You Are Who You Meet

I read Su Meck’s “I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia” awhile ago. It’s her own story of having her life vanish at 22 years old, after being hit in the head by the blade of their kitchen ceiling fan. Something’s been bothering me about it—but it wasn’t what I thought it was.

Su’s story is about more than just textbook memory loss of detail, where she couldn’t remember her name, her husband, her children, or her house. She couldn’t remember what those things even were. She didn’t know what it meant to be a woman, or a wife, or a mother. And because no one realized or accepted the extent of her injury, after a very short time in rehab, she was sent back into her normal existence and expected to perform life as an adult, except she was as uncomprehending as a newborn.

With babies, we expect and understand that they don’t know any of life’s logistics. But Su was that blank slate as an adult, completely vulnerable. She had no idea of what was happening or had happened before, and the people around her (including doctors) either denied her condition, covered it up, or even took advantage of it. But she was forced to cope, even if it was all just rote repetition of doing what people had told her to do, or imitating what people around her did. In rehab, she had been taught how to make a tuna sandwich. So after she was sent home, all she ever made was tuna sandwiches, for every meal, because that is the only thing she knew how to make. Imagine what the next twenty years of life were like for her (including the logistics of marriage and pregnancy). She couldn’t string information together, couldn’t understand patterns or people or relationships. And because no one really believed this could be true, they didn’t discuss it with her. And she didn’t ask questions. Because all the while she didn’t understand that she understood nothing.

I got really upset reading her story, which isn’t surprising, since it’s full of unfairness and frustration and pain, but there was something more about it that just kept making my brain itch. What finally dawned on me is that how Su learned things and operated as an adult isn’t really much different from how most of us do it. We all start as blank slates and develop our operating systems, the way we see the world and ourselves, largely based on what we learn from the people around us. Then we take what we’ve learned and run with it—and just keep running.

if this is true, it makes sense that the kind of people you know are (generally) the kind of person you turn into. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who you really are. Su, having nothing else to go on, became who she thought she should be based on what her family told her to be, and on what she saw the people around her doing. And she continued to make tuna sandwiches for a very long time. (The extent of her trauma did eventually come into the light, but there was no magic fix, and you should really just go read the book.)

Everything goes by so fast. For so much of life, we just keep running with what we’ve learned so far and don’t often stop to look around for ourselves—it’s always a bigger world than we think it is. Always be curious. Ask lots of questions. Tuna is great. But what do you think of peanut butter?

Categories: On the Page, Uncategorized, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Making It Up As I Go: The Six-Word Memoir

The myth is that the six-word story concept evolved from a challenge Ernest Hemingway once accepted. He came back with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Stunning, right? It’s like the counterpoint to “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” Back in 2006, SMITH Magazine took up the idea of creating six-word memoirs and started collecting them. A couple of years later, they published, “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous & Obscure Writers.” (And you can still follow their story experiments here.)

It’s a great book, and though there’s technically no plot (though you could count the hundreds of life stories as individual narratives), it’s extremely hard to put down. These are real people giving you a snapshot of how they view their own lives. Some of the entries are inspirational. “Open road, no map. Great scenery.” A lot are funny and good for a smile. “I fell out of the nest.” But every now and then there was one full of regret that just dropped into my heart with a thud . “Followed rules, not dreams. Never again.” or, “My life’s a bunch of almost’s.” True to reality, our lives are not all witty and amusing, and I was impressed by the bravery of people sharing the hard stuff.

It’s almost impossible not to start imagining what you’d write for your own life, so I started trying to think up my own. A few candidates so far:
• Jumped in pond. Made good ripples.
• Libraries saved me from total bankruptcy.
• Death’s great. No clocks. No clothes.
• Came to terms with snowflake speech.

Think about it. What’s your story?

Categories: From the Lips, On the Page, Uncategorized, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Happy New Year: And Now for Some Thoughts on Death

In what’s usually a time swept up in thinking about beginnings, I’ve been thinking about that other thing. You know, the part where you stop breathing before you start doing whatever comes after that. (We’re not really going to get into that “after” part.) But yes, that thing: death.

Over the holidays, I read a couple of really interesting life stories that involved their endings. One was the biography of Jim Henson (creator of all things Muppet and then some), and the other was Going the Distance, written by George Sheehan (doctor, writer, marathon runner, fitness believer) as he was dying of cancer. Both accounts, though about men with very different career venues, served large dishes of food for thought about the quality of life on a day-to-day basis. I won’t go into too much detail about their stories here, but they’re both good books about great-yet-greatly-flawed men that are well worth reading.

We know, at least intellectually, that we all have a limited shelf life. Sheehan, knowing very acutely that he was actively dying, offered a lot of interesting thoughts on what, if anything, he would/should have done differently (or not), and on what he felt was really important. He noted that:

“Obituaries are filled with achievements that mark those we think of as successful. But obituaries tend to conceal biographies, and those biographies tell us the deficiencies and defeats of even the great and near great… Each one of us is an experiment-of-one. Each is a unique, never-to-be-repeated event.”

Sheehan talked a lot about getting up every day and starting fresh, living days with the goal of “eight hours of sleep and sixteen hours of being happy and productive.” And both his story and Henson’s include a deep belief that a person does the most good when they pursue what they love and are becoming fully themselves. After all, it was Henson, through Kermit the Frog, who said that he just, “wanted to make millions of people happy,” and both men went to great lengths to share joy and a fullness of life with the people around them by doing what they each loved—pursuing what brought them the most true joy in their own lives and letting it ripple out from there.

I like that a lot. There’s a lot of room for growth and joy in living like that, even while knowing we’ve got flaws and will make mistakes. Every day fresh. An experiment to explore with curiosity and joy.

Oh look, this turned out to be about beginnings after all.

Categories: On the Page | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Appropriate Response: Thoughts on a Boring World

The great master Yunmen was once asked by a monk, “What was the Buddha teaching his entire lifetime?” Yunmen answered, “An appropriate response.” – from Reb Anderson’s Being Upright

When I came across this story, I wondered, “What would a world actually look like where everyone actually responded appropriately?” And before I even managed to go look up “appropriate” anywhere, my imagination quickly pulled up this drab, gray picture of a world where everyone was extremely well-behaved and emotionless—boring, unadventurous, unimaginative, and devoid of excitement or joy. It was a world filled with well-dressed people at afternoon tea served with all the “appropriate” silverware. Forever. (No offense to tea-drinkers. I really like tea.)

But oh, what a dull world that would be. Who would read stories about Appropriate Response World? And would anything interesting ever happen there? But I did go look the word up, just to check: appropriate: adj. suitable or proper in the circumstances. I did note the absence of the words “drab, dull, and lifeless,” though, and so I thought about it a little more.

Back to the beginning: what constitutes an appropriate response? In every situation, it’s different. As I shuffled through a deck of examples that came to mind, an idea generally started to emerge that any appropriate response would be made up of actions and/or words that are helpful to each particular situation and are given out of agenda-less caring. Someone’s excited? Be excited with them. Someone’s bruised? Hugs and band-aids. Someone’s hurt you? Don’t hurt back (not helpful)—but be patient, wait out your anger, and figure out what’s really going on. (So sometimes the appropriate response might even just be not responding.)

I began to realize I’d been confusing “appropriate” in Yunmen’s context with my idea of the word “proper.” So now this world is already seeming better. Helpful, supportive. Kind of a nice place. But what about passion, excitement, or adventure? And would anything be funny in Appropriate Response World?

And then I remembered a story about another very wise man…

“What my father figured out was if you can’t get out [of a joke], you just either blow something up, or you eat something, or you just throw penguins in the air.” – Brian Henson (son of Jim Henson, Muppet God)

And there it was—the “Eureka” moment where Appropriate Response World really came into view, and there were all these beautiful colors! I’d been selling it short, having a failure of imagination. Appropriate Response World is filled with options. Proper had been left on the side of the road, miles back where things had to follow conventional rules or fit in to status quo. Appropriate is different, hilarious and exciting. Find a beautiful mountain? Learn how to climb it, explore it, reach its summit. That can be one appropriate response of many. Love the wind in your face? Run a marathon. Try skydiving! (Not inappropriate if it works in your life.) Meet someone completely amazing? Choose to love! That’s definitely not boring and lifeless–and probably even more breathtaking than skydiving! Doing anything when it’s rooted in appropriate response just means that it’s coming from a place of helpfulness and courage a good chunk of wisdom. It has more than enough room to hold intensity, connection, and joy. Big and loud. Small and quiet. A caveat, though—Appropriate Response World isn’t free from pain or surprise or things not turning out as you expected. But in that world you would have learned how to deal with those things (that’s just life anywhere) in ways that were helpful, not destructive. Appropriate Response World would be full of wonder, whatever it involved. And, happily, sometimes it might even involve throwing penguins.

*(Note: While it is not entirely impossible that throwing real penguins would never be an appropriate response, it is more likely to be appropriate if using Muppet penguins.)

Categories: In the Lexicon, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Four Letter Words: Time

Last week at work, I went through some timed creative-thinking exercises. Some were fun, intriguing and even a little helpful. One, however, involved designing something which would keep track of time. No budget, no boundaries. Just take 15 minutes to think up some new device that would be useful in keeping time. After I completed it, I read in the instructor’s end notes that this was supposed to help you learn to think outside the box, to not limit yourself to ideas based on things that already existed. That exercise did not teach me anything close to that.

What it taught me was that I really hate keeping time.

I have suspected this for a while, but the exercise only confirmed this in a visceral, deep-seated loathing that surfaced while trying to accomplish the task. I don’t want another way to track time, I thought. In fact, that’s the last thing I want. What I actually want is a way to move within it differently. To be looser with time, less strict. I want moving through time to be more like a rubber band. Stretchy. Adjustable.

There are a lot of “life values” quizzes that contain some form of this question: “What would you do differently if you knew you only had a short while to live?” My answer has become this: to the best of my ability (with some exceptions), I would never, ever look at a clock again. 

I think what the exercise produced was the acknowledgement (and resentment) that I let clocks make far too many of my decisions for me, and when it boils down to the bottom of it, those reasons are largely based on tradition, efficiency, productivity and economics. If I could afford to swing outside of the system even a little, I would make my decisions based on other things. I would let my body tell me when it needed sleep. I would let it tell me when it was rested—waking up, not to a loudly-beeping machine, but maybe to the sunlight or the birds. I wouldn’t quit my job, but I wouldn’t worry so much about being 5 or 10 minutes late. Then I would get lost in my projects, working on them until I was deeply satisfied, not when it was just the scheduled time to go home or to move on to the next task. I would let my body tell me when it was hungry, instead of the clock telling me it was time for scheduled food intake. Why let a machine tell me when I’m hungry? It has no connection to my stomach.

I would like to experience time with a little more generosity, a little more give and take. Schedules can be useful, and even helpful—if I’d like to meet a friend at the gym or the movies or dinner, it does help if we show up roughly in the same time frame. But when everything gets too scheduled, I can feel myself start to shrink, in a bad dream where the clock hands loom larger and larger overhead, and I feel myself get smaller and smaller. Never mind small closets. I get claustrophobic in those small spaces between the notches on a clock. 

Those hands on the clock will keep going around and around, but to be able to move more freely in and around those little notches? That would be something. After all, in the grand scheme of things, we really do have only a short while to live.

Categories: In the Lexicon | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Love Means Nothing in Tennis: Thoughts on Motivation

Why do we do anything we do? From primal urges to impulse buys, there’s motivation behind every simple thing we do, even if we’re not giving it conscious thought.

Sometimes after a string of hectic days I get to the point where I feel frazzled and tired and confused, and I find myself asking, “Why am I even doing this?” Some days I can answer that question fairly easily, which keeps me from going back to bed to hide under the covers. But when the answer is, “I honestly have no idea,” it makes me take a couple of steps backward to see how I got to the point to where I no longer feel connected to what I’m doing.

There are a lot of ideas lurking behind why we do things, and I found motivations falling into a few different categories–and finding some really interesting insights as to who’s really making my choices.

This has become a fun little game for me now—a multiple choice test that has produced everything from snorts of laughter to some fairly profound revelations.

The game: Why am I ___________ today?

a) Tradition: the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way. (I group nostalgia in here too.)

b) Habit: a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

c) Obedience: compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.

d) Obligation: an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment.

e) Desire: a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.

f) Love: an intense feeling of deep affection.

(Note: all definitions taken from the Oxford English Dictionary online.)

So just for fun, here’s this: Why is ham always served at my family’s Easter dinner?

Tradition is one reason, full of memories of family Easter dinners from years before—but it doesn’t really have anything to do with Easter, or the actual ham itself. It could also be habit, but again, not actually about the ham. It could also be obedience—which could actually be about the ham in some cases, but the motivation is based on someone else’s—not yours, and trust me, probably not the ham’s. Obligation is also external motivation. Desire? That’s where it really begins to connect to you personally. Desire to eat ham? Desire to prepare ham in order to please your family? What’s your desire really for?

And finally, love. Well, no, definitely not for the ham. I think love is probably for non-ham-related motivations. It’s more deep-seated, intrinsic motivation. It’s more personal.

The last time I played the game, it was, “Why am I going to the gym today?” It definitely wasn’t tradition. It could’ve been habit, though it wasn’t that day. It could’ve been obedience, because my doctor wants me to achieve certain health goals. It could’ve been obligation, because I’m paying for my membership, or because my health plan gives me a discount if I go a certain number of times per month. And that particular day, let me say it definitely wasn’t desire.

No, I went to the gym out of love.

Recently, a friend of mine related some advice he received about the nature of discipline—that discipline was not about being punished or forcing yourself to do something you didn’t like just because you know it’s good for you. She told him to remember that discipline was based on the idea of being a disciple—a committed follower of someone or something you loved. And so her advice to him was this: discipline is remembering what you love.

I went to the gym because I’ve learned to love my heart and my lungs and my muscles and showing up at the gym is my way of telling them that. I love my completely beat-up running shoes that have run more miles than they ever thought they would run. I love feeling completely out of breath but strong and resilient. I love feeling alive.

And so I am a disciple of feeling alive, which is why I lift the weights and run the miles and say thanks to my heart and lungs and muscles for working hard for me. And then I drag myself up the gym steps (because, don’t get me wrong, I’m elated but completely exhausted), and pass the tennis courts and think to myself, “Interesting… love means ‘nothing’ in tennis.” That’s about keeping score. That’s not love–for me, at least.

But, thankfully, I don’t play tennis.

Categories: From the Lips, In the Lexicon | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Makes the Muskrat Guard His Musk?

Courage.

It’s not exactly what I thought it was. It’s not what the Cowardly Lion thought it was. (And, for what it’s worth, it’s not even exactly what the Wizard said it was, either, when he implied that running away from danger was wisdom.)

Even the dictionaries aren’t consistent on courage. Dictionary.com lists courage as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery,” while the OED’s version defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.”

Notice the difference? In the first definition, courage is doing something “without fear.” In the second, it’s doing something despite being afraid.

I’ve been eyeball-deep in the findings of Brené Brown lately, a social worker and researcher who’s been spending years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and wholeheartedness. It wasn’t initially what she started out to do, and she ended up completely changing her whole perspective on what courage really is. It’s definitely opened my eyes to a few things. Hint: real courage is about being open. Sound counterintuitive? You’re not the only one.

This exploration has had enough of an impact on me that I’m going to keep this post short, for fear of getting a little wordy with admiration, but I’ll point you to her two talks on TED.com, which she gave several years apart. You can find them here and here. They’re really quite stellar, and they are an entertaining, sincere and fascinating snapshot into how she learned (through bona fide research) that courage is inextricably linked with vulnerability—something that surprised (and terrified) her more than she expected. Her most recent book, Daring Greatly, is a great place to start if you’re looking for a good book to pick up. (Although I am also a huge fan of I Thought It Was Just Me (But it Isn’t), which is a fascinating and practical look into perfectionism—which is also an interesting counterpoint to the traditional definition.)

And so. What makes the muskrat guard his musk? It’s still courage—it’s just not what I thought it was.

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Dare: I Gave, I Give, I Keep Giving

[Note: today's post is in support of Blog Action Day's "The Power of We," which you can find out more about here]

Give: [with two objects] to freely transfer the possession of (something) to (someone)

I was going to try to be clever and translate this post’s title into Latin—and when Google informed me that “to give” in Latin is “dare,”  it just put a new spin on everything I had been planning to say.

I talked awhile ago about the word “mine,” and all the grasping and clutching and nasty ownership byproducts it can produce. But if “mine” is protective and clutching something toward yourself, “to give” is daring, to make yourself open and vulnerable, to unclench your hands and release what’s in them, not only to give up possession of a thing, but if you’re really fully giving, to also give up your expectation of what will happen to that thing as well. (This last insight, on expectation, was given to me by a very wise friend, and it has permanently affected my perspective on giving.)

To give is to make an offering, to dare to say, even on the smallest level, “I would like to honor you by presenting this thing which I hope will please you.” You are humbling yourself, opening your heart to that other person, who you care enough about to offer this expression of care or admiration. Even if it’s just a $20 gift card, it means something.

Stores have had fake Christmas trees under their rafters for more than a month now, and every year the impending pressures of the holiday season can knock a little wind out of my sails. Of all times of the year, this is where the word “giving” usually has the emotional baggage of “mandatory” attached to it, which can often suck all the spontaneity and life out of giving anything. You make a list, you imagine what you’d like to do, you calculate how much you can actually afford, you guess at how much each person will spend on you, and, at the base of it, you try to make it heartfelt while trying to make everyone happy. It’s enough to want to make a person hibernate, no matter how good their intentions.

Many moons ago, I fell in love with an organization called Heifer International which partners with communities in poverty all over the world. Heifer’s “gift catalog” is filled with animals you buy for communities involved in Heifer projects. These communities, who want to provide a more self-sustaining life for themselves, have contacted Heifer to develop a plan for their area (for example, a local milk cooperative) and then, if the project goes forward, the participants not only receive training and education in agriculture but then livestock suited for their geographical area (cows, goats, camels, etc.) as well. It’s not a food drop in an emergency situation—though those are also valuable and necessary things—this is building a sustainable livelihood. And you get to help by purchasing cows. Or water buffaloes. Or pigs. Or sheep. Whatever is best for their project. And so you get to send a card (or anything you care to do) to your friend saying, “somebody now has a water buffalo thanks to you!” or something to that extent. Heifer makes cards available. I liked making my own. (They call it “fun fur” because it’s a lot of fun. Though do be careful with the glue.)

You’d think that whole process in and of itself would be a laudable thing, but the extra beauty embedded in Heifer’s model is something called “passing on the gift.” For every animal received, it is part of the Heifer contract that the first offspring of an animal be given to someone else as a gift, and that person’s animal’s first offspring after that, and so on. Heifer partners with a community project officially for several years, helping and monitoring to make sure everything is going smoothly, and during that time they track the gifts that are passed during the course of the project, which are numerous. There are even official “Passing on the Gift” ceremonies that communities hold. But if a community stays true to the spirit of the gift over time, the initial project can birth generations of gifts—gifts that simply can’t be tracked forever on hard copy spreadsheets. If that spirit is passed on, the gifts just keep giving.

For me, this embodies the spirit and process of giving—the act of caring for a person, understanding what they desire and/or need, giving what you hope will bring them true joy—and then letting go of your own expectations of thanks or results. Who knows what the ripples will be?

These kinds of gifts—not just Heifer gifts, but any gifts given in this spirit—well, those are worth staying awake for through the holidays.

Categories: In the Lexicon, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Haiku Tuesdays: Dastard

Well, it’s officially fall now in both date and weather. It’s my most-beloved season—season of warm tea, hot chocolate, crackling fireplaces, and crunchy leaves. However, it is also evidently my turn for marshmallow head—the unfortunate condition in which one’s sinus cavities feel as if they have been stuffed with marshmallows. Sniff, sniff.

Marshmallows should only be allowed in hot chocolate. There should be laws about this.

But welcome back, Haiku Tuesday. I have missed you, and look forward to reveling in all the small-and-ingenious creations of the Aardvark’s friends. Don’t know the game? Read this and join in.

Today’s word? Dastard (n): a dishonorable or despicable man.

Wrangler of disease
Microscopic germ shepherd
He’s trained the foul things

Mindless fluffy fiends
He lets them loiter, chewing
On my crumpled thoughts

Categories: Haiku Tuesdays | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Perspicacity Jones

Words are funny things. A few years ago I came across the word “perspicacious.” I don’t think it had crossed my path before, so I just passed it in context and kept reading. And then  it showed up at least twice again over the course of the same book, so I gave in and looked it up.

Perspicacious: having keen mental perception and understanding.

Charming word. Fun to say. And today, for no apparent conscious reason, it popped back into my head again, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it meant. But my mind started playing games with it, tossing it around like a slinky, pulling it apart, squeezing it back together again, and all of a sudden it decided that the planet has been missing a very important literary figure named Perspicacity Jones. And when I looked up the word again, I was even more convinced.

Perspicacity Jones: gutsy, witty adventuress, possibly Australian, a sort of mesh of the best parts of Pippi Longstocking, Harriet the Spy, Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes (and just as much fun to say as Benedict Cumberbatch). I suppose she would have some sort of achilles heel—all heroes do…

But I have no idea what it is. Because she doesn’t exist yet. But she could. Maybe someday she will. Regardless, I’m sure I will never have to look that word up ever again.

__________
Afterthought:
As the brain slinky was roaming around, it remembered seeing a similar name somewhere, and, sure enough, courtesy of Terry Pratchett, there is actually a Miss Perspicacia Tick, witch finder and teacher of Tiffany Aching in Pratchett’s “Wee Free Men” books. Miss Tick is a witch finder in a good way, though, helpful to young girls born to be witches in areas where it’s unfavorable to be a witch, and is also an excellent practitioner of escape techniques when found out to be a witch herself. These are hilariously funny, wonderful, and rather wry books about young Tiffany’s road to becoming an extremely practical community witch, aided by a group of completely recalcitrant little blue men who will drink anything, fight anyone, and say a lot of things not repeatable in proper society. Can’t say enough great things about this series. Of course, people over the age of 18 probably shouldn’t be allowed to read these books.

Poor Joel Stein. He misses so much.

Categories: In the Lexicon | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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