Sunday, June 13, 2010

Oh, for a Muse of Fire
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention
-Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 1

 I'm sitting here next to a friend who calls me his muse. We're having a writing day. I'm procrastinating on Facebook while he's busily tapping away, creating immortal words of prose. The other night, out to dinner with my sister, I found myself in a familiar position, the same position I'd been in with my friend two months ago when I started encouraging him to write his story on a blog (You can visit it here). I was encouraging my sister to follow her dreams, and brainstorming with her about how she could start on that path. Again with the muse.

For a long time, I've felt a sense of insecurity around my lack of any major creative dreams. I went through a phase about ten years ago (after a boyfriend dumped me, partly because I didn't have any grand creative passion), where I decided I was going to try to find a passion. I painted, wrote, did collage, and I even enjoyed doing those things, but once I was done with a piece, I never had the overwhelming urge to do another one. Those things just weren't my passions. I do write, yes, but I don't have the dream of writing the Great American Novel or of changing the world with my words.

I think every boyfriend I've ever had has called me his muse at one point. And except for a couple, I've showed up in all of their art, even after the relationship ended. If I think about the times when I've felt the most passionate and inspired, it's always been while helping friends with their projects. Publishing books, editing their writing, brainstorming ideas. As a feminist and an inveterate overthinker, I've always wondered if it was OK to be so comfortable and at home being the helper, as opposed to the dreamer. It always felt like an inferior place to be. But is it?

Recently, I got some personal cards made with my e-mail, phone number, and blog address. On the card, I called myself a "writer, editor, and muse." The muse part just came out of nowhere; it surprised even me when I typed it in to the order form. But it fits, and maybe it's time for me to claim the role that seems to come so naturally to me.

I was talking to my blogging friend about it once, trying to figure out why I was so good at pulling other peoples' dreams out of them. We decided that it was a combination of my good listening skills, my nonjudgmental nature, and my ability to follow the person's train of thought and then go one step further. To see the situation differently than they and to freely give my ideas and opinions, with the intention of supporting their dreams, whatever those dreams may be. I get excited about other peoples' dreams, and when I get excited about them, so do they. Sitting with my sister, brainstorming over fancy, overpriced pizza, I felt totally in rapport with her and could see her vision taking shape. And then so could she. It was a great feeling.

Is it possible, then, that my passion is really about setting other peoples' passions free? About making it OK for them to follow those dreams they have that other, more practical people in their lives are cautious or even actively unsupportive about? My greatest love is using my time and talent to support someone's dream, and to move them forward, to get them closer to seeing their dream realized. I love connecting people to one another, people who can help one another. I love seeing the other person's excitement as they talk about their passion, and I love suggesting something to them and seeing that lightbulb go off, that "Aha" moment.  I'm slowly starting to realize that this is a talent, and that I can actually nurture that talent, that it isn't inferior to having my own Big Dream. After all, no dream gets off the ground without help, just as no airplane or hot air balloon flies without the ground crew. Just call me the Mechanic of Dreams.

Friday, June 11, 2010

There Will Always Be More Music

Way back in 2007, I wrote a post about being lovestruck. I waxed poetical about a place that is near and dear to my heart. It was one of my favorite pieces, and I think it's funny that one of my favorite love letters is not to a person, but to a place. That place is New Orleans.

I went back to New Orleans last month for a week to celebrate my 40th birthday with my best friend, my mom, and my aunt and uncle. I think I've traveled to NOLA about 11 times or so over the last 8 or 9 years, and each time, like each meeting with a soul mate, it gets better.

This time, we went to places that we'd never been before, and revisited old haunts. We drove to Chalmette, in St. Bernard's Parish, where my friend and I had volunteered for Habitat for Humanity a year or so after Katrina, and, miraculously, we even found one of the houses we had worked on. We drove through the famous Ninth Ward, a former urban residential center that now looks like the corn fields of Iowa, with grass up to my shoulders in some spots, covering all the foundations from bulldozed houses. There, Brad Pitt's Make it Right organization is building a series of funky,  modern houses for returning residents. We drove to Slidell and found a crazy good roadside restaurant that we would never have found if we hadn't taken a wrong turn. We took a swamp tour with a critter-phobic psychiatrist, and later hung out with four spanish psychiatrists(The American Psychiatric Association was in town for a conference) as they waited for it to be time to go to the airport - at 5 am. I saw the sun rise over the Mississippi. We wandered through Audubon Park and City Park. We had wonderful food, heard amazing music, walked for miles and miles, and laughed a lot.

In a recent workshop on finding safety within oneself, the attendees were asked to think of a situation or place where we felt totally in rapport with ourselves. Confident, strong, and centered. My first thought was of walking through New Orleans. When I walk the streets there, I feel comfortable in my body. I walk confidently and my strides are longer. I don't obsess as much about whether I look OK or not. I think it has to do with the warm weather, although I have been there in February and shivered as I strode the familiar streets, so that's not completely it. But the feel of the warm breeze on my skin, wearing flip flops and tank tops and skirts and never fearing the cold, there's heaven in that. There's something about the overarching shade trees, the lazy, dirty river, the slow awakening each morning after yet another music-saturated 3 am night, the boats moving past, and the ding-dong of the churchbells that makes me feel so at home. It's not the drinking, because after a few days of that, it gets old. It's something else about the place.

I was reflecting on my former letter about New Orleans, and the way I experienced the city this time. In my earlier letter, I was In Love. I wrote about arriving on the streets of the Quarter and feeling, literally, in love. My heart pounding, my feet not even touching the ground. This time it was different. We were old familiar friends, the city and I. I didn't feel those butterflies and that elation that you feel when you're in love. It felt just like the way you feel when, with a real human lover, the high of infatuation wears off, and you now get down to the business of really getting to know the person - the real person. Let's face it, New Orleans is a mixed bag. It's dirty, its claim to fame is rivers of booze and flashing co-ed breasts, and it has a sordid and cruel history. If it were a human being, our mothers would have warned us about New Orleans. Hmmmm. Sounds good to me!

But in thinking about how my reaction to this town has changed over time, I can't help but relate that to how our relationship with everything changes over time. I remember visiting New Orleans once and feeling horrified the first time I actually got bored there. Or leaving a music venue at midnight, worried that it meant I was getting old, since I used to stay out until 3 am pretty regularly. But then telling myself that it was my experience and I could do whatever I wanted. That there were no rules here, and that there would always be more music.  We tend to forget that all things change and shift, and no matter how much we try to hold on to how we want things to be, we will never be able to. In my relationship with New Orleans, I see things shifting, and maybe because my emotions aren't as painfully triggered as in my relationship with humans, I can see the change and I can accept it. The town and I love one another, but love, as well all know, is a many-splendored thing. Never the same thing twice.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Let's Talk About Jealousy

Along with anger, jealousy is probably the most misunderstood human emotion. We're simply not "supposed" to be jealous. Ever. If we are, we're considered crazy and bad dating material. But, of course, it's never that simple, and jealousy exists as an emotion because it's trying to tell us something. As someone who has always struggled with jealousy, I know firsthand how damaging it can be, so I'm not advocating just letting our jealous streaks run roughshod over our relationships, but I think jealousy deserves a better, deeper understanding.

At its core, jealousy is fear of loss. The common wisdom is that it's about insecurity, which may be true in some cases, but deeper than that, jealousy is about the fear of losing something you value.  If you think about it, jealousy is never even that unfounded, because, given the rate of divorce, and the fact that in non-marriage relationships, breakups are even more common than in marriages, at some point, we will most likely lose our partner. So jealousy is about fear of something that is almost inevitable. Whether we will lose our partner to that person he's talking to at the party or not, eventually, we know, we will lose him, even if only to death.

In a letter I once wrote to an ex-lover, I explained how my feelings of jealousy, deep, deep down, were rooted in a fear of death, a fear if being obliterated, of winking out like a quenched candle flame, to be replaced by someone else. The fear of literally not existing anymore, at least in the mind and imagination of my beloved. This might seem overwrought and dramatic, but if you're someone who's felt intense jealousy, remember how it feels in your mind and your body. It feels like terror, like looking down into an abyss.

Humans are meant to connect, we, quite literally cannot live without one another. When we're adults, we can survive without others, but we can't  live. People in solitary confinement, if they're not careful to engage their minds, go crazy. Even if they do manage to come out of it with their sanity intact, it was never a pleasant experience. We need each other. Period. In jealousy, our deep fear of being obliterated in the mind of someone we love is about the fear of losing our connections to others, about being unimportant, rejected, banished by our tribe to wander the desolate wastelands, alone. Jealousy taps directly into the well of the most intense, uncomfortable, difficult-to-sit-with emotions that humans can experience. It's no wonder it's so hard to deal with and makes us so crazy.

In a jealous moment, can we feel what's under our reaction to that one person, that one situation, and come in contact with this seething mixture of terror, fear of abandonment and rejection, fear of loss? Can we open our hearts to it, a little bit more each time, and feel compassion for it, knowing that we share these deep fears with every other human being? Once, in the midst of a terrible, anxiety- and jealousy-ridden night when I knew someone I loved deeply was with another, I had a sudden, split-second opening where I felt love for this person, a love and care for his well-being that knew no possession or boundaries. It was like I was hovering over the bed with them and my heart was open, blessing them. I knew that who he was with wasn't important, because the love that was there would not be changed or lessened by any other bond he might form. I wanted, in that moment, nothing but good for him, and hoped he was happy. It didn't last long, but it gave me some hope that somehow, with attention and openness, I might make room in my heart for all the textures of love, including welcoming the messages that jealousy sends me without doing damage to the relationships I form.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Please Help

I just read about SETI Institute's Earth Speaks, where people are invited to write a freeform message to beings from places other than Earth. A researcher analyzed over 900 messages from 68 nations, and found that the second most common sentiment, after "we are all humans of Earth" was "Please Help."

For some reason, this really touched me. Life is hard. We all feel it. And in our hearts, we all want to feel better, to not hurt so much, and to live on a planet that is - and be surrounded by people who are - vibrant and bountiful and full of life. But we can't - most of us, anyway - figure out how to do that. Yet in our hearts, despite whatever nationalism and jingoism we might cling to in order to feel part of a tribe, we really all - deep down -  understand that we are in this together.

This morning, I was getting salad from a salad bar for a week's worth of lunches, and an older woman pushed her cart past me, proclaiming "This salad bar is AWFUL!! It gets worse every day! They don't even have salad dressing!" When I tried to show her where the salad dressing is usually kept, I found that she was right: there was no salad dressing. I asked a store worker to get some, but by then, the woman had rolled on past and was haranguing another customer with her salad bar complaints ("I wish the salad bar was like it used to be!") By the time I got my salad and dressing, she was gone.

I was irritated by her, irritated to be confronted with someone else's discontent so early in the morning, as my first human interaction. I felt myself start to feel her angst, to take it on to myself. At the same time, I felt self-righteous, as I asked the guy to get me some salad dressing and he placed it in the container where it normally goes, I felt like finding the lady and telling her that she only had to ask, she needn't just complain to complete strangers about how terrible her life was. Why not look on the bright side? But of course, my self-righteousness was another way to feel superior to her, as her discontent was a way to feel self-righteous and in control. We were both in the same boat, or in the same shopping cart, anyway.

I never did find her, and the interaction soon faded in my mind. But when I read about the SETI messages, it came back. The woman was saying "Please help," as are all of us when we lash out in any way, whether in anger, jealousy, disappointment,fear, or hurt. We're just trying to feel better. We can have compassion for ourselves and for others in these situations of hurt, even if we don't understand what is at the root of their - or our own - pain. We can practice opening in compassion and love rather than shrinking back in fear or anger, or lashing back.

A technique from Nonviolent Communication is this: when someone is angry or complaining, rather than arguing or lashing back or withdrawing or walking away in discomfort, ask them "What do you need from me right now?"   This can short-circuit the hurt and get to the root of the problem, which is most often that the person needs comforting. And when we are the ones doing the lashing out, we can use the discomfort of our emotions as a signal to look deeper within ourselves and ask ourselves: "What do I need right now?"

Be well-