Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!




Sunday, September 25, 2022

Your Life Dreams are Thieves

 

“Our purest dreams steal something from our lives.

They can only live if something else dies…”

 


As I idled in traffic one breezy spring morning, the lines above leapt out from my car stereo and gripped my brain, demanding my attention then and there—and I began to feel my emotions welling (as they are right now, as I compose this). What was required of me in that moment was to connect the dots between a book I’d been devouring breathlessly, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman1, pause the song until I could pull over and scribble the lyrics and the jumble of thoughts into my Field Notes notebook, and then to slide that leather-bound constant companion between the seat and the console and look up through the open top of the Jeep at the cloudless sky and memento mori.

(A bit of an aside: does this sort of thing happen to you, this scramble to record a thought you know will slip away? Does it feel like desperation? One could argue that it’s a function of aging; we realize at some point that we will not remember an insight and we take measures to shore up our abilities: surround ourselves with notebooks and pens and sticky notes everywhere and memo minders on our phones and whiteboards on multiple surfaces. 2

So, yes, on the aging front I won’t quibble, but it isn’t just that for me. I’ve carried a book, a notebook, and a writing tool with me everywhere as long as I can remember, because there are so many more elements I experience than I can attend to at a time; the world around me constantly sparks my imagination and, no matter our age, we can only hold so much at once.)

Why did these lyrics grab me? Time is a fickle mistress, isn’t she? We tend to think we have way more time than we actually do; we see the future with rose-colored glasses as a huge, never-ending expanse of time in which All The Things will be able to be explored.

In order to pursue Activity A, we will have to pause or cease Activities B-Z because of the way in which we mortals experience time. This, on a micro level, means that dinner with your family at home means you can’t be attending a lecture or concert across town; and choosing to take a job on Wall Street means you have to give up the idea of spending that same year on a fishing trawler or hiking across the Caucasus mountains, because you cannot be in two places at once.

And this means you must constantly make an array of choices that could lead to extraordinary experiences, pure regret, or something in between.                                  

Every experience you choose removes another experience from the realm of possibility in that time frame. And you might, remembering Frost’s words to “mark the first [road] for another day,” declare yes, if I choose K, I cannot do Q right now, but I will do it in the future, won’t I? If it matters, I *will* get to it, right?


Ah. It seems you may have forgotten the next lines Robert wrote, Dear Reader. 3

The idea that your life dreams are thieves may shock you, or disappoint you. It may jolt you awake, smear you with intense FOMO, or be of no real concern to you because you didn’t realize you had a choice of aspirations.

(The song is looking at the macro, of course, but the concept applies even when reduced, though it wavers, when reduced, from a “life dreams” level.4)

What do your dreams steal from you? Following them eliminates all the other dreams you might have pursued. Following them means that the activities and tasks you did to “move the needle” toward your goal happened instead of other activities and tasks and experiences you might have had or done.

For most of us, following our dreams means honing in and tuning out distractions, over and over and over; we structure our time and curate our activities for a goal out of necessity, typically not knowing what we are bypassing or missing.5

And here’s another truth about choosing to follow our dreams: since we have a limited amount of time, we must often jettison activities we enjoy (that may even be work-related) that are not moving the needle forward for us. This has happened to me in the last several months as I change careers in midlife, and I am still grieving the loss of those activities, most related to my previous career, that brought me so much satisfaction and pleasure. But we have to make the tough choices in regards to our time.

“…And our purest dreams
Steal something from our lives
They can only live
Because something else dies
But they lift us up
And they make us walk so tall
Got it all…got it all…got it all…”

~from “Love Too Much” by Keane,
lyrics by Tim Rice-Oxley

 

 ***********************

 

1.   Not your run-of-the-mill self-help book about time management, so don’t dismiss it. It’s a deep, thoughtful treasure trove of head-slapping insights and I re-read it constantly.

2.  During the pandemic, the wife and I invested in some nice glass whiteboards and installed them in multiple places in our home. Are they a beautiful addition to our d├ęcor? No. Do they improve the look of our space? Also no. But have they helped us by giving us a close-by way to jot things down and remember? Yes. I wish we’d done it sooner.


3.  ”Yet knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back.”

4.   E. g. the time you spend doomscrolling social media is time you are not reading that stack of books on your nightstand (or writing your own book); the 3 hours you spend at the bar is time you are not training your puppy, studying for your finals, cleaning your house, or any number of other tasks that may or may not be more important.

But reducing the theme to this micro level brings in more factors, one of which is how we ascribe importance, and even morality, to certain tasks, and how we guilt ourselves while doing so. If you are having a great time laughing and making memories with your friends while at the bar, who is to say that the experience is worth less than the tasks you are foregoing?

5.) This post is in no way an admonishment to abandon your dreams, by the way. Do that only to make room for new ones. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Enduring the Erosion

The breeze slides off the lake, slips nimbly up and over the ragged, red clay bank, and swirls in eddies around my bare feet. It shimmies past the perspiring skin on my arms and legs just enough to keep me from retreating to the air-conditioned camper. The water is mostly still today, only occasionally ruffled by a pleasure boat. I am fully ensconced in the shade of several young white oak trees, trees whose leaves capture (but fail to hold) the edges of the breeze caressing us all.

Many thoughts have been breezily swirling in my brain since we arrived to this quiet cove yesterday, though I fully admit to pushing some of them away so that I might remain fully present. I don’t push them away because they are unpleasant or difficult (though some are); I simply, right now, want to focus on, well, a tree.

What has captured my pen today is one singular oak to my right, the same age as her sisters (I’m guessing 25-50 years old, which is, in oak years, practically newborn*). She is the victim of unfortunate circumstance, an event probably created by drought, likely in the last 3 years.

The earth simply could not hold her where she planted herself, on a promontory too close to the water’s edge, and erosion beneath took its toll eventually, causing her to now be tilted precariously towards the water at a 45 degree angle. Her branches are in full summer outleaf and her trunk remains stubbornly sturdy; the top edge of her root ball has feathered away, though, and the exposed roots show minimal, but concerning, damage.

I have no idea how long she will persevere in this this inalterable state, and I find myself wondering how she will cope with this predicament, how much further she will fall over time, and how much time she has left, knowing full well only two things: she will never ponder these thoughts, and now, I will never not ponder them.**

Perhaps she will compensate for being off-balance by sprouting new branches on her skyward side, strengthening the ones already there, or curving her trunk, to act as ballast.

Perhaps she will call out to her brethren and sound an alarm, and they will come to her aid, as trees do--sending nutrients through the mycelium to boost her and hold her steady against the wind and water and the ravages of time.

Perhaps she will be able to hold herself in this altered state for many years, and perhaps not. She has no idea how long the remaining dirt under her will last, and she may not be able to compensate being fully waterlogged at the base once it gives way.

And then there’s the question of what will happen if roots, trunk, and branches become partly or mostly permanently submerged. White oaks are hardy, sure, but they are not suited for under-the-waterline stasis like a bald cypress, swamp tupelo, or even a willow. She could live for years more--even if she slips below the waterline. But she will likely not thrive in that state and would certainly not reach full age and mass.

Her roots hold fast to the remaining bank for now, and she continues to hold fast to her white-oakness; what other choice does she have, really?

It makes me think about how we humans cope with change, how we adjust ourselves when things interrupt our growth and/or purposely or unconsciously try to drag us down.

The tree doesn’t need to “think on her feet.” She holds this new line as only she can: with blinding slowness and complete neutrality, with steady composure, without dread. It will take months, nay, years for her to make adjustments to trunk or branches, and they will be so incremental that they would hardly be noticed with the naked eye. The challenge she faces is not one where quick thinking matters; she will adjust, but with no haste.

Meanwhile, life/the Universe flings all manner of feces at us daily: we lose jobs, our spouses divorce us or we divorce them, partnerships dissolve, our beloved soul friends move away physically or drift away emotionally (the latter, of course, being even more painful), our pets face trauma and illness and we must face their mortality, and our loved ones face illness, adversity, and death. Our hearts break, capsizing upon themselves in white-hot agony, and we are stripped bare by the futility of circumstance. Our existence can be thrown into chaos with one phone call, one unnoticed red light, one instant of distraction, even one stumble off the curb. Change is the only permanence in our lives, and often, we are not ready to face it, let alone cope with it in healthy ways. It’s funny: humans have adjusted and adapted over centuries to all manner of newness and strangeness, and persevered. But we crave consistency and sameness, routine and ritual, nonetheless.

And there is nothing wrong with this craving. Wanting consistency, desiring ritual, and needing routine have helped us adapt, actually: stability is nothing to sneeze at. We are creatures of habit.

But the Universe doesn’t really care about that, does it? We know that Life Happens--and storybook endings rarely do. We know, intellectually, that bad things happen to good people and vice-versa, that adversity doesn’t discriminate, and that life is actually rarely fair. So that means we realize that change will come and it may often be unwelcome, but we must cope. What other choice do we have?

And, unlike this young tree facing adversity, we often need to adjust to change very quickly, even though what we’d really like is More Time to learn how to cope with the inevitable erosion of what we are used to. Our heads understand what is needed, but our vulnerable hearts are slow to catch up (and often too swift to declare they will never embrace vulnerability again). The tree, lacking a breakable heart, has nothing but time to adjust, but we are rarely afforded that luxury.


As we feel our feet being ripped from underneath us, find ourselves tipping toward the water as the earth sloughs away, we realize that we can change nothing about the circumstance but ourselves: we can compensate for being off-balance by sprouting new branches on our skyward surface, strengthening the ones already there, or curving our trunks, to act as ballast. We can reach out to our brethren for aid, and open ourselves/be receptive to the nutrients they provide us.

We can experience change (and the knowing that it will always be watching us from just outside our awareness, peeking through a crack in the curtains, waiting to pop over for a “quick chat” just when we have settled ourselves into a cozy  nap in the familiar) by activating the stalwartness we, like the tree, already possess.

The leaning tree cannot control the erosion, nor can she adapt quickly to adversity, change, or distressing situations. But she copes, regardless. And we learn, sometimes against our wishes, that we can cope, provide ourselves ballast, and thrive over time despite adversity, discomfort, and even heartbreaking pain.

What other choice do we have?

****************************************

*The common folklore is that oak trees grow for 100 years, live for 100, and die for 100.

**Will I think about this tree constantly? Of course not. But will I think of her regularly? Yes, because I think about trees a lot anyway, and this one in particular has captured me on this day--and forever.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Let Yourself Shatter


“On this bald hill the new year hones its edge.
Faceless and pale as china
the round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous, nobody can tell what I lack.” ~Sylvia Plath

 

If you have been alive long enough to have experienced the end of a serious relationship, the death of a friend or loved one, or have shared your life with animals for any length of time, you have known loss and you have tasted the bitter nectar of grief. It’s an intense, heavy emotion that, when it hits, often sideswipes us with its raw power.

It’s quite likely that your first experience of death was indeed the death of a beloved pet from your childhood—an event you probably recall with incredible clarity, even now, and, being human, you also remember the heart-rending pain you felt afterward (for some people, the pain is so giant that they refuse to own pets ever again). If you are like me, you still grieve at least one of your long-lost dogs—very possibly as acutely as if it just happened. The loss of a pet can be more traumatic than the grief we feel after the death of family or friends, partially because our culture makes intense grief surrounding pet loss just not socially acceptable, and partly because pets are some of our most intimate, most unconditional relationships. Those of us who share our lives with pets often experience grief multiple times over our lifetimes because pets live such transitory lives compared to ours.

Grief makes most people uncomfortable. They don’t like experiencing it, and they feel helpless when they encounter it in others. It’s incredibly awkward to be involved in some basic daily task in public and see someone who is actively grieving: we don’t know whether to ignore, try to help, or overtly avoid them. As someone who has broken down in public several times, tears streaming down my face as I sobbed uncontrollably and collapsed in the coffee aisle, suppressing the urge to wail, I have seen the looks of those nearby as I considered that I probably should “get myself together” and “not make a scene.” That’s some powerful cultural conditioning and I actively began to fight against it when my mother died suddenly in 2019.

I grew up believing that grief was a private thing, a linear thing, something to be “gotten over,” something intimate (not discussed outside the circle or after the funeral), something slightly shameful, even. This is what author Miriam Greenspan calls “emotion phobia”: a culture-wide fear of the raw power of emotion and its expression. It was drilled into most of us in childhood, sadly, though shaming, ignoring, or the threat of punishment. “Even if we were not humiliated, punished, neglected, or whipped into shape for having ordinary human feelings, by the time we are adults, we are expected to restrict their free flow…we have been taught that emotions are not appropriate except in the context of intimate relationship,” Greenspan writes in her book Healing Through the Dark Emotions.

Everyone feels awkward that you aren’t yourself anymore, so they try to buck you up with platitudes. But you don’t want to be bucked up! Your heart is broken and you just want it reassembled—but there is no way out of this black maw except through it. You cannot drown your grief, or eat/sex/drug it away, or pretend it doesn’t exist, because it is a living part of you. Stop worrying about what others, especially strangers, think--or if they feel uncomfortable. Feel your grief; reach down inside you and grip it and hold it still for as long as it takes; it writhes and bleats and it burns, even, but you must own it—completely.

And here’s a recommendation that will free you: stop saying “I’m sorry” when grief washes over you randomly and you break down! Never apologize for having feelings, especially these powerful ones that make us so human and that we have all felt at some time or another. Death and non-death loss are part of life, like it or not, and embracing your pain is the only way to find your way out of it.

 

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’erwrought heart and bids it break.” ~Shakespeare

 

Grief is not linear; it is not “five stages” that everyone needs to follow in a certain order, and it is not shameful; it is sloppy and jagged and you will not feel large enough to contain it sometimes.

Sorrow and regret and anger run in a malevolent pack, barreling towards you, threatening to mow you over and leave you a pile of dust that could blow away on the slightest breeze. Let them! You will likely disintegrate, but only temporarily.

Author Glennon Doyle writes, “Grief shatters. If you let yourself shatter and then you put yourself back together, piece by piece, you wake up one day and realize that you have been completely reassembled. You are whole again, and strong, but you are suddenly a new shape, a new size…”


It’s been said that we do not “move on” from loss. We only move forward. The pain will indeed ease over time, but it never truly departs. Sometimes it takes up residence on the periphery of your consciousness, and other times, it comes in and sits down at the table and demands to be noticed. This is all a normal part of the healing process, which is messy and can feel unsettling.

But it does get better. Don’t be embarrassed or afraid to seek help: support groups, talking with understanding friends, practicing keening, being in nature, caring for pets and children, volunteering, exercising, eating healthfully, meditation and gratitude practices are all ways that others have healed.

You will heal, too.

"Grief is a house
where the chairs
have forgotten how to hold us
the mirrors how to reflect us
the walls how to contain us

grief is a house that disappears
each time someone knocks at the door
or rings the bell
a house that blows into the air
at the slightest gust
that buries itself deep in the ground
while everyone is sleeping

grief is a house where no one can protect you
where the younger sister
will grow older than the older one
where the doors
no longer let you in
or out.”

Jandy Nelson