Saturday, June 8, 2013

Pavlov's Freaking Dogs

I'm a person who often (maybe even "generally") makes choices about my own life that I hope/guess/calculate/infer will best serve the people I love, or (less commonly these days) those I feel responsible to.  And I am ridiculously, crazily, exhaustingly empathetic, with a strong and accurate sense of how others feel, what they "want."  However, if you ask me what I want, I am often unable to reply.  It is, I think, a habit of mind, a way that I make sense of the world and the people and situations I interact with each day. Seek to understand, as "they" say, then to be understood.  It is also a little teeny way to be in control and not be disappointed - if you never want anything, you can never be disappointed not to achieve it.  Tada!

How people make choices is a topic that interests me deeply, both as a person and as a writer.  It has only a little to do with your intelligence.  Smart people make stupid choices all of the time.  And over the last several months, I've been ruminating on the choices that keep us stuck--in jobs, homes, activities, behaviors, relationships, friendships--that don't suit us, that simply do not fulfill any part of who we want to be, the person we are at our core when all the stuff that doesn't matter is stripped away.  Habits of thought and behavior, habitual choices - they are not easy to change.  But I don't believe in "that's just how I am, baby."   The truth is that it's simply a matter of priority.  Things that we make a priority to change, we change.

So, there.  All set.  Just stop making wrong-headed choices.  Done and done!  Of course it isn't so simple, the comfort of the familiar is simply too strong.  It can feel so "right" to make a choice to do something that we know intellectually and in our hearts is self-destructive, or counterproductive.  Physiologically, we're often rewarded for making these wrongheaded choices--humans often feel less anxious when we make a familiar choice, no matter whether it is a good one.  But anxiety is born of so many factors--and sometimes it is born of trying to move toward dwelling in a happier, healthier, safer, cleaner, more aligned with our values but unfamiliar way of living or being.  So we make the choice that rids our bellies of that anxious fluttery feeling.  But sometimes, maybe even often, the choice made to quiet our butterflies is not a healthy one. It is merely familiar.

Right.  Got it.  Can I say that I'm so freaking sick of learning this lesson?  It is so frustrating to watch myself and the people in my life keep tripping over the same mistakes we've always made.  I'm not all that interested in the kind of psychotherapy that "undoes" trauma and the crazy bad decision making that we learned as coping mechanisms when we were children or young adults.  Conversely, I'm pretty invested in the kind that helps me grow, pretty interested in NOT continuing to use the skills I learned at 9 or 19 when the lessons I learned at 23, 29, 39 and uhm, well, 47 are so damned hard-won and valuable.

Which is why I'm annoyed with myself.  I've fallen out of some very good habits that I fought to bring into my life and back into some stupid ones.  I'm eating too much sugar and white flour.  I'm not working out.  I'm not writing enough.  I'm not reading enough, even though I can literally feel my brain calm itself when I'm reading great prose regularly.  I'm working too much and thinking about work when I'm not working.  I'm not holding people accountable to treat me as I should be treated - hell, I've slipped out of the habit of even thinking about and acknowledging to myself what I need/want.  Yep, big deal, I know.  I'm human.  First world problem.  We all fall off the wagon.  I'm busy.  My life has stress in it.  I'm super-cute and deserve my bad habits.  (Ignore the lack of logic in that last one - it's literally the kind of logic we use to self-justify our stupid choices 12-18% of the time.  Your actual percentage and mileage may vary.)

Blah, blah, blahhhhh.  For me, at my age, with my life experiences--it's all crap.  Excuses.  Reasons to keep being where I have said emphatically I.Do.Not.Want.To.Be.  Pavlov's dogs were utilizing the same level of thinking and judgement that I have in some of these choices.  Seriously.

And this week I attended another funeral for another great man who left this planet too early.  It can happen to any of us.  And once more, our mortality is on my mind.  And once again, I'm faced with the fact that this is the only life we'll be given, today and this moment are all is we have for certain.  I'm still the same freaking realistic optimist I've been since age 9.  I will try to be gentle with myself.  I will continue to live in gratitude.  But making excuses for myself and others has to stop--and stay stopped--if I'm to live the live I want to lead.

So, let's do this again.  Let's keep doing it until it sticks.  Let's get back up when we fall down on our great intentions and start once more.  Do not live in fear, but live fully in the knowledge that today, this moment, is the only guarantee that any of us have.  Make good choices, my friends.  Love people wholly.  Know what you need from those around you, and ask for it.  If they fumble or are defensive, try to forgive it and repeat yourself.  When the calm person in your life freaks out over seeming minutiae, ask why it matters so much instead of asking why they are freaking.  Pay it forward every chance you get.  Treat children, the less fortunate and every animal you see with kindness.  Treat the people you love with the courtesy and care and tenderness that you think about showing them "when you are less busy" or that you think must be obvious.  Move more, read more, dance more, smile more, laugh more, eat food that is made of ingredients you can pronounce.  Give 75%, not 50%, in your relationships and don't judge the people you love, don't assign motivation to their behavior.  Be less busy, and more determined to mindfully live each day with care.

Best to all who happen this way.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Toasting Courage

"Why do people lie to people they love?"

The question popped out of my mouth unbidden while watching TV.  I've been watching "Shameless" the last few weeks.  The show is filled with titillating sex scenes and bathroom humor, but it is also dead-on in some depictions of humans in self-destructive undertows, and in very rare moments of grace.  The characterizations are strong enough that we can't seem to look away, and so we keep watching episodes as these characters make bad decisions, lie to one another, hurt one another -- and then, suddenly, we are rewarded with a moment of grace that feels true and honest.  

One night, curled into the corner of the sofa watching an episode where two characters lie to one another about important events, the question just fell from my lips, and fell into my lap.  And then we were on to the next scene, which was undoubtedly some tangled mess of bare limbs in a badly lit room.  It is, I think in retrospect, a silly question.  Naive.  People lie to lovers, or to their spouses, children, parents or best friends for a relatively short list of reasons, though we may be motivated by a variety of emotions. but I would posit that the most common thread among them, the most common motivation, is fear.  And, in my experiences, those fears can be relatively simply categorized.  The two big categories are fear of being judged once the truth is out, or fear of being called out for behavior we know is foolish, selfish, self-destructive or hurtful.    

And then, one afternoon speaking with a young female friend, I listened while she detailed a fear that her lover was lying to her about his drinking.  She was working out a plan to catch him, to prove to herself, or to him, that he was lying (or underestimating?) his drinking.  For a moment, she reminded me of a character in "Shameless."  And, after a moment, I thought how lovely it is to be my age.

Trust your gut - this is what we learn as we grow older.  One of the most interesting realities of growing older-and-wiser-and-more-pummelled-by-gravity is the increasing sense of accuracy we have about sensing lies.  When we are young, there is so much energy and focus on proving our intuitions right (or wrong).  But there comes a moment, or a year, or a decade, when validating our intuition is no longer the question.  We simply know, without question or "proof" when someone we love is lying, withholding, telling half-truths.  We do not know, of course, the truth of whatever the matter is, but we no longer question whether our instinct is incorrect.  Luckily, or happily, or blessedly, one of the other amazing gifts of wisdom that we earn with our wrinkles is the ability to choose how to react to that knowledge.  Will you confront the person and demand an accounting?  Will you chase down proof of what you sense?  Will you wait it out to see whether this is a pattern?  Will you walk away from this person you know is lying?  Or, will you try to unravel why they feel it necessary to lie, whether something in your behavior toward them makes lying to you seem safer than telling the truth?  Perhaps you'll just let the entire thing go, presume that the intentions are not, or were not, malicious and focus on something larger.  Or play ostrich, if you're feeling tired and beat-up.  

I've been told big, uncomfortable truths by my father, by friends, by coworkers, lovers and by my late husband.  They are often difficult to hear, and always difficult to accept.  Because of who I am, the people in my family and the people I surround myself with, those I invite into my life, the truths have often dealt with substance or alcohol use or abuse.  I'm grateful for having heard all of them, because they freed me to understand my own choices and life in the light of reality, and not the pink glow of false hope, or the yellow-brown murk of half-known reality.  

But, even writing that, I know how difficult those truths were to tell.  Telling the truth can be risky, as can demanding the truth.  It can end or damage a relationship, show our weaknesses and faults to someone that we love, make the person we are demanding tell us the whole truth feel cornered or pursued.  And it is in recognizing these risks, knowing them, that we find our way.  It is the gift of age and wisdom to understand that in many parts of our life "truth" has shades, that our right to know is balanced against each person's right to privacy.  And, the big truth, that claiming too vigorously the right to privacy may well equate to limited intimacy.  Sometimes those limits are healthy, but I tend to think that the healthy limits will not trip that ol' gut-meter, unless we mix a pile of self-doubt into the stew.  And we wrestle because all of these, all of them, are the normal tensions in a friendship, a family, a couple.  

Reading this, it seems I've made a pretty good case for keeping secrets, doesn't it?  That's because secrets can truly be a way to maintain privacy--and that is not "wrong."  Anyone from a big, nosy family or a small, nosy town knows this.  But secrets, while they may protect your "privacy," will never free you.  What I know about telling the truth when being silent might be easier or safer is that it is an expression of trust.  What I know about trust is that it is the path to intimacy.  And real intimacy, I'm here to tell you, beats any other possible way of being with the people that I love.  I'm talking about real truths, about sharing the important scary places in who we are with just those few that we need to trust.  Our weaknesses, our screw-ups, the times and ways that we are not our best selves.  Intimacy is made or broken based on trusting those we allow to know these big, scary secrets.   Which, in a frustrating twist of human connection, means that these will be the things that we most fear sharing.  The things that we most fear are those that will reveal some dark morass in us that makes us unloveable, unworthy of connection.  Airing them and not being judged is the essence of intimacy.  And, as many of you reading this may now, sharing them brings the glorious gift of robbing them of their power to shame us.

Did you get that part?  A secret that you keep from the people you love out of fear of being judged, out of fear that telling the truth will make others stop loving you, maintains power over you.  That power has a name, and it's shame.  Whether you think of that word or not, that's the one that fits, unless you have sociopathic tendencies.  We long to trust, we long to connect and be honest, and a secret you're afraid to share carries shame.  So that's why examining your little pile of "privacy" items to make sure they are not facts, behaviors or memories that you're simply too ashamed to share, is important work.  Blechy, but important.   

I wish my young friend well in her quest to prove the unproveable question of whether her lover's drinking is excessive, and whether he intentionally misleads himself and my friend when he speaks of it.  I'm done with that sort of investigation.  

And so it was that I was wandering alone in Kathryn Albertson park in Boise yesterday, in thin early-spring sunshine, being grateful for wisdom.  While I walked I was remembering some of the big brave truths I've been told, thinking of some of the times that I've been brave enough to share my scariest truths, and how those moments nearly always built upon one another.   It's a dance, isn't it?  A more grown-up, complex and rewarding version of "you show me yours, I'll show you mine."  

So thankful for the path I've walked, for the people I love and have loved.  When I raise a dram of scotch (or a glass of decidedly NOT green beer) later today, I'll be toasting all of those people I've trusted and who gave me their trust.  I'll be toasting many of you.  I wish us all strength and courage on our journey.

Best to all who happen this way.

~ plk

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Snowfall on Roses

Snow has been falling on Boise since Monday morning.  I've had enough of wintry weather, of ice and snow, of required down coats.  Eric spent several hours over the weekend scraping and shoveling the driveway, ridding it of the built-up ice I'd allowed to accumulate.  It annoyed me to watch his handiwork disappear under more snow.  

I ran some errands after work, so by the time I was able to get outside to shovel the snow, it was dark.  Crisply cold, though not bone chilling.  I wore layers, I wore boots, I had sensible gloves and I was ready to do battle with the snow.  And then, something magic happened.  The snow had stopped falling, and the sky and air were clear as I stepped outside my back door to clear the deck.  Moonlight lit the new snow, piled in small glowing drifts that highlighted leaves and branches of shrubs, the curved tops of the fenceboards, the arching beautiful limbs of my Russian Olive trees.  And in that moment, all of my annoyance fell away and I saw, really saw, all of that beauty.  I set aside the snow shovel, and spent 40 minutes wandering the streets around my house.  I admired the flat sweep of the golf course greens, the way the moonlight made the pretty bridge over the empty canal seem to be made of icing sugar.  And as I wandered, I was reminded of how that flat expanse of golf course looked before this new snow, with week-old snow and icy clumps of tree sap and the ugly evidence of flocks of Canadian geese.  I remembered the icy canes of my climbing rose, which on Sunday looked almost surely to be dead--and marveled that tonight they glittered and shone with as much beauty as the rose has when in full bloom in June, the snowy splendor in moonlight a rival for June's emerald greenery and lush blooms.

When we are young, and sometimes when we are older and caught up in periods of hapless nostalgia tinged with depression, we are often a little preoccupied with firsts.  First kiss, first lover, first job, first...uhm, marriage?  Whoops, outside voice.  I avoid the mildly pejorative tone of "obsessed"--but the word is often accurate.  Firsts are special, they hold sway in our memories, they are lit with the soft light of naivete, a freshness and a glorious (it often seems when we are older looking back on those moments) absence of expectation.  And it's clear that all of those early experiences can imprint and shape us, in ways both good and bad. In ways that may or may not require extensive therapy.  So, yes--I understand and appreciate why there is a reason that "the firsts" are the topic of so much literature, why they preoccupy us as they do, why we sometimes long to have a moment back so that we can relive it or share it with someone new.

But as my time on the planet continues, I find myself longing to perceive and appreciate moments of beauty in the now, in the flawed glory of a moment, with people and objects that have withstood the tests life has thrown their way.  At our best, we get up from tough experiences and allow ourselves the grace of softness, as I've written about both here and in the essays I'm working on these days.  I seek, and am learning to recognize, the people who have also uncovered this truth.  Wisdom and experience can sharpen and enrich our experience of beauty, of this I am convinced.  But not if we are forever looking backward, comparing this moment, the moment we are in now, to a softly lit moment caught in a bubble of amber in our memory.

When spring comes, this harsh winter will have taken a toll on the flowers in my gardens.  I'm prepared for that, for the replanting of those spaces with new lovely things that I will find with Eric in one of our favorite Boise nurseries. We are already animatedly discussing where to plant vegetables, how to make the most of the sunny corners of the yard on Roosevelt Street.  And that is how this garden will become our garden.  It is one of the simplest pleasures, creating a well-tended garden around a home that you live in through the cycles of seasons.  Gardens, and the tending of them, the ways that they change and evolve and surprise, are one of the pleasures of staying, at least for people who love dirt.  It is a well-worked and familiar literary tool, the garden as a metaphor for a life, but it is endlessly resonant for me.

I'm reminded tonight not to fast-forward to spring, not to mourn the perfection of some earlier season, not to presuppose the amount of destruction that a long and hard winter will have caused. There will be time enough to assess and plan when spring comes.  There will be time enough to clear the ground and find the perfect plants for this new version of our garden.  For now, I'm going to spend a few more minutes admiring the beauty that is all around me this very moment.

Be well and happy in your corner of the globe.