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.

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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.

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.

Living a creative life requires…sleep?

The other day I picked up my pen and began my daily notebook entry.  I write two pages in my notebook every day whether I feel like it or not, even when it seems I have nothing to say.  If my mind wanders, I just write what bubbles to the surface.  I don’t worry if it’s brilliant, original…I’m simply putting pen to paper.  It’s my jumping-off point, a place to begin.

What came to mind on this particular day was dinner…namely, what’s for dinner.  I’ll swing by the store on the way home, I wrote.  I need cottage cheese, juice, etc., etc.  Then I stopped myself.  There I was, in my special writing space, the time I have Is sleep necessaryset aside for myself, for my creative work, and I was using it to make a shopping list.  Even though I give myself permission to write whatever comes to mind, I have hopes of directing my creative energies a little more effectively than that.

The truth is, sometimes I feel too tired to be imaginative.  More immediate concerns crowd my thoughts, thoughts of work and dinner.  “Too tired to be imaginative” is probably an oxymoron, though – imagination is second nature.  Or first nature.  Daily living is an imaginative act when one examines it closely.  Our lives are poetry…we even think in metaphor.

What takes self-discipline (and therefore energy), then, isn’t creativity itself.  It is taking the initiative and setting time aside – real, substantial time – to focus my thoughts.  I don’t mean a rushed two pages scribbled in my notebook while I’m waiting for someone to return a phone call, in which I’m so preoccupied all I can think about is what I will make for dinner.

It’s about intention, and being tired impairs my ability to perform this essential step in the creative process.  When I am spread too thin and/or haven’t had enough sleep, it’s easy to become consumed with work and such vital concerns as what to feed my family.  Those things are necessary and need attention, but a creative person has another set of needs to be happy and contented.  In order to live a fulfilling life creatively, we must make choices that promote emotional and physical well-being.  That can be difficult to do when tired.

Worse yet, when I am tired, I don’t really care much about my creative welfare.  Tunnel vision takes over, and I only feel capable of dealing with one thing at a time.  I lose my ability to see the big picture.  I’m hungry.  I need to eat.  My thoughts get pared down to basic necessity.  I’m not worried about writing the Great American Novel, or the next poem, or the next entry in the Naked Notebook.

So maybe the first lesson in nurturing our creativity is this: go to bed.  Go to sleep.  Stop trying to maximize every minute of every day, and instead focus on getting those eight hours, or seven hours, or whatever is needed to see beyond what’s for dinner and achieve the state of mind needed to create.  Conserving energy and making space in our busy lives is how we make ourselves available to “the muse,” whatever that is, whenever it comes.

It seems we don’t need a reason

Today I have the time to write, but there isn’t anything I want to write about.  Not my fingertips, sore from heavy garden work in Mom’s leather gloves.  Not my yard, lovely and filled with promise.  Not my dreams, uncomfortable and seemingly empty of meaning.

train b&wThere’s nothing to write about, not the same old things or anything earthshattering and new.  The same people, the same work.  The same face in the mirror.  The same train whistle in the not-too-distance, on its way to somewhere.  I don’t even feel particularly curious where – I, who used to gaze up at the sliver of a jet traversing the blue and wonder to what faraway place all those people were headed.

These days I don’t wonder much about things.  There are so few answers that satisfy.  Even a material answer doesn’t satisfy the big-picture question that underlies all things – why?  Any of it?  Why worry?  Why accept?  Why try?

Yet we always worry.  We strive for acceptance.  We can’t help but try.  The fact that we do is underscored by a certain hope, an innocence.  It defies logic and is at times impractical, but still, there it is.  There’s no way around it.  To hope feels right.

Why I Write About My Mother Dying (and Other Imponderables)

Someone once remarked to me that my topics here on the Naked Notebook could be considered “depressing.”  Frankly, this observation surprised me.  Exploring themes of grief and loss, as I have been doing lately since the death of my mother, has never seemed depressing to me at all.

But the comment got me wondering: why do I write on these topics?  What compels me, Where earth meets sky and in betweenwhen I take pen in hand, to tell of my mother’s death?  To write of how, in dying, she was somehow larger than when she was living?

Then I remembered.  I don’t really write my posts at all.  They write themselves.  That’s how I know the notebook is truly “naked.”  My posts are the truth.  Maybe not the whole truth, but nothing but the truth, all the same.  It’s like I’m a windchime, and words are the wind.  I make a pretty sound from time to time, but it’s really the wind that’s doing it.  I’m just hanging there, waiting.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the whole “depressing” thing, anyway.  It’s entirely likely that my subject matter is not responsible for that perception at all.  The Naked Notebook’s monochromatic color scheme alone could be to blame.  I didn’t choose it to be funereal and macabre.  It’s just that I’ve always been drawn to darkness.  When I was 5, black was my favorite color.  I even insisted on black gravel in my fish bowl.   A photo in black and white, to me, instantly looks at least 20 percent more artistic than its color counterpart.  That’s just how I am.

Blacks, grays, they’re edgy.  I’ve always loved edginess.  In music, in art, and in people.  Things that walk the line between dark and light.  Because that’s what we’re all doing, every day.

Anyway, enough of this pseudo-philosophical crap.  I’m talking about my blog.  Specifically, whether the Dead Mother Posts, as I so irreverently refer to them, are depressing.  I certainly don’t think so.  I’m not feeling depressed when I write them.  I may be feeling acute, maybe even melancholy at times.  But that’s the richness of life, isn’t it?  Deep feelings, both good and bad.  It’s not all sunshine and roses, in case you hadn’t noticed.  Yeah.  I figured you had.

I would never have believed I’d be quoting reality TV’s Dr. Drew Pinsky, but he said something on an episode of Celebrity Rehab (everyone needs a guilty pleasure, right?) that stuck with me.  He said that he’d always considered people who were capable of deep emotion to be strong, not weak.  (He was talking to Heidi Fleiss at the time, so he was, no doubt, really reaching deep into his proverbial bag of tricks.)

Never mind the source; I love the sentiment.  I, too, admire people who do not shy away from the difficult, the poignant, the acute.  I don’t mean wallowing…I mean possessing a willingness to go there, to learn the lessons, to be with the experience.  Whatever that experience may be.  It’s not negative – that’s a value judgment.  It just is.

So here I am, mining the depths, holding my breath, diving down.  Coming back up to the surface, humbled but stronger.

My readers, you get it.  You have been supportive, receptive, empathetic.  You don’t flinch in the face of deep emotion.  You, too, are strong in all the ways that matter.  And I appreciate you more than you know.

My husband, who does not consider himself a writer, said it better than anyone:  A death is as astonishing as a birth, he said.  How very, very true that is.  Astonishing.  I’ve witnessed an astonishing experience.  And I’m writing about it.

My mom herself explored these ideas.  She devoted much of her adult life to the study of grief and loss.  As a Marriage and Family Therapist, her emphasis was complicated grief.  I feel I am honoring her by learning all I can from her illness and death.  My grief isn’t complicated – at least I don’t think it is – but it’s mine.

That I ruminate on those experiences isn’t an expression of sadness…it’s an appreciation for the complexity of being human.  It’s not about having a happy life or a sad life.  It’s about having a full life.

So if there is a reason for the Dead Mother Posts, I suppose it is one of self-discovery, of honoring the moment.  I haven’t written these posts to depress my readers or to marinate in misery and self-pity.  An eternal optimist, I’ve never been good at any of those things.  But I am a contemplative person, and I want to give this time in my life its due.

After years of rejecting the idea, lately I’ve come to embrace the fact that I am, at least in part, my mother’s daughter.  She would be pleased that I’m taking the time – and making the space, here in the Naked Notebook – to work through things in my own way.  She’d like the Dead Mother Posts.  I’m just sure of it.

Taking Risks

I’ve never been much of a risk taker.  I don’t buy lottery tickets, for example; I’d rather keep my dollar, thank you very much.  Even roller skating on the fourth grade class field trip to Star Skate was a stretch for me.  Wheels on my feet sounded scary.  I generally like my feet just fine on the ground.

leap-and-the-net-will-appearBut when it comes to my writing, I live dangerously.  Each time I write, it’s as if I’m leaping off the edge of something.  Writing, as I’ve said before, is an act of faith.  One of my favorite quotes is by John Burroughs: “Leap, and the net will appear.”  For me, this describes the writing process perfectly.

There’s an even bigger risk, though, that scrawling my most intimate thoughts across a cold blank page, even than sending them into cyberspace.  That risk would be to write “safe.”

I could compose nice little articles about nice little people.  Other nice people would read them and say that they were “nice.”  I could then smile and think, “Yes, I’ve always been good at telling people what they want to hear.”

Now there’s a truly frightening idea: to take my unique writing voice and use it to say something mundane, something forgettable.  Something I think people want to hear.  Something that doesn’t feel real to me.

This page, or this “slot in cyberspace,” or whatever it is, it is my space.  My writing time is my time.  It feels important to use this space, and this time, to say something true.

So the real irony is that when I take risks with my writing, I am actually playing it safe.  Honest writing still feels like a risk, but in fact I know the net is always there.

I just have to leap before I can see it.