Monthly Archives: December 2013

Music of the Night*

*from Phantom of the Opera, words by Charles Hart, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation

The longest night of the year is approaching like a phantom.  The shortest day is this Saturday, with the winter solstice arriving at 11:11 a.m. CST.  By my calculations, Saturday night will stretch an epic 15 hours and 14 minutes.

Carrots may enhance night vision, but open up the other four senses while the visual receptors adjust to the dark.

Darkness wakes and stirs imagination

“Solstice” is derived from the Latin, solstitium, meaning “sol” , “sun” and “stitium”, “stoppage”.  Solstice refers to the two times in the year (winter, summer) when the sun appears to come to a standstill in its movement across the sky.  It appears to hover, momentarily, in it’s celestial arc.

Stoppage is the opposite of stirring and awakening, yet the moment the sun reaches it’s lowest point, the days begin to lengthen again; imperceptibly at first, but becoming more noticeable within a month or two.

Silently the senses abandon their defenses

Silent night, holy night.  In an article on the solstice from The Plain Dealer (http://www.cleveland.com/chagrinfalls/index.ssf/2013/12/stop_what_you_are_doing_and_ce.html), contributor Joan Rusek suggests,

“Most of us can tap into the quiet stillness of the early winter to meditate and reflect on the past year, cleaning our emotional and energetic closet for a new year to come. We can’t realize these gifts unless we have cleared a space for them.”

Slowly, gently, night unfurls its splendor

Last night, as Howie and I were headed downtown for a spectacular performance of “The New Production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera” (from which I am borrowing lyrics to structure this post), he was struck by the beauty and fullness of the rising moon.

When we got home, Howie noticed the moon was so bright and high in the sky, that it was casting shadows.  Moonshadow is a song by Cat Stevens (born Steven Demetre Georgiou and reborn Yusuf Islam), a musician Howie and I both loved as teenagers.  Here are some haunting lyrics from Moonshadow that resonate with me now, 

“Did it take long to find me?”

I asked the faithful light

“Oh, did it take long to find me

And are you gonna stay the night?”

Close your eyes and surrender to your darkest dreams!

Darkness is associated with ignorance, the subconscious, evil, death, and fear of the unknown.  How did it get such a bad rap?

When our son, Sam, was little and afraid of the dark, I found an aerosol  product we could spray around his room at night called Monster Repellant.  The placebo effect was incredible.

But what is a dark dream?  It sounds like it could be a porn website but  the dark poet, Edgar Allan Poe, had this to say about darkness and dreaming,

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

On the other end of the light spectrum, spiritual writer Marianne Williamson explains away our fear of darkness,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us.” (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/darkness.html#Mz1hReZ2G3gEA3AP.99)

Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before!

Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar!

And you’ll live as you’ve never lived before

Since beginning this blog, I have attended to my daily experience of loosening my grip on the world I “knew before”; a world of young  ones in my house, and all the joy and chaos that inhabits that world.  I have marched, headfirst and with eyes wide open, into an apparent darkness which felt like grief but is probably also an uncertainty of the unknown and what comes next.

Yesterday, before leaving for The Phantom, I received confirmation from the director of the Young Writer’s Program at The Loft that the new class I wrote last week (instead of writing blog posts for a few days last week!) has been accepted as one of the offerings for the summer of 2014.

Let your mind start a journey through a strange, new world!

Everything we do in this life is at the expense of doing something else.  There are dreams I have, in addition to becoming a better teacher, that I haven’t had the time, energy or freedom to pursue, like becoming a better writer and sending more of my work out for publication.

And speaking of strange new worlds, there is plenty of work to be done in our strange current world that is just waiting for those of us with the time and inclination to serve.

I’m making myself a little nauseous with all this talk of growth and change.

Let your soul take you where you long to be!

If your soul doesn’t take you where you want to be, time will.  In the words of another one of my favorite showmen of all time, Mick Jagger, “Time waits for no one.”

As we wait through this coming, longest night of the year, we could focus on what we are waiting for.  In this household, we are waiting–with fingers crossed–to hear from colleges, we are waiting for this cold snap to end, we are (O.K., I am) waiting to hear what my advisor says about the first half of my thesis, among other things.

Or we could focus on enjoying the night, itself.  We could make a fire, snuggle up together, fully savor the longest and deepest darkness of the year and find in it the music of the night.

These are the kinds of nights that result, for some, in births and hopefully for others, in re-births.

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What If the Best is Yet to Come?

What if what you’ve observed about yourself is not the whole story?  What if your future holds more in store for you than you have, as yet, imagined?  I’m not talking about false memories, conspiracy theories, or counterfactual scenarios.  I’m talking about the possibility, like the old Loving Care hair color commercial used to tease, that “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better!”  And I’m not just talking to you; I’m talking to myself, as well.

What If? is the title of a book of writing exercises for fiction writers that I looked through while designing my newly-proposed class for Young Writer’s at The Loft.  Here is an exercise from a chapter entitled, Funny–You Don’t Look Seventy-Five:

The Exercise

Make a list of some of the ways you can suggest approximate age.  Wrinkles and gray hair are the most obvious.  Many are more subtle.

The Objective

To make the best use of your powers of observation. (The more precise the detail, the more convincing it is.)  How a person adjusts to the aging process tells us a good deal about her personality–this is true for a fictional character as for a real one.

Example

  • Condition of teeth; presence of obvious dentures
  • In a man–how much hair
  • Condition of hearing
  • What sort of shoes she is wearing
  • Condition of skin
  • Posture
  • Quality and timbre of voice; idiom
  • Walking pace
  • Where found on a Saturday night

Let’s go along with the assumption that how a person adjusts to the aging process tells a good deal about her personality.  What would it tell you about me that Saturday night I was found in two rather different places: first, at an elegant Christmas party hosted by a woman I met when our daughters took ballet lessons together when they were in kindergarten, and next, at The Cabooze, the music venue on the West Bank, to see a band I started following back about the time Sophie started those ballet lessons.

This combination of Saturday night activities might say that, as a character, I am: sentimental about relationships made when my kids were little, connected with my past as their mother, and that even in middle age, I’m still a little bit rock and roll.  Do these qualities suggest I am adjusting to the aging process, or trying to deny it altogether?

Ballet was not Sophie’s idea, it was mine, and she consented.  There were many things I had her try partly because it was fun for me to have a girl (I had two boys before her) and partly because I thought it would be good for her.  I thought ballet would teach her coordination and grace.  I didn’t realize it would get me on the guest list–for time immemorial–of one of the swankiest holiday house parties in town, just by standing at the observation window with the mother of one of Sophie’s dance-mates.

After class one morning, Sophie came out and informed me,

“The teacher says we can’t turn around and look at our moms.  She said, ‘You don’t want to screw up, don’t you?  And we all shaked our heads.”

This woman, the hostess of last Saturday night’s party, and I stood outside the windows at the back of the mirrored dance studio, watching our tiny ballerinas in their miniature black leotards and pink tights screwing up, whether they turned back to look at us or not.  They were trying not to watch us watching them, but our presence was hard for them to ignore.

Now, at almost 18 years old, our ballerinas are waiting to hear from colleges, and our presence in their lives is easier to ignore.  We are still watching them, and now we are the ones most often looking back.  But too much looking back could make us screw up, too.  Looking forward is the best way to prepare for a dance.

After the party, I returned home to fetch Howie, and we headed off to the show at the Cabooze.  The headliner we had come to see was a cover band known as Lola and The Red Family Band.  The lead singer is Tina Schlieske, of the band formerly known as Tina and the B-Sides.

The back story on my history as a fan of this band is for another post.  Suffice it to say, I discovered the B-Sides just as they were about to dis-band, and Tina was about to move to Austin, TX, to pursue her musical career.  I used to go see Tina and her band(s) perform whenever she’d come back to town, once I’d put my kids to bed when they were little, almost as an escape from my suburban house-mom life in those tender, relentless days.  It was a way to stay connected to the part of me that was still young, still carefree and still quite a bit rock and roll.

Saturday night’s show was the annual Holiday show.  There were other people our age at the show, but there were no “old people” in the house.

According to the writing exercise on ways of suggesting characters’ advancing age, a writer could observe that my hair needs color, that Howie and I have lost some hearing (from listening to our music too loud since we were teenagers ourselves), but that we were both wearing cool, winter boots (and not therapeutic shoes), and not only walking, but rocking out to the mix of holiday, R&B and rock covers from throughout the ages.  We may be advancing in age, but still know how to get down on a Saturday night.

Which had me answering some of my opening “what ifs”.  What if being a mother to my kids is not the only great gig I will enjoy, though it’s been my favorite so far?  What if there are other ways for me to perform out in the world and what if once the last of my kids, and I, are on our own, we’ll all manifest some of that new potential?  And most of all, what if I have been wrong about the fact that the best is behind me?

What if the best, for each of us, is yet to come?

The lyrics of the Sinatra classic would be fitting to sing to Sophie right about now…

The Best is Yet to Come (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmf1AYgYj6I

Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum

You came along and everything started to hum

Still it’s a real good bet, the best is yet to come

I’d like to portray my own character as aging with the grace I sought for Sophie in her dance classes, with optimism about our collective futures, with the hard-won confidence and resilience I have developed as a mother, and with the ability to stay (in the words of another Sinatra song) young at heart.

Bored Room

It’s said that if you’re bored, you’re boring.  Until very recently, I had forgotten what it felt like to be bored due to an overabundance of work and an under-abundance of time.  In fact, on occasion I’ve wished for enough room in my life for boredom to make a cameo appearance.  Be careful what you wish for.

Boredom is considered by some to be a luxury–an odd privilege if you will–afforded only by the “haves”.  The “have-nots” have not enough time, money, or psychic energy to wallow in boredom.  Some also consider it a postmodern (whatever that term means) affliction, which seems to be getting worse with the rise of technology.  The more stimulation, the more potential for boredom; a relationship that seems counterintuitive.

Boredom can result from the mismatch between our expectations of life and our day-to-day realities.  Saul Bellow, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize for Literature and a National Medal of Arts, explains the mismatch this way, in his 1975 novel, Humboldt’s Gift,

“Suppose then that you began with the proposition that boredom was a kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents, and was accompanied by expectations of the optimum utilization of capacities.”

Here is my own, current litany of underutilized capacities:

I am an avid outdoor biker, and it’s winter.  I am in transition from one job (marketing/salesperson) to another (writer/teacher), and am being involuntarily phased out of my favorite job of all time (mother with stay-at-home kids). I have been exiled from the graduate school classrooms I have loved (in pursuit of an MFA), to my dining room table to write my thesis.  I am becoming a writer (need I say more about the isolation and challenge of the writing life?).

I am not sad–OK, maybe a little bit sad–but I am a little bit (bored).

“When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored.”                                   ~Eric Hoffer, 20th-century social writer and philosopher

It may appear that I’m bored with other things or people, or with life itself, but that’s not the case.  I’m bored with my self.  Maybe I’ve been spending too much time with me.  I’m bored with my own “voice” which, ironically, I’ve been working so hard to develop.  I don’t even want to imagine how boring I might be to others.  Blahdee, blahdee, blah.

Yesterday, instead of working on my thesis (this blog), I worked on writing a proposal for a class I hope to teach this summer in The Loft’s Young Writer’s Program.  Writing for a good chunk of every day is a new occupation for me which, for the first few months, was novel, exciting and energizing.  Right now, I think I need a rest.

“We seek rest in a struggle against some obstacles.” according to Pascal, 17th-century writer, philosopher, mathematician, physicist, and inventor of the mechanical calculator.  “And when we have overcome these, rest proves unbearable because of the boredom it produces.” This puts us in quite a bind; either we’re struggling or we’re bored.  Besides, what would a busy guy like Pascal know about boredom?

Boredom is not a measure of one’s busyness.  One can be extremely busy in all outward appearances yet bored on the inside.  Extreme busyness, itself, can get exceedingly tiresome.  Been there, done that.

Sophie came home from school yesterday, matching me pound-for-pound in boredom.

“I’m a senior.  I’ve been getting up at the same time, going to the same school, with the same people all these years.  After school, I have the same job and the same homework, and on weekends make the same plans with the same friends to do the same things.”  she said, as she made the same chai tea, the same way she always makes it, to warm up from the same sub-freezing temperatures we’ve had all week.

“If existential boredom is the knowledge that anything can happen, and therefore nothing has meaning, adolescent boredom is the awareness that anything can happen and the conviction that nothing ever does.”  ~Andrew Anthony, The Guardian(http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/17/boredom-peter-toohey-andrew-anthony)

Boredom can be a result of tedium–chronic sameness–as Sophie is referring to, and it can resemble depression.  So of course I asked my child if she thinks she’s depressed.

“No, Mom.  I’m happy.  I have a good life.  I’m just…”

Stuck, was one word that came to my mind, as did trapped.  I felt pretty darn smart when I read the following, also in Anthony’s article in The Guardian,

“One definition of boredom is a kind of confinement. As Lars Svendsen writes in his slim but essential volume A Philosophy of Boredom: ‘Boredom always contains an awareness of being trapped, either in a particular situation or in the world as a whole.'”  

Sometimes, we’re stuck in a situation in which nothing feels vital or appealing.  And sometimes, we are done with life-as-we’ve-known-it before we have an acceptable alternative at hand.  For Sophie, this means she’s getting ready for a big, life change; out with the old, and in with the new, only not fast enough for her taste.  For me, the change is coming both not fast enough and too fast; and the tension between the two only exacerbates my discomfort.

Boredom is more a state of mind than a state of action, or inaction, as the case may be.  It may be a barometer of engagement with or interest in life, is often situational, and is usually transient.

And, back to Anthony’s article in The Guardian  (read the following with a British accent)“All phobias are at root a fear of death, and the fear of boredom is the fear of being, in the familiar phrase, bored to death.”

In northern climes, boredom can also be seasonal.  And this year, with Hanukkah falling on Thanksgiving, we Jewish folk have blown through all our celebrations for the season.  As a public service, might I suggest inviting Jewish friends over for some holiday cheer, to ease any possible lack-of-festival boredom.

Existentialists maintain that boredom is the essential human condition.  In Philosophy Now Magazine, contributor Colin Bisset writes,

“Like melancholy and its darker cousin sadness, boredom is related to emptiness and meaninglessness…”(http://philosophynow.org/issues/77/La_Vie_DEnnui)

But Bisset goes on to connect boredom with creativity in what I found to be the most encouraging perspective of all, in my research on the topic.  On a site called Brain Pickings, writer Maria Popova makes a related claim, asserting “boredom has an essential function in the history of art.”  She quotes writer Susan Sontag as saying, “Boredom is a function of attention.  We are learning new modes of attention…”  Here’s more from Bisset,

And that’s the point of boredom, isn’t it? Wasn’t Newton sitting underneath an apple tree staring into space, and Archimedes wallowing in the bath, when clarity struck? In my own insignificant way, I think I have always understood that doing nothing is the key to getting somewhere. As a writer, it takes a while to convince others that you are working hard whilst appearing to be lying on the sofa staring at the ceiling, but once this is accomplished it can be very useful…”

Here are some exercises to try, the next time you are bored silly,

“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”  ~Joseph Brodsky, 20th-century poet and essayist

And remember David Foster Wallace, and his Kenyon College commencement speech I referred to the other day, where he said,  “There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about…One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration.”?  Well, DFW has suggested the following exercise,

“Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.” ~David Foster Wallace, novelist

I am even bored of the rules outlined for me by my esteemed thesis advisor, who taught me never to end with someone else’s words.  Out of boredom and blatant disregard, I’ll end by quoting Bisset once again,

“…that’s how boredom works. Eventually you will step out into the brave new world. You have to move. That’s what boredom is for…”

U of Home

What do puffed cereal, Post-it Notes, and pacemakers have in common?  They all got their starts at the University of Minnesota.  Last Friday afternoon, I accompanied Sophie on a scheduled visit to the U of M, so she could see if she’d be interested in getting her start there, as well.

Throughout the afternoon, we learned all kinds of encouraging U of M-related facts and figures.  The presenters appeared to be selling prospective students on applying to the U.  It wasn’t until we were ready to head home, however, that I asked the question that revealed the only discouraging figure of the day; out of approximately 43,000 freshman applying this year, only about 5,300 will be accepted.  Clearly, it is the prospective students who must do the selling in this transaction.

“I’m no mathematician,” I said, upon hearing this ratio, “but that sounds like 7 out of 8 applicants will be disappointed.”

The perky staff members answering my question at the admission’s office desk–most of whom appeared to be barely out of college themselves–seemed taken aback by my negative interpretation of their data.

“Not all of those 7 even want to go here,” Sophie was quick to point out.  “The U might not be their first choice,” she said, betraying her own ambivalence.

It might be their parent’s choice, given the option, even if that parent is feeling plenty ambivalent about the choice, too.

I never imagined Sophie would consider attending the U of M.  Yet she scheduled this visit herself and invited me along.

“It will be easier for me if you drive.  I wouldn’t know where to park.”  Whatever her excuse to have me tag along, I’m always happy to be of service.

The Minneapolis campus of the U of M is about a 15-minute drive from our house, as opposed to the 7-8 hour drive from home to KU,  which is in Lawrence, Kansas.  KU is the first school she was accepted by, and the one she’s been considering most seriously.  Having spent 6-weeks studying in a high school program in Israel and all her past many summers away at camp out-of-state, Sophie was poised to be the first of our three kids to leave the state for college, or so I always assumed.

Her brothers both stayed home–meaning, in town–for college.  That made sense to me, since both boys seemed to need liberation from this house, yet to remain close enough to be cared for as satellites of this family.  Sam spent his last year of high school out-of-state at a boarding school, then returned home and lived on campus while attending the U all four years.  Nate moved in with Sam late in the spring of Nate’s senior year of high school.  Like I said, both boys were seeking independence, yet wanting to stay close to their family, friends and hometown.  And a refrigerator filled with “free” food.

Now that Sophie’s expressing an interest in the U, I find I have to check my own interests very carefully.  Of course I would love for her to stay “home”, living on campus, but here in town.  But, as I’ve said before, I wonder if she’ll regret not spreading her wings and having her college experience in a place removed from where she grew up.  Yet we have put some definite limitations on where she goes.  Nevertheless, I thought for sure Sophie would be our first out-of-state, college-bound pioneer.

She has a pioneering spirit, and when the time came in our visit for the walking tour of campus, she was undaunted by the unseasonably cold afternoon.  Last Friday was the coldest day we’ve had since the previous winter.  But the sun was out, so the day sparkled not only from the sunlight glinting off the fresh snow but also from the light in my heart at the thought of Sophie staying so close.

To conceal my welling delight, I protested,

“You had all summer to look at this campus.  And you can come back and look in the spring.”

I wanted to spend the hour-and-a-half allocated for the walking tour in the warmth of the Weisman Art Museum Shop (WAM Shop) where my friend, Marissa, is the buyer, while the rest of the suckers, I mean visitors, toured the mall and residence halls.  The other visitors in our group were from cities, like Chicago and St. Louis, and towns in outstate Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, so visiting at a warmer time may not be as easy an option for them.  Especially with the early application deadline looming, December 16th.

Sophie talked me into beginning the tour with the group, then I talked her into ducking out and warming up shopping the WAM Shop annual holiday sale.  As we walked, briskly, she said,

“I love it here!  This is a great school.” I agree, on both accounts.

Aside from being a poor sport about the frigid walking tour, I was happy to attend the two information sessions book-ending the tour, and to wait patiently in the admissions office lobby while Sophie had her prescheduled meeting with an admissions advisor.  The “old” me would have wanted to join her as she spoke with this advisor, but the new me is practicing letting go (my new motto, borrowed from the recovery community, is “let go and let Sophie”).

I took the opportunity, sitting in the admissions office lobby, to call over the young advisor who had just conducted the College of Liberal Arts information session at the end, and was now hanging out at the check-in desk with the other office staff.  I wanted to ask him a few questions.

“So how does the admissions process really work?” I asked, wanting to know if Sophie has a fighting chance of being admitted, if she does decide she wants to stay here.

Without tipping his hand too much, this nice young man explained that the admissions office, consisting of about 20 advisors, read the tens of thousands of applications, and really do use the guidelines outlined in the materials we received.  Then, the applications go to outside advisors, consisting of retired school guidance or admissions personnel and the like, who look over the selected candidates.  And finally, the team takes a “holistic” approach to applicants based on any special circumstances in individual cases.

I listened, while simultaneously sending positive vibes down the hall to Sophie, who was meeting with her designated admissions advisor behind closed doors.

I thanked this young man for educating me on the finer points of the admissions process.  It’s amazing what these energetic young people in admissions know.  For instance, I overheard him advising another family about where to go for dinner.

“Have you ever heard of a Jucy Lucy?”, continuing to educate while making his recommendation. “It was invented here in Minneapolis.  Actually, the two restaurants who claim to have invented it are only a couple miles apart on the same street.  What it is, is a cheeseburger, but instead of the cheese being melted on top, it’s melted into the middle of the burger.”

The Jucy Lucy is another famous Minnesota invention, tied to the University in that students and staff know what it is and where to get one.

Before Sophie and I met up at home Friday at noon to head to the U of M campus, she went to school for a few hours and I spent the morning on another campus; this one a medical campus.  I had my 6-week follow-up visit at the Piper Breast Center, whose address is on Campus Drive.  I hadn’t given the tiny node I’d found 6 weeks ago much thought since my initial visit when it was determined with near certainty to be a tiny lymph node and nothing more.

But I was diligent and followed through with this follow-up visit.  Again, the doctor decided to perform an ultrasound, and again, after careful consideration, the tiny BB was called a lymph node.  But just to be safe, both the breast specialist and the radiologist concurred that I should come back for yet another ultrasound in 6 months.  I scheduled that appointment around Sophie’s 18th birthday, this coming June.

So last Friday, I spent the morning, alone, being less than 100% certain about my own future, and the afternoon with my daughter, with both of us being less than 100% sure about hers.

Over the weekend, Sophie cleaned her room, and by Sunday afternoon, I noticed she had actually hung the folders from the three schools she’s considering up on her wall.  The U of M folder is on top, and KU and Lewis and Clark, in Portland, OR, form the base of a pyramid, below.  Her uncertainty is now taped to her wall, next to the light switch, for ongoing illumination.

I should grab a bowl of Rice Krispies and put up a Post-it Note reminding myself that life is full of uncertainties, so that my heart keeps beating on its own, at a desirable pace, despite all our unknowns at this moment.

Human BE-ing

The purpose of yesterday’s post, On Purpose, was to open a dialogue (or monologue, as the case may be) on purpose; a topic that could be considered too vast a spiritual question to confront, especially in one blog post.  This morning, when I sat down to open up the topic again, I intended to open and work from another book, this one by Dawn Markova, called I Will Not Die an Unlived Life; Reclaiming Purpose and Passion.  Instead, what I opened was an email from one of my dearest friends.

In order to respect his privacy, I will not quote from his message here.  It’s not necessary.  Suffice it to say that his 92-year-old mother, whom he is very close to, seems to be dying.  I say “seems to be” since she seemed to be leaving us last Mother’s Day, and is still with us as the snow returns to Minnesota.

When she was so frail last May, we all went to see her essentially to say “goodbye”.  Her family gathered from all over the country, but she wasn’t ready to go just yet.  She told us she’d made a deal with God.  Her beloved, only granddaughter was to be married in September and her youngest grandson, to be Bar Mitzvah’ed over Thanksgiving this past weekend.  She wanted to live to see each “simcha”, each happy occasion.  Apparently God cut her this deal.

This morning, my thoughts turned to the person this woman is, the woman who gave birth to one of my favorite friends, one of the most exceptional people I know.  I realized I didn’t know much about what she had done in her life, other than having given birth to my friend and his four siblings.  I only know what kind of person she is.  Which made me realize something about purpose I hadn’t been considering:  It’s not what we do, but who we are that matters.

We’ve all heard the expression, “We’re not human doings, we’re human beings.”  In fact, we don’t ask to be here, at all.  We are brought into being by others–our parents–and once we find ourselves here, we have decisions to make about the kind of people we want to be.

My friend’s mother is remarkable not necessarily for the things she accomplished, although raising five accomplished children is no small feat, but for the person she is.  She will be remembered for her positive attitude, her zest for life, her devotion to her family and friends who she’s been getting together with right up until the end.  Up until recently, she still drove, and almost never complained.  Whenever we’d get together, she always asked how we were doing, first;

“How are the kids?  How are your folks?” was her customary greeting.

She often talked about how lucky she felt to be doted upon by her children and grandchildren.  I told her, once, that people don’t give love freely to those who haven’t earned or inspired that love.  I said her kids and grandkids love her so much because she loved them so much.  They were devoted to her in equal measure to her devotion to them over the years.

“Oh, aren’t you sweet to say that,” she said, in humble response, “you’ve made my day.”

She was the type of person who would make your day just by seeing her smiling face.  She allowed those around her to feel special and important through their very presence.  No wonder God was willing to bargain with her.

This topic of purpose is on my mind, and I plan to be kicking it around for a while, as I work on my own re-purposing.  It’s funny how, when you open your mind to something, the universe keeps providing material for consideration.

What post would be complete without a literary reference, and today’s is no exception.  Again, for reasons I can’t explain, another brilliant spirit popped into my consciousness; the writer and teacher, David Foster Wallace.  Wallace took his own life in 2008, at the age of 46; exactly half the age of my friend’s mother.  Though his life was cut short–he was a victim of decades of severe depression–his young life was not un-lived.

He is most famous for his writing, but what I was remembering about him this morning was the commencement speech he gave in 2005 at Kenyon College.  It is a speech that is known by fans of this prolific writer, and has madeTime Magazine’s list of Top 10 Commencement Speeches.

Part of my own purpose, here, is to bring you literary jewels that far outshine what I’m able to provide.  And though yesterday I shared a link that was questionable, you will absolutely thank me for this one, if you’re not familiar with it already:  David Foster Wallace, In His Own Words, (http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words).  You can also “view” it (though it is 22:44 minutes of a still shot of Wallace, with an audio track of him reading the speech) on YouTube, entitled This is Water.

This speech, on the surface, is about the value of a liberal arts education but at it’s core is about deciding “what has meaning, and what doesn’t”.  And though DFW, as we like to call him, tragically succumbed to his illness by ending his own life, he gave a speech that concludes,

“The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.”

Now is the time to consider how we’re going to be in this world–not just what we’re going to do–so that when our time comes, who we are is how we will be remembered.

On Purpose

Essayists could be considered the jam bands of the literary world and sometimes their compositions begin with “On [a topic]”.  When a writer begins an essay (or in this case, a post) with the title “On…”, it usually signals that the writer is about to riff or freely-associate on that topic.

pur·pose:

  • the reason for which something is done or created or for which something (or someone?) exists.  The object toward which one strives; an aim or a goal.
  • a person’s sense of resolve or determination:  there was a new sense of purpose in her step as she set off

It’s possible the convention of entitling an essay “On…” was started by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), an influential writer during the French Renaissance, considered by many to be the father of the essay.  The word “essay” itself comes from the French, essai, meaning to attempt or to try.  Montaigne began many of his Essais this way, using his own thoughts and life experiences as springboards for discussions, which often contained a healthy amount of skepticism.

On Purpose, then, signals my attempt to open a discussion on a topic I’ve been dancing around for months; the understanding, experience and function of purpose in our lives.  Purpose is something we grapple with, or at least consider on some level, every day.  It helps us decide how to spend our time and other resources.

on purpose:

  • Intentionally, deliberately. On purpose as opposed to by accident.

Purpose, along with happiness and passion, are trendy topics for discussion these days. If you search  Amazon.com for books with the word “purpose” in the title, you’ll find a list of 54,615 titles, including 51 written by Rick Warren.  Warren wrote The Purpose Driven Life, which is the #1 best-selling hardcover book of all time.

People apparently are looking for answers to their questions about purpose.

What is my purpose?  How do I find my purpose?  Am I fulfilling my purpose?

This feels like the beginning of a George Carlin routine.

As an example, if a woman derives her sense of purpose from mothering, where does she find purpose once she is facing forced-retirement from that job?  How does she re-purpose her life?

Is purpose the same thing as destiny?  Without purpose, do we continue to exist?

The questions can be posed but the answers will, by nature, continue to unfold.

In our culture of insta-answers, I found the website of a guy, by the name of Steve Pavlina, who claims he can help you discover your life’s purpose in 20 minutes.  Here’s an excerpt from his site, Steve Pavlina.com; Personal Development for Smart People (http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/01/how-to-discover-your-life-purpose-in-about-20-minutes/).  Not surprisingly, he begins with a statement of purpose,

The purpose of this website is to help you grow as a conscious human being. This includes guiding you to discover and accept your life purpose; inspiring you to feel more motivated, energized, and passionate; helping you shed disempowering relationships and build a network of loving support; teaching you how to achieve stable financial abundance doing what you love; and encouraging you to make a genuine contribution to humanity — so you can finally experience the kind of life that deep down, you always knew you were meant to live.

You aren’t here to struggle and suffer. You’re here to express and share your creative gifts, to give and receive love, and to be happy. It will take time, but this site can certainly help you get there, and the vast majority of resources here are free.

How do you discover your real purpose in life? I’m not talking about your job, your daily responsibilities, or even your long-term goals. I mean the real reason why you’re here at all — the very reason you exist.

Perhaps you’re a rather nihilistic person who doesn’t believe you have a purpose and that life has no meaning. Doesn’t matter. Not believing that you have a purpose won’t prevent you from discovering it, just as a lack of belief in gravity won’t prevent you from tripping.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Take out a blank sheet of paper or open up a word processor where you can type (I prefer the latter because it’s faster).
  2. Write at the top, “What is my true purpose in life?”
  3. Write an answer (any answer) that pops into your head. It doesn’t have to be a complete sentence. A short phrase is fine.
  4. Repeat step 3 until you write the answer that makes you cry. This is your purpose.

Could it be that simple?  Like Montaigne, I’m skeptical.  But essai it, try it, and we’ll continue this conversation tomorrow (and for the rest of our lives).

Don’t Dis Contentment

Now is the winter of our discontent, is the Bill Shakespeare* line that comes to mind any time I hear the meteorologist’s line: A Winter Storm Warning has been issued for Hennepin County.  Waking up this morning to one of the first coatings of snow for the season, and anticipating accumulating snow and plummeting temperatures, has me feeling so discontent that naturally I picked up a book entitled, Magical Journey; An Apprenticeship in Contentment, by Katrina Kenison, for some guidance.

I have waited too long to pick up this book.  Story of my life.  I checked it out of the library weeks ago and am just looking into it this morning.  It’s due today, with a waiting list, so no chance for renewal.

The inside panel of the book jacket reads,

From the beloved author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day, this intimate account of a year of loss, self-discovery, and growth will resonate deeply with any woman who has ever mourned the passage of time, questioned her own purpose, or wondered, ‘Do I have what it takes to discover what is important to me now?’

When her youngest son leaves home…Kenison finds herself at a crossroads, contemplating the new reality of life without children at the dinner table and without the small, consuming tasks of motherhood to give shape and direction to her days.

I am tempted to transcribe entire chapters of this book, here, beginning with the Prologue.  In it, she describes being in the car, on a road trip to look at schools with her son, saying,

We’ve been arguing for months…I wonder if he is as tired of the battle as I am, as anxious about taking the next step, as sad about our recent past and as tentatively hopeful about the future.

In the meanwhile, back on the tundra, Sophie has made herself an appointment with an admissions counselor at the U of M for the end of this week, when the temperature is forecast to be in the single digits above zero.  She has invited me to join her for both the tour and the meeting.  Ironically, I am torn about the possibility of her staying in town, after all my lamentations over her leaving.  Ultimately, I want what is best for her and I keep thinking that what is best for her is to leave home; home, that multi-faceted residence with all the smallness and safety it can house.  But what is best for her is for her to decide what is best for her.  My turn to decide what is best for her is rapidly coming to an end.

There are barricades around the heart asking to be breached.  Sooner or later we all run out of excuses for staying small and safe.    ~Danna Faulds 

This is one of the quotes that start each chapter of The Magical Journey.  I love quotes.  They can have the emotional impact of extending a hand to help you to your feet again after you’ve been knocked on your ass by one of life’s sucker punches.  They’re good attitude-adjusters in a small amount of space.  Here’s another quote from the book I’m keeping in mind going forward,

One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.  ~Henry Miller

Meeting new people is one way of finding new ways of looking at old things.  I met a young woman at an engagement party over the Thanksgiving weekend.  The mother in me saw her standing alone, so I approached her,

“I noticed you standing by yourself, and I’m wondering if you know anybody here?”

“Not really, but it’s O.K.  I enjoy observing people.”

And finding we had that in common, I asked her to join Howie and me at a small table, where we spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other.  She is the same age as our eldest son, Sam, and though I knew many of the other guests, I found myself most interested in this young woman I had just met.  Was it her, or her youth, I was drawn to?  It was both.  But what was she interested in from us?

I looked around the room and said, “It’s all old people in here,” to which Howie offered me a reality check,

“Yeah; they’re all our age.”

My own stubborn denial and panic are being caused by my fear of the unstoppable and rapid passage of time which is threatening to derail me, like the train that just flew off the tracks in New York, killing four.  Reports out today say the driver of that train told investigators he “lost focus” right before the accident.  I wonder if hyper-focusing can cause derailment, too, as I certainly don’t want to be the cause of my own casualty, or wound any others in the crash.

When our new, young friend talked about having recently taken the LSATs and her plans for applying to law schools, I told her that I’m in school, myself.  I told her about my thesis, and she politely asked what it was about.  Here, I became age-conscious once again.

“It’s about emptying my nest.  I’m actually blogging (thrown in because it sounds so modern) about my last year having a child in the house, but that must sound so boring to you…”

“Actually, I think the transition from children to no-children is one of the most underestimated transitions in life.  I watched my own mom go through it, and know how devastated she was by it.  In fact, I believe that’s why my parents moved back to Texas.  I don’t think my mom could stand living in the house we grew up in, once my little brother left.  Too many memories.”

I was stunned, not just by her words but by her remarkable perspicacity.  Children sense when their parents hearts are breaking, even when what’s breaking them is exactly what they must do.  I felt so validated by this young woman, I felt like I was falling in love with her.  I asked Howie if we could take her home with us.

With regard to today and my book, offering an “apprenticeship in contentment,” I have resolved to get back in line at the library.  We Minnesotans will hunker down and heed the storm warnings, and I will wait my turn to check this book out again as soon as my name comes up.  A book report may be forthcoming.  There will be months ahead to hibernate indoors and read, biding our time on winter’s waiting list, with an eye on contentment and the coming opportunity for renewal.

*SNL’s Chris Farley, may he rest in peace, referred to Shakespeare as “Bill Shakespeare” in one of his routines as Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker.  Watch the following clip if you need a lift on a snowy day:  http://www.hulu.com/watch/4183

Thesis Won

I had it all planned out. I was going to make the ceremonial drive to the Hamline campus with my thesis all bundled up in the passenger seat.  Then, I was going to treat myself to a celebratory cry, back in my car, after I handed it in to Anika, who runs the Creative Writing Programs (CWP) office.  Now that I think about it, it’s sort of how I envision it will be when I drop Sophie off at college.  Although I won’t be alone when I drop Sophie.  Howie will be there with me.

As timing would have it, Howie was there with me when I dropped off my thesis, as well; not in person, but calling my cell phone.  I picked it up and informed him,

“You’re catching me right as I’m handing my thesis in to Anika, here at school.”

“Oh!  I didn’t realize you were doing that now.”

“Do you know how long it turned out to be?  Two-hundred and fifty-four pages.  It was supposed to be eighty-to-one-hundred pages, and it was two-hundred-fifty-four.”

I was expecting  What an accomplishment!  How does it feel?  or something to that effect.  But what I got, was,

“Can you imagine being an advisor and having to read that much, written on a topic you may not have any interest in, from every student?”

It’s lovely that my husband considers the feelings of the underdog, in this case my advisor.  But if he was going to preempt my cathartic cry, perhaps he could have seen things from my point of view, first.  I have never produced anything even remotely as ambitious as a thesis, and was feeling pretty spent from the effort.  At least let me revel in my moment of triumph.

But once I hung up the phone, the crescendo of emotion had passed. I started the car and headed back home already contemplating my next, in what has come to seem like a relentless series, of postings.

Other Thesis 1 students hand in their work, enjoy a hard-won sense of relief and have six weeks off while advisors read and comment on their work, before beginning the revisions that constitute Thesis 2.  What do they do during the break between Thesis 1 and Thesis 2?  Work on other projects?  Start lining up agents?  Jet off to a secluded island, lie in a hammock and drink umbrella drinks all day?

No one in my program has ever turned an ongoing blog into a thesis.  I didn’t intend to, either.  I wasn’t able to bring my original thesis idea to term and the blog is what ended up being viable for me.

When I handed my little bundle of thesis joy over to Anika, she had the insight to offer me congratulations.  Anika has written thesis, herself.  She knows what this moment signifies.  It is the culmination of years of education, sweat and tears, and ultimately, the hard labor of sitting one’s ass in the chair, day after day, until enough is written to qualify as a thesis.  And I really wasn’t looking for sympathy when I said,

“The problem with my thesis is that I don’t get to stop, here.  I just have to keep putting it out.”

“Welcome to the writing life!”  Anika said back to me with a Cheshire cat smile of understanding and foreboding.

This brought to mind the experience writers have, as is captured in a quote attributed to Gene Fowler*,

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.

It also brought to mind something Sophie used to say to me when she would ask me to do something for her, and I would grumble.  She’d zing me with,

“I’m sorry you have children, Mom.”

I never was, nor will I ever be, sorry I had children.  But when you give in to your urge to create, the things you create will likely make demands of you.

As I handed my baby over to Anika, I told her,

“I know I wrote this, but I have this odd sense that it didn’t come entirely from me. It’s like when I had my kids.  I knew I carried and delivered them, but I also knew that I didn’t make them.  Almost like they came through me, but I didn’t really create them.”

I’ve heard other writers describe the source of their work like this.  It’s hard to know exactly where the creative spark comes from, but once you get into the groove, it feels more like channeling than manufacturing.

I shouldn’t be surprised that this amount of material started to flow from me.  My mind seeks connection, and I’ve had months of unprotected thoughts, lately. Is it a coincidence that the school “year” is nine months long?

And once the thesis is born, you feel very attached to it, always wanting to fuss over it, to doll it up a bit more.  Generating this much writing is a very interior experience.  Writers spend time in seclusion, exploring the inner spaces of their minds, psyches and emotions.  They’re alone with their own creative processes and odd assortments of research materials.  It can turn a person strange, even if they weren’t that way to begin with.

And having spent so much time nursing a project along, you feel self-conscious and exposed in public.  It’s hard not to come across obsessed by this new foundling in your life.

Sarah, my Sophstitute, had a traumatic time handing her thesis over.  Circumstances required her to mail hers in.  She tells the story of packaging it up carefully in a padded envelope and handing it to the postal worker.  He roughly removed it from its protective swaddling, shoved it into a regular envelope, and “stamp, stamp, stamped it” according to the then sleep-deprived, bleary-eyed Sarah.  She grabbed it back to re-label the new envelope, and as the postman reached for it, she hung on with trepidation.  He reportedly told her,

“You’re going to have to let go of it.”

Which, as we know, is the point we get to with all things we give birth to.  We conceive them, we incubate them, and after a predetermined gestation period, we go through the hard labor to deliver them into the world.  We receive Apgar scores on them, and pray for their ability to survive apart from us.  We are the vessels through which they arrive here, and once they seem fully rendered, our job is to step out of the way and allow them lives of their own.  All we can do is try our best to shape them and then let them go.

Now that my thesis is in the hands of my advisor, you’d think I could relax.  I have to remind myself that I did the best job I could each day I showed up for the work.  Even if I’m not fully satisfied with the job I’ve done, I have to try to love my results unconditionally.  My job as a writer–and a mother–will never be done.  It just changes, or should I say, is continually revised.

(There is some discrepancy about who actually uttered these words.  For a history on this quote, check out http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/14/writing-bleed/)