the quotidian grist

the icon for the app

I’m participating in a scientific experiment about happiness — you can, too, by downloading the app for your phone (click that link). A set number of times throughout the day you get a little ping and respond to a number of questions — where are you, what are you doing, are you alone, are you productive, have you exercised in the last 24 hours, have you spent money, etc — quick and simple. Sometimes it’s frustrating, because I want to provide context (I’m very unhappy because of politics!), but at the same time given my own research in graduate school, I know that context isn’t as important to a great many questions as we think it is. Track Your Happiness was created as part of Matt Killingsworth’s doctoral research at Harvard University, and the project was approved by the Harvard University Committee for the Use of Human Subjects.

Of course, and especially when I’m in Austin, my days are extremely small, quiet, and routine. I’m mostly at home, with brief forays to see my daughter and grandkids, or to an occasional lunch or happy hour with a friend, or to a book club meeting. A daily walk. A daily yoga class. Meal preparation. Make the bed, pull back the bed. Clean the kitchen. Get the mail. Work, if I have work. It’s a very tiny little life in Austin, quiet and inward, and for the most part I love it. But it’s also true that participating in this study has made me even more keenly aware of this because it asks me specifically to move this slide before I say anything else:

I’m glad it’s not a 5- or 7-point scale, but when I’m walking through the house, or knitting, or drinking a cup of coffee, or making a shopping list, HOW DO I FEEL at that moment? Ordinarily, before this nightmarish election, my base state was happy; since the election my base state has not been happy at all, it has ranged from full-on despair to fear to panic, and the app doesn’t let me indicate that at all. Still, when I make that rating I try to think about what I’m doing in that moment and how it makes me feel. It has had the effect of focusing me in the present a little more, which has been good. Because while my background state might be panic, when I’m holding Lucy (and getting puked on, because those are synonymous), I’m very happy. When I watching Oliver be Oliver, I’m very happy. When I’m taking my walk, or doing yoga, I’m content and I feel good.

That’s it, that’s really what makes happiness. Making a really good cup of coffee. Knitting a pair of fuchsia socks out of the softest wool, and seeing the fabric appear before your eyes. Reading a really good book. Talking to someone you love. Being called on when someone is in need, and being able to be there — oh, that’s just the best joy, note to self to remember that when I am in need. Spending a day that comprised dozens of those unremarkable moments. The remarkable times speak for themselves, carry their own emphasis, and don’t need any help being noticed. When I’m in New York City and going to MoMA, or marching in a protest, or walking in Riverside Park, or any of the zillions of remarkable things there are to do, I note them and appreciate them and they’re the tell-worthy experiences of my life: “Guess what I did today! It was such fun!”

Even in this awful time, when we are witnessing the destruction of our country by a political party that is willing to burn everything down, knitting with soft fuschia wool is beautiful. Getting puked on by your roly-poly, happy, red-headed granddaughter is beautiful. Running errands on a sunny day and getting shit done, beautiful. Waking up in your own wonderful bed, running your feet over the soft, cool sheets, listening to the mockingbird in the backyard tree, stretching and getting up to make a pot of strong, rich coffee, that’s a whole lot of happiness right there.

Happy Saturday y’all. If you’re interested, download the app! “Track Your Happiness” for iPhone and Android, both. xoxoxo

 

Another happy birthday for me

Where I started. Graham Texas, Thursday, 11/6/58. Someone really should've put a blanket over me!
Where I started. Graham, TX, Thursday, 11/6/58. Someone really should’ve put a blanket over me!

 

This was such a spectacular year in my life, it boggles my mind. How can my life just keep getting better and better? And yet it does. These aren’t the best pictures from my year, or of each place, but they’re the ones I labeled “happy Lori” when I filed them away; this year,

 

We went back to Vietnam, and to a tiny fishing village on the coast of Thailand.

happy me, in Tam Coc
happy me, in Tam Coc Vietnam, in one of my favorite places: on a little boat in a gorgeous landscape

We went to southern China.

happy me, in the countryside around Yangshuo
happy me, in the countryside around Yangshuo — I was drunk on those karst mountains, man.

We went to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

happy, flying around Manistique Lake
happy, flying around Manistique Lake, getting to be part of a place that was important in Marc’s life.

Next week we’re off to Laos again, and back to that same tiny fishing village in Thailand.….so only the happy anticipation of that trip properly belongs with this year of my life.

My family grew so much this year!

Last Christmas, with my daughters and their families. We already knew Ilan was coming (obviously, look at Marnie!), but we didn't know Lucy would be coming, too.
Last Christmas, with my daughters and their families. We already knew Ilan was coming (obviously, look at Marnie!), but we didn’t know Lucy would be coming, too.

My grandson Ilan was born in March, and I got to be with Marnie and Tom in Chicago for a month, to welcome him to the world and to take care of their sweet family. Tom reached out to me this year in a way I will never, ever, ever forget (my eyes instantly fill with the hottest tears every time I think about it), and Marnie’s regular weekly phone calls to me are an ongoing treasure, more than she knows.

happy Pete, during a very quiet morning in the first couple of days of Ilan's life
happy Pete, during a very quiet morning in the first couple of days of Ilan’s life
And I got to go back and see him again when he was a few months old. ADORE.
And I got to go back and see him again when he was a few months old. ADORE.

My granddaughter Lucy was born in Austin in September, and I got to stay with sweet Oliver so Katie and Trey didn’t have to worry about any of that, and then I got to welcome Lucy home. The easy chances I have to see Katie, opportunities to spend time with her (which I love, she’s so sweet and funny and smart), opportunities to help out a little and be their regular old Pete, those moments are the real stuff of life and are a big glory in my heart.

so happy to hold my sweet little Lucy girl
so happy to hold my sweet little Lucy girl, applet of my eye
so happy dancing with Oliver, and swimming, and walking our very slow walks together
so happy dancing with Oliver, and swimming, and walking our very slow walks together, and listening to him call me Pete.

The BEST Halloween costumes — their mamas are so creative.

I got to cast my vote for a woman, for president. Two heroes entered my psychological world this year: Hillary, for the way she just keeps moving forward, she never gives up EVER, you knock her down and she gets right back up, ready to work as she has for at least 30 years; and John Lewis for his quiet persistence for 40 years. When I feel like giving up, I always think of them both, now. This year they joined Mister Rogers in my own personal pantheon.

happy and crying, my steady companion combo
happy and crying, my steady companion combo, but especially present as I voted.

I read so many wonderful books this year; especially, I found Vivian Gornick, Lidia Yuknavitch, Irene Nemirovsky, and Lucia Berlin, new favorites; Nemirovsky died in the Holocaust and Berlin is also gone, so I can only cherish the books they left behind — but Gornick and Yuknavitch (the latter most especially) are still writing, and on my forever watch list, now. My beloved poetry group continued meeting at my place throughout the year, and they shared so much extraordinary poetry with me, and taught me so many things I can never repay them. Our monthly meetings focused simply on reading and talking about poetry, all of us hyper-thrilled about that, what a pinch-me gift, man.

I spent time with so many beautiful friends in Austin and New York — and made new friends, too, an ongoing source of joy, to make new friends at this stage of my life. I’m so lucky to have friends who take me as I am. And I’m also lucky to have friends all over the world (shouting out especially to my antipodean beloveds, whose love I feel this far away, but also to friends in England and France and Canada. I fear this makes me seem like an extremely old person going on and on about these new-fangled devices called telephones, but I was once again blown away by Laura, calling me from Perth to sing Happy Birthday to me).

I’m always shy about getting a picture of us together, and I don’t know why — I so love having your pictures.

cindy
getting mehndi with my Cindy; I thought about using the photo of us celebrating my birthday together, but I liked the rhyme of “mehndi with my Cindy.”
don
my darling, precious friend Don, who calls himself (and is, in my life) my Jewish father.
girls
A subset of the “book club” women, my dear friends. Some are missing from this picture, (Anne, Diane, Jen….) but always with me otherwise.
nancy
Nancy, my boon companion and quirt-wielder and I don’t know what I’d do without her.
sherlock
Sherlock, one of my oldest, dearest friends. I wish I had a picture with Peggy.

This year I tried oysters and now cannot get enough. If I had a million dollars I would eat a million oysters. Thanks, Sherlock, for showing me how to eat them. And thanks, Nancy, for eating them with me too.

from the first batch, eaten with Sherlock
the first dozen, eaten with Sherlock
Also, I kept eating donuts. Because OBVIOUSLY.
Also, I kept eating donuts. Because OBVIOUSLY.
Marc's surprise for my early birthday celebration. He knows me. :)
Marc’s surprise for my early birthday celebration. 🙂
I got to make lots of delicious food for loved ones throughout the year, and even when the cake stuck, it was still MIGHTY GOOD.
I got to make lots of delicious food for loved ones throughout the year, and even when the cake stuck, it was still MIGHTY GOOD.

I went back and forth to New York City, and while that’s also quite hard and wearing, I never fail to also feel so lucky, like I get the best of two very different worlds. Marc and I continue to find our way to make things work for us, and I’m so grateful for that. When I’m in Austin, his morning texts start my day off with great joy (and usually mystery), and when I’m in NYC I delight in his delight in making food for me, and in the way he always takes my hand. We both grew this year in ways that were good for us individually, and definitely that were good for us together. Would I have dreamed any of this was possible in late 2012? NO. Even though I love every gritty, urban street and curb and subway platform (well, almost), I never get tired of walking in Riverside Park, ever.

park-snow
my beautiful park during the epic snowstorm
parksummer
and on any day in the spring, summer, or fall
Marc and I walk in the park every day, at least once
Marc and I walk in the park every day, at least once

I survived a few very hard things — in largest part because of my own strength, forged and honed over my 58 years of sometimes-difficult life, and in critical part because I have the best friends, who check on me all the time, like Dixie inevitably does and always at the right moment; who say my name to me over and over when I’m lost, like Nancy did when I was despairing one night; who call me darling, like Anne does when I’m in deep need; who sit next to me at parties or anywhere else when I’m barely there and help me through, like Lynn did at a big happy birthday party; who reach their hands out to me in ways immediate and virtual (oh gosh, all of you), and who also laugh with me, and share themselves, which is my favorite thing. The violent reappearance of my brother, after decades, and with scary threats, was probably my worst trouble this year, in ways most people can’t understand. That one nearly done the old girl in…..but I’m still here, blowing and going. And speaking of that, a book was dedicated to me this year:

I cry no matter how many times I read it.
I cry no matter how many times I read it.

I didn’t have nearly enough work all year; another year has passed without my son, an ongoing pain I’m not always sure I can bear; I caught the flu a couple of times, the worst on our terribly long travel day from Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok to Trat to Mairood; the Republican candidate for president has left me feeling terrorized all year and I am praying so hard that goodness prevails; and as stressful as those things might be in moments, they pale in comparison to all the rest. Yep, being 57 was amazing. I’m the luckiest person in the whole world, with the best life, far better than I ever dreamed it could be, it would be.

Fifty-eight. Amazing.
Fifty-eight. Amazing.

Let me tell you this. It’s really a privilege getting to be 58. I’m proud of it! It’s a privilege to have lived so many years, to have seen the wonders and survived the pain; it’s a privilege to learn and grow; it’s a privilege to soften and open. My hair has more bright silver in it — so beautiful! Why would I want to pretend that isn’t true? When I smile, now, you can see the evidence of all the years I’ve smiled. My skin is changing, my memory isn’t the same, and that’s OK because it’s part of it, and I’m grateful to have the chance to have every part of it, every last bit.

Thank you for being in my life with me, in whatever form you’re here. Thank you for the words, the touches, the drinks and breakfasts and lunches and dinners, the happy hours, the notes, the calls, the many, many ways you hold our connection. Your presence, your words, your friendship, and your faithfulness mean the world to me, and I count myself so lucky to you know. Happy birthday to me, and now on to the next! oxoxoxoxox

I’m satisficed

satisficerThat’s not a typo in the post title — it refers to my stance as a satisficer. According to psych research, one is a satisficer or a maximizer. When you’re trying to make a decision, what is important to you? Being sure you get the VERY BEST option, or being happy enough with what you pick?

Here’s a real-life example of this. My husband and I eat dinner at a neighborhood diner in NYC on the nights he finishes working around 10PM. If you’ve ever been to a NY diner, you know that their menus can be huge. Here’s how we approach deciding what to eat:

ME: I start with the section I’m most likely interested in — let’s say salads. I read the first option on the list, then the second. Which of the two do I want? Then I take that option and compare it to the next one on the list, which of those do I want? With a series of pairwise comparisons, I end up with the one I’m most interested in from that section. (And actually, if I pick the same one two or three times in a row, I figure that one must be the one I’m wanting so I don’t even read the whole list.) I’m satisfied! It’ll be good, I’m done. And if I don’t know what I want, I do this same exercise with the sections first. Sandwiches vs salads — ok, a salad. Salads vs the daily special — ok, still a salad. Salads vs burgers — ok, still a salad. Then the pairwise comparisons within that section, and I’m done. I’ll be happy with my salad, because it’s just dinnerIt’s just a salad. It doesn’t have to be the most amazing meal I’ve ever experienced. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be the most amazing salad I’ve ever had!

MY HUSBANDHe begins at the top of the menu and reads every single item on the menu, beginning to end. He pauses, mulls each option (I wonder if the onions are grilled….do you think the tomatoes are good yet? Bad tomatoes would ruin the burger), goes back to an earlier option, keeps reading, keeps interrogating me and the waiter, and this is a slow process because he’s also extremely dyslexic, and when he gets to the end of the menu, several big laminated pages later, he needs to re-read the beginning page since he doesn’t really remember what those options were. Finally he’ll pick something, and as soon as he places his order he realizes that he really should’ve ordered the other thing, what he ordered won’t be as good as that would’ve been.

What matters to him is that he get the very best meal he can possibly have at the diner. I always feel sad for him, because he rarely enjoys his as much as I enjoy mine. And how could he? It carries a heavy burden! It has to be the best! Mine just has to be good enough to be an enjoyable meal. There’s a lot of evidence that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers, and of course the distinction brings a lot of stuff with it, like temperament and personality (maximizers are more likely to be neurotic, for instance, and which came first, being neurotic? Maybe!). If you’re curious about yourself, here’s a little quiz:

satisficer

My score is 75 (the possible range is 13 to 91), so I’m not completely without standards. 🙂 Like everyone else, I care about the things I care about! It’s just a question of how big an umbrella that is, right? Do I care about my meals? Yeah, sure, I like tasty, healthy food. Do I care about what I’m wearing? Sure, I guess I care enough. Do I care about my family and friends? OH HELL YES. Do I care about my ethical concerns? ALL THE WAY. Do I care about my car? Sure, to the extent that it’s safe and cost-effective. Do I care about how well my home is decorated? Enough. I still haven’t done anything at all with the dining room, and I’ve lived here almost four years.

Like temperament, I think this is kind of a “just who you are” deal. If you tried to force me to be a maximizer at that diner, I just don’t think I could do it. I might fake it if you held a gun to my head, but I’d be faking it because really, it just needs to be a good enough salad. I’d pretend to read all the choices, but I’d be thinking about something else. If you forced my husband to be a satisficer, he’d get kind of paralyzed and pick something because of that gun to his head, but he’d hate what he ordered and would be torn up the rest of the night thinking about the perfect meal he didn’t get.

And thus ends today’s psychology lesson, offered after a lengthy telephone conversation with my maximizer husband going over possible hotel options in Laos, with me saying, “Sure honey, I like that one! Well yeah, that one sounds great! I don’t know, I like that one too!” I probably drive him crazy. 🙂

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 good life

A few days ago I watched Hector and the Search for Happiness, a movie starring Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, and with Christopher Plummer and Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgard and Toni Collette.

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A great bunch of actors! It didn’t get the highest of ratings, and frankly I was surprised by how much I loved it. It’s a journey story; Simon Pegg is a psychiatrist with a tidy, satisfactory life, and he chucks it all to travel around the world to discover what makes people happy. (yawn, I thought.) Then near the end, there’s a brain scan (oh that always irritates me, I’m a neuroskeptic), and when Pegg is holding the tremendous array of thoughts that he has learned constitute his happiness, his entire brain lights up — “the Northern Lights,” says the scientist. So I dearly love that, because I believe it’s true. Happiness comprises everything, all the feelings, even the bleak ones.

all kinds of colors in there
all kinds of colors in there

At one point the main character asks someone, “You’ve been through so much, how are you so happy?” And she (or he, can’t remember now) says, “I’m so happy because I’ve been through so much.” And at that point I jumped up out of my chair with tears in my eyes and said too loudly, “YES. Yes-yes-yes. Yes. That’s true.” Because it is. (I do this often and am glad I generally live alone. 😉 )

I’ve known a few people who grew up with just about as perfect a life as one could have in real life. One home for 18 years, thoughtful and educated parents, plenty of love, a lot of friends, success in school, off to college with no worries, college years were great, launch into life, the world on a string. Tiger by the tail. Take your pick of cliches. I’ve actually known people, real people, who had that life. Security, safety, love, peace. No traumas of any kind. No unexpected losses — maybe a grandparent here or there, but not ever unexpectedly or tragically.

It’s just those specific people I know, but boy are they unhappy adults. They’re lost. They’re empty. Their lives feel meaningless to them. (And again: maybe you know people from that life who are joyous adults with meaningful lives! I just don’t know them.) (Oh, wait, now I can think of a couple of them who got married to each other and are very very happy adults, with happy children.)

So let me not make an absolute claim here, but a general one. A simply easy life is not a happy one. A simply easy life is not a meaningful one. I am not saying that happiness comes from pain and trauma necessarily, but I believe it comes from the effort to deal with it. From the knowledge of having had it and gotten somewhere else, from the understandings you find in the process, and from what you learn about yourself and the world along the way. And I’m not saying that simple and easy times aren’t happy, because they sure can be! But they are happy in the context of the rest. I want to resist that easy thing people say, “without the dark you can’t know the light,” but something is true in it. Jung said, “The word happiness would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness,” and I guess that’s right but those sayings seem facile to me, a toss-off, even if there is something true in them. Maybe they just trouble me because of the way people say them, an unconsidered bit of bumper-sticker wisdom said without much thought.

Around this time last year I wrote about happiness — a similar idea I had then, because I believe this so deeply. Happiness is both a momentary state and a deeper, complex experience. I feel happy when I look at Oliver or Ilan; that rush of feeling that overcomes me is a mixture of love and joy, definitely. My happiness where they and my children are concerned is vast, and includes their places in our family, their connections to their sweet mamas, my daughters, and Oliver’s arrival in the wake of our loss of Gracie. So that’s complex, definitely, but my feeling when I see them or think about them is simple happiness. But my own personal happiness, the center of me, my deepest experience, contains EVERYTHING. It contains my ability to feel everything that happens to me, light and dark. (Strangely, that’s true. My ability to feel heartache makes me happy. I’m happy I can feel that terrible feeling because it’s true and human.) It contains having survived the things I have survived. It contains memories of loss and sorrow. My happiness holds all of those things at the same time, and without any one of them my happiness would definitely be less rich, less meaningful to me.

My happiness also depends on the scary will to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable to you, to random strangers who might hurt me here or elsewhere, to people in my life, to possibilities. Like everyone else, I’ve trusted people I shouldn’t have trusted and been very hurt by them, but my happiness depends on being open again anyway.

buttermilk blueberry cake
buttermilk blueberry cake

I’m so happy because I’ve been through so much. Today I’m happy because I’m taking this yummy cake — which was easy to make early this morning because I’m still jet lagged, so I’m in bed super early and up super early — over to my dear friend Cindy’s house for breakfast. Today I’m happy because I will see Katie and Trey and Oliver later today, and I haven’t seen that sweet little fella since his birthday. Today I’m happy because my health is good and I can do anything I feel like doing without having to think twice, or cater to a hurting body part. Today I’m happy because I have dear friends. Today I’m happy because my family is happy and healthy. Today I’m happy because my hair looks OK today. 🙂 Big stuff and small stuff, yo. And today I’m happy because my heart has been tenderized and I can hold very tenderly, with understanding, friends whose lives are being hit with frightening illness. Today I’m happy because of the plans I have — making a triple berry cake for friends tomorrow, going to the UP in July, seeing Ilan and Marnie and Tom in June, something secret that’s happening next Wednesday, lots of great books in my Kindle that I’m dying to read — and because I rediscovered this beautiful poem, which I love because it understands the possibility of beauty out of suffering.

RUBBING — Stephen Dunn

I once saw a painter smear black paint
on a bad blue sky,
then rub it in until that lie of hers

was gone. I’ve seen men polish cars
so hard they’ve given off light.
As a child I kept a stone in my pocket,

thumb and forefinger in collusion
with water and wind,
caressing it day and night.

i’ve begun a few things with an eraser,
waited for frictions spark.
I’ve learned that sometimes severe

can lead to truer, even true.
But few things human can stand
to be rubbed for long—I know this

and can’t stop. If beauty comes
it comes startled, hiding scars,
out of what barely can be endured.

xoxoxo Happy Sunday, y’all.

strange (for me) stability

stabilityOn June 27, 2014, I started something new. What I really mean is that once again, I decided to do something new — even though it was the same old “new” thing I’d been trying to do my whole adult life: lose weight. I always accompanied that with the little thought and keep it off, but I never even put that into my decision as a real thing because I didn’t think it was possible. Because this has been my life-long M.O.:

  • Lose 50 pounds by starving myself
  • Several weeks later, “slip” and decide what the hell I’ve ruined it now.
  • Gain 50 pounds because I don’t know how to lose 5 or 10, but I sure know how to lose 50!
  • A couple of years (or more) later, repeat.

When I took yet another stab at it in the summer of 2014, I had a different mindset. I had a longer view; I was thinking about what I wanted my life to be in this next stage, so it was a whole-cloth, decades-long (hopefully!) view. I wanted to take excellent care of myself because I do want a decades-long stage, and I’m 57. I wanted to feel differently inside, and that was the umbrella over everything else. Strangely, I didn’t decide to start “on Monday,” or “at the beginning of the month,” I decided to start right at that moment, 4pm on a Wednesday, I think. I’d already been eating mostly vegetarian, by which I mean completely vegetarian when it’s my cooking, and doing the very best I can when others cook for me.

Because of who I am, I needed to monitor my “gains” (which means my losses), so I weighed every single morning. My day drifted into a rhythm: green smoothie for breakfast, nuts and fruit mid-day, an hour of yoga at 4, a beautiful dinner made for myself, an hour-long walk after dinner, and meditation before bed (and work in all those long spaces in between). I liked it! A lot! It was easy and it fit me. And the weight fell off, which surprised me.

But really, my biggest fear and concern came then, when I lost the weight. Losing weight, know how to do that, check. Keeping it off, complete mystery. And then my friend Megan said, “Decide you can do it! You can.” As silly as it may sound, that was transformative. Something shifted.

I’ve weighed myself every morning I could ever since, and that slight monitoring feels important. The coolest thing is that there were times I gained weight! During my month in Chicago, I gained 10 pounds; no surprise, given the kind of cooking and baking I was doing, and IPAs I drank. But the big surprise is that I shrugged, meh, who cares — because I enjoyed my time eating with the kids, and it felt like comfort and care. And I knew that I’d just get it off and get back to myself. When we travel to Southeast Asia, I want to enjoy the foods we eat and not be worrying, so when we return I always have a few pounds to lose so I can get back to myself.

Get back to myself. It’s just become “myself” now. There are times I can’t do yoga for a variety of reasons and I really miss it, so when I can do it again, it’s a sigh of return. Aah, back to myself. The weight slips away and I feel myself again. It’s a version of myself that never existed, a dreamed-of, elusive version, and now it’s just ME. And the best part is that I feel present in my life in a way I didn’t before, which brings the stillness I wanted.

How? Why? Truly, I think these are elements:

  1. I started immediately instead of waiting, even for the next day. Kinda caught me off guard! Oh, I’m already in it! One thing about that, I think, is that I’d already “blown” the early part of the day, surely, eating more or differently, which helped me think about those experiences differently.
  2. My perspective — the rest of my life was the whole point, instead of right now.
  3. A whole-life approach instead of just diet and exercise. And in fact, not even approaching it as “diet and exercise” but instead mindful eating that made me happy, and moving my body in ways that feel so good. I wanted to be calmer inside. Still inside. I saw all the changes I made as contributing to that goal, because that was my real, centering goal.
  4. Daily monitoring. For me, I really believe that’s important. It doesn’t come with inner nastiness, or critique at all! And my weight fluctuates, too — not just the big fluctuation of Chicago, or the semi-big fluctuations of vacation (which are usually 5 pounds), but up 2 down 1, etc. It just gives me a general awareness. I also have a number in mind that is my outer limit of gain, and if I hit that, I am just a little more careful with my dinners until I drop below it. More vegetables.

I love the way you can keep surprising yourself, even at 57. Once in a while I realize, with deep surprise, that I’m wearing the same size I’ve been wearing for more than a year. I don’t care what that size is, although I’m happy with it, but I do like that it’s the same size. And the stillness inside me, the way I more easily address the world and myself — not always, but more often and more easily — surprises me too. I am able to be present much more often, now. All that also feels like me now.

Today I’m flying to NYC and then we’ll be off to China at the end of the week. I hope it’s a good Tuesday in your life! xoxoxoxoxoxo

so amazed I want to fly

flowering teaA couple of days ago I wrote about this stunning insight I had that probably sounds dumb to anyone else, the way insights are. Yeah, I knew that all along about you, obvious. And? But an insight changes everything, so it’s not just the mustard seed of the thing itself, it’s the way the world changes as a result. That insight just keeps unfolding, like flowering tea. It does feel like a flower is blooming inside me and it just keeps blooming.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that we are born with a temperament, we’re born who we are. I used to think differently, that we’re born kind of a blob and we become who we are, but that’s just not right. And fundamentally, we are who we are throughout our lives. I look at sweet little Oliver, such a happy, even-keeled boy, curious and self-contained, busy and a little cautious and laughing so easily. He was born that way, it’s who he is. I imagine it’ll ebb and flow as life happens to him but it’s fundamentally who he is, and he’ll return to that even if he wobbles. This is supported by a body of research; people who are in devastating accidents and become paralyzed and people who win the lottery have an immediate response, becoming devastated or overjoyed, but with time they return to whatever level of happiness they had before. So temperamentally happy people will adjust to paralysis and find their way back to themselves, to their ordinary happiness. A curmudgeon will adjust to having money and after the initial thrill, will return to being a curmudgeon. We are who we are, and we are born with ourselves. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s a fated full-on deterministic thing, but it’s a temperament, and I do believe that. I don’t know why I knew and believed this about everyone else and just didn’t see it about myself. Maybe, like others who hear about my younger life, I was just blinded by the circumstances.

So more unfolding in two tectonic directions:

My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
  • I never could really understand why my mother hated me as much as she did. I knew that I ruined her life, she said that over and over. And I can even get that; she ran away from home just before she turned 17 and married my dad, who was 18 and also running away from home, and she probably imagined she was now going to have the life she wanted…..and BAM. Pregnant. So that part I could get. I understood what she meant when she said I ruined her life. But she hated me, viciously and frighteningly. I always thought, but I was a sweet little kid…. and that left me so confused. But that’s exactly why! How obvious! She hated me and I had the nerve to be happy anyway. She would be so cruel and vicious it would take your breath away, and then a little later I’d be happy about some little something. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, I could still be happy. I’d still dance around the coffee table. Each time I was happy, it must have made her just double down, it must have been so galling, so enraging. I totally get that! Not from my own experience, but as a dynamic. I think it’s very common — like someone we think is unworthy, maybe a bad writer, wins a prize for writing, and they’re a much worse writer than you! Much worse! So you hate their writing and them even more. The world is unfair, why do they get the rewards? I think it’s that dynamic.

So she hated me because no matter what she did, I could still be happy. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to understand that, and her. She is a psychopath, but that’s just a diagnosis. I always said she was a black box, completely impossible to understand, but it was just a small, mean thing all along. After 57 years, I finally understand her. Unlike with my dad’s suicide, I never thought it was my fault she hated me, because I didn’t choose to be born, but it was so bewildering, and finally I have an answer.

  • And the other thing — gosh, how could I not have seen this before? — relates to an explanation I always gave for my survival. “It was just a failure of imagination,” I’d always say with a wry smile. Why didn’t I become a prostitute as a way to get money? Why didn’t I turn to drugs or alcohol to escape? “Failure of imagination. All I could think of was to find some place to do my homework and sleep and then go to school the next day. Failure of imagination.” One thing I did, and I’d tell this story, was to go to the disco in our small town (this was the late 70s) when it was bitterly cold, or when I was filled with despair. I’d take my one dress and change in the bathroom, and then go out on the floor and dance and dance, spinning around until I got out of myself and into a kind of bliss. Hours would pass and I’d be warm, and I’d be out of my real life. But that wasn’t a failure of imagination, or a “gee I’m so clever” tactic, I was just being myself. That’s all. No more, no less, no failure, no admiration. I was just being myself, that’s all. I am so grateful that I was born like that.

You cannot imagine how earthshaking this is — and I’m not being dramatic, that’s not hyperbole. The ground has shaken and I see myself there, I understand myself then, my life then, my mother, my father, my family. Finally, I understand. Finally. I understand. I was there all along. Do you remember these little handheld games?

dexterity
these are called dexterity games, for some reason

You had to roll it, tilt it, try to get ALL the little BBs into the small holes. Aaah, you’d get 2 in, but when you’re trying to get the 3rd in the others roll out! So frustrating for a little kid! But this is how my early life is now. My mother is in her little hole. My father is in his. I am in mine. And the game is done — and I win. 🙂

5. Make Room for “Fruitful Monotony”

russellThis is topic #5 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honest relationships, #2 was about experiencing what is actually happening, #3 was about being patient and loving the questions, #4 was about the moral weight of the stories we tell, and this one is about the detrimental effect of passive entertainment on happiness.

As always, I begin with the relevant excerpt from the Brain Pickings post:

“In a chapter titled ‘Boredom and Excitement,’ Russell teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how central it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence, he writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

[…]

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense.

Many decades before our present concerns about screen time, he urges parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself.” He writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness… A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.


The more I engage in this project, the more curious I become about Maria Popova, creator of Brain Pickings — and not just because of the 16 choices she made, but also of how she chose to summarize each one. “Make room for fruitful monotony” is taken directly from Russell’s words; the central comparison he thinks about is this:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs, and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

So he’s saying to make room for the kind of boredom that comes when you don’t take drugs? My understanding, after reading the whole chapter (included at the bottom of this post if you want to read it — and it’s often quite funny!), is that his real concern is the stultifying kind of boredom. In this chapter, Russell thinks through the importance of not filling every moment with passive entertainment. If you spend too much of your time in that kind of stultifying boredom, you lose something essential. He thinks it’s especially important for children, and I agree.

But no matter how old we are, don’t we all talk about wanting to put down our phones, get offline, turn off the television? I think he would be appalled by the way we’re now so completely tethered to our electronic devices, and I doubt too many of us would disagree. Setting aside the way we are left disconnected from other human beings, and setting aside the health effects of all the sitting and absorbing passive entertainment, his concern is that it leads to unhappiness. And I think it does too — he’s right, even if it’s sometimes hard to step away from the electronic world. In the chapter he says that we are so afraid of boredom that we pursue excitement relentlessly, and that “certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony.” Poetry, art, creation, insight, we distract ourselves away from the quiet monotony that gives rise to these possibilities. Russell sees this outcome:

“…a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

YES. Little men. He makes a frequent connection to the earth, to nature, as a source of experiences that energize and create happiness, and again I think he’s right. It’s kind of like we’re setting ourselves up to become smaller and smaller and smaller: we stare at screens inside our homes, absorbing ‘entertainment’ created by other people, and often uncritically. We become mole people. For myself, when I’ve done that too long — easy to do, since my work is on the computer and I work most waking minutes — I end up feeling hollow and soul-empty. Time whizzes past and it’s gone and I don’t even remember how I spent it. In the very rare time I have a break from work and just have a day to spend however I wish, I get so much more bang for my buck by being in silence and away from electronics. The hours are so slow and thick, and my pleasure in spending them is palpable. I end the day with a very deep satisfaction and happiness, always.

You know how when you’re thinking about something, you start seeing it in a variety of places? I’m reading Per Petterson’s stunning Out Stealing Horses and came across this passage. His elderly protagonist, Trond, had just moved to an isolated cabin in the wilderness:

“I did not bring a television set out here with me, and I regret it sometimes when the evenings get long, but my idea was that living alone you can soon get stuck to those flickering images and to the chair you will sit on far into the night, and then time merely passes as you let others do the moving. I do not want that. I will keep myself company.”

(I’m sure I’ll write about this book, it’s so beautiful and a meditation on the past and trauma.) Anyway, I have more things I want to do than time to do them (c’mon lottery!!), but I do slip into a rut of electronic background distraction now and then. It happens much less often since I undertook my anti-flailing project 18 months ago and accidentally started doing only one thing at a time, but I can still slip into the multitasking habit if I’m not paying attention and what pulls me out of it is the awareness of feeling bad — ah! No wonder!

How often are you at home without the television going? Without music playing? With your phone and computer put away? How often are you in silence? NEVER? Is that how often? I wonder what would happen if you did that for one hour. Does the idea make you nervous? I suspect it makes many people nervous, and for a similar reason that meditation makes people nervous — having to come face to face with yourself in a sustained way, OY.

To me, this one feels like a real resolution, like a deepening understanding of something I’ve been working with already. So to date, my understanding of the five ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about is:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships.
  2. Experience what is actually happening.
  3. Be patient, and live and love the questions.
  4. The stories you choose to tell have great moral weight.
  5. Be alone with yourself, without distraction.

And now I’m off to topic #6, “Refuse to play the perfection game” by the most excellent Ursula K. Le Guin, whose thoughts on this issue are not just inspirational, they’re quite moving.

OH! And by the way, I found the whole text of the Russell book online here, and in case you want to read the chapter yourself, you’ll find it below:

Continue reading “5. Make Room for “Fruitful Monotony””

2. Resist Absentminded Busyness

eitherorThis is topic #2 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honorable (honest) relationships, and this one is about resisting absentminded busyness, taking a close read of a chapter from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or called “THE UNHAPPIEST ONE” (that link provides the chapter in pdf, should you want to read it; it’s 9.5 pages, 1.5 spaced.) If you want to learn more about Kierkegaard, this is a good starting point.

Let me start by providing the blurb presented on the Brain Pickings post. She writes:

“In a latter chapter, titled ‘The Unhappiest Man,’ he considers how we grow unhappy by fleeing from presence and busying ourselves with the constant pursuit of some as-yet unattained external goal:

The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.

[…]

The unhappy one is absent… It is only the person who is present to himself that is happy.

My first thought, when I saw the ‘resolution’ on the Brain Pickings post, was that this had great relevance to today’s eternally online world. How many people (including me!) talk about taking digital sabbaticals; how many talk about the fracturing of attention we experience now, with such constant competition for our eyes and ears, the way it keeps us from being present. Absentminded busyness, exactly! Of course Kierkegaard’s concern was much deeper, as I knew it necessarily would be, and not just because he was writing in the pre-electronic world. After closely reading and re-reading the chapter, I’m so curious about why this was formulated in terms of resisting absentminded busyness, because it’s a much larger subject than that. I would never have summarized it in that way.

To me, the chapter was much more about embracing reality in a mindful way. One thing that always troubled me about the way I understood mindfulness — being present in the moment — was the problem of the impossibility of catching the present, the impossibility and unreality of the eternal present. I guess one is eternally present when one is dead and time is no longer at play. But for the living, there! Ah, it’s past. There! Future becomes present becomes past in a breath. To be present in a moment includes the coming moment, the next breath, and includes the breath just exhaled, the past. And, like Faulkner, I believe the past isn’t really the past, it all exists in my cells and bones necessarily, and so therefore the past exists in my present moment. Obviously, though, there’s a way to do the past that’s bad/hard/not helpful, just as there’s a way to do the future that’s bad/hard/not helpful.

When you reflect on the past, are you present in it? Are you reflecting on a real past, or a fake one? On the day my father died, before we learned he’d died, my entire family was all but cursing him. And somehow, the moment he died, to all of them he instantly became “Saint Frank.” He did no wrong, but any wrong he may have done wasn’t his fault, it was my mother’s fault (or mine). I looked at them in bewilderment: who is this person you’re grieving? I never met him, and I knew him my whole 23 years of life. If your marriage ends and you reflect on it, are you only pulling out the happy bits (or the unhappy bits) and letting that be the thing you are remembering? In both of those examples, the person reflecting is dwelling on an unreal past in which he or she didn’t live.

When you anticipate the future, are you present in it? Is it a present with any connection to you at all? Maybe it’s entirely bleak, or maybe it’s entirely rosy, but is it connected to you? The future is entirely about hope, whether it’s a lack or abundance, but it’s central aspect is hope. (Think about that and see if it’s not true — I think it is.)

So the past and the future aren’t off limits to the present, as long as they are real, as long as you are (or were, or can be) present in them. As a Christian, Kierkegaard’s examples were often drawn from the Bible, and two illuminated this for me. Both of these broke my heart with their truth, and made me really get it.

  • Job, painted by Léon Bonnat -- the most agonizing painting of pain I know
    Job, painted by Léon Bonnat — the most agonizing painting of pain I know

    Job: “He lost everything, but not in one blow, for the Lord took away, and the Lord took away, and the Lord took away. The friends taught him to perceive the bitterness of loss; for the Lord gave, and the Lord gave, and the Lord gave, and a foolish wife into the bargain. He lost everything, for what he kept is of no interest to us. Honor is due him, dear ~, for his gray hair and his unhappiness. He lost everything, but he had possessed it.”

Because he was present to his abundance while he had it, and because he remembered it as it was — even as that loss was so painful — he was essentially happy, even in his unhappiness. He didn’t turn against all he’d had and belittle it, diminish it; he remembered it as it was, in its joy and happiness, even though it was now a lost happiness. No sour grapes for Job.

  • The father of the prodigal son: I’m summarizing rather than quoting here. All his life, the father lived in hope that his son would return, hoping and imagining that moment. It was always possible. When the son did return, the father’s joy was overwhelmingly happy, but even casting back to his misery during his son’s absence, that pain was unhappy but contained happiness because of his hope. If his son were dead but the father persisted in hoping or imagining that one day the son would come back, that hope would be miserable. (My aunt believed that my father was just on a business trip in Phoenix for the years between his death and hers, and that he’d come back — a perfect example of this.)

So my understanding of this ‘resolution’ is quite different from “resist absentminded busyness.” I guess I would instead summarize it as “experience what is actually happening,” past present and future. Maybe I’m biased to interpret it this way; when my life fell completely apart at the end of 2012, for months I felt every bit of the pain of it – on purpose. I remember thinking that I felt devastated because my life had been devastated. The feeling was appropriate. My heart felt so broken because my marriage had ended and I had to leave a place I loved and my granddaughter died and my daughter and her husband suffered the worst possible blow and I couldn’t do one thing to ease their pain. So of course my heart felt broken, it was entirely appropriate. For some reason I decided not to act otherwise, not to distract myself, not to reframe it, but to feel what was really happening because it was really happening. It was agony, and at times I wondered if it was a foolish thing to be doing because it hurt so bad it often felt unbearable, but I’m glad I did it. I learned that that much pain won’t kill me, even if it feels like it will. I learned that I’m strong, and I wouldn’t have learned that if I’d run away and lied to myself about it. And weirdly, there was a kind of pleasure in feeling what was true, even though it was agony, just because it was true. It involves a willingness to allow and hold complexity — my marriage contained terribleness and goodness, and I remembered both. That was true.

So in this framework, living in the present moment allows me the hope of the future as long as I am present in that future in a real way. Living in the present allows me my memories as long as they are as close to their reality as possible and not rewritten. All three instants of time — past, present, future — might be unhappy, but if they are real and true, I am a happy person. There is an integrity to accepting what is. It sounds strange, and I think it’s a subtle idea, but I think it’s deeply true. The defense mechanisms that Freud described are ways of coping with difficult experiences, and not bad in and of themselves; they become a problem to the degree they take you away from reality. So “No, my brother did not die, he is in Phoenix” is denial that presents serious problems, obviously. But “my brother died and I’m devastated” places you squarely in your real life and there is a kind of happiness in there if you understand this.

Anyway. I understand it very well. So I guess I’d reword the two ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about like this:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships
  2. Experience what is actually happening

And now I’m off to topic #3, living the questions, which relies on Rilke’s gorgeous collection of letters called Letters to a Young Poet. That’ll be fun.

lull-ing

Lately, as this astonishing period of peace and happiness just keeps going and going and going, I’ve found myself a little itchy. So I sat with that, wondering if it was something about needing a little trouble, just a little, because I’m so used to living with trouble. I hoped that wasn’t the case, I really did. I’ve known people who seemed to have to stir things up all the time, and I never thought I was one of those but you know, sometimes you can be the last to know things about yourself. At least that’s true for me.

we kinda revel when it rains
we kinda revel when it rains

And then several days ago it was a luscious day for those of us in drought-stricken Texas. At least in Austin, the temperature dropped 25-ish degrees and it rained, a slow and quenching rain, for a good part of the day. (And little did we know that would kick off several days of good rain, though never enough for a droughted region.) I felt re-energized by the rain and cooler weather in a particular way, and I realized what the itch was about: sameness. Every day our weather is exactly the same at this time of year: very very hot, no rain. Every day. Lots of sun. Beautiful blue skies filled with puffy white clouds. (I never get tired of that sky.) Every day my routine is the same, even if it’s differently the same in New York. But wherever I am during a two-week period, it’s exactly the same for that location. I’m feeling still and calm, and have been eating good food, doing yoga and meditation every day, the same. I see friends or family here and there, interspersed, but my days are the same, seven days a week.

So I think that itchy feeling was mostly about needing something different! Not bad, not trouble, just different. Really good information, because when I’m feeling that way now I know I should just mix things up — work in a coffee shop maybe. Go take an actual yoga class somewhere instead of just doing it at home. Nothing I can do about the Texas summer.

quiet, not bored. contemplative, not bored. happy, not bored.
quiet, but not bored. happy, and not bored.

I guess even a peaceful and happy rut is still a rut. It’s also true that the inner quiet and calm is a bit un-remarkable, by which I mean there is nothing to remark on. My experiences are not unremarkable, but I have nothing to grab my attention and get my anxieties flowing, and they are SHOCKED! SHOCKED, I TELL YOU! Except for the vague and general financial worries that all but the endlessly rich have (bubbles), and except for political worries we all have (bubbles), I have nothing to worry about. It’s very weird. I’m not complaining, not even a little bit. But it is weird. [not complaining…..]

My time in New York has been great so far — a trip to the Delaware Water Gap on Saturday, lots of walking around yesterday including a walk to Harlem and back. Lunch today with a friend, dinner on Thursday with a friend, and something fun next weekend, don’t know what yet. We were going to head out to the Delaware Water Gap next weekend but seized the pretty day on Saturday while we had it. Plenty of work this week, great twice-daily walks in Riverside Park, and peace and quiet and calm. The leaves are turning here, the light is lower and just a little weaker, the breeze carries a tiny bit of a nip. The wheel is turning.

strings of perfect moments

Isn’t it wonderful when you have these long runs of perfect moments? Even just one is pretty great — I’ll take them if they dribble past me at a slow pace! But once in a while you just get this prolonged run of perfectly wonderful minutes, hours, days, experiences, and I don’t know about you but my cheeks ache from all the grinning when that happens.

Friday I had my weekly chat with Marnie, and Marc and I piled into the car to drive upstate, where we stayed at a Buddhist retreat. The setting was just so beautiful, and it was in this very small town named Rosendale, with a fabulous bakery on main street. We walked, we meditated, we ate some good food, we relaxed in the silence, we drove through beautiful countryside, we walked on a high pedestrian bridge over the Hudson River, we went to a place we visit at least once a year — Innisfree Gardens, a cup garden — and on the way home on Sunday we stopped at Storm King Art Center. There was absolutely no traffic anywhere (really, where was everyone??), we ran into no trouble, the weather was beautiful, and the incredible thunderstorm waited until we were home and unpacked before it started blasting New York. PERFECT.

It’s been such a beautiful time in New York, this trip. A fantastic celebration of Sherlock’s life, beautifully organized by darling Peggy, in Connecticut. Lunch with Traci, and another lovely evening a glass of wine with her at my neighborhood French bistro. Lots of good food, lots of walking, this weekend’s great trip, beautiful weather, easy time.

My life between places is kind of odd, even though of course there are great things about it. But each place is both real and unreal. When I first get to New York each time I feel out of place, like a visitor (which I am, here, more than I am in Austin). But then I eat some of Marc’s food, have lunches with my beautiful friend Traci (or a dinner with Craig), take walks in Riverside Park, and as the days pass I begin to feel ok, I’m here, here is where I am….and Austin starts to feel forever away. I start to feel like I’ve been here for so very long, and away from Austin for so very long — and then it’s time to head back. Austin feels a bit unreal at first, although less so since Katie and Oliver pick me up, and there’s my beautiful little cozy home. But I feel out of place a bit, out of pocket, unsure of where I am …. and then the days pass and New York starts to feel forever away. And then it’s time to come back to New York.

But I am not complaining. I have nothing at all to complain about in my life now. I have such beautiful family and friends, and things that make me happy in both places. I miss my Austin people a lot and can’t wait to see you.

SO much to look forward to, always. Poetry group at my place the night I get home, a birthday celebration on Saturday the 6th, drinks and/or dinner with a dear friend the following Wednesday the 10th, happy hour with two beautiful women the 11th, something fun with girlfriends on the 13th, dinner with friends on the 15th, book club on the 18th, and back to NYC on the 19th. My next trip to NYC we’re going to the Delaware Water Gap one weekend. Lots of good books being read whenever I can get a minute or two. Daily yoga practice, daily meditation practice. Doing one thing at a time. Walking present. Being present. Talking present.

Life is so so good. I remember very well how not-at-all-good my life was in 2012. Horrific in the last third of 2012. Often hard, sad, excruciating in 2013. Frightening as the surreal lawsuit hung over our heads….only to poof! disappear. Crazy-making. I remember all those difficult moments, heartbroken moments, excruciatingly long periods of pain. So here, now, I will soak up all this happiness and try to spread it around. September 1, dizzying. Autumn, in a couple of weeks. Enjoy your first day of September in 2014, it’s the only one you’re ever going to get. Me, I’m off to enjoy it! Love to you — xo

pleasure and the spiritual path

Last night I attended a dharma gathering with the title of the post — “Pleasure and the Spiritual Path.” After the lesson/teaching, the teacher asked questions and everyone contributed their own thoughts. These are people who are [apparently] pretty advanced in their Buddhist studies, given some of the things they mentioned — things I couldn’t even understand. What is that? A class? A level? A something else? Me, I sit in my living room and do yoga. Meditate as I can. Work at mindfulness. Attend an occasional dharma gathering. I don’t know nothin’ about levels and paths.

shambhala

The whole point of Buddhism in the Tibetan lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche is that everything is impermanent. That’s the essential center of it. And suffering arises by attaching and clinging to things that are impermanent. In the discussion of pleasure and suffering from clinging, the teacher said how very much he loves summer sweet corn from out on Long Island. Oh he looks forward to it all year, and when it’s ready, he relishes every bite, wishes it would last forever. When it’s the last corn of the season, he’s sad, disappointed, etc.  (This is one thing I really love about the Shambhala teachers like him and Pema Chodron. It’s not abstract lofty stuff. It’s about sweet summer corn. It’s about the woman sitting next to you wearing too much perfume.)

So when he asked people to talk about pleasure in a lot of ways — what is it, what’s your approach to it, do you tend toward hedonism or asceticism — the responses were all over the place. Some were lofty and abstract, some were focused on specific experiences, but I was shocked by how many people said they stay away from it because they don’t trust it. WHAT?! They don’t trust it, it’s not going to last, it’s going to go away. Well duh! I’m a yoga mat “Buddhist” and the central message of impermanence sure seems to apply here, doesn’t it? And anyway, doesn’t your own life show you that it all changes?

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to know this. You don’t even have to live all that long to see that things come and go. You go up, you go down, you go up again. Sometimes the downs last a long time, or are very intense. Sometimes the ups do the same. Sometimes life is thrilling, sometimes deeply satisfying, sometimes painful, and sometimes too excruciating to bear. One of the only things you can absolutely count on is that stuff’s gonna change. Stuff’s gonna come, stuff’s gonna go. Count on it.

And what I also don’t understand is why this would make anyone not want to take the pleasure when it is presented? That just makes no sense to me at all, I can’t even begin to understand it. Yeah, happiness, pleasure, it’s all fleeting….so you grab it with both hands! You rub your face in it! You lick it and let the last drops linger on your tongue. You turn it inside and out, scour it. Use it up. Pull it on again and again until it’s too stretchy to stay on. Kiss people, hug people, smile at people, laugh with them, talk. Look look look, immerse, take all you can from it. The fact that it’s not going to last forever makes it even more important, more precious. (Right?) Avoiding happiness because it’s “untrustworthy” means you’re mainly just living in this weird avoiding state or dealing with the hard bits. How can people bear the hard bits if they haven’t eaten up the happy ones? I just don’t get it.

Not too long ago I was telling a group of friends the story about the time a TSA agent was looking at my boarding pass and asked me, “So what’s your specialty?” (I completely forgot that it said Dr. Lori ___ on the boarding pass, so she assumed I was a medical doctor.) So I stood there kind of like a deer in the headlights, figuring it was some kind of secret TSA test question that I’d better get right. I finally said, “Well…..I’m really good at being happy.” She laughed and said no, what are you, an internist, a dermatologist, what? But I loved that this was the only thing I could come up with. I’m a specialist in being happy. So a friend in the group challenged me to put that on business cards. SO I DID.

card

I blocked out the bits that would allow you to stalk me or call me on the phone.  Which you may already know I hate. 🙂

I have blue(ish) eyes and I’m a specialist in being happy. It isn’t hard or scary to me, I am lucky. But I do wish someone could explain this to me, being afraid to be happy. It’s like rice cookers; I never could understand them, and then finally someone explained it in a way that made me get it. (But I hope no one who reads this is ever afraid to be happy.)

Wednesday, yo y’all. xo

oh well!

waterlevelI was thinking about happiness and the phrase ‘water seeks its own level’ came to my mind. If you look at that image, the water level is the same across all the various sizes and shapes of tubes. With water it’s all about atmospheric pressure and things like that. Happiness operates on different principles, but the result can be the same, if you’re lucky. Walk with me while we talk.

So I have a personality characteristic that is extremely good and extremely bad. I give up. (I know, not always, but this is my default stance.) I’ll plan to do something and encounter resistance and quickly give up. (Again, I know not always, but default.) What happens inside me is not exactly a throwing-up of the hands, but more a lightning-quick cost-benefit analysis. Does the cost of persisting — in time, effort, money, whatever — outweigh moving on and doing something different? Sometimes it does, of course, obviously. But more often than not, I decide to give up and move on. “Moving on” doesn’t necessarily mean I completely abandon what I was trying to do; it may mean that I come at it another way, or that I shift a little bit and go after the overlapping thing. Without a doubt I have given up too quickly way too often. Without a doubt, learning how to persist, how to buckle down and keep at it would be good for me. I’ve probably missed out on a lot of good things because I just gave up too quickly.

But the flip side of it relates to happiness and here’s where it’s a good thing. And here’s where water is seeking its own level. On ordinary days my happiness level is pretty much the same (and pretty high). It’s not as if my reasons for being happy are always at the same level, of course. And some days I’ve wanted something and not been able to get it but my happiness level is unaffected. I kind of think my happiness is a living thing of its own, and if a blip comes along it just slips somewhere else to stay where it lives. Here’s a very dumb example, but it’s a good example of what happens for me all the time. Let’s say all day long I’ve  had my mouth set for stir-fried broccolini and tofu. Mmmm, and some carrots, I have those, and I need to use the mushrooms too. But it’s that brilliant green, tender broccolini that has been running through my mind all day. Yum. Then it’s time to make dinner and I pull out the ingredients only to find that the broccolini is really too old, it’s kind of gone bad and soggy and nearly rotten. DAMN. I really wanted the meal I’d been imagining all day. Oh well! (I say this all day long: “oh well!”) I’ll just have all the rest! Yum, I really love mushrooms and carrots, and maybe I’ll toss in some celery since I have some, and there’s a small zucchini, I’ll use that too. YUM! What a wonderful dinner, and mmm, some steamed jasmine rice, and I’ll use some of Marc’s delicious red curry, yum. Oh crap! I guess I used the last of the curry. Oh well!

And then I sit and relish the fantastic dinner, full and happy, and it’s not the broccolini I’d fantasized about all day but my meal is not a second-best dinner at all. Oh it’s so good. Mmmm, I’m really happy.

Oh, I could’ve gotten in the car and gone to the market for broccolini. It would’ve involved fighting the crowds of people who were there after work, tired and in a rush to get home. Traffic would’ve made me tense, the exhausted crowds and long line at the register would’ve aggravated me, but I’d have that broccolini I’d been daydreaming about.

certainly not saying this is easy....
certainly not saying this is easy….

That is a lightweight example, for sure, but it’s my standard M.O. across situations. And it’s not at all about rationalization — I didn’t really want broccolini / I really needed to use that zucchini so this is the better thing anyway / whatev. It’s not that at all. I think it’s more about valuing happy more than broccolini. I think it’s also about flexibility as well as recognizing that happiness comes in all sorts of guises, from all directions, and it is there in abundance if you’re open to it. I do believe an “oh well!” attitude is powerful because it fixes your focus on the goal instead of the path to the goal. Not this? Oh well! How about that?

NOTE: This is my software, I’m not at all saying “Ain’t it great the way I do this! I’m so great!” Instead, I’m gratefully sharing what is somehow easy for me since it’s just how I’m made, in case it might be a little helpful to you in some way. I am so very lucky in this way, and grateful for it. Of course there are times this doesn’t happen for me, and of course there are times that no matter how hard I look, try an alternative, seek an ‘oh well,’ simple happiness is simply nowhere to be seen. But I do think that even during the times when happiness is just there in ghostly form at the edges of the scene, looking for it and being open to it is a helpful thing.

Last night I had broccolini for dinner. 🙂

blissless

this picture has nothing to do with anything, but I love it so much!
this picture has nothing to do with anything, but I love it so much! Bliss on a boat off Bali.

It’s been a long cold lonely winter. Little darlin. But you know, it has.  I’ve had stress and anxiety weighing on my heart. The skies were often gray. I dutifully take my little Wellbutrin every single morning. I haven’t exactly felt depressed, but I haven’t felt a whole lot of big joy.

One of my favorite things about being me is my easy experience of joy. It’s not at all uncommon for me to feel bliss — in fact, I can get knocked back by bliss at least once a week, most of the time. For me, that means a heart SO full of joy that I almost cannot hold it, or hold myself; a heart SO full of joy that the edges of everything become indistinct, and I see how it’s all one thing; a heart SO full of joy that I kind of lose words, and am prone to cry at the tiniest little thing — a green leaf, a dead leaf, a breeze, a weed. That’s just a common thing for me, and I am enormously grateful that my software carries that programming. It’s such a gift.

But it’s been such a long time since I felt that. Actually, the last time I felt it was when I was in the river in Sri Lanka bathing that mama elephant. That was such an experience of bliss I completely forgot myself. But since then, I’ve made it through my days, I have been happy, wonderful things have happened, I’ve relished moments with my children, with dear friends. I’ve felt my community all around me, and me a part. I’ve loved my little home. I’ve shared good things and fearful things with all the people who love me, and been so grateful that I have them all.

But I haven’t felt joy, and I definitely haven’t felt bliss. Every morning when I take my antidepressant I think about that. I think that at least I am feeling other good things, at least the black hole is nowhere near me. At least it isn’t dark, even if the skies are dull and gray. But I miss my joy, I miss my bliss.

I’m sure this was a piece of it, but yesterday was a gorgeous and sunny day. Beautiful blue skies, 82 degrees, a little breeze, LOADS of sun. It felt so good on my skin, on my face. The heat soaked into my arms and shoulders and face. And while I was driving down to my friend Karyn’s house, I felt something starting to pulse inside me. I was anxious about whether I’d be able to do the quilting on Oliver’s quilt very well, since it’s free-form and I’m pretty rigid and uptight, and I was afraid I’d ruin the work I’d done. But still, it was sunny and I was happy and something was pulsing inside.

At Karyn’s, she set me up with her great sewing machine and wandered off to do her own thing, and I put a sample piece into the sewing machine — batting and fabric on either side, exactly as the quilt would be — and started sewing. AND IT WAS FUN. And I was doing it, free-form rambling, meandering stitches, loose and wonderful. And the pulsing started pulsing harder inside me. I picked up the quilt, 54″ square, and put it into the machine and took a big breath. As I pressed the pedal, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell started playing from the other room and I was quilting my darling grandson’s quilt and it was sunny and beautiful and Karyn’s home is so lovely and welcoming, and she was in the kitchen hand grinding spices for the wonderful lunch she was making me and the air smelled like spring and not at all like a city and I bounced all the way into bliss. My bliss, my old friend, so long gone.

It’s been a long time since I just had fun like I had doing that quilting. Rigid old me, not-at-all loose me, meandering and not planning anything and having a blast. Listening to banjo music and Karyn puttering around. It was a whole beautiful day, and when I left around 3:30 with my finished quilt and a full tummy and a bag full of vegetables from her garden and eggs from her chickens and her kiss on my cheek, I was so happy I almost couldn’t hold it all.

If you’re in a place where spring hasn’t really arrived yet, where the days are still gray and there’s a chill in the air, boy I feel you. (Well, a Texas version of it.) I hope the blue skies come for you very soon, and the hot sun touches your cheek and the air is sweet and your version of happy and bliss, whatever it is, wells up inside you.

taking things personally

This is one that really chaps my hide. I usually hate it when someone tells me not to take things personally — especially when it’s a person who uses “humor” to cover mean little attacks. There’s no one in my life like that now, but there has been in the past (this is why they’re in the past). The problem is that a lot of thinkers who write about well-being and ease and happiness say the same thing. Don’t take things personally. Hmph, I usually think, easy for you to say.

But of course I also think it’s true, and it’s an issue of discrimination, when to let it go and when to see it for what it truly is. Some things simply are personal! There might be ways you could work with personal attacks so they don’t rile you up quite as much, but it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater to take nothing personally. (And anyway, the world IS personal to me! I attach to it.)

arrayIt’s easy to think about super brittle people, people who are almost always grabbing every tiny little slight, even if they have to explain it long and hard for you to see how it’s a slight. That is taking things personally, and it’s no fun on every front. It’s very hard and exhausting to be around those people, because they’re probably going to take offense at some point and you were just trying to eat your salad and never dreamed they’d take your carrot complaint that way. And it is surely no fun to be that person, feeling poked at all the damn time, believing that the world is out to get you. This is one of those little stories I write about on occasion. It’s easy to call to mind people whose radar is so keenly tuned, it feels like it must be a full-time job for them, responding to all the personal slights and attacks. But I guess we’re all like this, and it’s a matter of degree and specific topic, perhaps. I have my own very large array watching out for my pet painful topics. It’s an issue of figuring out your typical little stories and bringing awareness to them. Ah, I always sense rejection and I think what she just said was rejecting, but I know that’s my thing so I’ll ask. OR come up with an alternative explanation other than the little story version.

Because the truth is that most people are not paying attention to you. They just aren’t. You are the center of the world but so are they. You look out of your eyes and see everyone in your orbit — coming closer to you, moving away from you — but they’re not usually doing that. Usually they are looking out of their eyes and seeing you doing those things, while they are also trying to dodge asteroid fields and black holes. And their own droughts and floods and earthquakes and deep sea temblors, most of which you aren’t even noticing because you’re too busy dealing with your own.

It’s another good thing about getting older. Your skin may dry out, but somehow slights can just slide off it, at the same time. Not sure how that works. Meh, so what, next! First of all, you’ve got some perspective and really don’t give such a shit about the tiny little things that used to wrap you around the axle; second, you’ve learned how to discriminate a little more and know who you can trust and who you should watch a little more closely — and it’s not everyone, by any means; and third, if you’re lucky you’ve learned a few things about yourself and you aren’t as affected by casual weird remarks. Even if the person saying it means it, you call bullshit because you know yourself, and just move on. Whatever, weird person, that’s on you. But more, if you’ve paid attention as you’ve gotten older, you just know that most people are clumsy and not paying morbid attention to every single word they utter, interrogating it to be sure it won’t interact with everyone’s little stories. That is EXHAUSTING.

So cut some slack, let things go — not everything, but most — and tend to your own orbit and system. That’s plenty of work.

Happy Tuesday, everyone! It’s so beautiful here; yesterday a high near 80 and today only 60, but hey. Sunny blue skies and 60 degrees in late January? I’ll take it. If we don’t celebrate our beautiful winters, the desperately hot and muggy summers win. Hope it’s not a gloomy day wherever you are.

what would I be doing if….

No need to go into the strange little chain of things that led me to this — a bizarre chain, but so true to how my weird little mind works — but something very interesting came to me yesterday. I am feeling very blue, scared, and tired of the troubles popcorning all around me in my own life and in the lives of people I love, whose troubles are bigger. All kinds of trouble echoing in the halls of the palace, and I don’t like it one bit.

So a couple of days ago I didn’t even get out of bed all day. It’s that kind of slump. I’ve been calling on all the tricks I have up my sleeve, to wit:

  • Perspective. Pausing to see that the bigger context is not so full of trouble.
  • Mindfulness. Staying in the moment, where I actually am instead of off in my head in wild and terrible fantasies, to keep me grounded.
  • Care. I’ve kind of fallen down on this one; it might’ve helped me to get out of bed, get dressed and take care with my appearance, and maybe get out of the house into the sunshine on a made-up errand.
  • Trust. Looking at the course of my life, troubles are always short-term even if they are grindingly horrible (which none of these troubles are), and as they pass through my life something good also happens.

So yeah, I’ve been doing that. And working with my morning routine, which involves hopeful anticipation and gratitude. Doing practical things to help, like running my Google ad again to try to get work (though at $45/day — which really adds up so quickly, to real money — that one’s a mixed-feeling help).

And so I return to the chain of things and thoughts that happened yesterday morning. The chain left me with this startling thought:  What would I be doing right now if I felt happy?

Well, the answer was, essentially, absolutely nothing I’m doing right now! If I were feeling happy right now, all the blinds would be drawn wide open (yup, the house is closed up like a tomb). Happy music would be playing (the house is silent), and there would be something yummy on the stove, or planned for dinner (again today my thought was who cares, I’ll eat something out of the fridge when I get hungry). I would be open-faced and smiling (no expression on my face at the moment), and reaching out to people instead of holing up with myself.

potWould this reliably work to lift me out of a slump? It’s a social science answer: it depends. I imagine it depends on the immediacy and terribleness of the trouble. I imagine it depends on how depressed I am — if blue then probably, but if seriously depressed then maybe not. I have a tendency toward rolling to a halt once I pass a particular set of feelings — a kind of tucking in my arms and head and turning inward, paying too much attention to that little boiling pot of despair on that back burner. I creak to a halt and that ain’t ever good. Something about this idea — what would I be doing right now if I were feeling happy — grabs me. Well hell, fella, I’d be dancing in the sun coming through my windows (or reveling in whatever the weather I see) and taking active and happy care of myself, and smiling as I wrote friends and family. Time to start doing that.

Notes from the front as they arrive. xo

when you really know

OK, enough about Nick Flynn already. I have more to say about yesterday — 3.5 hours with him — but I’ll just leave that for my private writing. This morning in the shower I was bopping along, mainly just thinking about shampoo or whatever, listening to music. I have a device to play my iPod in the bathroom, whatever you call those things. Docking stations. Whatever. Anyway, up comes “The Dark I Know Well,” a gorgeous song from Spring Awakening, one of my two favorite Broadway musicals of all time, along with Cabaret. Spring Awakening is gorgeous, funny, heartbreaking. I saw it with the original cast, but if you ever get the chance to see it, take it. The music is just wonderful. “The Dark I Know Well” made me think about how very well I know the dark, too. And then that made me start thinking about taxonomies and the other things I know well enough to have developed a taxonomy — an ordering of major categories and subcategories.

  • OK, well, the dark. Depression. I wrote about this in March 2011, on my other blog, so I’ll just link here in case you want to read that post.
  • Insomnia! In the shower I was also thinking about last night’s sleep, which might sound like it’s the same as what I’ve suffered recently, but it’s not. Again last night I slept a little bit and then had long periods of being awake, slept a little bit, long period awake, etc. But it was different! The last couple of nights the long periods of being awake have been more like nearly being asleep. Awake but not, asleep but not. Aware of the time. Able to think. Not asleep, definitely, but not exactly awake. The other version was entirely awake, 100% awake. In last night’s version I rested during the wakefulness in a way I didn’t in the other. It’s not that my mind was racing in the other version, it is just about full wakefulness. There’s also the can’t-get-to-sleep version, more common. But this difference in the types of sleep maintenance insomnia (the official name for it) now gives me the opening to a taxonomy.
  • Happiness, joy! Boy do I know dozens of flavors of this state. Dozens. I know subtle differences, differences that I can identify but there aren’t meaningfully different words for the states. The words for this general state are  pretty broad — ‘happy,’ ‘joyful,’ ‘content,’ ‘bliss’ — but I’d need gradations. Wouldn’t you? There’s a thing called alexithymia, which refers to the inability to identify and describe emotions. It seems to occur more often in men (surprise!). I would have the opposite of that, but there’s not a word for it.
  • Leaving. Just wrote about that one, so I’ll just refer you back to the post.

whalesThere are all kinds of things I know a lot about — knitting, social psychology, pronouns, words, love, friendship, poetry,  books — but that’s different. That’s just a body of knowledge, a deep and perhaps very specific understanding. Taxonomy is more structured, more detailed, hierarchical. It always kills me when people think Moby Dick is about Ahab’s obsession with the white whale. That’s just the story line they picked out to make a movie. It’s very deeply about taxonomy (most famously, Cetology, the chapter about categorizing whales, listen to it here!), about categorizing things, this vs that, organization (and importantly, the inability to grasp the thing by doing that).

I’ll bet you have taxonomies of your own! There’s a real pleasure in that, for me, although i was also the little kid who loved to make outlines of things. 🙂

Off to a good week, and I hope it’s the same for you. xoxo

counting good

A couple of days ago I saw a news program about the whole “paying it forward” idea. [aside: i really hate that phrase. i wish we had something else for it.] The reporter was at a bagel shop with a drive-through, talking about the ways people will pay for the person behind them in the drive-through, and how very often that happens. One person even paid for a whole morning’s worth of people’s drive-through orders. The reporter interviewed people in the drive-through when they learned their food had been paid for, and apparently each one of them spontaneously said it made them want to go do the same for someone else. Then the reporter asked the manager how often it happens and he said it happens all the time, it is just extremely common.

Some talking head social scientist, I missed her name, said it’s no longer just a little fad, as it was when it started a few years ago. It’s widespread, growing, sticking around as a specific thing, this ‘paying it forward’ idea. Because of course we do good for others all the time. We know it in our families, among our friends, in our churches or synagogues, in our cities and towns, and around the world. People with great resources giving time and some of their resources to directly help people.

lamaAnd then I read something on one of those “10 ways to be happy” articles that said the key way to be happy is to do kindnesses for other people. Well. I started thinking about how we count things. We count the number of glasses of water we drink. We count our steps, some of us. We count all kinds of things! What if we counted our acts of kindness, what if we set a daily goal? What if we made a list of the kinds of things we might be able to do, so we’d have them in mind, and then just made a little tickmark. The danger is that it becomes about puffing up your own chest about just how GOOD you are, so if you make notes, “helped a little old lady cross Anderson Lane” it might seep into a sense of “hey, aren’t I such a good person! Look at me!  But maybe if it’s just a little anonymous kind of tickmark, details forgotten, it’ll just be a count, nothing more.

For the last couple of weeks I participated in a group focused on health, nutrition, and exercise. Every day we reported our points, to a total of 10 each in eating, moving, and self-care. Before we started, I came up with a framework so I could be exacting about figuring about what to report, so it made it simple to know. I think I want to try this idea; given the fact that I work in my home alone all day every day, I won’t have that many options so the count I’m shooting for might be smaller than someone who’s out in the world every day. It doesn’t have to cost money — you don’t have to buy someone else’s food or drink –but all of us, I think, can come up with some possibilities that fit our own lives. Kindness begets kindness.

There isn’t one damn thing I can do about the economy, about the minimum wage, about the outrageous number of public gun slaughters that threaten us all, about Syria. Nothing. But I can focus on increasing my acts of kindness in the world, and some of those will beget other acts. Usually a giant rock drops into a pond and from that, little ripples spread out. What if we start in the other direction — let’s get the ripples going and just see what happens. I’m going to make a list of possibilities and see how many I can do in a day. Little things, anonymous things when possible, kindness in the world.

Happy Friday y’all. xoxo

the best and the worst

This post is a two-for-one. I thought about simply writing two different posts, but the good bit is too insubstantial, and I don’t want to give the worst bit enough importance to have its own post. I’m small and petty that way. 🙂

So here’s the best, for starters. Taking away nothing at all from the deep pleasures of living with someone you love (having someone to sleep against at night, having someone to share wonderful things with and scary stuff, being touched, having your feet or back rubbed), I have to say there are some fantastic things about living alone — especially if you’re like me, and very happy with your own company and in good health. Let me tell you about my Sunday, because it encompasses the glorious pleasures of living alone.

Saturday night I went to a wonderful little party in a beautiful backyard. On the way there, I drove underneath a big rainbow — it had rained in south Austin, but not at my house. I sat at a table under the stars and trees with some wonderful conversationalists, drank a bit of wine, did some dancing when Gloria Gaynor came on, tried a hula hoop but it was too small and light and wouldn’t stay up, and headed home exactly when I wanted to. Removed my party-girl make-up, brushed my teeth, climbed into my wonderful bed and read myself to sleep, happily. Sunday I woke up late, around 9am, and just picked up my phone and started reading the book I hoped to finish. And I read, and read, and read. Got up and made my coffee and brought the French press pot back to bed with me. Kept reading, as much as I wanted. Finished the pot of coffee, kept reading. Oh, need to pee! No need to turn on the bathroom light because the seat will be down. Because it always is down. Because there’s no one lifting it and leaving it up. Ever. I cannot tell you how glorious that is, because when I have to go to the bathroom I’m always in a rush, having put it off for too long, and dancing around for that extra second it takes to put the seat down is sometimes a second too far, not to give you too much information. Then back to bed to read for another glorious hour. Then a hot bath, to read some more, than back into my cool-sheeted bed, my glorious cozy bed, surrounded by pillows and quiet and no one getting irritated because I’ve now been reading for four hours. Along the way I’d gotten up to make my green smoothie, which I also enjoyed in bed while I was reading. When I finished the book, I put on music — whatever I felt like listening to, at the volume I felt like listening, and I danced around my house, so happily. I sat and wrote for a while, uninterrupted. Wandered out to my patio. It was a beautiful several hours, and they were all and entirely mine. And the toilet seat was always down. I really love that.

I cannot recommend that you do NOT read this book strongly enough.
I cannot recommend that you do NOT read this book strongly enough.

But now to the worst, and it’s a book I will anti-recommend to you. The author, Marisha Pessl, made a huge splash with her first book Special Topics in Calamity Physics. She was said to be brilliant, crazy brilliant, pulling off everything that sounded so great to me, so I bought that first book but somehow never got around to reading it. I do that a lot. So when this book, her second, was published to acclaim, I decided I’d read it. It’s a relatively large book and I posted a little note on facebook asking if anyone wanted to read it with me and Cyndi said yes. She finished it pretty quickly, and though I was extremely disappointed by it early on, the fact that I’d gotten her to read it (and she had) made me feel like I had to finish it.  I also kept reading because I hoped like hell there would be some kind of pay-off for the howling misery I felt reading it. Surely. Surely it couldn’t really be this bad. I felt like that kid at the parade, looking around in disbelief saying, “But wait . . . the emperor has no clothes on!”

The gist of the story is that a NYC reporter and two young adult side-kicks are investigating the apparent suicide of a mysterious young woman, the daughter of a famous director of underground horror movies (named Cordova) — snuff films, from the sound of it. Although maybe they aren’t, maybe it was all just acting, he’s so super top-secret that a whole universe of his obsessive fans create and maintain this underworld world. You know, that’s an OK premise for a book. But nothing worked, in my opinion. Not one thing. I realize that I am a demanding reader, since I critique others’ novels all day long and have learned how to not only see what doesn’t work, but to see exactly why it doesn’t work. Plots, dialogue, character development, pacing, all I can see now is the man behind the curtain and I know he’s no wizard. (Although I can be taken away — and I go willingly — when writers pull it off, and I’m always begging and hoping and praying that they do. I want nothing more than to go there, to be taken away, to go into a world of any kind, even one that is mysterious and other-worldly. Buddy, I will go there with you and love you forever.)

So, in no particular order, because it was all so awful, here are my complaints:

Plotting — I’ll begin with an aside. I once read and evaluated a novel written by a 15-year-old boy, filled with vampires and dragons and werewolves, and Dracula in a prairie schooner. It was terrible, but he was 15! He’d written a very long novel, and I was so impressed by that fact alone. But one big problem out of all the big problems was that everything always happened perfectly for the protagonist. He dodged every single bullet (or arrow or slave rebellion) and all his bullets and arrows always found their mark. In this book, every person the main character Scott needs to talk to somehow just sits there and fills him in on EVERYTHING. One, at the end, fills him in but it’s a dodge (and Jesus, he really just went with it, at that point??). Characters who never speak, ever, mysteriously just sit and talk to him for hours — and serve him tea! A professor interrupted in mid-lecture, furious at being interrupted, just mysteriously stands in the hallway and tells him everything! Always! Bad things do happen to him — he walks into his apartment as someone is robbing him — but too many things just happen too perfectly, especially in terms of people just giving him huge chunks of what he needs to know.

The main character Scott is an investigative reporter with a nasty history investigating the film director. As he starts off here, he encounters these two young people, complete strangers, a young man named Hopper and a young woman named Nora, and presto! They are part of the investigation with him — and Nora even moves in with him, and sits on his bed talking to him in the middle of the night! The flimsiest of explanations is given for their sudden and complete participation in the investigation, but I didn’t buy a word of it. There are so many pieces of the plot that are nonsensical (but not in a way of creating a world I’ll buy into), storylines abandoned, oversized details too unrealistic but meant to be realistic.

Insulting me — Pessl seems to think her readers are morons (given the way she is described in interviews and reviews, as something of a young genius, she probably does). She doesn’t trust me to know any damn thing. And worse, she’ll explain it to me in a parenthetical comment, not even working it into the passage, or in dialogue. She’ll say something and then explain it in parentheses. I really hate that.

Bizarre dialogue and absence of unique voices — the main character constantly says “Thank Christ.” First, I have never heard anyone say Thank Christ, have you? I’ve heard Thank God, or Thank heavens, but I’ve never heard Thank Christ. And she uses it like a tic of her own rather than letting it be something integral to the character’s voice. And no one sounds any different than anyone else; surely a seasoned reporter’s voice (a 44-year-old man, I think that was his age) would sound different from a very young woman (who was far too old-voiced, mature) and a young man with a troubled past. If she hadn’t given me attributions, I couldn’t have told anyone’s dialogue apart from anyone else’s. And their dialogue was just false, anyway. Super annoying.

Here’s my guess. Pessl loved (or loves) Ayn Rand. You know in Rand’s books, the “good guys” are described in these absolute, unbelievable, nearly Platonic forms, like gods of some ridiculous oversized kind. It is the extremity, the inhuman depiction of them that I’m thinking of here, because Cordova and his whole group (and his fans, Cordovites) live in such an extreme way — “diving for mermaids,” only living on the most extreme edge burned by terror so that ordinary life is meaningless, once you have lived there, like that, with them, you are set free from ordinary existence! You must be free! You must now live only in the extreme, because the rest is pale! I call BULLSHIT. Every single time I encountered this breathless enamored glamorization of the results of living in constant and total terror on the edge of existence, it just pissed me off in the same way Rand’s glamorization of her god-like heroes and heroines pissed me off.

Language. I love books that make me turn the pages quickly because I can’t wait to see what’s next in the plot, I can’t wait to see how it turns out. I love books that I don’t give a crap about how it turns out because the sentences are so beautiful, the insights are so stunning, the figurative language so original and gasp-inducing. This book is more the former (but without the “loving it” part), but she does try to use figurative language and it’s clunky and awful. I see this a lot in my first-time writer clients who want to use figurative language, metaphors, similes, and those who are trying to be original with it will sometimes reach pretty far. But as I tell them, the comparison has to illuminate the thing being illuminated in an important way, in a way that helps the reader understand SO MUCH. It has to add, it can’t just be something jarring because it’s not a cliche. On occasion she’d add something illuminating, but so much more often the language stopped me cold because it was simply wrong. Not only didn’t it add, it stopped me cold. I hate that. Also: She italicized words all over the place. Nearly every line of dialogue had a couple (or more) italicized words, to the point of distraction. What was that about?!

Resolution. I care so very much about how novels end, and like excellent TV, a bad ending (I’m thinking of the Sopranos, the ending of which still leaves me so dissatisfied) ruins what came before. I don’t think Philip Roth has ever ended a book to my satisfaction, though I keep reading his books in the hopes that just once he’ll make me happy. This book takes the reader to an apparent ending 90% in, but of course we know there is still too much of the book remaining so this cannot be the ending. Sometimes that can work, I guess, but too much was made of it here, and it didn’t work. But then the real ending, the last 10%, was too little too fast and just so disappointing. Since the main reason I kept forcing myself to grit my teeth and read was the hope that there would be a satisfying ending, I read the last word with pure bitterness. I finished reading with a feeling akin to hate for Marisha Pessl, whose books I will never again read. She seems too impressed by her own cleverness, so I hope she has a lot of fun with herself but I won’t play with her ever again.

Sheesh. See what I mean by the worst? I’d have quit reading ~15% in if I were reading on my own; life is far too short to spend an hour of it reading such crap. I enjoyed spending my Sunday the way I did, but I hated that it was such terrible stuff I was reading. The best part: I’m finished! Yay! I’m deleting it from my kindle completely, because I hope to forget it completely, and I’d hate to run across it in my complete-forgetting state and spend even 5 minutes reading it again.

It’s going to be a busy week for me — I hope it’s a great week for you and that Monday is an easy start into it. And I hope you haven’t read anything so awful lately. 🙂

quiet happiness

I am a huge fan of big loud happiness — group happiness, squealing happiness, outside happiness, it’s all good. When everyone is there, when it’s just a great laughing good time, that’s good happiness. I enjoy it a lot. But actually, I think I enjoy the quiet happiness even more. Quiet happiness doesn’t need other people in the same way big loud happiness does — is that right? I can’t think of a big loud happy you can have all by yourself. If I’m right, that gives the trump to quiet happiness, because you can have it even if there’s no one else around.

Quiet happiness is probably closer to some of the synonyms, too: contentment, pleasure, even joy, though I’ll bet joy goes both ways. Quiet happiness is also deep, and I really enjoy that part of it. I’ve been feeling a lot of quiet happiness lately, even as I’ve been feeling so re-newly heartbroken by the end of my marriage. Letting go of someone you love so much in the hopes that he can be happy is just so so hard. So perhaps that feeling sets the tone for quiet happiness, because I sit alone a lot, thinking and feeling my heartache. But in the midst of that, there is happiness all around.

I’ve been going to Mozart’s, a coffee house on Lake Austin, at sunset. There is often a nice breeze, and I sit at the edge of the deck and watch the sun go down, and write.* The light is often beautiful, and the deck is filled with people and usually someone playing a guitar.

beautiful light, and my notebook for writing.
beautiful light, and my notebook for writing.

The light in that picture fits quiet happiness, doesn’t it? And then, the sunset:

sunset

When the light is fading, I go home to my quiet, beautiful little home and read, or find a movie that makes me happy, or make my own music.

my new ukulele, my old banjo, and my even older guitar. my babies.
my new ukulele, my old banjo, and my even older guitar. my babies.

I’ll cook a nice dinner for myself, take pleasure in the preparation, enjoy the quiet and my sweet life. I’ll put on some beautiful music, like the CD that Dixie just sent me, The Wailin’ Jennys, and just drift in their beautiful quiet harmonies. I love harmony. Last night I went to see Woman Under the Influence, that great old 1974 movie by Cassavetes, starring Gena Rowlands, at the Paramount — a very old theater downtown. I feel drawn in, but in a good way, sitting quietly inside myself and watching everything going on all around me. The breakdown, the remaking, the love in that movie makes me very quiet and feel so touched by life, by how hard it is, by how hard we have to try.

Tonight I’m going to a concert — Iron & Wine. Sam Beam (the guy who is Iron & Wine) lives in Dripping Springs, just SW of Austin, and I love his music because it’s quiet, rich, moody, him and his guitar. My favorite kind of music, a songwriter and his guitar. I hope you have a beautiful Saturday, as I will.

*Here is the short piece I wrote that night on the deck, July 18, 2013:

Here I am with a broken heart. I feel the thousands of small raku-fractures on its surface, some going deep into the muscle, some running dangerously into the chambers and large vessels. The sun is moving down behind the hill over my left shoulder. A young woman plays guitar and sings “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” in my voice. Whispery, soft edges. I believe her, even though her own songs all sound sad.

Now the sun comes in at my eye-angle and the white lights come on in the trees. So much light, but all of it soft and late.

People here on the deck in pairs and groups. Only one other person is alone, like me — a college-age girl, texting friends to come meet her, probably. I have people to text, friends, my daughter to call, but I want to sit here alone in the fading light.

People say cheer up. People say it’ll get better. People say don’t be sad. People say let not your heart be troubled. People say put on a happy face. People send jokes, photos of hot young men without shirts, photos of kittens. People try to fix me up. People tell me I’ll fall in love again.

But I don’t want to run away. The cracks are in my heart, not on the ground. I can stand here. I can bear the end of the day, the soft sad music, my solitude. I honor my love by facing it.

To get here, I drove past the house I lived in when I was 6, Queen of the Pillbugs. Past the house where I nursed my brand new baby Katie. Past the house where my father finally pulled his trigger. Past 6 years old, 23 years old, and now I am here, 54 years old and my raku heart races to the next.

What have these people around me figured out? Have they? They laugh and seem easy, seem like they’ve found the grail.

My coffee is cold. My mousse is gone. The sun is down, and the crowd gets bigger, and louder. And I will go home.

 

joy

joyTell me what joy is? I think it’s something like a smell, in that you can only get to it by referring to something else. This smell is like that, it smells like vanilla or chocolate, like jasmine. But what does jasmine smell like? Can you give a more refined answer than “sweet”?

Joy is like that, I think. It’s like happy, but can you be more refined than that? More refined than “really happy?” I can talk about what gets me there, you can probably talk about what gets you there, and we can probably agree on some general things that get us all there, like seeing the new baby born into our family, or having all our family together in one place after a long time. Being in a gloriously beautiful place. Things like that.

I am basically filled with joy these days, and I keep saying out loud, just loud enough for me to hear it, just think what my life was like in January. It is so surprising. I am having such joy from being near Katie and Trey and having easy opportunities to see them without it being a big deal. I am having such joy from my regular weekly talks with Marnie, and I get to see her and Tom next weekend! Such joy from my beautiful little home, now deeply familiar to me and lived-in and we are part of each other. Such joy from new friends who are no longer just acquaintances — new friends who make me so rich, like un-neurotic Janet, who has already helped pull me into a change I’ve tried so hard to make for many years. Such joy from these blue skies white clouds and bluebonnets and wine cups and glorious flowers in busy places. Such joy from exciting plans coming up, travel to Chicago and New York and Indonesia, and then my precious friends Peggy and Sherlock coming to see me.  Joy from poetry and words and images — including poetry written by my friend Wayne, who wrote this poem I shared back in February, titled “The Temptation of Movement” — and Maggie Nelson’s blue words, and Louise Gluck, and so many words in The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker sitting on my coffee table in growing stacks and so little time to soak them all in, so an embarrassment of joyous riches.

And food, my old familiar food like barbecue and TexMex and pralines and migas, and sharing it with people who know just how to eat it, who know that your barbecue should be served on a piece of butcher paper and the appropriate sides are sliced onions and pickles and a stack of plain old sliced white bread, and that iced tea is unsweetened, and that the best follow-up is banana pudding or peach cobbler.

I think I have felt so out of place for so long, and there is joy in being embedded in familiar. I love New York, love love love love it, with all my heart, and miss it terribly. I’m only now being able to watch shows that are filmed in New York without breaking down in tears from the pain of missing it. New York is mine, and when people here ask me in bewilderment New York? Why? I have a thousand quick and easy answers, and I automatically sit up a little straighter and lean in and get excited and start gesturing loudly as I answer. And it’s also true that I always felt outside it in some way, not having grown up with bagels and alternate side parking. New York is my adopted home and Texas is my natural home, and just as with your children, you love the adopted one just as much as the natural one, every bit as much, but when you look at your natural child’s face you can see the familiar bone structure in a way you just can’t in your adopted child’s face. The love is no less, no different, but the bone structure is there anyway. I felt such joy being part of New York and having it be part of me, so this is not about feeling joy here but not there. But being here is giving me the joy of my familiar.

It has been such a surprise, finding myself waking up with joy, sitting with it throughout the day, and going to sleep with it. (And sleep! Oh yes, oh how well I have been sleeping, another gigantic joy that’s undoubtedly catalyzing the rest.) No one knows better than I know that it’s a blip, this joy, that life is never just one thing, ever, and that all kinds of things are waiting for me just ahead, more joy and less joy, more trouble, more hardship, more pleasures. So what is there to do but soak and revel in this while it is here, be present, notice it, drink it in, glow it back out so perhaps someone else gets a glancing whisper of it.

I hope so much that there is joy in your life right now, from something. And if there isn’t, I hope you can remember that there will be, one of these days, and if you’ve been following me since last October, you know that I know what I’m talking about. Happy Sunday, y’all. xo

my old friend

Sounds Of SilenceHey y’all, remember that great album? Remember albums, and reading the liner notes, and holding the jacket in your hand while you were stretched out, listening to the whole scratchy record? Remember that? It was so great. My girl Katie still prefers albums and has all hers and all my old ones, and when I go to her house and she’s playing one, it just sounds so great. I had the Sounds of Silence album and remember just how it smelled, just how the edges of the album cover got worn, the corners softened.

But that’s not my point. 🙂 I’ve been so silent! Here, obviously, but in real life — kind of. I’m really quite happy, and usually when I’m so silent it’s because I’m quiet and empty in my mind too so the quietude has a heaviness with it. Now it’s not like that at all. I’m just happy, bopping around, feeling optimistic and seeing some cool possibilities in my future. I came here just to say that, but as I’ve been writing I suddenly figured out the why of it. It’s because my eyes are just looking ahead, and who knows what’s ahead?! I don’t!

What’s normal for me is to look backwards, and there’s a lot of stuff there to look at. A lot of stuff to feel, to remember, to analyze, to turn upside down and inside out. And all those things connect to other things, and to big questions, most of which start with why, and then you’re off to the races, right? Why connects to why not, and then you’re into issues of causality or epistemology or Meaning(!) of(!) Life(!) and billions of words have been spilled on behalf of those topics, a million of which came out of my fingers, mouth, and mind.

What seems to be becoming normal for me now, though, is making something new out of myself, out of what’s inside me, into my remaining decades of life. I can’t see it, I can feel it quivering, but it’s not clear enough yet, there isn’t anything to say, there’s only something to do. You can see the problem this causes for regular blog posts! But man oh man, it’s great for the living of a life.

I am looking forward to going to Marfa next week, and plan to take books and photography gear and writing gear. I plan to start the “Exploring The World” exercises (mentioned here) out there, too. Lots to do out there, lots to do in here, lots to do in the future, lots to do today. Lots to think about. Lots to mull over. Lots to let go of. Lots to plan. Lots to start acting on. Lots to be happy about.

And lots of love to you. xo

this/that/the other thing

greaderTHIS: If you use Google Reader, as I do, bad news: Google is shutting it down. I KNOW. What am I going to do now? I found out I can export everything and there are ways to import my hundreds of feeds into a new reader, but I’ve been using Google Reader forever and now I have to change. Pout. If you subscribe to this blog via Google Reader, you might want to just get an email subscription, over there in the sidebar.

imgresTHAT: It’s Friday so I have a few links to share, things I want to look at more closely when I have a minute because they look so so good:

  • Here are 20 obsolete words that should make a comeback. My quick favorites: malagrugrous, or maybe scriptitation. You’ll have to click through to see what they mean.
  • Although I’ve had to learn how to be entirely alone, I’ve never had a problem being alone with myself. I know some people who do, who find it so terrifying to be alone with themselves that they schedule something every night, all weekend. I agree with Tarkovsky here when he said “…they should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.”
  • Do you use Evernote? I do, it’s really handy. But apparently there is SO much more that can be done with it. Read this for details, Queenie.
  • I thought Justin Timberlake did a fantastic job with SNL last week, and laughed real hard at most of it. But this skit had me laughing so hard. Vanessa Bayer (the woman on the left) is really good, in very small ways, slight shifts of her eyes, so wonderful. Here, see what I mean if you didn’t already see it:

 

imgresTHE OTHER THING: I’m finding the sweet spot of doing/not-doing and it’s very nice. The things I have coming up are all things I’m looking forward to. Pizza tonight with sweet Katie and Trey; a hike in the greenbelt on Saturday; brunch with a dear friend Sunday morning followed by a St Pat’s Day party with my gang that afternoon. Later this month, my desert trip. Next month, a trip to NYC. The following month, May, a trip to Chicago. In between, time to myself, time to work and write and play. Time to practice yodeling, and the dulcimer. Time to think, time to walk. Life is really good and I am happy.

Have a wonderful Friday, y’all. xo

lots of stuff

I thought I was going to write a post about intimacy, but I’ll have to set that aside and get this one down for myself. I’ve got such a huge lot of tabs I can’t seem to close so I save them here, and hope that one or two interests you:

  • Flavorwire posted 17 essays by [female] writers that everyone should read. Adrienne Rich, Jamaica Kincaid, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, great great company.
  • And just for fun, Flavorwire also posted 10 obscure punctuation marks that should get more play. I kind of like the sarc mark, but the interrobang also wins for its fun name.
  • Here’s a recording of Flannery O’Connor herself reading A Good Man is Hard to Find. Amazing to hear her voice from way back in 1959.
  • I just want to read all the links on this post from the Paris Review about unreliable narrators and fictional memoirs.
  • How you resist these 8 little things to do every day that will make you happier?
  • This is a sweet little video of what happens what random strangers sit together in a ball pit. They’re given questions (written on the balls) that ask the big questions, not the stupid small talk questions. If you watch it, watch it through to the end. I love it.
  • This isn’t a link, but something I read this week:  It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis. ~Henry Miller, in Of Art and the Future.  You are so very right, Henry Miller.
  • If you like seeing the players crack themselves up on SNL, you’ll like the video in this link. I always love to see Bill Hader crack up. And I learned that the writer puts surprise cue cards in for Stefon that Bill Hader never sees until he’s performing, which contributes to his breathless laughing.
  • A gorgeous conversation with George Saunders, one of my favorite writers ever. And for fun, the stylesheet his copyeditors used for Tenth of December.
  • A healthy closing note: eat certain grains and beans at room temperature for good colon health! Covering all the bases this morning. 🙂

Whew, with that my browser is now much more manageable. We’re crossing our fingers for some rain here in Central Texas — hope you get what you want today, too.

good thing of the day: pecan pancakes. with real maple syrup.

oh yeah, I forgot!

Dawn. Which just happens to be my middle name.
Dawn. Which just happens to be my middle name.

I forgot this is my life.

I forgot that it’s mine to do with what I wish.

I forgot that others are in my life and in my heart, but it’s still my life.

I forgot that I’m the decider (shaking my tiny fist at GWB on that one).

I forgot that there’s still an awful lot of it to come, probably.

I forgot that there are so many things I can do with it, places I can take it, things awaiting me, surprise good and surprise bad.

I forgot that this house is mine and I can take up all the damn space. Drink out of the orange juice bottle. Have gas. 🙂 Walk around at 3am. Sing as loud as I want. Do this and then that just because. Eat M&Ms for dinner if I want, so there. I can listen to The Partridge Family on repeat without (much) shame.

I forgot that I’m a happy person. Gee, it’s been so long I forgot all about it. Remember that time I was stopped by the gate check person at an airport, and when she looked at my ticket she asked me what my specialty was….and I was so confused and almost said, “Well, I’m really good at being happy?” and then I realized that my ticket said Dr. Lori H. I just adore that that was my first and only thought to the question of my specialty.

How could I have forgotten all those things? Grief puts blinders on you in some strange way, like those blinders a horse wears in the city so it’s not distracted by the world all around, by the life all around. So all the griever or the horse can see is just the street in front, under the feet, no other life.

Happy Tuesday, y’all, I hope it’s a beautiful day.

good thing of the day: memory. just think how awful it would be to forget.

glory be

sunset
let the sun go down on me when it looks like this

I talk to my husband back in New York City and he tells me it’s freezing, 13 degrees, with that brilliant diamond dust snow. He thought he might do a particular thing last night, but it was just too cold to venture out. I, on the other hand, had all the doors and windows open and the ceiling fans going because it was in the way upper 70s, an absolutely gorgeous day — at least as I saw it through the French doors, because I work almost every waking minute. Which place would I rather be? I don’t know.

But. But! Yesterday also had some moments of glory and real happiness. And not the hollow ones I wrote about earlier this week, where there’s a sense of going through the motions. In the way these things work, they were the smallest most mundane things. You’ll laugh, but one came while I was doing laundry. All the years in New York, I did our laundry which involved schlepping it down to the basement with a pocketful of quarters, and hoping the machines were available. It was dicey when our building got infested with bedbugs (we never got them) — did that person taking their clothes out of the washer or dryer have bedbugs? Would we get them now? In my new house, my washer and dryer are in the garage, and I walk out my front door, cross the breezeway, just a couple of steps, and open the door to the machines.

The people who live in the other side of my duplex are away for four months on a round-the-world cruise, so I have the whole property to myself. I stripped the sheets off my bed, gathered up a bit of other laundry, and walked out to the machines. When I started the washer, I thought huh, why don’t I just leave the doors open so I can hear when it finishes? So I did. (Our front doors are next to each other so I wouldn’t do that when they’re home.) I walked back to my computer and the warm air was flowing through the house and the sky was so blue and there was the homey sound of laundry being done, and my whole being came together and I was so so happy. I just was. I felt whole and happy, taking good care of myself, living in a home that looks more like a home already than my NYC apartment ever did, even after six years. Even better, though, it looks like me, it feels like me, it’s lovely and personal. I think the kind of happiness that engulfs you often comes in these perfectly ordinary moments. I had one in 1983 when I was taking a lemon meringue pie out of the oven, I still remember that one. Perfectly ordinary, quite mundane. I’m not sure you can try to make that happen, though being mindful during any process changes it a bit. But I don’t know if I could mindful my way to that kind of moment.

The other wasn’t so mundane, and it always grabs me. But today, I was already so happy, it pushed me into GLORY BE! land. I cannot sit still when I hear Chuck Berry sing “You Never Can Tell,” and the scene from Pulp Fiction is a great use of the song.

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I have a playlist I listen to in the background during the day, and I was walking through the living room when the song came on. I kind of did a leap in the air and had to dance. Twisting, twisting, twisting, doing all those great 60s dances, laughing out loud, taking up all the space, dancing through my whole house. I am sadly so out of shape that I could hardly breathe when the song ended, but I had enough breath to laugh.

Whatever else the day brought — lots of work, three Skype calls, dinner-making and cleaning up — it was a day I had my own happiness and joy, connecting all the parts of me into one. Hallelujah y’all.

good thing of the day: the brilliant way music can take you to a different place. stop and think about how cool that is, you just hear some sounds and your body can change, your mood can shift, you move around in time. THAT IS AMAZING.

hollow or shell take your pick

Last night I went to one of the greatest independent bookstores around — BookPeople, near downtown. I cancelled something else to go to this event, because I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that George Saunders was here, in Austin, promoting his new book Tenth of December: Stories. The New York Times Magazine did a great profile of him recently, titling the article “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” He was utterly charming, and so hilarious I actually cackled a number of times. The whole second floor, where the reading took place, was packed — standing room only, but in the way of a subway car in rush hour. It turns out he’d given his very first ever book reading at the same store, but there weren’t many people in the audience and half were his family. (You do know he’s a Texan, right? Yup, born in Amarillo.) He told an adorable story about it, and when he answered questions after the reading, each answer wandered off into adorable stories, always funny and always unexpected, either in what happened or in the way he’d tell it. I wanted to buy a copy there and have him sign it, but I’d left my wallet at home (I thought; turned out it was in the car. Bummer.).

But I very nearly didn’t go. It was an outstandingly beautiful day today, mid-70s and sunny blue skies. I’d worked hard all day. I’d looked forward to seeing him since the day after I moved here, literally. It’s just hard to get out the door, it’s hard to push myself into the world. Still. Oh, I’m doing it, I am, I’m going, I’m pushing, I’m happy houring, I’m brunching and all that stuff. I am. And when I’m there, I am enjoying myself, often a great deal, but it still has an odd feeling to it and I haven’t been able to figure out what was so odd. Today I realized that I feel like an empty shell — a mostly empty shell, anyway. It’s kind of like my face smiles and shows I’m happy (and I am….), my throat and mouth and face cooperate and I laugh (and I do…..), and my body language shows I’m engaged (and I am…..), and my mind is present and involved (and it is….) but what’s missing, I realized, is engagement by my heart. Or my spirit, or something. It’s not quite that I’m going through the motions, although I kind of am. I feel hollow in a very odd way.

Partly, of course, I’m still displaced and heartbroken and I miss my husband. And he misses me. It feels so odd not to be doing things with him — so there’s a double aspect to it. He’s not there and that’s odd, leaving me looking around, what did I forget. And partly too it’s a test of what I think about meaning, and happiness. Texans are wont to say things like, “oh, I just love winter,” or “boy I really do love snow!” And of course, at least in this part of Texas winter is mostly an idea and snow is rare as hen’s teeth — so it’s an untested love they have. Put them/us in a real winter with long-lasting ugly black snow piles and then let’s talk again. Well, I’m in a similar boat here about being alone. All my adult life I’ve said, “oh, I just love time to myself,” or “boy I’d just relish having all that time like you do.” And yet I’ve never lived alone, since I was in high school really. So now here I am, at put-up-or-shut-up time and let’s talk.

I struggle with meaning now in a way I didn’t before. So I wake up alone, spend the entire day alone working, and in the evenings sometimes I go somewhere alone, or I meet brand new people and do things in their presence. And then I come home alone and go back to sleep alone. I dream alone. I hear scary noises at night alone. I go to a movie alone, and afterwards while I’m driving home alone I think about the movie. Alone. I make dinner alone and eat it alone. I shop alone to fill my lonely refrigerator and pantry, filled with oh-so-neat stuff, all lined up and clean. And now, in a way I never have before, I find myself wondering what it means, what it’s even about, What it’s worth. (This is not about depression to any degree; it’s about the importance of another person in shaping the meaning of things.)

So there I’ve been, my whole loudmouth life, saying that my life is filled with meaning! I find meaning in all the little things, the birds that come to my feeder (meaning! beauty!), in writing and reading (meaning! thinking deeply about things that matter), making my coffee (the pleasure of being mindful during a daily task, and the pleasures of the process), taking a walk (meaning! appreciating the world around me), talking to strangers (ok, that’s hard for me, but …. meaning! trying to cross the divide and really see another person, and let them see me). I do believe those things, and I do believe meaning resides in them. But I’ve always done them in the presence of someone else, or with them, so there was talking and sharing the experience. I’d see the birds and then have a conversation about them, and the cycle of things, how the martins will be coming back soon and last year they had so many babies. I’d take a walk with my husband and we’d talk about whatever we talked about, and I’d adore the trees and the blue sky and the way little yellow-flowered weeds pushed through the bricks.

Perhaps I am kind of hollow right now, hollowed out by all the loss. That makes sense, and I am OK with that. Perhaps I’m just stunned by having to find an entirely new way to live, at 54. That makes sense, and I’m mostly OK with that. But the feeling of hollowness is awful, really. Empty, hollow, a shell, a ghost. I so enjoyed watching and listening to George Saunders read, and I had long periods of forgetting myself entirely and just being in the moment. And then I got in my car alone, drove home alone, and didn’t have someone to tell all about it, to talk about the genius of his voice, the uniqueness of his perspective.

I don’t know. I don’t have a neat ending for this, and I’m not down or depressed, I’m just trying to figure out this whole thing. I know I will, and I know I won’t always feel hollow, but there’s a lot to think about.

Happy Wednesday, y’all.

good thing of the day; the pleasures of taste: bright joyous orange juice, dark silky coffee, seedy chewy bread, toasted. Those tastes and textures, so much pleasure.

thoughts on happiness

If you’re new to my blog, you might be very surprised to learn that I’m a very happy person. For the last 2.5 months I’ve been mostly devastated and heartbroken because my granddaughter died, my marriage ended, and my life had to be totally uprooted and started over, halfway across the country from where I was living. I left New York City, which I loved, and moved back to Austin, a place I also love . . . but still. I’ve been very sad, because very sad things have been happening, but in the larger context I’m a happy person. And right THERE — right there we have to take a turn, because I want to know what you think that means, to be a happy person. Hell, I want to know what I think that means . . . which is why I’m writing about it, to figure this out.

Let’s start with deductive reasoning, beginning with my generally understood principle that I am a happy person. I am, even though I’m sad right now. I’m a happy person who is sad right now. After a lot of thinking about this for the last few decades, I’ve come to believe that in large part this is a function of temperament. The software that came with my system is happy. I’ll weeble, I’ll wobble, I’ll veer, I’ll even dip and wallow, but once things settle down, I return to my steady state of being temperamentally happy. I have known people who were temperamentally sad, or angry, or uncomfortable, or neurotic, or depressed, and that’s just their steady state. I’ve come to think that advising them to be happy is as silly as advising me to focus on and value all the discomfort, all the unhappy things. Sure, I can do that for a bit (even if you don’t ask me to), but before too long I’ll be reaching for perspective, or seeing things my way and there I am.

That’s not to say that we can’t help ourselves feel better, of course. There’s a whole industry of “be happy now!” advisors out there. Most of them rightly point out that it’s an inside job, and that if you think you’ll be happy when x or y happens, you’re missing the boat. And that’s also not to say that we’re stuck with how we are. But I’m fairly convinced now that these are issues of temperament and that’s more important than I ever realized.

But then there’s the question of what happiness is — a warm puppy? Laughing a lot? Feeling upbeat and Up With People all the time? Only seeing the sunny side? God almighty, I’d want someone to put me out of the misery of those last two versions of happiness. Such a sloppy word, happy. I think it’s used interchangeably with so many other words, and overlaps with so many things too (contentment, joy, for instance). So here’s where I’ll turn to deductive reasoning: I am happy, so what are the constituent elements of that? This is absolutely an issue where we all have our own definitions . . . and here are the bits of mine:

  • I tend to have a system that notices and is really grateful for small things. And I’m grateful for that. 🙂 The moon and stars, the sunrise and sunset, birds, fire, food cooking, those things grab me and take me out of myself and make me nearly unbearably happy.
  • My emotional system is quite complex and deep, so whether I like it or not, I feel things deeply and often and respond to the world emotionally. If I couldn’t feel sorrow, grief, awe, tender, wistful, joy, bliss, content, blue, anxious, and the dozens of other emotions that grip me, I think I’d be a much less happy person. So it’s important to my happiness that I can feel sad. Isn’t that funny?
  • I have passions, and lots of them. Words, music, art, story, people, making things, travel — I am passionate about all of that.
  • Relationships are so important to me and I am lucky to have a good many deep, meaningful ones. My children make me happy, even when we suffer together, and our relationships are the best part of my life, every day. I don’t have a hundred friends, but I have a lot of very deep friendships — and then a bunch of lighter ones. After my father killed himself 30 years ago, and my last words to him luckily were I love you, I’ve never parted from someone I love without telling them that I love them. I want people to know they are loved.
  • It always made me so sad for him — my husband was entirely unable to soothe or comfort himself, and he had a nearly impossible time taking comfort from other people, too. One thing that keeps me happy, I think, is that I am able to do this, on both sides. I have a lot of ways of comforting and soothing myself, and I do believe that’s an important part of happiness — self-regulation — because life is going to smack us around. It just is, count on it. I also take comfort from other people pretty easily.

But again, I think temperament has a lot to do with each of those things. I don’t choose to notice those various aspects of my surroundings, I just notice them before I think about it. I don’t choose to have the emotional responses I have; in fact, I can’t help it. I don’t even choose my passions, they just are. I’m sure I learned how to comfort myself, and how to love other people, but I think I’m also temperamentally pre-disposed. I am so grateful that these things are true for me.

I’ve become so annoyed by the happiness industry, writers and bloggers and self-help people who have 7 rules, 8 steps, 3 principles, whatever snazzy pitch they sold someone and now preach in syndication. Careful psychologists who study happiness, like Sonja Lyubomirsky, tend to emphasize the simple things, like the importance of being grateful and investing in important relationships; and again, I think if you’re temperamentally an unhappy or uncomfortable-in-the-world person, it can only help to shift your attention in these ways. I just think it’s a mistake for this industry to act as if all you have to do is X, Y and Z and happiness will be yours!

It seems to be a given that happiness is the desirable state, and I’m not convinced of that as an absolute truth. But let’s say it is a desirable state, and you’re not “happy.” I seriously doubt that taking on someone else’s program of steps and rules is going to get you there. You might pick up little tricks here or there, but if you just pay attention to yourself, you’ll figure things out on your own. It is an inside job, happiness, so if you’re not happy, you’re going to have to figure out for yourself (a) what that even means, to be happy; (b) what’s in the way; and (c) how you could go about getting there. 

And anyway, for you happiness might be kvetching with a similar-minded unhappy person about the unpleasant state of things. I’m always up for a little kvetching. 🙂

edit: You must read this breathtaking poem on happiness, by Dennis O’Driscoll. Thank you, Marnie dear, for sending it to me. I love it so much.

good thing of the day: poetry, and someone who loves you and knows you so well that she can send just the right one.