rules

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Turn yourself off before you are mangled irretrievably by the inevitable forces of the grinding, gnashing machinery of life.

Marvel at all the things you said you’d never do, all the things you laughed at, that you have now done more times than you can count and no longer find funny.

Step up and march forward even after stating your position unequivocally, mistake or not. The only true mistake is not continuing to act.

Acknowledge that convention is sometimes beautiful; you can suddenly see it when the scenery takes shape around it and the figure of the stalwart body imbues it with meaning.

Talk about the disaster(s) big and small and let go of their hold on you.

Create.

Dream.

Eyes toward the sky: Don’t be ‘ground clutter’

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The air traffic control radar beacon system (ATCRBS) is a system used in air traffic control (ATC) to enhance surveillance radar monitoring and separation of air traffic. ATCRBS assists ATC surveillance radars by acquiring information about the aircraft being monitored, and providing this information to the radar controllers. The controllers can use the information to identify radar returns from aircraft (known as targets) and to distinguish those returns from ground clutter.

I returned to this piece because I wanted a reminder – an unidentified blip on my radar screen popped up recently that kind of irked me (no one wants to deal with a UFO, you see), even if it was inconsequential. Or maybe it’s truer to say it confused me.

In my annual seasonal funk, delivered right on time each year between February 1 and 8, I dipped into rather egregious self-pity and felt hurt by the mismatch of someone’s words and actions. I came to terms with all my wallowing stupidity, wrote about and got it out of my system. That’s all tired, repetitive news by now, no? By March, which now seems like an eternity ago, I was a flashing blip on radar screens of an entirely different sector of the world’s airspace.

The aforementioned blog post addresses that sense of feeling independence and freedom slip away, and the involuntary oppression of the fierceness of care that comes from witnessing someone else in trouble. But it also delivers me back to that place of centered individuality: “carefree, spontaneous, open person who takes risks and action and moves forward no matter what…”. Perhaps because I already feel like I’ve flown off to new and foreign lands, literal and figurative, in the mere two months (but what does time mean? As I picked up in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics: “When his great Italian friend Michele Besso died, Einstein wrote a moving letter to Michele’s sister: ‘Michele has left this strange world a little before me. This means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction made between past, present and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion’.”) since that brief winter ‘episode’, I don’t feel any real, or strong, connection to that former time or place or the people populating it. Only interesting, intelligent characters and moments that, even if they do exist in the “persistent, stubborn” ‘non-time’ we live in, are not a part of my life now.

Life just goes on, sometimes at high speed and at cruising altitude. Though I will always care, it’s in a different and almost entirely impersonal, if friendly, way. Because ultimately I’m driven to move forward at all costs, I do not do well with fumbling through inertia or being at a standstill for very long. This has led me, in these weeks, to read, to study, to write, to work, to inhale music, to see films, to walk and hike and run and twist myself into new (to me) yogic positions, to unclog drains, change lightbulbs  and change the oil and tires, to let someone nearly break my back but then let the same person nearly fix it, to meet my near twin only in male form, to obsess over soup and stew, to summon apparitions from the past, to host lovely guests, to travel to new countries and cities, to spend time with my nearest and dearest of amazing friends, and even still to come back home and mail multiple rather innocuous and generic, if chocolaty, packages all over the place.

This last bit has apparently been the ‘last straw’ for one recipient/household, which is a shame, actually, because I had no idea it would cause the “dischord” (take note: the correct spelling is “discord”) they cited. I honestly thought there was only one person living in that household. I am not enough of an asshole that I would ever have sent anything had I known otherwise. Frivolously, perhaps, I thought I was supplying an appropriate “bookend” to close out the (brevity of that) acquaintance; you know, Norwegian Kvikk Lunsj, which is a bridge builder, fence mender, ski-trip snack essential, winning rival to the inferior KitKat and a neutral way to say adieu, even if it won’t keep tooth decay away.

Oh well, dear, undoubtedly lovely, disembodied soul, roger that. I meant no disrespect and no ill-will. It will never happen again.

Photo (c) 2016 NATS Press Office used under Creative Commons license.

aged

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The beauty of being older is that you may experience pain but you know it’s only temporary. You will float right out of it eventually. You have all the evidence in memory and sometimes even in writing that all the things that so wounded and destroyed you when you were younger, and continued to do so over and over, will keep happening, and you will get over all of it. You will come right out the other side of the pain and feel almost as good as new.

Reading notes I’d jotted down from 1996, 2001, 2011, and various other points throughout, I see my pain splattered all over the pages, remembering exactly what I was doing, where I was sitting, even how I was breathing or crying or wringing my hands or writhing in physical pain, when all these catastrophes occurred – real catastrophes and crises or just those minor dust-ups that inveigle the heart – and I can even smile at this repeated pouring out of the fucked-up muck of life. All that agony, frustration, keeping up appearances, feeling used, tremendous loss, self-torture, deconstructing so many illusions, treading water, fecklessness, justifications: all of it felt like something once but eventually becomes something you don’t consciously remember.

Photo (c) Paul Costanich.

Mental sorbet: Live out, outlive, feel, unfeel

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A short exchange on how strange Danes can be – or at least their language – and I recall a Danish man who thought that to “to live out” and “to outlive” meant the same thing.

And yet, I live out my life in outmoded ways – or with outmoded views – that have outlived their time. If they ever had a time.

My life has made me be the person who favors the scrappy stray mother cat scrounging through garbage in order to feed herself and her kittens rather than be the person who fawns over her adorable little litter. Always the one who looks past the surface, I value her experience and tenacity over the fleeting cuteness of her kittens.

My life has also made me be the person who sees someone who is lonely, something of a misfit, hurting, ostracized, struggling or troubled, and I feel a need to reach out to them, help them – sometimes in misguided ways (particularly when I was young and very shy myself – hard to step outside of my own confines to intervene in someone else’s being). This never necessarily works out well, but I always thought my heart was in the right place. I somehow imagine(d) that what you put into the world is what you get back from it. But this is naive: even if you put out compassion, you are likely to be met with disappointment. You have to learn either to dismiss the urge toward compassion or dismiss the disappointment that often follows.

I see and feel the rarity of my way. I am not a surface-level person (other than the initial cold read people may get from me). The surface always has the power to sway and seduce. Most people don’t look beyond it.

But then, it depends on what they’re looking for. Mismatched intentions can be crushing. Initially of course I think of my own crushed feelings throughout life’s less triumphant moments, but I recognize that it can work both ways. In my supposed compassion, I might, as I did as an adolescent, reach out to someone who had no friends, spent his time hanging out with the school’s science teacher, and try to be friendly, boost his confidence – and in doing so, give him completely the wrong idea. My actual intentions were entirely different from how he received my intentions, and the situation did not end well.

Even when your intentions match up with someone else’s – those intentions can shift, creating unstable ground. It could be that I, like most, hope to be blindsided in amazement at the unconditional and expansive love and understanding that another person can give/show. Because that is how I am (or strive to be). (But this never happens – it is not part of the surface world we live in and, in all honesty, opens up the person who shows this kind of expansive love and/or understanding to some vulnerability.)

But it could just as well be that I, in my insensitive, less than impeccable or admirable moments, wonder if a person is, disposably, just a sorbet, a palate cleanser, making way for some other main course – or perhaps that person is the main course, and I pass on it, claiming not to be hungry?

…I know what is good, and conversely, not good for me, and I know what I need to do. Live out my days and outlive my usefulness. But do I act accordingly?

What form of akrasia is this?

It is only partly true that I act against (or for) my own best interests. I often compare the ‘doing versus thinking’ concept because I am both a thinker and a doer. And most other people seem to be much better, more active thinkers but not great doers. One day, I said to someone who insisted he would take action but frustrated me for years with his all-talk, no-action behavior: “You will have many hurdles to jump to become a doer like me, and I am not even half-motivated. But for you, it’s probably a priorities issue. Some things, some people, are important, and some are not. If you really wanted something, or someone, or wanted to do something, you would do it. The end. Someday maybe you will be a doer, and that will change my mind about you. But today, and for as long as I have known you, you have not been a doer unless it required absolutely zero effort or thought on your part.” In truth, as I could see plainly in that moment: if there is no feeling behind the doing, why should it ever go beyond thinking?

I rarely add ‘feeling’ to the equation. ‘Doing-thinking-feeling’. But would most people feel motivated to think and then do without that spark of feeling to push them to take action? I take plenty of risks and live freely in the thinking and doing realms. Ultimately, I may not make the riskiest choices from the heart’s standpoint. It makes me think a bit about school days, when teachers would tell certain kids that they really have a lot of potential but no follow-through. I was always the thinking-doing overachiever but had “a lot of potential but no follow-through” when it came to feeling, which is not to say I did not feel: Only that feeling did not, and could not, come first, lest it crush me. Perhaps I have always felt much too deeply.

Even this, I sometimes think, is not entirely true. My life has made me a person who prefers to be alone, who is mostly not interested in personal intimacy while at the same time being overly curious about other people’s personal intimacy. That is, I am less a partner or lover and more a would-be, unqualified, armchair therapist, wanting to know people deeply and intimately, but only from an observant and almost clinical distance (but not entirely dispassionately).

I am still trying to figure out whether – or how – feelings just leave, like a flock of birds migrating away for winter, or whether feelings morph into this “observant-supportive-caretaker” mold that I seem to adopt. I am not afraid of feeling now; I do not suppress it now. But no longer trying to control feeling, I find that feeling is much more unpredictable than I would have imagined. Yes, I knew feelings like love, as an example, were uncontrollable, messy, sticky, and up, down and all over the place, but I did not fully appreciate that they could be as fickle as they are. That, for example, one could be completely in it one day and wake up the next morning feeling absolutely nothing. Is it some unseen barrier that the inner, protective self builds? And if so, how can the lack of all feeling – this indifference – feel as real and as deep as the love once was? Did feelings, however briefly they lived, outlive their expiration?

Photo (c) 2008 Angela Schmeidel Randall

The danger of “good enough”

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I think often about how the struggles we face in life shape how we live it.

I struggled a lot when I was much younger with finding a job and finding my niche. Of course this was depressing, confidence-shaking and worrisome. This has turned me into a workaholic machine, someone who cannot say no or create a good work-life balance (I’m getting there), someone who is always at the edge of paranoid, looking for the “writing on the wall” about corporate instability or shakeups and always prepared for these things. It means that I am always ready, never blindsided and know – thanks to the long struggle – that I am always going to land on my feet.

I am thankful for that. And thankful for where I have landed.

But I also feel thankful now for the struggle. I consider the question frequently now: What if, years ago, I had found an ‘Oh, I guess I can live with this’ existence/job and had gotten stuck where I was? And then never realized the bigger dreams or followed the more interesting and challenging path(s) I followed, such as moving far away and looking for freedom in everything I do?

It is the struggle that propels me forward – both because and in spite of the discomfort.

Out with the old

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Finally a new year is upon us. I write “finally” even though 2015 could not have gone faster. It feels like this time last year was just last week.

I have written enough “end-of-year” recaps. Don’t feel like writing more “reflections”. I have come to hate the word “reflections” or any variation of it, “I reflected”, “I had a reflection”. It comes up constantly in corporate workshops, and it has lost all meaning.

It is not that you or I should not reflect. Just… keep doing it continually and consistently, all the time. A new year is as good a time as any to take stock, but why only then?

Happy new year. Await instructions… or people bring me some coffee. Thanks!

Old lovers

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The way people from the past resurface and remind me of things I had forgotten – things that meant so much at the time, but life has slowly and imperceptibly erased…

A Woman Meets an Old Lover (Denise Levertov)

‘He with whom I ran hand in hand
kicking the leathery leaves down Oak Hill Path
thirty years ago,

appeared before me with anxious face, pale,
almost unrecognized, hesitant,
lame.

He whom I cannot remember hearing laugh out loud
but see in my mind’s eye smiling, self-approving,
wept on my shoulder.

He who seemed always
to take and not give, who took me
so long to forget,

remembered everything I had so long forgotten.’

It is only too late if you are dead

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“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
― Doris Lessing

Nobel laureate Doris Lessing and creative pioneer Lou Reed both died recently. I think of this Lessing quote and the way Reed lived his life – unapologetically, his own way – and continue to realize the value of doing whatever it is you want to, are meant to, dream of doing – right now – regardless of whether the circumstances are ideal. (They never are, really. Meaning they always are. Any time is as good as any other.) We can make excuses forever – excuses will stop us in our tracks, hold us back, but all that happens is a life of regret about the things we never dared to try. That’s not to say I have always been completely faithful to the idea of jumping when the urge struck.  I am as cautious and fearful as anyone else – just about different things.

People tell me all the time that they wanted to do X or Y but that “now it’s too late” – followed by a litany of other reasons why. “I’m too old.” “It will take too long.” “I am working all day.” “It’s too far away.” “I am not smart enough.” But this idea that just because something was not done and completed at a specific point in time, like it is now out of reach forever, is complete bullshit. Nothing is too late. It is only too late if you are dead.

That is not to say it (whatever “it” is) won’t be the most difficult thing you ever did or tried to do. Even if you give this nebulous “it” your all, there is no guarantee of success. Obviously if you are 45 and think you can compete in the Olympics against 20-year-old athletes, maybe you are deluded – but does that mean you should not strive for that goal anyway just to push yourself to see how far you can go, even if you don’t compete in the Olympics? This is an extreme example. Most of us are not setting our sights on such accomplishments. Most of us are wishing for a new job, a promotion, a different educational experience, a move abroad, learning a language… and none of these things is anywhere near impossible.

It is a story I have told and written about before but choose to repeat to make a point. Around the time I had decided to move to Iceland, I found myself sometimes racked with doubt. I did not really have a plan – was I making a big mistake? As the day of my move drew nearer, though, I grew surer that I would hate myself if I did not at least try. One afternoon, I ran into a man (a former colleague with whom both my dad and I had worked when we were colleagues) I had known. I knew, via my dad, that this man had recently been diagnosed with fairly advanced cancer for which there were very few treatment options. When I had seen this many only a matter of months earlier, he had been vibrant and alive, and suddenly here he was before me, a shell of his former physical self. In that moment, it struck me vividly – he had talked almost daily at the office about his retirement countdown, looking forward to sailing around the world (his big retirement plan). Everything hinged on this magic number, magic day, “When I retire…”. Now he was not even going to make it to retirement. That encounter cemented my decision for me – it is not possible to live in this “I will do X when…” way. Yes, sometimes real, tangible circumstances delay our plans, but for the most part, when you have your moment, as frightening as it is, what is more frightening than not taking the risk? What is the alternative? Everything is a risk, and life continually postponed and planned out is not living. A more “convenient time” and “the right moment” may not come to pass.

This year, having seen so much loss, especially in very unexpected places, it hit home for me again. Plans, to some extent, mock us. When confronted by loss, even the loss of people in the periphery with whom we are not directly close, it can shock us and create emotional turmoil by stirring up so much self-reflection that normal daily life does not provoke. It reminds us both to hold on to what we have and let go of limitations simultaneously.

All of life is a transitional time

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I wrote recently about a period in my life that ended up being the precursor to a big, life-altering change. I did not know it at the time – I was going in one direction that seemed to be what I wanted but turned out to be more like where the current was carrying me. A friend who was in my life during that period and came back into my life in recent years made a comment on the blog post, stating that she remembers that time and how transitional it was for both of us. While she is quite right, I actually found that I got completely lost in thought earlier this evening, walking in the premature darkness (that’s Scandinavian winter life for you), analyzing this very same idea that all of life is transitional.

Some periods are more transitional than others. Some people fight the tide of change while others ride it. Some make excuses or proudly announce, “It was such a transitional period”, as if this reasoning can provide cover for any number of bad decisions or indiscretions. Now, the older I get, the more I see, the more I realize all of life is a transitional period. In the slow creep of day-to-day life, maybe it does not seem like we are in the middle of some “transition” – but if you have anything dynamic happening at all, it’s going to be somewhat transitional. Especially if you welcome and invite constant change, as I do. (Perhaps it is the unwelcome and unintentional change that is harder to face.)

What prompted these thoughts about life as a transitional period was rumination about what to write in my annual year-end letter. (Technically, I view my Halloween letter, which accompanies my Halloween mix soundtrack CD, as my “year-end” letter. This year, given the collection of more music I have amassed and the technical difficulties of the CDs I did make and send out for Halloween, I am sending out a “revision” – I also could not resist the maddeningly, irresistibly cute series of Swedish Christmas postage stamps this year… needed an excuse to buy a whole bunch and use them – can I blame it on the fact that it is a “transitional period”?) I contemplated the fact that this year has been a series of disappointing events, mostly clouded by a hazy, grey aura, a good deal of (often self-imposed) loneliness (not because of a lack of people but more because of a lack of understanding and deep connections with others – and we thought that deep-seated sense of being misunderstood was a wholly adolescent affliction!) and a strange, ineffable sense of longing (for what I don’t really know). I considered writing something about how this has been a particularly difficult year full of change and transitions that were not what I expected or hoped for. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I write and repeat something in a very similar vein in my year-end letter every year. Is each year becoming qualitatively worse? Is each year a constant pit of disappointment? No. It changes. But there is consistency in the fact that it is all in a state of (often slow-motion) flux and transition.

Perhaps the period my friend referred to was more tumultuous than life feels now – certainly for her, if not for me, but life is always tumultuous. I try to remind myself of this when I ride the tram each morning and evening. I look around at the other listless-seeming riders, people whose lives are mysteries to me, trying to imagine their stories, wondering if they have always lived in this city. Have they had the adventures they dreamt of? Or is this what they wanted… or did they ever stop to think they could or should have done something else? I could never have been content just staying in one place and living without major upheavals and transitions (good and bad) – but for some people, a life with that kind of uncertainty is no life at all. I wonder also when the tram riders look at me, do they imagine a whole life story that obviously will not have one shred of fact in it?