Conversations on Death

When the subject comes up and I tell people my mom died in the recent past, I watch them, watching me. They always look uncomfortable, like I’m about to burden them with some embarrassing display of emotion they won’t know how to respond to. The assumption seems to be that I’m sad, even though I’ve said nothing about being sad. They act like we’ve stumbled on an awkward subject that I don’t want to talk about, but nothing could be further from the truth.

conversations on deathOur vocabulary for grief and our experiences around death and dying is dismally limited. Losing my mom when she was 60 was/is a big deal, but I’m not “sad,” exactly, and I’m continually frustrated that I can’t have more meaningful conversations about my experiences around my mother’s death.

Most of my exchanges on the subject are like having an iPod that came with one song on it, and not being able to download more. I put on that same fucking song whenever I feel like music, but that song almost never matches the mood I’m in. I get up and dance to it anyway, because I want to dance and I don’t know what else to do. It’s pointless, boring, unsatisfying.  Continue reading

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Hashtag Hysteria, or #YouDontNeedAHashtagForEverything, or Do You Know What Hashtags Are Actually For?

Dear beloved social media friends,

Can I call you my friends?  I’ve never met some of you, but I feel like I know you intimately.  You show me photos of your sushi and take me with you on your family’s travels.  I know where you work and what cocktail you’re sipping after hours.  You even confide in me when you’re mad at someone (although sometimes you’re quite cryptic about who that someone might be).

hashtag definition

Source: Oxford Dictionaries (www.oxforddictionaries.com/us definition/american_english/hashtag)

Because I’ve come to care about you through our frequent exchanges of miscellany and minutia, I’m writing to inform you of a worrisome trend I’ve become aware of lately: the overuse, misuse, and obscenely liberal application of hashtags in any and all social media communiqués.

Let me explain what hashtags are supposed to be for.  They are to connect similar threads so that we can follow a specific topic. For example, I might post something about ObamaCare and include the hashtags #ObamaCare #HealthCare #HeathInsurance.  But wait, I wouldn’t do that.  That’s too political.  More realistically, I might post something about kittens.  In my post, I might include the hashtag #Kittens, so that other kitten aficionados can find my post.

This is how hashtags were intended to be used, but they’ve morphed into something else entirely.  Now, they seem to have become an excuse to shout out random proclamations, like some kind of social media Tourette’s.  Example: I just made a batch of chocolate chip cookies!  Woot!  Woot!   They are delicious!  #Yummy!! #JustLikeMomsCookies!! #ChocolateAfterMidnight!!   Or, another example:  I spent my entire morning waiting for the cable guy.  #FourHourWindowMyAss  #AwfulService  #Frustrated!!!!!  (Quite often, the perpetrators guilty of peppering their posts with useless hashtags are the same people who abuse the exclamation point.  In fact, that would make for an interesting study: hashtag overuse correlated with the frequency of exclamation points.)

It’s an alarming trend.  People are even using hashtags in places where they aren’t functional (i.e., not clickable), like in blog articles and text messages.  What do they mean?   #NotSureWhatThatsSupposedToDo

I fear that if this continues, we’ll lose sight of what hashtags were actually intended for.  We won’t be employing them to connect related threads; rather, we’ll forget how to construct a coherent sentence altogether and be reduced to disjointed shout-outs of single words and short phrases. #StopTheMadness!!!!

Friends, I implore you, please utilize discretion with your hashtags.  While they are useful, and admittedly they’re trendy and cute (and everyone agrees you look super-cool when you use them), they are in danger of becoming degraded into nonsense.  Here’s a helpful pointer: if you can’t click on your hashtag and find any posts other than your own (or, furthermore, if your hashtag isn’t clickable at all), it’s probably not relevant.  To anything.

With warmest wishes for healthy hashtag use,

#Jennifer 

Choosing My Life

Lately I’ve been obsessing over careers, particularly mine but also the topic in general. I was recently offered a promotion to a management position at work that I ultimately turned down. Through the process of evaluating whether being the remote manager of a team of 50 people was a fit for me (and concluding that it isn’t, at least not right now), I had to take stock of my current situation. What, after all, do I want from my job? Do I want recognition? Status? Money?

This photo is here for a reason...I'll get to it...I promise!

This photo is here for a reason…I’ll get to it…I promise!

Since I said no to the job, I’ve wanted to do nothing but sleep. I’m tired, though I’m not sure from what. It’s not as if I took the position, worked myself to the bone, then decided it was too much and quit. Rather, the idea itself seems to have been too much for me; I became exhausted by the mere prospect of it and the energy it consumed to weigh my options, making lists of pros and cons, deciding what is most important in my life now.

I’m not just relaxed and listless – I’m sleeping big drugged sleeps that come to me in lumbering waves and crush me with their weight. I awaken feeling more tired than I started, and so I have no choice but to sleep some more, even though it’ll undoubtedly just make me more tired still, like a junkie for whom one last fix inevitably leads to another. I wake up amazed by the amount I’ve slept, palpating my neck for lumps, idly wondering if I have lymphoma. (Working for cancer doctors for a decade can do this to a person; there is a cancer for every innocent symptom in the book.) Then I remember the ten pounds I gained last summer, the ones it took me all winter to lose. I dismiss the thought of lymphoma, roll over, and go back to sleep.

Oddly, whatever dissatisfaction I had in my current job before I considered the promotion seems to have evaporated along with the opportunity to make a change. Before I was offered the new position, I’d grown so impatient with my medical transcription work, which I admit can be tedious at times given my inherently restless nature, that I’d contemplated seeking out the very position I ended up turning down. Although I didn’t actively seek it out at all, when I was actually approached and offered the job, I assumed, as did everyone else, that I’d say yes. It seemed I was ready for a change, a new challenge, an opportunity. But the more thought I gave the matter, the more clear it became that I’m adequately challenged enough as it is, balancing my job, household, family, and hobbies. Now I have settled back into my “old job” gleefully, newly appreciative of the harmony it allows me to maintain in my life. My suddenly deliciously simple life.

Ambition has never been one of my attributes. Perhaps I should feel guilty about not having more of it, but in fact the only thing I feel guilty about is that I don’t feel guilty. In college I aimlessly shifted majors until life sent me in the direction of starting a family, at which time, vaguely relieved, I let go of any career goals I might have been halfheartedly harboring (a nursing degree, at the time) readily and without a backward glance. I’ve never known what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’m starting to think I never will. Working in the health care field, I have been surrounded by people who have put their educations and their careers above all else, and I’m not sure how much happiness these choices have afforded them.

As if to illustrate this point, I recently learned that a former coworker of mine, someone highly educated with a license and a degree, has gotten herself into some difficulties involving narcotics, a costly transgression that may end her career. She’s not someone I’m currently in contact with, but I’ve found myself compelled to reach out to her. As if, I remind myself, what she really wants right now is for old coworkers to come crawling out of the woodwork and say – what? I hear you’ve made a big bungling mess out of your life – do you want to talk about that?

Suspicious of my own motivations for wanting to talk to her (am I some kind of inappropriate rubbernecker, ogling at the scene of an accident by the side of the road to see how bad things can really get, wanting to put my own life in perspective?), I realize that I’ve always been attracted to people who’ve led difficult lives. It’s a tendency that’s brought me as much fulfillment as it has misery. Damaged people have been chipped away at by the many traumas fate doles out – inept or outright abusive parents; a sudden tragedy; or simply a white-out snowstorm of the mind that sends them stumbling blindly into an abyss of drugs or alcohol, or crippling depression and anxiety – and what’s left after circumstances have worked them over with hammer and chisel is someone more worth knowing. A more authentic human being.   Whether these people have triumphed over their situations or not, they have been forced to live from a place without veneer, without artifice. They’ve been forced to be real. It’s the realness that draws me in. I want to be close to that because it feels like the only thing that matters.

So I often find myself drawn to screwed-up people, people who have suffered trauma of one sort or another, either self-induced or circumstantial. I myself am not overly damaged, but I’ve been chipped away at a bit myself over these last few years: a brutal attack on a family member; a stupid, pointless run-in with cancer that took my mother’s life; the vacuum left behind when the housing market collapsed, a void which sucked in my husband’s lucrative career; a succession of pet losses.

Still, not knowing what to say, I don’t call my friend from the old days who has committed professional suicide, even though maybe I should.   Instead I just turn the story over and over in my mind, feeling empathy for her and a sort of kinship, even though I’ve never done the things she did.   Beyond all the misery getting caught has no doubt brought her, I hope it has also pushed her toward a healing of sorts. She might even be feeling relieved that it’s finally over, that who she is on the inside and who she is on the outside finally matches. There are no more secrets, no more lies.

Beneath all our pride, we desperately want to live a life of truths. Even though it’s painful, we’re secretly glad when our virtuous intentions are brought into check by our undeniable depravity and moral turpitude. We live our lives stretched taught as a piano wire, twanging under the tension of these opposing forces, caught between our desire to appear perfect and the absolute certainty that we are anything but. When the wire finally breaks, we are devastated…but we are free.

Somehow, saying no to the big career change has given me a new freedom, a new affection for the status quo. I’ve made a little more peace with my lack of ambition. My life is just fine; my career is what it is. At least it leaves me the time and energy to do the things I love: writing, gardening, tending to my family. I have chosen a career that doesn’t cause me ridiculous amounts of stress, doesn’t force me to miss out on important family moments, and doesn’t drive me to write myself illegal prescriptions to numb myself out.

So, what do I want from my job? Not power, not prestige, not even money, although I need a little bit of that to make things work. What I want is my life, this life, with all its splintery surfaces and slippery slopes, and with its rare glimpses of piercing truth. I want a job that gives me time to sit down with myself, to examine the areas that have been chipped away at, that have left me broken but also more whole, more me. And this is the job I have. It gives me time to get to know the authentic person I’ve become.

Acknowledging the Darkness

In the wake of multiple losses, I haven’t had a choice. The darkness clings to me like a fog, like vapor. The shadow is that space between what I thought I wanted – between the life I would design, were I the intentional architect of my own destiny – and what is.

trees in fogDisappointment is the result of expectations. We all have them; our minds work overtime devising the best possible future for ourselves. We will find fulfillment in our careers and our relationships, we tell ourselves. We will live to a ripe old age and die peacefully in our sleep, hands clasped, a faint smile playing about our lips. Those we love will enjoy similar longevity. They certainly will not suffer, and neither will I.

Then something happens that clashes with this optimism. Our rose-colored glasses are rudely torn from our faces, and we squint, disbelieving, in the glare of reality. Someone gets sick. Someone gets hurt. A job, even an entire career, evaporates. We throw up our hands and rage at the heavens. “Why me?” we demand. “I don’t deserve this.”

Maybe not, but the universe doesn’t operate on some moral balance sheet, doling out challenges and tragedies only to those who are deserving or feel able to “handle it” at the moment. These things that help us grow – that make us resilient, compassionate, and deep – they hurt like hell and we’d never sign on for them willingly. We are much more content to doze in the back row of the classroom of life.

Ben Franklin said, “No pain, no gain.” To that I reply, “No shit.” Experience tells me he was absolutely right.

Happiness is Overrated?

What if it’s true? What if happiness is overrated?  No, I mean it.  Think about it.  We think we want to “be happy,” spend a lot of time, energy, and money trying to get happy. But does it work?  What is happiness, really? An elusive moment, wafting by like smoke. We might be in it for a moment, but we certainly can’t hold on to it.

sunlight and shadeWhat if we were happy all the time, like we think we want to be? It might turn out to be incredibly boring. What would we talk about, each of us wandering around in a blissful daze?  There would be few opportunities to grow. We cut our teeth on the sharp edges of things. Without those edges, life would be…well…dull.

Maybe we should get used to the idea that we walk in the shadows as well as in the sunshine, should stop trying to be so happy and appreciate each moment for what it is: part of the acute, often uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and fleetingly pleasurable act of living.

Half Measures

Half measures. We know when we are guilty of them, don’t we? We know when we throw dinner together. We know when we don’t follow through on disciplining our kids. We know when we’ve made a small change, at a time when a really big, scary change was needed.

open road smallI think we resort to half measures because we’ve fallen victim to a fallacy, a big lie we tell ourselves: that life is supposed to be easy. We believe that because easy is comfortable, that’s what we should strive for.

But what if we knew things weren’t supposed to be simple? What if our parents told us, from early childhood, not to fear the struggle, not to avoid our own discomfort but to embrace that which makes us grow?

We’d probably still be lazy…sometimes. We’d still get busy and tired, and try to multitask. It’s only natural when things are just so damn hard.  It’s human.  But maybe, we’d stop getting so upset when things aren’t easy.

I’m not at all sure what the point of life is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not for things to be easy.  Maybe we’d all be a happier if we stopped expecting a comfortable, smooth ride and embraced the expected bumps and bruises as just the way life is supposed to be.

Looking for my Happy Thought

It is an essential ingredient for flight, right along with pixie dust, if you believe what they say in Peter Pan.

eagleChildren do it effortlessly.  “Think of a happy thought,” we tell them, and they instantly conjure visions of candy bars or kittens.  Were it not for a shortage of pixie dust, they’d be off on some celestial adventure – second star to the right, straight on ’til morning.

For us grown-ups, it’s a little harder.  This morning I awoke, and every thought that came to mind brought with it a little twinge of discomfort.  It seems just about every element of my life has some nuance of worry or malcontent attached to it right now.  Life can be that way sometimes, and this too shall pass.  But what to do about my happy thought?

It seems more important than ever to find one.  I’ve read books about about the law of attraction, rooted in the principle that we create our own realities with our thoughts.  If I am to be the architect of my own existence, I’d better get my thoughts in order. Of course, there will always be things to worry about, but if they pervade my thinking, then if the philosophers are right, that’s what I’ll get more of.  Something has to balance out the worry.  I need my happy thought.

While contemplating this, I cast about in my mind for a happy thought and came up empty.  Then it came to me: a happy thought really isn’t a thought at all.  It is the feeling that accompanies the thought.  That is where the magic lies – in accessing the good feelings.  In that particular moment, the easiest way for me to feel good was to take a break from thinking altogether.

For a few moments, I was able to just be.  There, in the peaceful space between thoughts, I could experience the kinds of feelings that will help me create the life I want, full of creativity, love, and happiness.

In the Moment

There’s this sense I get that being human is somehow incongruous with our spirit.  It’s as if we are caught in this perpetual tug-of-war between what we are, and where we are going.  As humans, we are awash in emotions, urges, ideas.  We want things, and we want to be things.  At the same time, we are most comfortable when we just are, without striving, planning, or strategizing.  At times, it can be an unnatural juxtaposition of motivations.

zen gardenWe are told that being “in the moment” is what we should strive for, but the demands of our careers, our relationships, and our own scattered lives defy us in this goal.  We are forced to plan, living in the future.  We are held accountable for our actions, dwelling in the past.  To not do these things is to miss out on the essence of being human.  Our current state of existence has its requirements.

However much we have to gain from navigating our humanness, we know there is something beyond that.  On some basic level, we recognize that we are here to love one another, to learn and grow.  But it’s just so damn hard.

Truly living in the moment is difficult to do, isn’t it?  We are told we should meditate, center ourselves.  It’s a nice concept, and when we accomplish it, we are satisfied.  This is what I am supposed to be doing, we think, but so often we fall short.

We judge, ourselves and others.  We intend to live spiritually and to love one another, but the “other” just seems so unlovable a lot of the time.  It’s a constant struggle.  Humanness versus spirit.  Integrated versus fragmented.  Yes, there’s a lot for us to learn, mired as we are in our human condition.

Learning to be in the moment, to be with ourselves, is a painful process, fraught with setbacks and awkward and unwelcome moments of self-revelation.  Most of us have not been taught these skills, by our parents or in school.  Self-awareness is something many people don’t have the tools or the motivation to achieve.  It simply doesn’t seem accessible, and is dismissed as some sort of new age nonsense.

One healthy way to accomplish the mind-body connection is through rigorous physical activity.  While mountain climbing, for example, we are completely in the moment. We don’t know what the next foothold is going to be until we get there.  We have to live in the now: vigilant, expectant, aware.  We are in our bodies and focused, readying ourselves for whatever comes next.

Use of alcohol or drugs can be another shortcut to the state of mind we all instinctively seek, a “quick way” to marry body and spirit.  Right or wrong, all judgments of these behaviors aside, they put us in the moment.  It may not be healthy for our bodies, but spiritually we are seeking.  The stereotypical drunk drapes his arm around his friend in a sappy sweet gesture.  “I love you, man,” he slurs.  But it’s the truth.  Egos set aside, we love one another, unabashedly.  That’s part of being human.  We worry about the details, but beneath it all is love.  And we are looking for ways to love one another.  We don’t think we are, but we are.  It’s really that simple.

Romantic relationships are another shortcut to spirituality.  Think about it – the physical, and the spiritual.  We are connecting on both levels when we are in a romantic relationship with someone.  It’s inherently gratifying – our humanness and our spirit, both in sync.  Maybe this is what being human is all about.  It certainly feels that way when we are in love with someone.  Nothing else matters except that connection.  When we are with another person romantically we are wholly in the moment, and regardless of the ramifications we feel compelled to pursue that connection.  All the sex addiction, all the infidelity…perhaps it is just an attempt to reach this sort of truth.  This marriage of body and spirit.

So,  what I’m suggesting is this: all of us – whether we are Buddhist monks, adulterers, marathon runners, or junkies – share the same goal.  It is an aim that is uniquely human and, at its most basic level, honorable.  We want to join our humanity and our spirit.  I’m not saying there is a right way or a wrong way. I’m not even sure that any of us get there in our lifetimes.  All I’m trying to say is that we are trying.  And maybe that effort – that is the thing the matters.  Maybe it is enough.

Old Friends

We all need quiet in our lives.  We must sweep off the table and make space for it.  My life’s work dwells in the quiet spaces between things – of that I am certain.

When I was little, I had plenty of quiet.  We lived way out in the country, in the middle of an apple orchard, and I was always alone.  I had no siblings, no neighbors with kids, no playmates.  What I did have was an active imagination, and I was a voracious reader and so I enjoyed robust adventures of my own conjuring.

friendsStill, I thought I was lonely.  I built tree forts and yearned for a friend – a Diana to my Anne (of Green Gables) – to come climb with me.  We would giggle and tell secrets.  She would know my heart and understand me without a word.

I thought I was lonely, and maybe I was, with only an aloof cat, the mute companionship of a sweet-natured dog, and the rough-barked apple trees.  But as it turns out, along with the tree houses, I was also building something else.

I was building a relationship with myself.  I asked myself questions and listened to the answers.  The trees were my companions, the tractor-torn clay of the earth.  I ran barefoot and my feet became tough and impervious to rocks.  I ate plums and mulberries – and apples, of course – warm from the tree.

When I started school, I was confused by the complexities of interactions with my peers.  Many of them were abrupt, judgmental, inconsistent.  I began to see relationships as troubling, unsatisfying, and hurtful.

I have been blessed with some very dear friends in my life, but a true and durable friendship, as many of us know, is an uncommon thing.  That Diana to my Anne – that “kindred spirit” that L. M. Montgomery spoke of – I don’t know that I’ve ever quite found her.  Unless…

Unless I am that friend, to myself.  When I think about it, this dialogue that has continued for well over 30 years, this old and comfortable knowing of myself that goes deeper than words, has served me well ever since my childhood, when such self-companionship was forced on me through my isolated circumstances.

When I’m alone, undistracted, and able to really be with myself, it’s like a visit with an old, dear friend.  I thought I was waiting to meet her, but maybe she’s been here all along.  She’s been waiting in the quiet spaces between things…and she is always there for me.

Going Through the Motions

Can we do things without really doing them?

I’m not trying to be abstract.  It’s a valid question.  Behind this question is another: Is good enough really good enough?

I believe that we can do something with so little conviction that the results are as bad as if we hadn’t done it at all.  Maybe even worse.

Take my gums, for instance.  At my latest dental checkup, the hygienist whined that my gums weren’t that great in a couple hard-to-reach areas.  When I described my oral care routine and asked what might have caused the problem, she replied that it might be my “flossing technique.”

After that, I paid attention.  It was true that there were some places where I jammed floss between my teeth but didn’t really work it around.  I was going through the motions of flossing, but it was lazy flossing.  And it wasn’t enough to keep my gums healthy.

I have never been a person who can get away with laziness or shortcuts.  If I don’t give my full effort, there are consequences.  Going through the motions, it seems, really isn’t enough.  I have to go “all in,” living life (and performing all its minutia, it seems, even flossing) with care and intention.

And if I’m punished by oral care lectures (or worse) when I fall short, conversely I’m richly rewarded when I do put forth the effort.  The lesson is clear: How we do things does matter.  Perhaps even more than what we do.