Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Old Testament Question

I've been thinking about adversity lately, because my newest niece was born with some last week. Her problems, thankfully, are not life threatening, but at the same time they are not insignificant.

As Spangles put it, it's stuff like this that makes you wonder, if there is a God, is he asleep at the wheel or what?

The only upshot I've been able to find when pain and suffering strikes is that, as I've witnessed first-hand, when your luck runs out, your tribe runs in. You find out who your friends are, you find out how much you are loved, and you find out that you are stronger than you realized.

My cousin Ekkie and family were there for me more times than I can count. My impulse is to want to do everything I can for them, but what I can do seems like so little. What can you do for a loved one who is facing painful circumstances and unknown outcomes?

You show up with food and words of comfort. You just show up. You can watch the kids and fold the laundry. You can do research, offer to drive. You try to make the day-to-day stuff go as smoothly as possible. It would be foolish to do nothing just because you can't do more.

And in some ways, a person who is facing suffering has to face it alone. You can offer support and encouragement, remind them of their own strength, but they are the ones who have to walk through whatever it is they're walking through. Sometimes all you can give them is understanding and space. Especially for us "helper" types, the urge is always to run in and start trying to fix things and reassure people. It's so hard to stand by while someone you love is in pain. But sometimes you have no choice but to let people face the full force of all of it, trust them to withstand it and come out on the other side.

I think in life some people are thrust up against moments of being completely unconsoled and unconsolable, and I think what happens in those moments is important. You have to stare the ugly side of life right in the eye, the part of it that is brutish, nasty, and short, and at that time you have make some hard choices. There is no relief, no burning bush, no choir of angels or beam of sunlight pointing the way. You just decide quietly to yourself, whether you will (to quote the Shawshank Redemption) get busy livin', or get busy dyin'. In the face of all the many and varied kinds of suffering humankind can encounter, what are you going to do? What are you going to do?

At times of adversity in particular I wonder if there is or is not something bigger than us, an omniscient air traffic controller looking down and nudging things in ways that we can't understand. For example, it was a horrible flood that led Baby E's family to resettle here in this area which happens to be an international center of study for her condition, and where family is nearby and willing and able to offer support. It was a miserable job and health condition that led me to reduce my working hours, making my schedule flexible and allowing me not just the desire but the time to help out. My parents, too, are experiencing a lull in their hectic work schedule at this welcome time. I think about how Spangles came into my life just before the Year of Bad Things Happening started happening.

It makes you wonder if there's a higher logic, someone moving the puzzle pieces around, sending in solace at times of great suffering. If there is or isn't, as Sara Crewe put it in The Little Princess, "a Magic that will never let the worst things quite happen."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

10 Reasons to Put Some 3-Year Old In Your Life

1. They are hilarious. (e.g.: Edbear attempting to slide down the concrete path on his butt as if it were a playground slide. Did not work that great.)

2. They think you are hilarious. Pratfalls, funny faces, pretending light things are heavy, anthropomorphizing inanimate objects, pushing a towel on a swing. They eat it up so heartily you start thinking "Man am I funny. I should charge for this comedy gold."

3. It's good exercise. "Run with meeeee! Chase meeee! Go get the balls I keep hitting into the street! Heave my 30-pound body into the air!" Who knew the best personal trainers were the ones that stare up at you with an irresistably cute face and say "uppie, uppie!"

4. They are great appreciators of the finer things in life. Splashing in puddles, a good story, a bad fart joke, bacon. They are not capable of not living in the moment. Kids could give Thich Nhat Hanh a run for his money. If he had money.

5. They are gullible (see number 1). You can tell them anything! They don't know! The only limit is what your imagination can think of to tell them about where the boy on the bike is going or why the truck makes a beeping noise when it backs up.

6.They make you feel like a strong, omnipotent giant. In the workaday world you are just another shmoe. Around a kid you are Smelda, Viking God of Opening Things, Making Toys Function, Getting Out-of-Reach Objects, Fine Motor Skills, and Source of All Worldly Knowledge. (It's nice to have all the answers once in a while.)

7. A little body hurtled into your lap, or clinging to your side, is an excellent source of warmth.

8. You don't have to make small talk with them. They could give a crap. The real question is, will you or won't you take me outside to play.

9. Light-up sneakers.

10. Unabashed singing.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Beside the Still Waters

"And I promised to change my priorities. You see, I think that the whole concept of happiness changed for me. When I was in the jungle, I read - and it comes many times in the Bible - it says that when you cross the valley of tears and you arrive to the oasis, the reward of God is not success, it's not money, it's not admiration or fame, it's not power - his reward is rest."

This is from an interview I heard on npr with Ingrid Betancourt, who spent six years in the jungle as a prisoner of a Colombian rebel group. She's speaking about her perspective when she was finally freed.

Now, normally I try to avoid such tales of horrible torture and misery, but npr is sneaky because they just shuffle these things in right after the jolly, gentle-mocking-of-current-events show. (An aside: It's surprising how hard it is to avoid media/entertainment/time-passers that have violence and ugliness at their center. I told the bookseller at the used bookstore that I didn't want any books where horrible things happen and she looked at me like I was asking if they sold diapers. Yes, I know you need conflict in a story, but does it have to be non-stop murder and adultery? It seems like a failure of imagination. Love and death, is that all these writers can come up with? What about those of us who want a happy little escapist jaunt of reading, not a profound treatise that will shake our conception of life as we know it? The bookseller ended up handing me a volume of chick lit (which I had already read, incidentally), but isn't there a middle ground between saying you don't want a book that will hang a little gloom cloud over your head and saying you do want a shallow book about shopping and hair dye? OK, diatribe over.)

Anyway, I think that aside is tangentially related to the point I was hoping to get at which is: rest. I was struck by Betancourt's comment that what she wanted out of life after six years of unimaginable suffering, was (in addition to cake and ice cream), rest.

I can relate to this desire. After The Year Of Bad Things Happening, I remember telling my spiritual advisor that what I wanted more than anything was just to lie down. Physically, of course, but also, you know, on a deeper level. And actually, the word I used at the time was lay down, and that was accurate too. I wanted to lay down my arms. I was tired from keeping by guard and my hackles up all the time, waiting for the other shoe to drop, the constant red alert. At the time I even printed out the 23rd psalm and taped it up by my pillow, replacing the word Lord with the word Love because, you know, jury's still out.

I wonder if this urge to rest after a valley of shadow is a common phenomenon. I am thinking of the lovely Slow Love Life blog and book, about a woman whose life came down in a spectacular crash, and how it changed her perspective. Once out on the other side, she didn't even want her fast-paced, high-powered job back. She wanted to putter in the garden, live at the beach, watch the sky.

And I can so relate to that. I was thinking about my priorities recently, and the one that came out on top was just, rest. I want to sleep 8, 9, 10 hours a night! I don't want to rush around in the morning, cramming a bagel into my mouth as I run for a bus. I don't want to be one of those Women On-the-Go you see in commercials. I want to be a Woman At Rest. I want to water my plants, cut out pictures of things I like from shelter magazines and catalogs. I want to re-read Jane Austen and novels about make-up artists to the stars. The past two weekend nights, my nightlife centered around the procurement and ingestion of ice cream. And I like it that way!

In some ways this goes against everything I believe in. A part of me would prefer it if I could be productive 25 hours a day. I give myself gold stars for organizing the tupperware and paying bills and learning new vocabulary words, and a part of me wouldn't be satisfied until I'm publishing sonnets from the top of Mt. Everest while giving life advice to Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama while skiing backwards. And even then, I would be thinking, "I should be doing jumps."

On some level, it's good not to be satisfied, because it pushes you forward, gives you goals to aim toward. On the other hand, never to be satisfied? How sad.

I wanted to be a fascinating and adventurous artist, perhaps, or an early Bob Dylan singer/songwriter selling stories of the vagabond life, or a Jane Goodall communing with the gorillas. I didn't think I wanted to be someone whose blood pressure got up for the Home Organizing Aides aisle of Target (which it totally did yesterday, by the way, I loved it.)

And then I've got that German Orthodox/American Puritan work ethic/guilt, and was told from an early age that I was bright and capable, and got hooked on grades and awards and achievements and other external measures of "enoughness". And when the other shoe dropped, when it got down to the wire, when the chips hit the fan, know what that stuff did for me? All of diddly squat.

So here I am. One faction wants Barack Obama and whoever the prime minister of England is now to crown me Queen of the Free World and give me that golden admission ticket to the chocolate factory of full of Chosen Ones. (Little known fact, Homeland Security owns 4 golden tickets, the fifth is rumored to be in North Korea.)

And another part of me just wants to chill here in the green pastures and restoreth my soul a little, achieve nothing more than a nap, and be satisfied with all the things I already have.

Monday, September 20, 2010

On The Good Life

My own questions to myself got me thinking -- in the grand tradition of questions to oneself. Seriously though, what do I want this blog to be? (Or this blog-to-be to be?)

I wish for the bite of Betsy Lerner, the humor of Sarah Bunting, the deep soul-searching lyricism of Cary Tennis. And I shun lame AdWords ads, trite subject lines, "lists" and "tips," as if anyone knows anything more than anyone else. Bloggers who clearly copied a page out of "how to write a successful blog", who cluttered the page with buttons and gadgets, who are clearly out to make a buck. What about being out to make a moment? What about being out to write good things about a specific topic? What about giving people something they can count on, a little nugget of inspiration or interest or unusual-ness or joy? What about a little ray of computer-aided connection drifting into all those bleak and lifeless cubicles?

The problem with blogging about/striving for happiness is that it's too confining. In some ways, too bland. How can we go around smiling all the time, like flight attendants, like a painted clown? There's more to life than cascades of ecstasy and joy. The goal can't be pure happiness. It doesn't make a good goal on the horizon, because it's slippery and hard to predict, hard to measure, describe, define.

Martin Seligman, positive psychology demigod, addresses this problem with the concept of the good life. It is up to each person what it means to live the good life.

To Scrooge McDuck it was diving into a swimming pool full of gold coins. To the image in my head of some 50's black and white gangster, the good life is what they'll be livin' as soon as they pull off this bank heist - cut to a nightclub filled with champagne and jazz and 50's bombshells in pointy 50's bras, men with slick hair wearing expensive suits...

But the good life is not be confused with life on Easy Street.

The concept of the good life allows for sorrow and struggle, death and taxes. It lets you whine, encounter suffering, overcome tragedy, grieve loss, pick scabs. The good life is not to be confused with the perfect life or the life of comfort and ease. It makes allowances for saving ones own soul. The good life acknowledges that we are not all walking around in a toothpaste commercial.

I consider it a small victory for my own good life that I stopped for groceries on the way home so the cupboard won't be bare; that I bought three used books; that Spangles and I ate our microwaved leftovers in the backyard by citronella candlelight.

Thinking about the good life made me think about another of Seligman's tenets, which is savoring. That positive experiences are made even more so by the act of relishing them. So I would like to take a moment to pause and relish life with good old Spangles (keep in mind he was in a lovey-dovey mood because I'd just brought home six miniature frozen pizzas and an eight-pound pork shoulder):

Spangles (after embracing me [I was wearing a cardigan]): This sweater isn't fair.
Me: Why?
Spangles: It's too soft and snuggly. With your inherent snugglability, it's too much.

Or, as I was puttering about and he was studying on the couch- "This is everything I ever wanted out of living together."

Or, after he came over and gave me a kiss- "It's a wonder I get anything done at all."

One must savor the fact that I have what every girl wants, which is to be adored. Here is a quote I came across as an epigraph in the used bookstore. It's from Tom Robbins:

"The bottom line is that (a) people are never perfect, but love can be, (b) that is the one and only way that the mediocre and vile can be transformed, and (c) doing that makes it that. We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love."

And you know what else? I have a niece on the way tomorrow. And a nephew who all on his own invented "walking like an eggie" by putting his shirt over his bent knees so that only his feet stick out, and walk across the floor. And another niece with eyes like shiny blueberries. If that life isn't good, what is?

What are you savoring today, Gentle Reader?

What Is This Blog About?

The Twin requested that I update my blog. I know that when I see a new one of hers I feel a sweet, sparkly rush of anticipation, and I do want to reciprocate.

But, The Twin's blog has a subject matter (her classroom), and new material is generated daily. For me, the slow but not unwelcome plodding of routine often leaves me feeling as if I don't have much to say. 'Nother day 'nother dollar.

When I started this blog I thought it was about my interest in positive psychology. But now I'm thinking it might just be about my interest in my own positive psychology. And negative psychology. Etc.

I want to have a topic, but what is it? Is it inspiration, and how we get inspired? Is it happiness, creativity, progress, life, our collective human bumbling toward greater insight and understanding? Searching for answers/meaning/delicious snacks? A random place to unload my thoughts? An insipid trend?

What is this blog about? What am I all about?

In blogging and in life, I am searching for a subject.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Meaning and Giving

Beloved cousin Wee was in town, and told me of her current dilemma. Perhaps because of a stessbasket-y project she's working on at work, or perhaps because of all the media attention to the 5-year anniversary of Katrina, after which she had to rebuild her life...she is thinking about what it all means.

Sure, you work a good job, you try to make a nice life for yourself, you love your family, you do enjoyable and pleasant things, you have your hobbies...and is that it? Is that all there is to life, a dance featuring pleasantness interspersed with stressbasketing, and hope that pleasantness has the lead role? And in the end it all gets washed away?

Tal Ben-Shahar, positive psychology guru, writes that happiness is a combination of pleasure and meaning. So even if you're doing well on the pleasure side of things, if you don't have enough meaning, you feel like something's lacking.

And cousin Wee reconfirms that meaning is a tricky thing to pin down. Viktor Frankl doesn't necessarily say that life is anything more than circling a bleak existential drain - but, while we're here, we must make our own meaning, we decide what will bring it to our lives.

It seems to me that meaning has to do with giving. Like Winston Churchill said, we make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give. But where and why and how to give is what makes up the most difficult part of this question. What can you give, what gifts can you share, what motivates you to do so? What do you care a lot about? What do you know a lot about? I think it's about using your powers for good - which means you have to think both about your powers and your idea of what really is good.

I think many women of a certain age find it easy to think that having children and having a family will give life meaning. And it can. Leaving a legacy of yourself, passing on your values and beliefs, being a part of humanity continuing itself... but how do you do that if you haven't figured out yourself, your values, your beliefs, what parts of humanity are worth continuing?

Although thinking about meaning in life is usually totally my jam, I spent my whole summer in a blissful summer coma, flitting from leaf to leaf without a care in the world. As I've mentioned before, it's been a sweet relief compared to feeling like a sherpa carrying a hundred pound sack on my back.

But the approach of fall always makes me restless and ambitious, makes me want to plan my back to school outfit and set new goals and excelsior!!!!!ever upward. I have schemes and plans and dreams, which is also nice, in comparison to feeling like a member of the undead, walking around with nothing inside but blank walls and cork.

But I'm still tired and summer-coma-y enough to want to take on all these things slowly, still take time to practice the skill of savoring. E.g.: I am sitting on Spangles' parents' back porch on a gorgeous, sunny, September day. I can here the neighbors gabbing poolside in the next yard over. Spangles is reading for class. The dog is snoozing on the couch, a hummingbird visits the hummingbird feeder, its wings so fast they are visible and invisible at the same time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

In Memoriam

Every so often, someone you know dies. Yesterday I thought I saw a picture of a former bookstore coworker in the funeral announcements section of the newspaper, and I was right. He was 60, not that young, but not that old, either.

I didn't know him that well, and it's been a long time, so it's not like I can muster the grief that goes along with losing a dear loved one. And the usual platitudes about how life is short and you never know and live life to the fullest are used so often that they lose their meaning.

For me I guess it's just a feeling of surprise. The old guard at the bookstore, the dudes who chose to make selling books their vocation, it was like they were Mt. Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty or something. Something had at one point put them there, but so long ago that it was like they had always been there. And you just assume they always will be.

But they won't. No one knows what will happen eventually to the rock and metal faced monuments. They outlast us, but not forever. You think you can count on certain things but you can't, not always.

I don't know what I'm trying to get at here. Someone I knew died, that's all I'm trying to say. It feels more significant than a regular day.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Don't Have To Live Like A Refugee

It seemed apropos that, despite all the help I've received along the way from Spangles and my friend Blondie, I did that last scrub-down and took the last screws from the walls on my own. I vacuumed streaks of clean into the dust and debris, I tossed out long-unidentifiable refrigerator gunk. I moved through the old apartment, room by room, removing all the last traces of myself. It was awesome. It was like erasing myself, erasing the taint of the past. Taking out the garbage, literally.

I love that you get to reinvent yourself. I love that you can change your life if you're not happy with it. I love that with some planning and elbow grease, you can get rid of your old snail shell and pick out a new one that suits you better. I love that you can die and be reborn.

Maybe that all sounds a tad melodramatic to ascribe to a grimy apartment, but that thing was an albatross for so long. Now I am someone with hardwood floors and three couches. I am a person who completed a triathlon. I am someone who attempted to better herself. Sure, I still eat too much pasta and haven't showered in the very recent past and have trouble tearing myself away from instant Netflix to be a productive member of society - I mean I'm still a human being.

But man it feels good to have only one apartment at a time. This one is now full of boxes of my crap again, but eventually, I will find a place for it all. There is a place for it. There is a place for us. L'chaim!