Monday, February 28, 2011

Hearing Voices

Last month I went to see Ira Glass at the Alys Stephens Center. As the host and creator of NPR's This American Life, Ira is nothing short of a god in my book. My attachment to him is not ill-placed. The weekly series is the epitome of storytelling, and remarkable—in our age of visual cues—that the portraits painted on that show are exclusively created via audio. Appropriately, Ira opened his performance with the theatre pitch black, save for the exit signs. And then...there was Ira's voice, that distinct, slightly-nasal midwestern twang, saying, Radio is the comforting voice in the dark. And for a few moments, guided only by Ira's voice, the audience was transported to a place where we could settle in for the next two hours and be entertained. (And yes, he did eventually turn the lights back on.)
   Ira's observation was astute. For generations, radio has been that voice calling out from the abyss to confirm that we were not alone in this world. In decades past of course, radio was THE medium for conveying solidarity. One of the most vivid examples, is Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural address in which he spoke the ultimate words of comfort to a nation rapt in uncertainty: There's nothing to fear but fear itself.  Not having lived through the Great Depression or a World War, the greatest fear I can conjure is the sense of being utterly alone—and in the dark.

   In August, at the pinnacle of my Crisis, I reached out to a voice in the dark as I wrestled with the onset of divorce. With Jack slumbering upstairs, I sat down at my computer and tried to write out the emotions, to no avail. I began to cry and what issued forth was a jag of Holly Hunter in Broadcast News proportions. I could not stop sobbing. The feelings of anxiety and despair were overwhelming. I couldn't even think of sleep. It was after midnight and, although I have many good friends who would have answered my call, I could not bear to admit to anyone I knew that I was in this state of emotional turmoil. Still, I knew I needed to talk to someone. Fortunately, my therapist had provided me the number of the local Crisis Center—just in case. Sniveling and inconsolable, I dialed the number, and a volunteer promptly picked up. "I'm having a really hard time," I said. "I'm just overwhelmed and I just need to talk."
   I have no idea who this Woman was, or why she decided to answer the calls of desolate, lonely people in the wee hours of the morning, but she became my voice in the dark, listening to me pour out my woes. My litany of sorrows—from the loss of my job and my father's death, to the demise of my marriage and my fear that divorce would cause my son irrevocable harm—tumbled out. Having been raised a good Catholic, I'm accustomed to spilling my guts to a faceless authority, and the Crisis Hotline Woman became my confessor. She could not absolve me of my sins, nor take away the problems I faced, but like a good priest, she listened and doled out her secular absolution. The Woman listened intently. "My goodness, it's no wonder you feel overwhelmed," she said, when I finally took a breath. She became the Voice of Reason. We talked for a least an hour, and when I hung up the phone I had exhausted my fears—at least for that night—and was able to rest.
   These days, I'm often Jack's Voice of Reason. At nine, he's fairly fearless, but children like to be scared every now and then if only to find that sense of comfort. When he frets in his sleep, all I have to do is say, "Jack, it's all right, I'm here." (When I was younger than Jack is now, I shared a room with two of my sisters. The twin beds were situated so that my head was at my sister Mary's feet. On occasion when I grew scared in the night, all I had to do was reach out and grasp her big toe. Not exactly the source from which one typically attains comfort, but it worked. In fact, just knowing she was there made everything right.)
   I believe we all need that source of reassurance, at least from time to time. Not someone to solve our problems or make everything better, but someone just to hear us and—equally as important—to respond with compassion. We all need that voice in the dark, reassuring us that we are not alone, and everything will—eventually—be all right.

Friday, February 25, 2011

It's a Trip!

Whoever coined the term "falling in love" got it right. The sense of letting down one's guard and pitching forward (or backward as the case may be) into a relationship is certainly a sense of release and abandonment—as well as a leap of faith. We usually tumble into romantic relationships heart first, not giving thought to the realities of the situation. And when you fall, well, you often get hurt, right? Or at least skin your knee, or bruise your ego. 
   As it turns out, falling in love is a neurological process. It's even been documented by scientists. The act of falling in love prompts the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the chemical, serotonin. A scientist at Rutgers, Helen Fisher, studied the brains of love-struck couples and found increased levels of dopamine in their brains similar to reactions of a person snorting cocaine. Yes, love is a drug. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. If not for this heady sensation, many humans might not pair off long enough to procreate.
   Another study showed that infatuated couples had levels of serotonin coursing through their brains similar to levels in people afflicted with obessive-compuslive disorders. So that feeling of being "obsessed" with the object of your desire, is real—even if the attachment you've built around them is fantasy. And once you have sex, well, there are a host of chemical reactions going off in the brain that help solidify the bond and convince you to stick around.
   Usually, all these reactions occur without much thought to the biology and neurology involved. It's not exactly sexy to tell your lover, "Honey, you're really making my dopamine levels surge!" but that's pretty much what's happening. Understanding those phenomena is helpful when you are, a-hem, of a certain age and entering the world of romance and dating again after more than a decade of monogamy.
   When I was younger, I thought of love as something no less than magical (thank you very much, Walt Disney.) One minute I'm talking to a guy about my work, the next thing I know I'm imaging what it would be like to kiss him, and before long, I'm picking out the perfect china pattern for us in my head. I thought there was no real rhyme or reason for these feelings. I thought I was just swept up in the moment. Now I know better. It's all biochemistry. (Damn, I knew I should have paid more attention in that prerequisite Baby Bio course I took in college. If only I hadn't majored in English Lit. perhaps I would have figured this out sooner!) But alas, after all this time, I realize it wasn't fairy dust at all, but good old bio-chemicals coursing through my brain.
   Turns out, Arthur Arun, a NY psychologist, even came up for a formula for falling in love. It goes like this: Boy meets Girl + Boy & Girl talk intimately for 30 minutes + Boy & Girl stop talking and stare into each other's eyes for four minutes = Boy and Girl fall in love. (If you happen to be gay, just substitute genders as necessary.) That's IT.  It's that simple. Other studies have shown that it doesn't matter so much what you say, but how you say it. In other words, the tone of a person's voice, their meter and tone and speed, resonates more than the profoundness or profaneness that issues forth. (So that's why I'm not attracted to men with thick Southern accents!) And, of course, body language—that which is unspoken—is central to attraction too. In fact, non-verbal nuance the most significant means of attraction.
   Thinking back on my romantic liaisons past, I'm hard pressed to recall one relationship that did not begin with intense conversation, followed by that all-important moment or two (or four) of meaningful silence when eyes met eyes and I knew something was about to happen.
   Alas, in the past,  my verbosity has gotten me into some disastrous relationships. But armed with this new knowledge of the mechanics of falling in love, I feel a bit like Lex Luther discovering Superman's weakness for kryptonite. I realize was born with the gift of gab (my Dad used to say I was "vaccinated with a phonograph needle,") and can strike up meaningful dialogue with just about anyone. That's a valuable talent for a reporter to own, but now that I'm almost-single, I must exert my Buddhist mindfulness when unleashing this super-power on the world—lest I trip, and fall.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Wonderful Life

I was destined to be a member of the Pep Squad,
never a Cheerleader.
But hey, I still got to carry pom poms!
I love the scene in Frank Capra's holiday classic when Jimmy Stewart is walking home with Donna Reed, and he's talking about his future. He tells her he knows exactly what he's going to do for the rest of his life. "I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.... I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm comin' back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields, I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm gonna build bridges a mile long..."
   Of course, anyone who has seen It's a Wonderful Life once—let alone a hundred times, as I have—knows that George Bailey (Stewart) doesn't shake off the dust of Bedford Falls, but instead ends up staying there, marrying Mary (Reed) and even forgoes his honeymoon travels to rescue his father's failing savings and loan when there's a run on the bank. George Bailey seemingly sacrifices everything for others, and only when he is at the end of his rope—when all hope is lost and it seems that he will end up on the shortest end of a short stick for all his compassion and good deeds—does he realize (with the help of a hapless angel name Clarence) that his life is richer and more accomplished than he could ever have imagined.
   The first fifty times or so I watched that movie, I thought about how important it is to recognize that our lives are all so interconnected. There is not one person whose life we touch in this world—for better or ill—that is not transformed in one way or another. It's a good lesson in mindfulness, really, and that in its self is a beautiful teaching to swallow and allow the beams to shoot out of your fingertips and toes. Yet, there's more, so much more to this film.
   Today, what brings me back to IAWL even on this bright, sunny, warm February afternoon—far from the holiday re-run cycle—is the sense that we often do not appreciate our accomplishments because they may not be the achievements for which we grasp. Accepting the George Bailey Life can be difficult, but the rewards are amazing. Let me explain.
   When I was in junior high school, I tried out for cheerleader along with every other girl in the seventh grade. I was about 5'2", 70 pounds, woefully flat-chested and painfully uncoordinated. The previous summer, while other girls were entertaining their new-found figures in bikinis, I was still playing with Barbies. I was a late bloomer, and late bloomers don't fare well when there are girls who have emerged full-blown as women, overnight. With my juvenile body, came renewed awkwardness. Yet, I thought I was worthy to wear the too-short skirt and dance about with pom-poms. No one could tell me anything different. So you can imagine my disappointment when my name was not on the roll-call of those fortunate few who were selected as cheerleaders. These buoyant girls were plucked from the masses and set down in a stratosphere quite beyond my reckoning. I was reduced to the heavy sobs and snotty sniffles of the inconsolable. 
   My sister, Mary, anticipated this disappointment (no doubt having watched my pathetic jumpings-around before try-outs) and plied me with the one treat that was a sure-fire way to end the doldrums: a McDonald's cheeseburger and fries. Placated by the rarity of fast-food (and yes, it's funny to think of this now since a turn about the drive-through is a regular course in Jack's life) I somehow made it past the grief and pain of my lost dream, but I can still remember how that rejection felt, its a palatable sensation of utter loss—heartbreak—but I also know that had  I achieved this dream back then, I would not be the person I am today. Truly. Had I become a Cheerleader, I might would not have gone on to run for student office in high school, and I would not have been accepted into the college I attended, gained my bachelors degree in English and set off of a career in advertising and marketing. Moreover, this simple slight yielded in me a sense of resilience that has served me well throughout my life. 
   How often do we think we know what is best for us—what would bring up joy or riches or security—only to have that dream derailed? The ability to see that there is much more in life, many paths that can be taken, is an ability beyond value. Why is it that we as humans, so greatly limited in our capacity to perceive the truth or even to use a portion of the brain-width that we possess, blithely convince ourselves that we can imagine our futures? Like George Bailey, we like to think we have it all figured out. We want to have A Plan. We want to feel that we are in control of the very thing that we will never—can never—possess: The Future. (And think of it, you can never lasso The Future, because once it is in your presence, it is gone, and a new Future looms. It's a bit like trying to catch your own shadow.) So in as much as we do try to plan and dream and scheme and make all the dominos fall in the right sequence to affect some ends, quite frequently we are limiting ourselves to entertain the the idea that there is one goal that is right at any given time. Like George Bailey, hindsight does provide insight. I can look back and clearly know that becoming a cheerleader was not my right path. But I had to try, I had to have that dream and lose it in order to clear the way for what was to come.
   I truly admire those who, in their 40s, say they have their futures all planned out. They are going to work hard until they're 50-something, build their 401Ks daily and then move to Hawaii and grow pineapples or whatever, with their 2.5 children, and pen novels on the side. Perhaps this will come to pass. Perhaps it will not. Perhaps in that time between now and then, their parents will age and grow ill, their children will make plans of their own, their jobs will be eliminated and unforeseen marital problems will arise. All those plans will take them someplace, but perhaps not anywhere near Hawaii. 
   Dreams are fine. But like George Bailey, we can't attach ourselves to them, because they are illusion. The best we can do is to live our lives genuinely and make decisions in keeping with our convictions. I believe when we accomplish these goals, we are always on the path that will take us exactly where we are supposed to be. 
   Am I destined to become a great reporter and raconteur for NPR? Will I achieve some modicum of success as a writer? All that remains to be seen. But is leaving behind the managerial duties of corporate life to focus on writing and reporting leading me to a happier life? Yes. And am I open to the possibility that my life might be more wonderful than I could ever imagine with my limited pea brain? Absolutely.
   Here's one last thing to consider: According to Wikipedia, Philip Van Doren Stern, the author of the short-story The Greatest Gift on which It's A Wonderful Life was based, "worked in advertising before switching to a career as a designer and editor in publishing." His now-famous 4000-word work of short fiction was inspired by a dream in the late-1930s. He tried to get it published for years, but the story was repeatedly rejected, so in 1943 he sent it out to 200 friends as his Christmas card that year. Somehow, the card made it into the hands of a producer at RKO Pictures, who, in turn, shared it with Cary Grant, who wanted to play the lead. Later RKO sold the rights to Frank Capra and the rest, as they say, is history. In 1942, could Van Doren Stern dreamed of such a future for his rejected work of fiction? Doubtful. Still, he must have had a wonderful life.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lessons in Heartbreak

Last weekend I attended a mediation workshop lead by best-selling author and Dharma practitioner, Susan Piver. The retreat centered around her book The Wisdom of A Broken Heart. I stumbled onto Susan's Website while looking online for a good, easy-to-do meditation practice. As it turned out, she was leading this workshop in Atlanta and I was scheduled to be there on business the same week. This was definitely a happy coincidence, and I signed up before I could give too much thought about what I was getting myself into.
   Walking up to the Shambhala Center on Friday night, I steeled myself for the possibility that I might just be in for 36-hours of all-out kookiness. I had read some—not all—of Susan's book and found her approach to coping with the pain and disappointment of love gone array practical and comforting. But did I really want to spend an entire weekend "leaning into the pain of heartbreak"with thirty other participants who were bruised and fragile with grief? Am I really one of those people? Well, yes, I probably am. No way to back out now. The center director sounded the gong for us to file into the meditation room and take our seats on the bright blue mats. I followed the crowd like a good Kool-Aide-drinking devotee. The weekend would be an interesting experience no matter what, right? Right.
   After we were seated, Susan entered the room and took her place in front of the shrine. Susan is tall and thin and she wore a long dark skirt and a creamy shawl draped over her shoulders. She has great posture from years of good meditation practice. Her face was solemn but expressive. With her pixie 'do, she had the look of a noble elf. The room grew quiet with reverent anticipation. Many of the participants—mostly women—were long-time Susan Piver fans. Piver's first book entitled The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say "I Do" was a New York Times best seller. (It came out in 2002—too late to help me.) Then Susan smiled before breaking the silence with the hallmark statement voiced in her Heartbreak book: Every relationship ends in heartbreak. 
  She said this to make us feel better, to let us know we were not losers and cast-offs, but you could feel the ripple of emotional twinges zing through the bright, tranquil room. Piver went onto explain that all relationships—with friends, lovers, family, children—must end at some point in time, either by departure or death, and within those endings, someone will bear the grief of loss. End is inevitable. End is part of life. In a way, this knowledge does make you feel better about the feelings of grief and loss, because you can take comfort in knowing what you are experiencing is a natural occurrence, not some supernatural voodoo being visited upon you and only you.
  Essentially, what Piver teaches is impermanence, and it's a big part of Buddhist practice. Excepting that all things change and that death is inevitable is a core teaching of Buddha. For most of us mortals, excepting physical death is easier than excepting the person you love with all your heart no longer returns the sentiment. Why? Because of that little thing called attachment, which is the perception that you cannot possibly draw breath without that special person in your life. So, in a way, having one's heart broken is very much akin to death. Like death, the end of a relationship is the end of the future life you thought you had with the person you loved. Ah! And now we are truly getting to the heart of the matter.
   Whether a friendship or romantic liaison, when the relationship runs its natural course and comes to an end—by death, change or disengagement—it no longer holds the expectation of the perceived future. When we part ways with a person, never to be intimate again (and I'm not just talking physical intimacy here), that shared future ends, or becomes something altogether different. In that way, a relationship becomes a third-party in the mix. There's me. There's you. And there's our relationship.
   Think of it this way: A relationship is like a joint checking account where love and caring are the currencies. I put my love for you into the account. You deposit your affection for me into the account. The account remains distinct from us. The account is our relationship. When that relationship ceases, the account is bankrupt.
   Making this distinction between self and relationship is significant because it allows you to step back and look at The Relationship objectively. The relationship is not me and/or you. It's a life unto itself, and as such, bears its own fragility and substance. That's why you sometimes discover that you're in a completely different relationship than your lover, or friend, even though you thought he/she was in the same relationship with you. To endure, you must both recognize the relationship as a separate entity, and that your part in it is not you, but an outpouring of you. So problems arise when you fall in love with the relationship and attach expectations to it—ie:  We will buy a house, have 2.5 children, summer in the south of France and remind each other to take our meds when we're 90 years old— instead of loving the other person as they are right now without attachment or expectation.
   I befriended a lot of heartbroken people over the weekend. Most I will never see again. My relationship to them lasted exactly 36 hours. It was good. I loved them, and they might have even felt love for me. (I was the wise-cracker in the group, of course.) Now we will move out into the world and continue to shape our lives with Buddhist practice, or whatever means gets us from this place of disappointment and sorrow to a better, happier existence.
   On Sunday, I meditated.  (Yes! I really did meditate! It's like riding a bicycle: No one can really show you how to do it. You can only receive instruction, accept a gentle push and lift your metaphoric feet off the ground. You only know you're doing it right when you feel yourself balanced and are impossibly propelling yourself forward—even if doing so is a little wobbly.) As I held my attention on my breath, thoughts of my past heart breaks bubbled into my mind and I held each one up for just a moment, examining it before gently brushing it aside. Here's what I learned: If I didn't know love—that truly happy, blissful sensation of completion—I could not have had my heart broken. But knowing love is worth the pain, just as learning to meditate is worth having my foot fall asleep, because that feeling of bliss is the same feeling you get when you are filled with selfless compassion for all the world, including yourself—and that's a step toward Enlightenment. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Occupied China

Cut to the scene where a 40-something woman is moving her 40-something years of accumulation into a 700 square-foot, third-floor apartment. She takes only what she needs: a bed, a desk, her computer (of course!), a dresser, rugs for the hardwood floors, a table and two chairs—just in case she has a guest for lunch,—clothes and 43 pairs of shoes, a two-quart pot, a skillet, the nice stainless flatware from her first marriage, two bowls and an assortment of coffee mugs and cups. For the first few weeks, on the rare occasions that she eats in the apartment, she eats her sandwich or salad off a disposable plastic plate. After a month or so, however, she decides it's time to accept the reality of her situation. She hangs up photos and artwork on the walls, and arranges her collection of antique typewriters—lugged from dwelling to dwelling since she was 30 years old. Then she goes back to the place she used to call home and carefully packs up all 90 pieces of her mother's good china, complete with soup tureen and gravy boat, and fills her small, tidy kitchen with its gold-rimmed floral delicacy. And in this way, she's finally home.
   The gold-rimmed china collected dust in my mother's hutch for more than fifty years only seeing the light of day on very special occasions. I would hazard a guess that it was used no more than 100 times under the tenure of my mother's careful watch. The set was a wedding gift, presented in 1951, most likely from my mother's mother, though I'm not quite sure, and came a set full-blown (no piece-meal registry for this stuff.) Each piece is embellished with small flowers about the rim—one, a violet, another, perhaps a primrose—and in the center of the plates, a rose surrounded by a spray of the same smaller flora. Dusty pink is the most dominant color, and each piece is trimmed in a rim of gold. Stamped on the back, the name of the manufacturer, Moriyama China, and the words Made in Occupied Japan.
   Even as children, we knew the meaning of the words: Made in Occupied Japan. Our father served in the Pacific during WWII, and from in the womb we heard tales of battles on the islands of Saipan and Makin. Often the punchline at the end of these stories was: "And if I hadn't survived that day, someone else would be your Daddy." It was an odd statement for a father to impart to his children and it played as a shred of rhetoric that echoed in my head, "Who would I be if my Dad had not returned from the War?" Yet, the presence of the china in our household confirmed that the struggle for global domination had played out as if predestined. My Dad returned to the States in 1945, whole and sound, and six years later married my Mom and together they received the china as a nuptial gift.
   I am hard pressed to recall the last time the Good China was used in our childhood home. As my parents inched into their late 80s, we did not have many grand meals around their maple dining table. Years before my Dad suffered his heart attack in 2006, Mom began trying to divvy up "the good stuff" and told me that she wanted me to have the china. She recalled (correctly) that I had always admired those fancy dishes. When she first pressed the set upon me, I resisted. "Thanks Mom," I said. "I'll get 'em the next time." She scrawled my name on on a scrap of paper and placed it on top of the dishes. On subsequent visits, I made excuses for not taking the dishes. There was never enough room in my car; nor boxes large enough to hold the set; or enough time to pack them properly. The idea that my mother was divesting herself of her most-cherished possessions was disturbing, and just a little too real. I didn't know that she was succombing to dementia, but perhaps she did. Yet, when I finally did carry those gold-rimmed fragile plates and saucers and cups from the home in which I grew up, I knew my universe had shifted permanently. 
   For four years the Good China took up residence in my own cupboards, unused, because, in part, I already had a set of "good china" (greatly unused), but also because I held fast the sentiment that these dishes were precious and should only be used on special occasions. The delicate cups and saucers and bright floral plates gathered more dust, until two months ago, when I packed up all 90 pieces and brought them to my apartment where they became my everyday china
   Now, I no longer save the good stuff only for special occasions. I drink my morning tea from the lovely, graceful cups—always using a saucer. I consume my oatmeal from the gold-rimmed bowls, and eat my sandwiches and salads off the rose-covered plates. So far I've not chipped nor broken a single piece, but I know that day will come, and when it does it will be okay because the china was made to be used and enjoyed—not locked away from sight. Everyday now is a special occasion. Everyday is a birthday or holiday. Everyday is precious—just like my Mom and her Good China. Why not enjoy it? Why not celebrate?