Friday, June 28, 2013

Considering & Pondering

Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?  
~Winnie the Pooh

 1. When reflecting on human psychology, physicist and electronics engineer Derek Abbott, observes that “…[p]eople who are … hypersensitive about certain things tend to be very sensitive to other peoples' feelings in those same areas. This is understandable.

"However, notice that they can be very insensitive to other people on issues that don’t happen to worry them specifically.” Abbot wonders if there is there a name for this phenomenon and a hypothesis to explain it.

No, I don’t have a name for what Abbott calls a “phenomenon.” However, seems to me this kind of person has a lack of empathy as well as a (usually unwitting) disregard for feelings of others—perhaps coupled with a superior sense of self.

These people seem to be so wrapped up in their own lives they are unable to genuinely care about the feelings of others. Oh, these folks will seem to care, yet somehow the conversation always segues back to talk about their feelings and their sensitivities.  

2. Several years ago I knew a person who would open a conversation by saying, with great enthusiasm and glee, “You were on my mind so much yesterday …" Of course, that effusive comment usually garnered my full attention! Yet, after this intro, he related an event in his own life which, in the main, had absolutely nothing to do with me. But, of course, I was in rapt attention (ego being what it is!), waiting for whatever it was in that story which reminded him of me. Nope, never happened.

3. Check out this website, “TED,” an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design. TED’s site has “Ideas Worth Spreading.” For the most part the comments attendant to each video are thoughtful and coherent (some seem a bit nutty!).

4. Another Derek Abbott thought: “Given that the atoms in your body get replaced over each seven-year period and that your mind both develops and forgets old data, how can you define identity? Are you really the same person, you were yesterday?”

My very unscientific answer to that pondering would be “No, I’m not the same person; not the same person I was yesterday, or the day before or the years before that. I am, as we all are, an olio of every past moment of experience and every experience of the present moment.

The tricky thing is, I want to save the helpful life lessons I learned yesterday and the days before, add them to what I’m beginning to understand today and toss out the fluff of inconsequential data which seems to continually swirl through my brain.

As for the atoms in my physical body being replaced every seven years, there’s no trick to understanding that. All have to do is look in the mirror or walk up the three flights of stairs to my office. My body’s “atom rearrangement (derangement?),” which has occurred ten times—if Abbott’s calculations are correct—is obvious.

5. Stochastic resonance is observed when noise added to a system changes the system's behavior in some fashion.

Hmmm, such as how my “system” reacts when I’m in grocery or department stores where caterwauling noise disguised as music blasts into my already frazzled mind!!!??

I’ve spoken to managers of these stores and usually receive blank stares of incomprehension. In fact a few store personnel said adding this music is believed to enhance customers’ shopping experience (read: entice us to buy more!).

Okay, so the CEOs have determined their bottom line is increased when they pummel the shoppers’ “system” with this dissonance. This shopper's “bottom line”: I stay away from those stores as much and as often as possible. That resonates with me!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Swirl and Swing of Words*

All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.
~Kahlil Gibran

I’m looking at three disparate, undated pieces of paper—different colors, different sizes, each holding three words written in different colors of ink.

These are the things I know: At various times in the last eight months, I scribbled the words on the papers, stuffed them in the large folder I take back and forth to work—and forgot about them. There they stayed until this morning—two, a bit crumpled, one with a torn edge.

I often jot down ideas for subjects I may want to write about in my blog, yet at first I could not recall why I put down these particular words, or what was going through my mind at the three different times. 

The first paper has these words: Peaceful, Calm, Tranquil; the second: Pain, Illness, Process; the third: Revelation, Transformation, Acceptance.

Thinking about it now, I believe the first words, “Peaceful, Calm, Tranquil,” were written at a time when I was dwelling on how often friends have commented that I usually seem settled and composed and how they often feel less tense or upset when around me. I try, I try. 

My journey to inner peace, calmness and tranquility has been rocky and rife with missteps—missteps which have taken me to emotional and financial precipices. I know it does no good to chastise myself for what now present as poor decisions, or rue the day when those decisions seemed exactly the right thing to do.   

I have always “owned” the way my adult life has unfolded and I take ownership for the way in which I handle the bumps cropping up along the path. 

It's not always easy to project a positive attitude and yet, giving in to the opposite does me no good (I've experimented!), and so I keep smilin'. 

“Pain, illness and process.” Words written inside scribbles that look like river eddies, jagged lightning bolts emanating from the centers. It’s easy to know why I jotted down these three words. During the past four years, two of my dearest friends have been experiencing dire health issues, often bringing severe, intractable pain and an inability to physically function in their usual go-getter fashion. My heart aches for them.

I’ve known excruciating physical pain—a kind of pain that could never be assuaged with any drugs. Thankfully, gratefully, years after surgeries and physical therapy I'm in a "so far, so good" state of physical health. 

My friends who are in pain? As of now, it doesn’t appear that they will ever again know pain free days without medication. They use a daunting regimen of painkillers and those often work well enough to give them a few hours of relief. Neither one wants to take the medication but their lives are massively diminished when there is such overwhelming pain.

The process of pain management can be a mentally overwhelming task. Many sufferers don’t know when the pain will crop up. When it does, a day that might have begun with hope, with sunshine and flowers, with joy in a good, hot cup of coffee or a call from a loved one quickly turns into a struggle to find the steel resolve to cope, once again…to just make it through another day.

Serious illness can strike overnight and quickly rearrange every aspect of life.

I read Floyd Skloot's 1996 book, The Night-Sidewhen it first came out and agree with the reviewer who wrote, "Rarely has so painful a subject—being sick—produced so exhilarating a book. His writing is full of wisdom and panache. He manages to turn physical affliction into literary gold. A series of moving, often hilarious meditations on chronic illness that remind us, in prose that mesmerizes, of the remarkable tenacity of the human spirit." Below are the last lines of Skloot's poem, "Music Appreciation":

  …I may never know what brilliant cell rewrites the entire score my body has followed for life, throwing its symphony into chaos.

It’s somber, but I’m learning to appreciate this new tone, the discordant sound that accompanies vital change.

I was thinking vivace, but find that recovery runs at its own tempo and settle back simply to hear the way my being achieves its harmonies. …

“Revelation, transformation and acceptance,” are the words on a piece of paper torn out of a small notebook I once carried in my purse. The entire 4x6 slip of paper, right out to the edges, is covered with happy faces and twirling doodles. No artistic presence there!

I tried to recall what it was that spurred me to write those words, to embellish that small slip of paper with such childish scrawls. Then I remembered!

Two months before, a friend and I had been together for dinner and then to the theater. We’ve been friends for over three decades and we easily share our thoughts and feelings.

I recall we’d been talking about a myriad of things (as we usually do when we are together). Heading toward her home on this evening, our conversation ended up focusing not on our families or friends, not on the dinner we just enjoyed or the play we’d laughed out way through, but on how we felt about where we were in our lives.

Almost as one, we said we’d recently had a sort of epiphany, or revelation, having to do with the ways in which we’d changed and evolved over the previous many years. We both felt more confident and sure of ourselves even though we acknowledged our physical stamina was not what it had been even five years previous.

As we wove our way through the dark, wet city streets, we spoke of the transformations that had begun taking place in our lives two months prior. 

My friend said she was just now beginning to know for certain that she'd made the right decisions about her marriage and her living situation.  

After leaving a 45-year marriage, my friend and her adult daughter, along with two teenage grandchildren, now share a large, old Craftsman-style home with a lush garden and enough room for the three legally allowed city-chickens. She is on the path to having her second novel published, taking yoga classes and beginning a book club.

Decisions made by the corporate owners of the apartment complex where I've lived for a total of 14 years have forced me to do something I probably should have done years ago and that is to move into a small, less expensive apartment. It has just been so easy to go on year after year, cutting back as necessary in order to keep up with the ever-rising rental rates.  

Of course, I'll keep my part-time job and I will concentrate a bit more on growing my freelance editing business. 

These changes have not come easily for either one of us, but after realizing and accepting that we needed to make some adjustments, we have both transformed our lives.

She called me the morning after our time together to tell me how much she enjoyed the evening. Her voice was calm and soothing and as I listened to her I picked up the piece of paper and a blue marker, eventually writing, “Revelation, Transformation, Acceptance” in florid, curling letters, grinning faces bobbing on the margins.

Dante Alighieri said, “He listens well who takes notes.” I listened and I heard friendship.

*I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.

~James Michener

Monday, June 3, 2013

Going Coastal

At the end of May 2010, due to a few graced circumstances, I joined two friends for a coastal retreat.

Gunmetal gray skies hovered low as we scurried into the warmth of the large, welcoming sea-view home, high above the Pacific Ocean.  Very soon torrential rain slid down the five huge windows in liquid, sensuousness sheets, blurring our vision to the outside.

We are writers of various and varied ilks, interests and levels. We find delight in turning phrases into poetry and honing ideas, research and personal story into historical and narrative non-fiction.

Over these next two and one half days, our focus would be on three areas having to do with the singular mission of perfecting a query letter and synopsis introducing a recently competed historical novel.

The novel’s author dedicated five years to this endeavor and these next steps were crucial. Her family’s serene beach home, tucked against the hillside two hours from Portland, seemed the ideal spot to concentrate on our mission.

Two of us sat side by side in comfortable chairs, reading separate rough drafts of query letter and synopses—concentrating, parsing words and every once in a while voicing an idea for a different phrase or particular word to the other, as in: …how does this sound….? …would this work better here…? …let me read this part to you...

The author sat at a high table overlooking the ocean; her computer open to the manuscript as she continued the heavy and seemingly never-ending work of editing, of perfecting, at the same time alert to our quietly-voiced, intermittent comments a few feet away.

The soft cacophony of the crashing waves and the muted sounds of songbirds provided a soothing background for those six hours as we three wrote, read and concentrated.

The following day presented a blue sky strewn with billowy, cumulous clouds. We worked three hours on the “project” then tucked our writerly work away. 

Soon we were walking along the pristine shoreline. We strolled in communal silence, watched murres swoop the wave crests for food, felt the warming sun on our faces and reveled in the majesty before us.

It’s not unusual for my friends and me to comment on how fortunate we feel to live in this part of the Pacific Northwest. However, walking our beach on this day when it truly seemed all was right with the world, we also felt very, very distressed about the on-going Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster which had begun five weeks previous.

The horrendous environmental damage all across southern Louisiana and down to Florida is beyond heartbreaking.  The devastation to plants and wildlife will continue for untold years.

I am once again appalled at our human avarice, at our inability to live lightly on the planet and at our egotistical audacity. Humans will surely be the shortest lived species--and by our own hand.

“Manifest Destiny” quote, ca. 1840:

It is America's right to stretch from sea to shining sea. Not only do we have a responsibility to our citizens to gain valuable natural resources we also have a responsibility to civilize this beautiful land.

What hubris! Tell me, exactly what is “civilized” about how we are defiling our planet?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Stumbling into Clarity

Treadmills whirring in tandem, the man and woman were carrying on a lively conversation. I had just entered the gym and settled myself at the weight machine when I overheard them talking about (what I assumed to be) the woman's child. 

The man asked, “…well, did you validate what he said to you?” She replied, “Yes…,” adding some other words I didn’t hear. Their workout over, the couple stepped off the treadmills, continuing their conversation as they walked out the gym doors.

I thought to myself, what a bunch of pop psych talk that is ... validate... Hummph!

One could say I learn life lessons at a snail's pace. However, that snippet of an eight-year old conversation and my reaction to hearing it came back to me last week after I had been in the company of two children, ages 12 and 7.

Recalling our time together, I began to dwell on what it means to be (ta da!) validated for one's actions and the opinions one expresses. 

I realized there were several occasions when I had ignored or dismissed the childrens' comments or judged their responses without first acknowledging or inquiring.

Even though these were simple things, in each case preferences had been expressed and I didn’t inquire about the basis before I proffered my own opinion(s).

In the same way, I now realize how many times (it may appear) I have dismissed another’s comments as I jumped in with my own ideas or my own likes and dislikes.

On a more serious level, there are times when a friend takes us into his confidence, telling us his fears or worries. Wanting to ease his discomfort, and before acknowledging his concerns, we tend to outline the reasons his trepidations are unfounded.

I came to realize how often I have the opportunity to validate another’s preferences, actions, beliefs or feelings and I slide right past, preferring to voice my own thoughts on the matter before asking a meaningful question or attempting to understand.

This is no call to dig and delve into the whys and wherefores of another person’s life, no admonition to be inordinately sensitive, deferential or ingratiating; nor am I positing that validation necessarily means agreeing with or condoning.     

Whether child or adult, when one hangs back from a situation; is open enough to tell us he’s fearful or worried; expresses an opinion different from our own, the kind and the right thing to do is to acknowledge and respect the action or statement—to clarify and validate before we "opinionate.

People may forget what you say or do,

but they will never forget how you make them feel.

~ Maya Angelou

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tending Toward Serenity

Ever in the forefront of my mind is an appreciation of the natural wonders our Pacific Northwest offers. Trees and naturally flowing waters are my talismans.

The following piece was written during a three day retreat with two other writer-friends at the Oregon coast. 

                                                        Three Days

One day, gunmetal gray skies, rain blowing sideways,
pelting the huge windows,
sliding down in liquid, sensuous sheets.
White capped waves churned and roiled.
Murres and gulls squawked,
swooped along the crests—seeking.
One morning, skies strewn with cumulous clouds.
Harbinger of an afternoon sky turning absolute blue.
Three friends, writing, parsing.
At times, silence. A camaraderie needing no words.
We reveled in the sound of quiet.
Soft susurration of waves and birdsong—
a soothing background.

That abiding sense of solace usually, easily, found in nature had been eroded somewhat by my keen awareness of the ongoing national unrest; the dissonance of the many voices and the seeming inability to compromise; the spate of human-caused destruction born out of our hubris and sense of entitlement.

These three days were a balm—a much-needed respite from the cacophony which I had begun allowing into my psyche.

                                    The sole art that suits me is that which, 
rising from unrest, tends toward serenity. 
~ Andre Gide


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Discretionary Listening

The older I grow the more I listen 
to people who don’t talk much
~ Germain G. Glien

The author of an op-ed piece in our local paper posits beginning a “Slow News” movement, a lá Michael Pollen’s “Slow Food” concept. This columnist feels most news is of little importance and asks us to “… question the value of the perpetual fast-food-like empty-calories news that is processed to keep us addicted to it.”

The recent horrendous acts of gun violence at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut were 24/7 fodder for the mediaeach outlet striving to be the first with the latest tidbit of information. Most of us wanted to know what had happened and our hearts broke for the pain the loved ones had to endure. This was not empty-calorie news.

However, as with other instances of international, national or regional importance, “breaking news” alerts bombarded us—either crawling along the bottom of our TV screens or blasting through our radios. Each media entity strove to be the one to grab our attention and tease us so that we would hang on through the looming and long commercial break.

It is in the best interests of my own emotional health that I be vigilant about the amount of processed news I allow into my psyche. Therefore, a few days after this tragedy, I stopped paying attention to the latest “breaking news." Instead I chose to concentrate on the broader conversation regarding access to assault weapons. 

I continue to be interested in sensible, non-confrontational discussions about gun control. Two days ago I spoke at length with a friend who is a former policeman, who knows what it’s like to use a gun in the line of duty and who owns several automatic weapons. He is adamant that assault weapons have no place in the hands of private citizens. 

Friends who have used weapons to legally hunt, who have had access to rifles since they were children and some who have concealed weapon permits, each and every one of them hold nothing but derision for those young men who felt the need to strut through our town with assault rifles slung over their shoulders. Yes, a “statement” was made, but I truly doubt it was the one those boys hoped for.

Timendi causa est nescire
Ignorance is the cause of fear
~Lucius Annaeus Seneca

It often seems as though the world is a seething cauldron of hatred and violence. When we take time to delve into the root causes, we frequently discover ignorance drives the vitriol and fear perpetuates it. Sadly, there are those who profit immensely from creating a feeding frenzy of fear.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Memorable Notes

Music is a strange thing. I would almost say it is a miracle.
For it stands halfway between thought and phenomenon,
between spirit and matter.
~ Heinrich Heine

My life is filled with an amazing array of delights. There are times when the emotions these “delights” engender just about overwhelm my senses. Sometimes it’s simply the random juxtaposition of life’s occurrences—one simple, pure and totally enjoyable event followed by another, far different, yet in so many ways bringing the same spark to my world. In the past week I’ve experienced three of these memorable happenings. Each one involved music.

The opening chord came to me as a gift from a dear friend: an evening of Beethoven’s compositions.

Even though I played violin and cello as a young teen, I am no musical aficionado. Through the years I’ve attended several professional symphony performances and I rate some as riveting and lively and a few as boring dirges. This presentation held my rapt attention for the full 90 minutes.

After each piece the professional musicians merited and received round after round of applause and at the finale, standing ovations with “Bravo!” echoed throughout the concert hall.

Two hours before this performance my friend and I shared a relaxing, convivial dinner. Even though I had no expectations, I’m certain this helped set the stage for my enjoyment of the evening’s music.

Three days later, I joined my son and family at a spring musical performance by 1st and 2nd graders. My 6-year old grandson, bashful smiles coming in waves, stood in the second row with his “Army Ant” hat on, intently watching the entertaining and highly animated music teacher lead the group of fifty or more children in their songs.

I sat forward in my seat, smiling as I watched the young, intent, serious faces. As I listened to their sweet, clear voices, tears came to my eyes. So much hope in those voices, so much possibility in their small bodies and so very many mountains for them to climb. I pray we haven’t left them a world too broken to repair.

The next day another friend and I attended a senior theater group’s springtime musical, comedy and dance presentation. And, by “senior” I mean several decades old! The youngest performer of the 32 member cast is 65 and the oldest, a perfect imitator of Minnie Pearl, is 96.

I sat forward in my seat, smiling as I watched the seniors, so intent and focused as they tap-danced, sang and cracked jokes. Their verve and liveliness belied their calendar ages. As I listened and watched, tears came to my eyes. So much life has been lived by these amazingly agile and talented people, so many experiences, so many stories to tell, so many mountains climbed. I said a prayer of thankfulness because their enthusiasm gave me hope…for the children.

It's not that age brings childhood back again,
Age merely shows what children we remain.
~ Goethe