Monday, December 31, 2007

Dear 2007,

Wow, it’s been a whole year! I can hardly believe it. It seems like only yesterday that I was down in Santa Cruz with my friends listening to the revelry as the clock struck 2007.

I know we got off to a rocky start: horrible emotional throw-downs with on-again-off-again boyfriends can be like that. And at a Christmas party, no less! (yes, I know technically that was in 2006, but the aftereffects lingered) Well, at least we got that out of the way early, so I could spend most of the year moving on way past that dead-end relationship, like a rocket ship zipping past a minor planet.

So, it could only get better after that. We did a lot of social stuff together, shared a lot of laughter, as well as moodiness and frustration, boredom, depression, you name it. The normal stuff. Through it all, I really just tried to be aware of everything, not get judgmental about myself (or you, though that was harder.) Or I tried to be aware of the judgment, anyway.

I got relatively mobile last January when I finally got my driver’s license 20 years later than most people. That was a few weeks more than one year ago. That was a challenge, something I’ll forever consider one of my major accomplishments. Does that sound pathetic? Well, to me, that was the fruition of all the reading and studying I’d done up to that point about facing your fears. That goddamn lack of a driver’s license had plagued me for all of my adult life. I’d had nightmares for years about driving, and when I would think about driving, I’d hyperventilate. I still can’t believe I did it. And in exactly a year, I can sign up at one of those car share companies! Them and their 2-year driving history requirements (grumble.)

That brings me to relationships, of course. You helped me deepen my relationship with my best friend of 12 years, who helped me and encouraged me to learn to drive. As scary as relating could (and can) be sometimes, you, 2007 finally taught me to sit with that discomfort, to look it straight in the eye. I’m not great at it yet, but it’s like driving: I’m comfortable (somewhat) with the discomfort, and it no longer freaks me out (as much.) Or maybe I just recognize the discomfort and the instinct to freak out and don’t always give in.

There was some small-time travel: down to Santa Cruz in March for some R&R, where I got all misty-eyed when a friend-of-a-friend saw me and seemed genuinely happy to see me. Really, it affected me more than you’d think. It made me realize how I long for that recognition and genuine warmth. And it helped me realize that it’s all around me, too. I just have to practice seeing it.

There were men, lots of men. Not in the nasty way you’re thinking of it, 2007. Just dates, lots of dates; and finally I realized I just can’t do the formal dating thing anymore. As dry as my romantic life has been in this year, I just had to walk away from the internet dating, the speed dating, all of it. If I meet someone, it’s going to be because we connect in our normal lives, doing the things we do anyway.

In the summer, there was New Orleans, helping rebuild (or at least that was why I went. I still don’t know if I helped at all), I remember sitting in the steamy summer morning out in the old playing field of the elementary school where the volunteer camp was, and falling in love with the swamp that pressed up against the chain-link fence. The fluttery feeling in the stomach, the whole bit. Is it possible to fall in love with a place? Maybe I’m just weird.

Anyway, that was a challenging and strange experience, all in all. But probably one of the defining ones of my adult life, and not because of the work I did (although, heck, I can install insulation AND drywall, then mud and patch it and paint. Pretty nice for someone who used to be barely familiar with how to work a hammer!) It was more about the experience of being still in the face of my almost compulsive need to get away from the human race, in a situation where that just was not possible. Difficult would be an understatement. I think I did a pretty good job, too! But we came away from that with a new friend and some good stories.

I guess the theme of our relationship, 2007, has been connecting. Many of my relationships have deepened, some have faded away almost completely; I’ve gotten closer to my dad than I probably ever have been, which is nice, and strange. Since when are parents supposed to be normal people?! In friendships, there’s been some conflict, and I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out the difference between my neuroses and my better instincts. I guess I’ve seen that it’s okay to let some relationships die in the cradle and to concentrate my energies on connections that seem more fruitful.

Oh, and speaking of cradles, 2007, you brought a new baby boy to my family. As someone who has never wanted children, I’ve watched the growth of the two new ones in my immediate family and seen how they change the lives of the people around them. I don’t regret not having kids, and I don’t see my niece and nephew very often, but I understand better the promise that kids represent. I’m fascinated to watch how these two little new people will grow and evolve.

There’s been some death, at the end of our relationship, 2007. That’s been difficult, but the sadness has been tempered with the realization that death finds all of us, sometime. Sometimes I feel very wise, which is funny, because so often I feel like a bumbling fool. But somehow I have a very philosophical view of death, and that feels right and wise to me - it’s sad for the living, yes, but also something else. I don’t know what. Mysterious, maybe?

The deaths, strangely, have made me realize how many truly special people I’m lucky enough to have crossed paths with in my life. You know, those people who shine bright like flames of wisdom and compassion, even in the midst of their own struggles. I don’t know how else to describe it; I see them as flames, actually. But after two of them died, one after a protracted struggle, and one of them suddenly, violently, it made me think of all the others I’ve gotten to know in my life. What a blessing.

Sorry, 2007, this is getting too long. But I just wanted to say that as difficult as some things have been between us, I feel closer to something important after knowing you. Something about just being. Not struggling as much. Being okay just as myself, and letting others be okay being themselves. I know I still have a lot to learn, but as I get to know 2008, I feel confident that I’ll get closer to it.

Thanks, 2007, it’s been nice knowing you!


Friday, December 14, 2007

Winter Wonderland

Going through my mom's photo album several months ago, I came across two photos of myself that I borrowed, scanned, and had printed on photo paper. One of them is on my mantle, and one is on my altar, where I put little trinkets and symbolic objects to remind myself of what's important in life.

One photo is of me as a little girl, probably 2 or 3 years old. I'm naked, leaning over a wading pool, and splashing the water with one hand, with an expression of joyful wonder on my laughing face. I look like I just discovered water and all of its wonders, and my dad, the photographer, captured the spray of water as it hung in mid-air, limned by the same sunlight that made my blond ponytail seem to glow. This photo is there to remind me that I once felt awe and delight in something simple.

The other photo is of me as a teenager, maybe 14 or 15, though it's hard to say. I'm standing in the snow, bundled up in an 80's era snow jacket and white fluffy hat. My gaze is level and direct at the camera, my expression is hard to judge. Not upset, not happy, just direct and calm, but focused. My body is turned slightly to the side, one hip very slightly cocked. I like that photo because I look like I'm ready to take on anything, and that slight swagger makes me smile. I keep that photo because it reminds me that I am - or at least have felt like - a bad-ass; that I can take things on and win.

I don't remember when either photo was taken, but I do remember being a teen up in Tahoe when my family would spend time at our timeshare cabin, and the hours I would spend in the snowy woods, imagining myself the only person in the world, exploring that muting whiteness that muffled all familiar objects so they seemed unrecognizable. My fantasy life was exquisite in those days. I had whole storylines in my head, and inevitably, they would involve me being the brave, whip-smart heroine, riding horses, finding treasure, escaping danger, and even rescuing men in distress (what's the masculine form of the word 'damsel', anyway?)

I remember how effortless it was, walking the woods and lake, exploring the tiny worlds in each pine grove, creeklet, or snowed-over bush. I felt like I was one of the woodland creatures, not a part of the hustling-bustling society of humans. Of course, when I got cold enough, I would wander home, with ice in my hair, grateful for the warmth of the cabin and the good food smells. Happy to look out at the snow from the warm side of the steamed-up windows.

I keep those pictures to remind myself that those younger people are still in here, the one who was overjoyed by water, and the one who explored the winter wonderland as the heroine of her own story.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Be Here. Now!!

Further thoughts on why self-help does not help the self

When I was a kid, maybe 11 or 12, I remember listening as my mom sat on the stairs and talked to her friend on the phone. She was disconsolate, maybe even crying, and I remember very clearly her whispering into the phone: “Is this all there is?” At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, only that my mom was upset and I didn’t know what to do about it. It scared me a little bit, but then she seemed to feel better after that and life went on.

I read a lot about psychology for my job, and also for personal reasons. I bought my first self-help book when I was ten years old, and now I edit self-help books. I’m a curious person and a voracious reader, plus I’ve never been particularly happy, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “figure things out” with respect to how to reach this mythical Shangri-La of happiness, goodness, and contentment, this “Good Life” of which everyone speaks.

Even after 27 years of seeking, and even though I know better by now, I find myself still hoping for some tidbit of wisdom, some new technique, some earth-shattering research to come through and show me how to be a happy, content, connected, laughing, popular person with an actual romantic life, somebody who always says the right thing for the situation, has a beautiful, sparkling home, a perfect garden, and can dance AND cook. Someone who doesn’t overindulge in cocktails, cookies, coffee, or, for that matter, CSI. Someone who meditates, yogas, volunteers, and, as a result, has a great body, great health, and exudes waves of compassion. Somebody who doesn’t get annoyed at people who think they know all the answers, or people who don’t have any answers. You know. The perfect person.

Recently I’ve been toggling back and forth between “self-improvement” blogs, psychology research, and books on Buddhist thought and human consciousness. I’m finding it all extremely frustrating, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why that is.

I’m also just finishing up reading my book club book, The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen, about his trip through Tibet seeking the elusive eponymous beast, not to mention enlightenment. I’m almost at the end, and he’s coming back into civilization, bad-tempered after his blissed-out mountain trek, and feeling bereft at having lost that sense of peace he had reached while wandering the trails of the Himalayas.

As I was reading on the bus this morning, about Matthiessen’s grumpiness and despair after coming off the mountains, I found myself smiling, not because I was enjoying his discomfort, but because THAT’S reality. That grumpiness. That wanting to go back to where you felt safe and at peace. That feeling of disappointment: “ Where did my enlightenment go?” THAT’S what you don’t see in self-help and self-improvement blogs and books, what I’ve been missing in my readings and seekings: the truth that no matter what enlightenment you reach, you still have to come back to life, the muddy slog with the occasional bright moments. And sometimes, it just sucks, and that the suck is as part of life, as valuable and true, as the glorious moments.

Lying in bed this morning, I was musing on whether Wayne Dyer has ever had a job in an office, a 2-hour bus commute, and trouble finding someone to date. Or whether Sharon Salzberg has ever spent hours at work - bored because after nearly 5 years doing the same thing, you just get bored, you know? - clicking through websites killing time before it was time to go home, and feeling guilty for it. Or whether Jack Kornfield ever had anxiety about how to tackle “The STD Talk” with a potential new lover, since potential lovers are so few and far between. Or if any of them ever worried that they were wasting their lives, that they were in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, making a mess of it all. Maybe they have. Or maybe they don’t need to experience those things; maybe bodhisattvas are beyond that. But to the rest of us, that’s the reality.

Peter Matthiessen is upset with himself, in the book, that he can’t keep the feeling of spaciousness that he had in the snow fields of Tibet. He can’t keep it because it’s not reality – or maybe it’s part of reality, but not the whole. He was separated from his life up there, but life is here, inescapable and persistent; sometimes glorious, sometimes awful, and most often just kind of…here.

To answer my mom: Yes, this IS all there is. This waking up in the cold and not wanting to get out of bed, but then feeling transfixed on the walk to work at the clear gladness of the cold sky and the bright birds. This drinking too much coffee and feeling crappy the whole rest of the day, but ummmm…that first sip of warmth and cinnamon. So good! This getting pissed off at a friend who shows up late, and then the gratitude at having a friend who can forgive you some crankiness, as you can forgive her some lateness. This not wanting to take the time to search for coins to give to the panhandler, and the jingle of coins in your pocket that you put there so that the next time someone asks, you DO have some spare change. This being so tired after work that watching TV is the only thing you have energy for, and the purr of the cat as he rests in the crook of your elbow. This not answering peoples’ phone calls because, well, you just don’t feel like talking to them at the moment; and the joy of talking when you DO feel like connecting. This hearing about a friend’s imminent wedding, and feeling a sinking sensation in your chest and a deep sadness; and the way you appreciate the loved ones in your life even more, knowing how rare love is. This wondering if this is all there is; and knowing the answer.

For me, the constant seeking, the constant trying to change, the search to be better, happier, healthier, more content, a better citizen, in these things lies discontentment. I’m tired of feeling like I should be different, like I should change who I am. I’m tired of seeking. I’m tired of people telling me to be less mediocre, be more “in flow”, meditate more, kill your TV, don’t eat meat, do more yoga, try these supplements, they really worked for me!

Life is here. Now. At this computer, in this chair, on the bus, in the stuffy meeting room at work. In meditation and in alpha-wave stupor. In the bars and in yoga studios. We will change our habits, or we won’t, but life doesn’t care. How do I describe the fact that, to me, THAT is comforting? That I don’t have to be perfect? That there is no God or universe or great globe of light judging me for watching a rerun of ‘House’ when I could be calling my friends or volunteering to feed the homeless? Or for drinking my third glass of Prosecco instead of green tea? Or for reading an escapist novel instead of meditating? For me, the challenge is to just be okay with ME. My flawed, non-meditating, frustrated-with-yoga, TV-watching, cocktail-loving self who has a crooked sense of humor and the urge to say inappropriate things. I know this, and yet it’s still so hard to let go of this idea that the next book, the next blog, the next therapy technique, will make me happy and content and fulfilled, and I’ll really have arrived in my life, after 37 years. Finally. And it will all make sense.