Sunday, March 16, 2014

Patience is a snack-maker

Roll with it. Photo by kattebelletje
Patience knows she’ll trip if she moves faster than the confines of her shrinking, rickety body allow, so she grips handrails, deliberates her steps, and accepts elbows when they are extended. You never knew her young and assume she was at some point, but you wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’d been born old. She has that eternal way about her, the same as an ancient tortoise that floats effortlessly through its existence and seems to get a quiet thrill out of confounding expectations. You once asked Patience her age; she laughed the question away and told you to help her up out of her recliner.

Whenever you stop by she invites you in for a snack, and whenever you offer to help her make it (selfishly, so you can leave on time for your next appointment), she sweetly refuses.

“I’ve got it, dear. It will be just a minute.”

She gestures toward a kitchen chair and, reluctantly, you pull it out to sit. From that vantage point, with your foot tapping at a woodpecker’s pace, you watch the slowest snack in the world take shape. A sliced apple, first peeled; chunked cheddar; pepperoni sawed in pieces; cookies liberated from the jar on top of the fridge. Every kitchen implement is within arm’s reach, a mere tug or stretch away. Her extra-support sneakers squeak an erratic beat. She hums while she works.

Snack time. Photo by mac.rj, Flickr

There, with the late afternoon sun moving in a fuzzy patch across the linoleum, with the drowsy refrigerator snoring in the corner, with the nubs of the lopsided seat cushion burrowing into your skin, you breathe -- in, out, in, out -- until your rhythm joins the room’s, and you all exhale together, forgetful of the snack. The joy becomes the task itself, never mind the outcome.

At some point, she puts the plate in front of you. You don’t notice it appear or hear it clink. What you do see is Patience seated across from you (when did she sit?), hands folded, beaming. You smile back.

“It’s good to sit a minute,” you tell her. “I’m glad you came.”

She laughs, nudges the plate closer. “My dear, you came to me.”

“So I did!” And you, suddenly ravenous, reach for the cheese.

Prayer #274: “T.T.T.”

T. T. T.

Put up in a place
where it's easy to see
the cryptic admonishment
T. T. T.

When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb,
it's well to remember that
Things Take Time!

{Piet Hein}


I want all bad things over.
I want all good things now.

I want the bus without the stop.
The rest without the nap.
The chapter without the page.
The party without the prep.

Life, however, takes time. Uses it, in fact. Consumes it. Violently, forcefully, carefully, casually -- no matter the how, it sucks in the hours and spits them out dejuiced, putting them toward a recipe I’ve never followed.

So I can tap or stop my watch all I want, but maybe I should keep watch instead: Play the sous chef who relinquishes control. Prep only the ingredients that sit before me. Pray the results are edible.


Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The peach pit of desire: An anxious meditation on wanting to want

This is the pit. Photo by quinn.anya, Flickr

You wonder how you swallowed the pit in the first place.

Did it drop into your salad the day you ate your lunch out in the park and were people-watching with such intense focus that it snuck into your power greens undetected and waited for the free elevator ride down your esophagus? Did it crawl up the stairs from the kitchen the night you were restless with fitful dreams of romantic escapades and worst-case scenarios, and did it take advantage of your suctioning snores to slide down the hatch? Maybe, barring reasonable explanations such as these, you caught it from someone on the bus?

Regardless of its provenance, you're stuck with it. A peach pit. A ridged, rough, round peach pit in -- where else? -- the pit of your stomach.

You're never not aware it's there. The dumb, solid mass thunks without thought against various organs, making you pee, vomit, or double over without warning. You lose sleep, because if you lie on your side, it sits on your kidney; if you lie on your back, it bounces along your spine; and if you lie on your stomach, it pokes out far enough through your abdomen to form a divet in your mattress that you struggle to explain to guests and visitors.

Pit in the pit. Photo by Lauren(elle)n, Flickr

The peach pit has one of two routes available to it, and by extension, to you:

Option #1: It takes root. Then you have a large tree growing up through your esophagus and out of your mouth, and that tree will bear soft, fuzzy, sweet fruit all around your head that, when ripe, will beckon to be plucked. After this point there will be no avoiding it at social gatherings; people, even oblivious ones, will be able to recognize you're in bloom. This scenario sounds uncomfortable, but in fact you welcome it, as it means the strange fruit has amounted to something in its inanimate life.

Option #2: It doesn't take root. What then? You have to rid your body of this dud, and you know the process of expulsion will bring pain akin to childbirth. But you also know that the short-term suffering, however excruciating, will pale in comparison to the more subtle yet exponentially more terrible long-term agony of feeling that corrugated nugget rattle around your empty stomach for the rest of time, a hollow reminder of potential unrealized.

Either way, you're screwed. It's simply a degree of how happily so.

Pit in negative space. Photo by happeningfish, Flickr

Despite the peach pit's regular rate of recurrence in the general population, healing is self-directed and self-administered. The first step is admitting to yourself that despite the discomfort and uncertainty, you want the pit. Or, more accurately, you want what it portends. You want the energy your body is pouring into this surprise visitor to pay off. You want the tree, the fruit, the admiring nods. You want to want, and to have that want fulfilled.

But hope has a unique strain of masochism, and the peach pit carries it. Even when you reach the point you know the pit is stillborn, even when your brain is signaling your gut to get rid of the damn thing already, you insist on keeping it around just a little longer, just in case. You aren't ready to accept the truth, nor are you ready to make room for a new pit (no human can comfortably house two at any given point). You want to want, and to have that want fulfilled.

Sometimes you manage to direct the peach pit's fate. Sometimes other events or circumstances choose the outcome for you. The pit blossoms, or it passes, but eventually it will do one of the two, and your main role is to regard it as it does.

It won't be the first pit you swallow. Still, you always hope it's the last -- not because you want it gone, but because you want it to stay for good.

Pit rising. Photo by mattlemmon

Prayer #273: Clingstone

Don't let me strangle what is not mine to hold.

Don't let me grab and cling, grasp and clutch. Let's be classy about it. More composed.

Fat chance.

Better instead for You to pull my fingers out of this fist, one by one, until they splay beside each other relaxed and united in their capacity to bear an unknown weight. Then, gently turn my palms upward -- a firm twist at the wrist, Your hands warm against mine, to leave me open to all the good I can't predict.

For if I must be greedy, may I be greedy for the absolute best -- the love, the compassion, the depth of emotion that only a life fully felt can give.

And if I must be grubby, may I be grubby with the finest mess -- the questions, the wonders, the unscripted mudpies that only a life fully carried can grant.

One day I will hand this beautiful burden back to You and say, "I have held it as long and as high as I could. Please accept what I tried to do." Today is not that day. Today, rather, is when my greedy, grubby mitts learn to let go to receive.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dispatch from Camp Lonelyhearts

Camp Lonelyhearts. Photo by khowaga1, Flickr

Captain’s Log, Feb. 14, 20-- CE
Elevation: 2,000 ft. above sea level

Location: Yurt

The natives grow more restless by the day. All they’ve had to sustain them recently in terms of interpersonal communications are a few vague trail markers and some generic clapping at the last tribal dance that could have applied to anyone in attendance. These brief encounters have not satisfied their need for emotional connection or moved them anywhere closer to their stated goals of finding a proper mate. (Note: We must assume they stated these goals. In truth, we witnessed only stick-thumping, grunting, and some rather rude hand gestures.)

They seem to be in a state of constant irritation, unmitigated by the obvious fact that they are surrounded by a close-knit community who supports and cares for them and would never let them go hungry or be dragged off by a wild boar without at least some semblance of a fight. Some of the more irritated members have taken to sitting on distant hilltops and gazing for hours, chin in hand, at the empty, dusty vistas. Others eat whatever food they can reach, no matter how short village supplies are, while others lock themselves away in their huts during daylight hours, rarely to be seen or heard.

When one such self-isolator left for a brief trip to the loo, we confiscated a small stack of crude stick figure drawings that, with their angry expressions and depiction of tears flooding from eye sockets, appeared to indicate angst. We attempted to communicate with her about the drawings upon her return, but she burst into an incomprehensible screaming rage and ran back into the hut alone. Had there been a door, we’re certain she would have slammed it.

In pursuit. Photo by Wyoming_Jackrabbit, Flickr

In what is likely a breach of scientific ethics, we have tried at various intervals to match-make tribe members, urging them to recognize the complementary mates in their midst. Alas, our efforts have borne scant fruit. It strikes us that the closer a tribe member is to another, the harder it becomes for him or her to recognize the inherent compatibility of their pairing. They will pine for the other and exhibit jealous behavior if the other should take up with another potential mate; yet if the other does express desire, he (or she) is immediately, coldly spurned. It could very well be our language barrier presenting itself, but the natives don’t seem to know what they want. As of this entry, we have not arrived at any clear conclusion about their reasoning.

Some members have successfully paired off on their own – “success” in this case ranging from “actively engaged with and attentive to one’s mate” to “tolerating them.” Occasionally we observe the pairs interceding in the affairs of those they care most about, such as inviting the interested person and his/her object of interest along on the same hunting party, wherein the paired couples, with poor acting skills, stay a notable and obvious 10 feet away from the as-yet-unpaired couple and whisper back and forth to each other, presumably about how well they’re getting on (or not). It has been a consistent observation from our field staff that such outings rarely work, though efforts appear appreciated in the short term.

The cue for copulation. Photo by, Flickr

Even in the absence of lifelong mating, a fair amount of copulation happens throughout the village. This frequent and persistent activity seems to happen with or without stated commitment, and in fact seems to have a frequency level inversely proportional to the commitment level. (We’re still analyzing the data and hope to report more conclusive results at next entry.) Strangely, the heightened level of copulation, particularly on feast days and in cold weather, does not seem to markedly increase the natives’ long-term happiness, while the paired couples -- whom we regularly observe sitting outside their huts staring at sunsets and munching nuts -- appear blissful and content. The research team intends to probe further into this inexplicable phenomenon, tentatively titled the “Copulation < Nuts Paradigm.”

Of late, the natives appear to be moving toward a less personal system where they can anonymously share information with a disinterested and automated third party – in this case, a baboon – who then ascertains through a mysterious but undoubtedly rigorous and not at all random process which participant might fit well with another. To date, one out of sixteen attempted couples has permanently mated. The rest continue to visit the baboon; they appear hopeful and only mildly panicked.

Prayer #272: Love Alone

To be lonely is to be without company. To feel cut off. Apart.

To be alone, however, can mean to be incomparable. Unique. Separated from others, but in a way that distinguishes you.

How fitting, then, that You alone ensure I will never be lonely. You alone are love.


Monday, February 03, 2014

How to stay married (according to my parents)

Dancing in a conga line since 1979!

Today my parents celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. For those of you who don't know my parents, this factoid might not interest you. But it should, because my parents provide an excellent example of what real marriage looks like.

As this marital milestone approached, I found myself thinking about how I perceive my parents' relationship, how it has affected my life, and what lessons I can take from them. For example:
  1. I see them as two loving, imperfect people in a loving, imperfect union.
  2. I grew up enveloped by their evident love and affection for each other. I also saw the less pretty, more stressful moments, reminding me that parents are people, too.
  3. Thanks to them I've learned that love deserves display, affection requires sharing, words are worth saying, truth needs telling, forgiveness demands granting, and date nights ALWAYS need calendaring.

But I was observing all these points as the child of a partnership, not a partner in the partnership. So I decided to go straight to the source and find out what it looked like from the inside.

I emailed each parent separately, not divulging that I was asking the other parent the same question. My initial prompt: What would you like to tell (Mom/Dad) that you haven't said to (her/him) yet in 35 years of marriage?

Both responded quickly with nearly identical answers (sign #1 that you've been married for 35 years):

  • "I don't know what I can tell you that I haven't said in 35 years. You know how open we are with each other."
  • "The only answer I could come up with is that I have nothing to tell your Dad that has not already been said. I think that is a somewhat remarkable achievement. I never planned to make sure that I would tell him everything -- our relationship just creates an atmosphere that is honest and safe and open. And just so you don’t think all communications were romantic ones, sometimes things were hard to say. I thought about the fact that I would have no regrets if your Dad was not here with me tomorrow. Just the other night, in the dark movie theater, we marveled at the fact that we have been married for 35 years (met 40 years ago this coming October) and we both agreed—without missing a beat—that you and your brother are our greatest achievement. I know that there is more to be said in the years ahead, and I am certain we will say it!"

As lovely as these answers were, I wanted more. Back to the drawing board I went, and came away with a second prompt: What would you like the next 35 years to look like with Mom/Dad?

This one went over much better. My mother answered first:

I really liked this question... I think I told you once that when Dad and I were talking about getting married, I had this vivid image of the two of us as very old people holding hands and just being together. I knew then that I should marry him. It’s pretty simple: I want the next 35 years to look like the first 35 -- lots of surprises, fun times that bring us closer, sad times that bring us even closer still, new things to learn, trips to be taken, good food to cook and then eat with gusto, watching you and your brother grow in every way and sharing in it with you, being graceful about growing older, lots of photos snapped of the many important events that will occur, and most important of all -- still laughing like we did when we first met. It is the first thing that drew me to Dad and it is still the thing that keeps me happiest. So, I guess I want to be laughing with Dad for the next 35 years. Pretty simple.

Then my father, who addressed my mother directly:

We are now married for 35 years. This is a long way from our first date when, being the romantic that I am, I took you to see “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” by Sam Peckinpah. As I survey what we have done in that time, I know it has been all that I would have hoped and more than I could have dreamed. In the first 15 years, my work led us to live in six different houses. Still, we were always able to build a home for ourselves and the kids in all those locations. We encountered many troubles, yet we never lost our ability to laugh. And as we lived through the same recessions and ebbs and flows that everyone else did over that time, we always felt rich, as we knew that we had those things that matter.

Now I envision the next 35 years, and I see that we’re putting the finishing touches on the foundation of that next phase of our lives. Will we work? Definitely… just not at our current jobs. I picture you as a docent in some appropriate museum, and everyone will be fighting to be in your queue because you will still be so damned pretty. I’ll probably be writing to, talking to, consulting to anyone who will listen to me. I’m sure I’ll be the cute codger who tweets and self-publishes e-books (low barrier to entry on those).

What is most important is that we’ve had lots of practice in the ways we will inevitably spend our time. Taking in the arts, especially running to learn about the next big thing. Singing a cappella. Traveling, whether to keep long-time relationships alive, or seeing something new, whether it is the pyramids, Alaska, or a tango festival. Most likely, we’ll know how to be content with being together.

We know how to build a life, a 35-story building under construction one story at a time through courtship, through our wedding and raising two wonderful children. One story at a time, three decades later, we got to where we are today. And now we are prepared for Maslow’s period of self-actualization. I can’t wait.

You know what the best part of these answers is, aside from the flirting and lurving and cuteness? The best part is, I knew what they were going to say. Not because my parents are boring and predictable, but because they have always lived their marriage out in the open. My brother and I witnessed tickles at the sink, strained conversations, cuddling on the couch, moments of panic, love notes on Post-Its, bad days, good days, blah days, extraordinary days -- the million points of minutiae that comprise a life lived together.

Now that I'm a grown woman who better understands just how hard relationships are, you better believe I'm taking notes. But for all the critical lessons and important observations, it seems that a good marriage -- according to my parents, anyway -- can be boiled down to six key tenets:

  • I love you.
  • I want you.
  • I like you.
  • You're funny.
  • We did it!
  • Let's keep going!

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad. Thank you for being the collective YOU. Now get going on the next 35 years, you crazy kids! [Ed. note: XOXOXOXO]

Prayer #271: Let's Build a Life

To my spouse, whoever you may be:

Let's build a life, one story at a time.

One inside joke, one special date, one memory at a time.

One fight, one makeup, one crying jag, one sidesplitter, one lesson at a time.

One table, one couch, one move, one home, one animal, one child, one stage at a time.

One card, one heartache, one surprise, one load, one list, one Monday, one meal, one morning, one moment at a time.

Let's build a life, one story at a time, and let's tell it like we mean it.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Poem for a snowy day

"The snow doesn't give a soft white damn whom it touches." -- e.e. cummings

Snow upon arrival. Photo by Phil Roeder, Flickr

The Snowflakes' Exhortation

We're urging you to please hang up the day.
Yes, leave it there, beside the entranceway,
no bother if it puddles on the floor.
Hang up your schedule, your to-the-minute plans,
come back outside and downward drift with us
instead, come join our dainty slam dance.
Wind, all tug-of-war tyrannical,
will bellow, try to grab our thin barbed arms
but fail: You can't contain the infinite.
Our invitation's in the whispered whoosh,
our rushing, hushing hurtle toward the earth
that never ends in craters or kabooms.
What comes down can't go up, we like to say.
Accumulate with us, then. Settle in.

Prayer #270: Snow Day

No quiet like snow quiet, an icy genteel finger landing on your lips to signal you to hush. Hush your worries, hush your fears, just watch ... watch the swirling curling, the disorderly design, the tiny specks that mine what little light is left and stir dim hours.

May peace be to our hearts what snow is to our eyes -- chaos frozen to magnify perfection.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Speak of the devil: A short, incomplete, unqualified meditation on evil

Evil is this guy. Photo by Manachar Bandicoot, Flickr

What is evil?

Evil is non-existent.

Evil is relative.

Evil is universal.

Evil is the darkness.

Evil is sin.

Evil is the devil.

Evil is amorality.

Evil is intentional malevolence.

Evil is "non-good."

Evil is the lacking of good.

Evil is defective good.

Evil is balanced against good.

Evil is the "dualistic antagonistic opposite of good."

Evil is the result of a mistaken concept of good.

Evil “is a way of marking the fact that it shatters our trust in the world.”

Evil is contrary to God.

Evil is deviation from the character or will of God.

Evil is forsaking God.

Evil is the absence of God.

See/hear/speak no evil ... and look disinterested while doing it. Photo by sanjitbakshi, Flickr

All these statements are drawn from various world religions and philosophies. If the last one is true -- that evil is the absence of God -- then contemplating evil's nature makes me feel profoundly lonely.

You'd think evil, be it physical, moral, or metaphysical, would first frighten or devastate me. And it does, especially when it happens on a scale that overwhelms my puny human notions of what our infinite universe and sentient selves are capable of inflicting, such as when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines or Syria's chemical attacks were revealed in grisly detail.

But evil is also isolating. Whether you qualify only acts as evil or view "evilness" as an independent entity, evildoing sets both the doer and the done-upon apart. They have now participated in the inexplicable, in a force all humans experience at one point or another but cannot always define. They are marked. We are marked. Our separation is simply a matter of degree.

It's easy (I hope) to say no to "traditional" evil as Moses' tablets outline -- murder, theft, adultery, etc. Yet we say no to light, to good, to the fullness of joy in a thousand small ways every day -- with pettiness, recrimination, selfishness, pride -- and it puts us in hell of a different sort: at arm's length from a divine, heart-scorching love.

My priest was preaching on this topic last weekend, and he said, "You don't have to earn God's love. You have it." So I take that to mean I have to choose God's love. Choose it over temptation. Weakness. Inadequacy. Despair. And yes, evil.

It's a tall order in a disheartening world. But then I think about how lonely I felt simply imagining a life apart from light, not to mention living apart from it. So it makes the choice easier, if not the acts.

Believe me, I'm nowhere close to digesting the enormity of evil in any of its explanations or situations. I just know I don't to be more marked than I already am.

Prayer #269: The Fourth Wise Monkey

Mizaru shields his eyes, lives sight unseen.
Kikazaru blocks his ears, lives sound unheard.
Iwazaru tapes his mouth, lives word unsaid.
Make me Shizaru, who crosses arms
and lives with evil deed undid.


Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Which memories are worth the amber? (Or, Why I dread framing projects)

Work in progress. Always. Photo by Brightworks School, Flickr

I have visited Pinterest twice since the day I created my account. I wear solid-colored pants and tops so I don't have to match prints. And when it comes to framing and displaying art, I shut down completely.

As regular readers of IMS know, it took me FOUR. FRICKIN. YEARS. to hang pictures in my bedroom. I enjoyed them for a year and a half, and then I moved to the bedroom upstairs, so all the pictures came down again. Now the mish-mash of frames, tchotchkes, and mementos roams homeless once more, and I'm again overwhelmed by the prospect of piecing the decorative experience together.

Why do I, a project-oriented individual, procrastinate so badly on this particular endeavor? After all, it's just holes in walls. Nothing irreparable. Nothing irreversible. Don't like it? Move it! Get something new? Replace the old! Yet I treat it like brain surgery: Do it right the first time, or forever regret the consequences.

However, with this last wrenching move that undid the puttering of four years in an afternoon, I was able to name what bothers me about framing projects: deciding what to keep visible, and what to pack away -- or worse, discard.

Empty frames. Photo by udge, Flickr

As I sifted through box and box, I found wall hangings, bells, fabric birds, die-cut cards, vintage ads I picked up at Eastern Market, brochure covers, calendar pages, a "bird house for fleas," a Goofy figurine, cross-stitches ... the list goes on. The years unfolded before me as I went. My first love gave me this street sign. My youth group framed this pledge. I found this wind chime in the stairwell of my college apartment.

To say no to something -- to say that it no longer merited display -- felt to me like rejecting those memories. Though I hadn't looked at many of these items in upwards of 10 years, I was looking at them now, and by virtue of looking at them now I was remembering circumstances and bygones and vistas I had let slip.

"Good thing I kept these boxes!" I thought. "Otherwise, my entire past would disappear!"

"Oh, so you didn't remember any of your past until this moment?" said my subconscious.

I thought for a moment. The objects were reminding me of specific details, but not the overarching experience. My first love will forever be printed on my heart. My youth group changed the way I look at Catholicism among my peers. I could tell you how every dinner party at my college apartment played out if you dropped me there today.

My subconscious piped up again. "So what you're saying is, you don't really need the items. You already remember these things, deep down."

"Shut up, Subconscious," I snapped. "You can't ask me to kill my darlings! You can't have me promote some memories over others. I need to remember all of it. Experiencing it the first time isn't enough. I need to relive, and relive, and relive, just in case ..."

But Subconscious had made its point. I knew what I had to do. I had to -- have to -- say goodbye.

Crooked is beautiful, too. Photo by seyed mostafa zamani, Flickr

There's now a box in a corner of my room collecting said goodbyes. As I select what to frame, or think about what I might want to display in the future, I put anything that no longer has a home in this humble receptacle. The items will go to Goodwill eventually, where nice people will find them and perhaps wonder why someone gave such-and-such up.

I gave it up, gentle buyer, to teach myself a lesson: that I am allowed to change what I'm invested in, what I care to remind myself of, and what I want to reinforce about my personal history. And as I will always be changing, varying how I reflect my dynamism externally does not invalidate or diminish what I have cherished or exhibited up to this point.

What's more, shedding reminders of more painful episodes can release me from bad memories or self-recrimination, plus I'm leaving wall space for what's to come. So even at its worst, my framing project is merely annoying me, while at its best it can capture the joy and beauty of my present.

I vow today not to wait four years to have my art around me again (making this latest round practically instantaneous by comparison). I will unwrap lovely memories and display resonant moments and re-encounter the art that never loses its ability to move me. Why delay joy like that?

See? I'm learning. Just as my subconscious promised. Just as I'll remember the next time this project rolls around.

Prayer #268: True Remembering

Joy scars you. I'm quick to point out angry sores and raised marks where pain once thwarted healing, but transcendent moments are just as branded on my skin.

Every time I laugh, I bruise. Every time I love, I burn. Your presence has marked me. It covers me with reminders of passion.

I fear I'll run out of skin -- out of memory -- but You assure me that true remembering is boundless. Day by day, lump by lump, You build me, so all I ever need to do is look at myself and see the artwork You have wrought.