Don’t Curb Your Enthusiasm
Happy Winter Solstice, everybody in the Northern Hemisphere! As the sun hits the lowest spot on the southern horizon, it seems to stop in a lyric caesura for a moment. Now the earth begins to doe-Si-doe around its stellar partner, coyly tilting the top of her head toward him. The night is long, and the dance goes on. Passion builds towards the summer solstice when the sun will caress the earth with daylight for 24 hours at the North Pole. Humans have celebrated these celestial events with festivals for centuries, and we still do. As I write this, Strauss polkas punctuated with small, percussive explosions and various train whistles play in the background. It is riotously fitting. (Steve is cleaning, stacking and re-stacking his books. We are expecting company for the weekend.)
The door marked 21 bangs open, and the gift unveiled is Passion. Enthusiasm! Energy! I contend that this is another Universal endowment. The word ‘enthusiasm’ has at its root the Greek ‘theos’, meaning God. To be enthused is to be filled with God. “In the throes of passion.” See Bernini’s sculpture of “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa” for a marvelous visual example. (We watched a video on this narrated by Simon Schama: “The Power of Art”. Highly recommended!) Is this kind of experience available to all or just the sainted few?
I believe that if you are open to the energy of passion, you will receive it. And I believe this fact scares a lot of people, especially those in authority who are working to gain and maintain control. Do you want to live in a passionless world? Do you want to live in a tempest of energy? Do you seek some Middle Way, a quiet infusion of God? How have you marshaled and channeled energy by your own choices? Have you felt someone else’s hand tempering your energy?
Excited to be back in Massachusetts (Photo by my oldest)
I think I was a pretty enthusiastic kid. I was often told that I was loud. My facial expressions were pretty dramatic. I loved theater and the chance to “act out”. My third grade teacher wrote in her notes to my mother that “the play’s the thing for your youngest daughter”. I did feel that my parents were always asserting a more reasonable response. They were intellectual and Anglican and well-mannered. I wanted to please them, so I didn’t allow myself to be wild. When I began voice lessons in college, one of the first things my teacher said to me was, “You sing as if you’d been told all your life to modulate your voice.” How did she know? So I had become outwardly prim and proper and covertly silly and animated. My passion for my husband was greeted initially by my parents with the same kind of circumspection. After all, I was only 15 when we met and 20 when we became engaged. Gushing about how I “knew” he was the right one for me was unconvincing. I prepared logical and practical reasons why I should marry before I graduated from college and while we were both unemployed. His father was not at all persuaded. My father had seen us courting and knew more intuitively that our determination was real, fueled by much more than reason, and that in a marriage, that is a definite harbinger of success.
I am still hesitant to show emotion and passion. Steve is always delighted to see my enthusiasm about something, and frankly wary because it doesn’t assert itself in important decisions. I was brought up to be very serious about decision-making, and to mistrust my enthusiasms. Steve seems to approach the issues from the opposite direction. He feels that the best reason for doing something is because you REALLY WANT TO! In some ways, that seems like a no-brainer. Problem is, I have esteemed The Brain far too much, I think. So, I am learning to try to listen to those exuberant voices without shushing them so much. And I am learning to be more open to the zeal of others. My children, especially. My parents modeled the “voice of reason”. I can’t deny that I play that role in my parenting, but I want to model the fervent voice of encouragement, too. (This goes along with the ongoing safety/adventure discussion that I have with Danger Mommy.) I keep trying to get away from dualism and embrace the dynamic whole. “Don’t be so worried about ‘supposed to’,” says Judy Dench’s character in the movie “Chocolate”.
Is it possible to be both wise and passionate? Is it possible for me to be both wise and passionate? I’m hoping so.
Focus. Concentrate. What is important? Who decides? And what about the other stuff? Again, photography acts as a metaphor for life. How do you get the experience of your own powers of creation? Make decisions, make art, and you know that you are making a universe. Then, unmake it, and you’ll know what you can control and change.
Is the glass half empty? Half full? Is the glass solid or as liquid as its contents but moving at a different speed? Am I half done with my life or beginning a new day? Are the things that exist only in my memory real or not? If they exist in my memory, have I lost them?
I had a birthday on Wednesday, and a good cry on Thursday. The quiet, summer afternoon transported me to another time and place. My husband was alive, snoring in the Lazy Boy in my living room. I had a living room – a full house with 4 bedrooms. My oldest daughter was in her room, reading children’s books. My son was in the yard playing with a next door neighbor. My two youngest daughters were entwined on a bed, thumbs in their mouths, damp curls encircling their sleepy heads. It seemed so palpable…and so untouchable. Never again; though, yes, it was. Once. LOSS loomed in my brain. A word I envisioned; I’d conjured it like the scene of that composite day. When I focused on it, I was awash in gut pain. It was powerful. Over moments, the focus softened. Its power faded. It became a muted background of warmth, of subtle longing, a wistful smile. There are other things in my life. Some embryonic, some ripening. That previous life is like the green light of a summer day. It is there, all around. It is not in focus, though. It is enough.
After the wedding, when the guests have returned by car and airplane to their separate homes, and your brain comes off of the social high of meeting, greeting and paying attention to details, there is a quiet, warm place of relaxation. This may be called the honeymoon for the newly married couple, and it may be a kind of honeymoon for the mother of the bride, too! I am thinking of all the things I most appreciated about the week, all the kindnesses and beauty, all the timeless moments when events folded on top of each other to create a curved sense of space and time. Here are a few that I am holding dear right now:
— I learned that my sister Sarah and my brother David, the artists in the family, have been secretly working away at projects and have gifted my daughter with some amazing artifacts that I’m sure will become family heirlooms for generations. My brother painted an acrylic fantasy featuring the spirit animals of Susan (pirate squirrel) and Andy (Ninja otter) and framed it, hoping only to add a mobile vestibule in which to hang it wherever they might take up residence. I saw this painting only in a photo on his handheld phone, but it was colorful and impressive even so. He has designed fantasy art for a card game (Magic) in the past, so his skills are quite professional. My sister pieced together a crib sized quilt (*oh, happy thought!*) from Celtic knot squares that she’s been working on for 20 years, with a border that she began when she was a member of SCA (the Society of Creative Anachronism). She was delighted to finally have an occasion to finish it and give it to the appropriately appreciative person. Here’s a photo:
–My mother, Anne Louise, who walked into the park where the wedding took place with the help of her trusty, collapsible cane, now has a new nickname. She went from Granne Louise to “Grandalf”, a wizard of wisdom and wit and nurturing. The photographer wanted to adopt her as her own grandmother because she reminded her of her heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt, and she posted a great photo of my mom on her blog, showing off her fly moves to the disco groove on the dance floor. When I told my mother about the photographer’s comment, she replied, “Eleanor couldn’t dance!” (My mom, one-upping Eleanor Roosevelt!!!) She gave a reading as part of the ceremony, quoting the Bible, John Ford, William Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer, my father and her self, all cleverly woven into rhyme and verse. It made me weep in rehearsal. Here’s a photo of me & “Grandalf” processing down the aisle after the ceremony:
— My dance with my daughter was very special, and I have yet to see a photographic image of it. We chose to dance to “What A Wonderful World” sung by Louis Armstrong. The first time I heard that song was when Susan sang it with the Barrington Children’s Choir on tour in Europe after her 8th grade year in school. I went along as a chaperone. That trip, all the associations that I have with that song, and with her father singing it, too, and also David Attenborough’s video, make it a perfect choice. “I hear babies cry/ I watch them grow/ They’ll learn much more/ Than I’ll ever know/ And I think to myself….what a wonderful world!”
I will probably bask in the glow of this honeymoon for a while to come, and post bits and pieces about it as they come to mind. How can I keep from singing? From sharing? From being so happy that love and family and hope and future are still a part of this world and of lives being shaped in this century?
Oh, boy. It’s a dangerous thing to invite a widow and empty-nester to post a blog on the theme Nostalgic! Contemplating the past can lead to maudlin stretches and lots of used Kleenex, even if I don’t have a glass or two of wine first. I don’t think that would be at all edifying to the blogging community, so I’m going to try hard to steer away from that. I hope to write and show something that is true about a time that has come and gone.
Life is characterized by impermanence. Our kids don’t stay little; our loved ones don’t stay alive forever. What we live is present moments. If we try to hang on to them and make them more permanent or attach our happiness to them, we are in for a world of frustration. As we get farther away from present moments, it’s hard to remember what they were really like. We lose perspective. That wonderful family outing…did I yell at the kids that day? I don’t remember. I probably lost patience at least once. Did my kids remember that? How did they feel? How did they heal? Or is it all, as my mother often puts it, ‘a merciful blur’?
In my current life, I see a lot of families on outings with their children, since I work at two different family museums. Families interact in all sorts of ways. I try to look at them with compassion and tolerance remembering what I can about how challenging it is to raise 4 kids at one time. The important thing is to BE KIND in the present moment. With your kids or someone else’s. If the world is to be a good place to live, it’s important that all 7 billion of us humans remember to BE KIND. And this is not a glib solution. If you think deeply about being kind, you’ll see that it is a profound power in the universe. BE KIND to your fellow humans. BE KIND to every living thing. BE KIND to yourself first, and feel what that is like. It is peace. It is well-being and health. It is life. Don’t settle for feeling nostalgic about a time when you felt the world was a kinder place to live. Make it a kinder place to live this very moment by acting kindly!
Alice and I were two of four daughters growing up in the 1960s when hair was a revolution. My mother’s practical and aesthetic notions of hair were of the previous generation. She preferred our hair bobbed and easy to care for, and since we inherited her thin, fine locks, that was what often looked best on us. Somehow Alice managed to get permission to grow hers long when the rest of us didn’t. Since there was more of it, it seemed thicker, more luxurious than mine. I begged to be allowed to brush it, comb it, braid it, style it and pet it. It was a special bonding time between us, and my affection for Alice was cemented during the hours I spent grooming her. Our other sister competed for this opportunity for devotion as well. We sometimes quarreled over who would be allowed this privilege. Alice enjoyed arranging hair as well, and learned how to cut it, too. She cut our brother’s hair and our father’s hair. When she died, at the age of 20, this task was passed on to me. The summer that she died, she also cut my boyfriend’s hair. I swept it off the porch and stuffed it in a red, heart-shaped pillow I made. Jim became my husband 4 and a half years later.
Jim’s hair was a true marvel, not just to me, but to everyone who knew him. It was thick, curly, blond and the crowning glory of this California dream man. In his late teens, he had the “surfer dude” look: in the humidity of the ocean air, a front lock would fall down on his forehead just like Superman’s. When he took a job in the 80s, it was shorter, casually parted in the center, and more like Huey Lewis’. He didn’t have to use “product” to achieve that decade’s big hair, while I was perming and mousse-ing like crazy. As he aged, he very gradually acquired some gray strands at the temples. He died at the age of 47 of heart disease and complications from diabetes. Our priest remarked at observing his body in the funeral parlor, “Look at his hair – barely gray and still as stylish as a Ken doll.”
My father died of Alzheimer’s disease two years later. He was thirty years older than Jim ever got to be, his emphatically straight hair a dazzling white. As a young man at IBM, he parted his hair to one side and kept it meticulously short and neat. When he moved to California, he began to comb it straight back from his forehead and let it grow a little longer in back. As a teenager, I would cut it for him while he sat on the redwood deck in the back yard. I only needed to even the ends at his neck and trim around his ears. As the clippings fell to the boards at his feet, he would reflect on the change in the color mixture. Each year, more gray and white, less dark brown. The most wonderful aspect of cutting my father’s hair was that I was allowed to touch him, to smooth and caress his noble head. This was as intimate and affectionate as I could imagine being with him, and it was like knowing God to me.
My daughter Susan visited me the other day. It was our Mother’s Day and Master’s Graduation celebration, in a way, but really just a lovely, rainy day to be together, talk about her upcoming wedding, do a jigsaw puzzle, cook a meal, drink martinis and listen to jazz. And play with her hair. When she was in high school, I would fashion her hair into an “up-do” for proms and homecoming dances. I could probably do a decent job for her wedding day; why pay an expensive stylist? We began to experiment. Her silky soft, light brown hair felt like her baby’s locks in my hand. The wispy ends of a layered cut growing out gave the outline of that toddler hair I remember so well, framing her youthful, round cheeks. The tactile experience of this person whom I love stays with me, in my mind and memory, in my fingers, in my heart. I will have wedding photos soon to go along with the graceful curl in her baby book and the little red heart pillow, strands of love and memories woven together over time. A satisfying memorial, to my mind.
“Forward” is the weekly photo challenge prompt. Hmm. Directional. Nautical. Paths…I have a bunch of shots like that which I’ve already posted. Boring. Check the dictionary. Aha!
Inspiration! Allow me to (re)introduce Emily. She is turning 22 on Wednesday. Last year, I did a Birthday Post dedicated to her, but she deserves more press. Especially with this theme! Ready, brash, precocious. She is much more than these, but she is these. Ready to act, in many senses of the word. Ready with her emotions, her opinions, her dreams. Ready, often, to take on any challenge. Brash, bold, unreserved, “larger than life”. Precocious….oh, the stories I could tell! When she got 2nd runner up in the Little Miss contest, they asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. “An artist…like Georgia O’Keeffe!” she replied in her 5 year old voice. In first grade, she was given the responsibility of trotting down the hall to the third grade classroom for reading because she was far more advanced than the rest of her class. Often, however, her teacher would find her in the nurse’s office having an extended visit, chatting, charming, helping out, telling stories. In high school, she was invited to lunch in the teacher’s lounge by a new staff member who thought she was a teacher. She is progressive. She is learning, growing, changing at an incredible rate, still. And she is someone whom I love so thoroughly and passionately that sometimes, I almost can’t bear it….the rush of oxytocin, almost losing her as an infant to meningitis, the fights we had, the pride when she performs, the fear we lived through…we are bound together and moving forward, deeper, higher all the time.
So, now, the photos:
I am working on finding The Middle Way in my life and on communicating what I can of that journey to anyone who might find that helpful…with my own children in mind as always. The other day, I came up with a phrase that I am finding useful in describing the continuum of experiences needed to grow and develop as a person: “Feed and Frustrate”. We all need a certain amount of feeding, starting in infancy when we are in our most dependent phase, and continuing through adulthood. We have physical needs, emotional needs, and intellectual needs. How do you determine what is a ‘need’ and what is a ‘want’ and what that certain amount actually is? That’s a good question and leads to examining entitlement, which I will get to in a moment. I want to take a look now at the other end of the continuum and describe our need for frustration.
Frustration, challenge, resistance, a force up against we must push is a very necessary part of development. Consider the emergence of a butterfly from its cocoon. Many well-meaning folks have discovered a curious thing. If, in their effort to be kind to animals, they assist a butterfly in its struggle to free itself from the structures surrounding it, the insect will weaken and die. The butterfly needs the activity of straining to get fluids moving to its wings, to strengthen them for flight and to dry them out. A similar thing happens if you facilitate a chick in hatching from an egg. The work to chip away at the shell, the time and effort it takes to accomplish that task on its own, is vital to the chick’s health and makes it more robust. Without that hindrance, the chick remains weak. We need to frustrate our children and ourselves enough to stimulate our ability to access our own strengths.
Working out the balance of feeding and frustrating is a lifelong endeavor. I find myself looking at my adult children and wondering how I did as a parent. I became a mom at the tender age of 22 and felt all those biological and hormonal urges to protect, provide, nurture, and “spoil” my kids. I also had a pragmatic sense of limitations. My mom might say that’s the Scotch in me. I am frugal. My kids call me “cheap and weird”. I’m not sure I had a notion of the value of frustration, even though I’m sure I frustrated my kids unintentionally anyway. So, they didn’t get everything they wanted, but I’m not sure I taught them a “work ethic” or a “frustration ethic” very well. I am not sure if my parents taught me that, either. Regardless, the responsibility of developing that ethic is my own. It is the responsibility of each individual to examine their ideas of entitlement and challenge themselves to develop the resources necessary to achieve their goals.
I like to learn through story and art. I think of examples of characters who live out their “feed and frustrate” scenarios and find some tales to be inspiring, some to be cautionary. Too much feeding as well as too much frustration can lead to helplessness and hopelessness. One story I’ve been following lately is that of a young man who is an NBA basketball player in his second year as a pro. I like watching Jimmy Butler play. He has the kind of untapped strength that seems to increase with the number of challenges he’s given. While his teammates recover from injury, he gets to play more minutes, and he seems to be growing up before my eyes. I did some background checking and learned that he was abandoned by his father as an infant and kicked out of his mother’s house when he was 13. A friend’s mom eventually took him into her home and gave him some strict rules to follow…and he blossomed. The feed/frustrate formula made him confident in his ability to improve himself, which he keeps on demonstrating on the basketball court.
This idea is not only pertinent to individual lives, but also to systems. Politically and economically, how are we balancing the feed and frustrate formula in order to support a robust society? Are we giving too much assistance? Are we giving too little? It’s a good thing to re-evaluate over time.
So, perhaps I’ve given you something to think about. How do you see the feed/frustrate balance in your life? Where do you think an adjustment might help? If you’re a writer, what is happening on this level in the story you’re working on now? How does that dynamic work in your characters’ lives? Thanks for listening to me hash out my thoughts!
And one more point. “Ahem! This theory, which is mine…” footnote reference to Monty Python sketch featuring Miss Ann Elk...I own it and it’s mine. I might use it in an article or something. If this gives you an Aha! moment and you want to share it, please reference this blog post. Thanks for your respect!
My grandfather’s little tax deduction for the year 1934 arrived on New Year’s Eve. Anne Louise McFarland, my mother, grew up believing that all the fireworks and shouting every year on this day was in honor of her birthday. I grew up believing something very similar. My parents didn’t dress up and go out on New Year’s Eve…they dined at home on champagne and escargot and caviar and other delectable treats while listening to “The Midnight Special” on WFMT or to “Die Fledermaus” on TV or video. When I was old enough to stay up with them, we would sometimes catch the Times Square celebration and then declare East Coast midnight and go to bed an hour early. But the reason for the season was my mother, not the march of time. In my late teens, I didn’t go to other people’s parties, I still stayed home…and my boyfriend (soon to be husband) joined us. We enjoyed the best food and champagne and music and silliness and company without ever having to contend with drunk drivers on the roads. My mom lives 2,205 miles away from me now, but I am still planning to stay home and drink champagne and eat salmon and listen to wonderful music and think of her. She is still reason enough for all the joy and love and delight you might see tonight. I’ll show you why:
This is my mom and dad at her college graduation. That’s right, she graduated from Radcliffe, the female component to Harvard, at the age of 20. The woman has brains. With her late birthday and having skipped a year in elementary school, that means she went to college at age 16, all naive and nerdy with bad teeth and a lazy eye and glasses, but with a curiosity and charm that matured and eventually proved irresistible to my father, who, with money and pedigree and a Harvard degree, was “quite a catch”.
So, by 1965, she’s a mother of 4 little girls (that’s me, the baby, blonde, aged 3), running a household, volunteering with Eastern Star and the church and a host of other things. So stylish, so Jackie! This was Massachusetts, you know.
And she’s not afraid to go camping, either. This was a picnic picture taken by her mother-in-law. That would explain the handbags and the dress. My grandmother was never seen anywhere without a handbag and make-up. My mother was…often!
Fast forward 13 years. My mother gave birth to a boy when she was 38. She had 4 willing babysitters surrounding her and a handsome husband now sporting a beard. She’d also picked up a Masters degree in Church Music. We moved from Chicago to California where she became more adventurous in cuisine and hiking and music and new volunteer opportunities. This photo was taken the last Christmas that all her children were alive. My sister Alice (far left) died the next August.
A month after she’d turned 50, my mother became a grandmother for the first time. She’d also survived breast cancer by electing to have major surgery, something her own mother had done 10 years earlier. She was housing and caring for her barely mobile mother and raising a pre-teen son at this time as well. Do you see a grey hair? No? Neither do I. My mother is amazing.
Mom turns 55. She has 4 grandchildren, a 16-yr old son, and her mother has just died. She’s volunteering as a docent at the San Jose Historical Museum, a position she will hold for more than 20 years, specializing in their music department.
Here, she’s 60. My husband and I are traveling in Europe for our 10th anniversary, and she and Dad take our kids to the beach cottage for a few weeks. My husband survived double bypass surgery on his heart two years earlier. Yeah, Mom came out then, too, to take care of the kids…and me. Who has the energy to be with 4 kids (aged 3, 5, 7, & 9) at the beach for two weeks at the age of 30, let alone twice that? My mother. Although she did let me know (graciously) that it wasn’t easy.
In 2007, Mom came out with my sister and brother to see my daughter graduate from college. We all went to the cottage together again. This was my husband’s last trip: he died the following February. My father is not with us on this vacation. He is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a condition he had for 7 years before his death. My mother visited him several times a week while he needed skilled care and played the piano for all the residents, jogging memories with old popular tunes and supporting the hymns during chapel services.
My father died in March of 2010. I had been widowed for 2 years. My kids and I flew back to California for his memorial service, and Dad’s ashes were buried next to my sister’s and my husband’s. My mother invited the family back to her house and we gathered around the piano again. She played and sang and laughed and cried, and I did, too, right by her side. My mother and I are alike in many ways, and I am so glad, proud and grateful to be a woman like her. I see her smile, I hear her voice, I taste her cooking and her tears, and feel her spirit flowing around and through me all the time. We’re going to party tonight, Mom. Miles be damned! Happy Birthday! I love you!