Thursday, July 26, 2007

The First Tomato of Summer

The small bright red globe peeked out from inside its nest of green leaves and vines. The only ripe tomato in a mass of hard green marbles. It winked at me, flirtatiously, and I couldn't resist. I was in my socks, having only gone out to harvest some collard greens for my dinner, but the pull of that tomato overcame my distaste at getting my socks dirty. I gingerly stepped over the collards and snaked my hand into the green bush.

The tomato was tiny and came off without a fuss, and even that much activity left me surrounded in that particular aroma that only a tomato plant's oily, hairy vines can give off. What is that smell, anyway? There's nothing else like it, and in an instant my brain was filled with memories of my mom's tomato garden, of playing in the dirt as a small child, of spending hours building fairy houses and villages out of leaves and rocks and sticks, all but hidden in the undergrowth that was more real to me than the human world. The smell of dirt, flowers, sunlight, and those tomato plants that always grew during the hottest summer months, arching over the rest of the plants, like grand dames of the vegetable patch. Even the green tomato worms we sometimes found on the plants were green and juicy and healthy-looking; everything grew there, as did I.

I popped the tomato into my mouth and there again was that perfect taste of my childhood - impossible to describe well but so eloquent that I need to try: sweet, bursting, with a thin barely-there skin and a slight tartness that tasted like flowers. Perfect.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Sometime it hits me. I’ll be going along in my day and I’ll see a happy-looking couple, sometimes a young just-in-love twosome, sometimes an older man and woman holding hands, and I’ll feel a sudden bolt of grief. For all of my testifying that it’s okay to be single, that a woman doesn’t need a man to be complete, that fulfillment can’t be found out there, in any one person or occupation, I can’t help but want to find someone.

Love is one of the most basic human needs, and I have the others: food, shelter, something to do with my hours. I even have love, in the form of family and friends, and I’m forever grateful to have these things. But the love of that one person, a partner to stand next to me, hold my hand, caress my hair, gaze at me with “that look” – you know the one – in his eyes, just hasn’t come to me. And it’s hard to admit even to myself that sometimes, this reality just feels like a punch in the gut.

Yesterday, riding on the bus, it descended on me for no obvious reason, like a gaping wound in my belly. I tried to just sit with it and not tell myself stories about it, the same stories I’ve been telling myself for years: there’s something wrong with you, you’re putting off some kind of bad vibe that you don’t know about, you’re not dressing right or doing your hair, makeups, etc. right, you don’t have that special ‘something’ that men look for in a mate, and on and on.

I’m 37 and I feel, maybe stupidly, like time is running out. Almost everyone around me has someone, even if the relationships aren’t always particularly healthy. I do know the feeling of being in a relationship that you don’t want to be in and can’t seem to get out of, and I know one or two people in my life are embroiled in that drama. When I think about that I think that maybe I should just be glad I don’t have to deal with that side of the coin anymore. Maybe the grass is just always greener.

At one point a few years ago I truly believed that the reason I hadn’t found anyone to be with was because I was meant to put my energy into other things – friends, family, community. That may still be true, if it ever was, but now, I want to put energy into a special relationship. I want kisses and affection. I want sex. I want to lust after someone and have them lust back. I want that kind of familiar laughter that you get sitting in bed with someone on a lazy Sunday morning after making love or just spending the night in each other’s arms.

I’ve dated a lot in the past 10 years and I’ve had a few relationships that have lasted from 5 months to 3 years. It’s old hat by now. But these days, I feel a new desperation creeping in that I don’t like. After one date recently where I really enjoyed being with the guy but wasn’t attracted to him, I obsessed for days over whether or not I was just being too picky. Was I too stuck on looks? Should I be more open-minded and give the older, paunchy, balding guys I seem to attract a chance? But then I thought back to the times I met the men I’ve been with, and even the ones who got away, and how I felt with them: that feeling of energy in my veins, of all my senses alert and aware, of laughter on my lips, of being intellectually and emotionally engaged, of being challenged in a way that felt juicy and ripe. I just knew that something interesting could happen; I didn’t have to think about it or convince myself by listing their positive qualities in my head. That’s what I want to happen again, and whatsmore, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting that.

Most of the time, I feel like I put a good face on it. I get out there and socialize with my friends and family, appreciating the relationships I do have. I'm involved in social groups where I meet new people all the time, yet I'm also content to do things by myself. I've never let my singlehood stop me from doing things I want to do, and heck, I was even featured in the book Quirkyalone. I dabble in online dating, I ask friends to set me up with eligible people, I try to be approachable, positive, and interested in the people I do meet. I'm the poster-child for "doing it right."

But if I’m going to be honest, sometimes I just sit and cry. All the platitudes and advice in the world ( “Get out there and live”, “Don’t concentrate on what you lack,” “You have to kiss a lot of frogs,” “There’s someone out there for you”) can't help when I do all the things I'm supposed to do, and still find that what really gets me excited on Friday evenings is that a TV show I like is on. Sometimes I see myself making yet another plan to get out into the dating pool – a craigslist post, a speed dating-type event, a set-up by a friend – and feel my lips curl into a smirk that says “Oh, yeah, right, THIS is going to work.” And I know that’s the killer right there: the expectation of disappointment. But sometimes that’s about the only feeling I can muster.

My mom once said to me that one thing that impresses her about me is that I never seem to give up. I sure hope that works in this case, that persistence pays off in the end, because sometimes I think stamina is the only thing I bring to this race.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Happiness is Crap

Since my last post, I've been thinking more about this idea of 'happiness.' I’m a self-help professional of a sort (Heh), and I’ve noticed for awhile now that 'happiness' is the new buzzword in self-help. There are zillions of books out there designed to make us happy, present, mindful, and self-aware. Just type ‘Happiness’ into the search engine at I dare you.

The reason for this happiness binge, as far as I can tell, is the new darling of modern psychology, a supposedly new way of looking at human behavior that has been coined “positive psychology.” I’m not going to go into the background of this concept, Google will gladly tell you all you want to know about it. Suffice it to say, though, that positive psych is the science of looking not at what’s wrong with people, but about what’s right with them. Positive psychology experts help their clients and readers discover their strengths rather than study their mistakes.

On the face of it, I agree with this new way of looking at things. Personally, I’m tired of trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. But the explosion of happiness books on the market, all purporting to use positive psychology principles to help their readers become happier people, really bothers me, because having happiness as a life goal is, if you’ll excuse the vulgarity, just so much crap.

Let’s face it: nobody is happy all the time. Life is just not like that. Some experts even say that we’re all born with a happiness baseline that doesn’t change permanently. We go up or down based on life events, but we always return to our baseline, which is different for everyone. Researchers can argue about this all they want, but I suspect that this is true just from personal experience, and it’s why I get so annoyed with all the harping about finding happiness and discovering the path to happiness. Why? Because happiness is fleeting. It’s an emotion, not a way to gauge the quality of our lives. We might be happy for an hour, a day, maybe even a few days at a time, but there will come a time when we aren’t happy. The dinner we ordered will be inedible, our partner will get mad at us, someone will be rude, our car will get a flat tire. That’s just life. Does it mean we’ve failed? That we need to think more positively, meditate more, become more mindful, or volunteer more often? Or does it just mean we’re experiencing a normal life?

Sometimes, I’ll be going along in my day and I’ll notice that I’m thinking judgmental thoughts, or that I’m thinking about something difficult that’s happened, or that I’m pondering why I haven’t reached this or that goal. When that happens, often I feel a twinge of guilt for thinking about something negative. And then when I notice the guilt, most often there’ll be a little cynical voice inside my head that will say, in its best snide, put-upon tone, “Oh, right, I forgot, I’m not supposed to think anything negative.” That’s the voice of sanity.

Just today I read this article in the Huffington Post by Barbara Ehrenreich, one of my favorite muckrakers, about how studies showing that happier people with healthy diets and lots of social support are NOT proven to live longer after a cancer diagnosis than the rest of us. I know I shouldn’t gloat (damn psychology books! Now I can’t even do that!) - and I also realize that the study of studies is basically flawed; you can argue any point based on any result, if you’re talented - but this is something I’ve suspected for a long time: although lifestyle and attitude do have an effect on our health and quality of life (obviously), much of it also has to do with just plain luck of the draw. Our genetics. Our childhood. Who we meet in our lives. Where we grew up. Our socioeconomic status. Whether or not we looked first before attempting to cross the street in front of an out-of-control bus. A lot of it – maybe even most of it – is out of our control.

The same with all this positive thinking/happiness baloney. You can struggle for years to think positively, paste a smile on your face when what you really want to do is make a sarcastic comment, eat nothing but fruits and vegetables and quinoa, meditate until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going to guarantee you anything. Not a longer life and certainly not a happier one. All it’ll guarantee you is more anxiety when you realize you’re still not what you think of as “happy.” That you still get down, you still feel angry at people who disappoint you, and that you will still age despite the rabbit diet. In short: you don’t have the perfect left, because the perfect life just doesn’t exist (unless you have a lifetime supply of morphine patches and somebody to take care of your high-ass self.)

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand all those chipper people who float along smiling at everyone and tossing flowers in your path. It’s not real. I’m happy to share peoples’ triumphs and glories. I like it when I or my friends do well, reach a goal, have something to celebrate. But true life isn’t only about those moments. It’s also about the moments when things are hard, you don’t know if you can do it anymore, when you feel lost or cranky or depressed or confused. It’s ALL real. To my mind, happiness shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to live a well-lived life: To have integrity, to embody self-awareness without self-indulgence, to learn everything you can, and to hurt as few creatures as possible. That way, when that bus does come hurtling down on you, you can die knowing that at least you lived. And not wondering why you were never happy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Yesterday, I told my “process group” that I was quitting. I joined the group about 3 ½ years ago at the suggestion of my individual therapist, who I then stopped seeing. She thought – and I agreed – that a group might help me gain some skills in communicating and connecting with others that I’d been feeling were lacking.

The group helped me immensely (here’s the facilitators website, if you live in the SF Bay Area and are interested in doing group work. I’d highly recommend her groups and other activities.) I learned how to ask for feedback, explore my own reactions to other people, take responsibility for my own experiences, ask for what I need, and learned what it feels like to really connect on a deeper lever to another person. As someone who has always been shy and distrusting of people in general, it’s been extremely helpful to me.

But, over the last few weeks, I’ve just decided it’s time for me to try something else. It’s not necessarily anything that is wrong with the group, it’s something about me, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what that something is.

Over the past month, a realization I’ve had for awhile has somehow ‘gelled’ for me. This realization is I am never going to be a different person than I am. Who I am will not change no matter how long I seek therapy or read self-help books. It’s not that these things aren’t helpful – I do believe people can get better at handling life, and can gain skills to make their lives and relationships healthier – but in my core, I won’t change.

I think a lot of people – and I include myself – initially seek therapy because at some level they want to be someone they’re not. They want to be a positive, happy, person with excellent coping skills who has wonderful friends, an appreciative partner, happy children, and a productive, fulfilling job. These are all worthy goals, I suppose, but in reality, we are who we are, and our lives will never be perfect. Therapy won’t change that. Research even suggests that people have a basic happiness level that doesn’t appreciably change no matter what happens. They may temporarily be happier or less happy based on life events, but their level of happiness soon returns to its normal level, which is different for everyone. Though I have a problem with the whole concept of happiness in the first place, this research is interesting to me because it suggests there is no ideal way to be. We just are who we are, no matter what.

I think I finally realized in my gut that I am simply not someone who will ever be one of those shiny, happy people who are forever dancing around in their lives spreading good cheer and homemade cookies. It’s just not me. I’m the person, instead, who is usually content to quietly watch the world around me, thinks deeply about things, pays attention to my inner life and can help others gain insight into their own, who can be supportive and compassionate to people in their struggles, and someone who instinctively rejects false platitudes and simple answers. As such, I’ll sometimes be melancholic and withdrawn, sometimes outgoing and laughing. Yes, I can learn to look at my moods and not react to them or take them out on others; I can explore what makes me hold back sometimes, and want to avoid difficult situations or conversations; I can practice getting better at connecting to others in a deep way. But no matter how much I talk about my fears, explore my childhood, study my self-talk, or read books about how to be happy, I will always struggle with the same issues. I might get better at identifying what tends to hold me back, but in my core, I won’t become a different person. And finally, I think I can say that it’s okay for me to be me. Whew! What a relief!

I work in self-help, so it’s ironic that I’m such a questioner of most basic self-help tenets. Think positively. Be happy. Don’t concentrate on the negative, or you’ll attract more of the same. Control your emotions. Be mindful. There are so many self-proclaimed experts out there on how to be happy, better, different that you are. But what I don’t hear anyone saying is: we will always remain the people that we are. No amount of happy thinking, cognitive restructuring, sitting with your thoughts, or manifesting our secret desires will make us different people. And that’s what I believe most people want from self-help and therapy: to be different at their core. To stop the hurt that life brings. To discover the “secret” of happiness.

I’m not saying that self-help techniques can’t help at all. I do believe mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, cognitive restructuring, and therapy can help change some of the behaviors and thoughts that can make life so difficult. These things have all helped me. But in the end, I’m still me, and you’re still you. We will still struggle. And maybe realizing this truth and having compassion for both our own and others’ struggles is really the basic (and only) rule for being psychologically healthy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I’m in the back room of my mother’s house, the house I grew up in. I like this room because one wall is almost entirely made of windows, and I can look out to the hills lined with eucalyptus, the dry summer grass now the color of lions. When I was in college, I would stay in this room when I came home for summer break; I liked waking up and seeing the hills that looked to me like Africa or Australia.

Ten years ago, as a new college grad, I remember sitting in this room, wondering what I was supposed to do next. I had done what I was supposed to do up to that point: I had gotten a college degree, even if it was an English degree from a half-assed northern California state school that specialized in training people in forestry and marine biology. Now what? Nobody had told me what to do next. And an English degree hardly points you in any specific direction when it comes to finding a career, or heck, even just a job. I sat on the floor of this room anxiously reading the want ads in the paper, and the ads for vocational training schools, wondering if I should go back to get a certificate in something useful, like home health care. I even went so far as to call one of those 1-800 numbers for some computer-skills training school that promised I’d be gainfully employed and earning six figures within two years. I remember feeling full of despair. There were so many choices, and not enough information; no real boundaries to the rest of my life. How would I choose what step to take next?

Now here I am, back in this room visiting my mom for her birthday. The summer fog is slowly starting to lift over the yellow hills. And, like 10 years ago, I wonder what to do next. I’ve come further, done more of what I’m supposed to do, although not everything. I stopped short of getting married and having kids. But still, I have a career, such as it is, I have a house, I have a 401(k) plan, and health insurance (such as it is). Now what?

I’ve always envied people who have some passion in their lives, something to wake up to, something they’d do without question if they didn’t have to work. Play music or create art or write books or help elect progressive political candidates. I’ve never really had that, or at least not consistently. Probably the closest I’ve come was when my ex- and I were collaborating on book projects that I thought were truly historical. History ignored us, but it felt monumental at the time.

Before that, I had a boyfriend who broke up with me partly because I didn’t have a creative outlet that I was passionate about. He was writing a novel and plays, and had a myriad other things that drove him. I didn’t. I enjoyed a lot of things, but there was nothing I felt like I just HAD to do, no matter what. After we broke up, I spent a few months trying to force myself to discover a passion. I tried writing, and wrote every day for a little while, waiting for some masterpiece to reveal itself. I had always written, even trying my hand at short stories, but somehow never ended up finishing anything. I didn’t have the compulsion to write, the way all the writers I know do. Then I decided I’d be a freelance nonfiction writer, something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the commitment to get started. When I didn’t have the attention span for that, I decided I’d be a painter, and painted a few canvases that are still hanging in my bedroom. I was going to start a web page, a magazine, learn how to be a graphic designer, be more politically and socially active. But nothing really took. You can’t fake passion – at least not that kind.

I gave up on that, and instead found a career, formed and ended relationships, met people I call my friends, tried to be a good friend/sister/daughter/employee/citizen, searched my soul, bought a house, learned to drive 20 years later than my peers. Now I’m here, a grownup who gets regular physical and dental checkups, with a mortgage, a retirement account, and three weeks of paid vacation a year. So now what? There are no more developmental milestones to look forward to and no secret creative passion to fall back on. I don’t know what to do next. Do I just keep doing what I’m doing – work, garden, take care of the house, hang out with friends and family, read a lot of books, worry about money, do the requisite soul-searching and self-improvement when appropriate, occasionally travel, sleep, then get up and do it all over again? Is that why I did what I was supposed to do, for all those years? It doesn’t seem worth the effort.

I feel pathetic whining about not having enough in my life, when I have so much, have been so lucky, have worked hard and been successful in many of the ways our culture measures success. I’m not rich, but I have a home and food and a comfortable bed; I’m not a Barbie doll, but I’m not bad-looking; I’m no jock, but I’m fit; I’m no social butterfly, but I have some good friends. It’s true I’m single, but I’ve had dry spells before. I should just revel in what I’m lucky enough to have, right? But humans need something to strive for, even if it’s just the next expensive trinket from Apple or the next raise at work. And when you’re not interested in trinkets, a raise would have to be pretty stupendous to make much of a difference, and you’ve chosen not to go the same route as the majority (well-paying career, nice car, marriage, a home in the ‘burbs, kids, summer timeshare, paid-off mortgage, grandkids, retirement, death), when there are no magazines or cable TV stations for your particular demographic, then what? There’s nobody to point the way; you have to make up your own way. And I have to admit, right now, I’m not sure what that way is.

When I tell my friends this, most of the time they try to tell me that I’m really doing OK. That there’s nothing to worry about. They reassure me that I’m all the things I want to be – a concerned citizen, a good friend and family member, creative, aware, living a balanced lifestyle that I can be proud of. People I respect respect me, imagine that! Maybe my friends are right, and I should quit bellyaching, but usually I just feel like they don’t get what I’m saying. It’s probably why I’ve become practically obsessed with finding a romantic partner; I’m looking for something ‘out there’ to challenge me and make me grow. Something in my life that’s not predictable, someone to teach me things I don’t know and maybe don’t even want to learn.

Maybe it’s the 7-year-itch, with 3 years added (I’ve always done things a bit slower.) Maybe it’s whatever comes between a quarter-life crisis and a midlife crisis. Maybe it’s that damned Mercury in retrograde again. Maybe it’s repressed anxiety masquerading as a crisis. Maybe it’s normal.

Ten years ago, sitting in that back room at my mom’s house, I despaired of ever figuring it out. And I was wrong. Now I just have to trust that I’ll find a way through again, that my new path will become apparent the way it did back then. Maybe this is the lull, the time I’m supposed to sit with what I’ve been lucky/talented/hardworking /aware enough to have earned for myself, and appreciate it against the inevitable times when things will be harder. Hopefully the path, whatever form takes, will be apparent enough for me to take the opportunity and follow it, and in another 10 years I’ll be sitting in another room, thinking about how much I’ve changed, and wondering what my next adventure will be.