Be Still

Standard

In the pre-dawn hours, the thunder snarled right above my roof. One of my dogs trembled and burrowed into my side. A particularly loud clap began with a boom and ended with a sizzle, and then my bedroom was suddenly darker than dark.

The power had gone out, taking with it the glowing alarm clock numerals, the lights on the box next to the television that does magic I can’t explain, the nightlights aimed low for our aging dog’s nighttime navigation.

And, with the darkness, a silence so thick it felt like another blanket on this summer night. Between the cracks and grumbles of thunder, it seemed as though even nature had paused to listen; no night birds, no wind to ring the chimes outside my bedroom window, no errant yowl of a night creature. Just silence.

Gradually, I could see the darker outlines of my two dogs, of the frame of the closet door. And, as my eyes adjusted to the black around me, my ears too adjusted. I heard the restless shifting of the frightened dog on the covers next to me. I heard the undisturbed breathing of my husband, seemingly able to sleep through the storm. And I heard my own breath, a lullaby of steady rhythm.

Sights too often overshadowed by electronics, and sounds too often drowned out by hums and clicks of our everynight life.

In an essay about the book called, “The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere,” author Pico Iyer is quoted as advocating for, “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

So last night, between thunderbooms, I fell back in love.

lightning

Leave the Gun AND the Cannoli – Grab a Book

Standard

We are all so very angry today.

If you’re not for us, you’re a-gin’ us.

We are all so righteous and we are angry that the “other” cannot concede our obviously correct point of view that we spew vitriol on social media and to our friends.

Stupid President (either the current or the past, depending on where you stand). Stupid Congress. Stupid Bigot, Stupid Racist, Stupid Sexist, and Stupid Snowflake Liberal.

The truth is, we are as unable to see others’ truth, as they are to see ours.

This kind of anger and frustration leads some to pick up a pen, others to pick up a gun.

The solution might be to read a good book.

A 2006 study cited in a recent Wall Street Journal article says that psychologists in Toronto found a connection between reading fiction and being more sensitive to others.

For people who read fiction (and it seems that it had to be fiction) that transported them – the kind of transport that jolts you when the book ends and you find yourself back in your room – there was an increased ability to see the world through others’ eyes.

Another study three years later reproduced the study but stripped away variables like age, gender, stress or loneliness, and English fluency. They found that fiction readers had higher levels of empathy (and, interestingly, better social networks in real life).

A later study in 2013 refined the findings down to genre – literary fiction that requires the reader to figure out characters’ motivations using more subtle cues had the most empathy. It seems that trying to figure out what the flawed protagonist is going to do next is good practice for trying to read our fellow humans.

A much-loved quote from the movie, “The Godfather,” is to “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” While I love pastries, we might all be better off if we “Leave the gun AND the cannoli. Pick up a book.”

 

o-KIDS-READING-facebook

Catching Creativity

Standard

(Editor’s Note: This appeared initially as a blog for SKIRT Magazine)

I was never much good at catching fireflies.

In my youth, fireflies would twinkle in the soft light, creating magic on the back lawn.

My cousins would burst out into the twilight, armed with glass baby food jars, their legs streaked with the blood of the last swatted mosquito like some kind of warpaint. The evening would be filled with the fwop-fwop sound of their palms slapping to seal the fireflies inside the jars. They compared who would have the brightest firefly nightlight at their bedside.

I would wander much more slowly through the dew-slick grass, an ambler where my cousins were marching warriors. The fairy lights attracted me but once I captured a firefly, it looked puny in its glass prison, its magic diminished with captivity.

Eventually, I let the fireflies be.

As an adult and a writer, I found that the bright sparkle of creativity too would diminish the harder I tried to tame it. Grabbing onto a muse was like trying to pick up a raw egg yolk with your fingers – it slipped and slid just out of your grasp.

Creativity is supposed to be a spark, implying that you can just strike two blunt things together repeatedly until it happens.

It doesn’t work that way for me. I can’t force creativity directly. I can’t even sneak up on it. If I stare at it directly, it wisps away. I can only catch it out of the corner of my eye and let it sneak up on me.

Creativity sparks when I shamelessly eavesdrop on other people’s dramas, the tears of an overwrought stranger watering my creativity. It sparks when two disparate things suddenly seem related, like butterflies and physics. And it sparks when it is most inconvenient – nudging me awake at 3 am to get up and capture a scene or a dream.

But, the times I sit alone before dawn at my keyboard, hammering out the words that seem to come at the speed of light?

Creativity hovers like a bright cloud of fireflies.

fireflies-long-exposure-photography-2016-japan-19

Grateful Enough? Thanks!

Standard

Every morning, I try to meditate. I don’t actually meditate every morning, but I’ve read that it helps, so I try.

Part of that meditation is an accounting of the things I’m grateful for, because I’ve read that helps, too. Helps with what, exactly? Well, helps to make me the calm, accepting person I always wanted to be. There’s a whole industry around gratitude journals.

Gratitude is a good thing, right?

Because the opposite of gratitude is entitlement, i.e. “Why should I be grateful? I deserve this!” I worked hard to be sure my daughter never felt that way, and she couldn’t even play with toys she received until she’d written a thank-you note to the sender. I am suspicious of people who don’t write thank-you notes. When I was hiring, it was the people who wrote thank-you emails or, even better, notes, after interviews whom I favored.

But now, the scientists who study such things say that some people aren’t wired to be thankful. The ones who are the most independent feel like being grateful means they owe a debt of gratitude, and they are profoundly uncomfortable with owing anybody anything.

I get that, because I will go to extreme lengths to return a book or a loan. I have not run for office because I can not stand the thought of asking for money. It’s funny, when I did public relations for causes, I could easily ask for support for the good cause, but asking for myself? Just can’t.

Gratitude interventions – like the popular gratitude journals — don’t work for everyone, despite the marketing, according to the psychologists. Not everyone benefits from forcing gratitude.

But gratitude is still important, even if we’re not wired for it. The psychologist in the story about the gratitude research says that he would, “worry that people who are uncomfortable with gratitude and with receiving gifts may be undermining their interpersonal relationships.”

So, how do we balance the importance of gratitude with the need to be independent and strong?

Maybe we ought to share some of that gratitude with ourselves. For example, “I am so grateful to be published, because a lot of talented people are not. But I am also grateful for my own talent and perseverance that led to my being published.”

Maybe the secret is giving credit where it is due, not with arrogance, but not with false modesty either.

Oh, and thank you for reading to the end. I’m grateful.

thank-you-2011012_1920

The Blame Game

Standard

Female executives are no longer wearing big shoulder pads; they’re shouldering blame instead.

I was wondering why in the recent election between two flawed candidates, the accusations seemed to roll right off the male candidate’s back while the female candidate was repeatedly investigated, exonerated, investigated again, exonerated again. And it wasn’t because the accusations against the male were false…we heard him on tape saying things he later denied.

So why did the vitriol seem so much harsher against the female?

I found what I think is at least a partial answer in a recent study of female CEOs. The media often is accused of having a liberal bias. But there’s another bias that may have played a role.

According to a study by the Rockefeller Foundation and public relations/research firm Global Strategy Group, females receive a disproportionate share of blame, at least in the media. The study says that almost 80% of digital and print media stories about companies in crisis blamed the CEO when the CEO was female; only 31% of the stories blamed male CEOs in similar situations.

Another difference? Like the “What are you wearing” red carpet question that seems to get asked only to actresses and not actors, the news stories talked about the female’s personal life in 16% of the stories and 78% talked about her family and children. For the men, a personal life was mentioned in only 8% of the stories and none mentioned family and children.

Now, certainly in the presidential campaign, both candidates trotted out children and spouses and personal lives. But, if it seemed that one candidate’s flaws were described as foibles or “locker room talk” and another’s were crimes that should result in “locking her up”…well, maybe the media had a hand in that.

blame

Breathe

Standard

(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.

 

Tribe

Standard

The good stuff about being an only child:

–being the only one to lick the batter off the beaters

–not having to wear too many hand-me-downs

–growing up to have your parents become your best friends

I loved being an only child. Oh, there was a brief time when I urged my mom to adopt a playmate for me, but mostly I loved being the dreamy bookworm who had no problem talking with adults.

My parents moved away from our extended family when I was 8 so I learned to create my own Tribe. As I grew older, I started forming a family of choice: dear friends whom my own daughter would grow up to call “aunt” and “uncle.”

Still, my parents and I were a tight unit with our own memories and jokes, an exclusive triad. Even after marriage and the birth of my daughter, my parents were the curators of my childhood stories.

And then my mom died three years ago and my dad died last month.

And then came the bad stuff about being an only child:

–the knowledge that there is no sibling who can miss your parents in the same way you do

–the realization that no one can vouchsafe a memory that is starting to fade a little because no one else was there when the memory was made

–the understanding that mysterious papers or objects found in old safety deposit boxes will never be explained because you didn’t know about them and you didn’t know to ask

And that is when the Tribe steps in. They say you are stuck with the family you get, but my family by choice chooses to let me in, to fly across the country so that I have my Tribe with me at funerals, to call and to let me say ugly, hateful things or nothing at all, depending on where I am in the grieving process.

An aunt at my dad’s funeral – not one of my more tactful aunts – said, “Now you know what it feels like to be an orphan.”

Orphan as in without parents, yes. But orphan as in alone in the world?

The Tribe won’t let that happen.

Not Alone