Friday, May 18, 2012

Shoulding Myself

I'm having an attack of the shoulds. The volume is up on my gremlins today. I can't get past my long list of things about me and my life that "should" be different.

I feel like nothing's good enough: not my glasses, not my khaki shorts, my apartment, my cleaning habits, my organizational schemes, definitely not my job(s), my income, my budgeting, my goals.

I've been obsessing about my day-to-day choices...first I obsessed that I was too tired to go to the museum like I'd told Redbeard I would, and now that I chose to stay home and relax, I'm obsessing that maybe it would've been better to go to the museum.

The ridiculous thing is that I know I'm being ridiculous. It's not exactly a new revelation that I tend to ask too much of myself and make unrealistic, impossibly high demands of myself, the people around me, and life in general.

I got into my dream school (Ivy League, bitches), with a scholarship, and I'm going... yet my mind can't help drifting to the one person, among a sea of well-wishers, who made an ass-y comment about how many loans I'll be taking on. I've been doing an admirable job completing scads of paperwork, yet I'm dwelling on the one field on one form that I missed (which is now, naturally, gumming up the works.)

I don't want to be that person! I want to be one of those positive-thinking, blessings-counting people! But you know what? My fear of being a Negative Nancy might as well not be one more thing to beat myself up about.

Deep down I already know the antidote. I know that self-acceptance and kindness is the way out of this mental state. I know not to compare my insides with everyone else's outsides. I know to remember that everyone has "days"...sometimes several in a row. I know that no one's life is quite as catalog-ready as it might appear. Life can be messy and hard. Choices are not always clear. Outcomes are not guaranteed. I don't have to live my life according to anyone's rules but my own.

I know this. I do. It's just hard to remember sometimes.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Scenes from a Good Life

-Strolling through the neighborhood with Redbeard drinking coffee on a spectacular May day. Some of the neighbors are having a porch sale. We know them now because we joined the neighborhood watch (which, pleasingly, involved more dog and more popsicles than expected.) Joking with them. Buying lemonade from some neighborhood kids.

-A wonderful May fair at the park, where we ate spectacular food truck pizza and sat in the shade listening to a local band play some bluesy tunes.  I talked to some folks who were tabling at a very cool school that I want to learn more about.

-On to the farmer's market, where we bought fresh vegetables and some of the most exquisite strawberries I've ever tasted. Also home-made Amish root beer.

-Then, to see art and hear music and share in a potluck at the local yoga/wellness/art studio. It made me inordinately proud that all my  homemade vegetable curry disappeared! Plus I drank mead for the first time.

-Now we're going to bike to Center City to go see Dark Shadows and possibly have gelato.

I did an impromptu bartending gig on Friday night so I'm feeling flush with a little unexpected cash (I will leave the argument of saving it vs. spending it on my own pleasure for another time.)

What a spectacular day. Wish they could all be like this.

Friday, May 11, 2012

How to Shut Down

I like to do it with food. I was telling my friend C about this. I've been re-reading Women, Food, and God, this time with a more open, less eye-roll-y mindset. Geneen Roth essentially posits that when you have the urge to eat something when you are not physically hungry, the antidote is to become curious. You ask yourself what you're feeling  physically, mentally, emotionally.

Today I found myself in front of the refrigerator trying desperately to be curious. I picked up food. I put it back in. I took it out again, heated it up, left it on the counter. It's hard to figure out. If I'm not hungry what am I? The answers surprised me. Today I was

  • Panicky - but why would I be panicky? It was a nice afternoon. Home early from work. Friday. What's not to like? Then I realized that Redbeard wasn't home, the house was too empty and quiet. Actually it was kind of 
  • Lonely. Huh? I am a strong, independent, butt-kicking lady! I don't have a problem with solitude! Except when I do... and then I feel ashamed. Strong, independent, butt-kicking ladies aren't supposed to feel lonely! Or like the house is too quiet...or that when they are alone it's because the world and those who love them have somehow forgotten them, or abandoned them. This is not the stuff of a savvy modern woman!  Which is why it's easier to stuff that particular unacceptable feeling down with food. Also:
  • Tired. I was just tired, I realized! Long week! Babysitting sick kids! Grad school paperwork death march! In addition to being a savvy kickass modern woman, I also expect myself never to tire. Even after early mornings and car trouble and staying up late to watch Jon Stewart. I expect myself to be an indefatigable machine (I'm pretty sure we have an industrial-era efficiency consultant to thank for that. Also my upbringing. And my hearty farmworker Eastern European stock.)
But... I'm not a machine! I'm a human bean! I have highs and lows. I get droopy when I'm running on empty. Circadian rhythms and all that. The pull of the moon on the brain juices. The internal hormone floods.

Eating, and my other go-to avoidance/shut-down tactic, dicking around purposelessly on the internet, often take the place of the rest I feel I can't give myself. Because they both look like something "productive" or "worthwhile"...I mean hey, I gotta eat! I mean hey, it's the [celebrity gossip] news! I've gotta stay informed!

But when I'm tired and all I want is rest, these things are poor substitutes. This afternoon, in a moment of great personal triumph, I lay on the couch in my study and stared into space for a good twenty minutes. I closed my eyes, opened them, lollygagged, picked up books and put them down again. The cat came to visit and left.

And, remarkably, after about twenty minutes or so, I felt renewed! Refreshed! I remembered a couple of action items I'd been meaning to do. I got up, I felt better, I moved on with the day...which could very well have been stuck in an infinite loop of avoidance behaviors, in which the more I avoided the things I really wanted the worse I felt, so the more I avoided the bad feeling.

So there you have it, folks. After years of instrospection, study, meditation, and therapy, I have gained the superpower ability to lay down when I'm tired.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Beauty of Biking In the Rain

It was tricky week, overall. I am in that hazy amorphous period of one life's phase winding down while another is still winding up. I don't do well with ambiguity, so I spent more time than I like to admit hunched over the computer avoiding real life by staying plugged into the screen.

But. Redbeard and I went to go see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Art Museum tonight, a last minute decision when we realized it was in its last weekend. And sure, we're eating hot dogs and cornflakes lately to make ends meet but art is food too. And when else do you get a chance to see in person, in living color, world-famous pieces you may never see again, 3-D, textured, close enough to breathe on.

 It was like getting my brain power-washed with color and light.

The story of Van Gogh's moods and internal struggles was threaded throughout, along with his own family. I feel for the guy, toremented, ravaged by demons that chances are we have meds for these days.

But, his medicine was the sunlight of Arles (it's one of the few places I've been in the world and I have to say, the quality of the light really is spectacular); sheaves of wheat; poppies in field and bowls; the forest's undergrowth. And who among us will say that any of those don't have healing powers?

I was captivated thinking about his family, too, especially Theo, always sending him money and art supplies and finding him new doctors. Vincent went down in history but what about Theo?

I guess Theo got the solace of a family and a wife and respectability and stability and a career and children. Vincent, for him, the landscapes, the irises, the wind moving across the grassy fields, that was it, man.

I like to think that despite his demons he had moments of being totally absorbed by stunning, everyday beauty. Looking at the painting called Trees and Undergrowth, how can you doubt it? I hope he got to say what he wanted to say about the world, about what he saw and felt, how his mind worked.

From a letter he wrote to his sister, Wilhelmina: "I believe that at present we must paint nature's rich and magnificent aspects. We need good cheer and happiness, hope and love. The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant color, well-arranged, resplendent."

I love that. The beauty of the world as revenge for everything the world has cost you.

When we left the museum, the hot soupy evening had turned into a stormy night. People idled in the doorway, opening umbrellas, discussing what to do. Redbeard and I felt that in honor of Van gogh we should charge out into the rain with our arms open, and we did so. We stood on the pavilion at the top of the hill that overlooks the wide river and the highway, and a vein of lightning cracked in the sky. 

Saturated with Van Gogh, his horizons and close ups and frames, everywhere we looked we saw a painting: the lights of cars sliding down the highway across from Boathouse row, framed by the columns of the pavilion; a white blossomed tree highlighted against a purple colored stormy sky, the mists and lights of the city in the background; the leaning grasses; the gnarled trees along the bike path; the white streetlight illuminating the leaves of a tree as a girl passed underneath.

We rode along the river, faces thrust toward the raindrops, the river pierced with raindrops turning it mottled and matte, instead of its usual dark patent sheen. "I feel so alive," Redbeard called out jokingly, but he meant it too.

Monday, April 30, 2012

In which reading a novel leaves her flustered and nostaligc, unable to concentrate on the tasks at hand

            I don’t know why I bother with reading books anymore. All they do is crack you open and make you care about things like, I don’t know, passion and longing and yearning and messy uncomfortable stuff that can’t be resolved by a bullet point on a to-do list.
             And, certainly, I must save my strength, my worry, for my never-ending list of tasks which, once completed, will certainly spit out the prize I’ve been working so hard to earn, whatever it is, like one of those claw machines that finally picks up a two-dollar watch you spent eighteen dollars in quarters trying to get.
             I’ve been trying so hard to get it right, to force things to happen. There are goals, action items, lists, emails to answer, things to achieve.
             I’ve been trying to pretend that I am a practical, business-like person who appreciates the simple, beautiful functions of spreadsheets. A little disappointed-- miffed, perhaps -- that a degree in creative writing didn’t prepare me well enough for the “job market.”
             And it didn’t, of course. My first job after college was driving around southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware teaching “reading classes” off a script that was given to me in a big white binder, trying to convince kids that “reading is fun!” because I said so, because other adults said so, because their parents were willing to pay for this class in order to better prepare them for “the job market.”
             But reading is not fun, kids. It’s not fun like an amusement park, or playing video games, or playing soccer. It can be depressing, heart-wrenching, mind-bending. It can make you question your reality, yourself, your life. It can make you see yourself more deeply, possibly in shades that are as not as flattering as you might like.
             Because the truth is, I was not “prepared” for the job market. I was not “prepared” for real life – but is anyone, really? Perhaps my big mistake all along was the misconception that with enough preparation, you can be ready for and able to manage this massively unwieldy, tangled up, randomly-firing gibberish people call life unfolding.
             I can almost feel my 19-year old self cringing at the compromises I have made, am making, even now. She with the Janis Joplin poster on her wall does not accept my reasonable arguments about making a living, affording meals and maybe a house someday, gardening supplies, a plane trip to visit people now and then.
             Because she is unreasonable, that girl, along with many other things. A little embarrassing, perhaps, in her stridency and urgency. But she wouldn’t stand for this shit about grad school and paychecks and gardens. The world is your garden, she would say. Everything is your garden: streetlights, lampposts, the Vietnamese hoagie shop, the bicycles gliding past. And she would mean it. Metaphorically, of course.
             What happened to that girl, the one whose brain circuitry got all blown out when her AP English teacher introduced her to The Wasteland. Who stayed for hours in the college library soaking up memoirs and poems, wrestling with them, trying to make heads or tails of them, reading W.D. Snodgrass as if it mattered, as if it was important to find out what those words meant, why that nice old man took so much time to put them together in that particular way, in that particular order. Surely it meant something to the guy who spent so much time on them, if she could only figure out what.
             What happened to the girl who thought anything was possible, who still didn’t know that she would not, in fact, meet the love of her life in college, who still felt that he (she? nah, probably he...) could be lurking around every corner, it could be any one of these people.
             What happened to she who flipped out over the beauty of dying black-eyed susans on her way home from class, such that she couldn’t wait to get home to write about it. Or even she who haunted the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, whose sixth sense, almost, brought her there to the scent of her wildest fantasies, in which she was a bohemian writer-artist traveling through Europe making fast friends, sleeping with people, drinking right from the bottle. Living a little.
             And yet whose good sense always overrode that sixth sense, kept her from  acting on any impulse other than that it would be time to get home soon, the subway closed at midnight, she didn’t want her host mom to worry (if she was even home). She had to complete her homework for her class, she had to earn an A, or the French school for foreigners equivalent, because deep down that was the comforting way she knew how to look at herself: responsible, hardworking, desperate for the approval of whatever random person happened to be in authority.
             Do you see what that has cost you, you silly girl?
             Maybe nothing. You are safe and warm. But once upon a time you dared to dream that there was something more to life than safe and warm.
             I don’t apologize to her, the 19-year old with the Janis Joplin poster. She was kind of ridiculous in many respects, often too strident, impossibly insecure. She toed that odd line of wanting to befriend everyone and wanting to tell everyone to fuck off. She could never quite choose. Maybe still can’t.
             But she was a bit of pretender, that girl. She’d could really only identify one or two Janis Joplin songs, although she was massively fond of Bobby McGee. Thumbing a diesel down, hitching a ride to New Orleans, that sounded alright to her. Of course, J.Jop died real young, and at this point I can’t really get behind that.
             It’s one thing to make an album or two of smoking, epic passion and then flame out early and die. It’s another thing to stick around as life mellows and grows more complex, gains additional flavors to those of hot pepper and raw nerve. It can get slower, deeper, more subtle, maybe even richer. More heartbreaking, more confusing.
             Maybe the girl with the Janis Joplin poster would have said fuck you to all of that. But Janis Jopin did not have the balls, ultimately (and who can blame her), for growing older and learning new things; gaining wisdom; watching her parents age and contemplate the fact that they will eventually die and perhaps could have been happier in life; having to make sacrifices and compromises; paying the steep steep prices that continuing to live can sometimes exact.
             I do miss that girl, though. She left by degrees, slowly was replaced with another girl who could appreciate not just the cracked-out urgency of the Beats but whose mind began to open and unfold despite herself toward poets of a quieter, subtler, more nuanced ilk.
             She never wanted to be like those old boring gray-haired poets who lived in the woods and smoked pipes and wrote poems appreciating all the birds and twigs and leaves. Sounded like the most boring thing in the world.
             Maybe what she could not yet appreciate was how absolutely ravaged you tend to be by the time you have the privilege of living to be old enough to go gray.
             Maybe she couldn’t appreciate how much those boring old duffers had lost along the way to their lonely cottages in the woods.
             How maybe the only solace, the only truth they had left were those stupid woodchucks or the smell of damp soil in the morning or the way sunlight dapples things or the way words look and sound on a page.
             Maybe she didn’t give them credit for knowing that these small tokes of natural beauty or calm, contemplative sadness were not really enough, all told, to make this gradual wasting process called life worth it— but that they felt that perhaps they should try, anyway.
             Perhaps she did not appreciate the nobility, the courage, if it can be called that, of all those hill-rambling old men with hearts like spent charcoal, trying to keep a few smoldering embers alive.    

Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Breaking Bread

On Friday Heather came over for dinner. She grew up next door to us back home, like another sister. She was in town for a conference. My parents and sister brought lasagna, bread, salad. I set out cheese and crackers. We talked about the old days and the new days, the days we are in right now and the ones to come. Almost all the neighbors from that block are gone now and exist together only in my indelible memory of a place that still exists, houses that still stand, but a time that is gone. I'm making it sound sadder than it is. Other kids are riding their bikes up and down that driveway, climbing that really good tree (I hope to god they are still climbing that tree), crawling behind the forsythia bush.

I hope they have the chance to play together like we did, forming a noisy blob that floated effortlessly through the neighborhood, known and safe wherever we went. I hope they still don't need to lock the doors and  and that they can still hear the Metro North commuter train quaking across the tracks a few times a day. I hope their biggest troubles, like mine were, are forgetting their musical instruments at home on band day, or not having any clean socks. I hope when they're sixteen religious zealots don't fly planes into nearby buildings and send that whole fever dream of safety and security crashing to the ground. And I hope nobody gets sick or hurt and they never learn what a hospital waiting room is like. I hope nobody calls in the middle of the night. I hope they aren't eaten alive with anxiety or mysterious aches and pains. I hope the recession ends and they all pursue their most passionate interests in a positive and remunerative way.

But if they can't have all of those things, I hope at the least they make a friend who becomes like family, who they can go a long time without seeing but when they see her next, be reassured by how much she both has changed and is the same. And I hope at least they can get a chance to sit around a table sharing a meal and getting nostalgic for a time when they didn't even know how good they had it.

I am starting to not feel that young anymore. I'm starting to feel like I've done a some living by now, like I have lifetimes behind me already. At Michelle's house on Saturday I kept forgetting whether I knew her from high school or college. It all blurs together. Old friends are old friends.

Her new house is an adorable ca. 1912 temple of sturdy Edwardian craftsmanship, hardwood floors and built-in shelving and a fireplace that works, books and wine and baking and cooking. The four of us, the two couples, stayed up late making pizzas and drinking wine and later scotch and solving all the problems of our modern age. We woke up to a sun-swept Sunday morning and Michelle made breakfast.

That right there is the good stuff of life, the living that I'm always so preoccupied with figuring out how to do. You share a meal, you share stories and memories and news and ideas and opinions. You find out which great-aunt's attic the furniture came from. You eat and you drink. You give and receive. You say thank you and you're welcome and please. Especially thank you. Especially that.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Open Flowers In the Windy Fields of This War-Torn World

After the heavy rains everything is fresh and brightly scrubbed this morning. The plants are an outrageous, insouciant, defiantly hopeful shade of bright, bright green. Walking the Little Charge to the school bus, every shade of pink blossom is available: azalea, cherry, dogwood, in every possible shade.

We wait for the bus stop quietly, each lost in our thoughts. The air is cool bordering on cold. The words of that old kids' song come to me:

This is the song that never ends. It goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was, and they'll continue singing it forever just because...

It was always a nonsense song but this morning it seems like an apt metaphor, the never-ending song being the song of life. Some people started these wheels on the bus in motion, had no idea what they were doing, and we carry and renew that tune on and on forever, still no closer to having a clue, but we'll keep on singing it forever, just because.