Wednesday, December 1, 2010

All in the Family

"When we have an open house, we open our doors and we say everyone can come. No one has to bring an invitation, no one has to meet a dress code. We don't go to the door and say, 'you can come, you can't come. You've got a dreadful tie, you stay out. You're the wrong age. You're the wrong color. You're the wrong sexual orientation.' Open house doesn't do that. Complete hospitality doesn't do that. It's just open. It's more than open, it's actually welcoming. It's appreciative of all the people who show up. The basic attitude is that all human beings are fundamentally worthwhile--fundamentally, basically good. We are delighted to see them and we rejoice in their progress in waking up."--Karen Kissel Wegela, PhD, from What Really Helps: Using Mindfulness & Compassionate Presence to Help, Support, and Encourage Others

Every Thanksgiving it's the same. The glossy magazines have pictures of food-styled turkey on their covers, along with teaser headlines like "How to Cook the Perfect Turkey" (most people would settle for a turkey that's "not so dry that it splits in half", a true story I heard from someone recently); "How to Avoid Those Extra Holiday Pounds" (eat Quinoa stew at home then show up to the party full while everyone else is enjoying the cheese board and jumbo shrimp cocktail); and "How to Survive Dinner with the Family."

Growing up an only child, I didn't have big Thanksgiving dinners with assorted relatives and their partners and children. Typically it was just Mom, Dad, and me, our over-sized turkey and our frozen Mrs. Smith's Pumpkin Pie. But Christmas Eve was definitely a family affair, particularly when I was eight and met my grandfather for the first time.

My father is part Sicilian and if any stereotype about Sicilians is true, it's the one where relatives in a dispute proclaim each other "dead", as if the other person's passing is a foregone conclusion and there's no need to even visit the gravesite. I wonder if any other nationality plays this "dead to me" game. The Italians are notorious for it. I think I'm actually "dead" to a second cousin because I didn't invite him to my wedding. I didn't invite him because his son was getting married the next day and I didn't think he could make two weddings in one weekend. (Not that he ever asked me the reason; he just pointedly ignored me at my great-uncle Victor's funeral).

My father and my grandfather were in a dispute over various gripes, one being the fact that my father ran off with my non-Italian mother to marry in California in 1969 (she was 20, he was 19). My grandfather also didn't like that my dad was in touch with my grandmother, who he had divorced years earlier. But an actual death in the family precipitated a phone call between my father and grandfather, which then led to a meeting. My grandfather had softened with age, my father told us later. I'm sure my father missed him. When I imagine it now, I'd be heartbroken if I hadn't seen or spoken to my dad in ten years.

We reunited in my grandfather's apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which was the first time I met my grandfather, a small, almost completely bald man, with a protruding belly like Santa Claus and ash-stained fingers from a lifetime of smoking. For the most part it was a peaceful reunion--except for one outburst of tears from my grandfather's second wife that caused a small ripple of raised voices that soon died down. I think everyone in the room had decided that the past was the past and not to be dwelled on when there were cannolis and espresso to be served.

After that initial visit we went to Bensonhurt regularly, and always on Christmas Eve. Most of the people at the long, clear-plastic covered dining table spoke Italian while my mother and I--who could only understand the occasional phrase, like "Madonna" which sounded like "Ma Doun" to our ears because the Italians like to cut off the last vowel sound, like in "ricotta" and "mozzarella" which became to our ears "rigoat" and "Moozarel".

Despite the fact that my mother and I didn't quite fit in (for instance, we were bookish and disliked fake nails), I enjoyed my big, loud Italian family. I was proud to introduce my Lithuanian-Jewish best friend one Christmas Eve and thrilled when they welcomed her with open arms once they saw how she willingly ate the Octopus appetizer (those tentacles and suckers gave me the creeps--I couldn't even be in the same room with them).

The fact that we were different was something exciting for me, and having this large family that I hadn't known about for the first eight years of my life made me feel special, more interesting. Like so many Americans, I came from a diverse background of not only Sicilians but French people and Swedish. Although I was always close to my parents (as most Onlies are) I was thrilled to have these extended roots, even if they did stretch out in disparate directions.

Now that I've married into another family, I am once again sitting around the table with people I might not have met or gotten to know otherwise. Some of my new relatives are more conservative than I am, or braver, or more handy. I have a nephew, a West Point graduate, who is going to a survivor camp somewhere in the swamp land of the south. He does this willingly, even eagerly. My other nephew just got a job as a fire station dispatcher. I know almost nothing about being a fireman except that I would not be the one entering a burning building but the one fleeing it. And I have an introspective niece who has found her voice doing college plays. Mike and I try to see each production once. If I didn't have family, I wouldn't be sitting in a private college gym 's auditorium, watching 18-21 year-old college students dressed in red face paint, gyrating to loud German death metal (the play was an updated version of Dr. Faustus).

Being open to learning about people who are different than you may be off-putting at first. We all like to gather in our little clans of like-minded souls. But family forces us to expand beyond that limited circle and gain some new perspectives. I'm grateful to have family. Each in their own way, they help me to be a better person.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Merry Pranksters

"Buddha once said that if we're hit by an arrow it will surely hurt, but if we're hit by a second arrow in the same spot it will hurt much more. This may sound like common sense, but if we use the second arrow as an analogy to help clarify the harmful qualities of the thinking mind, its meaning deepens and becomes more useful. For example, if we get a headache, there's no doubt it can be somewhat painful. But if we have the thought "This is terrible" or "Why is this happening to me?" it's like being hit with a second arrow, and it intensifies the physical pain. As we observe ourselves, we'll see that we shoot ourselves with second arrows quite regularly, even though we're normally not aware that we're doing this."--Ezra Bayda, from Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment

I was walking to the "T" station this morning, trying to focus on looking at the trees and appreciating the colors of the few leaves clinging to the branches and scattered along the sidewalks like paths of petals. Neighbors still have their Halloween decorations up, even though it's mid-November--my first thought was "OK, you've had almost two weeks to take down the golf ball ghosts from your tree. Get with it." But then I caught myself being judgmental when the exercise for the morning was just to be present, to notice my surroundings without commentary.

I live in a lovely neighborhood, but sometimes I see things--minor things--that annoy me more than they should. Early in October, I spotted a seasonally-appropriate family of Jack-O'-Lanterns on someone's front steps. Or at least 3/4 of the family were there; on the sidewalk, perilously close to the front wheel of a parked car, was a pumpkin that had been kicked in the head, leaving a large gaping hole. Pulp spilled out of the hole like brains. Mardi Gras beads lay beside the "head." It looked like all of the pumpkins had been decorated by children--instead of cut outs for eyes, nose, and mouth, there were stickers representing the pumpkins' facial features.

I imagined these children--maybe a 4 year-old and a 6 year-old--coming home from school and discovering their mangled friend. They would be perplexed--how could someone do this? It would be their first insight into the petty meanness of strangers. Years later they would remember the gouged Jack O' Lantern when they found spit-up food smeared on the front of their locker, or a hole punched into the wall of their apartment and their favorite gold bracelet stolen (yes, these things happened to me, and no, the perpetrators were never found. Dammit.)

I picked the pumpkin off the sidewalk, stood it back up on the steps, with the gash facing away from view, then tried to drape the Mardi Gras beads over the hole with some success.

There. The world was right again. Or at least MY world was right.

The next morning I was walking past the same house, and saw that same pumpkin lying smashed on the front lawn.

So today, while observing trees and autumn colors and seasonally-inappropriate decorations, I passed a poster for a missing cat. It looked like a Maine Coon cat, gray and white with a fluffy tail and an old man's wisps of white coming out of its ears. Next to the picture of the cat someone had scribbled "he tasted good." I walked by, contemplating some person's poor attempt at a joke. I thought of the owner, the family even, who were missing their beloved pet. They would see the poster and automatically envision their friendly, lost cat, roasting on a spit. I was a block away from the sign but I turned around and went back to the tree and scribbled out the written-in message. I knew to the outside world I probably looked crazy, but I didn't care.

I tried to resume my mindfulness exercise, but as I approached the "T" station I found I was losing the battle. Why do people have to suck so much? There's enough bad stuff in the world, why pile on the meanness?

And by getting irritated by these small pranks that were probably committed by bored middle-school boys, I had successfully demonstrated how we twist the knife further by being reactive.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The myth that persists

"Just like 'aspirational' airbrushed advertising in women's magazines, reality TV beauty programming invites female viewers to envy models' unrealistic figures, and, by proxy, their clothes, cosmetics, shoes, and lifestyle products. Though impacts vary, decades of research have documented that women's self-esteem often drops with exposure to advertising and ad-driven media."--From Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer L. Pozner

"Beauty. It touches everything."--Calvin Klein perfume ad

When I lived in New York and worked in midtown, I'd often find myself walking through Times Square to get to my office at 1745 Broadway. Loud, flashy, over-the-top, Times Square is the tackiest of tourist meccas. It impressed me as a child when my parents would drive through it on our way to see a Broadway show. I remember feeling awed by these giant photographs of models and celebrities and Coca-Cola ads. But as an adult, the images on these oversized billboards made me feel uneasy, dwarfed as I was by these scantily-clad Amazon women posed suggestively in the latest Calvin Klein perfume ad or H&M poster.

During most of my time living in New York, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, I was naturally thin. I didn't diet or exercise religiously. In fact I loved food--going to new restaurants was one of my favorite activities in the city and where I used up most of my disposable income. Restaurant Week, when assorted expensive "It" spots offered lunch for $20 and dinner for $30 to us average-salaried workers, was especially exciting to me. As soon as the participating list of dining establishments was posted, I'd be making plans and reservations, emailing friends to quickly line up dates.

Not worrying about what I ate or how much I weighed was a tremendous freedom that I tried not to take for granted. I had other insecurities, but at least in this area I felt confident.

Looking back at my life then, I realize that being thin was nice (especially the whole eating-what- I-want-and-never-gaining-weight part), but it didn't save me from feeling bad about my appearance. Being thin didn't translate into looking like a model or loving myself in a bikini. It didn't make me feel more worthy of a good relationship or confident enough to wear sweatpants in public. I didn't chastise myself about what food I ate, but neither did I think I was good enough in a city filled with images of perfection.

The thing that saddens me about this is even knowing that fitting a particular beauty standard doesn't necessarily make us happy, many of us still aspire to be as perfect as those Calvin Klein models. We may not even know that we're thinking this way, but looking back I see how much importance I placed on appearance and how I rarely measured up to its tough dictates. I immediately felt inferior to prettier friends though I tried not to let it affect our relationship. I would feel unfashionable in a skirt I bought six months ago and feel compelled to buy something new to wear out that night. The feeling was more of a compulsion than an actual choice.

Some women are able to see past the "Beauty Myth," the title of a popular book I read in the nineties. But a lot of us are susceptible. When you're confronted by images that are exalted on advertising posters and in magazines, and you don't resemble those images, after a while this high beauty standard starts to feel like the norm, which can only mean, my dear, that you are abnormal.

I regret not having taken advertising classes in college. Mike talks about a class he took that really changed how he viewed marketing strategy. Even as a college-educated person, I never stopped to evaluate these images and wonder what they might be trying to tell me, namely, buy this and you'll feel better! The answer is beauty and acceptance and if you only buy me you will have these things in spades!

I like to joke that, even though I've worked in marketing, I'm a sucker for packaging. But it's not just the rose-shaped pallets of eyeshadow in a $79 Chantecaille kit that captivate me--it's the longing--informed to a large degree by messages in advertising and television--that have effected how I view my own packaging.

Many women strive to be thin and flawless--it's almost impossible to find a women's magazine that doesn't emphasize this wish and insist we can achieve it by reading another 4-page article filled with "essential" tips and "must-have" products. The most successful woman can be made to feel inferior by just ten minutes of reading Elle or Glamour or even O magazine. As a publicist it's part of my job to look at magazines. Thankfully I've ended up at a Buddhist publisher, where the women in magazines are often bald and wrapped in plain robes. But that doesn't mean I'm not also looking at more traditional publications that always feature young flawless models, even when promoting an anti-aging cream.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to look nice. I happen to love clothes because I like the challenge of finding good pieces and matching them into outfits. I have never outgrown the pleasures of dressing up. But though they may "say" otherwise, beauty ads and diet articles that claim they're helping you to"look your best," are really saying "look like her" (fill in model's name/picture.) Is it any wonder women feel less-than? Is it at all surprising that we silently compare and compete with each other?

I'm older now and not as thin as that city girl I was. When I start to feel bad about that, I try to call to mind how being thin didn't really change how I viewed myself. It was nice when I went to try on jeans and had no trouble finding a good fit even on the first try. But it didn't make my life infinitely better or more valuable.

Everyday I fight the urge to give in to the hundreds of messages that call out to me like sirens from the Odyssey. Often their invitations seem innocent, even helpful:"Sabotage cellulite 24/7 with our all-day, dimple dashing duo" (Bliss) or "Tired of looking tired? We hear you (Origins.)" Sometimes they're downright aggressive (open any Victoria's Secret catalog.) The thought of not "buying into" advertising can be disappointing--you mean self-confidence and contentment can't be bought at Sephora?

If only it were that easy.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Choose compassion

"Young Americans today live in a world of endless connections and up-to-the-minute information on one another, constantly updating friends, loved ones, and total strangers about the minutiae of their young, wired lives. But new research suggests that behind all this communication and connectedness, something is missing. The study found that college students today are 4o percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years."--from "Empathy is so Yesterday" in the Boston Sunday Globe (October 17, 2010)

"What difference would it make in your life if you engaged the world with a conscious commitment to end sorrow or pain wherever you meet it? What difference would it make to wake in the morning and greet your family, the stranger beside you on the bus, the troublesome colleague, with the intention to listen to them wholeheartedly and be present for them? Compassion doesn't always call for grand or heroic gestures. It asks you to find in your heart the simple but profound willingness to be present, with a commitment to end sorrow and contribute to the well-being and ease of all beings."--Christina Feldman, from Compassion: Listening to the Cries of the World, excerpted in The Buddha is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom

My Alma Mater Rutgers College was in the news recently, but not for producing a Noble Prize winner or hosting president Obama in anticipation of the midterm elections. Freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the heavily-trafficked George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. The suicide was the result of a cruel prank committed by Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi's friend and accomplice, Molly Wei. They thought it would be hilarious to use a webcam to broadcast Clementi having a private, sexual encounter with another man.

Were Ravi and Wei cruelly demonstrating their personal homophobia? Probably. But it seems to me that--if you listen to the media--Clementi's tragic story is one of many that we've heard in the past few years involving young people and the Internet. From Megan Meier, the 13 year-old girl who killed herself after being duped by a neighbor into thinking she was developing a relationship with a "cute boy" on MySpace, to Phoebe Prince, who was not just "bullied" but downright harassed by classmates whose constant taunts on and offline led Prince to commit suicide. Reports have said that the teenagers continued to mock Prince on Facebook even after learning of her death.

When I read these stories I can't help but feel that "Generation Wi-Fi" lacks compassion for others, and, even keeping in mind the extreme nature of these stories, I wonder if there aren't more cases of shaming and cruelty happening in this country as a result of the digital boom of the last ten years. I think it has been amply demonstrated that sites like MySpace and Facebook have distanced kids from each other, making it easier for them to lash out online without the consequences, of say, being punched in the face or cursed out live and in person. Worse, the incriminating videos or vicious rumors are not like a nasty note passed between a few girls that ends up crumbled in the trash. They can easily be passed on to anyone in the world and tend to stay online indefinitely. That's a far cry from when I was a teenager, and my worst fear was a stray insult lobbed at me from across the hall. No, this meanness sticks.

But is it entirely Facebook's fault for the increasing number of cyberbullies, or is it the culture at large--with unreal "reality" shows making women, minorities, gays--basically anyone who strays from the mainstream--into the butt of viewers' laughter and scorn and where the modern cult of celebrity has made us as narcissistic as a 16-year-old pop star? It's true that we are living in an age when Google enables us to peek into the lives of others without the slightest effort to really get to know them. Worse, real people's lives can be toyed with as if they're just another source of entertainment on a dull Tuesday night in the dorms. But is that the fault of an efficient search engine or is it more like road rage, when the irrational desire to cut off the car that cut us off is easily played out without either driver even seeing the other, much less communicating with him.

In the Globe, reporter Keith O' Brien does acknowledge that "empathy is such a basic ingredient of the human experience that even babies exhibit it, crying when other children cry or reacting to the facial expressions of adults and parents." But while few young people would openly mock their college roommate about his sexual preferences, there are many like Ravi and Wei who have no problem exhibiting the same mockery online for a few laughs.

Technology and social media are only as good or as evil as its human users. "We are tempted to think that social-media technology drove the behavior, but as a truly ethical matter, the behavior has to be and should be considered human-driven, not technology-driven,” says Scott Foulkrod, a philosophy professor at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, talking to the Christian Science Monitor ("Rutgers Student Death: Has Digital Age made students callous?" October 1, 2010) A person's capacity for both compassionate acts and acts of cruelty have always been present. But the means by which we can act upon our cruelest thoughts have changed, and as a result, young people growing up with the Internet may be tempted to act out some of their darker impulses online, where restraint in the presence of the other person is essentially eliminated.

I'm fascinated by what drives people to do cruel things to each other. I'm also struggling with the concept of human beings being multi-dimensional. Reading Buddhist teachings has taught me that even those who commit evil acts aren't inherently evil. Reading stories like Clementi's makes my guts clench with anger. Someone should shame those two co-conspirators with a webcam trained on THEIR most private lives, I think. But that is not showing compassion, that is making the world into "Us" and "Them," where anyone under 20 is regarded as a narcissistic jerk or worse. I've met many young adults who have shown kindness and compassion, even online. Kids are still reaching out and supporting each other, like in the story of 16 year-old Esther Earl of Boston, who had an online following of admirers who helped her battle thyroid cancer and who, even after her death, spoke of her as if she had been a favored schoolmate and not a girl they met over the Internet. I think that Earl's short life was definitely enriched by her online supporters, and that their good wishes for her show that not every young person uses social media for ill.

I do hope that there are more stories like that of Esther Earl. Our compassion for one another is what makes our common suffering easier to bear. I'd hate to think of a future where we're so distant from each other that feeling empathy for someone is considered a weakness or a waste of time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

(Dis) Contented

"The way we know things depends upon the mind, nothing more. Most of us have moments of deep contentment when we don’t feel a need to alter, express, run from, or invest some special meaning in our experience in any way. Deep contentment shows us that, at least momentarily, our habit of cherishing and protecting ourselves from what we call “other” has subsided. In moments like these, we have stopped objectifying things. We can let things be. And when the mind rests at ease in this way, it accommodates everything, like space." - Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, The Power of an Open Question

If there was a caption running over my head, something that others could see but I could not (and let's face it, there are many things we can't see about ourselves that others can perceive without fail), my caption would be "Not enough."

No matter what I set out to do, in my mind it's "Not enough." When I look in my closet, instead of seeing a reasonable wardrobe for a woman in her thirties who is neither rich, nor famous, nor a fashion model, I think "Not enough." When I look at my achievements in my chosen profession, I don't see the things I got right; I see "Not enough." When I'm getting ready to go out to dinner with Mike or meet a friend at a restaurant, I look in the mirror and almost always say, "Not enough."

I once read a book called Enough. In it, the author talks about how we are bombarded with everything from information we want to absorb, to advertising tempting us to buy more, to multiple choices at the supermarket where there is always a fresh product claiming to be new and improved. When I was younger and used to read Self magazine (a woman's mag whose title says it all) I would write a list of all the products they recommended for women like me--volumizing shampoo to make my "fine" hair as puffy as a an eighties soap opera star; spot cream to minimize the sun spot on my left cheek that an Origins saleswoman was "kind" enough to point out to me; even cellulite cream to reduce the unsightly fat cells that had appeared on my legs after I gained a few pounds in my thirties.

I still make lists, and they tend to take up multiple sheets of paper. I'm not just making lists of products, but of restaurants I want to try, books I notice while reading Publishers Weekly, vacations I want to take, websites I want to bookmark so I can visit them later. My head is often filled to distraction and once one thing is crossed off the list, I'm off to the races, on to the next item. There is very little time for contentment at what I've acquired or achieved or completed. Never enough.

A person could live their whole life this way, but that would be a sad existence. And I'm not saying that we shouldn't jot down a good idea or an interesting web address or a product we'd like to try, even if we know it will probably have the same effect as the last product we tried, which is not much. Maybe this shampoo will smell really good, and that will be enough.

The problem for me (and for the people around me whose lives I directly impact) is that I find I'm very often discontent. And I know I'm not alone in this. Take a perfectly nice day, walking around looking up at the trees changing color (early this year for New England), smelling the pizza being served up at a neighborhood restaurant, seeing people laughing among themselves, and all I'm thinking is what's not right about the situation. Like those puzzles that ask you to find inconsistencies between two pictures, I notice what's wrong--I'm sweating a little in my new trench coat (why did I decide to wear this in September when I know the weather is fickle?) I stumble over the pavement and almost fall down (why can't I walk straight, why am I so clumsy?) I miss the train (that driver saw me and yet he still pulled away. Why does he hate me?)

And there goes another lovely fall day in my wacky world.

Increasingly I agree with the writers and psychologists and spiritual leaders who say that contentment is the most rewarding feeling we can hope for, better than just some abstract goal like "happiness." To paraphrase a quote I read in O magazine (which I read despite the fact that her notion that "we're beautiful as we are, but here are pages and pages of my favorite things that you should buy, which, by the way, cost more than you make in a month) "What if instead of trying so hard to change, I embraced all my (insert first name)-ness?" Instead of worrying about what strangers think about the non-thickness of my hair, it's enough that the people who love me don't give a fig.

We're enough. This crowded train I'm on is enough because, despite the fact that it's crowded and a conductor just asked me to type "more quietly," it's taking me to see a good friend of mine. I'm not hanging off a bus filled with people trying to find somewhere--anywhere--to sit. I have a window seat and a table for my computer. That's enough. My spending budget for the weekend would not impress The Real Housewives of wherever, but it's more than enough. (Anyway, there's nothing real about anyone on "reality TV" as I'm reminded when reading a book I recently picked up, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV)

Our life as it is is enough. What we wouldn't do to have just this life back if we found ourselves homeless, hungry, sick, or dying. I was at a funeral for my husband's uncle last weekend. He was 90 and in poor health, so it wasn't a shock--though any family member or friend's death, whether expected or not--always shocks anyway.

Uncle Ken was a quiet man--in the almost ten years I've known Mike I don't recall ever hearing a word out of him. But in fact he had many passions in life--he had a deep love of nature for one--and he had survived heavy warfare in North Africa and Italy in WWII. I suspect that, though quiet, he was a man who felt that on many levels he had enough in life.

I would think that people like that die without too many regrets about what they didn't have enough of.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Humble pie

"We must surrender our hopes and expectations, as well as our fears, and march directly into disappointment, work with disappointment, go into it, and make it our way of life, which is a very hard thing to do. Disappointment is a good sign of basic intelligence. It cannot be compared to anything else: it is so sharp, precise, obvious, and direct. If we can open, then we suddenly begin to see that our expectations are irrelevant compared with the reality of the situations we are facing. This automatically brings a feeling of disappointment.

Disappointment is the best chariot to use on the path of the Dharma."--Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, included in The Buddha is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom, selected and edited by Jack Kornfield.

It's getting to that time of year, when the air carries a chill, the sun has packed up at 5PM, and a persistent desire rises up in me: to finally make a pie crust.

Pies are a staple in my husband's family. At my mother-in-law Teena's house, it's a ritual to have apple pie and pumpkin pie at both Thanksgiving and Christmas. She also makes Tourtiere, a savory French-Canadian meat pie made with pork and beef and served with cranberry sauce. The weekend before the big feed, Teena and my niece Meagan whip up about a dozen pie crusts, then wrap them in plastic and put them in the refrigerator to chill. Later my mother-in-law will fill them and bake them until the tops come out a warm cinnamon color.

I have always been secretly envious of women who excel in the domestic arts. I say secretly because my generation was one of the first to benefit from equal rights and my ambition in school was to be a writer and editor working in a city and eating out most nights. But I also wanted to be married, sew frilly skirts, and make pie. I liked the trappings of my mother's generation, but without the boredom and repression.

Marrying a full-time job with a flair in the kitchen didn't seem to be out-of-reach for me. I had never learned to sew because it's hard to teach a left-handed child to do anything involving a sharp object, but I had spent all of my childhood watching my mother bake. She was a stay-at-home mom until I was 11, and it was important to her that I have the kind of mother she didn't have--someone who baked cookies in the afternoons, read to me every night, and sewed cotton, hippie-style blouses that made me a fashion plate in the late 1970's.

The first few times I saw my mother-in-law make pie, I was inspired. My husband warned that making pie crust was "a black art" but I would not be deterred. I bought myself a beautiful red ceramic pie dish from Williams-Sonoma that I brought to my in-law's house and showed off to everyone. My mother-in-law had the same set of tin pie plates from thirty years ago, judging from their residual scratches, dents, and scorch marks.

She started by making a crust herself so I could see all the steps and get a sense for what I'd be doing. Unlike me, who always uses a recipe, she was able to eye the ingredients and intuit the measurements like a seasoned detective scanning a crime scene. Her movements were fluid, her hands strong, especially when she vigorously rolled out the dough on a dish towel.

"Don't handle the crust too much because it will break apart," she said. I didn't think much of this comment at the time.

When it was my turn, I moved slowly, hesitant. I must have been lulled into a state of oblivion when she was demonstrating the steps, because I couldn't remember any of them. I asked her question after question, a pesky fly buzzing around her as she tried to start the next pie crust. She had been a professor so she was used to remaining patient with remedial students like me.

When it came time to roll out the dough, I poured a mountain of flour on my surface and started to shape my crust. I could never seem to get an even, circular shape--my crust looked more like an amoeba. I lifted the dough into my hands and mashed it together into its original lump to try again. Then I remembered what she said about not handling the dough too much. I felt like I was a contestant on Jeopardy, competing against a Harvard student and stuck with a faulty buzzer. More flour, than slap! the dough was down for the count and I was rolling against the clock. ZZZZZ! Time's up.

My mother-in-law was kind, mentioning something about how her first pie crust was a disaster (I doubted it) while she stepped in to repair the damage my over-zealous pounding and rolling had caused. There were scraps of dough under my fingertips, flour in my hair, and disappointment in my heart.

The following pie season I was back in my mother-in-law's kitchen. This time we were joined by my 14-year-old niece. While grandmother and granddaughter rolled out beautiful crusts which they delicately draped in the pie tins, I was trying to peel off the pieces of dough stuck on my rolling pin. I didn't want my teenage niece to see me cry. Too late.

My cousin Mikki, who also makes pies around the holidays, reassured me that she used pre-made Pillsbury pie crusts from the supermarket.

"No one knows the difference so why knock yourself out?" she said. But it was more than a matter of saving time. I felt like I had set out to prove I was a capable woman, able to make the dough at work and at home, and I had failed. My beautiful ceramic pie dish gathered dust in the kitchen cabinet.

Now that it's coming on pie season again, maybe I'll give it another try--third time being the charm and all. But if it doesn't come out right this time, I know where I can get a ready-made version. No one but my mother-in-law will know the difference.

Monday, September 6, 2010

License to Drive

"The biggest obstacle to any kind of transformation is the voice that tells you it's impossible."--Geneen Roth, from Women, Food, and God

Yesterday I drove by myself to run some errands. So what, big deal, right? For me it is. I haven't driven a car by myself since 1992. I had been putting this day off ever since I got my license renewed in Boston and started practice driving with Mike.

The good thing about driving solo was at least if I crashed I wouldn't be dooming my innocent passenger to life as a paraplegic burn victim.

It helped that I was up in Maine this Labor Day weekend, where there are still two-lane roads--one going North, one going South--and that apart from a few testosterone-addled guys in pickup trucks, people are generally friendly to other drivers. On part of my ride from Fryeburg over the Maine/New Hampshire border I encountered no other cars at all. I signaled anyway and stopped at every Stop sign, checking for non-existent traffic. I was a grown woman hoping for a gold star from the DMV. At one point an old 10,000 Maniacs song came on the radio and I turned it up and started singing. I noticed that in this moment, I was having FUN. Why had I let myself be intimidated for so long?

The Toyota RAV I was driving used to belong to my father. He clocked in 173,000 miles on it commuting back and forth from Central New Jersey to Manhattan. For a year in 1996 I commuted with him. At the time I wasn't an early riser but my father would get up at 3AM, drink his big cup of espresso, and, suitably wired, wake me at 4:30 with a fake bugle call. In the car I'd be trying to sleep, one hand clasped over my ear, while he'd play his CDs of Spanish balladeers. I'd wake up slowly and with hesitation as these soulful singers belted out the one word of Spanish I had learned on these same car trips. El corazon.

The year of commuting with my father was also my first year working in Manhattan. I was the assistant to a Chemistry books editor at John Wiley & Sons when its headquarters were still in New York. The job itself was dull, but I didn't care because I had achieved my goal of working in the editorial department of a New York City book publisher. The interview process for my first publishing job was as scary as I had anticipated--me in my little Ally McBeal suit, hurrying down 6th Avenue with copies of my one-page resume pressed in a plastic folder under my arm (1992-1995: part-time bookseller at Rutgers University Bookstore--praised for my creative end cap displays.) For the first time I was seeing the inside of publishers like Simon & Schuster and St. Martin's Press. I was so eager to be a part of this world I had imagined--of three-martini lunches and long editorial talks with famous writers in my book-strewn office with a view of Central Park--that I was willing to take a position in the mail room if I had to. Luckily it didn't come to that, though I did have to spend 18 months interacting with chemistry professors.

My father liked to start his day early, so we'd typically be entering the Lincoln tunnel around 7:00AM. I loved those mornings when we'd get into Manhattan and the sun was shining. The city was literally beaming down on us. Dad would drop me off across town and I'd walk the extra blocks, pausing to look into dark store windows, then stopping at a little coffee shop near my office to savor that first sip of my cappucino. Now that I was awake I was excited at the prospect of a new day.

At 5:00 I'd take NJ Transit back to my parents' house or my dad would swing by 605 Third Avenue and we'd get takeout while he waited for the rush-hour traffic to die down. At the end of the day, it was nice to come back to the familiarity of sitting in the car and eating chicken and rice or a slice with my father.

But now that those commuting days with my father are past, I miss them. He used to work long hours in the construction business and commuting together everyday was the most time I ever spent with him when it was just us. I was finally getting a taste of what my father's life was like when he wasn't at home with my mother and me. We both share a love of nice restaurants. I remember feeling so pleased when I would go to one of his favorite spots and then tell him about it. We enjoyed making each other jealous. "Guess where I am..." one of us would say on our cell phone, while the other would make the requisite sound of delight spliced with envy.

My parents still live in New Jersey, and I only get down to see them every couple of months. My father doesn't commute to New York anymore; he's got his eye on a different life now--retiring to a cabin in Vermont.

But driving his old RAV makes me feel closer to him. It's got 260,000 miles on it and now I'm the one behind the wheel.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Got religion?

"My friend Kelly says that when she listens to the news she hears so much conflicting information she can't truly reach a conclusion about anything. Usually we see this as a problem. Our inability to reach conclusions makes us feel ignorant and helpless. We feel pressured to sort it all out.

But think about this: maybe experiencing complexity brings us closer to reality than does thinking we've actually figured things out."--Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, from The Power of an Open Question

I'm having my friendly visit with Linda, the older woman who is disabled and lives alone. We have just settled into the "comfortable chairs"--two big, green, puffy chairs that you sink into when you sit down. We're talking about religion. I had discovered several visits ago that I could talk religion with Linda and not worry about offending her. I'm agnostic, and though she believes in God, she hasn't found a religion that's stuck.

Not that she hasn't tried. Years ago she converted from Christianity to Judaism. The town we live in is home to many Jewish people--in fact, at the end of my street you can find a kosher grocery store, several delis, a Jewish giftshop, a bookshop, and several Asian restaurants.

Linda became an official Jew, but her hard work did not translate into instant acceptance. She perceived the other members of the synagogue did not accept her as Jewish. She felt slighted by her rabbi. She was way past the age for a Bat Mitzvah.

So she quit Judaism and became Episcopalian. Christianity she understood. Once a month a member of the clergy would visit her apartment to give her communion, a bonus because it meant that she could count on another visitor to come regularly. She gets lonely a lot.

But right around the time I started visiting her, she was complaining about the priest. "She left her communion box here and now she won't pick it up! She says she's transferring to a different church. What am I going to do with this--I can't throw it away, it's sacred." I wondered why she didn't just store her keys in it, or some throat lozenges.

And then there was the time she called the church to offer them a desk chair to give to a family in need. They picked it up, but when she called them later to see if the chair had found a home, no one seemed to know where it went.

"It was a good chair," she assured me. "And now they don't know where it is? I should have kept the darn thing." I looked around her small apartment. If there was one thing the place was not lacking, it was chairs. She had enough seating for a Thanksgiving Day service for twelve.

The final straw was when they lost her monthly donation check for $10. She was on the phone for hours trying to find out who had the check and why hadn't they cashed it yet? "It's been two weeks!" she told me. "And the woman who answered the phone was so nasty and dismissive. She told me the priest might have it somewhere on her desk and then she cut me off. For all I know she's using my check as a bookmark."

Not only did the Episcopalians lose $10, they also lost Linda. She had the communion box sent by cab to the church (this part I could not picture. Did she hail a cab, place the box on the backseat, then slam the door and pay the driver for a one-way ride? Was she so angry and dejected that she couldn't bring herself to accompany the box?)

From there she joined the Baha'i faith. They too misplaced her donation check, but she stayed with them because she had made a friend in the community who visited her and took her out to buy New Balance sneakers and sheets from IKEA. They also prayed together, and Linda found the Baha'i prayers comforting.

But it was only a matter of time before she was questioning her chosen faith again. "What happens when I die and my brothers have to plan my funeral? They're not going to say Baha'i prayers! They won't know what to do. No, I should go back to Christianity--it'll make the funeral go much more smoothly."

I told her that if the Baha'i prayers were comforting, she should continue to say them. But now she had a conflict. She had recently joined the Church of the Nazarene because she heard they had great prayer groups. She was excited to report to me that two members of the church had already visited her and brought flowers and Nazarene paperwork. But then her mood darkened, and she said, "I did call one of the ladies after their visit, to invite her to come over again, but she said she was going to be busy all of September. She wasn't as nice on the phone as she was when she was here."

"Can I stay a Baha'i and also be a member of the Nazarenes?" she asked. "What if my Baha'i friend finds out? She'll stop visiting me." So long, afternoons at IKEA.

Then she paused and said, "Am I just being wishy-washy? Shouldn't I just pick a religion and stick to it?"

I was taken off guard by her sudden insight. I often think that my agnosticism is wishy-washy. I was brought up Catholic, but dropped out after my confirmation party at Bennigan's (perhaps the ubiquity of shiny things on the walls had me hypnotized, but more likely it was because I was turning into a sullen teenager who believed in mopey rock stars rather than a faceless God.) Since then I've been back to church for weddings, funerals, and the occasional Christmas mass, but it's always in respect for other family members. I no longer feel that I fit in there, even if I can "pass" because I remember all the words to The Lord's Prayer. When I'm in church I never know if I should go up and receive communion, and feel guilty when I remain in the pews while everyone around me starts lining up. Would they stare at me with slits for eyes and think, look at that naughty girl! Does she think she's too good to accept the body of Christ? Then again, maybe I'm projecting some apparently unresolved guilt about abandoning my childhood faith.

The more I read Buddhist books, though, the more I'm convinced that it's OK not to be a member of any tribe, not to choose a side, not to reject one faith for another. I do admire people who have the comfort of faith and religion--not to mention a ready-made set of friends who'll bake them a pie when they're sick. After all, what comfort can I take from Buddhist philosophy? Life is suffering and then you die?

I'm joking, of course. I realize Buddhism, like any philosophy or religion, is complex. Not knowing is scary, but for some people it feels more honest to question than to pick a side and stick with it for life. Things change, people change, the world is complicated and there are many opinions on what's right and wrong. It can take a lifetime to even skim the surface of the mysteries of the universe. Being uncertain but staying open to possibilities--that's the only way I see myself living right now.

Linda is also searching, but for her there's the added element of giddy anticipation--like starting a new class and buying the textbook and pencils. You haven't read through the book yet, but it's exciting just to imagine what you'll learn. Never mind the serious work of actually studying and retaining knowledge. The promise of a new way of life, new friends, a new set of beliefs...that's enough for her.

Until that check doesn't clear.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It's all about me

"The pain and anxiety we experience in our lives are in equal measure to the size of our self-importance. Our attachment to self is at the center of ego's world--ego's empire. In our attempt to secure ego's empire, we must wrestle with the world and all its unpredictability. We have so much less control than we would like. All our hopes, fears, and preferences stir up feelings of insecurity within us and feed our mental unrest and aggression."--Dzigar Kongtrul, from his book Light Comes Through: Buddhist Teachings on Awakening to Our Natural Intelligence

Mike has been out of town on a business trip to Alaska this week, milling around among the burly, ax-wielding, red-plaid-wearing lumberjacks. Actually he's there for a science and computer conference, but the lumberjacks make the story sexier.

In his absence, I've been moody, more so than usual. I've grown accustomed to my husband being around. Without him, I start spending too much time in my own head--my monkey mind comes alive and starts swinging from limb to limb ready to grab all the bananas it can get. I become more self-centered. Why hasn't that person answered my email yet? Why didn't that person say hello to me? Why wasn't I included in their plans? In order to feel more in control of my world and to seal the leaking gaps in my ego, I reward myself in some way: I buy something pretty online, I eat TWO bowls of chocolate ice cream. My needs become foremost. Only later do I worry about the money I spent or the extra sugar I ingested.

Writing teachers tell you that to in order to write well you need to look outside yourself, to notice the small details that you miss when you're wrapped up in angry thoughts about some minor infraction you think you've suffered. When you pay attention to things outside your insular little world, you learn so much more. Instead of repeating endless unanswerable questions in your mind, like when will I be happy? you notice little things in your environment that were never on your radar before. That woman with the red hair looks tired, I wonder what happened to her today? That family of tourists is quiet, not speaking to each other, I wonder if they quarreled? What brought them here and why do they seem to be let down? Or that old man with the long gray beard playing his guitar and singing--where did he come from? What makes him so extroverted?

Taking an interest in others is a way to step out of ego. So much of the time I'm thinking about getting my share. I may think of others later, but my initial reaction is What about me? There are times I shock myself with my own selfishness. It should be me who picks the restaurant. I want that last piece of cake, in fact I'm taking it. Why does she get to ride around in a Mini Coop? That's MY dream car.

But when Mike is around he often calls me out for being self-referential, for thinking that the world is supposed to line up according to my needs, my desires. When I'm talking with friends I often find myself cutting into the conversation ready to give my take on something, and I have to force myself to step back and let the other person finish. When I'm able to refrain from jumping in, I feel like I'm actively listening, that I'm present for other people. Paying attention to others--whether it's a smile to a an old woman, letting someone get on the train before you, staying mum while a co-worker talks about their summer travel plans--that's often just as satisfying as immediately inserting yourself into the picture. Standing back and observing gives you a fresh perspective, one that is uncluttered by the narrow sight line of ME.

I'm also guilty of this on the Internet. The whole idea behind social media is to be social. But more often than not I'm talking and not really listening. I get on Twitter and it seems like so many voices talking at once and no one really listening--like a political debate without Jim Lehrer. But am I even listening? Or am I just adding to the noise? Sure, it's important to express yourself--to say I am here. But you reach a point when you might as well be talking to yourself. And isn't it far more interesting to hear other people's stories? Heck, you've got yours memorized.

The point is, I'm learning that there's a difference between a healthy self-interest and being self-absorbed. When you're self-absorbed, you miss out on so much. It's hard to make true connections with people if you always have a personal agenda. You can't take a good picture if the camera lens is always turned toward you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

She's crafty

"I've discovered many reasons why thrifting makes good sense: politics, nostalgia, economics, and perhaps most of all, the environment. More and more people are thrifting as a way to lessen their impact on the earth. And along the way, they're getting quality goods with a connection to the past."--Amanda Blake Soule, from Handmade Home: Simple Ways to Repurpose Old Materials into New Family Treasures

I was on Block Island with Mike this weekend. We were walking around, climbing up hills to look at the B&B's and grand hotels--places where F. Scott and Zelda would have felt quite at home. Mike was impressed by how old the buildings were: The Spring House, for instance, has been around for 156 years. Maybe the Fitzgeralds DID summer there.

Our own B&B I had found on the Internet. The Oak Room was perfectly fine except that it was the front most facing room, so we could hear everyone's conversations from the front porch. We had come here with a decadent wish: for peace and quiet. But now we knew the whole story of one of our fellow guests, some nasally-voiced woman who disagreed vehemently with her condo association.

To make it worse, maintenance set up a ladder right between our windows, and as I lay on the Queen-sized bed, trying to relax in the humidity, I saw the dirty soles of a man's shoes step up one rung after another and then plant themselves, spreading roots there.

Plus there was no clawfoot bathtub (not that I saw one on the website. I just wanted to be pleasantly surprised.)

Anyway, it was our first trip to Block Island and we loved the scenery. Surely there were better accommodations to reserve next year. As we were scouting out places and picking up brochures we came upon a brick walkway lined with colored bottles leading to a small ramshackle old house. The edges of each step had been turned into mosaics, with cracked china and pieces of sea glass sparkling like rock candy in the bright sun.

I wasn't sure if this was a private residence but I wanted to take a closer look. The pathway curved like a parenthesis, and near the front door there was an arrangement of yellow flowers, it's soil spiked with a metal ornament of an angel and the rim of the pot circled by small ceramic creatures you might see on your grandmother's mantel.

The place appeared to be an artist's studio. Through the window on the door I could see various crafts arrayed on shelves and hanging from the ceiling. I walked into the small entryway (outside Mike had found a "husband's chair" and was leaned back with his Tilly keeping the sun off his face.) To my left behind a glass cabinet there were maybe thirty different shadowboxes, each lined with a different old-time postcard like the kind your parents probably sent when they were kids on vacation in the 1950's. There were shells and sea glass arrayed in each box. I picked one up, not realizing that the shells were not fixed in place. The clatter surprised me, and I jerked my head around to see if anyone had noticed. But when no one came to investigate, I placed the box carefully back on the shelf and gave the cabinet door a gentle push to seal it shut.

Lining the windowsills were jars and jars of pretty sea detritus--dried starfish, sand dollars, shiny colored pebbles and sea glass formed from bottles seaman tossed overboard without a second thought. There were also jars of old buttons. I was reminded of when I was a kid and my mother would open a small wooden jewelry box, revealing heaps and heaps of assorted old buttons inside. I liked to shake some out and line them up, or just scoop my hand inside and pretend the buttons were a pirate's lost treasure. I had no particular use for the buttons--I didn't know how to sew or make jewelry. But I liked to look at all of them, the clear glass ones and the colored plastic ones, the old Victorian style ones and the ones shaped like Tweety Bird. I have always been easily entertained by shiny things.

There was a second room with brilliant colored cotton pillows and bags and long sundresses--all sewn patchwork-style from scraps of vintage materials. Looking around me, I felt connected to a past I had never known, one that my mother had shown me in old photographs and which I glimpsed in antique store windows. The clothing and bags reminded me of some of the projects in Patchwork Style, but without the wacky Japanese sensibility.

In the final room, a woman about my mother's age stood talking to another customer. I moved quietly about, not wanting to disturb their conversation or be asked if I needed help. There were more jars of seashells, more pretty fabrics hanging from wall posts. The room had a counter and sink, and looked to be the woman's workspace. I flipped through some old postcards of Block Island in a cardboard box and plucked a few to bring home with me. When the other customer left, I stepped forward with my modest purchase. I looked at the woman more closely. She had blunt-cut blond hair that reached just over her ears. Her face was pink and wrinkled from years of sun exposure, but I could see that she was pretty. She wore one of her long sleeveless sundresses. I wouldn't mind having her life when I'm sixty.

Her name was Jan and she owned the shop and was its sole designer, except for a few pieces of sea glass jewelry her daughter sold there. Jan had been coming to Block Island for decades, and like the idealized middle-aged women at the center of Luanne Rice novels, she had finally decided to stay. She told me that she was once a designer for large clothing manufacturers. Among other things, Jan had designed a popular men's shirt for Banana Republic.

But that was a long time ago, she said. She quit the business once all the sewing got shipped overseas. "Now it's all just replicas of the past, not the real thing," she said with a soft toss of her hair, "You have people coming in here touching the fabrics and taking notes just so they can replicate the item so their customers will THINK they're buying good quality. But it's not quality. And then they charge the same amount as the authentic product costs, and people pay it!" She rubbed the edge of a tablecloth between her fingers, "This is what real cotton feels like. It's light but not insubstantial. And the colors don't run like they do with synthetics. It's hard to find real fabric anymore."

Then she put two identical starfish in each of my hands. "Can you tell which one is real and which one is plastic?" I could, but only because I was holding them side by side and could feel the delicate outside structure of the real starfish. "People go to boutiques and buy these plastic imitations, when the real thing is right on our beach for the taking!"

I thought about someone buying this plastic replica of a natural thing and displaying it on a shelf. A year or so later, it would end up in a box in the basement, or in the garbage because of some chipped paint.

Why did we buy this crap anyway? Why, when we want to remember our blissful island weekend, do we buy a memento that was made in some Chinese factory by people who have probably never heard of Block Island? Why did I covet expensive designer bags made to look vintage when in reality these same bags were assembled for peanuts in some far-off Asian country? Why did I buy so many new things when I could make valuable treasures out of the pieces I already owned?

It made me want to take up sewing, to go venture into some antique stores, searching for the good stuff, the real deals, the authentic past. I told Jan as much. Problem was I didn't know how to sew or do anything else that was very crafty. Jan told me that many people stop by her shop and just drop off old but pretty things, just so they can see what she comes up with, how she arranges their castoffs into something new, unique, and lovely. I was intrigued. I wanted to go home and make something. At the very least I could collage.

It did occur to me (briefly) that this woman might be feeding me a sales pitch, perhaps hoping I'd add a $50.00 patchwork apron or pillow to my stack of postcards. But I dismissed the idea. Jan seemed genuinely pained at the thought of a future made of plastic and synthetics. I also didn't get the impression that this woman was hurting for customers in such a tony, leftist neighborhood, where people loved anything handmade as long as someone else was making it. These people would pay any price, but at least what they got was the real thing, something new from something old that might otherwise be stuffed in a box in the basement, forgotten.

If you're in Block Island, RI, anytime in May through October, visit:

Jan McKillip Designs
Lightburne Cottage
Spring Street
(401) 466-8894

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A life less ordinary

"We must be willing to be completely ordinary people, which means accepting ourselves as we are without trying to become greater, purer, more spiritual, more insightful. If we can accept our imperfections as they are, quite ordinarily, then we can use them as part of the path. But if we try to get rid of our imperfections, then they will be enemies, obstacles on the road to our 'self-improvement'."--Chogyam Trungpa, from Ocean of Dharma: 365 Teachings on Living Life with Courage and Compassion

I was in a marketing meeting this morning and the editors were discussing their Summer 2011 titles (yes, 2011. Publishing, like the fashion industry, dwells in the future. But what I hate about fashion is that they start selling fall clothes in August, so when you're looking for, say, a pair of shorts during a heat wave, all they have is wool pants, as if to say, duh--why didn't you shop for shorts in March?)

One of the Summer 2011 titles is by Jan Chozen Bays, the author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food. That book was well-received, and Jan has many followers who think she is the bee's knees when it comes to mindfulness meditation.

The new book, Adventures in Mindfulness, was described as "a guided program for bringing mindfulness and meditation into ordinary daily activities to reduce stress and enhance well-being." There will be an exercise a week for a year; one example: notice in your speech how many times you say "um, ah, like" etc. Then instead of using those words, try taking a few deep breaths, then resume what you were going to say. This would be a hard exercise for almost anyone, but especially for us girls from New Jersey who use the word "like" as a preposition.

But I've observed President Obama when he's giving a speech and how he pauses in between thoughts instead of "ahh-ing" or "umm-ing." Yes, every Toastmasters member knows this trick, but you don't have to be a great orator or the President to pay attention to your speech. Look how calm and collected Obama looks, even when he has something difficult to say (which is all the time.)

Another exercise is keeping a gratitude journal. I have one that's published by Chronicle Books. It's got quotes and ideas in it to inspire you. The problem is I feel like I write the same thing over and over because my life is pretty staid.
  1. I'm grateful for my parents being alive and healthy.
  2. I'm grateful for my husband who loves me even when I'm sick or tired or bratty.
  3. I'm grateful for my job which I enjoy.
  4. I'm grateful that I HAVE a job (not a given these days.)
  5. I'm grateful I don't live in a war-torn country where "happiness" is defined as "not getting blown up or kidnapped or forcibly silenced."

These are all good things for me to remember when I'm feeling low, but I don't want to write the same thing every time. So I've branched out.
  1. I'm grateful for my ten purple-painted toes. All functioning.
  2. I'm grateful for my air conditioner (if you live anywhere in the Northeast right now, you know what I'm talking about.)
  3. I'm grateful for books. And eyes that can see because I'm not crazy about audiobooks.
  4. I'm grateful for my good taste. Yes, I can say that and not be snobby. Maybe.
  5. I'm grateful for black olives.

My mother is a big believer in finding happiness in small moments. I have to practice being mindful so I can do that.

But I don't like being ordinary, listing ordinary gratitudes. When you're young you feel like so much is possible. Living in New York City I experienced that feeling several times a week just being there, dwarfed by the skyscrapers and constantly stimulated with novelty. Now I feel like life is stalled. The possibilities look less abundant now, and I'm supposed to be happy about that? Is being mindful and accepting yourself as you are just an admission of your mediocrity? Is celebrating the small stuff just another way of giving up your big dreams?

Here's what Thoreau says: If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours ... In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.

Can we do both? Dream big and succeed, and have a simple life?

I'm thinking that when I can get a hold of Jan Chozen Bay's mindfulness manuscript, I'll try doing the exercise-a-week and writing about my experiences on here.

Maybe by then I'll have come closer to understanding my favorite Emily Dickinson poem:

I'm nobody, who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there's a pair of us
Don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!