On what life teaches us

A friend of mine has been diagnosed with one of those diseases that could kill him in a month or it might hold off for a while. Understandably he has been thrown by this, the uncertainty as much as the diagnosis. How do you live when you know the end is coming, but you don’t know how long you have?

He is struggling to explain that the surgeries are brutal, and at some point he will draw the line, but that does not mean he is just giving up.

“Life is good,” he says. “And I don’t want to die.”

I know, I say. I know.

He has tests regularly and each set of tests buys him three more months, although he knows that the tests could miss something, or he might get run over by a truck, and there are no guarantees for any of us. He knows that, but the tests have come to dominate his life; they direct its ebb and flow. He plots his life around them.

I think how much I have in common with him, more now than ever. I am waiting for Jessica’s test results; I will know them today. And then things will either be very hard or I will have a reprieve, six months of liberty. There is the rising anxiety as the week of the tests draws nearer, and the night before when I can never sleep. The day of, when I am incapable of concentrating on anything, but unwilling to talk about my fear. The rising crescendo, the denouement. If I am lucky, I will not have to think about it again for six more months.

My friend says, “I know I have learned something from this. I have been trying to say what it is, but I don’t have the words. Nothing I say is right.”

I think how true this is. We would like to pass along the sentiment that captures the experience, but the words aren’t right. What you think you’ve learned is different today than it was yesterday. And anyway what you know doesn’t help anyone who isn’t going through what you’re going through. My friend is taking all those trips he always meant to take, but if you’re not dying, you probably have to go to work today.

But he knows I know, and I guess that is what matters, and it is why we have to find each other, those of us who plot our lives around the tests. We tell our stories to each other, and we don’t have to try to explain what we have learned because everyone around the table already knows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On not-quite-totally transforming

As I think is crystal clear for readers of this blog, I am doing my level best to add some serenity to my life, but my main problem in achieving this goal is how impatient I am with the process. Am I serene now? How about now? Now?

So a couple weeks ago I leaped at the chance to attend a day-long meditative retreat hosted by a buddy of mine and let me add the disclaimer that it is totally not her fault that I did not reach a state of inner peace in the allotted eleven hours.

Now, it is true that I am someone who is trying to experience the world as it is without thinking it should be some other way, which is very zen, but I am also not exactly relaxed about any of it, which is very not-zen, and that is why many people’s experience of me is “holy shit.”

Anyway.

I am trying to find some clarity about the work I do to pay the bills—that is to say, I am ready for the next challenge, but I don’t have the first clue what it is. There should be a next step, or at least another step, but I have no idea what that could be. I haven’t known for a very long time, and so I keep doing this and that and the other, sort of like a highly motivated three-year-old. The result is I now know all the things I don’t want, and none of the things I do.

Perfect! Something to meditate on during the retreat.

So we begin with some yoga, and I hurt my thumb doing corpse pose.

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If you’re under the impression that corpse pose shouldn’t hurt anyone as it involves lying on your back and not doing anything, you would be correct.

 

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However, upon lowering my hand to my side, I jammed my thumb so hard into the floor that I broke my nail off below the quick.

This is why I need inner serenity.

So, the day progresses through the things these types of days progress through, journal exercises and guided meditation and healing rituals, and when it is all over, I have, unfortunately, not transformed into a person who knows what the next step is. I have transformed into a person who does not care what the next step is, because she has gotten distracted.

I have figured out everything I need to do with my creative work. I have solved every roadblock I have encountered over the last year. I have discovered why I feel the work is so hard these days. I KNOW WHAT TO DO.

But I have spent FIVE YEARS trying to figure out what’s next with the paying work, and I don’t care that I have solved a creative problem or ten. I want to know how I’m going to pay the rent in August! I could give a rat’s ass that I have figured out what I should be doing with the creative work. The creative work is not the problem.

My friend says that sometimes transformation is challenging and IS SHE FREAKING KIDDING ME? I am trying to be intentional about my life. I am trying to be purposeful.  And I am getting NOWHERE.

So the tiny part of me that is sane (she gets crushed beneath my boot heel most of the time), peeps up with, “Perhaps you are being too goal-oriented” and she can just GO TO HELL.

I AM LESS SERENE THAN WHEN I STARTED!!!!!!!!!!!!

There are not enough exclamation points in the world.

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Jessica calls, because this is a weekend she is staying with her dad, and I say all of this somewhat incoherently, and she says, “Have you made a cup of tea? I think you need a cup of tea about now.”

And as always, Jessica is exactly right.

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My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here. And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

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On how we are free

Years ago, Jessica had a big plastic castle that she got for Christmas, and a number of princess figures that fit inside.

One day she came to me and she said, “I let all of the princesses out of the castle and now they are free!”

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She was beyond excited; she was thrilled. And also relieved, and a bit concerned about what was next. I guess it must have felt a little like the Liberation of Paris.

She still loves princesses, and castles, and she would be happy to be a princess who lived in a castle, and also she would really rather not work so hard as everyone seems to think she should, but ever since she has always known that living in the castle is a choice, and that it isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, and just because someone else might like it, that doesn’t mean you will or you should or you’re wrong for leaving.

And every now and then, when I give up something I should want but don’t, or shed an illusion of safety to walk into the unknown, I think, “I let myself out of the castle, and now I am free.”

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Dojo Wisdom for Writers, second edition, now available on Amazon in print and ebook! (Nook and other ebook versions here)
Catch a Falling Star (by Jessica Starre) and The Matchmaker Meets Her Match (by Jenny Jacobs), two of my favorite novels.

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On what I learned from watching things blow up

If you’ve been following along, you might think when I refer to watching things blow up, I am using the phrase in a metaphorical sense, but today I actually mean it in the literal sense.

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That is to say, I have been watching Mythbusters on Netflix. If you’ve ever watched this show, you know that the hosts try to prove or disprove various popular theories, and whether a theory requires it or not, almost every show ends with something getting blown up in a spectacular way.

The notable fact about the explosions is how boring they are after a while. I guess the hosts still find it entertaining or presumably they wouldn’t do it, but mostly it’s just not that interesting: “The stage is set for a massive explosion!” the announcer will say breathlessly, and I figure it’s about time for a bathroom break and maybe to wander over to Facebook and see what’s what.

What I find more compelling is the thinking that goes into figuring out how to tease out the testable parts of each theory and the creativity that goes into devising those tests.

I don’t always think their tests measure what the hosts think they measure and I don’t always agree that the test has shown what they think it shows, but it’s the investigation that I find engaging. How does the world work? How can we figure out if something is true or not?

The blowing things up is just . . . puerile and wasteful. After a while, the show’s catchphrase, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing” becomes extremely self-indulgent and offensive. You’re really going to waste 42,000 gallons of water in order to make some random and mostly pointless comment?

As Jessica would say:

 

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There’s an idea in media—and has been for years—that to attract eyeballs, you have to be sensational. Thus, the blowing up of things on Mythbusters and all of the dramatic, “Your child could die today!!! News at eleven!!!” and “You won’t believe what happens next!!!!!” teasers that you see all over television and the internet.

I haven’t watched network television in years and I make it a point not to click on links that I won’t believe, so this was one of the first times I’ve realized just how badly this type of thinking screws up what would otherwise be a good story.

Which got me to thinking. If you constantly need a big “go boom!” to get attention, you’re probably doing it wrong. What if you didn’t use a big “go boom!” at all?

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My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here. And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

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Today’s meditation, illustrated

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My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here. And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter! I give random stuff away—and I tell more stories. Just wander over to my homepage.

On learning to love uncertainty

I hate being uncertain, as you can probably tell by how sure I am that I am always right and how convinced I am that I know everything, or at least that I know everything I need to know and can find out the rest.

But life kicks everyone’s ass, even those of us who kick back, and once you reach the age where the only people who think you’re still young have celebrated their eightieth birthdays, you recognize that certainty is chimera, and you stop trying to track it down and trap it because whatever you do, it’s got sharper claws than you have.

So you, or at least I, try to figure out how to learn to live with uncertainty, which, not unlike broccoli and good wine, is an acquired taste. You, or at least I, circle around it, poking it a little, trying to determine its shape and its dimensions.

But I like answers, dammit, so I asked Debz if she’d lead me on another guided meditation (quantum jump, for those of you who have been following along). You remember Debz:

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Anyway, she said, “Of course!” because she is very generous like that, and also I think she likes to hear what I’ve cooked up this time in my fevered imagination.

You may remember that once Debz gets you into a meditative state, she has you imagine a gate into the universe, and you open the gate and you jump through.

I was all, “Gawd I hate uncertainty! Can’t someone please tell me how all of this ends?!” like I don’t already know and just want a different answer, and so the idea of jumping through that gate and seeing what was on the other side was too scary, so I pushed cartoon me through:

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If you did not previously realize I am insane, I think it is safe to assume that you are now up to date.

So cartoon-me landed on an island in the tropics, complete with swaying palm trees, but sadly no Greek sailors. Right in front of me was a very large elephant. A war elephant, complete with broken tusk and torn ear. (Later Debz told me that this is how Ganesh, the Hindu god, remover of obstacles, is depicted, although I did not know this at the time.)

Fortunately, cartoon-me is not easy to trample, being only a drawn outline, and I (or at least, cartoon-me) ended up on the elephant’s back.

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From there I could see everything! Yay! No more doubt and uncertainty! I would always know what was coming!

Then the mist rolled in.

Seriously, I have got to get an imagination that doesn’t always default to the worst-case scenario.

So the mist clouded everything, and it dampened sound, and I had no way of knowing what was sneaking up on me, but as I mentioned, cartoon-me is hard to trample, so I wasn’t all that worried. From my vantage point, I realized that the mist was beautiful. It was just as beautiful as being able to see everything.

Huh.

Debz quietly called me back home, but before I left, I gave the elephant a gift from my heart, which was, apparently, a handful of peanuts:

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Clearly, cartoon-me has no sense of occasion.

So that is me, trying to learn to love uncertainty.

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My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here. And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter! I give random stuff away—and I tell more stories. Just wander over to my homepage.