A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In a moment

Me, July 2006, in a stunning demonstration of how not to Live In the Moment

“When’s the show going to start, Mama?  Are they late?  Is there going to be a real dog?  Is the witch scary?  How scary?  Where’s my program?”

The balcony was a cacophony of hyped-up kids struggling out of too many jackets and bouncing on theater seats that left short legs dangling and necks craning. Molly and Jacq, a few seats away, were burbling with anticipation.  Lizzy, to my left, hogged my armrest, jiggled, and interrogated me. To my right, my friend Mark took out a thick sheaf of paperwork, a ballpoint, and a headlamp.

“Grading papers?” I asked.  

My gut reaction was amused admiration. Usually, I’m the one who is told I’m taking multi-tasking to extremes – an accusation against which I defend myself by pleading necessity and efficiency.  If I hadn’t been able to nurse two babies at once while finishing my dissertation, I wouldn’t have earned those fancy-pants letters to go with my name! However, I sometimes question my choices, and perhaps even my mental landscape.

“Actually, it’s a grant proposal I’m reviewing.”  Mark shrugged a half-grin at me.  “I’m running out of time to get it done, so…”  And, as the four-year-old behind him kicked his seat, he set to work.

I considered Mark’s diligence through the lens of recent articles I’d stumbled across (in between emails, of course), and I was pretty sure I ought to be tut-tutting. There seems to be a growing backlash against the sort of mental gymnastics required to – for example -- simultaneously learn about important geopolitical events, mentally design a bicycle shed, and bake brownies.  People like Mark – and like me -- warn The Experts, are scattered.  They are stressed. They are not Living In the Moment.  They are not Mindful.  As a result, they cannot possibly be happy.

Was Mark, alone with his astrophysics in his bubble of light, not alive in the moment? Granted, as the house lights dimmed to darkness, he put away his flashlight and appeared to concentrate on the impending twister in an artificial Kansas inhabited by a rather tall Dorothy, a treat-obsessed Toto, and a witchy-sultry Miss Gulch.  But if he was still half-thinking about the National Science Foundation, was he insufficiently mindful?  More to the point, was my own general lack of mindfulness a deep-rooted psychological flaw that (although currently leaving me quite cheerful, thanks) would one day render me – I don’t know, scarred?   

On the stage, a horde of achingly adorable munchkins declared themselves to be the Lullaby League and the Lollipop Guild.  One, sporting a truly fabulous hat, aced the solo lines sung by the Coroner, and I recalled savoring that pompously over-rhyming ditty as a child: “As coroner I can aver I’ve carefully examined her.  She is not merely nearly dead, she’s really quite sincerely dead.”  Goodbye, Wicked Witch of the East!  But… with a puff and a bang her evil sister appeared.  Horrors!  Lizzy hurtled into my lap, there to remain for the next two hours. 

My memory flew to being five or six myself, and convinced that my dad needed to protect me from the black-and-white TV version of the same dread hag.  Really, Lizzy wasn’t doing so badly.  Just a few months ago, she’d been more scared than this by a puppet version of Oz. Would her apprehensions fade as quickly with the years as mine did, I wondered?  Would she plunge with relish into Edgar Allan Poe in junior high?  How soon would I be able to read her through the terrors of Mordor?  Even as the Scarecrow bemoaned his lack of brain, my own brain happily meandered back a decade or so, to revisiting Middle Earth syllable by syllable with Jay.  Prydain, Pern, Hogwarts… I loved them all.  Including, of course, Oz – where I was right now.  Mostly.

As the Tin Man explained his macabre history of self-destruction by axe, I wondered whether I even capable of being mindful. Mindfulness isn’t some new-age fad. I’m pretty good at ignoring those.  No, it’s at the core of several Eastern religions – religions of which I have scant knowledge, but at least a modicum of respect.  Years ago, I read Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hahn, thus gaining just enough understanding of Buddhism to make an idiot of myself if asked to discuss the subject.  Still, I do remember being struck by a few cogent points in the book.  For example: you do not actually hate washing dishes; you just think you do.  Why not enjoy the warm sudsy feeling, the squish of the sponge and the squeak of the clean plate, rather than muttering imprecations into a real or metaphorical beard? At the time, this idea felt like a minor epiphany.  

The charmingly effete lion danced along towards the Emerald City, and I recalled seeing the movie version of Oz in college, with a rowdy-nostalgic group of friends.  It was sponsored by the gay students’ association, and we all cheered for the King of the Forest with the bow on his tail.  Would gay rights seem so hard-won to my kids, by the time they made it to college?  My mind danced from past to future and back again.  In contrast, my daughter, eyes locked on the action, was most definitely Living In the Moment.

Most of what I sort-of-know about mindfulness had been gleaned – not without a ladleful of irony – from the soul-sucking wrecker of twenty-first-century Zen, the internet.  I am deeply in love with this conduit of endless and instantaneous information.  So is Mark, as far as I can tell.  Another black mark against us both.  In any case, the gist seems to be that in order to be happier, saner, and less of a frantic parody of everything that is wrong with This Modern Age, I should practice unselfconsciousness, engagement, and deep breathing.  I should savor each moment, and accept rather than fight life’s negatives.  I should lose myself in the flow of time.  I should avoid agonizing over the past or dreading the future.  And, of course, I should stop trying to do ten things at once and just… BE.

Um… okay.  I’ll get around to just being when I’m done planning our family vacation, packing tomorrow’s lunches, helping the kids with their homework, and sewing a cow costume, ok?

In truth, as I readjusted Lizzy to prevent total loss of circulation to my knees, I felt like I did get the point.  Sort of.  Unselfconsciousness?  Heck, yes.  I like myself better when I stop caring too much about what other people think of my mismatched socks, my inability to hold a tune, or the mysterious smears on my kids’ faces.  Life is better when I’m not cruelly judging over my own shoulder and taking notes on my lack of productivity, my disorganization, and my inability to curb global climate change.  Of course, there was some circular reasoning here, in that trying to decide whether I’m properly mindful is a comically self-judging pursuit.  If I then go on to blog about it? I don’t actually need to explain the incongruity here, do I?

Still, I bought into some of what I’d read.  Deep breathing?  Engagement?  Not fighting the negatives?  Yes, yes, and yes.  I’m a lot less of a screeching harpy if I fully oxygenate my brain before commenting to my kids on the subject of the Cheerios crunching under my heels… and then get down to their level and absorb the joy of making necklaces out of breakfast cereal… and then pretend to be playing Quiddich while we all sweep the floor.  Hands-on engagement, edible jewelry, AND witchcraft!  I was In The Moment!

Unfortunately, it was the wrong moment.  I wasn’t supposed to be thinking all this through while the Winkies marched and the Jitterbugs did backflips in hot pink satin.  As for Mark… somewhere around If I Only Had a Brain I’d noticed that he was not in Kansas anymore.  Or in Oz, for that matter.  His head was nodding gently chestward.  If you dream during a story that takes place inside a dream, which moment are you inhabiting, exactly?

Moreover, I wondered, if I enjoy almost all of my moments, but am often in the wrong one, I am failing or cheating somehow?  I do enjoy washing dishes, but not because of the unique awesomeness of each suds-bubble.  I tune out the reality of the grime in favor of enjoying the time spent chatting with Trusten or laughing with Margaret as they dry plates or wipe counters.   If I listen to novels while running -- which is also my morning commute – am I failing to savor the experience of running? Of commuting?  Of snow, car headlights, and the shadows of hundreds of spruce trees?  I’m certainly not In the Moment if I am mentally planning a trip to the Grand Canyon while correcting first grade math homework, or if I write a grocery list during a dull meeting. 

The Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion, in their efforts to save the heroine, knocked over a large piece of scenery.  For the kids, this was clearly a high point.  And, yeah, it was for me, too – although Dorothy had a lovely alto, and the witch melted beautifully.  This was community theater to the core, but it was enthusiastic, sometimes-inspired, sometimes-brilliant, fun community theater.  Still the best part of the show for me didn’t really have anything to do with the choreography, the sets, or the pit orchestra.  It came when I accepted that I’m ok with my state of mindfulness, even if I’m often ballooning through a twister somewhere between Kansas and Oz.

Technically speaking, I admitted to myself, I’m terrible at living in the moment.  For one thing, I have no desire to savor the precise moment when the cat retches a hairball onto the rug or someone screams, “I’m telling Moooooooommy!”  For another, my mind is about as grounded as a fruit-bat.  But, on the other hand, I don’t endlessly engage in the behaviors that are supposedly so harmful to the non-mindful – agonizing over the past, stressing over the future, and failing to enjoy myself in the now.  

I enjoy the minutes and hours of my days, not despite my flitting brain, but because of it.  I thrive on new ideas…distracting ideas…crazy ideas.  I relish linking the past and the present to an imagined future.  I need daydreams. I even (sometimes) am energized by doing six things at once (so long as none of them involve politics or vomit).  And while not everything has a funny side, I solidly believe that most things do (which is what makes The Onion an excellent news source).  

On stage, the Wonderful Wizard was booming impressively through his microphone.  And then, just as impressively, he flubbed his lines.  He offered the confused Tin Man a brain.  After a long and awkward pause he added, “Or… was is a heart?”

Don’t fight the negatives, I wanted to tell him.  Embrace them!  As I laughed (kindly and cheerfully, I hope) along with the rest of the crowd, I realized that just as the Wizard is a creature of smoke and mirrors, so too is the idea of being mindful.  If I feel like I’m Zen enough to please myself, then (with my lap full of semi-anxious kid and my mind full of semi-formed notions) I’m plenty Zen.  

The roar of laughter from the audience woke up Mark.  I’m not sure if he got the joke, but he looked quite ready to laugh along.  Perhaps, for him, a nap was exactly what he needed.  Maybe his brain was at its most comfortable floating somewhere between NASA rocket science, the Yellow Brick Road, and deep delta-wave somnolence.  Sure, he wasn’t living in the same moment as anyone else in Hering Auditorium.  Perhaps that grant proposal was not fully reviewed, either. But the world was a happy place in his moment.  As it was in mine.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

And now for something completely different

“Whoops… sorry! ”

I backed away from a near-tragic collision with my coworker’s bowl of minestrone, and in the process almost did a backflip over the coffee-grounds-composting bucket.  The office kitchen is woefully small for the 30 or more people who use it on a daily basis, but in this case, that was only part of the problem.   The other part was me.

Although no one had ended up wearing hot tomato-y goodness, I felt like an explanation was in order – or maybe more of an excuse.  “Sorry -- I’m blind on that side,” I said with a smile.

“Oh!  Um…”  Now the poor hapless minestrone-eater looked embarrassed. “Um… oh.  I’m… um… sorry.”

Gosh, there’s nothing like a birth defect to inject awkwardness into friendly lunchtime banter!   Never mind that mine is a trivially minor birth defect that doesn’t hamper my existence in any way, other than rendering me worthless at softball and tragically unable to enjoy 3-D movies.  I don’t mourn my inability to solve Magic Eye puzzles, and I’ve long since accepted the fact that my large nose further eclipses my already sub-par field of view.  But in our society, discussion of imperfections is just… awkward.

As a parent, I’ve run across a few articles and blog posts that attempt to address the question of How To Talk About Differences.  One of the prime directives seems to be that they have to be called Differences, never handicaps, or problems, or disabilities, or “Hey, what’s the deal with your eye?”  As a corollary to this rule, we should never in any way suggest that it’s better two have two eyes than only one.  Cyclops rules!

I get the point, of course.  We don’t want our kids to stigmatize or bully other children, or try to pull rank on someone else by virtue of having cooler braces, a cast with more signatures, or a different number of limbs.  Since my own issue is so terribly minor, I don’t feel like I have any jurisdiction in this realm.  I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be genuinely-both-eyes-blind or to have a child with Down Syndrome, so I should probably just shut up.  Usually, I do.  To my soup-eating coworker, I merely said something cheery and bland, like “Oh, no biggie!”  I know the rules: Don’t Talk About It.  But as I popped day-old casserole into the microwave, my rebellious side goaded me into thinking that maybe our society is being so cautious that we’re actually being disingenuous to ourselves – or, at the very least, confusing to our kids.  

When I was in elementary school, it was easy to explain what the deal was with my eye, because other kids asked.  They asked with interest, and they listened with equal interest to my responses. My right eye doesn’t look like the left one; it’s smaller, darker brown, has a milky white pupil, and tends to wander when I’m tired, unfocused, or bored.  (Of course, if you observe its meanderings you should not assume that YOU are making me tired, unfocused or bored, unless you are leading some kind of meeting that has lasted longer than the capacity of everyone’s attention span and/or bladder.)   To be more specific, I have a congenital cataract; I was born with the lens of one eye clouded to the point of almost complete opacity.  Given that the surgical options at the time were rudimentary and risky, my parents made the decision to leave well enough alone.  This choice was irreversible, since by the time I was two, my left eye hogged up all the available neural connections.  I’d like to think this makes my left eye some kind of uber-eye that can see through walls and around corners, but my kids are doubtless glad that I have no such mega-Mommy-powers.  My long-ago peers wanted to know if what I saw out of my right eye was the same as what they saw if they closed their own: darkness.  No, I said.  What I saw out of my right eye was the same as what they saw out of their ears.  (Kids love this answer, trust me.)  Inevitably, the conversation led to my playmates making hilarious (read “inappropriate”) gestures just outside my field of view, to test whether I’d catch them at it.  It was funny.  Actually, it still kinda is.

But then everyone stopped asking.

The only other era of my life when people openly wondered what the heck was wrong with my eye was when I lived in a different culture.  In Jamaica, the social rules regarding personal comments are for the most part a lot… looser than they are in the US.  By the time I’d been there for a few months, I’d gotten used to being called “Whitey” by anyone who didn’t know my name.   I’d also made enough friends that I could engage in a conversation about why this would never, ever fly in my home country.  It wasn’t polite, at home, I explained, for a bus driver to say something like, “Hey, you, fat woman in the back!” or “One-legged guy, you take this seat!” My new friends found such rules amusing.  Doesn’t the fat lady know she’s fat?  Hasn’t the man with one leg, you know, noticed that the other one is missing?  Isn’t it pretty ridiculous, and actually kind of offensive, to pretend that such things are invisible?

Here in the U.S. we impose a deep, silent taboo around “differences.”   At the same time, we foster intense cognitive dissonance by trying to persuade our children that differences are something super-fabulous, even when it’s obvious to even the youngest child that some of them just… aren’t.  How is a first-grader supposed to parse these mixed messages?   

I’m not sure if I have a useful solution, but maybe we could begin by being a bit clearer in explaining what kind of  “difference” can be viewed as wholly positive, in the sense that differences render the polyglot of humanity that much richer and more complex.  I’ve talked to the kids about how we wouldn’t want everyone to be English-speaking, or white-skinned, or brown-haired, or five-foot-eight, or female – even if I’m perfectly happy to live with those characteristics myself.  It would be boring!  Difference is fun!  It’s ok to be the only kid in your class who loves zucchini!  I want my six-year-olds to wholly embrace the fabulousness of variety.  I want them to aspire to be different (especially when they reach the evilly homogenizing world of middle school when Conform Or Suffer often seems to be the social mantra).  Being a liberal-minded sort, I could happily espouse the variety engendered by classmates who wear nose rings or Islamic crescents or tutus or kilts or gay pride stickers.  But I don’t want my kids – or anyone else’s -- to differentiate themselves via monocularity... or worse.  Wanting to be different seems like a peculiar aspiration when “different” includes the profound autism of an unspeaking child on the playground, or their grandpa’s Parkinson’s Disease. 

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly want society to fully embrace everyone, and to celebrate whatever abilities and fantastic individual qualities that person may have.  But to six-year-olds, it seems confusing if Mommy uses the same language to talk about hair color, muteness, and wheelchairs.  I agree that it’s important that the kids know that the PERSON isn’t bad.  The person is wonderful.  The person has feelings, and commonalities, and great qualities such as a willingness to (wordlessly) spin the merry-go-round, or the patience to play (while seated) multiple rounds of Connect Four.  But the condition?  I’m not going to tell my children that autism is a fun form of human variability.  I refuse to say that Parkinson’s Disease is just a “difference” that adds to the exciting diversity of their world.  These are illnesses.  I want them cured.  Preferably now, this minute.  I also want everyone to become just a trace less anxious about talking about the “differences” that are less-than-desirable.  To children, anything that is hush-hush is likely to seem more scary and taboo, not less – and therefore more negative, and more stigmatized.  I also suspect – although again, I can’t be sure on this point – that our intense trepidation about imperfections can sometimes make it harder for the individual in question, not easier.

For me, of course, taboos about handicaps don’t make much difference, even if I do sometimes seem to be more bumbling than the average absent-minded professor.  When I think about my cataract at all, I feel lucky that I got off so lightly.  Congenital cataracts are often associated with other defects… such as mental retardation. Wait and see, my stressed-out parents were told, back in ’72.  Won’t that be fun?  There’s no telling how “different” your child may be! Sometimes my family tells me that the jury’s still out.

Ultimately, for all that I love diversity, I’m a pragmatist.  Given the chance, I would happily accept a functioning second eye.  At the same time, I am profoundly glad that I can see, and hear, and express myself (somewhat) coherently.  Yeah, call me crazy.  Or, if you prefer, call me “different.”  Then try making really rude gestures while standing to my right, and give yourself away by giggling.  Just keep in mind that if I accidentally sidestep into your minestrone, I’ll have a really good excuse.