I’m about to turn 63 this week, 13 years older than you when decided to end it all by blowing your brains out. It was 1968 when you made this choice, and the world is very different now. Now alcohol and drug rehab programs are rampant; people talk about “dysfunctional families”—for which there was no word, let alone help, when I was growing up; there are “family services” and “support groups” and it’s understood that bad things happen to good people.
I understand that you were in so much pain that you felt that you couldn’t stand another minute of it. I understand that the pain and depression or desperation or whatever was driving you nuts overwhelmed you. I understand that you were probably diagnosably mentally ill as well as addicted to drugs and alcohol, although you never sought such a diagnosis or any kind of help. I understand that mental illness is an illness and your brain was not working right. Read More
Notes from a Crusty Seeker
I used to get really depressed around the holidays. My family is dead or estranged, and as the cultural scream that “family is everything” reaches its annual deafening pitch, I have often found myself feeling defective. I spent years in therapy trying to evaporate that self-image, and I have made enormous progress. So now, at the age of 62, I can honestly say I have what I’ve always wanted—a mostly peaceful contemplative life as a single woman. But still, around the holidays, that gets challenged by media and social media's lauding of the idealized family. So I wondered, what is true statistically? Do most Americans have great families where they love and support each other? Is “happy” the American family norm and am I some kind of an outlier? Read More
“We dance round in a ring and suppose / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows,” wrote Robert Frost in his poem “The Secret Sits.”
“Let me tell that one again,” spoke actor Gordon Clapp in his mesmerizing performance of A. M. Dolan’s play Robert Frost: This Verse Business, and he told it again. I’m glad, because I needed an instant replay to really hear it. And I needed to see Gordon as Frost a second time; I’d seen the play once before as a workshop. And honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing and hearing it several more times, because like a great teacher or a great story or a great voice, the “stuff” of this play and performance is simply too rich to absorb in one sitting.
Two years ago I wrote my little book Conversations with Mom: An Aging Baby Boomer, in Need of an Elder, Writes to Her Dead Mother. When you’re young, you imagine that when you get older—or old—you will no longer need elders, mentors, and teachers. Our culture tells you that old people are supposed to be those characters and, as such, nurture the young’uns. Unfortunately, this is not my experience; in my experience, as youthful hubris diminishes, you need elders more than ever. And even though I wrote my little book and gave myself an imagined elder, I still need wise, old rascally men and patient, compassionate, funny women to nurture me as I sometimes float like a lost blob through this thing called life. Read More
I could not wait to get my hands on a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, and I’ve not been disappointed.
David and Goliath is a book of both hope and experiential instruction for everybody who has ever felt like an outsider. Like Gladwell’s other work, it attempts to shatter assumptions and therefore expectations about who will succeed and why. However, taken in a context that includes some of the revelations of Outliers, this new book expands rather than shatters our notions. Because my primary interest is people rather than assumptions about class sizes and more amounts of anything being better than less (there’s plenty of that in this book), I’d like to focus on the outsider people aspect of the book:
Through copious footnotes Gladwell takes pains to clarify that his misfit and underdog success stories are not always the rule: lots of illiterate people with dead parents and lousy childhoods end up in jail rather than lawyering or doctoring.
Outliers illuminated the fact that when highly intelligent children who have been given guidance and nurturing are compared in adulthood to those who were not guided and nurtured, the non-nurtured adults are akin to a different “species.” Where the nurtured children become thriving successful adults, the equally intelligent non-nurtured ones can barely navigate life and live on the edges of society. (And I use “non-nurtured” to include people who were not only neglected but who were hurt and invalidated.) Read More
What Eat Pray Love did for educated women with unhappy love lives who plunge into spiritual abysses, journalist Katie Hafner’s memoir Mother Daughter Me does for rootless educated women with abysmal, possibly alcoholic, mothers. As adults, these women—these daughters of abysmal mothers—can be sandwiched between being mothers themselves and repairing the damage wrought by formerly nightmarish mothers whom they now want to care for.
In a riveting therapy session in a chapter called “Dam Break,” after Katie’s mother tells the therapist a simplistic version of how she lost custody of her children, Katie finally bursts:
When we were first taken away from her . . . it was a full two years before she officially lost custody . . . How could she have allowed precious years with her children to slip straight through her memory bank? . . . Resting my gaze on my lap, I start to tell the entire story . . . The entire time I’m talking, I am thinking that I don’t want my words to hurt her, that I want to protect my mother, to let her know it wasn’t her fault. At the same time, there’s no stopping me, because another part of me wants her to hear every word of this. To make her understand.
When Katie finishes her corrected version of the story, she looks at her mother.
Her face is a terrible crumple, her mouth forming the small breathless “O” people sometimes wear when hit with bad news.
“Katie,” she says. “I am so sorry.”
And with that she is telling me something else: She doesn’t remember.
If a musician composes music that he never sells, because he prefers “not to sell his baskets,” but instead he becomes an insurance salesman, resulting in nobody in his lifetime ever hearing his brilliance, can he still feel fulfilled and successful?
If actors perform a brilliant play about the essence of life, if they give their all, if the production is incontestably a work of great art, but only ten people come to see it, is it still worth doing?
If lungs breathe, if bodies throb, if a heart breaks, and there are only ten witnesses, does it even matter?
These are some of the questions playing ping pong in my cranium this morning after yesterday’s remarkable experience watching playwright Jessica Dickey’s remarkable 75-minute masterpiece Charles Ives Take Me Home. Oh, how I want to insert a comma after Ives, but I’ll respect her work. How could I not? This tour de force about a father and daughter, about music and basketball, about life and death and everything in between demands respect. Read More
I just know there are connections here. If I write about this week’s activity—or Quiet—perhaps they’ll come.
You see, I can’t stop being quiet. Maybe it’s the fact that I am contemplating Susan Cain’s magnificent exploration of my private experience in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. After a thorough analysis of the introvert’s talents and essential nature, which includes the ability to act like an extrovert sometimes, she explains the necessity for “restorative niches” following events of vibrant social behavior. I think I’m in such a niche now. Usually I consider my niches of doing nothing while lying on the couch in complete silence a private matter. But Cain says it’s not only normal, it’s healthy! It’s a physiological need of people who happen to process stimulation via big-time amygdala (brain) activity, which apparently is different from the way extroverts process the same stimulation. So don’t call me! I’m in a restorative niche. In fact I might stay in this niche indefinitely because I’ve been talking so extrovertly about Quiet. Read More
I wish you:
A Merry Xmas,
Good tidings and cheering,
But in end-year time of
Assessment and clearing—
In case you are one
Stuck on goals and achievement,
I wish you no fretting,
No tallies, but easement—
Of accomplishment worries,
Or legacy concerns.
I wish you this moment,
Where only life burns,
I wish you this moment,
To let go your grip,
And to feel the joy of
Of our shared time blip.
This morning, boomercafe.com published an excerpt on the subject of worrying about legacy from my book, Conversations with Mom: An Aging Baby Boomer, in Need of an Elder, Writes to her Dead Mother. It’s what I still need to learn, and I share it with you, in case you too worry about achieving and accomplishment. Enjoy the excerpt
There are no accidents. I first met Pamela Wible, M.D., more than four years ago at a publicity conference. I was there as managing editor of a magazine and she was on a long line of people speed-pitching stories to the tick-tock of a stopwatch. The main things I remember were that we greeted each other like old friends, her face felt like full sun on a perfect summer’s day, and I begged the woman with the stopwatch to give her more time because I knew what I was hearing was important. I wanted to know more about how she’d started a compassionate, patient-centered medical practice in Eugene, Oregon, and how other doctors could do the same thing, and how patients could feel cared for at a fair price. Although I can't remember exactly what Pamela told me, I do remember being absolutely certain that she was a revolutionary and I wanted to support her revolution in any way I could.
Jump cut to the present. I am no longer employed. I work as a freelance book editor. I have lousy catastrophic insurance, and I have just completed an odyssey that began with a month-long nightmare at a radiology center that treated me like a member of a herd and, with no information or face-to-face contact or returned phone call from a doctor, tried to steer me down a chute where some person—I know not who—would stick a needle into my left breast for unexplained reasons. I've never been a herd person, so I refused, dug in my heels, and in my best former legal secretary voice, wrote a letter protesting, among other things, their refusal to send me my medical report . . . resulting in the instant return of my records right before Hurricane Sandy hit. Read More
On November 22, 1963, I learned that I react to this level of drama and chaos and violence by going into an almost altered state of deep calm and clarity. I learned this on the bus home from school when we were dismissed early because the President had been shot. I learned this as the sustained screams of the other children on the bus reached a deafeningly high pitch—almost like celebration, but really a reaction to grief that was beyond their bodies’ capability to contain. My best friend, Roxy, told me about the assassination. We were in the seventh grade; someone had just come to tell our teacher, who released us out into the halls, which is where the screaming began. When Roxy told me—yelled it actually, to be heard above the shrieks—I felt a sadness as deep as the calm I went into. “One big tear rolled down your face,” she told me a few days later, trying to understand. I couldn’t explain. I couldn’t talk. But I felt a deep, clear calm and I knew life as we’d all known it had changed forever.
I’m feeling something similar now, and as an adult I would like to at least try to articulate it. I read a New York Times editorial yesterday called Don’t Jump to Conclusions about the Killer by Dave Cullen. The piece suggested that if his research into the Columbine massacre killers’ backgrounds had anything to teach, it’s that the killer’s actions probably had little to do with revenge or a response to bullying. Instead, it probably has to do with that moment when a clinically depressed person who relentlessly hates himself finally disconnects from himself. He can no longer contain the pain and he becomes unreal to himself. And therefore everyone and everything else becomes equally unreal. His self-directed anger ceases to have an effect on his unreal self, so it turns outward, and craving a release, it acts. Read More
Some writers grapple with being blocked; they spend hours paralyzed, gnashing their teeth, and downing large quantities of coffee, hoping to catalyze words with caffeine. Other writers can’t focus, can’t find the topic that maintains their interest, and they do everything possible to procrastinate putting fingers to keyboard. I don’t have either of those problems. I’ve made my living as a writer and editor for more than a decade. I love to write! And although I have periods of paralysis, I prefer to call them “pauses.” I trust that something is germinating and I believe it is my job to wait for it. My problem is much more pragmatic: selling my writing. Selling often involves talking, and talking about my work scares the bejesus out of me. Read More
After watching the wonderful PBS American Masters documentary Harper Lee: Hey Boo, I pulled down my old copy of To Kill a Mockingbird with the intention of rereading it. I believed I’d read it in high school. I knew the story, and I thought the book had just faded from memory.
Perhaps I was certain I’d read it because it’s been sitting on my shelf for so many decades since I rescued it from my mother’s damp garage. She’d loved it and had written her name and declaration of possession in careful script on the front endpaper. Wondering what the value of such a book might be, I searched the Internet and was floored to see less battered versions of my “true first edition” selling for anywhere from twelve to twenty-five thousand dollars. Torn between my desire to read and preserve, I decided to buy the cheapest paperback I could find. And as I sank into it and under Ms. Lee’s spell, I instantly realized I was reading this book for the first time and had created a memory of reading it due to the book’s physical presence on my shelf as well as its place in our collective consciousness. Read More
Animal Teachings: Enhancing Our Lives Through the Wisdom of Animals by Dawn Brunke with illustrations by the amazing Ola Liola is one of the most versatile works of art I’ve ever laid my hands on, paged through, or smelled. Does that sound odd? If so, I’m glad. It emphasizes why this elegant 160-page paperback needs to exist as just that—a real book, not a digital something.
In marketing circles, it’s common knowledge that the most important thing about any book is its reader benefits. The benefits of Animal Teachings scream.
First and foremost it is a work of art—a reminder of what is possible when a writer, an artist, a designer, and a publisher decide it is important to do the very finest work they are capable of. Read More
1. Did you know that your heart has arms and legs? It does. The heart that we see in medical shows when a surgeon is saving somebody’s life is only part of the organ. The entire heart has long tendrils like tree branches that go down each arm and each leg. Imagine how amazing it would be if you could walk down the street looking at everybody through special X-ray–vision glasses that singled out the heart!
2. Super models are freaks of nature because, according to poet/anatomist/teacher/author/ethicist/renaissance man Gil Hedley, “our bodies are not symmetrical. Not even close.” They’re full of surprises and anomalies—like the most perfectly formed little ovary that looked like a miniature brain … in an 83-year-old woman who had donated her body so that people like us could learn something and maybe wake up a little.
3. It’s a well-known fact that New York pigeons smoke—you see them poking around sidewalks filled with butts, so who else could have dropped them? And lest you judge them harshly for stinking up the environment, just take another look—really look: See that pigeon taking off for the sky, tail feathers down, beak up, effortlessly defying our human body limitations and looking like a grey angel. I know this to be true because Gil Hedley showed slides of pigeons, both pre-smoking and frozen in flight, in his recent New York City intensive (which seemed to be over in about five minutes—blink, it’s eight hours later—really) at the Cantor Film Center, where about 120 of us packed into a tiny theater and were riveted, laughing, and grateful for what was really an indescribable experience of learning who we are through a mosaic of lecture, stories, slides, little movies, art, poetry, and Gil, Gil, Gil—who, in the course of a day, managed to gently and reverentially shatter all inhibitions, shame, judgments, and biases we humans walked in with. Read More