March 28, 2011

Living the Narrative of Our Lives

I can't remember a time when reading wasn't central to my life. I know without a doubt that my library card was the childhood object that most influenced who I am today. Throughout high school I had an after-school job at my hometown public library--a reader's dream job--which happily encouraged my compulsive and indiscriminate reading. I tackled everything from juvenile mysteries (the Nancy Drew series) to literary fiction I was too young and unsophisticated to understand (Philip Roth's When She Was Good).

I owe a huge debt to reading. Like many readers have said before me, books opened the world to me--a good thing, since my small-town, small-life world was pretty limited. Books were the peephole through which I saw what was possible. Even better, after a while, I saw that the possibilities were there not just for other people, but for me.

One legacy of reading, though, wasn't as positive. When I left home for college and my life started expanding, I confused the world I was entering for the world inside the books I'd been reading. I looked at the situations and relationships I was in as stories in a book. Sometimes, in my journal (I called it a "diary" then), I even plotted the dialogue in advance: what I would say, how the other person would respond, what the outcome of our conversation would be.

Eventually, it dawned on me that since no one responded the way I assumed they would, and things rarely turned out as I expected, the literary model might not be the way to go. But I can see the draw of this approach. A world viewed through a literary lens has structure and predictability: lives  have chapters; stories have beginnings, middles and endings; motifs foreshadow things to come; and characters have small epiphanies and big aha! moments.

A novel's heroine might face challenges; she might have the wrong information and act badly as a result; she might be confused and even despondent. But as readers, we knew that it was only a matter of time before she'd have that decisive, defining moment of clarity, the one that would alter her attitude or course of action. Order would be restored and ALL WOULD BE WELL. Even when things didn't turn out as she (or we) had hoped, we knew that the insight she'd gained in that defining moment had changed her, irrevocably, for the better.

It's a pretty comforting scenario. Even when there's not a happy ending, there's a "happier" ending (a wiser protagonist). Unfortunately, our lives don't usually play out that way. But you already knew that.

It's lovely to think that if we live our lives with good intentions, not only will we see "important" moments coming up, but light bulbs will appear, glowing, over our heads, maybe accompanied by trumpets. ALL WILL BECOME CLEAR. We'll know what to do, and we'll do it.

When I look back over the last decade of my life, I don't remember any light bulbs or trumpets. Yes, I made big changes. My decision to leave my corporate job, for instance, was a major step, but "clarity" was nowhere near what I felt at the time.

In fact, I think I was able to make the choices I did because I'd stopped believing in those big "defining moments."  I'd had a glimmer of recognition that it was the the small moments of my day-to-day life that deserved my attention.

I've come to see that it's in dailiness that our lives happen, and that it's usually quiet there (no trumpets, alas). How we live day-to-day in the world can reveal life's richness or leave us wondering why it's passed us by. I can wait for aha! moments or I can choose to savor the raspberries in my morning cereal, give my complete attention to my friend when we meet for tea downtown, and welcome the stretch in my hamstrings when I bend forward in yoga class.

It's when I participate fully in these moments that I feel most like myself, the self that's just right exactly where she is doing exactly what she's doing. This is when I see most clearly that the subtle currents linking these moments are, in fact, the true narrative of my life. I'll always love reading, but I know the artificial tidiness of fiction is no comparison to the real stuff.
Image by murphyeppoon from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

March 20, 2011

On Fear, Making Comparisons, and Cushions

Sometimes people who think differently from me are my best teachers. It's not necessarily because I adopt their beliefs, but because I'm forced to examine what I think and feel more closely.  I'm usually good with the thinking part; these days, though, I'm trying to get closer to the feelings.

Doing this can mean stopping to let things settle and to open some space around me.  "Sitting with your feelings," my yoga teacher calls it. At first this sounded easy to me, until I realized that it meant sitting with my painful feelings, not just my joyful ones. Ugh.

I had one of these "opportunities" recently, after a conversation with a friend about cushions --the financial, not the sofa, kind. Some single (as in non-partnered) people, my friend said, think that it's easier for one member of a (partnered) couple to make a major change --say leave a job or change careers-- because the other half of the couple is there to hold the financial fort (the "cushion").

My initial reaction, truly, was to laugh.  And I might have if I hadn't immediately been sucked into the comparison she'd made, at which point I started winding myself as tightly as a watch spring (do watch springs even exist any more?). Bad stuff, the comparison thing, but more on that later.

First, some background: In the past ten years my life has taken major turns that continue to surprise, delight, and scare the bejeezus out of me. For starters, eight years ago I got married. My husband and I are very different from each other. Probably because of these differences, he's profoundly --in a good way-- affected how I think about what's possible.

Four years later, I left a corporate environment that I'd been part of for many years. That decision was linked so closely to other factors that it's impossible to see a clear progression: my desire to relocate to an area I'd loved for years, my interest in pursuing a line of study I'd set aside long ago, and my need to re-boot the way that I engaged with my work and with my community. These days, I'm studying at our local university, serve on two nonprofit boards, and take on independent consulting projects.

My husband also is self-employed. He's a successful writer/journalist who loves his work and takes it seriously. He's also part of an industry that's unstable at best, where "shakeup" is the new normal, and where absolutely no one seems to be able to predict what's going to happen next, or what anybody can do to prepare for it. (Not surprisingly, he's also forgotten what the word "vacation" means.) For now, at least, the income from his work is a major source of support.

Those of you who work for yourselves or live with someone who does know the  joys of self-employment, such as paying for your own benefits or doing without. We think of our monthly health insurance payment as a second mortgage, and occasionally wonder why we enrolled, since we pay all our medical expenses up front anyway ($10,000 deductible, anyone?).

So the more I thought about this supposed marital "cushion," the more agitated I felt. Eventually, I might have been waxing nostalgic about my single days, when I was financially and emotionally responsible only for and to myself, when I could make unilateral decisions about life and money based on my own capacity and tastes, and when a partner's illness or aging wasn't a part of my emotional and financial landscape. The "cushion," for me, was being in sole control (ha!) of my life.

What I was feeling during all this, of course, was fear. The fearful me was having a hard time seeing how risk-taking was easier in an environment of financial uncertainty (no-regular-paychecks R-Us), in a life that, by definition, contains the needs and wants of two people. I felt anxious about the choices I'd made and about what they would lead to. I was, as they say in psychology circles, doing some major catastrophizing and polarizing.

Fear sucks. It limits us; it shuts us down. If I'd noticed how I was feeling and understood the feeling for what it was, I might have been able to step away from a fruitless comparison to see that our conversation was less about money than about emotions. Issues related to money, we know, are nearly always about something else. Partnered or "un-," we bring to money the memories we've associated with it as children and adults. For better or worse, it reflects our anxieties and our hopes.

For me, money has always been about security, with a dash of control and pinch of scarcity mentality thrown in for good measure. I suspect that if had a multi-million-dollar bank account, I'd still find ways to feel anxious about my financial future. (Mind you, I wouldn't mind having to struggle with that.) My guess is that our money "personality" follows us around, whatever our marital or partnership status.

As for the comparison game, it's always a losing proposition, since someone's always better off, and someone else is always worse off, than we are (at times for reasons we'll never see from where we stand). I know married people with considerable financial resources who consider themselves impoverished and live accordingly; single people with few resources who live richly; and others, with or without partners, whose circumstances and views lie in between. Playing the comparison game says much more about us than it does about any objective reality that can be compared.

What's important is not the differences that we seek in these comparisons (which we make, at least in part, to defend our decisions). What matters are the commonalities, because it's through these that we can help each other. For instance, once you admit the fear that you won't have "enough" for your old age and that you'll end up pushing a grocery cart along the highway (not that I've ever had this dream myself - oh no, not me), you'll find many people who are just as scared as you are. Some of them will relate to your story and some will have a different one. But while their circumstances may differ from yours, I'll bet that their fear feels the same.

The vulnerability that comes with sharing isn't always easy for me; what's harder, though, is getting to the truth of what I'm feeling, not just  what I'm thinking.

When I'm able to share my fears with people I trust, learning that I'm not alone in what I feel almost always lightens my burden. Then I can welcome --well, maybe not welcome, exactly, but hear-- another perspective: see the bigger picture, re-frame what I thought was an impossible situation, reconsider my approach to a problem.

As to the cushion, I do have one. It's the example my husband and my friends set for me, without intending to, in the way they value doing work that they care about. It's in their encouragement of my hard-won risk-taking and their gentle honesty when I seem to be veering off my path; it's in my husband's willingness to talk things through ad nauseam because I need to make sure I've explored every (anxiety-laden) decision thoroughly.

I know that what I'm making of my life is my own doing, but I also know that I have debts I'll never be able to repay. Thank goodness they're not of the financial kind...

Update: In one of those moments of serendipity that seem to strike more often these days, I woke this morning to Joanna Macy reciting this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.  "what batters you," says Rilke, "becomes your strength." This interview with Macy is well worth listening to. Macy is a philosopher, writer, environmental activist, and scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Did I mention she's in her 80s? With Anita Barrows, she's translated Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, which includes this piece.

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower (Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29)

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Image by Pinkpoppy from Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.

March 11, 2011

Small Pleasures

There's snow on the ground this morning. It follows a spate of weather that tried to fool us into thinking spring was here. From where I sit, I can see the cardinal who makes regular visits to our backyard bird feeder. He looks strikingly vibrant against the snow, and sits companionably on the fence with our other feathered visitors.

There's a slight wind tickling our wind chimes, and its bells mix with the birds' conversation.

In spite of the bitter cold, this struck me as a 'Singing in the Rain' moment.  Enjoy.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, whatever the view outside, I'm a sucker for this movie (and this scene in particular) and I'll look for any excuse to watch it. Schmaltzy? Maybe. Genius? Absolutely.

March 9, 2011

Einstein's Right Brain?

Searching this morning for a specific quote by Albert Einstein, I found these. Surprisingly for a scientist, Einstein speaks often about what we might call "spirit" (Note to self: I'm showing my ignorance here by thinking that scientists aren't concerned with the spiritual. Time to do something about that...).

In fact, some of his comments seem positively Buddhist to my ears (cue image of Al practicing yoga.)

  • "The only real valuable thing is intuition."
  • "A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
    •  "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."
    A sign with these words hung in Einstein's office at Princeton University:
    "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
    I've decided that Einstein was even smarter that I initially thought.

     Image by rzrxtion via Flickr, Bauhaus - Swing The Heartache: The BBC Sessions,
    under a Creative Commons license.

    March 5, 2011

    Stop Making Sense (with Apologies to David Byrne and Talking Heads)

    "That which gets used, develops." -- Hippocrates

    My inner Recovering Perfectionist (RP) doesn't require that I do everything perfectly the first time. No, she's very forgiving (ha!). She requires only that it be done very well. She's very frustrated when something doesn't come naturally, and she holds back from doing things that she suspects she won't be good at. There's a chance she might look foolish to others (the reason she never joined her friends in playing touch football in college) or to herself (the reason she still finds it hard to get into her art studio regularly).

    She's no dunce, this RP. She knows -- intellectually -- that you can't expect to be good at everything, and that the product of a first effort is likely to be mediocre, at best. But this doesn't keep her from setting impossible standards. And in fact, she doesn't think of them that way; these "standards" are so well-ingrained, and of such long standing, that she doesn't think of them at all. Until, of course, she finds herself struggling -- in the studio, say -- with a new process, or unable to make the work look exactly like she envisioned when she started. Even a whiff of potential "failure" can nip just about any new effort in the bud.

    Honestly, she's a bitch to live with.

    So here I am, fully conscious of how futile, not to mention destructive, it is to think this way, and what do I do? I think about it some more. I write in my journal; I talk to other people about it; I read books about it. I ponder. I ruminate. I make lists (lists, of course, being the answer to everything).

    I learn that I'm not the only one with this problem -- not by a long shot.  Somehow, I find little comfort in this.

    Then, a friend and very smart cookie, and someone I consider a mentor (although he doesn't know this part), tells me (I paraphrase) that I could spend the rest of my life analyzing the problem, or I could simply propel myself into my studio and make stuff. Keep making stuff. For six months, he says. Make stuff for six months. Six months! Use that make-stuff muscle regularly. Then, and only then, think about the experience. How did it feel? How do I feel? Did the process get easier over time? Did I like some aspects of it better than others? Which ones? Was it fun? How did I feel when things started getting easier (or didn't)? Now what?

    He tells me that sometimes we over-think things (Me? Over-think?). He says that those of us who do this often believe that we need to figure everything out, have all the answers, before we act. "Good luck with that," I can hear him saying (although he's much too nice to actually say this to me).

    I'm coming around. Sometimes the best thing we can do in these situations is to stop thinking, to turn off the fear messages from our lizard brains* and just DO (thanks, Nike).

    The paradox is that not doing is both easy and hard. Easy because if we can persuade ourselves that we can't do it -- after all, our first results were pretty crappy, no? -- we can cross it off the list for good. (One less item on the performance anxiety list.) Harder because it's painful to shut ourselves off from doing things we might enjoy or love -- and even become great at -- because of fear of ridicule or of not getting it "right" the first time out. Never mind that as a consequence, rather than expanding and inspiring us, our lives may grow smaller and more pedestrian.

    So, yes, I'm still having breakfast with this RP chick, but I'm telling her to stay out of my damn studio.

    *(here's a good article by Pam Slim about Martha Beck's take on the lizard brain. And Seth Godin has a lot to say about lizard brains in a business context, including here and here.)