When I Was Your Age

Seen on a book flap this week: “Hailed as the most prominent lyrical poet of his time, [Dylan Thomas] made four trips to the United States and died in New York in 1953 at the age of 39.”

New Yorker cartoon recounted to me by a friend: An obituary page with captions under the pictures that said, “A little older than you,” “A little younger than you,” and then in the middle “Your age exactly.” Thirty-nine is my age exactly.

 I generally hate hypothetical questions because they pit things against each other needlessly, but this book flap made me wonder whether I’d rather be a really successful writer, as Thomas was a poet, or likely to be alive at 40. I would rather, of course, be both, but unlike choosing between your parents being run over by a mac truck or your sister being eaten by sharks, this decision was easy—I’d rather be alive. Because there’s a lot more to life than writing.

Which I’m not sure I could have said without feeling guilty ten years ago. Not that I didn’t value the other parts of my life, but in my head, I earned my existence through my accomplishments.

I’m more and more certain that existence isn’t available to be earned—it’s a gift. People don’t bring you more gifts on your seventh birthday than your sixth because you learned multiplication in second grade and that’s a bigger accomplishment than addition and subtraction. We can receive or reject gifts but can’t do anything about the giving of them. (OK, you can invite more people to your birthday party, but you can’t control whether they give you the stupid brush and comb set or the cool Batman action figure.)

Entering mid-life reduced the urgency of accomplishment for me. I still sometimes think that just means I’ve failed—a possible explanation but not a good one. A better one may be that aging allows us to recognize the wonder of existence, pay attention to it, and enjoy it.

There Is Enough

Here’s something to add to your list of things not to do: spend a week talking about God and art, fly home, go directly to the outlet mall. Not sanity inducing.

I spent last week at the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe. I feel as if it reversed the spin of my subatomic particles—in a good way.

While searching for what might have shifted my perceptions, I realized that I spent so little time last week wanting things: wanting people to be different from who they are, wanting my life—or at least my income source and the state of my bathroom floor—to be different from what it is, wanting more dessert (OK, so there were eight flavors of self-serve ice cream, two of them chocolate, which was pretty magical).

We talked so little about discontent. We talked about poetry and writing habits and how to construct a play and where we were from and whether the worship service had gotten us to a prayerful place. And when we discussed difficult things, we focused on our experiences and what we might do next rather than assigning blame.

I do not think this happened because we were a gathering of saints who never speak ill of others in our daily lives. I think it happened because the Glen somehow managed to create an environment that says, there is enough: enough time, enough opportunity, enough talent, enough people who care, enough love. An environment that is the opposite of the one I found at the outlet malls.

Granted, it is easier to believe this when someone else is cooking your food and doing the dishes to boot, but I’m convinced that our everyday existence could be filled with so much more enoughness than it tends to be.

I don’t know how yet, but I intend to find out.

You Cannot Improve It

I experienced a moment of not worrying about anything last night. My sister and I had just finished video chatting about our backpacking trip. I was reading a friend’s post on Facebook and listening to my sister and my dad, who is visiting, catch up.

Nothing was more in order than it usually is. It was after 9:00; I hadn’t begun this blog post; the dinner plates were still on the table. But for unknown reasons, none of this particularly concerned me

Maybe because it is summer, and in summer, unless you are a farmer, it is a little easier to let things slide, to revel in the earth’s bounty, to believe that everything is going to work out. Or maybe we simply don’t care so much if it doesn’t because after all it is warm and sunny outside and the jacaranda trees are blooming.

Or maybe the Facebook post  gave me piece of mind. It showed a post in the xkcd forums that consisted of an entertaining series of historical quotes, beginning in 1871, about how we’ve always thought that life is speeding up, that people are too distracted to think deeply, that the new form of communication is ruining our use of language.

I wonder if this larger tendency of the human race is reflected inside my head, if the endless hamster wheel of how I and the world could be better “if only” is really no more worrisome than the fear that reading newspapers in the train car kills the art of conversation and makes people antisocial.

Chapter 29 of the Tao Te Ching says, “Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it? I do not believe it can be done. The universe is sacred. You cannot improve it.”

Bird song is floating in through my window. Just for today, I might try believing Lao Tzu.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation in the high Sierras next week. Here’s wishing you all a few breaths of alpine air.

Should No More

Usually, if trying to weigh myself down, I will eat excess Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk, but when a friend wrote about unburdening herself this week, I realized I choose other weights as well.

My friend discussed both the physical clutter in her life and the time she spends mentally distracted from what she truly values. I don’t usually think of myself as burdened, much less self-burdened, but I certainly have my share of material and mental junk.

When I imagined myself as mentally unburdened, a number of the things I habitually feel I should do lost their urgency. Another friend told me recently she thinks of the word “should” as mental terrorism. You, too, can now feel guilty of mental terrorism and tell yourself you should stop.

I am really good at the shoulds. At any given moment, I could list off at least fifty things I should be doing.

I tend to think that without the shoulds, I wouldn’t do any of the things that make me a functional member of society. Assuming for a moment that functioning in society is desirable, here’s the thing: that ancient laptop I should have taken to the e-recycle years—yes years—ago is still sitting in my office. The shoulds aren’t causing action, they’re just making things heavier.

When I entertained the possibility that the world was not going to stop spinning on its axis if the pile of papers on my bedroom floor didn’t get sorted this week—it has been there for months—it actually felt more possible that the pile might disappear someday. It also made it easier to prioritize the bedroom pile over the office pile because neither one held dire consequences anymore.

We may never escape our sense of duty, and that may or may not be a good thing. But life is going to give us enough truly difficult things to deal with that we might consider cutting loose the ballast we don’t need.

Choosing Gratitude

One of my many talents is the ability to be dissatisfied in the midst of astonishing abundance. Case in point: last weekend’s retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur.

In years past, you called the hermitage for a reservation, and they assigned you a room. Now, with their new online reservation system, you choose your own room. That’s where the trouble began.

One of the first things I noticed on arriving was a tree partially blocking my view of the ocean. I started to picture how superior the views farther down the line must be and to wish I had chosen differently.

Allow me to clarify exactly how ridiculous this reaction was. The hermitage overlooks the Big Sur coastline, some of the most dramatic in the world. Every room opens onto a vista—in reality, you could see a tree when you looked at the ocean; it would have taken a forest to block the view.

Luckily, I heard myself being ridiculous and did not spend the weekend resenting that beautiful place. I did, however, begin to understand why monastics willingly give up many of their choices. When the rooms were assigned, I had never compared or judged them but had considered each one a great gift.

We often get caught up in evaluating our choices to ensure that we have the best rather than realizing that what we have is incredible. In another room, I wouldn’t have seen the quail rustling the rosemary bushes in the evening or the blazing red flowers of the New Zealand tea tree. I wouldn’t have heard the drone of bees—the loudest I can remember—coming from the giant pollen gathering festival taking place nearby.

I’m not suggesting we forfeit our choices. There are too many places in the world where people literally have no choice, and the resulting suffering can be immense.

I’m simply proposing that whichever road we choose, we remember it is strewn with gifts that are not better or worse, only different.

Checking in on Reality

When you are chronically single, it is good to have at least one other chronically single friend. This increases the odds that, at any given time, one of you will be sane.

I was speaking with one such friend recently, and it was her turn to be sane. Both of us would like to have kids, and both of us are ever more rapidly approaching the age of ain’t gonna happen. The subject came up and my friend said in a hushed, semi-awed voice, “I think I’m OK with that.”

The “OK with it” option had occurred to me but was a little too scary to contemplate closely, like the ingredients list of a Twinkie. I have this idea that thinking will make it so, but here’s the thing: it is already so—I neither have kids nor do I currently find myself in a situation that leads to the rapid production of children.

When do we continue to believe in the possibility of something that isn’t yet and when do we accept life in its current state? On the never ending list of things I don’t understand, the balance between those two is near the top.

My friend’s sanity lay in shifting the emphasis: while she may not have this one thing she wants, she recognizes that her life is incredible. The question is not so much am I giving up on something as am I remembering that right now, my life is incalculably rich. Right now, I have an enjoyable job; I live in a beautiful place; all the parts of my body work well; I have wonderful friends and family; I no longer need to worry about the ingredients list of a Twinkie.

Louis CK does a great comedy routine called “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” (On being impatient with smartphones: “Give it a second, it’s going to space.”) There’s always something available with which to play the if only game—marriage, kids, publication, four-foot-high chocolate fountain. It’s just so much more fun to play the everything’s amazing game.

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.

Not Going to Extremes

In my hometown, keeping up with the Joneses didn’t have anything to do with the brand of your car or the size of your house. It meant running an ultramarathon the day after your soccer tournament. At 10,000 feet elevation. In the snow. Backwards.

Being surrounded by people rock climbing, skiing avalanche chutes, and boating class five rapids made it easy to believe that these activities made you feel the most alive. I often thought I should be doing something more death defying, dangerous, or at least generally uncomfortable. If you’d asked me why, I would have said those things counted more, though I might not have been able to tell you what we were counting.

Now, I work with faculty members who are equally extreme but in a different way. The number of projects their jobs demand they juggle both impresses me and makes me dizzy. A hypothetical one-person sample: teaching three classes, running their own research—which includes supervising students—organizing a conference, preparing reams of documents for their professional review, being a mom/dad, not to mention those unexpected items life throws at you.

I used to feel like a slacker compared to people who run their lives this way. Recently, a new feeling has crept in—sanity. I worry a little bit (because after all, what’s life without at least some fretting?) that no longer expecting myself to keep up that pace means I’m getting old and complacent, but the amount of activity we expect ourselves to do in this culture is not reasonable or healthy.

A few people might thrive on constant motion. But no one I know rattles off impossibly long to-do lists with joy, and my colleagues so often look slightly harried.

As usual, someone else has already said it better than I can. This time it’s the Sufi poet Hafiz. He says,

When all your desires are distilled
You will cast just two votes:
To love more,
And be happy.
(translation by Daniel Ladinsky)

I don’t think a longer list will help us with either one of those.

Creeping Contentment

Last Saturday I had a few moments of not wanting my life to be any different. And even worse, I was not at all scared of this clearly unreasonable contentment.

You might be saying to yourself, but why is this unreasonable? Your life is pretty darn good. Yes, actually, it is, but popular thought in my brain holds that if you say that above a whisper, the complacency monster will jump out and gobble you up.

Though a few weeks back I proposed observing my life to see whether anything was truly running amuck, I didn’t really intend to do that for more than a couple of days. Any longer and this whole acceptance thing could get way out of hand.

Then obligation and discipline both took a long vacation. Two people I told about this said, “Oh, it’s summer,” dismissing any need for continuous improvement for at least another month.

So I floated around for a couple of weeks, not trying to increase my holiness quotient, reduce my impact on the environment, clean, or win a Nobel Prize. In other words doing what I usually do but with much less guilt.

Come Saturday I had succumbed to such an extent that I thought, wow, I like this. Even my usual “you will become an eternal couch potato of contentment” thoughts seemed inconsequential and possibly unlikely.

Couch potato fear does have reinforcements. The next attack goes something like, but you haven’t achieved everything you said you wanted to and since you are not a) actively pursuing it or b) feeling like you should be actively pursuing it, you are screwed.

I suppose this may be true. It may also be true that enjoying where you are helps you get where you want to be. But don’t tell anyone I said so.

Hold Still

You might think that after thirty-two years of playing soccer, enjoying it would no longer surprise me. But I strive not to be that sensible.

Driving home from a game the other night I thought, “That was fun.” The thought is not new, but this time I paused long enough to let it expand into some open space in my brain, space that is usually occupied by other, less fun thoughts, such as, how can I exercise more, write more, eat more vegetables, and have more down time? In my next life I want to worry about why I can’t do less, just for variety.

Quality improvement processes go like this: look at what’s happening, see which part is broken, figure out a possible solution, try it, check to see whether it’s working. My brain, on the other hand, goes like this: assume nothing is as good as it could be, come up with twenty-five hours worth of daily improvements, begin system overload due to attempted expansion of space-time continuum, scramble to scale back and prioritize, fail, shut down system, reboot and run again. I am pretty sure I found this method in the Tao Te Ching or Bhagavad Gita.

That momentary space in my brain allowed me to wonder whether anything actually needs to be improved. Might it be possible that I am healthy enough, accomplishing enough, treating others well enough? And if so, what do I do about it?

Because it only took a few minutes to realize that everything being OK is pretty scary. What happens next if we’re OK? What is there for us to DO? How can we prove our worth? What will prevent us from sitting on the couch eating potato chips to the exclusion of all else?

Age-old wisdom aside, I think I’ll risk living my life exactly the way it is for a few months and check to see whether, just maybe, everything’s OK.