The sudden sting of tears, unbidden. Grief leaking out along the edges of a prepared lid, supposedly clamped shut.
I have been surprised by joy often. Lately, it is surprising to find myself awakening to deep melancholy. I am not used to this. I think of myself as an optimist.
But I know that I live in a very protected world of my own design. I am educating myself intentionally. I am letting go of delusions.
“Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world…”
― Thich Nhat Hahn
This morning, I awoke with a visceral feeling of sadness, of uncertainty, of betrayal and abandonment. I imagine it’s a response to the images and knowledge I’m absorbing through news media and films.
When emotions arise powerfully in me, I am taken by surprise. I was raised to regulate them with logic and religious faith. I have now learned to tolerate looking closely at them.
My housemate found a poem for me that helped me put the feeling into words. It is “Dover Beach”, by Matthew Arnold.
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
“…Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sounds. By such means, …awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world. If we get in touch with the suffering of the world, and are moved by that suffering, we may come forward to help the people who are suffering.”
― Thich Nhat Hahn
Perhaps surprise is simply the evidence that we live in a state of unknowing. We delude ourselves in order to shelter for a time in the idea that we are in control and can predict events and outcomes. The “cosmic 2x4s” of life will whack us upside the head from time to time and wake us up. It can be painful, surely. And it is beneficial as well. Once awake, we can acknowledge reality with greater perception and take actions that will be more specific and appropriate.
“Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh
It is my hope and faith that the sunshine of awareness can transform the devastation of our man-made storms into guiding visions of beauty and light.
May we awaken and become wise and kind.
Thank you, Ann-Christine, for inviting us to ponder Surprise.
This article appears in The Be Zine. To see the entire issue on theater, click HERE.
What has Theater taught me? Ego indulgence and humility. Confidence and neurosis. Teamwork and competition. Empathy and retreat. Deception and honesty. The story of humanity in a microcosm. My story.
When I was a little kid, I learned that I could entertain and amuse my parents and my older sisters and get positive attention. As the youngest of four daughters, I was eager to exercise this talent to my advantage whenever my ego felt bereft. This helped me compensate for having fewer general skills and powers than my seniors. I couldn’t win at games or read or figure or run better than the rest, but I could sing and mime and look cute. I also was the only blonde, which helped.
When I was in second grade, I was very good at reading aloud “with expression”. I remember (and still have a written report about) my behavior when the class did a Reader’s Theater story about a snake. I told the teacher that I had a toy snake the class could use…provided that I got to read the lead role. Mrs. Richie declined my offer.
When I was in third grade, Miss White selected me to play Captain Hook in the musical Peter Pan. I was stunned. “I’m not a boy!” I protested. She told me privately that she thought I’d do a better job than any of the boys in the class. She could tell that I was a ham and would take risks to win attention and applause. And I did. In the final week of rehearsal, she gave me a monologue, a poem in rhyme that she would put into a particular scene if I could memorize it. I worked on it very hard. In the final performance, though, I skipped it altogether because I forgot where it was supposed to be inserted. To this day, I can rattle it off by heart. “Methinks I hear a spark, a gleam, a glimmer of a plan….”
The pirate theme lives on in my legacy.
When I was in seventh grade, I was double-cast as the lead in our pre-Bicentennial musical. I was the Spirit of ’75 for two performances (why the Music teacher and the Home Ec teacher chose this theme a year early is anyone’s guess). So was Kevin Bry. Yes, I played a man. Again. I vividly remember being in performance and feeling sort of bored with the dialogue the teachers had written to link together the songs the school chorus had rehearsed. So I decided to overact. “The sun still rises in the East….doesn’t it????!!” The audience roared. I think they were pretty bored, too.
When I was in High School, I took real Drama classes. I learned to dance, and I gained some confidence singing solos in the Concert Choir and the Jazz Choir. I became a lot more aware of my own vulnerability, too. I will never forget the Talent Show in my Junior year. I was in a leotard and character shoes, posed and ready to dance when the curtain went up. I was listening for our taped music to begin. And I heard nothing…until the audience started to howl and whistle. Suddenly, I felt naked and taunted. Then the music started, and I couldn’t concentrate on it. I was humiliated. My father and mother and boyfriend (who became my husband) were in the audience, hearing those students jeering at me. We all went out for ice cream afterward, and they tried to convince me that the performance wasn’t bad and the audience wasn’t being critical, but I just wanted to block the whole thing out of my memory forever. Obviously, I haven’t.
When I was in college, I was a Music major with Voice Performance as my Senior thesis. I auditioned for a part in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta as a Junior. I hate auditions. I tend to choke when I know that someone is out there in those dark seats judging me. I am awesome in rehearsal – prepared, alert, willing and tireless. I was working hard, getting better at performance in my Master Classes and feeling more and more that my teachers and colleagues were actually rooting for me. But not at an audition. I was nervous, my mouth was dry, and my voice wavered. I could see my choir teacher in the house, talking with the casting director. I am sure that Prof. Lamkin was telling him that I was a very good soprano despite my weak scale runs in Mabel’s aria. I managed to land a part in the chorus.
That’s me, third lady on the left.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with my B.A. in Music, I auditioned for the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Worst audition EVER! Oh well. I found out that I was already pregnant. Got the role of Mother at age 22…and 24…and 26…and 28, and stayed off the stage for years. Meanwhile, my husband performed all over the country with a competitive Barbershop quartet and once at Carnegie Hall with the Robert Shaw Chorale Workshop. My children were on stage quite a bit, too. I was their coach. They were in all the school concerts and plays, took dance and music classes, and I watched and cheered and videotaped my heart out.
Then some neighbors invited me to help them start a Community Theater. I was tired of being in the background. I stepped up, and brought my oldest daughter with me. The next summer, I brought three of my children, my husband, and my mother-in-law as rehearsal accompanist. The next summer, it was just me, and my husband told me that he wouldn’t be able to solo parent while I was at rehearsal after this. Meanwhile, he was performing with the Chicago Master Singers and rehearsing every week. A few years later, my youngest daughter started taking theater classes with a group called CYT. The next summer, they did a community theater production, and I auditioned again and got cast. My oldest daughter played in the pit band. One of the performances was on my birthday, and the director brought me out on stage for the audience to sing for me during intermission. * shucks, folks! *
Carousel Cary CT
Hello Dolly Cary CT
Godspell Cary CT
Beauty & the Beast CCT
I ended up working for CYT and becoming their Operations Supervisor full time. In addition, I taught Voice classes and Musical Theater classes and Show Choir classes to kids aged 8-18 after work. All of my children and my husband participated at some point in the seven years I was employed there. I watched kids grow up in the theater, auditioning three times a year, growing in confidence and artistry, and questioning their identity every time.
“Who am I, anyway? Am I my résumé? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” A Chorus Line
Accessing emotions, improvising with another person’s energy – initiation, response, vulnerability, defense. Mime, mimicry, mannerisms, artifice and accents. Playing in the muck of human behavior. This is Theater. It can be devastating and edifying. You can lose yourself and find yourself or never know the difference.
I wonder if I should regret raising up a bunch of performers and encouraging them in this charade or if I should be proud to have modeled survival in the arena. I don’t know. It’s complex. We’re complex. And maybe that’s the entire lesson.
This article is featured in this month’s issue of The Be Zine. The theme is Overcoming Hate. You can read the entire issueHERE.
I grew up with three older sisters. At times when I felt picked on, I would shout out my hurt feelings, “I hate you!” My mother was often right there contradicting me. “You don’t hate her. Come now, settle down…” Consequently, I have long convinced myself that I do not hate anyone, and I’m never angry. I am completely reasonable and can explain exactly why I am disappointed or frustrated. I will cry, but I am never angry. Except that…when I grew up, I yelled at my kids. I punished them. I rejected their behavior. I sometimes got physical, restraining them and even spanking them. But I do not get angry. And I do not hate anyone.
“That’s not fair!”…“How dare they!” I yelled at the television set, which was uncharacteristically out of its closet and in operation in the living room. “Hush now. We’re trying to listen,” whispered my mother. The story of Kunta Kinte set my 14-year old indignation afire. Injustice is wrong – even I knew that! How could grown-ups in leadership be so obviously abusive? How could I undo the damage that was done before I was even born? How in the world could the balance of power be corrected? “I hate authorities!”
My 31-year old husband was having chest pains. The doctor figured it was probably heart burn, but he finally did some blood tests and cardiac diagnostics. It turns out the father of my four young children had diabetes and arterial blockages and needed bypass surgery. I couldn’t understand why this evil, incurable disease had afflicted my family. “I hate diabetes!” I raged. But a metabolic disorder doesn’t choose a target out of malice. What I couldn’t admit was that I was mortally terrified.
These three snapshots into my awareness of hatefulness show me that I can’t overcome the underlying feelings of anger, injustice, or fear by rejecting or opposing them. Neither can I grow in compassion by being intolerant. I can only transcend hatefulness and grow in compassion by practicing understanding. That includes understanding myself – not passing judgment on my emotions, not avoiding uncomfortable feelings, but engaging with them head on. How can I practice this? I slow down and ask myself: What is it I feel? What triggered those feelings? Where am I hurting? What is it that I want that I’m not getting? I want to be kind to the little girl inside me giving voice to her felt needs. I sit with this idea for a while. I thank those feelings for bringing me awareness. I will use that in my decision-making. Then I look at my desires more critically. Is being attached to that thing, that outcome, causing me pain? What if I let go of it?
The more I work with my own feelings and come to understand myself, the more I can begin to understand others. When I see someone who is angry and hateful, I understand that he is suffering. Can I be present with him in this place of frustration? Can I be kind to that little child in his temper? Can I engage him in a discussion about the real causes of his anger, his feelings of powerlessness, his fear? Can my presence and interaction help him realize that attachment to uncontrollable outcomes may be causing some of his suffering? And finally, can I invite him to let it go?
The Thich Nhat Hahn Foundation blog motto is “planting seeds of compassion”. For the Lunar New Year of the Rooster, 2017, they suggested a practice phrase in the form of two parallel verses: “Awakening the Source of Understanding” and “Opening the Path of Love”. The Plum Village practice is to contemplate the first verse as you breathe in and the second as you exhale, “not (as) a declaration, but a living aspiration we wish to nurture”. Overcoming hate with a practice of understanding and love is a beautiful way to transform the world, I believe. I invite everyone to try it with me.
This is the end — the last day of the year, the last installment of my mother’s birthday project, and the last entry on this blog for 2014. My mother is 80 years old today. Here is a list of 10 Inspirational Instructions that she has embodied throughout her life. They are also serving as my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015. My mom is indeed an inspiration, and I hope she’ll keep breathing life in for many more years.
1) “TrustGod, but do your homework.” This quote she always attributed to her own mother. I think it’s a great motto to pass on from generation to generation. In essence, it acknowledges our humility but does not absolve us from responsibility. We are not in control of all things, but we are in control of some. When you’re able to dance on that line with grace, you’re living wisely.
2) Regularly make the effort to right-size and divest. This comes from her organizational practice, and it’s a great reminder at the end of every year. I’ve watched mom go through “weeding out” stages my whole life. She systematically keeps her possessions under control: clothes, books, papers, housewares, pantry stock, music, everything. Steve & I are furiously reducing inventory at the book business now. Part of the fun is putting those things you divest into the hands of someone who will use and appreciate them. Recycle generously!
3) Gather experiences, not things. I remember my mother answering all inquiries about what she wanted for a gift with some version of this philosophy. She wanted something to live, not something to dust. I hope she gets lots of what she wants for a long time.
photo by Josh
4) “Look wider still.” This is a Girl Scout challenge from International Thinking Day… “and when you think you’re looking wide, look wider still.” My mother loves this slogan. It applies so well to being broad-minded, tolerant, open and forever learning. It’s a big world. Even after 80 years, there’s a wider view to see.
5) “Only connect.” This phrase became the name of a BBC quiz show in 2008. It is derived from E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, where a character says, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” The phrase has also been used to describe the liberal education, which celebrates and nurtures human freedom. I just learned these references from Google. From mom, I learned that rush of joy, that flush of understanding and the pure delight of living that shows in her face when she utters this phrase at the end of a stimulating discussion. That I learned years ago.
6) Don’t disown your own. “Only connect” applies to people, too, even and especially those near and dear who have a greater capacity to disappoint us. Looking wider than our expectations and our attachments allows us to see that we do not exist in isolation except by our own dogmatic choosing. Long after I learned this from watching mom, I heard it echoed in the writing of Thich Nhat Hahn. “We inter-are,” he says. The cosmos is held together in inter-being. Acting as though we’re separate and separating in judgment is an act of violence against the Universe. Peace is understanding there is no duality.
photo by Josh
7) Let go; let God. My mother has always had the capacity for anxiety. She likes to do things “the right way”, she pays attention to details, and she fears the usual things from failure to death. So do I. Face it, we live in a pretty neurotic culture. Mom showed me by her example how to recognize this in yourself and then to strive to be a “non-anxious presence”. That doesn’t mean she was good at it. It means she practiced. That’s inspiring.
8) “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” This one comes straight out of the Bible (Ephesians), and it was a practice that she and my father adopted religiously. Every night, I’d hear them from behind their bedroom door, talking in low voices and then praying in unison. Taking responsibility for your emotions and communicating them is another inspiring example. Own your anger; it is about you. Talk about your anger to someone else. Then you are re-connected and at peace. It’s not magic; it’s useful.
9) “Underneath are the Everlasting Arms.” This also comes straight out of the Bible (Deuteronomy), but in the very next line, those arms are thrusting out against enemies and doing violence. The everlasting arms that my mother referred to were supportive. They were secure and safe. If I am to grow out of my neuroses at all, I think I need to begin to trust that the World is a good place. I belong here. Even though I myself and everyone I know will die, we end up right here. That’s the way it is, and there’s nothing wrong.
10) “Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee. All things are passing; God never changeth. Patient endurance attaineth to all things. Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting. Alone God sufficeth. ” Teresa of Avila, translated by Longfellow. Mom had these words written up in her small hand and pasted on the inside of her desk cubbyhole door. It was like a secret she showed me when we were worried about something. All things are passing. This fear, this problem, this moment. Patience. Change and movement is how Life is, and it is well. I really believe that and strive to remember it. I think that all of Life is embraced in that dynamic, including God.
All things are passing, year into year, life into life, microscopically and macroscopically. We are so fortunate to be aware of our experience of it! I am ever grateful to my mother for sharing her life and her awareness and so many of her experiences with me. I look forward to more!
photo by Josh
May each of you be happy and at peace in this year’s ending and in the continuation of Life in the New Year!
If you’re just visiting this blog for the first time, you’ve stepped into the fourth day of my birthday project for my mom, who is turning 80 years old on New Year’s Eve. Today’s list of 10 things is about Parenting Principles. My mother is, naturally, my primary example of mothering. She and I both became parents for the first time at the age of 22. She raised 5 children to adulthood; I raised 4. Wisdom doesn’t come with numbers or statistics, though. Wisdom comes in the actual practice of decision-making in love. It’s not about adopting a “right way”, it’s about living out of your values and making choices that you deem appropriate. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 ideas of mothering that Mom communicated to me over the years.
1) Your marriage comes first. This piece of advice she always attributed to her mom. The simple logic is this: your family starts out with just the two of you and will end up with just the two of you. That twosome is the foundation for all that happens in the middle. Obviously, this arrangement isn’t what everyone chooses or how events transpire for all. But in the throes of child-rearing, it helps to keep a perspective on who you want to be. If you want to be all about the kids, then it’s likely they will grow up happily at center-stage and leave happily stage left, and you’ll be left standing unhappily onstage with a stranger. Keep the action going between you, and let the other characters come and go.
2) Learn to feed yourself before feeding your family. This is like the airline adage, “Place the mask over your own nose and mouth before assisting other passengers.” After her wedding, my mother immediately took up the challenge of feeding her new husband “in the manner to which he was accustomed”, meaning that she taught herself how to make recipes handed down from his nurse/nanny, Agnes. Her time of early experimentation and solid study in the culinary arts led to her success as an accomplished gourmet later. I had planned to have 5 years of marriage under my belt before attempting motherhood, but I got pregnant 4 months after the wedding. I was immediately nauseated by the smell of food before I’d even learned how to cook on my own. I lost weight in the beginning of the pregnancy and rapidly after the baby was born. Postpartum depression reduced me to 98 pounds while I was trying to breastfeed. I was literally struggling for survival. Bottom line: learn to cook and eat, even if it seems like the last thing you want to do.
3) Prepare for delivery. My mother is a model of responsibility in many ways, not the least of which is her health. She educated herself about her body and her options in childbirth and made her decisions with my father, I’m sure, but not based on his participation. He was not ready to be one of those Sensitive New Age Dads who goes to Lamaze or presides in the delivery room. He stayed at home in 1957, 1959, 1960, 1962 and in 1973. I’m sure he had other options by the last birth, but his choice was to let my mom “carry on”. For her first four births, she had her labor induced. Why? Well, she was living on the Marblehead Neck and could be separated from the mainland by a storm at any time. She prepared.
4) Breasts have a clear purpose. In America in the ’50s, scientists tried to impress society with ‘modern’ and ‘better’ ways to live. It was all about innovation and technology and product placement. Sound familiar? Mom wasn’t buying. She was also not washing and sterilizing and mixing formula. She had the correct equipment already on hand, thank you. And she intended to use it. And when she turned 50 and the doctors told her that her equipment was sprinkled with carcinoma in situ, she said, “Well, I’m not going to worry myself into a state while that progresses in any way. I’m done using them. Take them away.” She’s 30 years cancer free. A survivor, a pragmatist, an example of responsibility to me.
5) Cotton is best. It’s natural, it breathes, and it doesn’t irritate your skin. Use cotton diapers, cotton balls and cotton clothing. No plastic diapers or synthetic wipes or flame-retardant coating. Following Mom’s advice, I used a diaper service that delivered fresh, clean cotton diapers to my home every week when I was raising babies in California and Illinois in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was amazed to find 4 years ago that there are NO diaper services AT ALL in metropolitan Milwaukee any more.
6) There’s always room for one more, especially in your heart. This is an attitude of abundance and inclusion that is very generous and non-anxious, which I like. However, with 7 billion people flooding the global eco-system these days, it begs careful examination and consideration. Make your decisions accordingly. Mom gave me some “outside of the box” advice when baby number 4 came along while we were still living in 1050 square feet of house in Southern California. Lacking another bedroom, another crib, or even another bassinet, The Domestic Engineer suggested we could always pull out the bottom dresser drawer and line it with blankets or use the bathtub.
7) Don’t think you’re too old for one more, either. My mother gave birth at 39 to her last child. The gap between me and my brother is just 3 days short of 11 years. Everyone was surprised, even Mom, but the pregnancy was never ‘an accident’, and she finally had a son. You’re never too old for one more plot twist as well. I became pregnant after my husband had had a vasectomy, when my youngest was 6. It was certainly unexpected, but I was thrilled. I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks, which was not entirely anticipated, either. Stay light on your feet.
8) Never miss a teaching opportunity. When my brother was borne home from the hospital, I was 11 years old and my sisters were 13, 14, and 16. We were ripe to learn babysitting skills at least and mothering skills for the future. It went over well with prospective employers to tell them that I had been helping care for an infant at home for a year before I started babysitting other children. As my brother grew, I watched my mother’s parenting from a different perspective. I noted how much time she took with him, reading to him, letting him explore, listening to his talk, getting involved in his schooling, etc. I saw patience and willingness and diligence and, yes, worry. Parenting is not easy; it is complicated, and it requires effort. But it is rewarding on many levels.
9) Even worst case scenarios are teaching opportunities. My mother has survived the number one stress on the parenting list. On any list. The death of a child. Alice was technically an adult at 20, but she was still my mother’s child. She was driving from California to Ohio to begin her senior year at college. Alice fell asleep at the wheel in Nebraska, going 80 mph on Interstate 80, rolled the car and was killed instantly. I was her only passenger. I saw my mother’s grief first hand, also her capability. She flew out on several connecting flights to reach me the morning after the accident. She comforted me in my confusion and shock and made all the legal and practical arrangements to get us back to California. She navigated the complex waters of all of the ripples and storms caused in that one, tragic moment with grace, with authentic grief, and with compassion for everyone affected. Somehow, she did all this without a therapist, too. I think she’s always been good at knowing herself, at learning and communicating, and at being patient and allowing healing to arise. That makes for good parenting, for your children and for your own inner child.
Mom (photo credit: DKK)
10) Trust yourself. A happy family isn’t beyond you. Just remember, you have to allow your idea of “happy” to be fluid. My mother came to the dinner table one night before my sister was killed, and recounted a visit with some door-to-door evangelists. She had told them proudly that we already had a “happy Christian family”. Many things changed beginning that night and afterward that challenged that idea, many more than I can go into here. Nevertheless, my mother remains happy with her family. That is her, again, taking responsibility. She is not a complainer. She is not dogmatic about attachments and expectations. She allows herself to create, co-create and re-create happiness as life unfolds. Her progeny goes beyond the children she has produced to a host of other projects. Parenting is about life-giving and life-nurturing, a worthy work for a lifetime. I think my mom is doing a great job….still.
“The quickest way between two points might be a straight line, but it’s rarely the most interesting one. ” So begins the teasing prompt for this week’s photo challenge. I’m a pretty straightforward kind of person, myself. Steve calls it “The Train”. I get my sights set on a goal, and I steam on ahead without getting diverted. And often without being aware of people and feelings and other things that are, well, rather important.
Now, I’m not saying this is a BAD way to be. It can be useful. I get things done. But it’s not the only way to be, either. Steve is definitely a preferred zig-zagger. He calls it playing his “bowling pin” game, which goes something like this: set up the pins in their starting formation and bowl. Wherever the pins have been scattered, set them back up exactly where they are now. Continue bowling toward the pins in their new place. Eventually, you get a game that has ranged all over the house, the yard, the neighbor’s yard, and down the block. Hey! This could go ANYWHERE!!! Isn’t that EXCITING?! Yup, he’s an adventurer. And life with him has definitely opened up new possibilities for me.
We have managed to travel pretty successfully for more than 5 years now. I am pretty good at going off track now and enjoying it greatly. One bit of advice, though. If your GPS system should happen to fail, don’t ask him for directions. Ask me. You’ll be at your destination in under an hour with plenty of gas to spare. Trust me. 🙂
It’s been kind of a crazy week inside my head. Steve admitted to being a little scared of me. It started out on a real high – Valentine’s Day. I was full of positive energy, on my biological upswing, energetic and eager to communicate my passions, my dreams, my optimism. I went face-to-face with Steve’s downswing and asserted my intent not to be the killjoy in his life or the cause for his anxieties. “Go ahead, follow your bliss and don’t worry about explaining it to me! I’d rather come home to a mess in the living room and you deep into an exciting project than be greeted by restrained order and depression.” I went face-to-face with a family issue the next day, emotionally charged and endlessly repercussive, feeling open to multiple possibilities and honestly vulnerable. My karma was kickin’, I thought. My vibes were sure to cause some awesome progress in the near future.
The next day was a Federal holiday, but I was at work at the museum and anticipating starting lessons with a new student directly after my shift. Families with kids home from school opted not to venture out, however, because of a huge snowstorm in the forecast. The staff was dismissed at 2pm because the place was so empty. I drove 2 co-workers home in a complete white-out and was barely able to maneuver my car into the driveway through ankle-deep snow. I decided to cancel my lesson, hoping my new client wouldn’t mind. She never called me back. I began to doubt my decisions.
The next day, I bundled up boxes of books for shipping and headed out the door for work, running a little late in order to get the last package included. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I noticed there was still snow crusted on the windshield wipers. I pulled the door handle to pop out and clear them off, but nothing happened. I thought perhaps the door was frozen. I pushed with my shoulder. Nothing. “I’m trapped!” I phoned Steve in the house. He told me that he had a similar difficulty the night before when he returned from shoveling at his mom’s house. “Just roll down the window and open the door from the outside,” he suggested. The window is frozen. I finally squeeze my way out the passenger door into a snow pile and meet Steve in the driveway. “When? Why? What do I do?” I’m late to work, and I don’t know if my window will thaw in time to let me collect a ticket and enter the parking garage without parking the car and climbing out the other side. What if the gate closes on me? And I REALLY have to pee! I arrive at work late, flustered and cramped. I wonder why Steve didn’t mention this door issue to help me prepare. Is this a small fire? Why am I feeling angry and unsettled? We talk at dinner, and I tell him my plan to slow down, breathe and concentrate on my bliss the next day.
My shift starts slowly, sun streaming through the windows, small family groups perusing the museum. Suddenly, the school groups arrive. I will be calm and proactive. I will greet them all and give them information and safety rules and smile. But they’re arriving one on top of another, and not listening to me! I whirl around and lunge at a girl going head first down the ladder and drive my knee into the boards of the ship. Ouch! Can’t think about that now, I’m still talking to this other group…and I realize I’m talking so fast that I can’t breathe. My chest is constricting. Asthma? Heart attack? No, you’re still talking. Stop talking and take a breath, you fool!
I am panicked. I am going way too fast. Where is my Willy Wonka detachment? “Stop, don’t, come back…” I am addicted to my thoughts (as Eckhardt Tolle would say), to my ego, to my responsibility, and it’s causing me to suffer. I need to let go and get grounded once more. My knee throbs. I can’t walk. I must slow down now. I have no other option.
I had my first lesson with another new voice student last night. It went very well. I rang the wrong doorbell initially; I don’t think it hurt my client’s first impression too much. Steve and I had planned to go to Madison to take a class at the arboretum this morning, but with a “wintry mix” of snow, sleet, and rain on the roads, we decided to stay home. Initially, this was one more disappointment in my Manic to Panic downfall, but it dawned on me that I could choose to look at it as an opportunity. An opportunity to really slow down. To sink. Like the Titanic.
It’s a very real, natural environment down here. Nothing is “good”, “bad”, “successful” or “progressive” among the fish. It simply is. Things happen. Fish eat fish, waves come and go, and any drama is simply in my head. I meditate on plankton, sucking in and gushing out, enriched by the flow, going along. I’m staying here for a while. I’ll let you know when (and if) I surface.
My laptop perches on my warmly-wrapped lap. Sunshine covers the foot of the bed. Outside my window, sparrows twitter in the snow-dusted branches. Steve and I tap our separate keyboards, sending muffled punctuations from our two upstairs rooms into the tranquil space of our “treehouse” among the maples. It’s Monday morning, and we’re back at work, like so many others in this nation and unlike them at the same time.
Last night, in a nod toward the culture around us, we watched half of the Super Bowl – not on a TV because we don’t own one. Oddly enough, we were able to view it on this screen. It’s been a while since I looked through that window. I recognized a lot of faces from my past encounters with the media, decades aged. (Mary Lou Retton, is that you? Kevins – Bacon and Costner, still recognizable, but changed.) The atmosphere seemed a lot more frenetic, more violent, and more stressful.
Stress. It occurs quite naturally, of course, in physics, biology and chemistry as resistance and instability. Gravity and PMS are phenomena with which I’m quite familiar. They don’t surprise me much anymore, nor do my reactions to them. But stress occurs unnaturally in lifestyles as well, as Distress or Eustress. Philip Seymour Hoffman, found dead at 46 with a needle in his arm. Manufacturing stress, manufacturing responses – does this give us an edge? If we are “hardwired for struggle” (as Brene Brown says), can we maximize that adaptation and produce a super response? Will that response be healthy or unhealthy? Eustress, according to Wikipedia, “refers to a positive response one has to a stressor, which can depend on one’s current feelings of control, desirability, location, and timing of the stressor.” If it feels “good” to react with anger, aggression or violence to a stressor, is this healthy? If it feels “good” to respond to a stressor by self-medicating, numbing or repressing, is this healthy? If it feels “good” to elevate our molehills into mountains and complain about the weather, our weight and how busy we are, is this healthy? Are we doing ourselves a favor by pouring more stress into our system and developing collateral pathways that will make us more resilient? Or are we taxing our capacity to the point of rupture?
My husband died from coronary artery disease, brought on by undiagnosed diabetes. Stress did help him develop a collateral artery system in his heart that made it possible for him to survive a heart attack at age 31, but he only lived 16 more years. Beware, America. Look closely at your stress levels. Make your choices wisely.
“You are my friend; you are special. You are my friend; you’re special to me. There’s no one else who is like you; like you, my friend, I like you.” Fred Rogers
Once in a lunar cycle, I am visited by a rather gloomy faerie who insists on blowing her pixie dust into my brain. It settles into folds of gray cells and blooms into spores that cause self-doubt and self-pity. I begin to feel fragile and overwhelmed and retreat into my cave to fight the infection. An outbreak of insecurities spreads like a rash across my self-esteem, starting with the Redundancy Insecurity. I remember that I am daughter number four: the youngest, the last in the parade, the one who will always straggle behind. Not only am I superfluous, I will never catch up to the others; I am not strong enough or smart enough or skilled enough to do what they can do. If there’s anything you want in a little girl, one of the others will be a better choice. Unless, of course, what you want is small and blonde and cute. I figured I won that category. Now that I’m over 50, though, that’s a remote psychological win. I am still convinced of being not good enough to this day, but I am no longer convinced of being smallest/blondest/cutest.
The next bump in the rash is the Unfavored Insecurity. We all know that sibling order can easily be trumped by favoritism. That story comes to us from the Bible itself. So the burning question of self-assessment is, “Am I the Favorite?” Your siblings will, of course, tell you that Mom always liked them best. Your parents will tell you that they don’t have a favorite. You will tell yourself in oscillating fashion that you might be, or might not be, the favorite. You will perhaps try to be the favorite by being compliant and charming and dutiful. Then one day, you will wonder if you have a personality at all and come face to face with the Invisible Insecurity. Yearbook pages flip by your memory, and you can’t recall yourself. There are hardly any photos of you in the family album. (Rationally, couldn’t that be because you were taking these pictures? At a pity party, rationality isn’t invited.) Other people seem to look right through you or past you. Your phone doesn’t ring for weeks at a time. You feel forgotten, insignificant, unloved.
A fine basis for becoming a writer. I will write so that others will notice me. I will be appreciated. I will be esteemed. I will be SPECIAL. I will have readers who wait to get my next installment, who are curious about my thoughts on every subject, who want only to bask in my presence and demand nothing from me save that which I deign to pen. I will not have to research or refine my essays. I will simply share as much or as little as I like.
I am delusional. I am neurotic. I keep writing. Could I perhaps be refreshingly candid and honest? Could I perhaps be sincere? Would that make me special?
What a game I’m playing. I look hard at myself, quivering in this crazy cave. I listen to myself. Compassion arises. I am myself. No one else is. Here I am, being. Being me. I’m the only one who gets this job. I want to do my best at it, no matter what that looks like. Sometimes it looks pretty pitiful. And that’s me doing my best at being me in this mood. The “I’m not special” mood.
I’m not looking for someone to contradict me or rescue me. I’m just looking at me and daring myself to love me or at least befriend me and for heaven’s sake, stop beating up on me.
Steve brought me a book we’d sold. “There are a few light pencil marks in the quiz section. Could you please erase them before we ship this out?” I glanced at the cover. Getting To “I Do”: The Secret to Doing Relationships ‘Right’ by Dr. Patricia Allen.
I breathe a sympathetic sigh. I grieve for our culture, for social creatures with neuroses fueled by the media, insecurities about whether or not we will be loved, cared for, valued, mated and saved from personal extinction. Our fears are inflamed, and then ‘experts’ step in to tell us the magic or the scientific formula that will save us. Just take a look at the Yahoo! “Dating Tips & Advice” section: How to Stop Falling for Ms./Mr. Maybe, Happiest Couples, Tips to Get the Love You Want Instead of Settling, Traits Unhappy Couples Have in Common, etc. I imagine it’s big media business. How many of these articles simply recycle the ‘statistics’ from identical studies which probably report varying results? We are in a research culture that strives to control and predict, a desperate attempt to apply a balm to those neuroses that we irritate with obsessive attention.
Let’s take a step out of that arena, shall we? Let’s take the relationship out of the Petri dish and place it back into the organic garden. How do you learn about a growing organism? Attention, observation, action and response. Over time, the bloom becomes less a ‘specimen’ than a personality. It is unique. It is dynamic. It is not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It IS. And the more honest you are in your interactions with it, the more you trust it…to be itself.
And where do we find guidance in this garden of real relationships? In stories. There are billions and billions of relationship stories out there. Some are fact, some are fiction. Many of the fictions center around the magical or formulaic as well, but the ones that really inspire are the ones that are singular and sincere. They give us the hope that our own inimitable story may be just as satisfying.
I have relationship stories of my own, and they are very important to me. I have a yearning to share them, with my children and with anyone else who may be listening. Why? Because I hope that my practice of observing and appreciating the slow unfolding of a delicate bloom will spark the same in someone else, that our posture in relationships will become less that of a victim on the couch, more that of a poet in the garden.