opinionated

opinionLately I’ve been aware of, thinking about, noticing the fact that so often when I open my mouth I am spouting opinions. I hadn’t particularly thought of myself as opinionated, before, but now I think I am very opinionated. And I don’t even have to have thought about an issue before — hell, I don’t even have to have heard of it before, I will instantly have an opinion.

Opinions, “things I hate,” “things I adore,” “things that are outrageous!” Lots of categories of opinions. It makes me wonder, though, what I mean by opinion. Is a preference an opinion? I think so . . . is it? Here are some definitions:

  • a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge
  • an estimation of the quality or worth of someone or something
  • a personal view, attitude, or appraisal

I have a favorite nine-word phrase! Do you? Mine is from Ulysses: “the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” That rolls around in my mind like a loose marble, always echoing. And then that line connects to my favorite poetic description of evening:

Evening (Rainer Maria Rilke)

The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion
of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.

I could go on and on, one preference/opinion connecting to the next, to the next. My favorite cities: Hanoi, Luang Prabang, Ubud, Cusco. My favorite countries to visit: Vietnam, Laos, Bali. My favorite month: May. My favorite sound: baby laughs. My favorite spot: my sweet little home in Austin. My favorite drink: my coffee early in the morning. My favorite this my favorite that I am full of opinions.

no attachmentPerhaps I’m thinking about it so much because I’m spending so much time with Marc — just over a month, now — and he is an advanced student of Buddhism. He takes classes every week and attends workshops and weekly meditation meetings. So the whole idea of attachment / not attaching is in the air around him, and I realized he doesn’t state opinions all day. There are aspects of that position that I struggle with and disagree with, but I don’t want to throw the whole idea away. So I’m thinking about this opinion thing. Keeping them to myself isn’t the solution — it’s less about saying them and more about the question of having so many of them. (However, I think my most common experience is to have constantly growing categories instead of points. A growing list of favorite cities instead of a favorite city, for instance. An increasing number of “our best trips ever” instead of a revolving point.) (Somehow I think this makes it OK.) (Though I’m not sure what’s bad about having opinions, as long as you aren’t using them to hurt other people.)

Are you this way too? I’m hoping you are. Please say you are.

I’ll leave this post with some sayings from a Jewish Buddhist — Marc is a Jewish Buddhist (a JewBu, as they’re called), but not as funny as this:

Be here now.
Be someplace else later.
Is that so complicated?

Drink tea and nourish life;
with the first sip, joy;
with the second sip, satisfaction;
with the third sip, peace;
with the fourth, a Danish.

Wherever you go, there you are.
Your luggage is another story.

If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?

Accept misfortune as a blessing.
Do not wish for perfect health, or a life without problems.
What would you talk about?

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single Oy.

There is no escaping karma.
In a previous life,
you never called,
you never wrote,
you never visited.
And whose fault was that?

Zen is not easy.
It takes effort to attain nothingness.
And then what do you have?
Bupkis.

The Tao does not speak.
The Tao does not blame.
The Tao does not take sides.
The Tao has no expectations.
The Tao demands nothing of others.
The Tao is not Jewish.

Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Forget this and attaining Enlightenment will be the least of your problems.

Let your mind be as a floating cloud.
Let your stillness be as a wooded glen.
And sit up straight.
You’ll never meet the Buddha with such rounded shoulders.

Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers.
Each flower blossoms ten thousand times.
Each blossom has ten thousand petals.
You might want to see a specialist.

Be aware of your body.
Be aware of your perceptions.
Keep in mind that not every physical sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness.

The Torah says,
Love your neighbor as yourself.
The Buddha says,
There is no self.
So, maybe we’re off the hook.

yeah, do this everyone

Wage Peace

Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists
and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening: hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Make soup.
Play music, memorize the words for thank you in three languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief
as the outbreath of beauty or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious:
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Celebrate today.

Judyth Hill

“broken”

crackFirst, guru Leonard:

Ring the bells that can still ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

It’s absolutely fascinating the way there can be a convergence of things. Two mornings ago that lyric came into my head, just that little fragment, just before I woke up all the way. Ever since, of course, the whole song (Anthem) has been running through my head non-stop. Late yesterday I went to my gorgeous friend Traci’s apartment to hang out with her for a while, after having lunch with her the day before. She’s one of those deep-souled people who nourish, and she’s a friend who shares honesty with me. We talk about things we often can’t talk about with other people. Over lunch she was talking about a person she knew that she thought I would probably like, and the friend has had a difficult life in some of the same ways that Traci and I have experienced.

In the course of that conversation we both used the shorthand phrase “broken” — as in, “she is broken too.” Without even thinking about it I said that the people I love most and connect to most easily are broken. Broken broken broken. We both knew what we meant, and it really was just a single word meant to encompass a whole lot of things that might start with broken but end with going beyond the breaks.

And then when I got home last night I saw this piece on Thought Catalog, “Your Brokenness Makes You Beautiful.” I couldn’t click that thing fast enough, you know? My kind of topic! But as soon as I started reading it, it galled me. It wasn’t trying to celebrate being broken, but something about the whole idea rubbed me the wrong way.

kintsugiDo you know the Japanese concept of kintsugi? When a vessel, like a tea cup, breaks or cracks, they will fill the cracks with a precious material like gold, so the cracks are seen, they’re part of the beauty of the thing that now is so much more, now it is more beautiful, it has more character, it’s strong.

Of course you don’t have to think much at all to see the relevance. Broken becomes beauty, the breaks aren’t meant to be hidden, but it’s not exactly the case that they are celebrated, either, even though something precious binds them. They are part of, central to, evident, but merely a part of the original piece, which is whole. It isn’t broken. An essential part of the beauty of the thing itself still exists as it always did, and yet it is more beautiful as a result. I love that and it touches me.

And so yes, a whole lot of life has happened to me. A whole lot of life happens to a whole lot of us — most of us, perhaps. Traci and I were talking about how we connect so much more easily to people who’ve grappled with stuff than those who have had an easy ride. Good for them! And we mean that! But there’s a kind of trust and ease with others who have had to face the dark, maybe face themselves in the dark, or face the kinds of things that etch, that break, that stain. And so I am etched, I was several times broken, I was stained.

I know broken people. And you see them regularly, especially in a big city like New York. The truly broken, the deeply homeless people who are thrown so far out of the realm of ordinary life, they sit broken on the sidewalk, they live in a shadow and may never find their way back. Some people don’t.

But I am not broken. That bowl is not broken. The crack is just where the light gets in, and the light is so damn beautiful. Without the light it’s just dark, right?

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flashback post

For a bunch of reasons — including the main one, which is that I was thinking about this very thing and saw no need to reinvent the wheel — a post I wrote in February 2012:

The first time I saw this map, my brain went completely blank:

mcarthur

The first time I heard how British textbooks teach children the story of the American War for Independence, my brain went blank. In both instances, I was a grown-ass woman, in my late 30s, and yet I was kind of floored. Oh, the things I’d never even questioned, the things I just accepted unquestioningly as the obvious truth. I may have been kind of slow, but I think we all do this. After all, there’s not enough time to think closely about every tiny thought we have, and most of the time it’s just not necessary.

But I’ve always been fascinated by the truth that my understanding is profoundly limited. In my younger years, every fall I read all the Carlos Castaneda books. I was most fascinated by the Yaqui ability to see, that involved seeing humans as luminous bobbing egg shapes of energy. Those who had given birth had dark spots in the lower part, because they’d lost some of the energy in giving it to the creation of a new being. I was curious about seeing the “lines of the world,” the energy that existed in a kind of grid and could be used by people if they knew how, and could see them in the first place. Setting aside those stories, I do know there’s so much going on all around me that I am unable to see because of limitations of my human apparatus. I can’t even see parts of the light spectrum, I’m limited.

Of course there are other limitations we can circumvent if we try very hard. We get stuck in our heads, locked into our definitions and descriptions, and we’re busy! For heaven’s sake, there are kids to be driven around, plans to make, laundry to do, work to get done…always too much work to get done, husbands to tend to, groceries to buy and prepare, old folks to care for and babies to feed, who has the time?

But can you stop for 5 minutes? Just 5? Set a timer so you don’t have to worry that you’ll screw up and do this for 6 whole minutes—the horror, what would you do then—but just do this. Just do this for 5 minutes. Sit still and look. See what all you can see. I took a break yesterday and decided to keep my eyes open and try to actually look, while paying attention to my mind which kept wanting to drag me to a to-do list, or to this afternoon, or next week, or back to when I was 5. I’d notice it was doing that again and let it drift away, and think “Be here now. Just be here now.” Here’s what I saw.

Birds — pigeons walking around the street, sparrows flitting around in the branches. It’s a bird’s world, my street, what is their world? Lots of ledges, lots of small branches, little hollows under eaves for nesting, small patches of ground around the trees, tiny puddles left over from the super’s sidewalk-washing this morning. It’s their world, they are busy having a bird-centered life and I’m just in it, watching out my window.

People — men walking their dogs, men parking cars, women hurrying somewhere, workmen carrying boards, supers talking to each other. Each one of those people is the center of a whole world, they have friends and families and colleagues and enemies and structures of relationships and work and hopes and worries. Some may be having a great day, some may be in despair. They’re the center of a world, and they participate in the worlds of so many others, and perhaps as they pass each other on the street there’s some kind of connection in that large structure with the person they pass, and they don’t know it. Each of those people is moving around in his or her own world, and I’m not even noticed as I watch out my window.

Dogs — On their leashes, sniffing the trees, marking the corners of buildings, stopping to sniff each other while their people wait, the familiar paths they probably take a couple of times a day. Their attention sharpens when another dog is near, which happens all the time. Theirs is a dog’s world, filled with the scent markings they and others have left, as they are taken out to do their business on sidewalks and their people pick it up for them. Their experience of the breeze may be as a source of a whole world of information.

Buildings — built by workmen, designed by architects and engineers, financed by bankers, plumbed and wired by working men (the buildings are 100 years old, so they were definitely men). The buildings have stood here for a century as life went on inside, and outside. Storms raged, night fell, garbage strikes lay at their feet, snow fell, for a hundred years. People moved in and out, some died inside undoubtedly, some were born inside probably, some fought, some were hurt, lots of people felt love inside that building, lots felt alone. All of these buildings are filled with the echoes of stories.

Wind — the branches of the trees are dancing in the wind, and there’s an entire wind-world going on. It sweeps down my street as if its funneled; it swoops down the Hudson River at the end of my street. It swirls around the faces of people walking past, the animal life is probably keenly aware of it in a way I’m not. The birds may even understand it as a road system or in some way that’s inconceivable to me. The wind does what it does whether I’m watching or not.

I hear the sound of construction in the next block, the jackhammer buzzing and vibrating the floor. I hear the hiss and cracks of the radiator in my building, spitting dry heat into my living room [note: it was February when I wrote this…]. I hear the music I’m playing in the background while I work. I hear the buzzer to my apartment every 45 minutes this morning. I hear people come and go, the door opening and closing. I hear snippets of conversation through the glass of my closed window as people pass by on the sidewalk, just the sound really, not the words.

And at the end of my 5 minutes of looking, I was struck by the whole of it somehow, everything that’s going on all at once, and I thought of the wonderful last line of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:”

I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

Just be here now, exactly where you are. Five minutes. Even if you’re in the middle of hell — and I was, when I wrote that; in February 2012 my husband was undergoing cruel and murderous treatment and every day was a battle. But breathe in and what is happening where you rest your eyes? Breathe out, what do you hear? Breathe in, listen. Breathe out. Look. Five minutes.

loss and suffering

heartTalking about a mother’s heart is a schizophrenic experience for me. There I’ll be, talking about how full mine is, or how broken – because I am a mother to these people – and then I’ll remember so pointedly that it’s not true “because” I am a mother, because my own mother and plenty like her do not have these feelings.

I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 3 of those are from the past 9 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.
I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 3 of those are from the past 9 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.

My son is estranged from our family. He disappeared from us entirely in 2005, into New York City. I was living there too, and not knowing where or how we was doing made me feel, every single day, like I would die from it. From the fear, from the heartache, from the worry. I emailed him every single day, without fail, never knowing if he got them. For a brief period I discovered where he worked and would stand on the opposite corner, where he wouldn’t see me, and just watch. “Ah, he looks OK. Today he looks OK.” He held all the cards and all the power, and my fear was that if he saw me he would quit that job and then I wouldn’t even know that much about him. And so I’d watch from a distance because knowing that he was alive mattered more than the rest.

Thanks to my oldest daughter’s efforts, he rejoined our family, tentatively, for about a year, and we said some of the things to each other that we needed and wanted to say, and then he disappeared again and simply will not respond to any of us. The last time I saw him was August of last year (he lives a few blocks from me in NYC) and he doesn’t answer our calls, never responds to our texts or emails, he just stays away. When will I see him again? Will I? Will I hear from him ever again?

It’s a very hard thing to talk about for so many reasons. Too many parents respond with judgment and cold assumptions, they make thoughtless remarks. I do not need anyone to remind me—ever—that I have made mistakes in every avenue of my life, including parenting. I imagine some parents respond in judgment because it lets them feel safe: she must have done something so bad to deserve this and I know I haven’t, so it won’t happen to me. I hope it doesn’t, it’s excruciating. But I don’t and never will regret the thing I did that precipitated his leaving nine years ago, even if I never see him again. I felt that way then and I feel that way now. He was in a bad place and I tried to save his life, knowing very well that he might never forgive me. But he would be alive in the world and I decided I would live with that.

What is wrong with me – all the other mothers talk about their kids, complain about this little thing or that little thing, oh those kids – and I have this one who chooses to be gone. My heart is broken every single day, missing a chamber, dead in spots from lack of blood there. I feel shame and sorrow and impossible loss, and exquisite pain that every single day he makes the decision not to be in our family. I have a friend who understands personally what this feels like, and just having that little spot of true understanding has been such an experience of grace. And I got a note from one of my daughters with an expression of compassion that was so profound I’m bleaching out the pixels in her email from reading it over and over and over. There is such a balm from compassion and empathy from your adult children, I’m telling you. You wait a long, long time, hoping that someday they understand things, and sometimes they do.

Once in a blue moon I remember that my own mother and I have no connection – I haven’t seen or spoken to her since spring of 1987, and I won’t see or speak to her ever, for any reason. I won’t go to her funeral, if I even get the news that she dies. Is my son’s absence about the universe coming around to smack me down? How can my estrangement from my mother and my son’s estrangement from me have anything at all to do with each other, the situations could not be more different, and yet I am the common point to both. Pain ripples out a very long time from old boulders thrown into deep lakes, and maybe Will’s estrangement is a long slow ripple.

I have absolutely no idea what the pain of a child’s death is like. I watched my grandmother deal with my father’s death, and I watched my daughter deal with her daughter’s death. That’s a place I hope I never learn personally, I cannot even imagine. I’ve heard widowed and divorced women talk about which is worse – “At least yours died and didn’t leave you!” “At least yours could always come back!” – and there’s just more than enough sad truth in both losses. I am so glad my son is alive, and there is a cutting horrible pain in his choosing this.

Life is a mess and so are we as we try to live it. We fuck up out of ignorance, out of shortsightedness, out of our own brokenness, out of being human, and things are not always neat — maybe they never are neat. I try to extend that same understanding to my son, that he is perhaps fucking up out of his ignorance, his shortsightedness, his own brokenness, his humanity, and his life is not neat. Unlike my mother with me, my love for my son endures and will be echoing inside me to my last breath, whatever happens with him in the interim. And I am every day filled to the brim with love and appreciation for my beautiful daughters, I cannot neglect to say that.

the question of nice

I belong to an amazing group of women who cluster together in a number of sub-groups — reading, photography, movies, and one about being honest about our lives. Since I felt like the newcomer, the odd one out in a group that all seemed to already know each other, I asked how old everyone was and then one woman wrote a post introducing herself and many of us have followed suit. Each introduction and the torrent of responses could be a book. So many absolutely moving stories, of all kinds. Stories of mostly happy childhoods and adult lives. Stories of wrenching hardship growing up. Stories of betrayal, stories of families of every kind. We all try to hit the important details in a way that conveys who we are without writing whole encyclopedias — which we could certainly do because we’re all adult women. It is remarkable, and my favorite place to be right now.

niceThe issue of being nice (or, more pointedly, NOT being nice) came up in the group and that hit a lot of my buttons so I’ve been thinking about the broader topic ever since. WHOO-HOO, nice and women, such a thing to explore. Southern US women of course get trained — hard — in being nice. We are always supposed to be nice. “Be nice, dear.” “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” (Or as Alice Roosevelt said, clearly not a southern woman, “If you don’t have something nice to say, come sit by me.”) I have gathered from my eleven years living up north in the US that northern women do not receive such training. And I don’t mean that in a catty way, at all — should I wish I had the same training (or lack of training)? Do I?

Being nice can be a terrible trap. Be nice. In the south, if you’re not being nice they say you’re being ugly. “Now, don’t be ugly.” Sometimes “being ugly” happens when you are saying the truth, even if you do it in a ‘nice’ way, though that’s so hard to pull off, that in my experience it tips back toward nice and away from honest. [Thinking back now, I cannot recall a single time where a boy or man was told to “be nice.”] I have a terribly hard time not being nice all the time. Sometimes I think I’d love to just be not-nice and say whatever I want, be passive-aggressive whenever I want, not care about how other people feel, fuck them all, fuck you, say something that shuts down the conversation and not give a crap about it, say whatever I want and then respond to the fallout by blaming them. Meh, not nice. That’s me. I’m not nice, so I say that I’m not nice and that’s the extent of my responsibility. I am not nice. Can I do that? Do I even wish I could?

Maybe you're getting what you give out....
Maybe you’re getting what you give out….

I worked with a woman here in New York who was world class breathtakingly cruel — and I know from cruel — and my shock and fear kept me silent and she responded by telling people I was stupid. (When she was finally laid off, the thick, toxic atmosphere lifted immediately and people in our offices in the UK noticed the change, it was that bad.) I don’t know. I don’t really care too very much how people like her see me. But when people are cruel, or mean, or hateful, as she was, I learn that about them and then have little interest in interacting with them. Because why would I? Maya Angelou’s death has prompted a flurry of her best-known sayings being posted, and one is, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I disagree that people forget what you said — I remember the things people say very well, especially when they say things that hurt or are just mean and cutting. I remember how they made me feel with what they said. Oh yes, I remember.

I’d like not to be so worried all the time about being nice, but I do not want to simply be cutting and cold and shaming of people because “I am not nice.” The way I’d like not to be so nice would be in responding in the moment when I am unhappy about something. If someone does or says something to me that warrants a response, I’d like not to sit there and ‘be nice.’ THEN, in that moment, I’d like to speak up. Do I have to speak up in a hateful way? Well, I guess that depends. Sometimes I suppose it does. In fact, it’s easy to imagine a whole host of situations where my response could and should properly be hard, or cold, or sharp, or strong, or in their face. I’m getting better, and am certainly better at it than I’ve ever been but I have such a long way to go.

But overall, I do believe that nice and kind are valuable ways to be in this world. (Maybe, though, I am basically a kind person.) That being nice to others, kind to others, matters a lot. That recognizing that others have their own shit and are trying the best they can, that others are managing stuff I have no idea about, so as a baseline being nice to people and kind and as accepting as I can be, I think it’s a worthwhile thing, trying to be kind. I think it’s valuable to recognize when it’s my own shit that’s being stirred up and focusing on that instead of being mean because “hey, I’m not nice, tough.” It’s a value I hold. As with everything, it’s about finding the balance and nice does not equal being a doormat. As the years have passed, I think for her it was less about her not being nice and more about her being pathologically screwed up, which is a different thing.

I can easily call to mind women I know who are nice and kind but not doormats. I respect the hell out of them. We sometimes see things differently and they don’t abandon their views and neither do I, and they’ll stick with their positions without bending and they’ll stand up for themselves, I’ve seen it, but they are otherwise kind women. I admire the hell out of them and watch them as teachers.

Here’s a beautiful poem titled Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, from 1952:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend

And finally, I have to put this song here. It’s called ‘Say Something’ and it’s important to some people in my family and when it was shared with me yesterday I broke down crying. Say something / I’m giving up on you — a song about loss, but pointedly about not just one kind of loss. The video even includes the death of an old woman, so that one at least doesn’t easily fit say something / I’m giving up on you, but my God, what a beautiful and heartbreaking song, especially if it’s appropriate for you in some way already, as it is for me and people in my family. Here. As she always does, Christina does some serious over-acting, but crap I don’t care. Please, please, please. Just say something.

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zero sum games

I’ve always said that all the wrong people have all the money. I do not want all the money; once I tried to figure out what I’d do with some extravagant sum of money and I couldn’t really get that far. If I had lots of money (figure unspecified), I would pay off my debt, which consists of my student loan debt, and I would pay off all my kids’ debts. I would get them each a new car. I would put money away for their children’s college funds so that was covered. I would see that they had what they needed to direct their lives the way they want them to go. Friends who needed help would get what they needed, immediately.

a bit fancier than this, less primitive, but like this! I saw a place in Woodstock once that fit my dream perfectly...
a bit fancier than this, less primitive, but like this! I saw a place in Woodstock once that fit my dream perfectly…

I would not buy a gigantic mansion . . . what would I do with that? I’d just have to clean it. (See how fundamentally I misunderstand big wealth? People in mansions pay others to clean them.) I would like to have a small house of my own somewhere, my very own, a kind of cottage but big enough to have a library in it and a room for guests. And then I’d put away enough to be sure I could afford to be cared for the rest of my life if something happened to me, so I wouldn’t be a burden on my kids, and with the rest I would travel. I wouldn’t buy stuff, I’d just travel. And I wouldn’t travel differently than we do now — I wouldn’t travel first class, what a silly waste of money; I wouldn’t go to different places; I wouldn’t stay in bigger fancier hotels; I wouldn’t eat more extravagant meals. I would be so very darling at having money, I just know it.

So I feel jealousy of the people with all the money, I do feel that. I know how that feels, that kind of jealousy. Resource allocation. It isn’t that I think money buys happiness, but it does relieve you of some of the things that eat away at you. Having to worry each and every month about having enough money to get to the end of the month, having to figure out what you won’t pay so you can meet an unexpected need, not being able to afford the outrageous expense of health insurance so always living in fear that someone will get sick or hurt — those things make it awfully difficult to have a happy life. You can be happy, of course, but it’s grinding and hard. I have been so very poor throughout my life I know what that’s like. Stole food in high school. When my kids were little, my food budget was so tight I put the monthly allotment in four envelopes and took one with me to the market each week, and if I got to the register and had spent more than my limit, I had to choose what to put back. That was humiliating. I tried to spend less each week so that in the last week of the month, the extra had accumulated and we might have enough money for a tiny treat. (Of course this is first world trouble and I realize that.)

What I don’t understand, no matter how hard I try — and I have tried — is being jealous of my friends. For some reason it makes no sense to me. An ex-friend recently accused me of being jealous of her (after listing a whole bunch of things she was jealous of me about) and it shocked me. She had a bunch of strengths that I didn’t have (like, at ALL) and that always made me feel so lucky. Hallelujah, I’m so bad at X but she’s good at it so we have that covered! When a friend succeeds at something, accomplishes something, why wouldn’t I be happy for her? I don’t get that. I love her, I want good things to happen for her. In the course of my life I have ended two friendships and jealousy was a factor in both. The other friendship I ended was with a woman in New York whose jealousy was so destructive I had to end it for my own health. When my life fell completely apart in November 2012 and I moved to Austin, after a few months of hiding and sobbing I started rebuilding, and I found friends and did what you do. She wrote me that I was a bad influence on her because I was able to do that but that she decided to let it go. I still have a hard time understanding that. A bad influence? Really?

Occasionally I’ll see things about Facebook, articles that talk about how people feel so bad by their friends’ Facebook streams. And apparently they’re not referring to 13-year-old people, that fragile age. This bewilders the hell out of me on so many levels:

  • Seriously? People can be that tissue-thin and fragile and uncertain about themselves? Well, I know they can be, having been tissue-thin myself at times, so at least that one I can begin to grasp.
  • Do people think a public presentation represents the whole story? Every single good thing shared has a corresponding difficult thing, and the balance tips and sways, it’s not a one-to-one correspondence, but photographs of that beautiful trip you see? There are difficulties going on too, surely you know that. This success, that one? How many rejections and losses happened too? Everyone curates what gets shared and does anyone really believe what they see is the whole story? I don’t understand this one at all. There’s that great AA saying, “Never compare your insides to other people’s outsides” which sums it up so beautifully. I know what a tangled-up mess I can be on the inside, and I assume it’s the same for everyone, varying only in frequency and degree.
  • ZeroSumDoes anyone think this is a zero sum game? That there is a finite amount of good stuff and if someone else has some there is that much less for them? If you have a wonderful success and I have a wonderful success, mine diminishes yours? On some wholly made-up scale for this point, if your success is a 9 and mine is a 9.25, yours doesn’t matter?

I am so happy about your successes, about the good things that happen for you, I really am. Even when you have success in a domain I am also striving within! When you travel somewhere I want to go, I feel like you are scouting for me, and I’ll get to see it vicariously and then hear your stories. If the time comes when I get to go too, I’ll be so glad you went so you can give me advice. If I never get to go there, how lucky I am that you did so I got to see it through your eyes. I love Greece with all my heart and will probably never get to go back, but a friend goes to a very small island on occasion and she’s a wonderful photographer, so on her next trip I’ll get to ‘visit’ Greece again, and what a pleasure that will be.

If we have a success in the same arena and yours surpasses mine in some way, how does that diminish my success? For I know exactly what it takes to run that gauntlet, I know how hard, I know the accomplishment in a way others might not. And assuming I know I did the best I could, how can I be anything but proud, however you may have done? Because hotdamn, it was HARD and I succeeded.

Yeah, that's me and Peggy in Austin last summer. She's my bosom sister. I'd do anything in the world for her.
Yeah, that’s me and Peggy in Austin last summer. She’s my bosom sister. I’d do anything in the world for her.

My friend Peggy and I applied to the Yale Writer’s Conference and decided that if one of us were picked and the other wasn’t, we would just feel so happy for the other. We didn’t get tested — we both were accepted — but I believe with all my heart that we’d have been happy for each other even if we hadn’t been picked ourselves. Now maybe if it were someone other than Peggy I might struggle, but when I think through my friends I think it would be true of all of them. BECAUSE WE ARE FRIENDS.

That situation is a zero-sum game, an exact and finite number of slots and she gets one might mean I don’t. But beyond situations like that, life is not a zero-sum game. Why do people act as if someone else’s success diminishes them? I don’t understand it now and I guess I never will.

I share the good things that happen for me as easily as I share the terrible things, because I am keenly aware that life gives both and to pretend only one exists is a lie. But I do wish those people with all the money would share a little bit.