The Freedom of Passing Away

Driving home yesterday past beach houses and small businesses, the thought popped into my mind, “All this will pass away.” To my surprise, the observation felt peaceful rather than panicked.

Of course it’s easier not to feel panicked when looking at someone else’s house or houses in general rather than lives. And I wasn’t thinking about a tsunami, though that could happen. I was thinking about a local shopping center that’s getting a facelift. A friend and I meet there every week to run, and as the new facades go up, we can see its modern look replacing the current, worn-down exterior. Before it was shopping center, orange or almond groves stood there.

We’ve all seen this kind of change. It can happen suddenly and violently—like the destruction happening in any number of wars around the world right now—or slowly, like the old, abandoned cabins that still dot the Western landscape.

We like some changes—people want their children to learn and grow. On the other hand, we as a society have decided that we would like to stop aging around 30.

This type of hanging on prevents us from participating in what is actually happening. There’s a sense of liveliness that comes with not trying to pin down the present and make it stick around. I used to fight the whole idea of detachment. I thought it meant you couldn’t care or feel deeply about things, but now I think it means something closer to accepting things as they are. The little seaside town I was driving through will pass away, whether in ten years or at the death of our sun.

I’m not suggesting that change is always easy or that we in our humanity will always feel equipped to handle it, but if we can see that movement is the nature of existence, we can hang on a little less and be present a little more. There is a great freedom in the truth that every moment everything is both passing away and becoming new.

Here is a poem by Joanna Klink about entering into a sudden change. This poem arrived in my email thanks to the Academy of American Poets poem-a-day program.

On Falling (Blue Spruce)

Dusk fell every night. Things
fall. Why should I
have been surprised.

Before it was possible
to imagine my life
without it, the winds

arrived, shattering air
and pulling the tree
so far back its roots,

ninety years, ripped
and sprung. I think
as it fell it became

unknowable. Every day
of my life now I cannot
understand. The force

of dual winds lifting
ninety years of stillness
as if it were nothing,

as if it hadn’t held every
crow and fog, emptying
night from its branches.

The needles fell. The pinecones
dropped every hour
on my porch, a constant

irritation. It is enough
that we crave objects,
that we are always

looking for a way
out of pain. What is beyond
task and future sits right

before us, endlessly
worthy. I have planted
a linden, with its delicate

clean angles, on a plot
one tenth the size. Some change
is too great.

Somewhere there is a field,
white and quiet, where a tree
like this one stands,

made entirely of
hovering. Nothing will
hold me up like that again.

Completing Four Decades

Turning forty was the Big Event of my week (though Brazil’s poor performance in the World Cup semifinal gave it a run for the title of B.E.–what happened?!). Our forties might be the adolescence for our second half of life—we’re not yet considered old but certainly can no longer claim to be young.

I’m fascinated by how simply aging gives us a new perspective without our having to work at it, a concept that didn’t occur to me in my twenties and early thirties. I’ve noticed a few contributing factors.

There is, of course, the physical side. I had the good fortune to spend some time with a friend’s two-year-old recently. I still enjoy climbing on jungle gyms and blowing bubbles, but the pulled calf muscle that’s been hanging on for months was easily be tweaked by a race across the playground—a race with a two-year-old, remember.

As I’ve aged, my relationship to time has changed. Ten or fifteen years in the future is now imaginable. As recently as a few years ago, I knew I would probably exist in ten years, but I couldn’t hold onto any idea of myself or my life that far away. Now, my friends and I wonder whether we will still own our houses when our fifteen year mortgages are paid off. The prospect is terrifying but comprehensible.

I am also occasionally more at ease within my life. I feel as if I am just beginning to see that much of what I worry about isn’t worth worrying about but am not yet old enough to actually stop worrying about it. I suspect this comes from failing and realizing that the world didn’t cease to exist, though I am still too often convinced that it will after my next horrific mistake.

All this makes it easy for me to understand why people go out and buy sportscars in their middle age. Because what we use to define ourselves—the goals, the accomplishments, the roles we play—and their meanings get a bit slippery. Sports cars are solid.

I get the sense, though, that if I can stick with the slipperiness, something interesting is waiting around the bend. I’ll keep you posted.

Momma Told Me

I don’t know why we’re designed to go two steps forward and one step back, but I’m convinced we are. Last week: Zen master. This week: whiner.

I exaggerate last week’s accomplishments, but I did have this miraculous moment of getting over myself. One of the software systems at work appears to have been designed to decrease productivity, and I generally spend a lot of time and energy hating it while using it.

This time a moment of spiritual brilliance flashed upon me. If I changed the goal from finishing the task to being present and paying attention, I could stop fighting the inefficient system because its inefficiency would no longer matter. So I changed the goal. My mind cleared up. My patience increased. My work probably improved, though I have no way to measure that.

Fast forward to this week. While working on another not favorite task, I said to myself, you could use this time as practice; where is your attention? I replied, somewhat snappishly, I don’t want to practice, I want to be miserable and complain. I clearly saw myself making that choice, but changing my approach still didn’t interest me. One step back—at least.

I kept this up most of the day and wore myself down sufficiently that, by the time I was chopping kale for dinner, I could consider the option of simply relaxing and accepting my sour disposition. Then this line from William Stafford’s poem “A Message from the Wanderer” came floating in: “Tell everyone just to remember/their names, and remind others, later, when we/ find each other.” Some days that’s all we can do, remember who we are, and that’s OK because that day is not eternal. The next day we’ll be capable of making different choices.

I’ll end with the rest of Stafford’s stanza because he sums it up so beautifully:

“…Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.”

Lessons Not Learned

I’m beginning to suspect that there are lessons I will never learn in this lifetime. Such as empty the compost bucket you forgot about before leaving for vacation as soon as you discover it rather than after writing a blog post. Or don’t plan a lunch date for every day the week you return from vacation because it might just stress you out.

Seeing that these changes may never happen is a little like the time I realized I wasn’t going to read everything of consequence that had ever been written or see the whole world or learn to speak three more languages. That happened in my late twenties, and I was pretty upset about it.

I am not so upset this time around, which feels like progress. My own recalcitrance and resistance to change still puzzle me, but most days they no longer appear to be faults that might knock the world off its axis. (There are, of course, days when a lot of chocolate is required to achieve this perspective.)

Also with age has come the ability to recognize incremental improvements. For example, I had the good sense to leave myself a free day between travel and returning to work, which is a rare accomplishment for me. Of course I spent much of it watching Arrested Development, but we mustn’t rush progress.

Note: I apologize for the inconsistency of blog posts this summer. With any luck, this post should mark a return to a more regular publishing schedule.

Blue Man Wow

You know how if someone asks you what a strawberry tastes like you can’t say because it only tastes like itself? The performance team Blue Man Group is equally unique.

After watching their show, I left the theater feeling anything was possible. So often we think that our creative ideas are impractical, uninteresting to others, or simply not that good. In the spirit of Bob Newhart’s tobacco sketch, here’s a possible description that Blue Man Group gave when first trying to sell their act:

“We’ll shave our heads and put solid blue makeup all over them. We’ll play drums covered with paint and put strange things in our mouths, chew them up, and spit them out. And it will be funny. Oh, and we won’t talk.”

They may have bankrolled the first few shows themselves.

I once heard a talk by a psychologist who explained how, because of the way our brains work, we can’t picture something we haven’t built any neural pathways for. After saying the word “apple” and asking everyone in the room to get a mental picture of it, she flashed up a slide showing a red apple, a green apple, and the current Apple logo and asked how many people had pictured each one. A third to half of the room raised their hands for the Apple logo. She pointed out that in 1980, that result wasn’t possible because the current apple logo didn’t exist.

Yet that’s what we do when we create—we picture things that have never been before. They might take flight from past events and experiences—certainly apples preceded Apple—or other people’s creations, but that doesn’t mean they’re not new. And they can transform the way we see things, even change what our language means.

As someone who sometimes doubts her own ability to change, I find that tremendously exciting, and I’m grateful to Blue Man Group for the brilliant reminder and for the laughs.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here is a poem by the fourteenth-century Sufi master Hafiz that I think speaks to the same topic.

We Have Not Come to Take Prisoners
By Hafiz

We have not come here to take prisoners
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.

We have not come into this exquisite world
To hold ourselves hostage from love.

Run my dear,
From anything
That may not strengthen
Your precious budding wings.

Run like hell my dear,
From anyone likely
To put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.

We have a duty to befriend
Those aspects of obedience
That stand outside of our house
And shout to our reason
“O please, O please,
Come out and play.”

For we have not come here to take prisoners
Or to confine our wondrous spirits,

But to experience ever and ever more deeply
Our divine courage, freedom, and
Light!


From The Gift, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Falling into Place

I bribed my family to forego skiing in Colorado and come to California for Christmas. The winning offer: Dungeness crab at $6.99/lb.

We’ve never before gathered in California, and the four of us haven’t been together in quite a few years. When reflecting on what made the week so much fun, it appeared to me that we’re all at a point where we want to be with each other or are at least capable of enjoying the company. With the possible exception of the cat, who made it clear he objected to the disruption of his usual routine.

It’s not always easy to remember that things happen in stages. My sister is six years younger than I, and for years I didn’t want her around. In my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t want any of my family members around. By the time I returned to the fold, my sister had had about enough of all of us. The two of us have been close for years now, but it took some time.

The cycle turned again this year, and it felt as if things I didn’t even know were missing fell into place a little.

That’s not to say we’re perfect. My sister and I had to stop speaking about a photograph because we disagreed so strongly about its contents. My parents are divorced, and though they did us the gigantic favor of not hating each other, they are not those people you see in the movies who remain close friends.

Yet we all seem to have come to a place where, most of the time, we don’t need each other to be any more or less than who we are. The other side of the coin, I think, is that we all have some acceptance of our own failings. We can, mostly, listen to stories about ourselves and say, wow, did I really do that? A gentler reaction than, I did not do that!

The future undoubtedly holds anger and frustration along with the joy and love, but this Christmas felt like a healing, as if something was sewn together that will make our relationships stronger in the future. And that is a remarkable gift.

Moving on

Even the best of beginnings inevitably entail endings. There doesn’t seem to be any getting around the reality that change involves the breaking—or at least loosening—of some bonds and the creation of others.

I will start a new job soon, a job I’m excited about. This week, though, I’ve felt rather wistful and melancholy about leaving my current office. I like to think of it as overachieving to get nostalgic about a place while still there.

Some things that make me sad:
•    No longer being on the About page of our website
•    My desk not being my desk
•    Not being invited to birthday lunches anymore
•    Most of all, no longer seeing the people I currently work with on a daily basis

We choose so few of our relationships in life. With the exception of spouses, the selection of the people we spend the most time with—our families and our coworkers—is beyond our control. We get to pick among the applicants for a job, but because a person is so much more than a collection of skills, an hour-long interview gives little idea of who will walk through the door.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my current officemates and how much we enjoy each other. Everyone knows the work-day rituals; there is comfort in the well-worn grooves of relationships and the familiarity of our banter. We laugh a lot. And these people all make really good food—the importance of that talent cannot be underestimated.

I will see these folks again, but lives get busy and there is no substitute for time spent together. The group I’m joining is similarly tight knit and good humored, so the future is bright. But for now, I want to acknowledge how much I appreciate my current crew and how much I will miss them.

Stop Thinking So Much

If I had stuffed the ballot box at the Academy Awards, Hugo would have won best picture. It reminded me of all the things that matter: magic, dreams, love, belonging, persistence, hope, purpose, creativity. All in two hours.

I have recently spent a lot of time thinking really hard about complicated stuff. It can be fun. It sometimes makes my brain hurt and hopefully helps someone in some way. But I don’t believe even the clearest thinking will ever cause the type of transformation that happens in Hugo.

A brief synopsis without spoiling the plot: a young boy’s tenacious search for love renews several lives and brings some magic back into the world, the kind of magic that helps us understand why kids need to believe in Santa Claus or convinces us to clap to save Tinkerbell’s life.

It’s difficult to believe in fairies as an adult and even more difficult to admit it. Growing up is a tricky business. Real things like mortgage payments and having enough to eat take a lot of our time and energy. Bigger real things like war and global warming can dwarf stories and imagination, which may then seem so small as to be not real, especially if we rely on logic alone.

The movie works because it takes you out of thinking and into a world where dreams come true if you hold on tightly enough to what is important to you. I think this world is as real as any other, but sometimes it slips our mind because dreams often don’t come true and many people never become what they were meant to be, or at least so it appears.

I forget all the time, like when I arrive at work on Monday morning and realize it is only five weeks until The Visit that follows The Report, or when I have, for the umpteenth time, let taxes, sleep, procrastination impinge on my writing schedule. But our forgetting something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

So go see this movie. Because when you leave the theater or turn off the DVD player, you’ll remember what lifts your heart up, and whatever that is will cause greater change and more joy than all the thinking in the world.

Creating Possibilities

I don’t often celebrate my birthday by discussing the demise of the world, but that’s where the conversation turned during one of my many birthday meals (remember that bit about eating). Most of the table agreed that, given the current political and economic situation, the future looks bleak. Those factors alone, however, do not determine our fate.

A quick scan of K-12 history books, which record largely political and economic affairs, might lead one to wonder how the human race has survived this long. I think we’re still around because the way we treat each other on the small, daily scale makes as much of a difference as those forces we generally consider global. (One political scientist’s research on disaster survival supports this idea.)

Of course politics profoundly shape people’s lives. I just finished reading Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, his autobiography of growing up in Alexandra, South Africa, under apartheid. Arguing that sharing a meal together would undo what he and others suffered under those laws is ludicrous, but by the same token, no political or economic shift allowed him to survive. His mother’s dedication to his education and an American tennis player’s friendship and follow-through brought him to the U.S. well before the end of apartheid.

How does the removal of one young man from an oppressive regime contribute to the end of that regime? I don’t know, but perhaps one person spared from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual starvation imposed by that system is one more person imagining something better. Perhaps that person tips a balance we can’t measure.

When Mathabane left South Africa, he could picture a world without apartheid, but he probably couldn’t describe how that change would happen. In the middle of the Cold War, who would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall? Transformation happens regardless of our ability or inability to foresee its exact nature.

None of the people at lunch that day live as if they believe their choices and kindness don’t matter. One offers gracious and impeccable hospitality; one supports and enjoys an unusually close-knit family; one radiates enthusiasm and joy wherever she goes; they all provide compassionate leadership at work. They don’t believe these actions will save the world, but maybe their caring, and that of others like them, is as powerful as a failing economy and a divisive political situation.

I believe the communities we create on a daily basis and the generosity and good humor we offer one another create possibilities. William Stafford captures this idea in his poem “Yes,” a more eloquent closing than I could hope to write.

Yes

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out — no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.