Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Simple connection

Yesterday, I woke up with one of those migraines that make me long for the days when sucking my thumb and whimpering were an acceptable way of coping with things. Thus, I expected a day filled with a whole lot of nothing much. Once the pain killers began to take the edge off, I made myself an industrial strength, super-sized cup of tea, watched a few geese migrating and looked at some internet links that friends had sent me. Two different people had sent me a link to the same blog post. (here) I cried as I read the story and mulled over its meaning.

It is a simple story of a woman reaching out in a simple way to a total stranger. World peace is not achieved. Cancer is not cured. Nothing that the world views as grand is accomplished. And yet, something extraordinary does happen. And perhaps the tears were brought on by the very fact that it is extraordinary. Or at least much more extraordinary than it should be. I talked about it with a few folks who had read it as well. There were different reactions, as one would expect. These reactions, of course, made me consider it further.

One person was concerned about the impact her action could have had on her small children. Granted, we do tell our kids not to talk to strangers, especially strangers on the street, with very good reason. And every parent is rightly protective of them in that way. But the person seemed to miss the other side of it. What impact, indeed, might it have on her children to see their mother showing compassion to another human being on a regular basis. A very positive one, I imagine. It very well could inform how they come to view and treat others in their lives. The mother showed respect toward a stranger and, from her own need, shared what she could. Not a bad model to be putting forth.

A couple of others expressed concern as to whether or not the recipient was either really in need or was responsible for their own situation and thus, perhaps, not deserving of her compassion. This is a position that I understand. In our city, we've enacted laws about "aggressive pan-handling" because of certain people harassing others on the streets downtown. It became a big enough problem that the city government had to take steps. And, granted, we do have a number of groups of homeless kids constantly trying to beg money for coffee and puppy chow. It is no wonder that folks become tired of it. But, for me, there is another side to it. What do we do to ourselves, if we do not see and respond (in someway) to those who are around us? When we cease to recognize them as one of our own? I think we damage a part of ourselves. That part that was so alive on the kindergarten playground when another child was hurt. That cries over news stories from the other side of the world. That cannot bear the thought of a mother's loss of her child, no matter who she or her child might be. It's a part of our humanity that gets buried a bit each time we turn away from part of humanity.

And I believe that this goes far beyond street people and their obvious problems. It extends to everyone else around us with their not so obvious situations. Perhaps it is the fault of societal problems. Perhaps it is our myth of self-sufficiency. Perhaps it is nothing more than fear for our own security. Whatever it is, almost all of us pull our hearts in and shut them off from various people and situations. We believe that we cannot or should not cope with any problems other than our own. I fail miserably at it myself, but I do have two reasons why we should try to move beyond this belief.

First of all, whatever or whoever is before us is, by definition, a part of our life. We may not have invited them. We may not have asked for the event or situation or person to present themselves, but there they are awaiting a response. Certainly, our response can be to turn away. Sometimes that is possible. We can ignore the beggar, the sick, the criminal, the inconvenient, generally without overt repercussions. They (or someone just like them) will continue to be there, whether we ignore them or not. We can't fix all the problems of the world. Very true. But might we not also be able to address the small problem of this minute that stands right in front of us? And if we do not, who will? And if we do not, what does that do to us?

Secondly, every organized religion that I'm aware of (and most of the non-organized spiritualities as well) demand that we reach out to help others. The holy books and great thinkers do not suggest that it might be a good idea. They do not say, "do it if it is convenient." They do not say, "hope that someone else will come and do it." They just say do it. Whatever IT might be in the moment.

Do I follow my own ideas all of the time? Of course, not. I get wrapped up in my own worries just the same as anyone else does. I am only too aware that I cannot solve a single solitary major problem in the world and that can quite easily lead to not even wanting to acknowledge that they exist. I am frequently asked for money and, more often than not, I am unable to give even small change. And there is no way in the world that I could respond to each request that comes my way. So what's to be done?

I think the most important part of the story in the blog is not that she gave a man a hamburger. I think the important part is that she recognized their common humanity and reached out to him. Even without the sandwich, the impact would have been there just in looking at him, smiling at him, calling him "sir". Giving him the recognition of his dignity as a fellow human, a brother. Every so-called bum on the street once had a mother who cradled him. Somewhere along his path something went terribly wrong but that innocent child still is there. Every cranky old person once had a vibrant young life full of promise that has been buried by time or tragedy. Every lonely person sitting in a theater had dreams of vital connections that never came their way. And that is the person we should acknowledge, respect and, if possible, reach out to. Even if only for a moment.

Did the lady of the blog permanently change the man's life? I guess that depends on what sort of change one means. Is he still homeless? Most likely. Will he be eternally grateful for the hamburger? Probably not. But in that simple interaction, several lives were impacted by her small, kind act. The man had a small amount of dignity restored to him. The woman, with problems of her own, was able to see a connection. Her children witnessed, what I am sure will be, one of many examples of how to be with other people. Many people read the story and forwarded it through the internet. And I felt compelled to write about it. Quite an impact from a trip to McDonald's.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


"Most people would rather be certain they're miserable, than risk being happy." -- Robert Anthony.

I believe there is a rather large kernel of truth in this quote. I know in my own case, in the past I have let myself get bogged down in the misery at times, rather than grasp at the possibility of a happiness that may or may not have been just beyond my reach. Sometimes going so far as to doubt a happiness that is right before me offering things that I knew without doubt I craved in the deepest parts of my being. I don't believe that I am unique in this, which brings me to the inevitable question of why. Why do many of us do this to ourselves? Why do we occasionally work against our own interests? And what does it take to release ourselves from this self-imposed misery? As with so many of these issues, I believe a great deal of it can be boiled down to fear and external expectations.

How do we come to the point of embracing our miseries? I seriously doubt it is a conscious act for most of us. Perhaps it is cumulative. We have innumerable small nips and bites take away small but essential pieces of our happiness over a long period of time, until all we notice is the pain and forget the happiness or potential for happiness that once inhabited the places now filled with pain and loss.

Perhaps it comes with an awareness that risk can equally lead to much worse misery as easily as to happiness, and the fear of that outcome deters us from reaching for the potential happiness that also could come about. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

Also, there is the risk of possible censure of family, friends or society because the happiness that calls to us falls outside acceptable norms and expectations. Perhaps our true happiness lies in running away and joining a circus. Without a doubt, others would warn against pursuing pipe dreams and not being mature or responsible. Conformity or fear of criticism frequently suppress the true desires of our hearts, sometimes to the point of killing them completely. In time, we become a self-policing organism that will not allow itself to acknowledge that the stars exist, much less reach out for them. Once this self-policing is firmly in place, we frequently don't recognize gifts of happiness that appear before us wrapped up in pretty paper and a bow. And, if we do notice it, we may be suspicious that the contents can truly be what it appears to be, thus perpetuating the all to familiar misery. In holding tight to the familiar misery, we seemingly hope to block out even deeper misery. But, of course, there is no guarantee of that either.

How do we shake off the shackles of long standing conformity, misery, pain, that restrain our hand's reaching for the possibility of finding our true bliss? I suspect it requires a conscious focusing on how we can move deliberately toward joy and release our hold on the constant niggling pains that we've allowed ourselves to claim as our own. Not an easy task, certainly. It is terribly easy to lapse back into familiar patterns. Too easy to substitute acceptance for happiness. To cling to stability rather than risk change for the sake of happiness and fulfillment. To exchange a proper public image for all out goofy joy.

As I was examining some of these questions with a friend, discussing the potential for a great happiness that had suddenly appeared in my life, she offered very wise words. "Accept it and say 'thank you'." And so I did. And so I shall. It is the only truly rational response.

"Say yes quickly, if you know, if you've known it from before the beginning of the universe." -- Rumi.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Blog anniversary

One year ago today, I began this blog. Yesterday, I scanned through all of the 85 posts and reflected on the experience.

I noticed that the blog quickly evolved into something more than I thought it was going to be. I started out thinking that I'd be writing short posts that would unearth more meaning behind my daily tasks. I also thought there would be more about knitting. It started out that way, but it didn't stay that way very long. For the most part, I'm examining things that puzzle me using the filter of my own experiences. I also find myself challenging the status quo. That's right, me and Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

The length of my posts has expanded as well. Early on they were in the 300-400 word range. Now the average is 850 words with double that happening occasionally. Not that word count is important on this blog, but it is interesting. I don't know if I was being timid in the beginning or if it was just a function of the shift in focus, but it has changed.

I've learned several things through blogging this past year. First, I quit worrying about whether or not anyone was reading it. Early on I'd worry that no one was reading it if there were no comments. I installed a site meter which shows me the number of hits and sometimes the state or country it came from. I was thrilled when I realized that my blog had been read on every continent. This started out primarily through other bloggers and other people on my social networking site recommending my blog to others. Some have even embedded links to my blog from their blogs. A big thanks to those folks, especially Colin.

I worried for awhile that no comments meant that my writing was too personal and didn't carry anything that someone else could relate to. But then, I started getting e-mails and messages on social networking sites that negated that worry. Although I'm sure that some of the posts didn't speak to anyone but me.

I also learned not to pay attention to, nor feed, the trolls. I've had great exchanges with people who disagree with me and we've given each other food for thought. And those who disagreed also afforded me the opportunity to more fully explore the issue for myself and to offer a clearer explanation. I will, however, absolutely not engage with trolls who snipe from cover hurling verbal abuse. Such people have been out there since the beginning of internet exchanges and they aren't going to go away. So I ignore them in the hope that they will go find another blog or blogger to hate for awhile.

Being the Queen of Why, I naturally considered why I began the blog and, more importantly, why I continue it. I honestly can't remember exactly why I decided to start. I have a vague notion that it was fueled by a desire to put more discipline into my writing with a hope of eventually establishing myself as a writer. But even that seems to be a part of why I kept at it more than why I launched it. Whatever the reason, my journal hasn't seen a lot of business since I began the blog. Where I used to fill up two journals a year, the current one has been going for more than a year and has room for more.

And the why of why I keep at it is even more elusive to me. I know that I enjoy it. I know that I'm very happy with the brief and not so brief contacts with others that have happened. It has given me more discipline in my writing and has helped me move closer to the goal of putting 'author' on a business card. I've also learned not to force a posting if it just seems not to want to come. I guess ultimately I continue with it because it continues to give me things to learn. It gives me a place to flesh out ideas that are swirling through my mind. It has given, for the most part, pleasant interactions with people I most likely would have never had contact with. Not writing has never been an option for me. I've done it since I was a child and I'm not likely to stop before I stop breathing. I've never done it in a public way before this year, so, in a sense, it is teaching me a bit about being courageous. And the exploration will continue.

Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Star Trek

I'm a little bit of a Star Trek geek. I don't have a pair of Spock ears nor have I studied Klingon grammar, but I do enjoy the various renditions of Star Trek that have appeared over the years. I even have some favorite episodes, although I generally call them 'that episode where X happened', rather than the title of the episode. And given a choice, Star Trek the Next Generation is my favorite. Why in the world am I telling you all of this? Well, it just so happened that my all-time favorite episode was on last night and I was happy at the prospect of seeing it again. This, naturally, made me start thinking about what it was that I liked about it.

My favorite episode of Star Trek the Next Generation (STTNG) is called Darmock. In this episode, Captain Picard encounters a race of people who speak in metaphors, metaphors that make no sense at all to our heroes. Great frustration ensues on both sides. Then the other captain, Dathan, beams himself and Picard down to the nearest planet. There they must join together to conquer a beast that would very much like to kill them both. To make a long story short, the two captains begin to communicate through their joint struggle for survival. Dathan, in the end, dies in the effort. To me, it is not just a story about cooperation, but also about the importance of truly listening and trying to communicate.

Obviously, it's extreme to risk death in order to communicate, but the various steps that were shown could be quite valuable in more mundane settings. They started out simply acknowledging that they did not understand each other. This, of course, led to some very hard work in listening, asking questions and looking for areas of agreement. Perhaps the Star Trek universe has the advantage in that there are so many different cultures and languages that no one makes too many assumptions about what the other is trying to get across. We who share a common language, rightly or wrongly, expect that the other person will understand clearly what we mean. This is probably inevitable to a great extent, but the addition of clarifying questions would go a long way towards fully understanding. After all, we all bring different experiences and/or different cultures to every situation we are in. We can't always assume we are speaking the same language in every sense of the word. Our words may be the same, but our understanding of them can be quite different.

Another aspect of their communication style is the fact that they shared stories with each other. This required a type of listening that did not mandate an immediate response. In this way, the listener had no other job than to listen and to try to understand. Any response prior to the end of the story would have been inappropriate if not downright rude. In the episode, the only thing the 'listener' said was, "Tell me more." This 'help me understand you' approach shows respect for the speaker and a real desire to truly connect with them. If we were to include a bit more of this approach in communicating with those around us, I'm willing to bet that the incidences of hurt feelings and anger would be reduced. It would be a good experiment to try in any event.

There was also very little to distract them from their attempt to communicate, except of course for that pesky beast. But aside from the fighting, the rest of the time they had nothing more pressing or distracting pulling at them. I have little doubt that our hectic, busy lives interfere in our efforts to connect and truly communicate with others. While it is true that it would be impossible to spend the time and effort necessary for that level of communication with absolutely everyone, there are times when I believe it is absolutely mandatory to try, especially with those who matter to us most. I have been fortunate to know a few people who truly want to do that level of listening. They are so restful to be around, partly because you can trust that they are engaged in the process every bit as much as you are. There isn't quite as much pressure on the speaker to cast about for multiple ways of communicating the same point. There is trust that any miscommunication will be dealt with with clarifying questions rather than angry accusations.

There also was little on the agenda for those two characters beyond communicating and surviving. Neither one of them was scanning each word or phrase for something to disagree with or to use against the other one. So much of our supposed listening devolves into plotting out our responses. How could I possibly listen to you if I am trying to come up with a witty remark or looking for someway to puncture your ideas? In work situations, the quick response is expected and there is very little room for communication beyond facts and figures. And I think that this need for speed bleeds over into our personal relationships, where it really doesn't belong. I doubt that this is intentional on anyone's part, but it happens far too often for it to be good for us.

In the Star Trek episode, an opening was made for a connection with another race and Captain Picard personally was touched by his connection with Dathan and his efforts. In real life, I think we could do a lot worse than creating openings between people and connecting on an emotional level. And in real life, we could also deepen and strengthen bonds with those around us. We could do a lot worse.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Escaping the heat.

Yesterday was one of those days that made me wish that I was a better writer, a better poet. In the middle of a freakishly abnormal heat wave, I decided to drive over to the coast rather than melt and whine at home. It's only about 90 miles to the ocean. So close that I wonder why I don't go more often. I took off early in the morning with no plan other than to drive west until I saw the Pacific.

Not far past the outskirts of the metro area, one starts climbing the hills that lead into the Coastal Range. The range is small, as mountain ranges go. The summit is only about 1600 feet. But it is beautiful. With a few gaping exceptions. Sailing past the farmland that lies just below them, I felt my spirit lift as the trees began to close in behind and over the car. Frequently when driving in the hills here, it resembles nothing so much as entering a leafy green tunnel with the branches joining over the road allowing only random patches of sunlight to land directly on the road. I don't know that it was actually cooler there, but it certainly gives the mental impression of feeling cooler. Whether it is the unrelenting green or the sense of being sheltered by all of those trees, I do not know, but it never fails to improve my outlook.

What never fails to dampen my elevated mood are the clear cut areas. Driving through forests here always carries the possibility of coming across those areas leased to lumber companies, which have stripped entire mountainsides of everything taller than two feet in height. The devastation is sickening with stumps and branches strewn every which way and, all too frequently, no seedlings planted to replace what has been taken. The feeling is one of witnessing violence and there are no words adequate to describe it. Sometimes the companies leave a thin line of trees near the road in a futile attempt to mask what has happened beyond them. I know all of the 'rational' arguments about jobs and the need for lumber, but it leaves such scars. I don't get physically ill at the sight as I used to, but it still mutes the shine of an otherwise perfect day.

About an hour out from the city, deep into the mountains, there is a restaurant that we always stop at. Discovered it when the kids were little. It isn't a great gourmet place, it is a funky place modeled on a logging camp motif. (I know, ironic after the last paragraph.) The food is good and the feeders outside of the windows provide a variety of birds to watch while you wait. It's hard to imagine driving this way to the beach without stopping there. It's just part of the package.

Finally, I come out of the mountains and almost immediately there is the Pacific. Or rather, there should have been the Pacific. There were low-lying clouds covering the entire coastline. With no particular destination in mind, beyond not going to the usual places, I turned left to see what would present itself. Only occasionally did the sun power through to reveal blue ocean below. And I noticed that it is quite unnerving to drive down the coast highway, on the edge of cliffs that should be overlooking the ocean, and only see thick clouds below. On curves especially, it felt as though one wrong move and I could fall off the edge of the world entirely. There are many 'Scenic Outlook' sites along the coast and every one of them yielded a wide vista of clouds and nothing else. So I kept driving south.

I sped past all of the beaches and towns that I had stopped at before, still not sure where I was going to end up. The tiny little harbor towns seem much more appealing driving through them than they probably are to live in, but my fantasy of having a place by the ocean was running rampant. Little places like Garibaldi and Hebo which basically have one street, one grocery, one theater, etc. let one imagine a simpler and, perhaps, more real type of existence. Never mind the certainty that the reality might drive one quite mad.

When I had had just about enough driving for one sitting, I saw a sign that read "Nestucca Beach, next right." So right I went and drove the 3 or 4 miles to the beach. While there were occasional splashes of sunlight peeking through the clouds on the highway, down by the ocean there were none. The fog was so thick that the sun was nothing more than a hazy little ball overhead.

I walked about a mile up the beach and did a little people watching. Since it was 65 degrees on a weekday, there weren't too many people to watch which is why the ones who were there caught my attention. I wondered about the two teenage girls lying on towels in swimsuits attempting to get a tan. They must have been freezing. I watched a couple of chocolate Labs dashing into the water chasing a stick, which they then proceeded to carry together down the beach. I don't believe I've ever seen two dogs carrying opposite ends of a stick before, but it seemed like usual behavior for those two. There were a few intrepid souls in wet suits with boogie boards braving the frigid water. My favorite was a grandmother with a toddler. The toddler was running for all he was worth, collecting rocks and passing them on to his grandmother. Then, when she had enough, he would take them one at a time and attempt to throw them into the water. More often than not, he missed the ocean.

The beach itself was littered with the remains of the gulls' breakfast. Crab had been on the menu and I had to watch my step for a ways so that I didn't step on shells and pincers. There were also tire tracks despite the fact that I was far past the sign that said motor vehicles were not allowed on the beach. All the usual beach debris could be found, partial shells, bits of seaweed and the odd cigarette butt.

As I walked, I noticed that the tide was coming in, so I picked a spot and planted myself, waiting for it to come to me. I gazed out watching the variations of the waves tumbling in for the better part of an hour before the ocean caught me. The water was slate gray with only the white bubbles at the top of the waves relieving the color. I watched the near approach of the water for awhile until my focus shifted to the furthest waves I could see coming in. They couldn't have been more than a thousand yards away, the visibility was so short. Those tunnels of water collapsing in on themselves gave the barest glint of green near their crests before resolving back to gray. I continued to look outward, waiting for the water to reach me, with a fairly blank mind. Just watching. Just noticing. Once or twice, my mind skipped back to other times, other beaches, other companions, but for the most part it was just me, the ocean and nothing more. Or rather, nothing less.

At long last, the water reached out and slapped me. Nothing quite prepares one for the first touch of the cold water. It came up and captured my feet up to my ankles before it pulled back. It must have been undecided about wanting to play because it took another 10 minutes before another wave was brave enough to reach me again. I shifted my focus to the place where the water was striking and wondered with each new wave if this one would be the one that really got me. Childish musings perhaps, almost as if I was daring it to tag me. As the water became more consistent in its approach, I planted my feet more firmly, braced for the big one. No truly big ones arrived, at least not while I stood there. But I did enjoy standing in the low surf, comparing and contrasting the sensations.

After awhile, the grandmother and child came back up the beach. Their adventure apparently over because now the child was being carried. Too much excitement for one day, most likely. A woman bounced past, walking her collie. And one of the guys in the wetsuits had had enough and made his way past me and away. I walked back down the beach, more slowly than I had walked up it and made the climb over the dune that would lead back to my car.

I half thought that I'd go in search of another place, but I found that I was done for the day. I got all of the sand off my feet and pointed the car back towards the highway. I always tell myself when I go to the beach that I'm going to stop and get some saltwater taffy. And, as usual, this time I didn't do it either. I apparently like the idea of taffy more than I actually like taffy. So I brought no physical souvenirs from the excursion, unless I can count a sunburnt nose and aching calf muscles from the climb up the dune. Yet, somehow, it feels as though this particular day will be with me for quite some time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Assumptions and labels

If you ever want to see the entertaining sight of steam coming out of my ears, start slapping some labels on me. It never fails to get me hot under the collar and has ever since I was quite young. Whether it is a good label or a bad label, it almost never fails to chafe. I've known this about myself for a very long time, but I never parsed out the reasons why. It always leads to assumptions, which frequently are incorrect and can in turn lead to very unwelcome outcomes.

My first memories around this came from when I was 5 or 6 years old. I was introduced to someone, who leaned over and talked to me as if I were the village idiot simply because of my age. I don't remember who it was or what they said precisely, but I do remember fuming at the way I had been patronized. I'm sure that I couldn't have described it then beyond the fact that I didn't like being treated like a baby, but I clearly remember feeling insulted. Now the person obviously hadn't planned to insult me. It would have never occurred to them that it was even possible. They were merely acting out of their assumptions based on the label 'little girl' that I was carrying at the time. The same sort of things have happened throughout my life as the label has changed from 'girl' to 'young woman' to just plain 'female.' Depending on what assumptions are attached to the labels, my resultant response has ranged from slight annoyance to extreme irritation, especially if it has led to my being disregarded because of them.

At a slightly different angle, I find that I bristle when confronted with the assumption that I don't know my own mind or mean what I say. For the life of me, I can't figure out what purpose this might serve. In fact, I can't see anything but difficulties arising from that. Real fireworks can be seen whenever I hear the words, "you don't mean that." Given that I generally don't say things that I don't mean, this feels like it has to be some sort of self-serving position taken by the speaker. (Don't want to assume that, however.) This one rose up again recently when I decided to stop seeing someone. I meant what I said about not wanting to see him any more the first time I said it. And every time I repeated it for almost 5 months. And it makes me wonder why some people assume that 'A' means 'B' when 'A' is the only thing that has consistently been said. It seems like a sort of deliberate miscommunication, which kind of boggles the mind. It's difficult enough to communicate without making it more so.

I think my allergic reaction to labels increased in adulthood because of all the assumptions that were hung on labels that I more or less had accepted. I ran headlong into one of those right after I got married. All the people that I had hung out with, went to movies with, or just did regular things with, all assumed that I was no longer available. It blew my mind. I was immediately dropped from standing invitations and I had to chase folks down to clear up the matter. Apparently, I was supposed to be fused to my husband and not do anything on my own. This only increased once my sons were born. I had apparently disappeared and could not have a separate identity. That was an extremely difficult labeling assumption to dodge and, at times, I let myself get buried under it, which was truly unfair to everyone. Similar labels and assumptions came attached to my choice in jobs, education and spirituality. And they almost always missed the mark. The labels were too broad and the assumptions too all-encompassing to have any real meaning.

I have no clear idea why most of us, if not all, compartmentalize others based on assumptions. Perhaps it is nothing more than a sorting function in our brains to help us make a semblance of order out of the overwhelming possibilities that exist in our world. But the outcome of it can move well beyond the realm of irritation and cause real damage to our relationships and unnecessary stress in our lives. This can happen based on the labels we attach to others, or based on how we connect assumptions between different people. If one of our parents employed disapproving silences to control our behavior, we might assume that similar silences mean the same thing in other relationships. If someone in our past abused our trust with lies, we might assume that either no one is to be trusted or perhaps that everyone lies. If we have been manipulated in the past, we may believe that others are trying to do it to us again. The examples could go on and on. And how sad that is for all parties involved.

But what's to be done about it? I suspect a lot of it is done unconsciously, based on past experiences. And I imagine that a portion of that is done out of self-preservation and fear of repeating a bad experience. Perhaps the only thing we can try to do is to slow down and consider those around us, recognizing that they are unique in our experience. By being slow to assume, we don't need to risk ourselves unnecessarily, merely allow enough time for the other to reveal themselves in more depth, which in its turn could allow for more depth in the relationship we have with them. If we look at each new person with an active curiosity as to who they are, rather than quickly labeling and pigeonholing them, we open up new possibilities. And if we look at older relationships without the filter of assumptions, we give others the opportunity to reveal pleasant surprises about themselves. And, should we find things that we'd rather not see in them, at least we have a firmer basis for any decision we make.

"Assumptions are the termites of relationships." -- Henry Winkler.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Back when I was in undergraduate school, after we had solved all the problems of the world over lunch, several of us had quasi-serious discussions about which book we would memorize if books were banned a la Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I had no trouble at all deciding on which one; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It has been a favorite of mine for a long time and I still go back and re-read it every few years.

I do have my issues with Jane. I was thoroughly disgusted with her for abandoning Rochester the way she did, but I eventually gave her a pass on that, partly because she did eventually return and partly because of the mores of the time. I preferred to think that she would have behaved differently if she lived later than the 19th century. In my latest re-reading of the book, however, I came across something that made me want to shake her until her teeth rattled. When little Adele asks her if they will be happy, she replies that they will work hard and be content. What the...? What an insipid thing to say to the child! I was outraged! I was livid! I know, I know, over-reaction. Acknowledging that it had more to do with me than with what Ms. Bronte wrote in her book, I gave it some thought.

I found dozens of quotes advocating contentment as a noble goal for life and I even agreed with a few. The quotations that cautioned about wanting more and more things seemed to parallel my views. I've never been inclined to focus on the acquisition of things. It always seemed like it took too much effort away from other things that I was interested in. But the other quotes annoyed me. They generally came from religious or political sources and they seemed to attribute a high sense of virtue to contentment that I simply cannot see. It was as if they were promoting contentment as the opiate of the masses.

To my mind, this sort of contentment equals settling for less. Jane offered Adele contentment as a goal and not the happiness that she desired. It is true that neither Adele nor anyone else has a guarantee of each and every happiness they desire. But by eliminating the possibility of reaching for some of the more important, life-enhancing things that are available, it seems to me that even contentment is not possible. Contentment may end up being the end result, but as an all encompassing goal, it seems terribly inadequate.

It also seems as though it requires a certain amount of self-deception a la the fox in Aesop's fable. The fox wanted the grapes and tried everything he could think of to get them. When he failed, he walked away having decided that the grapes were probably sour and he didn't want them anyway. Our society reinforces this view on all sides. We tell others that what they wanted isn't worth it, or wouldn't make them happy, or that it is the wrong thing to want. When the fact of the matter is someone else simply doesn't know if it is worth it or not to you. And, at one time or another, most people agree and stop striving for whatever it is. The pressure is exerted to do what is 'acceptable' and 'reasonable' until we frequently relax into a vanilla pudding type of existence and give up on our fondest dreams, hopes and desires.

After having been a big fan of the vanilla pudding club when I was younger, I find that I've lost my taste for it entirely. Not only did I not reach for other flavors, I barely acknowledged their existence. And in that way, I committed what I consider to be the most unforgivable of sins; I wasted a lot of time and did not live my life. I don't plan on making the same mistakes in the future. I'll be trying every unusual flavor that crosses my path. I'll be reaching for every scrap of joy that life offers. And I'll be doing so without the overly excessive concern I had for society's approval that I had in my youth. I'll have to pick another book and heroine than Jane Eyre. She's been reduced to a cautionary tale for me. I'm going to be browsing on the adventure shelves for something else entirely.

"Be happy while you're living; for you're a long time dead." -- Scottish proverb

Saturday, July 11, 2009


As most knitters know, 'frogging' is when you rip out what you have been working on. It can happen when you discover a very obvious mistake in the work. It can be an admission of defeat. Or it can be simply because your tastes or interests have changed and you wish to do something entirely different. Whatever the reason, knitters are generally reluctant to do it. I've been known to abandon a project for a year before succumbing to the need to frog it. And, after having frogged half of a sweater the other evening, I found myself wondering not just about frogging knitting, but the role that frogging has in other areas of life.

As I sat there unraveling the knitting and winding the yarn back into a ball, I began to think about the reluctance to do it. This sweater had been sitting for months with a huge mistake staring at me from near the beginning. I've known for all those months that it would have to be frogged, but I still dragged my feet about actually doing it. Why?

One possibility might be that I had invested so much time in the knitting that I felt like I had wasted time and effort which could only be redeemed by the myth that I would eventually fix the mistake and finish the sweater. It was as if only the outcome could justify the process it took to get to that point in the sweater. This seemed a bit wobbly to my thinking. Don't get me wrong; I like a successful outcome just as much as the next one. But I also enjoy the process while it is happening. I don't tend to focus on finishing an item until I'm about three quarters done and my mind has started mapping out the next thing. The hundreds of thousands of stitches made over hours and hours are not somehow less enjoyable when an anticipated outcome doesn't come about. This applies to other areas of our lives. Careers, relationships, personal goals, anything we aimed for does not lose its authenticity or value when we release it in favor of something else. It was valuable while it was valuable and that doesn't change when the goal changes.

Similarly, there is sometimes a sense of failure. We have missed the mark of the original goal and therefore must be less than what we thought we were. This too seems wrong somehow. There are lessons to be learned in the process that could very well be valuable on the next project. We might have learned a new way to do something. We might have learned that we never want to use a particular technique again. We may even have learned the difficult lesson of walking away because it no longer suits us. There doesn't seem to be any virtue in continuing to the end of some project simply because it was started. Our society, of course, frowns on this attitude whether in the micro or the macro. But rather than failure, there is a wisdom in not continuing with things for no other reason than we started them.

Another possibility is that it simply does not suit us for some reason. Our tastes change. Our needs change. Heck, even our sizes change. If we discover half way through the sweater that something about it no longer suits us, where is the virtue in finishing it? If it is finished, the result would be a sweater that we will never wear. Wouldn't it be better to reclaim the basic materials and turn it into something else?

Obviously, society condemns frogging when it moves beyond the realm of knitting. No one wants to be labeled a quitter/failure/what-have-you. Which is probably why knitters are reluctant to frog a project. But society condemns all sorts of things for the sake of enforcing conformity. There is a need to examine that condemnation. Generalized norms do not take into account individualized needs or interests. There is no accommodation for living in the moment and responding to what appears before us. Seemingly once something is begun, it must be continued no matter what. The yarn that I recovered from the frogged sweater is happily becoming a different sweater with a different design. And other things that I have frogged from my life are being knitted into much better things as well. How much richer our lives might be if we learned to frog as needed.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The problem with hope.

Or perhaps it is more a problem with the inconsistent approach we have toward the notion of hope. We, by turns, tell people that they have to have hope and not to get their hopes up. The various and sundry sayings on the topic run the gamut of 'there is no such thing' to 'you can't live without it.' So which is it? Or is it both? Or neither?

I considered the possibility that the difference between not getting your hopes up and having to have hope might lie in the situations that they are used. This didn't seem to work out, however.

We seem to say 'don't get your hopes up' in situations where there actually IS some small possibility that whatever we are hoping for could happen. It might not be probable or likely, but it is not totally impossible. I think we see this frequently in situations with children. It is almost parental code for 'it ain't gonna happen.' It serves to delay likely disappointment, but not much else. The person who says it probably feels fairly certain that the let-down will be coming, but doesn't want to voice the bad news yet. If the hope is that an absent parent will finally, finally come to visit or that Santa will bring a pony, the adult on the spot has a strong idea that neither one is going to happen. So what is accomplished by delaying the disappointment until the non-arrival of the parent or the pony? It could be that the adult also harbors a tiny hope that they will not have to disappoint the child. It could be that they want to protect the child from the inevitable sadness. It could be that they want to delay their own sadness in seeing the sadness of the child until the last moment. But I wonder if it really serves anyone to do so.

The same holds true when adults use it with each other. Perhaps the one saying it has seen the other person face too much disappointment and can't bear the notion that they will be flattened by disappointment yet again.

On the other hand, when things look as if they are irretrievably hopeless, we tell the person that they 'have to have hope.' "There is always hope." Etc. etc. Even when we know for a fact that there is not always hope, the semblance of hope must be maintained. In fact, the more desperate a situation looks, the more we insist that there is hope. A cure may be found. It is only temporary. It's probably not as bad as it looks. It is always said as an attempt to cheer someone up. But absent any evidence that it might be true, it frequently falls flat.

We also are skeptical of anyone who seems to maintain hope in the face of improbable odds. At the very least, we might consider them to be desperate. In the extreme, they are simple or deluded. A perpetual Pollyanna is not taken very seriously.

So what the heck is going on here? I'm not certain by any stretch of the imagination, but the most obvious possibility is that it is a vital survival mechanism. What would happen to someone who truly had no hope? There is at least some chance that they would give up and be able to release the pain of disappointment. If there is no hope, then there is no expectation and it would make the pain of disappointment less. But I think that would only be true of a minority of people. And the effort to reduce pain would also reduce joy.

Even at my most cynical and at the lowest points of my life, there has always remained just a tiny seed of hope that whatever pain or loss was going on would somehow be lessened in the future. It may not, in fact, happen, but being able to anticipate potential improvement in the future can remove enough of the edge of the current pain to carry on into the future. It could be self-delusion or a coping mechanism, but it also could be an innate survival tool. Even if it is delusional, a reasonable amount of hope cannot hurt us in the short term and may help us make it through to a better place.

"Never deprive someone of hope...it may be all they have." -- Anonymous.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Missing the Obvious

Spring came late to Portland this year. And as I've done every spring since I moved to my current home, I've eagerly watched for the camellia bush outside my kitchen window to bloom. Since it is on the north side of the building, it is usually the last to bloom. So as its sisters on the south side burst into lovely colors and smells, I stepped up watching for 'my' camellia to bloom. As the month passed, there were absolutely no flowers on it. It must have been trimmed at the wrong time last year, because there was not a single bud on the entire plant. I kept watching and watching, no camellias. I was so focused on the camellias that I almost missed out entirely on the azalea that is planted right next to it. It wasn't until the roses started rioting across the back fence that I turned my attention away from the camellia and its lack of flowers this year.

And this in turn made me consider what else I have missed while focused too closely on something else. The short answer is that I'll probably never know for certain. But it bears some examination so as to reduce the occurrence of it in the future. Like most people, I've spent the majority of my adulthood wrapped up in whatever task/person/event demanded my attention at the time, to the point of shutting out even the idea that other things could or should merit some of my attention as well.

I've been a master at missing the obvious most of my life. If I had a dollar for every time someone said, "it's as plain as the nose on your face," or "if it had been a snake, it would have bit you," I'd never need to work a day in my life. And that is not counting the times I have heard, "how could you not know?" I was always too busy trying to be a good daughter/mother/wife/friend to even recognize other possibilities that would have enriched my life if I'd but welcomed them in. There are a few huge ones that come to mind and I'm sure there must be dozens of others.

And don't get me started on the more subtle possibilities that I have let pass me by. They must number in the hundreds, if not thousands. I'm fairly blind as far as subtle things going on in my own life, my own possibilities. Which is odd because I tend to recognize the subtleties that occur for other people around me. The standard joke with me is that I wouldn't catch a hint if it hit me upside the head with a two-by-four. I suspect this might be a by-product of focusing on one thing and missing another. But part of it must be due to my preference for directness. So, what's to be done?

I'm happy to report that I've gotten better about noticing/recognizing some things that come into my life unexpectedly. I'm not to the level of awareness that I hope to achieve, however. And I don't think it is necessary to throw the baby of specific focus out with the bathwater in trying to open myself up to more possibilities and realities. The trick must lie in balancing the two, the question is how. I suspect that it demands a shifting of focus, a more deliberate observation of what is happening both around me and within me. Not focusing on the forest or the trees, but on both in a constant moving back and forth. It requires considerable discipline to avoid sleepwalking through life, to live deliberately and wide awake.

My long observation of the camellia wasn't for naught, however. For the first time since I have been watching it, I noticed that a song sparrow kept hopping along my window sill. And as the weather grew warmer, I saw that she was using the sill as a launching pad into the bush. Once it was warm enough to open the windows, there were delightful baby bird noises coming from it. So, my focus may have been misdirected for awhile, but there were rewards anyway. As there always seem to be, if we but recognize them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Not too long ago, I was in a conversation with a few women. And as happens among women who have given birth, we were swapping 'war stories' about our experiences. The amusing part was when we told our various craving stories. Pregnant women are notorious for craving odd things to eat. There didn't seem to be any sort of particular pattern, each of us just wanted to eat some strange things at times before our children were born. None of us were the classic pickles and ice cream cravers. In fact, I was a bit smug that before my second son was born I was strictly scarfing down raw cauliflower. We won't get into my craving for Jack in the Box tacos with the first one.

The conventional wisdom, whether it is supported by science or not I don't know, is that if one is craving something specific then it is something that you need. If you want a banana, maybe you need more potassium in your diet. If you want a dill pickle, perhaps you need sodium. I can't hazard a guess at what I might have needed from those dreadful tacos, but with healthier choices, I imagine that there could be something to the benefits of those cravings. Just so long as a craving doesn't turn itself into an addiction, there doesn't seem to be any problem in responding to it. A scoop of ice cream is fine, a half a gallon is something else entirely.

This led me to think about non-food related cravings and what they might spring from. If we carry the analogy further, surely they also reflect some sort of need that the person has. We all remember (or perhaps were) the kid in grade school who would do anything to try to be accepted by the other kids. Maybe they were a bit socially inept, perhaps they wore the 'wrong' shoes, or they were just not part of the 'in' crowd. For whatever reason, they felt incredibly isolated and generally mocked by others. Pity was the best they could hope for. But what was really going on here? Was it something worthy of pity or contempt? Not really. For whatever reason they craved connection and, some how, others found them to be unworthy of it. As they got older, they most likely just gave up and hid the need deep within themselves. Some might have even taken the 'sour grapes' tactic and decided that they never wanted it in the first place. My question is, inevitably, why? Why were they mocked for what is a natural desire?

If we look at the food cravings, they are usually met with smiles and good humor. Ha ha ha, you wanted pickles and ice cream. But there isn't any contempt as there seems to be with various cravings for human contact. In fact, even expressing them is considered to be unacceptable. Almost as if it is some sort of weakness to have human needs and admit it. And it truly has me befuddled. What is the possible risk or danger here, to either side of the equation? Nope, can't come up with anything.

Many, many years ago, I worked in the hospital wing of a very large convent. One of the sister's minds had slipped well away from the accomplished, intelligent woman that she had been earlier in her life. She spent her days yelling at little boys who weren't there and crying. Her answer, when asked why she was crying, was always the same. "No one loves me." All of her accomplishments in life disappeared in the face of unrelieved loneliness. No doubt, she had felt the loneliness for many years, but given the nature of her commitment, she probably never voiced it. And, while there was no large scale solution to her past, most of the aides could calm her merely by assuring her that they loved her.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I used to have a next door neighbor in her 80s. She was a crusty old bird who always spoke her mind and the devil could take the hindmost. She'd been widowed, one of her sons had died, even her dog had been killed. But there was no lingering sadness or isolation in her daily life. She took to summoning me over and telling me we were going to have tea. And so we did. It never occurred to me to turn her down. She was obviously living her life on her own terms and would not sit around hoping for company, she demanded it. I think, however, that she was more of the exception than the rule.

And I wonder why. It is almost as if we have some sort of shame around asking for what we need from others. Or perhaps it is a loss of face concerning the fact that whatever it is we crave has not been given to us and we suspect that we are, therefore, not worthy of it. Could it be that those childhood traumas still inform our adult needs? Or is there some sort of tacit agreement between everyone that such things can only come as a gift and the request somehow negates that. On yet another hand, perhaps the asking carries an assumption of a demand on someone else. Or.......I don't know exactly what all else.

More importantly, how does one live truly from one's essential self, if an effort has to be maintained to deny parts of that core? How do we respond to people in our lives with cravings that we may or may not be able to answer? How do we understand them? Maybe those with cravings should feel free to ask for what they need. Maybe those hearing the request should wonder how long the person has been hungry and make them a small snack. After all, there is not anything to criticize in the cravings we all have.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Random goodness

Whatever can happen to anyone can happen to me." -- Muriel Rukeyser.

My first thought when I read this was that it applied to negative outcomes. We read about plane crashes, natural disasters, illnesses and think 'there but for the grace of God, go I." We collectively and openly recognize that life has a random quality that makes everyone of us vulnerable. Whether it be a large natural disaster or a smaller personal catastrophe, something negative can and most assuredly will happen to everyone at some point. We try not to obsess about it; we try to prepare for it. But there is no way to avoid whatever it is from coming to us, whether 'it' is anything from a minor disappointment up to death. This is so patently obvious that there really isn't much to explore about it.

The other face of this coin bears some looking at, however. We tend to overlook the possibility of good things coming to us just as surely as the bad ones do. I wonder why this seems less the case than it's negative counterpart. When we hear of someone else's good fortune, we can feel glad for them, especially if they are close to us. Frequently, however, we feel envy. And if their good fortune involves something we'd hope to have for ourselves, the envy can expand to very ugly proportions.

Why is this? I think it comes from a combination of things. Partly it is a result of deep-seated cultural ideas about the 'haves' and 'have nots.' And partly, I think it comes from a collective sense of scarcity that reaches into our psyches beyond material needs.

The Calvinism of the Puritan colonists on this continent left a mark of predestination imprinted on our collective memories. What you had in the way of material goods was an illustration of where you stood in God's opinion. Wealthy folks obviously deserved what they had and poorer people obviously deserved to have nothing. On the face of it, especially put this baldly, we would reject this notion. But there still seems to be a tinge of it remaining in our subconscious, at least among those who are seen to have more than the usual share of benefits. This, and other historic cultural traits such as regal and clerical hierarchies, leave a deep rift between the favored few and the teeming masses.

With the end of monarchies and state established religion, we did not escape the structure or the belief that everyone has his or her place. Here in the United States, and perhaps other places, we are fed the dizzying notion that anyone can succeed in whatever they choose if only they work hard enough. But, like our Puritan ancestors, we also look down on those who fail to do so, assuming that they just haven't worked hard enough to merit the better things. I think this provides us some mental insulation from the notion that there is a random element to success as well as to failure. The good things in our life must be dependent solely on our efforts or they could disappear. It has also been used to oppress various parts of the population, but that it another topic entirely.

The other problem tends to lie in a deep-seated belief that there is scarcity in everything. It is as if, if you have something there is not going to be enough for me to have the same thing. And to safeguard our futures, we must continue to stock pile more and more, leaving less for others. Or so the thinking goes. But is this notion of scarcity true? I doubt it. I think the problem lies more with the fact that we seem to have collectively lost the concept of having enough. There is a huge industry whose sole job is to convince us to buy more and more stuff and generate perceived needs. And constant bombardment of their messages simply has to have a huge influence or else they wouldn't continue to do it. Many years ago I read a book by (I think) Alan Watts. In it he wrote about how our culture had substituted amount for quality in our property. And I think this also applies to the more intangible parts of life. We can't be happy for others' successes because, on some level, we think it means that they have somehow taken the success that we wanted to have.

But whatever reason lies beneath our understanding, we do not seem to believe that random, unexpected joys can come to us just as surely as tragedies. We seem to only see the lacks in our lives rather than the abundances. There are those fortunate souls who do revel in the joys rather than the pains, but for many of us there is the perpetual 'yeah, but' quality to our appreciation of what is in our lives. I got X, but I really wanted X+Y and therefore, I can't fully enjoy the X that I do have. Perhaps this is human nature. Maybe it is the motivation for human beings to continue reaching forward in our evolution. It could also be something else entirely. No matter what it is, I think we would better serve ourselves by finding some way of shifting our focus more towards the good we have, rather than dwelling on the tragic.

I'm not certain how to do this and, like most things, it probably needs to be different for everyone. Some folks are list makers, some reflective and still others make resolutions to change things about themselves and their outlooks. But no matter how it might be implemented, I feel certain that we could enhance our daily lives by living in hopeful anticipation of the random goodness rather than dreading the random arrival of tragedies.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sharing Happiness

"An unshared happiness is not happiness." -- Boris Pasternak.

Not being an absolutist, I'm reluctant to agree with Pasternak totally. There is, however, a germ of truth in this that I wish to explore.

It is certainly possible to be quietly happy about some things and feel no need to find company to share them with. The things that give this kind of happiness vary from person to person. For me, it tends to happen most often with what seems to be small in the grand scheme of things. When I finish making something with my hands, I do not need to show it to all and sundry in order to savor the satisfaction and gentle happiness that I feel. I can hold the finished sock, shawl or dress and smile all by myself before I move on to the next thing. And for quite awhile after it is completed, it will generate the same little joy whenever I use it.

Another experience where this occurs for me is when I am walking among the trees. Many times I not only do not need to share the connection and happiness I feel in this experience, I do not want to. There is a depth of feeling within me at those times that defy the ability to share. Or, at least, I've yet to find anyone to share it with whose presence would not detract from the feelings it generates within me. I wonder if the experience would be enhanced or merely take on a different feeling if I ever were to find someone to share it with. But, for now at least, it is a stand alone joy that is not diminished by being solitary.

The ocean, on the other hand, absolutely demands a companion for me to feel the greatest happiness. There is an overwhelming power generated by the ocean that requires that the experience be shared. I feel that I cannot hold it alone. And, while I realize no two people will experience it in the same way, the feeling is so vast that another silent witness makes it easier to find the depths of joy and awe that it can give.

There are also some events and accomplishments that are, somehow, lessened without the sharing of them. Sometimes these are the milestones in our lives. Large or small, joyful celebrations are not as joyful without friends or family to share them with. Other times, it is the recognition of achievement or the difficult challenge met that generates such a bubbling up of happiness that we must tell everyone dear to us about it. And, absent dear ones, we will stop mere acquaintances or total strangers and tell them because we cannot contain the feeling within ourselves. The efforts or hopes that we've held closely to our hearts erupt and overflow when they are realized. It's the feeling of someone about to become a parent who tells everyone about the coming baby. It is the person who has struggled to achieve a dream who is finally able to say, "I did it!"

I wonder if there is any real difference in the types of happiness, beyond the circle it finds its voice in. Some might argue that it is better to feel the fullness of joys within ourselves, not needing to share it. Perhaps even suggesting that exuberance is unnecessary to joy. Other might agree with Pasternak that sharing is necessary to the fullness of happiness. I feel that there is no duality to happiness; it is a both/and rather than an either/or proposition. There is quite simply no right or wrong way to be happy or to express it.

Society imposes unspoken expectations and restrictions on the level the expression of joy may take. These tend to be based on the perceived value of the experience and the age of the person experiencing it. In fact, if people do not express an 'appropriate' response to a happy event, they can be condemned either as unfeeling or childish. If anyone much older than 5 years old becomes too thrilled at the sight of a daisy, they will most likely be seen as a simpleton. If someone fails to celebrate anything at the same level as those around them, they are seen as unfeeling and perhaps depressed. Society demands conformity even in expressions of happiness. How sad.

The challenge in expressing happiness, as in most other things, is to give it our own authentic voice and the devil take the hindmost for what others think about it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


You may think I'm odd, and you wouldn't be the first, but I love to walk through cemeteries. By walking I do not mean taking a casual stroll and enjoying the breeze through the trees. I mean spending hours tramping up and down looking at the tombstones. It isn't out of a sense of morbid fascination with death. Rather it is a fascination with people. When I go to a cemetery, I don't so much see markers and tombs, I wonder about the people who were laid to rest beneath them.

A dear friend and I have been exploring the older cemeteries in the area. The oldest cemeteries here only go back to the mid-1800s and, thus, are relatively new as cemeteries go. There are local notables from the founding of Oregon in the pioneer cemeteries, even a few folks that are known further afield. Those are interesting to search for. But I much prefer wandering among the unknown, lesser lights and speculating about their lives. And, on occasion, I'll do research on my findings, if the tombstone provides an interesting tidbit to follow up on.

Several years ago, I was on a kick of reading about the so-called Wild West and noticed that Wyatt Earp's brother Virgil was buried here in Portland. That piqued my curiosity. How in the world did he end up way up here? I researched Mr. Earp to a fare-thee-well and made a mental note to track down his grave someday. Much later the topic came up, somehow, and I babbled on about it as I am wont to do when I learn something that fascinates me. My friend suggested that we go find him and we were off within a few weeks. And find him we did, in the largest cemetery in the area. We had to walk all over the place looking for him on a hot day. We had a general idea of where to go, but if we hadn't stopped at the cemetery offices, we would have never found him. Now the gravestone wasn't all that interesting, but it was kind of neat that we found it. During however many hours we spent there, we found many interesting names which led to some reflection, some confusion and some research. All in all, a very worthwhile trip. So worthwhile, in fact, that we planned on another one.

Next we traipsed up to a smaller, old cemetery in Vancouver, Washington. We weren't hunting up anyone in particular, but we do keep track of which date on the stones is the oldest. Now into a comfortable routine of poking around, clearing off moss and looking for interesting things, we wandered around for a couple of hours. I had the find of the day not long before we were planning to leave. I almost walked on a nondescript stone that was flush to the ground. On it read: Edward Gallagher, (dates) and "executed by legal hanging." I made note of it for further research. My friend and I then spent a little while wondering if there had been any 'illegal hangings" up there. I found out later that day that we'd found the only person to be executed in Vancouver. His attorney attempted an insanity defense, and truth to tell the records certainly read like Mr. Gallagher had some screws loose. But such a defense was pretty hard to establish back in 1890 and he was executed about 8 months after the murder had been committed. Alright, I'll admit that one did grab the less noble parts of my curiosity, but it was fascinating.

Most recently we investigated one of the pioneer cemeteries here in town. It was beautiful with over a thousand trees and dated back to 1846. It houses the resting places of most of the families whose names grace the streets around town. The place was so interesting that we were surprised when we realized that we'd been there for four hours. We found children and their families, a madam and a prostitute, firemen, Masons and Odd Fellows, new Russian graves and old Japanese ones. Every bit of it provoking speculation. There is the corner where the Chinese workers from the turn of the century "used to" be buried. There had been a government building erected over it and when the building was razed, they discovered that there were still many graves there. There is an entire section of tombstones written in Japanese. And, being me, I can't stop wondering how Seizo Furukawa, aged 22 came to be buried here in 1900. I also find myself smiling when I think about the big stone with the proud name James Gray Flowerdew. He just HAD to be a very nice gentleman with a name like that. Or, at least, that's what I want to believe.

For me, the cemeteries are the historical record for the average person. I want to recognize them and learn about them. When I read the stones, I give voice to names that have not been spoken in 100 years. I make note of the interesting epitaphs and touch history with a small 'h', connecting with those who have gone before. I notice the contrast of recent stones nestled up beside stones that are 100 years old and wonder what I think about that. Does it mar the historical continuity? Or is it just a reflection of the reality of it making no difference to the dead who they lie beside?

Oddly enough, all this tromping about doesn't make me dwell on death itself. But rather on life. And although I don't much care what happens to my body when I'm no longer using it, when the time comes I very much hope someone puts up a stone. I kind of like the idea of someone reading my name a hundred years hence and wondering about me for a moment.

The explorations will continue with Pere Lachaise in Paris definitely on the agenda. And while the people and the people who knew them are long gone, their names have been heard and may turn up in one of my stories someday.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Socialized health care.

"Every reasonable human being should be a moderate socialist." -- Thomas Mann.

As I was out running errands today, I saw two different anti-socialism bumper stickers. Living in a state that has occasionally been called the People's Republic of Oregon, I found that a bit surprising. Sure, I'd heard the word socialism thrown around during the last election, generally by folks who seemed to be equating it with Soviet style communism. And there has been some noise about not wanting to be like Europe with its social democracies. But I'm skeptical that those tossing the word around and labeling it as "EVIL" really understand the economic and political concepts behind the word. I'm beginning to believe that the term has become merely a synonym for "whatever we don't like" for some people.

There are at least 5 different definitions of the word socialism in the dictionary, ranging from the Marxist transition phase of society to the idea of state socialism where major industries remain privately owned with some legislation aimed to benefit working people. A moderate socialism would seem to fall into the later definition.

One of the first things I learned in philosophy class was to define what the terms mean before you engage in a debate over them. Currently, I think a lot of the hue and cry over socialism arises from people using more than one definition for the word, thus making it impossible to exchange ideas. A simplistic example might be the use of the word 'bad' in slang. In some circles 'bad' means good. And if someone from one of those circles were talking to someone who believes that the word 'bad' means bad, there would be a total lack of communication even if they basically agreed on the worth of whatever was being described. Thus, I believe that part of the disagreement arises from talking about different things. If one person equates socialism with the former Soviet Union and another understands it as basic societal safeguards for citizens, they are not talking about the same thing and argument is useless for both sides. But that is not all of it.

Some people seem to equate democracy with capitalism. There is nothing at all in our constitution that links the two concepts. According to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary capitalism is "an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market." It is an economic system not a political system. And, given the instability it has given to so many 'regular' people, I can't help but wonder why many folks hold onto it with such religious fervor. It doesn't seem to offer much for those outside of the ownership and investment groups. And I believe that we'll wait a very long time if we are waiting for the tender mercies of the corporations to help us out.

From what I can tell, much of the hysteria has arisen over the possibility of health care for everyone in this country. This truly confuses me. I have a very difficult time imagining what the downside of that might be. We currently have somewhere around 47 million people without any health care at all. This is not because we have 47 million lazy and good-for-nothing fellow citizens. For most of them it is because insurance and medical treatments are far too expensive in this country. A study by Harvard University found that 50% of all bankruptcies in this country are directly due to medical expenses even among people with some level of insurance coverage. Having the prices of services (and everything else) being determined by a free market, as with strict capitalism, results in hardship and unnecessary suffering, which eventually will undermine everyone's well-being.

So what would be a possible downside? Less money for the for-profit health care corporations? Somehow that doesn't seem too awful compared to a family who must go without basic preventative medicine simply because they can't afford it. Smaller profits for individual doctors? I don't know that that is terrible either given that my personal physician says she would welcome a universal system with open arms. Having patients who can not afford vital treatments because of a lack of coverage seems much worse to her. An increase in personal income taxes? Perhaps, but given that approximately 54% of our government expenditures are going towards military spending, might it not be better to divert a small portion of that for the health care of our citizens?

Obviously, I can't answer that for everyone and not everyone is interested in exploring it very deeply. As one of those who can't afford to get sick, I know that I would prefer that it work that way.

"The forces in a capitalist society, if left unchecked, tend to make the rich richer and the poor poorer." -- Jawaharlal Nehru.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I used to believe that I was bad at waiting. I'd joke that patience was a virtue that I did not have. But that wasn't true. I'd simply equated not liking certain kinds of waiting with an inability to do so. As it happens, I am very good at some types of waiting. Other types not so much at all.

From the time I was a child, I disliked waiting for "surprises." It felt like I was being taunted every time I was told there was something wonderful coming, but that I couldn't know what it was and I'd have to wait three weeks to find out. Either the long lead up doomed the pleasurable outcome because of the embellishments that time gave to the surprise or it wasn't worth the big build up to begin with. It was frequently disappointing and I began to dread the wind up to birthdays and Christmas. Excessive anticipation killed the surprises and I came to dislike that sort of waiting. I still do. I'd rather a pleasant surprise come to me out of the blue without the advance notice.

In the more mundane sorts of waiting, I am fairly unflappable. Traffic jams, supermarket lines, doctors' offices, do not faze me in the slightest. They are the sort of every day waiting scenarios that are predictable and only surprising in their absence. And by their very predictability, I am able to head them off at the pass and react calmly because I have been able to plan for waiting activities to fill the space. Thus there is no sense of wasted time.

There is the process type of waiting that only wears thin near the completion of whatever it is one is waiting for. The last half of my last semester in undergraduate school was sheer hell. I knew that I wasn't going to learn much of anything in the remaining weeks and figured they should just give me my degree and let me get on with my life. I was already done, despite still having time to put in. There was a similar sensation towards the end of my first pregnancy. By eight and a half months, I wanted to be finished and went a bit nutsy when the pregnancy extended three weeks beyond the expected due date. I wanted to move onto the mother stage and I desperately wanted my body back. I manage to wait through those sorts of things, because really what choice does one have? But as a known completion approaches, the patience in waiting begins to wear thin.

There is a kind of waiting where one not only can manage to wait just fine, but also to hope that the waiting can be extended. When a bad outcome is certain, such as with a death or a final parting from someone dear to us, each moment of waiting becomes filled with the experience of a savoring of the other person's presence that we would stretch out endlessly, if only we could.

As I've gotten older, most types of waiting have become easier to live through. I've learned not to load expectations onto anticipation. I've learned not to focus so much on the completion of something while I'm still in the process of it. But there is one sort of waiting that I haven't yet mastered and wonder if I ever will.

I have a great deal of difficulty living through the waiting when I do not know if or when an expected or hoped for outcome will occur; the sort of waiting that appears to be without end and which can lead to feelings of hopelessness. This can occur with both good things and bad things. The waiting by the phone for news from a hospital. The waiting to find out if hard work will result in success. The waiting for hopes and dreams to come to fruition. The waiting without any sort of control over a result. Perhaps that is a waiting that I will learn to do more easily over time, but at this point in my life it feels more like a releasing or giving up than waiting.

And now I wonder if it is really a question of waiting. The frustrations may arise more out of a lack of control in a situation than passing time. Might I not get more frustrated in traffic if I am in a hurry or if it is an emergency? Might I not get less frustrated if I were able to release all imagined control over outcomes? Is it about waiting at all? I am beginning to believe that it isn't, but rather about circumstances and what is more important to an individual in any given moment.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Have you ever noticed how complicated shopping can be? Recently, I spent far too much time trying to find a tube of toothpaste, only to be thoroughly thwarted in my efforts to find a plain old tube of Crest. There was tartar control, mint, tartar control with whiteners, sensitive, sensitive with whiteners, cherry cream and citrus splash, but no plain old regular flavored Crest. This got me to thinking about a couple of things. Why do we perceive a need for all of these variations on a theme and why do we feel frustration when "our" regular brand is missing?

Back when I was a kid, there were few brands of tooth paste, with only Crest and Colgate holding any prominence on the shelves. There were also some older folks who still used just baking soda. The big innovation came when they introduced mint varieties. And that was pretty much it for toothpaste.

At some point, someone at either a toothpaste company or advertising agency decided there was money in having a dizzying array of toothpastes on the market. And they must have been right because more keep appearing and are, obviously, being sold. The question is was there a need or was it only the marketing that made us think there was a need? It maybe a chicken and egg sort of question. There must be something in us that craves variety or these things would gather dust on the shelf. What might that be?

We could speculate that, as a species, we survived because of our ability to eat a wide variety of foods, and perhaps that is why we crave differences. But then again, that might apply only to food. Maybe the ad men are more clever than we suspect and the craving is purely manufactured and has been for so long that it is at the point of our being unaware of how we are being manipulated to go after the "new and improved." It could be a combination of these things or something else entirely. But whatever it is, we support many enterprises because of our perceived need for variety.

The other side of the question involves our reluctance to change our selection once we establish our personal preferences. After my fruitless search, I finally succumbed to buying a tube of Citrus Splash Crest and am committed to using this tube. At least twice a day for many weeks to come, I will have to brace myself for this less than wonderful toothpaste experience. So why I wonder does someone who is flexible on many, many things have a semi-serious issue with the flavor of toothpaste? And for that matter, any other slight shift that may come our way?

I guess that I could muse on the merits of one flavor over another, but I think it is something more than just a toothpaste issue. I suppose it could be a matter of familiarity or comfort. Perhaps it comes from our having to make large adjustments throughout life to the point that we don't like to deal with it on the small daily matters. Who knows what we will have to deal with outside of our doors, so we want no surprises or innovations in the brushing of our teeth. I know a cloistered nun who once told me that it wasn't desirable to have surprises at the dinner table. Maybe we are all like that on different issues. Changes in the little things in our daily routine upset us because we rely on the small things for essential stability. We may not be able to control the market or employment or interactions with others, but we should be able to rely on our toothpaste or coffee or what have you.

I'm hoping it is not a sign of limping into a new career as a curmudgeon. There's probably nothing more disconcerting to me than the idea of becoming a person of a certain age who rails against change and all those young whippersnappers. I think it is rather a sign of trying to find security for ourselves, things that remain stable despite the shakiness of many things in our lives. It's not earth shattering or of terribly high importance either, and I'm certain that it varies for everyone of us. And if clinging to the small securities gives us small comfort, perhaps it is a really good thing. But I do still wonder about it. And I plan to hunt for another tube of plain old Crest when the time comes for a new tube.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

-- Jalaluddin Rumi.

A friend gave me a copy of this poem several years when I was on the cusp of a major change in my life. She'd seen me going back and forth; making up my mind and then trying to talk myself out of it for many months. It was a timely gift and it has hovered in the back of my mind ever since. It held great meaning for me then and, as time has gone on, it continues to, but the meaning has shifted for me a couple of times.

Originally, it reminded me not to go backwards and to awaken to new possibilities. The repeated line of "don't go back to sleep" became a kind of mantra for me during that time. Later on, when I was wrestling with an internal change, the line "you must ask for what you really want" became very important and it still reminds me of things I sometimes forget. And then, more recently, the concluding line of "the door is round and open" has moved into my consciousness as an invitation to move actively towards those things that I want in my life.

I fully realize that Rumi's poetry is primarily mystical, but interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. There are other poems of his that do touch me on a spiritual level, but this one speaks to an approach to everyday life for me. And the meaning shifts as I evolve.

It seems to be a given that this applies to any text with which we find meaningful. For those following an organized religion, I'm certain that their holy books must act this way as the individual progresses through life. Whether it be the Bible, the Torah, the Qur'an or the Gita, a person's understanding must change as he grows older and views them through the lens of different experiences. This is not limited to accepted texts, any writing that is meaningful to the individual can hold such a place in their life.

It is in the varying interpretations that problems arise, or rather in the rigidity of some interpretations. When we believe that what has meaning in our lives must be universalized to everyone else, it can only lead to conflict. All Christians hold the Bible as their sacred and most meaningful text and yet there is a plethora of differing interpretations that has resulted in who-knows-how-many different denominations. I imagine something similar must be going on in other religions that have had splits within the group.

Many adherents of the various interpretations and sects truly have considered their beliefs and the understanding of their texts. Others, however, may be just following tradition or the preaching of someone else rather than asking themselves what has meaning for them. And some must hold on to the rightness of their understandings with anger and violence toward anyone who disagrees. This is evident in the intra-religious conflicts throughout history. It is very rare for people to split from an established group without a great deal of conflict or violence from one side or the other, if not both. It is also obvious in the conflicts between totally different religions. As long as people must have the market cornered on The Truth, mutual respect is impossible. Perhaps it is just the human condition to do this, but it is ironic in the extreme and terribly sad. Many seem incapable of recognizing that most people are following whatever light has been given them and respect the effort. There is no need for absolute agreement because every person is living a different life and, therefore, has different understandings about how to do that and understand it.

It could be that I am quite odd, but I've come to accept the shifting sands of meaning and approach them with a measure of curiosity. Certainly, I go through periods of comfortably toddling along with little thought or self-examination. Inevitably, however, something new will pop-up in my awareness and require that I give it attention. It may stick with me or I may reject it, but it is unavoidable that it will come. The only consideration is what to do about it when it happens.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


There is a dichotomy in how many of us deal with change in our lives and within ourselves. On the one hand, we seem to be always looking forward to the next goal, the next stage. From the time we begin thinking in terms of what we will do or be when we grow up through all the milestones of life that we eagerly reach for from year to year, we seem to embrace the changes as a gate to arriving at what we think will be a more fulfilling place in our lives.

And yet, on another level, we cling to the security of what we know, what is comfortable, the semblance of stability. Depending on the circumstances, we waver between eagerly anticipating transitions and being fearful of them. Naturally, not all changes are pleasant or welcomed, but change in one form or another is inevitable. It is one of the few constants of our existence.

The abruptness and unexpectedness of unplanned changes in our lives accounts for at least part of the fear we have of transitions. We want to believe that we can control or stop the transitions that come to us. We want predictability in our unpredictable lives.

No less disruptive are the internal shifts that we all go through. I am generally quite surprised when something that had been little more than a vague idea hovering on the edges of my awareness takes root and establishes itself as a guiding principal in my life, altering both my understanding and my behavior. At any given moment, most of us are quite sure of what we believe, what we do not believe, what we will do and what we will never do. When these internal transitions take place it can shake up all or part of what we think we are sure of, about life and about ourselves.

These types of shifts can be quashed if a person chooses to ignore their advent. When we do this, however, we are actively rejecting an opportunity to explore ourselves more fully. Some of this may be due to fear, but I also think there is a reluctance to let go of what had been sure and certain to us. Contentment is a very comfortable place to operate from, particularly given the outside forces that bombard us constantly. And there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes we are simply unable to take the risk.

These internal shifts often appear abrupt to those witnessing them from the outside, but they are actually very gradual, beginning in some deeply buried reaction or thought. Their emergence is slow, like a seedling pushing up through the soil. It has been germinating unseen long before we are actively aware of it. And even when it breaks through, it may be too small to see or as yet too unformed to be recognizable for what it is. Therefore, when we do recognize it fully, it is deeply set within us, despite having a feeling of shooting up from nothing. We have the option of totally uprooting it, if that is what we wish to do. But we risk leaving a hole in some essential part of ourselves that may not be able to be filled with something else.

If only we were able to live into the changes that appear. If only we could respond with curiosity rather than fear, a sense of acceptance rather than rejection, a sense of adventure rather than reluctance. I don't know that it would make major changes any easier to adapt to, but it might. Perhaps such an approach would help us glean more from the experience. Perhaps we could find a security in the changing. Perhaps it would help us to grow into more authentic versions of ourselves.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


"Make no judgments where you have no compassion." -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Like millions of people around the world, I became aware of Susan Boyle this past week. Given that I avoid anything involving Simon Cowell or reality television shows, it was highly unlikely that I would have stumbled across the video of her singing but for the fact that four different people sent me links to it within a day and a half. All of which carried subject lines related to "You have got to see this!" And they were right.

The first time I watched it, I felt a mild horror at how both the audience and the judges were openly mocking her, laughing at her and patronizing her. This feeling changed to absolute delight when she opened her mouth to sing and put them all to shame. And over all, I shed a few happy, hopeful tears for her, for others like her, and perhaps for myself.

As the phenomenon spread, I saw and heard many comments about not judging a book by its cover or cheering for an underdog. All of which had an element of truth to them. Yet most of these same comments prefaced themselves with unflattering descriptions of her physical appearance. All of this got me thinking.

One of the things I wondered about first was why in the world these people in the theater thought they were behaving in an acceptable manner? Perhaps it was related to a mob mentality in some way. One smirk leading to another making it somehow all right to laugh out loud at her. I believe that most of these same people would never do anything like that were they to meet Ms. Boyle face-to-face, alone, in another setting. Had they crossed paths with her at the grocery store, whatever opinion they might form about her, it would never occur to most people to share it in such a brutal way.

I imagine that there were others in that audience who did not mock her, but they probably pitied the poor woman who had such naivete as to think she should be on that stage. I also feel very certain that no one sat up straight and leaned forward in their seats in anticipation of what she might do. I don't believe that I would have, had I been there. To everyone's eternal credit, they very quickly recognized their error and proceeded to cheer much louder than they had jeered.

Many of the comments that I heard and read bemoaned the fact of societal emphasis on the superficialities of appearance and age. They also suggested that Susan had put an end to all of that. To me, that was too much hyperbole for what had occurred. I have no doubt that some of the people who were there will give more thought to their responses to others, at least for a little while. But to suggest that society as a whole will be changing its attitudes based on this one pleasant lady with a beautiful voice is not realistic. These attitudes didn't embed themselves overnight and they won't be dislodged that quickly either.

There were comments from people who clearly identified with her due to their age or appearance or unrealized dreams. And I felt moved beyond words in recognizing what a large number of people marginalize themselves because society and its standards have led them to lose hope. And then by the opposite realization that society as a whole has also short changed itself by suppressing the contributions of those who do not fit the preferred standard. That suppression must be quite large since so few of us look like the airbrushed "perfection" of entertainers. And I wondered at how much we have all missed out on.

I would have liked to have seen an acknowledgment of her courage and her confidence in her own gifts in the comments I read. Long before anyone else became aware of her, she knew precisely what her age was, how she looked and that many would dismiss her because of those things. It takes a great deal of courage to put oneself out there. How much harder must it be when one is pelted with constant messages from the culture that you don't quite rate? When she sang, she became one with her voice and the song, quickly lifting everyone to a place where only the music mattered. No doubt, she has taken herself to that same place over the years and, perhaps, it is from that place that her confidence sprang.

She is a very talented woman who has bucked the odds against her and deserves the accolades that she is getting. And while I don't believe that she has turned the tide of the petty criteria that society frequently applies to people, I do believe she has given us more than just the gift of her music. It is entirely possible that someone who was very judgmental about others will think twice and reconsider before criticizing. And it may be that someone else out there, who hasn't dared to step forward and claim their own dreams, will be empowered to try to reach for them again. And in those ways, Susan Boyle has given gifts beyond that of her talent. There is no way of knowing if that will be the case, but I certainly hope it is.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rugged individualism

Despite the fact that the United States is a relatively young country, we still have myths about ourselves and our history just like any other culture. George Washington cut down a cherry tree. Betsy Ross sewed the first flag. The Pilgrims and the Indians were great friends. And on and on. Everyone knows that the Wild West was just like a John Wayne movie. And everyone equally believes in the virtue of being a rugged individualist. Most of these myths are harmless. After all what does it matter if Washington ever lied or not. But the last one, the rugged individualist can and does cause harm to some people.

I imagine that this myth could have come about as a way to make virtue of the fact that opening up new territories required some unique skill sets in order to survive and one of those would have definitely been self-sufficiency. When there are not too many humans in the neighborhood, you had better be able to take care of yourself. But how did this evolve into some sort of universalized virtue given that it really only applies in a select set of circumstances? One has to be self-sufficient only when one is isolated, otherwise all humans are interdependent with the other people in their lives.

Throughout our lives we are dependent, to one degree or another, on those around us. And we are fooling ourselves if we believe this is not the case. As children, we are dependent on others for everything in our lives. As we mature, the amounts and types of connections we have shift to accommodate our situation and needs, but we are never totally independent. There are some souls who consider themselves loners, but even they are not as independent as they might think. This gives rise to feelings of pity in most of us for the person that isolates themselves. In extreme cases, we begin to suspect a possible mental health issue in them.

However, we have an inconsistency in our understanding of individualism versus interdependence. Certainly, we think those who withdraw to be not quite right in some way. On the other hand, some in our society also cast aspersions on some for being "too needy." Often when those so labeled are only normally needy. It is as if we are somehow afraid that another person's open need of something will require a response from us. I think that this carries through to the contempt that some people show to anyone who is down on their luck or buried in a mess. More often than not, someone will blame the person who is unemployed for his unemployment whether or not they know if it was avoidable. If someone's finances have taken a hit, it must be their own fault, rather than the economy, our society, an illness or who-knows-what else.

I think that it is quite likely that this is spurred by personal fear. If someone openly acknowledges their own vulnerability, it makes us frightened of our own vulnerabilities. If I can blame your catastrophe on you, then I can feel a bit more secure that it won't happen to me. This is because I can be certain that I would choose differently than you and am thus safe from a similar catastrophe. It isn't a reasonable assumption to make in many cases, but we cling to it nonetheless.

The cold hard fact of the matter is that none of us can make it on our own. More than any other time in history, we are dependent on strangers for our daily needs. Since the industrial revolution, we have become less and less independently viable. Our food comes from who-knows-where. Our businesses are so interconnected that the failure of one component could lead to disruptions in the life of someone on the other side of the planet. And if we believe that we should make it all on our own, we are surely courting disaster. It is truly the case that if we wish to make it through whatever life hurls at us, we must support and be connected to others. For in doing that, we are not only helping them, we are helping ourselves.