaged to each other. They posted photos - it happened playing in the snow on the lawn behind the art museum on the day of Philly's record-breaking snowstorm. They built a snowman and everything. How cute.

People my age get engaged and ugly parts of me show up. I get bitter and sarcastic and Scroogely. And beneath that is an inexplicable panicky feeling, similar to how I feel when someone from my cohort has a success too much like one that I want, or when I read the back of the alumni publication and find out that people from my year are doing things that sound awesomer than what I'm doing.

It's not exactly jealousy, because I am at minimum 60% comfortable with my life choices up to now. It's not envy of the relationship, because I've got one I'm pretty fond of (if you're reading this: Hi, Spangles!), and getting married is most definitely not my jam at the moment.

It may partly be a deeply ingrained evolutionary response, like "uh-oh, one less fish in the dating pool!" I have a guy friend who I never particularly felt That Way about, but in the back of my mind I always kind of thought of him as a decent backup guy, like if things didn't pan out with other dudes and I found wanted to settle down I thought we'd be compatible and figured I could probably convince him. But then he fell hard for a girl and married her! My first words when I found out, were of course, "Congratulations!" My first thoughts were "Wait, what? This girl took my backup guy!" (It's times like that when you kind of want to thank society for having all the social nicety scripts written out beforehand, so that you can launch into auto-pilot instead of saying something you can't take back. Couple: We're engaged! Me: Seriously? Why?) And as luck would have it, in this case too, they turned out to be fun as a couple and they like to throw barbecues. Advantage: Erika.

So I guess the whole dark underbelly of marriage proposals thing is really my perfectly human desire for nothing to ever change from the way it is, ever, and being foiled yet again. And, perhaps in response to my many years as a younger sister and borderline social outcast, an overinflated sensitivity to the heartbreak of feeling left out, left behind.

This gets me again and again. I'll be floating along, moderately content with life's little routines, and somehow I get wind that someone I vaguely know and normally couldn't care less about, has achieved a widely accepted Life's Milestone before I have. My response seems always to be the same: "Whaaaaa? A fiance/baby/television appearance/doctorate degree? Where was I? What have I been doing all this time? I have got to stop spending so much time rearranging my Netflix queue."

If there's one lesson I have semi-learned only to disregard it again and again, it's that comparing yourself to others is a recipe for psychological distress. Any girl who is a middle school survivor can tell you that one of the most heated discussion topics for a seventh grade girl is who has gotten It. (And if you don't know what It is, my friend, then you, like all of us were, are in for an eye-opener. "Wait. You're telling me some what comes out of where?") Too early, and you're a freak. Too late, and you're also a freak. And everyone is either too early or too late.

And seventh grade is just the beginning. We seem to have written a script out and we've pretty much got it all covered. If the pain and humiliation of puberty doesn't kill you, there's still any number of things other people can get to faster than you. Shedding your virginity, taking college classes in high school, taking graduate courses in college, taking mind-altering substances while in graduate school, buying a house, getting a dog, procreating, retiring, winning important prizes, unveiling a work of art to great critical acclaim. And oh yeah, getting married.

But you know what? Fuck the script. The script is much too narrow and look at the people who wrote it - like they're doing so great. The script leaves no room for you to fall down and get back up. No room for scenic detours to see the Giant Ball of Twine. And isn't the Giant Ball of Twine what it's all about? What if you want a gila monster instead of a dog? What if you can live with your great-aunt Gerta rent-free? What if your fiance is unfaithful? What if your careful plans for dental school are blindsided by a passionate love for dinosaur bones*? What if you have one of those years in which, as we say in my family, your entire world crumbles around your cankles?

Then we can talk. Because my friends, once you diverge from the blueprints, you're on your own. Out there in the wilderness, you have to discover everything by first-hand experience, trial and error, what it is you really, really want. That's really hard. You're living by your wits, and from your heart and your instincts. We live in a culture that is almost constantly making pretty strongly worded suggestions on what we should want and how we should feel once we get it. According to the McDonald's bag I received at the drive-thru, its contents will bring me pure joy. Pure joy! Can you imagine? There you were looking for happiness in life, and it was right there in the McFishwich all along.

No wonder so many of us are confused and disheartened. It's hard to go around with so much cognitive dissonance all the time. Marketers are saying that young Johnny should obtain this particular deoderant because it makes men irresistably attractive to women. But young Johnny is irresistably attracted to men! You do as you're told - you clear your pores, you accent your brow line, you wear the correct type of sandals with the correct length of shorts, you pay your bills and vote and donate blood - and yet you don't feel, you know... good.

That's because the script? Don't know you. It gets all chummy and nice and seems friendly - but the script has its own agenda. And if you don't know you, then where does that leave anyone?

That's why I strongly reccomend healthy doses of huge mistakes, crushing failure, and long, sinking ship struggles for anyone looking to fnd their way in this crazy hobbyshop they call the world. In my experience these things are not at all hard to come by. They force you to cut the crap and get honest about who you are and why you're here. No, I take that back. They don't force you to do any of that. You have to choose. There is another option: to become embittered, jaded, mad at the world, a victim of circumstance, and that's also really really easy to do when the Shitmobile comes speeding your way.

So when I find myself with the facebook announcement crazies, maybe the thing to do is remind myself, Fuck the script. I write my own script! I tell the world who I am and how I'm going to be, not the other way around. I also find it helpful to remind myself that all people everywhere , once you really get to know them, are totally crazy. Just batshit insane. So you really can't go by what other people do.

Here smack-dab in the middle of my twenties is probably as good a time as any to figure this out - lord knows there will only be more news of the engagement and baby ilk in the future. In fact I've been told that developmentally speaking, I'm right on track as far as lifestage - trying stuff on, figuring things out, deciding who and how I want to be in the world. So, gold star for me!

Maybe it's helpful to think about the one thing that, if you heard Sally Suchandsuch from high school had done it, would really make you go "Nooooooooooooooooooooo!!!! That was MYYYY dream!!" And then get started in that direction yourself. Why waste time fixing alarm clocks if you know you want to decorate cakes?

But even more important is to heed the advice of a wise sage who also happens to be my aunt: Don't be in a hurry. If I were the tattooing type, I would get that inked on somewhere I could see it. One of the things we signed up for as we shot out of the birth canal, is that our lives would be terribly imperfect, full of heartbreak and shattered dreams and so on. But this is it! You only get one for sure. So it makes sense to try to accomplish the things that really make you shimmy. But for those of us who may or may not have the tendency to be desperate overachievers and want everything to go perfectly at all times, it's probably a good idea to remember that his moment right here- while it may not the Olympic luge track of ecstasy and transcendence that we are constantly striving for - is probably not too bad either, all things considered.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Creation Myth

About eight months ago, something happened that is so uncommon for me as to make it truly remarkable: I didn't want to eat.

I didn't want to because eating, or more precisely, digestion, caused excruciating pain and some other very unpleasant results. I remember looking at a salad someone at work had brought for lunch and thinking "Aw helllll no!", and starting in on my saltines. My business casual clothes started hanging off of me, but I couldn't enjoy the rapid weight loss because I was scurrying to bathroom every ten minutes like clockwork, doubled over.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was in the throes of what was eventually diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, which is when your colon freaks out for reasons that are not entirely clear to medical science. Another thing that is pretty clear in hindsight but which seemed to escape me at the time, was that I was acutely miserable, and not just because of the problems with the ole' poopshoot.

I was going through what you might call a Bad Time. I was working at a disheartening job, after a bout of unemployment, after having been un-hired in a somewhat unclassy way from a job I'd been working at for five months as a temp-to-hire (minus, apparently, the -to-hire part.) On top of that, each parent, my father one month and my mother the next, had to undergo major operations for life-threatening diseases. Louise, the cat I'd taken in during college and then adopted out to my aunt in order to give her a better life, passed on. On top of that, one day I came home to my apartment and as I opened the door the entire dropped ceiling collapsed. And on top of that, or perhaps because of all that, I had the mysterious gut-pain and concurrent frightening bowel movements, and an insurance plan that was chosen based on the gamble that I would not, in fact, ever get sick.

Things are better now, although I don't feel completely over it. Lo, though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and made it to the other side, the memory is still very sharp. But that, in a way, is why I'm here.

Later, a wise friend of mine would remark on the symbolism of having developed a problem in my gut. Literally and figuratively, I was having a hard time digesting everything. I think it was my body telling me that something was very not right, in a way that I couldn't ignore or stuff down or push past like the trooper I am. The tummy trouble is caused by my immune system attacking - responding to the threat of enemies, only there's nothing there but me. I have come to think of it as a very effective early warning system. For me there is still a direct correlation between stressors and gastrointestinal shenanigans, and there may always be. But, as I explained to my mom, in a way this is good because often when my worries get carried away and I get too wound up on the cares of the day, my body gives me what feels like a swift punch in the stomach, and it is often (sometimes) enough to make me stop. Give myself a time out, take my temperature, take a breather, take a nap.

I think of the recent unpleasantness as a turning point for me. It forced me to step back and take a good hard look at myself. What was I enduring all that misery for? A job I didn't like? A world that had become very small and very scary? A life that was so much less than I had the one I had imagined, back when I had let myself imagine anything at all.

One day, when I was balled up on the couch crying, I had enough sense to ask my friend Jo to come over to keep me company. (It's true what they say, that when adversity strikes, you find out who your friends are.) She gently suggested that perhaps now might be a time to look into seeing a counselor. And I did. One thing I am proud of about myself is that even when the world was very very dark and it felt like my back was totally against the wall, I didn't give up on the belief that things could improve. I took my shell-shocked, hopeless, depressed little self to a social worker, in the hope that she could point me to something - ideas, strategies, pharmaceuticals, whatever - that would help life be better. And, slowly, it was. It is.

I have proclaimed this year to be a year of rest and, although I sometimes cringe at the word, healing. I will nurture the fragile broken-winged bird back to life. I have decided that the events of the past are ones that I will use to make me into an awesomer person. I'm still working on exactly how, but well, for starters there's:

-learning your own inner strength, which C---- and I agree is a pretty anti-climactic consolation prize, one that we would give up freely given the choice between that and a life free of pain, suffering and loss. But there you go.

-for another thing, having more compassion for people who are going through a hard time. (And at the same time, oddly, as I have observed with others before, less compassion. "Oh, earthquake victims experiencing some of the most devastating devastation ever? That sucks. Too bad my heart is too stone cold to feel anything more than a passing twinge of regret at this." I will work on this. Eventually.)

-finding out that there are people in your life who completely and totally have your back

- Seething anger with the healthcare and health insurance industries in America.

So anyway, like I said I'm still working on the specifics as to how my hardships will be transformed into a heartwarming and inspirational tale of survival and redemption. Readers are encouraged to write in with suggestions.

But what does any of this have to do with hunger?

Well, for one, I am pleased to report that I get hungry again. Physical hunger, yet another thing to file under the category of "Don't Know What You've Got 'Til it's Gone." (I must also differentiate between hunger and what I felt while undergoing steroid treatment for the colitis. In addition to a chemically induced wit and a remarkable joie de vivre, the steroids made me feel kind of like I was a giant piece of briskly-moving machinery used to clear-cut the rainforest, except that the rainforest was bags of carbs.)

Back when I spent a third of every hour on the toilet clutching myself and groaning, I went through a phase of elaborate bargaining with God or Allah or Jim Henson Creator of All that is Seen and Unseen, or whomEVER, I wasn't in a position to be choosy. I swore that if I lived to eat without pain once again I would do a better job. I would eat real food and go to farmer's markets and make sauces that need to simmer for three days, and stop eating cheese that comes in squeezable form from a foil packet. (I have somewhat made good on this promise, in the sense that I now watch a lot of Food Network while eating squeezable cheeses.)

But the point is, I never knew what a gift it was to be hungry until I wasn't, the same way that it's just not possible to understand what it means to be grateful for your health until you've been sick. There was a tipping point to my illness - and I remember it distinctly, I was balled up on Jo's front stoop on a summer evening unable to enjoy a cocktail - when I realized that I was no longer living. And that is something you don't fuck around with. Jo walked me to the ER that very evening: the first step in a long, infuriating, humiliating, expensive journey toward living again.

Paying hundreds of dollars for medications, having a laproscopic camera shoved up your butt, racking up a five-digit medical bill, crying and pleading with the non-native English speakers answering your insurance company's customer service number, blimping up like a Thanksgiving Day float from corticosteroids, filling a days-of-the-week pill box that's bigger than your Grandpa's was: it makes you think. It makes you think, wow, it is unconscionable that insurance executives are filling their swimming pools with the profits off of my human suffering.

But it also makes you think, what exactly am I fighting for here? A low-paying job that makes me crazy? The chance to come home exhausted and stare numbly at the TV? Two weeks a year plus weekends of reprieve from the drudgery? If you've been wishing there was a pill you could take that would help you get your career choices in perspective, I'm here to tell you, there is and it's called OsmoPrep.

I quit the job. I decided life's too short and suffering is too much of a certainty to voluntarily bang my head against a wall repeatedly for what has been called, to quote from a brilliant film, minor duckets.

Of course, then you are left with the daunting task of discovering what it is, if the rat race is so all-fired unbearable, you really want to do. Which brings me back to hunger. This time I'm not talking about physical hunger, although one might still feel this hunger in the body. Call it desire, longing, yearning, whatever. I think I've had this hunger since I was what, eleven? It's big, amorphous, unspecific. It's probably the kind of thing that gets easily channeled into materialism, the idea that with this next sofa, this next pair of boots or teeth-whiteners I'll finally have It, whatever It is. It's a hunger which for many years I thought would be sated by having a boyfriend who adores me, but in fact I've had a great one for a year so far and...I'm still hungry. Now I think that when I move to a nicer apartment, get a car or a dog, maybe then I'll have everything I want. I imagine hunger like this is what makes people want to be celebrities, get rich quick, star in reality shows.

It's an uncomfortable feeling, in a way. Often I'm able to make enough noise in my head, or become so flummoxed by problems and distractions, that I forget it's even there. But at times when I get halfway clear in my mind, there it is again, and it seems it's never stopped, like a whining or a dull roar, a convection current. Not like a calling or a whisper or anything so articulate. It's just engine rumbling. And it wants something. But what?

I have arrived at the theory that this hunger is not, in fact, bad. Not something to be run from or squashed or stuffed full of high-fructose snacks. Perhaps this hunger, this longing or wanting or what have you, is the feeling of being alive. It's what leads us to desire and seek and move forward in life. Move toward, hopefully, more than away from. It makes me think of the Wupatki Pueblo blowhole. It's this hole, right, naturally occuring in the ground, which for vaguely mysterious geologic reasons, is always blowing a refreshing stream of air up from deep within the earth. I understand the Pueblos ascribed great spiritual significance to it. So - the desire is the rushing air, right, and the idea is not to dig down to find its origin, or try to follow it up to where it dissipates, but just to stand above it and be like, "My, this is rather exhilarating, isn't it." It doesn't lead to anywhere specific. Its source is too deep to fathom. It's just like, there. But not ignorable. Worthy of wonder and symbolizing great cosmic mysteries.

That sort of gets at what I'm getting at. But it will never be gotten at fully, because if it were completely wrapped up tight and understood, what point would there be to keep writing, keep reading, keep waking up in the morning to find out what crazy kooky thing will happen next? Some people might call it a spiritual calling, or the God-shaped hole in the heart, or the creative urge, or the life force, or whatever. And that's cool. It's probably all of those things. I think I'm most comfortable calling it a hunger for meaning, and maybe some other stuff too.

One place to which I have followed this inexplicable hunger is the Celebrant Institute, where I'm learning how to plan and officiate at non-denominational wedding ceremonies. The wedding part was kind of an odd choice for me because generally I'm not like, huge on the whole idea of marriage. It seems like nowadays when fifty per cent of the population is divorced and people get married three and four and seven times, how much does a wedding really mean? This was something I really struggled with, until I had an epiphany: I don't really need to know! I'm going to be an officiant, not some kind of all-knowing marriage guru. Rather than coming to couples as if I have all the answers, I can let them teach me a thing or two about what love means, how it looks, from whence within the majesty of the human heart it comes.

So those two things, in a nutshell, is where the idea for this blog comes from. I want to talk about the impulse to do, well, anything really - the hunger. And I want to record what I learn about this thing we call love, four short letters that belie its breadth and depth and all around bigness. So there you have it: hunger, and love. Love and hunger.