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Archive for 2013|Yearly archive page

Forgetting Is the Hardest Part

In Relationships, Self-Reflection on May 31, 2013 at 6:55 am
Two peas in a pod.

Two peas in a pod.

April is a hard month for me. I can say this now because it’s May and because May is almost over, meaning that I’m moving farther and farther away from April. If you had asked me in April, I would have pretended that things were fine and that I was managing well. What really happened in April was this: I entered into a period of sadness, fueled by the 10-year anniversary of my Dad’s death. I stopped waking up early and meditating. I stopped writing. I couldn’t even pick up my journal to sketch out a few sentences on how I was feeling. I didn’t make any cookies or scones. I stopped calling my Mom and sisters. I avoided social gatherings and became a social recluse.

Ten years later, the power of grief still surprises me. Grief at this stage is much different than it was five years ago, much less eight or nine years ago. It’s less acute, having been tempered by time and experience. In the ten years since my Dad’s death, I’ve lost other loved ones, both friends and family. I’ve had more ups and downs in my own life. I’ve grown-up, at least a little bit, and learned more about what it means to be myself.

What I increasingly struggle with every April, however, is the sense of permanence. With every day that slips away, I lose more and more of him. It’s becoming harder to remember what his face looked like when he laughed. I begin to forget the exact timber and tone of his voice. I can recall some of his infamous puns, but for every one that I recall, I forget two others. I’ve begun forgetting some of the happiest memories I have of him, or at least they are becoming more blurry in my recall. At the same time, some of the unhappy memories I have, like the times we would get into arguments on the basketball court, have also faded into the recesses of my brain. It’s hard enough losing someone you love once. What you don’t realize, however, is that you lose them over and over again as the years go by.

The act of forgetting is necessary and very human. After all, how would we be able to forgive each other and move past difficult life events were it not for the powerful drug that is forgetfulness? Yet, every year I find myself lamenting this necessary step, wishing it could be otherwise. What I’m really wishing, though, is that he could come back and that everything would be as it once was. But the strangest part is, once I admit to this, I realize that I don’t actually want it.

Yes, I wish he could be here to see my life and share in the happiness, but I would never take back the past ten years. The past ten years, and all that has come with them, have brought me to this place. Sadness, grief, laughter, growth, happiness. I’ve moved away from home, found my life partner, read good books, walked and biked hundreds of miles, and have found my own place in this beautiful and terrifying world. And I realize that none of this, absolutely none of this, would have unfolded in the same way if things had been different ten years ago.

I can admit to all of this because it’s the last day of May, and because once April’s sadness gently rolls away, I am reminded of how blessed my life has been. I’m so grateful for my Dad and for the years we had together. I’m equally grateful, however, for the life I have now. Forgetting really is the hardest part, but it’s also a gift in disguise because it allows me to embrace my new life without living each day in constant grief and regret.

Spring Dreaming

In Gardening on April 5, 2013 at 7:08 am

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Spring has been slow to reach us this year, but it looks like it may finally be on its way. I can tell because of that certain itch I feel in my fingers, the need to burrow my hands in the earth and inhale the unmistakable scent of dirt – rich with hints of life, decomposition, rain, and green.

This is one of my favorite times of the year, perhaps only matched by my love for the east coast fall. Both are times of transition, times when people become, if only for a moment, more aware of the natural world around them. The springtime pursuit of cherry blossoms embodies this awareness, just as the weekend apple pickers and leaf hunters do so in the fall.

One of my favorite parts about spring is dreaming about my summer garden. I’ve already readied my seed growing area – now I’m just waiting for the seeds to arrive. Under the influence of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I decided to select heirloom seeds and start from scratch, rather than going to the closest Home Depot and picking up some of the genetically modified plants that dominate the nursery scene.

I’m expanding my edible efforts; this year my crop will include tomatoes, spicy and sweet peppers, squash, chives, two types of basil, mint, and cilantro. At least, that’s what I hope it will include. There’s no telling how things will turn out until later in the summer. For now, I can make my plans and lay the groundwork, daydreaming of fresh garden pickings in the months to come.

Currently Reading: Nightwoods by Charles Frazier. Confession: I actually finished it last night. Frazier’s prose is beautiful and shapes itself around haunting scenes from nature. The story is a sad one, leaving the reader with the impression that no one escapes nature (or life, perhaps) unscathed.

Me, the Subway, and the Universe

In Mindfulness, Self-Reflection on April 2, 2013 at 7:07 am

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I’ve had a different commute the last week or so, which has opened my eyes to new things. For instance, there’s the young man who sits in the same subway car every day. He’s always sharply dressed in a suit. I noticed him the first day as we simultaneously exited the subway. Seated, you wouldn’t think anything of him. Once he stands, you realize there is something different. He has a condition of some sort, the type that makes it difficult for him to use one of his legs and one of his arms.

Even so, he’s one of the first people to stand as we near the station. In his suit, he could be mistaken for any other office worker. The car comes to a sliding halt and the heavy metal doors slide open with a bang. He walks through, his gait uneven, his head held high, and power walks through the crowd, leaving the other commuters in his dust. He doesn’t hesitate as he reaches the stairs, taking each step with gusto, as if savoring the chance to move higher and higher.

I’ve watched this man for the last week. Every time I see this scene, I feel moved. It’s beautiful. His fearlessness and resolve, his disregard for what other people would consider a debilitating condition. His refusal to take the elevator, or stand to the back so that others can pass him. I see him and I think to myself, This is someone’s child. Someone loves this man, someone helped him grow up proud and strong. Someone taught him that the world was his for the taking, and now he’s doing precisely that. I wonder if he ever stops to think about fate, about parallel universes. Does he wonder if, somewhere out there, he’s leading a different life?

I know I do. The universe is so vast. And there’s so little that we really understand about it. My own life is less than a blip on the cosmic screen. It makes me wonder about the possibilities, about the realities that may exist out there that we’re not aware of. But that’s thinking too big. I’d go crazy if I spent all of my time thinking on that level. So I think back to that dirty subway car and I wonder to myself, Does anybody really see me? Then I realize, in a moment of quiet clarity, that before anyone can see me, I need to be able to first look at myself and recognize the beauty and purpose therein.

*********

Currently Reading: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. The book chronicles the year she and her family spent trying to live as locavores. This is the first non-fiction work by Kingsolver that I’ve read and it’s taken me some time to warm up to it. The message is hitting home, however. I visited a grocery store this past weekend for the first time since starting the book and nearly had an existential meltdown when I spotted the mountains of watermelons, canteloupes, and pineapples.

Kinetic Beans Review: The Social Animal

In Reading on March 1, 2013 at 8:26 am
Turkeys are social creatures, right? At least I felt like one reading through all of David Brooks' book.

Turkeys are social creatures, right? At least I felt like one reading through all of David Brooks’ book.

I recently finished David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. While there were certain moments of surface brilliance – such as when Brooks opens the book by mocking the “culture class” and the upper class techie-come-do-gooder lifestyle that seems to be very a-la-mode right now (which unfortunately, he then embraces wholeheartedly later on) – overall the discussion felt shallow and forced.

The primary reason for this shallowness, I contend, is Brooks’ choice to frame the discussion around two imaginary characters, Harold and Erica. Brooks’ intentions may have been good, but it was difficult to emotionally or mentally connect with Harold and Erica’s lives. I think there’s an important lesson to be learned here. These characters might have had interesting stories to tell, but we’ll never know. They remained one-dimensional, screens upon which Brooks could project facts and stereotypes to support his arguments. For me, this proved to be very unsatisfying.

Throughout the book, Brooks explores the influence of the unconscious on human development. He breaks up the Harold/Erica fictional narrative with discussions of real-life studies. These studies examine a number of areas, such as the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) influence of environment, relationships, peers, and parenting on our lives. Many of them were already familiar to me, but it was a good review of some of the more prevalent research in the field.

It’s here that I found another flaw. While Brooks presents the positive findings from the studies he references, he rarely discusses the weaknesses. This stuck out because, just as I was reading this book, I stumbled across an article from The Chronicle Review about John Bargh, one of the best-known researchers on unconscious influences, who is facing challenges to his earlier work. Given that such challenges exist, and given that there’s still an active debate in the intellectual community about the weight or validity of some of these studies, I think the book would have benefitted from presenting both sides.

Now here’s my confession: I almost stopped reading the book around the time that the fictional characters joined a political campaign and headed for to the White House. I just don’t have the patience for that kind of thing. I stuck it out, however, and actually found Brooks’ discussion of political party affiliation and voting trends to be interesting, although I’d seen read about such studies before. This research reinforces my views about the ridiculous nature of two-party politics, particularly in the United States. I have no doubt, in fact, that Brooks could come up with a psychological study to explain precisely why I feel this way (not that I’m sure that it would help much).

Towards the end, the book explores the mental and psychological changes Erica and Harold experience in their later years of life, closing with what is intended to be a bittersweet moment (which unfortunately for me, was impeded by my lack of empathy for the characters).

My overall verdict: I reluctantly finished the book, but wish that Brooks had spent more time diving into the research, rather than the Harold/Erica narrative. Would I recommend it to others? Nope, but if you decide to read it anyway, follow these two conditions (and possibly a third – see the postscript for more details). First, don’t feel compelled to read every single page or to buy into Harold/Erica. Second, after you’ve finished, take some time to read other books or articles on the subject. Brooks’ book is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with this line of effort, but for those, like me, who’ve already done reading on the subject, it may seem a bit redundant.

***

POSTSCRIPT

I wish I had stumbled upon PZ Myers’ snarky Salon review of The Social Animal sooner. It would have saved me a lot of pain and suffering. Myers’ claims to have only made it through the book by yelling “Die, yuppie scum, die!” at the end of every page. Hilarious. My favorite Myers quote about the book: “it’s like watching a creepy middle-aged man fuss over his Barbie and Ken dolls, posing them in their expensive accessories and cars and houses and occasionally wiggling them in simulated carnal relations…while periodically pausing to tell his audience how cool it all is.”

Second Hand Scones

In Writing on February 25, 2013 at 7:52 am
My writing escapism consists of flour, sugar, cinnamon, and raisins...and a whole lotta butter.

My writing escapism consists of flour, sugar, cinnamon, and raisins…and a whole lotta butter.

Mark Twain is often credited with saying that all ideas are “second hand.” I think that the author of Ecclesiastes may have beat him to the punch on this point, likely plagiarizing it from someone else even earlier, but why nitpick? What actually matters is what we choose to do with this knowledge. In my case, I choose to make scones.

“What? Has she gone mad?,” you might think to yourself. “What do scones have to do with anything? How can one little pastry possibly fight against the ever-present and nagging pressure of the literary establishment?” You’d be wise to ask these questions, but the reality is that my scones won’t address any of these issues. What they do accomplish is that, for one brief moment, they allow me to narrow my worldview down to one tiny, butter-filled, cinnamon-kissed pastry.

Suddenly, the fact that I’m almost 30 and just launching my writing career, and the fact that, according to some of the literary greats, there’s really nothing new for me to contribute anyway – suddenly these things seem much less important. Scones, it seems to me, are the perfect mental escape route.

I intend to write for the rest of my life. It’s my true calling, ever since I wrote my first poem a long time ago, inspired by a winery poster at a restaurant. (Incidentally, the poem was an instant hit, going something like: “Sutter Home, butter home. There’s no place like butter.”) So long as I do write, however, I’ll make sure to stock a decent supply of flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and raisins as back-up.

If, at the end of my life, people say, “She always wanted to be a great writer,” but if, at that exact moment, someone chimes in and says, “But she sure did make a damn good scone,” then I believe my mission here on earth will have been reasonably discharged. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I bake it.

***

Current Reading: Fish Whistle by Daniel Pinkwater. I discovered this hilarious collection of short stories from a tweet by Neil Gaiman (even better, it was free as an e-book). I’m halfway through and simply in awe of Pinkwater’s ability to pack so much story and hilarity into 500-word or less stories.

On Creativity

In Mindfulness on February 15, 2013 at 12:32 pm

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“Consuming culture is never as rewarding as producing it.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Apologies for being MIA the past few weeks. I’ll be back to my regular posting soon, but in the meantime, enjoy this thought-provoking quote (above) from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. One of my favorite pieces of advice from Csikszentmihalyi’s book is to be surprised by at least one thing each day and in turn, surprise at least one person a day. It’s a good challenge and one that’s bound to lead to some interesting stories.

Coming Clean (I’m Not a Professional Tap Dancer)

In Mindfulness, Self-Reflection on January 30, 2013 at 7:22 am

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I’m afraid that I may have given the wrong impression over the last few posts. The truth is that I’m no happiness expert. I’m a regular person, one of millions on this planet, just trying to live out a peaceful life. We all like to think we’re special, and I am no exception to this rule.

If self-importance were a drug or a disease, its prevalence would easily be classified an epidemic. I’m not certain whether Washington D.C. suffers especially from this syndrome or if it just seems that way to me because I know it best. It isn’t hard to find multiple examples each day that speak to this point.

Speaking of unabashed self-importance, I wish you could see or hear the things that pass through my brain all day long. You’d possibly be shocked or at the very least would realize that I’m no model of perfection (or sanity, for that matter).

Just this morning as I was shampooing my hair in my warm shower, a thought came to my mind: “What if the world were to end today? What would I do?” I spent the next few minutes exploring possible scenarios.

Scenario #1: Go to work anyway and just pretend everything is normal. Maybe have a glass of wine or two with lunch, just for the hell of it.

Scenario #2: Grab my partner and head for the hills – neither one of us is much of a survivalist, but we’ve got a lifetime supply of granola bars, which has to count for something. When considering this scenario, I rued my recent crossfit flunk-out (yes, it’s possible, but that’s a different story), thinking it would have been helpful to have serious muscles for end-of-the-world survival.

Scenario #3: Run out into the streets and begin a spontaneous tap dancing flash mob. I’ve wanted to do this ever since the urge came to me one rainy Friday morning a month or two ago. I should note that my tap dancing credentials are woefully lacking, but in the event of imminent apocalypse, I’m pretty certain that no one would bother to judge. Well, maybe a few people, but it’d be on them if they chose to spend their last few hours of existence judging mad tap dancers.

I probably could have spent all morning coming up with similar scenarios, but the fact is that the shower started running cold and after all, I had a bus to catch and memos to write. Oh, and it turns out that world isn’t ending today anyway, so it probably wasn’t the most useful exercise to begin with.

But enough of that. What I’m trying to say here is that if sometimes, in the course of these posts, I wax a bit too rosy or project an all-knowing aura, please forgive me. I’m just an imperfect person. I’m an idealist, an incurable optimist, and a quirky thinker (witness my end-of-the-world plans), but I’m certainly not a saint or guru.

Every once in a while when I start feeling a little too smug, I have to take myself down a notch (or else life gladly does it for me). In these moments, I remind myself of how little I know and of how much I have yet to learn. It’s a comforting, yet terrifying realization, knowing that the world can and will go on without you.

Love, Here and Now

In Friendship, Mindfulness, Relationships on January 28, 2013 at 7:44 am
Love hieroglyphics. When word's can't quite capture the moment...

Love hieroglyphics. When words can’t quite capture the moment…

Most mornings, the feeling of my partner’s warm, sleepy body curled next to mine is enough to fill me with an indescribable sense of peace and gratitude. There are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes, I wake up cranky and grumble my way out the door without giving him so much as a peck on the cheek. Other times, when we’ve fought the night before, I painstakingly avoid touching him (not even a toe is allowed to break rank), thinking to prove my point. Never mind that he is sleeping blissfully beside me, having already put the whole thing behind him.

In the past year, the experiences of people close to me have been a poignant reminder of the importance of treasuring these quiet, beautiful moments. Their experiences have reinforced the necessity of strengthening our relationships each and every day. It’s easy to get caught up in the motion of the days and weeks, without ever stopping to be mindful about the people who make our lives worthwhile. Career-building, work travel, bills, family, children, social obligations, digital distractions – they all take their toll.

I’m reminded of Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages. Chapman’s theory is that humans “speak” five love languages – words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, gifts, and physical touch – and that among these, we each have a “primary” language. When our partners “speak” our primary love languages, we feel content and our “love tank” is full, but when they don’t, we are more likely to feel unhappy. It’s a simple but useful lens for promoting mindfulness in relationships.

Skeptical? I would be too, especially since we know that relationships are never simple. Humor me, though, and push that skepticism aside. Take a moment to reflect: what’s your primary love language? What are the things that make you/your partner/family feel most loved? Think you’ve figured it out? Try a little experiment. If you think your partner thrives off of words of affirmation, write them a series of love notes. If you think they prefer physical touch, take Gretchen Rubin’s advice and give them “a kiss in the morning, a kiss at night.”

There’s no guarantee, of course, that this experiment will succeed. If it works, it’ll take time to fine-tune and will require concerted effort from the both of you. Even if it fails, however, you’ll have accomplished three things. First, you’ll have done something special for someone else. Consider it your good deed of the week. Secondly, and perhaps unexpectedly, you’ll have learned more about your own needs, as well those of your partner. Finally, you’ll have cultivated mindfulness in your relationships, which if sustained over time, will bring positive dividends of its own.

Following My Bliss…On the Bus

In Meditation, Work/Life Balance on January 25, 2013 at 8:00 am
Fresh sprinkling of snow - perfect for a morning walk.

Fresh sprinkling of snow – perfect for a morning walk.

It’s a blustery day, with light snow disrupting commutes and making people grumpy. I’m combating the cold by thinking of the many things I’m grateful for: my warm socks and boots, a thick coat, and fairly reliable public transit. Above all, I’m just trying to be mindful.

It’s so easy to shift into “auto drive” mode each day on my commute. The sounds and movements on the crowded bus can be hypnotic, a dull hum that I easily drown out by diving into the columns of emails piled in my work inbox. But I don’t want to drown it out, at least not today, so I try to focus on the present moment.

Mindfulness on the bus can take a lot of shapes. Being aware of my emotions as I encounter strangers, being aware of the people sitting near me – the way they sit, the things they say to one another, embracing the simple pleasure of the commute itself, which is an island of (relative) peace before I enter the perpetual busyness of the day.

Having just finished Don Lattin’s book, Following Our Bliss, I can’t help but wonder at the roots of my quest for mindfulness. Lattin attributes much of today’s fascination with meditation and mindfulness to the LSD-inspired experiences of the 1960s hippies, who were trying to connect to a broader global consciousness.

I would argue, however, that my motivations for seeking mindfulness are somewhat different. Unlike the 1960s, today we take for granted the inherently global nature of our interactions. Technological breakthroughs have spurred communication. It doesn’t matter what message you’re trying to spread – you can find a venue and an audience for it in the digital world.

The interaction is non-stop. The internet, in fact, seems to stand almost apart from time.  Our lives have expanded past the traditional bounds of nine-to-five, workplace and home. We’ve transcended, but we’re not certain what it really means. It’s a new infinite, one of our own creation, which makes it all the more puzzling.

In the midst of this, mindfulness provides a mental refuge. Taking a deep breath and focusing on the moment can help center us and remind us of what is real. Mindfulness challenges us to let go of the ceaseless wave of our digital lives and competing workplace demands and instead appreciate the value inherent in simply being alive. This is why I turn to mindfulness: to help remind me that even a crowded rush hour ride on a creaky, muddy city bus can be something special, because it means that I’m here.

Deep Breaths: Meditation and the (Tricky) Art of Letting Go

In Meditation, Work/Life Balance on January 19, 2013 at 11:45 am
The serenity we see in nature is not always as easy to capture in our own minds.

The serenity we see in nature is not always as easy to capture in our own minds.

You’ve probably heard about the recent lipservice paid to the physical and mental benefits of meditation. Better focus, renewed energy, calm, and peace of mind. All of this great press reinforces my NYE resolution to meditate daily. For me, meditation is about grounding myself, reflecting on my core values, and increasing deliberate mindfulness. You could say that meditation is my way of savoring life (thanks, Leo), although it can never replace my daily chocolate addiction. Thankfully, I’m pretty certain that you can savor more than one thing, otherwise I’d be in trouble.

My first, brief flirtation with meditation was back in my college days. I was freshly arrived on the East Coast and waved around my California suntan and Santa Barbara beach stories like some kind of protective flag. A friend, convinced by my hippie/surfer charade, told me about a flyer they’d seen advertising a meditation group. Afraid to dispel my carefree image, I declared that I would go. After all, don’t all Californians meditate? Needless to say, I arrived at the class wholly unprepared for what was about to happen.

The room was bare, bathed in gloomy light and suffused with the spicy, make-your-throat-itch smell of incense. Myself and the other newbies uneasily circled the instructor, a thin, grey-haired man in his late fifties, who was calmly seated cross-legged in the center of the room. He invited us to join him, and we awkwardly plopped to the ground, the wiser of us landing on the sad-looking pillows we’d brought from our dorm beds. The instructor briefly explained the concept and then we closed our eyes. Therein ensued some of the longest, most drawn-out minutes of my life.

For those who have never meditated before, allow me to shed some light. We spend our days wrapped up in a frenzy of mental and emotional activity. We’re hardwired to be “on” constantly, and give ourselves little room to relax, much less empty our minds. Meditation runs against the very grain of this paradigm and challenges us to attempt (what seems) the impossible: to turn off our thinking minds. No time. No judgements. No emotion. Nothing.

Simple enough, right? To the uninitiated, meditation feels more like slamming the brakes in a semi-truck going 70 miles per hour. Instead of stopping, what happens is that everything suddenly clamors for immediate attention. You hear the brakes screaming, the tires skidding against the pavement, horns honking all around, and little voices telling you that this was a bad, bad idea. This, my friends, is what it was like for me to meditate that first time. I was wholly unprepared for inner battle that would ensue the moment I closed my eyes. At the end of the thirty minutes, I was exhausted. Instead of feeling connected to some greater energy, I felt like I’d been pounded by waves for hours.

I only went back to that meditation circle once or twice more. I hadn’t expected meditation to be so challenging and I was ashamed of my failure. Several years went by sans-meditation. Occasionally, I’d feel a glimmer of guilt. Then one day, I realized that I was ready to give it another try. This time, it was much easier, especially since I knew what to expect. I had matured enough  that I didn’t give up when I didn’t instantly achieve a state of nirvana.

This brings us to today. My meditation practice is going well, thanks in part to some lessons I’ve picked up along the way. Lesson #1: start small. I try to meditate a minimum of ten minutes a day. I’m gradually building from there, but ten minutes is small enough to seem achievable, especially when balancing a busy schedule. At the stage I’m at, even ten minutes can be a challenge.

Lesson #2: acknowledge and release. The first time I tried meditating, I felt like a failure because I couldn’t empty my mind. I now know better. Instead of trying to instantly empty, I try to acknowledge the thoughts and emotions running through my brain and then one by one, let them go. This is a remarkably cathartic process. As I am discovering, sometimes peace of mind is as simple as recognizing that for ten whole minutes, I don’t have to fix everything. The world no longer rests on my shoulders, and I am free to just be.

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Currently Reading: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi dissects creativity with a highly objective eye. He asks us to let go of our preconceptions of creativity as something whimsical and erratic; instead, he paints a picture in which true Creativity (with a capital C) stems from rigorous work and interactive processes. One of his most intriguing claims is that in order for anything to be creative, it needs to be validated by others working in the same field.