Thursday, February 26, 2009

Oughts and Shoulds

When I taught English as a foreign language, my students would frequently get confused over the differences between could, would and should. That was probably not surprising given that they rhyme with each other and the shades of meaning can be very subtle. I would explain to them that would was conditional and expressed a desire to do something, if the conditions were or were not met. As in, "I would meet you for dinner, if I weren't broke." Could expressed capability or options, as in "you could do this or that." And that should was used to impose an obligation and frequently coupled that with a judgment if the obligation weren't met. "you should have finished your homework before going out with your friend." And ought was just should on steroids.

It is probably not surprising that I have a strong dislike for 'shoulds.' When someone says to me, "You should.....," the hair on the back of my neck stands up and I tense up in preparation for a fight. It doesn't always lead to a disagreement. Sometimes it is a kind of sideways compliment. "You should do X! You're so good at it." But, generally, I brace myself because I'm about to hear someone's unsolicited opinion on how I should live my life in a way more acceptable to the person making the pronouncement.

In my life, I've been told what I should or should not feel, should or should not think, whether I should be happy or sad, grateful or forgiving, and what I should or should not be or do. And a much younger me dutifully tried to live up to the obligations imposed from the outside, no matter how many contortions I had to put myself through in order to approximate the mold I was supposed to fit into.

As is my habit, whenever I have a strong reaction to something, I try to figure out why I feel the way I do about it and this is no different. I thought back to my history of resenting 'shoulds' and it stretched fairly far back. And in every case where I remember my hackles rising, it was a case of someone attempting to exercise control over who I am or what I wanted to do.

When we are children it is only reasonable that our parents exercise a certain amount of control over us, lest we act like little savages. Obviously, some parents overdo it and the result is usually resentment and rebellion, once we are old enough to do so. But much more insidious are the ways society as a whole, or smaller groups within society, seeks to control people and enlists everyone in exercising this control on others. This happens with small things and larger things almost without our realizing it. The most dreadful aspect is that we are complicit in enforcing that control on ourselves. These little tyrannies shape and control all aspects of our lives to the point that we frequently turn our backs on the lives we would much prefer to live.

Naturally, there are a few 'shoulds' that should be retained, but probably fewer than most people would think. All the usual proscriptions against violence and thievery should be retained simply because everyone should feel safe in their person and their homes. But I propose the addition of some 'shoulds' that enhance life rather than limit it.

Everyone should do things that make them happy. Whether that be "wasting" a Saturday afternoon on the couch reading, "lazily" hitchhiking across Europe, or "irresponsibly" chucking it all to follow a deeply held personal dream.

Everyone should avoid things that do not bring them life. Many years ago, during my last gig as a pianist, I was heartily complaining to someone about how much I hated it and didn't feel like I could quit. She quietly asked me, "Why do you do things that do not give you life?" I couldn't come up with any justification for it, so I dumped the job. Any activity that doesn't bring joy and animation to life, probably should be dropped. It might not lead to great riches, but it just might bring great peace.

Everyone should have some personal dream that they aspire to no matter what. Once we allow ourselves to be buried under the daily grind, we slowly disappear into that grind and lose sight of ourselves. And that cannot be a good thing in any way.

And everyone should reach for these things as long as we live. Sure, it might lead to what looks like destruction or chaos. Monetary security could be lost. Relationships could fade. Others might heap on criticism. All because we march to the tune of our own lives. But, at the end, it simply has to be better to have lived one's real life.

"One's real life is so often the life that one does not lead." -- Oscar Wilde.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Musical mediation

"Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life." -- Beethoven.

Not to put myself in the same category as Beethoven, I know what he means here. I began studying the piano at age 5, continuing until I was 16 and, while woefully out of practice now, I used to be very good.

When I first read this quote, I immediately remembered the times when, while playing, I seemed to disappear into the music and lost all sense of everything else around me. In some cases, I wasn't even aware that I was playing, but, from the reaction of others, I must have done rather well.

Playing the piano was both escaping and entering more deeply into whatever events or emotions were swirling through me and around me. Debussy, some Chopin and Ravel for the gentle moments. Beethoven for the powerful emotions. Some Mozart for playful times. And when the anger was welling up ready to explode nothing would serve except Mendelsohn's Funeral March with its triple fortissimo block chords. I always opened up the lid of the piano for that one, and the family learned to dive for cover.

I don't think for a moment that I am unique in this experience. I've watched other musicians play and seen them transformed by their instrument and the music. Once, I was enjoying an Irish band at a pub. The guitar player and the bodhran player were doing an adequate job. But the fiddle player disappeared into the sheer ecstasy of his music and it was a spiritual experience just to witness it.

This sort of transport is not limited to musicians. I believe that it extends to those who enjoy listening to music and, perhaps, to those with only a casual appreciation for it. There are some songs or pieces of music that can immediately take us back to some event or emotion which we associate, perhaps subconsciously, with the music. This holds true for both happy and sad occasions.

We seem to have a permanent link somewhere in our minds or spirits that connect us to the past by way of music. If the event or person was significant enough, and music was present, hearing the same music will bring those memories to the fore. Jim Croce's music always reminds me of young love, despite the fact that none of his songs were that light. Bluegrass reminds me of Saturday nights watching TV with my grandfather. Some songs, which otherwise sound cheerful enough, take me back to some very dark places in the late 70s, so much so that I have to remove myself from the source.

Some music, which has no connection to our past, can move us to unlikely places in the present. Bearing in mind that I have never once been known for my dancing skills, Arabic music always makes me want to dance in the most sensuous of ways. Celtic music lets me sink into a very deep place within myself. Most of the French Impressionist composers allow me to drift off, out of myself, on whatever path they lay before me. Bach and Beethoven, in different ways, can stir up feelings of glory and grandeur. And, frequently, Mozart's music makes me think of pure play.

Music surrounds us in ways we may not even recognize. Whether it is the radio or annoying advertisement jingles, eagerly sought out live performances or our choice of CDs. Humans, perhaps more uniquely than other creatures, have deliberately instilled music into our expression of ourselves, both individually and collectively. It doesn't matter if it is Handel's Messiah in all it's glory or the Oompah Loompah song from Willy Wonka, music finds a home inside of us and causes us to feel deeply. Two people hearing the same music will take away or incorporate different things, but very few people will remain totally unmoved. It gives voice to something deep within us and, maybe, just maybe, contributes to what makes us human.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Last week, a friend of mine took a tumble on an uneven sidewalk. Naturally, the first thing out of everyone's mouth was "are you hurt"? Her response was, "Only my dignity." This got me to thinking about the whole phenomenon of "dignity" vis-a-vis human behavior. And I'm trying to figure out if it has any legitimate use for us.

In the case of my friend, and most other people, it is the standard answer when we do something less than graceful. But why is that? It seems very much like we become embarrassed that we have tripped, or fallen, as if it were somehow shameful to have been unable to withstand the laws of gravity. It seems like a rueful apology for being human and I wonder why we feel that we need to do that. Why make a self-deprecating jest for having escaped potential physical damage? If someone is truly hurt then no such comment is made or expected.

All of this sent my mind exploring other situations when "dignity" is sought out or used as an excuse for our behavior. And I think it might be the case that we use it as a mask behind which we hide who we really are to both save face and protect ourselves from the opinions of others. In short, I think it is a result of some sort of fear of what other people may think of us.

I am reminded of some older movies with characters who present themselves as a "dignified" something or other, generally a clergyman or a barrister. Invariably the character, rather than seeming dignified, comes across as a pompous old poop and we tend to laugh at them for that reason. And many of us have had a relative who donned the veil of dignity and came across as absolutely no fun at all. A smile would never even cross their lips and by no means would they be seen to actually laugh. They are much too concerned with how others would perceive them, whether it be because of their vocation or perceived sense of position.

Most of us do not take it to that extreme, but many of us do worry about how we appear to others. And we cover any perceived violation of dignity as an embarrassment needing an apology of some sort. And, frequently, we are haunted by some offense against dignity after everyone else has long since forgotten all about it. I believe we need to look at it differently.

True human dignity would seem to come from the respect each of us owe each other by dint of our shared humanity, no more, no less. Accidental missteps should not be a criteria for a sense of lost dignity. Tripping and falling is decidedly not the same thing as getting drunk as a skunk and being unable to stand. It would seem that loss of dignity can only be self-imposed and worked toward diligently.

Here in Oregon, we have a law referred to as the "Death with Dignity" Act. It allows terminally ill patients the option of receiving a fatal amount of barbituates in order to circumvent the various painful and/or terrorizing effects that accompany some diseases, such as ALS or AIDS. In this case, I believe that loss of dignity refers to a situation where the person is rendered absolutely incapable of even the most basic acts of human self-determination and, perhaps, this is a more correct way to define it. I'm not at all certain that I would choose such an option for myself, but then I've never faced such a situation.

Otherwise, the search for dignity seems to be more closely linked to avoiding damage to our pride and looking good in front of others. Surely, we have other more useful things to devote our time to.

"We probably wouldn't worry about what people think of us if we could know how seldom they do." - Olin Miller.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hopes and Dreams

I had some ideas about hopes and dreams somewhere on the back burner of my brain. Then I came across two different authors mentioning something similar and, not being one that believes in coincidences, decided it was time to move it to the front burner of my brain and start writing about it.

I believe that while the two concepts are related, they have distinctly different characteristics and meanings in our lives. For my purposes here, I will be defining "dreams" as what gallops through our brains while we are asleep and "hopes" as those aspirations that come to us in our waking hours.

There are those who hold that our dreams are merely our brains trying to sort through everything we've experienced during the day. Others say that our dreams are giving us information that we should use in our lives. Maybe they are both right, or both wrong, I'm not certain because neither option covers all the different types of dreams a person can have.

If they are merely a sorting mechanism in our brain then why did I have recurring nightmares in childhood of a giant, green Viking chasing me around while I ran on nothing? I had never encountered any giants, green or otherwise, nor was I acquainted with any Vikings. But the darned dream terrified me repeatedly for a couple of years. If that same dream was trying to give me information, what could it have been, aside from I should run away from giant, green Vikings? Perhaps there is some third or fourth purpose to dreams that would explain it.

On the other hand, during the years before I allowed myself to admit that my marriage had been a mistake from the first, I continually dreamt that I was rushing to the airport and getting on the first plane I saw, not caring where it went just so long as it went. Clearly, this was about wanting to escape and I recognized it as such at the time. And after I initiated the divorce, I had a dream that seriously disturbed me despite not at all being sure of its meaning at the time. In hindsight, it was clearly about a fear of being in deep water (figuratively) and being alone with no one to help me in tough situations.

The examples above are why I tend to think that dreams at night can have varied uses and meanings for us and no one fixed purpose.

Hopes, on the other hand, shape and define who we are, how we see ourselves, and how others see us. What we wish to be or to achieve says important things about our very selves and what we value. I've had relatively few hopes in my life for various reasons. When I was a teenager, I was always pressured to name what it was that I wanted to be. As I was a smart girl, did well in school and had a wide range of interests, everyone "knew" that I would BE something. What that something might be no one seemed to know and I received no guidance on how to figure it out. I had no career hopes. In fact, the one hope that I had had nothing to do with a career and has yet to be realized, although it remains a major hope in my life.

While I was in college, I was the target of much good-natured teasing by my family because I kept changing my major. It wasn't that I was particularly flighty, it was just that the course catalog offered so many different things that piqued my interest and it was very difficult to choose just one or even two. When I finally settled on philosophy, it came, seemingly, out of nowhere while I was studying textile design. It made me feel as if the way my brain worked was not really totally odd, but it was never part of my hopes to study philosophy.

In the years since my divorce, I've allowed a second hope to join the unfulfilled one from my youth. All my life, I have been the go-to person for anything that needs to be written. But, somehow, it failed to enter my mind that I should write. Sometimes, I can be incredibly dense for a bright girl. Despite the fact that several people who knew me well had repeatedly asked me "when are you going to write," it took an unbelievable amount of time for me to realize that I not only wanted to write, but was actually good at it.

What might it mean to have so few hopes in my life? I'm not certain at all. Perhaps it is due to some residual doubt in myself and my right to claim anything for myself. Perhaps it is a product of being a female in the time and place I grew up. Perhaps it is something else entirely. But the result, for me, is that those hopes that I do cling to have incredible importance in my life and, as a consequence, have the power to floor me when they go unfulfilled. I wonder if those who have many hopes for their lives have it any easier when it comes to the point where a hope is dashed. Or, perhaps, they are made stronger both because they withstand numerous disappointments and because they have more hopes to fall back on. I honestly don't know, but I suspect that the loss of a cherished hope is a personal tragedy, no matter how many other hopes one has.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Past

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." -- William Faulkner.

Generally, Faulkner is a bit too jaded for my tastes, but there is something that rings true for me in this quote. And, in mulling over my own past, I feel that this applies to both the good and the bad, although the bad seems much easier to recognize.

I have known people who have lived through the nightmare of child abuse, who have told me that no matter how much counseling or therapy they have had that it still informs their self-image. They think that they have dealt with it only to find it nipping at their heels when they least expect it. They hold a secret guilt that it was really all their own fault and, should any one find out about it, people would abandon them. There is no rationalizing it away. There is the possibility of reducing the intensity, but it will never go away completely. In cases of extreme abuse, the person will simply dissociate from the experience to avoid living the pain, which, in turn, keeps them from enjoying the present.

Similarly, many people who have experienced physical attacks continue to carry internal scars from the experience. It causes them to alter their behavior in an attempt to make certain that it cannot happen again. It is futile, of course, but the need to, at the very least, control what happens to one's person and avoid any additional attacks is a strong one. In a strange way, by taking on guilt or anger at one's self in these cases, one is taking back a small measure of power and rejecting the label "victim." But that is only a partial solution.

We have all heard stories of soldiers and others following the trauma of war or other violence who develop post traumatic stress syndrome. In an earlier age, we collectively did not seem to have much compassion for such people. If we gave their condition any name at all, it was something reflective of them somehow being a coward or weak. It didn't occur to people that some sights and deeds could maim an individual's mind and spirit just as severely as physical violence could maim their bodies. We seemed to have gotten past that for the most part, but one can still hear an echo of impatience for those who are unable to "buck up."

Naturally, there are good things in life that never leave us as well. Any happy life altering event will stay with us for quite a long time. I imagine that every parent can remember the moment when their baby was first put in their arms. We remember fondly when someone said exactly the right thing to make us feel better about ourselves, whether it was a parent, a teacher, or a friend. We also carry with us the small, repeated activities with someone we love, regardless if they are alive or dead, whether it be fishing trips, Sunday morning runs to get donuts, endless card games, or double scoop cones at Baskin Robbins. The fond memories remain, even if they no longer happen.

I wonder why it is so much more difficult to hold on to the good things. Perhaps it is because things that follow can color the past, and this is more pronounced in the good memories. Bad memories get neither worse nor better with the passage of time. They were bad when they happened and nothing will soften that badness into goodness. With the good things, however, their goodness can be diminished by time and circumstances. If we have looked back at a person fondly, only to find that they had deceived us, that fondness disappears in a puff of smoke. What we felt was a good thing as a child can, in the light of adulthood, look very, very different, leaving us to figure out what was true about the experience. And that infant one fell in love with at first sight is hard to see in the teenager who says they hate you.

Perhaps another reason is that the negatives are generally much stronger than the positives. Ice cream cone memories can't hold a candle to the strength of the pain and horror of being violated by another human being. While they will continue to make us smile when we think of them, the good things are easily drowned out by the bad. And, if there are too many bad things, the good ones can disappear completely, as if they were merely an unreal fantasy.

I think Faulkner was right that the past always tags along with us, for good or for ill. Our only response is to find some way to live with it honestly, without lying to ourselves or sugar coating it; to bring to the fore those experiences and memories that were strong and good. And to recognize that every single person is dealing with something and to treat them gently for that reason.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


"All of our reasoning ends in surrender to feeling." -- Blaise Pascal.

I've been mulling this quote over for awhile and still am not 100% certain what I think about it. But I believe there is something true lying beneath the surface.

When I was younger, and to a much lesser extent now, I did most of my living in my head. I could think or logic my way out of most negative or inconvenient feelings, suppressing them until I thought they were gone. Of course, I was just lying to myself in a fairly elaborate way. I don't believe that I was terribly unique in that approach, but perhaps I turned it into more of an all-encompassing thing than most folks do. And, in the end, the feelings escaped anyway.

I wonder why I thought that was an acceptable approach to life. Was it fear? That may have been part of it. In the case of my long, too long marriage, I forced myself to accept emotional sterility because I didn't want my children to grow up poor due to their parents being divorced. That was a personal demon carried forward from my own childhood. So, perhaps, it was understandable albeit unacceptable. And, frequently, rejection at the hands of others led me to hide my feelings and desires, believing that there must be something lacking in me or wrong with my feelings. It never occurred to me that the source could be anything other than something missing in me.

I don't think that fear would account for every instance where reasoning is given higher status that feeling. Modern humans have elevated reasoning and logic to a dizzying height at the expense of feelings and intuition. Even the antonyms to the words "logical" and "rational" have strongly negative overtones. They aren't just opposites, they are wrong and unacceptable. It is as if by denying inconvenient feelings we can pat ourselves on the back for being logical or rational, no matter how desolate the lack of responding to our feelings may make us feel within ourselves. I have been guilty of this for large amounts of my life.

I propose that the two ends of the spectrum should be more balanced in our lives. It's not that reasoning is a bad thing. It is vital in many parts of life. But when it shuts out feelings I believe we owe it to ourselves to examine it more closely to determine if that is the best approach to a situation.

I read a book once called The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker. The author asserted that if you felt fear, you shouldn't try to talk yourself out of it because, on some deep level, you had perceived a reason for that feeling. It was telling you something important about a situation and that you needed to act on that rather than dismiss it as irrational. I have come to suspect that this reasoning may be applicable to other feelings as well. We have all had the experience of immediately distrusting someone we have just met. There was no data to support this impression, but the feeling was there nonetheless. If we ignore it or talk ourselves out of the feeling, we will most likely pay for any misplaced trust.

I believe that this also applies to positive feelings as well. I think it likely that everyone has met people who they liked on first sight and went on to become fast friends with the person. Just as the fear puts us on our guard, this attraction tells us that there is something good to be experienced if we only let it.

I'm still not 100% certain what I should do with these ideas. I certainly don't want to let it devolve into a solely logical exercise. I suspect the best path for me is to make it my habit to check in with both my brain and my gut on a regular basis, see which one best addresses a situation and trust in the wisdom of either my reasoning or my feelings. At the very least it will lead me to be ever more in touch with what I truly want and need in my life, and, hopefully, to a balanced approach to life as a whole.

Monday, February 9, 2009


"Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter." -- Satchel Paige.

Generally, I think Satchel Paige was right about this one with only a couple of exceptions. I've never been one to get upset about birthdays. The only times that I have, it hasn't been about the age I was. It was about something that was missing from my life that I thought I should have had by the time I was that age. And this year is no exception.

The first time I really noticed the creeping of age was when I turned 25. There was just something slightly unnerving about being a quarter of a century old. But it didn't really faze me much.

The year I turned 30 was when I first noticed that any concern I had about age was linked to unmet dreams and needs. Leading up to the day, I had absolutely no qualms about turning 30. Then 3 days before my birthday, we got a letter from a friend that mentioned her younger sister was graduating from college that spring. Crash! I was going to be 30 with no college degree and I indulged in a bit of a pity party. It was the lack of a degree rather than the age that got to me.

Forty didn't faze me at all. I was in a new certificate program, having finished my degree 4 years earlier. I was working with like-minded people and getting ready to begin an entirely new chapter in my life. I think that 40 was the most liberating birthday I have had yet.

But this year, I am again noticing things and experiences that are missing from my life that I had hoped would be there by now. And I know that, before too many more birthdays pass, I will have to give up entirely on some of them. I don't like that fact, but they aren't entirely in my power to bring into my life. However, I think that I'll let myself continue to hope for a while longer.

Satchel got it wrong if he meant to say that age never matters. There are some cases where it does. Our society elevates youth and totally dismisses age. Ask any 50-something person what they think their prospects are if they are laid off from a job. Most folks will agree that they are slim to none.

And more than a few times in my life, I have seen very old people addressed in tones more appropriate for use with children. There is more than a suggestion that older people, meaning older than the person with the opinion, can't possibly know anything due to being old and, therefore, out of touch. I first experienced this when I was the ripe old age of 35. I'd finally returned to college to finish my degree and almost all of my classmates were in their early 20s. In a philosophy class, there was young fellow who was clearly of the opinion that I was too old to know anything at all. He would take contrary positions to everything I said and resort to put downs when logic wouldn't carry his argument forward. I was befuddled by this so I talked with the professor. He told me that I wasn't imagining it, it was real, and that I should watch how the brat talked to him as well. Apparently, the tyke had serious problems with older people, no matter how little or how much older they were. I expect that that sort of thing will increase as my age does. And I am absolutely certain that it will make me angry and I'll put a few people in their places.

An interesting thing that I've noticed about the whole age thing is that the number doesn't mean much as far as the individual is concerned. I've known people in their 20s who are "old" - and not in a good way. I've also known people in their 70s who could give people 30 years their junior a run for the money. As for myself, I have absolutely no idea what 49 is supposed to feel like. Internally, deep down in my self-identity, I don't feel significantly different than I did in my late 20s. I have no clue at all what "to act one's age" means and I don't think I want to find out. If it means to rein myself in from things I want to do simply because of the number of birthdays I've had, then I want nothing to do with it.

This year I'm determined not to focus too much on what has not come to me. I plan to continue as I have been with necessary course corrections and continue to hope. Beats the heck out of the alternative.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


"Happiness comes of the capacity to feel deeply, to enjoy simply, to think freely, to be needed." -- Storm Jameson.

When I read this quote, it struck me as true, but also as incomplete. But I think she may have left out something vital, unless it is implied by one of the others. And I also wondered whether one is truly happy if they only have 3/4 of the list or half of it.

I think that, despite the fact that it can also lead to sorrow, "to feel deeply" does belong on the happiness list. I have known people who shut off their feelings, perhaps in an effort to insulate themselves from pain, perhaps for some unknown other reason. And I always come away from encounters with them feeling as if they are basically very unhappy people, no matter how much they try to convince themselves that they are numb to it. One person even tried to tell me that I only left myself open to being hurt by caring and feeling. To which I replied that that was better than not feeling anything at all. Since I do not exist in the same world as such folks, I cannot imagine the state of their interior landscape. But I can't help but fear that they will be very lonely some day and regret having shut themselves off.

For me, feeling deeply means that I am connected with what is around me: the people, places and events that fill up our world. It also means that I am connected with myself. Yes, it means that I cry at movies or the news, but it also means I laugh and love with no restraint. And I'd much prefer that to numbness.

"To enjoy simply" seems like a given for me, although I don't know that everyone would agree. It occurs to me that if we require elaborate plans to enjoy things, we make it difficult to enjoy much of our lives. Whether the plans require preparation or money, they can be deferred by circumstances and I believe that happiness deferred is happiness lost. How much more enjoyment in life would we have if we noticed the daffodils poking up in spring? Or the smell of smoke coming from chimneys in the dead of winter? Or the taste of fresh bread? Or the stars in the night sky? Or innumerable things just waiting for us to notice them as we go about our day? Of course, this would require us to slow down a bit, so that we don't miss the opportunity. Would that be a bad thing?

I hadn't ever thought about "thinking freely" as a component of happiness, but I think perhaps she is right about this one, too. If one does not think for oneself and adheres to some outside prescription for important matters in one's life, how could one be truly happy? Content, perhaps, but not happy. For me, thinking freely means entertaining ideas that may be in conflict with each other in an effort to determine what I believe to be true. This goes for politics, spirituality and social norms. I don't accept any premise unless I have examined it from all angles. This can be annoying, even provoking, to some. And I know that people have dropped me because they couldn't stand that I didn't fall automatically into line with their position. But I know that I could never be truly happy not examining positions from every angle in order to find my own truth.

"To be needed" seems to be true as well. And a lack in this area not only negates happiness, but also causes serious depression. I think we see it most sharply with mothers whose children have grown and left the nest and with the elderly who can no longer fully participate in things that connected them with others. There comes a feeling of uselessness in the lack of being needed. And we don't seem to find happiness in merely amusing ourselves. Perhaps it is our upbringing or perhaps it is innate in humans, but the need to be needed in some capacity seems to be a requirement for happiness. I have known a couple of people who seemed to muddle through their lives without making an effort to connect and, as a result, they truly were not needed by those around them. In one case, it led to dying all alone and unmourned. We need to be needed, whether it is by our pets, the elderly neighbor next door, our loved ones or to people who benefit from our work. And we seem to need a constant diet of it. Being needed 20 years ago is not the same thing as being needed now, and it does not give on-going happiness now.

The thing I think Ms. Jameson left out of her list for happiness is to love and be loved. She may have implied it in the being needed or feeling deeply, but it wasn't clearly there. And it is absolutely vital. And it may be the case that the most important half of those two is to love, if one is limited to just one. When it is mutual, I believe that there is a dimension of freedom that opens one up to even greater happiness. I have never been in such a situation, but it seems there is a greater space for allowing in such a relationship. What freedom to be allowed to touch and care for another! To share parts of ourselves that we share with no one else. To find peace just knowing that the other one is there. To know that someone would notice and worry if you didn't make it home some evening, and to worry about that someone if they didn't make it home.

Is this list complete? I don't know. I suspect it is the basics that people add to individually. But I wonder what happens to happiness if any of the basics are missing? I think it might be the case that we find a way to be happy with what we have, but the longing for the missing ones will remain. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to go a little beyond the half way mark and relish anything more as a cherished gift. At least, for myself, I hope that is the case.


"What we must decide is how we are valuable rather than how valuable we are." -- Edgar Z. Friedenberg.

I've thought about this quote for a while and wrestled with the concept long before I stumbled on the quote. Perhaps it is because my earning potential has always been low in a society that assigns great value to that. Perhaps it is because I spent most of a couple of decades raising children and found, despite much language to the contrary, that society doesn't value that at all. Individuals might, society does not. And, perhaps most importantly, it is because I have periodically bought in to society's view of value and under-valued myself. And, given the current economic disaster and ever increasing unemployment, I wonder how many others will find themselves on the low end of society's barometer of worth and how it will affect their view of themselves.

Generally, many of us, seem to assign value to ourselves and our lives based on what we do for work. And the value of that work is frequently based on the amount of money it brings in. As a society, we tend to think in terms of earning potential rather than job satisfaction. And, as a result, many of us spend a large portion of our lives laboring away at something we do not like and frequently hate. We slave away for 50 weeks out of the year so that we can have 2 weeks of vacation where we try to do all the living we cannot allow ourselves to do the rest of the time.

When I was a stay-at-home mother, I keenly felt my financial vulnerability and societal invisibility. Leave it to Beaver not withstanding, staying at home with one's children does not give one stability or respect in our society. Despite the fact that I did much more than "just" housework, it was difficult to feel as though I had done enough to justify my lack of income. And, in my experience at least, all sorts of people think that they are within their rights to express their opinion on what one is doing or not doing. Mothers, in particular, frequently find themselves in no win situations. Not long after my first son was born, I was having lunch with his godmother, who had also just had a baby. I had gone back to work because we couldn't do without my salary. I got keel hauled by just about everyone with an opinion for "leaving my child" to go make money. Coincidentally, my friend, who was staying at home with her son, got blasted for not being out in the workplace pursuing a career. It was a classic case of damned if you do and damned if you don't.

And now I wonder about the millions of people who are losing their jobs and how they will cope with their sense of self-worth in the absence of gainful employment, perhaps even losing their homes. Whether one is on the assembly line or Wall Street, how does one reassign value to their lives when a major focus of that value is removed, especially when those around us focused on it, too? It will not be easy, but, I suspect, it calls for a huge shift in how we think about ourselves and how we respond to each other.

When I was working on my bachelor's degree in philosophy, I was frequently asked "what are you going to do with that?" I know a poet who is frequently the butt of jokes and suggestions that they get "realistic." And we've all heard the jokes about waiters who are really actors. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could refrain from passing judgment and criticism on the honest efforts of others? And wouldn't it be lovelier still, if all of us based our self-worth on a different criteria than occupation and earning potential? But how to go about doing that when the tide all too often flows the opposite way?

So the question is How Am I Valuable? If you make sandwiches for a living and paint gorgeous works of art at home, which one do you think holds the essence of your true worth? If you spend 8 hours a day putting together widgets and every other moment you have cultivating beautiful roses? If you push papers until your mind goes numb from 9 to 5, and then volunteer in a nursing home? If you are completely unemployed, but tell fantastic bedtime stories? If you do anything at all, but manage to have a smile for every human being who passes in front of you?

For me, I've come to realize that, except for my rather skimpy financial situation, that there is very little I would want to change about my life. I find fulfillment in creating things, either physically or with words. I relish the opportunity to be fully present to my friends and those whom I love. I'm a good friend, good mother, good writer and good with my hands. I think and feel deeply. How could I possibly doubt my value?

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Last week, I had decided it was time to push my walking to a higher level. I was feeling a bit lethargic from staying inside due to the weather and I do have ambitions to double last year's weight-loss total. But me, being me, I waited several days to see if the feeling would pass.

Then, yesterday morning, in the throws of a monumental three day funk, I decided it was time to dive in. I chose a destination twice as far as I usually go and in a different direction and set off.

Given that I was taking a new route, there were lots of interesting things to look at and mull over. The first thing I found myself noticing was moss. This was a bit unusual for me. Not because moss is unusual, quite to the contrary. I don't know if Oregon is the moss capital of the world, but it is certainly in the running. So, for the most part, I just don't pay any attention to it because it is literally everywhere. But this time, I noticed and was a bit amazed at the variety. There is the bubbly sort that sits along the edges of the sidewalks. There is the feathery stuff that mixes in with the grass. There are the cascades of green that fall over the edges of stone walls. And there is interesting gray green stuff that randomly drops out of the trees in clumps. I could have continued making mossy observations, but there were other things to notice, both externally and internally.

I looked at the houses that I passed and noticed hints of the owners' personalities in the landscaping and exteriors. Some still had their Christmas lights up, but one had a couple of Valentine hearts surrounded by lights in the window. And, given that I've not been an external decorator, I wondered what that might say about the person hanging it, if anything. I noticed the various color schemes on the houses, mostly nondescript, but others quite horrendous. Robin's egg blue on stucco really doesn't speak to me. And, due to personal issues that I'm not going into here, I will never think that bright pink on a house is a good idea. Perhaps in climates with bright sunlight and heat, it might work. But here in the Pacific Northwest and it's blue-ish light, it is a bad, bad idea.

And what is with the lawn art? Cherubs pouring water into birdbaths not once, but twice, in the same small yard. Interesting little mosaic tiles plopped down in the middle of nowhere also made me wonder at their purpose. Lots of dilapidated and long abandoned benches hidden beneath rhododendrons that grew over them long years past.

As I waited for a crosswalk signal at a busy intersection, I watched the drivers barreling past me and wondered a bit about them. If their expressions were any indication, many of them seemed to be either angry or sad. And this made me wonder about the state in which most of us move through our days. Were they off on a distasteful errand? Or were they unable to put some earlier event behind them? Or had the years worn them down until they had forgotten how to smile? I don't know, but I found myself paying attention to my own expression as I walked on.

By this time, I had walked farther than I had before and was starting to feel the effects. The things I noticed became more sporadic as I slowed down a bit to accommodate my complaining feet and lungs. But I still noticed the thoughts that popped up.

I noticed that there are some very ugly and very expensive items in shop windows, and that sometimes they are the same things.

I noticed a pair of goldfinches chasing each other across the sky in search of the bird equivalent of romance.

I noticed that young people don't want to acknowledge you when they pass on the sidewalk, but that anyone over 40 will say hello.

I wondered how there could be so many people in all those houses and I not know any of them. Then I wondered at the miracle that I know the ones that I do.

I noticed that walking in 30 degree temperatures will make your eyes water and nose run no matter what. And that, if one is disposed to have one's eyes watering or nose running, it is a good cover to be able to blame the cold.

I noticed that walking by a bakery and smelling the aroma is probably a temptation straight from the devil.

I walked past a hedge and heard dozens of small birds chirping from within it and I wondered if they had lost their calendars and didn't realize it was still winter.

I noticed that I wished there were someone to walk beside me on my treks and, perhaps, hold my hand.

I noticed that when the fog lifted and the sun came out, everything looked different, even the moss on the way back home.

I noticed that the last 4 blocks back home are the easiest part of the walk.

I noticed that it always feels good to take off my shoes.

I noticed that I want to go noticing again soon.