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.

Happy to Inherit

Newsflash: your parents were once children. Some of you may have figured this out before I did, but the corollary may surprise you: your aunts and uncles were, too.

Last weekend my dad, a couple of his siblings, their respective spouses, and I gathered for an incomplete but very enjoyable family reunion. It has only recently occurred to me that these people—spouses excepted—have spent all or most of their lives together. They know each other in a variety of contexts: childhood, adolescence, newlyweds. They know the stupid choices, the heartbreaks, the brilliant successes, the unexpected joys.

They hold all these versions of each other within their memories and yet miraculously manage not to hold each other to those versions. Forgiving and forgetting even the small things can be difficult—the broken toy, the gloves thrown in the snowbank (sorry, little sister)—and history between siblings is not always comprised of only small things. This willingness to let go is a big chunk of what it means to be an adult, and it is rare.

I appreciate this group’s ability to laugh—kindly—at the way we are utterly and predictably ourselves. My uncle will always pause mid-conversation to find the source of the unusual airplane motor the rest of us don’t even notice. My dad will always search out mayonnaise packets, oblivious to my other uncle’s impatience to get where we’re going. But by and large, everyone chooses to be entertained rather than annoyed by each other’s idiosyncrasies.

After my grandmother died, the entire family gathered at a beach house with an astonishing collection of food and drink. Toward the end of the week, my dad and his brother and sisters sequestered themselves in one of the bedrooms for a few hours. When they emerged, all my grandma’s assets had been bloodlessly divided up, the only item of contention a CD/tape player that may have been worth $100 at the time. They flipped a coin. No hard feelings. No lawyers. Everyone not only still talking to each other but also still enjoying each other.

And that, perhaps, is the older generation of Henrys greatest legacy to my generation: the lived conviction that enjoying each other is more valuable than whatever else might happen.

Communing with Crabs

Nature often saves me. The trees outside my office building catch infinite shades of light; hummingbirds zip by improbably close; hawks redefine effortless. The non-human-created gets me out of myself in a way nothing else does.

Last weekend I found a new-to-me park with a trail that led past the “Hazard: Unsafe Bluffs” sign down to the collection of rocks that served as a beach. It was one of those glassy ocean days when it looks as if you could skim sunlight off the water’s surface. The sea was receding, leaving tide pools in its wake.

sea anemoneI squatted down to look at one of the pools, little more than a puddle really, and was initially unimpressed: some wavy pink plant, a lot of snail shells, a few closed up anemones. I stayed, though, and after a time previously inanimate objects began to move, first only a few and eventually most of what had been stationary.

Crabs ranging from small to borderline microscopic stood up underneath those supposed snail shells and started scuttling about with them. What I’d thought were pebbles encrusted on the outside of the anemones sprouted tiny legs and joined them. Some sort of mini lizard-fish made short, intermittent darts here and there. A many-legged creepy-crawly that resembled those you don’t enjoy finding in your bathtub appeared and moved in random, short bursts, miraculously never running into the lizard-fish. And finally some creature who resembled nothing more than a few grains of sand stuck together began bobbing about.

The tide pool couldn’t have held more than a few gallons of water, and yet it supported this exquisite and astonishing abundance of life. As I’ve said before, I sometimes worry we’re going to wipe out ourselves and the rest of the world through various forms of stupidity or inattention. I understand the scientific delicacy of ecosystems. But the sheer amount of life in this splash the ocean left behind gave me hope that creation is bigger than our stupidity and inattention and not likely, however improbable it seems, to be overcome by the likes of us.

It’s Not Worth It

October carries a heavy load. Not only does it host ghosts and goblins, it has also been hallowed National Cyber Security Awareness Month, Rideshare Month, and perhaps others I am unaware of. In addition, the first week of the month contained the little-known celebration Rachel Freak Out Week.

Man freaking outApproximately everything stressed me out last week. Approximately everything included but was not limited to: a report for work, every time someone tried to talk to me when I thought I should be working on said report, every task that took time away from the report. Plus, because these lists breed like rabbits, all the usual suspects, such as my peculiar inability to clean things and my not yet having found the meaning of life.

Sometime midweek, a friend, we’ll call him John, and I were walking between meetings and met a coworker whose wife’s job is grant-dependent. The coworker, in good spirits, said an upcoming grant renewal deadline was “do or die,” and John said, surprisingly seriously, “No, it’s not.”

Both John’s wife and granddaughter faced and fought off cancer. Both have been in remission for a number of years now, but I’ve gotten the impression that these two illnesses changed his thinking about life in general and work in particular.

After this meeting, when I felt like keening over sections of the report, my mantra became, “It’s not worth it.” Unfortunately, the mantra did not lower my stress level, but it did help me realize it was optional. In the midst of my Chicken Little syndrome I could at least tell myself I had a choice, even if I was incapable of acting on that choice. Somehow knowing the stress was self-inflicted helped me retain a sheen of sanity.

We need a lot of reminders in this life—of what is and isn’t important, of what choices we do and don’t have. One way of interpreting those reminders is the now familiar, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” But maybe some of it is breathtakingly precious stuff, too precious to obscure with anxiety.

Pausing Between

California provided four astonishingly gorgeous days in a row last week—those sunnier-than-Disney fall days that have all the crispness of a good apple. On the fourth day, I felt sad about something I cannot now recall. Sadness can take the shine off a day, but this time it coexisted with the beauty, neither overcoming the other.

A few days later, a friend reminded me of another pair of oppositions most of us have to deal with: being happy where you are while simultaneously being ambitious. Life offers these inconsistencies over and over, but I usually rush past them rather than spend any time in the middle.

As usual, the idea of sitting between items in tension—sadness and beauty, contentment and ambition—without choosing isn’t new. Keats probably didn’t invent it, though his negative capability captures it well: “The ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.” (This is a definition I just happen to like from the Keats’ Kingdom website; it’s not a direct quote of the poet.)

Between contradictions is generally not a comfortable place to live. I usually want to throw my weight into one corner or the other and force one side to come out on top, make one right and the other wrong. If life would fess up and let me know how it really is, surely I’d feel happier, more peaceful, more confident. But when I try to prematurely choose between whatever is creating tension, I succeed only in making myself frantic.

There’s a prayer I’ve always sort of hated that says, “Let all things be exactly as they are.” Have you checked on how things are? Because they’re not that great. Maybe I’ve misunderstood, though; maybe the prayer points to what Keats argued in favor of: “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Perhaps we are most in tune when we sit with all the competing pieces of our lives without seeking resolution.

William Stafford once again said it better than I can in the last two lines of his poem “Representing Far Places”:

It is all right to be simply the way you have to be,
among contradictory ridges in some crescendo of knowing.

Built to Last

Two pieces of advice: 1) Don’t throw away your junior high yearbook. 2) If someone invites you to spend an evening with four best friends who haven’t seen each other in fifty years, do it. And stick around until the yearbooks come out.

I lucked into just such an evening recently. An old friend of my parents had recently attended her fifty-year high school reunion, and her closest friends from that time had gathered together for a few extra days. She invited my mom and me to spend an evening with the group. It didn’t occur to me until the drive home that I’d just been honored to spend an evening with my elders.

Because we don’t much practice respect for our elders, the term for me conjures up tribal matriarchs in smoky tepees giving sage and perhaps difficult to understand advice. This is wisdom—mysterious in both content and transmission.

The evening bore no resemblance to that picture. The stories told ranged from hopping on a stranger’s motorcycle with a frog in order to arrive in Calaveras in time to register for the jumping frog contest to sneaking into the priest’s side of the confessional and accidentally hearing someone’s confession, complete with absolution and penance.

This is real wisdom—the gathered stories and laughter of lives fully and well lived, a love that survives an absence of fifty years, the sharing of both. We don’t find wisdom by trying not to make mistakes, by staying safe, or by striving to be good, as I often mistakenly believe. Wisdom finds us when we wade into life, when we enjoy the ride, when we look on the other side of the screen.

I’m certain none of those present thought of the evening as anything other than time spent with good friends. I can’t think of a wiser use of an evening.

Escaping Achievement

Saturday was a Day of Planned Non-Productivity. Translation: I stayed in my pajamas until an hour that cannot be mentioned publicly and proceeded to do nothing at all. On purpose. It was fantastic.

box of popcorn and film with movie framesPlease do try this at home. Instructions: Rent as many movies as you can comfortably watch in a day. Comfortably is important. This is a day for floating not for becoming an expert on the history of film. Documentaries or dramas about the world’s problems are not allowed. This is not denial—it’s a break. I highly recommend renting the night before so you don’t have to leave the house if you don’t want to.

I chose a cartoon, a romantic comedy, and a supposedly heartwarming slice of life. Warning, save Mike Leigh films for productive days: they will likely teach you something about somebody’s problems.

Suspend all obligations and attempts at self-improvement, including those eternal ones such as, “It’s a nice day. I should go outside and enjoy the sunshine.” Remain vigilant: obligation creep is insidious and can disguise itself in cunning forms, such as the door knob you’ve been meaning to fix for months or Great Aunt Mildred who is 92 and recently bought an iPad and has sent you a week’s worth of emails you have not yet answered.

Lie on the couch in your pajamas and watch the movies. Eat cereal for three meals, or frozen pizza, or popcorn and hot chocolate. Only eat vegetables if you enjoy them as much as you enjoy ice cream; do nothing for the sole purpose of being healthy—“being healthy” is code for obligation and self-improvement all rolled up in one. Scary, I know.

Guilt may tempt you. We Americans have a productivity addiction problem. We measure our days by how much we accomplish rather than whether we enjoyed what we did or were kind to the people we met. We don’t consider it odd to answer the question, “How was your day?” with “I got this and that done.” We are accustomed to confusing doing and being.

Planned non-productivity takes this mentality into account and transforms doing nothing into an accomplishment. You don’t have to change all your unhealthy cultural norms to take a day off; you simply make relaxing a goal and voilà! an answer to that voice in your head telling you you should be doing something.

I confess that Sunday Night Guilt, second cousin of the gunk monster, caught up to me when looking at the piles of unwashed clothes and the pot rack still covered in paper two weeks after painting. (Yes, seriously.) But Saturday itself was a rare event for me, a day during which existence sufficed without any attempts to mold it. Let’s hear it for cartoons and popcorn.