THE UNEXPECTED IS ALWAYS HAPPENING

Suddenness, the unexpected, the way life can change on a dime, has always been on my mind. You open the door on a sunny day and a runaway bus climbs your front steps and zap, you’re gone.  You are walking in the park, and an asteroid lands on your foot.  A sinkhole swallows your brother while he sleeps. Yes, I try to make it funny with unlikely examples, but, as we all know, the real thing is not funny at all.

We hear the real thing on BREAKING NEWS reports and, for the most part, manage to put it in the backs of our minds. Have you ever noticed how common it is, whenever survivors or relatives of victims of some awful event are interviewed, to hear:  “I’ve seen things like this on television, but I never thought something like this could happen to me!”  Because, no matter how many times we see sudden disasters, we somehow still believe that we are immune, and so we are perpetually surprised.  That is, until lately.  Because lately, we are having such a busy tragedy season in the world, that it is getting harder to preserve our innocence.  Life is an endless procession of school shootings, church bombings, factory explosions, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, floods and wildfires. And countless “smaller” disasters we hear on the six o’clock news reports every day. I wake up almost every morning to the news that there has been another hit and run in Brooklyn, another stabbing on the train.

And all of those events began on a routine day with a routine act for someone: lacing up sneakers and going for a run, packing a sandwich and juicebox and sending first graders off to school, deciding, as in so many previous hurricanes, to ride out the storm; a transit worker goes to work like he does every day, a boy and his friend take a boat out on a slightly choppy sea, a girl stands just a bit too close to the edge of the train platform.  And then: everything changes like that.

It is hard to think about, hard to hear. Sometimes we want to turn off the news, forget it, ignore it, especially when the news reports go on and on, as if the repetition can convince us to believe the unbelievable, that the terrible event, whatever it is, has really happened to the victims, and by implication, to us.  Sometimes we think by avoiding hearing about it, we protect ourselves.  Watch only happy news?  Read only happy articles?  (All right, some people will have stopped reading this one a paragraph ago.) But in truth, the unexpected happens to all of us, at one time or another.  Avoidance of this truth won’t help.  Avoidance of life, won’t either, though it is tempting to think no harm will come, if, like the famous French novelist, we stayed in our padded bedrooms, safely tucked into bed.   But, of course, we know better.

I know better.  And so I am drawn back to the central question I ask myself all the time: How do I learn to expect the unexpected and still get on with life?

Honestly, I don’t have an answer.  It’s trial and error with me.  I don’t turn off the tv, but I limit the loop — three repetitions and I’m out.  And I am mindful not to be self-indulgent.  Though I may shed a tear for the injured and unlucky, I try not to wallow in the feeling, but instead remind myself that this time it isn’t me and mine going through it, and in gratitude do what I can – send a check, send a blanket, send a thought.

A friend who is old enough to be wise says the way to stay ready is to keep all “the essentials” done. Live every day as if you’re not going to get another one. Forgive everyone everything. Don’t go to bed angry. Have another piece of cake.  This sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but I can’t think of anything better at the moment.

Except maybe to keep in mind this:  if suddenly unexpected, world-changingly horrible things can happen, then suddenly, unexpected world-changingly wonderful things can happen, too.  Lottery ticket, anyone?

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GIMME A BREAK!

You may know the word “gimme” from golf.  It means a stroke that is so obvious, it is a given, so the golfer doesn’t have to take it, like a putt where the ball is inches from the hole. It is a time-saver.  But “gimme” is also a word that is a roughing-up of the phrase “give me.” Like a verbal version of grabbing,  “Gimme that!” is a rudeness on the playground, but by the time we become adults we are so accustomed to it that many of us live that way. We won’t get what we want unless we make a grab for it.  “Gimme that!” has become a way of life in today’s world.

I remember the television news being full of lurid reports of a woman in a California store so intent on getting her bargain X-Box that she pepper-sprayed her way to the display, injuring several people, including children, along the way, proceeding to the checkout counter without anyone stopping her.  It was obvious that the press loved it, and loved to hate it.  It was reported over and over and over, without even adding new details, and when it died down on the news, it entered social media and the word-of-mouth world, where people enjoy sharing their outrage online with other outraged strangers and offline at checkout counters and office hubs (are there still water coolers?) everywhere. The prevailing emotion seemed to be, “See? Didn’t I tell you how grabby and acquisitive most of us are?  Isn’t it great that we are the exceptions?  Aren’t we wonderful?”  This was years ago, but it continues to be repeated and reported, as bride-to-be race for the bargain wedding gown in a press covered “event,” and when people jockey to be the first ones to own the next almost-already-out of date smart phone.

I’m not above savoring the awfulness of it all.  The mind picture of that woman’s wild behavior is irresistible.  I animate it with my own imagined details: how she boasted about it to her kids or lied about it to them, how old she was, if she had planned her attack or always had pepper spray on hand.  I wanted, for some reason, to know what she looked like.  The incident was a perfect illustration of the dilemma most of us face at some time in our lives.  In a society where “first come, first serve” and “only while supplies last” are the mantras we live by, how else should we behave?  If we don’t shout, “Gimme that!” with hand outstretched, someone else is likely to get the shiny ring as we ride past, empty-handed. On the other hand, who among us hasn’t felt foolish or embarrassed by our own grabbiness?

Fifty years ago, my father gave me a clipping from The New York Post, which had a small poem, which, I believe, was by Anonymous and which he must have thought it was important for me to note.   The last two lines of the 4 line poem posed the question: “Is it better to be a grabby child/Or always take the smaller piece?”

I long ago decided it was probably better to be a grabby child, but in my own life, I still always took the smaller piece.  Why?  Well, it made me feel more virtuous, and gained me praise for my generosity, sense of balance, lack of interest in material things, blah blah blah.  In other words, it allowed me a sense of my own superior values. So, in a way, I gained even though I lost, especially since I don’t remember even one of the “bigger pieces” I gave up, rather than be considered grabby.  Fifty years ago, I was in the mainstream. Society approved of the way I behaved. Now, I fear it would be considered simply stupid.  If you don’t act fast, you lose it all, baby.  Step up or step off.  Push or get pushed.

Am I just another older person yearning for a good old day of gentler, kinder behavior? I am.  Is it an accurate picture of the way the world works these days?  For sure. “Gimme that!” is, in today’s world, a gimme.

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toss this one over your left shoulder

√     I was walking with a friend and when we passed some construction, my friend started to walk under a ladder which was blocking the sidewalk.  I grabbed her arm and pulled her around it.

“I didn’t know you were superstitious,” she said.

“Because I’m not,” I said.  “It’s just dangerous.  It could collapse on you.  Something could fall on your head.”

Later, I thought about it.  There was no one on the ladder, and nothing which could have fallen on her head.  So, why had I reacted so instinctively?  Was it superstition? Am I superstitious and don’t know it?

On one hand, I don’t care whether 20 black cats cross my path, I have never tossed salt over my shoulder, and I wouldn’t dream of spitting on money before I paid for a lottery ticket. On the other hand, when I’m buying that lottery ticket, I often pick numbers that mean something to me, like my children’s birthdays, or my anniversary, as if invoking them will bring me luck.  Isn’t that superstition?  Or does it become a superstition only when you can’t NOT do it? And what’s wrong with being superstitious, anyway? Why is being superstitious one of those things we don’t like to admit to?

I started asking around, and found a lot of people, who, like me, say they aren’t superstitious at all, but have some “habits” which tell another tale. A woman I know, before she discards a pair of shoes, first cuts the toes off them, because she wants to make sure no one “walks in her shoes.” (This person has had hard times, so it is a kind gesture as well as a superstitious one.)  Someone else says if you are having clothing altered while the garment is on you, you have to chew on a piece of thread.  I looked this one up.  It was to prove you were alive and not being sewn into a shroud.   I looked up “knock wood” too, and discovered that it referred to touching the wood of Christ’s cross for luck.  A Jewish version of that is when the Torah is paraded around the synagogue and the faithful reach over to touch the Book.   These are handed down from generation to generation and most of us do them reflexively, not superstitiously.  When we say “bless you” to someone’s sneeze, it is to be polite, not to ward off the evil spirit the sneeze had expelled from re-entering the body.

Other superstitions seem rooted in particular families.  One person I know said before her family went on any trip, they all had to sit down together at the table before leaving the house.  My mother used to call them stupid-stitions, but she had some, too.  Whenever I made an ugly face or stuck my tongue out she’d shudder and say “Stop!  It’ll freeze that way!” And at the end of every summer at the beach, my mother walked the shoreline one last time and with great ceremony, picked up a “lucky” stone to keep in her pocket all winter.  I am sure it was an expression of my mother’s fear that something would prevent her from returning next year, and of course it made no sense at all, but it made her feel good.   Whenever I visit a beach, even if is for a day, I find my “lucky” stone, too. I don’t believe something bad will happen if I don’t pick one up, but I never leave the beach without one.

Most of us do these things knowing they will not magically change any outcomes, but we do them anyway. Just to be sure? Hedging our bets? I have three dreamcatchers at home: one bought to soothe a grandchild who was spooked by noises in the woods outside the window when he slept over. A second one hangs in my workroom, and the third — small, delicate, with a silver feather attached– hangs from a light over my bed.  Do I believe that dream bits really are tangled in their webs?  Of course not.

Maybe it becomes a superstition when you feel you HAVE to do whatever it is you have to do.  Like those athletes, who, while they are on a hitting streak don’t shave, or change their underwear, afraid it will change some cosmic balance and end the streak.  Or the actors who won’t say “good luck” for fear of bad luck, so they say “break a leg”instead;  and because too many stage calamities are connected to it, never say “Macbeth,” calling it “the Scottish play.”

The bottom line: By the time we are adults we know how capricious life can be, and superstitions may give comfort, or an illusion of power in powerless situations. Read “loss.”  Read “death.”

So, aside from having to cope with obsessions and compulsions (like feeling you have to tap your foot ten times before going out the front door) what’s wrong with entertaining some superstitions?  Frankly, now that I am in the third third of my life, would it be such a bad idea to hold my nose when we ride past a cemetery?

 

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perchance to dream

You don’t think about sleep until you can’t sleep. It becomes more important in inverse ratio to its lack, so the less you sleep, the more you think about it.

You try to get to the bottom of it.  You think once you know the cause, you will find the cure. Maybe you already know why you’re not sleeping: it’s tax season, you’re dreading some dental/surgical procedure, your next grandchild is 2 weeks late in arriving, you’re contemplating a move, you’re moving. You had an argument and it hasn’t settled.  Most of the time, if it’s something specific like that,  and it has an expiration date, once you pass it you go back to sleeping again.

But there are those other things, like chronic pain, or restless legs, or too sedentary a lifestyle, or the glass of wine which you don’t want to give up but which puts you to sleep much too early and wakes you at 2 a.m.   These can feel permanent, and knowing about them doesn’t help you sleep one bit.

So eventually, you focus on solutions.  Oh, the things some people will do to bring back sleep.  Of course, for some insomniacs, it is as straightforward as taking a pill.  Just pop it and forget it (sometimes literally, if it is one of those pills they say are not habit forming but are amnesiac: you could clean the house in your sleep and not even know it.  In my case, since I hate cleaning the house so much even zombie pills won’t make me do it, I would probably eat my weight in Oreos).

Fellow non-sleepers tell you to get up and do something, instead of taking it lying down, adrift in your own angst. If you get up you will break the cycle of not-sleeping which leads to thinking about not-sleeping which keeps you from sleeping, they say. I’ve gotten up and gotten a lot done, including folding laundry, washing the kitchen floor, and writing blogs. But it did not break the cycle. The cycle breaks itself when its ready.

        I have also counted: trees in my backyard, number of times I can remember making lasagna, number of cookie recipes in my tin recipe box — in other words anything as long as it’s not sheep. I have lain awake, planning my days and weeks, including what clothes I would be wearing every day.  I have played out soothing scenarios, like my granddaughter’s wedding (she’s not even thinking of it right now), and my Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech.  I have composed whole stories in my head, but they keep me up with excitement, unless I get out of bed to write them, and then I am wide awake.

        I have tried listening to music, but the wrong song can send me in the opposite direction, towards wakefulness, and I find myself doing a lying-down salsa. Talk radio, especially the drone of world news on BBC can sometimes bore me to sleep, but then sometimes it goes the other way and gets so interesting that it wakes me back up again.

        I have a friend who eats pretzels to help her sleep.  She has tried pills, warm milk, special teas, but the only thing (besides exhaustion) which puts her out is pretzels.  She munches herself to sleep.  I’ve told her it is dangerous, that she might choke in her sleep. She’ll risk it.  That’s how much she needs a good night.

        When everything else fails, I roll over and bump into M.  He grunts and turns over.  I bump him again.

        “What? What?” he says, sleepily.

        “Oh, are you up?”  I say.

        “I am now,” he says.

        “Well, as long as you’re up,” I say.

        “What?” he says.

        “I can’t sleep,” I say.  “Let’s talk.”

        He groans.  Yawns. Is silent for a few minutes, but then, finally, says, “All right.  What do you want to talk about?”

        I try to tell him, but my tongue is getting floppy and suddenly I am too sleepy to remember what I wanted to say.  I am fading fast.  “MMM hmm,” I say, and that’s the last I remember until morning.

 

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I COME FROM A PLACE OF NO

Several years ago, I attended an informational meeting to fill me in on a committee I had been invited to join.  The attendees were intelligent, good humored people. They made me feel welcome. They said smart things.   I asked intelligent questions. They served excellent snacks.  Later, M asked how the meeting had gone.

“Great,” I said.

“So, you’re going to join?”

“No,” I said. “I’m never going back.”

What was it that made me so sure I wouldn’t join?  Did I think it had to be downhill from such an auspicious start?  Did I recognize something about this meeting that reminded me of other meetings?  I admit to some prejudice about members of committees in general: all guilty of looking for validation, cementing positions and planting flags, and wallowing in the safety of the herd. There it is.  My oppositional nature had reared its foxlike head and sniffed out a herd. These nice people, full of cogent ideas and Robert’s Rules, a herd.  Reasonable thought suggests status quo.   Collegiality makes me sleepy and out of sorts, and if I stay in it too long, collegial.  Yet aren’t I the first to say, when I think something in our world is going wrong, “Why doesn’t someone DO something about it?  They should form an ad hoc committee!”   What can I tell you?  I come from a place of NO.

What else do I say NO to?

Books a lot of other people say yes to.   In fact, if they are extremely popular and/or by famous people, I am pretty certain they will be a) too easy to read; b) not as good as I would have done on the subject;  c) not as good as the reviews say they are.; d) probably uplifting and inspirational.

I guess you could say I am suspicious of uplifting things wherever I find them.  Like clever sayings: When a door closes a window opens.   My version would include the news that outside that window is likely to be a brick wall.  To my way of thinking, every silver lining inevitably has a cloud.

I also disbelieve generalizations that emphasize the good in the world, like basically, people are kind.  It’s ridiculous to think we can know how all people are.  But okay, if you insist:  basically, most people don’t think about being kind, they think about winning.

I say NO to all politically correct symbolic gestures, like when a whole bunch of people showed up to attend the funeral of a veteran who was being buried without mourners. My questions: Where were you when he was alive?  What if he was such a miserable person that no one wanted to know him? What good are you doing him now?  Isn’t it a case of patting yourself on the back for the nice gesture you are making, honoring him?  Does he know it?   So who benefits?  You do, that’s who.

Just got a card from United Health Care – a Valentine’s Day card telling me that I am “someone special” and they wanted to tell me so.  I am foaming at the mouth thinking of how much time and money they spent sending this disingenuous message to me and god knows how many other people, all of which makes my medical care more expensive in the long run.  And every time I get a survey from a PAC that claims interest in my opinions and it turns out to be a disguised pitch for funds, I fill out the survey but happily say NO to sending them money.

Of course, some of the things I say NO to are just personal preferences. For example, I say NO to going on cruises.  I believe they are petrie boats for the noro virus.

I say NO to organized crime but also to organized religion, seeing both as sources of trouble for a lot of people in a lot of ways.

I say NO to substitute sweets on diets.  I say NO to vanity plates and bumper stickers advertising my preference in candidates, dogs, or colleges.  Also NO to wearing ribbons to show I am against getting breast cancer, and to Broadway tickets that cost more than an airline flight.

I don’t worry about whether people are going to say I was a glass half full or glass half empty kind of woman. I knew either way, the glass might break and I’d be left with a lapful of water.

Judge Judy, that great contrarian,  looks down at me from the height of the bench in my mind.  “So what’s your point,” she snaps.  “You just like saying no?”

I snap right back.  “NO,” I say. “I love it.”

 

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KEEPING THE DREAMS (AT BAY) WHILE WE GET ON WITH LIFE

I confess.

When I am alone, and no one else is there to see, I turn up the music and let myself go, bouncing and shimmying, singing and dancing like crazy.  I sing out the chorus of some old show tune. The lyrics rhyme ambitious/ delicious, the trombone razzes, a dramatic ritenuto holds me back and then I bring it on home, uh uh uh uh, and I feel it, all the way from the soles of my feet to the beat beat beat of my heart.

And why,  I ask me, do I “confess” it?  Why should this be such a big secret? Why do I ration joy to the length of a song in an empty room? Why so strict with my heart? Why rule it with the primitive On/Off gadget of my mind, switching to Off except for this little while? Would it be ruinous to leave joy On forever?

Maybe the answer is that it goes back to the old dream, the first dream, and the fact that it is still alive in me.  The dream of being a GREAT. BIG. BROAD. WAY. STAR. Center stage in a brilliant show.  Even now, when lights dim and an orchestra starts an overture, even if it’s a shitty summer stock in a barn, or a high school production, I get a lump in my throat, my heart thumps, I am wracked by joy and thwarted desire.

And I wonder how many of us, content, fulfilled, even wildly successful in life still harbor some old dream, the first dream.  Do misdirected dreams trump those unsought successes? What is it about those early dreams that feels kind of embarrassing, or shameful enough for us to reframe them, or discount them, calling them childish, what we all go through when we are young, meant to go through without stopping?  And get over.  Wanting to be a cop or a fireman? “It was the uniform,” we say and laugh. Wanting to be President? Childish hubris, wasn’t it, wanting to change the world, thinking we might? A doctor or nurse?  Oh, heros and saviors.  And when we don’t fulfill those dreams?  Does it mitigate the success we feel in the life we are currently living? Is that why it is such a secret?

Is it because we have a sense that we may have negotiated with life and scaled down our dreams so they no longer include saving the world, and have settled for smaller goals?

Is it because we have been schooled to modesty in whatever we do? “It was a team effort,” we say, when we know full well that we alone came up with whatever winning effort it was.   “Thanks, I tried,” we say,  when we want to say “I nailed it, didn’t I?”  The only place most of us feel it’s okay to crow about ourselves is on a good night of Jeopardy!.  Otherwise, it seems unseemly to take bows.

But I know so many stars, so many saviors.  I believe our early dreams are still played out in our lives, even when we don’t know it.  The extreme joy I feel when I do sing, or see someone performing, that I can still feel so deeply part of, is of that dream. I “perform” when I write fiction and fill the stage of the page. Those among us who are there for others, no question, no hesitation, live out those impulses to be saviors and heroes that were so pure and powerful when we were young.  “Stepping up,” we call it; showing up;  holding things up in all sorts of ways, all the time.  Those qualities do not die, and are woven into the whole cloth of our lives.

Fellow saviors and stars, I propose we look at it this way:  No shame, and constant confirmation that we all start out wanting to change the world and as long as we live, we still do.

 

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THE MOTH

There is a very large moth on the screen outside my office window. He has been there since October, so I’m pretty sure he’s dead.  I say pretty sure.

I  remember the day he arrived, a sunny fall day.   I was in the middle of writing something and as I noted him on the  window screen, I promised myself that when I finished the sentence I was writing, I would get the stepstool and stand up on it, and with a light breath, blow him back on whatever course he was on.  But, as luck would have it, one sentence led to another, and I forgot all about him.

The next time I was at my desk, I saw the moth out of the corner of my eye, there in the very same position, undoubtedly dead now, I thought.  I promised myself that when I finished the morning’s work and stopped for lunch, I would remember to drag the stepstool into the office, stand up on it, and with a light breath, send him to his final reward, which would probably be the mound of earth in the garden plot below, where the basil had died two weeks before.  But I forgot, and  when I looked again, the moth was gone.

Early the next morning, I went into my office with the clear intention of seeing if there were any moths on my window screen.  There was, one.  He had returned.  Don’t ask me how I knew it was the same moth.  I knew.  He had moved from the left to the right side of the screen, gotten comfortable in my sightline and there he waited out the day; when I did not blow him to anywhere else, he decided to stay. I did not make the mistake I had made earlier, thinking he was dead when he wasn’t. Though he did not move, I did not count him out.  Instead, I began to think of him as a very still individual.  Well, an individual moth, anyway.

“What are you doing?” I said to him.  “Are you wounded?  Are you tired?  Are you trying to read what I’m writing upside down?”

Autumn came and went, and the moth and I remained.

Christmas approached.  A landscape of frost and ice covered my office window, and the moth superimposed himself on it like a skater on a pond interrupted in the middle of some graceful figure one.

“Are you in stasis? Are you frozen solid?”

Storms rattled the windows, winds blew the trees, snow came and went, but the moth held on.  The immovability of him…the unchanging solidity of him, was a comfort.  I began to think he belonged there.  “What about that last sentence?” I would ask him, and assume his answer was the same as mine.  Nice, companionable.     When in mid-sentence, or mid-thought, I contemplated them by contemplating his neat shape: like an arrowhead with a little hint of an antenna at its tip.

“What will I do when you are gone?” I said.   Because getting accustomed to things is one of the comforts in life.

And this morning, I think, and imagine, how I will adjust on that inevitable morning when I look up and the moth is gone. But meanwhile, I enjoy his presence. I think (dead or alive) he tells me that nothing in this world should be taken for granted.

 

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