layers of time

up from his morning nap one day — classic Ilan move, pointing

What a wonderful time I had in Chicago — too short, as always, but filled with all kinds of wonder and happiness. Every morning I got up with Ilan so Marnie and Tom could get a little more sleep; he usually wakes up at 5:15am and is up for two hours and then goes down for a nap, so it was my pure pleasure to take that 2-hour segment of time with him.

I went to Chicago to celebrate Marnie’s 32nd birthday (Friday, March 3) and Ilan’s first birthday (Wednesday, March 8), but I arrived mid-afternoon on March 3, and left mid-morning on March 8 so the celebrations were a bit more formless and leaked into the surrounding days. On Saturday March 4, Tom and Marnie spent the day out on a birthday ramble (their birthday specialty), so I had the whole day with Ilan, all to myself. I was playing music for us, my ‘iphone playlist’ which is just a random assortment of music I love, while Ilan ate his morning snack of goldfish crackers laid out around the perimeter of the coffee table, and this song came on. Richard Harris singing MacArthur Park, remember? From 1968?

As it does for most people, I guess, music jerks me around in time. And suddenly I just saw and felt all the layers of time going on in that moment with Ilan, generations of time, generations of moments and experience. I was simultaneously 9 years old, listening to this song and for some reason feeling how much I loved my dad, living in a terrible house of violence and the impending divorce of my parents; 19 years old, listening to Donna Summer’s great disco version of the song, living secretly in the office where I worked in Austin; in my late 20s, giving my own little kids a snack of goldfish crackers and watching them be my beamish little ones; and 58 years old, watching my littlest grandson do the same thing and being my daughter’s (and my) beamish little one. All those layers, all those moments, all those very similar experiences, all felt by me in that one light-filled moment. It made me cry, and it made me so grateful to be my very age, able to hold all that life and world together.

One of the hundreds of most-wonderful things about Ilan is how much he loves the Feist song, 1234. (I think Oliver loved it so much too — what is it about this song?)

He just couldn’t believe it.

Marnie got Ilan a small handheld bluetooth speaker of his own, and when she plays this song he just holds the speaker and stares at it with an extraordinary expression. He’ll glance up at her, and at me, and at whoever is in the room, with an expression I can’t exactly name but I know it completely.

Of course he’s one, and being one you put everything in your mouth at some point, but there were times he was holding the speaker and listening to a song, and he put it in his mouth and I thought he was really wanting the music to be inside him as much as anything else. I thought about this great story that Maurice Sendak told:

Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

I remain filled with all the wonder of my time in Chicago, the hours I got to spend with Ilan, the hours spent with Marnie, talking, and the evenings with Marnie and Tom over dinner. And I’m always grateful for those brief moments of seeing how time and life work together, and it’s all right there inside you all the time, waiting for something to break through so you can see it.

prescriptive v. descriptive

Do you know that distinction, prescriptive vs descriptive? It’s easy to figure out from the words themselves, but here’s what it means. It’s ordinarily used by linguists (or philosophers), so I’ll use a language example. Bear with me for just this paragraph and then I’ll get to my point. People who are prescriptive lay down and rigidly follow a set of rules. A prescription: language is this. Grammar is this. This is right, and this is wrong, even if it’s how people actually speak. People who are descriptive take the other approach. Language is a living thing, and it grows and changes and so must the rules. As for me, despite the Facebook jokes people share on my wall reflecting their assumption that since I’m an editor I must be a grammar Nazi, I’d call myself a made-up word: claritive. My goals about language usage focus on clarity of expression, both for the writer who is trying to communicate something, and for the reader who is trying to understand something. (Doesn’t mean it’ll work of course.) The rules are very important to the degree they promote clarity, and the fact is that most of them do. That’s why they have developed as rules. And writers break the rules all the time (it’s called style!). If the rules were rigidly applied, voices would be squashed and lost.

But my post is not about grammar and language, I just used those examples to make the terms clear if they were unfamiliar to you. This is the point of my post: my intention with the things I write about on my blog is not a prescriptive one. When I find something I like, or discover something that works really well for me, or make some kind of change that is transformative in some way, big or small, my point is not a prescriptive one. “You should do yoga!! Do it now!” Instead, my point is always a descriptive one. This is my experience. I have found this thing and it has been good for me. This thing has helped me make the change I’ve been trying to make, it really worked for me.

Over the last couple of  years, I’ve been discovering the ways I have been wrong about myself, things I was absolutely certain of but they simply weren’t true, they were old ideas I clung to and often not even my own ideas about myself! But boy was I certain. I’d argue with you about them until you gave up — but you would never be convinced, because you knew me. This, along with other experiences, has pushed me away from my old prescriptive, rigid, absolute ways. And anyway, what do I know about what’s good for you? BUPKIS! I barely know what’s good for me! I know a lot more than I used to, but my life and I are a work in progress.


And so I share my experience of things here. I share the wonderful consequences of new things I try, and I may even say “Do yoga!” but even that is meant lightly. What I mean, always, is that this thing works for me/makes me happy/has had good consequences for me. I try to say more, to move into the larger thing at hand, and lots of times people have contacted me saying that I articulated something for them that they hadn’t exactly known. That always makes me feel so good, because I love it when happens for me. That’s why I read novels and poetry — poetry especially. So if in articulating my own experience I say something that helps you see some little shard of it for yourself, that’s great! What you do with that is your deal, not mine.

This post is not brought about because someone said something. (Maybe they felt it, like Lori, good grief, quit telling me what to do!) Instead, it’s just a reflection I had when I was thinking once again about why I write here. As far as I can tell, this is a common experience for bloggers, because it can feel like a narcissistic endeavor if you write personal material. Who in the world cares what I have to say? Do I think people would actually be interested in my little quiet life? My answer to those questions is always the same. I write to have the pleasure of expressing myself in words and to figure things out, and I write so maybe you won’t feel alone. Maybe something I say resonates with something in you, especially if it’s something you don’t quite understand or something you feel alone with, like you’re the only one who. No you’re not. If you’re interested you are, and if you’re not you’re not. I’m just going to keep writing.

And I swear I am not being bossy.

empathy v sympathy

empathyFor the longest time I thought I knew what empathy meant.  I’m a smart person, I feel things deeply and connect to others, and I’m a psychologist for heaven’s sake. And I always thought I was a very empathetic person. (I still do, I’m not throwing the baby out, but….) Then I was reading some Buddhist-focused article, maybe something from Elephant Journal, can’t remember, and it said this:

Empathy is not putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining what you would feel. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and understanding what they are feeling.

You know, I’d never really understood that! Did you? It sounds like a small thing but it’s a huge thing. One little word, a universe of difference.

And taking it as a given that all we can do is rely on our best guess of what they are feeling because we can’t actually know, that shifts the game — for me, anyway. I can think of a couple of times someone did this for me and it felt like all the spotlights in the world turned their warmth on me. YES, I thought, yes. Yes, that is how I am feeling and why this hurts me so much. Why it is so painful for me specifically. Because understanding that moment means they understand me.

I think we often — I often — mistake empathy for sympathy. Oh, I know how much that hurts, you poor thing, I am so sorry. That’s not empathy! It’s sympathy, which is lovely and comforting, and perhaps compassion. And sometimes we go beyond, to show the person that we really do understand because a similar thing happened to us too. Oh, I know how much that hurts, I felt the same way when I lost my job. The intent is a good one, to show that it’s not just idle sympathy but born of a shared experience, but that’s actually turning even farther away from empathy.

People need both, I think. And maybe there are times when they need one more than the other. But in my experience, sympathy provides a bit of comfort, a feeling that I’m not all alone, but I am still alone with it myself in some way. Empathy goes so far beyond and embraces me, lost inside the experience.

Reading that definition hurt me because it made me see how rarely I actually offer empathy. I’d thought of myself as an empathetic person, but I have been a sympathetic person. There are worse things, obviously! But having experienced empathy myself, that’s where I want to be when someone I love is hurt.

Y’all have a nice Saturday! It’s a day of food shopping, working, and making myself a yummy dinner. This, I think, minus the soju. (Or maybe the soju minus the alcohol.) Smiles and waves from Austin — xo

oh the humanity

humanLately I have been thinking about the things I struggle with that are deep and ongoing — not momentary struggles, not struggles that will resolve in one way or another, but those that are woven into me as a human being:

      • despair
      • unkind thoughts
      • clutching
      • envy
      • unwillingness to be fully honest or trust
      • despair (opening and closing the list with that one)

There are other struggles too, everything that rustles around inside every one of you, but these are the ones I continue to deal with. Perhaps it’s just the inevitable B-side of my easy joy, or perhaps it’s the stain in my spirit left over from the early years of my life, but despair always kinds of bubbles at a very very low simmer on the back burner. Most days I don’t know it’s there, but in the quiet, in the dark, if I listen— even on my best days—I hear the little bubbles popping around the edge of the pot. It can rise up in me very quickly and swamp me. I’d like for that not to be true, but I am 55 and have come to understand it as part of my particular emotional DNA. OK, so I have despair in the mix a little more than other people. I’ve learned that it’s pointless to pretend it’s not there; I’ve learned to just sit with it, to float in it instead of listening to it too closely, and I’ve also learned that it’s just one pot on my crowded stove, the small one, and the big stockpot at the front is still there bubbling away, always ready for me to take a sip.

The others are my particular ongoing issues, and my point here isn’t to talk about each one of them. Instead, I’ve been thinking about people I know who present themselves (usually loudly) as not having these human problems. And I have a couple of thoughts on that.

1) Of course they do. I think whatever is human is in us all, period. I dated a Pakistani poet named Ali when I was in graduate school. His father had been ambassador to Indonesia and in some way he fell out of favor with his own government and had everything taken away from him. He died of a heart attack — Ali assumed it was from the terrible stresses he was under. Ali’s mother was then left alone with seven children, and they were always hungry, always. He wrote a beautiful poem about seven grains of rice that haunts me still. He once told me that morality is the privilege of having enough to eat, and I do believe that. If I were starving to death, if my children were starving to death, would I steal? I already know the answer to that — I was always hungry in high school when I didn’t have a home, and I stole food from a convenience store nearly every morning. A small carton of milk and a cinnamon bun, every morning. And I wasn’t starving to death, though I was a young teenager with no home and money. I had no compunction about stealing. I would kill anyone without thinking twice if they were seriously threatening to harm anyone I love. Gunshot to the head, if I had a gun, no second thoughts. Easy. I am not a thief or a murderer, but perhaps that’s just because I haven’t been put in that spot yet.

All the human failings, every single one, live in me. Some have never really burned my spirit — greed, for instance, hasn’t been a big struggle of mine at any point in my life, but it lives in me. Sloth, I can go there. Gluttony, have you seen me in front of donuts?! But I don’t struggle with that too terribly. I think it all lives inside all of us because we are human beings, and it’s just a matter of the degree and the situation. We may have thought about it for a long time, we may have worked with it, we may have a moral code that draws such strict borders around it that it feels closed off and secure, though I still believe that there could be a circumstance that lit the kindling and we would all be capable of nearly anything. Because we are human beings.

2) It’s just fear of self-presentation. I’m not saying that everyone should go around spouting off their struggles, talking about these less-noble aspects of themselves, confessing their embarrassing bits. And in my experience, the people I’m thinking about just straight-up come at me with their “Oh no, I have it ALL together” presentation, sometimes out of the blue. After a decade in New York, in Freudian psychoanalytically minded New York, my first thought is always along the Shakespearean lines of ooh, she doth protest too much. If she needs to make such a loud unbidden point about how nearly perfect she is — either in general, or on a particular human point — then I’d be pretty safe betting my wallet full of dollars that she is actually riddled with the thing. Sick with it. Maybe they feel too vulnerable, and maybe the vulnerability is so powerful that they have to keep convincing themselves, it’s not just about convincing me. Maybe they have some need to believe that they don’t have these human struggles, now or perhaps anymore.

For me, there is value in being willing to acknowledge the whole package, even the shadier bits. It’s real, for one thing, and I’ve learned this about the little pot of despair on that back burner: the farther away I get from being real, the higher the flame gets turned up on that little pot and the harder it is to stay away from it. Allowing myself to be as real as I can be doesn’t take the pot off the stove, but it keeps it on the lowest flame. Whenever I get glossy and shiny and start to act like I have it all worked out and have no problems, that pot boils over and I get burned. For me, friends who can talk about their real existence, the fullness of it, are the people I trust and love. Not that they reveal their secrets, of course, but rather that they are willing to be whole with me. When I talk about a struggle, they understand because they struggle too, not that they used to do that but now they’re perfect and it never happens to them, no sirree Bob, not ever not no-how. They may have learned a thing or two and can share that with me, but they get the human way of being.

But of course this is a focus on the shadier bits, and mercifully they’re not the whole scene. Mercifully there is all the rest — the glories of being human, the possibilities of connecting, the joys of blue skies and puffy white clouds and laughing and grandsons and bathing pregnant elephants in rivers. Mercifully hard times pass and if you’re lucky you got something out of them that helps you, grows you, makes it easier for you to connect to others. Mercifully joy is a human condition, gratitude, contentment, excitement, meaning, connection, even bliss. I have a HUGE stove.

Thank you to those of you who share your real selves with me in any way. And thank you to those of you who stick with me as I look at the shady bits in my life. xo

so touched by the human condition (+)

I was watching a PBS show called “On Story,” where entertainment creators talk about their process. The particular episode I watched was about making comedy work, so it was writers of Seinfeld and Freaks & Geeks and Curb Your Enthusiasm talking about how they made their stories work, and what worked of the stories their writers brought. Inevitably, they said, what worked were the concepts that were from someone’s real life. And then Alec Berg, a writer for Seinfeld, said that even in the emergency room, there’s someone trying to make a joke, trying to make the situation lighter. And that just touched me so much. Because it’s what we do, isn’t it? Someone tries to help, someone tries so hard to remind the suffering people of other things, to distract them. And isn’t that so dear? Too many times there is little or nothing to do to help someone, and we all know the agony we feel when we face that, our inability to help. So our hearts reach out, we do these little things, these tiny little connections, because we long to ease another’s suffering. 

None of us gets out of this alive. We suffer. Terrible things happen to us, and we try so damn hard. We slip and fall, trouble finds us when we’re minding our own business, we betray ourselves, we do shameful things out of our own pain, we have dread secrets we hope no one discovers. But we try, so hard. We want good things for ourselves, we want good things for other people. We think we’re not such good people, but really we are.

And story shows us who we are, even if it’s stretched out pretty far. I’ve always thought that Tolkein’s trilogy was really the story of Sam’s faithfulness, his loyalty to Frodo, come what may. The beauty of that part of the story always reaches me, no matter how many times I read the books. The Wizard of Oz, about our deep misunderstanding of ourselves, that we go in search of what we had all along; we think we’re stupid so we want diplomas, but we were always smart, all along. (OK, that was kind of personal there.) We’re not here for very long; we appear and disappear, and flail our way through this life trying to make our stand, leave our mark, express ourselves — and isn’t that the tenderest thing there is? How can you feel anything but tender toward us?

There are terrible people — this isn’t to deny that there are terrible people. There are people who scheme, and who just want to stir up trouble, and people who have no conscience or qualms about destroying others. That’s true too, of course. But in a way doesn’t that make the rest even more precious?

I’ve got a bunch of stuff to share, some links and a poem, so hop to it:

And finally, Temma sent me this poem that someone shared in her poetry group meeting last night. She knew what it would mean to me, and to be honest, it’s so hard for me to read because it breaks my broken heart so so much. But it’s so true, so I save it here, and share it in case you like it too.

Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied (Edna St Vincent Millay)

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied  

Who told me time would ease me of my pain!  

I miss him in the weeping of the rain;  

I want him at the shrinking of the tide;

The old snows melt from every mountain-side,  

And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;  

But last year’s bitter loving must remain

Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.  

There are a hundred places where I fear  

To go,—so with his memory they brim.  

And entering with relief some quiet place  

Where never fell his foot or shone his face  

I say, “There is no memory of him here!”  

And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

Happy Thursday y’all. Be really good to someone today.

good thing of the day: blue skies! beautiful, beautiful blue skies, never to be taken for granted — and days of rain help me remember that.

life as a road

Yesterday was such a lovely day in my life. I worked most of the day, but took time out to run over to Katie’s to pick up my guitar and drop off some stuff, and Katie and Trey and I went to lunch together. Since the place we had lunch was relatively near my house, I just took my car to the restaurant, so I could head home and get back to work.

Of course in the car I listened to music, and well, music is the killer — or the savior, it depends. And I’m still just so labile and easily affected by things. I’ve always joked about my easy crying by saying that I cry when the wind changes directions and comes out of the south. It’s kind of true. Still, I’m usually not as all over the place emotionally as I am right now. I can see that I’m getting better, stabler, more OK, but I can still be moved to tears between breaths. In the car going to the restaurant, it was a one-two punch, then a one-two-three fancy move, then a one-two-three-four, as one song after another moved me around.

My sweet little Prius is outfitted with bluetooth so it streams music from my phone, which has just one playlist of my favorite songs of all time (282 of them….actually, there are more than that in my “favorite songs of all time” category, but that’s how many are on the phone). So I’m driving along under the gray, overcast skies we have today as the cold front* moves in, and BAM! A song I listened to over and over when Marc and I were falling in love. I sang along and bore it as long as I could, then I clicked next and WHAM! Riders in the Sky, singing “Texas Plains” and I busted out laughing and started practicing yodeling.** I let that one play to the end, and the next was Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which happens to be my song. I had an enormous insight a few years ago, listening to that song, that led me to a New York City tattoo parlor to get the Chinese character for hope tattooed at the bottom of my spine, underneath all the others. So I was crying, listening to that song. Then Spice Girls (shut UP) “Say You’ll Be There” which always makes me laugh hysterically and feel so happy I can hardly bear it. See what I mean? Isn’t that exhausting?? There were a few more, and they didn’t all alternate back and forth between laughing and crying songs, but they kinda did. Anyone watching me would think I was nuts.

One of the songs that played reminded me powerfully of an earlier time in my life (all of them are strongly associated with times of my life, that’s why they’re on the list) and it made me think of the road of my life. How it was being newly married at 21, how that felt, and who I was. How it felt holding my little baby Katie, who I was and how that felt, and how I understood my life to that point. Marnie. Will. College, so much music associated with that period. Always I’m trying so hard, changing and growing, trying to be squarely in it and often failing. Graduate school, who I was then and what it felt like to be me, undergoing a number of big transformations. Moving to Rochester, then to New Jersey, then to Manhattan to live with and marry Marc. And who I was then, and how it felt to be me, and what I understood of my life. A year ago yesterday, Marc began his 6-month hellish treatment; we’d just returned from Vietnam, Malaysia, and Borneo, and the end did not feel so near.

It isn’t that in any moment I think this is it, my life; of course I’m always aware it continues on into the future (at least, I hope it does!) and I have all kinds of thoughts and hopes and worries about that projection. But in yesterday’s experience of looking back at each of those landmarks, I had a sudden gift of insight about the whole of my life, and who I’ve always been, and how it has been to be me. And in that moment of insight, I felt like I’d landed so very softly on the top of a hill. George Orwell said that at 50, every man has the face he deserves. I like the face I’ve earned at this point; it has a softness, and my eyes are soft even though they’ve watched the fire and led me through it. 

So, to my asterisks:

* the “cold front” — yeah, today the high is going to be 52, after last week in the 80s. We’re even dipping down toward freezing tomorrow night! The last freezing day here in Austin was Feb 12.

** that’s right, I’m practicing yodeling. I’ve always wanted to yodel, but never had the necessary privacy to do the practicing. One of these days I’ll be the yodeling queen of the pillbugs! Whee!

“little stories”

This is an idea I’ve had for such a long time, I don’t even remember how it came to me. I’ve always called it “little stories,” and on occasion that name has backfired, because people think I’m being dismissive when I say “it’s one of your ‘little stories.'” But it’s not at all dismissive….I think we all operate in the world with our handy set of little stories we use to make sense of the world. I mentioned and footnoted this in my post about the importance of “and,” if you recall.

So, to start with an example, one of my pet “little stories” is of abandonment. It’s a template, of sorts, a framework I overlay on experience whether it fits or not — usually it’s at least a partial fit, though I’ve been known to pull out my mallet and bang that sucker onto an experience that’s not at all a good fit. It’s funny how we do that. I’ll make up a scene in which I’d apply my abandonment little story. Let’s say a difficult situation is happening….oh, I don’t know, someone starts stalking me. Not only that, she is stalking me and making it look like I am doing something….the way crazy stalker women can be, right? This is the situation that caused me to have to abandon my long-running other blog and start this one. Then let’s say you’re my husband, and instead of taking my side and assuming crazy stalker woman is doing something, you accuse me! Let’s make it as extreme as we can, and say that it surely looks that way. She is GOOD. So you’re my husband, and despite being married to me, you side with her and assume I am guilty.

Some people might just take on the husband and argue the point, but I pull out my handy abandonment story and overlay it onto the scene: Ah! You’re abandoning me. There it is again, when push comes to shove I am abandoned. DONE. See? I knew it all along.

That’s a pretty big “little story,” but we have them of all sizes. If you just stop and listen to yourself, you’ll hear your own little stories coming up again and again. One might be that there’s always a jerk who ruins things. Every job might be great if not for that one jerk who always ruins things. At OUP, I worked with two jerks who ruined things — evil Catherine and evil Marie-Claire. (Coincidentally, there were two Catherines, and two Marie-Claires! One of each was very sweet, and one of each was just horrible. Jerks.) There might be so many ways to understand the situation, but I hauled out my “jerk” little story and applied it. It helped me a lot! Ah…..the jerk who always ruins things, I get it.

We have better little stories too — “people come through when you least expect them;” “tiny little touches save the day;” things like that. I have a lot of those.

The most important thing about our little stories is noticing them, and then deciding if they serve us. What do I get from constantly applying my abandonment little story? Well, I get evidence that I’m right, and who doesn’t like that. 🙂 But the bigger point is that seeing the many times I’m right about abandonment lets me remember that I’d better be watchful, because this happens all the time. Over and over, see? Better stay watchful! It might be just about to happen…..yikes!  The obvious problem is that the story is stale, and stuck. It ignores all the other bits, like the way I participate in the scene. That one, in particular, keeps me as the abandoned victim. It’s probably not true all that often, so if I stop and wonder if the abandonment little story even makes sense, maybe I can change a whole lot more than just my pet little story.

You really have to pay attention and listen to yourself, though you probably already know the things you say over and over again. You hear yourself thinking, “this again?” Or you just have a little niggling awareness of feeling something over and over, of wondering why something always happens to you. It’s probably one of your little stories, though it may not feel that way at first blush. Until you get some space to think about it, you may get defensive — “nuh uh! These things just really do happen to me! It’s not a story, you jerk!”  And I’ll just nod and smile, and wonder if “jerk” is one of your little stories. 🙂

Today Katie and I are going out shopping for my living room, so by the end of the day, I hope my living room is in better shape. It’s going to be a good day….one of my most hopeful little stories.