Gone away: 23 May

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Today would have been my uncle’s birthday – my uncle who died last year in November. As with all losses and the mourning that follows, it has been rough, especially for my mom, his sister. I’ve written various bits about the loss and all the things you lose along with the person (the shared memory, or, as my mom put it the other day, “I was the person who had him in my life the longest of anyone alive” – in a sense this is true. As the older sister, she was there, 1.5 years old, when he came into the world, and with both of their parents gone, she is the only one who was there, and up close, for the rest of his life).

But in losing someone like him, we gain a deeper appreciation for who he was, and more than that, for what he taught without even trying. As I wrote at the time of his death: “the man collected everyone who came into his life, from “stray” people, to new friends, to ex-wives and ex-wives’ future families to new loves and their families and friends” – and this is always the thing about him that stuck with me during his life and now “post-life”. Perhaps because it is the thing I aspire to most. I find that somehow he was able to make it work, but I just encounter the most stubborn and traditional of barriers. I touched on the thought the other day: why are we so territorial and stingy with our love and acceptance?

Sure, I am a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope, a come-to-life Oscar the Grouch (my hero, my idol), but it’s not actually who I am inside. Like my uncle, I am curious and my capacity for wanting to love people and show them compassion is boundless. When a former partner, who became a close friend, moved on and met the woman he has hitherto spent his life with, I was elated for him, but I lost the friendship because she was too jealous about its continuing to exist. When I got twisted into a mercifully brief emotional vise earlier this year, I swiftly got over the disappointment of it and thought we’d be friends – I tried to at least leave the door open to friendship on his terms but got burned by the partner/ex-partner/who knows now what she is/was because that became a question mark. Those details don’t really matter – I understand why these people got jealous, angry, irritated, upset. I just don’t think they had to – I have at least as much care and compassion for them as for the other party (the ones I actually knew directly). They have no way of knowing this and probably would not care because I guess there’s some intoxication or self-righteousness to be had in directing hatred or frustration toward perceived threats or annoyances. And all I can think is: I am sorry. I don’t think that holding onto hostility – or feeling hostile in any sustained way at all – is a way to live.

That is not to say I never get annoyed or hostile (often reactions to feeling hurt). But these things mend, and I look at situations and people (even virtual strangers) to see the good in all of them, to see what they must have gone through or experienced. If I could, I would be like my uncle and “collect” these people, too, into a distant but extended kind of network of people – like-minded or not, I am sure that if someone I cared about, even remotely or briefly, loved these people, they must be remarkable in some way. I’d venture to guess we all have a lot more in common than not.

Confronting mortality – both one’s own (and one’s own brushes with death) and others (so many losses, some obvious, some hidden) – it has always seemed ludicrous to be so insular and self-absorbed about love and particularly about welcoming and accepting people into your heart. My uncle, may he rest in cycling adventures and untold numbers of over-the-top characters and events on whatever plane he travels now – today, his birthday – and for all eternity, managed to live this challenge and invite others to live in this way too.

He taught by example, sure, but I really wish he were still here to ask him how he did it.

Photo (c) 2006 John/Johnny Grim used under Creative Commons license.

Uniting Power of Hate – Ouagadougou to Timbuktu

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When I was an insolent adolescent, my father, in a period of midlife-crisis-enlightenment-seeking, went through a New Age phase, in which he adopted a New Age guru who walked him through past life regressions, chakra balancing and, perhaps his favorite activity of all, chanting. It was an awkward and transitional time, probably for everyone involved. During this hazy period, my father decided to try to address my permanent “Oscar the Grouch” take on life:

Dad: “Erika, why are you so hateful?”
Me: (rolling eyes, sarcastic tone) “Gee, I don’t know”
Dad: (enlightened tone) “Well, your mother and I could teach you some neat things.”
Me: (rolling eyes again) “Like?”
Dad: (even more enlightened) “Like… how to chant!
RAHHHHH-OHHHHHHM!

Check it out – “Nasty Dan” from Johnny Cash visiting my dear Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street! “Say, aren’t you Johnny Trash?” “Cash. – Have a rotten day.” “Wow, there goes my kinda guy.”

So, the hateful thing goes back a ways. While I won’t go so far as to say that I seriously hate anyone or anything, I readily admit that I am easily annoyed and enjoy sarcasm and complaint a great deal. I derive joy from this kind of casual and idle hatred and dismay/disdain. It is not often that I meet kindred hating spirits in the world; that is, people with sour attitudes who find something to dislike about almost everything but who still actually are quite sweet people who find a lot of things to like and even love as well.

I don’t look at my attitude as sheer, unproductive negativity the way many do – I think of myself as a realist and sometimes a pessimist. It’s hard to live in the world and see reality without rose-colored glasses and not be a bit pessimistic at times, even if there are always rays of bright sunlight here and there. This approach and attitude has been polarizing and divisive at times and has brought about the demise of a few friendships (and I won’t pretend that that didn’t hurt).

On rare occasions I met up with people with almost as dark a view on the world, with as many complaints and who reveled in sharing complaints, with similar dark senses of humor, with similar misanthropic and impatient tendencies. But I had never quite met my match until now. My heart – be still, dear heart – has been stolen by someone who told me that he makes mental lists of all the things he hates while he is walking to work.

Sigh.

I once advised a girl who had had rather iffy relationships and made iffy relationship choices to stop accepting and settling for stale crumbs and to only accept the “the whole cake”. I knew I had my whole cake already – but when I heard about this hate list – and knew that the person behind it could also laugh about all the annoyances on the list, I knew I had the icing on the cake as well.

All this is not to say that I think real, visceral hatred and anger is healthy. I don’t like to waste energy or in-depth thought on any of it, which is why I think it’s great to make a mental list or voice the little complaints here and there – it is a means of just letting them go and moving forward. Save the real anger and hatred for bigger stuff – the major injustices in the world. The sexism, racism, abuse and all the other real travesties. I mean, yes, a group of people walking side-by-side taking up the entire width of a sidewalk is really damn annoying and virtually impossible to get around without running into road traffic, but it’s not the end of the world or particularly destructive.

It’s a pick-your-battle kind of war, really. One man in my … sphere of influence (haha – I make myself sound so mesmerizing!) complained heartily about racism and racial stereotypes, and how he is so tired of them he might just move back to Africa one day so as to not hear these things any longer. And I thought, yeah, but I suspect you will hear different stupid things in Africa and maybe get Ebola. Okay. Probably not – that’s just one of my ignorant attempts at being funny. (I had been watching the news and saw that Guinea is facing its first-ever Ebola outbreak.) My serious point was that it makes little sense to abandon an otherwise comfortable life just because you don’t want to hear things that are unpleasant to live a less comfortable life and probably just hear a different set of annoying generalizations. Of course, I don’t have to bear the weight of racist (inadvertent or otherwise) commentary all the time, and it may well feel much more powerful and daunting than just being “unpleasant” to someone exposed to it all the time.

Naturally all of this made me think once more of the elusive idea of “Africa”. Mostly because I talked to someone about African place names that sound foreign to our western ears, and for example, as children, we scarcely know that they are real places – they sound so exotic that they could be figments of someone’s phonetically rich imagination. Timbuktu came up a lot when I was a kid – and when I ask people these days what they associate with the word “Timbuktu” now, they rarely name a place, mention Africa or – heaven forbid – mention the country of which it is actually a part (Mali). Same goes for Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso). When I mentioned “Burkina Faso” to my mother, she too just said, “I don’t know what that is.”

Muppet Family Christmas and Back to Work

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A friend mentioned he had seen The Muppet Family Christmas for the first time and linked to it… and I was elated. I LOVE this special and had never been able to find it anywhere. Now I can get over the funk I’m in of having to return to work.

Best thing ever! Can anything compete with something that has Oscar the Grouch, The Count, Cookie Monster AND the Swedish Chef in it? (And all the rest of the Muppet, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock gang?)

"No, I'll be nicely miserable in my trash can here."

“No, I’ll be nicely miserable in my trash can here.”