Toolkit for the Real World

Short of a life counselor for transitions time, a roadmap for the future that would actually make things harder, and the discipline to use Keri Smith’s Artist Survival Kit, don’t forget to stock up on the following before you graduate/move/start a job hunt/fly out of the frying pan into the fire:

  • Thick skin
  • Knee pads for when you fall
  • Straightjacket for your self-doubts and your self-deprecating talk
  • Sledgehammer for busting through walls
  • and/or Lock-picking kit (and/or agility to crawl through windows and air ducts)
  • Some Balls (sizes may vary)
  • An excess of grace, some humility, some generosity
  • Friends who “get you” on speed dial
  • Caffeine or chocolate (or for the very wise among us, actual sleep)
  • Police tape for setting boundaries in your life
  • Breadcrumbs for finding your way back
  • Fresh air (not canned)
  • Time
  • Grade A Gumption
  • Sense of Humor, extra-strength
  • Blue painter’s tape (the New Duct Tape)(just because)
Best of luck…although I hear you won’t need it.

The texture of emotion

How is it possible that we watch the above videos and feel deep emotion stir within? We don’t know any of those people. We don’t know what they are seeing or saying. And we don’t know any of their stories. But the emotions are fully fully there, in an amazing way.

When I was younger, I found myself wondering if we all felt the same things. Yes, I know we all feel “sad” or “happy” or “angry”, but the quality of that sadness, the physical sensations associated with it, the actually feeling—was that the same from person to person?

My love of books—and their words’ ability to conjure in me feelings that I hadn’t yet experienced in my own young life (rage, betrayal, lust, something akin to romantic love) and their uncanny ability to bring me to tears—convinced me that the core of our emotions must be the same.

I still wonder, though, whether my sadness feels exactly the same as your sadness. If it does, if its placement and temperature and weight and texture are indeed the same, then I stand in awe of our life together on this planet. And humbled at how easily we forget our shared humanity.

Those are in fact the two biggest lessons of any valuable traveling that I have ever done: 1) that we are small, so very very small in the vast scheme of things and 2) that we are more alike than we are different, no matter where we happened to grow up.

Technology and Love

So I’m trying to figure out what I want to do next (which for me is tantamount to an existential crisis, for reasons I can elucidate in another post but not now). Anyway, Kat tweeted this opinion piece in the NYTimes by Jonathan Franzen about technology replacing love. And this part resonated with me:

When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I was looking for things to find wrong with the world, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong — an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests — the angrier I became.

Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.

BUT then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.

Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.

And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.

How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.

Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.

When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.

And who knows what might happen to you then?

I definitely recognize myself in that because I think I’m in the denial stage, the numbness, the “let’s just stop worrying phase.” And I also find myself alternately scared of and annoyed by…teenagers and the public school system. And my inability to help anybody navigate that period of life that is fraught with so much…everything. (Oh I also recently watched Thirteen.)

That or the environment, but no anger close to the surface for that one lately. (Except for irrational things like when I try to ask for a real fork at a bakery and she says “oh, it’s okay you can just use that plastic one.”)

Where my head’s at

My body traveled 3 days and 1500 miles on the road and ended up in South Pasadena, CA. I’m living out of my suitcase in Mike’s bedroom while we look for a new place. I guess part of me didn’t fully realize what was really happening—that I was moving away from Austin, that I had graduated and needed to become a full-fledged adult again, that I had to move from student to [insert nouns here], that I needed to define those parameters for my new life, and that moving meant a necessary commitment to the boy and our relationship.

So I’ve mostly been feeling lost and physically inert the past weeks (and demoralized due to house-hunting while unemployed). With the tempting distractions of a library within walking distance, at least I’ve been able to read and read a lot and gain some forward movement within my heart. This is where my head has been at these days.

Myth and Rituals

Been meditating on the lessons of The Power of Myth, a series of interviews between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers that was originally broadcast on PBS. I’m watching it and reading the accompanying book. It was listed as required reading for Jonathan Harris’s workshop called “Personal Geographies: Understanding Your Story”. (Something I want to go to, but probably won’t unless I learn Processing in the next couple weeks.)

  • Myths and stories are guideposts to help us navigate our lives and the tension between our inner worlds and our external societies.
  • Really fascinating how myths around the world (including the major stories of the world’s religions) are so, so (so, so) similar, yet we fight because we call the same God by a different name or use different metaphors to connote the same themes.
  • Myths must change and grow with the times and the landscape and the people. They die when they get stuck in an old metaphor (examples can be seen in many religions today).
  • Rituals have become more and more reduced, even as our lives have grown more and more distracting. Whereas rituals are meant to take us out of our day-to-day, throw us into another mental/physical space, and prepare us for times of transition by surrounding us with spiritual wisdom, we now have mere formal echoes of ritual or nothing at all to help us through the following transitions: from childhood to adulthood, marriage, dealing with death. So it’s no wonder we fumble at these crossroads and have so many quarter-life crises.
  • We don’t live with nature and the land anymore. Our interactions are removed from the natural cycles of life. So in some ways, we need even more guidance to connect with those larger truths. (Interesting conceptual project by Bunch Design about building communities among and around trees instead of bending nature around our built structures.)

If artists are our new shamans, and movies & novels the new myths of our day, I have been taking instruction from a few worthy sources recently: Watership Down by Richard Adams (which has its own set of embedded rabbit myths) and Little Bee by Chris Cleave. Both highly recommended for story and for writing. I’m also continually drawn to graphic novels: Lisa’s Story, Frank Miller’s Sin City, Duncan the Wonder Dog in recent days.

GRIEF AND GRIEVING

I don’t think I will go into it much here, but events early in the year triggered suppressed emotions that surged forward and derailed me. I’m still feeling the aftershocks, working through some things in therapy, reading Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and struggling with inner faith (see Self-Reliance below).

It calls for stillness and emotion, when life/industry/youth/society demand action and output. I’m trying to fight my type-A/over-productive/go-go-go mode that numbs all emotion, but I end up doing literally nothing instead and feeling guilty about it. So I am like a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other, frustrated that I can’t find equilibrium. But I will fight for that balance, goddammit.

Self-Reliance

I’m participating in a 30-day writing challenge called #Trust30 celebrating an anniversary of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance and discovering how to trust myself again. Each day, I receive a new writing prompt by a new author with his/her interpretation of an Emerson quote and a new question to ponder and respond to.

I’ve always known writing is my best tool for synthesis and discovery. But sometimes I forget. I’ve experienced a recent drought in personal writing, and it’s difficult to get back into the swing of things. It was powerful on the first day of this challenge to reach the end of however-many minutes of typing and come to a new (re-)realization (about the power of my maternal ancestry) and to know that I couldn’t have truly internalized that discovery any other way.

Gratitude and Openess

I’ve been feeling very fortunate as I think of all the amazing people in Austin I have gotten to know and love the past 9 years. (I don’t think I’ve felt the homesickness yet, but it’s sure to hit me at some point.) But I also had to realize that I have to be just as open about the possibility of meeting awesome new people in Los Angeles.

I didn’t consider my flirtations with San Francisco a sign of any wavering commitment to my relationship with Mike, but it might have seemed that way to him and others. I’ve had to travel my own sometimes-tumultuous internal journey to reach a comfortable commitment to this city and to what I may become here. Step by step (and browser tab by browser tab), I am opening my mind to the possibilities, the new communities, and the professional opportunities that exist here in the City of Angels.

I’m in Los Angeles.

I don’t know what the next stage of my life will look like, but I’m excited to figure it out as I go along.