Archive for September, 2007
I keep thinking about a story my friend told me recently. She and her husband were taking a yoga class together, and one evening after class they parted ways to go to their respective cars. He was crossing a crosswalk behind two other members of the yoga class when a car ran the red light and plowed the two classmates down; one was killed instantly, the other barely survived. Right in front of my friend’s husband.
In the next yoga class, the teacher and the other students discussed the tragedy, my friend told me. And the yogi said to them: “Tomorrow is a working hypothesis.” This experience, and this message, helped my friend make a major career/life decision.
Last week, I took my daughter to our local mom-and-pop natural foods store. We go there 2-3 times a week and know all the employees by name. My daughter’s favorite is Carlos, a young 20-something man with a bright spirit who is clearly getting his life together, working every day at the store to help pay child support for his 5-year-old son, whom he raves about, and going to tech school at night.
It was the second time in a week we hadn’t seen Carlos when we were shopping, and my daughter wanted her usual game of “Peekaboo” with him. So, I asked the clerk, Mary, if everything was OK with him.
“Did you hear about that car crash on Route 76 last week?” Mary said.
“No,” I said, my stomach turning over.
“It was bad. A drunk driver killed Carlos’ father. And the drunk driver died, too,” she told me. Carlos’ mother, who was in the car, was badly hurt as well.
I must’ve said the typical, “Oh my goodness,” clapped my hand over my mouth.
“The cars looked as bad as Princess Di’s,” Mary continued. “Carlos’ family had a car wash fundraiser on the weekend to raise money for the funeral.”
My heart ached at the news. Among other thoughts, the word’s of my friend’s yoga teacher ran through my head: “Tomorrow is a working hypothesis.”
We’ve all heard these stories, or experienced something like them. (My memory flashes to almost being run down in a crosswalk last year — while quite pregnant, walking with a friend pushing her baby in a stroller — by a teenage driver who ran a red, right in my own neighborhood.)
We know people die every day, we know we could die any time. And, yet, our egos still help us believe we will be here tomorrow, and so will our loved ones. These things happen, then we forget and go back to “normal.”
It’s a tricky business, living as if each day could be our last. We want to plan for longevity. We want to make smart decisions for our financial future and long-term health. And, yet, there are no guarantees.
So, what if we lived knowing, truly knowing, that tomorrow is a working hypothesis. Would we do anything differently? Would what we have seem more like enough?
P.S. Thanks, all, for the good sleep thoughts. We’re having a much better week!
It’s amazing how our definition of success can change over time, even over the course of days, depending on our circumstances.
This week, success for me was some sleep. Any sleep. After three days and three nights of my toddler not sleeping (not at night, not at nap) after her first nightmare. I felt for her, I understood, I loved her through it, I marveled at her iron will, and knew it would pass. But by the third day I couldn’t see straight, had a hair-trigger temper, and I was definitely a road hazard driving to the local grocery.
Finally, on the fourth night, she was so exhausted that she slept. Peacefully. And napped peacefully yesterday, too. Let me tell you, the sight of that slumbering child was the sweetest feeling of success I’ve felt in ages.
It’s all relative, isn’t it?
(And my apologies to anyone who has emailed me in the past week — success next week will be catching up with all I neglected in my sleep-deprived state!)
Have you seen any of the news coverage on the recent interview with the biggest lottery winner ever? Jack Whittaker was already a millionaire businessman when he won the $318 million jackpot, but the 59-year-old claims, now five years later, that the large and public increase in wealth destroyed his marriage, lost him his friends, intensified the troubles of his granddaughter, who then died of a drug overdose. Basically, he says winning the lottery ruined his life.
Now, there are a lot of issues to untangle in this story, the first of which is that obviously this man had troubles before winning the lottery; they were just amplified by the windfall. But, I bring his story up because it rings to true to other stories we hear about lottery winners — that the “dream-come-true” windfall doesn’t necessarily solve a person’s problems, and may actually bring more sorrows than joys in the long run.
I flash back to my days as a college resident advisor, when I was in charge of a women’s floor in an international dorm. Burned in my mind is the image of a young woman, from a working-class Cuban-American neighborhood in Florida, sitting on my single dorm bed crying so hard that her contact lenses poured out of her eyes with her tears. She was telling me about how her father had won the lottery, and this event had basically torn apart their community and their family.
Money was never a big topic in our house, growing up. We didn’t have extra, but we had enough to get by. We were necessarily frugal, but also fine, is the message I received. I’ve learned, through my experiences, that this is where I’m actually most comfortable. Having more doesn’t make me too much more happy (and in fact can sometimes bring more anxiety), and having less doesn’t actually make me less happy (of course, I’ve always had enough to get by).
There are now studies that actually back up this idea. Psychologists have found that money only improves happiness if it takes people out of abject poverty. Otherwise, once we have enough for food and shelter, extra money has does not make us empirically happier.
Ironically (as I started writing this post three days ago), today at my Unitarian Universalist fellowship (a liberal, interfaith congregation), a guest minister from Northern California, Rev. Erika Hewitt, spoke about happiness. Her goal (with a background in psychology herself) was to explode cultural myths about happiness, particularly those that say if we just think a certain way, we will be happy, and we have total control over this thinking.
Rev. Hewitt quoted current psychological research that says we are each born with a baseline of happiness, and whether we win a million bucks or lose our limbs, after a period of elation or melancholy from such extreme events, within about a year we tend to return to our baseline happiness, throughout our lives. (She quoted from the book Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, which I plan to check out.)
If this is true, could the lottery perhaps attract people who feel dissatisfied with their lives, and think a jackpot would solve their problems — then, after they win, they return to their baseline outlook and find they are still basically dissatisfied and unhappy? Or, would a generally happy person win the lottery and discover they were no happier a year later, either?
One of the themes of big winner Jack Whittaker’s story is that he blames the lottery win for his problems. A psychologist friend of mine was telling me the other day that this blaming on events, too, may actually be in part an inherent trait — this one of anxious people. For example, if an anxious person observes a drowning, she will become afraid of the water — blaming the tragedy for her fear. If a less anxious person observes the same event, she may not internalize it that way, and will still love swimming thereafter.
So, the question is still outlook or attitude, just how much is in our control and how much is hard-wired? Can we change our basic happiness, anxiety level, or outlook?
I’ve sat on this post for a few days and now have new info to process (and a toddler giving up naps), so I’m just going to put it out there while I have a moment, a bit jumbled I apologize, and see what comes of it. Since I don’t have a pithy closing for this one — no wise thought to conclude with — I will end with these ponderings:
What do you think winning the lottery would do for your happiness, immediately and in the long run? What role does money play in your own fantasies or life story? How much do you believe you are in control of your reactions to life’s events? And, who wants to read Stumbling On Happiness with me, to explore this infinitely complicated issue further?
While I often discuss books on this blog, this is my first official Mother Talk book tour blog entry. I answered the call to review February Flowers, by first-time novelist Fan Wu, because it is about a friendship between women in Asia, a topic and setting that greatly interest me.
I enjoyed Wu’s easygoing prose, and I loved her glimpse into Chinese university life. But, I must admit, the book left me with an unsettled feeling.
I think that is, in a way, what Wu intended. Her descriptions of this central, young friendship will ring familiar to most women, regardless of ethnicity, at least in some ways. It is unequal; Ming (17) looks up to Yan (24) and is often mocked by her. It is consuming; Ming (bookish and shy, ever-pleasing her parents) longs for the excitement and worldliness Yan (streetwise and shunned in her hometown) offers her. And, while this aspect may not play into every female friendship to the extent it does here, it is sexually charged; Wu paints a clear picture of Ming’s attraction to Yan, and perhaps to women in general.
What unsettles me about the book is not the theme of lesbianism (please, I went to grad school in Madison for feminist studies) but more the feeling that Ming is ultimately a woman who forfeits her authentic self.
Many have called this a “coming-of-age” novel, but my read was that Ming never came of age. She never shed her adolescent fears and embraced her true passions to become a woman who felt comfortable in her own skin. It doesn’t matter if her passions grew as her love for books and music, for speaking her mind, or for relationships with women. It doesn’t matter if she is straight or gay or bi. What bothered me is that she is a character who refuses to really try, or engage, with any of it.
Wu’s voice, as Ming, is of a girl (and, later, woman) afraid of her own feelings. We get glimpses of Ming’s imaginative, poetic nature — as she describes to Yan walking through a pitch-black cotton field and conjuring up a blue sky and pink flowers so as not to be scared. We see Ming’s passion for playing the violin, as she is when she meets Yan on a remote dorm roof. We see her burgeoning sexuality and romantic longing, as she watches Yan prance around in heels, looks at forbidden pictures of naked women and starts to date men.
And, yet, the modern woman Ming becomes, described through Wu’s masterful first-person weaving, seems remote and cold-hearted. She never lets herself experience real passion — just a clung-to memory of a, let’s face it, dysfunctional teenage friendship/unrequited love.
The Chinese culture in this novel is important, and my cultural bias as an American woman reader should be called out. Ming’s parents and her culture, a struggle between conservative and progressive, influence her disconnect. But, Wu clearly shows us modern China, and pretty modern Chinese parents (her mother tells her not to expect everyone to approve of her life decisions).
I realize my ethnocentricity in believing the sky’s the limit for this young woman (coming out in China is something I can only imagine the complexity of), but I can’t help it — I’m bothered by the way Ming declines to claim her life. She views Yan as her only salvation, and does not realize that she can merely look within herself. She has many chances to come of age, to become her own woman, but, to risk spoiling the ending, she settles for less and we are not sure that she ever will take a real chance to be happy.
Perhaps she will change, and that may be Wu’s strategy in the book’s open conclusion — to leave hope for Ming. But, Ming grows into a woman who chooses to hide, to compartmentalize, who chooses self-protection over love (for others and for herself). She has created her own chains. Yan, or Ming’s fantasy of Yan, will not be able to unchain her; she must do it herself.
Perhaps the book’s brilliance is in how it left me with this unsettled angst and frustration with Ming. It clearly touched on some of my own issues and judgments. I spend much of my time reading books that validate living authentically and interconnectedly, and trying to do so in my own life, so this book offered me a view of the opposite. It was good for me to get some yang with my yin (pun intended), to see from another perspective (on many levels, personal, cultural, and otherwise) how one could take a different path and hold back.
The book actually relates very much to my blog’s theme of “having enough” because it, more than any other I’ve read in recent memory, illustrates so clearly that if we do not embrace who we are, what we love to do and who we want to be with, we will drift, dissatisfied and lonely (and fantasizing about “what ifs”) through our days.
So, while February Flowers did not blow me away with excitement, it did get under my skin, and that is a testament to Wu’s writing. Wu succeeded in making Ming real for me, as disappointed as I was with her choices as she grew older. So real, in fact, that I want to call her up before she enters the next unpublished scene, give her a good verbal slap in the face and say: Live, girl! This is not a dress rehearsal!
For more great woman-focused books and discussion like this, visit Mother Talk.
I was lucky to “cyber-meet” writer mama Amy Mercer when we participated together in an online writing class taught by the “official” Writer Mama, Christina Katz. (That class, and Christina, were the impetus for me launching this blog, by the way!). The Writers on the Rise class was on platform-building for writers, and many of us were struggling to define our platform (mission statement, focus), questioning, kvetching, trying on this and that.
Amy was one of the only class participants who had her platform down from day one, and just needed a nudge in launching it. Amy’s platform is about being a woman with diabetes, and helping other women with diabetes, especially younger ones who are living through what she already has.
I instantly became sucked into Amy’s platform — her blog, articles, and books-to-be — because I know well that health is the absolute, fundamental foundation of “having enough.” Without our health, everything looks different, every challenge is harder. And Amy has faced this reality every day for most of her life, with dire consequences if she doesn’t. She did this as a teenager. And now as a 36-year-old woman with kids. And a writing career. She has a lot to share with us.
Here are Amy’s answer’s to my “four questions”:
1) What does “having enough” mean to you?
Having enough. Hmmmmm….I don’t know if I’ve ever believed I had enough. I am definitely a grass is always greener kind of girl and I struggle with that straight jacket on an almost daily basis.
As a woman who quit her well paying job when my first child was born, and haven’t gone back yet, my husband and I have been living on a fixed income for what feels like forever. I want to be the kind of person for who living within my means is a lifestyle choice, the kind of person who recycles her children’s clothing, who lives in a small house, drives an old car and cooks dinner every night because it’s better for the environment not because I can’t afford to go shopping, buy a bigger house or go out to dinner more often.
I even want to be the kind of person who writes just because I love to write, the kind of person who doesn’t care about being published, but that’s just not me. I think the only thing I’m sure I have enough of, is my two boys!
2) What do you think about the concept of “having it all” in our culture?
On that note, I do cringe at the idea of having it all. I believe we are a wasteful culture and I alternate between being green with envy and feeling nauseous when I see the giant homes, giant SUV’s, giant bodies eating giant portions (not envious here) around me.
I grew up in New England and come from a family that believes, “Everything in moderation” is the way to go. I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was 14 years old so having it all, as far as food was concerned, was never an option for me. So it’s probably my Protestant/Diabetic upbringing that is very anti-having it all.
3) How do you define success?
To me, the definition of success is a mixed bag. I know I feel best on the days when I have woken up well rested with a good blood sugar reading, had a great morning run, got my kids off to school without too much trouble and can come home to write.
I feel successful when I am on a roll writing, when something I write gets published, when someone likes the story idea I want to tell. I felt successful the other day when I apologized to my son for being grouchy and he said, “that’s okay mom, you’re a famous writer!” (my name was in the paper that day for a book signing!) I’ll feel successful when a book publisher agrees to publish my anthology, Dreaming About Water, a collection of personal essays and practical advice by and for women living with diabetes.
4) Can you describe a defining moment in your life when you had to choose between “having enough” or pushing for more? (And how did it turn out for you?)
The moment that stands out for me is when I quit my job. I knew I couldn’t go back to work and leave my new baby with a nanny or a day care provider. I didn’t care what kind of sacrifices we had to make, I was ready to sell our house and move into something more affordable so I could stay home with Will. There was just no way I was going to do anything but.
I am an introvert by nature, I am not someone who is comfortable asking for what I want but this time I knew I had to. I stood up for myself and refused to back down from that decision and I have never regretted it.
Readers, how does health factor into your vision of “having enough”? Do you take your health for granted? How do you deal with health challenges?
I admit it, I’m chronically sleep-deprived and having a rough week. A combination of tantrum-prone, sleep-fighting, growth-spurting toddler; a pile of work and bigger pile of unanswered emails in my cluttered office; raging premenstrual/nursing hormones; back-to-work husband with late meetings; sore hip and low back from sleeping on aforementioned toddler’s floor; and shortage of close-by girlfriends to have tea with has put me in a bit of a foul mood. (But who’s complaining?!)
In my right mind, I am grateful and content and I know this is just a mood that will quickly pass. But, I succommed this week to my self-pitying mind, the one that fantasizes about getting away from it all for a couple days, having a life of leisure, or at least someone swooping in on a gold helicopter like a motherly Wonder Woman saying, “I’ll take care of all this, dear; you just go have a bubble bath and sleep twelve hours.”
Then I remembered an article I had read recently in the Fall catalog from Kripalu, the renowned health/spiritual/personal growth retreat in the Massachusetts Berkshires. In the article, “Can I Live a Fulfilled Life?”, Stephen Cope, Kripalu’s Senior Scholar-In-Residence for more than 15 years (and a psychotherapist and yogi) writes about the fallacy of retreat — or, more accurately, the truth behind the retreat fantasy.
Cope uses great literature, psychological studies and his personal experience of working with “seekers” to drive an important point home. Retreat, he explains, is meant to put us back into our lives with renewed perspective — but going back to our lives (not getting away from them) is still the real goal.
He quotes a brilliant poem by Mary Oliver, “A Dream of Trees,” which says, in part:
There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres,
A little way from every troubling town…
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare…
And then it came to me that so was death,
A little way from everywhere.
In the end, Oliver lets go of her dream of living quietly among the trees, choosing instead to live in her town and deal with the noisy complications of life. Cope explains that this is what most seekers he has worked with ultimately discover. Being in constant retreat, always at leisure, is not ultimately satisfying, nor growth-producing.
“Retreats don’t change our lives as much as they change where we stand in relationship to our lives — and our capacity to see the hidden possibilites there,” Cope writes. “It is our fantasies about what life should be that we need to leave behind.”
Cope cites studies that illustrate how people are happiest “when meeting a challenge — when bringing skillful, concentrated effort to some compelling activity for which we have a true passion.” (Case in point: I feel better already writing this!)
Too much leisure time tends to make people feel “considerably more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied,” these studies show. (It makes me think of the studies of retired people, which show that they get sick and die more quickly if they are not involved in productive activities they enjoy.)
Even the veritable god of retreat, Thoreau, returned to Concord from Walden Pond, realizing that his hometown “was already full of everything required to live fully and passionately,” Cope explains.
And, while even Cope himself sometimes wants to retreat from his retreat, he says, realizing that the point of getting away is to return, renewed, to our life’s work (wherever and whatever that may be) helps him keep perspective. And now, describing Cope’s insightful piece to you, I feel I have more perspective, too.
So, this weekend, I will take retreat in the form of a morning yoga class and a splurge acupuncture/massage hour for my bad hip/back (and maybe a little shut-eye on the table!). Then I will hopefully return, renewed, in a better mood, to my lively toddler, easygoing husband and interesting work. Would I trade my life for anyone else’s? No way. But, being human, sometimes I’ll still complain, cry and dream of doing nothing and eating bonbons all day.
I think it is not about not having retreat fantasies, but more about what Cope says, keeping perspective on these fantasies. And putting less energy into dreaming of a different life, and more energy into making sure our life and work are filled with challenges we are passionate about.
Then when we “get away,” in reality or daydreams, we know we are doing it with the goal of returning to the life we’ve created, and living it more fully.
Jennifer spent a year in Niger with her kids, and saw how the imaginative level of their play, and their inner joy and creativity, blossomed without toys. When she got home and unpacked her kids’ plethora of action figures and such, she realized how these items had actually been destructive to her kids’ creative development.
This is also very much like the philosophy of Waldorf education, which we’re looking into for our daughter. (Ironically, though, we are having trouble figuring out how to afford this pricey school in order to keep her life simple and natural — go figure! But, I digress…)
It’s the idea that too much “stuff” clutters the imaginations and development of children. With a clean palette, just nature and the simple items of home, they can create stories, games, ideas and worlds. If we pile their palette with too many colors (toys, activities, etc.) they don’t have room to make their own art.
For me, the same principle applies to adults. Too much stuff, too many toys or activities, and I start to get overwhelmed, disorganized, anxious. My body starts to wobble, a sore back or a sore throat my typical too-late wake-up call that I’ve pushed too hard. The stuff or activities aren’t really enjoyable if I don’t have breathing room to step back from them and process.
It’s a fine balance, but in both parenting a child and my own grown-up life, I am finding that the less clutter I accumulate, the happier I and my child seem to feel. This doesn’t mean I go to the extreme — I do have stuff and she does have toys. I just try to contain it. For me, if two days of the week are booked, I leave the other days empty. My vanity and closet are much less cluttered than they used to be (vanity as in bathroom cabinet, but I suppose the other kind, too). For her, a new toy comes in, an old one goes out. A crazy morning, a quiet afternoon.
Breathing room. Imagination. Fresh air. Quiet. Thinking time. Creativity. Togetherness. Sand on toes. Wind in hair. These are what make me smile, and exhale. And I have to agree with Jennifer, toys are not necessary for any of them.