Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Back to Black Friday


"I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed."--Charlie Brown from A Charlie Brown Christmas  

Christmas used to be my favorite holiday, hands down. Ornamental glass and glitter to dress up a freshly-cut Douglas Fir, Elvis crooning about his hope for snow, the feast of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve in Bensonhurst when my grandfather was still alive.  I didn't actually eat any of the fish--certainly not the stuffed squid or the marinated octopus.  But even though my dinner consisted of several slices of semolina bread and rice balls I was content.  I liked the traditions, even the ones in which I didn't take part.  And the presents!  At midnight was the crisp pop of an Asti bottle, an opened Panettone creating a cloud of powdered sugar overhead, and all the relatives and friends squeezed into the tiny livingroom to sit shoulder to shoulder on the plastic-covered faux baroque furniture.  Piles of opened gifts formed at our feet, and the sounds of appreciation and glee continued as the last present was presented to Pipina, or sometimes Pipinella,  my grandfather's nicknames for my grandmother Josephine, or Guiseppina in their native Italy.

Even as I slipped into my twenties and early thirties, and the boisterous Christmas Eves in Brooklyn became the much tamer Christmas Eve's of my parents' house in New Jersey, I still looked forward to Christmas. We no longer waited until midnight to exchange gifts, and there were probably only five or six fishes if you were counting, but there was still the comfort of traditions my parents and I shared.  My mom and I exchanging one gift early ("Just a little one!") The tree festooned to toppling with an assortment of ornaments that took my mother decades to accumulate. I worried a little more about getting the right gifts (and enough of them) for my family, but I also felt expansive in my desire to make other people happy.  I felt a connection to my father--who always goes a little over-the-top at Christmas--every time I was extravagant, buying those last-minute cashmere gloves for my mother or the basket of gourmet treats from Chelsea Market for my Aunt. 

This year my parents will be in Sweden on Christmas, visiting my uncle and cousins on my mother's side.  While I'm happy for them, I can't help feeling like I'm losing the lovely feelings that the holidays usually bring.  Some people might say that Christmas is a holiday meant for children, and we don't have any small children in our immediate family.  Others look to the spiritual significance of what is otherwise a consumer bonanza that starts in mid-October.  But unlike Charlie Brown's existential holiday blues, I'm not newly inspired by the story of Mary and Joseph in the manger because I'm not religious.

Even my husband, who is usually adept at cheering me up, is no help here. He dreads Christmas because he sees it as a time of excessive obligations.  Whatever joy he brings to the occasion is for my benefit.  We adopted our rescue dog Carmelita last year because, while attending a performance of the cloying A Christmas Celtic Sojourn , I wept at the sight of little girls in frilly dresses and striped tights, knowing they were much happier than I was at that moment and wishing to borrow one of them to distract me from the crap playing on stage.  Actually I was the only one who appeared to be bristling at the sound of Brian O'Donovan and the sight of the blonde and bouncy young thing kicking it up every interminable minute.
Black Friday is this week, an ugly reminder of the disregard some of us have for the welfare of others (and I'm not excluding myself here--I can be a hellion at a sample sale) as we push our way toward the promised deals before some other knucklehead gets them.

Even if there is bad news, like the kind I received from a close friend recently, and heard about secondhand from others--the holidays still come.  What do those families do to get through, and how can you celebrate when you know there is suffering going on in your midst?

How do we make the holidays meaningful again, without completely deflating the joy and occasional frivolity?  I'm not trying to be a joykill here, I just don't deal so well with change and naturally there have been a lot of changes since I was young.  It used to be my main concerns were as shallow as "Did my father get me the perfume I want? or "will I have a boyfriend this year and if so, what should I buy him that shows the right amount of affection without scaring him away?"  Now I wonder if there's more to the holidays than a discounted iPhone.  Even the cookies I like baking have become sugary carb bombs as I get older and thicker. 

Maybe I just need to start simple and without high expectations. You know, peer into some decorated department store windows, or make an ornament out of pipe cleaners, or buy a holiday outfit that will make me feel pretty.  Or maybe I'll try to think up some new traditions that will fit the way my family, friends and I live now.

Do you have any favorite holiday traditions that make the season bright for you?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Pinned down by Pinterest

Photo from

"A great many women view shopping as a form of recreation.  The 'thrill of the hunt,' the acknowledged excitement of shopping, tugs you into a powerful magnetic field, designed to cloud your judgment and extract your money.  You need to pass up those wild rides on the consumer merry-go-round and instead use a different vehicle to satisfy your basic needs for stimulation, activity, attachment, affiliation, and self-expression."--April Lane Benson, PhD, To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop

"Our goal is to connect everyone in the world through the 'things' they find interesting. We think that a favorite book, toy, or recipe can reveal a common link between two people. With millions of new pins added every week, Pinterest is connecting people all over the world based on shared tastes and interests."--Pinterest mission statement

I login and press the down arrow.  The pictures render achingly slow.  I avoid looking at the screen because I don't want to spoil the surprises in store.  The OCD part of my brain says, I must start where I left off, I don't want to miss even one!  When I hit the bottom of the page, I feel an unease in my stomach that comes from knowing there are more posts that came before these, and that I've missed out on them, maybe forever.  What if there was a knock-out dress or some yummy recipe using pumpkin seeds or a book shelf cleverly mounted on the outside of a door?  It's the same feeling that I imagine Twitter users feel when they try to read every tweet they missed in that 1/2 hour window when they were away from their computers.

But then the fluttery anticipation, the kind I get when walking into a Lord & Taylor with a 20%- coupon-off-already-marked-down-wear-now-merchandise or, to phrase it a different way, what a junkie experiences on his way to scoring some Horse from his dealer (I've watched a lot of episodes of Intervention).

If it's not an addiction I have, then it's at least lust.  I would say love, but the object of my desire is for the perfect high-heeled Mary Janes, the beautiful bathroom with soaking tub and lots of windows,  an artistically-wrapped present, or the most luscious cupcake recipe.

I'm pinned by Pinterest.  In McDonald's-speak, I'm a Heavy User.

A colleague introduced me to Pinterest as a way to promote a new imprint our company is launching.  When the two of us and the Marketing Assistant sat in Red Mango that day, I had a hard time understanding the concept behind this new social media site.  I was also having a hard time hearing her over the weirdly-inappropriate club music the yogurt chain was blaring.  Later, I dismissed it as dumb, but knew I should at least check it out for publicity purposes.

I dabble in social media primarily for work and for the occasional reunion with an old friend or to talk about books I'm reading.  But I can always walk away without any difficulty, like turning off an episode of I Survived that I've already seen.  When I started using Pinterest, I had trouble understanding what I was supposed to do and how I was supposed to find and get followers, or even what the point was of "pinning" pictures on virtual bulletin boards.  It didn't take long for me to catch on, though.  While ostensibly using Pinterest for work, I was also sucked into it on a personal level.

Before Pinterest, I used to come home from work and never turn on my computer, having stared long and hard at a screen all day, and now just wanted to rest my eyes, move around--even if it was to go from the kitchen table to the couch to my bed.  Now I'm coming home and logging on to see what cool DIY project one of the people I follow has discovered.  Two hours pass before I realize just how much of my free time I have (squandered?) pinning pictures of celebrity haircuts to my STYLE board.

Pinterest is essentially like making wish lists using pictures.  And there's nothing I like better than making lists.  And it's not just me--lots of people like lists.  It's why copywriters and magazine editors love using bullet points and sidebars and favor titles like "The 7 Ways to a Flatter Stomach" or whatever.  To me, Pinterest is also a throwback to when I was a teenager and used to tear out pictures from magazines and tape them, collage-like, on my bedroom wall.  

There are some advantages to being a regular pinner.  I am following all of my authors who are on Pinterest and repinning their pins.  I am also getting that retail high, the thrill of the hunt that usually leads me astray on shopping sites like Rue La La.  Pinning new skirts from Anthropologie and a hot holiday shade of OPI nail polish keeps me from actually shopping, but provides almost the same kick. 

Buddhists would call my current obsession another form of samsara or "being hooked" to earthly desires.  Although finding the occasional deal on a Kate Spade handbag brings me pleasure, there are times I find myself wandering alone around the Prudential Center in Boston, looking for something to lift me up from some mild but persistent malaise.  I won't feel right, I reason, unless I buy SOMETHING, even if it's as small as a tube of lipstick.  Mindless shopping--without a purpose other than to cheer me up or to give me a false sense of power--inevitably leads to disappointment and less money in the bank, not to mention owning up to my husband that I have spent beyond our agreed budget for the week.

With Pinterest I can be creative and express my personal style in a way that won't cause arguments or lead to an accumulation of barely-used lipsticks.  I like seeing other peoples' pins as much or more than I like pinning my own finds.  I try to maintain a few non-materialistic boards, like "Mindful", which is populated with nice quotes and sublime imagery from nature.

Now if I could get myself to actually DO some of the projects I've pinned to my DIY IDEAS board like that pretty flower necklace, or bake those pumpkin pie cupcakes on my RECIPES TO TRY board, this would take Pinterest from a relatively harmless diversion to a life-enhancing technology, which after all is what social media is supposed to be about.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Boundary issues

"Compassionate listening is crucial. We listen with the willingness to relieve the suffering of the other person, not to judge or argue with her. We listen with all our attention. Even if we hear something that is not true, we continue to listen deeply so the other person can express her pain and relieve tensions within herself. If we reply to her or correct her, the practice will not bear fruit. "--Thich Nhat Hanh, from Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh

I got off the train and steeled myself. I should not enter the building cranky or resentful. I should not bring negativity to someone who has already had a lifetime of suffering. On the one hand I felt guilty and ashamed for being so petty. But I was also thinking, "What will she ask me for next?"

I was visiting my older friend Linda for our weekly talk. I've been volunteering with her for almost three years now and I have pretty good attendance. I know that she counts on my visits as a break in her routine, so I try not to skip a week unless I'm sick or on vacation. The thought of her alone in her apartment day after day is more than a little heartbreaking.

But lately my compassion for her has been tested. Really, I should have seen this coming.

Linda and I talk a lot about boundaries. She has encountered certain people in her life who have boundary issues. Because she lives in Section 8 housing, she has been placed in residences with a mixed population of mentally ill, disabled, and the elderly. Linda has had at least two friends who have been mentally challenged in some form or another.

I was starting to notice that she herself refused to set boundaries with others. She often complains about a neighbor who is kind of a pseudo "friend." Really the woman is a bully, but Linda prefers to keep her enemies close.

According to Linda's side of the story, which may or may not be slightly exaggerated, this woman calls and visits Linda at all hours of the night, barges into her apartment without knocking, and asks her for favors and money. Linda is on a fixed income and is not very good at handling her money. I get angry when I hear that her "friend" has asked her for everything from a glass of juice, to the repeated use of her vacuum cleaner, to a gift of a pricey talking scale (!!), even cash. She wakes Linda up early in the morning and demands a cup of coffee. Linda has trouble with her mobility and whenever the neighbor knocks on the door, Linda has to launch herself up and walk across the room, even if she's not in her braces.

This is not the first time I have heard stories of Linda's being taken advantage of. She says the people who do it don't know any better. That may be true--there seems to be a lack of social intelligence going around. I tell her repeatedly, "Stand up for yourself! Don't let yourself get pushed around." That's when I begin sounding like an article on assertiveness in a woman's glossy. "It's OK to say no to people!"

Although I still fill out a time sheet for the volunteer organization that first set me up with Linda, I consider her a friend and assume she feels the same. But there are times when she seems to turn the tables on me and starts testing MY boundaries.

Every week I bring a snack for us to share, usually hummus and celery or guacamole and chips. She used to put out a bowl of pretzels when I came over but later told me that she couldn't afford to keep doing it, so I willingly took on snack duty. She provides seltzer water. Everytime we start eating, I can sense that she's waiting for me to finish. I'll have a bite in my mouth and she'll immediately exclaim, "Dig in!" or "Have some more." But when I shake my head because I don't want to answer with my mouth full, she always looks pleased with my response and consequently moves the snack closer to her.

Before our visits she often calls me at home and on my cell--repeatedly if I don't answer right away--requesting small items. I don't mind picking things up for her. After all, she doesn't get out much and the person who used to help her isn't in the picture anymore. Usually because the items are small--aspirin, lotion, dental floss--I refuse to let her pay me back for them. I figure as long as it's a once-in-a-while type of thing it's OK.

But when she comes to expect these things and more from me week after week, I start to get resentful. Two months before her birthday she started naming things she wanted me to buy her: Pajama jeans (I talked her out of those), an Episcopal silver cross necklace that you can only find in select religious stores in the outer suburbs, a tacky pleather case for her Bible that she found in one of those Fingerhut-type catalogs, the ones that you see and wonder, "Who buys this shit?" Now you know. We settle on slacks from Land's End. Now I am forever on their plus-size catalog mailing list.

Recently Linda asked me, "Can you cash a check for me?" I asked her what she meant since she has her own bank account. She replied, "I'll give you a check for $32 and you give me cash, and then hold the check until I get my social security next month." A loan. She had just finished telling me how angry she was at a relative who refused to lend her $65 for a pair of sneakers. "He's got a fancy house with an indoor pool and he can't spare $65!" Now who was the cheapskate-miser? Me.

I still said no. Boundary erected.

I did agree to be on Linda's Lifeline list, to be her local ICE (in case of emergency) contact listed on a form magnetized to her refrigerator, and her emergency cat sitter. I am proud to be able to do be these things for her. The difference is these responsibilities come with being a good friend. They don't cost anything except time.

I try to play my role of listener, of confidant. I try to be present for her even during the times she frustrates me. I don't know if her stories of unfriendly encounters with the cable guy or the crazy woman on the sixth floor are exaggerated--she does have a tendency toward paranoia. I don't know if she is really having bad cell phone service or she just wanted to have an excuse to switch carriers again because she's a maximizer. I try not to tell her what to do, but like a mother to a wayward teenager, I find it impossible not to give her advice, even while I know she probably won't take it.

The last time I visited she gave me a piece of banana bread her neighbor made and a frozen Challah loaf (she's recently reverted back to Judaism, which she converted to years ago) saying "I'm afraid of the oven. I didn't know you had to bake it." I take these gifts with the thought that maybe my friendship means more to her than the opportunity to shave a few dollars off her grocery list.

I'm happy just being a lifeline.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Why I fear death

"When you are standing at death's door and you have a chance to say something to someone, I absolutely think that that proximity to death is going to influence the words that come out of your mouth."--Harvey Chochinov

I was listening to NPR this morning. The segment Your Health came on, and the topic was dignity therapy. The phrase caught my attention because of how much I value the concept of dignity, being dignified, giving others their dignity. Dignity therapy is practiced on the dying--the "lucky" ones who know when they're going to die and can mentally prepare for it while they are still living.

What bothers people most about dying? Psychologists who work with the dying, hospice workers, philosophers, and religious thinkers have all tried to address this question. For some it's the fear of being forgotten, disappearing into nothingness, all of our thoughts and experiences and stories just vaporizing.

Dignity therapy is designed to allay this fear and allow the dying to tell their story the way they want it to be told. The therapy was created by a psychiatrist named Harvey Chochinov. Chochinov was treating a patient with a brain tumor. He noticed that this pale and weak patient had prominently placed a picture of himself on his bedside table, showing him when he was young and healthy, a muscular bodybuilder. Why that picture?

The man was sending a message: This was how he needed to be seen.

As Chochinov continued his work with the dying, he confronted this again and again — this need people have to assert themselves in the face of death. And he started to wonder about it.

"Why is it that how people perceive themselves to be seen should have such a profound influence? How does that make sense? What does that mean?" Chochinov says.

I worry about how I'll be perceived when I'm dead. Heck, I worry about that NOW. It's like an old person trying to convince a child that they were once as young and cute and energetic as they are. The kid can't see it. Or how strangers perceive the elderly, not identifying that they will be them one day. We post our most flattering pictures on Facebook, we tell ourselves stories about who we are--but what will happen when we die? Will that carefully-constructed version of ourselves also be annihilated?

Dignity therapy involves writing down a person's story while they are still here to tell it. The therapist asks the patient questions and records details that are important to him or her. The document is then transcribed and edited by the patient to their satisfaction. When the patient dies, the document is given to their loved ones. This document often becomes as precious to the survivors as the deceased was in life. Sometimes it even surprises family members, revealing missing details and truthful feelings that they never knew about before.

Does it matter if these patients describe events differently then how they really happened? No. Our perceptions shape our reality; what may have been a disastrous relationship with a sibling becomes a meaningful and unbreakable bond. A difficult day is remembered as also having some beauty, some value in it after all. In the end, we often see things differently than we did when we were actually in the thick of it, and that's normal. Maybe that's even a good thing.

Of course dignity therapy can't help those who die suddenly, unexpectedly, mysteriously. I have many questions about my maternal grandmother who died before I was born. I will probably never get those questions answered--or not completely--because she left behind so few details of herself. What if she had taken the time to write about her life--even a few pages about key moments would have been a wonderful gift to my mother and me. This was probably what my mother was thinking of when a few Christmases ago, she gave me a journal in which she had written her memories of her life before I was born. A more thoughtful gift is hard to imagine.

And then there are those who experience a living "death." I'm reading a book called Head Cases. It's a fascinating book with stories of people affected by TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury.) There has been a lot of talk of TBI in the news lately--high school football stars sustaining head injuries that they'll likely carry through the rest of their life, military men and women whose head injuries cause a variety of changes in their physical body but also in their personality. The brain is such an amazing machine, but it's also a mysterious and fragile organ that, when damaged, can cause people to forget they have a wife or a child, to think they're dead, to suffer violent rages, or to become highly gifted artists. You think that you will always be the same person, but you won't--whether it's by means of an accident or an awakening, you will change, and then you will adapt as best as you can to your new reality. But we may not want to leave our old selves in the dustbin like some discarded clothing that doesn't fit us. Those old clothes are still infused with our memories, our meaning.

Which makes me think that we all better get writing the story of our lives right now.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Let the music play

Photo Credit:

"Why am I doing such a thing as performing an improvisation on a piano? I have a quick answer. I need to know who I am, and this is my most complete way of knowing. And as for why you are listening? You need something as well, some connective beauty we all seem to be longing for.

Now the piece is over. In the moment before applause, the sense of community is palpable We've been connected, but not necessarily in the same ways to the same places. If there is anything we can hold onto in music it is perhaps this quiet, infinite instant when we inhabit our collective body."--W. A. Mathieu, from Bridge of Waves: What Music Is and How Listening to It Changes the World

My favorite record store when I was a teenager was a place called Vintage Vinyl. It was a stand-alone store on Rt. 35 in Oakhurst, NJ. Before I had a driver's license, I would walk from our sprawling condominium complex on sidewalks few ever used because the car is king in the suburbs, past the 7-Eleven and a shopping complex that can only exist in a overdeveloped New Jersey town--Cobblestone Village. I'd make a mad dash across the median of the highway and climb the hill over to the record store. I was maybe 15 years-old, babysitting money in my pocket, and the anticipation of buying a new album or cassette tape made me giddy.

When I had a car I'd drive to Red Bank, to Jack's Music Shoppe, where I'd spend an hour or more flipping through the CDs. Music--like books--were my solace and refuge from hurt and disappointment, but also a celebration of being young, knowing all the tidbits about a band's likes and dislikes, or at least what they claimed in Spin magazine. Music was an essential backdrop in my life in college--whether I was writing a paper (flamenco guitar or anything soft and lilting like 10,000 Maniacs), getting ready to go out on a Thursday night (updated disco from Deee-Lite or the jazz/hip-hop hybrid band Digable Planets), or letting fantasy and wistful song lyrics fill in the blanks of an otherwise unpromising crush (any young female at a piano.)

In my twenties it was live music in New York City, and my best friend's band Bionic Finger--a four-girl pop band who played in delightfully seedy venues in the East Village and Brooklyn. Live shows at these dark clubs not only made you feel young and in-the-know, but united you with all the other familiar music lovers inevitably in the crowd.

In my thirties I could sense the change in my musical proclivities. No longer was I searching out new bands or buying obscure foreign releases of a favorite artist. I still listened to music, but it was usually a rotating collection of discs released 2-5 years ago. I don't want to blame married life for dampening my musical enthusiasm, but so much of what I liked to listen to I associated with being young and single and free. Now the radio dial was locked on NPR News and stations that played that ultimately unhip musical category--Adult Contemporary.

Mike had also been a huge music fan--though his favorite bands were about a decade older than mine--but now he described music as unmoving. I thought that was incredibly sad, and wondered if I would feel the same in ten years. Already I was only seeing bands like REM and Prince live, and even those shows were less-than-thrilling because of the huge arena crowds and the grating, off-tune warbling of the guy next to me screaming out the lyrics, thereby wiping out the voices of the actual musicians I had come to hear.

So it was sweet relief when I saw Raul Malo (former lead singer of The Mavericks, a rockabilly-country band popular in the '90s) this past Friday night. It's true that the venue was a far cry from the dank, sticky clubs of my youth. This place had tables with linen tablecloths and served delicious food made with produce from local farms. The median age in the room was around 45.

But the acoustics were far superior to any I had experienced on Ludlow Street. The audience, clearly enjoying the show, refrained from screaming out the lyrics to every song just to prove THEY were the ultimate fans. The band was phenomenal and Raul's voice might as well have been Elvis's back in the day because every woman in the room was swooning. I was reminded why I still listen to music and how even if the bands I listened to have changed (or are the same as 20 years ago) they still have the ability to make me feel alive, in the moment, and connected to something bigger than me.

I remember a (partial) quote by John Keats that I once copied in my journal: "Give me books, fruit, French wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors." Art and music and books will always be essential. They are an integral part of my spiritual life.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Don't break the chain

Photo from

Jerry Seinfeld's Productivity Secret

Mike sent me this article today. It's related to yesterday's post about choosing a daily practice and motivating yourself to stick with it. What would you like to make your daily action?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The perils of skipping practice

"Without a daily embodiment in practice, lofty ideals tend to succumb to self-interest."--Jon Kabat-Zinn, from Wherever You Go, There You Are

The promises we make to ourselves are often the ones we don't take that seriously. We think we're being serious when we say we're going to not eat anything after 8:30PM, but the very day we say it, somehow a bowl of chips and salsa appears in front of us, and what can we do?

I've been taking these pricey writing classes in downtown Boston on and off for a few years now. My husband has supported me going because he figures I'd meet people, make some writer friends who I could invite over for wine tastings and lively dinner parties. He also thought taking classes would get me to write everyday, to develop the regular practice we had talked about so many times over glasses of wine, when we'd engage in that kind of dream talking, resolution-making that's cute when you're 19 but kind of pathetic by the time you're 38.

Since taking these writing classes I've written maybe a dozen poems and essays and submitted exactly two.

Not to say that I don't enjoy the classes or like the people I've met there. I love how there's such a range of backgrounds, occupations, and experience levels in almost every class I've taken. In one personal essay class I was in last Fall, there was a cancer surgeon, someone who worked in Geriatric medicine, a school teacher, an aspiring yoga instructor, and an architect. It was a unique experience for me to be among such a group and I loved hearing their writing--the funny, unusual, painfully honest and incredibly moving stories my classmates wrote about and shared with us. We only saw each other once a week for four hours but that didn't cool the intimacy of the essays we read to each other week after week. It was all very inspiring--while I was in class.

As for my own writing at home between classes, I'd often wait until the last minute to do the assignments--just as I did in high school and college. It's a terrible habit that I got away with when I was in school but is doing me no favors now. How many famous writers, from Hemingway to Emily Dickinson to T.C. Boyle, talk about having and keeping a regular writing practice?

Mike eventually caught on to my lack of practice and just recently made a deal with me (we love making deals--we are master negotiators, but only with each other.) If I submitted one essay in July and one essay in August to be published somewhere, he would be OK with me spending $450 on another ten-week writing class. He warned me that it wouldn't count if I did both essays on the eve of August 31.

I failed to submit anything by the first deadline. I thought he might overlook this and agree to let me take the class anyway. I needed the extra motivation, I was having a hard time deciding what to revise and submit. In turn, he told me he felt bad saying no, but a deal's a deal. Even I had no argument for that.

On the other hand, I have lots of useless, avoidance practices I engage in everyday:

  • Waking up at 4AM and eating a bowl of Kashi cereal before going to sleep on the couch and fitfully sleeping for another two hours
  • Organizing my coupon folder so there's never any expired coupons that I might accidentally try to use and thus be embarrassed in front of the teenage clerk at Shaw's
  • Walking the dog twice a day (more of a mandatory practice, but hey I do it)
  • Logging on to my favorite discount clothing websites to look at the designer bags I still can't afford
  • Taking daily inventory of my toiletry products to see if I'm low on eye clarifying cream, volumizing spray, or Q-tips

But as far as practices that would actually do me some real good--like meditation, yoga, writing, exercising, dog obedience training...then I'm all, who has time for that?

I bore myself when I hear my excuses for why I waste an $87 a month gym membership that I roped myself into for a year and can't get out of unless I move or die. Or when I talk to others about wanting to take up yoga again, I just need some new yoga pants, or that I'm going to submit an article but I'm just so busy right now. All around me I see regular gym-goers of all ages (you can tell by their arms) and young mothers of five who, postpartum, have written three books and who faithfully update their blog every morning. They somehow found time, why can't I?

Everyone has the same amount of time in a day--it's how you choose to spend those 24 hours that matters. Having a practice that you care about, that truly reflects your values, or as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, "is my job on the planet with a capital J", is what makes for a good life. Everything else is just noise.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Aging well

Picture came from this site.

"There is clearly nothing desirable in the world of advertising about growing up. An ad for a truck says 'About the only thing it has in common with the typical 50-year-old is the spare tire.' Fifty is still young these days. Most of us at fifty are much wiser than we were at thirty and we still have another twenty-five or thirty years to go. But we get the constant message that it's all over for us. This is demoralizing for all of us, men and women, young and old--we learn to dread the natural process of growing older and we feel terribly devalued as we age."--Jean Kilbourne, Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel

I often fantasize about moving to France. It's not that I want to practice my high school French, or eat brie and baguettes every day (though that's certainly an appealing proposition) or that French Women Never Get Fat (I've been to Paris, and trust me, some of them do.) There is more respect for the "older woman" there. A woman is not judged by what age bracket her demographic falls into. She is not "past her expiration date" at 40. Actually in her 4th decade she's just coming into her own, and her self-knowledge and confidence give her a particular kind of allure.

And if you're older than 40? TV, magazines, and other media either ignore you or try to carve you into some warped version of your younger self. Once you're 60 or 70, you fall off the media radar completely. Never mind that Americans are living longer and feeling healthier than their parents did. Aging, like Death, is taboo territory. If we don't acknowledge it, maybe it will go away.

One of my personal pet peeves is the raw deal given to senior citizens. Apart from some excellent films depicting older people--like the beautiful Away From Her, directed by Sarah Polley (a bright young thing herself) or any Helen Mirren vehicle--seniors are typically the butt of jokes. They horrify people by displaying what younger people see as inappropriate behavior. Being seen nude seems to be the worst offense a senior--particularly a woman--can commit. It's incredibly sad that a person can live on this earth for half a century or more, adapt (willingly or not so much) to all the changes time and technology present, earn the knowledge and life experience and resilience that only personal experience can give you, and then Poof! suddenly disappear from society, erased like a chalk outline. What they deserve is our respect, but what they get is either our pity, our ridicule, or our indifference.

If living in the present is one of the keys to happiness, why all this emphasis on being younger, exerting all your energy trying to go back to a time in your life that no longer exists?

Speaking of impossible time travel, Mike and I drove down to New Jersey this past weekend to attend my 20th high school reunion. I thought it would be fun to listen to all my favorite music from when I was a teenager. Turns out a lot of it just isn't so compelling anymore. I had forgotten how melodramatic and/or annoying some of my favorite singers were: Morrissey of The Smiths promising to throw his white body down on the rocks below and other happy sentiments; Edie Brickell screeching "What I am is what I am are you what you are or what?"; and They Might be Giants, whose lead singer sounds like he's suffering from a chronic sinus infection, warbling nonsensical lyrics like "But don't don't don't let's start. I've got a weak heart. And I don't get around how you get around." (although "Istanbul [Not Constantinople]" is still one of my favorite alternative pop songs.)

I look to my parents for signs that they are suffering from a lack of youth and relevancy. My father has always kept up with pop music--he knows when Duffy has a new single and has opinions on every American Idol finalist. My mother could care less about pop culture--she's interested in painting, photography, crafts...all the things she didn't have a lot of time for when she was raising me. My father works longer hours than I do, and commutes three times the distance--every weekday and sometimes on Saturdays. Once in love with New York City nightlife, now he would rather be up in Manchester, VT, working on their little "recession cottage." They're both looking forward to his retirement. I respect all they've been through and admire their resiliency. Yes, I do tease my mother about her age sometimes, but that's more of a childish habit than anything else.

I doubt that Big Advertising's message about the unacceptability, the miserable shame, of aging will change--can you imagine an ad for a facial cream aimed at women of a certain age that doesn't promise miracles? That shows a real woman with real skin imperfections applying it simply because it feels and smells good? No way. If the Baby Boomers can't change the twisted message about getting older, who can? But not buying into the media propaganda that life ends at 50--that's up to us. Living in the present and owning our age is something anyone can do, at any time. It's certainly better than the alternative.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


*Photo credit unknown

"The ways in which we need to grow are usually those we are the most supremely defended against and are least willing to admit even exist, let alone take an undefended, mindful peek at and then act on to change."--Jon Kabat-Zinn, from Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

When you're a worrier, life is a lot harder than it needs to be. A worrier gets a bill in the mail from their primary care physician for a large sum of money and instantly thinks, Oh no, I can't afford this! I thought my insurance would cover it! One quick (well maybe not quick) phone call to the insurance company would correct the error, but already the worry has done its damage. The worrier starts to obsess about an unreality: I'm going to have to pay $250 for that benign mole they removed at my request. It could have been melanoma. I might have died!

Or a worrier takes a harmless, or at best, ambiguous situation, and infuses it with doubt. I was in a cab once and the driver, a Haitian immigrant, starting singing in French. I was mindlessly scrolling through the Apps on my SmartPhone just to fill the time, but when he kept singing--his voice becoming stronger and sweeter--I put the phone away. It would have been rude to act like I didn't hear him, and he did have a nice voice. We started chatting and he told me that he was a musician and songwriter, and that what he just sang was an original piece he wrote. Then when I asked him how long he had been in this country, he said he was a refugee from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He went on to describe how his mother died in the quake, and how he tried to save her life and in the process seriously injured himself.

I didn't know what to say--what can you say to a stranger who tells you of such personal tragedy? Then I started thinking, maybe he's making this up for a better tip. Yes, I'm embarrassed to say that that thought popped in my head, and started snowballing until my empathy turned to anger. How dumb does he think I am? And how dare he use a true disaster for his own financial gain!

I threw out a cliche in reply, "Life is suffering," I said. How dismissive. I had a chance to demonstrate some compassion for the guy, but I let it go. How many times have I had the opportunity to show a small act of kindness toward a stranger and then didn't? I worry so much about being made a fool of that I find it hard to be openhearted sometimes.

There was a recent survey that named Boston the Least-Friendly City in America (not to mention the worst-dressed, but have they seen Newbury Street or been to the South End on a sunny Saturday?) Though I live just outside the city, I'm not one of its defenders. I DO think Boston is an unfriendly town. For a moment I was happy to learn that my perspective matched an independently-funded survey's. But instead of bitching about it, I could be part of the change I want to see in my neighborhood.

So I'm trying to think of it this way: we all face uncertain situations everyday. Maybe that person is lying, maybe the bill is accurate, maybe the woman who bumped into you meant to be rude. But when you chronically worry and doubt and spin out worst-case scenarios without knowing all the facts, you're going to experience more unhappy, unsatisfying moments than the average person--and the chances to connect with people with openness and compassion will float away like so many seeds on a dandelion.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The budget crisis


"We live impelled by desire. We hunger, we experience a fundamental and pervasive dissatisfaction with what is, and expend enormous amounts of time and energy in striving to attain a better external circumstance and a more satisfying state of mind."--Sasha T. Loring, from her article "How to Tame the Wanting Mind" in the July 2011 issue of Shambhala Sun

"Greater happiness lies in coming together--a transcending of the self. No amount of consumerism can ever approximate the happiness that comes through generosity and giving."--Raj Patel, in an interview with Andrea Miller in the July 2011 issue of Shambhala Sun

$30. That is my allotment of "fun money" for the week. I am finally going to be living on a budget, one that will allow Mike and me to live within our means, not accrue debt, and boost our Emergency Fund. For too long I have been looking at my husband as if he were the cramp in my spendthrift lifestyle. But the truth is right there in the spreadsheet in which we track our monthly bills. Some unexpected expenses coupled with Carmelita's $5 a day Bully stick habit ($150 a month if you're counting) means that for the time being we have to conserve our funds for just necessities. $30 each is what we can afford until our home economic recovery.

My reaction to scarcity is not that different from most people's--I go into panic mode, looking for any loophole, any extra income flow. How much change have I accumulated in my Vermont Common Crackers container? ($37.) How many summer pieces have I sold at the consignment shop so far, and when can I pick up my check? (12 pieces, end of July, although they're usually slow in paying up.) What about those rebate checks for the $80 worth of wine I bought over the last three months? ($10.) Does anyone owe me money? (Sadly, no. The only woman I loan money to is Linda, and that's only $5 here and there. I may be desperate enough not to be above a trip to the bank to cash two $5 Estancia rebate checks, but I'm not about to act as loan shark to a senior citizen living on disability.)

I've taken to squirreling away whatever money I do get. While visiting my parents in New Jersey recently, I pocketed the change from the $20 my father gave me to go into Starbuck's for his daily Caffe Americano. Two days of this, and I had earned about $35 not counting tax, but I also had to endure the ribbing my father gave me about his cup of coffee suddenly going up in price by 733.333%.

Why the obsession over nickles and dimes? Mike and I both have jobs, a roof over our head, fresh food in the fridge, health insurance, clothes, etc. I am not in desperate NEED of anything. I know I'm being irrational, greedy even. But being on a strict budget is like someone with a drug addiction finding out that his only dealer has gone out of town and left no forwarding address. I know that I won't have to live on $30 a week forever--the amount will fluctuate along with our income and expenses. Mike has to adhere to this amount the same as me, and he isn't suddenly looking for change in between the sofa cushions. Then again, he's an ascetic compared to me.

I have to face the fact that I use money as a salve for the emotions I can't control, the emotions that are a part of my being alive. Having money makes me feel safe, but so does spending it. As long as I have money to spend, I can shut out any sadness or anxiety that comes my way unbidden, like closing the screen on a window: the mosquitoes are still there, but instead of biting they butt their little heads against the wire, unable to penetrate.

A woman I work with said that back in Iowa where she spent part of her childhood, mosquitoes are just a part of summer life, so ubiquitous that you hardly notice them. This got me thinking again, the more you try to escape something, the more of a threat it becomes.

I have definitely curtailed my shopping in the last couple of months, but that feeling of wanting more money remains. Just yesterday I broke my budget buying summer sandals at a discount shoe store. Desire is always buzzing in the background. I just hope to reach a point where it doesn't bother me that much because our solvency as a couple means more.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

No one was here

Photo credit: Malagent on Flickr

"Often, we leave rooms a bit messier than when we entered. We think, 'I'll clean it up later.' Later never comes, until the mess is unbearable, and we become irritated enough to undertake a thorough cleaning. Or we get annoyed at someone else for not doing their part in the housework. How much easier if we take care of things right away. Then we don't have to feel growing annoyance at the gathering mess."--Jan Chozen Bays, from How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness

If you leave a glass on the table in my mother-in-law's kitchen, don't expect to find it when you come back. She's likely swept it up and into the dishwasher before you have a chance to reclaim it. I think she's practicing Leave No Trace.

When I worked for a brief time at the Appalachian Mountain Club, I noticed that they teach a whole program for outdoor guides about Leave No Trace. Although I never caught on to the appeal of sleeping outdoors among all manner of bugs and no running water or electricity, I did agree strongly about their Leave No Trace edict. When I see empty Michelob Lite bottles and crushed Doritos bags strewn about outdoors, I want to pick up the trash and throw it in the person's bed, preferably with him/her still in it.

But at home I find myself leaving things for that mythical tomorrow. I cook dinner, and afterward, feeling full and lethargic from a day at work and too many carbohydrates, I wander off, leaving the mess in the sink to deal with later. But waking up to a sink filled with dirty dishes is like leaving a filmy residue on the next day. Same goes for the bag of papers to file soon and the magazines to look through and recycle at some point. I have a hard time getting rid of my glossy magazines like Food and Wine and The New Yorker but at this point I have a whole periodicals section in both the living room and office, and no one looking anything up or borrowing them.

I'm slowly reading the new Jan Chozen Bays' book and in it she has an exercise called "Leave No Trace." You're supposed to choose a room and then make sure that you always leave that room in the same condition in which you found it. Like her other exercises you do this for one week. The reason I'm doing this particular exercise is that I find that my sense of self-discipline is lacking. With this flaw in mind, I told Mike what I was up to so he'd be there to nag (I mean, remind) me about it. I chose the kitchen since I like to cook and the dog is confined there during the week, and sometimes the younger cat Joey Thumbs jumps the pet gate and sniffs around for our leavings. At this point I've loved her into obesity (food = love, except when it causes Feline Diabetes) so she's not doing much jumping on the counters when we're not home. Still, starting the day with a clean sink is really a lovely feeling.

So far it's going well. Mike was inspired to take over the Leave No Trace duties this morning by washing our breakfast dishes. If you want someone to do something, it helps to lead by example.

Not that it's easy. I have to fight my urge to walk away from that pile of crumbs or that coffee cup with the lipstick print and coffee stains on it. The call of an intriguing book or Carmelita with the road kill toy in her mouth, begging me to play tug-of-war...they all have to wait until I erase my trace. The idea is not only to be a neater person, but also to appreciate the everyday objects that we use and then mindlessly leave behind. My Captain Haddock mug, the one-cup coffee press, the tiny IKEA spoon--all serve me well every morning and they deserve some props.

So many of us want to leave our trace in this world, but there's something to be said for traveling incognito, coming and going without anyone knowing you were there.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Losing my perspective

"Simply put, how we react is not the most important element of any situation. When we fixate on our reactions, they pull us away from a primary experience of what's actually happening, into a small room where how we think and feel about the experience is the most important thing, the thing we're now in a relationship with.
"The moment is vast, with a lot of space between the things in it. The moment is generous. I don't have to zero in on my reaction, to act impulsively on it or repudiate it or improve it, all of which tend to reinforce the sense of its importance, but just accept it as one (small) part of what's happening. Usually that simple shift changes everything. It allows us to step out of the small room of second-order experience and back into a fuller, more realistic experience of the moment."--Joan Sutherland, from her essay "Gaining Perspective" (Buddhadharma, Summer 2011).

For as long as I can remember, I've been guided by my emotions. I've lived much of my life so far like an overgrown teenage girl, deeply invested in her feelings about everything. If I felt uncomfortable at a gathering of people I didn't know well, I'd assume it was because people found me boring. If I felt strangely attracted to someone who from all outward appearances was not right for me, I would follow that impulse anyway, often to its inevitably bad ending. If I felt envious of someone who seemed to have everything I wanted, I only saw the positive aspects of that person's life, and not the moments of suffering that we are all privy to, no matter how charmed a life we otherwise lead.

But so what? Weren't we taught from a young age, particularly if we were a girl, that our feelings mattered? That they were our thermometer to adjust until we got the temperature just right? If your house is too hot, you start to sweat and your tongue turns to tissue paper, and you go and turn down the heat until you're comfortable. If I'm feeling lonely it must mean that I don't have enough friends and will probably die alone. As if feeling lonely at times is a problem that needs to be remedied like a stomach flu or a migraine. The result is we spend a lot of time trying to fix what's not broken, and then we worry about that fact that we can't fix "it."

Now I'm trying to unlearn this lesson in egotism. When I first moved to Boston and was feeling an almost constant anxiety and sadness--which I was convinced were the result of circumstances outside myself, NOT the negative thoughts that made a constant loop in my head--I went to see a cognitive-behavioral therapist at a respected clinic in the city. I was tired of living at the mercy of my feelings, of never being sure if my emotions were a result of a given situation or "all in my head." I wanted to pick apart the feelings and the thoughts to form something closer to the truth of my experiences. Some people are labeled "sensitive" or "serious" because they let their negative thoughts run the show most of the time. I was walking around feeling like an open wound--anything that touched me hurt, and instead of healing shortly after the injury, I was letting it get more and more infected with every exposure.

In CBT therapy I learned the difference between "feeling" and "being." Take-home exercises often included thought records on which I was supposed to list a negative thought, like "that woman is looking at me like she can't stand me" and consider all the other reasons why the person might have looked sour, like "She just had a fight with her mother" or "she is thinking of something unpleasant that happened at work." Sometimes it could be as simple as "she just naturally frowns when she's among strangers on the train." When I am waiting for a friend to arrive, and I see her walking towards me before she sees me, doesn't she sometimes have a serious, even slightly hostile look on her face? Then she sees me, too, and her face softens into a pleased expression. How often do we infuse meaning in a situation when in truth there IS no meaning, or the meaning is not what we thought at all?

After I quit CBT therapy (it's only supposed to last a maximum of six months, but I turned out to be a remedial student) I tried to be more aware of what was around me in the moment, and not pay as much attention to the content of my thoughts and feelings. Reading about mindfulness techniques has helped. For instance, in Jan Chozen Bays's new book, How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Lessons in Mindfulness, one of the exercises is to use your non-dominant hand for a week. Not for everything, but just when you think of it. It didn't take long before I was catching myself not using my non-dominant hand, and there would be a pause as I shifted from left to right hand. Of course what hand I was using at any given moment wasn't important--it was noticing when I had floated away in my thoughts, become unaware of where I was in the here and now.

Letting go of the moody teenage girl in my head has been hard. But she's been living at home too long--eating my food, racking up bills, leaving messes everywhere she goes. At some point, you have to grow up, open your eyes and ears and heart to all that is out there in the real world.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fitting in

"When we spend a lot of time with our body doing one thing while our mind is on vacation somewhere else, it means that we aren't really present for much of our life. When we aren't present, it makes us feel vaguely but persistently dissatisfied. This sense of dissatisfaction, of a gap between us and everything and everyone else, is the essential problem of human life. It leads to those moments when we are pierced with a feeling of deep doubt and loneliness."--Jan Chozen Bays, from How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness.

I'm coming on five years of living in the Boston area, but somehow it doesn't feel like home yet. I keep waiting for that moment when ta da! I feel one with my surroundings. Like if I've been away and I come back, it's almost a relief because I'm in familiar territory--the city I love, the place that embraces me and welcomes me back in the fold.

Is it that the place you lived when you were young will forever feel like home? When I moved to Boston in the summer of 2006 I was moving to be with my future husband, but I also saw it as an opportunity to grow. I didn't want to be the person who stayed in one place their whole life.

I remember when I spent my first night in the new apartment, our apartment, the first we had owned. Mike had moved up to Boston ahead of me and for the past couple of months we had only seen each other on weekends. Now this was my home, too. I brushed my teeth in what felt like someone else's bathroom. There was a hand towel of questionable origin hanging from the rack near the sink. The only toiletries were Men's products: Speed Stick, cologne, a razor with black hairs in the blade. There was a light brown soapy film covering the sink.

This was not unlike the scene four years before when I moved into Mike's apartment in Astoria, Queens. I had to find a way to squeeze myself into the space that before had been your typical bachelor pad (except without the leather couch and neon Heineken sign, thankfully.) At one point, when I was removing some decoration of Mike's that he had in the kitchen and replacing it with something floral and pink, Mike said, "You're removing every trace of me!" A slight exaggeration--why would I want to remove every trace of the person I loved? But I could also see his point.

But in this new apartment, in this strange city, moving in wasn't as easy as putting my collection of Belle Epoque advertising signs on the walls and clean and fresh hand towels in the bathroom. For the first four months when I hadn't found a job yet and so had lots of free time I went to work with Comet and a sponge, removing the former occupants trail and introducing our own. I thought that if I could make my mark on the apartment, I could do the same in my new city.

Of course it wasn't enough to unpack my collection of coffee mugs and martini glasses, bottles of skin lotion and pretty guest soaps. Even when my books were side-by-side (but not mixed together--never!) with Mike's, when I went outside in my neighborhood it always felt like I was just visiting, a subletter using another person's couch, coffeepot, bed, until the owner returned. It wasn't Mike's fault--he encouraged me to explore the town and take writing classes and make new friends. This city was somewhat new to him, too. He was from Massachusetts, sure, and had gone into Boston for Red Sox games. But he's from a small town an hour west of here. In a way, even though he had family nearby, this was all new for him, too.

Maybe if I was of college-age when I moved to Boston it would have been different. The city is chock-a-block with young people. Walking around town is like walking on the biggest college campus you'll ever visit. I found myself swamped in nostalgia for overpriced textbooks, world literature lectures, Thursday night bar crawls.

But as a woman in her mid-thirties I felt marooned. Where could I fit into this picture?

Since that in-between summer in 2006 I've been striving to answer that question, making lists in my head of favorite local restaurants, stores, open markets, art house theaters, etc. I started learning and writing about mindfulness, staying present, appreciating where you are right where you are. It has been a slow process, and ongoing.

Friday, April 29, 2011


"Scratch a dog and you'll find a permanent job."--Franklin P. Jones

I keep a spreadsheet of Mike's and my daily spending and I recently added up how much we had spent on pets in the last five months. Over $2,000. We also own two cats, but apart from yearly vet exams at their kitties-only clinic, and the occasional feather-on-a-stick, they don't need very much to keep them somewhat content.

That leaves the puppy. So if I take the $400 we spent on the adoption fees, and add another $200 for the spay, $500 for various shots, chips, and stool tests, another $400 for that ultrasound they recommended because of a heart murmur, and that tiny winter parka that cost $60 and that she wore exactly twice...yup, that's $2,000 all right.

Who would have thought that a rescue mutt from Arkansas would cost as much in the first six months as a used car?

My love for Carmelita has already been challenged many times, and yet she remains a member of our household.

The problem is when you have ACTUAL PUPPY DOG eyes staring up at you, it's hard to be the no-nonsense disciplinarian you need to be with dogs. I have to remind myself of what Mike said about not wanting to own a yippy, out-of-control little toy who poos wherever is most convenient (Check), steals your new pink suede sandals (Check), and refuses to give up the dead mouse carcass it's carrying like the crown jewels through your neighborhood (check, check, check).

Having a puppy in my life has been a drain on the bank account and on our social life. We've gone through at least four containers of heavy-duty Lysol wipes. And she's chewed through the cushions on our kitchen chairs with the ferocity of a wild animal disemboweling its prey, leaving fuzzy guts all over the ceramic tile.

She's also made me less vain. It used to be that I wouldn't leave the house unless I was showered and dressed and wearing lipstick. I worried about what people would say if they saw me in my natural state--hair that hangs limp if it's not washed for a day, dark circles under my eyes, a bloated tummy.

But walking Carmelita at 6:00 AM precludes my usual primping. I'm out there with my hair mussed up, my trench coat half-concealing a pair of red fuzzy sleeping pants, shoes without socks. I must look deranged, a Miss Hannigan walking Sandy down a busy street. I used to don a pair of sunglasses even when I was up and out before sunrise. I'd be so blind I'd trip over Carmelita's leash and I'd lose sight of the pile of dog poop I was supposed to be considerately bagging.

Now I go out without sunglasses because who has time to put them on? When Carmelita has to go, she has to GO. And I hate to see her shivering in the doorway, waiting for me to coordinate my umbrella to my coat. Half the time I don't even put in my contacts, which is helpful when I want to play the "if I can't see how I look, then I don't look bad" game.

Carmelita has also made me less selfish. Sure, when I get home from work I'd love to immediately flop on the couch and leaf through the latest Anthropologie catalog, dog-earing pages of bohemian fluff and shiny things that I can't afford. But Carmelita has been alone all day, and even after I walk and feed her, she's looking for extended bouts of play time. It can be awfully boring tossing a dog-spit-soaked furry toy over and over, but then I think of that commercial for that anti-depressant I can't remember the name of. You know--the one where the voice-over warns, "Depression hurts everyone" and the camera pans to a dog dejectedly holding a ball in it's mouth because he has an owner who is too depressed to throw anything. What a self-involved, uncaring human! You can be depressed and still play with your dog. Trust me.

So in the balance sheet of life with a dog, Carmelita ultimately comes out on top. Who needs sleep, evenings out, extra money in the bank, when you have that excited little dog greeting you at the puppy gate, flinging herself in the air like like a flying fish leaps out of the water, just because you're home? That's priceless.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Appreciating the cherry blossoms

violets here and there
in the ruins
of my burnt house

-Shokyu-Ni, from Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart

I heard on the radio the other day that Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has asked that the people of Tokyo show self-restraint during their popular spring ritual Cherry Blossom Season. Granted with the devastating earthquake and Tsunami less than a month ago and another quake hitting the Northern Coast today, celebrating budding flowers might seem ridiculous. Ishihara is also responding to the need to conserve energy ("On an average year, we light up the Chidorigafuchi area so that visitors can enjoy the evening too. But we have to conserve energy this year, so we have refrained from doing so. The atmosphere is different from an average year," he was quoted as saying in an article on Channel NewsAsia.)

This makes perfect sense--I remember those weeks and months after September 11 when most New Yorkers were unusually subdued. It would be a while before it felt appropriate to be anything but grim after experiencing
such a large-scale and public tragedy.

That October I hosted a wine-tasting party and I remember what a relief it was to be among friends, opening bottles and serving Brie en Croute and hummus. I lived in Hoboken, NJ then and had seen the towers burning from a pier just blocks from my apartment. My roommate and I were lucky we didn't make it to work in Manhattan that day. We both cried when we saw the people jumping from the Towers.

I don't know how to make sense of random suffering. After 9/11 happened, I personally couldn't shake a terrifying vulnerability. I thought of the dead who were my age (28) or younger, how they were just going to work on an average Tuesday, summer over but the weather still beautiful. I had only been inside the towers a couple of times, but I remember eating at Windows on the World with a boyfriend, the slight vertigo I felt sitting so close to a view of the sky and not much else. What happened to these victims could have easily happened to me or to anyone I loved. It may sound silly, but I don't think I really considered my own mortality until that Autumn.

So what was my response? I developed hypochondria, I worried that I had left the apartment door unlocked or a burner on. I would call home even though there was no one there. We still had an answering machine, and I figured if the apartment had burned down, the machine wouldn't work. But even when I heard our taped message click on, I still fretted. If something so devastating could happen to other good, ordinary people at any time and for no reason, then when would my turn come? My parents? My friends?

My mother, who experienced personal tragedy early in life, has always been a big believer in appreciating beauty, savoring small moments, lingering on the slightest glimpse of joy. Sometimes she wonders aloud how she came to have such a worrier for a daughter. I thought I was just being realistic--after all, the world is a dangerous place where anything could (and did) happen. By ignoring that fact, I thought of my mother as having her head in the sand. It hasn't been until recently that I've started to see how her way of experiencing the world is actually a lot more sensible than mine.

I don't think it's disrespectful for the Japanese people to stop and appreciate the cherry blossoms, drink wine, celebrate spring with friends if they are able. It is in these ways (I say, admittedly from a Westerner's perspective) that we are honoring our humanity and, perhaps more important, ensuring our sanity.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Money, Money, Money...Money

"Practicing gratitude, we feel rich, full, enough. For those of us with a tendency toward greed, practicing gratitude can be like eating before you go grocery shopping."--Laura Jomon Martin

My older friend Linda loves anything new--or at least, new to her. If someone is getting rid of, say, a glass coffee table or a set of kitchen chairs, she can't pass it up. Her neighbor sells her all kinds of things--frog stuffed animals, a used television even though she has two TVs and four rooms, dining room chairs with tall backs that loom like gargoyles over her tiny kitchen table. Every week that I visit her she has some new acquisition to show me. She has a back-up cell phone even though she hardly ever leaves the house, a motorized wheelchair that sits untouched up against the wall, and an extra bed for those overnight visitors that have yet to materialize. When she told me yesterday that she was thinking about replacing her two perfectly good easy chairs with a couch that her neighbor was giving away, it was all I could do not to call her on her preoccupation with material things.

But I didn't have to say a word. "Some people have jobs to think about." She said, "All I have to think about all day is my furniture and things."

If I were to be honest with myself, I would have to say that the reason that Linda's chronic discontent with her stuff bothers me is because it's a condition that I also share. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about shopping: collecting coupons, making lists of books and clothes I want to buy, subscribing to shopping sites offering deep discounts. When I'm in shopping mode it's like I'm in a fog and nothing else exists but finding that next great deal. It's the very opposite of mindfulness. Yes, I may have a brief moment of clarity when I think of my household budget or the stuff that I already bought the day before, and sometimes that stops me in my tracks. Other times I live in denial, believing (right or wrong) that I deserve to buy myself something nice and that I can afford it.

This is a tough thing for me to admit because I don't want to believe that A. I'm acquisitive, even greedy at times B. I'm living an aspirational life that often centers around spending money. It was one thing when I was a single girl living in Hoboken and my bank account bore only my name. Now that I'm married, my actions affect more than one person.

That's when I pledge to go on a starvation diet. I won't buy anything but groceries for two months! I will only window-shop and I'll unsubscribe from Shop it To Me. I'll be a more mindful shopper and will only buy what I need. But then I'm faced with that gaping void again. What to do to replace that shopping high? Sweets? No, that's just as bad a habit. Alcohol? Ditto. Trashy celebrity gossip? Reality TV? No and no!

So I'm working on a list of things to do that are fun and free (or at least cheap). This is what I have so far:

Write down gratitudes
Listen to CDs I haven't played in years
Try new recipes
Take pictures when I see something unusual or compelling
Collage using old photographs, stamps, wrapping paper, pages from magazines, etc.
Take a long walk with the puppy, preferably leading to somewhere I haven't been
Reduce my book backlog by reading what I already own
Write an email to a friend or just pick up the phone
Send a pretty card to someone who will appreciate receiving it (Grandma, my Swedish cousins, etc.)
Read and write poetry. Remember how much you love poetry?
Work on that pile of hand washables. Not exactly fun, but you might find that cleaning a sweater you haven't worn in a year is almost like wearing something new.
Make a plan to write more, and then do it!
Go to the gym (someone I know who works in reception at a gym told me they have a thick binder of members who signed up at the gym but haven't checked in in months. Yet they continue to pay for membership. Gyms love these people.)
Pay the cats some attention. Maybe then they'll hate the dog less.

More suggestions are always welcome.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Present moments you'd rather skip

"To train in staying open and curious--to train in dissolving the barriers that we erect between ourselves and the world--is the best use of our human lives."--Pema Chodron

"Ordinary life might seem hassled, repetitive, and boring. When you are impatient, resentful, or uninterested in daily life, you will be blind to the the potential for living cheerfully and creatively."--Andy Karr and Michael Wood, from their essay "Mindfulness, Photography, and Living an Artistic Life"

How do you remain present, drinking in the moment with all your senses, if what you're experiencing is something you'd rather escape?

I was in the Hynes Convention Center T station last night when this question popped up. I was trying to read my copy of The Mindfulness Revolution but I kept looking up waiting for a train that wasn't coming. The station was packed with mostly college students from Berklee, with their bass guitar cases, ears plugged up with the sounds of their latest downloads. I recently made a conscious decision not to use headphones in public because I didn't like the way I was purposely cutting myself off from the world. So now I only use them when I'm at the gym, where I think it's OK to zone out to classic rock (which now means bands like Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Live, the stuff we were listening to in college. So what does that make Led Zeppelin and The Doors? Classical rock?)

So there was some breakdown on the Green Line and trains were running behind schedule. Nothing newsworthy there. But at that moment I wanted to be anywhere but standing in that station. It's been a while since I've had a vacation. I need to escape Brookline for a while--at least for a week. I'm tired of the snow and sleet and piles of dog sh*t everywhere because people seem to think the poo will melt along with the snow, so they might as well leave it there. If I have to climb a curbside mountain of snow in high-heeled boots, sometimes even sinking and getting stuck, to scoop up Carmelita's mess into a little pink baggie, and then carry that baggy swinging in my right hand like a noxious evening bag for the rest of the walk, so should every other dog owner. Maybe I'll write an Op-Ed for The Brookline Tab about that. When exactly did I turn into an 80-year old man?

T.S. Eliot was wrong--March, not April, is the cruelest month. Unless you're Irish there really isn't anything to celebrate, and the weather hasn't turned yet, so even when it's the first day of spring it doesn't feel any different from the last day of winter. March is 31 days of blah, unless you have Spring Break and plans to go to Daytona, or better yet, you have tickets to South America where you're going to help build houses or something.

The usual escapes--clothes shopping, red wine, chocolate, buying books to add to the Jenga-like pile on my bedside table--none of these things are working to snap me out of my funk. So if I can't find enjoyment in my usual escapes and I don't want to live in the present moment, then where is there to go? I guess acceptance of what is. Practicing gratitude. Not judging your circumstances as either good or bad. Letting yourself be bored or tired or cranky and not actively trying to change it. If you wait long enough, moods naturally shift.

So when I'm sandwiched between a college boy in a hoodie who hasn't showered since Friday night's kegger and an older woman in a massive puffy jacket who keeps sighing when people inevitably bump into her, I accept that this is life and yes it's sometimes irritating and inconvenient, boring and mediocre. There's no real alternative so you might as well just go with it.

That's what I imagine someone more mature than me--who doesn't expect life to be a thrill-a-minute-- might say.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A poem that struck me


What is the vitality and necessity
of clean water?
Ask the man who is ill, who is lifting
his lips to the cup.

Ask the forest.

--From Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

We're all heroes and jerks

"Compassion brings us back to dealing with the world as the only way. We have to work with people. We have to work with our fathers, our mothers, our sisters and brothers, our neighbors, and our friends. We have to do that because the people with whom we are associated in our lives provide the only situations that drive us to the spiritual search. Without those people, we would not be able to look into such possibilities at all. They provide irritations, negativities, and demands. They provide us with everything.
"So, after all, our spiritual journey is not such a romantic thing at all. It is connected with our ordinary, sometimes irritating, everyday life."--Chogyam Trunga, from Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness

I surprised myself the other day when I was walking home from volunteering. I was in a perfectly good mood, which is usually the case after I see Linda, the older, disabled woman I visit once a week. Though on paper we don't have a lot in common--she doesn't like reading, watching movies, or cooking, for example, and I am not a fan of John Denver or Pillow Pets--we still find plenty to talk about and there's hardly a moment of silence when we get together.

Going to see Linda makes me feel good--I come away knowing that I brought her some companionship (and snacks!) and she got me out of my own head, which is usually a bad place to linger.

And let's face it--there's also that little glow of the do-gooder that we all experience when we volunteer or commit some random act of kindness. They say there are no unselfish acts, that in some way everything we do has some self-serving dimension. But who wants to acknowledge that when we're busy congratulating ourselves?

So this kind, caring, and compassionate woman (me, after volunteering) is crossing the street a few blocks from my house when a car drives across the pedestrian lane without stopping to let me cross, even though I'm in the middle of the road! In response, I stick my middle finger way up in the air and scowl at the driver through their driver's side window. I surprise myself with this jolt of anger over such a minor infraction. But in my head I'm thinking, does that person have so much disrespect for me that they risk running me over just to avoid the inconvenience of stopping? What's wrong with people today?

About five minutes later, I'm feeling shame mixed with fading anger. I know I overreacted, and the image I have of myself is not pretty.

The same thing happens when I'm home and my downstairs neighbors--Boston University students--have their stereo blasting dance music. Here I am trying to watch a sensitive, low-budget documentary about coffee production in Columbia or some place, and these jerks are making my floor shake like there's a Jersey Shore nightclub below me. I start to seethe and clench my teeth, wondering how they can be so completely witless and still be in college. Various neighbors (not just us) have asked them to turn it down (usually on a Sunday night at midnight) and yet it happens again the next night and the next. They are so disrespectful! Don't they know that I prefer 70's soul and disco?

It's easy to find fault with the world around you--and especially with the people around you. It's hard to consider their point of view. Maybe the person in the car who didn't stop for me was distracted with thoughts about work or his girlfriend. And the college guys--how many times in your early twenties did YOU blast music in your apartment without thought to your older neighbors who might have preferred classical over the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack?

I live right outside the city, in an apartment building that's close to another apartment building. The guy on the roof chipping ice and dumping it in the alley is not intentionally trying to flood our basement--he's probably not conscious of that possibility. He's just trying to stop the flooding in his own apartment. Even when people are intentionally rude or thoughtless doesn't mean they're incapable of also being a nice person.

Yesterday, I got a box of artisan chocolates in the mail from one of my authors, along with a card thanking me for helping to promote her essay collection. It absolutely made my day, this small act of kindness. I hadn't known she felt that way about my work. I started thinking about how I encounter people doing kind things almost as often as people doing rotten things. It does balance out in the end.

And that kind, caring, compassionate woman trying to cross the street? She's no saint. When Linda indirectly asked me to take her to a podiatry appointment early Monday morning I hesitated and made excuses--even told her to reschedule the appointment so someone else could take her. Not that I wasn't aware that it would be the right thing to do. I wanted to sleep in.