parenting

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I have been thinking a lot about how we are at least partly (quite a lot, really) shaped by the kind of parenting we received. Like it or not, it takes a lifetime to unravel some of the ingrained feelings that parents and caretakers may have woven into our being without knowing it or meaning to. I had a long conversation with my dear friend JEB a few weeks or months ago (who knows when – it’s so easy to lose track of time), and he said he once questioned the nature of parenting as such: “Do you want to show them who’s boss or how to live in the world?”

This struck a chord with me as well, having lived under the unpredictably tyrannical mania of someone who wanted to control everything but had remarkably little control over anything, most of all, himself. But when you are young, new in the world, how can you put this insight into perspective? That is, when you’re, say, five years old, how can see that the mania of one of the people closest to you, who is charged with your care and upbringing, and not think it is deeply frightening while at the same time knowing nothing else, so extrapolating that this is normal? How can that not make you build associations that take a lifetime to demolish, i.e. if this man is angry and unpredictable and cannot be trusted, can any man be otherwise? Or, if one’s parent seems unable to express affection or seems unable to acknowledge his/her children’s accomplishments, or seems jealous of (while simultaneously and confusingly proud of) his/her children’s abilities or achievements, how can these things not make up significant parts of the foundation of one’s personality (at least that which is influenced by environment)?

 

 

 

waiting room

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“’You got the good heart. Underneath all the other stuff. Good heart is eighty-five percent of everything in life.’” –Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon

But… what about the other 15 percent? A mess? Evil? An eternal waiting room.

Cold never bothers me, but the snow. My god, the snow. Watching each morning dawn earlier, light filtering in before 6 in the morning, I want to squeal with delight. Even if it’s -20C. It’s bright! Is anything sweeter than the combination of early, ever-lengthening light and the slow promise of warmer days? Just a matter of waiting for it to change completely.

I keep thinking of something I want to write, but the thought slips away from me before I write it down. So I wait.

I keep finding myself having to say to people, who ask me supposedly simple questions about myself, “We are people. Not elevator pitches.” Yet, every day we are asked in one way or another to reduce ourselves to 30 seconds or less. Take up less space and speak fewer words. I patiently wait my turn, only to be told to hurry it up or be interrupted; no one has time for more than 20 seconds of your face and words.

Presence is, after all, just waiting. I am just waiting.

“…’isn’t it strange that we don’t know who we are? I mean, we know so little about ourselves it’s shocking. We tell ourselves a story and we go along believing in it, and then, it turns out, it’s the wrong story, which means we’ve lived the wrong life.’” The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt

I am waiting (waste of time) to see if I have lived the wrong life by choosing never to decide anything. Never to involve anyone else in the decisions I have made. I am waiting to declare that my prime has passed (“‘One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full’.” –The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark).

Perhaps there never was a ‘prime’ – and even if there were, I lived it within the wrong confines, the wrong story or context, afraid to embrace it and afraid even of myself. Until a cascade of waiting rooms and endless waiting became the definition of life. Was the prime of life eaten away slowly by waiting – for something to happen, for something to go away, for something or someone that could never fit into the context I was hiding myself in? Waiting, still waiting, be present. It’s only later, in some new reality, that this waiting feels as though it was tedious. The waiting, as it happens, feels full of questions, urgency, anxiety, imbuing each moment with the feeling that something is happening, – or will, any second now – good or bad. Only much later, if I make it, does the perception change.

“‘Why are things as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?’ To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken.” –No Time to Spare – Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. LeGuin

Who we are, who we have to become and are always yet to become

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“All men contain several men inside them, and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are.” –The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster

“He is at least three different men, and she at least three different women.” One of Us Is Sleeping, Josefine Klougart

The dead and their identities

At different moments in our lives, we are different people. With different people, we behave as different people. We are who we need to be in our circumstances. We may embody these many people all at one time; we may embody these people at very different and distant moments.

I think now of a woman whose life has now ended, but who was at one point a young, abused wife with several children to consider, who was at another point a brave abuse survivor who became a single mother when she found the strength to leave her abuser, who was at another point still young and beautiful, meeting a married man who would father her ‘accidental’ final child but never be with her or know his son, who eventually met a new husband, who eventually gave her another identity: widow; a woman who always, somehow, made ends meet, who was loved and, by some of her children, resented, who still cared about having her hair done even in the last days. At each moment or phase, she was who she needed to be.

And then she passed away, as we all do. The end was not unexpected, as death comes for all of us. And certainly sooner for the elderly and infirm, which she was. But, despite various ailments, death had not been imminent. She had not suffered, had not struggled with dismal health. Reduced mobility, increased anxiety, more dependence on her youngest child, but nothing that made her lose her will to live. No, the time just came that her body, tired from living these many different, and often quite painful, lives, went to sleep and stayed asleep. The way we all hope to go… feeling just a little unlike herself suddenly one evening, getting into bed and not getting out of it again.

She had been living her normal life right up until that last night: ordering her new prescription glasses, having some new knickknack shelves installed, expressing anticipation about watching her soaps and other shows. But in hindsight the last couple of weeks might indicate that she had known deep down that the end was coming soon – people do seem to know sometimes. She was putting different things in place; she was offering her adult children whatever little things she had that could ease their paths; her social club (where she went and socialized actively right to the end) was quite insistent the week before she died that they have a copy of her do-not-resuscitate order on file. The signs perhaps had all been there, and she had internalized her peace with it.

The one who dies isn’t the one who lives with the aftermath, though. Those who live grapple with the aftermath: the prospect of a world without the departed. Over the course of days, weeks, even years, grieving in new and unexpected ways, often coming to terms with the identities the departed inhabited about which they had never known. And now can only glimpse or never know. And no one can know if any – or all – of those identities truly were that person. Did the departed even know him/herself?

The living

“There is no evidence of the soul except in its sudden absence. A nothingness enters, taking the place where something was before.” Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

The youngest son, the one who was closest and had cared for her day in and day out, discovered her, still and peaceful, lying exactly as she always had in sleep. He knew, immediately, but still tried to shake her gently awake. Frantic wailing came only later, garbled and panicked statements that made very little sense, all uttered in shock and the kind of inconsolable grief that comes from that shock. Later, after the initial panic of not knowing what to do, once the rest of the family, the authorities, appeared, he calmed down into fearful coherence: “What am I going to do? What am I going to do without her?”

She had always been his anchor – both the kind he never wanted, weighing him down and making him stuck somewhere, but also the kind he always needed for stability and support. What happens with the loss of that anchorage? The eternal struggle of figuring out not only who he was and is – but figuring out what his identity is and will be without her in the world. How do we define ourselves once we are motherless? A strange and painful rebirth into a world empty of the person from whom we were… birthed.

RIP with love, M.

Photo by Jacob Meyer on Unsplash

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.

few surprises

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Researching local/regional and national politics (as well as pet-project Scottish politics) and issues, overdosing on poetry, looking at a flat, looking at some study options, conversing with a best friend from years ago, listening to a handful of different Joe Rogan podcasts (Henry Rollins, Leah Remini, Louis Theroux, Lance Armstrong? Weird mix, eh? Odd that I would watch the Armstrong one since I don’t care about him, cycling or doping; that said, the podcast ended with him rambling on about Hunter S. Thompson, someone I never think about but had had a conversation about no more than two hours earlier), walking like a penguin through miles of snow and ice, dining with a part of the past, contemplating next places and steps, coming to terms with finished things (can you call them finished if they never really started or never materialized for a host of reasons?), squaring myself with or discarding the things that felt important or even life altering for all of five minutes, five days (knowing this negates, at least in some way, the way I wanted to live, love and feel as this year dawned. Circumstances change, take quick turns – really quick, sharp turns. I will live, love and feel and dive into other things.), outlining writing and other projects. Face forward and march. (OH! Why can’t it already be March?)

In the cold city, unexpectedly and spur of the moment, curled up, having tea instead of coffee and digging back into the reading (the endless Infinite Jest), writing and numbness – literal and figurative.

Photo (c) Teodor Bjerrang

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

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.