Monthly Archives: February 2016

Life in the fishbowl

I read what was for me, a rather moving book last week.  Though, as much as I loved it, I recommend it with quite a bit of trepidation.  I listened to the book on Audible and I must say until the last two hours, it was pretty dull.  There was a lot of philosophical rambling.  I nearly quit, but I held on and I was well rewarded by the gems contained within.  I don’t know how well these will come through without the context of the book, and I have to be somewhat cryptic in order to not spoil the story in the event you might wish to read it for yourself.  The book is titled “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”.

There are two concepts that I want to share here that do not give away the story.  The first is the idea of the fishbowl.  This theory is put forward by 12 year old Paloma, an intellectually gifted French girl who lives with her family.  At the start of the story, Paloma is working out her plan to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.  As an intelligent child, she deduces that life is nothing more than the struggle to fulfill a great lie that our parents have thrust upon us and therefore, not worth the effort once you know the truth:

“Apparently now and again adults take the time to sit down and contemplate what a disaster their life is.  They complain without understanding and, like flies constantly banging against the same old windowpane, they buzz around, suffer, waste away, get depressed then wonder how they got caught up in this spiral that is taking them where they don’t want to go…And yet there’s nothing to understand… “Life has no meaning and we grown-ups know what is” is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe.  Once you become an adult and you realize that’s not true, it’s too late…. People aim for the stars, and they end up like a goldfish in a bowl”.

Thus, her planning suicide is to suck out what few joyful moments might lie ahead and then save herself the agony of ending up in the fishbowl.

The second thread I want to share is something that Paloma learns at the end of the book.  While we all use the word “never” quite freely, it is something that none of us truly understands until we are faced with a condition in which we experience no ability to transcend a limit regardless of our means and abilities.  A real never occurs when the illusion of our control is shattered beyond repair. Everything becomes clearly defined without the fantasy of “if only or when this, then that”.

The irony however, is that in the midst of Paloma’s “never” experience (I must be vague here to keep from spoiling the book), she experiences a moment in which time as she knows it to be in its linear form gets “interrupted” for lack of a better word.  In her words:

“I have concluded, maybe that’s what life is about:  there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same.  It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that has come to us, an always within never”.

In short, life is filled with so much beyond our control.  The idea that we can and should do X Y and Z and we will be guaranteed the magic answer and life without sorrow, is in fact a lie perpetuated upon us by our parents and our culture.  Most of all it is perpetuated by our childlike naiveté and wish to have a perfect life with a happy ending.

Paloma begins with the understanding that the wish is a lie and attempts to resolve it by quitting the game.  Despite her advanced intelligence, her immaturity and surroundings prevents her from knowing that there is an alternative to both wrestling to live the lie or dying to avoid trying.

That alternative is also known as life.  But it is life that willingly accepts our limitations without shame, fear, denial and insistence that we and others transcend them.  It is life that is open to the moments of beauty that allow us to step out of the Never of time for brief moments and to allow those moments to nourish us and hold us until the next one comes along and to let them go as naturally as they came to us.  It is life that sees its end, not as a failing to hold on and thus succumbing to the fishbowl, but rather the transformation from this existence into something else, even if that something else cannot be definitively determined by the human mind.  And most of all to be open to those moments of beauty in a variety of forms rather than to predetermine allowable examples conjured up by our own ego.

 

 

For Your Eyes Only

Many moons ago I was a somewhat serious student of Yoga.  I recall one particular class I was taking from a familiar teacher but in a new environment, thus, I didn’t know any of the other participants.  As we began to get into our poses, I recall looking around at others to see how I was doing in comparison.  My teacher, Lynn who knew me well, came over to adjust my posture and said with a kind but stern tone, “Keep your eyes on you own posture”.  She added for the rest of the group a few lines about the importance of inward focus and that it was not helpful to let our eyes wander and compare out posture to the performance of others.

Yoga is the practice of holding poses to increase self-awareness.  Its rewards include insights about how we trap energy rendering it helpless in facilitating own healing.  Yoga teaches us how to become aware of those blocks and to apply release in very specific ways.  It requires our attention.

 Yoga is also a metaphor of the rest of what we do in life.  How often I could use a “Lynn” around to remind me when I get dressed in the morning to not look around in my mind’s eye to see what I think other people will say about my clothing or my hair.  I could benefit from someone who would refocus me when I start to think about how my writing may impact this person or that.  She might say “Write what your heart tells you to write and don’t look around”.

I often notice that when I find myself discovering some juicy piece of information about another person and I go into judgment mode without thinking, a couple of things routinely result.  First, I don’t feel very good about myself and second, I usually lose track of the information pretty quickly because in reality, it serves me no purpose.  This doesn’t happen because I’m particularly enlightened, but the simple truth of the matter is that, when another person has done or not done something or anything, it really doesn’t have an impact on my life.  If Susan gets an awful haircut, Susan has to look at it every day until it grows out; not me.  If Pete wins the lottery, it’s unlikely he is going to share it with me so why should I spend time contemplating his advantages.

Even though we know this in our rational minds, more often than not we waste energy trying to anticipate how others are going to react to some aspect of us.  Sadly, we allow those anticipatory thoughts to become rules that dictate our behavior.  How unfortunate to make a decision to not allow ourselves an experience of joy because we feel someone else might have a reaction that, they will in all likelihood, either fail to notice or forget about moments after they do.  How sad to expend enormous amounts of energy only to gain the same pointless outcome.  How silly are we to make decisions of what to buy, eat, where, spend time based on others decisions, or worse still, our perception of their decisions.

Wayne Dyer said “If your voice was the only one you ever heard sing, you would think it was beautiful singing”.  How unfortunate that it becomes less than beautiful because you hear someone else begin to carry a tune.  Why must theirs be better instead of merely “not yours”?

For today consider practicing keeping your eye on only your own pose.  See how much enjoyment you can get from looking at your own actions as the only ones on the stage with no one else to judge or compare them against.

 

A Matter of Death and Life

I lost my father when I was 8 or 15 depending on how you look at it.  When I was about 8 he had to have a surgery to repair his heart.  My parents were told that without his surgery he didn’t have long to live.  Because the medical field was still relatively young at that point,  and heart knowledge in its infancy, he had at best 50% odds of making it through the surgery.  He survived the operation, but not without some profound side effects.  He had considerable paralysis on his left side which did improve somewhat in time.  He also could not speak clearly for a bit, and suffered some brain damage.  But more than anything, he lost his will and his fight along with his independence.

Although he had only been able to work part time since his health declined in the few years leading up to the surgery, afterwards he could not work at all.  Nor could he drive.  He was sentenced to a life of sitting around existing on TV, smoking his forbidden pipe and eating.  He really ceased to be a person, much less a father.  And he remained that way until his death.  Ironically, despite his past 15 year battle with heart problems, his only heart attack took his life instantly.

I would say I know loss.  I have said I know loss.  But the reality is I do not.  I know my loss.  Or more clearly, I know that I grew up feeling something was not there, but having not really known what that something was, given my father was ill for virtually all of my childhood, I have really only imagined what I thought it was supposed to be and missed that.

For reasons, I am not wise enough to understand, these past few months I have been deluged with stories from people about their loss.  There are adults who lose their aged parents; friends who lose their peers and most significant in numbers and magnitude, parents who have lost children.  They come to me in hopes of finding some way of understanding what is occurring for them.  I can give them none.  But what I try to give them is some way of finding their way to at least a moment or two of peace as they try to build a life that now has a void.  An unfathomable void.

We all know that death is inevitable.  From the moment we take our first breath we are set on the path towards death. And in all the time in between, most of us live in ways focused to prevent it, deny it, ignore it and for some the magical belief in transcending it.  We have a lot of help from our environment to support these notions:  anti-aging creams, miracle life- saving medical interventions and slogans like 50 is the new 40.  We needn’t even get older, much less die.

Our psychological resistance is an attempt to keep the unpleasant at bay and insulate us from discomfort.  Count me among the masses who don’t want to feel pain.  But I am increasingly aware of the saying “That which we resist, persists”.

The people who come to me to speak about their loss have not been resisting death.  It is thrust upon them like a thief in the night robbing them of their most prized possessions.  In the cases I’ve heard, despite the tremendous burden of guilt these parents bear, no one could have, should have, would have done anything differently to prevent such loss.  If there is resistance, it is only in the form of trying to find meaning in why the tragedy has occurred.  In the end the only answer I can find is simply “Because it has”.  It is part of the human experience to die.  And while most of us envision some sort of life plan for ourselves and those we love where, we live to 110 and die quietly and painlessly in our sleep after a beautiful celebration, that rarely occurs.  Children die at 1 day, 10 years, 20 years.  People die in harsh circumstances and illness.  Sometimes they die while doing everyday ordinary ways.  And when they do, it is painful for those of us left behind to feel their absence.

My father’s body died when I was 15.  I was about 35 when I finally said goodbye not only to him, but to the fantasized version of him I carried around in my head for which I longed.  Grief is personal and everyone has a right to choose their own method and timing of expression.  It is also part of our human experience as natural as eye color and the need to breathe.  Resisting it will not delay it or protect us, but perhaps embracing it for some value that it brings might allow us that moment of peace, for which we search.

The best teacher we have about the value of life, is in fact, death.  It is death that sets boundaries, helps us to prioritize how to use our time, and most of all provides us with incentive for what to value most in our life.  It is an awareness of death that motivates us to tell the people we love what we want them to know and to not become bogged down in people, places and things that we can’t take with us.  When we ignore our grief but focusing instead on the why loss happens, and the push to prevent such, we step out of the current moment of loving what we have right now.  When we think about what we lost from a person’s absence we are choosing not to think about all they have given us prior to their absence and how that has prepared us to live now.

These are in no way intended to be simple commands of advice.  My father’s death immobilized me emotionally for so many years because I tried to insulate myself with trying to understand it rather than experience the grief for what it was.  Perhaps loss of a different type might do that to me again, but I hope not.  What I do know is that death and its resulting grief are not thing to be afraid of, and that because they are part of the human experience, they are teachers, rather than events meant to punish us.  And if they are teachers, then we are students who must be willing to learn.

We cannot learn if we cannot talk about our loss.  If you know someone who has experienced a loss, whether it is a child, their cat, or a relationship, reach out.  Let them speak.  Make an effort to refrain from using your own fear to keep the subject far away from you.  Perhaps if you let them learn, they in turn will become better teachers for you.

 

It started with a penny and turned into a fortune of wealth

 

I met my husband through a personal ad.  Yep,  honest.  Our first face to face meeting was at the St. Louis Science Center.  We met there to watch the movie Everest at the OmniMax.

After enjoying the movie,we walked around a bit and talked.  Okay okay, since it was 17 years ago this month, I can say we walked around and began the process of falling in love.  But while we were there Ben walked over to the squished penny machine and purchased a commemorative Penny.  (Big spender right?).

The next smashed penny we purchased together was at our wedding in Sedona, Arizona.  He made me close my eyes and he guided me over to the machine that he had previously spied.  And since that time we have made a habit of getting a smashed penny on pretty much every adventure.    I don’t know how much money we have spent on smashed penny’s as each one costs .51 cents.  But it’s  been a very wise investment.  Each serves as a reminder not only of the event where we make the purchase, but of the way it all started.  The way building our fortune began.

So let me tell you about our fortune.  Shortly after I had our first son, I was ambivalent about going back to work.  I was concerned that it would be problematic financially if I stayed off for an extended period.  Ben told me at that time in response to my worrying “Mary, we are the wealthiest people I know.”  He was referring of course, to the immense joy that had just come into our lives- a healthy beautiful baby.  We were both healthy, we had a roof over our heads and not much to complain about.  He was right.

Our fortune has continued to grow- both with our second son, and our lives in general.  We have relationships we value, the opportunity to laugh often, and Ben and I are both lucky enough to have work that we both feel passionate about.  Are we lucky?  Sure we are.  And we work at it; somedays more than others.  But more than the presence of any of these gifts, or the absence of any significant tragedy, is the presence of an attitude we both work towards embracing as often as we can.

Whatever is or isn’t we have control only over that, which we think and conclude about, what is and isn’t in our lives.  Every event that occurs is subject to interpretation.  You can feel victimized by events or blessed by them.  It’s always a choice.

Easy to do when the good stuff is happening.  Harder to do when its not.  But growth occurs in BOTH circumstances, and again, good and bad are relative terms, often arbitrarily determined by our own personal filters.  Bad is determined by “I’m not getting things to happen the way I want them to”.  But when we let go of insisting that life result in very precise circumstances as we deem appropriate, we position ourselves to just open up to whatever life actually is.  By removing the pre-determined outcome, we need not be thwarted because something didn’t turn out the way we planned.

This post is redundant if you’ve been reading for a while.  It’s not that I don’t have other things to write about, but rather this is an idea that I feel we all need frequent reminding.  The world is bombarding us minute by minute with the opposite message and so this one is easy to ignore.  Unfortunately, doing so results in our ignoring the tools for creating our own contentment.

I don’t always like Ben and he doesn’t always like me.  The house is often messy, something breaks, I lose my keys.  The kids fight with each other and skip out on their homework.  I don’t think anyone wants to make a reality TV show about us.  We aren’t that interesting.  That said, we are still, as Ben declared “The wealthiest people we know” and it began with one penny.