A Little Perspective Goes a Long Way

If I could regularly follow my own advice, I could give the Dalai Lama a run for his money. Holiness is, after all, a competition.

Unfortunately, regularly doing anything is not my strong point. Last week I finally stressed myself out to the point of getting sick (remember that report?). On the fifth day, I was well enough to despair over all the lost time and uncompleted tasks and spent some time railing against the injustices of the world. Then a moment of lucidity bubbled up from somewhere: perhaps I was overreacting considering people live with chronic illness and pain.

My friend, we’ll call her Deidre, has MS yet is sincerely and consistently positive. She manages to be grateful for impossible things like dirty diapers, which remind her the baby is more important than whatever she happens to be doing. She enjoys doing the dishes because it gives her meditative time with God. I often want to throttle people who espouse this type of attitude; not many who say it truly mean it.

I suspect Deidre’s genuine gratitude has its roots in her deep acceptance of her own humanity. She once told me wise choices come from making lots of mistakes. She manages to be happy with who she is even though she can no longer take a hot shower, occasionally has to use a walker, and sometimes literally cannot connect to the right word while speaking or reading because her nerves misfire.

You’d think someone in Deidre’s situation would need more than she has the capacity to give, but that’s never been my experience. I always leave our visits enriched, having gained some wisdom to tack on the refrigerator and reread until I’ve reached the maturity level necessary to practice it.

So next time I’m sick for five whole days and have to suffer through my mom bringing me soup and movies, perhaps I can feel a speck less sorry for myself. Take that, Dalai Lama.

Just Marvelous

A very important event happened recently: my friend Mary Ann turned ninety. I hope I can be as full of life on my next birthday as she was on her nintieth.

Every time Mary Ann sees you she tells you, “Well I think you’re just marvelous,” and she is so clearly delighted with exactly who you are that you start to believe it a little. You also start to think maybe you could tell others the same thing.

Mary Ann collects people. She almost never walks past someone without greeting him or her, regardless of whether she knows the person or not. There must have been more than fifty people at her birthday party, young and old and most ages in between. To honor her sense of adventure, the candles on the cake were tiny sparklers.

She has survived the death of her husband and all her biological children with her good humor and ability to enjoy life intact. She appreciates beautiful things and supports the people who make them.

She is losing her sight and has had to move into an assisted living apartment, a dangerous environment for a free spirit. The first year or so, she struggled with the transition, but every time she started a conversation by complaining, she ended it by telling me why she was lucky to be there.

During a prayer at the party, a friend of hers, in trying to describe what about the birthday girl she was grateful for said, “I’m grateful for her being so Mary Ann.” And I’m grateful for such a fine example of how being deeply ourselves and enjoying the heck out of it may be the best way to spend our lives. Thank you, Mary Ann.

Getting Ghoulish

Halloween is good for adults, better than vitamins and a full daily allowance of fiber. It gives us an excuse to be silly and creative for no reason—in public!

jack o'lanternOne of the departments in my building transformed its office into The Price Is Right, complete with products and tags that opened to reveal the cost of each item. In practical mode, recreating The Price Is Right logo and printing it on all those tags for one day’s entertainment would be deemed a waste of time, but in Halloween mode, it is awesome.

Halloween mode changes our approach to the day. We appreciate, honor, and enjoy each other’s wackiness. We anticipate and look for fun and unexpected things to appear in ordinary places—at work, at home, on the street.

I think we would all benefit from spending more time in Halloween mode. Too often we feel our actions have to be productive in order to be worthwhile. There’s a great passage in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that explains how the humans think they’re smarter than the dolphins because the dolphins play all day while humans accomplish things, and the dolphins think they’re smarter for the same reason.

Productivity isn’t bad, but its usefulness to our souls is limited. Very few of us light up after completing a task, no matter how useful, the way we do when the International Education office appears dressed as a group of loud, American tourists, complete with fanny packs and Hawaiian shirts.

Halloween gives us some time to enjoy rather than worry, to create rather than produce. We might consider granting ourselves that freedom more than once a year.

Rolling On

Though both Steven Tyler and Ralph Waldo Emerson buy into the life is a journey concept, I have always preferred to reach the destination. Never mind that the writing of a novel lasts ten years and the finishing of it but a moment. Who wants to be quietly happy for ten years when she can have her existence justified in one grand flourish? This weekend, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself occasionally enjoying a process, namely painting.

I am neither a skilled nor a speedy painter, a reality that once would have caused me great emotional and mental turmoil. Now, though my lack of speed in many areas still astonishes me, I don’t always find it necessary to bludgeon myself because of it. Loosening the death grip on perfectionistic tendencies appears to make life less painful.

The breakthrough came when my mom and I had stopped for a pie break. I was mentally cataloging everything that remained to be painted when Mom began telling stories of when I was a baby. Apparently I used to make a little three-fingered Buddha sign sometimes when I fell asleep.

When she told me that, I thought, “Sitting on the patio eating pie and listening to your mom tell stories is more valuable than a professional paint job.”

I usually reply to myself, “The trim I painted looks like crap.” Instead I said, “You are probably right.”

Several times throughout the course of the weekend I believed that doing whatever I was doing, regardless of how poorly, mattered more than some as yet unrealized result. I don’t know where this ability to value the here and now came from, but I do know it resulted in a general lowering of the frenzy level.

So let’s look at the stats:

  • Electrical plates remaining to be reattached: all of them
  • Door knobs that escaped unscathed: 0
  • Spots I completely missed (current count): 2
  • Days I will feel guilty for locking my cat in the garage for three days straight: varies inversely to the number of times he draws blood
  • Walls that probably need another coat of paint: 1
  • Degrees lighter and cheerier the downstairs feels with fresh paint: immeasurable
  • Changes in the “my life may be OK as is” meter: a few priceless notches up