Monday, July 30, 2012

Joy: The good terror

Shy magnolia blossom. July 2012.

I have termed it "the good terror" -- when your chest is splayed open to the world and your heart tha-THUMPs, tha-THUMPs in broad daylight, unprotected and unguarded from all the joy flying at it.

Good because joy carries abundance and contentment with it; it wakes you up laughing. Terror because joy can frighten a body, especially when it piles on high enough to invite your distrust.

In what has been my happiest month yet this year, I'm trying to embrace the contradiction, and through these feeble attempts have rediscovered small joys that slipped through the cracks in bluer times. For example ...

Open-heartedness brought me back to cheese and crackers. To trying on flouncy clothes over a warm summer tan. To listening to a homemade mix CD right before dream time.

It prompted me to write today's prayer with a gel pen on college-ruled paper. I danced to Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club before a Saturday night date. I didn't turn on the stove all weekend, and in related news, ate caprese salad for at least two consecutive meals.

Joy, I remembered, is singing alongside African drums and holding hands during church. It's affirming a kindred spirit over a Sunday morning strata. It's that incredulous, grateful lurch in the pit of your stomach when someone moves in to kiss you.

The good terror doesn't need an invitation.

It doesn't even need a reason.

Just a yes.

It'll take it from there.

Prayer #219: Resting in the Joy

Sitting in the happy, resting in the joy,
taking just a minute to bask and loll within it
and appreciate the sunlight, unalloyed.

Setting down the worry, breathing in the calm,
warmth I've waited long for, my tears abating now more
than what once pooled into my open palms.

Asking not "why me?", saying now "yes, let's!"
Welcome respite, this, to saturate with bliss --
the kind of gift one never gives, but gets.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

We now know that we don't know: A birthday reflection

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added. -- New York Times, emphasis mine

When I visited my dear friend and college roommate Steph a couple weeks ago, we packed a metaphorical bag and six quarts of poetic trail mix and hiked down Memory Lane. It wasn't just stories and "where are they now" discussions; this round of reminiscing was multimedia-driven.

During the year we'd lived together at school (sophomore year, Lawrinson Hall, corner room), Steph had come to possess a camcorder that grew into an extra limb by the end of fall semester. (I know this doesn't seem impressive today, but given technology in 2002, having such a major piece of electronic equipment made you a minor celebrity.)

Steph took that camera everywhere. She filmed lip sync routines in our room, dramatic reenactments about cleaning out the fridge, running commentary around campus, car rides with high school friends. Nothing was off-limits. She just hit the red button and caught us all as we were: baby-faced, goofy, cocksure and scared shitless, with a surprising amount of time on our hands.

With a decade now between the students making the video and the women watching the video, and with our 29th birthdays approaching soon, we couldn't help but stand in awe of just how much had changed in and around us (starting with video camera technology).

Steph was feeling particularly reflective. She told me she'd found an old journal of hers where she listed what she'd have by age 30. It included:

  • Be married
  • Have one kid and/or be pregnant
  • Own my own home
  • Make $100k

She cracked up. "Well, that's not quite the reality, is it?" she said. No, not really, I agreed. I don't even remember what I once thought 30 would bring. Probably much of the same, especially the married-with-bebes part.

"We'll have to adjust our scale," Steph said. "Where do you think you'll be when you're 35?"

Hmm. Given our conversation to this point, I was reluctant to answer. I have no clue. In fact, the only thing I know now that I didn't know before is that we don't know and we can't know.

I can share what I'm hoping for and what I'm working toward:

  • Publish a book
  • Earn my MA in Writing
  • Travel to India
  • Find the love of my life
  • Pop out a bebe (and maybe another book)

Ultimately, though, life will take me where it wants. I wasn't predicting three years ago, much less 10, that I would still be in DC, that my job would have expanded, that I'd be on the cusp of grad school, that I'd be back on the dating scene, that I'd be writing picture books. Life swirled right along, taking my day planner and my false sense of security with it.

Trust me, I will still attempt to shape my future, as I will never be laidback enough to float along and take whatever comes. But I will also never be able to account for the economy, my health, drunk drivers running red lights, encounters with bad seafood, and other people's decisions.

Here's where you're thinking, "There goes Julia, veering into morbid birthday unhappiness land." I promise, I'm not saying any of this to be bleak. I say it because I'm hopeful. Life has been beautiful to me thus far. Whatever happens, I'll be a-ok at 35, however a-ok looks.

If anything, embracing poor fortune-telling skills relieves some pressure. I can't predict bad things OR good things. My wildest imagination might not be wild enough. Anything can happen (and I've been told that anything will).

So Steph, what do I want when I'm 35? I'd like to be satisfied with where I'm at. I want to have dynamic memories on hand and in progress. I hope I'm sitting back on a couch with you, talking about what 40 will look like.

That, I think, would be terrific.

Julia and Steph, sophomores no more. July 2012.

Prayer #218: Birthday Wish (29)

Imagination rests in the shadowy corner of the gray cage, its many-hued chest slowly rising and falling, waiting for me to release it.

Every so often, at my bidding, it steps forth for some mundane task. But I've never unleashed it. I've never challenged it. I've never trusted it.

This year, Lord, give me the courage to let my imagination run wild. Years are not bars, nor is failure. When heartache comes, don't let it calcify around what's boundless.

I wish for a vivid and visionary life. I wish for an imagination that can't recall captivity. I wish for faith in a wild creature.


Monday, July 16, 2012

The fullness of time: A take on The 'Busy' Trap

Busy bees. 2012.

Last week, in strange concurrence with the derecho-enforced quiet, Tim Kreider's article "The 'Busy' Trap" made rapid rounds across email, Facebook, and Twitter. The thesis of this New York Times piece? Busy-ness is self-imposed and over-inflated.

In it, Kreider claims:

[People are] busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. [...] Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

To which a nation of busy white collar worker bees said, "Damn straight," and then went back to their spreadsheets, having posted the article for other busy friends to read.

But this point wasn't what gave me pause. That honor goes to this quote (emphasis mine):

More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

Think about that for a minute. The cats and boa constrictors tended to be doctors, teachers, construction workers, farmers. They played simple, direct roles in the world around them with clear outputs and services.

Now think about what you do every day. Does your job end up in children's books? Can you describe it in one or two words? Are you essential?

I can't lay claim to any of those points. Managing Editors aren't often rendered as household animals (That bear sure does love calendars!), nor is the job summary compelling (I oversee content!), nor would the government turn to me in the event of a nuclear holocaust (Thank god you're alive! Can you update our website?).

This sobers me. What, then, am I doing? What am I about? What, as Kreider puts it, is "earn[ing] my stay on the planet for one more day"?

I like to think that my nonprofit work contributes to a greater cultural good. That tutoring and sandwich-making through church puts a little social justice back into the world. That writing and singing add art to a grand human tradition. That attention to family and friends deepens connection.

All worthwhile ventures, to be sure. They also require time spent and time invested. And what keeps them (I hope) from veering into "busy" is fullness. Not every minute is a winner, but the overall quality of time spent leads to deeper satisfaction. The investment results in more tangible outcomes -- much more than the internal memos I spend half my time outlining. Given these pursuits, I feel like my fellow humans could find a reason to keep me.

For now, I will strive to make at least one, maybe two corners of my life full. I will give them my best, if not my all. What would the Richard Scarry characters do? I'll think. And then I'll proceed to do the same -- to create something I can hold, and achieve something I can share beyond myself.

Prayer #217: In What I Have Done

What have I done? What am I doing? What have I yet to do? And what will You do with me?

All noble questions that, in their answering, draw nearer to truth. Guide me there in enough time to do something with it.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The great derecho disconnect

Old-school communication at the powerless Ballston Mall. June 2012.

Last week, summer stormed the capital. Literally. The derecho that swept through the DC area knocked out power, disabled water, interrupted cable -- you know, the essentials.

I can't complain, though. My household fared much better than most of my local friends and colleagues. We kept our power (which meant air conditioning) and water (which meant flushing), and by extension our food, rest, and sanity.

The only thing my household lost, in fact, was our Internet. And that means the only thing I personally lost was my delusion that I wasn't addicted to the Internet.

Amid widespread loss of actual necessities, it shames me to admit just how much not having connectivity threw me off. I couldn't pay bills, arrange travel, share documents, or write blog posts. (Hence the hiccup in my posting.) I found myself treating my smartphone as a lifeline, gripping it and staring at it even when signals were weak. I felt unproductive -- and worse, disconnected.

Then one day of no Internet became two. Two because three. And it dawned on me just how much else I was accomplishing. I drafted a new picture book manuscript. I dug into a library book. I joined a friend for an acting class and hung out at the pool. I got coffee with my roommate. I met one of my oldest high school friends in the city and let the evening take us where it would. I even sat in my armchair and stared at the wall for a bit, letting my daydreams run their merry course. (I also learned how to pay my bills via smartphone, but that's a traumatic tale for another time.)

When my Internet did return four days after the storm, I sighed with relief and finished the items languishing on my to-do list. But an odd sense of loss remained. For that brief interlude, life had felt simple in ways that mattered -- Snowpocalypse without the cabin fever.

During that time, interaction wasn't about speed or convenience or stalking people's Facebook pages (though that was a helpful tool for reaching out to affected friends). People were intersecting at the municipal fountain, the coffee shop, and the library. And I for one felt more present in my household and more open to my community.

I don't wish for another derecho to hit the area. That's not a safe or reasonable way to reinforce the lessons from the first one. (Besides, having your power stay on grants the luxury of reflective rest. If I hadn't had power for a week, this post would have turned out quite differently.)

I do wish, however, that now when I catch myself checking my phone right after my alarm rings, or spending sunny Saturday mornings cleaning out my inbox, or scrolling through Facebook right before bed, I will think instead about what simplicity and direct connection felt like.

And in the spirit of remembering, I hope I devote my precious time and busy brain to creating a manuscript, taking a walk, or staring at a wall as the sunlight moves across it -- the actions that connect me to deeper places, in deeper ways.

Prayer #216: Forward/Inward

We all sit on the spectrum of contemplation and action, in constant tension between moving forward and growing inward.

Make me like the tree I watch from my window. It extends its hidden roots and grips the earth in silence so its rustling branches can come closer to scraping the sky and finding the truest blue.

Without roots I am weak. Without branches I am stagnant. Help me nourish both.