my kind of [X]

readerOne of my dear friends was facing a situation that would require a slow recovery, so she asked me and our friends for recommendations of books, television shows, and movies — but of a specific kind. Easy to read, light, the kind that are often (and often unfairly) disparagingly called junk reading, junk TV. She pointedly said, “Not the stuff you read, Lori.” Over time I’ve gotten the reputation for only reading Holocaust or big trauma literary fiction, a category that (I think) is meant more broadly than just those specifics, but definitely with that degree of heaviness. (Although I looked at my Netflix queue and it was one after another Holocaust movie, so hmmmm…..) I enjoy a book that asks something of me, that requires me to participate.

And then another friend recommended a show and in an aside said, “You’ll LOVE it, man. It’s dripping in humanity.” The show was about punishment and retribution and recovery and redemption. My kind of things, my kind of themes.

It isn’t that I’m dismissive of “junk” entertainment, and I’m certainly not judgmental of it. I watch Project Runway, Top Chef, some sit-coms. It’s just that I have so little spare time for entertainment (and not for nothing, I read all day long, almost always stuff I would never ever read of my own volition although sometimes I get the most amazing book/client and that’s a huge gift). So in my rare bit of time for passive entertainment, I want to finally read what I want to read, and what I want to read are stories that grapple with the questions you face in the dark, the situations that harrow you and force you to face yourself, force you to encounter the shadow — either of others, or the world, or yourself. Because I’m always looking for answers! I’m always looking for an articulation of my own shadow, my own experiences. I’m always wanting to better understand people and how they affect and are affected by others and the world. What makes some people turn this way or that, or NOT turn this way or that.

I’m also wanting to be engrossed, enmeshed, and moved in a deep way. My daily life is kind of light; for the most part I sit in my living room, in my chair, reading and working on a client’s book. The ordinary tenor of my life is quiet, solitary, easy, slow. I’m very happy in solitude, it occurred to me again the other day. I was the only person at a wedding alone recently, and I could’ve invited someone to go with me but it never crossed my mind. I enjoy going to movies alone. I enjoy walking alone. I enjoy shopping alone. My days don’t have enough hours for all the ways I want to fill them.

But emotionally my days are just kind of steady and quiet. (YAY!) My life is steady and quiet. (YAY!) So I read or watch something to move my interior, to swim in the vast ocean of human experience. One of the saddest moments — and maybe you know this one too — is when I finish a deeply wonderful book, when I close it and feel so much, and it has left its deep mark on me, and I know it’s going to be hard to find another one that will do that. And sure enough, I try this one (nope!), that one (ugh, no), the next one (maybe…oh, no.) and none are of the same kind.

Although there are some exceptions, most of the books on my “absolute faves” shelf on GoodReads are of this type, and I’m good with that. The only sad thing for me is that I don’t really know other readers who like to read what I do, except for one woman in my book club who chose a book that became one of my favorites (The Orphan Master’s Son, my review on GoodReads here). The specifics of her life mean that she doesn’t have much time to read, though, so I don’t really have someone to share this with and that’s a secondary joy of reading. I do know people whose recommendations usually connect with my interests (Dixie, for instance), but that’s rare.

This is one of the very rare ways I’m lonely, and I am very lonely in this way. If you glance at my “absolute faves” shelf and see yourself there, I’d sure like to know about it.

Happy reading y’all, whatever you read. xoxox

the question is wisdom, the answer is complexity

In 2011 I read a great book called Difficult Conversations: How to Talk About What Matters Most. Difficult conversations are so hard for me, and I found the book quite useful. The real value of the book, though, spread so far beyond difficult conversations, and it all came from one little word: AND.

One point made in the book is that when you say “….., but ….” you essentially negate the first part. Saying, “…., and ….” allows space for both to be true. Because with very rare exception, there is truth in both.

  • “Yes, you do the shopping but you only do it when I ask.”
  • “Yes, you do the shopping and you only do it when I ask.”

The first makes the point in an oppositional way, the second in an acknowledging way. If someone said the first to you, wouldn’t you get a little riled up? My response might even include a bad word that starts with the letter F.

Escher gets at the complexity of 'and.'
Escher gets at the complexity of ‘and.’

And so I made a very conscious effort to use and instead of but, and I never came to an instance in which I really could only use but. ‘And’ was always appropriate. This fit easily into my understanding of the complexity of the world, leading me to a simple phrase for a big idea: It’s an ‘and’ world. I write about this over and over, and I can’t track down the original post I wrote in 2009 or 2010, so here’s one I wrote called ‘plucking out the story‘ that includes a good real-life example. It’s an ‘and’ world, y’all. It is. And that is a bigger issue than you think.

The problem comes in when we think or feel conflicting truths. Our minds are uneasy with conflicting truths, with cognitive dissonance, and we’re pulled to resolve the conflict. One of my favorite cognitive dissonance experiments had research participants in the US eating crickets, for which they were paid either $1 or $20, by random assignment. Afterwards they were asked why they ate the crickets. The people who received $20 said they did it for the money. The people who received $1 said they did it because they like crickets. Because they surely did not really like crickets, but they’d received so little money to do it — both true — so they resolved that conflict by telling themselves the story that they liked crickets. Isn’t that fascinating?

And then when you add in a should, it becomes even more complex. You have two conflicting feelings, and one comes with but I shouldn’t feel that way, or how could I feel that way! and so you rush to negate or ignore the “bad” one, and you certainly don’t admit it out loud. But both are true! You act on the better one, and you feel it fully, AND the other is also true. They both are true. BOTH. ARE. TRUE.

A made-up example: Let’s say you have a very dear friend in trouble and you want to help her, you truly do, because you love her. She needs help and you can provide the help, you have the knowledge or skill or experience. The thing is, she’s a pain in the ass. She’s ungrateful. She’ll try a little and then go right back to complaining about the very thing you’re helping her with. I’ll bet everyone has had that experience. So you feel super annoyed and irritated with her, and frustrated. Oh, but I shouldn’t be annoyed, I know she’s doing the best she can. And maybe there’s something that really is in her way, some very real roadblock, so you also think, God, what a jerk I am to feel this way! What is wrong with me?! So what do you do? You block those “bad” feelings. You suppress them and try not even to acknowledge them in your own mind.

But both are true! Because both are true. At the very same time. Because you are complex, situations are complex, the world is complex. You get to choose which one you act on, but both feelings are true and that is fine. In fact, if you need this point made, the fact that you are acting on the ‘better’ feeling and keeping the other to yourself—while you still feel it—isn’t that a good thing? It is!

One thing I have learned, though, is that talking about both sets of feelings upsets people. I don’t mean the person you’re helping, I just mean other people. So you’ve been helping your friend, feeling both kinds of feelings, and when you talk to another very good friend and tell the fullness of your experience, your very good friend will shut you down. She will focus on the “bad” feeling and discount it for you, disagree with it, explain it away, tell you you’re wrong. And maybe even judge you about it, though she’ll probably be too polite to tell you.

IT’S AN AND WORLD. You feel what you feel, and whatever you feel is absolutely fine. You choose which feelings you express (and when, and to whom), and you choose which actions to take in response. Social norms are so very strong, you may even shut down feelings you “shouldn’t” feel so quickly you are scarcely aware of them. I’ve come to believe that it is a sign of deep wisdom to be able to acknowledge the world’s complexity and simply let it be. In this feeling example, to resist pushing down the “bad” feeling and allowing it also to be true. You help, you want to help, you choose to help, you love your friend, and you feel frustrated with her even though she has this terrible roadblock.

I don’t have very many friends I can share the complexity of life with, but those few I do have provide my safe space, my true space, and the space where I feel it easiest to be who I am, in all my own complexity. I get to be my authentic, full self. There I feel deeply understood . . . because those friends know that BOTH sets are true, that the love and “good” is also just as true, that those are the ones I act on because I mean them with all my heart. It’s just that I also feel the other, as people do.

Wow. You really can find ANYTHING on the Internet.
Wow. You really can find ANYTHING on the Internet.

And so I share this with you, to try to help you remember that the world is complex, you are complex, your thoughts and feelings are complex, and when you think or feel contradictory things (when, not if, because you do!), it’s fine. Feel them both. Think them both. Breathe and allow yourself to be open, to learn how to hold them both at the same time without rushing to close one door. It’s good practice for all the other ways the world is contradictory.

(It has so become my habit to talk and think like this—which isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes slip—that I have developed funny automatic sentence constructions. SO many of my sentences begin with “and,” so many begin with “and so” [which my daughter Katie pointed out to me], and also “and though,” which kind of is a ‘but’ construction but it brings the ‘and’ in, which I believe also reflects the truth of the world because it allows the essential tension between conflicting truths to be present.)

And so. Allow complexity. Acknowledge complexity. Hell, see complexity. Black and white categorical thinking is nice and easy (X is good. Y is bad. End of story, and I am absolutely certain about that…), but it isn’t real. It isn’t true. Hitler and the Holocaust were evil; Pol Pot was evil; but otherwise, there are so few things that are just one thing that the default toward complexity will keep you closer to the truth of the world.

And that’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.

gray

Apparently gray hair is having its moment. It’s the “fashion trend” and “everyone is doing it.” That’s fine with me, but what I mean by that is that gray hair is fine with me. I have a great clump of white hair right at my part, and it’s still concentrated there but the white is spreading throughout my hair — and that’s kind of cool. It’s what my hair should be doing. I don’t have to dye my hair, unlike the young girls. It’s popular for now and that will pass of course, even though in other cultures, gray hair indicates wisdom and strength. That’s what it suggests to me.

imagesI love gray, and have to work pretty hard for it in every area other than my hair. The first part of my life was spent among people who were completely black and white about being completely black and white. The literal and frequently shouted family motto was “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” It wasn’t a joke, it wasn’t ambiguous, it wasn’t unstated, it wasn’t a suggestion, it wasn’t a sometimes thing. Besides that sentence, the most often-used words were always and never, and few sentences passed without one or both of those words. ‘Very’ made a frequent appearance too. It wasn’t enough to be “always wrong” when you could be “always very wrong.” Completely. Absolutely. 100%. That was my earliest training; I don’t remember any thought or life before black and white, so for me, every gray step has to be thoughtfully taken, worked for. It’s like if you grew up being told that the sky was called “orange ocean” and tree was called “car” and blue was called “milk,” and that’s how you were taught from birth to age 18, and then suddenly you learned that all of it was crazy wrong.

graySome things really are black and white. Black, for instance. White, for example. Otherwise, isn’t it all some shade of gray? What is always or never true? What experience is wholly one thing? What memory is 100% without a shadow of a doubt absolutely what we recall? (Assuming we recall it at all, which is increasingly my problem.) Given that, it’s strange that gray isn’t our evolutionary default . . . but it doesn’t seem to be. We don’t seem to default toward complexity as our starting point, as our basic understanding of things. Our brain evolved toward the creation of basic categories and our quick judgments toss things and people into the biggest possible box. Bird. Black person. Gay person. Cat. Chair. We get befuddled when we encounter the gray and can’t immediately place it. Is that a man or a woman??? Is she black or brown or white or what? What would you call that, a couch or a chair? No really, what would you call it?

Gray also gets right at the heart of my idea about the power of the word and instead of but. “I love you and want you to go out with women friends and it makes me feel insecure and scared.” How different is that from “I love you and want you to go out with women friends but ….”  When we replace the word but with and (which I think we could reasonably do 80-90% of the time) we get closer to the truth, which is usually kind of messy and conflicted. I am against the death penalty. As long as it wasn’t my little daughter who was raped and murdered. Conflicted truth. Before my son came out, I had zero conflict around gay people, and would’ve said that stupid thing, “Some of my best friends are gay.” But then having this appear in my house revealed all kinds of subterranean and previously unexamined thoughts and feelings that I’d absorbed during my ignorant childhood. I’d never had to dig them up before, so I’m grateful I had to do that. Truth, whether it’s some idea of truth ‘out there’ or truth deep inside our minds and hearts, is surely almost never black or white.

So much thought and conversation is black and white. It always kills me in New York when a New Yorker says that X (something that happens elsewhere, by which they usually mean in Texas) just doesn’t happen here. Racism doesn’t happen here. Sexism doesn’t happen here. Homophobia, nope not here. Smart women are all just out and smart and it’s never a problem, no not here in New York, you won’t find that here. Ignorance, that doesn’t happen here. I sit in disbelief when a New Yorker says something like that to me. For the longest time I would get really pissed off and then get loud and equally obnoxious, and usually sarcastic. For the longest time, I collected examples — oh really? So what was that noose someone hung on the black professor’s office door at Columbia, then? Oh really? So how do you explain that gay kid who was beaten within an inch of his life downtown? (The answer was usually something like, “Well, the person who did that wasn’t a New Yorker.”) Then for a long time I felt silent contempt and pity because they were being so stupid and provincial. Now I pause and remember that I too am stupid in my own ways, even if it’s not about this specific thing. We all are at one time or another, about our own things.

I still struggle with black and white responses, and always feel a big relief when I realize what I’ve been doing. For several days in a row, and coming on the heels of my vacation when it was also very hard to keep it up, I skipped doing yoga. Every day it was reasonable: I’d walked 10 miles and was tired. It was a flying day and by the time I had a chance, it was very late. I was rushing to get everything done and didn’t have enough time even to get through half of my must-do list. When a day came around that allowed me to carve out time and return to the mat, I first had my usual old thought: oh well, too late now, I’ve blown it. I pushed myself anyway, changed into my yoga clothes, unrolled the mat in NYC, pulled up a session I’d done before, and it was hard. Oh no! See? I’ve blown it. I’ve lost ground, might as well give up. Thank heavens for gray . . . because I remembered that what mattered was doing yoga, giving myself that discipline, that reward, that movement, that stillness, not that I keep doing more, harder, longer. So I found a session that was at a lower level and that was 30 minutes instead of an hour.

The only gray I’m not really crazy about is gray skies, after a day or two. Otherwise, more gray, more gray, more gray. Happy Saturday, I hope it’s not gray skies where you are (it’s sunny here in NYC), and I hope you have a wonderful weekend planned. xx

not in an obsessional way

Someone my husband knows learned that he had a melanoma on his cheek. Fortunately, it was discovered very quickly and removed, and he is in no real danger. It left me thinking about the fact that the melanoma had been there, growing, getting ready to bloom, before it was discovered. And that left me thinking about the possibility that a cell inside me somewhere just took a left turn. Maybe something has shifted just enough that I am now on a path I’m unaware of. Perhaps some day I will be looking backwards, wondering just how long the thing had been happening and I wasn’t aware of it. And perhaps today is that day, the day it began.

beginnings and endings, arbitrarily picked in an actually seamless experience
beginnings and endings, arbitrarily picked in an actually seamless experience

This could be seen as a really bizarre and probably hypochondriacal concern — an obsession, maybe — and I do know people (*coughmyhusband) who can be that way. I don’t feel any anxiety over it; this is more a curiosity, a fascination with the seamlessness of life. As I sit here typing this on Tuesday afternoon, watching the windy day out my French doors, enjoying the beautiful day, something is being born and something is dying. It’s true within me, it’s true outside me, it’s true everywhere. As I sit here at this moment many families are around the beds of someone dying, maybe someone they dearly love. As I sit here, babies are being born, lives are just getting started on this beautiful spring day.

Perhaps the truck that is going to crash into me just drove off the car lot with a new owner, and he is beginning the [perhaps] very long and circuitous road that will eventually put him at odds with me. Perhaps at the last minute he decides to take a short cut and that last-minute change is what puts him on the road to me.

Perhaps something I wrote and submitted to a contest is floating in the judges’ minds, the piece of writing against which the others are being compared, and as I sit here typing the judges are realizing that my piece is the one that will win the $1500 prize. And perhaps that prize-winning piece will lead me to other publishing opportunities and people enjoy reading my writing enough that my life changes direction. Perhaps that is in the air, in their minds, right at this moment.

Perhaps the guy who is responsible for the triple-washing of the “power greens” (spinach, chard, and kale) I buy had a rough night  because his wife decided to leave him, so he drank too much and wasn’t paying attention, so some of the greens don’t get washed before they’re packaged. Perhaps those unwashed greens make their way to my HEB and are now sitting in my refrigerator. Perhaps they have just a smidge of e. coli and tomorrow my smoothie will be delivering a prolonged bout of misery.

Perhaps his wife decided to leave him because she had fallen in love with someone else, because they had married too young and she just didn’t know herself. Perhaps she married too young because she wanted to get away from home, and perhaps she wanted to get away from home because her father, who had also married too young, drank too much and made her home life hellish. Perhaps her father had married too young because he got his girlfriend pregnant.

Perhaps at the beginning of my prolonged e. coli-induced misery, I run to the bathroom and fall and break my hip. Perhaps I am hospitalized for a long time and my business falters. Perhaps in my prolonged hospitalization with a broken hip I develop pneumonia and the now more-prolonged hospitalization turns out to be the beginning of the end. Perhaps I become so frail I die. 

So perhaps I die because three generations ago a young man somewhere very far away from me got his girlfriend pregnant.

I love this stuff. Of course this pretend storytelling is presented in a linear way, but the reality of it is anything but linear. Lives all around each actor in the chain are affected by the lives around them.  And yet we insist — with great certainty — that we know why you did this thing, why that thing happened. Well, that happened because you weren’t paying attention! Or, that happened because I was distracted by the sun in my eyes! That’s why! That happened, I responded that way, because you were a jerk when you did this other thing. That’s why! And here I sit in apparent great good health and happiness, planning my future with blind belief, completely unaware that the illness that will perhaps kill me has started doing its thing.

It cracks me up, in a not-at-all obsessional way, in a not-at-all gloomy way. Happy Wednesday, everyone. xoxo

oh, and p.s. In the lovely memoir I’m editing, written by a poet, is this wonderful bit by John Keats, which seems somehow appropriate here, and to so many of my posts:

Negative Capability: that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

we’re never one thing

I don’t need to tell you that I’m pretty open. It’s a conscious decision, a carefully-thought-through position. And yet that doesn’t mean I reveal everything, of course. I keep others’ secrets . . . you cannot possibly imagine how hard it was not to reveal that Katie was pregnant, since so many of you were there for us through the last tragic year after we lost Gracie, and since you would ask me, with great kindness off-line, if she was pregnant yet. You were holding such hope, such care, offering prayers and good thoughts, and it was so hard to keep her secret. But it was Katie’s to tell, Katie’s and Trey’s to hold, and so obviously, I kept that secret.

You know I’ve had a cold, wah wah wah I whine about it. Ugh I feel bad. Oy this cold. Yuck it’s so gross. Going to sleep early, thank you NyQuil. But otherwise I’ve been my regular old self, feeling grateful and happy, thinking about things, processing stuff that happens, glorying in the good and trying to make sense of the difficult. It seems I am an open book.

But I’m sad, too. I’m very sad, and feel heartbroken that my son Will keeps himself away from us. I think about him almost all the time. Everything makes me think of him, and especially here at the holidays, as we all gather together, I feel so very sad that he won’t respond to us, that he continues to be a jerk. He’s just right there in NY, we reach out over and over and over, and once in a blue moon he’ll grant me a visitation. Once in a blue moon he’ll respond to Katie. He hurts us over and over, but he is our son and brother, he stays in our heart as the boy we knew and loved, even if he is now a man we barely know. He will forever be my son, he will forever be their brother, but he does not seem to want to be in our family.

2003, the last time we were all together at Christmas. Ten years ago.
2003, the last time we were all together at Christmas. Ten years ago.

Katie wrote so very eloquently about driving to the hospital to deliver Gracie and looking at people in the cars next to them and . . . . well, let me just share her words from her public blog because I can’t possibly do them justice:

As we drove to the hospital the morning of my induction, I tried to look at the faces of the people in the cars around us.  The faces in our car were washed in heartbreak and loss.  It was the worst day in our lives.  What about the car next to us?  What’s happening in their life today?  Did they just lose someone they loved? Did they lose their job? Did a loved one just get a cancer diagnosis?  Are they driving like a maniac because their child is sick?  Everyone is nursing some kind of pain.  Everyone is broken in some way.  Be kind to the people around you.  You never know what their life is like and what your kindness will mean.  Be kind.

And this was on my mind today. Yesterday morning in response to a non-political Facebook post, a friend went political and even after I said I was not taking a political position, this friend continued. To her, it was just an interaction, nothing more and certainly not intended to hurt or upset me. To me, though, I feel fragile and it felt harsh and more than I was up for, although she didn’t know how low I was feeling. I have been sick — very small potatoes, of course, just a cold, but I am alone here and have been wishing someone were here to take care of me and make soup for me.  I am so very grateful that Marnie and Tom are coming from Chicago for the holidays, and Katie is pregnant with our little Oliver, and we will all be together . . . but not with Will. I’ll glow with the joy of being with my wonderful daughters and their wonderful husbands and I will feel the hole that is Will’s absence, and I don’t even expect that we will be allowed to speak to him on Christmas. He certainly won’t call us, and if we call him he won’t answer the phone. It’s very painful to a mother’s heart, and I am always aware of it. Always. When I’m smiling, when I’m laughing, when I’m lost in an experience, when I’m bathing a mama elephant in a river in Sri Lanka, that pain is always there.

And so you interact with me and I’m laughing, I have opinions and things to say, good things happen and I share them with joy, difficult things happen and I try my best to make sense and integrate, ordinary boring time happens and I pass it as you do. We spend time together and I am so damn glad to get to be with you. I have a lot going on, more loving friends than most and more wonderful opportunities than many and a pretty great life. But don’t think that’s the whole story; it isn’t for me, and it isn’t for anyone. As Anne Lamott said, “the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the  emergency ward, and we, who are more or less OK for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people, you bring them juice and graham crackers.”

That is the thing. We are all patients in the emergency ward; maybe not right at this exact moment, but something hurts, there is some unspoken secret, some dark worry, some sharp pain, some unnoticed-by-others silence. Everyone is dealing with something. We just don’t have the spare attention to keep this in mind all the time, and we can’t, really. And we probably shouldn’t, or we wouldn’t ever get anything done, we’d be too busy trying to consider everyone’s everything.

But if you have a moment, it’s always worth remembering that every single person you encounter has something else in their heart and you just may have no idea what they’re dealing with. As Katie said, be kind. As Kurt Vonnegut said, be kind babies. It’s the only real rule. You can never go wrong.

be kind

the totality

icebergIt’s not like I don’t get it — the iceberg as Freudian symbol of the psyche. Yeah, got it, all that submerged stuff that motivates us, and the deeper and deeper and darkerzzzzzz…..

As a metaphor, the iceberg works for other concepts too, and I think about it quite often as I write here (and this is my 1,202nd post, good grief). I am pretty open, obviously, and share my emotional life freely. Well, some of it. I keep a goodly portion private, for myself, and some is private just for particular people in my real life. So even though it seems like I’m an open book (er, iceberg in this story?), there is just SO much more that’s not visible. So much more. Like, most of it.

I have an ex-friend in New York who never could seem to grasp that life is complex. She’d ask me a specific question about some aspect of my life and I’d answer it — not trying to dissemble, or act as if I’d just told her the whole of everything. So she’d ask, I’d answer. And then another time, her question would be slightly different (or my situation would have shifted in some way) so my answer would reflect another bit of the whole truth and she’d say, “But that’s not what you said last time! You said the answer was THIS, but now you’re saying THAT!” It used to drive me mad.  There are very few questions that have narrowly delineated and fixed answers — and when the questions are about people and relationships, wowie. It’s impossible to give a single answer because reality is chunky and amorphous and shifts and some is deep and some is exposed and sometimes things shift but it’s not like this wasn’t true the last time too, GOOD GRIEF. (Hallelujah for friends with complex minds and hearts.)

Which is a long, roundabout way of saying this. Like yours, my life always has so many things happening, and some things are good (and some of those are not ready for sharing) and some things are bad (and some of those are not ready for sharing) and when the time is right to share they will be well-developed, perhaps they’ll have been going on a long time by that point. Last year at the end of October, in the immediate wake of Gracie’s death, I wrote about the farcical nature of language, that life is all there like a sky full of balloons but to start speaking you have to grab one thing and pull it down and try to say that thing . . . but you actually have a sky full of balloons. This is why I often get a deer-in-the-headlights look when someone asks me so how’re you doing? Well, I’m great! And I’m terrified! And I’m lost. And I’m happy. And I’m heartbroken. And I’m busy. And I’m anxious. How am I doing? Can you be more specific? (I mean, I can do the shallow ‘fine’ thing for a small talk chat, of course.)

My post yesterday spoke of a whirlwind of trouble around me and that’s true. Those troubling things swirling around me are true. And those of you who spotted a couple of things and contacted me off-line, oh thank you for that so very much. You were there in the post too, at the bottom, where I peered through those troubles and saw you waving at me from the shore. And then — and this is just so you — you tossed me a rope, too. You sent me love, you offered soup. There are a couple of deeply wonderful things perking along in the background and one day before too long — next month, maybe — they’ll be mine to tell. There are troubles perking along in the background too, of course. And you know? A whole lot of boring crap. 🙂 Because this is life.

combo platters

the classic combination platter at Chuy's. TexMex heaven.
the classic combination platter at Chuy’s. TexMex heaven.

It really cracks me up that my new friends in Austin constantly post images of Peeps on my facebook wall. When I went to one happy hour, the woman who hosted it brought me a package of Peeps. I have a reputation, and it’s obviously well-deserved because I do indeed love Peeps. A manic lot, I love them. And most candy.

And PopTarts. And banjo and bluegrass and yodeling. And the desert. And Funniest Home Videos.

But the thing is, I equally love classical music, and theater in New York City, and Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia and travel to places that are challenging rather than European-easy, and eating whatever kind of unusual-looking food I find in those countries (though I’ve drawn the line at: fried dog in Vietnam, fetal duck eggs and fried spiders in Cambodia, and fried beetles in a bunch of countries). And elegant food, sophisticated food and flavors, and challenging art, and very good poetry and literature, and talking about those things. I’m very keen on both high and low culture (except for literature, I don’t feel like I have enough time to waste reading bad fiction).

You’re this way too, even if the specifics differ. And that’s what makes us so interesting, these weird little quirks. “Seriously, you love Peeps?!” I hear this a lot. And seriously, I do. But you’d miss the boat if you drew conclusions about who I am based on any subset. Ah, ok, Peeps and PopTarts and yodeling and banjo, I’ve got you. No you don’t. Travels off the beaten path, high-concept theater, classical music, PhD, OK, I know you. No you don’t. No, you don’t.

I always get this wrong, but my wrong version is my touchstone. So, incorrectly: one of my daughters was told by a friend in college that the thing she didn’t like about her appearance was the thing that made her unique and wonderful. That’s not what actually happened, but it’s how I remember it and I have remembered it all this time. I have a really huge smile, a gummy smile. I don’t like that, I wish it weren’t so gummy. I always felt self-conscious about it but no one ever mentioned it to me until a dentist in NYC said “Oh, that smile, you know we can fix that for you, those gums.” WHAT?! It’s OK for me to think about it, but to be called out like that and have it so pointedly identified as an aesthetic “problem” left me kind of shocked and gasping. And then I thought fuck you buddy. But anyway, even though I feel self-conscious about my gummy smile, I think my too-large smile is such a central characteristic of mine, maybe one of the main signifiers of me to people who know me. I know high cheekbones and a long neck are seen as beautiful, but I think mine are kind of too high, right under my eyeballs practically, and my neck is too long, but not Modigliani-long enough, just strange long. But all of those things are so characteristic of me, not my more ordinary brown hair, not my ordinary hazel eyes, my ordinary shape. Because how can ordinary differentiate anyone?!

It’s hard to hold complexity in mind, especially because everything and everyone is complex and we just need to get dinner on the table and run to the store and good grief, I’m too busy. You are this, she is that, the situation is this, the plans are the other thing. Boxes, categories, simplicity, necessary to move through the world. But I am aware that what makes me interesting is the quirky fact that I love Peeps and yodeling, while being a person who is all the rest, in love with Moby Dick and Cormac McCarthy and Louise Glück and big questions and deep wondering. Plus Peeps.

Happy April Fool’s Day y’all. I’m glad to know your extraordinary selves.

there is no glass

At the risk of (a) sounding like a cranky old hag, or (b) reminding anyone of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, I still say: there is no glass.

When I was in graduate school, I met a Pakistani poet named Ali who kind of shattered my intellectual life (in the best way). Gosh, in so many ways it’s hard even to remember how I was before I met him. Pre-Ali, I thought cliche referred simply to trite phrases. I just didn’t know that one’s mind could be cliched, that one could be unable to see what the world presented because of a cliched mind that understood the world in pre-digested, pre-delivered ways. I think a lot of people (me, certainly) take the explanation of the world from their parents and just go with it. The explanation provided by school, by peers. By the culture. On occasion, I’d meet someone who thought and saw the world in such a startling way and I was fascinated by them, but I didn’t realize that it was their uncliched mind at work. 

I don’t have a startling mind, at all, and I have to work so so hard to get outside it. I think the character of my mind is to circle, deeper and deeper. One thing I loved from the beginning about my husband was that he did not have a cliched mind. His default stance is to question what is, he receives no expected wisdom without poking at it. (Of course, this can become exhausting, too, to those around him. 🙂 The loneliness of the original thinker, I guess.) But even though I have something of a cliched mind, I do hate cliched phrases. You may remember that my pet-est of pet peeves relates to people who use the CLICHE “I think outside the box” to indicate that they are original thinkers. Oh, the irony that they don’t seem to get.

One cliche that annoys me is the whole construction “the glass is half full.” There is no glass. There is no boundary. I think it’s a crappy metaphor, and the wrong metaphor in some important ways.

This relates back to my “and” post (plucking out the story), but a more apt metaphor — in my opinion, of course — is of a landscape. Most landscapes contain beauty and death; even if you can’t see the death, animals are eating smaller animals, vegetation is dying. Some contain it simultaneously; for example, the brilliant orange and red leaves of autumn are the dying leaves! I think of my life, each moment, like a landscape. It’s all there, the vastness of what’s going on, and some of it I can see and some I can’t. It’s so extraordinarily complex, what’s going on in each moment, so the question that relates to the “glass is half full” idea in this case is where will I rest my eyes? To which pieces will I give importance? Because it’s all there, simultaneously.

My favorite Mister Rogers story (and there are so many) happened when he was a little boy, and was frightened by a news report of a fire in his town that was destroying homes or businesses, I can’t remember. He was so scared by it, and his mother whispered, “But Freddie, look for the helpers, because they’re there.” And it was a transformative moment for him. In the very worst the world has to offer, there is brilliance. During the brutality of the Holocaust, there were helpers who risked their own lives. On a piddling small potatoes scale (what isn’t, compared to the Holocaust!), during the last two brutal months of my life, even as the worst thing happened and Grace died, we were mobbed by love and support, by hundreds of hands holding us up. It didn’t mean that our loss was less tragic, but it did mean that the helpers showed up.

I don’t quite know how to fit that into “the glass is half full” model. It’s just too complex to fit a glass. The world is too complex to fit into a glass, it really requires a landscape, don’t you think?

plucking out the story

If you’ve been reading this blog (or my previous blog) for long, you know that I’m a big believer in the word and. I like it ever so much more than but or or.  My theory is that things in the real true world are connected by ands. This and that are true, not this or that, not this but that. Sure, on occasion the right connector is but  or or, I won’t deny that, but (see!) most often, if you can stop and think about it, and is the way to go. It’s an ‘and’ world.

So basically, the deal is this: the landscape in front of you, and all around you, is full of more stories and information than you can absorb. Hell, we humans can’t even see beyond the light spectrum we have identified. Our rods and cones do a fantastic job, but they only pick up a little bit of the available information. And then when you add all the human bits, the motivations (what is, and what we think is, and what the other people think is), the drives and longings and urges and agendas, well: infinitely complex. And it’s all right there, happening. We want to make sense of it, so we rely on our feeble little minds, and our pet little stories,* and we say “this is what IS.” But the truth is that there are so very many ways we could see and say what IS, versions that completely contradict the story we choose to tell, versions that go with ours but obliquely, and versions that are kind of similar. And then there’s chunking — where we decide to start the story. I start the story where Person X wronged me, so my behavior is merely a response to that. But of course Person X starts the same story at the point where I wronged him or her. Same set of events, wildly different story (cf  Israel and Palestine).

So good grief, what a ramble. What an abstract ramble. Here’s the point, where I’m going. This morning my daughter and son-in-law are going to help me pick up my new couch, and deliver it to my new place. That’s the bare bones ‘fact’ of the morning. And here are just a few of the stories I might tell:

  • Whee! Yippee! I got to buy a new couch, and I’m taking it to my cool new place. Wow, I can’t wait to figure out how to decorate around the unusual piece I’ve picked out.
  • Here I am, starting over again. Relying on my children to help me. What a loser I am, doing this again, at 54 years old.
  • Aren’t I lucky! Even though I am starting over again, I have the money to do it, and I have such wonderful kids who are willing — and even happy to — help me. Boy, somewhere along the way I really did something right.
  • Ah, so much to get done! I have a lot of work right now, thankfully, and I need to stop today and go pick up my new couch. I’m so glad Trey can help me get it moved so I don’t have to spend $75 on delivery, especially since it’s just a couple of blocks from my place.

All those versions are ‘true.’ The difference between the “whee” version and the “loser” version is pretty large, and each story has its own color. Which one will I pluck? Since I’m an and fan, I’m sure I’ll pluck them all at one point or another, depending on how I’m seeing the larger view, and I won’t be wrong, per se, whichever one I’m seeing at any given point.

And: I HAVE A COUCH. Of my very very own. Whee.!?

__________________

*little stories = a topic for another post!

the question of smart

When I was very young, a bookworm from the start, my mother  let me know in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t smart. She was smart, not me, because she had “street smarts” which I would never ever have. I just had “book smarts” which were far inferior. This was something she told me over and over, all the years I lived with her, and while I haven’t even seen her face since 1987, I’d bet a million dollars that if I were to see her again, it wouldn’t take long before she brought this up, if for no other reason than she knows I have a PhD and she’d need to bring me down for it.

So I’ve thought about what “smart” means my whole life, as long as I can remember. I never felt smart, I never felt intelligent, though I knew that I had a head filled with facts since I did read the World Book from entry one to entry last, and the dictionary, and the ChildCrafts, and then I read all those other books too. Worthless, in her estimation, but I had all that stuff in my head, all those facts and all those stories. She kind of left me in fear about it, because I worried what would happen to me if I ever found myself on the street facing something I hadn’t encountered in a book (a bit too literal an interpretation of her comment, obviously). So I started trying to read about everything I might ever encounter, so I could be prepared. I know, for instance, how to save myself if I ever get trapped in quicksand. (And note: I have never ever lived in a place where that is even remotely a possibility.)

I went to college and graduate school for several reasons — some good, some the wrong reasons — but I kept this question of smart in my mind, and studied everyone I encountered. Was she smart? Was he? When I was working with someone who did seem smart to me, I studied them even more closely…..what made her so smart? What was he doing that made me think he wasn’t smart? It quickly became obvious that it had little to do with content. Anyone can acquire content, as long as they have a working memory. Hell, my phone is filled with content, the internet is filled with content, my laptop, chock-full of content. So in one way mother was right: reading and cramming in all that information had nothing to do with being smart. 

What first dawned on me was that smart people can simplify things (Einstein said things should be made as simple as possible, but not more.). The smartest people I ever met were able to cut through all the hugeness of something to find its center, its plain and clear core, and tell me about it.  And not in language-for-morons either, I had to step it up on my end, but the what of it was clearly understood and communicated. I developed a suspicion, then, for obfuscating language and always feel suspicious of people who rely on jargon and especially the Foucaultian post-modern crap that passes for smart. Good god.

But most recently, what I’ve realized is that the question of smart is answered by the word “and.” In a way this idea contradicts the previous paragraph: the previous idea about simplification relies more on exclusion, on “but.” This not that. A short story, a tiny explanation. (That’s actually not what I meant in the previous paragraph but you might have thought so.) The world is actually all connected with ands, and that’s overwhelming to us. This is true AND that is also true, and the combination may be hard to grasp. How can you believe both X and Y, they’re contradictory? What do you mean, everything contains its own shadow? When you ask how I feel about someone and I say “he is driving me crazy and I can’t do it any longer” there are so many other things happening too, so many other points alive simultaneously that seem to contradict. He is driving me crazy and I can’t do it any longer and I love him and need him and get something essential from him. Both are true, both can be true, both exist simultaneously, and it’s just the farcical linear nature of language that forces me pick one to say first. Or it’s just the pulse of the present that makes one more immediate, but the others are still there and still true. I’ve come to know that smart people understand this; smart people can manage the confusing contradictory complexity of the world. Smart people are aware of the basement: I say something, a claim, and actually underneath that claim is a whole world of things, all connected by and s.  (And not for nothing, I think my mother is an idiot. Her world is black or white, with-me-or-against-me, absolute certainty about whatever it is she ‘believes’ in  a given moment. So there. Mother. Not that I’m still thinking about this or anything. 🙂 )

I am physically sick right now and I’ve been living in the shadow world of grief and shock for the last few weeks so I have no idea if this makes any sense, if it’s too abstract and heady, but it makes sense to me. 🙂 It’s Friday? Really? What happened to the week….

the world is weird

I’ve never subscribed to that silly-seeming line about the flapping of a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane on the other side of the world. Whatever it is — you see I care so little about it I don’t even get it right. It essentially simplifies an extraordinarily complex idea into a trite phrase. (Which reminds me of one of my many pet peeves: people who use the cliche “I think outside the box” to say that they’re an original thinker. OH THE IRONY that they never seem to get.)​

Anyway. The world is extraordinarily complex, everything that happens is so multiply-determined that to think about cause and effect can drive you nuts. And since we simply can’t walk around in that state, we resort to the simple explanation: I did this, which made that happen. He said this, which made me do that. And as Occam wanted to theorize, the simplest explanation is better than a complex one. People love that Occam’s Razor line, in the same way the love the butterfly deal, which is also kind of funny to me.​

Something very frightening is going on, relating in part to why I moved my blog and am writing under a pen name. I can’t say much about it, but the only explanation is frightening and incredibly complex — something bad is being made to look like it’s coming from me. Since I know it didn’t come from me, but I look at seemingly-irrefutable evidence to the contrary, I feel terrorized.​ The world is so weird, and for a while now something has been going on and someone has been leaving traces of me, and I just never knew it was happening. No idea. That makes me wonder what else may be happening, what chain of events are linking together that will arrive at my door, meet me as I cross a street, and then I start feeling crazy.

​So I bake some scones. I meet a new friend. I run some errands, clean my house, think about what I know is real. And I acknowledge that the world is weird.

Happy Saturday y’all.​